Hit and Run in the Aegean

With the ‘D’ type Fairmiles and new American-built Vospers coming into operation in increasing numbers, the older Elco boats continued to give good service, although armed with nothing heavier than Oerlikons. They were formed into the 10th MTB Flotilla, under Lieutenant Commander Peter Evensen. In September 1943, while Allan took his boats to begin operations off the west coast of Italy and the Commander (later Captain) of Coastal Forces in the Western Mediterranean, Commander A.E.P. Welman DSO DSC, began investigating the possibility of establishing bases in the Adriatic, Evensen was ordered to take his flotilla east. This meant a 1,000-mile passage from Messina to Alexandria, which was covered without mishap, and in October they moved up to operate in the Aegean from the island of Casteloriso.

The key to the situation in the Aegean was Turkey. If the Allies could hold the islands and establish control of the Aegean shipping routes, it was hoped that Turkey might be brought into the war on the Allied side. Small British garrisons were established on some of the islands in September, including Leros, Kos, Kalimno, Symi, Naxos, Levitha and Stampalia, and it was hoped after the Italy landings to capture Rhodes, the gateway to the Dodecanese.

But the Germans were equally determined not to risk the effect it might have on Turkey and the other neutrals by letting go of the Aegean. Large numbers of forces, including troops, vessels for seaborne operations, and in particular fighters and bombers, were moved to Greece, and the Germans forestalled the Allies by themselves capturing Rhodes. They quickly followed this by taking other Ionian Sea islands, including Corfu, and then moved against those held by the British. With the Luftwaffe dominant in the skies, these islands fell one by one in October until only the main garrison on Leros remained. With insufficient forces available, the Allies had to give up their plan for Operation Accolade, the opening of the Aegean, and operations for the next six months were confined to small-scale Commando raids and sabotage, and guerrilla warfare by resistance groups, in all of which Coastal Forces played an important part.

Many of the smaller islands were not garrisoned by either side and could be used by the small boats for hiding up in by day. Other lightly garrisoned islands changed hands several times as they were raided first by one side, then the other.

The first successful action by the 10th MTB Flotilla came during the early hours of 19 October when three boats, 315 (Lieutenant Leonard Newall DSC RNZNR, with Evensen on board as Senior Officer), 309 (Lieutenant R. Campbell RCNVR) and 307 (Lieutenant John Muir), while on patrol between the islands of Kos and Kalimno, which the month before had fallen to the Germans, torpedoed and sank a 600-ton coaster and an F-Lighter. But overall, things had continued to go badly for British forces in the Aegean. Leros surrendered on 16 November, then Samos was evacuated, and the garrison on Casteloriso was reduced to just sufficient men to keep it operating as an advanced MTB base. From then on, operations in the Aegean became a matter of harassing the enemy in order to keep as many German troops tied up in the area as possible.

Typical of this period and the problems that the small boat crews had to cope with was an operation during the period 7-26 December by MTBs 315 (Lieutenant Newall) and 266 (Lieutenant J. Breed RNZNVR). It was Newall’s first operation as Senior Officer. Having been in Alexandria for repairs, the two craft set out for Casteloriso on the evening of the 7th, arriving the following morning. During the passage 266 had lost her starboard rudder (this was later found to be due to negligence on the part of the Coastal Forces base at Alexandria and the subject of disciplinary action), but the crew managed to plug the exposed rudder gland on arrival at Port Vathi and for the remainder of the period operated on two rudders. After refuelling, the boats left Port Vathi on the evening of the 8th and sailed westwards on silent engines to patrol between enemy-occupied Rhodes and the Turkish mainland, retiring to Arabah Island before daybreak.

Owing to the swell caused by a force 4 wind and the poor shelter that the island provided, it was decided the following night to investigate Port Sertchech, some 7 miles down the coast, as a possible laying-up place during the day. This was found to be ideal in every way: good shelter in most weathers, deep water close to the shore, and commanding a good view of Rhodes from a nearby hilltop. It was arranged for a fuelling caique to be moved down to Port Sertchech from Arabah Island.

