Operation Basalt

'Basalt' was a British special forces raid on the island of Sark in the German-occupied Channel Islands (3/4 October 1942).

The original plan was for the raid to take place on the night of 18/19 September 1942, but this initial iteration had then to be postponed by one day as a result of adverse weather. Starting from Portland at 22.00, the passage of MTB-344 to Sark took longer than planned, and the motor torpedo boat encountered strong currents on the approach to the designed landing beach, resulting in arrival at 03.00. The requirement to depart by 03.30 in order to be clear of the German-occupied Channel islands group before dawn resulted in the operation being aborted. MTB-344 returned safely to Portland at 05.30. 

On the night of 3/4 October 1942, a 12-man party of No. 62 Commando, otherwise the Small-Scale Raiding Force and working for the Special Operations Executive, and No. 12 Commando, departed Portland in MTB-344 at 19.00 and landed on Sark with the object of completing an offensive reconnaissance and capturing prisoners.

The party was led by Major Geoffrey Appleyard, who had with him two other officers (Captain Philip Pinckney and Lieutenant Anders Lassen) and nine other ranks including three non-commissioned officers.

Climbing the cliff at the Hog’s Back, between Dixcart Bay and Derrible Bay, the commandos were not spotted by German sentries, and encountered no guards. Several of the raiders broke into the house of a local resident. The occupant of the house, Mrs Frances Noel Pittard, provided to be mine of information and advised the men of the raiding party that were about 20 Germans in the annex to the nearby Dixcart Hotel. Mrs Pittard declined an offer of passage to England, and provided the commandos with documents, including local newspapers from Guernsey.

In front of the hotel was a long structure of the hut type, and this was guarded by one man, who was knifed to death by the Free Danish Lassen. This annex comprised a corridor and six rooms in which were five sleeping Germans, none of them an officer. The men were roused and taken outside, and after this the commandos decided to go into the hotel and capture more Germans. To minimise the guard left with the captives, the commandos tied their prisoners' hands with the six-foot toggle ropes each carried, and removed their braces and belts so that they would hold up their trousers. The practice of removing belts and/or braces and tearing open the fly was quite a standard technique taught to the commandos to make it as difficult as possible for captives to run away. When seized, most of the prisoners were dressed for sleeping, although one man was naked and not allowed to dress.

While this was being undertaken, the naked man escaped and ran off shouting, and there developed a general struggle between the commandos and the other prisoners. The prisoners were shouting and, fearing the arrival of more German troops, the raiders decided to return to the beach with their remaining prisoners. Three prisoners attempted to escape: one was instantly shot dead with a revolver, and another was wounded but managed to escape. The only remaining prisoner, Obergefreiter Hermann Weinreich, was transported back to England and provided useful information. 

Before this, the Germans on the island had been alerted by the commotion and the sound of gunfire, but the commandos managed to climb down the cliff and returned to MTB-344 in their small, escaping without injury.

The three German soldiers who died were the sentry and two prisoners.

A few days later, the Germans issued a communiqué implying that at least one of the prisoners had escaped and two had been shot while resisting with their hands tied. This was only a short time after the 'Jubilee' raid on Dieppe, where a captured Allied document reportedly instructed that prisoners' hands were to be tied. When this was brought to Adolf Hitler’s attention, he ordered the shackling of Canadian prisoners, which led to a reciprocating order by British and Canadian authorities for German prisoners being held in Canada. It is also believed that this raid contributed to Hitler’s decision to issue his Kommandobefehl (commando order) on 18 October 1942, mandating that all captured commandos or other raiders be executed as a matter of procedure. The order resulted in the commission of a number of war crimes.

The newspapers recovered from Sark gave details of the deportation of civilians to Germany: this was the first evidence the British had seen of potential German war crimes in the occupied Channel islands group. The Germans justified the action as being identical to the Allies' 1941 removal of German civilians from Iran to Australia.

The raid led to the implementation of tighter security measures on Sark, mainly through an increase in the number of mines to 13,000, and the deportation to Germany of 201 Channel Island civilians: 48 of these were from Sark and included Mrs Pittard, who had just completed a three-month jail term, and Robert Hathaway, the husband of the Dame of Sark, in February 1943. Dame Sybil Hathaway remarked on the raid as it 'seemed a heavy price to pay for the capture of one prisoner and a copy of the Guernsey Evening Press'.

More than one year later, in December 1943, there was a another raid on Sark as 'Hardtack 7' by a party of British and Free French commandos. This was a complete failure as two of the four men were killed by German mines as they attempted to cross the Hog’s Back following the same route as the commandos in 1942.

The Small Scale Raiding Force had been brought into existence at the behest of Commodore the Lord Louis Mountbatten during February and March 1942 as the Combined Operations Headquarters’s 50-man 'amphibious sabotage force', and in reality was the 'Maid Honor' Force already established by the Special Operations Executive out of B Troop of No. 7 Commando and controlled by Brigadier Colin Gubbins, military head of SOE) and so named as its means of transport was the requisitioned, converted and heavily armed Brixham trawler Maid Honor.

Mountbatten successfully negotiated for control of the SSRF, which remained for administrative purposes within SOE, based on Station 62 Anderson Manor, but came under the operational control of Combined Operations and became known as No. 62 Commando. Major Gus March-Phillipps continued to lead the force, with Appleyard as his second in command. Using MTB-344, SSRF undertook a number of seaborne raids from the UK, these including 'Aquatint' of 12/13 September 1942 on Ste Honorine and in which most of the raid’s 11 men (including March-Phillipps) were killed or captured. The force was restored to full strength with men from No. 12 Commando, and Appleyard now became its commander.

The SSRF was disbanded after 'Pussyfoot' on 3/4 April 1943, though the force had already begun to dissolve after a January decision of the Chiefs-of-Staff Committee which curtailed its raiding operations after 'clashes of interests' and objections from the SOE and Special Intelligence Service (MI6).