Episodes & Studies Volume 2
IN September 1942 Colonel F. M. H. Hanson,1 Chief Engineer 2 NZEF, sent for Captains C. E. Barnes2 and A. Edmonds3 and, interviewing them separately, told them that General Sir Harold Alexander, GOC-in-C Middle East, wanted two sapper officers from the New Zealand Division to join a sabotage party in blowing up an important railway viaduct in Greece. The saboteurs were to drop by parachute, meet pro-allied Greeks, and with their help destroy the viaduct. They were to be well supplied with explosives and arms but for food and other necessities were expected to live off the country. Little was known of conditions inside Greece apart from the fact that the Germans and Italians were hated and that any British party there could expect the sympathy, if not the active help, of the Greeks. The work of the party was to be confined to this single operation, and as soon as it was finished every endeavour was to be made to get the men away again. No definite promises could be made, and if there was a slip-up in the plans the party would have to stay in hiding for as long as possible, even until the liberation of Greece. Colonel Hanson said it was up to the two officers to say yes or no; the task was dangerous and was outside the accepted hazards of a soldier's life. There was to be no compulsion at all. If they declined nothing more would be said or heard about it, as General Freyberg and himself were the only persons in the Division who knew about the proposed operation. Barnes said yes, as did Edmonds.
Early next day Major C. M. Woodhouse, an English officer who already had worked in occupied Greece, called on the two sapper officers and took them to the headquarters organising the proposed operation. There they met Brigadier Keeble who was commander of what the special service agents called ‘The Firm’; all secret Allied activity in the enemy-occupied Balkans was directed from here. Keeble stressed, first of all, there there was no time to lose and that the demolition—given the code-name of Harling—was to be done quickly, otherwise it would be of no benefit. He went on to describe the general purpose of the operation. A main supply route of the Axis was the single-track railway down the centre of Greece to the port of Piraeus, from where supplies for North Africa were either shipped or flown by way of Crete to Tobruk and Benghazi. At this time, late 1942, all of Europe and most of North Africa were controlled by the enemy, and although the Eighth Army in Egypt was building up for the offensive at Alamein, the war was by no means going in the Allies' favour. Keeble told the two New Zealanders that General Alexander considered that if the Greek railway line was put out of commission for a few weeks, Rommel would be badly hit by lack of supplies; and with the Germans so weakened, the Eighth Army's attack at Alamein would have a much greater chance of success. The GOC-in-C had attached so much importance to this operation that he had directed that it be given priority over all others.
Keeble then gave details of the proposed operation. The target was one of three railway viaducts in the Brallos Pass area, namely Gorgopotamos, Asopos and Papadia. He said that he would like to see Asopos destroyed: this viaduct, a huge structure spanning a deep gorge, was one of the most spectacular on the Greek railway and would take several weeks to rebuild. However, the page 4 choice of the viaduct was to be left to the leader of the party. Barnes and Edmonds were given plans of the viaducts and were asked to estimate what explosives would be required.
Both officers were rushed through the normal three weeks' parachute course in two days. The commander of Harling, Colonel E. Myers of the Royal Engineers, joined them at the school. The sabotage party was divided into three teams of four men, consisting of a leader, an interpreter, a sapper and a wireless operator. For greater security the men were given code-names, their Christian names or nicknames usually being used. Three planes were to carry the teams with their quotas of stores, explosives, arms, ammunition and wireless sets. On the first plane were Colonel Eddie Myers as the leader of both a team and of the whole party; the interpreter was Captain Denys Hamson, the sapper was Captain Tom Barnes and the wireless operator was Sergeant Len Wilmot. The team on the second plane, in the same order as the first, were Major Chris Woodhouse, Captain Themie Marines, Captain Inder Gill and Sergeant Doug Phillips. The third plane carried Major John Cook, Captain Nat Barker, Captain Arthur Edmonds and Sergeant Mike Chittis. Barnes and Edmonds were the only New Zealanders.
On the night of 28 September 1942 the aircraft left Egypt and headed for Greece. They flew high to keep out of trouble, but when central Greece was reached they came in low over the target area. The planes hovered around looking for the signal fires; they skimmed the hilltops and flew through the valleys but nowhere below were the expected signals. Two hours were so spent, flying forwards and backwards; to delay any longer would expose the aircraft to daylight attack on their return journey, so they returned to Egypt. The men were tired and dejected and were glad to hear that they were to have two days' rest before the next attempt. A few years later Edmonds found out why there were no signal fires that night. In Athens he met Professor Seferiadis, a Greek special service agent who was supposed to have received the sabotage party. Seferiadis told him that he had been arrested while on his way to the dropping area and had not been able to get word back in time for another agent to take his place.
