In the short term the SAS and SBS were to operate in North Africa as one cohesive unit, and in close collaboration with the LRDG. In essence, the special forces raiders were being moulded into one tight-knit group, in preparation for their enlargement to regimental status under Churchill’s direct purview. That was slated to take place in September 1942, but only if Stirling and his fellows survived the coming mission.
By the third day of their sojourn at Kufra the men were becoming restless. They were impatient for news. For action. They began to sense that they were waiting for someone to arrive at Kufra, at which time all would be revealed.
Sure enough, on the morning of 4 September – their fourth day at the oasis – a lone Bristol Bombay beat its slow and laborious course across the hot air, before touching down in a cloud of dust on the dirt strip. Its arrival drew many a curious eye, but as the door to the cargo bay swung open little did any expect what was to follow.
Two British officers – one a captain, one a lieutenant – stepped down, leading what appeared to be a column of German troops. As the assembled British soldiers gawped in amazement, the Afrika Korps unit was marched across the airstrip to an isolated stand of palms. There the British officers proceeded to issue orders to their charges in the harsh-seeming guttural tones of German.
The commandos stared in bewilderment as the officers proceeded to drill the troopers, who responded swiftly and smartly, wielding their German weaponry with practised skill. As the barked orders rang out through the oasis, they sounded a chilling note. It felt so very, very wrong to the men gathered there. Kufra was the Allies’ desert redoubt; what was a force of the enemy doing here, of all places?
Their worries – their resentment – were tempered somewhat by the reception that Lloyd Owen and Major Campbell afforded the new arrivals. The two commanders had been radioed a warning regarding the unusual nature of the force that would be flying in to Kufra. The ‘Secret’ message told them to expect, ‘Buck and six ORs [Other Ranks] . . . wearing German uniforms. Their recognition signal is “red handkerchief”.’
If the newly arrived unit were to be challenged, they were to give the code word ‘red handkerchief’. In spite of appearances, the code word would confirm that they were in reality friendly forces, commanded by an extraordinary individual most had only ever heard spoken about in whispers.
Following his daring escape from the enemy dressed as an Afrika Korps officer, Captain Henry Cecil Buck had worked tirelessly to bring his Great Idea to fruition. At the time General Sir Claude Auchinleck was in command of British forces in North Africa. An Indian Army officer himself, Auchinleck had looked kindly upon Captain Buck’s extraordinary plan, but it was clear that no such unit could ever be formed as an official part of the British military.
Buck’s force would have to be utterly deniable, which made it ideally suited to the Special Operations Executive. As a SOE outfit, the British government and military could deny all knowledge and responsibility, if ever they were challenged. So it was that the war’s greatest ever deception force was formed as a special detachment to G(R) – the nerve centre of the SOE’s raiding operations.
With his hawk face, aquiline nose and piercing blue eyes, high-born Lieutenant General Terence Airey was just the kind of officer Captain Buck needed to sponsor his creation. Serving in a cloak-and-dagger role with military intelligence, Airey would go on to mastermind Operation Fritzel, a clandestine meeting with SS General Karl Wolff aimed at negotiating the surrender of German forces in Italy. But in the spring of 1942 he was stationed at general headquarters, Cairo, and he’d taken up Buck’s proposal with a vengeance.
‘We are . . . forming a Special German Group as a sub-unit of ME Commando,’ he declared in an extraordinary 1 April 1942 memo stamped ‘Most Secret’. ‘It is intended that this . . . unit would be used for infiltration behind the German lines in the Western Desert . . . The strength of the Special Group would be approximately that of a platoon.’
‘The personnel . . . are fluent German linguists,’ Airey continued. ‘They are mainly Palestinians of German origin. Many of them have had war experience . . . They will frequently be dressed in German uniform and will operate under the command of a British officer who has already proved himself to be an expert in German language.’
That ‘British officer’ was of course Henry Cecil Buck, and the chief purpose of Airey’s memo was to secure the kind of transport that his newly formed unit required.
