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Old 12th May 2020, 15:43
Martin Gleeson Martin Gleeson is offline
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Re: Flt Lt John Coghlan DFC

Hello Brian,

This loss has long puzzled me too. I have done a lot of work trying to resolve it for the 'EAGLES OVER EUROPE' project and I copy below my findings to date. That is not the last word obviously and I would happily welcome any further information or corrections.
For example I am very taken by the details RSwank provides from the 'M16' book by Keith Jeffery, a new source to me. Many thanks Richard (?). Being from a source/organization which should have records on this event what the author has written seems most likely to have been the fate of the two men.

I note that no evidence has still come to light to prove they landed on the continent or that Leenaerts was captured and killed. I am convinced it was R2625 lost that night over the Channel and that N1203 was destroyed on land the following day. See below.

Gerry. I have sent you an email but have had some problems with it lately and wonder if it has wound up in your 'Spam' !


Martin Gleeson.

Night of 17/18th August, 1940

419 (Special Duties) Flight, North Weald

Lysander II R2625. Failed to return from night mission to land a Belgian secret agent in Belgium or NW France. Aircraft believed crashed into the English Channel, reason unknown. F/Lt. John Hunter Coghlan DFC (Pilot) killed, Henri Leenaerts (Passenger) missing. Aircraft ‘C’ lost.
The Lysander and occupants had arrived at Manston in Kent during daylight hours on 17 August 1940, probably from North Weald. The body of Coghlan was found washed ashore on a beach north of Boulogne, France on 23 September 1940 and later buried in Boulogne Cemetery.

Much confusion surrounds the loss of these men and their Lysander. This mission was one of the earliest – if not the first – attempts to land an agent in NW Europe. The unit of the pilot and aircraft are uncertain, mainly due to lack of contemporary records and the clandestine nature of the enterprise.
Coghlan was posted to the Parachute Training Centre at Ringway on 7 August 1940. Nothing is known about his movements over the next 10 days until he arrives at Manston on the 17th. According to known records the recognized Special Duties units within the RAF had not yet formed. 419 Flight, according to existing records, did not form until 21 August 1940 at North Weald. The Central Landing School was formed on 31 August 1940 from the Parachute Training Centre. The well-known 138 and 161 Squadrons did not come into existence until 1941 and 1942 respectively.
However there is reason to believe 419 Flight had come into being at least a week or two earlier. The two earliest Lysanders allocated to it, R2625 and R2626, are recorded as being allotted to 419 Flight on 10 August 1940 (ref. AHB).
The ORBs for North Weald, Ringway , 56 and 138 Sqns. have already been checked without result by another researcher (ref. RAF Commands). There seems to be no ORB for 419 Flight covering 1940.

The F.78 for R2625 as mentioned above shows it TOC by 419 Flight/North Weald on 10.8.40. The next and only unit movement after this is ‘BM 138 Sqdn.’ (no date). I think the latter is merely speculative to account for its disappearance, the only reason is the Special Duties connection. On the bottom half of page 1 is also recorded that it was allotted to the Central Landing School on 10.8.40. Same date as the transfer to 419 Flight and suggesting the CLS was in existence prior to its previously accepted formation date. I am not too bothered about this confusion right now – it could easily be an error – but it illustrates nicely the problems in trying to unravel this mess.

Coghlan was an ‘ace’ with 4 and 1 shared victories, plus unconfirmed and damaged claims, all with 56 Squadron. Chris Shores in ‘ACES HIGH’, Vol. 2 writes that he flew on this mission with the ‘Special Duties Flight’ of the ‘Parachute Practice Unit’. This PPU does not feature in ‘RAF FLYING, TRAINING & SUPPORT UNITS since 1912’ but this probably refers to the Parachute Training Centre mentioned above. Shores also writes that R2625 had been modified for night flying and that its final flight began from North Weald, from where also he notes that the first signal reporting its loss emanated.
One often repeated story concerning their deaths suggests they were either executed by the Germans or shot during capture or attempted escape. This seems apocryphal and I give it no credence, based on the body being recovered from the sea.
For reasons unclear some of the details concerning this loss found their way into the entry for N1203 in the Air-Britain ‘L1000-N9999’. N1203 was lost the following day with 26 Sqn. but its loss was also poorly recorded. Thus the fates of both Lysanders have become mixed up and difficult to unravel.
The 49 MU ORB records on 20-8-1940 that they were notified of N1203 at West Malling to be inspected.
Nothing in the Manston ORB.

