LRDG in the Balkans

The responsibility for the failure of three of the four patrols dropped into Italy rested largely with Lloyd Owen. Understandably keen to see the unit back in action after the events of November 1943 on Leros, he had thrown caution to the winds in selecting drop zones too close to the enemy front line. He should have remembered the old maxim from the desert days: 500 miles behind enemy lines is safer than 50 miles. When a special forces soldier is 500 miles inside the enemy’s territory his opponent’s guard is down because they assume themselves to be safe, but at 50 miles they’re on alert. In addition, what had been asked of the LRDG patrols in Italy wasn’t what they’d been trained for. They had done a brief parachute training course, but landing in enemy territory with several canisters of weapons and supplies required experience. The brutal truth was the LRDG still had a desert war mentality; operating in vast uninhabited regions where survival more often than not depended on a man’s will, wit and initiative. In Europe, one never knew what lay round the corner and one never knew who one could trust.

As for A Squadron, the Rhodesian Squadron, by the middle of June their role changed from carrying out purely reconnaissance operations on the Dalmatian Islands to combining them with offensive action against enemy targets. Wishing to have the self-sufficiency and independence that the LRDG had enjoyed in North Africa, Lloyd Owen procured the unit’s very own vessel, the motor fishing vessel La Palma, which allowed them to operate without having to rely on the Royal Navy, who might not always be able to meet the LRDG’s requirements. La Palma’s maiden voyage was to the island of Vis in June, her crew of nine taking seven and a half hours to cover the 70 miles. It was the first of many such trips, the aim of which was to either report on enemy shipping so that the RAF or Royal Navy could launch an attack, or so that small raiding parties could harass enemy shipping or installations on lightly held islands.

In the same month, Captain Stan Eastwood and five men, including an interpreter and Albanian guide, landed at Orso Bay on the Albanian coast. A German observation post was believed to be located somewhere on the stretch of coastline, and Eastwood was ‘to liquidate it’ because it was reporting the movements of Allied shipping. They located the target, but it was too much for their party to tackle, comprising ‘a rectangular concrete building of seven rooms with a flat roof camouflaged to look like an ordinary house with a pitched roof, the eastern portion giving the appearance of having fallen in’. On the roof, noted Eastwood, was a square lookout with slits for guns, and one, sometimes two, sentries were also on duty in the tower. Additionally two corners of the buildings were augmented with pillboxes, ‘the gun slits in which would permit their combined fire to cover a 360-degree radius’. If that wasn’t formidable enough, a double apron barbed-wire fence encircled the position at a distance of 40 yards.

Eastwood radioed a report to Force 266 and it was decided to mount a combined operation with three RN Hunt-class destroyers as well as a couple of rapid Italian torpedo boats. David Lloyd Owen delegated command of the land operation to Captain Tony Browne, one of the original New Zealand contingent in the LRDG, who had just wangled his return to the unit after several months away. Then, at the last moment, Lloyd Owen came along for the ride. ‘I had not been on active operations for so long,’ he said, ‘and I was beginning to feel stale and tired. I wanted a breath of fresh air again.’

In all, there were 35 men from the LRDG in the torpedo boats that raced east across the Adriatic from Brindisi. Stan Eastwood signalled them in and when dawn broke at 0415 hours they were safely ashore. ‘We had to get away from the beach and it took us nearly five hours to move a few miles over rough and rocky country to where there was thick cover under some trees,’ recalled Lloyd Owen. He, Eastwood and Browne left the rest of the party among the trees and climbed to a boulder-strewn ridge 1,200 feet above sea level. In the far distance they could see the town of Valona bathed in morning light. Nearer, just 1,000 yards across a scrub-covered ravine, was the target. It was indeed formidably defended, said Lloyd Owen, observing the target, but he was confident all the same that its obliteration wouldn’t pose much of a problem. The plan, he said, was simple: ‘We would move to within seven hundred yards of the target at dusk and then await the blitz of the three destroyers. When these had done their best the final assault would be led by Stan. We were to be in touch with the destroyers by wireless, and had brought a trained gunnery officer with us to control their fire.’

They spent the day under cover, checking their weapons, checking their watches, eating, dozing, thinking. At sundown Eastwood led the assault force into position, while Lloyd Owen and the gunnery officer climbed to a point where they could see the three destroyers. It was a moment of high suspense, one where the LRDG were at the mercy of the Royal Navy’s guns. A few hundred yards of inaccuracy could have deadly consequences. ‘The silence was a little weird, but fascinating at the same time,’ reflected Lloyd Owen, as he stared at the ‘dark and sinister forms on the gentle ripple of water’.

