Invisible Enemy by Ivan Berryman.

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

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

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

HMS Queen Elizabeth in Alexandria harbour.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Italian Naval Special Operations


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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Whilst Tobruk was being attacked, the second raid, Operation Bigamy, would target Benghazi. This group, dubbed Force X, would comprise Stirling himself leading L Detachment of 1st SAS marching in 40-odd jeeps, supported by two LRDG patrols (S1 and S2) with a further detachment of Royal Marines. Their objectives were still substantial – to block the inner harbour, sink ships and blast port installations. Mission accomplished, Force X would retire only as far as Jalo Oasis and launch more raids over an intense, three-week period.30 At one point, it was proposed to ferry in a full battalion from Malta and throw in a couple of Honeys. This enlargement was, happily, soon mainly forgotten.

Another LRDG patrol would guide a unit of the SDF (Sudan Defence Force) to Jalo Oasis (then in enemy hands), on the night of 15/16 September, in Operation Nicety. It was thought the place was weakly held by Italians and the SDF was to be beefed up with howitzers, anti-tank and AA guns. The RAF would bomb Benghazi as well as Tobruk. Planes would sow a harvest of dummy ‘parashots’ over Siwa, which would be ostensibly threatened by a feint mounted by SDF. Two more LRDG patrols, led by Captain Jake Easonsmith, would also attack Barce, purely their affair. This merest of mere sideshows would be the only successful operation.

Lieutenant Colonel Unwin would lead 11th Battalion Royal Marines in the amphibious assault. The CO, a mature officer recalled to service, was described as ‘taciturn but a good leader, bold in nature and concerned to turn 11 RM into an aggressive commando force’. His battalion had endured a frustrating war. They’d been raised as part of the Mobile Naval Base Defence Organization (MNBDO). Their function was to provide and secure temporary naval havens wherever the need should arise. Employment had been found for them on Crete in the superb anchorage of Suda Bay, but 11th Battalion had arrived too late for this deployment; a blessing as it turned out after the skies over Crete darkened with General Karl Student’s Fallschirmjäger.

Throughout the remainder of 1941, the marines trained around the Bitter Lakes, possibly once an extended finger of the Red Sea, but they spent a depressing amount of their time guarding Morscar Barracks. In 1942 they spent long periods at Haifa, a crucial port and link to the lifeline of Anglo-Iranian oil. On 15 April they finally went to war in earnest when Unwin led a company sized force in an amphibious raid on the small island of Kuphonisi off the south-east tip of occupied Crete.

Their mission was to destroy an Axis wireless station. It became very lively but they got the job done and left the place wrecked. An enemy collaborator in the pleasing form of an ample swine was made captive (POW = ‘pig of war’). This was rich booty indeed. Ironically, the codes and ciphers they’d filched had already been cracked, but the marines’ larceny prompted the enemy to change these.

The marines trained aboard the two Tribal Class destroyers Sikh and Zulu. These were larger type destroyers but they were well above reasonable capacity when 200 marines and their boats were embarked.33 Land-based fitness training took place in Palestine, Trans-Jordan and Egypt. The men were strong and they were ready. The difficulty lay in how they might be got ashore. Clearly, this is the critical element in any amphibious operation, and has exercised commanders since the Siege of Troy. The plans for Waylay had favoured purpose built timber craft as opposed to ships’ boats. On paper this made sense. In practice it did not, as Major Mahoney recalled:

The selected small craft dumb lighters towed by small powered craft, and these small three ply power boats with their dumb lighters were all the contemplated boats for the landing. They were pathetically slow and subjected mainly to fouled propellers in shallow waters during exercises.

Nobody liked the boats, as Gunner Wilson stated:

We first practiced the landings at Cyprus with these special boats built in Lebanon, and the ‘Sikh’ could carry about half a dozen of these I think. They were built with green Lebanon wood and were extremely fragile and far from handy … As far as I can remember they were not very long, about fifteen to sixteen feet and very lightly built of wood on steel frames.

Here lay the problem, the fatal flaw. The concept for getting the marines ashore was wrong from the start, as it involved cheap nasty little boats, barely seaworthy in calm water, far less so in rough. This tactical design failure would come back to haunt the execution of Operation Agreement. The marines did not fail, but these shoddy excuses for landing craft, or ‘shoeboxes’, did for them as surely as any Axis guns.

This was bad, but the security situation was worse, as Fitzroy Maclean remembered:

For obvious reasons, secrecy was vital, and only a very small number of those taking part in the operations were told what their destination was to be. But long before we were ready to start there were signs that too many people knew too much. At Alexandria a drunken marine was heard boasting in a canteen that he was off to Tobruk; a Free French officer picked up some startling information at Beirut; one of the barmen at the hotel, who was generally thought to be an enemy agent, seemed much too well informed. Worse still, there were indications that the enemy was expecting the raids and taking counter measures.

If surprise was the key, then so was secrecy. If the enemy got wind of the plan, the game was effectively up. That Tobruk was a likely target required no hint of genius. Intelligence is at the heart of all successful operations. So far the Allies, thanks to the brilliance of the Bletchley code-breakers, were doing rather well. The arrival of Rommel in the North African Theatre coincided with the establishment of a special signals link to Wavell and Middle East Command in Cairo. Hut 3 at Bletchley could now transmit reports directly to the GOC. Ultra intelligence was not able to identify Rommel’s immediate counter-offensive, but Hut 6 had broken the Luftwaffe key now designated ‘Light Blue.’ Early decrypts revealed the concern felt by OKH (Oberkommando des Heeres) at Rommel’s maverick strategy and indicated the extent of his supply problems.

Though the intercepts were a major tactical gain in principle, the process was new and subject to delay to the extent that they rarely arrived in time to influence the events in the field during a highly mobile campaign. Equally, Light Blue was able to provide some details of Rommel’s seaborne supplies but again in insufficient detail and with inadequate speed to permit a suitable response from either the RN or RAF.

Then, in July 1941 a major breakthrough occurred. An Italian navy cipher, ‘C38m’, was also broken, and the flood of detail this provided greatly amplified that gleaned from Light Blue. Information was now passed not just to Cairo but to the RN at Alexandria and the RAF on Malta. Every care, as ever, had to be taken to ensure the integrity of Ultra was preserved. Jim Rose, one of Bletchley’s air advisors, explains:

Ultra was very important in cutting Rommel’s supplies. He was fighting with one hand behind his back because we were getting information about all the convoys from Italy. The RAF were not allowed to attack them unless they sent out reconnaissance and if there was fog of course they couldn’t attack them because it would have jeopardised the security of Ultra, but in fact most of them were attacked.

Ultra thus contributed significantly to Rommel’s supply problem. On land a number of army keys were also broken; these were designated by names of birds. Thus it was ‘Chaffinch’ that provided Auchinleck with detailed information on DAK supply shortages and weight of materiel including tanks. Since mid-1941 a Special Signals Unit (latterly Special Liaison Unit) had been deployed in theatre. The unit had to ensure information was disseminated only amongst those properly ‘in the know’ and that, vitally, identifiable secondary intelligence was always available to mask the true source.

Experience gained during the Crusader offensive indicated that the best use of Ultra was to provide detail of the enemy’s strength and pre-battle dispositions. The material could not be decrypted fast enough nor sent on to cope with a fast changing tactical situation. At the front, information could be relayed far more quickly by the Royal Signals mobile Y-Special Wireless Sections and battalion intelligence officers, one of whom, Bill Williams, recalled:

Despite the amazing speed with which we received Ultra, it was of course usually out of date. This did not mean we were not glad of its arrival for at best it showed that we were wrong, usually it enabled us to tidy up loose ends, and at least we tumbled into bed with a smug confirmation. In a planning period between battles its value was more obvious and one had the opportunity to study it in relation to context so much better than during a fast moving battle such as desert warfare produced.

Wireless in the vastness of the desert was the only effective mode of communication, but wireless messages are always subject to intercept. Bertie Buck’s Jews from Palestine provided specialist skills. Most were German in origin and understood only too well the real nature of the enemy they faced. The Germans had their own Y Dienst (Y Service) and the formidable Captain Seebohm, whose unit proved highly successful.

The extent of Seebohm’s effectiveness was only realized after his unit had been overrun during the attack by 26th Australian Brigade at Tell el Eisa in July 1942. The captain was a casualty and the raiders discovered how extensive the slackness of Allied procedures actually was. As a consequence the drills were significantly tightened. If the Axis effort was thereby dented, Rommel still had a significant source from the US diplomatic codes, which had been broken and regularly included data on Allied plans and dispositions, the ‘Black Code’.

Reverses following on from the apparent success of Crusader were exacerbated, as Bletchley historians confirm, by ‘a serious misreading of a decrypt from the Italian C38m cipher’. Hut 3 could not really assist the British in mitigating the defeat at Gazala or, perhaps worse, the surrender of Tobruk. This was one which Churchill felt most keenly as ‘a bitter moment. Defeat is one thing; disgrace is another’.

Until this time it had taken Bletchley about a week to crack Chaffinch, but from the end of May, the ace code-breakers were able to cut this to a day. Other key codes ‘Phoenix’ and ‘Thrush’ were also broken. Similar inroads were made against the Luftwaffe. ‘Primrose’, employed by the supply formation and ‘Scorpion’, the ground/air link, were both broken. Scorpion was a godsend: as close and constant touch with units in the field was necessary for supply, German signallers unwittingly provided a blueprint for any unfolding battle.

On the ground 8th Army was increasing the total of mobile Y formations, whilst the intelligence corps and RAF code-breakers were getting fully into their stride.40 None of these developments could combine to save the Auk, but Montgomery was the beneficiary of high level traffic between Rommel and Hitler, sent via Kesselring (as the latter was Luftwaffe). The Red cipher, long mastered by Bletchley, was employed. Monty had already predicted the likelihood of the Alam el Halfa battle, but the intercepts clearly underscored his analysis.

By now the array of air force, navy and army codes penetrated by Bletchley was providing a regular assessment of supply, of available AFVs (Armoured Fighting Vehicles) and the dialogue of senior officers. The relationship between Rommel and Kesselring was evidently strained. Even the most cynical of old sweats, Bill Williams, had cause to be impressed: ‘he [Montgomery] told them with remarkable assurance how the enemy was going to be defeated. The enemy attack was delayed and the usual jokes were made about the “crystal-gazers”.’ A day or two later everything happened according to plan. Ultra was dispelling the fog of war.

In some ways, the Desert War provided the coming of age for the Bletchley Park code-breakers, as intelligence officer Ralph Bennett explains:

Until Alam Halfa, we had always been hoping for proper recognition of our product … Now the recognition was a fact and we had to go on deserving it. I had left as one of a group of enthusiastic amateurs. I returned to a professional organisation with standards and an acknowledged reputation to maintain.

By the time of Agreement, the Allies were getting ahead in the intelligence and ciphers game. What would let them down, and what to some extent remains controversial, was the apparent total lack of secrecy surrounding planning and preparation for the mission.

Fitzroy Maclean was not the only one hearing rumours. J. J. Fallon, a Royal Marine, recalled ‘friends telling me their destination; it was equally common knowledge in the cafes and bars together with the clubs frequented by servicemen’. On 2 September, Lieutenant Colonel Unwin had dispatched a corporal of his 11th Battalion from Haifa to the combined training centre at Kabret to pick up some kit. Later that same day, the wretched NCO was overhead gabbling in the NAAFI (Navy, Army and Air Force Institute). He had recounted details of a supply convoy he passed, talked about the gear he had transported and where it was going. He confided that a big ‘op’ was imminent involving destroyers and hundreds of marines. He speculated this was an outflanking expedition aimed at Halfaya and more. He soon found himself in very serious bother, but the damage may have been done.

‘Loose talk cost lives’ – an always true wartime saying, and yet to what extent loose talk compromised the operation is very hard to judge. Gossip generally doesn’t leave traces in any archives. Marines were warned not to appear on deck in their battledress while the destroyers were berthed at Alexandria. This was probably too little and far too late.45 Stirling emphatically denied any leak emanating from his SAS, Guy Prendergast would have been equally vehement on behalf of LRDG, and both would very probably have been right. Those at the sharp end know their lives depend on secrecy. It’s those behind who are never at risk who might blab.

Stirling was adamant that the problem was to be found in the clubs and bars of Cairo. David Lloyd Owen warned Haselden that the bazaars were buzzing and the latter agreed, though he was hopeful the Axis would not have picked up sufficiently on the chatter. Rear Admiral L. E. H. Maund, serving with combined operations, was more specific in his allegations. He asserted that security within LRDG HQ at Kufra was lax and details of the mission were being openly discussed there, and that the presence of SIG personnel in German gear was common knowledge.

