The SBS officer most effective at making up ways to circumvent operational setbacks was Anders Lassen, a Dane who throughout 1944 led SBS raiding parties (above) against the German-held islands of the Dodecanese.
Both the SAS and SBS sprang from No 8 Commando, a unit established in the summer of 1940 on the instructions of Prime Minister Winston Churchill. While No 8 Commando achieved little before its disbandment in 1941, it inspired Roger Courtney to form the Special Boat Section (as it was first called) and David Stirling the Special Air Service.
“A Levant Schooner”, a typical Greek caique, naval crew of 3, carying a Special Boat Service patrol of approximately 12 men. Vessel armed with one PAK 38 (Panzerabwehrkanone) forward and two .303 Browning Medium Machine Guns amidships. Fitted with a Valentine tank diesel engine with a maximum speed of approximately 8 knots, typically used for island raids.
It was in June 1943, a year after COI had become OSS, that W. J. Donovan at last welcomed the fulfilment of a dream to possess his own commando force when a new Operational Group Section was formed under Colonel E. Huntingdon. There had been a protracted struggle against departmental opposition and bureaucratic obstruction, and it would take longer yet to recruit sufficient men of the right calibre from the navy and army for raiding and clandestine warfare. In fact, final opening of the manpower coffers was withheld until September when, in line with the approaching abandonment of the Marine Raider concept, the army transferred many dedicated fighting men from certain elite ‘ethnic’ units it had tried to form. Rapidly the Operations Groups (OGs) increased from a handful in June to nearly 6,000 by the end of October, and of these over 5,000 were abroad, the major portion in the Mediterranean where the successful invasion of Sicily in July, followed by a landing in Italy on 3 September, opened up an infinite number of opportunities for action.
The contrast between the strong, fortified coastlines of Norway, Holland, Belgium and France and the extended and vulnerable ‘soft underbelly of Europe’, in Churchill’s celebrated phrase, was absolute. The shores of Southern France, Italy, Yugoslavia and Greece, with their innumerable islands, promised to be a raiders’ paradise. No sooner had Italy secretly indicated to the Allies her intention to quit the Axis than the countries under her suzerainty began to crawl with the maggots of an alien presence. Allied agents were inserted to collaborate with indigenous anti-Fascist elements who now openly combined with active partisan bands, particularly in the Balkans. Operations and supply by air and sea were controlled by the representatives of SOE, OSS (by mutual agreement) and agents of the Russian armed forces, aided by skirmishers of the conquering armies. How bare of defenders the coastlines were on the eve of the invasion of Italy’s toe by the British Eighth Army when Operation Baytown was revealed on the night 25/26 August, as a commando patrol under Major P. Young crossed the Straits of Messina and penetrated well inland without making contact. The thunderous bombardment which announced the arrival of the main assault on 3 September, on the heels of careful prior survey of the beaches by Berncastle and two LCNs, was thus an over-insurance, underlined when subsequent commando landings elsewhere found evidence of a speedy and orderly enemy withdrawal.
Orderliness went by the board, however, when, on the night of 8/9 September an Armistice between the Allies and Italy was announced and the Fifth US Army began landing at Salerno as part of Operation Avalanche. At once the entire Italian mainland and wherever Italian troops garrisoned the Balkans were thrown into turmoil, as partisans, anti-Fascists, Allies and Germans struggled to seize whatever arms they could from the surrendering Italian armed forces. Simultaneously the gates of prisoner-of-war camps were thrown open, releasing a horde of amazed Allied sailors, soldiers and airmen who roamed the countryside in a state of ebullient freedom without knowing how to reach safety.
To exploit opportunities in the enemy rear, a motley collection of 30 Commando, LRDG, SAS, OG and an AFHQ organization called Force A were deployed. 30 Commando was at once foraging ahead of the advancing Eighth Army, and later landing on the Island of Capri, to pluck priceless naval secrets from safes and depots. Dropping in by air or going ashore from a rapidly increasing flotilla of purloined ferry boats, MFVs, feluccas, US Navy PT boats and Italian MAS were parties of SIS, SOE and OSS agents acting as runners of guns and all manner of supplies to the partisans, particularly those in Yugoslavia, Albania and Greece.
