7 of the most Audacious SAS Operations during World War 2

7 of the most Audacious SAS Operations during World War 2

Patrick Lynch - September 15, 2016

The Special Air Services (SAS) is the most famous British special forces unit. This elite group was formed by David Stirling in July 1941 and was initially known as ‘L’ Detachment, Special Air Force Brigade. Since its inception, SAS troops have been involved in a host of dangerous and strategically vital operations.

However, it was originally designed to be a commando force that would get behind enemy lines during the Allied North African Campaign. It was a small unit at first with just 65 soldiers in total and began its very first WWII mission in November 1941. The troops had to perform a parachute drop to support the Operation Crusader offensive in what became known as Operation Squatter or Operation Number One. Even though it was a failure, it will be the first mission included in this piece (the title doesn’t say successful missions).

However, the SAS soon proved its worth during WWII and in this article; I will look at other audacious operations during the Second World War.

7 of the most Audacious SAS Operations during World War 2

1 – Operation Squatter: 16-17 November 1941

The SAS was far from the well-oiled machine it is today. During its formation, the British Army was short of practically everything so the new unit had to hijack or steal the things it needed. For example, they arrived at a designated camp site but didn’t actually have camping gear. Fortunately, they came across a New Zealand camp where the soldiers had gone into the desert. They took what they needed and went on their way.

The whole idea was for the men to parachute down to two Libyan airfields and drop their Lewis bombs on German and Italian aircraft. The problem was, they had no designated parachute instructor. They sustained multiple injuries while trying to train and their only aircraft was an old Bristol Bombay that was nowhere near fit for purpose.

Nonetheless, they carried on and began their mission on the night of 16 November. However, there was a blizzard blowing and German resistance ensured the mission was a complete fiasco. Troops got injured when landing and some of their explosives were soaked and useless. According to one of the survivors, trying to release the harness of the parachute after landing was ‘a job for Houdini’.

In total, 11 of their weapon and supply containers were dropped and only 2 were recovered. Amidst the chaos, the SAS troops realized that they couldn’t complete the mission and marched for one and a half days to their rendezvous point. They failed to destroy a single aircraft and only 22 men returned as the rest were killed or captured. Things could only get better!

7 of the most Audacious SAS Operations during World War 2

2 – Operation Green Room: December 1941

There is some doubt as to the official name of this mission but it was to be the polar opposite of what happened during Operation Squatter as the SAS enjoyed its first success. Perhaps the most audacious aspect of this mission was the fact that they came back into the fold so soon after the first calamitous mission.

It came in the month after Squatter and once again, the mission was to destroy as many aircraft as they could. This time, four Libyan airfields near the coast were targeted. This time, the troops were transported by trucks from the Long Range Desert Group. The men sneaked onto the runways and planted time-delayed explosives on the planes before getting out as fast as possible.

A total of 61 planes were destroyed and this time, the SAS didn’t suffer a single casualty. Bob Bennett was an SAS sergeant on the mission and he spoke of what happened. One of his memories was witnessing a fellow soldier ripping open a door and firing his Tommy gun at the enemies inside. From that point onwards, the mission was easy as they quickly planted their bombs and left. When it came to the last plane, they realized that they had no more bombs left. One of the men simply smashed the cockpit with his bare hands!

By the end of the African campaign, the SAS had destroyed more than 400 enemy planes on the ground. Even Field Marshal Erwin Rommel was impressed by the efficiency of the SAS during the North African campaign and Hitler demanded that captured SAS officers be interrogated by the Gestapo. Eventually, he issued a Commando Order which meant that SAS operatives were to be summarily executed when captured.

7 of the most Audacious SAS Operations during World War 2

3 – Operation Gaff: July 1944

On 25 July 1944, 6 SAS commandos were parachuted into France with one mission: To capture or kill Field Marshal Erwin Rommel. It was decided that killing the Desert Fox would likely be an easier task as kidnapping would involve tricky two-way W/T communication and a larger group to successfully complete the mission.

As the leader of the Afrika Corps, Rommel had seemingly been the mastermind for a sequence of victories enjoyed by the Nazis in North Africa in 1941 and 1942. By March 1943, the Allies considered Rommel to be a huge threat to their plans and began to research the whereabouts and movements of the German Field Marshal. Despite the success of the 6 June 1944 D-Day landings at Normandy, the Allies continued to sustain heavy losses; not least due to the leadership of Rommel who was one of the men in charge of the German resistance in France.

Once the SAS learned of Rommel’s HQ (in the French village of La Roche-Guyon), six assassins, led by Jack William Raymond Lee, were selected to find and kidnap, or preferably kill, Rommel. Unbeknownst to the SAS men, Rommel had been seriously injured in a car crash on 17 July and was out of reach at a hospital. Rather than simply go home, the men decided to ambush trains and attack German troops on their way to meeting US Army soldiers. The men ultimately reached safety on 12 August.

Ironically, it is strongly believed that Rommel was either involved or at least approved of the 20 July plot against Hitler. One of the conspirators said Rommel was complicit in the plot and the military commander was arrested. Rather than face the People’s Court which was a death sentence in any case, he took up the ‘offer’ of committing suicide which he did by swallowing a cyanide pill on 14 October 1944.

7 of the most Audacious SAS Operations during World War 2

4 – Operation Begonia/Jonquil: 2-6 October 1943

The purpose of this mission was to rescue POWs that found themselves free after the surrender of Italy in 1943. The troops were supposed to arrive and guide the prisoners to beaches on the Adriatic coast. Begonia was the airborne element of the mission while Jonquil was an amphibious landing. There were 61 soldiers involved in the operation from the SAS and Eighth Army Airborne.

