In recent months the speed by which such Ultra intelligence reached Allied forces had increased massively. At first it had taken days, sometimes weeks, for signals to be decoded at Bletchley and for the information they contained to make it to the front. But in May 1942 Bletchley had started sending cryptanalysts to war. One of the first was a Lieutenant Harry Meirion Evans, an Oxford graduate who’d once been accused of having ‘insufficient bloodlust’ to make it as a proper soldier. Evans had been posted instead to Bletchley, where he had helped break the German cipher code-named Double Playfair. But he felt guilty about not serving in a combat role, and he was among the first to volunteer for North Africa.
When the fresh-faced Evans was deployed to Egypt, a Cairo veteran of the Auxiliary Territorial Service (ATS) – the women’s branch of the British army during World War Two – had declared, ‘Good God, has it come to this? They’re sending us children now . . .’
Evans quickly realized that he needed to take a signals intercept team plus code-breakers right to the front, to speed up the provision of usable intelligence. In trying to locate the front-line HQ, his convoy of vehicles had almost blundered into Rommel’s forces. He wrote in his diary of time spent sleeping ‘in a Jerry dugout’ and of being ‘bothered by a Heinkel, but cloud was low and he went away’. On another occasion he and a fellow cryptologist spent the night in a hut in a remote Arab village, taking turns sleeping on the only bed or standing guard with a pistol. Through such heroic endeavours, Evans and his fellow front-line code-breakers accelerated the provision of usable intelligence exponentially.
Haselden had enjoyed the benefits of such rapid-fire intelligence, as had all the planners who had been involved in conceiving the present mission. Stirling had played a key role; indeed, many argued it was the SAS commander who had first mooted the idea of a lightning raid on Tobruk. But it was Haselden who had really taken the plan up, giving it wings.
Scores of simultaneous raids would take place all along the Axis-held coast, Haselden explained to the force gathered before him at Kufra. That would spread confusion among the enemy commanders as to the main target. In the biggest of such decoy attacks, Stirling would lead some 200 SAS in dozens of vehicles, causing havoc and confusion at Rommel’s second port, Benghazi. That mission, with typical SAS elan, had been code-named Operation Bigamy.
Other units would hit enemy bases, fortifications and targets of opportunity at widely dispersed points across the desert. Hundreds of dummy parachutists would be dropped at various locations, to convince the enemy that a series of airborne landings were under way. One raider unit would hit the Jalo oasis, a former Allied stronghold before Rommel’s forces overran it. Another was tasked to raid Barce airfield, set to the far west of Tobruk, on a mission code-named Operation Caravan.
Having guided the Commando to its target, Lloyd Owen’s LRDG patrol would attack the main radio station located on the outskirts of Tobruk’s defensive perimeter. It would then raid the nearby airfield, remaining on hand should any of Haselden’s commandos need to link up with the LRDG patrol to escape.
‘For twelve hours we will hold out at Tobruk,’ Haselden announced portentously. ‘Twelve hours. There will be no retreat. Twelve hours is all the time the sappers need to do their demolitions work.’
‘And afterwards?’ a voice queried. ‘Do we come out via the desert?’
Haselden shook his head: they would be taken off in Royal Navy warships, he explained. Getting in through the desert was going to prove challenging enough. Getting out by the same route would be nigh-on impossible. Which brought Haselden to the most most daring and audacious aspect of the coming operation.
‘We are going to drive openly into Tobruk at dusk,’ Haselden announced, scrutinizing the men for their reactions. He nodded in the direction of the SIG camp. ‘We will enter as prisoners of war captured at the Alamein front, under the guard of what are supposedly German soldiers.’
The SIG operatives had kept themselves to themselves at Kufra, but suddenly the presence of the ‘Afrika Korps’ contingent was explained. The last thing the enemy would ever expect was a group of POWs emerging from the desert, who were in truth the much-feared British commandos, not that the men were overjoyed upon learning of the key deception that would underpin their mission.
Admittedly, there was no way into Tobruk without a Trojan horse such as the SIG provided. The commandos needed the SIG deception to get them through the fearsome defences, but few were keen to place their fortunes in the hands of ‘Germans’, even if their allegiances supposedly lay with the Allies now. In the background lurked the dark suspicion – the rumours – of previous betrayals.
