Thessaloniki, October–November 1944
After the triumph in Athens, Jellicoe continued north, now commanding the improvised Pompforce, made up of the 4th Independent Parachute Battalion, the SBS, airborne engineers, a contingent from the RAF Regiment and a battery of 75-mm guns, totalling approximately 950 men. Pompforce was part of Operation Noah’s Ark, which sought to impede and delay the German withdrawal from Greece by enabling guerrillas, SOE agents and small, fast-moving regular units to attack their rearguards and block their way. An order from AFHQ in Caserta to the Balkan Air Force stated: “Our main objects are to prevent enemy from withdrawing and to kill maximum number of Germans.” In reality, lack of resources to implement Operation Noah’s Ark at anything like full strength meant that Pompforce was one of its few tangible outcomes.
On 24 October, Jellicoe attacked Kozani, about 200 miles north of Athens. Despite valiant efforts, especially by the paratroopers, he was unable to take the town. The Germans evacuated Kozani the following morning and continued a series of forced marches, mostly on foot, north-west to Florina on the border with Yugoslavia.
During the autumn, the Yugoslav Communist leader Josip Broz Tito had moved closer to the USSR, and his partisans had linked up with the Red Army. Tito had expressed displeasure with the Western Allies operating in his territory, and Jellicoe received orders not to cross the border into Yugoslavia. Nevertheless, he succeeded in launching another attack against the rear of the last German column to leave Florina on the evening of 1 November. As Pompforce was unable to pursue the Germans into Yugoslavia, Jellicoe instead sent an SBS patrol led by Milner-Barry into Albania. It made contact with David Sutherland and his S Detachment, which had set up its HQ in Korçë, about 20 miles west of the border.
While Pompforce advanced towards Yugoslavia and Albania, Lassen and M Squadron pushed up the east coast of Greece, through the Sporades archipelago, bound for Thessaloniki – the second biggest city in the country, with a population of 320–350,000, significant industry, a major railway hub, an important port and two airfields near the border with Bulgaria and Yugoslavia.
On 23 October, after a pleasant stay in a villa in Faliron – perhaps the home of the young lady whom Lassen may have visited on his way to Athens – M Squadron sailed from Piraeus aboard the gunboat ML458. In addition to their usual weapons and equipment, the men of the newly dubbed Scrumforce had two PIATs (anti-tank weapons similar to the American bazooka) and were accompanied by Royal Engineers and Royal Navy personnel.
M Squadron was the core of Scrumforce – a reconnaissance outfit under Lassen’s command. Its main aim was to prepare for the occupation of Thessaloniki, which the Germans were getting ready to evacuate. On 25 October, the day after Scrumforce set sail, the German admiral in command of the Aegean moved his headquarters from Thessaloniki to Vienna. All air traffic to and from the city stopped the same day. On 26 October, Army Group E HQ, which had already moved out of the city, received word from Thessalonikithat 30 fully loaded trains were ready to leave from in and around the city, and that the deadline for the evacuation, which had been set for 28 October, could only be met if they left very soon. The British may not have been aware of all of the German preparations for withdrawal, but they had SOE and OSS spies in and around the city and intercepted German radio traffic. One particular message on 22 October revealed that the German forces in the city were not to leave until 24 hours after the hospital ship Gradisca, due to dock on 26 October, had departed again. Lassen and Scrumforce had orders to secure the Megalo Mikra airfield, 7.5 miles south-east of the big port, and set up a command post. The engineers were to repair the airfield after German attempts to sabotage it. Scrumforce was not to operate inside Thessaloniki itself, except for patrols and small reconnaissance groups just ahead of the first wave of the occupying force Kelforce (2nd Independent Parachute Brigade Group, under the command of Brigadier C.H.V. Pritchard).
