Operation Balkis II

This was an Allied special forces raid by a French commando unit, with support from the Office of Strategic Services, on the small Italian island of Pianosa in the Tuscan islands archipelago in the Tyrrhenian Sea to the south-west of Elba (17 March 1944).

On 28 February 1944, in accordance with an operational order from Général de Division Henri Jules Jean Martin, commanding the 1st Division Marocaine de Montagne, a 120-man unit of French commandos was joined by a section of three officers and 10 enlisted men of the OSS’s Italian operational group to undertake a raid on Pianosa with the object of capturing prisoners and, if conditions permitted, establishing an observation post. Withdrawal from the island was to be made no later than 07.00 following landing. After the failure of ‘Balkis I’, the leadership of the Italian operational group and French commandos met a number of times to deal with the problems deemed responsible for the need to abort ‘Balkis I’.

As the plan for a second attempt was being finalised, Lieutenant Colonel Georges Régis Bouvet, the French leader, and the commander of his naval unit made a reconnaissance of the landing area two nights before ‘Balkis II’.

The Allied party left Bastia, the main town and port of Corsica, at 17.35 on board two submarine chasers, escorted by four torpedo boats. The lead party started to land on Pianosa at 22.20, and all units were ashore by 23.35. With the command post established near the landing area, where it would remain to provide communications as well as security for departure from the beach-head, the East, Central and West Patrols moved toward their targets. The East Patrol was the largest unit, and was to attack the village of Pianosa, destroy the barracks where it was believed the German troops were accommodated, capture prisoners (including, it was hoped, the German commanding officer) and, if time permitted, destroy the communication cable between Pianosa and Elba or the mainland of Italy. Time permitting, this patrol was also to reconnoitre and neutralise, if possible, the Sembolello prison and the Belvedere semaphore station.

Operating in supporting roles, the smaller elements of the raid included the Central Patrol which was to raid the Giudice penitentiary and, if time permitted, reconnoitre the Podere del Gardon prison hospital and take prisoners for intelligence purposes; and the West Patrol which was to take control of Punta Pulpito and Toretta San Marco and take prisoners.

The Allied soldiers were to avoid the use of roads in making way toward their targets, but passage through the dense waist-high growth of small trees and shrubs then slowed their progress. At about 02.10 the Central Patrol came to a farm building where it found an Italian civilian who indicated that all Germans were bivouacked in the village. The patrol then proceeded to its target, the penitentiary, reaching it about 03.00. Encountering no resistance, the patrol captured 12 prison guards and returned to the submarine chaser to re-embark with the prisoners.

Meanwhile, the East Patrol shattered the targeted barracks, killing several Germans, but discovered the majority of the Germans were barricaded in the walled inner town bordering the port. It was then judged that, because of the time and the understanding that the Germans were armed with a mortar, a cannon and several light machine guns, it would be impossible to clean them out of their position within the time limit fixed for the mission’s departure. After notifying Bastia of the situation and announcing their plans to withdraw, the East Patrol (with 24 Italian guards as prisoners) withdrew to the beach-head.

At much the same time, the West Patrol had searched its targets and found them empty, and had therefore already returned to the beach-head.

The submarine chasers with all troops and their prisoners aboard departed the landing area at the fixed hour of 07.00 as Allied warplanes, in accordance with the plan, laid down defensive fire on the beach-head.