Towards the end of 1940 at a meeting in London, a decision was taken based on information from a civil engineering firm (George Kent and Sons), that if an aqueduct in Italy could be destroyed it would severely damage the Italian war effort. The contractor had originally built this aqueduct near a place called Tragino near Naples in southern Italy. The water supply for three major ports crossed a valley here. Various options were looked at and finally a request to help went to Britain’s only parachute unit. This was the 11th Special Air Service Battalion who had been formed from No 2 Commando in the middle of 1940.
Volunteers were called for and the whole unit stepped forward. Command of the operation (later known as Colossus) was given to Major T Pritchard. After much training in the UK the volunteers, known as X Troop, moved to an advanced operating base in Malta. As well as the men from 11th SAS Battalion, two others went on the operation as interpreters. One was an RAF officer Flight lieutenant Lucky and other an Italian national Fortunato Picchi, although he was briefed as a Free French soldier by the name of Dupont.
The RAF had provided eight Whitleys for the operation, six carrying six paratroopers each and two to carry out a diversionary raid on Foggia. As it turned out, one man in one of the six troop-carrying aircraft went sick on the runway and was off-loaded, so 35 men took part in the operation.
The six aircraft eventually all made it to the general area of the target, but not all the stores were dropped and one aircraft dropped its stick in the wrong valley and they never made it to the objective. However, enough explosives were collected to blow up the aqueduct although the damage was repaired within a few days. The men of X Troop were now meant to walk a distance of around 60 miles to meet a submarine, HMS Triumph, which would take them back to Malta. Regretfully the submarine was recalled but there was no way of getting this information to the men in Italy. Travelling in four separate groups they were all recaptured over the course of the next few days.
News reached England of the success of the raid through reports in Italian newspapers and the US Military Attaché who visited the captured men in prison camp in Italy. On Palm Sunday 1941 Fortunato Picchi was executed for his part in the operation, becoming the only casualty of Colossus.
The first eyewitness account of the raid came from Lieutenant Deane-Drummond after his successful escape from an Italian PoW camp in 1942.
Whilst a strategic failure the raid showed in dark days that Britain was prepared to strike back and diverted Italian soldiers to guard dams, power stations and bridges the length and breadth of Italy, when they could have been better employed at the front. It also gave valuable lessons in the planning and execution of an airborne operation.
Personnel involved in Operation Colossus:
Major Pritchard, Captain Lea, Captain Daly, Lieutenant Deane-Drummond, Second Lieutenant Jowett, Second Lieutenant Paterson and Flight Lieutenant Lucky.
Sergeant Clements, Sergeant Durie, Sergeant Lawley, Sergeant Shutt and Sergeant Walker.
Corporal Fletcher, Corporal Grice, Corporal Julian and Corporal O’Brien.
L/Corporal Boulter, L/Corporal Henderson, L/Corporal Jones, L/Corporal Maher, L/Corporal Pexton, L/Corporal Tomlin and L/Corporal Watson.
Private Humphrey, Private Nastri/Tristan, Private Parker and Private Samuels.
Sapper Davidson, Sapper Parker, Sapper Phillips, Sapper Pryor, Sapper Ross and Sapper Struthers.
Decorations Awarded to The Men of X Troop:
Distinguished Service Order
25th November 1941 Captain (temporary Major) T A G Pritchard Royal Welch Fusiliers
29th September 1942 Lieutenant A J Deane-Drummond Royal Corps of Signals
Date unknown Captain C Lea Lancashire Fusiliers
Date unknown Second Lieutenant G R Paterson Royal Corps of Engineers
Date unknown Second Lieutenant A G Jowett Highland Light Infantry
20th June 1946 Sergeant P P Clements Leicestershire Regiment
20th June 1946 WOII A W A Lawley 11th SAS Regiment AAC
Date unknown Sergeant E W Durie
Date unknown L/Corporal R B Watson
Date unknown L/Corporal H Boulter North Staffordshire Regiment (this award was for actions with the partisans after his escape from Italian captivity in 1943)
Mentioned in despatches
Date unknown but probably 1946
Captain G F K Daly
L/Corporal J E Maher
Private N Nastri
Suggested further reading:
Striking Back Britain’s Airborne and Commando Raids 1940 to 1942 by N Cherry, published by Helion & Co Ltd 2009.
Return Ticket by A Deane-Drummond, published by Fontana Books 1953.
The Guinea Pigs by R Foxall, published by Robert Hale Ltd 1983.
Compiled by N Cherry