Operation Loyton

'Loyton' was a British special forces operation by the 2nd Special Air Service under Lieutenant Colonel Brian Franks to establish a base near Verney in the eastern part of German-occupied France (12 August/9 October 1944).

The mission had the misfortune to be parachuted into the Vosges mountains at a time when the Germans were reinforcing the area against the advance of Lieutenant General George S. Patton’s US 3rd Army. As a result, the Germans quickly became aware of the SAS team’s presence and conducted operations to destroy the SAS team. With their supplies almost exhausted and under pressure from the Germans, the SAS party was ordered to divide into smaller groups and seek to return to the Allied lines. During the fighting and break-out operations 31 men were captured and later executed by the Germans.

The Vosges mountains are a region in north-eastern France close to the German border. In 1944 it was sparsely populated and consisted of wooded hills, valley pastures and small isolated villages, an area ideal for operations by a small mobile raiding force. Late in 1944 it was also the area toward which that the US 3rd Army was advancing until, outrunning its supplies, it halted in the area of Nancy. To counter the US advance, the Germans had moved into the area a number of reinforcement unit and formations, the latter including the 17th SS Panzergrenadierdivision Götz von Berlichingen. In the period in which 'Loyton' was undertaken, this division was command by a succession of officers, namely SS-Standartenführer Otto Binge, from 30 August SS-Oberführer Dr Eduard Deisenhofer, during September SS-Oberführer Thomas Müller, in September and October SS-Standartenführer Gustav Mertsch, and from 21 October SS-Gruppenführer Werner Ostendorff.

A small SAS advance party under the command of Captain Henry Druce was parachuted into the Vosges on 12 August, the drop zone being in a deeply wooded mountainous area 40 miles (64 km) to the west of Strasbourg. The advance party’s objective was to contact the local French resistance, carry out a reconnaissance of the area, identify targets for an attack and locate a suitable dropping zone for the main force.

The main party under the command of Lieutenant Colonel Brian Franks arrived 18 days after the advance party on 30 August 1944. The arrival was not without incident: one parachute equipment container filled with ammunition exploded on contact with the ground; a member of the resistance assisting to move the parachute containers died after eating plastic explosive in the belief that it was cheese; and one Frenchman who was found in the area supposedly picking mushrooms but whom the resistance believed to be an informer, was detained. In the confusion following the explosion of the ammunition container, however, this man managed to seize a Sten sub-machine gun and was shot trying to escape.

On the next day, the SAS men started to patrol and establish observation posts. Almost immediately they became aware that their presence had been betrayed to the Germans, for there were altogether larger numbers of Germans in the area than they expected and a force of 5,000 Germans was advancing up a valley near the village of Moussey just a short distance from the SAS base camp. The SAS’s aggressive patrolling, sabotage undertakings and number of firefights in which they had been engaged combined to persuade the Germans that they were up against a far larger force than there actually was. Over the nights of 19 and 20 September, reinforcements were delivered by parachute to bolster the British party: the reinforcements included six Jeep light vehicles and another 20 men. The availability of the Jeeps, armed with Vickers K and Browning machine guns, allowed the SAS to change their tactics. The Jeep patrols attacked German road convoys and staff cars with their machine guns. A patrol led by Druce even entered Moussey, just as a Waffen-SS unit was assembling: driving through the town, the SAS patrol opened fire and inflicted many casualties.

Although unable to locate the SAS base, the Germans were fully cognisant of the fact that the British party could not be operating without the assistance of the local population. To gain information about the location of the SAS camp, all the male residents of Moussey between the ages of 16 and 60, a total of 210 men, were arrested, interrogated and then transported to concentration camps, from which only 70 returned after the war. On 29 September Druce was sent to reach the US lines with the order of battle for a Panzer division which had been obtained by a member of the resistance. Initially with Flying Officer Fiddick, a Canadian pilot of the RCAF’s No. 622 Squadron, but alone on the second and third occasions, Druce passed through the German lines three times before eventually reaching safety.

At the start of October, with the US 3rd Army stalled and supplies running short, the chances that the US forces would relieve the SAS had dwindled, so it was decided to end the operation, which had been designed to last only two weeks and had now lasted for more than two months. Franks ordered his forces to split into small groups that would seek to make their own way back to the Allied lines 40 miles (64 km) away. One patrol was ambushed by a Waffen-SS unit and lost three men killed: the fourth man was Lieutenant Peter Johnsen, who was wounded but managed to escape. Another 34 men failed to reach Allied lines.

After the end of the war, Franks began to investigate the fate of his missing men. All that was known for certain was that the three men accompanying Johnsen had been killed, and that 10 men had been buried in the cemetery at Moussey. The SAS was officially disbanded in October 1945. but before this the 2nd SAS War Crimes Investigation Team had been formed to look into matters such as 'Loyton'. The 2nd SAS intelligence officer, Major Eric Barkworth, had been informed of the existence of Adolf Hitler’s 'Commando Order' mandating the execution of all captured commandos, when he was interviewing captured German officers in 1944. In July 1945 Franks was informed by the French that the bodies of some SAS men had been found in the French occupation zone at Gaggenau. Franks ordered the 2nd SAS WCIT to travel to the area. The team’s subsequent investigation discovered that of the 31 missing SAS men, 30 had been murdered by the Sicherheitsdienst (SS intelligence service), some of them at the Natzweiler-Struthof concentration camp in the Vosges mountains. One man’s fate was never discovered.