On the morning of 24 October, M Squadron reached Skopelos, which the Germans had vacated. That night, they continued to the neighbouring island of Skiathos. The plan was that Scrumforce would reach the island on D-Day -5 – in other words, five days before Kelforce arrived in Thessaloniki. The Germans had also abandoned Skiathos, but Lassen encountered resistance from an unexpected source. Just as he was about to go ashore, he was flagged down by a patrol boat carrying a landing force from Turnbull’s Raiding Forces. They thought that Skiathos was “their” island and that the SBS should not be there. After a short debate, it was decided that Turnbull’s men would go ashore a few minutes before Lassen and his team. The double landing took place before dawn and caused some concern among the islanders until they realised that the incomers were British, rather than returning Germans. The guests were served wine and brandy before breakfast and then invited to a church service at the cathedral to celebrate the liberation of the island.
On Skiathos, Scrumforce was reinforced by an LRDG patrol, meaning that Lassen now had eight officers and 68 NCOs and men (SBS: 6/55 and LRDG: 2/13). It also had a jeep with a trailer, which may have cheered Lassen, who was otherwise somewhat dissatisfied with once again being sent to sea while his colleagues Sutherland and Patterson, who led S and L squadrons, were to fight on land. Lassen had complained to Jellicoe, but his otherwise accommodating boss threatened to demote him unless he did as he was told.
The British did not know if the Germans had evacuated the northern Sporades or whether Scrumforce risked running into hostile forces. As a result, the fast and well-armed but highly conspicuous ML458 was replaced with two more discreet caiques from the Levant Schooner Flotilla, under the command of Lieutenant Alec McLeod of the Royal Navy Commandos. Unloading a jeep and trailer from a caique would be no easy task, but Lassen ensured Kelforce HQ that it could be done, and the vehicle was loaded on board.
Scrumforce continued heading north at a sedate pace, in bright, warm sunshine. On the morning of Wednesday 25 October, the caiques laid to beside a British navy vessel that Lassen’s Greek interpreter Jason Mavrikis described as “a huge battleship”. Whatever kind of ship this 'monster of the seas' was, it made the men in the caiques feel “like mice”. Lassen climbed on board to speak with the captain, while the British sailors bombarded the caiques with chocolate, biscuits and whatever other food they had at hand – a welcome supplement to the usual “compo” rations. Early on 26 October, the two caiques docked in the small port of Nea Potidaea, about 34 miles south of Thessaloniki. They managed, albeit with some difficulty, to manoeuvre the jeep onto land. A local dignitary offered the guests shelter in his home near the harbour, where Lassen set up his command post.
The same afternoon, Lassen, Mavrikis and two of their comrades drove north in the jeep on a reconnaissance mission. As was the norm when Lassen was behind the wheel, they travelled at breakneck speed. At 21:00, they stopped in a forest to relieve themselves, and heard German voices in the dark. They crept closer, saw 3–4 men chatting around an armoured car and overpowered them without firing a shot. After destroying the engine of the armoured car, the four scouts squeezed two of the prisoners on board the now packed jeep and drove to Nea Potidaea with them.
At 05:00 on Friday 27 October, Scrumforce was joined by Major D.S.L. Dodson of the SOE. Along with his interpreter, Maniotopoulos, and his radio operator, Sergeant Parker, he had been sent to assist Kelforce. They were supposed to land on Epanomi, on the southern outskirts of Thessaloniki, but the weather was too poor to land their heavy and fragile radio equipment safely, so their patrol boat continued to Nea Poteidaia. After discussing the situation, Lassen and Dodson decided that the latter should try to get as close to Thessaloniki as possible – preferably all the way into the city. Lassen gave Dodson an escort of six LRDG men, under the command of a Lieutenant Barker. At 15:00, Dodson and his group left Nea Poteidaia in a commandeered bus. After taking a winding route, they arrived in the village of Mantzarides, on the south-eastern outskirts of Thessaloniki, at 21:00. Mantzarides was an ELAS outpost, and the partisans were preparing to attack the military airfield at Sedes, around four miles south of the village. Lieutenant Barker was keen to join the battle the following day, so Dodson left him and his men behind with the partisans. Dodson himself, along with the interpreter and the radio operator, continued to the village of Panorama, just under four miles south-east of Thessaloniki. The hilltop village lived up to its name, providing an excellent view over the whole of the city and its environs. After some wrangling with the local ELAS people, a house was made available, where Dodson billeted his men before darkness fell. He then went to meet the local ELAS divisional commanders for a progress report, which the radio operator, Sergeant Parker, then sent to SOE HQ in Cairo. Dodson knew that the Communist partisans, with some justification, considered the Allied liaison officers to be their enemies in the struggle for power in Greece. With this in mind, he said nothing about the SOE and claimed to be head of a British vanguard company that was in Nea Poteidaia and that he had gone ahead to reconnoitre.
