The Mediterranean


A pre-war photograph of the Tragino Aqueduct

Lieutenant-Colonel C.I.A. Jackson, commander of the 11th SAS


In December 1940, the War Office noted that the water supply to the Italian province of Apulia, which included the cities of Bari, Brindisi, Foggia and Taranto, as well as a civilian population in excess of two million, depended entirely upon the Acquedotto Pugliese. Completed in 1929, this aqueduct carried water from the source of the River Sele at Caposele, through the Apennines via a 15 km tunnel, and thence down a pipeline along the Ofanto valley, before dividing into several branches to distribute its bounty across Apulia, feeding several small reservoirs on the way as a back-up supply in case of disruption.


The alternatives for the arid province were few and far between. The local water was tainted with magnesite and so was unfit for human consumption; the wells which had been relied upon in earlier times had fallen into disuse; and even the reservoirs fed by the aqueduct were thought to be capable of sustaining the population for just three days. A British civil engineer, whose company had been involved in the construction of the aqueduct, and who had approached the War Office in June 1940 to suggest it as a target, believed that if a section were to be substantially demolished then the difficulties of transporting all the necessary equipment and material to this remote, mountainous region, would make it impossible to repair in less than one month.


Cutting the water supply would certainly undermine civilian morale and disrupt local industry, however its primary purpose was to severely curtail activity at the Italian naval base at Taranto, as well as the ports of Brindisi and Bari. At the time these were being used to ferry troops to Greece, and so it was felt, probably over-optimistically, that a single blow to the aqueduct could have dire consequences for Mussolini's entire Mediterranean strategy in 1941.


The section chosen for attack was the aqueduct spanning the River Tragino, a tributary of the Ofanto, 12 miles to the East of Caposele. Initially known as Project T, Operation Colossus was first proposed as a target for the Royal Air Force, as bombing presented the quickest and easiest means of bringing about its destruction, but it was quickly concluded that the narrow profile of the aqueduct rendered a successful raid highly unlikely. The alternative was to carry out a demolition by troops on the ground, and as it was not possible to organise an attack by partisans at this early stage in the war, the job instead fell to the 11th Special Air Service Battalion.


As the target was far inland and the escape route to the coast necessitated a gruelling march of 50 miles across rugged terrain in potentially wintry conditions, it was clear to everyone involved that the entire party would likely be taken prisoner, or possibly worse. In January 1941, Lieutenant-Colonel Jackson, the commander of the 11th SAS, paraded the Battalion at their Headquarters in Knutsford, and sounded a heavy note of caution as he called for volunteers:


"An operation has been planned with the intention of penetrating deep into enemy territory. It is top secret and you are all on your honour not to speak a word of it to anyone. Some of you will be privileged to take part. I shall be asking for volunteers, but before I do so, I must also say that, although those eventually taking part will be wearing uniform, it is likely that the enemy will look upon anyone they capture as a spy - and you know what that means. However, I should say that only about forty of you will be required. Now, will volunteers take one step forward."


Every officer and man in the Battalion stepped forward. As proud a moment as this was for Jackson, it did nothing to solve the question of who would go, and he soon found himself besieged by a relentless stream of men attempting to advance their case. In the end he decided to appoint Major T.A.G. Pritchard, his tough Second-in-Command, as the leader of the raid, and to simplify the process he instructed him to select five officers, and he and they were then each to select five men. Due to the nature of the operation there was a strong representation of Royal Engineers, with two of the officers and sixteen men comprising the Demolition Party, while the remainder, excluding Pritchard himself as the overall commander, formed the Covering Party of three officers and fourteen other ranks. These, together with a few spares in case of injury or illness, were designated "X" Troop and immediately despatched to Ringway.