|Home - (Auto)Biography and Family History - Greek Adventure||Mail Hal C F Astell - Site Map|
On September 8th, we received news that the following day was D Day for us. Everything was bustle that night and by first light Dick had taken up his position overlooking the road 1,500 yards distant. These positions were ideally situated. As we held them for three weeks I shall describe them in some detail.
The German-held summit of the pass was only about half a mile away, but between us and them was a slightly higher feature which hid the German garrison from us, and us from the German garrison. As far as we were concerned this was ideal. We didn't particularly want to see the Germans, and we certainly did not want them to see us. The gun pits were secluded by trees and bush and protected by natural rock.
There was just sufficient clearance to give the gunners a full view of the target area which stretched for a distance of approximately 200 yards. Behind the gun position was a small plateau where all the men not on duty could rest, sleep and eat. Our line of approach was completely concealed from the Hun, and we could bring our mules right up to this small plateau. This was lucky as our nearest water supply was over a mile away.
Behind our position the ground rose steeply and we had a magnificent look-out post from where we could see well beyond Lamia to the south and almost as far as Dhomokos to the north. In front of us the approaches were extremely steep, and it would be an almost impossible task for the Germans to take our position by a frontal attack. Our main danger lay to our southern flank where troops could approach our positions more easily. But even from this direction it would not be an easy task, and provided the Andarte troops stood firm on that flank, our positions were almost impregnable.
The Andartes had machine guns and mortars so placed as to be able to fire on the road when convoys moved down. On the first day, we had decided to split the sections, and Vincent's machine guns were down on the plain, north of Dick's positions. It was not a good site, and we could not hope to hold it, but we did expect that on the first day the effect of its surprise on the Germans would be such as to allow the section to withdraw down a dry river bed, and get away. The orders were that no troops in the pass were to open fire until Vincent had put in his opening rounds which we hoped would stop the convoy, and give those further up a chance to slash into them.
All did not go according to plan, however. The Andartes in the pass became over-excited and opened up long before the leading trucks of the first German convoy had even emerged from the pass into the plain. There was a considerable amount of firing going on in the pass and the Hun convoy disappeared out of view of our guns.
The Huns debussed and began searching the hills with fire. This was quite satisfactory to us as they hadn't spotted our positions. It was not so pleasant when, tiring of firing away without any reply, the Germans began to move into the hills between Vincent's section on the plain and Dick's up in the hills. By midday Vincent's position was becoming serious, and I had no alternative but to pull him back, a sad waste of what would have been a good position. However, we had stopped the convoy, and I decided to get the two sections together on the mountain.
That evening we were amused to hear over the B.B.C. that there were 150,000 Germans cut off in Greece. We thought they might have added that there were also 200 British and American troops cut off with them! We felt the odds against us were rather heavy. We also heard that the peace negotiations with Lamia had completely broken down as we expected. One final item of news that evening which gave us food for thought was a signal from Cairo asking if a secret aerodrome which we controlled in our area, would accommodate sixteen troop-carrying planes for a short time. If we were to get reinforcements of this nature, we felt we could hold our present positions indefinitely.
The following day the Germans once more attempted to pass their convoy through the valley, but again they had no great success, although about six trucks ran the gauntlet successfully and did get through. The Andarte morale was improving considerably. Having seen the Germans halt and turn back the first day, they were now getting their tails up. Vanghelis and his men had great faith in Dick Gammon's section to whom they had been attached for some time, and set a fine example to their fellow Andartes.
It was rather a cat-and-mouse game in the pass. The Hun convoy would come up from Lamia and we would watch its progress up the twisting road from our look-out above the guns. It would assemble out of sight and under cover of the German garrison on top of the mountain. The first part of its journey down on the north side of the pass was hidden from our view. Then, just before the trucks came on to our target area, we would see them again.
