Operation Sunbeam A - Limpet Attack in the Agean
Unit/ Formation: SBS
Location: Portolago Bay
Period/ Conflict: World War II
Date/s: 18th June 1944
Leros island’s Portolago Bay in the Dodecanese is a natural harbour: deep, two miles long and half a mile wide. At the head of the bay is the town of Portolago (or Lakki as it is known today), the bay – a broad gash in Leros’s south-east coast – became the Italian navy’s main base in the eastern Mediterranean, with port facilities on the southern shore, a double boom across its narrow entrance and several batteries of guns on the high cliffs above.
Just before midnight on 17 June 1944, the skipper of the Royal Navy’s ML 360, a 112-feet-long motor launch built by Fairmile for coastal operations, stopped the craft’s two powerful 650 bhp petrol engines a mile and a half from the entrance to Portolago Bay. The signal was given for the six limpeteers on board – all members of the RMBPD’s ‘Earthworm’ Detachment, based at the Raiding Forces Headquarters near Haifa in Palestine – to launch their canoes.
Commanded by Lieutenant J. F. Richards who was paired with Marine W. S. Stevens in Shark, the rest of the crews were Sergeant J. M. King with Marine R. N. Ruff in Salmon and Corporal E. W. ‘Johnny’ Horner with Marine Eric Fisher in Shrimp.
No one was keener than Marine Eric Fisher who was desperate to make up for the disappointment of missing out on Operation Frankton, though the accidental damage to his and Bill Ellery’s canoe had probably saved their lives. On returning to the UK, Fisher, Norman Colley and Bill Sparks had all joined Bill Pritchard Gordon’s No. 2 Section which, on being sent to the Mediterranean, was renamed the ‘Earthworm’ Detachment. But it was Fisher who got the nod for Sunbeam A.
They had all ‘blacked’ their faces and were wearing camouflage ‘Anorak Suits’. ‘There was,’ noted Lieutenant J. F. Richards, commanding the limpeteers, ‘very little wind and the sea was flat calm with only a slight mist.’
Using split paddles, Horner and Fisher were first in and passed the broken boom at the harbour entrance at 1:10 a.m., keeping close to the cliff. Once inside they altered course to cross the harbour and soon spotted two of their targets.
Richards’ own canoe Shark was the next to enter the harbour. Keeping close to the shadow of the cliff, he and Stevens made their way along the south shore to the naval base where they hoped to find their targets: a destroyer and three smaller escorts.
Coming alongside, Richards steadied the canoe with the magnetic holder while his No. 2, Stevens, placed limpets below the waterline in two positions: fifteen feet from the stern; and a little further forward where Richards judged the engine room to be. Stevens did this by first attaching the limpet to a cleverly designed ‘angle piece on the face of his paddle’, thus obviating the need for a separate placing rod. To minimise the noise of all the magnets clamping at the same time, it was vital to apply the limpet as gradually as possible.
They found 2 more escorts to mine then with only two limpets left, and time running out, Richards circled back the way he had come, looking for a destroyer. He found one – of the Italian Turbine class, but manned by Germans – lying against a small jetty. ‘I moved in,’ he recalled, ‘under the bows and manoeuvred to make contact with the magnetic holder. At this point we were urinated upon from above, by a sentry whom we had not seen or heard, and who then moved away.’
The last canoe Salmon had been spotted soon after entering the harbour at 1:20 a.m. Challenged by a sentry in a patrol boat, King and Ruff froze. After the third challenge, they back-paddled as far as the boom at the harbour entrance where they moved out into the centre of the channel before heading east again.
As before they were hailed from the patrol boat, causing them to pause until King felt it was safe to continue. They finally reached the naval base at 2:15 a.m. and stopped by a derelict barge to ‘bail out, since the water in the canoe was around their knees’.
The first of their two destroyer targets was directly ahead: it was, in King’s opinion, also of the Italian Turbine class. As several men were talking and smoking at his approach point, King tried from a different angle ‘but noticed a sentry standing on a jetty’ beside the destroyer. The sentry was soon joined by several more. A final approach from the ‘harbour end of the base’ was more successful, and three limpets were placed on either side of the ship’s stern. With the canoe once again ‘half full of water’, King wisely decided to leave the bay and make for Kalymnos. It was 2:40 a.m.
Incredibly, despite multiple sightings and challenges, all three canoes got away from Portolago without the alarm being raised. Why no shots were fired, or further investigation made, is a mystery. Dodging Greek fishing boats, they all reached the temporary safety of Kalymnos where they beached and camouflaged their canoes in small inlets and found somewhere to hide.
From around 4:45 a.m., and continuing for much of the day, they could hear explosions from the direction of Portolago. Richards was convinced that, as well as the noise of the limpets going off, they could hear the sound of depth charges as the Germans tried to find the submarine they believed was responsible for the attack.
By badly damaging two destroyers and sinking three smaller escort ships, Richards and his men had pulled off one of the most brilliant sabotage missions of the war. In a single night, three canoes ‘effectively neutralised’ the enemy’s naval forces in the eastern Aegean and they had not sustained a single casualty.
[Extracted and abridged with kind permission from SBS - Silent Warriors by Saul David]
Read more here:
Silent Warriors - The Special Boat Service in WW2 - The Authorised History