A New Book Highlights Daring World War II Escapes by Allied Troops in Combat

A Special Air Service Jeep Patrol. On the right is David Stirling, founder of the SAS.

Lt. Thomas Bennett Langton grew up in a well-connected, wealthy family on England's Isle of Wight. He attended private schools and spent much of his youth learning rugby, swimming and rowing.

These skills would serve him well in Number 8 Commando, as he and his fellow special warfare soldiers wreaked havoc on Axis military operations in North Africa. Langton, with his aquatic skills and athleticism was one of the earliest recruits for the Special Boat Section (SBS), the commando's waterborne raiding party.

He would end up leading a motley party of escapees across the waterless Sahara Desert while being chased by Italian and German troops, intent on capturing or killing all of them. A new book, "Churchill's Great Escapes," by Damien Lewis (not the actor), tells Langton's story, among others.

Langton and the SBS were going to form the lynchpin of a special mission in Italian-controlled Libya. The city of Tobruk had fallen to the Axis in 1942, and thousands of British and Allied troops were taken prisoner. The special operations commandos were going to infiltrate the city long enough to release the prisoners while a main assault force or regular troops landed nearby.

British prisoners of war captured at Tobruk in 1942.

The raid, known as Operation Agreement, was a devastating failure for the Allies. Lt. Langton would be forced to lead a daring escape across the desert with a handful of British troops, both special and regular forces, who managed to evade capture.

All had started off well enough. The commandos didn't raid Tobruk from the water. Instead, they used an ingenious unit known as the Special Interrogation Group (SIG) to get into the city unopposed. The SIG was filled with men who escaped Germany before the rise of the Nazi party, but were highly trained and capable soldiers.

British commandos hopped into the back of captured Nazi Afrika Korps trucks, guarded by SIG troops wearing Nazi German desert uniforms. Under this disguise, Langton and the rest of the special ops unit simply drove into Tobruk through Italian-manned checkpoints.

Once inside, the Allied commandos drove to control a bridgehead along the coastline that would give British regular forces a place to land for a more traditional assault of the city. The commandos caught the Italian defenders of the bridge and the surrounding area by complete surprise, killing most of them before anyone could respond.

Langton's job was to signal to ships offshore that it was now safe to land in the predetermined area. After capturing their objective, he signaled to the sea, but there was no one there to receive it. Those ships, the HMS Sikh and the HMS Zulu, were spotted by Axis coastal defenses and were under heavy fire. Once they realized the signal was given, they moved in to release their troop transports.

By the time the troops actually landed, the enemy was alert to the raid and invaders. Surprise was completely lost. The soldiers could not be completely landed; those who did land were put in the wrong place. Under increasing fire, the HMS Zulu was forced to leave the scene. The HMS Sikh was left in range of coastal defenses, which tore the ship apart.

The commandos on shore were also feeling the pressure. They, with Langton, made a break for it in the open sea. But the enemy's rate of fire was too great, and the men were forced to float down the coast a little bit and re-land on a dried riverbed. Once there, they moved to a ravine, where they found a handful of other special operations soldiers.

Langton had been fighting in North Africa for two years and was now faced with the monumental task of crossing 350 miles of enemy-held desert. He led them through the Italian-held perimeter throughout the night, as more and more British troops from Operation Agreement were being taken prisoner around Tobruk.

The group, seven in all, walked for days, hoping to make it to a predetermined rendezvous point, but were running out of food and water. As thirst and hunger set in, they finally found help with the local Arab tribes, who restored their health and rations. For eight more days, the group moved along the Libyan coast, hoping to find a British ship looking for Tobruk survivors.

British Special Air Service commandos in trucks halted at the massive rock outcrop of Gilf Kebir during Operation Agreement.

When the Italians started patrolling the beaches and punishing the Arabs, Langton and what was left of the survivors he picked up would have to move east toward the Libyan border. They walked through the Qattara Depression, through the wreckage of battles lost and won by Allied forces and picked up what food and water could be found.

As they moved, the battle for North Africa raged directly to the north of their position, including the Second Battle of El Alamein. For 26 more days, they walked through dust, heat, rats and blowing sand, only to run into British Gen. Bernard Montgomery's Eighth Army in November 1942 to a chorus of welcomes.

The story of Langton's long march across North Africa during World War II is just one of seven amazing WWII escape stories in Lewis' book, "Churchill's Great Escapes."

The book is a personal look at the mindset and temperament of British Special Air Service (SAS) commandos during World War II. Lewis not only looks back at the official accounts of what happened on the ground that forced the SAS to make escapes, but also the personal memories of those who made the escapes.

We can imagine the grueling physical aspects of making a cross-desert trek like the one described by Langton, but now we have insight into what goes through one's mind while desperately leading men across the Sahara.

-- Blake Stilwell can be reached at blake.stilwell@military.com. He can also be found on Twitter @blakestilwell or on Facebook.

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