I.S.9 History—Air Operations

This post is sixth in a series drawn from a History of I.S.9 (CMF) in the British National Archives. Research courtesy of Brian Sims.

See also “I.S.9 History—Organization,” “I.S.9 History—Tasks,”I.S.9 History—Methods,” “I.S.9 History—Communications,” and “I.S.9 History—Agent Choice and Training.”

Below is a transcript of the section of the history detailing rescue efforts and drop of stores and supplies into enemy occupied territory:

Air Operations

From the 1st November 1943, air operations in connection with the work of I.S.9 gradually assumed a more and more important phase of operations, until in the Winter of 1944/45, they became absolutely indispensible.

Air Operations fulfilled four functions for I.S.9; namely the infiltration of Agents and W/T sets [wireless telecommunications] to E.O.T. [enemy occupied territory], the dropping of stores and supplies to maintain those Missions so dropped, to clothe and equip E & Es found by the missions, and lastly the evacuation of E & Es [escapers and evaders] by D.C.3 and Lysander aircraft.

Connected with these operations were all the technical questions of the supply of equipment and stores for dropping and the packing of such stores.

Generally these stores were packed on I.S.9’s behalf by a central packing station known as M.E. 54 which packed for all Agencies at BRINDISI, but both at the commencement of I.S.9 Air Operations and at the end, where in both instances we virtually had our own private air force, I.S.9 was forced to do it’s own packing.

Supplies dropped took the form of a standard 10 man clothing container as follows,

10 prs [pairs] boots,
24 prs socks,
10 vests,
10 housewives [slang, personal sewing kit],
10 pants,
10 shirts,
10 pullovers,
2 blankets

thus giving E & Es something at least to move in, and also a 16 man day ration “cell” of tinned food. Three of these cells went to make up a “C” type container, so that one container theoretically held enough food for 48 men for one day.

In addition, medical stores were at first packed in the standard 10 man container, but later medical stores were only dropped on direct request. Other items such as “X” rations and emergency rations were dropped which were designed to give E & Es some form of light concentrated food to carry with them whilst on the move.

Other items including comforts were also largely dropped. These contained whisky, rum or gin, innumerable cigarettes, matches, soap, chocolate, razor blades, gloves, caps, towels and in certain cases books and playing cards, anything in short to try and improve the lot of the Missions and to help the E & Es on their way; at the same time, giving them something to help relieve the boredom of waiting at small L.Gs. for aircraft, which, due to weather and other factors, took a long time to arrive.

Air Operations for I.S.9 may be divided into three classes (a)“blind” drops (b) drops to reception, and (c) air pick-ups.

“Blind” drops were carried out to areas where it was known that there were quantities of ex-P/W at large, but with whom there was no actual W/T communication. It is estimated that a considerable quantity of stores dropped “blind” did, in fact reach the persons for whom they were intended. If nothing else, the fact that efforts were being made to drop stores to E & Es did act as a morale raiser.

The requirements for these “blind” dropping operations, were:- moonlight nights and an area preferably Partizan held in which ex-P/W were present in fairly large numbers. Bodies could also be dropped “blind” provided the area to which they were going was known to be held definitely by Partizans. “Blind” drop were not an altogether satisfactory form of supply due to the high percentage of stores which failed to be collected once on the ground.

Drops to reception were a much more satisfactory form of operation, provided good W/T communications were established. these operations could be carried out, either in the moon or non-moon period, but after August 1944 were largely carried out by day.

The technique for drops to reception committees was as follows:-

(a) By day. The ground reception was ordered to lay out parachutes in a given geometrical pattern, such as a V of 7 parachutes, on the D.Z. [drop zone]. Five minutes before the time the aircraft was to be over the target the reception was told to light a smoke fire or smoke candle. The object of this was both to enable the navigator of the aircraft to pick up the area of the D.Z., inform the pilot that the reception was ready and to indicate the direction of the wind. These recognition signals usually covered a period of one week, unless there seemed a likelihood of their being compromised, in which case they were changed more frequently.

