Spilje Bay - Operation Healing 11
The above picture shows a troop of No 2 Commando forming up in an olive grove for an attack. The sketch map was drawn by the author of this report.
Spilje Bay, Albania 28th – 29th July 1944
A report written by Harry Fecitt MBE, TD.
Allied interest in AlbaniaIn mid-1944 as the Germans began to evacuate the Balkans it was decided to try and galvanise Partisans in the former Kingdom of Albania to attack Axis troops who were withdrawing from Greece. A British Special Operations Executive (SOE) mission had also been active in Albania but its results had not been spectacular as the commander and many of his staff were captured by enemy troops in March 1944. Albanian Partisans had been more than happy to fight Mussolini’s Italian troops who had invaded in 1939 but they were more ambivalent towards the Germans, often preferring to let sleeping dogs lie rather than to make attacks that resulted in savage German atrocities being perpetrated on local villages. Communists under Enver Hoxha dominated the Partisan groupings and their priority always was to be ready to seize power in the capital Tirana once the Germans had departed. One Allied Special Forces unit that showed keen interest in events in Albania was the Long Range Desert Group (LRDG) which was looking for a new theatre to deploy into now that all Axis troops had been captured in or expelled from North Africa. Since March 1944 The leader of the British SOE Mission to Enver Hoxha was Lieutenant Colonel Alan Palmer, Royal Regiment of Artillery, who made five parachute insertions into the country. He was closely involved with British Commando operations on the Albanian coast and his Mission was originally titled Force 266. The difficulties of successfully operating over the rugged and inhospitable Albanian terrain and of dealing with a population that often supplied the Germans with information can be assessed from Alan Palmer’s citation for the Distinguished Service Order that appears in Appendix 1 below. The value of this citation is that it describes events that led up to the decision to briefly deploy No. 2 Commando onto the Albanian coastline.
Operation Healing II – the planHEALING II was designed to re-open the coastline in the neighbourhood of Himara so that supplies could be delivered to the Albanian Partisans in that area. Weapons, ammunition, equipment, clothing and boots were all needed because the Partisans were recruiting well from the civilian population but they were reliant on captured weapons and clothing. It was necessary for four German-garrisoned strongpoints north-east of Spilje to be destroyed before the coastline was secured, and five hours were allocated for this – in the event this was an insufficient amount of time. The Commandos were to be ashore for less than 24 hours and afterwards it was anticipated that the enemy would re-enter the area and be repulsed by the Partisans. The attacking force was just over 700 men strong and consisted of:
- No. 2 Commando – 250 all ranks (Lieutenant Colonel E. Fynn).
- 40 men of No. 9 Commando acting as porters.
- A medical detachment from No. 40 (Royal Marine) Commando.
- 180 men from the Raiding Support Regiment armed with 4 Italian 47mm anti-tank guns, 6 medium machine guns, six 3-inch mortars plus No.1 Mobile Protection Troop.
- ‘C’ Company 2nd Battalion The Highland Light Infantry.
- Inland, British officers from Force 266 ( redesignated as Force 399) and their Partisans, assisted by 20 LRDG soldiers, would organise prior reconnaissance and a link-up with the Commandos after the landing.
- The Royal Navy was to provide the necessary LCIs (Landing Craft Infantry) and two destroyers tasked with gunfire support.
- Weather permitting, air to ground fire support was arranged for the daylight hours particularly during the withdrawal.
The OperationColonel Fynn’s force sailed from Monopoli, south-east of Bari, Italy, on the night of 28th-29th July 1944. A successful unopposed night landing was made near Himara village four miles south of Spilje. A night march, serenaded loudly by village dogs, followed to the attack start line. The day-light attack commenced and the first problem occurred when the naval gunfire support officer fell over a cliff, damaging his radio set. Shells from the destroyers fell short amongst the Commandos, hitting men and radios, but the fire was not easily checked. Other radios could not work because their whip aerials could not clear the dense olive trees. The 3-inch mortar troop of the Raiding Support Regiment was heavily machine gunned as it moved forward, leading to it dropping its mortar equipment whilst cover from effective enemy fire was sought.
No 2 Commandos attend to the wounded.Three officers received Military Crosses and their citations describe the battlefield of steep rocky ridges, defended houses and snipers concealed amongst fields of vines.
