Men from No.2 Commando (No. 11 Special Air Service Battalion) who participated in Operation Colossus

Hughes, Norman; Tragino Aqueduct; Airborne Assault Museum;

In June 1940, Britain had withdrawn its army out of the jaws of death from Dunkirk. In just under 50 days, the German Wehrmacht had overrun Norway, Denmark, Holland, and Belgium. France was on the verge of defeat. Despite these developments, Lieutenant Colonel Dudley Clarke envisioned only offensive strategies. Clarke, a Royal Artillery officer, was the Military Assistant to the Chief, Imperial General Staff. After Dunkirk, he studied what other countries in the past had done in circumstances similar to those in which Britain now found itself. He recalled the tactics used by the Spanish guerrillas during the Peninsula War; the South African Boers during their war with Britain; and, in his own experience, the role of the irregulars in Palestine in the mid-1930s. Based on this study, Clarke devised a strategy to employ small but hard-hitting units that would mount attacks from the sea striking at German targets from Narvik to the Pyrenees, then quickly withdraw back to the sea. He submitted the idea to the Imperial General Staff, which eventually adopted it. The Imperial General Staff called the units Commandos, after the mounted Boer units of the South African War.

Before the end of June 1940 Prime Minister Winston Churchill prodded the Army to raise a force of paratroopers, in a note that said: “We ought to have a corps of at least five thousand parachute troops. I hear something is being done already to form such a corps but only, I believe, on a very small scale. Advantage must be taken of the summer to train these troops who can nonetheless play their part meanwhile as shock troops in home defence.” Within two days Major John F. Rock, Royal Engineers, was charged with organizing the prime minister’s airborne force. Soon after, Rock was promoted to lieutenant colonel.

The recruiting process used for candidates for the Commandos also served as the basis for obtaining Commandos who would jump. Those being screened were told that Commandos would be in two categories, seaborne and airborne, and they were asked to state a preference. Early volunteers were a mix of those who had enlisted in the Regular Army and those in the Territorial Army (or T.A., which were locally raised units similar to the U.S. Army Reserve). No. 2 Special Service Company was the initial designation for the first parachute unit; this was later changed to No. 2 Commando. As with the other Commando units, it was subordinate to the Chief of Combined Operations, Admiral Sir Roger Keyes. Keyes had gained fame late in World War I for planning and executing a Commando-style raid on the port of Zeebruge. His son, Geoffrey, would later be killed on a Commando raid whose objective was to kill or capture Rommel.

Parachute training was conducted at Ringway RAF Station. Ringway was initially known as the Central Landing School for security reasons. Later, the name was changed to Central Landing Establishment, in part because incoming mail was being received addressed to “Central Laundry School” and (worse) “Central Sunday School.” The name change also confirmed that Ringway would serve as the focal point for “the co-ordination and direction of all work required in the development and training of an airborne force.” Since there was no previous military application of British soldiers being delivered to the battlefield by parachute, the training literally started on the ground floor. Physical training NCOs were designated as the first instructors. One of the instructor sergeants was nicknamed “Bags o’ guts” because of his fondness for yelling at the students while trying to get them “into the most horrible contortions.”

The instructors at Ringway had to literally start from scratch. They first constructed a series of physical training devices designed to toughen muscle groups needed in parachute jumping. Next, after studying intelligence reports about German training methods, they put together a rough training outline. This outline was subject to many changes often dictated by innovations in training techniques, tactical studies, and progression in general knowledge. The initial airborne equipment they had available consisted of a captured German parachute and jump helmet. With this humble beginning, Britain’s parachute program began to take form.

Obviously, equipment was the first prerequisite—more parachutes and airplanes were required. The RAF was extremely reluctant to give up any of its planes, saying that all the bombers were needed for bombing raids on Europe. After some higher-level arm-twisting, four Whitley bombers were allocated to Ringway and immediately dubbed “flying coffins” by the parachute students. Several different methods of exiting the Whitley were tried. The instructors, who were learning their trade only about a step or two ahead of their students, decided that the most reliable method was for jumpers to drop through a hole in the belly of the plane. At about the same time that the Whitleys were delivered, the school also obtained a Bombay transport plane; this had a side door for jumping. Both types of aircraft came to be used in the early days of training at Ringway.

The first airborne jump was on 13 July 1940, using the pull-off method. In this method, the jumper stood at the rear of the plane on a platform built especially for this purpose. He faced the front of the plane and, on command, pulled his rip cord. The force of the parachute opening and catching the wind jerked him out of the plane. Needless to say, only one man jumped at a time. The early classes were organized into 50-man units and these included officers. The men came from various regiments. Corporal Philip D. Julian, a sapper from the Royal Engineers, was in K Troop. He had volunteered for special service after being successfully evacuated from Dunkirk.

When their jump training was completed, the new airborne troopers were sent to Scotland. There they underwent about six weeks of basic Commando training at the hands of Lord Lovat and his Lovat Scouts at their School of Irregular Warfare. Here they went on “wee walks” up nearby Ben Nevis, a massive fog-shrouded peak and the highest point in Scotland. Days off from training usually meant “a wee run” to the top of Ben Nevis.

In the course of their training, two men, introduced only as Sykes and Fairburn (both former police officers in Shanghai), taught the paratroopers the basics of unarmed combat and how to kill by fair means or foul. “Remember, gentlemen,” the instructors told them, “go for the eyes, ears, or testicles.” One month later, in early September, the students had completed the Commando phase of their training. Now, while they waited for an operation, the best among them began to fill out the ranks of trainers and instructors needed on staff at Ringway.

This new cadre of instructors did not stop their own training. Soon they were conducting night jumps. The first of these jumps included putting lights on the descending jumpers. As air crews and paratroopers gained experience and confidence, the lights were no longer used. On one of the night jumps, R.D. “Jock” Davidson was dragged below the plane. He remembers that “my static line got twisted round my wrist.” Soon thereafter, the static line became untwisted and “no one would have been happier than when I heard the canopy of the chute snap open and knew that all was well.”

In November, a demonstration jump was conducted for visiting dignitaries. At the same time, work began on the selection of a target for an operational jump. An unspecified area in Italy was chosen and it was given the codename Operation Colossus.

At about the time that Italy was designated to be the site of the first airborne operation, an engineering firm in London suggested that the RAF might consider bombing a huge aqueduct near Monte Vulture, 30 miles inland from Salerno, in the “ankle” of the Italian boot. The engineering firm had originally built the aqueduct over the Tragino River and was able to supply a copy of the construction plans. The aqueduct was the main water supply source for most provinces in southern Italy, including the towns of Brindisi, Bari, and Foggia. These all had military factories and dockyards that depended on the water. Eventually, a decision was made to use the new paratroopers instead of RAF bombers against the aqueduct.

As planning for the operation began, the unit was again redesignated; this time to 11th Special Air Service Battalion. Lieutenant Colonel Charles Jackson, commander of the unit, told his assembled troops that a “top secret” mission was being planned and asked for 40 volunteers. Almost in perfect unison every officer and man took one step forward. “Very well,” Jackson said. “I thank you all, but I’m afraid this means the men who are to take part will have to be selected.” The first one selected was Major Trevor A.G. Pritchard, Jackson’s second-in-command and leader of K Troop. Pritchard was told to pick five other officers and then each officer was to pick five men. The team was designated “X Troop,” 11th Special Air Service Battalion. The six officers were told only that they would have to train X Troop to blow up a bridge somewhere in enemy territory. Later, one officer and two men were added to X Troop as reserves.

A separate area was assigned to X Troop at Ringway. Mornings were devoted to runs and forced marches with full equipment. During the afternoons, the paratroopers rehearsed on a bridge mock-up in Tatton Park, located about five miles away from Ringway. At about the same time, eight Whitley bombers were set aside for use by X Troop. Pritchard planned to put six men into each of six planes. Sling containers, with weapons and explosives, were to be located in the bomb-bays and rigged for parachute drop. The other two planes, if they were still available, were to be used for a diversionary bomb run in Foggia, near the target area. He hoped that this maneuver would allay suspicion as to their true nature and mission.

Prior to the mission dress rehearsal, two additional men were added to X Troop. One was a civilian whose real name was Fortunato Picchi but rostered as Trooper “Pierre Dupont.” The other was forty-year-old Flight-Lieutenant Ralph Lucky, who wore ribbons denoting service in the World War. Both were introduced as interpreters. The dress rehearsal went terribly, with some of the men suffering minor injuries. “Jock” Davidson called the jump “a bit of a fiasco. The wind was far too strong,” he added, “and normally we would never have jumped in it, but it was our last chance before leaving so off we went.” Not one of those injured allowed himself to be taken off the mission. Philip Julian injured his knee but X-rays taken at a hospital showed “all was OK” and he returned to X Troop. Most of the men thought the bad dress rehearsal was a good sign; they were wrong.

In late January, Lieutenant Anthony Deane-Drummond, one of the six officers of X Troop, was informed as to the true nature of the real target. He was to leave England immediately and proceed to Malta where he would act as the unit’s liaison office in establishing an advance base. Deane-Drummond also learned that the plan called for the paratroopers, once their demolition mission was complete, to move west from their target to the Italian coast, some 50 miles away. There they were to be picked up by a submarine. Soon after his briefing, the signals officer left for Malta. He had to find accommodations for the unit, draw explosives and other necessary supplies, and arrange for the unit to be transported to the airfield on the night of the operation. A late change in the plan called for the paratroopers to go in under the cover of darkness.

On 4 February, X Troop departed Ringway by special bus, bound for Mildenhall RAF Base. Before leaving England, X Troop conducted a parade inside a hangar for Admiral Keyes, who offered a few encouraging words to the unit after inspecting it. On the morning of 9 February, X Troop and all eight Whitleys arrived on Malta and were met at the airfield by Deane-Drummond.

On the 10th, X Troop studied an aerial photograph of the target area taken on the day before. The photograph showed that there were actually two aqueducts across the Tragino. They were situated about 200 yards apart and one was larger than the other. In the end, the larger one, on the east, was designated as the target.

Final supplies were issued to the men. These included food, a six-day supply of water, and cigarettes. Each man carried three hand grenades. Personal weapons issued to officers included .38 caliber revolvers while each man carried a .32 caliber Colt automatic with four extra clips. Each man strapped a Commando knife to one leg. Explosives, rifles, and sub-machine guns were loaded into weapons containers stowed in the Whitleys’ bomb racks. In an effort to anticipate every feasibility, the paratrooper battle uniform was augmented to hide a variety of escape-related items, including: 50,000 lire in notes sewn into shirt collars and trouser waistbands; two silk maps (one of north Italy, the other of south Italy) sewn into sleeve linings; a hacksaw blade sewn into the left breast pocket of each shirt; and a special metallic collar stud was added that contained a small compass.

At 1700, X Troop had a meal of hard-boiled eggs and hot tea. As they ate, Major Pritchard briefed the men, telling them where they would be going and detailing the escape items in their uniforms. During their training, the men of X Troop had been led to believe that they would be blowing up a bridge in Abyssinia. Now they all knew they were headed for Italy. Many of the men were less concerned about executing their mission than they were about making their escape afterwards. It was obvious that they could only travel at night and through territory where the local military and civilian population would be looking for them. And it was mid-winter. They did not, however, express any reservations about their ability to blow up the aqueduct and make a clean getaway.

