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.

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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.

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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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PIRATE YACHTS AND SPIES OF THE CLOTH

The wind and spray of the Western Mediterranean pelted Jack Taylor as he piloted the 150-ton Samothrace across the turbulent blue-green water. Controlled by the Axis, the Aegean Sea was swarming with roving patrols of enemy ships and planes, which provided a formidable challenge to the MU’s first mission. A master sailor, Taylor felt at home at the helm of the 90-foot sloop. Years of experience on solo cruises across the Pacific, yacht races in the Caribbean, and a narrow escape from being buried alive in a gold mine in the Yukon had given Jack Taylor skills and mental toughness few men possessed.

In September 1943, Taylor set off on one of the most dangerous voyages in the eastern Mediterranean. His orders were to deliver critical supplies to the Greek island of Samos, located less than a mile off the coast of Turkey. Samos was the birthplace of several ancient Greeks, including Pythagoras, Epicurus, and the astronomer Aristarchus, but at this time it was part of a tiny pocket of Allied occupied islands surrounded by Axis garrisons. Taking the helm of the Samothrace—now serving as a cargo vessel—Taylor departed Cairo with two tons of food, TNT, Tommy guns, ammunition, and camp equipment. The expert sailor adroitly navigated the ostentatious schooner and dropped anchor at the OSS’s caïque base at Pissouri, Cyprus, code-named “Cincinnati.” The OSS had several of these hidden coves, all code-named for prominent American cities, and they used them to refuel, make repairs, and even hide agents. As the war dragged on, the OSS established nearly a dozen of such covert marine bases across the Aegean.

Jack and his team unloaded the supplies and ammunition onto the Irene, a fifteen-ton caïque awaiting their arrival. They saved space for fifteen hundred pounds of “urgently needed medical supplies for Samos arriving by air from Cairo.” Little more than a rotting tub, the Irene had a breakneck top speed of only two knots in calm water. Like many of the boats, it carried sails as a secondary means of propulsion. But with “Samos being dead to windward, sails could not assist. It was an impossible situation,” Taylor reported. In desperation, Taylor sailed to another port in Cyprus known as Famagusta to “grab any fast caïque and talk about it later.” Though the Greek government was holding two “very suitable caïques for size and speed” for no apparent reason, the local officials refused to allow Taylor to put them to “good use.”

It was then that Taylor, in his own words, “blew a fuse.” He enlisted the help of OSS operative Captain John Franklin “Pete” Daniel III to make an urgent plea to the Greeks. Captain Daniel, code-named “Duck,” was the Cyprus chief of the Greek Desk for Secret Intelligence and spoke the language fluently. As a former professor of archaeology at the University of Pennsylvania who had conducted extensive digs in areas around the Mediterranean, Duck was extremely knowledgeable about the culture and government. Jack asked Daniel to explain that the “U.S. was not interested politically or economically in post-war Greece; that [the U.S.] wanted nothing in return for helping them; that the money and resources expended were for the sole purpose of aiding their people; that [the OSS] was not begging for the loan of a caïque to deliver humanitarian supplies which [they had] every right to do but wanted only to charter the transportation from them, and it seemed that [the Greek officials] were very unappreciative.” Their impassioned entreaties ultimately persuaded the Greeks to lease the Americans three capable boats: the Mary B., the Kleni, and the Angelike.

The OSS crew transported the much-needed supplies and medicine onto the new boats. Taylor, along with two secret intelligence agents and their equipment, sailed aboard the Mary B. On October 1, 1943, the three caïques set out at dawn. The occasional British patrol planes and low-flying German surveillance planes passed over the small flotilla as they headed to Samos.

En route, the caïques docked briefly at another of the OSS’s forward operating bases, a secret harbor code-named “Miami.” Then, on October 3, at 8:15 a.m., Taylor got his first taste of the grim realities of war. After the caïques left the relative safety of their base, eight German Junker JU-88s “dive-bombed and strafed a destroyer close under the south coast of Kos. Plenty of ack-ack [anti-aircraft fire] and one shot down, crashing and burning on the hillside.” The German dive bombers sank the British destroyer. According to Taylor, “One of the Junkers came out of his dive in our direction and gave us a long burst with cannon and machine guns. The Greek crew, with the exception of the helmsman, were so busy diving for the hold . . . that I was not able to accompany them. . . . One bomb burst fifty yards to the starboard.” With the crew badly shaken by the attack, Taylor then changed course, and the small fleet hugged the Turkish coast to avoid German planes. Taylor then witnessed another battle on the island of Kos around 12:30 p.m.: “Nine Junkers circling easily just above the ack-ack. Absolutely no fighter defense. Several warships, the largest probably a light cruiser . . . were counted through the glasses. Float planes directed the fire. Airfield and ammunition dump were bombed, sending up a huge smoke and debris column.”

At 7 p.m., Taylor and his crew departed from the coast of Samos for Kos. Taylor then reduced speed to ensure that the island hadn’t fallen to the Germans. Over the next several months the islands around Samos would be the scenes of some of the most intense fighting in the Aegean. The strategic location of the islands made them a valuable prize to both the Allied and Axis forces. Later, a daring German airborne and amphibious attack would assault Leros, resulting in the capture of thousands of Allied prisoners of war. Fortunately, at 7 a.m. on October 4, when the Mary B. and the other craft entered Vathy Harbor at Samos, Taylor saw the British and Greek flags flying, signifying that the port remained in Allied hands.

While at Samos, Allied authorities informed Taylor that the Germans had captured Kos and heavily bombed Leros. With the potential for German invasion weighing on his mind, Taylor quickly delivered the cargo, including the much-needed emergency food and medical supplies, to the archbishop of Samos, who was also an agent for MI-6, Britain’s foreign intelligence service. The bishop informed Taylor that many of the people, including guerrillas, desperately needed items that could only be secretly procured on the Turkish black market, including insulin. Taylor agreed to undertake the mission. From Samos, Taylor and his small flotilla set sail for Turkey.

Desperate to get to the island of Leros where his battalion was fighting, Colonel May, a British doctor temporarily detached from his duty on Leros, approached the leader of the Greek guerrillas on Samos. Although he pleaded his case valiantly, the command major gave him little hope. Everyone knew the Germans were attacking Leros, and most believed the island would soon fall—if it hadn’t already. The guerrilla leader knew of only one man who might be willing to risk his life to make that journey: “If that crazy Yank doesn’t come back, I’m sure I won’t be able to get anyone else to take you,” the command major told May.

The “crazy Yank” was Taylor, of course, and he was already on his way back to Samos. The streetwise lieutenant and the shrewd “Duck” had savvily handled the negotiations—for which no spy training could possibly have prepared them—to procure the insulin and other supplies for the archbishop from the Turkish black market. However, getting out of Turkey proved its own ordeal. Taylor and his companions endured “three hours of haggling, bribing, fines, delays, inspections, bullshit, and just plain uncooperativeness” before obtaining authorization to leave the port. Fortunately for them, the journey back to Samos on the Mary B. was largely uneventful.

However, their next mission proved even more dangerous than the first. On Samos the Mary B. picked up Colonel May and two other doctors who were determined to travel to the island of Leros to rejoin their British units and support the defense of the island. The only problem was that the BBC had reported that Leros had already fallen to the Germans. Taylor “checked with the signals office, and they said it was still in British hands.” So the intrepid American began plotting a daring nighttime mission to drop the doctors off at daybreak—hopefully before the serious fighting resumed. May confided in Taylor that “he had thought his last chance [of getting to Leros] was gone.”

Before departure, Taylor once again radioed Leros, and although there was some contact, they were not able to communicate clearly. Taylor recalled, “The operator assured me the signal I heard was his operator in Leros and not a German operating his set. That was all the confirmation I could get” that the island had not yet fallen.

The “Crazy Yank” was willing to risk his life to transport the doctors, but the Greek caïque crew demurred. Taylor remembered, “We prepared to shove off, but it seems the Greek crew had heard the BBC report about Leros too and weren’t eager to go into Nazi-land. I told them we were going and if they didn’t want to come that they could stay and I would take the boat. They decided to go.” Of course, Taylor had some misgivings of his own. Of Colonel May he wrote, “It seemed all wrong to return such a good man and excellent Doctor to be captured so soon. That was the way he wanted it however, as it was his battalion and he wanted to be with them at the end. He reminded me it was an Irish Battalion and not to sell them short.”

