Operation BULBASKET was a Special Air Service action, launched at the time of TITANIC and other SAS actions already discussed in Chapter 3. The SAS were required to co-operate with SOE actions and very largely did so.
The SAS was born in the Western Desert in 1941, the concept of Captain David Stirling, who thus created one of the first so-called ‘Special Forces’. It had proved highly successful and created mayhem in enemy rear areas. The SAS, and David Stirling, quickly became legends and in 1944 they were brought back to England to participate in the invasion of France. Training took place in Ayrshire and the 1st and 2nd SAS Regiments trained alongside their French equivalents. In all, about 2,000 SAS men operated in France.
The 7 October 1942 German Armed Forces report was extended by Hitler in his Kommandobefehl Order of 18 October 1942, so that ‘all... so-called Commando missions... even if they are to all appearances soldiers in uniform... whether armed or unarmed... are to be slaughtered to the last man... No pardon is to be granted to them...’ This order was to have its inevitable consequences for BULBASKET. Indeed, of the one hundred SAS men captured by the Germans only four survived.
A Stirling bomber, probably from Tempsford, dropping supplies at night to operatives in northern France.
The effective, but tragic, BULBASKET Mission and the march north of the Das Reich constitutes the last action site in this Guide.
Landing by parachute on 6 June south west of Châteauroux (Captain Tonkin and Lieutenant Crisp near St-Gautier; Lieutenant Stephens and his main recce party at Bouesse) they were to be occupied with railway interdiction work and the destruction of the vast petrol reserves at Châtellerault, thanks to co-operation with combined RAF Mosquito raids. Essentially, the lines Limoges – Vierzon and Poitiers – Tours were to be denied to Das Reich.
Captain John Tonkin
Lieutenant Richard Crisp
Trooper John Fielding
At Hassels Hall (now Hazel Hall), close to Tempsford secret airfield, on the evening of 5 June 1944, both SAS officers wiled away their time with jigsaw puzzles as they waited for their departure order. They were joined in this activity by two beautiful SOE agents, one of them being Violette Szabo, who would be taking off on her second and final mission.
Their reconnaissance of the Châtellerault petrol trains was conducted by borrowed bicycle, Stephens in a borrowed civilian suit. Maquis training, parachutages, mine laying, patrols using their jeeps armed with Vickers machine guns, were interspersed with periods of enforced inactivity and near chaotic cooperation with the local Maquis, particularly on the dropping zones. By the time of their arrival, Southgate’s STATIONER Circuit had been broken up and the area divided between René Mainguard’s SHIPWRIGHT and Pearl Witherington’s WRESTLER. Jedburgh HUGH, under Captain Crawshay, came in at the same time. Received by Mainguard, who united the Jeds with the SAS, he conducted them to Neuillay-les-Bois where they made contact with Colonel Mirguet, the determined leader of the Indre FFI forces. The final SAS party arrived by 18 June and, together with the Maquis, numbered some one hundred in all. Communication with England was established by carrier pigeons, which flew at a reported speed of 100 kilometres an hour with a favourable wind and took some five hours to reach London.
10 June 1944, Tonkin (left) and Crisp (right) flank Lieutenant Stephens who is dressed in a borrowed suit and about to set out on a reconnaissance of railway rolling stock looking for fuel transporters.
HUGH was the first Jed team dropped into France. It had been very well briefed even to the extent of seeing photographs of the agent who was to receive them and details of the local police and Gestapo. Extremely well supplied, each officer carried 100,000 FF and the Wireless Operator, 50,000 FF. It operated for three and a half months and, between 6 June and 6 July, achieved no less than 500 rail cuts. Pearl Witherington’s WRESTLER Circuit combined with René Mainguard’s SHIPWRIGHT accounted for no fewer than 800 rail cuts, Pearl Witherington (MARIE) having taken over, and run, a Maquis of 2,000 men in Berry.
To concentrate on BULBASKET’s anti-Das Reich activity we move to 12/13 June when Lieutenant Crisp laid mines on the N147 in the Forêt de Défant, well aware of the imminent arrival of more Das Reich units. Just before the forest, stop at the crossing between L’Isle-Jourdain and Bussière-Poitevine. It was here that BULBASKET’s jeeps cut through Das Reich column, an example of ‘Who Dares Wins’ (D107). By 1 July they had relocated at Verrières but the Germans were already closing in, German aircraft even dropping surrender leaflets in the area. Finally, units of the SD, 17th SS Panzergrenadier Division and others moved out of Poitiers and, at dawn on Monday 3 July, launched their attack on the still sleeping SAS and Maquis.
