World War II has been a part of Reginald Wise’s life since he was 14 years old.
That began in 1939, of course. The next year, he signed up with the Home Guard. He joined the Royal Marines at 17, in June, 1942. The youthful Wise then became a sniper with the Royal Marines’ No. 40 Commando.
He fought in Italy, Albania, and Yugoslavia and there isn’t a day that goes by when the Cloverdale resident doesn’t think of the war.
Wise’s Royal Marines fought in the Battle for Sarande in September, 1944 (not to be confused with the 1940 Battle of Saranda).
ON HIS MIND
The engagement at Sarande gave him a famous photo (see picture above) when he and his fellow commandos captured a Nazi flag after the port town fell to the Allies.
That forgotten battle of WWII has been on his mind as Remembrance Day approaches because he’s been working on a painting of the photo for more than a year. He thought it was nearly complete, but the 96-year-old just received much-needed cataract surgery and it’s improved the way he sees colours.
“I can see better now than I have for the last 25 years,” he says. “I can see that the colours are all wrong in the painting and I need to fix it.”
He plans to send the painting to No. 40 Commando headquarters in Devon, England when he finishes it, but laughs, “the boys will have to wait now.”
Wise uses painting to brush away his trauma from the war. It’s therapy with a brush and an artist’s palette. He says when he paints, he doesn’t think about anything else. He’s captivated by each of the brush’s strokes, entrenched in nothing but the lines of colour and shape.
Re-engaging the painting has sent Wise back to revisit the pictures he’s used to help him paint his moment in time. The original picture is worn and faded and Wise can’t make out some of the men’s faces, so he uses a bunch of other photos to help him get his war buddies’ faces just right.
The pictures take him back 76 years. It was Sept. 24, 1944, when 40 Commando landed at Sugar Beach (modern-day Kakome Beach) in Albania, about six miles north of Sarande. Wise says there was a lighting storm that night and the noise helped cover their landings.
No. 2 Army Commando landed at Sugar beach two days earlier to begin what was called Operation Mercerised. The goal was to capture the port city of Sarande and cut off the German evacuation route for their forces in Greece and Albania.
Intelligence reported 200 German troops in Sarande, but No. 2 Commando soon found out there were more than 2,000. That’s why Wise’s unit was called in.
It was a fight just to get the six miles to town, Wise recalls. “There were no roads as one would call a road. It was a dirt track. There was no transport and we had to carry everything ourselves.”
There were also more than 20 German artillery positions lined along the “dirt track,” making it difficult for the commandos to advance to Sarande.
He said all the Germans concentrated on was keeping the roads and the railways safe. They never went up into the mountains.
“The Germans knew there were no main roads, so they never thought we’d have 75 mm artillery with us,” laughs Wise. “Surprise!”
It took Wise and his fellow commandos a few weeks to map the German defences. They would go out on patrols and light firecrackers in odd places. The Germans would then open up with their machine guns, giving their positions away, and the commandos would watch from a distance.
Once on patrol, Wise was getting thirsty and his canteen was empty. He spotted a rivulet trickling off a rock face about seven feet high. Wise pulled his water bottle out and stood up to try and fill it.
“Ding!” exclaims Wise, ringing in his voice. “A bullet ricocheted off. I thought, ‘Oh, you’ve got my number, have ya?’ So I looked to see where he was, I had a rough idea, so I told my guys I had to move that guy.”
Wise says after he “moved” the sniper, he went back to get some more water and, “Ding! another bullet ricocheted.”
“I was thirsty as hell and I saw some large grass there, it was hollow, so I made a long straw and drank the dripping water,” he laughs.
Wise and his patrol mates moved on after that. He never got the second sniper, but his patrol got the German positions and Wise got his water.
After a few weeks of surveillance, the commandos gathered enough intelligence to launch their attack into Sarande and moved on the inland side of the port city.
The Battle for Sarande began Oct. 9 at 4 a.m. with a bombardment of German positions. Troops began their advance at 4:30 a.m. and were met with heavy resistance as they were caught in the crossfire of several Spandau machine guns.
“It was hard, close-quarter fighting in darkness pierced frequently by incendiary ammunition and star shell chandeliers, which illuminated the ugly reality on the ground,” Major Jeff Beadle writes about the battle in his book The Blue Lanyard: 50 years with 40 Commando, Royal Marines.
Beadle notes the Royal Marines held their ground against a severe German counterattack and outlasted an all-out onslaught for more than an hour.
The Royal Marines advanced through more heavy fighting to finally reach Sarande.
Wise recalls the fighting in town being brutal, house-to-house combat. “Very close fighting and very difficult.”
“After four hours of savage street fighting, the German resistance was finally broken and the garrison of 750 men surrendered,” writes Beadle.
The commandos were quite successful in the operation to take the town. They only suffered 57 casualties: nine dead and 48 wounded.
“The men were all battle-hardened,” recalls Wise. “They knew exactly what to do. You didn’t have to tell them anything. That’s why we did so well and why our casualties were so low.”
Early in the evening the garrison commander from Corfu sailed across with four boats full of German soldiers. They were immediately taken prisoner when they reached shore.
“He was quite surprised,” remembers Wise. “We were as well. No one expected him to fall into our hands like that.”
Wise and his pals took the flag from the commander’s boat. Later, in November on Corfu, Wise and his fellow commandos would snap their famous pic.
Wise says a lot of the houses in the town were booby trapped. They were ordered to evacuate and the centre of town blew up the next day. Wise says his unit was then moved back to Sugar Beach as the Royal Marines believed there to be even more explosives hidden in town. A few days later another explosion destroyed a large part of Sarande.
Wise says it was then decided 40 Commando would go on to take Corfu. A plane from the Balkan Air Force dropped leaflets on the island on Oct. 11. “These contained details of the fall of Sarande and called on the German garrison to surrender,” writes Beadle.
When Wise and the rest of 40 Commando arrived on Corfu two days later, the few Germans that were left surrendered without incident and the people of Corfu welcomed them with dancing, singing, and flowing wine.
“They were cheering like crazy,” remembers Wise. “They were quite happy to see us and not just because we liberated them from the Germans. The Greek Civil War had started between the communists and the royalists troops and they wanted us to keep the peace.”
For the next few months, No. 40 Commando was stationed on the island.
“We had to go on patrols every night, but it was an enjoyable time in the middle of a war. It was the longest rest period we ever had, very relaxing.”
At Christmas, the Royal Marines found an abandoned warehouse in one of the towns that contained things the Nazis had stolen from Jewish people that lived on the island. The Nazis forced the Jews of Corfu from their homes early in 1944 before deporting 1,800 of the 2,000 to Auschwitz-Birkenau.
“We were up in the hills, so we decided to give the kids in a small village there—they had nothing—a good Christmas.”
Wise says he and his fellow Marines broke into the warehouse and took some of the toys out.
“We made a few Greek children happy for awhile.”