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The Special Allied Airborne Reconnaissance Force (SAARF)

by Les Hughes

© 1993 by author 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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As early as 1943, Allied planners were concerned with the possibility that Allied prisoners of war might be the target of localized or wholesale violence during a collapse of Nazi Germany, or that the chaos surrounding such a collapse would, at the very least, impose considerable hardship on the POWs. The planners suggested that the POW Contact Teams that were then attached to the various Allied Armies might be expanded to include airborne teams that would parachute into the vicinity of POW camps with which it was desired to make early contact, thus possibly pre-empting many potential problems.

It was not until February 1945, however, when the defeat of Germany appeared imminent, that SHAEF was provided with a mandate for dispatching troops whose mission would be to secure the safety of Allied POWs and to provide for their early evacuation. As a result of its mandate, SHAEF created, in March of 1945, The Special Allied Airborne Reconnaissance Force, a designation mercifully shortened to simply SAARF by most of its personnel and by those who had cause to refer to it. The code name of the mission for which SAARF had been formed was Operation VICARAGE.

A golf course and its facilities at Wentworth, which formerly served as the Headquarters of the 21st Army Group, was allocated as SAARF's Headquarters and training camp. Both America's Office of Strategic Services and its British counterpart, SOE, provided training and support personnel and, along with the 1st Allied Airborne Army, operational personnel. SAARF remained, however, under the control of SHAEF. SAARF was genuinely an Allied unit: Brigadier J. S. Nichols, a British officer, was selected to command, and Col. J. E. Raymond, an American, was appointed Deputy Commander. 

On the operational side the make-up was even more international: 120 French, 96 British, 96 American, 30 Belgian, and 18 Polish personnel.  Many of the British and French personnel were drawn from special operations units, while the Poles appear to have come from the Polish Independent Grenadier Company. The majority of the 96 Americans were drawn from the OSS and from elements of the 82d and 101st Airborne Divisions. (A small group, fewer than a half-dozen men, came from the 13th Airborne Division. And one radio operator came to SAARF from the U.S. Navy via the OSS.)  Not all operational personnel were men: there were several women who had served with distinction as SOE agents in Nazi-occupied Europe.

The basic operational unit of SAARF was a 3-man team (admittedly, something of a misnomer, considering the presence of women on some teams) that, with a few exceptions, comprised two officers and an enlisted radio operator. All personnel were to be airborne qualified; those who were not were sent to the No. 1 Parachute Training School at Ringway, and refresher training was conducted by RAF 38 Group. For purposes of command and training, personnel were formed into three contingents by nationality: 1st Contingent: British and Belgians; 2nd Contingent: Americans and Poles; 3rd Contingent: French. And because the time available for training was limited, the personnel in each team were usually of the same nationality, unlike the OSS/SOE Jedburgh teams, the national make-up of which, whenever possible, had been intentionally mixed.  Although the female personnel had established enviable records of bravery and daring in their previous assignments, it was decided early-on they would not be used in an airborne role.

In March 1945, the Allies crossed the Rhine and the collapse of Germany proceeded more rapidly than anticipated. On 21 April, in response to a request from the Belgian government, eight of the ten Belgian teams were dispatched to Brussels to be employed, in a ground role, by the various Army Groups to obtain early information regarding conditions in some POW camps. A few days thereafter, SAARF was restructured: the 60 teams that had completed their training were retained in an airborne role while the remaining teams were re-designated air-transportable and were to use ground transportation, usually jeeps, in conducting their missions.

Conditions in the POW camps were believed to be poor and there was great uncertainty regarding Hitler's plan for a final stand. There were many scenarios for what the Germans might do with the POWs, and none was pleasant to contemplate. If the Germans abandoned the camps before the arrival of the Allied armies, the POWs would be threatened by starvation and disease and, perhaps, by random violence at the hands of the populace or the military. Any effort to force march the POW population deeper into Germany and use them as hostages would result in the deaths of many. And the willingness of the Germans to ignore the provisions of the Geneva Convention suggested even worse scenarios.