Begonia took place on 2 October while the seaborne landings occurred between 4-6 October. Some of the team landed on the coast between Pescara and Ancona while others were parachuted inland. Unfortunately, there were faults in planning from the start. For instance, the Italian coast didn’t have any easily identifiable features so everything looked the same. As a result, finding a single landing point in the changing weather was a tough ask for navigators.

Ironically, the faulty planning probably saved the SAS from being killed by the Axis forces! It transpired that the Germans knew all about Operation Begonia/Jonquil; right down to the drop zones and rendezvous points. While hundreds of POWs were successfully located and forwarded to the beaches, the SAS only managed to rescue 50 of them as lack of radio communication caused havoc.

Historically, this audacious raid has been classified as a failure but this is extremely harsh. As well as saving some prisoners, the raiding party learned some excellent intelligence about the German Gustav Line and the territories it protected. They also discovered the identities of Italians who were guilty of collaborating with the Germans along with those who risked their lives to help the POWs. Finally, as the Germans had to send troops to stop the raiders, it took resources away from the German defense of the Russian front and France.

7 of the most Audacious SAS Operations during World War 2

5 – Operation Wallace: 19 August – 19 September 1944

This was a mission led by the incomparable Major Roy Farran and involved aiding the French Resistance as they looked to push the occupying Germans back. At this point, the Germans had lost their position in Normandy and indeed, they had retreated from Southern France. The majority of German troops in the Falaise Pocket (an area around the eastern town of Falaise) were being killed or captured and more troops in the west were trapped.

On 19 August, Farran arrived at Rennes airfield as part of a 60 man and 20 jeep squad from the 2nd SAS. Within four days, the team had navigated 200 miles through enemy lines and joined the Allied-held base near Chatillon which had been set up by Operation Hardy. It could be said that this mission was one of the final nails in the coffin of German occupation in France.

The retreating Germans were no match for the fierce SAS team and by the end of the operation on 19 September, the Germans had sustained 500 casualties. In addition, a German train was destroyed along with 95 vehicles and 100,000 gallons of petrol. For a Nazi force that was rapidly running low on supplies and in full retreat, this was yet another blow. Once the hard work was done, the SAS squad took ‘illicit’ leave in Paris!

It is said that Farran was amazed by the fighting spirit of the French Resistance members who had accompanied the SAS on their mission. He used this beautiful phrase to describe a Frenchwoman’s desire for freedom: “Her smile ridiculed the bullets.” As it happened, Farran and his men were not quite done and they prepared for Operation Tombola.

7 of the most Audacious SAS Operations during World War 2

6 – Operation Tombola: 4 March – 23 April 1944

At this stage, Italy was occupied by the Nazis but many of the occupants refused to passively accept their fate. British Prime Minister, Winston Churchill, launched Operation Tombola in early March 1944 as a means of helping the residents of towns such as Albinea in the Reggio Emilia area. Approximately 50 men, led once again by the legendary Major Roy Farran, parachuted into the region between 4-24 March.

They were assisted by members of an SOE mission, 70 escaped Russians and local resistance fighters and received supplies from numerous airdrops. The group’s first major attack occurred on 7 April when they killed and wounded up to 60 Germans while the raiders sustained 10 casualties in total. Tombola became famous for the exploits of the ‘Mad Piper’ David Kirkpatrick who played the bagpipes as a signal for the SAS to attack.

The purpose of the music was to convince the Germans that the attack was solely a British military effort and not conducted by local ‘partisans’ (who were in fact helping the SAS). The rule was that 10 civilians were to be killed for every German killed by a partisan. The Mad Piper’s music saved the lives of 600 civilians that night. Kirkpatrick recently received the award of an honorary citizenship of Albinea as a reward for his bravery and he was also honored by the town of Villa Minozzo which is where he first landed.

After the successful sortie, the squad rendezvoused in the hills and prepared to attack further German positions. They continued their raids which included shelling various enemy installations and blocking roads. Over 300 Germans were killed and another 200 wounded during Operation Tombola. The Germans were also forced to send more defenders to secure the area. In addition, a number of Allied airmen, who had successfully disguised themselves as locals, were finally able to escape.

7 of the most Audacious SAS Operations during World War 2

7 – Operation Houndsworth: 6 June – 6 September 1944

This mission was carried out by the 1st Special Air Service and saw the team focus their energies in the Dijon region. The purpose of Operation Houndsworth was to impede the movements of German troops, disrupt communications and prevent them from reaching Normandy as the Nazis desperately needed reinforcements to fight back against the Allied invasion.

The squadron wore no insignia although they did wear battledress and red berets. After some of the team were dropped in the Morvan mountains (located between Dijon and Nevers), they encountered some initial difficulties due to low cloud which obscured their drop zone. They finally managed to establish a base and the rest of the squadron joined them.

It was a tough mission as they were constantly hunted but thanks to intelligence gathered by the French, the SAS were able to stay ahead of the Axis soldiers. During the following 3 months, the 144 man group managed to blow up the main railway line 22 times! In addition, they battled the Germans and inflicted severe casualties while also picking out 30 prime bombing targets for the RAF. A number of other small targets were sabotaged and an enemy oil refinery was destroyed.

Eventually, the Germans discovered the location of the SAS but once again, French intelligence came to the rescue and the raiders were prepared for an attack on 20 August where they fought off the Germans. By September, the Germans were forced to move eastwards and Operation Houndsworth was complete. The SAS team only sustained 18 casualties in total compared to over 350 German casualties.