Charles West – Airman with the SAS

WW2 was a breeding ground for unusual and Special Units and the birthplace of many Special Forces of today. Nearly all were army, but they were often reliant on other arms for their modes of infiltration, exfiltration and communication. Recruits were selected from a wide range of units, with only about 5% [roughly the same %age as today] making the grade. On entry to the unit, all recruits were reduced to the rank of private, only earning promotion by proving their worth and their ability to command.

At Kabrit, a small village about 100 miles south of Cairo, a young ex Scots Guards officer / ex Commando, David Stirling, had been given authority to recruit and begin training small raiding parties to attack Rommel’s airfields. He had long realised the need for the formation of these groups, but had experienced difficulty convincing the higher command.

The required attributes for the group were: dedication, self-discipline, loyalty and the will to win at all cost, combined with the right mental ability and physical fitness. The training was very hard; forty-mile marches carrying 75-pound packs, was one of the easier tasks. Few men passed selection, but those who did became the original members of the SAS Regiment. Not only had the SAS required such high standards of training, but for the LRDG [Long Range Desert Group], the RAF, and the RN – the people who were tasked to deliver the SAS to their objectives and often recover them later – they were also requirements.

All SAS had to be trained parachutists, which in early 1941 was still a learning curve. Initially they were allocated a Valentia aircraft with static lines tied to seats, and not really suitable to the task. Later they were given two Bristol Bombay aircraft. Experimentation with parachute training began and although the ‘top brass’ were not fully convinced of their worth, they continued to view L Detachment SAS with an open mind. The SAS wanted the best pilots. The RAF wanted their pilots and aircraft back – and L Detachment disbanding!

Fighting for the survival of his group Stirling challenged the RAF, informing them that he had the ability to raid their airfields at will. He chose Heliopolis, the main Cairo airfield.  The RAF heightened their alert state, deployed reconnaissance flights and increased vigilance and guards. Four groups of Stirling’s men, each consisting of ten SAS, marched across the desert by night and hid up during the day. They covered ninety miles in three days relying on rations of only two bottles of water and a pound of dates. On the third night they attacked their targets and then withdrew. The next day the RAF woke up to dummy bombs placed in their aircraft and signs placed all over the camp declaring ‘blown up’. The raiders had long gone. L Detachment had proved its point. The Top Brass were impressed. The RAF were not amused, but agreed that Stirling had a point.

Stirling’s unit was allocated five Bristol Bombay aircraft from 216 Squadron RAF. The first operation by the SAS was to raid five airfields in the Gazala – Tmimi area and blow up Rommel’s fighter aircraft. The drop was planned for the night of the 16th November, with the raid on the following night.  Weather conditions on the 16thdeteriorated and advice was given to cancel. The officers, men and pilots considered the risk was justified. In the event the raid was a disaster. The high winds caused sandstorms and it was difficult to identify ground reference points. There was also very heavy anti-aircraft fire in the target area. The wind speed varied between 45 and 90 mph, far too high for parachuting. Many men were blown over fifty miles from the target area and others dragged by their ‘chutes along rough ground and into the desert causing deaths and injuries. Others simply disappeared. Supply parachute containers also went missing. Miles from their planned DZ the men regrouped and headed for their extraction RV with the Long Range Desert Group. The raid had started with sixty men, twenty-two survived. Many valuable lessons were learned that night. 

One of the pilots who had volunteered for the role of a Special Duties pilot with L Detachment was Charles West. After the raid West wrote a report for the SAS that described his part in the raid; some information from this report is included below:

Five Bristol Bombay Aircraft took off from Fuka Airfield, Egypt on the night of the 16 November ‘41. Each aircraft had sticks of eleven men to be dropped ten miles inland of their targets of Meleme and Tmimi enemy airfields in Libya. The operation was conducted under conditions of secrecy. The plan was to drop on the night of the 16th and then march during the night to ‘hide locations’ and carry out an airfield watch. On the night of the 17th November they would carry out the raid. Their exfiltration route after the raid would be to an RV point with the Long Range Desert Group many miles south into the desert.

The take-off was good with little wind, but as the aircraft continued to the drop area the cloud thickened and the aircraft were buffeted by gusts of heavy rain, high winds and thunder and lightning. West had difficulty holding airspeed and direction. Wind was buffeting the aircraft, blowing it off course, and no land or coastal points could be identified. Lt Bonnington, in charge of the men on West’s aircraft managed to get a marker flare down to provide a rough calculation of wind speed and direction. No visual identification could be made, although it was estimated that the men would overshoot the DZ by about fifty miles. A decision was taken to break cloud and pick up a reference point. At 1000ft it was still solid cloud. A slower decent to 200ft finally broke cloud and at the same time the instrument panel disintegrated under a sustained attack from ground anti-aircraft fire. West climbed back into cloud to control the aircraft. The instrument panel was shattered, the port engine had been hit and was losing power and fuel was streaming out of the fuel tanks. Desperate to locate his position West found that the magnetic compass appeared to still work and he set a course due east. After about an hour the fuel was nearly down to zero and a decision was made to land before they fell from the sky.

The landing on the desert floor on a dark moonless night, in torrential rain and high wind, blew the aircraft backwards, bouncing as it went. At dawn Lt Bonnington took his men out on a recce, on the assumption that they were now in allied territory. A road, conveying fuel tankers and other transport, was spotted to the middle distance. But, on reaching the road, it quickly became apparent that the tankers were Italian and that the aircraft had landed well behind enemy lines. A tanker, driven by a very frightened Italian driver, was taken prisoner. In the meantime, West and his crew, attempted to piece together some of his instrument panel and check the magnetic compass. He discovered that the compass had been damaged from the underside and that the pivot had been jammed by a piece of metal, locking it to face east. 

In daylight, with the aircraft in full view of the road, it was only a matter of time before a German patrol arrived to investigate. Having taken on more fuel from the captured tanker, West and the crew worked on the engines. Finally the port engine burst into life, and a few seconds later the starboard engine spluttered and slowly came to life. Everyone jumped back on board, including the unwilling Italian. Very carefully West took off, dodging slit trenches, sand dunes, and only just clearing the road. The aircraft lifted, heading in the direction of Tobruk. After a short time the waves from enemy drivers below, gave way to small arms fire, which in turn gave way to heavy machine gun fire. To avoid the AA fire West followed the coastline at a low altitude, but soon the enemy gunners had zeroed-in their sights and the Bombay took a hit on the fuel tanks. Although having difficulty controlling the aircraft, West climbed to seven hundred feet and was back again on course for Tobruk – but ahead lay a M109F fighter. The control panel was again shot away and the noise of the engines ceased. All control of the aircraft had gone and it began dropping vertically. The throttles were shut and the flaps fully down in an attempt to reduce the speed of impact.

Charles West regained consciousness twelve days later in a German Field Hospital. From one of the raiders, Sgt Bond, lying in the next bed he learned what had happened. His second pilot and wireless operator had been killed together with one of the raiding team. The Italian tanker driver, who had lost his voice through shock, was saved from being executed as a collaborator by the Germans, as the parachutists gave evidence for him. West had a fractured skull, broken shoulder, broken ribs, internal injuries and a ruptured diaphragm. He was later taken to an Italian POW camp.

Later, while being moved by train, West escaped from the bottom of a freight wagon by removing the floor-boards while the train was moving.  He was fortunate to then be assisted by the Italian ‘contadini’ and joined forces with the Italian Partisans, fighting with them in the mountains of northern Italy and later linking up with both the SAS and Popski’s Private Army.