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I was determined to have three or four days' rest before starting on any active operations against the Germans. Unfortunately the Hun had other ideas. We spent a very busy twelve hours the day after our arrival fixing up quarters for the men, building showers, unpacking and sorting our kit, and getting ourselves generally fixed up. We had spent a day on the way across, testing out our weapons and I was delighted with the way the men had kept up their efficiency on their guns. There was thus no need to do any firing, but we got the weapons cleaned and ready for action that first day.
John Mulgen and I had previously decided to send one machine gun section, under command of Dick Gammon, across the railway and road on to the Goura side to operate against any road traffic which might appear, while we held the remaining machine gun section and mortar section on the West side of the line, for operations on the railway. Gammon had left the main party the day before our arrival at Rivolari, in order to branch off to his own area.
By Sunday night, August 6th, we had settled in to our camp very comfortably. But next morning came a rude shock. The Germans had started to move forward from their advance base at Kastri, about eight miles away. Reports kept coming in all morning which indicated that the enemy appeared to be moving in some force. By 14.00 hours it was clear that the Hun were staging a major push. I never discovered if they had learnt that British troops had arrived in this area, or if our arrival just happened to coincide with their push. At all events it was clear that we would have to do something about it. I raised some mules from the villagers, no easy task, as everybody was packing their belongings on what mules they had, and trekking out of the area. By dint of steady ferrying we got all our ammunition dispersed in the thickly wooded kloofs around the area. We had little time to move much of our kit, but what we could, we carried with us up on to the hills overlooking the village. Here we got into position and spent a most uncomfortable night. It was most inconsiderate of the Hun to do this sort of thing, just when we had settled in and I was hoping for a good rest.
The Andarte information service during the night was very poor. I remained below in the village, which I had linked by phone to my guns on the hill, in order to keep in touch with the Andarte battalion headquarters. The Andarte line went dead after 03.00 hours, but I didn't think much about it at the time, as our rather "Heath Robinson" telephone system quite often broke down.
Next morning I was furious when I finally established contact once more with what had been the Andarte headquarters, to find that the whole battalion had moved out in the night without informing us, only leaving their telephone operator behind. By now Dimitri and I together with a few stray dogs and cats and the Andarte telephonist across the valley, were the only living things left in the village.
This withdrawal of the Andartes left our one flank completely exposed. However, we were well dug in in very strong positions by now, and I was not unduly worried. We still had an excellent line of withdrawal behind us should this become necessary. Tuesday was a day of conflicting rumours, but it was quite clear that the Germans were advancing steadily along the main road to Karpenisi on our right flank. There were villages burning steadily all along their line of advance. This line came to within a mile of Rivolari, and the village just across the hill from us went up in a blaze of flame and smoke just before dusk. There was nothing we could do about this as we had no mules on which to move our guns and ammunition, and I was determined to stick as close to my hidden ammunition as possible.
The Andartes, I must explain, were pursuing the correct guerilla tactics in the circumstances. They were completely out-gunned and out-ranged by the Germans, and could not stand up to the superior weapons of the enemy. The liaison and information left a lot to be desired, however, and I was left completely in the dark as to their general plan of campaign. My men were furious at their enforced idleness just standing by their guns and being unable to do anything to help defend the villages. Not that there was anybody to help really, as the entire population had wisely disappeared.
By Wednesday evening reports coming from Cairo giving details of Hun drives in various other parts of Greece made it reasonably clear that the object of the enemy was to drive the Andartes away from the main Athens-Salonika road and railway. As our job was to harry the Germans on this road and railway it was obvious that we would have to alter our original plans. There was nothing for it but to abandon all our accumulated food stocks, a good deal of our kit, and the comfortable operational headquarters planned so far ahead, and made so comparatively liveable.
By dint of exerting extreme pressure I requisitioned sufficient mules to move all our ammunition and guns during Wednesday night. After a conference with John Mulgen at Palioyanetsou, which so far had escaped the drive, we decided to leave the mortar and machine gun sections with him, while I crossed the road and railway on a recce to see if it was still possible to get Hoey's machine gun section across as well. We decided that the Mission with their engineers and the mortars would be sufficient to block the railway by sabotage.
It was not so easy to bar the main road, however, and we felt that the machine guns would do more damage on that side. During the first two days of the drive, John had managed to blow the railway line twice, which must have infuriated the Hun at this stage. The night Dimitri and I were to cross, the American O.G. group were due to have a crack at a railway engine with a Bazooka, as well as blowing up the line.
Dimitri and I slipped down to Derili in the afternoon, but when we arrived at the village, the committee refused to give us a guide across the line. They told us that ten hostages had dug their own graves and been shot into them only an hour before, presumably as a reprisal for the sabotage jobs which had been carried out just before. They also stated that the Germans had placed machine gun posts covering the entire strip of line where we usually crossed. Finally they said there was constant patrolling going on along the line. This was indeed a serious matter if it were all true, but knowing the Greek penchant for overstating the facts, I felt I had better investigate the position myself.
