How many of you knew that the distinguished British actor David Niven (the first to portray James Bond on screen as well) was a Commando during WWII? Or that a Canadian commando soldier had the dubious distinction of being the first victim of Hitler’s infamous so-called “Commando Order”? Read on…
Commandos raid Fortress Europe
By SEAN CHASE
The men emerged from the black void to an unheralded welcome. Leaping from the assault boat, Major Geoffrey Appleyard raced up the beach towards the cliffs with nine darkened-faced commandos trailing behind him. Reaching the seaside house of Frances Pittard, the raiding party broke into the residence and was warmly greeted by its owner. Appleyard learned from her that 20 Germans were staying at the Dixcart Hotel down the street. Their objective was to capture officers, especially ones of high intelligence value. The commandos slipped into town, where they staked out the annex to the hotel. Entering the hut, they snatched five sleeping Germans and tied their hands with toggle ropes. Before the commandos could turn their attention towards the hotel, all hell broke loose.
One prisoner began shouting, prompting one of the soldiers to shoot the man dead. The party came under heavy gunfire from the hotel and retreated to the beach, taking four prisoners with them. Three prisoners broke free. Two were shot, while the third was stabbed. The commandos, complete with one prisoner and a double-agent, escaped the English Channel island of Sark on the night of Oct. 3, 1942.
Operation: Basalt was deemed a success for Britain’s Special Operations Executive (SOE). It’s still unclear what really transpired that night on Sark. Famed British actor David Niven, a member of the Phantom Signals, claimed the commandos, dressed in civilian attire, had been taken to the local pub for a drink. Niven, a veteran of several dangerous raids of the channel islands, once eased a nervous commando patrol telling them: “It’s all very well for you chaps, but I’ll have to do this all over again with Errol Flynn!”
The SOE was a secretive, unorthodox organization whose job was to co-ordinate resistence and covert operations in Nazi-occupied Europe. By sea and air, the SOE dropped operatives behind enemy lines where they carried out sabotage and intelligence collection -all geared toward preparing for the expected Allied invasion. If caught, an agent faced torture and certain death at the hands of the Gestapo. The same fate awaited uniformed commandos.
Enraged by the Sark raid, Hitler issued his “Commando Order” instructing all operatives to be executed upon capture. A Canadian would be the order’s first victim.
On the evening of Sept. 15, 1942, a Free French submarine surfaced deep inside a Norwegian fjord. Ten commandos opened the hatch and disembarked in a dinghy. Led by Capt. Graeme Black, from Dresden, Ontario, the team linked up with two Norwegian operatives and headed for their objective -the hydroelectric power station at Glomfjord. The aim of Operation: Muskatoon was to knock out a vital aluminum plant by cutting its power. They crossed a grassy plain between the fjord and the mountains to the north, avoiding sheep herders and a German topographical party. Four nights later, they reached a ridge overlooking the plant and split up. Chief explosives expert Sgt. Richard O’Brien and two others began rigging the high pressure pipelines leading into the plant with plastic explosives designed to be ignited with pencil fuses.
The remaining nine men entered the station undetected through the generator hall. While the Norwegian workers were being evacuated, the commandos set explosives on the turbines and generators. One German guard was killed, but another escaped down a tunnel, the only land route between the plant and the village of Glomfjord. The alarm was soon raised, but the commandos made their escape. Their explosives went off 30 minutes later, damaging the station beyond repair. The raiders found a hut and were given shelter by Norwegian miners. Matters were quickly complicated when a German patrol stopped by. After a brief scuffle, one of the commandos had been mortally stabbed. From that point, the commandos split up, deciding to navigate the steep slopes of Middago Mountain.
While O’Brien and his men made it to Stockholm, Sweden, Black’s group of seven survivors was eventually captured. They were taken to the infamous Colditz Castle before arriving at Berlin’s Camp Sachsenhausen. Before dawn on Oct. 23, each commando was shot in the back of the head and their bodies cremated. Capt. Graeme Black was posthumously awarded the Distinguished Service Order.
France remained the front lines of the SOE’s clandestine war with the Axis. Of the 480 agents sent across the channel, 130 were arrested by the Gestapo. With the exception of 26, all were killed. Of the 28 Canadians dropped into France, eight were executed. Gustave “Guy” Bieler was one of the first Canadians to reach French soil when he parachuted from an RAF bomber in November, 1942. Although he shattered his spine on landing, the crippled intelligence officer refused Resistance offers to smuggle him back to England.
After laying up in Paris to heal, Bieler set up a sabotage network in St. Quentin, 80 miles northeast of the capital. Covertly working with French National Railway officials, Bieler selected targets. Armed with 16 parachute drops of explosives and weapons, Bieler and his Resistance fighters blew up a German troop train, derailed 20 other trains, damaged locomotives and cut the Paris-Cologne rail line 13 times. While he frustrated their efforts to unmask his network, Bieler felt the Gestapo were getting close. They got lucky in January, 1944 when Bieler, and his wireless operator, Yolande Beekman, were picked up by Gestapo agents while sitting at a café. Inside the prison at St. Quentin, Bieler endured the first of many brutal interrogations. Chained hand and foot, he was beaten for hours. The rule of thumb upon capture was to say nothing for 48 hours, thus buying your contacts time to move and cover their tracks.
For months, Bieler languished in prison, strictly confined to a windowless cell. He was exhaustively interrogated but never gave up his will to survive. His last prison was the extermination camp at Flossenburg in Bavaria. Around September, Guy Bieler was executed. His German guards were so impressed with his courage and dignity that a guard of honour escorted him as he limped into the courtyard and fearlessly faced his firing squad.
Another Canadian SOE agent who gave the Gestapo fits was Capt. Frank Pickersgill. The Winnipeg native was working in France as a freelance reporter when the Germans invaded in 1940. Imprisoned as an enemy alien in a labour camp, he eventually escaped to Britain. Refusing a desk assignment in Ottawa, he enlisted in the Canadian Intelligence Corps. Because he was fluent in French, Pickersgill was seconded to the SOE and assigned to set up a sabotage network in the Ardennes Forest. On June 15, 1943, Pickersgill and fellow Canadian, Guelph native John Macalister, parachuted into the Lorie Valley. Days later, they were betrayed by an informer and arrested trying to catch the train to Paris.
Unfortunately, upon capture the police seized Macalister’s radio and codes. They sent false messages to London, giving the pretense that Pickersgill’s network was up and running. This charade lured another Canadian SOE commando into a Gestapo trap. On the night of March 2, 1944, 20-year-old Romeo Sabourin engaged in a firefight when he landed in a farmer’s field. He killed two Germans before being subdued.
Much to the Gestapo’s chagrin, Pickersgill was far from a model prisoner. In Paris, he declined an offer to live in comfortable quarters if he co-operated. Angered by the proposition, he grabbed a bottle from his interrogator’s desk, attacked the guard and dashed into the hallway. Using the broken bottle, he killed two SS men by slashing their throats. He then jumped out a second-floor window and ran. The SS fired on him, hitting the agent four times.
Pickersgill, Macalister and Sabourin were transferred to the notorious Buchenwald concentration camp. Pickersgill be a thorn in his captor’s side, refusing to salute senior officers. Around Sept. 16, the three Canadians were among a group of 16 prisoners who were marched into the crematorium. A French priest was refused permission to administer the last sacrament. He prayed all night outside the bunker.
As the men were being hung on meat hooks, a method of slow strangulation, they could be heard defiantly yelling “Vive la France!” and “Vive le Canada!”