As Lieutenant Newall wrote:

For the following four nights, patrols were carried out in the vicinity of Rhodes harbour and Symi, and the north and western coasts of Rhodes Island were closely investigated. But there wasn’t the slightest sign of activity anywhere, except for a regular hourly searchlight sweep to seawards by a light near Tholo on the northern coast. During the day, periodic visits were made to the look-out position at Sertchech but no sea or air traffic was observed. On the morning of the third patrol, when about to return to our hideout position, it was discovered that 266 ’s centre shaft had become uncoupled from the engine while she had been running on the wing engines. This was rectified after securing at Port Sertchech.

At 10.30 on the 11th, an enemy report of a 3,000-ton merchant vessel proceeding from Cape Krio towards Rhodes was received and we proceeded to a position just to the east of Cape Alupo in order to intercept if she passed outside Turkish territorial waters. At 13.00 she appeared in sight about half-a-mile offshore and was identified as the Turkish vessel Dumpulinar. She proceeded eastwards, keeping well inside territorial waters.

In the early hours of the 13th, when returning from a sweep down to the south-western point of Rhodes, 315 ran her port Vee-drive and it was decided to return to Port Vathi the following night for repairs.

Just as they were about to leave for Port Vathi, however, the Greek secret agent in the neighbouring island of Loryma arrived. Newall had come across him the night before while the man was on his way to Rhodes to see what information he could pick up. Now he told Newall that a tug towing two caiques had left Symi forty minutes earlier, heading for Rhodes. The two MTBs set out at once and intercepted the vessels 4½ miles off Kum Burne. The tug was 80 tons, the caiques about 100 tons each. Newall continued:

We attacked with depth charges and guns. Although well armed, the tug put up no resistance and was soon left in a sinking condition. Gunfire, including mortar bombs, was then concentrated on the caiques but since they did not appear to be sinking very rapidly, each boat went alongside one of the caiques and placed a demolition charge aboard. During this manoeuvre, 266 took on board one prisoner.

For some time we had been held in the searchlights from Rhodes, and since the shore batteries were warming up to their task and 315 was definitely reduced to two engines, I decided to retire and proceed to Port Vathi, eventually arriving at 01.00 the following morning.

During the 14th and 15th, the boats were refuelled and a new Vee-drive fitted to MTB 315. Then they set out to return to Port Sertchech, but the weather was rapidly worsening and MTB 266 began to have more trouble with her defective centre engine stern gland. The boats returned to Vathi, but the gland could not be repaired. The only solution was to jam the centre shaft in such a way that it would not trail when running on the wing engines, the idea being to patrol on the wing engines and use the centre only in an emergency.

At 17.00 on the 17th we again sailed for Sertchech but the contrivance used for jamming the centre engine of 266 carried away and we returned to Vathi intending to try a different method the next day. However, at 01.15 on the 18th a signal was received from the Commander-in-Chief, Levant, to examine Symi Harbour, and considering this to be an emergency I decided to proceed there at 30 knots with both boats, and after the operation to use the remaining stern gland packing to stop 266’s leak.

The two boats returned to Vathi on the 24th, then, acting on orders, took several Army officers from the Casteloriso garrison to Limassol, remained there during the daylight hours of the 25th, and eventually returned to Alexandria early on the 26th.

The Commander of Coastal Forces in the Eastern Mediterranean, Commander R.E. Courage, commenting on the breakdowns to 266, wrote: ‘It is remarkable that commanding officers and crews of Coastal Force craft do put so much faith in the work done on their boats by base repair staffs, when the latter are often no more skilled than themselves. No larger ship with more experienced personnel would be so trusting.’

In his report, Newall drew attention to the difficulties caused by the weather:

Camouflage was not always possible owing to the wind, and at night, patrols had to be confined largely to the sheltered waters between Rhodes and Turkey. Neither of the two enemy reconnaissance planes which passed overhead during the first week there appeared to notice us, and it was not until our return to Sertchech on December 18 that the enemy seemed to have any idea that we were in the vicinity. On that day, two more planes passed overhead and may very easily have seen the boats since they were not under camouflage. During the afternoon of the 18th, the agent came round from Loryma and arrangements were made for a report of any further enemy movements to be passed on to the MTBs. From that point of view, Sertchech is admirably handy.

