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