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Operation Endowment - 43 Commando Royal Marines

Unit/ Formation: 43 Cdo RM

Location: Yugoslavia

Period/ Conflict: World War II

Year: 1944

Date/s: 22 March 1944

On the 22nd – 23rd March 43 Commando raided the island of Hvar with a force of partisans, attacking German garrisons.

Map of the Balkans, 1941

Until the end of 1943, German forces were advancing into Dalmatia after the capitulation of Italy. Starting in late 1943, the Allies undertook a major evacuation of civilian population from Dalmatia fleeing the German occupation, and in 1944 moved them to the El Shatt refugee camp in Egypt.

German soldiers walk past an inscription left by Yugoslav partisans in the city of Hvar. The inscription in Bosnian reads: "Long live our allies: the USSR, England, America!"

By 1944, only the island of Vis remained unoccupied by the Germans, and Yugoslav and British troops were tasked with preparing its defenses against the later cancelled German invasion (Operation Freischütz). The island was about 14 miles long and 8 miles wide, with a mainly hilly outline, and a plain in the centre covered with vines, part of which had been removed to make way for an airstrip about 750 yd (690 m) long, from which four Spitfires of the Balkan Air Force were operating.

At the west end of the island was the Port of Komiža, while at the other end was the Port of Vis; these were connected by the only good road running across the plain. Vis was organized as a great stronghold, held until the end of World War II.

Members of E Troop 43 RM Commando on Vis On the Island of Vis with a Partisan flag. Photo courtesy of Jeff Gordon, son of Sgt. Jack Gordon 43 RM Cdo. (Commando Veterans Archive)

In 1944 Tito's headquarters moved there, and eventually over 1,000 British troops were included in the defence of Vis.

British forces on the island were called Land Forces Adriatic, and were under the command of Brigadier George Daly.

The force consisted of No. 40 and No. 43 (Royal Marine) Commando of the 2nd Special Service Brigade, the 2nd Bn. The Highland Light Infantry, and other support troops. Operating from the two ports were several Royal Navy craft. Marshal Tito's forces numbered about 2,000. Vis was functioning as the political and military center of the liberated territories, until the liberation of Belgrade late in 1944.

British naval forces in the Middle East operating in the Adriatic Sea were under the command of the Flag Officer Taranto and Adriatic & Liaison with the Italians (F.O.T.A.L.I). All the naval forces were controlled from Taranto and operated in close coordination with the Coastal attack operations conducted by the BAF. The Yugoslavs used the units in the British navy to transport materials and men, but especially to make landings on the islands of Dalmatia to liberate them from German occupation.

During the Vis period, Partisans carried out several seaborne landings on Dalmatian islands with help of Royal Navy and commandos:

  • Korčula

  • Šolta – Operation Detained

  • Hvar – Operation Endowment

  • Mljet – Operation Farrier

  • Brač – Operation Flounced

Operation Endowment [1]

German 2nd Panzer Army decided to withdraw 2nd Battalion of the 738th Regiment from 118th Jager Division from Jelsa on Hvar island and to leave only its 8th Company in Sućuraj guarding the eastern half of the island. This was carried out by night using landing barges and crafts because of Allied air power which on 15 March managed to sink landing barges SF-102 and SF-276 landing craft I-72 in Jelsa slowing down German progress. 8th Company was delayed leaving Jelsa until evening of 22 March just before it was attacked.

Based on these intelligence reports it was immediately decided to launch a raid with newly arrived 43rd Commando and capture Jelsa before German 8th Company can withdraw expecting another easy victory like on Šolta island in operation DETAINED.

This is the reason Allies rejected aid of 26th Dalmatian division in the operation but staff decided to land 400 soldiers of the 1st and 4th battalions from 1st Dalmatian Brigade based on request from operational officer which was already on the island together with group of Allied officers.

Ships left Vis island in the afternoon of 22 March 1944.

