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  • Writer's pictureMatthew Camilleri

Anders Lassen - "The Terrible Viking"

Some men are born warriors. Anders Lassen was one such man. When his native country was overrun by Nazi Germany, the young Dane volunteered for service with the British Armed Forces to take the war to the enemy. Despite a lack of formal military training, he would prove to be a natural-born soldier and would take part in some of the most daring raids of World War Two. Affectionately nicknamed "The Terrible Viking" by his comrades, he became known for his extraordinary courage, physical endurance, and leadership qualities, all of which led to him achieving legendary status.


Major Anders Lassen, VC, MC & Two Bars

Early Life


Anders Frederik Emil Victor Schau Lassen was born on 22nd September 1920 on the Høvdingsgård estate, near the village of Mern, in the Zealand region of Denmark, to landowner Emil Victor Schau Lassen and his wife Suzanne Maria Signe Lassen (née Raben-Levetzau). He was the eldest of three children, soon to be followed by another boy, Frants Aksel, in 1922, and a girl, Bente, in 1931.


Høvdingsgård, where Anders Lassen was born on 22nd September 1920.

Anders was born into a patriotic family with strong military traditions. His paternal great-grandfather, Emil Victor Schau, had been killed fighting the Prussians in the Battle of Dybbøl in April 1864, during the Second Schleswig War. One of Emil Victor’s brothers also died of wounds sustained in the same battle, while another two of their siblings had previously fallen in the Three Years' War (1848-50).


Despite his family’s wealth and distinguished status, from a young age, Anders seemed to be more interested in a life of adventure rather than the mundane job of managing an estate, like his father and grandfather before him. In 1931, he was sent to Herlufsholm School, a private boarding school founded in 1565 for "sons of noble and other honest men", where it soon became obvious that Anders was no intellectual. Although he was popular and respected, his grades left a lot to be desired.


In 1931, Lassen was sent to Herlufsholm School, in Næstved, a private boarding school founded in 1565.

Anders was happiest when spending time outdoors with his younger brother Frants, often spending holidays from Herlufsholm camping, fishing, or hunting on the family estate. In the process, he developed his fieldcraft skills whilst becoming an excellent archer and marksman. In the summer of 1938, Anders left secondary school after only just passing his final exam with the lowest scores of his entire year. With his prospects somewhat limited, he decided to become a sailor in the Danish merchant fleet.


Sea Service


His first ship was the MS Fionia, of the East Asiatic Company, which had a route from Copenhagen to Bangkok, Thailand. In January 1939, Lassen sailed on his first trip. Four months later, he was back in Copenhagen, where his entire family turned up to greet him. Having applied for a job with A.P. Møller, he was hired as an apprentice sailor on the tanker MV Eleonora Mærsk in June 1939. Soon afterwards, he left Denmark for what would prove to be the very last time. The last physical contact with his family would be in August, when his mother visited him in Hamburg, Germany. Less than a month later, World War Two started.


MS Fionia, of the East Asiatic Company, was Lassen's first ship.

Initially, Lassen showed little interest in the war, but that all changed when the Germans invaded Denmark on 9th April 1940. On that day, the Eleonora Mærsk was in the Persian Gulf when the captain received a telegram from the shipping company informing him of the news, and instructing him to dock his ship at a neutral or German port. Instead, under pressure from the crew, he sailed to the British protectorate of Bahrain, where the Eleonora Mærsk was requisitioned by the Ministry of War Transport. After this, she sailed under the British flag, mostly on a regular route between South Africa and the Persian Gulf. The ship was provided with a gun, with Lassen becoming a member of its crew.


In June 1939, Lassen joined the crew of the tanker MV Eleonora Mærsk .

Yet, what Lassen really wanted to do was to fight the Germans. Thus, in October 1940, while ashore in Cape Town, South Africa, he signed up as a gunner on the tanker SS British Consul, which took him to Scapa Flow, in the Orkney Islands. From there, he made his way to Newcastle-upon-Tyne, where he had a fortuitous meeting with an agent from the Special Operations Executive (SOE). The SOE had been formed in July 1940 to conduct espionage and sabotage operations in German-occupied Europe, and to aid local resistance movements. This was seriously hazardous work that required a special breed of men and women, and Anders Lassen seemed to fit the bill.


