Classed As A Commando Raid
The previous page was: "One Army Commando"
The raid on Tobruk was one of those amphibious operations to learn from, and, which, paved the way for the landings of the Allied armies in Europe.
The importance of learning the type of landing craft and the type of personnel who use them was necessary, it all helped in the remarkable success of later operations like these, and which led many to underestimate the difficulties involved.
Other great countries, who have no knowledge of amphibious warfare, never understood the complications and risks of a combined assault by sea, air and land against a coast defended by modern weapons, and continue to belittle them to this day.
I doubt whether the British public ever realised sufficiently that the great victories of 1942, 1943 and 1944, were the result of the valuable experience gained from previous failures and dearly bought lives of British Commandos and Royal Marines.
From the first dawn of Combined Operations it had been obvious that, by their special training for amphibious operations and with comparative freedom from sea-sickness, the Royal Marines were the ideal troops for Commandos.
The War Office always prefer to use their own troops of the Army. When Commandos were formed the Army filled all the posts by taking the best men from each unit, but when they tried replacing those lost in action, they could no longer rely on getting the best, for the C.O.s now realised the mistake they had made letting their best men go.
Lord Mountbatten, General Sir Alan Bourne, then Adjutant-Genral Royal Marines, were wisely supported by General Sir Thomas Hunton who succeeded the Adjutant. It was due to the efforts of these three men that to-day Commandos are entirely a Marine commitment, successfully recruited from Marines and officered by Marines.
One Army Commando
The Unsuccessful Assault
The task was a large-scale raid by the 11th Battalion Royal Marines on Tobruk, to be carried out on the night of 13th September 1942. Then in the hands of Rommel since 21st June, it was his forward supply base, many of the supplies had been captured from our own forces when the town fell.
The object of this sea-borne raid was to gain control of the harbour for twelve hours, and to demolish the installations of the port which saved the Germans 260 miles of road transport.
Prepared in the greatest secrecy and timing its assault with land operations by the Long Range Desert Group, the Battalion embarked at Haifa in the destroyers "Sikh" and "Zulu" and escorted by the cruiser "Coventry" and two destroyers of the Hunt Class, were steaming on a zig-zag course until at dark "Sikh" and "Zulu" broke away from their escort heading at thirty knots for Tobruk.
Steaming due west at top speed, they altered their course again and at midnight turned south for Tobruk. At this time the tempreture dropped and the weather changed and sixty R.A.F. Wellinton bombers began a three hour bombardment of the town, lighting it up in an orange glow visible to the sea-force.
Code Word "Nigger"
At 2 a.m. the code word "Nigger" was received, indicating that the Long Range Desret Group, had taken a coastal battery at the mouth of the harbour. This was the signal for the Marines on board "Sikh" and "Zulu" to board the landing craft as they were lowered for the assault.
Unfortunately, they were not the famous L.C.A. which were afterwards used so successfully in North Africa, in Italy and in Normandy. They consisted of six wooden power-boats each towing two lighters.
In the heavy swell they tossed like corks, making it difficult for the heavily equipped men to embark in them. Worse was to follow, for the tow ropes failed to stand the strain and parted some winding around the propellers; the swell had the effect of throwing the boats forward putting an extra strain on the ropes. Only three sets of barges made it to the beach.
Meanwhile, the enemy were alerted and had become aware of what was happening, and his other coastal batteries that were unspotted by reconnaissance opened up on "Sikh" and "Zulu" while smaller arms poured their fire on the men in the barges as they neared the shore.
"Sikh" was mortally struck, and was on fire. And after a gallant attempt to tow her away "Zulu" was forced to abandon her and sheered off, only to be sunk herself along with H.M.S. Coventry by a devastating air-attack on their way back to Alexandria.
The Marines Were On Their Own
To those in the landing craft the coast ahead seemed strangely distant; and then suddenly as they came nearer the sound of surf and breakers could be heard. Then without any warning the warm sea started spurting with tracer, shells and mortar bombs; which sounded against the wooden hulls like depth charges.
In a storm of shot, shell and mortar, such lighters as reached the shore crunched to pieces on the rocks, and the Marines, still lashed by the enemies fire, gasping for breath and dragged down by their heavy equipment, clambered up the slippery slope of the rocky and sandy shore.
The landing had failed. Less than a hundred men had survived the terrible passage from ship to shore. On most nights the weather would have been calm and fine, but tonight that was not to be. Their landing craft were all smashed to pieces one way or another; what the enemy didn't do, then mother nature sure did.
Despair stared them in the face. The British front line was 600-miles away. But in Major Hedley the survivors had a leader who personified optimism and who was able to inspire his men with the hope that defies all adversity.
Deploying his little force and valiantly supported by Captain Wright, Lieutenant Dyall and Sergeant Povall, he led them forward under heavy fire from the enemy, into a wadi which gave them temporary shelter from their guns.
Major Hedley and his men, cleared some tents and a party under some palm trees with grenades. It was here Sergeant J. Povall earned the Conspicuous Gallantry Medal for his leadership and courage.
Major Hedley threw another grenade into a machine-gun crew screened behind a hut. They stopped shooting and began to groan and shout "Mamma" and "Aiuto".
Still moving forward, they soon ran into the enemy and, opening fire, they had in the words of Corporal Hunt, one of the survivors, "occasion to kill many Italians with bayonet and rifle".
A Little further along, they found their way blocked by a strongly prepared defence position supported by heavy machine-gun posts. It was here Major Hedley more than justified his high reputation as a good shot with a pistol.
Fast Boats Pages
Joe Wezley Pages
Leading The Assault Himself
Major Hedley and Sergeant Povall engaged the section post manned by six Italians. Sergeant Povall shot the first, but before he could reload, his gun soiled by the sea-water and wet sand, Major Hedley had finnished off the other five with his revolver.
A little later it was the turn of the Royal Marines to save their leader. As Major Hedley was reloading, an Italian charged him when Corporal Hunt, firing from the hip, stopped him dead.
Pressing on with all speed in the hope of finding suitable cover before daybreak, they fought their way up the wadi. Then climbing a steep slope swept by fire they suceeded in crossing the sky line and pushing on into another wadi, where they found shelter in some caves.
Here they planned to remain until nightfall and then to advance again in the hope of joining up with British Units. There were only seventeen of them left. Many had wounds; but the flame of their courage still burned.
This time, however, fortune deserted the brave, for in the afternoon Germans in strong numbers surrounded the caves, and the seventeen Marines were forced to surrender; six of whom were dangerously wounded.
This was the end of the seventeen men against the Italian and German armies, and the beginning of a period of captivity which ended for some in escape at the time of the Italian armistice and the landings at Salerno almost a year later; some of the party who survived were able to assist in the D-Day landings.
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