A SPECIAL JOB FOR “SCARFACE OTTO”

Johnen’s Bf-110 G-4 at Dubendorf.

In the dark skies over southern Germany on the night of April 28, 1944, a fierce shoot-out erupted when several squadrons of Luftwaffe fighter planes pounced on a British Royal Air Force bomber stream. During the confused battle, a three-seat Me-110 fighter, piloted by Leutnant Wilhelm Johnen, strayed into the airspace of neutral Switzerland.

Swiss antiaircraft-gun crews at Dübendorf Air Base bathed the German plane with powerful searchlight beams; then they fired red and green flares, signals for it to land. The plane approached the runway, and the searchlights were extinguished. Suddenly the Me-110 gained speed as if to escape, and the searchlight beams again caught the aircraft. The dazzling glare temporarily blinded Johnen and forced him to land.

Moments after the Me-110 rolled to a halt and the pilot shut off the engine, there was a tapping on the cockpit. A voice in German told the crew, “Please get out. You are in Switzerland. You are interned.” Glancing around, the Luftwaffe men saw that they were surrounded by twenty Swiss soldiers holding weapons aimed at the airplane.

Leutnant Johnen and his two crewmen promptly realized that they would have to take quick action to destroy secret devices on the Messerschmitt. The plane was equipped with the new night-flying radar, the Lichtenstein SN-2, which could track U.S. and British bombers from a distance in excess of four miles.

Also on board was an important new weapon that the Germans had given the nickname Slanted Music. It was a pair of top-mounted cannon that could fire directly upward and was designed to attack the vulnerable underside of Allied bombers.

Perhaps even more devastating to the German war effort should it fall into the hands of Allied intelligence was a set of top-flight Luftwaffe code books. Joachim Kamprath, the radio operator, had violated strict orders and brought the codes with him.

Before heeding the order to emerge from the Me-110, Kamprath tried futilely to badly damage the radar by kicking it. Paul Mahle, who manned the twin guns that fired upward, tried desperately, but failed to destroy them.

The tapping on the cockpit grew more insistent, so the Germans quickly stashed the secret code books into the pockets of their flight suits and climbed down onto the tarmac. After smoking a cigarette and chatting with the affable Swiss soldiers, Paul Mahle, the gunner, said he had to get back into the plane to retrieve some personal items. Without waiting for an approval, he scrambled into the cockpit.

Several Swiss soldiers were right on his heels, and they pulled the struggling gunner by one leg as he tried to reach a switch that would have touched off a delayed-action explosive device and blown up the aircraft.

Then the three interned menthe Swiss didn’t regard them as captiveswere escorted to the air base canteen, where they were given food and wine. After the Germans excused themselves to go to the men’s room, two Swiss soldiers followed, saw them flushing pages from the secret code books down the toilet, and snatched the remainder of the sheets from them.

Twenty-four hours later, the German high command in Berlin erupted in near-panic. Swiss officials refused to return the Me-110 that had violated their tiny nation’s airspace. Berlin feared that the secret equipment and the code books might be slipped to Allied intelligence by the Swiss.

Suspecting that the three Luftwaffe men had committed treason, the Gestapo immediately arrested their families. Reichsführer Heinrich Himmler, once a chicken farmer and now Gestapo chief and head of the elite Schutzstaffel (SS), probed the possibility of using Nazi espionage agents already in Switzerland to murder the three downed German airmen.

At his battle headquarters at Wolfsschanze behind the Russian Front, Adolf Hitler flew into a rage on being told of the Swiss episode by his longtime trusted chief of staff, Generaloberst (four-star general) Alfred Jodl. However, the führer rejected Himmler’s murder plan and also a scheme by the Luftwaffe chief, rotund Reichsmarschall Hermann Goering, to heavily bomb Dübendorf Air Base.

Instead, Hitler sent for one of his favorites, SS Sturmbannführer (Major) Otto Skorzeny, a folk hero on the German home front, a sinister figure known as “Scarface Otto” to the Allies. A burly 6 feet, 3 inches tall and weighing 250 pounds, the “commando extraordinary,” as he came to be known in the Third Reich, was handed a seemingly impossible assignment: locate and destroy the Me-110 being held by the Swiss.

The mission would require exceptional stealth, cunning, and courage, traits that Skorzeny had in abundance. As an engineering student in his native Vienna, he had fought fifteen of the ritual saber duels popular among some Teutonic types. In one encounter, young Skorzeny’s left cheek to the tip of his jaw had been laid open. It was sewn up on the spot without anesthetic and the duel resumed.

After joining the SS in 1940, Oberleutnant (First Lieutenant) Skorzeny fought in the Balkans and later in Russia, from where he was invalided home with severe head wounds. He commanded a desk until late July 1943, when the führer assigned him the daunting task of rescuing Hitler’s crony Benito Mussolini, who had been in almost absolute control of Italy for twenty-one years.