SOE


In January 1941, Lassen was sent to one of the SOE training centres, where he initially found the lectures boring and unimaginative. It was only when he was sent to Arisaig, Scotland, to undergo paramilitary training, that he began to settle down. In the Scottish Highlands, Lassen was in his element. Drawing upon his childhood experiences, he was able to display his exceptional fieldcraft skills, which made him stand out from his fellow students. On one occasion, he allegedly took down a deer he had silently crept upon, using only his Fairbairn-Sykes Fighting Knife.


The only thing that let Lassen down, just as in his school days, was his temperament. His contempt for discipline and quick temper made him unfit for spy work and scuppered his chances of being employed as an undercover SOE agent. Instead, he was recommended to Major Gustavus "Gus" March-Phillipps, who was recruiting men for a new unit. March-Phillipps had been amongst the first to volunteer for the Commandos after their formation in 1940. In early 1941, he was recruited by the SOE and tasked with forming a specialist unit based in Poole Harbour for small-scale cross-Channel raids.


Major Gustavus "Gus" March-Phillipps.

March-Phillipps requisitioned a Brixham trawler named Maid Honor, which he had specially converted for clandestine operations. Since she was only big enough for a crew of eleven, he had to choose his men carefully. The so-called 'Maid Honor Force' also included March-Phillipps’ trusted second-in-command, Captain Geoffrey Appleyard. Anders Lassen was also chosen, not only because of his martial abilities, but also due to his previous experience as a sailor.


Lassen arrived in Poole in April 1941, where he underwent extensive training with his new unit. This included weapons training, close-quarter combat, small-boat operations, swimming, and long marches with heavy packs. Once again, Lassen excelled and earned the respect of his colleagues. Soon, however, training was over and it was time for the 'Maid Honor Force' to prove its value. That opportunity would present itself the following January in a dramatic raid in a neutral harbour on the island of Fernando Po, located off the west coast of Central Africa.


Operation Postmaster


In 1941, the British Admiralty had begun receiving reports that German U-boats were using river estuaries in Vichy French Equatorial Africa as refuelling bases. The 'Maid Honor Force' was tasked with investigating the veracity of these reports. The Maid Honor left Poole Harbour on 9th August, bound for West Africa, with a five-man crew led by March-Phillipps and including Anders Lassen. The rest of the unit, under Appleyard, was to make its way to its new base of operations - Freetown, Sierra Leone - on board a troopship. On 20th September, after six weeks at sea, the Maid Honor arrived in Freetown, and the search for the German submarine bases started in earnest. Yet they found no evidence of what they were looking for.


In the meantime, however, SOE agents stationed in the area had become aware of three vessels anchored in the port of Santa Isabel, on the Spanish island of Fernando Po (modern-day Bioko, in Equatorial Guinea). These were the 8,500-ton Italian merchant ship Duchessa d’Aosta, the large German tugboat Likomba, and the barge Burundi. The Duchessa d’Aosta was considered a threat because of her radio, which could provide information about Allied naval movements. Furthermore, though she claimed to be carrying supplies, such as wool and tanning materials, the first page of her cargo manifest had not been presented to the port authorities, and her captain had refused to provide the required details, leading to speculation that she was also carrying arms or ammunition.


The harbour of Malabo (formerly Santa Isabel), in Bioko, Equatorial Guinea.

Whilst the SOE wanted to launch a raid against the ships, doing so whilst they were moored in a neutral harbour would have been extremely controversial. British authorities in the area initially refused to support the idea, but in January 1942, the go-ahead was given. A local SOE agent had discovered that the ships’ officers tended to accept invitations to parties ashore. He arranged for such a party to be held on the evening of 14th January, when the raid was due to take place, to ensure that the officers would be away from their ships.


In the meantime, the 'Maid Honor Force' had been in Lagos, Nigeria, preparing for the upcoming mission. To transport them to Fernando Po, they had been provided with the tugs Vulcan and Nuneaton by the Nigerian authorities. The raiding force would consist of 32 men: The eleven members of the 'Maid Honor Force', four SOE agents, and 17 Nigerian civilians to crew the tugs. On the morning of 11th January, they departed from Lagos, taking the opportunity whilst out at sea to practice lowering kayaks and ship boarding.