At the conclusion of the briefing, the men loaded into the Whitleys and took off. The plan was for the three planes carrying the infantry paras to leave first, followed 30 minutes later by the three planes transporting the sappers (combat engineers who were explosives experts). One of the planes carrying the sappers was delayed further when one of the paras got sick and had to be taken off the plane. Many of the men slept on the way to the target.

At 2137, seven minutes later than scheduled, the paratroopers in Deane-Drummond’s plane were alerted that the target was near. Flying on a general southeasterly course, the planes passed over the target area and disgorged their cargo. Deane-Drummond, fifth man out of his plane, made what he called “ … the best landing I had ever made.” He landed about 100 yards from the target. Within a few minutes, he and the men in his stick had retrieved their weapons and secured the immediate areas above and below the aqueduct. He made a quick inspection of the target and realized that the information from the London engineering firm was wrong in one major respect: the aqueduct was not made of concrete; it was made of reinforced concrete. As he made this discovery, the lieutenant could hear the far-off sounds of bombs exploding in the direction of Foggia. That would be the diversionary air-raid.

Soon the other planes began dropping their paras and almost immediately there were indications that things were starting to go wrong. Two planes carrying infantry were late because they had rerouted to avoid flak on their line of flight. Some of the weapons and explosives containers did not release, while others that did release were scattered over a wide area. Finally, the last plane, which was carrying Captain Gerry Daly and five sappers, dropped the paras on board in the wrong valley.

By about 2215, other troopers began to appear at the aqueduct. One of the first to arrive was Major Pritchard. Deane-Drummond immediately briefed his commander on the situation, informing him that Captain Daly and his plane-load of sappers were not yet at the target. Pritchard grabbed an engineer lieutenant named George Paterson and advised him to be prepared to oversee the demolition of the aqueduct should Daly not arrive in time. Paterson immediately reviewed the site and told Pritchard that the original plan would have to be modified because of the reinforced concrete. Furthermore, not all of the explosives had been successfully dropped. Pritchard told the lieutenant, “You’re the expert now, and I’ll stand by your judgment.”

As boxes of explosives were delivered to the aqueduct, Paterson and the 12 sappers who had landed near the target began arranging the material around the base of one of the aqueduct’s support piers. This group included Philip Julian and R.J. “Jock” Crawford. Covering parties commanded by Deane-Drummond, Captain Christopher Lea, and Lieutenant Arthur Jowett secured areas on both sides of the aqueduct. About a dozen Italian men, gathered up by the paratroopers for purposes of security were pressed into a labor gang to help. These civilians were later awarded medals by the Italian government for “gallant behaviour in the face of the enemy.” Deane-Drummond took the remaining two boxes of explosives and, with the help of two of his men, Lance-Corporal Robert Watson and Sapper Alan Ross, arranged them under one end of a small nearby bridge. This bridge, to the west of the aqueduct, was what had shown up on the aerial photograph of the target area. Deane-Drummond’s decision to take out this bridge was intended to stop or delay any vehicular troop movement from engaging and pursuing the British paratroopers.

By 0015, all was ready. The Italian men were moved to nearby buildings and the paratroopers moved to an area a short distance away from the aqueduct. Fifteen minutes later, Paterson and Deane-Drummond lit 60-second fuses at their respective targets. The charge at the small bridge went off. The charge on the main target should have gone off at about the same time but it did not. Pritchard and Paterson, both concerned as to what may have gone wrong, began to advance toward the support pier. They had only covered about a dozen yards when an explosion knocked them both off their feet. This was followed by a series of flashes and explosions that rumbled into the dark, distant mountains. Pritchard and Paterson picked themselves up and went forward to inspect the damage.

When they returned to update the rest of the unit, they were quickly surrounded and barraged by questions from every side. Pritchard held up his hand and said, “Listen to that sound.”

As the men quieted down they could hear the constant sound of running water. Half of the aqueduct had been knocked down; one of the support piers was gone and another “leaned at a crazy angle.”

Pritchard spoke quietly to his men as they gathered around him. “My thanks to you, you’ve done a splendid job. I’d just love to see old Mussolini’s face when he learns of our raid and what we’ve accomplished. We must now withdraw—and lose no time about it.” He reminded them of the plan for a submarine to pick up all those who could make it to the mouth of the Sele River in four days. Then he organized the men into three groups of roughly ten men and two officers each. All heavy equipment and rifles were buried. Lance-Corporal Boulter, who had broken his ankle during the jump, was left behind. At 0100, the three groups set off, moving west.

In another valley, Captain Daly and his men, including “Jock” Davidson, heard the sound of the explosion and decided that there was no longer a need to advance to the aqueduct. Daly briefed his four men on the submarine rendezvous and they set out. Daly’s last words, as they began their forced march west were, “We’ve got rather a long walk ahead of us.”

As a matter of fact, none of the parties involved in this plan made it to the rendezvous point on the Sele River. None of the paratroopers made it nor did the submarine. Within a matter of days, all of the paratroopers had been picked up by either Italian Army or Carabinieri units. After their capture and some initial interrogations, the Italians determined that Trooper Dupont was a civilian and a native of Italy. The next day he was executed by a firing squad. The rest of X Troop were sent to various POW camps throughout Italy. In time, some of the paras escaped and returned to England. Deane-Drummond was one of those who escaped; he later took part in the Arnhem jump in September 1944.

An incredible coincidence occurred during one of the escapes. In September 1943, after the Italian government had surrendered to the Allies, the Germans transported many of the Allied POWs north. “Jock” Davidson and three others were shielded by some Italians in an effort to keep them out of German hands. But the paratroopers got away from the Italians and headed south on their own. During their trek through the central mountains they saw a German plane towing a glider pass overhead. Three days later they were informed by some villagers in Tussio about Skorzeny’s raid on Campo Imperatore to free Mussolini. The paras had witnessed a part of Skorzeny’s assault force dispatched to the resort where Mussolini was being held!

Even if any of the paratroopers had actually made it to the rendezvous site after attacking the Tragino Aqueduct, they would not have been picked up according to the operation plan. One of the Whitleys that took part in the diversionary bombing raid over Foggia on the night of the attack lost an engine on its return flight. The crew bailed out safely but the plane crashed— at the mouth of the Sele River! Nervous staff officers at Malta believed that this crash caused too much attention to this area and cancelled the submarine pickup.

Mission Critique

The theme for this mission is that a special capability, that is, a fledgling parachute force, has been raised and trained. The planners then had to find some mission to test this capability and thereby justify the time and expense in it. This mission would determine if the special capability is worth having and if it is worthy of continued support.

Put in these terms, there is always some thought, as Vandenbroucke would say, that this justification, based strictly on a first mission result, may be mere wishful thinking. The desire is to see the mission succeed so that the original decision in creating such a force is proven correct. This desire may have entered into the line of thinking that finally resulted in the approval to execute the Tragino Aqueduct mission.

There seems little doubt that this mission was carefully considered by the planners as one that was directed against a necessary target and probably one that was within or contributed to the overall battle plan at the time. However, some juxtaposed reasoning was involved here. The planners took a target, the aqueduct, that was to be destroyed by aerial bombardment and decided, since the target was approved anyway, that the new paratroop capability could be used against it. It is this logic in the decision making process that seems faulty. A suitable target for one capability does not make that target suitable for any capability. When you compare the two capabilities being discussed here (aerial bombardment versus parachute force attack), the differences are startling. There is a saying among men who must be put in harm’s way that should be considered an axiom by all planners; it goes “Never send a man where you can send a bullet.” Had this principle been applied properly, the planners would have chosen a different target for X Troop.

So, while there appears to have been some justification for this target (however faulty the logic for choosing it), the question still remains as to whether using special operations forces to conduct the operation was necessary. In this case the answer should be an immediate “NO.” There are two things working to support this negative conclusion.

First is the fact that the target was approved for aerial bombardment— it had already been through a planning and approval process that brought it to that point. This does not mean that it should be automatically suitable or approved for attack by any method.

Second, we can see that what at first appeared to be a simple tactical plan was rendered almost completely worthless by a complicated and virtually unsupportable exfiltration plan. Only one method for getting the paratroopers out was considered. This plan necessitated the Commandos to move 50 miles through mountainous terrain during winter. The men were further limited to nighttime movement and evasion tactics. This limitation was a major hindrance even if the enemy was not aware of their presence. However, when the mission was executed, the men had literally announced their presence to the Italians. There was no external support until they would reach the coast. Now, this is definitely the kind of challenge that special operations forces can overcome, especially when they enter the target from an unexpected or unguarded approach. However, once the mission was underway, the exfiltration plan was scrubbed by a nervous planning/operations staff. Because of the lack of communications with X Troop, there was no way to tell them about this change.

While some mission had to be found for X Troop, there must have been a target available that gave them a better chance of getting out. Why go to all the trouble of investing these men with their specialized training if they are just going to be thrown away on the first plan that comes along? Why was the plan that was developed not reviewed from a critical perspective? This mission should have remained an aerial bombardment target.

Since it was more than one year before the next parachute operation was executed by the British—what was the almighty rush to conduct this one against this target? It seems that the unit was a solution looking for a problem. The planners were anxious to test the skills of the soldiers and prove the principle of airborne units. It seems to be a shame to have wasted such highly skilled and trained men on this mission. Yes, it produced a propaganda coup of sorts—but this coup could have been even more significant with a more suitable target and an attacking force that made it back. Special operations forces should not have been used against this target because such soldiers are not easily replaced.

Before examining this operation using the Vandenbroucke and McRaven criteria, the mission results must be analyzed. The aqueduct, which was the target, received some damage but not what the planners or the paratroopers expected. The damage was repaired in about three days, long before the local reservoirs were in any danger of drying up. The aqueduct was not of any strategic or tactical value. Photographic interpreters, after reviewing pictures taken almost two days after the raid, could not find any damage. The planning staff did not know if the paratroopers even got to the target until later in the month, when the Italians trumpeted the capture of the raiding force.

In a review of the criteria for failed operations several apply to this mission.

Inadequate intelligence on the aqueduct’s construction led to insufficient explosives being taken with the paratroopers. All that could be rounded up at the time of the attack had to be used to do the damage that was done.

Poor coordination was evident in several places. The paratroopers took no communications equipment with them and were thus unaware that the submarine pickup had been canceled because of the plane crash. There were no plans for an alternate pickup point.

Wishful thinking apparently guided the planning staff in its target selection. Too little time was spent looking at the plan as a whole to see that another target, closer to a pickup point (especially more than one possible point), should have been selected. After all, this mission was supposed to be a proof of principle type operation. If so then every effort should have been made to make it completely successful.

Cancellation of the submarine without a mechanism to notify the paratroopers heading to the pickup point was a classic case of in appropriate intervention of mission execution.

