The attempted rescue of Madame deGaulle Written & Researched by David J.B. Smith
In September 2017 David was again published in the fantastic Britain at War magazine. Here's the full article, in its unabridged version: The fate of France was sealed with the stroke of a pen on 22 June 1940. The French government had agreed and signed the terms of a German armistice in the same railway carriage as the Allied armistice had been signed in 1918. Days before, on Monday 17 June, the giant wind direction indicator at RAF Mount Batten was hanging deflated and motionless, but the West Country air station was a hive of activity. Aircraft from No. 10 Squadron Royal Australian Air Force, part of 15 Group, RAF Coastal Command, had recently begun to patrol the Western Approaches in the war against the U-boat. Their versatile Sunderland aircraft, with its considerable endurance, was also frequently utilised to transport VIPs. The air station’s proximity to the north-western French coast saw it particularly busy in the run up to the fall of France.
Admiral Martin Dunbar-Nasmith VC - 3rd Left
That evening at around 18:00, a high-priority telephone call was received in the outer office of the Commander-in-Chief (CinC), Western Approaches, Admiral Martin Dunbar-Nasmith VC. The caller from the Admiralty identified himself as a representative of the Director of Naval Intelligence (DNI) and the call was forwarded directly to the CinC. Dunbar-Nasmith was told that under direct instruction from the Prime Minister, arrangements had to be made forthwith to take an Admiralty passenger on a secret mission to the north coast of Brittany. The passenger would indicate where they wished to be landed and on the instructions of Winston Churchill, they would endeavour to collect certain individuals and bring them to the aircraft for onward passage back to RAF Mount Batten.
Admiral Dunbar-Nasmith sent a specific request to the Officer Commanding 15 Group RAF Coastal Command. A Form Green authorising the flight was duly signalled to No. 10 Squadron:
A. PL/G12/17/6 B. MOUNTBATTEN C. ONE WALRUS TO PROCEED WITH ADMIRALTY PASSENGER FROM PLYMOUTH SOUND TO NORTH COAST OF BRITTANY AT EARLIEST 18/6. PASSENGER WILL GIVE DETAILS OF DESTINATION ON ARRIVAL ABOUT 2359/17. AIRCRAFT TO BE FULLY ARMED AND TO KEEP DEFENSIVE WATCH AT ALL TIMES ESPECIALLY WATERBORNE. RETURN TO BASE ON COMPLETION D. 2100
On receipt of the Form Green, an aircraft was detailed and a crew sourced for this most secret mission. The ideal aircraft was located within the 15 Group Communications Flight – an ‘L’ series Mk. I Vickers - Supermarine Walrus, serial number L2312. Traditionally, communications flight aircraft were used to ferry around senior officers, transport small items of stores and equipment, and act as a training aircraft to allow pilots to keep their flying hours up. Basically, a communications aircraft was a squadron workhorse.
Captain Norman E. Hope (SIS)
Later that evening, the mysterious passenger arrived at Roborough Airport in Plymouth. The person detailed by DNI was 37-year-old Secret Intelligence Service (SIS), Section D operative Captain Norman Hope. Norman first loomed large in the sights of MI5 in mid-October 1939. At that time he was a petroleum executive employed by the Shell Oil Company. Hope had a good knowledge of French and a considerable grasp of Spanish and Italian. MI5 actively pursued him with a view to making use of his services. N.E. Hope signed the Official Secrets Act on 17 October 1939 and very soon afterwards became a member of Section D of the SIS – the forerunner of the Special Operations Executive (SOE).
Section D was responsible for developing plans and mustering resources which could be useful for undermining Germany’s economy and war potential by means of subversion, propaganda and sabotage. The SOE did not exist at this time, but came into being in early July 1940. The Special Operations Executive was the product of an amalgamation of three existing organisations. These were: MI(R), a think tank of the Military Intelligence Directorate of the War Office; Electra House (EH), the secret propaganda arm of the Foreign Office; and finally, Section D of the SIS. Civilians who were indoctrinated into the British intelligence services were given the provisional rank of 2nd Lieutenant – the lowest rank for a commissioned officer. After only a short while at Section D, Norman Hope was given the substantive rank of Army Captain.