As the Mary B. got underway in the strait between Samos and Turkey they came under fire in the darkness from the Turkish side. So they sailed closer to Samos, but then took rifle fire from that island as well. They arrived at Leros at 5:30 a.m. on October 7, 1943, just as the sky was beginning to lighten. Taylor recalled, “Departing, we were picked up by a searchlight and followed out of the bay until overtaken by a British [motor launch] and an Italian MAS (Torpedo Armed Motor Boat). The British checked us for a few seconds (we were flying the American flag) satisfied themselves and left, but the [Italian boat] insisted on stopping us with all guns trained. Not to be outdone, [one of the OSS agents on the Mary B.] picked up his Tommy gun and with barrel pointed at the skipper of the MAS, continued the discussion, which was not only useless and annoying but wasted valuable minutes when we should have been clearing the island.” At this point in the war, the Italians, whose government had recently left the Axis and sided with the Allies, were unsure who was friend or foe. Eventually the Italian crew let the OSS boat pass, and the flotilla departed Leros, making “more knots than Mary B. could comfortably handle with motor and sail.”

Taylor’s group left the island just in time. By 7:00 a.m. they could hear the first wave of Nazi war planes arriving on Leros. “Bomb burst and ack-ack were heard a few minutes later. Several groups followed, and detonations could be heard after we reached the Turkish coast.”

Winston Churchill continued to push for operations in the Aegean with an eye on a postwar world; however, the Allies lacked sufficient resources to conduct operations in the area. As a result, the British operations failed. Ultimately the Germans boldly counterattacked with a combined airborne and amphibious assault. They crushed the British garrison on Leros, which had a critical airfield, and seized the island of Kos. Soon they also encircled Samos and cut it off. In an unheralded operation, OSS caïques successfully evacuated hundreds of Greek and British personnel from the island.

Taylor’s experience on the missions to Samos and Leros highlighted the glaring need for high-speed motorboats. The caïques were mechanically unreliable and extremely costly to operate. The OSS took a number of stopgap measures to compensate for the boats’ problems, including swapping out the marine engines for tank and aircraft engines that the service somehow obtained. For months Taylor hounded OSS and Allied headquarters in the area to provide his fledgling Maritime Unit with fast motorboats.

Despite the lack of high-speed craft, Taylor accomplished a great deal in the few months he was in Egypt. Additional MU personnel hadn’t left the United States by October 8, so Taylor had to rely entirely on himself. Of his accomplishments in the region the chief of the Maritime Unit in Washington noted, “Lieutenant Taylor has been successful in establishing water transportation out of Alexandria to various island contacts, and his service is being enthusiastically received by all parties in the Middle East. Lieutenant Taylor is the caliber of a man who can do a big job in his field; in spite of all handicaps he has proven his worth to Maritime.”

Always forward thinking and pioneering, Taylor realized the fast craft he was requesting suited a range of missions, including those of the underwater variety that Taylor had spent so much time planning for in the States. He would later write, “Provisionally tried underwater swimming apparatus now includes underwater breathing apparatus and mask; luminous and waterproof watches, depth gauges, and compasses; protective underwater suit; auxiliary swimming devices; and limpets and charges. With this equipment and proper training, operatives could make a simple and almost perfectly secure underwater approach to a maritime target and effect a subsequent getaway. An underwater operative, for example, could place a limpet against the hull of an enemy munitions ship in a crowded harbor with good chances of destruction.”

Taylor also saw the opportunity to open up a new dimension of warfare, one that would become a hallmark of the U.S. Navy SEALs: parachute insertion. Taylor was one of the first OSS officers to document this groundbreaking method of delivering underwater commandos to the target, stating, “Underwater operatives and equipment might be landed by parachute to attack targets in inland waterways, such as hydro-electric dams on a lake or important locks in canals. Such an approach offers a unique technique in the penetration of enemy defenses.” Several months later Taylor’s innovative ideas were incorporated into the Maritime Unit training manual, which included an exercise to destroy a canal by parachuting underwater swimmers into the target, where they would don rebreathers and plant limpet mines along the enemy-held waterway.

Bringing Down the Bridges

The US Coast Guard and OSS Maritime Operations During World War II

The Special Interrogation Group [SIG] Part I


In the short term the SAS and SBS were to operate in North Africa as one cohesive unit, and in close collaboration with the LRDG. In essence, the special forces raiders were being moulded into one tight-knit group, in preparation for their enlargement to regimental status under Churchill’s direct purview. That was slated to take place in September 1942, but only if Stirling and his fellows survived the coming mission.

By the third day of their sojourn at Kufra the men were becoming restless. They were impatient for news. For action. They began to sense that they were waiting for someone to arrive at Kufra, at which time all would be revealed.

Sure enough, on the morning of 4 September – their fourth day at the oasis – a lone Bristol Bombay beat its slow and laborious course across the hot air, before touching down in a cloud of dust on the dirt strip. Its arrival drew many a curious eye, but as the door to the cargo bay swung open little did any expect what was to follow.

Two British officers – one a captain, one a lieutenant – stepped down, leading what appeared to be a column of German troops. As the assembled British soldiers gawped in amazement, the Afrika Korps unit was marched across the airstrip to an isolated stand of palms. There the British officers proceeded to issue orders to their charges in the harsh-seeming guttural tones of German.

The commandos stared in bewilderment as the officers proceeded to drill the troopers, who responded swiftly and smartly, wielding their German weaponry with practised skill. As the barked orders rang out through the oasis, they sounded a chilling note. It felt so very, very wrong to the men gathered there. Kufra was the Allies’ desert redoubt; what was a force of the enemy doing here, of all places?

Their worries – their resentment – were tempered somewhat by the reception that Lloyd Owen and Major Campbell afforded the new arrivals. The two commanders had been radioed a warning regarding the unusual nature of the force that would be flying in to Kufra. The ‘Secret’ message told them to expect, ‘Buck and six ORs [Other Ranks] . . . wearing German uniforms. Their recognition signal is “red handkerchief”.’

If the newly arrived unit were to be challenged, they were to give the code word ‘red handkerchief’. In spite of appearances, the code word would confirm that they were in reality friendly forces, commanded by an extraordinary individual most had only ever heard spoken about in whispers.

Following his daring escape from the enemy dressed as an Afrika Korps officer, Captain Henry Cecil Buck had worked tirelessly to bring his Great Idea to fruition. At the time General Sir Claude Auchinleck was in command of British forces in North Africa. An Indian Army officer himself, Auchinleck had looked kindly upon Captain Buck’s extraordinary plan, but it was clear that no such unit could ever be formed as an official part of the British military.

Buck’s force would have to be utterly deniable, which made it ideally suited to the Special Operations Executive. As a SOE outfit, the British government and military could deny all knowledge and responsibility, if ever they were challenged. So it was that the war’s greatest ever deception force was formed as a special detachment to G(R) – the nerve centre of the SOE’s raiding operations.

With his hawk face, aquiline nose and piercing blue eyes, high-born Lieutenant General Terence Airey was just the kind of officer Captain Buck needed to sponsor his creation. Serving in a cloak-and-dagger role with military intelligence, Airey would go on to mastermind Operation Fritzel, a clandestine meeting with SS General Karl Wolff aimed at negotiating the surrender of German forces in Italy. But in the spring of 1942 he was stationed at general headquarters, Cairo, and he’d taken up Buck’s proposal with a vengeance.

‘We are . . . forming a Special German Group as a sub-unit of ME Commando,’ he declared in an extraordinary 1 April 1942 memo stamped ‘Most Secret’. ‘It is intended that this . . . unit would be used for infiltration behind the German lines in the Western Desert . . . The strength of the Special Group would be approximately that of a platoon.’

‘The personnel . . . are fluent German linguists,’ Airey continued. ‘They are mainly Palestinians of German origin. Many of them have had war experience . . . They will frequently be dressed in German uniform and will operate under the command of a British officer who has already proved himself to be an expert in German language.’

