Marine Special Ops Take California

Lancers at La Mesa Artist: Colonel Charles H. Waterhouse, USMCR

1st Lt. Archibald Gillespie, First U.S.M.C. Special Ops Officer

Mexico had achieved independence from Spain in 1821, but during the 12 years prior to 1846, four revolutions took place in the province of California. By the eve of the war with the U.S., California had become an independent republic.

New Mexico, like priceless California, was so far removed from the Mexican capitol that for years Mexican control was very ineffective. Its people had little commerce with Mexico and for a long time St. Louis was their main trading partner. Both provinces were ripe for plucking and President Polk was ready to annex these two plums.

Before the Mexican War began, President Polk already had his eye on conquering California (before he contemplated buying it for 25 million dollars). Texas had accepted admittance as a state of the Union on July 4, 1845, and Polk wanted to expand its boundaries. He especially wanted California for the U.S. if war should break out with Mexico.

On the night of October 30, 1845, Polk held a secret meeting in the White House with Marine First Lieutenant Archibald Gillespie, who Navy Secretary Bancroft regarded as an accomplished and most trustworthy officer. Gillespie had been chosen to deliver the orders for invasion. He carried secret, memorized instructions to Thomas Larkin, the U.S. consul at Monterey, dispatches for Commodore John Sloat on the west coast, and personal letters to Army Lieutenant John Fremont who was “exploring” the far west for the Army’s Topographical Corps.

Sloat’s orders were “once war was declared to occupy ports as your force may permit.” All three men were ordered to use guile, infiltration and subversion to acquire California for the U.S. when the opportunity presented itself. As it turned out, each of the three carried out their orders in various ways.

Pio Pico, the California governor from Los Angeles, was often at odds with Jose Castro, the self-appointed military chief in Monterey. The province was governed so poorly that the Californios actually wanted to be acquired, preferably by the U.S. instead of England or Russia. The Californios considered the U.S. “the happiest and freest nation in the world destined soon to be the most wealthy and powerful.” The Americans in turn were impressed with the scale of the Californios’ industry. Some hacienda livestock totaled 2,000 horses, 15,000 cattle, and 20,000 sheep; albeit, this wealth had been obtained by the slave labor of 11 million Indians. Nonetheless, Pico settled his differences with Castro and set about forming an army to resist the American freebooters.

Traveling in disguise, Gillespie went via Vera Cruz, Mexico City and Mazatlan—where he located Commodore Sloat—and reached Monterey in April, 1846. He delivered his messages to Larkin and then went north until he met Fremont at Klamath Lake in May. Two days later, Polk urged Congress to recognize that “war exists.” It did so, and newly breveted Army Brigadier General Stephen Kearny, an 1812 veteran at Fort Leavenworth, was ordered to “conquer and take possession of California.”

Fremont and Gillespie rode south into California with rugged American settlers wearing buckskin and carrying rifles and long bowie knives. Gillespie, guarded by 12 Delaware Indians, went ahead to San Francisco Bay and there obtained powder, 8,000 percussion caps, and lead for 9,000 bullets from Commander Montgomery. Numbering 700, this group made up the largest foreign contingent in California.

In June, under attack at Sonoma, American settlers proclaimed the California “Bear Flag” Republic. Fremont took charge of the military force of the “one-village” nation and Gillespie became his executive officer in charge of training the “Bear Flag Army” into effective fighters. The Bear Flag was designed by William Todd, whose aunt had recently married a country lawyer named Abraham Lincoln. Fremont, without authority, had started a revolution without knowing war had been declared with Mexico. He then took his forces south to Monterey to start the rebellion there.

Commodore Sloat ordered the sloop-of-war Portsmouth, under Commander Montgomery, to Monterey to protect American lives and property. On July 7, he officially invaded California for the U.S., sending Captain William Mervine, U.S.N., ashore at Monterey with 85 marines and 165 sailors commanded by Marine Captain Ward Marston. They raised the American flag over the customs house and Second Lieutenant William Maddox stayed ashore with a Marine detachment as a garrison—the west coast’s first Marine Corps post. Northern California was now in American hands.

Two days later, the Bear Flag Republic became American and Montgomery, along with Second Lieutenant Henry Watson, landed with 14 Marines to occupy Yerba Buena (San Francisco). San Francisco was already loaded with Americans as the U.S. whaling fleet in the Pacific numbered 650 vessels with 17,000 commercial sailors rotating through their San Francisco base.

Back in New Mexico, Kearny’s force from Fort Leavenworth was on the march, and it was said that “the world is coming with him.” He had 1,458 men, 459 horses, 3,658 draft mules, and 14,904 cattle and oxen. His artillery consisted of twelve 6-pounders and four 12-pound howitzers. He was able to take Santa Fe bloodlessly after the officers of the New Mexican army of 4,000 Mexicans and Indians under Manuel Pico decided to give up without a fight. The senoritas were frightened of the rough-looking American occupiers but Kearny threw a big “kick-up” dance until dawn, and the local ladies recovered their composure. Kearny then set out for California with 300 dragoons, who were heavy cavalry. On the march, they encountered Kit Carson, “the celebrated mountain man,” who was on his way to Washington with an express from Stockton and Fremont announcing that they had taken California. Kearny sent 200 of his dragoons back to New Mexico and persuaded Kit Carson to return with him to California as a guide. They marched on to take control of the Pacific province.

The Californios, nearly all Mexican, didn’t really care who was running the territory as long as their dignity and sensibilities prevailed. However, the superior attitude exhibited by the conquering Americans caused many problems.

When Commodore Stockton took over command from Sloat, he legitimized Fremont and Gillespie and their 160 mounted men as the “California Battalion of Mounted Riflemen.” Stockton issued a proclamation annexing California to the U.S. In retaliation, Castro’s force moved on Los Angeles to join forces with Pico.

Stockton wanted to invade western Mexico, so he ordered Fremont to expand the California Battalion to 300 men to replace the sailors garrisoned along the coast.

The plan now was for Fremont to land in San Diego and march north in a pincer movement, while Stockton would land at San Pedro, 35 miles below Los Angeles, and march south to crush the Californios led by Pico and Castro. Stockton sent the battalion south by ship to San Diego to cut off the Mexicans operating near Los Angeles. It, plus some 80 Marines, raised the American flag at San Diego on July 30. Stockton sent a party including First Lieutenant Jacob Zeilin and his Marine detachment ashore to hold Santa Barbara. The Commodore then seized San Pedro, the port of Los Angeles, with a force of sailors and Marines. He proclaimed the California port part of the U.S. and established a curfew on the residents.

Stockton entered Los Angeles on August 12 with 360 Marines and sailors, and Fremont arrived with a 120 horsemen. Gillespie stayed to hold San Diego with 48 Marines. Before Stockton sailed to Acapulco to join the Army, he named Fremont the Military Governor of California, and Gillespie as Commandant Captain of the Southern District, the center of Mexican influence.

Commandant Gillespie moved to Los Angeles and, without any experience, ruled with an iron hand. He held the Californios in contempt and treated them rudely. He initiated a form of martial law where he outlawed reunions in houses and forbade even two people to walk in the street together. Worse, the Americans were undisciplined and as a result the Californios “could have no respect for his men.”

Anti-American feeling rose and on September 23, 1846, 400 Californios under Captain Jose Flores attacked and put Gillespie’s band under siege. After three days, Gillespie led his men to a stronger position on a hilltop, but there was no water. Finally, on Sept. 30, outnumbered ten to one, he surrendered. The Mexicans permitted him to march out of San Pedro and board ship. He and his men boarded the Vandalia but instead of sailing, they waited for Stockton. Captain Mervine in the Savannah rescued Gillespie and his 225 men.

In San Diego, a detachment of the California Battalion had fled to the whaler Stonington and was besieged for a month. They were all that remained from the “conquest” of southern California. They were rescued by Lieutenant Archer Gray on the arrival of his 200 sailors and Marines.

In San Francisco, 100 Marines and volunteers led by Marine Captain Marston moved on Santa Clara to punish the rebels. The Mexican leader Francisco Sanchez surrendered and both sides ended up signing an armistice.

Stockton struck back. In October, Navy Captain Mervine led ashore 310 sailors and Marines, plus Gillespie and his force, to attempt the recapture of Los Angeles. The Mexicans set forth a scorched earth policy and moved all the foodstuffs into the interior. On Oct. 8, at Rancho Dominquez, the Americans lost after mounting three failed charges. That night, fast-striking Mexican lancers attacked and by the next afternoon the harassed American expedition had climbed back into its ships.

Late in October, Stockton himself arrived, landing sailors and Marines to hold San Pedro, and sent Gillespie down to San Diego with his own men plus 20 Marines. The men were very poorly armed—a third of them carrying only boarding pikes. The guns of the American warships could hold the ports, but the Mexicans drove the garrison of ten Marines out of Santa Barbara.

Then, word arrived that General Stephen Kearney, guided by Kit Carson, had reached California after a grueling march over mountains and through the Colorado desert. Stockton sent Gillespie and 39 volunteers to meet and reinforce Kearny’s troop of 110 men. Later, the Californios said that only the arrival of the Marines had saved Kearny.

The Americans heard that the Californios leader Andris Pico, the Governor’s brother, was at the Indian village of San Pasqual. While the American force outnumbered the Mexicans two to one, Kearny’s men were totally worn out from the grueling march. At San Pasqual, 100 Mexicans attacked them. With wet ammunition on both sides, the Battle of San Pasqual became a melee between Mexican lances and American sabers. Gillespie’s detachment bravely charged but it was a disorganized maneuver due to worn mounts and damp powder.

The Americans got the worst of it. Kearny was lanced twice; Gillespie was thrown from his horse, his saber pinned beneath him. A Californio’s lance thrust from the back struck him above his heart, making “a severe gash open to the lungs.” Another lancer aimed his weapon at Gillespie’s face, cut his upper lip, broke a front tooth, and laid him on his back. Gillespie passed out from loss of blood.

In addition to Kearny’s two lance wounds, 22 Americans were killed and 18 more wounded. Some of the Marines had more than eight spear wounds. It was the bloodiest of the battles for California. The Californios had none killed and 12 wounded, but the Americans had held the field. The American dead were buried under a willow tree and the night howled with wolves attracted by the smell. The wounded were carried Indian-style on travois—two stretcher poles dragged behind a horse. They had no fodder for their animals and were short on water as well. Kearny camped at San Bernardo where the men ate mule meat. Capt. Turner sent for help from San Diego and the Army of the West moved westward. Kit Carson, who the Mexicans called El Lobo, meaning The Wolf, tried to reach San Diego in advance, walking the 30 miles barefoot through cactus.

Stockton sent 215 Marines and sailors under Lt. Gray to escort Kearny’s men to San Diego. The Californios quit tailing the Yankees and melted away.

Then, Stockton set out once again to take Los Angeles by marching 140 miles from San Diego with 600 Marines and sailors.

Mexican Lancers

The Californios’ lancers were not like the European trained lancers who came mostly from the upper class. Instead, they were local hide-hunters who went after wild cattle with lances. They were expert horsemen who could ride all day, and could even unsaddle another horse without getting off their own horse. They became very proficient in handling the 12-foot lance, with entire families taking up the art. And lances were cheaper than powder and ball. They used them with great skill and the Marines noticed they always seemed to aim for their kidneys.

Fremont moved south with the California Battalion and 428 men. Slaughtering 13 beeves daily, the Marines ate ten pounds of meat per day—the most food they ever had. Fremont camped in the Santa Ynez Mountains and reached Santa Barbara, but Stockton and Kearny moved on Los Angeles without waiting for him to arrive. By this time, the Marines’ shoes had given out and they wore canvas rags instead, but they reached the San Gabriel River.

Seven miles from Los Angeles, the enemy under Flores, with 500 men and four artillery, made a stand on the bluffs behind the San Gabriel River. The Californios stampeded a herd of wild horses against the American lines and opened fire as the Americans crossed the river.

With Zeilin’s Marines holding the right flank, the Americans waded the knee-deep river under fire and charged the enemy. The enemy’s front fled, but the Mexican horsemen struck both flanks. The Americans fought, marched, and slept in open squares with their supplies in the center. It was the only way to ward off the lancers. With cannon on each corner of the square spewing grapeshot, the Mexicans were beaten off. That day was the anniversary of the War of 1812’s “Battle of New Orleans.” It became their battle cry, as the sailors on the left and the Marines on the right took the initiative. The Americans charged up the bluffs and it was over in 90 minutes. Only one American was killed, though this was the Marine Corps’ largest battle in California.

The Mexicans made one more stand during this two-day running battle, at La Mesa, three miles from the white walls of Los Angeles, in what today is Vernon. Three times the Mexicans charged, but the artillery cut them down. At last, the Mexicans rode off into the mountains, leaving the road to Los Angeles open. Again, Gillespie was wounded. On January 10, with the band playing, Stockton and Kearny led their men into Los Angeles. Gillespie put up the American flag that he had taken down four months earlier. Fremont now entered Los Angeles with a surprise capitulation signed by the Californios at Rancho Cahuenga north of Los Angeles. Kearny’s secret orders now became apparent—he revealed that he had orders from Washington to subdue the country, and establish a civil government with himself as the leader. In any event, all of California had finally been conquered.

The conquest taught one important lesson: if the U.S. wanted to extend its concept of Manifest Destiny on hostile coasts, it would need amphibious forces to put ashore. California was finally won when the U.S. could land a force strong enough to hold. The conquest of California was due to the mobility of Stockton’s ships and the well-disciplined Marines and seamen of his “gallant sailor army.”

LRDG: UNTIL THE BITTER END

These two photographs, believed to be somewhere in the Balkans in the winter of 1944/45, show some LRDG men loading an aircraft with one of their jeeps prior to their return to Italy.

The LRDG withdrew from Athens at the end of 1944 and returned to their base in Italy. It had been a dispiriting few weeks in the Greek capital, and the Balkans campaign had had its unsavoury moments too. It made the veterans of the North African campaign appreciate the desert and its indigenous people all the more; no politics there, no treachery or deceit from spiteful, small-minded, self-important panjandrums.

Nonetheless, the LRDG wouldn’t have swapped roles with any other army unit. They enjoyed their existence and appreciated their life. ‘Firstly,’ commented David Lloyd Owen, ‘we practically never suffered the horror of a heavy barrage, the menace of a bombing raid or the carnage of the infantry run over by tanks. We did not live with constant gunfire, in touch with an enemy a few hundred yards away.’ But the real beauty of serving in the LRDG, considered Lloyd Owen, was that one was among like-minded fellows, who chaffed at the pettiness of army routine and sought not medals or glory but adventure. Above all, ‘no one depended on us save ourselves. Our failure would reflect on us alone. We could move largely where we wished, and not just in conformity with some wider plan. There was no front line for us, because we were always behind and among the enemy.’ Yet by the very nature of their existence, the LRDG sometimes found themselves confronted with dangers no British infantryman would have encountered.

As the war entered its final year, the LRDG were scattered among the Dalmatian Islands, observing enemy troop and shipping movements from well-situated vantage points. One such patrol was situated on Ist, a sparsely populated island just 3¾ miles square that lay 20 miles west of the city of Zadar on the Croatian coast. Codenamed Kickshaw, the 14-man patrol drawn from both Y1 and Y2 was commanded by Sergeant Anthony ‘Tich’ Cave, one of the very first recruits to Y Patrol exactly four years earlier.

‘Life on Ist was pretty good and light-hearted,’ remembered Corporal Gilbert Jetley. ‘The locals were extremely friendly and their loyalty extended to learning the patriotic song of the Allies.’3 The men of Y Patrol allowed their mischief to get the better of them one day, tricking the locals into learning the words to ‘She’ll be Coming Round the Mountain’ in the belief it was the British national anthem. They all then stood solemnly to attention, the British saluting the Union Flag while the villagers sang the words of the folk song with due reverence.

On the evening of 10 January, most of the patrol were in their billet playing cards. It was 2115 hours and Cave was about to turn in for the night. Suddenly he heard four shots. Thinking it might be the MFV La Palma arriving at the jetty, Cave went outside, but saw no lights in the sea, nor did he notice anything untoward coming from the radio room where he knew Ken Smith, the signaller, and Jock Watson to be. He returned to the billet and went upstairs to bed. Jetley, who was sick in bed with a fever, pieced together subsequent events from the testimony of his comrades. ‘Something disturbed Watson and he went to the front door,’ recounted Jetley. ‘As he opened it, he heard something clank behind it. He saw that it was a large time bomb, which was ticking. There was a booster of extra explosive alongside in a canister.’

Watson dashed across to the billet and knocked on the door of Tich Cave’s room. In a voice that was calm but edged with excitement, Watson informed Cave upon entering that there was a bomb outside the radio room. Cave ‘at first treated the matter as a jest’. Who would leave a bomb outside the radio room? Watson insisted it wasn’t a joke. Cave, noticing the concern in his face, instructed Watson to return to the house and tell Smith to evacuate the radio room. The pair of them gathered up the radio and hurried outside.

‘At some point Kenneth Smith must have remembered the family who were asleep in the back-room [of the billet],’ recalled Jetley. ‘He put down the [radio] equipment, picked up the bomb and made for a piece of waste ground between the house and the village church. Before he could get there, there was a tremendous explosion.’

‘He put down the [radio] equipment, picked up the bomb and made for a piece of waste ground between the house and the village church. Before he could get there, there was a tremendous explosion.’

Gilbert Jetley

Smith was literally blown to pieces by the power of the bomb, and though one other LRDG man received 37 shrapnel wounds, none of the villagers asleep in the house were hurt. ‘Kenneth Smith‘s valiant deed was not the thoughtless action of the ignorant,’ said Jetley. ‘The whole patrol knew these time bombs and knew that, in addition to being unreliable if touched, many contained mechanisms to explode them immediately if moved. He was therefore a most gallant soldier who gave his life for his comrades and allies.’

Smith’s action in removing the bomb (which had been planted by a party of Ustaše, who had been seen and fired at by some pro-British partisans) earned him a posthumous George Cross, which was presented to his mother by King George VI in 1946. Outside Buckingham Palace she told reporters:

It was just typical of him to do what he did … he was a grand boy and never caused me any trouble. He always wanted to go into the army from a boy, and joined up at the age of 18 for 12 years’ service. He was never happier than when he could get his dad to talk about his experiences in the Great War but his dad said: ‘My boy, when you have been through what I have you won’t be so keen’. But he went all the same.

