The Bruneval raid, carried out in 1942 was a combined raid against a German radio site based at Bruneval. Paratroopers of the 1st Airborne Division, who were supported by the Royal Navy, carried out the attack. Towards the end of 1941, an isolated house on the cliffs of Bruneval, near Le Harve, attracted the attention of British Intelligence and RAF reconnaissance planes photographed it. These photographs showed that the Germans had built a radio-location receiver there. This receiver was considered to be responsible for the loss of many British bombers and it also gave the Germans early warning of any Allied ships and aircraft approaching the coast of Western Europe. Therefore, it became very important that the receiver was destroyed as soon as was possible.
The building was very heavily defended from the sea, so a commando raid was considered to be too risky. The priority of any raid was to get back to Britain as much of the receiver as was possible for analysis – and any technicians that operated it. Any commando raid would have given the Germans too much of a warning and it is very probable that the receiver would have been destroyed.
On January 8th, 1942, Lord Louis Mountbatten, Chief of Combined Operations, asked the 1st Airborne Division if such a raid was feasible using paratroopers. In fact, the 1st Airborne Division, though willing to take on the mission, was not in a particularly strong position itself in terms of manpower. Rather than risk the loss of a complete trained battalion, C Company of the 2nd Battalion, led by Major John Frost, was chosen. Frost, himself, had yet to complete his parachute training. The same was true with regards to a number of his men. Also, the means of delivering them to Bruneval, 38 Wing of the RAF, was not yet operational. Therefore, 51 Squadron, under the command of Wing Commander P Pickard, was given the task.
Along with Frost and his men, Flight-Sergeant C W H Cox would also jump. His task, as a radio expert, was to bring back various pieces of the radio location equipment. C Company’s withdrawal was to be by boat. Commander F N Cook of the Royal Australian Navy was to lead the evacuation using motor gunboats while 32 men from the Royal Fusiliers and South Wales Borderers were to go in with landing craft, pick up the paratroopers and give covering fire if required.
C Company made their final training jump on February 15th, 1942. All their preparations were made more difficult be reports from the French Resistance that the complex at Bruneval was being strengthened by the Germans. Three blockhouses were observed being built and they were only 200 metres from the radio location receiver itself. This was on top of the defences already in place there – six feet thick barbed to stop any entrance/exit to the beach, machine gun posts and a garrison of 30 men. The Resistance also reported that the Germans kept troops at a nearby farmhouse.
The raid itself had only one criteria for success – getting the receiver parts back to Britain for analysis. The plan was for C Company to split into three separate forces. One was to guard the evacuation point. The two others were to attack the complex – one the defenders, the other to dismantle the receiver while fighting off any Germans. The plan was to drop the paratroopers some way behind the house at Bruneval to allow for them to approach the receiver undetected. Ironically, while the receiver might pick up the approaching Whitley bombers, it would not have known about their ‘cargo’.
On paper, the paratroopers had all the advantages – surprise, skill and the knowledge that failure would either end in death or years as a prisoner-of-war.
The night of February 27/28th was good with regards to the weather. The naval force, led by Cook, sailed. The Whitley bombers of 51 Squadron took off from Thruxton for the two-hour journey to Bruneval. The actual jump from the planes was uneventful and the men from C Company gathered at a designated rendezvous point. The attack on their target was swift and clinical. The occupants of the house and the radio pit with the receiver were killed. Then an attack came from Germans staying at a nearby farmhouse called Le Presbytère. While Cox worked to dismantle the receiver, Frost took twelve of his men to attack the Germans at the farmhouse.
After dealing with this attack, Frost led his men down to the beach. At 02.15, the paratroopers assembled on the beach but no contact could be made with Cook’s naval force. As it was, Cook had his own problems. Two German destroyers and two E-boats had passed less than a mile from his boats. After this problem has passed, Cook brought in his motor gunboats – under heavy German machine gun fire from the cliffs. Frost, his men, and their valuable cargo (which included German prisoners) were hauled aboard from their landing craft. The motor gunboats then powered their way back to Portsmouth. As daylight broke, fighter planes from the RAF gave cover against a possible attack by the Luftwaffe.
Just one day later, proof came in that the attack had been a major success. A Hurricane had approached Bruneval undetected and flew over the former receiver pit before the Germans could react. The raid also proved the military importance of a small and highly trained group of men and the impact they could have on a specific target when given a specific task to do.