Usually these landings were carefully planned, after-dark affairs met by clandestine reception committees. Operations by Force A’s N Section, for example, required meticulous organization. Teams of two officers and a Wireless Telegraphy (W/T) operator would direct six-man parties of SAS and OG behind the enemy lines to contact known or suspected concentrations of prisoners, who were sometimes in partisan care and invariably in need of feeding, clothing and protection before being guided to safety. Occasionally the route for small groups would be overland but generally it was expedient to take larger numbers to the coast and ship them out. On 30 November, in one area of Italy alone, some 13,000 men with two lieutenant-generals and four major-generals, were estimated to be at freedom. At first a small fleet of fishing boats and fast motor boats was pressed into service, a single demand in November calling for ten sorties a week. Mostly they picked up soldiers but one US Navy officer working for an OG had the pleasure of bringing back 13 US Army nurses who had been rescued by partisans in Albania. In due course much larger craft were used, as for example for Operation Darlington II, on 24 May 1944, near Ancona. On this occasion US Navy Beach Jumpers, guided ashore by Force A agents, found the right place and, in desperation, packed 25 out of 100 POWs in their inflatable boats because the LCI with a beachhead force from 9 Commando had gone astray. Fortunately the enemy were nowhere about and it was possible for the LCI to complete the work before dawn and save the remaining 75.
More orthodox, but a complete fiasco, was Operation Pipsqueak on 14 June, when 73 men of 9 Commando again formed an unopposed bridgehead 60 miles behind the enemy lines at the mouth of the River Tenna to allow armed jeeps of Major V. Peniakoff’s (Popski) private army to operate deep in the enemy rear as the Allied offensive began to flourish to the southwards. Waspish in his disparagement of Commandos, as was Peniakoff’s way, he thought better of proceeding when it was found that the defeated and fast-retreating enemy was already pouring back and filling in strength the previously deserted terrain he intended to raid. Having wisely called off the operation, it was discovered that the LCT was immovably stranded on the beach, leaving no alternative but to wreck the jeeps and the LCT’s engines prior to making an ignominious evacuation on the single escorting ML. Just under 120 men packed into this small, wallowing craft just managed to get home in safety.
Trying to penetrate a war zone in which the enemy was constantly alive to the threat of ambush, raiders were frequently ambushed themselves and sometimes disappeared without trace. On 21 April 1944, for example, MAS 541 attempted to land two French saboteurs 10 miles from Genoa as part of Operation Cadex and was apparently blown up by a mine. The next night two PT boats landed 15 uniformed members of an OG near Sestri Levante to block the Spezia to Genoa railway line by demolishing a tunnel (Operation Ginny), but were caught by the Germans at once and shot without trial two days later.
Far happier had been a raid by eight men of an OG who landed on the Yugoslav island of Korcula on the night 16 April. Met by partisans, they moved to a hide before setting out next night successfully to ambush a German road patrol. Isolated episodes such as these merely irritated the enemy. Seen as a whole as part of a series of operations closely related in time to major partisan raids elsewhere they had an influence, although they never achieved decisive results. Deprived though they were of freedom of movement throughout most of the hinterland, the Germans managed to retain control of vital inland communications, so that, when the time came to withdraw in the autumn of 1944, they departed in good order and to an unshaken schedule. But of course their problems and losses were much increased by constant fear of ambush, while Allied morale was strengthened and intelligence enhanced by the work of raiders who moved, barely checked, around the enemy, striking at an innumerable number of targets as opportunity permitted.
The principal restrictive influence on most Allied operations in the Mediterranean was caused by the diversion of resources once Overlord had been decided upon. As a result nothing like the advantage which Churchill would have liked to take of Axis weakness was possible. Particularly was this so on the Allied right flank where responsibility for the attack fell on Raiding Forces of Middle East Command and the activity was more fluid, widespread and diluted, directed as it was against Crete, the Greek Islands and the mainland of Greece itself. Here the SBS had conducted a private war of hit-and-run since 1942, merged in September 1943 with attempts by LRDG and other forces to obtain a permanent footing on strategic islands such as Leros, Kos and Samos. But, as on the mainland, the swift German reaction to the sudden Italian volte face prevented a lock, stock and barrel handover of Italy’s holdings in the Dodecanese and Aegean. Until the Germans were levered out by the main strategic force to the northward, Raiding Forces Middle East had to be satisfied with small raiding alone.
