Wednesday, 27 October 2021

Sonderkommando Blaich 'raid' on Fort Lamy, January 1942 - 'anecdote' or feat of arms?

Two views of Theo Blaich and his Messerschmitt Me 108 "Taifun" prior to his departure on his pre-war 'Afrika Rundflug' (which took place during December 1938). 

Below, Blaich's Taifun with the Staffelabzeichen of the so-called "Sonderkommando Blaich"probably painted following the raid on Fort Lamy for the purposes of German propaganda.

Theo Blaich was a pre-war adventurer and 'explorer' - a German 'Lawrence of Arabia' - responsible for planning and executing one of the 'longest' bombing raids of the war - the 'spectacular' attack on Fort Lamy (capital N'Djamena in Free French Chad). Often described as a 'feat of arms' ('Husarenstreich' in German) it was, in the view of this blog, a fairly derisory effort mounted by a single He 111 that has been 'sensationalised' ever since, some even comparing it to the Doolittle raid! An 'exploit' perhaps - but one of limited impact as a more 'objective' look at the efforts of the Sonderkommando based on the German and French sources would surely conclude. The ECPA- D in Paris has a large amount of material that can be previewed ..although reproduction fees for the photos - over 55 taken by PK reporter Fritz Dettmann on the raid alone - are horrendous.. 

African explorer and plantation owner, Theodor Blaich was already a civilian pilot and owned his own personal Bf 108 when he enlisted in the Luftwaffe. Serving as a 'technical advisor' to Rommel and his Afika Korps, Blaich's 'Sonderkommando' was set up to counter the Long Range Desert Group but had so little impact that  there has been little or nothing written about it in English. Blaich's sole He 111 was a II./KG 4 machine (WNr. 4145) fitted out with a supplementary fuel tank (normal fuel capacity 4285 litres) enabling the machine to fly a 2500 km round trip carrying a pay load of just sixteen SC 50 bombs. The Fort Lamy raid was launched from Bir Misciuro ('Campo Uno') 600 km south of Hun on 21 January 1942.

Below; Heinkel He 111 mit Staffelabzeichen "Sonderkommando Blaich" and in the background, Blaich's car and Me 108 "Taifun", all featuring the Staffel emblem.

According to a recent video " the raid destroyed all oil stocks and 10 aircraft.."  Yet photos of the scenes appear to show plenty of intact oil barrels with the columns of smoke some distance from the photographer.  A recent article has an account from one French eye witness describing how base personnel man-handled barrels away from the scene of the fires addition no a/c installations were hit and no aircraft were lost. The official 'bilan' (balance sheet) was 400,000 litres of fuel destroyed while 200,000 litres were saved directly from the fires. In fact according to figures published by Alain Godec, Free French fuel reserves stocked in and around Fort Lamy totalled some 2,500,000 litres!

Left; map of  the 'raid' against Fort Lamy flown on 21 January 1942 - from Alain Godec's article. 

As the Heinkel turned for home, columns of smoke rose up into the skies and the one imagines the crew looking down on the scenes with something approaching satisfaction. The anti-aircraft defences at Fort Lamy eventually reacted but the Heinkel crew were unaware of any defensive fire. In fact the Germans had been fortunate to 'hit' the target at all - they got lost on the way to Fort Lamy, running into a sandstorm an hour after take off. The meteorologist at Hun (Houn - 60 kms south of Tripoli) - who had forecast fine conditions for the raid - was apparently a British secret agent. Blaich and his crew also got lost on the way back, running out of fuel and eventually having to put down in the desert some 200 kms from Campo Uno. In fact  as Mark Felton explains his video (see below) while the Italians' 'path-finding' for the mission was a total failure, they did eventually locate the German raider(s) 'Funkpeilung' from their 3W transmitter in the desert after some five days under 36 C temperatures and rescued them. According to wikipedia, " while the attack on Fort Lamy caused only minor damage to installations and light casualties it did destroy vital fuel supplies. It reduced the supplies for the Free French Forces and the RAF in the region by half (according to Allied sources). The raid also caused the French general Philippe Leclerc to strengthen the anti-aircraft defences at Fort Lamy and to start hit-and-run operations against the Italian forces in Fezzan region.." Yet the raid on Fort Lamy had no bearing on LeClerc's 1942 campaign - which it was intended to hinder - and rather illustrated the Luftwaffe's inability to mount any kind of meaningful strategic operation. Blaich later commanded NSGr.7 (from October 1944 I think) and was awarded the DKiG (German Cross in Gold).  There were no awards handed out for the Fort Lamy 'attack'.

The PK reporter Fritz Dettmann who accompanied the raiders also authored the book 'Mein Freund Marseille' - which may go some way to explaining the 'propaganda success' enjoyed subsequently by Blaich.  You could possibly describe the raid as a 'feat of arms' ..but hardly a success. 

Theo Blaich (seen left) died in 1975.  His obituary was published in Jägerblatt and was written by Ed Neumann. There was not much detail on Blaich's life unfortunately -  he died aged 75 (born 1900), adventurer and explorer he spent time in his teens flying and travelling, mostly to central America - owned banana plantations in the Cameroons West Africa during the mid to late 20s - on the outbreak of war enlisted in the Luftwaffe with his own aircraft.

On the French side there were claims made about the efficacy (or not) of Fort Lamy's anti-aircraft defences. French writer  Alain Godec commented;

  ".. the officer commanding the guns did not see the German aircraft despite claims that they had clearly identified the aircraft on the approach. One gunner claims that the Bofors guns could not hit the aircraft because it was flying at 3500m (as compared to 1500m in the official report) and even says that the bombing was done North to South. The rumours among the Free French in Chad indicate that the crews were either having a nap or were playing cards, apparently unconcerned given that there were so many aircraft movements. When you look at the picture in Carrell's book depicting at least one bomb exploding with the river Chari in the back-ground  you can clearly see that the altitude was not 3500m (beyond Bofors guns range) but much lower. You can also simulate this on Google Earth..."


"..Select N'Djamena and play with the altitude. One thing I forgot to say is that the aircraft type and nationality was only discovered later on. The report mentions that the bombing "was done at 1235 GMT by a twin-engine bomber camouflaged by large orange and brown stripes without any markings". The nationality of the aircraft was only discovered when the two unexploded bombs were examined and destroyed three days later. In a local Fort-Lamy newspaper, an article reports that "Fort-lamy was bombed by an unknown aircraft and that the bombs were of a German make.." 

Below; refuelling Blaich's He 111 at 'Campo Uno' from drums carried by the accompanying Italian SM. 81 'Pipistrello'  prior to launching the 21-22 January raid. According to a German-language article on the raid (Flugzeug 5/86), the Italians were to accompany the raiding Heinkel and act as 'pathfinders'.  The Heinkel missed Fort Lamy by some 200 kms and only found the target by following the rivers Schari/Lougone. The crew landed in the desert -lost- some 200 kms from Campo Uno on the return leg of the mission. With diminishing water rations the crew were located after some five days in the desert.

Below; Blaich at the controls of a Me 108 having just landed at Campo Uno. Standing alongside him is the Count San Severino, Italian desert 'specialist'..

Above; 'colorized' (?) screen capture from the Mark Felton video below. A single click to view here