Members of L Detachment board a Bristol Bombay transport aircraft prior to a practice jump as part of their parachute training at Kabrit. Those who successful completed their jumps were permitted to wear the SAS wings on the shoulder.
(IWM E 6406)
The photograph was discovered as part of a 13-year-project to find details of WW2 SAS casualties. Credit: The family of the late Lt-Col ‘Jake’ Easonsmith
The force initially consisted of five officers and 60 other ranks. Following extensive training at Kabrit camp, by the River Nile, L Detachment, SAS Brigade undertook its first operation. Operation Squatter was a parachute drop behind the enemy lines in support of Operation Crusader, they would attack airfields at Gazala and Timimi on the night 16/17 November 1941. Unfortunately because of enemy resistance and adverse weather conditions the mission was a disaster, 22 men were killed or captured – one third of the men employed. Allowed another chance they recruited men from the Layforce Commando, which was in the process of disbanding.
As Stirling had informed Auchinleck in July it was common knowledge that an Eighth Army offensive would be launched against Axis forces in November. It was codenamed ‘Crusader’ and its aims were to retake the eastern coastal regions of Libya (a region known as Cyrenaica) and seize the Libyan airfields from the enemy, thereby enabling the R A F to increase their supplies to Malta, the Mediterranean island that was of such strategic importance to the British. But General Erwin Rommel also prized Malta and was busy finalising his own plans for an offensive; he intended his Afrika Korps to drive the British eastwards, take possession of the airfields and prevent the R A F reaching Malta with their precious cargoes. In addition, the fewer British planes there were to attack German shipping in the Mediterranean, the more vessels would reach North African ports with the supplies he needed to win the Desert War.
Stirling’s plan was to drop his men between these two vast opposing armies and attack the Axis airfields at Gazala and Timimi in eastern Libya at midnight on 17 November. On the day of his birthday Stirling wrote to his mother, telling her that: ‘It is the best possible type of operation and will be far more exciting than dangerous.”‘
That same day, wrote DuVivier in his diary, Stirling revealed the nature of their operation for the first time. ‘The plans and maps were unsealed, explained and studied until each man knew his job by heart. There was a lot of work to be done such as preparing explosives, weapons and rations.’
Stirling hadn’t a full complement of men for the operation. Several soldiers, including Lieutenant Bill Fraser and Private Jock Byrne, were recovering from injuries sustained during parachute training. In total Stirling had at his disposal 54 men, whom he divided into four sections under his overall command. Lewes was to lead numbers one and two sections and Blair Mayne would be in charge sections three and four.
Mayne, by this stage, was known to one and all as ‘Paddy’. If Lewes was the brains of L Detachment during its formative days, then Mayne was the brawn, a fearsomely strong man, both mentally and physically, who like Lewes set himself exacting standards. The difference between the pair was that Mayne had a wild side that he set free with alcohol when the occasion arose. Jimmy Storie had known Mayne since the summer of 1940 when they both enlisted in No. 11 Scottish Commando. ‘Paddy was a rough Irishman who was at his happiest fighting,’ Storie recalls. ‘He didn’t like sitting around doing nothing. In Arran [where the commandos trained in the winter of 1940] he was known to sit on his bed and shoot the glass panes out of the window with his revolver.’
Mayne’s two sections comprised 21 men in total and his second-in-command was Lieutenant Charles Bonington. Their objective was the airfield at Timimi, a coastal strip west of Tobruk which was flat and rocky and pitted with shallow wadis. It was hot during the day and cool at night and apart from esparto grass and acacia scrub there was scant vegetation. The plan was simple: once the two sections had rendezvoused in the desert following the night-time parachute drop on 16 November, they would march to within five miles of the target before lying up during the daylight hours of 17 November. The attack would commence at one minute to midnight on the 17th with Bonington leading three section on to the airfield from the east. Mayne and four section would come in from the south and west, and for 15 minutes they were to plant their bombs on the aircraft without alerting the enemy to their presence. At quarter past midnight the raiders could use their weapons and instantaneous fuses at their discretion.
