Men from No.2 Commando (No. 11 Special Air Service Battalion) who participated in Operation Colossus

Hughes, Norman; Tragino Aqueduct; Airborne Assault Museum;

In June 1940, Britain had withdrawn its army out of the jaws of death from Dunkirk. In just under 50 days, the German Wehrmacht had overrun Norway, Denmark, Holland, and Belgium. France was on the verge of defeat. Despite these developments, Lieutenant Colonel Dudley Clarke envisioned only offensive strategies. Clarke, a Royal Artillery officer, was the Military Assistant to the Chief, Imperial General Staff. After Dunkirk, he studied what other countries in the past had done in circumstances similar to those in which Britain now found itself. He recalled the tactics used by the Spanish guerrillas during the Peninsula War; the South African Boers during their war with Britain; and, in his own experience, the role of the irregulars in Palestine in the mid-1930s. Based on this study, Clarke devised a strategy to employ small but hard-hitting units that would mount attacks from the sea striking at German targets from Narvik to the Pyrenees, then quickly withdraw back to the sea. He submitted the idea to the Imperial General Staff, which eventually adopted it. The Imperial General Staff called the units Commandos, after the mounted Boer units of the South African War.

Before the end of June 1940 Prime Minister Winston Churchill prodded the Army to raise a force of paratroopers, in a note that said: “We ought to have a corps of at least five thousand parachute troops. I hear something is being done already to form such a corps but only, I believe, on a very small scale. Advantage must be taken of the summer to train these troops who can nonetheless play their part meanwhile as shock troops in home defence.” Within two days Major John F. Rock, Royal Engineers, was charged with organizing the prime minister’s airborne force. Soon after, Rock was promoted to lieutenant colonel.

The recruiting process used for candidates for the Commandos also served as the basis for obtaining Commandos who would jump. Those being screened were told that Commandos would be in two categories, seaborne and airborne, and they were asked to state a preference. Early volunteers were a mix of those who had enlisted in the Regular Army and those in the Territorial Army (or T.A., which were locally raised units similar to the U.S. Army Reserve). No. 2 Special Service Company was the initial designation for the first parachute unit; this was later changed to No. 2 Commando. As with the other Commando units, it was subordinate to the Chief of Combined Operations, Admiral Sir Roger Keyes. Keyes had gained fame late in World War I for planning and executing a Commando-style raid on the port of Zeebruge. His son, Geoffrey, would later be killed on a Commando raid whose objective was to kill or capture Rommel.

Parachute training was conducted at Ringway RAF Station. Ringway was initially known as the Central Landing School for security reasons. Later, the name was changed to Central Landing Establishment, in part because incoming mail was being received addressed to “Central Laundry School” and (worse) “Central Sunday School.” The name change also confirmed that Ringway would serve as the focal point for “the co-ordination and direction of all work required in the development and training of an airborne force.” Since there was no previous military application of British soldiers being delivered to the battlefield by parachute, the training literally started on the ground floor. Physical training NCOs were designated as the first instructors. One of the instructor sergeants was nicknamed “Bags o’ guts” because of his fondness for yelling at the students while trying to get them “into the most horrible contortions.”

The instructors at Ringway had to literally start from scratch. They first constructed a series of physical training devices designed to toughen muscle groups needed in parachute jumping. Next, after studying intelligence reports about German training methods, they put together a rough training outline. This outline was subject to many changes often dictated by innovations in training techniques, tactical studies, and progression in general knowledge. The initial airborne equipment they had available consisted of a captured German parachute and jump helmet. With this humble beginning, Britain’s parachute program began to take form.

Obviously, equipment was the first prerequisite—more parachutes and airplanes were required. The RAF was extremely reluctant to give up any of its planes, saying that all the bombers were needed for bombing raids on Europe. After some higher-level arm-twisting, four Whitley bombers were allocated to Ringway and immediately dubbed “flying coffins” by the parachute students. Several different methods of exiting the Whitley were tried. The instructors, who were learning their trade only about a step or two ahead of their students, decided that the most reliable method was for jumpers to drop through a hole in the belly of the plane. At about the same time that the Whitleys were delivered, the school also obtained a Bombay transport plane; this had a side door for jumping. Both types of aircraft came to be used in the early days of training at Ringway.

