Episodes & Studies Volume 2
WHEN the first sabotage party dropped into Greece with orders to blow up one of the three viaducts, it was suggested to them that if possible, and if conditions permitted, Asopos viaduct be the choice. As it turned out, an attack on this viaduct was beyond the party's strength, so it selected and destroyed the next most important, Gorgopotamos. But Asopos was too valuable a target to be left alone. In May 1943 Brigadier Myers thought that there were enough forces in the locality to carry out a successful attack on it. He instructed Captain Edmonds, who was now the liaison officer in charge of the area where the viaduct was, to start planning for the destruction of ‘The Soapy One’ (the old code-name for Asopos) and to arrange the details of the attacking force with Ares. Myers gave a new code-name, Washing, to the proposed operation.
Three sapper officers were already on their way into Greece to assist with the demolition. Besides these, there were also a few soldiers on the Mission staff, and altogether they constituted an effective, though small, force. Among the New Zealanders was Lieutenant Don Stott5 (5 Field Regiment) who was working with Colonel Psarros, leader of an Andarte band, in the Parnassos-Giona locality. Sergeant Bob Morton6 (5 Field Regiment) was with him. The two were inseparable-as a friend said, ‘Wherever Don was, Bob wasn't far away.’—and they were reputedly the most daring and resourceful of the special service agents in Greece. Stott was an Artillery sergeant and Morton a gunner when they were captured at the end of the Greek campaign. They escaped by pole-vaulting over the prison wire in full daylight and under the heavy fire of the guards. Several Greeks chased them, not to catch them but to pat them on the back and to wish them the best of luck. Stott and Morton disguised themselves, obtained false passports and were often hunted by enemy patrols. At one stage Morton became sick, and the two had to hide for a long time in a village where there was a doctor. They sailed three times from Greece but bad weather forced them back each time. After a first visit to Athens which nearly ended in capture, they managed to get in touch with the escape organisation and, within a short time, were back in Egypt. Both then became special service agents and went on several operations.
Other New Zealanders working with Edmonds were Pte Lou Northover7 (19 Battalion), Corporal Dick Hooper8 (I General Hospital), and Driver Charlie Mutch9 (4 Reserve MT Company). Though they had tried hard to escape from Greece they had never managed to do so, but had had to stay on and endure the hunted life of escaped soldiers. They heard of the British Mission from friendly Greeks and were gladly taken on the staff. They were pleased, too, to be back again in the company of their own soldiers— ‘It was like being home again’, Mutch said years after he had returned to New Zealand.
Edmonds moved his headquarters to Anatoli, which at an altitude of over 6500 feet is the highest village in Greece. Situated on the northern slopes of Mount Vardhousia, it looked out on a magnificent view of the Oiti, Giona and Vardhousia mountains. It also was near a first-class dropping ground and was close to ELAS headquarters. It was centrally situated for operations and yet was secure from attack, as the nearest road was six hours away. From here Edmonds and two of his staff made a reconnaissance of the Asopos viaduct.page 24
Built on a gradient with a curve, the viaduct, 330 feet above the stream bed, was awe-inspiring in the way it spanned the sheer gorge. Its main arch had a span of 262 feet. On each side of the gorge the track disappeared into tunnels; the distance between them was 600 feet. The only approach was down narrow tracks leading over the tunnels. During the day the tracks were open and in full view of the garrison; at night the whole area was swept by searchlights and it was almost impossible to dodge the beams. But if an attacking party managed to get over this bottleneck of the narrow tracks, it would have plenty of room to spread out and so would be less vulnerable. Edmonds knew that a direct attack would be extremely difficult and dangerous. But it was by no means impossible. If the attack was planned properly and carried out resolutely by a well-armed force, it had a good chance of success.
Two days after the reconnaissance the three sapper officers, Captains Pat Wingate and Keith Scott and Lieutenant Harry McIntyre, arrived at Anatoli. Myers also came to the headquarters to see Edmonds about the demolition of the viaduct. The Brigadier said that its destruction could not be put off any longer and that he personally would direct the whole operation. The actual demolition was to be left to Edmonds. After briefing the three sapper officers, Myers and Edmonds left for Mavrolitharion to finalise arrangments with Ares for Andarte support.
