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

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 “Only those who will risk going too far can possibly find out how far it is possible to go.”

 – T.S. Eliot

Although there were many risks, the British military hierarchy felt that as the Desert War reached critical mass, an attempt to disrupt the enemy’s lifeline to their needed supplies was well worth any potential losses.   In fact, the British had their eye on attacking Tobruk as far back till the beginning of the desert war in 1940, when the Italians first held the city.  Over two years later the strategically located harbor still held a pivotal role in the theater, and still occupied the British’s attention.  It would be the planned assault against Tobruk that would be the centerpiece of the raider operations.   The operations were as follows:

Operation Agreement, attack on Tobruk.       

Map of Area

Map of Area

Slated for September 13/14 1942, the strike against Tobruk was the largest of the “Agreement“ operations.  The harbor was to be assailed by land, sea, and air.  Three strike forces, two scheduled to arrive by sea (Forces A and C), one from across the desert (Force B), were to clandestinely penetrate the Axis harbor defenses, and coordinate their attack against the port in the early hours of the 14th.   This assault was to be preceded by a RAF (Royal Air Force) bombardment carried out by both bomber and fighter aircraft, which was to occur form 9:30 pm on the 13th to 5 am on the 14th.

During the Dieppe raid, a similar ‘preparatory’ air attack was conducted by the RAF, and post operation analysis indicated that there were negligible positive results achieved from the bombing.  The findings concluded the ‘warning’ the air raid gave to the defenders indicating an imminent assault contributed heavily to the operations failure.  These determinations seemed to have been ignored by the planners of Agreement.  It was decided the potential damage and disruption an air barrage may inflict on the harbors defenders was worth the risk of potentially tipping their hand of a pending assault.

Once the three forces (A,B,C) perforated the Axis defenses, the  mission’s goal  basically called for the raiders to cause as much destruction as possible to the harbor’s facilities and stores, along with any vessels within, before escaping.  Major targets for the Agreement strike forces included fuel storage and pumping works, port machinery, repair shops, along with ammunition storage facilities.  A special emphasis in the plan was directed towards the capture or destruction of German F lighters; AA equipped ‘barges’ relied heavily upon by the Axis for the unloading of supplies at the harbor.

Members of the British LRDG

Members of the British LRDG

Force B, the “land force”, was to depart from the Kufara oasis, and make its way to Tobruk via Sidi Rezegh.  This assault force was made up of 83 men, mainly elite British SAS (Special Air Service) and LRDG (Long Range Desert Group) soldiers, traveling in eight 3 ton trucks.  After an expected ‘quiet’ journey across the desert towards the target, deception would be counted upon to ‘bluff’ their way past the outer most ring of Tobruk security.  British intelligence was aware that small groups of sentries manned the advance approaches to Tobruk, so a ruse was designed to ‘feign’ their way past these points.  Relying on the fact that both Allied and Axis forces commonly used captured enemy vehicles, the belief was held that the perimeter  guards could be fooled into thinking the British trucks they encountered in Force B’s convoy were ‘captured’ Allied vehicles that now contained British POWs, not the assault force they actually hauled.  Several German speaking soldiers, wearing captured German uniforms, would lead in the truck convoy containing the “POWs”, and through the planned trickery,  pass through any roadblocks unchallenged allowing the force to roll straight into Tobruk Trojan Horse style.

Once inside the outer perimeter, they were to head to Mersa Umm Es Sciausc inlet and help silence the coastal and antiaircraft guns in support of Force C’s amphibious landing.   They were then to help facilitate the landings of Force C by signaling and marking the landing zone for the approaching seaborne vessels, ensuring the arrival of these vital troops.

Force A was an amphibious assault team spearheaded by the 11th battalion, British Royal Marines.  Their portion of the operation was to begin offshore under the cover of darkness, as the British submarine Taku was to disembark two small boats in the waters to the north of Mersa Mreira and shuttle an advance team inland to the designated landing zone.  Once ashore, the advance forces were to use signal lights to mark the beach in order to help guide in the subsequent main contingent of Force A marines.  The 11th Marines were scheduled to arrive in two waves, approximately 1 hour before dawn, carried to their objective onboard assault boats and slaved barges launched from the destroyers Sikh and Zulu.  Once assembled, the Royal Marines were to move out, likewise counting on assistance from the RAF’s pre-assault bombardment, and engage and destroy gun batteries, fuel stores, and the German F lighters.  They would also attempt to capture AA guns intact in order to later direct them against the expected Axis air response.

The destroyers Sikh and Zulu, after the coastal guns were silenced by the marines, were to make their way into the harbor and assist with the mission via their massive firepower, and to later receive the troops at the conclusion of the operation.  In an attempt to ‘fool’ Axis forces, the British destroyers had Italian markings painted onto their structure, and were ordered to make smoke and “leak” oil over their sides once inside the harbor.  These acts were hoped to confuse counter-attacking Axis pilots into thinking that the destroyers were actually damaged Italian vessels.  This idea seems quite laughable, and one must wonder how this idea was ever approved by the British naval hierarchy.

Rounding out the British contingent was Force C, about 200 men strong, the second scheduled amphibiously transported group of the operation.   The force was to be conveyed to their targeted area, the inlet of Mersa Umm Es Sciausc, aboard several MTB’s (Motor Torpedo Boats).  Once ashore they were to meet up with Force B, who as noted needed to previously establish signal beacons to help guide in the MTB’s, and begin operations against the port.  Force C was made up primarily of soldiers from the British Fusiliers and the Argyll and Southern Highlanders. 

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Comments

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

    TJ

  2. 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.

    • 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

        • 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.

          • 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. 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. 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!

    • 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. 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. 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

    • 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.

      • 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 !

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

  7. 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. Good work! Tks for posting.

    Fred

  9. vato_loco says:

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

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