Last night I returned to the UK after an exhausting three-day visit to France and Belgium. I had been overdue a trip to Flanders, but this one was deliberately organised to coincide with, and take in, an annual ceremony at Verrières, about 25 kilometres south-east of Poitiers, celebrating a little-known WW2 incident that took place on 3rd July 1944, seventy years ago this week.
Operation Bulbasket was a daring SAS operation designed with the intention of assisting the D-Day landings in Normandy on 6th June 1944. The idea was to disrupt reinforcements, including a formidable Panzer division, from moving north to bolster the German attempt to repel the Allied invaders. This the SAS would attempt to do by destroying a range of targets (e.g. railway lines and marshalling yards) and generally making a nuisance of themselves before, hopefully, being ‘picked up’ as and when the Allied advance reached them.
As with many wheezes conceived at times of national emergency, it was an unlikely, hare-brained, probably suicidal, project beset from the outset by enormous organisational complexities – not least the ‘professional’ jealousies between the SAS and the Special Operations Executive (‘SOE’) and those of the different maquis (French Resistance) units in the area – which were eventually overcome by the sheer drive, willpower and enthusiasm of those involved.
It was also carried out against the background of Hitler’s 1942 Kommandobefehl order that insisted upon the summary execution of all captured SAS and commando raiders.
On 3rd June – two days before the intended commencement of D-Day which, as is part of the folklore, was then famously postponed to the 6th because of the weather – the leaders of the chosen SAS team, Captain John Tonkin (aged 23) and 2nd Lieutenant Richard Crisp (aged 20), were taken to Hassells Hall in Bedfordshire. This was where most SOE operatives spent their final hours before being dropped into France from nearby RAF Tempsford – one of them present that day was Violette Szabo, the legendary Carve Her Name With Pride female agent, about to depart upon her next (and final) mission.
On the evening of 5th June – the night before D-Day – an RAF Halifax bomber of ‘B’ Flight, 161 (Special Duties) squadron piloted by 21 year-old Kenneth Tattersall lifted off at 2307 hours with its mission to drop Tonkin and Crisp near St Gaultier.
Over the course of the next few days, a total of nearly fifty SAS and support staff, including radio operators, were deposited in the vicinity of Poitiers to create mayhem. They were also dropped all kinds of ammunition and other supplies, including five jeeps.
Today, of course, the SAS has an enviable reputation as one of the world’s great special forces units. Originated by David Stirling in 1941, it was then just one of a number of ‘private armies’ allowed leeway because the British recognised that certain types of individual had qualities outside the norm, some of them not necessarily sympatico with regular army life. In the SAS’s case, most of its recruits were tough bastards who had a problem with authority. Another of Operation Bulbasket’s four officers was Lieutenant Tomos (‘Tich’) Stephens, a fiery 23 year-old Welshman, of whom more in a moment.
Over the course of June 1944, operating usually in pairs aided by the local maquis, the SAS largely hid away during the day and set about blowing up railways lines at night. These were usually repaired within two or three days but then destroyed again and again. They also called in Mosquito bombing raids on key targets and otherwise tried to blend anonymously into French rural life. For reasons that need not concern us here, against their own rule of staying in small groups operating separately, they began to congregate together at a camp in the Verrières forest.
The Germans found out and, at dawn on 3rd July 1944, surrounded and then laid siege to the forest with about 400 troops. Trapped, the SAS and maquis decided it was a case of every man for himself and they split up into small groups and tried to escape. It was a lottery as to whether any of them had a chance. Stephens and a few maquis tried to cross a road at the south-east corner of the forest. Stephens was killed, the maquis captured and then shot a few minutes later.
Another fifteen SAS men – including Lieutenant Richard Crisp, the number two in command – were subsequently captured. Four days later, at dawn on 7th July, they were also taken out to a field some 30 kilometres south-west of Poitiers and shot.
