Hess and Goebbels Gun Batteries at Dieppe

19 August 1942

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Joint Special Operations Command

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Vemork Heavy Water Plant, Telemark

27/28 February 1943

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

DAD’S ‘SECRET ARMY’

Last defence against Germany… The Spetisbury Auxiliary Unit Patrol in Dorset (Picture: Halsgrove Community History Series/British Resistance Archive)

It has been described as one of the war’s best-kept and most enduring secrets. Indeed, only over the course of the past few decades, as details of the organisation have appeared in print, have some members of Britain’s Auxiliary Units begun to speak openly about the existence of this élite guerrilla force which was established in the coastal counties of Britain.

To describe these Auxiliary Units as the Home Guard’s ‘Secret Army’, a title that has been freely applied to them over the years not only in press reports and radio and television documentaries but also by many former members themselves, is actually to misrepresent their position. Without a doubt, hand picked members of the Home Guard were invited to join this underground – literally so in many cases, as will be seen – movement. However, it would be more accurate to say that the Auxiliary Units capitalised on the existence of the Home Guard, using it as a highly effective smokescreen for their own secret activities, and that as time went on their ranks comprised many men – and women too – who had no connection whatsoever with the Home Guard. Nevertheless, the joint histories of the Home Guard and the Auxiliary Units are so closely intertwined in the public imagination that an account of this so-called ‘British Resistance’ movement has a valid place here.

A letter sent to Prime Minister Churchill from the offices of the War Cabinet at the beginning of August 1940 explains the purpose of the Auxiliary Units (a title that was deliberately kept vague for the sake of secrecy). ‘These Auxiliary Units,’ it read, ‘are being formed with two objectives: a) They are intended to provide, within the framework of the Home Guard organisation, small bodies of men especially selected and trained, whose role it will be to act offensively on the flanks and in the rear of any enemy troops who may obtain a foothold in this country. Their action will particularly be directed against tanks and lorries . . . ammunition dumps, small enemy posts and stragglers. Their activities will also include sniping. b) The other function of the Auxiliary Units is to provide a system of intelligence, whereby the Regular Forces in the field can be kept informed of what is happening behind enemy lines. . . .’ Among other things, the letter went on to explain that each unit would usually comprise less than a dozen men, most of whom would be recruited from among the farming and game-keeping fraternity, together with others who were well acquainted with the local countryside in which they would be operating; that, in addition to the provision of weapons and explosive devices, they would be equipped with wireless and field telephone apparatus to assist with their intelligence work, and that each unit would be accommodated in specially prepared and concealed hideouts (known as ‘operational bases’ or OBs) where reserves of food and water, weapons and ammunition could all be safely stored for long periods if it proved to be necessary. The location of each hideout was to be – and, as it turned out in many cases, would remain for years – a matter of the greatest secrecy. ‘All the activities of these Auxiliary Units,’ the letter pointed out, ‘are under the direct supervision of Colonel Colin Gubbins, who himself is on the GHQ Staff of Home Forces, and are planned and carried out in the closest collaboration with the military authorities in the areas concerned.’

That some confusion arose over the separate identities of the Home Guard and the Auxiliary Units is quite understandable. (In fact, the letter referred to above goes on to describe Auxiliary Units as ‘this new branch of the Home Guard’). Members of the so-called ‘Secret Army’, whether actually serving in the Home Guard or not, were recruited into three specially formed battalions ostensibly of the Home Guard – the 201st in Scotland, the 202nd in the north of England and the 203rd in the south of England – and they were also issued with Home Guard uniforms to wear. But, as David Lampe pointed out in The Last Ditch (1969), his meticulously researched account of Auxiliary Units, none of these battalions (which were all attached to GHQ Home Forces) actually appeared in the Home Guard’s own official records, such was the high degree of secrecy which surrounded their very existence.

It was the assumption that German forces would invade this country by sea rather than by air that led to the Auxiliary Units being placed in locations around Britain’s coastline. As David Lampe explains, the first units were set up in those areas of the country considered most vulnerable to enemy invasion: Kent and Sussex, East Anglia and around the coastlines of Devon and Cornwall. ‘Eventually,’ Lampe continues, ‘there were Auxiliary Units patrols covering an almost unbroken thirty-mile coastal belt extending from Cape Wrath in the north-west of Scotland around the country clockwise to central Wales, but North Wales and the north-west coasts of England and Scotland were left undefended because the Germans would almost certainly have ruled out these areas as landing places. No attempt was ever made by Auxiliary Units to set up an organisation in Northern Ireland.’

Appropriately, given the clandestine and essentially rural nature of the Auxiliary Units’ activities, the Headquarters of this organisation was to be found not as one might expect in London, close to the seat of government, but at Coleshill House, a country mansion set in its own secluded and extensive grounds between Faringdon and Highworth to the north-east of Swindon. The seventeenth-century house (‘. . . one of the most perfect houses in England’, according to an old guide issued by the National Trust, who now own the land on which it stood) was designed by Inigo Jones. Sadly the property can no longer be seen as it was destroyed by a fire in the 1950s; a blaze that was apparently caused by a painter’s unattended blowlamp being left turned on. Owing to Coleshill’s wartime connection with the Auxiliary Units, however, it is perhaps inevitable that conspiracy theories abound concerning its untimely end.

Anyone travelling to Coleshill House, whether for training purposes or on some other Auxiliary Units business, soon discovered that it was not simply a matter of turning up on the front doorstep of this impressive mansion and announcing their arrival; there was a convoluted but highy effective security procedure to be negotiated first, one that could almost have been lifted straight from the pages of a John Buchan novel. Having been instructed to report to ‘GHQ Auxiliary Units, c/o Highworth, Wilts.’, visitors found themselves being received at the local post office by none other than the postmistress herself, Mrs Mabel Stranks. Another in a long and distinguished line of the war’s self-effacing and unsung heroes, Mrs Stranks played a small part in the affairs of the Auxiliary Units which even today is not entirely clear, beyond the fact that she served in some way as a one-woman reception committee or ‘vetting agent’ for visitors and potential recruits arriving at Highworth; and acted in this capacity on behalf of the commanders of the ‘Secret Army’, who were lodged nearby at Coleshill House. David Lampe explains how, when visitors presented themselves at the post office in Highworth, Mrs Stranks ‘. . . would ask to see proof of their identity and would leave them. A few minutes later she would return and say simply ‘Somebody’s coming to fetch you.’ After that she would go on about her business and refuse to answer any questions. Soon either a civilian car or a military vehicle with a red and white plate bearing the GHQ Home Forces identification number 490 would turn up to take the new arrivals to the headquarters.’

In June 2000, the Western Daily Press reported that Highworth was hoping to officially honour its former postmistress by erecting a plaque in her memory outside the old post office. The unveiling ceremony was performed in October 2001. By the time of her death in 1971, Mrs Stranks had apparently divulged few details of her highly sensitive wartime role either to friends or members of her family. However, in the same newspaper report a former member of the Auxiliary Units who had been ‘vetted’ by the postmistress said that had she been captured by the enemy, ‘. . . I think she would have been tortured, because she knew everything about the “Secret Army”.’

It is impossible to emphasise enough – or exaggerate – the degree of secrecy which surrounded the existence of the Auxiliary Units. The men who made up the organisation in the field – women were also recruited, mainly to operate the Resistance wireless network – consisted of small scattered cells, each of which was to a large extent unaware of the existence or location of other similar units, even though they were all engaged in the same pursuit. Politicans, (beyond Churchill and a few other very senior figures), the military and Home Guard hierarchy were all kept firmly in the dark. It was hardly surprising that, in this ‘cloak and dagger’ atmosphere, the men themselves divulged nothing of this ‘other’ life to their wives, families and friends. Even when the Auxiliary Units handbook on sabotage techniques was issued for use by members in 1942 (it was actually distributed on a very limited basis to patrol leaders and, it is said, this was one of the few instances when anything relating to the existence or work of the ‘Secret Army’ was put into print), it was disguised as ‘The Countryman’s Diary – 1939’, and bore the following announcement on its cover:

Highworth Fertilisers

Do their stuff unseen

Until you see

Results!

With the compliments of

Highworth & Co.

You will find the name Highworth

Wherever quick results

Are required.

Although this would have seemed like a straightforward advertisement to the layman, members of the Auxiliary Units would have been able to read between the lines with ease.

When, in 1994, a commemorative luncheon was held at the Church Hall, Coleshill, for surviving members of the Auxiliary Units, to mark the fiftieth anniversary of the ‘Secret Army’s’ disbandment, ‘Highworth Fertilisers do their stuff unseen’ was written across the official invitation.

