SIG’s Daring Commando Raids in North Africa

In March 1942, the man who would found one of the most unusual groups of WWII, the Special Interrogation Group (SIG), staggered out of the Libyan Desert before the great port of Tobruk. Captain Herbert Cecil A. Buck was spotted and taken to British Headquarters, given a stiff drink then flown to British High Command in Cairo. Buck was no ordinary British soldier; the son of an officer, Buck was born in India in 1916 and studied German at Oxford. Buck was serving in the Scots Guards when the 8th Army was pushed back by Rommel’s Afrika Korps.



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Captain Herbert Cecil Buck

In Cairo, Buck recounted his story. He had been wounded then captured by the Germans who shackled him in a truck. While the truck was driving, Buck killed the German guard, took his uniform and began his journey to British lines. With his knowledge of the German language and stolen Nazi uniform, Buck passed unchallenged through German and Italian checkpoints until he reached safety. With his experience behind German lines, Buck had the idea to create a unit of German speakers who could operate in enemy territory. The high command decided Buck would be the perfect man to lead them. With Buck’s planning, a unit called the Special Interrogation Group (SIG) was approved with the purpose of causing destruction and havoc behind German lines.

For the unit to blend in, Buck needed to find fluent German speakers who could pass as Nazi soldiers. The largest pool of German speakers belonged to the 51st (Middle East) Commando, a unit filled with German Jews who had escaped Germany and went to Palestine.

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Maurice Tiefenbruner

Herbert Buck met the 51st Commandos on March 17, 1942, while the 51st was resting at a camp near the Suez Canal. He told the Commandos that he was “looking for men for a different kind of challenge” and eventually found around 30 men to join him. A diary entry for the 51st that day read “Captain Buck selects Germans”. To fill the rest of the roster Buck found free Czech and men from the French Foreign Legion. The men were trained to be Germans soldiers. One former member, Maurice Tiefenbruner remembered “We learned how to goosestep, how to curse each other in German and how to snore in German.” They trained in German uniforms, with German weapon and vehicles even sending a request to Cairo for a German staff car and two one and a half ton trucks.

To increase their authenticity, Captain Buck decided to recruit German POWs to teach military language, habits and customs of the German army. They found two anti-Nazi POW’s who were both ex French Foreign Legion, named Herbert Brueckner and Walter Essner. Both of them were from the 361st Regiment, 90th Light Division and had been taken prisoner in November 1941. After vetting them, both Brueckner and Essner were assigned to the SIG.



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Walter Essner (2nd from right) and Maurice Tiefenbruner (3rd from right)

Some men had suspicions about the Germans but Buck vouched for them. Brueckner and Essner were able to give much more authenticity to the SIG’s knowledge of the German Army. The men of SIG were drilled constantly and training included random interrogations on their German identifications. The men became skilled with demolitions, desert navigation, unarmed combat and the operation and repair of German vehicles.

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Captain John Haselden

Part of SIG’s training was to mix with German POWs to gather information, before they were sent out on sorties behind enemy lines. The Germans, however soon learned there were spies in their camps. The British intercepted a secret message from Hitler to Rommel regarding German political refugees in Africa among the enemy forces. Hitler ordered that any German political refugee helping the Allies was to be killed without mercy.

In June 1942, with Rommel’s Afrika Korps pushing the British back to within less than a 100 miles from the Suez Canal, it was decided that the time had come for Special Interrogation Group to enter the fight. Lieutenant Colonel David Stirling, founder of the Special Air Service (SAS) asked for SIG’s help in destroying German planes at two airfields 100 miles west of Tobruk. 12 SIG men and 14 Free French soldiers rode in a captured German truck and a British 3 ton lorry. The plan was for the SIG men to pose as German guards taking French POW’s to a prison camp.

On June 8, 1942, the SAS/SIG group left their kick off point at the Siwa Oasis 30 miles east of the Libyan border with an SAS escort that departed 4 days later. One truck was driven by the former German POW Brueckner with 9 French soldiers in it. The other truck, driven by Herbert Buck carried the SIG men, the rest of the French soldiers and the other German POW Walter Essner. They drove with a look out placed on each truck, German style, and crossed the desert. They fooled the German and Italians they met, who warned them that British Commandos were operating in the area.



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Most of Force B men with John Haselden in center

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Group of Force B men at Hatiet

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Sappers of Force B

The plan was to split into two groups and attack the two airfields on June 13th, one at Derna and the other at Matrub. Herbert Buck would take Essner, three SIG and five French to Matrub, while the rest of the SIG and French, led by a French officer, would go with Brueckner to attack Derna. One SIG man, Maurice Tiefenbruner, would stay behind at the rendezvous point with a walkie talkie as a liaison to both parties. On the 12th, the group spent the night a few miles from the German air fields.