Newall’s examination of the harbour at Symi helped to lay the groundwork for an audacious Combined Operations raid on the island in July of the following year. It was typical of such raids during this period. The object was to liquidate or capture the enemy garrison, destroy the military installations, capture or destroy any enemy shipping found, and then leave the island within twenty-four hours. The landing and evacuation of the 224-man force was to be carried out by eight ‘B’ Type MLs, four HDMLs, two schooners and MTB 309.

As Symi was beyond striking distance from the nearest Coastal Force base at Casteloriso, it was necessary to concentrate the whole force at an advanced base without the enemy’s knowledge. The Gulf of Dorio on the Turkish coast was chosen, and the coastal craft adopted the method of lying-up under camouflage that had already become such a feature of Aegean operations. The raid, known as Operation Tenement, had been under consideration for some time, but it was not practical as long as the enemy had destroyers in the Aegean. However, of the four known to be in the area, one had been damaged by a submarine, another by the RAF and the remaining two by a Royal Marine raiding force; all were docked in Piraeus for repairs. The raid was planned to take place between 13 and 15 July 1944.

Even with the destroyers out of the way, there were still difficulties. First of all the force had to concentrate without the enemy knowing; then the concentration had to be made in Turkish waters, close enough to the objective for the return journey to be made under cover of darkness; and finally the troops had to be collected from such widely dispersed areas as Palestine, Alexandria, Cairo and parts of the Aegean. The detailed plan was not made until 6 July, when RAF reconnaissance had been completed and the Force Commander, Brigadier D.J.T. Turnbull DSO, had arrived in the forward area. Intelligence had reported that the garrison was manned by between 195 and 200 enemy troops. They appeared to be in a high state of tension, firing spasmodically day and night as if to keep up their spirits. But expecting that any attack, if made, would be carried out during the hours of darkness, they had adopted a system of standing to by night and standing down by day. It was decided therefore to make the raid in daylight, and to select the beaches so that even if the enemy became warned of the landing, they could not send troops to oppose it in under two hours. The time chosen for the attack on the garrison was 07.00 on the morning of 14 July (06.00 by the enemy’s time, as they were one hour behind).

The Senior Officer of the coastal craft was Lieutenant Commander D.M. Russell. He was on board HDML 1386, one of three boats which landed an advance party on the north-western side of the island the night before the raid.

The military force was divided into three groups, all of which included Greek troops of the Sacred Squadrons as well as Commandos and demolition experts. They were to concentrate at different points on the Turkish coast on the evening of the 13th – the main force under Brigadier Turnbull in Losta Bay, the west force under Captain C.M. Clynes at Dersek, and the south force under Captain J.S.F. Macbeth at Sertchech – and then make three separate landings on Symi. When the boats had completed the disembarkation, five of the MLs were to sail round to the harbour and at 07.00, zero hour, commence a bombardment of the castle in which the garrison was housed. Another three MLs and the MTB were to stand guard offshore and intercept any attempt that the enemy might make to send reinforcements to the island.

At five minutes before midnight, the first boats of the main force arrived at Marina Bay and were met by the advance party. Although it was completely dark as the moon was not due to come up until 01.00, the landing proceeded smoothly. Then it was discovered that the last boat, ML 349, was missing. As this contained all the mortars and machine-guns, there were some anxious moments until it was discovered she had put into the adjoining bay by mistake. ‘This caused a 45-minute delay which could be ill afforded in view of the extremely difficult and steep approach march to our position,’ Turnbull wrote later.

Another mishap occurred to this last party during the hurried disembarkation when two of the Greek officers fell out of a rubber raft bringing them ashore and were drowned – they had little chance as they were fully equipped with heavy packs and had disappeared before anyone could get to them. One of the Vickers machine-guns was also lost, which seriously weakened the force’s firepower. But the landing of all stores and personnel was completed by 01.50.

The west force landed without incident east of Fanouri, but the south force, landing at midnight in Fanoremini Bay, encountered some resistance from an enemy patrol while going ashore on the rocky beach and it was 02.00 before the operation was completed.

Describing the approach marches to the enemy garrison, Turnbull wrote: ‘These were over very difficult terrain, with big rocks and boulders and no paths. Owing to the impossibility of landing large carrying-parties, all ranks had to carry extremely heavy loads in addition to their equipment. Conditions were of a kind to test the best mountain-trained troops.’

