Operation Caravan

'Caravan' was a British attack by the Long Range Desert Group on the Axis airfield at Barce in the northern Cyrenaica region of Libya as part of 'Rosemary' (13 September 1942).

The other sub-operations of 'Rosemary' were 'Agreement' against Tobruk, 'Bigamy' (i) against Benghazi, and 'Nicety' against Jalo oasis. As well as aiding in others elements of 'Rosemary', the Long Range Desert Group was to carry out 'Caravan'. To reach Barce the force travelled 1,155 miles (1860 km) and, on arrival, the party divided into two elements for attacks on the airfield (claiming 35 aircraft destroyed) and the barracks.

Early in September 1942 B Squadron, which comprised two Long Range Desert Group half-patrols under the command of Major John Easonsmith, departed its base at Faiyum in Egypt with orders to 'cause the maximum amount of damage and disturbance to the enemy'. The destination was Barce, some 50 miles (80 km) to the north-east of Benghazi on the main road along the coast of Libya. This was a major administrative centre of the Italian colonial government of Libya and there was a large airfield on the north-eastern side of the town, which was to be the main target of the operation.

The G1 patrol, commanded by Captain J. A. L. Timpson, and the T1 patrol, led by Captain N. P. Wilder, totalled 47 men in 12 Chevrolet 1533X2 trucks and five Jeeps. The two patrols were accompanied by Major Vladimir Peniakoff and two Senussi tribesmen of the Libyan Arab Force. Arrangements had been made for the Senussi to gather information about Axis dispositions from friends living near Barce and report back to Peniakoff shortly before the raid.

In Barce were one company of the Polizia dell’Africa Italiana (Italian Africa Police) with Autoblinda AB.41 armoured cars, one company of Carabinieri Reali (Royal Carabiniers), the 8a Sezione 'Camicie Nere' (8th Blackshirts Section), the 17o Battaglione Mitraglieri (17th Machine Gun Battalion), the 10a Compagnia Carri L (10th Light Tank Company) with L3/35 tankettes, and one battery of 5-in (127-mm) guns (captured British 60-pdr guns) of the 51o Gruppo Artiglieria (51st Artillery Group). On Barce airfield were the 35o Stormo da Bombardamento (35th Bombing Wing) less one squadriglia (squadron/flight), equipped with Cant Z.1007bis three-engined bombers, and the 131a Squadriglia of the 66o Gruppo Osservazione Aerea (131st Squadron of the 66th Air Observation Group) equipped with Caproni Ca 311 twin-engined observation aircraft. In the area were also several other units of cavalry, carabinieri and Libyan-manned irregulars.

As the Long Range Desert Group was taking part in other operations it was essential to avoid congestion on the outward routes. The course chosen for B Squadron required a double crossing of the Sand Sea. As the Jeeps were 'self supporting' for about 900 miles (1450 km) and the Chevrolet trucks for about 1,500 miles (2415 km), they would be accompanied by two 10 ton Mack trucks of the Heavy Section which would supply all the petrol required for the first 200 miles (320 km). Another refill was supplied after the first week, when B Squadron made rendezvous with two more trucks of the Heavy Section at the so-called Howard’s Cairn.

On the third day misfortune struck as Timpson’s Jeep rushed up a razorback sand dune and capsized over the top, forcing the evacuation of the injured Timpson and his driver by a Lockheed Hudson twin-engined aeroplane. Sergeant Jack Dennis assumed command of the G1 patrol.

The Long Range Desert Group reached Benia, about 15 miles (24 km) to the south of Barce, on 13 September after an 11-day journey, and set up camp on a hill in a belt of trees. One truck had been concealed at the G5 rear rendezvous point together with small supplies of food and water. For the rest of the day the trucks remained concealed among the trees while the men prepared their weapons and explosives. At 15.000 Easonsmith held a final briefing with the aid of Peniakoff, who knew the town. The T1 patrol was to attack the airfield, which was the main target, while the G1 patrol was to create a diversion by attacking the main Campo Maddelena barracks, 1.85 miles (3 km) to the south-west of Barce, and the railway station to the south of the town.

Unknown to the Long Range Desert Group, their approach had been spotted and several alerts had been passed to the Barce sector command whose commander, Generale di Brigata Umberto Piatti del Pozzo, ordered air and ground reconnaissance and set in hand other preparations to counter the expected attack. Although the Long Range Desert Group patrols were well camouflaged, and were confident that they had not been noticed among the trees, they had been seen by a Ca 311 aeroplane which dropped a message to a nearby cavalry headquarters.

At dusk the force moved out, cutting telephone wires on the way. Near the outskirts of the town the force was challenged at a police checkpoint by a sentry, who was taken prisoner. A non-commissioned officer lured out to investigate was shot and killed, and the nearby buildings were attacked with several hand grenades, although it was later found that the guards had run away. While the British vehicle column stopped suddenly during this exchange, the T1 patrol’s truck carrying a Breda cannon collided with the back of the radio truck, wrecking its radiator: the truck was stripped of all useful equipment and abandoned, its crew joining other trucks. While the radio truck was able to continue, the loss of the Breda’s firepower was something of a setback. Another loss was a G1 patrol vehicle, which wrecked its sump after hitting a rock, and this too was stripped and abandoned.

