July 3, 1943, Kastelli Airbase, Crete

Mission accomplished. Reconnaissance photo from the German Federal Archive, showing Kastelli Airbase, Crete, the target of Lassen’s devastating June 1943 raid. Damaged aircraft lie scattered about the airfield.

Major Anders Lassen MC and two bars, VC, discussing the forthcoming Lake Comacchio raid, in which he and his men were tasked to cross impossible terrain, so spearheading the Allied breakthrough in Northern Italy.

The goats wandered across the dry, dusty terrain nibbling here and there at whatever vegetation they could find. Ahead of them loomed the wire-mesh fence of the German airbase. A low bush still possessing some succulent greenery grew right on the fence line. It drew the hungriest animals. To get to the highest branches they had to stand on their hind legs, forehooves resting on the wire itself.

Two figures followed in the animals’ wake. They were dressed like local goatherds, wrapped in traditional loose, dirty-gray robes and shawls. As they tried to restrain the animals, pulling them back from the wire without much success, a pair of Junkers Ju-87s landed on the airstrip, the roar of their propellers drowning out the goatherds’ cries to their animals.

The two men eyed the hated Stuka dive-bombers, whose Jericho-Trompete screaming sirens could strike terror into even the most hardened of operators. There were six further Ju-87s sitting on the runway, plus a handful of the larger Ju-88 Schnellbombers—Hitler’s much-vaunted warplanes.

No doubt about it, Kastelli Airbase was getting busy. Along with the handful of sleek Messerschmitt fighter planes and Storch reconnaissance aircraft that also dotted the runway, there were a plethora of juicy targets to choose from.

As the roar of the Stukas died away, from somewhere inside the airbase a voice yelled out a challenge in German. A guard had spotted the goats clambering on the perimeter fence. He started pounding on the wire with his rifle butt.

“Hey! You there! Get your animals off! Schnell! Schnell! Get them off!”

Beneath their disguises, Anders Lassen, a Dane by birth, but now fighting with Britain’s Special Forces, and Nereanos Georgios, his Greek resistance-fighter guide, stiffened. Unlike Georgios, Lassen was a fluent German speaker and could understand every word—but both men tried to act as if they were entirely ignorant of the meaning.

Lassen fingered the Luger pistol he had tucked under his robes, flicking the safety catch to “off.” While Georgios could easily pass as the local that he was, Lassen’s straw-blond hair and piercing blue eyes would be a dead giveaway if the German guard got close enough to get a proper look at them.

“Get your damn goats off the wire!” the German yelled again. “Get out of here! Or I’ll shoot!”

It had seemed like a good idea to use the goatherd cover to do a close reconnaissance of the airfield, but Lassen hadn’t taken into account the innate stubbornness of the animals, especially when they were hungry. As he and Georgios used their sticks to beat the animals back, the German guard seemed suddenly to grow more suspicious.

“Kommen Sie hierher!”—come here. “Kommen Sie hierher!”

Lassen’s grip on his weapon tightened, but it was then that Georgios took the initiative. He splayed his hands in a helpless gesture.

“We don’t understand!” he shouted back at the guard, in Greek. “We don’t understand!”

The guard raised his rifle angrily and mimed shooting the goats. Then he switched his gun sights across to the two men. The message couldn’t be clearer: get the hell out of here. Lassen figured they’d seen enough. Together the two men dragged the last of the animals off the fence and beat them back with their sticks.

The guard gave them a long, lingering scowl before continuing with whatever were his duties.

“Perfect,” Lassen muttered, as soon as they were out of earshot. “The fence isn’t electrified.”

As they drove the herd farther away, he took an odd, surreptitious glance at the wider fortifications surrounding the airbase. The nearest guard tower—a wooden structure built up to a height of around fifty feet—had a searchlight peeping out between the outer posts, one that could be operated by those manning the tower.

“See that,” Lassen whispered. “Searchlights all face outward.”

Georgios flashed him a look. “Perfect to see us coming. How does that help?”

Lassen’s mouth offered a thin smile, but there was no corresponding warmth in his eyes. There was only the ever-present, visceral hatred of the German enemy, plus the wide-eyed, wired stare of a man burning through the Benzedrine. Benzedrine—more commonly known as “bennies”—is a powerful amphetamine. Ever since they’d landed on this Greek island, Lassen had been handing out the pills like Smarties. It was the Benzedrine that was keeping him and his men going.

“It means we can go about our work unseen,” Lassen muttered. “Once we’re on the airfield—”

“That’s if we get as far as the airfield,” Georgios cut in.

“Don’t worry,” Lassen countered, his Danish accent still evident. “Ve vill get there.”

From the skies to the east a faint, juddering beat drifted on the air. It grew into a powerful rhythmic roar as an aircraft approached. Over the far end of the airbase, for a brief moment, three silhouettes hung in the air almost as if they were floating. But within seconds they were thundering toward where Lassen and Georgios were standing.

“More Schnellbombers!” Lassen hissed, excitedly. “First the Stukas and now these! They must be clearing Heraklion.”

The flight of Junkers-88s thundered low overhead, the sheer power of their twin BMW engines coupled with the sensation of the downdraft scattering the goats. The Schnellbomber had been designed to fly too fast for Allied fighters to intercept or shoot it down and had proved to be one of the most versatile aircraft in the war. Known in the Luftwaffe as “Die Mädchen für Alles”—the Maid of all Work—the Ju-88 was used as a bomber, a night fighter, a heavy fighter, a reconnaissance aircraft, and even as a torpedo bomber.

Recently, the Schnellbombers had been used in that latter role from Crete, flying antisubmarine and antiship patrols, searching for any Allied vessels that might be lurking in the Mediterranean. As Lassen and his men had been dropped at the start of this operation by a British warship operating under the very noses of the Germans, taking out those Schnellbombers would be a delicious irony.

Lassen let out a wild laugh. “It’s all here! Looks like Holmes and his lot’ll be attacking empty runways and hangars!”

Dozens of miles across the German-occupied island of Crete lay Heraklion Airbase—the target for a sister group of raiders, led by Ken Lamonby and Dick Holmes. Holmes was Lassen’s arch-rival in D Squadron, their Special Forces unit, and the Dane thrilled to the idea that Holmes might arrive at Heraklion to find no targets to strike.

Two hours later, he and Georgios made it to the bare and sun-blasted ridgeline lying high above the airbase. They’d left the goats with one of Georgios’s brothers at a prearranged rendezvous, where they’d also dumped their local dress.

On seeing them, Ray Jones, who was lying in a hidden sentry position, called out the coded challenge: “GARAJ!”

“SLAVE!” Lassen replied.

As with everything, they kept it simple: the code words were made up from the first few letters of the men’s name and rank. There were five raiders on the Kastelli mission—Georgios included—so it was simple enough to remember five code words based upon such easy details. Recently, they’d been ordered by Raiding Force Headquarters to resort to a more complex and arguably unbreakable code system, but as with most things, Lassen liked to keep it idiot-proof. He gave those orders he disagreed with the scant attention they deserved.

Lassen and Georgios rejoined the main body of men, who were lying up in the shade of a patch of rocky scrub just outside the entrance to their cave. All apart from Jones were feverishly busy constructing the tools for the coming nighttime attack. Mostly these were Lewes bombs—a do-it-yourself blast-incendiary explosive made by mixing diesel oil with “Nobel 808,” a plastic explosive, plus thermite, a metal-based gunpowder.

It was Lieutenant Jock Lewes, one of Special Air Service (SAS) founder David Stirling’s stalwarts, who had invented the Lewes bomb. Stirling’s men had needed a device light enough to carry into the field, yet powerful enough to damage and set fire to aircraft. Placed within a small canvas bag, the Lewes bomb could be hidden inside a cockpit or on a wing, in close proximity to the fuel tanks, so as to ignite the aviation fuel—which was exactly how Lassen and his men intended to use them tonight.

Lassen squatted down among his band of fighters. He grabbed a half-eaten K Ration pack and pulled out some hard biscuits. While the rest of the British Army was issued with the so-called British Compo Rations, Lassen had managed to finagle some of the US Army paratroopers’ K Rations for his men. Far lighter and more portable than Compo, they were borderline edible and provided just enough energy and calories to keep a soldier going in the field.

Of course, Lassen was largely fueling himself with the Benzedrine, but he needed something solid in his guts with tonight’s mission almost upon them. He started to sketch a map of the airbase, describing in a series of sharp, staccato sentences what he and Georgios had found. His eyes were wide and staring, and his men could sense the blood lust that was coursing through his veins. For all of them, the thought of blowing that airbase to smithereens was a delicious one—only with Lassen, it was the idea of killing Germans that really got his blood pumping.

“We keep it simple,” Lassen declared. “We go in tonight and cut the perimeter wire. There will be good cloud cover. Little moonlight. Nicholson and Greaves, you move in from the east and hit the fuel and ammo dumps. Jones—you and me go in from the west and we hit as many aircraft as we can. We go through the wire at 0100 hours. We should be in there for no more than twenty minutes. Set the timers for 0200 hours so we get a good distance away before it blows.”

“But what about me?” It was Georgios.

“Go back to your village,” Lassen told him. “Go back home.”

“But I can fight!”

“Not tonight. Not with us. When the base blows, we run like the wind. You do not want to be with us. Anyway, the Germans may try to take revenge. Go back and make your people ready.”

In spite of his cold-blooded demeanor, Lassen had a real affinity with the locals, and especially the women—the dark-eyed, raven-haired beauties of this captivating Greek island. He shared a common bond with the Cretans, who nurtured a level of hatred of the German enemy as deep as his own.

“But I want to fight,” Georgios insisted. “I am resistance fighter. I want to fight. The Germans, they already have killed many of my people.”

Lassen’s voice softened. “Go back where you are needed. Protect your family. Trust me, we could not have come this far without you.”

“But when you run, you will need guide,” Georgios argued. “You get nowhere without me. You attack, I attack. You go in, I go in. You come out, I show you the way.”

“Andy, Georgios is right,” Sergeant Jack Nicholson cut in. “We’ll be screwed on the way out without him.”

“All right,” Lassen relented. “Georgios, you go with Nicholson and Greaves. But stay outside the perimeter wire to guide us out again.”

“Yes!” The Cretan’s fist punched the air. “Andy, we will fight like the brothers!”

“What’s the plan if things go wrong?” Nicholson asked. “What if we’re spotted on our approach under the searchlights? Or once we’re on the base setting the charges?”

Lassen’s killer stare returned. “No one is going to get seen during the approach.” He was silent for a beat. “Make sure of that. And if we are spotted once on the airbase, blow it all to hell and get moving. You all know the emergency RV?”

Lassen reached into his pocket and pulled out a crumpled map. He took a pencil and tried to scribble “Rendezvous” on their agreed emergency rallying point should they get split up. But English wasn’t his first language, nor spelling his strongest suit. He tried again, scrubbed it out in frustration, and scrawled one word in capitals: “MEAT”

“Got it?” he queried.

There were a series of grunts in the affirmative.

“If any one of us does not make the RV, we do not go back for him. Understood?”

Again, the grunts of agreement.

Lassen nodded. “Good. Now the fight.”

The night trek to the airbase went without a hitch. The four raiders were dressed in “light order,” carrying only their day sacks stuffed with Lewes bombs, and armed with pistols, grenades, and knives. They’d left their heavier tommy guns and German Schmeisser machine guns behind—the key with such a mission being able to move fast and unseen. They’d never win a stand-up firefight with the enemy, who tonight numbered some two hundred mixed German and Italian troops.

Instead, the aim was to be in and out like ghosts.

At around five hundred yards out from the airbase, Lassen’s group split from Nicholson’s, the latter skirting southward through a vineyard toward the humped, blocky silhouette of the fuel dump. Lassen led Jones toward the airstrip, dropping to a cat-crawl as they emerged from the cover of the vines a couple of hundred feet short of the wire. A searchlight swept the night, the sentries on the nearest tower staring into the thin beam that probed the sea of darkness around them.

For an instant, the blinding spear of light seemed to pierce Lassen and Jones, pinning them to the ground. The two raiders burrowed on their bellies into the dry dirt and the sparse, scrubby undergrowth as they tried to escape the searchlight’s pitiless glare. Being trapped under that intense illumination was spine chilling, especially as there wasn’t a scrap of real cover anywhere around.

After several tense seconds, the light moved on, and Lassen urged Jones forward. The Dane reckoned it was movement that drew the eyes of the guards, so if they made like statues whenever the light swept past, no one would detect their presence.

The next time the searchlight swung around, he and Jones froze in their tracks, and after a tense moment the beam of light continued its steady sweep across the hillside. As they pushed ahead, Lassen was trying to keep his natural exuberance in check. He was never happier than when on the hunt, especially stalking much-sought-after prey.

He’d been this way since he was a small boy, when he’d tracked deer with a bow and arrow on his parents’ grand country estate, hunting silently and swiftly. But now his native Denmark was occupied by the German enemy, the Danish people—his family among them—crushed under the heel of the Nazi jackboot, just like the Cretans.

It fed his hatred of the Nazis and fueled his lust for revenge.

Finally, he and Jones reached the wire. A hundred yards or so to their south, Lassen could make out the skeletal form of the main gate, with one of the six guard towers rearing above it. A match flared in the thick darkness, betraying where a sentry was positioned atop it. The flame was passed between the guards as each lit a cigarette, forming four pinpricks of fiery orange as they puffed away.

In the glow of the flaring match, Lassen had caught the gunmetal-blue form of a Maschinengewehr 42, the German’s fearsome “Spandau” general-purpose machine gun. A belt-fed 7.92mm weapon, it could put down a stunning volume of suppressive fire. They’d better hope the sentries were less than alert, for Lassen’s men were going in with a few pistols and knives and two dozen Lewes bombs between them.

For a few seconds, Lassen and Jones scanned the terrain to their front. The squat forms of the Stukas were some two hundreds yards away, separated from them only by the wire. So near and yet so far.

As their eyes probed the darkness, Lassen spotted a pair of sentries executing a foot patrol past the line of aircraft. The enemy had pitched tents on the mown grass that lined the runway so they could camp out under canvas and keep permanent guard on their warplanes. Clearly, they had men standing permanent watch over the aircraft in addition to those positioned in the guard towers.

The sentries out on foot had their weapons slung over their shoulders, but Lassen could sense that they were alert and on task. He knew the Germans to be professional and motivated fighters, as opposed to their Italian comrades, who tended not to have their heart in the fight. It would be well not to underestimate them.