The LRDG were at a loose end at the start of February 1945. With the Allies unable to break through the Germans’ Gothic Line (a 10-mile deep defensive line that ran across the breadth of northern Italy through the natural barrier of the Apennines) before the winter of 1944–45 descended, the LRDG had no role to fulfil in southern Austria and northern Yugoslavia. It was therefore decided to establish a small Combined Operations HQ at Zara, a town on the Croatian coast, 200 miles north of Dubrovnik. Known as the Land Forces Northern Adriatic, it comprised A Squadron LRDG, the SBS and a unit called the Raiding Support Regiment. Zara possessed a good harbour and what remained of the town impressed one of the Rhodesians, Staff Sergeant Stan Andrews: ‘The town itself was quite large, with a palace, opera house and banks but the whole area had been heavily bombed,’ he recalled. ‘One would have to walk through the rubble of buildings and down streets full of bomb craters.’ But not everything had been destroyed. ‘There were stacks of empty German beer cases around,’ said Andrews. ‘We actually found quite a few full ones, too.’

Reluctantly, David Lloyd Owen had concluded that there was not enough work for both A and B squadrons in the northern Dalmatian Islands, so B Squadron (commanded by Major Stormonth Darling) was withdrawn from the theatre and sent to train in mountain warfare in readiness for operations following the breakout from northern Italy. ‘I chose that Squadron because the other one was committed more deeply, and it would have been difficult to extricate it,’ explained Lloyd Owen. ‘On top of this the Rhodesians knew the Dalmatian coast well and had made many contacts there.’

At this stage of the war, though defeat was inevitable for the Germans, they were still clinging tenaciously to their garrisons on islands such as Pag, Rab, Losinj, Cherso and Krk. Additionally, the Adriatic had been heavily mined, and so the German Navy, sailing at night to avoid Allied air attacks, was able to move freely without fear of molestation from the Royal Navy. During daylight hours the enemy ships were camouflaged ‘so that from the air and the sea, covered by bushes and branches stuck into vast nets, they looked part of the landscape’.

The LRDG was asked to help ‘in the elimination of this sea traffic’, and the first patrol to embark on this task was T1, skippered by Lieutenant Mike Reynolds and comprising ten men. They were landed by the navy on south-east Istria near the mouth of the Arsa Channel (also known as the Arsa Canal, it lies on the east coast of the Istrian peninsula), and were escorted by a partisan to a suitable lying-up area, a clearing that could only be reached by burrowing through deep bush. They erected their two-man Arctic tents and lived in comparative comfort and security, free from detection by sea or air, with their most vexing foe – initially, at any rate – the ‘hairy caterpillars which set up a very nasty rash if they fell on the body’.10

Soon there was a constant flow of messages being radioed from T1 to the base in Zara detailing all the enemy shipping that sailed up and down the Arsa Channel, as well as the boats that were cunningly camouflaged on the coastline. The intelligence kept the RAF busy, and also occupied Reynolds as he strove to note down everything in his diary:

4th March: Hurricanes and bombers get hits on S.S. Italia

5th March: Hurricanes with rockets set fire to tramp and sink 500-ton coaster

6th March: Three Motor Torpedo Boats attack three E-Boats and one tramp. Tramp sunk

7th March: 800-ton vessel damaged and 100-ton lighter sunk by Mustangs and Hurricanes

9th March: 700-ton coaster sunk

10th March: 800-ton vessel sunk. Walked along beach and could see no ships afloat.

13th March: Three [British] Motor Torpedo Boats engaged and damaged ‘F’ and ‘E’ Boats as they entered Arsa Channel. On three occasions the Motor Torpedo Boats drove back enemy vessels trying to leave Arsa.

14th March: Hurricanes sink two E Boats

20th March: Three [British] Motor Torpedo Boats engaged and sunk a schooner

23rd March: Capture spy in our camp and hand him over to the Partisans

26th March: German patrol 100 strong beating bush near our camp. Uncomfortable. Our watchers over jetty nearly captured.

27th March: Germans still trying to find us.

David Lloyd Owen recalled that ‘they were the most thrilling days as each new result was flashed back to us’, and they were exciting, too, for the navy and air force tasked with destroying the targets provided by the LRDG. On one such attack an LRDG signaller, Robbie Robinson, was assigned to a RN motor torpedo boat (MTB) to provide direct communication between Reynolds’ patrol and the naval commander. Departing from Zara at 1400 hours one afternoon, the flotilla of MTBs ‘sheltered amongst the Dalmatian islands off the coast of Istria until dark then moved into Arsa Bay in a V-formation’. On this particular night, no vessels came their way. Disappointed, the vessels returned to their shelter among the islands and spent the day hoping for better luck on the second night. But again no target sailed into view. Their luck changed on the third night, remembered Robinson. ‘No sooner had we stopped with engines idling when a call came,’ he said. The rear MTB had spotted the dome-shaped conning tower of a midget submarine breaking the surface. ‘Immediately Monty [Montgomery, the commander of MTB 1] swung hard to starboard and roared away in a circle behind MTBs 2 and 3, and did as they had done, dropping depth charges on and around where a submarine had just surfaced for a sighting.’

Then, on the far side of the bay, something exploded. Mike Reynolds’ signaller came on the radio, demanding to know from Robinson what was going on. He was speaking in Shona, the native language of Rhodesia, a tactic used by the Rhodesian LRDG so that the Germans couldn’t intercept their wireless communications. Robinson replied in like fashion, reporting that it was a torpedo fired from a submarine that had missed the three MTBs and exploded against the coastline. The MTBs then circled the bay, dropping more depth charges and a short while later ‘debris appeared on the surface’.

While the three MTBs headed back to the security of their base in Zara, for Reynolds and his patrol each day brought more pressure and the possibility they might be found by the Germans. The spy who wandered into their camp was one of several employed by the Germans, and when they failed to deliver the British, the enemy sent in dogs. The last resort was to set fire to stretches of scrubland in the hope of flushing out their prey, but that too failed. All the while the locals supplied the LRDG patrol with eggs, milk and bread, did their laundry, and on one occasion sent a barber in the dead of night to give the men’s hair a trim. Such co-operation was welcomed by Reynolds, but at the same time there was always in the back of his mind the worry that the more locals who knew of their presence, the greater the chances of betrayal.

At the start of April, two members of the LRDG patrol, Alf Page, a 20-year-old Rhodesian, and Len Poole, known as ‘Zulu’, left the camp to carry out a reconnaissance of the Arsa coal jetty from a hilltop. Their position was visible from the LRDG camp, and shortly after first light the following morning Reynolds watched in alarm as a fleet of German trucks arrived at the foot of the hill. Page and Poole had just crawled out of their sleeping bags and were now tucking into a breakfast of bully beef, oatmeal slab and compo tea, blissfully unaware of what their commanding officer could see. Through the dawn mist on top of the hill they watched two women approach, one of whom Poole recognized as Tosca, a ‘young, short, jovial girl of about sixteen’. It was the older woman, whoever, who had a look of panic in her eyes. ‘Tedesci, Tedesci!’ she cried, the word both Poole and Page took to mean ‘German’.

‘We were told that an informer had given our presence away to the Germans who were mounting a hunt to catch us,’ recalled Poole. He and Page had a brief discussion and decided to remain where they were for the moment, ‘until the threat became more defined’. Additionally, it was nearly 0700 hours, and they were scheduled to contact Mike Reynolds on the radio at that hour. Nonetheless, the pair arranged ‘to meet Tosca at a point halfway to a farm house occupied by partisan sympathisers if we were forced to clear out’.

Poole was unable to raise Reynolds on the radio at the appointed hour, another source of concern on a morning when everything appeared to be going wrong. Tosca returned at 0730 hours to warn them that the area ‘was alive with German troops’. The pair decided it would be prudent to pack up and get ready to move at a moment’s notice, and once done they began their observation of the harbour now that the mist around their position had cleared. Page fixed the harbour with his binoculars, and, seeing nothing of interest began scanning the countryside. He started, and then whispered to Poole: ‘I can see three Germans and you won’t need glasses to see them.’ Poole followed the gaze of his comrade, and observed ‘an extended search party coming up one side of our hill with other parties swinging in to complete the circle over the summit of the ridge connecting us to other high ground’.

The pair ‘moved pretty smartly’, running at a crouch out of the view of the approaching enemy and towards the farm halfway down the hillside. Tosca was waiting for them, as insouciant as ever, and she took Page into her care while another young woman, Amelia, beckoned to Poole. ‘[She] led me into a stone barn and across to a corner where I helped her move several stones at the junction of wall and floor,’ he recalled. Underneath was a recess in the floor large enough to fit Poole and a partisan who had climbed in a few minutes earlier. Amelia and her mother and father rearranged the stones and waited for the inevitable arrival of the Germans. From his hiding place, Poole heard the Germans burst into the farmhouse, heard, too, their boots clatter over the cobbles into the stone barn and heard the barks of the officers in charge as they searched the building. ‘What I found amusing was the fact the Germans looking for us took turns taking drinks from the water barrel in the barn,’ said Poole.

By mid-afternoon, Poole deemed it safe enough to emerge from his hiding place and a couple of hours later he was reunited with Alf Page, who told his comrade about his adventure. He had been taken by Tosca to the house of the village mayor, who’d gone into hiding several days earlier. The mayor had built a small room at the bottom of a dry well in his garden, and covered the well with a roof of earth and shrubbery. Page and the mayor spent the day playing cards at the bottom of the well until collected by Tosca. The two LRDG men held a council of war with the partisans and agreed that it was safe to return to their original observation post on the hilltop. It would soon be 1900 hours, the time of the evening radio schedule, and Poole was anxious to have news from Reynolds, having failed to make contact 12 hours earlier. They reached the OP without incident and Poole called up the patrol on his radio. ‘I did so again and again without result and was preparing to close down when a reply came surging through the earphones,’ he recounted. It was a brief message from Reynolds: ‘Come back at once to the patrol and bring the radio. The Germans have been walking all around us and we dare not put up the radio aerial. The hunt parties have moved away.’16

Just as Poole and Page prepared to return to the camp, the wife of one of the partisans appeared on the hilltop with her two children in tow. She also brought some alarming news. German trucks were on their way to conduct another search. It was decided that the partisan, his wife and children would take the two soldiers to their house in another village. ‘I’ll never forget that walk,’ recalled Poole. ‘The four adults walked together through the village streets while the two children, Aurelio (about 12) and his little sister, about nine, skipped and ran laughing and shouting as they darted down side lanes and the road ahead. In their singing they were reporting on whatever other traffic there was about. What a grim game for two young kids.’ They rested briefly in the family’s house, long enough for a cup of coffee and a cigarette, and then the pair moved off alone, skirting the village of Porto Carnizza and finally reaching the main camp by crawling through the thick bush.

The Germans kept hunting the spies in their midst and the LRDG kept sending their reports. On 7 April a 200-ton vessel and 100-foot barge were sunk by RAF Hurricanes, and two days later the aircraft returned and attacked another barge. On 11 April the Germans, by now at the end of their tether, mortared the headland in which, somewhere, the British were concealed. To no effect. Ultimately, what brought the LRDG reconnaissance to an end wasn’t the Germans, but the partisans.

On 13 April Reynolds wrote in his diary: ‘We are tricked by Partisans and placed under arrest.’ The day had started routinely, with the arrival of eight partisans in mid-morning for a spot of ‘elevenses’ and a confab about what the rest of the day held. Without warning, the partisans raised their weapons at the LRDG and Reynolds had no choice but to comply with their instructions to lay down their arms. Fortunately, the partisans didn’t spot the LRDG wireless operator, who had set up his post a little way off from the main camp. Observing events, he had the time to transmit a quick radio message to their HQ describing the partisans’ action.

Alf Page had seen the situation grow tenser in Yugoslavia in the preceding month as the Germans began to withdraw and the various factions in the country began positioning themselves for a power grab. Marshal Josef Tito, head of the communist partisans, knew the strategic value of the Istrian peninsula and he feared that the British might try and secure it for themselves in the final weeks of the war. ‘With the Germans seemingly on the run they were willing to accept only nominal Allied assistance,’ he recalled.

The partisans would issue ‘passes’ giving approval [to the LRDG] to operate in a given area for a set time. Their justification for detaining the LRDG members was that their passes had expired. It was ironic as many times I would go with an MI5 officer to pick up bags of gold which were used to pay the partisans with, there were no issues with passes on these missions.

A furious David Lloyd Owen pursued the matter up the partisans’ chain of command, and on 16 April Reynolds had his radio returned and was told a partisan vessel would take him and his men back to Italy. Reynolds immediately contacted Lloyd Owen and requested he organize their collection, because ‘I would prefer to be picked up by the Navy rather than be shanghaied by these garlic-eating bandits’.

Reynolds was awarded a Military Cross for his role in what had been a very fruitful operation. The citation ran as follows:

At great risk valuable intelligence relating to coastal and other defences was collected, and quick action by Reynolds resulted in at least five medium-sized enemy vessels being bombed and sunk. At the same time he provided the Royal Navy with quick and valuable information about the movement of enemy shipping and the laying of minefields … in this, as in previous operations, Reynolds showed complete disregard for his personal safety in the execution of the tasks entrusted to him. His courage, determination, initiative and leadership were at all times an inspiration to his own and to other patrols.

The treatment of Reynolds resulted in Lloyd Owen’s decision – taken after much discussion with Allied Force Headquarters – to withdraw all LRDG and SBS patrols from Istria. On 21 April he sent a signal from Zara to the LRDG base in Rodi, in which he ‘recommended the withdrawal of everyone except [Stan] Eastwood and [John] Olivey. The latter [was] playing idiot boy with great success and undoubted charm’. In fact Eastwood withdrew with the rest of the British special forces a few days later, leaving only John Olivey and his patrol in Istria, who had been warned to be on their guard against the partisans’ duplicity.

Olivey didn’t have long to wait until the partisans arrived to detain them. He complied with all their demands but insisted the partisans carry not just the LRDG weapons, but also their rucksacks during their hike to the partisan HQ. Once there, Olivey and his patrol were handed back their weapons after the intervention of a political commissar.

Olivey’s patrol continued with their road watch north of Fiume, observing an adversary in its death throes. ‘I remember seeing the retreating Jerries and what a pitiful sight they were too,’ recalled Alf Page, who had joined the patrol. On 3 May the Germans were heading north in droves. Olivey reported ‘head-to-tail as far as the eye could see were horses and carts, the enemy having strong flank guards of infantry and artillery. This went on all day through much snow that fell at intervals.’ On 4 May Olivey considered it safe enough to radio in a resupply by air, and two days later a mouth-watering array of delicacies floated down from the sky on the end of white canopies: tea, sugar, milk, chocolate and several bottles of whisky. ‘We gave the food to the partisans and their thanks was to disarm us and lock us up in a machine shop in a village down the mountain,’ said Alf Page, who recalled that Olivey, denied access to a lavatory by the guard, ‘peed on his candle!’

Olivey was now at his wits’ end, but so, fortunately, was the European war. In the early hours of 7 May at SHAEF (Supreme Headquarters Allied Expeditionary Force) headquarters in France, General Alfred Jodl, the chief of staff of the German Armed Forces High Command, surrendered unconditionally. The document he signed authorized ‘All forces under German control to cease active operations at 2301 hours Central European Time on May 8, 1945’. On 9 May Olivey and his patrol were brought before the local partisan commander, ‘who released them with many apologies and much wine’.

The treatment of Reynolds resulted in Lloyd Owen’s decision – taken after much discussion with Allied Force Headquarters – to withdraw all LRDG and SBS patrols from Istria. On 21 April he sent a signal from Zara to the LRDG base in Rodi, in which he ‘recommended the withdrawal of everyone except [Stan] Eastwood and [John] Olivey. The latter [was] playing idiot boy with great success and undoubted charm’. In fact Eastwood withdrew with the rest of the British special forces a few days later, leaving only John Olivey and his patrol in Istria, who had been warned to be on their guard against the partisans’ duplicity.

Olivey didn’t have long to wait until the partisans arrived to detain them. He complied with all their demands but insisted the partisans carry not just the LRDG weapons, but also their rucksacks during their hike to the partisan HQ. Once there, Olivey and his patrol were handed back their weapons after the intervention of a political commissar.

Olivey’s patrol continued with their road watch north of Fiume, observing an adversary in its death throes. ‘I remember seeing the retreating Jerries and what a pitiful sight they were too,’ recalled Alf Page, who had joined the patrol. On 3 May the Germans were heading north in droves. Olivey reported ‘head-to-tail as far as the eye could see were horses and carts, the enemy having strong flank guards of infantry and artillery. This went on all day through much snow that fell at intervals.’ On 4 May Olivey considered it safe enough to radio in a resupply by air, and two days later a mouth-watering array of delicacies floated down from the sky on the end of white canopies: tea, sugar, milk, chocolate and several bottles of whisky. ‘We gave the food to the partisans and their thanks was to disarm us and lock us up in a machine shop in a village down the mountain,’ said Alf Page, who recalled that Olivey, denied access to a lavatory by the guard, ‘peed on his candle!’

Olivey was now at his wits’ end, but so, fortunately, was the European war. In the early hours of 7 May at SHAEF (Supreme Headquarters Allied Expeditionary Force) headquarters in France, General Alfred Jodl, the chief of staff of the German Armed Forces High Command, surrendered unconditionally. The document he signed authorized ‘All forces under German control to cease active operations at 2301 hours Central European Time on May 8, 1945’. On 9 May Olivey and his patrol were brought before the local partisan commander, ‘who released them with many apologies and much wine’.

LRDG in the Balkans

The responsibility for the failure of three of the four patrols dropped into Italy rested largely with Lloyd Owen. Understandably keen to see the unit back in action after the events of November 1943 on Leros, he had thrown caution to the winds in selecting drop zones too close to the enemy front line. He should have remembered the old maxim from the desert days: 500 miles behind enemy lines is safer than 50 miles. When a special forces soldier is 500 miles inside the enemy’s territory his opponent’s guard is down because they assume themselves to be safe, but at 50 miles they’re on alert. In addition, what had been asked of the LRDG patrols in Italy wasn’t what they’d been trained for. They had done a brief parachute training course, but landing in enemy territory with several canisters of weapons and supplies required experience. The brutal truth was the LRDG still had a desert war mentality; operating in vast uninhabited regions where survival more often than not depended on a man’s will, wit and initiative. In Europe, one never knew what lay round the corner and one never knew who one could trust.