The first airborne jump was on 13 July 1940, using the pull-off method. In this method, the jumper stood at the rear of the plane on a platform built especially for this purpose. He faced the front of the plane and, on command, pulled his rip cord. The force of the parachute opening and catching the wind jerked him out of the plane. Needless to say, only one man jumped at a time. The early classes were organized into 50-man units and these included officers. The men came from various regiments. Corporal Philip D. Julian, a sapper from the Royal Engineers, was in K Troop. He had volunteered for special service after being successfully evacuated from Dunkirk.

When their jump training was completed, the new airborne troopers were sent to Scotland. There they underwent about six weeks of basic Commando training at the hands of Lord Lovat and his Lovat Scouts at their School of Irregular Warfare. Here they went on “wee walks” up nearby Ben Nevis, a massive fog-shrouded peak and the highest point in Scotland. Days off from training usually meant “a wee run” to the top of Ben Nevis.

In the course of their training, two men, introduced only as Sykes and Fairburn (both former police officers in Shanghai), taught the paratroopers the basics of unarmed combat and how to kill by fair means or foul. “Remember, gentlemen,” the instructors told them, “go for the eyes, ears, or testicles.” One month later, in early September, the students had completed the Commando phase of their training. Now, while they waited for an operation, the best among them began to fill out the ranks of trainers and instructors needed on staff at Ringway.

This new cadre of instructors did not stop their own training. Soon they were conducting night jumps. The first of these jumps included putting lights on the descending jumpers. As air crews and paratroopers gained experience and confidence, the lights were no longer used. On one of the night jumps, R.D. “Jock” Davidson was dragged below the plane. He remembers that “my static line got twisted round my wrist.” Soon thereafter, the static line became untwisted and “no one would have been happier than when I heard the canopy of the chute snap open and knew that all was well.”

In November, a demonstration jump was conducted for visiting dignitaries. At the same time, work began on the selection of a target for an operational jump. An unspecified area in Italy was chosen and it was given the codename Operation Colossus.

At about the time that Italy was designated to be the site of the first airborne operation, an engineering firm in London suggested that the RAF might consider bombing a huge aqueduct near Monte Vulture, 30 miles inland from Salerno, in the “ankle” of the Italian boot. The engineering firm had originally built the aqueduct over the Tragino River and was able to supply a copy of the construction plans. The aqueduct was the main water supply source for most provinces in southern Italy, including the towns of Brindisi, Bari, and Foggia. These all had military factories and dockyards that depended on the water. Eventually, a decision was made to use the new paratroopers instead of RAF bombers against the aqueduct.

As planning for the operation began, the unit was again redesignated; this time to 11th Special Air Service Battalion. Lieutenant Colonel Charles Jackson, commander of the unit, told his assembled troops that a “top secret” mission was being planned and asked for 40 volunteers. Almost in perfect unison every officer and man took one step forward. “Very well,” Jackson said. “I thank you all, but I’m afraid this means the men who are to take part will have to be selected.” The first one selected was Major Trevor A.G. Pritchard, Jackson’s second-in-command and leader of K Troop. Pritchard was told to pick five other officers and then each officer was to pick five men. The team was designated “X Troop,” 11th Special Air Service Battalion. The six officers were told only that they would have to train X Troop to blow up a bridge somewhere in enemy territory. Later, one officer and two men were added to X Troop as reserves.

A separate area was assigned to X Troop at Ringway. Mornings were devoted to runs and forced marches with full equipment. During the afternoons, the paratroopers rehearsed on a bridge mock-up in Tatton Park, located about five miles away from Ringway. At about the same time, eight Whitley bombers were set aside for use by X Troop. Pritchard planned to put six men into each of six planes. Sling containers, with weapons and explosives, were to be located in the bomb-bays and rigged for parachute drop. The other two planes, if they were still available, were to be used for a diversionary bomb run in Foggia, near the target area. He hoped that this maneuver would allay suspicion as to their true nature and mission.

