“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.
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.
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.