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.

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The Special Interrogation Group [SIG] Part II

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Special Interrogation Group [SIG] Part III


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Still Buck demanded his Afrika Korps trainers.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

A Spectacular Raid

Capture of Aguinaldo, March 23, 1901

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

MacArthur! MacArthur!

Are you the Governor General Or a hobo?

Who is the boss of this show?

Is it you or Emilio Aguinaldo?

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

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

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

Birth of Australia’s Special Forces WWII

The men of Sparrow Force with a local catch.

Undoubtedly Winston Churchill’s stint as a correspondent for the Morning Post in the Boer War sparked his enthusiasm for the first British commando operations in World War II. At his initiative, a force of 2,000 ‘special service’ soldiers were assembled by June 1940 to carry out tactical raids on the German occupying forces in Europe.

They were trained at Lochailort on Scotland’s rugged west coast by a talented band of instructors. They were led by a young Scottish aristocrat, Major Bill Stirling, his cousin Lord Lovat (also a major) and Captain Freddie Spencer Chapman, who before the war had been an Arctic explorer and mountaineer as well as a teacher at Gordonstoun School, the alma mater of Prince Philip and later Prince Charles. The training was intense, and when the units were let loose on the Continent they scored some minor successes. But when the main body of commandos under Captain Robert Laycock – known as Layforce – was sent to the Middle East for action in the eastern Mediterranean, the military establishment offered scant cooperation. The result was a series of costly failures, and by July 1941 Layforce was in tatters. It disintegrated during the Battle of Crete and many of its number became POWs. British High Command decided (with barely disguised satisfaction) to disband the unit.

Many of the men returned to their previous regiments, while others chose to remain in the Middle East. Among them was the devil-may-care Lieutenant David Stirling, the younger brother of Major Bill, who had abandoned plans to climb Mount Everest to join Layforce. He engaged the support of a family friend, the deputy commander Middle East, General Sir Neil Methuen Ritchie, for a smaller and more mobile unit that would operate behind enemy lines. Ritchie took the proposal to his commander-in-chief, Claude Auchinleck who, in deference to Churchill, signed off on it. Stirling immediately gathered a team of about 60 volunteers and after a short training regime set out to parachute into German-held North Africa and blow up enemy aircraft on the ground.

It was a disaster. In the face of an approaching storm, Stirling insisted on proceeding with the mission. When they jumped, the team were blown wildly off course. Many were dragged to their death on landing. Stirling himself seriously injured his back. Forty-two of his 61 officers and men were killed, wounded or captured. The survivors were rounded up by a New Zealand unit, the Long Range Desert Group, who were already operating behind the lines, but in more conventional mode. Stirling avoided censure by going to ground and then pulling strings to attach the remnant of his unit to a friendly command. Taking a leaf from the New Zealanders, he abandoned parachuting for vehicle insertion and in a series of raids on German-held ports rehabilitated his unit’s reputation.

To disguise its real modus vivendi the force had initially been designated the Special Air Service Brigade. After some discussion with his men, Stirling decided to retain most of the nomenclature, which was soon abbreviated to the SAS. And though Stirling was captured by the Germans in January 1943, the unit would distinguish itself in his absence and subsequently set the tactical framework and the esprit de corps that would characterise Special Forces units thereafter. From this unlikely beginning, the British 22 SAS Regiment became and remains a leader in the field.

The link to Australia’s Special Forces occurred at their birth when in October 1940, five instructors, including Freddie Spencer Chapman in charge of field-craft, arrived to train Australian and New Zealand companies at a newly developed facility at Tidal River on Victoria’s Wilsons Promontory. The Australians felt ‘commando’ was altogether too flashy and settled upon ‘independent companies’ to describe both their role and their relationship to the Big Army.

Unlike David Stirling, the man given charge of the first company raised, Major Alex Spence – a 35-year-old journalist from Bundaberg, Queensland – had no family ties to smooth the way. Nevertheless, he quickly earned the respect of his men and worked well with his immediate superiors. By August 1941, their training in the rugged mountains, dense bush, swamps and beaches of Wilsons Promontory was completed. The men were ready for action.

But it soon became clear that the High Command was divided on how best they could be used. Spencer Chapman saw their role as ‘stay-behind’ guerrillas, who in the event of a Japanese invasion of the mainland ‘would be a thorn in the flesh of an occupying enemy, emerging in true guerrilla style to attack vital points and then disappear into the jungle’. But informal instructions from the hierarchy alerted the officers and men of 2/2 Independent Company to prepare for shipment to the Middle East, where their compatriots in the 9th Division were besieged at Tobruk.