At the other end of the operational zone, talk at Haifa focused on the marines. Gossip breeds rumour, which leads to speculation and debate, practically as good as a signed copy of the operational orders for any lurking Axis agents. Moving the entire contingent, men, ships and supplies to Kabret, which could be effectively sealed off, was considered and then rejected. A New Zealand officer stationed at the divisional base outside of Cairo was apparently heard openly discussing the operation.

There was an element of comic opera when laundry-men bringing the men’s shirts back aboard the ships were demanding immediate settlement ‘as you go to Tobruk’! This was hardly calming. Did the Axis in fact know? This is uncertain. There is some anecdotal evidence suggesting a heightened awareness, but no specific proof that security in Tobruk was beefed up to any extent. Surely if the enemy did know, then Haselden’s party would never have passed through the wire unchallenged, as they were to do. The Operational History is emphatic that there is no evidence of Axis foreknowledge, and nothing of the actual events suggests they were in any way primed.

Nonetheless, this was potentially very bad. Despite the Allies’ capacity for successful eavesdropping and accurate reporting, knowledge of the actual garrison strength at Tobruk was very thin indeed, and based, as it appeared, mainly upon wishful thinking. It was estimated that the Italians might have a weak brigade with perhaps a battalion of Germans. Optimistically, it was suggested that most of these would be bivouacked some way above and outside the town. Nor was it considered likely the Axis possessed sufficient MT (motor transport) to bring their men in.

If information on troop strengths was scanty, assessments of attack aircraft available both from the Luftwaffe and Regia Aeronautica were far more accurate. Intelligence suggested the latter could deploy some 30 Macchi 200 fighters from El Adem and Tobruk aerodromes and two dozen torpedo bombers at Derna, with some Ju 88s and Me110s. Another 30 Ju 87 Stukas could be scrambled from Sidi Barrani and be on target within the hour.

Within a couple of hours’ flying time, the Germans could fill the skies with planes from Crete and other airfields, an offensive total of some 130 aircraft. The raiders would be at high risk during daylight, even if they could take and mount the port’s complement of AA guns. The marines had been blandly assured that the RAF had the matter in hand. There was no detail on this and Air Marshal Tedder’s* objections to the whole scheme were based on the lack of Allied fighter cover. This planning gap was to produce fearful consequences.

What would be of considerable value to the mission was up to date aerial reconnaissance. If the planners could get their hands on a full photographic survey in 1:16.800 scale this would reveal the extent of any new defences, new dumps and camps, enhanced transport and railway links, and, as a useful bonus, would corroborate (or show the lack of) the accuracy of current maps. This intelligence would be a tremendous boon, and Brigadier George Davy entreated the RAF to oblige via their Photographic Reconnaissance Unit (PRU) on 30 August. His request came with a health warning in that increased air traffic over the port might alert the enemy. In any event the PRU was too busy to comply: as the commanding officer put it, ‘the existing operational commitments of PRU aircraft can barely be met with present resources … I cannot place the demand for special photography of the Tobruk area on the highest priority from any given date.’

This was not helpful, but such a recce might not have provided much useful information anyway. The photos would have enabled the planners, and therefore the participants, to build up a better picture, but it appears unlikely this would have had an impact on the final outcome. Training and preparation were in the event inadequate, the landing boats were totally unsuitable and the entire scheme hopelessly over-reliant on a series of disconnected elements coming together.

Unwin’s marines would deploy an HQ section with communications detachment, A, B and C companies of the 11th, an MG (machine gun) platoon, mortar platoon, attached gunners, sappers and medics. All would wear light desert kit with commando boots and carry bare rations and water. This was ideal fighting gear, and having everyone dressed the same would reduce the risk of ‘blue on blue’ incidents. Additional stores of ammunition (100,000 rounds of .303, 100 3-inch mortar rounds, 200lb of gun-cotton slabs with 50 primers) were to be off-loaded on No. 4 jetty by late morning.

Before a single marine was able to come ashore, the landing beach would be marked by an SBS detachment using Folbots. Lieutenant Kirby was in charge of the canoeists who, with their boats, would be carried on the submarine Taku. They would ship out from the sub at 0130 hours and Taku would signal the destroyers at 0200 hours that the SBS team was safely ashore. Once on the beach at Mersa Mreira, Kirby would set up the landing lights: one would be placed on the eastern flank of the cove entrance, the other half way down the passage on the same side. Two long flashes would be sent out every two minutes from NE to NW from 0245 hours and keep flashing till the landing boats were safely in. A red light meant all clear; white spelled danger.

Both destroyers would disembark their marines in the small lighters, strings of which would be pulled by the motorized launches. Marines were to be ashore at Mersa Mreira by 0330 hours, sorted, formed and moving on their objectives within 45 minutes. It was A Company’s job to secure the outer, west-facing perimeter. C Company would move against the coastal gun positions at Mengar Shansak, taking these and German AA guns alongside. Having neutralized these they would probe westwards, rolling up the outer batteries till they had reached the No. 4 jetty. This would allow the sappers to begin their work of destruction. The mortars would go with C Company, but could be retrieved by battalion HQ to attack enemy positions wherever they needed battering.

While A and B companies were thus gainfully employed, B Company would head straight for the town centre, sweeping up AA positions en route. This done, they’d look to the ravaging of the MT workshops and facilities. Once the Argylls were put ashore on the eastern flank from Force C’s MTBs, they would reinforce the western perimeter. C Company of the marines would redeploy in support, leaving three full companies to hold the rim. B Company of the marines would support the Scots but, at the same time, were tasked to effect the liaison with Haselden’s Force B. The demarcation line between the seaborne units and Force B would be the road that linked the hospital to the western extremity of the quays. Essentially, the regular infantry, beefed up by the Fusiliers’ MG platoon, would secure the area whilst the specialists continued blowing things up.

Part of the intended booty comprised the numerous SFs or Siebel Ferries; squat, square and ungainly, these workaday lighters were ideal for the movement of supplies from ship to shore. They each carried their own light AA guns and it was hoped to net at least ten of them. Those that could be cut out were to be dispatched eastwards, and those that couldn’t were to be sunk to the bottom of the harbour. Once the blowing up was finished, Force B would send up a multi-coloured flare, a signal for the British ships and MTBs to enter the port, confirmed by radio. Casualties would either be shipped out to the destroyers by captured ferry or, if too badly wounded, handed over to the Italian hospital. By 1900 hours the entire force was to be up and away.

With their initial, vital mission complete, the SBS team would pitch in with the marines targeting the harbour and cutting out the German lighters. Taku, having launched her cargo, would steam clear at top cruising speed and stand to some 40 miles offshore. Once the port itself was secure, this would be the trigger for the two destroyers to enter. Both Sikh and Zulu had been cannily camouflaged to look like Italian craft. Once they got into the harbour, they would list over to one side and pump oil, accompanied by ample outpourings of black smoke; the guns would be depressed and upper decks kept clear.

The purpose of all this mummery would be to give the impression the destroyers were already crippled and out of action. This, it was fervently hoped, would be sufficient to persuade any nosey Stukas that they weren’t viable or hostile targets. Some would argue Allied fighter cover might have served rather better. This was all both very complicated and inter-dependent. And this was just Force A. The marines could not accomplish their part without the other two main elements fulfilling theirs.

John Haselden, often viewed as the prophet of Operation Agreement, would lead Force B. This was the stuff of Henty. The unit would attack from the landward side after an epic desert crossing. The colonel’s friend and admirer David Lloyd Owen, with Y1 Patrol of the LRDG, would guide 83 commandos from D Squadron Special Service Group, commanded by Major Colin Campbell of the London Scottish. The raiders, with added detachments of gunners, sappers and signallers, would be crammed into eight 3-tonners. LRDG would rely on their tested and more nimble Chevrolets. Lieutenant Poynton, the RA (Royal Artillery) officer, had a tough assignment; he and his very modest squad were expected to man the captured guns while Lieutenant Barlow would look to AA defence. Bill Barlow had in fact served during the siege of Tobruk, so possessed considerable personal knowledge, likely to be an invaluable asset.

The SBS contributed Lieutenant T. B. Langton, an ex-Irish Guards officer, who as well as being adjutant had the vital task of signalling to Force C, the MTB-borne detachment offshore, that the vital cove had been secured. Without this confirmation they could not land. Lieutenant Harrison commanded the sappers, charged as ever with the blowing up of things, and Lieutenant Trollope led the signals section. The team also fielded a lone representative of the RAF, Pilot Officer Aubrey L. Scott, responsible for liaison.

Bertie Buck with Lieutenant David Russell of the Scots Guards was in charge of the tiny SIG squad. As they had previously at Derna, the SIG troopers would pose as German guards, the commandos their POWs. This ruse, it was hoped, would get them through the perimeter wire. If they were closely challenged, the SIG would be close enough to the sentries to ensure they caused no further difficulties. Russell, like Buck, was a fluent German speaker.

Peter Smith, incorrectly, lists two further British officers, a Captain Bray and Lieutenant Lanark. These men did not in fact exist. Gordon Landsborough in his 1956 classic Tobruk Commando assigns these names to Buck and Russell. At the time of Smith’s writing, certain War Office restrictions still applied and the use of these noms de guerre was a necessary literary fiction. Likewise, Landsborough lists the four other ranks as Corporal Weizmann (real name Opprower), privates Wilenski (probably Goldstein), Berg (30777 Private J. Rohr or Roer) and Steiner (10716 Corporal Hillman 1 SAS). There was also a Private Rosenzweig.

The SIG behaved, spoke and were equipped as Germans; their love letters, carefully written, were also in German. Opprower called his fictitious girlfriend Lizbeth Kunz, in fact an ardent Nazi and near neighbour of his before he fled the Fatherland.56 Buck tested his men relentlessly. Their cover stories had to stand up, though none could be in any doubt as to their likely fate if they fell into Axis hands. After the previous debacle, the Germans were aware of the unit’s existence. As a bonus, Buck did entertain hopes, in Stanley Moss/Patrick Lee Fermor style, of seizing a German general who had a billet in the town!

This was the reason Buck took only one other officer and five soldiers with him. The bluff really needed around a dozen to look totally convincing. Operation Agreement did not succeed, but the SIG did. Their role in the mission was absolutely critical. If the bluff failed, if Force B had to fight their way in, the whole plan would be unravelling from the start. As a sub-unit, they kept themselves apart; the commandos frankly preferred this. Since the earlier betrayal, the whole unit was looked on with suspicion. Haselden had his own pet project once inside the wire, which would involve releasing the thousands of Allied POWs who it was believed were being held in large holding areas (‘cages’) inside the defences. Popski was cynical from the start, or perhaps this was providential hindsight; success, as they say, has a thousand fathers, but failure is always an orphan!

So much for land and sea: what of operations in the skies? The RAF was due to appear overhead at 2130 hours on D1 and the raid would continue to 0330 hours on D2, though no flares would be dropped after 0100 hours. It would be massive, one of the biggest of the Desert War. The northern flank would get the heaviest pounding, and even once the raid was ended a number of planes would stay in the air above the harbour until 0500 hours to keep the AA guns and radar fully diverted. It was hoped, as mentioned, that the fury of the bombardment would drown the noisy approach of Force C’s MTBs.

Another job for Force B’s signaller was to set up a marker at Mersa Umm Es Sciausc. This was a very large triangle with sides 20 yards long, lit by three glim lamps with the signal ‘OK’ being flashed from an Aldis. Once this was sighted, the planes would return their acknowledgement ‘TOC’ and then transmit the codeword for success, ‘Nigger’ (this was considered an acceptable term at the time), to Captain Micklethwait. The RAF also hoped to bomb other Axis airfields along the coast and drop a few bombs on Crete for good measure (Crete was subsequently taken off the hit-list as a target too far, given the resources available).

Admiral Harwood, whose reduced fleet bore the lion’s share of eventual losses, described the operation as ‘a desperate gamble’. He acquiesced because he felt he had no choice, yet one feels his predecessor, the brilliant Admiral Cunningham, would have rejected the whole business. Operation Agreement, like other strategic failures grew and acquired an irresistible forward momentum all of its own. Wise counsels were not sought or heeded. Subsequent, equally ill-judged intervention in the Dodecanese in 1943 was another example of hasty and inadequate planning, as was, most clearly, the Arnhem disaster the following year.

