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Heritage - 22: From Being Rearguard on Crete, 'Layforce' Assume New Identity in North Africa

Updated on May 9, 2019
alancaster149 profile image

World War II is another favourite of Alan's, the fight to curb the Nazis. Success began in North Africa against Rommel, but before that....

Back from Crete, having taken a hiding in retreat - next job, gearing up to take on Rommel

Wounded British troops disembark in Alexandria after being evacuated from Crete at the end of May, 1941
Wounded British troops disembark in Alexandria after being evacuated from Crete at the end of May, 1941 | Source

Withdrawal from Greece - and then Crete

The Germans invaded Greece over the mainland from Yugoslavia on 6th April, 1941, to help their struggling Italian allies, who had become bogged down in Albania and Greece against determined resistance. Their generals, and Hitler particularly, were concerned that an Allied army in the Balkans might prejudice their Russian campaign in a flanking manoeuvre. 'Operation Barbarossa' was scheduled to be launched in April or May, 1941 but owing to the Balkan situation was put back to June.

Weeks later, on 28th April the last Allied troops evacuated the mainland of Greece Meanwhile the Germans had begun their airborne assault on Crete (20th April, as you saw in part 1). The island fell to the Germans on June 1st, although even a week earlier it had been hoped the Allies could hold on to the island.

This was when it was decided to deploy the 'Layforce' Commandos to disrupt German.communications, to either repel the invasion - or at worst enable evacuation. On 25th May - mainly 'A' and 'D' Battalions with a detachment from 'C; Battalion [No.11 - Scottish - Commando] was sent to reinforce the garrison on Cyprus lest the Germans turn their attention there - left Alexandria and made to land on Crete. They were turned back by foul weather and returned to Alexandria where they re-embarked on HMS 'Abdiel' to try landing on the island.

During the night of 26th/27th May they did successfully land in Suda Bay on the south coast. Almost as soon as they landed they were assigned to cover the retreat over the mountains towards Sphakia and the south. Upon landing there they were told to leave their heavy equipment, including radios and transport. Thus 'denuded' they were unsuited to the task as they lacked indirect fire support weaponry such as mortars and were armed largely only with rifles and a few Bren guns.

By dawn on 27th May they took up a defensive position along the main road that led inland from Sphakia. After that until 31st May they carried out several rearguard actions to enable the main body of soldiers to be evacuated by the Navy. All this time they came under air attack.

On 28th May the defenders began to disengage from the enemy and withdrew along the pass through the Central Massif that separated them from Sphakia. Defending the pass were the commandos along with two Australian infantry battalions - 2/7th and 2/8th - and the 5th New Zealand Brigade. In the first two nights of the evacuation around 8,000 men were taken off. On the third night, 30th May, with cover from the Australians and Commandos the New Zealanders were taken off.

Fighting was heaviest for the Commandos on that first day.

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See description below
See description below | Source

Anthony Beevor, "Crete: The Battle and the Resistance" - ISBN 8601300399508

From the German parachute drops on 20th May, the ferocious fighting and stubborn resistance put up by Commonwealth and British troops - despite equipment shortages - to final evacuation by 31st May held up the German advance. It was no cakewalk for them. This was Gen. Kurt Student's time to show his mettle, yet his men took heavy casualties during the first days at Maleme. The 'Fallschirmjaeger' never undertook a parachute landing on this scale again, and had to act as infantry thenceforth. One of their last collective actions was in the ruins of the abbey at Monte Cassino in May, 1944. Student was near Arnhem three months later when the Parachute Brigade were sent in to hold 'a bridge too far'.

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The theatre, the enemy and the tactics

The Eastern Mediterranean theatre of war. The war had gone well against the Italians, so troops were sent ill advisedly to Greece to stop the Germans'southward advance
The Eastern Mediterranean theatre of war. The war had gone well against the Italians, so troops were sent ill advisedly to Greece to stop the Germans'southward advance | Source

In command of 'Layforce':

Major General Sir Robert Laycock served in the Crete campaign as a Lieutenant Colonel with the Commandos. His command was specifically: 'combined operations, special service brigade known as 'Layforce'.

A little background. Robert Laycock was the son of Brigadier General Sir Joseph Laycock, KCMG, DSO, TD, a British soldier and Olympic sailor. So you can imagine Laycock Junior was expected to follow in his father's footsteps and to excel, if not outdo his father's performance as a military leader.

