SAS vs SS: The untold story of how a tiny band of our elite troops parachuted into Occupied Franc...
In the autumn of 1944, the SAS parachuted into a remote region of Occupied France. Yet Operation Loyton, its codename, has remained little known. It is revealed here in detail for the first time. Read the full story
Sitting in their stripped-down jeeps, ready for action, the SAS raiders could not believe their luck. Behind enemy lines in the remote mountainous Vosges region of France, they were hidden in thick undergrowth by the side of a twisting valley road.
Suddenly into view came the slender and stylish bonnet of a German army staff car — a welcome target.
One of their missions in their two-month undercover operation was to devastate the enemy’s command structure and reduce its fighting potential. Here was the perfect opportunity.
Mission: One of their missions in SAS's two-month undercover operation was to devastate the enemy’s command structure and reduce its fighting potential. Left, a British soldier in 1941 and right, an SS soldier
And it only got better because close behind the first car was a second, and then a third, all stuffed full of German officers and just asking to be hit as they slowed for a junction.
In the front of each jeep, the machine-gunners let fly. Two thousand bullets tore through bodywork from bonnet to boot until not a figure could be seen moving in the stricken vehicles. A pall of oily smoke rose above the road.
In the deafening silence that followed, the SAS heard more vehicles approaching — a convoy of 20 trucks carrying enemy troops. This would be too big to take on. The jeeps scooted away, back to their mountain-top hideout, job done. It was the autumn of 1944. The SAS had parachuted in weeks earlier to this remote region in Occupied France, close to the German border, and ever since had been harassing Nazi forces, blowing up trains and generally creating mayhem.
It was as daring and dangerous an operation as any the SAS had taken part in since its formation three years earlier, well worthy of its ‘Who Dares Wins’ motto.
Yet Operation Loyton, its codename, has remained little known, passed over in the official histories in just a few lines. It is revealed here in detail for the first time.
It proved a costly mission. Nearly half of those who parachuted into France never came home — a horrific attrition rate. Some died horrible deaths at the hands of the Nazis.
The SAS parachuted in to a remote region in Occupied France, close to the German border (seen in file image)
Local French people took a terrible beating too, thousands of them killed or sent to concentration camps for sheltering the raiders.
The operation became important for another reason, too, as we will see later in this series. Without it, the SAS might well have disappeared completely.
In the immediate post-war years, it was officially disbanded in an act of petty spite by a British military establishment that hated its maverick ways. But it was the men of Operation Loyton who defied the top brass and secretly kept ‘The Regiment’ going, ensuring its survival as the unrivalled military strike force it still is today.
One of the many extraordinary things about Loyton was how long it lasted. It was only ever meant to be a quick in-and-out mission, a fortnight at the most. In the end it went on for two months.
In the aftermath of the D-Day landings, the Allies were advancing through France, with General Patton’s U.S. Third Army smashing its way towards the German border. It was believed the enemy might well dig their last-ditch defensive line in the Vosges. It made sense for the SAS to drop in, boost and arm the local Resistance forces there and ‘make merry hell’ for the enemy.
In the autumn of 1944, SAS troops parachuted into a remote region of Occupied France (file image)
Commanded by 23-year-old Captain Henry Druce, a small advance party parachuted in at night to establish a secure ‘bandit base’ and a drop zone for more men and supplies to follow. The plan was that as many as 120 SAS troopers would eventually be on the ground to wage shoot ’n’ scoot warfare, the SAS’s speciality.
They might even seize one of the mountain passes leading into Germany and hold it until the Allied army arrived — in which case the war could well be over by Christmas.
There were two miscalculations. The first was that the Allied forces were advancing much more slowly than anticipated, thereby prolonging the operation indefinitely.
The second was that the area was not sparsely defended, as had been thought. On the contrary, a division of 5,000 German soldiers — including battle-hardened veterans from the eastern front — was firmly in place to meet them.
The moment Druce landed, he found he was up against the vicious Colonel Erich Isselhorst, an experienced killer who had cut his teeth liquidating partisans in Russia. Now the Gestapo chief in the Vosges, his response to reports of parachutists landing on his patch was to launch Operation Waldfest (which translates as ‘party in the forest’) to hunt them down.
By his side was Major Hans Ernst, who had recently sent 800 French Jews to their deaths at Auschwitz. A sadistic man, he was a past master at forcing captives to break under extreme interrogation and torture.
Suddenly the forests and foothills were flooded with heavily armed German troops, forcing Druce and his men to flee from their first base, trekking through the mountains, pursued by the enemy.
The miracle was that they were never betrayed by the locals, despite the Nazis taking extreme punitive measures. In the village of Moussey, an SS punishment squad rolled in at dawn one Sunday and dragged 200 men, women and children from their homes.
A jack-booted officer harangued them with just one question: where are the English parachutists hiding? There was an inducement. ‘Any one who steps forward with information about these terrorists will go free.’ The deadly consequences if no one spoke up did not need to be spelt out.