Frederick Simpson was recruited as a member of the Auxiliary Units on the Isle of Purbeck in Dorset, and he has written a vivid account of his time spent with the ‘Secret Army’. Initially, he had enrolled as a member of his local Home Guard, serving as a despatch rider and using his own motorbike, ‘. . . but I soon became bored with it, and when a call came for volunteers for a dangerous job I, together with three others, stepped forward and, with two or three from a neighbouring village, we were taken out of the Home Guard and formed into a patrol of seven men – all poachers, gamekeepers, farm or country men. We were given uniforms and denim overalls, and a shoulder tape with the words “Auxiliary Regiment” with a patch below numbered “203”. All square bashing stopped and, after signing the Official Secrets Act, we became guerrillas.

‘We were then told what was expected of us. We were to hide when the Germans invaded and come up behind their lines to play “merry hell” with them. This involved blowing up petrol dumps, laying mines and booby traps across roads and paths, cutting railway lines, blowing down trees across roads. . . . To do this we first of all had to dig an underground hideout. Our first one in dense forest very quickly collapsed, but we dug another one. I made some hurdles from hazel backed with bracken as it was very sandy soil. Five of us spent two days and nights in this one to test the air, and we found it foul. We cooked meals on a primus stove – just boiled potatoes and eggs mainly, and nothing fried because the smell of frying could be detected on the surface some way away. . . . [Later], it was decided to do things properly and troops from the Pioneer Corps were sent in to build us a bunker….[It] consisted of two rooms built of concrete blocks and curved steel sheets. The first room was for living and storage and the second, connected by a small passage set at an angle so that any grenade or other explosion would not affect both rooms, was for sleeping. Here we had naval hammocks erected star fashion . . . and at one end of this sleeping area we had a bolt hole to the surface, the main entrance being via a secret trap door on which was planted grass, ferns and small trees for camouflage. To enter from outside, one had to look for a cotton reel hidden in a clump of bushes. On pulling this a steel wire raised the trap door just a little so that it could then be swivelled round on its support exposing a shaft with a ladder. This entrance to the first room was still blocked by a heavy wooden door on rollers which could only be opened from the inside…. This would have given us a chance to escape through the bolt hole if beseiged. . . .

‘The stores to be kept were ammunition, explosives, a certain amount of food and a gallon of rum in a stone jar. At the end of the war all these were collected by the Ordnance Corps, but one of the patrols had drilled a hole in the bottom of their jar and drunk the rum. [Owing to the extreme circumstances in which members of the Auxiliary Units would have gone into action, the issue of rum was intended strictly for emergency use only !]. They then filled up the hole with cement but, like fools, we allowed our rum to be returned. . . .

‘The first personal weapon issued to me was a Stanley kitchen knife, and I attended a course on how to apprehend the enemy using the knife. Later on we were given Browning automatics, Colt revolvers (later changed to Smith & Wessons), SAS-type daggers [no doubt the Fairbairn Commando dagger, which was issued to everyone in Auxiliary Units], Thompson sub-machine guns, .303 rifles (later changed to Sten guns) and .22 sniper rifles with telescopic sights and a silencer. These were some of our weapons, but the “tools” for the job were mainly explosives, [including] gelignite, blasting gelatine, phosphorous grenades, etc. . . .

‘We were sent to various army training depots: one locally at Duntish Court and another at Swindon [probably Coleshill House]…. Nobody, not even our parents, knew what we were doing and we kept our silence. . . . We had no disbandment parade, as did the Home Guard, at the end of the war; we just gave up our supplies, though we kept our greatcoats and two pairs of boots. . . . Later came a letter of thanks from the War Office, and after one reunion dinner we ceased to be. The Royal Engineers blew up our bunker….

‘One thing which we were proud of was being chosen on D-Day to guard one of the very few radar and wireless stations working at that time, which was in the Purbeck Hills and buried underground…. Our instructions were to meet at Wareham . . . [and] we were picked up in army lorries and taken to the hills above Swanage, under both canvas and army orders.’

Here is a brief extract relating to that occasion, taken from Mr Simpson’s diary of events in June 1944:

2.30

meet at Wareham, army lorries to Knitson Farm

4.30

transferred to hilltop to guard installations, tents erected, camouflage nets on everything. RAF Regiment and guard dogs on all day, Auxiliary Units at night. Tea at 5.30.

Next morning assembling equipment, laying tripwires and booby traps on all approach paths and gaps, leaving pins in.

11 p.m.

Mounted guard after pulling out all safety pins. 3 sentry posts, triangular setting, arms: two Tommy guns, one Sten, all loaded. Changed posts clockwise every hour – crawling. Warned to expect paratroops or sea-transported saboteurs. Challenge anyone walking, shoot to kill any person crawling, fire at any suspicious movement.

Cold lying on ground, no cover, high wind, one walking challenge, else OK. Planes all night, flares over sea and French coast. Heavy gunfire or bombs over channel. Two hospital ships coming back all lit up with red cross. Off duty at 2 a.m., second guard arrives…. ’

‘I don’t know what would have happened if the Germans had invaded,’ reflects Mr Simpson. ‘The worst of it was knowing that our families, if not dead, would have been in enemy hands and liable to be shot if we started anything. . . . To know that we would not last long after our first attack did not bother us; I am sure we would have fulfilled our purpose, which was to hinder the enemy as far as we could, and though we had no cyanide capsules we had at no time to let ourselves be captured, alive or injured, thereby being tortured to reveal our base or companions. Knowing now the methods used by the German forces, I can see what decisions we as a unit, and for that matter the whole structure of Auxiliary Units, would have to make. The joke was “keep the last bullet for yourself”! . . . But, nevertheless, if we could keep a small section or even a battalion of the enemy occupied for a time, they would not be available to face our main defence. . . .’

The siting and construction of suitable hideouts called for reserves of much ingenuity around the country. David Lampe records how long abandoned tin mines in Cornwall and disused coal mines in Wales and the north-east of England were found to be highly suitable for the Auxiliary Units’ purpose, as were ancient Pictish dwellings in the north of Scotland and – at the other end of Britain – tunnels and underground rooms that had been excavated in the chalk on the Isle of Thanet when smuggling was rife in that area.

Ed Maltby served with the Auxiliary Units around the village of Bubwith in the former East Riding of Yorkshire, but his patrol was unable to construct a suitable hideout below ground, although the men devised a highly ingenious alternative. ‘It was impossible to go underground due to the high water-table. Our first hideout was established in a stable on a nearby farm. It was a long stable and a wall was constructed across the far end from the door, making the interior of the building seem shorter than it actually was. The entrance was a section of wall which sprang back when pressed in the right place, but it was found that anyone entering the stable could hear voices in the hideout and so we had to abandon it and start again.

‘There was an old windmill and miller’s house lying between two of our villages and the house was long uninhabited. A small Nissen hut was constructed in this house and passages built as entries. These passages were about three feet high and the same width. The house was then collapsed on to the hideout and a dummy bomb crater made at the side. Entry was obtained by crawling under the ruin and again pushing a certain section of the wall to gain admittance. There was an emergency exit at the other end of the hideout which led into a grassy field where, by sliding back two bolts from inside the tunnel, a trap door would swing down. From outside, the door appeared to be just a part of the grass covering the field.’

Only the young and the very fit were recruited and trained for service in the patrols of the Auxiliary Units, and the average age of members was estimated at under thirty years. The task for which they were being prepared, to spring into action behind enemy lines in the event of an invasion, was a ruthless one. The code by which these men would have been forced to live in order to preserve the secrecy of their existence was no less brutal. F.D. Chisholm, who served with a patrol in North Yorkshire, explains: ‘We had to take no prisoners nor be taken prisoner, and the sad thing was that if one of our number were wounded in action and unable to escape or walk, we would have had to kill him by using a length of wire that we each carried. We could not afford to leave anybody behind, and we had to be cruel to be kind. The Germans would have tortured him and put him to death anyway. Not even my own mother knew what I was doing, neither did my brothers and sisters nor my girlfriend who I later married. I knew that there were other young men doing the same thing as myself, but for safety’s sake we were never given any information. . . .’

