2 Commando, Operations from Vis
"No. 2 Commando started to arrive at Komiza on the Yugoslavian island of Vis on January 16th, 1944. They were to operate on Yugoslav soil for the next six months. The Commando was still much-depleted as a result of the battering it had taken at Salerno, and almost half the unit remaining in Italy consisted of the replacement men and those ‘old hands’ who formed the training cadres.
During the coming months a wide variety of activities would unfold involving: conventional assaults on fixed positions with the classic bayonet charge; pirate-style boarding parties going after any German supply ship that floated; quick in-and-out raids on isolated enemy garrisons; long reconnaissance patrols; manning coast-watching positions in assorted locations; as construction workers helping to build an airstrip; operating the ‘stir-up-trouble’ type of fighting patrols; mental disturbing of enemy troops by our German-speaking boys suddenly arriving with loud-hailers in the middle of the night; and cleaning up after the thoroughly-upset Germans had their Luftwaffe bomb us in retaliation for our endeavours which they did not appreciate. Even if one was a Commando connoisseur, there was something for everyone.
The situation facing the Commando seemed to be a rather simple one. The partisan forces under their leader, Marshal Tito, were being hard pressed nearby on the mainland of Yugoslavia. ‘Mad Jack’ and his troops had been given the task of reducing the pressure by drawing off large numbers of the German 118th Mountain Division. This process of ‘drawing off’ did not take Jack very long to implement. On January 26th, which was ten days after his arrival, he somehow managed to assemble enough decrepit vessels to transport three troops of No. 2 to attack the German garrison near Milna on Hvar. After thoroughly shooting up the place, we returned to Vis with prisoners, who appreciated greatly that their captors were British and not partisans. Not being one who would change a winning system, Colonel Jack twice returned to Hvar and twice repeated the process within five days. The author remembers on the return trip of the last one of these ventures he remarked to T.S.M. Peter Morland that the rickety schooner we were sailing couldn’t possible last another trip.
There was not long to wait before we were at it again. On February 4th Capt. Jack Bare took a troop to attack the garrison at Hvar Town, where unfortunately Jack Bare from Watford, age 29, was killed. The action on Hvar was concurrent with another action by No. 2 Commando, termed as an ‘Officers Reconnaissance’ by our Colonel. This was taking place on Solta and employed the services of Lieut. McMenamin, Capt. S.L. Jenkins with L/Cpl Wright and Dvr. Robert Scholem, who was one of No. 2 Commando’s Germans. This party had been observing the enemy garrison at Grohote which had been earmarked for a ‘visit’ in March on Jack’s calendar. Before this group returned from their work they encountered a large German patrol who opened fire, inflicting mortal wounds on the leader, Capt. Samuel Jenkins, age 29, a former Welsh Rugby international from Carmarthen. Dvr. Scholem made his way back to the safety of a partisan hideout after travelling for over thirty hours on a broken ankle without food or water. It is sad for this author to relate that after all this, poor Bob Scholem was to be K.I.A. in Italy one month before the war ended, age 21.
Meanwhile, ‘Mad Jack’ had added a new dimension to the lives of his boys - PIRACY! Lieut. Michael Stilwell led the first of what was to be many boarding parties and swarmed aboard a German chartered schooner taking 17 enemy soldiers prisoner, after what Pte. Jakeman later described as only a ‘third-class’ fight. These sojourns became very popular with the personnel of No. 2. The Royal Navy had on board their boats the wonderful commodity known as FOOD! The boarding parties ate away most happily while they cruised searching for their next floating victims.