Prior to the mission dress rehearsal, two additional men were added to X Troop. One was a civilian whose real name was Fortunato Picchi but rostered as Trooper “Pierre Dupont.” The other was forty-year-old Flight-Lieutenant Ralph Lucky, who wore ribbons denoting service in the World War. Both were introduced as interpreters. The dress rehearsal went terribly, with some of the men suffering minor injuries. “Jock” Davidson called the jump “a bit of a fiasco. The wind was far too strong,” he added, “and normally we would never have jumped in it, but it was our last chance before leaving so off we went.” Not one of those injured allowed himself to be taken off the mission. Philip Julian injured his knee but X-rays taken at a hospital showed “all was OK” and he returned to X Troop. Most of the men thought the bad dress rehearsal was a good sign; they were wrong.

In late January, Lieutenant Anthony Deane-Drummond, one of the six officers of X Troop, was informed as to the true nature of the real target. He was to leave England immediately and proceed to Malta where he would act as the unit’s liaison office in establishing an advance base. Deane-Drummond also learned that the plan called for the paratroopers, once their demolition mission was complete, to move west from their target to the Italian coast, some 50 miles away. There they were to be picked up by a submarine. Soon after his briefing, the signals officer left for Malta. He had to find accommodations for the unit, draw explosives and other necessary supplies, and arrange for the unit to be transported to the airfield on the night of the operation. A late change in the plan called for the paratroopers to go in under the cover of darkness.

On 4 February, X Troop departed Ringway by special bus, bound for Mildenhall RAF Base. Before leaving England, X Troop conducted a parade inside a hangar for Admiral Keyes, who offered a few encouraging words to the unit after inspecting it. On the morning of 9 February, X Troop and all eight Whitleys arrived on Malta and were met at the airfield by Deane-Drummond.

On the 10th, X Troop studied an aerial photograph of the target area taken on the day before. The photograph showed that there were actually two aqueducts across the Tragino. They were situated about 200 yards apart and one was larger than the other. In the end, the larger one, on the east, was designated as the target.

Final supplies were issued to the men. These included food, a six-day supply of water, and cigarettes. Each man carried three hand grenades. Personal weapons issued to officers included .38 caliber revolvers while each man carried a .32 caliber Colt automatic with four extra clips. Each man strapped a Commando knife to one leg. Explosives, rifles, and sub-machine guns were loaded into weapons containers stowed in the Whitleys’ bomb racks. In an effort to anticipate every feasibility, the paratrooper battle uniform was augmented to hide a variety of escape-related items, including: 50,000 lire in notes sewn into shirt collars and trouser waistbands; two silk maps (one of north Italy, the other of south Italy) sewn into sleeve linings; a hacksaw blade sewn into the left breast pocket of each shirt; and a special metallic collar stud was added that contained a small compass.

At 1700, X Troop had a meal of hard-boiled eggs and hot tea. As they ate, Major Pritchard briefed the men, telling them where they would be going and detailing the escape items in their uniforms. During their training, the men of X Troop had been led to believe that they would be blowing up a bridge in Abyssinia. Now they all knew they were headed for Italy. Many of the men were less concerned about executing their mission than they were about making their escape afterwards. It was obvious that they could only travel at night and through territory where the local military and civilian population would be looking for them. And it was mid-winter. They did not, however, express any reservations about their ability to blow up the aqueduct and make a clean getaway.

At the conclusion of the briefing, the men loaded into the Whitleys and took off. The plan was for the three planes carrying the infantry paras to leave first, followed 30 minutes later by the three planes transporting the sappers (combat engineers who were explosives experts). One of the planes carrying the sappers was delayed further when one of the paras got sick and had to be taken off the plane. Many of the men slept on the way to the target.

