SOE - astounding feats of skill and daring by RAF pilots

Tangmere's full-sized mockup of the extraction of an SOE agent from France by a Lysander aircraft.

Britain's legendary SOE performed covert operations in Axis occupied countries during the war, supporting resistance movements and carrying out reconnaissance, as well as orchestrating attacks against enemy infrastructure. SOE operations were supported by specialist squadrons of the RAF, whose missions were to drop agents and supplies by parachute into enemy occupied territory. Whilst this was top-secret and dangerous work, far more demanding was the picking up of allied intelligence agents, and members of resistance forces who needed to be evacuated and brought back to the UK for debriefing. Whilst agents could be dropped by parachute, the only way to extract them was to land aircraft behind enemy lines. These missions called on an absolutely extraordinary degree of skill and courage on the part of the pilots.

I'm a Friend of Tangmere Military Aviation Museum in West Sussex, and I have just been down to see the new exhibition on Tangmere and the SOE. Centre stage is a full-size and very convincing replica of a Lysander aircraft, the most commonly used aircraft for pickup missions, and which often flew from Tangmere, given its relative proximity to France.

The accomplishment of RAF pilots in executing these pickup missions is astonishing, and inconceivable in today's world. Operations were normally carried out during moonlit periods. Pilots operating into France had to fly solo three or four hundred miles, in darkness, over enemy territory, navigating by dead reckoning, using a map in one hand and flying the aircraft with the other. The route was checked on the map during the flight with the aid of a small lamp, and the map was folded in such a way to enable the pilot to unfold it with one hand. Having navigated thus all the way from Tangmere to the landing field, the pilot would look for an identification Morse code signal flashed by torch by the ground party. Following successful exchange of recognition signals, the ground party would mark the landing run by lights and, showing incredible faith, courage and skill, the RAF pilots would land the aircraft in the field. Turnaround times on the ground were exceedingly short, often less than five minutes, and a ladder was permanently fixed to the side of the Lysander, to enable agents to board very quickly. Having secured the human cargo, the pilot would then take off again, and fly once more through darkness back to Tangmere.

By the end of the war a total of 279 Lysander operations into French occupied territory had been made, of which 186 were successful; 293 passengers were taken into France and 410 had been flown out. The contribution of these incredibly capable and audacious people to the success of D-Day, and the ultimate capitulation of German forces, was immense.