Mussolini had been taken prisoner by Italian partisans after having been booted out of his office by shy, diminutive King Victor Emmanuel III, and was being held prisoner in a peacetime tourist hotel on a towering peak in the Appenines known as Gran Sasso. After spending two weeks prowling around Italy in civilian clothes, Skorzeny had discovered where Mussolini was incarcerated.

On September 12 Skorzeny and a handful of Fallschirmjäger (paratroopers) swooped down on Gran Sasso in gliders, snatched the deposed dictator from under the noses of more than two hundred Italian guards, and bundled the famous prisoner into a light Storch aircraft that had just made a dangerous landing near the hotel.

The bulky Skorzeny wriggled into the little plane designed to carry two passengers and, along with Mussolini and a Luftwaffe pilot, Hauptman (Captain) Heinrich Gerlach, lifted off from a short, boulder-strewn plateau. On reaching the edge of the plateau, the Storch plunged downward into a yawning valley and Gerlach was able to right the aircraft just before it crashed. Flying at treetop level, the pilot set a course for Rome, which was still in German hands.

Now Otto Skorzeny had been given an equally “impossible” taskfinding and blowing up the Me-110. As he had done in his search for Mussolini’s whereabouts, Skorzeny, a conspicuous figure because of his great bulk and ugly dueling scar, put on civilian clothes and slipped across the border into Switzerland at night.

Skorzeny ambled around the perimeter of Dübendorf Air Base, seeking some sign of the German aircraft, asking questions of natives living nearly and of civilian employees as they left the facility. Swiss authorities had moved the Me-110 deep within the mountainous country, the commando learned. Finding it would be akin to discovering the proverbial needle in a haystack. So Skorzeny, for one of the few times in his life, had to admit defeat.

Now behind-the-scenes diplomatic maneuvering took place, and a strange deal was worked out between Nazi Germany and Switzerland. On the morning of May 17, 1944, Hitler’s military attaché watched intently as the Messerschmitt, which had been brought back to Dübendorf, with its secret equipment, was doused with gasoline and burned to a crisp.

For its part in the arrangement, the Swiss government was permitted to purchase from Germany twelve high-performance Me-109G fighter planes, a major concession since the seriously depleted Luftwaffe needed every available aircraft to combat the almost daily and nightly raids by British and U.S. bombers against targets in the German homeland.

As a component of the secret agreement, Leutnant Wilhelm Johnen, radar operator Joachim Kamprath, and gunner Paul Mahle were released from custody and returned to Germany. The three airmen were held blameless once the true details of the Dübendorf episode became known to German intelligence, and their families were released from prison.

Perhaps the airmen’s fate would have been different had the Gestapo learned about the Luftwaffe secret code books, most of which presumably were in the hands of Swiss authoritiesor maybe being scrutinized by U.S. and British intelligence.

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Russia Beslan School Takeover


Overhead map of school showing initial positions of Russian forces.

September 1, 2004.

Chechen terrorists’ preference for large-group attacks and the holding of large groups of hostages was seen two years earlier with the takeover of a Moscow theater. The organization, with other ethnic groups joining them, increased the pressure on the government and the public by taking over an elementary school on the first day of classes.

On September 1, 2004, at 9:00 A.M., 32 terrorists, including Chechens, Kazakhs, Russians, Ingush, Ossetians, and at least 10 Arabs, drove up in a military-style GAZ-66 truck and shot their way into School No. 1 in Beslan in North Ossetia, Russia, near Chechnya, during the morning and took 1,200 people, including hundreds of students and parents, hostage on the first day of school. At least 11 adults died in the initial shootout with the terrorists, who were wearing camouflage. At least two female terrorists wore explosive belts. The terrorists set up a pedal mechanism to an explosive and threatened to blow up the school if rescuers attacked them and said they would kill 50 hostages for every kidnapper killed, 20 for each wounded.

The school had been defended by only three security guards; one was killed and the two others were injured in the initial shootout.

By mid-afternoon, 15 children, who were hidden in the boiler room by their English teacher, ran to safety. The terrorists had attempted to open the heavy iron door with two grenades, with no success.

The hostage-takers demanded the release of 30 Chechen prisoners and Russian withdrawal from Chechnya. By phone, the terrorists asked to talk to the presidents of Ingushetia and North Ossetia.

The terrorists initially refused to permit medicine, food, and drink to be brought in for the hostages. By the third day, the tap water was running short, and some children drank urine. Many of the children stripped to their underwear to try to escape the suffocating heat in the school. The terrorists also rejected safe passage.

Some of the hostages later said that the terrorists were Wahhabis, wearing long beards and prayer caps.

