Operation Bigamy

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Operation Squatter

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Members of L Detachment board a Bristol Bombay transport aircraft prior to a practice jump as part of their parachute training at Kabrit. Those who successful completed their jumps were permitted to wear the SAS wings on the shoulder.
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The photograph was discovered as part of a 13-year-project to find details of WW2 SAS casualties. Credit: The family of the late Lt-Col ‘Jake’ Easonsmith

The force initially consisted of five officers and 60 other ranks. Following extensive training at Kabrit camp, by the River Nile, L Detachment, SAS Brigade undertook its first operation. Operation Squatter was a parachute drop behind the enemy lines in support of Operation Crusader, they would attack airfields at Gazala and Timimi on the night 16/17 November 1941. Unfortunately because of enemy resistance and adverse weather conditions the mission was a disaster, 22 men were killed or captured – one third of the men employed. Allowed another chance they recruited men from the Layforce Commando, which was in the process of disbanding.

As Stirling had informed Auchinleck in July it was common knowledge that an Eighth Army offensive would be launched against Axis forces in November. It was codenamed ‘Crusader’ and its aims were to retake the eastern coastal regions of Libya (a region known as Cyrenaica) and seize the Libyan airfields from the enemy, thereby enabling the R A F to increase their supplies to Malta, the Mediterranean island that was of such strategic importance to the British. But General Erwin Rommel also prized Malta and was busy finalising his own plans for an offensive; he intended his Afrika Korps to drive the British eastwards, take possession of the airfields and prevent the R A F reaching Malta with their precious cargoes. In addition, the fewer British planes there were to attack German shipping in the Mediterranean, the more vessels would reach North African ports with the supplies he needed to win the Desert War.

Stirling’s plan was to drop his men between these two vast opposing armies and attack the Axis airfields at Gazala and Timimi in eastern Libya at midnight on 17 November. On the day of his birthday Stirling wrote to his mother, telling her that: ‘It is the best possible type of operation and will be far more exciting than dangerous.”‘

That same day, wrote DuVivier in his diary, Stirling revealed the nature of their operation for the first time. ‘The plans and maps were unsealed, explained and studied until each man knew his job by heart. There was a lot of work to be done such as preparing explosives, weapons and rations.’

Stirling hadn’t a full complement of men for the operation. Several soldiers, including Lieutenant Bill Fraser and Private Jock Byrne, were recovering from injuries sustained during parachute training. In total Stirling had at his disposal 54 men, whom he divided into four sections under his overall command. Lewes was to lead numbers one and two sections and Blair Mayne would be in charge sections three and four.

Mayne, by this stage, was known to one and all as ‘Paddy’. If Lewes was the brains of L Detachment during its formative days, then Mayne was the brawn, a fearsomely strong man, both mentally and physically, who like Lewes set himself exacting standards. The difference between the pair was that Mayne had a wild side that he set free with alcohol when the occasion arose. Jimmy Storie had known Mayne since the summer of 1940 when they both enlisted in No. 11 Scottish Commando. ‘Paddy was a rough Irishman who was at his happiest fighting,’ Storie recalls. ‘He didn’t like sitting around doing nothing. In Arran [where the commandos trained in the winter of 1940] he was known to sit on his bed and shoot the glass panes out of the window with his revolver.’

Mayne’s two sections comprised 21 men in total and his second-in-command was Lieutenant Charles Bonington. Their objective was the airfield at Timimi, a coastal strip west of Tobruk which was flat and rocky and pitted with shallow wadis. It was hot during the day and cool at night and apart from esparto grass and acacia scrub there was scant vegetation. The plan was simple: once the two sections had rendezvoused in the desert following the night-time parachute drop on 16 November, they would march to within five miles of the target before lying up during the daylight hours of 17 November. The attack would commence at one minute to midnight on the 17th with Bonington leading three section on to the airfield from the east. Mayne and four section would come in from the south and west, and for 15 minutes they were to plant their bombs on the aircraft without alerting the enemy to their presence. At quarter past midnight the raiders could use their weapons and instantaneous fuses at their discretion.

At dawn on 16 November Stirling and his 54 men left Kabrit for their forward landing ground of Bagoush, approximately 300 miles to the west. Once there they found the R A F had been thoughtful in their welcome.’The officers’ mess was put at our disposal and we kicked off with a first-rate meal after which there were books, games, wireless and a bottle of beer each, all to keep our minds off the coming event,’ wrote DuVivier in his diary.

He was in Jock Lewes’s 11-man section, along with Jimmy Storie, Johnny Cooper and Pat Riley, and it wasn’t long before they sensed something wasn’t quite right. Stirling and the other officers were unusually tense and all was revealed a little while before the operation was due to commence when they were addressed by their commanding officer. Stirling informed his men that weather reports indicated a fierce storm was brewing over the target area, one that would include winds of 30 knots.

The Brigadier General Staff coordinator, Sandy Galloway, was of the opinion that the mission should be aborted. Dropping by parachute in those wind speeds, and on a moonless night, would be hazardous in the extreme. Stirling was loathe to scrub the mission; after all, when might they get another chance to prove their worth? He asked his men what they thought and unanimously they agreed to press ahead.

At 1830 hours a fleet of trucks arrived at the officers’ mess to transport the men to the five Bristol Bombay aircraft that would fly them to the target area. DuVivier ‘muttered a silent prayer and put myself in God’s hands’ as he climbed aboard.

Du Vivier’s was the third aircraft to take off, behind Stirling’s and Lieutenant Eoin McGonigal’s. Bonington and his nine men were on the fourth plane and Mayne’s section was on the fifth. Each aircraft carried five (or in some cases, six) canisters inside which were two packs containing weapons, spare ammunition, fuses, explosives, blankets and rations.

The men would jump wearing standard issue desert shirts and shorts with skeleton web equipment on their backs containing an entrenching tool. A small haversack was carried by each man inside which was grenades, food (consisting of dates, raisins, cheese, biscuits, sweets and chocolate), a revolver, maps and a compass. Mechanics’ overalls were worn over all of this to ensure none of the equipment was caught in the parachute rigging lines during the drop.

Mayne’s aircraft took-off 40 minutes behind schedule, at 2020 hours instead of 1940 hours, though unlike the other planes they reached the drop zone (DZ) without attracting the unwanted attention of enemy anti-aircraft (AA) batteries. At 2230 hours they jumped with Mayne describing subsequent events in his operational report:

As the section was descending there were flashes on the ground and reports which I then thought was small-arms fire. But on reaching the ground no enemy was found so I concluded that the report had been caused by detonators exploding in packs whose parachutes had failed to open.

The landing was unpleasant. I estimated the wind speed at 20—25 miles per hour, and the ground was studded with thorny bushes.

Two men were injured here. Pet [parachutist] Arnold sprained both ankles and Pet Kendall bruised or damaged his leg.

An extensive search was made for the containers, lasting until 0130 hours 17/11/41, but only four packs and two TSMGs [Thompson sub-machine guns] were located.

I left the two injured men there, instructed them to remain there that night, and in the morning find and bury any containers in the area, and then to make to the RV [rendezvous point] which I estimated at 15 miles away.

It was too late to carry out my original plan of lying west of Timimi as I had only five hours of darkness left, so I decided to lie up on the southern side. I then had eight men, 16 bombs, 14 water bottles and food as originally laid for four men, and four blankets.

Mayne and his men marched for three-and-a-half miles before laying up in a wadi. He estimated they’d covered six miles and were approximately five miles from the target. When daylight broke on the 17th, a dawn reconnaissance revealed they were six miles from the airfield, on which were 17 aircraft.

Back in the wadi, Mayne informed his men of the plan: they would move forward to attack the target at 2050 hours with each man carrying two bombs. He and Sergeant Edward McDonald would carry the Thompson sub-machine guns. Until then they would lie up in the wadi. But as Mayne noted later in his report the weather intervened:

At 1730 hours it commenced to rain heavily. After about half an hour the wadi became a river, and as the men were lying concealed in the middle of bushes it took them some time getting to higher ground. It kept on raining and we were unable to find shelter. An hour later I tried two of the time pencils and they did not work. Even if we had been able to keep them dry, it would not, in my opinion, have been practicable to have used them, as during the half-hour delay on the plane the rain would have rendered them useless. I tried the instantaneous fuses and they did not work either.

Mayne postponed the attack and he and his men endured a miserable night in the wadi. The rain eased the next morning, 18 November, but the sky was grey and the temperature cool; realising that the fuses wouldn’t dry, Mayne aborted the mission and headed south. Though bitterly disappointed that he hadn’t been able to attack the enemy, the Irishman was nonetheless pleased with the way his men had conducted themselves in arduous circumstances: ‘The whole section,’ he wrote, ‘behaved extremely well and although lacerated and bruised in varying degrees by their landing, and wet and numb with cold, remained cheerful.’