Fate had a very different theatre in store. By early September 1941, the Australian War Council had become deeply concerned about Japanese involvement in Portuguese Timor, where the colonial power was negotiating with Tokyo for a civil air service and the stationing of a Japanese consul in Dili. The following month, the newly installed Curtin Labor Government countered by appointing its own consul, David Ross, and declaring that, ‘It is essential in the event of Japanese attack on this territory [that] Britain should declare war … Portuguese Timor is the entrance door to Australia.’

While a British declaration was desirable, Curtin was well aware that Britain had its hands full defending its own turf and that Australia would have to take the military initiative. High Command chose the 2/40 Battalion and Spence’s 2/2 Independent Company to defend Timor under the command of Lieutenant Colonel William Leggatt, a 47-year-old Melbourne lawyer. Together they would be codenamed Sparrow Force, a gently understated sobriquet for Australia’s first entry to Special Forces combat. In fact, they were embarking on a classic guerrilla action to divert a vastly superior force from their drive towards the Australian mainland and with every intention of inflicting fierce casualties on the aggressors.

Five days after the 7 December attack on Pearl Harbor, Sparrow Force was ready to deploy. The plan was to land at Kupang on the Dutch side of the island, where they would link up with the Royal Netherlands East Indies contingent led by Lieutenant Colonel Nico Van Straaten, newly arrived from Java. By now the Japanese were carrying all before them in a headlong dash down the Malayan Peninsula. To counter their inevitable attack the Allies would reinforce the Dutch territory, while Spence’s 2/2 Independent Company would occupy East Timor with the support of an additional 260 Netherlands East Indies troops.

By 13 December, they were established in Kupang and three days later they boarded the ancient Dutch training cruiser Surabaya for the overnight journey to Dili. With Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF) Hudson bombers in overwatch, the main force made their way stealthily along the coastline, with spotters alerted for Japanese submarines. Intelligence reported a substantial Portuguese force in the capital. Diplomatic negotiations with the colonial power had been inconclusive as Portugal asserted its neutrality and no one knew how the landing would be received. As the troopship approached its destination, Lieutenant Colonel Leggatt and his Dutch counterparts flew from Kupang to Dili and informed the governor, Manuel de Carvalho, that the Allied force intended to land.

The colonial administrator prevaricated. Leggatt joined Spence on board the Surabaya and gave the order to proceed. As the men of Sparrow Force climbed into the long boats for the journey to shore, visions of Anzac intruded. One soldier fingered his rifle and asked, ‘Will I ram one up the spout?’ Spence replied, ‘No, but look as if you’re prepared to meet a challenge.’

When they reached the sandy beach, they were met only by the local bird life and the troops headed in combat formation for the airport about three kilometres from the capital. Once again there was no sign of resistance and they were soon digging defensive trenches around the airfield. Rumours spread that the Portuguese contingent under one Captain Da Costa was in the hills with a native force preparing to attack; but as time passed it became clear that Da Costa had abandoned the high ground (and the natives) for the creature comforts of Dili.

The Australians quickly realised why he had done so. They were poorly outfitted for the tropics and hordes of malarial mosquitoes attacked their bare arms and legs day and night. While the troops were ordered to dose themselves with quinine twice daily, the medicine came only in a powdered form that was thoroughly unpalatable. Many declined to take it and soon more than half of the 115-strong company were hospitalised with malaria.

Major Spence ordered a survey of the nearby hinterland, seeking a healthier campsite, and soon moved the field hospital to Three Spurs, well above the swampy lowlands. He also encouraged his men to make friends with the locals and, where possible, to learn the native Tetum language. It was becoming ever more likely that Spencer Chapman’s vision of the independent company as a ‘stay-behind’ unit acting as a ‘thorn in the flesh’ of the invader would be realised, albeit in a different location from the North Queensland jungles he had expected.

Through Christmas, the tension rose and on 27 December Prime Minister John Curtin made his historic appeal to America for the defence of the homeland. Then, on 25 January, the Timorese defenders caught their first glimpse of the enemy when a Japanese reconnaissance plane flew over Kupang. The following day at 9 am seven Japanese fighters attacked the nearby Penfui airfield.

