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Operation Biting, Bruneval, North France 27th/28th Feb 1942.

Operation Biting was a daring Combined Operations raid on a German radar station at Bruneval in northern France


Google map of Southern England and Northern France showin the position of Bruneval.In February 1942, men of the newly formed British 1st Airborne Division went into action for the first time. Their target was the German 'Wurzburg' radar installation at Bruneval. Their objective was to seize vital radar components and to bring them back to the UK for inspection by trained scientists.

[Map courtesy of Google Map Data 2017.]

Radar was one of the key, high-technology battlegrounds of the war. Without radar, the outcome of RAF Fighter Command's narrow victory in the "Battle of Britain", might have been very different. The Luftwaffe, meantime, were using radio navigation aids for blind bombing during the blitz. In 1941,

Bomber Command extended its reach into the German heartland, forcing the Luftwaffe to develop its own defensive radars and Britain responded with jamming techniques. So the "battle of the beams" developed between scientists on both sides as they strived to gain the advantage. Heading up the British team, was Dr RV Jones, of the Air Staff.

Plans & Preparations

Throughout 1941, Jones and his team formed a detailed picture of the developing German radar network along the Channel coast. That autumn, a series of low-level photo reconnaissance pictures revealed the presence of a newly installed 'Wurzburg' early warning radar. It was located on a cliff top close to the village of Bruneval near Le Havre. The beach below the installation caused Jones to consider the possibility of dispatching a Commando raid to retrieve the Wurzburg array for close examination. Air Intelligence approached Combined Operations HQ, whose chief, Lord Louis Mountbatten, approved the plan

From intelligence gathered by the French resistance, a frontal assault on the beach would suffer heavy casualties from enemy defensive positions. It was, therefore, decided to drop paratroops inland by Whitley bombers under the command of Squadron Leader Charles Pickard. The plan envisaged the raiding party being recovered from the beach by the Royal Navy, with No 12 Commando providing covering fire against German coastal positions.

Low level oblique photo of the WURZBURG radar near Bruneval,C Company of the 2nd Battalion of the 1st Parachute Brigade was chosen for the operation - 120 men commanded by Major John Frost. Nearly all the men were drawn from Scottish regiments, including the Black Watch, Cameron Highlanders, King's Own Scottish Borderers and the Seaforths. To identify the components of interest, they were to be accompanied by RAF radar operator, Flight Sergeant CWH Cox. He was a former cinema projectionist, ill equipped for such an operation since he had never been in a ship, or on an aircraft, before!

[Photo; Low level oblique of the WURZBURG radar near Bruneval, taken by Sqn Ldr A E Hill on 5 December 1941. Professor Jones described these photos as classics of their kind, which enabled a raiding force to locate, and make off with, the radar's vital components in February 1942 for analysis in Britain. IWM (D 12870).]

The utmost secrecy was applied to the project from the outset. If German Intelligence became aware of British interest in the Bruneval site, the whole project would be compromised with disastrous consequences for those taking part. The "need to know" doctrine was, therefore, strictly applied. The parachute unit, for example, believed the War Cabinet wanted them to demonstrate techniques and capabilities for raiding a headquarters building behind enemy lines.

Training took place at an existing training area used by the Glider Pilot Regiment, so the arrival of another unit caused little interest. When naval units were involved, most training was conducted at night in Scotland, but it did not go well and ended miserably. Locations were often changed and during transfer, all unit and qualification insignia were removed from the paras' uniforms. Most sailors didn't discover the identity of the raiding force until the final stages of the training were completed. 

The plan for the operation was simple. The paratroops were to be dropped in three units. The first, under the leadership of Lieutenant John Ross and Lieutenant Euen Charteris, was to advance on, and capture, the beach. The second, subdivided into three sections and commanded by Frost, was to seize a nearby villa and the Wurzburg, while the third, led by Lieutenant John Timothy, was to act as a rearguard and reserve.