Mayne led his men to the RV, a point near the Rotondo Segnali on a desert track called theTrig-al-Abd 34 miles inland from both Gazala and Timimi airfields, at dawn on 20 November. Waiting for them were members of the Long Range Desert Group (LRDG), who a few hours earlier had taken custody of Jock Lewes’s stick. They welcomed members of Mayne’s section with bully beef and mugs of tea and the men swapped horror stories.’It was extraordinary really that our entire stick landed without injury because the wind when you jumped was ferocious and of course you couldn’t see the ground coming up,’ recalled Johnny Cooper.’I hit the desert with quite a bump and was then dragged along by the wind at quite a speed. When I came to rest I staggered rather groggily to my feet, feeling sure I would find a few broken bones but to my astonishment I seemed to [have] nothing worse than the wind momentarily knocked out of me. There was a sudden rush of relief but then of course, I looked around me and realised I was all alone and, well, God knows where.’

Lewes and his men had jumped in a well-organised stick, the Welshman dropping first with each successive man instructed to bury his parachute upon landing and wait where he was. Lewes intended to move back along the compass bearing of the aircraft, collecting No. 2 jumper, then No. 3 and so on, what he called ‘rolling up the stick’. But the wind had dragged Jeff DuVivier for 150 yards until finally he snagged on a thorn bush, allowing him a chance to take stock of the situation.’When I finally freed myself, I was bruised and bleeding and there was a sharp pain in my right leg,’ he wrote in his diary.’When I saw the rocky ground I’d travelled over, I thanked my lucky stars that I was alive.’

Eventually DuVivier found the rest of the stick and joined his comrades in searching for the containers. ‘We couldn’t find most of the containers with our equipment so Jock Lewes gathered us round and said that we’d still try and carry out the attack if we can find the target,’ said Cooper.

They marched through the night and laid up at 0930 hours the next morning. Sergeant Pat Riley was sent forward to reconnoitre the area and returned to tell Lewes that there was no sign of the Gazala airfield and in his opinion they had been dropped much further south than planned. Nonetheless Lewes decided to continue and at 1400 hours they departed the wadi and headed north for eight miles. But in the late afternoon the weather turned against them once more and the heavens opened, soaking the men and their explosives.’The lightning was terrific,’recalled DuVivier.’And how it rained! The compass was going round in circles. We were getting nowhere. And we were wallowing up to our knees in water. I remember seeing tortoises swimming about.’

Lewes, with the same grim reluctance as Mayne, informed the men that the operation was aborted and they would head south towards the RV. The hours that followed tested the resolve of all the men, even Lewes who, cold, hungry and exhausted like the rest of his section, temporarily handed command to Riley, the one man who seemed oblivious to the tempest. DuVivier acknowledged Riley’s strength in his diary: ‘I must mention here Pat Riley, an ex-Guardsman and policeman… I shall always be indebted to him for what he did. I’m sure he was for the most part responsible for our return.’

Riley had the men march for 40 minutes, rest for 20 minutes if there was any dry ground to be found, march for 40 minutes and so on. On through the night they stumbled, often wading through water that was up to their knees. Inadequately dressed against the driving rain and freezing wind, DuVivier had never experienced such cold. ‘I was shivering, not shaking. All the bones in my body were numbed. I couldn’t speak, every time I opened my mouth my teeth just cracked against one another.’

The rain eased and the wind dropped the next morning (18 November) but it was another 36 hours before Lewes and his section made contact with the L R D G . The return of Mayne’s stick took the number of survivors to 19. A few hours later the figure increased by two when David Stirling and Sergeant Bob Tait were brought in by a L P D G patrol. In Tait’s operational report he described how their aircraft was delayed in its approach to Gazala by strong winds and heavy AA fire. When they did eventually jump they ‘all made very bad landings which resulted in various minor injuries. They had considerable difficulty in assembling, and Sergt Cheyne was not seen again.

In some wartime histories of the SAS L Detachment veterans recall Sergeant John Cheyne as having broken his back jumping with Lewes’s section, but one must assume Tait’s report to be the more reliable as it was contemporary.

Unable to find most of their containers, and with many of his men barely able to walk, Stirling decided that he and Tait (the only man of the stick to land unscathed) would attack the airfield while the rest, under the command of Sergeant-Major George Yates, would head to the RV. But Stirling met with the same fate at Mayne and Lewes, abandoning the mission in the face of what the noted war correspondent Alexander Clifford called ‘the most spectacular thunderstorm within local memory’.

For a further eight hours Stirling and his men waited at the RV in the hope of welcoming more stragglers, but none showed and finally they agreed to depart with the L R D G. The next day, 21 November, the L R D G searched an eight-mile front in the hope of picking up more of L detachment, but none were seen.

Stirling later discovered that the aircraft carrying Charles Bonington’s section had been shot down by a German Messerschmitt. The pilot, Charles West, was badly wounded, his co-pilot killed and the ten SAS men suffered varying degrees of injury. Doug Keith, the man who had marched for 40 miles in his stockinged feet during training, succumbed to his injuries and his comrades were caught by German troops. Yates and the rest of Stirling’s section were also taken prisoner but of McGonigal’s section there was no word; their fate remained a mystery until October 1944 when two of the stick, Jim Blakeney and Roy Davies, arrived in Britain having escaped from their prisoner-of-war (POW) camp. Blakeney’s account of the night of 16 November 1941 was explained in an SAS report: ‘After landing he lay up until dawn and found himself alone with other members of his party, including Lt McGonigal, who was badly injured and died later [as did Sidney Hildreth]… This party, which endeavoured to make for the L R D G RV got lost and made their way to the coast, and were picked up by an Italian guard atTimimi airport.’

Mayne was deeply affected by McGonigal’s failure to reach the RV and while at a later stage of the Desert War, when Gazala was in Allied hands, he would go there to search for the grave of his friend, but for the moment he brooded on his disappearance, vowing to have his revenge on the enemy.

Stirling was also brooding on the way to the Eighth Army’s forward landing ground at Jaghbub Oasis. Thirty-four of his men were missing, either captured or dead, and yet no one from L Detachment had even fired a shot in anger at the enemy. But despite the abject failure of the operation Stirling wasn’t totally despondent; already he had decided that in future the SAS would reach the target area not by parachute but by in trucks driven by the L R D G . In this way, as Stirling later commented, the L R D G would be ‘able to drop us more comfortably and more accurately within striking distance of the target area’.

The remnants of L Detachment reached Jaghbub Oasis on the afternoon of 25 November. As well as housing the Eighth Army’s forward landing ground there was also, set among the ruins of a well-known Islamic school, a first-aid post. Before despatching the wounded into the care of the medics, Stirling assembled his men to tell them that L Detachment was far from finished despite the obvious disappointment of its inaugural operation. He promised there would be ‘a next time’ to which Jeff DuVivier replied in his diary:’I don’t fancy a next time if this is what it’s going to be like.’

One upshot of the failed raid was the shelving of a plan to raise a Middle East airborne battalion. Shortly before the operation, Stirling had been asked to submit his thoughts on the idea and he had written an enthusiastic appraisal, stating that ‘such an establishment should amply allow for the weeding out of unsuitable and the physically unfit; it could broadly consist of 4 Coys, of 100 men each, a small operative HQ group and a non-operative Administrative Coy. of 100 men.’

SOE in Abyssinia

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Orde Wingate, the Gideon Force Commander, talking with the Emperor Haile Selassie of Abyssinia

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The Abyssinian venture began before ever SOE did. Indeed, while MI R was striving to mount it, section D was striving to wreck it by independently appealing to the Galla tribe in the south of the country to secede from the rest. Wavell – who had a great deal else on his mind, as commander-in-chief in Cairo – remembered that when he had commanded in Palestine in the mid-thirties, three young officers had impressed him as likely to do well with irregular forces or at irregular jobs. He sent for them. Dudley Clarke, whom Holland had used, with Gubbins, to found the commandos, created for Wavell a body with the dull name of A Force: its main task was to confuse the enemy. The other two, Orde Wingate and Tony Simonds, Wavell sent up to Khartoum to get on with dislocating Mussolini’s hold on Abyssinia; this hold dated back to the recent war of 1935–6.

In Khartoum Wingate and Simonds joined Mission 101 – another dull name to cover work a good deal less dull – which was remotely controlled, through G(R) in Cairo, by MI R and then by SOE in London, but was answerable also to Wavell in Cairo and to General Platt, the army commander on the spot. Its aim was to unsettle the Italians’ hold on Abyssinia. The head of Mission 101, D. A. Sandford, was older than most in the irregular war – he had just turned fifty-eight – but he knew Abyssinia well, had been consul in Addis Ababa before he left to win two DSOs as a gunner officer in the Great War, and had farmed there for fifteen years between the wars. This calm, stocky, balding, bespectacled colonel (soon made a brigadier) went forward, on his own initiative, into enemy territory not long after Italy joined what Mussolini supposed to be the winning side on 10 June 1940. By mid-September he had established himself at Faguta in the Chokey mountain range, south of Lake Tana, and began to distribute arms to friendly tribesmen. A year before, he had been quietly ensconced in Surrey as treasurer of Guildford cathedral; the prescient Wavell, spurred on by the intelligence staff who operated in Cairo, had summoned him eastward again.