(b) By night. The reception was again ordered to lay out a fire plan in a geometrical, pattern as above, made either by brushwood fires, paraffin flares, or strips of electric light bulbs. These signals were illuminated some few minutes before the E.T.A. [estimated time of arrival] of the aircraft over the target. On arrival the aircraft flashed a morse recognition signal to the ground, and in reply, the ground flashed as to whether it was O.K. or not to drop. That having been completed, the aircraft dropped it’s load. As bodies touched the ground, they flashed a torch back to the aircraft to indicate whether they were O.K. On completion of drops the aircraft wirelessed to Base whether or not the drops was successful.

Experience, however, showed that aircraft were very apt to drop even if they did not get the correct signal from the ground, and it had to be impressed on air crews that they must only drop on receipt of the correct signal. If this was not done, drops invariably went to the wrong reception and even in certain cases to bogus reception put out by the enemy. It proved absolutely essential to have good W/T contacts, with preferably a “sked” [schedule] as near as possible to the time the aircraft was due over the target, so that the reception could be warned whether the operation was on or off.

Selection of D.Z’s was most important. For security reasons they usually had to be located in hilly or mountainous country or else near forests or woods, in order to achieve the maximum amount of security. For this reason flying was difficult, and D.Z’s should be sited so that, during the actual dropping, the aircraft does not have to manoeuvre to avoid obstacles such as mountain tops. If the aircraft does have to turn and twist, then dispersion of drops becomes inevitable. In addition D.Z’s should, if possible, be sited in relation to some easily distinguishable feature such as a lake or large river, in order that the navigator may have a reasonable chance of pinpointing himself. The use of “S” phones proved invaluable and on many occasions aircraft were able to drop accurately through considerable cloud.

Pick-ups proved by far the most successful and economical form of operation both from the point of putting in stores, wireless sets, and bodies and also for evacuation. In YUGOSLAVIA these were comparatively simple, as large areas of the country were firmly held by the Partizans and, as such, not particularly liable to attack. In ITALY they were much more difficult, where patriot forces were not in control of such large areas. In these pick up operations I.S.9 could establish its officers near L.Gs. for the purpose of collecting E & Es and also for looking after them whilst they were waiting for aircraft to come. At these landing grounds dumps of food, clothing and comforts were established for E & Es.

L.Gs. had naturally again to be sited with considerable care from a security point of view, and it was found desirable to have alternative L.Gs. so that in the event of the enemy attacking one, another could be used. It was generally found that in Partizan held territory the enemy could not deny the use of an L.G. area for any great length of time.

Pick ups pre-suppose first class W/T contact, the holding of an area by Partizans for sufficient time to carry out the actual operation and also to allow time for the collection of bodies to be evacuated and the safe disposal of any stores which might be landed. Unless the pick up area selected was very secure the possibility existed that, as soon as an aircraft was heard, the enemy might take measures to compromise the safety of personnel remaining in the area after the operation.

This of course was not so applicable when a small aircraft such as a Lysander was used, as the noise and commotion it caused was far less than a D.C.3, but this was outweighed by its small pay load.

Daylight drops were carried out most successfully after August 44, both in ITALY and in YUGOSLAVIA. These had, however, to be carried out by armed and armoured aircraft and also necessitated considerable fighter protection. The drawback to these daylight drops was, however, the publicity given to the enemy of the area of a D.Z., and unless it was strongly held by Partizans, the area might very easily be captured. However, generally speaking, the risk was well worth talking, as the accuracy with which stores could be dropped usually ensured that all stores could be collected.

The detailed starts of I.S.9 air operations is one at first of the use of an almost private air force, then, as a result of orders from M.A.A.F. [Mediterranean Allied Air Force ] the removal of this and the co-ordination of our air ops [operations] with other agencies, and finally the swing back to a private air force in the latter half of 44 under conditions as nearly perfect as possible. There is no doubt that a private air force is a most desirable instrument to be in possession of, and although it cannot be said to be absolutely indispensible for the success of E & E work, yet it is a most tremendous advantage.

The story starts in November 43, when a message dated the 17th from His Majesty’s Minister to the Vatican asked that the attention of the Commander of the Eighth Army be drawn to the tragic position of ex-P/Ws in hiding in ITALY despite the help given to them by the population. This information was confirmed both from SWITZERLAND and from I.S.9 officers behind the lines.

