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

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GIALO:

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.

 

TOBRUK

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.

Tobruch defensive position

Tobruch defensive position

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.

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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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