Lawrence Paterson, Operation Colossus (Greenhill Books, 2020)
When I think of British paratroopers in World War II, D-Day comes to mind, or Arnhem, but in Operation Colossus, Lawrence Paterson takes us to the foundational operation for the Paras in February 1941. This was the small but spectacular assault on the Tragino Aqueduct in Italy. Paterson narrates that operation from the initial plans to its aftermath in an absorbing read.
Paterson begins with the impulse to create small, specialized units that could take the fight to the Germans while Britain repaired its shattered army after Dunkirk. He introduces us to the players in this drama and how the RAF and Army worked out how to pull off airborne operations. Through a rigorous selection process, thirty-eight officers and men were formed into X-Troop and segregated for special training, two were added later, including an Italian interpreter. They took part in a strenuous training programme of practice drops and drills to create an elite force. Their selected target was an aqueduct in Italy that in retrospect, argues Paterson, was ill-chosen. The enthusiastic men of X-Troop were warned that few might return from the mission, which proved prophetic for most of them until the war ended.
The mission’s staging post was Malta from which eight Whitley bombers ascended to fly into Italy where they dropped most of their men more or less on target. Once on the ground, the raiders rounded up the local civilians, laid their guncotton charges, and lit the fuses. They were partially successful, damaging the aqueduct, but now they had to escape across 60 miles of Italian countryside to their waiting submarine. They split up but were all caught and interrogated; their interpreter was executed. The men of X-Troop spent the rest of the war in POW camps, though a few escaped with some hair-raising tales to tell of their adventures. X-Troop’s efforts were originally deemed a failure, but the propaganda effect on morale at home and in Italy was significant for good and bad. The formation of airborne units continued, however, incorporating the lessons learned from this attack.
Operation Colossus is a fascinating story worthy of a book, and Paterson’s diligent research honours the event and the men who took part. He uses sources as close to the action as he could get and that, along with his informative biographical details, personalises what could have been a humdrum operational report about a small action in a great war. Paterson also highlights the logistical and planning difficulties of staging a joint operation without glossing over the many mistakes that were made. Operation Colossus therefore achieves its goals and World War II readers will no doubt enjoy reading it.