To jeers of ‘Dummkopf’, the convoy of lorries from Rommel’s Afrika Korps barely slowed as it sped through the checkpoint on the road into Tobruk.
From the front seat, an officer in his Wehrmacht uniform imperiously waved his papers at the Italian soldiers manning the roadblock and barked that he had scores of British prisoners of war captured in the desert to deliver into custody.
The Italian sentries lifted the barrier and waved them through. As the three trucks drove on unhindered, the ‘German’ officer could hardly believe the breathtaking bluff had worked.
In reality, he was no German but Captain Henry Buck of Britain’s SOE, the Special Operations Executive. As for his 80 ‘prisoners’, crammed on benches in the back of the trucks, they were actually heavily armed British Commandos, ready to grab the guns hidden beneath blankets at their feet if they were rumbled.
One of the most daring undercover operations of World War II was under way. In this modern-day version of the Trojan Horse, a British force of hardened warriors secretly crossed 1,500 miles of Saharan desert and smuggled themselves inside the enemy’s most strategically important stronghold in North Africa.
Until now, their story has slipped under the radar of World War II historians. Best-selling author Damien Lewis has unearthed it from archives and diaries and tells it with great verve and energy.
The idea of infiltrating Tobruk began with Buck, an Oxford-educated poet and fencer.
Six months earlier, he’d been lost behind enemy lines after a desert battle and managed to make his way back to base in a German army lorry and a stolen Afrika Korps uniform.
He argued that, if he could bluff his way out, surely he could bluff his way back in with a guerrilla force that could cause serious damage to the enemy. Britain’s SOE — always keen on ‘ungentlemanly’ undercover operations — told him to go for it.
For it to work, Buck needed to recruit not only German-speakers but men who could act and think instinctively like Germans in every situation, especially dangerous ones.
He found them among emigres who had fled the horrors of Hitler’s Third Reich.
Many were Jews; others were from overrun Czechoslovakia and France. They were all fervently anti-Nazi. He collected together nearly 40 for his so-called Special Interrogation Group and, in an isolated desert camp in Egypt, began to train them to be indistinguishable from Afrika Korps soldiers.
They wore German uniforms, even down to their underpants and socks. They spoke German at all times, nothing else. They goose-stepped, Heil-Hitlered, sang Nazi marching songs and smoked German cigarettes.
In their wallets were paybooks, postage stamps, photographs of sweethearts and love letters — all clever forgeries. They were tutored in the latest army slang and obscenities, picked up from listening in on German PoWs.
If caught in enemy uniform, they knew they would be shot. With gallows humour, they called themselves the Himmelfahrts — the Heaven Platoon.
They were part of a huge Allied military operation to destroy German-held Tobruk as a port, in the hope of turning the tide in the Allies’ favour in the desert war.
The percentage of candidates that fail the SAS selection process
A bombing raid would be followed by an invasion of 600 British troops and marines from Navy ships in the Mediterranean — but only after the Heaven Platoon had first slipped in unnoticed from the land side, securing the beachhead and taking out the big guns covering the bay.
They did brilliantly just to get down to the beach. And then it all went disastrously wrong.
The Germans and Italians realised what was happening and threw thousands of troops into the battle for Tobruk.
Out in the bay, those running the British operation dithered. Motor torpedo boats buzzed along the coast, waiting for a signal to land that never properly came. Only two sections of soldiers and a handful of marines made it to the beach as the seaborne operation imploded.
Enemy coastal guns and dive bombers sank a British cruiser and two destroyers, with huge loss of life.
The ships had also been intended as the commandos’ route out of Tobruk.
Now that exit was slammed shut, they were on their own and stranded. They stood their ground and, against the odds, they charged the enemy in ‘glorious defiance’ but the carnage was inevitable and unending.
Just a handful got away and found their way back to British lines, some after trekking through the desert for months. Most were killed or captured.
One was tortured by the Gestapo to confess he was Jewish. At one point he dug his own grave as a firing squad stood at the ready. Somehow he survived and ended up in a PoW camp.
The Platoon never re-formed. Its few survivors were subsumed into the SAS.
As for Buck, he characteristically tried to slip out of Tobruk still in his Afrika Korps uniform, boldly hoping to steal a truck and drive home.
After days on the run he was captured and shipped to a PoW camp in Italy. He escaped twice more, but was recaptured each time and saw out the war as a prisoner.
He returned to England in 1945, joined the SAS and died in mysterious circumstances in a plane crash en route to Libya. He was just 28.
Lewis has done a terrific job in resurrecting him and his Heaven Platoon, portraying them as the brave, buccaneering heroes they undoubtedly were.