Yet not all were necessarily caught up in the unbridled enthusiasm for Agreement. On 29 August, the joint planners published a very sober assessment of the likely consequences, not of failure but of success. The overall effect on the Axis’s maintenance position if the capacity of Benghazi was curtailed would be minimal unless Tobruk was effectively neutralized. Raids carried out in the Jebel Akhdar would have little beneficial effect, as the enemy had moved the bulk of his operations and supply eastwards. Substantial reserves had been accumulated both inside Tobruk and to the east, enough for up to a fortnight if normal traffic and supply through the port, measured daily, matched consumption. Assuming that the harbour could not be effectively blockaded and thus denied to the enemy, it would be unlikely to remain out of use for any more than a week and any lighters lost could be replaced. At best, then, the operation, if it achieved its objectives, would inconvenience the Axis for a very short time only and oblige them to live off their stores.59 In the light of so downbeat an assessment, the overall worth of the operation was questionable from the outset. Derring-do is laudable and boosts morale, but only if it produces tangible results.


Over the course of the 1990s, Yugoslavia fragmented in a decade-long orgy of bloodletting that became known as the Balkans conflict. The disintegration began as part of the cascading breakup of the Soviet Union and its satellites and erupted into a murderous ethnic war in 1992, after Bosnia’s Muslim and Croat majority voted to secede from the Serb-dominated Yugoslav federation. For several years the United States stood aside, hoping that Europe would find a way to stop the hemorrhage. Diplomatic overtures and arm-twisting by NATO (the North Atlantic Treaty Organization) failed, while the killing of 250,000 of Bosnia’s population of three million proceeded apace.

The so-called ethnic cleansing was essentially complete by the time of the Dayton Peace Accords in 1995. The attempt to enforce the accords and prevent further killing fell to the Dayton Implementation Force (IFOR), composed of 60,000 NATO-led troops.

The U.S. special operations component of IFOR was led by Col. Geoffrey Lambert with Lt. Col. Charlie Cleveland as his deputy. Lambert had commanded the 10th Special Forces Group, which is assigned to operate in Europe, since the fall of 1994, and Cleveland was its executive officer. The two men had served together in 7th Group in Panama in operations Just Cause and Promote Liberty in 1989–90. Those who knew Lambert knew that the former Ranger was not the type to command from the rear. The towering redhead was going to be in the thick of the action.

A native of Kansas, Lambert had been commissioned as a second lieutenant in 1973 and had then hopped back and forth between the Rangers and the Special Forces. In his early years, he had led a long-range reconnaissance patrol platoon, a rifle platoon, and a detachment in the Rangers, commanded a Special Forces ODA, returned to the Rangers for three more assignments, and then rejoined the Special Forces in time for Just Cause.

Lambert and Cleveland flew into Sarajevo from Italy on December 8, 1995, six days before the formal signing of the Dayton accords in Paris. In Bosnia, acceptance of the accords was far from universal. Operation Joint Endeavor was the largest mission NATO had ever undertaken, and it was a muscular peace-enforcement, not merely a peace-keeping attempt. As part of the advance party, Lambert and Cleveland’s job was to pave the way for the rest of the IFOR and its British commander, who would arrive shortly. Special Forces teams were to fan out all over the country as liaisons among the member countries to provide a common communications network. Later, the teams became observers and, with their experience and language skills, waded into the ravaged and deeply divided communities to develop contacts, gauge the public mood, and identify the various power brokers, from priests to hoodlums, and persons of influence. Once they had constructed a map of the society they worked those channels to resolve problems at local, regional, and national levels.

The people of Sarajevo began begging the world for help when their picturesque and ancient city came under siege in 1992. Ultra-nationalist Serbs had taken over the surrounding mountains and relentlessly shelled the city, which had been a vibrant, multiethnic cultural center since the Middle Ages. It had hosted the winter Olympics in 1984 and charmed the world with its attractions, but that did not bring international help when the bombardment and slow destruction of the city began. The Serbs’ heavy artillery reduced many buildings to husks, damaged power plants, and left the city dependent on generators and more sporadic fuel supplies.

Senad Pecanin was the editor of Sarajevo’s newsweekly, the most balanced and trenchant publication in the country. A Muslim who cherished his city and its secular, tolerant tradition, he had dared to publish accounts of Muslim atrocities as well as Serbs’. After his parents’ apartment was riddled with bullets, he and his wife Belma, a stunning brunette with the looks and grace of a 1940s movie star, decided to send their parents abroad. As the death toll mounted Senad persuaded her to take their newborn son and leave too. He might not be able to save his city, but he could keep putting out the magazine, if he could only keep the generator for the printing press running. Thugs broke into his office and held a gun to his head to demand that he stop publishing. The U.S. embassy tried to ward off attacks by publicly voicing its support for the magazine.

Senad, a gentle giant in his mid-thirties, began losing his hair from the tremendous stress. He could not stop the country’s descent into barbarism, but he vowed that he would always walk, and never run, through the infamous avenue in the city called Sniper Alley, the deadly shooting gallery where so many Sarajevans bled to death. Snipers in the mountains would take aim at ordinary people crossing this exposed stretch of city blocks. It was the only route to the dwindling supplies of water. Terrified men, women, and children would dodge, weave, and dash, and try all sorts of stratagems to run the gauntlet unscathed. Senad always walked. He and his magazine had become a symbol, and this was one way he could give his countrymen heart. He was a huge target, a bear of a man, but he would never give the Serb snipers the satisfaction of seeing him run.

The sniper problem was breaking the spirit of the Sarajevans. It had become emblematic of the Serbs’ utter disregard for the conventional laws of land warfare. Snipers would sit in their nests high in the hills and cold-bloodedly pick off civilians, not caring that the world’s television cameras broadcast their atrocities.

The special operations compound in the Serb quarter of Sarajevo was also targeted; it had been sniped at twenty-four times. The gunmen fired rifle grenades at it and its vehicles day and night. The peacekeepers blacked out their building at night and ringed it with trucks, to no avail. The sniping went on. One soldier was shot through the hand, another one grazed on the neck. The snipers also shot holes into military planes as they landed at the airfield.

Under the Dayton accord, all the parties had agreed to stop shooting. Long-barreled rifles were explicitly banned, yet the Serbian snipers kept on. Colonel Lambert came up with an idea and explained it to his counterparts from the British and French special forces, who were working together in Europe’s first-ever combined joint special operations task force, led by a British general with Lambert as the deputy. The task force decided to give Lambert’s plan a try. He arranged for a Q–36 radar to be brought to the airfield. Although made for homing in on artillery rounds, it could also spot much smaller rifle rounds. Every time the planes landed, the radar locked on to the muzzle flashes to fix the snipers’ location. Lambert also handed out night-vision goggles to British sentries on rooftop observation posts. French special operators stole out with night-capable cameras and took pictures of the muzzle flashes of the snipers in the hills and used the photos to pinpoint the coordinates of the sniper nests. They were now ready for the next Serb shooter.

One night, the French special operators shot the man who was sniping at the airfield, riddling his body with thirty-seven bullets. The corpse was then taken to the Serbian police station. British soldiers were assigned to this sector, so they delivered the body and the message. They pointed out that the Serbs had agreed to abide by the terms of the accord, which included no more shooting and no long-barreled guns. The Serbs were furious. The Serbs claimed that the dead man was a guard at a factory, but the soldiers showed them the photographic and radar evidence they had gathered, and then calmly presented their ultimatum.

It was the Serbs’ duty as policemen to protect this sector of Sarajevo, yet there were Serb snipers ringing the city and shooting at people daily. The peacekeepers asked that policemen assume their responsibility to address this matter. The British expressed regret for the killing of the sniper, but they said that more of them could be killed if the sniping did not stop. They said they had the imagery and the coordinates for all the sniper nests in the mountains and the high-rise buildings around Sarajevo. “We’re going to let you handle this, because we know you can,” the British commander told the Serbs.

The plan worked. The peacekeepers did not have to kill one more Serb sniper, but there still were disgruntled Serbs. Whether an act of retribution or another random and senseless act, Lambert’s caravan was hit soon after this showdown. He was not riding in the same vehicle he normally used, however, but in the car in front. His radio telephone operator was in the seat usually occupied by Lambert, but was shorter than Lambert and so the bullet just grazed him as it passed through the car’s windshield. For his trouble, he received a Purple Heart for being wounded in action, and his commander’s gratitude for having taken a bullet meant for him.

At the same time that the counter-sniping campaign was unfolding, Lambert launched Operation Teddy Bear. The British thought both the name and the concept were most unsoldierly and refused to have anything to do with it. Someone had donated 1,000 stuffed teddy bears to IFOR, so Lambert decided to hand them out to all the Serbian children in the neighborhood. He put Lt. Col. Charlie Cleveland in charge of it. Special Forces soldiers walked the streets with teddy bears, giving them out to any children they saw. They went without helmets or body armor to show solidarity with the civilians, who of course had no such protection either. They wanted to show hostile Serbs that, while they would not tolerate the sniping, they had no animus toward the population. Stopping the violence was only half the job; they had to find a way to get these people to live together again.

Senad Pecanin now had some allies willing to walk the streets and try to revive hope in his beleaguered and beloved city. The Special Forces teams rented houses and lived among the population in the country’s principal cities and towns. They met with church leaders, businessmen, political and militia leaders, and even crime bosses. They fed all the information into their database, and each time the fragile peace was disrupted by a killing, a violent mob, an unfounded rumor, or a misstep by the peacekeepers, they would work their contacts to try to calm the situation and persuade the influential locals to step up to remedy the problem. These networks also yielded valuable information about the war’s atrocities and who had committed them. In a separate operation, secret units of Special Forces and others were tasked in mid-1997 with hunting down the PIFWCs, as the seventy-four “persons indicted for war crimes” were known, to be brought before the international war crimes tribunal that was eventually convened by the UN Security Council at the Hague.11

Lambert remained engaged with the Balkans’ for the rest of the decade. After leading the special operations element of IFOR, he commanded all U.S. special operations forces in Europe. That job came with a promotion to brigadier general and his first general’s star. Cleveland spent the next four years coming and going from the Balkans as well. In 1996, he served simultaneously as deputy commander of the combined joint special operations task force and 10th Group. In 1997–98, he headed the Joint Commission of Observers in Bosnia. Tenth Group’s 3rd Battalion, which he commanded, supplied most of the commission’s observers. Other Special Forces groups also contributed some of the 22 total ODAs to assist the non-European peacekeeping troops: 1st Group teamed up with Malaysians and 5th Group with Pakistani and Arab contingents.

Cleveland’s Alpha Company commander, Major Ken Tovo, was in charge of the American sector observers. From the American base in Tuzla, Bosnia, called Task Force Eagle, he helped his teams navigate some of Bosnia’s most neuralgic hotspots. Brcko was the center of a major tug of war between the ethnic factions: as arbitrators agonized over its fate, ODA 076 lived in the city to monitor and manage its constantly brewing strife. The triumphs were few and hard-won and sometimes laced with bitterness, as in Srebrenica, the city whose massacre epitomized the conflict’s brutality. There, as an elected Muslim city council gingerly moved to take office, they and peacekeepers were attacked and a helicopter crashed. The ODA there functioned as a quick-reaction and first aid force, as well as the best pipeline of information going out to Tovo and the rest of the peacekeeping commanders. Tovo came back for another tour as aide to the conventional American commander in 1998–99, as Bosnia gained a semblance of stability while Kosovo took its place as the new killing ground.

As the head of all the observer teams in Bosnia, Cleveland frequently visited them in their respective cities or towns while his staff at the battalion headquarters in Sarajevo analyzed and updated the massive databases that the teams collected. Out driving one day, Cleveland thought about how far they, and the country, had come. He recalled his first outing in the war-torn land in December 1995. He and a few staff soldiers had found themselves in a mountain tunnel blocked with vehicles. It was a dark, cold winter night and none of the locals had any idea who they were. His logistics officer had blanched when Cleveland asked if he had a rifle, afraid that his boss planned to go up against several hundred people. The handful of Croatian soldiers they had encountered let them pass without a fight, however. The logistician would not have been comforted had he known that, a few years before, Cleveland had blithely jumped into a van and driven, alone, to a camp of Panamanian insurgents to talk them into surrendering.

