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I was relieved to find that Dick Gammon and his men had settled in, tested their guns, and were ready for a show. We now struck a new snag, however. The local Andarte commander was one of those obstructionists and I am afraid I was extremely rude. A wilful obstructionist has that effect on most people, besides which I was very tired after my long march. As it turned out the high-handed line I took about demanding his co-operation and what I would do if I didn't get it proved to be the right one, and by next morning things had started to move slowly.
John Ponder, Dick and I agreed that Goura was too far back from the road to use as an active base. We, therefore, decided to move the section forward to a small valley high in the hills, near our Noah's Ark target area. To do this we needed mules of our own which we decided to buy. We also needed a body of Andarte troops to assist in sentry duty and flank guards.
It was on these two points that the Andarte leader said it was quite impossible to assist us. Eventually after two days of infuriating delay, we got cracking. Meanwhile I had sent a signal to John Mulgen saying I considered it unsafe for Hoey's section to cross the line at Dereli, where Dimitri and I had crossed, but suggested that they should go further north and cross somewhere on the plain of Thessaly. John replied that he was using the section for one rail job, but would dispatch them within the next two or three days.
Dimitri had recovered by now and on the morning of the 14th August Dick and I went ahead to recce our advanced camping site. A small valley I remembered from my previous journey to the road with John Ponder two months before, turned out to be ideal. (I might mention here that as I had anticipated, the Germans had occupied the top of the pass which had looked such an ideal target originally. It would, therefore, be necessary for us to do some scouting round, to find an alternative Noah's Ark position, unless we could drive the Hun out of the one he had taken up.)
We picked out a very pleasant camp site in this valley which formed part of a plateau on the very top of the mountains, and was within a mile of the main road. It was sheltered from the wind, and had thick scrub cover in parts. There was a small spring in a deep gulley so we decided to camp in the scrub, and make our kitchen in the gulley itself, adjacent to the spring. After unloading all our kit, ammunition and stores, we drove the mules down the valley, keeping only three of them tethered in the scrub. We had posted a sentry just above the camp and the view from here precluded any surprise approach by the enemy.
We were highly satisfied with our hide-out and provided it didn't rain it was ideal. The nearest village, Dramala, was about 90 minutes' march away, while the valley itself was well off the beaten track, so there was little chance of careless gossip betraying our position to the enemy. We planned a defensive scheme for the camp, dug in our guns, and by that night were fairly ship-shape.
We had made an arrangement with the headman of the village below, by which he would supply us with melons, tomatoes, beans, etc., every third day. We also stored a considerable amount of wheat in the village, and contracted with a woman to make bread for us. In order to keep our position secret, we always approached our camp by a different route, and sent the pack mules to replenish the larder with one of our own men. We allowed no one to approach our hide-out except our own band of Andartes.
The ELAS commander at Goura, thanks to the letter of authority General Serafis had given me some time before, had placed a small band of twenty Andartes at our disposal. This band was commanded by a very keen young Greek soldier, Vangelis. He was only 19 years of age, but had already completed a cadet course at the Greek mountain warfare school which, even during the occupation, continued its courses in the heart of the mountains. He had the reputation of being one of the most daring of the younger leaders. As it turned out this reputation was fully justified. Vangelis never let us down and even at the most critical moments rallied his troops and stuck with us whatever the other Andartes might be doing.
The next couple of days were spent by Dick, Vangelis and I recceing the enemy positions on the hills near our camp. We learned from a shepherd that a German patrol had been through our own particular valley only two days before. We decided that should this happen again we would not disclose our positions by opening fire unless it was absolutely necessary. It was the only means of approach we had to the main road at this particular spot, and we did not want to lose it. We also decided on one or two alternative ambush positions on the road where we could not be seen by the German garrison above. On the 16th August, we received information about an oil dump near Lamia which might prove a good target for us. Before leaving camp to recce this dump I gave strict instructions to Sergeant Lusted, whom I left in command of the detachment, that he was only to fire on enemy patrols at the last possible moment, when it was impossible to do anything else.
It was just as well that I had left these orders. On our return we were told that the Germans had actually come up to within 200 yards of our guns without spotting our positions. The men had been first class in withholding their fire from a very easy target. Had they disclosed our positions, all our plans for the next three weeks would have been upset.