Conversely, most of the criteria for a successful mission were also present. The issuance of communications equipment with X Troop could have made the plan simpler than it was. Only the evasion and pick-up portions of the plan were complicated. The security, especially once the force was on the ground at the target, was a high point in the execution of the raid. All of the other criteria were definitely present, which should have made the mission one that the planners could look at with pride. After all, the paratroopers did their part very well. The fault was primarily with the planners and those overseeing the operation. Additionally, why the paratroopers said nothing about the lack of communication equipment is a puzzle.

Overall the execution was good and the planning was poor. The planning objective was to show that Britain could still project a force and cause troops to be tied up trying to protect potential targets. This mission only partly succeeded in the former and failed in the latter. The poor target selection was almost too big a hurdle to overcome.

Good lessons for future operations came from this raid. Probably most noticeable was the increased number of volunteers who wanted to join the parachute forces. News of the mission was released in response to an Italian news story that downplayed the damage and crowed about capturing the entire force. From an operational point of view, planning staffs learned to ask for and get more photo-reconnaissance of target areas and get it earlier in the planning process. Several changes were made in the procedures dealing with night jumps, although this continued to be a problem throughout the war. This first operational parachute mission also pointed out inadequacies with equipment containers. Eventually, both the equipment containers and release mechanisms on the planes were re-designed and improved. All of these changes were based on a good after-action review.



The formation, organization, and operation of the U.S. Army Parachute Test Platoon in June 1940 is a well-known story in the annals of special purpose, special mission organizations. This was, however, the first of two test platoons at the Army’s Parachute School at Fort Benning. The second was activated on 30 December 1943 and originally contained 20 enlisted men and 6 officers, the majority transferring from the 92nd Infantry Division, then stationed at Fort Huachuca, Arizona. The unit designation for the second Test Platoon was 555th Parachute Infantry Company. The 555th was the Army’s first and only all-black airborne unit. During its major action in World War II, Operation Firefly, the 555th (or “Triple Nickel”) would initiate and refine special operations techniques still in use today.

On 18 February 1944, 16 of the 20 enlisted men completed airborne training and received their coveted jump wings. Two weeks later, on 4 March, the six officers followed suit. These men formed the company cadre. As new members of the company reported for training, the cadre rotated through specialized training courses, such as jumpmaster, pathfinder, rigger, demolitions, and communications. Many of the early noncommissioned officers attended Infantry Officer Candidate School and, once commissioned, returned to the 555th. When the company reached a strength of 7 officers and 119 enlisted men, it shifted from individual to unit training. The progression of training was typical for parachute units at the time, although in most other units soldiers went through the training as individual fillers and not as a group or unit.

Another significant difference in training that the 555th initiated was in moving the men through leadership positions. On virtually every training jump, a different tactical objective was included. Enlisted soldiers were rotated behind the lines through as platoon and squad leaders as well as on weapons crews. Bradley Biggs, a platoon leader of the 555th, wrote later, “Over the period of these exercises each trooper had the opportunity to lead and command, and to learn each assignment in a crew-served weapons team. This leadership development made it possible for so many to be promoted.” On 17 July, the company transferred to Camp Mackall, where it was assigned to the Army’s Airborne Command. The size of the company continued to grow. On 9 November, the company was redesignated Company A, 555th Parachute Infantry Battalion, commanded by Captain James H. Porter. The battalion was authorized a strength of 29 officers and 600 enlisted men. Everyone in a leadership position moved up, squad leaders became platoon sergeants, platoon leaders and sergeants became company commanders and first sergeants, and so on.

Two events, separated by almost three years, came to bear on the history of the Triple Nickel. In Japan, the Doolittle raid on Tokyo and other cities in the home islands in April 1942 shocked the Japanese. Until then, they had believed the U.S. was not capable of invading the home islands. They began to make plans to avenge the insult committed by Doolittle and his raiders. They called this the “Fu Go weapons project.”

Meanwhile, in Europe, Hitler launched his last fateful offensive, cutting through the American and British lines in the Ardennes Forest. The 82d and 101 St Airborne divisions were badly chewed up by this battle and needed many replacements. The 555th was alerted for duty in Europe but only as a reinforced company with a strength of 8 officers and 160 enlisted men. This downgrading action was necessary because the 555th was below its authorized battalion strength and had not yet begun its battalion training. In April 1945, just as the skeletonized company was completing almost three solid months of training in the field and was ready to rotate to Europe, the German Army collapsed. By this time, however, another threat had developed. Later that month, the Triple Nickel was transferred to Pendleton, Oregon on a highly classified mission, Operation Firefly. Having already made its mark in airborne history, the 555th was about to stamp that mark in indelible ink. It would accomplish this by fighting behind the lines in the U.S. northwest.

Beginning in November 1944, the Japanese had started their campaign to make the United States pay for Doolittle’s raid. This campaign consisted of sending balloons with incendiary bombs aloft so they would be carried by the prevailing upper winds (what we now call the jet stream) to America. Once over land the balloons would descend and drop their incendiary clusters. The Japanese believed most of these incendiaries would land in large West Coast cities and cause great havoc. In reality, most of those that made it to the West Coast landed in uninhabited areas and became a serious problem for the U.S. Forest Service, whose job included fighting forest fires in National Parks and Forests.

The Forest Service had been created in 1905 by President Theodore Roosevelt and had begun fighting fires almost immediately. By 1925 it was using planes to spot fires and within four years was able to drop supplies from planes to fire fighters on the ground. In 1940, the first parachute jump was made on a forest fire. The following year, the U.S. Forest Service Smokejumpers were organized.

When the balloon bombs were first discovered, military intelligence offices noticed that the ballast bags contained sand. Samples of this sand were delivered in secret to scientists of the U.S. Geological Survey to see if it was possible for them to pinpoint either the balloon launch sites or, at least, the origin of the sand. Four scientists, Clarence s. Ross, Julia Gardner, Kenneth Lohmann, and Kathryn Lohmann, examined the sand. These scientists were able, based on unique mineralogical and paleontological assemblages, to confirm two likely sites on the east coast of Japan. Later aerial reconnaissance corroborated the exact location of the second site and it was subsequently bombed.

Working with the War Department, the Forest Service had been able to prevent any widespread reports about the balloon bombs, although some articles had appeared without attributing any cause to the fires. The Chief of the Forest Service, Lyle F. Watts, was interviewed on radio in late May 1945, describing the balloon bombs in some detail. What was not mentioned was the fear that the balloon bombs would be used to carry chemical or biological weapons. The presence of the Triple Nickel was also not mentioned.

The 555th initially set up its main camp at an inactive B-29 Army Air Corps Base outside Pendleton, located in northeastern Oregon, and immediately established a strenuous three-week training program for the battalion’s soldiers with the Forest Service Smokejumpers. As the training progressed the men of the Triple Nickel modified their uniforms to make them more functional—and safer. A 50-foot length of nylon rope was added to assist them down from trees, a common hazard in forest jumps. The heavy, fleecelined jacket and trousers of the Army Air Corps bomber crews were added next to provide padding for rough landings. Finally, they modified football helmets by adding wire mesh grills to the front to protect their face and eyes. Once on the ground, they donned gloves.

The major modification the paratroopers used was one designed by Frank Derry, one of the very first Smokejumpers. Derry had cut several panels out of the standard parachute and replaced one of the olive drab suspension lines with one made of white material. By pulling on the white shroud line, a jumper could turn in the air, to take advantage of the wind or nullify it. It was thus easier to pick out a place to land instead of being completely at the mercy of the wind. This is the first example of military use of steerable parachutes.

Within six weeks the entire battalion had qualified as Smokejumpers. During the training with their new chutes and modified clothing and equipment, the men of the 555th also worked with explosive ordnance disposal trainers to become familiar with disposal and disarming techniques. In mid July, about one-third of the battalion moved to an Army Air Corps Base at Chico, California. Splitting the unit provided wider coverage of forest area (for both fire and balloon bomb response) and better use of the skills of the paratroopers. Within a week of the move, each group had conducted its first jump into a fire area.

Once on the ground after a jump, the Triple Nickel took off the fleecelined uniforms and picked up whatever gear was needed, either to fight a fire or work on a balloon bomb. Discarded uniforms, parachutes, and unneeded equipment were left on the drop zone to be picked up on the way back to camp.

One former member of the battalion described a fire operation this way: “Digging a fire break or clearing a zone to either isolate the fire or keep it from jumping is smoky business. We stank of smoke and fought to keep upwind of it. Team work was the key. Watching out for your team members, keeping together and not losing anyone in the smoke or darkness was the top priority. We worked hard and ate like horses, often five big meals a day. The forest rangers furnished most of our meals and water. We saved ours for emergency or exit use.”

After a team arrived back at camp following a mission, battalion officers and NCOs conducted detailed debriefings of each member and filed afteraction reports. The average mission was four to six days long. On several occasions the paratroopers jumped into Canada, trying to limit the fire from spreading to the U.S. Captain Bradley Biggs stated that, in the case of balloon bombs, “We blew up only those bombs that represented a danger.” Those not blown in place were eventually turned over to an intelligence unit for exploitation.

One of the most interesting missions the Triple Nickel conducted during this period was to help train a group of U.S. Navy pilots who were preparing to go overseas. Captain Biggs and 54 paratroopers from his company were to jump before dawn onto a small drop zone and attack along a 15-mile route, calling in air support on a series of widely-separated targets and then assaulting each target with live ammunition. It was a mission that would task the hardiest paratrooper, lasting all day and with little room for error. Biggs said that “It had all the features of a combat mission except for a real enemy. There was the low altitude jump, full combat load, no ground support, and no DZ markers or pathfinders.” For the Triple Nickel, it was yet another chance to excel.

Biggs and his executive officer, Jesse J. Mayes, spent one full day reviewing the plan and reconnoitering the route the men of the Triple Nickel would cover. The drop zone was 400 yards long and 50 yards wide, and located in the mountains. The route to the various targets was up and down hill the entire way. There was great potential that heat and terrain could take a heavy toll. Each man carried a double ammunition load, two canteens, medical supplies, a compass, and two С-ration meals along with his combat pack. Jump altitude was 800 feet, allowing little time to react to a problem or a malfunctioning chute, “under conditions as close to combat as we might see.” Each plane would make two passes, with nine paratroopers exiting per plane on each pass.

The pre-dawn flight was very rough. Many of the paratroopers became sick before they felt the planes slowing down and descending as they neared the drop zone. Only one man was injured on the jump and had to be evacuated. The remainder headed for their first target, which they had to reach before the sun came up. They were in position and radioed the planes in as the dawn broke. For the rest of the day, the operation went according to plan.

Just prior to the eighth and final target, the Navy dropped a resupply of ammunition and water. This final target was within view of an observation post where several senior Navy officers watched the demonstration. Short of the target, the paratroopers laid out their two-feet by four-feet red marker panels and called in an air strike with rockets and napalm. In the follow-on ground attack, the men of the 555th fired off all their remaining ammunition.

Before the paratroopers departed the exercise area the Navy officers thanked them for their realistic support. “The commander of the naval fighter squadron was extremely complimentary. A job well done.”

