~ COMBINED OPERATIONS ~

WW2 land, sea and air forces of the Allied Nations planning, training and operating together as a unified force on amphibious raids and landings against the enemy.

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BARDIA - NORTH AFRICA  ~

19/20 APRIL 1941

Bardia, on the North African coast, was the location of an early Combined Operations raid. It was not a good start - more of a learning experience.

Background

This land/naval raid took place at a time of rapid change in the fortunes of the war, usually in favour of the Axis forces. The objective was to disrupt enemy lines of communication and to inflict as much damage as possible on their supplies, installations and equipment  Forces involved were HMS Glengyle and A Battalion. Bardia lies 500 miles west of Suez and 50 miles east of Tobruk on the North African coast.

Plans & Preparations

Oddly, the story begins early in 1941with the formation of a Special Service force with the objective of capturing the Greek Island of Rhodes.

Director of Combined Operations, Admiral Sir Roger Keyes, proposed the establishment, in the UK, of a Special Services force. It would have the capacity for rapid transfer at short notice to the Mediterranean on the fast "Glen" ships, Glengyle and Glenroy. The idea was supported by the Chiefs of Staff.

[Map courtesy of Google Map Data 2017.]

Under the command of Lt. Colonel, RE Laycock, force Z, as it became known, was formed from 7, 8 & 11 Commandos, A troop of No 3 Commando and Courtney's folbot section. The hastily assembled force comprised 100 officers and 1500 other ranks. It sailed on Jan 31, 1941 from the Isle of Arran, in the estuary of the River Clyde in Scotland . The direct route through the Mediterranean was too hazardous so, as was common practice at this time, they sailed round the Cape of Good Hope arriving at Suez, on March 7.

There was concern that the nature of force Z's secret work might be deduced by the enemy, if they learned of its composition. The War Office ordered that "Layforce" was to be used in all communications and that no mention of Commandos or Royal Navy involvement was permitted.  On March 10, Layforce disembarked at Geneifa, on the Suez Canal. Shortly after, No 50 Middle East Commando (ex Crete) and No 52 Commando (ex Sudan), were amalgamated under Lt Colonel Young and added to Layforce as follows;

A Battalion - No 7 Commando (Lt Colonel Colvin)
B Battalion - No 8 Commando (Lt Colonel Daly)
C Battalion - No 11 Commando (Lt Colonel Pedder)
D Battalion - No 50/52 Commando (Lt Colonel Young)

After the German invasion of Greece and Yugoslavia on the April 6, the Rhodes operation was hastily called off. Furthermore, a week or two earlier, in North Africa, Rommell's forces had re-occupied Cyrenaica and captured Sollum and Bardia. The dynamics of the war were changing rapidly and the disposition and use of Layforce in the Mediterranean reflected this through further changes to plans.

On April 6, Layforce inherited the role given to the Middle East Commando force the previous autumn. They were now to plan and undertake raids behind enemy lines along the North African coast. In readiness for this, they re-provisioned in Alexandria on the April 12 and prepared for operations.

[Map courtesy of Google Map Data 2017.]

Orders were duly received and, on the April 15, Brigade HQ, together with A & C Battalions, set off for Bardia, east of Tobruk, in the two Glen ships. Meantime, 4 Troops of B Battalion sailed for Bomba, west of Tobruk, in a destroyer. On arrival in the landing areas the following night, the sea swell was too great to safely allow the folbots to disembark from their submarine and for the Commandos to re-embark from the beaches. The action was, therefore, called off.

Action

New orders were quickly issued. This time, A Battalion would raid Bardia with the objective of disrupting enemy lines of communication and inflicting as much damage as possible to installations and equipment. The plan was to land, simultaneously, on four beaches, using Glengyle's Assault Landing Craft (ALC). In the event, one ALC could not be lowered and there were difficulties with the release gear on others. Nonetheless, the approaches to the beaches on the night April 19/20, went smoothly but there was no sign of the expected guiding lights from the shore. The placing of these lights was the responsibility of Layforce's folbot section, under Roger Courtney. It later transpired that the submarine carrying Courtney and his men, HMS Triumph, was forced to take evasive action, when they came under friendly fire, causing the delay.

Despite these setbacks, the detachments were only 15 minutes behind schedule when they landed on the beaches. However, without the benefit of the guiding navigational lights, some ALCs landed on the wrong beaches. Fortunately, the landings were unopposed and the men moved inland to locate and destroy their various targets. In some cases the task proved more difficult than expected, due to inaccurate or incomplete intelligence. Some targets did not exist or were found in unexpected locations.

