"gentlemen of the shade, minions of the moon.." SHAKESPEARE - Henry IV
In the late 1930's, if you had taken the road east to Everton from Church Street, Tempsford, at the south corner of the present day Millennium Garden Sanctuary - the site of the proposed Tempsford Memorial monument- it would have led you directly past Tempsford Hall and across the main LNER (London North Eastern Railway) railway line on the Tempsford Flats to the Greensands Ridge at Everton. It was here, between the old Roman Road, now a public highway running north-south along the ridge, and the railway line in the east, that the Air Ministry, in the summer of 1940, started work on setting up the most important secret airfield, known simply as Gibraltar Farm, that would take on the clandestine operations to aid resistance activities across the Channel during World War II - answering Churchill's call to "set Europe ablaze".
This became RAF Tempsford, designed to look like an ordinary working farm, Gibraltar Farm, the base for the two Special Duties 'Moon Squadrons 138 and 161 (nicknamed the 'Tempsford Taxis') operating between 1942 and 1945, ferrying secret agents ('Joes'), arms and supplies to resistance networks in Occupied Europe - and bring back resistance agents, downed airmen and VIPs - all coordinated by the Special Operations Executive (SOE) set up by Churchill in 1940.
The range of operations reached from Norway to the South of France and across Europe, taking in Belgium, Holland, Germany, Poland and Czechoslovakia. Missions were concentrated around the nights of the full moon each month, allowing best vision for the pilots. 138 Squadron was a transport organisation for the SOE, flying the heavier aircraft - Whitley, Halifax and Short Stirling bombers- dropping containers of supplies and parachuting down secret agents to locations on the Continent, pre-arranged and coordinated with the resistance organisations. 161 Squadron, formed on Valentines Day 1942, specialised in landing and pick up operation, flying the lighter aircraft t - the high-winged Westland Lysander and Lockhead Hudson monoplanes. The Lysander (known affectionately as 'Lizzie' by it's pilots) had a strong under carriage, able to withstand impact on landing and usually a fixed outside ladder to the rear cockpit, allowing speedy boarding and exit. It was highly manoeuvrable, with a low stalling speed and could land in a football field, turn and take off again in minutes.
Operations were closely coordinated with the resistance networks in occupied Europe (réseaux in France), who prepared landing or dropping areas and arranged transport, pre-arranged days in advance by coded wireless exchanges. Once the organizer of the landing party heard the drone of the approaching aircraft, he would step out and flash up an agreed signal with his torch. Two other resistance workers would then join the organizer with torches flashing to line up a corridor in the shape of an inverted ‘L’ for the pilot. If the pilot was satisfied that all was well, he would make a U-turn and drop the cargo or parachuting agents—or, in the case of the smaller Lizzie and Hudson aircraft, land in the field.
The pilots flew without lights, braving enemy gunfire and fighter interceptors as soon as they had crossed the Channel. The larger planes carried a full crew of between four to eight airmen. The unarmed Lizzie was flown single-handed, the pilot navigating with his map on his knees, carrying one to three passengers in the rear cockpit—who, on landing, would clamber down the fixed ladder to the ground, often whilst the pilot was making a slow U-turn, quickly replaced by passengers being ferried back. Some of the most skilful and courageous pilots flew these aircraft. One of these was Wing Commander P.C. ‘Pick’ Pickard, the commanding officer of 161 Squadron, who smoked a pipe and was accompanied everywhere, off duty, by his Old English Sheepdog, Ming.
He was later killed leading Operation Jericho, a raid on Amiens Prison in February 1944, successfully enabling French resistance prisoners to escape. He was only twenty-eight. The French wanted him to be awarded the Victoria Cross posthumously.
