Barce Part II


Major Peniakoff, in his trademark hat, en route to Barce. Note twin Vickers K and cans of fuel on the jeep.


The raiders of T1 spent an hour at the airfield, at the end of which they had left a scene of utter devastation behind them. The defenders had no answer against the raiders. The airfield defences were there to provide protection from an air attack and were not adequate to provide protection from a raid on the ground. It was estimated that the raiders destroyed more than thirty aircraft and damaged several more, most of which belonged to the bomber wing.

Meanwhile, the raiders of G1, led by Dennis, had reached the barracks after stopping briefly to cut telephone lines. The sound of the attack on the airfield could be heard in the distance and so the occupants of the barracks had already been alerted. The raiders quickly took out a group of the enemy and then pumped machine-gun rounds into the surrounding buildings. As they tried to make their escape, two Italian light tanks intervened, one of which pursued the raiding vehicles all the way to the perimeter fence. But the raiders managed to get away, although one of their trucks became separated from the main group and a jeep was lost in an anti-tank ditch.

Both of the attacks had gone well and much as planned, although two of the local guides and a dozen men of the LRDG were missing; three trucks and a jeep had also been lost, while some other vehicles had been damaged. With both patrols having made it to the rendezvous point, the men gathered as much equipment as they could and set off in the remaining vehicles to make their escape. However, two of the vehicles had suffered significant damage, and by now, every enemy unit in the area was looking for them. Furthermore, it would soon be daylight.

By daybreak the raiders were south of Sidi Salim, but they then suddenly came under attack from an enemy ambush. Although they managed to burst their way through under heavy fire, three men were wounded and another truck damaged. Then, having reached a position of relative safety, they transferred stores to another truck and then destroyed three of the damaged vehicles to prevent them from falling into enemy hands.

The raiders were gradually being hunted down. It was now mid-morning, they had been spotted yet again, and for the rest of the day they came under a number of air attacks. The vehicles were picked off one by one and the men strafed as they took whatever cover they could. Lawson and his medical orderlies continued to tend to the wounded, which now included Wilder, who had been hit in both legs, and Peniakoff, who had been wounded during the escape from Barce. Lawson was even reported to have thrown himself across one of the wounded as protection during one strafing attack. When dusk finally fell, it provided the men with a most welcome rest. At least they were safe from attack from the air, but by then another vehicle had broken down. They were now down to just one truck and two jeeps.

By now the thirty-three remaining men were exhausted. Food and water were in short supply and they still had nearly 800 miles to go before reaching the safety of Kufra. With little option, Easonsmith decided to split the survivors into two groups. Lawson was to go on ahead in one of the jeeps and the truck, with another driver and a navigator, in order to evacuate the six wounded, while the remainder would continue on foot. The walking party was to be split into two smaller groups. Easonsmith would lead a group of fourteen with the remaining jeep laden with stores. The other walking group of ten would only be able to take as much water and food as they could carry, but the plan was for them to pick up the spare vehicle that had been left at Bir el-Gerrari on the journey outbound to Barce.

As darkness fell they headed south. Although they subsequently had to abandon the jeep, Lawson and the wounded reached Bir el-Gerrari the following day. From there they moved on to rendezvous with another LRDG patrol at a remote landing ground near the Kalansho Sand Sea, from where they were eventually evacuated by air.

Meanwhile, the two walking groups plodded on. Easonsmith’s group covered 8 miles across the desert before unexpectedly meeting up with another LRDG patrol near Bir el-Gerrari three days later. Easonsmith now organized a search for the remaining ten men, who had yet to arrive at the rendezvous. Three days later they found eight of the men but two had become separated from the group. They had fallen behind and, having decided they would be unable to make it to Bir el-Gerrari, had turned northwards instead. They were extremely fortunate. They eventually came across an Arab camp and were subsequently taken as prisoners of war. By then it was a week after the raid, and it had been six days since they had set off on foot. By the time they were taken into captivity, it was estimated they had covered over 150 miles on foot. As things turned out, there were two further survivors from the raid. They had initially been left behind at Barce, but had walked out on foot and were later picked up by another LRDG patrol.

The raid against Barce was a resounding success, particularly the attack on the airfield, which had resulted in thirty-five aircraft being destroyed without the attackers suffering a single casualty. It proved to the Axis that the Allies were capable of carrying out a raid of that type deep in the desert. Although the raiders were spotted on at least two occasions before they carried out their attack, which meant the Italians should have been expecting a raid at some point, the LRDG had still managed to take the defenders by complete surprise and achieve their objectives. The only other losses, apart from the eight wounded, were eleven men taken as prisoners of war.

Operation Caravan was also a demonstration of great physical and mental courage by those who had taken part. In particular, it had been an extremely long and hard journey home. For his exceptional leadership throughout the raid, Jake Easonsmith was awarded the Distinguished Service Order, as was Wilder for leading the raid on the airfield, and, amongst the other awards, were a Military Cross for ‘Doc’ Lawson and Vladimir Peniakoff, and a Military Medal for Merlyn Craw.

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