Yet not a soul stirred, even though every single one of them knew that the secret camp of the SAS was just a few miles away in the forest.
None of the vile threats moved the Moussey villagers, even when the men were marched away, most never to be seen or heard of again. No one informed, not even under torture.
Locals such as the buxom Madame Rossi, who lived on the outskirts of the village, took huge risks to protect the band of raiders. On one occasion the Gestapo searched her home from top to bottom, while six SAS men lay hidden there, lying beneath a huge water wheel at the rear.
One of the many extraordinary things about Loyton was how long it lasted. It was only ever meant to be a quick in-and-out mission, a fortnight at the most. In the end it went on for two months. Above, an gate with SS insignia
Another redoubtable Moussey woman was Mlle Bergeron, who ran messages between the SAS and the French Resistance. The Germans beat her and turned her farmhouse into a brothel and, when she still would not crack, they dragged her 80-year-old mother out of bed and forced her to dance in her nightgown until she collapsed and died.
Still, Mlle Bergeron would not talk. Another woman was marched into the forest at gunpoint and passed so close to the SAS base that the men there could see her through the trees. She, too, said nothing.
But the iron fist of Operation Waldfest made life very hard for Druce and his men. With German tanks and troops on every road, the villagers had fewer opportunities to take food to them. ‘We were really boxed in,’ he noted — and beginning to starve.
A lesser man might have called off the mission at this point. They had bitten off more than they could chew and should get out fast. Conditions on the ground got even tougher as bad weather set in and the men lived and fought in clothes sodden by non-stop rain.
It was dirty work in other ways, too. Druce captured two agents of the Milice, the French pro-Nazi militia, and shot them out of hand — something that was originally censored in the official SAS diary of the mission.
To add to the discomfort and danger, it was increasingly clear that the Allied armies would not be arriving any time soon.
But instead of packing it in, Druce gave the go-ahead for the next batch of SAS fighters to come in and launch hit-and-run attacks. They sneaked into a military depot and blew up ammunition trucks in a conflagration that killed and injured 80 Germans.
Then more reinforcements parachuted in, two dozen of them this time, led by the brigade commander himself, Colonel Brian Franks, leaving his desk in England for front-line action.
When he saw what it was like on the ground he, too, would have been within his rights to call off the entire operation. He didn’t. Rather, he stepped it up, urging his men to strike hard at the ‘grey lice’, as he nicknamed the enemy because that was how they appeared from his mountaintop vantage point as they moved along the valley floor.
They did so with deadly new gadgets devised by the boffins back home — plastic explosives shaped like horse droppings. Scattered on a road, they appeared to be innocent, until a truck passed over them, detonating the powerful charge.
But the real game-changer was the arrival of the jeeps. The whole of Moussey turned out to light the drop zone with torches as six floated down in special cradles strung from enormous parachutes at each corner.
One of their missions in their two-month undercover operation was to devastate the enemy’s command structure and reduce its fighting potential. Above, troops in a jeep similar to the ones used at the time
Fast and furious had always been the SAS way. Now they could sow even more panic among the ‘grey lice’, dashing in with all guns blazing and then making a clean getaway.
Not everything went to plan. On his way back to ‘bandit base’ from one mission, Druce cruised into the square at Moussey to see SS troopers lined up opposite frightened villagers, rounded up for yet another round of brutal reprisals.
For a split second SAS and SS eyed each other. But Druce was the first to react, accelerating his jeep at the SS ranks as his gunner fired from close range. SS soldiers were blown off their feet as Druce steered for the exit, leaving 20 dead and wounded soldiers in his wake. As he sped away, all he could hope for the villagers was that, in the chaos, they had managed to escape. In reality, they were all being herded away for deportation.
Furious at their fate, Franks stepped up the raids so that no German officer could sleep soundly in his bed or travel the roads of the Vosges in comfort. Soon Operation Loyton had destroyed eight German staff cars and their high-ranking occupants. The final tally would be 13.
A key part of their mission had been to decapitate the Nazi serpent in the area and they succeeded, making a significant dent in the SS command structure as well as spreading fear among the occupiers. It was as much as any group of raiders like this could expect, if not more.
In truth, the Germans had exaggerated the numbers of SAS on the ground and the danger they posed. There were never more than 50 of them at large at any one point and they could only cause so much havoc. But it was the myth of the winged-dagger-wearing avengers that did most damage.
The operation was well worthy of the SAS's 'Who Dares Wins' motto
Not that the SAS had it all their own way, not by a long way. They took casualties from the very start when Sergeant Kenneth Seymour was injured on landing and quickly taken captive.
He was fiercely interrogated, as was radio operator Corporal Gerald Davis, who had sought refuge in a church and been turned in to the Gestapo by a priest. Both men were presented with the same ultimatum: tell us all you know, or darkness, pain and bitter death will follow.