Lassen put two fingers to his eyes, then pointed toward the foot sentries and held up two fingers—indicating to Jones where to look and the number of the nearest enemy. By the silent nod he got in return, he figured Jones had seen them. On Lassen’s signal, Jones reached up to the fence with a pair of wire cutters and began to snip the strands, slicing through a section up to about three feet in height.

He forced it apart and was just reaching higher when from out of the darkness to their right a match flared again. This was much closer. The flame revealed a sentry who had paused to light up. It looked as if they had guards out walking the wire on perimeter patrols—a third layer of security.

Lassen and Jones went to ground, forcing their faces deeper into the dry dirt. The sentry paced closer along the fence line, and for some reason he chose to pause right opposite where the raiders had cut their hole in the wire. Perhaps he had heard them doing so, the sharp snips of the wire cutters carrying far in the still darkness.

Lassen cursed under his breath.

They’d “blacked up” earlier, using first camouflage cream and then a burned cork to smear their faces, but that wouldn’t hide the whites of their eyes. The sentry took a long drag of his cigarette and exhaled. The June night was balmy, and the soldier seemed in no hurry to move. Quite the opposite: his attention seemed glued to the section of fencing that Lassen and Jones had just been cutting.

If the two raiders didn’t get going soon, Nicholson’s team would already have set their charges, and Lassen and Jones would be caught on the runway as the ammo and fuel dumps blew. Without a sound, Lassen slid out of his backpack and reached for the fence. Moving like a cat, his lithe, wiry form wriggled through the narrow hole, the handle of his heavy stiletto fighting knife gripped in his right hand.

He rose into a crouch and flitted through the darkness toward the sentry. Once, during training with fellow Special Duty recruits in Scotland, Lassen had stalked and killed a deer with his knife. Those who had watched him were amazed at his hunting prowess. It was a large stag, and he and fellow trainees had feasted on its flesh for days. Lassen possessed an uncanny ability to creep up undetected on just about any kind of prey and to kill it with his bare hands.

He came up silently behind the sentry. In one swift move he slipped his left arm around the neck and mouth in a savage chokehold, blocking off any possibility of a cry, jerking the chin upward and to the left at the same moment. Simultaneously, his right arm came around in a savage thrust, sinking the blade of his fighting knife up to the hilt through the man’s neck, before punching forward to slice through the artery.

For several seconds Lassen gripped the stricken figure in a vice-like hold, waiting for the life to drain out of him before lowering his body to the blood-soaked dirt. An instant later, he was back beside the fence, the dead man’s submachine gun slung across his bloodied shoulder. He crouched low and leaned all his weight on the wire, widening the narrow hole for Jones.

“Come on! Let’s go!”

By now Lassen had killed enough Germans at close quarters that another death wasn’t exactly going to damn his soul. But the first time he’d killed a man with a knife, he had found it difficult. A year earlier, during a raid on the Channel island of Sark, he’d knifed to death a lone German sentry.

He’d written in his diary about it: “The hardest and most difficult thing I have ever done.”

A lot had happened since then.

Jones wriggled through. Together, the two men moved ahead at a low crouch, sticking to the darkest shadows. They skirted past the dead sentry, his body lying in a pool of thickening blood, before coming up at the rear of a hangar with an attached barracks block. Inside, it was a hum of chatter and laughter, as the aircrew, technicians, aviators, and guards enjoyed a little downtime. It was a Saturday night, and no doubt their minds had drifted to thoughts of loved ones back home.

Lassen led Jones around the side of the block, keeping away from the light. To the front was another machine gun, this one positioned in a sandbagged bunker, the gun facing outward to protect the aircraft at its back. Lassen eyed the planes hungrily.

Not far now.

Jones reached for a second line of fencing, one that segregated the airstrip itself from the rest of the base. The wire was thicker here, offering more resistance, but they had to cut a passage through. The only other way in was via the main gate, and no way did Lassen want to have to bluff his way past that.

Straining with the effort, Jones snipped the first few strands of wire. Beside him, Lassen used his hands to pull up the cut ends and bend them backward, forming a hole just big enough to crawl through. With his purloined German machine gun covering Jones, Lassen waved the man on. Only when Jones had reached the far side did Lassen slide his gun under and wriggle through himself.

With Lassen in a crouch and covering him, Jones knelt to twist together the wire in a makeshift fix, just as he’d done at the outer fence. At first glance no one would notice that it had been cut.

They were at least two hundred yards inside the base by now, and practically in among the aircraft. As Jones worked feverishly at closing the wire, Lassen felt certain they would be spotted. With so many sentries posted on the airstrip, it was going to be nigh-impossible to flit unseen among the airframes.

After what seemed like an age, Jones turned away from the wire and gave a thumbs-up. Lassen breathed out a sigh of relief. For a few seconds he kept watch, tuning his senses to the rhythm of the German sentries on duty. Once he had a feel for the pace of their march, he was ready.

Using hand signals, he sent Jones to his left to deal with the aircraft on the near side. He would move ahead right to plant his charges on the second rank of Stukas. But then, under the glare of a distant floodlight Lassen spotted a more remote but juicier target. On the grass beyond the Stukas, he could just make out the form of a twin-engine Junkers-88 Schnellbomber.

Lassen’s pace quickened. Painted on the side of the sleek fighter-bomber was a white square bisected by a black cross, marking it out as an aircraft of the hated Luftwaffe. The insignia shone out in the darkness, drawing Lassen to it like a moth to a candle flame.

He glanced left and right as he steeled himself for a dash through the open. The sentries were nearing the end of their patrol leg, whereupon they’d do an about-turn and come around to face him. In the few seconds remaining, Lassen darted forward. He scuttled across the bare brightness of the grass strip running alongside the runway, trying as far as possible to keep under cover and out of view.

The next moment, he pounded onto an open stretch of pavement, his felt-soled boots passing silently over the unyielding surface before he darted onto the grass on the far side. One last dash and he slipped into the cover of the larger aircraft—moments before the first of the sentries turned. They were no more than two hundred yards away and nearing the ends of the runway—which meant Lassen and Jones had just minutes in which to complete their task.

Lassen glanced left, confirming what he suspected—that this was the first in a row of six Ju-88s. He clambered up the steel ladder set against the aircraft’s flank and from there slid onto the wing.

Lassen inched ahead on his belly, the knapsack held before him, his hands crabbing about inside for two Lewes bombs and a timer. This being a big old bird, he wanted to make doubly sure that he’d blow it sky high. He’d noted how closely the Ju-88s were parked. If he could just get the fuel tank of this one to go up, it should ignite the next and the next, like a row of falling dominoes.

Hands working feverishly, he slid the two bombs into position, shoving the same fuse into both of them. That done, he turned to eye the nearest sentry, whose hobnail boots he could hear clicking their way back toward his position. Lassen was now lying on the Junkers’ wing facing back the way he’d come, with Jones in front of him.

Lassen watched his fellow raider freeze as he heard the approaching footsteps, then press himself down onto the wing of his chosen Stuka. Each man was carrying several more charges that they’d yet to lay, and they forced themselves to remain motionless as the sentry approached. Unfortunately, like most of the men in his unit, Jones was a compulsive smoker, and as the lead sentry moved forward he let out a stifled cough.

The sentry stiffened. He turned to glance in Jones’s direction. “Friedrich? Friedrich?”

The sentry stared at Jones’s Stuka for a long moment. Jones was doing his best to force his body into the hard steel of the wing, but it was slick with the first drops of dew, and he was sick with worry that he was going to slip and fall.

“Friedrich?” the sentry called again, more insistent this time.

He slipped the rifle off his shoulder, flicking the safety to off and leveling it at the hip. Keeping it there, he reached into his pocket for his flashlight.

As he did so, a silent figure sprinted along the wing of the Schellbomber, sailed thought the air, and landed with a crushing impact on the German’s shoulders. Even as he hit the deck, Lassen jerked the sentry’s head up and to the left with one hand, the other driving his fighting knife into the man’s throat, forcing it savagely downward.

As he’d fallen, the sentry’s rifle had clattered to the ground, making a harsh metallic crack as the barrel hit the concrete.

His fellow sentry stiffened in alarm. He called out, voice thick with alarm. “Oli? Oli?”

The dying man gurgled horribly as he fought against Lassen’s hold. Moments later, Lassen rose to his feet, the dead man’s rifle gripped in his hand.

“Hey! Friedrich! It’s me!” He was speaking fluent German. “Like a fool I tripped over my own weapon.”

“Dummkopf!” The sentry laughed, but there was a nervous edge to his laughter. Maybe he’d noticed that Lassen didn’t exactly sound like the Oli he knew. “I thought maybe there was trouble?”

“Only my two left feet,” Lassen replied.

He shouldered the rifle and moved forward as if continuing with his patrol. They were a dozen paces apart when Lassen saw the sentry falter, and his hand go toward his weapon. In one smooth movement Lassen drew his Luger and fired, unleashing one sharp shot from the hip, using the weapon Shanghai style, as he’d been taught in their “school for bloody mayhem and murder.” The bullet struck the guard full in the chest, perfectly aimed to drill his heart.

As the echoes of the shot faded, Lassen heard a muffled cry of alarm from the machine gun nest a couple of hundred yards away. He sprinted through the darkness toward Jones as the gunner called for a searchlight to sweep the airstrip in the direction from which the lone shot had come.

A searchlight fingered the darkness. Confused shots rang out across the airbase as nervous guards loosed off at shadows. None of the fire yet seemed to be directed at Lassen and Jones, but it was clear that their mission was blown. The Germans would send a search party to look for Oli and Friedrich; two missing sentries wasn’t something to be ignored.

Lassen ran over to Jones, who was crouched in a dark slice of shadow beneath one of the Stukas. “Change of plan,” he hissed. “Get as many aircraft rigged with charges as you can. We need a distraction to cover us, so we can get the hell out of here. Leave that to me . . . And if we get split up, see you at the RV.”

Without another word, Lassen turned and moved at a crouching run toward the barracks building. Jones scuttled off toward the remaining aircraft. As the Dane neared the barracks end of the runway, a barrier lifted in the fence line, and a Kübelwagen—a German open-topped jeep-like vehicle—nosed through. It was loaded with four soldiers, presumably those who had come to investigate the lone shot and the two missing sentries.

Lassen slipped into the shadow of the last Stuka in line. He waited for the vehicle, his right arm gripping a grenade with the pin already removed. He was known for being a “grenade man”—he loved the weapon, and he never missed a chance to use it. As the Kübelwagen neared the first of the dive-bombers, he let out a cry in German.

“Idiots! Sentry change isn’t for another thirty minutes!”

The Kübelwagen slowed, and Lassen stepped forward and threw the grenade. It arced through the air, landing in the rear of the open-topped jeep. An instant later, a savage blast tore through the vehicle, jagged shards of shrapnel ripping apart its thin metal skin and human occupants alike. The Kübelwagen kept rolling for a few seconds, as the flames engulfing it fizzed and boiled, before coming to rest hanging half in the shallow drainage ditch running beside the runway.

Before the vehicle had stopped, Lassen was running for the nearest machine gun nest, crying out: “Partisans! Schnell! Schnell! Schnell!”

The machine gunner swung his weapon around toward Lassen, but the yelled German words made him hesitate for just an instant. In that moment Lassen fired with the Luger from the hip, three bullets spitting out of the weapon in rapid succession and smashing into the German gunner. It was a classic “double-tap”—two to the body and one to the head, as he’d been taught—the gunner slumping forward over his weapon.

An instant later, Lassen vaulted into the machine-gun nest, heaving the dead man to one side. In one smooth move, he swung the Maschinengewehr 42 around, and opened fire with the belt-fed 7.92mm weapon.

As he did so, all hell broke out across Kastelli airfield.

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USN VIRGINIA CLASS SUBMARINE Part II

Sailors assigned to the submarine tender USS FRANK CABLE’s (AS 40) weapons department stabilise a MK48 torpedo during a weapons onload. FRANK CABLE is one of two forward-deployed submarine tenders in the US 7th Fleet area of operations and conducts maintenance and support of deployed US naval force submarines and surface vessels in the Indo-Asia-Pacific region.

Torpedoes

Lockheed Martin’s Mk-48 heavyweight torpedo was introduced into the US Navy (USN) in 1972 and remains the primary ASuW and ASW weapon for USN attack submarines. It is optimised to attack major surface combatants as well as difficult to acquire (low acoustic profile, deep diving) submarines including ballistic missile boats. The currently deployed Mk-48 ADCAP (ADvanced CAPabilities) weighs 1,600 kg and is fired – like most but not all heavy torpedoes – from a standard 21-inch tube. The US Navy reports a speed in excess of 28 kn, a range of more than five miles, and an operational depth of more than 366 metres. The Mk-48 can be wire-guided or deployed in fire-and-forget mode. A digital proximity fuse determines the optimal time for detonation. The 295 kg warhead is designed to detonate beneath the target’s keel in order to break its back.

The weapon has been continually upgraded to enhance performance and to keep pace with adversarial countermeasures. The Mod 6 introduced in 2009 can remotely receive software updates while at sea. The latest iteration, the Mod 7 Common Broadband Advanced Sonar System  (CBASS) jointly developed with the Royal Australian Navy, is optimised for both blue water and littoral operations and has advanced counter-countermeasure capabilities. Key elements of the upgrade include a broadband analogue sonar receiver and an improved digital guidance and control system. The increased sonar bandwidth improves targeting and tracking capabilities against high-performance submarine and surface targets with low acoustic signatures. Similar or equivalent heavy torpedoes are produced in other nations, often with range and speed superior to the official capabilities of the Mk 48 although independent experts maintain that the USN significantly downplays the Mk-48’s performance, which they estimate to attain 55 kn attack speed and an operational depth between 800 and 1,300 metres.

Anti-Ship and Land-Attack Missiles

In addition to torpedoes, attack submarines can carry a variety of missiles to combat surface vessels, land targets, and even aircraft. Depending on the submarine class, missiles can be carried in dedicated cells embedded in the topside hull, or be carried in launch canisters and deployed via torpedo tube.

All attack submarine classes of the US Navy are outfitted with Vertical Launch System (VLS) cells carrying TOMAHAWK Land Attack Missiles (TLAM). A torpedo-tube launched variant of the 21-inch diameter cruise missile was sold to the UK in 2008. Depending on variant, TLAM range lies at 700 or 900 NM with a speed of 475 kn. Guidance options include GPS, INS, TERCOM (Terrain Contour Matching) and Digitised Scene Mapping Area Correlator (DSMAC). The TOMAHAWK is currently produced in the Block IV TLAM-E configuration, which adds the capability to reprogramme the missile while in-flight via two-way satellite communications to strike any of 15 pre-programmed alternate targets or redirect the missile to any Global Positioning System (GPS) target coordinates. The TLAM-C and -E variants carry a penetrating 455 kg high-explosive unitary warhead; the TLAM-D carries submunitions. The US Navy is currently developing a Maritime Strike TOMAHAWK as a long-range ASuW weapon; this weapon should achieve IOC with the surface fleet in 2021, with follow on deployment with the submarine fleet.

