Special Operations: SAS Operation Bulbasket

Posted on Thursday 14th January 2016

Origins of the Operation
One of the most controversial SAS operations of the entire Second World War has been characterised by some as ‘an amateurish failure, not worthy of special forces’. Battlefield History TV’s Tim Saunders disagrees; the results of the operation he argues speak for themselves. In a series of articles for Warfare Magazine, Tim will highlight the significant contribution to the success of the Normandy Campaign made by the SAS troopers who took part in Operation Bulbasket.

Part 1
The Special Operations Executive (SOE) was established to ‘Set enemy occupied countries ablaze’, but in France the aim was different, for the Western Allies at least. Here SOE wanted to focus on preparations to assist the Allied Invasion and for the resistance groups to go into action only when the time came. In the meantime, however, they would gather as much information on the Germans as possible. In the period before the invasion, the Allies could not afford to have more and more enemy troops sucked into France, which would be the inevitable result of a precipitate campaign of resistance. However, this was exactly what Stalin wanted, as he desperately needed to relieve pressure on the Red Army on the Eastern Front. The differing aims and political nature of resistance groups led to competition, conflict and even treachery within the Resistance Movement. This led many Allied officers to question its fundamental reliability to the Allied cause.
When the invasion planners got to work in detail it was readily apparent that the Germans could redeploy their reserve panzer divisions to Normandy from other parts of France quicker than the Allies could ship armoured divisions across the Channel and disembark them. Measures to delay the move of the panzers were in short regarded as vital to the success of Operation Overlord.
See Map 1, right.
It had been originally intended that the task of delaying the move of panzer formations from the South of France, and elsewhere, would be taken on by the resistance who were, in areas south of the River Loire, being armed and equipped for this task. While SOE was confident that they could achieve this, the Operation Overlord planners were not as sanguine, especially when in the early spring of 1944, 2nd Das Reich SS Panzer Division was sent to south west France. This elite formation, rapidly refitting after a winter on the Eastern Front, was probably the most powerful German formations in the west. The planners were not prepared to risk a failure to delay them, nor did they believe that the air forces could guarantee the destruction of the Loire and Seine railway bridges. After a rapid transit north by train to Normandy, within days the deployment of Das Reich against the Normandy Beachhead was the stuff of Allied nightmares.
What to do about the problem?
Formed for operations in the desert, the SAS and other ‘private armies’ had been unpopular with the conservative elements of the military establishment and the end of the North African campaign saw the disbandment of many of the what today would be called special forces. Montgomery, however, had come to appreciate the value of these unconventional desert warriors, who had continued to prove themselves useful during both the invasion of Sicily and Italy. With Churchill’s agreement (he was always one who appreciated an unconventional approach to soldiering), the SAS were amongst those veteran formations and units brought back from the Mediterranean to spearhead the invasion.
In early 1944, back in the UK there was no role for the SAS in the coming invasion. The D Day planner’s knowledge of their capabilities and their usefulness on the North West Europe battlefield was slim. There was also the same suspicion, indeed, antipathy towards these different and unconventional soldiers. This denied the SAS tasks until relatively late in the planning process, when Montgomery and his old Eighth Army team were firmly in the planning seat of 21st Army Group. The lack of trust in the air forces’ ability to destroy the bridges and the Resistance to delay rail movement, coupled with the availability of the SAS, came together to produce a whole series of special operations to disrupt German redeployment.
To be continued.

Written and directed by Tim Saunders, two full length documentaries on SAS Operation Bulbasket from Battlefield History TV Studio are available on DVD from Pen and Sword Digital. He takes a detailed look not just at the SAS’s part in the post D Day struggle in a sparsely populated part of France but the contribution of the air forces and the Resistance as well.
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General De Gaulle, leader of the Free French
General Sir Frederick Morgan - The lead invasion Planner 1943
Map 1
David Sterling with an SAS desert patrol in 1943
Captain John Tonkin OC A Squadron 1st SAS Regiment

Taking it Further

Special Operations: SAS Operation Bulbasket
ISBN: 5060247620923

by Battlefield History TV
Only £12.99

Most of the SAS returned from the Mediterranean in early 1944 but at home they were greeted as yet another of the unwelcome private armies that had proliferated during the war. It was a struggle to find suitable manpower and the D Day planners were reluctant to give them a mission. The former was solved by taking high quality manpower from Churchill's Secret Army the stay behind Auxiliary Force.

It, however, took doubts over the French Resistances ability to execute Plan Vert, the disruption of the railways…
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