At 2137, seven minutes later than scheduled, the paratroopers in Deane-Drummond’s plane were alerted that the target was near. Flying on a general southeasterly course, the planes passed over the target area and disgorged their cargo. Deane-Drummond, fifth man out of his plane, made what he called “ … the best landing I had ever made.” He landed about 100 yards from the target. Within a few minutes, he and the men in his stick had retrieved their weapons and secured the immediate areas above and below the aqueduct. He made a quick inspection of the target and realized that the information from the London engineering firm was wrong in one major respect: the aqueduct was not made of concrete; it was made of reinforced concrete. As he made this discovery, the lieutenant could hear the far-off sounds of bombs exploding in the direction of Foggia. That would be the diversionary air-raid.

Soon the other planes began dropping their paras and almost immediately there were indications that things were starting to go wrong. Two planes carrying infantry were late because they had rerouted to avoid flak on their line of flight. Some of the weapons and explosives containers did not release, while others that did release were scattered over a wide area. Finally, the last plane, which was carrying Captain Gerry Daly and five sappers, dropped the paras on board in the wrong valley.

By about 2215, other troopers began to appear at the aqueduct. One of the first to arrive was Major Pritchard. Deane-Drummond immediately briefed his commander on the situation, informing him that Captain Daly and his plane-load of sappers were not yet at the target. Pritchard grabbed an engineer lieutenant named George Paterson and advised him to be prepared to oversee the demolition of the aqueduct should Daly not arrive in time. Paterson immediately reviewed the site and told Pritchard that the original plan would have to be modified because of the reinforced concrete. Furthermore, not all of the explosives had been successfully dropped. Pritchard told the lieutenant, “You’re the expert now, and I’ll stand by your judgment.”

As boxes of explosives were delivered to the aqueduct, Paterson and the 12 sappers who had landed near the target began arranging the material around the base of one of the aqueduct’s support piers. This group included Philip Julian and R.J. “Jock” Crawford. Covering parties commanded by Deane-Drummond, Captain Christopher Lea, and Lieutenant Arthur Jowett secured areas on both sides of the aqueduct. About a dozen Italian men, gathered up by the paratroopers for purposes of security were pressed into a labor gang to help. These civilians were later awarded medals by the Italian government for “gallant behaviour in the face of the enemy.” Deane-Drummond took the remaining two boxes of explosives and, with the help of two of his men, Lance-Corporal Robert Watson and Sapper Alan Ross, arranged them under one end of a small nearby bridge. This bridge, to the west of the aqueduct, was what had shown up on the aerial photograph of the target area. Deane-Drummond’s decision to take out this bridge was intended to stop or delay any vehicular troop movement from engaging and pursuing the British paratroopers.

By 0015, all was ready. The Italian men were moved to nearby buildings and the paratroopers moved to an area a short distance away from the aqueduct. Fifteen minutes later, Paterson and Deane-Drummond lit 60-second fuses at their respective targets. The charge at the small bridge went off. The charge on the main target should have gone off at about the same time but it did not. Pritchard and Paterson, both concerned as to what may have gone wrong, began to advance toward the support pier. They had only covered about a dozen yards when an explosion knocked them both off their feet. This was followed by a series of flashes and explosions that rumbled into the dark, distant mountains. Pritchard and Paterson picked themselves up and went forward to inspect the damage.

When they returned to update the rest of the unit, they were quickly surrounded and barraged by questions from every side. Pritchard held up his hand and said, “Listen to that sound.”

As the men quieted down they could hear the constant sound of running water. Half of the aqueduct had been knocked down; one of the support piers was gone and another “leaned at a crazy angle.”

Pritchard spoke quietly to his men as they gathered around him. “My thanks to you, you’ve done a splendid job. I’d just love to see old Mussolini’s face when he learns of our raid and what we’ve accomplished. We must now withdraw—and lose no time about it.” He reminded them of the plan for a submarine to pick up all those who could make it to the mouth of the Sele River in four days. Then he organized the men into three groups of roughly ten men and two officers each. All heavy equipment and rifles were buried. Lance-Corporal Boulter, who had broken his ankle during the jump, was left behind. At 0100, the three groups set off, moving west.

