They Who Dared - The Commando Raid On Rhodes

FEATURE BY Willard Manus

RHODES, GREECE -- 1942 was the darkest year of the war for the Allies. The battle of Stalingrad was still being fought, Japan was advancing across Asia, and Rommel was outfoxing the British army in Egypt.

Things were equally bleak in Greece, where the Germans were entrenched on the mainland and the Italians ruled over the eastern Mediterranean from their stronghold on Rhodes. Churchill and his high command, recognizing that some kind of military strike was necessary, if only as a morale-booster, opted to deliver a blow against the Italians. Since a frontal attack was out of the question--the seas and skies belonged to the enemy--it fell to Britain's commandos to try and claim a piece of glory for the Allies.

The primary target of this small band of daredevils from the SBS (Special Boat Service) and SAS (Special Advance Service)--joined by Greek resistance fighters--was the island of Rhodes, where a garrison of 30,000 Italian soldiers guarded the two airbases from which planes were attacking the British navy and merchant marine at will.

"Operation Anglo" was launched from Beirut in mid-September of 1942. The operation, though not a complete success, helped tip the balance of power in the Aegean toward the Allies. The story of the landing has been kept secret all these years, but now, thanks to the publication of a recent book, "He Who Dares," and to a commemorative ceremony on Rhodes five decade years later, the details of this daring commando raid are fully known.

The officer in charge of the raid, Lt. David Sutherland, is still alive today. In his 90s, he not only recently authored "He Who Dares" but made the trip from England to Rhodes to take part in an anniversary ceremony organized by "Straitjacket," a private organization of retired SAS and SBS members, and by the British Foreign Office with some help from the Greek military.

Joining Sutherland and his "Straitjacket" buddies were the British counsul on Rhodes, the Mayor of the island, various local politicians and villagers, a handful of British diplomats and military heroes (such as Lord Jellico), some tourists and TV news crews, and a few Greek army officers. The weekend celebration was coordinated by Zoe Woolrych York, a Greek-Englishwoman whose father, Noel Rees, was a World War Two hero in his own right, having saved hundreds of Greek lives while serving as the British consul on Chios in 1941. Among those he helped escape to Turkey were George Papandreou and the singer Sophia Vembo.

Sutherland, still mentally alert despite his advanced age and illness (muscular dystrophy), stood on the beach at Heraki where he landed in 1942 and attempted to destroy the Italian air force. His speech was not only translated into Greek by Vasili Mavrikis but acted out by a team of youthful SBS members down from England for the occasion.

Sutherland and seven other commandos were put ashore at Heraki by a Greek submarine called "Papanicholas" under the command of Capt. Savanidis. The sub had made the long trip from Beirut to Rhodes mostly underwater to escape detection by the Italians, surfacing only at night to charge its batteries.

The commandos used inflatable kayaks to reach the Heraki beach. These were hidden in caves for the return rendezvous in a week's time, but unfortunately an Italian patrol discovered them--perhaps because an informant had tipped them off. This prompted the army to go on high alert, resulting in the immediate capture and execution of half of the raiding party.

Sutherland had been tasked with the destruction of the Italian air strips on Rhodes, one at Maritsa, on the northwest side of the island, the other at Kalathos, on the eastern side. The Maritsa team never made it there, but Sutherland and his men, under cover of rain and darkness, managed to infiltrate the field at Kalathos, where their explosive devices blew up 14 warplanes as well as gasoline and bomb depots. The resulting blast lit up the sky and was heard as far away as Rhodes city.

The Italians believed that a full invasion had been launched. One of their search teams came across Sutherland and his men; a furious fire-fight followed. Two British commandos were killed and Sutherland's Greek guide was so traumatized that he had to be left behind when Sutherland and Marine Sgt. Duggan escaped into the nearby hills.

They hid out all that night and the next day, emerging only at dusk and heading toward the village of Malona for a planned link-up with the "B" team. When no one else showed up, they realized they were the sole survivors of the raid.

During the week that followed, Sutherland and Duggan were hunted by several units of the Italian army. Hiding in ravines and caves, living on scraps of food and berries, the two commandos went up and down the hills, trying to avoid detection, coming close to death more than once if only because of unfamiliarity with the terrain.

Finally, on the night of Sept. 17, they crept through the outskirts of the slumbering village of Massari and made their way to Heraki, where the "Papanicholas" was supposed to rendezvous with them 150 yards offshore.

When they discovered that their kayaks had been confiscated, the two weary, famished Brits were obliged to swim for their lives. "It was an incredibly difficult swim to make in our weakened condition," Sutherland recalled, "and there were times when we felt it would be better to give up and drown--but somehow we persevered and made it to where the sub had surfaced and was waiting for us."

The "Papanicholas" had to crash-dive to escape an attacking Italian gunboat. The sub was pursued and harassed all during its return journey to Beirut, diving countless times to avoid enemy fire and depth charges.

Sutherland and Duggan had lost 15 pounds each and been stricken with malaria while on Rhodes, but they managed to survive the war--and other subsequent commando escapades in the Mediterranean--and make it to a venerable old age.

One of the men who impersonated them on Heraki beach is, by the way, a contemporary hero in his own right--Peter Bray. He recently paddled 3000 miles around the United Kingdown with a partially sighted friend, raising money for charity on the six-month trip. In future, Bray plans to attempt the first one-man unsupported kayak Atlantic crossing--a 90-day excursion that will take him from Newfoundland to Greenland to southern Ireland.

"It takes guts to attempt something like that," the 41-year-old Bray admitted, "but when I think of what Sutherland and his men risked when they landed on Rhodes in 1942 and took on the entire Italian army garrison, I feel very small and humble indeed."


"He Who Dares," By David Sutherland, Leo Cooper Publishers, London 1998.

"Straightjacket--The Series." 46 Zig Zag Road, Ventnor, Isle of Wight, PO 381 DD. Tel 01983-852437

Kayak Challenge 2000, Jim Rowlinson, Project Mgr. 137 Brooks Lane, Whitwick, Leicestershire, LE 67 5DZ, UK. Tel. 44-1530-831142 or visit, uk/nakc 2000.