The raiding party was ready for action by February 20th 1942. A scale terrain model, made by the RAF's Photographic Interpretation Unit, was used to familiarise the raiding force with the area around Bruneval. Until the last minute, the various buildings were labelled by function, without any geographical information. Full-scale exercises on the south coast of England completed the training. After several days of anxious waiting for the weather to clear, the raid went ahead on the night of February 27/28th 1942. The Whitley bombers dropped the paratroops from a height of 600ft (180m) on to the countryside below.


Lieutenant Charteris' two sections were dropped about a mile and a half (2.5km) beyond their intended position. However, Charteris quickly gained his bearings and he and his men crossed the icy landscape to their intended drop zone.

Frost's section took only ten minutes to gather at their rendezvous point. They met no opposition as they moved on the villa, which they surrounded and then advanced towards the open front door. Frost blew his whistle and immediately explosions, yells and the sound of automatic fire came from the proximity of the radar set. His paratroops rushed the villa, which was completely empty save for a single German firing from the top floor.

Flight Sergeant Cox and an engineer detachment hauled trolleys over a succession of barbed wire obstacles. Soon afterwards Cox, and the engineers,  dissembled the Wurzburg's components, ripping most of them out by sheer force as bullets whistled nearby. Heavy gun fire, from German positions in a wooded enclosure about 300 yards (275m) to the north of the villa, was making life increasingly hazardous for Cox and the paras. Their safety was further threatened by the arrival of vehicles with mortar capability and, after half an hour, Frost gave the order to withdraw. However, a machine gun in a pillbox still occupied by the Germans, now barred the way to the beach. The Germans regrouped and advancing from the villa. Charteris' two sections arrived on the scene just in time, having already had a brisk encounter with an enemy patrol. The pillbox was silenced and the beach taken.

It was now about 02.15 hrs and the raiders were not yet out of danger. Frost's signallers were unable to make contact with the landing craft which were to evacuate the raiding party. As a last resort, several red Verey lights were fired. Frost prepared to rearrange his defences to meet the anticipated German counterattack when one of his signallers shouted, 'Sir, the boats are coming in! The boats are here! God bless the ruddy navy, sir!' Three LCAs came inshore, escorted by three gunboats. Each LCA had the additional fire power of 4 bren guns manned by men of No 12 Commando.

Allen Mitchell reports; My father's elder brother - John (Jackie) Mitchell - was one of the Para Engineers on the Bruneval raid as part of C Company. He was one of those detailed to dismantle the radar, so pieces could be brought back to the UK for detailed examination by scientists. My uncle did not survive the war (killed in Tunisia 1943) and my father has now passed away, however one sister is still alive in Annan, Dumfriesshire. We both remember many stories about this time, including one of Jackie sliding the largest radar pieces to the beach effectively 'riding' them down the cliff to get there faster. We also recall that they destroyed the remaining radar installation to obscure the real purpose  of the raid by making it appear to be a search and destroy mission.

I also have access to some family memorabilia - though this is mostly in UK (Norwich) and I live in Zurich, Switzerland. These include a French Franc note issued to the paratroopers in case they became separated in France and had to make their own way back. This is signed by about 10 or so of C Company REs  (I partly recall there being 2 "John Mitchells" on the raid, but mine went by the name Jack or Jackie). There are also blackened badges and insignia worn by Jackie at that time. After the raid, they got leave immediately and Jackie returned to the Borders, apparently still pretty much armed to the teeth!

I've visited Bruneval with my father where there is a monument unveiled by Mountbatten. It is very close by the famous cliffs of Etretat, near Dieppe.  I also took him to the Airborne Forces Museum, then in Aldershot, where I recall finding another French Franc note as described above.

Craft returning from Bruneval after the raid on the radiolocation station Feb 1942.The evacuation into six landing craft, with the sea running high and the Germans firing, was anything but orderly. Two of Frost's signallers failed to rendezvous and were left behind. However, the Commandos managed to keep the German troops at bay until 03.30 hours when the last LCA left the beach area under heavy German fire. The raiders, and their precious Wurzburg cargo, were transferred to gunboats.

