LRDG: UNTIL THE BITTER END

These two photographs, believed to be somewhere in the Balkans in the winter of 1944/45, show some LRDG men loading an aircraft with one of their jeeps prior to their return to Italy.

The LRDG withdrew from Athens at the end of 1944 and returned to their base in Italy. It had been a dispiriting few weeks in the Greek capital, and the Balkans campaign had had its unsavoury moments too. It made the veterans of the North African campaign appreciate the desert and its indigenous people all the more; no politics there, no treachery or deceit from spiteful, small-minded, self-important panjandrums.

Nonetheless, the LRDG wouldn’t have swapped roles with any other army unit. They enjoyed their existence and appreciated their life. ‘Firstly,’ commented David Lloyd Owen, ‘we practically never suffered the horror of a heavy barrage, the menace of a bombing raid or the carnage of the infantry run over by tanks. We did not live with constant gunfire, in touch with an enemy a few hundred yards away.’ But the real beauty of serving in the LRDG, considered Lloyd Owen, was that one was among like-minded fellows, who chaffed at the pettiness of army routine and sought not medals or glory but adventure. Above all, ‘no one depended on us save ourselves. Our failure would reflect on us alone. We could move largely where we wished, and not just in conformity with some wider plan. There was no front line for us, because we were always behind and among the enemy.’ Yet by the very nature of their existence, the LRDG sometimes found themselves confronted with dangers no British infantryman would have encountered.

As the war entered its final year, the LRDG were scattered among the Dalmatian Islands, observing enemy troop and shipping movements from well-situated vantage points. One such patrol was situated on Ist, a sparsely populated island just 3¾ miles square that lay 20 miles west of the city of Zadar on the Croatian coast. Codenamed Kickshaw, the 14-man patrol drawn from both Y1 and Y2 was commanded by Sergeant Anthony ‘Tich’ Cave, one of the very first recruits to Y Patrol exactly four years earlier.

‘Life on Ist was pretty good and light-hearted,’ remembered Corporal Gilbert Jetley. ‘The locals were extremely friendly and their loyalty extended to learning the patriotic song of the Allies.’3 The men of Y Patrol allowed their mischief to get the better of them one day, tricking the locals into learning the words to ‘She’ll be Coming Round the Mountain’ in the belief it was the British national anthem. They all then stood solemnly to attention, the British saluting the Union Flag while the villagers sang the words of the folk song with due reverence.

On the evening of 10 January, most of the patrol were in their billet playing cards. It was 2115 hours and Cave was about to turn in for the night. Suddenly he heard four shots. Thinking it might be the MFV La Palma arriving at the jetty, Cave went outside, but saw no lights in the sea, nor did he notice anything untoward coming from the radio room where he knew Ken Smith, the signaller, and Jock Watson to be. He returned to the billet and went upstairs to bed. Jetley, who was sick in bed with a fever, pieced together subsequent events from the testimony of his comrades. ‘Something disturbed Watson and he went to the front door,’ recounted Jetley. ‘As he opened it, he heard something clank behind it. He saw that it was a large time bomb, which was ticking. There was a booster of extra explosive alongside in a canister.’

Watson dashed across to the billet and knocked on the door of Tich Cave’s room. In a voice that was calm but edged with excitement, Watson informed Cave upon entering that there was a bomb outside the radio room. Cave ‘at first treated the matter as a jest’. Who would leave a bomb outside the radio room? Watson insisted it wasn’t a joke. Cave, noticing the concern in his face, instructed Watson to return to the house and tell Smith to evacuate the radio room. The pair of them gathered up the radio and hurried outside.

‘At some point Kenneth Smith must have remembered the family who were asleep in the back-room [of the billet],’ recalled Jetley. ‘He put down the [radio] equipment, picked up the bomb and made for a piece of waste ground between the house and the village church. Before he could get there, there was a tremendous explosion.’

‘He put down the [radio] equipment, picked up the bomb and made for a piece of waste ground between the house and the village church. Before he could get there, there was a tremendous explosion.’

Gilbert Jetley

Smith was literally blown to pieces by the power of the bomb, and though one other LRDG man received 37 shrapnel wounds, none of the villagers asleep in the house were hurt. ‘Kenneth Smith‘s valiant deed was not the thoughtless action of the ignorant,’ said Jetley. ‘The whole patrol knew these time bombs and knew that, in addition to being unreliable if touched, many contained mechanisms to explode them immediately if moved. He was therefore a most gallant soldier who gave his life for his comrades and allies.’