Unfortunately the villagers refused to give us permission to move forward on our own, but eventually after a long argument Dimitri managed to persuade one of them to take us a short way into the fields towards the railway, where he said he wished to spend the night, rather than in the village. To make this seem more realistic we borrowed two blankets from the villagers. By now it was nearly 22.00 hours and I was anxious to get near the line before the American shooting party, which was to take place about a mile south, began. I hoped to be able to slip across during the confusion caused by their diversion.
Having got into the fields with our reluctant guide, we laid down our blankets and prepared for rest. I whispered to Dimitri to tell the guide that we were going to relieve ourselves before bedding down for the night and that we would be back in a moment. I have never seen the guide since!
We moved off quietly towards the line proceeding with great caution. Sometimes the Greek stories about patrols were correct, and it was always necessary to take full precautions just in case they were. Tonight although their story about the hostages turned out to be true, they had somewhat exaggerated their tale of the patrols.
When we were within about 100 yards of the line, and I was contemplating making a dash for it, we suddenly heard the tinkling of many bells; a shepherd was moving with his flock. We hurried towards the sound and just as the first sheep were moving across the line, we crept amongst them and slipped across in their midst. We could hear a German patrol challenge the shepherd but he was allowed to proceed after some delay.
This was indeed a stroke of luck, but our troubles were not yet over. The marshy ground in front of us was extremely difficult to negotiate without a guide. We got ourselves completely bogged many times. At one stage we were almost up to our waists in quicksand, before we managed to struggle back on to firm ground. Another time we got tangled up in ten feet high reeds for at least an hour.
It was while we were in these reeds that we heard the explosion that we had been expecting for some time on the main line. We had been listening for a couple of minutes to the puffing of a train, the sound of which carried long distances on the plains. Suddenly there was a flash followed a few seconds later by a roar. We waited anxiously for the sound to die down to hear whether or not the engine was still puffing away, but the only sound to be heard was the characteristic hissing of a boiler which has been damaged. We got to know the sound of a damaged engine very well during our stay in Greece, and it never failed to give us a thrill.
Greatly encouraged we battled on. Dimitri was beginning to develop one of his malarial attacks and I was not happy about our position. By three in the morning we were still some way from the main road. It was essential we should cross before daylight, with the general Hun activity going on in the area. At last our luck turned again. We ran into some shepherds tending their flocks on the edge of the marsh. Explaining our position, Dimitri persuaded one of them to lead us to the nearest point on the main road.
As we came over a low ridge which had hidden the road from our view all night, we saw the headlights of a few straggling vehicles proceeding along it in a northerly direction. There was a large German-occupied chromium mine near the main road which I was very anxious to avoid by a wide margin, as it was well garrisoned. Our guide gave us its approximate position and then left us to return to his sheep, just before we slipped across the road between the scattered column of vehicles.
By now Dimitri was very weary indeed, what with the marsh, the excitement and his malaria. Just as dawn was breaking we saw we were on the outskirts of a village. It was only about a mile from the road so we approached with great caution in case of German occupation. We were peering round a couple of haystacks when we got a nasty scare: a steam whistle suddenly blared forth. I was convinced we had walked into the chrome mine where we knew there was a small steam train.
Cautiously I edged round the haystack. To my relief, I realised that the whistle was proceeding from a huge steam threshing machine which was evidently summoning the villagers to work for the day! On approaching the driver of this vehicle he told us it was most unsafe to stay in the village. The morning was hardly light as yet, so we slipped through the village to the furthest house. Here we knocked on the door and Dimitri told them that he was too exhausted to continue without a couple of hours' sleep.
The inhabitants were extremely kind and compromised by saying we could sleep in a huge wooden double bed they had in the corner of the room for an hour, but that we would have to leave then as the Germans generally had patrols round the area after their morning meal. Our heads hardly seemed to have touched the hard boards when we were awakened and told we must be on our way. The young son of the house guided us down a gulley which kept us well hidden from sight until we were clear of the area.
Dimitri was too ill to walk by now so we were kindly provided with a donkey. Dimitri on a donkey always caused me an enormous amount of amusement. The general habit in Greece when riding these pack animals is not to sit astride, but to ride side-saddle. The donkey provided that morning was a very small animal and Dimitri's feet almost touched the ground. He made a sorry figure drooping on his back, and with his beard, looked all the world like the pictures one sees of the apostles. However, it was no time for laughter and we were hustled out of the village with all speed.
After two hours' marching I decided to leave Dimitri in another village where he could get a good sleep before he came on. I went ahead and reached Goura about midday.
Previous Chapter: Chapter 14
Next Chapter: Chapter 16
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