Between 14 July and 6 October, the Triple Nickel fought 36 fires (19 from Pendleton and 17 from Chico) and disarmed or destroyed an unknown number of Japanese balloon bombs. In all, the missions included over 1,200 individual jumps with only 30 jump-related injuries and 1 fatality. They conducted at least one demonstration jump, on 4 July in Pendleton. Operation Firefly was an unqualified success. Because the Japanese balloon bomb operation was classified, it was not until many years after the war that the real mission for this operation was known and the 555th Parachute Infantry Battalion could receive full credit. The contributions the battalion made to special operations rugged terrain jumping is obvious to anyone who conducts even a cursory review of today’s techniques.

On 14 January 1946, by specific invitation of Major General James M. Gavin, commander of the 82d Airborne Division and of the parade ceremonies, the Triple Nickel took part in the World War II victory parade in New York City. The 555th marched as part of the 82d and was authorized by Gavin to wear unit decorations awarded to the “All-American” airborne division during the war, including the Belgian forragère and the Netherlands lanyard. Just prior to the parade, the 555th had been attached (not assigned) to the 82d for admin and training purposes, physically locating back to Fort Bragg.

By September 1947, the 555th was assigned to the 82d and redesignated as the 3rd Battalion, 505th Airborne Infantry Regiment, the regiment Gavin commanded during the combat parachute assaults in Sicily and mainland Italy in 1943. Gavin believed it was only right for his former unit to lead the division in setting the example for integration.

On 9 December 1947, Gavin took the final step, a full 7½ months before President Truman signed Executive Order 9981, ordering “equality of treatment and opportunity” for all members of the military forces, irrespective of race, color, religion, or national origin. On that day, Gavin signed an order integrating the 82d Airborne Division and moving the men of the Triple Nickel to various units within the division and division headquarters.

Mission Critique

While planning Operation Firefly, the Army had no choice but to conduct the mission, if for no other reason than to prevent panic in the public at large. If the Japanese balloon bombs could be rendered harmless and their existence kept quiet from the American and Canadian public, the operation would be a success.

The U.S. planners had two choices for Operation Firefly. They could use Forest Service Smokejumpers to do it or a military parachute force. Using the Smokejumpers had at least two major problems: these civilian firefighters would have to receive extensive explosive ordnance disposal training and would, potentially, have to spend an unknown amount of time on the mission, time when they would not be available for fighting forest fires. This latter would require the Forest Service to hire additional people to take their place on the fire lines.

Using military parachute infantry forces, who already had training and experience in employing explosive ordnance was a more sensible choice for Firefly. These paratroopers would require training in disarming ordnance but their ramp up time would be a lot shorter than using Forest Service personnel. Additionally, their cover as Smokejumpers was perfect for their Firefly operations and was successful in preventing widespread knowledge of the existence of the balloon bombs. As shown, they helped develop a jump technique that is still used by special operations forces today, known as rugged terrain jumping.

Although the main discussion stresses the Triple Nickel’s contribution to rugged terrain operations there is another contribution that this unit made. This one was not unique to the 555th; in fact, most of the better special operations units in World War II made a similar contribution to special operations doctrine. The 555th, however, did it better than anyone else. This contribution is the method of cross-training unit members in a variety of skills and in different leadership positions. This is one of the best methods for building unit cohesion. Without this kind of cohesion the members of the unit don’t work as well together, don’t reach the ultimate, at least in special operations, of working as a team. The two best examples of the team concept are the Alamo Scouts and the Triple Nickel; the SAS, Popski’s Private Army, and the Jeds also demonstrate this quality well.

With this unit there are few examples from Vandenbroucke’s criteria and most from McRaven’s. One of the criteria from Vandenbroucke’s list, coordination, is present in several positive aspects here since the Triple Nickel dealt with some interesting organizations, such as the U.S. Forest Service and its Smokejumpers, and the U.S. Navy. Security, one of McRaven’s key criteria, was the hallmark of Operation Firefly; it was kept so secret that not until many years after the end of World War II was the role of the 555th revealed to the public at large. This same security prevented the Japanese from knowing how many of their balloons made it to North America, where they landed, and what damage they had done.

All things considered, the Triple Nickel was typical of the other special operations units in this study. They did the things that the best special operations units did—they got good people, planned good operations, and ехеcuted with skill and style. Both Vandenbroucke and McRaven would happily give high marks to this unit and its operations.

“Libyan Taxi Service.”

LRDG Headquarters Section (note markings on “Louise”) of Chevrolet 30 cwt. The first two vehicles are armed with Vickers guns, and have canvas sand mats rolled up and stored on the front wheel arches.

Later the SAS had their own transport. Before a desert raid. Stirling standing at right.

It may have been during the two-hundred-mile journey back to Jaghbub Oasis, the Eighth Army’s forward base, that inspiration struck David Stirling. Riley claimed that the idea came to Stirling while they were lying under a tarpaulin with Jock Lewes on the night they reached the desert rendezvous. Seekings insisted that Stirling’s eureka moment came while they were scouring the horizon for stragglers. The most likely source of inspiration was David Lloyd Owen, a highly intelligent officer who would go on to command the LRDG. But the most extraordinary aspect of this idea is that it seems, in retrospect, so blindingly obvious: if the LRDG could get the SAS out of the desert without difficulty, then the reconnaissance unit could surely drive them in as well, thus cutting out all the danger and uncertainty involved in jumping out of airplanes in the dark. Quite why this glaringly good idea had not occurred to anyone before is one of the enduring mysteries of the SAS story.

The Long Range Desert Group was the brainchild of Ralph Alger Bagnold, soldier, explorer, scientist, archaeologist, sedimentologist, geomorphologist, and the world’s greatest living expert on sand. Bagnold was the brother of Enid Bagnold, author of the novel National Velvet; his own, less popular but no less durable contribution to world literature was The Physics of Blown Sand and Desert Dunes, first published in 1941 and today still influencing NASA’s ongoing research into sand dunes on Mars. A veteran of the Somme and Ypres, a pioneer in desert exploration, inquisitive and indestructible, Bagnold spent much of 1930 driving a Model A Ford around the vast desert between Cairo and Ain Dalla in search of the mythical city of Zerzura. He made the first east-west crossing of the Libyan desert in 1932, driving more than three thousand miles and winning a medal from the Royal Geographical Society. Then he drove through the Mourdi Depression of northeastern Chad and back to Libya. He worked out that reduced tire pressure and wider tires increased speed across desert terrain; he invented a condenser that could be attached to a car radiator to prevent it from boiling over, and steel channels for unsticking vehicles bogged down in soft sand. He developed “Bagnold’s sun compass,” which, unlike the traditional magnetic compass, was unaffected by desert iron-ore deposits and was also impervious, in Bagnold’s words, to “changes in the positions of magnetically uncertain spare parts carried in the vehicles.” He spent so long being battered by the desert wind that his nose achieved a permanent roseate hue. “Never in our peacetime travels had we imagined that war could ever reach the enormous empty solitudes of the inner desert, walled off by sheer distance, lack of water, and impassable seas of sand dunes,” Bagnold wrote. “Little did we dream that any of the special equipment and techniques we had evolved for very long-distance travel, and for navigation, would ever be put to serious use.” But that, of course, is what happened. Nine months after the outbreak of war, Major Bagnold was given permission to form and command a mobile desert scouting force to operate behind the Italian lines: the Long Range Patrol (later the Long Range Desert Group) was born in Egypt in June 1940, to commit “piracy on the high desert.”

The Libyan desert covers well over a million square miles of the earth’s surface, an area roughly the size of India. Stretching a thousand miles south from the Mediterranean and twelve hundred miles from the Nile Valley to the mountains of Tunisia and Algeria, it is one of the most inhospitable places on earth and, in terms of humanity, one of the emptiest. Most of the North African war so far had been fought on a narrow coastal strip, along which a single paved road hugged the edge of the Mediterranean. Only a few ancient trading tracks traversed the interior. In daytime, the temperature could soar to 135° F, and then plummet below freezing at night. The only water is to be found in a handful of small oases. It was not an easy place to live, and a very easy place to die, but it offered an opportunity for warfare of a most unconventional and uncomfortable sort. In theory, this mighty desert was enemy-held territory; in reality, Bagnold calculated, the Italians and Germans had “only enough motor transport for a radius of action of a paltry 100 miles.” The rest was his. So far from being an impassable, hostile wilderness, the desert was a place that men, with the right training and equipment, could cross and recross, navigate, watch, hide in, and survive indefinitely. To the uninitiated, the landscape appears bleak and monotonous, but the apparently flat expanse hid myriad dips and depressions, rocky patches, shelves, and escarpments, as well as treacherous seas of soft sand. There were points to navigate by, if one knew how to see them.

The broad purpose of the LRDG was to carry out reconnaissance and raiding, to find out what the enemy was doing where and, from time to time, to attack him. Initially, Bagnold recruited New Zealand farmers, leathery outdoorsmen used to surviving for long periods in harsh terrain; gradually, as the unit expanded, volunteers came forward from Rhodesian and British regiments. After long weeks in the desert, the sand buccaneers had developed a distinctly piratical look, sporting Arab headdresses, sandals in place of boots, and bushy beards. Equipped with adapted, lightweight, heavily armed vehicles, the LRDG carried out deep penetration and covert missions behind the lines, moving undetected across huge swathes of territory and perfecting the art of desert camouflage and evasion. LRDG units became adept at slipping unseen up to the coastal road itself and observing the movements of enemy troops; these “road-watching” operations provided some of the most important military intelligence of the war. Axis forces never adapted to the challenges of the desert in the same way. At the time when Stirling first encountered them, the LRDG were the masters of their terrain: “There seemed to be nothing they did not know about the desert.”

Siwa Oasis in Egypt, about thirty miles from the Libyan border, was the operational headquarters and forward base of the LRDG, under the command of Colonel Guy Prendergast, another desert explorer who had traveled with Bagnold before the war. Waiting in Siwa for a plane to take him back to Cairo, Stirling asked Prendergast if the LRDG might be prepared to act as a transport service for the SAS to and from coastal targets. Prendergast said that this would be perfectly possible, so long as the task did not interfere with the unit’s primary reconnaissance role. Thus began one of the most fruitful partnerships in wartime history, bringing together the fighters of the SAS with the expert desert navigators of the LRDG. The SAS would come to refer to the LRDG, with deep admiration, as the “Libyan Taxi Service.” The hairy, hardened, experienced men of the LRDG were cabdrivers unlike any others.

Stirling had feared that the abject failure of Operation Squatter might prove the death of the SAS. But, in truth, the brass at Middle East Headquarters had greater concerns than the loss of a few dozen men in a sideshow to the main battle. Operation Crusader was not going smoothly: Rommel’s panzers had inflicted a major defeat on the British 7th Armoured Division, and the Afrika Korps had pushed into Egypt in a dramatic counterthrust. General Neil Ritchie, Stirling’s initial backer and family friend, had taken over command of the Eighth Army on November 26; with so much on his plate, Ritchie had little attention to spare for the grim details of a single failed operation. Auchinleck believed that Rommel’s eastward countermove had left German supply lines along the coast fully extended and vulnerable to attack—exactly the sort of task for which L Detachment had been formed. But if the SAS was to attack by land, rather than by air, it would need a forward base from which to launch operations. The ideal spot had become available: an oasis refuge deep in the Libyan desert, but within striking distance of the coast.

