Operation Bigamy

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At the beginning of August L Detachment was ordered to return to Cairo. M E H Q was concerned their desert base was in danger of being discovered by Italians who had recently occupied Siwa Oasis and were believed to be actively searching for L Detachment following the devastating raid on Sidi Haneish. In addition, as Stirling suspected the moment he received the order to return, M E H Q had something in mind for L Detachment. Stirling arrived in Cairo to discover that Churchill had sacked Claude Auchinleck and replaced him with General Harold Alexander. There was also a new commander of the Eighth Army, the acerbic General Bernard Montgomery. He was planning a big offensive for the end of October to start from the Alamein front and he had a job for Stirling which would be of some assistance. Montgomery’s concern was that Rommel’s Afrika Korps were being greatly strengthened by regular supply convoys arriving in the ports of Tobruk and Benghazi. Therefore he wanted L Detachment together with elements of Middle East Commando and the Special Boat Section (SBS) to raid the latter while a combined force of commandoes and infantry launched a simultaneous seaborne strike against Tobruk.

Stirling was horrified at the plan, considering it anathema to L Detachment’s modus operandi. They were suited to small-scale raids, lightning guerrilla warfare, yet the Benghazi raid — codenamed Operation Bigamy — was large and cumbersome consisting of 200 men and a couple of Honey tanks. Apparently to give extra firepower to the SAS units led by Stirling, two M3 tanks were to be part of the attack force. The tanks were transported up the Nile to Wadi Halfa and then transported to Kufra on heavy trucks. One of the tanks broke down approximately 20 kilometres north-west of Kufra. It reminded him of the Layforce approach and the disastrous results of similar misguided plans. But Stirling was helpless in the face of M E H Q support for the attack and reluctantly began to plan for the operation scheduled for the night of 13/14 September. The Benghazi operation unfolded exactly as Stirling had feared. ‘The whole raid was a nonsense,’ recalled Sadler, who said the details of the attack were being openly discussed in Cairo long before they set out to attack the port. ‘In the lead up to Benghazi rumours had been buzzing around Cairo that something was up.’

The large column was ambushed on the approach to the city and forced to withdraw in haste towards the shelter of a faraway escarpment before first light. Those vehicles that failed to reach cover in time were machine gunned by enemy aircraft. From the escarpment it was another 25 miles to the RV in the Jebel Mountains and there they regrouped, tending their wounded and taking stock of the situation.’I saw David and Paddy at sundown that day,’ recalled Malcolm Pleydell, the unit’s medical officer. ‘David was his normal calm self and apologised for keeping me so busy with the wounded. But then he appeared unsettled for the first time I could remember and informed me that we were moving off shortly but because we had lost so many vehicles to Italian planes there weren’t enough places for the wounded.’

To Pleydell fell the task of deciding which of the wounded men were fit enough to travel and which must be left to the Italians. All but four soldiers were loaded onto the truck for the 800-mile trek back to Cairo. It was a melancholic moment for Pleydell as the convoy drove away from the quartet of wounded men in the company of a medical orderly who had volunteered to remain with them.’Someone began to play a mouth organ. The sobbing notes rose and fell, seemed to draw close and then recede,’ Pleydell wrote later. ‘The grumbles stopped and the men listened … it became one of those moments that remain intimately in the memory.’

The Tobruk raid was similarly disastrous leaving Stirling infuriated with himself and in particular the staff officers to whom he still referred to as ‘fossilised shit’. Writing later of the Benghazi debacle Stirling commented:’It was a sharp lesson which confirmed my previous views on the error of attacking strategical targets on a tactical scale.’

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Operation Bigamy: attacks on the airports of Barce and Benghazi, on the port of Benghazi and on the fort of Gialo (Jalo).

Barce: on 13 Sept. 1942 12 trucks, carrying 30 men of the LRDG commanded by Lt. Jake Easonsmith, reached a point at a distance of about 30 km from Barce, as planned. They had left el-Fayum and crossed 1,200 km of desert. The airport had good defences from the desert, but was left with a few men garrisoning the seaside; the men of the LRDG attacked along the coastal Balbia road, where the defences were low. They were able to destroy a truck and 16 airplanes and damage 7 airplanes. At 4 am of 14 Sept. they left the airport but suffered the first losses, then, during the day, were constantly strafed by Italian fighters that destroyed 10 of the trucks; the survivors reached L.G.125 (an improvised airstrip 200 west of Giarabub) and Kufra.

Benghazi: the task force was led by Col. David Stirling, founder of the SAS, and included some soldiers of the SBS dressed as Germans. When Stirling and his trucks, in the late evening of 13 Sept. 1942, pretending to be German, approached the garrison of a check-point near Bengasi, the German soldiers opened fire (they had been informed of the possible use of this trick). Thus the British forces retreated quickly, but the return to their base was very difficult: the desert was the grave of some of the men, and 3 surrendered to Italian garrisons in the following days. The plan of this attack has been criticized by one of the men of the SBS in his memoir: A. Gilbert, “The Desert War”, London, Motorbooks, 1995.

Gialo: 200 men of the Sudan Defence Force, equipped also with artillery, coming from Kufra, attacked Gialo on 16 Sept. 1942. On 20 July Italian D’Antoni column takes possession of Gialo composed by: Command of 35. div. Pistoia with two battalions, one battery howitzers, 57. btn complementi bersaglieri, one armoured squadron “Monferrato”. The Italian garrison, assisted by air support, resisted until 21 Sept., when the British forces retreated because of an incoming Italian column from Agedabia.

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