Operation Bulbasket was an operation by 'B' Squadron, 1st Special Air Service (SAS), behind the German lines in German occupied France, between June and August 1944. The operation was located to the east of Poitiers in the Vienne department of south west France; its objective was to block the Paris to Bordeaux railway line near Poitiers and to hamper German reinforcements heading towards the Normandy beachheads, especially the 2nd SS Panzer Division – Das Reich.
During the course of the operation amongst other things, the SAS men discovered the whereabouts of a petrol supply train, which was destined for the 2nd SS Panzer Division. The supply train was destroyed by Royal Air Force bombers the same night.
The Special Air Service team had made their base near Verrieres, the location of which was betrayed to the Germans. In the follow-up attack on their camp, 33 men from the Special Air Service were captured and later executed together with a United States Army Air Forces (USAAF) pilot who had fallen in with them, after bailing out of his P-51. Seven captured Maquisards were also executed in the woods after the attack. Three other SAS men, who had been wounded in the fight and taken to hospital, were executed by lethal injections while in their hospital beds.
The men involved in Operation Bulbasket were part of the Special Air Service Brigade. It was a unit of the British Army, formed in July 1941 by David Stirling and originally called 'L' Detachment, Special Air Service Brigade; 'L' being an attempt at deception, implying the existence of numerous such units. It was conceived as a commando type force intending to operate behind enemy lines in the North African Campaign. In 1944 the Special Air Service Brigade was formed and consisted of the British 1st and 2nd Special Air Service, the French 3rd and 4th SAS and the Belgian 5th SAS. They were to undertake parachute operations behind the German lines in France and then carry out operations supporting the Allied advance through Belgium, the Netherlands and eventually into Germany.
In May 1944 the Supreme Headquarters Allied Expeditionary Force (SHAEF) had issued an order for the Special Air Service Brigade to carry out two operations in France, Hounsworth in the area of Dijon for 'A' Squadron and Bulbasket, near Poitiers, which was given to 'B' Squadron.
The focus of both operations would be the disruption of German reinforcements from the south of France to the Normandy beachheads. To carry out the operation the men were to destroy supply dumps, block the Paris to Bordeaux railway line near Poitiers and attack railway sidings and fuel trains. One formation they especially wanted to delay was the 2nd SS Panzer Division - Das Reich which was based in the area around Toulouse in the south of France. The intelligence experts at SHAEF responsible for planning the Normandy landings, had estimated it would take three days for the panzer division to reach Normandy.
The officer in command of 'B' Squadron was Captain John Tonkin of the 1st SAS with Second Lieutenant Richard Crisp as his second in command; both men were briefed on the operation by SHAEF in London 1 June 1944. Over the next two days they spent time at the headquarters of the Special Operations Executive who had agents of 'F' section operating in the area under the command of Captain Maingard, alias 'Samuel'. He also had links with the two main French Resistance groups in the area the Francs tireurs et Partisans and the Armée Secrète. Tonkin was also given a list of rail targets by Headquarters Special Air Service.
The advance party for Operation Bulbasket, including Tonkin, were flown to France by a Handley Page Halifax belonging to 'B' Flight, No. 161 Squadron RAF, the special duties squadron. Their drop zone was an area of the Brenne marsh 19 miles (31 km) south west of Châteauroux, which they reached at 01:37 hours on 6 June 1944. On the ground to meet them was their SOE contact, Captain Maingard. Two further groups from 'B' Squadron were parachuted in, one on 7 June and the second on 11 June. Also dropped at the same time were Vickers K machine gun armed Jeeps.
Once on the ground, the SAS Squadron set about preventing German reinforcements reaching Normandy. They attacked the rail network, laid mines, conducted vehicle patrols in their Jeeps and trained members of the French Resistance. On 10 June a French railwayman informed Tonkin that a train composed of at least eleven petrol tankers was parked at the rail sidings at Châtellerault. These were the fuel reserves for the advancing 2nd SS Panzer Division. To confirm their location, Tonkin sent Lieutenant Tomos Stephens on a reconnaissance of the area. Travelling alone by bicycle, Stephens made the 74 miles (119 km) round trip - returning on 11 June. He confirmed the location of the petrol train. He also reported that it was too heavily guarded for the SAS squadron to deal with. Tonkin contacted England and requested an air attack on the train. That night a force of 12 Royal Air Force de Havilland Mosquito bombers, six each from No. 138 Wing RAF, based at RAF Lasham and 140 Wing, based at Gravesend in Kent, attacked the train in its sidings. The mission was a success.