Jalo Oasis lies about 150 miles southeast of the Gulf of Sirte and west of the Great Sand Sea, the undulating ocean of dunes that makes up about a quarter of the greater Libyan desert. With its white wooden fort, mud houses, fringe of palm trees, and glittering azure waters, Jalo is exactly what a mirage of an oasis might look like in a fairy story. In fact, it is anything but a paradise: roastingly hot and whipped by an unceasing wind that can drive a man mad, it was home to a handful of Berbers, a few ill-tempered camels, and a colossal population of flies. The oasis water is almost undrinkably salty and thick with minerals, but as the only water source for hundreds of miles, Jalo was of vital strategic importance. It would change hands several times in the course of the war.

On November 18, 1941, in support of Operation Crusader, Brigadier Denys Reid had set out from Jaghbub Oasis, on the Egyptian border, with E Force, a mixed unit of Indian, South African, and British troops, intent on capturing Jalo, three hundred miles to the west, from the Italians. It was a sign of his determination that Reid took armored cars, but only enough petrol to travel one way. Six days later, Reid’s force reached Jalo and, after a daylong battle with its surprised Italian defenders, seized it. Reid’s orders were to continue north with a flying column and attack the extended Axis supply lines along the coast, while the Eighth Army launched another counteroffensive against Rommel’s Afrika Korps. The LRDG were ordered to mount a series of raids on the airfields at Sirte, Agheila, and Agedabia on the Gulf of Sirte, in order to put out of action enemy planes that could otherwise inflict carnage on Reid’s troops approaching from the south. It was Guy Prendergast, probably as a result of his conversation with Stirling, who suggested that L Detachment might be better equipped for this task: “As LRDG not trained for demolitions, suggest pct [parachutists] used for blowing dromes.”

Here was an opportunity for the SAS, or what remained of it, to prove its worth. Stirling quietly gave orders to Jock Lewes to head to Jalo in the deep desert with the remaining men and as much weaponry, ammunition, and explosives as he could lay his hands on. Lieutenant Bill Fraser, his wrist now healed, was back on active duty, along with his dog, Withers. Jim Almonds was also back in the ranks, although still anxiously awaiting word on the health of his baby son.

The SAS took up residence in its new forward base on December 5. Johnny Cooper thought Jalo looked like a “Foreign Legion outpost, straight out of Beau Geste.” Brigadier Reid warmly welcomed the new arrivals, as well he might: he was under orders to advance north to the area of Agedabia, near the coast, by December 22; if the SAS could inflict serious damage on the enemy air forces in the fortnight before that date, it would make Reid’s task considerably easier.

Stirling established his headquarters in a disused storehouse, gathered his officers, and began to make plans for the next SAS operation—in the knowledge that, if it failed again, this would also be the last.


An Italian CB-class submarine

Although the presence of midget submarines on both sides was rumoured during the Russo-Japanese War, the Italian Navy may claim to have been the first to deploy midgets in 20th-century warfare. During World War I, a few small submersibles of c.16 tons (16.25 tonnes) surfaced displacement were constructed and, having proved unsuitable for operations outside sheltered waters, were used for harbour defence in the Adriatic. These pioneer designs were dusted off in the mid-1930s when, at the time of Mussolini’s venture into Abyssinia (now Ethiopia), conflict with Great Britain temporarily threatened. A weapon for clandestine penetration of such British Mediterranean bases as Malta, Gibraltar and Alexandria was advocated by many Italian officers, with Cdr Angelo Belloni, a leading spirit in the training of volunteers for the Decima Flottiglia MAS (10th Light Flotilla), the Italian Navy’s “special attack weapons” unit, prominent among them.

In the event, the Maiale (“Pig”) manned-torpedo was to be the major penetration weapon; but in the pre-war years it was planned that midget submarines should penetrate enemy bases, either to carry out torpedo attacks or to release frogmen to place explosive charges. In conditions of strict secrecy, the Italian Navy constructed and had operational by April 1938 the midget submarines C.A.1 and C.A.2 (C=Costiero-tipo, “coastal-type”), built by Caproni, Taliedo of Milan.

In their original form, C.A.1 and C.A.2 were two-man boats displacing 13.5 tons (13.7 tonnes) surfaced; 32.8ft (10m) long overall; 6.43ft (1.96m) in beam; and drawing 5.25ft (1.6m). On the surface, a single-shaft 60hp MAN diesel gave a maximum speed of 6.5kt (7.5mph, 12kmh) and a range of 700nm (805 miles, 1295km) at 4kt (4.6mph, 7.4kmh). Submerged, a 25hp Marelli electric motor gave a maximum 5kt (5.75mph, 9.25kmh) and a range of 57nm (65.5 miles, 105km) at 3kt (3.45mph, 5.5kmh). Armament consisted of two 17.7in (450mm) torpedoes in external dropping gear.

Trials soon showed that C.A.1 and C.A.2 were not capable of operations involving sea passages of any distance. Nor was there much chance of the midgets surviving independent missions in the clear, shallow, inshore waters of the aircraft-dominated Mediterranean. In 1941, it was decided that the midgets must be carried to their target areas on mother boats and released under cover of darkness to penetrate defended anchorages and lay explosive charges. The diesel units were removed from both midgets, as were the torpedo racks. This reduced displacement to 12 tons (12.2 tonnes) surfaced and 14 tons (14.2 tonnes) submerged; increased maximum submerged speed to 6kt (6.9mph, 11kmh) and submerged range to 70nm (80.5 miles, 129km) at 2kt (2.3mph, 3.7kmh); and permitted a crew of three to be carried; at least one a trained “frogman”.

The Leonardo da Vinci with the CA seated in the special cradle.

Date: December 1943

Place: Hudson River, New York, USA

Attack by: Italian midget submarine “C.A.2”

Target: Shipping at anchor and dock installations

Urged on by the German high command, who stressed the moral effect on the Allies of increased Italian naval effort in the Atlantic, Cdr Prince Junio Valerio Borghese, commanding the 10th Light Flotilla, planned spectacular and potentially suicidal missions for the Italian midgets: attacks on the British base at Freetown, Sierra Leone, on the west coast of Africa – and on harbours along the east coast of the United States. The Freetown plan, for which C.A.1 was allocated, was abandoned when it was decided that British defensive measures allowed no chance of success; but the operation against the USA, with New York specified as the target for maximum psychological effect, reached an advanced planning stage.

In mid-1942, in preparation for the New York raid, C.A.2 was transported overland to Bordeaux, where “Betasom”, headquarters for Italian submarines operating in the Atlantic, was commanded by Capt Enzo Grossi. There, too, came the Marconi-class submarine Leonardo da Vinci of 1,190/1,489 tons (1209/1513 tonnes), selected as the midget’s carrier. Under the direction of Cdr Borghese and SubLt Massano, Italian workshops at Bordeaux under Major (naval rank) Fenu removed Da Vinci’s 3.9in (100mm) gun and in its place, just forward of the conning-tower, constructed a semi-recessed “pouch” with retaining shackles for C.A.2. This arrangement led to the mother boat being designated the Canguro (“Kangaroo”). Sea trials under Borghese’s command proved to his satisfaction that the midget could be launched from the submerged Kangaroo and could be recovered when the mother boat surfaced beneath it. The latter point was important in avoiding any indication that the projected mission was regarded as suicidal: just so had the IJN made “official” plans to recover its midgets after Pearl Harbor.

According to Borghese, the Kangaroo (not Da Vinci, which was sunk by British warships off the Azores in May 1943) would launch its midget while submerged off New York Bay. C.A.2 (or, in the later stages of the operational planning, the near-identical C.A.3 or C.A.4) would make its way by night into the crowded harbour at the mouth of the Hudson. Two of the three crewmen, in frogmen’s gear, would leave the boat to plant time-fuzed explosive charges – eight 220lb (100kg) charges and twenty 4.4lb (2kg) “limpets” were carried – under ships and against dock installations. Then C.A.2 would slip downriver to make rendezvous at sea with the Kangaroo.

The suicidal nature of the plan is obvious. Borghese made the airy assumption that New York’s harbour defences “against such a surprise attack presumably didn’t exist” – although the “happy time” enjoyed by German U-boats off the American east coast in the earlier part of 1942 had resulted in much-improved anti- submarine patrolling. The Kangaroo would have to surface in American coastal waters to allow the midget’s crew to enter their craft, since they had no means of access from the mother boat; and it would have to surface again offshore, in the aftermath of the attack, to retrieve the midget. Finally, it was estimated that the midget itself, with a submerged capability – for C.A.2, C.A.3 or C.A.4 – of no more than 70nm (80.5 miles, 129km), might need to remain in the Hudson for up to two days. Yet, according to Borghese, only Italy’s collapse in September 1943 prevented the mission from being carried out, as planned, in December of that year. As well as the four C.A.-type boats, the Italian Navy built 22 midgets of C.B.-type (some of them completed under the Italian Fascist Republic in 1943–44). These four-man boats of 36/45 tons (36.6/45.7 tonnes) were not used for “special attack” missions but for conventional torpedo operations. In this role, they had some success in the Black Sea, where a six-strong flotilla operating from the Romanian port of Constanta is credited in Italian and German records (at variance with other sources) with sinking the Soviet submarines Shch. 208, in June 1942, and Shch. 207 in August 1943.


The first major Australian SAS operation began on 21 June 1965, when a patrol led by Corporal John Robinson helped guide a company of Gurkhas under the command of a British officer, Captain Ashman, to attack Lumbis, a village about ten kilometres inside Indonesian territory. After three days walking, they reached the target undetected. Indonesian soldiers were active within the village, and Ashman deployed his forces around the settlement. Mortars and machine guns were in place by 6 am the following morning. However, Ashman waited until a gong sounded at 9 am to summon the troops to breakfast before ordering his men to aim their weapons. According to the official history, ‘A group of about ten men gathered and started to eat and only then was the order given. Four to six enemy were killed in the first machine-gun burst and the Gurkha mortars quickly adjusted their fire onto the village. The second salvo went through the roof of the eating hut.’

Though the Indonesians were ‘slow to react’, they eventually answered the fire with machine guns and a mortar. However, they were ineffective, and at 9.50 am Ashman ordered the company to withdraw, and a British 105-mm Howitzer about 10,000 metres to the north-west began to shell the village. According to an observer, ‘One shot landed a little over a metre from the enemy’s radio shack whose roof lifted then settled again.’ The attacking force returned to the border, reaching it just before last light.

On 1 July, the Australian unit planned its own attack on an Indonesian airfield well inside the border at Long Bawan. Garland sent Warrant Officer Alan ‘Blue’ Thompson with his patrol to complete the reconnaissance. Four days later, they had reached a position about three kilometres from the airfield and set up a lay-up position (LUP) when they spotted an Indonesian patrol, travelling in single file, coming up behind them. They quickly took up ambush positions near the track, and when the leading Indonesian was only four metres away they opened fire. According to the operational report, the leader was struck by eight rifle and six Owen gun rounds, the second by ten rifle and six Owen gun bullets. Both died instantly. Their compatriots took cover and returned fire, but by then the Australians were on the move out of the area. The airfield attack never eventuated.

