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OPERATION AGREEMENT: AXIS ANNIHILATION OF ALLIED ‘COMMANDO’ FORCES, SEPTEMBER 1942

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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. 
-William Shakespeare

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.

San Marco marines at Tobruk

San Marco marines at Tobruk

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.

- Napoleon

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.

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Strong interest in WW2. My Father served in the Pacific with 710 Tank BTL at Anguar, Peleliu, and Philippines. Grandfather also served in Army.
Peleliu81
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TJs website

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Comments

  1. 9
    Peleliu81 says:

    Thanks Zenplus, glad you enjoyed the article. FYI, I did not create Comando Supremo, just have contributed a few articles.

    TJ

  2. 8
    neil raymond says:

    My father Lt Ernest Raymond of the RNF took part in this Operation. He would not take kindly to the reference of “British Fusiliers” on the MTBs. They were members of the Royal Northumberland Fusiliers thank you! Dad unfortunately ,with his fighting spirit for his beloved men and regiment, could not land from his MTB to get in the fight, although I’m sure had he of done then I would not be here now. I do commend the book “Tobruk Commando” by Gordon Landsborough to you all. Dad’s picture is in it as are references to his battalion’s justified wonderful reputation. The article in Commando Supremo on the Operation does I feel a great injustice to the incredible bravery of all our troops fighting here against all the odds on what was a most ill thought out mission to put it mildly. I would love to hear from anyone, particularly those whose fathers were in the RNF. Dad went on later to finish as a Major and win the MC.

    • 8.1
      Peleliu81 says:

      Thanks for the comment Neil. I am sorry that you felt that this article disparaged the bravery of the British and Commonwealth troops involved. I had attempted to point out the courage displayed by both sides during this encounter throughout,if I neglected to give the MTB troops their just due I apologize.

      TJ Nicoletti

      • neil raymond says:

        No problem whatsoever TJ, and thank you for your reply. I promise my dad would be the first one to buy you a pint of beer (or two or three!) and happily discuss his own point of view on an Operation that was indeed a monumental cock up by the Allies. Please try and get hold of the Tobruk Commando book I refer to if you can. I know I know I am biased but the Allies had all the odds stacked against them.
        Some Jewish SIG soldiers and even ‘turned” Germans (not a good move) were also in on the raid on the Allied side.
        I hope you also acknowledge that the Allied cause was right to fight against such a truly evil cause that thankfully was beaten in the end, but at a terrible cost to mankind.
        Regards
        Neil

        • Peleliu81 says:

          Neil,

          I am always up for a pint or three of beer!!!

          What I would like to remind all readers of my articles, and of the material found here on Comando Supremo, is that both the site and myself are not endorsing or supporting the Axis cause what so ever. (My father fought in the War with the 710 Tank Battalion, 81st Infantry Division, United States Army). The goal of my articles is to bring attention and provide a location to find information on the Italians role in this great conflict; a role that has been severally glossed over, minimized, and or distorted to a staggering degree. I try to do this in an interesting way, in a style similar to the types of historical works I am drawn to. Being of Italian heritage, my Grandparents immigrated to the United States in the early part of the Twentieth century, I was disappointed in the lack of coverage (in the Western World) given to the part the Italian military and the achievements they accomplished. Comando Supremo has given many like me, World War II “buffs”, a chance to find just such. But please do not confuse this with being pro-Axis.

          Thanks again to all who have enjoyed the articles.

          • zenplus says:

            Hi Tj !

            Very interesting Acticle !

            I think it could have been even more detailed about the Italian (and highly succesfull) role of this major Britisk defeat to a mainly Italian effort.
            E.G. the it was Italian flown Stuka that inflicted and sank several important British war ships in the aftermatch of the battle…..

            But all in all very interesting Reading !
            As well interesting to read the reason why you have started the Comando Supremo site. I have the exact same historical interest !

            Best regards.

            Zenplus

            Ps. Other very interesting topics for coming acticles could be:

            a) Italian Air Raids on the Gold Coast – West Africa

            b) Italian Air Raid on Gibraltar November 1944 (!)

            c) Italian Flown Stuka Squadrons in the Mid. (often confused to be German flown)

            c) A detailed acticle about the AXIS inflicting and sinking during and in the aftermatch of the invation of Crete.

            Just a few ideas…jeje

            Best regards.

            Zenplus
            Or a super detailed acticle about the hole campain.

  3. 7
    martinhurrell says:

    Dear Sirs,
    I have located this very interesting site because I wanted to know more about ‘Operation Agreement’. I have today attended the funeral of Stanley Harold Reeve, an elderly neighbour of mine, who was a serving marine on board HMS Sikh – one of the very few survivors of this appalling allied disaster. He was quite frail and in declining health when he told me of his ordeal, but this article has filled in many missing gaps in his narrative. He was captured and spent the rest of the war as a POW. On returning home to his native North Finchley, he claimed that his mother was still wearing the same hat as she was wearing the day he left for war. He spent most of his adult like as a postman, and lived in the same house since buying it in 1947. He only left it 18 months ago following a severe fall at home. He suffered from his ordeal with what we now know as post traumatic stress disorder, but like so many of his generation, failed to get the appropriate help and so ‘lived with it’. They went through hell for us. RIP Stan.

  4. 6
    petergarforth@btinternet.com says:

    Interesting article – it persuaded me to buy the book and I am currently half way through it – it does have a fairly negative attitude towards Italian troops with lots of the usual clichés such as ‘jumpy Italians’ ‘nervous Italians’ but at least it doesn’t gloss over the Italian role in favour of those amazing German troops!

    • 6.1
      fredleander says:

      Hi. Peter – mr. Smith is suffering from much the same syndrome as many other British “historians”, they can admit to some degree of excellence in the German military machine, but the Italian…..no way – that is an insult!

