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Greek Adventure

Chapter 21

The weather, which had been remarkably kind to us since the bad spell about the beginning of the month, now changed. This was unfortunate, as both sections were living in the open, and had no shelter of any sort except what we could rig up by making bush huts. There had been certain food difficulties at the village near Vincent's headquarters, so I returned to his section that evening, leaving Dick to carry out his demolition job on the road. I got to know this eight-mile track between the two sections rather well during the next ten days. Although the distance by road was only about five miles, in order to keep concealed it was necessary to follow gulleys and river beds and other indentations in the ground when moving between the ambush camps.

When I arrived back I found that the village had gone on strike and refused to supply the food I had ordered. This was extremely awkward as I did not wish to ask the Andartes to force the villagers to supply us with food. Before doing anything drastic about it, I decided to try another small village nearby. Here I met the friendliest co-operation and all our needs were supplied, at a price.

Next morning, September 16th, Dick sent a runner over to say that his demolition party had run into a Hun patrol the night before, and had failed in their attempt to mine the road. He suggested that, if I approved, he should attempt to do the demolition in daylight. I was not very keen on this and sent a reply telling him to wait until I got over to his camp that night for a conference.

We had been signalling for R.A.F. support almost continually for the past week, but so far nothing had appeared. This was particularly irritating as we kept on hearing on the B.B.C. news how the Baltic Air Force was strafing German transport columns in Jugo-Slavia. This was not much comfort to us and we longed to see some of our own planes having a crack at the convoys which were piling up nose to tail on the road from Lamia to the top of the pass. They formed an ideal target for the air force, and also, for that matter, to any ground attack. The only snag here being that the German positions at the top of the pass completely covered the road to the South from our side, and we couldn't get anywhere near the trucks, unless we moved down almost to Lamia itself.

After my conference with Dick that evening I agreed that he should make an attempt in daylight next day to carry out his demolitions, providing there was no sign of convoy movement up from Lamia in the early morning. We knew from experience that we had at least six clear hours from the time a convoy left Lamia before it attempted to get past our target area. That night a convoy again attempted to pass through but this time was spotted, and there was a fairly brisk action. Next morning we learned that about fifty or sixty trucks had got through.

These trucks must have suffered damage and casualties because the convoy had halted for the remainder of the night at the chromium mine, half-way to Dhomokos. This meant that Vincent's section would be able to have a crack at them when they decided to proceed. This they did on the morning of the 16th. They were obviously not expecting trouble again, and they ran right into Vincent's ambush. Vincent had a twelve hour, long range scrap with the Germans, causing considerable damage before all the convoy got through just after dark.

The range from Vincent's guns to the target area was about 1,800 yards. We had no intention of holding this position indefinitely as it was far too exposed, but it had a useful nuisance value against the enemy, providing we took care to see that they did not outflank us.

It may be wondered why the Hun didn't deploy and just push us off our position, but it must be remembered that these German convoys had strict orders to push North at all possible speed. This was all happening at the time when the Russians were pushing towards Belgrade, and the Germans were requiring all the reinforcements they could get from the South. In these circumstances troops coming from the Dodecanese and the South had most of their kit and equipment packed for the journey North. Their commanders were, therefore, extremely reluctant to deploy these troops all over the countryside. Their experience in the 150-mile run from Athens to Lamia had been trouble free. When they first bumped our opposition in the pass above Lamia, they had no idea as to how serious or how light it was likely to be. Accordingly they did their best to slip through with as few casualties as possible, without halting their entire outfit, and staging a major deploying action to drive us out of our fortifications.

By the end of the first week, we were fairly satisfied with the position. About three convoys had got through, each of them having suffered losses in trucks and personnel which they could not replace, while they had been delayed by at least four or five days. What was more important, the carefully laid German staff plans for the withdrawal of all their forces from the South, had been materially upset. Ours was the first area where they had struck any trouble. We knew they still had two more detachments of R.S.R. troops in the country to pass before they could get into Jugo-Slavia. We were confident that these troops were preparing a hot reception in their areas.

I left the sections on the 17th to return to Goura, as I was getting anxious about the mortar section of whom there was no sign. On my way back, a huge formation of R.A.F. bombers passed overhead. It was an inspiring sight, and gave me a tremendous thrill. We heard later, over the air, that these planes had bombed German transport planes gathered in Athens to take off important senior German officials. It was reported that 72 German planes had been destroyed. This was great news. It also meant that the road and railway became still more important for the Germans.