Further ambushes by 1 Squadron followed, and on 3 July Sergeant John Pettit took his patrol south into Indonesian territory, reaching the Salilir River the following day. There they established an overwatch position, and on 5 July they saw boats travelling up and down stream with paddlers stripped to their shorts, but in each case apparently commanded by a figure in an olive-green shirt. Suddenly a downstream craft turned towards the Australians’ position on the bank, where they apparently planned to beach their boat.

When they were ten metres from the shore, Pettit and his patrol opened fire. According to their report, ‘In less than a minute the patrol poured 81 rounds of [rifle] and 26 rounds of Owen gun into the boat. Not one enemy was able to return fire with the submachine guns they were carrying. Most were either knocked overboard or jumped into the river.’ Pettit estimated they had killed seven and seriously wounded two. Later intelligence suggested one had been killed instantly, while three died of wounds.

On 21 July, another patrol spotted a prahu powered by an outboard motor with six men in white T-shirts and blue shorts. As it approached the Australians’ position on the bank, a Bren-gunner, Lance Corporal Chris Jennison, saw ‘rifles, webbing and kitbags’ on the bottom of the boat. He opened fire. Three rounds struck the man in the bow. The force of the bullets threw him into the water; three others were killed before they could move but two others leapt into the water. However, when they reached the shore and began to scramble up the bank, they were gunned down. The patrol withdrew without loss, and by 24 July they had returned to Brunei Town.

When Garland’s men completed their mission after five months in country, they had killed 17 enemy with only one fatal casualty – Paul Denehey. However, by any reasonable measure it was not the most propitious beginning for an outfit that aspired to be the best of the best, operating at the highest levels of military endeavour and from its most lofty principles. It had secretly invaded the territory of another country, one that represented no particular threat to its Australian homeland. It had operated as a puppet to a colonial power whose motives remained the assertion of its own interests in a post-colonial world that no longer accepted its presumptions. Indeed, the first director of Borneo operations revealed the underlying motives nine years later, when he wrote that the mission illustrated ‘the art of hitting an enemy hard by methods which neither escalate the war nor invite United Nations anti-colonialist intervention’.

Nevertheless, the unit had been ‘blooded’, and it had learnt some hard lessons in the process. It had been exposed to the unvarnished reality of Special Forces warfare, where the unexpected was the norm and the need for initiative and versatility was paramount. Tactically, it had confirmed Garland’s belief that insertion by helicopter followed by a hard walk was far more effective than parachuting into action. And strategically there was a growing realisation that Australians operated best when given outright responsibility for an area of operation, then left to devise their own methods to achieve an agreed outcome. And nothing that occurred during the remainder of the unit’s time in Borneo would contradict these conclusions.

After 1 Squadron returned to base, there was a five-month hiatus before 2 Squadron under Major Jim Hughes was considered battle ready. Hughes had won a Military Cross in Korea, fought with the British in the Malayan Emergency in the late 1950s and had been an instructor at the Royal Military College, Sandhurst. Short and slight, he was nevertheless as tough as leather and a natural leader of men.

By the time they arrived in January 1966, the strategic situation had changed totally. The attempted coup in Jakarta on 30 September 1965 had not only diminished Sukarno’s authority but it had also undermined support for konfrontasi within the military. But while most of the regular army forces had been withdrawn, there remained a number of militia groups trained by their Special Forces, later known as Kopassus.

By now the Allied operation was dominated by Big Army personnel, and Hughes was unsettled by his reception in Brunei. ‘I always remember the indifference to our arrival shown by the staff of HQ Australian Army Force, as if we were an embuggerance factor – you know, “We got rid of 1 Squadron last year, now you buggers are here!” I had a feeling I might be interfering with their golf or something.’

However, at least the Brits were pleased to see them when they reached their Kuching HQ. ‘[When] we got down to B Squadron 22 SAS who we were replacing, they all bent over backwards,’ he says. ‘The difference was chalk and cheese.’ Sergeant Ian Conaghan said the training at nearby Matang with their British colleagues was first rate. ‘We did a tremendous amount of live firing,’ he says, ‘and because it was under operational conditions the normal safety limits were reduced to the absolute bare minimum. We had Iban border scouts attached who taught us tracking and they were very good. And we were introduced to Claymores there.’

The Claymore, an American invention, was a flat, rectangular mine that stood just above the ground on two folding legs. When detonated, it propelled 700 deadly steel balls in an arc 60 degrees wide, two metres high and 50 metres deep. A 22 SAS officer, Captain Angus Graham-Wigan, promoted a technique of linking an array of the mines with an electrical cord to be fired when ambushing the enemy. On the first occasion an Australian troop from 1 Squadron employed the Graham–Wigan technique, the array failed to explode. There is no record of the device being used in this fashion by 2 Squadron. Indeed, according to Jim Hughes, the emphasis of his mission was different from that of his predecessor. ‘Our [aims] were firstly reconnaissance, secondly hearts and minds, thirdly border scouts for the 3rd Division, fourthly air rescue. I was a bit worried about doing that because I found the parachutes sitting on pallets on a dirt floor covered in dust and cobwebs in a shed.’

In the event, they would not be needed.

The first taste of battle came early in 2 Squadron’s deployment, when three of the NCOs – Sergeant John Coleman and Corporals Frank Styles and Jeff Ayles – joined B Squadron in a cross-border operation. Commanded by Major Terry Hardy, they deployed into Kalimantan with 50 British SAS soldiers at last light on 3 February, planning to attack an enemy camp at dawn. Visibility was reduced by a heavy downpour, and at 10.30 pm they stumbled into an enemy position. Coleman was with the leading troop, and they turned away quickly and began to clamber up a steep track towards a clearing. The militia opened fire with a .30-calibre machine gun. The attackers took shelter in a flimsy hut and responded but quickly retreated.

On the way out of the shelter, one patrol member threw a phosphorus grenade, but it struck an upright, rebounded and exploded. Coleman later wrote, ‘We were not in a good tactical position, with our hut burning and a few of the blokes on fire, me included.’ Pinned down, Coleman found himself ‘well alight and hurting’, while the rest of the force had departed. ‘This wasn’t the best news I’d ever received,’ he says. Major Hardy ordered distant artillery to target the camp. As the shells struck, flaming SAS operators raced for the river and jumped in. Coleman and several others joined them and drifted downstream.

When they came ashore, according to the official history, ‘It was a nightmare journey for Coleman. For two hours they crawled on hands and knees along wild pig tracks and then rested before first light. They then came across a long house which could have been a base for local [enemy] scouts and then turned sharply towards the border.’ During the morning they arrived at a Gurkha patrol camp and the first thing Coleman’s medic did was offer him a cigarette. ‘Before this I had never smoked,’ he says, ‘but with the burns and such I sucked the bloody thing inside-out and from that day to this, I smoke.’

It was the last time 2 Squadron members were part of a British force. After this, they carried out their own operations, albeit within their non-offensive limitations. This was ‘exceptionally frustrating’ to Hughes and his men. ‘We had honed our fighting skills to a very sharp edge and were unable to put them into practice,’ he says.91 Nevertheless, they did venture across the border several times early in their deployment. There were no contacts with the enemy, but the terrain itself proved a hazardous opponent. On 3 March, Lieutenant Ken ‘Rock’ Hudson led a four-man reconnaissance patrol into enemy territory and discovered footprints of what appeared to be a militia patrol. They followed the tracks until they came to the flooded Sekayan River. Hudson resisted the urgings of his men and decided against risking a crossing. On their return, Hughes backed his fellow officer. However, on 17 March they returned to the area, and on this occasion Hudson spotted what seemed to be an enemy base across the river. Though it was raining lightly, he decided to make a night crossing for a closer look.

They left their overwatch position at 3 am, with Hudson leading. When they reached the river, Hudson entered first and behind him, with each man holding the belt of the man in front, were privates Bob Moncrieff, Frank Ayling and Bruce Gabriel. The current was moving very fast, and as they waded at chest height there was a sudden fall in the riverbed that broke their hand-holds. All four were swept into the current. Ayling, a strong swimmer, found Gabriel in the darkness, and they floated about 500 metres downstream together before they were able to scramble to the bank. There was no sign of Hudson or Moncrieff.

The two survivors made their way back to their OP, and when their compatriots failed to return they headed for the emergency rendezvous, reaching it at 7.15 am. There they tried unsuccessfully to make radio contact with base before striking out for the border. They reached it at 5.30 that evening, and once again tried to call base, but without success. Finally the next morning they got through, and a helicopter arrived at midday.

Hughes was then faced with the terrible difficulty of mounting a search for his men without alerting the enemy – or indeed the world at large – that they had trespassed into Indonesian territory. This meant they could not use helicopters, fixed-wing aircraft or large ground parties in the search area. So on 23 March, Corporal Jeff Ayles, with Gabriel as his guide, took a patrol into the area. They searched for the next five days but in vain. The army released the names of the two casualties but no details of the incident at the time.

Meanwhile, on 25 May 1966 a party of senior Indonesian officers flew to Kuala Lumpur to start negotiations to end konfrontasi, and three days later orders reached British SAS headquarters in Labuan that all ‘Claret’ operations across the border were to cease immediately. On 21 July, 2 Squadron was relieved by D Squadron of 22 SAS, and five days later they flew out of Kuching for the Australian RAAF base at Butterworth. They were given a short R&R in Penang, and all were returned to Swanbourne by 15 August. By then the peace agreement had been signed between Indonesia and Malaysia.

It was the last time the British would seek to assert their military force in the region. The fading imperial ambition to regain their colonial power was finally put to rest. For Australia, it meant a recalibration of its defence ties, with the new emphasis heavily weighted towards America. And with the intervention in Vietnam turning into a major war on the Indo-Chinese Peninsula, Australia’s Special Forces would be driven very firmly into the American camp. But while Borneo had taught many valuable lessons in jungle warfare, there was still much to learn. And before they were deployed to Vietnam it became routine for the SAS to undergo a final training operation in Papua New Guinea.

There they were free of certain restrictions placed on Australian operations at the Canungra Jungle Training Centre in Queensland. Claymore mines, for example, were only detonated in strictly controlled environments on the mainland, while in Papua New Guinea they could be used in situations that more closely resembled contacts with an enemy force. Major Reg Beesley, the OC of 3 Squadron, says, ‘Some of my blokes had never seen jungle, let alone fired a shot in it, so it allowed me flexibility in regard to live firing.’

The training exercises typically involved SAS patrols of five or six men in opposition to soldiers from Papua New Guinea’s PIR in a variety of locations, not least the border with their new neighbour, Indonesia. It provided equally valuable training for the PIR soldiers and revealed a substantial military presence to any Indonesian observers. It also gave the squadron commanders the chance to gauge the quality of their men since only three of their four troops would be required for the Vietnam engagement. This was yet another factor in the recalibration of Australia’s forces to correspond with their American ally. Jim Hughes says, ‘The four troops would be in competition. First rate people got left behind but collectively they weren’t the best troop.’

