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15 October 2014
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Timeline - 1939-1945

Fact File : Bruneval Raid

27 to 28 February 1942

Theatre: Western Europe
Location: Bruneval, near le Havre, north east France
Players: Britain: 1st Parachute Brigade with RAF and Navy support.
Outcome: Capture of the German Würzburg anti-aircraft radar equipment.

'It is an awful thought that perhaps three quarters of our bombs go astray. If we could make it half and half we should virtually have doubled our bombing power.' - Winston Churchill

The British strategic bombing offensive began on 15 May 1940 with a 99-bomber raid on the Ruhr valley in western Germany. Early results were poor, not least because the bombers flew by night and without navigational aids. As early as November 1940, RAF Bomber Command had conceded that no more than 35 per cent of bombers reached their primary target.

These difficulties were compounded by the German anti-aircraft and air defence forces, which put ground-based radar to good use. The long-range Freya early-warning system was supplemented by two short-range Würzburg systems, which tracked the height and speed of incoming bomber groups and of individual aeroplanes.

Assisted by French Resistance groups, in January 1942 British intelligence identified a medium-range Würzburg unit, located near an isolated farmhouse at Bruneval in occupied France. Strong beach defences made a naval landing impractical; the Chief of Combined Operations, Lord Mountbatten, therefore authorised an airborne operation.

At midnight on 27 February 1942, a company of paratroopers was dropped inland of the radar station in three groups. The first rapidly secured the radar station and removed the radar equipment together with three German prisoners, one of whom was a radar operator. The second group, meanwhile, was holding off attacks from the German-garrisoned farmhouse.

The two groups then withdrew. They reached the beach shortly before the third group, which was to have neutralised the beach defences but had been driven off course and landed two miles from the drop zone. Eventually the defences were cleared, enabling Royal Navy vessels to approach and take the company off. The raid was a spectacular success, leading to advances in British anti-radar counter-measures.

The fact files in this timeline were commissioned by the BBC in June 2003 and September 2005. Find out more about the authors who wrote them.

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