While Major Dodson was in Panorama, Lassen also made contact with ELAS. Scrumforce was not just carrying out reconnaissance ahead of Kelforce’s anding at Thessaloniki. Lassen and his men were also charged with gathering intelligence on the ELAS forces in the area, and playing a role in another one of “A” Force’s decoy operations.
Following the morning meeting with Dodson, Lassen had made contact with some local ELAS people. His interpreter, Jason Mavrikis, quizzed them about their organisation, strength, weapons, etc. After a quick lunch, Lassen, Mavrikis, McLeod and Lassen’s driver, Sam Trafford, drove 30 miles north to the ELAS HQ in the district capital, Polygyros. Arriving at 16:00, they met with a large group of officers who were clearly surprised to see British soldiers so far north. The partisans plied their guests with water and – in Mavrikis’ opinion – “doubtful” coffee, after which Lassen and McLeod, with the help of the interpreter, began to question their hosts about German minefields in the area, both at sea and on land, asking that they be marked on McLeod’s map. Lassen and McLeod asked about minefields not just on the road to Thessaloniki, but also along the coast at Kavala – a town about 80 miles east of Thessaloniki and about 30 miles south of the border with Bulgaria. During a break in the three-hour conversation about minefields, some of the ELAS people asked Mavrikis why the British were so interested in the waters and beaches at Kavala. Mavrikis “unwittingly let the information pass that a very large Allied convoy with a strong armada vith at least 3 Army divisions with armour, artillery, and all necessary paraphernalia was awaiting our signal to start an invasion in that particular area”.
Mavrikis’ “gaffe” was, like Lassen and McLeod’s demonstrative interest in the situation in the Greek-Bulgarian border region, part of “A” Force’s Operation Second Undercut. The aim was to expand the small British force in Greece by massively reinforcing the existing III Corps – also known as “Headquarters Land Forces, Greece” – with the fictitious British 34th and 57th Infantry divisions and 5th Airborne Division. In contrast to “A” Force’s past performances, which had been mainly staged for the benefit of the Germans, the audience for Second Undercut was ELAS, and through them the Soviet leadership. The British did not trust Stalin to adhere to the Moscow Agreement, under which control of Greece would be left to the British. Reinforcing III Corps was designed to deter the Russians from supporting an attempted takeover by ELAS or moving Red Army troops from Bulgaria into Greece. It is not known whether the message about British interest in Kavala actually reached Red Army Command in Bulgaria, but the Soviets did remain north of the border.
When night fell, Lassen and his companions drove back to Nea Poteidaia. The next morning, 28 October, Scrumforce started to advance towards Thessaloniki. That evening, the raiders came across German troops near the American agricultural college on the outskirts of the city. During the fighting, the two PIAT rocket launchers, which were designed to fire grenades in a straight trajectory at armoured vehicles or buildings, were instead used as mortars. Further skirmishes ensued on the outskirts of the city. There were also verbal clashes with some ELAS partisans, who did not share Lassen’s interest in attacking the Germans, but preferred to let them withdraw without a fight – presumably with a view to filling the power vacuum that they would leave in their wake.
