Category Archives: Warfare

Special Bulletin: ‘The Airmen Who Died Twice’ – Part 4

Peder Furubotn

[I present the final segment in my series ‘The Airmen Who Died Twice’, offering a bold but confident hypothesis concerning Stalin’s objectives for the mission of sending agents to Norway disguised as British RAF officers. I have added a page containing the whole report in PDF format at ‘Airmen Who Died Twice’ (PDF), which may make the experience easier. This process is something of an experiment for me. I hope to improve the presentation soon. Feedback and tips appreciated!]

Chapter 7: Resistance in Norway

The overwhelming questions to be answered regarding the Soviet Union’s ability to stow two agents on a British plane, dressed in RAF uniforms, to parachute into southern Norway in September 1944 are: What possible objective could such a mission have had? And why would the RAF agree to such a foolhardy and potentially embarrassing adventure? The assumption must be that, for the mission to be successful, the agents, probably incapable of speaking fluent and unaccented English, would have been deemed capable of carrying out the impersonation of legitimate British officers, and thus of gaining access to the circle of a communist leader in whom Joseph Stalin had a particular interest. His name was Peder Furubotn, and he had for some time been incurring Stalin’s acute displeasure. Yet, if anything went wrong – or, equally astounding, even if the project were successful – the agents’ costume would immediately have implicated the RAF, with highly embarrassing implications.

In the analysis of these conundrums, it is useful to recapitulate the role of Norway in the war, its occupation by German forces, the collaboration or competition between various sabotage organizations and the nation’s governments at home and in exile, and the tenuous and contradictory relationship it held with the Soviet Union, a nominal ally. Norway was separated from Stalin’s fortress only by a thin section of the Finnish Petsamo region, an area rich in minerals, however, and thus bearing strategic importance.

The country had been ill-equipped to resist the German invasion of April 9, 1940. Hitler had designs on Norway’s natural resources, including its hydro-electric power, but he also needed to control the flow of iron-ore from neutral Sweden across the natural land-route. Great Britain and France had been aware of the threat, and they had prepared to send an Expeditionary Force to gain control of the valuable port of Narvik. This was conceived during the war between Finland and the Soviet Union, which started in September 1939. At that time, Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union were signatories to a joint non-aggression pact, and control of Finland had been granted to Stalin for purposes of national self-defence. Any communist-inspired resistance movements against the Germans were forbidden – until, of course, the Barbarossa invasion of Russia in June 1941 changed all the rules.

Britain in fact had had to beat a hasty retreat, assisting with the escape of the Norwegian royal family to London to create a government-in-exile in June 1940. It had overestimated the power of its own navy and misread the intentions of the Wehrmacht. Thus Norway fell into the category of occupied territory, and a cowed population had to decide what form resistance to the German invaders should take. In fact, the Nazis were overall more indulgent with the Norwegians than they were with other conquered nations: they regarded the Nordic race as Aryan brothers, and hoped to integrate the populace into the New Order when the war was won. That favouritism, however, did not extend to mercy when violence was exacted against their police and military forces, with some harsh reprisals enacted, and this tension played a major role in the following years.

Routes of Arctic Convoys

Soon after Barbarossa, however, Norway took on fresh significance when Churchill and Roosevelt resolved, in August 1941, to assist the Soviet Union by sending supplies through the Arctic convoy system. This required ships to navigate the dangerous Norwegian and Barents seas to reach, primarily, the ports of Murmansk and Archangel, skirting the northern coasts of Norway, and thus becoming potential prey to German craft berthed in Norwegian ports and inlets, such as the battleship Tirpitz. The convoys continued (with some interruptions) until the end of the war. Stalin kept a close eye on Norway, and he evolved his strategy as the war progressed.

The accounts of resistance in Norway present a contradictory picture: some display ignorance, others practice concealment, and others distort (for political reasons). It is consequently often difficult to pin down the details of events – both their motivations and their outcomes. It seems to me that both London (in the guise of the government-in-exile and SOE) and Moscow (the NKGB) believed that they were controlling the strings, when in fact the agencies on the ground often pursued unlikely alliances to further their goals. I here try to concentrate on the less controversial facts, identifying the main motifs in the plotline.

The British Special Operations Executive trained and prepared a vigorous Norwegian section to carry out sabotage within Norway, which became more intense when the British suspected the Nazis of creating ‘heavy water’ as an important part of the project to build an atomic bomb. Yet fierce reprisals in response to SOE raids alarmed the major resistance organization in place, Milorg, and it resolved instead on a more passive approach, and to focus on preparation to assist invading forces for the time when the Nazis began to lose the war. Milorg was led by a lawyer, Jens Hauge, an enigmatic and controversial figure, who had sought a medical discharge from military service in 1939. He joined in early 1942. The tensions between SOE and Milorg were then resolved by the creation of the Anglo-Norwegian Collaboration Committee in the spring of 1942, and SOE’s independent course was officially halted by October of that year. Yet Milorg did not halt its own sabotage activities, and it pursued a course of assassinations of known traitors.

There was, however, another resistance group, Osvald, which evolved out of the pre-war antifascist Wollweber League, and was led by the more aggressive Asbjorn Sunde. He invoked the assistance of the Communist Party (now strictly underground), and established training centres around the country. Sunde was a tougher character, a sailor who had learned sabotage and assassination in the Spanish Civil War fighting with the Communists for the Republican movement against Franco’s Nationalists, and he was a loyal Stalinist. Thus a pattern familiar elsewhere in occupied Europe emerged: certain resistance groups were set on restoring the pre-war political configuration (such as SOE collaborating with the royalist/social democratic government-in-exile), while others were being directed by Moscow in preparation for a post-war communist takeover. Sunde was ordered to minimize sabotage activity, and to concentrate instead on providing intelligence to his NKGB bosses. Yet the relationships appear to have been very complex: the government-in-exile sometimes gave directions to the Stalinist Osvald group on sabotage projects, and it appears that even Milorg collaborated with it, engaging Sunde’s hitmen to carry out its targeted assassinations.

Added to this recipe was the afore-mentioned Peder Furubotn, leader of the Communist Party in Norway. Furubotn’s organizational skills and connections allowed him to sponsor resistance groups in Oslo, Bergen, and Hallingdal. He was also a controversial figure, known for his independence of thought: he was an outlier, a provincial, with his power-base in Bergen away from the capital centre of Oslo. But he was also a dedicated patriot who desired to bring a domestic Communist regime to Norway after the war through democratic processes, not under the thrall of the Soviet Union (rather like an unauthoritarian Tito). He had in fact spent the years 1930-1938 in Moscow, an experience that included the witnessing of the Great Purge and the execution of some of his friends, which assuredly made him deviate from the solid Stalinist line he had taken up in the 1920s.

Professor Titlestad

According to his biographer, Professor Torgrim Titlestad, who has uniquely been able to inspect Russian archives, Furubotn had long been under the threat of execution, since in Moscow he had aligned himself closely with Bukharin, the executed ‘traitor’, and had refused to declare his public support for the outcome of the show-trials in 1938. Before Barbarossa, the Norwegian Communist party had tried to have Furubotn, who had from Bergen independently undertaken resistance in that period, removed from the Party, but the tables were turned when the Soviet Union became an enemy of the Nazi occupiers. At the time most other important Norwegian communists had either been killed, were in the hands of the Germans, or were refugees in Sweden, and Furubotn was elected General Secretary at the end of 1941. This was in defiance of Stalin’s orders of 1938 (when Furubotn was banished back to Norway from Moscow), that he should hold no senior position in the Party.

Furubotn was able to work independently for many years. He was a survivor. In spite of frequent unsuccessful attempts to bring him in line, during the war Moscow lacked local resources or the military reach to change his behaviour, or to remove him from office. At first glance, the need to have him out of the picture should have appeared less urgent as the war progressed, since Norway (apart from the strategic Petsamo region) did not feature strongly in Stalin’s plans for territorial control of Europe. It was not a conventional ‘buffer state’, hardly a threat to his ambitions, and Stalin accepted that it was part of the ‘western’ sphere of influence. The Soviet dictator did not want to waste resources in trying to control it, although he supported British-American desires to prevent valuable troops from being transferred from Norway to the battle zones in Germany, and he did collaborate with the British and Americans in the plan to oust the Nazis from the Finnmark (the North-east Norwegian territory abutting the Soviet Union).

Sunde’s Osvald group – perhaps surprisingly, given Sunde’s Stalinist aims – gained his funds primarily from the government-in-exile in London, supplemented occasionally by Moscow (through the agency of the Soviet legation in Stockholm, as the VENONA transcripts show). Yet Sunde looked to his rival, Furubotn, for funds, too. In September 1942 he agreed to supply guards at Furubotn’s central camp of the Norwegian Communist Party (NKP) in Hemsedal, in exchange for a continuing supply of money and materiel from the NKP leader. Furubotn had tried to make Sunde sabotage-leader for the NKP, but on the condition that he break his ties with Moscow – something Sunde refused to do, which strained the relationship, and led to severe friction by the end of 1943. Sunde established a training centre in Rukkekdalen in the winter of 1942, and recruited a network of saboteurs in the Torpo-Gol and Nesbyen areas, in the Hallingdal valley. This was the same area used by Milorg to establish its ‘Elg’ base in the early summer of 1944.

Reichskommissar Terboven

Yet the decreasing effectiveness of sabotage, and the costs of maintaining the subversive units, prompted a change of plan. By February 1944, Milorg, alongside the Foreign Office, SOE, and the OSS, had openly disparaged the Communist sabotage efforts, and had applied pressure on Osvald to reduce its aid for Furubotn. The feud between Sunde and Furubotn (which had sharpened when Furubotn had threatened to kill Sunde if he followed through on a plan to assassinate the Nazi Commissar Terboven) intensified. A month later, Sunde did indeed withdraw protection for Furubotn and his network, and he turned his attention to Norwegian exile groups in Sweden. The British increased their operations in support of eventually ousting the Germans: Operation FIRECREST was launched by sea in April 1944, a four-man team landing and then starting to give weapons training. In May, Moscow, through Pavel Sudoplatov (of Special Tasks), ordered Sunde to wind up his organization, and refrain from any further sabotage, Stalin explicitly admitting that the British were in charge in southern Norway, and that the theatre was too far away from Moscow for it to exert any influence. In June, however, Sunde’s network, including Furubotn’s group, came under fresh attack from the Gestapo and the Wehrmacht in Operation ALMENRAUSCH.

Furubotn did not respond well to these moves, and he was increasingly isolated: he had enemies in Hauge and Sunde already, but now, with his autonomous subversion efforts, became an irritant to the British to compound the enmity to him maintained by Stalin. That may have been a fresh pretext for Stalin to want to have him eliminated – as a proven ‘Trotskyist’ defying the policy of the vozhd – and a move against him could represent a useful gesture to his allies. Furubotn had incurred Stalin’s anger by defying his order to stay out of the Party organization when he had returned to Norway, by executing subversive campaigns during the period of the Nazi-Soviet pact (which he had openly criticized), by refusing orders to move to Sweden (where he feared he might be killed), by expressing support for the Norwegian government-in-exile in London, for attempting to wean Sunde away from the NKGB, and for openly publishing anti-Stalinist tracts in the summer of 1944. Others had been killed for less, and Furubotn believed that attempts would be made on his life on his home territory. Professor Titlestad has suggested that Moscow may have recommended to Sunde that he remove his security details from Furubuton’s hideout, thus perhaps allowing the Gestapo to infiltrate the NKP, and to take on the task of eliminating Furubotn. Yet Furubotn had escaped the ALMENRAUSCH assault, despite Sunde’s apparent betrayal, and may thereby have come afresh in Stalin’s sights.

The circumstances of the ALMENRAUSCH operation are puzzling. If a sizeable force assembled by the Wehrmacht with the help of the State Police (the Statspolitiet) did in fact conduct a punitive operation against Norwegian resistance forces (including Milorg, and the two factions of the KPN) on June 13, 1944, it is astonishing how little loss of life there was. The Wikipedia entry (the only account in English, I believe) at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Operation_Almenrausch indicates that a force of eight-hundred was deployed, but that the operation was largely unsuccessful, even though it attacked a ‘secret’ hideout. Eight communists were arrested, but only one was executed. That does not sound like a typical Nazi response. Professor Titlestad explains it as a combination of the Nazis not wanting to kill a large number of fellow-Aryans, as well as a degree of nervousness about the chances of survival of the members of this punitive force in a hostile rural region. Yet the Professor also writes that Furubotn had been the Gestapo’s most wanted man, and that it had tortured and killed Norwegians in an attempt to track him down. The decisive outcome for Stalin, however, was that, in July 1944, Furubotn was still alive.

If an agreement solely for the infiltration by air by NKGB agents to Furubotn’s camp, without any explicit goal of assassination, did take place between Stalin and Churchill (which must be the least alarming hypothesis), it occurred at a time when relationships between Great Britain and the Soviet Union were rapidly deteriorating. SOE had grown frustrated with the lack of co-operation in Moscow, and the Foreign Office was infuriated by Stalin’s abuse of its Military Mission there. The Warsaw Uprising, when Stalin refused to allow Allied planes to refuel on Soviet territory, and the Red Army watched what was happening from across the Vistula, contributed to the discord. In addition, the pressure on the War Cabinet to return to the Soviet Union all POWs they had been liberating, and the lack of co-operation from the Russians over the efforts to attack the Tirpitz, conspired largely to an atmosphere of utter distrust. On August 18, Foreign Office Permanent Secretary Orme Sargent even declared that the Soviet Union was the future Enemy Number 1.