In order to enable the Group to operate efficiently, it is essential that it should be provided with . . . the under mentioned vehicles:
one German staff car
two 16-cwt trucks
Airey signed off his memo by giving Buck’s unit the proposed cover name the Special Operations Group. As if it were an afterthought, ‘Operations’ was crossed out by hand, and replaced with a scribbled alternative: ‘Interrogation’. For better or worse that would become the name under which Buck’s force would become known: the Special Interrogation Group, or the SIG for short.
At its simplest, Airey and Buck’s plan was to have the SIG talk its way through German lines riding in German vehicles and bristling with hidden weaponry. Buck’s men would then attack targets of opportunity, in particular German staff cars carrying high-ranking German officers. But once David Stirling got wind of the SIG, more flesh was added to the bones of the plan: the SIG could perhaps best be utilized by bluffing its way through Axis lines, ‘guarding’ truckloads of SAS posing as prisoners of war. Once through the enemy lines the SAS would throw off their POW shackles, cry havoc and let slip the dogs of war.
Buck recruited as his second in command a man cut from similar cloth – a fellow daredevil and eccentric. Lieutenant David Russell was a Scots Guards officer who’d earned renown for his fearlessness. Another gifted linguist, he was a fluent German speaker, which made him ideal for the SIG. With his slicked-back hair, luxuriant moustache and dashing good looks, Russell was also the archetypal British adventurer. He’d spent his youth astride speeding motorcycles or climbing into and out of Cambridge colleges. It was when driving that Russell truly threw all caution to the wind. He liked to keep his speedometer above the 80 mph mark, and this had earned him, perhaps inevitably, the nickname the Flying Scotsman. His greatest fear was what to do with his restless soul once the war came to an end.
Having soldiered with Stirling’s SAS, Russell had come direct from there to the SIG. He differed from Buck in one key aspect: a cool, calculating officer, Russell was inclined to trust no one until he or she had proved themselves deserving of his confidence. Buck, by contrast, had a tendency to an otherworldly naivety, and he would put his faith in others all too easily. Neither man was a cool, calculating killer. Russell would write to his sister from the desert, describing his distaste at taking out Germans at close hand. An intensely family-oriented man, he had to steel himself to carry out such acts in cold blood.
From the very outset the SIG had the aura of a suicide squad. All militaries take exception to the enemy posing as friendly forces. Neither Buck nor Russell were under any illusions as to what fate might befall any of the SIG should they fall into enemy hands. A firing squad would be the least of their worries.
As word leaked out to the regular military of the SIG’s existence, howls of protest could be heard. Ever since Operation Flipper – the attempt to assassinate Rommel – voices had been raised at the highest level, lamenting the indecent and very ‘un-British’ nature of such missions. Assassinations, subterfuge, posing as the enemy: these were not the kinds of things that soldiers in British uniform should indulge in. But Churchill had called for ‘ungentlemanly warfare’, and the SIG’s brand of warfare promised to be ungentlemanly in the extreme.
The SIG’s earliest operations had been fairly low-key affairs, designed to test the waters. Now, five months after its formation, a contingent of the SIG had arrived in Kufra to link up with the forces gathered there. Whatever their mission might prove to be, this promised ungentlemanly warfare beyond compare. But the SIG were far from universally welcome, even among the mavericks and misfits of the ‘private armies’.
No one could argue with the sheer bravery of those who volunteered to serve in such a unit, wherein capture would lead to horrific torture and death. It testified to a dedication to defeating Nazism that demanded a certain respect. Yet rumours abounded about the SIG being plagued by betrayal. Traitorous behaviour had led to disaster and Allied special forces soldiers had died a terrible death as a result. Few hadn’t heard the dark reports. The commandos and LRDG gathered at Kufra eyed the SIG operatives warily, as they wondered just what kind of a mission was now in the offing and what exactly they had let themselves in for.
With the arrival of the next Bristol Bombay aircraft they were about to find out.
It was late afternoon when the lumbering Bombay set down on Kufra’s dirt strip. Most of the men were away at the bathing pools, so few were around to see just whom the aircraft was carrying. But Lloyd Owen was there to greet the new arrival – the former cotton trader Lieutenant Colonel John Haselden.
That evening several of the men caught sight of Haselden, recognizing him from their night spent partying at the cotton mill on the banks of the Nile. The news spread. It looked as if they’d not been wrong when they’d presumed that Haselden was instrumental in their mission. He was here now, and clutching a very official-looking briefcase, one doubtless stuffed with a full set of orders.
