The Bardia raid was an amphibious landing at the coastal town of Bardia in North Africa by British Commandos over the night of 19/20 April 1941 during the Second World War. The raid was carried out by No. 7 Commando also known as A Battalion Layforce together with a small detachment from the Royal Tank Regiment supported by five navy ships and a submarine. The raid—which destroyed an Italian artillery battery and a supply dump—was deemed a success despite the loss of 71 men. The more lasting strategic effect of the raid was the diversion of a German armoured brigade from the front line to provide rear area security.
In January 1941, an ad hoc force of 2,000 commandos known as Layforce, was sent from Great Britain to take part in raiding operations in the Mediterranean. Under the command of Colonel Robert Laycock, the force comprised No. 7 Commando, No. 8 (Guards) Commando, No. 11 (Scottish) Commando, a troop from No. 3 Commando and the Folbot section. On their arrival in Egypt in March 1941, the force was strengthened by the amalgamated No. 50 Commando and No. 52 Commando. To avoid the Axis powers becoming aware that a large force of commandos had arrived in theatre, 7, 8, 11 and 50/52 Commandos were camouflaged as A, B, C and D Battalions Layforce.
In early 1941, after the big British and Commonwealth victory in Cyrenaica, the military position was soon reversed. Wavell ordered a significant portion of O'Connor's XIII Corps to Greece as part of Operation Lustre in the Battle of Greece. Adolf Hitler responded to the Italian disaster by ordering Unternehmen Sonnenblume (Operation Sunflower), the deployment of the newly formed Afrika Korps as reinforcements to the Italians, to prevent total collapse. The DAK had fresh troops with better equipment and tanks and a charismatic commander. When Rommel arrived in North Africa, along with six Italian divisions which included the Trento and Ariete, his orders were to remain on the defensive.
In the first Italo-German offensive, the Axis force raided and quickly defeated the British at El Agheila on 24 March, exploited the success and by 15 April, had pushed the British back to the border at Sollum and besieged Tobruk. The new commander of XIII Corps (now HQ Cyrenaica Command) Lieutenant-General Philip Neame, O'Connor and Major-General Michael Gambier-Parry, commander of the 2nd Armoured Division were captured. The Western Desert Force HQ took over under Lieutenant-General Noel Beresford-Peirse, who was recalled from East Africa. An armoured brigade group of the 2nd Armoured Division, had been used to provide forces for the Greek campaign and the rest of the division in Cyrenaica had ceased to exist. Several Axis attempts to seize Tobruk failed and a front line was formed on the Egyptian border. In April 1941, the plans for the deployment of Layforce were changed and their first operation would be a raid on Bardia.
The Bardia raid was planned for the night of 19/20 April by A Battalion, Layforce to disrupt Axis lines of communication and inflict as much damage as possible to installations and equipment. The plan called for the simultaneous landing of A Battalion and a troop of tanks from the Royal Tank Regiment on four beaches by Landing Craft Assault (LCA). The landing force would be transported to the area by HMS Glengyle, escorted by the anti-aircraft cruiser HMS Coventry and the destroyers HMAS Stuart, Voyager and Waterhen. On arrival of the transports off Bardia, one LCA could not be lowered and there were difficulties releasing the others. When they did get going and approached the beaches, they were expecting to see lights to guide them in, which were to have been deployed by the Folbot section; unknowingly, the Folbot section had been delayed en route when friendly fire caused the submarine transporting them—HMS Triumph—to submerge and take evasive action.
The main landing force—now behind schedule—were landed on the wrong beaches. All the landings, however, were unopposed and the commandos made their way inland to locate and destroy the objectives they had been assigned. Bardia was found to be unoccupied by the Italian or German forces, and faulty intelligence before the mission resulted in some objectives being missed, as they were not where they were supposed to be, or they did not even exist. The commandos, however, did manage to find and destroy an Italian supply dump and an Italian coastal artillery battery before returning to their waiting LCAs to re-embark. The raid would have passed without any loss to the commandos but for the death of a commando officer by friendly fire from an over-alert commando soldier and the capture of 70 men who, after getting lost, ended up on the wrong evacuation beach and became prisoners of war.
The raid on Bardia was a considerable strategic success. Alarmed by it, the Germans diverted the greater part of an armoured brigade from Sollum, where it was beginning to exert heavy pressure on the Western Desert Force, and kept it for some time in the rear areas. Layforce—instead of being used as a commando raiding unit—were deployed as normal infantry battalions, a role for which they were neither equipped nor trained. As one of the few reserve forces available, they were sent to take part in the Battle of Crete; fighting as the rearguard they lost 600 men before being evacuated. Layforce C Battalion was not sent to Crete but instead to Lebanon, where they lost over 120 men fighting in the battle of the Litani River. The steady drain of manpower without the re-supply chain of normal British Army regiments meant that Layforce as a unit was left in an ineffective state and was disbanded in July 1941.
The author Evelyn Waugh—who took part in the raid—related in an article he wrote for Life Magazine in November 1941, that the Germans "sent a strong detachment of tanks and armoured cars to repel the imagined invasion". In his diary published in 1976, a very different picture emerged of incompetent execution by the commandos, against virtually no opposition.
- Chappell, p.15
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- Mountbatten, p. 35
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