A poignant story is that of Bob Body who inherited the wartime medals of his uncle, Flight Lieutenant J.W. ‘Ian’ Menzies DFC in 1985, and set out to trace his career (www.161squadron.org/). Ian and his entire crew of three airmen, together with four Dutch agents, were reported missing on a mission to Holland in a Hudson aircraft in July 1944. The bodies of three of the aircrew and the agents were soon recovered but Menzies remained missing and his name joined the 148 others of 138 and 161 Squadrons, lost in action with no known graves commemorated at the Runnymede Air Forces Memorial near Egham in Surrey. In 1997, the wreck of their aircraft was recovered from the IJselmeer in Holland—and the remains of F/Lt Menzies eventually positively identified. Ian was finally laid to rest, in October 1998, with full military honours and now rests alongside his crew in the cemetery at Makkum.
The book of remembrance in St Peter’s Church records the names of 623 airmen from the two Special Duties Squadrons who died during service at Tempsford. 995 agents were dropped by parachute into enemy-occupied Europe. In addition, 485 were landed and some 575 VIPs, agents and rescued aircrew brought back.
Despite the grim reality of their work at RAF Tempsford, the airmen and ground crew, including the WAAF girls, found a lighter side to life in the weekly dances in the village halls of nearby Everton and Tempsford, and the local ‘drinking holes’. At Everton, there was a choice of the Thornton Arms, the forces canteen at the village hall or ‘Dirty Jimmy’s’, a cottage with pails of beer where you brought your own mug. At Tempsford, there was The White Hart, Black Horse or The Wheatsheaf —where there are still pictures on the walls of the airmen and agents. Also, as Beryl Escott writes, “they could joke about their work.
‘It’s expecting too much of anyone to be able to talk French and fly by night,’ wrote Wing Commander Hodges in Squadron Leader Verity’s Cottage Line Book. Others, like Robin Hooper broke into rhyme: ‘The moon is sinking in the sky, We know we’ve damn well got to fly Or get into a fearful mess With SOS or SIS. The messages come thick and fast, “We’ve got a field for you at last, So come tonight and try your luck. The farmer wants to spread his muck.”’
On November 9th, 1943, His Majesty King George VI and Queen Elizabeth paid a special visit to the airfield, the Bedfordshire Times & Standard reporting that they were met at Tempsford station by Group Captain Fielden (later Air Marshal Sir Edward Fielden) and the Chief Constable of Bedfordshire, Commander Willis RN. A small crowd of children returning from school “stood spellbound upon recognizing the smiling visitors. Spontaneously the small crowd burst into cheer and waved. A mother picked up her little daughter, and the Queen had an especially sweet smile for the child.” A picture of the event, below, shows the Queen chatting to the WAAF Captain during the Royal Visit.
The airmen held the resistance workers and agents they transported in high regard—as illustrated by an exchange between Jean-Pierre Levy and ‘Bunny’ Rymills, the pilot who carried him to England. “You are splendid chaps (des types épatants)”, said Levy to the pilot. “No”, protested the pilot, “It’s you who are splendid. We only take risks for one hour. You take risks for 24 hours a day. You need not thank us.” Such was the modesty that characterised these young heroic RAF men.
The role of the SOE (in Churchill’s phrase, ‘the Ministry of Ungentlemanly Warfare’), when set up in 1940, was “to nourish resistance to enemy occupation” in Europe, later extending to North Africa. The building housing its Headquarters at 64 Baker Street in London, Norgeby House, carried a plaque on the wall that read ‘Inter-Services Research Bureau’. It was here that recruited agents were finally vetted after a complicated series of preliminary interviews, and where operations were planned. The largest department in the SOE was the F (for France) Section, headed by the legendary Colonel Maurice ‘Buck’ Buckmaster. His assistant, Vera Atkins, had responsibility for ensuring that all the agents were thoroughly rained and prepared for their missions—from the time they applied for service to their actual departure, escorting them to the steps of the plane, saying farewell with the fitting French expletive, “merde alors”. She was described as a redoubtable personality, icily efficient and thorough, devoted to the agents, especially the women. At the war’s end, in 1946, she was ‘titanic’ in her efforts to trace the fate of every one of the missing women agents, travelling through all of Europe, tirelessly and ruthlessly interrogating former concentration camp guards and prison warders, until she had unearthed every last bit of evidence.
