In June 1942 the SIG were given their first major task - to assist the founder of the SAS - the charismatic Major Stirling - to blow up German airfields on the coast, 100 miles west of Tobruk, at Derna and Martuba, which were threatening the Malta supply convoys (the Malta base being of supreme importance in the struggle to starve Rommel of the supplies he needed to defeat the Allies in North Africa).
When Buck was approached by Stirling about the raid, he was absolutely delighted; it would allow him the chance to show what his Palestinian Jews could do (13). The SIG were to meet the SAS at Siwa oasis, work out detailed plans and leave no later than the 8th of June, to go in on the night of 13/14th June with 14 men and an officer (Lt Jordain) of the Free French Squadron , escorting them hidden in the back of 2 captured Afrika Korps trucks and a command car (MT). Cowles, however, (14) claims the SIG had 4 vehicles with Afrika Corps strip and insignia - a Knevelwagen (a military version of the VW), one Opel, one German 3-tonner lorry and a "captured" British 30cwt lorry; and 8 SIG men. Tiffen says 12 SIG men, four in each of two lorries and the rest in the command car - 5 of whom had been in 51 Commando, and two others who were Free Czech Jews (15); whilst Morris and Tiffen claim they were posing as German guards openly escorting French POW's in captured Allied trucks!
Whatever the case, the raiders set out from Siwa after 3 days of checking supplies and weapons and gathering last minute Intelligence from 8th Army HQ, escorted by the New Zealand Patrol R1 of the LRDG under Captain A.I. Guild on June 6th (this patrol was to establish an RV and wait for the commandos after the raid, according to Cowles). After 4 days the SIG team changed into German uniforms; Buck was a private driving the lead vehicle (16) and next to him were Essner and Brueckner as NCO's, and Ariyeh Shai was driver Cpl. Adolf Schubert. Atop each truck was an SIG "guard", posted German style as a lookout. Each SIG man carried a luger, machine gun, bayonet and grenades (16a) and - according to Cowles - the French were dressed in khaki overalls with blue forage caps, with grenades and a .45 automatic revolver each. Each lorry also concealed two ready mounted machine guns.
During that day, the British lorry broke down but was taken in tow by Buck's vehicle. Then Shai describes how "we saw a roadblock with a red and white barrier and guard room, about 4pm in the afternoon. A skinny Italian soldier wearliy waved us down and demanded the password". Capt. Buck was non-plussed for the moment. British Intelligence had not supplied them with the password for June - only for May ("Fiume") (17) . Buck or Brueckner flourished their forged orders in the sentry's face, saying they had been on a mission before the old password was changed, but failed to budge him! Then a major arrived, suggesting they go to the guardroom to discuss the matter over a glass of wine. Buck and Brueckner went, playing their role superbly, explaining they had to deliver the trucks from Agedabia to the Derna workshops. But the genial major would not relent as he had orders to let nobody through without the password. Buck looked at Brueckner and the German took the hint. "You are holding us up" roared Brueckner in German. "I'll report you to your superiors. Keep out of the way. Don't you see German soldiers are coming back from the desert?" Eventually they were allowed to pass through but the sources do not explain how an NCO got away with speaking to an Italian Major in that manner!
In the evening the convoy met another roadblock. A fat German corporal waved them through, warning that 'British Commandos reach even out here' and advised them to park in the transit camp a little further on. So as not to arouse suspicion, Buck did as advised. At the camp they filled up with fuel, chatted with the German soldiers, bought some provisions at the local canteen and "Cpl. Schubert" even stood in line to get some supper - "lentils and dumplings!" The French, in hiding, watched this with amusement from slits in the truck canvas sides. Shortly afterwards the convoy left unnoticed and parked several miles down the road, overnight.
Next day (the 13th) the party carried out a reconaissance of the airfield targets in the late afternoon, to be hit that night. Brueckner drove during this recce, taking Jordain and 4 other men. They saw one airfield with Me 110's and the other with Stukas. The two fields at Martuba were not investigated for fear of arousing suspicion, but also had ME 110's. All returned safely by 5.30pm.
The commandos were parked within 5 miles of the two Derna airfields at a point which would be the post-raid rendezvouz. They were to split into two parties - one led by Buck and Essner in a truck with 3 SIG (including Shai) and five of the French to attack one of the Martuba airfields, and the other led by Jordain (the French CO) and Brueckner with the other 9 of the French SAS and 3 other SIG including two named Peter Hass/Hess and Peter Gottlieb (see note 3i), to be taken in two parties to the two airfields at Derna . Swinson claims Buck stayed at the rendezvous point to co-ordinate the operation. Tiffen says no, and that he himself was at the rendezvous with the command car and another SIG member, to act as liason between the two groups. Whatever the truth, so far all had gone perfectly well.