- Captain Michael William Stilwell, No. 2 Commando, moved quickly to capture his objective and his gallantry whilst wounded resulted in the award of the Military Cross.
- Captain Laurence Eric MacCallum , No 2 Commando, was awarded the Military Cross for prominently leading assaults against strong enemy positions.
- Captain Michael Hinton Webb MC, South African Forces attached to No 2 Commando, was awarded a Bar to the Military Cross that he had previously been awarded during operations in North Africa (the citation for this first award is shown below at Appendix III).
Captain David Peters leading 1 Troop No 2 Commando up a ridge at Spilje.Elsewhere on the battlefield the Highland Light Infantry fought well and Commando junior leaders maintained the impetus of their attacks through three different planned phases of the action. Many of these No 2 Commando junior leaders fought on after suffering wounds and, fortunately, their citations for gallantry awards contain much battlefield detail that helps us to understand why Colonel Fynn broke off the action before all objectives had been seized.
- Troop Sergeant Major Peter Douglas Morland, No. 2 Commando, was awarded a Distinguished Conduct Medal.
- Lance Corporal John Robert Anchor, No. 2 Commando, received a Military Medal by showing what a determined Bren (light machine gun) gunner could achieve.
- Driver George David Dransfield, No. 2 Commando, was awarded a Military Medal by demonstrating what a rifle and bayonet can achieve when used with bravery and accuracy.
- Lance Bombardier John Willis Gelder, No. 2 Commando, whose citation for the Military Medal describes both the Commandos’ battle plan, the ground and the enemy defences.
- Lance Sergeant Joseph Gerard Anthony Rogers, No. 2 Commando, earned his Military Medal in a brave demonstration of leadership whilst carrying a wound and being under effective enemy fire.
- Lance Corporal John Denis Howard, Royal Army Medical Corps and No.2 Commando, received his Military Medal for displaying tenacity and bravery whilst in a non-combatant role but under heavy enemy fire.
- Lance Bombardier Thomas Joseph Mulcahy, No. 2 Commando. This citation for the sixth Military Medal awarded for gallantry displayed at Spilje by No. 2 Commando personnel describes how LBdr. Mulchay stepped-up and took over a battlefield situation when his local commanders had been killed or wounded.
Commandos of 5 troop No 2 Commando with German prisoners.An officer from Colonel Palmer's Mission with the Partisans later commented on the example that the British attackers had demonstrated on the battlefield: "The way the British managed by night to take up positions so close to the enemy and then suddenly appear at dawn was new and, until they saw it happen, considered impossible by them (the Partisans). The bravery, discipline and excellent control shown by the British caused much admiration, as indeed it should. The Partisans were astonished at the way the British troops advanced in a perfect line, standing erect and oblivious of the intense fire. They considered the operation a masterly example of how to fight . . . The effect was a tremendous boost of Partisan morale and obvious improvement in their methods of fighting."
WithdrawalBy the time his five hours were up Colonel Fynn had accepted that his force was not strong enough to take all four reinforced enemy strongpoints above Spilje, principally because they had benefitted from an early warning of the British attack. Twenty British soldiers had been killed in action so far or were missing, and the unwounded remainder were exhausted. A move back to the beaches was ordered with priority being given to the evacuation of the 60 wounded men. The forward troops disengaged and fought a withdrawal action supported by smokescreens whilst stretcher bearers shuttled casualties down the steep slopes that had been taken from the enemy earlier in the day. Twenty five Germans had been captured and no doubt they assisted with casualty evacuation duties. Around 40 Germans had been killed and over 30 wounded and the survivors in their strongpoints were shaken by the ferocity of the British assault; many of them absconded during the next night and the remainder withdrew into woodland where the Partisans hunted them down and killed them. The aim of destroying the German garrison had been realised. Three German attempts to re-enter the area were repulsed by the Partisans. A fourth attempt succeeded but the troops involved were soon forced back by what was now a highly motivated Partisan force. The Royal Navy evacuated the HEALING II Troops back to Monopoli in Italy apart from three men of No. 2 Commando – Sergeant Douglas ‘Dink’ Webster, Gunner A. Pallet and Driver Roy John - who were left behind during the withdrawal. These three joined the Partisans for a time their evacuation was arranged. In Monopoli Colonel Fynn received a congratulatory and reassuring letter from the commander of Land Forces Adriatic, Brigadier G.M.O. Davey, who wrote: "I congratulate you on the excellent work done by you and the troops under your command in the HIMARA operation. Thanks to your careful planning and their very gallant fighting against a determined enemy and some objectionable Albanian quislings (some of whom were killed) the operation was a complete success. The object was the destruction of a German garrison. We know that it consisted of good German troops. You accounted for most of these, and the only remaining Germans were yesterday rounded up by the Partisans, who now control the coastal belt in that area. Your casualties were not light, but against them you must measure the set-back the enemy has suffered morally and materially in Albania. Then you will realise the extent of your achievement. Your No. 2 Commando has maintained and enhanced its already great reputation, and I should be grateful if you would convey my thanks to every member of it for his collective and individual part in a successful battle, the results of which are out of all proportion to the size of the Force engaged." Only a few weeks were to pass before No. 2 Commando was re-inserted onto the Albanian coastline for a new battle in support of Partisan operations.
