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Saturday, 5 November 2016

The Dane who Liberated Thessaloniki - Major Anders Lassen VC MC and Two Bars

Anders Lassen with the British Special Boat Service
October is a important day in the Greek commemorative calendar. It is on 28th of October every year that Greeks across the world commemorate "OXI" day when Greece rejected Mussolini's ultimatum in 1940 - and it is also on this day that the Armistice of Mudros was signed in 1918 bringing an end to the First World War in the east. Yet it is also in October - but in 1944 - that much of Greece was finally liberated from Axis occupation. One of the little known facts of the war was that on the 30th October 1944 Greece's second city - Thessaloniki - was liberated by a courageous Dane serving in the British Army's special forces - Major Anders Lassen.
30th October is a public holiday in Thessaloniki and a street, leading to the Municipal Town Hall was renamed “October 30th, 1944” street.
Yet there is no memorial in Thessaloniki to the man who led the liberation of the city - Anders Lessen - but there should be.Background
Born at Høvdingsgård east of Mern, in Denmark, Lassen had joined the British Army in 1940, serving first with the British No. 62 Commando, and subsequently with the Special Boat Service (SBS).
He was commissioned in the field and awarded an immediate Military Cross for his part in Operation Postmaster - the capture of three Italian and German ships from the neutral Spanish colonial island of Fernando Po now known as Bioko, in the Gulf of Guinea.
In early 1943 he joined the SBS, Lassen rose in rank to become a Major by October 1944. During his service he fought in North-West Europe, North Africa, Crete, the Aegean islands, mainland Greece, Yugoslavia and Italy. He was awarded two further bars to his Military Cross on 27th September 1943 and 15th February 1944.
An SBS soldier sharpens his knife aboard his armed caique. Somewhere in the Aegean, c1943-44. IWM
The SBS operated in conjunction with other similar units - especially the Greek Sacred Squadron and Levant Schooner Flotilla - as well as the RAF and ships of the Royal and Hellenic Navies.
Most SBS units included a number of Greek soldiers drawn from the Greek Sacred Squadron. The name of the unit in Greek was "Ιερός Λόχος" or "Ieros Lochos." This was drawn from similarly named Greek military units, stretching back to that of Ancient Thebes and the war of Greek independence in 1821. The unit’s motto was drawn from the famous motto attributed by Plutarch to Spartan mothers -“ἢ τὰν ἢ ἐπὶ τᾶς.” This exhortation is translated to mean that the soldier must either return carrying his shield or be carried up it or put more simply return victorious or dead.
Greek Sacred Squadron or Band emblem, War Memorial, Simi. Photograph Jim Claven 2013
The Squadron had been formed in the Middle East in September 1942 under the command of Colonel Christodoulos Tsigantes. The unit grew from 120 Hellenic Army officers who had escaped the occupation of Greece in 1941 to a unit of 1,000 officers and men by April 1944. It would not only serve with distinction in Greece, but also in the Middle East and Italy.
Soldiers of the Squadron joined with British forces and took part in raids throughout the Aegean and Dodecanese, and would play a key role in the liberation of many Greek Islands in 1944, including the Island of Lemnos on 16th October. They not only took part in these raids as soldiers but also played a key role as guides and interpreters in the campaign to liberate Greece. One of Anders' close comrades was one the Squadron’s officers, Lieutenant Jason Mavrikis.
Anders took part in the many of the raids conducted by these British forces in the Greek Islands, including assaults on Crete, Nisiros, Leros, Calchi, Samos, Kalimnos, Symi, Santorini and Paros throughout 1943 and 1944. On each occasion Anders showed himself to be an inspiring leader who led his men into battle. One could say he was a soldier’s soldier. Personally brave, he was always in the thick of combat. Some comrades said that he could smell the enemy.
On 24th April 1944 he led a successful SBS raid on Santorini, taking out the garrison on the island and blowing up the building housing the radio installation with time bombs. Lassen and the force, with only two casualties, successfully withdrew on two schooners.
It was during his various actions across the Aegean that Lassen acquired is famous pet dog, Pipo - whom he named "the Lion of Leros." Pipo was a Maltese terrier and formerly owned by an Italian officer. Pipo would accompany Lassen on many of his raids - a bit like the Anzac's and their Horrie the dog!