At 2325 hours Lloyd Owen flashed the agreed signal, and the officer confirmed their position and that of the target by radio. Five minutes later, bang on time, a star shell illuminated the coastline, followed a few seconds later by ‘the first ranging shot [which] tore through the air and struck the mountainside a little below the target’. Then the bombardment began and 12-gun salvoes from the three destroyers screamed down on the observation post. The ground shook beneath the LRDG men and great chunks of rock cascaded into the ravine. As for the target, that was obscured in a storm cloud of dust. Eastwood radioed for some more star shells. As they burst overhead, he saw that the observation post ‘needed another dose’. After the second short bombardment, Eastwood and his men moved towards the target in a line abreast. Through the dust they saw 150 yards away four Germans staggering from the post. Eastwood called on them to surrender. They didn’t respond, so they were shot. Three other Germans emerged with their hands above their head and were taken into captivity. Eastwood grabbed one and together they entered the ruins of the observation post. But there was no further resistance, and from the doorway of the house, Eastwood fired three long bursts of tracer into the air and then flashed three times with the torch towards Lloyd Owen’s position. It was the signal for the successful completion of their objective. By 0300 hours, the LRDG were on the beach with ‘three miserable weeping Germans’, and half an hour later a whaler arrived and transported them onto one of the destroyers, HMS Terpsichore.

A change of clothes, a hearty breakfast and then a moment to reflect on the mission. Three prisoners, one casualty (a slight ‘friendly fire’ wound to one of Eastwood‘s party from a naval shell splinter) and the destruction of the observation post. It was hardly a major setback for the Germans, acknowledged Lloyd Owen, but the principal result of the first Allied raid launched from Italy ‘lay in the uneasiness which the enemy was to feel along the whole of their Adriatic coast’. What was more, the Royal Navy had had a good time, the captain of HMS Terpsichore sending Lloyd Owen a letter thanking him ‘for a good evening’s entertainment and for providing the live exhibits in the form of the first Germans many of my sailors have seen’.

There was a minor reorganization in August, with the LRDG being placed under the operational command of the Land Forces Adriatic [LFA] on the 14th of the month. The HQ of the LFA was in Bari, and it was here that missions and raids were planned. ‘The prime task of the LRDG was to provide reconnaissance for the striking forces of all three Services [army, navy, air force],’ wrote Captain Stuart Manning. ‘When the LFA attacked targets, the LRDG had to be prepared to mark landing beaches or dropping zones and provide guides to lying-up places or targets.’

One such target was a railway bridge over a gorge inland from Gruda, a village approximately 20 miles south of the port of Dubrovnik in Croatia. On 19 August, an LRDG patrol of five men, commanded by Captain David Skipworth, left Italy in a motor launch to reconnoitre the area. One of the men was Sergeant Fred Leach, erstwhile of the Scots Guards, and a veteran of the LRDG’s desert days. ‘Having found suitable landing 10 to 15 miles south of Dubrovnik [we] moved off inland to a thick wooded area,’ he remembered. They made contact with a group of partisans who invited them to their camp. ‘The offer was accepted,’ said Leach. ‘Trouble was to understand each other, but they had plenty of food, mostly British, and the site was ideal for the patrol’s purpose.’ The next few days were spent surveying the area, and observing the target. ‘The peace and quiet was uncanny,’ recalled Leach. ‘There was no sign of troops, army trucks or heavy weapons anywhere. The local farmers and others just carried out their work as usual.’

Satisfied that the bridge was a viable target, the LRDG communicated the fact to the LFA HQ in Bari, and on the evening of 27 August a 12-strong raiding party came ashore from a motor launch. Eleven of the men were from the SBS, the twelfth a demolitions expert from the Royal Engineers. They were commanded by Captain Anders Lassen, a fearsome and fearless Danish officer who had three military crosses to his name, and also among their number was Sergeant Dick Holmes, a recipient of the Military Medal for his courage during an SBS raid on Crete the previous year. ‘We were all carrying two rucksacks,’ recalled Holmes. ‘One contained our own kit and the other fifty pounds of plastic explosive.’

