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The big Kahuna
Special Forces, stories from behind enemy lines
ROOPER SEKONAIA TAKAVESI
FOUGHT WITH: ARMY (SAS)
AWARD: DISTINGUISHED CONDUCT MEDAL (DCM)
DATE OF BRAVERY: JULY 19, 1972
Soldiers do not come any tougher or more fearless and loyal than Sekonaia Takavesi. Known as "Sek", he became – in the words of his Army superiors – "a legend in his own time within the SAS".
Takavesi was born in Fiji in 1943. Brought up on the Pacific island, he enlisted in the British Army on November 13, 1961, joining the King's Own Border Regiment. Two years later, he successfully sought selection to the SAS.
Takavesi had undertaken dangerous undercover surveillance in Aden during the mid-1960s. At one time, he and fellow Fijian, Trooper Talaiasi Labalaba, had confronted and shot dead two terrorist gunmen. However, it was in Oman in July 1972 that the same two men were given the opportunity to display their immense courage and determination.
On the morning of July 19, 1972, the Adoo (guerrillas) launched a carefully planned attack with the aim of using 250 of their most élite fighters to capture the small town of Mirbat on the Arabian Sea.
The garrison at Mirbat was equipped with one 25-pound field gun from the Second World War, one mortar, a .50 calibre machinegun and a few general-purpose machineguns. There were just nine SAS soldiers in the town.
The Adoo's first target was a small detachment of Dhofar Gendamerie (DG) occupying a watch point about half a mile north of the fort. The rebels had hoped to kill the eight DG members quietly by slitting their throats, but things had not gone to plan and an exchange of fire was heard by the SAS in the garrison.
Captain Mike Kealy, their commander, was able to see waves of Adoo advancing, and was soon barking orders, including to Takavesi to ensure the 81mm mortar was used to support the DG outpost. A signaller was told to communicate with SAS headquarters at Um al Quarif. Meanwhile, Labalaba ran the 50 metres to the gun-pit in order to man the 25-pounder.
Labalaba was eventually seriously wounded by a 7.62mm round from a Kalashnikov rifle. "I've been chinned but I am OK," he said over the walkie-talkie.
Knowing his friend would not bother to report a minor injury, Takavesi was determined to go to his aid. His comrades gave him covering fire but he still ran into a hail of bullets. Takavesi had been a rugby player and dodged and weaved his way to the gun-pit. Labalaba was in bad shape.
Soon it was Takavesi's turn to take a bullet, which threw him backwards on to the sandbags. Labalaba propped him up and handed him his self-loading rifle. Labalaba, who was peering down his rifle-sights picking off the advancing enemy, realised he was almost out of ammunition for the 25-pounder. As he tried to reach a 60mm mortar positioned nearby, he was shot fatally in the neck.
Kealy heard the 25-pounder fall silent. With a volunteer, Tommy Tobin, a trained medic, the commanding officer dodged bullets and ran to the gun-pit where they witnessed a gruesome scene. As Tobin turned to get his medical pack, however, he was shot in the face and fell to the floor.
Just as the situation appeared hopeless – and the enemy were a mere 20 metres from the gun-pit – the men had two strokes of luck. The first was that the clouds had lifted slightly, high enough to enable two jets from the Sultan of Oman's Air Force to fly low over the scene, strafing the Adoo with cannon fire.
Kealy was unaware of the second stroke of luck, which resulted from his early radio message to SAS headquarters in Um al Quarif, that Mirbat was under attack. The men of B Squadron in Mirbat had been due to go home on the very day of the attack. This meant their replacements from G Squadron were already at Um al Quarif, on the outskirts of Salalah.
G Squadron was ordered into action. As Kealy used a lull in the fighting to tend to his wounded men, it still looked as though it would be just a matter of time before the Adoo swept in and slaughtered all the SAS men.
In fact, by now G Squadron had fought its way through the town and the Adoo were in full retreat, leaving behind 40 dead and 10 wounded. Takavesi's wounds were so serious that most people would have died from them. Yet he not only survived but went on to serve with distinction in the SAS for 13 more years.
