By: Warren Gray
“There’s a man who leads a life of danger...With every move he makes, another chance he takes. Odds are he won’t live to see tomorrow.” — Johnny Rivers, “Secret Agent Man,” 1966.
On Tuesday, October 19, 2021, Gunpowder Magazine very kindly published my article on “The Guns of 007’s ‘No Time to Die,’” about flamboyant, fictional, British secret agent James Bond and the exotic weapons that he uses. In keeping with that recent theme, there was a real-life, British aircraft that covertly transported real, British secret agents of the Special Operations Executive (SOE) to and from Occupied France and Belgium during World War Two under cover of darkness, boldly exploiting its unique, short-takeoff-and-landing (STOL) capability on rough, grassy fields.
The Westland Lysander, named for a great, Spartan admiral who defeated the Athenians in the Hellespont (Dardanelles Strait) during the Peloponnesian War in 405 B.C., was introduced in 1938 as an army-cooperation and liaison aircraft for the Royal Air Force (RAF), with the stated purposes of photoreconnaissance and daylight observation/spotting of artillery fire. When the Second World War broke out soon afterward, five squadrons of Lysanders were pressed into service as forward spotters and light bombers, but following the German conquest of France in May and June 1940, it rapidly became apparent that the Lysander was too fast for artillery spotting, too slow and ungainly to avoid German fighters, too large to hastily conceal on landing fields, and too heavy to use on soft or muddy, dirt airstrips.
Of the 174 Lysander Mk. IIs deployed to France and Belgium, 88 were shot down and 30 more were destroyed on the ground, with a loss of 120 aircrewmen. Only 50 examples survived the fighting to return home to England. In fact, the aircraft was a miserable failure at its primary tasks, already obsolete for all of its intended purposes, and 14 of the 16 Lysanders (88-percent) sent to drop supplies during the British evacuation from Dunkirk (Operation Dynamo) from May 26 to June 4, 1940, were lost.
However, the Lysander’s saving grace was its astounding, STOL capability, being equipped with innovative, full-span, totally-automatic, leading-edge, wing slats, slotted, Handley-Page flaps, and a variable-incidence tailplane, which acted as high-lift devices at very low airspeeds. These same slats controlled automatic flaps beneath the wings for low-speed lift, and the slats automatically began rising away from the leading edge of the wing as airspeed decreased to 85 miles per hour, were halfway-deployed at 80 miles per hour, and fully open at the very low, stall speed of 56 miles per hour. The only control that the pilot had was a locking lever to lock the flaps fully down once they were automatically lowered.
This distinctive, STOL performance proved invaluable to the ultra-secret, Special Operations Executive (SOE) for the purposes of infiltrating and extracting secret agents in Occupied France or Belgium, landing quietly on remote, unprepared, grassy fields behind enemy lines, often within a mere 250 to 300 yards of ground space (240 yards on an open field, or 305 yards to clear 50-foot trees, but an expert pilot in a lightly-loaded Lysander could be airborne in as little as 150 yards), in the dead of night, to drop off or pick up SOE and other foreign agents, or fly vital supplies (weapons, radios, and other equipment) in to local Resistance forces.
The Lysander was essentially a two-seat, high-wing monoplane, with fixed landing gear in streamlined fairings, or “spats.” The 50-foot-span, fabric-covered (strong, Irish linen) wings had a reverse taper toward the root, which appeared to be a bent, gull wing from some angles, although it was actually straight. Unusually, the forward fuselage was constructed of aluminum-alloy (duralumin) extrusion tubes, so the aircraft was more technologically advanced than it outwardly seemed. The most-numerous versions (517 of the 1,786 total built), the Lysander Mk. III and Mk. IIIA (adding floor and side-armor panels), were each powered by a nine-cylinder, Bristol Mercury XX (20) or XXX (30) radial, piston engine producing 870 horsepower, with a three-blade propeller.
Early Lysander models were equipped with twin, forward-firing, Browning .303-caliber Mk. II machine guns attached to the wheel fairings, and two more rear-firing, Browning or Lewis .303 guns for the observer in the rear cockpit, as well as small racks on the spats for carrying eight 20-pound bombs.