The planes set off again for Greece on 30 September. On this trip Woodhouse and Cook switched leadership of parties, but apart from this there was no other change. If no flares were seen, the men were instructed to land on any spot in the area suitable for jumping. They were then to collect as quickly as possible.
The plane Edmonds was in reached Mount Giona and after a few sweeps picked up the light from three fires grouped in a small basin. Although it was not the expected signal the men jumped. They all landed away from the fires and, after hiding their parachutes and flying kit, cautiously edged their way to the fires. There they found a Greek lieutenant, a Cypriot soldier and a young lad from the nearby village. These three had heard the aircraft on the first fruitless flight and on the second night had lit fires in the hope that something—food, ammunition, anything at all— would be dropped; but they had not expected men. They all huddled around the fire until dawn when they collected the stores containers. The first big disappointment was to find the wireless smashed. Once all the stores were accounted for they had a closer look at the country and wondered how they had missed injury in landing on such mountainous terrain. The young lad, Andreas, took them to a nearby cave, perfectly concealed, where they settled in. The day wore on but still there was no sign of the other parties.page 5
Later in the day the leader, Woodhouse, went off with Andreas to Amfissa, an Italian garrison town not far away, where he intended to make a reconnaissance and, if possible, send a runner to Athens with a message to an agent who would forward it to Cairo on one of the secret transmitting sets known to be there. Edmonds and the others cleaned the gear and stored it in the cave. The cave itself was not pleasant to live in and the men moved out to an open camp, where the parachutes were used as blankets and shelter. Another Cypriot, a cousin of the other, joined the party.
There was nothing to do now but wait until Woodhouse came back. The days dragged by slowly and there was still no word of the other two parties. Then on the seventh day they heard that a British party was on its way to the camp; the news was like a tonic after a week of seclusion and enforced inactivity. In the afternoon Hamson and Wilmot arrived and all gathered around eager to know what had happened to them. Like Woodhouse's party, they had jumped over fires in a densely wooded valley but had had to wait until dawn before they could come together. The country was very broken and the stores containers fell over a wide area. People from the local village were out early collecting the stores: they looked upon them as booty and refused to give them up. Some of the containers were returned later, mostly the explosives. A few of the village children ate the explosives thinking they were sweets and became very sick. The area was not safe, and when Italian troops came looking for the parachutists they moved on. Before doing so they buried all the gear they had managed to salvage. Their wireless set, like Woodhouse's, had been badly damaged in the drop.
The leader of a small band of brigands, Karalivanos, who had attached himself to Myers' party, was introduced. A short, strongly built man, with a heavy black beard, Karalivanos was dressed in Greek national costume and had the appearance of an apparition from a bygone age. His jacket was heavily embroidered, he wore knee breeches and stockings, and even his shoes had the traditional black pom-poms. The finishing touches were added by the armoury he had wrapped around his body—grenades, pistols, ammunition and knives—and by the rows of medals on his chest.
With the exception of Woodhouse who was still away on reconnaissance, the two parties now joined up. The men had hardly settled in to their new camp when they were startled by an old man bursting in on them. ‘We heard the rattle of stones on the slope above us and like a whirlwind a vigorous old man came into our camp, talking Greek with great speed and volume. Then suddenly the Greek stopped and he staggered us by saying with a marked American accent, “How are you, okay.” ‘This newcomer hopped excitedly around the camp and never stopped talking for a moment. He was Nikos Beis from Lithoriki, a village about eight hours to the south, and when he had heard of the British party he had come to see if he could help. A rifle rested in the crook of his arm and the pockets of his ragged coat bulged with ammunition. A civilian cap was pulled well down on his head; he wore an old-fashioned pair of military breeches with puttees wound around his legs from the knees to just above the ankles, and his low shoes left the top part of his feet exposed. As a young man he had spent ten years in America, but he had returned in 1912 to fight against the Bulgars and had never left Greece again. The men liked the old man from the start and even more so as the days went by. Baba ‘Uncle’ Niko, as he was affectionately called, gathered food and cooked for them, his advice on the country and page 6 the people was always reliable, and he wanted nothing for himself but to see the party strike a blow against the hated enemy. Edmonds, in one of his subsequent reports, said that the party looked upon Baba Niko as its saviour and that, without his help, it could easily have failed in its objective.
