Tripiti, Western Crete
Location of the last major escape of Allied soldiers from Occupied Crete during World War (7-8 May 1943)

© 2012-13 Ian Frazer

 

Crete "Milk Run"
  Clandestine trips to Crete in small boats during the German occupation were described as the “Milk Run”.  They began in 1941 – 42 with submarines, caiques (Greek sailing boats of about 30 tons sometimes with an auxillary engine) and second-hand fishing boats; then in 1942, the caiques and submarines were joined, and gradually replaced by motor launches, mostly special service Fairmiles like the one used in May 1943.  This extract provides a good general account of the “Milk Run” before leading into a description of the Tripiti evacuation.

Excerpt from: Wilfred Granville and Robin A. Kelly (1961) Inshore Heroes: The Story of H.M. Motor Launches in two World Wars, London: W.H. Allen, 173 – 175.

Operating with these caiques, and replacing the submarines on the “Milk Run” (the trip to Crete) were the Motor Launches.  Both H.D.s and Fairmiles patrolled extensively among the islands, but it was the special service Fairmiles that undertook the ferrying of agents to Crete.  Landings had to be made at tiny beaches on the rocky coast – patches of shingle strewn with rocks at the foot of some narrow cleft of the steep coastline; and darkness was essential, the M.L.’s having to manoeuvre without the aid of charts in shallow water containing dangerous rocks.

Added to these natural hazards were the possibilities of detection by coastal defences and radar stations.  Crete was well defended, not only by fixed strong points, but also by mobile coastal patrols.  There was also a risk of interception from the sea and armed coastal vessels, and even an undetected  landing involved the risk of land mines, though these had largely been neutralised by shifting sands and wandering animals.

The M.L. detailed for the “Milk Run” would leave her North African base in the forenoon, heading northwards into the open sea with hopes of an unimpeded voyage to Crete.  The launch would, all being well, reach her destination after nightfall, slipping into the shingle rendezvous as quietly as possible on an M.L.’s engines.  She would land stores, agents, and probably embark other personnel waiting impatiently on the shore. . . . . . all this being accomplished within earshot of the German or Italian post.  To those on board the Launch the engine noise seemed to carry for miles, yet it roused no suspicion in the enemy.  Probably the noise mingled with the eternal murmur of the sea, and was mistaken for a friendly patrol boat; that is, if the coast guards were listening at all.

It was important that the M.L.’s visit should not stimulate any attack or interference by the enemy, and everything had to be done to avoid contact.  On the secrecy and success of the operation depended the safety of the courageous people ashore.  This was not an occasion for “trigger-happiness” or searching for targets, and it is a tribute to the M.L.’s and their officers and their crews that at least fifty of these trips – in every kind of weather and under certain other difficulties – were made in the two years up to the liberation of Crete in May, 1945.

‘On the 8th of May, 1943, under cover of darkness, a British Army officer with about 60 soldiers – Armenians, Cypriots, and a few British – waited patiently to be taken off the island.  Some of the men enjoyed a quiet smoke as they waited and looked out into the thin mist that had gathered on the sea.  Their ears were cocked for the faint rumble-bumble of the engines, a sound that would be their first tenuous link with freedom.  Most of them had been hiding in the mountains since the Germans had occupied the island, and it was good to know that the Royal Navy was on its way.

It was just after 10 p.m. when M.L. 355 approached the beach at slow speed, her captain, Lieut. G.W. Searle, confirming his landfall by the tiny glow of cigarettes ashore. The throbbing of engines died abruptly as the boat lay off waiting the agreed signal, and ventured no further until the identity of those ashore had been established.

The signal was made at 10.30 p.m. and the M.L. moved in towards the dark outline of the shore, carefully negotiating the shallows with the aid of her asdic gear, a very slow but essential routine on such a treacherous coast.

When it became too dangerous for the Launch to go further the anchor dropped for the night’s work to begin.

Lieut. Searle had brought passengers and planned to put them ashore in a rubber dinghy worked along a line stretched between the stern of the M.L. and the beach.  This would obviously have increased the speed of disembarkation, but did not allow for the desperate keenness of those men ashore to be away.  So many of them scrambled into the dinghy that they tangled the lines and upset the plan.  Thus the journey across that narrow strip of dark water had to be by a slow method.

In spite of this setback, the men on board the M.L. continued calmly with their job, weighed anchor and set sail for Tobruk with 68 passengers.  Farewells from those ashore were passed by the joyful, but dangerous flashing of lights, as if there was no enemy within a hundred miles.’

Comments
This is an early account of the evacuation without reference to official sources.  The date is one day out.  Geoffrey Searle in his book At Sea Level (74 – 75), makes it clear that it was on the night of 7 – 8 May 1943; Xan Fielding confirms this in his field diary for early May 1943, and Jack Smith-Hughes, SOE officer in charge of the Crete Section at the time who travelled to Crete on ML 355, says in his official report of the trip that he ’landed in Crete late in the evening of May 7th.

The description of the evacuation party suggests that there were more Armenians and Cypriots than British when, in fact, it was the other way round.  If the British include Australians and New Zealanders, they far outweighed the Cypriots and if there were any Armenians they are not identified as such in official accounts.

Another detail that is contested is the port where they made landfall in North Africa.  In this account (and in Jim McDevitt’s book) it was Tobruk.  According to Searle they made for Mersa Matruh.