Even two years later, Bosnia’s peace was still an uneasy one, to be sure. One of the observer team’s houses had been attacked during a riot in Brcko in the summer of 1997, and one of the teams had been stoned recently when they rescued some Croats from a Serbian mob in Derventa. But despite occasional flare-ups, the Special Forces network did succeed in deterring violence, heading off confrontations, and working out disputes before they erupted into fights. This low-key, low-visibility job was tailor-made for Special Forces. They had the training and the confidence to circulate in the communities that few other soldiers had. The observers wore uniforms but no rank insignia and tucked pistols under their jerseys, rather than walking around bristling with weapons that would scare the civilians. They had to gain the trust of the locals to do their job; exposing themselves to some risk was part of the bargain.

The Balkans taught the Special Forces a lot of lessons about how to build credibility, defuse a deliberately orchestrated demonstration, and win the confidence of the clergy. This environment was neither war nor peace: the methods of the regular soldier wouldn’t work, and civilians tended to lack the necessary influence. The Special Forces could work in these gray situations to try to jumpstart the society’s own governing structures. For Cleveland it was something of a deja-vu experience; he had sent teams into remote towns in the months after the Panama intervention to mend the factionalized country, which had been a peaceful democracy for the past eight years. Like many success stories, it had gone largely unheralded. In the Balkans he and his men greatly refined this basic approach by applying social science tools. They constructed matrices identifying persons of influence in eight different spheres ranging from politics to business to religion and even crime, cross-categorized with the regional and ethnic scope of his reach. They developed a very precise and useful map of a most complex society.

Lt. Col. Cleveland’s former comrade from the Panama days, Kevin Higgins, was not surprised that his friend managed to juggle all these jobs in the middle of the festering Balkans mess, the longest-lasting crisis of the 1990s and one of the largest Special Forces deployments in terms of numbers of personnel deployed. Higgins had watched Cleveland dream up plans and organizations from scratch in Panama and Bolivia. Higgins compared him to the type of individual profiled in historian Daniel Boorstin’s book The Creators, someone who is endowed with the fresh perception and imagination that is the artist’s hallmark. “Many SF men could follow along and execute an already established mission quite well,” said Higgins, “but Charlie would be the guy most likely to have thought of it in the first place. When we were staring at a blank piece of paper, he would figure out what to do.” After leaving the Balkans, Cleveland went to a mandatory joint assignment at the Pentagon overseeing Special Forces personnel matters. Chris Conner worked with him and recalled him being there at eight or nine o’clock at night, trying to find the right man for the slot. He never wanted to assign a man to a job he didn’t want or wasn’t suited for. After a year at the army war college, Cleveland was promoted to full colonel and, on a high-mountain summer day in 2001, he took command of 10th Group at Fort Carson. The Balkans’ ever-brewing troubles still were not over.

The Dayton Accords had ended the fighting but also essentially rewarded the aggressors by permitting them to keep territory they had “cleansed” of unwanted ethnic groups. The political will had been lacking in the American and European capitals to enforce a return to the status quo ante. That lesson was not lost on the Serbian leadership, which wagered that the same methods could be used to clear ethnic Albanians out of the province of Kosovo, even though they comprised 90 percent of its population.


Serbian Army in Kosovo & Metohija

Kosovo had lived an uneasy existence in the fraying Yugoslav federation since Belgrade revoked its autonomy in 1990. In mid-1998, the Serbs began using police raids, artillery and helicopter attacks, and executions to push hundreds of thousands of ethnic Albanians out of the province and into neighboring Macedonia and Albania. Another fruitless chapter of diplomacy and saber-rattling ensued. NATO fighter jets conducted exercises and Marines were moved into nearby countries, and NATO approved air strikes but they were not launched. For months Serbian leader Slobodan Milosevic toyed with international negotiators and ignored their ultimatums. By the time NATO issued its final deadline there were 11,000 dead and a million refugees.

Finally, in the spring of 1999, U.S. and European leaders decided to employ force. They were haunted by having stood aside so long in Bosnia, and history was repeating itself in Kosovo. NATO began a limited air bombing campaign and escalated it until Milosevic acquiesced, seventy-eight days later, in June 1999. Fifty thousand peacekeeping troops moved in under United Nations auspices to stop further violence and to keep the conflict from destablizing the neighboring countries, especially Macedonia, where ethnic frictions were mounting. Kosovar Albanians were rumored to be sending arms and men across the border to their ethnic kin. The Special Forces played much the same role as they had in Bosnia, moving around in teams to gather information, win friends and influence people, and keep tabs on the troublemakers.

The accord reached on Kosovo was a bare bones affair with no road map for resolving the status of the province, the return of refugees, or any other core issues. This may have been the key lesson of the decade’s “humanitarian interventions”: they were always too little, too late. The impulse to save lives was laudable, even if it was galvanized by television cameras broadcasting scenes of dying or starving people, but it did not constitute policy. Acknowledging the suffering did not suffice as a diagnosis of its cause or what would be required to remedy it. The application of military power in the absence of an accurate diagnosis and adequate solution was bound to result in confusion and impotence or, at worst, tragedy and failure.

The United States and the United Nations had pulled out of Somalia entirely by 1995, and the U.S. defense secretary had resigned, but that lesson had not been learned. Other humanitarian interventions were attempted nonetheless, without much greater success. U.S. troops were used to restore Haiti’s elected president to office, but the overriding goal was a casualty-free short-term occupation rather than lasting governability. Special Forces ODAs from 3rd Group were sent all over the country but were withdrawn before they had a chance to cement their progress. The Balkans experience combined ineffective diplomacy with halting interventionism that left the majority of victims displaced, key war criminals at large, a lingering international constabulary, and no clear end in sight a decade later.

A road map for Kosovo would have helped everyone involved, but the Special Forces were better prepared than most to deal with such murky situations. Kosovo’s conflict featured unconventional tactics, a separatist guerrilla army, a popular revolt, and nationalist and regional dimensions—a stew of complexities. As part of the UN mission, the ODAs worked to disarm the belligerents, protect the civilians, and keep ethnic strife from breaking out again or spilling over the borders.

Although 10th Group provided the lion’s share of Special Forces manpower to the Balkans effort, 5th Group lent its expertise at various junctures to work with Bosnian Muslims, Arab countries who provided peacekeepers, and the Kosovar Albanians, who were also Muslim. Alan Johnson had been in 5th Group’s first deployment to the Balkans in 1994, when a half-dozen Special Forces soldiers were sent to Bosnia. He spent a bleak Christmas there, another one away from home. His split team was assigned to gather information on the warring parties and to advise and assist the commanders of a Pakistani battalion, which was part of the earliest, fledgling, and ultimately unsuccessful United Nations effort to help shield Muslims in five “safe havens” from the Serbian attacks. The massacre of 7,000 men and boys in one of the safe havens, Srebrenica, in July 1995 finally jolted the United States into concerted diplomatic action that led to the Dayton Peace Accords.

For the rest of ODA 563, the team’s deployment to the Balkans in the summer of 1999 was an entirely new culture and experience. Even the physical environment—wooded, mountainous, and temperate—was a sharp contrast to the desert or subtropical regions where it usually deployed. A handful of teams from 5th Group was sent there to work with the Arab members of the UN peacekeeping force UNMIK and to serve as a liaison between those countries and American forces. Randy and Alan’s team worked with the United Arab Emirates and the Jordanians. The teams were also to use their cultural skills and understanding of Muslim norms to engage the Kosovar Albanians. The Kosovar Liberation Army had agreed to disband and assume the role of a domestic police force, but some of its members were reportedly helping foment irredentist sentiments across borders. Macedonia looked unstable, perhaps the next Balkan domino to descend into bloodshed and fragmentation.

Mule trains had been bringing in arms from Albania, across the mountains that formed the western border, from the bottomless cache of the Soviet-backed regime that had collapsed almost two years earlier. On the southern side of Kosovo, arms were being funneled across the border into Macedonia to arm ethnic Albanians there. One of ODA 563’s jobs was to help interdict these arms flows and uncover weapons caches hidden in the mountains.

The longitude and latitude might have been new, but Rawhide knew just the solution to deal with this terrain. He had used pack horses and mule trains for years in his family’s outfitting business. For years he, his father, and his cousins had led elk hunts in the mountains outside Cody. They did everything for the city slickers who came to bag big game: tracked the animals, set up camp, cooked the meals, and packed the gear. After the paying customers got their elk, they were free to get theirs. The cowboy life was where Rawhide started, and where he intended to end up one day.

By sheer luck, Rawhide’s team had been working with horses over the past year at Fort Campbell. ODA 563 and a few others had updated the field manual on pack animals and practiced packing techniques. Some people had criticized their little project as a lark and a waste of time. The command had disagreed and dipped into the discretionary funds so the team could train on horse-related skills at the post’s stables and local facilities. The men had argued that one never knew what kind of techniques might be needed in the Third World—or even in Europe, as it turned out.

In Kosovo, ODA 563 used pack horses so they could stay in the mountains for days at a time, running continuous interdiction operations. It also solved the problem of the Arab partners’ unwillingness to hump 100-pound packs. Their allies from the United Arab Emirates had never been in the mountains, so the team showed them how to use and care for the horses, even how to shoe them, and how to navigate and camp in the terrain. The team scored numerous successes against the arms smuggling, turning up caches and stopping mule trains loaded with Soviet-made AK–47s, pistols, and ammunition from Albanian stocks.

One day, the communications sergeant, Mark Reynolds, was tinkering with his SATCOM radio and antenna at their base camp in the mountains. The faint sound of a motor’s whine made him prick up his ears.

“Did you hear that?” he asked Alan.

“No, what?” Alan said.

“I think a helo just went down. Sounded like a Kiowa.”

Reynolds was well suited for the communications job; he had extraordinary hearing and an analytical mind, and paid attention to details. His guess was confirmed a few minutes later, when the pilot’s distress call came over the radio. Realizing that they were the only soldiers in the area and that it would be difficult for a heliborne search-andrescue team to spot the pilots in the heavily wooded mountains, Mark, Alan, and a couple of other sergeants set off to search for them. Mark’s sharp ears and keen sense of direction led them to the site. The pilot and co-pilot were uninjured, but their little Kiowa scout craft was wrecked. They walked down the mountain to where the medic, Matt Nittler, and a few men were standing by as a quick-reaction force. They drove the pilots back to their headquarters at Camp Bondsteel, the American base for the peacekeeping operation.

The team’s orders were issued from Bondsteel, as were its supplies, but otherwise ODA 563 stayed out roaming around. It was assigned with its Jordanian and UAE partners to search an area surrounding Pristina, Kosovo’s capital, that contained seventeen villages. ODA 563 knew the rules when it came to dealing with Muslim families: one dealt with the men, not the women. If the head of the house was not there, the sons, no matter whether they were the youngest people present, were the ones to talk to.

The armed resistance, the Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA), had not been keen to give up its guns, despite the formal agreement to do so. The Kosovars were still smuggling guns in because they believed they would have to fight the Serbs again, and many of them remained committed to the cause of independence. They would not give up their goal of seceding from Belgrade, by force if necessary. A referendum on Kosovo’s status had been promised but no date set. From the standpoint of the international community, independence in the short term would provoke Serbian violence anew and send the Russians into orbit, as they saw ominous parallels between the Kosovo experience and their own breakaway Chechen republic. Those were the geopolitical realities—but on the ground the Special Forces were trying to stabilize the country one village at a time.

The village searches were tricky affairs. There was a good chance that the teams might stumble on dedicated KLA fighters who would shoot rather than surrender their arms. The population was not neutral; they were generally ardent supporters of their militia. The Serbs, for their part, had left booby-trapped buildings everywhere and were still ambushing people in the countryside and near the borders. Randy and Alan, both experienced in close-quarters tactics, knew they had to be executed precisely to avoid injury. They meticulously planned every operation and made sure each man knew his part. Everyone had to stay alert for that hair-thin wire attached to a grenade behind the door, a stack of strategically placed debris blocking their path, and a thousand other things. The vehicle was checked every single time before they got into it. One moment of casual inattention was all it took to end up dead.

Doc Nittler, the medic, was compact and extremely agile. His teammates called him “carni” because he could do flips and walk on his hands like a carnival entertainer. That made him the obvious candidate to be heaved into crawlspaces, attics, and barn lofts as the team searched the villages and countryside of Kosovo. It was a dangerous job, because an armed man lying in wait would likely have his gun trained on the opening, watching for someone to come through. In the close-quarter training, the instructors call this the “fatal funnel” because the target is perfectly silhouetted by the light behind him. This was Nittler’s lot, time and again. They were not at war and there were civilians everywhere, so the men could not shoot before entering or throw a smoke grenade inside. They just tossed Doc into the void, to land and react as best he could. Day by day the entire team became more proficient. They would move quickly and quietly into a room or building, covering each other from every angle, and search their pre-determined quadrants with textbook precision. They did so well that the soldiers were handed another slice of territory as soon as they finished the first seventeen towns.

