on 12 August 2014
The breaking open of the prison walls in Amiens in February 1944 by the RAF is not the best known story of World War 2. At the time little was said about it and the later, official information released was less than comprehensive. It is a fascinating story and Robert Lyman tells it superbly with all his trademark mastery of detail. It is a book that has to be read carefully. I had to read several passages twice to fully grasp who was who and which set of initials (MI6, SOE, OSS etc) was responsible for what. The many French names and placenames can seem bewildering but they fall into place. The detail is essential in understanding what was a very complex situation. Until I read this book I didn't know just how much of a real threat the German V1 and V2 rocket weapons were. Had they been manufactured and launched in the numbers intended they would have flattened London and much else. Resistance people risked and gave their lives to pinpoint the manufacture and assembly sites and the launch ramps. They also supplied a mountain of vital information about fortifications and troop movements, they helped downed RAF crews and escaped POWs to get home, they blew up railways and in February 1944 hundreds of them were in Amiens jail awaiting execution or a concentration camp.
Breaking down the prison walls to give them the chance to escape needed more than just extraordinary flying skills. The decision itself needed the kind of moral courage that only very special people possess. The latter part of the book, the attack on the prison, makes all the previous detail very worthwhile in as much that you feel you know the people who are in there and what they are facing. Today, we are used to laser guided bombs and missiles that seem to know where they are going but in 1944 the kind of precision bombing needed to knock down the walls of a prison in the middle of a town just wasn't available by technical means. It could only happen if young men were prepared to fly large aircraft down as low as a double deck bus in built up areas in broad daylight with anti aircraft gun crews and enemy fighters trying very hard to kill them. Fortunately we had such people and they were ready to give their lives to help others. Robert Lyman writes in a very feet on the ground style, his research is immense and his understanding of the subject is always complete. This book throws a very bright light on an action that was largely overlooked due to events in Normandy four months later but we now have the whole story. A really first class piece of work.
on 13 September 2014
At last, a respected military historian has started with a clean sheet of paper and looked at the intrigue and mystery surrounding Operation Jericho or the RAF Mosquito attack on the Amiens Prison in February 1944. In the years that followed the raid, various conspiracy theories have emerged as to its true purpose and who asked for it. Because the raid was clouded by wartime secrecy and little information remains today in the British archives, many alternative theories have emerged which over the years have gained prominence and even respect. Dr Robert Lyman has exhaustively researched French and British Archives as well as personal memoirs of former French patriots and RAF pilots. He concluded that the information or facts regarding the raid has always been in the public domain, you just need to know where to look. For example, a 1982 BBC Panorama documentary cast doubts on the raids purpose but through contacts in New Zealand, a remarkable TVNZ documentary produced coincidentally in the same year was found, which actually interviewed former French patriots from both inside and outside the Amiens prison at the time. Memoirs written by Dominique Ponchardier, the joint head of the resistance ops in Northern France confirmed it was he who requested the raid to British Intelligence, M16 who in turn passed the request onto the Air Ministry. Dr Lyman has gone into enormous detail describing the story of the French resistance from when the Germans invaded France right up to the Allied Liberation in 1944. The relationship between the French resistance groups and British Intelligence or M16 details the vital importance of their partnership in the months leading up to D Day. Fortunately Dr Lyman has provided a comprehensive abbreviations and glossary section to keep track of the various personalities and factions involved. The raid itself has been thoroughly covered and the skill and bravery of the pilots and navigators who took part has been given the recognition they truly deserve. In his epilogue or summary, Dr Lyman concluded that the raids sole purpose was to release French patriots who once captured by the Germans, would die, not necessarily within the next few days as was widely believed, but they would die sometime, somewhere. And the request for an air attack on the prison was made from within the prison and via the resistance movement in the area. The operation was carried out in great secrecy but there was no conspiracy. The Jail Busters is another masterpiece from Dr Lyman and is without a doubt the most comprehensive and thoroughly researched study of this epic event. For military history buffs, this is a very important work and an absolute must read.
on 8 September 2014
Jail Busters: The Secret Story of MI6, the French Resistance and Operation Jericho
Lyman, Robert 31 Jul 2014
In the new year of 1944 the French Resistance in northern France was on its knees. Relentless attacks on its diverse and disorganised networks by the Gestapo and the Abwehr had put many of its best operatives in prison, or worse. But in the lead up to Operation Overlord, 'D Day', the Resistance had never been more important to the Allied war effort, and many groups were in the pay of Britain's Secret Intelligence Service, MI6. One such was organised by a patriot called Dominic Ponchardier. For months he had watched helplessly as his friends and colleagues had been swept up by the Nazi drag net, and cast into the old prison on the eastern outskirts of Amiens. In desperation he asked his MI6 handlers for help, and once London agreed it led to one of the most daring missions of the war.