Most of the SAS operators relished the training. According to a former regimental NCO, ‘Operators had to become acutely familiar with one another’s skills and idiosyncrasies to the point where they almost knew what each member was thinking. The aim [was] to hone jungle skills, acclimatize to a tropical environment but more so for each patrol member to bond.’ Lieutenant Bill Hindson says, ‘We worked up from small patrol activities to long-distance patrols. It was essential to get the patrol working together under very difficult conditions. I think eventually we came to respect one another.’

They also learnt to take advantage of all available means to get the job done. For example, when faced with a trek over mountainous country where ridges became rock climbs and the jungle between them almost impenetrable, they were not above hiring local bearers to carry their heavy packs. This was not always successful, as even the locals demurred at some of the peaks. Others accepted payment and then departed the scene.

Back in Australia, there was a further period of fine-tuning before the final selection was made. By now, according to Jim Hughes, ‘They were jumping out of their skin. They wanted to go.’ The trainers worked their men hard, determined to prepare them for combat following the old army dictum of ‘train hard, fight easy’. But accidents were inevitable and a Silver Star swimmer, Private Tom Irwin, drowned during a crossing of the Collie River.

The first to deploy would be 3 Squadron and its final training was done in and around Swanbourne under the watchful eye of its new OC, Major John Murphy, who had served with US Special Forces in Vietnam. He quickly replaced a number of Borneo veterans whom he regarded as insufficiently flexible to adapt to the new American-style regime.

After negotiations at High Command, it had been agreed that the unit would form part of the 1st Australian Task Force with 5 and 6 RAR battalions in Phuoc Tuy Province, its designated AO, in combination with the 173 US Airborne Brigade. The Australian plan was to establish a base at Nui Dat, a small, sharply rising hill about five kilometres from Baria, the provincial capital. When Murphy arrived on the afternoon of 16 June he immediately made contact with the Task Force CO, Brigadier David Jackson. Jackson approved the SAS to go into action immediately, and on 30 June five separate patrols set out through the Task Force perimeter and into hostile territory.

Now they were in a real war.

“River Raid on Korea”

Map of the American Naval Operations in Korea, 1871.

The largest-scale combat in which Leathernecks participated in the three decades following the Civil War was the Korean Expedition of 1871. On 23 May of that year, five vessels of Rear Admiral John Rodgers’s Asiatic Fleet—the frigate Colorado, sloops Alaska and Benicia, and gunboats Monocacy and Palos—entered Roze Roads on the west coast of Korea not far from Chemulpo (modern-day Inchon). Aboard Admiral Rodgers’s flagship, the Colorado, was Frederick F. Low, the U.S. minister to China, who had been sent to open diplomatic relations with the hermit kingdom of Korea. Contact was made with the local inhabitants, and on the 31st a small delegation of third- and fifth-rank Korean officials appeared. Low refused to receive them, directing his secretary to explain that the presence of first-rank officials qualified to conduct negotiations was required. In the meantime, the Koreans were informed, the Americans desired to chart the Salee River, as the channel of the Han River between Kanghwa-do (island) and the Kumpo Peninsula was then called. As the Han leads to the capital city of Seoul, the Koreans might have been expected to consider such an act provocative, American assurances of goodwill notwithstanding, but they raised no objections. Twenty-four hours were allotted for them to notify the appropriate authorities.

Accordingly, at noon on 1 June, four steam launches followed by the Monocacy and Palos set out to begin the survey. As they came abreast of the fortifications on the heights of Kanghwa-do, the Koreans opened fire. The surveying party replied with gusto, shelling the forts into silence, and returned to the fleet’s anchorage. American casualties were two men wounded.

Admiral Rodgers waited nine days for an apology or better tides. The former was not forthcoming, and on 10 June a punitive expedition entered the river with the mission of capturing and destroying the errant forts. The landing force numbered 686 officers and men, including 109 Marines organized into two little companies and a naval battery of seven 12-pounder howitzers. Fire support would be provided by the gunboats and four steam launches mounting 12-pounders in their bows. Commander L. A. Kimberly was placed in command of the landing force; Captain McLane Tilton led its Leathernecks. Tilton was one of those unconventional characters for whom the Corps has always seemed to exercise an attraction. (Writing his wife from a Mediterranean deployment, he reported that when he first went on deck each day, “If anyone asks me how are you old fellow, I reply, ‘I don’t feel very well; no gentleman is ever well in the morning.’”)

Three forts, each with a walled water-battery, overlooked the shore of Kanghwa-do. In the course of the operation, the Americans christened them the Marine Redoubt, Fort Monocacy, and The Citadel. The Monocacy took the first two under fire shortly after noon. Both had been silenced by the time the Palos appeared with the landing party’s boats in tow about an hour later. The boats cast off half a mile below the nearest fort, and at 1345 that afternoon the Bluejackets and Marines began struggling ashore across a broad, knee-deep mudflat “crossed by deep sluices,” a disgusted Tilton noted, “filled with softer and still deeper mud.” Some men left their shoes, socks, leggings, and even trouser legs behind, and the howitzers bogged down to their barrels. Fortunately, the Koreans did not attempt to oppose the landing.

The Leathernecks had been selected to serve as the expedition’s advance guard. Tilton deployed them into a skirmish line as soon as they left the boats. Once both companies reached firm ground, Commander Kimberly ordered Tilton to lead his Marines toward the fort, an elliptical stone redoubt with 12-foot walls. Most of the sailors remained behind to manhandle the guns out of the muck. On the Marines’ approach, the fort’s white-robed defenders fled, firing a few parting shots. The work mounted 54 guns, but all except two were insignificant brass breechloaders. Tilton halted his men until the main body came up, “when we were again ordered to push forward,” he wrote, “which we did, scouring the fields as far as practicable from the left of the line of march, the river being on our right, and took a position on a wooded knoll . . . commanding a fine view of the beautiful hills and inundated rice fields immediately around us.” At this point he received orders to hold for the night. It was 1630 before the guns had been dragged ashore, and too few hours of daylight remained to demolish the captured fort and tackle the next. The seamen bivouacked half a mile to the rear.

The landing force moved out at 0530 the next morning. Its fire support had been reduced by the withdrawal of the Palos, which had hurt herself on an uncharted rock while the landing was in progress, but that available from the Monocacy and the launches would prove more than sufficient. The second fort, a chipped granite structure about 90 feet square, stood on a bluff a mile upstream. Tilton’s men found it deserted. While a Marine bugler amused himself by rolling 33 little brass cannon over the bluff into the river, other members of the expedition spiked the fort’s four big guns and tore down two of its walls. The march was then resumed.

The track between the first two forts had been relatively easy going, but beyond the second it became extremely difficult, “the topography of the country being indescribable,” Tilton reported, “resembling a sort of ‘chopped sea’ of immense hills and deep ravines lying in every conceivable position.” Presently the column came under long-range musket fire from a Korean force estimated to number from 2,000 to 5,000 among some hills beyond the Americans’ left flank. Five guns supported by three companies of seamen were deployed to hold this body in check, and the remainder of the party continued its advance. On two occasions the Koreans made a rush toward the detachment, but a few artillery shells turned them back each time.

The last and strongest of the Korean fortifications, The Citadel, was a stone redoubt crowning a steep, conical hill on a peninsula some two miles upstream from its neighbor. The Monocacy and the steam launches opened fire on the Citadel at about 1100. At noon, Commander Kimberly halted his command 600 yards from the fort to give the men a breather. By that time, the parties of Koreans seen falling back on The Citadel and the forest of flags in and around it left no doubt that the position would be defended.

After signaling the Monocacy to cease fire, the storming party, 350 seamen and Marines with fixed bayonets, dashed forward to occupy a ridgeline only 120 yards from the fort. Although Tilton’s men were still armed with the model 1861 muzzle-loading Springfield rifle musket (in his words “a blasted old ‘Muzzle-Fuzzel’”), they quickly established fire superiority over the fort’s defenders, who were armed with matchlocks, a firearm that had disappeared from Western arsenals 200 years before. “The firing continued for only a few minutes, say four,” Tilton wrote, “amidst the melancholy songs of the enemy, their bearing being courageous in the extreme.”

At 1230 Lieutenant Commander Silas Casey, commanding the Bluejacket battalion, gave the order to charge. “[A]nd as little parties of our forces advanced closer and closer down the deep ravine between us,” Tilton continued, “some of [the Koreans] mounted the parapet and threw stones etc., at us, uttering the while exclamations seemingly of defiance.” The first American into The Citadel, Navy Lieutenant Hugh W. McKee, fell mortally wounded by a musket ball in the groin and a spear thrust in the side. The spearman also stabbed at Lieutenant Commander Winfield Scott Schley, who had followed close behind McKee. The point passed between Schley’s left arm and his chest, pinning his sleeve to his coat, and he shot the man dead.

Tilton was among half a dozen officers who led their men into the fort moments later. The Koreans stood their ground, and the fighting became hand to hand. Clambering over the parapet, Private Michael McNamara encountered an enemy soldier pointing a matchlock at him. He wrenched the gun from the Korean’s hands and clubbed him to death with it. Private James Dougherty closed with and killed the man the Americans identified as the commander of the Korean forces. Tilton, Private Hugh Purvis, and Corporal Charles Brown converged on The Citadel’s principal standard, a 12-foot-square yellow cotton banner emblazoned with black characters signifying “commanding general.” For five minutes the fort’s interior was a scene of desperate combat. Then the remaining defenders fled downhill toward the river, under fire from the Marines, a company of seamen, and the two howitzers that had accompanied the attackers.

A total of 143 Korean dead and wounded were counted in and around the Citadel, and Lieutenant Commander Schley, the landing force’s adjutant, estimated that another 100 had been killed in flight. Forty-seven flags and 481 pieces of ordnance, most quite small but including 27 sizable pieces—20-pounders and upward—were captured. The storming party lost three men killed and ten wounded, with a Marine private in each category. Captain Tilton was pleasantly surprised by his survival. In a letter home a few days later, he wrote, “I never expected to see my wife and baby any more, and if it hadn’t been that the Coreans [sic] can’t shoot true, I never should.” He retired as a lieutenant colonel in 1897. Nine sailors and six Marines were awarded the Medal of Honor. Among the latter were Corporal Brown and Private Purvis, who had rendezvoused with Tilton at the Citadel’s flagstaff.

The landing force reembarked early the next morning, leaving The Citadel in ruins. “Thus,” wrote Admiral Rodgers, “was a treacherous attack upon our people and an insult to our flag redressed.” Successful as it had been from a military standpoint, however, the operation was not a masterstroke of diplomacy. Subsequent communications with Korean authorities, conducted by messages tied to a pole on an island near the anchorage, were entirely unproductive, and on 3 July the fleet withdrew. A treaty with Korea was not negotiated until 1882.

Marine Amphibious Landing in Korea, 1871




Lone Survivor is an American war film written and directed by Peter Berg. Based on the 2007 nonfiction book of the same title by former Navy SEAL Marcus Luttrell (co-authored with Patrick Robinson), the film dramatizes a failed U.S. Navy SEALs counterinsurgency mission in Afghanistan that turned into a desperate struggle for survival.


