From the official British record . . . The inside story of the parachute raid on Italy and the attack on Rommel's house in Africa
This is the second of two articles, each complete in itself, on the exploits of the Commandos. The first article appeared in May 15 issue of Maclean's.
THE TARGET was some 1,800 miles from Great Britain. It was a bridge in the heart of Campagna, spanning the small stream of the Tragino. If it could be destroyed supply facilities for that part of Italy would be seriously affected.
It was a job for men handy with explosives and trained in the art of demolition. It was entrusted to a small party of officers and other ranks of an Air-borne Division. Senior Officer in charge of the Force was Major T. A. C. Pritchard, and the air arrangements were under the direction of Wing Commander (now Group Captain) Sir Nigel Norman, Bt. The expedition was carefully planned and rehearsed in England and eight Whitleys bearing parachute troops took off from an airfield in East Anglia on the first stage of their flight. Their destination was Malta, where they arrived on the next day.
Pictures of the target area disclosed the existence of two bridges about 200 yards apart; that to the east, it was decided, was the one to be destroyed. Having done so, the parachutists were to make their way to a point on the west coast of Italy, and there be taken on board a submarine.
Two days were spent in Malta making lastminute preparations, and then the eight Whitleys took off in the evening light. Six of them carried the parachute troops and their equipment, and two were loaded with bombs with which to create a diversion. The rendezvous for the Whitleys was Monte Vulture and five of them reached it on time. The sixth, aircraft “J," was late in starting owing to a last-minute defect and did not reach the neighborhood of the dropping area until 11.15, an hour and a quarter behind time. Unluckily this had on board Captain G. F. K. Daly, R.E., who was to have been in charge of the demolitions. As will be seen Second Lieutenant G. R. Patterson, R.E., shouldered the responsibility and had to make some risky decisions.
The parachutists dropped from the five aircraft in a good pattern round the target. Conditions were perfect ; there was snow on the hillsides above the bridge, and bright moonlight. The first party landed at 9.42 p.m. with its officer only 50 yards from the objective. After collecting their weapons and forming up they were ordered to search the farm buildings nearby. These were of the ordinary southern Italian type, low two-storied houses, the farmer and his family living in the top story, while the ground floor was occupied by his beasts.
By this time Major Pritchard and Lieutenant Patterson had come up, but there was no sign of
Captain Daly. Patterson at once inspected the bridge and found that the three piers supporting the structure were not made of masonry as had been thought, but of reinforced concrete more difficult to destroy by explosives. Taking a risk, he at once decided to concentrate on the westernmost pier. Though a number of containers had failed to leave the aircraft, he hoped that he would have with him explosives sufficient for the purpose, for in calculating the amount required a large margin had been left.
While Patterson and his sappers were preparing the demolition the other officers and men were disposed as a covering party. A quarter of an hour after midnight the main charges were all laid. There was still some spare explosive, and Lieutenant A. G. Deane-Drummond decided to blow up a small bridge near him which crossed the Ginestra, a tributary of the Tragino. The track running over this bridge had been used in the construction of the objective, and it occurred to him that its destruction would hinder repair.
Major Pritchard decided to blow the charges at half-past twelve, and a minute before this a single slab of guncotton was fired as a warning to the covering party. At half-past twelve the object was achieved and half a minute later the small bridge blew up.
Their task accomplished, the parachutists col-
lected round Major Pritchard. He divided them into three independent groups under officers for the journey to the coast. He and his party set off westward, and when dawn came hid in a wood for the day. At dusk on the second night they moved out westward and kept in the fields by a road, skirted a little town, and then made good going along the road for the next four miles. They then struck southwest over the flank of the mountain, but by then it was time to look for a place to lay up for the day. Their map marked a wood above them. They toiled up but only found snow as the dawn was breaking. They scrambled up into the snow and hid in a small cave and behind rocks.
