Raid on Sidi Haneish Airfield

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The Raid on Sidi Haneish Airfield was a military operation carried out on the night of 26 July 1942 by the British Special Air Service against a German airfield in Egypt during the Western Desert Campaign of Second World War. Allied commandos in jeeps under the command of Major David Stirling raided an Axis landing strip and destroyed or damaged numerous Luftwaffe aircraft with machine-gun fire and explosives. The Axis lost aircraft which were vital to the supply of its troops and units were diverted from the front line to increase the garrisons of services in the rear vulnerable to attack.[1]

Background

Axis supply

In November 1941, 70 percent of supplies being sent to Axis forces in North Africa were lost to Allied air and naval attacks.[2] By 1942, German and Italian forces in North Africa faced a serious supply shortage with Allied forces sinking merchant ships in the Mediterranean Sea. Axis supplies were being transported down the Italian Peninsula, mainly by rail, to southern ports for shipment to North Africa. The Royal Navy was deploying growing numbers of ships and submarines to the area to intercept Axis supply convoys forcing the Luftwaffe to carry some of the burden of supplying the Afrika Korps and Italian troops by air. The terrain in North Africa often made land transport impractical, forcing aircraft to fly between remote desert airstrips to deliver supplies, parts, troops and food.[3][4]

Special Air Service

In July 1941, Major David Stirling formed the Special Air Service for bold operations behind Axis lines. Initially dubbed 'L' Detachment, Special Air Service Brigade, the unit consisted of men drawn from conventional British units and given ad hoc, parachute training.[5] The unit was based in Jalo Oasis and gained a reputation for daring raids on German bases, infiltrating them and destroying parked aircraft with explosives.[6] As a result of these attacks Stirling became known among the Germans as the "Phantom Major."[7]

Prelude

Stirling had been concocting a plan for some time to strike at the Sidi Haneish Airfield, an airfield complex located 235 mi (378 km) west of Cairo, which the Germans called 'Haggag el Qasaba'. The raid would involve using an unfamiliar tactic to the SAS; storming the base in vehicles, rather than discreetly penetrating. Stirling briefed his men on the raid and enlisted the Long Range Desert Group to provide vehicles and transport. He thought that the firepower and speed of the jeeps would be enough to overcome the German defences. The raiders would drive 50 mi (80 km) through the desert from a hideout in Bir el Quseir to the airfield and then overrun it in eighteen jeeps in two columns, with Stirling at the lead. Each jeep had four Vickers K machine guns, a rapid-firing machine-gun, originally designed for Royal Air Force (RAF) aircraft. On the night of 25/26 July, the men held a dress rehearsal.[8]

Raid

The raid commenced on the night of 26/27 July, with the eighteen jeeps, each carrying 3 or 4 British or French commandos, navigating the desert without headlights and trying to keep formation. The weather was ideal with a full moon and no clouds. As the raiders approached the airfield, the lights lining the runway switched on, causing a degree of panic among the commandos who feared they had been detected but the lights had been turned on for a Luftwaffe bomber to land. Stirling fired a green flare and ordered the jeeps forward onto the airfield in 'V' formation.[9] The SAS stormed the airfield, using their K guns, loaded with tracer ammunition, to fire on the parked German aircraft which included Ju 87 Stuka dive bombers, Ju 52 cargo aircraft and Messerschmitt Bf 109 fighters. German troops replied with machine-guns and anti-aircraft weapons, disabling one jeep. Lance Bombardier John Robson, a 21-year-old SAS soldier, was manning a machine-gun when he was shot and killed, making him the only Allied casualty of the assault.[10] The raiders used most of their ammunition and manoeuvred to escape after a last sweep for undamaged aircraft. Paddy Mayne leapt from a jeep to place a bomb in the engine of a parked bomber before withdrawing.[11] The raiders had destroyed or damaged around forty Luftwaffe aircraft, though the SAS claimed twenty-five as it was customary to under-report Axis losses.

