Operation Compass I

Stroke and Counter-Stroke

On the surface, Mussolini’s Italy was firmly in the ascendant in the Middle East by the second half of 1940. In the Horn of Africa, the conquest of British Somaliland by the Duke of Aosta’s forces presented a potential threat to British sea traffic accessing the southern end of the Suez Canal, and Italian forces also occupied key locations in northern Kenya and Sudan. To the west, the Italian forces in Libya were poised to invade Egypt; in conjunction with their incursion into Sudan this raised the prospect of a concerted attack seizing the Suez Canal and thus severing the most direct British line of communication with India, the Far East and the Antipodes. In addition, Italian air and ground forces in both locations were more numerous than their British and Commonwealth opponents, and also better equipped in many instances.

The reality was somewhat less positive, however. A combination of British naval superiority and geography meant that Italian East Africa’s isolation from reinforcement or outside assistance outweighed the threat it presented to British Imperial communications, and the same could be said of the Italian occupation of the Egyptian coastal border zone. The latter appears to have been driven less by strategic vision or desire for further colonial expansion than Mussolini’s feelings of inferiority and consequent desire to match Hitler’s achievements and keep his place as a belligerent at future peace tables. This explains his insistence that the Italian move into Egypt coincide with the German invasion of Britain, to which all other considerations were subordinate; on 10 August 1940 he explicitly made this point the paramount concern of the senior Italian commander in Libya, Maresciallo Rodolfo Graziani, in a letter that stated ‘The invasion of Great Britain has been decided on, its preparations are in the course of completion and it will take place…the day on which the first platoon of German soldiers touches British territory, you will simultaneously attack. Once again, I repeat there are no territorial objectives, it is not a question of aiming for Alexandria, nor even for Sollum. I am only asking you to attack the British forces facing you. I assume full personal responsibility for this decision of mine.’

With such poor to non-existent strategic direction from the top Balbo and Graziani’s tardiness in embarking on an invasion of Egypt is arguably excusable and certainly understandable, and this also goes some way to explaining the relative incompetence and lack of push displayed by the Italian forces in British Somaliland and subsequently in Egypt. All this ought to have made the Italians relatively easy meat for a competent opponent, but the British were initially unable to capitalise upon them. The key factor was simply numbers, for the Army and RAF contingents in both locations were simply too badly outnumbered to offer more than token resistance, as the fighting in British Somaliland had clearly shown. This was a puzzling and serious omission given the importance of the region to the efficient running of British Imperial trade and communications, and it is therefore germane to establish how such a state of affairs came about before moving on to examine the British reaction to the attacks on their territory.

As we have seen, while the Italians saw their Libyan colony as an extension of their domestic territory, the British presence in Egypt was focussed primarily on safeguarding the Suez Canal as a communications link between Britain and the Empire.

Consequently, prior to the emergence of Italy as a regional threat, the principal role of the British ground and air forces stationed in Egypt and across the wider Middle East was imperial policing. Operations of this type are frequently regarded as something of a soft option, but the reality was somewhat different. Dissident tribesmen and indigenous populations were just as capable of inflicting death and injury as conventional military forces, and service in the reaches of the Empire also involved coping with extremes of geography and climate as a matter of course. Carrying out even the most basic of military operations under such conditions thus required a high level of operational competence and flexibility.

Troops operating in the Western Desert, for example, had to contend with extreme heat by day and near-freezing cold by night as a matter of course, as well as sandstorms that reduced visibility to zero and the khamsin, a hot wind blowing from the Sahara between February and June that routinely raised the temperature to in excess of 104 degrees Fahrenheit; according to local lore murder was justified when the khamsin blew. Even routine tasks like patrolling in the arid, largely featureless terrain required strict water discipline and navigational skills of a high order. Keeping weapons and equipment functioning amidst the ever-present sand and gritty dust required constant and diligent cleaning, and mechanisation increased the maintenance load manifold. The dust shortened the life of engines even when equipped with special filters, and the rough terrain took a similarly heavy toll on suspension components, tyres and tracks. Vehicle and aircraft maintenance was complicated yet further by the paucity of sheltered facilities; an RAF report on air operations in the Western Desert noted that it took up to twenty-four hours’ work to restore aircraft on forward bases to a flyable condition after sandstorms, with instrument intakes and constant speed propeller mechanisms being especially troublesome.

Relations between the Air Ministry and War Office in the inter-war period and Second World War were frequently acrimonious at best, not least because the RAF had justified its existence after 1918 by cutting into the Army’s traditional function to create an imperial policing role for itself by ‘…substituting air power for land power in the more inaccessible corners of the British Empire.’ After contributing an eight-aircraft strong detachment codenamed Z Squadron to suppressing the ‘Mad Mullah’ in Somaliland in 1919–20, the Air Ministry was given responsibility for Iraq on 1 October 1922. However the practical limitations of Air Control, as the policy was labelled, rapidly became apparent when the RAF were obliged to form a ground support unit equipped with Rolls Royce armoured cars. In fact, Air Control had always been something of a fiction, given that there had been a substantial Army involvement alongside Z Squadron and that the then Secretary of State for War and Air, Churchill, who had played a major role in the implementation of Air Control, nonetheless considered that policing Iraq would also require at least 14,000 Army troops. Despite this, the inter-service hostility diminished with distance from London, if only for reasons of pragmatism and operational necessity; hence the comment from Sir Gifford Martel, one of the British Army’s armour pioneers, while serving in India in the 1930s: ‘the Air Force is a good show out here; I wish the Army was as progressive.’

The result was an extremely high level of co-operation between the Army and RAF at the operational level in the Empire. The evacuation of casualties by air began with Z Squadron, which deployed the world’s first custom-built air ambulance, and rapidly became a staple feature of British imperial policing operations. Over 200 men were airlifted from Kurdistan for treatment in Baghdad following a serious outbreak of dysentery in 1923, and by the mid-1930s an average of 120 patients per year were being airlifted to hospitals in Egypt, Palestine and Iraq. There was also a regular medical shuttle to Port Said and Jaffa for cases requiring repatriation to Britain by sea. Aircraft were also pressed into service for more routine military transport tasks. In September 1920 two Handley Page 0/400s lifted a dismantled mountain gun complete with crew and ammunition from Heliopolis to Almaza in Egypt, and a complete company of infantry was lifted from Baghdad to Kirkuk in May 1924 in response to an outbreak of civil disorder. A similar operation from Palestine to Cyprus in October 1931 was the world’s first troop airlift over the open sea, and the following year the RAF mounted its largest airlift in the interwar period, using twenty-five Vickers Victoria aircraft to move a complete infantry battalion the 800 miles from Egypt to Iraq in the period 22–27 June 1932. By the late 1930s such large-scale operations were routine; during the Waziristan campaign a total of 5,750 troops and 400 tons of supplies were lifted in the period between November 1936 and May 1938.

However, operational co-operation and flexibility were of little use against a threat arguably more insidious than desert dust or inter-service rivalry. Government fiscal parsimony toward the British Armed Forces was and remains something of a perennial, as demonstrated by the debate about overstretch and equipment shortages in Afghanistan and Iraq at the time of writing. The root of the problem at the beginning of the Second World War dated back to the military drawdown immediately after the First World War. In August 1919, within a month of the signing of the Treaty of Versailles, a Government memo declared that ‘non productive employment of manpower and expenditure, such as is involved by naval, military and air effort, must be reduced within the narrow limits consistent with national safety.’ This policy resulted in a series of military budgets that were barely sufficient to cover the Service’s existing commitments. The Army had its budget reduced every year between 1919 and 1932 despite a parallel raise in its commitments, for example, and pay cuts prompted by a £5 million cut in the Royal Navy’s budget in 1931 sparked a mutiny in the Atlantic Fleet at Invergordon. The situation continued until the mid-1930s, when a Government statement in Parliament admitted that the situation was ‘approaching a point when we are not possessed of the necessary means of defending ourselves against an aggressor.’ As events in 1939 and more especially 1940 were to show, subsequent measures to reverse the situation came barely in the nick of time. That was of little immediate solace to those charged with safeguarding the Empire, for Home defence requirements were the first priority and the former were thus obliged to accept whatever of modern equipment or obsolescent hand-me-downs could be spared.

This was not initially seen as a matter for concern because Italy was not considered a threat to British interests in the Middle East, and this remained the case even when Mussolini embarked on an extensive re-armament programme in 1933 and invaded Abyssinia two years later. Although the British Mediterranean Fleet was substantially reinforced in September 1935 in anticipation of enforcing League of Nations sanctions against Italy for her aggression, Italian vessels carrying supplies and munitions for their forces in Abyssinia were still permitted to transit the Suez Canal, in line with the 1888 Treaty of Constantinople that guaranteed access to the Canal for all and prohibited warlike activity within three miles of the Canal’s entry points. Indeed, the possibility of conflict with Egypt itself was a more pressing concern, as relations had been ambiguous between the abolition of the British Protectorate over Egypt in 1922 and the signature of the Anglo-Egyptian Treaty in August 1936. The Treaty bound the British to withdraw from Cairo within four years, to restrict its military presence in the country to the area immediately adjacent to the Suez Canal and the RAF airfield at Abu Sueir, seventy miles from Cairo, and to train and equip the Egyptian Army and Air Force. In return the Egyptian government was to improve and/or increase road and rail links, permit British military training in designated areas and provide unlimited access to all Egyptian facilities in time of war. In return the British sponsored Egypt’s election as an independent member of the League of Nations in May 1937.

In the meantime relations with Italy had deteriorated, and the British initially tried to address the situation with diplomacy, leading to the Anglo-Italian Joint Declaration signed in Rome on 2 January 1937. Popularly dubbed the ‘Gentlemen’s Agreement’, the Treaty debarred both parties from interfering with the sovereignty of states in the Mediterranean area and guaranteed mutual free movement in the Eastern Mediterranean. However, the Declaration quickly failed to live up to expectations, and the British government was obliged to extend its policy of military renovation to the Middle East from July 1937, beginning with a modernisation programme for port defences in the Mediterranean and Red Sea. Limited measures to counter possible Italian attacks were also authorised, with the caveat that they should be discrete and unprovocative.

British concerns initially centred on naval matters, and specifically secure basing for the Mediterranean Fleet. Traditionally this had been provided from Gibraltar and Malta, but the former was too distant from the likely seat of future operations in the Eastern Mediterranean, and Malta was too close to the Italian mainland. Alexandria was selected as the best option in April 1937, not least because it had undergone modernisation during the Abyssinian Crisis in 1935, and permission was obtained from the Egyptian government to extend docking and repair facilities. The situation was more serious with regard to air and land defence, for most of the army units were based away from the Libyan border and were significantly under their official War Establishment strength, while there were no RAF fighters or army anti-aircraft units based in Egypt at all. Nonetheless, the British were able to mount some semblance of defence during the Sudeten Crisis in September 1938 with the army occupying defensive positions at Mersa Matruh, two thirds of the way between Alexandria and the Libyan border, and the RAF deploying to forward airfields in support. By that time some of the more glaring deficiencies had been addressed, at least to an extent. An anti-aircraft brigade equipped with twenty-four 3-inch guns and the same number of searchlights had been despatched from Britain in December 1937 along with a battalion of light tanks. This was followed by a twenty-one strong squadron of Gloster Gladiators and twelve Bristol Blenheims in February 1938. More reinforcements followed. The 11th Indian Infantry Brigade arrived in Egypt in July 1939, followed by a New Zealand brigade in February 1940, and the Indian presence was expanded to form the 4th Indian Division by the arrival of a second brigade eight months later.

By the outbreak of war with Italy in June 1940 the British were thus in a better, if not comfortable position to defend Egypt. At the top, the clumsy and arguably unworkable triumvirate system created in June 1939, which relied on the local Commander in Chiefs of the three Services to co-operate voluntarily whilst beholden to their individual Chiefs of Staff and Ministries in Whitehall, had been modified with the appointment of a Commander-in-Chief Middle East on 15 February 1940. The officer selected to fill the new post was Lieutenant-General Sir Archibald Wavell, who had been commanding the army’s Middle East Command from July 1939. Wavell was a highly experienced and competent soldier who had seen service in the Boer War, India and as an observer with the Russian Army before 1914; during the First World War he served initially in a Staff position, was wounded and lost an eye at Ypres in 1915, was seconded to the Russian Army in Turkey as a liaison officer the following year, and ended the war on General Allenby’s staff in Palestine. The RAF contribution to defending the Libyan frontier was No. 202 Group, commanded by then Air Commodore Raymond Collishaw DSO and Bar, DSC, DFC. A Canadian by birth and also a First World War veteran, Collishaw had begun his career flying fighters with the Royal Naval Air Service and was the third highest scoring British ace at the end conflict, with sixty victories. No. 202 Group consisted of six squadrons, the Gladiator equipped No.33 Squadron, Nos. 45, 53, 113 and 211 Squadrons equipped with Blenheims, and No. 208 Army Co-Operation Squadron equipped with Westland Lysanders. The army contingent in Egypt numbered 36,000 men, but not all were organised into complete formations, and the formations that did exist were understrength in addition to overall shortages of artillery, transport and ammunition. The Western Desert Force tasked with defending the border with Libya was commanded by Major-General Richard O’Connor, who arrived from Palestine to take over on 8 June 1940. O’Connor’s Force consisted of the understrength 7th Armoured and 4th Indian Divisions; the former lacked two of its constituent armoured regiments and the latter a complete infantry brigade, although this was offset to some extent by the presence of the 6th Infantry and 22nd Guards Brigades.

This was a fairly respectable force, but not in comparison with the Italian 10° Armata facing them across the border in Libya. However, there was more to the matter than bald numbers, and the British possessed a qualitative advantage that to an extent offset Italian numerical superiority. There were two aspects to this advantage. The first went back to 1935, when elements of the Cairo Cavalry Brigade were formed into a Mobile Force and began training for mechanised desert operations. This was a new concept and thus very much a matter of trial and error. At the beginning it took a squadron from the 11th Hussars three days to reach the oasis at Baharia, 200 miles south of their base at Cairo, thanks to navigation difficulties, vehicle suspension failures, flat tyres and bogging in soft sand, and it took a further two days of intensive maintenance before the return trip could begin. Within ten months the same unit was capable of sallying forth south across the coastal plain from Mersa Matruh to the Siwa Oasis on the rugged plateau that separated the plain from the Great Sand Sea and back in the same time, a round trip of almost 400 miles as the crow flies. The experience garnered in the process was converted into a formalised training programme for all British mechanised units in Egypt that taught the importance of vehicle loading, field maintenance and repair, desert driving techniques, how to use the terrain for movement and concealment, and navigation by the sun and stars as well as with the magnetic compass. The end result was a number of units capable of operating in the harsh conditions of the Western Desert as a matter of routine. The second aspect was turning these trained units into a cohesive mechanised force, and that was down to the involvement of Major-General Percy Cleghorn Stanley Hobart DSO MC.

Hobart was commissioned into the Royal Engineers in 1904 and after service on the Western Front and in Mesopotamia during the First World War, transferred to the Royal Tank Corps in 1923. A disciple of Colonel J.F.C. Fuller and an armoured theorist in his own right, he was promoted to command the 2nd Battalion, Royal Tank Corps in 1928. In 1933 he became Inspector Royal Tank Corps, and after promotion to Brigadier the following year formed and commanded the 1st Tank Brigade, the first armoured formation of that size in the British Army. A single-minded and difficult character, Hobart made more than his fair share of enemies in the army establishment, but avoided being edged out of the army like his fellow armour pioneers Fuller and Liddell Hart and was appointed Director of Military Training at the War Office in 1937, on the understanding that he would be given a command more in line with his expertise in the event of war. That circumstance came with the Munich Crisis, and Hobart was despatched to form an armoured division in Egypt on 25 September 1938. His appointment was not universally popular as his difficult reputation appears to have preceded him; the General Officer Commanding-in-Chief, Lieutenant-General Sir Robert Gordon-Finlayson, greeted him with the immortal words ‘I don’t know what you’ve come here for, and I don’t want you anyway.’

Despite this inauspicious start, Hobart set to work reorganising and expanding the Mobile Force into the Mobile Division at his base at Mersa Matruh. The new formation consisted of three parts. The Light Armoured Brigade was created by the simple expedient of renaming the Cairo Cavalry Brigade, which was made up of the 7th Queen’s Own Hussars equipped with a variety of Light Tanks, the 8th King’s Royal Irish Hussars making do with 15 cwt Ford trucks in lieu of tanks, and the 11th Hussars mounted in Rolls Royce Armoured Cars. The Heavy Armoured Brigade consisted of the 1st and 6th Battalions, Royal Tank Corps, the former equipped with Light Tanks and the latter with a mixture of Light and Medium. The third part, dubbed the Pivot Group, was intended to provide the armoured striking force with infantry and artillery support. It consisted of 1st Battalion, The King’s Royal Rifle Corps (KRRC), and the 3rd Regiment, Royal Horse Artillery (RHA) equipped with 3.7-inch howitzers. Hobart also managed to form a divisional HQ with personnel located through his parallel responsibility for Garrison Troops in Cairo, including increments from the Royal Corps of Signals and a complete company from the Royal Army Service Corps (RASC). The latter proved invaluable in locating supplies of ammunition and spare parts, and more modern replacement equipment slowly became available over the winter of 1938–39; this permitted the 6th Royal Tank Regiment to replace some of its venerable Mk. II Medium Tanks for more modern A9 Cruisers, and the 3rd RHA to re-equip with 25-Pounder guns. In parallel with all this Hobart instructed and drilled his command until its disparate components were capable of operating smoothly together in offensive and defensive manoeuvres. By the end of 1939 Hobart had largely achieved his mission, as is clear from Major-General O’Connor’s comment that the Mobile Division was the best trained division he had ever seen.