The route inland was treacherous, particularly at night, but the SBS were guided to the partisans’ camp by the LRDG. The next day the SBS observed the target in the presence of the LRDG and it was agreed that they would destroy it on the night of 30 August. Reaching the target without obstruction, the raiders attached electric charges to each of the bridge’s abutments while the Royal Engineers’ corporal made a junction box with a primer cord to each charge. Within a few minutes, 500lb of explosive were in place and ready to blow. Once the wiring from the charges to the plunger was in place, the men sheltered behind a large rock 200 feet from the bridge. Holmes was given the job of blowing the bridge. ‘On the count of three I pressed down on the plunger but nothing happened, there was no proper connection,’ remembered Holmes. ‘I tried again but [had] the same result.’

The Royal Engineer cleaned the plunger, unscrewing the terminals and polishing and replacing the wires, but that had no effect. Lassen looked at his watch. Dawn soon. He swore at the plunger, and at the sapper, but, ignoring the insults, the Royal Engineer scrambled down to the bridge to put Plan B into place. Running a safety fuse from the detonator back to the rock, he reached into his pocket for a box of matches. They watched the fizzing fuse for a few moments, then prudently crouched down behind the rock. ‘Lassen was starting to get impatient again,’ explained Holmes. ‘He wanted to go down and have a look for himself. Then suddenly the whole lot goes up and great chunks of masonry begin raining down on us. One bloody big piece flew past over our heads. It’s amazing no one got killed.’

Leaving behind a thick pall of yellow dust, the British raiders hurried high into the mountains until they reached the sanctuary of the partisan HQ. There was a delicious hot stew waiting for them when they arrived, and once that had been polished off the men lay down to rest. But at first light the next morning their slumber was shattered by a breathless sentry, who ran into the camp to warn that a large force of Germans and Ustaše were close at hand. The Ustaše were the fascist Croat force, whose reputation for brutality surpassed that of the Nazis.

In the grey dawn light, Holmes saw between 50 and 75 Germans and Ustaše advancing up the mountain towards their hideout, the officer in charge blowing a whistle and exhorting his men to move quicker. Lassen ordered his men to take up defensive positions along the rim of a hollow. ‘He decided to engage the approaching enemy troops, to the disgust of the rest of us,’ said Holmes. ‘I believe he was anxious to impress the partisans … we had done what we had been asked to do. Nothing would be gained by staying to fight.’

The partisans, however, had no intention of staging a last stand. They took off up the mountainside and Lassen, realizing they were hopelessly outnumbered, ordered the SBS and LRDG to withdraw. Fred Leach was shot in the arm as he pulled back, and consequently was ‘not a lot of use’. He, Captain Skipworth, the Royal Engineer and a partisan were captured, fortunately by the Germans and not the Ustaše.

The British prisoners were driven to Mostar, north of Dubrovnik, and there they were separated. ‘I was then taken to a room for questioning,’ recalled Leach. Waiting for him were three officers from the SS. ‘Having heard more than enough of the reputation of the SS I confess to being very unhappy indeed. However, these three turned out to be officers and gentlemen.’ It appeared to Leach that the trio knew the war was lost and were anxious to curry favour with any Allied soldier they encountered. Above all, they were relieved to be in Yugoslavia and not Russia.

‘Having heard more than enough of the reputation of the SS I confess to being very unhappy indeed. However, these three turned out to be officers and gentlemen.’

Ron Crossfield

The LRDG continued to operate in Albania throughout September, with the ubiquitous Stan Eastwood blowing up roads, attacking vehicles and generally making a nuisance of himself at every opportunity. Despite his success, however, and that of other Rhodesian patrols, relations between the LRDG and the partisans were deteriorating. ‘Albania had been a very successful phase of LRDG operations, but that had been due more to their own initiative and exertion than to so-called cooperation of the partisans,’ commented Stuart Manning, the Southern Rhodesia observer. ‘Throughout the local commanders, themselves willing to cooperate and be generally helpful, were everlastingly ruled by orders from above, which, as had been the case in Yugoslavia territory, they carried out blindly.’

By now it was evident to all – not just the three SS officers who questioned Sergeant Leach – that the Third Reich was crumbling. Squeezed on two fronts, Germany began recalling its troops from the Balkans to defend its border from the Soviet troops advancing westwards, who had already captured the Ploieşti airfields, entered Bucharest and made the first push into Yugoslavia. As German soldiers streamed north from Greece, through Albania and Yugoslavia, Winston Churchill demanded his chiefs of staff act quickly to ensure British troops reached Greece before the Soviets. The problem faced by Britain was a lack of resources; with so many soldiers fighting their way up Italy or across France, there simply were not enough troops in the Mediterranean theatre to meet Churchill’s insistence that a force of 5,000 march on Athens. Instead, an amalgamation of units was raised under the moniker Foxforce. Commanded by Lieutenant Colonel Ronnie Tod of No. 9 Commando, Foxforce comprised the LRDG, SBS, Commandos, Greek Sacred Squadron and the Raiding Support Regiment. Tod was answerable to the 2nd Special Service Brigade, which came under overall control of Brigadier Davy’s Land Forces Adriatic.