The Auxiliary Units were stood down at the same time as the Home Guard. All members received a letter dated 30 November 1944, signed by their Commander at that time, Colonel Frank Douglas, informing them that their services were no longer required. ‘I realise what joining the Auxiliary Units has meant to you’, it read. ‘. . . You were invited to do a job which would require more skill and coolness, more hard work and danger, than was demanded of any other voluntary organisation. In the event of “Action Stations” being ordered you knew well the kind of life you were in for. But that was in order; you were picked men and others, including myself, knew that you would continue to fight whatever the conditions, with, or if necessary without, orders. It now falls to me to tell you that your work has been appreciated and well carried out and that your contract, for the moment, is at an end. I am grateful to you for the way you have trained in the last four years. So is the Regular Army. It was due to you that more divisions left this country to fight the battle of France; and it was due to your reputation for skill and determination that extra risk was taken – sucessfully as it turned out – in the defence arrangements of this country during that vital period. I congratulate you on this reputation and thank you for this voluntary effort. In view of the fact that your lives depended on secrecy, no public recognition will be possible. But those in the responsible positions at General Headquarters, Home Forces, know what was done and what would have been done had you been called upon. . . . It will not be forgotten.’

Indeed, those who served in the Auxiliary Units were not forgotten; it was simply that their existence was unknown to the public at large. Bound by the Official Secrets Act, former members held their silence long after the war had ended, and many years were to elapse before information about this underground British Resistance entered the public domain. Old habits die hard and, although now released from the embargo placed upon them by the country’s wartime security regulations, even today many of those surviving members who served in the ‘Secret Army’ speak with obvious reluctance about their experiences with this élite guerrilla force.

Postmaster

14 January 1942

While many daring raids carried out during the Second World War became legendary tales in the post-war era, through book or film, others remained unheard of. One probably falling into this latter category was carried out in January 1942 by a small group of men working for the SOE. The mission, called Operation Postmaster, was one of SOE’s classic operations of the war and took place in the neutral port of Santa Isabel on the Spanish island of Fernando Po (now known as Bioko) off the west coast of Africa. The aim was to board Italian and German ships in the harbour and then sail them to Nigeria. It was a raid that boosted SOE’s reputation at a critical time and demonstrated its ability to plan and conduct secret operations no matter what the political consequences.

Under the command of Major Gus March-Phillipps, the raiders left Britain bound for West Africa during August 1941 in a Brixham trawler called the Maid Honor. The 60-feet ketch-rigged Maid’s non-naval appearance made it ideal for operations, and for the next few months she posed as a neutral Swedish yacht operating out of Freetown, from where the crew could reconnoitre the coastline, as it was believed German submarines were sheltering there and using the river deltas in Vichy West Africa as refuelling depots for their Atlantic operations.

The Maid was only big enough for a total of eleven on board and so March-Phillipps had chosen his men carefully. His second-in-command was his trusted friend Captain Geoffrey Appleyard, already a holder of the MC awarded for an earlier SOE operation. The two had first met in 1940 amongst the sand dunes of Dunkirk while waiting to be evacuated off the beaches. At the time March-Phillipps was an artillery officer and Appleyard was serving with the Royal Army Service Corps, but when the Commandos formed soon after both men had been amongst the first to volunteer. While serving with 7 Commando they were both recruited by the SOE in early 1941, after which March-Phillipps had been instructed to form a Special Service Unit, with Appleyard as his deputy, to train for specialist amphibious operations. Now the training was over and this was the unit’s first opportunity to prove its value on operations.

Also on board the Maid was Captain Graham Hayes, a boyhood friend of Appleyard’s and from the same Yorkshire village. Before the war Hayes had served as an apprentice seaman on a Finnish four-mast barque sailing from England to Australia, and later as a craftsman with a furniture company in London. The outbreak of war had brought an end to his furniture-making career. He joined the army and then volunteered for the paras before he was reunited with Appleyard and asked to join the West African adventure. The others on board were all trained commandos, but now posing as a civilian crew. There was 22-year-old Denis Tottenham, Frank Perkins, only just 18 and the youngest member of the crew, a sergeant from the paras called Tom Winter, cook Ernest Evison, March-Phillipps’s batman Jock Taylor, the quartermaster Leslie Prout, a Free Frenchman called André Desgranges, and a tall, blonde Dane called Anders Lassen, who had travelled to England with the Danish Merchant Navy to volunteer for the Commandos.

The SOE always maintained a presence in West Africa from where it could observe the Vichy French, Spanish and Portuguese territories in order to identify and hinder any activities threatening the British interest. While the crew of the Maid Honor had been searching for submarine bases during the last weeks of 1941, SOE agents had become aware of three vessels in the port of Santa Isabel on the Spanish island of Fernando Po, 20 miles offshore in the Gulf of Guinea, the nearest island to the mainland and not far from the coast of Nigeria.

The three ships identified were an 8,500 ton Italian merchant ship called the Duchessa d’Aosta, a large German tugboat called the Likomba and a barge called the Burundi. The Duchessa d’Aosta, in particular, was of great interest. She was carrying a large load, but exactly what was on board was uncertain. Although she was supposedly carrying wool, hides and skins, as well as copra, asbestos fibre and ingots of electrolytic copper, her captain had failed to declare the full load and so it was assumed she was also carrying arms and ammunition.

To seize ships in a neutral harbour was considered extremely controversial, so British authorities in the area refused to support the raid, but permission was eventually given by London for it to go ahead. The raid was planned for late in the evening of 14 January 1942, the darkest night of the period, with no moon, and while the ships’ officers would be ashore attending a dinner party arranged by an SOE agent, Richard Lippett.

Lippett had managed to get work with a shipping company that had business offices on the island. From there he had been able to make preparations for the raid and was very much aware just how sociable the crew of the Duchessa d’Aosta were known to be. They were only too happy to accept the hospitality of the locals ashore, as well as hosting parties aboard, and it was during one such party on board the Duchessa that Lippett had first been able to glean valuable information about the ship and crew.

Even though permission had been given for the raid to go ahead, the British Foreign Office remained concerned that seizing the ships in a neutral port would be seen as an act of piracy and so a Royal Navy corvette, HMS Violet, was sent to the area; this would support the cover story that the enemy ships had been intercepted at sea while trying to make their way to Europe. There was also concern at the British Embassy in Madrid, as it was unclear exactly how the Spanish government would react, and so the political consequences of such a raid were considered to be potentially severe.

While suspicion of British involvement would be inevitable, tangible proof had to be avoided. To seize the ships March-Phillipps would have a raiding force of thirty-two men, including the crew of the Maid Honor, with the rest made up of four SOE agents and seventeen volunteers from local army units. To tow the enemy ships, two tugs were provided by the Governor of Nigeria and crewed by Africans.

Early on the morning of 11 January 1942 the tugs left Lagos. On board the larger tug, the Vulcan, were March-Phillipps and his raiding party of Appleyard, Lassen, Tottenham, Evison, Desgranges, Taylor and Prout, with over half of the volunteers. Hayes, aided by Winter and Perkins, was leading the second raiding party from the smaller of the two tugs, the Nuneaton. For the next couple of days the men practised lowering Folbot canoes and boarding a ship at sea, but the Nuneaton was already experiencing problems with her engines. However, there was no choice other than to press on, so March-Phillipps finalized his plan.

The plan was simple and straightforward, and would hopefully be carried out without a single shot being fired. The two tugs would enter the harbour and make their way independently alongside their respective targets. The raiding parties would then board the enemy ships and make fast the towing cables, while the others were to overcome any resistance encountered and place cutting charges on the anchor and stern cables. The tugs were then to steam slowly ahead to enable the strain on the cables to spring the ships from their moorings after the cables had been cut. Once this task was complete, March-Phillipps would signal the blowing of the cables by a single blast on his whistle and the tugs would then steam full ahead and tow their prizes out of the harbour.

Late in the evening of 14 January, and with the three target vessels’ officers ashore and well out of the way, the raiding party entered the port. The Vulcan headed straight for the Duchessa d’Aosta. March-Phillipps could see some of the crew on board, but they paid no attention to the tug as it approached the merchantman from its starboard side.

Meanwhile, Hayes and Winter had left the Nuneaton in Folbots and were now paddling towards the Likomba and Burundi, which were moored together in the harbour. Although they were challenged on approaching the Burundi, the watchman initially believed it was the captain returning to the ship before he suddenly realized it was a raid and promptly jumped overboard to swim towards the shore. Then, as the raiders stormed the barge, another watchman jumped overboard. Having then planted explosive charges on the anchor chain, the Nuneaton pulled alongside the Likomba, ready to take her and the Burundi in tow.

Back at the Duchessa d’Aosta, the Vulcan had managed to get alongside without any problems. The first to board were March-Phillipps and Lassen, before the rest of the raiders stormed the ship, taking those on board completely by surprise. While one group set the charges on the anchor chain, another searched the decks for the crew, who seemed happy to surrender without a fight. They had, in fact, little choice.