It was envisioned that the SAARF teams would drop near the POW camps, reconnoitre the situation, and report the conditions they found. Although it was thought unlikely that the teams could directly influence the movement of POW's, they could direct drops of food and medical supplies into the camps if conditions warranted. 

On 15 April a request was received at SAARF requesting that teams be deployed at the POW camp at Altengrabow. The request was discussed at SAARF for several days and then rejected. On 23 April, in the face of information that the POW's were on the move and consequently in distress, SAARF received an urgent request that it deploy its teams on six POW camps. On 25 April SAARF issued orders to implement a plan to drop six teams at the POW camp at Altengrabow, a plan that had been drawn up in response to the earlier request. Major Phillip Worrall, of SOE and the South Wales Borderers, was the senior officer among those whose teams were on standby that day; command of the operation fell to him.

The operation was code-named VIOLET and its mission was to obtain information regarding Allied POW's in Stalag XIA and other, smaller camps in the Altengrabow area between Magdeburg and Berlin, which lay between the advancing Allied armies in the west and the Russian Army in the east. Although the exact POW population of Stalag XIA was unknown, estimates placed it around 20,000, the majority of whom were Russians, with perhaps as many as 100,000 more in the immediate vicinity. 

The plan called for three aircraft to drop six teams at three sites near Stalag XIA. Just as SAARF was a multi-national unit, so, too, would be the make-up of the mission. Dropping at DZ1 would be a British team, code named ERASER, headed by Major Worrall, and a French team, BRIEFCASE, headed by S/Lt. Cousin, whose real name was Pierre Cambon and whose grandfather had served as ambassador to Germany in the years preceding WWI. 

Dropping at DZ2 would be a British team, PENNIB, under Major Sam Forshall, and an all-OSS team, CASHBOX, comprising Captain J. Brown and two radio operators. Dropping at DZ3 was SEALINGWAX, a French team under Capt. Soual (whose real name was Paul Aussaresses), and an American team, PENCIL, led by Capt. Warfield and including his fellow officer from the 504 PIR, Lt. Meerman, and an OSS radio operator. The teams would meet for the first time at the briefing.

At the briefing, each man was given a document, written in English on one side and in German on the other, identifying him as a member of SAARF and requesting cooperation for the team and its humanitarian mission. It is doubtful that the document provided any great feeling of security to those who carried it. 

At 2030 hours on 25 April the three planes lifted off the runway from RAF Great Dunmow. Operation VIOLET, the last airborne operation of the war in the ETO, was underway.

The teams were scattered in the drop, and within a couple of days the British team ERASER was captured and taken to Stalag XIA. They were soon joined by S/Lt. Cousin of BRIEFCASE and the two OSS radio operators of CASHBOX.

Major Worrall informed the Camp Commandant, Col. Ochernal, of his mission, and he urged Orchernal to cooperate. After some thought, tempered, no doubt, by the knowledge that the Russians were drawing nearer to the camp each day, Ochernal informed Worrall that he could, under close supervision, transmit messages to his superiors, and like a conjuror pulling a rabbit from a top hat, Ochernal produced an SOE radio. Cpl. Jones, Worrall's radio operator, soon made contact with SHAEF and then with SAARF Headquarters, and, after satisfying a number of checks and counter checks, the SAARF radio link to Stalag XIA was on the air.

Worrall identifed the SAARF personnel who were prisoners and reported they were being well treated and had established an Allied Control Commission under a Russian, Colonel Parnov, in readiness of liberation. The Germans were still in control, Worrall emphasized, but the Commandant had gone to Magdeburg, accompanied by an American POW, to contact the Americans.