By now the Japanese Imperial Army was threatening Singapore and on 31 January the last Allied forces left Malaya and blew up the causeway to the island. Japanese infiltrators – often disguised as Singaporean civilians – crossed the Straits of Johor in their wake. Already their air force had sunk the British battleships Repulse and Prince of Wales. The ‘impregnable fortress’ would fall within 15 days.

The Australian command decided to reinforce the Timorese defenders and sent additional infantry and a light aircraft battery under Brigadier William Veale (a civil engineer in private life) to take command of the operation. The constant air attacks that followed blew the island’s air defences away but troop casualties were light and morale remained relatively high. During one raid a soldier had the Australia badge shot off his epaulette, while a second round cut through his shirt under the armpit. His response: ‘As well as khaki shorts and khaki shirt, I’ve now got khaki underpants!’

However, the situation became deadly serious when on 19 February more than 240 Japanese aircraft from the same carriers used in the Pearl Harbor strike force bombed Darwin, with special attention to the harbour and the two airfields. The men on Timor knew nothing of this and at midnight a small fleet carrying 1,500 Japanese troops arrived at Dili. At first the ships were thought to be the expected Portuguese reinforcements from Mozambique. In fact, they had been intercepted by the Japanese and were now on their way to Goa, the tiny Portuguese colony in India. But once the Australians realised the invaders’ identity they opened up with devastating crossfire, killing some 200 Japanese in five hours of battle. All the defenders then made an orderly withdrawal to the hills but for one unit – 7 Section – who drove into a Japanese roadblock. They surrendered and all but one were executed.

Later the same night the Japanese arrived in overwhelming force in Dutch Timor. A massive aerial bombardment spearheaded the landing of 4,000 men and five ‘tankettes’ on the south-west of the island and a paratroop attack on the Penfui airfield. Leggatt moved his Sparrow Force HQ to the east and at the same time engaged the 500 paratroopers. This culminated in a bayonet charge that killed all but 78 of the airborne invaders. However, the effort exhausted both the defenders and their ammunition and Lieutenant Colonel Leggatt had no choice but to surrender. Though he was not to know it then, he was sentencing his troops to a terrible fate as prisoners of war. Over the next two and a half years nearly 200 of them would perish through a combination of brutality and starvation.

The Japanese soon controlled most of Dutch Timor, while Spence and his commandos (who would eventually wear the name with pride) were consolidating their positions in the hills of East Timor. In the west, Brigadier Veale had withdrawn in haste after ordering ‘Every man for himself’. The commandos were unimpressed. Veale escaped with 12 of his headquarters staff and struck out overland, eventually reaching Lebos, 80 kilometres south-west of Dili. In fact, they retreated so quickly that they left behind most of their small arms.

There was a further blow when on 9 March the Netherlands East Indies surrendered to the Japanese. This meant that the remaining 300 Australians on Timor were facing a force of 6,000 battle-hardened Japanese who would not only fight to the death but whose methods were unencumbered by any of the restraints codified in the Geneva convention.

Soon afterwards the invaders passed a message through Consul David Ross under house arrest that the 2/2 should follow Leggatt’s lead and surrender. But when Spence put it to his men the response was immediate and unmistakably Australian: ‘Surrender? Surrender be fucked!’

Spence’s counsel to make friends with the Timorese was literally bearing fruit. The Australians’ informal demeanour and sense of humour struck a chord with the natives after their overbearing Portuguese colonial masters and they were happy to supply them with home-grown fruits and vegetables. The Australians paid with what little money they had and when that ran out they substituted a ‘surat’ system of IOUs that would be redeemed, they said, when they were able to make contact with their headquarters in Australia.

Having established their own modus operandi, the commandos didn’t take kindly to Brigadier Veale’s admonition to shave off their beards. The 2/2’s Lieutenant David Dexter cracked, ‘We lost our razors, not our rifles.’ The brigadier’s response is not recorded. The incident was one more illustration that an officer at general rank had become superfluous to requirements.

By the end of March, the commandos had consolidated their position. They were well established in the hills surrounding Dili. At platoon level they were setting ambushes along the rough roads and jungle tracks the Japanese travelled in their campaign to rid themselves of the Australian ‘thorn in the flesh’. However, they were without any means to contact their compatriots in Darwin, since Veale’s headquarters staff had been unable to salvage a radio during their wild retreat. This became their first priority and responsibility fell on 2/2 company’s signaller, Max Loveless.

