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By Robert Beckhusen,War Is Boring
Britain’s legendary Special Air Service stumbled into a disaster on its first mission in November 1941 during Operation Crusader, which repelled the Axis from besieged Tobruk. Twenty-two of 55 SAS commandos died or were captured after they parachuted into a gale.
This piece originally appeared in 2016.
After that catastrophe, the British Army could have shut down the SAS, leaving it as a historical footnote. Instead, the generals kept the elite unit, given the threat posed by the German Afrika Korps and Erwin Rommel, a.k.a. the “Desert Fox.”
So one month later, the commandos set out again with an ambitious plan to raid Axis airfields deep behind the lines in Libya. The operation, pioneered by SAS founder David Stirling — an aristocratic military officer and post-war mercenary — ultimately resulted in hundreds of Axis planes being blown up on their runways during 15 months of high-risk raids.
Yet the first of these new, successful raids would shock Stirling for its brutality, according to Ben Macintyre’s new book Rogue Heroes. While the war in North Africa had a reputation for its relatively chivalrous conduct between enemies, the mission ended in close-range butchery.
In early December, Stirling and 14 SAS commandos piled themselves, their weapons and bundles of explosives into trucks (borrowed from the Long Range Desert Group) for an arduous, three-day trek across the desert.
The lightly-defended Axis airfields — and parked planes — were easy pickings. Getting there was the hard part.
“For three days they rumbled and jounced northwest, the oceans of sand and rock broken by the occasional gully and unexpected escarpment,” Macintyre writes. “The trucks broke down or got bogged down, and had to be mended or laboriously dug out using sand mats. Tires burst, frequently but unpredictably. It was freezing at night, broiling by day, with no intermediate moment when the temperature felt bearable. Already, the men of L Detachment were it calling it ‘Devil Country.’”
An Italian plane spotted them as they approached Sirte. The aircraft dropped two bombs … but missed. The commandos, knowing more would come, raced into a scrub field and camouflaged themselves, which was a smart move.
Paddy Mayne in 1942. Imperial War Museum photo
Two more Axis planes arrived and ineffectually strafed the area before flying home. One commando, the relentless — and personally troubled — Northern Irish soldier Paddy Mayne, “spent the time calmly reading a paperback.”
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The Germans and Italians probably knew their airfields were now under threat, Stirling figured, so he ordered the group to split in two. Mayne’s group would proceed farther west to Tamet airfield, and Stirling would hit Sirte.
The SAS commander reckoned that if he failed, Mayne could still succeed. Or vice versa. One curious aside: Macintyre notes that the commandos passed by the village home of a pregnant woman who, a few months later, gave birth to Muammar Gaddafi.
Anyways, Stirling did fail, but not because of the Italian plane. The commandos soon crept onto the Sirte airfield in the dead of night. Embarrassingly, Stirling stepped on a sleeping Italian soldier who cried out in pain.
The British soldiers fled back into the desert as panicked Italian guards fired at the sea, mistaking the direction of the attack.
It was, suffice to say, a clusterfuck. The next day, as the British soldiers watched from a distance, the airfield’s spooked pilots hopped in their planes and flew away.
Mayne’s commandos at Tamet, however, inflicted devastation.
Sneaking onto that airfield, Mayne directed his troops toward a tent, from which “there were sounds of merriment within, a mixture of Italian and German voices,” according to Macintyre. “Mayne described what ensued.”
I kicked open the door and stood there with my Colt .45, the others at my side with a Tommy gun and another automatic. The Germans stared at us. We were a peculiar and frightening sight, bearded and with unkempt hair. For what seemed like an age we just stood there looking at each other in complete silence. I said: ‘Good evening.’ At that, a young German arose and moved slowly backwards. I shot him … I turned and fired at another some six feet away.”
It turned into a massacre. Several commandos stayed behind, firing away as a gunfight developed, while Mayne and the rest of the team ran around the airfield setting explosive charges on aircraft — shooting up the cockpits on the ones they didn’t rig to blow.
In total, the SAS team destroyed or damaged 24 aircraft at Tamet, and then fled into the night as the airfield blew up behind them. They had also rigged the airfield’s fuel and ammunition dumps. The number of dead and wounded Axis troops may have been as high as 30, with no British casualties.
When the troops made it home, Stirling let Mayne know he wasn’t pleased with the killings — seeing it as excessive and cruel. Besides, the SAS were supposed to move in quietly, destroy the aircraft and escape, not gun down pilots in cold blood.
“Mayne’s attack on the officers’ mess had been daring, brutal, and quite reckless,” Macintyre wrote.
“It alerted the enemy to the attack before the first bomb had been planted. Killing highly trained pilots was, arguably, an even more effective way of crippling enemy air power than destroying the planes themselves, but it veered away from sabotage and close to assassination.”
However, it proved to the Axis that small teams of SAS, operating far behind the lines, could be merciless.