But before this they had had to get the proper password and so Brueckner and Essner had earlier in the day been sent to a nearby German post to ask - and got it! The challenge was "Siesta" and the reply "Eldorado". Cowles, however, gives a different version (18). Buck typed a letter to be given to the fat German NCO they had met earlier, requesting the password. Two SIG - again Hass/Hess and Gottlieb - volunteered to deliver it. They took the Knevelwagen and found the German who quipped that he was not sure he even knew it; they all laughed merrily and went to look for an Italian guard who gave them the passwords by looking in an index book of some kind. They all then saluted each other and the SIG men left.
Buck with Essner took off to their target at Martuba with the first party. The other group left at 9pm from a point 3 kms. north of the Carmusa cross-roads to Derna, in another lorry, first to drop Jordain's group off, and then the second Derna group under Corporal Bourmont. But before this could be done, whilst passing through Derna itself, Brueckner stopped the truck near the cinema on the pretence that the engine was overheating and went to a nearby German guardroom or garage. Cowles claims the French could hear the film projector running (19). But, Landsborough's source says that Brueckner exclaimed that "Something has fallen off the truck; I am going back for it". He then walked off into the night. One SIG man in the cab said " Brueckner is away a long time". The other replied " I am uneasy. I do not trust Brueckner. I think he might play traitor". Yet another source (20) claims that Brueckner waited till they were 200 yards from the airfield before betraying the raiders.
Whatever the truth, the next that the French knew was that the truck was surrounded by Germans who ordered, "All Frenchmen out!" (Jordain says he heard the crunching of footsteps and when peering out to check what was happening, was dragged out of the truck by two Germans (21).
But the commandos refused to give up without a fight and came out with guns blazing. They inflicted many casualties on the Germans, fighting defiantly until overwhelmed. In the melee, only the commander Lt Augustine Jordain (22) escaped. Buck, having succeeded in his raid, destroying 20 enemy planes with the SIG and his French SAS, returned to the RV with the remainder of his party, receiving the news about the 2nd French group from Jordain, in shocked disbelief (23). All Jordain's Frenchmen had been either captured or killed (24). Jordain said he had seen two SIG men - one of them Hass/Hess - hurtling grenades with reckless abandon at the enemy and then on the brink of capture they blew themselves up with the truck with grenades. Tiffen and Shai, however,who remember clearly hearing the gunfire and explosions of both raids, also remember Jordain returning, badly wounded, with 4 survivors in the pitch dark, and not alone therefore. They also say that they learned afterwards that 2 SIG had been captured and then shot. Cowles writes (25) that months afterwards Jordain learnt that four of the French had been captured on the airfield and three more later on in the desert. Two others met up with the Martuba group but this RV had been betrayed aswell. They fought off a German attack but were all eventually captured. So Jordain was the only French evader of the raid.
After waiting for any stragglers, the handful of survivors then made their getaway towards Siwa with the lorry, and abandoned the command car. They waited for stragglers for almost a week at Baltel Zalegh, but none came. At one point they fooled a German plane into holding its fire by laying out a swastika flag on the sand (MT).
Much of the above description is supported by evidence given by two Luftwaffe ME 109 pilots - Lt Friederich Korner (captured 5/7/42 at El Alamein) and Oberleutnant Ernest Klager (captured 3/7/42 also at El Alamein) (26). In their interrogation, they claim " The Germans already knew that a group of English saboteurs would carry out a raid on German aerodromes in Cyrenaica dressed in German uniform....being organised by an English Colonel. As a result a state of alarm had been ordered as from sundown on all aerodromes" (26i) . Koerner continued, "Brueckner got out (of the truck), saluted the (German) CO and stated that he was a German soldier acting as driver of a German lorry containing a party of heavily armed English troops in German uniform with explosive charges to destroy aircraft. The CO was rather suspicious at first but the driver pressed him to organise as many men as possible with all speed and as heavily armed as possible to disarm the raiding party. The lorry was immediately surrounded and the occupants forced to get out. A few seconds after the last one had got out, there was an explosion inside the lorry and it was completely destroyed. A melee developed and it was believed that all the raiders had been shot.