The US Navy has test fired two Raytheon-built TOMAHAWK cruise missiles from new submarine payload tubes on the VIRGINIA class USS NORTH DAKOTA (SSN- 784) for the first time in 2017. The tests proved the submarine’s ability to load, carry and vertically launch TOMAHAWK missiles from the new Block III VIRGINIA Payload Tube, the company announced, adding that the up graded tubes feature fewer parts and will be even more reliable. In addition to the new payload tubes, the US Navy is also developing a new VIRGINIA Payload Module. “The new modules will triple the number of TOMAHAWK missiles that VIRGINIA class submarines can carry, dramatically increasing each sub`s firepower,” Raytheon stated. “As the Navy continues to modernise its subs, Raytheon continues to modernise TOMAHAWK, keeping this one-of-a-kind weapon well ahead of the threat,” said Mike Jarrett, Raytheon Air Warfare Systems Vice President. “Today`s TOMAHAWK is a far cry from its predecessors and tomorrow’s missile will feature even more capability, giving our sailors the edge they need for decades to come.” The US Navy continues to upgrade the TOMAHAWK Block IV`s communications and navigation capabilities, while adding a multi-mode seeker so it can hit high-value moving targets at sea. These modernised TOMAHAWKs are on track to deploy from 2019.

Light Weight Wide Aperture Array (LWWAA) is the only available, passive, fibre-optic hull mounted sensor array in the market and is critical to the operation of the US Navy’s VIRGINIA Class fleet.

Fitting the LWWAA hardware for Block IV of the US Navy VIRGINIA Class submarines.

Sonar / Acoustic Sensors

Submarine sensors are utilised for navigation, for tactical situational awareness including locating and engaging hostile vessels and mines, and for conducting ISR (Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance) missions. They can be divided into acoustic (including sonar), optical and electromagnetic systems.

Acoustic sensors are divided into active and passive systems. Active sonar emits an acoustic pulse which rebounds when it strikes a solid surface; the returning signal or “echo” is received by the sonar’s transducer array and transferred to a signal processor for evaluation. Active sonar can determine the object’s contours (aiding classification); it can also determine its distance, direction and speed by measuring the time elapsed between pulse and echo. However, active sonar also reveals the presence of the searching submarine. Passive arrays send no signal, but merely monitor for sound from surface ships and submarines; such acoustic signals can include sound produced by ship’s engines, rotor wash, explosions, collisions or even heavy objects being dropped onto a deck. Passive acoustic monitoring alone cannot determine the distance to an object. However, triangulation between several sonars or sensors can allow even passive systems to calculate distance to a target.

Submarines carry several sonar systems simultaneously, with each being optimised for different tasks. These include bow and flank mounted sonars as well as towed sonar arrays which can be deployed as needed to augment the on-board systems; towed arrays have the advantage of less interference from sound generated by the host submarine.

The first ten units of the US Navy’s VIRGINIA class attack submarines introduced in 2004 featured a spherical bow sonar array enclosed in a dome-shaped cover. Similar arrays – the MTK 500 SKAT – are found on several Russian attack submarines including the new YASEN class. However, as of USS NORTH DAKOTA (the eleventh VIRGINIA class vessel) the USN switched to the horseshoe-shaped Large Aperture Bow (LAB). The LAB contains a medium-frequency active array and a passive array with improved performance over the previous transducers. The new transducers, adopted from the SEAWOLF class attack submarines, are designed to last the life of the submarine. And while the dome surrounding the spherical array was filled with air, requiring a complex system to maintain constant pressure, the dome surrounding the LAB is filled with water. Taken together, the transition to the LAB increases performance while reducing maintenance effort and expense.

On both flanks the VIRGINIA class is equipped with a fibre optic Light Weight Wide Aperture Array (LWWAA) consisting of three flat panels. High frequency active sonars are located at the chin and on the sail, serving for navigation, mine detection and ASW. A conformal high-frequency active sonar array on both sides of the sail provides sonar coverage of the waters above and behind the submarine, eliminating sensor blind spots. In addition to the hull mounted systems, the VIRGINIA class carries two towed passive arrays: the TB-34 to search for adversary submarines in cluttered littoral environments; and the TB-29 to detect, localise and pursue submarines in all environments. Technological advances are constantly incorporated as new submarines are built, and retroactively applied to older vessels after proving themselves. The newest VIRGINIA class submarine, USS SOUTH DAKOTA, will feature new large vertical sonar arrays on each flank. These passive arrays are expected to improve the submarine’s ability to detect other vessels well before being detected itself.

Traditionally, acoustic sensors have utilised ceramic hydrophones which require electronics and signal processing to be located near the sensor. Northrop Grumman has developed fibre optic sensors as an alternative. They are in service as part of the LWWAA on the VIRGINIA class. Acoustic pressure striking the sensor causes a malleable sensing spool (called a mandrel) to expand or contract, temporarily changing the flow of laser light through the optical fibre. That change is measured and transmitted to the signal processor located deep within the submarine. The fibre-optic system offers several advantages. The hydrophones are simpler, containing fewer parts than piezoceramic transducer systems – less than ten passive components and splices per channel, compared with hundreds per channel for ceramic arrays, according to Northrop Grumman. Data loss during transmission to the signal processor is reduced. Since they lack electronic components, they are also immune to electromagnetic interference.

Optical and Electromagnetic Sensors

Modern periscopes are equipped with high-definition cameras which can automatically switch to infrared or low-light mode as needed. A prime example is the Series 20 Attack Periscope produced by Safran. Despite the designation, it can also be used for ISR and navigation. It has multiple features including a gyrostabilised direct optical channel with 4 magnifications, a high-definition colour camera, an infrared camera, a low-light camera with anti-blooming, as well as enhanced image processing capabilities and video recording features. The periscope can be integrated with GPS and Electronic Warfare/Electronic Support Measures (EW/ESM) antennae.

The next evolution in optical sensors is the photonic (alternately: optronic) mast. In contrast to the periscope, which is raised and lowered through the hull and therefore constitutes a weak point in the submarine’s physical integrity, a photonic mast is stationary outside the hull. The VIRGINIA class was the first class to replace periscopes completely with photonic masts. The two KOLLMORGEN (now L-3 KEO/Calzoni) AN/BVS-1 masts feature high resolution electro-optical colour, black-and-white, and infrared cameras, low-light television and a laser rangefinder. The sensors are connected via optical fibre to three work stations (including the captain’s) in the command centre on the second deck. The workstations feature LCD screens which display the sensor images, and joysticks and keyboards to control the sensors. Streaming images are recorded on tape and CD for documentation and analysis. The British ASTUTE class which entered service in 2010 is also equipped with photonics masts, produced by Thales.

Electronic Warfare (EW) is now a major element of submarine operations. Electromagnetic sensors constitute a major element of a submarine’s ability to conduct Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance missions. Sail or mast mounted EW systems – such as the US Navy’s AN/BLQ-10 ESM system – can intercept and analyse radar and communications signals. Finally, radar also belongs to the submarines’ electromagnetic capabilities. Mast mounted radar is used when surfaced, for navigation and safety as well as for tactical situational awareness.

System Integration

Even the most powerful sonars and sensors are of limited value by themselves. The input from a submarine’s various component sensors must be aggregated in order to create a useful operational assessment. This is the role of command and control systems such as the Integrated Sensor Underwater System (ISUS) developed by Atlas Elektronik. The ISUS 100 Combat System for Submarines networks acoustic and non-acoustic sensors to create a unitary tactical picture. The system is modular, and can incorporate a variety of Atlas Elektronik sonars as well as periscopes, photonic masts, ESM and navigation radar, and even off-board sensor date supplied via data link. The aggregated data can flow through the target management system to the weapons control stations, creating an uninterrupted “sensor to shooter” chain for all onboard weapons including torpedoes, missiles and countermeasures.

Technology in a Future War at Sea

The incremental “speeding up” of naval warfare technologies-of reconnaissance, the speed of decision, the speed of movement, and the speed and accuracy of “fires”-will continue in the future. Looking forward into the twenty-first century, should American sea power confront a peer competitor, the environment will be contested in all physical domains of air, surface, subsurface, and space by faster and smarter technologies. Based on the American order of battle in the 2010s, the US Navy will likely seek to dominate in all domains and will still deploy predominantly manned systems in the near to medium term. as of late 2015, the US Navy continues to plan for large, manned machines, to include additional P-8 maritime surveillance aircraft, Gerald R. Ford-class carriers equipped with an electromagnetic aircraft Launch System, and two new classes of manned submarines. One, a “Block V” variant of current Virginia-class submarines, will have four vertical tubes capable of launching robots or divers; the other, an “Ohio replacement Submarine,” will have a significantly quieter propulsion system. Similarly, the F-18 attack and fighter variants will be followed by the manned Joint Strike Fighter.

Naval Special Warfare Command’s (NSWC) Teledyne Brown Shallow Water Combat Submersible (SWCS) and Lockheed Martin Dry Combat Submersible (DCS) programmes.

The first two SWCS boats were due to be delivered to NSWC later in 2017 with developmental testing ongoing. Concurrently, USSOCOM continues to operate a single DCS technology demonstrator in order to validate design, construction and commercial classing methods in terms of cost, as well as schedule and performance, sources added. An initial operating capability for the DCS concept is not expected to be in place with NSWC until 2020, it was added. Lockheed Martin and Submergence Group, who won the DCS contract in 2016, also has the option to build a further two additional DCS boats. Capable of being deployed from subsurface dry docks integrated on board US Navy `Ohio’ class nuclear powered ballistic missile submarines for example, the DCS is capable of covertly inserting and extracting Navy SEAL special forces teams to and from target areas, while also supporting live operations with command and control capabilities and potentially fire support. This programme is being supported by the navy’s Dry Deck Shelter (DDS) programme which could provide a similar capability to `Virginia’ class nuclear powered attack submarines. A request for proposals is expected to be published later in 2017, sources confirmed.

An August 20, 2014, blog post states:

The U. S. Navy is hard at work developing new underwater transports for its elite commandos. The SEALs expect the new craft-and improvements to large submarine “motherships” that will carry them-to be ready by the end of the decade.

SEALs have ridden in small submersibles to sneak into hostile territory for decades. For instance, the special operators reportedly used the vehicles to slip into Somalia and spy on terrorists in 2003.

Now the sailing branch is looking to buy two new kinds of mini-subs. While details are understandably scarce, the main difference between the two concepts appears to be the maximum range.

The Shallow Water Combat Submersible will haul six or more naval commandos across relatively short distances near the surface. The SWCS, which weighs approximately 10,000 pounds, will replace older Mark 8 Seal Delivery Vehicles, or SDVs.

The other sub, called the Dry Combat Submersible, will carry six individuals much farther and at greater depths. The most recent DCS prototype weighs almost 40,000 pounds and can travel up to 60 nautical miles while 190 feet below the waves. Commandos could get further into enemy territory or start out a safer distance away with this new vehicle. SEALs could also use this added range to escape any potential pursuers. Both new miniature craft will also be fully enclosed. The current SDVs are open to water and the passengers must wear full scuba gear-seen in the picture above.

In addition, the DCS appears to pick up where a previous craft, called the Advanced SEAL Delivery System, left off. The Pentagon canceled that project in 2006 because of significant cost overruns. But the Navy continued experimenting with the sole ASDS prototype for two more years. The whole effort finally came to a halt when the mini-sub was destroyed in an accidental fire.

Special Operations Command hopes to have the SWCS ready to go by 2017. SOCOM’s plan is to get the DCS in service by the end of the following year.

Underwater motherships

SOCOM and the sailing branch also want bigger submarines to carry these new minisubs closer to their targets. For decades now, attack and missile submarines have worked as motherships for the SEALs.

Eight Ohio- and Virginia-class subs currently are set up to carry the special Dry-Deck Shelter used to launch SDVs, according to a presentation at the Special Operations Forces Industry Conference in May.

The DDS units protect the specialized mini-subs inside an enclosed space. Individual divers also can come and go from the DDS airlocks.

The first-in-class USS Ohio-and her sisters Michigan, Florida and Georgia-carried ballistic missiles with nuclear warheads during the Cold War. The Navy had expected to retire the decades-old ships, but instead spent billions of dollars modifying them for new roles. Today they carry Tomahawk cruise missiles and SEALs.

The Virginias-Hawaii, Mississippi, New Hampshire, North Carolina and the future North Dakota-are newer. The Navy designed these attack submarines from the keel up to perform a variety of missions.

SOCOM projects that nine submersible motherships-including North Carolina as a backup-will be available by the end of the year.

The Navy has a pool of six shelters to share between the subs. SOCOM expects the DDS to still be in service in 2050.

But prototype DCS mini-subs cannot fit inside the current shelter design. As a result, a modernization program will stretch the DDS units by 50 inches, according to SOCOM’s briefing.

The project will also try to make it easier to launch undersea vehicles and get them back into the confines of the metal enclosure. Right now, divers must manually open and close the outside hatch to get the SDVs out.

Crews then have to drive the craft back into the shelter without any extra help at the end of a mission-underwater and likely in near-total darkness. The sailing branch wants to automate this process.

With any luck, the SEALs will have their new undersea chariots and the motherships to carry them ready before 2020.

Arnhem: The Battle at the Bridge

All this time John Frost’s men had been defending their positions at the Arnhem road bridge, waiting in vain for relief, either from their own division or from ground forces coming up from the south.

The composition of the force at the bridge did not change at all after most of the 2nd Battalion’s B Company and the other men who had been trying to make a crossing at the pontoon area came into the bridge perimeter, so the men who found themselves there on that Monday afternoon would be the ones who fought that gallant action which has passed so powerfully into airborne history. The exact number of men who formed the bridge garrison will never be known; what follows is the best available estimate:1

2nd Parachute Battalion: Battalion HQj HQ, Support and A Companies; B Company (less most of No. 4 Platoon) – 340 men.

1st Parachute Brigade HQ including Defence Platoon and Signals Section – 110 men.

1st Parachute Squadron, RE: HQ; A Troop; most of B Troop – 75 men.

3rd Parachute Battalion: C Company HQ; most of No. 9 Platoon; part of No. 8 Platoon – 45 men.