I could hear Dick's guns firing away during the morning which meant that Vincent would probably have an action later in the day. The Andarte information service told us that there were eight trains all held up at Petramagoula, and about a thousand Germans camped there. This was only about two miles from Vincent's positions and I was not very happy about it. I had managed to get a phone laid on from the village behind Vincent's section back to Goura. He phoned me just after lunch to say he had taken advantage of the heavy mist to lay mines on the road, during the morning.

Dick rang me early on the morning of the 18th to say he had been unable to get on to the road during daylight owing to the convoy engagement, but during the night he had succeeded in blowing a five by eight foot gap right across his target area, with which he was delighted and quite rightly so. The convoy which had passed Dick the morning before had spent the day and night at the chromium mine. As there was still no word of the mortar section I decided to return to Vincent to see if we couldn't have a really successful night action when this convoy decided to proceed.

Amongst its other explosive equipment, the mission possessed an electric plunger which I was very anxious to use. I could remember in the days of my youth watching wild west films in which the villain had one of these plunging mechanisms with which he sat safely, far away from the target, and by pressing down a handle blew up a bridge in the distance. I knew of an ideal night ambush site with a small bridge very near Vincent's daylight position, which would suit admirably for this purpose, and I persuaded Ian to lend me his plunger.

I arrived at the forward positions just before dark. We held a short order group with the Andarte company commander who was attached to us. Everybody was enthusiastic and off we set just after 19.00 hours. We were in position by 22.00 hours with our grenadiers only 20 yards from the road on a steep piece of rock from which they could lob their hand grenades down onto passing trucks with ease. Our own and the Andarte machine guns were all within 300 yards of the road, while an Andarte mortar section was ready to put down their mortar bombs should the column catch alight. Meanwhile we had placed the 250 lbs. of explosive which we had failed to use on the previous occasion a few nights before, under the bridge. This we connected by a 300 ft. electric cable, with the plunger.

Dimitri and I were to blow this plunger immediately the head of the column was on the bridge. The machine gunners, grenadiers and mortars were then to do the rest.

But once more the Hun foxed us. Nothing had arrived by 05.00 hours, so there was no alternative but to withdraw the troops, as the positions were quite untenable in daylight. Dimitri and I remained on the plunger position until midday, when we were relieved by two of the others. Meanwhile the Germans were still licking their wounds at the chrome mine and all was quiet.

The mortar section arrived safely that afternoon, and were heartily welcomed by all of us. Ossie had had a hard time crossing the line. The Germans were extremely active, owing to the number of demolitions which were going on nightly along the railway line. Although Kingaby's section had made a long detour, they had bumped into a packet of trouble. Half the convoy was across the line when a hidden German ambush suddenly opened fire. The mules fled in all directions, but the men had kept their heads, and the half which had got across continued on their way under command of Sergeant Venter, while the balance who had not yet reached the railway line, turned back with Ossie. How nobody had been hit was a miracle. The whole section got away unscathed.

During the remainder of the night, they had collected all their mules except one, which we learned later the Germans had captured. The following night Ossie had tried again without success, but on the third night he had managed to slip across.

The mortar section had been in several successful actions on the West side of the line, but had now completely run out of ammunition. Fortunately our supplies had arrived from the East coast, and had been brought forward. It is an amusing sidelight that the captured mule carried all the mortar section's cooking and eating utensils. We managed to buy all these back from the Germans through our Greek agents! I doubt if the Hun knew for whom they were intended, however.

There was still no sign of movement from the Germans at the mine, and Dick reported no movements out of Lamia. The weather was still very wet and cold, and the men were beginning to suffer from malaria, boils and colds. We had had no sun for a week and all our kit was soaking wet. However, we kept ourselves busy by digging alternative positions and looking for new ambush spots to use when we got driven out of our present ones.

This lull continued until the 21st September, when Dick had a heavy engagement on his mountain. The Germans had brought up a couple of 88 mm. guns, and were also using two long-range howitzers from the vicinity of Lamia, to make the positions on the pass extremely unpleasant. All this time we still had our plunger in position, with different men taking it in turns to stand by, day and night. I felt sure that after the determined effort by the Germans to get more trucks through to the mine, during the day of the 21st, they were almost certain to move on that night. Accordingly I laid our night ambush on the road once more. But again, nothing doing and back I had to send the men at 05.00 hours.

