Operation Aquatint was the code name for a Commando Raid by the Small Scale Raiding Force (SSRF) which intended for a force of 11 men and officers under the command of Major March-Phillipps to land at Saint Honorine des Pertes and capture German prisoners for intelligence gathering.
“To carry out a raid on the coast west of PORTEN-BESSIN
to destroy enemy installations and to take a prisoner”
Operation Aquatint was originally planned for the night of 11/12 September 1942 but due to poor visibility, the operation had to be postponed by 24 hours.
On the night of September 12th-13th, Motor Torpedo Boat (MTB) 344, nicknamed "The Little Pisser," departed from Needles at 2012 hours. It set a course for the eastern tip of the Cherbourg Peninsula, east of Cape Barfleur where the M.T.B would travel close to the shore to avoid a German minefield stretching across the Bay of the Seine. Afterwards, it changed course to head directly to its intended landing site.
At 2210 hours, MTB 344 rounded Cape Barfleur and was forced to pass within 4 miles of the shore along the inshore Havre - Cherbourg shipping route to avoid the minefield. Although land could not be seen while passing the Cape due to the fog they reduced speed to 12 knots at which speed the engines were comparatively silent for 45 minutes to reduce the risk of being detected from the shore.
Once they had passed the Cape, they set a direct course for Saint Honorine, following the main shipping route. Six miles from the shore, soundings were taken every two miles with a dead line to determine the depth of the water.
Despite the fog clearing and the cliffs around Saint Honorine being 100 feet high, they could not make out land until they were within a half-mile of the shore due to it being an unusually dark night.
The final approach to land was made using the silent auxiliary engine. At 0005 hours, when about three-quarters of a mile away from the shore, they identified a gap in the cliffs which was Saint Honorine.
The original plan had been to land half a mile east of Saint Honorine and scale the cliffs at a point that from aerial photographs appeared to be scalable. It was hoped the defences would not be as strong on this section of the coast due to the high cliffs. After scaling the cliffs they would then approach the small group of houses from the rear, attacking the first post or house found to contain Germans. The group would then return to their boat using the same route down the cliffs as they used to arrive.
However, due to the darkness that night, it was not possible to locate the scalable section of the cliff. Since the cliff was only climbable from that spot, it was decided they would instead land on the beach at Saint Honorine.
The M.T.B. anchored 300-400 hundred yards from the shore in 18 feet of water at about 0017 hours. From here the landing party left the MTB in a Goatley pattern landing boat at 0020 hours making for the right-hand side of the gap in the cliffs.
Unfortunately unknown to the landing party although thinking they were about to raid their intended target of Saint Honorine they had mistakenly landed at Saint Laurent Sur Mer, several kilometres to the west. On an area of the coast much more heavily defended with frequent German patrols.
Although it would have only taken 5 minutes for the landing crew to reach the shore no sound or action was heard until 0050 hours when Tommygun and pistol fire could be heard and seen from the foot of the cliffs on the left-hand side of the gap. In the same area, 15 or 20 flashes and explosions were seen which were thought to be German stick grenades possibly being dropped down onto the beach from the cliffs above.
There was then some small arms fire from the right-hand side of the gap and shortly after this, a Verey light (a flare used for signalling and lighting at night) went up. Verey lights were then seen up and down the coast and coastal defence guns were heard firing several miles to the west. There were also long bursts of machine gun fire from a point 2 or 3 miles to the west and other machine guns firing on the East. It was thought that all this fire was either from jumpy gunners firing at shadows in the water or an attempt to frighten off a supposed attack in force.
For the following half hour there was a continuous series of very lights sent up by the Germans and desultory firing continuing along the shoreline, mainly on the left-hand side of the gap at beach level.
During this time attempts were being made on the cliffs to the left to get a searchlight working, but each time it would flash on for a few seconds and then fizzle out as they tried to sweep the sea before the searchlight could reach the MTB.
At approximately 0120 hours 2 machine guns on the left-hand side of the gap and one on the right of the gap commenced firing down onto the beach. A few minutes later it appears that the MTB had been spotted as the machine guns on the cliffs started firing at her while verey lights were launched directed towards the sea.
At about this time a shout was heard of “come back” from the shore and which was thought to be at the landing craft which could be seen on the beach, broadside on and carried up above the high water mark almost under the sea wall. No one could be seen near it and no attempts were being made to launch it.