That ‘British officer’ was of course Henry Cecil Buck, and the chief purpose of Airey’s memo was to secure the kind of transport that his newly formed unit required.

In order to enable the Group to operate efficiently, it is essential that it should be provided with . . . the under mentioned vehicles:

one German staff car

two 16-cwt trucks

Airey signed off his memo by giving Buck’s unit the proposed cover name the Special Operations Group. As if it were an afterthought, ‘Operations’ was crossed out by hand, and replaced with a scribbled alternative: ‘Interrogation’. For better or worse that would become the name under which Buck’s force would become known: the Special Interrogation Group, or the SIG for short.

At its simplest, Airey and Buck’s plan was to have the SIG talk its way through German lines riding in German vehicles and bristling with hidden weaponry. Buck’s men would then attack targets of opportunity, in particular German staff cars carrying high-ranking German officers. But once David Stirling got wind of the SIG, more flesh was added to the bones of the plan: the SIG could perhaps best be utilized by bluffing its way through Axis lines, ‘guarding’ truckloads of SAS posing as prisoners of war. Once through the enemy lines the SAS would throw off their POW shackles, cry havoc and let slip the dogs of war.

Buck recruited as his second in command a man cut from similar cloth – a fellow daredevil and eccentric. Lieutenant David Russell was a Scots Guards officer who’d earned renown for his fearlessness. Another gifted linguist, he was a fluent German speaker, which made him ideal for the SIG. With his slicked-back hair, luxuriant moustache and dashing good looks, Russell was also the archetypal British adventurer. He’d spent his youth astride speeding motorcycles or climbing into and out of Cambridge colleges. It was when driving that Russell truly threw all caution to the wind. He liked to keep his speedometer above the 80 mph mark, and this had earned him, perhaps inevitably, the nickname the Flying Scotsman. His greatest fear was what to do with his restless soul once the war came to an end.

Having soldiered with Stirling’s SAS, Russell had come direct from there to the SIG. He differed from Buck in one key aspect: a cool, calculating officer, Russell was inclined to trust no one until he or she had proved themselves deserving of his confidence. Buck, by contrast, had a tendency to an otherworldly naivety, and he would put his faith in others all too easily. Neither man was a cool, calculating killer. Russell would write to his sister from the desert, describing his distaste at taking out Germans at close hand. An intensely family-oriented man, he had to steel himself to carry out such acts in cold blood.

From the very outset the SIG had the aura of a suicide squad. All militaries take exception to the enemy posing as friendly forces. Neither Buck nor Russell were under any illusions as to what fate might befall any of the SIG should they fall into enemy hands. A firing squad would be the least of their worries.

As word leaked out to the regular military of the SIG’s existence, howls of protest could be heard. Ever since Operation Flipper – the attempt to assassinate Rommel – voices had been raised at the highest level, lamenting the indecent and very ‘un-British’ nature of such missions. Assassinations, subterfuge, posing as the enemy: these were not the kinds of things that soldiers in British uniform should indulge in. But Churchill had called for ‘ungentlemanly warfare’, and the SIG’s brand of warfare promised to be ungentlemanly in the extreme.

The SIG’s earliest operations had been fairly low-key affairs, designed to test the waters. Now, five months after its formation, a contingent of the SIG had arrived in Kufra to link up with the forces gathered there. Whatever their mission might prove to be, this promised ungentlemanly warfare beyond compare. But the SIG were far from universally welcome, even among the mavericks and misfits of the ‘private armies’.

No one could argue with the sheer bravery of those who volunteered to serve in such a unit, wherein capture would lead to horrific torture and death. It testified to a dedication to defeating Nazism that demanded a certain respect. Yet rumours abounded about the SIG being plagued by betrayal. Traitorous behaviour had led to disaster and Allied special forces soldiers had died a terrible death as a result. Few hadn’t heard the dark reports. The commandos and LRDG gathered at Kufra eyed the SIG operatives warily, as they wondered just what kind of a mission was now in the offing and what exactly they had let themselves in for.

With the arrival of the next Bristol Bombay aircraft they were about to find out.

It was late afternoon when the lumbering Bombay set down on Kufra’s dirt strip. Most of the men were away at the bathing pools, so few were around to see just whom the aircraft was carrying. But Lloyd Owen was there to greet the new arrival – the former cotton trader Lieutenant Colonel John Haselden.

That evening several of the men caught sight of Haselden, recognizing him from their night spent partying at the cotton mill on the banks of the Nile. The news spread. It looked as if they’d not been wrong when they’d presumed that Haselden was instrumental in their mission. He was here now, and clutching a very official-looking briefcase, one doubtless stuffed with a full set of orders.

At dawn the following morning the men of the Commando were called to parade. Major Campbell presented them to Haselden, who stepped forward to inspect the ranks of unshaven, sunburned, grim-faced cutthroats. Haselden must have liked what he saw, for a gentle smile creased his weathered features.

‘Take a seat, gentlemen,’ he commanded coolly. Eighty-odd elite warriors settled onto the sand. ‘You’re no doubt anxious to learn of your destination and what work is planned. Understandably so. Now I’m going to give you the full picture.’ Haselden paused, for dramatic effect it seemed. The men waited, tense and silent, as the lieutenant colonel spread out a map before them. When he recommenced speaking, few could believe what he had to say: ‘Gentlemen, we’re going to capture Tobruk and destroy it completely.’

Just like that Haselden had declared the utterly unthinkable.

Countless ideas had been mooted by the commandos as they debated their possible objectives, but none had ever imagined that Rommel’s foremost stronghold might be their target. Tobruk: it was the fulcrum of the desert war. Whoever held it held the key to victory in North Africa, or so most argued.

Tobruk was a long way away, lying 600 miles due north of Kufra. It was arguably the finest natural harbour on the entire North African coast. The port itself was two miles long and blessed with a deepwater basin boasting numerous quays and jetties. The glistening waters nestled in the curve of a natural amphitheatre, bare and barren hills rising on three sides. Those slopes were peppered with forts, gun emplacements, trenches and bunkers, forming a fearsome defensive ring thrown around the anchorage itself. The fortifications stretched inland some eight or nine miles, reaching into the open desert. The outer cordon was made up of wire fencing and anti-tank ditches, and studded by a double line of bunkers, each linked to its neighbour by telephone and all linked thus to headquarters.

Tobruk had been the Allies’ main stronghold in North Africa, before Rommel’s panzers had wrested it from British hands. Rommel’s Panzerwaffe – armoured force – was an elite unit tried and tested during stunning victories scored in Belgium and France. The Panzerwaffe had struck first in North Africa in April 1941, winning a string of lightning victories. Months later, after a grinding siege, Tobruk had fallen.

It was June 1942 and Churchill was in Washington, seeking to persuade US President Roosevelt to supply more tanks, warships and aircraft to the Allied war effort. The British premier was in the Oval Office, speaking with Roosevelt, when a telegram with news of the calamity arrived. It could not have come at a worse time. Suffering defeats on all fronts, Allied fortunes were at their nadir. In taking Tobruk Rommel had seized much of the Allied artillery intact, plus thousands of tons of munitions and fuel. He had also captured 33,000 troops.

It was a dark day, one that Churchill lamented bitterly. He declared it ‘a bitter moment. Defeat is one thing; disgrace is another.’

Rommel considered the seizure of Tobruk the crowning achievement of his career. It provided his Afrika Korps with thousands of tons of supplies and a vital port through which to resupply his forces from occupied Europe. Hitler was equally ebullient: he promoted Rommel to field marshal to reward him for the daring venture.

Churchill railed against the loss. Determined to strike back, he demanded a counterpunch. He argued that Rommel’s greatest victory was also his Achilles heel. Seizure of the port had yielded enormous war booty and eased Rommel’s supply logistics immensely. Yet Tobruk was vulnerable from the sea and air, and especially to hit-and-run sabotage from the desert.

Right now those desert raiders gathered at Kufra would need some convincing. The fact that Rommel’s forces had achieved the ‘impossible’ and taken Tobruk made Haselden’s proposal seem all the more incredible. How could 33,000 Allied troops have surrendered Tobruk, only for Haselden’s force of eighty souls to retake it?