Drive up the N147 and take the D13. To the west of the village of Verrières before entering the forest, let us leave our car and walk the Bulbasket battle route.
In this walk we were guided by the sole surviving AMILCAR Maquisard, Denis Chansigaud (HENRI), whose vivid reconstruction of the battle will enable the visitor to relive BULBASKET. Park beside the fine La Courade memorial near where T W M Stephens and seven Frenchmen met their death. Down the track to your right, towards the Maison de la Chasse where a German HQ had been set up, you will come across a stone marker. This is where the eight prisoners were killed. Look at the two trees behind the stone: they still bear the trace of gun shots. Return to the road and across the road to your left the narrow band of trees, at the time dense with undergrowth, is where Denis Chansigaud hid beneath the bracken after spraying the advancing enemy with machine-gun fire and escaping through the woods to your right.
Ruined house on the N147, Forest of Défant. Crossroads (N147 and D107) where the SAS cut through Das Reich column at night.
It was here he saw Stephens, after surrendering, being bludgeoned to the ground. Gunfire was erupting all around as hundreds of enemy troops swarmed through the trees. One SS soldier stood within a foot or so of him, his eyes searching, searching. He lay hidden for several hours, not moving a muscle. During this time the Germans ate their lunch, casting the shells of their hard boiled eggs into the undergrowth which hid him. Minutes later a squirrel arrived and started eating beside him. He heard the Germans cocking their guns to shoot the squirrel and he knew that if they succeeded they would discover him when they came to retrieve its body. He readied his two grenades, on the principle of ‘taking some with you’. They fired, and missed the squirrel. He never sees a squirrel on his walks but that miraculous escape comes back to him. Later, a German search party came out to comb the area and he remained hidden for another one to two hours. An SS Standartenführer (Colonel) arrived and, after much ‘Heil Hitler’-ing, ordered the torture and execution of six or seven Maquisards on the road. Should he shoot the Colonel? But there were still too many Germans within a yard or two of him. When silence fell he still did not move, knowing that the Germans usually ‘left’ leaving one or two final look-outs hidden on the site.
Eventually he began making his escape in the direction of Verrières. As he edged forward a sudden movement ahead of him brought his heart into his mouth: he had disturbed a hare! He knew to avoid the village and moved cautiously to the lake (Etang des Forges). Here he discovered a woman with two children half submerged in the water, like him evading the Germans. Working his way around the lake he stayed there until nightfall and then set out for the nearest farm. An apprehensive response was only satisfied when he was able to identify a mutual relation by name, although it was well known that such clues were also extracted under torture by the Germans. Buried deep in hay, HENRI only requested water to ease his parched throat. The following morning he returned to the agreed RV to liaise with the other survivors.
Now, return to your car and drive down to the cross-roads ahead. This area was also packed with SS, the whole area being surrounded by some hundreds of Germans and Milice. As you cross the stream, remember that at that time the trees were old and tall and the farm to the left, also invested by SS, could not be seen. Turn right at the cross roads and drive on. At the time this was merely a farm track. Park at the edge of the woods. This was the site of John Fielding’s meeting with the two Frenchmen, ostensibly from another Maquis, who turned out to be informers, probably Milice in civilian clothes. Convinced they were genuine he took them into the camp. Fielding later regretted he had not shot them on the spot.
Denis Chansigaud, of AMILCAR, at the Verrières memorial near where he fought and lay hidden in June 1944.
The bend in the road at Verrières where John Fielding met up with the suspected informers.
Overhanging rock face in the forest where men of the SAS unit slept.
From here walk into the forest on your right. You are soon in the centre of the camp, now marked by a small cross on a tree. The ground is undulating and, on your right, a rocky outcrop overlooks the valley. It was here the fighting began, the Germans advancing from the north. Knowing every dip and cranny the SAS and Maquis were able to eliminate many of the enemy but were forced by overwhelming numbers to retreat. HENRI described Captain Tonkin’s cool direction of the battle and the stunning rapidity of the attack and defence. Camouflaged and steel-helmeted SS were blasting their way through the trees while machine-gun fire from the encircling units kept the SAS trapped. Finally, thirty-one men belonging to Operation BULBASKET were captured and, their hands manacled, were taken away.