What is certain that some intense discussions took place in London towards the end of August, with Milorg’s chief, Hauge, visiting for four weeks, having been authorized to use the ‘bearing ball’ run by Mosquito from Stockholm to Leuchars. One outcome of that visit was that Milorg now became known as ‘Home Forces’. According to one account, sensing that victory was in sight, the ANCC in January had authorized the provision of a large amount of weaponry to Milorg, and in June SHAEF (now having taken charge of SOE projects) approved of attacks on Nazi industries and lines of communication. Professor Færøy, on the other hand, has stated very confidently that these increased shipments did not take place until ‘the autumn’. The scope of military coordination debated then included measures to counter German scorched earth policy, the capture of Gestapo documents, the destruction of the Gestapo HQ in Oslo and (perhaps most provocatively) a list of agreed assassination targets. Hauge’s meetings in Britain to determine these policies were held at senior level with the Norwegian Government in exile, with Special Forces Headquarters, with the Anglo-Norwegian Collaboration Committee, and with Viscount Selborne, the Minister of Economic Warfare in London, as well as with General Thorne in Edinburgh. Thorne was responsible for the deception plan of FORTITUDE NORTH, as well as for the preparation for the liberation of Norway. Yet, because of the sensitivity of the conspiracy, it is hard not to conclude that the meetings in the United Kingdom must have been entirely coincidental to the plot against Furubotn.

More reliable wireless communications were now being established between SOE and Milorg, and, in Operation GOLDEN EAGLE, two more agents were dropped directly in the Hallingdal area on August 28, to help establish the Elg base with improved radio contact, and to enable preparation for further intensive and frequent drops of supplies over the following months. And then, as Britain started to consolidate its hold over subversive operations in southern Norway, in early September 1944 the very sudden and highly momentous intelligence arrived that Stalin had approved the launching of attacks on the Tirpitz from Soviet territory, which caused a sudden flurry of changes to the PARAVANE project.

Whether the planned assassination of Furubotn (which is posited here as the motivation for the infiltration into southern Norway of Stalin’s agents) was related to the permission Stalin gave for British bombers to fly from Soviet airfields is probably unverifiable. The British must have had something important to gain from the arrangement, but any decision taken must have occurred at the highest levels of command. It is possible that Churchill did not know what Stalin’s precise plan for his agents was, but his agreement in allowing them to assume the identities of live RAF officers is extremely incriminating. If any knowledge of the details of the conspiracy did exist, it must surely have been restricted to Churchill and Gubbins, the head of SOE. SOE/MI6 had a direct – but highly insecure –  line to Moscow through its representative George Hill, who was on good terms with Stalin, so negotiations could have been carried on through that medium. The relevant archival material shows some intense exchanges between London and Moscow in August and early September of 1944, but nothing obviously attributable to the Furubotn plot.

As for the RAF, it would obviously have known that it was being ordered to mount a highly irregular operation, but the leaders (i.e. Portal, Harris, Cochrane, McMullen, and Bottomley at the Air Ministry) would not have been aware that the objective of the mission was in fact assassination. They were probably informed that the subterfuge was simply part of an extended PICKAXE operation (i.e. one in a series of co-operative ventures between SOE and the NKGB), where Soviet agents had to be infiltrated in disguise in order that they would be welcomed properly by Hauge’s Milorg network. They would not have known that Sunde (probably) would then lead the twosome to Furubotn’s lair.

Stalin and Churchill

On the other hand, it was a low-risk undertaking for Stalin: he did not care about the fate of agents sent abroad on sabotage missions; their lives were expendable, and, since they would be wearing RAF uniforms, it would be difficult to trace anything to him, in any case. But for the British, it was a highly dangerous operation, involving deceit, not just with RAF crewmen, but with the Norwegian government, who, if its members learned of the plot, would not have taken kindly to the phenomenon of murder missions by foreign Communist infiltrators being abetted by their close wartime ally. Even if the mission had been successful, and the perpetrators had in some way been removed without their masquerade being detected, word might have leaked out, because of the packed Lancaster, the airmen who made it back safely, and the knowledge of the impersonated officers returning home. But if it failed – and in such a disastrous and spectacular fashion, as it did – the repercussions could have been tragic and far-reaching. Yet the destruction of the plane, and all inside it, managed to impose an eighty-year silence that has succeeded in exculpating all the perpetrators.

[I thank Professors Titlestad and Færøy for their advice on this chapter. The opinions represented here are of course my own, and I likewise take responsibility for any errors. coldspur]

Chapter 8: Conclusions

No documentation to prove that Churchill and Stalin conspired to launch the operation to Hallingdal has appeared, and it probably never will. Yet such a decision, to have NKGB agents dressed up in the uniforms of living RAF officers, and be equipped with their ID-tags, can have been authorized only at the very top. It was assuredly not an SOE operation (although SOE radios and servicemen were certainly employed); nor was it an idea of Bomber Command, which would have been fiercely resistant to the subterfuges and risks associated with such an enterprise. Churchill’s irrational and misguided desires to placate Stalin must have convinced him that the Generalissimo’s demands were worth acceding to. The opportunity to carry out an attack on the Tirpitz from Soviet territory, with a presumed greater chance of success than flying directly from Scotland, must have been irresistible to him.

Lancaster at Yagodnik

One can imagine the strained atmosphere when Lancaster PB416 prepared for take-off at Yagodnik on September 17, 1944. Because of the damaged and unusable planes left behind, their crews had to be allotted to the remaining flightworthy aircraft, resulting in crowded conditions. The mood would probably have been very positive, however, given the (modest) degree of success of PARAVANE, and the prospect of returning home with no loss of squadron life. And yet two Soviet citizens were foisted on this particular team, and the members must have been informed that the couple, equipped with parachutes, was to be dropped somewhere along the flightpath. They might not have known that the agents were masquerading as British fellow-airmen underneath their jackets, but they were probably disconcerted about this irregular deviation from the plans.

Etnedal

PB416 was never blown off course by inclement weather, as RAF reports later claimed. As the last plane in loose formation, it peeled off from the chain ahead of it off the coast of Sweden, and made a course for southern Norway. We know it was expected, because the navigator radioed his co-ordinates over Oystogo in Etnedal when the plane arrived there soon after one o’clock in the morning of September 17. These measures were recorded without alarm, even though the location was over three hundred miles to the north-west of the path on which the rest of the sixteen Lancasters were cruising home.

What went wrong? One can perhaps imagine that the NKGB agents had second thoughts – not that they probably had any first thoughts of their own volition over the exploit. Threats had probably been made concerning their families. They knew that they must be on a suicide mission: even if they were successful in finding Furubotn, and assassinating him, they would not survive long in their British greatcoats, with their British ID-tags, but probably owning only a smattering of English, if any. Furthermore, they had to survive the parachute drop itself. It is highly unlikely that they had had parachute training, let alone from a British bomber, and the prospect of landing correctly on hard ground uninjured, and then meeting up with a friendly reception committee, must have seemed distant.

One could conjecture that they perhaps tried to convince the pilot that he should abandon the drop, and take his ‘stowaways’ onwards to Scotland. But Squadron-Leader Levy had his orders, and he would not have wanted to present himself at Lossiemouth with two illegal NKGB agents in his complement of passengers, with much explaining to do, and no doubt flak to be received from the high-ups. The agents were probably armed. Perhaps some sort of skirmish took place, and the plane circled while attempts to resolve the issue, with Levy trying to convince the agents of their duty, took place. The dangers of the terrain went unnoticed, and the plane hit a treetop on the mountain in the Saupeset valley above the town of Nesbyen.

RAF at Dyce, Aberdeen, which had been tracking the movements of PB416, must have known of the mission, and soon assumed that the plane was lost without any survivors. Yet the details appear, strangely, to have escaped their notice. If the Milorg reception-party, aided by SOE agents recently arrived (and maybe attended by Sunde), were in wireless contact (which they surely were, to have been able to finalize the arrangements), they would have transmitted the facts about the horrific collision with the mountain, and presumably have added that there could have been no survivors. Local civilians quickly erected a cross to indicate the ten bodies discovered, which they promptly buried. And yet this news never reached Bomber Command, or, if it did, was ignored. After the defeat of the Germans in May 1945 locals remembered the dead airmen with a hand-painted plaque in Norwegian.

The fact was that it was more convenient for the full list of crew members to remain unknown and unknowable. The story about NKGB ‘stowaways’ could thus remain a secret for a while: the facts buried in red tape and obfuscation – the fog of war. Yet that calm was disturbed when the initial Graves Report was issued in July 1945, and then altered the following month, after an on-site inspection of the markers in Nesbyen revealed the names of Wyness and Williams among the casualties. By then, of course, Wyness and Williams were dead, and could tell no tales. Some coughing, and shuffling of papers resulted, and by the end of December 1946 the final report was able to declare that one unknown airman (of undefined nationality, but perhaps that need not be explicitly stated) had perished alongside the nine certain casualties. No one seemed to want to pose the question: how could the RAF not know who had boarded PB416 in Yagodnik?

Even in this decade an incurious listlessness governs the attitudes of the War Graves Commission in England. Its representative acknowledges the paradoxes articulated in the records, but he shows no interest in taking the matter further. One could assume, perhaps, that corporate memory in the RAF (and in other departments of the UK government) endures to the extent that its employees and associates are firmly cautioned not to encourage any members of the public to press too hard on certain matters. One can admire the dedication that such civil servants (and volunteers) apply to maintaining histories and records while at the same time one has to challenge their lack of resolve.

617 Squadron Badge

As another example, in 2021, the painstaking Nigel Austin posed a question to the Official Historian of the 617 Squadron Association about the procedures involved in compiling a Flight Loss Card. (There is no mention of the loss of Lancaster PB416 on the Association’s web-page.) Dr Owen patiently explained the roles of the Air Ministry, Bomber Command, and the International Red Cross, and suggested that lines of communication became tangled during the investigations. He implied that the initial reports were confused because it seemed that items of clothing belonging to Wyness and Williams had presumably been borrowed, but he overlooked the issue of ID-tags. It was as if this were the first time that anyone associated with the Squadron has investigate the enigma, and Owen concluded his response as follows: “The more one looks, more gaps and unanswered/unanswerable questions emerge with regard to this loss”. Is the word ‘unanswerable’ telling – a sign of policy? In any case, no follow-up occurs.

Even today, almost eighty years after the events, it would be politically highly embarrassing for the truth to be conceded. First is the fact of the cover-up itself – a betrayal of openness, a disgraceful lack of admission of responsibility to the relatives of those who died in the crash, and a promotion of lies about its cause. Second is the damage it performs to the reputations of those involved – the institutions themselves, of course, but also those who led them, and in particular Winston Churchill, with his sentimental behaviour towards Stalin, and his unforgivable tendency to relish picaresque adventures, and to become too involved in them. That is an aspect that his biographers have touched on, but – alongside his interventions in the betrayal of SOE ‘F’ circuits in France in the summer of 1943 – it merits much greater attention.

Churchill had conflicting motives: to make a bold enough gesture to appease Stalin, but to keep it so secret that he would not offend the Norwegian government. Sadly, his obsession over Tirpitz was misguided: he did not know how sparse were its fuel supplies; he did not realize how cautious Hitler’s plans were for deploying the battleship, in his anxiety to protect his Nordic fleet; and he was unaware of utterly low the morale of the Tirpitz crew had sunk, frustrated by inactivity and the barrenness of northern Norway. Yet he surely could not have imagined that the destruction of the Lancaster aircraft, and all on board, could have been a possible outcome of his reckless agreement. The plane having reached Oystogo, it could have continued its flight, taking the Soviet agents to Scotland, where they would never have been heard of again, without Stalin being any the wiser. Whether the impersonators were anguished that the mission had been abandoned, or whether they pressured the pilot to cancel the drop, and save them, will almost certainly never be known. Yet the ineluctable fact that nothing about the operation ever seems to have leaked out from Norwegian sources who were involved on the ground is perhaps the most remarkable phenomenon of this tragic event.

As for Stalin, it should come as no surprise that he would pursue such an adventure. He was ruthless, exploited weaknesses in his allies (both Churchill and Roosevelt), and single-mindedly hunted down anyone who challenged his authority. Furubotn would have been just another victim in the line of such as Ignace Reiss, Juliet Poyntz, Walter Krivitsky, Leon Trotsky, and a whole lot more. The opportunity arose, Stalin grabbed it, and he formulated the plot in a way that it could not be easily traced to any of his decisions, whether it succeeded or not. Not that any attribution to his scheming would have worried him: everything would have simply been denied.

Peder Furubotn probably never knew about the exploit, or that he had avoided yet another attempt on his life. Did he really deserve the fate that Stalin had decreed for him? Professor Titlestad has devoted a large part of his career to investigating Furubotn, and he has written a biography of him, unfortunately not yet published. The Professor has created, however, a website dedicated to his researches, at https://furubotnarkivene.no/, and the ‘English’ tab introduces the visitor to a very useful article on his subject. What is startling to this writer is that the Professor sets out to rehabilitate Furubotn, describing him as ‘one of Norway’s most colorful and charismatic political leaders of the 20th century’ and that ‘for five years, he fought a life-and-death battle to avoid being killed by the Gestapo in Norway and became a role model for surviving the illegal struggle against the overwhelmingly powerful German occupation and its Norwegian collaborators in the NS [the Nasjonal Samling, the only legal party in Norway from 1942 to 1945]’. That was not how I had initially interpreted his role, but Furubotn’s daring example was converted into significant success for the Communist Party after the war.

