Operation Albumen: The daring SBS raids in Crete, 1942Photo gallery, WW2, WW2 in Greece
By Pierre Kosmidis
SOURCE: The National Archives
‘Albumen’ was a British special forces raid by elements of the Special Boat Squadron against airfields on German-occupied Crete (7/8 June 1942).
The ‘Albumen’ undertaking was designed to prevent the German air strength on the Axis-occupied Greek island of Crete from being used to support Generalfeldmarschall Erwin Rommel’s Panzerarmee ‘Afrika’ in the Western Desert campaign. This four-part Cretan operation was carried out in tandem with similar raids against Axis airfields at Benghazi, Derna and Barce in Libya, and were among the first planned sabotage acts in occupied Europe.
During the late spring of 1942, the airfields of Crete gained increased strategic importance by becoming the main transit base for Luftwaffe to supply logistic support to Rommel’s forces in North Africa in their advance toward the Nile river delta. Moreover, Luftwaffe aircraft based on Crete operated photo-reconnaissance, bombing and convoy attack missions across the south-east part of the Mediterranean basin. Aiming to disrupt these operations, the British high command in Egypt sent three groups from the Special Boat Squadron and one from Lieutenant Colonel David Stirling’s Special Air Service to Crete to sabotage aircraft and installations on the airfields at Heraklion, Kastelli, Tympaki and Maleme.
The types of aircraft which the Germans were operating from Crete at this time included the Junkers Ju 52/3m and Messerschmitt Me 323 transport types, the Ju 88 bomber, Ju 86 long-range photo-reconnaissance type and the Messerschmitt Bf 109 fighter.
The attack on the airfield at Heraklion was allocated to the SAS group and those on the other airfields to the SBS groups were. The SBS groups were met by Tom Dunbabin, the British liaison officer with the Cretan resistance, who provided them with local guides. The date for all sabotage attacks was scheduled for the night of 7/8 June 1942
The team for the attack on Kastelli comprised Captain G. I. A. Duncan and two non-commissioned officers of the SBS, and a Greek gendarme nmed Vassilis Dramoundanis. The operation proceeded as planned, and on 7 June the sabotage party, assisted by the locals Giorgos Psarakis, Kimonas Zografakis and Kostas Mavrantonakis, managed to destroy five aircraft, damage another 29 and set fire to several vehicles and considerable quantities of supplies (including about 200 tons of aviation fuel) using delayed-action bombs.
This operation of June 1942 is often referenced as the first raid on Kastelli to differentiate it from a similar operation that took place a year later. One of the objectives of this second operation was to lead the Germans into believing that an Allied landing on Crete, rather than their true ‘Husky’ (i) landings on Sicily, was imminent. Thus, on the night of 4/5 July 1943, two commando groups under the Danish Major Anders Lassen and the Greek Kimonas Zografakis, simultaneously attacked the airfield of Kastelli from two different locations. Despite the strong security, they succeeded in deceiving the garrison and destroyed most of the parked aircraft and fuel dumps.
The Heraklion operation was commanded by Major G. P. J. Jellicoe and included four members of the Free French forces under Georges Bergé and including Jacques Mouhot, Pierre Léostic, and Jack Sibard, and Lieutenant Kostis Petrakis of the Greek army. The group was transferred to Crete on board the Free Greek submarine Triton, and rowed ashore in three inflatable boats. The party had intended to land at Karteros beach, but came ashore in the Gulf of Malia on the dawn of 10 June and behind schedule. As a result of the arrival at the wrong landing site, the men had to march overland to reach Heraklion airfield. They hid by day and marched by night, finally arriving during the night of 12/13 June. As a result of increased traffic, caused by a succession of night sorties that was in progress, the party had to postpone its attack until the next evening. The group entered the airfield while it was being attacked by RAF bombers, and destroyed about 20 Ju 88 aircraft with Lewes bombs. All six of the sabotage party escaped from the airfield, but their retreat was betrayed, resulting in Léostic being killed and the other three Frenchmen being captured. Jellicoe and Petrakis escaped to Egypt.
The Tympaki team, commanded by Captain D. G. C. Sutherland, discovered that as a result of air raids from Egypt, the airfield had been temporarily abandoned and the aircraft based there had been relocated.
