July 3, 1943, Kastelli Airbase, Crete

Mission accomplished. Reconnaissance photo from the German Federal Archive, showing Kastelli Airbase, Crete, the target of Lassen’s devastating June 1943 raid. Damaged aircraft lie scattered about the airfield.

Major Anders Lassen MC and two bars, VC, discussing the forthcoming Lake Comacchio raid, in which he and his men were tasked to cross impossible terrain, so spearheading the Allied breakthrough in Northern Italy.

The goats wandered across the dry, dusty terrain nibbling here and there at whatever vegetation they could find. Ahead of them loomed the wire-mesh fence of the German airbase. A low bush still possessing some succulent greenery grew right on the fence line. It drew the hungriest animals. To get to the highest branches they had to stand on their hind legs, forehooves resting on the wire itself.

Two figures followed in the animals’ wake. They were dressed like local goatherds, wrapped in traditional loose, dirty-gray robes and shawls. As they tried to restrain the animals, pulling them back from the wire without much success, a pair of Junkers Ju-87s landed on the airstrip, the roar of their propellers drowning out the goatherds’ cries to their animals.

The two men eyed the hated Stuka dive-bombers, whose Jericho-Trompete screaming sirens could strike terror into even the most hardened of operators. There were six further Ju-87s sitting on the runway, plus a handful of the larger Ju-88 Schnellbombers—Hitler’s much-vaunted warplanes.

No doubt about it, Kastelli Airbase was getting busy. Along with the handful of sleek Messerschmitt fighter planes and Storch reconnaissance aircraft that also dotted the runway, there were a plethora of juicy targets to choose from.

As the roar of the Stukas died away, from somewhere inside the airbase a voice yelled out a challenge in German. A guard had spotted the goats clambering on the perimeter fence. He started pounding on the wire with his rifle butt.

“Hey! You there! Get your animals off! Schnell! Schnell! Get them off!”

Beneath their disguises, Anders Lassen, a Dane by birth, but now fighting with Britain’s Special Forces, and Nereanos Georgios, his Greek resistance-fighter guide, stiffened. Unlike Georgios, Lassen was a fluent German speaker and could understand every word—but both men tried to act as if they were entirely ignorant of the meaning.

Lassen fingered the Luger pistol he had tucked under his robes, flicking the safety catch to “off.” While Georgios could easily pass as the local that he was, Lassen’s straw-blond hair and piercing blue eyes would be a dead giveaway if the German guard got close enough to get a proper look at them.

“Get your damn goats off the wire!” the German yelled again. “Get out of here! Or I’ll shoot!”

It had seemed like a good idea to use the goatherd cover to do a close reconnaissance of the airfield, but Lassen hadn’t taken into account the innate stubbornness of the animals, especially when they were hungry. As he and Georgios used their sticks to beat the animals back, the German guard seemed suddenly to grow more suspicious.

“Kommen Sie hierher!”—come here. “Kommen Sie hierher!”

Lassen’s grip on his weapon tightened, but it was then that Georgios took the initiative. He splayed his hands in a helpless gesture.

“We don’t understand!” he shouted back at the guard, in Greek. “We don’t understand!”

The guard raised his rifle angrily and mimed shooting the goats. Then he switched his gun sights across to the two men. The message couldn’t be clearer: get the hell out of here. Lassen figured they’d seen enough. Together the two men dragged the last of the animals off the fence and beat them back with their sticks.

The guard gave them a long, lingering scowl before continuing with whatever were his duties.

“Perfect,” Lassen muttered, as soon as they were out of earshot. “The fence isn’t electrified.”

As they drove the herd farther away, he took an odd, surreptitious glance at the wider fortifications surrounding the airbase. The nearest guard tower—a wooden structure built up to a height of around fifty feet—had a searchlight peeping out between the outer posts, one that could be operated by those manning the tower.

“See that,” Lassen whispered. “Searchlights all face outward.”

Georgios flashed him a look. “Perfect to see us coming. How does that help?”

Lassen’s mouth offered a thin smile, but there was no corresponding warmth in his eyes. There was only the ever-present, visceral hatred of the German enemy, plus the wide-eyed, wired stare of a man burning through the Benzedrine. Benzedrine—more commonly known as “bennies”—is a powerful amphetamine. Ever since they’d landed on this Greek island, Lassen had been handing out the pills like Smarties. It was the Benzedrine that was keeping him and his men going.

“It means we can go about our work unseen,” Lassen muttered. “Once we’re on the airfield—”

“That’s if we get as far as the airfield,” Georgios cut in.

