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Authors: Ross Kemp

Raiders

BOOK: Raiders
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About the Book

Award-winning television journalist Ross Kemp is back with
Raiders
: six tales of the most daring British Operations of World War Two.

Operation Judgement:
one of the most spectacular efforts of the entire conflict where obsolete British bi-planes attacked the Italian Fleet at anchor in Taranto.

Operation Archery:
the first true combined operation carried out by all three British forces.
It was this successful raid that persuaded Hitler that the Allies were planning a full-scale invasion of the European mainland.

Operation Biting:
a cross-Channel raid into France and was the first major attack by the British Airborne Division and its first battle honour.

Operation Gunnerside:
a dramatic demolition assault on Hitler’s atomic bomb plant in Norway carried out by a Norwegian unit of British Commandos.

Operation Chariot:
simply known as ‘the greatest raid of all’, the British amphibious attack on the heavily defended Normandie dry dock at St Nazaire in German-occupied France.

Operation Deadstick:
the story of a small party of British airborne troops, the first Allies into the fray on D-Day, tasked with seizing and holding two bridges to prevent an armoured German counter-attack against the beach landings.

Six astounding stories of ordinary soldiers tested to their limits in a time so alien to us now; a time when personal sacrifice was expected from one and all.

About the Author

Born in Essex in 1964, Ross Kemp worked for the BBC for ten years and ITV for four years as an actor.
He then had a change of career and started making documentaries and has subsequently been nominated for three BAFTAs for his series on Afghanistan, Gangs and Africa.
He and his team won the BAFTA for Best Factual Series in 2006.
Ross is a patron of Help for Heroes and has spent time on the front line in Afghanistan with 1 Royal Anglian, 5 Scots, 16 Air Assault and 45 Commando.

Also by Ross Kemp

Moving Target

Devil to Pay

Warriors: British Fighting Heroes

Gangs

Gangs II

Ross Kemp on Afghanistan

Ganglands: Brazil

Pirates

Ganglands: Russia

Raiders
Ross Kemp

Foreword

For the first four years of the Second World War, Britain was in no position to be able to launch a significant offensive against the Axis forces.
Fighting over so many fronts, from the North Atlantic to the Far East, her resources and manpower were stretched to the limit.
The country’s factories and dockyards were manufacturing warships, tanks, aircraft, weapons and equipment as fast as they could, but it was going to take time to build up, train and re-equip the Allied forces to be strong enough to carry the fight to Germany in a long, concerted campaign.
Within days of the Dunkirk evacuation, Prime Minister Churchill, unhappy at the thought of sitting back in a defensive posture for so long, ordered his Chiefs of Staff to come up with ideas
for some form of offensive operations against the enemy.
It was not in the British Prime Minister’s nature to pursue a policy of passive defiance.
He wanted to harass Hitler’s hordes relentlessly, never letting them settle in the new homes they had acquired for themselves in Western Europe through the Blitzkriegs of 1939 and 1940.

Churchill called for the British to launch a ‘reign of terror’ against Germany, and he envisaged it being executed in two ways: through a pan-European campaign of sabotage by irregular, covert operatives, and through a series of raids carried out by elite regular troops along the Atlantic Wall.
The practical aim of the latter was to force Hitler to strengthen his defences along the western coast of Europe by diverting men and materials urgently required elsewhere.
But there was a wider, less tangible purpose, whose dividends could not be calculated in an accounts ledger or a casualty list – and Churchill understood it better than anyone: morale.
Britain’s newspapers offered little cheer over the breakfast table at this time.
The nation’s cities were being battered by the Luftwaffe and every day seemed to bring news of a fresh setback from one corner or another of the globe.
The sinking mood could only be lifted by the knowledge that there was still some fight left in the country.
Even the smallest hit-and-run raid, no more than an irritating distraction to the Nazi war machine, would at least show the British people – and the Germans – that the war in Europe was not quite decided yet.

‘How wonderful it would be if the Germans could be made
to wonder where they were going to be struck next instead of forcing us to try to wall in the Island and roof it over!’
Churchill wrote.
As a result, the Commandos and airborne troops were brought into existence and the tri-service Combined Operations was established.
Thousands of the country’s best fighting men were soon taking part in intensive training courses; specialist weaponry and equipment was rolling out of the factory gates, and audacious plans for hit-and-run assaults were being sketched out in the planning rooms.
The British might have been hopelessly ill-prepared for the Second World War, but they certainly made up for their dithering with a colossal national effort.
The raiding forces that were launched against the Nazis were the sharp end of that effort and, as the war ground on, the toll they took on the enemy mounted significantly.
The British quickly proved themselves to be masters of the ‘raid’ as well as irregular warfare.
The Commandos caused so much trouble that Hitler issued his famous order: if captured, Britain’s elite troops were to be summarily executed, even if they were wearing uniform and had tried to surrender.