As the Allies had approached the area, the situation outside the camp had deteriorated. A request for an airdrop of supplies was vetoed by SAARF Headquarters as it was felt that liberation was imminent. And as an indication of the coming shift in control, a group of Russian POWs, selected by the ACC, was armed and assisted the German guards in maintaining order. Still, the atmosphere in the camp was one of great tension.  On 2 May Worrall received word from SAARF Headquarters that Col. Ochernal had struck an agreement with the Commander of the American 83rd Infantry Division, MG Robert Macon, then headquartered at Zerbst: Macon would provide the trucks necessary to begin the evacuation of POWs to Zerbst, and Ochernal would provide safe conduct for travel.

On 3 May seventy trucks loaded with rations and thirty ambulances complete with medical teams arrived at Altengrabow to a tumultuous greeting from the POW's. Also in attendance were some forty war correspondents attached to the American Ninth Army who were shepherded by an enthusiastic Public Relations Officer eager to see the liberation of the camp portrayed as an all-American show. The evacuation proceeded with the American, British, French, and Belgian POWs being evacuated first. The Americans had promised to provide a twice daily shuttle service until all of the Western POWs were evacuated. On the afternoon of 4 May the Russian Army arrived at the camp, and the atmosphere changed considerably. 

The balance of the Western POWs, all Frenchmen, were allowed to leave, but the Russians angrily blocked an effort to evacuate a group of Poles who had asked to be repatriated to the West, as well as a group of Italian POWs. The following morning, Worrall, over his protests, was told by the Russians that he and the other SAARF personnel had two hours to get their gear together; then they would be evacuated to the American lines. The Russians would handle all camp-related matters from that point on.

Operation VIOLET had run its course. It had achieved its objective, although perhaps not quite as planned and as the result of more than just a little good luck. Even though there were no casualties among the operation's personnel, VIOLET proved to be a harrowing and bizarre experience for some of the French personnel. The French team SEALINGWAX was dropped about 15 miles from its DZ and landed in the middle of the area controlled by the German Scharnhorst Division. The team managed to elude the Germans only to be captured, on 15 May, by the Russians, who, after three days of interrogation, concluded the team were dangerous counter-revolutionary agents and sent them to a POW camp. Further interrogation ensued, focusing on the details of SAARF, until, on 7 June, the team managed to escape, arriving back at SAARF Headquarters just in time to participate in the unit's disbandment ceremonies. The team's experience with the Russians presaged the shifting alliances the world would soon witness. 

VIOLET proved to be SAARF's only airborne operation: the balance of the operational personnel, 74 teams, were air-transported to their assignments across northern Europe to assist local military governments in establishing radio links, in translation and interrogation, in monitoring the movement of German forces back to Germany, in screening the inmate populations of German prisons to determine who were political prisoners and who were criminals, and in searching for Nazis who had been identified as possible war criminals.

For one American, SAARF was a bizarre and nearly ignominious end to an illustrious wartime career. As the leader of the 101st Airborne Division's Pathfinders, Captain Frank Lillyman may have been the first American paratrooper to set foot on French soil during the Allied invasion. And though Lillyman no doubt found himself in more than one precarious situation while serving with the 101st, nothing prepared him for the likes of Harold Cole.

In a war that produced more than its share of villains, Harold Cole was in a class by himself. Cole began his career in treachery in 1927 when he deserted from the West Kent Regiment. He again joined the British Army at the outbreak of the war, and again, after Dunkirk, he deserted, but this time to the Germans.  At long last Cole found an organization suited to his sense of ethics: The Gestapo, which had use for someone who could pass so convincingly for a downed British airman or an escaped British soldier. 

From about 1940 or 1941 until the end of the war, Cole was instrumental in betraying to the Gestapo a large number of downed RAF airmen, British agents, soldiers, and escapees, and members of various resistance groups. Cole's base of operations was Paris, where he had his own room on the top floor of Gestapo Headquarters at 84 Avenue Foch. Later, he was moved to Berlin where the Gestapo and RSHA kept him busy. Before Berlin fell, Cole managed to make his way to the south of France and the shores of Lake Constance, and there his path crossed that of Captain Lillyman.

