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The mule question was becoming serious, partly because of the shortage of mules and the amount of work they were obliged to do, and partly because of the lack of fodder for the animals. I realised that I would have to try to get my own 200 mules across from the east side of the road to collect our stores, and not rely on the local supply. I sent a message with an EDES guide across to Radage and arranged with General Zervas to place a strong guard along the road for a couple of hours while my mules slipped across one night. This they succeeded in doing successfully.
We loaded all our stores, said cheerio to Tom, Hamish and the rest of the lads, and moved off on the morning of the 26th July. We were not to meet again until Greece was liberated and we were all in Athens, just before the December disturbances. When we were within two hours' march of the road, information came back that there was a strong German camp within a few hundred yards of where I had planned to get my column across.
This rather complicated matters as we did not want an engagement in this particular area. Towards dusk, however, the Germans began to pack up and moved off in a long column. I ordered our mules to be loaded once more, and crept down to the crossing. Just as we approached the road, I spotted a truck at the very point where the path crossed the main road. Dimitri and I cautiously approached the vehicle wondering if the Germans were mining the road. We lay in the bushes close by and listened to the conversation. It turned out to be one of the very rare Greek vehicles using the road! It had broken down and just as we were about to go up and speak to the Greeks, the engine suddenly came to life and the lorry moved off.
After posting a small machine gun block on each side of the crossing, we hustled the mules over with all possible speed. It is surprising how long it seems to take for 200 mules to get across a road on a thick black night, when you are expecting bullets to fly at any moment. The din sounds enormous, but actually in this hilly country the sound is deadened by the twists in the hills, and the noise does not carry far. The whole column was across just before midnight.
I heaved a sigh of relief as I pulled in the machine gunners, and sent them after the tail of the mule train. Dimitri and I stayed behind for a spell to see if any traffic would come along and spot the marks of our crossing, but all was quiet and we followed the column about half an hour later.
On passing through a small village a couple of miles further on, we heard sounds of revelry proceeding from the village schoolroom next to the church. We went along to investigate. A Greek wedding had just taken place and the happy couple were holding their reception. We were greeted with cries of delight when we appeared, and nothing would satisfy the bride and bridegroom but that we should drink their health. This we did and in a short speech I told them how happy we were to have dropped in at that particular moment. I suggested that they should call their eldest son George after our English king, who had sent us to help Greece in all her troubles. We parted in a very friendly atmosphere after kissing the bride, and perhaps one more small link had been forged in the chain of Anglo-Greek friendship!
The incident illustrates very clearly how, no matter what general conditions may be like, it is impossible to interrupt the course of normal human relations. These people lived almost within a stone's throw of German patrols. Had a patrol come through the village that night, the bridegroom and other able-bodied men probably would have been deported to a slave labour camp. Of course the village protection patrol was particularly active that night, and had been kept pretty busy checking our column as it went through.
We arrived at Ploessa, where I had arranged to collect my barley and wheat, by midday next day. Here we reorganised once more. The muleteers, most of them old men of between sixty and eighty, with a few elderly women amongst them, badly shod, ill-fed, and riddled with malaria, were becoming very tired after their long march from the East coast and all the excitement of the last couple of days.
We had an EDES escort as far as the Akaeloos river, the border between EDES and ELAS territory. From here we were to be provided with an ELAS guard. The night before there had been a frontier incident, as so often happened, between the EDES and ELAS troops, at the old Turkish bridge spanning the river. When Dimitri and I arrived at the bridge early next morning, there was an unpleasant atmosphere of tension on both sides. The machine guns were all being manned, and it only needed an imagined move from either side for them to start blazing away.
I interviewed the EDES commander on the West bank and then went across and met the ELAS commander on the East bank, telling them it was of vital importance that they should cease their political quarrels and let my column through. This they agreed to do on condition that the EDES escort did not come down to the river. The delay caused us a considerable amount of inconvenience but eventually we were all safely across the bridge and the last obstacle on the way to our own area had been overcome.
These old Turkish bridges, one of which we had just crossed, were very interesting. They had been built by the Turks, when they overran Greece and were only designed for foot and animal transport. They were made in one span of stone and concrete and generally took the form of a series of steps up one side and down the other. They were very narrow but served their purpose admirably as several of the larger rivers in Greece would have been impassable for most of the year without them.
There followed a week of monotonous marching over the mountains. Our muleteers became weaker and weaker and more and more disgruntled. It is no easy matter to offload over two hundred mules every evening when there is seldom a level spot within miles. We finally evolved a technique by which we could be offloaded, sentries posted, and bedded down for the night in about ninety minutes. It took about the same time to get started again in the morning. Food was in short supply, mules began to die, but in the end we arrived without any major incident, having lost only six mules, and one or two muleteers. The loss of the mules did not mean the loss of kit, because the fodder which they were eating en route lessened the loads each day.
July 30th was Vincent Hoey's wedding anniversary, and he recalled the day a year ago when he and his wife had left on their honeymoon from Pretoria. Never in our wildest dreams had either of us imagined that we would be celebrating it together with a glass of tea high up in the Greek mountains!
On arrival at Mezilou on the 1st August, we found that a small Russian mission had arrived unexpectedly in the country. Nick Hammond had been away from his headquarters at the time and the British officer in charge of the station received the surprise of his life when an unexpected planeload of Russians landed on the strip at Neohori one night. With true British diplomacy he sent a signal to Cairo immediately, asking for instructions and stating that he was entertaining the visitors to tea. Back came the reply instructing him to continue entertaining them to tea or anything else he possessed, until further details could be obtained! The position was cleared up within a couple of days when it was found that the Russians had come in via Jugo-Slavia with the full knowledge of the British authorities. There had been some slip-up in communications and the message warning the British Mission of their arrival had not been received in time. I met three members of the Russian mission, one of whom spoke excellent English. They were most charming people.
I will always have one grievance against my friend Dimitri. He imagined he had a wonderful bump of locality, and invariably when we had an argument about the shortest way between two villages, he would take me the longest, when I gave in to his ideas. On this return trip I at last taught him a sharp lesson.
On leaving Mezilou, Dimitri told me he had heard of a good short cut, and like a fool, despite previous bitter experience, I believed him. All went well for the first couple of hours when I began to suspect that we were miles out of our way. Eventually after a heated argument, we decided to part, I going my way and Dimitri his.
Needless to say I went flat out to ensure arriving first and justify my opinion of the correct route. As it was it took me seven hours to do a journey which on the outward trip had only taken four. I must confess to a great delight when Dimitri only arrived four hours later. I was most solicitous for his welfare which only added gall to his wounded pride. Dimitri was a wonderful companion on these long walks of ours. He had a very keen sense of humour and even when we were most tired and fed up we usually managed to see something amusing in the position. I could never have kept going without his cheerful companionship. It was towards the end of this trip that he began to get more frequent attacks of malaria, chiefly owing to his extreme tiredness.
We arrived back at our previously chosen headquarters, Rivolari, on August 5th, after what, for Dimitri and I, had been two months of continual marching. We found that an Andarte regiment had also made its headquarters in the same village. I felt that this was a good thing as we would be able to fraternise. I have an interesting note in my diary to the effect that the trip across cost 1,200 sovereigns, i.e. about £5,000. This figure included mule hire and all our food.
Previous Chapter: Chapter 13
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