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.