Contributor: Hugh Martyr
ww2dbaseFollowing the study of air reconnaissance photographs taken in the autumn of 1940 by the British War Office and the civil engineering Company of George Kent & Sons, a meeting was held in London, England, United Kingdom. The photos were of an aqueduct in southern Italy near Naples that carried fresh water to three major ports over the valley at Tragino. After considering various options of how to destroy it, a decision was made to see if the 11th Special Air Service Battalion that had been formed from No. 2 Commando some six months earlier. At that time the 11th SAS was the only parachute Unit in the British Armed Forces. The destruction of the bridge, it was thought, would hinder the Italian military operations in North Africa and Albania.
ww2dbaseThe battalion finished training for the operation in Dec 1940 and thirty-eight volunteers were selected which was then named X Troop to carry out the operation, code named Colossus. When asking for volunteers, Lieutenant Colonel C. I. A. Jackson reported that the whole battalion stepped forward. It was also intended to use Colossus as a testing case for the airborne troops, their equipment and the ability of the RAF aircraft to deliver them accurately in enemy territory. Command was given to Major T. A. G. Pritchard, originally from the Royal Welsh Fusiliers and after training, moved to their advanced base in Malta, with them they had a RAF Officer, a soldier from the rifle brigade and a civilian to act as interpreters. The civilian, an Italian national, had been a waiter at the Savoy Hotel in London. After completion of the objectives the troops were to make their way to the mouth of the River Sele where they were to rendezvous with a British submarine HMS Triumph.
ww2dbaseIn the late afternoon of 10 Feb 1941, six Whitley aircraft took off from Malta, each carrying an officer and five other ranks of X Troop. The leading aircraft reached the drop zone without incident in perfect visibility, this plane and the following four dropped the men within 250 yards of the drop zone but two failed to drop the equipment containers due to problems with the containers. The sixth aircraft missed the landing zone and the six men, with their equipment, landed in the next valley, a full two miles away from the aqueduct. These men were the ex-Royal Engineer sappers who, with their explosives were to destroy the bridge.
ww2dbaseUpon arrival and after an inspection of the aqueduct’s piers, it was found that the supports were constructed of re-enforced concrete and not of brick as originally thought. Prichard thought that the explosives to hand would be insufficient to break the piers, so he ordered that the available charges should all be put against the western pier and its abatement in the hope that it would cause enough damage. A separate charge was put under a bridge nearby that took the road over the Ginestra River.
ww2dbasePrichard was correct in his assumption, at 0030 hours, 11 Febb 1941 the detonating explosives brought down the aqueduct and the road bridge also collapsed.
ww2dbaseThe small group by now had been spotted by locals and were soon surrounded by carabinieri units, and Italian Army personnel; with little fire-power, X Troop stood little chance of escape and as enemy forces grew, Pritchard decided to surrender.
ww2dbaseThe Italian translator, Fortunato Picchi, was tortured and executed by the Italian blackshirts, and one of the paratroopers managed to escape captivity, but the remainder were imprisoned as prisoners of war. Even if any of the groups had managed to make their way to the coast and the rendezvous point, they would not have been picked up by HMS Triumph as one of the two Whitley aircraft conducting a diversionary raid at Foggia suffered engine trouble and had to ditch after bombing the railway yards. The pilot radioed Malta, informing his airfield that he was going down in the mouth of the River Sele, coincidentally the area where the rendezvous was to occur. Fearing that the message had been monitored by the Italians and that the submarine might sail into a trap, the decision was made by senior officers not to send it to the rendezvous point.
ww2dbaseThe surviving members of X Troop remained prisoners of war until they were repatriated after Italy’s surrender in Sep 1943. The exceptions were Lieutenant Anthony Deane-Drummond, who had escaped after being captured and eventually returned to England in 1942, joining the newly formed 1st Airborne Division. A corporal, Alfred Parker, escaped from the Sulmona Prisoner of War Camp but was later recaptured by the Germans. After witnessing the execution by the Germans of a fellow escapee and a number of Italians, Alfred Parker again escaped and eventually made his way back to the UK after hitching a ride to North Africa on a US forces Dakota aircraft.
ww2dbaseThe aqueduct was soon repaired and did not seem to cause any problems to the population or to the nearby ports.
ww2dbaseThe operation did however boost the morale of the newly formed airborne forces. The British learned valuable lessons that helped in the planning of future airborne operations, proving that they could be a useful threat to the enemy. Technical lessons learned included the fact that the containers used to drop equipment were inferior and blocked the bomb bay doors and so were not dropping. The criticisms of the raid were that whilst good planning was made to get the troops to the target, not enough was done to ensure that they could be picked up. The Italians reacted by stiffening up their air raid precautions.
Niall Cherry. Striking Back Britain’s Airborne and Commando Raids 1940 to 1942. Helion & Co Ltd. 2009.
Saunders, Hilary St. George (1954). The Red Beret: The Story of the Parachute Regiment 1940-1945. Michael Joseph Ltd.
Rebecca Skinner. British paratrooper 1940-1945. Warrior Publications.
Last Major Update: Mar 2019
Operation Colossus Timeline
|10 Feb 1941||6 Whitley bombers of No. 91 Squadron RAF delivered 38 paratroopers of British No. 11 Special Air Service Battalion to the Tragino aqueduct in southern Italy at 2200 hours in what was codenamed Operation Colossus. They were to plant explosives on one of the columns to stop supplies of fresh water to nearby military and civilian centers.|
|11 Feb 1941||At 0030 hours, British paratroopers blew up the Tragino aqueduct in southern Italy. All but one were captured during their escape, remaining prisoners of war until 1943. The aqueduct they destroyed would soon be repaired and returned to service.|
|11 Feb 1941||British submarine HMS Triumph (Lieutenant Commander W. J. W. Woods, RN) departed from Valetta, Malta for her 11th war patrol. She was to proceed to the Gulf of Salerno to pick up a group of airborne commando troops participating in Operation Colossus, near the mouth of the River Sele. The pick up was cancelled when it was feared that the Italians might intercept the submarine.|
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James Forrestal, Secretary of the Navy, 23 Feb 1945