Professor Titlestad present some fascinating insights into Furubotn’s post-war career, when he even returned to Moscow and remained unscathed, describing him as a more constitutionally sensitive Communist, perhaps a ‘Euro-communist’ of the kind that excited leftist politicians in the western democracies in the 1950s. While I am in any case unqualified to comment on such analysis, this article focusses on the war years alone, and it seems that the record of Furubotn’s activities between 1940 and 1945 is very hazy. It is difficult to track at what time the revolutionary Communist morphed into the simpler and rather sentimental left-winger that the post-war record shows. What is clear, however, is that Furubotn defied Stalin too many times, and his enemies within the KPN made sure that accounts of his misconduct got back to the vozhd.

I thus have to express some reservations about Furubotn’s heroism and reputation. Furubotn seems rather a sorry figure to me: a man lacking formal education who learned about Marxism only when he went to Moscow, and who, after the war, drifted into a vague socialism that invoked the Bible as often as it brought in The Communist Manifesto. If Furubotn had been a Communist during the war, whether Stalinist or not, the mission of a communist was class warfare, authoritarian control (‘the dictatorship of the proletariat’, of course, which was a ridiculous slogan). The institution of Communist power always ended in the incarceration or execution of class enemies, and the abandonment of any constitutional safeguards. The senior resistance organization, Milorg, detested the Communist Party, whether it was Sunde’s or Furubotn’s, and Milorg became the official voice of the people representing the government-in-exile. Yet the Communist message still resonated strongly among major sectors of Norway’s population.

I thus maintain a few doubts about the Professor’s assessment of the integrity of Furubotn and his motives. He writes, also, that the Oslo Harbour sabotage operation orchestrated by Furubotn in the autumn of 1944 was an epochal event. “This activity, which carried the death penalty from the German side, greatly contributed to keeping the hope of liberation alive among Norwegians”,  he writes. Yet such an attack went entirely against the grain of what Milorg (and, reportedly the Stalinist rump group led by Sunde) was trying to achieve, and the reprisals could have been severe. Most Norwegians must have realized by then that the Nazis were on the run, and that the Allies were moving inexorably into occupied countries, including Norway. Which Norwegians would have been excited about the destruction of the capital’s port by a subversive revolutionary at that stage of the war?

One last aspect of what appears to me to be a controversy lies in the Professor’s account of Furubotn’s time in Moscow before the war. He somewhat mysteriously writes that ‘Stalin reluctantly allowed him to return to Norway in the autumn of 1938 after 8 years in Moscow’, adding that Stalin kept the family of his son, Gilbert, in the Soviet Union as hostages. I was not aware that Stalin undertook any action ‘reluctantly’, which suggests unrealistically that the vozhd would actually listen to advice from his ministers – and that that group would actually proffer advice to him rather than simply await instructions. (The Black Book of Communism states that Furubotn ‘escaped’ from Moscow.) Elsewhere, Professor Titlestad notes that Furubotn was sent back and essentially demoted to serve a minor role in the Party in his hometown of Bergen, and the Professor has explained to me, having inspected KGB archives in Moscow, that Stalin let him go because he believed that the Gestapo would perform the murderous job for him. Yet Stalin’s ability to recall that he had let Furubotn slip through his fingers would give him additional incentive to extinguish the rebel: the PARAVANE episode of September 1944 was not the first attempt to silence Furubotn for good.

Nikolai Bukharin

The other observation that I found incongruous was the categorization of Nikolai Bukharin, whom Furubotn admired, and whom Sunde had apparently invoked alongside Genrikh Yagoda in denouncing Furubotn. Professor Titlestad writes: “Bukharin had long been one of the leading liberal Soviet leaders after the revolution in 1917, and his trial attracted significant international attention.” I believe that this is a serious misconception. Bukharin was innocent of most of the crimes he was accused of (but perhaps not that of threatening Stalin’s power), but he was no ‘liberal’. He was a Bolshevik who had enthusiastically embraced the revolution, and he was until his death a firm champion of the ‘glorious Cheka’ and its barbarous methods. A too facile equivalence of Bukharin and Furubotn glosses over what Furubotn might have become.

*          *          *          *          *          *          *          *          *          *          *          *          *

Postscript

Lastly, a few observations on methodology. My collaborator on this project, Nigel Austin, has been a determined sleuth, tracking down arcane sources, identifying persons who have some connection with the mystery, and refusing to let go. I know, however, that he was continually on the search for proof of exactly what happened on that night in September, the proverbial ‘smoking gun’, and he might have proceeded forever until he found such. I have occasionally been able to track down such items in my attempts to solve intelligence mysteries, such as with the memorandum about Guy Burgess and the Comintern, the Letter from Geneva concerning Len and Ursula Beurton, and the article in the Viennese newspaper that revealed much about MI6 and Kim Philby, but such moments are very rare.

I decided to explain to Nigel that historiography is frequently an exercise of the imagination, a detective investigation, in which one searches for clues, and then tries to construct a pattern of behaviour and events that can explain what is superficially inexplicable. There is not going to be a solid paper-trail in a case as complex as this. And that is how it was with ‘The Airmen Who Died Twice’. To me, the borrowed uniforms and ID-tags suggested stowaways of some kind. Yet in those conditions the stowaways could not have been furtive: they must have had approval. They could not have been British airmen: that group was completely accounted for. They must therefore have been agents, saboteurs, spies, of some kind. They would not have been Norwegian communists in exile: such persons would not have had to disguise themselves that way, impersonating British RAF crew members. They must have been NKGB agents – Russians. And if they were agents, they must have had a mission. And the obvious mission was assassination. A study of Norwegian resistance quickly came up with the name of Peder Furubotn, who had offended Stalin.

Thus was the theory constructed. It all seemed rather tenuous: had Furubotn really annoyed Stalin that much? And why would Stalin choose that time to set his murder-squad off the leash? And then the encounter with Professor Titlestad’s latest research indicated that assassination attempts had already been made against Furubotn. Stalin could no longer rely on the Gestapo or the Sunde organization to get rid of his foe. So he took on the task himself, and invoked the gullible Churchill to assist him. As the cliché goes: ‘The rest is history’. But in this case it has not been so – until now. And it would be commendable if the British Government, through the Ministry of Defence, made some sort of statement and apology to the public and to the relatives of the dead airmen in time for the eightieth anniversary of the crash on September 17, 2024.

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Special Bulletin: ‘The Airmen Who Died Twice’ – Part 3

(This bulletin contains the third segment of my study of ‘The Airmen Who Died Twice’, which explains why two Soviet agents were carried on board a British Lancaster aircraft in September 1944, a flight that ended in disaster when the plane crashed into a hill in Norway. For the previous two segments, please turn to Part 1 and Part 2.)

The Lofotens

Chapter 5: Intelligence Manœuvres

The implications of co-operation between the RAF and the NKGB in infiltrating Soviet citizens with subversive objectives into a third country occupied by the enemy are highly significant. It is such a sensitive issue that one would have to conclude that one of Britain’s wartime intelligence organizations was involved. Admittedly, southern Norway was beyond the regular range where the Soviets were able to drop agents for intelligence purposes, but they would not have sought British assistance unless it were not a routine operation. It does not appear that they wanted to parachute in a spy or saboteur blind, without some sort of reception committee. Hence they must have been seeking help from British or British-trained contacts on the ground. Such a pattern is not unprecedented, but the utter lack of any reference, in the records of the RAF and the intelligence agencies, to the joint operation over Norway points not just to a highly clandestine operation, but also to a monumental embarrassment when it ended so dismally and tragically.

The two institutions that maintained networks in countries occupied by the Nazis were the Special Operations Executive (SOE) and the Secret Intelligence Service (SIS, sometimes known as MI6). The first was essentially a sabotage organization, a civil unit reporting to the Ministry of Political Warfare, although many of its leaders were military men. It had been created by Winston Churchill in 1940, specifically to cause havoc behind enemy lines. SIS, on the other hand, was an intelligence-gathering service with some history that worked more by stealth. It resented SOE’s very existence, since the business of sabotage tended to draw the attention of the enemy, while the agents of SIS worked as quietly as possible. Moreover, the fact that SOE had agents in the field meant that they were also a provider of intelligence. Claude Dansey, the assistant chief of SIS, made it his mission to undermine SOE whenever he could.

Hugh Dalton

SOE had an occasionally very strained relationship with the governments-in-exile of the countries where they built their networks. Hugh Dalton, the first minister responsible for SOE, was a socialist who viewed the mission of his organization to enhance the possibility of implementing socialist ‘revolutions’ throughout Europe after the Nazi foe had been defeated. Such a strategy was anathema to most governments-in-exile which, composed of members of the pre-war ruling class, hoped to reinstall the previous form of government, and its attendant privileges, after the war. In addition, Dalton was a notorious showman, who misrepresented SOE’s achievements in Norway, and over-promised to Churchill what the section could achieve. In turn, Churchill, ever the romantic, in February 1942 told the Norwegian government-in-exile that Norway would be the first country to be liberated – a foolish claim.

On the ground, however, much of the strongest resistance to the fascists came from underground communist groups, who had suspended their disgust when the Nazi-Soviet pact occurred. After June 1941, when Hitler invaded the Soviet Union, and Stalin’s dictatorship became an ally of the western democracies, these cells renewed their vigorous ambitions for proper (not Daltonian) revolution. A pattern across Europe occurred whereby weapons and supplies dropped by parachute, intended for patriot forces, frequently ended up in units taking orders from Stalin. The perennial problem with SOE was that its strategy was apparently to prepare patriot armies for the coming arrival of British troops, but that event often took years in the making, or never happened at all, which was damaging to morale. Moreover, there was a permanent risk of arms caches being discovered by the Germans, or simply falling into disrepair. SOE’s management of expectations was poor, to say the least.

Frank Foley

This pattern repeated itself in Norway. Before the war, the SIS station in Oslo reported through Stockholm, but after some embarrassing events in Sweden, Frank Foley (who had been posted to Oslo in September 1939) returned to London in early 1940, and was put in charge of the whole of Scandinavia and the Low Countries. The Royal Navy soon made demands on SIS for intelligence on German naval movements along the coast. The arrival of SOE agents complicated matters, however: Norway was too thinly populated for networks to remain isolated, and there were several clashes between the two organizations. Moreover, SOE initially worked independently of both the Norwegian government-in-exile, and of Milorg, the military arm of the Norwegian Home Front, which, despite its name, was more focused on the future liberation of the country than attention-drawing sabotage adventures. SOE kept clear of it, as it regarded its security as lax. Likewise, the small communist groups also stayed apart from Milorg. They criticized it for its passivity, and were less concerned about Nazi brutalities.

The Lofotens Raid

Thus some harsh lessons were learned. The reprisals after the Lofotens raid of December 1941 triggered Norwegian animosity to SOE, which led to the establishment of a Joint Anglo-Norwegian Committee in London in February 1942. In January, a new SOE Norwegian section was split off from the Scandinavian unit, and the very pragmatic John Wilson had been appointed its head. Yet it took time for the Committee to exert any influence. In April 1942, mismanaged landings at the community of Telavåg, involving mis-steps by both MI6 and SOE in which two Gestapo officers were killed, led to fearsome reprisals. SOE accordingly made contact with Milorg in September of that year, in a spirit of collaboration. It took the first major operation undertaken by SOE and Combined Operations forces (commandos), the November 1942 attempt to land gliders in an attack on the Vermork heavy-water plant, to change policy. The assault was a disaster. The participants were executed: severe reprisals on the civilian population followed. Both Milorg and the government in London were horrified, and their disgust led to a more cautious approach to sabotage. The eventual sinking, in February 1944, of the steamer carrying heavy water on Lake Tinnsjo bolstered SOE’s reputation, but twenty-six persons were drowned in the process.

Reprisals after Telavag
Norsk Hydro, Vermork

1943 was a transition year. After Milorg had supported, in April, an attack by the communist Sunde’s group on labour offices in Oslo, the government in exile called it to stop collaborating with communist organizations. In May, at a conference in Sweden, Milorg agreed that its future activities would be determined by the Allied Supreme Command, and that its mission would be to prepare for liberation. Norway had a role to play in diversionary exercises away from the main European theatre (Operation TINDALL, as part of the COCKADE deception plan), and some weaponry was parachuted in for the Norwegian resistance. Yet SOE itself suffered a major setback that autumn, when the infiltration of its Dutch and French circuits was discovered by the Chiefs of Staff. SOE survived (thanks to Churchill’s intervention), but was put under military control, the Norwegian Section of SOE coming under Special Forces Headquarters in May 1944. Soon afterwards General Eisenhower sent out a stern message to the Norwegians that, in the wake of the Normandy landings, no national uprising should take place, as the Allies had no immediate plans to invade their country. A predictable lowering of morale ensued, and, in recompense, some steady carefully-targeted sabotage operations were encouraged.