Outcome

This was not a high point in the history of Combined Operations but many valuable lessons were learned for future raids, viz.;

  •  training in European conditions had not taken account of the lighter nights along the North African coast,

  •  the men could have moved much more quickly across the terrain,

  •  more thought should be given to the speed in withdrawal and re-embarkation,

  •  spare landing craft should be on hand for stray parties,

  •  the parent ship should lie closer to the shore when conditions permitted,

  •  manning the landing craft, prior to arrival at the disembarkation point, would speed up the hoisting out.

Allied gains included one German Brigade, which was diverted from other duties to plug the gap in their defences exposed by the raid; one bridge blown up and one tyre dump set on fire. Arguably, the most important of the gains were the lessons learned for future amphibious operations. Losses amounted to one British officer, mortally wounded by an over alert Commando sentry, one detachment of 67 men, taken prisoner, who returned to the wrong beach and one ALC abandoned.

Understandably, morale, following the raid, could have been better. It wasn't helped by an emerging pattern of changed or cancelled orders. When A Battalion finally vacated the Glengyle at the beginning of May, the following inscription was found on the troop deck - 'Never in the whole of history of human endeavour have so few been buggered about by so many' .... a sentiment for which Laycock had some sympathy as he made clear in a lecture he delivered back in the UK at the end of 1941.

Further Reading

There are around 300 books listed on our 'Combined Operations Books' page. They, or any other books you know about, can be purchased on-line from the Advanced Book Exchange (ABE). Their search banner link, on our 'Books' page, checks the shelves of thousands of book shops world-wide. Just type in, or copy and paste the title of your choice, or use the 'keyword' box for book suggestions. There's no obligation to buy, no registration and no passwords.

Chronological summary of North Africa Campaign

Commandos and Rangers of World War 2 by James D. Ladd. Published in 1978 by MacDonald & Jane's. ISBN 0 356 08432 9

Commandos 1940 - 1946 by Charles Messenger. Pub by William Kimber, London 1985. ISBN 0 7183 0553 1

The Watery Maze by Bernard Fergusson published 1961 by Collins.

Correspondence

Geoff,

I have a group (well, me and nine other people) on Facebook dedicated to the LSTs and your site has been very helpful in telling the story. I post things from your site from time to time. Iíve especially enjoyed the pictures and personal accounts. A lot of that has been lost to history and your site is one of the best collections Iíve found on these ships, and more importantly, the personal accounts of the men who went to sea on them.

I wrote something about Glengyle that I originally intended to post in my FB group about LSTs, but I thought maybe it could be something that you could use instead.

Regards,

Brian Miller  (https://www.facebook.com/groups/LSThistory/)

Like the Maracaibo class LST, the infantry landing ships of 1941 were originally designed to make money, not war. Glengyle was the lead ship in a class of four new freighters being manufactured for the Glen Line to carry passengers and cargo to the Far East. As war began to loom on the horizon in Europe, British military planners had other ideas. The Admiralty purchased Glengyle (along with two of her sister ships) for conversion to a fast re-supply ship. In April of 1940, she was further converted and commissioned as the first landing ship, infantry, large (LSI (L)) on September 10, 1940. Like other vessels configured for amphibious troop delivery, she was completely defenseless except for a few anti-aircraft mounts. At 507 feet long, and just under 10,000 GRT, she was capable of carrying a relatively large assault force of over 700 men at a speed of about 18kts. Getting them to the beach, however, proved logistically cumbersome.

With a draft of just over 30 feet, the large LSIs were hardly suitable for shallow water. This meant, that even against defenseless positions, such as Bardia, Glengyle had to stand out to sea at a relatively long and otherwise unnecessary distance from the beach. This served to greatly increase the time required for its 12 assault landing craft (LCA) to get troops ashore. Perhaps the most significant limitation was the inability to get tanks and other heavy equipment to the fight in tactically significant quantities. The small amphibious craft, designed to carry such equipment ashore, were designated as landing craft, mechanized (LCM). During the raid on Bardia, Glengyle was configured to carry a single LCM, which meant that she was only capable of carrying one tank into combat at a time. To make matters worse, the speed of a tank-laden LCM was only around seven knots and there was no inherent redundancy for mechanical failure or combat loss of the LCM.  However, despite their limitations as assault ships, Glengyle and the other LSIs went on to be very successful troop transport ships throughout the war. When Greece was lost later that April, Glengyle was there to help evacuate the defenders.

A fourth ship in the class, Breconshire, was converted to an escort carrier and commissioned as HMS Activity on September 15, 1942.


Acknowledgments

Compiled from information in the above books.
 

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