The Liberation of Paris

Although not strictly part of the RAF at Omaha beach, part of 21 BDS did have another remarkable episode. GCI 15082 were ordered to follow the advance of the allies and to be prepared to set up Ground Controlled Intercept Radar to guard against German planes attacking Paris, once it had been taken.

GCI 15082 and other elements of the Radar and communications units were ordered to swiftly follow the American, British and Free French units towards Paris, and to set up at the famous Longchamps Racecourse.

The prime source is by Leonard Owens with contributions from Stan Mallett and Muir Adair.

Odds Against at Longchamps

The following is a transcription of a personal memoir on the participation of 5285G MSU and 15082GCI of the 2nd Tactical Air Force, in the liberation of Paris on Friday, 25th August 1944, written by Leonard Owens, 2 Church Drive, Bishop Auckland, Co. Durham, DL14 6SE in September 1975.

Aspiring writers are often by the old adage that deep within each of us lies a story waiting to be told. Mine, I must admit, has taken longer than most to surface as the event it describes go back to the momentous days of August 1944.

This account sees light following a reunion of 5285G, a Second Tactical Air Force Mobile Signals Unit, when we, it’s ex-members, all expressed disappointment that in the post war years the full story has yet to be told of how we and 15082GCI (also of 2nd TAF) formed the only British contingent to enter Paris on the day of its liberation, Friday 25th August 1941.

This operation, without doubt, is one of the most remarkable carried out by RAF ground staff. Paradoxically, it remains one of the least known.

The Allied crossings of the Seine in mid August had opened the way for the relief of the French capital. SHAEF, anticipating that retaliatory raids were likely to follow any German withdrawal from the city (and these, probably before any AA defences could be organised), had to act quickly.

It was decided that to provide a modicum of defence during this vulnerable period, 15082 Ground Controlled Interception Unit and 5285G MSU, operating from within the city were to provide radar control for the defending night fighters and the maintenance of a W/T link.

Accordingly, at 0700 hours on Thursday, 24th August the six vehicles of 5285G set out from Carpiquet Airfield, near Caen, leaving behind their parent unit, 148 Wing. This small convoy was made up of a combined signals and cipher office, receiver and transmitter vans, two trucks fitted with the generators which supplied our motive power and one three tonner. This latter was crammed with the various impedimenta of an MSU together with those of our seventeen members not engaged in driving or navigation.

Our sudden move was the result of an urgent signal which was received from 85 Group at 0200 hours ordering us to close down immediately, dismantle and pack our equipment and be ready to move off at 0700 hours. Shortly after this deadline, a Wing Commander from Group Intelligence arrived and briefed us. We were to rendezvous with 15082 GCI at Le Mans, then the combined units were to head for Paris and the site chosen for us – Longchamps Racecourse2.

After leaving Caen, we made good progress until we reached the Falaise – Argentan area. Here the carnage inflicted on the retreating German 7th Army had completely blocked the main roads and as a result of the chaotic conditions on the diversions brought in to use, half our convoy vanished in the congestion without trace, so that only three vehicles reached Le Mans in the late afternoon, where we found 15082 GCI awaiting us in the Market Square3.

Both Units now came under the command of S/L John Lawrence Brown4, ex pilot, pioneer GCI Controller and D-Day veteran; his vast experience on the North African, Italian and Home Fronts made him the ideal leader for the proposed operation. His reputation, already meritorious, had been further enhanced during the Normandy campaign when in the constant leapfrogging which epitomised 2nd TAF, his unit had invariably been in the front line. The laconic briefing which he now gave us left us in no doubt that the same criteria was to apply to this venture!

His intention was, that the following morning, we were to enter Paris in the wake of an element of the Free French 2nd Armoured Division then assembling in Palaiseau and due to begin its drive on the French capital at dawn5.

It was typical of the man that far from being disturbed at the loss of half of his W/T link, he was confident that it would rejoin us within the space of a few hours.

Without further delay we headed for Chartres. Before reaching that city, a halt was called at a US Army supply dump where we were able to refuel and take on extra rations. As it was now dusk, after a short consultation, the officers decided we’d halt there for a few hours rest and resume our journey at first light.

