Operation Emolument

This was the British naval undertaking to deliver a Special Operations Executive party onto the coast of Crete and extract other personnel (August 1943).

The SOE party was delivered by ML-361, which also recovered a number of Allied personnel. The launch departed Crete at 02.00, and at 06.55 was attacked by three Arado 196 aircraft, of which one approached from each quarter and one from ahead. At 07.00 the aft Oerlikon and port Breda hit the aeroplane attacking from the port quarter, causing it to break off the action, but no before both gun crews were hit. An RAF rescue launch takes off casualties, and acted as escort back to Derna.

It was at a meeting between representatives of the Royal Navy and the SOE in Cairo on 18 October 1942 that agreement had been reached on the idea of using a modified motor launch to support SOE operations in the eastern part of the Mediterranean. The launch selected was ML-361, and early in January 1943 this vessel departed the Cairo yard and transited the Sweetwater Canal to Port Said to have its armament installed.

The armament fit was far heavier than any previously carried by a gunboat of this size. The armament of the standard Fairmile Type 'B' launch included 20 depth charges carried on the upper deck, but this was reduced to just two depth charges, the considerable saving of top-weight allowing the installation of guns and ammunition lockers without making the vessel top-heavy. On the foredeck amidships was a 20-mm Oerlikon cannon in place of the standard 6-pdr gun, with a 40-mm Breda cannon on each side of the bow. Each bridge wing had a twin 0.303-in (7.7-mm) Vickers machine gun mounting, with a pair of 0.5-in (12.7-mm) Browning machine guns fitted abaft them, and then two 20-mm Breda cannons. The standard 20-mm Oerlikon cannon amidships aft was retained.

To man this armament it was necessary to carry a larger crew, but as ML-361 carried no Asdic the usual two Asdic ratings were omitted. The launch’s crew was 18 men, which was sufficient to man the guns needed either to fight an air attack or to fight a surface engagement: some of the guns were suitable for one, but not both, kinds of engagement.

The launch was finished with a camouflage scheme of 'Mountbatten Pink' on the topsides and a delicate pastel shade of apple green on the upper works, making the launch as inconspicuous as possible at night.

ML-361 had a Canadian, Lieutenant Bob Young, as captain and an Australian, Lieutenant Norman Hinton, as first lieutenant.

A typical SOE support operation was that which started at 07.30 on 14 February 1943 when the launch departed Sollum for Crete in conditions including a fresh westerly wind and a considerable sea. Conditions improved in the afternoon but, as Crete was approached, the wind veered to the north with heavy rain and poor visibility. This increased until at midnight it was blowing gale force, with low cloud hanging on the mountains making it difficult to pick up landmarks.

After steaming up and down close to the shore, blinded by the stinging spray, the launch arrived at the rendezvous at 02.00 on 15 February, one hour later than arranged. Patrick Leigh-Fermor was in charge of the beach, or rather rocky crevice, and had the evacuation well organised. Thus the ferrying of 27 evacuees onto the launch took only 45 minutes. With little more than two hours left before dawn the launch departed to the south at top speed, making 17 kt, until at daybreak a quartering sea compelled a reduction of speed. As the launched got clear to the south, away from the protection of Crete, the seas increased and the launch yawed wildly as each wave came under it. At 10.00 a further reduction to 10 kt was necessary. In the overcast weather only two aircraft were seen, both flying low toward Crete, but these flew straight past without altering course. The launch reached Mersa Matruh at 13.15 and unloaded its passengers.