Operation Compass II

In the event, Hobart did not get to see the fruits of his labour in action. In July 1939 Gordon-Finlayson was replaced as General Officer Commanding-in-Chief by Lieutenant-General Henry Maitland Wilson, who had attended the same course as Hobart at the Staff College at Camberley in 1920. Initially their relationship was good, and Wilson praised the performance of the Mobile Division after attending the final phase of a week long exercise at the end of July. Things deteriorated rapidly following another divisional exercise three months later however, when a series of misunderstandings and missed communications ended in a stand up argument and a public dressing down for Hobart. Wilson followed this up on 10 November 1939 with a request that Hobart be relieved, and Wavell complied after a personal interview with Hobart four days later; he was replaced by Major-General Michael O’Moore Creagh MC. The news does not appear to have gone down well with Hobart’s men, for according to his biography they lined the road from Hobart’s HQ and cheered him all the way to the airstrip where he began his journey back to Britain.

The relief of such a technically proficient officer during such perilous times was certainly curious, and Hobart’s biography suggests that it was the upshot of long standing grudges against Hobart in the army’s upper echelons, and that it was accomplished via improper use of confidential competence reports. While Wavell’s decision is far more likely to have been motivated by the need for harmonious working relationships than resentment over an incident during an exercise in 1934, subsequent events do support the grudge theory to some extent. Despite assurances to the contrary from the Chief of Imperial General Staff General Sir Edmund Ironside, Hobart was retired from the army with effect from 9 March 1940, and interestingly the British Official History published in 1954 makes no mention of Hobart at all. Be that as it may, this was clearly a waste of talent and expertise, but fortunately it was not the end of the story. In August 1940, while serving as a Lance-Corporal in the Chipping Camden detachment of the Local Defence Volunteers, Hobart took a position with the Ministry of Supply linked to tank production. He came to Prime Minister Winston Churchill’s attention at a conference at Chequers, and by early 1941 he had been returned to the army active list and given the task of forming the 11th Armoured Division. He was then given the same task with regard to the 79th Armoured Division in March 1943, and oversaw the development of a host of specialised armoured vehicles that played an important role in the D-Day invasion on 6 June 1944.

Wavell’s plan in the event of war with Italy was to seize the initiative from the outset by using the Western Desert Force to attack Italian border posts in Libya and dominate the border zone as far west as practicable. This was intended to forestall or at least delay any Italian attack into Egypt, with the object of denying it the coastal town of Mersa Matruh, which housed the terminus of the coastal railway to Cairo. Thus the 7th Armoured Division, as the Mobile Division had been renamed on 16 February 1940, had been deployed in the area of Mersa Matruh and Maaten Baggush, where O’Connor had established Western Desert Force HQ on 8 June 1940. The division had been expanded, and its constituent formations had also been renamed and reorganised. The Light and Heavy Tank Brigades had become the more balanced 4th and 7th Armoured Brigades, made up of the 7th Hussars and 6th Royal Tank Regiment (RTR) and 8th Hussars and 1st RTR respectively. The Pivot Group, renamed the Support Group, was made up of the 1st KRRC, the 2nd Battalion, The Rifle Brigade and the 4th RHA, while the 3rd RHA and 11th Hussars were grouped together as Divisional Troops.

As soon as news of the Italian declaration of war was received O’Connor ordered the 11th Hussars up to the border, followed at around a forty mile interval by the 7th Hussars Light and Cruiser Tanks and the Support Group. At around the same time Collishaw moved No. 202 Group HQ up to one of his forward airfields and ordered all aircraft to be made ready, but confirmation came too late to commence operations before nightfall on 10 June 1940. Dawn sorties by reconnaissance Blenheims from No. 211 Squadron to the major Regia Aeronautica base at El Adem found aircraft parked in the open, and eight Blenheims from No. 45 Squadron made the first of several attacks shortly afterward. By the end of the day the RAF had destroyed or damaged eighteen Italian aircraft for the loss of two Blenheims and three damaged. On the ground the 11th Hussars reached the border in the evening of 11 June, and their Rolls Royce and Morris armoured cars crossed the border at four points between Forts Capuzzo and Fort Maddalena, after breaching the Italian concertina wire by the simple expedient of flattening the picket posts with their vehicles and then dragging the wire aside or churning it into the sand. At 02:00 on 12 June a small detachment from B Squadron guarding one of the gaps shot up an Italian truck on the path paralleling the border, capturing fifty-two very surprised Italians who had not been informed that hostilities had commenced; the occupants of another truck captured near Fort Capuzzo told a similar story.

This set the tone for the next few days and nights and once the Support Group closed up and took responsibility for dominating the area immediately inside the Libyan border, the 11th Hussars pushed their activities further into Italian territory in company with elements of the 7th Hussars. On 14 June the Italian posts at Fort Maddalena and Fort Capuzzo were captured, the former without a fight by A Squadron, 11th Hussars; the garrison of five Italians and thirteen Libyans ran up the white flag on their approach. Fort Capuzzo also surrendered after an RAF attack that failed to actually hit the Fort and a few of the 7th Hussars’ Cruiser Tanks had put some 2-Pounder armour piercing rounds through the walls. The heaviest fighting of the day took place at Sidi Azeiz, the target of a subsidiary probe by a mixed force from the 7th and 11th Hussars supported by an RHA battery. The 11th Hussars tanks successfully overran outlying Italian infantry positions protecting the post but ran into a minefield that knocked out three tanks and stranded several more, which then came under accurate Italian artillery fire. When the accompanying RHA battery proved unable to suppress the Italian guns, which were deployed on the reverse slope of a ridge, the British force withdrew in the afternoon. While all this was going on six Italian CV33 tankettes approached a screening position held by elements of B Squadron, 11th Hussars, but retired at speed when one of their number was knocked out with a Boys anti-tank rifle, leaving the crew to be made prisoner.

By 16 June the 11th Hussars had expanded their marauding to the north, and C Squadron had set a successful ambush on the stretch of the Via Balbia linking Tobruk with Bardia using a felled telegraph pole as a roadblock. Over the course of the morning this netted a number of Italian trucks and a Lancia car carrying Generale di Corpo Lastucci, senior engineer officer to the 10° Armata, his aide-de-camp and two female companions, one of whom proved to be pregnant. Lastucci carrying detailed plans of the Italian defences at Bardia and, in one of those curious coincidences of war, was also a personal acquaintance of Major-General O’Connor; the latter saw Lastucci briefly en route to captivity along with his pregnant companion, who subsequently gave birth in Alexandria. The same day saw the largest engagement of the period at Nezuet Ghirba, south-west of Fort Capuzzo, when C Squadron 11th Hussars ran into an Italian column of thirty trucks, four artillery pieces and twelve CV33 tankettes divided equally between the front and rear of the column. According to orders subsequently found on the body of the Italian commander, a Colonello D’Avenso, the column was part of a force – another larger column had also been spotted by British scouts – tasked to ‘destroy enemy elements which have infiltrated across the frontier, and give the British the impression of our decision, ability and will to resist’, but things did not turn out quite that way.

On being somewhat impetuously attacked by two Rolls Royce armoured cars after a communications failure, the Italians made no attempt to find cover or occupy defensible terrain but simply formed their trucks into a square formation with their artillery pieces at the corners while the CV33 tankettes patrolled outside. The formation came as something of a surprise to Lieutenant-Colonel John Combe, the commander of the 11th Hussars, when he arrived on the scene and was presumably a drill developed to counter unsophisticated colonial enemies. Whatever its provenance, the tactic proved of little value against better armed and more adept opponents and having summoned tank and artillery reinforcements, the British went on the offensive. The Italians may have been tactically inept but they were not short of courage. Three CV33s had been knocked out in the initial stages of the action, and seven of the remainder mounted a counter charge to protect their infantry from the oncoming British tanks, but their inadequate armour was not up to the task and they were knocked out in quick succession. When the Italian square broke under the British assault the last surviving CV33 was destroyed in an attempt to ram an A9 Cruiser tank and the Italian artillerymen also fought to the last, being machine-gunned as they tried to bring their guns to bear on the British tanks. Only around a hundred Italians and a dozen trucks survived to be escorted back through the frontier wire to captivity in Egypt; their opponents did not incur a single casualty.

O’Connor’s men thus achieved Wavell’s objective of throwing the Italians off balance and dominating the Libyan side of the frontier, but the operational tempo soon began to tell on machines and especially men alike. According to the history of the 11th Hussars the first two weeks of hostilities were considered by some to be the most intensive of the entire war. The lack of sleep, insufficient water and short and monotonous rations were bad enough in themselves; it was not unusual for exhausted crewmen to simply collapse to the floor of their vehicles, and bully beef and biscuits were literally the only rations available for days on end. All this was exacerbated by the onset of the khamsin on 19 June, with 25 June being recorded as the hottest day the 11th Hussars had experienced to date. The heat was so intense that the armoured cars were too hot to touch, and the unfortunate crews were obliged to dismount and seek shelter beneath them. The severity of the conditions is well illustrated by an episode involving the second-in-command of the 4th Armoured Brigade who, during a reconnaissance for a joint operation to take the Italian-held oasis at Jarabub, refused to subject his tanks to such furnace-like conditions and insisted that they made operations impossible; the same officer collapsed later when informing Lieutenant-Colonel Combe that he intended to get the armoured car unit withdrawn.

By July the strain was becoming too much, and when C Squadron 11th Hussars lost four men dead and fourteen captured in an abortive action O’Connor intervened. The 11th Hussars were thus ordered to reduce their activities to allow half its strength to be resting on the coast at Buq Buq, while the 4th Armoured Brigade was rotated out of the frontier zone in its entirety and replaced by the 7th Armoured Brigade. Thereafter the screening force reverted to a watching brief, and kept the British commanders informed of the Italian reoccupation of Fort Capuzzo, and their pre-invasion build-up and reconnaissance activity in the vicinity of the latter, Sidi Omar and Bardia. This prompted a further reorganisation to face the developing threat, and on 13 August all the British armour was withdrawn to Mersa Matruh, leaving responsibility for the frontier zone to the 7th Armoured Division’s Support Group, commanded by Brigadier W.H.E. Gott; the latter was instructed to maintain close watch on the enemy, especially in the area between Sollum and Maddalena. To achieve this, the Support Group had received reinforcements including the 3rd Battalion The Coldstream Guards, the 3rd RHA, a section from the 25/26th Medium Battery R.A., two anti-tank batteries, a detachment of Royal Engineers and the 7th Hussars’ Cruiser Tank Squadron.

The reorganisation was in line with O’Connor’s defensive plan, which required the Support Group to conduct a fighting withdrawal to Mersa in preparation for an armoured thrust from the desert to the south against the Italian’s flank, to cut off and hopefully starve their vanguard into submission. This was a little less wishful than it appears, for on 10 August 1940 the War Office had presented Churchill with a list of the units and equipment allocated for despatch to Egypt as soon as shipping and escorts could be procured. The list included forty-eight 2-Pounder anti-tank guns, the same number of 25-Pounders, twenty Bofors guns and over million assorted rounds of ammunition. Perhaps more importantly, the list also included the 3rd King’s Own Hussars and the 2nd and 7th Royal Tank Regiments, equipped with Light, Cruiser and Infantry Tanks respectively.

O’Connor was obliged to put his plan into effect at dawn on 13 September 1940, when Graziani finally launched his invasion. It began with the bombardment and seizure of Musaid via the gaps torn in the frontier wire by the 11th Hussars on the night of 11–12 June, followed by an advance on Sollum and the adjacent airfield. All this was observed by a platoon from the 3rd Battalion The Coldstream Guards which primed mines emplaced along the tracks leading east as it withdrew, and in Sollum proper the Royal Engineer detachment attached to the Support Group busied themselves demolishing buildings and supply dumps. The damage inflicted by the mines was compounded by the RHA, which accurately dropped salvos of shells on the advancing Italian transport using the reflections from their windscreens as a target indicator. British artillery also shelled the large traffic jams that built up on the trails leading down to the Halfaya Pass that cut through the Sollum Escarpment and provided access to the coastal plain to the east. The 1st Libica and Cirene Divisions were occupying the approaches to the Pass by nightfall, and began to move through it on the morning of 14 September. By the afternoon Italian troops were occupying the 11th Hussars rest and recuperation site at Buq Buq, almost forty miles from the border. On 15 September the Support Group’s fighting withdrawal toward Mersa Matruh continued, although the RHA batteries exhausted their supply of 25-Pounder ammunition in the early afternoon, and the 7th Armoured Division’s armour was moving west in readiness to begin their counter-attack on 17 or 18 September.

The slow but seemingly unstoppable Italian advance continued on 16 September, and by the early evening lead elements of the 1st MVSN Division entered Sidi Barrani where, at least according to Italian propaganda broadcasts, non-existent trams were still running. A defensive screen was pushed out as far as Maktila, fifteen miles to the east, but there the advance stopped. Over the next few days the remainder of Graziani’s force closed up in the region of Sidi Barrani, having achieved ‘maximum exploitation’ as planned sixty miles or so inside Egypt. At first the British assumed that the halt was temporary, but a close reconnaissance by a Sergeant from the 11th Hussars revealed the construction of permanent defences, and aerial observation noted the construction of a surfaced road and water pipeline between Sollum and Sidi Barrani and the arrival of large amounts of supplies. With that the 7th Armoured Division’s tank formations were recalled and deployed to cover the approaches to Mersa Matruh; according to O’Connor they considered their withdrawal to be ‘rather a disappointment’. The Support Group was also withdrawn for a well earned rest, and the 11th Hussars took up their watching brief once again.

On the Italian side Mussolini was soon badgering Graziani to push on, but the latter was intent on modernising and strengthening his logistic links to Libya before resuming the offensive, and then only as far as Mersa Matruh. It was at this point that the Germans made their first, brief foray into events in North Africa. Following a meeting with his senior land and air commanders Hitler had cancelled the invasion of Britain, codenamed Operation Seelöwe (Sealion), on 17 September 1940. As a result the Oberkommando der Wehrmacht (OKW) began to consider the possibility of deploying an armoured force to assist their Italian allies in Libya, and with Hitler’s approval despatched Generalmajor Wilhelm Ritter von Thoma to Libya to investigate the possibilities. In the meantime the 3 Panzer Division was warned of possible North African service, and Hitler formally offered Mussolini assistance at their Brenner Pass meeting on 4 October 1940. Von Thoma’s report was not encouraging. The situation was judged ‘thoroughly unsatisfactory’, largely due to the poor road net and resultant logistical difficulties. As the presence of a German mechanised force would compound the latter severely, von Thoma therefore counselled against any deployment until Mersa Matruh was in Italian hands. Hitler accepted the report, 3 Panzer Division was stood down and the whole idea was placed on the back burner.

In the meantime the British had no intention of allowing Graziani to make his preparations unmolested, and thus reverted to harassing the Italians. RAF Blenheims destroyed three Italian bombers on the ground at Benina airfield near Benghazi on 17 September, and sixty day and night sorties were carried out against Italian road convoys and forward positions between 16 and 21 September alone. The RAF in Egypt was also receiving more modern aircraft; by the end of September No. 202 Group had re-equipped No. 33 Squadron with Hawker Hurricane monoplane fighters and No. 113 Squadron with Blenheim Mk. IVs, and had operational control of the Vickers Wellington equipped No. 70 Squadron from Middle East Command. However, their effectiveness was offset by the loss of the forward landing areas in the vicinity of Sidi Barrani. This reduced the effective range of Nos. 6 and 208 Army Co-Operation Squadron’s reconnaissance aircraft, a mixture of Lysanders and Hurricanes, by around a hundred miles and also obliged Blenheims to operate at extreme range to reach the port of Benghazi, through which much of Graziani’s materiel was passing. It also removed the possibility of shuttling fighters from Egypt to Malta, and curtailed air cover for RN vessels operating further west than Sidi Barrani. This was offset to an extent by the activities of the latter. Fleet Air Arm aircraft from HMS Illustrious mined the approaches to Benghazi and sank the destroyer Borea and two cargo ships on 17 September, and nearer the front destroyers and the gunboats Aphis and Ladybird bombarded targets of opportunity along the coast from Sollum to Sidi Barrani. The damage was not all one-way, however. On the night of 17–18 September the cruiser HMS Kent was attacked by SM.79 torpedo bombers from 240ª Squadriglia Aerosiluranti whilst en route to shell Bardia; Tenente Carlo Emanuele Buscaglia scored a hit on the cruiser’s stern which damaged the vessel to the extent it had to return to Britain for dockyard repair after a temporary fix at Alexandria.