Leaving our overnight bivouac at dawn, we soon reached Chartres where, to our delight, 5285G’s missing vehicles hove into sight. Executing rapid U-turns the prodigals quickly rejoined the fold. What a story they had to tell.

Reaching Le Mans long after we had left, they’d pressed on hoping to overhaul us. After a short halt on the outskirts of Chartres, and as seems likely, had actually passed our overnight camp site in the early hours of the morning. This plan however, was thwarted for on their arrival in the city suburbs the French Resistance fighters would not allow them to proceed further, insisting that the Free French Armoured Division was to have the honour of being the first to enter the city proper6. Frustrated in their role as liberators and now certain that we were somewhere behind them, our errant comrades decided to backtrack to Chartres.

Restored to full strength, our column, now augmented by tanks and half tracks, resumed its course for Paris. The presence of the Free French armour was, to say the least, reassuring. Discussion after the operation revealed the misgivings, (unvoiced at the time), which we’d all felt at the prospect of (en)countering any serious opposition with our meagre assortment of Stens, Lee Enfield rifles and one Bren gun per unit.

My recollections of that journey are still very clear, but during the intervening years have merged into a kaleidoscopic amalgam, in which the emotions of pride, elation (and let’s face it apprehension), felt that August day are inseparable from the physical discomforts – the heat, choking dust and fumes plus the roaring engines, all of which enveloped us.

Transcending all else, I remember the welcome we received from the French populace to whom our destination was obvious, Paris, where the Gendarmerie and Resistance groups responding to the traditional cry of “Aux barricades”, had been locked in bitter street fighting with the German garrison for over a week. The struggle had now reached a crucial stage, with the French hanging on grimly and awaiting the arrival of the promised regular units.

Entering the city by the Porte d’Orleans in mid afternoon, the dense crowds slowed our progress until finally our convoy ground to a halt in the shadow of the Eiffel Tower. Hundreds of jubilant Parisians swarmed around and over our dust covered trucks, their joy in no way diminished by the nearby rattle of small arms fire which, punctuated by longer bursts of automatic fire, pinpointed the mopping up operations which were proceeding in our immediate vicinity.

After extricating ourselves from this not unwelcome holdup, we reached Longchamps at about 1800 hours, finding there signs that the previous occupants, a German heavy “Flak” battery, had made a very hasty departure a few hours earlier.

Never were runners in the Longchamps classic, “Le Prix de L’Arc de Triomphe”, more closely scrutinised than we were that day as crowds of French civilians which had arrived, lined the rails and studied our form as vehicles were manoeuvred into their operational positions, power and multicore cables were run out and the RDF and W/T aerials erected.

The night of 25/26th passed without incident apart from a stand-to being ordered when a German counter attack was reported to be imminent, but happily, this proved to be a false alarm7. Enemy air activity was nil, while the desultory firing from the city had almost died away. This lull, however, came before the storm. On the following afternoon, as General de Gaulle and his entourage were about to enter Notre Dame at the climax of the liberation parade, they were fired on by roof-top snipers8. Our testing time came just before midnight, when one hundred and fifty planes of Luftflott No. 3 swept in low over the city, unopposed by any ground fire. The intensity of the raid, which was concentrated into less than thirty minutes, swamped the meagre cover which the GCI was able to provide9. Indeed, this was to prove the city’s heaviest raid of the war.

The frustrated radar plotters were further handicapped by the topography of the site chosen for us by the planners. Its low lying position and wooded areas of the nearby Bois de Boulogne combined to make both radar and W/T reception very difficult. It came as no great surprise, when the following day, 27th August, “Brownie” ordered a move to Morangis, a small village fifteen miles south of Paris and now incidentally, almost completely encompassed by Orly Airport10.

Here, operating conditions improved and after a the hectic activity of the past four days, the routine of regular watch-keeping was most welcome, more so as off duty personnel were now able to visit the capital where we found “l’entente” had never been more “cordiale”!

This idyll, however, was not to last as the completion of the city’s AA defences together with the receding threat of further Luftwaffe attacks, led to our withdrawal from the area.

