After David Stirling, commanding officer of the Special Air Service (SAS), was captured in Tunisia in January 1943, the unit was reorganised into two squadrons – the Special Raiding Squadron (SRS) and the Special Boat Squadron (SBS).
The indomitable Paddy Mayne took command of the SRS, while George Jellicoe took over the SBS. Jellicoe was the son of Admiral Sir John Jellicoe, hero the Battle of Jutland during the First World War. After his father’s death George became the Second Earl Jellicoe at the age of seventeen.
Jellicoe established his new command at Athlit, a few miles south of Haifa in Palestine, and formed them up as three squadrons – L, M and S, the initials representing the surnames of the three commanders: Tommy Langton, Fitzroy Maclean and David Sutherland.
Initially the squadrons were divided into four sections, known as patrols, with ten men in each. Among the first patrol leaders was a Danish lieutenant called Anders Lassen who had joined from 62 Commando.
Lassen, upheld all the fierce fighting traditions associated with his Viking heritage. Like Paddy Mayne he was a born fighter and a natural when it came to guerrilla warfare. ‘He had an ability to transform himself into a killing machine, to perform the task with a panache that earned him a reputation of a killer of Germans par excellence,’ recalled fellow SBS man Dick Holmes.
On 22 June 1943, after weeks of intensive training, elements of S Squadron sailed from Bardia to mount sabotage raids on the airfields of enemy occupied Crete. In the early hours of the following morning they left the motor launch that had transported them across the Mediterranean Sea, and paddled ashore in dinghies.
For two days the raiders marched north across the rugged and inhospitable terrain, lugging rucksacks full of equipment and explosives. At the end of the second day they split up, B Patrol continued north towards their target at Heraklion, while Anders Lassen’s C Patrol headed north-east towards the airfield at Kastelli.
Within sight of the airfield, Lassen and the three men that made up his Patrol – Sergeant Les Nicholson, Corporal Sydney Greaves and Private Ray Jones, willed away the hours in a tiny cave. From information obtained about the target Lassen split the Patrol in two. He and Jones would approach from the north, while Nicholson and Greaves would sneak through the searchlights and cut their way through the razor wire from the south.
When night fell they moved out. Lassen and Jones got into the airfield undetected, but as they were heading for their target of eight Stukka dive-bombers, they were challenged by an Italian guard who Lassen duly shot. Chaos ensued, the shot altered the guards who streamed onto the airfield firing wildly in the darkness. Among the melee Lassen and Jones slipped into the shadows and took cover.
On the other side of the airfield Nicholson and Greaves had fared better. They’d gotten past the searchlights and cut their way through the wire. With no time to waste they’d placed Lewis bombs on the wings of two Junkers 88 bombers and were heading for a third when the bedlam had broken out. Undeterred they’d used the mayhem to their advantage and coolly made their way back to the perimeter fence, placing bombs on two Stukas and into a petrol dump, as they slipped away undetected.
With flares lighting up the night Lassen and Jones knew they’d have to fight their way out. From behind the cover of a tractor Lassen threw grenades and Jones shot anything that moved, with the Italians in disarray they seized the moment and sprinted for the hole they’d cut in the fence, leaving a trail of Lewis bombs behind them.
With all four raiders safely out and disappearing into the night the fireworks began. One by one the bombs exploded, the burning aircraft lit up the airfield as the shocked Italians took stock of the carnage created by the invisible raiders. Two hours later all four men slipped into the rendezvous, collected their rucksacks and headed south – mission accomplished.
Anders Lassen continued to terrorise the Germans until he was killed in 1945. Known as the ‘Terrible Viking’ and was awarded a posthumous Victoria Cross to add to his three Military Crosses. Part of his VC citation reads:
“Major Lassen then attacked with grenades and annihilated the first position containing four Germans and two machine-guns. Ignoring the hail of bullets sweeping the road from three enemy positions, an additional one having come into action from 300 yards down the road, he raced forward to engage the second position under covering fire from the remainder of the force. Throwing in more grenades he silenced the position which was then overrun by his patrol. Two enemy were killed, two captured and two more machine-guns silenced.
By this time his force had suffered casualties and its fire power considerably reduced. Still under a heavy cone of fire Major Lassen rallied and re-organised his force and brought his fire to bear on the third position. Moving forward he flung more grenades which produced a cry of ‘Kamerad!’ He then went forward to within three or four yards of the position to order the enemy outside and take their surrender.
While shouting to them to come out he was hit by a burst of Spandau fire and fell mortally wounded, but even while falling he flung a grenade, wounding some of the occupants and enabling his patrol to dash in and capture the final position.”
What a man!
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