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Prisoner Uprise at Levitha

Page Created
May 24th, 2024
Last Updated
May 24th, 2024
Great Britain
British Flag
Special Forces
Long Range Desert Group
October 23rd, 1943 – October 25th, 1943
Prisoner Uprise at Levitha
  • Subdue a German Prisoner of War uprising at Levitha.
Operational Area
Levitha Island, Aegean Sea, Greece

Levitha, Aegean Sea, Greece

Unit Force
  • Half Patrol A Squadron (Captain Jack Sutherland)
  • Half Patrol B Squadron (Captain John Olivey)
Opposing Forces
  • 1. Gebirgs Division
  • X Flieger Korps

Once the Long Range Desert Group arrives on Leros, they are tasked with what they have done so effectively in the desert: sending out reconnaissance patrols to spy on the enemy. One of these missions is conducted by the New Zealand T1 Patrol, led by Captain Charles Saxton. On the afternoon of October 6th, 1943, they report a convoy of six landing craft, one tanker, and one minesweeper, leading to the Royal Air Force’s destruction of the convoy the next morning near the island of Stampalia, west of Rhodes.

Out of the 1,000 soldiers and seamen in the convoy, fewer than one hundred survive. They swim to the island of Stampalia and are captured by the Long Range Desert Group patrol stationed on the island. H.M.S. Hedgehog is sent to Stampalia to collect some survivors for questioning, but the ship develops engine trouble and puts in at the island of Levitha.

When radio contact is lost with the H.M.S. Hedgehog, the British assume the German prisoners have overpowered the crew and are holding them hostage.

The Long Range Desert Group is ordered to Levitha to quell the uprising because it would be easy, and it would be a promising idea to stop the Germans from getting away with such a thing. There is no further information, and when Lieutenant Colonel John Easonsmith asks for a postponement to find out more, it is refused. Captain John Olivey is tasked leading the taskforce, codenamed Olforce. Olivey attaches another half patrol to his Rhodesian section, making up his number to twenty-five, and including 25 New Zealand troops under Captain Jack Sutherland. The half patrol attached to Captain Olivey’s Rhodesian section includes men from Y Patrol.

Olforce spends the morning practicing rowing and paddling Goatley boats ashore, each boat capable of holding eight men and their equipment. They then draw rations for three days, an additional Bren gun, a 2-inch mortar, and a powerful wireless transmitter.

October 23rd, 1943

At noon, Captain Olivey receives his final instructions: the fifty-strong raiding force will travel to Levitha in two motor launches and land on opposite ends of the island, one section of twenty-five men landing on the southwest under Olivey and the other under Lieutenant Sutherland on the northeast coast. Olivey is informed that there are fifty Germans on the island, all survivors of the convoy attack a fortnight earlier, and he envisions little difficulty in the two patrols sweeping inland and rendezvousing on the high ground in Levitha’s center.

At 19:30 that evening, Lieutenant Colonel John Easonsmith and Major David Lloyd Owen see them off. Their hearts are heavy, as they dislike the whole foolish enterprise, viewing it as a misplaced attempt at a spectacular success to regain the confidence that Cairo has lost in the direction of the Aegean campaign.

The two motor launches that take Captain Olivey and his men return to Leros at 03:00 the next morning. They report safe, unopposed, and successful landings. One party under Lieutenant Kay lands on the southwest extremity of the island, and a party of New Zealanders under Lieutenant Sutherland lands on the northwest end.

The operation begins ominously, with almost suicidal conditions of embarking into the tossing and pitching folboats in pitch darkness. One New Zealander slips into the sea, but his mates haul him into the folboat before he is washed away. Despite the weather, they somehow stagger ashore through the surf and heavy swell, drag the folboats into hiding among the rocks, scale the cliffs, and begin their invasion.

Captain Olivey and his force land without too much difficulty on the southwest side of Levitha. He sends one patrol in front to the right and one to the left, keeping one to carry the wireless gear and equipment.