Among the later reinforcements, Sergeant Fitzpatrick and Troopers Conway and Elliot drifted off in fog and went missing. A French woman — one of the handful of locals not to help the SAS contingent — betrayed them to the Nazis.
Five further SAS men were caught in an ambush and held, along with the others in subterranean cells at a security camp in the garrison town of Schirmek, the nerve centre for Isselhorst’s anti-guerilla operation.
A few miles away was Natzweiler, a former ski resort that had been transformed into a concentration camp, the only one ever built on French soil. Within its confines, tens of thousands of inmates would be starved, beaten, tortured and gassed to death.
Would this be the fate of those fighters who fell into enemy hands — as well as the men of Moussey and other Vosges villages who had been rounded up in retaliation? It seemed all too likely.
As time went on, the SAS operation inevitably ran out of steam. October came and still the American army had not arrived.
Franks’s men were increasingly isolated and under pressure. He radioed a desperate message back to England that the latest re- supply from the air had dropped bazookas and bombs when ‘food was the main item I asked for’.
By now the weather had switched, autumn into winter. Snow fell in the mountains, leaving exhausted and hungry men shivering in the cold. They were approaching a state in which they would no longer be able to fight.
Isselhorst was as merciless as ever, launching fresh purges. Some 1,000 villagers were seized and shipped off to concentration camps.
At some stage during this round-up, the location of the SAS base was given away. On their mountain top, the SAS heard the tell-tale metal-upon-metal clink of troops filtering up through the thick woodland towards them. There was the spine-chilling whine of dogs.
Nearly half of those who parachuted into France never came home — a horrific attrition rate. Some died horrible deaths at the hands of the Nazis. Above, Waffen-SS unit combing an area of forest in Germany in 1941
Completely surrounded, they waited, fearing the worst. Captain John Hislop couldn’t bear the thought of torture and was determined to go down fighting. He would keep the last bullet for himself.
But the attack never came. The Germans retreated, biding their time. But the prospect that they would be back, and in even greater numbers, was not in doubt. Franks ordered his men to abandon the base immediately. They would leave behind their much-loved jeeps and travel light and fast by foot on narrow mountain tracks.
Next morning the Germans came in force, blasting the SAS base with tanks and field guns. They were met by a rearguard, seven brave men, commanded by the baby-faced Lt David Dill — a veteran from the first drop all those weeks before.
In a ferocious fight, they held out for four hours before the last of their ammunition was exhausted and they surrendered. Their rightful claim to be prisoners of war was ignored as they were handed over to the Gestapo. They joined their other captured comrades in Schirmek.
But at least the main body of the Operation Loyton force was still free, though with little ammo, explosives, food or shelter, their position was desperate. With no real alternative, Franks ordered an end to the mission.
He split his 40 remaining troops into four-man and six-man units and sent them off to find their own way through the German defences to Allied lines.
The journeys were arduous and dangerous. Franks and his own unit tried to cross a bridge but were chased away by a salvo of grenades and forced to swim the river. They ducked away from enemy patrols just in time, weaving one way as bullets thundered over them, then the other as shots came at them from in front, too.
Three of them went to ground as search parties drew closer. Bayonets jabbed into bushes around their hiding place. Just when it seemed the enemy must discover them, a massive barrage of incoming Allied fire slammed in and the Germans fled.
The next day they stumbled on a road with soldiers patrolling it — Americans! They were safe at last.
Back home, it was time for Franks to draw up the tally sheet. On the plus side, the mission had delivered against seemingly impossible odds, spreading chaos and havoc across the Vosges.
Roads and railway lines had been knocked out and supplies disrupted. Dozens of German officers had been killed. An entire enemy division had been diverted to hunt the SAS, pinning down thousands of German troops who would have been better deployed fighting the Allies on the actual front line.
But there had been a terrible cost. There were the countless French men and women who had been brutally tortured, deported and slaughtered. And then his own casualties.
All in all, 82 SAS fighters had been deployed and only 46 came out alive. Five were recorded as definitely dead, ‘killed in action’. But 31 were listed as ‘Missing, believed prisoners of war’ or simply ‘Missing’.
Would they ever be seen alive again?
From a source in Special Operations, Franks heard spine-chilling details of the brutality and mass extermination that had gone on at the concentration camp at Natzweiler. Was it possible that the missing men from Operation Loyton were not prisoners of war but had ended their lives there — murdered in cold blood?
Answering that riddle would now become the SAS’s next mission. Come hell or high water, Franks decided, the killers of his men must be hunted down.
A new game was on, to be fought with as much bravery and determination as the one that had just ended.
And this time the enemy would not be in Nazi grey but in British khaki. To get at the truth, he would have to take on his own side.
- Adapted from The Nazi Hunters: The Ultra Secret SAS Unit And The Quest For Hitler’s War Criminals by Damien Lewis, published by Quercus at £20. © Damien Lewis 2015. To order a copy at the special price of £15 (valid until October 17, p&p free), call 0808 272 0808 or visit www.mailbookshop.co.uk
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