Their tracks in the mud and snow led up to their hiding place. It was not long before a farmer came up and found them, and gave the alarm. Then, from high up the mountain, they watched the comedy of the search parties approaching in the growing light. First came the village dogs, led by three pointers; then the village children, wondering where the dogs were going; then the women, racing after the children to bring them back, followed by the men going out to protect their womenfolk. Behind these they saw the organized parties, armed troops and police, who had taken longer to get going, slowly advancing in a semicircle round them. Any attempt at resistance would have ended in hurting the women and children.
Major Pritchard had no choice but to surrender.
Their feat created a sensation in Italy. The whole area was at once barred to neutrals, and there is no doubt that considerable consternation was caused. One Italian official announcement went so far as to say that it was impossible to conceal the fact that military circles considered the attempt a complete failure. Why it should have been thought necessary to conceal it was not explained.
Raid on Rommel
EARLY IN October six officers and 53 other ranks of the Scottish Commando were placed under the operational command of the Eighth Army. It was decided to use them in a bold and daring attempt to strike at the brain of the enemy by landing far behind his lines and attacking his headquarters.
Four detachments were formed for this purpose. The first to raid General Rommel’s house at Beda Littoria; the second to assault the Italian headquarters at Cyrene; the third, the Italian Intelligence centre at Appollonia; while a fourth detachment was to cut telephone and telegraph communications.
The first problem was how to get the force to its destination. It was not possible to use destroyers
for the risk of air attack was too great and it was therefore decided to take them in two submarines, the H.M.S. Torbay and the H.M.S. Talisman. On reaching their immediate destination they would paddle themselves ashore in rubber boats.
On the evening of Nov. 10 the Torbay and the Talisman slipped from Alexandria, moving westward in fair weather, without incident. The Scottish Commando was in the highest spirits. “All ranks were greatly interested,” runs the report, “in what was to us a novel method of approaching our objective, and the soldiers were high in their praise of the way in which they were fed and accommodated.”
The first landing was made from H.M.S. Torbay, which closed the chosen beach at dusk on Nov. 14. That the submarine reached her exact destination without undue difficulty was due not only to sound navigation but also to the calculated daring of a British officer, who, dressed as an Arab, had been moving behind the enemy’s lines and had established friendly relations with some of the local inhabitants. His signals from the beach were seen, and preparations to land the Scottish Commando began. The weather was deteriorating; the wind had freshened, and the swell was now considerable. Four of the rubber boats were washed away, and much time was lost
retrieving them. Eventually the landing was successfully made; but instead of the estimated one hour, it took five to accomplish.
Meanwhile H.M.S. Talisman was lying some distance off, awaiting the signal that the landings from H.M.S. Torbay had been completed. The weather got worse and worse, and Colonel Laycock had just decided to postpone the operation until the following night, when the expected signal from the Torbay was received. The landing from the Talisman took place in a heavy sea which capsized most of the boats, throwing the men into the water. All of them, with the exception of Colonel Laycock and seven other ranks who reached the shore, swam back to the submarine.
Once ashore, Colonel Laycock and his small party, which had now joined those who had landed from H.M.S. Torbay, took cover in a convenient wadi for the remainder of the night and for the day which followed. The weather continued bad, with a considerable sea still running, and it did not seem possible that the Talisman would be able to land troops when darkness came. On the other hand, General Auchinleck’s offensive against Rommel was about to open, and Colonel Laycock was well aware that any immediate action he could take against the enemy would be of great and
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immediate value to the Eighth Army now making ready to advance.
He decided not to wait, but had therefore to modify his plan and divide the party into two detachments. Lieutenant-Colonel Keyes, in command of the first detachment, was to attack the German headquarters and the house of General Rommel. He had with him Captain Campbell and 17 other ranks. The second detachment, Lieutenant Cook and six other ranks, was ordered to cut the telephone and telegraph wires at the crossroads south of Cyrene. Colonel Laycock decided to remain at the rendezvous with a sergeant and two men, to form a beach head and keep the reserve ammunition and rations. They would also be ready to receive the remainder of the Commando, who, it was hoped, would be put ashore on the following night.