The early months of 1944 had created a new climate, however. In February, the Foreign Office reported that uncontrolled sabotage by the Communists was increasing, sometimes with the aid of arms supplied by SOE. That was not part of the plan. In May, the Germans tried to press-gang Norwegian workers for work in the Reich, and hundreds of youths fled to the mountains, thus creating a kind of Norwegian ‘maquis’. An unuathorized but efficient group known as the ‘Oslo Gang’ reached a peak of sabotage activity in August. On August 17, Milorg executed a very damaging operation in which an oil storage depot at Son, on the Oslofjord, was exploded. More serious plans for guerrilla attacks were forged, and in May 1944, four sites were identified for the congregation of partisans, one of which was at Elg, north-west of Oslo – a few miles from Nesbyen, the site of the crash. Two men parachuted into Elg on August 31, 1944, and over a hundred men assembled there, with weapons and food stockpiled. That same month Jens Hauge, the head of Milorg, had travelled to London for four weeks of consultations with SOE, Army chiefs, the Ministry of Economic Warfare, and the Norwegian government-in-exile, and he crossed back into Norway from Sweden.

Meanwhile, SIS in Sweden had been experiencing its own tribulations. The Admiralty applied pressure on the organization to provide intelligence on Kirkenes, on the Norway/Russia border, which led to a catastrophic joint project with the Soviets, where two SIS agents were flown into an airbase in August 1942. Instead of parachuting them in promptly, however, the Russians held them for two months, and then dropped them, improperly equipped, into Finland rather than Norway. They were captured, handed over to the Germans, and shot. Soon afterwards, the hapless head of station John Martin was replaced by the Russian-speaking Cyril Cheshire, but the lessons from trying to collaborate with the Soviets on clandestine operations appeared not to have been passed on, and properly internalized.

Improbably, the closest cooperation between SOE and SIS occurred within the section of SOE that worked in the Soviet Union. At the end of 1941, an exchange of missions between London and Moscow had been set up, with an old WWI Russia veteran George Hill appointed as leader. He took a small group with him to start negotiating with the NKVD on shared sabotage endeavours, while the obdurate Colonel Chichaev took up a corresponding post in London. The whole project was highly controversial, since the Soviets wanted SOE help in parachuting agents into Western Europe, which was out of reach of their aircraft. The governments-in-exile would have had a fit if they had known that a British intelligence unit was abetting a potential Communist revolution in their home countries. Moreover, the Foreign Office – quite enthusiastic about ‘co-operating’ with Soviet diplomats – was alarmed at the prospect of collaboration with Communists in more murky quarters.

As it turned out, the operation (named PICKAXE) was for many reasons a disaster, and incriminations started to flow both ways. Collaboration was called off in practical terms by early 1944. Yet by then, the SOE mission in Moscow had been badly abused by the NKGB (as the NKVD became). Hill had probably been appointed by Menzies, the head of SIS, and he represented both SIS and SOE in some of his agent management roles. Unfortunately his cipher-clerk, George Graham (who was of Russian aristocratic birth), allowed himself to be suborned by NKGB intrigues, with the result that Soviet intelligence gained access to SIS codes and cyphers. How that helped Stalin in his preparation for Yalta is an untold story.

A further group in the drama was the 30 Mission, a British military unit sent out to Moscow in 1941, charged with exchanging military intelligence as a way of improving Allied combat against the Nazis. This was another troubled enterprise, since the officers who went there mostly returned in disgust after a short spell, frustrated by Soviet obtuseness and secrecy. Its negotiations had to take place via contacts in a department of the NKGB, and its direct exchanges with the Red Army (and even more so, the Air Force, which was subsidiary to the Army and Navy) were few and constrained. With the Arctic Convoys playing a large role in sustaining the Soviet Union’s goodwill, and ability to counter the Wehrmacht, a large body of sailors and other men was required in Murmansk, a presence that alarmed the NKGB, for fear of ideological infection of the local populace. 30 Mission was the hub through which all the problems and challenges had to be routed: General Martel, and his successor, General Burrows, tried vainly to make the Soviets see reason, and concluded that resolution and hard bargaining produced better results than attempts to please their reluctant hosts.

Voskresenskaya-Rybkina

Last but not least was the offensive arm of the NKVD/NKGB. In July 1941, after Barbarossa, Pavel Sudoplatov was appointed director of the Administration of Special Tasks, charged with sabotage and political assassination abroad. (Sudoplatov had been overall responsible for the murder of Leon Trotsky in 1940.) One of his closest associates was a woman called Zoya Voskresenskaya, also known as Rybkina, via marriage, and as a working alias, Madam Yartseva. Rybkina was sent by Sudoplatov to Stockholm, ostensibly as the press attaché to the Ambassador, Alexandra Kollontai, but in fact as the head of the NKVD station, which exercised a firm control over the activities of all the staff. Her husband, who went by Boris Yartsev as a junior diplomatic official in Stockholm, returned to Moscow in 1943, was present at Yalta, and met his death in Czechoslovakia, in 1947, in one of those mysterious car crashes that prematurely took the lives of intelligence officers who fell out of favour.

In his memoirs, Sudoplatov wrote glowingly about his protegée, who had actually been his handler in Helsinki at the beginning of his career. In 1942, Sudoplatov was also put in charge of collecting information about atomic weaponry, and agents working for Rybkina in Sweden gained information from Lisa Meitner, who had discovered fission with her nephew, Otto Frisch. Sudoplatov claimed that the British knew about the NKGB’s networks in Sweden, and that they were collaborating with the Soviets on joint sabotage operations in Europe. Like many agents who worked under Beria, she was purged (but not imprisoned or killed) after Beria’s own execution.

The deHavilland Mosquito

Yet the most remarkable aspect of Rybkina’s possible contribution to this story is the journey she made to the United Kingdom in February 1944. The VENONA transcripts inform us that Vasily Razin, the First Secretary at the Stockholm Legation, informed Lt.-General Pavel Fitin, the head of the Foreign Intelligence Directorate in Moscow, that IRINA (Rybkina) had successfully arrived in England, by air, on February 6. This flight was operated as part of the so-called ‘ball-bearing’ run, almost certainly deploying a modified Mosquito. It was actually run by the Norwegian Air Force, but under civilian registration, with crews wearing BOAC uniforms and carrying British passports. It was a harrowing and dangerous experience: there was room for only one clandestine passenger, in the bomb-bay. Niels Bohr, the atomic scientist, was one beneficiary, and almost died from lack of oxygen.

The Mosquito Bomb-bay

Why permission should be granted to a known Soviet intelligence agent to take advantage of such a facility is mysterious, and can only point to some very high-level and secret negotiations. What is more, soon after Rybkina arrived, Colonel Chichaev had a private meeting with Colin Gubbins of SOE, a record of which may never have been made. Whether these events were related to the sudden movements in August, 1944, when Colonel Burrows of 30 Mission was recalled to London, his opposite number in the NKGB, General Slavin, disappeared abroad on some unspecified business, Jens Hauge, the head of Milorg, also travelled to London to meet with SOE officers, and two SOE agents were parachuted into the mountainous country north-west of Oslo, is still a matter of speculation. The coincidences are remarkable, yet the need for extreme secrecy over the negotiations with Stalin probably indicates that the particulars of the parachute drop were not on the agenda of the meetings.

Chapter 6: Stalin’s Organs

‘Smersh’ by Vadim Birstein

The rationale behind Stalin’s constant re-organization of his security apparatus is sometimes hard to unravel. In 1943, he separated some functions from the NKVD (The Peoples Commissariat for Internal Affairs) into a structure that had briefly existed in 1941, the NKGB (The People’s Commissariat for State Security). The latter was supposed to focus on the territories that had been briefly held between 1939 and 1941, and were shortly expected to return under Soviet rule, such as the Baltic States. But it lacked ample security forces. The NKVD had its foreign mission withdrawn, and concentrated on domestic affairs, such as surveillance of the citizenry, and management of the GULAG. At the same time, Stalin created a new body, SMERSH (‘Death to Spies!’), peeling off those cadres in the NKVD responsible for monitoring disaffection and cowardice in the armed forces. According to Pavel Sudoplatov, Stalin made this move to prevent his NKVD chief Lavrenty Beria from interfering with military promotions – and demotions.

SMERSH existed between April 1943 and May 1946. Its head was Viktor Abakumov, who, like many of Stalin’s security and intelligence chiefs, came to a grisly end. Yet, while its initial task was to root out corruption in the military, it soon took over a more aggressive role identifying and eliminating real or imagined opponents of the Soviet regime in newly conquered territories. Moreover, while the initial threat was identified as German infiltration of the armed forces, its innate suspicion of foreigners in general meant that it turned its attention on the presence of Allied forces on Soviet territory. Notably, supervision of the American air bases in Ukraine had become the responsibility of SMERSH, alongside keeping a close eye on the naval mission in Murmansk supporting the convoys, and on the short-lived presence of PARAVANE operational staff at Yagodnik.

Foreigners might not only be spies: they might also exert a pernicious influence on Soviet citizenry, and the records show that the organs assiduously kept a watch on any liaisons between Soviet citizens and members of the visiting armed forces and their support crews, and followed up with dire threats. Yet the war diaries of the PARAVANE operation do indeed show that some officers showed a more than casual interest in Soviet installations of technology, such as communications. The fact that such interest paled into insignificance against the wholesale theft of Western technology and ideas that the GRU (Military Intelligence) and the NKVD/NKGB had been undertaking for years was irrelevant to the earnestness of SMERSH’s hunt to extirpate any such activity.

Mikhail Ryumin

A SMERSH officer submitted a report on the PARAVANE operation on October 6, 1944, casting doubts on the true motives of the RAF members who led it. The report was probably written by a sadistic thug called Mikhail Ryumin, who was head of the Counter-Intelligence White Army Flotilla, reporting directly to Admiral Panteleyev in Archangel and Abakumov in Moscow. Ryumin had moved up the NKVD ranks by being a protégé of Nikolai Yezhov, the short-lived executor of Stalin’s most dreadful purges, but had survived after Yezhov’s execution. He was later a prime mover in the so-called ‘Doctors’ Plot’, a mirage of Jewish conspiracy conceived by Stalin, and he even denounced his boss, Abakumov. Stalin fired him for incompetence, however, and, after the dictator’s death, Beria had Ryumin arrested and executed.

Ryumin’s report shows that he had a hazy understanding of the PARAVANE mission, emphasizing the failure of the attack on the Tirpitz as a cover for the true objective of seeking information about Soviet military installations (“It can be concluded that under the pretext of the shuttle operation, the flight had an exclusively reconnaissance purpose.”). He refers to the loss of one Lancaster over Norwegian territory, but indicates mistakenly that the return flights were undertaking another bombing raid on the battleship. As evidence for his conclusions about ulterior purposes of the mission, he lists misleading data about the weight and explosive capacity of the Tallboy bomb, the pilots’ cancellations of call-signs on the radio, and an understatement of the number of officers and men who would be arriving (which was, in fact, justified).

The fact that he had been kept in the dark about the true circumstances surrounding the change of plan is shown by the fact that he attributes the haphazard landings at various airfields to a deliberate ploy by the RAF to determine the location, size, and condition of those same airfields. Of course, his report may have been crafted to show the appropriate communist diligence in disparaging the RAF’s failure to sink the Tirpitz, the objective of Operation PARAVANE. Its timing, moreover, could be significant: it was submitted to his boss, Abakumov, three days before the start of the so-called ‘Tolstoy’ Conference in Moscow, where Stalin hosted Churchill and Eden, and the notorious agreements about the carve-up of Europe were made without Roosevelt’s presence.

Group Captain McMullen

Yet some inappropriate nosing around was undertaken by some of the RAF contingent (see Chapter 3). Captain Abercrombie, who had joined the (military) 30 Mission in Moscow the previous April, sought permission to take photographs without constraints, and asked questions about the radio and power stations in Archangel. Ryumin also had negative things to say about a Lieutenant-Colonel Happen, who, after a request by Group Captain McMullen to travel via Moscow, Stalingrad and Tehran to Cairo been rejected, apparently made disparaging remarks and spread ‘anti-Soviet sentiments’. The fact was that the RAF members generally had good relations with their opposite numbers in the Soviet Naval Air Force, and probably said too much in unguarded moments. Such conversations were bound to be overheard by or reported to the SMERSH commissars embedded in the units. (An Appendix to the War Diary refers to ‘the sprinkling of N.K.V.D. personnel (male and female) to check that the interests of the Communist Party are not prejudiced’.) The Diary nevertheless expresses great appreciation of the support they received, especially from Colonel Loginov, who was Chief of Staff to the Commander of the Air Forces of the White Sea Flotilla, and McMullen wrote generous letters of thanks. These commendations (which may have been largely political) would have cut no ice with Ryumin.

Pavel Sudoplatov

One significant Soviet officer who was familiar with Ryumin (and had a low opinion of him) was Pavel Sudoplatov, who had been appointed head of the NKVD ‘Special Tasks’ unit in July 1941. Sudoplatov, who had engineered the assassination of Trotsky, was thus responsible for sabotage behind enemy lines, as well as further assassinations. He also took on a major role in handling disinformation exercises to fool the Germans about a potential anti-Soviet movement within the Soviet Union, as well as Operation MONASTERY, which aimed to penetrate the Abwehr’s intelligence network behind Soviet lines. Abakumov was jealous of Sudoplatov’s role, wanting it for himself, and challenged him in 1942 to turn over all radio deception games against the Germans to him. He was partially successful, but Sudoplatov kept the MONASTERY operation, as well as the COURIERS operation, which claimed the existence of an anti-Soviet faction within the Russian Orthodox Church. Thus the rivalries between Sudoplatov and Abakumov may have contributed to some mis-steps in the execution of the mission to Nesbyen.