Wingate’s personality was so powerful, and the influence he wielded over reporters so mesmeric, that it has hardly yet been possible to rebuild the history of SOE’s effort into Abyssinia as a coherent whole, and to present it in its proper context in the history of the war: Wingate, Wingate, Wingate has overshadowed everything, even the luminous gallantry of Platt’s soldiers, most of them Indian, who stormed the all-but-untakeable fortress of Keren in Eritrea. Moreover, the fact that Wingate had any connection with SOE, though well known to such well-informed authors as W. E. D. Allen (who was in SOE himself, at Wingate’s elbow) or Christopher Sykes, had to remain secret so long as SOE itself was secret: that is, till the mid-sixties. It was not too hard to hide it from the war correspondents, who stuck to Wingate like burrs, having discovered that wherever he went there was sure to be a story. In the end, long after he had left SOE, two of them died with him in an air crash.

Ronald Lewin has reminded us that the whole east African campaign of 1940–1 awaits reassessment in the light of the hitherto ultra-secret papers from Bletchley that transformed the picture of how the very senior staff made up their minds. The SOE aspect of the campaign, though less important, also calls for some rethinking. As this was the first of SOE’s enterprises east of the Atlantic that got anywhere worth going, it deserves to be glanced at, at least, in these pages. It provided several pointers useful for SOE’s future.

According to Dodds-Parker, MI R’s and then SOE’s anchorman in Khartoum – he had been in the Sudan political service before he joined the Grenadier Guards – many of the ideas loosely attributed to Wingate, such as the hiring of camels, and naming those Abyssinians who would join the British against the Italian’s patriot forces, had been put in train before ever Wingate reached Khartoum, by the G(R) branch there over which Terence Airey (then a colonel) presided.

Sandford knew, better than most, that the Italian conquest of Abyssinia, which had begun on 3 October 1935, was incomplete in the autumn of 1940; just as was, in the early summer of 1984, the Russian conquest of Afghanistan, which began in December 1979. In remote mountain areas the locals disdained the Italian conquerors, as well as fearing them, and if given arms and a lead might be brought to move against them. The ideal leader was sent out from England to Egypt, by a Foreign Office initiative, on one of the last flying-boat sorties before the short route closed down, on 24/25 June 1940: a small, neat, copper-skinned, dark-bearded man of upright stance and princely bearing. In Alexandria he was called Mr Strong; on 2 July, with a new alias – Mr Smith – he settled at Jebel Aulia, near Khartoum. He was at once recognised. The bush telegraph spread word that he was on his way back to his throne: for he was the Lion of Judah, King of Kings, the Emperor Haile Selassie.

One English friend had come with him, as part of his small entourage: George Steer, who had been The Times’s man in Addis Ababa in 1935–6, and belonged in turn to EH and to SO1.

The emperor’s presence was welcome to many Abyssinian refugees in the Sudan; somewhat less welcome to British political officials, easily embarrassed by potentates and uncertain about high government policy. Sandford had had orders direct from Wavell to start a rebellion in Abyssinia, intended to weaken the Italian hold on the country from within, while formal armies attacked it from without. It was not at first perfectly plain to those most concerned whether the British meant to restore Haile Selassie, or simply to use him as a tool for replacing Italian power in east Africa by British.

These doubts were resolved by a conference of senior personalities which began at Khartoum on 28 October (the day Mussolini invaded Greece) and lasted for three days. Eden, then war minister, General J. C. Smuts and Wavell were all present, backed by two lieutenant-generals, Dickinson and Cunningham who was about to succeed him. (Where, one wonders, was Platt?) The governor of the Sudan, the British embassy in Cairo and G(R) were represented also; and the emperor appeared in person to assert his right to fight in his own cause. Eden backed him, sticking to the line he had tried to follow five years earlier as Minister for League of Nations Affairs. The meeting approved the emperor’s will to fight – thus implicitly approving his right to rule when he got back; and accepted his proposal that the tribes who joined his effort should be called patriot forces.

A four-pronged strategy was approved. Platt was to attack Abyssinia from the north, Cunningham from the south-east; G(R) – that is, SOE – was to put in two attacks from the west, with one of which the emperor was to travel. This was where Wingate and Simonds came in: they arrived a week later, on 6 November 1940. Wingate brought with him a credit for £1 million (later doubled). Much of the first instalment was swallowed up in a business on which G(R) had already embarked: the hiring of camels, mules, muleteers and camel-drivers.

G(R) collected 18,000 camels, 15,000 of which set out on the long trek eastward into the mountains. Fewer than sixty of these went all the way through to Addis Ababa. Indeed, so many died on the way that the hinder parts of the columns could navigate by smell – the stench of the dead camels’ bodies ahead of them showed them the way. Wingate was excellent with horses, but knew little about how to manage camels. No one senior on the spot realised that the Sudanese camel is a splendid creature for work over sandy deserts, but is unlikely to flourish on the mountain plateau of the Gojjam, some 2000 metres above sea level, where Sandford was already lodged and which formed the emperor’s first objective.

Many of the recruits attracted locally for the mission were urban Arabs, who knew no more of camels than their new masters did. For them, the promise of £E10 – to be paid when they got back – and free food on the journey was enough. Wavell authorised a quick call for volunteers from the officers and NCOs of the household cavalry division in Palestine – those units that by tradition ‘hadn’t reckoned on going farther out of Town than Windsor’ – and of the dominion troops in the Nile delta: the call that became familiar in the army, for hazardous service, no details given. By tradition, again, sound regimental types stayed with their regiments (‘never apologise, never volunteer’). Yet men who disliked the formal side of regimental life, or were merely bored with garrison duty and in search of adventure, could seize on this as a way of escape. A number of striking characters turned up in Khartoum. Among them were (Sir) Laurens van der Post, the naturalist from South Africa; Wilfred Thesiger, the traveller, who became political officer with Wingate’s column; and A. H. Wienholt, a 63-year-old Australian senator, bored by politics, who had hunted lion in central Africa and was large-hearted enough to be ready to hunt bigger game still. They were squadded into small groups with the cumbrous title of operational centres. Their task was to go forward, with or near the two guerilla columns, to issue arms and provide leadership for such patriot forces as came to join the emperor’s – the allied – cause. The experience of such old hands as Wienholt was to prove most useful when it came to collecting and loading kit.

Wingate reconnoitred forward, as a good commander should. On 20 November 1940, in the RAF’s first successful operation for SOE, Pilot Officer Collis of 47 Squadron flew him – he then hated air travel – into Abyssinia, gave him a sight of the mountain escarpment that lines its western edge, took him over parts of Gojjam province, landed him on an improvised air strip at Faguta, and flew him back to Khartoum two days later when he had finished talking to Sandford. Landing and take-off at the edge of a precipice in an obsolete Vincent biplane were so exceedingly tricky that for this feat alone – SOE’s first pick-up operation – Collis was awarded a DFC.

At this first meeting Wingate got on well with Sandford (with whom he quarrelled dreadfully later). Fortunately, Wingate and the emperor – who had met once briefly before, at Brown’s Hotel in Mayfair – got on well with each other also. Haile Selassie had all the readiness of exiled royalty to take umbrage, though he also had the good sense to keep his manners under tight control. He knew, especially after Eden had taken his side at the Khartoum conference, that he had such weight as the British government could exert behind him, and was cheerfully ready to put up with the little troubles of camp life on the march. Wingate had been notorious, ever since he had been a cadet at Woolwich, for awkwardness: he seemed one of those men ‘born unto trouble, as the sparks fly upward’. His gifts for rubbing the pompous up the wrong way were without limit. He shared with his distant kinsman, T. E. Lawrence, keen blue eyes, short stature and bounding ambition. In Palestine he had organised the special night squads to which the Israeli army traces back its origin; in Palestine he had felt he had a mission, and he was smarting under an order from Wavell that he was not to set foot there again. A pen picture of him by his transport officer, one of the volunteers from the household cavalry, though well-known, is too vivid to leave unquoted:

He never spared his own body, and other critics would complain that he thrust into every action to gain the credit for himself. I think rather that he had a thirsty passion for battle as others have for gambling. His pale blue eyes, narrow-set, burned with an insatiable glare. His spare, bony, ugly figure with its crouching gait had the hang of an animal run by hunting yet hungry for the next night’s prey.

It took Wingate, Simonds and Dodds-Parker two months to settle the final details. Till Simonds’ memoirs appear, little will be known about the more northerly guerilla thrust towards Lake Tana – called Begemder Force, after the province it worked in – beyond one brilliant anecdote: that Wienholt, the old lion-hunter, last seen by his own side crawling badly wounded into the bush after his convoy had been ambushed by some Italians of enterprise, was captured by them, and – though in uniform – sentenced to be shot: he faced his firing party calmly, wrapped in a Union Jack. From the southern column also, four Sudanese prisoners captured in uniform wereshot by the Italians, not too careful of international law.

Before ever he left Cairo, Sandford had been warned by Sir Arthur Longmore, air commander-in-chief in the Middle East, that in principle no aircraft were available; but that if he absolutely must have one or two sorties, he could ask for them. Communications and supply went therefore mainly by land; but a few of the cumbrous early short-wave W/T sets were perfectly portable on muleback, and with them Wingate and Simonds were able to keep their headquarters back in Khartoum informed of their progress, with really very little trouble.