As for A Squadron, the Rhodesian Squadron, by the middle of June their role changed from carrying out purely reconnaissance operations on the Dalmatian Islands to combining them with offensive action against enemy targets. Wishing to have the self-sufficiency and independence that the LRDG had enjoyed in North Africa, Lloyd Owen procured the unit’s very own vessel, the motor fishing vessel La Palma, which allowed them to operate without having to rely on the Royal Navy, who might not always be able to meet the LRDG’s requirements. La Palma’s maiden voyage was to the island of Vis in June, her crew of nine taking seven and a half hours to cover the 70 miles. It was the first of many such trips, the aim of which was to either report on enemy shipping so that the RAF or Royal Navy could launch an attack, or so that small raiding parties could harass enemy shipping or installations on lightly held islands.

In the same month, Captain Stan Eastwood and five men, including an interpreter and Albanian guide, landed at Orso Bay on the Albanian coast. A German observation post was believed to be located somewhere on the stretch of coastline, and Eastwood was ‘to liquidate it’ because it was reporting the movements of Allied shipping. They located the target, but it was too much for their party to tackle, comprising ‘a rectangular concrete building of seven rooms with a flat roof camouflaged to look like an ordinary house with a pitched roof, the eastern portion giving the appearance of having fallen in’. On the roof, noted Eastwood, was a square lookout with slits for guns, and one, sometimes two, sentries were also on duty in the tower. Additionally two corners of the buildings were augmented with pillboxes, ‘the gun slits in which would permit their combined fire to cover a 360-degree radius’. If that wasn’t formidable enough, a double apron barbed-wire fence encircled the position at a distance of 40 yards.

Eastwood radioed a report to Force 266 and it was decided to mount a combined operation with three RN Hunt-class destroyers as well as a couple of rapid Italian torpedo boats. David Lloyd Owen delegated command of the land operation to Captain Tony Browne, one of the original New Zealand contingent in the LRDG, who had just wangled his return to the unit after several months away. Then, at the last moment, Lloyd Owen came along for the ride. ‘I had not been on active operations for so long,’ he said, ‘and I was beginning to feel stale and tired. I wanted a breath of fresh air again.’

In all, there were 35 men from the LRDG in the torpedo boats that raced east across the Adriatic from Brindisi. Stan Eastwood signalled them in and when dawn broke at 0415 hours they were safely ashore. ‘We had to get away from the beach and it took us nearly five hours to move a few miles over rough and rocky country to where there was thick cover under some trees,’ recalled Lloyd Owen. He, Eastwood and Browne left the rest of the party among the trees and climbed to a boulder-strewn ridge 1,200 feet above sea level. In the far distance they could see the town of Valona bathed in morning light. Nearer, just 1,000 yards across a scrub-covered ravine, was the target. It was indeed formidably defended, said Lloyd Owen, observing the target, but he was confident all the same that its obliteration wouldn’t pose much of a problem. The plan, he said, was simple: ‘We would move to within seven hundred yards of the target at dusk and then await the blitz of the three destroyers. When these had done their best the final assault would be led by Stan. We were to be in touch with the destroyers by wireless, and had brought a trained gunnery officer with us to control their fire.’

They spent the day under cover, checking their weapons, checking their watches, eating, dozing, thinking. At sundown Eastwood led the assault force into position, while Lloyd Owen and the gunnery officer climbed to a point where they could see the three destroyers. It was a moment of high suspense, one where the LRDG were at the mercy of the Royal Navy’s guns. A few hundred yards of inaccuracy could have deadly consequences. ‘The silence was a little weird, but fascinating at the same time,’ reflected Lloyd Owen, as he stared at the ‘dark and sinister forms on the gentle ripple of water’.

At 2325 hours Lloyd Owen flashed the agreed signal, and the officer confirmed their position and that of the target by radio. Five minutes later, bang on time, a star shell illuminated the coastline, followed a few seconds later by ‘the first ranging shot [which] tore through the air and struck the mountainside a little below the target’. Then the bombardment began and 12-gun salvoes from the three destroyers screamed down on the observation post. The ground shook beneath the LRDG men and great chunks of rock cascaded into the ravine. As for the target, that was obscured in a storm cloud of dust. Eastwood radioed for some more star shells. As they burst overhead, he saw that the observation post ‘needed another dose’. After the second short bombardment, Eastwood and his men moved towards the target in a line abreast. Through the dust they saw 150 yards away four Germans staggering from the post. Eastwood called on them to surrender. They didn’t respond, so they were shot. Three other Germans emerged with their hands above their head and were taken into captivity. Eastwood grabbed one and together they entered the ruins of the observation post. But there was no further resistance, and from the doorway of the house, Eastwood fired three long bursts of tracer into the air and then flashed three times with the torch towards Lloyd Owen’s position. It was the signal for the successful completion of their objective. By 0300 hours, the LRDG were on the beach with ‘three miserable weeping Germans’, and half an hour later a whaler arrived and transported them onto one of the destroyers, HMS Terpsichore.

A change of clothes, a hearty breakfast and then a moment to reflect on the mission. Three prisoners, one casualty (a slight ‘friendly fire’ wound to one of Eastwood‘s party from a naval shell splinter) and the destruction of the observation post. It was hardly a major setback for the Germans, acknowledged Lloyd Owen, but the principal result of the first Allied raid launched from Italy ‘lay in the uneasiness which the enemy was to feel along the whole of their Adriatic coast’. What was more, the Royal Navy had had a good time, the captain of HMS Terpsichore sending Lloyd Owen a letter thanking him ‘for a good evening’s entertainment and for providing the live exhibits in the form of the first Germans many of my sailors have seen’.

There was a minor reorganization in August, with the LRDG being placed under the operational command of the Land Forces Adriatic [LFA] on the 14th of the month. The HQ of the LFA was in Bari, and it was here that missions and raids were planned. ‘The prime task of the LRDG was to provide reconnaissance for the striking forces of all three Services [army, navy, air force],’ wrote Captain Stuart Manning. ‘When the LFA attacked targets, the LRDG had to be prepared to mark landing beaches or dropping zones and provide guides to lying-up places or targets.’

One such target was a railway bridge over a gorge inland from Gruda, a village approximately 20 miles south of the port of Dubrovnik in Croatia. On 19 August, an LRDG patrol of five men, commanded by Captain David Skipworth, left Italy in a motor launch to reconnoitre the area. One of the men was Sergeant Fred Leach, erstwhile of the Scots Guards, and a veteran of the LRDG’s desert days. ‘Having found suitable landing 10 to 15 miles south of Dubrovnik [we] moved off inland to a thick wooded area,’ he remembered. They made contact with a group of partisans who invited them to their camp. ‘The offer was accepted,’ said Leach. ‘Trouble was to understand each other, but they had plenty of food, mostly British, and the site was ideal for the patrol’s purpose.’ The next few days were spent surveying the area, and observing the target. ‘The peace and quiet was uncanny,’ recalled Leach. ‘There was no sign of troops, army trucks or heavy weapons anywhere. The local farmers and others just carried out their work as usual.’

Satisfied that the bridge was a viable target, the LRDG communicated the fact to the LFA HQ in Bari, and on the evening of 27 August a 12-strong raiding party came ashore from a motor launch. Eleven of the men were from the SBS, the twelfth a demolitions expert from the Royal Engineers. They were commanded by Captain Anders Lassen, a fearsome and fearless Danish officer who had three military crosses to his name, and also among their number was Sergeant Dick Holmes, a recipient of the Military Medal for his courage during an SBS raid on Crete the previous year. ‘We were all carrying two rucksacks,’ recalled Holmes. ‘One contained our own kit and the other fifty pounds of plastic explosive.’

The route inland was treacherous, particularly at night, but the SBS were guided to the partisans’ camp by the LRDG. The next day the SBS observed the target in the presence of the LRDG and it was agreed that they would destroy it on the night of 30 August. Reaching the target without obstruction, the raiders attached electric charges to each of the bridge’s abutments while the Royal Engineers’ corporal made a junction box with a primer cord to each charge. Within a few minutes, 500lb of explosive were in place and ready to blow. Once the wiring from the charges to the plunger was in place, the men sheltered behind a large rock 200 feet from the bridge. Holmes was given the job of blowing the bridge. ‘On the count of three I pressed down on the plunger but nothing happened, there was no proper connection,’ remembered Holmes. ‘I tried again but [had] the same result.’

The Royal Engineer cleaned the plunger, unscrewing the terminals and polishing and replacing the wires, but that had no effect. Lassen looked at his watch. Dawn soon. He swore at the plunger, and at the sapper, but, ignoring the insults, the Royal Engineer scrambled down to the bridge to put Plan B into place. Running a safety fuse from the detonator back to the rock, he reached into his pocket for a box of matches. They watched the fizzing fuse for a few moments, then prudently crouched down behind the rock. ‘Lassen was starting to get impatient again,’ explained Holmes. ‘He wanted to go down and have a look for himself. Then suddenly the whole lot goes up and great chunks of masonry begin raining down on us. One bloody big piece flew past over our heads. It’s amazing no one got killed.’

Leaving behind a thick pall of yellow dust, the British raiders hurried high into the mountains until they reached the sanctuary of the partisan HQ. There was a delicious hot stew waiting for them when they arrived, and once that had been polished off the men lay down to rest. But at first light the next morning their slumber was shattered by a breathless sentry, who ran into the camp to warn that a large force of Germans and Ustaše were close at hand. The Ustaše were the fascist Croat force, whose reputation for brutality surpassed that of the Nazis.

In the grey dawn light, Holmes saw between 50 and 75 Germans and Ustaše advancing up the mountain towards their hideout, the officer in charge blowing a whistle and exhorting his men to move quicker. Lassen ordered his men to take up defensive positions along the rim of a hollow. ‘He decided to engage the approaching enemy troops, to the disgust of the rest of us,’ said Holmes. ‘I believe he was anxious to impress the partisans … we had done what we had been asked to do. Nothing would be gained by staying to fight.’

The partisans, however, had no intention of staging a last stand. They took off up the mountainside and Lassen, realizing they were hopelessly outnumbered, ordered the SBS and LRDG to withdraw. Fred Leach was shot in the arm as he pulled back, and consequently was ‘not a lot of use’. He, Captain Skipworth, the Royal Engineer and a partisan were captured, fortunately by the Germans and not the Ustaše.

The British prisoners were driven to Mostar, north of Dubrovnik, and there they were separated. ‘I was then taken to a room for questioning,’ recalled Leach. Waiting for him were three officers from the SS. ‘Having heard more than enough of the reputation of the SS I confess to being very unhappy indeed. However, these three turned out to be officers and gentlemen.’ It appeared to Leach that the trio knew the war was lost and were anxious to curry favour with any Allied soldier they encountered. Above all, they were relieved to be in Yugoslavia and not Russia.

‘Having heard more than enough of the reputation of the SS I confess to being very unhappy indeed. However, these three turned out to be officers and gentlemen.’

Ron Crossfield

The LRDG continued to operate in Albania throughout September, with the ubiquitous Stan Eastwood blowing up roads, attacking vehicles and generally making a nuisance of himself at every opportunity. Despite his success, however, and that of other Rhodesian patrols, relations between the LRDG and the partisans were deteriorating. ‘Albania had been a very successful phase of LRDG operations, but that had been due more to their own initiative and exertion than to so-called cooperation of the partisans,’ commented Stuart Manning, the Southern Rhodesia observer. ‘Throughout the local commanders, themselves willing to cooperate and be generally helpful, were everlastingly ruled by orders from above, which, as had been the case in Yugoslavia territory, they carried out blindly.’

By now it was evident to all – not just the three SS officers who questioned Sergeant Leach – that the Third Reich was crumbling. Squeezed on two fronts, Germany began recalling its troops from the Balkans to defend its border from the Soviet troops advancing westwards, who had already captured the Ploieşti airfields, entered Bucharest and made the first push into Yugoslavia. As German soldiers streamed north from Greece, through Albania and Yugoslavia, Winston Churchill demanded his chiefs of staff act quickly to ensure British troops reached Greece before the Soviets. The problem faced by Britain was a lack of resources; with so many soldiers fighting their way up Italy or across France, there simply were not enough troops in the Mediterranean theatre to meet Churchill’s insistence that a force of 5,000 march on Athens. Instead, an amalgamation of units was raised under the moniker Foxforce. Commanded by Lieutenant Colonel Ronnie Tod of No. 9 Commando, Foxforce comprised the LRDG, SBS, Commandos, Greek Sacred Squadron and the Raiding Support Regiment. Tod was answerable to the 2nd Special Service Brigade, which came under overall control of Brigadier Davy’s Land Forces Adriatic.

On 15 September Foxforce occupied the island of Kythira, six miles south of the Peloponnese, the large peninsula in southern Greece. The island was a good place from which to launch operations on the Greek mainland and the British established a naval base on the south of the island. From here the SBS and LRDG began reconnoitring the islands in the Bay of Athens, eradicating the last pockets of resistance, before, on 24 September, it was deemed the Peloponnese was sufficiently clear of the enemy to land a 450-strong force – codenamed ‘Bucket Force’ – at Araxos airfield in a fleet of Dakotas.

loyd Owen was asked to provide an LRDG patrol to act as Bucket Force’s ears and eyes as they advanced east from Araxos, so he called on John Olivey and his Rhodesian Z1 Patrol. Olivey’s 11 jeeps arrived in Greece by landing craft on 26 September, roaring ashore in their jeeps at Katakolon, 40 miles south of Araxos. The patrol soon became bogged down, however, Olivey noting as they drove north that ‘the roads [are] very bad after the recent rain’. Four of the jeeps in the patrol pulled trailers, on each of which was 1,000lb of equipment for Bucket Force, and within a day of landing Olivey began to doubt that all the vehicles would stand the ordeal if the condition of the roads did not improve.

On 30 September Olivey’s patrol arrived at Bucket Force’s Forward HQ, a few miles west of Patras. L Squadron of the SBS were positioned on the high ground overlooking the port, and their commander, Major Ian Patterson, was endeavouring to persuade the garrison of 900 Germans and 1,600 Greeks from a collaborationist security battalion to surrender. During the night of 3/4 October word reached Bucket Force HQ that the Germans had started withdrawing from Patras. At first light a patrol of the SBS, travelling in the LRDG jeeps, raced into the port and discovered that all but a German rearguard had indeed sailed out of Patras, heading east up the Gulf of Corinth towards the Corinth Canal.

The SBS and the LRDG now set off in pursuit of the Germans. In a convoy of jeeps they roared along the headland overlooking the gulf, a captured 75mm German field gun hitched to the back of one of the jeeps. ‘Chased the enemy who were withdrawing by boat,’ wrote Olivey in his log, ‘firing with .5 Browning and 75 mm gun, from positions on the Corinth Road.’

They reached Corinth on 7 October, exchanged desultory fire with the Germans on the other side of the canal and then accepted the surrender of another battalion of Greek collaborators. From Corinth Olivey received instructions to push on to the town of Megara, several miles to the north-east over a mountain road, but to leave two jeeps’ worth of men in Corinth to help in the clearance of German mines. Olivey’s Z1 Patrol reached Megara on 9 October and at dawn the next day assisted an SBS unit to ‘blow the escape road that the enemy were using’. With that done, they set about preparing a landing strip for the arrival of the 4th Independent Parachute Brigade led by Colonel George Jellicoe. They dropped into Megara on 12 October, a day when the wind was particularly stiff. ‘We were rushed to Megara airfield to help by driving alongside the paratroopers on the ground with open chutes, swinging left or right to collapse the chutes, to enable them to get to their feet,’ recalled Tommy Haddon, a Rhodesian trooper in Z1 Patrol. ‘Even so, many parachutes were not collapsing and men were swept onto the rocks along the coast running alongside the airfield.’

The next day, 13 October, Z1 Patrol was among the first Allied troops to enter the Greek capital. ‘We proceeded over the Corinth Canal to Athens in convoys,’ recalled Haddon, ‘all the way being greeted by singing and joyful Greeks, shouting words of welcome.’ Once in Athens, Haddon and Z1 checked into the Grand National Hotel, though it wasn’t for long. They were soon billeted in less salubrious surrounds – the old Ford factory on the main road to Piraeus.

Foxforce was now subsumed into ‘Pompforce’, a 1,000-strong amalgamation of the LRDG, SBS, 4th Independent Parachute Battalion, a unit from the RAF Regiment and a battery of 75mm guns. Commanded by Jellicoe, ‘Pompforce’ drove north towards Larissa, driving past the detritus of a large-scale German retreat. Glimpses of the Germans were rare, and what resistance was encountered was quickly crushed, as at Kozani and Florina.

John Olivey’s patrol ‘proceeded south of Florina and harassed the withdrawing enemy and proceeded to the flat country … firing at a range of 2,000 yards, at the enemy force withdrawing up the Florina–Havrokhoma Road. Florina was occupied/captured at 1600 hours.’ Hours after the capture of Florina, Jellicoe received a signal ‘instructing us not to go into Yugoslavia or Albania, presumably as a result of a pact with the Russians’.

At the end of October Lloyd Owen withdrew most of the LRDG patrols from Albania, leaving behind Eastwood ‘chasing the enemy where he could’. Much of his work was calling up air strikes on retreating Germans, such as the convoy moving south to reinforce the town of Tirana. Having first blown a bridge with his patrol, Eastwood radioed the RAF, who attacked the convoy as it waited for the bridge to be repaired. The convoy of ‘1,500 men, a few tanks, guns, MT and horse-drawn vehicles’ was all but wiped out. Tirana subsequently fell to the partisans on 17 November, and a fortnight later Eastwood’s patrol finally withdrew after four months of superlative work that only a unit with the LRDG’s unique skills could have accomplished. Eastwood had been awarded a Military Cross for leading the raid on the observation post in Orso Bay, and his sergeant, Andy Bennett, was decorated for his work in Albania, the citation for his Military Medal describing his role during a battle with 200 Germans on the Elbasan-Tirana road:

In a battle lasting some hours he showed magnificent courage under extremely heavy fire. He refused to leave his position only a few hundred yards from the road and thus enabled the combined force to compel the enemy to withdraw, leaving behind eighty dead and much valuable equipment. During the whole of these operations Bennett displayed great gallantry under fire.