For 5285G this entailed a return to Carpiquet and 148 Wing11 where we found details of our exploit had preceded us and we received a very envious welcome. In spite of being able to bask in the light of our new found glory after the heady events of the past two weeks, life at Carpiquet never seemed quite the same!

Just prior to our leaving Morangis on Sept 5th, S/L Brown had been whisked off in an Auster which landed on a road near our site12. There was much speculation within the two units as to the reason behind this. Towards the end of Sept. we learned with deep regret that he had been killed at Arnhem. Recalled to form a gliderborne GCI13 for that ill-fated venture, predictably, he’d led it there and died fighting alongside Airborne troops within the holocaust of the rapidly shrinking perimeter.

After rejoining 148 Wing, we moved with them to the airfields of St Andre, Le Culot and Lille Vendeville where we finally parted company on 28th March 1945 after an association going back to the previous May.

Once again, fate had linked us with a GCI, this time No.1512114. Six weeks later, VE Day found us on the banks of the Elbe near Stendal in the US 9th Army Sector. Berlin, on the other side of the river, was a mere fifty miles away.

But that’s another story!

Signed Leonard Owens
(ex Sgt. 1476118 Owens. L. R.A.F.)

Observations

  1. This is another example of a group of ex-RAF personnel wanting greater public exposure for exploits of Royal Air Force troops who were not aircrew but who found themselves in a perilous position.
  2. No reasons have been given for the choice of this site for a Mobile Radar Unit to operate despite its obvious problems with low ground and a nearby wood, the Bois de Boulogne.
  3. The Operations Record Book (ORB) for No.21 Base Defence Sector states on 23rd August 1944 “GCI15082 were non operational that night as they were packing up ready to move at dawn”. We know from Sgt Owen’s account that they were to rendezvous with 5285G in Le Man in the market square there. The entry in the ORB for the following day, 24th August 1944, states “GCI 15082 moved at dawn to a new site at Auteiul Racecourse but were not operational on that night” (Sgt Owen reports that they had a short overnight rest stop at Chartres). The ORB reports on 25th August 1944 that “A fighter of 604 Squadron managed to contact GCI15082 at their new site at Auteuil and did a patrol with them”. On 26th August 1944 the 21 Sector reports “GCI 15082 moved again this time to the Race Course at Longchamps”. Sgt Owens does not report being at Auteuil though the two race courses are adjacent to each other. One is a flat racing course and the other over hurdles.
  4. Despite the information supplied by Sgt Owen regarding Squadron Leader John Lawrence Brown there is no mention of him in the 21 Sector ORB There is, however, mention of a Wing Commander Brown – once in the ORB and a number of times in the personal diary of Squadron Leader Norman Best. Could this be the same man perhaps? A Wing Commander John Laurence Brown, MBE, (RAF Number 74440) served at RAF Harwell and then with 6080 and 6341 Light Warning Sets. He died aged 41 on 18th September 1944. The Battle of Arnhem took place between 17th and 26th September 1944. Given that Sergeant Owens stated that their CO went off to form a glider borne GCI and was killed shortly after at Arnhem, the LWS Units with which this Wing Commander Brown served and the date of his death could point to this having been the man who commanded GCI15082 and 5285GMSU on their Paris adventure? If he was the man who commanded GCI15082 and 5285G MSU during this short period into Paris and then at Morangis, then he is confirmed by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission as having been killed on 18th September 1944 and is buried in Plot VI.G.12 in Groessbeek Canadian War Cemetery. (See attached CWGC documents).
    This is almost certainly the same Wg/Cdr Brown who is mentioned in the 21 Base Defence Sector Operations Record Book on 12th June 1944 on a reconnoitring trip near Carentan and again on a number of occasions in the personal diary of Squadron Leader Norman Best (attached to 21 Sector from No. 60 Group, RAF).
  5. From this date, 5th September 1944 until his death in action at Arnhem on 18th September 1944, Wing Commander Brown had a mere 13 days to train and organise this glider borne GCI.
  6. Had they been allowed to proceed to Longchamps they would almost certainly have been the first Allied Unit to enter Paris proper. As it was, after they had re-traced their route and joined up with the main party they were, in company with GCI 15082, the first British Units to enter central Paris – before the official surrender of the German garrison of the city of Paris by it’s Commander to the Allied forces.
  7. Flight Sergeant Fulton Muir Adair (RCAF) of GCI15082 reported this incident in his memoirs when he said they were ordered to destroy documents in order to save them from falling into German hands.
  8. Records indicate that, as the Allied forces closed in on Paris, the Free French Commanders began to ignore the orders of the American General who had been appointed to become military governor of Paris once it had been surrendered by the German garrison. In fact, the Free French held their Liberation Parade before the Americans held theirs, something which caused bad feeling between the Allies.
  9. Perhaps surprisingly given the size of this raid, there is no mention at all of this large raid in the ORB of No. 21 Sector! This would have been the night of 26th/27th August 1994.
  10. There is no mention of this significant move in the ORB of No. 21 Sector on this date or on the dates immediately following.
  11. No.148 Wing were formed at Drem as part of No. 24 Base Defence Wing and initially comprised No. 29 (Night) Squadron and No. 486 (Day) Squadron. Authority was given for this on 18th January 1944 by SD 155/139. and was put into effect on 13th February 1944.
  12. Sergeant Owens states that his Unit, 5285G, left Morangis on 25th September 1944, a full month after GCI15082 and it’s attached MSU 5285G entered Paris but in the previous Paris he refers to the ‘heady events of the past two weeks’. There seems to be a time difference of over two weeks inferred here? No.21 Sector’s commitment to the USAAF finished on 22nd September 1944 and the ORB reports the Sector closing down for the last time in Normandy and packing up ready to return to the UK which, in the event, did not actually occur until 27th September 1944 when the Sector (minus it’s MSU’s which were re deployed on the Continent), departed from Utah beach in seven landing craft.
  13. This is the first mention of a glider borne Mobile Radar Unit!
  14. This was a 24 Sector Mobile Radar Unit.