One scandal arose: from the conduct of a detached officer who need not be named. He appealed by wireless to his friend Dodds-Parker for help. He was surrounded by delectable African damsels, who were pressing their services on him; he thought they all had syphilis; could Dodds-Parker parachute him in some protective kit? He did not know, as the agonised Dodds-Parker knew only too well, that all the expedition’s telegrams were read both by G(R) and by Wavell and Platt, who were appalled. From this unsavoury incident derived part of SOE’s unsavoury reputation among parts of the high command. Wingate did not need to know.

He, aware that he was wielding the sword of the Lord and of Gideon, called his wing of the mission Gideon Force. The emperor marched with him. They had a battalion of Sudanese, commanded by Hugo Boustead, the mountaineer; a battalion of Abyssinian volunteers; and several operational centres. The total force available to Mission 101 was about 1800 men; they set off in January 1941 to displace several thousand Italian and Abyssinian troops, if they could. On 21 January, two days after Platt’s attack on Eritrea began, Haile Selassie raised his flag at Um Idla, just inside his state’s border, some 250 miles SSE of Khartoum.

Wingate did not make himself loved by his next decision, which was to set off – forgetting how bad his maps were – on a cross-country march on a compass bearing. It took some days’ toil and the loss of many animals before he relented. The Italians who might – should – have barred the way to Gideon Force, overestimating its numbers because the camels straggled so, were outfaced by a single platoon of Boustead’s, and withdrew instead of fighting. The force pressed on into the interior.

Currency might have made trouble. Mission 101 took care to pay for all the forage and food it secured from the Abyssinians, who welcomed it, but the payments had to be made in the only money that was locally recognised as worth having: Maria Theresa silver thalers (dollars) dated 1764. These huge coins, as big as an English crown piece and then worth an English florin (10p), were treasured. It is a mark of MI R’s extraordinary range and foresight that in April 1940 they persuaded the Indian Mint, that august body where coin had long been struck for the Raj, to coin several hundred thousand pounds’ worth of Maria Theresa thalers, all duly dated 1764, out of silver MI R provided. All passed Abyssinian scrutiny as authentic coin.

The mission was not well put together formally – there were incessant troubles between Sandford and Wingate, whose spheres of action had not been clearly enough laid down; but what it lacked in formalities it made up for in courage. By prodigious efforts, the stores and a few lorries were hauled up the escarpment into the Gojjam, where the camels started to die faster than ever, but the men in the force could rejoice in the cooler air and the varied scenery. Not till the last two days of February and 1 March 1941 did they have serious contact with the enemy. On those three days Wingate and Boustead, with a fighting force of about 450 men, routed 7000 Italian and auxiliary soldiers: by dint of rapid patrolling, better marksmanship, a fragment of air support (three Wellesleys attacked an Italian fort at Burye on 1 March), and sheer instinct to win. Unluckily the surviving Italians, fleeing south-eastward, stumbled on 6 March on the Abyssinian volunteer battalion, which had already bypassed them – had heard nothing of the fighting at Burye – and was caught resting, not dug in, not even with sentries posted. After a brief, savage tussle, the volunteers broke; they killed 200 Italians and wounded a great many more, but were brushed off the road (or what passed for a road), and had their own morale shattered: they never operated as a formed battalion again.

This was the Italians’ last victory against Abyssinian forces. Wingate pressed on, with Boustead’s cheerful Sudanese, with his operational centres and with the many hundred volunteers who had by now come in to join the emperor but had not been brigaded into formal units. As always, he led from in front. Once, operating a mortar by himself with an Abyssinian friend, he found himself under shellfire, and ordered the friend to move back under cover; England, he said, had plenty of men as intelligent as himself, but educated Abyssinians were so far rare and should be kept away from harm. Not far from him, he had Steer with an Amharic printing press, brought up on muleback; Steer busied himself putting out leaflets to those of the locals who could read, and blaring out suitable slogans through megaphones for those who could not. There were also several newspaper correspondents, who had at least found picturesque scenes to report, and were moving forward – so far in the war a rare happening – against axis forces.

The battle on 6 March had revealed to the Italians who won it that they were not, as they had thought, campaigning against a British division; Wingate’s next task was to convince them that, after all, they were. He brought it off through a combination of daring and bluff.

His enemies stood at bay round the town of Debra Markos and a short string of forts to the west of it, called the Gulit position. One of the Sudanese companies, led by Bimbashi Johnson, distinguished itself by particularly vigorous patrolling in the hills north and east of Gulit and Debra Markos. His party bore out a remark of Allen’s about British survival, against the odds, in 1940: ‘Perhaps God fights on the side of the great hearts and not of the big battalions.’ Boustead’s troops pressed hard against Gulit, and took the position at the end of March, while Wingate was having another slap-up row with Sandford – this time about administrative planning – a few miles back up the road. On 3 April, Johnson and three platoons who had got right round to the east of Debra Markos ambushed a convoy of reinforcements coming up from the capital: out of twenty-eight lorries and a pair of armoured cars, only a few lorries got away back eastwards. Eleven Italian officers and a large number of natives were left dead on the road or in the wrecks. The Boyes rifle, useless against tanks, proved itself effective against Italian armoured cars; an Abyssinian NCO volunteer had disabled two armoured cars with one Boyes rifle four weeks earlier.

On 4 April, the garrison of Debra Markos, unnerved by Boustead’s pressure from the west and the unexpected appearance of Johnson’s ambush behind them, scarpered – not even pausing to destroy all their stores. Wingate had by now come forward again; and was present in one of the captured forts when the telephone rang. Edmund Stevens of the Boston Christian Science Monitor, who happened to speak flawless Italian, was standing beside it and picked up the receiver.

The call was from Safartak, the fort at the Blue Nile crossing, Wingate’s next objective; what was happening at Debra Markos? Wingate said: ‘Tell them that ten thousand British troops are closing in on them.’ Stevens did so. What, the voice at the far end wailed, was to be done? ‘There’s only one thing to do,’ Stevens replied in Italian. ‘Clear out subito,’ straight away: the Italians did. By this elementary ruse, Wingate forced the crossing of the Blue Nile.

An attempt to ambush the Italians at the Safartak crossing as they withdrew miscarried, but so did their attempt to destroy the bridge. A lull in operations followed, broken only by Boustead’s bluffing (with a couple of platoons) the Italian battalion at Mota, the last enemy stronghold in the Chokey mountains, into surrender. Political difficulties supervened; some between the emperor and such local chieftains as Ras Hailu, who taught Wingate what the grand manner really was when he approached the emperor for a public reconciliation and made a bow that would not have disgraced the court of Louis XIV; some, more awkward, between the emperor and General Cunningham. Cunningham had advanced fast from Kenya, and took Addis Ababa the day after Wingate took Debra Markos. Both events were at once pushed out of the world’s headlines by the German attack on Yugoslavia and Greece on 6 April.

Haile Selassie was determined to enter his own capital. Gideon Force was with him when he finally did so on 5 May 1941. He had had enough of riding, and politely refused the white horse offered him in favour of a limousine. Wingate, ill dressed for the part in khaki shorts and sun helmet, leaped on the white horse and led the procession.

His force had done its principal job of distracting and confusing the enemy. Some use was made of fragments of it in the months that followed; the last Italians in Abyssinia to surrender did so in November. As Christopher Sykes put it, ‘From first to last Gideon Force was an essay in deception. It was never an essay in common sense.’ Wingate was prostrated by his extraordinary efforts, and had a nervous breakdown in hospital in Cairo. Eventually he was sent back to London, where he and SOE decided they would see no more of each other; he went off to gain his immortal name as the Chindit leader in Burma, where he died in 1944. Simonds was collected by SOE in Cairo to take over their nascent Greek section from Ogilvie Grant, who wanted to go on operations (he was parachuted into the Peloponnese, and almost at once became a prisoner). Later Simonds moved over to run N section of A Force, which dealt with escapes. Van der Post moved on to the Far East, where he disappeared – for the time – when the Japanese overran Singapore; to the distress of those who had known him.

Dodds-Parker returned to London to report the lessons learned; which he has recently summarised. There had not been many air drops to Wingate or to Simonds, but there had been enough for the British armed forces to take in – what the German General Student was about to prove again in Crete – that airborne and air-supplied operations had now arrived to take their place beside others as normal forms of warfare. There were plenty of minor points, about wireless and packing, that were worth reporting and improving. The ill-named operational centres had most of them only got into action in the closing stages, after the fall of Debra Markos; but in them inhered what became one of SOE’s leading ideas: that patriot forces – however named, however organised – could be given a sharper cutting edge by the presence of small groups of officers and NCOs trained in tactics, especially the tactics of sabotage and attack. The many groups working with partisans in Italy, Greece and Yugoslavia in 1943–5, and the ‘Jedburgh’ teams in France, Holland and Norway in 1944, thus have an origin that can be traced back to Gideon Force.

