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Episodes & Studies Volume 1

The Barce Raid

The Barce Raid

WITH ORDERS to raid Barce town and airfield, ‘causing the maximum amount of damage and disturbance to the enemy’, Major J. R. Easonsmith14 left Faiyum on 1 September with T1 patrol (under Captain Wilder) and G1 patrol (under Captain J. A. L. Timpson15, a total of forty-seven men in twelve trucks and five jeeps. The outward journey, a distance of 1155 miles, involved crossing the Egyptian and Kalansho Sand Seas. During the first crossing, Timpson fractured his skull and a Guards gunner injured his spine when a jeep capsized over the edge of a razor-back dune. They were flown to Cairo from a landing ground near Big Cairn.

From the northern edge of the Kalansho Sand Sea, the patrols crossed southern Cyrenaica to the foothills of Gebel Akhdar. Major Easonsmith took a British agent (Major V. Peniakoff) and two Senussi spies to within a few miles of Barce, where they were to learn all they could about the enemy before rejoining the patrols. After dark on 13 September, the raiding party drove northwards along a road through wooded, hilly country. They were challenged at a police post by a native sentry, who was immediately taken prisoner. A shout brought out an Italian officer, who had to be shot. The rest of the guard, leaving twelve horses in a stable, deserted the post. The sudden halt when challenged had caused two trucks to collide, one of them the truck carrying T1 patrol’s Breda gun, and as both vehicles were then unfit to go into action, they were stripped and left at the side of the road.

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Peniakoff was waiting at Sidi Selim, but his two Arabs, who may not have had time, had not returned. The medical officer (Captain R. P. Lawson16 was left at this rendezvous with the Ti wireless truck to act as a rallying point after the raid. The patrols then drove on to the main road to Barce, where they met two small tanks. Not sure whether the approaching vehicles contained friends or foes, the enemy troops held their fire until the leading jeep was level. The LRDG then opened fire with all weapons and raced through unscathed.

The patrols separated at the entrance to the town, which they entered at midnight, Ti to attack the airfield and Gi the barracks. Captain Wilder led the New Zealanders in their four trucks and a jeep on to the airfield, where they set fire to a petrol dump and a tanker and trailer, which lit up the whole scene, and threw grenades through the windows of the mess building. Driving round the landing ground in single file, they fired incendiary ammunition at each aircraft in turn. Corporal M. Craw,17 who was in the last truck, placed bombs on the planes that were not already burning and wrecked ten of them. The patrol claimed to have destroyed twenty aircraft and to have damaged another dozen, but the Italians later told a prisoner of war that they lost thirty-five. Although the enemy was shooting wildly from practically every angle and vantage point, the patrol spent an hour on the airfield without casualty. The burning aircraft lit up the whole town.

Expecting the narrow road by which they had reached the airfield to be blocked, Ti patrol drove out down the main street, but encountered very heavy fire from Italian armoured fighting vehicles. Fortunately several tanks that were blocking the way were firing a little too high. The leading truck, driven by Captain Wilder, with Troopers D. S. Parker18 and H. R. T. Holland19 at the guns, charged the nearest tank at full speed, crashed it against the next, and cleared a passage. Wilder and Parker attempted to immobilise the tanks by tossing grenades under them, and, although Parker was severely wounded, they transferred from their damaged truck to the jeep, which was following close behind. Holland was seized by Italians before he could get away, and Lance-Corporal A. H. C. Nutt,20 who had left the jeep to go to the assistance of the men in the truck, was also missing. Dazzled by tracer that Wilder was firing, the driver of the jeep (Trooper P. J. Burke21) steered into a kerb at a street corner. The jeep overturned, pinning the crew underneath, Wilder and Parker both unconscious and Burke injured. Private J. L. D. Davis’s22 truck stopped to extricate the three men, who were revived before they reached the rendezvous.

Two men from another truck, Corporal Tippett and Trooper Dobson, put the tank Wilder had rammed completely out of action by climbing on to it and exploding grenades and bombs inside the turret, and also immobilised another tank with machine-gun fire and by throwing a bomb under it. Dobson was wounded in the hand. Tippett’s truck then took the wrong turning, crossed a rubbish dump, and found a way out through a backyard to the main road.

Corporal Craw’s truck, at the rear of the patrol, stopped at Wilder’s abandoned truck, saw nobody there, and continued along the street. Craw and his crew tried to avoid two or three armoured cars by turning down a narrow side-street, but finding that they could not escape that way, decided to run the gauntlet. Their truck was set on fire and crashed into a concrete air-raid shelter. The force of the impact threw Craw into the shelter, where he was overpowered by Italians. Trooper K. Yealands,23 who was badly wounded, and Trooper R. E. Hay,24 who stopped to extricate him from the burning truck, were also captured. Trooper T. A. Milburn25 managed to get clear of the town before he too fell into enemy hands.