Lillyman was operating with a SAARF team in the Lake Constance area when he met Cole, who by then had managed to ingratiate himself with the incredibly naive U.S. Army CIC in the region, who had supplied Cole with an American Army uniform and identity card. As far as Lillyman knew, Cole, like himself, was searching for war criminals. 

Cole persuaded Lillyman that a man living in the area, a man who just happened to have a fine Mercedes motor car, was a traitor and should be arrested. Lillyman accompanied Cole to make the arrest, but rather than arrest the 'traitor', Cole shot him dead and drove off in the Mercedes. 

The wily Cole immediately reported the incident to the American authorities but altered the story ever so slightly: Lillyman had shot the man and taken the car! Incredibly, Lillyman was arrested and sent to Frankfurt to await court-martial. 

Fortunately for Lillyman, the truth of the matter was eventually sorted out and a court-martial was never convened. And not long thereafter, Cole was killed in a shoot-out with the Paris police; no doubt to the disappointment of Lillyman, who must have been sustained through the affair by the hope that someday he might have a minute or two alone with Mr. Cole. 

SAARF was disbanded on 1 July 1945. A short-lived and obscure unit, SAARF was a strange note, most of the hardened veterans of airborne and special operations who served in it would have agreed, on which to end one's wartime career. And, yet, one must wonder whether some of these men have not looked back and felt increasingly a sense of satisfaction that their last mission was a humanitarian one.

The Insignia

The matter of insignia is explicitly addressed in SAARF's official history/after-action report, wherein it states:

"Everything possible was done to weld the whole Force into a single formation and to establish an esprit de corps. Some measures taken to achieve this were:-
The early issue of SAARF titles (these were issued to all personnel on 5 April).
The manufacture and issue of SAARF flashes.
The early issue of SHAEF flashes."

There are two key points here. First, there were only two insignia unique to SAARF: a cloth title and a cloth flash. (The term 'flash', as it is used here, is interpreted to mean shoulder sleeve insigne, or SSI, but I will refer to the flash, for reasons that reflect my own personal bias, as the SAARF wing.)  Second, the title preceded the wing.  This makes sense: the SAARF title, printed on cloth, was simple to produce - any one of a number of British manufacturers could provide them. There is evidence, on the other hand, that the wing, which employs Schiffli embroidery, was issued much later. (It has been speculated that the wing may have been manufactured in the States, or possibly in Canada, as Schiffli embroidery was not usually employed in the manufacture of British insignia, and that this would account for the delay in issuing the wing. However, I have yet to see any documentation pertaining to the manufacture of the wing, and such conjecture is exactly that.)

The record, as stated above, clearly shows that the SAARF title and SHAEF SSI were issued early to personnel. There is evidence, on the other hand, that the wing was issued much later. In fact, one American recalled that the wings were not made available to his team until its return to SAARF Headquarters after completion of their assignment. This report receives support from the photographs of unitís personnel that I have seen: the wing is apparent only in photos taken at or near the time of the unit's disbandment.

The shoulder title, which bears the unit's initials printed in mustard-yellow on dark blue (nearly black) cloth, was worn by many of SAARF's non-American personnel on the left sleeve below the SHAEF SSI. Perhaps because titles in general were something of an oddity to the Americans, and this one in particular was less than attractive, the SAARF title does not seem to have enjoyed among the American personnel the popularity of the wing. Two Americans I found who did wear the title trimmed (rounded) its edges to give it what they considered to be a more pleasing shape.

One American recalled that the title posed something of a problem initially. All personnel were oriented to the need for absolute secrecy regarding the unit's mission; yet the title, which they were issued and told to wear, inevitably led to questions from the men of other units whom they encountered while on pass in London. It was not long, however, before some bright fellow, whose name has been lost to posterity, came up with The Salvation Army Auxillary Relief Force. And, no doubt struggling to keep a straight face, it was in this unit that some wearers of the SAARF title, veteran paratroopers, for the most part, claimed to serve.