Colonel Louis Franck (SIS)
At the time of this mission Norman Hope was head of the Belgian Section within Section D. The SIS operative originally designated for this mission was French-speaking, Belgian-born agent Colonel Louis Franck. However, the British government had grave concerns about what would happen to the Belgian gold reserves if the country gave up their armed struggle against the Germans. Louis Franck was seconded as a courier to take messages by hand to the Belgian King. So it was that Captain Hope walked into RAF Mount Batten’s Operations Room at 01:15 on 18 June 1940. Waiting for him was 24-year-old Flight Lieutenant John Bell, Royal Australian Air Force. F/Lt Bell would be the pilot of Walrus L2312.
Captain Hope divulged that the ultimate location was Carantec in Brittany. The two men examined charts of the north-western French coast and a method of approach was discussed. The aircrew began routine aircraft checks and plotted a navigational route. The rear hatch of L2312 was hurriedly fitted with a Vickers Mk. I gas operated .303 machine gun, borrowed from a refitting Sunderland. Flight Sergeant Charles Harris, RAAF would be the air observer/navigator. Corporal Bernard Nowell, RAF was selected to be the flight mechanic/wireless operator. F/Lt Bell was an experienced pilot and Sgt Harris an accomplished navigator, and they had many flying hours between them. F/Lt Bell had been flying 10 Squadron’s massive Sunderland aircraft out of Mount Batten continually in the weeks prior to this mission.
The Site of RAF Mount Batten Today
Before departing from Mount Batten, Norman Hope did give away a bit more about the purpose of his mission. This information was later recorded in a ‘Most Secret’ memo from CinC, Western Approaches to DNI. Captain Hope informed those present that he was carrying a lot of French money. He was asked by the Duty Controller when they were likely to return – he could not say. Tellingly, he did say that it all depended on whether the people concerned could be found and that it was possible their return could be complicated by events on the French coast. The Germans were only days away from seizing all the French channel ports.
The aircrew boarded L2312 on the slipway adjacent to hangers No. 3 and 4 at RAF Mount Batten. Final pre-flight checks were made and the Bristol Pegasus’ 775hp radial engine burst into life. The aircraft taxied to the head of the slipway and waited. Norman Hope strode towards the aircraft, dressed in a brown suit and brown shoes, carrying his hat and a tan-coloured attaché case – typical British attire for a secret mission into possible enemy territory. With a final wave to the ground crew F/Lt Bell taxied the Walrus out of the Cattewater and into Plymouth Sound. Bell slowly inched the throttle forward. The powerful V1 engine roared as the aircraft skimmed across the water and majestically lifted into the air, passing low over Plymouth Breakwater at 03:00 on Tuesday 18 June.
At the start of World War Two, Colonel Charles André Joseph Marie de Gaulle had been appointed as the Commander of the 5th Army Tank Regiment. De Gaulle embarked on a meteoric rise within the ranks of the French military. Outspoken regarding his strategies of combining tanks and air support, de Gaulle gained the ear of senior figures in the French government. By May 1940 he was Commander of the 4thArmoured Division and achieved distinction for halting the German advance at Abbeville between 27 and 30 May 1940.
De Gaulle’s military career continued to go from strength to strength. He was soon appointed Acting Brigadier in early June 1940 and only days later he was asked by the president of the French Council, Paul Reynaud, to become the Under-Secretary of State for National Defence and War. De Gaulle attended several meetings with members of the British government, including Winston Churchill. It was on returning from a meeting in Great Britain on 16 June that de Gaulle learnt of Paul Reynaud's resignation as President of the Council of Ministers, and the subsequent call for an armistice by Reynaud’s successor, the aging Marshal Pétain.
Anticipating the worst, de Gaulle planned and executed his timely escape perfectly. On Monday 17 June, de Gaulle boarded an aircraft at Bordeaux aerodrome and was flown to Great Britain. Churchill wrote of de Gaulle’s escape: “He carried with him, in this small aeroplane, the honour of France.” The French General had left behind his wife and children and felt heavily the weight of France on his shoulders.
It is inconceivable that Charles de Gaulle had not set measures in place for the safety of his own family, should it seem France were to capitulate. Back on 10 June, de Gaulle had had his two teenage children transported from their family home in Paris to Rebréchien, a small village near the town of Orléans. It was here where Madame de Gaulle and their disabled daughter, along with the nanny, Miss Marguerite Potel, were waiting. On 11 June, the de Gaulle party travelled to Carantec and stayed with Mrs Richard, an aunt of Madame de Gaulle. The family lodged in several houses during their time in Carantec to avoid detection by German spies or would-be collaborators.