Another SOE legend was Leo Marks—recognised as being the greatest cryptologist of the war. He was only twenty-two when he started his career at Bletchley Park near Bedford but was deemed too ‘unorthodox’ there and was transferred to the SOE (he is still remembered at Bletchley Park as ‘the one who got away’—when his abilities were later applauded). It was Leo’s task to decipher garbled incoming transmissions, and to train each agent wireless operator, going out, with how to cypher messages using original code-poems which he assigned them. The inspirational poem that he composed on the roof of the SOE Norgeby House on Christmas Eve 1943, when he learned that his fiancée, Ruth, had been killed in an air crash in Canada, ‘The Life that I Have..’, is now widely celebrated after he later passed it on as a cypher code-poem for Violette Szabo. It commemorated, in full, in the memorial marble column at Tempsford.
A great laughing mate of Leo Marks was Wing Commander ‘Tommy’ Yeo-Thomas GC MC, the most celebrated and toughest of the SOE agents, who had already seen action in the Polish-Soviet War of 1919-1920, fighting with the Poles, and escaping when captured. Fluent in French, he played a key role in organizing the resistance groups in France, becoming known to the Gestapo as ‘le lapin blanc’, the White Rabbit.
He was captured on his third mission out, in March 1944, and dreadfully
tortured, being finally sent to the Buchenwald concentration camp, from where he
escaped, and was recaptured—being finally sequestered in Stalag XX-B near
Marienburg. After several more
failed attempts to escape, he succeeded finally in reaching the Allied lines in
Hassell’s Hall, the local manor house near the airfield, which had been taken over as the senior RAF officers’ mess and sleeping quarters, also served as the last stopover for SOE agents due to fly out from Tempsford. It was here that final checks and briefings were made before the final car journey out to the barn at the airfield Gibraltar Farm, where the agents were kitted out. Here, clothes and suitcases were checked for betraying British labels or laundry marks, pockets turned out, money handed over and the four tablets issued—one for doping an enemy, one for keeping awake, one to fake a serious illness, and the last a lethal ‘L’ pill (if this had not already been implanted previously in a dental cavity). Wireless operators also received the little crystals for their transmitters. Finally, parachutists were fitted with their jump suits and harness, then lumbering out, when all ready, to be welcomed cheerily by their pilot and aircrew, for the long cold journey out to the enemy.
Although the Gibraltar Farm buildings have been long demolished, the barn is still lovingly maintained by the present owners. Remembrance Day services and re-union gatherings of the Tempsford Veterans and Relatives Association (TVARA) are held here annually. A museum is also being put together in one of the buildings of the old airfield, now a working farm. A plaque in the barn commemorates the men and women who passed out from its doors through the war years.
A Museum & Archives, housed in the village hall at Tempsford Church End, the Stuart Memorial Hall, displays memorabilia relating to the airfield—including the full uniform of Flying Officer L J Gornall DFC, one of the crew of a Stirling aircraft downed over the North Sea in February 1945.
There is also a chapel of remembrance in St Peter’s Church, Tempsford (opposite the planned site of the new Memorial)—and a plaque there commemorates all those who operated from RAF Tempsford Airfield through the war and the resistance workers flown out. A service of Remembrance & Thanksgiving is held in the church there for the Tempsford Veterans and Relatives Association every year in June.
“ The moon squadrons are no more. The last needle on the last cockpit dial has sunk back to zero and the engines have cooled. The men who flew these aircraft, gentlemen of the shade,
minions of the moon, have long ago bidden farewell to arms. Their task was done. They had seen the beginning, the middle and the end. The seasons flow over the gannocks and the ancient arable and pasture of Tempsford. The unhurried life of farming goes on, as it has gone on since Aethelflaed, sister of Edward the Elder, came on to storm the buhr and rid the land of the upstart Danes .." Jerrard Tickell — MOON SQUADRON