1st Airlanding Anti-Tank Battery, RA: HQ; B Troop; one gun team of C Troop – 40 men.

250 Light Composite Company, RASC: No. 3 Platoon – 40 men, plus Major David Clark from Divisional HQ, RASC.

9th Field Company, RE* part of No. 2 Platoon – 30 men.

In addition there were an estimated 59 men from various units: 17 glider pilots, all or nearly all from B Squadron arriving with antitank guns; 8 men of the Reconnaissance Squadron under Major Gough; 12 men from Royal Artillery forward observation officer parties; 6 men of the RAOC; 5 men each from the REME and Intelligence Corps; 2 or 3 Military Police; 2 men from the ‘Jedburgh’ team; and one war correspondent.

The total force at the bridge thus numbered an estimated 740 men, equivalent to less than one and a half parachute battalions. Although many of those men were not trained to the standards of a parachute battalion, nearly all had valuable combat potential. Less than half of the force was from the 2nd Battalion. There was only one lieutenant-colonel – John Frost – but there were no less than thirteen majors among the sixty or so officers present. There was a good cross-section of units available, but one element not present would be sadly missed: there was no part of 16 Parachute Field Ambulance there. It had been anticipated that there would be easy evacuation of seriously wounded cases to that unit’s location at St Elizabeth Hospital, but that did not happen. Captains J. W. Logan and D. Wright, the medical officers of the 2nd Battalion and Brigade HQ, and their orderlies would have to treat all the wounded without any assistance from surgical teams.

Monday

Only one corner of the perimeter had been attacked during the night. This was a library or small school on the eastern side of the lower ramp held by Captain Eric Mackay and some men of A Troop, 1st Parachute Squadron. There were several covered approaches to what was really an exposed outpost, and the Royal Engineers found it difficult to hold. Sapper George Needham says:

We had started to prepare it for defence – smashing the windows and pulling down the curtains – but we had only been there about ten minutes when the Germans attacked, throwing grenades into the rooms. The building was too vulnerable, so Captain Mackay ordered us out, into the larger school building next door, where we joined B Troop. They objected and said, ‘Bugger off; go find your own place’, but Captain Mackay, being the man he was, persuaded them in no uncertain terms to let us in, and we started fortifying some of the empty rooms.

(The Royal Engineers were later joined in the school by Major ‘Pongo’ Lewis, the 3rd Battalion’s company commander, and twelve of his men. There was some argument after the war between the sappers and the infantry over who was in command in this building, the Van Limburg Stirum School, during the subsequent three days of its defence. Captain Mackay, in an article in Blackwood’s Magazine, claimed to have been in command and never mentioned the presence of the 3rd Battalion men. Major Lewis, in his short official report, did not mention the larger RE party. Both officers had been allocated this position separately, in the dark of that first night, and Major Lewis, though clearly the senior officer, probably did not interfere with Captain Mackay’s handling of the larger sapper party.)

Dawn found the airborne men prepared for a day that would be full of incident. They had completed the preparations for the defence of the buildings they had occupied by breaking all the windows to avoid injury from flying glass, moving furniture to make barricades at the windows, filling baths and other receptacles with water for as long as the supply remained functioning; these were all basic lessons learned in their house-fighting training. As soon as it started to get light, Major Munford wanted to begin registering the guns of No. 3 Battery of the Light Regiment on to likely targets:

There was some reluctance to allow me to do this. Some people were still harking back to the time the paras had suffered from the results of ‘drop-shorts’ in North Africa – not by the Light Regiment. But I persisted and was allowed to register on the approach road at the south end of the bridge – only about six rounds – but we got both troops ranged on to it and recorded it. ‘Sheriff’ Thompson, back at Oosterbeek, said it should be recorded as ‘Mike One’; ‘Mike’ was ‘M’ for Munford. Our signals back to the battery were working well.

The first intruder into the area was a lorry ‘full of dustbins clattering in the back’ which drove in between the buildings overlooking the ramp and the offices which Brigade HQ was occupying. Trigger-happy airborne men shot it up from both sides; the driver, presumably a Dutchman on a routine refuse-collection round, was probably killed. A similar fate befell three German lorries which appeared, probably also on a routine errand and not knowing of the British presence.

But attacks soon started, mainly from the east. The Germans did not know the precise strength or location of the British force, and the first attacks were only tentative probes by some old Mark III and IV tanks supported by infantry which were easily beaten off. One tank reached the road under the bridge ramp and was fired upon by an anti-tank gun. Lieutenant Arvian Llewellyn-Jones, watching from a nearby building, describes how an early lesson about the recoil of a gun in a street was learned:

The gun spades were not into the pavement edge, nor firm against any strong barrier. The gun was laid, the order to fire given, and when fired ran back about fifty yards, injuring two of the crew. There was no visible damage to the tank. It remained hidden in part of the gloom of the underpass of the bridge. The gun was recovered with some difficulty. This time it was firmly wedged. The Battery Office clerk, who had never fired a gun in his life, was sent out to help man the gun. This time the tank under the bridge advanced into full view and looked to be deploying its gun straight at the 6-pounder. We fired first. The aim was true; the tank was hit and it slewed and blocked the road.

These early actions were followed by a period of relative calm, described by John Frost as ‘a time when I felt everything was going according to plan, with no serious opposition yet and everything under control’.

Hauptsturmfiihrer Viktor Graebner was the commander of the 9th SS Panzer Division’s Reconnaissance Battalion, a unit of first-class troops well equipped with twenty-two armoured cars and halftracked armoured personnel carriers. Only the previous day his divisional commander had presented him with the ribbon and emblem of the Knight’s Cross, awarded to him for bravery in Normandy. He had then led his unit over the bridge, before the British arrived there, on a sweep down the main road to Nijmegen. Finding that area all clear, he turned back and was now preparing to return over the bridge to reach his divisional command post in Arnhem. He knew the British were at the north end of the bridge now; whether he actually intended to mount an attack or just dash through the British positions is not known.

Look-outs in the top rooms of the houses occupied by the airborne men drew to the attention of their officers the column of vehicles assembling on the bridge approach. The identification of the vehicles as German swiftly put paid to the initial hope that this might be the head of the ground-force column making excellent time and arriving to relieve the airborne force. Major Munford saw that the German vehicles would have to pass through the area he had registered as a target, and his signaller immediately made contact with the battery at Oosterbeek. Dennis Munford says:

I received permission to open fire and, when the German column moved off, all I had to do was call, ‘Target – Mike One’, and the boys at the battery did the rest. There was no need for further correction. The Germans had to drive through it. I ordered a cease-fire when they left the Mike One area and came on to the bridge; I didn’t want to damage the bridge.

The artillery fire was accurate. Some German motorcyclists were seen to be hit, but the shells were too light to inflict much damage on the armoured vehicles.

The first part of Graebner’s force set off over the bridge at top speed. These leading vehicles were armoured cars which threaded their way round the still burning lorries from the previous night’s action and over the string of mines laid on the roadway during the night, but these failed to stop the vehicles. The airborne men held their fire until the last moment, and some of those first armoured cars drove straight on through to the town without being stopped, but then the order to open fire was given and none of the other armoured cars survived the resulting hail of fire. More and more of the German unit were committed to reinforce the attack, including half-tracks packed with soldiers, some protected by armoured coverings but others with open tops. Nearly all the German vehicles were hit and stopped in a great tangle on the ramp between the houses on both sides occupied by the 2nd Battalion’s A Company and also overlooked by the Brigade HQ and other buildings. Piats accounted for some of these vehicles, but much of the damage was caused by two anti-tank guns. One of these, Sergeant O’Neill’s gun of B Troop, was at a corner of the Brigade HQbuilding. The other 6-pounder was that of Sergeant Cyril Robson of C Troop, which was in a street closer to the river on the west side of the bridge and considerably below the level of the ramp. Directed by Lieutenant Tony Cox in the window of the house above him, Robson fired solid-shot shells at the parapet at the side of the bridge until he cut a V-shaped section away and was then able to fire into the sides of the German vehicles passing the gap. It is believed that Robson’s gun destroyed more of the attacking vehicles than any other weapon. The Germans in the half-track personnel carriers which were hit or found their way blocked were exposed to a hail of small-arms fire, trapped in their vehicles or spilling out on to the open stretch of the ramp, unable to deploy into shelter. They were slaughtered. One of the early victims was seen to be flung out on to the roadway and literally cut to pieces by a hail of fire. Some of the vehicles toppled over or slewed off the embankment of the lower ramp, allowing the airborne men in the buildings there to join in the execution.

Nearly everyone in the British garrison joined in the firing. Major Freddie Gough was seen enthusiastically firing one of the machine-guns on his Reconnaissance Squadron jeep. It would be ironic if it was one of his shots that killed his opposite number, because Hauptsturmfuhrer Graebner was among the German dead. Lieutenant-Colonel Frost was not firing: ‘I was watching other people and picking up information. A commander ought not to be firing a weapon in the middle of an action. His best weapon is a pair of binoculars.’

Here are two typical descriptions of the action. Corporal Geoff Cockayne was in the Brigade HQ building:

I had a German Schmeisser and had a lot of fun with that. I shot at any Gerry that moved. Several of their vehicles – six or seven – started burning. We didn’t stay in the room we were in but came out to fire, keeping moving, taking cover and firing from different positions. The Germans had got out of their troop carriers – what was left of them – and it became a proper infantry action. I shot off nearly all my ammunition. To start with, I had been letting rip, but then I became more careful; I knew there would be no more. I wasn’t firing at any German in particular, just firing at where I knew they were.

Signalman Bill Jukes was in the 2nd Battalion HQ building:

The first vehicle which drew level with the house was hit, and the second rammed into it, blocking the roadway. The rest didn’t stand a chance. The crews and passengers, those still able to, began to pile out, and those of us armed with Stens joined in the general fusillade. One of the radio operators grabbed my Sten gun, which was leaning against the wall, but I snatched it away from him, telling him to go and get his own. I hadn’t waited five years to get a shot at the enemy like this only to be denied by some Johnny-come-lately to the section. It was impossible to say what effect my shooting had. There was such a volley coming from the windows along the street that nobody could have said who shot who. At least one German lived a charmed life that day. He slipped out of one of the half- tracks on the far side from us and ran for dear life between the houses on the other side of the ramp and disappeared from view. Anybody with that kind of luck should live for ever.

This action lasted for about two hours. Various reports put the numbers of vehicles hit and stopped, or jammed in the wreckage of other vehicles, at ten, eleven or twelve, mostly half-tracks. The number of Germans killed is estimated at seventy. The electrical system of one of the knocked-out vehicles on the ramp short-circuited, and the horn of the vehicle emitted ‘a banshee wailing’ after the battle from among the shattered and burning vehicles and the sprawled dead of the attack. The morale of the airborne men was sky high; their own casualties had been light.

That attack by the Germans over the bridge proved to be the high point of that first full day. After the attack was over, John Frost reviewed the situation of his force. He had left B Company at the pontoon area, 1,100 yards away, in the hope that it might assist the remainder of the brigade into the bridge area. His last wireless contact with the other battalions showed that the 1st Battalion was still at least two miles away on the outskirts of Arnhem and making only slow progress; there was no contact with the 3rd Battalion and no sign that it was any closer. Frost had earlier decided that B Company was in danger of being surrounded at the pontoon while performing no useful function there and had ordered it to come in. It has already been told how Major Crawley extricated most of his company but lost one platoon cut off. Frost met Crawley and directed him to occupy some of the houses in a triangular block of buildings on the western part of the perimeter to provide an outer defence there. After B Company’s casualties the previous day and the loss of No. 4 Platoon, there were only about seventy men in the company. Captain Francis Hoyer-Millar describes how Company HQ was greeted when it occupied its house:

The lady – elderly, but not old – didn’t seem to mind us fighting from her house, smashing windows and moving the furniture about, but she took me into one room and said, ‘Please don’t fire from here; it’s my husband’s favourite room’; he was away somewhere. We couldn’t agree with her of course, and anyway, the house burned down in the end.

Later in the day Sergeant-Major Scott came in and reported that our last platoon commander had been killed – ‘Mr Stanford’s had his chips.’ Doug Crawley and I were both distressed, not at the seeming callous manner of the report, but that we had no more platoon commanders.

Lieutenant Colin Stanford was not dead. He had been shot in the head while standing on the top of his platoon building studying the surroundings through binoculars, but he survived.

The next serious event was a sharp German attack from the streets on the eastern side of the perimeter against the houses defended by Lieutenant Pat Barnett’s Brigade HQ Defence Platoon and various other troops. Preceded by an artillery and mortar bombardment, two tanks led infantry under the bridge ramp and into the British positions. In a fierce action, the two tanks were claimed as knocked out and the infantry driven back. One tank at least was destroyed by Sergeant Robson’s anti-tank gun and possibly one by a Piat. The 75-millimetre battery back at Oosterbeek was also brought into this action, its fire being directed on this occasion by Captain Henry Buchanan of the Forward Observation Unit, a good example of the way this unit’s officers operated with battalions as extra observation officers for the Light Regiment until the guns of the ground forces came into range, but Buchanan would be killed on the following day.

The remainder of the day saw further minor attacks. One of the buildings on the eastern side of the perimeter held by part of No. 8 Platoon, 3rd Battalion, was overrun, and another, held by part of the Brigade HQ Defence Platoon, had to be abandoned, but no further ground was given. There then commenced a general shelling and mortar fire which would harass the British force throughout the remaining days of the bridge action. Both sides were settling down to a long siege. The day had been a most successful one for the airborne men. Their positions were almost intact, and every attack had been beaten off with heavy loss of German life. Up to three tanks and a host of other armoured vehicles had been destroyed. British casualties had not been heavy. The best estimate is that only ten men had been killed and approximately thirty wounded before nightfall from all of the British units present. But the force was clearly isolated, unlikely to be reinforced in the near future and likely to be the subject of increased German pressure; the Germans badly needed the bridge to pass reinforcements down to the battle now raging in the Nijmegen area. These reinforcements were being laboriously ferried across the Rhine further upstream at present. Another danger was a looming shortage of ammunition; profligate quantities had been expended during the day, and the last issue from the supply brought in by the RASC would be made that night.