Anne de Gaulle
The secret purpose of Captain Hope’s mission was clear. SIS Section D had been tasked to locate and extract the wife and children of Charles de Gaulle and bring them back to Great Britain. Prior to leaving London, Hope had been passed secret intelligence stating that Yvonne de Gaulle, accompanied by her children – 12-year-old Anne, 16-year-old Elisabeth and 19-year-old Philippe – had travelled from their home in Paris to the Brittany coast, specifically Carantec, where relatives of Yvonne lived.
David J.B. Smith Outside La Villa d’Arvor
On the evening of 16 June, two plain-clothed men arrived at the safe house in Carantec. The men, possibly from the French external intelligence agency the Deuxième Bureau, had been sent by Charles de Gaulle. They gave Yvonne passports and money and conveyed the message: “Go at once to England.” The next morning Yvonne and Philippe left ‘La Villa d’Arvor’ in Carantec, and travelled the 43 miles to Brest in a car driven by Yvonne’s sister, Suzanne Rérolle. On arrival, Yvonne visited the British Consulate to enquire about the possibility of onward travel to England. The consulate staff at Brest were hurriedly shutting up shop and evacuating as part of Operation Aerial.
Members of the Allied forces and servicemen from the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) who hadn’t managed to be evacuated from Dunkirk as part of Operation Dynamo, filtered towards the north-western French ports. On 15 June, the withdrawal of the remaining elements of the BEF had started. This final withdrawal would be known as Operation Aerial and took place between 15 and 25 June 1940. The consulate staff suggested the de Gaulles leave with them on the next available ship. Yvonne could not leave France as Anne and Elisabeth were still in Carantec. She returned to ‘La Villa d’Arvor’. Unknown to the de Gaulle family, a plan to extract them had already been set in place by the British Government.
Yvonne and Charles de Gaulle
As the de Gaulle family slept on the evening of 17 June, the Walrus aircraft was crossing low over the Channel, heading for Carantec. The flight time was less than an hour. Although dark, there was little or no cloud and the visibility was generally good. The aircrew were aiming for the clearly distinguishable tip of Carantec. The approximate position where they had chosen to land was an area of water flanked by a stretch of sand, with a stone walkway extending out into the bay. This beach area, known as Grève Blanche, is on the north-eastern tip of Carantec. The location of the de Gaulles’ safe house was on la rue Dupetit-Thouars – only 500 metres away from Grève Blanche.
What happened to the Walrus between 03:00 and 04:40 on 18 June will probably remain one of the many enduring mysteries of World War Two. There have been several theories and conflicting stories – none can be 100% corroborated and many myths continue to be innocently perpetuated today. As dawn broke over Brittany, a typical early morning fog rolled in across the French coast. It was at 04:40 that residents of the small hamlet of Kerbiquet, near Ploudaniel, were awakened by the sound of a very low-flying aircraft. Kerbiquet is 25 miles from Carantec; for some unknown reason, the Walrus had overshot the landing area and continued flying for around 11 minutes.
Witnesses said the aircraft hurtled out of the thick fog. It looked to be on fire and flying very low – so low, in fact, that the shouts and screams of those on board could be heard. The pilot circled the aircraft over Kerbiquet two or three times as if looking for a good location to land. From above, the fields in this area looked flat. However, French farming techniques often incorporated a talus, or embankment, with sloping furrows across many farmed fields. F/Lt Bell committed his final approach to what appeared to be large, flat field near several houses in Kerbiquet.
The Crash Site of L2312 at Kerbiquet
The Walrus was primarily accustomed to landing on the surface of the sea or a flat landing strip. Even though this aircraft type has landing gear, the gondolier or ‘Alclad’ hull of the Walrus is very close to the ground. Any undulation could cause serious damage. Bell made a low angle of approach, skimming over trees and hedgerows. As they touched down, the aircraft ploughed into a talus and immediately broke in two. The port and starboard 75-gallon fuel tanks ruptured and the aviation fuel exacerbated the already burning fire. Simultaneously, the rounds from the Vickers machine gun spontaneously discharged, owing to the heat. Once the cooked-off bullets had finished zipping through the grass, several locals made their way towards the edge of the field and the crash site. The two parts of the main aircraft fuselage lay upturned. The Walrus had seemingly flipped over. The undercarriage lay some distance away and smaller wreckage was spread over a wide area. The villagers managed to pull the four occupants out of the smouldering aircraft and lay them down in the field. There were no survivors.