Escape

The raiders escaped into the desert, less one jeep and one man killed and split into groups of 3-5 jeeps, seeking to evade detection by German aircraft since only two and a half hours of darkness remained; in daylight, they would become vulnerable to air attack. The SAS hid during the day, camouflaging their vehicles and all but one group reached Bir el Quseir. The group of jeeps operated by the French SAS were slowed by punctures and breakdowns, exposing them in the desert. They were spotted by four Ju 87 Stuka dive-bombers which made nine attacks, fatally wounding paratrooper André Zirnheld. After the Stukas ran out of ammunition, the commandos boarded the last operational jeep and reached safety.[12][13]

Aftermath

The raid was a great success, several of the destroyed German aircraft being Junkers 52 transport aircraft, which exacerbated Axis supply difficulties. Stirling was captured by the Germans in January 1943 and spent the rest of the war in and out of Axis prisoner of war camps; Stirling was replaced by Mayne as commander of the SAS.[14]

See also

References

  1. ^ Zabecki, David T. (May 2015). World War II in Europe: An Encyclopedia. Routledge. p. 545. ISBN 978-1-135-81242-3.
  2. ^ Polmar, Norman (1 September 2006). Aircraft Carriers: A History of Carrier Aviation and Its Influence on World Events, Volume I: 1909–1945. Potomac Books. p. 135. ISBN 978-1-57488-663-4.
  3. ^ Spencer, MSG Napoleon (15 August 2014). Battle Of Gazala (May- June 1942) (Illus. ed.). Lucknow Books. p. 16. ISBN 978-1-78289-389-9.
  4. ^ Zabecki Ph.D., David T. (28 October 2014). Germany at War: 400 Years of Military History [4 volumes]: 400 Years of Military History. ABC-CLIO. p. 816. ISBN 978-1-59884-981-3.
  5. ^ Lewis, Jon E. (22 January 2015). The Mammoth Book Of Special Forces Training: Physical and Mental Secrets of Elite Military Units. Little, Brown Book Group. p. 13. ISBN 978-1-4721-1178-4.
  6. ^ Mortimer, Gavin (20 June 2012). The Daring Dozen: 12 Special Forces Legends of World War II. Bloomsbury Publishing. p. 134. ISBN 978-1-78096-454-6.
  7. ^ Mortimer, Gavin (20 June 2015). The SAS in World War II. Bloomsbury Publishing. pp. 57–. ISBN 978-1-4728-0876-9.
  8. ^ Mortimer, Gavin (20 April 2015). Stirling’s Desert Triumph: The SAS Egyptian Airfield Raids 1942. Bloomsbury Publishing. pp. 35–37. ISBN 978-1-4728-0764-9.
  9. ^ Macintyre, Ben (4 October 2016). Rogue Heroes: The History of the SAS, Britain's Secret Special Forces Unit That Sabotaged the Nazis and Changed the Nature of War. Crown/Archetype. p. 199. ISBN 978-1-101-90417-6.
  10. ^ James, Malcolm (19 March 2015). Born of the Desert: With the SAS in North Africa. Frontline Books. p. 329. ISBN 978-1-4738-9691-8.
  11. ^ Mather, Carol (9 April 1997). When the Grass Stops Growing. Pen and Sword. p. 91. ISBN 978-0-85052-576-2.
  12. ^ Macintyre, Ben (4 October 2016). Rogue Heroes: The History of the SAS, Britain's Secret Special Forces Unit That Sabotaged theNazis and Changed the Nature of War. Crown/Archetype. p. 204. ISBN 978-1-101-90417-6.
  13. ^ Syrett, David (19 August 2014). The Eyes of the Desert Rats: British Long-Range Reconnaissance Operations in the North African Desert 1940–43. Helion, Limited. p. 234. ISBN 978-1-912174-63-8.
  14. ^ Dilley, Michael F. (30 September 2013). Behind the Lines: A Critical Survey of Special Operations in World War II. Casemate. pp. 87–89. ISBN 978-1-61200-183-8.
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