In Cairo Colonel David Stirling, SAS CO, was busy appropriating more trucks and jeeps (20 of the latter in total), as well as rations, rum, equipment and men, one of whom was Mike Sadler.
Sadler was a 22-year-old Englishman with a benign face and a keen brain. Having emigrated to what was then Rhodesia in the late 1930s to farm, Sadler had wound up in the LRDG in 1941, navigating L Detachment to several airfields during their early raids. ‘Stirling got the jeeps first but hadn’t the means to navigate them, that’s when he talent spotted me, if that’s the word,’ recalled Sadler, who though not over-awed by the ‘Phantom Major’ was nonetheless impressed. ‘Stirling had a very good social manner and he also had a compelling personality. He was a terribly quiet chap and didn’t raise his voice [and] could talk you into anything, but he didn’t have to do much talking. He managed to make one feel you were the only person who could possibly do it … but I also slightly felt he was thinking of something else at the same time … always thinking of improvements to make.’
In Cairo in mid-July Stirling addressed the problem of the strengthened airfield defences. The spur-of-the-moment raid at Bagoush had revealed the potential of driving straight on to the dromes but the method needed refining. As Stirling put his mind to the problem, he received from MEHQ ‘Operation Instruction No. 99’, which stated: ‘The order of priorities is Tank Workshops, tanks, aircraft, water, petrol. You will use your own judgement in assessing the value and reliability of information, importance of target assessed in terms of numbers of tanks, aircraft, etc. and possibilities of successful attack.’
Stirling replied to the Instruction with a memo entitled ‘New tactics’, in which he outlined how L Detachment intended to surmount the improved enemy airfield defences:
A ‘mass [jeep] attack’ would nullify the value of sentries on individual aircraft (the enemy’s normal custom) and would necessitate perimeter defence, which past experience has shown to be comparatively easy to penetrate by ‘stealth’. Thus the alternative employment of two methods of attack – either by a small party on foot reaching its objective without being observed, or by a ‘mass’ attack in vehicles – should leave the enemy hesitating between the two methods of defence. A combination of perimeter defence with sentries on individual aircraft would be most uneconomical in men … the psychological effect of successful attacks should increase the enemy’s nervousness about the defence of his extended lines of communication.
Stirling wasted no time in putting his new tactics to the test. Having returned to the desert hideout on 23 July (much to the relief of Steven Hastings and the others who had begun to think they’d been abandoned), Stirling briefed his men on an impending attack against Sidi Haneish, an airfield approximately 30 miles east-south-east of Mersa Matruh. Describing how they would drive on to the airfield in two columns with a distance of ten yards between vehicles and an interval often yards between columns, Stirling explained that he would direct the attack from his jeep positioned between the heads of the two columns. Once the men had grasped the plan, Stirling ordered a dress rehearsal on the evening of 25 July. ‘The rehearsal was one of the more bizarre moments of the war for me,’ recalled Johnny Cooper, ‘firing thousands of rounds deep behind enemy lines in preparation for a raid the following night.’
The next day the men counted down the hours before the departure for the 70-mile journey north to Sidi Haneish. ‘I think everyone felt a little bit of fear, but it was more eager anticipation,’ remembered Cooper. ‘No one liked hanging around and we had a desire to get on with it. We checked and rechecked our guns, the jeeps, and loaded the drums in the right order: one tracer, one armour-piercing and one incendiary.’
Mike Sadler wouldn’t be participating in the raid itself; his job was to navigate the raiders to the airfield and then wait at its south-east corner as a RV point in case any jeep was disabled and its occupants forced to flee on foot. ‘When you went on an operation, it wasn’t the raid itself you worried about it was how the hell we were going to get away afterwards because the Germans were like bees in chasing us,’ he reflected.
Sadler navigated them the 70 miles north in only four hours. It was a moonlit night and except for six punctures and a LRDG truck hitting a mine, the approach to the target was uneventful. A mile from the airfield, Stirling halted the column and issued a last set of instructions. ‘Gun discipline was vital,’ Storie remembered as the gist of Stirling’s final briefing. ‘We had to keep in a strict formation, two abreast, firing outwards the whole time.’
The force then moved cautiously forward at four to five miles an hour, one or two jeeps dipping in and out of unoccupied rifle pits, before they formed into two columns. On a green Verey light fired from Stirling, the attack began.
Some subsequent accounts state that the jeeps roared through the thin perimeter defences and moved down the airfield at around 20mph, but Jellicoe’s operational report is contradictory. He wrote: ‘The firing of Verey lights and of tracer and incendiary ammunition having disclosed the approximate positions of the aircraft, the column was directed to the centre of the dispersal area and shot the planes up one by one, the pace, while shooting was going on, being reduced to one or two miles an hour. In this way about thirty were destroyed, though only eighteen actually burst into flames. Fire was also directed at the guards as they ran for cover.'”
Watching from his vantage point on the south-eastern corner of the airfield was Mike Sadler. ‘I had a ringside view of the tracer hitting and the aircraft going up,’ he recalled. ‘The whole thing was very impressive.’
It took a few minutes for the airfield’s defenders to gather their wits but as the two columns doubled back they came under attack from a 20mm gun and small-arms fire. Stirling’s jeep was damaged but not disabled, but a bullet killed John Robson, a 21-year-old rear gunner in Sandy Scratchley’s jeep. They departed the airfield and split up, some vehicles heading south and others south-west, all in a hurry to find cover before dawn broke in an hour and a half. Most did but a detachment of French jeeps were caught in the open by a patrol of German Junker 87s and the much admired officer Andre Zirnheld was killed.
Nonetheless, the raid had been every bit as successful as Stirling envisaged, a satisfying way with which to bring July to a close. In the month that they’d been operating self-sufficiently from their remote desert base, L Detachment destroyed a minimum of 86 enemy aircraft and between 36 and 45 motorised vehicles. It was a surprise to some of the men that the Germans didn’t form a similar unit to try and counter L Detachment’s achievements. ‘The Afrika Korps had been trained in a different type of warfare,’ reflected Jimmy Storie.’They had been trained in European warfare … they lacked the skill but also the transport so we went places they never went.’ In Mike Sadler’s estimation the answers could be found in the soldiers’ blood.’ It’s in the national character,’ he said. ‘If you look down the ages Britain has had these type of soldiers so to some extent it might be a cultural thing.’