Operations Titania and Rosalind
Operation Titania 21-22 September 1942
The details of Operation Titania are particularly complicated since it was the culmination of a series of combined SOE, SIS and MI9 operations carried out by the felucca Seawolf in late September 1942. Seawolf (commanded by Lt Marian "Mischa" Krajewski - real name Marian Kadulski) left Gibraltar on 11 September with a number of SIS and SOE agents on board - exact details of these agents are not known. Agents brought back included Henri Frenay and Emmanuel D'Astier de Vigerie, probably collected from Port d'En Vau near Cassis the night of 18 September. Also collected were something like 60 Poles (and at least two English soldiers) from Sormiou and Port d'En Vau the nights of 19 and 20 September.
This operation had to be co-ordinated by radio with Gibraltar but the Organisation's regular radio operator Alex Nitelet had been arrested on 27 August following a para drop near Nimes. His replacement, Roger Gaston, was detected soon after and also picked up, and O'Leary was fortunate to be able to use London trained BCRA operator Philippe Valat at such short notice for both Titania and the subsequent Rosalind embarkation.
Canet Plage, 11 kms due east of Perpignan, was chosen rather than St Pierre Plage, site of the Bluebottle operations, because of the difficulties with hiding so many men prior to the embarkation. St Pierre is miles from anywhere suited to sheltering evaders whereas the Organisation already had safe houses at Canet Plage - both the Hotel du Tennis (Chouquette - Mme Solange Lebreton) and the nearby Villa Anita had been used to shelter escaping servicemen since the summer of 1941, and possibly earlier. O'Leary also knew the area from the sea, having been First Officer of Fidelity when she had landed agents there in April 1941 before turning south to Cerbere, and from being landed there from Tarana in April 1942 with the radio operator Drouet.
Thirteen of the men are recorded by Louis Nouveau as having stayed at his apartment - these were mostly evaders but they included F/O Brian Hawkins, F/Lt Frederick W Higginson and Sgt H T Hickton who had escaped from Fort de la Rivère on 25 August. The other two men from that escape, Sgt Derrick Nabarro and F/Lt K Barnett, also brought out on Titania, stayed with Dr Georges Rodocanachi. The evaders included the complete crew of a 138 Special Duties Whitley that came down south of the DML during a supplies drop four weeks earlier. Another six of the servicemen men had escaped from Fort de la Rivère in the big breakout of 5 September. There were also three French Canadian commandos who had been captured at the Dieppe raid but escaped on their way to Germany. Others evacuated that night included Colonel Pierre Fourcaud of the BCRA; Val Williams, who had worked on the de la Rivère escapes; and Pat Line agents André Postel-Vinay, Paula Spriewald and Francis Blanchain. The men were taken down to the beach in four groups - the first group, led by O'Leary, left at 23.30 hrs with the other groups, led Renée Nouveau, Mario Prassinos and Val Williams following at fifteen minute intervals while Jacques Wattebled kept watch on the beach.
It was half-past midnight on the night of Monday 21 September when Seawolf sent her dinghy and three man crew into the beach at Canet Plage. Twenty-two Pat Line escapers and evaders were picked up on the sixth and final mission of that epic voyage. Click here for details.
The felucca was chronically overloaded with a record eighty-three passengers, having collected nearly twenty more than planned. This meant that space, food and especially drinking water was at a premium. The voyage became even more trying as bad weather overtook them later that day. Kradjewski had already asked Gibraltar to change the planned rendezvous point with Minna to north of the Balearics but this was deemed too dangerous as Minna was clearly a naval vessel and liable to be attacked by Italian aircraft.
At nine-thirty in the morning of Wednesday 23 September, Seawolf met the SOG fast patrol boat HMS Minna east of Formentera. The eighty plus passengers were transferred to Minna, who took them into Gibraltar, where Seawolf also docked two days later. This 1,800 mile voyage over fourteen days was Krajewski's last trip with Seawolf and the Coast Watch Flotilla.
The first mention I have of André Postel-Vinay is in July 1940 when he was involved with helping Richard Broad and his seven Seaforth Highlanders on their odyssey south after they evaded capture at St Valery. That story is told in William Moore's 1986 book 'The Long Way Round'. In September 1941 André and his brother Jules guided four of Micky Allen's six-man Wellington crew from Channay, close to their crash-site, to Gaston Negre's safehouse at Nimes - see Article. The next mention is at the Rodocanachi flat on 2 November 1941. André had just arrived from Paris and was hoping to meet the chief of the Organisation through his friend Georges Zarifi, Georges Rodocanachi's nephew. Although in the apartment complex at the same time, he was in a different room and not one of the five men who confronted Cole with the evidence of his embezzlement of Organisation funds.