On the ground the 11th Hussars continued to penetrate deep into Italian controlled territory, but the strain of virtually non-stop operations was taking a barely sustainable toll that manifested itself in unreliable and worn-out vehicles and a lengthening list of battle casualties at the hands of the increasingly adept Italians. The Hussars were reinforced in October 1940 with No. 2 Armoured Car Squadron RAF from Palestine, but in the meantime a stopgap response was the formation of small all-arms units equipped with artillery, anti-tank and anti-aircraft weaponry to protect the Hussars as they went about their business. Named ‘Jock Columns’ after the inventor of the concept, Lieutenant-Colonel J.C. ‘Jock’ Campbell RA and drawn largely from the Support Group, these units were tasked to support the 11th Hussars from the end of October. They also engaged in operations on their own, including surveying Italian defences and general harassment including attacking installations and transport in the Italian rear areas. This was all in line with the Support Group’s mission to dominate the seventy miles that separated the main forces between Maktila and Mersa Matruh, to which end the latter’s units also engaged in raiding on their own account. On 23 October 1940, for example, troops from the 2nd Battalion The Queen’s Own Cameron Highlanders supported by tanks from the 8th Hussars attacked a fortified Italian camp near Maktila. Unfortunately, the Italians were forewarned courtesy of poor security in Cairo, and the attackers were greeted by the Marmarica Division in its entirety. Despite this a platoon of Highlanders penetrated the camp and succeeded in taking prisoners and destroying a number of motor vehicles before escaping in a commandeered truck; unfortunately the truck was shot up by friendly anti-tank fire and the prisoners escaped in the confusion.

Operation Compass III

Wavell had been looking for an opportunity to attack the Italians since before the invasion of Egypt, and had ordered a study into the possible problems presented by an advance into eastern Libya as early as 11 September 1940. After Graziani’s force had been immobile around Sidi Barrani for a month he ordered Lieutenant-General Wilson to begin planning for a rapid, limited attack involving the 7th Armoured Division, the 4th Indian Division and the Mersa Matruh garrison. By this time the Italians had four divisions and Raggruppamento Maletti ensconced in a chain of ten fortified positions located roughly on a line running south for the thirty-odd miles between Maktila and Bir Enba on the edge of the coastal escarpment, and then west along the escarpment for a further twenty miles to Sofafi. Starting at the coast, Sidi Barrani was held by the 4° MSVN Division, with the 1° Libica Division holding Maktila and a fortified camp to the east of the town. The 2° Libica Division occupied three camps around Tummar, Raggruppamento Maletti one at Nibeiwa, and the remaining four at Rabia and around Sofafi were held by the Cirene Division. Further west, the Catanzaro Division was concentrated near Buq Buq, the Marmarica west of Sofafi and around Halfaya, and the 1st and 2nd MSVN Divisions were located near the border at Sidi Omar and the Sollum-Fort Capuzzo region respectively.

The information painstakingly gathered by the 11th Hussars and Jock Columns showed that while the Italian camps were generally well constructed and laid out, frequently with protective minefields, anti-tank ditches and wire, they were too far apart to provide mutual support. This was especially the case in the centre of the Italian line where the camps at Nibeiwa and Rabia were separated by almost twenty miles, an opening dubbed the Enba Gap. Graziani later claimed to have brought this to the attention of the commander of 10° Armata in November 1940, but whether that was ex post facto justification or not, nothing was done. Initial planning discussions involved only Wilson, his Chief-of-Staff, Lieutenant-General O’Connor and Major-General Creagh, in part because the raid on the Maktila camp had stressed the importance of tight security. The resulting scheme, codenamed Operation COMPASS, was largely O’Connor’s and envisaged a two-pronged attack. The northern prong involved an advance along the coast road to attack the 1st Libica Division at Maktila and thus distract Italian attention from the Enba Gap, by a 1,800 strong force drawn from the troops holding Mersa Matruh. Christened ‘Selby Force’ after its commander Brigadier A.R. Selby, it was made up of the 3rd Battalion The Coldstream Guards, three companies drawn from the Northumberland Fusiliers, the South Staffordshire Regiment and Cheshire Regiments respectively, a detachment from the Durham Light Infantry, and tanks from A Troop, 7th Hussars.

The main blow was to be delivered from further south. The 7th Armoured and 4th Indian Divisions were to carry out a sixty mile approach march to a concentration area approximately fifteen miles south-east of Nibeiwa. They would then attack through the Enba Gap, with the 4th Armoured Brigade heading north toward Azziziya, midway between Buq Buq and Sidi Barrani. Its running mate, the 7th Armoured Brigade, was to form a screen between the Gap and the Italian camps at Rabia and Sofafi, and act as an exploitation reserve. While the armour was rampaging around the Italian rear areas as Hobart had envisioned the 4th Indian Division would attack the Italian camps around Tummar from the rear. Supplies for the operation were to be stockpiled in two large dumps forty miles west of Mersa Matruh from 5 November, well inside the disputed zone between the two armies. Field Supply Depot No.3 was located near the Sidi Barrani–Mersa road ten miles from the coast, and No.4 Field Supply Depot a further fifteen miles to the south, a hundred mile round trip across difficult terrain for the transport units tasked to shuttle the materiel forward from dumps near Qasaba. Each Depot was stocked with sufficient fuel, ammunition, hard scale rations and water for personnel and vehicle cooling systems to last for five days, the period of the attack.48 Thereafter the forces involved were to withdraw and revert to their former defensive posture.

The plan may have been straightforward, but preparations proved to be less so. Wavell had originally intended to keep knowledge of COMPASS from an increasingly impatient Churchill until the planning and preparation was complete, to avoid raising unrealistic expectations and long-range micromanagement from London. This strategy succeeded until the Italians invaded Greece on 28 October 1940, for the effort to assist the Greeks threatened to remove aircraft, troops, anti-aircraft guns and transport needed for COMPASS. Ironically, this placed Wavell in virtually the same predicament as his opposite number Graziani; on 5 November Mussolini informed the latter that he ought to be attacking in Egypt to tie up British forces that might otherwise be sent to Greece. In order to avoid having the forces allocated to COMPASS stripped away Wavell therefore revealed the operation to Secretary of State for War Anthony Eden when the latter visited the Middle East on Churchill’s orders on 8 November; the latter was becoming increasingly dissatisfied with what he perceived as Wavell’s failure to make the best use of his reinforcements. Churchill reacted with characteristic aggression on learning of COMPASS, insisting that any success should be exploited to the full, and his dissatisfaction with Wavell was reinforced when he saw the content of a cable from him to Chief of Imperial General Staff Field Marshal Sir John Dill pointing out that ‘undue hopes [were] being placed on this operation which was designed as a raid only. We are greatly outnumbered on ground and in air, have to move over 75 miles of desert and attack enemy who has fortified himself for three months. Please do not encourage optimism.’ Churchill’s response was equally forthright, expressing shock and the opinion that Wavell was ‘playing small’ and thus failing to rise to the occasion in the spirit required. This may have been the driver for a memo Wavell sent to Wilson while the COMPASS force was moving to its jump off positions, which acknowledged that it was ‘possible that an opportunity may offer for converting the enemy’s defeat into an outstanding victory’, and asking that if so all ranks be ‘prepared morally, mentally and administratively to use it to the fullest’.

Be that as it may, it was too late for Churchill to interfere for good or ill as COMPASS was scheduled to begin on 9 December 1940. Security remained tight, and the Western Desert Force’s senior commanders were not informed of the plan until 2 November 1940; Wavell briefed the senior commanders in Kenya and the Sudan the same day. O’Connor issued strict instructions that nothing was to be committed to paper until shortly before the attack commenced, and the troops were not to be informed until they were en route to their assembly areas. The latter thus had no idea that Training Exercise No.1 carried out near Mersa Matruh on 25–26 November was actually a full-scale rehearsal for COMPASS, and that Training Exercise No.2 was in fact the opening stages of the Operation. The first unit to move was the 7th RTR, which reached Field Supply Depot No.4 en route to an ‘exercise’ area in the vicinity of Bir el Kenayis, forty miles south west of Mersa Matruh, on Thursday 5 December. Having only been in Egypt for two months, this was the unit’s first foray into what desert veterans referred to as ‘the blue’, and its early start was necessary because the forty-five Tank, Infantry, Mk.IIs with which the unit was equipped were only capable of eight miles per hour cross country. Despite this the unit was O’Connor’s ace in the hole, and not merely because the Italians were unaware of its presence in Egypt. The twenty-six ton Matilda, as the vehicle was popularly known, weighed over twice as much as the Italian M11/39, and the former’s 78mm cast armour was not only twice as thick but also impervious to Italian anti-tank weapons. The 4th Indian Division, commanded by Lieutenant-General Sir Noel Beresford-Peirse, followed on 6 December, and remained dispersed around Bir el Kenayis for thirty-six hours, to give the impression of routine training; an Italian reconnaissance aircraft flew overhead during a well attended church parade on 7 December.

The 7th Armoured Division, commanded by Brigadier J.R.L. Caunter in lieu of a temporarily hospitalised Creagh, left its nearby harbour area for the forward concentration area on 7 December; as this was only fifteen miles from Nibeiwa the division went into hard routine on arrival, with no fires or unnecessary movement. The air preparation for COMPASS began the same night, with a raid by eleven Malta-based Wellingtons that destroyed or damaged twenty-nine Italian aircraft at Castel Benito airfield near Tripoli. The following night a mixed force of Wellingtons and Blenheim Mk.IVs destroyed ten more at Benina, while other Blenheims attacked Italian forward airfields. Even obsolete Bristol Bombay bomber/transports from No. 216 Squadron were pressed into service to bomb the Italian forward positions. No. 202 Group’s fighter contingent were employed in creating and maintaining air superiority over the COMPASS ground forces; almost 400 fighter sorties were made in the first week of the Operation, with some pilots carrying out four in a single day. In the process they claimed thirty-five Italian machines shot down and a further twelve possibles for a loss of six RAF aircraft and three pilots.

That lay in the future, however, and by the late afternoon of 8 December the 4th Indian Division had also reached the concentration area near Nibeiwa and O’Connor had set up his forward HQ nearby at a location codenamed ‘Piccadilly Circus’. This was no mean feat in itself, involving as it did moving some 36,000 men and in excess of 5,000 vehicles undetected across sixty miles of open desert. The move may not have gone totally unnoticed, for an Italian reconnaissance pilot reported 400 vehicles at various points approximately forty miles south-east of Nibeiwa at around midday on 8 December, but no account appears to have been taken of his report. O’Connor’s force carried out its final preparations and moves up to start lines under cover of darkness on the night of 8–9 December. The 7th Armoured Division moved up into the Enba Gap, and sent back guides to direct 7th RTR and 11th Indian Brigade to their jump off positions for the opening attack on the Nibeiwa camp. To the north the noise of Selby Force moving into position was concealed by Royal Navy gunfire. A Bombarding Force consisting of HM Monitor Terror, the minesweeper Bagshot and the gunboats Aphis and Ladybird had sailed from Alexandria at 20:00 on 7 December. Terror and Aphis were to concentrate on Italian strongpoints and transport parks, while Ladybird was to shell gun positions and troop tents just to the west at Sidi Barrani; the latter was intended as cover for a Commando raid against Italian communications and pipelines, but the landing was prevented by heavy seas that also prostrated the raiders with seasickness. The bombardment began at 23:00 on 8 December and lasted for ninety minutes, although dust and misdropped flares from supporting Fairey Swordfish from HMS Illustrious made spotting difficult.

The Italian camp at Nibeiwa was occupied by Generale Pietro Maletti’s Raggruppamento, with a battalion of M11/39 medium tanks, a battalion of L3/35 Light Tanks and 2,500 Libyan infantry. The camp measured a mile by a mile and a half and was protected by a perimeter wall, an anti-tank ditch and berm, barbed wire and a perimeter minefield. However, on the night of 7–8 December a reconnaissance patrol from the 2nd Battalion, The Rifle Brigade located a gap in the defences at the north-western corner of the camp where supply columns passed back and forth; approximately twenty tanks, mostly M11/39s, were deployed outside the camp in a screen to protect this weak point. The action began shortly before 05:00 on Monday 9 December with an hour long diversion against the eastern side of the camp, followed by a light shelling on the south-east corner of the camp at 07:00. The main attack commenced at 07:15 with a simultaneous artillery concentration from seventy-two guns on selected targets within the perimeter and attack by two Squadrons of the 7th RTR against the north-western gap. The vehicles in the protective tank screen were unmanned, and the Matildas proceeded to pick them off at leisure before advancing into the camp proper, followed at 07:45 by the 2nd Battalion The Queen’s Own Cameron Highlanders and the 1st/6th Rajputana Rifles.

As at Nezuet Ghirba back in June, some of the Italians attempted to make up for operational incompetence with raw courage. Artillery men fired ineffectually at the Matilda IIs at point blank while others attacked the armoured behemoths with hand grenades, and the British were obliged to bring up artillery pieces to reduce some stubborn groups of defenders. Most were simply overawed by the speed and surprise of the assault, however, and by 10:40 Nibeiwa camp had been secured at a cost of fifty-six British and Indian casualties. Italian losses are unclear, but the dead included Generale Maletti and his aide-de-camp son, who had been cut down as they emerged from the tent where they had been awaiting breakfast. The British captured between 2,000 and 4,000 prisoners and twenty-three tanks along with numerous transport vehicles, water and supplies. The latter included large numbers of dress uniforms and associated accoutrements, freshly made beds and a positive cornucopia of food and drink. According to a journalist on the spot, the latter included freshly baked bread, fresh vegetables, jars of liqueurs, hundreds of cases of Rocoaro brand mineral water, huge amounts of spaghetti and macaroni and Parmesan cheeses the size of wagon-wheels.

While this was going on the 4th Armoured Brigade was forging northward. Elements of the 11th Hussars reached the Sidi Barrani-Buq Buq road at 09:00, and within a few moments had captured eight trucks and fifty POWs. They were joined by the rest of the Brigade shortly thereafter, which had taken another 400 POWs at Azziziya when the garrison surrendered without firing a shot. With Sidi Barrani thus cut off from reinforcement the 11th Hussars began probing to the west while the 7th Hussars crossed the road and patrolled north toward the coast. Back to the south-east the 5th Indian Brigade had attacked the next camp in the chain, Tummar West, with the arrival of the 7th RTR at around 11:00, although the latter had lost six Matilda IIs immobilised by mines leaving Nibeiwa. Preparations were complicated by a sandstorm and the arrival of the Regia Aeronautica, which scattered bombs randomly into the dust cloud. However the Matildas and infantry from the 1st Battalion, The Royal Fusiliers attack finally went in through another gap in the defences at 13:30.

The Tummar West garrison put up stiffer resistance and the Fusiliers were obliged to fight through with grenades, bayonets and rifle-butts; one group of dug-outs in the centre of the camp held out until Matildas were brought in to crush the shelters under their tracks. By 16:00 the surviving defenders had been pinned down in the south-east corner of the camp, and they surrendered after negotiations by an Italian general and thirteen senior officers, putting another 2,000 POWs into the British bag. The garrison of the Tummar East camp had been reduced substantially when two M11/39 tanks, six trucks and a large number of infantry sallied forth to assist their neighbours and unwittingly traversed the frontage of the 4th/6th Rajputana Rifles and a machine-gun detachment from the 1st Northumberland Fusiliers. The tanks were knocked out with Boys anti-tank rifles and the infantry driven back into their camp, leaving 400 dead and wounded behind them. The 7th RTR’s sixteen running Matilda IIs redeployed and penetrated Tummar East in the early evening but the attack was called off due to the onset of darkness and a thickening of the ongoing sandstorm.

Word of events at the Tummar camps was carried by survivors to the main Italian force engaged with Selby Force east of Sidi Barrani. The senior Italian officer there, Generale di Corpo Sebastiano Gallina, had informed Graziani that afternoon that the entire area of his command was ‘infested’ with British mechanised forces against which he had no effective counter. The commander of the infestation came forward to 4th Indian Division’s HQ near Nibeiwa at 17:00 and expressed his pleasure with progress. Although nothing had been heard of Selby Force, the fact that 4th Armoured Brigade had been left largely unmolested astride the Sidi Barrani-Buq Buq road suggested that the Italian garrison at Sidi Barrani and Maktila were being kept occupied, while the camps at Rabia and Sofafi had also remained passive. O’Connor therefore instructed the 7th Armoured Division to despatch the 8th Hussars to a blocking position west of Sofafi, and ordered the 4th Indian Division to reduce the remaining camps at Tummar East and Point 90 the next day, and to send its reserve formation, the attached 16th Infantry Brigade commanded by Brigadier C.E.N. Lomax, north to join the 4th Armoured Brigade in preparation for an attack on Sidi Barrani; Lomax moved off on receipt of the order and covered part of the distance during the night.