“Don’t worry,” Lassen countered, his Danish accent still evident. “Ve vill get there.”

From the skies to the east a faint, juddering beat drifted on the air. It grew into a powerful rhythmic roar as an aircraft approached. Over the far end of the airbase, for a brief moment, three silhouettes hung in the air almost as if they were floating. But within seconds they were thundering toward where Lassen and Georgios were standing.

“More Schnellbombers!” Lassen hissed, excitedly. “First the Stukas and now these! They must be clearing Heraklion.”

The flight of Junkers-88s thundered low overhead, the sheer power of their twin BMW engines coupled with the sensation of the downdraft scattering the goats. The Schnellbomber had been designed to fly too fast for Allied fighters to intercept or shoot it down and had proved to be one of the most versatile aircraft in the war. Known in the Luftwaffe as “Die Mädchen für Alles”—the Maid of all Work—the Ju-88 was used as a bomber, a night fighter, a heavy fighter, a reconnaissance aircraft, and even as a torpedo bomber.

Recently, the Schnellbombers had been used in that latter role from Crete, flying antisubmarine and antiship patrols, searching for any Allied vessels that might be lurking in the Mediterranean. As Lassen and his men had been dropped at the start of this operation by a British warship operating under the very noses of the Germans, taking out those Schnellbombers would be a delicious irony.

Lassen let out a wild laugh. “It’s all here! Looks like Holmes and his lot’ll be attacking empty runways and hangars!”

Dozens of miles across the German-occupied island of Crete lay Heraklion Airbase—the target for a sister group of raiders, led by Ken Lamonby and Dick Holmes. Holmes was Lassen’s arch-rival in D Squadron, their Special Forces unit, and the Dane thrilled to the idea that Holmes might arrive at Heraklion to find no targets to strike.

Two hours later, he and Georgios made it to the bare and sun-blasted ridgeline lying high above the airbase. They’d left the goats with one of Georgios’s brothers at a prearranged rendezvous, where they’d also dumped their local dress.

On seeing them, Ray Jones, who was lying in a hidden sentry position, called out the coded challenge: “GARAJ!”

“SLAVE!” Lassen replied.

As with everything, they kept it simple: the code words were made up from the first few letters of the men’s name and rank. There were five raiders on the Kastelli mission—Georgios included—so it was simple enough to remember five code words based upon such easy details. Recently, they’d been ordered by Raiding Force Headquarters to resort to a more complex and arguably unbreakable code system, but as with most things, Lassen liked to keep it idiot-proof. He gave those orders he disagreed with the scant attention they deserved.

Lassen and Georgios rejoined the main body of men, who were lying up in the shade of a patch of rocky scrub just outside the entrance to their cave. All apart from Jones were feverishly busy constructing the tools for the coming nighttime attack. Mostly these were Lewes bombs—a do-it-yourself blast-incendiary explosive made by mixing diesel oil with “Nobel 808,” a plastic explosive, plus thermite, a metal-based gunpowder.

It was Lieutenant Jock Lewes, one of Special Air Service (SAS) founder David Stirling’s stalwarts, who had invented the Lewes bomb. Stirling’s men had needed a device light enough to carry into the field, yet powerful enough to damage and set fire to aircraft. Placed within a small canvas bag, the Lewes bomb could be hidden inside a cockpit or on a wing, in close proximity to the fuel tanks, so as to ignite the aviation fuel—which was exactly how Lassen and his men intended to use them tonight.

Lassen squatted down among his band of fighters. He grabbed a half-eaten K Ration pack and pulled out some hard biscuits. While the rest of the British Army was issued with the so-called British Compo Rations, Lassen had managed to finagle some of the US Army paratroopers’ K Rations for his men. Far lighter and more portable than Compo, they were borderline edible and provided just enough energy and calories to keep a soldier going in the field.

Of course, Lassen was largely fueling himself with the Benzedrine, but he needed something solid in his guts with tonight’s mission almost upon them. He started to sketch a map of the airbase, describing in a series of sharp, staccato sentences what he and Georgios had found. His eyes were wide and staring, and his men could sense the blood lust that was coursing through his veins. For all of them, the thought of blowing that airbase to smithereens was a delicious one—only with Lassen, it was the idea of killing Germans that really got his blood pumping.