At dawn the following morning the men of the Commando were called to parade. Major Campbell presented them to Haselden, who stepped forward to inspect the ranks of unshaven, sunburned, grim-faced cutthroats. Haselden must have liked what he saw, for a gentle smile creased his weathered features.
‘Take a seat, gentlemen,’ he commanded coolly. Eighty-odd elite warriors settled onto the sand. ‘You’re no doubt anxious to learn of your destination and what work is planned. Understandably so. Now I’m going to give you the full picture.’ Haselden paused, for dramatic effect it seemed. The men waited, tense and silent, as the lieutenant colonel spread out a map before them. When he recommenced speaking, few could believe what he had to say: ‘Gentlemen, we’re going to capture Tobruk and destroy it completely.’
Just like that Haselden had declared the utterly unthinkable.
Countless ideas had been mooted by the commandos as they debated their possible objectives, but none had ever imagined that Rommel’s foremost stronghold might be their target. Tobruk: it was the fulcrum of the desert war. Whoever held it held the key to victory in North Africa, or so most argued.
Tobruk was a long way away, lying 600 miles due north of Kufra. It was arguably the finest natural harbour on the entire North African coast. The port itself was two miles long and blessed with a deepwater basin boasting numerous quays and jetties. The glistening waters nestled in the curve of a natural amphitheatre, bare and barren hills rising on three sides. Those slopes were peppered with forts, gun emplacements, trenches and bunkers, forming a fearsome defensive ring thrown around the anchorage itself. The fortifications stretched inland some eight or nine miles, reaching into the open desert. The outer cordon was made up of wire fencing and anti-tank ditches, and studded by a double line of bunkers, each linked to its neighbour by telephone and all linked thus to headquarters.
Tobruk had been the Allies’ main stronghold in North Africa, before Rommel’s panzers had wrested it from British hands. Rommel’s Panzerwaffe – armoured force – was an elite unit tried and tested during stunning victories scored in Belgium and France. The Panzerwaffe had struck first in North Africa in April 1941, winning a string of lightning victories. Months later, after a grinding siege, Tobruk had fallen.
It was June 1942 and Churchill was in Washington, seeking to persuade US President Roosevelt to supply more tanks, warships and aircraft to the Allied war effort. The British premier was in the Oval Office, speaking with Roosevelt, when a telegram with news of the calamity arrived. It could not have come at a worse time. Suffering defeats on all fronts, Allied fortunes were at their nadir. In taking Tobruk Rommel had seized much of the Allied artillery intact, plus thousands of tons of munitions and fuel. He had also captured 33,000 troops.
It was a dark day, one that Churchill lamented bitterly. He declared it ‘a bitter moment. Defeat is one thing; disgrace is another.’
Rommel considered the seizure of Tobruk the crowning achievement of his career. It provided his Afrika Korps with thousands of tons of supplies and a vital port through which to resupply his forces from occupied Europe. Hitler was equally ebullient: he promoted Rommel to field marshal to reward him for the daring venture.
Churchill railed against the loss. Determined to strike back, he demanded a counterpunch. He argued that Rommel’s greatest victory was also his Achilles heel. Seizure of the port had yielded enormous war booty and eased Rommel’s supply logistics immensely. Yet Tobruk was vulnerable from the sea and air, and especially to hit-and-run sabotage from the desert.
Right now those desert raiders gathered at Kufra would need some convincing. The fact that Rommel’s forces had achieved the ‘impossible’ and taken Tobruk made Haselden’s proposal seem all the more incredible. How could 33,000 Allied troops have surrendered Tobruk, only for Haselden’s force of eighty souls to retake it?
A low murmur swept around the men as they gave voice to their surprise and concern. Smiling, radiating an avuncular confidence, Haselden waited for the noise to die down. He proceeded to flip open his briefcase. His orders – issued to him on 21 August 1942 and marked ‘To Be Kept Under Lock And Key’ – confirmed that the seemingly impossible was indeed at hand: the eighty men assembled in Kufra were to wrestle Tobruk from Axis control.