Anders with Pipo - The Lion of Leros
The Liberation of Thessaloniki
By early October 1944, the Germans were gradually withdrawing their forces from across Greece. Yet major forces remained, destroying installations and war materials that could not be withdrawn.
These continued to resist both the Greek resistance and the Allied forces as they both moved their way across Greece liberating its islands, towns and villagers.
A large force remained in Thessaloniki, including armour and hundreds of troops. Thessaloniki had been one of the main German occupation centres in Greece.
While the Greek resistance had began to enter some parts of the city, the German forces had not yet been forced to evacuate.
Anders Lassen (right standing) with SBS men at anchor somewhere in the Aegean, c1943-44.
Anders and his SBS unit had already arrived in Athens and taken part in its liberation.
But he was not content with remaining in the capital - he was keen to move north and attack the Germans.
He was given the task of reconnoitering the German presence in Thessaloniki, making contact with the resistance and identifying minefields. With a sense of humour, Anders titled his complement of 40 men "Scrumforce."As was the case with most SBS units, Anders' force was a combination of British and Greek Sacred Squadron troops.
Accompanied by Lieutenant Mavrikis and "Pipo", Anders and his force landed outside Thessaloniki, at the small port of Potidea approximately 55 km south of the city in the early hours of 26th October. Here Anders established his command post.
With his sole means of transport - a jeep brought from Athens - Anders and his men drove across the hinterland of the city. On this tour they made contact with the resistance, as well as taking a number of Germans prisoner.
One of the tactics of the raiders was to move about around the enemy, giving the impression that they were confronted by a larger force than actually was there. They fired off anti-tank weapons in high arc across the city to scare the Germans.
While the resistance already controlled much of the surrounding countryside, they were not in a position to confront the heavily armed Germans in the city itself.
Anders soon decided that a reconnoiter was not sufficient - he and his men would engage the German forces and liberate the city. He dubbed his plan – “Operation Undercut.”
The Germans were preparing to destroy the harbour installations and fuel depots. The mouth of the harbour was blocked by 44 sunken ships and major damage had been done to the harbour.
Anders' plan to liberate the city would save the city from further destruction.
On the 28th October, Lassen moved his base near to the American Agricultural School (previously attended by Joice Loch during her aid work for Asia Minor refugees after WW1) on the outskirts of Thessaloniki and began to skirmish with the Germans outside the city, taking a number of prisoners.
Lassen and Mavrikis entered the city in civilian clothes - accompanied by a brace of chickens to give the impression that they were chicken-sellers - only to discover that the Germans had withdrawn to the western outskirts of the city. Lassen "the chicken seller" also discovered that morale among the Germans was low, many having deserted.
Later that evening two of Lassen's men - Lieutenant's Martin Solomon and J.C. Henshaw - entered the city to seek the surrender of a German artillery battery. However they were confronted by two tanks, six self-propelled guns and six lorry loads of troops. Needless to say they refused to surrender - but not before the two SBS men had captured two German soldiers who had been sitting in a cafe drinking ouzo when they were surprised to find themselves confronted by Allied soldiers sitting next to them!
Meanwhile Lassen had delivered - via the Swiss Red Cross representative in the city - an ultimatum to the German commander, demanding he surrender as a 30,000 strong British force was sailing to the city - one of Anders' famous bluffs!
Anders now had detailed information of the German dispositions across the city, gleaned from his clandestine tours of the city and from information gained from German prisoners. The time had come to implement his liberation plan.
On the morning of the 29th October Anders sent his men into the city from its eastern edge. He had assembled four red fire engines to transport his men.Leading the way in his jeep, accompanied by Andartes and his faithful terrier Pipo, Lassen's men were surrounded by cheering townsfolk. Lassen and his men moved on towards the harbour. The sound of German demolitions could be heard on the western outskirts of the city.
The celebrations were brought to an end by German snipers who opened up on the Allied force but fortunately didn't hit anyone - soldier or civilian. Engaging the Germans, Lassen and his men moved in the direction of the explosions.
On the western outskirts of the city, Lassen and his men confronted the main group of remaining Germans who were preparing to blow up a massive petrol dump. In the ensuing firefight over 20 Germans were killed - Lassen killing eight and his deputy Henshaw eleven - and the fuel depot was saved. Only one of Lassen's men was injured.
The remaining Germans slipped away and the following morning - 30th October 1944 - the last Germans departed the city. Their planned destruction of so much of the city had been averted. And so ended the German occupation of Thessaloniki.
Lassen telegraphed to Cairo:

”I have the honour to report that I am in Saloniki."

For about a week after this, Lassen acted as the unofficial governor of Thessaloniki, based at the Hotel Mediterranean.
Thessaloniki's residents celebrate the liberation of the city, 30 October 1944.
Nine days after the liberation by Anders, the main British force of some 9,000 troops arrived in the city.
Lassen's daring bluff - entering the city with his small group of raiders - vastly outnumbered by the remaining German garrison - had delivered the city safely from the Germans.
Thessaloniki's residents celebrate the liberation of the city, 30 October 1944.
One Officer reported on the liberation:

"But for Lassen and his band, Salonika would not have been evacuated as soon as 30th October 1944. The town would have suffered greater destruction. His solitary jeep and few troops were seen everywhere; behind the enemy lines, with ELAS and in the mountains. Their numbers and strength were magnified into many hundreds of men and automatic weapons. Prisoners taken confirm this, their estimate never being less than one thousand men."

