|Home - (Auto)Biography and Family History - Greek Adventure||Mail Hal C F Astell - Site Map|
We arrived at Devisiana, the headquarters of the Mission in EDES territory on the morning of the 15th. Here we were made most welcome by Colonel Hamish Torrence, acting during Tom Barnes' absence in Cairo. The Devisiana Mission was always a very cheery spot. I remember many of the personnel with delight. Peter Musson, Philip Hind, Denis Nichol, Fred Wright, Harry Evans, Alan le Brocq (whom I had last met in Durban just before the Madagascar show) and Geoff, amongst others.
Hamish held a conference that afternoon in which he gave out his orders for the handling of the L.C.I. (Landing Craft Infantry) which was to come in on the night of the 17th or 18th. I was delighted to hear that a detachment of the R.S.R. would be on board as well as my American group, though disappointed that they were not my own troops.
That evening I was taken round to meet General Zervas, leader of the EDES forces. He was a huge, cheerful man with about the largest beard I have ever seen. Unlike General Seraphis, he was not surrounded by a lot of political intrigue. He controlled his army of about 20,000 himself, and worked hand in glove with the British Mission in his area. A great deal of the happy atmosphere at Devisiana was, I am sure, due to the understanding and help which Zervas and his lieutenants so willingly gave the Mission in all operations against the Hun.
Later that night six senior EDES officers and their wives called at the Mission and we had a most hectic party which lasted well after midnight. They were delighted with the South African Zulu war cry which I tried to teach them, in return for some of their stirring Greek national songs.
Devisiana is situated about 20 miles from the West coast, and was surrounded on all sides by German garrisons. It was, therefore, necessary to guard the area surrounding the small cove where the L.C.I. was due to beach, with the greatest possible care. Zervas had collected over 1,200 mules in the area in order to move the ninety tons of stores which were reported to be arriving on the L.C.I. The distance from the beach head to the mountains was about six miles, and it was imperative that all the stores should be off the beach and into the mountains by daylight.
In order to protect the beach head General Zervas had deployed two divisions of his troops on either flank, at a distance of about four miles from the secret cove. These troops were only to take up their positions at midday on the 17th, and were to keep strictly hidden until after dark, when ranks would close up, and the position would be held at costs during the night. The organisation involved in all this was tremendous and the EDES Andartes put up a magnificent show.
We moved off early on the morning of the 17th and arrived at advanced headquarters above the plain at midday. Here we were met by a naval officer "Geoff", who had come into Greece some weeks before in order to find a suitable cove into which the Navy could bring their L.C.I.
From this advanced headquarters we could watch the plain below and see the sea in the distance. We had a minor scare at 15.00 hours when three Hun recce planes flew over the area, but the Andartes were so well hidden that the planes flew off without any untoward happenings. Just before dark, the mule train left the mountains and made for the beach. A small advance party of us had gone ahead earlier, and we had a very pleasant swim after recceing the approaches to the beach. Geoff had also laid on a delicious meal of fresh fried fish which we ate in one of his fishing boats.
The L.C.I. was due in at 23.00 hours. Again there were prearranged recognition signals to be flashed by torch from the L.C.I. to the shore and from the shore to the L.C.I. We knew that Hun patrol boats were in the habit of steaming up and down the coast, on the look-out for Greek caiques, so a certain amount of care had to be exercised. The night of the 17th-18th had been specially chosen as it was the dead-moon period of the month.
The cove was an ideal spot with a narrow entrance not more than a hundred and fifty feet across, then opening up to a email, sheltered, horse shoe-shaped bay, with a sandy beach and high over-hanging cliffs. It was not possible for the L.C.I. to come in before 23.00 hours, because it was impossible to slip in unobserved between Corfu and another small German occupied island, in daylight. In the same way the L.C.I. had to be completely off-loaded and re-loaded with whatever we had by 02.00 hours, in order to slip through between the islands again before daylight.