The extensive close-quarters searches welded the team into a finetuned machine as few other assignments could. The men learned to read each other’s facial expressions and body language, making speech and the standard hand signals almost superfluous. Their skills kept getting better, team members bonded and the esprit de corps solidified. This was the epitome of what an ODA should be, and Randy and Alan were immensely gratified to see how well their mix of new and old blood, intellectual and instinctual types, acrobats like Doc and giants like Alan and Roderick Robinson, had come together. Their second communications sergeant, in addition to Mark, was a smart newcomer named Rich Davis. A few months before he had walked into Alan’s office and announced that he’d been assigned to his team. “Don’t I know you?” Alan asked, then recalled that he had encouraged Davis to try out for the Special Forces when he was a young soldier in the 101st Airborne Division. A friend had asked Alan to talk to Davis about the Special Forces, and here he was, three years later, on Alan’s team. Al had been mentored the same way. This is the most successful means of recruiting Special Forces candidates, because the soldiers themselves can often spot who has the right traits to fit in. Davis was one of them.

The team was humming, but Randy found Kosovo to be the most depressing place he’d ever been. The wholesale extermination of civilians had no possible justification. People had been driven from their homes and everything they owned was burned and pillaged. One day, as he watched from the road, a woman tilling a field was killed when her hoe struck a mine. It was a senseless, random death, which he had been powerless to prevent, but he felt terrible nonetheless. He knew many places where the law of the gun prevailed—much of the world, in fact—and he knew the Arab world’s strongmen, the chaos of Africa, but nothing so troubled him as this place. Education and wealth and “civilization” had not impeded this country’s descent into violence in the least. The Albanians and Serbs were still teaching their children to hate each other just because they were different, breeding the next generation’s war as he watched. If this could happen in Europe, he wondered, could it happen at home? What would it be like if war came to America?

Randy, Alan, and the rest of ODA 563 were at their compound on the army base, Camp Bondsteel, outside Pristina when they heard the news. It was mid-afternoon on September 11. Alan was outside with other team members, preparing their vehicles for a border patrol. Someone called him to come into the team’s operations center, where CNN was always on. He watched as the second plane hit the World Trade Center in New York City. Randy, who had been asleep on his cot, resting for the night shift, was awakened. Alan, who had been reading up on Al Qaeda since his millennium mission, instantly guessed that it was them and his team would be going after the perpetrators. He told the sergeants to pack their gear. Within twenty-four hours, while they were still in Kosovo, ODA 563 had initiated its mission planning process, set up target folders, and drafted concepts for operations. The way Special Forces works, the team with the best plan gets the job, and 563 intended to be ready. It seemed to Randy that everything in his life had been a preparation for this moment. It was the first time the United States had been directly attacked in almost sixty years, and he was sure that the country would retaliate, and soon. They would be called on to defend their country, and this was the war they would tell their grandchildren about.

Back at Fort Bragg in North Carolina, Major General Geoffrey Lambert had taken the standard bearing the colors of the U.S. Army Special Forces Command from his predecessor four days earlier, on September 7, at a ceremony on the parade ground of Meadows Memorial Plaza. His new job came with a second star. Standing in front of a towering sculpture of a Special Forces soldier known as Bronze Bruce, the first Vietnam memorial, Lambert made a short and simple speech. “It’s great to be home,” he said. He thanked the soldiers from all seven of the Special Forces groups gathered for their work in the “dark, wet, and cold, in strange and lonely far-off places.”

They had no idea where he was about to send them, and neither did he. But Lambert had more than a premonition. All summer long he had been reading top-secret intelligence reports and intercepts that convinced him and his colleagues that Al Qaeda was going to strike somewhere, soon. For the past two years, he had been the director of operations, plans, and strategy at the U.S. Special Operations Command in Tampa, where terrorism was the number-one topic that he woke up to and went to sleep with every day. They “war-gamed” the most likely scenarios, the worst scenarios, and what they might do to stop them. They knew an attack was imminent—there was just too much chatter on the bad guys’ networks. But they did not know where and they did not know when.

On the morning of September 11, Gen. Lambert was holding his first staff meeting at his headquarters in the three-story Robert L. McClure building on Desert Storm Drive just off Yadkin Avenue. An aide came in and said there was something on television that he should see. Lambert stepped out of the meeting, saw the smoke billowing from the first World Trade Center tower, and said simply, “They got us.” He stepped back into his meeting and announced to the colonels and majors and captains assembled in the conference room: “We just got hit.”

South Georgia 1982

The first great strategic debate to face the war cabinet concerned operations against South Georgia. The island was 800 miles beyond the primary objective – 800 miles of hostile sea and danger from submarines. It was largely irrelevant to the recapture of the Falklands, and would probably be surrendered automatically once the major Argentine positions had been taken. It seemed a major diversion of effort to dispatch Thompson’s entire brigade to South Georgia, whatever the attractions for the marines of a rehearsal for greater things to come. Conversely, the use of only the small force embarked aboard Antrim and Plymouth seemed too risky. It would be a devastating beginning to British operations in the South Atlantic to suffer any kind of failure against such an objective. Virtually the entire navy staff, including Leach and Fieldhouse, advised against it.

The decision to press ahead against South Georgia, like so many others of the campaign, was primarily political. The British public was becoming restless for action, more than two weeks after the task force had sailed. Buenos Aires remained intransigent. Questions were even being asked in Washington about Britain’s real will for a showdown. The former head of the CIA, Admiral Stansfield Turner, suggested on television that Britain could face a defeat. British diplomacy needed the bite of military action to sharpen its credibility. To the politicians in the war cabinet, South Georgia seemed to offer the promise of substantial rewards for modest stakes. The Antrim group was ordered to proceed to its recapture.

The detached squadron led by Captain Brian Young in Antrim rendezvoused with Endurance 1,000 miles north of South Georgia on 14 April. The British believed that the Argentinians had placed only a small garrison on the bleak, glacier-encrusted island. The submarine Conqueror, which left Faslane on 4 April, had sailed direct to the island to carry out reconnaissance for the Antrim group. She slipped cautiously inshore, conscious that an iceberg 35 by 15 miles wide and 500 feet high had been reported in the area. Her captain reported no evidence of an Argentine naval presence. The submarine then moved away north-westwards to patrol in a position from which she could intervene either in the maritime exclusion zone, or in support of the South Georgia operation, or against the Argentine carrier, if she emerged. A fifteen-hour sortie by an RAF Victor aircraft confirmed Conqueror’s report that the approach to South Georgia was clear.

On 21 April, Young’s ships saw their first icebergs, and reduced speed for their approach to the island, in very bad weather. The captain summoned the marine and SAS officers to his bridge to see for themselves the ghastly sea conditions. The ship’s Wessex helicopters nonetheless took off into a snowstorm carrying the Mountain Troop of D Squadron, SAS, under the command of twenty-nine-year-old Captain John Hamilton. Antrim had already flown aboard a scientist from the British Antarctic Survey team which successfully remained out of reach of the Argentinians through the three weeks of their occupation of South Georgia. This man strongly urged against the proposed SAS landing site, high on the Fortuna Glacier, where the weather defied human reason. Lieutenant Bob Veal, a naval officer with great experience of the terrain, took the same view. But another expert in England very familiar with South Georgia, Colonel John Peacock, believed that the Fortuna was passable, and his advice was transmitted to Antrim. The SAS admits no limits to what determined men can achieve. After one failed attempt in which the snow forced the helicopters back to the ships, Hamilton and his men were set down with their huge loads of equipment to reconnoitre the island for the main assault landing by the Royal Marines. One SAS patrol was to operate around Stromness and Husvik; one was to proceed overland towards Leith; the third was to examine a possible beach-landing site in Fortuna Bay.

From the moment that they descended into the howling gale and snowclad misery of the glacier, the SAS found themselves confounded by the elements. ‘Spindrift blocked the feed trays of the machine guns,’ wrote an NCO in his report. ‘On the first afternoon, three corporals probing crevasses advanced 500 metres in four to five hours . . .’ Their efforts to drag their sledges laden with 200 pounds of equipment apiece were frustrated by whiteouts that made all movement impossible. ‘Luckily we were now close to an outcrop in the glacier, and were able to get into a crevasse out of the main blast of the wind . . .’ They began to erect their tents. One was instantly torn from their hands by the wind, and swept away into the snow. The poles of the others snapped within seconds, but the men struggled beneath the fabric and kept it upright by flattening themselves against the walls. Every forty-five minutes, they took turns to crawl out and dig the snow away from the entrance, to avoid becoming totally buried. They were now facing katabatic winds of more than 100 m.p.h. By 11 a.m. the next morning, the 22nd, their physical condition was deteriorating rapidly. The SAS were obliged to report that their position was untenable, and ask to be withdrawn.

The first Wessex V to make an approach was suddenly hit by a whiteout. Its pilot lost all his horizons, fell out of the sky, attempted to pull up just short of the ground and smashed his tail rotor in the snow. The helicopter rolled over and lay wrecked. A second Wessex V came in. With great difficulty, the crew of the crashed aircraft and all the SAS were embarked, at the cost of abandoning their equipment. Within seconds of takeoff, another whiteout struck the Wessex. This too crashed on to the glacier.

It was now about 3 p.m. in London. Francis Pym was boarding Concorde to fly to Washington with a new British response to Haig’s peace proposals. Lewin, anxiously awaiting news of the services’ first major operation of the Falklands campaign, received a signal from Antrim. The reconnaissance party ashore was in serious difficulty. Two helicopters sent to rescue them had crashed, with unknown casualties. For the Chief of Defence Staff, it was one of the bleakest moments of the war. After all his efforts to imbue the war cabinet with full confidence in the judgement of the service chiefs, he was now compelled to cross Whitehall and report on the situation to the Prime Minister. It was an unhappy afternoon in Downing Street.

But an hour later, Lewin received news of a miracle. In a brilliant feat of flying for which he later received a DSO, Lieutenant Commander Ian Stanley had brought another helicopter, a Wessex III, down on the Fortuna Glacier. He found that every man from the crashed helicopters had survived. Grossly overloaded with seventeen bodies, he piloted the Wessex back to Antrim and threw it on to the pitching deck. His exhausted and desperately cold passengers were taken below to the wardroom and the emergency medical room.

A disaster had been averted by the narrowest of margins. Yet the reconnaissance mission was no further forward. Soon after midnight the following night, 23 April, they started again. 2 Section SBS landed successfully by helicopter at the north end of Sorling Valley. Meanwhile, fifteen men of D Squadron’s Boat Troop set out in five Gemini inflatable craft for Grass Island, within sight of the Argentine bases. For years, the SAS had been vainly demanding more reliable replacements for the 40 h.p. outboards with which the Geminis were powered. Now, one craft suffered almost immediate engine failure and whirled away with the gale into the night, with three men helpless aboard. A second suffered the same fate. Its crew drifted in the South Atlantic throughout the hours of darkness before its beacon signal was picked up the next morning by a Wessex. The crew was recovered. The remaining three boats, roped together, reached their landfall on Grass Island but, by early afternoon, they were compelled to report that ice splinters dashed into their craft by the tearing gale were puncturing the inflation cells. The SBS party in Sorling Valley was unable to move across the terrain, and had to be recovered by helicopter and reinserted in Moraine Fjord the following day. All these operations provided circumstantial evidence that the Argentine garrison ashore was small. But they were an inauspicious beginning to a war, redeemed only by the incredible good fortune that the British had survived a chapter of accidents with what at this stage seemed the loss of only one Gemini.

On 24 April, the squadron received more bad news: an enemy submarine was believed to be in the area. The British already knew that Argentine C-130 transport aircraft had been overflying the island, and had to assume that the British presence was now revealed. Captain Young dispersed his ships, withdrawing the RFA tanker Tidespring carrying M Company of 42 Commando some 200 miles northwards. It seemed likely to be some days before proper reconnaissance could be completed, and any sort of major assault mounted. Above all, nothing significant could be done until more helicopters arrived. That night, the Type 22 frigate Brilliant joined up with Antrim after steaming all out through mountainous seas from her holding position with the Type 42s. She brought with her two Lynx helicopters. Captain Young and his force once again moved inshore, to land further SAS and SBS parties. British luck now took a dramatic turn for the better.