A change in the command structure took place that evening. All through the day, Lieutenant-Colonel Frost had been directing the actions only of the 2nd Battalion. Major Hibbert had been running Brigade HQ and the other units, carrying out as far as possible the plan brought from England and hoping that Brigadier Lathbury would soon arrive. But Hibbert now heard, from a wireless link with the 1st Battalion, that Lathbury was missing and he formally asked Lieutenant-Colonel Frost to take over the running of the entire force at the bridge. So John Frost moved over to the Brigade HQ building, leaving his second in command, Major David Wallis, in charge of the 2nd Battalion. At 6.30 p.m. Frost heard from the 1st Battalion that it was stuck near St Elizabeth Hospital and that the 3rd Battalion was nearby. Frost, acting now as brigade commander, ordered both battalions to form a ‘flying column’ of at least company strength to reach the bridge before midnight. But neither battalion had the strength or the means for such an operation, and this was the last attempt John Frost would make to exercise command over the other units of the brigade.

This may be a suitable place to mention Dutch dismay at the failure to use local means of communication and to utilize more fully the services of the Dutch Resistance. All through the day just passed, parts of the local telephone service had been functioning normally, but because of official British fear of German penetration of the Resistance, units had been ordered not to use the telephone. Another Dutch complaint is over the failure to trust more local men as guides; this would have been of particular help to the battalions trying to get through to the bridge. Albert Deuss, one of the local Resistance survivors, says:

If they had trusted us, we could have brought them through houses and got them through to the bridge, but they did not trust us and preferred to fight through the tanks. We knew our own town and where our friends were and all the short cuts. We even had a special password from ‘Frank’, our contact in Rotterdam, and we expected the British to know all about it – but they did not.

The only Dutch officer at the bridge, Captain Jacobus Groenewoud, had been using local telephones, but only to contact the loyal names on his ‘Jedburgh’ list to ascertain where the known German sympathizers in Arnhem were.

The airborne men prepared to face their first full night at the bridge. The houses on the western side of the perimeter had hardly been attacked, so part of B Company was redeployed to the eastern sector. A house near the bridge was deliberately set on fire to illuminate the bridge area, and B Company was ordered to send out a standing patrol to make sure no Germans came across the bridge during the night and also to protect a party of Royal Engineers which was sent to examine the underside of the bridge to ensure that the Germans could not demolish it. Captain Francis Hoyer-Millar was in command of the B Company patrol:

I was told to take twelve men out. We went past the wrecked vehicles on the ramp and on to the bridge itself. It was a large expanse of open area, quite dark. I didn’t know what was over the top of the slope so I threw a grenade. We were surprised when five Germans emerged with their hands up; three of them were wounded. I don’t know how long they had been hiding there, almost inside our perimeter.

I put half of my men on either side of the road. We had no trouble from the Germans but we were annoyingly fired on by a Bren from the houses held by our men. I yelled, ‘Stop firing that bloody Bren gun. It’s only me.’ It was one of those silly things one says on the spur of the moment. John Frost got to hear about it and he always teased me about it afterwards.

It was soon after dark that John Frost lost his long-standing friend and second in command, Major David Wallis, who only that afternoon had been made acting commander of the 2nd Battalion. Major Wallis was making his rounds in the darkness and came to the house defended by A Company HQ and some sappers of the 9th Field Company. As he was leaving the rear of the house there was a burst of fire from a Bren gun, and Major Wallis was hit in the chest and died at once. The shots were fired by one of the Royal Engineers. A brother officer of Major Wallis says that he was known to ‘have a habit of speaking rather quietly and indistinctly, and his answer to the sentry’s challenge may not have carried or not have been understood’. A comrade of the unfortunate sentry says: ‘It was at a time when the next shape in a doorway could be the enemy, such was the proximity of the fighting; response time was very short, and a German grenade had a short fuse.’ The death of this officer resulted in another command change. John Frost appointed Major Tatham-Warter to command the 2nd Battalion; this was over the head of the more senior Major Crawley. Frost was ‘aware of a slight resentment, but Tatham-Warter was well in touch with the battalion positions and I chose him’.

Soon after 3.0 a.m. (on Tuesday) there was a one-sided action at the school building jointly manned by sappers of the 1st Parachute Squadron and 3rd Battalion men. A German force which had probably misidentified the building in the darkness assembled alongside it, standing and talking unconcernedly, directly under the windows manned by the airborne men on the second and third floors. Typical of the disputed history of that building’s defence, Captain Mackay says that he organized what happened next while Lieutenant Len Wright of the 3rd Battalion claims that Major Lewis did so. This is Len Wright’s description of events:

We all stood by with grenades – we had plenty of those – and with all our weapons. Then Major Lewis shouted, ‘Fire!’, and the men in all the rooms facing that side threw grenades and opened fire down on the Germans. My clearest memory was of ‘Pongo’ Lewis running from one room to another, dropping grenades and saying to me that he hadn’t enjoyed himself so much since the last time he’d gone hunting. It lasted about a quarter of an hour. There was nothing the Germans could do except die or disappear. When it got light there were a lot of bodies down there – eighteen or twenty or perhaps more. Some were still moving; one was severely wounded, a bad stomach wound with his guts visible, probably by a grenade. Some of our men tried to get him in, showing a Red Cross symbol, but they were shot at and came back in, without being hit but unable to help the German.

The defenders suffered no casualties.

The Sicilian Pillbox

On 10 July 1943, No. 3 Commando landed near Cassible in Sicily, a little south of the port of Syracuse. Three days later it re-embarked and was sent up the coast to land behind enemy lines at Agnone. No. 3 Commando was charged with capturing a vital bridge several miles inland, a feat it accomplished early on 14 July. As enemy pressure mounted, the Commando was forced to withdraw, and, after splitting into small groups, the men began making their way across the hills towards the British front line near Augusta. They were dogged by enemy patrols as they went, but eventually they joined up with the advance elements of the British Eighth Army. This scene shows a small group of Commandos taking a short rest break during the withdrawal. In the background the troop commanders – a lieutenant and a sergeant – consult their map and plan the next phase of the march.

At the start of the campaign in Sicily, in July 1943, a small episode of little or no significance to the main battles on the island occurred.

The British and American armies under Generals Montgomery and Patton were to land on Sicily two months after the Axis capitulation in North Africa, where a quarter of a million soldiers surrendered, some 125,000 of these German. Coming as it did on the heels of the disaster at Stalingrad, the loss of yet another whole army came as a second terrible blow to Hitler.

There were only two German divisions on Sicily, one of them the tough Hermann Goering Panzer grenadier, the other six were Italian, most assigned the role of coastal defence and ripe for surrender before the invasion fleet came over the horizon. The two-pronged Allied assault would take on the nature of a race between the rivals, Patton and Monty. Many small encounters would never be recorded, save perhaps in abbreviated form in unit histories. One such occurred when two small parties comprising British commandos and pioneers were landed on a remote part of the island coast in order to reconnoitre any Italian resisters. Little opposition was expected in this pre-dawn landing as the soldiers scrambled ashore well ahead of the main armies then about to begin disembarking from their transports offshore. Although these were accompanied by warships, there was no pre-landing bombardment. The invasion morning produced something like an anti-climax, especially for the tough commandos who in their young zeal were fired up for action.

Obviously, the Germans had concentrated their own force inland, leaving their supposed allies to resist on the coast, though having little faith in the Italian soldiers putting up much of a fight. As the commandos climbed the bare slopes, weapons at the ready, the troopships at sea began disembarking their loads. The commandos’ enthusiasm soon evaporated as they encountered not a soul, and as they reached the clifftop, sweating and tiring from the climb, their officers commiserated with each other on the disappointment they shared. No commando had fired a shot, no pioneer had seen a chance to blow up any enemy forts and bunkers.

The two squads then pushed on along the clifftop ridge, until in a sudden dip they encountered an enemy pillbox. Uncamouflaged, its dirty-looking concrete sat among the sandy soil and scrub grass, with a steel door visible at the rear, its weapon slits placed for all-round defence. The two British parties had dropped to the ground to survey this menace, both officers peering through binoculars, trying to decide if the post was manned. No weapons poked through the embrasures. Finally, the commando lieutenant remarked, `It’s OK, old chap, we can deal with this.’

`Oh?’ the pioneer officer responded. `It’s one for us, I believe.’

So they tossed a coin. The pioneer won and brought his men forward with their explosives to set charges around the structure as the commando officer withdrew in disgust with his own troops.

Suddenly, all the British soldiers were startled to see a solitary figure in green uniform appear beside the pillbox. It was one of the Italian defenders. He peered at the invaders briefly before vanishing through the steel door again. Not a moment later a white rag tied to a stick was poked out of the doorway. The British watched with mixed feelings as several Italians, minus equipment, stepped tentatively outside. The two British lieutenants grinned and cursed mildly.

The commando officer sat down to open up his ration pack and his men started to brew some tea while their engineer comrades got on with the job. The commando officer, grinning, now suggested `tickling up’ the Italians with a Bren. His opposite number obliged, picking up their light machine-gun to send a burst of fire over the heads of the startled Italians, who rushed back into their bunker. A moment later they fired a few token shots from their embrasures, this act finally sealing their fate.

That settles it,’ the pioneer officer remarked, and he ushered his men off with their explosive charges. The pillbox door had been left ajar so that the white flag could continue to be waved in surrender. A few more rounds changed that. The door was slammed shut and the pioneers got on with their task, laying charges at intervals round the bunker and withdrawing hurriedly.

The engineer officer had never been in any doubt as to his proper course of action: every enemy fortification found had to be destroyed, with or without the enemy within. He now stood erect, contemptuous of any possible Italian fire, announcing that the commandos would now see a demonstration in the art of demolition. The wretched Italians, meanwhile, unaware perhaps that their last moments were at hand, were jabbering together inside what was about to prove their steel and concrete coffin.

And so it proved. The enemy soldiers’ arguments among themselves on the best course of action were cut short very abruptly as the charges were detonated and the whole structure, complete with occupants, was reduced to rubble in an explosion that proved most satisfying for the onlookers, who then proceeded to enjoy breakfast as they admired their handiwork and watched the troop-laden craft approaching the beaches

Hess and Goebbels Gun Batteries at Dieppe

19 August 1942

One of the most controversial raids of the Second World War was the raid on Dieppe, which took place on 19 August 1942. By the end of the day, thousands of Allies were dead, wounded or taken as prisoners of war. The Dieppe Raid has since been the subject of much debate, but within the overall operation there were countless acts of great bravery, including those of British commandos at two mighty gun batteries that simply had to be silenced.

The origins of the Dieppe raid were to ease the pressure on the Eastern Front and prevent Germany from committing more resources to the east. The Americans and Russians had both urged Britain to open a second front, but Britain, already heavily engaged in North Africa, the Mediterranean and the Far East, did not have the resources to conduct and sustain a large-scale offensive in north-west Europe. Nonetheless, Winston Churchill had made it clear that he wanted to conduct a major operation during the summer of 1942. Senior military commanders agreed. If the Allies were to eventually carry out a full-scale invasion of mainland Europe, it was essential for a division-size operation to be carried out against a German-held port on the northern coastline of France. To do so would not only help gain a better understanding of large-scale amphibious landings, but would also determine whether the Allies were capable of maintaining forces ashore once a landing had taken place.

A number of ports were considered, but while most were rejected for one reason or another, Dieppe was accepted as a possible target. A coastal town built along a cliff overlooking the English Channel, it was a relatively short distance for raiding forces and so it was possible to make the crossing under the cover of night. Dieppe was also within range of RAF Fighter Command and so raiding forces could be given significant cover from the air.

In April 1942, Mountbatten gave the order for his staff at Combined Operations to commence planning for the raid, which was to be supported by a large array of naval and air assets. One option drawn up was to land a mix of tanks and infantry either side of Dieppe and to then capture the town using a pincer movement over the two headlands flanking the port. Another option was to land tanks and infantry directly onto the beach at Dieppe in a frontal assault, supported by landings on either side of the town. Two heavy artillery gun batteries protecting the approaches to Dieppe – the Hess Battery at Varengeville to the west and the Goebbels Battery at Berneval-le-Grand to the east – would be captured by airborne troops landing ahead of the main attack.

After much discussion it was decided to proceed with the second option, the frontal assault, which would be preceded by a heavy aerial bombardment. Codenamed Operation Rutter, the attack was planned for early July when tidal conditions would be just right for the assault. It would test the feasibility of capturing a port in the face of opposition, understand the problems of operating the invasion fleet, and test the equipment and techniques of the assault.

The scale of the operation meant there were insufficient resources amongst the British Army’s commando units to carry out the raid. Therefore, regular army troops would need to be involved, and because there had been increasing pressure from the Canadian government for its troops to take part in operations, the Canadian 2nd Infantry Division was selected as the main attacking force.

Intelligence reports suggested that Dieppe was not heavily defended and the beaches were suitable for the landings. The plan was for two Canadian battalions to assault the main beach, supported by Canadian tanks and engineers, after two other Canadian battalions had landed earlier to attack German gun batteries overlooking the main beach. The British 1st Battalion of the Parachute Brigade were to be dropped to attack the two coastal batteries at Varengeville and Berneval-le-Grand, with a further Canadian battalion acting as a reserve to be committed when and where necessary.

The date for Rutter was narrowed down to the first week of July but, after weeks of training, the combination of unsettled weather and the fact the Germans had spotted and attacked the large gathering of ships required to transport the assault troops across the Channel, resulted in the operation being cancelled.

Although Rutter had been cancelled, its planning was not entirely wasted. The decision to remount the raid, this time called Operation Jubilee, meant plans were resurrected. The main objectives remained largely unchanged, with the only difference being that the large German coastal batteries would be attacked and captured by a seaborne assault, rather than from the air: 4 Commando was tasked to destroy the Hess Battery at Varengeville while 3 Commando was to destroy the Goebbels Battery at Berneval-le-Grand.

Along stretches of the south coast of England the commandos began training for the raid. They would be required to assault the two coastal gun batteries at dawn while the main landings took place on five different beaches along a 10-mile stretch of the coast. A total of 5,000 Canadians and a further 1,000 British troops, including the army commandos and a unit of Royal Marine commandos, and 50 American Rangers were to be supported by more than 230 Royal Navy ships and landing craft and nearly 70 RAF squadrons. It would be the largest amphibious raid of the war.

Tasked with capturing and then destroying the Goebbels Battery, codenamed Operation Flodden, 3 Commando was to be led by Lieutenant Colonel John Durnford-Slater, who had led his men in the raid at Vaagso the year before. His plan was for his force of just over four hundred men to land in two groups on two beaches, codenamed Yellow-One and Yellow-Two, either side of the battery and near the village of Berneval-le-Grand. The Goebbels Battery was known to house three 170mm and four 105mm guns and, situated half a mile inland, it was protected from the sea by steep cliffs. Durnford-Slater would lead the main element ashore on Yellow-One while his second-in-command, Major Peter Young, another veteran of Norway, would land with two troops plus a mortar section on Yellow-Two. The two groups would then carry out a co-ordinated pincer attack against the battery using gullies to conceal their position.