The big Kahuna
CORPORAL WILLIAM EDWARD SPARKS
FOUGHT WITH: ROYAL MARINES
AWARD: DISTINGUISHED SERVICE MEDAL (DSM)
DATE OF BRAVERY: NOT SPECIFIC
GAZETTED: JUNE 29, 1943
My first purchase of a medal for Special Forces-type operations came in the summer of 1988, when I learnt that the medals of Corporal William "Bill" Sparks were being auctioned at Sotheby's. Sparks was one of the Cockleshell Heroes, who had carried out a daring raid behind enemy lines in December 1942. I found it astonishing that a group of men had undertaken such a difficult and dangerous assignment when they knew there was an incredibly high chance they would either die or be captured.
Operation Frankton has long been recognised as one of the legendary exploits of the war. Major "Blondie" Hasler had come up with the idea as part of his role in the Royal Marine Boom Patrol Detachment. Initially, the RMBPD had two sections: one for canoe operations; the other for explosive boat operations.
Hasler was in no doubt about the difficulty and danger of the task he had in mind and knew he required a formidable, well-trained unit to carry it out.
One of the men to show early promise was Corporal Bill Sparks. Sparks, the son of a serving seaman, was born in the East End of London on September 5, 1922. A slightly built Cockney, with an infectious laugh, he had left school at 14 and worked as a shoe repairer until the outbreak of war. Sparks complemented Hasler, who could get anxious when problems arose.
It was decided that Bordeaux in German-occupied France would be the target. The port was harbouring blockade-running Axis vessels, which were preparing to carry vital equipment to Japan. It was calculated that an assault landing would require 20,000 men, while bombing the target risked heavy civilian casualties. Instead, Hasler and Sparks would carry out the mission, with 10 other men, in one of the most clandestine operations of the war.
The aim was to transport eight limpet mines in each of their Cockle Mark II canoes – which had been chosen as the most suitable vessels for the planned three-day trip up the Gironde – plant their charges below the waterline of some 12 merchant ships, scuttle their canoes and then escape. The men and their equipment were packed into HM Submarine Tuna, which left the Clyde on November 30, 1942.
Not one of them was in any doubt about the difficulty of their mission, but Hasler spelt it out further – the success of the mission was their primary consideration and the men's personal safety could only be of secondary importance.
Shortly before 8pm on December 7, the submarine surfaced and the six Cockles were lowered into the Bay of Biscay. However, in getting the Cockles on deck in the darkness, one was damaged. The 12-man mission was now a 10-man operation with five Cockles – Hasler and Sparks in Catfish, and the remaining eight men in Crayfish, Conger, Cuttlefish and Coalfish.
The strong shore defences and searchlights meant that the submarine had to leave the five Cockles in open seas three miles from the mouth of the estuary. Even in relatively flat conditions, the men faced a long haul to paddle ashore. Unfortunately, the Atlantic swell increased until, after three hours of paddling, the Cockles were hurled into stormy waters.
In the confusion, Coalfish disappeared. The operation was now down to just eight men in four Cockles. Then Conger was damaged and Hasler ordered the craft to be scuttled. Her crew, Marines Sheard and Moffat, clung desperately to the sterns of Catfish and Cuttlefish as they were given a tow towards land. Hasler spoke to the two men. "I'm afraid this is as far as we can take you... God bless you both." Both men, already frozen from the December waters, failed to reach land.
There were now six men and three Cockles left. Hasler's immediate aim was to pass the Verdon jetty and get into the river proper. However, with four German ships at anchor just off the jetty, they had to slip through a narrow corridor with sentries on both sides. The Cockles would go through one by one, with the two men in each craft paddling fast but crouching low to avoid being seen.
Hasler and Sparks, who went first, were startled by a lamp from one of the enemy ships, but were not spotted. Next came Crayfish, carrying Marines Laver and Mills, who passed through without incident. Then came a long wait and no sign of Cuttlefish. Hasler now found himself in charge of a raiding party that was down to just four men and two Cockles.