Early on the morning of 25 April, Antrim’s Wessex III picked up an unidentified radar contact close to the main Argentine base at Grytviken. Endurance and Plymouth at once launched their Wasps. The three helicopters sighted the Argentine Guppy class submarine Santa Fe heading out of Cumberland Bay, and attacked with depth charges and torpedoes. Plymouth’s Wasp fired an AS 12 missile, which passed through the submarine’s conning tower, while Brilliant’s Lynx closed in firing GP machine-guns. It may seem astonishing that, after so much expensive British hardware had been unleashed, the Santa Fe remained afloat at all. It was severely damaged, and turned back at once towards Grytviken, where it had been landing reinforcements for the garrison, now totalling 140 men. There, the submarine beached herself alongside the British Antarctic Survey base. Her crew scuttled hastily ashore in search of safety.

There was now a rapid conference aboard Antrim, and urgent consultation with London. The main body of Royal Marines was still 200 miles away. But it was obvious that the enemy ashore had been thrown into disarray. Captain Young, Major Sheridan of the marines and Major Cedric Delves, commanding D Squadron, determined to press home their advantage. A composite company was formed from every available man aboard Antrim – marines, SAS, SBS – seventy-five in all. In the cramped mess-decks of the destroyer, they hastily armed and equipped themselves. Early in the afternoon, directed by a naval gunfire support officer in a Wasp, the ships laid down a devastating bombardment around the reported Argentine positions. At 2.45, under Major Sheridan’s overall command, the first British elements landed by helicopter and began closing in on Grytviken. There was a moment of farce when they saw in their path a group of balaclava-clad heads on the skyline, engaged them with machine-gun fire and Milan missiles, and found themselves overrunning a group of elephant seals. Then they were above the settlement, where white sheets were already fluttering from several windows.

As the SAS led the way towards the buildings, a bewildered Argentine officer complained, ‘You have just walked through my minefield!’ SAS Sergeant Major Lofty Gallagher ran up the Union Jack that he had brought with him. At 5.15 local time, the Argentine garrison commander, Captain Alfredo Astiz, formally surrendered. He was an embarrassing prisoner of war, as he was wanted for questioning by several nations in connection with the disappearance of their citizens while in government custody on the Argentine mainland some years earlier. Britain was eventually to return him to Buenos Aires, uninterrogated. Somewhat reluctantly, the fastidious Royal Navy began to embark a long column of filthy, malodorous and dejected prisoners aboard the ships. The following morning, after threatening defiance by radio overnight, the small enemy garrison at Leith, along the coast, surrendered without resistance. The scrap merchants whose activities had precipitated the entire drama were also taken into custody, for repatriation to the mainland.

The British triumph became complete when a helicopter picked up a weak emergency-beacon signal from the extremity of Stromness Bay. A helicopter was sent, managed to home on it, and recovered the lost three-man SAS patrol whose Gemini had been swept away in the early hours of 23 April. They had paddled ashore with only a few hundred yards of land left between them and the Atlantic. Thus, with a last small miracle, the British completed the recapture of South Georgia, the first operation of the Falklands campaign, without a single man lost. One Argentine sailor had been badly wounded and one was killed the following day in an accident.

The news of the operation was immediately relayed back to London. A sense of relief turned to euphoria. Two days earlier, Mrs Thatcher had personally visited Northwood to be briefed by Field-house and his staff and to endure with them the agonised suspense of the SAS and SBS debacles. Her constant supportive remarks to the fleet staff made a deep impression. The simplicity of her objectives and her total determination to see them achieved came as a welcome change to men used to regarding politicians as hedgers and doubters.

Sunday’s news was greeted by the public as a triumph long expected and not a little overdue. The British people had, after all, been led to believe that the task force was irresistible. As a result, when Mrs Thatcher joined John Nott on the steps of Downing Street and called to waiting pressmen, ‘Rejoice, just rejoice!’ it seemed a curiously hard and inappropriate heralding of the onset of war. Yet it was the reaction of a woman overwhelmed with relief. The first stage of her gamble had only narrowly been rescued from catastrophe.

The euphoria was not confined to London. On 26 April, aboard his flagship Hermes, Admiral Woodward gave a rare interview to a task-force correspondent, in which he declared robustly, ‘South Georgia was the appetiser. Now this is the heavy punch coming up behind. My battle group is properly formed and ready to strike. This is the run-up to the big match which, in my view, should be a walkover.’ The British were told, he said, that the Argentinians in South Georgia were ‘a tough lot. But they were quick to throw in the towel. We will isolate the troops on the Falklands as those on South Georgia were isolated.’ Woodward subsequently denied much of the substance of that interview as reported in the British press. But, to many of his officers, it had the authentic flavour of the admiral, anxious to inspire the greatest possible confidence in what his task force could do.

Operation Chariot – The Plan I

Late 1941 and early 1942 saw Britain’s darkest hours, pushed back in the Western Desert and with its eastern empire crumbling to Japanese aggression, the country stood alone with only the Atlantic convoys keeping the country afloat. These convoys were threatened by one of Germany’s greatest weapons, the Tirpitz, a battleship that far outclassed anything in the British armoury. The sheer size of the ship limited it to only a few ports where it could be repaired if it were to be damaged, a dry dock of immense proportions would be required, the only one that could be accessed from its main hunting ground, the Atlantic Ocean, was at Saint Nazaire, in western France. Originally constructed for the ocean liner ‘Normandie’, the dry dock was itself an impressive structure and an impossible target to destroy from the air. A force would have to be landed and destroy it with explosives, this was the task handed to the chief of Combined Operations, Lord Louis Mountbatten.

A force of Commandos was to be taken six miles up the Loire estuary to Saint Nazaire aboard an antiquated destroyer packed with explosives and modified to resemble a German destroyer. The vessel would ‘bluff’ its way past the many German defensive positions using captured recognition codes, the destroyer would then ram the dry dock gates, set a fuse and disembark the Commandos who would set about various sabotage tasks. This force was to be escorted by eighteen small motor launches, who would then embark the Commandos and withdraw. It was an impossible task, perhaps the only chance of success was the Germans would never imagine the British to carry out such an audacious raid.

The Plan

As they sailed steadily towards the open sea the force changed formation into Cruising Order No. 1, which was their simulation of an anti-submarine sweep. On Atherstone’s signal, the longitudinal columns to port and starboard of the destroyers opened out from the rear until they were disposed in the form of a broad, open arrowhead, four cables behind the tip of which steamed Atherstone. In the open spaces to the rear of each ‘wing’ steamed Campbeltown, still with the MTB in tow, and Tynedale.

Remembering that fine first day, Newman, who with his staff was being made very comfortable on board the Atherstone, writes that ‘the thrill of the voyage was upon me – the study of the navigational course with the Navy – the continuous lookout for enemy aircraft – the preparation of one’s own personal kit to land in – and the deciphering and reading of W/T messages from the Commander-in-Chief made night fall on us in no time.’

Across in Campbeltown, Copland and the eighty-odd men of his Group Three parties were being made just as welcome by the truncated crew of the old destroyer. ‘There was little to do’ he remembers; ‘all our preparations had been made on PJC and it only remained to arrange our tours of duty for AA Defence, rehearse “Action Stations” and wait. Troops and sailors were very quickly “buddies”, and as no khaki was allowed to be seen on deck the limited number who were allowed up . . . appeared in motley naval garb, anything from oilskins to duffle coats, not forgetting Lieutenant Burtinshaw who discovered one of Beattie’s old naval caps and wore it during the whole voyage. During this first day too, we allocated all our landing ladders and ropes in places on deck where we thought they would be most wanted. Gough [Lieutenant Gough, RN, Beattie’s No. 1] was to be in charge of all tying-up and ladder control and his help in the allocation was invaluable.’

In the MLs also the pattern of ready camaraderie between ‘pongos’ and ‘matelots’ was quickly established, the representatives of the two services managing to live cheek-by-jowl in the crowded living spaces without dispute. Feeding more than twice the normal complement of men from the limited resources of the tiny midships galley was something of a problem for the designated cook, although in the early stages of the voyage seasickness, or the fear of it, robbed more than a few Commandos of their appetites. Tough as they might have been on dry land, some Commandos had nonetheless blanched at the mere thought of doing battle with the fearsome Bay of Biscay; typical of these was Bombardier ‘Jumbo’ Reeves, of Brett’s demolition party for the inner dry-dock caisson. A member of 12 Commando who had volunteered from the Royal Artillery, Jumbo was a qualified pilot whose aerial ambitions had been dashed as the result of an extreme susceptibility to airsickness. As one of those unfortunates whose stomach tended to come up with the anchor cable, he had had pronounced misgivings about setting off from Falmouth. For Jumbo, as for many others, the unexpected quiescence of the sea came, therefore, as a gift from God.

In the crowded messdecks as the sailors came and went with the changing of the watches, the Commandos talked and smoked, dozed on the matelots’ bunks, played cards and checked and re-checked their equipment. Proud of their hard-won skills, they were happy to demonstrate their prowess to their hosts, such as the nineteen-year-old Ordinary Seaman Sam Hinks, the forward Oerlikon gunner on ML 443, who had gone so far as to change his name so that his parents couldn’t stop him from joining up. As with so many of the other young sailors, who, unlike their thoroughly briefed Commando brothers, were only now being made aware of their target’s identity, Sam was still coming to terms with the fact that they were really on their way to attack a distant foreign port. In keeping with the times when foreign travel was still the exclusive preserve of the monied classes, Sam knew little of France and nothing at all of this place called St Nazaire: in fact, when first hearing the name during a conversation with a Commando by the forward gun, he recalls that, ‘St Nazaire meant as much to me as if you were going to Timbuktu!’

Having opened their sealed orders once clear of land, the reaction of the officers to the revelation of their target’s identity had generally been that this was a port into which no one with any common sense would wish to sail without benefit of armour plate and heavy guns.

Across on the starboard wing of the formation, ‘Temporary Acting’ Sub-Lieutenant Frank Arkle, the twenty-year-old First Officer of ML 177, who before the war had been a clerk in the offices of W.D. and H.O. Wills, greeted the news with ‘some uncertainty and a sort of cold resignation’. Behind him in England were his family, his friends, and his childhood sweetheart, Meg; ahead lay a task of prodigious difficulty from which none could confidently expect to return. It was a prospect about which he and many others found it was best not to think too deeply. Better by far to focus on not letting the side down and leave all the rest to fate.

On board the gunboat, which was swinging like a pendulum at the end of Atherstone’s tow, Curtis had briefed his crew shortly after the force adopted its cruising formation, prompting Chris Worsley to conclude that they were all embarked upon a very ambitious and dangerous enterprise. Strangely, though, considering all the circumstances, he neither thought of, nor worried about, survival, as it simply never struck him that he might be killed.

Closer to the centre point of the formation, Lieutenant Tom Boyd, RNVR, the skipper of the torpedo-armed ML 160, was concerned about how well the force would perform in action, bearing in mind its poor overall standard of training. There simply hadn’t been time to school the crews properly in working as a cohesive unit; as evidence of their lack of preparedness he could cite the same poor standards of station-keeping that were worring Ryder himself. Indeed, during the course of this first day Ryder would make no less than fifty signals to boats, instructing them to close up.

Standing on the bridge of Billie Stephens’ ML 192 Leading Telegraphist Jim Laurie, from Coldstream in Scotland, learned of his fate from the skipper himself. A regular, who had joined the Navy in 1936 at the age of only sixteen, Jim had led something of a charmed life, having survived the sinking of the destroyer Delight, as well as the loss to a mine of ML 144, while he was fortunate enough to be on leave. Looking back at the fast-disappearing coastline, Stephens said to him, ‘Do you think if you jumped overboard you could swim back to Falmouth?’ Replying in the negative, Jim was then told, ‘Right. You can go in the wheelhouse and study the maps and you’ll see just where we’re going.’ For Jim, as for all the sailors, there was never a question of choice. The highly trained Commandos had been offered a get out, while the much less experienced sailors had not; yet, once they were under the German guns, the risk for all would be the same.

Standing as an example of so many of the sailors, who, on hearing for the first time what was expected of them, rapidly concluded that someone, somewhere must have a screw loose, was Stoker Len Ball of Ted Burt’s ML 262. A twenty-five-year-old process chemical worker from Barking in Essex, Len could not believe that they really intended to sail right through the front door of such a heavily defended base in boats that were little better than tinder boxes. After the briefing he returned to the engine room and thought about it all; the more he thought about it, the more impossible it seemed. He was no more privy than were his pals to all the details of the German guns that lay in wait to greet them, but he knew that, provided the Jerry gunners did their jobs right, there were more than enough of them to cause very substantial damage indeed.