280 commandos, which arrived on Hvar in theirs LCI before NOVJ two battalions which where using old motor sail boats: 'Slobodan', 'Jadran', 'Sretna Sloboda', 'Sokol' and 'Lahor', were careless and got discovered and pinned down by the Germans next to a minefield. Being late arriving at their positions near Jelsa bombing raid by air force from 16:30 to 17:00 there was only 74 commandos available to engage Germans who were already withdrawing from Jelsa. Germans took control of surrounding high ground allowing them to encircle commandos and to fall back to Sućuraj. Arrival of NOVJ battalions broke German encirclement and after two hour combat smashed German column.

Next day was spent chasing remaining German troops across the island with commandos clearing eastern and Partisans western half of the island. In the evening on 23 March commandos decided to leave the island leaving only Yugoslav Partisans to continue clearing operation.

During the night of 23/24 March Germans landed two companies at Sućuraj to receive their 8th Company which by now was destroyed instead they ran into Partisan 4th Battalion at Bogomolj in the evening on 24 March which fell back after a fight. While withdrawing battalion noticed German assault boat I-69 which was damaged by allied aircraft in Bristova cove and captured 5 sailors. On the 25 March island was split with Germans holding eastern half to Bogomolj while Partisans had 4th Battalion in Pitavska Plaža and 1st In Brusje.

On 22 March from 18:45 to 19:15 Luftwaffe sent 12 aircraft to bomb port of Komiža on Vis leaving 3 dead and 33 wounded, sinking Partisan patrol boat PČ-70 and damaging several other ships.

Immediately after destruction of the 9th Company, German 2nd Panzer Army wanted to launch counterattack but there wasn't enough ships to transport troops quickly enough. Also there was no major German surface units in the area which could block Yugoslav Partisan Navy from moving troops and supplies between Vis and Hvar.

With reports that Germans are preparing a major landing on Hvar it was decided to withdraw two remaining battalions back to Vis and on night of 28/29 March 420 soldiers and 437 refugees were evacuated with further 16 soldiers and 47 refugees on the following night. Only smaller Partisan detachment was left on Hvar island.

With reinforcements arriving on 27 March Germans started slowly to advance towards Jelsa and during night of 29/30 March from Sumartina made landing near Jelsa and on 1 April took control of Stari Grad.

On Hvar island Germans suffered 32 killed (30 soldiers, 2 officers) and 152 captured (2 officers), while Partisans suffered 3 dead and 20 wounded. Commandos who had 3 wounded have captured only 8 Germans soldiers.

Partisans also captured 5 machine-guns, 127 rifles, 9 sub-machine guns, 13 pistols, 2 semiautomatic rifles and large amounts of ammunition, medical supplies and other material. Also allied aircraft sunk large number of German landing crafts and barges which was serious blow to German navy in Adriatic.

DETAINED and ENDOWMENT forced Germans to make changes in island defense, their garrisons were no longer located in requisitioned school buildings and other buildings in villages where they could be easily surrounded and were easy target for air force. Now garrisons were moved to strategic high ground with stone trenches protected by barbed wire and land mines with quick reaction force on the mainland ready to move quickly with reinforcements to threatened island.

This made future operations much more costlier for the Allies but it achieved primary goal of these raids - it forced Germans to commit large number of troops and other resources to coastal defense.

The following is drawn from Commando records at the National Archives in Kew. [2]

At 02.00 on 1 June, B Company, HLI Battalion, were landed from Partisan schooners skirting round Hvar to Blaca cove on the South-West side of Brač. Trained in mountain warfare at Cameron of Lochiel’s fastness in the Scottish Highlands (where Bonnie Prince Charlie raised his standard), the HLI task was to knock out an Observation Post on Vidova Gora, the highest point on the island, providing the Germans a clear view of the intended Allied landing zones along the south coast.

The Jocks climbed up over the limestone ridges, each man carrying 60 lbs of weapons and supplies, and laid up for the rest of the day. At 23.59, they attacked the German Observation Post, under heavy fire from concrete emplacements on which their mortar and sten gun fire had little effect. They cut the German telephone wires, fell back, reformed, and made a further determined attack, but were repulsed with heavy casualties. They had run into a barbed wire enclosure, heavily mined, surrounding the German position. All of their officers and NCO’s were either wounded or killed. Under mortar and spandau fire, they withdrew, making their way down the scree and winding tracks assisted by Partisan guides.

