World War raid on Tragino
Tatton Park's role in Britain's first airborne assault
In May, 1940, only the miracle of Dunkirk saved Britain from defeat
as 334,000 troops escaped from the French beaches. With nothing
more than a battered fleet and a few squadrons of fighter aircraft,
many believed there was no alternative but to sue for peace.
They reckoned, of course, without the pugnacious courage of Winston
Churchill and his people.
The story of the Battle of Britain and the fight by so few to save
so many is part of British history, but perhaps not so well documented
is another Churchill masterstroke - the formation of an elite paratroop
corp to "carry the war back to the enemy".
Less than six months after Dunkirk, hundreds of raw recruits were
trained and ready and in February 1941, Britain's first airborne
forces went into action - to destroy the Tragino Aqueduct in Southern
The first volunteers to answer Churchill's call and report to No.2
(Parachute) Commando came from a variety of units - Gunners, Sappers,
Signals, Cavalry, Guards, Infantry, R.Tank Regiment, Marines, RASC,
Training began at what was then Ringway Airfield, now Manchester
International Airport, and on July 13, 1940, the first practice
drops began from old Whitley bombers over Tatton Park, Knutsford.
In those early days little was known about parachuting or equipment
and techniques were largely experimental.
Local garrison commanders were warned that "friendly parachute
troops" would be training in the Knutsford area and were not
to be shot !
By the end of 1940 about 400 men of 2 Commando had qualified as
parachutists and the unit changed its name to 11 Special Air Service
Battalion from which eventually grew 15 parachute battalions with
a strength of 14,000 men.
"Operation Colossus" was the code name given to the attack
on the Tragino Aqueduct which carried the main water supply to the
cities of Taranto, Brindisi and Bari. To a large extent it was to
be no more than a propaganda exercise, although guaranteed to cause
alarm and despondency in a large area of Italy.
It is said that the entire battalion stepped forward when Lieutenant
Colonel C.I.A.Jackson asked for volunteers, despite the fact that
he had warned of there being no more than a "slim chance"
A party of seven officers and 31 NCOs and men, under Major T.A.G.Pritchard,
was selected for 'X' Troop and for six weeks they underwent intensive
In high winds on one exercise several men were blown into high trees
at Tatton Park and had to be rescued by Knutsford Fire Brigade.
On February 9, 1941, 'X' Troop set off in eight Whitley bombers
across occupied France. They landed in Malta and six of the aircraft
took on board arms, explosives and rations, whilst the other two
were equipped with bombs for a diversion on the railway yards at
The strategy was for 'X' Troop to parachute in, destroy the aqueduct
and then make their way across 50 miles to the coast where they
would be picked up by a submarine waiting in the mouth of the River
During the night of February 10, five of the Whitleys arrived over
the target and dropped their parachutists from 400 feet - the sixth
plane failed to find the correct place and the men fell into the
next valley where they were unable to be of any use in the raid.
This unfortunate occurrence also meant a shortfall of explosives
and the problem was worsened by the discovery that the aqueduct
was made of concrete and not brick as had been expected.
Undeterred, 'X' Troop pressed on with its mission and at 12.30am,
half the Tragino Aqueduct collapsed under 800lbs of explosive.
One hour later the troop split up into three parties to make their
way to the coast across difficult terrain and through hostile villages
and towns. Eventually they were all discovered and imprisoned, except
their Italian interpreter who was questioned and shot as a traitor.
Unknown to the men of 'X' Troop their escape was doomed to fail
anyway. One of the aircraft ordered to bomb the railway yards at
Froggia had developed engine trouble and the pilot, unaware of the
waiting submarine, had radioed his intention to ditch his bombs
at the mouth of the River Sele. Fears that the signal could have
been intercepted led to the cancellation of the submarine's sailing
In material terms, Operation Colossus had little effect since the
aqueduct was repaired before the reservoirs ran dry. The strategic
importance of the raid was not significant either but, at least,
it was the first moral-boosting step towards Churchill's promise
to "carry the war back to the enemy".
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