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Episodes & Studies Volume 1

Patrols in Outlying Islands

page 26

Patrols in Outlying Islands

The invasion of Leros had been expected to follow the fall of Cos, but bombing attacks on enemy airfields in Greece, Crete, and Rhodes by Allied aircraft based in North Africa and Cyprus, and offensive sweeps against enemy shipping in the Aegean, delayed the assault until mid-November. So that an invasion force might be anticipated and if possible intercepted, LRDG patrols were stationed in the outlying islands astride the sea and air routes to the Dodecanese to watch the movements of enemy shipping and aircraft. Acting on information sent by T1 patrol from Kithnos, the Navy sank on 7 October a convoy consisting of six landing craft, an ammunition ship, and an armed trawler. There were only ninety survivors from 2500 troops. The destruction of this convoy prevented the enemy from making an immediate assault on Leros.

Captain C. K. Saxton42 and six men of T1 patrol were taken to Kithnos in an 18-ton caique* of the Levant Schooner Flotilla, which made the voyage in three stages at night and was concealed during daylight against the shores of two intermediate islands. Kithnos was occupied by a garrison of between fifteen and twenty Germans in charge of a permanent observation post and wireless direction-finding station. At first it was intended that T1 should stay a fortnight, but so valuable was the information they obtained that it was decided to leave them on the island for a month. The enemy knew they were there, but Saxton’s men avoided discovery by changing their hiding-places, which were mostly in stock shelters, and by moving at night. Sergeant J. L. D. Davis, who had some knowledge of their language, obtained from several of the local Greeks reliable information about the enemy dispositions in the neighbouring islands and about shipping routes. His conduct throughout the Aegean operations won Davis the BEM.

Kithnos was admirably situated for observing the routes from Greece to Crete and the Dodecanese Islands. T1 patrol, which kept a constant watch for shipping and aircraft, sighted a convoy passing between Kithnos and Siros islands in the afternoon of 6 October, and reported by wireless its size, speed, air cover, and probable route; this was the convoy sunk by the Navy off Stampalia. The LSF caique returned with supplies and took Saxton and the wireless operator to a small island off Seriphos to charge the wireless batteries, a noisy operation that might have betrayed them to the enemy. While they were away, Davis, who was left in command of the observation post on Kithnos, saw two small convoys moving at night.

After capturing Cos, the enemy consolidated his position in the Cyclades by occupying many of the islands. Believing that they were cut off and would have to find their own way back, T1 planned to escape to Turkey by capturing a German caique or by taking a local fisherman’s boat, but before they attempted to do this T2 patrol arrived by LSF caique to relieve them. Saxton’s patrol, with two of the Greeks who had helped them, returned safely to Leros on 23 October.

T2 (five men under Second-Lieutenant M. W. Cross43) were disembarked at Seriphos because that island was thought to be safer than Kithnos, which the enemy patrolled with seaplanes. A Greek helped Cross’s party to find a suitable hiding-place in an abandoned goat-house on top of a 300-foot cliff at the northern end of the island, from which they had a magnificent view. The local inhabitants kept the patrol constantly informed about the movements of the enemy page 27 garrison, reported to be between twenty and fifty strong, in the town about four miles away. The postmaster passed the information by telephone to a monastery, and a priest sent a runner to the New Zealanders’ hideout. T2 spent three weeks on Seriphos without being observed, although once the enemy sailed so close inshore below their cliff that they could have dropped a stone in the boat.

They saw only one vessel, a steamer of about 6000 tons, but when the enemy began an airlift from Athens to Rhodes with four large flying boats escorted by seaplane-fighters, they reported the times that the aircraft passed the island. Six Beaufighters shot down the flying boats when they appeared one day without fighter escort. T2 was relieved by a British patrol and returned to Leros on 9 November with three Greeks.

Seven men from R1 patrol, under Lieutenant Aitken, spent seventeen days on Naxos, one of the largest of the Cyclades Islands, to which they were taken by motor launch. They confused the garrison of 650 Germans, who undoubtedly knew they were on the island, by making long cross-country treks. The local inhabitants, as on the other islands, warned the patrol of the enemy’s movements and were at times embarrassingly friendly. The patrol saw single ships but no convoys, and reported a concentration of shipping in Naxos harbour, which was attacked by two Mitchell bombers escorted by two Beaufighters. The RAF sank two ships, but at the cost of two aircraft shot down. The pilot and navigator of a Beaufighter that crashed in the sea were rescued by Greeks and taken into the town, where their wounds were dressed by a doctor and they were hidden until the LRDG patrol could smuggle them out under the noses of the enemy. R1 took the two airmen back to Leros, where they arrived on 6 November without casualty.

* These small local craft were fitted with tank engines, giving them a speed of six knots, and manned by the Navy with a crew of three. They were camouflaged with their masts down so that they could not easily be detected when lying close inshore.