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The 2nd and 3rd September were busy days. I left Goura at 5 a.m. and joined Vincent and Dick at midday. The Andarte plan was to attack a small railway junction, Demerle, and a town, Farsala, on the main road about five miles north of Petramagoula. Our role in the affair was to prevent reinforcements arriving to assist the garrisons of these towns from the south. The nearest German garrison to the north of these targets was over 20 miles away, but on the southerly flank Dhomokos was within five miles, and part of the garrison there was certain to be sent up as reinforcements.
Charges were to be laid on the road and railway to prevent trains or trucks getting through. Our task was to open fire on any train or truck which blew up on the mines. This sounded simple enough, but having learned what the Andarte form was like on these occasions, I suggested that I should go for�ward before dark with their engineers to see just where they were placing the charges. I was told that we couldn't do this in daylight.
By the time we arrived on the scene just after dark, the engineers had already gone off to place their charges. However the Andarte commander pointed out the approximate position of the mined areas as near as could be judged in the dark. He told me where he wanted my machine guns placed, and showed me where the Andarte positions would be.
Vincent, Dick and I were most unhappy about this as we couldn't possibly tell exactly where the demolitions were likely to take place. However, there was nothing we could do about it but hope for the best. Zero hour was midnight, and sure enough about five minutes after the hour we heard the sound of very heavy firing from the north. The Hun did not take long to react in our area. We knew that they had an armoured train in the vicinity, and within fifteen minutes of the opening of the action along came a train.
It is always a most thrilling experience listening to a train puffing along at night and waiting for the explosion, even when you know where the charges are laid. When you don't know where to expect the charges, it is even more exciting as each yard may be the last. We could see the engine silhouetted by the fire in its firebox and the gunners were sitting with their trigger fingers just itching for the right moment. The train slowly drew abreast of us, then to our horror moved past our positions. I was livid, but all was not com�pletely lost. The engine had just disappeared round the shoulder of the hill when there was a loud explosion, and up went the train. We could see the flash and hear the cries and shouts of the Germans, but the shoulder of the hill was between us and the enemy. There was nothing for it but to dismantle our guns and manhandle them and our ammunition up to the top of the hill until the enemy came into view. This was no easy job on a pitch black night.
We knew that the Germans could make no repairs to the line without using flares and providing they didn't do this, there was no chance of reinforcements getting through. I decided to wait till first light before engaging them as I did not want to give our positions away by firing blindly at some�thing we could not see. We were settled in on the top of the hill with all our ammunition within two hours.
Meanwhile the battle to the north appeared to be as fierce as ever. We had a very good view from our new positions and could see tracer bullets chasing all over the place. It was impossible to tell how matters were progressing and we waited anxiously for news which never came. The Andarte commander was in a flat spin by now. The German armoured train showed no signs of fight whatever, and he did not know what to do. He was very anxious to capture whatever weapons might be on the train, and accordingly sent down a patrol to see what they could do about it. About thirty minutes after the patrol had left, a sudden burst of firing from below showed that some of the Germans at least were still alive and kicking, and like all Jerries, still full of fight.
By 04.30 hours dawn was beginning to break, but it was 05.00 hours before we could discern a possible target. By this time the main battle appeared to have come to an end. All firing had ceased. We still had not the vaguest idea whether or not the attack had been successful, or whether the Andartes had withdrawn. Fortunately for us the sun was right behind us and our positions were almost invisible from below.
As the day grew brighter, I took stock of our position. It was not a pleasant one. The hill on which we found ourselves was practically bare of scrub, and the only cover we could obtain was amongst the rocks. Our orders were to remain in position until instructions to withdraw were received from the Andarte commander of the main attack. This would be quite alright as long as the sun was behind us and afforded us some protection; but once it had moved overhead, our position would be quite untenable and our withdrawal would be a most hazardous affair.
However that was not the immediate problem. We could see that the railway engine had been badly damaged, and the first truck was lying on its side. There was no sign of life on the train itself, but we could see that the Hun had dismantled his guns and taken up positions in a wheat field about a thousand yards from where we were concealed, and just across the main road from us.