'Layforce', an ad-hoc military formation of the British Army consisted of several Commando units during WWII. Formed in February, 1941 under the then Colonel Robert Laycock, it numbered around 7,000 men and served in the Middle East. Given the task originally of raiding to disrupt Axis communications in the Eastern Mediterranean, they were first assigned to take Rhodes. As the situation went against the British, Commonwealth and Empire allies the Commandos were diverted to reinforce regular troops throughout the Mediterranean. Later personnel went back to previous or earlier postings, or went on to other special forces units. Some of the force saw action in Bardia, on Crete, in Syria and at Tobruk before disbandment in August, 1941.

'Layforce', the man in charge

Back in North Africa, Brigadier Laycock inspects 'Layforce' on parade
Back in North Africa, Brigadier Laycock inspects 'Layforce' on parade | Source

Ambush...

At the height of the German attack on the pass 'G' Troop from 'A' Battalion (No.7 Commando) under Lieutentant F Nicholls engaged the Germans in a bayonet attack. A force of Germans had taken position on a hill to the Commandos' left, from where they started to strafe the position from end to end.

The Germans attacked twice, and were turned back both times by a stubborn defence. On the same day elsewhere Laycock's Headquarters was ambushed. In the confusion he and his brigade major Freddie Graham commandeered a tank, in which they somehow regained the main body of their unit.

By 31st May the evacuation drew to a close. The Commandos began to run low on ammunition, rations and water and fell back on Sphakia. Laycock and some of his officers, including Intelligence officer Evelyn Waugh were able to take the last ship. Most of the Commandos were left behind on the island. Although some made their way back to Egypt by the end of the operation, around 600 of the 800 sent to Crete were listed as killed, missing or wounded.

Because of Luftwaffe bombings of the destroyer force sent from Alexandria to effect the evacuation, the decision was taken by Mediterranean naval command in the closing hours to only take combatants off the island from those who thronged the foreshore. However, of 'Layforce' only twenty-three officers and 156 other ranks were able to get away from Crete.

----------------------------------------------------

Commemmoration...

The Greeks issued a stamp to mark the beginning of four years of Nazi occupation
The Greeks issued a stamp to mark the beginning of four years of Nazi occupation

Disbandment and Metamorphosis

By late summer 1941 the operations 'Layforce' had undertaken had sapped its strength. Reinforcement by then was unlikely. Operational difficulties shown during the raid on Bardia, along with changing objectives in the Middle East situation and High Command's lack of foresight with regards commando activities contributed to reduce the force's effectiveness. Therefore the decision was taken to stand 'Layforce' down. Many men went back to their previous regiments, whilst others opted to stay in North Africa, later joining other special units raised subsequently.

Laycock went to London to talk to the War Office about the treatment of his unit. On hearing of the disbandment Churchill ordered the formation pf Middle East Commando (MEC), made up of those still in the region. When Laycock arrived back from London he saw that although MEC had been set up, far fewer men were there for him to lead than he had commanded earlier in the year.

What there was would be formed into six Troops. Nos 1 and 2 Troops were made of 'L' Detachment based at Geneifa under Captain David Stirling.whilst sixty men from the disbanded No.11 (Scottish) Commando made up No.3 Troop. Nos 4 and 5 Troops were formed from No.51 Commando and the Special Boat Section (SBS) made up No.6 Troop under Roger Courtney. The designations were nevertheless largely ignored as the men still saw themselves in their old roles.

As part of 'Operation Crusader' in November and offensive to relieve the garrison besieged at Tobruk involved no.3 Troop in 'Operation Flipper'. This was a bid to raid General Erwin Rommel's Headquarters in Libya and assassinate him. This raid was part of a greater operation that saw Stirling's 'L' Detachment and the SBS penetrating German lines and disrupt their rear to aid the overall offensive. The raid failed in the end and only two men aside from Laycock himself were able to make the British lines. Lt. Colonel Geoffrey Keyes the commander was awarded a posthumous Victoria Cross for his leadership and bravery during the raid.

Although MEC continued its existence - mainly to keep Churchill 'sweet' - its personnel was absorbed into larger units. Many joined the newly-formed Special Air Service (SAS) which was enlarged by Stirling with approval from Churchill. Laycock was promoted to Brigadier and given command of the Special Service Brigade, Middle East Command. He replaced Brigadier Charles Haydon.

Were you aware of this campaign before you read this?

Were you aware of this campaign and its outcome before you read this account?

