One day I was chatting to my dad and asked him about the strangest mission he was sent on and he told me he was sent on a mission to the Isle of Ushant to deliver supplies, including hundreds of pairs of boots to the French, which intrigued me.
Guns ammunition and explosives I could understand, but boots? Also I'd never heard of the Isle of Ushant and had no idea where it was.
Now with the power of the intenet and a little research (buying and reading some out of print books) I have found out more about the mission, named Operation Knockout. After D-Day in June 1944 the Germans were slowly being pushed back from the coast.
The French people as well as the resistance, the FFI (French Forces of the Interior) were left without basic foodstuffs and supplies as well as armaments to fight the Germans.
So the IPF and a motor torpedo boat (H.M.M.T.B. 718) were tasked to deliver these stores to two places, Aberwarch (L'Aber-Vrac'h) in Brittany and the Isle of Ushant, an island off the French coast near Brest.
The Isle of Ushant, West of Brest, France and almost due South of the Helford river base of the I.P.F. © Google Maps
Intention: The operation will be carried out by I.P.F's MFV's 2021 and 2022 and WTB 718 under the direction of Lieutenant Commander Warrington Smyth R.N.V.R.
All the stores are to be loaded on to MFV's 2021 and 2022, and two conducting Officers, Lieut. Tundy and Lieut. Floyd will arrive by train p.m. 14th September to accompany the operations to Benodet and the Isle of Ushant respectively.
Execution: MPV's 2021 and 2022 are to sail from the Helford river at 0400 16th September to sail to Aberwarch (L'Aber-Vrac'h) and make contact with MTB 718 which is already at that port. On arrival the stores are to be transported from MFV's 2021 and 2022 to MTB 718 for onward transport to Benodet, Benodet, is situated between Brest and Lorient on the west coast of France.
MTB 718 is to sail from Aberwarch (L'Aber-Vrac'h) at 0600 17th September to arrive at Benodet by 1130 17th September where the stores are to be landed in accordance with the arrangements made by the S.O.E. Conducting Officer who will make contact with the shore party. MTB 718 is to return to Aberwarch (L'Aber-Vrac'h) by 2000 17th September and return to Dartmouth on Monday 18th September.
MPV 2021 and or 2022 are to sail to Ushant at 0600 17th September to land the stores marked B and B/1 at any suitable landing point at the discretion of Lieut. Comdr. Warington Smyth. The S.O.E. conducting Officer is to make contact with French patriots on shore to arrange for the disposal of the stores. MFV 2021 and 2022 are to return to the Helford River on 18th September.
French Personnel: There may be six Jedburgh agents at Benodet for embarkation in MTB 718. If these personnel materialise they are to be brought back to Dartmouth in MTB 718. Any French personnel wounded or otherwise embarked from the Isle of Ushant are to be returned to the U.K. by the quickest means possible and the security patrol officer at the port of arrival.
Communications: MPV's 2021 and 2022: special W/T to H.M.Y. SUNBEAM (His Majesty's Yacht Sunbeam, the I.P.F. headquarters moored in the Helford river), which will keep constant watch while these vessels are at sea. Schedules to be kept with H.M.Y. SUNBEAM at 1000, 1530 and 1900 daily.
In charge of Operation Knockout was the commander of the I.P.F. Lieutenant Commander Nigel Warington-Smyth
and while talking toe Nigel Tange, the author of
Cornwall and the Tumbling Sea (2) described
the operation from his point of view.
Operation Knockout was conceived because after D-Day the Germans started to withdraw from the outlying parts of Brittany to towns for the last stand, like Brest, L'Orient, St Nazaire. The FFI (Free French Forces) were pleading for supplies of small arms, grenades and plastic explosives with which to harass the Germans while they were on the move, and to destroy such enclaves as still remained.
Warington-Smyth received the order and decided to take the 50 foot Douarnenez sardine boat MFV PII as she was ready with fuel and water and was lying alongside the Sunbeam. To their store list they added quantities of sugar and soap, both of which were in short supply, or non-existent in l'Aberwra'ch.
They left Helford around seven in the evening and with a quiet night were averaging 8 knots and entered l'Aberwra'ch river shortly after dawn. Warington-Smyth was expecting to rendezvous with a D Class ML, motor torpedo boat and immediately spotted Lieutenant Seddon on his way up the Grand Chenal and he was soon aboard and off they went at high speed.
They passed through the famous Chenal duc Four between the Island of Ushant and the mainland and at the north end of the Raz de Sein they came under fire by the German batteries sited on the high land above Cap de Chevre where the Croix de Lorraine Monument now stands. A number of shells fell around and about but they were all wide of the mark.