“We keep it simple,” Lassen declared. “We go in tonight and cut the perimeter wire. There will be good cloud cover. Little moonlight. Nicholson and Greaves, you move in from the east and hit the fuel and ammo dumps. Jones—you and me go in from the west and we hit as many aircraft as we can. We go through the wire at 0100 hours. We should be in there for no more than twenty minutes. Set the timers for 0200 hours so we get a good distance away before it blows.”

“But what about me?” It was Georgios.

“Go back to your village,” Lassen told him. “Go back home.”

“But I can fight!”

“Not tonight. Not with us. When the base blows, we run like the wind. You do not want to be with us. Anyway, the Germans may try to take revenge. Go back and make your people ready.”

In spite of his cold-blooded demeanor, Lassen had a real affinity with the locals, and especially the women—the dark-eyed, raven-haired beauties of this captivating Greek island. He shared a common bond with the Cretans, who nurtured a level of hatred of the German enemy as deep as his own.

“But I want to fight,” Georgios insisted. “I am resistance fighter. I want to fight. The Germans, they already have killed many of my people.”

Lassen’s voice softened. “Go back where you are needed. Protect your family. Trust me, we could not have come this far without you.”

“But when you run, you will need guide,” Georgios argued. “You get nowhere without me. You attack, I attack. You go in, I go in. You come out, I show you the way.”

“Andy, Georgios is right,” Sergeant Jack Nicholson cut in. “We’ll be screwed on the way out without him.”

“All right,” Lassen relented. “Georgios, you go with Nicholson and Greaves. But stay outside the perimeter wire to guide us out again.”

“Yes!” The Cretan’s fist punched the air. “Andy, we will fight like the brothers!”

“What’s the plan if things go wrong?” Nicholson asked. “What if we’re spotted on our approach under the searchlights? Or once we’re on the base setting the charges?”

Lassen’s killer stare returned. “No one is going to get seen during the approach.” He was silent for a beat. “Make sure of that. And if we are spotted once on the airbase, blow it all to hell and get moving. You all know the emergency RV?”

Lassen reached into his pocket and pulled out a crumpled map. He took a pencil and tried to scribble “Rendezvous” on their agreed emergency rallying point should they get split up. But English wasn’t his first language, nor spelling his strongest suit. He tried again, scrubbed it out in frustration, and scrawled one word in capitals: “MEAT”

“Got it?” he queried.

There were a series of grunts in the affirmative.

“If any one of us does not make the RV, we do not go back for him. Understood?”

Again, the grunts of agreement.

Lassen nodded. “Good. Now the fight.”

The night trek to the airbase went without a hitch. The four raiders were dressed in “light order,” carrying only their day sacks stuffed with Lewes bombs, and armed with pistols, grenades, and knives. They’d left their heavier tommy guns and German Schmeisser machine guns behind—the key with such a mission being able to move fast and unseen. They’d never win a stand-up firefight with the enemy, who tonight numbered some two hundred mixed German and Italian troops.

Instead, the aim was to be in and out like ghosts.

At around five hundred yards out from the airbase, Lassen’s group split from Nicholson’s, the latter skirting southward through a vineyard toward the humped, blocky silhouette of the fuel dump. Lassen led Jones toward the airstrip, dropping to a cat-crawl as they emerged from the cover of the vines a couple of hundred feet short of the wire. A searchlight swept the night, the sentries on the nearest tower staring into the thin beam that probed the sea of darkness around them.

For an instant, the blinding spear of light seemed to pierce Lassen and Jones, pinning them to the ground. The two raiders burrowed on their bellies into the dry dirt and the sparse, scrubby undergrowth as they tried to escape the searchlight’s pitiless glare. Being trapped under that intense illumination was spine chilling, especially as there wasn’t a scrap of real cover anywhere around.

After several tense seconds, the light moved on, and Lassen urged Jones forward. The Dane reckoned it was movement that drew the eyes of the guards, so if they made like statues whenever the light swept past, no one would detect their presence.

The next time the searchlight swung around, he and Jones froze in their tracks, and after a tense moment the beam of light continued its steady sweep across the hillside. As they pushed ahead, Lassen was trying to keep his natural exuberance in check. He was never happier than when on the hunt, especially stalking much-sought-after prey.

He’d been this way since he was a small boy, when he’d tracked deer with a bow and arrow on his parents’ grand country estate, hunting silently and swiftly. But now his native Denmark was occupied by the German enemy, the Danish people—his family among them—crushed under the heel of the Nazi jackboot, just like the Cretans.

It fed his hatred of the Nazis and fueled his lust for revenge.

