Sunday, June 5, 2016

The Bomber that Delivered the Heydrich Assassins

I've been posting a lot lately about the anniversary of the assassination of Nazi Security Office head and Reichsprotektor of Bohemia and Moravia Reinhard Heydrich by Czechoslovak paratroopers. But I haven't mentioned how they got from England to their homeland. They were dropped by a Handley Page Halifax (1 , 2) of the Special Operations Executive (SOE)--the British clandestine warfare group equivalent to the American OSS--piloted by Flight Lieutenant Ron Hockey.

The same issue of the Illustrated London News that reported briefly on the assassination contained a three-page feature on the manufacturing of the Halifax, one of the RAF's two heavy bombers at the time, which entered service in late 1940. It explains with pride, "This notable aircraft carries a heavier bomb-load over a greater distance than any other aeroplane in the world on active service to-day."

The emphasis, though, is on the innovative design and production technique. That the machine was constructed of 24 major components simplified manufacture ("more people on each stage of the job") as well as "transport and repair ." The latter point was a crucial one.

in the field, as well. Hockey called the Halifax "a sturdy aircraft with enough redundant structure to keep it flying if damaged in action . . . also good for servicing repair, with the structure subdivided for component replacement." He contrasted this with the American Liberator (the most widely produced bomber of the war), which it resembled, but which was made in a single unit and therefore had to be disassembled rivet by rivet.

The robustness of the Halifax proved crucial to the SOE missions carried out by Special Duties Squadron 138. At first, the RAF was understandably focused on its strategic role of heavy bombing and thus reluctant to give the unit top-of-the-line aircraft. Initial runs over Poland and Czechoslovakia involved two-engine Whitleys, with limited range and payload; airmen denounced them as "flying coffins." Hockey called Czechoslovakia "Undoubtedly the most difficult country in which we operated . . . a long flight, all over enemy territory, much high ground . . . flights only in the winter to benefit from the long nights, so terrain was often snowbound, and no reception facilities." In October 1941, the RAF finally gave Special Duties Squadrom 138 three Mark I and II Halifaxes, though they had to be modified for paratroop use through the addition of a hatch in the floor. They first saw use at the end of December when Hockey's plane, the NF-V  L9613, delivered three Czechoslovak jump teams to Bohemia. The flight was plagued by problems, and because heavy snow made it impossible to spot the intended landmarks, the two assassins were simply dropped east of Plzeň, after which they were on their own.

senior officers and staff at RAF Tempsford, Bedfordshire.
front right: Wing Commander R C Hockey, Officer Commanding No. 138
(Special Duties) Squadron RAF [Imperial War Museum Photo © IWM (HU 54484) ]

Ron C. Hockey was the only member of the aircraft's crew to survive the war. He was one of a number of distinguished RAF veterans to sign this commemorative large-format bookplate for copies of Keith A. Merrick's 1990 book on the Halifax at the Royal Air Force Museum.

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