The men climb a short, steep hill towards the ruins of an ancient Greek fort. Moving slowly up to this hill with the moon setting just behind it, Captain Olivey pushes on. The fort has a wire fence around it with a machine gun pointing out their way.

Captain Olivey gestures for his men to halt, then he and three soldiers advance cautiously towards the gun emplacement. It is unmanned. Nonetheless, Olivey is troubled, thinking he sees people moving in the shadows. He and his men search the fort but find no enemy. Their compatriots on the northeast end of the island clearly have, for they suddenly hear a prolonged exchange of gunfire. Captain Olivey is unconcerned, confident that Captain Sutherland and his twenty-five-strong New Zealand Patrol will swiftly conquer the fifty or so lightly armed German soldiers and sailors.

However, what Captain Olivey doesn’t know is that the convoy survivors, having overpowered the crew members of H.M.S. Hedgehog, have radioed German Headquarters in Cos requesting assistance. In response, the Germans have dispatched a large force of mountain troops recently arrived in the Aegean to help retake the islands.

October 24th, 1943

After an hour’s rest among the ruins of the fort, Captain Olivey sends Corporal Thomas Bradfield to lead a patrol up the hill to the north, where there is a meteorological station. The patrol soon comes under fire, with Bradfield wounded in the arm. They withdraw to the fort, where Captain Olivey and his men settle down to exchange rifle and machine gun fire.

As morning approaches, Captain Olivey hears renewed fighting in the northeast. Then come closer sounds: incoming mortar fire. Jim Patch remembers the Germans’ mortars ranging on his slit trench, thinking that the next one is going to hit him. Which it does, landing right on the parapet of the trench but not exploding. It showers him with stones, prompting him to get out quickly.

In between ducking mortar fire, Captain Olivey thinks he sees enemy troops moving down the hill towards their left. He orders two patrols to move forward and check any attempt at encirclement. As the first patrol crosses the open ground, some German planes zoom over their heads, clearly ready to stop any activity they might want to engage in. The patrol takes cover and begin exchanging fire with the Germans further up the hill.

From Leros Lieutenant Colonel John Easonsmith and Major David Lloyd Owen watch the heavy and continuous air attacks by Stukas and Junker 88’s, all afternoon.

The second patrol has more luck, returning with three German prisoners captured close to where they had come ashore the previous night. The Germans are brought into the fort and questioned, but the prisoners, junior in rank and scared by their predicament, provide little useful information. Their nerves are frayed further when their aircraft launch an attack, machine-gunning the walls and dropping bombs in the area.

As the day wears on, the Germans move in behind the stranded Long Range Desert Group patrols. Lieutenant Kay and his men are captured, and the officer is marched by two Germans down the hill towards the fort.

Shortly after 16:00 hours, Captain Olivey hears a shout from Lieutenant Kay. Clambering out of the slit trench, Captain Olivey goes forward and finds Kay standing between two Germans with steel helmets on. Olivey quickly pulls his revolver, having left his rifle in the trench, and at the same moment Kay notices him and shouts that he is in the bag, so are they, and the whole show is over.

Captain Olivey shouts in defiance, fires twice at the Germans, and dashes back to the trench, ducking as bullets crack over his head. In the trench, a Rhodesian soldier, Karrikie Rupping, joins Captain Olivey, and they withdraw down the hill, scrambling down a 4.5-meter drop as the Germans storm the fort. The pair dives into thick maquis shrub and listen as the enemy bombs and machine-guns the slit trench.

One of the patrols, unaware of this development, decides to pull back to the fort when the Germans increase their firepower. As they try to return, they realize that Jerry has overrun the place. Confronted by a German machine gun as they cross open ground, they see no option but to surrender to avoid a suicidal confrontation.