The relevance of these connections is important in the PARAVANE story because of Sudoplatov’s relationship with the NKVD officer Zoya Voskresenskaya, also known as Rybkina, after her marriage to another NKVD officer. She had worked for Sudoplatov at the beginning of the war, planning sabotage, and training partisans, when she and her husband were suddenly sent to Stockholm, where she was appointed nominally the press attaché to the Ambassador, Alexandra Kollontai, and took up the name Yartseva. Stockholm, the capital of Sweden, a neutral country, was, like Portugal’s Lisbon, a nest of spies and intelligence-gathering, and it controlled through regular communication the Stalinist faction of the Norwegian Communist Party, as well as providing it with funds. Yartseva was actually the most important person in the Embassy, and was also responsible for controlling the receipt and transmission of all the intelligence coming from the Soviet Union’s Rote Kapelle network in Germany. (Ian Fleming’s Rosa Klebb was reputedly based on her.)

Voskresenskaya-Rybkina

Sudoplatov’s relationship with Yartseva went back many years, since she had actually been his controller in Finland in the early 1930s, and they stayed in close touch. Yartseva had more recently been involved with Sudoplatov’s COURIERS operation, controlling members of the clergy in Kalinin. Sudoplatov also claimed that Yartseva was part of his management team on the ENORMOZ (atomic weapons) project, but his version of events has been challenged by Western experts. Yet they did have another important colleague – Colonel Chichaev, the NKVD representative in London charged with liaising with SOE and its Russian section, and maybe even handling some of the NKVD’s nest of spies. Chichaev had spent time at the Stockholm Embassy in 1940, working with Yartseva.

These threads would come together as Stalin’s strategy for Scandinavia took shape. His ambitions were overall modest for neighbouring territories that were not to be occupied by the Red Army. Finland was problematic. It had a long border with the Soviet Union, and after losing a war in 1940 against the Communist regime – in which the Red Army was at first humiliated – the country had dangerously aligned itself with Nazi Germany, in the belief that Hitler would be the victor. While Stalin respected the Finns for their courage, he resolved to exploit them because of their support of the Fascists rather than waste military forces in conquering them. He was anxious to gain strategically useful territories from them, such as islands in the Gulf of Finland, in order to give him protection for the port of Leningrad and the Baltic States, and regain ownership of the Petsamo (Russian: Pechenga) region in the far north, with its valuable nickel mines. Moreover, the Communist Party was strong in Finland, although Stalin had purged many of its leading members in Moscow.

Pechenga

Sweden was not really a consideration: it had remained neutral during the war, and was geographically not so relevant. Norway had been occupied by the Nazis, and harboured a somewhat subdued resistance movement. Despite the lack of contiguity, some of Stalin’s ministers had pressed for Sweden and Norway to come under the Soviet ‘sphere of influence’, with Norway’s Communist Party a potential asset. The Norwegian government-in-exile was fearful that the Red Army would make incursions through the north of the country, and in early 1944 made appeasing overtures through the Soviet ambassador to avert the possibility. While Stalin probably found satisfaction in keeping that threat alive, and gaining concessions from the Norwegians, he in fact did not want to move Red Army divisions to Norway. He would prefer that the British take responsibility for clearing the country of Nazi troops, although he did not want the latter pouring into Northern Russia. (The negotiated restoration of Pechenga would present the Soviet Union with a narrow border with Norway.) Thus, in the summer of 1944, he pressed Churchill and Eden to take a leading role in the liberation of Norway, and gained a concession from them in August that Finland naturally fell in his bailiwick, and that the British had no strategic interests there.

The western Allies wanted to consolidate their assaults into western Europe and Germany before dealing with the Wehrmacht in Norway: to that end the Chiefs-of-Staff had developed an operational feint called RANKIN designed to pin German troops in Norway through the D-Day invasions. On the other hand, the British did not want premature uprisings in Norway, hoping to preserve the partisan forces to hold their fire until the real day of reckoning. They were aware, however, of maverick Communist Party guerrilla units continuing to cause trouble. Yet Stalin, as in France, did not want any Communists to engage in provocative behaviour and risk turning the Americans against him before the Nazis had been beaten. Thus British and Soviet needs in the area began to converge. Stalin wanted to sign a pact with Finland, using it as a proxy.  He planned to demand from it the harassment of German divisions in the north of the country, as he wanted to move the few divisions he maintained on the Finnish border to the vital German battlefield, and he sought British assistance in the endeavour.

On September 19, 1944, a few days after the PARAVANE Operation was executed, the Moscow Armistice was signed by representatives of Finland, the Soviet Union and Great Britain. The British War Cabinet had reviewed its protocols as early as September 7. They laid out some strict conditions: for example, the withdrawal of Finnish troops to the frontier as it existed in 1940; Finland to be responsible for disarming German land, air and naval forces in the country; the transfer to the Soviet Union of critical territories, such as Pechenga; the provision of up to three hundred million dollars’ worth of goods as indemnification for Soviet losses; and the handover of airfields in southern Finland for the Soviets to attack German forces in the Baltic States. Whether this last item was part of a quid pro quo with the British for the use of Soviet airfields in the attacks on the Tirpitz is not stated. But the timing is intriguing, and Stalin was accustomed to including ‘secret’ protocols in his political agreements.

The negotiations that led up to this agreement are regrettably opaque. Yet the intrigues in sending Yartseva to London in February 1944, and the subsequent meetings (see Chapter 5) must have had some serious objectives. Stockholm was a notoriously isolated location: it took the Petrovs nine months to reach it from Moscow in 1942. For Yartseva to gain approval from the British and Norwegian governments for a valuable place on the ball-bearing run to Leuchars in Scotland (and presumably a return flight) must have meant that they considered she had both clout and information of great value, and that it was both safe and wise to allow her to have discussions with Chichaev. What political backdrop could have led to such a concession?

(The final part of this story will appear on April 15.)

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Special Bulletin: ‘The Airmen Who Died Twice’ – Part 2

(For those readers who have expressed interest in the disposal of my Library I should like to draw your attention to the following press release, issued by the University of North Carolina on February 6: https://giving.uncw.edu/stories/new-special-collection-to-make-randall-library-a-destination-for-researchers-worldwide.)

The first two chapters of ‘The Airmen Who Died Twice’ can be seen at https://coldspur.com/special-bulletin-the-airmen-who-died-twice-part-1/.

The Memorial at Saupeset

Chapter 3: The RAF in Yagodnik

When the decision to launch the attack from Soviet soil was made at this late stage, on 11th September, the security questions raised in April 1943 were sadly overlooked. Bomber Command (or whoever was calling the shots) was apparently able to take the final decision without further consultations with the Soviet Air Force. Amazingly, approval for this revised plan must have been received immediately. It is probable that Stalin now encouraged it, as it would enable him to lay his hands upon the Tallboy itself, and not simply bombers with empty payloads, as well as to exploit the homeward flight of a Lancaster for his own devious purposes. It is certain that an agreement in principle had been hammered out some time beforehand, but that Stalin had wanted to wait until the Warsaw Uprising had been quashed before granting permission.

Preparations for the refined operation were very hurried. One significant outcome of the new arrangement was that, on that same day, 11th September, the Lancasters flew directly from Bardney and Woodhall Spa in Lincolnshire to Yagodnik, while the Liberators (which were originally scheduled to arrive in an advance party to prepare for the Lancasters’ arrival) proceeded to Lossiemouth, and then Unst in the Shetlands, for re-fuelling. This was to have serious implications when one third of the Lancasters lost their way in looking for Yagodnik. One of the reasons that the Liberators were originally supposed to arrive before the Lancasters was to provide improved VHF radio guidance, and the reliance on confusing Soviet signals and beacons certainly contributed to the errant landings and resultant written off aircraft. Moreover, the weather in Yagodnik was, in McMullen’s words, ‘appalling’. Whatever forecast had been issued from London was completely off the mark, and the Soviets (who had surely provided the forecasts themselves, and in fact given one for the day after the arrivals) were amazed that the planes had attempted the journey in such conditions.

Routes to Yagodnik

Thus, ironically, while the ground-rules of the Operational Order had been ostensibly changed because of unfavourable weather forecasts for Altenfjord, the whole mission was jeopardized because of a failure to predict very poor weather in Archangel, the error in not implementing proper communications and signalling protocols, and the delay in sending out the Liberators which were intended to guide and welcome the Lancasters to Yagodnik. It all comprises an extraordinarily incompetent example of leadership and decision-making. One might suspect, nevertheless, that the Soviets were not too concerned about the safe arrival of all the planes. After all, there was valuable new technology to be inspected and exploited. In the developing saga of the disaster at Nesbyen, the immobility of some grounded aircraft in the swamps and forests around Archangel would turn out to have dire and unexpected consequences.

Group Captain McMullen, in his report following Paravane, stated that atrocious weather conditions from the Finnish border, incompatible call signals between Russian and English alphabets, lack of WT beacon information, and maps without towns or railways led to the scattering of one third of the planes of Squadrons 9 and 617 on arrival in Russia. Only twenty-three Lancasters, one Liberator, and one Mosquito, from a total of thirty-nine aircraft, landed safely at Yagodnik on 11th September. The remaining fourteen planes and forty-two Lancaster crewmen, with their hi-tech munitions, crash landed or were diverted to Kergostov, Vascova and Onega. These became the object of a frantic Anglo/Soviet search and rescue operation on September 12. One of the pilots added that lack of fuel was a major cause for these forced landings. McMullen did not mention this factor in his report.

In spite of the lack of English-speaking Russians or RAF interpreters there was a concerted and effective drive to locate and retrieve the fourteen lost planes and crews. Soviet efforts are illustrated by the parachutist who was dropped by one crash-site and then guided the crew to a lake where it was collected by a Soviet flying boat for return to Yagodnik. Squadron Leader Harman noted in the official diary: “We were very fortunate that we have no casualties”. All forty-two RAF crew were safely returned to their Squadrons within forty-eight hours. McMullen and his Soviet counterpart Colonel Loginov worked closely to coordinate the rescue so that, by 14th September, twenty Lancasters with Tallboys, six Lancasters with Johnny Walkers, one Mosquito film unit and both Liberators were in place at Yagodnik ready for the assault on Tirpitz.

The Airstrip at Yagodnik

McMullen made clear that very few of the expected facilities to ensure a successful mission were in place on site. The essential refuelling was limited by bowser numbers and capacity to 6 x 350 gallons instead of the 8 x 3,500 gallons and 4 x 2,000 gallons expected. As a result, the Squadron was not ready to fly for another twenty-four hours, delaying action until 14th September. It is almost an understatement when he asserted: “Misleading intelligence of this kind can be most embarrassing and can even ruin all chances of success”. What is not clear is whether he was blaming British 30 Mission in Moscow, 5 Group in UK, or the Soviet authorities at Yagodnik for the misinformation supplied to Squadrons 9 and 617 before 11th September. He concluded that close cooperation with 30 Mission was essential to operate in Russia, implying that this had not been a priority for 5 Group in the UK.

Ralph Cochrane, Air Vice Marshal at 5 Group Headquarters, Swinderby was responsible for coordinating the Squadrons for Paravane, reporting to Arthur Harris, Commander-in-Chief of Bomber Command. Cochrane had no doubt that the careful work of his planning staff at 5 Group was responsible for the success of the operation, as he declared to Harris on 15th October. He acknowledged none of the practical problems which plagued McMullen in Russia nor why basic technical coordination with the Russians essential for navigation was not prepared by his planning staff and communicated to the crews.

Tirpitz in Kafjord, inner to Altenfjord

On the 15th September at 9.30 am, over a twenty-three minute period, twenty-six Lancasters and one Mosquito took off to attack the Tirpitz in Altenfjord. They flew at 1,000 feet until they reached the Finnish border, when an altitude of 12,000-14,000 feet was maintained over Norway. Within sixty miles of the target all planes, in four waves, would dive to bombing height to despatch their Tallboy and Johnny Walker bombs. Flak was intense from shore and ship, but it was ineffective. There was no German fighter plane opposition. Although surprise was achieved by using the southerly approach against Tirpitz, the smokescreen to hide the battleship was in place within seven minutes of the RAF arrival.

In the debriefing after the attack the crews confirmed that one of the seventeen Tallboys had hit the target: sixteen did not. The outcome from the deployment of the Johnny Walker bombs designed to target the hull of the ship ‘walking’ through the sea was uncertain. At 18.20 the battleship remained afloat. The Mosquito film crew was not able to secure a damage report until 20th September: it appeared to show a possible hit. The disappointing result was heightened by the knowledge that Tallboy and the SABS (Stabilized Automatic Bomb Sight) were radically new weapons designed to be accurate within a hundred yards and to destroy any obstacle. Only Squadron 617 was equipped to deliver the 12,000 lb. rotating bomb guided by computerized SABS at 715 mph, which detonated only from inside the target. On 15th October Cochrane told Harris: “None but the heaviest and strongest type of bomb could penetrate (Tirpitz’s) horizontal armour and burst within the ship.”

