Richard Holmes in battle dress and camouflage scarf made of parachute material in February 1945 while on leave in Rome
A letter of congratulation which accompanied a medal and was signed by King George VI for Richard Holmes' efforts on the island of Crete in July of 1943
Official citation for Military Medal signed by General Wilson and General Scobie which attests to the part Richard Holmes' played on the successful air raid on a fuel dump near Peza on the island of Crete July 4th, 1943
Military Medal awarded 'For Bravery in the Field' for destroying a fuel dump near the island of Crete on July 4th , 1943. The silver medal has L. CPL R.J. Holmes engraved on the rim
Richard Holmes (Right) and fellow SBS trooper Fred Crouch on the Island of Leros on the eve of German occupation, October 1943. Fred Crouch was killed in the largest action seen by the SBS during the Second World War.
"I guess I was lucky, I never found myself in that situation but I would say, we didn’t take too many prisoners after that."
1943 Raid on Crete and winning the Military Medal
The first operation I did was with the SBS [Special Boat Service] in 1943. The object of the whole thing was to keep aircraft away from the invasion fleet going into Sicily. So we marched onto the target, which was a hollow and the entrance we came in was here and then there were [supply] dumps here and then there was a barbed wire fence.
Everybody has four bombs, these are called Lewes Bombs. It’s a plastic explosive mixed with diesel oil and thermite. And the thermite causes a flash. If you put an ordinary bomb on a barrel of gasoline, it won’t ignite it. But it will release the gasoline. Anyway, we put these on and then while I was in there, a guard dog came along and they were patrolling and they met up right outside the dump that I was in. And I had just pressed the detonator on the time fuse, we had time pencils, and the dogs were straining at the leash. And they knew I was in the dump. And they were straining at the leash and the guards were pulling them down and telling them to shut up and God knows what and I pulled my, I had a big [.]455 Webley [revolver] and I pulled it out and I thought, “Jesus, if this dump goes up now, I’m in the shit.”
Anyway, they’d gone away and I waited 10 minutes to make sure they were alright and I started to go out of the dump and another pair came by. So I was stuck in there for, well, three-quarters of an hour at least, after I had got the bombs in place. So by the time I got out to where the others were waiting, over an hour had gone, so the officer decided that we wouldn’t do anymore, we would go. So off we went and we met up with the guide and the guide, we waited on the side of the mountain and watched the dumps go up and watched them spread over a big area because apparently, the bombs that the, the fuel that I had destroyed, the containers with the fuel in it were blown over the fence and set fire to the rest of the dump anyway. So at the time, they reckoned that there were about 30,000 gallons of aviation fuel went up. So that was pretty good. And then we made our way back.
Behind enemy lines in Yugoslavia
Everything was all set and the RE [Royal Engineers] corporal off to one side had just lit the safety fuse and no hurry to get away. And [Anders] Lassen* gave me the box, one of those little plungers and we went off and I discovered to my horror that there’s 500 pounds of explosive just there and 100 feet away, is me on the end of this wire. Well, I cleaned the terminals off and wound the wire around the terminal, screwed the nut back on, got it ready and Andy said, “Well, go on, set it off.” So (…), utter silence. So I thought, holy shit. So I thought I cleaned it, did it again and nothing happened. So Andy started to get up. He said, “Well, we’ll have to find out what’s wrong.” I said, “Just a minute. The corporal over here has already lit the fuses, so let’s wait until the time is up for his safety fuse to take effect.” And so he sat down again.
And we were behind a couple of huge boulders and then he got impatient and, “Let’s do it!” and as he stood up, the bloody lot exploded. I think it was, I just glanced over my shoulder, there was a piece rock the size of a small house went about five feet over his head. So I was under that (…), under that rock pretty smartly. Anyway, by the time the dust settled, we decided that we’d wait and see how much damage had been done but there was so much dust, it would have taken hours so we went up the side of the mountain and over the hill.
And fairly early the next morning I guess, we went down to see what damage it had done and to our delight, it had been blown right back, the abutments had been blown right back for yards. So we were quite happy with that. Then during the afternoon, somebody shouted, I forget what they shouted but they shouted something that wasn’t nice, and we looked up and there was the whistle blowing and there’s a whole, well I guess most of a platoon, I guess there were 40 of them there. And there were Ustashe, Croatian [fascist] troops officered by Germans. And this guy had got them organized; they knew what they were doing. And they were all equipped for rifles and I got a Tommy Gun, we had a Bren Gun, most of the other people had what they called M1 carbines, which is [.]30 with a range of about two or three hundred yards. Now these guys could have stood off and picked us off like nobody.
And we stood there and I went to pick up my pack and Andy said, “No!” I said, “What do you mean, no?” He said, “No, we’re going to stand here and fight.” Well that’s not what we do. I mean, we get in, we blow the thing up, we bugger off. And I tried to explain that to him and then it suddenly occurred to me, I said, “Are the Partisans** being involved in this?” And he said, “Yes.” I said, “Did they tell you…” – it’s funny, you know, he could communicate people though he didn’t speak the language. He spoke English well and pretty fair Greek and of course, Danish and I said, “Have they declared their undying loyalty to us to say they’re fighting to the last man?” And he said, “Something like that,” he said. So I was disgusted. And then he picked a place in the woods, I mean surrounded by trees, it’s a hollow in the ground. And he had us at the bottom of the hollow. So we couldn’t see when the Ustashe came through the trees, we couldn’t see them at all. So they’d just come to the lip of the hollow and lob grenades down and we were up the creek without a paddle.
So I thought, “Oh, God, got to get out of this.” So I went up on the ridge and climbed a small tree and just as I got to the top branch that would bear my weight, I looked down and there were about 10 Partisans with us, about that, a couple of them were women, the rest were men and they were just (…) easing their way behind the ridge and taking off. So I called down to Lassen, “Did you say the Partisans were fighting to the last man?” And he called up, “Yes!” I said, “Well, get up here bloody quickly, you’ll see them go.” And he saw the last one disappear. They didn’t fight.
And then we just took off, got lost up in the mountains somewhere and found a, left all our kit behind because he’d left it in another place. We found a patch of wild potatoes and we managed to survive on those for about three days until the Partisans found us again and took us down to the base where we caught the boat. And that was it.
We lost, four of our lads were taken prisoner, executed. Taken to prison off one of the islands and taken to Greece and vigorously interrogated and terminated, as they put it. The interrogation order was signed, and there’s proof of this, by Kurt Waldheim, Secretary General to the League of Nations [United Nations]. He became that after the war. And he signed the order. There was a big scandal about it in England in the mid-1960s I think. And they uncovered this order that was signed by him. So he was no doubt. They dropped leaflets and one thing and another, we didn’t worry too much about it, what the hell.
I guess I was lucky, I never found myself in that situation but I would say, we didn’t take too many prisoners after that.
*SBS commander and recipient of the Victoria Cross
** Yugoslav Partisans fighting under Marshall Tito against the German occupation of Yugoslavia
Interview conducted 18 July 2011.