Meanwhile, 4 Commando, led by Lieutenant Colonel Simon Fraser, the fifteenth holder of the title Lord Lovat, who had also served in Norway, would be carrying out an assault on the Hess Battery under Operation Cauldron. The Hess Battery consisted of six 150mm guns in a concrete emplacement just over half a mile inland from the coastal cliffs. Intelligence reports had estimated there were around two hundred men at the battery, with a further two infantry companies in support nearby. The emplacement was surrounded by concrete defences, landmines, concealed defensive machine-gun posts and layers of barbed wire, and was also protected from air attack by an anti-aircraft gun emplacement.

With less than three hundred men, Lovat had a smaller force than Durnford-Slater but he also decided to land his force on two beaches. One group, consisting of C Troop and one section of A Troop, plus a mortar detachment, would be led by his second-in-command, Major Derek Mills-Roberts, and land on the beach at Varengeville. The beach Mills-Roberts had been allocated, codenamed Orange-One, was overlooked by a cliff, but offered two gullies leading to the top, although these were known to be full of barbed wire and other obstructions. The commandos were to scale the cliff in front of the battery and take up a holding position in a wood, half a mile inland, ready to mount a continuous barrage of fire against the front of the battery while the second group, led by Lovat, carried out the assault on the battery. His group, consisting of B and F Troops, was to land on the beach at Quiberville, called Orange-Two. The beach was just over a mile to the west and at the mouth of the small River Saane. It was further away from the battery but the commandos were expected to move quickly inland along the river and then eastwards to the top of the cliffs, where they could attack the battery and its garrison from the rear, although this line of approach was known to be protected by machine-gun posts and barbed wire. The remaining section of A Troop was to be held as a mobile reserve between the two beaches and used as required. Once the battery had been destroyed, the commandos would withdraw using the landing craft at Orange-One.

Having left their temporary bases in Sussex and Dorset, the commandos were transported to their embarkation ports for crossing the Channel; 3 Commando at Newhaven and 4 Commando at Southampton. While 4 Commando’s crossing passed uneventfully, the same was not true for the men of 3 Commando. Shortly before 4.00 am, and still about an hour from the coast of France, their landing group was illuminated after being spotted by an armed German convoy in the Channel. The commandos immediately came under intense fire. Their landing craft quickly scattered as they came under attack by fast German S-boats that had been escorting a German tanker. Some of the landing craft were forced to turn back, while others were sunk, effectively halting 3 Commando’s main attacking force. They had simply been in the wrong place at the wrong time and had been unfortunate to have been spotted.

Remarkably, though, not all of the landing craft of this group had been sunk or had turned back. Six managed to regroup and continued towards their landing beach. Furthermore, the chance encounter mid-Channel seems to have gone unreported to the coastal defences. To the crews of the German patrol boats, they assumed they had come across a planned raid against their convoy and nothing more. The landing craft of Peter Young had also survived intact and completed the crossing on its own. Determined to press on with the attack, the commandos landed just to the west of Yellow-Two slightly before 6.00 am.

Making their way quickly across the beach, Young then located a gulley leading to the top of the cliffs. Undeterred by the barbed wire and other obstructions that filled the gulley, the commandos reached the top. The Goebbels Battery was already firing on the main landing force, now just a few miles away, but with only eighteen men there was little Young could do. The commandos managed to reach a position within 200 yards of the battery, but a full frontal assault was clearly out of the question; it would have meant certain death.

Young decided the best they could do was to harass the battery as much as possible and to prevent it from inflicting serious damage on the attacking forces. Splitting his men into three small groups, he directed his commandos to cut telephone wires to disrupt communications and continue to fire on the battery for several hours as a constant distraction to the gunners. This seemed to have some effect as no Allied forces were believed to have been lost to the battery. After a couple of hours and hopelessly outnumbered, as well as being all but out of ammunition, Young finally gave the order to withdraw; all his men would make it off the beach and safely back to England.

Meanwhile, the group of six other landing craft that had survived the encounter mid-Channel, a total of around a hundred men, including a handful of US Rangers, had landed on a beach to the east of Yellow-One and opposite Le Petit Berneval. But it was now 5.30 am and they were half an hour behind schedule. The delay of thirty minutes had made all the difference between darkness and first daylight, and the landing craft had been spotted by the German defences. As enemy rounds clattered against the landing craft, causing a number of casualties on board, the commandos were quick to get ashore and reach the safety of a nearby gulley. Having then scrambled to the top, Captain Geoff Osmond had contemplated making a limited assault on the battery as planned, but German reinforcements had already arrived in the area. With such a small force it would have been a suicidal attack but the commandos did manage to take out German defensive positions at Le Petit Berneval. However, as they made their way towards the battery the commandos came under a devastating attack and casualties started to mount.

The survivors of 3 Commando had now been ashore for just over an hour but any hope of continuing the attack was abandoned. The order was given to withdraw to the beach and re-embark. But that was impossible. The commandos were now pinned down. Although the landing craft had managed to return to the beach to pick up the survivors, none of the commandos arrived. Eventually, after waiting as long as they dared, the crews of the landing craft left. Unbeknown to them at the time, the commandos they had come to pick up were still pinned down. Those commandos that were still alive were unaware that there was now no chance of getting away. Although some did make a break across open ground in an attempt to reach the beach, many were cut down. Those that did reach the beach arrived to find their only chance of escape had gone; only burnt-out landing craft were there waiting for them. With no option, Osmond surrendered his men to the surrounding forces.

Although 3 Commando’s raid had been disastrous, their colleagues in 4 Commando had been more fortunate. They had set sail from Southampton in the landing ship HMS Prince Albert and although they had heard 3’s mid-Channel encounter a few miles to the east, their crossing had been uneventful. Having then transferred to their landing craft for the assault as planned, the first group of 4’s commandos, led by Mills-Roberts, landed unopposed on Orange-One at around 4.50 am and just before daybreak. They were then able to quickly scale the cliffs and take up their positions, where they were to wait until 6.15 am before commencing their barrage of fire against the battery from the front – the second group were to commence their main assault from the rear fifteen minutes later.

Meanwhile, Lovat’s second group had not been quite so lucky. Their landing was met by heavy machine-gun fire from two pillboxes overlooking the beach. Calling for support from the mobile reserve section of A Troop to deal with the enemy positions, Lovat quickly led his two troops off the beach and towards the rear of the battery, where they took up their positions ready for the assault. Behind him, the commandos of A Troop soon dealt with the pillboxes and quickly made their way towards the first group, where they were to join up with the rest of their troop.

For Mills-Roberts and the commandos of the first group, the peace and quiet of the early summer morning was suddenly shattered and the ground shook when the battery unexpectedly opened fire. The convoy carrying the main assaulting troops had been spotted a few miles away and the battery was now engaging the ships. Mills-Roberts decided to wait no longer. Although it was not yet time he decided to engage the battery immediately. Mortars, Brens and rifle fire – everything the commandos had – rained down on the battery; it was the first the Germans knew that the commandos were even there.

A short distance away, Lovat and his group heard the firing. They were making their way towards their assault positions but the going was tough across heavy ground. Leading F Troop was Captain Roger Pettiward. One of 4 Commandos’ true characters, Pettiward was a complete gentleman by nature. From a privileged background, and educated at Eton, he had been an adventurous and well-travelled artist before the war, achieving much fame as the cartoonist Paul Crum. Alongside him was his second-in-command, Lieutenant John MacDonald, and 24-year-old Major Pat Porteous, the son of an army brigadier and a former artillery officer, who was acting as the liaison officer between the two assault groups carrying out the attack.

As the commandos of F Troop moved quickly between cottages and an orchard towards their assault position, they were suddenly caught by a heavy burst of enemy machine-gun fire. Pettiward and MacDonald were both killed instantly. As Porteous continued the advance towards the guns he was hit, the bullet passing through his palm and entering his upper arm. Undaunted, he continued until he reached his assailant, disarming him and then killing him with his own bayonet; thereby saving the life of one of the sergeants on whom the German had now turned. With Pettiward and MacDonald dead, and the troop sergeant major wounded, Porteous took command. Without hesitation, and in the face of overwhelming enemy fire, he dashed across the open ground to take command of the remaining commandos of F Troop. Rallying them, he then led them to their forming-up position where they fixed bayonets ready for the assault.

A pre-planned strike by Allied fighters arrived exactly on time to strafe the battery. It was now 6.30 am and Lovat signalled the assault. The covering fire then ceased and the commandos of the second group attacked. While Captain Gordon Webb led B Troop towards their objective of the battery’s buildings, the wounded Porteous led F Troop’s charge towards the guns, now less than a hundred yards away. Porteous was immediately wounded for a second time, shot through the thigh, but despite his wounds he continued to lead the men straight to the guns. He was one of the first to reach their final objective, but he was then hit again and finally collapsed from the loss of blood just as the last of the guns was captured. His most gallant conduct, brilliant leadership and tenacious devotion to duty was supplementary to the role he had been given for the assault and was an inspiration to his unit. It was later announced that Pat Porteous was to be awarded the Victoria Cross, one of three VCs to be won during that day.

Demolitions experts then destroyed the six guns with explosive charges while the commandos of B Troop searched the battery buildings and gathered anything of interest for intelligence. The commandos had been ashore for two hours and it was now time to leave. Carrying their wounded, the commandos withdrew to Orange-One where they were evacuated from the beach by landing craft under the cover of a smokescreen. It was still only 8.30 am. Then, having crossed the Channel without incident, apart from some ineffective enemy fire on leaving the beach, the men of 4 Commando arrived at Newhaven shortly before 6.00 pm. It had been a very long day.

As for the main assault on Dieppe by the Canadians, it was a total failure. The naval bombardment had not supressed the enemy defences, the tanks were unable to advance over the shingle beach and the infantry had suffered heavy casualties. Of the main assault force of 6,000 men, over 1,000 were killed and more than 2,000 were captured and taken as prisoners of war (a total casualty figure of some 60 per cent of the attacking force). Naval losses were also severe, with more than 500 casualties, plus the loss of a destroyer and over 30 landing craft. Allied losses in the air were also significant, with around a hundred aircraft lost, more than on any other day of the war. Furthermore, none of the objectives had been met: the assault by 4 Commando on the Hess Battery at Varengeville had been the only success of the whole operation. Even so, 45 commandos had not returned, 17 of whom had been killed, although German casualties were estimated to be around 150.

The assault by 4 Commando was later described as ‘a classic example of the use of well-trained troops and a thoroughness in planning, training and execution.’ For his leadership of the raid, Lord Lovat was awarded the DSO and his second-in-command, Major Derek Mills-Roberts, was awarded an MC, as was Captain Gordon Webb.

The men of 3 Commando had also fought with courage, aggression, resilience and dogged determination at Dieppe, but the fight had proved costly, with 140 killed, wounded or taken as prisoners of war; the majority of whom had been killed or captured trying to make it back to the beach. Amongst those killed was 22-year-old Lieutenant Edward Loustalot, a US Ranger attached to 3 Commando. He was the first American to be killed on European soil during the war and one of three rangers killed at Dieppe; Loustalot had been cut down by enemy crossfire while attacking a machine-gun post at the top of the cliff.

For his courage and leadership of the eighteen commandos of 3 Commando, who had landed in the single landing craft to the west of Yellow-Two and had then harassed the battery for some three hours before withdrawing safely back to England, Peter Young was awarded the DSO. His action was later described by Vice Admiral John Hughes-Hallett, the naval commander of Jubilee, as perhaps the most outstanding action of the whole operation.

Although the raid had ended up in a disastrous loss of life, the events at Dieppe would influence Allied planning for later landings in North Africa, Sicily and, ultimately, in Normandy on D-Day. The losses at Dieppe were claimed to be a necessary evil and Mountbatten later justified the raid by arguing that lessons learned were put to good use later in the war: stating that the success at Normandy was won on the beaches of Dieppe, and every life lost at Dieppe in 1942 spared at least ten more in Normandy in 1944. Churchill also claimed that the results of the Dieppe raid fully justified the heavy loss. To others, however, especially the Canadians, it was, and remains, a major disaster.

Joint Special Operations Command

Most Americans, including many in the Carter administration, had despaired of rescuing the hostages in the wake of the Desert One fiasco. But the men at the heart of Eagle Claw had not given up; nor had their president. Within seventy-two hours of the catastrophe, Carter told Army Major General Jim Vaught, the task force commander, to be prepared to launch again within ten days, in the in extremis case that the hostages’ lives appeared in immediate danger. Such a swift turnaround had not been necessary, and the men spent the summer preparing for a second attempt, armed with the knowledge of what had gone wrong previously. In the process, they were hoping to help the United States regain not only its self-respect, but also its faith in the U.S. military and, in particular, its long-neglected special operations forces.

The new effort was code-named Snowbird. Separated from their families, who knew next to nothing about where their husbands and fathers were, the men gave serious thought to what had to be different this time around. Some of these things were tactical details, but others were larger concepts. Eagle Claw had been a pickup game, with each armed service claiming a role: the Army provided Delta Force and the Rangers as the ground rescue force; the Air Force contributed MC-130 Combat Talon transports, AC-130 Spectre gunships, and a small ground element called BRAND X; the Navy proffered an aircraft carrier from which the eight Navy RH-53D Sea Stallion helicopters launched; the Marine Corps, keen not to be excluded, provided the helicopter pilots. These forces were not used to working together. The headquarters that ran the operation was a similarly ad hoc organization commanded by Vaught.

The Eagle Claw veterans knew all that had to change, none more so than Colonel “Chargin’” Charlie Beckwith, the hard-bitten Delta commander. In the run-up to Eagle Claw, Beckwith had opposed the creation of any headquarters that might interfere with the direct line to the White House he desired for Delta. But after the trauma of Desert One, his resistance softened. Like others in Delta, he realized that having no specialized headquarters above the unit left it at the mercy of ad hoc arrangements in which it would have no say, for instance, in who provided its air support. Within a few weeks of returning, a group of senior Delta figures had sketched a design for what Beckwith called “a tier-type organization”—a command that encompassed all the units required for special operations missions of strategic importance, in which failure was not an option. In mid-May, Beckwith’s main bureaucratic supporter, Army Chief of Staff General Edward “Shy” Meyer, ordered him to bring his proposed design for such a headquarters to Washington.

