Vemork Heavy Water Plant, Telemark

27/28 February 1943

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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DAD’S ‘SECRET ARMY’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Highworth Fertilisers

Do their stuff unseen

Until you see

Results!

With the compliments of

Highworth & Co.

You will find the name Highworth

Wherever quick results

Are required.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

2.30

meet at Wareham, army lorries to Knitson Farm

4.30

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

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

11 p.m.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Postmaster

14 January 1942

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

Rhodesian SAS hit the Fuel Depot in Beira, Mozambique

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

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

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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.

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.