Anders' comrade - Lieutenant Jason Mavrikis of the Greek Sacred Squadron, wrote of the liberation:

"The whole of Salonika was in the streets and Andres Lassen was something to the local people, because the day before he had negotiated with the Germans and he really managed to save large and important installations, especially the harbour."

Anders and his SBS unit would later be sent to Crete as the effective Allied commander of British forces on the Island between December 1944 and February 1945.
Death in Italy
Anders was killed during another raiding operation in Italy and posthumously awarded the Victoria Cross - the only non-British citizen to be awarded the VC in WW2. The citation from the London Gazette of 1945 describes Anders bravery during this engagement:

"In Italy, on the night of 8/9 April 1945, Major Lassen was ordered to take out a patrol of one officer and seventeen other ranks to raid the north shore of Lake Comacchio. His tasks were to cause as many casualties and as much confusion as possible, to give the impression of a major landing, and to capture prisoners.
No previous reconnaissance was possible, and the party found itself on a narrow road flanked on both sides by water. Preceded by two scouts, Major Lassen led his men along the road towards the town. They were challenged after approximately 500 yards from a position on the side of the road. An attempt to allay suspicion by answering that they were fishermen returning home failed, for when moving forward again to overpower the sentry, machine gun fire started from the position, and also from two other blockhouses to the rear.
Major Lassen himself then attacked with grenades, and annihilated the first position containing four Germans and two machine guns. Ignoring the hail of bullets sweeping fire 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 this position which was then overrun by his patrol. Two enemy were killed, two captured and two more machine-guns silenced. By this time the force had suffered casualties and its firepower was very considerably reduced. Still under a heavy cone of fire Major Lassen rallied and reorganised his force and brought his fire to bear on the third position. Moving forward himself he flung in 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 to take their surrender. Whilst shouting to them to come out he was hit by a burst of spandau fire from the left of the position and he fell mortally wounded, but even whilst falling he flung a grenade, wounding some of the occupants, and enabling his patrol to dash in and capture this final position. 
Major Lassen refused to be evacuated as he said it would impede the withdrawal and endanger further lives, and as ammunition was nearly exhausted the force had to withdraw. By his magnificent leadership and complete disregard for his personal safety, Major Lassen had, in the face of overwhelming superiority, achieved his objects. Three positions were wiped out, accounting for six machine guns, killing eight and wounding others of the enemy, and two prisoners were taken. The high sense of devotion to duty and the esteem in which he was held by the men he led, added to his own magnificent courage, enabled Major Lassen to carry out all the tasks he had been given with complete success."

Anders is buried in the Argenta Gap War Cemetery in Italy, memorialised in his home church and with a statue in Copenhagen in his native Denmark (see below).
Anders Lassen's grave, Argenta Gap War Cemetery. Photo - April 2010

Bust of Anders is in Copenhagen, at the junction of Amaliegade and Esplanaden, Copenhagen. Photo by Robert Cordery
Anders Lassen memorial plaque in the Mern church, Langebæk Kommune, Southeast Zealand in Denmark. Photo Grethe Bachmann
A Danish-British consortium is currently working on a feature film based on Anders Lassen's life.

Maybe the time has come to recognize the role of this brave Dane and his small band of Allied soldiers, who came to Thessaloniki, galvanized the resistance and led the liberation of Greece’s second city. Even a small plaque in their honour would be a fitting memorial to their service and role in the ending of the German occupation.

Anders to be Honoured at Melbourne's Danish Consulate - November 2017

It has been my pleasure to promote and assist in the coming awarding of a commemorative plaque in honour of Anders Lassen and his role in the liberation of Thessaloniki by the Melbourne Thessaloniki Association 'The White Tower' and Melbourne's Battle of Crete and Greece Commemorative Council to the Danish Consulate in Melbourne in the presence of the Danish Ambassador to Australia.  Watch this space for more information.

For more information

Watch the excellent lecture by Danish historian Thomas Harder, delivered at the Danish Institute in Athens in 2014 by clicking here.

Read some of the following books:
John Lodwick, The Filibusters, Methuen, 1947
Damien Lewis, Churchill's Secret Warriors. Quercus, 2015
Thomas Harden, Anders Lassen Krig, Informations Forlag, Copenhagen, 2010 (in Danish)
Michael Langley, Anders Lassen VC MC of the SAS, NEL, 1988
Jason Mavrikis, The Big Bluff, Mars and Minerva, 2000 [in Greek]
Nicholas Rankin, Ian Fleming’s Commandos, Faber & Faber 2012

Jim Claven
Lemnos Gallipoli Commemorative Committee

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