Here’s the story of an iconic moment in British Parachute Regiment History: Operation Biting…
The first-ever raid took place across the 27th and 28th February 1942, on a German coastal radar installation in northern France during the Second World War.
Aerial reconnaissance carried out by RAF the previous year had discovered multiples of these installations, but the British did not know the nature of the equipment they possessed or what they were for. As such, scientists wanted components from an installation near Bruneval, a coastal village near Le Havre, to be seized for examination.
The Germans had erected extensive coastal defences to protect the installation from attack by sea. Intelligence gathered by the French resistance determined that a frontal commando assault on the beach below the cliff, where the ‘Würzburg’ early warning radar was situated, would result in heavy casualties and give the defending Germans sufficient time to destroy the technology.
It was therefore decided that an airborne assault followed by a seaborne evacuation would be the best course of action, allowing them to take the garrison by surprise, ensure that the technology remained intact and minimalise the number of potential casualties.
‘C’ Company of the 2nd Battalion, 1st Parachute Brigade was chosen for the raid, which was known as Operation Biting. Under the command of Major John Frost, 120 men predominantly from Scottish regiments such as the Black Watch, Cameron Highlanders, King’s Own Scottish Borderers and the Seaforths, were accompanied by RAF radar operator, Flight Sergeant CWH Cox, to identify the components of interest. A former cinema projectionist, Flight Sergeant Cox had never actually been on a ship or aircraft before, making the feat all the more remarkable.
Operation Biting was treated with utmost secrecy from the outset, given there would likely be disastrous consequences if the Germans were to become aware of the British interest in the Bruneval site. As a result, even the Parachute Unit was unaware throughout much of their training, believing the War Cabinet wanted them to showcase their capability to raid a headquarters building behind enemy lines.
The plan for the operation involved the paratroopers dropping in three units, the first of which was to capture the beach below under the leadership of Lieutenant John Ross and Lieutenant Euen Charteris. The second, which was split into three sections under Frost’s command, was tasked with capturing a nearby villa which housed the Würzburg installation, while the other unit, led by Lieutenant John Timothy, was to act as a rear-guard.
Despite coming under heavy fire from anti-aircraft artillery, the Whitley bombers were able to travel unscathed and drop the paratroopers from a height of 600ft. Lieutenant Charteris’ unit was dropped 2.5km away from their planned position but they were able to quickly cross the icy landscape and reach their intended drop zone.
Operation Biting was a major success, with the Paras successfully retrieving the radar components and returning home having suffered only two fatalities. This successful raid against German-occupied territory did much to boost the morale of the nation and the story of the mission was prominently featured in the media for a number of weeks.
The main achievement, though, was the knowledge the British scientists were able to extract from the components. They discovered that the radar’s modular design allowed for much simpler maintenance in comparison to British equivalents. They also realised that their conventional means of jamming radar were ineffective against the Würzburg, meaning they would need to deploy a recently-developed countermeasure, code-named Window.
The implementation of Window was a great success, demonstrated in a raid against Hamburg by RAF Bomber Command in which German radars were blinded, leaving the operators confused and unable to react. Operation Biting was therefore a pivotal moment in the war, enabling the use of radar technologies which could have led to a very different outcome in the Battle of Britain had they not been developed.
During our day to day lives, it’s often easy to forget the sacrifices made for our livelihoods and this is a great reminder of the risks so many people took to serve Queen and Country. I mean, few things say hero more than Flight Sergeant Cox, a man who had never even been on a ship or aircraft before, playing a pivotal part in the first-ever raid on the Germans.