Captain Olivey and Rupping remain hidden for an hour and a half until sundown and then slither out of the shrub for a dusk reconnaissance. They see their own troops filing down the path without a guard over them, while Germans continue searching the hills, sometimes throwing grenades or firing into the bushes. Captain Olivey still hears gunfire in the northeast, which eventually slackens and stops at dark.

Captain Sutherland’s Zealand patrols spends the day repelling enemy attacks and capturing as many as thirty-five Germans. Running out of ammunition, they use weapons recovered from dead Germans. With casualties rising, They realise their only hope is to hold out until dark and then try to make their way back to the folboats. At 17:00 hours, Captain Sutherland arranges a ceasefire with the Germans to evacuate the wounded. The New Zealanders carry two of their wounded to the inlet, where they are handed over to a German medic. The German Medic tells them that about twelve of Captain Olivey’s force have been captured and more Stukas are on their way from Rhodes.

As the men return to Captain Sutherland, they see enemy troops advancing along the eastern edge of Levitha. By the time they reach the Long Range Desert Group’s position, it is dusk. Mortaring has stopped, but the Germans are close enough to subject the area to rifle grenade fire. Realising their situation is hopeless, they also note that two men sent earlier to reconnoiter the beach ahead of a night-time withdrawal have not returned. A little after 18:00 hours, Captain Sutherland sends out a German prisoner with a white flag. During this, the New Zealanders throw as many arms as he can, including a captured machine gun and mortar, over the cliffs into the sea. Turning away from the cliff edge, the men find themselves looking down the barrel of a German machine gun. The German soldiers bundle the New Zealanders together and the men are searched by their captors.

The German prisoners taken earlier in the day then take over, and the Long Range Desert Group members are taken to the German Headquarters, where they meet most of Captain Olivey’s party. However, Captain Olivey himself remains unaccounted for.

That evening, Jake leaves in an Motor Launch to go to the prearranged rendezvous on Levita to collect the force, assuming by then they would have completed their task. He encounters significant difficulty but eventually contacts John Olivey, Dick Lawson, one wounded man, and five other ranks.

There is absolutely no sign of the rest of the party, despite every attempt to contact them. The next night, another party is sent off to attempt the pick-up, but they fail to find anyone. John Olivey can only report how he has been heavily attacked from both air and ground until his small party is nearly surrounded. He manages to break out and assumes that the others are taken prisoner but has no news of Sutherland’s party.

Captain Olivey and Rupping have evaded the German sweep of the island and, at nightfall, begin creeping down the hill towards the beach where they have hidden the folboats. They arrive at 20:00 hours, launch one of the boats with difficulty, and row out into the bay, putting into the west side where it is dark and hauling their boat onto the rocks to wait for the expected motor launch.

As they wait in the dark, both cold, hungry, and tired, Captain Olivey falls asleep and wakes with a start at what he thinks is an engine sound, but it is only Rupping snoring. Then at 23:00 hours, Captain Olivey definitely hears the motor launch. They quickly launch their boat and paddle as fast as they can towards the motor launch, fearing it might leave without them.

As they row, they see a fire burning on the shore and hear a voice calling them from the opposite shore. It is Captain Dick Lawson, who has escaped from Captain Sutherland’s position with his medical orderly and a wounded New Zealander. Two other soldiers who have dodged the Germans also make it to the Rendez Vous Area.

October 25th, 1943

No one else appears at the Rendez Vous Area, and Jake Easonsmith on board the Motor Launch sees no signal from shore when he cruises close to the northeast of the island in the hope of picking up a stray New Zealander or two from Captain Sutherland’s patrol. Reflecting on the mission, Captain Olivey laments the loss of forty-three of the best chaps for nothing .

Back at Long Range Desert Group Headquarters on Leros, Captain Olivey makes out his report to Jake Easonsmith. It is only later that they learn how heavily outnumbered Olivey’s men were, even before German reinforcements arrived during the day. At one point, Jack Sutherland’s New Zealanders capture thirty-five prisoners, but in the end, he is forced to surrender with his men.