On 15 September Foxforce occupied the island of Kythira, six miles south of the Peloponnese, the large peninsula in southern Greece. The island was a good place from which to launch operations on the Greek mainland and the British established a naval base on the south of the island. From here the SBS and LRDG began reconnoitring the islands in the Bay of Athens, eradicating the last pockets of resistance, before, on 24 September, it was deemed the Peloponnese was sufficiently clear of the enemy to land a 450-strong force – codenamed ‘Bucket Force’ – at Araxos airfield in a fleet of Dakotas.

loyd Owen was asked to provide an LRDG patrol to act as Bucket Force’s ears and eyes as they advanced east from Araxos, so he called on John Olivey and his Rhodesian Z1 Patrol. Olivey’s 11 jeeps arrived in Greece by landing craft on 26 September, roaring ashore in their jeeps at Katakolon, 40 miles south of Araxos. The patrol soon became bogged down, however, Olivey noting as they drove north that ‘the roads [are] very bad after the recent rain’. Four of the jeeps in the patrol pulled trailers, on each of which was 1,000lb of equipment for Bucket Force, and within a day of landing Olivey began to doubt that all the vehicles would stand the ordeal if the condition of the roads did not improve.

On 30 September Olivey’s patrol arrived at Bucket Force’s Forward HQ, a few miles west of Patras. L Squadron of the SBS were positioned on the high ground overlooking the port, and their commander, Major Ian Patterson, was endeavouring to persuade the garrison of 900 Germans and 1,600 Greeks from a collaborationist security battalion to surrender. During the night of 3/4 October word reached Bucket Force HQ that the Germans had started withdrawing from Patras. At first light a patrol of the SBS, travelling in the LRDG jeeps, raced into the port and discovered that all but a German rearguard had indeed sailed out of Patras, heading east up the Gulf of Corinth towards the Corinth Canal.

The SBS and the LRDG now set off in pursuit of the Germans. In a convoy of jeeps they roared along the headland overlooking the gulf, a captured 75mm German field gun hitched to the back of one of the jeeps. ‘Chased the enemy who were withdrawing by boat,’ wrote Olivey in his log, ‘firing with .5 Browning and 75 mm gun, from positions on the Corinth Road.’

They reached Corinth on 7 October, exchanged desultory fire with the Germans on the other side of the canal and then accepted the surrender of another battalion of Greek collaborators. From Corinth Olivey received instructions to push on to the town of Megara, several miles to the north-east over a mountain road, but to leave two jeeps’ worth of men in Corinth to help in the clearance of German mines. Olivey’s Z1 Patrol reached Megara on 9 October and at dawn the next day assisted an SBS unit to ‘blow the escape road that the enemy were using’. With that done, they set about preparing a landing strip for the arrival of the 4th Independent Parachute Brigade led by Colonel George Jellicoe. They dropped into Megara on 12 October, a day when the wind was particularly stiff. ‘We were rushed to Megara airfield to help by driving alongside the paratroopers on the ground with open chutes, swinging left or right to collapse the chutes, to enable them to get to their feet,’ recalled Tommy Haddon, a Rhodesian trooper in Z1 Patrol. ‘Even so, many parachutes were not collapsing and men were swept onto the rocks along the coast running alongside the airfield.’

The next day, 13 October, Z1 Patrol was among the first Allied troops to enter the Greek capital. ‘We proceeded over the Corinth Canal to Athens in convoys,’ recalled Haddon, ‘all the way being greeted by singing and joyful Greeks, shouting words of welcome.’ Once in Athens, Haddon and Z1 checked into the Grand National Hotel, though it wasn’t for long. They were soon billeted in less salubrious surrounds – the old Ford factory on the main road to Piraeus.

Foxforce was now subsumed into ‘Pompforce’, a 1,000-strong amalgamation of the LRDG, SBS, 4th Independent Parachute Battalion, a unit from the RAF Regiment and a battery of 75mm guns. Commanded by Jellicoe, ‘Pompforce’ drove north towards Larissa, driving past the detritus of a large-scale German retreat. Glimpses of the Germans were rare, and what resistance was encountered was quickly crushed, as at Kozani and Florina.