The T1 patrol’s radio truck separated from the column and parked in a field at Sidi Selim, some 7.5 miles (12 km) to the south-east of Barce, to act as a rendezvous point after the attack, and also to maintain a constant radio watch for messages from Lieutenant Colonel D. Stirling’s Special Air Service unit operating that night against Benghazi in 'Bigamy' (i). By 23.00 the two patrols had reached a main road heading east to Barce, and proceeded with their headlights on to simulate an Axis convoy. At the top of an escarpment leading to the Barce plain they came across two stationary L3 tankettes guarding the road, and opened a heavy machine gun fire as they raced through: the tankettes were caught unprepared, although the crews should have known that night traffic had been forbidden.

By 24.00 the Long Range Desert Group patrols were at the crossroad outside Barce and separated to carry out their tasks, for which two hours had been allocated by Easonsmith who, with his two HQ Jeeps, would proceed independently around Barce, looking for suitable targets. Peniakoff and the radio truck remained at the crossroad to deal with any attempts at stopping the Long Range Desert Group’s retirement. To get to the airfield, which was to the north of Barce, the T1 patrol followed the main road round the eastern side of the town, and was passed by an Italian motorised unit with which friendly greetings were exchanged.

As the unit approached the airfield Captain Wilder left his commander’s Jeep as he wanted to drive his old vehicle, named Tutira III. The others manning the truck were Troopers Parker and Holland. Near the entrance to the airfield the patrol was challenged by several sentries, who were shot. The airfield gates were shut but unlocked, so Wilder opened the gates and the trucks drove through onto the airfield. The first target encountered was a truck and trailer unit carrying 52 cans of aviation fuel. Machine gun fire turned this into a fireball which illuminated much of the airfield, making it easier for the patrol to find its way. Though the Italians had been expecting an attack, they did not believe that it would be possible to do so from vehicles coming from the main road. Their defence plan was therefore based on their belief that the attack would be delivered on foot from the south. Thus the T1 patrol encountered little opposition.

The next target was the concrete administration building which also housed the mess and barracks. Grenades were thrown through the windows, and started a fire inside the building. A hangar and other buildings, as well as some motorised transport, were shot-up and a petrol dump of 44-Imp gal (200-litre) drums was destroyed. On the airfield proper, the vehicles of the T1 patrol headed clockwise in single file, shooting at parked bombers with a combination of tracer, incendiary and explosive ammunition from three pairs of 0.303-in (7.7-mm) Browning machine guns, two 0.5-in (12.7-mm) Vickers heavy machine guns, and 0.303-in (7.7-mm) Vickers K single and twin machine guns firing from pintle mounts either in the back of the truck or on the passenger doorpost. In addition to this firepower Corporal Merlyn Craw of the T1 patrol had devised a small incendiary time bomb made out of gelignite. Craw and Yealands were in the last vehicle in the column, Te Paki III, which had a box of these bombs. As they came to aircraft which were not already burning, the two men jumped off and ran to each aeroplane, placing a bomb on top of a wing above the fuel tanks. Craw started the fuse burning and both men then had to dive to the ground as the aeroplane exploded in flames. Before escaping entirely unscathed, Craw and Yealands destroyed at least 10 aircraft.

Though the T1 patrol spent about an hour on the airfield, none of the New Zealanders had been hit and none of their vehicles had been put out of action. The Long Range Desert Group drivers were skilled at manoeuvring at high speed, so making difficult targets of their vehicles, while at the same time the gunners were capable of keeping up an accurate and heavy concentration of fire. Another possible factor in the lack of damage to the unit was that the numerous anti-aircraft guns defending the airfield had been unable to fire at low angles of elevation. Based on Wilder’s post-action report it was thought that the T1 patrol had destroyed or damaged 32 aircraft, mainly bombers, and official Italian figures quote 16 aircraft destroyed and seven damaged.

After the attacks the two patrols met at the rallying point. By that point 10 men, three trucks and one Jeep had been lost. Before dawn on 14 September, near the police post to the south of Sidi Selim, the Long Range Desert Group came under fire from an Italian force which had been waiting. Three men were injured and a truck damaged to the extent it had to be towed. The truck and two others which had been damaged earlier were abandoned, after the stores they were carrying had been transferred, with timed explosives to destroy them.

The force continued the return until another vehicle broke down, and was then spotted and attacked from the air until dusk fell. By that point all the vehicles but one truck and two Jeeps had been destroyed, and 10 men now set out to walk to Bir el Gerrari, where a vehicle had been left. The force doctor took the remaining truck and a Jeep with the wounded, and although they abandoned the Jeep along the way they reached Bir el Gerrari on 15 September and then a landing ground near the Kalansho sand sea, where they found another Long Range Desert Group patrol.

The RAF then evacuated the wounded to Kufra. Another party of 14 set out on foot, with their rations and water carried on the other Jeep. After about 80 miles (130 km), on 17 September this party met the Long Range Desert Group’s S2 patrol. Searches of the area found eight of the first walking party. The two missing members had fallen behind and, not expecting to reach the rendezvous, turned north. On 20 September they found an Arab camp and taken prisoner by the Italians. By that point the two had covered more than 150 miles (240 km) on foot. The Long Range Desert Group’s S1 patrol located and collected two members of the raiding force who had walked out of Barce.

For the loss of 20 men (eight wounded, 10 captured and two Senussi disappeared), 'Caravan' had cost the Italians four killed, 15 wounded and one taken prisoner, as well 16 aircraft destroyed and another seven damaged, as well as considerable quantities of other matériel and buildings destroyed.