Operation Bulbasket

The men of B Squadron, 1 SAS, who saw action during Operation Bulbasket probably maintained more former Auxiliary Units men than any other. Those with Auxiliary Units links are listed below, with at least 18 of the 45 SAS men having served in Auxiliary Units, with an RAMC medic and 2 SAS signallers as well. They were supported by a 5 strong party of Phantom signallers providing long range communications.

Operation Bulbasket involved dropping A troop of B Squadron, 1 SAS into the middle of France, the countryside around Poitiers situated 200 miles behind the landing beaches in Normandy. Their purpose was to delay the German reinforcements moving up from the south of France. The advance party dropped on June 6th 1944, followed by further drops on the nights of 7th, 10th and 11th June, with a further drop with 4 jeeps and 4 men on the night of 17th June. They operated just to the south of the demarcation line, which had marked the border between occupied France in the north and Vichy controlled France in the south. Though the Germans had moved into Vichy controlled France in November 1942, after the Allied landings in North Africa, this area was never as heavily garrisoned by the Germans as the north. There were troops in the main towns, but not in the smaller towns or villages.

When the officers of the advance party arrived, commander Captain John Tonkin, in liaison with local SOE F Section chief Capt Maingard, agreed that the SAS would be most useful working in conjunction with the local Maquis, who could provide guides and access to local supplies. They were tasked with attacking the railways heading north. This would require multiple attacks as the Germans made every effort to repair the line each time it was cut. To avoid dividing the force, Capt. Tonkin agreed the Maquis would attack “Lot 1”, the most easterly line from Limoges to Chateauroux, while the SAS concentrated on “Lot 2”, the line between Angouleme and Poitiers. Reinforcements brought a further target, “Lot 4”, the line from Niort northwards through Parthenay. The two parties dropped to attack these directly consisted almost entirely of former Auxiliers, mostly from the Dorset Regiment Scout Section, who had joined en masse. One group under Lt Peter Weaver successfully attacked the line and then trekked for days to the camp of the main force. The other was dropped off target and landed in the village of Airvault, literally among the German defenders. While Corporal Kinnivane, Trooper Joe Ogg and Trooper Sam Pascoe all managed to escape individually, Trooper George Biffin was captured. He would avoid an attempt by the Germans to trick him into being shot while escaping, be seriously injured by Allied air attack, have to work in salt mines and then take part in a “death march” across Europe at the end of the war.

The various groups all met up in a camp in the forest at Verrieres, southeast of Poitiers. They were helped by a dozen Maquis. From here the more experienced men were sent out on sabotage missions, though Captain Tonkin and senior NCO Sergeant Johnny Holmes were reluctant to use the untested new recruits from Auxiliary Units, even though some, like the Lot 4 parties, had already proved themselves. They were visited in the woods by girls from the village, who enjoyed dancing to music on the radio, which also received the coded messages put out by the BBC. The Phantom party stayed some way away with a few of the SAS men, its commander, Captain John Sadoine, feeling that the SAS men were attracting too much attention. Two SAS NCOs, Sergeant Eccles and Corporal Bateman were captured on a sabotage operation on the night of 28th June and interrogated. Following standard protocol, the SAS camp was moved, but finding a camp with an adequate water supply for the party proved very difficult, so when the Germans appeared not have extracted the knowledge of the camp from their comrades, they returned to Verrieres temporarily on 2nd July, while a better site was sought.

At dawn on 3rd July 1944, the Germans attacked the camp, having surrounded it during the night. Trooper John Fielding, formerly member of a Norwich Auxiliary Units patrol, had been concerned about a Frenchman, supposedly a Maquis from another group, who had approached the camp, but his identity had been confirmed and he was released before the attack. But John always regretted not having shot him. Had he been confirming the presence of the camp? Surrounded and outnumbered, the SAS fought back, but soon realised they had to make a run for it. But Lt TWM Stephens was shot at the scene, along with the 7 Maquis captured. 31 others were captured, along with Lt Lincoln Bundy, a USAAF airman, who had been shot down in Normandy and was being helped to escape to Spain. Three of them were injured and taken to hospital, the rest joined Eccles and Bateman in a German prison. Captain Tonkin stayed behind and set time pencils in the supplies. These would later detonate apparently killing a number of Germans. Their jeeps would be divided as trophies among the attacking units.

On 7th July 1944, the SAS prisoners were taken in lorries to the forest of St Sauvant near the village of Rom. They were to be shot according to the infamous Commando order, issued by Hitler, that all troops captured behind the lines on commando or parachute operations should be shot without trial, rather than treated as prisoners of war. The men were executed and their bodies were buried in three mass graves that had already been dug. With them was the American pilot, Lt Bundy, and pleas from the SAS men to spare him fell on deaf ears. The three men in hospital were removed and after a spell of mistreatment in a civilian prison are thought to have been executed by lethal injection.

The survivors regrouped at their rendezvous. They might have been forgiven for trying to leave as quickly as possible, but instead continued further operations. They identified the barracks at Bonneuil-Matours used by the attacking troops and arranged a deadly napalm attack which killed many and resulted in the evacuation of the site. A further attack on the barracks at Poitiers followed, with coordinates supplied by the Bulbasket men. The Maquis brought further USAAF aircrew evaders to them, one of them, Lt. Flamm Harper, even taking part in sabotage operations. Using the Phantom signallers to re-establish communications with the UK, they arranged further drops of supplies. Also dropped to them was Lt. Surrey-Dane, an expert in airstrip preparation. He guided the construction of “Bonbon”, a grass airstrip, with SAS, Phantom, USAAF and Maquis all helping. Trooper Alec McNair proved particularly valuable, being from a large farming family, most of whom were in one of the Auxiliary Units patrols in north east Essex, as he had been. His knowledge with the harrow, towed behind the one surviving jeep, which had been out on a mission when the attack came, ensured the field could be flattened enough for two RAF Hudson aircraft to land on the night of 7th August 1944. However, there wasn’t enough space for everyone and a further landing at this strip by a USAAF C47 (known to the British as a Dakota), was needed to evacuate the last of the aircrew and remaining Phantom signallers and Lt. Surrey Dane. It brought their replacements from the French SAS, to take over under the title of Operation Moses.

It was not until after the German occupation was over that hunters discovered the mass graves. The bodies were exhumed and autopsies revealed their violent death and the absence of identity tags, removed by the Germans to try to cover up their crime. However, using personal items and dental records, it was clear that some could be positively identified as the Bulbasket party, and the number of bodies matched the missing men. Only the three men removed from hospital could not be found and they have no known grave to this day. The others were buried nearby in Rom, in a corner of the municipal cemetery, adopted by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission. Because the body of Lt. Bundy could not be positively identified, he remains buried alongside the SAS men, a rare exception to the normal US practice of reburying their dead in the single huge cemetery in Normandy. A number of German officers were tried for this War Crime after extensive investigations, but those convicted in 1947 were all released by 1952. The officer who insisted Hitler’s order be carried out by the local forces was never even tried.

References

SAS Operation Bulbasket, Paul McCue

1944, Le Special Air Service en Poitou, Christian Richard

Christian Richard

Jo Burri-Weaver

George and Mark Biffin

Philip and Mary Ashley