Smith’s action in removing the bomb (which had been planted by a party of Ustaše, who had been seen and fired at by some pro-British partisans) earned him a posthumous George Cross, which was presented to his mother by King George VI in 1946. Outside Buckingham Palace she told reporters:

It was just typical of him to do what he did … he was a grand boy and never caused me any trouble. He always wanted to go into the army from a boy, and joined up at the age of 18 for 12 years’ service. He was never happier than when he could get his dad to talk about his experiences in the Great War but his dad said: ‘My boy, when you have been through what I have you won’t be so keen’. But he went all the same.

The LRDG were at a loose end at the start of February 1945. With the Allies unable to break through the Germans’ Gothic Line (a 10-mile deep defensive line that ran across the breadth of northern Italy through the natural barrier of the Apennines) before the winter of 1944–45 descended, the LRDG had no role to fulfil in southern Austria and northern Yugoslavia. It was therefore decided to establish a small Combined Operations HQ at Zara, a town on the Croatian coast, 200 miles north of Dubrovnik. Known as the Land Forces Northern Adriatic, it comprised A Squadron LRDG, the SBS and a unit called the Raiding Support Regiment. Zara possessed a good harbour and what remained of the town impressed one of the Rhodesians, Staff Sergeant Stan Andrews: ‘The town itself was quite large, with a palace, opera house and banks but the whole area had been heavily bombed,’ he recalled. ‘One would have to walk through the rubble of buildings and down streets full of bomb craters.’ But not everything had been destroyed. ‘There were stacks of empty German beer cases around,’ said Andrews. ‘We actually found quite a few full ones, too.’

Reluctantly, David Lloyd Owen had concluded that there was not enough work for both A and B squadrons in the northern Dalmatian Islands, so B Squadron (commanded by Major Stormonth Darling) was withdrawn from the theatre and sent to train in mountain warfare in readiness for operations following the breakout from northern Italy. ‘I chose that Squadron because the other one was committed more deeply, and it would have been difficult to extricate it,’ explained Lloyd Owen. ‘On top of this the Rhodesians knew the Dalmatian coast well and had made many contacts there.’

At this stage of the war, though defeat was inevitable for the Germans, they were still clinging tenaciously to their garrisons on islands such as Pag, Rab, Losinj, Cherso and Krk. Additionally, the Adriatic had been heavily mined, and so the German Navy, sailing at night to avoid Allied air attacks, was able to move freely without fear of molestation from the Royal Navy. During daylight hours the enemy ships were camouflaged ‘so that from the air and the sea, covered by bushes and branches stuck into vast nets, they looked part of the landscape’.

The LRDG was asked to help ‘in the elimination of this sea traffic’, and the first patrol to embark on this task was T1, skippered by Lieutenant Mike Reynolds and comprising ten men. They were landed by the navy on south-east Istria near the mouth of the Arsa Channel (also known as the Arsa Canal, it lies on the east coast of the Istrian peninsula), and were escorted by a partisan to a suitable lying-up area, a clearing that could only be reached by burrowing through deep bush. They erected their two-man Arctic tents and lived in comparative comfort and security, free from detection by sea or air, with their most vexing foe – initially, at any rate – the ‘hairy caterpillars which set up a very nasty rash if they fell on the body’.10

Soon there was a constant flow of messages being radioed from T1 to the base in Zara detailing all the enemy shipping that sailed up and down the Arsa Channel, as well as the boats that were cunningly camouflaged on the coastline. The intelligence kept the RAF busy, and also occupied Reynolds as he strove to note down everything in his diary:

4th March: Hurricanes and bombers get hits on S.S. Italia

5th March: Hurricanes with rockets set fire to tramp and sink 500-ton coaster

6th March: Three Motor Torpedo Boats attack three E-Boats and one tramp. Tramp sunk

7th March: 800-ton vessel damaged and 100-ton lighter sunk by Mustangs and Hurricanes

9th March: 700-ton coaster sunk

10th March: 800-ton vessel sunk. Walked along beach and could see no ships afloat.

13th March: Three [British] Motor Torpedo Boats engaged and damaged ‘F’ and ‘E’ Boats as they entered Arsa Channel. On three occasions the Motor Torpedo Boats drove back enemy vessels trying to leave Arsa.

14th March: Hurricanes sink two E Boats

20th March: Three [British] Motor Torpedo Boats engaged and sunk a schooner

23rd March: Capture spy in our camp and hand him over to the Partisans

26th March: German patrol 100 strong beating bush near our camp. Uncomfortable. Our watchers over jetty nearly captured.

27th March: Germans still trying to find us.