All three ships had been seized in a matter of minutes and without suffering any casualties. With nearly thirty prisoners on board, and with the raiders ready to depart, the charges were blown. The tugs struggled to gather any momentum. On board the Vulcan, March-Phillipps was concerned when there was no forward movement, despite the best efforts of the powerful tug. One of the charges had not blown and so Appleyard quickly set another. With no time to set a lengthy delay on the fuse, Appleyard then took cover as the explosion filled the air. Once again full power was applied to the Vulcan’s engines and, after a few jerky movements, the Duchessa slowly, but steadily, started to move.

On the Nuneaton, Hayes had already blown the charges. Having had problems with the tug’s engines on the way to Santa Isabel, he could expect further problems on the way out of the harbour, particularly under the strain of towing two vessels, and did not want to waste any time getting away. He could hear the explosions nearby and then saw the silhouetted shape of the Duchessa ahead of him, slowly making its way out of the harbour. Both the breeze and the current were against them, but slowly the Nuneaton, with its prizes under tow, crept forward against the strong tide.

As the raiders made their way out to sea, they could hear the pandemonium behind them. It had been the sound of the charges exploding in the harbour that had suddenly alerted those ashore. Many had gathered around the harbour to see what was going on, but no attempt was made to stop the ships from leaving, although some of the anti-aircraft guns opened up as the gunners believed the harbour was under air attack. The raid had taken everyone completely by surprise and it was not until several hours later that they realized the ships had gone.

Once out at sea, March-Phillipps was able to organize his men into different watches on the Duchessa as things were going to plan. On board the Nuneaton, however, it was much harder work. When daylight broke the following morning, Hayes could still see the harbour. It was hardly a quick getaway. The combination of the trouble with the tug’s engines and the difficulty of towing two vessels at the same time meant the Nuneaton was now sheering alarmingly in the swell of the sea. She was barely able to make 2 knots.

The Vulcan eased ahead and the rendezvous with HMS Violet went as planned. The Duchessa d’Aosta had supposedly been captured at sea. Escorted by the Violet, the Duchessa and Vulcan later made a triumphant entrance into Lagos, where they were greeted by a large crowd. Meanwhile, on board the Nuneaton, Hayes knew there was no chance of making it all the way to Lagos. Fortunately, the crew was able to establish contact with the Nigerians and arranged for a ship to be dispatched from Lagos to tow them into port.

Back in London, details of the raid were initially kept secret from the British chiefs of staff, although Prime Minister Winston Churchill was kept fully aware. The chiefs were eventually informed of the capture of the Duchessa d’Aosta a few days later; they were told that she had been intercepted more than 200 miles offshore and was being taken to Lagos.

As expected, the Spanish government was outraged by the raid and saw it as a breach of the country’s neutrality and an intolerable attack on Spain’s sovereignty. German reports that naval forces had entered the harbour were simply denied by the British Admiralty and countered by a British Naval Intelligence communiqué stating that no British, or even Allied, ships had been in the vicinity at the time.

Back on the island of Fernando Po, Richard Lippett was taken in for questioning by the Spanish authorities, but he managed to persuade them he had nothing to do with the departure of the ships. He was later released, but was refused permission to leave the island, although he later left secretly by canoe and made it to British territory a few weeks later.

In the aftermath of the operation, the Duchessa d’Aosta was sailed to Greenock and then used by the Canadians as part of the Allied war effort. The Maid Honor, meanwhile, was left in Lagos and was eventually sold to the government of Sierra Leone. For their part in the West African adventure, particularly for Postmaster, which had been brilliantly planned and expertly carried out, Gus March-Phillipps was awarded the DSO, while Graham Hayes and Anders Lassen were both awarded the MC, and Geoffrey Appleyard received a bar to his MC.

 

C Squadron, 22nd SAS to 1 (Rhodesia) Special Air Service Regiment. Part I

Rhodesian SAS hit the Fuel Depot in Beira, Mozambique

While the exploits of the SAS are best known from the Iranian Embassy Siege and on the Falklands Islands, C Squadron was busy in east and southern Africa from 1968 to 1980. White colonial rule was fast disappearing while the Russians and Chinese were actively arming and supplying African nationalist movements. If there’s one thing that was apparent in the bush, it was that most country boundaries were artificial, with tribes often living across the supposed dividing line. Into this maelstrom stepped the SAS, undertaking various missions that usually involved sabotage, communication interdiction or plain ambush against much larger forces. One of the most interesting missions was against a Russian supply ship at port in Mozambique. The Squadron flew in to South Africa, then went by jeep and submarine to the starting point.

The Special Air Service also attracted foreigners, though its tough selection course kept the unit relatively small, with a high proportion of white Rhodesians in its ranks. Although Peter McAleese records that at one stage in the late 1970s, in ‘A’ Squadron, most of the 33 regulars were foreigners, this tally excluded the Rhodesians in the Territorial SAS. On external operations, the SAS often wore enemy uniforms, so that if an operator was killed, especially if he were a foreigner, he could officially be disowned by the authorities. The formation had languished after the dissolution of the Federation, its strength dropping to as low as 20, but by 1978 volunteers (including national servicemen) took it up to three-squadron strength. Rhodesia’s ‘C’ Squadron SAS had been formed to serve in Malaya alongside the British ‘A’ and ‘B’ Squadrons. (To this day, in the British SAS orbat, the ‘C’ Squadron remains vacant in honour of the lost Rhodesian element.) The Rhodesian SAS squadron later became 1 (Rhodesia) Special Air Service Regiment. A secret component was ‘D’ Squadron, made up of South African special forces Reconnaissance Commandos. Generally, the 40 South African operators preferred to work as a distinct unit, sometimes commanded by an SADF colonel, though they also fought alongside the Selous Scouts and Rhodesian SAS in external raids. They would sometimes fly to Salisbury on scheduled flights in civilian clothes, be met at the airport and then change into Rhodesian uniform. They were there to learn, as much as to help.

#

In March 1976, the Rhodesian government appeared to be on top of the war. Ian Smith was conducting a cosy series of talks with Joshua Nkomo about a settlement–a settlement which as far as Smith was concerned would never include black majority rule. To most whites the war seemed restricted to the border areas. In the towns and cities, where the vast majority of whites relaxed in comfortable suburban cocoons, life seemed perfectly normal. The army was doing well; the police informer network was flushing out guerrilla sympathizers; the blacks in the armed forces and the police (who outnumbered the white members) were loyal. Salisbury clearly felt able to fight a long war, with blacks and whites fighting side by side against what it called ‘international communism’. It was only a question of time before the West came to its senses, or so the argument ran.

Indeed, international factors were about to influence the course of the war, but not in the way Rhodesian whites expected. The power most immediately concerned was South Africa. When the Nkomo-Smith talks broke down at the end of March 1976, Pretoria was determined to push Salisbury towards an urgent settlement. The reason? Despite military successes in the Angolan civil war, the South African army had been forced by political constraints to retreat. The Cuban-backed People’s Movement for the Liberation of Angola (MPLA) had claimed a huge victory. For Pretoria the long-dreaded nightmare had become a reality. More than 20,000 Cuban combat troops were positioned in Angola. They would be bound to aid the attacks by the South West Africa People’s Organization (SWAPO) into South African-ruled Namibia/South West Africa. Pretoria did not want any escalation of the Rhodesian war into Mozambique which might suck Castro’s men into another country contiguous to South Africa.

FRELIMO-ruled Mozambique was totally absorbed in consolidating its independence. The almost total exodus of Portuguese whites had left the country in chaos. Mozambique was dependent upon Rhodesian tourists and food and transport revenues. Although Samora Machel was anxious to avoid all-out war with Rhodesia, his commitment to the guerrilla struggle was unequivocal. But the escalation of hostilities made war between Rhodesia and Mozambique inevitable. On 23 February 1976 the Rhodesian air force strafed the village of Pafuri, a mile beyond the south-eastern tip of Rhodesia. Four days later Mozambique seized two Rhodesian train crews. Then Smith repeated his errors of 1973 when the Zambian border was closed. He halted all Rhodesian rail traffic through Maputo (formerly Lourenço Marques). In retaliation, on 3 March, Machel cut all links and put his country on a war footing. One-sixth of Rhodesia’s rolling stock, as well as massive amounts of sanctions-busting exports, were caught inside Mozambique. Rhodesia was now completely dependent upon the two rail lines to South Africa. This was a leverage Pretoria would soon employ.

The war began to creep towards the centre of the country. At Easter 1976, three South African tourists were killed when travelling on the main road to South Africa. Convoys on the main routes south were then inaugurated. The rail line via Beit Bridge was sabotaged. Then the other rail artery, the Bulawayo-Botswana line, came under attack. Some ZIPRA members of ZIPA who had fled from Mozambique rejoined their comrades operating from Botswana and Zambia. Under intense OAU pressure from mid-1976, ZIPRA forces began to infiltrate across the north-western Zambezi and the north-east of Botswana. In August 1976, Operation Tangent was opened to counter the new ZIPRA moves. The previous month, guerrillas had also attacked a restaurant and a nightclub in Salisbury with Chinese stick grenades, injuring two whites.