The four bodies were taken by the villagers to the small town of Ploudaniel, about a mile and a half from the crash site. Overseen by Francois Louis Huguen, the Mayor of Ploudaniel, the bodies of the men were searched for identification. Considering this was a secret mission, the French managed to obtain a lot of information from the airmen’s effects. They found out the names of the aircrew, service numbers, nationalities, where they were stationed and, in the case of Corporal Nowell, even his home address. Initially they had trouble identifying Sgt Harris. At first they thought he was called Sgt Bennett. However, it transpired that Bennett was the surname of a Staff Sergeant at RAF Mount Batten who had signed all their identity cards. The only person they could not identify was duly named in the town’s deceased register as ‘Aviateur X’. This was the elusive Captain Norman Hope SIS.
Around the same time on 18 June, oblivious of the British attempt to extract her family, Yvonne de Gaulle talked her sister into driving them all back to Brest for a second time. At 08:00 the British Naval Liaison Officer (BNLO) at Brest reported back to the Admiralty on the progress of Operation Aerial. A detachment of Belgian servicemen and civilian stragglers – which, unknown to the BNLO, included Madame de Gaulle, her children and nanny – were being embarked on one of the last transport vessels to leave Brest. Leaving Suzanne Rérolle behind, the de Gaulle party escaped France on board the Belgian passenger ship Prinses Josephine Charlotte. They arrived safely at Falmouth early in the morning of 19 June.
Prinses Josephine Charlotte
The fast-approaching German mechanised forces were only a matter of hours away from Ploudaniel. A large contingent of local residents gathered to show their respects as all four servicemen were hurriedly buried in the cemetery of St Yves Church. Their graves were marked with simple named white wooden crosses. The name on the cross of Norman Hope remained ‘Aviateur X’ for quite a while. F/Lt Bell and Sgt Harris were the first Australian casualties of World War Two and the first fatalities on active service in the RAAF since its formation in 1927.
MTB 29 Photo IWM
On the morning of Wednesday 19 June, Walrus L2312 was overdue at RAF Mount Batten. The Admiralty were unaware of Madame de Gaulle’s subsequent arrival at Falmouth; questions were starting to be asked at a very high level. MTB 29, a British Motor Torpedo Boat, was tasked to approach Carantec and land an interpreter in an attempt to complete the mission. Additionally, they were to find out what had happened to Captain Hope and the Walrus. The interpreter was actually another member of Section D of the SIS – French-speaking, Belgian-born Hendrik Van Riel. That evening at 20:30, Van Riel sailed from Plymouth on board MTB 29.
They were headed for the main channel leading to Morlaix. On arriving at 00:01 on 20 June it was obvious the low height of the tide would prevent them from approaching the landing area at Carantec. The MTB lay off in Morlaix Bay until it could make its approach. Around dawn, the MTB slowly made headway towards the original landing area designated in the Walrus’ flight plan – Grève Blanche. At 06:00, Van Riel and Lt J.T. Mannooch, who was captain of MTB 18 and had come along to assist, landed on the beach in a small boat. Van Riel ran up the beach and disappeared into Carantec. Lt Mannooch returned to the MTB, which then retreated back into the Bay.
It was not long before Van Riel returned to the beach empty-handed. It transpired that the German forces had arrived in Carantec just 24 hours before. Van Riel also discovered that the de Gaulle family had left the locality and no-one had seen the Walrus. Once back on board, Van Riel intended to proceed with the MTB up to Morlaix in an attempt to seek more information about Norman Hope and the Walrus. Unfortunately, the MTB was spotted by a hostile aircraft. Lt C.A. James, captain of MTB 29, ordered the 70ft craft to increase speed and head away from the French coast, setting a course for Plymouth. MTB 29 arrived back at Devonport at around 10:40 on 20 June. By this time, it was general knowledge that the de Gaulle party had arrived in Great Britain.
Sixteen months had gone by when, out of the blue, two refugees who had escaped from France, walked into the offices of the British Red Cross Society. They recounted the story of the crashed Walrus and the subsequent burial of the aircrew at Ploudaniel. The eventual fate of the Walrus, sent to rescue Madame de Gaulle and her children, was established. After the war, the Commonwealth War Graves Commission replaced the wooden crosses with carved headstones. ‘Aviateur X’ was properly named as Captain N.E. Hope – Intelligence Corps. To this day it is not known if Norman Hope told the aircrew who their intended passengers were. The de Gaulle family only found out about the attempt to extract them after the war.
The residents of Ploudaniel remember the sacrifice made by the men of L2312 each year on 2 November – All Souls’ Day.
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