Memorial on tree at the site of the SAS camp.
Capture and Execution
We now leave Verrières and follow these SAS men to their place of execution in the Forest of St Sauvant. Take the D13 west to Gençay (noting monuments along the route) and the D2 to Couhé. At Couhé turn north on the D7 and left at Montmatin onto the D29 for the forest itself. Left again at the sign Stele des Fusillés and down a forest track to the monument. The granite for the monument is said to have come from England. Here we were guided by M Gerard Daguet, who was ten years old at the time, and heard gunshots while working on his parents’ farm at La Chevraise. Walk behind the monument up the original forest path and you will come across three stone markers commemorating the actual grave sites dug hastily by the Germans after their crime de guerre. We asked why the SAS had been brought so far from Verrières? ‘They wanted to hide their crimes’ M Daguet answered. (We had heard the same thing said of Oradour: the Germans had imposed a total news ban even forbidding the Bishop of Limoges to say a Mass for the victims, although this was permitted five days later, as was a service in he Protestant church. This was as a result of the emphatic insistence of the Bishop.)
SAS Monument in the Forest of St Sauvant.
John Fielding in Rom Communal Cemetery with the line of SAS graves.
Resistance memorials at Vaugeton.
Some hunters, allowed for the first time since the war began to go after sanglier (wild boar) in the forest in December 1944, noticed some cut down saplings and disturbed earth. The crime was uncovered. Exhumed and reburied in Rom Communal Cemetery the twenty-nine SAS and the American pilot Lincoln Bundy were awarded full military honours. Over at Vaugeton, (D7 northeast of the St Sauvant Forest) two memorials commemorate the local dead on a site which, when discovered, was ‘a sea of blood’.
For your final visit, and for the point at which we abandon Das Reich to the full attention of the RAF as it moved out of Resistance country and into the open beyond Poitiers, we work our way deeper into the forest.
Return to the D96 and cut across to Le Parc. Drive into the Forest by the Information Centre. If hunting and shooting is in progress stay in your car, but even then proceed with caution. On other days you can park and cover the ground on foot. Continue until you turn left up a rutted track marked La Braderie. Twisting through the trees you will come to an abandoned village.
In 1941 the ten or twelve inhabitants left it, fearing its isolation and the depradations of the enemy. Taken over by the Maquis it was used as a forest camp, their arms being hidden in the bread oven. This cache, still visible, was never discovered. Then, on 27 June 1944, as part of a punitive sweep by 2,000 Germans and Milice, the village was searched and set on fire. Several Maquisards, trapped in the buildings, died, two being drowned, as at Oradour, in the village well.
Ruins of La Braderie. The well in the foreground was used by the Germans to throw bound victims.
Captured Resistance fighters about to be executed. Examples of the treatment meted out by the Germans all over France to both those who took up arms against them and innocent civilians taken hostage.
Recovery of the bodies of Resistance fighters from wells where they had been thrown to drown by the enemy. A killing technique used at Oradour-sur-Glane, La Braderie and elsewhere.
La Braderie, showing the bread oven used as an arms cache.
Hidden in its silent, forest fastness La Braderie is a fitting, final point on our pilgrimage through war-time France. Birds now sing in the forest and the hunters gather to chat and reminisce. The Anglo-French memories remain. Of the SS, Wehrmacht and Milice there is no sign.