A low murmur swept around the men as they gave voice to their surprise and concern. Smiling, radiating an avuncular confidence, Haselden waited for the noise to die down. He proceeded to flip open his briefcase. His orders – issued to him on 21 August 1942 and marked ‘To Be Kept Under Lock And Key’ – confirmed that the seemingly impossible was indeed at hand: the eighty men assembled in Kufra were to wrestle Tobruk from Axis control.

Typical of military orders everywhere, those Haselden carried were dry and curt. ‘Intention: Forces . . . will capture and hold the south shore of the harbour from Umm Es Sciausc to the Bulk Oil Tank, which is to be destroyed . . . At last light on the 12th September Force . . . less the LRDG patrol will enter the Tobruk perimeter . . .’

As Haselden well knew, what they were tasked to do was daunting in the extreme. He also knew that no dry set of orders would compel men such as these to follow him where he intended to lead them. He ran his eyes over the document one last time, before straightening his shoulders and preparing to deliver the speech of his life.

‘Gentlemen, we’re going to take Tobruk,’ he repeated. ‘I know the idea sounds fantastic, but it would also sound fantastic to the enemy, and that is our single greatest strength. We are going to do the utterly unexpected, taking the enemy by total surprise. It is for that very reason that we are going to do exactly what I have just said – take Tobruk, hold it for several hours and leave it so that it is useless as a supply port for the Afrika Korps.’

Haselden eyed the men. He could tell that his calm, confident delivery coupled with those carefully chosen words was starting to take effect. But right now the commandos would have scores of unanswered questions whirling through their minds. He intended to answer the most pressing ones right away.

‘We are going to capture a bridgehead just outside of Tobruk harbour,’ he continued, ‘under cover of the biggest air raid this coast has ever seen. The RAF will unleash merry hell onto Tobruk’s defenders. Under cover of that, and because we won’t be expected, we shall establish the bridgehead with little difficulty. Then, through this little harbour that we have established, MTBs will pour in reinforcements.’

MTBs – motor torpedo boats – light, fast attack ships. That would explain the SBS unit included in the commandos’ number.

Tobruk was believed to be garrisoned by low-calibre troops, Haselden explained, and to be only lightly defended. Rommel had sent the cream of his forces to the front line, to prepare for the thrust towards Cairo itself.

‘Rommel has stripped Tobruk of its key defensive forces,’ Haselden continued, quoting intelligence reports. ‘All that remains to guard the port are a couple of battalions of third-rate Italian troops, plus a number of German technicians and ack-ack personnel.’ Haselden figured that the German soldiers numbered 1,000 all told.

Low-grade Italian troops weren’t something to be feared by the commandos. They’d crossed swords with, and vanquished, such forces many times before. And presumably the German ack-ack (anti-aircraft) gunners would be fully occupied with trying to repulse the Allied air raid. If the enemy could be taken by surprise, success would doubtless be theirs.

Haselden rolled off the names of the units – Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders, Royal Northumberland Fusiliers; regiments that had earned a fearsome repute during the desert campaigns – who would land from the sea. Once reinforced, the Commando would break out from the bridgehead and seize the southern shoreline of the port, even as destroyers landed marines to take the northern side. They would then smash their way into Tobruk in a pincer movement, linking up at the centre of the fortress.

As Haselden continued speaking, his stature seemed to grow. He exuded utter confidence in their ability to do just as they had been ordered. His attitude seemed to be catching: he could detect a growing sense of assurance surging through the men before him. They’d hold Tobruk for twelve hours, he explained, during which time they’d dynamite dock installations and piers, destroy tank repair workshops and blow up ammo dumps and fuel depots. The assembled men began to comprehend the impact such an operation might have on the hated enemy: deprived of fuel, ammo, tanks and the means of resupply, this would constitute a knockout blow that could cripple Rommel’s war effort.

The key would be the calibre of the troops defending Tobruk. If they were as Haselden suggested, a sudden strike delivered with maximum surprise might well prove decisive. The intelligence on the quality of the Tobruk garrisons had an impeccable pedigree: it came from Ultra intercepts. Indeed, signals decoded at Bletchley had revealed Rommel’s trials and tribulations generally, as his supply lines had become ever more extended.

Ultra gave warnings of the resupply convoys setting out from Italy. Those were being hit by pinpoint RAF air strikes, sending Rommel’s much-needed war materiel to the depths. Repeatedly, the German field marshal had demanded new tanks to re-equip his Panzerwaffe, but Bletchley intercepts revealed that not enough were getting through. As Rommel siphoned off crack troops to fill the gaps in his front-line positions, Tobruk had been left increasingly vulnerable.

The Special Interrogation Group [SIG] Part II

In recent months the speed by which such Ultra intelligence reached Allied forces had increased massively. At first it had taken days, sometimes weeks, for signals to be decoded at Bletchley and for the information they contained to make it to the front. But in May 1942 Bletchley had started sending cryptanalysts to war. One of the first was a Lieutenant Harry Meirion Evans, an Oxford graduate who’d once been accused of having ‘insufficient bloodlust’ to make it as a proper soldier. Evans had been posted instead to Bletchley, where he had helped break the German cipher code-named Double Playfair. But he felt guilty about not serving in a combat role, and he was among the first to volunteer for North Africa.

When the fresh-faced Evans was deployed to Egypt, a Cairo veteran of the Auxiliary Territorial Service (ATS) – the women’s branch of the British army during World War Two – had declared, ‘Good God, has it come to this? They’re sending us children now . . .’

Evans quickly realized that he needed to take a signals intercept team plus code-breakers right to the front, to speed up the provision of usable intelligence. In trying to locate the front-line HQ, his convoy of vehicles had almost blundered into Rommel’s forces. He wrote in his diary of time spent sleeping ‘in a Jerry dugout’ and of being ‘bothered by a Heinkel, but cloud was low and he went away’. On another occasion he and a fellow cryptologist spent the night in a hut in a remote Arab village, taking turns sleeping on the only bed or standing guard with a pistol. Through such heroic endeavours, Evans and his fellow front-line code-breakers accelerated the provision of usable intelligence exponentially.

Haselden had enjoyed the benefits of such rapid-fire intelligence, as had all the planners who had been involved in conceiving the present mission. Stirling had played a key role; indeed, many argued it was the SAS commander who had first mooted the idea of a lightning raid on Tobruk. But it was Haselden who had really taken the plan up, giving it wings.

Scores of simultaneous raids would take place all along the Axis-held coast, Haselden explained to the force gathered before him at Kufra. That would spread confusion among the enemy commanders as to the main target. In the biggest of such decoy attacks, Stirling would lead some 200 SAS in dozens of vehicles, causing havoc and confusion at Rommel’s second port, Benghazi. That mission, with typical SAS elan, had been code-named Operation Bigamy.

Other units would hit enemy bases, fortifications and targets of opportunity at widely dispersed points across the desert. Hundreds of dummy parachutists would be dropped at various locations, to convince the enemy that a series of airborne landings were under way. One raider unit would hit the Jalo oasis, a former Allied stronghold before Rommel’s forces overran it. Another was tasked to raid Barce airfield, set to the far west of Tobruk, on a mission code-named Operation Caravan.

Having guided the Commando to its target, Lloyd Owen’s LRDG patrol would attack the main radio station located on the outskirts of Tobruk’s defensive perimeter. It would then raid the nearby airfield, remaining on hand should any of Haselden’s commandos need to link up with the LRDG patrol to escape.

‘For twelve hours we will hold out at Tobruk,’ Haselden announced portentously. ‘Twelve hours. There will be no retreat. Twelve hours is all the time the sappers need to do their demolitions work.’

‘And afterwards?’ a voice queried. ‘Do we come out via the desert?’

Haselden shook his head: they would be taken off in Royal Navy warships, he explained. Getting in through the desert was going to prove challenging enough. Getting out by the same route would be nigh-on impossible. Which brought Haselden to the most most daring and audacious aspect of the coming operation.

‘We are going to drive openly into Tobruk at dusk,’ Haselden announced, scrutinizing the men for their reactions. He nodded in the direction of the SIG camp. ‘We will enter as prisoners of war captured at the Alamein front, under the guard of what are supposedly German soldiers.’

