During WWII, the Levant Schooner Flotilla, a tiny special forces unit, waged an obscure but merciless campaign across the eastern Mediterranean.
Just after midnight on April 22, 1944, two wooden fishing boats and a motor launch landed noiselessly on the shore of Santorini, one of the southernmost islands in the Aegean Sea. The vessels’ crews had spent three days sailing from their base in neutral Turkey, traveling only at night and anchoring by day off small, uninhabited islands. As soon as the boats touched the beach on Santorini, 18 British soldiers stole ashore.
As the fighting men moved inland, the crews that delivered them sailed southwest from Santorini toward tiny Christiani, an island approximately 20 miles away. At Christiani, the sailors would hide their boats beneath camouflage netting while waiting to retrace their path and extract the returning raiders exactly 48 hours later.
All three vessels belonged to the Levant Schooner Flotilla, a Royal Navy special forces unit crewed by some of England’s finest and least orthodox sailors. The LSF’s motto was “Stand Boldly On.” The flotilla’s small, quiet watercraft offered the only practicable means of slipping into and out of enemy territory.
That night’s passengers belonged to a different but equally elite unit, the Special Boat Squadron. Led by Danish-born Captain Anders Lassen, the SBS team was to destroy enemy communications and personnel, and attack targets of opportunity. On Santorini the raiders headed to the village of Volvoulous. As dawn was breaking, they laid up in a cave nearby. Lassen sent one of his men, a Greek, to obtain information from locals; when he returned, Lassen split the force into two. One party, six strong, would attack the wireless telegraph station at Murivigli, while Lassen would lead a dozen men against a barracks of Axis troops. Zero hour was 0045, April 24.
The barracks—a former Bank of Athens branch in the town of Thira—was on Santorini’s west coast. Intelligence indicated that it housed a mixed force of around 35 German and Italian troops. Although one official report claimed the SBS unit was to take the enemy troops prisoner, few raiders ever expected to offer quarter. The war in the Aegean was brutal, and in Andy Lassen the British special forces had found a leader of extraordinary courage and cold savagery. Lassen was a “hit man and killer,” fellow raider Jack Nicholson recalled years later. “He carried just his Luger pistol and a fighting knife, and it was said he could be a devil with the knife.”
Lassen, Nicholson, and Irish-born Sean O’Reilly were the first to enter the enemy barracks. They found five doors and kicked down each to toss in a hand grenade and empty two or three Thompson or Bren gun magazines.
In the maelstrom two SBS soldiers died—one reason the Santorini raid became known as “Andy Lassen’s Bloodbath.” Of the estimated 35 enemy soldiers in the barracks, at least 12 were killed and 11 wounded. But, a report noted, “there may be more [dead] as the enemy the next day tried to hide what really happened.”
The SBS patrols rendezvoused at dawn. Lassen was delighted to learn that the other team had destroyed the telegraph station and taken eight prisoners. The raiders hid themselves and their captives as four Ju 88s crisscrossed the island looking for them. At nightfall, the party traversed Santorini to await the LSF boats. Once aboard, they sailed northeast to Anydros to camouflage the boats as part of that small island and spend a day evading yet another German search.
When the raiding party finally reached base a few days later, the unit’s commander, Major David Sutherland, asked Lassen to write a report. The Dane’s summary was characteristic:“Landed. Killed Germans. F—ed off.” Sutherland smiled politely, and assigned another raider to write the report.
The Levant Schooner Flotilla was formed as the Royal Navy made the best of a bad situation. The May 1941 invasion of Crete by German airborne forces forced the British to evacuate thousands of personnel by any means necessary—even taking over a fleet of caïques (kah-EE-kaze), Greek fishing schooners, in order to fetch stranded soldiers. With Axis forces holding Crete and the other Greek islands, the Royal Navy then turned half the refugee fishing fleet over to the Special Operations Executive, which managed irregular warfare against the Axis. The SOE used the civilian vessels as a means of maintaining contact with British agents working in the eastern Mediterranean and the Adriatic. The other half of the displaced fishing fleet was reconstituted as the Levant Schooner Flotilla and assigned to more aggressive operations in tandem with a special forces brigade of the British Army, the Special Air Service.
The flotilla’s commander was the eccentric lieutenant commander Adrian Seligman, who had abandoned his studies at Cambridge University in 1936 to spend two years circumnavigating the globe in a 250-ton French fishing barkentine, accompanied by a small crew, his 17-year-old wife, and a piano. When Seligman took command of the LSF in late 1942, he ran an expert eye over his caïques. The sturdy boats averaged 30 feet in length, weighed approximately 20 tons, and could be crewed by a skipper, a stoker, a coxswain, a gunner, and a wireless operator. There was no wheelhouse; sailors had to sit on the tiller rain or shine, backsides hanging 18 inches over the sea. Caïques lacked more than protection from the elements: there was no toilet, so LSF crewmen answering nature’s call required good balance. Holds that in peacetime had accommodated thousands of pounds of fish—and still reeked of them—could carry seven SBS raiders outfitted for irregular combat. On Seligman’s instructions, each boat was fitted with a Swiss-made Oerlikon 20mm cannon mounted in the bow, two 50-caliber Browning machine guns in the waist at either beam, and two .303-inch twin Vickers.