To prevent their camp being located or compromised by German radio direction finding equipment or informers, Tonkin regularly moved its location. The location of new camps had to be close to water and a drop zone for parachute supply. The camp located near to Verrières was near to their drop zone at La Font d'Usson and had an adequate water supply. The SAS Squadron had been at Verrières between 25 June and 1 July. The local population had also become aware of the camp and Tonkin was warned by Maingard that if the locals knew, informers would soon tell the Germans. Tonkin ordered the squadron to move to a new camp just south in the Bois des Cartes. This new camp was also close to their drop zone at La Font d'Usson where they were expecting a supply drop over the night of 3/4 July. On their arrival at the new camp at Bois des Cartes, the water supply from the well failed and due to this Tonkin decided to return to Verrières until a more suitable camp site could be found.
The German SS Security Police had been informed that the SAS camp was located in a forest near Verrières. On 1 July they had sent agents into the forest to attempt to locate the camp and assembled an attacking force based on the reserve battalion of the 17th SS Panzergrenadier Division Götz von Berlichingen which was based at Bonneuil-Matours. With the arrival of the SAS Squadron back at their old base camp, Tonkin set out on 2 July to try to locate a new camp. He returned in the early hours of 3 July just before the Germans attacked, who had managed to surround the camp during the night. The force in the forest camp consisted of 40 SAS men, the USAAF P-51 pilot, Second Lieutenant Lincoln Bundy, who had been shot down on 10 June 1944 and attached himself to the SAS, and nine men from the French Resistance.
The Germans attacked at dawn and it was all over by 14:00. As the Germans searched the forest the SAS men tried to break out. A party of 34 were moving down a forest track when they were ambushed and captured. The leader of the party, Lieutenant Tomos Stephens, was beaten to death by a German officer using a rifle butt; seven captured Maquisards were executed in the woods. The SAS men and the US pilot should have been treated as prisoners of war. However, their fate was determined by the issue of the Commando Order by Adolf Hitler which called for the execution of commandos. The decision of who was going to execute them was the cause of an argument between the German Army and the SS. It was decided that the army would carry out the execution. On 7 July, the surviving prisoners of war, 30 SAS men and Second Lieutenant Bundy, were taken into the woods near to St Sauvant, forced to dig their own graves then executed by a German firing squad at dawn under the command of SS Major Josef Kieffer. Their bodies were then buried in a mass grave. Three Special Air Service men who had been wounded and hospitalized were killed by the administration of lethal injections. The men executed in the woods were re-interred in the village cemetery of Rom, Deux-Sèvres. The bodies of the three men executed in the hospital have never been found, but they are commemorated by a plaque among their comrades' headstones in Rom.
One of the UK Special Forces' Jedburgh teams (codenamed Hugh) operating in the area, reported back to Special Forces HQ, requesting a reprisal attack on the headquarters of the 17th SS Panzergrenadier Division in Bonneuil-Matours. On receipt of this request, Special Forces HQ passed it on to SAS Brigade HQ, who contacted No. 2 Group RAF, part of the RAF's Second Tactical Air Force. 2 Group's Air Officer Commanding, Air Vice-Marshal Basil Embry assigned the reprisal attack operation to No. 140 Wing RAF, which had already responded to Bulbasket's request for the attack on the supply trains in Châtellerault in the previous month. By this time, No. 140 Wing was operating out of RAF Thorney Island, where, on 14 July 1944, Embry personally briefed the 14 crews selected for this operation. The plan of attack called for four phases: Four Mosquitos would drop high explosive bombs; following them, six aircraft would drop US M76 incendiary bombs; the remaining aircraft would then drop more HE bombs and finally the aircraft would return to strafe the target before returning to base.
The Mosquitos left Thorney Island at about 21:00 hours, met up with an escort of 12 Mustang Mk. IIIs for the daylight crossing, at low level, of enemy-held territory in Northern France and reached the target at approximately 21:00 local time, when the German troops were eating their evening meal. The attack went as planned and all seven barrack blocks were destroyed; local estimates of the number of German troops killed varied from 80 to about 200. All aircraft safely returned to Thorney Island in the early hours of 15 July.