On the morning of 18 February 1944, nineteen Mosquito bombers flew at low level across the channel, skimming just above the ground to drop their bombs on sections of the walls of Amiens Prison. Hundreds escaped, scores of whom evaded recapture to continue the fight against Nazi repression. It was an epic of precision bombing, in which one of the most notable RAF heroes of the war, Group Captain Charles Pickard, lost his life. Robert Lyman's book reveals, from previously unseen sources, the full truth of MI6's involvement in the French Resistance, and narrates in vivid detail a stirring tale of courage and skill.
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This is a curious story. At midday on 18th February 1944 a force of 19 Mosquito bombers in an amazing feat of flying skill and airmanship attacked Amiens Gaol at very low level, by bombing the walls and the German Guardhouse of the Prison, letting out at least 200 prisoners, some of them significant people in the French Resistance movement, many of whom escaped to be either caught later, or to continue their vital work before D Day and the invasion of France by the Allies.
The question at the centre of the first two books was as to who organised and was responsible for authorising and commissioning the RAF commanders to do what they did. There were various candidates for that authorisation, ranging from the OSS (the American predecessor of the CIA, MI6, SOE, even Operation Fortitude (which organised the deception plans for D Day).
It has now been the subject of three detailed books, the first by Jack Fishman (‘And the Walls Came Tumbling Down ’) in 1983, which was warmly commended by Robert Lyman. The second, which came in two parts, was from Dr J. P. Ducellier (the second and final version entitled ‘The Amiens Raid: Secrets Revealed: The Truth Behind the Legend of Operation Jericho’) This was published in 2011. There was also the TV programme featuring Martin Shaw and his reconstruction of the whole Raid in 2012. The first two books and the TV programme left unanswered too many questions than anyone was able to answer, which dealt this difficult problem as to which body was the instigator of the Raid.
Finally, we have the most recent and convincing enquiry on this aspect written by Robert Lyman, a professional military historian with a serious pedigree of historical research and academic work, who with his book entitled ‘Jail Busters: The Secret Story of MI6, the French Resistance and Operation Jericho‘. This was published on 31 July 2014.
There are probably still MI6 files held under secrecy, unbelievable as it may seem, some 70 years after this event occurred, which have not been opened to public view. Mr Lyman’s view is that it is highly likely that the Raid was sponsored by MI6. He has been assured by historians of the Secret Services, that nothing has been seen to contradict that view, those who convinced him being those with total authority to examine such Secret Records as still exist.
There are various factors which complicate the position. It was suggested to the RAF commanders that some of those imprisoned were likely to be killed in the course of the Raid. Another feature was that those who took part were told that some of the Resistance figures and others were likely to be shot by the Germans at about mid day on Friday 19th February 1944. It is interesting to learn how brutal those Germans who were in charge in the Amiens area were in the treatment of the French inhabitants. The same Germans were squeamish about admitting the true numbers of those who escaped to their superiors further up the chain of oppression. When subordinates are hesitant to tell the truth to their superiors, you have a fair idea as to what those in the more lowly positions thought about those who were, at that time, above them.
I confess to being satisfied with the answers which Robert Lyman was able to suggest and the conclusions he reached.
on 1 October 2014
This is an outstanding, well written and researched book that covers not just Operation Jericho but also provides many insights into the relationship between, and activities of MI6, SOE and the French BCRA organisation.
I would strongly recommend this book to anyone with an interest in any aspect of WW2 intelligence matters as this book 'lifts the lid' on the relationship between the different intelligence services in a way that, as far as I am aware, no other publication has done to date.
Many historic works seem to require the reader to wade through reams of facts and detail without a compelling narrative to keep the interest. However, Robert Lyman's engaging style of writing keeps the reader hooked from the first page to the last. I struggled to put it down while reading it! All in all superb. An excellent realistic analysis of the central subject (the Amiens Raid), with a colourful and engaging approach.