On 27 June 2005, in the fourth year of the U.S. war in Afghanistan, the U.S. military launched Operation Red Wings, an attempt to capture or neutralize Ahmad Shah (1970–2008), a dangerous Taliban leader. The operation involved first inserting a four-man Navy SEAL reconnaissance and surveillance team into Shah’s home territory, the Korangal Valley, to locate him. Unfortunately the mission quickly went awry when the SEALs ran into local herdsmen, who alerted the Taliban to their presence. The team was subsequently ambushed and all were killed—except for USN Petty Officer 2nd Class Marcus Luttrell, who was eventually rescued, but not before another eight SEALs and eight Army Airborne SOAR troopers died trying to reach the battle site when their helicopter was shot down by the Taliban. Avid to publish his own account of the disastrous mission, he hired a lawyer and searched for a ghost writer. Luttrell’s lawyer connected him with Ed Victor, literary agent to the stars, who also represented Patrick Robinson, a 66-year-old British novelist specializing in maritime thrillers, including novels about Navy SEALs. After Luttrell hired Robinson, the two men met four times at Robinson’s summer home on Cape Cod to hash out Luttrell’s story. According to Motoko Rich, “Between visits Mr. Robinson, who never used a taped recorder, typed chapters on his computer, adding researched material and filling in facts that Mr. Luttrell couldn’t remember but that could be corroborated from other sources. The core of the book—the battle and the rescue—relied entirely on Mr. Luttrell’s memory” (Rich, 2007). Over a four-month period Robinson produced a 135,000-word manuscript, the U.S. Navy reviewed and approved it as accurate, and then Robinson and Luttrell met with five publishers in New York to pitch the book. In an auction Little, Brown and Company won the contract for a seven-figure advance and rushed the book into production. Meanwhile Luttrell returned to active duty and shipped out to Iraq as part of Navy SEAL Team Five during Operation Iraqi Freedom—until further injuries forced his medical discharge from military service on 7 June 2007. Five days later, Little, Brown and Company published Lone Survivor: The Eyewitness Account of Operation Redwing [sic] and the Lost Heroes of SEAL Team 10. Showcased on NBC’s The Today Show and touted by right-wing media pundits Glenn Beck and Michelle Malkin, Lone Survivor went on to become a national bestseller. Motoko Rich’s aforementioned review was laudatory, but Rich went on to note, “Along with the tragic story about how Mr. Luttrell lost his comrades, the book is spiked with unabashed braggadocio and patriotism, as well as several polemical passages lashing out at the ‘liberal media’ for its role in sustaining military rules of engagement that prevent soldiers from killing unarmed civilians who may also be scouts or informers for terrorists.” After it reached No. 1 on bestseller charts, Lone Survivor touched off a second bidding war in August 2007, this time between Universal, Warner Bros., DreamWorks, and Sony for the film rights, which Universal won, buying the property for $2 million up front, plus 5 percent against adjusted gross in a deal brokered by Ed Victor and Hollywood super-lawyer Alan U. Schwartz of Greenberg Traurig. Eager to make Lone Survivor, Peter Berg (Friday Night Lights) secured a deal with Universal by agreeing to direct Battleship (2012), a big budget sci-fi film that turned out to be a critically panned box office bomb. Berg also agreed to direct Lone Survivor for the minimum fee allowed by the Director’s Guild of America (DGA) and convinced his principal actors—Mark Wahlberg, Taylor Kitsch, Emile Hirsch, Ben Foster, and Eric Bana—to work for reduced pay. Berg wrote the screen adaptation of Lone Survivor in close consultation with Marcus Luttrell, whom he had cultivated early on.


The 42-day shoot on Lone Survivor took place in October and November 2012 in New Mexico to take advantage of a 25 percent state tax credit. The initial eight days of filming occurred at locations in the Sangre de Cristo Mountains of Santa Fe National Forest—mountains ranging from 11,000 to 12,000 feet that doubled for mountains in the Hindu Kush between Afghanistan and Pakistan. Production then moved to Chilili, New Mexico, for two weeks, where wooded areas were used to film several battle scenes. Berg’s art department built sets to simulate an Afghan village occupied by Ahmad Shah’s Taliban insurgents, as well as the Pashtun village where Luttrell is finally rescued. The shoot then moved to Kirtland AFB in Albuquerque, which doubled for scenes set at Bagram Airfield in Afghanistan. The shoot wrapped up on sound stages at I-25 Studios in Albuquerque for bluescreen work and interior scenes (e.g., Gulab’s house and Bagram Airfield’s patrol base Camp Ouellette). Peter Berg’s director of photography, Tobias Schliessler, shot the film using Red Epic digital cameras and Fujinon and Angénieux lenses. Marcus Luttrell and several other Navy SEAL veterans were on set throughout the production as technical advisors, while multiple branches of the U.S. military lent their support.

Plot Summary

In Afghanistan, Taliban leader Ahmad Shah (Yousuf Azami) is the man behind the destruction of over 20 American Marines, along with villagers and refugees who assisted the U.S. troops. A U.S. Navy SEAL team is tasked with capturing Shah. Four SEALs are dispatched to locate their target: team leader Michael P. “Murph” Murphy (Taylor Kitsch), snipers Marcus Luttrell (Mark Wahlberg) and Matthew “Axe” Axelson (Ben Foster), and communications specialist Danny Dietz (Emile Hirsch). The team is dropped into the Hindu Kush region of Afghanistan but soon encounters communications problems, which will plague the mission. When they arrive at their rendezvous point, the SEALs are spotted by a shepherd (Zarin Rahimi) and two young goat herders (Rohan Chand and Daniel Arroyo). After talking it over, the team decides not to kill the shepherd and herders and to abort their mission for the time being. However, as they turn back, Taliban fighters discover them and open fire. The team kills some of the attackers, but is quickly outnumbered. All four SEALs are wounded during the firefight, and they are forced to jump from a cliff into a ravine to escape the insurgents. They survive and press on through the woods in retreat. Dietz, near delirious due to his wounds, begins shouting and gives away the unit’s position. The Taliban forces shoot and kill him. Murphy attempts to scale the cliff to find a phone signal to radio for support, and he successfully makes a call for backup before being killed by the Taliban fighters. After receiving Murphy’s call, a rescue team is put in place and takes two CH-47 Chinook helicopters to the SEALs’ location. During the attempted rescue, Taliban fighters gun down one of the helicopters, killing all on board. The second helicopter is forced to turn back without Luttrell and Axelson. Axelson dies attempting to find cover, and when the Taliban find Luttrell, a fighter fires a rocket-propelled grenade (RPG). Luttrell is blasted into a rock crevice, where he takes shelter. He submerges himself in a small pond, and when he surfaces, he is greeted by a local Pashtun villager, Mohammad Gulab (Ali Suliman), who takes Luttrell in and hides him while a fellow villager travels to an American air base for help. In the meantime, Taliban fighters come for Luttrell, but the villagers come to his aid. American troops arrive in helicopters, decimate the Taliban, and evacuate Luttrell back to base. The film ends with a four-minute montage, showing images of the real-life Marcus Luttrell, Mohammad Gulab, and the 19 U.S. soldiers who died during the mission. An epilogue states that the Pashtun locals assisted Luttrell as part of their code of honor.


Lone Survivor premiered at the AFI Film Festival in Los Angeles on 12 November 2013 and went into wide release on 10 January 2014. The movie proved to a box office hit; during its 17-week domestic run (widest release: 3,285 theaters), Lone Survivor grossed $125 million. Foreign ticket sales totaled $29.7 million, making for a total gross of $154.8 million. Reviews were, however, mixed, and some, like David Edelstein’s, were highly critical. Edelstein especially faulted Peter Berg for not widening the geopolitical perspective: “The film doesn’t link the absence of air support and the near-total failure of communication in the mountains to an administration that diverted personnel and precious resources from Afghanistan to the catastrophic occupation of Iraq, leaving men like Luttrell with a tragically impossible job. Nor does it suggest that one reason good guys like Luttrell and his team had such a difficult time winning ‘hearts and minds’ was that at places like Bagram … prisoners were being tortured to death by U.S. interrogators in the service of Dick Cheney’s ‘Dark Side’ manifesto. Instead, Berg leads you to the conclusion that these Americans were just too good, too true, too respectful. Luttrell’s operation—and his team’s lives—might have been saved if they’d summarily executed three passing goat-herders rather than following the Rules of Engagement … Lone Survivor is a brutally effective movie, made by people who think that they’re serving their country. But they’re just making us coarser and more self-centered. They’re perpetuating the kind of propaganda that sent the heroes of Seal Team 10 to their deaths” (Edelstein, 2014).

Reel History Versus Real History

According to Ed Darrack, author of Victory Point: Operations Red Wings and Whalers—the Marine Corps’ Battle for Freedom in Afghanistan (2009), Patrick Robinson’s book, Lone Survivor, contains some serious inaccuracies, omissions, and exaggerations. Darrack writes, “The (very gripping, yet extraordinarily unrealistic) narrative of a small special operations team inserted on a lonely mountain to not just surveil, but to take down the operations of one of Osama bin Laden’s top men—who had hundreds of fighters with him—continued to propagate throughout the media” (Darrack, 2011, p. 62). In an exhaustively researched series of articles at their website, Michael and Eric Cummings detail the film’s numerous falsehoods. Early in the movie, Axelson (Ben Foster) claims that Ahmad Shah killed 20 Marines in the week before Operation Red Wings, but official casualty records show that the United States did not lose 20 Marines during that period. In the film, Marcus Luttrell literally dies of his wounds and is resuscitated by medics. In his book, Luttrell recalls that he was not in mortal danger when rescued but “reported stable and unlikely to die” (p. 352). The movie depicts Luttrell as having Ahmad Shah in his gunsights at one point. In the book, Luttrell and the SEALs never see Shah, much less aim at him. In the film, Shah’s lieutenant, Taraq (Sammy Sheik) comes to the village, grabs Luttrell, and is about to behead him when he is driven off at the last minute by the local villagers firing their AK-47s. In reality, none of this happened; a wounded Luttrell was beaten by Taliban fighters but not threatened with beheading. In the film, Luttrell withstands excruciating pain when he extracts a bullet from his own leg with a knife. This never happened; in reality the bullet went through and through. The movie ends with the villagers of Kandish fending off a massive Taliban attack. The prosaic reality is that there was no attack and ensuing firefight; to scare the villagers, the Taliban merely fired into the air because they couldn’t afford to lose their support. In the film, during the final (mythical) battle in the village, Marcus Luttrell stabs a Taliban attacker with a knife. In a radio interview with NPR host Rachel Martin, Luttrell admitted that he “didn’t kill anybody with a knife. And I remember sitting back and laughing. I go why did you put that in there? What does that have to do with anything? I mean, the story itself, I think, is enough to where you wouldn’t have to embellish anything” (NPR’s Weekend Edition Sunday, 12 Jan. 2014). In the scene melding with the attack on the village, the American military arrives with gunships routing the Taliban and airborne troopers descending from helicopters. In reality, Luttrell’s rescue was far less cinematic; U.S. Army Rangers found him in the forest, walking back to the village with Gulab.