Thus did Colonel Laycock and his officers plan through that long day hidden in the wadi. The weather was at no time good, and became very bad as the hours went by. A gale of wind, accompanied at times by torrential rain, howled through their place of concealment, and soon everyone was once more wet to the skin.
The detachments moved off at seven o’clock in the evening, accompanied by Arab guides who, however, abandoned them after a few miles. They therefore lay up in a suitable wadi and slept for four hours. The next day they hid in another, and in the evening, meeting with a party of Arabs who were friendly, were guided to a spot some ten miles from Beda Littoria where they dumped their surplus clothing and rations. On both those nights Colonel Laycock visited the beach, but there was still a heavy surf and conditions for landing were impossible.
Ready for Action
AT SEVEN in the evening of November 17 the detachments made ready to move to their objectives. Torrential rain had fallen all day; they were cold and soaked to the skin, but their spirit was high. No. 1 detachment under Lieutenant-Col-
onel Keyes was guided to within a few hundred yards of General Rommel’s headquarters by friendly Arabs, Here they lay up awaiting zero hour, which was one minute to midnight, and while there they were apprehended by a party of Arabs in uniform. Captain Campbell, however, allayed suspicion by explaining in German that the force belonged to a German unit.
The plan was for LieutenantColonel Keyes, with Captain Campbell and Sergeant Terry, to enter the house of the German Commanderin-Chief and search it. Outside, three men were to destroy the electric-light plant, five to keep an eye on the garden and the car park, two to stand outside a nearby hotel and prevent anyone from leaving it, and two more to watch the road on each side of the house. The two remaining men were to guard whichever way LieutenantColonel Keyes chose for entering the house.
Everyone was in position a little before midnight. The house was reconnoitred, but no way in could be found either through the back or through any of the windows. Lieutenant-Colonel Keyes and his companions therefore went up to the front door and beat upon it, Captain Campbell loudly demanding in German that it should be opened.
Inside was a sentry. Hearing a peremptory order shouted at him from outside, he pulled open the door and was at once set upon. He showed fight and was overpowered, but not silently; Captain Campbell was compelled to shoot him, and the shot roused the house. Two men began to run downstairs from the first floor, but a burst of Tommy-gun fire from Sergeant Terry sent them scampering back again. The lights in the rooms of the ground floor were extinguished, but no one attempted to move.
Lieutenant - Colonel Keyes and Captain Campbell began a search of the ground floor. There was no one in the first room, but in the second the Germans were awaiting them, and on throwing open the door Lieutenant-Colonel Keyes was met by a burst of fire and fell back into the passage, mortally wounded. Sergeant Terry emptied three magazines of his Tommy-gun into the darkened room; Captain Campbell threw a grenade into it and then slammed the door. He and Sergeant Terry picked up Lieutenant-Colonel Keyes and carried him outside, where he died. He received the posthumous award of the Victoria Cross. While bending over him, Captain Campbell’s leg was broken by a stray bullet.
The enemy had been taken by surprise, but most unfortunately General Rommel himself was absent. He was apparently attending a party in Rome. Three German Lieutenant-Colonels on his staff were killed and a number of soldiers killed and wounded. Captain Campbell ordered Sergeant Terry to collect the detachment and throw all their remaining grenades through the windows. This was done, and Captain Campbell then ordered the party to withdraw and to leave him behind, since in his wounded condition they could not hope to carry him over 18 miles of difficult country to the beach. He was taken prisoner.
The party moved off, being joined by the three men detailed to destroy the electric-lighting plant. In this they had been partially successful, though some of the charges, soaked by the torrential rain, had not exploded. A grenade placed in the armature had, however, done considerable damage. Sergeant Terry led his party back and eventually reached Colonel Laycock at the rendezvous.
Meanwhile the other detachment had reached the crossroads ol Cyrene and blown up a petroldistribution post. They never returned to the rendezvous.
