THE incredible bravery and grit of one of Exeter’s most daring war heroes has been highlighted in a new book.
John Duggan, whose family still live in Exeter, was one of the founding members of the Special Boat Service and now features in a new book on the SBS by special forces expert historian Gavin Mortimer.
Described by one Conservative MP in 1944 as ‘a band of murderous, renegade cut-throats’, the SBS waged a brutal guerrilla war against the Nazis during the Second World War. Mr Mortimer’s book is the first to tell the dramatic and daring story of of what was Britain’s most secretive special forces unit
The book tells how Mr Duggan a local lad from Exeter joined the Royal Marines shortly before the outbreak of war in 1939.
His first taste of war was in march 1941 when his ship, the cruiser HMS Bonaventure, was sunk in the Mediterranean by a German U-Boat.
He along with 300 other sailors and Marines survived and it might have been this experience that prompted him to volunteer for the SBS, which had been formed the previous year – summer of 1940 – on the orders of Winston Churchill, recently appointed PM, who wanted to hit back at the Germans by launching seaborne commando raid on the French coast.
But having volunteered for the SBS, Duggan found himself in the Middle East carrying out raids along the North African coast on German targets such as supply dumps and airfields.
Then in September 1942 the SBS launched Operation Anglo, an audacious raid against the German-held island of Rhodes.
The Luftwaffe and Italian air force were using two airfields – Calatos and Maritsa - on Rhodes from which to attack British shipping in the Easter Med, thereby disrupting the British supplies needed so urgently in the war against General Erwin Rommel’s and his Afrika Korps.
Throughout the summer of 1942 Duggan and 11 other hand-picked SBS raiders trained for the mission.
The plan was to paddle ashore in two-man canoes from a submarine and land at Cape Feraclo, then having concealed the canoes, march approximately 15 miles to the two airfields over very rugged terrain in sweltering temperatures, each carrying haversacks weighing 50lbs, and with nothing to eat by bully beef and biscuits and hot tea.
They would then have to make their way back to the landing beach where the submarine would surface and take them home. It was a mission fraught with danger – there was a 30,000 strong enemy garrison on Rhodes.
The embarked aboard the Greek submarine Papanikolis on Aug 31 and paddled ashore on Rhodes in the evening of September 4. Two days later the raiders split into two, one party going to attack Maritsa and the other heading for Calatos.
Marine John Duggan was in the latter, the party led by Lt David Sutherland, a former Guards officer who had been educated at Eton and Sandhurst.
On the night of September 12/13 the six men attacked Calatos in three pairs. Sutherland and Duggan were together and they approached the north west corner of the airfield at 23.45 hours.
Avoiding the sentries, the pair moved among the aircraft placing bombs on at least 13 aircraft and also inside a petrol dump.
They withdrew at 0200 hours and ten minutes later the first bomb exploded. As they made their way towards the rendezvous they could hear gunfire coming from the direction of the other airfield.
For the next five nights Sutherland and Duggan avoided the hundreds of enemy soldiers scouring the island for the raiders as they inched their way towards the beach.
Unbeknown to them, the other party had destroyed 20 aircraft at Maritsa but were then all captured. So too were the other four members of their party.
They reached the beach and hid among the rocks as Italian soldiers searched the area.
At one point an enemy soldier rested on the rock under which Duggan and Sutherland were hiding.
Though they remained undetected the Italians discovered the SBS canoes.
Finally on the evening of September 17 the two SBS soldiers waded into the surf and signalled out to sea with their torch. They received a signal in return and so dived into the water.
Suddenly an Italian launch was heard so the submarine dived leaving Duggan and Sutherland in the sea. After more than hour swimming around, and nearing the end of their tether –they had eaten one tin of sardines each in the last five days– they heard the submarine surface and were pulled on board.
The raid was a great propaganda triumph for the British and Sutherland was awarded the Military Cross and Duggan the MM.
In the 1950s the raid was turned into a major film – They Who Dare, with Dirk Bogarde and Sutherland and Denholm Elliot as Duggan
Duggan and Sutherland died within a few months of each other in 2006
The SBS in World War II: An Illustrated History
Gavin Mortimer, published September 2013, £20, ISBN 978-1-78200-189-8