Finally, he and Jones reached the wire. A hundred yards or so to their south, Lassen could make out the skeletal form of the main gate, with one of the six guard towers rearing above it. A match flared in the thick darkness, betraying where a sentry was positioned atop it. The flame was passed between the guards as each lit a cigarette, forming four pinpricks of fiery orange as they puffed away.

In the glow of the flaring match, Lassen had caught the gunmetal-blue form of a Maschinengewehr 42, the German’s fearsome “Spandau” general-purpose machine gun. A belt-fed 7.92mm weapon, it could put down a stunning volume of suppressive fire. They’d better hope the sentries were less than alert, for Lassen’s men were going in with a few pistols and knives and two dozen Lewes bombs between them.

For a few seconds, Lassen and Jones scanned the terrain to their front. The squat forms of the Stukas were some two hundreds yards away, separated from them only by the wire. So near and yet so far.

As their eyes probed the darkness, Lassen spotted a pair of sentries executing a foot patrol past the line of aircraft. The enemy had pitched tents on the mown grass that lined the runway so they could camp out under canvas and keep permanent guard on their warplanes. Clearly, they had men standing permanent watch over the aircraft in addition to those positioned in the guard towers.

The sentries out on foot had their weapons slung over their shoulders, but Lassen could sense that they were alert and on task. He knew the Germans to be professional and motivated fighters, as opposed to their Italian comrades, who tended not to have their heart in the fight. It would be well not to underestimate them.

Lassen put two fingers to his eyes, then pointed toward the foot sentries and held up two fingers—indicating to Jones where to look and the number of the nearest enemy. By the silent nod he got in return, he figured Jones had seen them. On Lassen’s signal, Jones reached up to the fence with a pair of wire cutters and began to snip the strands, slicing through a section up to about three feet in height.

He forced it apart and was just reaching higher when from out of the darkness to their right a match flared again. This was much closer. The flame revealed a sentry who had paused to light up. It looked as if they had guards out walking the wire on perimeter patrols—a third layer of security.

Lassen and Jones went to ground, forcing their faces deeper into the dry dirt. The sentry paced closer along the fence line, and for some reason he chose to pause right opposite where the raiders had cut their hole in the wire. Perhaps he had heard them doing so, the sharp snips of the wire cutters carrying far in the still darkness.

Lassen cursed under his breath.

They’d “blacked up” earlier, using first camouflage cream and then a burned cork to smear their faces, but that wouldn’t hide the whites of their eyes. The sentry took a long drag of his cigarette and exhaled. The June night was balmy, and the soldier seemed in no hurry to move. Quite the opposite: his attention seemed glued to the section of fencing that Lassen and Jones had just been cutting.

If the two raiders didn’t get going soon, Nicholson’s team would already have set their charges, and Lassen and Jones would be caught on the runway as the ammo and fuel dumps blew. Without a sound, Lassen slid out of his backpack and reached for the fence. Moving like a cat, his lithe, wiry form wriggled through the narrow hole, the handle of his heavy stiletto fighting knife gripped in his right hand.

He rose into a crouch and flitted through the darkness toward the sentry. Once, during training with fellow Special Duty recruits in Scotland, Lassen had stalked and killed a deer with his knife. Those who had watched him were amazed at his hunting prowess. It was a large stag, and he and fellow trainees had feasted on its flesh for days. Lassen possessed an uncanny ability to creep up undetected on just about any kind of prey and to kill it with his bare hands.

He came up silently behind the sentry. In one swift move he slipped his left arm around the neck and mouth in a savage chokehold, blocking off any possibility of a cry, jerking the chin upward and to the left at the same moment. Simultaneously, his right arm came around in a savage thrust, sinking the blade of his fighting knife up to the hilt through the man’s neck, before punching forward to slice through the artery.

For several seconds Lassen gripped the stricken figure in a vice-like hold, waiting for the life to drain out of him before lowering his body to the blood-soaked dirt. An instant later, he was back beside the fence, the dead man’s submachine gun slung across his bloodied shoulder. He crouched low and leaned all his weight on the wire, widening the narrow hole for Jones.

“Come on! Let’s go!”

By now Lassen had killed enough Germans at close quarters that another death wasn’t exactly going to damn his soul. But the first time he’d killed a man with a knife, he had found it difficult. A year earlier, during a raid on the Channel island of Sark, he’d knifed to death a lone German sentry.

He’d written in his diary about it: “The hardest and most difficult thing I have ever done.”

A lot had happened since then.

