Operation Outing

'Outing' was a British pair of naval undertakings ('Outing I' and 'Outing II') against German shipping in the Aegean Sea (14/20 September and 27 September/20 October 1944).

Before the end of August 1944 Soviet forces were advancing rapidly to the south-west and then to west across the eastern frontiers of Romania and Bulgaria, two German allies which soon attempted to secure armistice terms and then changed sides. These defections materially worsened the operational situation in which the German forces in southern Greece and the islands of the Aegean Sea now found themselves, and on 27 August Adolf Hitler ordered a gradual withdrawal of the forces of Generaloberst Alexander Löhr’s Heeresgruppe 'E' from Greece into the central Balkans. The Germans initially hoped to fall back to a line extending between Corfu island to the north-east across Greece and including the port of Thessaloníki, but the continued advance of the Soviet land forces to the south from Bulgaria soon rendered this impractically far forward.

On 5 September the Germans began to reduce their garrisons in southern Greece, Crete and the islands of the Aegean Sea, a fact of which Allied intelligence soon became aware. The British therefore planned to deploy strong enough naval forces, including escort carriers, cruisers, destroyers and submarines, to stop the German maritime movements, and at the same time to employ aircraft of Air Marshal Sir Keith Park’s RAF Middle East Command in a parallel undertaking from the air. Other elements of this overall scheme were for heavy bombers operating from Italian bases to attack airfields and ports, for landings to be made by small amphibious forces at certain key points, and for airborne forces to seize airfields on the mainland of Greece as soon as a favourable opportunity offered.

The Germans nonetheless managed to assemble a air force of some 80 transport machines on airfields in the area of Athens, and also to collect a maritime force of some 50 small merchant and auxiliary vessels, totalling about 27,000 tons, many light warships and landing craft, and about 200 caiques. This was an especially difficult time for the Germans, as they had lost naval and air superiority on and over the Aegean Sea, but they operated with their customary skill and determination to effect the evacuations on which they decided, and indeed achieved considerable success.

At a time early in September the Royal Navy established a naval force under Rear Admiral T. H. Troubridge for Aegean Sea operations. This force initially comprised two light cruisers, seven escort carriers (Attacker, Emperor, Hunter, Khedive, Pursuer, Searcher and Stalker) and seven fleet destroyers, supported by submarines and coastal forces. This force started 'Outing I' during the night of 12/13 September, when the destroyers sank all four small transports of a German convoy between Crete and Thíra (Santorini). Three days later the warships landed troops on the island of Kythira to the south of the Peloponnese, where work was immediately launched on the establishment of an advanced base for coastal craft. On 15 September Troubridge’s destroyers worked for the first time in the area to the north of Crete, in the waters where the Royal Navy had lost so many ships and men to German air attack during May 1941 while trying to evacuate the survivors of the Allied defeat on Crete after the German 'Merkur' airborne operation.

The boot was on the other foot now, for while the British warships operated under cover of shore-based and carrierborne fighters, the German convoys received only inadequate protection from the altogether outclassed Luftwaffe. Even so, the British found it very difficult initially to halt the withdrawal of the German garrison from Crete by transport aircraft, generally by night, until the arrival of the fighter direction ship Ulster Queen. This vessel also helped to co-ordinate the operations of Bristol Beaufighter attack aircraft operating from bases in northern Egypt against German maritime traffic.

By a time early in October Troubridge’s forces had intercepted and destroyed nearly 20 German transport aircraft, but by that time more than 12,000 troops had been moved to the mainland. Between 9 and 20 September Troubridge’s ships, managing to pass through the minefields which the Germans had laid in many of the narrower channels, moved into the northern part of the Aegean Sea, and achieved a greater degree of success. The carrierborne aircraft, cruisers and destroyers soon sank some 60 German vessels, and also attacked shore targets on many islands, including Rhodes.

Pursuer and Searcher left Troubridge’s force at the end of September with the conclusion of 'Outing II', but Aegean Sea operations continued at a lower tempo in 'Manna' to the end of October. In overall terms, the escort carriers despatched 640 sorties, the naval airmen effecting considerable execution at minimal cost, this latter resulting primarily from the better training which carrier aircrew now received, which significantly reduced the incidence of deck-landing accidents.

It should be noted that the Germans, despite their heavy losses in aircraft and ships, persevered with their efforts to withdrawn men from the Aegean. Late in September, in 'Odysseus', they managed to move three ex-Italian torpedo boats from Trieste through the Strait of Otranto and the Corinth Canal to Piraeus as a means of accelerating the evacuation of island garrisons and hampering British ship movements by laying minefields, but all three of the ships were lost during October.

On 3 October Hitler finally decided that all the German forces left in Greece should be withdrawn for service elsewhere, and on 12 October the last German forces left Athens.

By this time the British had, on 1 October, taken the island of Póros at the entrance to the Gulf of Athens, and now started to sweep the channels into Piraeus, as well as those into other Greek ports such as Patras and Kalamata in the Peloponnese, but the Germans had undertaken so extensive a minelaying effort that large numbers of minesweepers had to be employed: even so, the process was difficult and therefore slow.

Between the end of August and the end of October the Germans had succeeded in removing more than 37,000 men, most of them by air, to the mainland from Crete and the Aegean islands. They also managed to extract useful quantities of matériel, but by the end of October the British had sunk more than half of the mercantile tonnage remaining to the Germans, and the British naval and air forces had put a complete stop to the evacuation process. However, on Crete, Rhodes, Léros, Kos and a small number of lesser islands there were still substantial garrisons of German troops. In mid-October craft of the Coastal Force landed troops at Mudros on the island of Lemnos without undue resistance, but small landings on the islands of Mílos and Piskopi farther to the south met resistance which was so determined that the Allied troops had to withdraw. Moreover, neither air attacks nor shore bombardment by cruisers (and also by the battleship King George V while passing through the Mediterranean to join the Eastern Fleet) was able to persuade the last island garrisons to surrender. These last garrisons were incapable of offensive action, however, and were left in isolation as they were deemed unworthy of large-scale amphibious assault.

By the end of October, therefore, in the Mediterranean theatre only the northern parts of the Adriatic and Tyrrhenian Seas were left in Axis hands.