The Lysander Mk. III SCW (Special Contract Westland), better known as the Mk. III (SD, for Special Duties) or Mk. IIIA (SD), was the special variant for clandestine operations, with all weapons and armor removed to save weight, a fixed, metal ladder welded to the left side of the fuselage below the rear cockpit, reducing airspeed by at least 25 miles per hour, a constant-speed propeller instead of variable-pitch, and the addition of a 150-gallon, external fuel tank (the standard, internal fuel tank held just 106 gallons) below the belly to more than double the operational, flying range out to 1,150 miles, permitting the aircraft to fly for up to eight hours. A larger oil tank was also required. Approximately 40 of these special variants were constructed by Fairfield Aviation, a Westland sub-contractor.
The large radio was replaced with a much-smaller model. A rearward-facing, bench seat replaced the observer’s seat, allowing room for two passengers, the usual complement, with small, storage lockers underneath, and an opposing shelf at the back of the rear cockpit often served as an additional seat. Three passengers could be crammed inside, “in extreme discomfort,” and in genuine emergencies, four passengers could be carried, packed in very tightly, with the fourth person lying on the cockpit floor.
These Special-Duties Lysander Mk. IIIs or IIIAs (SD) were initially painted overall matte-black for night flying, with no identifying roundels beneath the wings, but on cloudy or moonlit nights, the solid-black coloration proved too conspicuous from some angles, so the upper wing surfaces, top of the fuselage, and tail surfaces were soon camouflaged in standard, green-and-brown patterns, like Spitfire and Hurricane fighters, and then in green-and-gray patterns, like later Spitfire variants, while the sides and undersurfaces remained totally black.
On August 21, 1940, No. 419 (SD) Flight was established at RAF North Weald, a fighter base only 12 miles northeast of London, initially with just two Lysanders, then a third aircraft a month later, to undertake clandestine missions in support of the SOE and Secret Intelligence Service (SIS, or MI6), aiding the French Resistance movements, and flying its first covert mission into France on October 19, 1940. Then, on March 1, 1941, No. 1419 (SD) Flight was created at RAF Stradishall, near Haverhill, Suffolk, essentially renaming No. 419 (SD) Flight, with Lysanders and other aircraft.
On August 25, 1941, No. 1419 (SD) Flight was disbanded at RAF Newmarket, 50 miles northeast of London, where No. 138 (SD) Squadron (“For Freedom”) was then formed, to continue these covert activities on a greater scale, flying two Lysander Mk. IIIAs, 13 light bombers, and one transport. By February 15, 1942, the squadron’s six Lysanders and several bombers formed the nucleus of the all-new, 161 (SD) Squadron (“Liberate”), initially at RAF Stradishall, then to Newmarket, and they finally moved to RAF Tempsford a month later. Tempsford was such a secret, SOE base (Station 61, the “Joe School” for agents) that it was intentionally designed to resemble a large, working, farming estate from a distance, and was, in fact, codenamed “Gibraltar Farm.” As a result, the Germans were never able to determine the home base for these clandestine aircraft.
161 (SD) Squadron was initially led by Wing Commander Edward Hedley “Mouse” Fielden, and its aircraft bore the red, “MA” squadron code on their sides. After the formation of 161 Squadron, 138 (SD) Squadron continued to parachute agents and supplies into Occupied Europe from their bombers and transports, while 161 Squadron took over the agent pick-ups by light aircraft.
The Lysanders were nicknamed “Lizzies,” but they were also called “Moon Planes,” assigned to the mysterious, “Moon Squadrons,” because, as Air Chief Marshal Sir Lewis Hodges, a former 161 Squadron commander from 1943 to 1944, later recalled, “Our lives were governed by the phases of the moon. We needed moonlight to read a map by...and we needed moonlight to be able to see the ground clearly enough to make a safe landing.”