The wing is silver-blue Schiffli embroidery on royal blue wool; it terminates in a red arrow symbolically breaking the chains of oppression, which are also embroidered in red. SAARF's non-American personnel usually wore the wing on the right shoulder, as a true SSI, while the Yanks generally preferred to wear it near the right cuff in a fashion reminiscent of the pathfinder wing. 

Because of its obscurity, SAARF for many years escaped the attention of most collectors and few reproductions of the unit's insignia were to be found.  This, however, is changing, as the unit and its insignia are exposed to more of the collecting public. Illustrated here is a reproduction of the wing that collectors may encounter.  

A few variations of the SAARF wing and title can be found in collections. (A French website, which appears to have taken several of its images from this website, illustrates a ridiculous variety of wings and titles.) An example of a hand-embroidered wing and title can be found in Allied Special Forces Insignia 1939-1948 by Peter Taylor (Pen & Sword Books, Ltd.). Their unqualified inclusion by Mr. Taylor lends them, in my view, a legitimacy they do not deserve. (The version of the wing that was actually issued and worn is not illustrated in Mr. Taylor's book.)  

The single most striking common denominator among the non-standard (usually hand-embroidered) SAARF insignia that I have encountered is the absence of documentation supporting their authenticity.  (In mid-2002, an officer's tunic named to an American and bearing both SAARF wing and title sold for a significant sum. Judging from the photographs I have seen, the wing appears to be the issued version, but the title is hand-embroidered, not printed. However, the officer's name does not appear on any of the SAARF rosters I have seen.)  Individuals who assert that these insignia are authentic argue that their construction and materials are appropriate to the period, and they invoke the practice of individuals purchasing insignia privately to explain their existence. Granted that the private purchase of insignia accounts for the existence of some non-standard versions of insignia, the following considerations argue against this in the case of SAARF.

SAARF existed for about four months.  Efforts to generate a unit identity among the personnel largely failed because of that brief existence, the fragmentation of the unit into squadrons by nationality, and the tenor of the times: the war was nearly over, and many personnel must have viewed their temporary-duty SAARF assignment as one of marking time until returning home. There is evidence that the wing was issued late: photos of SAARF teams in the field that I have seen reveal the title in use but not the wing.  And if you again read the portion at the beginning of this section, taken from SAARF's after-action report, you will note it refers to the early issue of the title and the manufacture of the wing, implying the title preceded the wing. This being the case, personnel were probably unaware of the wing's existence, and its design, until very late.  (As I reported above, one veteran told me his team received the wing when they returned to SAARF Headquarters after completing their assignment, just in time  for the unit's disbandment ceremony.)   As all personnel were issued the unit's insignia, what would have driven the desire to acquire examples privately?  These facts lead me to believe that it is unlikely that members of the unit possessed either the time or the incentive to have SAARF insignia made privately. 

There are relatively few "stories" to be heard regarding SAARF's insignia.  One collector, I am told, claims there was a third SAARF insigne, although he would not, at least to my source, specify what it was.  I do not believe his claim. The official record is quite clear in stating there were but two insignia unique to SAARF, and my contacts with SAARF veterans, which have been extensive, support this. Perhaps related to the above claim was a yellow-on-green RECONNAISSANCE tab offered for sale in this country, circa 1990, by an influential dealer who identified it as an insigne of SAARF. When I asked his basis for attributing the tab to SAARF, he responded that it had been so identified by an "impeccable" source, whom he chose not to name. I fear his source was not as impeccable as he thought, because the evidence is clear: SAARF personnel did not wear such a tab. (This same title surfaced on eBay, most recently in September 2009, where it was still attribted to SAARF.) On the other hand, the Royal Reconnaissance Corps, a British Army unit unrelated to SAARF, wore a yellow-on-green title bearing just the word RECONNAISSANCE, as did the 78th Recon Troop (Mechanized) of the U.S. 78th Infantry Division. 