Niko had a very poor opinion of Karalivanos and went to no trouble to hide it. At the time Karalivanos was sulking, and it was plain to everyone that his attachment to the party was purely for what he could get out of it. When he saw that there was no hope of free goods, he stopped helping in the work of the camp and became more and more obstructive. Niko exploded with wrath when he heard Karalivanos saying that there were no mules in the locality. ‘Mules,’ he said, ‘Why, there are plenty. I'll get as many as you want.’ He left the camp immediately and promised to be back in a few days with a whole team.
Woodhouse came back from Amfissa and shortly afterwards, on 9 October, there was an air drop of supplies. The high wind scattered these over a wide area. Karalivanos and his men went to work with a will but their eagerness slackened off when they found they were collecting explosives, not food. The noise of the planes brought Italian troops to the locality searching for parachutists and also questioning the villagers. With the idea of collecting the stores left behind, Karalivanos tried to panic the party into leaving, but Myers had the measure of the man and refused to be rushed. The Italians kept within range of the villages and did not venture too far into the mountains.
Baba Niko returned proudly leading a string of fifteen mules. ‘And,’ he said, ‘there will be fifteen more along in the morning.’ At dawn next day he started out with the first section of the party for a place he knew which was much more secure than the present one; a few hours later the second section followed with the rest of the mules. Myers and Woodhouse remained to await the arrival of the second team of mules. All this activity was maddening to Karalivanos as he sullenly stood by, thinking of what he could have purloined and how he had missed. He called his band together and they all walked away—a good riddance, everyone thought. But they had not finished with brigands. Another one, Barfas, arrived about this time and was taken into the party; he seemed to be a better type and more reliable than his predecessor.
The journey through the mountains was hard. The guides kept away from villages, making wide detours through the wild country. There was no let-up in the steady, yet exhausting, pace of the guides as they plunged down into valleys and climbed up steep hillsides. Heavy mist covered the mountains, and it was only by calling out that the parties managed to reassemble in the afternoon. Another recruit was added to the party when Baba Niko introduced Mikhali Khouri, a Palestinian Arab soldier, who had been left behind in Greece and who had been in hiding ever since. He was a well-built man of about 28. His beard was beautifully trimmed and his hair long; and he wore, at a jaunty angle, a red Evzone cap with a long tassel. On each shoulder of his khaki jacket he had a big silver star, and wrapped around him was an array of bandoliers, knives and grenades. A well-kept tommy gun was slung on his back and he carried a shepherd's crook. He spoke very broken English but this was no hindrance to his volubility. He boasted shamelessly of his exploits but did it in such a good-natured way that it was almost refreshing. After he had been sized up he was accepted into the party. Khouri became a valued page 7 special service agent and his worth was recognised by the award of the MM and later by a bar to the same decoration.
Khouri left almost immediately to search for food. It snowed heavily in the night, and next morning the party continued its journey in the cold and mist. When Khouri joined the party again, the men noticed that he had taken the silver stars off his shoulders and had placed three chevrons on his arm. His real rank was private, but evidently he felt that he owed it to his numerous Greek friends to hold on to some pretence of rank.
The new camp was on the opposite side of Mount Giona, near the village of Mavrolitharion. Myers was specially anxious to find out if there were guerrillas fighting in the mountains and, if so, where. But the local Greeks did not know of any. It looked as if the party would have to recruit its own supporting force from the nearby villages. In the meantime there was plenty of work to be done on the stores. Everyone helped in cleaning and checking the arms and explosives. Barnes and Edmonds supervised the handling of the explosives and began breaking them down to more convenient sizes. Each day was fully taken up in these tasks.
Work was forgotten when a messenger from Stromni, the nearest village, came running up to warn them that three hundred Italians were at a place not three hours away looking for the party. The men watched the flat below and saw the Italians approaching and then pitching camp. It was dangerous to stay. Baba Niko again came to the rescue; he knew of an excellent hiding place about an hour away. Before moving, the party hid the stores and explosives near the cave and covered up all tell-tale signs of habitation. Sidling along the north-west slope of Giona, they could see that the Italians had thrown a cordon around the mountain. The new hiding place was a grass-covered ledge perched high on the mountainside and aptly called ‘The Eagle's Nest’.
