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.
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.
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;
Battalion - No 7 Commando (Lt Colonel Colvin)
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.
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.
This was not a high point in the history of Combined Operations raids but many valuable lessons were learned for future raids viz.;
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.
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.
Compiled from information in the above books.
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