Wednesday, 4 April 2018

"We Could Have Been British Saboteurs"

     One moonless night in May 1942, six British Commandos drove into Italian occupied Benghazi in a "battle waggon" painted  to resemble a German staff car with a broad white stripe across the bonnet, the German air-recognition mark. But appearances were deceptive; it was filled with high explosives, along with two inflatable rafts, and mountings for two machine guns, which could be removed and hidden out of sight on the floor. Benghazi was in for some serious business. One of the commandos, in fact, was the son of the British Prime Minister, but it was under the command of Fitzroy Maclean, who soon faced his first crisis: a military check point.
    Three years had passed since he had last spoken Italian, and he devoutly hoped that his accent wouldn't betray him, or that his uniform would not be recognized as British. With a tommy gun pointed out them, a sentry demanded to know who they were. "Staff officers," declared Maclean peremptorily, "in a hurry". The sentry paused, then pointed to their headlights. "You ought to get those dimmed," he said, saluted sloppily, and let them through.
     But as they were entering the town, they found themselves followed by another car, so it seemed. Turning at the first corner, they stopped and switched off their lights. The other car sped ahead. Just them, rockets went up, and the air-raid sirens began to wail. They had arranged for the R.A.F. to forgone bombing that night, but they remembered an Arab they had recently met whom they suspected of being a spy. They're on to us! thought Maclean. There was nothing to do but to hike it out on foot. So they set a bomb in the battle waggon with a fuse for half an hour, and made tracks - only to come face to face with an Italian policeman. Maclean decided it was best to accost him before he accosted them.
     "What's all this noise about?" he asked.
     "Oh, just another of those damned English air raids."
      "Mightn't it be," suggested Maclean, "that enemy ground forces are raiding the town and that they are the cause of the alert."
      The policeman gave a chuckle, and ignoring the fact that they were standing under a street light and Maclean was in a British uniform, assured them that the British were back almost to the Egyptian border, and there was no need to worry.
      Right! So they weren't onto them. They got back to the waggon just in time to throw away the bomb before it exploded, and set out again. Just outside the barbed wire fence surrounding the harbour, they came to another sentry. Realizing that slinking away would only be suspicious, Maclean went right up to him, announced that they had had a motor vehicle accident, and did he know where they could find a hotel? Regrettably, the sentry informed them, the hotels were all bombed out, but they might be able to sleep in the ruins. His accent and British uniform went unnoticed. An unobservant man, mused Maclean.
    As soon as they were out of sight, they found a way through the fence, onto the beach, and started inflating one of the rafts. The ships in the harbour were now their lawful prey, but suddenly a challenge issued from one of them. "Who goes there?" it called in Italian.
    "What are you up to over there?"
    "Nothing to do with you!" That apparently satisfied him.
    I shan't go into the details of how both rafts were found to have been punctured, and how the group divided into two in order to scout out the possibilities. But soon they found themselves accosted by a black soldier from Italian Somaliland, who prodded Maclean in the belly with a bayonet. Maclean asked him what he wanted, when the "blackamoor" uttered the only Italian words he knew: "Non parlare Italiano."
     At that Maclean exploded in mock fury. "Don't speak Italian?" he shouted. "And you a corporal!" pointing to the stripe on his sleeve. The soldier lowered his bayonet, and when Maclean continued his imitation of an angry Italian officer, he slunk away.
    Maclean and his two companions now stuffed their rafts and explosives back into their kitbags and started on their return journey, when they noticed that two sentries with rifles and fixed bayonets had fallen in behind them. That left only three options open:
  • try to elude them. Not possible, especially since they would have to negotiate a hole in the wire.
  • shoot it out. Too risky.
  • brazen it out. I shall now leave it to Maclean's own words to describe how it transpired.
    Assuming as pompous a manner as my ten days' beard and shabby appearance permitted, I headed for the main gate of the docks, followed by David and Corporal Cooper and the two Italian sentries. At the gate a sentry was on duty outside the guard tent. Walking straight up to him, I told him that I wished to speak to the Guard Commander. To my relief he disappeared obediently into the tent and came out a minute or two later followed by a sleepy-looking sergeant, hastily pulling on his trousers. For the second time that night I introduced myself as an officer of the General Staff, thereby eliciting a slovenly salute. Next, I reminded him that he was responsible for the security of this part of the harbour. This he admitted sheepishly. How was it, I asked him, that I and my party had been able to wander freely about the whole area for the best part of the night without once being properly challenged or asked to produce our identity cards? He had, I added, warming to my task, being guilty of a gross dereliction of duty. Why, for all he knew, we might have been British saboteurs carrying loads of high explosive (at this he tittered incredulously, obviously thinking that I was laying it on a bit thick). Well, I said, I would let him off this time, but he had better not let me catch him napping again. What was more, I added, with a nasty look at the sentry, who winced, he had better do something about smartening up his men's appearance."
     Looked at objectively, his criticism of the sergeant was perfectly legitimate - and have you forgotten that he was wearing a British uniform? The sentry gave them a smart salute as they strode out. They managed to re-unite with their companions, and spent the following day under cover sleeping. As soon as it was dark, they ventured forth, walking down the middle of the road, arms linked, whistling, with the result that everybody decided there was nothing suspicious about them. A couple of motor torpedo boats looked like they were worth blowing up on their way out of town, but the luck was against them. This time a sentry was on duty who was really doing his duty, and they couldn't get past him, so they had to leave Benghazi empty-handed. Nevertheless, in the inimitable words of their commander:
If only you can behave naturally, and avoid any appearance of furtiveness, it is worth any number of elaborate disguises and faked documents.
    But I don't think they would have been able to get away with it with the Germans.
(There is an interesting, and probably correct, article on the Italians' lack of enthusiasm during the war.)

Reference: Fitzroy Maclean, Eastern Approaches, Jonathan Cape, 1949


  1. Ha - that's too funny. It makes me want to rewatch What Did You Do in the War, Daddy?

  2. This made me curious. I just Googled "Italian Uniforms WWII" and got a link to something entitled "423 Best Italian Uniforms - World War II." I'm not sure if there are 423 separate uniforms or just 423 separate illustrations (too lazy to count), but there are a dizzying array of different uniforms pictured. Memo to self: If I ever rule a peninsula and decide to fight a war, I will instruct my uniform designers to "Keep It Simple, Stupid." Here is the link: