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

 

Lieutenant Searle’s Account of the Trip to Crete by ML 355 in May 1943
 

Excerpt from At Sea Level by Geoffrey Searle, pages 73 – 78.

We spent two more weeks of March 1943 in Benghazi.  There were HDML’s doing harbour patrols (ML 1046 was one of them) and Fairmile MLs awaiting orders.  In the spare time we organised rifle shooting and swimming parties for the crew.  It was a strangely peaceful few weeks in a front-line harbour.  At the end of March we went back to Alexandria and then to Port Said with a convoy.  A visit to Port Said was always an opportunity to have a few repairs done in the excellent workshops of the Suez Canal Company.

Soon we were back to Alexandria where Commander Courage was now established as Commander Coastal Forces Eastern Mediterranean and his base there was known as HMS Mosquito.  Here I was told that ML 355 was to be detached for Special Duties and before long I was told what, in the immediate future, these duties were to be: I was told to prepare the ship (and myself) for a visit to Crete which for the last two years had been and still was strongly held by the Germans.  As with most other occupied countries, we were doing all we could to support the Resistance movement.  I felt confident that ML 355 was in good shape for these new duties.  We had a very good crew lead by Leading Seaman Blyth (later to be Petty Officer Blyth, DCM) who was an excellent Cox’n, tough, uncompromising and absolutely trustworthy and reliable.  We had acquired more guns than the other MLs and they were all in good order, but the main problem of getting to the right beach in Crete – and back – was one of navigation and that put a major responsibility right on my own shoulders.

The speed of our MLs was about 16 knots to be comfortable and about 20 knots if one wanted to shake up the engine mountings.  From Tobruk to Crete is about 200 miles.  From Alexandria it is almost twice as much.  So for an ML to get to Crete in reasonable time the North African departure points were Mersa Matruh, Bardia, Derna or Tobruk and then the journey would take about 14 hours to get there (and a similar time one hoped to get back).  To arrive about midnight meant a 10 am departure and traveling two-thirds of the way there and back in daylight.  Secrecy and good luck were essential if we were to avoid attacks from the air during the daylight hours and not to find that the enemy were on the beach waiting for us.

Our orders were firstly to go to Tobruk by a night passage leaving Alexandria late afternoon on 6th May.  After refueling at Tobruk we were to leave in the morning for a small beach on the south coast of Crete which must have been close to the southern outlet of the Gorge of Samaria and Agia Roumeli.

On the morning of 6th May, before we had left Alexandria, I was awakened from a happy sleep at 6 am with an urgent message to see Commander Courage immediately.  I went hurriedly up the jetty wondering what had gone wrong – but nothing had gone wrong.  Commander Courage just wanted a word with me to ask if everything was prepared and we were in good order and in good heart for the dangerous voyage ahead of us.  I assured him that we were all eager to get going, which was absolutely true.  It was a great adventure ahead of us with all the attractions of the unusual, the challenge of being the first of Coastal Forces to go back to Crete since 1941 and the knowledge that some people over there were relying on us.  Commander Courage knew all this and he knew that he was responsible for us and our actions.  I am sure he wanted to come with us.  He wished me the best of luck and did not fuss about details.

Because precise navigation was so important we carried another officer, Lieutenant Mathews RNR, particularly to help us find the right place at the right time.

The voyage from Alexandria to Tobruk was uneventful.  We refueled and spent the night in Tobruk and set off on the morning of 7th May in good weather to plough our way north to Crete.  We had no radar and relied on sun and then star sights to plot our course.  About 20 miles of the south coast of Crete and just to the east of our approach lie the two small islands of Gavdos and Gavdopula.  We did not know whether they were enemy-occupied or if they had radar on the islands, but we had to go within sight of them and because we passed to the westward in early evening, we would have been clearly visible against the setting sun.

Very soon, and before sunset, we could see the tops of the mountains of Crete ahead of us.  With the mountains ahead and the islands to the east, we felt very exposed as long as daylight lasted.  We imagined rows of German field glasses and telescopes trained on us and all the resources of the enemy forces being mobilised to make life difficult for us.

It was close to the islands of Gavdos and Gavdopula almost exactly two years before, in May 1941, the destroyers Kelly and Kashmir were sunk by JU87 dive bombers and the cruiser HMS Fiji was sunk by bombers a little further to the west.  On 28th May 1941, ML 1030 commanded by Lieutenant Cooksey RNVR was sunk by attack from the air 15 miles west of Gavdopula.  Two years before the bombers came from airfields 300 miles away in Greece.  Now the Germans had airfields not 50 miles from us in Crete.  We felt visible and vulnerable but hopefully not expected.

It was a fine evening and on such occasions in the Mediterranean the horizon at sunset is a firm clear line.  This is ideal for obtaining accurate star sights by the use of a sextant.  By using several stars now beginning to shine while the horizon remained clear, I carefully worked out and plotted our position on the chart.

From this ‘fix’ we steered straight for the place where our landing beach ought to be, using our Asdic to give us warning of rocks and in an attempt to estimate our distance from the shore line.

When approaching Crete it is always possible to know that land is near, even on the darkest of nights, because of the smell of the herbs and wild flowers which grow on the hills and whose strong perfume is carried on the air for some miles out to sea.