Four of the six chapters in
Raiders
tell stories of daring amphibious or airborne operations against targets along the western frontier of Nazi-occupied Europe.
Operation ARCHERY was a Combined Operation assault on a Norwegian coastal town that had consequences far beyond the expectations of those who had planned it.
Operation BITING, a cross-Channel raid into France, was the first major attack by the British Airborne Division and its first battle honour.
Operation GUNNERSIDE was a dramatic
demolition assault on Hitler’s atomic bomb plant in Norway, carried out by a Norwegian unit of British Commandos.
Operation CHARIOT, an amphibious assault on the heavily defended French port of St Nazaire, has been known ever since as ‘the greatest raid of all’.

The other two raids described here are of a slightly different nature, but are no less compelling and extraordinary.
Operation JUDGEMENT, in which obsolete British biplanes attacked the Italian Fleet at anchor in Taranto, was one of the most spectacular efforts of the entire conflict and altered the balance of the war in the Mediterranean and North Africa.
Operation DEADSTICK is the story of a small party of British airborne troops, the first Allies into the fray on D-Day, tasked with seizing and holding two bridges to prevent an armoured German counterattack against the beach landings.

The six stories, each with their own distinctive character, are not just dry, step-by-step accounts of events that will be of interest only to students of military history.
As in
Warriors
, my book about individual British war heroes of the two world wars, in
Raiders
I have tried to draw out the human element of these spectacular, dramatic operations, carried out by small groups of fervently patriotic, tough young men, who expected to die for the country they loved and for the freedom of their friends.

Operation Judgement

‘It was a beautiful, picture-postcard evening; there were only a few wisps of cloud below us, otherwise the sky was clear, and littered with a blaze of stars; to the south a three-quarter moon was throwing a golden pathway across the calm sea; the air was smooth giving hardly a judder.
It would have been the most perfect evening to enjoy flying, had it not been for the reason for our flight.’

Lt John Wellham

WHEN MUSSOLINI DECLARED
war on Britain on 10 June 1940, the Royal Navy’s Mediterranean Fleet found itself in an extremely vulnerable position.
At a stroke, Britain’s ability to maintain
control over a region vital to its survival was plunged into serious jeopardy.
Outnumbered and outgunned, many of Admiral Sir Andrew Cunningham’s antiquated ships, impressive though they looked, were clapped out and close to the end of their operational usefulness.
The Italians, by contrast, boasted dozens of new and impeccably renovated ships and submarines in a huge fleet, backed up by a large air force with hundreds of very good-quality aircraft.
Mussolini liked to refer to the Med as ‘Mare Nostrum’ (Our Sea) and, on paper at least, it was his Royal Navy, not Britain’s, that ruled its waves.

Since Nelson’s time, the Mediterranean Fleet had been regarded by British admirals as the finest command of them all, but nine months into Hitler’s War, it had become something of a Cinderella service.
Most of its best ships had been rushed back to defend home waters: the Dunkirk evacuation had begun at the end of May, the Battle of Britain raged overhead, the Atlantic convoys were being sunk in great numbers by German U-boats, and Norway needed help too.
What ships could be spared for the Med were past or fast approaching their scrapping date.

This might not have mattered had the Mediterranean been a backwater command irrelevant to Britain’s war effort.
But that was far from the case.
Control of the 2,400-mile-long sea was vital to British interests and it had to be held at all costs.
The Mediterranean was the main corridor for all British imperial assets and territories in North Africa, the Middle East, the Far East and Australasia.
The alternative passage from the UK to India, around the Cape of Good Hope, was 4,000 miles
longer, which added several more weeks to the journey time.

Gibraltar had no airfield at the time and Malta, the Royal Navy’s other major base in the region, lay a short flight from a string of Italian air bases.
Over a two-year period, the tiny island and its British naval base was to be subjected to more than 3,000 bombing raids.
There was no other good-quality naval base or anchorage in the 6,000 or so miles between Malta and Singapore.
The Navy had adopted Alexandria out of necessity rather than choice: the Egyptian port’s defences and facilities were poor and the fleet was vulnerable there.