Back in Greece, the Germans had been chased out of the country by November and on the 12th of the month the LRDG, together with the SBS, returned south to Athens for what they imagined would be some well-earned rest and recuperation. Greece, its islands and its people, were hugely popular with both units, and in the preceding 15 months a strong bond had developed between the British special forces and the Greeks. It was a bond forged in war, unbreakable, or so the British assumed.

But it was quickly apparent in Athens that the indolent days of the past had evaporated. The antagonism was palpable between the government of ‘National Unity’, who were pro-monarchy, and EAM, the predominantly communist National Liberation Front, whose military wing was ELAS, the Greek People’s Liberation Army. At first it was assumed that the trouble could be easily contained by the Greek authorities, and so Major Stormonth Darling led B Squadron (who had also been in Greece) back to Italy on the same day that John Olivey’s Z1 Patrol arrived back in Athens, the men relishing the ten days’ leave they had been promised.

On 13 November leave was cancelled because of ‘trouble, which was expected from ELAS’, and six days later the LRDG were placed under the command of 23rd Armoured Brigade. A short while later they moved their base to Osiphoglion Orphanage, on the main road to Athens, but they rarely ventured out, their presence more symbolic than practical. Tommy Haddon ‘witnessed many sordid events, as one does in a civil war’, and it was Captain Stuart Manning’s job to condense an unpleasant few weeks into a report on Z1 Patrol’s stay in Athens.

They were in Athens when the trouble with ELAS started and their jeep patrols rescued police from posts under fire and raided an ELAS headquarters to capture petrol and arms. Several of the party were wounded and had to be evacuated. A Greek National Guard was then being hurriedly formed, and the Rhodesians and their colleagues helped to train them while assisting in maintaining order in Athens and the neighbourhood.

In December ELAS began to consider the British fair game. On the 11th an LRDG truck taking sick men to the 97 General Hospital was ambushed. No one was killed, but one of the LRDG men in the cab was hit in the shoulder. ELAS claimed later it was a case of mistaken identity, they’d thought it was a pro-Royalist vehicle, but later on the same day John Olivey and his driver, Artie Botha, drove into Athens to stock up on supplies. As they turned up a quiet side street, a machine gun opened up from a window above. Botha was shot in the head and Olivey hit as he dragged his wounded driver to cover. The pair were rushed to the 97 General Hospital but Botha died on the operating table. Olivey was evacuated to Italy by air, and doubtless as he left behind Greece the irony wasn’t lost on him that he had come through four years of fighting the Germans and Italians with barely a scratch, only to be shot by people who were supposed to be on the same side.

Litani River

Australians bridging the Litani River near Merjayun.

9–10 June 1941

Having covered four daring raids from the air, it is time to turn attention to the Commandos, which had been formed during 1940 after the Fall of France. Because Britain had no special forces at the time, the Prime Minister, Winston Churchill, had proposed the formation of a new organization, made up of volunteers, to carry out offensive action against the enemy. Churchill gave the organization the name Commandos, taken from his days as a war reporter in the Boer War when he had witnessed for himself the significant losses inflicted on the British Army by the Boer’s irregular forces, known as ‘commandos’. Although the vision had initially been for the British Commandos to carry out offensive action against the enemy’s extended and quite vulnerable coastline in north-west Europe, it is to the Middle East, and a campaign that is rarely given any historical recognition, that we go first to look at an early and very daring commando raid, and it would be the first time that commandos would attack a heavily defended position.

The Allied invasion of Vichy French-controlled Syria and Lebanon, called Operation Exporter, commenced in June 1941. The fact that little was known of the campaign during the war can be put down to there being little, if any, coverage given to the campaign back home. Politicians believed that any public knowledge of Allies fighting against French forces would probably have a negative effect in those countries involved. Even after the war, the campaign has remained largely unknown, but the action involving the men of 11 (Scottish) Commando at the Litani River was as fierce as anything the commandos had encountered at that stage of the war.

For several months the leader of the Free French, General Charles de Gaulle, had been pressing for an invasion of Vichy French Syria, but British forces were stretched across the Mediterranean and North Africa. Then, in May 1941, an agreement was signed between Vichy France and Germany, allowing the Nazis access to military facilities in Syria.

The outcome was the launching of an Allied offensive to prevent the Germans from using Syria and the Lebanon as havens to launch an attack on Egypt. Hostilities commenced on 8 June and, in support of Exporter, 11 Commando was tasked with capturing the Qasmiye Bridge that crossed the Litani River, about 50 miles south of Beirut, in what was then Syria, but is now southern Lebanon. The river flows east–west at that point and crossed the planned Allied line of advance northwards towards Beirut. Capturing the bridge would ease the Australian 7th Division’s advance along the coastal road from Haifa to Beirut, and it would be the first of a series of major actions lasting more than a month.

Commanded by Lieutenant Colonel Dick Pedder, 11 Commando had been drawn largely from Scottish regiments and sent to the Mediterranean in early 1941 as C Battalion of Layforce, a rather ad hoc formation made up of a number of commando units under the overall command of Colonel Robert Laycock. The intention was that Layforce would carry out a campaign of harassment against the enemy in the Mediterranean, but things had not turned out quite as planned, and by the time they arrived in theatre the strategic situation had much changed. A planned raid on the Greek island of Rhodes had to be cancelled, a supposedly daring raid on the Italian-held town of Bardia turned out to be unopposed, and the decision to send commandos to Crete to fight a rearguard action during the evacuation of the island, a role that commandos had not been specifically formed to do, had resulted in heavy losses. None of these early operations had involved Pedder’s men. They had instead been given the task of carrying out garrison duties on Cyprus, a role that had left the men of 11 Commando still looking for an opportunity to make their mark – an opportunity that finally came during Exporter.

The plan was for the commandos to carry out an amphibious assault at dawn, landing from the sea at the mouth of the Litani to coincide with the Australian 21st Infantry Brigade’s attack on the river. The enemy was known to be holding the ground along the line of the Litani River, with a second bridge, situated at Kafr Badda, crossing another river flowing parallel to the Litani about 2 miles to the north. The whole area was known to be heavily defended. In-between the two rivers, and to the east of the coastal road connecting Sidon and Tyre that crossed the two bridges, there were a number of enemy installations, including two main gun batteries and a barracks. Once ashore the commandos were to outflank the enemy and to attack them from the rear. They would then secure both the Qasmiye and Kafr Badda bridges before the enemy had time to destroy them, which would allow the Australian infantry to cross both rivers and advance towards Beirut. As the amphibious assault was planned for 8 June, the commandos left Cyprus four days prior to that, and two days later boarded their landing ship, HMS Glengyle. They then set sail from Port Said with a naval escort.

Pedder had a raiding force of more than 20 officers and 450 men, but he had been given little information regarding where the landing was to take place. A motor gunboat was launched so that the naval beach master and a local guide could carry out a quick reconnaissance of the coastline along the intended landing beaches. They came back reporting a large swell and heavy surf along the coast, particularly in the final few hundred yards of the beaches, which made the likelihood of the flat-bottomed landing craft being able to go ashore without capsizing quite slim. With the commandos laden with their heavy equipment, this would most likely result in several casualties. Furthermore, the forecast was not good, as it was looking unlikely there would be any change to the sea conditions for the next forty-eight hours.

Nonetheless, the decision was made to attempt a landing at dawn the following morning as planned, and during the early hours of 8 June the Glengyle arrived at the dropping-off point about 4 miles off the mouth of the Litani River. The eleven landing craft were lowered and the commandos packed inside with all their equipment and ammunition. The swell was quite severe and there was still a major concern about the conditions. Opinions differed, particularly between Pedder, who argued that the risk was worth taking in order to retain the element of surprise, and the beach master who had carried out the reconnaissance of the coastline. The final decision belonged to the skipper of the Glengyle, Captain Christopher Petrie, who, at that early part of the operation, still retained overall responsibility for whether the assault was launched or not. Reluctantly, Petrie made the decision to abort the mission.

With the commandos back on board and the landing craft raised, the Glengyle headed back to Port Said, arriving back during the afternoon. The commandos now waited anxiously while Pedder was summoned to a quick meeting on board another ship to find out what was to happen next. He soon arrived back on the Glengyle to tell his men the operation was back on and they were to set sail at once. It had been just over an hour since the Glengyle had arrived back in port and, to the disbelief of those on board, she was once again heading out to sea.

The Glengyle reached the dropping-off point during the early hours of 9 June. Fortunately, the swell had subsided enough to make the lowering of the landing craft easier than before. By now the Australian attack was well underway. Unfortunately, however, the earlier decision to abort the mission had been made in full view of the enemy. The motor gunboat carrying out the reconnaissance along the coastline had been spotted and it had become obvious to the enemy what was going on, so by the time the Australian infantry had advanced the defenders had simply blown the Qasmiye Bridge.

The second bridge at Kafr Badda, however, was still intact and so Pedder had to modify his plan. He split his force into three parties: X, Y and Z. The original plan had been to land the parties on both sides of the mouth of the Litani and to seize the Qasmiye Bridge, but because the bridge was no longer the main objective, all three parties would now land to the north of the estuary on separate beaches between the two rivers.

X Party comprised of 2, 3 and 9 Troops, and was to land closest to the Litani to carry out the main assault on the north bank of the river. The men were to be led by Major Geoffrey Keyes, Pedder’s second-in-command and the oldest son of Admiral Sir Roger Keyes, the Director of Combined Operations. Keyes had just celebrated his twenty-fourth birthday and had already been in action in Norway prior to serving in the Middle East. His task now was to destroy an enemy position at Aiteniye and to then seize the enemy fortification on the north bank of the river from its rear. His party were then to hold the area to allow the Australians time to build a pontoon bridge across the river.

Pedder, meanwhile, was to lead Y Party, consisting of 1, 7 and 8 Troops. His party would land just to the north of Keyes’s group and provide support during the main assault by taking a gun battery and capturing the enemy barracks just over a mile inland, after which Pedder’s group would support the main attack in whatever way it could. The third group, Z Party, made up of 4 and 10 Troops, and under the command of Captain George More, would land furthest north, some 2 miles from the Litani River and at the mouth of the second river. More’s task was to capture and hold the bridge at Kafr Badda, and so prevent the enemy from reinforcing the area along the coast road from the north, and to capture an enemy gun battery to the east.

Soon after 3.00 am the lead commandos of X Party boarded four landing craft and headed off towards the shore. It would be another hour before daylight. As before, there had been a lack of information during the briefing and so the landing party had been given little idea of how to find the right landing spot. Although there was a reasonable amount of moonlight, it proved a difficult task.

In the end, X Party landed just before 5.00 am about a mile south of where they should have been and on the wrong side of the river. Fortunately, the landing was unopposed. It was now getting light and Keyes quickly realized they had landed on the south side of the river. With no alternative but to mount a frontal attack against heavily armed troops in a fortified position, Keyes ordered his men to move rapidly across the beach towards the river. At that point the whole beach area came under heavy fire, including mortar and artillery fire, as well as that from heavy machine guns. The fire was coming from the same enemy fortification to the north-east of their position that they should have been attacking from the rear.

During their advance to the river the men of X Party soon became pinned down, particularly from sniper fire from the enemy bank, and suffered a number of casualties. One section led by Captain George Highland, with 21-year-old Lieutenant Eric Garland alongside him, managed to work its way forward on the far right, and out of sight of the main enemy position. But faced with only open and flat ground ahead there was little in the way of protection, and they soon became pinned down by an enemy sniper.

As Keyes surveyed the scene, the casualties started to mount; two of his corporals and a sapper were killed. They could get no further. For the best part of half an hour the commandos remained where they were, but they had now been joined by some Australian infantry supporting the commandos’ attack on the river. Using a combination of crawling and sprinting across the open ground, and using whatever cover he could find, Keyes managed to reach Highland’s advanced position. He arrived to find that Highland and Garland had just teased out the enemy sniper who had kept his small group pinned down for so long; with his position now exposed, the hapless Frenchman was soon cut down by a burst of commando machine-gun fire.

With the sniper taken care of, and with supporting artillery fire now raining down on the enemy, the commandos had an opportunity to cross the river. A small canvas boat was brought up to the river and positioned amongst some rushes as cover. With the help of the Australians, and with Garland and a handful of commandos on board, the men paddled their way across the river, which, at that point, was just 30 yards wide. Although the river was relatively narrow at that point, it was fast flowing and reaching the other side was hard work, but the Australians soon set up a ferry service to take more commandos to the northern side.

Keyes and his men had now been ashore for more than four hours. Meanwhile, the central group, Pedder’s Y Party, consisting of 8 officers and nearly 150 men, had gone ashore in 4 landing craft. They had landed at around 4.30 am just over a mile from the river and had come under fire before they even reached the beach. With the landing craft crews keen to drop off the commandos and withdraw as quickly as possible, many of the latter were left to struggle ashore in water that was chest high. The commandos then ran quickly across the open beach, covering the short distance of just 20 yards or so in record time, before heading inland over the dunes and crossing the coastal road. It was then that they encountered more heavy enemy fire from the higher ground ahead.

Although Y Party had somehow managed to arrive at their positon in reasonably good shape, progress was slow and their radio had been damaged. Pedder had no way of communicating with the other two parties and so he was forced to get his men to break out of their cover and into the open. But, as they pressed on towards the barracks, it was impossible to co-ordinate an attack, and it was not long before the commandos became pinned down once more.

Fortunately, one of Pedder’s officers, Lieutenant Blair ‘Paddy’ Mayne, who was leading 7 Troop and would later become a founding member of the Special Air Service, had managed to join up with elements of 8 Troop. They were soon able to press on and then head south towards the river.

But it was 1 Troop and Pedder’s headquarters who encountered the fiercest opposition. Undaunted, Lieutenant Gerald Bryan led his men on beyond the barracks to one of the guns. He arrived to find the gun unmanned and the crew taking cover nearby. The other guns nearby were manned and were firing on the commandos, but Bryan’s men succeeded in getting the captured gun in action and firing on those emplacements still in the hands of the enemy.

Elsewhere amongst Pedder’s group, the commandos mounted an assault against the barracks but they were met by heavy machine-gun and sniper fire. Casualties soon started to mount as Pedder ordered his men to withdraw towards a gulley for shelter. It was at that point that Dick Pedder was killed. It was a savage blow. Other officers had also become casualties. Captain Bill Farmiloe and Lieutenant Donald Coode had both been killed and the last remaining officer, Gerald Bryan, who had now taken over command of the men, was then wounded; Bryan would, nonetheless, manage to keep the enemy at arm’s length for two hours before he was taken prisoner.

With all his officers gone it was left to Regimental Sergeant Major Lewis Tevendale to regroup and rally the men and head for the river. They managed to reach some cover, but after several hours of continuous fire they were finally overrun; with no other option, the commandos surrendered.

Meanwhile, further to the north, George More’s Z Party also had no way of communicating with the other groups; a landing craft had hit a submerged rock during its approach to the beach and the radio set had been soaked, rendering it nothing short of useless. The other landing craft seem to have been caught on a sandbank and so the commandos had to make their way in chest-high water. They then had to make their way across the beach and open ground under sporadic enemy fire, a distance of several hundred yards, before they were able to find any cover. Although they encountered more enemy fire once they arrived at the coastal road, Z Party managed to mount a frontal attack on the enemy. The Vichy troops were outfought and seemingly had little stomach for a heavy fight. By 6.30 am the commandos had seized the bridge intact.

Having overrun many vacant enemy positions, where the occupants had clearly departed in a hurry, the commandos of Z Party started rounding up prisoners. For most of the day they managed to hold off the enemy, although the flatness of the surrounding terrain made it difficult. They also succeeded in capturing four gun emplacements and a transport pool, as well as take a number of prisoners. It was only when a number of enemy armoured vehicles arrived that More was forced to withdraw his men. Some headed off east in a group led by Lieutenant Tommy Macpherson before going south to reach the Australian lines, while More led others off south, still under heavy enemy fire, to join up with Y Party. However, the latter were soon caught in open ground and, unable to communicate with the commandos further south, suddenly found themselves coming under fire from all directions. Amongst the five men killed was one of the young officers, 21-year-old Lieutenant Geoffrey Parnacott. Three other men were wounded, and with no hope of getting to safety, they surrendered.

Back at the river, the commandos of X Party were busy crossing the Litani. More boats had been made available, but it was now already early afternoon and had taken more than three hours to ferry the men across. As more men reached the far side, the commandos gradually gained a stronger foothold on the northern bank. Led by Highland and Garland they slowly cleared the enemy positions and captured the enemy redoubt, although it came at a cost, with several commandos killed and wounded during the assault on both sides of the river.

Having crossed the river, and now fearing a counter-attack, Keyes consolidated his position. Several prisoners had been captured and sent back across the river using the boats. Throughout the afternoon more and more Australians crossed the river. A pontoon bridge had been built, and by the early evening Keyes was able to hand over command of the fortification to the new arrivals.

The surviving commandos remained at the river overnight before the enemy forces in the area surrendered the following morning. Keyes was then ordered to withdraw at midday and to leave the redoubt to the Australians. One stroke of fortune was that George More and the commandos captured during the fighting the previous day were now released. Their captors from the day before had now become prisoners of the Australians. Keyes then led his men off southwards and by that night they were safely back at Haifa.

The men of 11 Commando returned to Cyprus on 15 June. They had acquitted themselves well and had achieved the objectives of the revised plan; they had crossed the Litani River and held the north bank long enough to allow the Australian Brigade to cross the river and move on towards Beirut. The commandos had landed with only enough ammunition to last for eight hours, but they had ended up having to fight for more than twenty-four. But it had been at a cost. Of the more than 450 men that had left Cyprus just 11 days before, 45 had been killed and a further 85 wounded.

But despite the courage and determination of the commandos, they had been let down even before they set foot on the beaches, particularly by weak intelligence and poor navigation. There is no doubt that casualties would have been far fewer had the commandos been landed in the right place. This was down to the fact that Pedder had been given insufficient information about the coastline and landing beaches before leaving the Glengyle, and X Party’s landing beach had been misidentified during the run-in before daylight. This had left Keyes and his men fighting all morning to get to the place where they should have been from the start.