The main lesson of interest remained: that a major guerilla war could be mounted with effect, provided that it was timed to join in with the efforts of more regular forces in the same theatre of war. It would be all the more effective if it had such a magnet attached to it as the emperor; on the other hand, there were always likely to be local personages – such as Ras Hailu of the marvellous bow – who might work for one side, or might work for another, and would need special watch and special treatment. On the sabotage and weapon fronts there were lessons to be learned, as well; it is worth remarking that the details of the Sten were fixed a couple of months after the capture of Debra Markos.

It is less agreeable to have to report that Dodds-Parker found himself less often invited to lecture about the exploits of Gideon Force than he had expected; because, he gathered, the South African government had been upset at the ease with which a largely white army had been defeated by a largely black one.

It is time to turn from victory and farce to tragedy.

SAS Formation and WWII

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Colonel David Stirling, founder of the Special Air Service, talking with Lieutenant Edward MacDonald [driver] with SAS jeep patrol in North Africa, 18 January 1943.

The SAS was created in the Middle East Theatre of war during 1941 as ‘L’ Detachment of the non-existent Special Air Service Brigade (so-called to deceive German Intelligence). It was developed by Scots Guardsman and Commando, David Stirling, and several of his colleagues, who saw that there was room for a special force tasked solely with strategic small unit operations behind-the- lines, focusing on raiding, sabotage and harassment of the enemy’s military forces and infrastructure (see my forthcoming The Origins Of The SAS for a full and revised account). In other words, regular soldiers would take on a role more normally associated with irregular (non-Army) fighters, operating as guerillas. This was carried on with considerable success by foot and motor patrols between 1942 and 1944 in the Middle East and other Theatres, to such an extent that, by January 1944, a real SAS Brigade was established with the approval of the British Chiefs of Staff [COS], led by the Chief of the Imperial General Staff [CIGS], Field-Marshal (later Lord) Alan Brooke.

The SAS Brigade’s strength included a HQ staff, the 1st. and 2nd. British SAS Regiments, the 3rd. and 4th. French SAS Regiments, the 5th. Belgian SAS Regiment, and ‘F’ Squadron (HQ Liaison) of the ‘Phantom’ special signals organisation. All told, the SAS had about 2500 personnel at this point and was at the peak of its powers. Yet, because the SAS had not been granted its own Corps Warrant by the Army Council (under which new Regiments are raised), it “technically had no separate existence as regiments in the British Order of Battle [orbat] and, for administration [purposes, it] needed to be part of some established [or regular Army] force”. In view of the SAS’s familiarity with and expertise in parachuting, the HQ SAS Troops – formed in 1944, under Brigadier Roderick ‘Roddy’ W. McLeod – was attached to the 1st. Airborne Corps HQ. It was commanded by the highly regarded Lieutenant-General (later General Sir) Frederick A. M. ‘Boy’ Browning. As James Ladd points out, when it came to choosing a ‘home’ for the SAS in the Army, the Airborne Forces “was the obvious choice”, if not one that truly represented its particular function and broader talents.

Suitably impressed by the SAS’s pedigree, Boy Browning took it upon himself to get it incorporated into the British orbat for the forthcoming D-day landings in France. He approached members of the top brass who would be making the crucial decisions in this regard and, in anticipation of acquiring a place in the invasion forces, SAS staff working with Airborne Corps personnel at their Moor Park Golf Course HQ, in north-west London, started planning for these operations. The onus for “initial and strategic [SAS] planning, staff duties and training”, fell on the Brigade’s Liaison Officer to the Airborne Forces, Lieutenant- Colonel Ian G. Collins (a pre-war tennis champion), who worked in the Service’s Tactical HQ. While carrying out these duties – which in geographical terms spanned far more than just the upcoming return of British forces to France – Collins gained valuable experience that would prove crucial to the SAS after the War. Not only did he deal with the preparation of all SAS operations, he took part in the coordination of action with the Commandos and “the activities of special agents”. This included members of the Secret Intelligence Service [SIS, or MI6] and the Special Operations Executive [SOE]. Among other things, they assisted partisan Resistance fighters and movements around the world, just as SAS personnel were doing in Europe and the Middle East.

The knowledge of such enterprises that Lt.-Col. Collins and his colleagues acquired stood them in good stead when it came time to looking beyond immediate wartime requirements and plotting the SAS’s course in the post-war world. Collins, in particular, gained considerable insight into the way that guerilla forces worked, including nationalist partisans, who were the military arm of underground movements. He additionally developed relationships with other British and Allied agencies that were dealing with secret clandestine operations. Furthermore, numerous SAS soldiers gained first-hand experience of unconventional combat, fighting both as guerillas and alongside those operating in the Maquis and other anti-Axis irregular forces. All this meant that a pool of knowledge about unconventional warfare methods, organisation and their practitioners’ vulnerabilities was developing within the SAS, which boded well for a future in which the guerilla would play an increasing role on the international scene. Indeed, during their exploits in Alsace-Lorraine, in eastern France, during August 1944, the SAS and their French comrades-in-arms became the target of massive German counter-guerilla sweep operations, which featured a vanguard force of “special anti-partisan units”. These ‘Jagd-kommando’ (‘Pursuit Commandos’) conducted independent small unit patrols too, just as their quarry did, and the Allied forces had several brushes with these units. It is quite likely that such episodes made an impression upon senior British SAS officers and that they drew upon this wartime experience in due course.

By the autumn of 1944, it appeared to most Allied observers that the Axis was crumbling and that the European War would end sooner rather than later – certainly by 1946. Faced with the prospect of reductions in the British Armed Forces’ funding and manpower, the SAS had to think of ways to survive the axe and remain available for special operations during peacetime. Hence, it needed to demonstrate both that such commitments were likely to arise in the near future, and that it was best equipped to handle them – as opposed to any of the dozens of other wartime special forces.

Adaptability and flexibility would be the SAS’s bywords and, by at least 2nd. September 1944, such virtues were being demonstrated by Lt.-Col. Collins. At that time, “both Airborne HQ Troops and the SAS Brigade .. had begun to consider .. future employments”, and Collins floated the idea of using the SAS for counter-intelligence work in Germany. In addition, he pushed for the creation of Teams that could pursue and arrest suspected Nazi war criminals who had committed war crimes such as the execution of SAS personnel, and who would be trying to flee justice before the end of the War. Looking beyond that time, Collins thought that another commitment that the SAS could fulfil was the disarmament of Axis forces in Scandinavia. Finally, the war in the Far East looked like going on into 1946, so an SAS deployment in Asia was mooted. By 5th. October 1944, Lt.-Col. Collins produced “the first of a number of .. [written] appreciations that were designed to ‘sell’ the SAS to often sceptical higher headquarters” and, in this drive, he was backed up by several senior officers who were friends of the SAS, including Brig. McLeod and Lt.-Gen. Browning.

By 1945, the HQ SAS Troops was trying hard to find “a role – any role – for the SAS”, and a place in “the order of battle for any operation that was going”, whether in North-West or South-East Europe, the Middle East or the Far East. Every effort was made to lobby those in positions of authority, in the knowledge that unless the SAS Brigade was “in at the finish with a record of adaptability to current circumstances”, then it would not be in a position to “claim exemption from .. post-war cuts in manpower”.

Above and beyond the roles and missions suggested by Collins et al, at the end of 1944, the War Office was preparing for the possibility of a long drawn-out German underground resistance to an Allied invasion. In doing so, the Service Department’s Intelligence officers studied the potential problems posed by a determined, well-organised guerilla foe, and they produced reports recommending traditional-style large-scale counter-guerilla operations, such as area sweeps or drives. But, they also referred to the possibilities offered by experimental small unit forces with air support, including the use of pseudo-guerilla units that donned civilian clothing and feigned guerilla status. Some SAS personnel may well have picked up on such ideas and proffered counter-guerilla action as a future SAS role that would be necessary in the post-war world and which the Regiment was well placed to undertake. Indeed, by the end of 1944, there was a precedent for this that was well known to the SAS.

In December 1944, the SAS’s cousins in the SBS took a leading role in the suppression of Communist urban guerillas operating in Athens as part of a wider attempt to seize power there. As James Ladd indicates, Lt.-Col. Sutherland’s SBS soldiers got embroiled in what “was the first brush for their SAS line of descendants with urban terrorists”. Indeed, the SAS had at least one official observer on the spot, who was monitoring how the British forces tackled the Leftist gunmen – Major Roy Alexander Farran. Subsequently a legendary figure in the Regiment, at that point, he was the commander of third (‘C’) Squadron, 2nd. SAS Regiment. He already knew that part of the world and had propositioned the War Office Directorate of Military Intelligence [DMI] to send him to Greece, likely for the express purpose of assessing how counter/guerilla forces operated. Whatever the case, he was posted as the SAS’s observer at the Land Forces Adriatic HQ. From there, he witnessed the fighting on the ground and, although Farran later described his Hellenic sojourn as “a bit of a holiday”, there was a serious side to his employment. Indeed, details of the operations there were reported to his superiors, notably 2 SAS’s commanding officer, Lieutenant- Colonel Brian Morton Foster Franks.