Wracked with malaria, Loveless led a small team of signallers in an attempt to cobble together a workable transmitter with parts from an American commercial medium-wave receiver, a damaged army 109 set, the power pack from a Dutch transmitter, aerial wire and a receiving set. Using the most primitive tools – pliers, a screwdriver and a tomahawk – Loveless worked around the clock but to no avail. Then word arrived from a Portuguese ally that there was a radio in the Qantas Airways office in Dili.

They mounted a raiding party and in the dead of night broke into the Qantas premises. The radio seemed perfectly intact and as a bonus there were half a dozen rifles with ammunition to match. Timorese bearers helped to carry their prize across the mountain spine to Veale’s HQ in Mape. However, their joy was short-lived. The radio would not operate without powerful batteries, and those few they had were patently insufficient. Loveless was devastated and retired to his bunk. It took all the psychological subtlety of his section head, Captain George Parker, to revive his spirits; but when he returned to the workroom it was with a brilliant solution. He would hook up the powerful uncalibrated Qantas set to the weak set they had salvaged with a range of only 50 kilometres. The combination should do the trick. All they needed were four more batteries.

Parker organised a foraging party, which ‘liberated’ batteries from Dili plus enough petrol to run a charger. The extraordinary Heath Robinson contraption now occupied a room nearly three-metres square, with equipment on benches around the perimeter attached by various wires to a generator taken from an old car. A further attachment included a metre-diameter wheel with fixed handles to be turned by four native Timorese working in shifts.

On the night of 18 April, Loveless gave the order; the wheel began to turn and suddenly in Darwin the signallers heard a Morse code message from men they assumed had been either killed or captured by the Japanese. But before they could confirm their situation the batteries ran out. Loveless spent the next day refining his contraption, and that night Darwin was waiting. They were also highly suspicious of the contact as a Japanese ploy and when the first message arrived they demanded proof of identity.

‘Do you know George Parker?’

‘Yes, he is with us.’

‘What is his rank? Answer immediately.’

‘Captain.’

‘Bring him to the transmitter. What is your wife’s name, George?’

‘Joan.’

‘What is the street number of your house?’

‘Ninety-four.’

It was enough. Darwin was satisfied. In Timor they were ecstatic. They christened their contraption ‘Winnie the War Winner’. Then they tapped out the message that would send a bolt of pleasure through an Australian command under imminent threat of invasion: ‘The Timor force is intact and still fighting. Badly needs boots, quinine, money and tommy-gun ammunition. Over …’

“The Marines at Playa Del Este”

U.S. Marines form up in their camp in Cuba in 1898.

When Admiral Cervera’s Squadron had been trapped in the harbor of Santiago, the American fleet settled down to a grim and unwearied blockade, thereby beginning a new naval phase of the Spanish-American War, with new problems to be met and new plans to meet any exigency.

One problem confronting Admiral Sampson was the establishment of a base not too far away where his ships could be coaled and minor repairs effected. An ideal location for such a base was Guantanamo Bay, only about 60 miles to the eastward of Santiago.

On June 7, 1898, the small, unprotected cruiser Marblehead, Commander Bowman McCalla, U.S. Navy, reconnoitered the bay in company with the auxiliary cruisers Yankee and St. Louis, and drove the little Spanish gunboat Sandoval into the shoal waters of the inner harbor, quite out of range of the deep draft ships.

While the St. Louis was cutting the cable, a detachment of marines comprising the cruiser New York’s marine guard, 40 from the battleship Oregon and 20 from the Marblehead, landed from the cruiser under the command of Captain M. C. Goodrell, U.S. Marine Corps, of the New York. The landing party burned the few huts at Playa del Este, destroyed the cable station at the mouth of the bay, and hunted vainly for Spanish soldiers who had scattered under the preliminary shelling by the ships.

The marines re-embarked and the Yankee departed with the New York and Oregon contingents, leaving the Marblehead to watch the bay alone for the next three days. Then on June 10 the naval transport Panther arrived with the dispatch boat Dolphin in company.

The Panther had on board 23 officers of the Marine Corps, a naval surgeon, and 623 marine enlisted men, all under the command of Lieutenant Colonel Robert W. Huntington, U.S. Marine Corps, who had instructions to land and establish a base for the fleet.

Thus, while Admiral Sampson lay off Santiago holding Cervera a prisoner and awaiting the arrival of the Army, the first actual invasion of Cuba by United States forces began at Guantanamo Bay. The marines filled whaleboats and cutters and were towed to the beach by steam launches. They landed with precision, and in less than an hour the entire battalion was ashore with its tents and supplies.