The SIG operatives had kept themselves to themselves at Kufra, but suddenly the presence of the ‘Afrika Korps’ contingent was explained. The last thing the enemy would ever expect was a group of POWs emerging from the desert, who were in truth the much-feared British commandos, not that the men were overjoyed upon learning of the key deception that would underpin their mission.

Admittedly, there was no way into Tobruk without a Trojan horse such as the SIG provided. The commandos needed the SIG deception to get them through the fearsome defences, but few were keen to place their fortunes in the hands of ‘Germans’, even if their allegiances supposedly lay with the Allies now. In the background lurked the dark suspicion – the rumours – of previous betrayals.

There was little time to contemplate such fears. Haselden spread more maps in the sand. Most of the Commando had served in Tobruk at one time or another, and the terrain was familiar to them. Haselden jabbed a finger at a point in the south-eastern end of Tobruk harbour. It was a narrow boot-shaped inlet, enclosed with high cliffs and marked ‘Marsa Umm Esc-Sciausc’ – marsa being the colloquial Arabic word for ‘bay’. Sciausc Bay lay just outside the Tobruk boom, a barrier of floating nets that closed off the harbour entrance, leaving just a narrow entry point.

‘This is the bay that we are going to capture on September 13th,’ Haselden announced in his quiet, self-assured tones.

September 13th: they now had a date for the coming raid. Today was 4 September. They were nine days out and counting.

‘Aerial reconnaissance shows coastal defence guns positioned all around the cove, as well as ack-ack further inland,’ Haselden continued. He glanced at the faces all around him. ‘Our job is to capture those guns. If we fail, the Argylls and Fusiliers will be blown out of the water as they come in to land.’ He paused. ‘But we will not fail. We will capture those guns and turn them against the enemy. No warships of ours will be blown out of the water. No warships of theirs will be allowed to leave the harbour.’

The more the commandos listened, the more they liked what they heard. This raid on Tobruk appealed to their wilder, reckless sides. The plan was a good one and it all tied up nicely. They could see it playing out beautifully. Surprise, ingenuity and audacity would carry the day, plus they could be serving under no better leader, that was for certain.

The faith the commandos placed in any new commander was based in large part upon his reputation. In Haselden’s case, it was second to none. Few hadn’t heard of his exploits masquerading as an Arab deep behind the lines. Haselden seemed not to understand fear. The possibility of betrayal lurked at every juncture, but it seemed never to occur to him that things might go wrong or the enemy capture him.

The story most often told around the flickering campfires was of his role in Operation Flipper. Lieutenant Tommy Langton – the SBS veteran of sticky-grenade fame – had been on that mission, so could speak of it personally. The British submarines Torbay and Talisman had crept up the North African coast, to a point offshore of what was believed to be Rommel’s headquarters. They carried a force of SBS and commandos led by Lieutenant Colonel Geoffrey Keyes, the son of the famous admiral Sir Roger Keyes.

The submarines had surfaced to discover a point of light blinking at them miraculously from the shoreline. Langton had been told to expect the landing-point marker, but he had never once believed it would be there bang on schedule. The thirty-strong commando force had paddled ashore, to discover Lieutenant Colonel John Haselden dressed head-to-toe in Arab robes, operating the signal light and to all appearances unconcerned that he was doing so smack bang in the midst of enemy territory.

Having been dropped behind the German lines by the LRDG, Haselden had spent two weeks scrutinising what Allied radio intercepts suggested was Rommel’s base. Over the next three days, and, perversely, battling torrential rain, he led the raiders to the doorstep of the building they believed was the Desert Fox’s headquarters.

But they met with fierce resistance, which ended in the crushing realization that Rommel was not at home. He had apparently flown to Rome unexpectedly, for his fiftieth-birthday celebrations. In the course of fierce fighting Major Keyes was killed. He would be awarded a posthumous Victoria Cross. Many commandos also lost their lives. But Haselden managed to melt back into the desert, where he was picked up by an LRDG patrol.

He earned his second MC for that daring operation. The citation would stress how Haselden had ‘walked a distance of nearly 100 miles through the heart of enemy territory’ to recce Rommel’s headquarters. It spoke of a ‘fearless action worthy of the highest praise. The success he achieved was largely due to information he had gained during his reconnaissance.’

Haselden never built himself up to be a man of mystery, or one who possessed outstanding courage and charisma, yet in his quiet, understated way he was all those things and more. Blessed with a magnetic personality, he was one of the most unconventional heroes of the war. He had already suffered tragic loss in his life, and on a level that would have excused him for putting personal interests above the call of duty.

Married in 1931 to Nadia Szymonska-Lubicz, a nineteen-year-old Polish-Italian beauty, he had lost his wife five years later to a car crash. That had left their only child, Gerald, seven, deprived of a mother and Haselden himself widowed. Nonetheless, not long after the outbreak of war Haselden had signed up for military service. He was a man who made friends easily, and then had those friends exercise themselves to win him more friends. He was a man born to lead missions such as the present one, and the men of the Commando could sense it.

He rounded off the briefing by turning to the most scintillating aspect of the coming raid. Once their objective was secured, their key task was to free the thousands of POWs held in the Tobruk cages. They would be released and armed with captured weaponry, so they could join forces with the raiders.

At mission’s end the former POWs would be evacuated by Royal Navy warships or would break out into the desert, where they would link up with Stirling’s SAS. Those who managed to do so would form a guerrilla army, operating in Rommel’s rear. Unsurprisingly, it was this aspect of the coming operation that appealed most to the commandos.

The taking of 33,000 Allied prisoners at the fall of Tobruk had truly smarted. Those troops had fought like lions and no one doubted that they would do so again. If they could spring those POWs and arm them, they would have a massive force of battle-hardened fighters to pit against the German and Italian forces manning Tobruk.

Now was the moment to turn defeat into victory, Haselden urged. But he sounded a final note of caution. He indicated a point on the map about twelve miles east of Tobruk on the coastal road. ‘That’s the danger point. The Germans have a staging point hereabouts. Those are crack panzer troops intended to reinforce the Alamein front, and they are to be feared. That’s why we must fight our way into Tobruk, to hold a line that covers that road.’

The commandos remained undaunted. If they managed to block the road, no reinforcements were getting through to Tobruk, of that they felt certain. The wild card in the mission remained the ‘Germans’ in their midst, although most understood how and why German Jews had come to fight alongside Allied forces.

Adolf Hitler – an aggressive proponent of the so-called ‘stab in the back’ theory – had blamed the Jews for Germany’s humiliating defeat at the end of World War One. He’d added to that the potent – and entirely flawed – concept of eugenics, claiming that the Jews weren’t simply a reviled religious group, but also inherently racially inferior. The Jew, Hitler claimed, was a different species to the rest of humankind and could not be redeemed. Only annihilation would solve ‘the Jewish question’.

Already the Nazi concentration camps were busy with their deadly work, which meant that the British and the German Jews had become natural allies. Churchill himself would praise the Jewish soldiers who had joined the Allied cause, lauding the units formed from ‘that race which has suffered indescribable torments from the Nazis, a distinct formation among the forces gathered for their final overthrow’.

But still those gathered at Kufra were suspicious of the soldiers in their midst who spoke only in German, wore German uniforms, wielded German weaponry, marched and sang in distinctly German martial tones and kept themselves entirely apart. The men of the Commando might recognize their raw bravery and courage, but that didn’t mean that they trusted the men of the SIG.

Could they really be relied upon, or were they dissemblers, awaiting the moment of betrayal? News of previous double-crosses suffered by the SIG troubled the men of the Commando. Could they really place their lives in the hands of such men? Captain Buck for one believed that they could. He had trained and briefed and readied his men exhaustively. No stone had been left unturned in preparing their cover stories.

Indeed, there was no finer deception force in the entire Allied military, or so Buck believed.

So much hung upon the calibre of the men making up the SIG.