In another valley, Captain Daly and his men, including “Jock” Davidson, heard the sound of the explosion and decided that there was no longer a need to advance to the aqueduct. Daly briefed his four men on the submarine rendezvous and they set out. Daly’s last words, as they began their forced march west were, “We’ve got rather a long walk ahead of us.”

As a matter of fact, none of the parties involved in this plan made it to the rendezvous point on the Sele River. None of the paratroopers made it nor did the submarine. Within a matter of days, all of the paratroopers had been picked up by either Italian Army or Carabinieri units. After their capture and some initial interrogations, the Italians determined that Trooper Dupont was a civilian and a native of Italy. The next day he was executed by a firing squad. The rest of X Troop were sent to various POW camps throughout Italy. In time, some of the paras escaped and returned to England. Deane-Drummond was one of those who escaped; he later took part in the Arnhem jump in September 1944.

An incredible coincidence occurred during one of the escapes. In September 1943, after the Italian government had surrendered to the Allies, the Germans transported many of the Allied POWs north. “Jock” Davidson and three others were shielded by some Italians in an effort to keep them out of German hands. But the paratroopers got away from the Italians and headed south on their own. During their trek through the central mountains they saw a German plane towing a glider pass overhead. Three days later they were informed by some villagers in Tussio about Skorzeny’s raid on Campo Imperatore to free Mussolini. The paras had witnessed a part of Skorzeny’s assault force dispatched to the resort where Mussolini was being held!

Even if any of the paratroopers had actually made it to the rendezvous site after attacking the Tragino Aqueduct, they would not have been picked up according to the operation plan. One of the Whitleys that took part in the diversionary bombing raid over Foggia on the night of the attack lost an engine on its return flight. The crew bailed out safely but the plane crashed— at the mouth of the Sele River! Nervous staff officers at Malta believed that this crash caused too much attention to this area and cancelled the submarine pickup.

Mission Critique

The theme for this mission is that a special capability, that is, a fledgling parachute force, has been raised and trained. The planners then had to find some mission to test this capability and thereby justify the time and expense in it. This mission would determine if the special capability is worth having and if it is worthy of continued support.

Put in these terms, there is always some thought, as Vandenbroucke would say, that this justification, based strictly on a first mission result, may be mere wishful thinking. The desire is to see the mission succeed so that the original decision in creating such a force is proven correct. This desire may have entered into the line of thinking that finally resulted in the approval to execute the Tragino Aqueduct mission.

There seems little doubt that this mission was carefully considered by the planners as one that was directed against a necessary target and probably one that was within or contributed to the overall battle plan at the time. However, some juxtaposed reasoning was involved here. The planners took a target, the aqueduct, that was to be destroyed by aerial bombardment and decided, since the target was approved anyway, that the new paratroop capability could be used against it. It is this logic in the decision making process that seems faulty. A suitable target for one capability does not make that target suitable for any capability. When you compare the two capabilities being discussed here (aerial bombardment versus parachute force attack), the differences are startling. There is a saying among men who must be put in harm’s way that should be considered an axiom by all planners; it goes “Never send a man where you can send a bullet.” Had this principle been applied properly, the planners would have chosen a different target for X Troop.

So, while there appears to have been some justification for this target (however faulty the logic for choosing it), the question still remains as to whether using special operations forces to conduct the operation was necessary. In this case the answer should be an immediate “NO.” There are two things working to support this negative conclusion.

First is the fact that the target was approved for aerial bombardment— it had already been through a planning and approval process that brought it to that point. This does not mean that it should be automatically suitable or approved for attack by any method.