But the positions from where the attacks would be made were all occupied by 05.00. From his command post, Turnbull could see down into the harbour , and noticed two Italian motor torpedo boats and three barges just leaving. At 06.40, firing was heard at sea as the Italian craft were sighted and attacked by the covering force of MLs and MTB 309. Shortly afterwards the two MS boats returned to the harbour. One of them was on fire and was abandoned by her crew, while the other tied up at the jetty.

By this time, the main force had begun to attack the castle with mortar fire while the MLs commenced a bombardment from the sea. This was the signal for the west force to attack Fanouri; the enemy there soon surrendered and all their defences and ammunition dumps were destroyed. Meanwhile the south force had already attacked and captured the monastery at 06.30 and was now moving towards the harbour. At 07.30 they captured Molo Point. Greek troops with the main force advanced towards the harbour and boatyard, met up with the south force and the port was soon cleared. The MS boat at the jetty was attacked with grenades, boarded and captured. Then the second MS boat, which had been reboarded by her crew after the fire had gone out, came into the harbour and surrendered after a short fight.

At this stage it was a three-hour journey to get ammunition up from Marina Beach and patrols were pinned down by accurate fire from the castle. An attempt to bring supplies round to the harbour in dories failed when two of the small craft were hit and sunk by 20mm fire. The castle was now the only point of opposition on the island. It was surrounded on three sides, but the attackers had run short of ammunition and were unable to get supplies from the landing area. A state of deadlock had been reached so Turnbull decided to try to bluff the enemy into surrendering.

The German petty officer who had been in command of one of the MS boats was sent to the castle under escort to inform the defenders that they were completely surrounded and that as the rest of the island was in Allied hands it was useless to continue resistance. After an hour he returned with the news that the enemy were prepared to talk, so Lieutenant Fox was sent back with him. Nothing happened for another hour, but then a party of Carabinieri from buildings adjacent to the castle surrendered under a Red Cross flag. This party was sent to the castle with Lieutenant Commander Ramseyer to continue the negotiations. Eventually, at 15.00, the enemy garrison surrendered and came marching down into the town. Ten minutes later, a German air attack was made which, as Turnbull commented, might well have influenced the garrison not to surrender. But it was too late.

The Commandos proceeded to demolish the enemy’s installations, including two 15-ton ammunition dumps, an explosive dump, the wireless station and telephone exchange, fuel dumps, the boatyard and nineteen caiques that were in it at the time. The arms captured included one 77mm gun, seven 20mm Breda guns and a large number of machine-guns, mortars, rifles and pistols. Also, of course, the two MS boats were captured complete and found to be serviceable.

Allied casualties, apart from the two Greek officers who had been drowned, were six wounded. The Germans had five killed, five wounded and forty-one taken prisoner; ten Italian fascists were killed, ten wounded and ninety-one taken prisoner; three Quislings were also taken prisoner. Only a few of the enemy had managed to escape into the hills, from where there was desultory firing during the afternoon.

Owing to a breakdown of the naval party’s W/T receiving apparatus, it was not known whether the message requesting the Coastal Forces craft to return as soon as possible after dark to evacuate the island had been received. The MLs did return, however, and at 23.00 the force began to evacuate from Symi harbour, with the prisoners under escort in the two MS boats. One patrol was left on the island to continue demolitions and also to distribute food to the civilian population. But the following day, the enemy carried out a heavy aerial bombardment and landed a reconnaissance party to report on what had taken place. The British patrol was successfully withdrawn during the evening and several hours later the Germans landed a force of 300 men, escorted by five ships and a dozen aircraft, to reoccupy the island.

The MLs which had taken part in the raid were amongst a number assigned to the Aegean earlier in the year from Alexandria. The first to see service with Aegean Raiding Operations, as they were called, was ML 1226, commanded by Sub Lieutenant J.E. Hickford, which had landed a party of Commandos under Major Patterson on the island of Niseros on the night of 6/7 March. After picking up equipment from another island, the ML returned to Niseros on the 7th to find that Major Patterson had captured two German lighters and set sail in them with the rest of his party for Deremen. Hickford was to embark the Commando interpreter, together with the Mayor of Niseros, his family and five wounded Germans.