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John Haselden in Arab clothing

On June 13th, Essner and Brueckner were sent to a German outpost and came back with the password for entry onto both airfields. That night, Buck and Essner’s group headed to Martub, while the French officer and Brueckner went to Derna. In the early morning hours of the 14th, Buck’s group returned to the rendezvous point with no casualties and reported they destroyed 27 German aircraft at Martuba.

While Buck’s group succeeded in their mission, the French officer and another French soldier both returned out of breath to the rendezvous point. They said on the way to Derna airfield, Brueckner had slammed his hand down on the dashboard and said something was wrong with motor. He stopped the truck and looked under the hood. Brueckner said he could not fix it himself and wanted to go to a nearby German garage to get help. Minutes after he left, the truck was surrounded by Germans who shouted “all French out” The SIG men opened up with a machine gun mounted in the truck but 3 SIG and 7 French were killed in the firefight.



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SIG men digging trucks out of the sand

Hearing the French officer’s story, Essner was guarded at gunpoint by Maurice Tiefenbruner for the week long trip back to camp. Whether Essner was also a double agent is unknown, but after returning to British base he was returned to his POW status, and was later killed trying to escape.

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Force B men at Hatiet Etla before the Tobruk attack

A few weeks later, two captured Luftwaffe pilots revealed that the Germans knew of the raid weeks before it happened. It was rumored that Brueckner was a spy with a different name and got a special award from Hitler for his actions.

In September 1942, Herbert Buck and SIG were sent to the Kufra Oasis in Libya, home to the Long Range Desert Group, to take part in a daring attack codenamed Operation Agreement. SIG would be part of Force B, a commando raid on the Port of Tobruk which was captured by the Germans in June 1942. The commander of Force B was Lieutenant Colonel John Haselden. Haselden had been born in Egypt, was fluent in Arabic and Italian and was a decorated military leader. He would lead a force of about 90 men including SAS and SIG.

Operation Agreement consisted of four parts: first, a Royal Air Force bombing attack on Tobruk, then John Haselden with Herbert Buck’s SIG in Force B would the destroy the coastal guns east of the city, allowing the joint Commando and Royal Marine Force C and Force A to assault the Port. Force C consisted of the Destroyers HMS Zulu, Sikh and Coventry who would attack and land west of the port while Force A, made up of motor torpedo boats would assault the port itself.



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Men of Force B

Like in their previous mission, SIG disguised themselves as Germans guarding POWs. On September 5th Force B left Kufra for the 800 mile journey to Tobruk. The desert conditions were hard and the men sometimes had to dig their trucks out of the sand. On September 10th, Force B reached Hatiet Etla, a depression in the desert where they could rest. The men stayed for three days going over the planned assault on Tobruk.

On the night of the 13th, Force B went into action. The men drove in four trucks with SIG drivers and SAS men as their “prisoners”. Four miles from Tobruk, they disabled a truck and left it there as a getaway vehicle. At 22:30 hours, British bombers attacked the port, under cover of the air raid Force B captured a small house overlooking Tobruk and began their attack on the coastal guns. SAS and SIG teams worked separately destroying guns and signaled that the landings could go ahead as planned.

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Force B drive to Tobruk

The seaborne invasion of Tobruk was scheduled for September 14th, but by then, Force B was cut off by German and Italian units. When Force B managed to get in contact with the other Forces they got the stunning news that HMS Sikh, Zulu and Coventry of Force C had all been sunk and that Force A failed to land and were withdrawing.

The men of Force B destroyed their belongings and retreated. With the invasion pushed back, the Germans and Italians could concentrate on the small group of SAS/SIG. In the ensuing fight, the commanding officer of Force B, John Haselden was killed trying to stall the enemy and give time for his men to retreat. The survivors wandered through the desert for two months before reaching Allied lines on November 18, 1942

Operation Agreement ended as a total disaster for the British.  746 men were killed, wounded or captured and three destroyers other smaller craft were sunk. The Germans and Italians suffered 16 dead and 50 wounded.

This marked the end of SIG and the survivors were sent to other units. Captain Herbert Buck continued to fight with the SAS and was killed in a plane crash in 1946.



For More About The SIG Check Out:

Operation Agreement: Jewish Commandos and the Raid on Tobruk


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