13/14 September 1942
The Special Air Service, better known simply as the SAS, needs no introduction today. Its origins date back to 1940 with the formation of the Long Range Desert Group, a unit of the British Army made up of volunteers to carry out deep-penetration raids, and covert reconnaissance and intelligence missions behind enemy lines. The SAS did not form until the following year, when it was initially called L Detachment of the Special Service Brigade, but it soon learned to rely on the assistance of the men of the LRDG, who had paved the way in the desert war for operations behind enemy lines. So effective were they that it was later reported that General Erwin Rommel, Germany’s commander of the Afrika Korps, said that the LRDG caused the Axis forces more damage than any other British unit of similar strength.
As part of General Archibald Wavell’s Middle East Command, the LRDG operated throughout 1941–42 in the Libyan Desert, deep behind enemy lines. Their most vital role was known as the ‘Road Watch’ – clandestinely monitoring traffic running along the main coastal road from Tripoli to Benghazi and transmitting the information back to British intelligence – but probably their most notable action was against Italian forces at Barce in September 1942.
The deteriorating military situation in the North African campaign during the autumn of 1942 had prompted four ambitious raids behind enemy lines. The intent was to disrupt Rommel’s ever-lengthening lines of communication, and these attacks included large-scale raids on the vital enemy supply ports at Benghazi (called Operation Bigamy) and Tobruk (Operation Agreement) by commandos and the SAS respectively, and, four days later, an attack by the Sudan Defence Force on the Jalo Oasis (Operation Nicety). Although the LRDG was to provide support for all of these raids, it was also tasked to carry out a subsidiary diversionary raid, called Operation Caravan, on an Italian-held town and airfield at Barce in the Gebel Akhdar in northern Cyrenaica. The key for all four of these operations was surprise, so careful co-ordination and detailed planning would be required if success was to be achieved.
The ancient colony of Barce is about 50 miles north-east of Benghazi and situated on the main coastal road along the northern coast of Libya. It was a main administrative centre for the Italian colonial government of Libya and so was home to a large number of Italian forces. These included a company of military police with armoured cars, a company of carabiniers, a light tank company, an artillery company and a gun battery. There was also an airfield on the north-eastern side of the town.
On 1 September 1942, B Squadron of the LRDG, which consisted of two patrols under the command of Major Jake Easonsmith, left its Egyptian base at Faiyum, some 60 miles to the south-west of Cairo. It was the start of a journey of more than a thousand miles, and the team’s task when they arrived at Barce was quite straightforward – to cause as much damage and disruption to the enemy as possible.
A natural leader and with an uncanny ability to out-think the enemy, Easonsmith was described by some as the LRDG’s finest patrol commander. He was 33 years old and had been a territorial soldier before being commissioned into the Royal Tank Regiment prior to volunteering for the LRDG. He had been awarded the Military Cross for his first operation in command, when he had recovered the men of L Detachment from a failed raid against Axis airfields at Gazala and Tmimi. Now Easonsmith had a raiding force of forty-seven men to cover the vast distance to Barce in a dozen Chevrolet trucks and five jeeps.
The 30cwt Chevy 1533×2 was the mainstay patrol vehicle of the LRDG at that time. The sturdy design meant that it was extremely reliable. The vehicles were stripped of all but essentials and modified for operating in the desert. The cabs were removed, windscreens were replaced by aero screens, the body was heightened with wooden planks to increase the load and the vehicles fitted with large sand tyres. The trucks were also heavily armed, with a mix of pairs of 0.303-inch calibre Brownings, 0.5-inch Vickers heavy machine guns, 0.303-inch Vickers Ks and Italian-built 20mm Bredas, a particularly popular weapon for such operations because it was lighter than the others, took up less space and had a good rate of fire. The guns were fitted on swivel mountings in the back of the trucks, or on the passenger’s doorpost.
The plan was for one of the patrols, called T1, made up of New Zealanders and led by Captain N. P. Wilder, to attack the main target, the airfield situated on the north-eastern side of the town. The other patrol, called G1, made up of British guardsmen and led by Captain Alastair Timpson, would carry out an attack on a barracks at the town.
Because the LRDG was also providing support to the three other raids – Bigamy, Agreement and Nicety – it was important to avoid getting in each other’s way when moving across the desert. The route given for Easonsmith’s force involved first heading south and then across the great Kalansho Sand Sea, a vast and notoriously difficult part of the Libyan Desert lying below sea level and covered with salt plains, sand dunes and salt marshes, before heading north towards the Gebel Akhdar.
Navigating across the desert was not easy, but the LRDG had become experts. The trucks were equipped with a sun compass and each patrol had a specialist navigator within their team. Easonsmith also had with him Major Vladimir Peniakoff, known as ‘Popski’, from the Libyan Arab Force. Peniakoff had been born in Belgium to Russian parents and had served in the French Army before transferring to the British Army in 1940. Capable of speaking a number of languages, including Arabic, he was now accompanying the group along with two Libyan tribesmen, who had been given the task of gathering information about the enemy dispositions around Barce and then reporting their findings to Peniakoff immediately prior to the raid.
