80 Years Ago Today: Operation Colossus

On the night of 10 February 1941, X-Troop, No.11 SAS Battalion dropped into southern Italy to destroy an aqueduct that supplied – and still does supply – the entire Puglia region with fresh water. Within that region lay one of the largest Italian naval bases at Taranto, as well as the major transport hubs of Bari and Brindisi through which supplies flowed for Italian military forces in Albania, Libya and Cyrenaica. Local industry, the civilian population and military presence in Puglia were all dependent upon the aqueduct for fresh water in a region famously arid.

The resulting raid by X-Troop did indeed successfully destroy the relatively small main line aqueduct that crossed the Tragino torrent near Calitri. This marked the baptism of fire for Britain’s fledgling airborne troops; formed in the wake of successful German use of paratroopers during the invasions of Norway and The Netherlands.

The story of the creation of this first British airborne unit is one of bravery, invention, and a frequently cavalier approach to the often hidebound norms of the British Army and Royal Air Force. Researching it was fascinating and allowed me to view certain people and events with greater respect than ever before.

The men were drawn from volunteers, including one young Londoner of Italian extraction. Two men that had won medals for their service during the First World War were also attached almost at the last minute to the existing X-Troop. Of these two, one was an Italian anti-fascist that had lived and worked for years in London.

Ultimately the raid succeeded.

But at what cost? The entire raiding party was captured and the damage inflicted almost immediately repaired. These men displayed impeccable bravery in mounting this audacious raid, and yet there was never any real chance that they would be recovered as planned by a British submarine. The idea that British troops, albeit with a smattering of Italian speakers among them, could walk to the coast of an enemy country and make such a rendezvous was borderline absurd. In early 1941 Italy was firmly anti-British as the fortunes of the Italian military had yet to turn sour and change people’s attitudes. Not only would the escapees face an angry Italian military searching for them, but they would have to deal with the population as a whole.

With this in mind, I have often wondered why this particular target was chosen? Surely if a location had been attacked from which extraction was more likely, then the benefit of experience from these pioneering paratroopers could have been fully exploited. Furthermore, even if the aqueduct was to be attacked, there were other locations that would have inflicted greater damage and been harder to repair.

Regardless of this, I would like to pay tribute to the me of X-Troop. Their military feat was brilliant and they showed considerable fortitude in the years of confinement that followed. Some escaped, some even took part in a second deeply flawed enterprise – the drop on Arnhem – or were involved in the drop over the Rhine. Others had to bear over four years of Italian and then German confinement. For Fortunato Picchi – the Italian national attached by SOE – the result was even more tragic. He was identified and executed for treason. While some may argue that technically his actions were treasonous, he was a traitor to his country in the same way that Claus von Stauffenburg, Henning von Tresckow, Sophie Scholl and the like were to theirs. These were people more in love with their country than their flag. These German people are remembered – Picchi is not. In Italy today, which still has an uneasy relationship with its fascist history, his name is unknown.

Fortunato Picchi

Eighty years ago today.

The men of X-Troop, No.11 S.A.S. Battalion, that dropped into Italy on the night of 10 February 1941.

Major Trevor Allan Gordon ‘Tag’ Pritchard, Royal Welch Fusiliers.
Captain Christopher Gerald Lea, Lancashire Fusiliers.
Captain Gerrard Daly, Royal Corps of Engineers.
Lieutenant Anthony Deane-Drummond, Royal Corps of Signals.
2nd Lieutenant George Robert Paterson, Royal Corps of Engineers.
2nd Lieutenant Arthur Geoffrey Jowett, Highland Light Infantry.
Pilot Officer Ralph Henry Lucky, Royal Air Force Volunteer Reserve.
Sergeant Percy Priestly Clements, Leicestershire Regiment.
Sergeant Edward William ‘Little Jock’ Durie, Royal Corps of Engineers
Warrant Officer II Arthur William Albert ‘Taff’ Lawley, Royal Army Service Corps.
Sergeant Joe Shutt, Leicestershire Regiment.
Sergeant John ‘Big Jock’ Walker, Royal Corps of Signals.
Corporal C.E. McD ‘Derry’ Fletcher, Sherwood Foresters (Nottinghamshire and Derbyshire Regiment).
Corporal J.E. Grice, North Staffordshire Regiment.
Corporal Philip Julian, Royal Corps of Engineers.
Corporal Peter O’Brien, Royal Corps of Engineers.
Lance Corporal Harry Boulter, Royal Corps of Engineers.
Lance Corporal Douglas ‘Flash’ Henderson, Coldstream Guards.
Lance Corporal Doug E. Jones, Royal Corps of Engineers.
Lance Corporal Jim E. Maher, Royal Corps of Engineers.
Lance Corporal Harry Pexton, South Staffordshire Regiment.
Lance Corporal Harry Tomlin, Royal Corps of Engineers.
Lance Corporal Robert Brimer ‘Mad Bob’ Watson, Royal Corps of Engineers.
Private Ernest Humphreys, Royal East Kent Regiment.
Private Nicola Nastri, (going by pseudonym John Tristan) Oxfordshire and Buckinghamshire Light Infantry.
Private Albert Samuels, East Lancashire Regiment.
Sapper ‘Jock’ W. Crawford, Royal Corps of Engineers.
Sapper R. Davidson, Royal Corps of Engineers
Sapper Alf Parker, Royal Corps of Engineers.
Sapper James Parker, Royal Corps of Engineers.
Sapper Owen D. J. Phillips, Royal Corps of Engineers.
Driver Glyn Pryor, Royal Corps of Engineers.
Sapper Alan B. Ross, Royal Corps of Engineers.
Sapper David L. Struthers, Royal Corps of Engineers.
Fortunato Picchi (going by the pseudonym Private Pierre Dupont), Special Operations Executive.

Poor quality reproduction from Engineer’s magazine showing men of X-Troop practicing demolition of replica aqueduct supports.
X-Troop as POWs in Sulmona
The aqueduct (under construction)
X-Troop in training.