Lassen set up his command post in an American school close to the agricultural college and spent the evening on reconnaissance. The naval officer, Martin Solomon, who was Lassen’s liaison officer to the Royal Navy, and Lassen’s second-in-command in M Squadron, Captain Henshaw, went out to find a coastal battery that, according to the locals, the Germans were about to evacuate. Along the way, they managed to surprise and destroy a supply truck that was heading out to the battery. This success encouraged them to try to bluff the Germans into surrendering. Henshaw, who spoke German, sent a letter to the German commander, stating that he was surrounded by a large British force and that immediate surrender was the wisest course of action. While Henshaw and Solomon waited for their interpreter to return with a response, they were unexpectedly joined by two Germans on their way back from the pub. In the darkness, they mistook the British for their own side and were taken prisoner. The German battery commander was not fooled by Henshaw's ruse and had apparently raised the alarm. The sound of engine noise pierced the darkness. Suddenly, Henshaw and Solomon were all but surrounded by a larger German force in trucks, accompanied by tanks and self-propelled artillery. The two officers beat a swift retreat, taking their prisoners with them, but leaving behind Lassen’s beloved jeep. Once they were out of immediate danger, the full gravity of their self-inflicted predicament dawned on them. The thought of returning to Lassen without his beloved jeep was too horrible to contemplate. Henshaw and Solomon spent a restless night in the woods with their prisoners. Shortly before dawn, Henshaw sneaked back to the spot where they had left the jeep. Luckily, it was still there. When the Germans began blowing up their gun emplacements, Henshaw drove off, using the noise as cover. When they arrived back at the command post, they told Lassen what had happened. “You have done well,” he said, “but had you not brought ze jeep back, I would have slit your throats.” “I really think that he would have done it,” Solomon wrote later. Whether or not Solomon really believed this of Lassen, it is certainly significant that his story about the episode – like Hancock’s story about the fiasco on Paros – was as much about the fear of Lassen’s fiery temperament and brutality as it was about the encounter with the enemy.
On Saturday 28 October, Dodson and his companions saw columns of smoke rising above the city from the mountains between Panorama and Thessaloniki. While he could not see what was going on, he did not doubt that the Germans would withdraw very soon. Massive destruction preceded the departure – German engineers spent days rendering the port useless. Forty-four scuppered ships blocked the approach, the shipyard had been razed to the ground, holes had been blown in the outer pier, and the Germans were preparing to blow up other plant and installations. 
The next morning, Dodson secured his interpreter a pass from the local ELAS people and sent him down into Thessaloniki to find a house where the major could wait for the Germans to leave the city. However, around noon, ELAS started to descend Panorama mountain, heading into Thessaloniki. When Dodson asked the local ELAS commander to accompany him into the city that same evening, it proved more difficult to obtain a pass this time. The ELAS man referred Dodson to divisional HQ for the pass. Later that evening, the major met a Greek who worked for the International Red Cross and was due to enter Thessaloniki the following morning. He agreed to accompany Dodson into the city. They set off early on Monday 30 October, before the local ELAS commander could stop them. He reached Thessaloniki about 08:00. He stopped a car and persuaded the reluctant driver to take him to Queen Olga Avenue in the city centre. Dodson noted that there were still German patrols around and that ELAS did not seem minded to take them on.
After seizing control of Thessaloniki on 29 October, ELAS now aggressively patrolled the streets in search of people that the Communists regarded as enemies of the new order: collaborators, anti-Communist resistance fighters, and so on. All around the city, official and more or less spontaneous demonstrations, processions and festivities were held in honour of ELAS.
While in Thessaloniki, Dodson heard that Lassen and his men were on their way toward the city and had engaged a German unit that was cut off to the south of it. He hurried back to Panorama and sent a message to Lassen that the road was clear further north.
Lassen was indeed on his way to Thessaloniki with Scrumforce. ELAS had told him that only a few Germans remained in the city, so he decided to move in. His motives are unclear. Perhaps he presumed Kelforce’s arrival was imminent (in fact, they were delayed by sea mines and would not arrive until 8 November), and that it would be in line with his orders to march into the city now. Or perhaps he had decided that to prevent the Germans from destroying more of the city's infrastructure, or to establish a British military presence before ELAS took control, he had to act immediately – Kelforce or no Kelforce. Or maybe he just could not resist the prospect of marching into the liberated city at the head of his men.