Because of the long distance to Barce, the group were supported on the journey out by two trucks from the Heavy Section, which would provide fuel for the first 200 miles. They were also accompanied for a while by Captain John Ogilvey’s S2 patrol, but they would soon depart on their own mission to Benghazi as part of Operation Bigamy.
The raiders suffered an early setback when Timpson’s command jeep overturned on a sand dune, badly injuring both him and his driver. They could not continue and so both had to be evacuated, with command of G1 being passed to Sergeant Jack Dennis. By the end of the first week the raiding force had met up with two more trucks for a further refill of fuel and supplies. A spare truck, loaded with fuel, water and food, was then left hidden near Bir el-Gerrari as an emergency rendezvous point for the men on the way home.
By 13 September Easonsmith and his raiding force had reached Benia. They were now about 15 miles south of Barce and set up camp in preparation for the raid. It had taken them eleven days to cover a distance of more than a thousand miles. The camp was set up on a hill where the men could conceal the trucks amongst a line of olive trees and pines. The day was then spent preparing equipment and explosives while Easonsmith and Peniakoff, accompanied by the two local tribesmen as guides, went onwards to the outskirts of Barce to carry out a brief reconnaissance. Having then returned to the camp, Easonsmith briefed the men during the afternoon. His plan was for T1 to attack the airfield, while G1 would carry out a diversionary attack against the barracks just over a mile to the south-west of the town and then attack the railway station to the south.
Just after dusk the men moved off northwards in the vehicles towards their final positions, from which they would mount their raids. Unfortunately, though, they had been spotted several times, not just on the way across the desert, but also at their camp immediately prior to setting off. On the way to the town they were challenged at a police checkpoint, but managed to capture one sentry immediately, while another was shot and killed as the raiders attacked nearby buildings with grenades.
The vehicles then continued along the main road towards the town with headlights on, to give the appearance of an Italian convoy and avoid arousing any suspicion. The journey to the main town took an hour and at one point they encountered two small enemy tanks that were guarding the road, but the Chevy was such a sturdy vehicle that the tanks were brushed aside as the raiders quickly sped through, although the element of surprise had now clearly gone.
It was around midnight when the raiders arrived at a fork in the road on the edge of the town. Easonsmith gave the men two hours to complete the raid and the convoy then split into their two patrols to carry out their individual tasks. While GI went off to attack the Campo Maddalena barracks and railway station, Easonsmith roamed the area in his command jeep, seeking out any targets of opportunity; he would succeed in finding and destroying a number of vehicles in the town. Meanwhile, Peniakoff covered the approach from the south, just in case any enemy vehicles came along, and the medical officer, Captain Dick ‘Doc’ Lawson, went with the wireless truck to take up a position to the south-east of the town to set up the rendezvous point once the attacks were complete.
Having split from the others, the men of T1 made their way towards the airfield on the northern side of the town. To get there meant using the main road around the eastern side of Barce. It was now dark and the trucks, led by Wilder in his command jeep, were using their lights. Due to such a bold approach the vehicles continued without raising suspicion. They even passed some Italian vehicles coming the other way.
Although the raiding force had been observed as they made their way towards Barce, it was clear that the Italians were not expecting a raid from the main road leading from the town. But the element of surprise could not last forever and, as the patrol approached the airfield, they were challenged by sentries. As each sentry challenged the approaching vehicles he was individually cut down. The patrol then reached the main airfield gates, but these were closed. They were, however, unlocked, and so the trucks quickly passed through and made their way out onto the airfield.
The airfield was home to an Italian bombing wing equipped with Cant Z.1007 medium bombers and a squadron of Caproni Ca.311 light bomber-reconnaissance aircraft. Before the raiders reached the aircraft they came across a truck and trailer carrying a large amount of aviation fuel. As they opened fire, the night sky was suddenly illuminated by a fireball as the fuel truck and trailer exploded.
The men of T1 had undoubtedly caught the Italians totally by surprise, but there was to be no hiding now. They quickly moved on to one of the airfield buildings, which accommodated the food hall and barracks. While some lobbed grenades inside the building, which quickly caught fire and caught the occupants by surprise, others took out more buildings, a hangar and any vehicles they could find. One group then moved on to a fuel dump, and that, too, was quickly destroyed. They all then moved on to the parked aircraft, shooting at each in turn with incendiary and explosive ammunition.
Using a combination of skilled driving at high speed and the darkness to conceal their position, while also taking advantage of the glow from the burning buildings and aircraft, the raiders worked their way around the airfield. In addition to the machine guns and grenades on board the trucks, some of the men were armed with incendiary devices with a timed fuse. One of those was Corporal Merlyn Craw. He was in the last truck as it entered the airfield and every time they came to an aircraft he jumped out of the truck and placed a device on top of the wing, usually directly on top of the fuel tank, before making a hasty retreat and then diving to the ground as the device exploded, causing the aircraft to erupt in flames. It was extremely hazardous and a tactic that put the individual at great personal risk, but it worked well.