Operations on 10 December were again hampered by sand storms but began well with the surrender of the Tummar East camp at dawn without a fight. The 16th Infantry Brigade was on the move by 06:00, prompted in part by Italian artillery fire on its exposed night position. After a stiff fight involving the 1st Battalion, The Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders at Alam el Dab, eight miles or so east of Azziziya, the Brigade was in position across the routes running west and south from Sidi Barrani by 13:30. Eager to press his advantage, Beresford-Peirse engaged in some hasty reorganisation. The 4th Armoured Brigade was ordered to cover the 16th Infantry Brigade’s left flank with the Cruiser-equipped 2nd RTR and to send the 6th RTR to reinforce Selby Force, and the 7th RTR’s remaining serviceable Matilda IIs were assigned to assist Lomax as well. That done, the 16th Infantry Brigade was ordered to launch an attack on Sidi Barrani, which began with a divisional artillery concentration at 16:00 hours. Within thirty minutes the attackers had passed right through the town in spite of a severe sandstorm, and at 17:15 the 6th RTR overran the Italian defences east of the town. The action cost the 16th Infantry Brigade 277 casualties but left the remnants of the 1° and 2° Libica and 4° MVSN Divisions trapped against the sea in a pocket ten miles long and five miles deep, bloodied but as yet unbowed; a subsequent attack at around midnight by the 6th RTR was rebuffed, largely due to the efforts of Italian artillerymen, and reduced the unit’s strength to twelve tanks.

Thus by the end of the second day of Operation COMPASS the Italian camps north of the Enba Gap and Sidi Barrani itself were in British hands. The exception was the camp at Point 90, where elements of the 2nd Libica Division continued to hold out. The impact of all this on the Italians only became apparent on the third day, 11 December. The Italian troops bottled up east of Sidi Barrani began to give up as soon as the British renewed the attack at dawn, the 1st Libica Division formally surrendering by 13:00, and the 4th MVSN Division by nightfall. To the south, patrols from the Support Group found that the Cirene Division had abandoned the camps at Rabia and around Sofafi during the night. The last to give in were the 2nd Libica holdouts at Point 90. When the Italian commander responded to demands for surrender by saying that he intended to fight to the death, a deliberate attack was organised by the 3rd/1st Punjab Regiment, supported by seven Matilda IIs from the 7th RTR, two of which turned up at the last moment after hasty repair, and two RA Field Regiments. They found 2,000 Libyan troops waiting patiently to surrender complete with packed luggage, the fight to the death threat being merely a face saving ploy by their commander. By nightfall on Wednesday, 11 December 1940 the British had captured between 20,000 and 38,300 prisoners, seventy-three tanks, 237 guns and over 1,000 transport vehicles. The fighting cost the British and Indians 624 killed, wounded and missing, with 153 of these coming from the 1st Battalion, The Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders. Operation COMPASS had therefore far exceeded expectations for a limited raid within three days. In the process the military situation on Egypt’s western border was totally recast, prompting a shift in British thinking.

Tunisia: American First Blooding

After the Allied Task Forces’ amphibious landings, an overland assault from Algeria was necessary to seize the Tunisian ports of Bizerte and Tunis, since the Axis air presence in Tunisia and Sicily had negated a simultaneous seaborne landing to achieve those objectives. Five German fighter groups and dive-bombers had transferred to Tunisian airfields since November 8, 1942. Although Tunisia was relatively small, extending only 160 miles east to west and 500 miles north to south, it was still more than 400 miles from Algiers, from which Lt. Gen. Kenneth Anderson’s Eastern Task Force troops would have to begin their overland advance.

The overland advance was scheduled to begin on the night of November 24, and Anderson’s force was made up of the British 78th Infantry Division, under the command of Maj. Gen. Vyvyan Evelegh, and an armored division, along with several smaller supporting American armor and reconnaissance contingents. This force would attack on three axes. The first objective was Tunis, followed by the encirclement of Bizerte to compel its surrender. The British troops were divided into three infantry brigade groups (IBGs). In the north, toward Bizerte, the 36th IBG would advance along a road 10 miles inland from the sea. In the south the 11th IBG would be 40 miles inland and advance in a northeasterly direction toward Tunis. A third IBG, Blade Force, would move in between the other two units, 20 miles inland, and meet with the 11th IBG near Tebourba, due west of Djedeida, for the continued eastward advance toward Tunis.

The first clash with Axis forces occurred on November 16 at Djebel Abiod, with the enemy retreating toward Bizerte after losing eight tanks. Despite this, the Allied attack commenced as scheduled. The 11th IBG was stopped at Medjez el Bab along the southern axis; however, the Germans retreated within twenty-four hours and the town of Tebourba was taken on November 27, with Axis forces withdrawing to Djedeida. Blade Force’s 100 American and British tanks moved east at sunrise on November 25. The initial American-German armor engagement occurred on November 26 at Chougui, north of Tebourba, with the enemy again retreating after several tanks were knocked out on both sides. After a delay the 36th IBG started its advance on November 25–26 and ran into fixed enemy defensive positions on November 28, 30 miles to the west of Bizerte, at Djefna.

Axis defenses were stiffening, which subsequently stalled the advances of the 11th and 36th IBGs. Panzer Mk VI (“Tiger”) tanks made their combat debut at Djedeida, 13 miles to the west of Tunis, proving their superiority over extant Allied armor. German air squadrons enjoyed local superiority due to hard-surface airfields east of the Atlas Mountains and more favorable weather, enabling them to attack Allied armor and infantry columns, thereby impairing their mobility, which was a factor that Eisenhower and his local commanders had counted on. Axis counteroffensives in early December from Djedeida pushed back to just east of Medjez el Bab along the southern axis while inflicting losses of roughly 500 tanks and vehicles as well as 70 artillery pieces. More than 1,000 Allied troops became prisoners of war.

Nonetheless, General Anderson planned to continue his attack on Tunis to commence on December 22, 1942. After reinforcements arrived, almost 40,000 Allied troops, now including French forces, would strike at fewer than 25,000 Axis combat troops under the command of German general Walter Nehring’s XC Corps. Elements of the U.S. 1st Infantry Division and British Coldstream Guards advanced up the lower ridges of Longstop Hill, which was the dominant terrain feature controlling the river corridor to Tunis, on December 22 during heavy rain. However, on December 24, a German counterattack halted the Allied advance up the slopes, and within forty-eight hours a withdrawal was ordered, with more than 500 casualties. The Allies’ highly anticipated “race for Tunis” ended in failure.

Now the Allies would have to wait for better weather since the vital need for improved air support to aid the newly formed British First Army in the north, comprising five divisions (with the British 6th Armored and 78th Infantry Divisions as the current nucleus), to fight the Axis armies had become readily apparent. Also, Maj. Gen. Lloyd R. Fredendall would command the U.S. II Corps in central Tunisia, which was to include regiments from the 1st and 2nd Armored Divisions as well as infantry from the 1st, 3rd, 9th, and 34th Divisions that moved up from their Moroccan and Algerian landing zones. Eventually the French XIX Corps, after being equipped by the Americans and under the command of Gen. Louise-Marie Koeltz, would be stationed between the British First Army and Fredendall’s U.S. II Corps.

Also in December 1942, Field Marshal Albert Kesselring, commander in chief (C-in-C), South (in control of Tunisia and Rommel’s Axis forces retreating through Tripolitania), activated the German 5th Panzer Army, under Gen. Hans-Jürgen von Arnim. This 5th Panzer Army would comprise the 10th Panzer Division near Tunis; an armored division under Col. Friedrich Freiherr von Broich (Division von Broich) near Bizerte; the 21st Panzer Division, under Lt. Gen. Hans-Georg Hildebrandt; the 334th Infantry Division; and the 5th Fallschirmjäger Regiment. The Italian XXX Corps would comprise the 1st Superga Division, the 47th Grenadier Regiment, and the 50th Special Brigade to the south. Eventually Rommel’s Panzer-Armee Afrika would join von Arnim with the intent to move westward as a combined force to push the Allies back into Algeria and, perhaps, Morocco. For this operation the Axis would have to have control of the mountain passes in the Eastern and Western Dorsal Mountains of central Tunisia.

On January 30, 1943, a battle group of the German 21st Panzer Division and the Italian 50th Special Brigade, the latter with Semovente assault guns, attacked a French regiment in the Faïd Pass in the Eastern Dorsal near Sidi Bou Zid on the Sfax-Sbeitla road and defeated them there. An American counterattack with limited infantry and armor forces from Sbeitla failed to recapture the Faïd Pass and other neighboring ones, now defended by German 88mm antitank (AT) guns. Also, Fredendall’s II Corps’ advance during the last week of January on the Maknassy road junction via Sened—more than 30 miles to the southeast with his Combat Command C of Maj. Gen. Orlando Ward’s 1st Armored Division—had to be recalled and redirected to Sidi Bou Zid instead, just to the southwest of the Faïd Pass, as a crisis was unfolding to the north.

The loss of the Faïd Pass and failed counterattacks there from January 31 to February 1 would set the stage for further German offensive movements. On February 14 columns from both the 21st and 10th Panzer Divisions, under von Arnim, with more than 200 tanks combined broke through a thin American armor defensive line at Sidi Bou Zid from two different directions. The 10th and 21st Panzer Divisions made contact with one another to the west of Sidi Bou Zid at nightfall on February 14 to consolidate their gains. A failed American armored and mechanized infantry counterattack the next day led to the capture of approximately 1,500 GIs. More than 150 American tanks, half-tracks, artillery pieces, and trucks were left on the Sidi Bou Zid battlefields. The U.S. 1st Armored Division’s Combat Command A (CCA) had been crushed.

The Tunisian battlefield, mid-February 1943. After the Allies failed to win the race to Tunis in late November and December 1942, General Eisenhower called a halt to offensive operations and consolidated his forces while awaiting better weather. The British 1st Army was deployed in northern Tunisia with both armored and infantry divisions. In central and southern Tunisia, the French 19th Corps, under General Louis-Marie Koeltz, was positioned to the south of the British and to the north of the U.S. II Corps, under Maj. Gen. Lloyd Fredendall. The American II Corps comprised the 1st Armored Division, with its dispersed armored combat commands, and the 1st Infantry Division, which, likewise, had its 16th, 18th, and 26th Regiments scattered along a 200-mile front from north to south. Elements of the U.S. 34th Infantry Division were also assigned to the II Corps sector; however, their deployment was also scattered. The 5th Panzer Army, under Gen. Hans-Jürgen von Arnim, had its headquarters in Tunis; however, its infantry and armored divisions were situated along a defensive line running down the eastern side of the Eastern Dorsal Mountains from the Mediterranean coast in the north to the impassable Chott Djerid salt marshes to the south of El Guettar. Major elements of 5th Panzer Army’s two panzer divisions, the 10th and the 21st, would force through the Eastern Dorsal Mountains during the second and third weeks of February, thereby preempting a U.S. II Corps offensive, which theoretically could have split the Axis forces if it reached the sea at Sfax. In addition, von Arnim’s and Field Marshal Rommel’s separate armored offensives inflicted major defeats on the Americans at Sidi Bou Zid and at Kasserine on February 14–15 and February 20–22, respectively. Upon entering Tunisia, Rommel’s Panzer-Armee Afrika was situated in the south along the Mareth Line and was renamed the Italian 1st Army as major armored elements of the Deutsches Afrikakorps (DAK) were transferred to the German 5th Panzer Army in central Tunisia. The Italian 20th and 21st Corps, with some armor in the former, would remain in the south with elements of the DAK to combat Gen. Bernard Montgomery’s advancing 8th Army from the south.

On Kesselring’s direct order, von Arnim’s 21st Panzer Division continued 25 miles farther to the west, in the absence of another American counterattack, on February 16. Around Sbeitla were the remnants of the U.S. 1st Armored Division’s CCA and Col. Paul Robinett’s CCB. The Germans captured Sbeitla on February 17 after some lackluster fighting by the demoralized CCA, necessitating the withdrawal of CCB. The U.S. II Corps, after suffering extensive losses to the German armored thrust, had to establish a new defensive line through the Kasserine Pass, just to the southwest of Sbeitla, on the road toward Thala.

Enter Rommel! Since Gen. Bernard Montgomery’s Eighth Army had outrun its supplies and needed time to reassemble its lines of communication, so Rommel strengthened the Mareth Line in southern Tunisia with his infantry (now to become the Italian First Army under General Maresciallo Giovanni Messe) and utilized the mobile elements from his retreating German-Italian panzer army to seize Gafsa and Feriana on February 17, followed by the capture of the Allied airfield at Thelepte along with many aviation stores. Meanwhile, on February 17, von Arnim sent the 10th Panzer Division north toward the Fondouk and Pinchon Passes, while leaving the 21st Panzer Division at Sbeitla. On February 18–19, Kesselring approved of Rommel’s plan over von Arnim’s to now attach both the 10th and 21st Panzer Divisions to Rommel in order to attack the U.S. II Corps defenses in the Kasserine Pass area on February 19. After getting through the Kasserine Pass through the Western Dorsal, Rommel could threaten Tebessa, the American supply base in Algeria on a road and railway network, and/or strike northwestward toward Thala and Le Kef, which would place him in the rear of the British First Army in northern Tunisia.

Rommel attacked the Kasserine Pass with his former Deutsches Afrikakorps (DAK) mechanized forces, while the 10th Panzer Division was still en route, during the early hours of February 20. The 21st Panzer Division attacked Sbiba directly due north of Sbeitla; however, this German force was repelled by Allied forces there. Initially opposing Rommel were only an American engineer regiment and a battalion of the U.S. 26th Infantry Regiment of the 1st Infantry Division. Other elements of the U.S. 39th Infantry Regiment of the 9th Infantry Division also arrived. Anderson reinforced the road to Thala by ordering in contingents of the British 26th Armoured Brigade. Late in the afternoon elements of the 10th Panzer Division (without its Mk VI Tiger tank battalion) arrived, and along with Rommel’s German-Italian troops, they attacked to get through the Kasserine Pass with the intent of moving on either Thala to the northwest or Tebessa to the west. This German advance caused some Allied units to begin to retreat or become surrounded. Also, the armor of the British 26th Brigade, which had initially held off the German armor on the road to Thala, was finally overwhelmed with enemy reinforcements. Rommel’s Italian tanks were moving on the road toward Tebessa. Fredendall sent in Robinett’s CCB and other units of the 1st Infantry Division to block the further movement of Axis armor in light of the disintegration of Allied defensive positions.

Rommel consolidated his gains in the Kasserine Pass on February 21 as he vacillated in moving on Tebessa, Thala, or Le Kef (via Sbiba). As a result, he divided his battle groups along the three different road axes of advance, and each was to encounter increasing Allied strength. The Axis attempt to break into Thala was rebuffed by British armor; American artillery, including 105mm and 155mm howitzers of the 9th Infantry Division; and Allied fighter sorties, on the morning of February 22. American tank and artillery fire from Robinett’s CCB halted the Axis movement on Tebessa on February 21. The 21st Panzer Division’s movement along the road axis toward Sbiba was, likewise, stopped by British armor and American infantry defensive positions. By the afternoon of February 22, Rommel had realized that although his initial forays into the Kasserine Pass had been successful, a combination of stiffening Allied resistance along the axes of his advance, his waning fuel reserves, and the threat of Montgomery attacking the Mareth Line well to the southeast all necessitated him to issue a withdrawal order late on February 22 for all units. By the next day most of the German and Italian units had left Kasserine Pass.

After Sidi Bou Zid and Kasserine, Eisenhower altered his command structure by appointing the British general Sir Harold R.L.G. Alexander the new leader of the 18th Army Group. For the final drive to capture Tunisia, Alexander would have twenty divisions in three main groups along a front of 140 miles. The formation of a Mediterranean Air Command under British air chief marshal Sir Arthur Tedder in late February would hopefully obviate some of the inadequacies of the Allied air presence up till then. It would comprise the 242nd Royal Air Force (RAF) Group, the XII Air Support Command, and the Tactical Bomber Force. Maj. Gen. George S. Patton Jr. was to take over the command of II Corps from Fredendall, with Maj. Gen. Omar N. Bradley as his deputy.

On February 26 von Arnim launched an offensive against the British in northern Tunisia to expand his perimeter of defense for Tunis. Von Arnim’s 5th Panzer Army would operate north of the area of Gabès, while Rommel would stand his forces facing southward toward Montgomery and his advancing British Eighth Army. On March 6 Rommel attacked Montgomery at Medenine; however, Eighth Army artillery and AT gunfire, along with RAF attacks on Axis columns, halted the German field marshal’s last Tunisian offensive.

In mid-March the Eighth Army prepared to assault the Mareth Line with several of its divisions. The Mareth Line consisted of a series of outdated blockhouses and entrenchments built by the French in the late 1930s to protect southern Tunisia from Mussolini’s Tripolitania outposts. It ran roughly from east to west halfway between Medenine to the south and Gabès to the north. The Mareth Line was to defend the plain between the Matmata Hills and the sea. To the west of the Matmata Hills were salt marshes and broken desert. Rommel harbored grave doubts about the suitability of the Mareth Line to stop Montgomery and left Africa permanently on March 9. After direct attacks on the enemy fortifications on March 20 failed, separate British operations at such locales as Wilder’s and the Tebaga Gap from March 23–26 successfully turned the Mareth positions from the flank and rear, respectively. This compelled the Axis, under General Messe, to begin its retreat on March 27, first to the north of Gabès at Wadi Akarit and then farther north to Enfidaville, less than 50 miles from Tunis.