Commandos from 5 Troop after the raid on Spilje.
View a film broadcast about the raid here British Pathe News Film.
APPENDIX 1Citation for the award of the Distinguished Service Order to Lieutenant Colonel Charles Alan Salier Palmer, Royal Regiment of Artillery. "Lieutenant Colonel Palmer was first dropped by parachute into ALBANIA on 10th October 1943. His task was to carry out a general reconnaissance of enemy occupied ALBANIA and then to proceed, with the organization necessary, to disrupt German communications in the South Eastern sector of the country. Whilst in command of a small operational mission in this area he formed, trained and led a force of local Partisans against the German Occupying troops. In March 1944, after the head of the British Mission in ALBANIA, Brigadier Davies, and most of his party had been captured, Lieutenant Colonel Palmer was placed in command of all British Missions working with the Partisan forces in ALBANIA. In this capacity he remained for most part with the General Staff of the Albanian National Liberation Army, advising, training and directing as far as was humanly possible the activities of this movement, to ensure that its operations coincided with the directives of the Supreme Allied Commander. Early in May 1944 Lieutenant Colonel Palmer carried out an offensive reconnaissance of Lake OHRID for a proposed seaplane landing. The following account of this reconnaissance is extracted from the diary of a field officer who accompanied Lieutenant Colonel Palmer. “To reach the lake within the time limit we marched for three days at great speed over mountainous country with only three breaks of two hours each for rest and food. The route lay through an area strongly held and patrolled by German and satellite troops. Lieutenant Colonel Palmer having completed the reconnaissance decided to blow the route on the western side of Lake OHRID between LIN and POGRADEC. His conduct during this action was remarkable. It was personally carried out by Lieutenant Colonel Palmer whilst German patrols were moving along the road which he was preparing for demolition.” A subsequent reliable report stated that the Germans attempted to rebuild the road with a force of 2,000 men, but failed and were obliged to conduct a long alternative route. In June 1944 the German 1st Mountain Division was sent from SERBIA to South ALBANIA for the express purpose of breaking up the Partisan organization in that area, which at the time was severely interfering with the lines of communication of Army Group F. This officer with all but one of the missions under his command was gradually forced to withdraw to a Partisan-held bridge-head on the coast near the village of BORSH. After ten days hard and close fighting it became apparent that the Partisans were not strong enough, or well enough equipped to prevent the elimination of this bridge-head. Lieutenant Colonel Palmer who had meanwhile assumed virtual command of all Partisan forces in the area decided to evacuate all but five of the British personnel under his command. This evacuation successfully completed, he, together with one officer and one W/T (radio) operator, in the face of heavy and concentrated machine-gun fire broke through the enemy lines in daylight. The Germans on discovering from local civilians that it was the senior British officer who had succeeded in penetrating their lines immediately gave chase. Only after fifteen days of constant pursuit, during which he underwent considerable physical hardship, and showed remarkable endurance, and in the face of constant betrayal by treacherous Albanians, did he succeed in re-establishing wireless contact with his HQ in Italy. As a direct result of the initiative and courage displayed in this action Lieutenant Colonel Palmer was able to regain contact with the Partisan GHQ and thus make possible the rallying and reformation of the remaining Partisan forces, who continued to resist the Germans and hampered their lines of communication. On four separate occasions when political relations with the FNC (Fronti Nacional Clirimatare – the Communist Partisan