The first truck would make a dash for it, and the gunners would open up with incendiaries, the Andartes joining in. If the first truck had got past successfully, there would be a pause while the Hun thought the matter over. Generally he would send forward a party of troops on foot supported by machine gun and mortar fire. As he hadn't the foggiest idea where we were and we were well dug in, his fire did not affect us much, especially as he was well wide of the mark, and nearly always firing well behind our positions.
His infantry were obviously nervous, and did not enjoy their role of moving forward on the foothills. My orders were that under no circumstances were the guns to open fire at this infantry. Our main role was to delay the convoys as long as possible, and I had no wish to give our positions away for the sake of killing one or two odd Germans.
Having put out the tempting bait of the infantry and failed to draw our fire, the Germans would think that the barrage they had put down on the hill, had driven the opposi�tion away. Back would go the infantry to the hidden trucks, and embus once more. The same thing would happen all over again, with the enemy showing remarkably little initiative in altering his tactics. This performance continued for two days. During this time we could see trucks pouring into Lamia from the south by the hundred, and could imagine some fun brewing up when all these tried to get through.
The Andartes were becoming enthusiastic by now, and were sending up reinforcements to assist in the battle. By the third day we had about four hundred troops scattered round the pass. For some reason the Germans made no attempt to get through that day.
Our feeding problem was becoming acute. Where ordinary army units are fed by the R.A.S.C., and only have their fighting problems to contend with, we, in our position, had to find all our own food for ourselves. This was bad enough when we weren't actively engaged with the enemy, but when it meant sending back to a village three hours away for food, together with long arguments with Greek traders, the difficulties can be imagined. Quite the most tiring and worrying job in Greece was trying to keep the men supplied with food. Another problem which had to be dealt with was how to shift 170 mule loads of ammunition from the East coast on fifty mules, with unwilling muleteers. Eventually the Greeks managed this for us by themselves, but it took them nearly three weeks to ferry this quantity a distance of only three days' march.
The 13th September was a busy day. The Germans tried new tactics. They rushed their convoy through in groups of five vehicles at a time. This proved more successful from their point of view and that day nearly forty vehicles must have got past our ambush. This was serious, and we had to do something constructive about it. Accordingly that night Ian Neville and his engineers moved down to the road and laid some mines while Vincent's section lay in ambush all night, but again it was a negative ambush and nothing passed.
It was characteristic of the Germans not to move at night. They were terrified of the Andartes in the dark. This was natural. The Greeks knew every inch of the country, and the area was strange to the Germans, all the troops coming from either Athens or the Dodocanese Islands.
I decided that now the Andarte morale had improved, that I could afford to move Vincent's section over to the hills near Dhomokos, about five miles further north. In this way we could lay two ambushes. After the Germans had run the gauntlet of Dick's ambush, they would have Vincent's to deal with further on. Dick could signal to Vincent by helio�graph, if necessary, but any way, the sound of firing could be heard between the two positions, so Vincent's section would always have time to be prepared long before the Germans arrived in his area.
The Germans must have suffered more damage to their trucks than we realised on the 13th, as they did not repeat the experiment the following day. Instead they tried very hard to locate Dick's and the Andarte's positions. They went so far as to send a small recce party on to the hill between our positions and their own permanent positions at the top of the pass. We could see this recce group trying to spot us through their field glasses only about 400 yards distant. Again they tried moving their infantry about on the hill top hoping to draw our fire. They were a tempting target, but we resisted it.
The Hun was now altering his tactics by sending over mortar bombs at irregular intervals. These were beginning to fall in our camping area just behind the gun positions. However, Dick was a great believer in digging in, and by this time everyone was more or less living well below ground level.
That night Ian and I decided to put a really decent amount of explosives into the road in front of our new positions at Dhomokos. The men were very tired after continual spells of duty, so I took an Andarte machine gun team forward with me to cover the digging operations on the road, and give the men some rest. Unfortunately Vanghelis' men were still with Dick, and I had to take strangers with me. We found a good position for Ian to dig a trench across the road in which he intended placing 250 lb. of explosives. The road was very narrow at this point, and he hoped that the explosion would bring down the cliff. We had obtained the services of twenty villagers to do the digging. I moved about a mile south with my machine gun team, where we took up a position on the road to fire at anything which might approach in order to warn the digging party. We had no intention of holding up a convoy for long, and were only there to give the digging party warning of approaching danger.