With all her capital ships drawn off for more pressing engagements, by the end of 1939 the once formidable Mediterranean Fleet consisted of three small cruisers and a few destroyers of World War One vintage.
The reinforcements that arrived by the time Mussolini decided that Britain was a spent force, ripe for picking off, were welcomed, but they brought little more than the appearance of strength.
A fleet is only as powerful as its biggest guns – that is, its battleships – and against Italy’s six modern battleships, only HMS
Warspite
could hope to hold her own in an old-fashioned slugging match.
Possession of just two of her modern battleships, supported by its cruiser and destroyer squadrons, would have been sufficient to give the Italians the upper hand in the Mediterranean.
Half a dozen of them was a luxury that Britain could only envy – and fear.
The Royal Navy was also very short of ammunition and, if major repairs were needed to a ship, she would have to return to the UK or make the long, dangerous passage to the United States or Canada.

In short, Britain’s days in the Med were numbered.
Not for two centuries had one of Britain’s enemies had a better opportunity to defeat a fleet of the fabled Royal Navy in open battle.
And yet the Italians never tried.
There were two reasons for this.
Firstly and frankly, they simply didn’t fancy it.
The reputation alone of the Royal Navy was formidable enough to keep the Italian Fleet in the safety of its heavily defended bases.
Secondly, even with the odds stacked in their favour, they didn’t need to risk a confrontation.
In spite of his ageing fleet’s technical inferiority, Admiral Cunningham, a fighting man to the tips of his well-polished shoes, never stopped trying to invite the Italians out into the open.
But they never came.
When, once, the two forces ran into each other, after a brief engagement the Italians quickly ran for the sanctuary of their harbours.

It wasn’t so much cowardice as common sense that persuaded Admiral Riccardi, Chief of the Italian Naval Staff, to keep his big ships out of harm’s way.
Italian submarines and aircraft of the Regia Aeronautica were causing quite enough damage to British interests as it was.
Malta was hanging on by a thread; British submarines were being sent to the bottom faster than they could be replaced; Allied supply convoys to North Africa were being harassed to distraction, and Italian seaplanes, with virtually no opposition in the air, were providing information about every British move in the Med.
Riccardi simply had to wait for the overstretched, obsolete Royal Navy fleet to burn itself out before sailing forth to administer the knockout blow.

Admiral Cunningham and his senior commanders understood
the danger.
They knew they had to act before it was too late.
With the RAF tied up defending Britain from a German invasion, Britain’s air assets in the Med were pathetically inadequate for the job of defending the fleet and her bases.
There was barely a dozen aircraft available to patrol almost one million square miles of air space, an area the size of the UK, France, Spain, Portugal, Germany, Italy, the Lowlands, Poland and Greece combined.

Old-school Navy characters – and there were a great many of them – were yet to fully grasp the strategic importance of ‘air’ to navies in modern warfare.
Some even thought it was unchivalrous for one Navy to attack another with anything but the guns on her ships.
But, whether they knew it or not, the days when two fleets took up position and knocked lumps out of each other from a distance were over.
To devastatingly destructive effect, the Luftwaffe divebombers had recently shown in their attacks against the Royal Navy in Norway that a few dozen small aircraft, produced at a fraction of the cost of a warship, were able to locate enemy ships at sea with ease and then set about them with powerful, precisely delivered bombs.
The Royal Navy, with its outdated, inaccurate AA guns, never stood a chance in the doomed Norwegian campaign (by coincidence, the campaign came to an end the day Italy declared war on Britain).

A letter in May 1940 from Sir Dudley Pound, the First Sea Lord, Cunningham’s predecessor in the Med, confirmed what the new Commander-in-Chief already knew.
It read: ‘I am afraid you are terribly short of “air”, but there again I do not see what
can be done because .
.
.
every available aircraft is wanted in home waters.
The one lesson we have learnt here is that it is essential to have fighter protection over the fleet whenever they are within the range of enemy bombers.
You will be without such protection, which is a very serious matter, but I do not see any way of rectifying it.’
At the time of his writing, the ancient aircraft carrier HMS
Eagle
was on its way from the Far East with a small squadron of biplanes in its hangar, but that was next to no comfort to the naval chiefs.
Carriers, warships and aircraft were being built at a frenetic rate back in Britain’s shipyards and factories, but whether there would still be a Mediterranean Fleet for them to reinforce was another matter.

From the moment they received the news that Britain was at war with Italy, every sailor and airman (what few there were of the latter) in the Royal Navy’s Mediterranean Fleet understood there was only one option: Cunningham was going to have to ‘do a Nelson’.
That was the expression buzzing around below the decks, referring to two great episodes in the history of the Royal Navy, the Battle of Copenhagen and the Battle of the Nile.
In both encounters, Nelson used the element of surprise to attack enemy fleets whilst they were at anchor.
Both ended in decisive victories for the Royal Navy and secured British domination for years to come.