In the hour of daylight still remaining after the arrival of Sergeant Terry, Colonel Laycock went to the beach and saw with relief that the swell was diminishing. The rubber boats, however, in which the party had come ashore and which had been hidden in a cave, had been moved by friendly Arabs, who had then departed without indicating the whereabouts of the new hiding place.
Shortly after dark, Colonel Laycock sighted H.M.S. Torbay and flashed her a message. A long wait ensued, and then the friendly Arabs turned up. They had stowed the boats in some caves, which Colonel Laycock was examining when the look-out ran up to say that the Torbay was now signalling. Back went Colonel Laycock to the beach— he was the only one of the party who could read Morse—and learned from the winking lamp of the submarine that the sea was too rough, and that she would try again the following night. The Colonel in his reply told them of the attempt on Rommel’s headquarters and of the death of Lieutenant-Colonel Keyes. The Torbay then moved off after successfully floating ashore a rubber boat with food and water. This was thankfully received and the party prepared to spend the remainder of the night and the next day on shore, praying for better weather.
Outflank the Enemy
AT FIRST light a defensive position - was adopted, the main detachment remaining near the caves while two smaller detachments protected the eastern and western flanks of the position. The morning wore on, all was quiet, the wind and sea were abating, the hopes of the party were rising. But at noon shots were heard. They came from the westernmost sentry group, who were in action against some Italian native levies, known to be in the neighborhood. Colonel Laycock was not unduly worried. He felt confident that he and his men would be able to keep off the Arabs until darkness, and then retire to the beach. Two small parties were sent out to outflank the enemy, but did not succeed in doing so, for by now German troops had appeared, while beyond them was a considerable party of Italians. These remained on the sky-line about a mile to the north, and took no part in the fighting.
One of the small parties returned, having been able to advance about a quarter of a mile and come into action. After their Tommy-gun jammed the officer with them, Lieutenant Prior, continued to ad-
vanee alone until wounded. With great difficulty he crawled back to the main position.
The Germans were by now maintaining a sustained fire, and it became evident about two o’clock in the afternoon that it would be impossible to hold the beach against such superior forces. The only alternative was to abandon the position, hide in the Jebel, the broken hills in the interior, and await the advance of the Eighth Army. When the enemy were no more than 200 yards from the caves, Colonel Laycock ordered the detachment to split up into small parties, dash across the open and seek the cover of the hills inland. There they could either try to get in touch with H.M.S. Talisman, which they knew would be lying off an alternative beach that night or they could hide in the wadis which abounded, and await our forces. Lieutenant Prior, who was grievously wounded, was left behind with a medical orderly and ordered to surrender. The party then scattered.
Colonel Laycock found himself with Sergeant Terry. They crossed half a mile of open country, being continually sniped, but neither of them was hit. Once in the shelter of the Jebel, which offered excellent cover, they set out together to join the Eighth Army. After the first few days they made friends with various members of the local Senoussi tribes, who helped them and hid them each night in the very wadis which the enemy were known to have searched during the day.
“Our greatest problem,” wrote Colonel Laycock, “was the lack of food, and though never desperate we were forced to subsist for periods, which never exceeded two-and-ahalf consecutive days, on berries only, and we became appreciably weak from want of nourishment. At other times we fed well on goat and Arab bread, but developed a marked craving for sugar. Water never presented a serious proposition as it rained practically continuously.”
One evening they were making a thin stew out of some meat and bones —mostly bones—which they had flavored with wild garlic picked by Colonel Laycock. As they were about to eat it a friendly Arab arrived, gave one loud sniff, and overturned the pot. He subsequently explained to the enraged and hungry pair that the garlic would have destroyed their sight.
Eventually the colonel and the sergeant joined the British Forces at Cyrene, 41 days after they had originally set out. They were the only members of the party to do so. It was Christmas Day, and having eaten his Christmas dinner, Colonel Laycock flew to Cairo to make his report.
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