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

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Other elements of Force B captured a blockhouse that they intended to use as a makeshift HQ.  Alerted to the British’s presence, a sizable Italian force organized a counterattack against the captured structure.  After a prolonged gun battle, the British commandos were forced to abandon the blockhouse and remount their vehicles in an attempt to escape.  Most of these trucks were soon disabled as they ran into an ambush set up by the San Marco marines.

The quick response of the San Marco marines had trapped the British commandos, and as the Italians pressed their attack, the number of causalities the British sustained increased.   One of the British to fall in this fight was Lt.Col. Haselden, mortally wounded from a well thrown grenade by one of the gallant San Marco marines.

Italian MG position

Italian MG position

The Italians were soon joined by a handful of German troops, and the British soldiers, running low on ammunition and facing ever increasing numbers, broke off into small groups in an attempt to slip back to the beach under  the cover of early morning darkness to make good their escape.  Most would not get far as Axis troops, led by the San Marco marines, killed, wounded, or captured the valiant yet reeling British soldiers in the surrounding perimeter.  By the early morning of the 14th, Force B was no more.

Force C was severely hampered by Force B’s inability to timely signal the MTB’s in accordance with the mission requirements.  The tardiness in relaying the signal and the operational coastal guns added to the difficulties the MTB’s were experiencing.

The major obstacle Force C encountered was the inability of their MTBs to stay in contact with each other as they contested both the darkness and rough seas during the final leg of their journey to the assault zone.  During most of the journey to Tobruk, the British piloted their MTB’s at a plodding pace to allow the ships to stay in contact.  But as they approached Mersa Umm Es Sciausc and the designated attack time, they turned south towards the shore and pushed the vessels at nearly top speed.  As the MTBs began this frantic charge towards the inlet, the group became separated and disorganized as they raced forward.  As discussed earlier, the degree of chaos was such that only two of the MTBs landed in the correct area to drop off their load of Fusiliers.  The other MTBs, unable to disembark their troops, moved up and down the coast forced to avoid probing Axis searchlights and the fire that inevitably followed from the shore batteries.

Several Axis ships added their own firepower to the defense.  A handful of Italian landing craft (motozattere) including MZ 756 and MZ 759, opened up with their 76mm/40 cannons and 20mm machine guns.  Most were firing blind into the dark, but still provided added support to the defense.

Then the Macchis arrived.  Swarms of Italian Macchi C.200 Saettas attacked both the MTBs and the three large motor launches that made up the group.  Relentless in their attack, the Saettas struck the British vessels with their 12.7mm Breda machine guns, holing the boats and taking the lives of several men on board.

Macchi C.200 Saettas

Macchi C.200 Saettas

Powered by its 870 hp Fiat A.74 R.C. radial engine, the Saettas dived furiously upon the British vessels. Major Lorenzo Viale led the Italian 13° Gruppo Assalto on numerous runs over Mersa Umm Es Sciausc, dodging AA fire emanating from the darting MTBs below, as the Italian pilots coolly performed their duty.  The Italian war birds sank two of Force C’s three motor launches, and sent the third limping back to Alexandria a virtual wreck.

Several German Stukas and Junkers JU88’s would later join the Italian Saettas on this attack, and three MTB’s would subsequently be sunk in the melee, at the cost of one JU88 that was brought down by a Bren gun aboard one of the MTB’s.

The stout Axis defenders of the eastern flank of Tobruk would not yield, and Force C was practically decimated for its efforts.  The few troops it managed to land were overwhelmed on shore by the marines of the San Marco Regiment, and with its transports ravaged, the surf on the morning of the 14th was awash with both wreckage and the bodies of the brave British soldiers who perished.

On the western end of Tobruk, Force A likewise began their portion of the mission with an auspicious start. The submarine HMS Taku, carrying an advanced tactical landing party, lurked several miles offshore of Mersa Mreira on the night of 13/14 September.  Battling choppy seas on the surface, the crew was unable to launch its two small ‘recon’ boats intended to shuttle the advance party to the designated landing area on the shore.  Without the beach properly marked, the subsequent landing craft carrying two waves of Royal Marines would be forced to navigate their way ashore practically blind.

The Royal Marines would accept this hazard, and attempted their landing despite this set back.  Fighting the same rough conditions that hampered Taku, destroyers HMS Zulu and HMS Sikh moved to within two and a half miles of the shore line.  It was early morning of the 14th, and the Harbor facilities in the distance loomed ominously as they were by this time illuminated by the fires started from the RAF bombing.  Searchlights also swung periodically across the waters surface, probing for the attackers.  There would be no surprise landings near Mersa Mreira.

The first wave of marines moved landward; three sturdy powerboats each pulling two large barges crammed with marines skipped through the choppy seas in an attempt to run the gauntlet of fire they knew awaited them.  The destroyers pulled back as the ‘transports’ of the first wave moved out into the darkness.  Spotlights and automatic fire emanating from the shore discovered the vessels, and soon thereafter, death would find its occupants as well.

A portion of the marines made it ashore, only to quickly discover that they had arrived at the wrong landing zone.  The groups were not at Marsa Mreisa, but instead had landed at the beaches of Marsa El Auda and Marsa El Krisma, which are located approximately five kilometers to the west of the intended landing zone.

Automatic weapons joined the large coastal guns in punishing the British powerboats and barges still in the water.  Off in the distance, the two destroyers changed coursed and moved back inland to retrieve the barges and assist a disabled powerboat set adrift.  It was about this time that an analysis of the situation yielded the conclusion that the mission was floundering beyond salvage for the British, and the decision was made to call of the operation.  With dawn soon approaching  Sikh moved further inland, a suicidal close distance of less then a mile from the shore, to help receive as many marines as it could before fleeing back to sea.

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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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