The huge Italian fleet at the southern port of Taranto was asking for the same treatment.
The only difference this time round was that it was not giant ships of the line, with a thousand guns between them, that were tasked to wreak the destruction.
It was a handful of cloth-covered biplanes that looked as if they had flown straight out of a Biggles adventure book.

There is a well-told story in the Fleet Air Arm of an officer from the US Navy boarding HMS
Illustrious
in 1940.
He walks along the flight deck and, pointing at the strange-looking aircraft emerging from the lift hangar, exclaims: ‘Oh My God!
You don’t actually fly those things, do you?
They look more like four-poster beds than frontline airplanes.’
There’s no reason to doubt the truth of the story.
Even seventy years on, you don’t have to be an aviation expert to take one look at a Fairey Swordfish and wonder how its type had not been consigned to the scrapyard many years earlier.
At a time when sleek, powerful Spitfires and Hurricanes were tearing up the skies with Me109s and Stuka divebombers, there’s no getting away from the fact that the Swordfish looked like an aircraft better suited to a museum or a vintage airshow than a modern theatre of war.
How that American naval officer would have been astonished to learn that not only would the Swordfish remain in frontline service until VE Day, but that it would account for sinking a greater tonnage of Axis shipping than any Allied aircraft in the war.

The Swordfish was conceived and went into production in the mid-1930s at a time when the rest of the world’s aircraft manufacturers had begun to turn their creative minds to monoplanes, constructed from steel and toughened aluminium.
The British designer Charles Fairey, founder of Fairey Aviation, believed there was still a role for an old-style biplane made from
struts and wires and covered in linen cloth.
At the behest of the Admiralty, it was designed as a maritime aircraft that, flying off carriers, could carry out antisubmarine patrols, reconnaissance and torpedo-dropping.
Carrier aircraft, coming in at speed, needed to be extremely robust to withstand the heavy landings on deck and, operating far out at sea, often a long way from their targets, they also needed to have longer legs than most.
The Swordfish had a range of 450 nautical miles, and that could be doubled by strapping on an extra fuel tank.

It was never imagined that the Swordfish would be able to hold its own against the speedy, powerful fighters of the Italian or German air forces.
The Swordfish could reach 100 knots at a push, but nothing like that when laden with fuel and bombs or a torpedo.
The Me109, the Luftwaffe’s workhorse fighter, was four or five times faster; its armament of fixed machine guns and cannon immeasurably more powerful and accurate than anything the British biplane could put up.
The Swordfish’s only form of defence was a fixed forward-firing Vickers machine gun and a swivel-mounted Vickers or Lewis gun at the back of the open cockpit; these were so cumbersome and inaccurate that the gunner/wireless operator rarely bothered to use them and they were often removed altogether.
A handheld pistol was seen as a more effective means of defence.
Slow, defenceless and made from stretched cloth .
.
.
the sight of a leisurely approaching Swordfish was unlikely to put the fear of god into its enemies.
The hope was that they would rarely meet.

The Swordfish might not have been the most sophisticated
piece of kit to take to the air in the Second World War, but they didn’t build 2,392 of them for the amusement of the Germans and Italians.
Speak to the pilots of the Fleet Air Arm who flew her throughout the war, and you won’t hear anything but affection and admiration for the aircraft.
They will tell you that the Swordfish had three outstanding qualities: it was extremely manoeuvrable, highly adaptable and, in spite of its flimsy-looking cloth frame, it was as hard as nails.

Its aerobatic qualities certainly came in handy when being chased by German fighters in the Norwegian campaign a few months earlier.
A number of Me109s, chasing Swordfishes up fjords, found it hard to lay a round on them as the biplanes twisted and turned.
In the aerobatic tangle, the less manoeuvrable German fighters sometimes crashed into the steep rock faces of Norway’s jagged coastline.
The Swordfish was highly unlikely to shoot down an enemy fighter, but she could certainly give him the runaround.
The aircraft’s versatility earned it the nickname ‘Stringbag’.
The Swordfish was happy to drop anything: bombs, torpedoes, flares, depth charges, mines .
.
.
Like a housewife’s string shopping bag, the Swordfish could carry any number of items of equipment at a time.
But above all, she could take a great deal of punishment, more than any other aircraft in operation at the time.
Most rounds passed straight through her linen-covered fuselage and wings.

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