 

Personal Observations

My father, (1660107 LAC Lewis George Muggleton, Aircraft Hand, General Duties, posted to No. 21 Base Defence Wing at RAF Church Fenton on 11th February 1944) recounted to me that he had been at Longchamps Racecourse with No. 21 Base Defence Sector (as it had by then been re-styled) and watched the liberation parade. I assumed that there had only been one Liberation Parade but as stated above, the Free French headed by General Charles de Gaulle, held their liberation parade first (to the annoyance of their US Allies) and the Americans held a second parade a day or so later. In fact, it has been reported that the US did not want to waste time there and then holding a parade as their main objective was to keep hard on the heels of the retreating German Army – a delay for a parade gave the Germans a brief respite.

My father also recalled with some exasperation his feelings about his Unit being held up by the Free French. I had not fully understood the relevance of this until I read Sergeant Owens’ Memoir.

As he was part of No.21 Sector, not a Mobile Signals Unit, and as only GCI15082 was involved in the Paris adventure I am satisfied that he was indeed involved in this exploit. Quite why an ACH/GD was needed is unclear but it seems certain to me at least, that the technical troops would have their hands full simply manning and operating the radar. That being so, it appears reasonable that someone would have been needed to keep the basics of the camp running ie cooking, digging latrines, erecting and dismantling equipment and all the other minutiae which technicians rarely allow themselves to get involved in.

GCI 15082 seemed to have been the one Mobile radar Unit which was chosen for the extraordinary tasks (they landed first on D-Day and were chosen for this fast run to Paris to operate within arms length of the German garrison). Perhaps the reason why No.21 Sector’s Radar Units were repatriated to England in late September 1944 was because of this? It does not seem to me that those engaged in planning the running of the Allied effort would allow themselves to be influenced by such factors when the war had still to be won. Even so, and when No 21 Sector had been disbanded at RAF Ibsley many of the ex 21 Sector personnel found themselves posted to other 85 Group Units, my father found himself in Belgium just as Von Runstedt began his Ardennes Offensive (invariably known as ‘The Battle of the Bulge’).

But that, as Sergeant Owens would have said, is another story!

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