That perfume may be a romantic welcome to the shores of Crete but it is not an accurate one navigationally and was no guide to our distance from the land.  It was a moonless night (a night deliberately chosen as such).  We were steering into a dense blackness with the high mountains on shore beginning to tower above us.  The echo-sounder still showed plenty of water beneath the keel.  The Asdic gave no reading of danger.  So we kept right on and hoped our wooden hull would find no surprises which would leave us in trouble on an enemy shore.

Suddenly, right ahead, through the binoculars I saw scores of pinpoints of light.  It was rather like looking at a distant Christmas tree decorated with small candles on Christmas Eve.  Anything unknown at such a time is worrying, but as we eased off our engines, a brighter light from a torch flashed from the middle of the Christmas tree and appeared to be giving the expected code signal to identify those on shore as the friendly party who expected us.  We soon found that the pinpoints of light were about a hundred cigarettes and we found, too, that the party on shore was very large indeed.

It was scarcely a beach ahead of us.  There was probably some sand there but it was really a shallow inlet with large rocks visible from the water’s edge to the base of the steeply rising land behind.  We anchored at 22.20 in about four fathoms but quite close to the rocky shore.

Having been told that we should have a fairly large number of people to embark we had, before leaving Alexandria, practiced what we hoped would be the quickest way of getting them on board.  We had taken with us two rubber dinghies and we planned to rig up two ropes from the ship to the shore and the people in the dinghies would haul themselves quickly backwards and forwards, thus completely the operation with great speed – so we thought.

Murphy’s Law plus unforeseen circumstances were against us.  The main unforeseen circumstance was the number of people on the shore, all of whom seem determined to get on board as quickly as possible.  As soon as the rubber boats grounded on the beach, the crowd rushed them.

The agent on shore who had organised the whole operation from his cave in the hills was Captain Xan Fielding whose exploits on German held Crete became legendary.  He had told us via his radio communication with Cairo that he wanted us to evacuate about sixty people.  The operation was well-advertised among the local Cretans and besides helping to get the sixty evacuees gathered on the shore, they saw no reason why they should not join in the evacuation and so there were well over a hundred, all determined to get on board.  The rubber boats were upturned.  The ropes were entangled and jammed in the rocks.  Captain Fielding had to use a rifle butt to keep back the unwanted and unruly guests.

Eventually, we took our party on board by paddling the rubber boats backwards and forwards and it all took far too long.  We sent ashore some bottles of gin for Captain Fielding and hoped he did not lose too many friends among the Cretans by the force he had to use to maintain some sort of order and prevent us from being overloaded.

We now had on board about fifty-four Australian troops who had been hidden and fed in the mountains by the Cretan villagers ever since the fall of Crete to the Germans in May 1941 – for exactly two years.  Two of the Australians had married Cretan girls and they brought them with them – quite rightly too!  The little girls were dressed in traditional black peasant garments and looked thoroughly scared.  Even the Australians looked overawed by the surroundings and the events of the night and they slept most of the time with us.  One put his arms round the lavatory seat and went to sleep on the floor of the toilet, in ecstasy at the return of such evidence of civilisation and home comforts.  We also had on board several Cretans who were said to be on the run from the Germans and with a price on their heads.  In all, we had sixty-eight passengers and had to confine most of them below decks in order not to jeopardise stability and to keep them clear of the guns should we run into trouble.

As we steamed away, those who were left on shore seemed to be celebrating for they flashed lights wildly for some time and made the beach and the operation very conspicuous from the sea.  I hoped that the cliffs would shelter them from possible observers on the land.

We had been about one and a half hours at anchor (far longer than intended) and had kept the engines running for much of the time.  When we came to leave and ordered full steam ahead, we sent up for some time showers of sparks like a firework display until the carbon and soot had been blown out of the exhaust tubes. Luckily the return journey was uneventful despite our too-long stay on the beach.  Had it not been for the rugged and isolated mountain region around the Gorge of Samaria we could have been in real trouble.

We took our passengers to Mersa Matruh where army transport was waiting to take them on to Cairo.  I was told that they had a big dinner in Cairo to celebrate their escape and that they drank a toast to ML 355.  I wish I had been there.  But ML 355 did receive a signal from Commander-in-Chief Levant dated 9th May 1943 saying quite simply ‘Well done’ and Commander Courage sent me the following letter from HMS Mosquito dated 14th May 1943:-

‘The following extract from a letter from MO4 is forwarded for our information.

Will you please convey to the Officers and Crew of the ship concerned my gratitude and also my admiration for their seamanship during a difficult and dangerous operation, particularly the efforts of Lieut. G.W. Searle and Sub. Lieut. Steedman.  All those rescued were loud in their praise of the way in which the crew of the vessel deprived themselves of sleep, food and tobacco in order that the rescued should be made as comfortable as possible. I congratulate you on your success.’

Comments 

Searle rather exaggerates Fielding’s role in organising the evacuation.  Moir, who had been arrested four days before this, does not get a mention, even though it was essentially his evacuation party.  None of the other key players, like Charlie Hunter, get a mention either.

The suggestion that two Australians had married Cretan girls cannot be verified.  One British soldier, Sydney Robinson, married a Cretan widow and she accompanied him on the boat.  There was one other woman, Katina Beirakis, who worked for Fielding as an undercover agent in Hania, and was being evacuated for her own safety.