André Postel-Vinay was arrested in a Paris hotel room on Sunday 14 December 1941. At lunchtime the previous day Harold 'Paul' Cole had come to his Paris home at 2 avenue de Villiers. André wasn't there and so Cole left a message with his mother. When André returned in the afternoon, he met Cole and another man, introduced as Cole's chauffeur, on the stairs. Cole told him that he wanted André to come and meet his new chief and that the three of them must get together to discuss setting up a new intelligence section. Next day Cole and his "chauffeur" collected André and drove him to the Hotel Terrasse near the Place Clichy. They went up to a first floor room and while the "chauffeur" waited outside, Cole talked about the new section. André said he was particularly interested in helping two escaped British prisoners who were hiding with Mme Demeure at 16 avenue Sainte Foy. Shortly after that, four Germans entered the room and arrested him.
André was taken to La Sainté prison where he became convinced (wrongly) that he had left a list of names at his home. He decided he would have to commit suicide to avoid giving away any more details to his interrogators. Two days later André threw himself from a second floor window - the fall didn't kill him but he was very seriously injured. He was transferred to a prison hospital where he (genuinely) tried to kill himself again before deciding to feign madness by only pretending to attempt suicide. In August he was returned to La Santé before transfer to Sainte-Anne mental asylum on 1 September. Two days later he was interviewed by a psychiatrist who ended the interview by asking André to wait in the corridor while he went to find an ambulance. He said "it might take some time" and André never knew whether this was a deliberate hint. André walked out of the asylum, begged change from some children, and took the Metro to his friends Henry and Suzanne Rollet at 68 rue Nollet - the same family that had sheltered Bob Saxton and Pat Hickton the previous year.
André stayed at rue Nollet for two days before moving to stay with Mme Chavanes. On 14 September he received a message from Pat O'Leary saying his departure for England was arranged. On Friday 18 September André arrived in Marseille where his friend Georges Zarifi took him home to 12 allée Léon-Gambetta, less than half a kilometre from the Gare St Charles. That Sunday Georges accompanied André, who was still suffering badly from his fall, on the train as far as Perpignan. Various groups of escapers and their guides were on the same train. From Perpignan they went by bus to Canet Plage and the Hotel du Tennis. André was one of the last to leave the beach, carried to Seawolf's dinghy in the arms of a Polish sailor.
André Postel-Vinay tells his own story in his 1997 book 'Un fou s'evade' but I have also used information from other sources, including a statement by Harold Cole dd 17 June 1945 and a Paris DST interview of André in July 1945.
Paula Spriewald was born in 1909 at Ennepetal, Westphalia in Germany. Her father was an active union member and Parliamentarian until the Nazis came to power in 1933, when he was forced to flee to Holland. Paula soon joined him and the family moved to Paris. When the drôle de guerre (phony war) ended in May 1940, the Spriewald family, along with thousands of other 'enemy aliens', were sent to the French concentration camp of Gurs, near Oloron Ste Marie in the Basse Pyrénées. As known anti-Nazis, the sympathetic camp commandant later allowed them to escape. The Varian Fry organisation got Paula's father to Algeria (where he was held in prison) while thirty-one year old Paula went to Marseille and trained as a secretary. Soon she was fluent in English as well as French and German, was trained in stenography and could take shorthand.
Paula was lodging with a couple who regularly took in anti-Nazis and one day a Canadian called Joseph Cartier came to lunch. Eventually the 'Canadian' asked her to come and work as his secretary. So it was Paula that wrote O'Leary's reports and coded them for transmission to London. Paula doesn't give the date but O'Leary went to Gibraltar in February 1942 and didn't return with Jean Feriere (Drouet) their first radio operator, until April. Paula says that her first 'operation' was to take their new radio operator to the Rodocanachi apartment to see his wife, the real reason he had volunteered to return to France in the first place. In addition to her secretarial duties, Paula (as Paulette Perrier) also accompanied evaders around Marseille, and once took a party on the night train to Toulouse with Francis Blanchain.