Major Farran’s views would have carried much weight with Franks and others, for, after fighting with 2 SAS in North Africa, Sicily and France during 1943/44 (including missions alongside SOE operatives), Farran had developed “a considerable reputation” in the Regiment. Hence, it is interesting to note that, by 1945, both he and Franks were enthusiastic advocates of a future counter-guerilla role for the SAS. As James Ladd notes, “although special forces of SAS or Commando units were not trained or equipped for anti-terrorist roles [in 1945], there was probably the notion in some quarters that they could be used for this purpose”, and this was nowhere more so than in 2 SAS. Another officer with an even more formidable record in unconventional fighting joined the SAS hierarchy at the turn of 1944/45. Some historians have stated that, in December 1944, Brig. McLeod was replaced as commander of the SAS Brigade by Brigadier James Michael ‘Mad Mike’ Calvert. Others note that he took over command of the SAS in February or March 1945. But his biographer, David Rooney, states that Calvert arrived at its HQ near Halstead airfield in January 1945.

Previously, Calvert had met the Stirling brothers (David and Bill) while instructing Commandos in 1940, before a posting with the War Office’s Military Intelligence (Research) [MI(R)] section. There, he shared his thoughts about unconventional warfare with colleagues like General Sir Colin M. Gubbins (co- founder of the SOE) and Lieutenant (later Field-Marshal Sir) Gerald W. R. Templer (who went on to make his name as COIN supremo in Malaya). During his time at MI(R), Calvert wrote a booklet, The operations of small forces behind the enemy lines, in which he advocated the guerilla defence of Britain by regular Army and irregular forces, in the event of a Nazi invasion. Calvert was able to implement his theories in various territories, following Japan’s conquest of South-East Asia and the Pacific. In 1941, he taught SOE and Commando leaders at the Burma Bush Warfare School and, in 1942, he organised ‘V’ (Viper) Force for guerilla operations on New Guinea. There, Australia’s Independent Companies followed the example set by those that had raided Norway in 1940 (and which had included the core of many British Commando units). Thereafter, ‘Mad Mike’ served with General Orde Wingate and his special force of Chindits in Burma. They practised jungle warfare, including short guerilla patrols, “long-range penetration”, and “strong- hold” tactics. Hence, on arrival at the SAS Brigade, he commanded great respect, both for his intellect and drive, fighting experience, and his will to see his new charge prosper.

Storming the “Halls of Montezuma”

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After the Mexican War battle of Churubusco on August 20, 1847, Mexico’s General Santa Anna tricked U.S. General Scott into two unfavorable maneuvers. First, he agreed to declare a truce to establish peace negotiations, but this was a ruse. Even while Santa Anna sold supplies to the American invaders, he quietly reinforced his army to 18,000 men while the American force was down to 8,000 effectives.

The second trick was passing false intelligence to Gen. Scott. Santa Anna led Scott to believe that at Molino del Ray, the stronghold west of Mexico City and one mile west of the Hill of Chapultepec, housed a cannon foundry where they were melting brass church bells into heavy cannon. The Americans attacked Molino, and it turned into a costly victory where 750 Americans were killed, and every remaining wounded American was murdered by the Mexicans. After inspection, Scott discovered that there was no foundry there. The heavy losses at Molino brought the six companies of U.S. Marines into battle.

Mexico City was a formidable target. Surrounded by marshes and with approaches via eight causeways, Scott faced obstacles similar to those Cortez had experienced 329 years earlier. Since the southern approach to the capital was heavily fortified, the American plan was to attack from the west at the two garitos or gates to the city. Each garito bristled with cannon positioned to rake the roadway. Scott’s line then was Molino, then Chapultepec, then the two gates leading into the city. One causeway was the Garita de Belen, another headed north two miles to the Garita de San Cosme.

The Hill of Chapultepec, 200 feet above the surrounding plain, was 600 yards wide, surrounded by a ditch and a 12-foot wall, and topped by a palace that had been made into a military school. It was fortified into a makeshift fortress as the Americans advanced on the capital.

The castle had once been a resort of the Aztec princes. The hill was steep all around except for a slope on the west where the Marines decided to attack. It had a sand-bag barricade at the entryway, and the hillside was mined with charges that were fused to be set off from the fortress.

Generals Scott and Worth regarded the fortress as impregnable. Even though it was vulnerable to American bombardment, both officers were grim on the prospect, and Gen. Worth thought, “we shall be defeated.” The hill was a fearsome objective to assault—but if taken, the army would then be able to move onto the causeways leading into the capital.

Two storming parties of 250 men each were assembled. The Marines were assigned to the 4th Division commanded by Army Brigadier General John Quitman, a Mississippian. The Americans moved out of the tree cover and faced the mined hillside that led to the retaining wall of the castle terrace.

At 8 a.m. on Monday, September 13, the attack began. Quitman’s men attacked the southern side of Chapultepec. Captain Silas Casey led an assault party of 120 hand-picked soldiers and Marines under Marine Major Levi Twiggs, and 40 Marines commanded by Marine Captain John Reynolds. They faced 1,000 Mexican troops inside the fortress.

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U.S. Marines storming Chapultepec castle under a large American flag.

The Halls of Montezuma

Chapultepec, also known as “the castle,” was an ancient Mexican shrine as well as a recent fortress. Three hundred years before the U.S. war, this had been the summer palace, replete with fountains, of Moctezuma, the Aztec emperor. In 1783, a Spanish viceroy built a new citadel on top of the ruins of the old palace. Surrounded by a huge retaining wall was a broad terrace that made for excellent cannon placement.

Around 1840, the Mexicans made this structure into their National Military Academy. Like at West Point, the young cadets learned military arts in their gray uniforms and tasseled blue caps. About one hundred of the cadets, though ordered to evacuate their school, stayed on and proudly fought to defend this memorial to Mexican history.

Six cadets became the boy heroes of Chapultepec. Those who died were: Vicente Suarez, age 13; Francisco Marquez, 14; Fernando Montes de Ora, 17; Agustin Melgar, 18; Juan de la Barrera, 20; and Juan Escutia, 20.

Cadet Escutia reportedly took the Academy flag from its staff, wrapped it around his body, and valiantly plunged to his death on the rocks below the castle rather than see the flag surrendered to the Americans.

 

Two of Chapultepec’s guns were soon disabled by American battery fire, and the disheartened Mexican soldiers began to desert. From the terrace came a murderous rain of grapeshot and musketry. General Pillow was struck in the ankle, but the whole American force flowed over the redoubt. The Americans were able to cut the canvas powder line that led to the mines and none exploded.

The Marines struggled up the steep southern side, fighting hand-to-hand with bayonets and clubbed rifles. Corporal Hugh Graham and five Marines were killed.

Casey and Twiggs fell wounded, the latter fatally, and they stopped 200 yards short of the guns. Scaling ladders finally reached the Americans. They bridged the ditch and their first wave was mowed down by the Mexicans. So many ladders rose, seemingly at once, that 50 men were up abreast. “And with a shout of victory, the great body of troops rushed over” the walls and gained the castle.

The Americans turned the Mexican guns around, relieving the pressure on Quitman’s column. The Mexicans fell back and the Americans charged the castle’s main gates. The Mexicans fled so hastily that they “jumped down the eastern side of the rock, regardless of the height.”

The young cadets who had refused to desert the school fought to the end. The six boys were killed, as an American correspondent put it, “fighting like demons.” They were to be called Los Ninos Heroicos—the heroic children.

Mexican officers watching their defeat from a distance said, “God is a Yankee,” as Americans from both sides reached the castle. At 9:30 a.m., an American flag was raised over the fortress.

Marine Captain George Terrett led First Lieutenant John Simms, Second Lieutenant Charles Henderson (son of the Commandant), and 36 men to skirt the heights and pursue the retreating enemy northeasterly towards the city itself. Terrett and his Marines raced up the road under heavy fire. Twenty infantry, led by Lieutenant Ulysses S. Grant, the future General and American President, joined them as they fought their way up the San Cosme causeway. They were the spearhead of the army contingent.

Casualties were severe until the Americans remembered the tactic they used at Monterey—breaking their way through the walls of buildings and hauling their guns through them. This tactic also enabled them to fire from the roofs.

General Worth’s bugles sounded recall. Terrett went back to report, but Simms and Henderson attacked with 85 men. The gate was too heavily defended to rely on a frontal assault alone, so Marine Lieutenants Simms and Jabez Rich led seven marines to attack from the left. Four were hit. Henderson, wounded in the leg, attacked from the front. Two more men were hit, but together, the two groups seized San Cosme gate as darkness fell.

Worth again sounded recall and the Marines and soldiers withdrew. Six Marines had been killed. Once Chapultepec fell, Quitman moved his division under fire east on the Belen causeway with the Marine battalion right behind a South Carolina regiment. At the Belen gate, they were stopped by enemy fire and Marine Private Tom Kelly was killed. Finally, at 1:20 p.m., the Marines and infantry carried the gate. At dawn on the 14th, Quitman and Worth prepared to assault the city through the two entrances—but Santa Anna had already pulled out.

Though Scott was angry at Quitman for the costliness of his attack on Belen, he felt the Mississippian and his Marines had earned the honor of formally taking the city. Within hours, he would appoint Quitman Mexico City’s military governor.