At around 11.30 pm on 14th January, the two tugs made their way through the entrance of Santa Isabel harbour, with the boarding parties assembled on deck, their faces blackened. Kayaks were launched from Nuneaton towards Likomba and Burundi, which were moored together. As the men boarded Burundi, two terrified crew members jumped overboard, leaving the raiders free to plant explosive charges on the anchor chain. They then guided Nuneaton alongside Likomba to take her and the Burundi in tow. The charges were blown and Nuneaton started to drag the two vessels out of the harbour. Meanwhile, another raiding party from Vulcan had managed to board Duchessa d’Aosta, with Lassen leading the way. While one group planted charges on her anchor chains, another searched below decks, collecting prisoners. Soon, the Italian merchantman was also being towed out towards the open sea.


The Duchessa d'Aosta.

Upon hearing the sound of the explosions, the Italian and German officers ran towards the harbour, trying to figure out what was happening. Anti-aircraft guns opened fire at imaginary targets, with their crews believing that the port was under aerial attack. Whilst all this was going on, the raiders slipped away unnoticed. The operation had lasted around 30 minutes and had been carried out without any losses to the raiding party. In return, they had captured three vessels and 29 prisoners. British warships that had been deliberately dispatched to the area later claimed to have found the ships drifting on the open sea, and thus claimed them as prizes. The furious Spanish authorities knew this was a lie, but there was nothing they could do about it.


In the aftermath of the raid, Lassen was given a commission, being promoted to second lieutenant, whilst also being awarded the Military Cross. His previous maritime experience, together with his fearlessness, had played a crucial role in the success of the operation. He had found something that he enjoyed doing; taking on the enemy through unconventional means. The success of Operation Postmaster led to the 'Maid Honor Force' being expanded and re-designated as the Small Scale Raiding Force (SSRF), also known as No. 62 Commando.


No. 62 Commando


Lord Louis Mountbatten, the Chief of Combined Operations, successfully negotiated for operational control of the SSRF, which was nonetheless still administered by the SOE. March-Phillipps continued to lead the force, with Appleyard as his second in command. The newly expanded unit consisted of 55 men whose task was to undertake "pinprick" raids on the coast of northern France and the Channel Islands. Typical objectives included intelligence gathering, capturing prisoners for interrogation, demoralising the enemy, and tying up his resources.


No. 62 Commando carried out numerous cross-Channel operations with mixed fortunes. Operation Barricade and Operation Dryad were complete successes, but Operation Aquatint, which took place near Sainte-Honorine-des-Pertes, in Normandy, on the night of 12th/13th September 1942, resulted in the loss of all the men involved, including March-Phillips, who was among those killed. Although Lassen participated in most of these missions, he had luckily not been involved in Operation Aquatint.


MTB 344, also known as "The Little Pisser", was one of the vessels used by the SSRF for their cross-Channel raids.

In early October, No. 62 Commando, now led by Geoffrey Appleyard, carried out Operation Basalt on Sark, one of the Channel Islands. During this operation, five German soldiers were captured and had their hands tied behind their backs, but as they were being led away, they made a run for it. In the confusion that followed, two of them were killed, at least one of them by Lassen using his Commando knife. When their bodies were discovered, still with their hands tied, the Germans claimed they had been executed. In retaliation, an infuriated Adolf Hitler issued the infamous Commando Order, which stated that henceforth, all captured Allied Commandos should be summarily executed without trial, even if in proper uniforms or if they attempted to surrender, in a direct breach of the laws of war.


Special Boat Squadron


In early 1943, No. 62 Commando was disbanded, with its members being dispersed among other formations. Some of the men were sent to the Middle East to join the Special Boat Squadron (SBS), including Lassen, who by this time had been promoted to lieutenant. The SBS had emerged from the recently reorganised 1st Special Air Service, a British Army unit that had been formed in North Africa in July 1941 to carry out sabotage raids deep behind enemy lines. Now, the unit was split into two: The Special Raiding Squadron (SRS) and the SBS, which was to be commanded by Major George Jellicoe.