With the safe return of all Lancasters late on 15th September from Altenfjord, McMullen had two priorities: first, the refuelling and repair of the planes for return to the UK and active duties over Germany, and second, the salvage of the munitions scattered across the region. By 19th September Thomas Williams, assistant Chief of Air Staff, was anxiously demanding information from Harris and Cochrane on radar equipment, gun sights and bomb sights on board the Lancasters that had crashed on arrival on in Russia. A systematic campaign was launched by RAF to salvage or destroy any technology which their Russian hosts might be keen to acquire, although the RAF remained awkwardly reliant on Russian aircraft to reach the remote wrecks.

By the 20th September the chief engineer reported that all fuses and detonators had been removed from the remaining Tallboys and returned to the UK. McMullen was under instruction to retrieve everything of value from the wrecks. Despite Williams’s concern that the Russians would not allow retrieval of the Tallboys, 30 Mission was able to confirm their safe shipment to the UK on 3rd November. As a Soviet engineer wryly observed of his RAF allies: “The British dismantled or destroyed radars, radio stations, bombsights. All aircraft were stripped of the most scarce power units.” The limits of Anglo-Soviet military cooperation were clear.

The enthusiastic cooperation leading to the Tirpitz attack was replaced by growing strains between both sides. Squadron Leader Harman’s official diary charted this tortuous breakdown. On 18th September McMullen secured agreement from Loginov for the use of the Russian Dakota to inspect crashes at Belomorsk and Vascova. On the 19th September the plane was suddenly not available. Finally, on 20th September, ‘after a lot of pressure had been put on the Russians’, McMullen was able to visit the sites. When, however, a repeat exercise was attempted on 24th September with the RAF Mosquito, fuel was denied by the Russians. While thirty Lancasters, with one exception, had returned safely to the UK by 17th September; the Liberators loaded with the salvaged equipment were trapped at Yagodnik as the weather deteriorated. McMullen tried to secure Russian permission on 22nd and 24th September to fly south via Moscow to escape the northern storms: this was refused. At one point Harman despaired at the prospect of spending the winter in Russia.

Was this Russian recalcitrance due to disappointment at the apparent failure of the RAF attack on Tirpitz? Had the Russians become angry that the British were so determined to deny them access to the Tallboy and SABS technology? A report on 5th October by Mikhail Ryumin, head of SMERSH Secret Police in Archangel to his Moscow Head Office provides a clue. Describing the activities of Flight Lieutenant Abercrombie seconded from 30 Mission Moscow ‘who sought permission to take photographs as he pleases’, he added that he ‘persistently asked where the radio and power stations are located in Archangel.’, while his colleague Wing Commander Hughes was carefully recording the size and state of various Russian airfields.

If this British research was simply practical preparation for Paravane a secret Appendix in the 15th October report to Cochrane appears to confirm the Secret Police’s worst fears: “Some details regarding North Russian Airfields were obtainable but it was not possible to get much information from the Russians without arousing their suspicions. For instance it is rumoured that a very big airfield is being constructed near Molotovsk, and during a flight from Yagodnik to Belomorsk the Russian pilot could not be induced to get off track to permit one to see this rumoured airfield.” This was the same flight which McMullen and Hughes took on 20th September in the Russian Dakota to inspect the Lancaster crashes.

Group Captain McMullen was at the centre of this swirling confusion of military cooperation and political subterfuge. His praise for the Russian military was generous. “They gave full and free cooperation in every respect”, he wrote, which contradicted Harman’s meticulous record of Russian obstruction from 17th September. McMullen blamed ‘misleading intelligence’ for almost ruining the Operation, much of which originated from the Russian sources at Yagodnik.  His official final letter to Russian commanders and Yagodnik ground staff was glowingly uncritical: “Your cooperation enabled us to gather the force sent to attack the Tirpitz. For that we shall always be in your debt.” On the other hand, in private to Cochrane, he conceded: “The praise in the letters is lavish, but I was advised that the Russians value this kind of thing.”

Yet a man who tacked his position to suit the audience of the moment was adamant on one point: he strongly recommended to Cochrane that Colonel Loginov, Major General Dyzmba and Vice Admiral Pantaleyev be awarded the highest British honours for their service to the RAF in Yagodnik. Although Cochrane was silent on this point in his report to Harris, the Foreign Office obliged with CB and CBE honours to all three Russians. We can only surmise whether this repayment for the debt that McMullen confirms he owes his hosts was given freely or under duress.

On 27th September the two Liberators finally left Yagodnik, eleven days after the attack on Tirpitz and the subsequent mysterious crash of Lancaster PB416 in southern Norway.

Chapter 4:  The Crash at Saupeset

Nesbyen Cemetery

At about 5:15 pm on 16th September, 1944, the first group of sixteen Lancaster bombers, with a total of a hundred and thirty-one crew, took off over a two-hour period to return to the UK, over the airspace of neutral Sweden, avoiding occupied Norway. Each plane, which normally had a crew of seven, was carrying extra passengers because of the disabled planes that had had to be left behind. Leading the group, Wing Commander Tait confirmed his safe return to the UK at 1:39 am on September 17, after a fair-weather flight. All the other planes returned safely, except the Lancaster piloted by Frank Levy, PB416.

At 5.20 pm the following day, Group Commander McMullen, on temporary assignment in Yagodnik, near Archangel, sent a Top Secret WT (wireless transmission) concerning the disappearance of Lancaster PB416, assumed missing, to Ralph Cochrane, Commander of 5 Group, to Sir Arthur Harris, Commander-in-Chief of Bomber Command, to Sir Thomas Williams, Assistant Chief of Air Staff at the Air Ministry in Whitehall, and to the 30 Mission in Moscow. It ran: “Following were crew of Victor 617 Squadron: Levy, Groom, Fox, Peckham, McGuire, McNally, Thomas, Naylor, Shea.” McMullen was responsible for the overall organisation of Operation PARAVANE, the air assault on the German battleship Tirpitz, from the airbase at Yagodnik, including liaison with his immediate RAF commanders in the UK, Cochrane and Harris. He also reported to Williams at the Air Ministry in London, who was responsible for defining operational requirements, and to 30 Mission Moscow. 30 Mission coordinated the project with the Soviet armed forces as well as with the British base at Archangel across the river Dvina from Yagodnik.

In the ORB (Operations Record Book) entry from the end of September Squadron Leader Tait stated: “This aircraft was lost on the return from Yagodnik to base on 17/9/44. An acknowledgement for a QDF (map location fix) from Dyce was received at 0121 GMT.  Nothing else was heard from this aircraft.” Willie Tait had recently been promoted commander of No 617 Squadron that had achieved fame for its ‘bouncing bomb’ raids against the Möhne and Edersee dams in 1943. He held responsibility for the attack on the battleship Tirpitz launched by the RAF squadrons at Yagodnik. At 15.05 on 17th September Squadron Leader Harman had confirmed the coordinates of the QDF request from PB416 in the Squadron Diary as 60 50 North 009 45 East.  Harman was both a Squadron Leader and Acting Adjutant for Operation PARAVANE. In the latter role he compiled a daily diary of the Operation, which was supplied to Group Commander McMullen.

The QDF coordinates refer to Oystogo, in southern Norway, a remote hamlet in a grassy valley with steep mountains on two sides. The river Etna runs through the valley. It is about fifty miles from Saupeset where Lancaster PB416 crashed, three-hundred-and-thirty miles off course from the rest of the group of sixteen Lancasters returning to the UK. The RAF Flight Loss Card for PB416 confirmed the crash location as lying approximately 110 km north-west of Oslo at about 0138 GMT. Nine crewmen were shown on board, the same as the details on McMullen’s wireless telegram.

PB416’s Flight Loss Card

It is both curious and provocative that Norway was identified as the target. There was no indication that this aircraft had been engaged in Operation PARAVANE and was supposed to be flying home from Yagodnik. In general RAF records present specific, functional, and accurate data. The clerk who completed the Loss Card would have used information provided by RAF No 617 Squadron. This is the only known official record confirming Norway as PB416’s target for this date, and it was clearly not considered a problem to state the target as Norway so soon after the crash. In other words, PB416 was meant to be over Norway and had confirmed its target by the transmission of its coordinates, over Oystogo, to RAF Dyce Aberdeen. By this reckoning the location of PB416 was not an accident: it had reached its target by 0121 GMT on 17th September and confirmed the same to the RAF base in the UK.

On 15th October Cochrane confirmed to Harris: “With the exception of one aircraft which is presumed to have crashed in Norway all aircraft in Russia less the six which could not be repaired had arrived back in this country by September 28th”. The site of the crash is well documented. At a height of about 3,500 feet, Saupeset is a steeply wooded ridge overlooking a valley with the village of Nesbyen below. Saupeset is used for summer pasture with few human inhabitants. A Lancaster bomber exploding on impact with at least one third of its fuel unused would have been a colossal shock to the remote rural scene. In the days following, a shallow mass grave was dug in the rocky ground close by the crash, most probably by local residents from Nesbyen. No names were permitted to be recorded by the German authorities, whose Gestapo Headquarters at Gol was about ten miles away. With active Norwegian Resistance from Milorg in the Hallingdal area the Germans were determined to minimise any boost to local morale which this unexpected British Lancaster might have supported. In spite of the Germans, the local Norwegians erected a simple wooden cross with ten nails to represent the ten bodies they had buried.

The Grave at Saupeset

The next official document to appear was the initial registration made by the GRU (Grave Registration Unit) on 24th July 1945, two months after the German surrender in Europe. This was the first stage of the task of the War Graves Commission, namely to identify graves, reconcile names of casualties and where required prepare reburial to a designated military cemetery. This July registration by Captain Byrne confirmed eleven bodies as casualties of the crash of PB416. Strangely the same document was amended on 22nd August 1945 by Captain Byrne to show only nine bodies, which of course tallies with the RAF Crash Card from September 1944. The two names deleted in August from the initial July register were Squadron Leader Wyness and Flight Lieutenant Williams.

Squadron-Leader Wyness (front left)

It is puzzling why there should have been such confusion over the most simple of tasks, namely confirming the number of crew on board a Lancaster departing the Soviet Union and determining the number of bodies found at the crash site of the same plane on a remote mountain in Norway. The evidence is moreover contradictory. One clue was an unofficial memorial panel, hand painted with Norwegian text, which was installed at the crash site. According to local sources it was attached to the cross with ten nails as soon as the Germans had retreated from the area in May 1945. The panel confirmed ten RAF crew as casualties, including Williams and Wyness. These were the same airmen who were included on the British GRU report in July and then deleted in August 1945. Curiously the Norwegian panel omits Flight Sergeant McGuire, who is included in all RAF and GRU records. If McGuire’s name had been added to the Norwegian memorial panel in May 1945, the total number of casualties would have been eleven.

Memorial Panel

The Norwegian list was based on the physical identity of the casualties before burial in September 1944.  Their names were confirmed by the ‘dog tags’ worn on the wrist and the ID on each serviceman’s uniform. A severe crash and explosion might have made verification of bodies difficult, but the Norwegian panel confirms the clear identity of ten airmen, with the exception of McGuire, which tallies exactly with the same ten names in the GRU report in July. This implies that the ‘dog tags’ were readable on ten bodies. This assessment further suggests that the initial British GRU list in July 1945 was based both on RAF records and cross referenced with local Norwegian records including the memorial panel. Otherwise the names of Williams and Wyness would not have been included. It is unlikely that the mass grave on Saupeset was exhumed by the British in July 1945, since the fact that McGuire’s ID was missing would otherwise have been questioned by Captain Byrne in his report to the RAF. The question must be asked: Why did Captain Byrne delete Williams and Wyness from the GRU list on 22nd August 1945? The reason is that, although the ‘dog tags’ and uniforms of these two airmen were found at the crash site, these two officers were not on flight PB416 from Yagodnik.

The Squadron records show Williams was hospitalized at Yagodnik with severe dysentery on 16th September when PB416 took off. (Perhaps that is the reason his uniform was ‘borrowed’). Wyness did indeed leave Yagodnik with the sixteen Lancasters on 16th September, but as a passenger on Flight Lieutenant Iveson’s Lancaster ME554, which landed safely in the UK at 0124 GMT on 17th September. (Wyness’ own plane had crashed on landing on 11th September  and was abandoned in the Soviet Union.) But both the Norwegian memorial and July 24th GRU record confirm the identities of Williams and Wyness at the crash site. If Williams and Wyness were not on board PB416 on 16th September, who, then, were wearing their uniforms and IDs when the plane crashed at Saupeset?

Wyness’s plane grounded

We know for certain that Williams and Wyness were not passengers. Their fate was one shared by many brave airmen who served their country and flew with Bomber Command. Together with six other Lancasters of 617 Squadron, on a mission to bomb the Kembs barrier on the river Rhine, their plane was hit by anti-aircraft fire and crashed at Rheinweiler, Germany on 7th October 1944. Although they successfully bailed out before impact, they were captured by German troops and executed, in breach of the Geneva Convention for the treatment of prisoners-of-war. Wyness, aged 24, the pilot, was buried at Choloy, in France and Williams, aged 22, was buried in the Dürnbach Cemetery, in Germany.