Climbing a hill that rose sharply from the beach, the battalion reached the summit without opposition, finding itself on a plateau several acres in size and dotted with woods and chaparral. Soon, tents appeared in trim rows, while parties were sent out to clear the brush about the camp, a job that proved almost hopeless with the appliances at hand.

The battalion settled down for the night without seeing a single Spaniard. But darkness brought the enemy and guerrillas began popping at the outposts, killing two privates, James McColgan and William Dumphy, and preventing the weary marines from obtaining sleep. The Marblehead and Dolphin shelled the surrounding countryside but were unable to dislodge the Spaniards from cover. Assistant Surgeon John Blair Gibbs, U.S. Navy, was killed in front of his tent, and Sergeant C. H. Smith was shot dead in the front lines before daylight came. The night’s toll also included several men wounded.

The Spaniards continued to harass the marines, laboring to deepen their shallow rifle pits, and on the morning of the 12th Sergeant Major Henry Good was killed. That day a force of 60 Cubans, commanded by Lieutenant Colonel Thomas, joined the marines. Colonel Huntington said of these: “They, being acquainted with the country and excellent woodsmen and fearless, were of the greatest assistance.”

The marines were under steady rifle fire from the brush and the morning of the 14th brought the sixth death to the command, when Private Goode Taurman fell off a cliff and was killed. The wounded had reached a total of 22.

With his men worn out from lack of sleep and growing steadily more irritable under the annoyance of the guerrilla peppering, Colonel Huntington assumed the offensive on the 14th. He sent Companies C and D, with the 60 Cubans, to destroy a well about 6 miles from camp. This well was said to be the only Spanish water supply within 9 miles, and without it the Spaniards would be compelled to retire to Caimanera, a small garrison town about 10 miles from the bay proper and thus out of reach of the ships.

Another force of Spaniards, more numerous than the marines, was located around Playa del Este, on the eastern arm of the harbor. This force remained discreetly inactive after discovering that Commander McCalla’s ships were quite ready to shell the shore, given the slightest excuse.

The well-taking expedition, 211 men in all, with Captain G. F. Elliott, senior officer of the marines, left camp under the command of the Cuban Lieutenant Colonel Thomas and was soon mixed up in a hot little scrap with some 500 Spaniards that lasted from about 11:00 A.M. until nearly 3:00 P.M.

They fought over the ridges and through brush-choked valleys until the Spaniards finally fled in disorder, leaving 60 dead including two officers. A lieutenant and 17 privates were captured by the Americans. Three marines were wounded, while the Cubans had two killed and two wounded.

Captain Elliott’s report particularly commended First Lieutenant W. C. Neville, who injured a hip and an ankle in a fall after the fight was over; First Lieutenant L. C. Lucas, commanding Company C; Captain William F. Spicer, commanding Company D; Second Lieutenants L. J. Magill, P. M. Bannon and M. J. Shaw; Sergeant John H. Quick, who constantly exposed himself to enemy fire while signaling to the Dolphin, and Privates Faulkner, Boniface, and Carter for unusually deadly marksmanship.

The report cites the effectiveness of shellfire from the Dolphin, Commander H. W. Lyon, and the care that ship gave 12 marines, including Captain Spicer, who were overcome by the heat and sent out to her for treatment.

This fight, in which Captain Elliott also distinguished himself, brought an end to Spanish action against the marine battalion, and no further sniping occurred, although vigilance was maintained to guard against a surprise attack.

Relieved of enemy pressure, the marines strengthened their position while bluejackets landed stores, rebuilt the cable house, and spliced the cut cable, giving the Navy its own communication channel.

With this work in hand, Admiral Sampson sent the battleship Texas and the Suwanee, an armed lighthouse tender, to shell a small fort on the western arm of the harbor, the opposite side to the location of the marine camp. Occasional firing had come from this fort, and it was necessary to drive all the enemy from the area and back to Caimanera if the bay was to be entirely safe for the coaling and repair of ships.

The fort could provide little resistance, but an element of danger entered into the attack through the presence of submarine mines in the western channel. The fort was destroyed by the two ships with the assistance of the Marblehead which picked up a contact mine on her propeller. The Texas also knocked one adrift, but, by good fortune, neither exploded.

