Published by Greenhill Press, available from Casemate Publishers
Lawrence Patterson’s book detailing Operation Colossus, the British airborne raid against the Italian aqueduct providing fresh water to the Apulia region of southern Italy, is far more than a combat history despite being an excellent example of the genre. Patterson details the policy, organizational and doctrinal decisions that shaped the establishment of British airborne forces and provides an engaging account of the training early parachutists endured, both at the Central Landing Establishment learning to jump from aircraft and at the commando training center at Achnacarry, Scotland. The 1st and 6th Airborne Divisions that eventually fought in North Africa, Sicily, Normandy, and Holland trace their antecedents to the men who conceived, prepared and executed Operation Colossus. Patterson tells their story in an engaging manner
Patterson does a tremendous job providing the background on the development of airborne forces in Europe in the years leading up to the Second World War and subsequent German successes with surprise assaults using combined parachute and glider forces in the early part of hostilities in 1940. He also ably sums up the British strategic situation after the Germans forced France to capitulate in May of 1940 and drove the British Expeditionary Force from the continent. England found itself desperate to mount some kind of offensive to retaliate, however small and symbolic and found inspiration in the German use of airborne troops. In the direction of Prime Minister Winston Churchill, the British set about developing their own similar capabilities.
The author’s writing is at its best when he describes the various personalities brought together to establish a parachute training center and the nucleus of Britain’s airborne forces. The story of Operation Colossus is irrevocably intertwined with these activities and he introduces new characters to the story as required, being sure to provide a brief description of their backgrounds and qualifications in order to make each stand out as a unique human, rather than a faceless name added to the text. As a result, the reader quickly develops empathy and liking for the volunteers of what became X Troop, No. 11 Special Air Service Battalion as they train for and deploy for their mission to destroy their target in a bid to disrupt Germany’s Italian ally.
The book is illustrated with spectacular black and white photographs of the primary leaders and key members of X Troop, along with group photos, pictures of the objective area, and some terrific action shots of ground training and airborne operations. It also contains four maps that layout objective, drop zones, and enemy positions during the action. Ordinarily, such a small amount of maps makes it difficult for the reader to follow the tactical narrative because they lack references to the terrain. In the case of Operation Colossus, the mission itself was so small that the included maps are adequate for the task. Patterson includes copious endnotes to provide supplemental information to the text. Moving back and forth between different passages and the endnotes is sometimes inconvenient and some readers may prefer footnotes on the relevant pages, but this is a minor quibble. Overall, the book’s layout is excellent.
Operation Colossus does many things well. It provides an excellent overview of the development of parachute troops as well as an exciting battle narrative and gripping human interest story about men daring to strike a blow in the face of long odds. The book contains sufficient detail that knowledgeable readers will most likely learn something new, while readers new to reading about the war will not feel overwhelmed by jargon.Operation Colossus is a superb addition to the body of literature on airborne forces in World War Two.
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