A more formal and high-powered review of the Eagle Claw fiasco would soon reach much the same conclusion. On August 23 the Special Operations Review Group—six active and retired senior officers commissioned by the Joint Chiefs of Staff to examine Eagle Claw—released an unclassified version of its findings and recommendations. Led by retired Admiral James L. Holloway III, the group recommended “that a Counterterrorist Joint Task Force (CTJTF) be established as a field agency of the Joint Chiefs of Staff with permanently assigned staff personnel and certain assigned forces.”

The military brass put up fierce resistance. With the exception of Meyer, the service chiefs were very concerned that the creation of such a force would give the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff his own private intervention force. The commanders of the military’s regional commands around the world, called commanders-in-chief, or “CinCs” (pronounced “sinks”), feared that such a permanent task force would deploy to and conduct missions in their own areas of operations without them even knowing about, let alone approving, such actions. It was that venomous atmosphere in the Tank into which Nightingale, who served on Vaught’s staff, walked a matter of days after the Holloway report’s release.

But Nightingale was armed with knowledge that his high-ranking audience lacked. That morning, he, Vaught, and Colonel Rod Paschall, Vaught’s chief of staff, had briefed Defense Secretary Harold Brown and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Air Force General David Jones in Brown’s office. Sitting side by side on a sofa, Vaught and his two staffers gave the two senior officials a preview of the briefing Nightingale was scheduled to deliver to the Joint Chiefs that afternoon. The briefing for the chiefs was a so-called decision brief, meaning it was intended as a starting point for discussion, with the individual service chiefs allowed to have input—which amounted to veto authority—over the details of the proposal.

Brown was well aware that the service chiefs, with the exception of the Army’s Meyer, were unlikely to approve the creation of a counterterrorist joint task force. (Although the briefing focused on proposed bureaucratic arrangements for Snowbird, everyone concerned knew that the Holloway Commission’s recommendation of a standing joint task force meant any structure created for Snowbird was almost certain to survive beyond another mission into Iran.) Brown interrupted the briefing. This could be difficult to get past the chiefs, he said. Would it be easier if it were made a directive from my office to the chiefs, rather than simply a presentation? Certainly, said those on the couch. Brown had a knowing smirk on his face. “I had anticipated that, so maybe I’ve solved some problems for you,” he said, reaching for a typed document that codified the contents of the brief as a direct order to the services to take the actions laid out in the briefing. “Well, this is certainly going to make things a lot easier,” said Vaught. Paschall just chuckled.

In the couple of hours between briefings, Nightingale converted his decision brief into a mere “information brief,” then strode into the Tank to await his audience. The officers who entered and took their seats at the long table were Jones, the four service chiefs, and their operations deputies (the three-star officers in charge of operations and plans for each service). Using a flip chart stand to his right and a viewgraph screen to his left, Nightingale launched into his briefing without mentioning the morning’s discussion with Brown. It slowly dawned on the chiefs and their operations deputies that Nightingale was speaking as if the new command was a fait accompli. The tension in the room rose sharply. “Wait a minute,” said Deputy Chief of Naval Operations Vice Admiral Arthur Moreau. “This is an information brief, not a decision brief.” Dead silence followed. Nightingale glanced at Vaught, who turned to Jones. “Yes, the secretary has made a decision,” Jones confirmed.

“The Navy and the Air Force were just apoplectic,” Nightingale recalled. Moreau and his boss, Chief of Naval Operations Admiral Thomas Hayward, “just went basically purple. They were really pissed. You could just see their blood pressure go up about 100 points.” But Brown’s preemptive action meant they had little recourse. “They just had to eat it,” Nightingale said. For the fledgling command, it was an inauspicious beginning.

Early one September morning Brigadier General Dick Scholtes, the 82nd Airborne Division’s assistant division commander for operations, was already in his office at Fort Bragg, North Carolina, when he received a surprise visit from his boss, division commander Major General Guy Meloy. “You’re going to be getting a call from the chief of staff in a couple of minutes,” Meloy told him. Usually when the two generals discussed the “chief of staff,” they were referring to the colonel who held that position in the division. But when the phone rang Scholtes found himself talking to Meyer, the Army chief of staff. “Dick, I want you to know you’re leaving the division,” Meyer said. “You’re going to be leaving it very shortly. I need you to come to Washington Thursday. I can’t talk to you anymore about what’s going to happen but I’ll tell you all about it when you get up here Thursday.”

Scholtes flew to Washington as directed. Already scheduled to meet Brown and Jones the next morning, Scholtes was told to head straight to the Pentagon for a meeting set for the oddly late hour of 9 P.M. After he had trouble getting past Pentagon security, someone finally came to collect the bemused general and lead him to a conference room beside Jones’s office.

About thirty people were in the room. Most were strangers to Scholtes, though he would come to know some quite well. Beckwith, the Delta commander, was there, as was Commander Richard Marcinko, who was in the process of creating a Navy SEAL equivalent to Delta Force.

The officers told Scholtes they had a briefing prepared for him. Curious, he sat down. The briefing covered several options for a second attempt to rescue the hostages in Iran. Perplexed as to why he was being told all this, Scholtes sat through the first four or five, which all struck him as “absolutely asinine and outlandish,” according to an officer who was there. (One involved rescuing the hostages and flying them on helicopters to a ship in the Black Sea, then tipping the empty helicopters into the water. Scholtes knew the Black Sea was dominated by the Soviets and therefore not a particularly welcoming environment for the U.S. Navy.)

No longer able to contain his curiosity, Scholtes asked why on earth they were briefing these schemes to him. Now it was his briefers’ turn to be confused. “Didn’t the secretary tell you about all this?” one asked. Scholtes replied that he wasn’t due to see Brown until the following morning, but told them to continue the briefing and he’d wait for Brown and Jones to explain what this was all about.

On Friday the two senior officials made it all clear. His new job was to form the command that would include the nation’s most elite special operations units, and to be ready to conduct another hostage rescue mission by October 31. As for other counterterrorist missions his new command should be ready to perform, Brown and Jones told him to be ready to discuss those once the Iranian mission had been completed. Scholtes’s chain of command ran straight to Jones, the Joint Chiefs’ four-star chairman—unique access for a one-star operational commander.

Scholtes was doubly shocked. First because, other than attending and graduating from the Special Forces Qualification Course as a young captain, he had no special operations experience, having opted to stay in the infantry mainstream rather than continue as a Special Forces officer. He never found out why Meyer selected him for the command. When he asked the four-star, Meyer simply answered: “Because I wanted you.”

The imminence of the Halloween deadline also shocked Scholtes. It gave him “less than sixty days in which to pull this thing off,” recalled a senior member of the command. “And we [had] no forces, no staff, and truly no capability.”

Scholtes’s new headquarters was located first at Bragg, the massive Army post in Fayetteville, North Carolina. Also home to XVIII Airborne Corps, 82nd Airborne Division, and Delta, which was housed in a nine-acre fenced-off facility that had been the post’s stockade, the installation’s huge size was an advantage in trying to hide a couple of small, secret organizations.

The new command started small: just Scholtes and an aide, working out of an office in Delta’s compound furnished with a phone and very little else. Soon staff began to arrive, but only at a rate of one or two people a day. Scholtes was concerned.

The new headquarters was acquiring a staff, and it already had a mission. But it lacked a name. In classified circles, the new command was referred to as the Counterterrorist Joint Task Force. But it needed a proper, official moniker. To that end, Scholtes and a couple of assistants detailed to him from Delta, Major Logan Fitch and Sergeant Major Walt Shumate, were tossing ideas around one day. “Why don’t we call it ‘Joint Special Operations Command,’ because it’s joint and it’s special operations?” said Fitch. The others were fine with the suggestion, but when they ran it up the flagpole there was a problem. The Army bureaucracy opposed the name because the service’s main field manual grouped a wide range of generic military tasks, including urban warfare, desert operations, and river crossings, under the heading of “special operations.” The debate went back and forth between Bragg and the Pentagon, but eventually Fitch’s proposal won the day. On the rare occasions it was discussed in public, Scholtes’s new headquarters would be known as Joint Special Operations Command, or JSOC.

The units that fell under the command were largely those deemed best suited to JSOC’s counterterrorism mission, which officials at the time envisioned as small, high-intensity operations of short duration. As such, they did not include units like the Army’s Special Forces groups that specialized in unconventional warfare (the use of proxy forces to foment rebellion in an enemy country), or other special operations forces designed primarily to operate against other militaries, rather than against terrorists.

At the core of the new command was Delta (full name: 1st Special Forces Operational Detachment-Delta), which the Army had formed under Beckwith’s leadership in 1977 in response to the rising number of international terrorist incidents. Unlike Israel, West Germany, and the United Kingdom, the United States had no specialized force to handle such episodes until Delta’s creation.

Beckwith modeled Delta on the British Army’s Special Air Service, with whom he’d spent a year as an exchange officer in the early 1960s. Thus, instead of being divided into companies and battalions, like most U.S. Army units, Delta was broken into troops and squadrons. The troops were divided into teams of anywhere from three to six soldiers. Four teams made a troop, and three troops made a “sabre” squadron (the same term the SAS used). Only soldiers already in the Army were allowed to apply to Delta, guaranteeing the unit a more seasoned outlook than combat outfits filled with soldiers in their late teens and early twenties. But the key to Delta was its rigorous selection process. The unit looked for men who possessed not only extraordinary physical endurance, but also mental agility and the psychological ability to cope with ambiguity and the unknown. So its selection course combined increasingly difficult physical tests, culminating in “the Long Walk”—a grueling forty-mile hike across the Appalachian Mountains in West Virginia—with a battery of psychological examinations. If a prospective unit member made it over those hurdles, he still had to pass the “commander’s board,” in which the Delta commander and other senior unit figures peppered the candidate with off-the-wall questions in an attempt to unhinge him.

The small percentage of applicants who made it all the way through selection into Delta then went through a six-month operator training course in which they learned skills ranging from expert marksmanship and room clearing to how to take down a hijacked airliner, breach walls, and pick locks. They also learned espionage tradecraft, including elicitation, clandestine communications, surveillance, and how to live under a cover identity. Only after completing the course (which not all did) were the greenhorns considered full members of the unit who could call themselves “operators.” They called Delta “the Unit.”

Eagle Claw was to have been Delta’s first taste of actual combat. Although the operators bore no blame for Eagle Claw’s failure, they were acutely aware that they were 0 for 1 on “real-world” missions. They were hungry to even the score.

Backing up Delta were the Army’s two (1st and 2nd) Ranger Battalions, based at Hunter Army Airfield, Georgia, and Fort Lewis, Washington, respectively. The battalions traced their lineage back to World War II, but had existed in their present incarnation only since 1974, when Army Chief of Staff General Creighton Abrams reactivated them with the intention that they would be the world’s most elite airborne light infantry.

Beckwith envisioned the Rangers compensating for Delta’s lack of manpower on any mission requiring more than a handful of operators. He wanted the Rangers to help Delta get to and from an objective and to secure the perimeter while the operators took down the target. Beckwith called this his “donut theory,” with the Rangers forming the donut’s ring.

Almost simultaneous with JSOC’s creation, the Navy established a SEAL special mission unit that was the sea service’s answer to Delta, and which would also report to Scholtes. The SEALs were the Navy’s special operations forces, with roots in the service’s World War II underwater demolition teams. In 1980 there were only two SEAL (Sea-Air-Land) teams, Team 1 on the West Coast and Team 2 on the East. Neither team was a dedicated counterterrorism force. In fact, less than a third of their platoons had received counterterrorism training. But Richard Marcinko had a vision. A colorful SEAL officer who, from a desk in the Pentagon, had been one of two Navy representatives on the Eagle Claw task force and was now working on Snowbird, Marcinko saw an opening for a SEAL team that would fill roughly the same counterterrorism niche for the Navy that Delta filled for the Army. He masterfully worked the Navy bureaucracy to establish such a unit and to get himself assigned as its first commander. He even got to name the unit. Because there were only six SEAL platoons that had received counterterrorism training and because he wanted to fool the Soviets into thinking there were more SEAL teams than there really were, Marcinko named his new command SEAL Team 6.

Marcinko and the Navy intended Team 6 to be the maritime equivalent of Delta, but there was a big difference between how the two units assessed and selected their members. Team 6 members didn’t have to pass any formal tests or graduate from any courses to get into the unit. Marcinko chose SEALs for his new command based solely on his personal opinion of them, an opinion often formed during barroom interviews with prospective members. “The man liked to drink,” said an officer who worked under Marcinko in Team 6. “To be with him, you had to drink—to be in the ‘in’ crowd.” Marcinko acknowledged to an author his capacity to down large quantities of Bombay gin on the job, but added, “I use booze as a tool.” Fairly or not, such behavior colored the opinions of Team 6 held by many others in the special ops community for years after Marcinko left the unit in July 1983.

Although the SEALs were maritime special operations forces, and Team 6’s position as a coequal with Delta in JSOC was predicated on its “worldwide maritime responsibilities,” from its inception, Marcinko was determined that his new unit not be pigeonholed or limited in any way. “As long as we carried water in our canteens, we’d be in a maritime environment—or close enough for me,” he later wrote. This approach garnered the unit a role in Snowbird, in which they were earmarked for covert infiltration into Iran to destroy a series of military targets, but it also set the stage for three decades of friction with Delta over appropriate roles and missions for Team 6.

The Air Force’s initial contributions to JSOC were the 1st Special Operations Wing, based at Hurlburt Field in the Florida panhandle, and a secret unit of combat controllers—men whose job it was to act as battlefield air traffic controllers. The unit would go through many name changes. Until Eagle Claw it had been named BRAND X, but as JSOC stood up the Air Force renamed it “Det 1 MACOS,” which stood for Detachment One, Military Airlift Command Operations Staff.

Where capability gaps existed, units were created to fill them. Such was the case with the command’s communications infrastructure, which the Pentagon told Scholtes the Joint Communications Support Element, a special ops communications outfit at MacDill Air Force Base in Tampa, Florida, would provide. Scholtes protested that JCSE was too “cumbersome” a unit for JSOC. After several months of arguing, he won permission to stand up the Joint Communications Unit at Bragg, with part of the unit assigned full time to JSOC.

The lack of a special operations rotary wing aviation unit was an even more glaring weakness, given that the inability to keep enough helicopters mission-ready played a key role in the events that resulted in the fiery debacle at Desert One. But efforts were under way to fill that yawning void. A new organization, based around helicopters and aircrew from the 101st Airborne Division’s 158th and 159th Aviation Battalions and dubbed Task Force 158, was training in great secrecy at the 101st’s home post of Fort Campbell, Kentucky, as well as at the military’s vast training areas in the Southwest.

