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Operation Freshman - The Rjukan Heavy Water Raid 1942

On 21st November 1942, the following announcement was made over the German Wireless

"On the night of November 19-20th two British bombers, each towing one glider, penetrated Southern Norway. One bomber and both gliders were forced to land. The sabotage troops in the gliders were engaged and killed to the last man."

After the War had ended, the official account of the British First and Sixth Airborne Divisions "By Air to Battle" was published by HMSO in 1945. The 144 page booklet contained the following brief statement:

On November 19th, 1942, two Halifaxes, towing two Horsa gliders, set off from an airfield in Scotland for an objective in southern Norway. The importance of the objective was such that all risks had to be taken. (It was a heavy-water plant connected with German research on the atomic bomb. A later raid on this plant was successful.) This was the first time that British gliders set out to attack the enemy. They were flown, one by Sergeant M. F. C. Strathdee and Sergeant P. Doig of the Glider Pilot Regiment, the other by Pilot Officer Davis and Sergeant Fraser of the Royal Australian Air Force. Each glider carried fifteen sappers, all volunteers, under the command of Lieutenant Methven, G. M. Their task was to destroy the objective, and the difficulties were great. In the first place, the towing of gliders was an art in which the crews had not as yet had much practice. Secondly, the tugs had to be adapted and their engines, having to pull the added weight of the glider behind, developed defects, particularly in the cooling system. Fortunately these and other troubles were discovered during the practice tows and were remedied, so that on the night of the operation two Halifaxes were serviceable, though a third held in reserve could not be flown. The greatest difficulty of all was that caused by the distance to be covered, some 400 miles, and the necessity for extremely accurate navigation over the mountainous district in which the objective lay.

In every air operation all ultimately depends on the weather, and on this occasion a correct forecast was of vital importance. On the morning of the attempt, thick cloud for most of the way, but clear skies and a good moon over the target area were promised. The two Halifaxes took off while it was still light and set course for Norway. Almost immediately the intercommunication system connecting the gliders and the tugs broke down. One Halifax kept low, seeking to fly beneath the cloud and then to gain height on nearing the Norwegian coast, where the pilot hoped for clear weather. What happened is not exactly known, but at some moment the tug hit the side of a mountain, crashed, and all its crew were killed. The violence of the shock loosed the glider, which made a very heavy landing close by, killing and injuring several of its occupants.

The other Halifax was more fortunate. It flew high and approached the Norwegian coast at 10,000 feet. Here, as promised, the weather cleared, but it was found impossible to locate the landing zone. Though they were the best that could be got, the maps were exceedingly inaccurate, and the necessary pin-point could not therefore be obtained. The whole district was covered with snow which made the identification of objects on the ground even more difficult. The pilot of the Halifax, Squadron Leader A. B. Wilkinson, with his commanding officer, Group Captain T. B. Cooper, DFC, on board, made every effort to find the right spot, until, with petrol running low, he was forced to turn for home. The glider was still at the end of the rope, but on crossing the coast the combination ran into heavy cloud and icing conditions, the air became very bumpy, and the two parted. This glider, too, made land and crashed not very far from the other. The survivors of both gliders were captured and almost immediately fell into the hands of the Gestapo. Read about the recovery of Operation Freshman Horsa Glider DP349 here

The Fuehrerbefehl On 18th October 1942, Hitler issued the Fuehrerbefehl which accused Germany's opponents of using methods that did not conform with the international agreements of the Geneva Convention. He singled out commandos for special mention, describing their behaviour as 'especially brutal and cunning'. Commandos, he stated, were partly recruited from among hardened criminals in their own countries, and it appeared from captured documents that they were instructed not only to bind prisoners, but also to kill defenceless prisoners out of hand as soon as they believed they could be an obstacle to their purpose. Orders had been found in which the killing of prisoners had been demanded on principle.

The crux of Hitler's order was this:

From now on all opponents brought to battle by German troops in so-called Commando operations in Europe or in Africa, even when it is outwardly a matter of soldiers in uniform or demolition parties with or without weapons, are to be exterminated to the last man in battle or while in flight. In these cases it is immaterial whether they are landed for their operations by ship or aeroplane or descend by parachute. Even should these individuals, on their being discovered, make as if to surrender, all quarter is to be denied them on principle.

The order continued:

If individual members of such commandos working as agents, saboteurs, etc, fall into the hands of the Wehrmacht by other means - e.g., through the police in any of the countries occupied by us - they are to be handed over to the SD immediately. It is strictly forbidden to hold them in military custody, e.g., in PW camps, etc., even as a temporary measure.

The outcome for those involved in Operation Freshman

The 2 Airspeed Horsa assault gliders each carried 2 pilots and 15 airborne engineers. The 23 survivors of the 2 glider crashes were executed in accordance with the instructions of the Fuehrerbefehl. All 7 crew members of the Halifax that was lost were killed in the crash.

Extracts from: Operation Freshman, The Rjukan Heavy Water Raid 1942 by Richard Wiggan ISBN 0-7183-0571-X