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.’
Assembly Point and Attack
The attack on the garrison was to be by night, and if possible by surprise. Two parties of eight Andartes each were to cut the railway and telephone lines and were to remain to cover the demolition and hold up reinforcements until the withdrawal signal, a green Very light, was given. The main force of a hundred men was to attack at 11 p.m. on 25 November. Mikhali page 11 Myridakis, a regular artillery officer and second-in-command to Zervas, was to lead a party of eighty against the main garrison, while another party of twenty was assigned to deal with the northern defences. The demolition party was split into three teams of four men, each under one of the sapper officers, Barnes, Edmonds and Gill. Another party of three under Hamson was to assist as required. The demolition party was to wait five hundred yards upstream from the viaduct until the signal—a white light from the north bank and a red one from the south—was received that the garrison had been eliminated. Headquarters was to be set up on the north bank with Zervas in charge, and Myers and Woodhouse were to remain there.
The move to the Gorgopotamos viaduct began on 24 November. The whole force, with the exception of Ares and a few of his men, moved off that morning for the assembly point on top of Mount Oiti. Ares had a reason for delaying his march as the men found out later from Barker, who had stayed with him. A man from a neighbouring village was accused of sheep stealing and Ares summoned all the villagers to the square to witness the trial. In villages to which Ares had access, he had dissolved the civil police and had undertaken to maintain law and order himself. Ares thrashed the man mercilessly with his leather whip until he was forced to confess. Ares then drew his pistol and shot him through the head. He told the people that was how he dealt with wrongdoers.
The trudge up the mountain was exhausting and Edmonds marvelled at the way Zervas, singing jazzy songs, led his men through the falling snow. The weather worsened and by the time they reached the top at four in the afternoon there was a howling blizzard. The soldiers were glad to creep into the cramped shelter of an old derelict sawmill while the Andartes sheltered in the timber stacked outside. During the night a fire broke out in one of the stacks, caused no doubt by a careless Andarte trying to keep warm. Everyone turned out to fight the fire and after an hour's frantic effort it was put out. Fortunately the fire did not go near the explosives, while the leaden sky and the falling snow hid the blaze from the enemy. Next morning the two guerrilla leaders with Myers and Woodhouse left, making a rendezvous for the main party for one o'clock at a spot about half an hour from the viaduct. All were there on time. It was bitterly cold and everyone kept warm by stamping around the small plateau, swinging their arms and blowing on their hands.
Just on dusk Myers despatched the two parties who were to cut the telephone and railway lines. An hour after darkness the rest of the party moved down to the flat. The moon was not up; in pitch dark the silent men groped their way down the slope, keeping contact by placing their hands on the shoulders of those in front or by holding on to the tails of the mules. Later on the moon gave light, but fortunately there were enough clouds in the sky to keep it from getting too bright. The force stopped at the source of the Gorgopotamos stream—three large springs flowing from the base of the cliffs—and was here split up into the prearranged teams. While the two attacking parties moved quietly off, the demolition party unloaded the explosives from the mules and arranged them into carrying loads. With Yianni of Stromni village acting as guide, the party reached its assembly point before zero hour. Here they were to wait for the signal announcing the capture of the garrison.
Suddenly there was a roar of fire—the attack had started. The Andartes opened up with everything they had and for ten minutes there was a deafening din. The firing died down to surge up page 12 again every few minutes into concentrated volleys. Half an hour went by—the estimated time limit for the capture of the garrison—but the firing was still going on.* The anxiety, and also the impatience, of the waiting men grew as the minutes stretched out to an hour. Then, faintly above the roar of the stream, they heard Myers calling out, ‘Go in, Tom!’ A short pause followed and again it was the same call, ‘Go in, Tom!’ The relief was like the release of a trigger; the agonizing wait for the past hour was forgotten as Barnes and his party walked quickly in single file towards the viaduct. The demolition plan had been worked out on the assumption that the garrison would be destroyed before the charges were laid. However, Barnes and the others had prepared themselves for an eventuality like this, and they were confident that they could blow up the viaduct while the Andartes engaged the garrison.