At dawn on 16 November Stirling and his 54 men left Kabrit for their forward landing ground of Bagoush, approximately 300 miles to the west. Once there they found the R A F had been thoughtful in their welcome.’The officers’ mess was put at our disposal and we kicked off with a first-rate meal after which there were books, games, wireless and a bottle of beer each, all to keep our minds off the coming event,’ wrote DuVivier in his diary.
He was in Jock Lewes’s 11-man section, along with Jimmy Storie, Johnny Cooper and Pat Riley, and it wasn’t long before they sensed something wasn’t quite right. Stirling and the other officers were unusually tense and all was revealed a little while before the operation was due to commence when they were addressed by their commanding officer. Stirling informed his men that weather reports indicated a fierce storm was brewing over the target area, one that would include winds of 30 knots.
The Brigadier General Staff coordinator, Sandy Galloway, was of the opinion that the mission should be aborted. Dropping by parachute in those wind speeds, and on a moonless night, would be hazardous in the extreme. Stirling was loathe to scrub the mission; after all, when might they get another chance to prove their worth? He asked his men what they thought and unanimously they agreed to press ahead.
At 1830 hours a fleet of trucks arrived at the officers’ mess to transport the men to the five Bristol Bombay aircraft that would fly them to the target area. DuVivier ‘muttered a silent prayer and put myself in God’s hands’ as he climbed aboard.
Du Vivier’s was the third aircraft to take off, behind Stirling’s and Lieutenant Eoin McGonigal’s. Bonington and his nine men were on the fourth plane and Mayne’s section was on the fifth. Each aircraft carried five (or in some cases, six) canisters inside which were two packs containing weapons, spare ammunition, fuses, explosives, blankets and rations.
The men would jump wearing standard issue desert shirts and shorts with skeleton web equipment on their backs containing an entrenching tool. A small haversack was carried by each man inside which was grenades, food (consisting of dates, raisins, cheese, biscuits, sweets and chocolate), a revolver, maps and a compass. Mechanics’ overalls were worn over all of this to ensure none of the equipment was caught in the parachute rigging lines during the drop.
Mayne’s aircraft took-off 40 minutes behind schedule, at 2020 hours instead of 1940 hours, though unlike the other planes they reached the drop zone (DZ) without attracting the unwanted attention of enemy anti-aircraft (AA) batteries. At 2230 hours they jumped with Mayne describing subsequent events in his operational report:
As the section was descending there were flashes on the ground and reports which I then thought was small-arms fire. But on reaching the ground no enemy was found so I concluded that the report had been caused by detonators exploding in packs whose parachutes had failed to open.
The landing was unpleasant. I estimated the wind speed at 20—25 miles per hour, and the ground was studded with thorny bushes.
Two men were injured here. Pet [parachutist] Arnold sprained both ankles and Pet Kendall bruised or damaged his leg.
An extensive search was made for the containers, lasting until 0130 hours 17/11/41, but only four packs and two TSMGs [Thompson sub-machine guns] were located.
I left the two injured men there, instructed them to remain there that night, and in the morning find and bury any containers in the area, and then to make to the RV [rendezvous point] which I estimated at 15 miles away.
It was too late to carry out my original plan of lying west of Timimi as I had only five hours of darkness left, so I decided to lie up on the southern side. I then had eight men, 16 bombs, 14 water bottles and food as originally laid for four men, and four blankets.
Mayne and his men marched for three-and-a-half miles before laying up in a wadi. He estimated they’d covered six miles and were approximately five miles from the target. When daylight broke on the 17th, a dawn reconnaissance revealed they were six miles from the airfield, on which were 17 aircraft.
Back in the wadi, Mayne informed his men of the plan: they would move forward to attack the target at 2050 hours with each man carrying two bombs. He and Sergeant Edward McDonald would carry the Thompson sub-machine guns. Until then they would lie up in the wadi. But as Mayne noted later in his report the weather intervened:
At 1730 hours it commenced to rain heavily. After about half an hour the wadi became a river, and as the men were lying concealed in the middle of bushes it took them some time getting to higher ground. It kept on raining and we were unable to find shelter. An hour later I tried two of the time pencils and they did not work. Even if we had been able to keep them dry, it would not, in my opinion, have been practicable to have used them, as during the half-hour delay on the plane the rain would have rendered them useless. I tried the instantaneous fuses and they did not work either.