There was little time to contemplate such fears. Haselden spread more maps in the sand. Most of the Commando had served in Tobruk at one time or another, and the terrain was familiar to them. Haselden jabbed a finger at a point in the south-eastern end of Tobruk harbour. It was a narrow boot-shaped inlet, enclosed with high cliffs and marked ‘Marsa Umm Esc-Sciausc’ – marsa being the colloquial Arabic word for ‘bay’. Sciausc Bay lay just outside the Tobruk boom, a barrier of floating nets that closed off the harbour entrance, leaving just a narrow entry point.
‘This is the bay that we are going to capture on September 13th,’ Haselden announced in his quiet, self-assured tones.
September 13th: they now had a date for the coming raid. Today was 4 September. They were nine days out and counting.
‘Aerial reconnaissance shows coastal defence guns positioned all around the cove, as well as ack-ack further inland,’ Haselden continued. He glanced at the faces all around him. ‘Our job is to capture those guns. If we fail, the Argylls and Fusiliers will be blown out of the water as they come in to land.’ He paused. ‘But we will not fail. We will capture those guns and turn them against the enemy. No warships of ours will be blown out of the water. No warships of theirs will be allowed to leave the harbour.’
The more the commandos listened, the more they liked what they heard. This raid on Tobruk appealed to their wilder, reckless sides. The plan was a good one and it all tied up nicely. They could see it playing out beautifully. Surprise, ingenuity and audacity would carry the day, plus they could be serving under no better leader, that was for certain.
The faith the commandos placed in any new commander was based in large part upon his reputation. In Haselden’s case, it was second to none. Few hadn’t heard of his exploits masquerading as an Arab deep behind the lines. Haselden seemed not to understand fear. The possibility of betrayal lurked at every juncture, but it seemed never to occur to him that things might go wrong or the enemy capture him.
The story most often told around the flickering campfires was of his role in Operation Flipper. Lieutenant Tommy Langton – the SBS veteran of sticky-grenade fame – had been on that mission, so could speak of it personally. The British submarines Torbay and Talisman had crept up the North African coast, to a point offshore of what was believed to be Rommel’s headquarters. They carried a force of SBS and commandos led by Lieutenant Colonel Geoffrey Keyes, the son of the famous admiral Sir Roger Keyes.
The submarines had surfaced to discover a point of light blinking at them miraculously from the shoreline. Langton had been told to expect the landing-point marker, but he had never once believed it would be there bang on schedule. The thirty-strong commando force had paddled ashore, to discover Lieutenant Colonel John Haselden dressed head-to-toe in Arab robes, operating the signal light and to all appearances unconcerned that he was doing so smack bang in the midst of enemy territory.
Having been dropped behind the German lines by the LRDG, Haselden had spent two weeks scrutinising what Allied radio intercepts suggested was Rommel’s base. Over the next three days, and, perversely, battling torrential rain, he led the raiders to the doorstep of the building they believed was the Desert Fox’s headquarters.
But they met with fierce resistance, which ended in the crushing realization that Rommel was not at home. He had apparently flown to Rome unexpectedly, for his fiftieth-birthday celebrations. In the course of fierce fighting Major Keyes was killed. He would be awarded a posthumous Victoria Cross. Many commandos also lost their lives. But Haselden managed to melt back into the desert, where he was picked up by an LRDG patrol.
He earned his second MC for that daring operation. The citation would stress how Haselden had ‘walked a distance of nearly 100 miles through the heart of enemy territory’ to recce Rommel’s headquarters. It spoke of a ‘fearless action worthy of the highest praise. The success he achieved was largely due to information he had gained during his reconnaissance.’
Haselden never built himself up to be a man of mystery, or one who possessed outstanding courage and charisma, yet in his quiet, understated way he was all those things and more. Blessed with a magnetic personality, he was one of the most unconventional heroes of the war. He had already suffered tragic loss in his life, and on a level that would have excused him for putting personal interests above the call of duty.
Married in 1931 to Nadia Szymonska-Lubicz, a nineteen-year-old Polish-Italian beauty, he had lost his wife five years later to a car crash. That had left their only child, Gerald, seven, deprived of a mother and Haselden himself widowed. Nonetheless, not long after the outbreak of war Haselden had signed up for military service. He was a man who made friends easily, and then had those friends exercise themselves to win him more friends. He was a man born to lead missions such as the present one, and the men of the Commando could sense it.
He rounded off the briefing by turning to the most scintillating aspect of the coming raid. Once their objective was secured, their key task was to free the thousands of POWs held in the Tobruk cages. They would be released and armed with captured weaponry, so they could join forces with the raiders.
