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On This Day…by Damien Lewis

The 13th September 2018 is the 75th anniversary of one of the most daring and audacious
raids every undertaken by British special forces in World War Two. The little-known raid on
Rommel’s desert fortress at Tobruk was launched on 13 September 1942, along with a raft
of simultaneous deep desert attacks, each as extraordinary as each the other. All were true
‘Mission Impossibles’.

The Tobruk raid was designed to strike a knock-out blow against the German General’s main
supply depot and port, the key to victory in the north African desert. What made is so
extraordinary were the sheer distances and savagery of the terrain involved, not to mention
the breath-taking ruse that lay at the heart of the mission. In order to hit Tobruk, a
combined for of the SAS, Commandos and the Long Range Desert Group had to traverse
some 2000 miles of the Sahara desert: a harsh, waterless, uncharted, sun-blasted
wasteland.

They had to do so in order to hit the enemy by complete surprise – from out of desert
wastes that the Germans believed was largely impenetrable.

As if that weren’t enough, the ruse employed to penetrate the intensely defended Tobruk
Perimeter was vintage special forces. To do so a new and incredible unit had been formed –
know as the Special Interrogation Group, or SIG for short. A joint SAS and Special Operations
Executive (SOE) creation, the SIG was perhaps the most secretive and deniable of any unit in
WWII.

It was formed of fluent German speakers, who dressed in captured German uniforms and
wielded captured German weaponry and drove captured German vehicles. Schooled
exhaustively in German military drill, mannerisms, slang and culture, the SIG were formed to
serve one purpose, and one purpose only: to bluff their way through hostile lines posing as
the enemy, supposedly escorting scores of Allied prisoners-of-war – who were in truth elite
warriors acting the part.

One successfully through the lines, the SIG would lead the elite forces to unsuspecting
targets, where they would combine to unleash hell. Suicide missions in all but name, the
epic 13 September raid on Tobruk represented the culmination of such operations, where
the SIG would be challenged to prove their worth as never before. It was the kind of thing
that Britain’s wartime leader, Churchill, thrilled to.

The incredible true story of the SIG came to my notice as if by accident. Researching WWII
files at the National Archives, in Kew, I was seeking material on one of the decoy raids
executed that night, codenamed Operation Caravan. In Caravan, a force of several dozen
special forces had driven thousands of miles across the Great Sand Sea, an area of
treacherous and shifting Saharan dunes the size of Ireland believed impassable to all.

They had done so to hit the Barce aerodrome, deep behind the lines, and destroy the
enemy warplanes stationed there. I had known about the Barce raid for many years. Iconic
in its maverick daring, unparalleled as an epic tale of sheer desert navigation and survival,
and distinguished by the brute ferocity and heroism of the raid itself, I had been keen to tell
the story for some time.

It was in researching the raid that I came across the first mentions of the SIG – Britain’s
greatest ever deception force. The entire extraordinary tale – one peopled by a brilliant cast
of quintessential British eccentrics, adventurers, mavericks and heroes – is told in my
forthcoming book, SAS Ghost Patrol.

The enemy had already coined that name for the desert raiders – the ‘ghost patrols.’ No
other story better defines the way in which they operated than those raids of the night of
13 September 1942, 76 years ago.