At the end of January 1941 Nos 7, 8 and 11 (Scottish) Commando sailed to the Middle East as part of Force ‘Z’, under the command of Lieutenant Colonel Bob Laycock. For security reasons the force was called ‘Layforce’, and the three Commandos re-named as ‘A’, ‘B’ and ‘C’ Battalions, Layforce, respectively. Not long after Layforce arrived in the Middle East, two of the three Middle East Commandos, Nos. 50 and 52 were amalgamated and formed up as ‘D’ Battalion. The Middle East Commandos had been raised locally, and included Palestinians and volunteers from the Spanish Foreign Legion.
‘A’ Battalion (No.7 Commando) boarded HMS Glengyle at Alexandria, Egypt and sailed to Bardia, Libya in the early hours of 19 April 1941. Operations Orders issued later that day defined their task as ‘harassing the enemy’s lines of communication and inflicting as much damage as possible on supplies and material’.
Four beaches: ‘A’, ‘B’, ‘C’ and ‘D’ had been identified to land the battalion, which had been divided into seven detachments – Nos 1 to 4 consisting of 200 men tasked to Beach ‘A’, No.5 detachment of 70 men to Beach ‘B’, 70 men of No.6 to Beach ‘C’, and 35 men of No.7 to Beach ‘D’.
No.1 detachment landed and secured Beach ‘A’, while the Nos. 2, 3 and 4 passed through them and moved out to their respective tasks. No.2 detachment established a road block with the intention of ambushing enemy transport. No.3 were tasked to mount an assault on a position known as the ‘square camp’, while No.4 had the job of raiding Bardia from the south.
For the remainder the enemy was nowhere to be seen the detachments returned to their craft under the cover of No.1 detachment who safeguarded their withdrawal. However, the withdrawal was not without incident. A party from No.3 detachment got lost, and were ordered to head for Sollum, on the way twenty men were picked up by a landing craft from Beach ‘C’, and the Italian wireless claimed that the rest had been captured and taken prisoner. The detachments on Beach ‘A’ also suffered an unfortunate casualty – an officer failed to answer his own sentry’s challenge and was shot and killed.
The detachments tasked to beaches ‘B’, ‘C’ and ‘D’ had mixed fortunes. No.5 detachment landed on Beach ‘A’, rather than Beach ‘B’, and was unable to attack Bardia from the north as per their orders. No.6 detachment had the job of landing on Beach ‘C’ in two landing craft and were tasked to demolish a road bridge, pumping station and reservoir, and to crater the roads. However, only one craft made it ashore and the plan was changed to accommodate the reduced number of men. A small party was dispatched to deal with the pumping house, while the remainder prepared the bridge for demolition.
The pumping house party, had difficulty finding the target and arrived too late to inflict and serious damage. The bridge party, however, had more success. The bridge was blown, rendering it impassable for motor vehicles, but on inspection after the blast it was found to still be crossable by infantry. Soaking the support trestles in patrol and setting them on fire soon remedied the problem.
No.7 detachment, meanwhile, had landed on Beach ‘D’ and had located the four 5.9-inch naval guns that were part of the coastal defence. The detachment removed the firing mechanisms and blew up their breeches with gelignite, before returning to their landing craft.
Bar a few mechanical and navigational problems the detachments made it back to HMS Glengyle and re-embarked on to the ship. However, one craft with a faulty compass could not find the Glengyle, which was lying four miles from the shore, and headed towards Tobruk instead, where after a rough passage at arrived later in the day.
Although not a complete success the operation had provided a number of lessons to be learned and areas for improvement – namely navigation, landing craft embarkation from the mother ship and formation to the landing beach, reliability of landing craft and navigational aids, were among the issues in Laycock’s report. However, the raid on Bardia yielded some success, especially at a strategic level, for it caused the enemy to relocate a significant number of troops from Sollum to Bardia, which released so of the pressure on the former. It also caused the enemy enough concern that they constructed boom defences in fear of subsequent raids, resulting in a redistribution of men and materials.