At mission’s end the former POWs would be evacuated by Royal Navy warships or would break out into the desert, where they would link up with Stirling’s SAS. Those who managed to do so would form a guerrilla army, operating in Rommel’s rear. Unsurprisingly, it was this aspect of the coming operation that appealed most to the commandos.
The taking of 33,000 Allied prisoners at the fall of Tobruk had truly smarted. Those troops had fought like lions and no one doubted that they would do so again. If they could spring those POWs and arm them, they would have a massive force of battle-hardened fighters to pit against the German and Italian forces manning Tobruk.
Now was the moment to turn defeat into victory, Haselden urged. But he sounded a final note of caution. He indicated a point on the map about twelve miles east of Tobruk on the coastal road. ‘That’s the danger point. The Germans have a staging point hereabouts. Those are crack panzer troops intended to reinforce the Alamein front, and they are to be feared. That’s why we must fight our way into Tobruk, to hold a line that covers that road.’
The commandos remained undaunted. If they managed to block the road, no reinforcements were getting through to Tobruk, of that they felt certain. The wild card in the mission remained the ‘Germans’ in their midst, although most understood how and why German Jews had come to fight alongside Allied forces.
Adolf Hitler – an aggressive proponent of the so-called ‘stab in the back’ theory – had blamed the Jews for Germany’s humiliating defeat at the end of World War One. He’d added to that the potent – and entirely flawed – concept of eugenics, claiming that the Jews weren’t simply a reviled religious group, but also inherently racially inferior. The Jew, Hitler claimed, was a different species to the rest of humankind and could not be redeemed. Only annihilation would solve ‘the Jewish question’.
Already the Nazi concentration camps were busy with their deadly work, which meant that the British and the German Jews had become natural allies. Churchill himself would praise the Jewish soldiers who had joined the Allied cause, lauding the units formed from ‘that race which has suffered indescribable torments from the Nazis, a distinct formation among the forces gathered for their final overthrow’.
But still those gathered at Kufra were suspicious of the soldiers in their midst who spoke only in German, wore German uniforms, wielded German weaponry, marched and sang in distinctly German martial tones and kept themselves entirely apart. The men of the Commando might recognize their raw bravery and courage, but that didn’t mean that they trusted the men of the SIG.
Could they really be relied upon, or were they dissemblers, awaiting the moment of betrayal? News of previous double-crosses suffered by the SIG troubled the men of the Commando. Could they really place their lives in the hands of such men? Captain Buck for one believed that they could. He had trained and briefed and readied his men exhaustively. No stone had been left unturned in preparing their cover stories.
Indeed, there was no finer deception force in the entire Allied military, or so Buck believed.
So much hung upon the calibre of the men making up the SIG.
Buck had sought out his earliest recruits among the Middle East Commando, at their Burg El Arab headquarters, set to the west of Cairo. The Commando’s war diary for 17 March 1942 simply records the arrival of ‘a Capt. Buck to select German-speaking personnel with a view to certain work’. Recruiting for that ‘certain work’ was never going to be easy. The potential volunteers were mostly nationals of the country they were going to fight, and traitors under international law, even if their ‘treason’ was in the name of liberation from Nazi tyranny. They would be shot without question, if captured.
Upon arrival at the Burg El Arab camp, Buck had announced that he wanted to talk only to fluent German speakers. He told his audience that he was seeking volunteers for a very different kind of challenge, before outlining the basic objectives of the SIG. He stressed that any Jew caught masquerading as a member of the ‘master race’ was finished.
‘If your identity is found out, there’s no hope for you,’ he warned. ‘For any who volunteer, your lives will change completely. You will need to be prepared to cut yourself off from the rest of the British military. You will need to have as little contact as possible with your erstwhile brothers-in-arms.’
He needed independent self-starters who were happy with their own company, Buck explained. Volunteers would have to isolate themselves in a bubble of Teutonic discipline and efficiency, imbibing the Afrika Korps esprit de corps to the extent that they would almost begin to believe they were soldiers fighting in the Nazi cause. Their very survival depended upon their ability to eat, live and breathe that deception. They would need to wear their disguises faultlessly and to learn to drill as an Afrika Korps soldier.
Every volunteer who stepped forward was made to sign a declaration, acknowledging the dangers involved. It read: ‘I hereby certify that I understand the risks . . . to which I and my relatives may be exposed by my employment in the British Army . . . Notwithstanding this, I certify that I am willing to be employed in any theatre of war . . .’