Hundreds of Russian troops surrounded the school with armored vehicles. The perimeter broke down, however, and numerous armed townspeople joined the siege. In the afternoon of September 2, 2004, the terrorists fired rocket-propelled grenades (RPGs), setting a car alight. They again fired RPGs the evening of September 3, 2004, injuring a police officer.

A local legislator said on September 2, 2004, at 9:00 P.M. that 20 male hostages had been executed inside the school. The male hostages had been herded to a different location, away from the children and women, and shot. One man had been executed an hour into the siege.

On September 3, 2004, the terrorists freed 26 young children and their mothers. Gunfire was often heard coming from inside the school. Talks were suspended. Freed hostages said the terrorists had mined the school and suspended 16–18 bombs from the ceiling of the gymnasium, where many of the hostages were herded.

The terrorists used gas masks to ensure that if would-be rescuers flooded the area with knockout gas, as had been done in the 2002 Moscow theater siege, they would not be affected.

On September 4, 2004, around 1:00 P.M., the 52-hour siege ended when troops rushed the school after hearing explosions in the gym. The troops had not planned on rushing the school, but had no choice when the terrorists opened fire on fleeing children. At least 338 hostages, including 156 children; 10 Russian Special Forces rescuers; and 30 terrorists died from gunshot wounds, fire from the explosions, shrapnel, and the collapsing roof of the gymnasium.

More than 1 percent of Beslan’s population was killed.

Itar-TASS reported that the attack was financed by Abu Omar as-Seyf, an Arab alleged to represent al Qaeda in Chechnya, and directed by Chechen rebel leader Shamil Basayev. An escaped hostage said she recognized some of the terrorists as having earlier done construction work on the school, leading investigators to suggest that they had hidden their weapons in the school during construction.

A Muslim group claiming loyalty to Ayman al-Zawahiri claimed credit on a website.

On September 5, 2004, the Russian government announced on state television that it had lied to the public about the scale of the hostage crisis. The broadcast made no apology that the government had claimed that only 354 hostages were inside the school. Questions remained about how many terrorists there were (reports varied from 16 to 40); how many terrorists were alive, free, or captured; how many people died; and how many had been captive. Many believed the death toll was higher than the official figure of 338. (On September 6, 2004, the government dropped the number to 334, including 156 children, and said that 1,180 hostages were involved.)

A captured terrorist identified as Nur-Pashi Kulayev was put on Russian state television on September 6, 2004. He was injured and had trouble talking, but said that “we gathered in the forest and the Colonel—it’s his nickname—and they said we must seize the school in Beslan.” He credited Basayev with giving the orders. He noted that another Chechen commander, Aslan Maskhadov, also gave orders. His group included Arabs, Uzbeks, Chechens, and people of other nationalities. “When we asked the Colonel why we must do it, he said, ‘Because we need to start war in the entire territory of the North Caucasus.’ ” Many of the school terrorists had also taken part in the June raids in Ingushetia that killed 90 people. The Washington Post reported that a Western intelligence service indicated that some of the terrorists came from Jordan and Syria.

Authorities detained relatives of Basayev and Maskhadov on the second day of the siege.

Russian authorities said that surveillance tape of the terrorists indicated that they had argued among themselves as to whether to escape or continue the siege. The group was led by four men and took phoned orders from Chechen commander Basayev. The leaders included a Chechen, a Russian, an Ingush, and an Ossetian, and were identified by their code names of Abdullah, Fantomas, The Colonel, and Magas.

Fantomas was a bodyguard of Basayev.

Abdullah (aka Vladimir Khodoyev, variant Khodov), had fought alongside Basayev earlier. He had upbraided the other gunmen when they permitted hostages to take a drink of water late in the takeover.

The Colonel was often in the gym and was believed by the survivors to be a Russian.

Magas (aka Ali Taziyev), 30, was a former police officer who disappeared on October 10, 1998, while working as a guard for a local official, according to press accounts. He and another police officer were guarding the official’s wife in a market when Chechens kidnapped the trio. She was ransomed in late 1999. The other officer’s body was found in 2000. Magas joined the terrorists and led an attack in Ingushetia in June. Some authorities believed he had staged the kidnapping and had joined the terrorists earlier. He became head of the Ingush Jamaat, a group allied with the Chechens. He led the June raids in Ingushetia, killing dozens of prosecutors and policemen. Magas is a common name, first heard in the terrorist milieu in the April 2004 assassination attempt against Ingushetian president Murat Zyazikov. Police initially believed he was Magomed Yevloyev. A man by that name was killed in Malgobek, but it was later determined that he was an unrelated murder suspect. Another Magomed Yevloyev was killed in Galashki, but he also was not the right Magas.

All four leaders were killed in the gun battle.

