Operation Colossus: The First British Airborne Raid of World War Two (April 2020)

Britain was one of the last major powers of the Second World War to establish an airborne arm of service. Formed by a collection of free-thinking army and air force officers, the fledgling British paratrooper unit, known as the ‘SAS’, deployed trial and error in terms of tactics and equipment, costing the lives of several volunteers before an elite few were selected to make the first British parachute raid of the war. Alongside the paratroopers were two veterans of the First World War: an Italian SOE agent, formerly a banqueting manager in London hotels, and an RAF reserve officer who held the Military Cross for bravery.

Collectively known as ‘X-Troop’, these men were parachuted by specially selected bomber crews into the heart of enemy territory, where they successfully destroyed their target, the Tragino Aqueduct, before becoming the object of an exhaustive manhunt by Italian troops and civilians. Captured, they were variously interrogated, imprisoned, and the Italian SOE agent placed on trial for treason and executed.

Given the distances that had to be covered, the logistical complications and the lack of any precedent, the raid was a remarkable feat. Its success or failure depended on a group of men using methods and equipment thus far untried by the British Army. They were truly ‘guinea pigs’ for those that would follow in their footsteps.

Often overlooked in British military history, Paterson brings this extraordinary episode to light, drawing on verbatim testimony and interrogating the truth of previous accounts. From the formation of the unit and the build up to its first deployment, through Operation Colossus and its aftermath, to its ongoing legacy today, this is the fascinating story of the modern day British Parachute Regiment.


“This is a little told story of the first British airborne forces that were
to prove so useful that they rapidly grew in size and viable roles. The impact of Churchill was immediately felt when he became Prime Minister, a whirlwind of activity and aggression, he encouraged the development of new forms of warfare – Very Highly Recommended.”

“Despite a vast library of airborne literature and the importance of Operation Colossus in that story, relatively little has been written about it, and without doubt Paterson’s very well researched account is the most authoritative to date.”
Pegasus Archive 

“Operation Colossus does many things well. It provides an excellent overview of the development of parachute troops as well as an exciting battle narrative and gripping human interest story about men daring to strike a blow in the face of long odds. The book contains sufficient detail that knowledgeable readers will most likely learn something new, while readers new to reading about the war will not feel overwhelmed by jargon. Operation Colossus is a superb addition to the body of literature on airborne forces in World War Two.”
Ben Powers
AR Gunners

“Lawrence Paterson’s book is an incredible story beautifully told. As fiction it would be barely believable but the thoroughly researched facts are from official reports and first hand accounts.”
Read the full review here
Clash of Steel

“The book is well written with not too much jargon to confuse the non-military expert reader. I personally enjoyed this and would recommend it as a good read.”
Read the full review here
Army Rumour Service

“Paterson’s book is read with extreme pleasure, and as an Italian I can say that I do not find big errors in the names given (perhaps only the repetition of the acronym MSVN in place of the correct one MVSN). The book is passionate and is very well written, shedding light on an operation that is not very important perhaps for the results obtained, but of extreme value for the ability of the British military authorities to improve and learn from the errors.”
Read the full Italian review here
On The Old Barbed Wire

As featured onWW2 Talk
WW2 Talk

Rating: 5 out of 5 stars
This book sets out to provide an account of an early special forces operation that involved parachuting commandos into southern Italy in 1941 and succeeds admirably in describing the difficulties encountered in establishing a viable air-inserted special forces team, complete with arms, equipment and explosives, behind enemy lines. It highlights the many false starts and the lack of preparedness of the Commando teams at this early stage of the war and the way in which the lessons learned were used to ensure that the Airborne Forces deployed later in the war were better prepared for the difficulties likely to be encountered. However, many readers will share the author’s – and this reader’s – disappointment that a number of key lessons had still not been addressed by the time the Rhine crossing was attempted at Arnhem in 1944, particularly in respect of reconnaissance and deployment of troops as close to the objective as possible. The writing is well-paced and skilfully weaves together a range of first person accounts to convey a coherent account of the recruitment, training and deployment of the troops, including their subsequent successful completion of their mission. The narrative continues with the troops’ attempts to make their way to the coast to where they believed a submarine would be waiting on prearranged nights. The decision by the planners to cancel this rendezvous fortunately did not add to the problems experienced by the Commandos as they were all caught as they made their way to the coast. The account is all the better for the lack of any chauvinistic flavour to the writing and for the factual, rather than any ‘gung ho’, sentiment. For this reader, the later section of the book that deals with the ‘what happened next’ to the Commandos after capture and imprisonment was a little lengthy and occasionally repetitive. However, this did not detract from the overall high quality of the book, which served as a reminder of the incredible heroism of the many young, and not so young, men who volunteered for exceptionally hazardous duty.
NetGalley, K Manley

Rating: 5 out of 5 stars
Wonderfully written story. Recommend it if you like learning about WWII I liked the book. It gave me facts I didn’t know about that time period. NetGalley, Victoria Watson

Extra material

Sadly with a book of this nature, there is only so much room for photographs within the photographic plate section. I managed to find, and got given, some truly fascinating images that haven’t made the final book, so I have included them here for anybody that is interested.