After the arrests of Alex Nitelet, Gaston Negre and others at the para-drop near Nimes at the end of August, O'Leary thought it was too dangerous for Paula to stay in France. She didn't want to leave but O'Leary also knew that when the Germans (inevitably) took over the rest of France, Paula would be in grave danger. He decided to take her to a safehouse with some of the Fort de la Rivère escapers (who were told she was Czech) and send her out on the next boat. O'Leary enlisted French speaking Mel Dalphonde to help him pour enough champagne into Paula to get her into Seawolf's dinghy that night. Paula was flown back to England where she volunteered for the Forces Navales Francaises Libres worked at a radio station near Bletchley, writing stories. After the war she was reunited with O'Leary and worked with the IS9 Awards Bureau in Paris.
Most of the information on Paula Spriewald comes from Emmerson & Lavender's 1992 book 'The Evaders'
Francis Blanchain first appeared in the story of the Organisation when he was one of those arrested in July 1941 at the Noailles Hotel in Marseille - see Article. His papers said he was a demobilised French soldier but he had an English birth certificate - his parents Marcel (died 1918) and Marie Pauline Blanchain (born Martinique) were French, but Francis was born in Bromley, England in 1913. He was held for several months at the Fort St Nicolas, along with Tom Kenny, before their release in November. Pat O'Leary says it was Stella Beale who introduced him to Blanchain.
The next mention I have of him is in early April 1942 when he was staying at the Hotel de Paris in Toulouse with RAMC escaper Major Phillip Newman (736). After a week's wait, Blanchain took Newman, two Dutchmen and three others south to Perpignan where he handed them over to one of Francisco Ponzan-Vidal's guides. Newman is recorded by Ponzan-Vidal as having crossed into Spain with Beltrand Butler, Albert Brouard, a police inspector from Paris, and Harry White, a student from London. Newman reported being delivered safely to the British Consulate in Barcelona but I have no information on the other men.
When Lt Airey Neave (676) and Capt Hugh Woollatt (638) arrived at Louis Nouveau's apartment from Switzerland on 16 April 1942, the only known photograph of escapers in the Nouveau apartment was taken. As well as the two soldiers, the picture (reproduced in 'Saturday at MI9' and elsewhere) shows Louis Nouveau, Mario Prassinos and Francis Blanchain apparently having coffee. A week later, Blanchain took Neave and Woollatt, along with fifty-eight year old Irishman Patrick Henry and his thirty-two year old son James, to Toulouse where again they stayed at the Hotel de Paris, the PAO safehouse run by Mme Augustine Mongelard, her husband and his mother. They were also taken across the mountains by the Ponzan-Vidal organisation and delivered safely to the Barcelona Consulate.
NB. Details of Neave and Woollatt's companions come the records of Ponzan-Vidal (courtesy of Stuart Christie) although Neave in his 1953 book 'They Have Their Exits' says they (Roberts senior and junior) were aged sixty-five and eighteen.
In his post war report, O'Leary says that he recruited Francis Blanchain after his return from Gibraltar in late April 1942. O'Leary had left France in February, taken across the mountains by Ponzan-Vidal, to meet Donald Darling and James Langley, who flew in from London especially. You can see from the above that Blanchain had actually been working with the Organisation for some time before his 'official' acceptance.
Blanchain also acted as passeur to S/Ldr Royce Clifford Wilkinson (750). Wilkinson, who had the distinction of being brought from Lyons by the incredible Virginia Hall, arrived Nouveau's apartment 25 May, although Louis himself was away. Wilkinson stayed three days, during which time he claims to have met Pat O'Leary, before Blanchain (known to Wilkinson as 'Francois Achille') collected him and took him to the Hotel de Paris. Wilkinson was also taken to Barcelona courtesy of Ponzan-Vidal, accompanied by Yugoslav pilot Lt Montchilo Stanenkovitch, two Polish airmen, F/O Stanislas Krawezyk and Cdt Wladislas Tucholko (who had come from Geneva), and a Dutchman named Gerard van Os.
The following month Blanchain was the man chosen by O'Leary to organise the rescue of Whitney Straight from the Pasteur Hospital in Nice. Straight escaped 22 June along with Sgt Stefan Miniakowski and Pte Charles Knight. Blanchain then took them Gaston Negre's home at Nimes before going on to Louis Nouveau's Marseille apartment. Blanchain was also one of the guides that took the Bluebottle men (who included Straight, Miniakowski and Knight) to St Pierre Plage the following month.