Eleven hours and some 25 miles from their starting point, Catfish and Crayfish were hauled up and the men started their search for a hideout. "I had never felt so mentally and physically exhausted," Sparks later wrote.
The next day began badly when their hide was spotted by some French fishermen. Much worse, however – and unknown to Hasler and his three men – the Germans had picked up the Tuna submarine on their radar just hours after the submarine had dropped off the men. German suspicions that something was up were confirmed when they captured the two Marines from the first Cockle, Coalfish. The whole area was now on full alert.
That evening, the men set off too late to catch the flood tide and had to carry their two craft and equipment through deep, exposed mud.
In the twilight of the next evening, the men paddled farther up the Gironde, finding themselves silhouetted against a golden sunset but unable to do anything about it.
Still, they began making good daily progress and had not lost any more men. By now, the Gironde was behind them and they were in the Garonne. Their target lay just 12 miles ahead. All being well, they would reach it that night, but Hasler decided to postpone the attack until the following night in order to ensure they had a suitable hide in the harbour area.
After experiencing more difficulty with the river mud, they set off at 6.45pm. Some three hours later, they came around a bend and set eyes on some targets – two big ships moored at the quayside of Bassens South. They were now in a built-up area, with lights blazing from all angles. After passing under a floating pontoon pier, they spotted a bank of tall rushes. Hidden by nine-foot plants, they settled down, side by side.
Hasler decided that the two crews should split up. He and Sparks would take Catfish up the western side of the main Bordeaux docks and Laver and Mills would paddle Crayfish to the East Docks. If the second crew could find no suitable targets, they were to attach limpets to the two ships at Bassens South. Hasler ordered that the limpets should be armed and at 9pm they started the time fuses. At 9.15pm, the two Cockles slipped silently into the harbour.
Sparks was struck by how bright it was, "like Oxford Street at Christmas" he later wrote. Whereas British ports kept lighting to a minimum, Bordeaux was an electrical extravaganza. To avoid detection, they manoeuvred Catfish slowly. Some 90 minutes into their mission, Sparks drifted Catfish in halfway down a line of vessels. This enabled Hasler to fit the first limpet to his placing rod. Sparks steadied the craft and Hasler fitted the charge to the first target, the steamer Tannenfels.
The two marines moved on to their next target, the auxiliary minesweeper Sperrbrecher 5. Moments after they had placed the first charge alongside the minesweeper's engine room, a torch snapped on and a sentry appeared to have spotted them. Refusing to panic, the two men brought Catfish right in to the side of the ship. The sentry was only 15 feet above them and his torchlight appeared to follow the Cockle as it drifted along the minesweeper's waterline. As the two men edged along the ship, they were convinced the sentry would raise the alarm.
However, after what seemed an eternity, they reached the end of the minesweeper and swung Catfish gently under her stern. They could hear the sentry's heavy boots but were unable to see him – or be seen – as Sparks calmly rolled another limpet onto the ship's stern. Their camouflage had done the trick and the sound of the sentry's footsteps trailed into the night.
Next, they moved between a tanker and a cargo ship, Dresden. They were lucky not to be crushed as the two ships slammed together. Eventually, they attached two limpets to Dresden and their final charge to the tanker. Their part in Operation Frankton was now over apart from the task of making good their escape.
Back in Britain, Combined Operations had intercepted a German High Command report. It read: "A small British sabotage squad was engaged at the mouth of the River Gironde and finished off in combat." If the report was accurate and no men had made it to Bordeaux, it was sad but not surprising. Shortly afterwards, an aerial photograph of Bordeaux docks confirmed that several ships had been sunk or were badly damaged.
* Copyright © MAA Publishing Limited 2008.
Taken from Special Forces Heroes by Michael Ashcroft (Headline, £20, www.special forcesheroes.com), which is published on November 11.