The terrorists videotaped the siege; the tape was shown on Russian television on September 7, 2004, and picked up around the world. Authorities also reported that they had tapped into a walkie-talkie call from a terrorist. President Putin reported, “One asks, ‘What’s happening? I hear noise,’ and the other says, ‘It’s okay, I’m in the middle of shooting some kids. There’s nothing to do.’ They were bored, so they shot kids. What kind of freedom fighters are these?” Russian demanded the extradition from the United Kingdom of Zakayev and other Chechen separatists who had been given political asylum.

Security services reported on September 8, 2004, that the terrorist leader shot one of his own men who did not want to take children hostage, then blew up the two women by flipping the electronic control on their detonators. Police also said they had been aided by a local police officer. Authorities said the gym explosion had been an accident when the terrorists were trying to rearrange the explosives. The Kremlin also backtracked on saying that 10 Arabs were involved but continued to claim that a multinational group of extremists was involved. Moscow offered a $10 million reward for the capture or killing of Basayev and Maskhadov. The next day, Chechen rebel websites offered a $20 million bounty for President Putin’s capture.

By September 9, 2004, Russian officials had identified six Chechens and four Ingush as involved in the attack squad. Bomb techs defused 127 homemade bombs in the school.

On September 10, 2004, President Putin approved a parliamentary investigation into the attack. He also complained about American and British calls for negotiations with Chechens, suggesting that this was equivalent to calling for negotiations with al Qaeda. Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov complained that Western countries were giving asylum to Chechen separatists.

On September 16, 2004, a key advisor to President Putin, Aslakhanov, said that the president had been prepared to release 30 Chechens during the siege. Aslakhanov said that he was about to go into the school to talk to the hostage-takers, with whom he had spoken by phone three times, when the explosives went off.

The next day, Basayev, using the alias Abdallakh Shamil, said on Kavkaz-Center, an Islamic website based in Lithuania, that his group was responsible and threatened more attacks on Russian civilians if independence was denied. He said:

The Kremlin vampire destroyed and wounded one thousand children and adults by giving the order to storm the school for the sake of imperial ambitions. . . . We are sorry about what happened in Beslan. It’s simply that the war, which Putin declared on us five years ago, which has destroyed more than forty thousand Chechen children and crippled more than five thousand of them, has gone back to where it started.

The posting said that the terrorists “made a fatal mistake” by allowing a Russian emergency services vehicle onto school grounds to remove bodies of people killed in the initial storming of the building. He claimed that two terrorists who went outside to watch the removal of the bodies were shot by troops. He said that the terrorists had deployed 20 mines, connected together in one circuit. “I personally trained this group in a forest, and I tested this system. Either all bombs would have exploded or not a single one. . . . We suggest that independent experts should check the fragments and types of wounds,” implying that Russian bombs had killed the children. The posting claimed that there were 33 hostage-takers, including 2 Arabs. Basayev said that the operation cost 8,000 euros (circa $9,800) plus some weapons stolen from Russian forces. “I don’t know bin Laden, don’t receive any money from him, but would not mind.”

On January 29, 2005, the parliamentary investigating commission said that some law enforcement officers were involved. Two accomplices had been detained, three were being sought, and paperwork was in the process to arrest two more. On May 29, 2007, a Russian court granted amnesty to three police officers who had been charged with negligence for failing to prevent the attack.

On May 17, 2005, the trial began of lone surviving terrorist Kulayev on charges of murder and terrorism in the case. On May 16, 2006, the chief justice of the Supreme Court in North Ossetia ruled that Kulayev had taken part in murder and terrorism. On May 26, 2006, he was sentenced to life in prison.

Marine Raiders

The expansion of Marine Raider and Parachute units in the Pacific had ‘spearheading’ largely in mind, although there would be occasions when they did raid. 3rd and 4th Marine Raider Battalions had been formed, respectively, in September 1942 – the former in Samoa, the latter in the US. Opposition from the Commandant of the Marine Corps was now quelled because he was in no position to stand up to the combined weight of the President, some among his own senior officers, including General Vandegrift, commander of the 1st Marine Division, Rear Admiral Turner (who successfully promoted Raider battalions as being far more effective tactical ‘bricks’ in island warfare than larger formations) and popular support in the press, whipped up by Carlson. The creation of 1st Raider Regiment in March 1943 appears, however, to have been an administrative and training concept in support of the four existing battalions. For although the regiment would soon assume an operational role, it never operationally commanded all its Raider battalions together since, usually, they were detached to separate tasks.

The Marine Parachute Battalion underwent a similar experience, 1st Marine Parachute Regiment being formed on 1 April 1943 to take charge of the existing 1st Battalion (formed 1941), 2nd Battalion (also formed 1941) and 3rd Battalion (formed September 1942), with 4th Battalion joining later after its formation in the US on 2 April 1943.

