Thwarted operation

How a special unit of German Jews from England led a disastrous World War II raid in Libya.

Trucks halt at the massive rock outcrop of Gilf Kebir during Operation Agreement in 1942 (photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
Trucks halt at the massive rock outcrop of Gilf Kebir during Operation Agreement in 1942
(photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
In September 1942, as the first stage of an attack on Tobruk – a strategic port in North Africa controlled by the armed forces of Mussolini’s Italy and Hitler’s Germany – the English authorized a surprise raid. The operation, called Operation Agreement, included a special-forces unit comprised of German Jews who were tasked with trekking across 2,900 kilometers of desert, disguised as German soldiers transporting prisoners of war. They had to destroy Tobruk’s fuel installation, then withdraw, while another unit approached from the sea, using folding kayaks, and hit the harbor facilities.
In his new history of the raid, Operation Agreement: Jewish Commandos and the Raid on Tobruk, John Sadler details the fiasco that ensued. He demonstrates that what went wrong with the plan “could fairly easily be summarized as ‘everything.’” A complicated plan, “hijacked and expanded beyond recognition,” it was doomed from the outset by the great distances to the objective, boats ill-suited to a landing operation, and woefully inadequate estimates of the enemy’s capacity.
A military historian and battlefield tour guide, Sadler is at his best describing the minute-by-minute experiences of the assault teams in Libya. Few Allied forces, he writes, “featured a more eclectic and mongrel military attire” – and the photographs of commandos in the book provide the proof. Headgear varied, from pith helmets to Arab keffiyehs, woolen caps and black berets. And commandos often preferred leather sandals to standard infantry boots.
Sadler reveals as well that soldiers often did not know how to create paths through minefields; and officers (and infantrymen) did not fully understand the tactical significance of tanks. And he reminds us of the risks SIG members took when the ventured behind the lines: Corporal Hillman, Sadler indicates, used the nom de guerre Steiner; wounded, and hobbling on one foot, he was renamed Kennedy to hide his Jewish identity.
Sadler, alas, often steps on his own narrative – and he does not often enough step back to assess the big picture. That said, he does provide interesting assessments of field commanders and the strategic prowess of British prime minister Winston Churchill.
Acknowledging that Gen. Claude Auchinleck lacked the “knack of dealing with his political masters,” who did not welcome blunt assessments of realities on the ground, Sadler claims that Auchinleck and his subordinates actually produced “the blueprint for final victory in the Western Desert,” even though his successor, Field Marshal Bernard Montgomery, has received the credit. In contrast to Auchinleck, Sadler adds, the legendary German general Erwin Rommel, “the Desert Fox,” did not learn from past mistakes.
Like most historians, Sadler is not impressed by Churchill’s incessant meddling in military tactics and strategy.
“Incapable of understanding” that the mobile nature of desert warfare meant that the side with the best tanks in adequate numbers, along with “commensurate strength in supporting arms,” would prevail, the prime ministers liked derring-do clandestine raids and knockout attacks, and issued calls that “every fit male be made to fight and die for victory.”
And, according to Sadler, Churchill was “obsessed with using blockships to bottle up enemy ports,” a difficult, dangerous approach with “dubious long-term value.”
Andrew Browne Cunningham, the most outstanding British World War II naval commander, considered the idea crazy – and ignored Churchill’s recommendations.
Despite “a flicker of hope at the outset,” Operation Agreement, Sadler concludes, would have “veered toward farce had it not led or contributed to tragedy.” The bombing had done little damage – and had alerted the enemy that an attack was coming. The amphibious landing turned into a fiasco: landing beaches had not been correctly marked, a prodigious wave swept canoes into the sea, and many commandos did not get ashore. And the fighters, who were pretty much in the dark about what was going on elsewhere, faced far more intense resistance from Italian soldiers than they had expected. In the course of the operation, 280 Allied naval personnel, 300 marines and 160 soldiers had been either wounded, killed, or captured.
A light cruiser, two destroyers, and four military torpedo boats went down, diminishing the strike capacity of the Mediterranean Squadron.
The defeat, Sadler emphasizes, “was quickly overtaken by events.” In October 1942, Montgomery, who escaped unscathed in the Operation Agreement blame game, launched the offensive later known as the Second Battle of El Alamein.
Following a hard-fought struggle of attrition, he defeated Rommel. In the spring of 1943, Churchill received the telegram he had been waiting for: “All enemy resistance has ceased. We are the master of the North African shores.”
Operation Agreement passed swiftly into obscurity. For this very reason, Sadler implies, the “heroic failure” and, especially, the commandos of the special forces deserve a shout out. Sadler reminds us that they exemplified what the Allies were fighting for: the end of a “monstrous tyranny.”
For them, of course, it was a deeply personal “war with hatred,” an opportunity and an obligation to fight back. 
Glenn C. Altschuler is the Thomas and Dorothy Litwin Professor of American Studies at Cornell University.