Seligman liked everything about the fleet except the caïques’ 20-horsepower Bolinder diesel engines,which he found too noisy. Ferreting around Haifa, Palestine, he obtained an allotment of 90- horsepower diesel tank engines that Australian armored units no longer needed for their Matildas. The modification rendered the caïques “able to cruise at 6 or 7 knots—only a knot or so faster than their designed speed,but at half throttle or less and therefore in comparative silence,” Seligman wrote in his memoirs.
Next, Seligman needed 70 officers and men to crew his informal navy. Officers he selected from a detachment of reservists ages 19 to 23. The sailors were volunteers, attracted by the prospect of something more than standard navy life offered. Once he had his crews, Seligman took them to a remote stretch of coast on western Cyprus to rehearse for clandestine warfare.
One of the flotilla’s main roles would be landing raiding parties at night on Axis-held islands. The LSF crews practiced open-sea navigation using small aircraft steering compasses with phosphorescent dials, which made it easier than using sight alone to locate the mouth of a secluded creek or cove in the dark. Teams that had memorized the coastline silhouettes made final approaches in stages, inching toward a known rock in line with a cliff or a gap between hills.
Camouflaging the boats was another key skill. The LSF planned to operate in darkness and spend daylight hours anchored in the Güllück Gulf, off southwest Turkey. Hiding their presence was imperative—not only to evade German patrols, but also to give neutral Turkey, which had agreed to turn a blind eye to British forces operating in its waters, plausible deniability of its tacit support. Just before dawn each day, LSF crews dismantled masts and draped hulls in camouflage netting, then raised bamboo poles and draped more netting over them, creating false profiles that mimicked rocky outcroppings. When RAF reconnaissance aircraft flew over the area, the pilots were unable to distinguish caïques from coastline.
The flotilla’s mission—and that of its partner, the Special Air Service—began to change in January 1943. That month, Axis forces in Tunisia captured SAS commander David Stirling. Time had run out for the SAS in North Africa, not only because the service had lost its commanding officer but because its necessity had shrunk in the region: the Germans and Italians there were near defeat. To keep SAS personnel in harness, the British High Command sent half elsewhere and repurposed the rest as the Special Boat Squadron, assigned to launch raids on Axis targets in the eastern Mediterranean.
By late June 1943, the SBS was poised for its first raid, against Axis airfields on Crete. With the Allied invasion of Sicily imminent, their three-week mission was to destroy and sabotage as many enemy aircraft as possible to put the enemy’s landing strips out of commission permanently.
Aboard one of the flotilla’s launches, a 17-strong unit under the command of Major Sutherland left Bardia on the North African coast on June 22, and landed on Crete by dinghy early the next morning. The unit split into three patrols and struck out across the rugged terrain, each man carrying more than 70 pounds of food and explosives on his back.
One patrol reached its target airfield to find no aircraft. The others did better. One—led by Anders Lassen, then a lieutenant—destroyed five aircraft at Kastelli, in the process killing several sentries. The third blew up fuel dumps at Peza, burning 50,000 gallons of precious aviation gas. Corporal Dick Holmes, who laid the charges at Peza, recalled creeping through a narrow gully that opened into a flat area dotted with olive trees, then slipping inside the first of two dumps to set fuses. Holmes was making for the second dump when he had a close call.
“I heard the sound of voices and then a dog barking and whining,” he said. Twenty yards away stood two Wehrmacht soldiers, chatting while their guard dogs strained at the leash. “I crouched down to one side of the entrance and drew my pistol, ready to spring into action if either or both of the Germans approached.” But the soldiers were too deep in conversation to respond to their dogs’ behavior.
Holmes waited until the Germans finally moved on. He crept to the second dump, laid his explosive charges, and returned to his compatriots. They headed for the rendezvous by the route they had taken earlier. While the men were moving through the now-familiar gully, “a series of explosions rent the air as barrel after barrel was blown high into the air,” Holmes said. “We pounded one another on the back and performed a little dance on the Cretan hillside in our excitement.”
The three patrols easily found one another, and early on the morning of July 12—two days after the Allies invaded Sicily— met the LSF launch. Sutherland described the action, in which “distances of well over 100 miles of mountain country were covered by night over a period of three weeks,”as one of the most challenging special forces ever undertook.
In September 1943, the Allied advance onto the Italian mainland quickly led to an armistice that further transformed the military situation in the Eastern Mediterranean. The Italians surrendered the Dodecanese Islands in the Aegean Sea to the British, who promptly garrisoned them. But the Germans needed the larger islands of Leros, Simi, Samos, and Cos in the Dodecanese for airfields from which to defend their holdings in the Balkans, and quickly moved to seize all four.
On October 3, German airborne troops landed on Cos. Soon a battalion of British infantrymen were fighting for their lives, and those who were not killed or captured fled to the hills. An SBS patrol found survivors, and by night escorted them to a remote beach where an LSF caïque slipped in and spirited the soldiers away. Two months later, British Vice Admiral Algernon Willis praised the flotilla for “many daring and successful operations in enemy-occupied islands. There is no doubt that forces of this type, well-trained and led, can be of great value both for harassing the enemy and obtaining important intelligence.”