Task Force 158 used the brand-new UH-60A Black Hawk utility helicopters that were replacing the UH-1 Iroquois, better known as the “Huey,” in the 101st. To fulfill heavier lift requirements, the task force availed itself of some of the 159th’s CH-47C Chinooks. Together these two airframes should have been able to perform any medium or long-haul lift or air assault requirements. But Vaught, who remained in command of the task force until Scholtes got JSOC off the ground, saw a need for a third type of airframe, one that could maneuver in Tehran’s tight urban terrain, carrying small groups of operators or even functioning as a light attack helicopter. The active Army’s inventory held no such aircraft. But Vietnam veterans were familiar with the OH-6 Cayuse, nicknamed the “Loach” (for light observation and command helicopter), a small, nimble airframe that still resided in a couple of National Guard units. Designed to carry just two pilots, the OH-6 was not armed. However, imaginative TF 158 aviators soon figured ways to fix small benchlike platforms called pods to allow assaulters to ride on either side of the helicopter and to equip the aircraft to fire miniguns and rockets. No longer “Loaches,” both versions of the reconfigured aircraft were called Little Birds. The assault version (the one with the pods) was designated the MH-6 and the attack variant the AH-6. There would be many twists and turns in the development of JSOC’s world-class special operations rotary wing capability, but the Chinook, the Black Hawk, and the Little Bird would remain the basic Army special ops airframes for more than thirty years.

In July 1980, in a move that would have significant consequences, the Army established another secrecy-cloaked special operations unit but did not initially assign it to JSOC. Led by Colonel Jerry King, Vaught’s chief of staff for Eagle Claw, the Field Operations Group (sometimes called the Foreign Operating Group) comprised about fifty Special Forces and military intelligence soldiers. The new unit’s mission was to operate undercover abroad to gain the sort of intelligence for the military that the CIA had been unable to deliver for Eagle Claw, and to sabotage key Iranian military infrastructure such as radar and communications facilities. In the summer and fall it successfully infiltrated several operatives into Iran to conduct surveillance and recruit agents.

Halloween came and went with no orders to launch. Uncomfortable with the CIA’s intelligence on the hostages’ locations, Scholtes had told his bosses he was unwilling to do the mission on the basis of the Agency’s “we can’t tell you exactly [but] we think they’re here, here, and here” intelligence. “We may end up killing a lot of people and getting a lot of our people killed and not getting anybody out,” he said. Meanwhile, the lines of command between Scholtes’s new organization and Vaught’s headquarters, which was still in existence, were blurred. Each general seemed to think he would run the second rescue mission. The Pentagon officially transferred authority to JSOC on December 18, but Vaught continued to play a vague oversight role. “It was very ambiguous because both elements felt that they were in fact in command,” Nightingale said. A personality conflict between the two generals didn’t help, but their staffs nevertheless expected to be integrated for the mission, which they anticipated tough-talking Republican president-elect Ronald Reagan would green-light as one of his first acts in office.

Although Scholtes had been assembling his staff since September, the Pentagon did not formally establish JSOC until December 15. No ceremony marked the creation of what would become one of the U.S. government’s most effective instruments of power. The command was completely focused on training for what everyone expected would be a second rescue attempt in Iran. On January 20, the day of Reagan’s inauguration, the task force was at Hurlburt Field running what a senior JSOC staffer called “the final dress rehearsal” for the mission. “We were hoping to launch the next week,” he said. But within minutes of Reagan taking the oath of office, the Iranian regime released the hostages, who were immediately flown to Algeria and on to Rhein-Main Air Base in Germany. The Pentagon canceled the final rehearsal, frustrating JSOC officers, who saw it as a lost opportunity to put the task force through its paces. But in the long run, that mattered little. The new command was up and running.

Vemork Heavy Water Plant, Telemark

27/28 February 1943

Few, if any, raids could have had a greater impact on the outcome of the Second World War than the one carried out in 1943 by a small group of saboteurs from the SOE against the Vemork Norsk hydro-electric plant in Norway. The raid, later immortalized on screen in the 1965 film Heroes of Telemark, was to sabotage the plant and so prevent the Nazis from acquiring deuterium oxide, otherwise known as heavy water, which could have been used in the production of nuclear weapons. It has since been described as the SOE’s greatest raid of the war, but, had the raid not have been successful, the outcome of the Second World War might have been quite different.

Today, the original power plant at Vemork is an industrial museum located near the town of Rjukan in the county of Telemark, but its importance dates back to before the Second World War when Norsk Hydro built the first commercial plant to produce fertilizer. A by-product of the process was the production of deuterium oxide, one of two substances necessary for moderating neutron energy emissions in a nuclear chain reaction (graphite being the other). Prior to Germany’s invasion of Norway in 1940 the extant supply of heavy water was removed by the French and, in turn, found its way to Britain after the Nazi invasion of France. But the plant in Norway was still capable of production. Understandably concerned that the Nazis would use the facility to produce heavy water for their own weapons programme, the Allies commenced a series of attempts to destroy the plant, or at least, stop its production.

The SOE had a trusted agent, Einar Skinnarland, working within the plant, and he was able to pass detailed information to the British. Skinnarland was 24 years old and a graduate of the engineering college in Porsgrunn. He had made his way to Britain on board a coastal steamer and, coming from Telemark and having lived near the plant all his life, he had been a natural recruit for the Norwegian Independent Company 1, which had been set up in 1941 to carry out operations on behalf of the SOE.

With members of his family already working within Vemork, it was relatively easy to insert Skinnarland back into the country and to find him work within the plant. At great personal risk to himself, he used his radio to pass valuable information to Britain, such as a detailed layout of the plant and working schedules within it, which could then be used for detailed planning by a demolition party.

The first major attempt to destroy production took place in October 1942 when British Combined Operations mounted a raid to destroy the plant. Under Operation Grouse, a four-man team of Norwegian commandos were trained by the SOE and parachuted into Norway. Grouse was led by 23-year-old Second Lieutenant Jens-Anton Poulsson, and he and his three team members – Arne Kjelstrup, Knut Haugland and Claus Helberg – were all locally born and knew the area well. They were dropped onto the vast and mountainous Hardangervidda plateau in the central part of southern Norway as an advanced party for Operation Freshman, due to be mounted the following month by thirty British Royal Engineers of the 9th Field Company, 1st Airborne Division. The engineers were due to land in two Horsa gliders on a frozen lake near the plant, but although Grouse had gone much as planned, Operation Freshman proved to be a disaster. One of the gliders crashed after its Halifax tug flew into a mountain, killing all on board the Halifax and causing severe casualties on board the glider, while the second Halifax could not locate the landing site. It was decided to abort the operation and return to base, but the glider then broke free in bad weather and crashed, causing yet more casualties amongst those on board. Although there were some survivors from both of the gliders, they soon fell into German hands and were subsequently tortured by the Gestapo before being executed under Hitler’s Kommandobefehl.

Not only was Freshman a failure, but it was now quite clear to the Germans that the Allies were determined to destroy the hydro-electric plant. The Allies knew this, but it was essential that another attempt be made. The Grouse team had survived and so it was now important for the men to remain undetected until a further attempt could be undertaken. For the four Norwegians high up on the plateau overlooking the plant it was a long winter, but they remained undetected until a fresh attempt could be made; they were now to operate under the changed codename of Swallow.

On the night of 16 February 1943, under the codename of Operation Gunnerside, six Norwegian commandos, led by Joachim Rønneberg, boarded a converted Halifax bomber of 138 Squadron at RAF Tempsford. Rønneberg was another young Norwegian who had fled to Britain after the German occupation to join the Norwegian Independent Company. He was now 24 years old and a lieutenant, and was selected to lead the raid because of his steadiness and inspirational leadership qualities. He had been trained well and so had his team – Knut Haukelid, Fredrik Kayser, Kasper Idland, Hans Storhaug and Birger Strømsheim – all of whom had also fled their country after occupation, and were now equally determined to return home and hit back at their occupiers. They were all excellent skiers and fully at home in the mountains, and so were perfect for such a raid.

Just hours later the Gunnerside team parachuted into Norway. They quickly gathered their supplies and set off to find the men of Swallow, but gale force winds and severe blizzards meant the conditions were harsh. Much of their time was spent sheltering in a remote hunting cabin and it took the team five days to travel the 30 miles to meet up with Swallow.

Once together, the combined team began to make preparations for the raid, which was due to take place on the night of 27/28 February. The Germans had clearly expected the British to mount a further raid in the immediate aftermath of their failed attempt and so the defences at the hydro-electric plant had been significantly reinforced. The number of guards patrolling the facility and its surrounds had been increased, mines had been laid outside the plant and the whole area was covered by floodlights. Furthermore, the single bridge spanning the deep ravine above the main river providing water to the plant, which was the main route in and out of the facility, was heavily guarded.

None of this was unexpected to the SOE and this was one of the main reasons behind the decision to leave the plant alone in the immediate aftermath of Op Freshman. Now, though, after more than three months, it was hoped that the German defenders had become more relaxed, complacent even, during what had been a long and extremely hard winter, even for the Norwegians. It was hoped that the bitterly cold weather would mean there would be a reduced number of guards outside the main plant, and even the guards who were outside would hopefully be more focused on trying to keep warm rather than maintaining a sharp lookout for intruders.

To cross the river by using the main bridge was clearly out of the question and so the raiders decided to descend into the deep ravine. It was over 600 feet deep and the sides were steep. It was such a difficult route that the Germans had considered it impassable, but it was to prove the weak point of their defences. When the raiders reached the bottom they had to ford the icy river before climbing up the far side. Fortunately, the river level was low and they had been able to make good time. Having climbed back up the far side, the raiders then followed a railway track into the plant. The railway was rarely used, but even so, it came as a welcome surprise to find it unguarded; they were able to make their way into the plant without encountering any problems.

From information provided by Skinnarland the raiders had been able to plan their attack in detail. The idea was to split into two teams, one to sabotage the plant while the other kept a lookout.

It was around midnight when Rønneberg and Kayser crawled inside the building through a cable shaft. They found the room containing the heavy water cylinders guarded by just one person, a Norwegian. Apart from being caught by surprise, the guard turned out to be friendly and provided no opposition. Two more members of the team, including Strømsheim, soon joined them, having entered the building through a window.

Remarkably, the team had been able to enter the plant without being spotted or encountering any opposition. They quickly set about placing their explosive charges on the heavy water electrolysis chambers and then attached a short delayed fuse to give them just enough time to make their escape. Before leaving, they placed a British Sten sub-machine gun next to the chambers to make it clear to the Germans that it was the work of the British and not the Norwegian Resistance, in the hope that this would prevent any reprisals against the local population.

With the men having made their escape, the explosive charges detonated as planned, destroying the main electrolysis chambers. Although the noise was deafening inside the plant, outside the sound of the muffled explosion largely went unheard; although some guards seemed to hear the noise, they associated it with the sound of machinery in the plant rather than any act of sabotage.

The heavy water had been destroyed, as had the equipment critical to the operation. The Germans dispatched a huge force to try and find the commandos but none were caught. Five of the team, led by Rønneberg, skied 250 miles to make their escape to Sweden; it took them two weeks. The rest stayed behind in Norway and simply disappeared back into the population without ever being found. The raid was, without doubt, a success. Eighteen heavy water cells and more than 1,000lb of heavy water had been destroyed, with the production of heavy water stopped for several weeks.

However, the Germans fully intended to continue using the plant to restore production and, by the summer of 1943, the damage had been repaired and production fully restored. With German defences at the plant substantially increased, the Allies realized that mounting a further raid on the ground would most likely end up failing and prove too costly, and so a series of air raids were carried out instead. One daylight raid in particular, carried out by more than a hundred American B-17 bombers during November, caused extensive damage.

The Germans were convinced that more air raids would hamper production and so decided to abandon the plant and transfer its heavy water production to Germany. This would involve moving the extant stock of heavy water and the critical components required for production.

With five of the Gunnerside team having escaped to Sweden, the only trained commando still in the area was Knut Haukelid, who had remained behind in Norway. Haukelid was informed of the German plan to remove the stock of heavy water and its equipment across Lake Tinnsjø, one of the biggest lakes in Norway and one of the deepest in Europe, using the railway ferry operating on the lake. The ferry, called the Hydro, connected the railway on either side of the lake and carried raw materials and fertilizer from the hydro-electric plant to the port at Skien. While destroying the heavy water and equipment on the train was considered, there were too many uncertainties. Complete destruction could not be guaranteed and so the ferry presented the most obvious way of destroying the heavy water and its equipment. The Hydro simply had to be sunk.

With the support of a small team, Haukelid put together a plan to sink the ferry as it crossed the deepest part of the lake, where it was nearly 1,500 feet deep. Unfortunately, the ferry also carried passengers and so, to minimize the number of civilian casualties, Haukelid was able to get someone on the inside of the plant to make sure the crossing of the lake took place on a Sunday when the ferry was known to carry fewest passengers.

On Saturday, 19 February 1944, Haukelid received notice that the heavy water and equipment was due to be transported the following day, with the heavy water drums carried in railway cars. That evening, he and three saboteurs boarded the ferry. While one of the saboteurs, Knut Lier-Hansen, distracted a crew member, Haukelid and Rolf Sorlie went below deck to set the charge. It took them nearly two hours to set the 20lb of plastic explosive where it would do the most damage. The explosive was set in a circular pattern to blow out part of the hull and cause the ferry to sink quickly, but not so quickly as to prevent passengers and crew from escaping overboard. While the ferry needed to be sunk at the deepest part of the lake, Haukelid was also keen to ensure that the sinking took place close enough to the shore to give everyone the best possible chance of reaching safety.

Having placed the charge, the saboteurs left the ship and Haukelid immediately set off for Sweden. The Hydro sailed as planned the following morning. It was a cold but calm day, but the peace and quiet of another Sunday morning on the lake was suddenly shattered as the explosive blew. The ferry immediately turned towards the shore, but the Hydro sank soon after with the loss of eighteen on board, including the crew of seven and eight German soldiers. The Hydro went straight to the bottom with the heavy water and vital equipment still on board. It would not reach Nazi Germany.

There were many decorations awarded for the raid against the plant and the follow-on attack on the ferry. Amongst their own Norwegian decorations for bravery, both Joachim Rønneberg and Knut Haukelid were awarded the DSO by the British for their courage and leadership; Rønneberg for the Gunnerside team and Haukelid for the sinking of the Hydro. Other members of the team were awarded the MM and there was a DCM for Einar Skinnarland, who had provided such vital information from inside the plant. The heroism of those involved meant the top secret war against heavy water production became internationally known and the saboteurs rightly became national heroes.