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Episodes & Studies Volume 2

Parachute Landing

Parachute Landing

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.

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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’.