Just after first light signs of enemy movements appeared on the hills opposite. I sent a Greek runner back to Vincent and Ossie to tell them to take up their daylight positions immediately. It had been a miserable, wet night, but the sun began breaking through the clouds at 06.30. Dimitri and I were comfortably sunning ourselves and thawing out when we heard machine guns opening up on the hills just opposite and across the road from us. We watched with interest the very thorough way in which the Germans cleared the hill with fire before going up on foot. We could see them swarming over the hill and were glad that we were not on that side. As it was there was a deep gulley between the enemy and ourselves, but as the crow flies they were not more than five or six hundred yards away.

We were well concealed amongst the rocks, however, and I was still hoping that we would have the opportunity of pressing the plunger and seeing a German truck going sky high. At 07.00 hours, we spotted a second patrol, but this time it was on our side of the road, and obviously making for the hill on which we were hidden. There was nothing for it but to blow the plunger while the going was good. This I did with a great deal of pleasure. I hadn't expected quite such a large explosion. Before we knew where we were, bits of stone and lumps of wood and earth were falling about our ears. This unexpected diversion on the road served to draw the Germans' attention away from us and we made a bee-line for the shelter of the valley about half a mile away, carrying Ian's precious plunger with us.

Before leaving the position, we had observed the German convoy in the distance, consisting of trucks, mules, and horse-drawn carts. We were interested to see when these would succeed in getting past the demolition. It did not take the foot-soldiers long. By 10.30 the first of these appeared on Vincent's target area and were engaged. From then on it was a steady all day fight. The horse and mule-drawn vehicles, which must have circumvented the demolition on the road somehow, put in an appearance on the target area about 13.00 hours. When mortar shells began falling amongst them there was considerable confusion and the whole convoy was help up once more.

The Germans had brought forward their 88 mm. guns again and were very much more aggressive than usual. Fortunately for us they were again firing well over our heads, causing a certain amount of damage to some shepherds' flocks on the hills behind us.

We were all extremely hungry by now as we had had no food since the night before, and we had been through rather a strenuous time. Sergeant Radage sent forward a message to say that he had bought a very nice pig and that if we could manage to knock off for the day at about 18.00 hours, he could assure us of a first-class meal. I had intended to disengage at 17.00 hours anyway. By then the sun was right in our eyes and we couldn't see what the enemy was up to. I didn't altogether like the position as the Hun were obviously deter�mined to get this convoy through and was becoming more and more annoyed at the delay.

We withdrew "according to plan," and were just preparing to enjoy our meal when the Andarte look-outs, whom we had left above, came tearing down the hill shouting "Germani, Germani," and were away before we could get any further information out of them. There was nothing for it but to abandon pig and move out from the valley, where we had our kitchen, on to the hills amongst the thick cover between our camp and the Germans. We told our Italian cooks to look after the food until we came back. We hurriedly hid the mortars in the bushes as they were too heavy to lug about. Vincent took one party up one side of the valley, and I went up the other with the rest.

We couldn't make out where the Germans were exactly, although there was a lot of lead flying about the place. It was semi-dark by now, and being anxious to establish just where the Andartes were, and where the Germans were, I was scouting forward cautiously when I suddenly drew a burst of fire, from what had been an Andarte-held position when I had last been there an hour before. How the Germans missed me I cannot understand, as I was only about twenty yards away from them. They must have got rather a fright too as they began to withdraw immediately into the scrub.

All this time we were being careful to keep ourselves between the Germans and our pig. I knew Vincent would be doing the same. It was a strange game of hide and seek, which was not very enjoyable. However, by 20.00 hours the Germans had had enough and started sending up Very light signals. It was obvious that they were withdrawing.

We made our way cautiously back to our kitchen, but our pig had gone! The Italians had temporarily deserted, and left the kitchen unattended. Stray shepherd dogs from the flock which had been dispersed by the German fire earlier in the day, had got in amongst our food, and finished it off.

It was most unsafe to stay where we were, so we packed up in the dark, and moved back to a village about two miles away. Every now and again somebody would trip over a billycan, or a pile of tin plates would go crashing about the rocks. These noises were magnified a hundred times in the confines of our valley. Fortunately they disturbed nobody except ourselves. Finally we got back to the village a very weary and dispirited party by 01.00 hours. We had been on the go for two nights and a day without any food, and had a rather strenuous engagement.

If only there had been some sort of comfort and organisa�tion when we got out of these scraps things would have been much easier, but as it was there was always this business of finding food and accommodation for ourselves, when there was practically no food available. Not that we really minded. We would not willingly have changed places with any other soldiers anywhere. We stood to our guns at 04.30 hours in case the enemy had ideas about a dawn attack, but the Hun had decided to leave us alone. We sent out patrols who came back later in the day with reports that the Germans had withdrawn.

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Next Chapter: Chapter 22

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