Patton’s II Corps had three full infantry divisions, an armored division, and the 1st Ranger Battalion, plus engineers as well as field and coast artillery units, all totaling almost 90,000 men. In mid-March its first objective was Gafsa, directly due south of Kasserine, to draw enemy forces away from Montgomery in the south. The 1st Armored Division took Gafsa without a fight on March 17. Despite extremely muddy terrain, Sened, about 30 miles directly east of Gafsa, was captured with light opposition. The 1st Armored Division advanced an additional 20 miles to the northeast and took Maknassy uncontested. Finally, encountering stiff Axis resistance just to the east of Maknassy, the armored unit stopped its advance on March 22, just as a German counterstroke was to be unleashed on II Corps infantry at El Guettar, between Gafsa and Sened.

From March 21–24 the 1st Infantry Division repelled two major assaults by the 10th Panzer Division utilizing massed artillery, tank destroyers, mines, air sorties, and hand-to-hand combat. The American infantry suffered heavy casualties, but the Germans were compelled to withdraw. The Allied command had received their wish, namely, a diversion of Axis armor away from the Eighth Army in the south.

Following his victory at El Guettar, Patton unleashed a two-infantry-division (1st and 9th) attack to the sea between Gabès and Sfax, which would divide the Axis forces in two; however, the 9th Division, in its combat debut as a complete division, encountered stiff enemy resistance and incurred more than 1,600 casualties over nine days of combat. As little progress to the sea was made in late March and early April by II Corps, Eisenhower and Patton replaced Orlando Ward with Maj. Gen. Ernest Harmon to lead the 1st Armored Division on April 5. In any event, the Axis troops hastened in their northward retreat into the Tunis and Bizerte bridgeheads. II Corps divisions began shifting north to close in further on the two Tunisian ports.

On April 15 Bradley took command of II Corps as Patton returned to the rear echelon to plan the Sicily invasion. II Corps was to assist the British First Army in pushing back the enemy perimeter, and after the two enemy ports were isolated, Bradley was to capture Bizerte. Both the 9th Infantry Division along the coast and the 1st Infantry Division to its south had rough combat with the enemy in the hilly terrain, with daily success measured only in yards. On April 26 the 34th Infantry Division entered the II Corps thrust between the 1st and 9th Divisions. With objectives such as Hill 609 and Hill 523, the American infantry divisions continued to meet fanatical enemy resistance, with the 1st and 34th Divisions incurring more than 2,300 casualties in three days of nearly continuous combat. On April 30 II Corps began another general attack and overran Hills 609 and 523, with the Germans retreating into Mateur on the night of May 1. After two more days of tough combat, the 1st Armored Division drove the Germans out of Mateur. Bradley and his troops were only 20 miles from Bizerte.

The American attack on Bizerte with Maj. Gen. Manton S. Eddy’s 9th Infantry Division and Harmon’s 1st Armored Division commenced on May 6. On the next day, after some heavy street fighting in Bizerte to root out snipers with infantrymen and M3 Lee medium tanks, the retreating enemy fled through the city. Concurrent with this the British First Army’s V Corps drive on Tunis began on May 3, after linking up with Eighth Army. Alexander shifted Montgomery’s 7th Armored Division, the 4th Indian Division, and the 201st Guards Brigade from the Eighth Army to the First Army for this final assault on the Axis redoubt. Montgomery’s remaining troops would participate only in local operations so as to conserve manpower for the upcoming Sicily invasion. Tunis fell on May 7. The Axis units encountered in and around Bizerte and Tunis were in a state of complete disarray, with wholesale surrender commonplace. Eventually 275,000 Axis prisoners surrendered with the capture of Bizerte and Tunis. With the advent of the second week of May, the hard-fought, six-month-long Tunisian campaign was over, with the formal Axis surrender on May 13, 1943.

Operation Chariot – The Plan I

Late 1941 and early 1942 saw Britain’s darkest hours, pushed back in the Western Desert and with its eastern empire crumbling to Japanese aggression, the country stood alone with only the Atlantic convoys keeping the country afloat. These convoys were threatened by one of Germany’s greatest weapons, the Tirpitz, a battleship that far outclassed anything in the British armoury. The sheer size of the ship limited it to only a few ports where it could be repaired if it were to be damaged, a dry dock of immense proportions would be required, the only one that could be accessed from its main hunting ground, the Atlantic Ocean, was at Saint Nazaire, in western France. Originally constructed for the ocean liner ‘Normandie’, the dry dock was itself an impressive structure and an impossible target to destroy from the air. A force would have to be landed and destroy it with explosives, this was the task handed to the chief of Combined Operations, Lord Louis Mountbatten.

A force of Commandos was to be taken six miles up the Loire estuary to Saint Nazaire aboard an antiquated destroyer packed with explosives and modified to resemble a German destroyer. The vessel would ‘bluff’ its way past the many German defensive positions using captured recognition codes, the destroyer would then ram the dry dock gates, set a fuse and disembark the Commandos who would set about various sabotage tasks. This force was to be escorted by eighteen small motor launches, who would then embark the Commandos and withdraw. It was an impossible task, perhaps the only chance of success was the Germans would never imagine the British to carry out such an audacious raid.

The Plan

As they sailed steadily towards the open sea the force changed formation into Cruising Order No. 1, which was their simulation of an anti-submarine sweep. On Atherstone’s signal, the longitudinal columns to port and starboard of the destroyers opened out from the rear until they were disposed in the form of a broad, open arrowhead, four cables behind the tip of which steamed Atherstone. In the open spaces to the rear of each ‘wing’ steamed Campbeltown, still with the MTB in tow, and Tynedale.

Remembering that fine first day, Newman, who with his staff was being made very comfortable on board the Atherstone, writes that ‘the thrill of the voyage was upon me – the study of the navigational course with the Navy – the continuous lookout for enemy aircraft – the preparation of one’s own personal kit to land in – and the deciphering and reading of W/T messages from the Commander-in-Chief made night fall on us in no time.’

Across in Campbeltown, Copland and the eighty-odd men of his Group Three parties were being made just as welcome by the truncated crew of the old destroyer. ‘There was little to do’ he remembers; ‘all our preparations had been made on PJC and it only remained to arrange our tours of duty for AA Defence, rehearse “Action Stations” and wait. Troops and sailors were very quickly “buddies”, and as no khaki was allowed to be seen on deck the limited number who were allowed up . . . appeared in motley naval garb, anything from oilskins to duffle coats, not forgetting Lieutenant Burtinshaw who discovered one of Beattie’s old naval caps and wore it during the whole voyage. During this first day too, we allocated all our landing ladders and ropes in places on deck where we thought they would be most wanted. Gough [Lieutenant Gough, RN, Beattie’s No. 1] was to be in charge of all tying-up and ladder control and his help in the allocation was invaluable.’

In the MLs also the pattern of ready camaraderie between ‘pongos’ and ‘matelots’ was quickly established, the representatives of the two services managing to live cheek-by-jowl in the crowded living spaces without dispute. Feeding more than twice the normal complement of men from the limited resources of the tiny midships galley was something of a problem for the designated cook, although in the early stages of the voyage seasickness, or the fear of it, robbed more than a few Commandos of their appetites. Tough as they might have been on dry land, some Commandos had nonetheless blanched at the mere thought of doing battle with the fearsome Bay of Biscay; typical of these was Bombardier ‘Jumbo’ Reeves, of Brett’s demolition party for the inner dry-dock caisson. A member of 12 Commando who had volunteered from the Royal Artillery, Jumbo was a qualified pilot whose aerial ambitions had been dashed as the result of an extreme susceptibility to airsickness. As one of those unfortunates whose stomach tended to come up with the anchor cable, he had had pronounced misgivings about setting off from Falmouth. For Jumbo, as for many others, the unexpected quiescence of the sea came, therefore, as a gift from God.

In the crowded messdecks as the sailors came and went with the changing of the watches, the Commandos talked and smoked, dozed on the matelots’ bunks, played cards and checked and re-checked their equipment. Proud of their hard-won skills, they were happy to demonstrate their prowess to their hosts, such as the nineteen-year-old Ordinary Seaman Sam Hinks, the forward Oerlikon gunner on ML 443, who had gone so far as to change his name so that his parents couldn’t stop him from joining up. As with so many of the other young sailors, who, unlike their thoroughly briefed Commando brothers, were only now being made aware of their target’s identity, Sam was still coming to terms with the fact that they were really on their way to attack a distant foreign port. In keeping with the times when foreign travel was still the exclusive preserve of the monied classes, Sam knew little of France and nothing at all of this place called St Nazaire: in fact, when first hearing the name during a conversation with a Commando by the forward gun, he recalls that, ‘St Nazaire meant as much to me as if you were going to Timbuktu!’

Having opened their sealed orders once clear of land, the reaction of the officers to the revelation of their target’s identity had generally been that this was a port into which no one with any common sense would wish to sail without benefit of armour plate and heavy guns.

Across on the starboard wing of the formation, ‘Temporary Acting’ Sub-Lieutenant Frank Arkle, the twenty-year-old First Officer of ML 177, who before the war had been a clerk in the offices of W.D. and H.O. Wills, greeted the news with ‘some uncertainty and a sort of cold resignation’. Behind him in England were his family, his friends, and his childhood sweetheart, Meg; ahead lay a task of prodigious difficulty from which none could confidently expect to return. It was a prospect about which he and many others found it was best not to think too deeply. Better by far to focus on not letting the side down and leave all the rest to fate.

On board the gunboat, which was swinging like a pendulum at the end of Atherstone’s tow, Curtis had briefed his crew shortly after the force adopted its cruising formation, prompting Chris Worsley to conclude that they were all embarked upon a very ambitious and dangerous enterprise. Strangely, though, considering all the circumstances, he neither thought of, nor worried about, survival, as it simply never struck him that he might be killed.

Closer to the centre point of the formation, Lieutenant Tom Boyd, RNVR, the skipper of the torpedo-armed ML 160, was concerned about how well the force would perform in action, bearing in mind its poor overall standard of training. There simply hadn’t been time to school the crews properly in working as a cohesive unit; as evidence of their lack of preparedness he could cite the same poor standards of station-keeping that were worring Ryder himself. Indeed, during the course of this first day Ryder would make no less than fifty signals to boats, instructing them to close up.

Standing on the bridge of Billie Stephens’ ML 192 Leading Telegraphist Jim Laurie, from Coldstream in Scotland, learned of his fate from the skipper himself. A regular, who had joined the Navy in 1936 at the age of only sixteen, Jim had led something of a charmed life, having survived the sinking of the destroyer Delight, as well as the loss to a mine of ML 144, while he was fortunate enough to be on leave. Looking back at the fast-disappearing coastline, Stephens said to him, ‘Do you think if you jumped overboard you could swim back to Falmouth?’ Replying in the negative, Jim was then told, ‘Right. You can go in the wheelhouse and study the maps and you’ll see just where we’re going.’ For Jim, as for all the sailors, there was never a question of choice. The highly trained Commandos had been offered a get out, while the much less experienced sailors had not; yet, once they were under the German guns, the risk for all would be the same.

Standing as an example of so many of the sailors, who, on hearing for the first time what was expected of them, rapidly concluded that someone, somewhere must have a screw loose, was Stoker Len Ball of Ted Burt’s ML 262. A twenty-five-year-old process chemical worker from Barking in Essex, Len could not believe that they really intended to sail right through the front door of such a heavily defended base in boats that were little better than tinder boxes. After the briefing he returned to the engine room and thought about it all; the more he thought about it, the more impossible it seemed. He was no more privy than were his pals to all the details of the German guns that lay in wait to greet them, but he knew that, provided the Jerry gunners did their jobs right, there were more than enough of them to cause very substantial damage indeed.

Waiting for Len and the other ‘Charioteers’, along either bank of the estuary as well as in and around the port itself, were some seventy pieces of ordnance, varying in calibre from 20mm quick-firing cannon all the way up to the huge 240mm railway guns of Battery Batz, a little way west of La Baule.

Under the overall command of the See Kommandant Loire, Kapitän zur See Zuckschwerdt, who was headquartered in La Baule itself, these consisted of two main classes of weapon, each designed to fulfil a specific purpose. Emplaced so as to defend the approaches to the estuary were the heavy batteries of Korvettenkapitän Edo Dieckmann’s 280th Naval Artillery Battalion, with Dieckmann himself headquartered close by the gun battery and Naval Radar Station on Chémoulin Point. While for the dual-purpose defence of the port itself there were waiting the three battalions of the 22nd Naval Flak Brigade, commanded by Kapitän zur See Mecke, whose own headquarters were situated close to Dieckmann’s at St Marc.

Ranging in calibre through 75, 150, 170 and 240mm, Dieckmann’s coastal guns were arranged in battery positions, primarily along the northern shore of the estuary, close to which lay the deep-water channel which any ship of substance must use in order to reach the port. These fixed emplacements began at the estuary mouth, and ran eastwards as far as the Villès-Martin – Le Pointeau narrows, at which point the sea-space was reduced to a mere 2.25 sea miles, and beyond which lay the province of Mecke’s Flak Brigade.

Approaching the estuary mouth in their attack formation of two long parallel columns extending over almost 2, 000 metres of sea, with the gunboat in the van, and Campbeltown steaming between the leading troop-carrying MLs, the ‘Chariot’ force would find itself entering into a perfect trap from which it would be the very devil to escape. On their starboard beam and guarding the southern extremity of the estuary shore would be the 75mm guns of Battery St Gildas; while to port, and guarding the north, there would be railway guns just inland from the Pointe de Penchâteau. Fine on their starboard bow, as they approached across the shallows, would be the guns of Battery le Pointeau, backed by the 150cm searchlight ‘Yellow 3’; fine to port would be the cluster of batteries comprising the 150mm guns of Battery Chémoulin and the 75mm and 170mm cannon of the cliff-top position close by the Pointe de l’Eve. Backing the cliff-top emplacements was the 150cm searchlight ‘Blue 2’.

It was to divert the attention of these defences that the diversionary air raid had been proposed, for without it the ‘Charioteers’ would be forced to rely on luck, their low silhouettes, their unexpected line of approach and such devices as Ryder believed might confuse the enemy into mistaking them for a friendly force. Either way, with or without the bombers, this passage of the outer portion of the estuary would be fraught with danger, including that from mines, patrol vessels and possibly even Schmidt’s destroyers; every sea-mile gained towards the target without the alarm being raised would be a triumph.

Assuming they made it to the narrows, they would then be passing into the restricted throat of the estuary, less than two sea-miles from their target, but with the full weight of Mecke’s three flak battalions ranged close by them on either hand. These lighter, dual-purpose weapons of the 703rd, 705th and 809th Battalions, primarily 20 and 40mm, but with a sprinkling of 37s, would be able to switch quickly from air to surface targets, and COHQ’s original concept of an approach by stealth had been constructed around the premise that their crews must be far too busy firing skywards to worry about the seaward approaches to the town.

Running past Korvettenkapitän Thiessen’s 703rd Battalion, backed by the large searchlight ‘Blue 1’, they would come within easy range of the defences both of the outer harbour and of the Pointe de Mindin on their starboard beam, where were mounted the searchlights and 20mm cannon of Korvettenkapitän Burhenne’s 809th Battalion. At this point, with the range so short, the ‘Charioteers’ would at least be able to reply in kind; however, they would also be at their most vulnerable, which is why the air plan had been designed to reach its crescendo during this period. Should the diversion succeed, then the force just might reach the dockyard intact, at which point, while Campbeltown raced for her caisson, the columns of MLs would break to port and make for their own two landing points.

As leader of the formation, the gunboat, carrying Ryder, Newman, Day, Terry, Holman and a handful of the HQ party, would circle to starboard and support Campbeltown as she made her final dash. Only after she was in place would Curtis put Newman’s party ashore in the Old Entrance. To observe and record the gunboat’s subsequent peregrinations, Holman would remain on board with Ryder.

In company with Curtis, and positioned at the head of either column, the non-troop-carrying torpedo MLs, 160 and 270, were to make up a small forward striking force on the way in, should enemy patrol craft be encountered. While the landings were taking place, their job would also be to draw fire and protect their fellow ‘B’s from interference.

Following ML 270 would be the troop-carrying MLs of the port column, scheduled to land against the slipway on the northern face of the Old Mole. Drawn from Wood’s 28th Flotilla, these were now under the direct command of Platt in ML 447. As for the starboard column, sailing in behind ML 160, Stephens’ ML 192 and the remaining three troop-carriers of his own 20th Flotilla would lead the second pair of 7th Flotilla boats. Being torpedo-armed, the latter two would have the secondary role of protecting the force from rearward attack. All six boats in this column were to pass under Campbeltown’s stern and put their men ashore in the Old Entrance.