The Rhodesian government was more concerned about FRELIMO support for ZANLA incursions from Mozambique. Between February and June 1976 the Mozambique government estimated that 40 Rhodesian raids had been launched across the border. Rhodesian intelligence reported that about 900 guerrillas were preparing to cross into Rhodesia in August from the Nyadzonya camp. Smith’s commanders wanted to launch an Entebbe-style raid and wipe out the guerrilla concentration. This would also bolster sagging white morale. Smith was wary; Vorster had warned him not to raise the tempo of the conflict and thus risk the entry of Cubans into the Rhodesian war. On 5 August a group of about 60 guerrillas attacked a security force base at Ruda, north of Umtali. No casualties were caused, but it was unusual for the guerrillas to hit a base in such numbers. Three days later four territorial soldiers from Umtali were killed in a mortar attack in the Burmah valley, south of Umtali. A fifth Umtali man died in pursuit operations. For a small, close-knit community such as Umtali the loss of five local men was a major blow. The townspeople demanded action against the guerrillas ensconced across the border only a few miles away.

Smith had the support of the other hawks on his war council. The target would be Nyadzonya about 40 km north-east of Umtali. On 9 August Operation Eland comprising a convoy of vehicles containing 84 Selous Scouts crossed the border. The column was made up of seven armoured Unimogs and four Ferret armoured cars (pre-UDI donations from the British). Two of the Unimogs were armed with Hispano 20mm cannon scavenged from retired Vampire aircraft. The Selous Scouts, including many blacks, particularly a turned ZANLA commissar, Morrison Nyathi, and an attached SAS member who spoke Portuguese, were dressed as FRELIMO soldiers. The vehicles, too, were disguised as Mozambican. After deploying some of the force along the route, 72 men led by a South African, Captain Rob Warraker, drove coolly into a major ZANLA base containing over 5,000 personnel. The SAS man ordered, in abusive Portuguese, the gate to be opened. It was 8.25 am. Dropping off a mortar unit at the entrance, the Scouts drove onto the parade ground, where excellent intelligence had accurately predicted that the inhabitants would be assembled. While the SAS man and a Shona-speaking Scout harangued the assembly with revolutionary clichés, the ZANLA cadres began to swarm around the Rhodesian vehicles. Eventually, as those pressed right against the vehicles realized that whites were inside, Warraker gave the order to fire. Initially at pointblank range, three twin MAG machine guns, one .50 Browning machine gun, one 12.7mm heavy machine gun, two Hispano-Suiza 20mm cannons, three .30 Brownings on the Ferret armoured cars and the personal weapons of the Scouts opened up. Carnage ensued. Hundreds were shot, burnt or drowned while trying to escape in the nearby Nyadzonya river. The commander of the Selous Scouts later wrote that the raid was ‘the classic operation of the whole war…carried out by only seventy-two soldiers…without air support…and without reserves of any kind’. ZANLA, however, insisted that Nyadzonya was a refugee camp and later held up the raid as the worst atrocity of the war. It seems that, although nearly all the personnel in the camp were unarmed, many were trained guerrillas or undergoing instruction. According to ZANLA documents captured later, 1,028 were killed (without a single security force fatality). ZANLA had been totally surprised.

External operations were carried out almost exclusively by these regular formations. The SAS spent most of its time across the border. The Squadrons were deployed for months at a time in Mozambique, Zambia or Botswana on regular operations to harass guerrilla camps and lines of communication and to gather intelligence. Full-scale assaults on guerrilla bases, some involving combat paradrops from as low as 300 feet, were also a part of the unit’s responsibilities. The RAR, RLI and Selous Scouts deployed detachments of up to company strength into neighbouring states, though most operations were on a smaller scale.

In August 1976, the Rhodesians seized the strategic initiative for the first time by carrying the war into the guerrilla hinterland across the Mozambique border. This strategy was further developed, in 1977 and subsequent years, with daring raids and air strikes on guerrilla camps in Mozambique, Zambia, Botswana and even Angola. At one point units of the SAS were already airborne to attack camps in Tanzania, but these were recalled at the last moment. Eventually Rhodesian forces mounted small-scale operations outside their borders on a daily basis, and carried out frequent large-scale operations against increasingly heavily defended guerrilla camps.

In 1978 and 1979, efforts were made not only to harass guerrillas across Rhodesia’s borders but also to destabilize those states sheltering them. Like the Israelis in the closing stages of the Yom Kippur War, the Rhodesians sought to ‘break the bones’ of Zambia and Mozambique to force them to cease their assistance to the guerrillas. Dredges were sunk in Beira harbour, bridges were blown up in Zambia and other military and civilian installations were attacked. The highly efficient regular Rhodesian forces turned large swathes of these two countries into a devastated no man’s land. Zambia was a deserted wasteland for up to 30 km from the Rhodesian border, and Mozambican towns such as Espungabera and Malvernia became heaps of rubble.

The original ‘total war’ strategy was devised in 1976 by Group Captain Norman Walsh (who later headed the Zimbabwean air force). This had two phases: the destruction of Mozambican and Zambian infrastructure, particularly bridges taken out by the SAS, and, secondly, all guerrilla concentrations in those countries. Air force planners argued that this could effectively destroy the opposition. The CIO vetoed these plans because of the possible political repercussions, though parts of the strategy were implemented in the last months of the war, but by then it was too late.

The Rhodesians also fomented and aided internal revolts inside Mozambique. The Resistançia Naçional Moçambicana (RNM, also MNR, later called RENAMO) was created, supplied and trained by the Rhodesian forces. Its training camp at Odzi, in Rhodesia, was evacuated by South African Air Force Puma helicopters and Hercules transports a few days after the election victory of ZANU (PF) in 1980. RENAMO, like Frankenstein’s monster, took on a life of its own, capturing large tracts of Mozambique, partly because of genuine disaffection with FRELIMO rule, not least among dispossessed traditional chiefs and alienated religious groups in the large Catholic and Muslim communities. Created by the Rhodesian CIO, and nourished by apartheid South Africa, to the outside world RENAMO was tainted with double original sin. The movement destabilized Mozambique with civil war from 1977 to 1992, which served the short-term interests of the crumbling white regimes. RENAMO claimed some spectacular attacks in Mozambique, including major installations in Maputo, but most of these were SAS or joint SAS-RENAMO operations. As early as 1973 the Rhodesians had recruited assistance among Zambian civilians for laying mines, and Zambian nationals aided later cross-border raids. But the Zambian strategy was counter-productive and once again underestimated international reactions and the emotional commitment of Africans to the achievement of majority rule in Rhodesia. Although considerable war-weariness had undermined the guerrillas and their allies by 1979, their reserves of strength were just that much greater than those of the isolated Rhodesians and their war-torn economy.

In World Armies, L L Mathews observed: ‘Provided with only relatively small forces and equipment sometimes both obsolescent and elderly, General Walls, first as Army Commander and then as Commander Combined Operations, has waged a campaign of extreme professional competence that will deserve a place in the world’s Staff College courses for many years to come.’ Yet this undoubted professional skill and tactical superiority did not stop the guerrillas from achieving their objective, the toppling of white supremacy, thereby winning the war.

Lieutenant General Peter Walls, the Rhodesian-born, Sandhurst-trained, SAS commander and OC of the Rhodesian Army.

ComOps personnel had been impressed by the various film versions of the Entebbe raid; in particular, they wanted to experiment with a Dakota fitted out with communications equipment to act as the ‘command module’of future raids. And the SAS were arguing for a ‘1,000-kill’ raid. In May 1977, Mapai, about 95 km from the Mozambique-Rhodesia border, was captured by security forces. It was not a successful raid. In spite of the scale of the operation, only 32 guerrillas were killed, although large quantities of equipment were seized. But a Rhodesian Dakota was shot down and the pilot killed at the Mapai airstrip. The raid was prolonged to three days to salvage the plane. ComOps privately blamed the military failure on a tip-off; politically the Mapai raid was a disaster. An irate Vorster phoned Smith to tell him to pull out his troops. Pretoria was still not convinced of the validity of Smith’s plan to bomb his way into a constitutional settlement. South Africa did not want an endless war; it was looking to its own military needs (in November 1977 the UN imposed a mandatory arms embargo on the apartheid state).