The tenure of No. 2 Commando reached its high point with a textbook operation against the 110 man enemy garrison at a village called Grohote (see Operation Detained 1). It happened on this author’s 20th birthday on March 19th, 1944. About two thirds of No. 2 had arrived to form a horseshoe formation about the village awaiting the order from Jack to move in. I was talking to my friend, Lieut. Jim Coyle about birthdays in general and he gave me the usual ‘Happy Birthday’ spiel. We then attended to the business at hand – 102 prisoners were taken and six of the German defenders were killed. It was most orderly. We sent the prisoners away and told them to pack their personal belongings which they did. We then found a garrison muster-roll belonging to the German officer in charge, and called the roll. As each Hans, Ludwig, Gunther and several Johans answered their names, we realized that we had captured the lot and no one had got away. Perfect! Jack eyed the scene benignly and led us back to our embarkation point. Our only casualty that day was Cpl. Cecil Cox from Sussex, age 24, who died of wounds received in the assault.
The Island of Vis became positively overcrowded by May 1944. Aside from the native partisans, the remainder of No. 2 Commando had long since arrived to be joined by the Marines of No. 40 and No. 43 Commandos and by elements of Artillery and the Highland Light Infantry Regiments. Several of these organizations sought to be included in the ongoing operations, but Colonel Jack was not too sympathetic to any such requests. He was said to have made some observation concerning ‘Too many Cooks’ etc.
About this time our Jack banished to Italy T/Captain Barton MC who had operated some weeks before on Brac on patrol, shot and killed the local German Commandant before returning to Vis with five prisoners. It seemed that he had conducted this business in civilian attire and this had been announced in the UK Press, so if captured Lieut. Barton would have been shot. Jack, who had recommended Lieut Barton for the DSO, could not be moved on the matter.
The major operation ‘to draw-off pressure on the partisans’ was in the works at the planning stage and it called for a major operation by all of No. 43 Commando with reinforcements from No. 40 Commando and partisan forces of up to 2000 men ( see Operation Flounced ). The force was to be commanded by Lt. Col. Jack Churchill. The planned attack, which was to be on a feature known as Point 622 and other adjacent mountain-top fortified German strongpoints, started on June 2nd and finished with a nasty conclusion three days later. This author, along with other members of No. 2 had no part in the operation. Jack was there only in a command function. Everything that could go wrong, went wrong it seemed. The end of the battle found Jack and Lt. Col. ‘Pops’ Manners of 40 R.M. Commando, who had been mortally wounded, alone on the top of Point 622 with Jack playing his bagpipes in defiance of the German counter-attack until he was knocked out and, upon regaining consciousness, found himself to be a prisoner. No. 2 Commando mounted an abortive attempt from Vis trying to rescue the Colonel. It was not successful and lost 20 of its personnel in the process.
On June 23rd, No. 2 Commando, under its new commander, Lt. Col. F. W. Fynn, went to the airstrip where they marched past Marshal Tito in review, and afterwards, listened to some very nice things that he said concerning us. Soon after this parade we loaded up and disembarked in Monopoli, Italy, where the Commando went into its usual 4-star, dusty-field bivouac.
As life went on for the men of 2 Commando, many strange things were happening in the life of their former leader, now a captive of the enemy. After his transportation to Germany, Mad Jack was lodged in Sachsenhausen Concentration Camp, the same hell-hole in which the Glomfjord raiders had been executed! Our former Colonel was handcuffed and chained to the floor for the first month. Then, the idiot guards removed the ‘cuffs’ and Jack departed for the Baltic coast where he hoped to get aboard a neutral Swedish ship and thus escape. Jack walked almost to the port of Rostock where he was recaptured. Following his removal to a more remote camp in Austria, Jack once again decided that ‘enough is enough’ and left his latest prison – leaving no forwarding address. Living off the land our intrepid former leader set off for his intended destination, Verona, Italy, some 150 miles away. He crossed the Alps on a badly swollen ankle and to his delight ran into an American armoured column shortly thereafter. It is said, but not confirmed, as Jack rode off on a tank to safety, he was sad that he did not have his bagpipes with him to mark the splendour of the moment."
nb. The above account is part of the overall history of No 2 Commando by Bob Bishop No 2 Cdo.