Chapter 12: The Uncombined Operations
As members of the Division were thankfully relinquishing their tenancy of the New Zealand Box to enjoy a week of rest and reorganisation by the sea, other New Zealanders were among the forces navigating the desert many miles behind the enemy’s line to take part in a series of operations, little publicised and later heavily criticised. These operations had their genesis in July, when Auchinleck was willing to consider any means that offered to weaken the enemy’s pressure on his army. The initial proposals, however, emanated from the Royal Navy, whose concern lay with Malta’s predicament at that time and the maintenance of Alexandria as a naval base. With both army and navy interest, the Combined Operations organisation came into the planning, and this brought in those enthusiasts who ran the ‘cloak-and-dagger outfits’ of varying degrees of unorthodoxy the Middle East then nurtured. Suggestions soon snowballed into an elaborate scheme of land, sea, and air raids on the enemy’s rear involving some thousands of troops. Churchill’s visit in early August added impetus, for the scheme was of the type dear to the Prime Minister’s heart, and by the time Alexander and Montgomery took up the reins of command, planning was well advanced. Possibly because it represented the only immediate and definite form of aggressive action to be inherited from the previous command, as well as being sponsored by a number of spirited individualists backed by Churchill’s interest, the plan received no official disapproval from the new commanders, whatever their private thoughts. Such disinterest was possible as control of the operations was not given to the army but was put in the hands of the Middle East Commanders-in-Chief’s Committee.
As the proposals involved the coordination of action by widely separated forces, planning took such time that decision was delayed by other events, but eventually the Middle East Joint Planning Committee recommended that the operations should take place as part of the Eighth Army’s counter-attack against the enemy’s offensive anticipated at the end of August. The plans were re-examined on 29 August, before Rommel commenced his offensive, and the final decision for the operations to commence was taken by the Commanders-in-Chief’s Committee on 4 September, while the battle was still on. It is not known whether the Committee, at that date, was fully aware that Montgomery did not intend to launch the Eighth Army into a counter-attack, but several of the men whose parties started out before the battle was concluded imagined that they were taking part in such a counter-attack.
The decision resulted from a meeting of Alexander, Harwood and Tedder and was arrived at on the grounds that any interruption of the Panzer Army’s supply lines ‘might prove fatal to the enemy’. Harwood was willing to risk the seaborne forces, but Tedder could not offer full air support while the land battle continued.
The final scheme provided for two major and three minor attacks to take place on the same night, but widely spaced in distance, against the Panzer Army’s rear installations. Most of the preparations were complete by the time the final decision was reached and the first troops set off immediately, other groups following later according to the distances involved, to reach their objectives on the evening of 13 September. By 10 September, when all danger of a sudden return to the attack by Rommel had passed, the whole series of operations could have been called off but there seemed no valid reason for so doing. The land forces were closing on their objectives, the sea and air forces ready; success would have had a psychological effect and might possibly have caused the enemy to spread his forces in defence.
The operations were designed in five parts as follows:–
a. A combined land and sea assault on Tobruk to overrun the defences and damage shipping and port facilities, especially the oil installations.
b. A land raid on the port of Benghazi for similar purposes.
c. A land raid on the Benina landing grounds.
d. A land raid on the landing ground and military installations at Barce.
e. The capture of the oasis of Gialo and its occupation to assist the withdrawal of the forces engaged on the other operations. (The length of occupation appears to have depended on enemy reaction.)
Three diversions were also planned for the same night: a dawn shoot of some 6000 rounds by 9 Australian and 44 British Divisions to simulate the opening of an attack on the Alamein line; a naval demonstration off Daba in which some 350 rounds of 5.2-inch ammunition were fired at land targets; and the movement of a column towards Siwa and the dropping of some forty self-destroying dummy parachutists close to the oasis, for the purpose of keeping the Young Fascist Division garrison of the oasis from interfering with other operations. These diversions were carried out as arranged and appear to have served their general purpose.
The operation against Tobruk was the most ambitious and the most costly. On 22 August a commando force some eighty strong left Cairo for Kufra, guided by a Yeomanry patrol of the Long Range Desert Group. On 5 September, still led by the Yeomanry patrol, the commandos set off to navigate the 600 miles to Tobruk, and on the evening of 13 September were waiting to the south of the town for the timed completion of a heavy and sustained bombing assault by the Royal Air Force. About midnight, when the bombing was due to cease, the commandos moved towards a bay on the east of the harbour, where they were to overcome any defences and permit the landing of seaborne troops, after which the whole force was to battle its way westwards along the coast and attack the town and harbour from the south. The seaborne troops, about 180 men of the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders with engineer and other specialists, had left Alexandria early that morning in motor torpedo-boats and launches. Owing to failings in organisation and training, mostly in communications, initial success by the commandos was not followed up, only two of the assault craft managing to land their troops on shore.