But then South Africa changed tack. For a number of political reasons, including the need to project a tough image to sidestep the HNP challenge in the November elections, the National Party government began to support the internal settlement plan in Rhodesia. Bishop Muzorewa’s UANC looked like going along with Smith; so did Ndabaningi Sithole’s wing of ZANU. On 25 September 1977 Smith had flown to see Kaunda in Lusaka to encourage the old warrior Nkomo to return. With his options widening, Smith had in effect rejected the Anglo-American settlement by late September. The Rhodesian government particularly loathed the idea of integrating the guerrilla armies with the Rhodesian security forces during a transition period monitored by a British Resident Commissioner (Field Marshal Lord Carver) and a UN-appointed military supremo (General Prem Chand). Perhaps a show of force before negotiating with Muzorewa and Sithole would work. And this time Pretoria nodded its assent. (On most occasions, until the last few months of the war, the Rhodesians did not consult Pretoria officially in case it disapproved. Salisbury wanted to avoid having to disregard South African advice, though the SADF liaison officers in Salisbury co-ordinated any military support required.)

On 23 November the Rhodesians launched their biggest operation to date. The Rhodesian army, with a crucial SAS core, hit the ZANLA HQ near Chimoio, about 90 km inside Mozambique (roughly opposite Umtali). Three days later a second assault wave overcame Tembue in Tete province (220 km from the Rhodesian border). The double assault, codenamed Operation Dingo, were classic examples of vertical envelopments. At Chimoio 97 SAS and 48 RLI parachutists landed on two sides of the base, while 40 heliborne RLI troops were dropped on the third side. The fourth side of the trap was, in theory, to be sealed by fire from K-cars, after the initial bombing strikes. Chimoio was estimated to hold at least 9,000 ZANLA and Tembue 4,000. Practically the entire air force (42 helicopters, eight Hunters, six Vampires, three Canberras, six Dakotas and 12 Lynx aircraft) was deployed for air strikes and to transport 185 Rhodesian troops. It was almost impossible to air-transport more than 200 troops at one time. Normally, a 3:1 superiority is required for attacking an entrenched enemy; the Rhodesian attackers were massively outnumbered. The element of surprise and air power were supposed to fill the gap. During the first phase of Operation Dingo, ComOps claimed that the Rhodesians had killed more than 1,200 guerrillas. According to ZANU sources, the guerrilla figures were much higher; probably nearer 2,000, many of them women and children. The Chimoio complex contained schools and hospitals, as well as military training sections. On 25 November a ground and air attack hit Tembue. A Hunter dropped flechette antipersonnel darts for the first time in the war. It hit the parade ground, but a hangover had prevented the ZANLA commander summoning his men that day. A personal inspection of the killing ground by the RAF’s Peter Petter-Bowyer had left him in no doubt of his invention’s potential. ComOps had vetoed their use at Chimoio because an international outcry would have followed the inevitable visit by the UN High Commission for Refugees. In total, ComOps estimated that Operation Dingo had cost ZANLA in excess of 3,000 trained men and approximately 5,000 wounded (and many subsequent desertions). The Rhodesians had suffered two dead, six wounded and one Vampire was downed. On 26/27 November, in Operation Virile, a Selous Scout column with close air support destroyed five key road bridges between Dombe (near Chimoio) and Espungabera to deny ZANLA vehicular access to the Rhodesian border.

By mid-1978 Smith knew that his internal experiment was not working. The transitional government was being torn apart by party bickering among the blacks; even some of his own trusted supporters had been involved in a scandal over the theft of defence funds. The war was worsening and no one, not even South Africa, wanted to recognize the beleaguered state. Could Nkomo be brought into the internal settlement? Could ZIPRA and the security forces together wipe out ZANLA? Certainly Zambia and Angola, and perhaps other African states, would recognize a Nkomo-led Zimbabwe.

On 14 August Smith flew to State House, Lusaka, in a Lonrho company jet. Nkomo and Smith talked again, and later Brigadier Joseph Garba, a former Nigerian minister for external affairs, tried to involve Mugabe. The ZANU leader refused. But the secret Nkomo-Smith talks did not blossom into a military alliance, for on 3 September 1978 ZIPRA guerrillas shot down an unarmed Air Rhodesia Viscount with a SAM-7 missile. Of the 53 people on board, 18 survived the crash, but 10 of them, including six women, were massacred by ZIPRA guerrillas. Nkomo said that ZIPRA had shot down the plane, but had not murdered the survivors. During a BBC interview the ZAPU leader incensed Rhodesians by chuckling over the Viscount incident. One RF MP, Rob Gaunt, captured the mood of the whites when he said: ‘I believe we have done our utmost in this country to be reasonable and the time, I fear, is now upon us when all Africa is going to see their first race of really angry white men.’ Smith called Nkomo a ‘monster’; clearly a ZAPU-RF deal was now out of the question. In a subdued speech (Walls had persuaded him to tone it down) Smith declared martial law in certain areas of the country. Although ZAPU and ZANU were later re-banned, Special Branch allowed senior ZAPU personnel, such as Josiah Chinamano, to leave the country before arresting the lower echelon party members. Perhaps when the storm had died down, Nkomo and Smith could try again.

C Squadron, 22nd SAS to 1 (Rhodesia) Special Air Service Regiment. Part II

The whites called for a massive retaliation against Zambia. Initially, however, the Rhodesians hit Mozambique. In late September Rhodesian forces launched a four-day airborne attack against ZANLA bases around Chimoio. The area had been extensively attacked in the previous November in Operation Dingo. It had been rebuilt, but dispersed over a much wider area. The Canberras went in low with their Alpha anti-personnel bombs, followed by the Hunters with Golf cluster bombs which were designed to explode above ground. The Rhodesian troops, including South African Recce Commandos in ‘D’ squadron of the SAS, spent three days clearing ZANLA from the trenches. Nine FRELIMO T-54s were driven off when they came to the rescue, and four Soviet armoured cars were destroyed. The Rhodesians lost no aircraft, but many were hit by ground fire. The Rhodesians suffered one trooper killed in ‘friendly fire’ during an air strike; a South African Recce serving with the SAS was also killed in a separate incident. Salisbury claimed that large quantities of ammunition had been destroyed and several hundred guerrillas killed. Zambia seemed to have had a reprieve. In early October Kaunda had opened the Zambian border, which had been closed since 1973. The British-owned Benguela railway through Angola was useless because of action by South African-backed UNITA rebels and the TAZARA line through Tanzania was clogged by mismanagement. Kaunda had no choice but to use Rhodesia to get his copper out and food and fertiliser in.

Camps in Zambia, Botswana and Mozambique were attacked by different methods to keep the initiative in Rhodesian hands. Ground operations were preferred because of their more successful results. In 1979 an SAS intelligence officer complained that air strikes were not effective–although many direct hits were scored on the guerrilla camps, the high explosive and napalm bombs did not kill as many guerrillas as expected. Large-scale raids were designed to do two things: to kill guerrillas where they were concentrated outside Rhodesia and to destroy or disrupt their infrastructure, weapons and supply. A number of different tactics were used: troop-carrying, heavily armed vehicles drove across the borders, paratroops made low-altitude combat jumps, ground forces were landed by helicopter or walked in and were evacuated by helicopter. The SAS infiltrated raiding parties across Lake Kariba with the assistance of the army’s boat section. Small-scale raids became more frequent once the principle of striking across the border had been adopted. During one typical small operation in August 1979 a platoon of the Selous Scouts’ Support Troop attacked a base camp deep inside Zambia. The ZIPRA occupants fled without resisting, but a combined guerrilla and Zambian army mobile relief column attempted to eliminate the withdrawing unit. A section-sized stop group ambushed and drove off the numerically superior column and then withdrew, laying land mines on the way back to Rhodesia. The guerrillas then set fire to the whole area in an attempt to burn down the retreating unit’s cover.

This sort of operation went on week after week in the closing two years of the war. The guerrillas often felt safer inside Rhodesia than they did in the border regions of their host states, for the marauding troops were the highly trained and motivated elite of the Rhodesian Army. Guerrilla offensives were often disrupted by timely Rhodesian spoiling attacks, and camps had to be moved back from the borders, dispersed and more heavily defended. The series of raids culminated in an attack on the massive guerrilla base at New Chimoio in September 1979. The Rhodesian blitzkrieg put significant pressure on the leaders of the Patriotic Front to remain at the Lancaster House conference which ended the war.