Barnes cut the wire around the base and, regardless of possible mines, he and the others ran to the pier. In the manner so often rehearsed the three sapper officers and their assistants placed themselves by the pier legs ready to tie the charges. But the frames to which the charges were attached refused to go into the leg section of the pier. To their dismay they found that the leg sections, instead of being L-shaped as they had been told, were more like a square U. They cursed underneath their breath as they ripped the charges off the frames; they could still do the job but it would take longer. Working like madmen, they packed the charges inside the leg sections and within half an hour had finished. They paused for an instant when they noticed that the firing had died down on both banks. Then, carefully and quickly they fixed the detonators and fuses in two places on the rings of explosive fuse connecting the charges. Barnes blew a whistle warning the assistants to take cover. At that instant a red flare shot up from the south bank. The garrison had been overcome. But there was no signal from the north bank; it was heard afterwards that the officer there was immobilised by a leg wound and did not get word of success from his men who were busily collecting loot.
Barnes and Edmonds struck the fuse caps, waited until they were well alight and then dashed for cover about twenty yards away. Flattened out against the ground, they were shaken by the sudden tremendous blast and by the thousands of pieces of red hot metal flying in all directions. As soon as the last echo had died away, they were on their feet again and were delighted to see that two of the spans were down and that one was twisted completely out of shape. The remains of the pier stood at a rakish angle with eight feet cut from its base.
There was still time for more work. Charges were fixed to the span which was not twisted and also to the second pier. Glancing over to the north end of the viaduct from which they heard a voice, they were happy to hear Myers calling out, ‘Congratulations, good work.’ Shortly afterwards Woodhouse, from the west side of the stream, yelled a message to them: ‘Reinforcement train has arrived from Larissa. Andartes have stopped them and are holding them. As soon as you have fired the charges the withdrawal signal will be given. You will have to get out immediately.’ They looked up to the bank and saw the train. The enemy soldiers had taken cover and were firing back at the Andartes. Barnes and his men had almost finished fixing the charges and it did not take them long to attach the detonators and fuses. The charges were fired. Again there was an ear-splitting explosion. At the same time the party saw a green light, the signal to withdraw.page 13
British agents with Greek guerrillas. C. E. Barnes (then Captain) is second from the left, wearing beret
The Simplon-Orient express on the Gorgopotamos viaduct. The saboteurs used this photograph which, with the print below, was the only information available before the operation
ASOP[gap — reason: unclear]DUCT
This photostat of a [gap — reason: unclear] 1909 was an important aid for the special [gap — reason: unclear]nning their work
Major C. M. Woodhouse (left), who in September 1943 succeeded Brigadier E. Myers as commander of the British Military Mission in Greece. Major ‘Jerry’ Wines, US Army, co-commander of what became the Allied Military Mission, is on the right
Lieutenant-Colonel Edmonds (left) shown with other special service agents. The two in the middle are Captain Keith Scott and Lieutenant Harry McIntyre, the sappers who fixed the charges to Asopos viaduct. The photograph was taken near Lamia
The retreating men were dead tired. They dragged themselves up the mountain slope; often they fell down exhausted and at the limit of endurance. Some even fell asleep. Those who were on their feet helped and urged the others on. Edmonds describes the climb: ‘As I began to climb my system reacted to the unusual exertions of the past forty-eight hours. My legs suddenly became heavy and the strength seemed to flow out of my body. I was compelled to sit down utterly exhausted. I could have easily thrown myself down and gone to sleep.’ On his frequent pauses to rest Barnes watched the Andartes struggling up the slope and admired their endurance: ‘It is a tribute to Greek Andarte endurance that these Andartes, for the most part badly clothed, badly shod (many barefooted except for a piece of cloth or goat hide) accomplished the descent and ascent of Mount Oiti, 5,000 feet high, and walked mostly through deep snow for 25 to 30 hours in all. This included carrying their arms and a three hours battle at Gorgopotamos bridge. One hurried meal was all the food they had in this period.’
Thus ended the first organised attack in occupied Greece on Axis forces. It was also the first and the only time that the Andarte forces of EDES and ELAS fought together. During the rest of the occupation their differences grew into hatred to the point of civil war. Fighting the Germans seemed to take second place to angling for control of the country after its liberation. The ELAS and EDES underground papers published glorious accounts of the fight, glamourising the part of their forces and minimising that of the other party. This increased the antagonism between the parties but also helped recruiting for both sides. It was seven weeks before the enemy had rebuilt the viaduct, and thereafter trains could cross only at slow speeds.