Destined to play a crucial role in the coming action, both as a primary landing point and as the position from which all retiring soldiers were to attempt to withdraw, the Old Mole jutted some 130 metres into the waters of the Loire. Standing twenty feet above the decks of the MLs, even at the full height of the tide, it represented an obstacle which was almost medieval in character – a fortress wall rising sheer from the water, which must somehow be scaled, but from the top of which its defenders would prove almost impossible to dislodge.

Strongly fortified by the Germans, its upper surface was crowned by two substantial concrete emplacements, each more than a match for the puny shells with which the ‘Chariot’ force would be obliged to attack them. At its seaward end, a little to the rear of the lighthouse which marked its furthest extension, was searchlight emplacement LS 21; about one third of the way along was the 20mm gun position number 63, firing through embrasures and all but impervious to attack. Not on the Mole itself, but situated close by its landward end, and positioned so as to control the approaches to its northern face, was the 40mm gun position number 62.

Protected by shallow water where it joined the quayside, the Mole could be effectively attacked only by means of the long slipway running up its northern face. At its tip, and giving access to the lighthouse, were tight, narrow steps up which men might possibly scramble; however, they would then be faced with a frontal attack on position 63. Placing scaling ladders against its sheer stone face at some other point was always a possibility, but, with the defenders able to direct fire downwards on to the decks of the boats, this would surely be a tactic of last resort.

Always assuming they survived for long enough to reach the Mole, a total of six MLs were briefed to put their Commando parties ashore at the slipway, following each other in quick succession and then hauling off to act in accordance with the orders of the Naval Piermaster, Lieutenant Verity, RNVR. Designated Group One, and under the overall command of Captain Bertie Hodgson, these parties, numbering a mere eighty-nine men, had the job of overwhelming all the German defences in and around the Old Town and sealing the area off by blowing up those bridges and lock-gates across the New Entrance by means of which the Germans would surely seek to mount a counter-attack. Should the Commandos succeed in this, then the Old Town area would be protected by water on three sides, and by the Commandos of neighbouring groups on the fourth, making it a secure base from which a successful withdrawal might later be made.

Landing from Platt’s ML 447, the first party ashore was to be Captain David Birney’s Assault Group ‘1F’, a heavily-armed fourteen-man squad whose primary task was to capture and clear the Mole and establish a bridgehead at its landward end. From this commanding position they could then protect the remaining five MLs, initially as they came in to effect their landings, and later as they sought to re-embark troops and return with them to England. A small but important subsidiary task would involve clearing the building containing gun position 62, so that it could be used as an RAP by the two Commando doctors scheduled to land a short time later.

Following close upon the heels of Platt should be the ML of Lieutenant Douglas Briault, carrying Assault Party ‘1E’, a second fourteen-man unit, this time under the command of Bertie Hodgson himself. Also landing would be Captain Mike Barling, the first of the Commando doctors, and two Medical Orderlies, whose job it was to prepare to receive and treat the wounded. Hodgson was to pass through Birney’s bridgehead and move south to capture and secure the long East Jetty of the Avant Port, whose two gun positions, M60 and M61, were able to fire into the flanks of any vessels approaching or leaving the Mole. With the Avant Port secured, his party was then to picket and patrol the built-up area of the Old Town itself.

The way having hopefully been cleared by the assault parties, it would then be the turn of the demolition teams to land. First to come ashore would be Group ‘1C’, landing from Collier’s ML 457 and consisting of Lieutenant Philip Walton’s demolition team and their five-man protection squad under Tiger Watson. Their job was to move quickly west towards target group ‘D’ at the northern end of the New Entrance, where Walton and his party of four would prepare the lifting bridge and lock-gate for demolition, while Watson and his men watched over them like mother hens. In this exposed position the men would be open to attack from several different quarters, despite which demolition could not take place until all the other crossings had been similarly prepared, as all the explosives were to be interconnected and fired simultaneously. In overall charge of the demolitions within this sector was Captain Bill Pritchard who, along with his small Control Party, would land with Walton and Watson.

Next in line, and briefed to demolish the central lock-gate, designated target ‘C’, would be the seven-man team of Captain Bradley, landing from Wallis’s ML 307. This team would operate without a protection squad and was to withdraw to the Mole immediately its work was done. Landing with them would be Captain David Paton, the second of the Commando doctors staffing the RAP; recording every detail for the Exchange Telegraph would be Edward Gilling.

Fifth to land, and carried on board ML 443, should be a cluster of demolition parties charged with destroying the group of buildings comprising target group ‘Z’. Consisting of three small teams under Lieutenants Wilson and Bonvin, and Second-Lieutenant Paul Basset-Wilson, they would blow the Boilerhouse, Impounding Station and Hydraulic Power Station. Landing with them would be their protection party under Lieutenant Joe Houghton. Upon completion of the work all three demolition parties were to withdraw to the protection of Birney’s bridgehead.

Operation Chariot – The Plan II

Last of the troop-carrying boats of the port column, Lieutenant Ian Henderson’s ML 306 would put ashore the third of the demolition teams targeting the New Entrance crossings. Consisting of eight other ranks commanded by Lieutenant Ronnie Swayne, and protected by Lieutenant Vanderwerve’s small squad, this team would aim to destroy the lock-gates and swing-bridge comprising target group ‘B’, and thus complete the isolation of the Old Town area. Generally speaking, all demolition parties were supposed to withdraw in the company of their protection squads; however, in the case of the New Entrance targets, in recognition of the fact that their very substantial construction might prevent their total destruction, it was decided that the protection squads of Watson and Vanderwerve should remain in place until the final stages of the withdrawal, to prevent German infiltration across what might be left of the structures.

As a final precaution, and irrespective of any other tasks they might have, all parties were warned of the absolute necessity of capturing and clearing the Mole. Should Birney fail for any reason to land, the first responsibility of any and all parties following behind was therefore to complete this one essential task.

As with so much of the overall plan, the assault on this all-important structure was a complex pattern of interdependencies, likely to succeed only if the majority of the parties actually landed, and in the order specified. Should this not be the case, then the chances of capturing the position were effectively almost nil. As the final assembly point for all retiring parties, its subjugation was critical to a successful withdrawal. And yet the most powerful weapons at hand to secure its defeat were the dash and élan of the men sent against it, allied to more good luck than any such lightly armed force had a right to expect.

While the boats of the port column were thus occupied, those of Billie Stephens’ column were to make straight for the Old Entrance and put the Group 2 Commandos ashore. There was a slight possibility that their forward progress might at this point be impeded by a boom. However, if it was not, then they would be free to select their own landing points, based on the degree to which enemy vessels already moored within the narrow cleft of water obstructed their access to the quaysides.

On landing, the Group Two parties were briefed to operate both north and south of the Old Entrance, combining with Campbeltown’s parties to dominate the vital triangle of land between the dry dock and the Bassin de St Nazaire, and working their way southwards through the warehouse area towards Bertie Hodgson’s domain. They would, with luck, complete the isolation of the whole zone within which the night’s demolitions were to be carried out and thus provide a secure haven through which a phased and orderly withdrawal of the northern parties might later take place.

First to storm ashore from Stephens’ own ML 192 was to be assault party ‘2D’, headed by the Group Two commander, Captain Micky Burn. Ultimately aiming to operate against targets on the neck of land which separated the Bassin de St Nazaire from the Bassin de Penhoët, Micky was first charged with ensuring that Campbeltown’s landings were not being impeded by the guns atop the pump-house. If these positions, numbers 64 and 65, were in the process of being dealt with by the Group Three parties, all well and good. If not, then Micky was required to subdue them before moving on. Within their own target area, his men were to knock out two wooden flak towers, as well as a possible gun position close by the Pont de la Douane. They would also be required to establish a blocking position at the eastern end of the inner caisson, to protect against attacks mounted from the area north of the oil-storage tanks.

Next in line should be Lieutenant Ted Burt’s ML 262, carrying the nine-man demolition party of Lieutenant Mark Woodcock, and the five-man protection squad of Lieutenant Dick Morgan. Woodcock’s job, in an area likely to come under fire from vessels in the Bassin, was to wire up the Old Entrance lock-gates and swing-bridge ready for demolition. Should the bridge be in place and crossable, then the lock-gates could be blown first, followed later by the bridge, once all the parties to the north had withdrawn across it. Should the bridge be swung back, however, then it was Woodcock’s job to open it to traffic. In the event that the bridge could not be moved, then it was to be demolished in place and the lock-gates retained intact until such time as all the Commandos heading for re-embarkation at the Mole had safely withdrawn across them.

Following close behind ML 262, Lieutenant Eric Beart’s ML 267 was scheduled to put ashore RSM Alan Moss and the remaining members of Newman’s small though invaluable reserve. While remaining at their Colonel’s immediate disposal, they were to engage enemy vessels in the nearby Bassin, as well as such U-boats as were not fully protected by their shelters’ massive concrete walls.

Fourth in line was to be Lieutenant Bill Tillie’s ML 268, carrying the five-man demolition team of Lieutenant Harry Pennington, their similarly sized protection squad under the command of Lieutenant Morgan Jenkins and a small addition to Newman’s reserve. With the party designation ‘2C’, Pennington’s and Jenkins’ Commandos were to move swiftly to Micky Burn’s position, destroy the Pont de la Douane and thus prevent the Germans from counter-attacking across it. Dominating the bridge and inner caisson area would be the cluster of guns atop the old Douaniers’ building. Should these be in action, then Pennington had the additional task of setting fire to the structure with incendiaries. Upon completion of all his tasks, he was then to withdraw, leaving Jenkins’ team to thwart any German moves to cross from the west bank.

Bringing up the tail of the column, the remaining torpedo MLs, Fenton’s 156 and Rodier’s 177, were to carry between them the twenty-eight men of Captain Hooper’s special assault party ‘2E’. Briefed to operate both north and south of the Old Entrance, they were to silence two gun positions right on the foreshore, which might or might not be in use on the night, and deal with any enemy vessels unfortunate enough to be trapped within the dry dock. Upon completion of these tasks, Hooper was to place his team at Newman’s disposal at the earliest possible moment.

As all three landings were designed to take place within the same slim envelope of time, the activities of Micky Burn’s group should neatly dovetail with those of Major Copland’s parties, landing from the Campbeltown on to the caisson itself. Of course this assumed that the old destroyer would make it as far as the dockyard, something no one dared predict with certainty, first because she would attract the fullest weight of fire from the German defences, and second because she might well run aground, especially with the operation having been initiated some days before the fullest height of the tides. Should she be damaged or become stuck, MLs 160, 270, 298 and 446 had been detailed to carry off her personnel and take her troops ashore. In this worst-case scenario, her charges were to be set to blow up some time after the last of the small boats had withdrawn. In her absence the attack on the caisson itself would be carried out with MTB 74’s special torpedoes.

Supposing Campbeltown did make it through, however, there would then be the problem of the caisson itself, which might or might not be closed on the night. If closed, it was to be rammed at speed so that the destroyer’s bows might ride over the top and provide a platform from which her troops could rapidly disembark. If open, then Beattie was to lay his ship alongside the dry-dock wall, port-side to, and scuttle her abreast the caisson sill, so as to gain the maximum effect from her eventual explosion. Should the dock be clear and the inner caisson closed, then Wynn was to pass by the destroyer and lay his special torpedoes against it.

In the event that the gods were riding with Campbeltown and that Beattie was able to ram the caisson as planned, then the disembarkation of her Group Three Commandos must be carried out in a blur of activity, before the stunned defenders could effectively respond.

During the run-in most of her demolition parties would be tucked away below deck, while the remainder, along with the protection parties and Roderick’s and Roy’s assault troops, would be sheltering behind the screens abaft the superstructure. While it was the job of the demolition and protection parties to hold themselves in readiness for their attacks on shore, the assault parties were under orders to supplement the naval fire-plan by firing on German positions as they came in to ram. For this purpose a 3” mortar had been installed on either side of the deck just forward of the bridge, the fire from which tubes, when added to that of Oerlikon, Bren and Tommy gun, would hopefully allow the destroyer to lay down an effective counter-barrage.

On ramming, it was the assault troops who were to disembark first, with the object of overrunning the defences in the immediate area of the caisson. Quickly clambering over the starboard bow, the fourteen-man team of Lieutenant Johnny Roderick was tasked with knocking out a cluster of gun positions, numbers 66, M70, M10 and 67, the first of which was in a sandbagged emplacement close by. Having cleared these and secured the right flank of the attack, he was then to establish a block with the object of preventing a counter-attack across the caisson. Should there be the opportunity to do so without weakening the block, his men had been instructed to attack the oil-fuel stores with incendiaries.

While Roderick was thus occupied, his opposite number, Captain Donald Roy, would be landing with his own fourteen-man team from the destroyer’s port bow. Roy’s primary target was the pair of guns emplaced atop the pump-house. High above the quayside, these would have a clear and unobstructed view along the full length of Campbeltown’s deck. Roy had arranged to attack them with scaling ladders and grenades, and, during the detailed planning stages on board the PJC, had called for a volunteer to accompany him as he attempted to storm the roof, a potentially lethal enterprise for which Sergeant Don Randall had offered himself. Having overrun these positions, Roy was then to move on to bridge ‘G’ and there form a bridgehead through which the northern parties could later withdraw.

In the wake of the assault teams, it would then be the turn of the demolition parties to disembark. The first of these, party ‘3A’, had the task of destroying a cluster of targets in the immediate area of the ramming point. Should Campbeltown not be positioned so as to ensure destruction of the caisson, then the team of Lieutenant ‘Burlington Bertie’ Burtinshaw was to attack it with man-packed explosives. To make doubly sure of putting it out of action, Lieutenant Chris Smalley’s team were meanwhile briefed to destroy the nearby winding house. As the dock could not operate without the means of pumping in and extracting a huge volume of water, the pump-house was a target of critical importance, whose destruction was entrusted to the five-man team of Lieutenant Stuart Chant. Entering the structure which housed the facility’s great electric motors, Chant was to descend into the depths where, some forty feet below ground, he would destroy the pumps themselves. Of all the targets to be demolished on the night, these were perhaps the most important as they contained special castings which the Germans could not easily replace. Protecting these teams, Roy’s troops having by this time moved off to form their bridgehead at ‘G’, would be the five men of Lieutenant Hopwood’s party.

In conjunction with these teams, the men of party ‘3B’, protected by Lieutenant Denison’s small squad, were to destroy the inner caisson and winding house. Lieutenant Gerard Brett and his team of six were to lay charges both outside and inside the caisson, entering the hollow structure by means of manholes in its upper surface; while close by Lieutenant Corran Purdon’s team of five were to destroy the winding house. In overall control of the Group Three demolitions was Captain Bob Montgomery, his deputy, Lieutenant Bill Etches, having a special responsibility for these ‘3B’ targets. Last to leave the Campbeltown would be Copland himself, who, with his own small party, was to move swiftly via Newman’s HQ to the Old Mole where, in conjunction with the Naval Piermaster, he would organize the withdrawal. On completion of their tasks on board ship, the destroyer’s crew were to disembark on to the quayside and wait to be taken off by MLs operating in the vicinity of the Old Entrance. Should this option be denied them, they were to make their way to the Mole and be put on board the MLs there

‘Zero hour’, the time at which Campbeltown was due to strike the caisson, was set for 0130 hours on the morning of Saturday the 28th. The absolute maximum time-on-shore allowed for was a mere two hours, with the last ML due to be clear of the Mole and starting its long voyage home by 0330 hours. In the case of an uncompleted major demolition, this deadline might be exceeded; however, Newman had made sure everyone understood the very real correlation between early withdrawal and their chances of making it back alive.

For those who made it safely through the maelstrom, seconds indeed would be the currency of survival, for the initial advantage won by the shock of their assault would quickly erode as resistance stiffened and the German forces manoeuvred to hurl the tiny assault parties back into the sea.

Immediately available to oppose them, in addition to Zuckschwerdt’s own Naval troops, would be a motley collection of units cobbled together from guard companies and ships’ crews, as well as technicians and workers operating in their secondary role as infantry. These would be equipped to hold the line until such time as heavily armed Wehrmacht units could rush to the port and mount a formal assault on the tenuous Commando perimeter.

Because of the ongoing work on the submarine pens and port defences, a contingent of workers from the Todt Organization were in place, who would fight if required. The Naval technicians of Nos. 2 and 4 Works Companies also had an infantry role and would be committed early on to help stem the tide of the Commando advance. The crews of the many ships in harbour would supplement the defence both by manning their vessels’ weapons and by contributing parties to help with counter-attacks on shore. For safety’s sake the highly prized U-boat crews were billeted out of harm’s way in La Baule; however, the support staff of the 6th and 7th U-Flotillas would defend their boats against attack, even to the point of destroying them should it prove necessary. Also under Zuckschwerdt’s control, as the officer commanding all the defences of both port and estuary, were the guard companies and harbour-defence vessels of the Harbour Commander. And lastly, anchored right in the fairway east of the Avant Port, was the stoutly built and well-armed Sperrbrecher 137, a ship of similar tonnage to Campbeltown herself, which the ‘Chariot’ force would have to pass en route to the landing places.

Packing a more professional punch were the soldiers of the 333rd Infantry Division, a brigade of whom were stationed just inland of the port. Much more heavily armed than the Commandos, this unit was capable of mounting and sustaining an attack which it must eventually win, unless the Commandos acted with such speed and resolve that their withdrawal could begin before the German unit was in position.

