Monday, May 11, 2015

Airthief’ operation

Armin Faber's Focke-Wulf Fw 190A-3 of III/JG 2 at RAF Pembrey, June 1942.

By the spring of 1942 the Fw 190 had become an uncomfortably sharp thorn in the side of RAF Fighter Command. Obviously, if an airworthy example of the Fw 190 could be captured and its secrets probed, that would be of inestimable value. Capt. Philip Pinckney, a British commando officer, hatched a daring plan to gain that end.

In an operation of this type, two men might succeed where more might fail. Pinckney suggested that his good friend Jeffrey Quill, chief test pilot at the Supermarine Company, should accompany him on the enterprise.

The essentials of the plan were as follows. On Night 1 a Royal Navy motor gunboat, equipped with direction-finding radio, was to carry the pair to a point within about two miles of a selected beach on the French coast, where they would disembark into a folding canoe. The pair would paddle ashore, hide their boat in sand dunes and lie up during the following day. On Night 2 the pair would move inland to within observation range of the selected Fw 190 airfield, and hide up before dawn. During the daylight hours the pair would keep the airfield under observation and plan their attack. On Night 3 the pair would penetrate the airfield defences by stealth, and conceal themselves as near as possible to one or more Fw 190s at their dispersal points. The pair would then wait until the next day, when the ground crew arrived to run the engine of one of the fighters.

The pair would then break cover, shoot or drive away the ground crewmen, and Jeffrey Quill would jump into the cockpit and taxi the machine to the runway. As he did so, Pinckney would be outside the plane warding off any attempt to interfere with the operation. Once Quill was safely airborne, Pinckney would withdraw to a previously prepared hide. On Night 4 he would return to the hidden canoe. Just before dawn he would launch the craft and paddle out to sea, making radio transmissions so that the motor gunboat could home on the craft and pick him up.

Yet in a remarkable coincidence, on the very day Pinckney submitted his proposal, the need for this risky operation disappeared. On the afternoon of 23 June an Fw 190 pilot had become disorientated in a dogfight with Spitfires over southern England. He mistook the Bristol Channel for the English Channel and made a wheels-down landing at Pembrey airfield, south Wales [above]. Thus, the RAF gained the coveted example of an Fw 190, without having to resort to the risky ‘Airthief’ operation.


 By the beginning of 1942 it was clear that the capture of an airworthy Fw 190 would be of inestimable value to RAF Fighter Command. Yet in wrtime the aquisition of an example of the latest enemy fighter in an undamaged condition was a requirement far easier to state than to achieve. Nevertheless Captain Philip Pinckney, a Commando officer who was undeterred by the many obvious difficulties, put forward a proposal for 2 men to attempt to achieve by stealth what a battalion would not achieve by force: to steal one of the new German fighters and fly it back to England. For sheer effrontery the plan, which is reproduced in full below, can have few equals in military history. And it might just have succeeded.

To: Officer Commanding No 12 Commando
From: Captain Pinckney, E Troop, No 12 Commando

I understand that as a matter of great urgency and importance a specimen Focke Wulf 190 is required in this country. I attach a proposal for procuring one of these aircraft.
....I have the honour to request that this, my application to be allowed to undertake the operation described, may be forwarded as rapidly as possible through the correct channels to the Chief of Combined Operations I further propose that the pilot to accompany me should be Mr. Jeffery Quill who is a close friend of mine, and as a well known test pilot of fighter aircraft is well qualified to bring back the plane. He is also young, active, a yachtsman, and a man in every way suitable to carry out the preliminary approach by land and sea.
....If Mr. Quill cannot be allowed to undertake this operation, perhaps a substitute could be made available from the Free French Forces. I am most anxious to be allowed to volunteer for this operation.

I have the honour to be
Your obedient servant
(signed) P. H. Pinckney


1) Object: to bring back to this country undamaged a Focke Wulf 190
2) Forces Required:
One MGB (motor gunboat) equipped with DF (direction-finding radio) apparatus, to carry a folbot (collaspable canoe) to within 2 miles of the coast of France.
One folbot equipped with wireless transmitter.
One officer of a Commando.
One specially selected pilot.

3) Day 1
a) On the night of D1, the MGB, carrying the officers and folbot, will leave England after dark and proceed at best speed to within 2 miles of the French coast off a selected beach.
b) On reaching the beach the folbot will be carried inland and hidden in a wood or buried in the dunes. The officers will lie up during the following day.

4) Day 2
After laying up all day the officers will move inland until they are within observation range of a fighter aerodrome.

5) Day 3
a) On D3, the officers will keep the aerodrome under observation and plan the attack for the start of nautical twilight (ie, just before sunrise) on D4.
b) During the night of D3, the officers will penetrate the aerodrome defenses by stealth and will conceal themselves as near as possible to a selected Focke Wulf aircraft.