David Lloyd Owen recalled that ‘they were the most thrilling days as each new result was flashed back to us’, and they were exciting, too, for the navy and air force tasked with destroying the targets provided by the LRDG. On one such attack an LRDG signaller, Robbie Robinson, was assigned to a RN motor torpedo boat (MTB) to provide direct communication between Reynolds’ patrol and the naval commander. Departing from Zara at 1400 hours one afternoon, the flotilla of MTBs ‘sheltered amongst the Dalmatian islands off the coast of Istria until dark then moved into Arsa Bay in a V-formation’. On this particular night, no vessels came their way. Disappointed, the vessels returned to their shelter among the islands and spent the day hoping for better luck on the second night. But again no target sailed into view. Their luck changed on the third night, remembered Robinson. ‘No sooner had we stopped with engines idling when a call came,’ he said. The rear MTB had spotted the dome-shaped conning tower of a midget submarine breaking the surface. ‘Immediately Monty [Montgomery, the commander of MTB 1] swung hard to starboard and roared away in a circle behind MTBs 2 and 3, and did as they had done, dropping depth charges on and around where a submarine had just surfaced for a sighting.’

Then, on the far side of the bay, something exploded. Mike Reynolds’ signaller came on the radio, demanding to know from Robinson what was going on. He was speaking in Shona, the native language of Rhodesia, a tactic used by the Rhodesian LRDG so that the Germans couldn’t intercept their wireless communications. Robinson replied in like fashion, reporting that it was a torpedo fired from a submarine that had missed the three MTBs and exploded against the coastline. The MTBs then circled the bay, dropping more depth charges and a short while later ‘debris appeared on the surface’.

While the three MTBs headed back to the security of their base in Zara, for Reynolds and his patrol each day brought more pressure and the possibility they might be found by the Germans. The spy who wandered into their camp was one of several employed by the Germans, and when they failed to deliver the British, the enemy sent in dogs. The last resort was to set fire to stretches of scrubland in the hope of flushing out their prey, but that too failed. All the while the locals supplied the LRDG patrol with eggs, milk and bread, did their laundry, and on one occasion sent a barber in the dead of night to give the men’s hair a trim. Such co-operation was welcomed by Reynolds, but at the same time there was always in the back of his mind the worry that the more locals who knew of their presence, the greater the chances of betrayal.

At the start of April, two members of the LRDG patrol, Alf Page, a 20-year-old Rhodesian, and Len Poole, known as ‘Zulu’, left the camp to carry out a reconnaissance of the Arsa coal jetty from a hilltop. Their position was visible from the LRDG camp, and shortly after first light the following morning Reynolds watched in alarm as a fleet of German trucks arrived at the foot of the hill. Page and Poole had just crawled out of their sleeping bags and were now tucking into a breakfast of bully beef, oatmeal slab and compo tea, blissfully unaware of what their commanding officer could see. Through the dawn mist on top of the hill they watched two women approach, one of whom Poole recognized as Tosca, a ‘young, short, jovial girl of about sixteen’. It was the older woman, whoever, who had a look of panic in her eyes. ‘Tedesci, Tedesci!’ she cried, the word both Poole and Page took to mean ‘German’.

‘We were told that an informer had given our presence away to the Germans who were mounting a hunt to catch us,’ recalled Poole. He and Page had a brief discussion and decided to remain where they were for the moment, ‘until the threat became more defined’. Additionally, it was nearly 0700 hours, and they were scheduled to contact Mike Reynolds on the radio at that hour. Nonetheless, the pair arranged ‘to meet Tosca at a point halfway to a farm house occupied by partisan sympathisers if we were forced to clear out’.

Poole was unable to raise Reynolds on the radio at the appointed hour, another source of concern on a morning when everything appeared to be going wrong. Tosca returned at 0730 hours to warn them that the area ‘was alive with German troops’. The pair decided it would be prudent to pack up and get ready to move at a moment’s notice, and once done they began their observation of the harbour now that the mist around their position had cleared. Page fixed the harbour with his binoculars, and, seeing nothing of interest began scanning the countryside. He started, and then whispered to Poole: ‘I can see three Germans and you won’t need glasses to see them.’ Poole followed the gaze of his comrade, and observed ‘an extended search party coming up one side of our hill with other parties swinging in to complete the circle over the summit of the ridge connecting us to other high ground’.

The pair ‘moved pretty smartly’, running at a crouch out of the view of the approaching enemy and towards the farm halfway down the hillside. Tosca was waiting for them, as insouciant as ever, and she took Page into her care while another young woman, Amelia, beckoned to Poole. ‘[She] led me into a stone barn and across to a corner where I helped her move several stones at the junction of wall and floor,’ he recalled. Underneath was a recess in the floor large enough to fit Poole and a partisan who had climbed in a few minutes earlier. Amelia and her mother and father rearranged the stones and waited for the inevitable arrival of the Germans. From his hiding place, Poole heard the Germans burst into the farmhouse, heard, too, their boots clatter over the cobbles into the stone barn and heard the barks of the officers in charge as they searched the building. ‘What I found amusing was the fact the Germans looking for us took turns taking drinks from the water barrel in the barn,’ said Poole.