The main forces were landed unobserved at 00.30 on 2 June. 13 Ptzn Brigade (1,500 strong) with 43 Cndo and elements of 40 Cndo (400 strong) were dry-landed from Infantry Landing Craft at Blaca. The main task of this group was to destroy the German Command Post on a hilltop near Nerežišća in the centre of the island of Brač, overlooking their garrisons at Supetar on the north side and Sumartin at the eastern end of the island. 1st Ptzn Brigade (1,400 strong) landed at Bol with the task of preventing the Germans from emerging from Sumartin. From first light and throughout the day, the Partisans attacked Nerežišća and, after calling in air strikes from the Spitfires at Vis, 43 Cndo and Ptzns, with artillery and mortar support, made a more determined attack but failed to take their objective.

The Commandos were led by the highly decorated and somewhat eccentric Lt Col Jack Churchill (no relation to the Prime Minister). That evening he called in reinforcements and overnight the remainder of 40 Cndo with 300 more Partisans were landed. Churchill drew up a plan for a further attack which he was unable to agree with the Partisans. The Commandos therefore carried out the assault that night by themselves. Due to faulty communications, they reached their start lines at different times. 43 Cndo’s attack was launched at 21.15 and pursued with great determination but after gaining part of the hill they were driven back. An hour later, Churchill, having given his orders to 40 Cndo at foot of the hill, led them on a further attack, playing his bagpipes as was his wont. 40 Cndo briefly took the German position and success signals were fired. The Germans reacted at once with mortar fire and counterattacked. Two troop leaders of 40 Cndo were killed and their Lt Col mortally wounded. LtC Churchill, also wounded, was last seen on one knee playing his pipes as his troops withdrew at 06.00.

The Cndo log gives reveals little detail of the bloody battle. The Germans had learned from British and Partisans raids on Hvar. No longer were their troops billeted in schools and houses. Their new dispositions at Nerežišća, as at Vidova Gora and key positions on other islands, consisted of an inner circle of rock and concrete firing positions linked by trenches and surrounded by minefields within barbed wire enclosures. It was a killing zone. Nevertheless, the Cndos had breached the barbed wire, crossed the minefields and engaged the enemy in their trenches until, under murderous fire and out of ammunition, they broke off, dragging their wounded with them.

Evacuation began at 0600 that morning and a couple of hours later the combatants were back on Vis without further loss.

British troops loading artillery onto a Landing Craft

The raid was judged to have achieved its objective, though it would have done so without the imperative to destroy the Command Post. The Germans were forced to send reinforcements to the coast to counter the attack on Brač. The British flew Tito out to Bari and thence to Vis where he temporarily set up his HQ. But a heavy price was paid. Churchill and 35 of his men were taken prisoner by the Germans. The Cndos had lost their senior officers and nearly all their troop leaders, 16 men in all. Many of their 250 wounded would never fight again. The Partisans, who reported 130 Germans killed and 130 taken prisoner, lost 200 missing. The British concluded that there was no longer any need to capture Hvar and Brač as a bridgehead to supply the Partisans on the mainland. The tide had turned. The biggest Allied landings.

The Germans clung on in Hvar. By August, Partisan and Commando raids had driven them to the East end of the island. On 5 September, in a last attempt to recapture Stari Grad, 400 troops of the Brandenburg Battalion landed at Rudine and re-occupied the town, driving out hundreds of refugees, looting all the houses and stores of food and destroying all the boats in the harbour. The news reached Vis immediately and on 7 September, a large force, including 43 Commando, tanks and artillery, landed in Hvar town. The Brandenburg troops withdrew to Jelsa. As they attempted to move under cover through the fields between Vrboska and Jelsa, they were attacked and routed by a Partisan detachment based at Svirće. Those who escaped fled into Jelsa and seized whatever craft they could to find to escape. Out at sea they were relentlessly attacked by Spitfires from Vis.

More related Royal Marines 'Dits'

References/ further reading:

  1. Extracts above from

  2. Total Croatia News - The occupation, resistance and liberation of the island of Hvar during World War II. [Frank McGinley]

  3. Read the story of Marine Percy William Jeal, Royal Marines, who was in action with 43 Cdo and died 28th March 1944 here

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