Episodes & Studies Volume 2
Under the Viaduct
Under the Viaduct
Gordon-Creed, Scott, and McIntyre left immediately and met the others inside the gorge on 18 June. They carried the explosives farther down the gorge, hid them and then made the climb back to their camp site, the only dry and level place where they could sleep. By the following afternoon they had carried all the stores to within striking distance of the viaduct. They waited for darkness, listening to the din of the rivetters above the roar of the stream. The cold was intense and almost unbearable; all they had on were shorts and rubber-soled shoes.
Night had well settled in when the men moved the explosives up to the northern base of the steel arch. They found that the wire entanglements had been folded back for the workmen and that ladders had been placed against the structure up to a platform. All this meant precious time saved. They looked up to the viaduct and saw in the moonlight the outline of a sentry with a rifle slung across his shoulder, pacing up and down. Fifty yards away from him was the guardhouse, with fifty more Germans ready to move at call.
Scott and McIntyre climbed up to the platform, hauled up the charges on parachute cords and started fixing them. Gordon-Creed stood by the track which came down from the guardhouse to the stream. Although the guardhouse could not be seen, its position was fixed by the low mumble of the guards talking. The men tensed when they saw the red glow of a cigarette end above them. It came towards them. Gordon-Creed signalled the two sapper officers to keep quiet, then hid himself by the track. The glow came nearer and nearer, until finally Gordon-Creed could make out the figure of a German soldier. The saboteurs kept absolutely still; then as the page 28 German passed him, Gordon-Creed rose and hit him hard over the head with a piece of wood. The soldier dropped without a sound and fell over the edge of the path into the stream a hundred feet below. Gordon-Creed whispered to the sappers, ‘Carry on. Be quick.’
When the work was well under way, Stott volunterred [sic] to go back up the gorge and reach a lookout point above the viaduct so that at dawn he could see the results of the demolition.
Shortly afterwards Mutch and Khouri started on the way back to get the two mules ready for a quick retreat. ‘What a mad scramble it was swimming and climbing ropes,’ writes Mutch. ‘While going up one rope ladder my arms gave out on me and I fell back about twenty-five feet and knocked myself out and got a bad knock on the shin. I came to about fifteen minutes later hearing Khouri calling to me from the top in the darkness. After another couple of attempts I made it.’
Scott and McIntyre, the two sapper officers on the platform, worked quickly and silently. They were so keyed up that the sound of every move, no matter how slight, was magnified into an agonising clatter. Once a loose rivet fell, torturing the sappers with every sound it made. A searchlight came on and swung from one end of the viaduct to the other. The two hid their faces and hands and remained motionless while the beam passed over them, though they swore that the beam was fixed on them intentionally and that the eyes of all the garrison were looking at them.
Just on midnight, after two hours' work, the sappers signalled Gordon-Creed that they had finished. Charges had been fixed to the four members of the arch and had been connected with rings of explosive fuse; this was duplicated to make sure that nothing went wrong. Five ‘time pencils’ were fixed to set off the charges; actually only one was required, but the sappers did not want to leave anything to chance. At midnight they crushed the ‘time pencils’. In an hour and a half the acid would eat through the wire inside and the released spring would force the hammer down on to a cap which would detonate the charges. The two hurried down from the platform and joined Gordon-Creed. They took a last look at the viaduct and saw the sentry leaning idly over the handrail looking into space.
The three men set off up the gorge with all possible speed. The climb up the first waterfall was a nightmare. Although they were exhausted, they knew that they would have to force their bodies to the limit of endurance before they were clear of the gorge. For an hour they struggled and pulled themselves up through the dark chasm. From then on they kept looking at their watches every few minutes; the hour and a half, the time limit for the explosion, was nearly up. The time passed but there was no explosion. Another quarter of an hour passed. Surely, they thought, nothing could have gone wrong. In their minds they traced each step of the operation and tried to think of something they had missed. They knew the ‘time pencils’ were sensitive to temperature and that in a cool place the time limit could be extended by a quarter of the normal time. The minutes dragged on slowly. When their watches showed that one hour and fifty-five minutes had passed, the men stopped and wondered if they should go back to see what was wrong. Then all of a sudden a bright flash lit up the gorge. The men did not hear a sound: the roar of the stream was too deafening for any noise, no matter how great, to reach them. But they were sure that it was the explosion. As they stood in the water up to their waists they shook hands and congratulated one another. They had done the ‘impossible’. page 29 Stott joined them next morning. He told them how at dawn he had looked down upon the viaduct from the top of the northern cliff and had seen the guards running around in great confusion. There was an empty space where the viaduct used to be.
The sappers left nothing near the viaduct which would lead the Germans to suspect that a British party had done the demolition. The commander of the garrison was called to account and was suspected of having sabotaged the viaduct himself. Then suspicion rested upon the workmen. The whole garrison was judged guilty of gross neglect of duty and the officer in charge and several others were promptly shot. It was not until five days later that the Germans found a rope ladder made of parachute cord, and so realised that a party of saboteurs had attacked through the gorge.
An expert engineer flew from Germany to supervise the reconstruction of the viaduct. He said he would have a new structure built within six weeks. With the help of fifty workmen he built two large concrete bases, and on these he placed steel towers to support the superstructure and reduce the length of span. Five weeks later he launched the almost completed framework of the superstructure across the gorge. As he was connecting the two portions together over the centre of the gorge, the whole framework crashed down on top of the wreckage of the original structure, taking the engineer and forty of his workmen with it. Another engineer took over and completed the task after the line had been cut for ten weeks.
The demolition of the Asopos viaduct was regarded as one of the best feats of sabotage in the war. Edmonds wanted to be sure that the members of the party got full credit for their work. Up to then he had never recommended anybody for an award, and not certain of the procedure, he signalled to Cairo a detailed account of the parts each had played and left it to the authorities to make the recommendations. A reply came back: ‘Citations and recommendations urgently required.’ While Edmonds was making out the citations he received a message from Brigadier Myers: ‘Am not sure that the results have not earned a VC repeat VC. Do not hesitate if you agree.’ As there was no doubt that Stott's performance was of an exceptionally high order, Edmonds had no hesitation in recommending him for the award of a VC. A few weeks later Edmonds met Myers and heard that both their lists of recommendations to Cairo tallied except in the case of Stott, whom Myers had recommended for a DSO. When Myers was given the full account of Stott's exploits, he immediately signalled to Cairo cancelling his recommendation and endorsing that of Edmonds. However, the award for Stott remained the DSO. Gordon-Creed was also awarded the DSO; Scott and McIntyre each received the MC; Mutch received the MM, and Khouri was awarded the bar to the same decoration.