Before they reached Mavrolitharion the two officers received the disconcerting news that Ares had captured the Andarte leader, Colonel Psarros, and had ordered him and his band to join ELAS. Colonel Psarros' band was one of the few supported by the British, and Ares had broken his undertaking not to molest other approved and trustworthy Andarte forces. The Brigadier was upset by this sudden bad turn but could not move Ares. The breach of faith was flagrant and Myers had no option but to hit Ares where he felt it the most: he recommended to Middle East headquarters that all supplies to him be stopped. The situation was very delicate and required careful yet strong handling. Although the time was hardly opportune, Myers had several discussions with Ares about the destruction of the viaduct. Edmonds reports:
‘With the Brigadier I attended several conferences with Ares and often as we set off for his H.Q. we wondered what their outcome would be. On one occasion when we were prepared for a rough house as Ares appeared to be getting a bit desperate, on the Brigadier's orders I instructed a member of our party to call on us on some pretext an hour after the conference started, to see if all was well.’
In the end Ares agreed to take part in the attack on the viaduct. But he had not reckoned on the decision of the EAM Central Committee which ruled that its army, ELAS, was not to be used in the operation. It was useless for Myers and Edmonds to argue that there was a reasonable —if not good—chance of success. Many years after the event General Sarafis, commander of ELAS, endeavoured to justify the decision:
‘Then he [Myers] spoke about the destruction of the Asopos bridge, which had been ordered by H.Q. Middle East. I explained that this could not be done because, in conformity with our instructions, we were in a state of complete strategic concentration as a precautionary measure against German and Italian mopping-up operations, and because such an action against Germans, who had fortified themselves with concrete artillery and machine-gun emplacements, barbed- wire entanglements, searchlights and ambushes, could have no hope of success unless at least 1,500 men were used, with artillery and machine guns, resources which ELAS did not possess.page 25
Nor was a feint to distract the garrison and give the experts time to destroy the bridge likely to succeed, since the garrison covered the bridge with its fire; and moreover, reinforcements would come quickly from nearby garrisons before we could manage to carry out the work of demolition…. I explained that, as military commander of ELAS charged with the direction of operations, I was of the opinion that the action had no chance of success…. We stated that after discussion with the officers who had made the reconnaissance, we found the operation could have no chance of success…. Colonel Eddie [Brigadier Myers] did not agree with us, said that he considered the operation feasible.’
The special service agents at Edmonds' headquarters did not take the news kindly: ‘The first reaction of our party to the final news that ELAS would not take part in Washing was to curse wholeheartedly. The second was to refuse to admit that our plans were frustrated, and was expressed by each man by the words, “Let's damned well do it on our own.” ‘Stott and Captain Geoffrey Gordon-Creed, a British officer on the Mission staff, asked Edmonds if they could see Brigadier Myers and volunteer to do the sabotage by themselves. The Brigadier listened to them, then turned to Edmonds and asked him what the chances of success were. ‘The only way it could be done by stealth,’ Edmonds replied, ‘would be by following the stream down the gorge. That is, practically speaking, impossible and because the Germans regard it as impossible a determined party just might succeed.’ At that time Edmonds was right when he said the passage down the gorge was impossible; the local Greeks regarded it as such and the Germans, after an inspection of both ends of the gorge, had reached the same opinion. The Germans were sure that no one could possibly get through the gorge and were perfectly satisfied that this natural barrier was better than any man-made defence. The Brigadier told Gordon-Creed and Stott to go ahead, and wished them success in their ‘impossible’ task.
An hour later Gordon-Creed and Stott set off with George Karadjopoulos to reconnoitre the gorge. Edmonds was keen to take an active part in the actual demolition, but the Brigadier reminded him that he now had the responsibility of directing and co-ordinating all operations in his area and so was not free to go on any particular operation he liked. Edmonds, although disappointed, knew the truth of this and consoled himself with the thought that he would still be able to help the party from his headquarters.
The reconnaissance party was soon back with the report that they had been stopped by a sixty- foot waterfall a short distance inside the chasm. Ropes were needed to help the party through this and other obstacles. Gordon-Creed and Stott found that the gorge deserved its bad reputation, and they realised that it would take them days to reach the viaduct. For the most part the gorge was only a few yards wide, with sheer cliffs rising to a thousand feet above the stream. The sun never entered the gorge, and the only passage for most of the way was through the freezing cold water or along the steep cliff sides. The heartbreaking barriers were the waterfalls, with side walls worn smooth as glass, and the deep pools into which the water fell. Loose rocks from the cliff faces kept shooting down into the stream. In one place the gorge widened into a dry patch and this spot was selected as the camping place.