Regarding the withdrawal itself, this was planned to take place in four stages, the first pulling back all the demolition parties, except Woodcock’s by bridge ‘G’, and subsequent stages gradually shrinking the defended perimeter back to Birney’s bridgehead. Lieutenant Verity was to be in charge of filling the MLs with up to forty men each and sending them on their way, independently and at maximum speed, towards the point at which they might expect to rendezvous with Atherstone and Tynedale. After initial treatment at the RAP, wounded were to be transferred to the two MLs which had embarked the doctors at Falmouth. These, when full, would follow the rest. MLs too damaged to complete the return trip were to be scuttled at sea and those which survived the coastal guns were to form themselves into the semblance of a fleet, returning to Britain by the reverse of their outward route.

In the case of an emergency requiring the immediate evacuation of the force, the men would be recalled visually by the firing together of 35-star red and green rockets, and audibly, both by the sounding of the MLs’ klaxons and by the use of loud-hailers to pass on the code-word ‘Ramrod’. Any or all of these signals would prompt the immediate withdrawal of all ranks to the Mole, always assuming, of course, that someone had managed to take and hold it in the first place!

In essence this was the plan as it was to be carried out on the night, always providing that fate and the German defenders cooperated fully. It was a plan of rather alarming complexity which would certainly be judged audacious were it to succeed, and foolhardy were it to fail to achieve its targets. It pitted flimsy ships and tiny groups of men against the massed defences of one of the Reich’s most valued bases, whose five thousand-plus sailors and naval and army troops could be relied upon to mount a swift and punishing response. It depended to an inordinate degree on surprise and luck and was so susceptible to losses that the failure of even a handful of parties could seriously undermine the efforts and success of the whole. Apart from Moss’s tiny squad, there was no reserve to speak of, and therefore no means by which such failures could be made good.

Having grown from a clinical attack on the ‘Normandie’ dock to encompass a number of targets entirely unrelated to the threat posed by Tirpitz, the force contained rather more demolition troops than was perhaps wise, and rather fewer assault troops than it might reasonably expect to need. Indeed, the plan had evolved to become nothing less than a broad-spectrum raid, whose confused priorities had in the end prompted Newman to write to Haydon for clarification. Amidst the transparent enthusiasm of the underused Commandos to get to grips with the enemy at last, an objective assessment of the risks of such a complex distribution of parties seems to have occupied only second place. The plan in fact displayed a heady optimism more suited to a raid on a rival school than to a potentially lethal assault on such a gun-rich enemy stronghold.

Churchill’s Aegean 1943 Part I

On 3 October 1943, German forces landed at Kos. Three companies of II./Gren.Rgt.16 were delayed by stiff resistance at an ‘ammunition dump’, actually a logistics camp.

That the campaign in the Aegean was a defeat is obvious and, indeed, can hardly be denied. As the last stragglers made their slow way back to safety, Hitler was jubilantly conferring on Lieutenant General Müller the accolade “Conqueror of Leros” and giving his “abundant appreciation” of his success. It must be admitted that this praise had been earned. Edwin Packer, in his summary of the campaign, headed his conclusions “No reward for audacity,” and in applying this to the British, he is certainly correct. For the Germans, however, audacity had paid a handsome dividend.

Other historians, although not all, while admitting that the British suffered a grievous setback, have sought to lessen its significance by comparing the British and German losses on a balance sheet that sometimes comes out equal and other times shows a marked advantage to the British. Though all the facts will never be known precisely, it is worth examining a few of these statements in detail in order to get a better picture.

British casualties are well tabulated. The Royal Navy lost heavily in its final duel with the Stukas; indeed, the scale of loss is comparable to the disaster suffered off Crete three years earlier. The cruiser Carlisle was damaged beyond repair; six destroyers, two submarines, and ten lesser vessels were sunk. Three cruisers were heavily damaged, as well as four more destroyers. The Germans lost twelve small steamers and twenty minor warships, plus one destroyer wrecked and bombed.

The Royal Air Force lost 115 aircraft, with a further 20 damaged. Luftwaffe losses in the same period have not been assessed, but one British historian has stated that “the figures reported at the time, 135 destroyed and 126 damaged, are certainly an over-optimistic calculation.” With the example of many other such estimates before us, we can agree that this is probably true. Even now the enormous casualties claimed to have been inflicted on the Germans during the Battle of Britain are still believed by many, although the actual figures were much smaller and have been given in several excellent works. The same will surely be found to apply in the claims and counterclaims of the Aegean air fighting, and it seems doubtful that German aircraft loss exceeded 120 planes.

The army had a casualty list of about 4,800, the size of an extended infantry brigade, but many of these were taken prisoner. The list of officers killed during the fighting on Leros makes it clear, however, that the British suffered particularly heavily in this respect, because of the general bravery and self-sacrifice of these men.

The fighting on Leros was particularly bloody, and the Germans took casualties not far short of the British. In their official communications of the time, they claimed to have taken 200 officers and 3,000 British POWs plus 350 officers and 5,350 Italians. Sixteen antiaircraft guns and 120 cannons were also captured. Their own casualties were appalling. The paratroops in particular were cut to ribbons. As was revealed under a “TOP SECRET” heading in the OKW Diary, the Germans suffered 1,109 casualties in taking Leros, 41 percent of the invading force. These were not all killed, but included the wounded. Some claims by British historians about the casualty ratio are rather misleading. It is on record that the graves on Leros were found to contain 1,000 Germans and 400 British, which conveys, even if unintentionally, the impression that this was the ratio of losses in the battle. If this were so, then it would seem that only 109 of the German casualties were wounded as opposed to killed, which is indeed an impressive figure. Lieutenant General Müller gave his losses for the invasions of Cos and Leros, as 260 dead, 746 wounded, and 162 missing. The British evacuated only 177 captured Germans from Leros before it fell. However historians sympathetic to the British cause add it up, the German number killed is less than a third of the figure claimed at the time.

Why the great difference in calculating? Mainly because German casualties were not separated from Italian at the time, as Churchill adopted his usual “creative accounting.” The prime minister was well-known for such exaggeration. Among the many examples, he stated to the House that hundreds of German Stuka dive-bombers had been shot down during the battle of Britain, when the true figure was just fifty-four. Earlier, when at the Admiralty, he claimed that the Royal Navy had sunk fifty German submarines, a totally ridiculous overestimate, when the true, verifiable figure was actually fifteen, as proved by postwar studies; spitefully, Churchill even had the director of antisubmarine warfare, Capt. A. G. Talbot, who dared to tell the true figure, removed from his post.

Churchill’s figures on the Aegean casualties were never challenged. For example, Capt. S. W. Roskill in the official history, The War at Sea, also states in a footnote that when the Sinfra was sunk, nearly 2,000 German and Italian soldiers were lost, which is the exact figure Churchill bragged about to Foreign Minister Anthony Eden. Though this figure is true, a mere fraction of this total were on the opposing side. The Sinfra went down with the loss of about 40 German soldiers out of the 500 carried; there were also aboard some 2,000 Italians—loyal to the Badoglio government and the Allies—and 200 Greek partisans, all of whom were being shipped back as POWs. Of these, only about 539 Italians and 13 Greeks were saved. The prime minister’s assertion “we drowned 2,000 of them” sounds far more impressive than “we drowned 40 of them.” Again, more than 1,200 Italians in transit were lost aboard the Donizetti. Clearly the deaths of British allies should not be included in the list of German losses, and only a politician grasping at straws would attempt to do so.

The scale of air attacks mounted by the Luftwaffe to subdue the Leros garrison has frequently been quoted as being up to 600 missions a day. Yet the official publication The Rise and Fall of the German Air Force, compiled by British experts after examination of German records, completely refutes this:

The major share of the German Air Force in the success of both operations [Cos and Leros] stands out beyond all doubt. Yet this success was achieved, not as has sometimes been suggested by the use of overwhelming air power, but by fully exploiting a favorable situation with a small force maintaining only a moderate scale of effort. Both at Cos and Leros Luftwaffe activity was slighter than had been expected. The total effort in the two days operations for the reduction of Cos amounted to under 300 sorties including 65–75 Me.109 sorties of a defensive character; the main weight of the attack on October 3rd and 4th was born by Ju 87s which flew 140–150 sorties.

Of Leros, it states that operations, although very effective, were only moderate in scale: “during the five days of attack only 676–700 offensive sorties were flown.” The Luftwaffe had, however, conducted a softening-up campaign during the previous two months. Compare this with the Allied effort: From October 1 to 7, the U.S. Army Air Force made a total of 425 daylight sorties against airfields, landing grounds, ports, and bases, and the British made 63 night sorties by heavy bombers alone. From mid-October to mid-November, when the island fell, the U.S. made 317 sorties in seven days and the British 278 sorties on twenty-eight nights by heavy bombers. In daylight attacks against German shipping, American Mitchells made 86 sorties and Wellingtons and Beaufighters 11.

In addition, offensive sweeps were carried out almost daily during the actual period of fighting on Leros. Between November 12 and 17, Beaufighters and Mitchells made 79 sorties. Heavy bombers—American Liberators and Mitchells and British Halifaxes and Liberators—made a total of 212 sorties against airfields in Greece and Rhodes. Wellingtons, Hudsons, and Baltimores made an additional 55 sorties. Spitfires with special long-range tanks and Hurricanes made repeated sweeps over Rhodes and Crete at this time.

Particularly impressive was the record of the faithful Dakotas of No. 216 Squadron, which had operated efficiently and constantly throughout the campaign despite the most difficult and hazardous conditions and some losses. From October 6 to November 19, they flew 87 sorties and dropped a total load of 378,650 pounds. They also flew in the 120 paratroops to Cos, and one of the most outstanding of their efforts was the dropping of 200 officers and men of the Greek Sacred Squadron on Samos on the night of October 31–November 1. None of these troops had ever jumped before, and very few had any experience in flying. Nevertheless, on a pitch-black night, the six Dakotas carried out their mission with complete success. Also, all of the dispatchers they carried were volunteer airmen and soldiers, and flying in slow transports over German airfields packed with high-performance fighters in a round-trip of many hours surely called for a high standard of heroism.

Much has been made of the claim that by this small effort in the Aegean a large concentration of vital forces was drawn into the area from more important zones. This is partially true, but not of quite the significance that many have attached to it. Certainly the small resources of the German maritime fleet in the Mediterranean were called on to the limit, their shortcomings being made up from captured Italian tonnage, and the losses in proportion to the total were large. Certainly, too, the Germans deployed aircraft from Russia and France, but here again only on a small scale, some 150 machines in all. The aircraft used were predominantly of obsolete types anyway, which would have had only a limited value in the main theaters.

For example, the main air weapon, the Ju 87 dive-bomber, although it had a brilliant war record, had been replaced by the Fw 190 fighter-bomber for ground support in the main theater of war, the Russian front, and was mainly used as a night intruder over Western Europe toward the end of the war. The Ju 52s, which gave such sterling service, and the Ar 196 float-plane were both low-performance aircraft and not greatly missed. The bomber groups were soon switched back to the main fronts on termination of the campaign, and their absence was not greatly noticed, even in Italy. Here the Germans were able to hold with ease the Allied ground thrusts; they even counterattacked with telling effect and managed to reinforce as well, despite the massive effort of the heavy and medium bomber forces deployed continually against their communications.

As for the troops employed, with the sole exception of the Parachute Battalion, which was flown in from central Italy via Athens, all were from regiments already in occupation of Greece and the Balkans. Not one soldier of the Wehrmacht was otherwise pulled back from Russia or Italy. Some time later, the islands of Cos, Leros, and Samos were handed over by Gen. Friedrich Wilhelm Müller to Assault Division Rhodes, which became the garrison force. Müller survived the war but was tried and sentenced to death by a Greek court for alleged war crimes during his tenure in command on Crete and was executed by them on May 20, 1947.

The Germans were jubilant as well as shocked at the simplicity of their victory. According to the January 1944 issue of Das Signal magazine:

The fighting showed especially, two facets: In the first place, England’s sea power, which is engaged throughout the world’s seas, was not able to successfully defend important bases in the Eastern Mediterranean from where it had planned to put increasing pressure militarily. In the second place, however, the quick surrender of many enemy island defenders was a surprise. Contrary to the German soldier who, where fate puts him, fights to the last bullet, the soldier of the Western Powers stops fighting the moment he recognizes there is no chance to win the fight.

Failure always brings recrimination, and this campaign was no exception. It is not the aim of this book to censure anyone, but to set out the facts and present the arguments on each side. At the risk of oversimplification, they can be summarized in sections. First is the issue of Churchill versus the Americans, which is intermixed with the arguments involving the Middle East Command and the British Chiefs of Staff. The basic reason for the failure of the campaign was decidedly the question of air power, which can conveniently be summarized as Tedder versus Douglas, while at the level of the actual fighting, it was the soldier and sailor against the “brass hats.”

Edwin Packer wrote, “The undoubted strategic advantages which possession of the Dodecanese gave—clearly recognized by Churchill and Hitler, though not by Marshall and Eisenhower—blinded the British into thinking that audacity would be rewarded on this occasion as it had many times before in the history of their country.” This is indisputably true; but it is equally true that the Americans, though incredibly blind to the glittering prospects offered, as it seems in retrospect, had a good case for withholding their approval.

Captain Roskill pointed out that “we should take account of the fact that every peripheral operation inevitably grows in size as it progresses, with ever-increasing demands on resources; and the dislike of the American Chiefs of Staff, and of General Eisenhower and his subordinate commanders, for such enterprises, what time the major campaign which they had on their hands still had to be decided, is readily understood.”

He added later a further point: “In any theatre of combined operations there is always one position, generally an island, which, because of its geographical position and because it possesses harbors and airfields, is the key to control over a wide area.” As everyone realized, this key was Rhodes, and when it was captured by the Germans it was the time for the Allies to abandon the Aegean operation completely or recapture Rhodes first. Neither course was adopted. The Middle East Command instead made the decision to hold the lesser islands, but at first with the knowledge that the Germans were preparing for the imminent occupation of Rhodes. This must be stressed. General Maitland Wilson can hardly be blamed for embarking on the occupation of the Dodecanese when he did, even though from the outset the odds were against him. When he made his decision to go in, even Eisenhower was still in favor of Accolade taking place. Following Churchill’s telegram to Eisenhower on September 25 and Eisenhower’s reply on the twenty-sixth, in which he agreed to spare the asked-for armored brigade and most of the shipping, the assault date was set for October 23 by the Middle East Command. Therefore, the islands would have had to hold out for only one month, and this at a time when the strength and reaction of the Germans were not certain.

Nor can Maitland Wilson be blamed for the loss of Rhodes, for he was given insufficient warning. Had he been given time to organize a demonstration in strength as soon as the Italian capitulation was announced, it is possible that the Germans, unaware of his true strength and expecting the British to have been forewarned—and therefore forearmed—could have been overawed. Certainly there would have been a better chance than that given by withholding this vital information from Wilson until too late. As it was, only the Germans, not the Italians or the British on the spot, were ready when the time came. All else followed.

It was not until the unexpected fall of Cos to the Germans that two points were made clear. First, Hitler had a deep interest in the Aegean, and the German forces there were very much aware of its importance. And second, this reverse had a profound effect on American thinking about the campaign, and they thereafter began to hedge. Eisenhower certainly received more than adequate discouragement from his superiors in Washington.

The new American viewpoint was not made clear until the Tunis Conference, and despite everything that Churchill could do to save the scheme, Accolade was finally abandoned. By this time, the British were fully committed in the islands, but they still could have cut their losses and pulled out without too much difficulty. The arguments that this would have been a difficult operation were later proved to be overly pessimistic; enough stores and troops were run in to more than justify an attempt to get the small garrison out at that time. But it was not so decided.

The outcome of the Tunis Conference and the subsequent decisions taken by the Middle East Command are vital as to why the campaign was pushed on to its ultimate conclusion. Prior to the conference, Portal had telegraphed Tedder on October 7 asking him to keep an open mind on the question of air support for Accolade. Maitland Wilson received a message from Churchill urging him to press strongly for further support for Accolade: “It is clear that the key to the strategic situation in the Mediterranean is expressed in the two words ‘Storm Rhodes.”

The Joint Planners in London were expressing different opinions, however. They felt that the Middle East Command was overestimating the strategic importance of Rhodes; its occupation would not in itself be adequate. They believed, as did the Americans, that further reinforcements would be required. They recommended instead that the islands the British did hold be evacuated.

Nevertheless, two of the principal delegates at the conference had received promptings to the contrary from London. These promptings, however, had little effect on the outcome, for on the evening of October 9, Eisenhower informed Churchill of the result. In this, the prize was agreed to be great, but those present felt that the situation that had just developed in Italy, added to the fall of Cos, did not permit the diversion of the forces promised earlier.

Part two of Eisenhower’s telegram is of particular interest: “Every conclusion submitted in our report to the CCS was agreed unanimously by all Commanders-in-Chief from both theaters. It is personally distressing to me to have to advise against a project in which you believe so earnestly but I feel I would not be performing my duty if I should recommend otherwise. All Commanders-in-Chief share this attitude.”