At the beginning of August, Blanchain was arrested at Limoges following a reconnaissance of the area around Mauzac, where Ian Garrow was held. Blanchain escaped from a police car that night and went to ground until Jacques Wattebled came (presumably with new papers) to collect him. He is recorded as staying at the Nouveau apartment 15 August.
In 1943 Francis P Blanchain joined the RAF as an Airman. He worked in the photographic section until the end of the war and then with the Commonwealth Graves Commission. In 1944 he was commissioned 1869332 Flight Lieutenant Francis P Blanchain BEM and served until 1947. He married Paula Spriewald, Pat O'Leary's secretary, and they moved to Canada in 1958.
Operation Rosalind 11-12 October 1942
Details of Operation Rosalind are just as confusing as those for Titania but at least Rosalind is slightly better (although not necessarily more accurately) documented as this is the one with the famously long wait at Canet Plage following a missed rendezvous with Seawolf (Lt Michalkiewicz Lukasz). Unlike most previous evacuations, this was a single, dedicated SIS/MI9 operation. Following the Allied landings in North Africa on 8 November, and the subsequent invasion of the former ZNO by the Germans, it was also the last mass evacuation from the southern French coast. However, Seawolf and her sister ship Seadog, continued with SOE and SIS operations to southern France until the end of the year, including Operation Portia (Seadog) which landed PAO radio operator Tom Groome at Port Miou the night of 3/4 November.
Assembling some of the names of men evacuated has been done by deduction, men who were transported from one known location to another within certain time limits were almost certainly there, but almost all names have been confirmed from published, unpublished and/or eye witness sources.
It should perhaps be noted that Tarana crewman Ron Stephens has gone on record as saying that he and Tarana took part in this operation. He quotes the radio messages, credited to Seawolf by Richards as coming from Lt Lukasz's report, verbatim as well as the passwords published elsewhere as being used on this pick-up. Having met Ron several times, I find it very hard to doubt his sincerity and conviction. However, both Leslie Pearman and John Berthelsen describe the boat as a caique, and John also remembers a Polish crew and that there were no toilet facilities - Tarana had extra facilities especially fitted.
The operation was planned to take place the night of Monday 5 October and according to Lt Lukasz's report, Seawolf was off the River Tet estuary pickup point at midnight as agreed. He says he patrolled a four mile stretch of shoreline for three hours, continually signalling the shore but got no reply. At 03.00 he withdrew and moved out to sea ready to try again the following night. Next night he returned, again at midnight, and patrolled for two hours until forced to leave the area by the arrival of what he suspected to be two patrol boats. At that point he decided to give up and sent a radio message to Gibraltar saying that he was coming home. At 11.30 on Friday 9 October, Lukasz received a radio message asking him to return to Canet Plage as the Rosalind people had been waiting for him two nights already. He turned his ship around and arrived off the Tet estuary at a quarter past midnight on Monday 12 October. This time his signal was answered immediately and he duly sent his dinghy ashore to start loading the escapers.
Alex (Jacques) Wattebled's account in 'Jacques, l'ami d'Achille' gives details from the point of view of the PAO men on shore. He says that on Thursday morning, he was the first to arrive at Perpignan along with two Englishmen. He took them by tram to Canet and put them into a room at the Hotel du Tennis. That afternoon, he returned to Perpignan and met Albert [Robert Leycuras] and Renée [Louis Nouveau's wife] who had brought three 'aviators' from Marseille, who Jacques then took back to the hotel. More men were brought down over the next three days. On Sunday evening, Joseph [O'Leary] arrived with the last of the men. The embarkation was planned for two o'clock Monday morning. The men were divided into groups to go down to the beach and at one o'clock, le chef [O'Leary] went first with ten Englishmen, then Jean [Louis Nouveau] with six others then Albert with another six and finally Jacques took the last ten. They crossed the river [Tech] in silence. Two o'clock and no signal, three o'clock, four o'clock, nothing. At four-thirty in the morning they returned to the hotel. The guides stayed with the evaders all day Monday and that night went back to the beach where they waited in vain until half past three.
The servicemen didn't actually stay in the Hotel du Tennis, they were all kept in a small bungalow nearby, while the guides (and French speaking Lucien Dumais) stayed in the Hotel itself.