The beach was pretty well crowded with 200 mules down below (the remaining 1,000 were hidden in the bushes on the cliffs above); 400 Greek villagers to assist in the off-loading; 100 Russians whom Colonel Torrence was hoping to evacuate; 600 parachutes waiting to be loaded, quite apart from the senior Andarte officers and ourselves. When the L.C.I. had beached itself, the plan was for the villagers to stream up one gang plank as the American and British troops ran down the other. The villagers would then work in a continual stream picking up loads as they got to the deck, carrying them down the other gang plank, dumping them at the mules, and then returning on board. A further gang of villagers would load the mules and move them off the beach and into the mountains making room for another 200 to take their places on the beach.
At 23.00 hours there was not a sign of the Navy. By midnight we were getting anxious. At a quarter to one Hamish decided to give the Navy another ten minutes before we all dispersed back to the mountains empty handed. We were most dispirited by now, partly from personal disappointment, but chiefly for the very adverse moral effect it would have on our Greek allies, who had organised their part of the show so magnificently.
Then suddenly in the stillness of the night, we heard the thud thud of an engine out at sea. Was it one of our own craft or an enemy? We hesitated to show lights as we felt it would be most unlikely that our own ship would arrive two hours late at its rendezvous. As the sound grew louder Hamish decided to take a chance and ordered the signallers to flash out the recognition signal while we all hid behind rocks in case of a burst of enemy fire. To our delight back came an answering signal, and in a couple of minutes Geoff who had been waiting at the entrance to the cove in a rowing boat, was on board, piloting the huge L.C.I. in. We learned later that the M.T.B. accompanying the L.C.I. had slipped up on her navigation and both boats had had a sticky couple of hours getting through a minefield.
Bonfires were lit and the L.C.I. switched on her searchlights showing up a scene which would have done credit to anything Hollywood could offer. Bearded Andartes, belts of ammunition draped all round them and carrying all sorts of assorted weapons, knives, etc.; mules milling about in the background; cheering villagers jumping up and down with joy; a band of Russians in one corner; and a small body of Britishers standing rather self-consciously to one side. The huge ship rushed up the beach and the gang planks were down in a twinkling. Off rushed the R.S.R. and the Americans. My particular job was to get the Americans and the R.S.R. personnel together with their personal arms, ammunition and kit off the beach and into the mountains in the quickest possible time.
On account of the lateness of the hour, everything had to be completed within sixty minutes. My party was away in thirty minutes with Dimitri as their guide. I remained behind for another ten minutes for a hurried conference with Alan Wilkins, our second in command, who had appeared dramatically out of the shadows on the beach while I was getting my party away. We held our conference in the Wardroom on board, to be out of the way of the crowd on the beach. It was a tremendous thrill even to have this fleeting touch with the outside world, and get news of all my friends from Alan. I appreciated a slice of white bread, fresh butter and marmalade much more than the precious tot of whisky which the Navy pressed on me.
When I left the beach the L.C.I. was preparing to move out. The Andartes had put up an excellent performance in offloading the full ninety tons of stores in just on the hour. The Russians had got on board but there was not sufficient time to load many parachutes and these had to be taken back to the mountains.
I chased after my party with rather a pang of homesickness as I heard the motor start up and the L.C.I. move off. It was quite remarkable how completely hidden the cove was when I got beyond the top of the cliff, even at a distance of a quarter of a mile, no sign of life or lights could be seen looking back at the scene I had just left.
The R.S.R. detachment and the Americans reached the foot of the mountains just as dawn was breaking. We pushed on until midday when we reached the camping area which had been selected earlier. Here we waited for the rest of the day while all the mule loads were off-loaded and re-sorted. It was great fun to meet my old R.S.R. companions, Jack Krogh of South Africa with Dick Furber and Harry Coxshead, two English mortar subalterns. Everybody was extremely kind to me and I made the most of their offers of chocolates and sweets.
The Americans were commanded by John Glanis, and appeared to be a keen crowd. We found that a certain amount of kit was missing, presumably lost somewhere in the rush and picked up by villagers. It was a busy day and by 23.00 hours that night I was really tired, having been on the go for forty one hours during which time I had covered about sixty miles.