6) Day 4
a) At the start of nautical twilight on D4, when the aircraft are warmed up by the ground mechanics, the two officers will take the first opportunity to shoot the ground mechanics of the selected plane as soon as it has been started up. The pilot officer will take off in the machine and return to England. The commando officer will first ensure the safe departure of the aircraft and will then withdraw to a previously reconnoitred hideup. Should no opportunity to seize the aircraft have presented itself, the officers will withdraw to a hideup and make another attempt the next morning.
b) During the night of D4, the commando officer will return to the concealed folbot.

7) Day 5
a) After nautical twilight of D5 ot during the succeeding night, this officer will launch the folbot and be picked up by an MGB.
b) The MGB should be off the coast for two hours before nautical twilight on D5, D6 or D7 providing the weather is calm. If the weather is unsuitable, the Mgb should come on the first suitable morning. The ooficer after launching the folbot will paddle to a pre-arranged bearing. the MGB, making due allowance for the day and consquent set of the tide, will proceed on a course to intercept the folbot. In addition the officer will make wireless signals, which will be picked up by the MGB using DF gear.

Selected Aerodrome:
a) The selection of an aerodrome will be dependant on intelligence not at present available to me. The requirements are:
1)Within 20 miles of a landing beach which is not too strongly defended, and which has a hinterland of dunes or woods offering a hiding place for the folbot.
2) Within observation range or a few miles of a covered approach or a wood or place of concealment.

b) It is thought that possibly Abbeville aerodrome might be suitable with a landing made on the Somme Estuary. The Cherbourg peninsula, entailing a cliff-climbing onlanding, might give a good chance of making an undiscovered landing, providing a suitable aerodrome is nearby.

9) Return of the Plane:
Arrangments must be made with Fighter Command to ensure that the pilot officer is not shot down by our fighters on returning with the aptured aircraft. It is suggested that these arrangments should not be dependant upon wireless or on the officers taking distinctive markings or signalling aparatus with them. Possibly Fighter Command could be instructed not to shoot down any enemy Focke Wulf 190 appearing over the coast during specified times on selected days. In addition the undercarriage could be lowered for identification. If a Focke Wulf 190 after all is unprocurable on the aerodrome, a Messerschmitt 109F could be brought back instead. I understand that its aquisition would also be valuable.

10) Date:
The landing should be made on a rising tide to cover footprints and also on a dark night to achieve surprise.

11) Alternative Return of Commando Officer:
If it is considered an unacceptable naval risk to bring back an MGB to pick up the Commando officer, this officer could either paddle on a course pre-arranged by Fighter Command and eventually be picked up by an RAF rescue launch or, as a third alternative method of withdrawl, he could be instructed to make his way back through occupied France.

12) Other Considerations:
a) Food. the officers will be equipped with 10 day's compressed rations.
b) Preparation. The officers should have ample time to train together for a period which need not exceed 10 days. Training should also be carried out on the MGB.
c) Security. The officers suggested in the covering letter accompanying this proposal are both at present stationed at Bursledon, where they frequently go sailing together; the Commando officer owns a double folbot which is used daily; there are MGBs stationed at Bursledon; training could therefore be started without delay without arrousing any suspicions that an operation was under rehearsal.

Pinckney's proposal was allocated the operational code-name "Airthief" and detailed planning began; the airfield at Cherbourg-Maupertus was considered suitable for such an enterprise. Yet while still in the embryo stage, "Airthief" was overtaken by a coincidence more bizarre than any fiction writer would devise. On the very evening after Pinckney submitted his paper, on 23 June 1942, a German pilot became disoriented during a fight with Spitfires over southern England and inadvertantly landed his Fw 190 at Pembrey in South Wales. So the RAF got its Focke Wulf, without having to resort to "Airthief".

Philip Pinckney did not survive the war; he was killed in action in Italy in 1944. Of the chances of success of "Airthief", Jeffery Quill commented, "Provided we could get to the aircraft with its engine running, get the German airman out of the cockpit dead or alive and get me into it, I thought I had a 50-50 chance of getting back to England. As to the early part of the operation I was not qualified to have a view and I was guided entirely by Philip who seemed very confident and I would just have done what he said. He ws obviously relying on stealth - and perhaps we might have got away with it. Philip was always evasive about his own plans for getting back. I had a splendid way of getting back by air, but it was a very different kettle of fish for him. But he was very resourceful and might well have made it, one way or another, provided I had got the aircraft off the airfield without too much of a hue and cry.

Anyway it was a non-event, as it turned out. Philip Pinckney was the inspiration behind the whole thing. Had it succeeded it would have been 90% due to him and the balance of danger would have been heavily against him. I think he was bitterly disappointed when it was called off and he was quite cross about the German pilot landing in Wales. I am afraid I have to confess to a certain easing of tension within my guts!"

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