Home - (Auto)Biography and Family History - Greek Adventure Mail Hal C F Astell - Site Map

Greek Adventure

Chapter 1

It was 9.30 on a cold, blustery morning early in May, 1944. I was walking along the sea front at Bari, in Italy, on my daily pilgrimage from the Officers' Mess - the Imperiale Hotel - to the Headquarters of Force "X". This walk was becoming a bit monotonous; I had done it every day for three weeks. Each morning I would get up at about 8.30, dawdle through breakfast, and pass the time as best I could until 10 a.m., when I was due to report to Force "X". Here I would be told whether or not the weather was favourable for a take-off that night to parachute into enemy-occupied Greece.

Twice we had set off on a false alarm - once on the 19th April, and once on the 25th. Each time we had gone through all the usual secret channels: drawing parachutes, golden sovereigns, special kit, plans, maps, etc. and each time we had actually taken off from Brindisi and flown over Greece. On both occasions thick cloud and mist had obscured our dropping area, and the pilot had been forced to return. I must admit that the first time when the pilot decided to turn back, I couldn't help feeling rather relieved, and planned a wild party in Bari to celebrate my unexpected return to civilisation. When this was repeated a second time, I was rather disappointed when we turned back. By now I was getting thoroughly "browned off" and was longing to get on with the job.

This particular morning the weather looked far from promising. I was chatting to Major Alec Higgins, in his office, when the phone suddenly rang. I heard him make the usual remarks about no "sorties" to various areas that night. Then I suddenly brightened up - I heard him say "So Boodle is on" - "Boodle" was the particular code name for my dropping ground. Just as I was about to rush off, Lt.-Colonel Tom Barnes, of New Zealand, complete with huge beard, walked into the office. He had been one of the original expedition to go into Greece over a year before, and had just got back on a Greek caique that morning. We only had time for a hurried word or two, in which he gave me a few valuable hints.

I had only a haversack pack so lost no time in hitch-hiking my way to regimental headquarters at Mola, where I met Major Alan Wilkins, our second-in-command. We had a slap-up lunch together, as I had done on each previous occasion, when I had gone off on a false alarm. As this was the last I was likely to see of civilisation for many months, I felt I must make the most of it.

This time, however, we were lucky. The weather cleared in the afternoon, and by the time we got to Brindisi it was an almost perfect evening. We drew our parachutes amidst the usual chaff about gremlins, unlucky numbers, etc., about which all parachutists joke as they draw a parachute out of the packing shed. Although statistics and instructors always assure us that the chances of a parachute failing to open is one in ten thousand, one always wonders if the one allotted might not be the ten thousandth.

Amongst other special items, I was given ten sovereigns and a million e. Although this sounds a lot, the rate of exchange for the drachma (375 to the £ before the war) was fluctuating daily. At this time it was about 10,000 drachma to the £, and in four months' time it was 300 million to the £.

We reported in to the official Force "X" flat, in Brindisi, at about 6.00 hours, and were greeted by that indefatigable worker Lieut. Penny who was busy getting the times at which the different sorties were to leave that night. Our plane was due to take off at 21.30 hours, so we had four hours to put in before leaving for the aerodrome.

This flat in Brindisi was quite one of the most depressing places in which I have ever stayed. There were, perforce, no set meal hours because with different plane loads setting off for destinations all over occupied Europe every night from 18.00 hours onwards, the cooking staff of two were always heating up old meals. When unsuccessful sorties returned with their passengers, as often happened, at about two or three in the morning, the nearest empty bed was grabbed, and the would-be parachutists would crawl between most uncomfortable, communal army blankets. The anti-climax of the return made everyone most depressed next morning, and it was with a sigh of relief that one would go chasing back to Bari for a couple more days of freedom.

Our plane load that night consisted of five passengers; three Polish officers, my own Sergeant Radage - a first class man whom I had chosen to go with me - and myself. We had our usual "hotted-up" meal just after dark, and moved down to the aerodrome in the secrecy of a covered-in army truck. The procedure was to back the truck up against a tent at the aerodrome, throw the parachutes and kit into the tent, and then have them harnessed on inside. Once the first plane started moving off, and it was pitch dark, we were allowed to sit outside the tent and watch the proceedings.

It was a thrilling sight to see huge transport planes taking off every two minutes to drop supplies of arms, ammunition, and clothing, to guerilla forces in Italy, Jugo-Slavia and Greece. The huge Lancasters would go roaring down the runway and only just clear the trees at the far end. The D.C.'s on the other hand would be in the air after taxi-ing only half the length of the aerodrome.

Our turn came at last, and we motored across to our plane, a D.C. piloted by an American officer, with an Australian sergeant as navigator. I said goodbye to Alan and Penny, telling them to expect us back at the regimental dance the following night. I felt quite certain we would return as the pilot appeared very doubtful about finding the position, never having been to this particular dropping ground before. The take-off was punctual to the dot. As we climbed over the aerodrome, however, we looked down to see that the Lancaster which had taken off immediately in front of us had crashed and was burning furiously a few feet below. I often wondered but never found out what happened to the crew. It was not an auspicious start to our venture.

We circled over Brindisi for about 20 minutes, gaining height. The crew of two mechanics and loaders were busy tying parachutes on to our precious bundles of clothing, ammunition and food. It is never comfortable travelling in a plane with a parachute on one's back. Unlike the D.C.'s which are used on various shuttle services, these operational D.C.'s are stripped completely. There are not even the usual steel seats along the side, the passengers having to make themselves as comfortable as possible amongst the packages that have to be thrown out later. Of course every passenger is extremely careful not to let his parachute get fouled in any way.

We were across the Aegean Sea by 22.30 hours, and we picked out Corfu as we flew over it. The snow-capped peaks and the lights of the tiny Greek villages twinkling up from the valleys amongst the mountains, made a lovely picture in the moonlight. There was no black-out in the Greek-held villages of the interior, and this helped the air force, showing them that they were over friendly territory. As I dozed fitfully to the monotonous drone of the engines, my mind travelled back over the last few months.

Next Chapter: Chapter 2

Home - (Auto)Biography and Family History - Greek Adventure Mail Hal C F Astell - Site Map