on 1 February 2016
I should declare an interest. I have written about the AMIENS RAID in various journals, including the now defunct Battlefields Review (and appear in the Acknowledgements). I have also been published in the Letters page of The Times on the subject. My beef was that existing versions of the story were all inaccurate, and mostly parroted the version in Jack Fishman's 'And the Walls Came Tumbling Down'. His thesis was that the raid was prompted by the arrest of Raymond Vivant, the Sous-prefét of Abbeville, arrested on February 12 1944 (the raid took place on February 18). Vivant was the leader of the OCM resistance movement and undoubtedly a very important member of the resistance. Fishman suggested that Dominique Ponchardier, a prominent communist leader primarily working to MI6, with his accomplice René Chapelle (of the FTPF), contacted Group Captain Pickard in England, the man who led the raid, who in turn put in motion the steps that led to the raid less than a week later. The story was absurd, no operation as complex as this, requiring detailed plans of Amiens prison, the geography of its cells and the weight of cell doors and type of locks, guards' rotas etc., could have been mounted with such speed; and Group Captains do not organise missions. In my researches at the National Archives I found a reconnaissance photo of the prison dated December 1943 and photographs of a sophisticated model of Amiens prison for briefing purposes, which indicated that the op had been planned for some time - under the auspices of SIS (not SOE as some persist in arguing). I spoke to the historian of SIS who had the files to hand (still classified) and he confirmed that the plan was some time in the gestation and was overseen by the most senior commanders. Fishman was an abrasive character and when I pointed these facts out to him he was pretty rude. However, his book was a very valuable source nevertheless as he had traced many of the participants and interviewed them. One must be wary of oral history because narrators brag and have fallible memories, but they do add pieces to the jigsaw.
My interest in the raid came when I talked to a family friend, Air Chief Marshal Sir Christopher Foxley-Norris, a much decorated veteran of WW2. He had known all the participants including Pickford and Air Vice Marshal Basil Embry, the man who planned the raid. He said that at the time and later no-one in his circle could fathom why the raid took place - there were many prisons holding resisters, important ones, why Amiens? What was so special about those incarcerated in its stone walls? Was there a crucial MI6 man in the prison, was the third wave of Mosquitoes meant to destroy the prison and kill prisoners who might have revealed crucial information under torture (no, is the answer). Even after the war the RAF sent a senior commander to Amiens to try and discover why the raid took place (he failed) because SIS were keeping schtum.
I had hoped to find something sensational behind the raid's genesis, a plot by de Gaulle to kill communists in the prison perhaps, but that was quickly blown by de Gaulle's Intelligence Chief, Col. Passy, who said that the Free French had known nowt about the raid and were pretty miffed that it had taken place at all, killing as it did a lot of Frenchmen (but of course freeing many who would have been shot in a couple of days). Other more sinister conspiracy theories were quickly blown and it soon transpired that, although Ponchardier's motives in pushing for the raid were partly personal - he had kin imprisoned there – the destruction of the resistance in the Nord and Pas de Calais was of prime concern to MI6 (whose responsibility was intelligence gathering); and the Overlord planners in the UK concurred, as they were above all fearful of the potential the VI had to wreak havoc on the invasion beaches and on the concentration of ships, armour and troops in Southern England. They needed the resistance to identify VI sites; as well as to disrupt communication and transport just before D-Day. For many of the French, the imminent execution of friends or relatives in the Army of the Shadows was motive enough.
Robert Lyman is a prolific author and is a military historian of note. His analysis is balanced, his judgements always sound and fair. He tells the story of the raid with an eye to quirks of detail and character that lift it above the Boy’s Own school of Paul Brickhill, but nevertheless preserve the thrilling derring-do of the raid, where flying skills were paramount – the Mosquitoes were barely 30 feet from the ground and flying at 200 mph when they released their bombs, no mean feat.
His style is clear and concise, he does not over-elaborate but lets the heroism of the participants speak for itself. And what heroism! From the numbing fear that resisters lived with daily to the audacity of the airmen, this is a tale of determined fighters, men and women uncowed by the Gestapo, men uncowed by flak and the perils of low level flying. Lyman has unravelled the complex planning process, the intricacies of the intelligence networks, both British and French, and has explained technical aspects of the raid - and of the Mosquito aircraft – with consummate precision. This is a tremendous story of sacrifice and skill, a sort of military detective story, told by a master. It is the definitive work on the subject. Even though I knew the denouement I found the book enthralling to the very end
on 24 March 2015
An excellent review of many of the different views and theories about the raid. Of all the books on the topic this one gives the most believable reasons behind the raid and rather negates the recent revisionist ideas by a French historian. Well worth a read.
on 19 June 2016
I purchased this book without realising that it was in fact a very detailed historical account. It is very apparent having since read the book that, the events, places, people and the groups they belonged to were meticulously researched and documented. However, I quickly became bored at the sheer amount of detail, much of which was (for obvious reasons) written in French, which left me skipping over paragraphs of text. This book will definitely appeal more to those who understand French and who also enjoy extensive and explicit amounts of historic detail. I am of the opinion that, this book would have been a much better read (and would appeal to more people) if, much of the detail could have been referenced at the bottom of each page for those who want every conceivable detail.
on 21 January 2015
brilliant read, could not put this book down
on 25 April 2016
This was a very good book and revealed quite a lot of facts which were unknown. I really enjoyed reading it andit was a revelation reading about the Mosquite.
on 2 September 2014