After the success of the German airborne forces at the battle of Fort Eben-Emael in May 1940, Winston Churchill issued a memorandum calling for the formation of a British equivalent force, numbering some 5,000 men. But it was a while before any such force saw action.Numerous arguments amongst politicians, disagreements between the Army and the Royal Air Force and a lack of equipment for what was seen as an offensive, rather than a defensive force meant that Churchill’s vision for a group of 5,000 paratroopers was far from being recognised in 1941.
By the middle of 1941, out of 3,500 volunteers who had been selected to train at the newly formed Central Landing Establishment, only 500 were able to be trained, due to the lack of appropriate aircraft and equipment.
There was only one unit that had been trained and equipped to the point where they were deemed as an operational group; No. 11 Special Air Service Battalion. However, there was still a drastic shortfall in the number of aircraft available to the paratroopers, with few crews being experienced in parachute drops, and not one with operational experience.
Despite this, it was decided that an airborne attack was vitally important at the time, primarily to show the world that Britain was not a defeated nation solely focused on defending its home island, but also to test and iron out any issues in the equipment, tactics and the men involved in the operation.
As a consequence, Operation Colossus came into being, tasked with dropping into Southern Italy and destroying an aqueduct that millions of Italians depended on for their regular water supply, therefore hindering Italian efforts in North Africa.
Thirty-eight men were specially selected for the operation, labelled ‘X’ Troop, with three Italian interpreters, one being a civilian waiter from the Savoy Hotel, also being part of the force.
A full-scale model of the aqueduct was constructed, to allow for a period of training over six weeks, while the Royal Air Force converted six of their Whitley medium bombers to carry out the operation.
On the 7th February, X Troop departed for Malta, their go date set for three days later on 10th February 1941.
Five of the bombers managed to release their paratroopers over the drop zone at around 21.45, around fifteen minutes late, however some equipment cannisters remained on the aircraft due to a failure in the release mechanisms. The sixth bomber failed to find the drop zone, and instead dropped their paratroopers two hours later in a valley too far from the aqueduct to be useful to the main attack force.
Unfortunately, the men in the sixth bomber were all sappers, the men who were due to prep and detonate the charges to destroy the aqueduct. Coupled with the failure of equipment canisters to be dropped, X Troop were severely underequipped for the task, and they had insufficient ammunition.
The paratroopers used what explosives they had and at 00.30, the aqueduct was destroyed, while another bridge nearby was also blown up.
At 01.00, the order was given for the men to withdraw from the area in three, prearranged groups, the plan being that they were to meet a Royal Navy Submarine for extraction. However, the four groups (including the sappers), were all rounded up and captured within a few hours of withdrawing from the aqueduct.
One group was handed over to the Italians by a farmer, two were surrounded by Italian Carabinieri and forced to surrender, while the fourth were eventually arrested after trying to pass themselves off as German troops on an exercise.
All were taken into captivity, apart from the one translator who happened to be a civilian, who was handed over to a group of Black shirts, who tortured and executed him.
The operation was deemed by the British military to be a success. On the whole, the RAF were able to drop their passengers where they were meant to, and the paratroopers were able to effectively destroy a target.
However, the Italian’s war effort was almost unhindered, although it had the desired effect upon the population, who were consequently subjected to more stringent air raid procedures which would continue until the end of Italy’s involvement in the war.
The British Army received a great morale boost from Operation Colossus and also many technical lessons were learnt that were employed in future operations. Although every paratrooper involved was captured, all but two of whom would spend the rest of the Italian war in prison camps, the operation was deemed to be a success, and set the groundwork for the planning and execution of future airborne operations, including those on D-Day.