However, on the following morning a wounded man presented himself at Derna hospital saying he was a wounded German soldier needing treatment. For some reason the doctor became suspicious and on examination it turned out that he was not a German soldier but a Jew from Palestine (this is almost certainly one of the two Tiffen says was shot later by the Germans). Brueckner claimed to the Germans that he was a German POW who had been approached by the English to drive a German lorry for them behind the lines. He had at first refused but money had been offered which he again refused. However, the sum increased and he accepted as he felt it was the best way of getting back his freedom"
Brueckner was flown to Berlin and awarded the Deutsche Kreuze in gold (Buck later believed it was silver). Morris claims, however, that he was killed in the fighting, and in the "Most Secret" post-raid report (27) , Buck stated this too. (This incident is, incidentally, decribed in a newspaper report in "The Jewish Chronicle" 13th July 1945). Tiffen had argued with Buck that using Germans as trainers was one thing, but taking them actually on a raid was tempting providence too much. Buck did not listen and Tiffen was proved right. In another statement in the post-raid report Buck said Brueckner and Essner had been "cleared" by Intelligence, and he "considered it was a necessary risk for training purposes and initial operations to have men who had recently been in the German army and knew the ropes". The report reminded critics that up to that point Brueckner and Essner had "provided intelligence with very valuable information about German dispositions and had extracted information from many POW's on behalf of CSDIC".
Essner had behaved well during the raid but was closely guarded by Tiffen on the way back to the base and then handed over to British MP's with a warning that he may try to escape. This he did and was shot. Swinson, however, alleges Essner was later caught in Cairo trying to contact German agents and was "shot trying to escape" by SIG men (28) . Whatever the truth, most of these events were only revealed years after the war, with just a slight hint of the mysterious group's activities being mentioned in a very brief article in the "Jewish Chronicle" on 24.9.43.
Authors John Gordon (28a) and Bradford and Dillon (see note 3a) relate yet another SIG exploit, when Stirling and his deputy Paddy Mayne - whilst the Derna raid was in progress and hiding south of Benina - decided to attack Benghazi again. Stirling was anxious to show Mayne the havoc he and his raiders had caused the Germans at Benina. With four other SAS men and Karl Kahane of the SIG, and a Chevrolet truck they had persuaded Capt. Robin Gordon of the LRDG to lend them for 24 hours (28b), they set off across the escarpment. Mayne drove with Stirling next to him. They were first stopped at a road block at the dead of night still in their British uniforms. Kahane, short and dark haired, whom Stirling had brought along precisely for this purpose ( and who had been an NCO in the German army before the rise of Hitler had forced him to flee to Palestine) used bluff and German slang to talk them through. But at a second Italian roadblock nearer to Benghazi, they were discovered. In a letter to his brother Douglas written six weeks after the raid, Mayne wrote "With headlights on we passed through one Italian roadblock shouting "Tedeseco" - Italian for German - but at a second checkpost came upon a large gate and barbed wire. Kahane shouted that they were Germans, hungry and in a hurry and "to open the ******* gate ".
Unsure, the guard called out a dozen heavily armed Germans with a Sgt. Major, who was holding a potato masher grenade and a P38 pistol and who asked for the password. Kahane replied " How the **** do we know the ******* password and don't ask for our ******* identity cards either ; they're lost and we have been fighting the past 70 hours against those ******* Tommies. Our car was destroyed and we were lucky to capture this British truck and get back at all. Some fool put us on the wrong road. We've been driving for two hours and you so and so's, sitting on your arses in Benghazi in a nice safe job, stop us! So hurry up and get that ******* gate open". But the German was not satisfied and walked to within three feet on Mayne's side of the truck whilst other guards focussed a light on Stirling and Mayne in the front seat.
Mayne noisily cocked his Colt revolver lying on his lap, and all the others released their safety catches too; the German took one look and ordered the gate open; with lots of "Guten nachts" the SAS drove on; clearly the German concluded that if anyone was to be hurt, he would be first, and even though it was clear he knew they were British, he had to let them through. Stirling, sitting next to Mayne, is in no doubt that the click of the Colt was deliberate, as the German's eyes met Paddy's! But the cat was out of the bag and Benghazi was now out of the question, so on arrival at Lete, just down the road, they came upon various targets of opportunity and blew up a road block, fuel tanks, pumps, trucks and Daimler half-tracks with machine guns and bombs. Now chased by armoured cars, they raced back five miles into the desert, having to use a different route to the one they had taken into the area, headlights blazing, the truck jolting fiercely as they and the Germans exchanged fire on the run.
They eventually left their pursuers behind, the Germans not anxious to go to too far and possibly meet an ambush, but the SAS team had had a narrow escape.They stopped eventually and celebrated with some whisky from Stirlings flask! However, the jolting had set off the fuses they were carrying still, and as they climbed the escarpment to freedom they smelt the burning. With a warning shout from one of the men, they all jumped off as the truck blew up. They recovered and surveyed the scene, then burst out laughing. Kahane (28c) indicated that he was too old to laugh at such a thing but was so impressed with their humour that he told them he was convinced the Germans could never win the war against such spirited men!
They continued on foot and after an hour came to a Senussi village where they were cared for overnight. Next afternoon the LRDG came to pick them up after a messenger had been sent to fetch them.