Buck had sought out his earliest recruits among the Middle East Commando, at their Burg El Arab headquarters, set to the west of Cairo. The Commando’s war diary for 17 March 1942 simply records the arrival of ‘a Capt. Buck to select German-speaking personnel with a view to certain work’. Recruiting for that ‘certain work’ was never going to be easy. The potential volunteers were mostly nationals of the country they were going to fight, and traitors under international law, even if their ‘treason’ was in the name of liberation from Nazi tyranny. They would be shot without question, if captured.

Upon arrival at the Burg El Arab camp, Buck had announced that he wanted to talk only to fluent German speakers. He told his audience that he was seeking volunteers for a very different kind of challenge, before outlining the basic objectives of the SIG. He stressed that any Jew caught masquerading as a member of the ‘master race’ was finished.

‘If your identity is found out, there’s no hope for you,’ he warned. ‘For any who volunteer, your lives will change completely. You will need to be prepared to cut yourself off from the rest of the British military. You will need to have as little contact as possible with your erstwhile brothers-in-arms.’

He needed independent self-starters who were happy with their own company, Buck explained. Volunteers would have to isolate themselves in a bubble of Teutonic discipline and efficiency, imbibing the Afrika Korps esprit de corps to the extent that they would almost begin to believe they were soldiers fighting in the Nazi cause. Their very survival depended upon their ability to eat, live and breathe that deception. They would need to wear their disguises faultlessly and to learn to drill as an Afrika Korps soldier.

Every volunteer who stepped forward was made to sign a declaration, acknowledging the dangers involved. It read: ‘I hereby certify that I understand the risks . . . to which I and my relatives may be exposed by my employment in the British Army . . . Notwithstanding this, I certify that I am willing to be employed in any theatre of war . . .’

The Special Interrogation Group [SIG] Part III


Not that the SIGs would be serving in the British army, of course. Buck had already been transferred into MO4, one of the numerous cover names for the Special Operations Executive. Any who volunteered for the SIG would likewise be shifted sideways on to the SOE’s shadowy payroll.

One of the first to step forward was Maurice ‘Tiffin’ Tiefenbrunner, a German Jew hailing from Wiesbaden, a city in western Germany. One of eight children, his parents had owned a delicatessen. After school, Tiefenbrunner had worked as a fitter in a Jewish-run department store, but in 1934 Nazi storm troopers had burst in and started beating up the staff. Tiefenbrunner had stepped in, trying to defend the store manager. He ended up spending several days in hospital as a result of the beating he sustained.

Four years later his parents were rounded up for deportation to Poland. Maurice offered to take his mother Matel’s place, so she could continue caring for his younger siblings. He was duly shipped to Poland along with his father, Efraim, who was blind. So began a long saga of flight from Nazi oppression, which ended with Tiefenbrunner being forced to abandon even his father. With war about to break out, he managed to bribe his way onto the Parita, a French pleasure boat bound for Palestine. En route the captain diverted to Cyprus, for the hopelessly overcrowded vessel was running out of food. It was crammed with over 700 Jewish refugees.

Tiefenbrunner and his fellows decided to act. They seized the ship and steamed full speed for Palestine. Upon arrival the British authorities tried to prevent them from landing, but they were not to be deterred, running the boat aground on Tel Aviv beach before smashing up her engines. Tiefenbrunner and the other refugees were interned as illegal immigrants, but at war’s outbreak they were released, most signing up for the British army.

By the spring of 1942 Tiefenbrunner had already had a long and varied war. He’d fought with the British Expeditionary Force in France, escaping via St Malo in June 1940 on one of the last of the ships. On his arrival back in England he’d immediately volunteered to serve in the commandos. He’d joined the Middle East Commando, fighting in the Horn of Africa, where he was wounded while trying to rescue a fallen comrade, earning a mention in dispatches.

Tiefenbrunner described Captain Buck’s 17 March 1942 recruiting pitch in the following terms: ‘He said we would be trained by experienced people to behave like German soldiers, put on German uniforms and go into enemy territory and do intelligence as well as sabotage work . . . This was one step further to my aim to hurt the Nazis as much as possible . . . I and the other volunteers said we were willing to take the risk and go.’

For those who did step forward, all traces of Jewishness would have to be expunged. Maurice Tiefenbrunner chose to adopt his war nickname Tiffin as his new ‘official’ surname in the SIG. But with his shock of black hair, darkly intense eyes and prominent features, he remained particularly Jewish in appearance, so his cover story in the SIG would have to be flawless, if it were to be convincing.

Another commando who stepped forward was an unlikely looking recruit. Corporal Charlie ‘Chunky’ Hillman was plump, cheerful, fresh-faced and barely out of his teens. The son of an Austrian butcher, Hillman had clearly overindulged in the pastries of his native Vienna. Small, stout and with gold-rimmed spectacles, he looked more like a junior professor than an archetypal paratrooper or desert warrior, but his appearance belied his true nature.

In his mid-teens Hillman had been imprisoned in Vienna for what he described happily as ‘Nazi-baiting’. Among other things it had involved ringing up the fire brigade and police from public phone boxes and calling them out to emergencies that did not exist, and otherwise generally throwing a spanner in the works of the Nazi administration. After prison, he’d been forced to take a job on a chicken farm. He was to feed several thousand chickens before breakfast, to encourage them to lay eggs for the Nazi war effort. In spite of his love of food he decided to stop feeding the chickens, after which egg production dropped from around 2,000 a day to six.

Portly, even in his late teens, he would nevertheless prove to have the spirit of a lion, earning both a Military Medal and a Military Cross as the war progressed. He also had a somewhat left-field sense of humour, which endeared him to his fellows. He spoke English with a cockney accent and was in the habit of introducing himself as Baron Von Schnitzberger. Hillman chewed garlic whenever he could get his hands on it, and he cheerfully avowed that the only things he cared about in life were eating . . . and killing Germans.

Hillman was utterly fearless and would go on to be one of the most highly decorated foreigners in the British army. Towards the war’s end he would be parachuted into his native Vienna on an SOE operation, and end up interrogating the head of the Vienna Gestapo. But for now the SIG beckoned.

Private Opprower, at twenty years old, was another volunteer and equally imbued with raw courage. In 1936, when he was just sixteen years old, his father was deported from their native Berlin to the concentration camps. There he was to perish alongside millions of others. Young Opprower was sent out of Berlin and arrived in Palestine at the outbreak of war, signing up right away for the British military.

Posted to administrative duties, Opprower absconded from camp three times in an effort to join a front-line unit and avenge his father’s death. Three times he was brought back to face charges. Luckily, he came to the attention of someone at Special Operations headquarters in Cairo. ‘This is just the kind of chap we are looking for,’ he declared, and Opprower was promptly recruited into the Commando.

By late March Buck had his full complement of SIG recruits. There were thirty-eight all told, around a platoon in strength. Not all were German Jews. Some hailed from the Free Czech forces, others from the French Foreign Legion and yet others from the ranks of the Free French. They shared two things in common: they were all fluent German speakers who could pass as German natives, and they had an all-consuming desire to strike back hard against the Nazi war machine.

Buck the master-planner and strategist was under no illusions as to the challenges they faced. Success – and with it the survival of those now under his command – depended entirely upon the ability of the men to carry out their masquerade to perfection. Nationality and language proficiency alone would not be enough; each and every SIG operative would need to speak the slang used by the Afrika Korps, reflecting the latest barrack-room gossip, topics of interest and military jargon.

They would need to be intimately acquainted with the German movie actors, dancehall singers, pin-ups and sports stars then most popular with Rommel’s troops. Bearing, dress, drill, mannerisms, the curses and idioms they used would need to be that of seasoned veterans of Rommel’s Afrika Korps.

Buck decided his men needed to train in utter isolation from any other Allied forces. He couldn’t afford to have the SIG ‘contaminated’ by British soldierly ways or anything else remotely un-Germanic. Accordingly, he established a training camp on the shores of Egypt’s Bitter Lakes, stretches of intensely salty water lying astride the Suez Canal. The SIG base was isolated, utterly secret and off limits to all but himself and other members of the unit.

There, the training regime proved relentless. Trainees wore German uniform at all times, even down to their underwear and socks. Reveille was signalled by a sharp blast on a whistle and the greet-the-dawn cry of ‘Kompanie aufstehen!’ – Company, get up! This was followed by twenty-minutes of PT, after which the SIG trainees had to march to breakfast, singing lusty German martial songs along the way.