In Memoriam
In Memoriam

By 1946, further notifications in the record had been made. The Grave Registration document early that year shows ten allocated graves in the cemetery, one of which, XII G2, has been left blank and is later overtyped, “UNKNOWN BRITISH AIRMAN 17.9.44”. This document confirms the reburial of the bodies from the top of Saupeset to individual graves in the church yard below. These details were reconfirmed in the Graves Concentration Report of 9th August 1946. The record now states that ten bodies had been transferred from Saupeset and re-interred at Nesbyen, with nine names matching those in the RAF Crash report plus one ‘unknown British airman’. McGuire was included: Wyness and Williams had been withdrawn. The resolution thus appears to reflect faithfully the RAF Flight Loss Card, perhaps ascribing the extra body to a clerical oversight.

Final Report on PB416

When asked about the inconsistency of GRU and RAF records for PB416 the Commonwealth War Graves Commission (CWGC) confirmed that all data was based on the lists supplied by the Germans at the time of the initial burial, forwarded to the Red Cross and subsequently to the RAF. When the Red Cross and International Red Cross were requested, however, for their record of the accident, both confirmed that they had no information of either the crash or any of the casualties at Saupeset on 17th September 1944. When asked about the Norwegian memorial from May 1945 the CWGC said they had no knowledge of its existence.

So why did the first GRU report of July 1945 include Williams and Wyness, while RAF records did not? The implication is that Captain Byrne of the GRU, on the first British visit to the crash site, took the details he had been given from the RAF crash card, which showed the nine names. On discovering the new names of Wyness and Williams from the local Norwegian memorial, he simply added them to give a total of eleven casualties.  Yet McMullen was clearly aware that Williams and Wyness were not on board PB416 on 16th September and knew that they had become casualties in Germany on 7th October 1944, not in Norway. After submitting his list of eleven names to RAF on 24th July 1945, Byrne was surely advised to delete the names of Williams and Wyness, which he did on 22nd August.  This left a total of nine casualties, consistent with the RAF version, but not with the Norwegian memorial that showed they had buried ten bodies, with ten readable ID tags, the year before. That may explain the need for the addition of the ‘unknown British airman’ for the reburial in March 1946 to bring the total number of graves at Nesbyen to ten.

How could one set of IDs been lost? PB416 was carrying approximately 800 gallons of fuel on impact, so it is quite possible that the eleventh body was so badly burned in the crash that the airman’s ID was unrecognizable. This probably explains why McGuire’s name was missing from the Norwegian memorial panel. Yet the lack of any process to reconcile differences is disturbing. When the RAF received Byrne’s report of 11 bodies at the mass grave on 24th July 1945 it was the first time that McMullen’s account of nine casualties on PB416 had been challenged. McMullen was still Commander at RAF Bardney at this time, and he was presumably a difficult man to challenge. His list of nine RAF airmen was partially accurate, but he had omitted the identity and existence of the two passengers who must have been wearing the uniforms of Williams and Wyness, which brought the true total of people on board PB416 to eleven.

A local story has circulated in Nesbyen that, after the first British inspection in July 1945, a transportation was arranged by British troops with local assistance to move one body from the Saupeset grave to the British Embassy in Oslo. If the story is true it aligns with RAF instructions to Byrne in August 1945 to reduce the number of identifiable casualties in the report from eleven to nine, while honoring the Norwegian memorial, with its count of ten. Unlike the GRU, the RAF and McMullen were aware of the number of people who boarded PB416 at Yagodnik on 16th September, 1944, and that by physically removing one casualty from the mass grave this would leave ten bodies on Saupeset. The RAF had to admit that Wyness and Williams had not been on the flight, because of subsequent events, but they had to bury the fact that their uniforms and IDs had been borrowed by unnamed passengers and had been found at the crash site. The final step in adjusting the body count was made public in March 1946 when the casualties were reburied at Nesbyen, ready for visits by families from the UK. A tenth body was now added to the adjusted GRU reports in March, confirmed in August 1946 and designated ‘Unknown British Airman’. It is certain that McMullen was aware that the tenth and eleventh bodies were neither RAF nor British: hence there was little risk of their families being aware that the GRU or the RAF had been involved with the burial of foreign servicemen in a British War Cemetery in a remote part of Norway.

Defence Attache Matt Skuse in Nesbyen Graveyard

This total perfectly aligned with the 10 new gravestones in Nesbyen cemetery for the ten bodies brought down from Saupeset in Spring 1946. It is likely that the instruction for this change by GRU was made and approved by the RAF in line with previous changes by the GRU. If the eleventh body was transported to the British Embassy in summer 1945 it would have required an order from the RAF and official sanction from the Foreign Office in London. Yet, by making one body physically disappear to the British Embassy in 1945, and the second body being made anonymous as ‘Unknown British Airman’ in 1946, it was as though the two persons wearing the uniforms of Williams and Wyness had never existed and certainly could not be traced.

But they did exist. What next has to be investigated are the questions of who might have been wearing the uniforms belonging to Williams and Wyness, why they were on board an RAF Lancaster three-hundred-and-thirty miles off route in Southern Norway, and why the RAF, the CWGC and local Norwegians still prefer not to discuss the matter. For they were certainly Soviet agents authorized at the highest level to be flown on a secret mission to Norway.

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Special Bulletin: ‘The Airmen Who Died Twice’ – Part 1

Hallingdal, Norway

Preface:

This Special Bulletin consists of the first two chapters of a report ‘The Airmen Who Died Twice’, the culmination of a project to investigate a mysterious airplane crash in Norway in September 1944. The events were first described in June 2022 on this website at  https://coldspur.com/special-bulletin-the-airmen-who-died-twice/. The complete article contains eight chapters: I shall publish two more in each of the following three months. In that way, the full account shall be available for the British authorities to respond to in time for the solemn eightieth anniversary of the crash of PB416 at Saupeset in Norway on September 17, 2024. I believe the relatives of those crew members killed in the accident deserve a proper apology for the deception and attempt at a cover-up that quickly followed the incident.

I want to give full credit to the role that my collaborator, Nigel Austin, played in this research project. The original idea was his. He discovered some traces of the clumsily muddled story, and uniquely identified the contradictions in what little archival material existed. He then doggedly chased down resources and spokespersons for various organizations that were involved. He contacted me for assistance in providing some method and structure to his endeavour, and I was gripped enough by the drama and paradoxes in his outline to want to work with him. Unfortunately, some personal problems prevented Nigel from completing his side of our agreement, and I decided to take over the project before the details escaped from my overtaxed brain. I thus performed some original research on my own, and also turned Nigel’s observations into a narrative that I hope both instructs and explains. I also believed that it was very important that the story be published well before the eightieth anniversary, and, since no commitment from any historical magazine had been secured in time, I decided to use coldspur as the medium.

Readers will notice that the report lacks any Footnotes. I took this approach in order to broaden the appeal of the text. However, I believe that the narrative is adequately sprinkled with references that will convince readers of the scholarly nature of the investigation. Sources can be supplied, and I shall list them separately, later. On the other hand, many of the communications that must have occurred are not traceable, and probably never will be. That is in the nature of highly confidential government undertakings. Thus the work is a hypothesis lacking firm proofs, but offering enough credible evidence to provide as watertight an argument as can be expected. I hope that, through the publication of these eight chapters, readers around the globe may be prompted to discover and present fresh memoirs, letters, or other documents that will flesh out the story. Or, of course, blow it apart. Because historiography is never finished.

Appearing here on February 15: Chapter 3 (‘The RAF in Yagodnik’) and Chapter 4 (‘The Crash at Saupeset’). Enter the date in your calendar now! And, if you have observations or details to add to the story, please send them to me at antonypercy@aol.com.

Chapter 1: Introduction and Historical Background

The saga of ‘The Airmen Who Died Twice’ is a story about a rash deviation from a serious World War II aerial operation that went horribly wrong. It is a tale about hazardous decisions made under pressure, in a climate of tensions across political, geographical, linguistic, cultural and temporal boundaries. It contains aspects of deep secrecy, betrayal, deception and self-delusion, and has ever since remained a mystery to most British government officials who have had to deal with its legacy. And, above all, it is a story of sacrifice, of brave young men who, having committed to risk their lives in genuine opposition to a real enemy, perished in an unnecessary and highly risky enterprise that should never have seen the light of day.

Battleship Tirpitz

The official – and well-documented – engagement was Operation PARAVANE, which was prepared in August 1944, and took place the following month. PARAVANE was a project undertaken by the RAF to bomb the Nazi battleship, Tirpitz, lying in a Norwegian fjord, and ready to attack the British-American convoys that were transporting valuable matériel to Stalin, via the ports of Murmansk and Archangel. After the foray against the Tirpitz was completed, launched from Soviet territory, and a reduced set of aircraft was being prepared to bring the airmen home to the United Kingdom, a decision was made to re-route one of the aircraft over Swedish airspace to a location over southern Norway, where two parachutists were to be dropped to undertake a dangerous mission. Having arrived at its destination, the plane crashed into a mountain, and all aboard lost their lives. This series of articles offers an explanation of what events and negotiations led to the disaster.

At the time that Operation PARAVANE was executed, the war against the Axis forces was considered by most military experts to have been nominally won. The Western Allies had made a successful re-entry to Normandy in June 1944, and were advancing steadily towards the German borders. By the end of August, Paris had been re-occupied. The Soviet Red Army had advanced on a broad front from Bucharest to the River Dvina in Latvia, and General Rokossovsky’s Army was approaching Warsaw. British, Canadian and American troops had begun to cross the Gothic Line in the Apennines of Italy. Inside Germany, opposition to Hitler was mounting. On July 20, the plot to assassinate him had taken place, although the dictator escaped with injuries. The Allies demand for ‘unconditional surrender’ meant, however, that many more months of intense fighting would take place before the Germans capitulated.

Great Britain and the Soviet Union had always enjoyed a fragile relationship in the conflict with Nazi Germany. When the contradictions of the Nazi-Soviet pact were unveiled by Hitler’s attack on Russia in June 1941, Churchill had immediately expressed urgent support for his erstwhile ideological foe, who had helped Germany with valuable matériel in its assault on Britain. Stalin had responded by quickly making unreasonable demands on Britain, and used his network of spies to gain intelligence, and his agents of influence and ‘useful idiots’ to further the Soviet cause with the British citizenry. After making a private foolish and unauthorized commitment to Stalin about launching a ‘second front’ in France way before the Allies were ready, Churchill was continuously nervous about the dictator’s moods. Yet, after the Soviets repelled the German advance at Stalingrad in February 1943, the balance of power shifted markedly.

In this context, Churchill’s desire to destroy the battleship Tirpitz might be viewed as a bit obsessive. The U-Boat threat in the Atlantic had been largely eliminated, but Britain was still committed to delivering matériel to Stalin through the Arctic Convoys, and the presence of Tirpitz at Altenfjord in Northern Norway represented a large menace to their safety. After the disastrous scattering of the convoy to Murmansk, PQ17, in July 1942, the convoys had been suspended for a few months, and again in the summer of 1943, because of preparations for Operation TORCH. On October 1, 1943, however, Churchill, always eager to appease the demanding Stalin, had assured the Soviet leader that they would resume in mid-November. Moreover, the Soviets had been difficult and prickly over the British presence in Murmansk, ordering two communications stations there to close. In April 1944, British aircraft had tried to attack the Tirpitz from Scottish bases with Barracuda bombers, but they had caused little damage. They followed up during the summer with six further futile attempts, at considerable expense of fuel and ammunition, but were foiled by bad weather and the ship’s defences.

Shrewd observers –  especially in the War Office – had already recognized that the Soviet Union was going to be an ideological and maybe real adversary after the war, as Stalin’s plans for subjugating the countries of eastern Europe became clear. Despite the Foreign Office’s enduring belief that Stalin and his commissars would behave like English gentlemen if they were approached with a spirit of cooperation, the Soviets remained uncompromising, suspicious, secretive, and very protective of their country’s subjects. Any intrusion from the West was interpreted as espionage, and as an initiative designed to subvert the Communist empire. Attempts to share intelligence between Britain’s services (i.e. SOE and MI6) and the NKVD had collapsed in mutual incriminations, and SOE was ready to withdraw its station in Moscow in the spring of 1944. Thus the opportunity for cooperation over bombing raids on the Tirpitz would have seemed to be unpromising.

Such qualms would be reinforced by the scandalous behaviour of the Soviet Union during the Warsaw Uprising, which had started on August 1. It was on the Poles’ behalf that Britain had declared war on Germany back in September 1939, and a vigorous Polish government-in-exile in London was keen to see it resume a traditional role in a freed Poland after the Germans had been expelled. Churchill (and, to a lesser extent Roosevelt) was anxious to provide all the help he could to the beleaguered Poles in Warsaw, but was restricted in having to launch support flights from bases in the United Kingdom and in Brindisi, Italy. Stalin had other ideas: he had created the so-called Polish Committee for National Liberation on July 22, and planned to install a Communist regime in Warsaw when the Soviets took the city from Germany. He refused to offer any support to the rebels from his troops on the other side of the Vistula, and rejected Churchill’s requests for landing-grounds behind Soviet-held territory. Stalin was now more universally accepted, even by Britain’s Foreign Office, as an untrustworthy partner.