The SD pilots carried Enfield No. 2 Mk. I revolvers in .38/200-caliber (firing a heavy, 200-grain bullet), or Webley Mk. VIs in .455 Webley-caliber, or sometimes American-made, Colt or Smith and Wesson M1917s in .45 ACP, and Sten Mk. II submachine guns in 9mm were often jammed down inside the cockpit for extreme emergencies. The readily-available Sten was cheaply manufactured (only $11), but it was a devastating, close-range weapon, supplied in huge quantities to the French Resistance. They also carried escape-and-evasion kits, which usually included a silk map, tiny compass, small saw blade, three photos of the pilot in civilian clothing (for fake documents and passports), and an escape knife/multitool.
Being a Lysander SD pilot required tremendous self-reliance, expert, long-range navigation by moonlight, often in foul weather, proficiency in the French language, the ability to think and act independently while totally alone (a lone-wolf attitude), and a general disdain for overly-restrictive, military rules and regulations. As 161 Squadron commander Charles “Pick” Pickard often observed, “There’s always bloody something!”
While their main bases were located at RAF Tempsford and RAF Newmarket, most of the operational sorties into France, Belgium, and the Netherlands were executed from RAF Tangmere (now the Tangmere Military Aviation Museum) in far, southern England, 45 miles southwest of London and only five miles from the English Channel, where 161 (SD) Squadron used Tangmere Cottage, just opposite the main gate to the base, and surrounded by tall hedges, for refueling, mission planning, and final preparations.
The Lysander pilots deployed there for two weeks at a time during each “moon period,” including the week before and after a full moon. Their cover story at the Spitfire fighter base was that they performed “photographic reconnaissance by night, using special, flash flares,” with cameras inside the centerline, fuel-tank housing, and the Lizzies were parked off to the side, by themselves, where no one could inspect them too closely. Pilot morale was high in these SD units, because they derived tremendous satisfaction from extracting Allied agents from Occupied Europe, right under the noses of the German Gestapo secret police.
On a typical mission, a solitary Lysander (but there were three on one occasion) would depart from RAF Tangmere under cover of darkness, flying at 500 feet altitude above the cold, English Channel to avoid German radar detection, with a folded map on the pilot’s knee, navigating entirely by moonlight. Ground crews kept the engines tuned to the peak of perfection, so there was never an engine failure. Approaching the French coast, the pilot would climb to 8,000 feet to get above the antiaircraft batteries found there, then he would drop back down to 1,500 to 2,000 feet to navigate across the French landscape, using only a map, compass, and wristwatch to locate visual landmarks.
Maintaining complete radio silence, the Lysander pilot would carefully and methodically locate his assigned landing zone for the night, always requested to be at least 600 meters long by 100 meters wide, but frequently much smaller than that. Approaching the makeshift landing zone at 400 to 500 feet altitude, the pilot looked for a flashlight on the ground, signaling an identifying letter in Morse code, and then the pilot would use his downward-identification light to signal a reply. After this critical exchange, three illuminated flashlights on the ground would form a reversed, “L” shape, marking the landing zone.
The pilot would then fly a racetrack-shaped orbit over the field, carefully noting the three lights, and he’d touch down at the top of the “L,” finish his landing roll at the other two lights, and taxi back to the first light again. As soon as the Lysander stopped, the passengers would scramble down the ladder with their luggage, always remaining at the left side of the aircraft, since the pilot was instructed to shoot anyone approaching from the right side. Any outgoing passengers would very quickly climb aboard next, and the pilot tried to take off again after no more than three minutes, in order to avoid detection and possible capture.
The incoming agents frequently wore a camouflaged, padded, canvas jump suit over civilian clothing, with a padded, leather helmet, and on occasions when there was a drop-off agent, but no one to pick up, the agent would usually have to jump from the ladder of a Lysander rolling and bumping along the ground at about 15 to 18 miles per hour, “with a hell of a wallop as you hit a grass field,” as one of them later explained.
One of the more-notable, SD Lysander pilots was Squadron Leader Hugh Verity, age 24, a former, Bristol Beaufighter pilot, and then a night-fighter pilot. He joined 161 (SD) Squadron on June 1, 1942, and was later placed in command of A-Flight, the Lysander component of the squadron, flying his first secret mission on December 23, 1942. Verity conducted at least 29 covert, night flights into France, and possibly as many as 36, which was the most of any RAF pilot. He flew a Lysander Mk. IIIA(SD), with RAF Dark Green and RAF Medium Sea Gray camouflage on the upper surfaces and tail fin, Night Black on the sides and lower surfaces, the dark-red, squadron codes of “MA-J,” and bearing the nose art of the Walt Disney, cartoon character Jiminy Cricket.