The Americans hardly looked the part of a conquering army. The victorious General Quitman wore only one shoe as he marched at the head of his ragged, blood-stained troops. Only about six thousand Americans remained on their feet—little more than half of those who had left Puebla.

Quitman’s men walked through the crowded streets into the Grand Plaza and took the National Plaza, where before had stood the halls of Montezuma. The Marines were stationed to guard the Palace. The U.S. Marines were now patrolling the halls of Montezuma. In the spring, the veterans were joined by a new 2nd Marine battalion of 367 men commanded by Major John Harris.

On February 2, 1848, the Mexicans accepted peace as the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo was signed. Even though the U.S. was victorious, they agreed to pay Mexico 15 million dollars in cash for the land they coveted. Mexico had lost half her territory—an area larger than France and Germany combined. The American boundary with Mexico would run from the Gulf of Mexico, up the Rio Grande, to the New Mexican border. Then it would continue west to the Pacific at a point one league, or three miles, south of San Diego.

The outspoken Duke of Wellington called Gen. Scott “the greatest living soldier.” It had been Scott’s flexibility and imagination, his attention to reconnaissance, and his tendency to strike from an unexpected side that supplied the tactics that won the war. In addition, he had the support of solid officers like Thomas (later Stonewall) Jackson, Robert E. Lee, U.S. Grant, P.T. Beauregard and Jefferson Davis. Only 13 years later, all of these men would become major players in the American Civil War.

With this victory, the expansion of the continental United States from coast to coast was now complete. And, in addition to Mexico, the Marines had also captured the opening words to their future Marine Hymn.

SBS in the Aegean – Late-1943

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Colonel Ian Lapraik of the SBS being welcomed on Cos.

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Greek caique Armadila leaving Co.

There is little doubt that the announcement of the Italian armistice had surprised the German Balkan Command in Salonika just as much as it had the British GHQ in Cairo, and if the latter did have a few extra hours’ notice, the former had the enormous advantage of a system of efficient military formations already developed throughout the Aegean. Moreover, the commanders of those formations had not long to wait for clear directions, for Hitler, faced with a threat to an area which provided him not only with bauxite, copper and chrome but also protection from Allied bomber attack on the Ploesti oil-fields, hardly hesitated for a moment. The whole Aegean area and especially the Dodecanese would be held, he proclaimed, either by a continuation of co-operation between the Italian and German troops in the area, or, if the Italians showed signs of obeying the orders of the renegade Badoglio government, then by German forces alone, who would not hesitate to use force to take and exert command. Within hours, German officers were interviewing their nearest Italian counterparts in the islands and requesting specific assurances of loyalty from them.

It is impossible not to feel some sympathy for the Italian garrison commanders. Most of them were middle-aged or even elderly senior officers whose service careers had been rewarded during recent years by appointments to these pleasant and sometimes delicious islands, where danger had been minimal, supplies from the homeland regular and of good quality, and duties easy enough hardly to disturb the even tenor of what resembled a happy retirement.

Suddenly they were faced with real danger and the necessity to make hard choices. Many of them, given the chance, would have been only too ready to welcome the British for whom they felt regard and indeed some affection, in place of the Germans for whom they felt only respect tinged with fear — but few of them knew for certain the attitudes of their subordinates (Samos was not the only island which held a contingent of Blackshirts), and for many of them there were even more urgent reasons to temporise. The British and American armies might be ashore on the foot of Italy, but their own wives and families lived far away up in the north in such places as Bologna or Milan — and how long would the Allies take to get there?

Even more urgently, how long would it take the Allies — in this case the British alone — to arrive here in these islands in sufficient strength to beat off not only the German forces already present with their abundant transport, excellent weapons and efficient organization, but also the reinforcements which would undoubtedly arrive from Greece should German control of the area appear in doubt? Admiral Campioni’s actions might in the eyes of history appear equivocal and pusillanimous compared with those of some of his compatriots, say in Cos or Leros, but how great a distance separated them, when the choice had to be made, from the nearest German military formation?

This was the main consideration which affected control of the Aegean immediately following the Italian armistice. Those islands which previously had held only an Italian garrison — Cos, Leros, Samos, Simi, Stampalia, Icaria — fell easily under the British influence once they had been visited by men of the quality of Lassen or Lapraik; Lemnos and Mytilene to the north, Chios, Kasos, Kythira, the northern Sporades, the Cyclades except Icara and, most significantly, Crete and Rhodes remained firmly in the Axis camp under German control. And once the situation stabilized and the battle-lines could be drawn, Admiral Fricke in Athens and General Klemann on Rhodes could see quite clearly that they held the strongest cards and that if they played them well they could win the whole pack.

The first essential for them was to secure control of the air above the Aegean by occupying every island which contained a practicable airstrip. Extra Me 109 fighters and Ju 87 dive-bombers had quickly been flown into Marizza and Calato, and on September 17th the Jus had begun a programme of attack on the nearest of the airstrips, Antimachia on Cos. Cos by this time had already received substantial Allied reinforcement — more South African Spitfires, more ground crew, a large contingent of the RAF Regiment, and a battalion of the Durham Light Infantry as main garrison troops. These last had spent months in Malta and thus knew all about shelter from air-raids, and if their spirits were somewhat cast down by so rapid a reappearance of the sights and sounds of siege warfare, they nevertheless set about propping up damaged buildings with dour goodwill and efficiency, and helping the RAF ground staff to fill in craters.

Their presence had also allowed the withdrawal of the paratroop company to Cyprus, and of the SBS, some of whom had gone back to Castelorizzo, while the bulk had gone to Kalymnos in preparation for a series of raids against German-held islands, especially, as has been mentioned, the one against Rhodes.

But that enemy convoy mentioned in David Sutherland’s diary for October 2nd had not, as he and his companions had thought, been ‘Bound for Rhodes’ at all. It had been bound for Cos, and it constituted the transport for Kampfgruppe Mueller which, by 0500 on the morning of October 3rd, had put a battalion of the 65th Panzer Grenadier Regiment ashore to drive across the neck of the island and meet the 16th Panzer Grenadiers, who had been landed near Cape Foca. Then German Fallschirmjäger from the Brandenburg Regiment dropped around Anti-machia, heavy Stuka attacks blew apart the defence posts, Me 109s shot up the Spitfires while they were still on the ground or taking off — and chased away the Beaufighters which came across from Cyprus in an effort to bring succour to the hard-pressed defenders.

These by the evening had almost all been overwhelmed by Kampfgruppe Mueller in a series of brilliant but violent actions, and by midnight the Germans controlled all of Cos except the dock area, upon which they focused searchlights and sniped and bombed everything that moved. Small parties of British and Italian soldiers sneaked their way out of town to climb the hills and make for a rendezvous at Cardamena with the admirable intention of carrying out their last orders, which were to try to continue the fight in guerilla fashion — but most of them were to be rounded up after a very short time.

Meanwhile, all day long Sutherland, Milner-Barry and the men of the SBS on Kalymnos had been horrified spectators of the battle, watching its inexorable progress: the silencing of one defensive position after another, the continuous arrival by sea of German reinforcements, and the unending flights of Luftwaffe aircraft overhead, both virtually uninterrupted. During the morning they had prepared themselves and their weapons to undertake some form of interference in the onslaught taking place only a mile away across the water, but by the time orders arrived for them to land and aid the defenders of Antimachia it was quite obvious that they were already too late; and against the heavy weapons of the Panzer Grenadiers the small arms of a raiding force would in any case have been inadequate.

When the more violent sounds of battle died down and only the occasional crack of rifle shot pierced the night, Milner-Barry and his patrol put to sea aboard a caique of the Levant Schooner Flotilla. They crept around the eastern end of Cos and went ashore on the south coast in a small bay where they immediately ran into a party of RAF men from Antimachia, who told them in detail of the events of the day. After sending the RAF men away in the caique and arranging for its return on the night of 7th/8th, Milner-Barry and his men found a small wadi a little way inland and took up residence there, the rest of that night and the early hours of the morning being spent bringing up from the beach the rest of their own gear, the wireless set and its infernal batteries.

During the following day watch was kept from a high point at the end of the wadi and a dozen assorted army and RAF men were found and brought in, but during the afternoon Private Watler vanished and search parties failed to find him. Then at dusk German infantry were seen approaching in line, driving Italian troops in front, and soon the wadi was full of ‘hysterical Italians who attached themselves to us, and the Germans began to mortar the wadi at both ends.’

In desperation, Milner-Barry moved away with his own men, all the British he had collected and about fifty Italians whom he could not shake off, and a short distance along the coast he found some rafts, built apparently by either British or Italians but then abandoned. As there was no hope of a ship coming in that night to take anyone off, Milner-Barry and a dozen of the more stout-hearted boarded the rafts and for three hours paddled eastwards along the coast in the direction of Turkey; but in time the rafts became waterlogged and they had to abandon their equipment and swim for the shore.