organisation) were critical to the extent of prejudicing all further military operations in ALBANIA, this officer has been summoned to ITALY to report to AOC Balkan Air Force. After each of these visits he has again been dropped by parachute into ALBANIA with fresh instructions. Due to his great patience, he has succeeded, to a very considerable extent, in imposing the wishes of the Supreme Allied Commander on the FNC. His courage and leadership shown on many occasions have been largely responsible for the very high esteem with which he is regarded by all Partisan commanders, including Colonel General ENVER HOXHA, and it was largely due to this esteem that Lieutenant Colonel Palmer has been able to impose the extent of control which was eventually achieved. This officer is still in ALBANIA as political adviser to the Commander of the British Military Mission. I have therefore the honour to submit that for his outstanding work, Lieutenant Colonel Palmer be awarded the DSO. Should this award be approved it is requested that no detail be made public or communicated to the Press." After the war Alan Palmer, a mobilised Territorial Army officer, re-joined his family business Huntley and Palmer. In 1963 he was appointed CBE ‘For services to the biscuit industry and to export’. He died in 1990.
The Fallen remembered with honour
Tirana Park Memorial Cemetery, AlbaniaSergeant Jack Ernest Moores No. 2 Commando and the following from the Highland Light Infantry (City of Glasgow Regiment) Lieutenant Alan Macdonald Sennett Lance Serjeant Herbert Aveyard Private Alexander Barr Private John Casey Private Norman Swanney. At least seven more burials in this cemetery are of unidentified personnel.
Athens Memorial in Phaleron Cemetery, GreeceLance Corporal Ernest Zeno Rosenstein, No. 2 Commando Gunner Nelson David Richardson. Royal Artillery attached to Raiding Support Regiment.
Bari Cemetery, ItalyTrooper Norman Bunn, No. 2 Commando. Bombardier Peter McDougall, No. 2 Commando Gunner David McMillan Miller, No 2 Commando Private Colin Peel of the Highland Light Infantry (City of Glasgow Regiment)
The Cassino Memorial, ItalyLance Corporal Henry Finn Hughes, No. 2 Commando; Lance Corporal John Brighty, No. 2 Commando. Gunner Peter Boon, No 2 Commando
APPENDIX 3Citation for the first award of the Military Cross to Lieutenant Michael Hinton Webb, 1/3rd Bn. Transvaal Scottish, Union Defence Force, South Africa. "During an enemy attack on our positions at BIR-EN-NAGHIA in CYRENAICA on the evening of 28 May 42, our forward outpost was compelled to withdraw owing to the fierceness of the attack. It was imperative for us to hold the outpost as it dominated our lines, and also the sectors held by the Battalions on our left and right. Lieutenant Webb was detailed to occupy the outpost with two sections. Under terrific shell and machine gun fire he reoccupied the post and successfully held it against several determined attacks during the period 28-29 May. At 0830 hours on 29 May he led an attack against the Italians who were endeavouring to dig in positions forward of his post. His personal dash and courage were an inspiration to his men and in no small way contributed to the success of the attack which resulted in the capture of over one hundred prisoners."
- Roderick Bailey. The Wildest Province. SOE in the Land of the Eagle. (Vintage Softback 2009).
- George A. Brown. Commando Gallantry Awards of World War II. (Private Publication 1991).
- General Sir William Jackson (compiler). History of the Second World War. The Mediterranean and Middle East. Volume VI. Victory in the Mediterranean. Part II – June to October 1944. (Naval & Military Press softback reprint of 1986 original publication.)
- James Ladd. Commandos and Rangers of World War II. (Book Club Associates London 1978).
- Charles Messenger. The Commandos 1940-1946. (William Kimber 1985).
- Hillary St. George Saunders. The Green Beret. (Michael Joseph Ltd 1949).
- William Seymour. British Special Forces. The Story of Britain’s Undercover Soldiers. (Grafton Books paperback 1986).
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