Thus the Cold War could be said to have started, not with the revelations about Soviet atom spies in September 1945, not at the Yalta Conference in February 1945, but on the banks of the Vistula in September 1944. When Churchill later met Stalin at the ‘Tolstoy’ talks in Moscow in early October, a rather cynical carve-up of Europe was arranged. At this convention Stalin also made stringent demands for a new Polish-Russian border, roughly equating to the old Curzon Line, but forcing the important city of Lvov to be on the Russian side. Churchill was required to return to London to take this dismal message to the Poles, having already upset them with his refusal to challenge Stalin on the circumstances of the Katyn massacres of 1940. The political climate for the British gaining a high degree of collaboration from the NKVD and Soviet Air Force on an aerial mission that required the use of Soviet airfields for an assault on the Tirpitz would therefore seem to have been entirely hostile.

Yet some measure of cooperation had taken root in the summer of 1944. A combined military mission to Moscow had been established as long ago as July 1941. At that time the role of the 30 Mission (as it was dubbed) was more of an intelligence-gathering exercise, as the British War Office and Foreign Office believed then that the Soviet Union would collapse in a matter of weeks before the Nazi onslaught. It was led by a rather foppish Major Macfarlane, whose intelligence background irritated his hosts. In April 1944, however, just as NKVD-SOE relationships had broken dramatically apart, a Lieutenant Abercrombie was sent out to try to define some manner of shared objectives. These background negotiations turned out to be pivotal for the ability of Bomber Command to make rapid changes to its plans at the beginning of September 1944. After the success using the Tallboy bomb in raids on French ports, a fresh approach using these new weapons was considered, initially involving bombers stretching their fuel resources by flying again from Lincolnshire and Scotland to the northern fjords of Norway.

It was in this context that the plans for Operation PARAVANE were made.

Chapter 2: Planning for PARAVANE

Tirpitz in Kafjord, inner to Altenfjord

It was only after June 1944, when successful operations using the 12,000 lb. Tallboy bomb were carried out in France, that the Royal Air Force started to consider using the weapon against the German battleship Tirpitz, berthed at Altenfjord in northern Norway. Yet there was a catch: the only aircraft that could carry such a heavy bomb was a modified version of the Avro Lancaster. After detailed analysis RAF Bomber Command concluded in August that an operation to deploy a squadron of Lancasters for a direct raid from Scotland was not feasible because of the aircraft’s fuel capacity. They thus considered using a base in the northern Soviet Union, Vaenga 1, near Murmansk, as an intermediate refuelling station after the raid.

This airfield, Vaenga 1, was already known to the RAF, as it had been used by Coastal Command (151 Wing) back in 1941, shortly after the Soviet Union became an ally. Hampdens and Mosquitoes had been sent there for training Soviet crews. In April 1943, Coastal Command had evaluated Operation HIGHBALL, using the newly formed 618 Squadron with specially modified Mosquito aircraft, and the Barnes Wallis-designed bouncing bomb, to attack the Tirpitz. Vaenga had been considered as a possible destination, or even launching-site for the operation, but concerns were expressed about the security aspects of exposing technological secrets to the Soviets, and for a variety of reasons the project was abandoned.

Hurricanes at Vaenga Airfield

At the instigation of the Americans, who first came up with the idea of using Soviet bases for shuttle bombing, General Ismay, at the Moscow Conference of October-November 1943, had made a request for the provision of such bases on Russian territory. The Joint Chiefs of Staff also made a request for the Russians to exchange codes and procedures for communicating weather information, and instructed the US and GB Missions in Moscow to follow up. In April 1944, the question of bombing the Tirpitz was raised by Admiral Fisher at the first Mission Conference held by General Burrows (who had replaced General Martel in March). In May Burrows started defining procedures for how airmen stranded in Soviet territory should identify themselves, suggesting strongly that some agreement for the RAF to operate over Russia had been worked out. Briefly, negotiations appeared to improve, as the Soviets articulated plans for attacking the Germans in Northern Norway, which the British believed might assist the BODYGUARD deception. While that venture came to nothing, by August 1944 it appears to have been Bomber Command’s understanding that gaining approval for an operation that required landing on Soviet soil would be a formality. A message dated August 28 indicates that permission would nevertheless have to be sought through the Mission in Moscow.

The formal request was made on September 1, for an operation scheduled to take place on September 7 – an alarmingly short period for gaining approval, and then planning and implementing all the support and infrastructure required. While that approval appeared to be very quickly forthcoming, however, a setback occurred. Vaenga was quickly deemed to be unsuitable. The same day, Air Vice-Marshal Walmsley of Bomber Command, working on a survey recently undertaken by a Squadron Leader in the Photographic Reconnaissance Unit, wrote to Air Commodore Bufton in the Air Ministry requesting that alternatives in the Archangel area be investigated. The primary obstacle seemed to be that Vaenga’s proximity to the target meant that it could be exposed to raids from the German Air Force (although it should not have needed photographic research to confirm that). Moreover, the runways were probably of inferior quality.

Yagodnik Airfield

The outcome was that from a shortlist of a few other airfields, Yagodnik, on an island south-west of Archangel, almost 400 miles from Murmansk, rapidly became the favourite. It possessed a solid runway that could be extended to 1500 yards – shorter than that at Vaenga, but adequate, as the minimum length required was 1400 yards. One intriguing fact is found in a report describing the airfield, dated as far back as May 22, 1944. That survey pointed out that Yagodnik had been used by fighters and bombers, specifically the Petlyakov PE-8, a rather clumsy and accident-prone heavy bomber formally known as the TB-7. The fact that British personnel had been given permission to inspect such facilities, without any accusations of spying, suggests that negotiations for possible use by the RAF had been going on for some time. That may explain why Air Marshall Harris could take for granted at this late stage that the Soviets would agree to such an initiative, despite their customarily extreme wariness of foreigners. Any such move would have had to be approved by Stalin, and the role of 30 Mission as an intermediary in Moscow reinforces that assumption.

The willingness of Stalin to cooperate needs to be analyzed in the context of events in the recent past. Chapter 1 of this story described the ill feeling that had been engendered by his lack of support for the air drops of his western allies, who were trying to assist the Warsaw Uprising. Yet a lesser known scheme involving the United States at Poltava (an airbase in the Ukraine, west of Kharkiv) should also be taken into account. This precedent for the use of Soviet airbases had recently occurred as Operation FRANTIC, whereby the Soviets granted rights to the USA Air Force to conduct bombing-raids from Poltava on German territory between June and September 1944. This operation was not without controversy, however: the Americans were abused by the Soviets, especially when, on June 21, Soviet air defences failed to prevent a highly destructive raid on US aircraft by German airplanes, all of which escaped intact. Moreover, by that time, with the Soviet land forces moving close to Germany, the value of the base had sharply diminished. The important manufacturing targets identified by the Soviets were actually closer to Great Britain than Poltava.

Poltava Airfield

What is more, the Soviets had exploited the presence of American aircraft on their soil by stealing technology secrets. In the light of their own very weak capabilities in this domain, they were keenly interested in the American technique of strategic bombing. Stalin issued strict instructions that every detail of American advanced technology be recorded by the Soviet Air Force, and the latter salvaged materials from aircraft that had crash-landed on Russian soil. They also learned all about the procedures of American ground-to-air-to-ground communications. Thus the opportunity to learn from the RAF about the Tallboy bomb and its method of delivery would have been highly valuable for future Soviet military capabilities. Stalin may have been sympathetic to the project to eliminate Tirpitz, but he had more devious goals in cooperating with Bomber Command. While the vozhd was extremely wary of any Soviet citizens’ being exposed to foreign influences, and the NKGB and SMERSH were trained to consider all such persons on their soil as spies, the arrangement of procuring advanced British technology on Russian soil (or swamp) would deliver more important prizes.

In fact, a more detailed examination of the War Diary of 30 Mission indicates that Stalin had become a more encouraging force behind the project for launching air operations over Norway. When General Burrows took over from the rather ineffectual General Martel, he started to introduce more discipline and determination into his dealings with the Soviets, including better treatment for casualties from convoy operations, and a loosening of the absurd rules about the issuance of visas to returning British officers. He pursued more aggressively the return of radio equipment seized by Soviet customs officials. And, as mentioned above, he started seeking procedures for assisting British aircrew members, possibly stranded on Soviet soil, to help identify themselves to the Red Army or the NKGB, a measure that must indicate that he expected British planes to be operating over Soviet territory. The Soviets were habitually unco-operative, but Burrows learned that they responded better to hard bargaining.

In any case, following the positive signal from the Kremlin, more detailed preparations were briskly made. To accompany the squadrons of Lancasters, Liberator aircraft would be required to carry maintenance engineers and spares. Group Captain McMullen was made responsible for the discipline, quartering and messing of all crews, and was scheduled to fly out in a Liberator in advance of the Lancaster squadrons. His role was to establish communications protocols, and rules for the use of beacons, and relay them to the UK, so that the arriving aircraft could safely find their way to Yagodnik. He had to arrange for the provision of fuel and oil to supply the aircraft for their journey home. He was also to be responsible for dispatching the operational air party on its return flight, or should the original operation have been abortive, on a repeat operation. He was to keep in close contact with British Naval authorities in Archangel and the Air Attaché in Moscow.  All in all, it was an astonishingly complex and difficult task to be completed in just a few days, with issues of terrain, security, politics, language and electronic communications to be sorted out. Despite all the challenges, on September 7, the Operational Order was issued for all aircraft to be moved to the forward bases at Lossiemouth, Kinloss and Milltown.

Yet a very late revision to the plan occurred. As a further complication, Bomber Command had, after intense calculations and trials, concluded on September 11 that PARAVANE would better be launched from inside Soviet territory (and not simply use such bases for refuelling). The reason offered later was that the weather was primarily responsible, but also because the closeness of the Russian bases to northern Norway was less demanding on fuel requirements. In addition, the location would enable a surprise, and thus potentially more successful, attack from the south-east, since German Radio-Detection Finding apparatus would be less effective in spotting raids from that direction. Thus the new plan required the squadrons to fly directly to the Archangel area, there to rest and refuel, before launching the attack on the Tirpitz, and then returning to Yagodnik.

Operation PARAVANE (revised)

Who actually conceived this new plan is an enigma: the conclusions appeared to have been arrived at without consulting the Soviets. More sympathetic messages had recently been arriving from Stalin, however. At the end of August, he had floated the idea of creating an International Air Corps, to which Churchill responded enthusiastically. And on September 9, Stalin had announced that he would allow Allied planes to be launched from Ukrainian territory to support the Warsaw uprising – a hopelessly late gesture to save the Poles, but an indication that the presence of the RAF in northern Russia would now be treated more positively. This move was all the more significant since the Soviet Foreign Minister Vyshinski had recently forbidden any US planes assisting the Warsaw Uprising from returning to their base at Poltava.

This change of plan also presents some paradoxes. The archive does not state who made the decision: some historians claim it was Harris. At the end of August, Air Vice-Marshal Cochrane had been involved in intense trials with Squadron-Leader Tait that suggest that he had set out to ‘prove’ that the Tirpitz would be out of range, as if he had been commissioned to provide evidence for a decision already made. Despite coming to conclusions, presumably, that a direct flight to Altenfjord for the assault before landing in northern Russia would not be feasible, the existing plan must have been passed up to Harris for him to adjudicate. Why did Cochrane not propose an alternative plan? He either a) wanted the whole operation called off; b) was not aware of the possibility of an alternative approach by launching the attack from Soviet territory; or c) was party to an elaborate ruse, and pretended to play the innocent.

One account suggests that the USAAF had been the Soviets’ preferred choice as a collaborator for the assault on the Tirpitz. While Stalin did not have serious designs on occupying Norway (he was not even considering re-entering his contiguous neighbour Finland, despite the fact that it had been an adversary during the war), he was interested in gaining part of the Finnmark territory to the North, which would give him access to valuable mines, but yield a short frontier with Norway. In this regard, he still considered the Tirpitz a threat. But he disparaged the multiple, expensive, but unsuccessful series of raids on the battleship by the British, and hoped that the Americans might consider a second base in northern Russia. The Americans had been too chastened by the Poltava experience, however, and, with Germany on the run, Roosevelt was not interested in further buccaneering exploits in the European theatre of war. Thus Stalin turned to the British.

The archival material does suggest that a higher authority was involved. Harris’s memorandum announcing the change is directed to the Admiralty, with a copy sent to Bottomley at the Air Ministry. A memorandum from the Air Ministry informing 30 Mission of the change of plan has a time-stamp of three minutes earlier, however, indicating perhaps that both Bomber Command and the Air Ministry had recently been informed of the new directives. The Air Ministry memorandum attributed the change of plan to ‘weather conditions’ in the target area being too variable: Harris does not provide that as a reason. Moreover, Harris does not take responsibility in his own text, writing instead that ‘It has now been decided’ that the bombers will fly directly ‘from English bases’ (i.e. not via Lossiemouth or Unst) to Yagodnik. The implication is that the decision to launch the attack from Yagodnik had already been made, and it was the details on the route that were important. It is clear, from the anomalous and incongruous cables exchanged between Bomber Command, the Air Ministry, the Admiralty, the Naval Station in Murmansk, and 30 Mission in Moscow that an elaborate smokescreen was being created to conceal the secrecy and irregularity of the agreement with Stalin to use Soviet bases. The apparent rapid decision about a direct flight would have alarming and fateful consequences.

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