It has often been said that there are men born for peacetime and others born for war. Danish citizen Anders Lassen was clearly the latter.
Despite having no formal military training, he nevertheless found himself a part of some of the most daring raids of World War 2 — even though he was known for his insubordinate behavior and propensity to jump into drunken brawls.
Yet with three Military Crosses and the Victoria Cross to his name, it seems that such a man was born for global war. Unfortunately for Lassen, it would be the actions on the shores of Lake Comacchio that would both justify his Victoria Cross and end his life.
From Drunken Brawler to War Hero
Anders Lassen was born to a wealthy family in Denmark in 1920. He had the proverbial silver spoon in his mouth. Heritage had primed Lassen for wealth and success, but the well-to-do Dane seemed to have other plans.
Struggling with authority for the bulk of his youth, Lassen left school in 1938 with the lowest examination rates of his entire year. Proudly embracing his hot temper and love of a stiff drink, he would spend the next couple of years moving from one brawl to another.
Not quite being a perfect fit for the rigors of regular military service, Lassen opted for the Danish Merchant Navy.
In April of 1940, Denmark found itself conquered by the speed and might of the German military. Fortunately for Lassen, he was far at sea aboard the Danish tanker Eleonora Maersk. The call was put out for the tanker to head for German, Italian, or neutral ports along with other Danish vessels.
Landers and the crew had another plan. By means of aggressive negotiations, they forced the captain to point the Eleonora Maersk in the direction of the British port of Bahrain.
By October of 1940, Landers had made his way to Britain where more drinking and brawling were top of his agenda. That’s when he had a fortuitous meeting with an agent from the British Special Operations Executive (SOE).
Life on the Edge of Legal
The SOE was a clandestine unit organized to conduct sabotage and espionage missions throughout occupied lands. These missions were of questionable legality.
The main problem was that Lassen’s poor temperament made him an ill-fit for missions that required a nuanced approach. So instead they turned him into a hammer and set him to guerilla warfare.
He was first thrown into the fray on January 14, 1942, in a neutral port. The island of Fernando Po was part of a Spanish colony in the Gulf of Guinea where the Italian merchant vessel Duchessa d’Aosta and two other German ships were anchored.
Entering the port during the night in a couple of tugs, Lassen led the charge on one of the ships, capturing the crew before they realized what was going on. The officers had been lured away to a party, making the feat possible.
By the time the officers returned looking for their ships, Lassen and his crew had tugged the vessels out to open sea where they were “found” by the British Navy and conveniently, tactically, acquired.
For this daring raid, Lassen was awarded the first of three Military Crosses.
A Fit for Guerilla Warfare
Lassen had found a home wreaking havoc on the enemy through unconventional means. He spent time with the Small Scale Raiding Force (SSRF) and eventually the Special Boat Service. By 1945, he had earned two more Military Crosses and had developed a reputation for fierce fighting and still plenty of drinking.
As the war moved towards its end, Lassen was in Italy supporting the Allies as they pushed north. He was sent on a mission along the shores of Lake Comacchio.
His instructions were to make the Germans think a much larger force was present. Lassen was perfectly suited for such a mission. Unfortunately, the ruse to make the German sentries believe they were approaching fishermen failed. The Germans opened up a withering array of fire.
With the time for subtlety over, Lassen led the charge against the enemy. Taking out the Germans with a flurry of grenades and capturing two machine guns, it seemed this detachment would be the latest to fall at Lassen’s hands.
Feigning surrender, the Germans waited for Lassen to approach before firing upon him. They hit him in the stomach — but Lassen got off one last grenade to pay them back.
Mortally wounded, Lassen knew he was done for. Refusing to slow down the team and against the objections of the men he led, he insisted they leave him behind.
There, on the shores of Lake Comacchio, the man who seemed born for war would perish before its end.
As word of his actions spread, the drunken brawler would receive the admiration of the Allies and a Victoria Cross to cement his unique place in military history.