By mid-afternoon, Poole deemed it safe enough to emerge from his hiding place and a couple of hours later he was reunited with Alf Page, who told his comrade about his adventure. He had been taken by Tosca to the house of the village mayor, who’d gone into hiding several days earlier. The mayor had built a small room at the bottom of a dry well in his garden, and covered the well with a roof of earth and shrubbery. Page and the mayor spent the day playing cards at the bottom of the well until collected by Tosca. The two LRDG men held a council of war with the partisans and agreed that it was safe to return to their original observation post on the hilltop. It would soon be 1900 hours, the time of the evening radio schedule, and Poole was anxious to have news from Reynolds, having failed to make contact 12 hours earlier. They reached the OP without incident and Poole called up the patrol on his radio. ‘I did so again and again without result and was preparing to close down when a reply came surging through the earphones,’ he recounted. It was a brief message from Reynolds: ‘Come back at once to the patrol and bring the radio. The Germans have been walking all around us and we dare not put up the radio aerial. The hunt parties have moved away.’16

Just as Poole and Page prepared to return to the camp, the wife of one of the partisans appeared on the hilltop with her two children in tow. She also brought some alarming news. German trucks were on their way to conduct another search. It was decided that the partisan, his wife and children would take the two soldiers to their house in another village. ‘I’ll never forget that walk,’ recalled Poole. ‘The four adults walked together through the village streets while the two children, Aurelio (about 12) and his little sister, about nine, skipped and ran laughing and shouting as they darted down side lanes and the road ahead. In their singing they were reporting on whatever other traffic there was about. What a grim game for two young kids.’ They rested briefly in the family’s house, long enough for a cup of coffee and a cigarette, and then the pair moved off alone, skirting the village of Porto Carnizza and finally reaching the main camp by crawling through the thick bush.

The Germans kept hunting the spies in their midst and the LRDG kept sending their reports. On 7 April a 200-ton vessel and 100-foot barge were sunk by RAF Hurricanes, and two days later the aircraft returned and attacked another barge. On 11 April the Germans, by now at the end of their tether, mortared the headland in which, somewhere, the British were concealed. To no effect. Ultimately, what brought the LRDG reconnaissance to an end wasn’t the Germans, but the partisans.

On 13 April Reynolds wrote in his diary: ‘We are tricked by Partisans and placed under arrest.’ The day had started routinely, with the arrival of eight partisans in mid-morning for a spot of ‘elevenses’ and a confab about what the rest of the day held. Without warning, the partisans raised their weapons at the LRDG and Reynolds had no choice but to comply with their instructions to lay down their arms. Fortunately, the partisans didn’t spot the LRDG wireless operator, who had set up his post a little way off from the main camp. Observing events, he had the time to transmit a quick radio message to their HQ describing the partisans’ action.

Alf Page had seen the situation grow tenser in Yugoslavia in the preceding month as the Germans began to withdraw and the various factions in the country began positioning themselves for a power grab. Marshal Josef Tito, head of the communist partisans, knew the strategic value of the Istrian peninsula and he feared that the British might try and secure it for themselves in the final weeks of the war. ‘With the Germans seemingly on the run they were willing to accept only nominal Allied assistance,’ he recalled.

The partisans would issue ‘passes’ giving approval [to the LRDG] to operate in a given area for a set time. Their justification for detaining the LRDG members was that their passes had expired. It was ironic as many times I would go with an MI5 officer to pick up bags of gold which were used to pay the partisans with, there were no issues with passes on these missions.

A furious David Lloyd Owen pursued the matter up the partisans’ chain of command, and on 16 April Reynolds had his radio returned and was told a partisan vessel would take him and his men back to Italy. Reynolds immediately contacted Lloyd Owen and requested he organize their collection, because ‘I would prefer to be picked up by the Navy rather than be shanghaied by these garlic-eating bandits’.

Reynolds was awarded a Military Cross for his role in what had been a very fruitful operation. The citation ran as follows:

At great risk valuable intelligence relating to coastal and other defences was collected, and quick action by Reynolds resulted in at least five medium-sized enemy vessels being bombed and sunk. At the same time he provided the Royal Navy with quick and valuable information about the movement of enemy shipping and the laying of minefields … in this, as in previous operations, Reynolds showed complete disregard for his personal safety in the execution of the tasks entrusted to him. His courage, determination, initiative and leadership were at all times an inspiration to his own and to other patrols.

