First Operation of the Special Air Service (SAS) – SQUATTER

Operation SQUATTER was the first operation of the SAS, in a parachute raid against Axis airfields in North Africa, in support of Operation CRUSADER. It was a complete failure, just like the other two operations in the Axis Hinterland, FLIPPER (the attack against what was thought to be Rommel’s HQ in Beda Littoria) and SYMPHONY (most probably the raid by 7 South African Reconnaissance Battalion in the area of Bir Tengeder – Bir Hacheim). The October version of the Air Plan described it thus:

11. Preparations are being made by 8th Army for certain subsidiary operations by special groups against various aerodromes and landing grounds in enemy territory on D-1/D1(1). The object of this operation is the sabotage of E/A, supplies, communications, and Headquarters. This operation is being so planned that the cumulative effect will be felt on the morning of D1.

The intent was not achieved, and what prevented the Axis air forces from interfering in the ground battle was not the S.A.S. but the waterlogged landing grounds after an atrocious series of thunderstorms.


SAS volunteers emplaning into an RAF Bristol Bombay transport aircraft prior to a practice jump while undergoing parachute training at Kabrit, Egypt. (IWM)

None of the men parachuted during Operation SQUATTER reached their objectives, most were dispersed in very bad weather, and one of the Bombay transport planes was shot down, with all its passengers being captured (okay, technically, these men reached their objective). Only 22 men returned from the mission. Given the shortage of transport planes in North Africa, the loss of a Bombay was bordering on a criminal waste of a precious asset.


Bristol Bombay Mark I, L5857 ‘SH-C’, of No. 216 Squadron RAF based at Heliopolis, Egypt, in flight over the Western Desert. (IWM)

As for SYMPHONY, while it had nothing to do directly with the S.A.S., again it was a failure, the very bad going north of L.G. 125 prevented Lt-Col. Grobbelaar and his armoured cars of 7 South African Reconnaissance Battalion from achieving their aim before they had to turn back. Regarding FLIPPER, the less said the better…

Following this ignominious beginning, the S.A.S. did of course go on to better things, but they stuck for quite a while to being transported to their objective by means of trucks, which appears to be an altogether more sensible approach. By the end of Operation CRUSADER, the SAS had destroyed somewhere around 50 Axis planes on airfields at Agedabia, Wadi Tamet, and elsewhere, with some of the raids starting in Gialo after this was occupied by Force “E”. I guess it goes to show that everyone should be given a second chance. Certainly, the S.A.S. contributed significantly to confusion in the Axis rear, and the overall destruction of Axis property, including combat airplanes.

Below is the preparation order for Operation SQUATTER.

MOST SECRET

 

S.A.S.O.

Ops. 1

S.I.O.

  1. The “Squatter” operation has now been fixed for the night of D-2.
  2. Five Bombays will arrive at Bagush at about 1200 hours on that day and will take off again at 1730. The first one will be over the objective at 20.15 hours and will be followed by the other four at 15 minutes interval between each.
  3. The Albacores will, therefore, be required to drop flares over Gazala No. 1 Landing Ground from 2000 to 2130 hours, and the Blenheims to bomb this Landing Ground between these times. The Bombays during this period will be carrying out their operation some 15 miles to the south west and it is desirable that when approaching or leaving the target, Blenheims should fly at not less than 3000 feet over the same area. Continued desultory bombing throughout the night (of GAZALA and TMIMI L.Gs) would help as a distraction to the enemy.
  4. In order to ensure success and to synchronise times, a Conference between O.C. “Squatter” O.C. Bombays, and the O.C’s Albacores and Blenheims who are taking part should be held here at 1300 hours on D-2.
  5. It is essential that O.C. “Squatters” should be provided with one mosaic and two sets of (a) Tmimi Landing Ground with an area ten miles to the south and west of it and (b) two strips in the Got Taray – Bir Temrad area west of Gazala and south of Tmimi.
  6. Will the S.A.S.O. please issue the necessary instructions regarding (a) proposed conference on D-2, and (b) the operations of the Bombays and Albacores, and will the S.I.O. please check that the necessary action has been taken by the Army Survey Flight or the Photo Interpretation Section, to ensure that the photographs required are produced and issued to Captain Stirling immediately.

PLANS,

A.H.Q.W.D.

9.11.41

 

Signed: [unreadable], Group Captain

Copy for information to the A.O.C.

In the National Archives, what appears to be the operation order to Colonel Stirling is preserved at least partially, unfortunately I have only come across an incomplete copy, and what I have is given below:

SECRET & PERSONAL

Copy No. 2

10 Nov 41.

HQ/BA/12/G(0)

EIGHTH ARMY OPERATION INSTRUCTION NO. 16

Capt. D. Stirling

Comdg. ‘L’ Sec 1 S.A.S. Bde.

Ref Maps – LIBYA 1/500,000 DERNA sheets 5 & 13 – BARDIA sheet 14 1/100,000 BOMBA, GAZALA

  1. Your force will consist of 54 men from ‘L’ Sec 1 S.A.S. Bde.(2)
  2. Your primary task is to raid both aerodromes at TMIMI in sq (S) P 70, GAZALA No. 1 355446 and GAZALA No. 2 362443, the latter including the new ground cleared to the East, destroying as many aircraft as possible.