On 23 March 1979, however, the SAS, with South African Recce commando support, hit the Munhava oil depot in Beira. RENAMO was given the credit, a frequently used device for Mozambican coastal raids. But the raiders arrived in Mark-4 Zodiacs, courtesy of ships from the South African Navy. (The navy also regularly supplied and transported RENAMO leaders by submarine.) The oil depot went up in flames and the desperate Mozambicans turned to the specialist unit of fire-fighters in Alberton, near Johannesburg. The South Africans helped in the arson plot and then basked in the applause for their good neighbourliness.

On 13 April 1979 the SAS led an Entebbe-style assault on the ZIPRA military command HQ in Lusaka (the Selous Scouts had done the initial reconnaissance in the city). The raiders tried to smash through the main gates in a Land Rover, but the padlock held the first time and the vehicle had to be used a second time to batter through them. By this time the ZIPRA guards were alerted and the SAS were pinned down by an RPD light machine gun. The delay would have given time for Nkomo, who was thought to be in the building, to escape. ComOps said that it wanted to destroy the ZIPRA nerve centre, but an SAS source later admitted that the aim was to kill Nkomo. Nkomo claimed that he had been at home and that he had escaped through a lavatory window but this was untrue. So complete was the destruction of the building that the ZIPRA leader could not have escaped. He must have been elsewhere, allegedly tipped off by a British mole in CIO. Rhodesian troops also sank the Kazangula ferry which was carrying ZIPRA military supplies from Zambia into Botswana daily. At the same time commandos spirited away ZAPU men from Francistown in Botswana and took them back to Salisbury. Not a single Rhodesian soldier was killed in the dramatic attacks which were executed with total efficiency and accuracy.

The Lancaster House conference opened on 10 September 1979 and staggered on until just before Christmas. Both sides struggled to inflict military reverses on their opponents, both to influence the course of the three-month conference and to be in a commanding military position if diplomacy should once again fail. As during the Geneva conference, the guerrillas talked and fought, but this time there were four times as many guerrillas in the country as in 1976. Within 48 hours of Muzorewa’s accession to power he had authorized raids into his neighbours’ countries. Later, on 26 June, the Rhodesians hit the Chikumbi base, north of Lusaka. Simultaneously five Cheetah choppers dropped assault troops into the Lusaka suburb of Roma where they stormed into the ZAPU intelligence HQ. It contained ZIPRA’s Department of National Security and Order, which was commanded by Dumiso Dabengwa, whom Rhodesian intelligence dubbed the ‘Black Russian’ because he was reputed to be a KGB colonel. With the SAS was a senior ZIPRA captive, Elliott Sibanda. His job was to use a loud hailer to get his former colleagues to surrender and then identify whoever responded. During the fighting 30 ZAPU cadres and one SAS captain were killed. Five hundred pounds of sensitive documents were seized (including documents which, according to Muzorewa’s minister of law and order, Francis Zindoga, proved that intelligence information had been passed to ZAPU by white liberals). What had happened to the 150 tons of British air defence equipment which had been sent to Zambia in October 1978 and the Rapier missiles which the BAC team had repaired? Was it plain incompetence, or were the Zambians afraid of protecting PF targets in case Salisbury decided to hit directly at Zambian military installations?

On 5 September, five days before the Lancaster House marathon began, Rhodesian forces hit ZANLA bases in the area around Aldeia de Barragem, 150 km north-west of Maputo. This was part of a new strategy: instead of just targeting PF military bases, Salisbury escalated its strikes to include the economic infrastructures of both Zambia and Mozambique. The attacks on economic targets, especially dropping bridges, were a small part of the ComOps ‘final solution’ plan. The highly secret proposals estimated that both Mozambique’s and Zambia’s economic structures could be destroyed within six weeks. The techniques to be used would have gravely escalated the war and almost certainly brought in the major powers. ComOps demanded a clear political green light for total war on Zimbabwe-Rhodesia’s neighbours. If Muzorewa had been recognized after a possible breakdown of the Lancaster House talks, then the plan might have been put into action. Instead, only small parts of the scheme were used. It was then poorly organized. Major setbacks resulted and Walls was privately criticized by senior commanders for undue interference, particularly regarding the choice of targets. Some of the final raids were not planned by Walls or the CIO chief, who often had the final say, because both men were in London for most of the Lancaster House talks. Several raids had to be publicly supported by them even though they had been carried out against their better judgment.

In September the Rhodesians tried to destroy much of the transport system in Mozambique’s Gaza province, and beyond. More bridges were destroyed by SAS and South African Recce Commandos. Then Salisbury stopped the rail supplies of maize to Zambia through Zimbabwe-Rhodesia. In October and November vital Zambian road and rail arteries were hit. The aim was two-fold: to stop the infiltration of PF guerrillas and supplies, and to induce the frontline states to pressurize the PF into accepting a more conciliatory line towards the Salisbury delegation in London. But such a strategy was not without its costs. ZIPRA had improved with the aid of Cuban, East German and Russian instructors. And FRELIMO had added a stiffening to ZANLA forces. In Zambia the regular army was too small and ineffective to give much conventional support to ZIPRA in its defence against Rhodesian raids, but in Mozambique the position was quite different. The ZANLA bases there were well defended.

The Rhodesian raids were now no walkover. In the three-day Operation Uric (Operation Bootlace for the South Africans) in the first week of September the Rhodesians were determined to stop the flow of both ZANLA and regular FPLM soldiers infiltrating across what the Rhodesians nicknamed the ‘Russian Front’. The target was Mapai, the FRELIMO 2nd Brigade HQ and a control centre for ZANLA, a very heavily defended forward base 50 km from the border. Conventional military thinking dictated that in, addition to air support, two infantry battalions supported by artillery and tanks would have been required. As ever, the Rhodesians would make do with far less, relying on the shock of air power, surprise and courage. The aerial order of battle included: 8 Hunters, 12 Dakotas (half SAAF), 6 Canberras (of which 4 were South African), 10 Lynxes and 28 helicopters, including the newly acquired, but worn-out, Cheetahs (Hueys) along with a majority provided by the SAAF: Pumas, Super Frelons and Alouettes. A Mirage and Buccaneer strike force was on cockpit readiness in South Africa, and a battalion of paratroopers, with Puma helicopter transport, was on standby at a base near the Mozambique border. The command Dakota, the Warthog, was equipped with an advanced sensor system capable of locating and monitoring the guidance systems of ground-to-air missile installations and identifying surveillance radar systems. The crew included an intelligence officer and four signallers for communications with friendly forces. The plane was piloted by John Fairy, a scion of the famous British air pioneers. The SAAF had its own AWACS aircraft, a converted DC-4, nicknamed Spook. This was the largest single commitment of the SADF in the war.

The Canberras normally carried the cylindrical Rhodesian-designed Alpha bombs. But these had to be released in level flight, when flying at an air speed of 350 knots and at 300 metres above the ground. When they struck they bounced four metres into the air and exploded, sending out a deadly hail of ball bearings. The flak at Mapai was so heavy they would have been blown out of the sky if they tried a low-level attack. So the SAAF supplied conventional bombs which were dropped at 20,000 feet. A heliborne force of 192 troops went in after the bombers. In all the raiders numbered 360 men in the field, from the SAS, Recce Commandos, RLI and the Engineers. They met very fierce opposition. The fire from the 122mm rockets, mortars, recoilless rifles and machine guns from the entrenched ZANLA/FPLM enemy was intense, the heaviest the Rhodesians had ever encountered. All they had, besides air power, were 82mm and 60mm mortars, RPG-7s, light machine guns and their personal weapons. Soon the battle developed into a grim face-to-face encounter in trenches. The defenders stood and fought, and showed no intention of running from the air power, as they had so many times previously. General Walls, in the Warthog above the battle, wanted a victory not a defeat to accompany the politicking at Lancaster House. Nor did the South Africans want to commit their reserves and so not only risk defeat, but also reveal the extent of their cross-border war with Mozambique.

Two helicopters were shot down. The first was a Cheetah, hit by an RPG-7. The technician was killed, but the badly wounded pilot was extricated by a quick-thinking SAS sergeant. The second, an SAAF Puma, was downed by another RPG-7; the three air crew and 11 Rhodesian soldiers were killed. One of the dead was Corporal LeRoy Duberley, the full back of the Rhodesian national rugby team. The remains of the wrecked Puma were later golf-bombed in a vain effort to destroy the South African markings. Seventeen soldiers were killed in Operation Uric. Walls called a stop to the operation. This was the worst single military disaster of the war. And, for the first time, the Rhodesians were unable to recover the bodies of their fallen comrades. As a book on the Rhodesian SAS later noted: ‘For the first time in the history of the war, the Rhodesians had been stopped dead in their tracks. ’The RLI and the SAS were forced to make an uncharacteristic and hasty retreat.

