Episodes & Studies Volume 2
Myers, Hamson and Yianni, of Stromni village, left immediately on a reconnaissance of the three viaducts. They moved at night and during the day were in well-concealed positions with a good view of the country. From the start they used code-names of their own making for the viaducts so as not to give an inkling of their intentions to the Greeks around them. Papadia was known as ‘The Priest One’, Gorgopotamos as ‘The George One’, and Asopos as ‘The Soapy One’.
Of all the countries in Europe, with the possible exception of Albania, Greece was the least well supplied with railways. The main railway line, a single track, ran down the centre of Greece from Plati to Piraeus, a distance of some 300 miles. In pre-war days the famous Orient express did the trip in about eleven hours, while the ordinary passenger express took three hours longer. The line had to cross three great east-to-west ranges, and to overcome the difficulties of the terrain it was steeply graded and tortuous. Any high speed was impossible and the carrying capacity was low. The sabotage party was in the Oiti Mountains where the line was to be cut. From the plains to the south the train climbed the Oiti Range at a gradient of 1 in 50 up to the Brallos tunnel, by which the Kifissos-Sperkhios watershed was crossed. From the tunnel the train descended the steep and twisting Asopos Gorge, through many tunnels and over spectacular viaducts until it reached the narrow plain of Sperkhios. It was on this stretch that the three big viaducts were situated. At this time the line was working to full capacity carrying military supplies south.page 8
Within a few days Myers returned, and to an intent audience related his observations. Asopos viaduct was in extremely difficult and precipitous country. It was perched over a sheer gorge with tunnels at either end and there was no easy access; it also had a strong garrison and reinforcements were not far off. A surprise attack was out of the question, and altogether the prospects for a quick and successful demolition by a small force were poor. Papadia viaduct was near Asopos, but the approaches to it were too wide and there was no cover for a force to creep up to a convenient attacking place. It was heavily garrisoned and had quick communication with reinforcements in the neighbourhood. Gorgopotamos viaduct, eight miles north of Asopos, looked the best proposition of the lot. There was good access sufficiently open and yet well enough covered to allow an attacking force to operate. Likewise the line of retreat was quick. The nearest reinforcement was at Lianokladi, several miles to the north, while the Papadia and Asopos garrisons were even farther away to the south. There were about eighty men in the Gorgopotamos garrison and it was likely that, despite the fortified defences, a small force could capture the viaduct in a surprise attack. Gorgopotamos viaduct became the target.
Myers conferred with Barnes and Edmonds, gave them technical details of the viaduct, and placed Barnes in charge of the demolition party. Barnes estimated the stock of explosives at five hundred pounds and calculated that it would be enough for the task, allowing a very generous safety margin.* One of the wireless batteries picked up sufficiently for the men to hear faintly that the Battle of Alamein was in progress. The news added to their impatience to get the job done quickly. They had been told, however, that if one of the viaducts was destroyed within two months their object would have been achieved.
News arrived that Colonel Zervas, a well-known Greek officer, was leading a band of guerrillas in the Valtos region on the west side of the Pindus Mountains. Woodhouse, a tireless walker, set off on 2 November to find him. It was understood that if he was not back in sixteen days, the party would attempt the attack with whatever men they could recruit in the locality.
* Lt-Col Edmonds comments: ‘Invariably when planning a demolition we calculated the minimum charges required, then, reckoning that once we reached the target we must be certain there were no hitches, we would double the charge to allow for them being faultily placed in the haste of the operation. If explosive was available we might even double up on those charges.
‘When lecturing the Haifa sabotage school on this operation later, I staggered them by telling them the quantity we used. The same result could have been achieved with one-tenth of the total charge, but of course we were in the dark as to the size of bridge members until we reached the target.’
There were rumours of another British party somewhere in the mountains but they were not definite enough to identify it as that led by Cook. To the surprise and joy of all, on 14 November Cook and his three men walked into the camp. Apart from the company, four more men were a welcome addition to the little sabotage party. But even more welcome was the news that Cook had got in touch with a band of guerrillas led by one Ares and had been escorted on the way by them. On the night that the others had parachuted into Greece, Cook could not find a good dropping place and was forced to return to Egypt. After two more unsuccessful attempts, his party jumped on fires on the outskirts of Karpenissi which, unknown to them, was a heavily garrisoned town. The Italians opened fire on them in the air but fortunately all landed safely. Three came down on a hill to the east of the town and were immediately surrounded by soldiers. They hid for a while until the search slackened, then cautiously made their way into the security of the more distant hills. The other man landed right in the middle of the town and was immediately hidden by the townspeople. When the excitement had died down, the Greeks conducted the men to the guerrilla leader, Ares.