Waiting for Len and the other ‘Charioteers’, along either bank of the estuary as well as in and around the port itself, were some seventy pieces of ordnance, varying in calibre from 20mm quick-firing cannon all the way up to the huge 240mm railway guns of Battery Batz, a little way west of La Baule.

Under the overall command of the See Kommandant Loire, Kapitän zur See Zuckschwerdt, who was headquartered in La Baule itself, these consisted of two main classes of weapon, each designed to fulfil a specific purpose. Emplaced so as to defend the approaches to the estuary were the heavy batteries of Korvettenkapitän Edo Dieckmann’s 280th Naval Artillery Battalion, with Dieckmann himself headquartered close by the gun battery and Naval Radar Station on Chémoulin Point. While for the dual-purpose defence of the port itself there were waiting the three battalions of the 22nd Naval Flak Brigade, commanded by Kapitän zur See Mecke, whose own headquarters were situated close to Dieckmann’s at St Marc.

Ranging in calibre through 75, 150, 170 and 240mm, Dieckmann’s coastal guns were arranged in battery positions, primarily along the northern shore of the estuary, close to which lay the deep-water channel which any ship of substance must use in order to reach the port. These fixed emplacements began at the estuary mouth, and ran eastwards as far as the Villès-Martin – Le Pointeau narrows, at which point the sea-space was reduced to a mere 2.25 sea miles, and beyond which lay the province of Mecke’s Flak Brigade.

Approaching the estuary mouth in their attack formation of two long parallel columns extending over almost 2, 000 metres of sea, with the gunboat in the van, and Campbeltown steaming between the leading troop-carrying MLs, the ‘Chariot’ force would find itself entering into a perfect trap from which it would be the very devil to escape. On their starboard beam and guarding the southern extremity of the estuary shore would be the 75mm guns of Battery St Gildas; while to port, and guarding the north, there would be railway guns just inland from the Pointe de Penchâteau. Fine on their starboard bow, as they approached across the shallows, would be the guns of Battery le Pointeau, backed by the 150cm searchlight ‘Yellow 3’; fine to port would be the cluster of batteries comprising the 150mm guns of Battery Chémoulin and the 75mm and 170mm cannon of the cliff-top position close by the Pointe de l’Eve. Backing the cliff-top emplacements was the 150cm searchlight ‘Blue 2’.

It was to divert the attention of these defences that the diversionary air raid had been proposed, for without it the ‘Charioteers’ would be forced to rely on luck, their low silhouettes, their unexpected line of approach and such devices as Ryder believed might confuse the enemy into mistaking them for a friendly force. Either way, with or without the bombers, this passage of the outer portion of the estuary would be fraught with danger, including that from mines, patrol vessels and possibly even Schmidt’s destroyers; every sea-mile gained towards the target without the alarm being raised would be a triumph.

Assuming they made it to the narrows, they would then be passing into the restricted throat of the estuary, less than two sea-miles from their target, but with the full weight of Mecke’s three flak battalions ranged close by them on either hand. These lighter, dual-purpose weapons of the 703rd, 705th and 809th Battalions, primarily 20 and 40mm, but with a sprinkling of 37s, would be able to switch quickly from air to surface targets, and COHQ’s original concept of an approach by stealth had been constructed around the premise that their crews must be far too busy firing skywards to worry about the seaward approaches to the town.

Running past Korvettenkapitän Thiessen’s 703rd Battalion, backed by the large searchlight ‘Blue 1’, they would come within easy range of the defences both of the outer harbour and of the Pointe de Mindin on their starboard beam, where were mounted the searchlights and 20mm cannon of Korvettenkapitän Burhenne’s 809th Battalion. At this point, with the range so short, the ‘Charioteers’ would at least be able to reply in kind; however, they would also be at their most vulnerable, which is why the air plan had been designed to reach its crescendo during this period. Should the diversion succeed, then the force just might reach the dockyard intact, at which point, while Campbeltown raced for her caisson, the columns of MLs would break to port and make for their own two landing points.

As leader of the formation, the gunboat, carrying Ryder, Newman, Day, Terry, Holman and a handful of the HQ party, would circle to starboard and support Campbeltown as she made her final dash. Only after she was in place would Curtis put Newman’s party ashore in the Old Entrance. To observe and record the gunboat’s subsequent peregrinations, Holman would remain on board with Ryder.

In company with Curtis, and positioned at the head of either column, the non-troop-carrying torpedo MLs, 160 and 270, were to make up a small forward striking force on the way in, should enemy patrol craft be encountered. While the landings were taking place, their job would also be to draw fire and protect their fellow ‘B’s from interference.

Following ML 270 would be the troop-carrying MLs of the port column, scheduled to land against the slipway on the northern face of the Old Mole. Drawn from Wood’s 28th Flotilla, these were now under the direct command of Platt in ML 447. As for the starboard column, sailing in behind ML 160, Stephens’ ML 192 and the remaining three troop-carriers of his own 20th Flotilla would lead the second pair of 7th Flotilla boats. Being torpedo-armed, the latter two would have the secondary role of protecting the force from rearward attack. All six boats in this column were to pass under Campbeltown’s stern and put their men ashore in the Old Entrance.

Destined to play a crucial role in the coming action, both as a primary landing point and as the position from which all retiring soldiers were to attempt to withdraw, the Old Mole jutted some 130 metres into the waters of the Loire. Standing twenty feet above the decks of the MLs, even at the full height of the tide, it represented an obstacle which was almost medieval in character – a fortress wall rising sheer from the water, which must somehow be scaled, but from the top of which its defenders would prove almost impossible to dislodge.

Strongly fortified by the Germans, its upper surface was crowned by two substantial concrete emplacements, each more than a match for the puny shells with which the ‘Chariot’ force would be obliged to attack them. At its seaward end, a little to the rear of the lighthouse which marked its furthest extension, was searchlight emplacement LS 21; about one third of the way along was the 20mm gun position number 63, firing through embrasures and all but impervious to attack. Not on the Mole itself, but situated close by its landward end, and positioned so as to control the approaches to its northern face, was the 40mm gun position number 62.

Protected by shallow water where it joined the quayside, the Mole could be effectively attacked only by means of the long slipway running up its northern face. At its tip, and giving access to the lighthouse, were tight, narrow steps up which men might possibly scramble; however, they would then be faced with a frontal attack on position 63. Placing scaling ladders against its sheer stone face at some other point was always a possibility, but, with the defenders able to direct fire downwards on to the decks of the boats, this would surely be a tactic of last resort.

Always assuming they survived for long enough to reach the Mole, a total of six MLs were briefed to put their Commando parties ashore at the slipway, following each other in quick succession and then hauling off to act in accordance with the orders of the Naval Piermaster, Lieutenant Verity, RNVR. Designated Group One, and under the overall command of Captain Bertie Hodgson, these parties, numbering a mere eighty-nine men, had the job of overwhelming all the German defences in and around the Old Town and sealing the area off by blowing up those bridges and lock-gates across the New Entrance by means of which the Germans would surely seek to mount a counter-attack. Should the Commandos succeed in this, then the Old Town area would be protected by water on three sides, and by the Commandos of neighbouring groups on the fourth, making it a secure base from which a successful withdrawal might later be made.

Landing from Platt’s ML 447, the first party ashore was to be Captain David Birney’s Assault Group ‘1F’, a heavily-armed fourteen-man squad whose primary task was to capture and clear the Mole and establish a bridgehead at its landward end. From this commanding position they could then protect the remaining five MLs, initially as they came in to effect their landings, and later as they sought to re-embark troops and return with them to England. A small but important subsidiary task would involve clearing the building containing gun position 62, so that it could be used as an RAP by the two Commando doctors scheduled to land a short time later.

Following close upon the heels of Platt should be the ML of Lieutenant Douglas Briault, carrying Assault Party ‘1E’, a second fourteen-man unit, this time under the command of Bertie Hodgson himself. Also landing would be Captain Mike Barling, the first of the Commando doctors, and two Medical Orderlies, whose job it was to prepare to receive and treat the wounded. Hodgson was to pass through Birney’s bridgehead and move south to capture and secure the long East Jetty of the Avant Port, whose two gun positions, M60 and M61, were able to fire into the flanks of any vessels approaching or leaving the Mole. With the Avant Port secured, his party was then to picket and patrol the built-up area of the Old Town itself.

The way having hopefully been cleared by the assault parties, it would then be the turn of the demolition teams to land. First to come ashore would be Group ‘1C’, landing from Collier’s ML 457 and consisting of Lieutenant Philip Walton’s demolition team and their five-man protection squad under Tiger Watson. Their job was to move quickly west towards target group ‘D’ at the northern end of the New Entrance, where Walton and his party of four would prepare the lifting bridge and lock-gate for demolition, while Watson and his men watched over them like mother hens. In this exposed position the men would be open to attack from several different quarters, despite which demolition could not take place until all the other crossings had been similarly prepared, as all the explosives were to be interconnected and fired simultaneously. In overall charge of the demolitions within this sector was Captain Bill Pritchard who, along with his small Control Party, would land with Walton and Watson.

Next in line, and briefed to demolish the central lock-gate, designated target ‘C’, would be the seven-man team of Captain Bradley, landing from Wallis’s ML 307. This team would operate without a protection squad and was to withdraw to the Mole immediately its work was done. Landing with them would be Captain David Paton, the second of the Commando doctors staffing the RAP; recording every detail for the Exchange Telegraph would be Edward Gilling.

Fifth to land, and carried on board ML 443, should be a cluster of demolition parties charged with destroying the group of buildings comprising target group ‘Z’. Consisting of three small teams under Lieutenants Wilson and Bonvin, and Second-Lieutenant Paul Basset-Wilson, they would blow the Boilerhouse, Impounding Station and Hydraulic Power Station. Landing with them would be their protection party under Lieutenant Joe Houghton. Upon completion of the work all three demolition parties were to withdraw to the protection of Birney’s bridgehead.

Operation Chariot – The Plan II

Last of the troop-carrying boats of the port column, Lieutenant Ian Henderson’s ML 306 would put ashore the third of the demolition teams targeting the New Entrance crossings. Consisting of eight other ranks commanded by Lieutenant Ronnie Swayne, and protected by Lieutenant Vanderwerve’s small squad, this team would aim to destroy the lock-gates and swing-bridge comprising target group ‘B’, and thus complete the isolation of the Old Town area. Generally speaking, all demolition parties were supposed to withdraw in the company of their protection squads; however, in the case of the New Entrance targets, in recognition of the fact that their very substantial construction might prevent their total destruction, it was decided that the protection squads of Watson and Vanderwerve should remain in place until the final stages of the withdrawal, to prevent German infiltration across what might be left of the structures.

As a final precaution, and irrespective of any other tasks they might have, all parties were warned of the absolute necessity of capturing and clearing the Mole. Should Birney fail for any reason to land, the first responsibility of any and all parties following behind was therefore to complete this one essential task.

As with so much of the overall plan, the assault on this all-important structure was a complex pattern of interdependencies, likely to succeed only if the majority of the parties actually landed, and in the order specified. Should this not be the case, then the chances of capturing the position were effectively almost nil. As the final assembly point for all retiring parties, its subjugation was critical to a successful withdrawal. And yet the most powerful weapons at hand to secure its defeat were the dash and élan of the men sent against it, allied to more good luck than any such lightly armed force had a right to expect.

While the boats of the port column were thus occupied, those of Billie Stephens’ column were to make straight for the Old Entrance and put the Group 2 Commandos ashore. There was a slight possibility that their forward progress might at this point be impeded by a boom. However, if it was not, then they would be free to select their own landing points, based on the degree to which enemy vessels already moored within the narrow cleft of water obstructed their access to the quaysides.

On landing, the Group Two parties were briefed to operate both north and south of the Old Entrance, combining with Campbeltown’s parties to dominate the vital triangle of land between the dry dock and the Bassin de St Nazaire, and working their way southwards through the warehouse area towards Bertie Hodgson’s domain. They would, with luck, complete the isolation of the whole zone within which the night’s demolitions were to be carried out and thus provide a secure haven through which a phased and orderly withdrawal of the northern parties might later take place.

First to storm ashore from Stephens’ own ML 192 was to be assault party ‘2D’, headed by the Group Two commander, Captain Micky Burn. Ultimately aiming to operate against targets on the neck of land which separated the Bassin de St Nazaire from the Bassin de Penhoët, Micky was first charged with ensuring that Campbeltown’s landings were not being impeded by the guns atop the pump-house. If these positions, numbers 64 and 65, were in the process of being dealt with by the Group Three parties, all well and good. If not, then Micky was required to subdue them before moving on. Within their own target area, his men were to knock out two wooden flak towers, as well as a possible gun position close by the Pont de la Douane. They would also be required to establish a blocking position at the eastern end of the inner caisson, to protect against attacks mounted from the area north of the oil-storage tanks.