All cigarettes, chocolate or other luxuries in camp were German. The recruits were forbidden from speaking any language other than German, and when they marched it had to be in the German fashion, goose-stepping and with their hands swinging smartly across the chest. Great emphasis was placed on close-combat training, as every member of the SIG might have to fight his way out of a seemingly hopeless situation with no chance of reinforcement or relief.

They trained with the full assortment of Afrika Korps weaponry: Gewehr 41 semi-automatic rifles, Luger P08 pistols, Maschinenpistole 40 submachine guns (commonly known as the Schmeisser by the Allies), Stielhandgranate stick grenades and Schiessbecher 30-millimetre grenade-launchers. They handled German explosives, learned to read German maps, and were taught desert navigation They also learned to maintain and operate the German vehicles provided in response to Lieutenant General Terence Airey’s memo requesting German staff cars and trucks.

Buck’s recruits had to salute officers in the German fashion and utter ‘Heil Hitler’ with appropriate gusto. They even had to dream in German – for a few English words uttered in their sleep might spell a death sentence. Awakened suddenly in the night by an inquisitorial Buck, they had to speak German from the off.

In his relentless quest for authenticity, Buck began to slip one or two of his men – Tiefenbrunner among them – into the POW camps around Cairo. There they were told to mix with the German prisoners, masquerading as Afrika Korps soldiers captured in recent fighting. Their mission was two-fold. First, they were to test out their own disguises: could they make it as German captives? Second, they were to soak up the essence of the Afrika Korps and bring it back to the SIG camp.

At night they would talk about every aspect of Rommel’s forces, becoming steeped in the identity of the unit they supposedly belonged to. After several weeks of such intensive training, they had been indoctrinated to think and behave as Afrika Korps soldiers, if not to feel like one of their number.

To complement their new sense of identity, the SOE’s forgery department went into overdrive, producing false Afrika Korps Soldbücher – pay books – and numerous other official papers, complete with photographs, stamps, dates and grand-looking seals. Buck secured German army typewriters, stationery and genuine Wehrmacht forms, to better document the force now in training.

The recruits’ personal stories were refined and perfected. For those genuinely hailing from Germany, they were kept as close to reality as possible. Each was furnished with a photo of himself in Afrika Korps uniform posing with a suitably Aryan-looking ‘sweetheart’ – in reality volunteers serving in the Auxiliary Territorial Service, dressed in suitably Germanic clothing. The photos were even furnished with typical German backgrounds, to complete the ruse.

A member of the SIG who considered himself something of a writer penned ‘love letters’, which were copied by those ATS ladies on to crumbly, well-thumbed notepaper for the men to carry with them into battle. The stamps, franking and envelopes were all entirely authentic, courtesy of the SOE’s documentation and forgery department.

Opprower’s girlfriend was an ATS blonde bombshell. He addressed her as Lisbeth Kunz in his love letters, the name of the daughter of a well-known Nazi who had been a neighbour on his Berlin street. Even this was done for a deliberate purpose. In case of capture, it was always better to claim a real person as a sweetheart, as opposed to some flimsy creation of the imagination that might fall apart under interrogation.

Likewise, each trainee had to commit to memory his new German name and life story. He had to answer to that name instantly. He had to know intimately his family history as if he’d really lived it. He had to know when and to whom he was married, the names and birthdays of his children, and what jobs his wife was doing back in Germany to aid the Nazi war effort. Every day Buck would quiz them on such details. It was relentless, but it was also entirely necessary if the SIG deception was to hold up.

But still Buck wasn’t satisfied. A perfectionist, he sought to take the SIG to the next level. He decided he needed real Afrika Korps veterans to train his recruits. He sought two junior officers as instructors. As only the genuine article would do, they would need to be sourced from the POW cages holding Afrika Korps soldiers.

The risks to security were legion, especially as the fortunes of the war were going very much against the Allies. Finding two German prisoners who were willing to swap sides was a tall order. Moreover, the SIG was slated to work in tandem with other special forces on operations to which those POWs would doubtless become privy, adding another layer of security risk.

Still Buck demanded his Afrika Korps trainers.

British intelligence worked closely with the Military Police to scour the camps for potential recruits. It took time, but eventually two candidates were identified. Both had served in the French Foreign Legion, before being conscripted into the Wehrmacht when France signed the armistice with Germany. They had been drafted into the 361st Regiment of the Deutsches Afrika Korps, and they had been captured in November 1941.

Unteroffizier Heinrich Bruckner was a big, fair-haired, muscle-bound sergeant. Brash, overconfident and prone to belligerence, he was in many ways a classic product of the French Foreign Legion, if not a typical Afrika Korps soldier. By contrast Feldwebel Walter Essner was a quiet, good-natured and generous staff sergeant. Between the two they typified the breadth of unusual characters – the misfits and wanderers – attracted to life in the Legion.

In fact, Bruckner and Essner were not their real names. These were the covers given to them by their recruiters and screeners, who themselves were a decidedly oddball bunch. In order to be cleared for the SIG, Unteroffizier Bruckner and Feldwebel Essner had been put through the grinder at Camp 020, one of Britain’s most secretive and least known – but vital – initiatives in the war. Camp 020 always gave cover identities to those it had turned.

More formally known as the Combined Services Detailed Interrogation Centre (CSDIC), Camp 020 was a MI5 facility located within the most incongruous of settings – Latchmere House, a rambling Victorian-style mansion adjacent to Ham Common in the leafy London borough of Richmond. At Latchmere they specialized in interrogating German spies. Due to Ultra intercepts, British intelligence knew when and where German agents were being inserted into the UK. In all but one case they were captured, sent to Camp 020 and turned.

Camp 020 was run by a severe and uncompromising nonconformist, Lieutenant Colonel Robin Stephens, known as Tin Eye due to the steely gaze that peered out of his fierce face, his right eye sporting an ever-present wire-rimmed monocle. In many ways Stephens appeared like the archetypal Gestapo interrogator, yet he could not have been more different. Any form of physical abuse or torture was banned at Latchmere.

‘Never strike a man,’ Stephens exhorted. ‘In the first place it is an act of cowardice. In the second place, it is not intelligent. A prisoner will lie to avoid further punishment, and everything he says thereafter will be based upon a false premise.’ In other words, torture only produced what the torturer wished the prisoner to say. ‘Violence is taboo, for not only does it produce answers to please, but it lowers the standard of information.’

The interrogators at Camp 020 relied instead upon the full gamut of psychological measures developed there – the stool pigeon, the cross-ruff and sympathy men – to break prisoners. Such methods proved remarkably effective: of the 400 enemy agents who passed through its portals, few held out for more than forty-eight hours once they faced their interrogators.

The tales revealed at Latchmere were sensational. They involved intrigue, fraud, blackmail, theft, drugs, perverts, playboys, prostitutes, violence and sabotage. But no matter what an enemy agent’s story might be, Stephens sought only one outcome from any interrogation. It was at Camp 020 that the so-called Double-Cross System was perfected. Rather than imprisoning or executing the German spies, they were turned to work for the Allied cause, feeding back carefully crafted misinformation to Berlin via their radio sets.

Stephens nursed a burning hatred of cowards, turncoats and liars. It drove everything that he did at Latchmere. Camp 020 maintained files on all who were guests there. They were chillingly detailed, including photographs, letters, tape-recorded conversations, lists of associates, interrogation reports and confessions. A ‘yellow peril’ was compiled for particularly reviled agents – a file summarising the worst aspects of that individual’s nature.

In the spring of 1942 Unteroffizier Bruckner and Feldwebel Essner were flown to Britain and supposedly broken at Latchmere. It was an extraordinary achievement, even for a place like Camp 020. This was no normal double-cross. Radioing back doctored intelligence was one thing, but Bruckner and Essner’s mission was quite another. These former Afrika Korps sergeants were to train a unit whose express mission was to deceive, confound and kill their former brothers-in-arms.

