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By Robert Beckhusen,War Is Boring
The Western Allies’ invasion of German-occupied France in 1944 began with the largest seaborne assault ever and inflicted chaos on Hitler’s troops. Within weeks, the Allied armies would break out of Normandy and steamroll toward the German border.
Germany’s armies reeled backward, opening gaps in their lines which the Allies were eager to exploit. And it was an opportunity for the United Kingdom to send in the famed Special Air Service behind the German lines to inflict as much damage as possible.
This piece was originally published in 2016.
The SAS had already grown into a battle-hardened unit during campaigns in North Africa and Italy. But for the Roy Farran of C Squadron, 2nd SAS Regiment, the invasion had denied him an opportunity — as the British Army left him and his commandos behind in Scotland while other SAS men rampaged in Northern France.
Farran’s moment arrived in mid-August. The outcome was a daring and bloody campaign across enemy territory, which lasted nearly a month and terrorized the bewildered Wehrmacht, according to Ben Macintyre’s new book Rogue Heroes.
Macintyre describes the purpose of Operation Wallace simply — to “penetrate deep behind enemy lines and cause carnage.”
So, on Aug. 19, Farran with 60 commandos landed at Rennes and set off in their jeeps, each vehicle armed with two Vickers machine guns.
Splitting up, the SAS men drove through undefended gaps in the front line. During the journey, they ran into an Afrika Korps company “still wearing their khaki tropical battledress” in Villaines-les-Prevotes. “A pitched battle, with mortars and machine guns, erupted in the village streets,” Macintyre writes.
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“After an hour, Farran and his men withdrew, leaving behind an estimated fifty enemy dead.”
The commandos penetrated 200 miles deep into German territory, setting up a hidden base inside a forest near Chatillon. It was a risky decision but preferable to previous SAS raids in July, when British commandos operating closer to the front had found fewer targets — the Germans were retreating too fast — and had mixed with the advancing Allied armies.
The commandos wanted to do things their way. By the end, hundreds of German troops would be killed or injured and 65 Axis vehicles destroyed. Seventeen British commandos lost their lives.
“For the next month,” Macintyre writes, “Farran and his men harassed the retreating Germans from their forest hideout, mining roads, blowing rail lines, and launching ambushes on road transport — an activity known as ‘brewing up’ in army parlance, an idiom more reminiscent of making afternoon tea than destroying enemy vehicles with Vickers guns and hurled explosives.”
Separately, the French commandos with 3SAS, operating near Loire, drove four jeeps into a crowd of 3,000 assembled German troops, machine guns blasting. Around 500 Germans were killed or wounded. Most of the attacking French soldiers also died.
Macintyre liberally quotes Farran’s matter-of-fact diaries written during Operation Wallace. One SAS trooper died from the blast of an exploding German ammunition truck. The commandos blew up a staff car containing a general. After a Sept. 5 attack on a German motorcycle troop, “only one German escaped,” Farran recorded.
6 September: Girls crowded round the jeeps with bouquets of flowers. Accordingly, when a German staff car mounting a machine gun appeared, the presence of so many girls made it impossible to give more than two bursts with a Vickers.
7 September: Landing party at drop zone attacked by 600 SS troops with four armoured cars. Major Farran moved the six jeeps out into a small field enclosed by woods and then noticed a gap in the south west corner through which jeeps crashed. Lieutenant [Hugh] Gurney [was sent] to attack the enemy’s immediate rear. He machine gunned the German infantry, especially some officers standing on a mound. Major Farran placed an ambush to attack enemy transport on the return journey … the Colonel and second in command of the attacking force were killed.
8 September: Party attacked enemy billets … 20 Germans killed whilst shaving in the farmyard, billets set on fire.
On and on it went until the U.S. Army overran the area on Sept. 16. During the last few days, the British soldiers dug camouflaged trenches to avoid being spotted by German patrols and to escape American artillery rounds which had begun to explode around the area.
The operation demonstrated the effectiveness of well-trained special operations equipped with inexpensive transportation and automatic weapons.