On the Tuesday morning, Jacques went into Perpignan with Chouquette [Solange Lebreton, owner of the Hotel du Tennis] to buy food for the men. When they got back, the chef at the hotel prepared an evening meal for thirty-six men who all ate together. That night they went down to the beach once more, again with no result. On Wednesday night, and again Thursday night, Jacques went to the beach with just the Abbé [Josef Myrda]. By this time Joseph [O'Leary] had gone back to Marseille to see what he could find out, and Jacques telephoned him there. On Saturday (10 Oct) O'Leary returned to Canet Plage with John Peter [Louis Nouveau]. They had contacted Gibraltar [via Philippe Valat, the BCRA radio operator] and been told the ship had been there as arranged but had not had any response to their signals. Now she was returning to try again and would be there either Saturday (unlikely) or Sunday night. That evening O'Leary, Louis Nouveau and Jacques went down to the pickup point just in case Seawolf arrived early. The three men separated along the beach and suddenly Jacques heard two men speaking Spanish - but who they were remains a mystery. At three o'clock they returned to the hotel.
The following night (Sunday) at half past midnight, everyone (even Chouquette) went down to the beach. O'Leary ordered them to spread along the beach at hundred metre intervals to watch for signals. Jacques (who apparently never saw any signals) says he was patrolling between the groups when he spotted a black shape in the water and realised it was a small boat not showing any lights. He waded into the sea towards it and saw a sailor in British Naval uniform right in front of him. The sailor called out the password "Ou sont les fraises?" and Jacques replied with "Dans le jus" and contact with Seawolf's dinghy was established.
Lucien Dumais also claims to have spotted a boat in the darkness (it was just three days into a new moon) but no light signals, and says he wasn't the only one. He then heard the whistle which was the signal for the men spread along the shore to regroup.
Why Seawolf and the shore party failed to make contact on either of the first two nights is not known for sure but there are some possible contributing factors.
The pick-up point for Rosalind, although described as being Canet Plage, was changed slightly from the beach used for Operation Titania. This time the men were to be collected from further north, across the River Tet, which has two estuaries, both of which the escapers had to wade through, to what is today known as Ste Marie Plage. Although Lukasz (who had also been aboard Seawolf for the Titania operation) is adamant in his report that he had the right beach on each occasion, it would have been very easy for Seawolf to make a navigational error. In Kradewski's report on Titania, he commented that the whole of this featureless coastline had lights shining from shore and he had great difficulty in distinguishing the shore party's signals. He based his approach on the red flashing lights from a fishing village some 4 kms north - presumably Barcarès - but it was the cries and singing they heard from the beach that confirmed he had found the rendezvous point. He also reported that the night was so clear [three nights before a full moon] that his vessel could be seen from shore as far as a mile out sea.
Another possibility is a misunderstanding about the timing. Jacques says they first went to beach on the Monday morning (Sunday night) and since Seawolf didn't arrive until the Monday night, that was never going to work. Jacques also says the rendezvous was planned for two o'clock in the morning whilst Lukasz says midnight. On the Monday night, Lukasz says he patrolled up and down a four mile stretch of the coastline from midnight to three o'clock. As the shore party didn't arrive until about two o'clock, that didn't leave much time to make contact. Even walking to the beach would have introduced a margin for error, since it was about an hour's walk from the hotel, along the sandy shoreline and across two rivers, in silence and in the dark, to the actual pickup point. Then on the Tuesday, Jacques again says they went to the beach at two o'clock, by which time Seawolf was already withdrawing because of the two patrol boats.
It is also possible there was some confusion over the times themselves - were they using GMT or local time, which would have been two hours ahead of GMT. Ron Stephens says Tarana used local times when operating in the Mediterranean but I don't know if Seawolf did the same. On balance however, since the previous Titania operation went smoothly enough, either navigational error or inability to distinguish the shore party's signals, seem the most likely reasons.
A total of thirty-two servicemen were picked up that night - eighteen escapers (mostly soldiers) from Fort de la Rivère, and Pte Richard Watson from la Duchère, and thirteen evaders, all but two of whom were airmen. Click here for details. Josef Myrda, the Polish priest from Nice who had been instrumental in the de la Rivère escape and was by then brulé, was also taken off along with a French merchant navy officer.