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The Background

Men of 'C' Battalion (11 - Scots - Commando) in Egypt after withdrawal from Crete
Men of 'C' Battalion (11 - Scots - Commando) in Egypt after withdrawal from Crete | Source
Men of the LCA force embark on the raid on Bardia
Men of the LCA force embark on the raid on Bardia
Men of 51 Middle East Commando and Layforce
Men of 51 Middle East Commando and Layforce | Source
Allied and Axis positions in the Western Desert (Libya and Egypt)
Allied and Axis positions in the Western Desert (Libya and Egypt) | Source
See description below
See description below | Source

Long Range Desert Group - LRDG - In World War 2, Gavin Mortimer

The Ghost Patrols, 20th Century soldiering in the desert - a bit like the Scarlet Pimpernel in desert boots. The LRDG took the war to the enemy in a way he didn't like, so much so the Desert Fox - Rommel - had them hunted down. They struck at his supply lines, fuel being vital in desert warfare to keep the Afrika Korps' tanks rolling (the Germans' anthem, "Panzer rollen im Afrika Korps" was proved erroneous after El Alamein). See how the SAS fared against the Germans and Italians in North Africa before being transferred to the European theatre - this was no play acting!.

Special Air Service

That SAS cap badge - earn one if you can! Recruitment is open periodically from all combat regiments, but training in necessarily hard to enter the crack regiment of the British Army
That SAS cap badge - earn one if you can! Recruitment is open periodically from all combat regiments, but training in necessarily hard to enter the crack regiment of the British Army | Source
Colonel David Stirling, DSO, DFC, OBE (on the right, standing) had volunteered for No.8 Commando of Layforce under Brigadier Laycock and was the founder of British Special Forces and the SAS
Colonel David Stirling, DSO, DFC, OBE (on the right, standing) had volunteered for No.8 Commando of Layforce under Brigadier Laycock and was the founder of British Special Forces and the SAS | Source
Men of 'L' Detachment SAS aboard their jeeps - maximum disruption at minimum cost was the aim; Hitler and many of his senior commanders held a pathological hatred of all commando forces
Men of 'L' Detachment SAS aboard their jeeps - maximum disruption at minimum cost was the aim; Hitler and many of his senior commanders held a pathological hatred of all commando forces | Source
An SAS jeep laden, ready for action in the North African desert. They carried on their missions in Europe when North Africa was cleared of Axis forces
An SAS jeep laden, ready for action in the North African desert. They carried on their missions in Europe when North Africa was cleared of Axis forces | Source
Model Kit version of Long Range Desert Group (SAS) 30 ton Chevrolet truck - get everything but the kirchen sink on one of these hardy, go-everywhere vehicles! Great toy for that troublesome husband, (keep him busy for hours in the garden shed) !
Model Kit version of Long Range Desert Group (SAS) 30 ton Chevrolet truck - get everything but the kirchen sink on one of these hardy, go-everywhere vehicles! Great toy for that troublesome husband, (keep him busy for hours in the garden shed) ! | Source

The boy's toy your mates are not likely to have heard of! The LRDG 30 ton Chevy with all the gear for getting out of trouble. Easily assembled with exploded diagrams to help, and painting directions to show you how to make it look realistic (drill some bullet holes into the sides and paint them with black edging). Take it to the beach and photograph it close up near the rocks against the sky. Buy a couple of kits and build a patrol unit!

There are two other Hub-pages in the HERITAGE series linked to this one:

HERITAGE - 21: 'LIGHTNING STRIKE...' tells of Laycock's commandos sent into Crete to cover the retreat and hinder the German advance, and their subsequent metamorphosis into the SAS;

HERITAGE - 28: 'DIRTY WAR...' takes you from North Africa with the SAS to Western Europe after D-Day and the search for Nazi war criminals who murdered more than half of an SAS troop in the Vosges Mountains

© 2015 Alan R Lancaster

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    • alancaster149 profile imageAUTHOR

      Alan R Lancaster 

      3 years ago from Forest Gate, London E7, U K (ex-pat Yorkshire)

      A bit before my time as well, Nadine. Dad was a Bren gunner with the Royal Engineers, guarding the men with the mine detectors from Egypt, up 'the boot' from Sicily, Salerno, Monte Cassino and through the Alps. He had a combined services badge that I saw amongst his 'collection'. He also had an Afrika Korps sleeve band that he'd gathered along the way.

      The South Africans featured in North Africa as well, mustered by General Smuts. They were in both the army and the desert airforce.

