Operation Raid on Fort Lamy

The 'Raid on Fort Lamy' was a German sabotage undertaking by the Sonderkommando 'Blaich' on the Free French-controlled Fort Lamy in the Chad region of French Equatorial Africa (21 January 1942).

The raid, launched against a target located some 1,250 miles (2010 km) from the German and Italian bases in North Africa, was a success, but on its return flight the Heinkel He 111 twin-engined transport aeroplane carrying the raiding party ran out of fuel and had to make an emergency landing in the Sahara, the crew and aeroplane being rescued a week later by an Italian aeroplane.

Chad and Fort Lamy came under control of the Free French Forces in 1940, and quickly became a major staging post for the Battle of Kufra as well as a supply point for the British aircraft flying the trans-Sahara route from Takoradi in Sierra Leone via Sudan to Egypt.

Theo Blaich was a German adventurer and plantation owner who had joined the German armed forces in 1939, arriving in his own Messerschmitt Bf 108 Taifun aeroplane. Blaich recognised the importance of Fort Lamy as a way point in the overland transport and communication route from the west coast of Africa to the Nile river in Sudan and Egypt, as well as an assembly point for Allied operations in sub-Saharan Africa. Blaich proposed the capture of Fort Lamy to safeguard the southern border of Libya, at th time an Italian colony. When his suggestion was dismissed by Berlin, Blaich proposed that he should at least carry out a bombing mission.

Blaich found a more interested audience in Generalfeldmarschall Erwin Rommel, who approved the idea and forwarded it to Generalmajor (from 1 January 1942 Generalleutnant) Stefan Fröhlich, the Fliegerführer 'Afrika'. The date for the operation was set as 21 January 1942, to coincide with Rommel’s 'Theseus' offensive against the British defences at El Agheila. Created for this undertaking the Sonderkommando 'Blaich' comprised German and Italian soldiers, one He 111, one Savoia-Marchetti SM.81 and Hauptmann Blaich’s own Taifun, which departed the oasis of Hun, in the northern Fezzan region of south-western Libya, on 20 January. Six of the group’s men (five Germans and one Italian) were to go on the raid, while the Italian crew, less its pilot, remained behind.

The small group flew to Campo Uno, a remote natural airstrip in southern Libya, which had been discovered by Maggiore Roberto Conte Vimercati-San Severino, an Italian desert expert and the pilot of the Savoia-Marchetti transport aeroplem, in 1935 when he landed there during a safari. He had surveyed and marked out the site later, but lacked any sort of useful facilities, so the Sonderkommando used the Savoia-Marchetti aeroplane as its supply base.

The He 111 took off from Campo Uno at 08.00 on 21 January but encountered bad weather as it flew to he south. The aeroplane had been loaded with 1,000 Imp gal (4500 litres) of fuel, which had been calculated on the basis of the fair weather than had been predicted, but the adverse weather increased the fuel consumption. The He 111 reached Lake Chad by 12.00, after which navigation became easier despite the continued worsening of the weather, and at 14.30 reached Fort Lamy. Here there were no air defences, and the He 111 dropped its 16 110-lb (50-kg) bombs without interference. The Free French forces were too surprised to organise any resistance, and 80,000 Imp gal (360000 litres) of fuel and the complete oil supply were destroyed, together with as many as 10 aircraft.

Undamaged, the He 111 returned to the north, but the crew found it hard to navigate. As darkness approached, almost all of the fuel had been exhausted and the crew was aware that it would not be able to find its way back to Campo Uno. As the aeroplane was equipped with a 330-ft (100-m) trailing antenna, which it could deploy as needed, it deployed this, transmitted an SOS but received no reply. Eventually, the He 111’s pilot made an emergency landing without damage. The crew attempted but failed to contact the Luftwaffe headquarters at Agedabia at the arranged time. At this time the crew had provisions for six days. After two days at their location at which the He 111 had landed, presumed to be 120 miles (190 km) from Campo Uno, the crew was able to make contact with the German headquarters.

On 27 January, when it was almost out of water, the stranded crew was discovered by an Italian Caproni Ca.309 Ghibli reconnaissance aeroplane, which then delivered food and water. On the following day, a Junkers 52/3m transport aeroplane landed with fuel from Agedabia, having left for an unauthorised search for Blaich’s missing commando, and the Heinkel and crew were able to take off and return to Campo Uno.

The raid on Fort Lamy caused only a few casualties and minor damage to installations, but did destroy vital fuel supplies despite strenuous efforts to save them. It reduced the supplies for the Free French forces and the RAF in the region by half. The raid caused the local French commander, Général de Brigade Philippe François Marie Jacques Leclerc de Hauteclocque, to strengthen the anti-aircraft defences at Fort Lamy and to start hit-and-run operations against the Italian forces in Fezzan region.

The Sonderkommando 'Blaich' continued operations against the Long Range Desert Group throughout the first half of 1942. In June of that year the unit’s Heinkel bomber crashed near Kufra after an engine failure, the crew being rescued four days later, but this ended the operational life of the Sonderkommando 'Blaich'.