This week I had travelled separately from, but met up with, members of the Stephens family who were attending this 70th anniversary of the action at Verrières forest.
It was then buried in the family vault of a local family in the communal cemetery. A massive stone memorial to the seven maquisands summarily shot at the south-east corner of the Verrieres forest is erected close to the spot where it happened – one poignant touch is that the memorial includes Lieutenant Stephens’ name along with those of the maquis.
On Thursday this week, as is traditional, the mayor of Verrières and other dignitaries first paid tribute to Tomos Stephens at the family vault in the communal cemetery; then a religious service was conducted in the forest close to the Maquis memorial; and finally a ceremony took place at the memorial itself.
The last of these was attended by a crowd of at least 250 local people. The roads leading to the forest were completely cordoned off. There were representatives and banners from many maquis veteran groups, the British Legion and its American equivalent (one of the SAS group shot dead was an American flyer who had been shot down over France and simply joined in their activities), plus any number of local politicians and departmental officials.
At the conclusion of the ceremony, which including the raising of the French tricolour and British Union Jack and several speeches, a group of local schoolchildren led the assembled in renditions of God Save The Queen, the Marseillaise and the Maquis’ own anthem.
I have to say that the entire event was one of the most impressive of its type that I have ever attended. The people of Verrières take this annual ceremony very seriously. I would not suggest that nothing much happens in this part of the world, but this minor part in the history of WW2 and the occupation of France plainly has great significance for them. As a Brit, and an accessory on the day to the nephews of Tomos Stephens, who were treated as VIPs worthy of great reverence, I found it a deeply humbling and moving experience.
One was a lady known as Meg, a young Verrières girl in 1944 and doyenne of the family which still tends Lieutenant Stephens’s family vault memorial, who spoke her English with a perfect cut glass ‘counties set’ accent. Mostly she sat in a wheelchair, proudly wearing the famous beige beret that the SAS had presented to her long ago.
The other was a gentleman who introduced himself to the Stephens family members after the ceremony. He had been 11 years old in July 1944 and had come upon the scene of the south-east corner of the forest shortly after the 3rd July action had ended. The Germans, who by then were relaxing over a picnic of produce stolen from a local farm, took him to the place on the opposite side of the road to show him the ‘English solider – kaput’ [Stephens had been wounded trying to cross the road and then shot dead as he continued to try and escape]. It was the first dead body the young boy had ever seen. It was eerie for me, so it must have been many times so for the Stephens family members on hand, to be hearing stuff they had never known before about a dead uncle that they had never met.
At one point, I talked to a English lady of about my age who attends the ceremony every year. I happened to remark upon the youth of the SAS involved, most having been in their early 20s. She replied that she had spoken to John Tonkin himself at the 1987 ceremony (he died eight years later) and had commended him and his team upon their extraordinary bravery.
He had responded with words to the effect “It wasn’t really bravery. We were young and it was all a bit of an adventure”.
I think there’s something quite profound in that comment.
At this distance, and being the age I am, I suspect I’d have been an out-and-out coward if I’d been twenty-something when WW2 was on. I’d have probably sought out an easy life in a reserved occupation, if only I could find one so qualified.
On the other hand, extraordinary times bring extraordinary people to the fore.
Furthermore, extraordinary times can also cause some pretty ordinary people to do amazing things. Trying to think of an analogy that might work, I considered my eighteen year-old contemporaries in my last year at public school. If a war had been on and half a dozen of us had been asked to parachute behind enemy lines and go around blowing things up, I guess we might well have done it. That sounds a bit crass, but I think it’s relevant.
With hindsight, Operation Bulbasket has gone down in military history as ill-conceived and a bit of a disaster, affected by unfortunate short-term decisions, bad luck and things beyond anyone’s control.
To an extent that doesn’t do proper justice to those who put their lives on the line to try and carry it out. I suspect that’s partly because, if you’d told them in advance that things would turn out exactly as they did, they’d have gone and done it anyway.