All was quiet for a couple of hours, and on going back to visit Ian I found the job was about half finished, but then things began to happen. The lights of a truck came round a curve in the road, about 1,000 yards from the corner where I had the Andarte gun. Before I realised what had happened the Andarte machine gunner had jumped up and had started to make off with his gun. I gave him a shove and he tripped and fell.
Not knowing the mechanism of this particular Italian weapon very well, I could not fire it myself in the dark, but I stood over him and ordered him to do so. He recovered his nerve, and put in a burst at the truck. The lights immediately went out and all was quiet. The rest of the machine gun section had disappeared, so the gunner and I having only one more belt of ammunition with us, made a hurried and rather undignified withdrawal to the next bend. I waited anxiously to see what was going to happen next. I knew that the digging party would have been warned by the sound of the firing. After about ten minutes, Ian appeared out of the dark to tell me that all his villagers had beaten it the moment the firing had started, and he had been quite unable to stop them. The whole business was a dismal failure.
We had, however, one other card up our sleeves. This was a sack containing ten dummy stones and lumps of cow dung which we had brought with us. These little gadgets had been sent from Cairo. They were made of plaster of paris and contained sufficient explosive to blow off the wheel of a truck, and possibly break the axle. All that was needed was for us to screw in a small detonator, and place the stones on the road. After that anything passing over or treading on the stone would detonate it. We decided to dismiss the Andartes machine gun team who had got together by now, and move to a different part of the road to try out our stones and cow dung.
We carried out this plan without taking any particular precautions, but got a nasty jolt while we were on the road when a green Very light went up just round a corner from us and about 150 yards distant. We presumed it was in reply to a red one which had gone up a minute or two before from Petramagoula on the plain below. We had thought that the road was deserted, and just had time to put down our last stone when we heard the sound of a truck. We beat it hurriedly and waited about 200 yards away to see what would happen. To our great disappointment the truck went passed unscathed.
We made a lot of rude remarks about the inefficiency of base wallahs in Cairo, and started to move for home. We hadn't gone more than another three or four hundred yards, when a second truck came round the bend. We stopped to watch and were delighted when we saw the flash followed by a bang as one of our stones went off. We withdrew all our remarks about the Cairo base wallahs, and sat down to watch the fun.
Contrary to their usual practice the Germans were passing a convoy through at night. I could not make out how they had slipped past Dick's positions, as we had heard no firing from the south. We had a most enjoyable half hour watching all our stones and cow dung going up in turn. Some of the trucks would get through unscathed, but every third or fourth truck would catch a stone. Although the loss of a tyre sounds a small matter, it was very serious to the Germans. Their tyre position was even more acute than ours in the British army. This damage would mean the certain loss of at least six or seven badly-needed trucks. The tragedy of the whole affair was that it was the only night on which I had not had a machine gun section forward. We could have added considerably to the damage and confusion, had we had the guns to fire on the damaged trucks. But it was one of our unlucky nights.
I slipped across to Dick first thing next morning to find out what had happened in the night. He was amazed to hear that a convoy had got through, and we could only imagine that the Germans must have freewheeled down the pass without lights, at a walking pace. Our look-outs had been on duty all night, and had spotted nothing. We decided that if the Germans were going to do this sort of thing, we would take a party on to the road that night, and try to demolish a small culvert which was just in our target area.
I received a signal that day, September 15th, from John Mulgen to say that he found that the Mission and Andarte engineers could demolish different parts of the railway almost every night. As most of the north-bound traffic appeared to be on the roads, he was sending the mortar section across as soon as opportunity offered.
Previous Chapter: Chapter 19
Next Chapter: Chapter 21
|Home - (Auto)Biography and Family History - Greek Adventure||Mail Hal C F Astell - Site Map|