The Rhodesians had underestimated their enemy. They were outgunned. Their air support had proved unable to winkle out well-entrenched troops and they were even more vulnerable when the aircraft–even when the whole air force was on call–returned to base to refuel and rearm. Combined Operations had decided to use more firepower. Surveillance from the air was stepped up by deploying the Warthog. The South African air force became heavily involved in these last months, both in the fighting and as standby reserves, as in the case of Operation Uric in September 1979. Super Frelons and Puma helicopters were difficult to pass off as Rhodesian equipment, but the Canberras and Alouettes also on loan were practically indistinguishable from their Rhodesian counterparts, except when they were shot down. The combined Rhodesian-South African efforts were approaching all-out war in the region. In late September, the Rhodesians hit the reconstituted ZANLA base known as New Chimoio. They also hoped to kill Rex Nhongo, the ZANLA commander, who narrowly escaped the first air strikes. ComOps claimed that this operation (Miracle) was a success, but the air force lost an Alouette, a Hunter and a Canberra. At the end of the climactic raid on New Chimoio, one Selous Scout admitted: ‘We knew then that we could never beat them. They had so much equipment and there were so many of them. They would just keep coming with more and more.’ The Rhodesians also attempted to stall the conventional ZIPRA threat to Kariba. RLI and SAS troops found themselves outgunned during this operation (Tepid). ZIPRA forces stood their ground, although they did eventually make an orderly withdrawal. On 22 November Walls ordered ComOps to stop all external raids.

The political warfare at the conference table was almost as bitter as on the real battlefields in southern Africa. The PF haggled over every step of the negotiations. Muzorewa had conceded easily. But Ian Smith had to be brought into line by the toughness of Lord Carrington, the conference chairman, as well as by a series of lectures from Ken Flower, General Walls and D C Smith, the RF deputy leader. David C Smith had played a pivotal role. Bishop Muzorewa had not wanted to include Ian Smith in his delegation to London, but David Smith had talked the bishop into it and said that he himself would not go if the RF leader were excluded. But Ian Smith’s presence was counterproductive for the Salisbury team. The RF chief did his best to undermine the bishop’s leadership. Gradually the PF was pushed into a diplomatic corner. The British had bugged all the hotel suites, especially the PF’s, and knew exactly how far to push the guerrilla leaders. The Rhodesians realized that their hotel was bugged and sometimes used an irritating device which made squawking noises to hide conversations. More often they talked about confidential matters out-of-doors. Lord Carrington told the PF he would go ahead and recognize Muzorewa if the conference broke down. None of the frontline states wanted the war to continue and they exerted a continuous leverage on the hardline PF coalition. Josiah Tongogara, who had more influence over ZANLA than did Mugabe, believed that a political compromise was possible. Nyerere also urged moderation and he persuaded Britain that more than ‘metaphysical’ force was needed to set up a ceasefire monitoring group. Samora Machel was also a vital ally of Carrington’s. In spite of Mugabe’s threats to go back to the bush, Machel privately told him that he wanted peace, and without Mozambique as a sanctuary ZANLA would collapse. Machel told Mugabe: ‘We FRELIMO secured independence by military victory against colonists. But your settlers have not been defeated, so you must negotiate. ’Angola, Nigeria and Zambia, for different reasons, wanted a speedy end to the conflict. There had been too much suffering for far too long.

If the guerrillas had not been put in an arm-lock by their backers, especially in Mozambique, and had walked out of the conference, Lord Carrington had warned that he would go for the ‘second-class solution’: recognition of Muzorewa. Paradoxically, the very success of the military raids, especially on the economic infrastructure (including the SAS-Recce Commando raid on Beira harbour on 18 September 1979), was probably politically counter-productive. The raids raised the morale of the white hardliners in Salisbury, but it ensured that the frontline states kept the PF sitting around the table. A tactful lull in the externals might well have prompted Mugabe to go for the unconditional surrender option, and walk out, and thus force Carrington to hand the baton to Muzorewa.

Transitions from war to peace make fascinating history, and the emergence of Zimbabwe from the ruins of Rhodesia was full of bizarre incidents as the old and new orders warily merged. Special Branch officers, used to harassing or planting ‘disinformation’on foreign journalists made startling confessions about the murkier side of the war to the same newsmen. Edgar Tekere, a Cabinet minister, donned combat fatigues to lead an attack on a white farm, and then holed up in a Salisbury apartment block with a small arsenal. Former members of the disbanded RLI hijacked truckloads of the weapons they had used throughout the war from their abandoned barracks and spirited them away by air from the country. (Apparently the daring raid was performed by ex-RLI soldiers who had joined the SADF. The venture had been sanctioned by superior officers, but not the army commander. The SADF did not need the weapons, but it has been suggested that it was a piece of private enterprise to embarrass the new Zimbabwe army. At the time there was speculation that the weapons had gone to the Mozambique resistance movement, the IRA or ZIPRA, but the destination of the hijacked weaponry was South Africa.) Crime rates in Salisbury’s African townships soared 400 per cent in weeks. South African agents armed to the teeth with small arms and sophisticated SAM-7s scrambled back across the Limpopo when they were stopped at a roadblock. Weapons marked ‘Special Branch Rusape’were seized by South African commandos in a raid on a South African African National Congress base in Maputo.

Despite the strange happenings, rumours of coups and the bitter taste of defeat, many whites were prepared to give Mugabe a chance to prove that he could bring real peace. And peace rested upon three main pillars: the retention of white expertise, economic aid for reconstruction and the re-establishment of law and order. Long after independence, banditry was endemic, particularly in the Goromonzi and Mtoko areas. P K van der Byl, still a vociferous RF member of parliament, described parts of Zimbabwe as a ‘sort of Wild West’. The police could do much to round up bandits, but the chief problem in Zimbabwe was the delay in the integration of the three rival armies. In a magnanimous gesture, Mugabe asked Walls to supervise the creation of a Zimbabwe National Army (ZNA) from elements of the former rival armies. A Joint High Command was established. By mid-1980 it consisted of the ZANLA chief, Rex Nhongo, the ZIPRA commander, Lookout Masuku, the army commander, Lieutenant General Sandy Maclean, the head of the air force, Air Marshal Frank Mussell and the Secretary of Defence, Alan Page. (The JHC was initially chaired by Walls, then, after his dismissal, by Alan Page, or his deputy Harry Oxley. The chairmanship then passed permanently to Emmerson Mnangagwa.)

Post – War

On 27 July 1982, a quarter of Zimbabwe’s air force was sabotaged at Thornhill base near Gweru (Gwelo). Thirteen fighters and trainers, including Hawk Mk60s recently purchased from Britain, were blown up. Six white air force officers, including an Air Vice Marshal, were detained, tortured, acquitted, redetained and, eventually, released and expelled from the country. The six men were innocent. It was a South African special force operation, assisted by ex-Rhodesian SAS. The audacious raid virtually eliminated the jet strike capability of the air force and propelled a mass exodus of the remaining white pilots and technicians.

In the next month, three white soldiers from a larger SADF raiding party were killed on the wrong side of the Limpopo river. The three, ex-Rhodesians who had served in the RLI and SAS, were said by Pretoria to have been on an unauthorised raid, a freelance operation, to rescue political prisoners held in south-eastern Zimbabwe. Undeterred, former SAS soldiers continued to attack Zimbabwe’s oil lifeline through Mozambique. By December 1982 Zimbabwe was down to two weeks’ supply of petrol. Eventually Washington told Pretoria to desist, but South Africa had made its point. It could turn off the tap whenever it wanted. South African intelligence chiefs then had a series of high-level meetings with Harare to set up a liaison committee to prevent what one Zimbabwean minister termed ‘nuclear war by accident’. An informal and uneasy truce lasted about 15 months.

In a letter to The Times in January 1978 retired British General Sir Walter Walker wrote of the Rhodesian forces:

Their army cannot be defeated in the field either by terrorists or even a much more sophisticated enemy. In my professional judgement based on more than twenty years’ experience from Lieutenant to General, of counter-insurgency and guerrilla type operations, there is no doubt that Rhodesia now has the most professional and battleworthy army in the world today for this particular type of warfare.

The general was probably right. A further, backhanded compliment to the Rhodesian forces was paid by an official of the Mozambique government when he claimed that they had destroyed a vital bridge deep inside his country. ‘It must have been the Rhodesians,’ he said, ‘because it was done so well.’ But the ‘field’ in revolutionary warfare is not the same as that in conventional warfare. In a guerrilla war the battlefield is the political loyalty of the mass of the population. The Rhodesians did not develop tactics to win enough battles in that more subtle war.

Rhodesian SAS hit the Fuel Depot in Beira, Mozambique

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