      Smith is particularly critical to Bragadin who is one of the few Italian writers whose book has been translated into English and, as a WW2 naval officer serving member of the SuperMarina, is therefore giving us a somewhat different story than what is usually seen from the run-of-the-mill WW2 writers.

      I recommend Bragadin’s book on the Italian Navy in WW2. Quite an eye-opener.

      Fred

      • petergarforth@btinternet.com says:

        Thanks I will look it up. I’ve now read the whole book and it is quite bizarre because in his conclusions at the end he praises the San Marco marines but barely mentions them or their actions in the book. He praises the RA actions in the book but otherwise is pretty scathing about all things Italian and yet says it’s not clear if the victory was more Italian than German or vice versa indicating that despite the content of his book he believes the Italians played as much a part as the Germans. Very confused man!

  5. 5
    fredleander says:

    For those who want to read more about the operation – here is a link to Peter C. Smiths’s book about it:

    http://www.ebay.co.uk/sch/i.html?_nkw=peter+c.+smith+agreement&_sacat=267&_odkw=peter+c.+smith&_osacat=267&_from=R40

    Fred

  6. 4
    Sid Guttridge says:

    I felt the article would have gained credibility if the style of writing less resembled fiction. The facts speak well enough for themselves without speculative, over descriptive battle descriptions, which tend towards “faction”.

    There are several quibbles. For example, were the German 88mm guns four in number or numerous? Why are we to think it was a CR42 pilot who followed the LRDG vehicle? How do we know that the British colonel was killed by a well aimed grenade and not an ill aimed one? It is this sort of unsupported assertion that makes it difficult to distinguish the hard facts from speculation.

    I would much have preferred a more detached, hard fact based description of half the length that felt reliable. Stick to what we know: The British colonel was killed by a grenade. The LRDG jeep appears to have been followed by parties unknown, etc.

    On the whole this was a positive contribution and I look forward to the author’s next effort. I would just ask that it be leaner and stick closer to hard facts.

    6/10

    • 4.1
      Peleliu81 says:

      Thanks for commenting Sid, and to all who have shot me e-mails or what not expressing their enjoyment of the article. I truly appreciate it. You do make a couple good points Sid. First, I want to stress to everyone I am (obviously) not a professional writer. Just a guy working in an office in north-east Ohio, USA. As far as the style I write in, I personally have always been drawn more to the stories that look at the human aspect and drama of the Second World War, as opposed to a more dry, OOB style. Those are the articles and books I gravitate towards, and thus my attempts to write follow this style. That is the only way I know to write, hence I have no plans on changing that approach. Some I have found like this style very much, some…not so much. Can’t please them all. : )

      As for your points, first, I think I do mention that there were numerous 88mm, in fact 4 dozen as mentioned on page three of the article. Second, why did I list that it was someone piloting a CR42 that followed the lone jeep back to the British column… Well you got me there, that is speculative. While researching the article, I had a couple of people offer to me as background info that it was an Italian pilot who made the report of the sighting, and since the only Italian aircraft I could find documented as sorting on this mission were CR42’s, I made the conclusion as such. But, since I have no documented sources on this point that it was a CR42 pilot that made the report, I have gone back and removed this assumption from the article. Thanks. As for the well aimed grenade throw, I think any soldier will tell you if you are successful on a kill shot, or a grenade throw, regardless if it first hit a bird and than bounced off of two trees before striking its target, it was a “well aimed” shot. I’m sticking with that one. : )

      Thanks again. The articles I have written do, believe it or not, take hours of work, so it is nice to get some positive feed back on them. If I write anymore in the future I will definitely attempt to avoid adding any speculative assumptions to the narrative.

      TJ

      • Sid Guttridge says:

        Hi TJ,

        Firstly, an apology. Your article did, indeed say “four dozen” 88s and not the “four” I read. That certainly qualifies as “numerous”.

        Thanks very much for the reasonable and civil tone of your reply and the time taken. That gives me confidence in your future articles, which I will read with interest.

        I am a bit of a purist and like the hard facts, OBs, maps, statistics, etc. They tend to speak for themselves. They also lay the groundwork for later authors. Anthony Beevor writes descriptive human interest military history that sells massively, but he seldom breaks new ground as far as hard facts are concerned. He doesn’t need to, because his books are all ride on the back of hard fact research by other, drier, more academic authors. Without their work, his would have no context and would be writing his human interest stuff in a vacuum.

        What do we actually know about the grenade? It was presumably Italian and it killed a British colonel. For me, the result speaks for itself. Whether it was well aimed, or a miss throw, or a rebound, etc., is speculation. The result is not.

        I have a similar reaction against qualitative adjectives such as brave, courageous, clever, cunning, etc. An action will tend to speak for itself without editorializing by the author.

        Anyway, it was good to have an extended article such as yours and I would very much encourage you to continue.

        Sid.

      • zenplus says:

        Hi TJ !

        It could have been an Italian Caproni Ca.309 Ghibli often used with great results to trail the LRDG. Mentioned in the book of their leading comander Major Ralph Alger Bagnold. The Glibli could turn “a Street corner” or follow the jeep tracks in the sand like few other aircrafts of the time. It actually claimed many of LRDG’s vehicles in the desert !

    • 4.2
      SanMarco says:

      Amazing article! It’s all fun and games untiil the San Marco Marines show up!

  7. 3
    bushmaster says:

    I greatly enjoyed this. I’d seen the movie version with George Peppard and Rock Hudson but, to be honest, I always thought it had been largely made up. Thanks.

  8. 2
    fredleander says:

    Good work! Tks for posting.

    Fred

  9. 1
    vato_loco says:

    An excellent, well-researched piece. I also enjoyed the archival photographs.

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