    • Nadine May profile image

      Nadine May 

      3 years ago from Cape Town, Western Cape, South Africa

      Yes like Billy said, you have done a lot of research on this topic. Still all happened before my time, but Holland was occupied by the Germans for 5 years, and my Dad was in the merchant navy and his ship was one of the many who landed on the beach at Normandy.

    • lawrence01 profile image

      Lawrence Hebb 

      3 years ago from Hamilton, New Zealand

      Alan

      I'm pretty sure it wasn't Col Sterling's story, but it might have been Sgt Pendleton! He ended up in Italy and escaping there but not before tge camp commandant asked him "next time you escape would you be so good as to call me with the German troop dispacements in the surrounding villages?" They both knew Italy was about to surrender!

      I remember 'Ice cold in Alex' and Tobruk but not the other movie you mentioned.

      As for the 'editbot' I noticed them and it seems to have picked up grammar errors etc but nothing 'de-featured' so thats good.

      Lawrence

    • alancaster149 profile imageAUTHOR

      Alan R Lancaster 

      3 years ago from Forest Gate, London E7, U K (ex-pat Yorkshire)

      Hello Lawrence, that might have been David Stirling. He was captured and escaped when the German truck he was in on the way to a POW camp was 'set on' by a fighter plane of the Desert Air Force. An eastward course on foot across the desert brought him to British lines - and a parched throat, remember 'Ice Cold In Alex' with John Mills & Co.? - and promotion to colonel with 'carte blanche' to raid German lines. There was a film, 'Play Dirty' based on this sort of activity with Michael Caine, Harry Andrews (who was with John Mills in 'Ice Cold -'), Nigel Green and Nigel Davenport. Caine and Davenport come to grief at the end, dressed in German uniforms they get shot by a British squaddie who tells his officer he didn't see the white flag. There was a more far-fetched version of the same theme called 'Tobruk', also with Nigel Green and included Rock Hudson in the line-up.

      How are you coping with 'Editbot'?

    • lawrence01 profile image

      Lawrence Hebb 

      3 years ago from Hamilton, New Zealand

      Alan

      I read a book a few years ago that was written using the memoirs of one of the original four soldiers who started the LRDG and captured at Tobruk, amazing stuff.

      Great hub

      Lawrence

    • alancaster149 profile imageAUTHOR

      Alan R Lancaster 

      3 years ago from Forest Gate, London E7, U K (ex-pat Yorkshire)

      Hello MizBejabbers, I've seen the newsreel footage of Iwo Jima and the other Pacific islands the US Marine Corps wrested from the Japs. One of the men interviewed said if he were to be sent to hell there'd be no surprises for him, he'd already been there.

      This was a different kind of hell. The Italians certainly didn't like it, they surrendered in droves in North Africa. The Allies set about making the desert untenable for the Afrika Korps. Next up was 'Operation Torch', the US Army landings in Algeria (under Vichy government) and El Alamein in western Egypt where Lt General Bernard Montgomery ('Monty') reversed the trend of German victories (with the aid of Enigma - see also the Hub page: 'Enigma Initiative', scroll down the page a short way on my profile).

    • MizBejabbers profile image

      Doris James MizBejabbers 

      3 years ago from Beautiful South

      Alan, it is very interesting to learn of our brave Allied friends during WWII. We don't learn much about them in our history books except for who was friend and who was foe. A personal biography of this brave man gives us Americans a whole new insight into our friends and allies. Your photos are wonderful. I treasure those my Dad brought back from the Pacific from WWII.

    • alancaster149 profile imageAUTHOR

      Alan R Lancaster 

      3 years ago from Forest Gate, London E7, U K (ex-pat Yorkshire)

      Bill, me ol' mucker! These men were made of sterner stuff (it was playground politics taken a step further). The Germans weren't keen on crossing paths with the Aussies and Kiwis (New Zealanders) either on Crete or North Africa. At Tobruk the Aussies went out on patrol with knuckle-dusters, bush knives and other non-regulation weaponry. They were renowned for bayonet charges. Most British troops were from working class backgrounds with grudges - their families at home were being bombed out in the Blitz. Not the place to wear a German uniform - although their own officers sometimes came to grief if they were unlucky (lots of places in the desert to lose a body)!

    • billybuc profile image

      Bill Holland 

      3 years ago from Olympia, WA

      Great research. I've never heard of this campaign. I often think about the soldiers in war...the courage....the refusal to tuck tail and run. I wonder how they did it...I wonder if I could do it?

      Anyway, great read!

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