While this battle occurred east of the harbour, another assault force comprising some 400 Royal Marines and specialist personnel carried in the destroyers Sikh and Zulu was attempting to land on a beach to the north of the harbour. About half the troops in the first flight of landing craft reached shore, but some way west of the intended landing point.
By this time the enemy defence was fully alert, with coastal guns, 88-mm anti-aircraft guns and automatics firing on the destroyers and landing craft. Out to sea the anti-aircraft cruiser Coventry and eight destroyers patrolled, prepared to assist in re-embarkation and against counter-attack.
The destroyer Sikh, moving inshore to give covering fire and pick up survivors, was hit and finally sunk by gunfire. The rest of the naval force, as the coming of daylight made its situation precarious,
set off for Alexandria but soon came under enemy air attack which accounted for the cruiser Coventry and the destroyer Zulu. Of the light flotilla of MTBs and launches, six of the original eighteen failed to return.
In Tobruk, daylight gave the enemy the opportunity of concentrating against the several small groups still holding out. British records indicate that only four men, belonging to the commando force, managed to escape and eventually reach the Eighth Army’s lines.
In this action the Royal Navy lost some 280 men, of whom 225, mostly from the crew of the Sikh, were later reported to be prisoners. The Royal Marines lost 300 men and the Army 166, of whom probably more than half were prisoners. Against this total of 746, the Axis defence recorded a casualty list of 62 killed and 119 wounded. According to the German area commander, General Deindl, the raid was not anticipated nor was the approach of the assault forces observed, but the intensity and duration of the Air Force bombing caused him about 11 p.m. to issue an ‘alert’ which had the effect of delaying reliefs and the customary settling down for the night.
The raid on Benghazi was no more successful. For this operation a detachment of the Special Air Service Brigade with other troops, to a total strength of 200 men, was guided by a Southern Rhodesian patrol of the Long Range Desert Group for the 600 miles from Kufra to Benghazi. South of the town they were joined by another Southern Rhodesian patrol which had travelled out with the Barce raiding party, the intention being that the two LRDG patrols should raid the Benina landing ground while the other force made for Benghazi docks as the Royal Air Force completed a bombing raid.
Delayed by difficult country, the two patrols abandoned their task for the night and withdrew to an area in which their vehicles could be concealed against air attack in daylight, but the commando force pressed on, only to run into an Italian machine-gun post on the Benghazi perimeter. Driven back and, after daylight, harassed from the air, the commandos made their way in small groups back to Kufra, the last arriving on 24 September. Losses amounted to over half the original fleet of seventy-two jeeps and 3-ton trucks, ten men killed or missing, and several wounded. The two patrols worked their way east and assisted in the withdrawal of the Barce raiding party.
The operation against Gialo succeeded in keeping the Italian garrison of the oasis contained for a few days. The assault force, consisting of about 800 men, mainly native troops of the Sudan
Defence Force, left Kufra on 11 September guided by a Yeomanry patrol of the Long Range Desert Group. Owing to administrative difficulties the force did not get within striking distance of the defences until the evening of the 15th. It made no headway against the ‘Beau Geste’ type forts in which the Italian defenders were ensconced, so invested the oasis until the 20th, when it was withdrawn on orders from Cairo. The Sudan Defence Force losses, mostly from air attack, were 16 killed and missing and 45 wounded. A New Zealand patrol of the Long Range Desert Group commanded by Lieutenant Talbot,1 which joined the force to cover the western and north-western approaches, was caught by enemy aircraft on 19 September in a featureless area of the desert and forced to scatter, losing seven men wounded or injured and three missing.
