Operation Agreement: Jewish Commandos and the Raid on Tobruk, by John Sadler, Osprey Publishing, Oxford, U.K., 2016, $28
Although the name Operation Agreement may be new to many, it actually furnished the subject for at least one novel and no less than two feature films. Yes, there was a secret unit in the British army known as the Special Interrogation Group, or SIG, comprising German Jewish refugees recruited in Palestine. Furthermore, the German High Command did issue orders that captured members of the SIG were to be shot out of hand. Finally, the SIG did participate in a raid in which its members were to sneak British commandos into Tobruk by masquerading as German soldiers escorting British POWs into captivity.
Contrary to the fictionalized versions, however, that raid was not the entire story. It was one part of a very complex operation that included an amphibious assault on Tobruk carried out by British army and Royal Marine units, some of which were inserted by submarine. Also missing from most accounts are the coordinated attacks by land forces that emerged from the desert to strike other enemy targets, including Benghazi.
Where fiction really diverges from fact is that while the filmed depictions of Operation Agreement ended in costly success, the actual operation was a fiasco, claiming the lives of some 800 Allied personnel and capture of another 576. It also cost the Royal Navy one cruiser, two destroyers and four motor torpedo boats. In Operation Agreement Sadler candidly recounts the true story of one of the most disastrous Allied combined operations of World War II.
The fault, of course, lay not with the SIG or any of the other military units involved. Indeed, the participants displayed plenty of heroism. The true origin of the disaster lay in the plan itself, which was ill conceived, overly ambitious and hastily arranged. Worst of all, planners wholly disregarded lessons learned from mistakes made on previous raids. As a result, Operation Agreement required the coordinated actions of disparate land, sea and air elements, including naval and amphibious units, all converging from different directions with precise timing to achieve success. Planners provided insufficient air and naval support, relied too much on diversionary tactics and completely underestimated the enemy’s ability to repel the raid.
Worst of all, the plan ignored two basic premises: the KISS (Keep it simple, stupid) principle and Murphy’s Law (Anything that can go wrong, will). The original proposal had called for a surgical strike on To-bruk by a relatively small force of commandos coming out of the desert and then disappearing back into it. As Sadler relates, however, new players modified the plan, adding new objectives and introducing naval and amphibious elements.
Operation Agreement is a must-read not only for military historians but also for military officers. It is foremost a cautionary tale for military planners, providing a textbook case of how not to plan and implement a successful combined operation.