Book Review Operation Colossus - The First British Airborne Raid of World War 2 by Lawrence Paterson

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  1. Jonathan Ball

    Jonathan Ball It's a way of life.

    Operation Colossus was Britain’s first foray in to Airborne Warfare. By 1941, in a war most Italians never wanted in the first place her Armies were on the back foot in East and North Africa and being taught no end of a lesson by the Greeks in Albania. It was against this back drop that the Italian homeland was identified as a soft target by British planners in taking the war to the enemy in its own back yard. The added bonus of demoralising the Italian population in to the bargain sealed the deal and Colossus was on.

    Britain’s weapon of choice was her fledgling Airborne Forces. What was started by the Italians and then the Russians was demonstrated so dramatically in 1940 by the Germans. The daring seizure by the Fallschirmjager in the Netherlands of the bridges at Dordrecht and of the Belgian Fortress of Eben-Emael impressed on Churchill the offensive capabilities of Airborne Warfare. Famously, he soon later wrote a memo to request the formation of an Airborne Corps of 5000 men.

    In this fine yet compact new study by Lawrence Paterson the reader is invited to follow the formation of this new arm. Based around the Airfield at Ringway near Manchester and nearby Tatton Park at Knutsford in Cheshire the first volunteers arrived. Under the stewardship of Major John John Rock of the Royal Engineers and Louis Strange of the RAF, training could be fairly described as rudimentary. The Whitley Bomber was to be the aircraft of choice with men exiting originally where the tail gun turret was located before the idea was scrapped and instead a hole was placed in the bottom of the fuselage.

    The troops to be trained as Parachutists were originally seen as Commandos. Men trained for specific missions. They formed No.2 (Parachute) Commando although this was soon changed to II Special Air Service. The II being seen as Roman numerals to replicate the origins as No.2 Commando but was soon misread as being No.11 SAS. This Special Air Service should not be confused with David Stirling’s unit though, they were completely separate entities.

    After looking for targets the planners settled on the Pugliese Aquaduct. A system of waterways over 2000km long. Cut this somewhere and you could deny the southern ports of Italy, namely Bari, Brindisi and Taranto which were used to supply the Italians in North Africa of fresh water.

    Volunteers were required. Every man stepped forward but only 38 could be selected. These men formed X Troop, the unit to make the raid and training began in earnest. They needed Italian speakers and SOE combed the internment Camps for, as they put it, Italian ‘Toughs and Thugs’. Who they found was Fortunata Picchi, a 43 year old waiter who had worked as a pre-war waiter in London. He was added to the party. Eight Whitley’s were prepared, six to drop X Troop and two to bomb the Railway Marshalling Yards at Foggia as a diversion. Specialised kit, prepared in consultation with MI9 was prepared and sown in to each mans Battledress for their escape. Here was the difficulty, there could be no easy extraction once the men dropped. They would very much be on their own. After blowing the section of the Tragino Aquaduct selected (a bridge carrying it across a small valley) they would then have to make their way 60 miles across wintery, mountainous terrain to the coast to be hopefully picked up by a Submarine.

    On 10 February 1941, X Troop went in to action. One stick dropped 7 miles away from the DZ and didn’t make it to the objective on time. When the rest of X Troop reached the objectivet the piers supporting the bridge to be destroyed were found to be constructed not as masonry as thought but by reinforced concrete. With not enough explosives the team improvised and whilst not completely destroying the section of aqueduct did manage to cut the water supply south. Job just about done.

    Now for the coast. The team had split in to 4 small groups and Paterson tells the story of their marches to the coast well. What was 60 miles as the crow flies was anything but given the mountainous terrain and the march, in snow and deep mud was painfully slow. Within four days the Italians had picked them all up. The last group within site of the coast and was given away by all things, a box of Swan Vestas matches.

    A series of prisons, interrogations and camps followed. The one Italian in their midst, Picchi, was identified and later shot in Rome as a traitor. For the rest it was either enduring captivity or escape. The author recounts this period well, helped in no small part by the memoir of perhaps the most celebrated member of X Troop, Anthony Deane Drummond.

    Was it worth it? Well in the end the water supply was cut for only three days but as Paterson states, the psychological damage to the Italians was greater. Colossus proved that the Aliies could roam and almost strike at will within Italy and troops and equipment earmarked for the front had to be diverted to home defence.

    It’s a good book. Yes, the maps could be better but they are there and there’s inclusion of primary sources, verbatim, that this reader for one appreciated.

    Operation Colossus

    Orwell1984 and Dan M like this.

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