The Maleme team comprised Captains M. Kealy and Captain J. Allott, who landed on Crete from the Free Greek submarine Papanikolis. After a difficult march, they reached Maleme, but were unsuccessful. They discovered that the airfield was strongly guarded and had recently been surrounded by an electric fence, making it impossible to penetrate its perimeter.
As a result of the raids, 25 German aircraft were destroyed, many more damaged, and 12 German soldiers killed. In reprisal for the sabotage in Heraklion, the occupation forces executed 50 inhabitants of the greater Heraklion area the next day. Before the attacks, on 3 June, the Germans had executed another 12 Heraklion citizens.
On 23 June, Jellicoe, Petrakis and the men of the Kastelli and Tympaki groups were evacuated to Mersa Matruh on the north coast of Egypt by a caique from Trypiti beach near the village of Krotos on the south coast of Crete. They reached Mersa Matruh shortly before it fell to Rommel’s advancing forces. After several days of interrogation under the threat of execution, Bergé, Mouhot and Sibard, who had been taken prisoner after the Heraklion attack, were transferred to the Oflag X-C prisoner of war camp in Germany. Eventually, Bergé ended in Colditz castle in Saxony, which was used to hold prisoners who had repeatedly attempted to escape, and there joined Stirling, the SAS commander, who had been taken prisoner at a later date.
The failure to prevent the raids on the airfields was one of the reasons that led to the November 1942 replacement of General Alexander Andrae, the military governor of Crete, by Generalleutnant Bruno Bräuer.
To the Germans, Crete was known as the Festung Kreta (Fortress Crete). The island had been seized by the Axis after successful but costly German success on the ‘Merkur’ airborne operation at the end of May 1941. The Germans occupied the island’s three western prefectures (Khania, Heraklion and Rethymno) with their headquarters in Khania, whilst the Italians occupied the easternmost prefecture of Lasithi until the Italian capitulation in September 1943.
The first German garrison unit was Generalleutnant Julius Ringel’s 5th Gebirgsdivision, which had been committed in ‘Merkur’. Late in the autumn of 1941, this formation was replaced by Generalmajor Franz Fehn’s 713th Division and Generalleutnant Josef Folttmann’s 164th Division, which early in 1942 were reorganised as Folttmann’s Festungsdivision ‘Kreta’. In the summer of 1942, this was divided to form the smaller Festungsbrigade ‘Kreta’ and Folttmann’s 164th leichte Afrikadivision for despatch to North Africa. The 164th leichte Afrikadivision was replaced in Crete during 1943 and 1944 by Generalleutnant Friedrich-Wilhelm Müller’s 22nd Luftlande Infanteriedivision. In the autumn of 1944, after the 22nd Luftlande Infanteriedivision had been withdrew from Crete, the remaining German units on the island were combined as Generalmajor Georg Benthack’s 133rd Festungsdivision. The Italian garrison formation was Generale di Divisione’s 51a Divisione ‘Siena’, which surrendered to the Germans after the Italian armistice of September 1943.
The strength of the garrison of Crete increased and decreased considerably depending on the progress of operations in North Africa and on the Eastern Front, and the perceived threat of Allied invasion. The garrison’s strength peaked at 75,000 men in 1943 and its lowest figure was 10,000 men at the time of its surrender on 12 May 1945.
After their general retreat from Greece in October 1944, the German and some Italian battalions remained in Crete and in the Dodecanese islands. They were cut off, possessed no air or naval power except for some small patrol vessels and landing barges with which to maintain links between the islands. The food shortage was severe, for both the occupying forces and the local population. Very limited links, mostly for mail, were maintained with some captured Consolidated B-24 bombers repainted in Luftwaffe colours: these flew to and from Austria by night.
The eastern part of Crete was evacuated during the winter of 1944/45 by the Axis forces and ‘occupied’ by a very weak mixed British and Free Greek garrison. There was then an unofficial truce between the two sides until the final surrender order issued by the Oberkommando der Wehrmacht in May 1945 after Germany’s unconditional surrender on 8 May. The same surrender order applied to the German forces on Rhodes and the other Aegean Sea islands still in Axis hands.