The British effort to seize the Italian outpost at Gialo began with a diversionary operation, COASTGUARD, which accomplished very little. A motorized element of the Sudan Defense Force feigned an operation near Sitra, which did nothing but waste fuel as the effort elicited no Axis response. The RAF contributed to COASTGUARD by sorting several planes to drop dummy parachutists into the empty desert in order to simulate an airborne assault, which likewise drew no reaction from the Axis.
The attack against Gialo proper, spearheaded by LRDG patrol YI and Y2, commenced on the 15th. The Italian garrison included soldiers from the Pistoia Division and the 57. Battalion complementi bersaglieri. British soldiers approached the fort stealthily from the desert under the cover of darkness, and launched a surprise attack that was able to dislodge the Italian defenders from the west end of the fortification. The small foothold they obtained would not be held long.
Italian officers rallied their forces for a counterattack, charged back into the recently captured area, and engaged the British in a brief but intense firefight. The Italian response was well-organized and fierce, forcing the British to retreat before becoming completely overwhelmed. Gialo was once again firmly in Italian hands.
Because stealth and surprise had failed for the British, they next turned to firepower in an attempt to seize their objective. Despite days of shelling, the Italians were able to weather the storm and refused to yield their position to their attackers. The Italians struck back several times at the British with air power in the form of the trusty CR.42, which on multiple strafing attacks delivered a counter punch in support of their hard fighting ground forces.
By the 19th, the British had realized that the Italians were not going to be driven out of Gialo. With reports of a mobile Italian force on the move from Agedabia, the British made the decision to call off the attack, and thus retreated back to Kufra. Their plan to use Gialo as a rallying point and temporary base of operation had been squashed by the resiliency of 200 Italian soldiers who outfought them in the desert.
“One more dance along the razor’s edge finished. Almost dead yesterday, maybe dead tomorrow, but alive, gloriously alive, today.”
– Robert Jordan
Moving for the most part unnoticed, Force B (land assault group), passed several Italian and German sentry points without raising the slightest of suspicions as they made their way towards the harbor. Stealth and deception had paid off in penetrating the ‘outer’ defensive line, but the groups luck was about to run dry. As the commandos approached the harbor to launch the initial phase of their mission, elimination of the costal guns defending the eastern side of the inlet and signaling the MTB’s ferrying the soldiers of Force C, they discovered that they were not storming an enemy disorganized and reeling under the effects of an intense aerial bombardment, but quite the opposite. The British were now converging on a stronghold stirred into action and readiness by the bombers of their own RAF.
Ninety one Halifax, Wellington, and Liberator bombers began a prolonged bombing run against Tobruk late on the night of the 13th and despite the thousands of pounds of explosives that were dropped on the installation, minimal damage was achieved. Instead of striking a mighty opening blow designed to put the Axis troops on the wrong foot, the harbors defenders were now in a state of high alert.
Force B’s mission soon began to unravel with deadly consequences. The Commandos split up on foot into several groups each tasked with separate goals. While advancing some of the commandos silently (knife, bayonet) killed several isolated Italian guards and also took out a German machine gun team, but the British experienced costly delays in keeping to their precise operational time schedules. Minefields, darkness, and the need to take circuitous routes to avoid heavy patrols slowed down the commando advance. These delays proved costly in the mission to deploy the signal lights to notify Force C’s MTB’s to commence landing. The lights had not been deployed until well after the designated time, which added to the problems Force C was experiencing in reaching their landing zone. As it turned out, only two of Force C’s MTB’s were able to actually land and disembark their troops in the correct area.
Force B’s attack on the large Italian gun emplacements also ended in failure. A handful of AA positions were successfully eliminated, along with a 105mm gun located west of Marsa Umm el Sciausc, but the British were unable to subdue all of the large costal guns. An Italian 152mm gun, well-protected behind concrete reinforcements, was held by its Italian gun team against the British soldiers tasked with eliminating their position. The Italians defensive stand compelled the commandos to abandon the attempt, which allowed several of the Axis’s “big” guns to remain operational to defend the harbor.