Never would a Marine parachute unit make an operational jump. Infrequently would they, or the Raiders, raid in the British manner. Preference for concentrated blows no doubt had a bearing upon it, along with branch of Service rivalries – quite apart from the problems of fighting an island war over a vast expanse of ocean. Yet it remains a misconception in the writing of popular American history that hit-and-run raiding came to an abrupt end after Makin in 1942. For the nature of island topography and deficiencies of information alone made it essential that these techniques should be used for survey, for pilotage and obstacle clearing, slow as Turner was to recognize it.

In the aftermath of Watchtower, as preparations were being made to reconquer the Solomons, the Gilberts and the Marshall Islands, an intensive study was made of the known amphibious shortcomings. High on the list was the need for pre-attack survey of the invasion area to fill gaps left by inferior maps and the inability of aerial photography to penetrate the jungle canopy. Through the intermingled staff communication systems linking London and Washington to Theatre Headquarters, similar lessons were already being disseminated as a result of Jubilee and Torch. Thus knowledge of British reconnaissance parties in Europe was available to Nimitz and Turner in the Pacific. In addition, the Americans held in high respect the Australian Coast-Watchers Organization which had been raised prior to the war by the Director of Naval Intelligence (DNI). This consisted of unpaid volunteers drawn from the native islanders, led by Administrative Officers, traders and others with the task of reporting by radio the movements of hostile craft. In due course they were joined by men of the Australian Independent Companies – recruited in 1940 as the equivalent of British Commandos – and by several New Zealanders and Americans. Engaged initially for a passive role, and were told officially to disband once the enemy had arrived and been reported; many, using their knowledge of jungle survival, withdrew inland to continue reporting. Gradually they assumed military status and, despite heavy losses, fought on as guerrillas, joined in April 1942, by the New Zealand ‘Southern Independent Commando Company’. Towards the end of Watchtower what became known as the South Pacific Scouts, comprised mostly of Fijians, began to arrive on Guadalcanal and shortly after this the Americans started to employ them to work with their amphibious Reconnaissance Patrols.

Guadalcanal became the home of a Combat Reconnaissance School at which experienced Marine Raiders and coast watchers instructed small elite teams, recruited initially from the Raider units, to probe ahead of every subsequent Allied landing. Carried to their destination in MTBs, submarines or PBY flying boats, they would travel either in rubber boats or in native war canoes. Theirs were the tactics of caution in arrival, stealth in investigation, commonsense use of local knowledge and diplomacy for survival, and shrewd, timely withdrawal with the requisite information before detection. They were similar in many respects to the COPP which, raised in December 1942 from survivors of the Party Inhuman, were starting their examination of Sicily’s beaches in January. Like their opposite numbers in Europe they could not count on a friendly welcome from the natives. Many islanders were pro-Japanese.

In the train of the capture of Guadalcanal, Allied offensive activity gradually expanded in the Pacific and was spearheaded by the nearest thing to raiding the Theatre Commanders felt essential. Due to crippling losses inflicted on their Imperial Navy, the Japanese were pinned to the static defence of a sprawling perimeter of possessions and thus vulnerable to Operation Elkton, a twin-pronged amphibious drive aimed at the harbour of Rabaul, which could pick and choose its specific objectives. For American amphibious assault methods had been modified since Marine and navy representatives had voiced their views to Keyes in the summer of 1941. General Vandegrift stated on 21 February 1943, that landings should avoid organized resistance if possible; and in the Mediterranean the navy had adopted the British practice of night arrivals, changes with which Admiral Turner, for the time being, fell in line.

Vandegrift’s preferences dominated operations Elkton, Cartwheel and Toenails (the invasion of New Georgia) and coincided with Turner’s conception of using Marine small-unit ‘bricks’ in the raiding role. Infiltration instead of head-on assault became the watchword. For example, when the Japanese lost patience with a particularly effective party of coast watchers under a New Zealander, Captain D. G. Kennedy, at Segi, and took steps to destroy it, Turner at once responded to Kennedy’s call for help by sending in a rescue party of 4th Marine Raiders, led by Lieutenant-Colonel M. S. Currin, on 21 June, nine days ahead of the planned invasion. Once the Marines were established ashore, Kennedy took this as a signal, as any respectable pioneer would when the frontier got over-crowded, to push ahead, seeking ways round enemy opposition to ease the way ahead for the Marines who would follow towards the first principal objective, Viru Harbour. This was the model for all successful operations to follow, the failures frequently being those occasions when finesse was ignored or overlooked. Extensive information gleaned by coast watchers and Marine Amphibious Patrols during the previous month convinced Currin that the published plan was faulty. On his recommendation the main landing was made wide of Viru, at Regi, on 27 June. And it is a Marine’s account of this stealthy landing which perfectly describes so many of similar pattern:

It was a weird moonless night with black rubber boats on black water slipping silently through the many islands of Panga Bay. The trip was uneventful except for one scare. It came just before reaching Regi, while lying offshore waiting for word from native scouts who had gone ahead to make certain no Japanese were in the village. Due to the sudden appearance of a half moon which began to cast a sickly reflection, a small island appeared to be an enemy destroyer.