The situation in Italy at this time was that the Germans had shown unexpected resilience and were pouring in reinforcements at an enormous rate. Whereas in mid-September, thirteen Allied divisions faced eighteen German ones, by the end of October, there would be only eleven Allied against twenty-five German. There can be little doubt then that the decision reached was the correct one.

Tedder went even further, writing: “There was no doubt in the mind of anyone present at this meeting that ‘Accolade’ could not now be staged effectively. It was clear to me that the Middle East Commanders had no faith in the project and were relieved at the decision. It was not only a question of German reinforcements in Italy. The weather had changed decisively for the worse.”

He cabled Portal that the question of Accolade was considered on its merit and with great impartiality before repercussions on the Italian campaign were examined. Maitland Wilson admitted this in a telegram sent to Churchill. Rhodes could not be taken that year. Why then were the British garrisons in Leros not withdrawn forthwith? Edwin Packer surmised: “They knew the project was dear to the heart of the British Prime Minister. Would he have thought less highly of them if they had cancelled the operation remembering his criticism of Wavell in 1941? No one cared to put it to the test: a reputation for caution was not a characteristic Churchill admired. So the C-in-Cs in the Middle East decided to go on.”

Could that have been the reason? Maitland Wilson’s cable shows that other things were in their minds. As a substitute for Rhodes, why not Turkey? Again, there was a chance, as when Operation Accolade was still officially on, that if they stuck to Leros and Samos for a little longer, airfields would be made available in that country. Maitland Wilson clearly expressed this thinking: “This morning John Cunningham, Linnel and I reviewed the situation in the Aegean (Sholto Douglas was in London at this time) on the assumption that Rhodes would not take place till a later date. We came to the conclusion that the holding of Leros and Samos is not impossible, although their maintenance is going to be difficult, and will depend on continued Turkish co-operation [emphasis added]. I am going to talk to Eden about this when he arrives on Tuesday.”

Thus the straw to which they clung, in affirming that the wishes of the prime minister were to be followed as far as possible, was Turkey. There were also other considerations that influenced their decision to a greater degree than the fear of displeasing Churchill. The islands of Leros and Samos had not yet been attacked, and although the fall of Cos had shown that the Germans were determined, it was still not thought that a reinforced Leros could be assaulted successfully for some time. The illusion of “Fortress Leros” still had not been revealed and they felt that it was a bastion that, if garrisoned with good troops, could hold out against an attack. The amount of irritation that they could inflict on the scattered German garrisons on the island— and maintain until either Turkey came in or the long-deferred Accolade could be remounted in the spring—held out the promise of allowing them to hold down large German forces with a limited effort.

Churchill’s Aegean 1943 Part II

16 November 1943. Generalleutnant Friedrich-Wilhelm Müller (left) with the surrendered Fortress commander Brigadier Robert Tilney (right).

The result is succinctly recorded in the official history: “The local commanders did not hesitate; the Chiefs of Staff supported them; and the Prime Minister agreed with both.”

Indeed he did. Maitland Wilson received by return an enthusiastic reply: “Cling on if you possibly can. It will be a splendid achievement. Talk it over with Eden and see what help you can get from the Turk. If after everything has been done you are forced to quit I will support you, but victory is the prize.”

He was as good as his word. In the event, the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow was not forthcoming. Turkey was more impressed by German victories than by British promises or Soviet threats. There would be no fighter cover from Turkey.

The vital factor of air cover—and the divergence of opinion that resulted between Tedder and Douglas—must be examined together with the rigid command structure, which, in Churchill’s words, “drew an imaginary line down the Mediterranean” and relieved General Eisenhower’s armies of all responsibility for the Dalmatian coast and the Balkans. “These are assigned to General Wilson, of the Middle East Command, but he does not possess the necessary forces. One command has the forces but not the responsibilities, the other the responsibilities but not the forces. This can hardly be considered an ideal arrangement.”

With this command structure, the allocation of air power was also involved. Whereas Wilson was an independent commander and responsible only to London, Douglas and his command in the Middle East were under the operational control of Tedder at Eisenhower’s headquarters. This soon led to difficulties. Douglas wrote:

From the outset I was far from happy about the view of our efforts in the Eastern Mediterranean taken by Eisenhower’s HQ. The answers they were giving to our signals to them could never be considered as properly thought out, and I could not understand Tedder’s position in all this. He had appeared to approve of our plans to start with, and it was not until some three weeks after we had stated our intentions, and we had actually put them into operation, that he lodged his disturbing complaint about not being consulted.

Tedder’s viewpoint was somewhat different:

So far as I was aware the participation of elements of the Mediterranean Air Command had never been properly considered. The fall of Cos only made such an assessment more urgent. I set out in detail for Eisenhower’s eye the ways in which a determined attack on Rhodes would diminish our air strength in the Italian campaign. In particular I anticipated a demand for long range fighters for the purpose of covering convoys and the assault on Rhodes itself.

Eisenhower’s response to Tedder’s warning was to send him a reply to the effect that no specific undertakings should be made for Accolade other than that of bombing German airfields in Greece, which they had both already agreed was desirable. Tedder sent a copy of this to Portal and added that he wholeheartedly endorsed it.

It must also be stressed that even when Accolade was still a possibility, Tedder, in common with the others, stressed that an essential part of the revised plan lay in the retention of Cos and Leros, which in his opinion was as necessary to the capture of Rhodes as its own capture was necessary to their preservation. Thus when Cos went so quickly, it was to be expected that he would then have grave reservations about the rest of the plan.

While Cos was being subjected to heavy air attacks, Douglas had made repeated pleas for the bombing of the Greek and Balkan airfields, but Tedder felt that the bombing of the German supply lines in Northern Italy was of greater importance. He did in fact signal Douglas before the island fell that he was very concerned about the way the Aegean operations were going. He added that commitments were involved that he had had no prior opportunity of assessing. Tedder felt that events were underlining something he had always thought—that from the air point of view, the Balkans were strategically one and the same as the rest of the Mediterranean. He promised that he would do his best to help, but he insisted that he must be kept informed of future plans.

It was at this time that Portal signaled Tedder that in his opinion, the Allies should fight the German Air Force wherever it went. He also thought the Allies could better afford a diversion into the Aegean than could the Germans and that damage inflicted on the Germans in the Aegean was just as desirable as damage inflicted in any other theater.

With Cos gone and Accolade abandoned, the question of extra air diversions became even more acute. Tedder felt that they were becoming more and more wasteful and dangerous; Douglas felt more and more that he was letting down the other two services. With Portal’s message recording his pleasure at the forward policy being adopted by Middle East Command in the Aegean and Tedder’s signal complaining that he had no prior opportunity of assessing the operations then in progress, Douglas was perplexed. “It struck me that in some curious way Tedder appeared to be the only one who was not fully acquainted with what was going on—even London knew and approved. It confirmed for me my opinion that the time was more than ripe for a fundamental change in the structure of the overall command of the air in the Mediterranean.”

From this statement, it can be seen that the two men, although at loggerheads over this particular issue, had both come to the same conclusion, as had Churchill: that the system of command in the Mediterranean at this time was unworkable, unwieldy, and far too inflexible. There can be no denying that in this and in so many similar operations, from the occupation of Norway through the fall of France and on to the desert campaigns, it was the Germans who made unexpected moves and took chances with new and surprising tactics. It has always been the delight of British and American observers and commentators to depict the Germans as dull, methodical plodders who could never adapt. But in fact, time and time again, it was the Allies with their rigid command structures who were caught off-guard by German initiative.

After Leros had suffered the same fate as Cos, both Tedder and Douglas were dispirited. Douglas wrote:

I prepared a paper in which I summarized all that had happened in the last days of the operation. I was in no mood to pull any punches and I started off with the blunt statement: “I am very dissatisfied with the assistance that I received during the Leros operation.” I pointed out that when the deterioration of the weather in Italy had bogged down the battle there—right at the period during which Leros was being attacked—“a wider view should have been taken of the dispositions of heavy and medium bombers and of long-range fighters.” I further pointed out that we had asked “not once but many times” for Liberators and Lightnings to be located in Cyrenaica, and that “all we got were a few B-25s at first with disgruntled and later with untrained pilots and armed with semi-experimental 75-mm guns.”

He continued much in the same vein; recording that between October 27 and November 14, no attack had been made by Allied heavy bombers from the central Mediterranean on the Greek airfields. On November 14, ninety-one B-25s with forty-nine Lightnings as escorts had bombed Sofia, an attack that, if it had been directed against the Greek airfields instead, might have tipped the scales. Douglas came to the conclusion, in this paper and later, that it was the disregard by the Americans in general, and the indifference of the Mediterranean Air Command in particular, that resulted in the Middle East Command’s difficult position during this operation. We can certainly agree with him on the first part of this conclusion. As for the second, Tedder’s feelings were also recorded much later, when the campaign was but a memory. They are nevertheless both sincere and, in the context of the U.S. Chiefs of Staffs’ attitude, pertinent.

Tedder claimed that he had never ignored the fate of Leros, but that even less could he detach himself from the fate of the Italian campaign. He thought that the whole operation was a gamble that had failed to pay off and added that the assumption that heavy bomber raids could knock out the Luftwaffe was quite unrealistic because of the effort they would have required and the weather conditions prevailing at the time. The success of such a scheme was continuity of attack, and this continuity could not have been sustained. He recorded: “One would have thought that some of the bitter lessons of Crete would have been sufficiently fresh in the mind to have prevented a repetition and yet in the sad story of Cos and Leros we had the familiar cries—and justifiable cries—for protection from enemy air attack, complaints of inadequate support from the Air, and heavy casualties in all three Services, because we were compelled once again to attempt the impossible.”

Here again we can sympathize with this opinion. One destroyer captain wrote, “We younger destroyer skippers, I think, blamed Churchill.” This opinion was strongly endorsed by the late Capt. Stephen Roskill, who asserted, “Most of the responsibility for this failure must surely rest with Churchill,” who, Roskill had an “addiction” to capturing islands (for example, his obsession with Pantellaria in 1940 and 1941 and the Azores in the same period) that would have proved difficult to supply. Roskill also stated that the hopes Churchill entertained about Turkey entering the war being the principal plank on which he rested his case “was an illusion.” Another study went even further, naming the campaign “Churchill’s Folly” and claiming that the full story had “never been told”—which, as War in the Aegean was first published in 1974, was patently not so. The author also called the campaign “The Last Great British Defeat of World War II,” a dubious statement, with Arnhem at least as a stronger contender.

But all this criticism of the prime minister, though undoubtedly merited, does not seem entirely fair. Despite Churchill’s propensity for wild schemes and harebrained interventions, such Operation Catherine, the fiasco of Norway, Operation Workshop, the insistence of the dispatch of Prince of Wales and Repulse to Singapore against the advice of the Admiralty, and so on, there can be no doubt that on this occasion, he really did read Stalin’s future intentions for the Balkans far better than the naive Roosevelt and, indeed, the Americans in general.

Certainly the bright vision was Churchill’s, and he was extremely reluctant to see it thrown away. “Leros is a bitter blow to me,” he told Eden in a telegram sent on November 21. He continued:

One may ask should such an operation ever have been undertaken without the assurance of air superiority? Have we not failed to learn the lessons of Crete, etc.? Have we not restored the Stukas to a fleeting moment of their old triumphs? The answer is that there is none of these arguments that was not foreseen before the occupation of these islands was attempted and if they were disregarded it was because other reasons and other hopes were held to predominate over them. If we are never going to proceed on anything but certainties we must certainly face the prospect of a prolonged war.

He also stated that this campaign “constituted, happily on a small scale, the most acute difference I ever had with Eisenhower.”

Yet he showed not the slightest hint of remorse for all the sacrifice made for naught, only a politicians’ natural desire to gloss over the whole fiasco and quickly forget the part he played in it. Churchill telegraphed Eden: “No attempts should be made to minimize the poignancy of the loss of the Dodecanese. It is, however, just to say that it is our first really grievous reverse since Tobruk 1942. I hope that there will be no need to make heavy weather over this at all.”

On the other hand, the Americans adhered to their perfectly valid point that they were fighting against the Germans and the Russians were their allies. However far-sighted Churchill may have been in 1943, he had already hitched his country to the Soviet cause in June 1941, and his policy of reinforcing Stalin at the expense of the British Far East since then somewhat compromised his later “farsightedness” in the Balkans. After all, Churchill had declared, “If Hitler had invaded Hell, I would at least make a favorable reference to the Devil in the House of Commons.” If Churchill was dismayed at Roosevelt’s belief that he “could do a deal with Joe,” it must be admitted that he had given the American leader an early lead in pandering to Stalin’s capacious appetite.

Jeffrey Holland, who fought there and returned to the island postwar to ponder the reasons for it all, told us: “The islanders themselves believe that part of the price Churchill would have had to pay (and been prepared to pay) for bringing Turkey into the war would be to accept Turkish sovereignty over the Dodecanese plus Rhodes. Colonel Kenyon thought the whole thing was a bloody shambles.”

As before, it was Turkey that saw things more clearly. Said Giuseppe de Peppo, the Italian ambassador to Turkey, “The Turkish ideal is that the last German soldier should fall upon the last Russian corpse.”

This fiasco in the eastern Mediterranean had shown that Britain alone could not succeed without American participation or backing. The Americans, with their upsurging strength, had now become the major partner, and as such, they were less ready to accommodate views that did not accord with their own. That this was the turning point in Anglo-American strategy is borne out by General Brooke, the British Chief of the Imperial General Staff, who recorded in his diary on November 1, 1943, that he regretted that he had not had sufficient force of character to swing the American Chiefs of Staff into line with British thinking on the Mediterranean, but although he blamed himself, he doubted whether it was humanly possible to alter the American point of view more than he had succeeded in doing. Henceforth the United States exerted an ever-increasing domination over the conduct of the war, and it took the lion’s share in writing the final chapters in the postwar state of Europe. Not only had it surrendered the chance to beat the Soviets into the Balkans, but when the maps were redrawn later, they were to be even more generous to the greedy appetite of Stalin.

An isolated American view was that of Gen. Mark Clark, who wrote that “the weakening of the campaigns in Italy in order to invade Southern France instead of pushing on into the Balkans was one of the outstanding political mistakes of the war.”

However, Professor Michael Howard dismissed all postwar speculations on the motives of Churchill to thwart the Communist takeover of Eastern Europe as being mainly wrong interpretations of mere wartime expediency on the part of the prime minister. He also added the most pertinent point of all: “The appetites which had been disappointed, especially those for seizing Rhodes and striking across the Aegean at the mainland of Greece, were largely ones which had developed en mangeant and which had not received general Allied—or even general British—sanction.”

There is one puzzling thing that is hard to understand: When the provision of on-the-spot air cover was so vital to the campaign, and the land-based fighters were not forthcoming, why was it that the navies of the two largest maritime nations the world had ever known could not provide aircraft carriers as a substitute? The British fleet alone had several carriers—two fleet carriers, Illustrious and Formidable; a light carrier, Unicorn; and three escort carriers, Attacker, Hunter, and Stalker—on station at the beginning of September, when the total number of British fighter aircraft were but a drop in the ocean of the Allies’ grand total of 4,000 aircraft. To have detached even the escort carriers to operate in the Aegean would have brought the cruisers and destroyers the respite they needed. Indeed, a year later this was done and worked. Instead, they were all withdrawn from the Mediterranean during this period because of heavy losses their aircraft sustained in deck landings supporting the Salerno operation. Perhaps the need for aircraft carriers, even in the landlocked waters of the Mediterranean, is the foremost lesson to be drawn from this campaign. In view of British defense decisions between 1963 and 1997, it seems that nobody in government understood or heeded this lesson, a blindness culminating in the absolute worst of misjudgments—that made by the Thatcher government just before the Falklands War—to sell off the last British carriers and not replace them.

After the Allies had missed their main chance in the Balkans, the Aegean did indeed become a backwater. The German garrisons there were allowed to wither on the vine, and the Allies were satisfied that those troops were locked up away from the fronts in Italy and, later, France. It did not affect the Germans much, for Rome did not fall that easily, nor was Italy quickly conquered. The newly formed Raiding Forces carried out pinprick raids in their usual daring manner, and later escort carriers and cruiser-destroyer strike forces inflicted damage on the German convoy routes, as did strikes by RAF forces. The Soviet steamroller finally plowed through to the north sucking under Romania, Hungary, and Bulgaria, and eventually the Germans withdrew from the Balkans in December 1944. The Allies could take little advantage then; indeed, the British had to make considerable effort in Greece to prevent the establishment of a Communist government, and Yugoslavia and Albania went the same way.

It is, however, futile to wring one’s hands over what might have been. There was no guarantee that the mere conquest of the Aegean would have brought Turkey into the war on the Allies’ side, nor that the Germans would have abandoned Greece. The Allies were never prepared to follow up with a main assault on the Balkans, no matter what the German reaction to the loss of the Aegean might have been. And even if they had achieved success there, it was at Teheran and Potsdam, and not on the battlefield, that the fruits of battle were decided.