After the raid, Geoffrey Keyes was given command of 11 Commando and awarded the Military Cross. Also awarded the MC were George More and Gerald Bryan, while Eric Garland received a bar to his MC, which he had won earlier in the war during the retreat to Dunkirk. Amongst the other awards, RSM Tevendale was awarded the DCM.

Americans in Vercors I

The OSS Special Operations and Operational Groups teams were involved in supporting the Maquis of Vercors during one of the best-known and much discussed episodes of the French Resistance during World War II. Vercors is a plateau situated in the pre-Alps region between the cities of Valence and Grenoble, about one hundred miles south of Lyon. Thirty miles long from north to south and twelve miles wide east to west, Vercors is a formidable natural fortress. To get inside it, an enemy had to go through an outer ring of obstacles formed by the rivers Isère, Drôme, and Drar. Next, he had to cross mountain ranges up to six thousand feet high that formed a perimeter over one hundred miles long around the plateau. At that time only eight roads led into Vercors, each of them with hairpin turns and narrow passes carved into the sides of the mountain that a defender could easily keep under surveillance, control, and if necessary destroy to prevent the advance of the enemy.

After the Franco-German armistice of June 25, 1940, Vercors remained in the area of France controlled by the Vichy government, although the Germans controlled Grenoble, the main city at the northern entrance of the plateau. Being at the boundary of German-occupied zone and due to the remoteness of its geography, Vercors became a place of refuge for people on the run, including political refugees, French Jews escaping arrest, and former French soldiers who did not want to serve under the Vichy regime. The plateau came under the influence of the movement Franc Tireurs, founded in Lyon in 1941 and one of several resistance organizations that arose in France at the time. Franc Tireurs, or “free shooters,” was a term used in France since the early 1800s to indicate irregular soldiers who fought behind enemy lines. In Vercors, their actions began with publishing and distributing leaflets against the Vichy policies and inciting passive resistance to the government directives.

The decision of Hitler and Mussolini to occupy the south of France after the Allied landings in North Africa on November 10, 1942, caused an influx of men to the Maquis of Vercors. The majority of them took to the mountains to evade the Service du Travail Obligatoire (STO), or Compulsory Work Service, the mandatory labor service instituted in France that sent hundreds of thousands of Frenchmen to work in Germany. The newly arrived were young, the majority between nineteen and twenty-three years of age, and without any combat experience. They came from all walks of life, had varied motivations, and were affiliated with movements across the French political spectrum. Some attempts to homogenize the members of the Maquis were made by equipes volantes, or roaming teams of political agitators, who were mostly socialist-leaning members of the Franc Tireurs movement interested in keeping other resistance factions from establishing a following in Vercors. The military preparation of the new arrivals was limited to studying a manual on guerrilla warfare assembled from instructions on the use of irregular troops issued by the French Ministry of Defense before the war. They also underwent physical training despite the winter conditions and the fact that most of them wore city clothes not appropriate for life in the mountains.

By the end of winter 1942–1943, four to five hundred members of the Maquis had settled in a dozen camps around Vercors. Their main preoccupation at the time was to secure provisions, including bread, meat, and tobacco. Most of the veterans remembered the time in these camps as mostly spent in boredom, filled with the drudgery of fetching water, collecting firewood, and pulling kitchen duty. They launched some raids to secure arms and munitions, but those remained marginal and most of the actions were against Italian depots to secure provisions. Here is how Gilbert François remembered the life in one of the camps:

When it was sunny, you could see a small flock being taken to pasture in the morning and back to the stables in the evening, men lying in the shade, others toasting in the sun, in other words, a vacation colony for unemployed youth. This is what a solitary traveler would have seen venturing in that abandoned landscape. We did water duty, vegetable cleaning duty, cutting down trees, killing and preparing animals; and then there were alerts, raids in Jossaud [the nearby village], and so on.

As long as the Maquisards remained in their camps and limited their actions to raids on supply depots, the Italians were happy to confine their actions to the discovery and collection of arms and ammunition dumps hidden in caves around the area. Occasional hits against Italian soldiers triggered raids on the Maquis camps or nearby villages, but no reprisals against civilians ever occurred. Both sides had developed an unspoken mutual warning system to signal each other’s presence and avoid head-on confrontations. For example, on March 18, 1943, two hundred Italian soldiers left Grenoble headed toward a Maquis camp. They sang all the way to ensure that there was no surprise whatsoever in their arrival. The outcome of the operation was four Maquisards arrested. One of the leaders of the Maquis of Vercors, Eugène Samuel, later wrote that this relaxed behavior of the Italian army created bad habits among the Resistance members. When the Germans took the place of the Italians, the Maquisards learned the hard way to be more disciplined and paid the price whenever they displayed reckless temerity.

The fight against the Maquis was primarily the responsibility of the Fascist secret police, the Organization for Vigilance and Repression of Anti-Fascism. Using a network of informers in the area, OVRA was able to arrest the original founders of the Maquis, which left the movement leaderless for a while and severed its connections with other Resistance groups in France and the Free French in London and Algiers.

At the end of June 1943, a new generation of leaders stepped up to reorganize the Maquis of Vercors. They embraced a strategic plan, known as Plan Montagnards, or Highlanders Plan, that envisioned two ways in which the Maquis could engage the Germans. In the first one, “Vercors would serve as a center of unrest and refuge for guerrilla fighters who, at the opportune moment, would attack railways, roads, bridges, electrical lines, and industrial plants in the area. The area would be a launching point for incursions in the rear of the German armies only at the time when they began their withdrawal from the Rhône valley.” The second option, the most audacious one, envisioned “the transformation of the plateau of Vercors into an aircraft carrier docked on dry land.” Under this option, the main task of the Maquisards would be to clear and prepare areas where Allied airplanes and parachutists could land.

The leaders of Vercors found a way to brief the French leaders in Algiers about Plan Montagnards. They received the response over the airwaves when the BBC broadcast the message “Les montagnards doivent continuer a gravir les cimes,” or “The highlanders should continue to climb the summits.” It meant that the plan was approved. No further instructions arrived to indicate which of the two options was seen as more favorable, although during a clandestine visit in Vercors, a senior French officer from Algiers made it clear that “without artillery, or mortars as a minimum, there is no hope to hold the plateau for long” in the event of an attack.

After the fall of Mussolini on July 25, 1943, and the signing of the armistice between Italy and the Allies on September 8, Vercors came under the 157th Reserve Division of the Wehrmacht, a unit created in November 1939 in Munich from local recruits from Bavaria. It had been located in southeast France since the fall of 1942 and did not have the combat experience that had hardened other German troops, such as deployments in the Eastern Front or in the Balkans. The division was under the commanded of General Karl Pflaum, a career officer of the German military establishment since 1910. Pflaum, born in 1890, had become a captain in 1921 and a colonel in 1937. He became general in 1941 and commanded the 258th Infantry Division in the battles for Moscow between October 1941 and January 1942.

The Germans replaced OVRA with the Gestapo and the Milice Française, or French Militia, the dreaded paramilitary force of the Vichy regime. Known simply as the Milice, the French Resistance feared it even more than the Gestapo and the SS for its ruthlessness and cruelty. The Gestapo and the Milice quickly showed that they would not tolerate any acts of defiance in the area. On November 11, 1943, when two thousand men marched to the monument of the fallen in Grenoble to commemorate the twenty-fifth anniversary of the French victory in 1918, Gestapo and French police surrounded them and deported four hundred marchers to Buchenwald. The resistance responded by sabotaging railroad and electricity lines, killing Milice members, and blowing up a depot with two hundred tons of artillery munitions.

The Germans countered with Operation Grenoble, executed between November 25 and 30, during which they arrested, killed, or deported most of the resistance leaders in the area. It became known as the “bloody week” or the Saint Bartholomew Massacre of Grenoble. On January 22, 1944, about three hundred Germans responded strongly to a strike by the Maquis two days earlier that had blocked one of the gorges leading into Vercors. The Germans easily broke through their positions and moved in the village of Chapelle-en-Vercors, forty miles south of Grenoble, where they burned down half of the houses in reprisal. On January 29, the Germans attacked the Maquis at Malleval, thirty miles south of Lyon on the opposite side of the plateau. A French survivor of that engagement recalled later how the inexperienced Maquisards had fallen into a lethal trap while advancing single file to meet the enemy. A well-positioned machine gun opened up on them. About thirty Maquisards died and only five or six were able to escape the massacre. The Germans burned the village to the ground.

It became clear to the Maquis leaders that the numerous camps where the Maquisards had spent the winter had become targets for the Germans and created a great risk for the civilians around them who kept these camps provisioned. A vast difference of opinions existed on whether it was best to reinforce these camps with heavy weapons that the Allies would send or to abandon them. Although all the Resistance military groups had been unified since February 1, 1944, under the French Forces of the Interior (FFI), reaching a consensus on the best way forward was very hard. Reflecting on the fate of the Maquis groups recently attacked, the FFI commander for Vercors, Albert Chambonnet, known as Didier, advised all Maquisards to “not engage in frontal battles. Be flexible, fall back, and conduct guerrilla actions without mercy against the flanks of the enemy.” At the end of March, Didier ordered the camps abandoned and the men spread around Vercors in what he called “a state of dispersed defense.”

In early January 1944, the Maquis of Vercors came into contact with the Union mission, the first inter-allied team to be sent to France as a precursor to the Jedburgh teams that would follow after the invasion began. The team was led by British Colonel H. A. A. Thackthwaite and included American Captain Peter J. Ortiz of the OSS and the French radio operator André Foucault. The team parachuted on the night of January 6–7, 1944, near St. Nazaire-en-Royans, in the outskirts of the Vercors plateau, halfway between Valence and Grenoble. Within a few weeks, they had established contacts with the military leaders of the area from the French-Italian border to Lyon and impressed upon them that the main task of the Maquis at the time was to prepare for guerrilla activities on or after D-Day.

Mission Union spend considerable amount of time in Vercors, which had the widest concentration of Maquisards in the area. They advised the French leaders to adopt a mobile defense, which meant letting the Germans move freely by day and attacking their flanks and rear by night. They reported to the Special Forces Headquarters in England that there was the potential to mobilize up to three thousand Maquisards in Vercors; five hundred men were already active and lightly armed. There were many former French military among the Maquisards, with experience and training in the use of heavy arms, who could form strong fighting groups if supplied with mortars, machine guns, and other heavy weapons. When Mission Union returned to England at the end of May, they prepared detailed accounts of their activities and were debriefed for days. “Vercors has a very finely organized army,” they wrote, “but their supplies, though plentiful, are not what they need; they need long distance weapons and antitank weapons.”

The Allies had developed elaborate plans to activate all the resistance networks and Maquis groups in France in a general national insurrection against the Germans to coincide with the landings in the Normandy beaches on D-Day. On June 1, 1944, at 1330 hours, the BBC began broadcasting one hundred and sixty so-called personal messages, which were in effect code words alerting their groups throughout France to prepare for action. The messages were repeated at 1430, 1730, and 2115 hours of that day and then again at the same times on June 2. Then, there was nothing on June 3, 4, and during the day on June 5. Finally, at 2115 hours on June 5, the BBC broadcast for sixteen minutes the code words for action directed at the twelve regional organizations of the French Forces of the Interior and sixty-one Resistance circuits controlled by the Allied Special Forces Headquarters.

The code words for the Maquis of Vercors were “Le chamois des Alpes bondit,” or “The goat of the Alps leaps.” Those for the Drôme department in which the lower half of the Vercors resides were “Dans la forêt verte est un grand arbre,” or “There is a great tree in the green forest.” The military and political leaders of the Resistance received these calls to action with enthusiasm, believing that the moment had arrived to execute the Plan Montagnards, mobilize the population, and close Vercors to the Germans. They believed that “Vercors is the only Maquis in the whole of France, which has been given the mission to set up its own free territory. It will receive the arms, ammunition, and troops which will allow it to be the advance guard of a landing in Provence. It is not impossible that de Gaulle himself will land here to make his first proclamation to the French people.”

Calls went out to all nearby cities and villages for volunteers to join the Maquis camps in Vercors. The Communist Party printed and distributed leaflets in Grenoble calling for its supporters to take up arms. “Don’t wait any longer to join the battle. There is no D-day or H-hour for those who want to free the homeland. Let’s create everywhere combat groups to support the movement and to defend ourselves against the Boches and the murderous miliciens.” The calls were met with great enthusiasm. Within days, the number of Maquisards in the mountains increased tenfold to several thousand. This sudden influx of newcomers in the ranks of the Maquis created immediate problems: they had to be armed, fed, clothed, supplied, and trained before they could engage the enemy. Paradoxically, it worked to the benefit of the Germans who preferred to have the Maquisards concentrated in the mountains, away from the cities and main communication arteries, rather than wreaking havoc in their rear areas.

The problems were not limited to Vercors but extended throughout France. An intelligence report of the French Forces of the Interior on June 13 warned:

The ranks have grown considerably and the recruitment cannot be stopped. Those who have arms do not have sufficient ammunition. If a considerable effort is not carried out, we will witness the massacre of the French resistance.

All the partisan groups throughout France demand the same thing: arms, ammunition, money, medications. All claim to have permanent parachuting areas that they control where supplies can be sent day or night, with or without prearranged signals.

FFI tried to stop the rush to insurrection especially when reports of German atrocities and reprisals began arriving. The Germans recovered quickly from their initial surprise on D-Day and moved swiftly to restore order. Reinforcement divisions on their way to Normandy often went out of the way to sweep the areas of Maquisards and leaving a swath of blood on their wake. On June 9, in the city of Tulle, ninety-nine hostages were hanged from trees and balconies. On June 10, the Germans massacred and burned alive 634 inhabitants of Oradour-sur-Glane, twenty miles northwest of Limoges.

On June 10, General Koenig issued the following clandestine order to his subordinates in France: “Rein in to the maximum guerrilla activity. Impossible at this time to provide you with arms and ammunition in sufficient quantities. Break contact with the enemy everywhere to reorganize. Avoid big gatherings. Operate in small isolated groups.” On June 17, Koenig further instructed to avoid gatherings around armed groupings of elements who were not armed and ready to fight. The focus of the guerrilla had to shift away from mobilizing the population in general insurrection and toward classical objectives such as disrupting enemy communications, railroad traffic, and long-distance telephone lines.

The efforts to throttle back the enthusiasm of the Maquis had little effect in Vercors. On July 3, 1944, the civilian authorities in the massif announced the restoration of the French republic in Vercors. A proclamation posted in all the towns and villages of the area informed the citizens that “starting from this day, the decrees of Vichy are abolished and all the laws of the republic have been restored…. People of Vercors, it is among you that the great Republic is being born again. You can be proud of yourself. We are certain that you will know how to defend it…. Long live the French Republic. Long live France. Long live General de Gaulle.” The flux of would-be fighters from the cities continued. Most of them had little experience and there were many who had never fired a weapon.

An initial conflagration with the Germans, a harbinger of things to come, did not bode well for the Maquis of Vercors. On June 10, two companies of German soldiers attacked Saint-Nizier, a key mountain pass in the northern extremity of the Vercors, which dominated the city of Grenoble in the valley below, only a few miles to the northeast. Saint-Nizier was an excellent observation point for all the automobile and railroad traffic into and out of Grenoble. The Maquisards holding the pass had little military experience but were able to hold out for several hours until more seasoned and better-equipped men arrived from other camps. The Germans retreated but returned on June 15. This time, there were between 1,000 and 1,500 German soldiers against 300 Maquisards stretched along a front of 2.5 miles. Within a few hours, the Germans broke through their defenses, entered the town, and burned it down.

Throughout June, the Germans assembled forces and equipment for the final assault on Vercors, which they gave the code name Operation Bettina. Over 1,500 reinforcements arrived in Valence, a city west of Vercors, among them troops specialized in mountain fighting and anti-guerrilla operations. Seventy airplanes and armored equipment were positioned at the airfield of Chabeuil, just south of Valence. General Pflaum took special care in retraining and preparing the 157th Reserve Division for the upcoming battle. He restructured the division around mobile columns who could operate more effectively in Maquis territory. He supervised personally the instruction of each unit of infantry and insisted on special drills at night and in camouflage. He was able to change completely the division’s state of mind, which resulted in a marked improvement in the ability of his soldiers to fight.

The German preparations did not go unnoticed by the French Maquisards. Spotters observing the German movements from the mountains reported in detail the preparations to the Vercors military commanders. They in turn sent appeals for help of increasing intensity to their superiors in Algiers and London.

To strengthen the Maquis of Vercors and to coordinate guerrilla attacks against the German lines of communications, the OSS dispatched a team, code-named Justine, of two officers and thirteen enlisted men from the French OGs based in Algiers. Captain Vernon G. Hoppers and First Lieutenant Chester L. Myers led the team. They left Algiers in the evening of June 28 and reached the designated drop zone near Vassieux at 0100 hours on June 29. The sky was clear, the weather was calm, and the entire team parachuted in perfect form to the reception area organized by the Maquis on the ground. They moved all the containers dropped with them to a farmhouse nearby and began distributing the supplies to the Maquisards.

They had been there for a few minutes when the excited Frenchmen brought in another five parachutists. They belonged to an inter-allied team, code name Eucalyptus, commanded by British Major Desmond Lange. It included another British officer, Captain John Houseman, two Frenchmen of the FFI, and a French-American member of the OSS Special Operations branch, First Lieutenant André E. Pecquet, the radio operator of the team. The French reception committee and the villagers were impressed and excited by the presence of twenty Allied soldiers in their midst. They served coffee, dark bread, and rich butter, which everyone took with gusto. The paratroopers passed around their cigarettes and a lively conversation ensued. After a while, vehicles arrived to transport the paratroopers—a smart private car for the Eucalyptus team and a special bus for the American OGs. They were taken to Vassieux and accommodated in villagers’ houses where they were able to rest for a few hours.

The next day, Commandant François Huet, the Maquis leader in the area, arrived early. He had coffee with the paratroopers and asked them to attend the hoisting of the flag, a short ceremony that nevertheless astonished the new arrivals for the strict military procedure with which it was conducted. Houseman described in his diary what happened next:

On the way back the people of the village had turned out to welcome us. We were shaken by the hand a score of times. The children kissed us, and the infants were held up also to be kissed. Bouquets were pressed into our arms—the whole unrehearsed greeting was very touching. They behaved as though our very arrival had liberated them from the burdens and fears of occupation.