The raid against Barce was the only operation of the whole series which brought any measure of success. This was carried out by two LRDG patrols, one of the Guards and the other of New Zealanders, the latter commanded by Captain Wilder2 and the whole force under Major J. R. Easonsmith’s command. Major (‘Popski’) Peniakoff, who had previously acted as an agent in the Barce area, joined the force to assist in the final stages of the operation. Leaving the Faiyum area on 2 September, in company with the Southern Rhodesian patrol destined for the Benina raid, the force passed round the south of the battle then being waged on the Alamein line and navigated the notoriously difficult Egyptian and Kalansho sand seas, to reach the vicinity of Barce on 12 September after a journey of some 1155 miles. Here the Rhodesian patrol continued on to the west while the New Zealanders and Guards, some fifty strong, carried in twelve light trucks and five jeeps, drove towards Barce on the evening of 13 September. Surviving without loss two minor encounters with enemy guards on the way, the force entered the town by midnight, the Guards making for the military barracks, Major Easonsmith creating a diversion in the town, and the New Zealanders driving on to the landing ground. In a drill practised beforehand the New Zealand patrol drove round the airfield firing incendiary bullets at parked aircraft, laying demolition charges, and shooting up the quarters. Enemy reaction was initially uncoordinated and harmless but, when the raiders tried to withdraw, they found the narrow exits from the area blocked by light tanks and armoured cars. By aggressive action the patrol broke through, losing some men and vehicles
in so doing, and regained the rendezvous where it met Easonsmith and the Guards, whose activities against the barracks and parked transport had been successful and almost unopposed. An attack by Tripolitanian infantry and harassing by aircraft on the 14th reduced the party’s vehicles to two, on which those more severely wounded were loaded while the remainder set off on foot. At a landing ground used by the desert patrols some 100 miles inland, the survivors were met by the Southern Rhodesian patrols from the Benghazi force and taken back to Kufra, the wounded being flown in by Royal Air Force Bombay aircraft.
Losses of the Barce raiders amounted to ten prisoners, two of whom, both New Zealanders, were wounded, and eight wounded and safe, including Major Peniakoff. All the wounded eventually recovered, while four of the seven New Zealanders taken prisoner escaped about a year later. According to Italian records, some twenty-three aircraft were destroyed or badly damaged in a raid by ‘armoured cars’, while an undisclosed but far from negligible number of casualties was inflicted on the troops in the town and considerable damage done to installations and transport. Four of the New Zealanders received awards for their part in this action.
The German records dismiss the actions at Benghazi and Barce with the comment that sabotage troops were wiped out by the Italian garrisons and several prisoners taken. This is perhaps fitting as the material losses sustained at Barce, mainly Italian aircraft of secondary value, hardly affected the Panzer Army’s strength, while the raids themselves proved what Rommel already knew, that the British were able to operate small raiding parties over the wide expanse of desert in the Panzer Army’s rear. The Gialo and Tobruk actions, however, gave more cause for concern, that at Tobruk being considered a defensive victory of some value. The Panzer Army’s diary recorded that, after seven hours of air bombardment, troops landed at the port at 2.30 a.m. on the 14th. A mobile force of German troops was hurriedly called together from the units in the Alamein line and other emergency measures put in hand in case the attack on Tobruk was intended to coincide with a major operation by the Eighth Army. However, by 9 a.m. the commander of the Tobruk area could report that the assault had been repulsed and the situation was in hand. The Germans finally estimated their successes as a cruiser, four destroyers, and four escort vessels sunk, a light cruiser and a destroyer seriously damaged, and three or four destroyers hit by bombs, as well as a bag of 580 prisoners, a total not greatly in excess of that of the losses admitted by the British. No sooner had the state of emergency at Tobruk subsided than news reached the Panzer Army
of the attack on Gialo. Failure of communications with the oasis at first gave the impression that the garrison had been overwhelmed. Rommel then sent off the German 3 Reconnaissance Unit and the Italian Nizza reconnaissance group to join the troops of the Young Fascist Division in Siwa, some 250 miles east of Gialo, but before any further action was taken, news arrived that the Gialo garrison had driven off the attackers with the help of the air forces.
Rommel himself saw the series of raids, especially the Tobruk operation, as an experiment by the British to test the possibility of similar action on a greater scale as part of a major offensive. He gave instructions to the commanders of the rear areas to improve their defensive systems, while he arranged for the reserves for the Alamein defences to be so placed that they could be quickly deployed against any landings. Both Rommel and his successor, General Stumme, tried to get the Italians to use the quite considerable forces held in the rear areas for an operation against Kufra and thus remove the main British raiding base in the desert but, although they gave approval to the idea, the Italians never managed to mount the operation.
There was some talk in Middle Eastern circles that the raiding operations were so long in the planning, and accordingly discussed freely in Cairo bars, that the enemy was given warning, but it is clear that, apart from vague hints that raids by land or sea were possible, there was no leakage of sufficient detail of time or place for counter measures by the Axis to be prepared.
Of the series of operations, General Alexander stated in his despatches that ‘From a material point of view the raids had been a failure and our losses had been heavy but it is possible that they had had the psychological effects we had hoped for. They probably . ... assisted in diverting Rommel’s attention to the possibility of seaborne raids on his long open flank.’ Montgomery, with commendable restraint, left no public comment on the operations, but his Chief of Staff, de Guingand,3 says he viewed them with disfavour. The loss of over a thousand men, three warships, and other valuable material was no small matter at the time, and it is therefore strange that these raids have received little publicity, even if only as a basis for a dissertation on the evils of political pressure on military operations.4