This week I have chosen to tell a fascinating story from the Second World War. Captain Harry Richman was in the No.2 Commando unit and was part of the group that rescued the future Yugoslavian President Tito from a German assassination attempt.
Captain Harry Richman was born in Stepney on 13th March 1919 to Russian parents who had come to England at the time of the revolution.
Harry joined the Territorial Army in March 1939 and about 2 weeks before the outbreak of the Second World War his mother told him to report to his depot fully dressed with his rifle. Harry enlisted for the Essex Regiment as a Physical Training instructor which was a more than suitable position for him, as he had completed a four year course in referee and sports coaching when he was 20. His job was to keep the battalion fit and ready for military proceedings.
However, one day during an interval in his training, Harry was approached by a retired Colonel named Lord Dorchester who was looking for what he described as ‘fit forward looking chaps not happy with the then situation who were willing to bloody the enemies’ nose”.
After an interview in London Harry endured a ‘death defying’ training course in Scotland. He states that the course was ‘hell’, carrying out training in weapons, speed marching, and setting personal goals to endure more than anyone else. It wasn’t significant that he was Jewish; all that mattered was the strength of the people training.
After another interview Harry was accepted and posted to No.2 Commando and stayed with them until the unit was disbanded in 1945.
In 1943 No. 2 Commandos were posted to Gibraltar to practice landings and prepare for the Mediterranean campaign. The first assault was to take place in Sicily on 22nd July 1943. The unit landed at Scaletta on the wrong beach, meaning the main force had already been beaten and they only faced the tail-enders of Goering’s first Para-division!
Their second deployment was the Battle of Salerno in Italy which was particularly tough and dangerous as the Germans were very well prepared. Following this assault the battalion needed to build up its strength and numbers and therefore took in volunteers from around Europe, many of whom were Jews who had fled Hitler from Germany, Austria, and Poland.
Harry Richman describes the above photo “This is a snap of some of us after an operation. I felt just how I looked – dead beat. The fellow in the centre (Nick Mitchell) was wounded in both legs and had just had an injection of morphine. The stretcher behind us has on it the body of a captain that was hit right behind the eyes by a bullet.”
The most interesting part of Harry’s story is the rescue of Josip Broz Tito Prime Minister of Yugoslavia, and commander-in-chief Yugoslav force, who later became President of Yugoslavia. During the Second World War there were various factions competing for supremacy in Yugoslavia. Several missions were undertaken to help the partisans and air-drops of supplies arranged, although many fell into German hands. No. 2 Commando unit landed on the Island of Vis on the 16th January 1944 to prepare for military intervention in Yugoslavia and carried out various amphibious raids.
On 25th May 1944 German parachutists and mountain troops attacked the headquarters of Tito on the mainland. Harry and the Commandos parachuted into Yugoslavia to rescue Tito. Harry described the operation; “As the German paratroopers landed to capture and kill Tito, we took the Yugoslav leader over the mountains to the island of Vis. I spent long days and nights with him in the caves as we hid from the Germans who were searching for us”.
These are silk escape maps of Yugoslavia which belonged to Harry Richman. These would have been vital for evading capture.
Although the rescue was successful the mission was not without its problems. Colonel Jack Churchill was captured and sent to a concentration camp and “gaol’ before he successfully escaped.
Col. Churchill wrote to Harry in 1945, describing how he spent the months after he was captured during the mission to rescue Tito.
Harry Richman tells another story of when he was on a reconnaissance mission and his Tommy gunner guardsman collapsed. The guardsman was over 6 ft tall and Harry carried him back to his lines, a difficult feat when Harry’s ID card records him as being only 5 ft 5 “ tall.
Harry left No. 2 Commandos in 1945 and the letter below from the Chief of Combined Operations thanks him for his service.
In 1946 Harry was called back to the Essex Regiment in Trieste (near Italy) and due to his experience in Yugoslavia and broad language skills he stayed there stayed until Trieste was declared as free territory. He was released from the Army on 21st July 1947.
After the war Harry worked for a hardware electronic store but on 5th July 1966 he was invited to a reception given by the Yugoslav Ambassador in London held in recognition of those who helped in the struggle against the Germans and marked the 25th anniversary of the national uprising in Yugoslavia.
The Commando Memorial, Spean Bridge Scotland