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.
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.
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.