Accordingly, steps were taken to try and deal with this situation and in December 43 a total of more than 24,000-lbs of food, clothing and medical supplies was dropped by the use of one D.C 3 aircraft of 51 Troop Carrier Group (USAAF) [United States Army Air Force]) and the part time use of two Wellingtons. In addition, three B.25’s were placed at our disposal, but these were not available until the moon period of January, 1944.

It must be remembered that, at this time, there were very few clandestine W/T sets behind the lines and none in contact with groups of ex-P/Ws, so that drops had to be carried out “blind” on the reported position of P/Ws. This limited the operational time in a month to the moon period (some 14-days) and taking into consideration that it was Winter and that several nights would be impossible due to adverse weather conditions, one must realise that there were few opportunities to do very much. However, operations continued with the use of the D.C. 3’s of 51 Troop Carrier Group and the three B.25’s.

In March 1944 M.A.A.F., however, decided against the use of this so-called private air force, and a directive was issued that our air operations were to be coordinated through G. Air Ops of Force 266. Objections were raised to this, as now the question of priorities arose vis a vis other agencies, but we were overruled. At this time 334 Wing R.A.F. [Royal Air Force] consisting of 148 Squadron and 1586 Polish Flight, both equipped with Halifaxes, and 267 Squadron, who were equipped with D.C.3’s, were operating on Special Operations, and the tussles that took place to get our fair share of priorities along with No. 1 Special Force, I.S.L.D., O.S.S., and Force 266 were tremendous. Too much detail is involved to go into each operation individually, but an Appendix is attached giving the total list of all operations carried out.

This priority situation was by no means satisfactory and as time went on tended to become worse. In August and September, 1944, with the invasion of GREECE, no D.C.3’s were available for days at a time so that operations from Southern ITALY as far as I.S.9 were concerned came practically to a standstill. Moreover, Winter was coming on and we estimated that we should have as bad flying weather as in the Winter of 43/44, and with such thoughts in our mind we looked around for other resources. In addition, at this time, practically all operations were done by night, and as the line in ITALY moved further NORTH the flying distance from BRINDISI grew steadily greater. The situation arose that either there was adverse weather over the target and good weather at base, good weather over the target and adverse weather at base, or good weather at target and adverse route weather.

In addition, the runway at BRINDISI could not be used if a cross wind of more than 15 mph was blowing, which proved a very serious handicap. As time went on this situation became such a serious drawback to Italian operations that M.A.A.F. decided to move up 51 Troop Carrier Group, which had been operating from BRINDISI, to a forward base at ROSSIGNANO SOUTH of LEGHORN. Due to the fact that the Italian Air Force had no bombers which required long runways, there were no landing grounds available in ITALY other than those specially constructed for the use of B.17’s and B.24’s by the Allies, which could take these aircraft, and it was not until March 45 that the L.Gs [landing grounds] at ROSSIGNANO had been extended to permit their use. In the latter part of ’44 two Squadrons of B.24’s were placed on Special Operations from 15th USAAF – 885 and 859 Squadrons, both operating from BRINDISI am in the early part of ’45 moving up to ROSSIGNANO.

As a result of all these factors we approached Col. George KRAIGHER, who, as has been mentioned in the YUGOSLAV Section of this history, formed a unit in August ’44, known as the A.C.R.U. [Air Crew Rescue Unit], and asked him if he would be prepared to carry out our operations for us with the B.25’s which were at his disposal.

At the same time Field HQs in FLORENCE approached the 12th Air Force with a similar request. Both these proposals met with an excellent response and virtually from Nov ’44 until the end of the war, I.S.9 again had it’s own private air force consisting of these B.25’s. True, it was still necessary to get body dropping operations done through ordinary Special Operations, but as time went on more and more Special Operations aircraft became available especially with the decreasing number of targets available, so that by the end of December ’44 the supply of aircraft far exceeded the demand.