Early on Monday, 30 October, Lassen led Scrumforce into Thessaloniki. It started out as a part triumphal procession, part circus parade: Lassen’s driver Sam Trafford was at the front, on a horse that had been chewing grass by the roadside when the raiders arrived. Then came Lassen’s jeep and four fire trucks with ringing bells that Lassen’s men had picked up along the way. Bringing up the rear was a contingent of ELAS partisans with bandoliers across their chests. The strange procession attracted a growing number of jubilant Greeks who threw flowers and pelted the British with gifts of food and wine, while the prettiest local girls were invited to climb aboard the fire engines.
John O. Iatrides, who lived with his parents in a side street off Queen Olga Avenue, (perhaps) saw Lassen’s entry:
The parade I saw marched on Queen Olga Avenue (eastern end of the city) heading west, toward the center. The avenue, its side-walks and side-streets were crowded and noisy as the marchers made their way through the excited spectators. We were standing on the second-floor balcony of the house we occupied, on Kryezotou Street, looking left toward Queen Olga Avenue, about 60-80 ft away. (The building across from us had been evacuated by a German unit the day before). We could see the parade (formations of marching ELAS, [the communist youth organisation] EPON, other groups of civilians) on Queen Olga Avenue, in the space between the buildings astride Kryezou clearly but only for a few moments as the marchers came into view and quickly went by to our left. We did not see the start (head) of the parade but later heard there were ELAS men on horseback. For a few moments we watched a single jeep go by, carrying four or five (?) men in khaki British field uniforms, officers' caps (two?) and round khaki berets. It was surrounded by cheering pedestrians and we could not see the occupants' faces clearly. Could that have been Lassen's jeep? Impossible to say! (We later heard stories that British troops had landed from a submarine somewhere along the Chalkidiki coast and I remember wondering how they got the jeep off the submarine ...).
Regarding the British journalist Henry Maule’s account of people in Thessaloniki hanging Union Jacks from their windows in the days following the liberation, Iatrides recalls:
My family had to take down its homemade British flag when threatened with violence by the local EAM.
The triumphal procession moved into the centre of town and passed a square where some local Communist resistance leaders were waiting to receive the British and the ELAS partisans – or perhaps, just holding one of probably several public meetings that day. Lassen ignored whatever was going on in the square and continued towards the harbour.
Again, his motives are unclear. Did he not understand what was going on and that it would have been polite and diplomatically opportune to stop and greet the local dignitaries? Did he miss an opportunity to portray the British as liberators and steal some of the limelight from ELAS? Or did he want to show that it was not ELAS but the Greek Royal Government and its British allies who were masters of Thessaloniki and that the Communist partisans did not have the status to bid Scrumforce welcome?
As the procession approached the docks, the celebrating crowds started to disperse quietly. Suddenly, German snipers opened fire on the raiders. They missed, but the raiders and partisans found themselves in a prolonged firefight with a group of Germans who were preparing to blow up a fuel depot. The raiders, who had split into two attack groups under Lassen and Henshaw, took what little cover there was and returned fire until they began to run out of ammunition. Some of the Germans managed to escape, but 22 were killed. One raider took a bullet to the shoulder. The fuel depot was saved.
The next day, Tuesday 31 October, the last Germans left Thessaloniki. Lassen telegraphed Cairo: “I have the honour to report that I am in Salonika.” Jellicoe replied, “Give your estimated time of arrival Athens.”
Almost two weeks would pass before Lassen could comply with Jellicoe’s request to return to the capital. Kelforce did not arrive until 8 November, and its reinforcement and replacement, Glisforce (7th Indian Infantry Brigade), would not be ready to take over until 11 November. Until then, and until transport back to Athens could be procured, Scrumforce would have to stay in Thessaloniki.