Second, we can see that what at first appeared to be a simple tactical plan was rendered almost completely worthless by a complicated and virtually unsupportable exfiltration plan. Only one method for getting the paratroopers out was considered. This plan necessitated the Commandos to move 50 miles through mountainous terrain during winter. The men were further limited to nighttime movement and evasion tactics. This limitation was a major hindrance even if the enemy was not aware of their presence. However, when the mission was executed, the men had literally announced their presence to the Italians. There was no external support until they would reach the coast. Now, this is definitely the kind of challenge that special operations forces can overcome, especially when they enter the target from an unexpected or unguarded approach. However, once the mission was underway, the exfiltration plan was scrubbed by a nervous planning/operations staff. Because of the lack of communications with X Troop, there was no way to tell them about this change.

While some mission had to be found for X Troop, there must have been a target available that gave them a better chance of getting out. Why go to all the trouble of investing these men with their specialized training if they are just going to be thrown away on the first plan that comes along? Why was the plan that was developed not reviewed from a critical perspective? This mission should have remained an aerial bombardment target.

Since it was more than one year before the next parachute operation was executed by the British—what was the almighty rush to conduct this one against this target? It seems that the unit was a solution looking for a problem. The planners were anxious to test the skills of the soldiers and prove the principle of airborne units. It seems to be a shame to have wasted such highly skilled and trained men on this mission. Yes, it produced a propaganda coup of sorts—but this coup could have been even more significant with a more suitable target and an attacking force that made it back. Special operations forces should not have been used against this target because such soldiers are not easily replaced.

Before examining this operation using the Vandenbroucke and McRaven criteria, the mission results must be analyzed. The aqueduct, which was the target, received some damage but not what the planners or the paratroopers expected. The damage was repaired in about three days, long before the local reservoirs were in any danger of drying up. The aqueduct was not of any strategic or tactical value. Photographic interpreters, after reviewing pictures taken almost two days after the raid, could not find any damage. The planning staff did not know if the paratroopers even got to the target until later in the month, when the Italians trumpeted the capture of the raiding force.

In a review of the criteria for failed operations several apply to this mission.

Inadequate intelligence on the aqueduct’s construction led to insufficient explosives being taken with the paratroopers. All that could be rounded up at the time of the attack had to be used to do the damage that was done.

Poor coordination was evident in several places. The paratroopers took no communications equipment with them and were thus unaware that the submarine pickup had been canceled because of the plane crash. There were no plans for an alternate pickup point.

Wishful thinking apparently guided the planning staff in its target selection. Too little time was spent looking at the plan as a whole to see that another target, closer to a pickup point (especially more than one possible point), should have been selected. After all, this mission was supposed to be a proof of principle type operation. If so then every effort should have been made to make it completely successful.

Cancellation of the submarine without a mechanism to notify the paratroopers heading to the pickup point was a classic case of in appropriate intervention of mission execution.

Conversely, most of the criteria for a successful mission were also present. The issuance of communications equipment with X Troop could have made the plan simpler than it was. Only the evasion and pick-up portions of the plan were complicated. The security, especially once the force was on the ground at the target, was a high point in the execution of the raid. All of the other criteria were definitely present, which should have made the mission one that the planners could look at with pride. After all, the paratroopers did their part very well. The fault was primarily with the planners and those overseeing the operation. Additionally, why the paratroopers said nothing about the lack of communication equipment is a puzzle.

Overall the execution was good and the planning was poor. The planning objective was to show that Britain could still project a force and cause troops to be tied up trying to protect potential targets. This mission only partly succeeded in the former and failed in the latter. The poor target selection was almost too big a hurdle to overcome.

Good lessons for future operations came from this raid. Probably most noticeable was the increased number of volunteers who wanted to join the parachute forces. News of the mission was released in response to an Italian news story that downplayed the damage and crowed about capturing the entire force. From an operational point of view, planning staffs learned to ask for and get more photo-reconnaissance of target areas and get it earlier in the planning process. Several changes were made in the procedures dealing with night jumps, although this continued to be a problem throughout the war. This first operational parachute mission also pointed out inadequacies with equipment containers. Eventually, both the equipment containers and release mechanisms on the planes were re-designed and improved. All of these changes were based on a good after-action review.


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