The two teams began conducting their assigned missions immediately. Eucalyptus acted as liaison between the Vercors commanders and the Special Forces Headquarters in London. The OGs began training the Maquisards on the use of British and American equipment at hand and in planning strikes against the Germans. The news of the arrival of the Allied paratroopers spread fast, and the FFI commanders wanted them to visit the area to boost the morale and confidence of the Maquisards. On June 30, Captain Hoppers and a corporal from Team Justine, Houseman from Eucalyptus, and a Maquisard escort went on a three-day “see and be seen” tour in the southern part of Vercors in the department of Drôme.

In contrast with the sharp-looking military personnel in Vassieux, the Maquisards in these areas were “young and middle aged men, tough and rough-looking from months of hard living, some dressed in what remained of their wartime uniform, others in any civilian clothes they had managed to scrounge.” They had only a fair supply of arms, ammunition, and explosives. Throughout the villages they visited, they—the first Allied officers to visit the area—were treated as the saviors of France. People simply did not know how to express their delight and gratitude. Houseman wrote about the reception they received in the town of Aouste, the last town they visited at the southern end of the Vercors massif:

As we entered by some smallish streets I happened to see a young girl staring at us—she stared for a moment only. Turning round on her bicycle she shot off into the town itself—the news was out. No town crier can have had such a response.

We stopped at a small shop and shook hands (I think we were kissed as well) with the people inside. Wine appeared, and I had scarcely raised my glass, when I heard a seething mob outside in the street—the people of Aouste had come immediately to welcome us. They surged round us, shaking our hands and hugging us—all were talking at once, and my very poor French met its Waterloo. Armed with flowers and carrying children, they kept on streaming in, telling us of their experiences, asking us when the invasion armies would come and thanking us time and again for coming to their country and to their town. The bouquets of red, white and blue flowers by now covered the large table in the shop—more wine was brought up and the children reappeared with red, white and blue ribbons in their hair.

After an hour or so we left the shop to make what proved to be nothing less than a regal procession through the town. We had to walk at the head of this excited ever-growing crowd along the main street to an outpost at the far side of the town. Men saluted us, the women clapped, children ran to kiss us and give us more flowers to carry. People rushed into the road and held up the cavalcade to grasp us by the hand and to embrace us. On our way back, an elderly woman ran across the road with tears in her eyes, to tell me about a relation she had lost and to ask the ever-expectant question “when will the invasion from the south begin?”

Upon return of the inspection group to Vassieux, both teams, Justine and Eucalyptus, reported through their channels the need to send arms and supplies to Vercors. They also advised the FFI military staff on measures they could take to strengthen the ranks and discipline of the Maquisards. In early July, Commandant Huet decided to militarize the volunteer force and return to the military tradition of regular troop units. “In the past two years,” Huet wrote to his subordinates, “the flags, the standards, the pennants of our regiments and our battalions have been asleep. Now, with a magnificent drive, France has risen against the invader. The old French army that has shone in the course of centuries will reclaim its place in the nation.”

The old camps and companies of civilians were reorganized into alpine battalions and even an armored battalion, which included a section of irregular African riflemen from Senegal. Efforts were made to standardize the uniforms, using in part battle dress uniforms that had arrived with teams Justine and Eucalyptus. Requests were made to send more uniforms as well. In a report to London, Lieutenant Pecquet, the French-American radio operator of Eucalyptus, said that proper uniforms were a question of self-respect for the French, who were very sensible to the enemy propaganda that described the Maquisards as terrorists.

Americans in Vercors II

In the first days of July, Eucalyptus settled at the Huet’s headquarters in Saint-Martin-en-Vercors, twelve miles north of Vassieux. The team became the primary channel of communication between Huet and the outside world, with Pacquet exchanging hundreds of messages with Algiers and London. On the other hand, Captain Hoppers and the OGs of Team Justine took a much more visible role among the Maquis as they began preparing their first action against the Germans. They also equipped and trained a group of Maquisards to add strengths to their own group.

The French proposed a location suitable for an ambush at the southeastern extremity of Vercors, near the village of Lus-la-Croix-Haute, about forty-five miles south of Grenoble. On July 7, Hoppers and his men travelled to that location, a strip of road about three hundred yards long, shaped like a horseshoe and flanked on the east by an escarpment thirty feet high. It was perfect for an L-shaped ambush. On the short end of the L the OGs placed only two men armed with a bazooka and a Browning machine gun. The remainder of the group took positions along the long end the L. After waiting for about an hour, they saw a column of six trucks and a bus carrying about 120 Germans approaching. A bazooka round hit and disabled the leading truck as it came around the bend of the road. The machine gun fire stopped the second truck that attempted to drive around the disabled truck. The remainder of the convoy had nowhere to go and came under a barrage of fire from the OGs and the Maquisards lined up along the kill zone. Particularly effective were Gammon grenades, bags of canvas-like material and a fuse, which the OGs filled with one pound of C-2 explosives and one pound of scrap iron. The Gammon grenade was activated by removing the fuse and throwing the bag toward the enemy. Upon impact, it exploded, sending shrapnel in all directions and killing or maiming everyone in the vicinity.

In true guerrilla fashion, the attack ended almost as soon as it began. By the time the Germans had taken cover, set up mortars, and began to return fire, Hoppers gave the order to withdraw to the prearranged rendezvous point ten miles from the ambush location. They had destroyed three trucks and one bus, killed sixty Germans and wounded another twenty-five. One Maquisard was killed in action, and another one was missing. The next day, they learned that the Germans had captured the wounded Frenchman and had tortured him to death in front of the villagers of Lus-la-Croix-Haute.

This operation was the only successful combat operation the Maquisards had conducted since the Germans had dislodged them from Saint-Nizier near Grenoble. It added to the fascination the Maquisards had developed with the Americans’ appearance, their weapons, and the aura of abundance and modernity that seemed to surround them. It also added further credit to rumors of a massive arrival of Allied soldiers in Vercors, rumors that puzzled Pecquet who wondered about their precise origin in a report to Algiers. The diary of Henri Audra from the town of Die, about twenty miles south of Vassieux, allows us to trace the progression of these rumors among the population of the area. On June 19, he noted, “the imminent parachuting of 2,000 Canadians coming to support the dissidents in Vercors.” On June 25, hearing airplanes flying overhead, he wrote, “most certainly, they are parachuting the Canadians we have been expecting for several days.” On July 10, he noted that he saw passing though the town “trucks carrying Canadians to attack a German convoy.” Then, on July 13, he noted that it was not Canadians after all, but “Americans from New York!”

The Germans were well informed of such rumors, as well. In its orders for the final preparations for Operation Bettina, issued on July 8, 1944, the headquarters of Army Group B responsible for defending South France said:

The concentration of important enemy troops in the zone of Vercors, their increasing equipment with heavy weapons, their probable reinforcement by Canadian paratroopers, and a considerable number of enemy forces expected to be transported by air in the plateau of Vassieux, make us think that in case of further landings by the enemy we should expect greater offensive actions launched from this region aiming to occupy Valence and the valley of Rhone, and perhaps at the same time to take the city of Grenoble.

The Germans tightened the stranglehold on the region in preparation for the final assault. General Pflaum began concentrating his men for the attack on Vercors. He set the D-day for operation Bettina on July 21, 1944. The initial striking point would be the town of Vassieux. The German soldiers were ordered to “hit fast and hard” and to show no mercy because Vassieux harbored the supreme command of the Resistance and considerable forces protecting it. The Luftwaffe flew multiple reconnaissance missions every day over the plateau photographing the terrain, roads, towns and villages.

Through communications with Team Eucalyptus, French authorities in Algiers sent warnings to the leaders of Vercors to expect a major attack at almost any moment. Local intelligence services of the Maquis confirmed this information: three German divisions were closing in on Vercors from Valence, Romans-sur-Isère, and Grenoble. The command of Vercors issued a general mobilization order on July 11. Six hundred men volunteered as laborers to prepare an airfield in Vassieux where Allies could land troops and supplies if they decided to come. Another one thousand men were called to the colors, but arming and equipping them remained a problem.

On July 12, the Germans were on the move. Chapelle-en-Vercors, in the heart of the plateau, was bombed on July 12 and 13 while surveillance airplanes flew over the plateau constantly during that time. In the evening of July 13, London sent word to expect a mass parachute drop the next day. On July 14, Bastille Day, at 0900 hours, eighty-five Flying Fortresses flew in formation over Vassieux in three waves and dropped 1,457 containers with red-white-and-blue parachutes in honor of France’s national holiday. The inhabitants of Vassieux celebrated in the streets, waiving at the planes and thanking the members of Eucalyptus and Justine for their efforts.

It was a sight to celebrate, but the joy was short-lived. Thirty minutes later, German airplanes began to bomb and strafe the town, and continued to do so for three days in a row, from dawn until well into the evening hours. The Germans used explosives during the day and incendiaries in the evening. The town was set ablaze, and the planes machine-gunned people trying to salvage belongings out of their homes. By July 16, Vassieux was completely in ruins, and the Germans began to destroy Chapelle-en-Vercors, seven miles to the south. From all the containers dropped to them, the Maquisards were able to retrieve only about two hundred during the night.

On July 17, the 157th Reserve Division and selected mobile units of the Ninth Panzer Division moved in on the Vercors triangle and began engaging the Maquisards at a number of outposts and mountain passes. The bombing and strafing of the towns and villages continued incessantly. According to estimates, seven hundred Germans closed in from the east, three thousand from the south and west, and four thousand from the north. No other Maquis group in France had drawn this many enemy troops against them.

Commandant Huet proclaimed martial law throughout the Vercors and all units were put in battle positions. The Maquis counted in their ranks two thousand fully armed men, one thousand partially armed men, and another one thousand unarmed men. Desmond Lange and John Houseman, the officers of Team Eucalyptus, sent requests to London and Algiers for heavy weapons and additional support troops, without effect. Houseman noted in his diary entry of July 18, “Commandant H[uet] maintaining extraordinary calm. He seemed (as in fact he had) to have the situation completely in hand. Signs of nervousness in the P. C. [command post] among the junior officers—Desmond and I trying hard not to show signs of alarm!”

In the morning of July 21 at 0930 hours, French volunteers working at the airfield in Vassieux saw twenty airplanes carrying enormous gliders approaching from the south. The sight lifted their spirits with the hope that these were the much-expected paratroopers and heavy equipment coming to the rescue of Vercors. The hope disappeared moments later when the gliders began their final approach and the Frenchmen noticed the Luftwaffe markings on them. One by one, twenty DFS 230 troop gliders touched ground, some of them in the airfield itself and the rest in the plateau outside Vassieux. Within minutes, two hundred German paratroopers of special commando units of the Luftwaffe stormed Vassieux under the protection of Stuka fighters overhead. Each glider had a machine gun mounted in front, which the pilot used to cover the exit of the paratroopers from the aircraft and their rapid advancement toward the objective. The element of surprise was complete, just as it had been when Germans had used the same technique to take the Belgian fortress of Eben Emmael in 1940, occupy Crete in 1941, and rescue Mussolini in 1943. “It was as if lightning struck Vassieux,” was how a number of Frenchmen described those initial moments.

The shock did not last long, however. The Maquisards around Vassieux rushed to block the German paratroopers. The officers and men of the OG mission Justine organized the Frenchmen into surrounding the Germans in town and attacking them with all the weapons at their disposal. According to German sources, during the first day of fighting, the German paratroopers suffered over 25 percent casualties, twenty-nine dead and twenty wounded. The attacks on all sides, the constant bombardment of towns and villages, and the fierce battle in Vassieux rattled the nerves of the Maquisards. Houseman described “an oppressive atmosphere of confinement in our house with bombing and machine gunning off and on all day.” When assistance from the outside failed to materialize, a feeling of abandonment if not betrayal set in. Eugène Chavant, the civilian leader of Vercors, who had traveled to Algiers in May 1944 to meet with De Gaulle’s military staff and believed he had received assurances of help from them, fired off a message on the night of July 21:

La Chappelle, Vassieux, Saint-Martin bombarded by German aircraft. Enemy troops parachuted on Vassieux. We demand resupplies in men, foodstuffs and supplies. Morale of population excellent but will turn quickly against you if you do not take immediate measures and we will be in agreement with them in saying that those sitting in London and Algiers have understood nothing of the situation in which we find ourselves and are considered criminals and cowards. Let us be clear on this: criminals and cowards.

The next day, the Americans and Maquisards continued their attacks on the German paratroopers, helped by the rain that prevented the Germans from reinforcing their men. But the following day, on July 23, the weather cleared and another 250 German paratroopers landed in Vassieux aboard twenty DFS 230 gliders. While the Maquisards and the American OGs were going through their last reserves, the Germans used larger Go242 gliders to bring supplies and ammunition for their beleaguered paratroopers. The Germans dropped in a 20-mm Flak 38 antiaircraft gun, which could fire eight hundred rounds per minute from four independent guns at a range of 2,200 meters. They used the gun to destroy the Maquisards’ positions and force them to withdraw.

The Germans came out of the three-day battle victorious, losing 101 paratroopers and four glider pilots. Elsewhere around Vercors during these three days, two heavy mountain battalions took all the mountain passes to the southeast of Vassieux from ill-equipped Maquisards. German infantry pushing south from Grenoble broke through the northern positions in the key town of Valchevrière. Armored columns from the Ninth Panzer Division moving from Valence breached the southern defenses in the town of Die. On July 23 in the afternoon, the battle was over. In a telegram to Algiers sent on the night of July 25–26, Huet summarized the situation as follows:

Defenses of Vercors pierced on the 23rd at 1600 hours, after 56 hours of battle. Have ordered the dispersion in small groups with the hope to resume the fight when possible. All did their duty courageously in a desperate struggle and all carry with them the sadness of having succumbed to superior numbers and having been left alone in the moment of battle.

What followed is the most bloody and tragic chapter in history of the Maquis of Vercors. The Germans cordoned off the entire area and set up surveillance posts on all the roads, primary, secondary, and even forest tracks. Airplanes constantly flew overhead searching for movements in the mountains and woods. The German command ordered:

It is now the time to mop up Vercors methodically, to find the bands and the terrorists dispersed in their hiding places and to exterminate them completely, to discover the stockpiles of ammunition and provisions of the enemy, and to destroy their depots and hiding places, to make impossible any future resurgence of the enemy in Vercors. A period of seven days is envisioned for the mopping up…. The houses that have been points of support and supply for the terrorists, especially in the Vercors proper, shall be burned.”

Thus, seven days of reprisals and barbarity were unleashed upon Vercors. The toll mounted to 840 killed, of which 639 were Maquisards and 201 civilians. In Vassieux alone, the Germans massacred one hundred civilians, often killing entire families on sight. Only seven houses remained inhabited out of the 120 houses that the town had before the operation.

On July 27, a surveillance plane noticed a Red Cross flag spread at the entrance of the cave of Luire, three miles east of Vassieux. A German infantry unit arrived around 1700 hours to discover that the cave had become a temporary refuge for the military hospital of Saint-Martin, evacuated since July 21 to escape the bombing and strafing of the Luftwaffe. Most of the wounded were Maquisards, but they also included First Lieutenant Chester L. Myers of the OG team Justine, who had come down with appendicitis and was recovering from surgery,46 four Wehrmacht soldiers from Poland, and two women from Vassieux.

The German soldiers sprayed the walls of the cave with bullets and began searching the place for hidden resistance fighters and arms. They ripped off bandages of the wounded to make sure they were not fake. The Poles tried to intervene, explaining that they had been treated well, but without success. The Germans marched everyone down the ridge where they shot thirteen gravely wounded Maquisards as they lay in their stretchers. They took the rest to the nearby village of Rousset, where they executed twenty-five lightly wounded Maquisards. They considered the four Poles deserters and shot them as well. Then they unleashed reprisals on Rousset and the nearby town of Saint-Agnan, where they interrogated, arrested, or killed several civilians.

The Germans took the rest of the prisoners to the Gestapo headquarters in Grenoble. An aerial bombardment was going on when they arrived, and, in the confusion, one of the doctors managed to escape together with his wife, daughter, and a Red Cross nurse. The rest were not so fortunate. The Gestapo interrogated and then executed Lieutenant Myers that night. They executed two French doctors and a priest on August 10. They sent eight nurses to the concentration camp in Ravensbrück where one of them died of disease and the rest managed to survive until liberation.

When Commandant Huet gave the order to disperse on July 23, Team Eucalyptus split up. The French-speaking members of the team, including the OSS radio operator, André Pecquet, moved up the mountains, where they hid the W/T equipment in caves. Pecquet changed into civilian clothes and made several dangerous reconnaissance trips into villages and towns in the area, collecting information about the disposition of enemy troops in the area that the Allied command used to great benefit during the landings in the south of France in mid-August.

During one of these trips, Pecquet went to a post office outside Vercors to buy stamps. He was an avid stamp collector and showed great interest in the stamps issued by the Vichy government, although they had been in use in that area of France for almost four years. His unusual interest attracted the attention of the man standing in line behind him, who could tell that Pecquet had not lived long in the country. The girl at the post office winked. Pecquet realized his error and left the post office in a hurry with the man following him. Pecquet was able to get rid of his pursuer but only after a great deal of trouble.

On August 21, 1944, when the German 157th Infantry division retreated and the US forces arrived in Grenoble, Pecquet assumed a liaison role between the FFI and the US Army command. The French considered Pecquet one of the heroes of Vercors, and he was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross for “his devotion to duty, perseverance and courage displayed throughout his hazardous assignment” in Mission Eucalyptus.

The two British officers of Eucalyptus, Major Lange and Captain Houseman, travelled through the mountains and woods with a small group of four Frenchmen, including a young girl who had worked for the mission as a cipher clerk. The journey was harrowing, with hair-raising escapes from German and Milice patrols, which forced the members of the party to talk in the mildest whispers. Houseman wrote in his diary, “every unusual sound in the woods caused an instant silence among the party—a hunted dog look, as everyone strained his ears and slowly, but with calculated intention, reached for his gun.”

