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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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