There is a Form 1180 Accident Card for this aircraft and date, however with few details and some of those on the card vary slightly from the above. The date has been modified to ‘17/18-8-40’, with the unit described as the ’Parachute Practice Flight, Ringway’. No serial is recorded, but the aircraft is noted as ‘Lysander ‘C’ ‘.

Note the change to a more definitive unit title. This is based on drawing certain conclusions from the story of damage caused to Hurricane P3807 on 29 August 1940 (q.v.). F/Lt. W.R. Farley was appointed C.O. of 419 Flight on 21 August. Similar rank to Coghlan and appointed a mere three days after the latter’s loss became known. This leads me to suspect that Coghlan was (the first) C.O. of 419 Flight, and it would not be unusual for a C.O. to fly the first mission of a unit.

A page similar to what might be found in a personnel file exists in the AIR 81 file and lists the units he served in. It shows he was (officially) with Ringway Station, the Parachute Practice Unit from 7 August 1940 for flying duties. Elsewhere in the file it is noted that he relinquished the rank of Acting Flight Lieutenant on 7 August 1940 when he left 56 Sqn. and reverted to Flying Officer, and this is his rank on the CWGC website. However he is constantly referred to as ‘F/Lt.’ or ‘Acting F/Lt.’ in the AIR 81 file. I believe this would be in line with his role in 419 Flight and that we should continue to use this.

Sources; F.78 for R2625, F1180 for this aircraft and date, 49 Maintenance Unit ORB (AIR 29/1008).
AIR 81/2650 Casualty File, ‘RAF COMMANDS’ forum, thread begun 19-11-2008 by Nick Livingstone,
‘ACES HIGH’, Vol. 2 by Chris Shores, ‘MEN of the BATTLE of BRITAIN’ (2015) by Kenneth G. Wynn,
RAF FLYING, TRAINING & SUPPORT UNITS since 1912’ by Ray Sturtivant with John Hamlin.

18th August 1940

22 Group

26 Squadron, West Malling

Lysander II N1306. Destroyed in strafing attacks on airfield by Bf 109s at 1325 hours. No aircrew casualties. Aircraft a write-off.
Sources: 26 Sqn. ORB (AIR 27/317, F.541) and Air-Britain’s ‘L1000-N9999’. West Malling ORB (AIR 28/907) adds nothing extra.

Lysander II P9080. Destroyed in air raid 1325 hours by Ju 88s. No aircrew casualties. Aircraft a write-off.
Sources: 26 Sqn. ORB (AIR 27/317, F.541) and Air-Britain’s ‘P1000-R9999’. West Malling ORB (AIR 28/907) adds nothing extra.

Lysander II N1203. Burnt out by enemy action. No aircrew casualties. Aircraft a write-off.

Above information based on its F.78. This aircraft is sometimes stated to have been the Lysander in which F/O J.H. Coghlan and an agent were lost over the Channel during the night of 17th/18th August (q.v.). This seems partly due to details for the above mission being entered incorrectly under its number in the Air-Britain ‘L1000-N9999’.
L1203 is also recorded as flying with 4 Squadron at this time (on the F.78 from 14 June 1940) but no evidence has been found yet to support this assertion (such as in the 4 Sqn. ORB). The 26 Sqn. ORB (F.541) however records it flying with them on nine days from 1 to 14 August 1940 inclusive, but no further trace of it beyond then. The F.78 also shows it SOC on 25 or 28 August 1940.
West Malling ORB adds nothing extra, however it does state three Lysanders were lost this day. The 49 MU ORB (AIR 29/1008) notes they were notified of only these three Lysanders at West Malling (on the 19th and 20th).
Unfortunately neither the 22 Group ORB (AIR 25/518) nor the 22 Group Appendices (AIR 25/520) record anything about these events.

Last edited by Martin Gleeson; 12th May 2020 at 15:44. Reason: Spacing.
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