With the last enemy work reduced, Sampson’s ships began regular coaling at Guantanamo, and they lay there untroubled to effect repairs when necessary. The water was deep enough for battleships, the climate was reasonably healthy, and no Spaniards appeared to mar the calm. The latter remained at Caimanera, and the little gunboat Sandoval also went up to that town, well out of range.

Steam launches kept the channel swept in case the Spaniards set mines adrift, and maintained a constant patrol against a possible torpedo attack by the Sandoval. But no attack ever came and the launch crews had only occasional opportunities to fire their little one-pounders at the distant gunboat, as their one relief from the monotony of their vigil.

On the 18th, Admiral Sampson, in his flagship New York, made his first visit to his squadron’s new base and found everything in excellent order. The marines were comfortable and healthy on shore—in fact not one death occurred through sickness during the entire marine occupation of Playa del Este. In the bay, the battleship Iowa and auxiliary cruiser Yankee lay peacefully coaling, while riding at anchor were the Marblehead, Dolphin, Panther, the hospital ship Solace, the lighthouse tender Armeria, and three colliers.

Probably nothing in the entire naval campaign against the Spanish forces in Cuba brought more credit to the acumen of Admiral Sampson than the acquisition of Guantanamo Bay, nor can the work done by the small force of marines in a strange country, confronted by enemies fully three times as numerous and well hidden by luxuriant undergrowth, be too highly praised. It was a model campaign and one described by no less an authority than the military expert of the London Standard, as a “master stroke.”

The Aden Group

Johnson in Yemen: having been proposed for the venture by Col David Stirling, he arrived there on a Canadian passport under the name of Cohen and with a pocketful of sovereigns.

Undercover: Liam McSweeny in Arab dress as former SAS men fought a desert war in Yemen.

The London circle was known as the Aden Group. Before that, it had been the Suez Group, political cheerleaders for the Anglo-French invasion of the Suez Canal Zone, with Israeli complicity, in 1956. One of the group was Neil (“Billy”) McLean, a British Member of Parliament, wartime veteran of SOE in Albania and the Far East, and SIS “asset.” Another was Air Minister Julian Amery, son-in-law of the then Prime Minister, Harold Macmillan.

Amery would later double, secretly, as “Minister For Yemen.” In September 1962, King Hussein of Jordan visited London, met Amery, and appealed for non-recognition of the Yemen Arab Republic (YAR). Amery asked McLean to visit the country to obtain ground truth about the war. Could the royalists hold out? Was the Egyptian Air Force using chemical weapons against civilians? Using journalistic cover, McLean took to the hills of Yemen with enthusiasm. In December, he returned to advise Macmillan that the Egyptians could be defeated. In January 1963, the British cabinet received an unsourced intelligence assessment, based on McLean’s report, suggesting that to recognize the YAR would be to surrender control over the Gulf to America. Diplomatic recognition of the Sana’a regime withheld, the movement toward a deniable military intervention began.

The operation had a slow start, possibly because McLean and others depended on the Secret Intelligence Service to handle recruitment, while the Saudis acted as banker for this enterprise. In mid-April, at White’s, a gentleman’s gambling club in London, Amery and Home (then Foreign Secretary) met SAS founder Colonel David Stirling, Brian Franks, by now Colonel-Commandant of the SAS, and McLean. By this time, McLean had visited Yemen again. British positions in the Aden Federation were coming under guerrilla assault from Yemen, confirming the worst fears of the U.K. government about recognizing the YAR. A delegation from the Yemeni royalists had visited Israel, which was now delivering arms into areas under royalist control.

One of those involved in the later operation recounts what happened. “McLean told the gathering, ‘Whatever the Egyptians are telling Washington, the coup in Yemen is not a success. Resistance continues. We have to get some sort of operation going.’ Home reported that SIS was having difficulties. Alec [Home] said, ‘I will talk to SIS but they say they have no agents in Yemen and it will take six months to set something up.’”

Stirling snorted: “Rubbish. I can produce a guy in London who has just given up command of 21 SAS [the reserve regiment ostensibly dedicated to stay-behind actions should the Warsaw Pact invade western Europe]. He could put something together.” The man Stirling had in mind was Jim Johnson, former Guards officer and a broker at the insurance market, Lloyds. Franks telephoned Johnson immediately and invited him to have a drink at the club. As they exchanged regimental small talk, Franks asked Johnson: “Do you fancy going into Yemen and burning the MiGs which are upsetting the tribes and bombing them? The tribes have no defense against them.” Johnson thought this was a good idea. At a later meeting in London, Johnson and McLean met the Imam’s foreign minister, Ahmed al-Shami. Johnson asked what funds were available. Al-Shami laid his checkbook in front of them and wrote a check for around $10,000. The money trail, which ultimately led back to Saudi Arabia, had to be concealed. Franks picked up the check and funneled it through the Hyde Park Hotel account, a process made easier by his role as chairman of the hotel board.