At the sawmill the tired men slept the clock round. When they awoke they found that Baba Niko, highly delighted at their success, had a big meal ready for them. The rest over, the whole force moved back to Mavrolitharion, where it broke up into separate groups. Ares and his guerrillas were the first to leave. A special farewell was given to Baba Niko before he returned to his village. All were sorry to see him go. Barnes paid this tribute to the old man: ‘Here we left our friend who for two months by cajoling, threats and visits to villages had obtained our food from the terror-stricken villagers. He was our quartermaster, cook, safe guide and counsellor. He never once failed us in a task which I now know to have been well nigh impossible in those circumstances.’ Myers and his party attached themselves to Zervas and started off with him to his headquarters in western Greece. Zervas moved warily through the country, dodging the numerous enemy patrols sent after him. The Andartes had no ammunition and were in no condition to fight it out with the strongly armed enemy forces. On 10 December the party arrived at Zervas' headquarters in Valtos and were billeted in Megalokhori village.
This was the first step on their way back to Egypt. They had accomplished their task and all were now keen to rejoin their units. Woodhouse, Marines, and two wireless operators were to stay on. On 12 December the remainder of the party left for the coast to meet the submarine which had been promised before they had left Egypt. They were at the rendezvous in time but the submarine never came. The trip to the coast was difficult enough but the one back to Zervas' headquarters was even more so. Barnes described their hardships: ‘This was for all of us the hungriest and most uncomfortable three weeks in our lives as we carried all our gear—we had no mules–travelled mostly at night in bad weather, and food was scarce indeed in Epirus.’page 22
In the weeks which followed the men felt frustrated and out of temper with the authorities in Egypt, beginning to doubt whether they were making a genuine effort to help them. Their life was now one of run-and-hide from village to village to keep clear of the searching Italians. The winter was severe and all suffered intensely from the cold. Myers went down with a very bad attack of pneumonia and his condition was critical for some time. Meanwhile Zervas was active in carrying out raids on the Italians. Wireless communication was regularly maintained with Cairo; a New Zealander, Captain Bill Jordan,4 was parachuted into Greece for this work. Frequent air drops of arms and ammunition were received and these were distributed among the Andartes. On 1 March 1943 a message came through from the Middle East ordering the party to stay in Greece to arrange supplies for the Andartes, to organise them into strong forces and help them in their fight against the enemy.
* ‘We had hoped for surprise but the garrison was alert.’—Comment by Lt-Col Edmonds.
British Mission to the Greek Guerrillas
Greece is well suited to guerrilla war. Most of the country is mountainous and the few plains which exist are cut off by ranges of desolate hills. There are no large towns apart from Athens, but the exhausted soil supports a poverty-stricken peasantry in widely separated villages. Roads are few and primitive, and in the mountain areas the only communication is either by foot or on mule. All this makes the country, even in peacetime, difficult to control. But most important of all is the spirit of the Greeks. During centuries of foreign rule they never submitted to captivity but fought fiercely for freedom. The Germans and the Italians had come to Greece as conquerors and were hated.
Even before the Gorgopotamos party arrived in Greece, small bands had taken to the hills from which they carried out minor raids on the enemy. The most important of these bands were those formed by Zervas and Ares. When Myers and his men parachuted into Greece they found that the two bands were few in numbers, had hardly any arms and ammunition, had little training and experience, and were poorly clothed and equipped. During the next two years these bands grew into small armies, the ELAS by far the greater of the two. Its strength at the end of 1943 was estimated at 20,000, and that of EDES at 5000.
After the saboteurs had received orders to stay in Greece and attach themselves to the guerrilla forces, they received arms and supplies from the Middle East. These were distributed to the guerrillas. Also, large sums of money were paid locally for clothing and feeding the swiftly growing numbers. Myers, now a brigadier, became head of what was called the British Mission to the Greek Guerrillas. His second-in-command was Woodhouse; Barnes was liaison officer with Zervas while Edmonds was liaison officer with Ares at ELAS headquarters. Under these men a secret organisation grew, covering all Greece. More and more soldiers came to Greece to join the British Mission, and by the end of 1944 it had four hundred men of various nationalities on its staff.
With the arrival of United States officers the mission was renamed the Allied Military Mission. Woodhouse became its commander after Myers left in September 1943.