Parachutists waiting to emplane at Ringway

Parachutists boarding a Whitley  

An aerial photograph of the Tragino Aqueduct taken on the 12th February 1941


On the 3rd February 1941, "X" Troop were moved by bus to RAF Mildenhall, from where they would take-off for Malta. The Whitleys had arrived two days earlier, and were met with a hostile reception by the base defences which mistook them for German Do-17's and briefly subjected them to light flak before the error was realised.


One man was absent; Lieutenant Deane-Drummond had flown to Malta a few days previously aboard a Sunderland flying boat which also carried the six-man RAF maintenance crew and their heavy equipment. His task was to prepare for the arrival of "X" Troop by securing accommodation, drawing their rations, ensuring that the explosives and equipment they had requested was available, and delivering letters to the Commander-in-Chief Mediterranean Forces, the Governor of Malta, and the commanders of the Royal Air Force and Royal Navy.


At Mildenhall on the 7th February, Admiral Sir Roger Keyes, the Director of Combined Operations, inspected and addressed "X" Troop:


"You are setting off on a very important job, and I should like you to know that I have been assured that no better, fitter and braver men could have been selected than you to play this very vital role. You have been specially trained for a job like this and provided with every piece of equipment you should require. I know that you will tackle this job with determination and enthusiasm, and with a bit of luck I am sure you will pull it off. We shall be waiting to hear how you have got on, waiting to learn what British paratroopers can do. I decided that I just couldn't let you go without coming here to say goodbye to you. We are very proud of you."


After shaking hands and chatting briefly with each man, Keyes reinforced those seemingly pessimistic final words when he was overheard to mutter "a damned pity", and before departing took everyone quite unawares by saluting them. If any members of "X" Troop wondered what all of this meant they quickly put it out of their minds and went about making their final preparations.


At 22:00 that night, the Whitleys carrying "X" Troop, and also Lieutenant-Colonel John Rock and Wing Commander Sir Nigel Norman of the Central Landing Establishment, who were accompanying them as observers, left Mildenhall for Malta. The aircraft were so weighed down with men and mechanical spares that the passengers had to be allocated specific positions and postures to maintain during take-off; even Wing Commander Norman had to act as ballast in the front turret of Pilot Officer Robinson's Whitley. Once they had reached the desired altitude, the captain of each aircraft gave permission for everyone to lie down along the length of the fuselage. Special sleeping bags were provided to keep them comfortable for what would be a long and cold flight.


As Malta was at the extreme limit of their range the Whitleys had to take as direct a course as possible; flying over Occupied France and then keeping to the West of Corsica and Sardinia until they reached the Tunisian coast, before heading East to approach Malta from the South. They came under occasional patchy anti-aircraft fire over France but were never seriously threatened by it. German night fighters posed the greatest danger, and Aircraft J was unlucky enough to be spotted and pursued by a Bf-109. Pilot Officer Webb, firing from the rear turret, did excellent work in keeping it at a safe distance until Sub Lieutenant Hoad was finally able to shake it off. The Whitleys reached Malta shortly after dawn on the 8th February, but even though their fuel was perilously low they had to wait until 09:00 before they could land at Luqa airfield, as an overnight bombing raid had damaged the runway and it was still being repaired. Aircraft J was missing for a time as a navigational error had forced them off course, and with so little fuel to spare it was feared they had been lost, but they were able to correct their bearings and arrived shortly behind the rest.


"X" Troop and their aircrews were transported to their billets in Lazaretto, courtesy of the Submarine Depot, and spent the remainder of the day unpacking their equipment and settling in. They would not have long to enjoy their new surroundings as the operation was scheduled to take place at the first possible moment, lest the prevailing clear skies over Italy be lost. Furthermore, the longer the Whitleys remained in Malta the greater the chance of their being damaged during the incessant air raids. Indeed when the mechanics serviced the aircraft on the following day, minor repairs had to be made to the fabric of two of them which had been torn by rock thrown up by explosions.


Despite the innumerable problems being faced by Malta's besieged garrison, every possible support was given to the newcomers. The Governor, General Dobbie, took quite an interest in the operation and paid "X" Troop two visits during their brief stay, and the personnel at Luqa airfield provided all the facilities which were required, and even helped to maintain the Whitleys. While these were being serviced on the 9th February, "X" Troop began packing their parachutes and containers, while Major Pritchard visited the commander of HMS Triumph; the submarine which would be waiting to collect them from the mouth of the River Sele.


On the same day, Flying Officer Warburton DSO DFC, a near legendary reconnaissance pilot of 69 Squadron, flew a Martin Maryland over Italy and from a height of 24,000 feet took photographs of not just the aqueduct, but all of the terrain along their escape route. Until this time the only real visual representation "X" Troop had of the area was a single pre-war photograph which afforded a good view of the aqueduct and the temporary workers huts, but showed little of the surrounding area.


Prints were made available at 19:30 and they contained a number of surprises. Most alarming of all was the discovery that there was not one but two aqueducts at their landing site, just 230 yards apart; one crossing the Tragino river and the other the Ginestra stream. At this late stage and with no one else to consult, it could only be assumed, correctly as it happened, that the Tragino must be their objective as it was the larger of the two.


The drop zone appeared to be fairly flat and free from obstructions, and there was no indication that there was any sort of military presence nearby, although it would be impossible to discount this until they had landed. As was expected, the workers huts shown in the old photograph had long since disappeared, however there was a farm just 300 yards away, but it was clear that very few people were living nearby and so the chances of "X" Troop being disturbed seemed slight.


Looking at their escape route to the River Sele, there seemed to be plenty of good cover on its northern shore, where they would wait for the submarine, but the extensive terrain between there and the aqueduct was not at all promising. The snow level was estimated to be at 3,000 feet, and it would be difficult to proceed above this as the ground was precipitous in many places, whilst the land below seemed quite rough and wild with the only cover being a few small scattered woods around the lower areas.


The weather forecast for the 10th February was very good, and so it was decided that Operation Colossus would be launched that evening. The thirty-two supply containers were packed as follows; twenty with explosives; six held fourteen Thompson sub-machine guns and a Bren gun, five contained ladders, and one was filled with additional food. In the hours before take-off, Lance-Corporal Doug Jones was supervising the fitting of the containers to the aircraft when the air raid sirens sounded; the Maltese workers not unreasonably ran for the shelter, but "X" Troop did not have any time to waste and so Jones ordered the reluctant men back at pistol point. The work was completed by 14:30, after which the ground crews began loading the bombs.