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R.A.F fly-by-nights
Beat Gestapo


From James Stuart, Evening Standard: Tempsford, Thursday

(Article published in Evening Standard 16th June 1945)

Tempsford is just a hamlet in rural Bedfordshire. Its inhabitants mostly work on the land. And none of them knew it, but Tempsford held one of the big secrets of the war.

They knew that down a little side road marked "This road is closed to the public" there was an R.A.F. Station. In the Anchor and the Wheatsheaf they saw the R.A.F. Men. But that was all. They had no idea of the job they were engaged on.

Names of the pilots and crews who did that job cannot yet be revealed except for one. The late Group Captain P. C. Pickard, D.S.O. And two bars, D.F.C., the famous "Target for Tonight" pilot.

When he left Bomber Command, Pickard commanded one of the two "Special mission" squadrons which the R.A.F. Created as a link with the underground movement in all occupied countries. He was an expert in "pick up" flights.

The R.A.F. began this branch of its work immediately after the collapse of France - with one flight of a bomber squadron of No. 3 Group. By March 1942 Tempsford was in operation, and finally two special squadrons were being employed.

From Tempsford they delivered arms, ammunition, radio sets, food and other supplies to all the underground fighters from the Arctic Circle of northern Norway to the Mediterranean shores of southern France.

Tempsford airfield during WW2

From big bombers - Whitleys first and then Stirlings and Halifaxes they dropped their parachute containers. Every kind of supply went down from skis and sleighs for the Norwegians to bicycles and bicycle tyres- made in England but carefully camouflaged with French names - to the resisters in Western Europe.

For three years the airfield, built over what had been a large area of marsh, was the air centre of resistance movements of all Europe. Night after night the villagers saw airplanes go off and probably heard them droning back in the small hours. But they never saw the people, men and women in civilian clothes, who were driven down the prohibited road from the airfield, the men and women who had been brought from Occupied France under the very noses of the Wehrmacht and Gestapo.


There were no secret devices to help this passenger service to operate. The R.A.F. airplanes simply landed in France, picked up their passengers and flew off again to Tempsford.

On other trips they dropped Czech, Polish and Dutch agents in their own countries.

About 700 resistance leaders made the trip. Sometimes the R.A.F. Brought back documents, maps and messages.

Not all the story can be told even now. There is still the need for secrecy about how the great organisation was built up.
The romantic - and a hazardous - side of the job was flying the old unarmed Lysanders and the bigger Hudsons to the secret landing grounds in France guided only by the dim lights from torches held by patriots. All the pick-ups were made in France.

One of the airmen who took part in the adventure said to-day: "We had to have decent fields so we brought back men of the resistance to teach them the sort of places to select and what to do to help us land. Then we took them back again.

Others we brought back were trained in England as saboteurs and dropped again in France.


One French agent was caught by the Gestapo, who broke his feet in torturing him. He managed to escape from them and we picked him up and brought him back to England. He could not, of course, make a parachute jump again but he insisted on returning to France. So we took him over. He was a brave man."

How secret it all was may be judged by this - said to me by another of the pilots: "Even when high ranking officers who were not in the know asked us about the work we were doing we had to lie like old Harry. It was court martial for anyone who breathed a word about the job. Not even the mechanics knew about the passenger flights.


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Updated Saturday, July 4, 2009