Further complications came from scarce food, and especially lack of water in the mountains. “The meagre ration of half a cupful of water a day (sometimes) and two table-spoons of goat’s milk were not much help.” Houseman wrote. “So I settled down to squeeze water out of moss irrespective of the physical effort which it entailed. After two or three hours of hard work, sometimes with the assistance of one or another member of the party, I had perhaps 3/4 of a pint which, though muddy and having an unwelcome taste, was nectar.”

On July 26, the party decided to split to make it easier to move undetected and to find food and water. Lange, Houseman, and a French guide left in the afternoon to climb down in the valley in search for food and water. “We were to learn later that the remainder of the party were surprised by a German patrol.” Houseman wrote. “The men, after castration, were beaten to death with rifle butts and the girl disemboweled and left to die with her intestines wound round her neck. I saw the photographs later—they were unrecognizable.” Throughout the night, Lange, Houseman, and their French guide, made their way through the valley and across German lines, “running, walking, crawling and rolling” under bursts of fire and pursued by attack dogs, until they were able to reach the mountain ridge and forests on the other side.

After several days of experiences like this, the team was finally able to exit Vercors on August 3 from the north by crossing the river L’Isère. There, Lange and Houseman established contact with the local Maquisards who guided them on a 125-mile journey through the mountains to the city of Chamonix on the Swiss border. On August 11, 1944, Lange and Houseman crossed into Switzerland.

The OG team Justine had a similar harrowing escape. After breaking off the engagement with the German paratroopers in Vassieux, the members moved to the northeast to the plateau of Presles in an attempt to break the encirclement toward the town of Saint-Marcellin. When four hundred Germans appeared on Presles, the OGs took to the woods, where they remained in hiding for eleven days, subsisting only on raw potatoes and occasionally a little cheese. They were never allowed to speak above a whisper. Not more than one man moved at a time, and then never more than fifty feet. Finally, on August 9, when the situation had calmed down a little, a French guide went to Saint-Marcellin and stole a truck that the OGs used to drive outside the Vercors plateau to the west across the L’Isère. From there, they moved along the Isère valley for ninety miles to the Chartreuse Mountains, twenty miles to the north of Grenoble. Then the team crossed L’Isère again this time eastward to the Belledonne Mountains. By this time, the American army had arrived in Grenoble, and Team Justine moved into the city. They were all in poor condition. Many had severe cases of dysentery, three men were unable to walk and all had lost weight, including Captain Hoppers who had lost thirty-seven pounds.

The experiences of the Maquis of Vercors, the pitched battle it put up against the Germans during the assault of July 21–23, 1944, and the bloody reprisals that followed have been a source of debate and controversy in France since the end of the war. The prosecutors in the Nuremberg trials, under the charge of “senseless destruction of cities, town, and villages, and devastations unjustified by the military necessity,” cited the example of numerous villages destroyed in their entirety in France, among others “Oradour-sur-Glane, Saint-Nizier, and in the Vercors: La Mure, Vassieux, La Chappelle-en-Vercors.” Nevertheless, not a single soldier of the Wehrmacht who participated in the operations against Vercors was held accountable for war crimes.

Countless accounts have been written to discuss whether the French authorities in Algiers gave false hopes to the leaders of Vercors on their support for the Plan Montagnards. The fact is that this plan was never part of the Allied strategy for using the French Resistance in coordination with the landings in Normandy and Provence. The reprisals in Vercors left the participants in the Resistance with a feeling of having been misunderstood, abandoned, and even betrayed by the Allies. Historians have established that there were not sufficient means among the French officials in Algiers or among the Allies who supported them to match the enthusiasm of the members of the Resistance. Several members of the Resistance have pointed out that shortly after the reprisals, the region rose up again when the Allies landed in the south of France, which they would not have done had they felt betrayed.

The military choices of the Maquis leaders have been questioned as well, and their decision to engage in frontal battles against a much stronger enemy has been called in various degrees a tragedy, a disaster, and a mistake. Alain le Ray, one of the proponents of the original Plan Montagnards, rejected the aura of disaster and strategic error. In a debate in 1975, he suggested that guerrilla tactics in Vercors might have provoked even more reprisals and that the battle of the Vercors tied down an important section of the Germans army. It “induced in the German war machine a kind of paralysis, both moral and material in the very locality where the Allied forces would penetrate into France after the landings in Provence.”

In the end, General Koenig probably summarized best the story of the Maquis of Vercors when he told an enquiry commission in 1961:

Due to circumstances that were quite unfortunate at the time, you became soldiers assigned with a true sacrificial mission. You became, pardon the expression, “laboratory rats …” I tell you this to remove a little bit of the bitterness that you who lived through those hours feel. There are moments when we find ourselves, pardon the expression, in deep s … and unfortunately the story has a sad ending, meaning no one is able to escape.

Maiale

Invisible Enemy by Ivan Berryman.

Perhaps among the bravest of those serving within the Regia Marina in WW2, the crews of the Italian SLCs (Siluro a Lavita Corsa, or Slow-Running Torpedoes) carried out some of the most daring submarine raids of the war. At 23ft in length and with a maximum speed of just 4 knots, the Maiali (or Pigs, as they were known, due to their lack of maneuverability) frequently delivered their 300kg warheads direct to their targets with devastating results, as when three Italian SLCs sank the British battleships HMS Valiant and HMS Queen Elizabeth as well as a tanker in Alexandria Harbour on 19th December 1941. Here an SLC has cut its way through the torpedo netting, just one of the many hazards encountered on these highly dangerous covert operations.
Assault from the Deep by Ivan Berryman. (PC)

Sitting menacingly at a depth of 15 metres below the surface, just 2 km outside the heavily defended harbour of Alexandria, the Italian submarine Scire is shown releasing her three manned torpedoes, or Maiali, at the outset of their daring raid in which the British battleships HMS Queen Elizabeth and HMS Valiant and a tanker, were severely damaged on 3rd December 1941. All six crew members of the three Maiali survived the mission, but all were captured and taken prisoner. Luigi Durand de la Penne and Emilio Bianchi can be seen moving away aboard 221, whilst Vincenzo Martellotta and Mario Marino (222) carry out systems checks. Antonio Marceglia and Spartaco Schergat, on 223, are heading away at the top of the picture.

The first of the manned torpedoes was the Siluro Lenta Corsa (SLC), `slow speed torpedo’, nicknamed the maiale or `hog’, first developed by Tesei and Toschi in 1935-36. By summer 1939 about 11 of these were available, but it was not until July 1940 that the new generation entered production. These were designated Series 100, and followed in 1941 by the improved Series 200. They were based on the standard 533mm torpedo with suitable adaptations: the double propellers were replaced by a single larger one in an enclosed structure to prevent snagging on nets, and seats for two crewmen and superstructures housing controls were added. The SLC weighed from 1.3 to 1.4 tons, and measured between 6.7 and 7.3m (22-24ft). The 1.6hp electric motor gave a speed of 2-3 knots, to a depth of between 15m and a theoretical maximum of 30m (49-98ft). Once they reached their target the two crewmen had to detach the 1.8m (5.9ft) explosive warhead; this contained a charge of between 230kg and 260kg (507lb-573lb), or, in the last model, two 125kg (275lb) charges. By September 1943 some 50 examples had been built; by then they were largely outdated in comparison with the British `Chariots’ and the new Italian Siluro San Bartolomeo (SSB) – though only three prototypes of this greatly improved model had been built by the time of the Italian surrender.

HMS Queen Elizabeth in Alexandria harbour.

On 19 December in 1941, limpet mines placed by Italian divers sink the HMS Valiant (1914) and HMS Queen Elizabeth (1913) in Alexandria harbour.

Developed in 1918, by two divers of the Italian Navy-Raffaele Paolucci and Raffaele Rossetti, they rode a primitive manned torpedo into the Austro-Hungarian Naval base at Pola, and sank the Austrian battleship Virbus Unitis and a freighter. Sans breathing gear, they rode in with there heads above water. Both men were discovered and captured, but not before their success.

As a result of this first attempt, the First Fleet Assault Vehicles were formed in 1939, by Major Teseo Tesei & Elios Toschi of the Italian Royal Navy. In 1940, Commander Moccagatta of the IRN, reorganized this group, into the Tenth Light Flotilla of Assault Vehicles aka X-MAS. It constructed manned torpedoes and trained navy frogmen. The IRN X-MAS group attempted an attack on Valletta Harbor in July of 1941, which was a complete disaster and which resulted in the death of Major Tesei.

A better design, was the Italian Human Torpedoes, called Maiale-meaning “Pig,” as it was slow to steer. Three feet high and 23 feet long, it was electrically powered by a 2 hp electric motor. It had a crew of two, which rode atop the device and had a max. speed of 4 knots. It carried a detachable 300 kg warhead.

During the war Italian Special Forces unit Decima MAS (10th Flotilla, aka X-MAS) pioneered various diving and submersible technologies and used them to devastating effect against the Allies. The main underwater vehicle was the SLC (Siluro a Lunga Corsa which means long running torpedo’, and not the common mistake of ‘Siluro a Lenta Corsa’ which means slow running torpedo, and is incorrect). This was described as a ‘human torpedo’ and popularly known as the ‘maiale’ (pig). Two frogmen sat astride a torpedo body with a massive mine carried on the nose. They would creep into an enemy port and attach the mine to the target using clamps. Suspended between the bilge keels, the mine was large enough to sink a capital ship. The SLC was used on several successful attacks on Allied shipping in the Mediterranean including the disabling of two battleships. The effectiveness of these tactics led the British to copy the design, developing the Chariot. Following the SLC, Decima MAS developed the more advanced SSB (Siluro San Bartolomeo) with the crew sitting inside the craft. The SSB never saw combat because it arrived too late, but was the model which influenced the post-war development of SDVs. Pucciarini was himself an SSB pilot.

The Raid on Alexandria was carried out on 19 December 1941 by Italian Navy divers, members of the Decima Flottiglia MAS, who attacked and disabled two Royal Navy battleships in the harbour of Alexandria, Egypt, using manned torpedoes.

On 3 December, the submarine Scirè of the Italian Royal Navy (Regia Marina) left the naval base of La Spezia carrying three manned torpedoes, called maiali (pigs) by the Italians. At the island of Leros in the Aegean Sea, the submarine secretly picked up six crewmen for them: Luigi Durand de la Penne and Emilio Bianchi (maiale nº 221), Vincenzo Martellotta and Mario Marino (maiale nº 222), and Antonio Marceglia and Spartaco Schergat (maiale nº 223).

On 19 December, Scirè—at a depth of 15 m (49 ft)—released the manned torpedoes 1.3 mi (1.1 nmi; 2.1 km) from Alexandria commercial harbour and they entered the naval base when the British opened their defenses to let three of their destroyers pass. There were many difficulties for de la Penne and his crewmate Emilio Bianchi. First, the engine of the torpedo stopped and the two frogmen had to manually push it; then Bianchi had to surface due to problems with the oxygen provider, so that de la Penne had to push the Maiale alone to where HMS Valiant lay. There he successfully placed the limpet mine, just under the hull of the battleship. However, as they both had to surface, and as Bianchi was hurt, they were discovered and captured.

Questioned, both of them kept silent, and they were confined in a compartment aboard Valiant, under the sea level, and coincidentally just over the place where the mine had been placed. Fifteen minutes before the explosion, de la Penne asked to meet with Valiant’s captain Charles Morgan and then told him of the imminent explosion but refused to give further information, so that he was returned to the compartment. Fortunately for the Italians, when the mine exploded just before them, neither he nor Bianchi was severely injured by the blast, while de la Penne only received a minor injury to the head by a ship chain.

Meanwhile, Marceglia and Schergat had attached their device five feet beneath the battleship HMS Queen Elizabeth ‘s keel as scheduled. They successfully left the harbour area at 4:30 am and slipped through Alexandria posing as French sailors. They were captured two days later at Rosetta by the Egyptian police while awaiting rescue by the Scirè and handed over to the British. Martellota and Marino searched in vain for an aircraft carrier purportedly moored at Alexandria, but after sometime, they decided to attack a large tanker, the 7554 gross register ton Norwegian Sagona. Marino fixed the mine under the tanker’s stern at 2:55 am. Both drivers managed to land unmolested but were eventually arrested at an Egyptian checkpoint.

In the end all the divers were made prisoners, but not before their mines exploded, severely damaging both HMS Queen Elizabeth and HMS Valiant, disabling them for nine months and six months respectively. The Sagona lost her stern section and the destroyer HMS Jervis, one of four alongside her refuelling, was badly damaged. Although the two capital ships sank only in a few feet of water and were eventually raised, they were out of action for over one year.

This represented a dramatic change of fortunes against the Allies from the strategic point of view during the next six months. The Italian fleet had temporarily wrested naval supremacy in the east-central Mediterranean from the Royal Navy.

Valiant was towed to Admiralty Floating Dock 5 on the 21st for temporary repairs and was under repair at Alexandria until April 1942 when she sailed to Durban. By August she was operating with Force B off Africa in exercises for the defence of East Africa and operations against Madagascar. Queen Elizabeth was in drydock at Alexandria for temporary repairs until late June when she sailed for the United States for refit and repairs, which ended the following June. The refit was completed in Britain. Jervis was repaired and operational again by the end of January.

Italian Naval Special Operations

OPERATION TOPSY Part I

The Italian torpedo boats ”Castore” and ”Montanari” firing upon British MTBs and MLs at Tobruk harbour, part of Force A, Operation Agreement, 14 September 1942

Bombs exploding over Tobruk as part of the air attack on 13th/14th September 1942. (IWM CM 2990)

‘Never in the whole history of human endeavour have so few been buggered about by so many.’ So some unknown wag from Middle East Commando quipped. And he wasn’t wrong. Special Forces are by no means popular with regular commanders. Montgomery had little time for them, and whilst he wasn’t involved in the planning of Operation Agreement and bears no responsibility for its failure, he wasn’t slow to add his own stridency to the universal recriminations.

Winston Churchill liked commando raids. He liked the Henty-esque derring-do and the idea of clandestine assaults on the enemy where he least expected to be attacked. The prime minister also liked the idea that, despite the many reverses Britain had suffered and despite the ongoing crisis in the Western Desert, the constant tale of woe from the Far East and the parlous position of our almost-allies in Russia, we could somehow hit back. Besides, the Germans didn’t really understand the whole commando concept: amphibious operations and peripheral strategies were not really their style. Tobruk was also dear to Churchill’s heart. The Great Siege rated as an Allied victory when these were very scarce indeed. The final, humiliating fall was a massive blow. He wanted the place back or at least convincingly denied to the Axis.

The idea of attacking the Axis at Tobruk was by no means a novelty in the summer of 1942. Operation Agreement probably owed its genesis to a scheme put forward in October 1940 at the very start of the Desert War. The aim of the first proposal was much the same, to destroy fuel dumps and harbour facilities. There was no shortage of suitable targets: four large oil tanks by the harbour, each of 32,000 gallon capacity, another four Benzedrine vats nearby, petrol stores north of the local settlement, and a dump seven miles south of the town and the El Adem junction. The power station, magazines, wireless stations and distillery were all ripe for destruction.

All of the main jetties projected from the north flank of the harbour, together with a slipway. Water depth at the end of the piers was between 14 and 20 feet. The coaling jetty and boom jetty provided anchor points for a brace of booms cordoning the harbour. One of these stretched from Marsa Agaisa to a bunker on the northern flank, whilst the other reached from the southern side 400 yards west of the Marsa Sciarfa up to the coaling pier. The entrances were mined and the fighting strength of the garrison around 17,000 strong; a formidable defence. The port was guarded by numerous coastal guns. One vulnerable feature was the access to the port area from the lower of the escarpments ringing the town. Two fairly narrow tracks came running downhill; blocks placed across these could create a bottleneck and halt the flow of enemy reinforcements.

There were two alternatives: a classic hit and run night attack or a prolonged occupation that would breach the daylight hours. It was recognized that, as ever, with raids, surprise was the key element. For that reason it was deemed essential that the raiders be brought in by fast destroyers. This was logical, but there weren’t enough of the sleek warships to be found. Another essential was overhead fighter cover to facilitate the withdrawal, tricky at best. Again, fighters were scarce.

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Four groups of raiders were to be deployed. Group ‘A’ would land to the west and hit the fuel dumps north of the aerodrome. The second, Group ‘B’, would land simultaneously at the same spot, then attack those installations east of the naval barracks and take out any planes that happened to come within their sights. Group ‘C’ were to hit the coastal guns north of the settlement and possibly the fuel stores in the same vicinity. The last group would simply attack the town itself and generally ‘cry havoc’. This would sufficiently distract the defenders and prevent them being a nuisance to the other groups. This last formation, Group ‘D’, would comprise a single Special Service Company, and they would target command and control centres during their spree. The men would carry weapons and ammunition only.

To convey the raiders only a modest naval flotilla was required: four destroyers, the same number of motor torpedo boats (MTBs) and a single submarine. The approach, however, would require the involvement of the entire Mediterranean Fleet as a grand diversion. The ships would sail as though preparing to shepherd a Malta convoy, and the attack force would peel off towards the Libyan coast. By the time they were steaming towards the hostile shore, the lone submarine would have marked the landing zones and guided the laden warships in. Meanwhile, the MTB flotilla, coming westwards along the coast probably from either Alexandria or Crete, (still in Allied hands at that point), would make smoke to cover the actual landings. As soon as the troops were onshore, the landing boats would withdraw and be re-hoisted onto the destroyers, which would then stand clear, safely out of range of the coastal guns, until needed to take the raiders off.

Here was the critical point. All amphibious operations may be said to succeed or fail according to how efficiently and swiftly the men are put ashore. The Allies did not, at this stage in the war, possess sufficient specialized landing craft. They relied, as ever, upon innovation and making do generally. Making do could take one of two forms. The normal ships’ boats could be used. These were tried and sturdy, but clearly would be insufficient in terms of available numbers. Additional boats could be found and more davits fitted. Alternatively, some form of lightweight specialized craft could be built. This seemed reasonable. The boats would have to be seaworthy and reasonably easy to navigate, but making do like this rather depends upon the seas being co-operative. The Mediterranean is rarely so obliging.

Though they opted for the second choice, the planners of Operation Waylay, as the scheme was dubbed, were aware of the limitations. Calm seas and light northerlies would be vital. It would take the raiders five hours to accomplish their allotted tasks with a further period of three and a half hours needed to complete the landings. Near-total darkness was clearly another essential. What the Waylay team proposed was that the air raid should take place after rather than prior to the raid. This and a naval bombardment would provide the shield behind which the commandos would re-embark. We cannot say exactly what influence the early idea exerted over those planning Agreement, but in hindsight we can say it was probably a better plan, or at least less flawed.

