Discover the intriguing tale of Operation Falaise, a covert operation during World War II aimed at disrupting German espionage activities in Tangier. Follow the brave agents of the Special Operations Executive (SOE) based at Gibraltar, as they devise a plan to destroy a clifftop villa used by German Intelligence. Uncover the challenges they faced, the explosive climax, and the aftermath that led to dismantling German apparatus in the Gibraltar Straits. Delve into this captivating historical account of espionage and sabotage.
By Nick Nutter | Updated 15 Jun 2023 | Gibraltar | History | Login to add to YOUR Favourites or Read LaterThis article has been visited 975 times
The Gibraltar Straits towards North Africa
During 1941, signals from the German military intelligence service, the Abwehr, to its stations abroad were being intercepted by the British Radio Security Service which had been set up by the head of MI5, Vernon Kell, at the outbreak of the war. The signals, although coded using ENIGMA machines, could be decoded by the decrypters at GCHQ. The raw intelligence was then passed back to RSS for analysis and then distributed to the SOE stations on a geographical basis. All the material relating to Iberia was dealt with by Richard Brooman-White (a distinguished Conservative MP after the war) and his assistants, Kim Philby and Tim Milne.
They noticed that a number of signals referred to an operation called BODDEN about to take place in the Iberian sector that appeared to be of a technical nature. The stations at Madrid, Gibraltar and Tangiers were informed and reports started to come in from Gibraltar of Spanish beachfront properties being bought by known German intermediaries. Tangiers reported the arrival of some technical equipment and Curt Reiss, a senior member of the German Legation in Tangier let slip that there were plans for a new radio station on the North African coast. The reports together persuaded Dr Jones in Section IV (the SIS scientific research department), that the Germans were developing a network of infra-red searchlights or detectors or both.
This could prove a problem for the allies. Shipping in the Gibraltar Straits could be spotted at night as easily as by day using infra-red. Operation TORCH, the invasion of North Africa, was in the planning stages and a crucial element of the plan was the free and unobserved passage of allied ships through the Straits. The Admiralty were planning to have much of the naval traffic, including troop ships, pass through the Straits at night to confound the German coast watchers.
Gibraltar from the Straits
The RAF undertook photo reconnaissance flights along both the north and south coasts of the Gibraltar Strait and pinpointed locations where the Germans were planning to install their equipment. The most prominent and promising site was in Tangier. The only question now was what action to take bearing in mind that Spain was neutral, and the Tangier International Zone had been taken over by Spain. (On 14 June 1940, a few days after the Italian declaration of war following the German invasion of France, Spain seized the opportunity and, amid the collapse of the French Third Republic, a contingent of 4,000 Moorish soldiers based in the Spanish Morocco occupied the Tangier International Zone, meeting no resistance. Tangier reverted to its International Zone status after the war.)
Sir Samuel Hoare
The Admiralty were inclined to shell the installations, but the Foreign Office were of the opinion that this would persuade Franco to join the Axis forces. As ever, the British Ambassador to Spain, Sir Samuel Hoare, was also vehemently opposed to a military action.
The SIS station at Tangiers, headed by Toby Ellis and aided by Malcolm Henderson and Neil Whitelaw, were instructed to take observations, identify the site and prepare a plan to destroy it that would not immediately reveal an allied involvement.
The site was identified as a clifftop villa at 4, Rue de la Falaise, Tangier. The villa had been purchased by German Intelligence and the German Consulate had paid 22,000 francs to have an observation platform built onto the house. The agents reported that it was poorly guarded and there was a cliff path passing beneath the villa. They recommended a plan that involved blowing up the foundations of the villa. If successful, the villa would tumble down the cliff.
SIS put the plan to the Foreign Office. Again, Sir Samuel Hoare raised the strongest objections, but permission was given to make preparations.
Enter the Special Operations Executive (SOE) Relator team on Gibraltar. Operation Relator was a plan to use Special Forces, trained in guerrilla warfare, sabotage, explosives, firearms, survival training and the use of radios in the field to delay the enemy advance if Axis forces invaded Spain. Nineteen officers and seven sergeants, all highly trained operators, were sat on 10,000 lbs of gelignite and 700 lbs of plastic explosive, not to mention assorted weaponry, at the Villa Lourdes on Gibraltar. They had been there since April 1941. Since Axis forces had, to date, not invaded Spain, the Relator team had little to do and were becoming bored (see Operation Relator for the full story and more escapades).
One of the Relator team, Edward Wharton-Tigar, had been sent to Tangier in June 1941 as the sole representative of the SOE. There he was attached to the Consulate-General as a cipher clerk. The Relator team on Gibraltar enthusiastically built a bomb containing 36 lb of plastic explosive, which was then delivered to Wharton-Tigar in the diplomatic bag carried by the Bland Line mail packet ship, SS Rescue. Wharton-Tigar eagerly awaited the order to execute what became known as Operation FALAISE.
Eventually, on Friday the 9th of January 1942, Sir Samuel Hoare reluctantly gave his consent to the mission.
During the night of the 10th of January 1942, the explosive packet was surreptitiously placed beneath the supporting pillars of the villa by sliding it through the basement windows of the villa. This task was undertaken by two SOE agents recruited by Wharton-Tigar to do the job, a Spanish communist and a Jewish bartender. The two agents fled down the cliff path and minutes later there was a massive explosion. Looking behind them the agents saw the villa majestically slide down the cliff into the sea below. Eight people were killed including a Greek sailor called Kiriacos and Kiriacos’s wife, Carmen Ortiz, was injured.
The following morning the Consulate General at Tangiers received an urgent communication from Sir Samuel Hoare cancelling the operation; he had had second thoughts over the weekend.
Wharton-Tigar was decorated with an MBE and posted to SOE's headquarters in China.
The newspaper España, later described the villa as a ‘Nazi spy post’ and ‘an Axis spy nest’.
The Germans, to avoid embarrassment and a diplomatic row with Spain, dismantled their apparatus on both side of the Gibraltar Straits.
On the 18th January 1942, the Germans retaliated. Two Spanish workers, non-attributable agents for the Abteilung sabotage section, planted a bomb amongst the depth charges on the deck of HM Trawler, Erin which was moored at the detached mole in Gibraltar habour. An enormous explosion sank the Erin, severely damaged HM Trawler Imperialist and fatally damaged HM Trawler Honjo. Five British sailors, including a sub lieutenant standing watch on the aircraft carrier HMS Argos moored nearby, were killed.