The Buzz

Britain's Elite 'Navy Seals' That You Never Heard of (That Hitler Feared)

At the next pillbox he heard a shout of “Kamerad!” and ordered Stephenson and the others to stay back as he approached it alone. He disappeared from view around the side. Then there was a burst of machine-gun fire. Seconds that seemed as long minutes to Stephenson passed. Then, “SBS, SBS, Major Lassen wounded. Here.”

Stephenson dashed to find the Germans gone and Lassen on his back. “Who is it?” the wounded man asked.

“Steve.”

“Good. Steve, I’m wounded. I am going to die.”

Stephenson put a morphine tablet on Lassen’s tongue, assuring, “We’re going to get you back.”

“No use, Steve. I’m dying and it’s been a poor show. Don’t go any further with it. Get the others out.” These were Lassen’s last words.

There was understandable bitterness inside the SBS for such a loss in what was regarded as a pointless attack with the war’s end so close. But there had already been another loss, the full extent of the tragedy not known for decades.

The half dozen men of Mission LS24 had disappeared in the Aegean in April 1944, the only SBS operation never to return. “The war is over but they remain listed as ‘missing,’” an officer sadly wrote in 1947. It was not until the 1980s that the terrible truth came out. They had been captured, tortured, and executed by the Germans.

Tragedy became international scandal over the role played in their fate by an officer named Kurt Waldheim. During his international career, culminating as secretary-general of the United Nations from 1971-1982, Waldheim’s story that he was medically discharged from the German Army in 1941 with a leg wound sustained on the Eastern Front had been accepted without scrutiny. But, while running for Austria’s ceremonial presidency in 1986, the truth came out. Waldheim had served through the entire war, including in the intelligence unit responsible for the interrogation and elimination of Mission LS24.

In the end it was established he had been on leave at the time and was too junior, as a lieutenant, to order or stop anything . But his claim that he knew nothing about it was found hard to accept. It seemed likely he would have heard of something so important later, or if he did not it was because he did not want to know, given the unit’s record of more war crimes.

In the end Kurt Waldheim could not escape the moral taint of LS24 and other war crimes. When he did win the election, Great Britain and the United States immediately withdrew their ambassadors from Vienna, sending no replacements, and Waldheim sat out his term internationally ignored.

Anders Lassen was posthumously awarded the Victoria Cross, but it was the only recognition that the Special Boat Service got out of the war. Fighting in such obscure corners of the conflict, it had never attracted the attention of the renowned Commandos, the Special Air Service, or the Long Range Desert Group, and the buccaneering, piratical image it enjoyed repelled the more conventionally minded, such as Prime Minister Winston Churchill.

During an astonishing exchange in Parliament in 1944, Churchill was asked, “It is true, Mr. Prime Minister, that there is a body of men out in the Aegean Islands, fighting under the Union Jack, that are nothing short of being a band of murderous, renegade cutthroats?”

Churchill found himself in the rarest of situations for him—at an utter loss for words. “If you do not sit down and keep quiet, I will send you to join them,” was all he could say in frustration.

The Special Boat Service was disbanded in September 1945, then was later reestablished in the Royal Marines. It struggled on for years, understaffed, underfunded, a career waystation, the more famous SAS mocking that its initials stood for “Shaky Boats.” The SBS finally made its new reputation in the Falklands War, including crucially locating what became the landing beach at San Carlos Bay.

Accepting just one candidate in 25, the Special Boat Service is now acknowledged as one of the toughest and most secretive units of its kind in the world. Further serving in locales like Bosnia and the Persian Gulf, it has lived up to what could have been its motto in World War II. “By Guile, Not Strength.”

John W. Osborn, Jr., has contributed to WWII History on numerous occasions. He writes from his home in Fort Myers, Florida.

This article originally appeared on Warfare History Network.

Image: Flickr / zaphad1.

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