The SBS specialised in amphibious warfare, particularly reconnaissance and sabotage operations. Based in Atlit, a coastal town south of Haifa, Palestine, the SBS carried out its first major operation in July 1943, when it was tasked with carrying out diversionary attacks on Axis airfields in Crete and Sardinia just before the Allied landings in Sicily. Lassen was to lead a four-man patrol on a raid against Kastelli airfield, in Crete. After being transported by motor launch, the SBS men paddled ashore in dinghies, before marching inland for two days over inhospitable terrain.


Anders Lassen in Crete, June/July 1943.

Lassen split his patrol into two so that they could attack from opposite directions. Having crept past the wire unnoticed, he and Private Ray Jones approached the parked aircraft and started attaching bombs with timed fuses to them. Suddenly, they were challenged by a sentry. Lassen promptly shot him dead, but the sound alerted the rest of the guards. A firefight broke out, which served to draw attention away from the other two members of the patrol, who were able to plant their bombs before fleeing the airfield unnoticed. When the explosions went off soon afterwards, causing even more confusion, Lassen and Jones also slipped away. The raiding party made good their escape from Crete, having destroyed five aircraft. The success of this operation led to Lassen receiving a bar to his Military Cross.


Following Italy's surrender in September 1943, the Allies attempted to gain control of the Italian-controlled Dodecanese Islands before the Germans did, hoping to use them as bases against the German-controlled Balkans. The SBS would be heavily involved in the fighting to come. Lassen, who had been promoted to captain in September, took part in many of these missions, including in the fierce engagements on Symi, where he earned a second bar to his Military Cross. Despite his efforts, however, the campaign proved to be a costly failure for the Allies, with the whole Dodecanese falling to the Germans within two months. Yet, SBS raids in the area continued, helping to tie down enemy forces that could otherwise have been used elsewhere.


Throughout these missions, Lassen distinguished himself, emerging as a leader. Night after night, he would lead his men in silent, daring raids. Sailing around the islands in small, traditional Greek fishing boats, they would lie up during the day, before striking under the cover of darkness, with the enemy never knowing where the next attack was going to be. Lassen’s hunting skills came to the fore, only this time, he was silently stalking and killing German sentries rather than deer. His men adored him, not only for his fearlessness and impressive skills, but also because he would never order them to do something he would not do himself. He also understood the concerns of the local people, which earned him their support.


SBS men, including Anders Lassen (top right).

In April 1944, an SBS team led by Lassen raided Santorini. The 18-man party sailed aboard two schooners from their hideout on the Turkish coast on 19th April, arriving three days later, having travelled by night and moored up by day off small, uninhabited islands. The schooners then sailed away towards the Christiana Islands, located some 16 kilometres southwest of Santorini, where they were to hide until it was time to pick up the raiders. In the meantime, Lassen decided to split his force into three detachments. One of them was to attack the barracks in Fira, the second would attempt to capture the German commanding officer at his residence in the town, while the third group would target the radio station at Imerovigli.


In the early hours of 24th April, the raid got underway. Lassen led the attack on the barracks, where most of the 35-man garrison was eliminated. Sadly, two SBS men were also killed. The attempt to capture the German commanding officer failed, as he was able to escape before being apprehended, but the building housing the radio station was successfully blown up. The raiders were able to make their getaway from Santorini after having been picked up by the schooners, even managing to avoid the attention of enemy aircraft attempting to hunt them down over the next couple of days. Lassen’s mission report when he returned to base was succinct: "Landed. Killed Germans. Fucked off."


A typical Greek caique, of the type used by the SBS for raids across the Aegean.

The following month, another raid was launched on Paros, targeting an airfield that was being constructed at Molos. Late on 16th May, Lassen and his 12-man party, aided by the local resistance, attacked the airfield, destroying communications equipment and inflicting casualties on the enemy, including the German commander, who was killed. They also gathered important intelligence regarding the island’s defences. Unfortunately, their Greek guide, Nikolas Stellas, was captured by the Germans and publicly hanged. Thankfully, although another 125 men from the village of Marpissa were also slated for execution, the island’s new German commander opted not to proceed with the reprisals.