[Photo courtesy of Stuart Foster. Annotated on the reverse by Sam Tunstall "Taken coming back from Bruneval after the raid on the radiolocation station Feb 1942.]

They learned later, that the Navy had been delayed by the presence of a German destroyer and two E-boats. The German warships had passed within a mile (1.6km) of the landing craft but had not spotted them. With the dawn, Royal Navy destroyers and a squadron of Spitfires arrived to escort the flotilla to Portsmouth. The Destroyers played 'Rule Britannia' over their loudhailers.

It has been suggested that the Commandos had orders to shoot Cox if his capture by the Germans seemed inevitable. True or not, there is no doubt that Cox's knowledge of British radar, had it fallen into German hands, would have gained some advantage in the 'battle of the beams'. However, a much greater prize to German intelligence would have been the capture of Don Preist. Here is the account from the author of the book Schonland - Scientist and Soldier (see 'Reading Material' below for details);

In 1942, Schonland was Superintendent of the Army Operational Research Group (AORG) and he personally trained the R.E. sappers under the command of Lt Vernon, who accompanied Frost's paras with the specific purpose of dismantling the Wurzburg radar at Bruneval. I corresponded with D.H. (Don) Preist (not 'Priest' as in most accounts of the raid) who was the radar expert designated to ensure that the crucial components of the Wurzburg were recovered. Since Preist, who worked at the Telecommunications Research Establishment (TRE), was very knowledgeable about British radar it was decreed that he would not land at Bruneval but would accompany the RN recovery team and control the removal operation from off shore. The risk of his being captured alive by the Germans was just too great to allow him ashore. Flt Sgt Cox, often described as a "radar expert" was a highly skilled radar technician who supervised the actual dismantling of the Wurzburg but he had nothing like Preist's in-depth knowledge of radar in general and so was far less of a risk should he be captured. The story that the Paras were under orders to shoot Cox if his capture looked likely is one of those myths that appear after the event.

While Preist sat just off-shore in one the RN vessels, he had with him a special receiver with which to monitor the Wurzburg's radar transmissions from which he could deduce many of its characteristics. This intelligence would have proved to be very useful had the raid itself failed. As it turned out, it was hugely successful and TRE were able to rebuild the Wurzburg from the "stolen" sub-assemblies and had it working within a couple of weeks.

Prof Sir Maurice Wilkes, who made his name after the war as one of the pioneers of modern computing, and who was Schonland's radar expert in the AORG at that time, felt that the Wurzburg was not a very sophisticated radar and TRE learnt nothing special from it, other than they knew exactly how to jam it - which they did very successfully during the D-Day landings.

Amongst the Schonland papers at the Churchill Archive in Cambridge, is a letter from Schonland, written after the war, to Professor Leo Brandt, his German opposite number, describing the raid. An extract from it appears on p240 of my book.
In his letter, he said that the parabolic reflector of the Wurzburg at Bruneval proved too big to dismantle to take back to England but they sawed off its feet, which really was the significant component. Also they took a few flashlight photographs of the reflector, because the Germans had very conveniently painted all the radar's specifications on the face of the dish!

Returning from the successful Bruneval raid.Two men were killed in the operation and six were missing, all of whom survived the war. Two German prisoners were brought back, one of whom was the Wurzburg's operator. The German report on the raid commented: 'The operation of the British Commandos was well planned and executed with great discipline... although attacked by German soldiers they concentrated on their primary task.' The raid had been a great success due in large measure to the element of surprise. Even while reading an account of the action in a newspaper, the Supply Officer of the Glider Pilot Regiment, whose training area the paras shared, did not associate them with the raid.

[A Royal Navy MTB brings men of 'C' Company, 2nd Parachute Battalion, into Portsmouth harbour on the morning after the Bruneval raid, 28 February 1942. The CO of the assault force, Major J D Frost, is on the bridge, second from left. IWM (H 17365).]