The unopposed landing at Regi was the first step towards the establishment in November 1943 of a large beachhead at Empress Augusta Bay on Bougainville Island and prompted what were to be the final two hit-and-run amphibious raids of any consequence in the Pacific Theatre of Operations. The first was a landing on Choiseul Island – Operation Blissful – on 27/28 October, timed simultaneously with seizure of the Treasury Islands as a diversion to the major invasion of Bougainville. Under orders to ‘get ashore and make as big a demonstration as possible to convince the Japanese that a major landing was in progress’, Lieutenant-Colonel V. H. Krulak, commanding 2nd Marine Parachute Battalion, landed his 650 men at Voza by night, piloted by a native scout under the command of Coast Watcher C. W. Seton. Thrusting towards Sangigai on the 30th, the Paramarines bumped into several enemy outposts – which might have been avoided if only they had been able to understand the pidgin English spoken by Seton’s scouts – and took the village without difficulty for the loss of only four killed against 72 enemy, destroyed enemy equipment and stores and then withdrew to their beachhead.

Likewise, on the 31st, a large patrol of 87 men under Major W. T. Bigger struck out westward by sea from Vosa to land at the village at Nukiki and hit Japanese positions along the nearby Warrior River and at Choiseul Bay. Splitting his small force, Bigger plunged amidst a nest of enemy and only gradually discovered on 1 November that it was he who was the hunted and by superior enemy units which, unlike Bigger’s, knew precisely their own location and way about. Having failed to hit the enemy hard on the mainland, Bigger mortared their dumps on Guppy Island and withdrew to await pick-up by LCPs on the 2nd. Again he was late, caught this time at the water’s edge by a strong forewarned enemy force. After suffering losses, he was saved by the determined work of the LCPs and the strong intervention of two MTBs (one commanded by a future president of the United States, Lieutenant J. F. Kennedy) which came close inshore, guns blazing.

At Voza Krulak concluded that it was time to go, even though a stay of 12 days was originally intended. Seton’s scouts reported nearly 1,000 Japanese who, satisfied that Krulak’s force was small, were on their way from Sangigai. On the night of the 3rd embarkation of all men and stores was calmly completed just as explosions ashore announced that the enemy were stepping on mines thoughtfully left behind by the raiders.

Try to convince themselves, as the Marines did, that Blissful had been worthwhile, no real diversion was achieved. For the Japanese themselves were convinced that the Americans would land on Choiseul and assumed, too, that the real objective on Bougainville would be the east coast instead of Empress Augusta Bay. Like Archery, the British diversionary raid in Norway in December 1941, Blissful produced disaffection among natives who, unlike many in other areas, were aggressively hostile to the Japanese. Seton reported a devastating decline in native morale and E. Feldt remarks that ‘natives do not understand broad strategy; they only know what they see before them. They had seen a large body of troops land and had assumed that the days of the Japs were over; now the troops had gone and the Japs remained.’

Blissful further concentrated the minds of those at the top who, since August, had been evaluating raiding in Pacific conditions and particularly the landing at Cape Torokina in Empress Augusta Bay. There amphibious reconnaissance was the sole hit-and-run contribution and it was recognized that meticulous amphibious reconnaissance was decisive in selecting the exact landing-place and shaping the entire Bougainville campaign. Two months prior to the assault by 3rd Marine Division, Recon Patrols from submarines, PBYs and MTBs searched the coastline and probed inshore by night while the submarines used their periscopes by day to verify the accuracy of the charts. Negative and positive information combined to indicate that the vicinity of Cape Torokina was not only a suitable place hydrographically but also thinly defended. It also revealed reefs where none were charted, and proved that Cape Torokina itself was 7 miles displaced on the chart. Opposed though the main assault would be on 1 November, it was completely successful and at low cost. Part of the price, however, was paid by Private First Class H. Gurke of 3rd Raider Battalion who, on 9 November, found himself and another Marine in a foxhole under heavy shell and grenade fire from a Japanese counter-attack. When a grenade dropped into the hole, Gurke ‘mindful that his companion manned an automatic weapon of superior fire power … thrust him roughly aside and flung his own body over the missile to smother the explosion’. For this he won the Congressional Medal of Honor. But bravery alone did not influence calculations of cost-effectiveness when manpower was at a premium and prejudices intruded. The Marine Raiders were under threat.

