How ‘The Terrible Viking’ Became a British War Hero and Victoria Cross Recipient

September 30, 2021Matt Fratus
Anders Lassen Victoria Cross British SBS coffee or die

Anders Lassen, a drunken, insubordinate Dane, brawled his way to the Victoria Cross with many heroic deeds in Greece. Photo courtesy of Thomas Harder’s ​​book Special Forces Hero: Anders Lassen VC MC*.

“Landed. Killed Germans. Fucked off.”

This unadorned after-action review by British commando Anders “Andy” Lassen tellingly illustrated his no-nonsense attitude toward conducting covert warfare against the Nazis in World War II.

Lassen, affectionately referred to as “The Terrible Viking” by his comrades, was among the most seasoned members of the British Special Boat Section, or SBS, one of two squadrons reorganized during World War II for commando operations. His nickname, according to commanding officer George Jellicoe, arose from his having “all the qualities of the buccaneering Viking — extraordinary courage, physical endurance, devil-may-care and keenness.” 

At 19, the tall, athletic, blond and blue-eyed teenager left his home in Denmark and took to the sea to explore the world. The imposing Dane had a knack for engaging in drunken brawls with other sailors. 

British SBS WWII coffee or die
Capt. Roger Courtney formed the Special Boat Section in July 1940. His unit used folding canoes in small-scale raids against railways, port facilities, and airfields in Scandinavia and the Mediterranean. Anders Lassen was just the kind of operator Courtney needed under his command. Photo courtesy of the National Army Museum.

By July 1940, when commanding officer Capt. Roger Courtney formed the SBS, Lassen had already arrived in England with the Danish Merchant Navy. He had no option to return home, and his hatred for the Nazis was soaring. Earlier that April, the Germans had invaded his native Denmark. Shortly after his arrival, Lassen had his first encounter with an officer from the British Special Operations Executive, or SOE, a clandestine military and intelligence collection unit that specialized in sabotage. 

When the officer discovered the Danish seaman was a brawler and could handle himself in harsh situations, he immediately recruited Lassen for a new, crack commando unit. He was exactly the kind of operator the Small Scale Raiding Force, otherwise known as No. 62 Commando, wanted. Not long after, Lassen participated in secret, small-scale raids against railways, port facilities, and airfields across Europe, North Africa, Crete, the Aegean islands, mainland Greece, Yugoslavia, and Italy.

The Dane’s instincts in hand-to-hand combat served him well in waging this covert war against the Nazis. 

“He had an ability to transform himself into a killing machine, to perform the task with a panache that earned him a reputation of a killer of Germans par excellence,” said fellow SBS operator Dick Holmes.

During the course of these clandestine raids, Lassen earned three Military Cross awards — the US military equivalent of the Silver Star. One such award came after Operation Postmaster, a mission to capture three Italian and German warships from the neutral Spanish island of Fernando Po (now called Bioko) in the Gulf of Guinea. 

However, Lassen’s most notable actions occurred during the night and early morning hours from April 8 to 9, 1945.

Lassen, by then a major, received orders to command a harassment raid during Operation Roast, on the north shore of Lake Comacchio in Italy. The goal was to make it appear as if a much larger force was conducting an amphibious landing. Lassen and the 17 commandos under his watch infiltrated the area; they posed as fishermen to gain access to a road leading into a nearby town.

A suspicious sentry challenged their cover story. A fistfight ensued.

Anders Lassen WWII SBS coffee or die
Maj. Anders Lassen was one of the most decorated commandos to serve in the British Special Boat Section — the precursor unit to the Special Boat Service, the British equivalent to the US Navy’s SEAL squadrons. Screenshot courtesy of YouTube.

After a German soldier witnessed the melee, a firefight erupted. Lassen responded immediately with hand grenades and annihilated the first position, killing four Germans and destroying two machine guns. Despite attacks from four separate and fortified positions, he raced forward and engaged a second machine-gun nest while his fellow commandos provided covering fire.

Lassen killed two more Germans, both of whom were manning machine-gun nests, and then captured two other enemy soldiers alive. Lassen rallied and reorganized his wounded force and assaulted a third enemy position. He advanced alone and hurled hand grenades at every muzzle flash. While he shouted for the remainder of the surviving Germans to come out with their hands up, he was strafed by a burst of fire. Before falling, Lassen hurled a final grenade. 

The explosion wounded more Germans and allowed for the British force to capture the final position. 

Although mortally wounded, Lassen refused to be medically evacuated — he didn’t want to endanger the lives of his men. After having single-handedly destroyed six enemy machine-gun positions, killed eight German combatants, and taken two prisoners of war, Lassen succumbed to his injuries. He was 24.

For his actions, Lassen was posthumously awarded the Victoria Cross, equivalent to America’s Medal of Honor. The honor made him the only non-Commonwealth recipient of the award during World War II. 

Read Next: ‘Mad Jack Churchill’: The Officer Who Carried a Sword, Bagpipes, and a Longbow Into Battle

Matt Fratus
Matt Fratus

Matt Fratus is a history staff writer for Coffee or Die. He prides himself on uncovering the most fascinating tales of history by sharing them through any means of engaging storytelling. He writes for his micro-blog @LateNightHistory on Instagram, where he shares the story behind the image. He is also the host of the Late Night History podcast. When not writing about history, Matt enjoys volunteering for One More Wave and rooting for Boston sports teams.

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