John Olivey’s patrol ‘proceeded south of Florina and harassed the withdrawing enemy and proceeded to the flat country … firing at a range of 2,000 yards, at the enemy force withdrawing up the Florina–Havrokhoma Road. Florina was occupied/captured at 1600 hours.’ Hours after the capture of Florina, Jellicoe received a signal ‘instructing us not to go into Yugoslavia or Albania, presumably as a result of a pact with the Russians’.

At the end of October Lloyd Owen withdrew most of the LRDG patrols from Albania, leaving behind Eastwood ‘chasing the enemy where he could’. Much of his work was calling up air strikes on retreating Germans, such as the convoy moving south to reinforce the town of Tirana. Having first blown a bridge with his patrol, Eastwood radioed the RAF, who attacked the convoy as it waited for the bridge to be repaired. The convoy of ‘1,500 men, a few tanks, guns, MT and horse-drawn vehicles’ was all but wiped out. Tirana subsequently fell to the partisans on 17 November, and a fortnight later Eastwood’s patrol finally withdrew after four months of superlative work that only a unit with the LRDG’s unique skills could have accomplished. Eastwood had been awarded a Military Cross for leading the raid on the observation post in Orso Bay, and his sergeant, Andy Bennett, was decorated for his work in Albania, the citation for his Military Medal describing his role during a battle with 200 Germans on the Elbasan-Tirana road:

In a battle lasting some hours he showed magnificent courage under extremely heavy fire. He refused to leave his position only a few hundred yards from the road and thus enabled the combined force to compel the enemy to withdraw, leaving behind eighty dead and much valuable equipment. During the whole of these operations Bennett displayed great gallantry under fire.

Back in Greece, the Germans had been chased out of the country by November and on the 12th of the month the LRDG, together with the SBS, returned south to Athens for what they imagined would be some well-earned rest and recuperation. Greece, its islands and its people, were hugely popular with both units, and in the preceding 15 months a strong bond had developed between the British special forces and the Greeks. It was a bond forged in war, unbreakable, or so the British assumed.

But it was quickly apparent in Athens that the indolent days of the past had evaporated. The antagonism was palpable between the government of ‘National Unity’, who were pro-monarchy, and EAM, the predominantly communist National Liberation Front, whose military wing was ELAS, the Greek People’s Liberation Army. At first it was assumed that the trouble could be easily contained by the Greek authorities, and so Major Stormonth Darling led B Squadron (who had also been in Greece) back to Italy on the same day that John Olivey’s Z1 Patrol arrived back in Athens, the men relishing the ten days’ leave they had been promised.

On 13 November leave was cancelled because of ‘trouble, which was expected from ELAS’, and six days later the LRDG were placed under the command of 23rd Armoured Brigade. A short while later they moved their base to Osiphoglion Orphanage, on the main road to Athens, but they rarely ventured out, their presence more symbolic than practical. Tommy Haddon ‘witnessed many sordid events, as one does in a civil war’, and it was Captain Stuart Manning’s job to condense an unpleasant few weeks into a report on Z1 Patrol’s stay in Athens.

They were in Athens when the trouble with ELAS started and their jeep patrols rescued police from posts under fire and raided an ELAS headquarters to capture petrol and arms. Several of the party were wounded and had to be evacuated. A Greek National Guard was then being hurriedly formed, and the Rhodesians and their colleagues helped to train them while assisting in maintaining order in Athens and the neighbourhood.

In December ELAS began to consider the British fair game. On the 11th an LRDG truck taking sick men to the 97 General Hospital was ambushed. No one was killed, but one of the LRDG men in the cab was hit in the shoulder. ELAS claimed later it was a case of mistaken identity, they’d thought it was a pro-Royalist vehicle, but later on the same day John Olivey and his driver, Artie Botha, drove into Athens to stock up on supplies. As they turned up a quiet side street, a machine gun opened up from a window above. Botha was shot in the head and Olivey hit as he dragged his wounded driver to cover. The pair were rushed to the 97 General Hospital but Botha died on the operating table. Olivey was evacuated to Italy by air, and doubtless as he left behind Greece the irony wasn’t lost on him that he had come through four years of fighting the Germans and Italians with barely a scratch, only to be shot by people who were supposed to be on the same side.

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