The wind had reached gale-force as the five elderly Bristol Bombay transport aircraft neared their target, bucking in the storm and threatening to flip over.
Driven sand and pelting rain covered the cockpits. The pilots strained to see ahead into the dark sky over the North African desert.
Suddenly, German searchlights picked them out and flak began exploding around them in blinding flashes. A shell ripped through the floor of one plane and missed the auxiliary fuel tank by inches.
In the back of each aircraft sat a ‘stick’ of 11 British parachutists, 55 soldiers in all; almost the entire strength of a new, experimental and intensely secret combat unit. The fledgling Special Air Service — the SAS — was on its first mission behind enemy lines.
Restrained fear was the predominant emotion among them as they sat strapped in, shivering with cold and waiting to go into action.