Typical of military orders everywhere, those Haselden carried were dry and curt. ‘Intention: Forces . . . will capture and hold the south shore of the harbour from Umm Es Sciausc to the Bulk Oil Tank, which is to be destroyed . . . At last light on the 12th September Force . . . less the LRDG patrol will enter the Tobruk perimeter . . .’
As Haselden well knew, what they were tasked to do was daunting in the extreme. He also knew that no dry set of orders would compel men such as these to follow him where he intended to lead them. He ran his eyes over the document one last time, before straightening his shoulders and preparing to deliver the speech of his life.
‘Gentlemen, we’re going to take Tobruk,’ he repeated. ‘I know the idea sounds fantastic, but it would also sound fantastic to the enemy, and that is our single greatest strength. We are going to do the utterly unexpected, taking the enemy by total surprise. It is for that very reason that we are going to do exactly what I have just said – take Tobruk, hold it for several hours and leave it so that it is useless as a supply port for the Afrika Korps.’
Haselden eyed the men. He could tell that his calm, confident delivery coupled with those carefully chosen words was starting to take effect. But right now the commandos would have scores of unanswered questions whirling through their minds. He intended to answer the most pressing ones right away.
‘We are going to capture a bridgehead just outside of Tobruk harbour,’ he continued, ‘under cover of the biggest air raid this coast has ever seen. The RAF will unleash merry hell onto Tobruk’s defenders. Under cover of that, and because we won’t be expected, we shall establish the bridgehead with little difficulty. Then, through this little harbour that we have established, MTBs will pour in reinforcements.’
MTBs – motor torpedo boats – light, fast attack ships. That would explain the SBS unit included in the commandos’ number.
Tobruk was believed to be garrisoned by low-calibre troops, Haselden explained, and to be only lightly defended. Rommel had sent the cream of his forces to the front line, to prepare for the thrust towards Cairo itself.
‘Rommel has stripped Tobruk of its key defensive forces,’ Haselden continued, quoting intelligence reports. ‘All that remains to guard the port are a couple of battalions of third-rate Italian troops, plus a number of German technicians and ack-ack personnel.’ Haselden figured that the German soldiers numbered 1,000 all told.
Low-grade Italian troops weren’t something to be feared by the commandos. They’d crossed swords with, and vanquished, such forces many times before. And presumably the German ack-ack (anti-aircraft) gunners would be fully occupied with trying to repulse the Allied air raid. If the enemy could be taken by surprise, success would doubtless be theirs.
Haselden rolled off the names of the units – Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders, Royal Northumberland Fusiliers; regiments that had earned a fearsome repute during the desert campaigns – who would land from the sea. Once reinforced, the Commando would break out from the bridgehead and seize the southern shoreline of the port, even as destroyers landed marines to take the northern side. They would then smash their way into Tobruk in a pincer movement, linking up at the centre of the fortress.
As Haselden continued speaking, his stature seemed to grow. He exuded utter confidence in their ability to do just as they had been ordered. His attitude seemed to be catching: he could detect a growing sense of assurance surging through the men before him. They’d hold Tobruk for twelve hours, he explained, during which time they’d dynamite dock installations and piers, destroy tank repair workshops and blow up ammo dumps and fuel depots. The assembled men began to comprehend the impact such an operation might have on the hated enemy: deprived of fuel, ammo, tanks and the means of resupply, this would constitute a knockout blow that could cripple Rommel’s war effort.
The key would be the calibre of the troops defending Tobruk. If they were as Haselden suggested, a sudden strike delivered with maximum surprise might well prove decisive. The intelligence on the quality of the Tobruk garrisons had an impeccable pedigree: it came from Ultra intercepts. Indeed, signals decoded at Bletchley had revealed Rommel’s trials and tribulations generally, as his supply lines had become ever more extended.
Ultra gave warnings of the resupply convoys setting out from Italy. Those were being hit by pinpoint RAF air strikes, sending Rommel’s much-needed war materiel to the depths. Repeatedly, the German field marshal had demanded new tanks to re-equip his Panzerwaffe, but Bletchley intercepts revealed that not enough were getting through. As Rommel siphoned off crack troops to fill the gaps in his front-line positions, Tobruk had been left increasingly vulnerable.