A little reported fact about Operation Biting, was the involvement of a section from 181 Airlanding Field Ambulance RAMC, who provided medical cover. Lieutenant A Baker and twenty men travelled from their base at Chilton Foliat, together with C Company of the 2nd Parachute Battalion, to Inveraray, Scotland, for specialist training prior to the raid. Rehearsals were later held off the coast of Dorset. On the raid itself, they sailed part of the way on the MV Prins Albert, a former Belgian ship, before transferring to ALCs, LCSs and a Motor Gun Boat, to act as medical support to the returning paratroopers. Several casualties were treated on the journey home.

[For more details on 181's involvement see Chapter 2 of the book Red Berets and Red Crosses - The story of the Medical Services in the 1st Airborne Division by our member N Cherry, 3 Church Road, Warton, Lancs PR4 1BD. Click on the e-mail button.]

It is not easy to quantify what was gained from the operation...but it was very significant indeed. One of the many off-shoots was the construction of three radar and communication vessels known as Fighter Direction Tenders (FDT 217, 216 and 13). The FDTs provided vital radar and communications cover off Normandy from D-Day to D+20. Only when land based radar and communication units became operational in France did they move off station. Their design incorporated two types of radar, one using British frequencies and the other using German frequencies.

Allied Forces: Air - 1 Whitley Squadron; Sea - Landing Craft & Escorts; Land - 1st Airborne Division, elements of the French Resistance.

Axis Forces: Sea - 1 Destroyer, 2 E-Boats; Land - Infantry patrols & Bruneval defence force.

Outcome (Positive) - Wurzburg radar components successfully removed from German radar installation + capture of an operator.

Outcome (Negative) - Two men killed & six missing.


My Grandfather, William Balloch, was one of the paratroopers who took part in the Bruneval raid and I would like to know more about the men he served with and to see any photographs prior to and post the raid itself. As part of this I will be contacting the Public Archive at Kew and the Imperial War Museum in London but any information, especially from veterans or their families, would be very much appreciated.

Chris Manuel

Further Reading

There are around 300 books listed on our 'Combined Operations Books' page. They, or any other books you know about, can be purchased on-line from the Advanced Book Exchange (ABE). Their search banner link, on our 'Books' page, checks the shelves of thousands of book shops world-wide. Just type in, or copy and paste the title of your choice, or use the 'keyword' box for book suggestions. There's no obligation to buy, no registration and no passwords.

Further information & photos

*Schonland - Scientist and Soldier, by Brian Austin (2001). Published by the Institute of Physics Publishing, ISBN 0 7503 0501 0. *(later Sir Basil Schonland CBE FRS).

Most Secret War by R V Jones. Published by Wordsworth. ISBN 1-85326-699. One full chapter devoted to the raid plus other relevant background information.

A Drop Too Many by Major-General John Frost. His tale starts with the Iraq Levies and goes on the major airborne operations in which he took part - Bruneval, Tunisia, Sicily, Italy, Arnhem.

The Red Beret - The Story of the Parachute Regiment at war 1940 - 45 by Hilary St.George Saunders. First published by Michael Joseph Ltd, 26 Bloomsbury St, London W.C.1 October 1950, 7 more impressions published through to 1952.

The Bruneval Raid by George Millar. Pub by Cassell. (About one third of the book devoted to the raid the remainder covering early radar and photo reconnaissance) ISBN 0-304-36221-2.

Combined Operations 1940-1942 by The Ministry of Information. Published HMSO. 144 pages with photos. Includes chapter on Bruneval.

Commandos 1940 - 1946 by Charles Messenger. Pub by William Kimber, London 1985. ISBN 0 7183 0553 1 

The Watery Maze by Bernard Fergusson. Pub 1961 by Collins.


Written by Geoff Slee using an article by James Paul plus other sources.

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