A voice could be heard from the shore which was thought to be Major March-Philipps hailing the MTB but the message could not be distinguished. Afterwards, Captain Hayes could be heard hailing Captain Appleyard who was on the MTB by name, when a return hail was made from the MTB a message was shouted in return which could not be definitely made out but was thought to be an order to the MTB to withdraw leaving the landing party as they were unable to re-embark off the beach which was now illuminated by verey lights and enfielded by machine gun fire. The landing party were thought to be under the cover of the sea wall or amongst the few buildings immediately adjacent to the beach on the righthand side.
A gun of some sort then opened fire on the MTB firing 6 or 8 shells all of which passed over the MTB and landed further out to sea, there was no indication of where the gun was firing from but it presumable could not be trained down sufficiently to engage the MTB positioned so close to the shore.
The anchor warp was cut and the MTB made a crash start on the main engines at about 0130 hours, where it was then discovered that a bullet had damaged the transmission gearbox and ignition system of the starboard engine, rendering it practically useless.
The MTB headed directly out to sea for two miles, the main engines were then declutched and gradually throttled down from high speed to slow to try and give the impression that the MTB was returning home.
No further firing or explosions could now be heard from the shore so it was assumed that the landing party had followed the prearranged emergency plan to split up and make their way inland and lie up.
The MTB waited for about 10 minutes while all activity on the shore with the exception of verey lights died down and then proceeded at a slow speed with their silent engines toward Saint Laurent Sur Mer showing the infrared contact light on the masthead. The MTB maintained a position about half a mile from the shore for three-quarters of an hour. During this time there was no action from the shore with the exception of the occasional verey light and continuing efforts to get the searchlight working.
None of the pre-arranged signals from the landing party for returning to the MTB or to request assistance could be seen.
At 0225 hours 7 or 8 shells of possible 2 or 3-pounder were fired from northwest of the MTB. all passing overhead and landing between the boat and the shore which appeared to be being fired from a parol boat at close range.
Immediately afterwards over a dozen shells were fired from north of the MTB. with the nearest landing 20 feet away from the boat showering it with water. At this point further verey lights were launched from the shore and inaccurate machine gun fire from the cliffs started once more.
As it was clear that the MTB. had once again been spotted and there was no hope of picking up the landing party a course was immediately set for about one mile to the east before heading northward direct for the NAB tower (A tower on Nab rocks to the east of the Isle of Wight).
As the speed of the MTB had been greatly reduced due to the bullet which had effectively disabled one of its engines, it was decided that it would be safer to pass directly through the enemy minefield instead of returning by the longer route which they had arrived by rounding Cape Barfluer. Fortunately, the minefield was crossed without incident.
On the return journey, the MTB was to send a prearranged message to Command in Portsmouth on the success of the operation with one of the following codes, followed by a number, which would be the number of prisoners on board.
A = Successful
B = Partially successful
C = Unsuccessful
As the mission had been unsuccessful with the loss of the landing party and no prisoners captured MTB 344 sent the following signal at 0445 am:
“OPERATION C MY SPEED 15 KNOTS COURSE N 20 E.
ETA 8 NAB TOWER 0800 REQUEST FIGHTER ESCORT”
At 0645 aircover in the form of two mustangs located the MTB but left after 20 minutes due to bad weather.
The MTB finally returned to and docked at Portsmouth at 1035 hours.
Following the raid a German High Command communique was issued by the German Official News Agency
“During the night if the 12th-13th September, a British landing party, consisting of five officers, a Company Sergeant Major and a private tried to make a footing on the French Channel coast, East of Cherbourg. Their approach was immediately detected by the defense. Fire was opened on them and the landing craft was sunk by a direct hit. Three English officers and a de Gaullist Navel officer were taken prisoner. A major, a Company Sergeant Major and a private were brought to land dead.”
The 11 men of the landing party were Major March Phillipps D.S.O., Captain Hayes, M.C., Captain Burton, Lieu Hall, Maitre Desgranges (French),C..S.M. Winter, Sgt Williams, Pte, Hellings (Dutch),Pte. Orr (Polish),Pte. Lehniger who went by the name of Pte. Leonard (Sudeten German)
Major March Phillipps D.S.O., Pte. Leonard and Sgt Williams are buried in Saint-Laurent-sur-Mer churchyard located several miles west of Saint Honorine.
There is a plaque commemorating the landing of the commandos on the sea wall at Saint-Laurent-sur-Mer.
ADM 179/227 - Report on operation Aquatint
DEFE-2/109 - Reports on SSRF oprtations