The guerrillas—or Andartes, to give them their Greek name—who had come with Cook stood in groups around the camp. Their ages ranged from 18 to 35; they were strongly built and nearly all were bearded. They were poorly dressed in a collection of old and ragged uniforms and many were barefooted. Their arms were an assortment of all types of rifles, though a few carried captured Breda machine guns.
On 17 November Woodhouse came back with more good news. He had reached Valtos in the record time of six days and without difficulty had found Zervas and his band of Andartes. At the time Zervas had an Italian battalion bottled up in a narrow gorge and was picking them off until the inevitable arrival of reinforcements would force him to withdraw. So keen was he to help the British party that he called the action off, and after selecting forty-five of his best men, left immediately for Mavrolitharion which, by forced marches, was reached in eight days. On his Valtos journey Woodhouse heard of a British party staying with a guerrilla band and, as he had expected, found Cook and the three others. He vouched for them to the leader, Ares, who had been somewhat suspicious of them, and also induced him and his band of eighty to join the intended operation.
Colonel Zervas, who had accompanied Woodhouse, was introduced. He was then over fifty years old, was of short build and inclined to stoutness; his beard was long and like his hair, already greying, was well groomed. He wore a clean and well-kept khaki uniform and also a small cap of the same colour. In manner he was calm and assured and instinctively he commanded the respect of all who met him. Zervas was well known in Greece and, like so many Greeks, had had an up-and-down career in politics. A member of the regular army, he went over to the Venizelos revolutionary government in 1916 and had advanced rapidly in the Venizelist army. Closely involved in the quickly changing political life of the times, he took part in the revolt that overthrew General Pangalos and his dictatorship in 1926. His political fortunes slumped page 10 thereafter and he was forced to retire from the army. Out of politics he switched to the whirl of social life in Athens and established for himself a reputation as a playboy and gambler. After the German invasion he joined a newly formed republican party called the Greek Democratic National League—better known by its Greek initials of EDES—and was selected to lead a guerrilla band under its sponsorship. In June 1942 he started recruiting followers in western Greece, his birthplace, and soon he had a sizeable force carrying out raids on the enemy.
On the way to Mavrolitharion where Ares and his guerrillas were billeted, the British party was given a great ovation by the villagers and had their first sight of Ares. He was poles apart from Zervas. Short and of slight build,* everything he did—moving and talking—was done quickly and spiritedly. His nose was small and hooked and his eyes sharp and brown. In keeping with the guerrilla fashion, he had a black, bushy beard. From his wrist hung a vicious looking leather whip. He described himself as a schoolteacher and it was easily seen that he was well educated and also very intelligent. At this meeting Ares was pleasant but the men soon found out his real nature. He was cold-hearted and cruel and, in the manner of a fanatic, was ruthless to anybody who stood in his way. He was a sadist and delighted in horrible forms of torturing and killing his victims. He was reputed to be a homosexual and to have served prison sentences for these offences.
Ares joined the Communist party in the pre-war days and went to Russia for training; it was reported that he had fought in the Spanish Civil War. Nobody was ever sure of his real name though the most commonly accepted version was Athanassios Clarass. His birthplace was given as Lamia. Ares was backed by an organisation of several parties of the Left called the National Liberation Front—better known to the Greeks and the outside world by the initials EAM. The real power of the organisation was in the hands of the Communist party, though this party went to great pains to conceal its control. By 1942 EAM had an efficient political organisation operating over most of central Greece and in that year it formed a military force, giving it the name of the National People's Liberation Army—the initials this time were ELAS. Ares was chosen as the leader, and as such was one of the personalities who shaped the history of Greece during the war and the years immediately following. He was killed in 1945 in a fight with Government forces. His head was cut off, impaled on a stake, and set up in the village square of Trikkala.
The two guerrilla leaders agreed to combine for the attack on the viaduct and Zervas was placed in charge. This was the first time the two had ever met, and it was the only time during the whole occupation that they combined in a common action. Zervas and Ares sent their men to reconnoitre the viaduct, and when they came back Myers worked out plans for the final assault.
* Edmonds comments that Ares ‘filled out amazingly during the next two years when he wore out saddles instead of boots.’