Jones wriggled through. Together, the two men moved ahead at a low crouch, sticking to the darkest shadows. They skirted past the dead sentry, his body lying in a pool of thickening blood, before coming up at the rear of a hangar with an attached barracks block. Inside, it was a hum of chatter and laughter, as the aircrew, technicians, aviators, and guards enjoyed a little downtime. It was a Saturday night, and no doubt their minds had drifted to thoughts of loved ones back home.

Lassen led Jones around the side of the block, keeping away from the light. To the front was another machine gun, this one positioned in a sandbagged bunker, the gun facing outward to protect the aircraft at its back. Lassen eyed the planes hungrily.

Not far now.

Jones reached for a second line of fencing, one that segregated the airstrip itself from the rest of the base. The wire was thicker here, offering more resistance, but they had to cut a passage through. The only other way in was via the main gate, and no way did Lassen want to have to bluff his way past that.

Straining with the effort, Jones snipped the first few strands of wire. Beside him, Lassen used his hands to pull up the cut ends and bend them backward, forming a hole just big enough to crawl through. With his purloined German machine gun covering Jones, Lassen waved the man on. Only when Jones had reached the far side did Lassen slide his gun under and wriggle through himself.

With Lassen in a crouch and covering him, Jones knelt to twist together the wire in a makeshift fix, just as he’d done at the outer fence. At first glance no one would notice that it had been cut.

They were at least two hundred yards inside the base by now, and practically in among the aircraft. As Jones worked feverishly at closing the wire, Lassen felt certain they would be spotted. With so many sentries posted on the airstrip, it was going to be nigh-impossible to flit unseen among the airframes.

After what seemed like an age, Jones turned away from the wire and gave a thumbs-up. Lassen breathed out a sigh of relief. For a few seconds he kept watch, tuning his senses to the rhythm of the German sentries on duty. Once he had a feel for the pace of their march, he was ready.

Using hand signals, he sent Jones to his left to deal with the aircraft on the near side. He would move ahead right to plant his charges on the second rank of Stukas. But then, under the glare of a distant floodlight Lassen spotted a more remote but juicier target. On the grass beyond the Stukas, he could just make out the form of a twin-engine Junkers-88 Schnellbomber.

Lassen’s pace quickened. Painted on the side of the sleek fighter-bomber was a white square bisected by a black cross, marking it out as an aircraft of the hated Luftwaffe. The insignia shone out in the darkness, drawing Lassen to it like a moth to a candle flame.

He glanced left and right as he steeled himself for a dash through the open. The sentries were nearing the end of their patrol leg, whereupon they’d do an about-turn and come around to face him. In the few seconds remaining, Lassen darted forward. He scuttled across the bare brightness of the grass strip running alongside the runway, trying as far as possible to keep under cover and out of view.

The next moment, he pounded onto an open stretch of pavement, his felt-soled boots passing silently over the unyielding surface before he darted onto the grass on the far side. One last dash and he slipped into the cover of the larger aircraft—moments before the first of the sentries turned. They were no more than two hundred yards away and nearing the ends of the runway—which meant Lassen and Jones had just minutes in which to complete their task.

Lassen glanced left, confirming what he suspected—that this was the first in a row of six Ju-88s. He clambered up the steel ladder set against the aircraft’s flank and from there slid onto the wing.

Lassen inched ahead on his belly, the knapsack held before him, his hands crabbing about inside for two Lewes bombs and a timer. This being a big old bird, he wanted to make doubly sure that he’d blow it sky high. He’d noted how closely the Ju-88s were parked. If he could just get the fuel tank of this one to go up, it should ignite the next and the next, like a row of falling dominoes.

Hands working feverishly, he slid the two bombs into position, shoving the same fuse into both of them. That done, he turned to eye the nearest sentry, whose hobnail boots he could hear clicking their way back toward his position. Lassen was now lying on the Junkers’ wing facing back the way he’d come, with Jones in front of him.

Lassen watched his fellow raider freeze as he heard the approaching footsteps, then press himself down onto the wing of his chosen Stuka. Each man was carrying several more charges that they’d yet to lay, and they forced themselves to remain motionless as the sentry approached. Unfortunately, like most of the men in his unit, Jones was a compulsive smoker, and as the lead sentry moved forward he let out a stifled cough.

The sentry stiffened. He turned to glance in Jones’s direction. “Friedrich? Friedrich?”

The sentry stared at Jones’s Stuka for a long moment. Jones was doing his best to force his body into the hard steel of the wing, but it was slick with the first drops of dew, and he was sick with worry that he was going to slip and fall.