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To distract attention while the New Zealanders were raiding the airfield, and to do as much damage as possible, the Guards patrol attacked the town barracks, where they killed and wounded a number of men. Major Easonsmith, with two jeeps, attacked other buildings, threw grenades among Italians in the streets, and wrecked a dozen vehicles in an unattended transport park. The LRDG then reassembled at the rallying point and retired to the south. Ti had lost six men, two trucks, and a jeep in Barce, and Gi had lost four men and a truck. Two of the Guardsmen later rejoined their patrol.

Shortly before dawn on 14 September, when the two patrols were approaching the police post to the south of Sidi Selim, enemy troops (150 Tripolitanians under three Italian officers), who had been waiting for their return, opened fire from both sides of the road. Their marksmanship was poor, but they succeeded in damaging a truck, which the patrols then had to tow in addition to the two they had left near the police post the previous evening. Just south of the post, the enemy’s fire wounded three men, including Major Peniakoff and Trooper F. W. Jopling.26

An attempt was made to get the three damaged trucks to go under their own power, but the Tripolitanians renewed the attack before the fitters could complete their work. Easonsmith, in his jeep, chased the enemy back two miles while the petrol and stores were removed from the damaged vehicles and time bombs placed in them. The force then continued its withdrawal until the Guards’ wireless truck stopped with a damaged rear axle. Before it could be moved under cover, a reconnaissance plane circled overhead. Six fighters were temporarily distracted by the explosions of the time bombs in the three abandoned trucks, but after strafing in the vicinity of these burning vehicles, they soon reached the area where the LRDG were ill-concealed under some scattered trees. From mid-morning until dusk, aircraft in varying numbers attacked the vehicles and men, mostly with incendiary and explosive ammunition. Wilder and a Guardsman were wounded and all the transport, except one truck and two jeeps, was destroyed. Captain Lawson remained on the surviving truck to shelter a severely wounded man during the attacks, and then managed to get most of the casualties to a safe place a mile or two away.

Jopling and nine Guardsmen began walking to Bir el Gerrari, where Gi patrol had left a vehicle on the way northwards to Barce. Lawson set off in the truck and a jeep with six wounded men (Wilder, Peniakoff, Parker, Dobson, Burke, and a Guardsman), a navigator (Davis), and a driver (Private D. P. Warbrick27 Easonsmith organised the remaining fourteen men into a walking party, who took with them rations and water in the other jeep. The doctor soon had to abandon his jeep because of a hole in the petrol tank, but his party reached Bir el Gerrari on 15 September and pushed on next day to a landing ground near the Kalansho Sand Sea, where they found Yi patrol. In response to a wireless message, the RAF evacuated the wounded to Kufra and later to Cairo.

When Easonsmith’s party was approaching Bir el Gerrari on 17 September, having walked about eighty miles, they unexpectedly met S2 patrol. As the other walking party had not reached the rendezvous, Easonsmith and the Rhodesians combed the area for three days but found only eight men; Jopling and Guardsman Gutheridge were missing. Easonsmith later met the other Rhodesian patrol (S1), which had with it two Guardsmen who had walked out of Barce. The LRDG then withdrew to Kufra, arriving there during an air raid.

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Although Jopling, whose leg wound had turned gangrenous, and Gutheridge, who was exhausted, had been unable to keep up with the other eight members of their party, they were not many miles from Bir el Gerrari when they were missed by the search parties. Believing that they could not reach the rendezvous in time, and desperately in need of water, they turned north towards the hills. They came to an Arab camp on the night of 20 September, and were picked up by a party of Italians and taken back to Barce on the 25th, twelve days after the raid. Despite the condition of Jopling’s leg, the two men had walked at least 150 miles, mostly at night and navigating by the stars.

The raid on Barce cost the enemy many men killed and wounded, over thirty aircraft damaged and destroyed, and a number of vehicles. It cost the LRDG six men wounded, all of whom recovered, ten prisoners of war (seven* from T1 patrol and three from G1), several of whom were wounded, and fourteen vehicles. Their part in the operation won Easonsmith and Wilder the the DSO, Lawson the MC, and Craw, Tippett, and Dobson the MM. Tippett’s and Dobson’s citations also refer to their capture of the Fiesler Storch after the Sidi Haneish raid.

* Four of them, Craw, Nutt, Milburn, and Hay, escaped a year later.