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Sgt Len Owens
Len served as a Sergeant in the Royal Signals. Len had hoped to join the Navy and responded to appeals for volunteers for ‘hazardous duties’ including ‘amphibious landings’. He was sent off to Auchnacarry in Scotland to train as part of Combined Operations Command.
While in Auchanacarry his ability with radio communication was recognised and he volunteered for the Phantom Signals (GHQ Liaison Regiment). . Len’s first operation was with the landings in Sicily and he remembers toiling up the beach with a massive radio on a trolley.
In 1944 he was operating with ‘F Squadron Phantom’. ‘Phantom’ were to operate in France in 1944 and carried out a special role to provide communications for the SAS in ‘Operation Loyton’. Len, with ‘Phantom’ and the SAS were parachuted behind enemy lines into the Vosges Mountains around Moussey, to organise and arm the local resistance. Their job was to disrupt the enemy in advance of General Patton’s Third Army drive through the Vosges Mountains to Strasbourg. In this operation 3 men with ‘Phantom’ were killed:
Phantom patrols were particularly active after D-Day, when their major role involved racing around Normandy to locate and report the position of all thevarious Allied units. Early in August 1944, however, Owens found himselfbehind enemy lines supporting a small party of 2 SAS Regiment near Messac,south of Rennes in Brittany.
Their mission, code-named DUNHILL, was to liaise with the French Resistance and monitor enemy troop movements heading from the south to bolster defences at the Normandy Bridgehead. Quickly overtaken by General Patton’s
Third Army, they decided to move north-east to Le Mans to join forces with another SAS unit. Having no transport, they commandeered a number of civilian cars, ripping off their doors to ensure an unobstructed field of fire. On learning that a large number of British PoWs were hiding in a forest, they requisitioned buses, adding to the mission’s unconventional vehicle fleet, to ferry those on the run to safety.
The following month, Owens took part in an ill-fated mission under the command of Lt-Col Brian Franks in the Vosges mountains of eastern France. From the outset it became clear that the men of Operation LOYTON, as it was known, were being hunted down by sizeable German forces which knew of their presence and had moved reinforcements into the area. Having encountered this stiff enemy opposition, an advance party, comprising a small raiding force of SAS supported by Phantoms, had lost all its wireless equipment, and was on the run and out of touch. Owens was dropped in with Franks and the main party to salvage the situation.
Through the Resistance, the two groups were reunited, bringing the total number of SAS to 90 men. They embarked on aggressive patrolling and sabotage operations, and succeeded in stirring up a hornets’ nest: the Germans believed that they were up against a much larger force than was the case and intensified their operations further. Well aware that the Allies were operating with the help of the Resistance, the Germans inflicted savage reprisals on local people. Indeed, so many men were killed in the village of Moussey that the area became known as the Valley of the Widows.
The signals from Owens’s wireless threatened to give away the saboteurs’ position to the enemy, and he had to keep constantly on the move to avoid detection while transmitting. On one occasion, while he and his Phantom patrol waited to flash the recognition signal to a vital resupply aircraft, German troops got so close that Owens had to dash up a hill, set up his wireless transmitter and fire off a message to abort the drop.
With the eastward advance of Patton’s Third Army stopped short at Nancy, the decision was taken in October 1944 to end Operation LOYTON. The force was split up into small parties, each instructed to make its way back through enemy lines to Allied positions. Owens and his comrades, dodging sentries and stick grenades, swam across the river Meurthe. They were pursued through forests and eventually approached American forces. Realising that there was every chance that they would be mistaken for Germans and shot, they stepped into the middle of the road with their hands up and shouted out their identities in very plain English.
Many others were less fortunate. Of about 90 men who took part in Operation LOYTON, 31 were lost. Of these, only a few were killed in combat; the rest were shot after capture.
Leonard Caerwyn Owens, the son of a ship’s carpenter in the Merchant Navy, was born in Liverpool on October 29 1920. He went to Sefton Park, a local school, where he was head boy, but left aged 14 to work for a chandler.
He was called up in 1940 and, despite wanting to go into the Royal Navy, was quickly sent for basic training to Prestatyn, North Wales, after which he was sent to the GPO Wireless Training School at Sheffield. Known to his Service friends as ‘Joe’, he subsequently volunteered for Combined Operations and was sent to a training camp at Inverary, Argyll.
Owens embarked for the Middle East in Bululo, a specially adapted HQ communications vessel, before taking part in the invasion of Sicily in July 1943. He and a small group then moved to Malta, where they lived in a tented camp on an airfield and were bombed and strafed during heavy raids.
He later returned to England by way of Sousse and Algiers and was then billeted in Essex. After volunteering to join a signals section of the SAS, he was sent on a parachute course to Tatton Park, Cheshire. Owens said afterwards that he found jumping from a static balloon at 800ft terrifying. After rigorous training in Scotland, he was dispatched on Operation DUNHILL.
After LOYTON, Owens took part in Operation HOWARD with the 1 SAS under the command of Lt-Col Paddy Mayne. He was in charge of the wireless communications of a squadron of armoured jeeps operating as forward reconnaissance in Holland and Germany in support of the Second Canadian Army.Demobilised in 1946, Owens was awarded a Military Medal. He returned to his former job in Liverpool, but was unhappy with the pay.
He then worked for Rediffusion in Newcastle before running a news agency from 1950 to 1967. For the last part of his working life he was district controller of Social Services for Teesdale. He retired in 1985.
He married Tess Swart in 1946; she predeceased him, and he was survived by their son and daughter.
Len died aged 92,
At the National Memorial Arboretum Len Owens established and maintained a Phantom memorial garden for the signalmen and others who were killed during Operation LOYTON.