I had a stroke of really bad luck that evening. On looking for my small pack which held my few precious possessions I found that it had been stolen. As my pack also contained 103 sovereigns this was a serious loss. I reported the loss to the Andarte colonel in charge, and he promised to do his best to recover my kit.
No trace of it had been found when we left two days later, but on my return in a month's time, the thief had been found. He had sewn the money into his saddle flap, but had lost all my kit. Justice is hard in the mountains and the man was shot. The loss of my hairbrush, toothbrush, and nailfile was a bitter blow, and it was a month before I could replace them. I had another flea bag made out of parachute silk before leaving the area however, sleep being far too precious a thing to lose on account of fleas and bugs.
The following day we moved further into the mountains and got our forty mules separated from the general herd. Before we left Divisiona on the 22nd June, Hamish gave me the most important piece of news which Alan Wilkins in his excitement had forgotten to tell me. My own troops were due to come in at the same time the following month. For Dimitri and me this meant an immediate return to the West coast after leaving the Americans on the East coast, a further six weeks of solid walking lay ahead of us. I was so delighted to hear that my own men were coming at last, however, that this didn't worry me in the slightest.
As I had anticipated, we had rather a sticky time crossing the main West coast road on our second night out from Divisiona. We got across the road itself alright, after taking the precaution of posting machine gunners on both our flanks while the mules were hurried across, but the one ricketty bridge over the river caused a long hold-up, one particular mule flatly refusing to be driven or cajoled across the stream.
I sent the other 39 mules ahead and remained with Dimitri and the muleteer to deal with the position. Eventually, as daylight was breaking there was nothing for it but to undress and forcibly shove the mule into the river. By the time we had swum it across it was broad daylight. Fortunately the Germans were not moving early that day and we got away with it. I would have hated to have been caught by a Jerry patrol with no clothes on! As it was I was getting rather tired of always evading the Hun, and was looking forward to having a crack at him when my lads arrived.
The feeding of men and mules on the way across the mountains was extremely difficult. The procedure which we adopted was for Dimitri and I to set off at about 04.00 hours in the morning, and do about a six hour march before stopping at a convenient village. The mule train would follow at a leisurely pace generally arriving just before dark in the evening. By that time Dimitri and I, by dint of persistent arguments and pleas would have got the village organised into getting in sufficient food for an evening meal. We always paid and paid well for food in bulk, but the trouble was that there was very little food to be had.
Another great difficulty was the incapacity of the Greeks to hurry. Although we would arrive about ten in the morning, we could never hope to get anything started before about 16.00 hours in the afternoon, with the result that food was never ready until after dark. This delay used to infuriate me at first but I got used to it after a time and didn't worry unduly.
It was however, a very pleasant relief to reach the Mission at Briantsa on the 26th June. Although Major Ramsayer was away on a raid, Sergeant Frank, who was acting in his stead, had everything prepared for us, and for once I had no catering trouble. Next day we got to Vinyani where we were surprised to find the village completely deserted and the Mission headquarters gone. The bath had been left behind however, and I took advantage of this to have my second bath in Greece.
There were rumours of a Hun drive so I hurried my party through. As it happened this drive did not materialise for some tune. We spent a very good evening with Doc Moir, as promised, on passing through his village. Here I helped the doctor in an operation, on one of his Andarte patients, who had a bullet in his leg, which the doctor was anxious to remove. My job was to give the anaesthetic. Fortunately my wife is an anaesthetist, so I had a rough idea of what to do. I was not very successful, however, as it turned out afterwards that the patient had drunk something like a quart of ozo the night before, and refused to go under despite all my efforts.
Fortunately for us the rivers were all running fairly low at this time of year, and we were able to get across by wading without much difficulty, although the mule loads did get rather wet at times. Eventually we arrived back at Palioyanetsou on the 1st July, three weeks after setting out. I had arranged to pay the muleteers at the rate of one fifth of a sovereign a day, so they went off very happily with the equivalent of between £15 and £20 sterling each.
Previous Chapter: Chapter 11
Next Chapter: Chapter 13
|Home - (Auto)Biography and Family History - Greek Adventure||Mail Hal C F Astell - Site Map|