They spent the next three days making contact with the men who had prudently elected to remain behind and collecting more refugees from Cos and Antimachia — a process made more difficult than it might have been by the fact that after the débâcle aboard the rafts, the party had only three pairs of boots between them. However, Lieutenant McLeod’s caique duly arrived on time, made two trips to the Turkish mainland and deposited most of the SBS men (who joined one of their own patrols busily setting up a clandestine raiding base in one of the bays in that deeply indented coast) and the bulk of the refugees.

But there were still British soldiers and airmen at liberty on Cos, and on the night of October 8th/9th Milner-Barry accompanied by Lance-Corporal Watson and Gunner Geddes, returned to the island in McLeod’s caique. They immediately found and sent off another batch of eighteen men who had gathered in the bay, and then began looking for yet more stragglers — a gratuitously generous action which proved very fortunate for Lieutenant-Colonel Browne and nearly forty other officers and sappers of his unit, all of whom, plus a Greek peasant whose bravery and help during this time would have placed his life in jeopardy if ever he was caught, were brought out on the night of October 12th/ 13th.

Altogether, McLeod’s crew and Milner-Barry’s patrol rescued sixteen British officers and seventy-four NCOs and men, together with a very large number of Italians and a few brave Greeks. It had been a nerve-racking operation, and at the end of it Milner-Barry was flown back to Alexandria to go into hospital suffering from exhaustion and a bad case of ‘desert sores’, while the rest of his patrol went to Castelrosso — for Kalymnos and the ‘Sponge Queen’ had been reluctantly abandoned to the Germans.

So had Private Watler — though this was not a decision which he, as a man who had already wandered about behind enemy lines in the desert for eighty days, had been prepared to accept.

Watler had been seen by two Germans during his period of guard duty at the head of the wadi, and realizing that to open fire on them would attract unwelcome attention while to return towards safety would betray the position of the rest of the patrol, he had moved away further inland. He had quickly succeeded in shaking off his pursuers but was then captured when approaching the only water-supply, and two days later he found himself with about 1,000 other British prisoners in Cos Castle, about to be shipped off to Greece — a fate he avoided by feigning the symptoms of malaria. A week later he was out of hospital and back in the castle, which now held only some forty prisoners among whom was a signals corporal who helped him obtain a long length of electric Hex, down which they both slid the following night.

They were only at liberty for five hours, but six days later they were out again — down the same length of flex, which the Germans had unaccountably failed to find — to creep through the darkness down to the sea and swim out some 200 yards. They then turned and made their way along the coast until they were beyond the outskirts of the town, whereupon they returned to land and climbed to a small Greek village where they were well looked after. From there they made short forays in search of other strays like themselves, and on one such search they found a dump containing 100-octane petrol in forty-gallon drums, one of which they pierced with nails, though in view of the uncertainty of their own future, they refrained from setting alight the resultant puddle.

They then heard that British small craft were stealing nightly into a nearby bay to find people such as themselves, and, their luck improving, they were picked up and Watler soon found himself back at Castelrosso, where, having reported the position of the petrol dump, he promptly volunteered to go back and help destroy it. But three weeks later when he and his patrol went ashore to search the area, the petrol had gone — and much else besides, for the Germans were preparing for another operation.

Gratified by their success on Cos, they had turned their main attention to the next important island still in British hands: Leros, with its naval port and fortress, long proclaimed by the Italians to be the crucial base from which naval command of approaches to Salonika and the Dardanelles could be exercised. But first, there was a flank to be cleared — a small matter of a wasps’ nest close at hand which might prove a nuisance. The island of Simi must be occupied, the threat it posed eliminated, and a radio station installed there with which to monitor and exercise control over communications in the southern area.

Fighting Pirates at Quallah Battoo

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Quallah Battoo Artist: Colonel Charles H. Waterhouse, USMCR

Less than ten degrees north of the equator, on the island of Sumatra, lies the rich pepper-growing region of Acheh. Beginning in the 1790s, New England trading ships would stop along the island’s western coast to exchange Spanish silver for the spice, needed not only to flavor and preserve food, but for the lucrative trans-Atlantic trade with Europe.

American ships, based primarily in Salem, had made nearly a thousand voyages carrying away 370 million pounds of pepper worth 17 million dollars at wholesale—almost half the pepper produced in Acheh during this period. A pound of pepper then sold for $13.

The American ships were faster, and the Dutch and British disliked their competition in this lucrative business. They pressured the Sultan of Acheh, Muhammed Shaw, to detain American ships in violation of trading laws. The British went so far as to try to entirely exclude American trade from Acheh. It is unclear how much of the piracy on American ships was pure robbery and how much was influenced by the colonial power games of the period.

In January 1831, one of these American merchant vessels—the Friendship—dropped anchor off the Sumatran town of Quallah Battoo to take on a load of pepper. A band of Malay pirates in three proas, or ships, boarded the Friendship, murdered a large part of the crew, looted the cargo and drove the craft ashore. Their plunder included four chests of opium which was used in medicine, and 18,000 Spanish dollars.

The Malay pirate fleets along the Straits of Malaka were considered the “Vikings of the East.” Their proas were 50 feet long, fast, and nimble, using both oars and light sails, and were armed with swivel guns mounted on bulkheads. The pirates, dressed in scarlet and chain-mail, brandished krises—a sword with a wavy blade—two-handed swords, and flintlocks. They were famous for either murdering every soul on board, or selling the few survivors to slavery.

The Captain of the Friendship, Charles Endicott, had been ashore during the attack. When he made a complaint to the local chieftain, Mahomet, insult was added to injury for Mahomet then put a price on the head of both the Captain and his officers. With the help of a friendly native chief, Po Adam, Endicott enlisted the help of three other merchant captains who agreed to help him recover his vessel. Although the ship was recaptured and returned, her owners sent a vigorous protest to President Andrew Jackson demanding retribution.

President Jackson declared that “a daring outrage” had been committed on the seas of the East Indies involving the “plunder” of one of its merchantmen engaged in the pepper trade at a port in Sumatra. There appeared to be no room for diplomatic action, as Jackson believed that “the piratical perpetrators belonged to tribes in such a state of society that the usual course of proceedings between civilized nations cannot be pursued. I forthwith dispatched a frigate with orders to require immediate satisfaction for the injury and indemnity to the sufferers.”

At New York, the frigate Potomac, equipped with forty-two 32-pounder cannon, was rigged and ready to sail for the punitive expedition. The frigate had orders to “inflict chastisement” and carried a detachment of Marines and three detachments of seamen under Commodore Downes to punish the natives for their treachery.

Originally under orders to proceed to China via Cape Horn and the Pacific, the Potomac’s route was changed to the Cape of Good Hope and the Indian Ocean as a result of the protest by the Friendship’s owners and the outcry from the general public. On Feb. 5, after sailing for five months, the Potomac, disguised as a Danish East Indiaman, anchored five miles off Quallah Battoo.

At 2 a.m. the next day, 282 Marines and sailors embarked on the ship’s boats and hit the beach for the attack. Divided into groups, the men were assigned to each of the four forts guarding the town. At dawn, the column led by Marine Lieutenants Alvin Edson and George Terrett moved forward. The Marines heading for Tuko de Lima nestled in the jungle behind the town.

Within minutes of the Marine approach, the Malays were alerted and the fighting became intense. The enemy met the Marines with cannon, muskets and blunderbusses (early shotguns). Charging forward, the Marines’ “superior discipline and ardor seemed fully to compensate for their want of numbers.” They broke through the outer walls, blew up the stockade gate, and captured the fort. Edson, with a small guard, pushed through the town to join in the attack on the remaining fort.

As smoke from the other forts drifted overhead, Edson, his Marines, and a detachment of sailors smashed through the bamboo walls of Duramond’s fort and engaged the kris-wielding Malays. Dressed in full blue uniform, Lt. Edson parried the lunge of a defender with his Mameluke sword while a Marine at his side parried with his bayonet. In this hand-to-hand combat with the Marines, the Malays fought to the death. Within minutes, the fort was taken, with only a few Malays left to flee into the jungle.

With the forts dismantled, the town ablaze, a few Malays hiding in the jungle, and the surf rising, the Marines and sailors were recalled. Over 150 Malay pirates, including Mahomet, were killed, with the Americans suffering just one sailor and two Marines killed and 11 wounded.

This successful attack would deter the Malays and others from similar aggressions for quite some time. In addition to their skill with cold steel, the Americans had emerged victorious due to their long-range, light-caliber cannon and their ability to deliver rapid rifle fire.

Under cover of a Marine guard, the boats embarked for the Potomac. Later in the day, all hands gathered on deck to witness the burial of their three shipmates killed in the attack.

Other rajas from nearby states sent delegations to the ship pleading that Downes spare them from the same fate they had suffered at Quallah Battoo. Downes informed them that if any American ships were attacked again, the same treatment would be given to the perpetrators.

The next morning, the Potomac moved within a mile of Quallah Battoo, ran out her long 32-pounder cannon and bombarded the town, killing another 300 natives before raising sail and heading for sea. This was the first-ever official U.S. military intervention in Asia. This was the second time—after Tripoli—that the Marines had been called in to protect American business and retaliate for the murder of American citizens.

It is interesting to note that 180 years later, American forces are once again engaged in similar situations with modern-day pirates off the coast of Somalia.