Home - (Auto)Biography and Family History - Greek Adventure Mail Hal C F Astell - Site Map

Greek Adventure

Chapter 2

"Volunteers wanted for duties of a secret and hazardous nature for work inside Europe!" This was the paragraph which suddenly caught my eye one morning in October, 1943, when I was glancing through one of the many circulars which come into a Divisional Headquarters. It was a morning on which I happened to be feeling particularly frustrated. After a year at the Staff College in Pretoria, first as a student and later as one of the Directing staff, on staff duties courses, I had come up to join the 6th South African Armoured Division undergoing its training in armour at Katatba, in the Western Desert. I was filling the post of a G. liaison officer, but as the Division was chiefly undergoing tactical training at the time, there was little for me to do. I had been given the necessary but unwarlike job of sports officer to the Division, while we were static. This entailed the use of a sedan car and spending most of my time in Cairo, arranging sporting fixtures. Very pleasant for a time, but sooner or later the amenities of war-time Gezira began to pall. After about six weeks of this I was feeling very restless.

This call for volunteers, therefore, caught me just at the right moment and without hesitating I put in my application. Major-General Poole, the Divisional Commander, and Colonel Eugene Maggs, my immediate chief, the G. 1 of the Division, were both extremely kind, and realising my restlessness recommended my application. I might add here that the circular stated among other things, that parachuting might be necessary. In my application I distinctly stated that I only wished to parachute if absolutely necessary. This caused a certain amount of leg pulling amongst the divisional staff.

Knowing the ways of the army, I took care to take my application to General Headquarters, Cairo, personally, to make certain that it was not pigeon-holed away somewhere and forgotten. It was only a week before a reply came indicating that I was to go up for an interview. On arrival I was called into a small room on the top of one of the many secret Government offices tucked away in various parts of Cairo. There I was interviewed by a very grim looking Brigadier, and a cheerful Lt.-Colonel. I was asked all sorts of questions, and amongst other things, as usually happens on these occasions, whether I played games. I said that I had played rugger for Ireland and South Africa - generally a great help when looking for a job for some reason or other. The Colonel pricked up his ears and said "When was this?" I told him I played for Ireland in 1925 and 1926. "But dammit," he replied, "I played for England at that time." As I hadn't the foggiest idea what the Colonel's name was and he hadn't caught mine, we immediately got down to comparing notes, and the interview became much more intimate and friendly.

The Colonel turned out to be Sir Thomas Devitt, Bart., and we had only failed to mark one another at Twickenham in 1926, because I was laid up with tonsillitis! He told me he was to be O.C. of the new regiment, the Raiding Support Regiment, which he was forming and for which volunteers had been called.

Beyond the fact that we were to go to Palestine for secret training for specialised duties inside Europe, I was given no further details.

As there were about 42 other applications to join the regiment from the division, I offered to run the Colonel and Major Harrington, Staff Officer to Raiding Forces, out to Katatba, to interview them there. On the way out I pressed the case very strongly for my old friend Bill Collins of Basutoland, Security officer to the division. Like me he felt he was due for more active participation in the war. It turned out that he had got his Blue at Cambridge at the same time as Tom Devitt, and I felt that our chances of selection were getting rosier every minute.

All went well, and after a week's nervous anticipation a signal came through to say that six of the original 42 applicants from the division had been selected. Max Phillips, who later won an M.C. with the regiment, was the only other officer besides Collins and myself to be chosen.

We were ordered to report at the South African base at Helwan, where we filled in our secondment papers and met several other South African officers from various non-divisional units, who had also been chosen. Amongst them were Bob Bluett, who was later captured within a couple of days of his arrival in Greece; Duke Wellington, and Dougie Rall, who later left the regiment and transferred to the parachute independent brigade. Speculation was rife as to where we were going and what our job was to be; nobody had a clue, although we had all sorts of theories about secret service agents, liaison officers, peace negotiators, and what-not.

After a couple of days' delay, suitably filled in at Gezira, orders came through for us to move to Azzib in Palestine. Nobody knew where Azzib was, not even the Movement Control in Cairo, except that it was north of Haifa. We were accordingly booked to the latter spot and told to make our own arrangements from there on. Anyone who has had the misfortune to make the rail journey from Cairo to Palestine will understand our feelings when we arrived at Haifa at midday, the day after leaving Cairo. There is no sleeping accommodation, and one is forced to sit bolt upright all night in a crowded compartment. There are no dining saloons or refinements of that sort, hard rations are the order of the day. We had one precious bottle of South African issue brandy, and when we found we had no corkscrew, one of the experts, who assured us that he knew all about how to bump out the cork, only succeeded in smashing the bottle, resulting in an even more unpleasant journey than usual, owing to the brandy fumes in the compartment.

On arrival at Haifa, we were instructed to catch a local goods train which took a couple of hours to cover the twenty odd miles to Azzib. Arrived there we found no one to meet us; the locals had only heard a vague rumour of a new regiment being formed nearby, and it was about an hour before we eventually got through tot the Adjutant. We had another couple of hours' wait before a truck arrived to carry us and our kit to our new temporary home. What a desolate spot it seemed when we did arrive! A few tents scattered about, and one or two unfinished log buildings. The Adjutant, Jock Eggo of the Black Watch, however, seemed a cheery soul. He pointed out the different lines, and after fixing up the men, Collins, Phillips and I found a tent for ourselves.

The next couple of weeks were chaotic. The Colonel was away, interviewing more volunteers, and nobody seemed to have much idea of what was happening. The great cry was "get fit at all costs." We started P.T. in the morning at 06.30 hours, and went through without a break, except for breakfast, until 12.30 hours. In the afternoons, to our horror, we were expected to do a sharp trot of two miles down to the beach, where every volunteer had to qualify with a half mile swim. This was comparatively easy to some, but for others it meant very serious training. To make matters worse, our quarter-master was having great difficulty in getting our ration strength of food. As our numbers were growing daily with new volunteers pouring in, this was not surprising. It did mean, however, that we were living on quarter rations for the first couple of weeks. This on top of our very strenuous physical training was a first class test of the spirit and keenness of the men and officers. Naturally there was any amount of grumbling, but nothing serious. We had an amusing reminder of our trials of those early days when, later, the Colonel called for designs for a regimental badge. One of the wags in the privates' mess put in as his suggestion, a skeleton holding out a mess tin.

Colonel Devitt returned from his recruiting campaign about the 15th November, and that night called a meeting of his officers. Looking back, it is quite amazing to me to recall how very vague our whole organisation was at that stage. The Colonel took us all into his confidence about our general roles, and the weapons we were to use, but he did not give us any idea of where and how we were to use them. We were to be armed with Spandau and Vickers machine guns, Italian anti-tank guns, mortars, mountain guns, and Browning ack-ack guns. After prolonged discussions, it was decided that the best way to train the regiment, was to organise it into five batteries, for the five different types of weapons. The Colonel also told us that there was no option about parachuting, so that was that.

We were all new officers to the regiment, and except for the O.C., the Second in Command, and the Adjutant, had reverted to our war substantive ranks on volunteering. With only one or two exceptions we were all Lieutenants again. The Colonel told us that promotion would be on merit and suitability only. I was appointed a section commander in the machine gun battery (A).

Previous Chapter: Chapter 1
Next Chapter: Chapter 3


Home - (Auto)Biography and Family History - Greek Adventure Mail Hal C F Astell - Site Map