Having received no orders from the Andarte commander to open fire by 05.30 hours, I went over and asked him what he proposed doing. He had no idea at all. I suggested that as my men had spotted several of the German positions, that we should open up and that his gunners should co-operate. He was very much against this, but I was extremely nervous lest reinforcements should come along to see what had happened to the train, and was anxious to finish off whatever Germans were down below, before such reinforcements arrived.
After some argument through Dimitri, I told the Andartes that I was going to proceed whether he liked it or not. Every�thing was in our favour and we had a very successful half-hour's shoot, by which time all the German guns were out of action, and we were receiving no reply to our fire. During this half hour only one Andarte machine gun had fired a couple of hundred rounds.
Just as we were cleaning our guns and preparing for anything else which might eventuate, along came a repair train on the railway, and two troop carriers on the road. I ordered Dick and Vincent to train their guns on the spot where the Andarte commander had told me the mines had been laid on the road the previous night. Again we waited anxiously for the trucks to go up. But damme, the same thing happened again and the vehicles went sailing past the point where I had been told the mines had been laid.
I shouted "fire" and away went the guns. The trucks screamed to a halt and about twenty Germans poured out of them, and were into the ditches at the side of the road with their guns, in a twinkling. The battle was now joined in earnest, with extra machine guns on the repair train joining In. It was now about 09.30 and the advantage we had earlier enjoyed by virtue of the sun's rays being directly into the eyes of our enemies was disappearing.
Suddenly Dick shouted to me that one of his guns had run out of ammunition. What with my arguments with the Andarte commander and other worries, I hadn't realised we had been firing at such a rate. I contacted the Andarte commander and asked him how long he proposed to stay in position, as things would go from bad to worse.
He then told me a sorry story. He had sent off a runner at about 04.00 hours in the morning to the O.C. of the main force, asking if we could have permission to withdraw at first light. His messenger had only returned a few minutes before to say that he had been arrested in a village through which he had to pass to reach the chief Andarte commander, and had never delivered his message.
This was a pretty state of affairs. I told him it was no good my guns sitting there with no ammunition, and we had better do something about getting out. After a lot of fruitless argument he agreed. I suggested he had better pull his Andartes out first, and that I should withdraw my guns one by one. He agreed. It took us about thirty minutes to disengage by which time we were almost completely out of ammunition. I had sent a runner back to bring the mules forward to a position just behind the hill. Dick Gammon pulled his men out first and I saw him load up and move off. By now the Germans were beginning to get on top. By the time Vincent's last gun had disengaged, bullets were pinging around us thick and fast. We could also see about a couple of companies of Huns deploying near the railway in an encircling movement. Just as we were clearing the crest of the hill, Vincent had his trousers holed by a bullet, but only had his leg grazed.
Our withdrawal was in full view of the repair train, where a large gang was working busily on the line. We could see them for at least half an hour, but for some extraordinarily lucky reason they never spotted us. We loaded our guns and tripods on the mules within 1,500 yards of the enemy, and they still did not see us.
By this time the Andartes had pulled out, and the position had been completely evacuated. Just in time, too, as the Germans had brought up their mortars and were plastering our old positions pretty thoroughly. On the whole I was fairly satisfied with our morning's work. We had done our job and must have inflicted quite heavy casualties on the enemy. Except for Vincent's grazed leg our casualties were nil.
There was no time for dawdling, however, with the Germans moving inland to try to cut off our line of retreat. We could not return by the way we had come, and our alternate route kept us in full view of the main road to the north, for a mile. But again our luck held, and no Germans appeared on the road. We kept going until midday, by which tune I felt we were fairly safe and called a halt. We had been on the go since 06.00 hours the morning before, and had no meal for very many hours. The Andartes had also halted at the same place, where they kept a small garrison outpost. I agreed with the Andarte commander that the position was reasonably safe, and decided to leave my men there for the night. I moved back to Goura with Dimitri, to tie up further plans with the Andartes and learn what had happened to the main attack. I also wanted to find out if further instructions had come through from Cairo about Noah's Ark.
We arrived at 21.30 that night to learn there was a signal telling us to move into positions near our Noah's Ark target, as we could expect the word "go" at any moment. I was also told that the main attack had been quite successful. A quantity of German war material had been destroyed and captured, but unfortunately the main railway bridge had not been blown up owing to the failure of the explosives to arrive in time, after the Andartes had succeeded in capturing and holding the crossing for over an hour.
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