OPERATION AGREEMENT: AXIS ANNIHILATION OF ALLIED ‘COMMANDO’ FORCES, SEPTEMBER 1942
As he was valiant, I honour him. But as he was ambitious, I slew him.
OPERATION AGREEMENT was grandiose by design, zealous in aim, and contained the key elements of subterfuge and bravado that many British war planners and policy makers admired; not the least being the top policy maker himself, Winston Churchill. The undertaking,an attempted ‘surgical’ strike intended to strangle the supply line of the surging Deutsch-Italienische Panzerarmee, would end as an unmitigated disaster for the Allies.
At the heart of OPERATION AGREEMENT’s downfall was the plan itself. The separate yet coordinated Allied missions, historically grouped under the umbrella of OPERATION AGREEMENT, were based upon a hodgepodge of ill-conceived initiatives, most of which were not afforded the proper support necessary to achieve their desired results. The over-ambitiousness of the Allied objectives in relation to the assets employed, along with other factors including underestimation of the opponent, failure to learn from past military mistakes, and over-reliance on deception and confusion, undercut the determined fight put forth by the British and Commonwealth forces called upon to carry out the operations.
Nevertheless, one should be mindful of attributing the entire Allied failure to poor planning and lack of foresight. A highly skilled and tenacious response by both Italian and German forces confronted, repelled, or decimated the attackers on every level of the sprawling battle zone. With fighting raging on land, sea, and in the air, Axis troops continually got the better of the resourceful and resolute British marines and soldiers they faced, ensuring this British-led misadventure ended in a complete rout. With hundreds of men wounded, captured or killed, along with several Royal Navel vessels dispatched to the bottom of the sea, OPERATION AGREEMENT can be viewed as nothing less then an overwhelming Axis victory.
The amateurs discuss tactics: the professionals discuss logistics.
By the fall of 1942, the war that had stormed across North Africa for the previous two years was quickly approaching its crescendo, the Battles’ of El Alamein. Erwin Rommel’s Deutsch-Italienische Panzerarmee and Bernard Montgomery’s Eighth Army were now engaged in a life and death race aimed towards building and strengthening their respective forces and supplies in preparation of the looming, and as it proved decisive, confrontation; the ’race’ between the sides was in reality not even close. Supplied and supported heavily by their ally the United States of America, FDR’s self proclaimed “Arsenal of Democracy”, the British easily outpaced the Axis effort in this endeavor, and would possess an overwhelming advantage when the showdown commenced in fuel, armor, ammunition, and just about all other logistical needs for this battle. This advantage would prove insurmountable for the Axis to overcome.
The Allies were not, however, going to take any chances, as the fortunes of war had shifted too often for the British to take anything for granted. The British, rightly or not, had almost exclusively attributed these precautions to one man. “Rommel, Rommel, Rommel. What else matters but beating him”! Churchill had lamented after a crushing British loss to the Desert Fox in June of 1942 at Gazala. The Field Marshal’s shadow appeared to loom from the distant North African desert, all the way to 10 Downing Street in London.
If Rommel’s Panzerarmee, which was desperate for supplies, could be denied an even greater percentage of the needed fuel and material that the Italians were attempting to deliver through the gauntlet of Allied defensive screens and patrols that scoured the Mediterranean Sea, then the greater the likelihood its defeat on the battlefield could be assured. To facilitate this outcome, the critical Axis ports located in Benghazi and Tobruk were identified by British strategists as prime targets to strike to deal a crushing blow to the over-extended Axis supply route. Benghazi, located in the Italian colony of Cyrenaica, and Tobruk, Libya, were crucial to the Axis cause for supplying the advancing Deutsch-Italienische Panzerarmee. Any major delay experienced in the receiving, unloading, and transferring of supplies to and from these ports would have dire consequences on the Axis ability to win the war in the desert.
The location of the harbors, well behind Axis lines, obviously prevented a major military strike at the time, and previous aerial bombing attacks had achieved limited success. The British thus turned their eyes towards a form of more ‘unconventional’ warfare to accomplish their task; ‘commando’ raids. Perhaps more then any other combatant in the war, the British continually looked to small, elite forces to conduct quick strike type of operations to accomplish important, if not supportive objectives. The results achieved on these ‘specialty’ type missions were mixed.
While ‘raider’ operations had success in most theaters of the war that British boots were on the ground, a fair share had ended in failure. Operation Flipper, the 1941 plan to land British commandos behind Axis lines in North Africa to hunt and kill Rommel ended as a complete fiasco with nearly every participating British soldier killed or captured. Likewise, the August 1942 attempt to seize the port in Dieppe, France ended in outright disaster. The ill-planned and under-supported raid left over 3600 Allied troops, mostly Canadian, killed, wounded, or captured. Over 30 British vessels were sunk, including a destroyer, and the bloody attack failed to achieve any of its major objectives.
These failures would not deter the British from attempting another such strike. What would likewise continue, according to author Peter C. Smith, was the British proclivity of “muddling through” the details of an operation instead of reliance on a more structured and defined process of operational planning. The failure to employ such methods once again had devastating repercussions for the British mission.