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Supply Run To Leros

By John A Horlock

In the event that you may not know where it is and to save you the trouble of finding it on the map, I will explain that Leros is one of the Greek Islands which form what are known collectively as the Dodecanese Islands in the Aegean Sea. It is located North/West of Rhodes and is quite close to the Turkish mainland.


Prior to the Allied landings in Italy in September, HMS/M Severn had been involved in "cloak & dagger" operations such as the landing of commandoes on the island of Sardinia where they were to destroy the torpedo bomber base at Cagliari (but that's another story). The year was 1943 and the events recounted herein occurred towards the end of that year, following the unconditional surrender of the Italians in September.

Although the Italians had capitulated, the German forces continued to offer fierce resistance. They enjoyed air supremacy over the Dodecanese Islands, in consequence of which it was only possible to transport arms and supplies to Leros was either by MTB under cover of darkness or by submarine.

HMS/M Severn was selected for this task. So it was that we embarked on this somewhat unusual "supply run". Six Bofors guns were loaded onboard Severn in Beirut harbour and together with 3,000 rounds of ammunition, stowed in the fore-ends via the torpedo loading hatch. The pneumatic tired "gun carriages" or mountings were secured on top of the casing by means of steel wire. The "free flood" area under the casing was filled with crates of canned food and a large tank with a capacity of some 2,000 - 3,000 gallons was welded on aft of the conning tower. This was filled with (I think) aviation fuel.

When loading was completed we left harbour and spent quite a long time getting a trim due to all the extra weight and its unusual distribution. We also had about 20 army personnel onboard, presumably to man the Bofors once we had delivered them.

Accommodation was a little cramped at this time, but having completed our trim dive we set off, on the surface, for our destination, diving at "first light". I don't recall how long it took us to reach the island of Leros, but I do recollect we were supposed to rendezvous with a group of Italians in a small boat who would guide us to our berth. These people didn't appear at the appointed time and when a small boat did eventually arrive we were a little apprehensive that the operation may have been compromised and we were being led into a trap, but recognition signals were exchanged and it was decided to proceed.

Fortunately all was OK and we manoeuvred alongside a stone jetty with the intention of discharging our "cargo". A number of Italian soldiers appeared to assist with this activity (I don't know to what unit they belonged but I do remember they wore black berets). The method it was intended to employ to unload the gun carriages was to position two lengths of railway line (brought with us for the purpose) so as to span the gap between the casing and the jetty. The gun carriages were then supposed to be slid across.

This was a great idea in theory but unfortunately it hadn't been checked out in practice. What actually happened was that the steel rails were just not strong enough and as soon as the first gun carriage reached the middle of the span the weight was too much and the rails bent to such an extent that the system had to be abandoned.

Somehow this first gun carriage was "manhandled ashore" with great difficulty and it was obvious some other means would have to be employed to get the rest of them off. There was a small, fixed, manually operated crane near the seaward end of the jetty. In order to use this it was necessary to manoeuvre the submarine so that the gun carriage to be removed was positioned under the jib of the crane.

This was a slow process, as you can imagine. I think we had managed to remove only two of the gun carriages when enemy aircraft arrived and began to attack some of our MTB'S which were apparently alongside an area on the far side of the bay - perhaps a mile or so away.

We stopped work for a couple of minutes or so to watch as these aircraft (Stukas I believe) dive bombed the MTB base. Having satisfied ourselves that we were undetected (being in deep shadow from the land) we resumed work, only to discover that our Italian friends had all disappeared - we didn't see them again! Nothing for it but to get the remainder of our cargo off by ourselves. We eventually achieved this but the whole thing had taken much longer than planned and as we cast off it was that period of darkness which occurs just before dawn.

Anyway, we were steaming towards the opening in the boom defence when another aircraft arrived. This one dropped a parachute flare which illuminated everything like broad daylight, which was pretty fortunate for us as it enabled us to see that we were heading straight for the boom defence net having missed the opening by some 25 feet! (I was on the bridge so saw all this for myself).

We immediately went "full astern both" but we had so much way on that when we finally stopped we were half way through the boom defence net. (I could see the net passing below us). I suppose had we not stopped we might have broken right through the net, but on the other hand it may have fouled our props, in which event we would have been "snared".

However we withdrew astern as quickly as possible, lined up and made for the opening. We returned to Beirut without further incident except, on going ashore I was greeted by another submariner (I forgot who or which boat he was on but have a feeling it was an S boat) who said he was happy to see me again. Why especially? You may ask. You will remember we had spent some time getting a trim before leaving for Leros and that the various items attached to our casing altered our silhouette quite dramatically.

Well, it seems this other boat (on passage from Malta to Beirut) spotted us and started an attack. They were about to fire torpedoes (bow caps open) when we altered course on our zigzag pattern. By the time we had resumed a course which would have enabled the attack to continue we had been recognized.

There is a sequel to this story:-

I returned to UK (in the Unsparing) about August 1944. Whilst on leave, my mother mentioned the following experience she had.

It was quite usual for her to sit quietly by herself in our small "breakfast room" as she called it, before retiring for the night. She would think of me and often offer up a prayer for my safety. It was on one of these occasions that her late father appeared in the corner of the room (mother was in no way alarmed as she tended to be psychic). He said to her "Don't worry, he'll be alright, they'll zig in time". That was all.

She had no idea what this meant until she told me of the incident and when it occurred. It then became clear it would have been at the very time we were on our way to Leros and altered course on our zig-zag pattern just before that other submarine was able to complete his attack on us.

I offer no comment or observation except to say that is exactly what happened.



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