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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 Plans & Preparations Action Outcome Further Reading
Acknowledgments Correspondence      

Background

This land/naval raid took place at a time of rapid changes in the fortunes of 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 to their installations and equipment  Forces involved were HMS Glengyle and A Battalion (ex No 7 Commando). Bardia lies 500 miles west of Suez and 50 miles east of Tobruk on the North African coast.

Plans & Preparations

The story begins with the formation of a Special Service force with the objective of capturing the Greek Island of Rhodes. This at first sight may seem an odd place to start but it puts into context the sequence of events leading to the Bardia raid, the constant changes to plans and the general unpredictable dynamics of the war.

In early 1941 the planners decided that the capture of Rhodes was an achievable and worthwhile objective. Keyes, in his role of Director of Combined Operations, proposed the establishment, in the UK, of a Special Services force for rapid transfer to the Mediterranean on the fast "Glen" ships Glengyle and Glenroy. The idea was accepted by the Chiefs of Staff.

Under the command of Lt. Colonel R. E. Laycock, force Z was established comprising Nos 7,8 & 11 Commandos, A troop of No 3 Commando and Courtney's folbot section. The hastily assembled force of around 100 officers and 1500 other ranks sailed from the Isle of Arran in the River Clyde on the 31st of Jan 1941. It arrived at Suez, via the Cape, on the 7th of March. Orders had been received from the War Office that the designation "Layforce" was to be used and that no mention of Commandos or Royal Navy involvement was permitted. The concern was that the vital work of force Z might be compromised if the enemy knew the composition and nature of the force. On the 10th of March, Layforce disembarked at Geneifa. 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 6th of April, the Rhodes operation was hastily called off. A week or two earlier Rommel had launched an offensive in North Africa and by the 11th April his forces had re-occupied Cyrenaica and captured Sollum and Bardia.

On the same day the role of Layforce changed to planning and undertaking raids behind enemy lines along the North African coast - the same task given to the Middle East Commando force in the previous autumn. Layforce set off for Alexandria on the 12th of April for provisions and preparations. Orders were changed and on the 15th of April Brigade HQ and A & C Battalions set off in the two Glen ships to attack Bardia while 4 Troops of B Battalion sailed for Bomba in a destroyer. Such was the swell that swept the coast the following night that the operation was called off. The folbots could not disembark from their submarine and re-embarkation of the Commandos from the beaches would have been difficult if not impossible.

Action

New orders were quickly issued. This time A Battalion (No 7 Commando) was selected for a raid on 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). 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 of 19th/20th of April went smoothly but the expected guiding lights could not be seen. The placing of these lights on the beaches was the responsibility of Layforce's folbot section under Roger Courtney. It later transpired that Courtney and his men were delayed en route to the beaches when friendly fire caused HMS Triumph, the submarine on which they took passage, to submerse and take evasive action.

Despite these setbacks the detachments were only 15 minutes behind schedule when they hit the beaches. There was some confusion when some ALCs landed on the wrong beaches. The landings were however unopposed and progress inland was made to locate and destroy the various targets. Bardia itself was unoccupied but regrettably, due to inaccurate or incomplete intelligence, some targets did not exist or were in unexpected locations. With time running short the return to the beaches commenced with a tally of one bridge blown up and an Italian tyre dump set on fire. Little else of significance was achieved. Sadly an over alert Commando sentry mortally wounded a British officer and one detachment of 67 men returned to the wrong beach. They were later reported to be prisoners of war. One ALC was abandoned and another ALC broke down but eventually made its way to Tobruk.

Outcome

This was not a high point in the history of Combined Operations raids 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 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 included 67 men taken prisoner, one officer accidentally mortally wounded by friendly fire and one Assault Landing Craft abandoned. 

Understandably morale, following the raid, was not of the highest order. It was made all the worse by the now familiar pattern of receiving new orders only to have them cancelled or seriously modified. 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 Laycock identified with 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 which can be purchased on-line from the Advanced Book Exchange (ABE) whose search banner checks the shelves of thousands of book shops world-wide. 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. Click 'Books' for more information.

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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