An outstanding example of what could be achieved fell to three patrols of an 11-man SBS squad on the night 15/16 November 1943 which penetrated Simi town, partially destroyed the local Headquarters, killed the OC Troops, wrecked the power station, blew up the ammunition dump and killed 23 of the enemy, before withdrawing without loss to themselves. But the most lucrative dividends paid by LRDG and SBS here, as elsewhere, were volumes of information which not only pointed out fresh strike targets but gave forewarning of intentions and counter-action. And, of course, they pinned down enemy troops urgently needed elsewhere.
Along the Yugoslav coast and across Axis lines of sea communication in the North Adriatic Commandos, OGs and associated elements seized a firm base on the Island of Vis as a first step to giving direct support of Marshal Tito’s hard-pressed partisans on the mainland. 2 Commando, ten men from 10(IA) Commando and two OGs moved there in mid-January to form the centre of Force 133 which, in the ensuing months, would be reinforced to include 40 and 43 (RM) Commandos, 2nd Battalion Highland Light Infantry, batteries of field artillery and light anti-aircraft guns, a COPP and a few captured Italian guns to support more than 1,000 partisans. Their volume of raiding expanded in ratio to the progressive arrival of fresh units and the gradually diminishing size of enemy garrisons which, to the end, remained determined and very alert. For a start three troops of 2 Commando in company with a 30-strong OG crossed 20 miles of sea to capture four prisoners on Hvar island, the first of several such Endowment missions aimed at this objective and designed to create a sense of uncertainty among all the local enemy garrisons in the vicinity. They also interfered with coastal shipping, thereby placing a greater load on the threatened inland routes.
In return, of course, there was also a feeling of insecurity on the Allied part and the need to retain strong forces on Vis for fear of a sudden fierce enemy counter-attack, such as had been accomplished with such dash in the Aegean. Only pinpricks could be made until, on 10 March, after 43 (RM) Commando arrived, Operation Detain I against Solta Island was launched. This time the raiding force numbered 500, including artillery, in two LCIs supported by MGBs, MTBs and aircraft and had as its objective the town of Grohat. In the classic manner the landing was launched at a distance from the objective. Enemy outposts were overrun during the cross-country march to the objective and final assault on the town was made with full air and artillery support. Over 100 of the enemy were accounted for against only a dozen Allied casualties. Then, just to rub in its threat, Force 133 sent 43 (RM) Commando to tackle Hvar again four days later (Endowment VI) and followed this up with a joint commando and partisan raid on Korcula on 23 April.
Periodically the Germans would mount heavy punitive raids against Partisans, and few caused more disruption than Operation Roesselsprung, launched in mid-May with the aim of capturing Marshal Tito and the Allied Military Missions attached to the Partisan headquarters. It nearly succeeded and resulted in some 10,000 Partisan casualties. To help relieve the strain, Force 133 was asked to create a diversion. The result was Operation Flounced. Hastily laid on and including nearly every available unit, it aimed at the island of Brac where 1,200 Germans were thought to be. Carried across 40 miles of sea in an LCT, a coaster and a fleet of MFVs, MLs, LCAs and caiques, 6,000 men were put tidily ashore by night at three separate places on 1 June as a demonstration. Unfortunately that was the end of events as planned. Moving quickly inland on the 2nd, the intended attack to seize vital high ground fell apart due to a breakdown in radio communication at the crucial moment. Coming under heavy artillery and mortar fire and stumbling on a minefield, a bayonet charge by 43 (RM) Commando achieved considerable local success, but could not be sustained through lack of coordination with the rest of the Force. Leaders were killed or wounded, including Lieutenant-Colonel J. Churchill, the Force Commander, who was captured. Subsequent attacks to drive the Germans off failed and casualties mounted as the essential factor of surprise was lost. In conditions such as these raiding ceased to be practical, so withdrawal was carried out on 4 June without undue trouble due to exemplary work by a rearguard and by the navy. As at Dieppe, the weakness inherent in large-scale raiding against emplaced defences by forces which lacked surprise and the participation of armoured troops, in a war dominated by tanks, had been exposed. In the crunch of a fire-fight, Commandos, for all their excellence as shock troops, were flesh and blood like other soldiers.