Next in line should be Lieutenant Ted Burt’s ML 262, carrying the nine-man demolition party of Lieutenant Mark Woodcock, and the five-man protection squad of Lieutenant Dick Morgan. Woodcock’s job, in an area likely to come under fire from vessels in the Bassin, was to wire up the Old Entrance lock-gates and swing-bridge ready for demolition. Should the bridge be in place and crossable, then the lock-gates could be blown first, followed later by the bridge, once all the parties to the north had withdrawn across it. Should the bridge be swung back, however, then it was Woodcock’s job to open it to traffic. In the event that the bridge could not be moved, then it was to be demolished in place and the lock-gates retained intact until such time as all the Commandos heading for re-embarkation at the Mole had safely withdrawn across them.

Following close behind ML 262, Lieutenant Eric Beart’s ML 267 was scheduled to put ashore RSM Alan Moss and the remaining members of Newman’s small though invaluable reserve. While remaining at their Colonel’s immediate disposal, they were to engage enemy vessels in the nearby Bassin, as well as such U-boats as were not fully protected by their shelters’ massive concrete walls.

Fourth in line was to be Lieutenant Bill Tillie’s ML 268, carrying the five-man demolition team of Lieutenant Harry Pennington, their similarly sized protection squad under the command of Lieutenant Morgan Jenkins and a small addition to Newman’s reserve. With the party designation ‘2C’, Pennington’s and Jenkins’ Commandos were to move swiftly to Micky Burn’s position, destroy the Pont de la Douane and thus prevent the Germans from counter-attacking across it. Dominating the bridge and inner caisson area would be the cluster of guns atop the old Douaniers’ building. Should these be in action, then Pennington had the additional task of setting fire to the structure with incendiaries. Upon completion of all his tasks, he was then to withdraw, leaving Jenkins’ team to thwart any German moves to cross from the west bank.

Bringing up the tail of the column, the remaining torpedo MLs, Fenton’s 156 and Rodier’s 177, were to carry between them the twenty-eight men of Captain Hooper’s special assault party ‘2E’. Briefed to operate both north and south of the Old Entrance, they were to silence two gun positions right on the foreshore, which might or might not be in use on the night, and deal with any enemy vessels unfortunate enough to be trapped within the dry dock. Upon completion of these tasks, Hooper was to place his team at Newman’s disposal at the earliest possible moment.

As all three landings were designed to take place within the same slim envelope of time, the activities of Micky Burn’s group should neatly dovetail with those of Major Copland’s parties, landing from the Campbeltown on to the caisson itself. Of course this assumed that the old destroyer would make it as far as the dockyard, something no one dared predict with certainty, first because she would attract the fullest weight of fire from the German defences, and second because she might well run aground, especially with the operation having been initiated some days before the fullest height of the tides. Should she be damaged or become stuck, MLs 160, 270, 298 and 446 had been detailed to carry off her personnel and take her troops ashore. In this worst-case scenario, her charges were to be set to blow up some time after the last of the small boats had withdrawn. In her absence the attack on the caisson itself would be carried out with MTB 74’s special torpedoes.

Supposing Campbeltown did make it through, however, there would then be the problem of the caisson itself, which might or might not be closed on the night. If closed, it was to be rammed at speed so that the destroyer’s bows might ride over the top and provide a platform from which her troops could rapidly disembark. If open, then Beattie was to lay his ship alongside the dry-dock wall, port-side to, and scuttle her abreast the caisson sill, so as to gain the maximum effect from her eventual explosion. Should the dock be clear and the inner caisson closed, then Wynn was to pass by the destroyer and lay his special torpedoes against it.

In the event that the gods were riding with Campbeltown and that Beattie was able to ram the caisson as planned, then the disembarkation of her Group Three Commandos must be carried out in a blur of activity, before the stunned defenders could effectively respond.

During the run-in most of her demolition parties would be tucked away below deck, while the remainder, along with the protection parties and Roderick’s and Roy’s assault troops, would be sheltering behind the screens abaft the superstructure. While it was the job of the demolition and protection parties to hold themselves in readiness for their attacks on shore, the assault parties were under orders to supplement the naval fire-plan by firing on German positions as they came in to ram. For this purpose a 3” mortar had been installed on either side of the deck just forward of the bridge, the fire from which tubes, when added to that of Oerlikon, Bren and Tommy gun, would hopefully allow the destroyer to lay down an effective counter-barrage.

On ramming, it was the assault troops who were to disembark first, with the object of overrunning the defences in the immediate area of the caisson. Quickly clambering over the starboard bow, the fourteen-man team of Lieutenant Johnny Roderick was tasked with knocking out a cluster of gun positions, numbers 66, M70, M10 and 67, the first of which was in a sandbagged emplacement close by. Having cleared these and secured the right flank of the attack, he was then to establish a block with the object of preventing a counter-attack across the caisson. Should there be the opportunity to do so without weakening the block, his men had been instructed to attack the oil-fuel stores with incendiaries.

While Roderick was thus occupied, his opposite number, Captain Donald Roy, would be landing with his own fourteen-man team from the destroyer’s port bow. Roy’s primary target was the pair of guns emplaced atop the pump-house. High above the quayside, these would have a clear and unobstructed view along the full length of Campbeltown’s deck. Roy had arranged to attack them with scaling ladders and grenades, and, during the detailed planning stages on board the PJC, had called for a volunteer to accompany him as he attempted to storm the roof, a potentially lethal enterprise for which Sergeant Don Randall had offered himself. Having overrun these positions, Roy was then to move on to bridge ‘G’ and there form a bridgehead through which the northern parties could later withdraw.

In the wake of the assault teams, it would then be the turn of the demolition parties to disembark. The first of these, party ‘3A’, had the task of destroying a cluster of targets in the immediate area of the ramming point. Should Campbeltown not be positioned so as to ensure destruction of the caisson, then the team of Lieutenant ‘Burlington Bertie’ Burtinshaw was to attack it with man-packed explosives. To make doubly sure of putting it out of action, Lieutenant Chris Smalley’s team were meanwhile briefed to destroy the nearby winding house. As the dock could not operate without the means of pumping in and extracting a huge volume of water, the pump-house was a target of critical importance, whose destruction was entrusted to the five-man team of Lieutenant Stuart Chant. Entering the structure which housed the facility’s great electric motors, Chant was to descend into the depths where, some forty feet below ground, he would destroy the pumps themselves. Of all the targets to be demolished on the night, these were perhaps the most important as they contained special castings which the Germans could not easily replace. Protecting these teams, Roy’s troops having by this time moved off to form their bridgehead at ‘G’, would be the five men of Lieutenant Hopwood’s party.

In conjunction with these teams, the men of party ‘3B’, protected by Lieutenant Denison’s small squad, were to destroy the inner caisson and winding house. Lieutenant Gerard Brett and his team of six were to lay charges both outside and inside the caisson, entering the hollow structure by means of manholes in its upper surface; while close by Lieutenant Corran Purdon’s team of five were to destroy the winding house. In overall control of the Group Three demolitions was Captain Bob Montgomery, his deputy, Lieutenant Bill Etches, having a special responsibility for these ‘3B’ targets. Last to leave the Campbeltown would be Copland himself, who, with his own small party, was to move swiftly via Newman’s HQ to the Old Mole where, in conjunction with the Naval Piermaster, he would organize the withdrawal. On completion of their tasks on board ship, the destroyer’s crew were to disembark on to the quayside and wait to be taken off by MLs operating in the vicinity of the Old Entrance. Should this option be denied them, they were to make their way to the Mole and be put on board the MLs there

‘Zero hour’, the time at which Campbeltown was due to strike the caisson, was set for 0130 hours on the morning of Saturday the 28th. The absolute maximum time-on-shore allowed for was a mere two hours, with the last ML due to be clear of the Mole and starting its long voyage home by 0330 hours. In the case of an uncompleted major demolition, this deadline might be exceeded; however, Newman had made sure everyone understood the very real correlation between early withdrawal and their chances of making it back alive.

For those who made it safely through the maelstrom, seconds indeed would be the currency of survival, for the initial advantage won by the shock of their assault would quickly erode as resistance stiffened and the German forces manoeuvred to hurl the tiny assault parties back into the sea.

Immediately available to oppose them, in addition to Zuckschwerdt’s own Naval troops, would be a motley collection of units cobbled together from guard companies and ships’ crews, as well as technicians and workers operating in their secondary role as infantry. These would be equipped to hold the line until such time as heavily armed Wehrmacht units could rush to the port and mount a formal assault on the tenuous Commando perimeter.

Because of the ongoing work on the submarine pens and port defences, a contingent of workers from the Todt Organization were in place, who would fight if required. The Naval technicians of Nos. 2 and 4 Works Companies also had an infantry role and would be committed early on to help stem the tide of the Commando advance. The crews of the many ships in harbour would supplement the defence both by manning their vessels’ weapons and by contributing parties to help with counter-attacks on shore. For safety’s sake the highly prized U-boat crews were billeted out of harm’s way in La Baule; however, the support staff of the 6th and 7th U-Flotillas would defend their boats against attack, even to the point of destroying them should it prove necessary. Also under Zuckschwerdt’s control, as the officer commanding all the defences of both port and estuary, were the guard companies and harbour-defence vessels of the Harbour Commander. And lastly, anchored right in the fairway east of the Avant Port, was the stoutly built and well-armed Sperrbrecher 137, a ship of similar tonnage to Campbeltown herself, which the ‘Chariot’ force would have to pass en route to the landing places.

Packing a more professional punch were the soldiers of the 333rd Infantry Division, a brigade of whom were stationed just inland of the port. Much more heavily armed than the Commandos, this unit was capable of mounting and sustaining an attack which it must eventually win, unless the Commandos acted with such speed and resolve that their withdrawal could begin before the German unit was in position.

Regarding the withdrawal itself, this was planned to take place in four stages, the first pulling back all the demolition parties, except Woodcock’s by bridge ‘G’, and subsequent stages gradually shrinking the defended perimeter back to Birney’s bridgehead. Lieutenant Verity was to be in charge of filling the MLs with up to forty men each and sending them on their way, independently and at maximum speed, towards the point at which they might expect to rendezvous with Atherstone and Tynedale. After initial treatment at the RAP, wounded were to be transferred to the two MLs which had embarked the doctors at Falmouth. These, when full, would follow the rest. MLs too damaged to complete the return trip were to be scuttled at sea and those which survived the coastal guns were to form themselves into the semblance of a fleet, returning to Britain by the reverse of their outward route.

In the case of an emergency requiring the immediate evacuation of the force, the men would be recalled visually by the firing together of 35-star red and green rockets, and audibly, both by the sounding of the MLs’ klaxons and by the use of loud-hailers to pass on the code-word ‘Ramrod’. Any or all of these signals would prompt the immediate withdrawal of all ranks to the Mole, always assuming, of course, that someone had managed to take and hold it in the first place!

In essence this was the plan as it was to be carried out on the night, always providing that fate and the German defenders cooperated fully. It was a plan of rather alarming complexity which would certainly be judged audacious were it to succeed, and foolhardy were it to fail to achieve its targets. It pitted flimsy ships and tiny groups of men against the massed defences of one of the Reich’s most valued bases, whose five thousand-plus sailors and naval and army troops could be relied upon to mount a swift and punishing response. It depended to an inordinate degree on surprise and luck and was so susceptible to losses that the failure of even a handful of parties could seriously undermine the efforts and success of the whole. Apart from Moss’s tiny squad, there was no reserve to speak of, and therefore no means by which such failures could be made good.

Having grown from a clinical attack on the ‘Normandie’ dock to encompass a number of targets entirely unrelated to the threat posed by Tirpitz, the force contained rather more demolition troops than was perhaps wise, and rather fewer assault troops than it might reasonably expect to need. Indeed, the plan had evolved to become nothing less than a broad-spectrum raid, whose confused priorities had in the end prompted Newman to write to Haydon for clarification. Amidst the transparent enthusiasm of the underused Commandos to get to grips with the enemy at last, an objective assessment of the risks of such a complex distribution of parties seems to have occupied only second place. The plan in fact displayed a heady optimism more suited to a raid on a rival school than to a potentially lethal assault on such a gun-rich enemy stronghold.