Churchill's Last Wartime Secret – the 1943 German Raid Airbrushed from History, Adrian Searle

Churchill's Last Wartime Secret – the 1943 German Raid Airbrushed from History, Adrian Searle

I must admit I’d rather been dreading reading this book – this sort of title often indicates that we will be presented with a very one sided version of a story. However I must admit that I rather enjoyed it, and was unexpectedly impressed. That isn’t to say that I agree with the author’s theory, but the way he has carried out his research and his willingness to include the results of research that didn’t support his story is impressive. The first few chapters look at other rumours of German raids on Britain, carefully dismantling the evidence for each of them in turn. This includes a whole series of stories that relate to the Petroleum Warfare Department’s experiences in ‘setting the sea alight’ by igniting burning oil on the surface of the sea, and the debate caused by Laycock’s mention of ‘one absolutely splendid raid’ after the war, which almost certainly refered to an attack on the Normandy coast launched by the German garrison of the Channel Islands late in the war. This is followed by a look at the history of radar on the Isle of Wight, examining the potential targets. Key to the overall story was the successful British raid on the radar base at Brunevel, carried out in 1942, so a chapter looks at that raid, and the rehersals for it that might have caused some of the later rumours of a raid on the Isle of Wight.

We then move on to the sources for the actual raid itself. The theory is that a small force of German troops attacked the radar base at St. Lawrence, capturing some of the equipment at the base, and then escaped back to German occupied territory, at some point during 1943. This is where we run into problems. There is only actually one real source for this story, Dietrich Amdernacht, a respected German archivist, who may have claimed to have taken part in the raid. However the direct quotes from his letters that we see here don’t entirely support that, coming too late in the conversation to provide firm evidence. His story is that the raid took place in May 1943, started at Alderney, and involved men from his convelesant unit. This last detail strikes me as one of the biggest weaknesses in the story – these units contained men who were in the final stages of recovery from a major injury, easing them back into service in quiet back waters, and not for the sort of raid that normally required highly trained special forces troops at the peak of fitness! 

The second possible German eyewitness has to be dismissed right from the start. This was an anonymous individual met in a bar in during a trip to the Continent who claimed to have taken part in the raid. In his story the start point was on the mainland of France, but without a name or any real source of indefication this source can’t be taken seriously.

The only documentary evidence that the author produces are two entries in the ARP diary for the area from mid-August 1943, totally the wrong time of year to match Amdernacht’s story, and all this records is the presence of two dingys full of Germans somewhere off the coast, and the orders to take the normal precautious, suggesting very strongly that this wasn’t an especially unusual occurance. This came on the same night as a heavy German air raid on Portsmouth, with aircraft passing over the Isle of Wight and several recorded as being shot down. There is absolutely no evidence to connect this event with any possible raid.

One major weakness with this story, which the author acknowledges, but doesn’t really attempt to come to grips with, is the lack of any German propaganda use of this raid. In 1942 the Bruneval raiders were taken to No.10 and their exploits fill the papers for weeks. If the Germans had successfully carried out a similar raid on Britain in 1943, then the officers involved would have been summoned to Berlin, Knights Crosses handed out, and their exploits lauded by Goebbels. If the raiders had actually taken a British prisoner, his picture would have been everywhere!

One of the reasons I like this book is that the author is willing to admit to his failures. One particular example was an examination of every possible burial of service personnel on the Isle of Wight in the period in question. Every possible candidate is examined, and their cause of death identified. As a result the author is willing to admit drawing a blank – there are no possible candidates for the men allegedly killed in the raid.

This is a proper work of historical research, attempting to find out if there was any truth behind the many rumours of a German raid on the Isle of Wight in the mid-war period. While I don’t agree with the author’s conclusion, his research, and the presentation of his material is good, allowing the reader to make their own mind up.

 

 

Chapters
1 – The Rumour Mill: Flaming Seas and Bodies on the Beach
2 – Examination: 'one absolutely splendid raid'
3 – Radar on the Wight: Developing the Vital Shield
4 – Operation Biting: Chewing over the Wight Links
5 – Alfred Laurence: An Extraordinary Life
6 – Dietrich Amdernacht: The Story from Germany
7 – The Naval Officer's Tale: A Second German Perspective
8 – Archival Fishing: Trawling the Local Sources
9 – Analysis: The Case for Consideration

Author: Adrian Searle
Edition: Hardcover
Pages: 180
Publisher: Pen & Sword Military
Year: 2016


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