After the Germans seized the four Greek islands, the Levant Schooner Flotilla returned to a Royal Navy base in Beirut, Lebanon, to refit and expand. From the original 12 caïques the fleet grew to more than 30, plus“mother ships” that carried supplies. This demanded more crews.
Among the new recruits was Reg Osborn. Only 18, the Londoner was already bored with Royal Navy routine so he happily signed on to join the seaborne irregulars. After a fortnight of training he was posted to Güllück Gulf as a gunner aboard caïque LS3. Osborn didn’t get close to many fellow LSF men, but knew them nonetheless. “A lot of the crews were scallywags who didn’t fit into big-ship navy life, and the rather relaxed life on the caïques suited them down to the ground,” he said. “We were a bit like the French Foreign Legion. They were not interested in your past as long as you knew your job and did it to the best of your ability and with the best of heart. Naval discipline in the accepted sense was neither required nor enforced, and they let you get on with your job.”
Osborn enjoyed life in the Levant Schooner Flotilla. He grew his black hair long, tied it back with a silk ribbon, and reveled in his piratical appearance. In one port or another, he picked up a German greatcoat to ward off the wind and sun, adding a dagger to the belt for a touch of swagger. His caïque spent the first months of 1944 landing Special Boat Squadron cadres and returning for them once the raiders had wrecked a telegraph station or wiped out the inhabitants of a barracks.
On one noteworthy occasion LS3 was ordered to Mykonos. The passengers they found waiting were a senior Wehrmacht officer and his Greek mistress. The German had arranged with the island’s LSF agent to give up information on German troop and shipping movements. “In return he and his woman would be lifted off the island and taken to Palestine,” Osborn recalled.“The local partisans didn’t like it. They insisted the officer was their prisoner, but fortunately we put a lot of food ashore—and a couple of bottles of rum—and the guy was handed over.”
The turncoat was one of few Germans to negotiate safe passage off an island. British special forces and Greek partisans generally preferred death to discussion. “Some very nasty things had happened on the Dodecanese in the previous 18 months, from both sides,” Osborn said. “But at least the atrocities committed from our side were against Italian or German troops, whereas their atrocities were against civilians.”
Only once did the Germans capture a caïque. Interrupting a reconnaissance mission in April 1944, German forces intercepted LS24 as it approached the island of Alimnia. All 10 crewmen were subjected to what a German report on their interrogation described as “special treatment.” For refusing to talk, even under duress, the Germans executed them.
Most LSF crews worried less about the Germans than about the weather. The Aegean seems idyllic to the untrained eye, but sailors schooled in the region know how quickly things can sour—even on a fine summer day when the Meltemi wind blows south from the Balkans. “The wind gets broken up by islands and causes confused seas,” Osborn explained. “So it comes at you from port bow one minute and stern the next.”
Osborn went years without glimpsing a German. Despite the flotilla vessels’ heavy weaponry, the unit’s role wasn’t offensive and engaging the enemy was decidedly a last resort.“We weren’t instructed to go looking for trouble,” he said. Osborn finally saw Germans face to face in April 1945, when he was aboard LS43. Off the Turkish coast, an enemy launch ran down and rammed the caïque. The captors took him, the other four crewmen, and the two SBS passengers to Rhodes. Osborn was wearing his German greatcoat, prompting an interrogator to say he should be shot as a spy, but Osborn, who could see how things were going, sensed a bluff. “Even the most Nazified of Krauts were beginning to realize that the chickens would come home to roost,” he said. “We told each other they wouldn’t try anything now because the war was nearly at an end.”
The flotilla men were right. Instead of sending them to the wall before a firing squad, the Germans imprisoned them until May, when the Allies liberated Rhodes in the wake of Germany’s unconditional surrender. Osborn hurried back to base, but the Levant Schooner Flotilla had already been decommissioned. He eventually returned to south London, where, now 87, he still lives.
After the war, Britain’s establishment reversed its stance on irregular combat—especially after voters rejected Winston Churchill, the leading wartime advocate of guerrilla warfare. Special forces tactics were viewed as violating armed forces tradition. British parliament member Simon Wingfield-Digby went so far as to label the Special Boat Squadron as“a band of murderous, renegade cut-throats”—an appellation SBS veterans rather enjoyed. Inexorably, however, the exploits of the Levant Schooner Flotilla and those of the Special Boat Squadron were written out of official accounts of the Mediterranean Theater.
Dick Holmes received a Military Medal, an award for bravery bestowed on enlisted men, for destroying the fuel dumps on Crete. He immigrated to Ontario, Canada, where he still lives. He admitted that the SBS and LSF had no great direct effect on the war, but pointed out that the waterborne guerrilla campaign they waged across the Dodecanese in 1944 tied down 4,000 Germans who would have otherwise been fighting in France or Russia.“We were pirates, we were terrorists,” Holmes said.“Our job was to terrorize the Germans, and we did.”
Originally published in the October 2012 issue of World War II. To subscribe, click here.