Every available piece of parachute rigging was collected and plaited into ropes thick enough to grasp; altogether there was about 340 feet of rope. On 21 May a fresh party of eight men left to make the attempt. Gordon-Creed was in command and Stott was the guide. The other page 26 members of the party were Morton, Scott, McIntyre, Wingate, Lockwood and Karadjopoulos. The following day the party reached the entry to the gorge. Stott led the way down to the first waterfall, where a dump was made of the stores and explosives. The men were exhausted from wading through the icy cold water, from climbing up and down the sides of the gorge, and by the heavy loads they carried. On 23 May Gordon-Creed and Stott left the party and climbed up the northern cliff face to see what lay ahead; the remainder rested, dried their clothes and prepared for the descent of the waterfall. The next day they continued their struggle and managed to reach the second main obstacle, another waterfall, before calling a halt. Progress on 24 May was again slow, and by the afternoon they were at a point midway between the second and a third waterfall, which they hoped was the last. The party halted for a day while another difficult reconnaissance was made by the indefatigable Stott from the northern clifftop.
The following day Stott and Morton went ahead and came back with the report that they had reached a third waterfall. It had a sheer drop of over forty feet, was about fifteen feet wide, and had perpendicular sides worn smooth by the water. All the rope had been used and further progress was impossible without its aid; also they wanted packs that could be carried on the head when they were forced to wade through deep water. It was feared also that it would be impossible to go beyond the third waterfall without the benefit of more reconnaissance work from both the north and south clifftops. So far they had not got within sight of the viaduct although they had gone a good two-thirds of the way down the gorge. The stores and explosives were carefully cached in a dry place and by 28 May the party was back at Edmonds' headquarters. ‘When they returned to my headquarters (Edmonds wrote) their appearance told the tale of their hardships. Their knees were cut and bruised from scaling the falls, their clothes were torn and ragged and most of them looked worn and exhausted.’
While waiting for ropes, grappling irons, and other equipment from Cairo, the men were sent off to different areas to reconnoitre and select targets which were to be attacked by the Andartes in a general operation called Animals. The purpose of the operation was to divert and occupy the enemy while the Allies landed in Sicily. Morton, who knew the Athens area well, was selected to go there on the important and hazardous assignment of surveying the aerodrome defences; this was the first step in a plan to destroy the planes on the ground. He was not back in time to be included in the party for the final assault on the viaduct, and Stott was deeply disappointed in not having his friend with him. Those who were to try again were Gordon-Creed, Stott, Scott, McIntyre, Mutch and Khouri. The first four had been on the previous attempt, but the last two were new to Asopos Gorge. Mutch, as mentioned before, was an escaped New Zealand soldier working at Edmonds' headquarters; Khouri, the Palestinian Arab soldier who had joined Myers' party when it landed in Greece, had already proved his worth in the fight at the Gorgopotamos viaduct.
On 15 June Stott, Mutch, and Khouri left Anatoli carrying heavy rucksacks packed with ropes, climbing irons, axes, a rope ladder and various other stores. The plan was for these three to force their way through the remainder of the gorge, and as soon as they had succeeded Stott would send a message for Gordon-Creed, McIntyre, and Scott to join them. Under Stott's direction the small party went about its task quickly and resolutely. ‘Our first day,’ writes Mutch, ‘was page 27 spent in felling a trce about half a mile back and floating and pushing it down the river. The roar of the stream stopped the sound of the axe. The tree was about seventy feet long and had branches every three or four feet. After having it well tied back it was let over the waterfall and to our joy it reached the bottom with about three feet to spare at the top. The next day we swam the pool below the fall and got another four hundred yards.’ The three men, strong and untiring, pushed on, often up to their necks in water, with Stott leading. Then, suddenly, ‘Stott about a chain in front came back and said, “We have made it, the bridge is only another hundred yards in front.” ‘Stott wrote out a message on the spot and, giving it to Mutch, told him to get back to Edmonds as quickly as possible. Edmonds was delighted when he read the message. It read:
‘I got down the big waterfall, found it was the last and suddenly when I rounded the bend I came face to face with “Mrs. Washing” herself. There was a lot of activity going on and workmen were swarming over the viaduct strengthening it to carry heavier loads and making a deuce of a din, rivetting I think. They have scaffolding erected all over it and ladders leading up from the bottom. I was taking all this in when I looked down at the stream and saw two workmen only about 10 yards away from me working with their heads down getting stones out of the stream. Luckily they didn't see me and I quickly got out of sight. These workmen come down from the railway line by some steps cut in the north cliff side, and we should be able to get up this way. Please send Geoff, Scotty and Mac immediately. The job's in the bag. I am going off on a recce of the road south of Lamia while the others are coming. Yours, Don.’