Perhaps the protagonists of the Raiders’ cause hoped for a miraculous reprieve when, on 29 November, it was decided to raid an enemy supply base at Koiari, 10 miles along the coast from Cape Torokina. 1st Parachute Battalion under Major R. Fagan, reinforced by M Company 3rd Raider Battalion, was to land on an unguarded beach to a flank, seize the base from the rear and cause maximum destruction while searching for intelligence about enemy plans. It was reasonable for Major-General R. S. Geiger to order the expedition at less than a week’s notice. But to neglect careful reconnaissance and depend excessively on fire support from three destroyers and a single battery of army 155mm guns firing at long range was risky, and potentially disastrous when the destroyers were diverted at the last moment. The raid might just have succeeded if the two reconnaissance patrols had been more careful, but there is reason to believe that they reported all clear after visiting the wrong beach. In consequence those Marines who hit the wrong beach were surprised to be greeted by an astonished Japanese officer standing there in the expectation of welcoming his own boats to the base.

Nothing went right for the Paramarines that night. Four companies, penned into a small beachhead, were rudely made aware of lively enemy interest and found too that their HQ Company and the company of Raiders had landed 100 yards away. Then, as enemy fire began to fall, and they dug frantically for safety, a sense of isolation settled upon them. Major Fagan’s radio was broken and with it the means to call for help.

Good news came later with the arrival of the Raider Company and the remnants of the Paramarines, who fought their way along the beach to join the main beachhead, and then the establishment of external communications through the artillery radio which enabled defensive fire to be brought down and planning to commence.

The next bad news was the repulse by Japanese artillery of two attempts to send in landing craft and the storm of fire falling among Marines with their backs to the sea, signs that the enemy were forming up for a major attack, and a dire shortage of ammunition. Nightfall saw an end to it. As the Japanese formed up to charge, the guns of three destroyers, rushed to the scene, from a few light support craft and from the army dropped a curtain of shell fire round the perimeter as the landing craft went in for the third time. This time the Marines retired in good order, though abandoning much heavy equipment, and embarked without interruption. They had lost 15 killed, seven missing and suffered 91 wounded. The raid, to quote their own history, had been ‘a dismal failure’.

Already the naval and Marine hierarchy had got to work undermining the Raiders and Paramarines. They had experimented at Makin and tried diversions at Choiseul and on Koiari. It could be pointed out that four raids in 21 months of existence was poor justification and that each operation was stained with defeat, no matter what the propagandists said. In a paper submitted to the Chief of Naval Operations on 3 December HQ Marine Corps concluded:

The Marine Corps has always felt that its infantry elements are essentially raiders and that Pacific conditions are different from the European which resulted in the establishment of commandos. It would like to end its raider program so as to make all infantry organizations uniform and to avoid setting up some organizations as elite or selected troops. It feels that any operation so far carried out by raiders could have been performed equally well by a standard organization specially trained for that specific operation.

Old, familiar debating points, in fact, to which a list of serious deficiencies could be appended as the real reason for change. As the nation’s war effort drained the manpower pool of the best leaders, those who were available had to be spread around evenly to obtain the best results. And in battle it had been found that Raiders and Paramarines had been at a disadvantage in firepower (as had commandos) from lack of heavy weapons. Incidentally, so far as the parachute units were concerned, not one had yet been called upon to make an operational drop.

At root, alongside absence of incentive and need, lay unwillingness to raid among the American commanders at sea and in the field. This led, maybe, to forgetfulness, into making raiding a spare-time occupation unrelated to essentials. Arguably there was no requirement and certainly there was far less chance of its creation in the absence of a strong belligerent central co-ordinating defence organization or an equivalent of COHQ. Essentially the Americans lacked a dedicated personality in the right seat of power, such as Keyes or Mountbatten.

Be these things as they may, the Joint Chiefs of Staff now had a firmer hold on the President and his advisors than early in 1942. Within 24 hours of receiving the Marine Corps’ request the Chief of Naval Operations had granted it. The ground had been well prepared! At once the existing units began conversion, either into normal marine battalions or were dispersed to other units, including those committed to reconnaissance and guerrilla raiding. Objections were silenced. Susceptibilities among the traditionalists had been assuaged.

Amphibious hit-and-run raiding by regular forces was virtually snuffed out in the Pacific theatre except on rare occasions when some enterprising commander might take advantage to patrol aggressively, but locally, round an exposed enemy island flank. Which meant also that raiding by irregular forces was almost entirely stifled since, despite repeated requests by Colonel Donovan in 1943 and 1944, Nimitz and MacArthur steadfastly refused to allow OSS to operate within their boundaries, still on the pretext of avoiding a clash with the Marines, despite their renouncement of the practice. Brute force by massed men and material would in future dictate American operations.