SAARF insignia are among the more scarce Allied airborne insignia of the Second World War that were approved and issued. Keep in mind that at most only about 100 Americans received the insignia, and because of the unit's brief existence, and the fact it was a temporary duty assignment, some personnel appear never to have bothered bothered putting the insignia on their uniforms. When one factors in the normal attrition to veterans' personal mementos over the 50-plus years since the war, it is not surprising that few of these insignia are around today, on either side of the Atlantic.

A comment is in order regarding the document that Operation VIOLET personnel carried identifying them as members of SAARF and describing the nature of their mission. Virtually all sources state that the document was signed by General Eisenhower. However, the only extant example of this document, at least of which I am aware, is the one in the author's collection, which was carried by Lieutenant William Meerman during Operation VIOLET (see image above). The document, written in English on one side and in German on the other, carries the statement, "By direction of the Supreme Commander:," but it is signed by Brigadier Generals T. J. Davis and J. S. Nichols, but not by General Eisenhower. Was there a second SAARF document, issued, perhaps, later, which was signed by Eisenhower? My suspicion is that there was but a single document and that the story that General Eisenhower signed the document is a misunderstanding that has been innocently propagated.

Perhaps the most unusual artifact relating to Operation VIOLET is a wooden cigarette case given to Major Worrall by Colonel Parnov a few days before Worrall's team left Stalag XIA. Worrall described his receiving the box. "During this tense and hectic day which was the 1st May, Colonel Parnov came and made a presentation to me... The lovely souvenir Parnov gave me was a beautiful and unique handmade wooden cigarette box made by the prisoners themselves. It was inlaid with straw. Painted on the top was the Union Jack, and on the bottom a gilt Hammer and Sickle on a globe depicting Europe and Africa... The inscription on the lid of the box was 'To Major Woral, in the day of the1-st of May, from russian prisoners of the war, Altengrabov 1/5-45.'"

Acknowledgments

The most extensive source of information on SAARF is its official history/after-action report written shortly after the unit was disbanded. The report was initially classified "Secret" but is now available in this country through the National Archives and in the UK through the Public Record Office. (The secret classification of the report is somewhat difficult to understand, unless one attributes it to the well-documented tendency of the British government to extreme secretiveness in such matters. The facts are that Operation VIOLET was covered in the British press and OSS Sgts. Porada and Murphy were interviewed on American radio from London regarding their role in VIOLET: P. Worrall provided me with copies of the newspaper clippings, as did E. Porada a copy of the radio interview.) 

The SAARF report served as a basis for a magazine article by R. J. Bragg in Combat Illustrated (Vol. 3(4), 1978) and a chapter in Len Whittaker's book Some Talk of Private Armies (Albanium Press, 1984). Several other books allude to SAARF: Sir James Hutchison, who served in both SOE and SAARF, discusses the unit in his book That Drug Danger, while Laurence Critchell, in Four Stars of Hell, and Bradley Smith, in The Shadow Warriors, refer to it in passing.

Over the years, I have managed to compile a SAARF roster that includes most of the American and many of the non-American personnel. Armed with this roster, I have spent a great deal of time tracking down veterans of SAARF, many of whom were able to contribute to this article. I acquired from Philip Worrall all of his SAARF memorabilia including a 60-page manuscript describing Operation VIOLET. D. Harmon provided me with a copy of his highly literate wartime memoirs in which he discusses his service with SAARF. T. Bullitt, who served with the British Army, the OSS, and SAARF, provided the details of the Frank Lillyman story, of which he had first-hand knowledge, as well as other information. And E. Porada, P. Aussaresses, B. Warfield, F. Hancock, H. Meerman, J. Gramont, J. Gonse, R. C. Thomas, P. McManus-Reber and Mrs. V. Santini, were generous in providing assistance.