Tonkin and the remainder of the SAS Squadron (altogether eight survivors of the attack and three others, who had been away on a smaller operation at the time) escaped, regrouped and carried on with the mission until the order to cease operations was received on 24 July 1944. During the period between 10 June and 23 July, the SAS Squadron had attacked railway targets 15 times, the main roads Route nationale 10 south of Vivonne and the Route nationale N147 between Angers– Poitiers–Limoges were mined. They also had some success attacking targets of opportunity. Over the night of 12/13 June 1944 Lieutenant Crisp, one of those later executed, was in command of a patrol that laid mines on the N147 in the Forêt de Défant, just before the 2nd SS Panzer Division arrived in the area.
The 2nd SS Panzer Division, during their advance to Normandy, was responsible for the Tulle murders on 9 June 1944 and the massacre at the village of Oradour-sur-Glane on 10 June. The operations by the Bulbasket team, amongst others, delayed the arrival of the division in Normandy until the end of June. The 2nd SS Panzer Division was responsible for the capture of the Special Operations Executive agent Violette Szabo on 10 June 1944. They handed her over to the Sicherheitsdienst security police in Limoges.
In December 1944, after the German Army had been driven from the area, men working in the forest near St Sauvant discovered an area of broken branches and disturbed earth. They started to examine the site and discovered what remained of a number of bodies. The local police force were informed and on 18 December started excavating the grave. A number of corpses were still wearing Allied uniform; most of their identity tags had been removed but two remained which identified them as members of Operation Bulbasket, while another was identified by his name inside the battle dress tunic. A further body in civilian clothing was identified as that of Second Lieutenant Bundy.
The 31 bodies were taken to Rom and reburied with full military honours in the village cemetery. The body of Lieutenant Stephens, who had been beaten to death, is in the village cemetery in Verrières. The bodies of the three men executed in the hospital, despite not being found, were commemorated with a memorial plaque which was erected beside the Special Air Service graves in Rom cemetery.
In an analysis of the achievements of Operation Bulbasket, the author Paul McCue lists the following:
- The initiation of four air attacks and a possible fifth, killing upwards of 150 German troops and an unknown number of Milice
- Responsibility for the destruction of crucial petrol stocks, delaying the progress of the 2nd Panzer Division towards the Normandy landing area
- The delay of the 226th Infantry Division from Bayonne
- The delay of the 227th Infantry Division from Carcassonne
- Execution of 23 successful road and rail sabotage operations
Operation Bulbasket: Timeline
• 1 June 1944; Two officers of 'B' Squadron, 1st Special Air Service, Captain John Tonkin and Second Lieutenant Richard Crisp, were briefed on the operation by SHAEF in London
• 6 June; Their drop zone was an area of the Brenne marsh 19 miles (31 km) south west of Châteauroux, which they reached at 01:37 hours
• 7 June; further group from 'B' Squadron were parachuted in
• 9/10 June; move to 'Sazas' farm south of Montmorillon
• 11 June; further group from 'B' Squadron were parachuted in
• 11 June; location of petrol train confirmed. Tonkin contacted England and requested an air attack. That night a force of 12 Royal Air Force de Havilland Mosquito bombers of No. 487 Squadron RNZAF, based at RAF Gravesend in Kent, attacked the train in its sidings. The mission was a success, destroying the fuel reserves for the 2nd SS Panzer Division Das Reich.
• 12/13 June; Lieutenant Crisp, one of those later executed, was in command of a patrol that laid mines on the N147 in the Forêt de Défant, just before the 2nd SS Panzer Division arrived in the area.
• 13 June; move to Nerignac
• 19 June; move to Pouillac
• 21 June; move to Persac
• 25 June 1944; The SAS Squadron move to Verrières.
• 1 July; move to a new camp just south in the Bois des Cartes.
• 2 July; return to Verrieres. The force in the forest camp consisted of 40 SAS men, a P-51 Mustang pilot, Second Lieutenant Lincoln Bundy and nine men from the French Resistance.
• 3/4 July: attack on Verrieres
• 5 July; survivors move top Foret de Plessac
• 6/7 July; men executed at St Sauvant
• 9 July; move to Charroux
• 14 July; move to Asnieres sur Blour or Forêt de Défant
• Subsequently near Luchapt, Tonkin and the remainder of the Squadron (altogether eight survivors of the attack and three others), regrouped and carried on with the mission
• 24 July 1944; order to cease operations was received
• 28 July; move to north of Montmorillon
• 6/7 August; survivors extracted