If pin-prick attacks were to be inflicted upon the Japanese, they were to come from the British, the Australians and the New Zealanders whose military attitudes tended rather more in the direction of guile.

The Formidable Power of One-Hit Sinking

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Damaged William D. Porter listing heavily. Landing Craft Support ships LCS(L)(3)-86 and LCS(L)(3)-122 (behind) are assisting.

On 28 May, Japan’s Navy Ministry for the first time made public the operations of the Thunder Gods, extolling them for their fighting spirit and “the formidable power of one-hit sinking.” Newspaper accounts also carried the names of 332 Thunder God pilots who had already sacrificed their lives. Despite the public adulation, most ka pilots now went about their duties under a cloud of despondency, often ignoring the frequent air raid alarms, instead staying in their quarters. Increasingly, petty officers were even sneaking off base to carouse at local inns.

For Ryuji Nagatsuka, meanwhile, May’s end marked the completion of suicide tactical training for Jun-no Special Attack Corps. Nagatsuka received his promotion to flying officer and now was in line for a posthumous promotion. Credible war news was sparse, but conditions were undoubtedly desperate. Each time flights of American Grummans headed for their base northwest of Tokyo, the pilots flew to safer airspace. Machine guns had been removed from their planes and the primary objective was to preserve them for tokko missions.

The rainy season was in full swing, and the only possible bright spot was a brief visit from his mother and two of his sisters. But even this reunion was awkward. Candor about the future went unspoken in the presence of the young girls. When Nagatsuka left the three of them at a nearby train station, he knew he was seeing them for the last time.

The horrid weather, while it curtailed American air attacks, also delayed launch of Kikusui No. 9. An announcement trumpeting the assault went out each morning only to be rescinded by afternoon. Finally, on 3 June, a break in the weather set Kikusui No. 9 in motion. The operation’s buildup vastly overshadowed its substance: in a scattered series of sorties, barely fifty suicide aircraft flew south toward Okinawa, most without escorts.

These handfuls of kamikazes were having a harder time sneaking through, and their attacks seemed to be odd sideshows. Though not any less chaotic or dangerous, the air-sea duels involved many fewer planes and ships.

On 6 June, eight bogeys set upon DMs J. William Ditter and Harry F. Bauer on patrol southeast of Nakagusuku Wan. One attacker’s wing clipped Ditter’s after stack and tore open a long strip of shell plating on the port side, flooding the after fire room and forward engine room.

A plane also crashed close to Bauer’s starboard beam, tearing a twelve-foot gash in her side. Bauer’s damage seemed to be limited to flooding, but crewmen also spotted a large hunk of metal submerged near the forward fireroom and worried it might be a bomb. After taking a look, a bomb disposal expert dispatched from Wiseman’s Cove assured Bauer’s XO Robert Morgenthau it might be the plane’s engine or its landing gear, but was no bomb.

Destroyer William D. Porter’s time off Okinawa did much to erase the stigma that plagued her CO and crew since the accidental but near disastrous torpedo shot at battleship Iowa. But then, on 10 June, bad luck caught up with Porter on RP15 when an undetected kamikaze Val dove at her through a low overcast. The plane struck only a glancing blow to Porter’s radar mast, but when its bomb exploded in the water nearby, the blast tore up the after half of Porter’s hull and unleashed uncontrollable flooding. Even the pumps on LCSs dispatched to help Porter could not stay ahead of the rising water, made worse by the explosion of several jettisoned depth charges. Porter’s sailors were finally evacuated to CO Richard McCool’s LCS-122. Lined up along LCS-122’s railings, Porter’s men watched their hard-luck ship sink at 1119.

On RP15 at dusk the next day, it was LCS-122’s turn, but almost a different kind of turn. After escaping a near miss crash by one Val, LCS-122 took a direct hit to its conning tower by a second Val. The crash and explosion killed 11 men and seriously wounded another 29, including McCool. Despite his wounds, with 122 on fire and sinking, McCool somehow managed to exit the conning tower, jumping first to the gun deck and finally the main deck. McCool rallied his crew to fight fires, hauled one man to safety, and helped rescue several others before 122 had to be abandoned.

This was to be the last kamikaze blow for a week—though by no means the last off Okinawa or the last of the war. Still it was almost a showcase—an attack that occurred in focus and isolation, instead of the thudding, relentless blur of April’s and May’s attacks (and, earlier, the attacks in the Philippines). The LCS-122’s casualties (over half the crew) and the actions of the survivors and the rookie CO somehow symbolized all the suffering, determination, and instinctive heroism displayed by thousands of men through the seemingly unending days of eight long months.

Lieutenant Richard M. McCool, captain of the landing ship LCS(L)(3)-122, received the Medal of Honor in part for assisting in rescue of survivors of William D. Porter.

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.

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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Vickers Vincent.

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

wingate-ethiopia

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.