    Other objectives such as H.Q’s and communications should only be attacked if they will in no way prejudice the success of your primary task

  3. You will plan your raid so that it takes place on the night D-1/D1 at an hour to be decided upon by you.

    It is important that your plan should co-ordinate the efforts of all parties on the various aerodromes in order that the first explosions will take place at the same time and it is most important that the enemy should be unaware of your having landed or of your presence during the whole of D-1 day.

  4. The types of aircraft likely to be found are given below in order of priority for destruction:-
    1. GERMAN

      ME 109 E & F(3)

      ME 110

      HE 111 (4)

      STUKA JU 87

      JU 88

       

    2. ITALIAN

      G 50

      MACCHI 200

      CR 42

      BR 20

      S 79

    The destruction of fighter aircraft is of greater importance than bombers and GERMAN aircraft of more more importance than ITALIAN.

  5. HQ. RAF, Western Desert have arranged to bomb all aerodromes in para. 2 at dusk on D-1 and after moonrise night D-1/D1, you must therefore be clear of the aerodromes at these times.

    During the whole night D-2/D-1 all aerodromes will be bombed.

  6. to 15. – missing
  7. Recognition signals between your force and the LRDG patrol will be arranged between you and Capt. EASON-SMITH.
  8. The date of D.1 will be notified to you separately.

Method of issue: by hand.

Time of Signature: 1810 hours

Signed: A. Galloway, Brigadier, General Staff.

Distribution:

Capt. D. Stirling, Comdg. ‘L’ Sec S.A.S. Bde. – 1

A.O.C. RAF. Western Desert – 2

Lt-Col G.T. Prendergast, Comdg. LRDG. – 3

B.G.S. EIGHTH ARMY – 4

C.G.S. G.H.Q. – 5

File – 6

War Diary – 7 & 8

 


Capt. David Stirling, D.S.O., O.B.E. (from Wikipedia)

Beyond the direct order, reference to the operation can be found in operation orders to air commands, who of course had to be aware of when not to bomb. The detailed plan of operations states the following:

Restrictions on air action against Key Targets

  1. Range of Fighters

    GAZALA and TMIMI and GAMBUT are within range of Tomahawks operating from L.G. 109, 110, and 111. DERNA and MARTUBA are out of range. All the key targets except GAMBUT are out of range of Hurricanes.

  2. Operations by Ground Forces against Key Targets
    1. “Squatter” operations against GAZALA N and S and TMIMI will take place between 1800 hours D-1 and 0300 hrs D1 and Air Attacks will not take place during that time. Before 1800 hrs D-1 and after 0300 hrs on D1 these targets will be open to air attack.
    2. “Flipper” operations against DERNA will take place between 1800 hours and 2100 hours. Air Attacks on DERNA L.G. must not therefore be laid on during these hours. (5)
    3. “Symphony” operations against a Landing Ground or Grounds, not yet selected but definitely not North of the line MECHILI – TOBRUK – GAMBUT will take place between 1800 hrs and 2400 hrs D-1. These should not affect primary targets.

After the event, the British command learned about some of what had happened very quickly through ULTRA intercepts.

17 November – SULTAN (Fliegerkorps X) Ic to Fliegerfuehrer Ic

Reference Bombay shot down near GAZALA on 17/11: Fliegerfuehrer is requested to arrange for the 35 R.A.F. prisoners to be ready at 0930 on 18/11 at G.A.F. station, MARTUBA, to be flown away in Ju 52 which will be provided from here.

18 November – Fliegerfuehrer Afrika Ic to Fliegerkorps X

  1. Reference Bombay shot down on 17.11. There were not 36 but 16 English and 1 Italian in the a/c (gap in text)… apparently a sabotage operation against GAZALA was planned. Instructions for parachutists recovered and masses of papers. The Bombar belonged to A-Flight of 216 BT Squadron.
  2. Fliegerfuehrer AFRIKA early on 18.11 asked Fliegerkorps X to use one of its own Ju.52.s to collect the prisoners at GAZALA, as his Ju.52 could not take off either at DERNA or MARTUBA owing to aerodrome conditions.

Note:- These are probably the prisoners from the Bombay a/c.

19 November – Fliegerfuehrer Afrika Ic to Panzergruppe Afrika Ic

Reference sabotage detachment of the Lay Force from the shot down Bombay. Attention is drawn to 5 further Bombays which operated over CYRENAICA in the night of 16-17/11. Accordingly you must count upon the probability that further sabotage detachments were dropped.

And thus it ends. It appears that some of the prisoners taken spilled most of the beans on the operation. Oh, and if someone has any information on the Italian passenger, and what became of him, I’d be very interested to hear it.

Notes:

  1. 17/18 November
  2. References I have are that as many as 64 men participated (plus the mysterious Italian mentioned in the ULTRA intercepts), so it appears that Capt. Stirling had more volunteers with him than he had been allowed to take.
  3. Unbeknownst to the R.A.F., no Me 109E were left as combat planes in North Africa at this time. There remained a small number, used as reconnaissance planes I believe. The combat squadrons had all converted to the far superior Me 109F during the summer (with the last Squadron just finishing conversion)
  4. This strikes me as a bizarre priority. The only He 111 in North Africa at this time were ‘hack’ planes used for communications purposes and as private plane of Fliegerfuehrer Afrika. The closest combat He 111 were maybe in Greece, if not Romania.
  5. Struck out in original. Someone probably figured out that DERNA L.G. was nowhere near enough to Beda Littoria to matter.