Operation Deported

'Deported' was an Allied operation to take the Kufra oasis in the Western Desert (31 January/1 March 1941).

The Buma airfield at Kufra and the radio post in the same area were used by the Italians as part of their physical and communications links with their forces in Italian East Africa. In the period between the world wars, Kufra had been an important trade and travel route for various nomadic desert people. These included the Senussi, who made the oasis their capital at one point in response to encroaching British, Italian and French designs on the region. When it appeared the Italians were the most aggressive nation in the region, the Senussi had called upon the French to help defend their capital, but in 1931 the Italians established themselves at Kufra.

In Chad, during the first half of 1941, Colonel Philippe François Marie Jacques Leclerc de Hauteclocque, the senior Free French officer in Chad, had at his disposal 5,000 Senegalese tirailleurs (light infantrymen) of the Régiment de Tirailleurs Sénégalais du Tchad in 20 companies divided into a number of garrisons, and also three méhariste (camel) cavalry groups in the areas of Borkou, Tibesti and Ennedi. Chad had declared for Free France and, on the orders of Général de Brigade Charles André Joseph Marie de Gaulle, heading the Free French movement in London, Leclerc and Lieutenant Colonel Jean Colonna d’Ornano, commander of the Free French forces in Chad, were entrusted with the task of attacking Italian positions in southern Libya with the motley forces at their disposal. Kufra was the obvious target, but the task of overcoming this heavily defended position was made extremely difficult by the need to rely on inadequate transport to cross sand dunes and by the fine, powdery soil. The area was considered by some to be impassable to vehicles.

Fortunately for the 350 Free French troops used in this undertaking, assistance was received from Major Pat Clayton of the Long Range Desert Group, who was enthusiastic about co-operating with the Free French to test the Italians. Clayton had under his command the G (Guards) and T (New Zealand) Patrols, a total of 76 men in 26 vehicles. In order to assist in the attack against Kufra, a raid was first mounted against the airfield at the oasis of Murzuk, capital of the Fezzan region of Libya. Ten Free French (three officers, two sergeants and five African soldiers) under d’Ornano met Clayton’s Long Range Desert Group patrols on 6 January 1941 at Kayouge. The combined force reached Murzuk on 11 January and, in a daring daylight raid, surprised the sentries and swept through the oasis, devastating the base. The majority of the force attacked the main fort, while a troop from T Patrol under Lieutenant Ballantyne engaged the airfield defences, destroying three Caproni aircraft and taking a number of prisoners. The success of the raid was tempered by the loss of a T Patrol member and d’Ornano.

A diversionary raid by French camel cavalry failed after it was betrayed by local guides. This prompted Leclerc to relegate these troops to reconnaissance duties only.

Following the success of the Murzuk raid Leclerc, who had assumed overall command, marshalled his forces to take on Kufra itself. Intelligence indicated that the oasis was surrounded by two defensive lines based around the El Tag fort and including barbed wire, trenches, machine guns and light anti-aircraft guns. The garrison was thought to comprise a battalion of 580 Askaris (colonial infantry) under Colonnello Leo, as well as supporting troops: the garrison in fact comprised 280 Askaris under 30 Italian officers and non-commissioned officers. In addition to the static defences, the oasis was defended by patrols of the 120-man Compania Auto-Avio-Sahariana, a specialised mobile force similar to the Long Range Desert Group except that it was able to call on its own air support element.

Leclerc could not pinpoint the Compania Auto-Avio-Sahariana, so he tasked the Long Range Desert Group with the job of hunting it down. Unfortunately for the Long Range Desert Group, a radio intercept unit at Kufra picked up its radio traffic and its vehicles were spotted from the air. The defenders at Kufra had been on their guard since Murzuk.

G Patrol had been kept in reserve and Clayton was leading T Patrol of 30 men in 11 trucks. The patrol was at Bishara on the morning of 31 January when an Italian aeroplane appeared. The trucks scattered and made for some hills, and the aeroplane flew off without attacking them. The patrol took cover among some rocks in a small wadi at Gebel Sherif and camouflaged the trucks, before preparing to have lunch. The Italian aeroplane returned and circled over the wadi, where it directed a patrol of the Compania Auto-Avio-Sahariana to intercept the Long Range Desert Group. In fierce fighting, the Long Range Desert Group patrol was worsted by superior Italian firepower and constant air attack. After severe losses, the surviving seven trucks of the patrol were forced to withdraw, leaving behind their commanding officer, who was captured along with several others. Other survivors, led by New Zealand Trooper Ronald Moore, embarked on epic journeys to seek safety.

After this reverse, the Long Range Desert Group force was forced to withdraw and refit, leaving Leclerc the services of one Long Range Desert Group vehicle from T Patrol, crucially equipped for desert navigation. Leclerc pressed on with his attack, in spite of losing a copy of his plan to the Italians with Clayton’s capture. After further reconnaissance, Leclerc reorganised his force (350 men, two light armoured cars and one 75-mm/2.95-in mountain gun) on 16 February. He abandoned his two armoured cars and took with him the remaining serviceable artillery piece.

On 17 February, Leclerc’s forces brushed with the Compania Auto-Avio-Sahariana and despite a disparity in firepower were able to drive the Italian force away as the Kufra garrison failed to intervene. Following this, El Tag was surrounded, despite another attack by the Compania Auto-Avio-Sahariana and harassment from the air, the French laid siege to the fort. The lone 75-mm (2.95-in) gun was placed some 3,300 yards (3000 m) from the fort, beyond the range of the defence’s weapons, and accurately delivered 20 shells per day at regular intervals. Some 81-mm (3.2-in) mortars were also positioned at 1,640 yards (1500 m) from the fort and added the weight of their bombs to the fire falling on the Italian positions. Despite their numerical superiority, the Italians faltered in resolve under the command of an inexperienced and junior reserve officer. Negotiations to surrender began on 28 February, and on 1 March the Free French captured El Tag and, with it, the oasis at Kufra.

The Italian garrison was permitted to withdraw to the north-west. In Kufra the French force captured a useful quantity of vehicles, weapons and ammunition, including eight SPA AS37 all-terrain vehicles, six trucks, four 20-mm cannon and 53 machine guns. This booty was immediately pressed into service by the French force.