From Benodet an hour before high tide they made their way to Quimper to find a well organised gang of Breton's ready to take over the cargo. Every item was landed and was checked and signed for. Colonel Berthaud had booked accommodation for Lieutenant Seddon and Warington-Smyth for the night and as the German's had destroyed the power station and gasworks they had took dinner in candlelight.
Warington-Smyth noticed Lieutenant Seddon in close discussion with Colonel Berthaud, in a short while they came over to Warington-Smyth's table to ask his opinion on a scheme which they worked on.
The idea was for the D Class ML should arrive off Audierne at about daylight and should give the Germans a sharp bombardment and whilst their attention was diverted the FFI with their newly acquired armaments would attack over the hill at the back of the enclave. This was to prove a complete success.
Warington-Smyth asked if anyone knew the size and firepower of the German defences and nobody did. As Warington-Smyth's mission was complete it was Lieutenant Seddon's decision on what to do. Warington-Smyth did say he thought a quick run in and shoot up followed by a speedy withdrawl might be a good idea.
Warington-Smyth describes how in the morning in the dawn they were approaching Audierne and Lieutenant Seddon increased speed closing to about half a mile. Then, beam on to the shore, he opened fire with everything they had that could shoot. Alas, they made a second run by which this time the Huns had woken up and retaliated with a fusillade from what we judged to be 88mm guns.
They were hit by two or three shells and retired at a high speed under cover of a massive smoke screen. 'The damage survey revealed that one shot had gone through the side of the vessel and had demolished the lavatory pan in the petty officers lavatory upon which was seated a petty officer. It missed the Petty Officer but his bottom was cut by the remains of the pan'.
'The shell continued on its way through a fuel tank full of 100 octane petrol, through the port side of the vessel and then exploded in the sea. The resultant leakage of the petrol into the bilges produced some potentially explosive vapour but the anti-gas drill proved effective and they suffered no explosions. Considerable damage had been done but no one had been killed or wounded'.
Later in the day Warington-Smyth transferred to MFV P11 and set off for Helford whilst Seddon pushed on up the Channel to his base (2).
While doing further research on the I.P.F. (Inshore Patrol Flotilla) the special service group based on the Helford River I found out that while in Helford the officers made the Ferry Boat Inn their pub, while the ratings used the Shipwright Arms in Helford village.
An astonishing fact about the I.P.F. and it's base was that unlike Falmouth where no private yachting was allowed, there was complete freedom for yachtsmen at Helford throughout the war. This facility had an inverse security, for it reinforced the innocence implied by its name, the Inshore Patrol Flotilla. Never was there the slightest suggestion of a breach of security.
It was the custom of the 'fishing boats' to change their colour patterns from time to time. These changes effected by the Helford crews discreetly but quite blandly working on them a mile up the river from the Sunbeam. (2)
I read Tom Lang's story and thought it deserved a to be published on the web. (1).
Tom Lang was accepted into the I.P.F. after being interviewed by Admiral Holbrook (head of S.O.E's Naval Section). He describes the difficulty of finding the mother craft when returning from a beach landing. He describes experimenting with several methods of keeping contact with the mother craft, like unfurling a ball of twine connected to the mother craft, but this always snapped.
Someone had the idea of using grass rope with loads of corks and letting that stream out from the mother craft and if you saw them you knew the way back to the mother craft.
But the best thing they found were luminous balls smaller than a golf ball. After doing your task ashore you would come back to the waters edge and hold up the luminous ball so the mother craft could see it.
Normally the mother craft was between two and three miles out, so that's what distance you had to row ashore and back. When landing on the beach they were never sure if there would be German's waiting for them so they had an 'Operational Box' and after a mission briefing you could select whatever you wanted. In the 'Operational Box' there were rubber truncheons, a Tommy gun, a Smith and Wesson automatic, all kinds of fighting knives and knuckledusters. Tom was initially given a machete and was told one swipe would take a German's head off, he carried it several times after that hoping to meet a German but he never saw one (1).
1. Behind the Lines, the Oral History of Special Operations in World War II, by Russell Miller. Secker & Warburg London, 2002, ISBN 0 436 20534 3.
2. Cornwall and the Tumbling Sea, Nigel Tange. Published by William Kimber and Co. Limited of London 1981. ISBN 0-7183-0258-3.
Map showing Cornwall in the North and the Britany coast almost due south, with the Isle of Ushant visible to the West of Brest © Google Maps