In July, the SBS returned to Symi, where they carried out a combined operation with the Greek Sacred Band. This was a larger-scale raid which resulted in 21 Germans being killed and 151 others being captured. One S-boot, two ferry barges and 19 German caïques were also sunk, while other enemy military infrastructure was also destroyed. Allied losses were eight men wounded and two men drowned. The raid on Symi was the last of its kind in the Aegean for the SBS, as, by August 1944, the unit had moved to Bari, Italy, to prepare for attacks on targets in Yugoslavia.


SBS men posing with a trophy from one of their raids.

On 30th August, Lassen led a sabotage operation against a railway bridge at Karasovici. The bridge was successfully blown up to make the German retreat from Greece and the Balkans more difficult. Despite completing their objective, Lassen’s force encountered some Croat Ustaše forces. One SBS man was killed and two others were captured. The rest of the patrol made it back to Bari, where Lassen delivered another of his famous reports: "We landed, we reached the bridge, we destroyed it."


In late September, the SBS was ordered back to Greece, where the German hold was weakening by the day. The following month, Lassen and his unit took part in the liberation of Athens. On 29th October, he led the first British force to enter Saloniki, Greece’s second-largest city, where the Germans were preparing to destroy the harbour installations and fuel depots. Although he only had 50 men with him, he convinced the Germans that he was leading a much larger force, forcing them to abandon the city without carrying out the planned acts of sabotage.


SBS men pose in front of the Parthenon, Athens.

Between December 1944 and February 1945, Lassen served as governor of Crete, where his small force was tasked with containing the 13,000-strong German garrison into the small pocket it had withdrawn into, while at the same time also attempting to control rising tensions between left and right-wing Greek partisan organisations. As relations between those two factions steadily worsened, Lassen’s men were not only attacked by communist partisans but also by sections of the civilian population. This resulted in two of Lassen’s men being killed in an ambush, and he must have been somewhat relieved when in February, the SBS men were sent back to Italy to continue the fight against the Germans.


Italy


On 1st April 1945, the 2nd Commando Brigade launched Operation Roast at Lake Comacchio, in northeast Italy. This was the first major action in the Allied 15th Army Group's big spring offensive to push the Germans out of Italy, and was intended as a diversionary attack to draw German reserves away from the main assault, which was to come through the Argenta Gap. On the night of 8th/9th April, Lassen was ordered to lead an 18-man SBS patrol on a raid along the northern shore of Lake Comacchio, to give the impression that a major landing was taking place, in yet another deceptive operation.


Major Lassen (right) discussing the forthcoming Lake Comacchio raid, April 1945.

Upon landing, the party found itself on a narrow road flanked by water on both sides. Lassen led the patrol, preceded by two scouts. Soon after, they were challenged by German sentries, and despite an attempt to pass themselves off as local fishermen, a machine gun emplacement opened up on them, followed by two more moments later. Lassen jumped into action, annihilating the first position using grenades. With the rest of his men providing covering fire, he then raced through a hail of bullets sweeping the road to silence the second position as well.


By this time, the patrol had suffered casualties, resulting in its firepower being considerably reduced. Still under fire, Lassen rallied his force before personally advancing onto the third position. Flinging more grenades until he heard cries of surrender, he advanced towards the position to capture the enemy soldiers manning it, when yet another machine gun opened up, mortally wounding him. As he fell, he was able to launch one last grenade, which injured some of those manning the last position, enabling his men to rush in and capture it. With their ammunition almost exhausted, the SBS men realised they had no option but to withdraw, but when they attempted to take the dying Lassen with them, he ordered them to leave him behind, knowing that he would only slow them down.


Four SBS men lost their lives during this raid, including Lassen. He was 24 years old. During his final battle against the Germans, he had wiped out three enemy positions, silenced six machine guns, killed eight men, and captured two more. For his actions, he was posthumously awarded the Victoria Cross, making him the only non-Commonwealth recipient of this award during World War Two. His family was presented with his gallantry awards by King George VI at Buckingham Palace in December 1945.


Major Anders Lassen lies buried at the Argenta Gap War Cemetery, Italy.

Today, Anders Lassen lies buried at the Argenta Gap War Cemetery. His Victoria Cross is on display at the Frihedsmuseet (Museum of Danish Resistance) in Copenhagen, Denmark, while a bust dedicated to him is found in the Churchillparken, just outside the museum. World War Two produced many heroes. Anders Lassen was undoubtedly one of them.

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