Johnson took leave of absence from Lloyds and opened a secret headquarters near the headquarters of 21 SAS. The commander of the regular, full-time 22 SAS Regiment obligingly provided unattributable weapons including Swedish submachine guns, which were stored in Johnson’s fashionable London home on Sloane Avenue. Stirling drummed up his wartime comrade and one-time driver, Major John Cooper, now working as a contract officer for the Sultan’s Armed Forces in Oman.

On 6 June, the anniversary of D-Day, Johnson, Stirling, and Cooper were at a mansion in Paris to meet two mercenaries nominated by the French Secret Service. These were Colonel Roger Faulques, a scarred veteran of a Vietnam prison camp and the Algerian war, and Robert Denard, a hulking freelance soldier from the French Atlantic coast. The gathering also included senior government officials from London and Paris. If Kennedy was mentioned, it was in less than reverent tones. The SIS also probably came in for its share of criticism. Much wine was drunk. Johnson later told the author: “We were entertained royally. The French side said they had a lot of ex-Foreign Legion Paras who had served in Algeria and spoke Arabic. But it was the wrong Arabic, Maghrib Arabic. They were unintelligible to everyone but themselves.”

What emerged from this gathering was a decision to send an advance party of four French and four British freelances on a reconnaissance mission to Yemen, led by Cooper, whose experience with the French Resistance during the Second World War would be useful in calling in Israeli supply drops. Back in London, the word was sent to Morse signals specialists serving with 21 SAS. On arrival, they were “invited” to join Johnson’s secret army. Three regular soldiers serving with 22 SAS—Geordie Dorman, a mortar expert; Corporal Chigley, a medical orderly; and Trooper Richardson, all-round firearms expert—were given leave of absence, or sheep-dipped (nominally discharged from the Army), to join the team.

The French volunteers drove from Paris in an official staff car, with a uniformed military driver and concealed weapons. One of them was Tony de Saint-Paul, alias Roger de Saint Prieux, a tall, sinister figure with deep-set eyes who went into battle dressed as an Arab, a curved dagger at his waist. He was to meet a painful death in Yemen soon afterward.

Shortly before they were to leave, Johnson received word that the U.K. government had taken fright. Scandals in high places, including the forced resignation of War Minister John Profumo, meant that there could be no other source of political embarrassment for the time being. Risky military adventures were not wanted. Nevertheless, Johnson hastily booked the team in ones and twos onto any flight available out of Britain, in the direction of Aden, before the British government could intervene. In a duplicitous farewell that night, Lord Home dined with Johnson and the team.

Cooper flew first to Tripoli, in Libya. He later recalled: “We had just collected our baggage from our various incoming flights when one of the cases broke open, spilling out rolls and rolls of plastic explosive.” Some of the Libyan security guards, he added, “actually helped us repack the stuff. I told them that stuff was marzipan, because of the smell, for various Arab heads of state.”

In Aden, the mercenaries and their dangerous cargo were able to bypass the usual formalities with the help of a young officer serving with British forces there: Captain (later Lieutenant-General) Peter de la Billiere. DLB, as he is known in SAS circles, arranged for the team to move by a Dakota of Aden Air to a border area controlled by an ally among local rulers, the Sharif of Beihan. Then the party of six, dressed as Arabs, with two guides, loaded their camels and joined a train of 150 camels carrying supplies to the royalists to cross the border. It was a hazardous journey, moving by night to avoid Egyptian aircraft, in single file through minefields.

From a mountain village called Gara, headquarters of Prince Abdullah bin Hassan, Taylor sent out reconnaissance patrols stiffened by his mercenaries in spite of continuous air raids in which attacks with iron bombs were followed with low strafing runs by Yak fighters using machine guns. Next, he set up an ambush for Egyptian infantry and tanks obliged to climb a gully to reach Hassan’s redoubt. Each gun position was camouflaged and sheltered by rocks, with additional shelter nearby in case of air attack. Cairns were built as markers, or orientation points for the defenders. Cooper wrote later: “As the enemy reached our markers, our men opened up with devastating effect, knocking down the closely packed infantry like ninepins. Panic broke out in the ranks behind and then the tanks started firing, not into our positions but among their own men. Then the light artillery opened up, causing further carnage.”