It was a long march to the oil dump, and I was not keen on the target when I saw it. Most of the oil barrels were dug in below ground level and we could only get within about 1,700 yards of the target, which was an extreme range to hope to set petrol alight with incendiary bullets. That evening we heard from rear headquarters about the landing in Southern France, which cheered us all considerably. We also had a message to say that the mortar and machine gun section had been engaged on the railway the night before.
Early the next morning we laid our first ambush within about fifty yards of the road. I walked along the road myself to see what the position looked like and was satisfied that it was completely hidden. As we only had two Bren guns and two Andarte riflemen to spare from our main camp, I decided to limit the scope of attack by the ambush, to either one lorry or two staff cars. The main object of the ambush was to get reliable information about enemy troop movements. We were not yet ready to give away our positions by risking discovery by a large convoy. The approach to this ambush was down a very well hidden gulley, by which the men could move in daylight except for the last couple of hundred yards. We therefore decided to change the ambush personnel once every 24 hours.
On the 17th August, after a conference with the Andartes and Major Ian Neville, who had taken over from John Ponder, I agreed to using my machine guns to attack the petrol dump after all. The reason for this change was that the Andartes had promised to get one of the Greeks working in the dump to place several time pencil explosive and incendiary charges in the dump in the early morning. Once the petrol was alight, the machine guns could do a considerable amount of damage to any personnel attempting to put out the fire, and with any luck we hoped we would be able to prevent the fire from being got under control.
It was a long eight hour march to our position above the oil dump, but we were all very cheerful at the thought of having a good crack at the Germans at last. We arrived at about midnight only to be most disappointed. The Greek who was to have laid the charges had been taken ill, or so we were told, and he had been unable to find anyone to carry out his side of the job. As the Andartes promised to get someone else to do it, five days later, we decided to go home again without firing a shot.
Ian and I also decided that it was well worth trying to get the R.A.F. to co-operate. We considered that the dump held at least half a million gallons of petrol, and was worth a bomber attack. We sent an urgent message to Cairo, describing the target and asking for R.A.F. support. I was feeling extremely run down and tired at this stage, having been on the go almost without a rest for over three months, so decided to go back with Ian to Goura for a couple of days' rest, while we awaited the R.A.F.'s reply.
Although our road ambush had been in position for four days by now, not a single Hun vehicle of any description had passed up or down the road. There had been several alerts when old Greek trucks came trundling up and down the road. We knew that in all probability these trucks were carrying German goods or they would not have had any petrol, but we did not wish to interfere with the Greeks.
This lack of traffic sounds incredible, especially when one recalls the amount of military traffic which is always to be seen anywhere where British troops are stationed, but it was nevertheless a fact. However, from the look-out on our hill above Lamia we could see a certain amount of traffic moving between Lamia and the south.
The men on the ambush position were beginning to get a bit impatient, and on the evening of August 21st, Dick rang me up with bad news. Our ambush had been surrounded and captured by the Germans. I gathered later that the story was something like this: There was tremendous keenness among the men to be the first to have a crack at the Jerries. On this particular morning for the first time four enemy trucks went down the road. The corporal in charge allowed them to pass as instructed, but later when one of them returned, despite the fact that it was loaded with about twenty Huns, and had ten more marching on either side of it on the road, he could not resist the temptation to have a go. An Andarte who had witnessed the affair and got away stated that about six Germans had been killed and seven or eight wounded in the first burst.
Unfortunately the ambush position must have been given away by some disloyal Greek in the area as it appeared that the lorry proceeding up the road was in the nature of a decoy, and that the personnel who had been in the other three lorries had debussed below and climbed along the hills above the ambush position.
As soon as the firing started and the ambush disclosed itself, the enemy closed in from behind and captured the position. The loss of the two men was a sad blow to our small party. Fortunately the men had only been slightly wounded as we got a report from Lamia, to which town they had been taken, to the effect that they had been seen, one walking with his arm in a sling and one with a crutch. These men were both set free by the Jugo-Slavs about four months later, and were repatriated to the regiment in Italy.
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