Operation Raid on Bardia

The 'Raid on Bardia' was a British amphibious landing at the coastal town of Bardia in North Africa by commandos (19/20 April 1941).

The raid was carried out by No. 7 Commando, also known as A Battalion of Colonel Robert Laycock’s 'Layforce', together with a small detachment from the Royal Tank Regiment. The raiders were supported by five surface warships and one submarine, and destroyed an Italian artillery battery and a supply dump. The raid was deemed a success despite the loss of 71 men. The more lasting strategic effect of the raid was the diversion of a German armoured brigade from the front line to provide rear-area security.

In January 1941, an extemporised force of 2,000 commandos, known as 'Layforce', was despatched from the UK for commitment in raiding operations in the Mediterranean theatre. The force comprised No. 7 Commando, No. 8 (Guards) Commando, No. 11 (Scottish) Commando, one troop of No. 3 Commando, and the Folbot section. On arriving in Egypt during March 1941, the force was strengthened by the amalgamated No. 50 Commando and No. 52 Commando. To disguise from the Axis powers that a large force of commandos had arrived in the theatre, Nos 7, 8, 11 and 50/52 Commandos were camouflaged as A, B, C and D Battalions of 'Layforce'.

Early in 1941, 'Compass' was a significant British and commonwealth victory over the Italian forces in Egypt and Cyrenaica, the eastern province of Libya. General Sir Archibald Wavell, heading the Middle East Command, then ordered a large part of Lieutenant General Richard O’Connor’s XIII Corps to Greece as part of 'Lustre' for commitment in the 'Battle of Greece'. Adolf Hitler responded to the Italian disaster in North Africa by ordering 'Sonnenblume', the dispatch of the first elements of Generalleutnant Erwin Rommel’s new Deutsches Afrika Korps to North Africa to reinforcement the Italian forces and prevent their collapse. The Deutsches Afrika Korps had fresh troops, better equipment and tanks, and in Rommel a charismatic commander. When Rommel arrived in North Africa along with six Italian divisions, his orders were to remain on the defensive, but he quickly seized the opportunity to take the offensive.

In the first Italo-German offensive, the Axis force raided and quickly defeated the British at El Agheila on 24 March, exploited the success and by 15 April had pushed the British back to the Libyan/Egyptian border at Sollum and taken Tobruk under siege. Lieutenant General Philip Neame, commander of the new XIII Corps, as the headquarters of the Cyrenaica Command had been redesigned after the transfers to Greece, Lieutenant General Richard O’Connor (commander of the Western Desert Force) and Major General Michael Gambier-Parry (commander of the British 2nd Armoured Division) were captured. The Western Desert Force was re-established under the command of Lieutenant General Noel Beresford-Peirse, who was recalled from East Africa. An armoured brigade group of the 2nd Armoured Division had been used to provide forces for the Greek campaign and the rest of the division in Cyrenaica had lost most of its tanks to mechanical breakdowns and fuel shortage. Several Axis attempts to seize Tobruk failed and a front line was formed on the Egyptian border.

In April 1941, the plans were changed for the deployment of 'Layforce', whose first undertaking was now to be a raid on Bardia.

The 'Raid on Bardia' was schemed for the night of 19/20 April, and was to be undertaken by A Battalion in order to disrupt the Axis lines of communication and inflict as much damage as possible to installations and equipment. The plan called for the simultaneous landing on four beaches, in assault landing craft (LCA), of A Battalion and a troop of tanks of the Royal Tank Regiment. The landing force was be transported to the area by the infantry landing ship Glengyle, escorted by the anti-aircraft light cruiser Coventry and the Australian destroyers Stuart, Voyager and Waterhen. Off Bardia, one LCA could not be lowered and there were difficulties releasing the others. When they did get going and approached the beaches, the crews of these craft were expecting to see guide lights that were to have been set up by the Folbot section, but this latter Folbot section had been delayed en route when 'friendly fire' caused Triumph, the submarine transporting them, to submerge and take evasive action.

Running late, the main landing force was delivered onto the wrong beaches. The landings were unopposed, however, and the commandos made their way inland to destroy their objectives. Bardia was found to be empty of Italian or German forces and faulty intelligence resulted in some objectives being missed, as they were not where they were supposed to be or did not exist. The commandos managed to destroy an Italian supply dump and an Italian coastal artillery battery before returning to their LCAs to re-embark. The raid would have passed without loss to the commandos but for the death of a commando officer by 'friendly fire' from an over-alert commando and the capture of 70 men who, after getting lost, arrived on the wrong evacuation beach and were taken prisoner.

Despite the limited results and 71 casualties, the raid on Bardia had considerable strategic effect. The Germans diverted the greater part of an armoured brigade from Sollum, where it was beginning to exert heavy pressure on the Western Desert Force, and kept it for some time guarding rear areas. 'Layforce' was less fortunate, being used as standard infantry, a role for which it was neither equipped nor trained. As one of the few reserve forces available, it was sent to take part in the 'Battle of Crete' against the German 'Merkur' airborne and amphibious invasion of that island; fighting as the rearguard the force lost 600 men before being evacuated. C Battalion was not sent to Crete but instead to Lebanon, where it lost more than 120 men fighting in the 'Battle of the Litani River' in the 'Exporter' conquest of Syria and Lebanon. The steady drain of manpower without the replacement system of normal British army battalions meant that 'Layforce' was left in an ineffective state and was disbanded in July 1941.