Among his more-famous passengers were Captain Peter M. Churchill of the SOE, a top-notch agent who was infiltrated into France four times between 1941 and 1943, was eventually captured, and later earned the Distinguished Service Order (DSO), and François Mitterrand of the French RNPG Resistance, who would later serve as president of France from 1981 to 1995, longer in office than any other French president.
Verity was decorated for gallantry five times, including earning the Distinguished Flying Cross (DFC) in May 1943, and the DSO with Bar (two separate awards, in August 1943 and January 1944), all as A-Flight commander. His last special operations flight took place on November 16 to 17, 1943.
The Lysander pilots of 138 (SD) Squadron and 161 (SD) Squadron transported 293 SOE and French agents into Occupied Europe, and recovered nearly 600 more on return flights in the months leading up to the Normandy invasion. Given the extremely hazardous nature of these 400+ daring, nocturnal sorties, it’s amazing that their losses were relatively light.
Only two Lysanders were shot down by enemy antiaircraft gunfire, two more crashed in England in December 1943 due to heavy fog while attempting to land, still more crashed in dense, British fog on other occasions, and several became bogged down in muddy, French fields and had to be burned on the ground to prevent their capture by the Germans. Their last pickup mission was flown on September 5th to 6th, 1944. Overall, only 13 Lysanders (of 40 SDs built) and six pilots were lost during the war from all known causes. The secret agents themselves were less fortunate, with 118 of 418 SOE agents killed, and many more, including Peter Churchill, being captured and tortured.
Lysander Special Duties aircraft were depicted in the 2016 war movie (allegedly based upon a painful, true story), “Allied,” starring Brad Pitt as Royal Canadian Air Force (RCAF) SOE operative Commander Max Vatan, who marries a French double-agent, secretly working for the Germans. In the field, SOE agents were frequently armed with a wide variety of weapons, such as the Colt M1911A1 pistol in .45 ACP, Colt M1903 in .32 ACP, Colt Commando revolver in .38 Special, Spanish Llama VII (a Colt M1911 copy) in .38 ACP, Argentine Ballester-Molina (another M1911A1 copy) in .45 ACP, the British Sten Mk. II submachine gun (prominently used in the film, “Allied”) in 9mm, Walther PPK in .32 ACP, Webley-Scott in .25 ACP or .32 ACP, Welrod suppressed pistol in .32 ACP or 9mm, and the Fairbairn-Sykes fighting dagger, among other selected weapons.
These courageous Lysander SD pilots were the very first special operations aviators in history, flying missions so vitally important that they still remained secret until 30 years after the war was over, to avoid compromising any of the key details. In addition to agent infiltrations and extractions, they were part of an overall operation that supplied literally tens of thousands of weapons and supplies to French Resistance units throughout the war, without which it would have been impossible for them to harass and sabotage the Nazi invaders.
The incredibly daring tasks of these Lysander pilots required undaunted valor and determination, flawless navigation on moonlit nights, and the ability to land on rough, tiny, makeshift airstrips deep behind enemy lines, contributing immeasurably to the overall war effort from the shadowy world of espionage and intrigue.
The author at RAF Tangmere, the Lysander’s main operating base, in April 2017.
Warren Gray is a retired, U.S. Air Force intelligence officer with experience in joint special operations and counterterrorism. He served in Europe, with two American fighter squadrons in Germany, and has also traveled to England, France, and 26 more countries in the course of his military duties. He earned Air Force and Navy parachutist wings, and four college degrees, including a Master of Aeronautical Science degree, and was a distinguished graduate of the Air Force Intelligence Operations Specialist Course, and the USAF Combat Targeting School. He is currently a published author and historian. You may visit his web site at: warrengray54.vistaprintdigital.com.