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

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“The best laid schemes of Mice and Men oft go awry, and leave us nothing but grief and pain, for promised joy!”

-Robert Burns

FALIURE IN THE DESERT:

Following the narrative used by Peter C. Smith in his book Massacre At Tobruk, the results from the three ‘minor’ operations are discussed before reviewing what unfolded at Tobruk on September 13/14.

Benghazi:

After their journey across the seemingly endless desert, Force Z rendezvoused near the Jebel mountains just outside of Benghazi.  Advanced scouting indicated several freshly laid minefields in the area, a possible indication that the Axis was aware of an imminent attack.  But the gritty soldiers of the LRDG and SAS did not travel this far to be deterred here, and the mission would carry on as planned.

 

Artwork depicting Italian defense

Artwork depicting Italian defense

In the early morning darkness of the 14th, several RAF Liberator Bombers attacked the Benghazi harbor, but achieved only limited success in causing damage or incapacitating Benghazi’s defenders.   The ground attack from Force Z had however become lost on their way towards Benghazi, and did not reach the outskirts until nearly 3 in the morning.  This allowed only a few remaining  hours of darkness before the dawn light destroyed Force Z’s nocturnal cover.  The commandos finally reoriented themselves in the darkness, and once again on the correct trajectory towards Benghazi, pushed their vehicles at high speed down the main road leading towards the harbor.

Still a few kilometers from their target the British were forced to bring their vehicles to halt on the darkened road as the force encountered a barrier blocking their progress.  A quick survey of the area showed that a mine field had been laid into the land on either side of their approach leaving no way to maneuver around the obstacle.  After a moment’s hesitation, a British soldier jumped out of his jeep to clear the obstruction.  At almost the very moment he reached the obstacle in order to move it aside, automatic fire barked out at the British  from the darkness.  The commandos had fallen right into a well concealed Italian ambush.

The SAS and LRDG soldiers scrambled back for cover as small arms fire ripped through the air around them.  The British soldiers quickly responded in kind as they now found themselves fully engaged against the Italians in a life or death struggle pitted in the early morning gloom of the desert.  The British commandos opened up with their Vickers, which far outgunned anything the Italians were employing, and raked fire back and forth towards the Italian lines.  But the British were shooting blindly into well concealed fighting positions, and the Italian attack continued unabated.  Several British vehicles erupted into flame as the Italian fire struck home.  With the light form the burning jeeps illuminating the other vehicles, the Italian fire no doubt became more accurate, and the British position more precarious by the minute.

Taking withering fire, and with any chance of a surprise attack now gone, the British were forced to turn around their surviving vehicles and retreat towards the open desert.  The British commandos had been stopped by the Italians, and now time was of the essence for their escape.  With the imminent arrival of  Axis airpower, anything caught in the open expanses of the desert faced almost certain death.

Italian CR 42

Italian CR 42

Retreating at full speed, the British commandos searched the skies forlornly for the harbingers of destruction they longed to avoid.  To their dread, they were soon spotted.  A handful of German Stuka dive-bombers, the scourge of the Polish and French campaigns, hurtled out of the skies upon their fleeing prey.  Joining them in their pursuit of the British was a group of Italian Fiat CR.42 Falco’s, considered by some the greatest biplane ever created.   Although practically obsolete at the dawn of the Second World War, the CR.42, like the British Fairey Swordfish and the Russian Polikarpov Po-2, proved that when used in the right circumstances a biplane could still prove effective in modern battle.  And during Operation Agreement, the CR.42 did just that.

Nine British vehicles were destroyed by these attacking CR. 42’s and Stukas; their bullet and bomb ridden hulks left smoking in the desert.  Several British vehicles were able to elude their airborne attackers as they scattered through the sand.  The British commandos were able to regroup their forces once again, and spent the night hidden in a wadi in an attempt to avoid detection.

At first light of the next morning one last British jeep arrived at the wadi to rejoin the column after spending the night hiding elsewhere in the desert.  This jeep however, had not arrived alone.  An Axis pilot had secretly tailed the jeep from a distance allowing him to track his quarry directly to the rest of the British force.  Once the location of Force Z was relayed by the clever pilot back to the Axis airfields, several German and Italian planes attacked without mercy.  It was a slaughter;  eighteen jeeps and twenty-five trucks were destroyed by the swarming planes breaking the back of the British raiders.

Operation Bigamy was a complete failure.  Those lucky enough to escape the CR.42’s and Stukas broke for their designated fallback position, Gialo, which as mentioned earlier was to have been captured from the Italians.  The Sudan Defense Force, which was attempting to take Gialo, was likewise defeated by the Italian defenders.  Thus the remnants of Force Z were obliged to retreat completely back into Allied held territory in Egypt.

Brace:

Two patrols of the LRDG travelling in 5 jeeps and 12 Chevy trucks for their long trek across the desert, made first contact with Axis forces on the 13th.  The convoy encountered two small Italian L3 tankettes about 5 miles outside the Brace airfield.  Avoiding a firefight, the British vehicles out-maneuvered the tankettes and sped towards the airfields at breakneck speed.  The commandos, using the element of surprise, smashed through the “back” gate of the airfield and, like wolves amongst the sheep, moved in for the slaughter.

Several British jeeps pulled up towards a grouping of buildings and barracks and proceeded to pour intense machine gun fire inside, pinning the Italians down.  With the garrison neutralized, several other British vehicles raced between the parked planes, and using explosives and machinegun fire, destroyed approximately 15 Axis planes, while also damaging about 15 more.  The British force, aware that time was limited, sped back out the way they came leaving the Italian airfield in tatters.

As the fleeing British convoy came back over the road that had led them to the airfield, they ran smack into the path of the two Italian tankettes that had maneuvered themselves into a position to attempt and seek vengeance on the nimble attackers.  The British commando driving the lead truck, displaying the guts that helped to make the soldiers of the LRDG famous, stepped on his accelerator and charged directly at the tankettes, slamming head on into the lead one.  Several British soldiers then leaped from the vehicle and quickly tossed their grenades into the tracks of the two tankettes, disabling both.  The commandos climbed back into their vehicles and sped away towards the desert, and a hopeful clean escape.  It was not to be.

The British’s underestimation of the effect that Axis airpower would have on the raids was once again exposed, and the gallant soldiers of the Brace raid would pay with their lives.  The column was located by a group of German Stukas, and later by Italian aircraft, who pummeled the vehicles below.  Fifteen of the Seventeen vehicles in the column were destroyed.  Dozens of men were killed and wounded, and even the lone ‘successful‘ Agreement attack carried a heavy toll for the triumphant.

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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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