The Tragino aqueduct as it looks today
The smaller aqueduct adjacent. Though the original farm buildings have been extended, they still stand.

The Royal George Hotel in Knutsford, used as Officer’s Mess for No.2 (Parachute) Commando.
General Dill inspecting one of the canvas equipment containers, December 1940. As well as Lieutenant Jackson, this photograph shows Major John Rock, the officer standing on parachute rigging lines.
The site of the small concrete bridge destroyed by Deane-Drummond’s explosion near the farmhouses. This rebuilt bridge photographed in 2018.
X-Troop enlisted personnel and crew of Pilot Officer Jack Wotherspoon’s Whitley ‘S’ that came down wit engine failure photographed by the International Red Cross inside their walled compound not long after arrival in Campo 78, Sulmona. (Airborne Assault Museum)
1. L/Cpl Harry Tomlin
2. Sgt John Walker
3.Spr David Struthers
4. L/Cpl Doug Jones
5. Sgt Arthur Lawley
6. Sgt. Percy Clements
7. L/Cpl Doug Henderson
8. L/Cpl Jim Maher
9. Sgt. Basil Albon RAF
10. Cpl Joseph Edward Grice
11. Pvt. Nicola Nastri
12. Cpl Philip Julian
13. Cpl. Peter O’Brien
14. Spr Glyn Pryor
15. Cpl. Derry Fletcher
16. Pvt. Ernest Humphrey
Further Red Cross photographs taken of X-Troop after arrival in Sulmona. (ICRC V-P-HIST-03493-05)
1. Sgt. Edward Durie
2.Sgt. Eric Hodges RAF
3. Sgt. Joe Shutt
4. Spr. Alan Ross
5. L/Cpl Jim Maher
6. RAF Navigator (not on Operation Colossus)
7. L/Cpl Harry Tomlin
8. Sgt John Walker
9. Spr. Owen Phillips
10. Sgt. Basil Albon RAF
11. Cpl Joseph Grice
12. Spr David Struthers
13. L/Cpl Doug Jones
14. Cpl Philip Julian
15. Pvt. Nicola Nastri

As above. (ICRC V-P-HIST-E-03819)
1. Cpl. Derry Fletcher
2. L/Cpl Doug Henderson
3. Pvt. Ernest Humphrey
4. L/Cpl Harry Pexton
5. Pvt. Albert Samuels
6. Pvt. James Parker
7. Sgt Fred Southam RAF
8. Spr. Alf Parker
9. L/Cpl Robert Watson
The hand drawn map provided to the men of X-Troop, this one belonging to Harry Chapman. The black arrow has been added to show the location of the Tragino aqueduct. (courtesy of Tony Chapman)
Memorial established in 2016 at Brookwood’s Commonwealth War Graves Cemetery in Surrey, south-west England, commemorating twenty-three Jewish members of the Palmach missing in action with their British liaison officer Major Anthony Palmer during ‘Operation Boatswain. One extra name on the small memorial that does not belong to those of Operation Boatswain: ‘Picchi, F.’ Rather than providing a separate memorial to the first Italian S.O.E. man to ever go into action with the most disastrous result for him, his name was added here.
Blurry reproduction from the Royal Engineers magazine showing X-Troop practicing the attachment of demolitions to mock bridge pylons in Tatton Park. (Royal Engineers)

At La Briglia, part of the Tuscan commune of Vaiano to which the Picchi family moved during the war years, a small bridge has been named ‘Ponte Fortunato Picchi’ in his honour, though the metal plaque attached to the concrete structure bears no description of the man beyond his name.
The propaganda victory (Alamy Stock photos)
Fortunato Picchi’s (top left) death recorded in the Illustrated London News, April 1941.
RAF reconnaissance photograph that belonged to Cpl Harry Chapman, showing the main aqueduct over the Tragino (right) and the smaller one over the Fosse della Cinestra (left). The farm houses can be seen above the smaller aqueduct. Courtesy of Tony Chapman.