The mercenaries’ campaign ran for the next three years, during which the Egyptians were increasingly confined to paved roads. They hit back with air power and poison gas.

For example, on 4 July 1963, McLean, back in Yemen, reported to the U.K. ambassador to Saudi Arabia on his visit to a village called Kowma. “I went to the exact spot where two bombs had landed…. Even after an interval of about…five weeks during which heavy rains fell…I was immediately aware of, from between twenty and thirty yards away, an unusual, unpleasant and pungent smell…rather like a sweet sour musty chloroform mixed with a strong odour of geranium plant…I was told that all of the 120 people in the village still have severe coughs, irritation of the skin and of the twenty-two people injured, many still vomit black blood after severe coughing.”

A gradual stalemate developed. The Egyptians placed a bounty on the heads of the mercenaries. Just before he was blown up by an enemy shell, the Frenchman Tony de Saint-Paul wrote: “The Egyptians’ price on my head has now grown from $500 to $10,000. I hope they increase it even more.” His companion, known only as “Peter,” blinded by poison gas, survived a two-week journey by camel to Aden, before being flown home to France. Though outgunned, the royalists enjoyed two powerful advantages thanks to the mercenary force. First was the use of tactical communications, which gave the Imam’s men flexibility the Egyptians usually lacked. Second, the supplies parachuted by Israel into drop zones controlled by Cooper gave the royalists an increasingly sophisticated edge. Jim Johnson, the political commander of the mercenary force, flew on some of these missions, using a new identity supplied by Israel with a Canadian passport and an escape kit including gold sovereigns. Serial numbers on the weapons Israel supplied had been filed off. Wood shavings in the containers were imported from Cyprus and the parachutes from Italy. A total of 50,000 British rifles was also dropped by civilian aircraft piloted by former Royal Air Force pilots, one of whom was now on Johnson’s team.

In 1965, 300 camels were used in the buildup for a royalist ambush on a road linking Sana’a and the Saudi border at a defile known as Wadi Humaidat. The ambush would need 81-mm mortars to destroy an Egyptian convoy and cut the road. The historian Clive Jones writes: “In what was perhaps the most efficient battle fought by the Royalists, 362 soldiers of the First Army, backed by 1,290 tribesmen…directed by two British and three French mercenaries cut this main supply route and, despite several days of determined Egyptian counter-attacks, held on to their positions.”

In 1966, the French mercenaries launched a barrage of covering fire to assist a royalist advance on Sana’a, but the Imam’s men did not move. The royalists’ lack of resolve went beyond the front line. Johnson, after conferring with the Saudis who bankrolled the operation, concluded that a stalemate that pinned down 70,000 Egyptian soldiers in a war of attrition suited the Saudis nicely. With a new, Socialist government in London, SIS was also lukewarm about the right-wingers’ Yemen adventure. So in October 1966, Johnson wrote a memorandum describing “the apparent lack of interest by HMG [Her Majesty’s Government] and the stated indifference to our activities by MI6 [SIS] coupled with the absolute disinterest…of HRH [Saudi Prince] Sultan we appear to have three courses open to us….” He nominated the first of these, “to withdraw as soon as possible from the Yemen before disaster overtakes us,” for “there is no indication that HMG wants us to continue now.”

On 6 October he confronted the Saudis and asked: “Do you want us to win this war or not? The British have announced the date to leave Aden. If I go before they leave, it will be a shambles.”

 
The stalemate became a political fact in 1970, recognized by Egypt and Saudi Arabia, backed with a $300 million bribe from Kuwait and Saudi Arabia to compensate Egypt for lands lost to Israel during the 1967 war, the outcome of which was affected by the absence from that battlefield of Nasser’s lost army in Yemen. The timing of this event oozed with dramatic irony. It was the year in which Communist guerrillas, based in the Peoples’ Democratic Republic of Yemen (formerly the British-controlled Aden Federation), launched an offensive on Oman, coming close to bringing that kingdom into Moscow’s orbit. The SAS were to spend the next six years defending this gateway to the Gulf. No one now sought to defend Kennedy’s idealistic, unquestioning support of newly independent former colonies with a taste for republican government. Such countries were now part of a global battlefield over which the Cold War was being fought for real.