An account from pilot Bill Leckie :
We took off in Halifax T for Tommy at 23.45 hours in bright moonlight on Sunday 8th April 1945, from our base at Brindisi in southern Italy. My crew consisted of self (Pilot Officer Bill Leckie) Pilot; Navigator W/O Tom Ryden; Bomb Aimer F/Sgt Jim Douglas; Flight Engineer F/Sgt David Pithie; Wireless Operator F/Sgt Jack Pointer; Rear Gunner F/Sgt Charlie Leslie; and dispatcher FI Sgt John Lennox. Also on board were the four SOE agents, our only remit being to drop them in a precise spot; unaware at the time we were involved in Operation Ebensburg. It was a lovely clear night and I flew in a north-west direction, flying parallel to Italy's northern coastline, then turning northwards off the port of Ascona and heading between Venice to the west and Trieste to the east. I now wonder what my feelings would have been then, if I had known one of my 'passengers' was a former Luftwaffe paymaster who had defected to the French Resistance. He was a native of the area to which we were now heading, and had discovered from relatives, the Nazi plan to conceal massive collections of art treasures in this area which was well known to him from childhood. Albecht Gaiswinkler, in addition to informing the Allies of the location of this huge repository, seemed to be the ideal person to receive specialist training in England to become one of the four special agents I was now transporting to the site of this clandestine operation. Gaiswinkler was posted to SOE Special Training School in Dorking, Surrey, and several other highly specialised Special Operational Executive training units (SOE) where he met up with two other Austrians who were to become part of the four-man group. The fourth member (also Austrian) had been a member of the Werhmacht and while serving, had become an expert radio operator. Like the other members of the group he was strongly opposed to the Nazi regime, he defected from the German army while serving in Greece, and joining the Partisans, had already received guerrilla training, then decided to throw in his lot with the Allies. Part of the comprehensive training included parachute exercises which were carried out at Ringway Airfield, Manchester. Although unknown to the crew of Halifax T for Tommy, the primary task of the four agents was to find out the situation at Alt Aussee salt mine, organise local resistance groups and report all information back to HQ code name 'Maryland' and the time was now approaching for the drop. At 02.50 hours, 30 minutes before the designated time, Dispatcher F/Sgt John Lennox indicated to the four Austrians it was now time to prepare for the drop. This came almost as a relief, as they were suffering from cold and stiffness due to the cramped condition in the unheated fuselage. Securing all personal weapons and equipment, all four reported readiness for the drop. Soon afterwards, the Halifax banked gently and started its run at 800 feet to drop the containers. They were watched by rear gunner F/Sgt Leslie floating down by parachute on to the DZ. The four Austrians followed on the second run in, all reported to have dropped on the precise area of the dropping zone as briefed. It was discovered later that all containers except one had sunk into deep snow. The only one retrieved, contained the vital radio but was found to have been damaged in the drop. The group had to hurriedly leave the area, as the sound of the Halifax engines had initiated a mountain search by German troops. Linking up with local resistance groups later, a replacement radio was acquired which was essential to retaining contact with HQ. It transpired that the new radio had been taken from the office of Himmler's second-in-command, who had fled on the advance by Allied troops. Large supplies of Nazi loot were still arriving at the salt-mine depository, and the agents' surveillance of this situation was made much easier by discovering that the man in charge of the mine repository was a communist, and a secret member of the local Resistance Organisation. Following close continuous surveillance organised by the four Austrian agents, it was eventually discovered that among the art treasures arriving, six mysterious crates had been placed in the mine. By resistance workers breaking in to examine those, it was discovered the crates contained 500 Ib aircraft bombs, all set ready to be set off at any given time, in order to completely destroy the stolen priceless valuables and irreplaceable works of art. When the German troops charged with guarding the mine and its valuables decided to desert their charges on the approach of Allied Forces, agent Gaiswinkler became increasingly worried about anyone arriving to trigger off the bombs inside the mine. It was arranged that the bombs were defused, and a minor explosion was arranged to seal off the entrance to the vast number of chambers containing the Nazi loot. Gaiswinkler then sent off two men to try to contact US Forces, to convince them of the urgency required to take over custody of the mine's contents. As luck would have it the two men were captured by German troops, and Gaiswinkler organised a raid to recapture his two men. It was to the immense relief of Gaiswinkler, when the 80th US Infantry Division arrived at Alt Aussee, and realising the importance of the situation, immediately occupied the area and secured the mine and contents. Although secret agent Gaiswinkler and three other Austrians dropped by Bill Leckie, saved 6,755 of the world's greatest works of art, including paintings by Titian, Goya, Rubens, Michelangelo, Rembrandt and numerous others, they subsequently received little public recognition. Albrecht Gaiswinkler was apparently nominated for the King's Medal, a personal gift from the sovereign, the honour was apparently turned down. It is reassuring however, that persons of such high ideals and values are recognised in some publications. The magazine 'Military Illustrated' dated April 2002, provides a great deal more information on the Special Duty carried out by 148 Squadron, with Halifax T for Tommy flown by Bill Leckie. Peter Harclerode covers this subject in an interesting and informative manner, his account of Op Ebensburg is highly recommended to those interested in this subject.
Crew of T for Tommy :
Pilot Officer Bill Leckie, Navigator W/O Tom Ryden; Bomb Aimer F/Sgt Jim Douglas; Flight Engineer F/Sgt David Pithie; Wireless Operator F/Sgt Jack Pointer; Rear Gunner F/Sgt Charlie Leslie; and dispatcher F/Sgt John Lennox