The style of Mediterranean raiding after Flounced represented a continuation of the proven formula of repeated miniatures, although only in terms of distance from base to objective was there much similarity to the raids across the English Channel. The base camps were on foreign soil as opposed to cheerful English seaside resorts. Life and battle took place among a grim populace whose internecine tribal hatred – Croat against Serb, Royalist against Communist – were every bit as ferocious as their struggles against the German invader. Morale could be damaged; it made a lot of difference when the destination of return from peril, death and maiming was to the welcoming arms of landlady, publican or family as opposed to a harsh military environment.
Among the most daring and most successful operations was Sunbeam A, carried out by three canoes under Lieutenant J. F. Richards RM of RMBPD against Portolago Harbour on Leros to attack three German-manned destroyers and three escort craft on 17 June. Crossing three harbour booms was one difficulty they easily overcame; creeping unharmed alongside the ships to fix their limpets another. ‘At one point we were urinated upon by a sentry we had not seen or heard. We listened to various crewmen chatting excitedly to each other.’ But they fixed their limpets to some of the targets and retired to a shore-side hide where ‘through the day we listened to various explosions taking place within the port. Some were depth charges.’ The next night, after spending a day pestered by doubts and scares, they re-entered the harbour to complete the job, but this time were challenged three or four times. ‘Cpl. Horner called out “Patrol”. There then occurred what appeared to be a state of panic on the Anita and gestures were made that Cpl. Horner move alongside. He replied xxxx! [sic] and did move alongside. Nobody on board seemed to know what to do, so Cpl. Horner moved away into the shadows.’ Later he withdrew and the whole party was picked up and taken to safety by the ML.
Simi was again the target for attack on 13/14 July, this time leading to the virtual destruction of a weak garrison and beginning a process of complete domination by which, over the ensuing months, the garrisons were worn down to the point of evacuation or surrender. Chios fell at the end of September, Samos a few days later and Lemnos in the middle of October. But, when all was said and done, the depredations by raiders, particularly those of the amphibious hit-and-run variety here, on the right flank of the Anglo-American front, were side-shows within a side-show. The fiercest action in the Balkans was of the inland, partisan kind supplied by sea and air but depending mainly on the thrust of an approaching Red Army for substantial military and political reinforcement.
In similar collaborative style, raiding forces and clandestine operators in Western Europe approached the zenith of their contribution hand-in-hand with orthodox armies once Overlord had deposited its massed invaders ashore on 6 June. This was the hour of British and French SAS units, American OGs, Inter-Allied Missions and SOE Resistance Circuits, combining under such titles as Jedburghs, Suffolks and Massingham, and sent in to infest the French mainland as the Germans struggled to consolidate a crumbling front in Normandy. Now the emphasis lay preponderantly upon insertion and resupply by air. Although several units were infiltrated through the lines in Normandy and stores continued to be smuggled across the beaches of Brittany and southern France, the raison d’être for amphibious hit-and-run raiding had disappeared. Once airborne raiders had touched down, they tended either to be destroyed by the enemy or to maintain their presence within specified areas of responsibility. To assure survival they were compelled to convert an initial, shadowy presence into the substance of solid occupation, either by winning absolute control of the ground by persuading the enemy to vacate or surrender, or, through a process of gradual attrition, by easing the way for the approaching armies. The sea was only occasionally a suitable escape route.
By mid-August everything was leading up to the final breakout from Normandy. This coincided with Operation Dragoon, the major landing by Allied armies in southern France in the by now familiar landing pattern of initial probing and sabotage by partisans and agents, survey and pilotage by COPPs and spearheading of assault by Commando-type troops. It included on this occasion the 1st Special Service Force which had been formed in June 1942, as part of the American/Canadian ‘Plough Force’ intended to land in the Japanese-held Aleutians but used instead to fight in Italy.
After the guns faded in Normandy came the swansong of amphibious raids off the French coast – Operation Rumford, designed to investigate the Ile d’Yeu on the night of 25/26 August, carried out by HMS Albrighton (captained by Lieutenant J. J. S. Hooker, RN) and executed by five Frenchmen and a Briton under Lieutenant W. Dauppe (all of 10(IA) Commando) who went ashore in a dory to find that the Germans had departed the previous night.