The Mayor’s party – three men, three women and a child – came on board while the boat lay anchored off the island’s monastery and were put in the wireless room. The Germans were too badly wounded to go below and were laid on the deck. Hickford weighed anchor soon after midnight and set course for Deremen. He wrote:

At 01.46, a schooner under full sail and burning navigation lights was sighted off Cape Krio. Action stations was sounded and I proceeded to close and board her. The boarding party under Sub Lieutenant Newman were satisfied she was a Turkish vessel with correct papers, and after an exchange of food and cigarettes we parted amicably.

The ML resumed her original course, then at 02.45 another schooner and three lighters in line ahead were sighted close inshore to Kuchi Island.

I closed to investigate and the leading lighter attempted to escape inshore at maximum speed. I increased and closed her and boarded her. The crew of eight Germans and a naval officer immediately surrendered. The boarding party searched them for weapons. They had none and were forced into the bows and covered by Able Seaman Flewin with a 9mm Lanchester and a Greek from the Niseros party with a stripped Lewis. Stoker Challis investigated the engines and reported he could control the lighter from the wheelhouse. I then left the three of them on board and told them to follow us.

The remaining lighters were coming up astern at high speed, so Hickford left the boarded vessel and turned to intercept them. The schooner meanwhile had been lying off at about 300 yards and although the ML had kept her covered with the 3-pounder, it was thought she might not be armed. Suddenly, the two lighters opened fire with light automatics, and immediately the schooner also opened fire with a heavy gun, thought later by Hickford to be an 88mm, and a cannon aft.

This fire was returned and the schooner and one of the lighters hit. But then a shell from the schooner’s heavy gun hit the ML on the starboard side of the wheelhouse where ammunition was stored, there was an explosion and a sheet of flame flared up. The 3-pounder ceased firing. Hickford took evasive action towards Mordala Island, followed by the schooner which continued to fire until she had fallen back out of range. When the damage and casualties were checked, it was found that one of the crew was dead and another severely wounded, with his left leg severed at the thigh, and also his right wrist. He was given morphine and a tourniquet applied to his right arm, but it was impossible to apply one to his left side. He later died. The nearest German prisoner to the 3-pounder was also dead. The starboard side forward of the wheelhouse was completely wrecked and there were holes along the hull. When a strong smell of carbide was noticed, Hickford discovered that a shell had penetrated the transom and caused calcium flares to ignite. The fire was brought under control with Foamite and Pyrene extinguishers.

Further boats were sighted during the passage to Deremen, but with his guns out of action, Hickford took avoiding action by keeping down moon of them and remained unseen. The ML entered harbour as the dawn rose.

Meanwhile, the three men who had been left on the boarded lighter found themselves in a difficult situation when the ML left. As soon as the battle began, one of the German prisoners had dived for a concealed gun and started firing. The two seamen and the Greek civilian had been forced to take shelter behind the wheelhouse. A gunfight developed, then, as the other vessels approached, the three men dived into the water and swam for the island. They were machine-gunned from the lighters. Only Flewin managed to reach the shore, to be picked up later by a Greek caique and eventually returned to the Coastal Forces base. Nothing more was seen of the other two and they were presumed dead.

This was the kind of operation conducted in the Aegean during the spring and summer of 1944 – continual harassment of the enemy, quick raids on islands then away again, small boats that sheltered amongst friendly islands by day to slip out at night when the moon was high to hunt the enemy on Homer’s ancient seas, fighting hand-to-hand battles like the buccaneers of old. It was the most that could be done since, with the loss of Crete, the Allies could not base air and coastal forces close enough to the Aegean to be able seriously to challenge the enemy’s control of that sea.

Although the main objectives were not achieved – those of inducing Turkey to enter the war and establishing a supply route through the Aegean for armaments going to Russia, thus saving many of the Arctic convoys that took such a heavy toll of men and ships – these operations did keep large numbers of the enemy occupied in defending their island bases. It was a war of nerves, guerrilla warfare by sea, in which the Germans never knew when or where the Allies would strike next.

Eventually, after the landings in Normandy and Southern France, the Germans were compelled in August 1944 to begin evacuating the Aegean. British forces landed on Kithera on 16 September, the first Greek territory to be liberated. A Coastal Forces base was established on the island and more craft arrived from other Mediterranean areas. Many of their activities from then on until the liberation of Athens were concerned with cloak-and-dagger missions to aid the partisans, as well as raiding parties to speed up the enemy’s withdrawal.

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