Operation Pistol

This was a British special forces operation by the 2nd Special Air Service against German targets in the Saverne gap of the Alsace-Lorraine region in German-occupied eastern France (15 September/3 October 1944).

The objective of this mission, which was the last undertaken by the SAS in France, was the disruption of the road and railway communications between Metz and Nancy and on the approaches to the Rhine river plain. The mission was complicated by a number of operational problems and also by the general unfriendliness of the local population, many of whom were of ethnic German origin.

The 51 men of A Squadron, 2nd SAS, were transported by Short Stirling transport aircraft as four groups to be parachuted into four different drop zones. Once landed, the groups were each to split into two smaller groups to cover a larger area. Lieutenant G. N. M. Darwall’s A group was allocated to the area lying to the south-west of St Avold and the Benestroff area (A1 and A2 subgroups). Lieutenant R. J. Birnie’s B group was allocated the area lying to the west of Ingwiller and the Saargemuend area (B1 and B2 subgroups). Captain M. W. Scott’s C group was allocated to the area around the Saverne gap and the area tp the south-west of Sarrebourg (C1 and C2 subgroups). Captain R. J. Holland’s D group was allocated to the roads between Gerardmer and Colmar and the roads between Bussang and Thann (D1 and D2 subgroups).

The A group landed 1 mile (1.6 km) from its planned drop zone and on top of a German position. Because of this, and attempts to evade capture, the group was divided into three. The A1 subgroup now consisted of Darwall and three men; Sergeant Williams, commander of the original A2 subgroup had two men; and a third group of men, last to leave the aeroplane, was formed but lost all its equipment while hiding from German search parties. Both of the A group’s radio sets were damaged on landing, leaving the party’s elements out of contact with their headquarters and the resupply aircraft that were later sent out. On 18 September the A2 subgroup destroyed some telegraph poles and on the following had to take cover on hearing small arms fire. On the night of 21/21 September the subgroup destroyed an electricity pylon and then found an observation point overlooking its target railway line. The party planted explosive charges on the railway line on 23 September, and later heard these detonating, but had left the area by that time and was unaware of the extent of the damage that had been caused.

The men subsequently learned that their target had been a cattle train travelling to Germany, and it took two days for the line to be repaired, after which the line was patrolled by two German sentries every 50 yards (46 m).

Now heading to the south and west, the party came upon its next two targets. On 26 September the SAS party observed its target railway line but discovered it was unused, and therefore headed for its next railway line target. Reaching this line on the 27 September, the party discovered that this line too was not used. On 28 September the party took shelter at a farm, and it was here that the farmer and his three sons informed the British troopers about the train they had destroyed. The SAS soldiers also discovered the area was defended by SS-Standartenführer Gustav Mertsch’s 17th SS Panzergrenadierdivision ‘Götz von Berlichingen’, and that about 1,000 troops and a general were stationed in the nearby village of Vergaville.

On 30 September Williams’s subgroup left the farm, headed to the west and planted tyre bursters on a road, but these were set off by passing tanks and therefore proved ineffectual. On 2 October the SAS men found some boot tracks, which they identified being made by SAS boots, and the tracks led them to a farm where they stopped for a meal and discovered that they were following Squadron Quartermaster Sergeant Alcock and his C2 subgroup, which had been there two days earlier. The three-man A2 subgroup eventually reached the US lines on 3 October.

The A3 subgroup comprised the last four men to leave the aeroplane, and all of these were privates. They managed to evade capture and headed for a nearby wood and, as one of the men had landed badly and injured his leg, the group remained in the wood overnight to allow him to recover. On the afternoon of 16 September the men heard the Germans searching the woods. Leaving their rucksacks, they reached the edge of the wood and hid in a drainage ditch for six hours while the search continued round them, Germans crossing their ditch several times without seeing them. The British troopers remained in the ditch until emerging at dusk, when they believed the Germans had left the area. They were forced to forsake their rucksacks as one of the men had overheard the Germans saying they had found them and had set up ambush. The subgroup then set off toward the US lines, for the loss of their explosives made it impossible for them to attack the railway lines they had been ordered to sever.

The men reached the US lines on 20 September.

The B group landed 7 miles (11 km) from its intended drop zone, and little is known of its activities. Birnie, commanding the B1 subgroup, was captured on 17 September and died in a prisoner of war camp after an air raid by the Allies. Also part of the B1 subgroup were Corporal Gilbert Voisin, who was captured on the 1 October near Phalsbourg, and Private Gerhard Wertheim, who was captured in September 1944 and executed by the Germans between Niederbuhl and Rotenfels on an unknown date.

The B2 subgroup was commanded by Lieutenant Castellain, who died of wounds on 12 October shortly after having made contact with the ‘Loyton’ SAS mission. Private Ashe was captured on 23 September and executed at Gaggenau in Germany.

The C group was delivered farthest from its planned drop zone, coming down 15 miles (24 km) away from it, and because of communication problems its equipment panniers were not dropped. The C1 subgroup’s radio was also damaged during the landing. The group’s landing was dispersed, and just two men of the C2 subgroup gathered on the drop zone. Scott, the commander of the C1 subgroup, sprained his ankle on landing and therefore found it difficult to move. After lying up overnight, the party found three more members of the C2 subgroup, and all the men then laid up for another day while also sending out reconnaissance parties to try and pinpoint their exact location.

On 19 September Scott divided his enlarged group into subgroups of four and five men. The four-man group, led by Corporal Hill, moved to the south, and on 20 September found a railway line, which appeared to be unused. The same happened on 21 September at a different railway line. On 22 September the men spotted a road convoy of 20 vehicles, but lacked the strength to attack it. That evening they took shelter in an abandoned farm, by now the effects of their lost equipment panniers were taking hold and the men were weakened by hunger. Leaving the farm on 25 September they set off for their last objective, which was an artillery position near the front line. By 28 September they had been forced into hiding by the German patrol activity in the area. Moving into a disused farm they remained in the area, cutting telephone wires and carrying out a reconnaissance of the artillery positions, and finally made contact with the advancing US forces late on 3 October.

The other C subgroup (Squadron Quarter Master Sergeant Alcock and four other men) kept watch on a railway line right through 19 September and, though no trains were seen, decided nonetheless to lay an explosive charge. This was laid at 21.00, and was detonated two hours later by a passing train. Leaving the area and making off to the south-south-west, they came across evidence of defensive trenches being dug, and on 24 September observed a tank engagement and 20 tanks withdrawing into a wood beside Blanche Eglise.

Corporal Holden came down with malaria at this time, and the party decided to rest at a farm, which it left on 26 September, headed to the west and came across another farm. While the men were in the farm house talking to the occupants a German patrol appeared. Eventually the SAS group managed to depart via the back door, and then opened fire on the Germans who followed them out. The men then made their way through woods in which they located a number of tank workshops, harbour positions and a brigade headquarters. They returned to a farm at which they had stayed earlier, and discovered the A3 subgroup had been there. Remaining at the farm until 1 October, the party set out for the US lines and cut telephone lines on its way before crossing into the lines of Major General John S. Wood’s 4th Armored Division.

The D group was not parachuted into France at the start of the operation as its aeroplane’s crew was unable to identify the drop zone because of fog. The group made a further five attempts on the following nights, but all of these were unsuccessful.