Like Dodson, Lassen received all sorts of practical help from the Greek major George Diamantopoulos, who was head of SOE’s mission “Jeanne”, which had been operating since the summer of 1944 in northern Greece, and since September in Thessaloniki. In September, Diamantopoulos held negotiations with a representative of the Germans in Thessaloniki. They had expressed their willingness to surrender if conditions could be agreed, but negotiations eventually broke down, as they did in several other parts of the country. The enterprising Diamantopoulos was now acting as a procurer of transport and accommodation, as well as an interpreter and liaison to ELAS, for Lassen, Dodson and later for the first of the British officers who arrived with Kelforce.
Widespread violence had broken out across Thessaloniki in the final weeks before liberation, and continued for the first few days afterwards, especially in the outlying districts. EAM/ELAS quickly rounded up its most prominent opponents and began monitoring all political activity and the press. The city was also running out of food, a situation exacerbated by EAM’s arbitrary confiscations. In Athens, from 5 December to early January, the British forces waged open warfare on ELAS, using every means at their disposal (including Spitfires, Sherman tanks and naval artillery). Thessaloniki, however, was essentially controlled by EAM, with the British and Indian occupation forces remaining in the background. EAM and KKE/ELAS had the military might to seize power in Thessaloniki and the surrounding area, but were too ambivalent, confused and divided to take advantage of ELAS’ superior strength in Greek Macedonia to seize and hold the city. On 17 January 1945, representatives of the government in Athens assumed control of it.
Martin Solomon described his and Lassen’s role in the first week as a sort of self-appointed military governors:
I shall never again have as much power or enjoy anything so much. Dictators for a week … Andy and I prevent riots and murder, we pass laws, we pardon and pass sentences. If we had not come, much blood would have been spilt.
Given the size of Thessaloniki, the complexity of the situation in the city and, in particular, the fact that ELAS had a firm and very aggressive grip on power by the time Lassen and Solomon and their force of approximately 75 men arrived in the city, it is hard to imagine that the two young officers really made the huge difference that Solomon described. However, by keeping on the move constantly and maintaining an active presence, they might have been able to give the impression of a much larger and more powerful force – although ELAS was probably relatively well informed about the real numbers. Scrumforce may have been able to exert some control over a single neighbourhood, perhaps on the outskirts of town toward the Megalo Mikra airbase, which they and Diamantopoulos’ “Jeanne” mission were responsible for securing. To pave the way for the rest of Kelforce and Glisforce, Lassen and Solomon organised civilian work battalions from the areas around the port and the airbase to clear rubble and repair sabotage damage to runways.
Occasionally, local people approached the two British officers in the hope that they could solve various everyday problems. Among them were black marketeers who more or less openly asked for help in smuggling their ill-gotten fortunes out of town, probably fearing confiscation by ELAS. Lassen took their money and pretended to arrange for it to be sent securely to Athens – but in fact he doled it out among his own men. By the time the black-marketeers found out, Lassen and Solomon were long gone, and the victims of their scam had nowhere to turn to complain.
M Squadron did not fly to Athens on leave until 10 November, when space started to be available again on flights.
Athens was the scene of a couple of weeks of parties, booze, women and the kind of piratical approach to the miltary’s resources and money that was typical of Lassen and many of his comrades in the SBS. Lassen was usually to be found in Eddie’s Bar, which acted as an unofficial HQ for the SBS, and in the sumptuous Hotel Grande Bretagne. It was in the hotel that he blocked a lift when he tried to take an American jeep he had stolen – to replace his own, which had been stolen shortly before – up to his floor to stop it being stolen again. It was also here that, after swapping rooms with his fellow officer Charlie Clynes, he avoided an encounter with a very angry Greek husband armed with a pistol.
None of the accounts confirm whether the change of rooms, which earned Clynes a bullet in the leg, was down to chance or yet another example of Lassen’s legendary ability to obtain intelligence.
On Thursday 30 November, the commander of the SBS’ HQ Squadron, Walter Milner-Barry, noted in his diary:
Breakfast with Andy Lassen at a black market restaurant for about 15/. Andy tells me he [is] able to keep himself nearly by selling Diesel fuel!! Amoral but a modern Robin Hood.
He solemnly offered to give me a part of the proceeds, and was quite surprised when I declined!