2nd World War raid on Tragino
Tatton Park's role in Britain's first airborne assault

In May, 1940, only the miracle of Dunkirk saved Britain from defeat as 334,000 troops escaped from the French beaches. With nothing more than a battered fleet and a few squadrons of fighter aircraft, many believed there was no alternative but to sue for peace.

They reckoned, of course, without the pugnacious courage of Winston Churchill and his people.

The story of the Battle of Britain and the fight by so few to save so many is part of British history, but perhaps not so well documented is another Churchill masterstroke - the formation of an elite paratroop corp to "carry the war back to the enemy".

Less than six months after Dunkirk, hundreds of raw recruits were trained and ready and in February 1941, Britain's first airborne forces went into action - to destroy the Tragino Aqueduct in Southern Italy.

The first volunteers to answer Churchill's call and report to No.2 (Parachute) Commando came from a variety of units - Gunners, Sappers, Signals, Cavalry, Guards, Infantry, R.Tank Regiment, Marines, RASC, RACC.

Training began at what was then Ringway Airfield, now Manchester International Airport, and on July 13, 1940, the first practice drops began from old Whitley bombers over Tatton Park, Knutsford.

In those early days little was known about parachuting or equipment and techniques were largely experimental.

Local garrison commanders were warned that "friendly parachute troops" would be training in the Knutsford area and were not to be shot !

By the end of 1940 about 400 men of 2 Commando had qualified as parachutists and the unit changed its name to 11 Special Air Service Battalion from which eventually grew 15 parachute battalions with a strength of 14,000 men.

"Operation Colossus" was the code name given to the attack on the Tragino Aqueduct which carried the main water supply to the cities of Taranto, Brindisi and Bari. To a large extent it was to be no more than a propaganda exercise, although guaranteed to cause alarm and despondency in a large area of Italy.

It is said that the entire battalion stepped forward when Lieutenant Colonel C.I.A.Jackson asked for volunteers, despite the fact that he had warned of there being no more than a "slim chance" of escape.

A party of seven officers and 31 NCOs and men, under Major T.A.G.Pritchard, was selected for 'X' Troop and for six weeks they underwent intensive training.

In high winds on one exercise several men were blown into high trees at Tatton Park and had to be rescued by Knutsford Fire Brigade.

On February 9, 1941, 'X' Troop set off in eight Whitley bombers across occupied France. They landed in Malta and six of the aircraft took on board arms, explosives and rations, whilst the other two were equipped with bombs for a diversion on the railway yards at Froggia.

The strategy was for 'X' Troop to parachute in, destroy the aqueduct and then make their way across 50 miles to the coast where they would be picked up by a submarine waiting in the mouth of the River Sele.

During the night of February 10, five of the Whitleys arrived over the target and dropped their parachutists from 400 feet - the sixth plane failed to find the correct place and the men fell into the next valley where they were unable to be of any use in the raid. This unfortunate occurrence also meant a shortfall of explosives and the problem was worsened by the discovery that the aqueduct was made of concrete and not brick as had been expected.

Undeterred, 'X' Troop pressed on with its mission and at 12.30am, half the Tragino Aqueduct collapsed under 800lbs of explosive.

One hour later the troop split up into three parties to make their way to the coast across difficult terrain and through hostile villages and towns. Eventually they were all discovered and imprisoned, except their Italian interpreter who was questioned and shot as a traitor.

Unknown to the men of 'X' Troop their escape was doomed to fail anyway. One of the aircraft ordered to bomb the railway yards at Froggia had developed engine trouble and the pilot, unaware of the waiting submarine, had radioed his intention to ditch his bombs at the mouth of the River Sele. Fears that the signal could have been intercepted led to the cancellation of the submarine's sailing orders.

In material terms, Operation Colossus had little effect since the aqueduct was repaired before the reservoirs ran dry. The strategic importance of the raid was not significant either but, at least, it was the first moral-boosting step towards Churchill's promise to "carry the war back to the enemy".