When Tobruk fell to Rommel, it wasn’t just a blow to Churchill’s pride and Britain’s tottering esteem, but it netted the Axis a significant haul of booty. The Allies had reaped a similar harvest when prising the place away from the Italians. Hitler had written encouragingly to his ally Mussolini, sufficiently so for Il Duce to plan his own triumphal entry into Alexandria as the new Caesar, even if any such entry would largely be effected on the back of German efforts. In fact, Rommel had failed, but the hot desert summer of 1942 saw Allied fortunes at very low ebb. The Desert Fox had stumbled at the final hurdle, but he was still unbeaten. With hindsight, it is possible to see how the position had in fact shifted. The Allies, in Montgomery, would finally have a general of equal worth, and the build-up of strength, facilitated by Britain’s American allies, would finally tilt the balance Monty’s way.

Admiral Andrew Cunningham had commanded the Mediterranean Fleet with great élan and considerable success. Il Duce had been thrashed at sea as comprehensively as on land. His successor, Admiral Sir Henry Harwood, faced a difficult challenge. His ships had taken a fearful pounding trying to succour Malta. He had neither battleships nor carriers and the RAF could provide only very limited cover. The savaging meted out to Royal Navy ships salvaging survivors from the mess on Crete had shown just what damage sustained aerial attack could do. Churchill was still expecting the reduced fleet to achieve prodigies, and, at the same time, to arrange blocking operations against Tobruk and Benghazi.

This was a favourite obsession of the prime minister – using blockships to bottle up enemy ports. It was highly difficult, dangerous, of dubious long term value and bound to be expensive in terms of both ships and men. Cunningham had vigorously resisted any such notions. In mid-April 1941, he had been urged to commit one of his only battle-cruisers, HMS Barham, in an attempt to block Tripoli. Cunningham considered the idea crazy and resisted. Churchill personally intervened to press the scheme. The admiral ignored the exhortation.

Once Tobruk had fallen to Rommel, such daft ideas were resurrected. On 21 July, Harwood received a message from Whitehall (undoubtedly inspired or even drafted by the prime minister) that he should send a destroyer to attack shipping in the harbour: the signal did admit ‘this is a desperate measure’. Hysteria was the order of the day, a mood ably caught by the well-known commando Fitzroy Maclean: ‘In Cairo the staff at GHQ Middle East were burning their files [‘Ash Wednesday’] and the Italian colony were getting out their black shirts and fascist badges in preparation for Mussolini’s triumphant entry’. It was in this heated and fearful context that the idea for Operation Agreement took root and began to grow.

Whilst the notion of the earlier concept, Operation Waylay, may have formed a viable precedent, both Stirling and Haselden had put forward ideas for limited attacks against Tobruk and Benghazi. These were plans for clean, surgical strikes involving land forces only, SAS, LRDG and other raiders. What would become the plan for Force B was Haselden’s idea, a group of commandos, sneaking through Tobruk’s defended perimeter, attacking fuel installations, then withdrawing swiftly across the desert. This would be something on the scale of the actual LRDG attack on Barce, which did achieve some gains, though these came at a high price.

When suggesting an attack on Benghazi, Stirling had, unwittingly, opened a Pandora’s Box by proposing to add a naval element including a blockship. Fitzroy Maclean, always a beau sabreur of the cut likely to appeal to the prime minister, found himself dining with Churchill in Cairo. He recalled:

The plans for a raid on Benghazi had been greeted with enthusiasm at GHQ. With such enthusiasm that by the time they came back to us they were practically unrecognizable. The latest scheme envisaged a major operation against Benghazi, to be carried out in conjunction with similar large scale operations elsewhere.

Another commando element was added by the Special Boat Service (SBS). This unit was the brainchild of Lieutenant Roger Courtney, who had joined the commandos in mid-1940. He had the idea of specialist raiders who would approach from the seas using folding kayaks. Initially nobody seemed interested, so he adopted the bold and unorthodox tactic of launching his own private raid against HMS Glengyle moored in the Clyde. He got aboard undetected and wrote his initials on the door of the captain’s cabin, seizing some booty as further proof. He flung his gains at the astonished feet of his superiors then dining in the Inverary Hotel. Message received, he was promoted and given a dozen men to nurture his new unit.

The Folboat was some 16 feet in length, a rubberized canvas surface stretched over a timber frame with front and rear buoyancy bags. These handy, folding kayaks took two men and their kit. The Folbot troop became No 1 Special Boat section early in 1941 and the team was deployed to the Mediterranean as part of Layforce. Courtney’s raiders successfully carried out a series of missions and returned to the UK in December to recruit a second formation. The original bunch were grafted onto Stirling’s SAS as the Folboat Section and carried out a further series of raids during the early summer of 1942. It was felt by the Directorate of Combined Operations that up to half a dozen teams, taken in by three subs, could paddle into Tobruk Harbour and fix limpet mines to Axis vessels there. Once their charges were planted, they would slide out of the harbour and get back by moving only at night and hugging the coast till picked up by MTBs. The idea foundered, however, as there weren’t enough submarines available.

Rommel’s Achilles heel was his supply route. If both Tobruk and Benghazi were hit and successfully put out of action, even temporarily, then his logistical troubles would multiply, forcing him to extend his supply lines even further. Such a deprivation of resources at a time when both sides were girding their loins for what would be the decisive clash could reap a huge dividend for the Allies, though by no means all of the planners were convinced.

On 3 August the Joint Planning Staff (JPS) set out their initial considerations in Paper 106. The prime objective was to destroy harbour facilities and installations at both ports, as it was thought that this may well lead to the rapid defeat of Rommel by land forces. This was wildly optimistic at best, wishful thinking embodied in tactical planning. Operation Agreement began with a wish that was built up into a plan; pious hopes, fed by frustration and desperation, led from the start. The planners went on to detail the units that could be employed to find sufficient forces without pinching from 8th Army. This was fine by Monty, as the operation wasn’t his and the resources would not be his. If it went well, he could look to grab some of the credit; if it failed, he could simply stand clear.

Ideally, both places should be attacked simultaneously, if the forces available were sufficiently strong. If not, then Tobruk would remain the prime target. In each case the tactics would be similar. The landward party would be responsible for rushing the coastal guns, taking these under new management and turning them against their previous owners. Amphibious raiders would be responsible for most of the demolitions, which would be blown in daylight. The whole lot would re-embark at dusk. This draft was then reviewed by the Director of Military Operations General HQ Middle East Forces (DMO GHQ MEF). He broadly concurred and 8th Army would not be placed to start attacking before 30 September. Rommel was getting new tanks through Benghazi plus some 1,200 to 2,000 tons of supplies per day; rather less was coming in through Tobruk.

If the raids could be carried out by the middle of August, then Rommel might be seriously embarrassed. The initial drafts highlighted the risks and advised that losses might be heavy. The final draft acknowledged casualties could be as a high as one hundred percent of those taking part in the landings. It wouldn’t be feasible to launch the raids until the first week in September and the JPS were never more than lukewarm. The commander-in-chief, however, seized upon the idea and his reaction to Paper 106 was galvanic; ‘I am in NO rpt NO doubt that it is essential rpt essential that these operations take place in August and that probable losses must rpt must be accepted’. It doesn’t get much plainer than that. Operation Agreement was now pretty much assured, and there wasn’t going to be room for doubters.

If this wasn’t emphatic enough, the commander-in-chief went on to stress how important the psychological aspect would be, uplifting for the Allied troops and depressing for the Axis. If any lingering qualms persisted, the JPS were exhorted ‘to adopt a more vigorous and offensive habit of thought’. The die was cast, and the operation would be vigorous and aggressive. It is probably not entirely coincidental that Churchill was in Cairo at this time. The tone of the communication does rather suggest his style. GHQ got the message and agreed their planners were falling short of the bulldog temperament. If the PM was so adamant, who were they to object?

To deliver before September was problematic, even with the most snappish of bulldogs barking. It couldn’t be done during the dark moon period in August, though Admiral Harwood did not apparently consider that full darkness was necessarily vital. Overland elements would have to approach via Kufra, an immense distance to cover, and some of those among the raiding parties might not be fully trained up. As Peter Smith points out, Operation Agreement had become Topsy; it just kept on getting bigger. A further strand, Operation Hoopoe, an attempt to recapture Siwa Oasis, was now bolted on. An all-arms force there could create merry hell with enemy transport and oblige the DAK to detach substantial forces to remove the threat. The bigger the threat, the bigger the response, so the idea was to beef up the attacking force, providing AA (anti-aircraft) cover and giving the enemy something really massive to worry about.

It was known that the Italian garrison at Siwa was quite small, at best a weak battalion, with no armour and only a quartet of 37mm Breda AA guns. It could be attacked by LRDG/SAS, with some armour to add a heavier punch, and then the main force could move up and take ownership. This would be a hefty contingent including a regiment of Honeys, Bren carriers, transport, signals, guns, engineers, medics, RASC and RAF detachments. Happily, the commander-in-chief wisely decided against such a commitment and Hoopoe went in the basket. Popski, most irregular of irregulars, summed up the comic opera of GHQ in unflattering terms:

Friends joined in with suggestions picked from boyish books that they had pored over in earnest only a few years before, Drake and Sir Walter Raleigh, Morgan and the Buccaneers were outbidden; new stratagems poured out in a stream of inventiveness.

This is probably not such a gross exaggeration. Lieutenant-Colonel Calthorpe on the planning staff undertook a review of the planning process as it stood in the latter part of August. He stressed that the prime objective at both ports was to take and hold the enemy’s defensive ring or those elements that could fire on the demolition parties. As with Operation Waylay, the prime factor was surprise. Where Calthorpe differed was in the timing of the air raid. He wanted this before and not after, to cover the approach rather than screen the withdrawal. The reasoning behind this is understandable, but what price surprise? The enemy would not require high levels of tactical insight to twig that they were being softened up prior to an attack. There was also the matter of timing; it had to be either mid-August or from 8 to 13 September when moonlight was minimal.

Friends joined in with suggestions picked from boyish books that they had pored over in earnest only a few years before, Drake and Sir Walter Raleigh, Morgan and the Buccaneers were outbidden; new stratagems poured out in a stream of inventiveness.

This is probably not such a gross exaggeration. Lieutenant-Colonel Calthorpe on the planning staff undertook a review of the planning process as it stood in the latter part of August. He stressed that the prime objective at both ports was to take and hold the enemy’s defensive ring or those elements that could fire on the demolition parties. As with Operation Waylay, the prime factor was surprise. Where Calthorpe differed was in the timing of the air raid. He wanted this before and not after, to cover the approach rather than screen the withdrawal. The reasoning behind this is understandable, but what price surprise? The enemy would not require high levels of tactical insight to twig that they were being softened up prior to an attack. There was also the matter of timing; it had to be either mid-August or from 8 to 13 September when moonlight was minimal.

As planning moved beyond feasibility into detail, it was recognized that both attacks should ideally go in on the same date. Surprise only comes around once. As the assault on Benghazi could not be staged before the end of August, it made compelling sense to deliver both the following month. The delay would allow for sorely needed training and preparation. Destruction of enemy supplies would be as damaging in September as it would have been in August.

Broadly then, the plan for Tobruk was that a land-based element would attack the coastal guns at the south-east end of the harbour before moving westwards to seize the additional guns on the south side. This would have to be accomplished in darkness, so detailed local knowledge of the tricky and broken ground east of the port was clearly essential. Assuming this part of the operation succeeded and the requisite signal was given by 0200 hours, a flotilla of MTBs with around 200 reinforcements would slide into the cove at Mersa Umm Es Sciausc, previously secured as a beach head. The full complement would then advance westwards to silence the southern battery and destroy the various dumps and facilities that lay in their path.

To the west at Mersa Mreira, a strong party of marines would come ashore and sweep along the northern flank, dealing with the guns and facilities there, gathering in a shoal of lighters. Once the flanks were secure the MTBs would pull out of the cove and accelerate into the harbour itself, where they’d torpedo any targets of opportunity, hiding themselves amongst the debris. With all of the enemy guns in British hands, the MTBs would cut out or sink lighters. They’d be joined by the two Tribal Class destroyers, which would take precautions to disguise themselves as a ruse against air attack while the shore party manned captured AA defences. The whole force would ship out at dusk.

This was the plan for Tobruk, bastard child of Operation Waylay. It marked a very significant leap from the modest spoiling raids proposed by Stirling and Haselden. It was bold, certainly, but reliant upon a whole series of disparate groups being able to coalesce on time and in the dark. It counted upon a weak enemy garrison, stunned by the ferocity of the air raid and yet not on alert. The seaborne elements were dependent on the right weather conditions. Good communications between the interlocking units was essential, but British radios didn’t always work.

It was very complex. At Benghazi, rather surprisingly, it was decided that Stirling’s ‘L’ Detachment could manage the job without amphibious support. He would have a small naval party along, but ensuring the raid was more hit and run obviated the need to take and hold coastal guns. It scaled down the complexities a very considerable extent and minimized the potential loss of men and ships. As Peter Smith points out, this reasoning could as easily have been applied to the attack on Tobruk. That process did not occur.

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The final orders for Operation Agreement were set out in the commander-in-chief’s Combined Operation Instruction No. 1, dated 21 August and issued to Captain Micklethwait, lieutenant colonels E. M. H. ‘Mit’ Unwin (Force A) and Haselden (Force B). The overall tactical aims were to destroy petrol and oil installations, to sink enemy shipping, degrade harbour and dock installations and to bring away port lighters. Those that could not be ‘cut out’ were to be shot up and sunk.

Exact orders of battle (ORBAT) are as shown in the appendix, but Unwin’s seaborne invaders would comprise his own unit, 11th Battalion RM (Royal Marines), with attached AA and Coastal Defence gunners, sections of engineers, signals and medics. The naval elements would be led by Captain Micklethwait, commanding two Tribal Class destroyers, HMS Sikh and Zulu, which would deliver the marines and their cumbersome, improvised landing craft.

Haselden’s Force B was to come out of the desert, the most daring part of the plan. He would have a squadron of Major Campbell’s 1st Special Service Regiment, Y Patrol of the LRDG, led by Captain Lloyd Owen, a squad of Buck’s SIGs commanded by Buck himself, plus Lieutenant Russell with further detachments of AA and CD artillerymen (Lieutenant Poynton), engineers signals (Captain Trollope) and RAMC (Royal Army Medical Corps) (Captain Gibson). Force C, which was to land in support of Haselden east of Tobruk, would be formed by a company of the Argylls under Captain Macfie, a machine-gun platoon of the Northumberland Fusiliers, two sub-sections of engineers, AA gunners and medics. The force, coming in from Alexandria, would be conveyed in 15 to 20 MTBs.

Additional naval support would be provided by Forces D and E, which comprised the light AA cruiser HMS Coventry, several Hunt Class destroyers from No. 5 Destroyer Flotilla and a single submarine HM Taku, responsible for delivering the pathfinder or ‘Folbot’ party. The entire show would be preceded by a massive RAF raid, bombing the northern shore of the harbour from 2130 hours on Saturday 13 September until 0340 hours the next morning. This opening deluge would be Haselden’s cue to begin his attack inside the perimeter, targeting the AA and CD batteries at Mersa Umm Es Sciausc, a cove which lies toward the south-eastern extremity of the main harbour. It was here that Force C would disembark once Haselden signalled the beach head was secure.

Force C had to be in position by 0200 hours at the latest. Besides bringing in the assault troops, they were to beat up enemy shipping beyond and inside the harbour. An hour later the destroyers transporting Force A were to land their marines 1½ miles north of the town at Mersa Mreira. The invaders would then deal with the gun emplacements guarding that flank, fight their way into the port and generally enjoy themselves blowing things up. The warships too would enter the harbour to add the weight of their guns.

Of the three main elements, the role of Force B was most critical. If Haselden’s commandos failed to secure the batteries and beach head, then the whole plan would have to be aborted. Force B would have to send the signal for success before 0200 hours on the 14th. If this wasn’t picked up, both Forces A and B would withdraw. The original RAF element was to involve additional air raids on 12, 13 and 14 September on selected targets not only along the North African coast but also on Crete. Low flying aircraft would come in close on the night of the 13th to distract and confuse enemy radar and lookouts.

It was whilst the whole of Force B was concentrated at Kufra on 1 September that Haselden issued his operational orders. The force would march out from the oasis on 6 September piled into in eight 3-tonners (in addition to Y Patrol’s vehicles) and motor across the desert to a forming up area in the vicinity of Sidi Rezegh of evil memory by 1200 hours on D1. Moving out at dusk on the 12th and less the LRDG contingent the commandos would sneak into the Tobruk perimeter via the eastern approach. Here they’d come through camouflaged as depressed and scruffy Allied POWs, guarded by DAK abteilung who would in fact be Buck and his SIGs posing as Germans.

Assuming the ruse worked and they passed through without being rumbled, they’d approach the cove at Mersa Umm Es Sciausc through the maze of wadis cutting through towards the shore. A track was known to run down past the aerodrome at El Gubi. Lieutenant T. B. Langton from the Irish Guards and ‘borrowed’ from the SAS would be the pathfinder. Force C had to be safely ashore by 0230 hours. Once the bombs began to fall (and it was hoped the roar of engines and explosions would drown the MTB approach), Force B would split into two assault groups.

One contingent with the artillerymen and engineers would descend upon enemy gun positions on both flanks of the cove. They’d deal with any opposition and turn the captured ordnance on any ships trying to get clear of the harbour. Three sections were to take the eastern positions and the remainder those to the west. Taking these guns was deemed vital. If they could not be silenced, then the whole operation should be called off. Both German and Italian passwords were known and the attackers would use the name ‘George Robey’.

David Lloyd Owen and his piratical crew would not be left idle. Their task was, two hours after the commandos had got through the wire, to follow on and attack a radar station. The place was to be thoroughly destroyed before midnight, and at dawn LRDG would fall upon the Axis landing fields at El Gubi and wreak their customary havoc. Having had their fun, they’d then set up a block astride the Bardia road to deal with any enemy reinforcements coming up from that direction.