“Friedrich?” the sentry called again, more insistent this time.

He slipped the rifle off his shoulder, flicking the safety to off and leveling it at the hip. Keeping it there, he reached into his pocket for his flashlight.

As he did so, a silent figure sprinted along the wing of the Schellbomber, sailed thought the air, and landed with a crushing impact on the German’s shoulders. Even as he hit the deck, Lassen jerked the sentry’s head up and to the left with one hand, the other driving his fighting knife into the man’s throat, forcing it savagely downward.

As he’d fallen, the sentry’s rifle had clattered to the ground, making a harsh metallic crack as the barrel hit the concrete.

His fellow sentry stiffened in alarm. He called out, voice thick with alarm. “Oli? Oli?”

The dying man gurgled horribly as he fought against Lassen’s hold. Moments later, Lassen rose to his feet, the dead man’s rifle gripped in his hand.

“Hey! Friedrich! It’s me!” He was speaking fluent German. “Like a fool I tripped over my own weapon.”

“Dummkopf!” The sentry laughed, but there was a nervous edge to his laughter. Maybe he’d noticed that Lassen didn’t exactly sound like the Oli he knew. “I thought maybe there was trouble?”

“Only my two left feet,” Lassen replied.

He shouldered the rifle and moved forward as if continuing with his patrol. They were a dozen paces apart when Lassen saw the sentry falter, and his hand go toward his weapon. In one smooth movement Lassen drew his Luger and fired, unleashing one sharp shot from the hip, using the weapon Shanghai style, as he’d been taught in their “school for bloody mayhem and murder.” The bullet struck the guard full in the chest, perfectly aimed to drill his heart.

As the echoes of the shot faded, Lassen heard a muffled cry of alarm from the machine gun nest a couple of hundred yards away. He sprinted through the darkness toward Jones as the gunner called for a searchlight to sweep the airstrip in the direction from which the lone shot had come.

A searchlight fingered the darkness. Confused shots rang out across the airbase as nervous guards loosed off at shadows. None of the fire yet seemed to be directed at Lassen and Jones, but it was clear that their mission was blown. The Germans would send a search party to look for Oli and Friedrich; two missing sentries wasn’t something to be ignored.

Lassen ran over to Jones, who was crouched in a dark slice of shadow beneath one of the Stukas. “Change of plan,” he hissed. “Get as many aircraft rigged with charges as you can. We need a distraction to cover us, so we can get the hell out of here. Leave that to me . . . And if we get split up, see you at the RV.”

Without another word, Lassen turned and moved at a crouching run toward the barracks building. Jones scuttled off toward the remaining aircraft. As the Dane neared the barracks end of the runway, a barrier lifted in the fence line, and a Kübelwagen—a German open-topped jeep-like vehicle—nosed through. It was loaded with four soldiers, presumably those who had come to investigate the lone shot and the two missing sentries.

Lassen slipped into the shadow of the last Stuka in line. He waited for the vehicle, his right arm gripping a grenade with the pin already removed. He was known for being a “grenade man”—he loved the weapon, and he never missed a chance to use it. As the Kübelwagen neared the first of the dive-bombers, he let out a cry in German.

“Idiots! Sentry change isn’t for another thirty minutes!”

The Kübelwagen slowed, and Lassen stepped forward and threw the grenade. It arced through the air, landing in the rear of the open-topped jeep. An instant later, a savage blast tore through the vehicle, jagged shards of shrapnel ripping apart its thin metal skin and human occupants alike. The Kübelwagen kept rolling for a few seconds, as the flames engulfing it fizzed and boiled, before coming to rest hanging half in the shallow drainage ditch running beside the runway.

Before the vehicle had stopped, Lassen was running for the nearest machine gun nest, crying out: “Partisans! Schnell! Schnell! Schnell!”

The machine gunner swung his weapon around toward Lassen, but the yelled German words made him hesitate for just an instant. In that moment Lassen fired with the Luger from the hip, three bullets spitting out of the weapon in rapid succession and smashing into the German gunner. It was a classic “double-tap”—two to the body and one to the head, as he’d been taught—the gunner slumping forward over his weapon.

An instant later, Lassen vaulted into the machine-gun nest, heaving the dead man to one side. In one smooth move, he swung the Maschinengewehr 42 around, and opened fire with the belt-fed 7.92mm weapon.

As he did so, all hell broke out across Kastelli airfield.

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