One may mention here the method by which these private B.25’s operated to YUGOSLAVIA. In consultation with either Col. KRAIGHER of the A.C.R.U. or the A-2 Section of the Twelfth Air Force a plan was set up to drop to a certain mission in YUGOSLAVIA. The details of the pinpoint, i.e. latitude and longitude and recognition signals were given to the aircrews the day before the operation, and a signal was sent, in the case of YUGOSLAVIA over 37 Military Mission’s W/T link, warning them that two Mitchells with fighter escort would drop stores at a specified time and asking the Mission to put out the necessary recognition signals. On the morning of the operation all available O.Rs. of I.S.9 were raked together, the containers loaded on to a lorry, taken to the airport, and loaded on to the B.25’s, which then took off and in practically all cases successfully carried out the operation.

A similar technique was also followed by Field HQs in FLORENCE except that in the case of ITALY the W/T links were our own. That these two successes of obtaining again a private air force were well worthwhile, can never be doubted if only from one example. A supply drop was made by Special Operations for us to one of our officers NORTH-EAST of UDINE on the 19th Dec, 44, and despite the fact that another operation to the same pinpoint was laid on immediately, it was not until 25 Feb, 45, that it was successfully completed after innumerable failures. These failures were due either to adverse weather or engine trouble. If the B.25’s had not been available, our missions in the field would have been in very poor shape.

Pick ups were also laid on both in ITALY and YUGOSLAVIA. These were always tricky due to the necessity of having W/T contacts between the landing strip and the landing ground from which the aircraft took off. This was also further complicated by the fact that the Lysanders were based on BRINDISI, and as such before they took off, had to be briefed there despite the fact that W/T contact with the air strip was often miles away at a landing ground in NORTH ITALY.

One I.S.9 operation “TEMPLAR” met with a tragic fate. It was scheduled to fly from FALCONARA near ANCONA to a landing strip at TRAMONTI di SOPRA, N.W. of UDINE. After a lot of scuffling about, the operation was finally set up and took off. The country was covered by snow and, being mountainous, the pilot failed to see the ground signals and smoke against the snow background and returned with his load of three bodies and stores. On the second attempt the operation failed due to weather, and on the third attempt whilst over VENICE, escorted by six Kittyhawks, the Lysander was shot down by another Mustang which formed part of 50 more flying above, the Pilot claiming not to have recognised the Lysander, and everybody in it was killed.

A pick up was staged near CORTEMILIA N.W. of GENOA in conjunction with No. 1 Special Force. This was done by a B.25 which brought out 18 bodies and incidentally only just took off from the landing strip. Another pick up was also successful from the I.S.9 “Vermouth” Mission, NORTH of SPEZIA, by a FIESELER STORCH flown by an Italian pilot. The aircraft was loaned by No. 1 Special Force and on this occasion an injured R.A.F. pilot was evacuated.

Details of air pick ups in YUGOSLAVIA are too numerous to mention as due to an acute shortage of parachutes in 1944, stores were invariably landed if possible, and on the return journey aircraft always brought out E & Es.

A total of well over 2,000 E & Es were however evacuated from YUGOSLAVIA by air, during the period covered by this report.

In conclusion one may say that the value of I.S.9 having its own private air force during War appears to outweigh by far the expense involved in providing the necessary aircraft. It is assumed that a total of six aircraft would be required for operations in any one Theatre. These aircraft should be capable of both supply dropping and landing stores and at the same time evacuating personnel. Of these six, two should be in the nature of L.5’s which could operate locally between airstrips in E.O.T. for the purpose of evacuating injured personnel from areas where L.Gs. could not be constructed.

The number of successful air operations which I.S.9 carried out is given below:-

(a) From South ITALY (BARI and BRINDISI

i. To Italian pinpoints—114
ii. To Yugoslav pinpoints—89
iii. To Austrian pinpoints—2


i. To Italian pinpoints—41
ii. To Yugoslav pinpoints—3
iii. To Austria (FREEBORN)—17

Several pages of charts follow this section of the report. The charts provide details such as number and name of operation, departure and destination points, whether blind or not, bodies and stores dropped, radio contact, date complete, and number of attempts made.

Charts are for: “Italian Operations from South Italy,” “Balkan Operations from South Italy,” “Austrian ‘Freeborn’ Operations,” and Italian and Yugoslav Operations from North Italy.”

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