The treatment of Reynolds resulted in Lloyd Owen’s decision – taken after much discussion with Allied Force Headquarters – to withdraw all LRDG and SBS patrols from Istria. On 21 April he sent a signal from Zara to the LRDG base in Rodi, in which he ‘recommended the withdrawal of everyone except [Stan] Eastwood and [John] Olivey. The latter [was] playing idiot boy with great success and undoubted charm’. In fact Eastwood withdrew with the rest of the British special forces a few days later, leaving only John Olivey and his patrol in Istria, who had been warned to be on their guard against the partisans’ duplicity.

Olivey didn’t have long to wait until the partisans arrived to detain them. He complied with all their demands but insisted the partisans carry not just the LRDG weapons, but also their rucksacks during their hike to the partisan HQ. Once there, Olivey and his patrol were handed back their weapons after the intervention of a political commissar.

Olivey’s patrol continued with their road watch north of Fiume, observing an adversary in its death throes. ‘I remember seeing the retreating Jerries and what a pitiful sight they were too,’ recalled Alf Page, who had joined the patrol. On 3 May the Germans were heading north in droves. Olivey reported ‘head-to-tail as far as the eye could see were horses and carts, the enemy having strong flank guards of infantry and artillery. This went on all day through much snow that fell at intervals.’ On 4 May Olivey considered it safe enough to radio in a resupply by air, and two days later a mouth-watering array of delicacies floated down from the sky on the end of white canopies: tea, sugar, milk, chocolate and several bottles of whisky. ‘We gave the food to the partisans and their thanks was to disarm us and lock us up in a machine shop in a village down the mountain,’ said Alf Page, who recalled that Olivey, denied access to a lavatory by the guard, ‘peed on his candle!’

Olivey was now at his wits’ end, but so, fortunately, was the European war. In the early hours of 7 May at SHAEF (Supreme Headquarters Allied Expeditionary Force) headquarters in France, General Alfred Jodl, the chief of staff of the German Armed Forces High Command, surrendered unconditionally. The document he signed authorized ‘All forces under German control to cease active operations at 2301 hours Central European Time on May 8, 1945’. On 9 May Olivey and his patrol were brought before the local partisan commander, ‘who released them with many apologies and much wine’.

The treatment of Reynolds resulted in Lloyd Owen’s decision – taken after much discussion with Allied Force Headquarters – to withdraw all LRDG and SBS patrols from Istria. On 21 April he sent a signal from Zara to the LRDG base in Rodi, in which he ‘recommended the withdrawal of everyone except [Stan] Eastwood and [John] Olivey. The latter [was] playing idiot boy with great success and undoubted charm’. In fact Eastwood withdrew with the rest of the British special forces a few days later, leaving only John Olivey and his patrol in Istria, who had been warned to be on their guard against the partisans’ duplicity.

Olivey didn’t have long to wait until the partisans arrived to detain them. He complied with all their demands but insisted the partisans carry not just the LRDG weapons, but also their rucksacks during their hike to the partisan HQ. Once there, Olivey and his patrol were handed back their weapons after the intervention of a political commissar.

Olivey’s patrol continued with their road watch north of Fiume, observing an adversary in its death throes. ‘I remember seeing the retreating Jerries and what a pitiful sight they were too,’ recalled Alf Page, who had joined the patrol. On 3 May the Germans were heading north in droves. Olivey reported ‘head-to-tail as far as the eye could see were horses and carts, the enemy having strong flank guards of infantry and artillery. This went on all day through much snow that fell at intervals.’ On 4 May Olivey considered it safe enough to radio in a resupply by air, and two days later a mouth-watering array of delicacies floated down from the sky on the end of white canopies: tea, sugar, milk, chocolate and several bottles of whisky. ‘We gave the food to the partisans and their thanks was to disarm us and lock us up in a machine shop in a village down the mountain,’ said Alf Page, who recalled that Olivey, denied access to a lavatory by the guard, ‘peed on his candle!’

Olivey was now at his wits’ end, but so, fortunately, was the European war. In the early hours of 7 May at SHAEF (Supreme Headquarters Allied Expeditionary Force) headquarters in France, General Alfred Jodl, the chief of staff of the German Armed Forces High Command, surrendered unconditionally. The document he signed authorized ‘All forces under German control to cease active operations at 2301 hours Central European Time on May 8, 1945’. On 9 May Olivey and his patrol were brought before the local partisan commander, ‘who released them with many apologies and much wine’.

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