Dates: March – September 1944
Principal Departments: HAUTE VIENNE, CREUSE and
Run by the Mayer brothers, Percy and Edmund (BARTHELEMY and MAURICE respectively) they had parachuted in on 7 March 1944, in the Lot. They were followed, on 22 March, by Paddy O’Sullivan (SIMONET) as wireless operator. Paddy O’Sullivan was received by Gaston Collin who told me that, shaken and bruised on landing with a malfunctioning parachute, she attributed her survival to the bundles of French banknotes wrapped around her. Paddy was, he said, an explosive mixture of Irish and Breton blood, attractive and high spirited. She had once thrown a chair at her SOE instructor. Only partially trained, this twenty six year old girl transmitted 332 messages over a seven month period in spite of suffering from chronic bronchitis. Her understanding of security was nil, ‘constantly losing and running after bits of paper and tearing up messages which had either been or not been transmitted’. She could not even ride a bicycle. The luck of the Irish saw her through and she was, in her chief’s words: ‘a first class W/T and all the credit for that was entirely due to herself’. FIREMAN was a liaison Circuit with the VENY groups involved in arms supply, sabotage and guerilla training. They saw effective action against Das Reich and, at the end, received this citation from Colonel FRANÇOIS of the MUR: ‘Let me tell you how grateful I am for the actions you carried out . . . We owe to you the Military Organisation of this Sector; we owe to you the not inconsiderable results which have been achieved there. I shall never forget what the Creuse owes to you’.
Percy Mayer was awarded the OBE and MC, his brother Edmund the MBE. Paddy O’Sullivan received the MBE and the Croix de guerre avec palme.
Award of decorations to Allied SOE and OSS operatives at Limoges, 17 September 1944, by Colonel Rousselier (RIVIER). Left to right: Maureen O’Sullivan, radio operator of network FIREMAN; Major Blomfield of the SOE; Major Shannon (JACK) of the OSS and Major Staunton, chief of network SALESMAN.
A bullock-drawn cart being loaded with a container, the usual method used by Resistants for retrieving arms and supplies.
Dates: May 1944 – September 1944
Principal Departments: CREUSE, ALLIER, INDRE, VIENNE
and HAUTE VIENNE.
Following Southgate’s arrest 1 May 1944, at Montluçon, Roger Mainguard (SAMUEL) took command of the STATIONER Circuit which he divided into three sectors. His new SHIPWRIGHT Circuit included Jacques Hirsch (ARTHUR) who established contact with SURCOUF, Chief of the Armée Secrète in Indre and ELLIPSE (Eugene Dechelette) the DM of Region 5. Mainguard was acknowledged by the French as an outstanding agent: a few days after D-Day he had over 5,000 men under his direct command. By August of 1944 he had 5,000 in Vienne; 3,000 in Haute Vienne; 2,000 in Deux-Sévres; and 2,000 in the Vendée ready for arms. Other agents working with SAMUEL included Lieutenant Dane, a weapons and Dakota expert; Lieutenant Wallace and two Americans, Lieutenants Blackwell and MacCarthy.
He was awarded the DSO and the Croix de Guerre avec Palmes by General Köenig.
Dates: May 1944 – October 1944
Principal Departments: NORTH INDRE and PUY de DÔME.
Pearl Witherington (MARIE) took over on 1 May to run the Northern Indre sector of the old STATIONER Circuit which she had worked with since September 1943. She had already made contact with ANASTASIE (Jacques Dufour) and was involved in sabotage operations in Salon-la-Tour. When the German and Vichy French troops encircled Montluçon she decided to break through the cordon which she succeeded in doing in company with Henri Charles Cornioley (her future husband). She then organised her Circuit in four sections and coordinated groups of Maquis at the Château des Souches near Dun-le-Poëlier to the west of Vierzon. In a ten hour battle (11 June 1944) the Germans lost eighty-six killed and 200 wounded, the Maquis twenty-four but the attack had disorganised the Maquis and a new start had to be made. To co-operate with the French Army she had to bring in two French officers, with whom she worked in complete harmony until the Liberation. MARIE organised over 23 extremely difficult and vital parachute drops. In August her 800 strong sub-sector under COMPTE was surrounded by some 4,000 to 6,000 Germans. The battle was extremely violent, the Germans losing 180 killed and 300 wounded against COMPTE’s total loss of twenty-two.
Congratulated by General Eisenhower for reporting the movement of sixty German armoured trains on their way to Normandy at the time of the Allied landings in Normandy, Pearl Witherington was awarded the MBE and Croix de Guerre avec Palmes and later presented to HM The Queen.
The air above northern France was alive with Allied aircraft making all movement by the German forces a dangerous undertaking. Hawker Typhoon with D-Day livery. This 75mm StuG III resembles a moving bush and any air activity would cause its crew to stop immediately.