Bruckner and Essner arrived at Buck’s Bitter Lakes camp in late May 1942. Neither was Jewish, but at Camp 020 they had declared themselves passionately anti-Nazi. Their French Foreign Legion bona fides – they had fought on the side of France in the war’s first months – lent credibility to their claims, and they were sent to Buck with a clean bill of health.

At first the SIG recruits were deeply suspicious of the newcomers, but as the weeks passed and Bruckner and Essner threw themselves into the training such suspicions began to subside. By mid-May the former POWs were largely accepted. The recruits were able to curse in an Afrika Korps soldier’s typically colourful language, and Buck declared their training complete

The time for preparations was over; the great deception needed to be tested in action.

 

A Spectacular Raid

Capture of Aguinaldo, March 23, 1901

Starting in the autumn of 1899, the time Emilio Aguinaldo decided to inaugurate guerrilla war, the Filipino leader became a marked man. American units vied with one another for the glory of capturing the insurgent leader. None surpassed the zeal of Batson’s Macabebe Scouts. “I hunted one of his Generals to his hole the other night,” Batson wrote his wife, “and captured all his effects as well as his two daughters.” Such relentless pursuit forced Aguinaldo to keep on the move. He and his small band of loyal staff endured exhausting treks across rugged terrain. They were often hungry, reduced to foraging for wild legumes supplemented by infrequent meat eaten without salt. Sickness and desertion reduced their ranks. Aguinaldo’s response was periodic exemplary punishments, drumhead courts-martial, firing squads, and reprisal raids against villages that either collaborated with the Americans or failed to support the insurgents. “Ah, what a costly thing is in dependence!” lamented Aguinaldo’s chief of staff.

Aguinaldo took solace from the occasional contact with the outside. In February 1900 he received a bundle of letters including a report that the war was going well with the Americans suffering “disastrous” political and military defeats. A correspondent in Manila affirmed that the people “were ready to drink the enemy’s blood.” The high command’s ignorance of outside events was startling. For example, Aguinaldo and his party learned from a visitor that five nations had recognized Philippine independence. However, his chief of staff reported that “we do not know who these five nations are.” Indeed, the chief of staff candidly recorded that since fleeing into the mountains “we have remained in complete ignorance of what is going on in the present war.”

During his exodus Aguinaldo was unable to exercise effective command of his far-flung forces. This did not change after he sought refuge in the remote mountain town of Palanan in northern Luzon. All Aguinaldo could do was write general instructions to his subordinates and issue exhortations to the Philippine people. His efforts had scant effect on the war. What was important was his mere existence. He was the living symbol of Filipino nationalism. In addition—and this mattered to the ilustrados who managed the war at the regional and local levels—as long as he remained free the insurgents could say that they fought on behalf of a legitimate national government.

Aguinaldo’s efforts to maintain a semblance of command authority led to his downfall. In January 1901 an insurgent courier, Cecilio Sigis-mundo, asked a town mayor for help getting through American lines. His request was standard practice. The mayor’s response was not. He happened to be loyal to the Americans and persuaded the courier to surrender. Sigismundo carried twenty letters from Aguinaldo to guerrilla commanders. Two days of intense labor broke the code and revealed that one of the letters was addressed to Aguinaldo’s cousin. It requested that reinforcements be sent to Aguinaldo’s mountain hideout in Palanan. This request gave Brigadier General Fred Funston an idea.

Funston interviewed Sigismundo to learn details about Aguinaldo’s headquarters (and, according to Aguinaldo, subjected him to the “water cure,” an old Spanish torture whereby soldiers forced water down a prisoner’s throat and then applied pressure to the distended stomach until the prisoner either “confessed” or vomited; in the latter case the process started again). Palanan was ten miles from the coast, connected to the outside world by a single jungle trail. Although Americans had never operated in this region, obviously the trail would be watched. Funston conceived a bold, hugely risky scheme to capture the insurgent leader. He selected eighty Tagalog-speaking Macabebes who disguised themselves as insurgents coming to reinforce Aguinaldo. Funston armed them with Mauser and Remington rifles, typical weapons for the undergunned insurgents. To make the reinforcements seem more believable, four Tagalog turncoats performed the role of insurgent officers. To make the bait even more enticing, five American officers acted as prisoners and accompanied the column. Nothing if not personally brave—he had earned the Congressional Medal of Honor in 1899—Funston was one of the five.

MacArthur approved of the desperate plan—his chief of staff wrote the secretary of war that he did not expect ever to see Funston again—and on March 6, 1901, a navy gunboat sailed from Manila Bay to deposit the raiding party on a deserted Luzon beach sixty straight-line miles from Palanan. So began the most celebrated operation of the guerrilla war. No mission like this could unfold seamlessly. A harrowing 100-mile trek that called upon physical stamina and quick-witted improvisation brought the column to Palanan on March 23, 1901. To allay any possible suspicions, Funston sent runners ahead to deliver two convincing cover letters. They were written on stationery that had been captured at an insurgent base. Not only did they bear the letterhead “Brigade Lacuna” but they were signed by the brigade’s commander, an officer whose writing Aguinaldo was certain to recognize. In fact a master Filipino forger who worked for the Americans had signed the letters. The letters informed Aguinaldo of the impending arrival of the reinforcements he had requested along with a special bonus of captured American officers.

While Funston and his fellow officers hid in the nearby jungle, the column’s sham insurgent officers went ahead. A last obstacle remained: the unfordable Palanan River. Two “officers” crossed in a canoe and gave instructions for the Macabebes to follow. The two “officers” approached Aguinaldo’s headquarters to see a uniformed honor guard formed to greet them. The cover letter had done its work. Aguinaldo was completely deceived. For a very nervous thirty minutes the two “officers” regaled the insurgent commander with stories about their recent ordeal. Finally the Macabebes arrived. They formed up across from the honor guard as if in preparation to salute Aguinaldo. Then at a signal they opened fire at the startled headquarters guards. Inside Aguinaldo’s headquarters, the two “officers” seized Aguinaldo. Meanwhile, Funston and his band emerged from the jungle to take charge. The effect of the surprise was so overwhelming that Funston’s commandos managed to escape with their prize and rendezvous with the waiting gunboat.

Funston took Aguinaldo to Manila, where MacArthur treated him with great courtesy, even to the point of having his staff dine with the insurgent leader. Within a few days Aguinaldo was exploring terms of surrender. Within a month he issued a proclamation calling on all insurgents to surrender and for Filipinos to accept United States rule.

In a campaign suffering from slow and indeterminate results, Aguinaldo’s conversion was something concrete. MacArthur and the War Department took full advantage, proclaiming the incident the most important single military event of the year. Among the skeptics were the midshipmen of the Naval Academy standing in the left-field bleachers at the first Army-Navy baseball game ever played. Arthur MacArthur’s son Douglas was Army’s left fielder. The midshipmen heckled Douglas with the chant:

MacArthur! MacArthur!

Are you the Governor General Or a hobo?

Who is the boss of this show?

Is it you or Emilio Aguinaldo?

Indeed, the claim that Aguinaldo’s capture was decisive overstated the facts. Instead, although it was not clearly apparent at the time, MacArthur’s stern policies had already begun to erode insurgent strength significantly. While his conversion did inspire the surrender of five prominent insurgent generals, and hundreds of soldiers either turned themselves in or ceased active operations, his removal from the scene had little practical impact for many insurgents. They were accustomed to recognizing the authority of their local commanders. Those commanders, in turn, had been acting like regional warlords for some time and consequently were used to a high level of autonomy.

Aguinaldo’s capture was a brilliantly conceived and boldly executed coup. As had been the case when Otis proclaimed victory after dispersing the regular insurgent forces, senior American leaders anticipated a prompt end to the war. Unfamiliar with the ambiguous nature of counterinsurgency, they again overestimated the value of a single “decisive” success. On July 4, 1901, as MacArthur neared the end of his tour of duty in the Philippines, he reported that the armed insurrection was almost entirely suppressed. The army had squashed armed resistance in nearly two thirds of the hostile provinces. In the United States a pleased President McKinley began a domestic victory tour designed to heal the sharp political divisions created by the war.

Again the general commanding the field forces and the commander in chief were wrong. The insurgency survived the loss of its leader and persisted for more than another year.