Mayne postponed the attack and he and his men endured a miserable night in the wadi. The rain eased the next morning, 18 November, but the sky was grey and the temperature cool; realising that the fuses wouldn’t dry, Mayne aborted the mission and headed south. Though bitterly disappointed that he hadn’t been able to attack the enemy, the Irishman was nonetheless pleased with the way his men had conducted themselves in arduous circumstances: ‘The whole section,’ he wrote, ‘behaved extremely well and although lacerated and bruised in varying degrees by their landing, and wet and numb with cold, remained cheerful.’
Mayne led his men to the RV, a point near the Rotondo Segnali on a desert track called theTrig-al-Abd 34 miles inland from both Gazala and Timimi airfields, at dawn on 20 November. Waiting for them were members of the Long Range Desert Group (LRDG), who a few hours earlier had taken custody of Jock Lewes’s stick. They welcomed members of Mayne’s section with bully beef and mugs of tea and the men swapped horror stories.’It was extraordinary really that our entire stick landed without injury because the wind when you jumped was ferocious and of course you couldn’t see the ground coming up,’ recalled Johnny Cooper.’I hit the desert with quite a bump and was then dragged along by the wind at quite a speed. When I came to rest I staggered rather groggily to my feet, feeling sure I would find a few broken bones but to my astonishment I seemed to [have] nothing worse than the wind momentarily knocked out of me. There was a sudden rush of relief but then of course, I looked around me and realised I was all alone and, well, God knows where.’
Lewes and his men had jumped in a well-organised stick, the Welshman dropping first with each successive man instructed to bury his parachute upon landing and wait where he was. Lewes intended to move back along the compass bearing of the aircraft, collecting No. 2 jumper, then No. 3 and so on, what he called ‘rolling up the stick’. But the wind had dragged Jeff DuVivier for 150 yards until finally he snagged on a thorn bush, allowing him a chance to take stock of the situation.’When I finally freed myself, I was bruised and bleeding and there was a sharp pain in my right leg,’ he wrote in his diary.’When I saw the rocky ground I’d travelled over, I thanked my lucky stars that I was alive.’
Eventually DuVivier found the rest of the stick and joined his comrades in searching for the containers. ‘We couldn’t find most of the containers with our equipment so Jock Lewes gathered us round and said that we’d still try and carry out the attack if we can find the target,’ said Cooper.
They marched through the night and laid up at 0930 hours the next morning. Sergeant Pat Riley was sent forward to reconnoitre the area and returned to tell Lewes that there was no sign of the Gazala airfield and in his opinion they had been dropped much further south than planned. Nonetheless Lewes decided to continue and at 1400 hours they departed the wadi and headed north for eight miles. But in the late afternoon the weather turned against them once more and the heavens opened, soaking the men and their explosives.’The lightning was terrific,’recalled DuVivier.’And how it rained! The compass was going round in circles. We were getting nowhere. And we were wallowing up to our knees in water. I remember seeing tortoises swimming about.’
Lewes, with the same grim reluctance as Mayne, informed the men that the operation was aborted and they would head south towards the RV. The hours that followed tested the resolve of all the men, even Lewes who, cold, hungry and exhausted like the rest of his section, temporarily handed command to Riley, the one man who seemed oblivious to the tempest. DuVivier acknowledged Riley’s strength in his diary: ‘I must mention here Pat Riley, an ex-Guardsman and policeman… I shall always be indebted to him for what he did. I’m sure he was for the most part responsible for our return.’
Riley had the men march for 40 minutes, rest for 20 minutes if there was any dry ground to be found, march for 40 minutes and so on. On through the night they stumbled, often wading through water that was up to their knees. Inadequately dressed against the driving rain and freezing wind, DuVivier had never experienced such cold. ‘I was shivering, not shaking. All the bones in my body were numbed. I couldn’t speak, every time I opened my mouth my teeth just cracked against one another.’
The rain eased and the wind dropped the next morning (18 November) but it was another 36 hours before Lewes and his section made contact with the L R D G . The return of Mayne’s stick took the number of survivors to 19. A few hours later the figure increased by two when David Stirling and Sergeant Bob Tait were brought in by a L R D G patrol. In Tait’s operational report he described how their aircraft was delayed in its approach to Gazala by strong winds and heavy AA fire. When they did eventually jump they ‘all made very bad landings which resulted in various minor injuries. They had considerable difficulty in assembling, and Sergt Cheyne was not seen again.
In some wartime histories of the SAS L Detachment veterans recall Sergeant John Cheyne as having broken his back jumping with Lewes’s section, but one must assume Tait’s report to be the more reliable as it was contemporary.
Unable to find most of their containers, and with many of his men barely able to walk, Stirling decided that he and Tait (the only man of the stick to land unscathed) would attack the airfield while the rest, under the command of Sergeant-Major George Yates, would head to the RV. But Stirling met with the same fate at Mayne and Lewes, abandoning the mission in the face of what the noted war correspondent Alexander Clifford called ‘the most spectacular thunderstorm within local memory’.
For a further eight hours Stirling and his men waited at the RV in the hope of welcoming more stragglers, but none showed and finally they agreed to depart with the L R D G. The next day, 21 November, the L R D G searched an eight-mile front in the hope of picking up more of L detachment, but none were seen.
Stirling later discovered that the aircraft carrying Charles Bonington’s section had been shot down by a German Messerschmitt. The pilot, Charles West, was badly wounded, his co-pilot killed and the ten SAS men suffered varying degrees of injury. Doug Keith, the man who had marched for 40 miles in his stockinged feet during training, succumbed to his injuries and his comrades were caught by German troops. Yates and the rest of Stirling’s section were also taken prisoner but of McGonigal’s section there was no word; their fate remained a mystery until October 1944 when two of the stick, Jim Blakeney and Roy Davies, arrived in Britain having escaped from their prisoner-of-war (POW) camp. Blakeney’s account of the night of 16 November 1941 was explained in an SAS report: ‘After landing he lay up until dawn and found himself alone with other members of his party, including Lt McGonigal, who was badly injured and died later [as did Sidney Hildreth]… This party, which endeavoured to make for the L R D G RV got lost and made their way to the coast, and were picked up by an Italian guard atTimimi airport.’
Mayne was deeply affected by McGonigal’s failure to reach the RV and while at a later stage of the Desert War, when Gazala was in Allied hands, he would go there to search for the grave of his friend, but for the moment he brooded on his disappearance, vowing to have his revenge on the enemy.
Stirling was also brooding on the way to the Eighth Army’s forward landing ground at Jaghbub Oasis. Thirty-four of his men were missing, either captured or dead, and yet no one from L Detachment had even fired a shot in anger at the enemy. But despite the abject failure of the operation Stirling wasn’t totally despondent; already he had decided that in future the SAS would reach the target area not by parachute but by in trucks driven by the L R D G . In this way, as Stirling later commented, the L R D G would be ‘able to drop us more comfortably and more accurately within striking distance of the target area’.
The remnants of L Detachment reached Jaghbub Oasis on the afternoon of 25 November. As well as housing the Eighth Army’s forward landing ground there was also, set among the ruins of a well-known Islamic school, a first-aid post. Before despatching the wounded into the care of the medics, Stirling assembled his men to tell them that L Detachment was far from finished despite the obvious disappointment of its inaugural operation. He promised there would be ‘a next time’ to which Jeff DuVivier replied in his diary:’I don’t fancy a next time if this is what it’s going to be like.’
One upshot of the failed raid was the shelving of a plan to raise a Middle East airborne battalion. Shortly before the operation, Stirling had been asked to submit his thoughts on the idea and he had written an enthusiastic appraisal, stating that ‘such an establishment should amply allow for the weeding out of unsuitable and the physically unfit; it could broadly consist of 4 Coys, of 100 men each, a small operative HQ group and a non-operative Administrative Coy. of 100 men.’