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Greek Adventure

Chapter 24

This threat rather upset any idea we had of continuing operations round this particular target. Accordingly I withdrew everybody to Goura with the idea of having another crack at the Hun on the Stilis-Lamia road. That night, the 6th October, we had great news from the B.B.C.: British troops had landed in the Pelopenese. This meant that the army of liberation was arriving at last. We had a tremendous party. I felt that another fortnight should see us in touch with the advance party of the invading army.

The following day I sent Vincent and his section off to forage for themselves near Stilis. Andarte information had told us that the Germans were bringing troops by sea to Stilis from which point they were marching to Lamia, and so on to the main Athens-Salonika road. Dick, Ossie and I moved down towards a little village called Lefka, just south of Dhomokos. From here I hoped we might stage a small ambush on any unwary convoys, provided the patrols on the road were not too thick.

We recced the road on the night of the 7th, and found that the Germans had posted machine guns covering each straight stretch of road, while they had listening posts every 200 yards. We decided that it was impossible to do any digging or mine laying, but we did think we might try to lay a few of our dummy stones and cow dung the following night.

Accordingly we held a conference with the Andartes on the 8th, asking if they would be prepared to assist us in an ambush at first light the following day, the 9th. The Andartes refused to play. They had heard the news of the allied landings, and were just waiting for the Germans to be gone. I can't say I blamed them, but I felt that we ought at least to try. That night just before Ossie and I went down to the road to lay our stones, we heard a B.B.C. commentator give a ten minutes' talk on the British Mission in Greece, and the work of the R.S.R. Greece was certainly coming into the news. The talk sounded good, but we felt on the whole that we had not done nearly all we had hoped to do when we first came in.

Guerilla warfare is made up of a series of disappointments with an occasional success. We planned so many different ambushes but nearly always some small hitch would occur which upset everything.

We got down to the road safely, and lay quietly listening for the German posts. It is a strange fact but a German never seems to be able to keep quiet for long without talking. After about a quarter of an hour's quiet stalking we located one patrol. We then moved down the edge of the road about 100 yards, and very cautiously pushed out our stones and cow dung, with pieces of long stick. I could not help contrasting the caution it was necessary to exercise now, compared with our early days when we quite gaily and generally safely, strolled about at will.

The road that particular night reminded me of Noyes' poem, "The Highwayman". It was indeed "a ribbon of moonlight", and anybody stepping on to it would have been a certain target for the hidden machine guns. Some time afterwards a couple of trucks went up on our pebbles.

At first light next morning the mortars and machine guns were in position, and had a short shoot when a convoy came along. It was not very successful, however, and with no support on either flank, we were forced to withdraw when the Germans from positions higher up on the hills spotted where we were, and brought heavy fire to bear. It was always a very unpleasant feeling when there was no flank support, and never knowing when the enemy might sweep round behind us.

Dimitri was far from well at this stage, and he was laid up at Goura. I was worried about him, but our doctor was on the far side of the railway line, and Dimitri was not well enough to move across to see him.

Incidentally, I should have mentioned the Americans before this. They had had three or four shows on the other side of the railway line, in support of the Mission. But they had been very unlucky early on when they were caught in a Hun ambush. Their officer, John Glanis, was very severely wounded. He put up a magnificent show in crawling over a mile with a broken hip and covered in shrapnel hits. After this he had to be transported by stretcher for two days to the doctor's advanced base. Here he was patched up and moved a further two days' march to an air strip, from where he was evacuated. The last news I had of him stated that he was well on the way to recovery. The Americans suffered two or three other casualties in this ambush, and thereafter assisted the Mission in railway demolition jobs, and never came over to our side of the road.

All this time we had never heard a word as to what was happening to the other two R.S.R. detachments in the north. Our own little war was a very isolated one. We kept in touch with the general war picture through the B.B.C. news, but we had no idea what was happening in other parts of Greece.

For the next three or four days we staged hit-and-run attacks with the machine guns, but it was unsatisfactory and I was far from happy. I think, looking back, that we were all thoroughly overtired at this stage, and with the Andartes unwilling to help, we were longing to rejoin our fellow country�men. On the 14th the news came through that the Allies had occupied Athens. The B.B.C. made it clear that there were no enemy troops in the city, when the independent para brigade dropped just outside. The brigade was extremely unlucky, as it landed in a heavy wind, and suffered severe casualties. These casualties were quite unnecessary, as the Andartes, and elements of our sister regiment, the S.B.S., were holding the aerodrome and the planes could have landed.

It was most distressing to us in the hinterland to learn of these operations always occurring after the Germans had left. If only sixteen plane loads of paratroopers had been landed on our aerodrome, even at this stage, we could have caused the Germans any amount of harm, and quite possibly stopped any further withdrawal. As it was, there was no battle for the liberation of Greece by the allies. The Germans left, and the Allied invasion forces followed them.

On the 17th we received orders from Cairo to get as near Lamia as possible in order to enter the town the moment the Germans had left. We concentrated at the small village of Divri, which commanded an excellent view of the town. Because of this view the Germans had at one time been in the practice of shelling the village intermittently to keep observers away. The village was completely wrecked, but the villagers used to creep back in the evenings to collect eggs, vegetables, etc., from their gardens.

I had not seen Vincent for nearly a week, and was glad to hear that he had had several shoots on the Stilis-Lamia road. The night before he and one of his men had been on patrol into the outskirts of Lamia itself. Here they had found a German billet and had thrown in a couple of hand grenades, causing great consternation and alarm. Later he had shot a sentry getting away. As Vincent never exaggerates, but rather minimises anything he does, it must have been quite a party.

On the 18th we could see the Germans thick on the road. They were proceeding in horse-drawn carts, riding on bicycles and horses, and some of them were even pushing handcarts. It was a sorry spectacle, but unfortunately, from our point of view, guarding all this rabble, were still the pickets on the heights with their heavy weapons. Without support we could get nowhere near the road. We signalled for the R.A.F., but nothing came.

Some time previously I had signalled Colonel Devitt asking him urgently for reinforcements. It was ironical that I should receive a reply on the night of the 18th to say that reinforcements were standing by, and would be sent at the first opportunity. We were in Lamia the next day.

The 19th October was a great day. In the early morning we realised that the tail of the German army had arrived at last, and what a sting it was carrying! Behind the rabble we had seen the day before, came a rearguard consisting of armoured cars and four 150 mm. guns with machine guns and mortars in support. The tail of this column got stuck at the bottom of the hill out of Lamia, owing to the first R.A.F. raid we had seen on the road. There were only two planes, but they must have done some damage higher up which we could not see.

One of the planes was shot down by the enemy ack-ack defences. Later in the day the pilot, a Canadian, walked into Lamia and became our first Empire guest. Had he been shot down the day before, or had his plane crash-landed two miles further north, he would have spent the rest of the war in Germany. It was his lucky day.

Vincent was most eager to have a last crack at the Germans, but I felt the sting in their tail was too much for us to engage. Besides which the Germans had actually left Lamia and I feared they might return and cause very much greater damage than they appeared to have done, for as far as we could see from the hillside, the town was undamaged.

By 14.00 hours the convoy began to move. Ian Neville, who had joined us, and I decided to go down into the town. I took a runner with me to send back for the troops if all was clear. Eventually at 15.00 hours the three of us were the first British troops to enter Lamia since the evacuation in April, 1941. We found the place almost deserted, but the townspeople were beginning to return as we went in. On interrogating one of these, we were told that they had been ordered by the Germans to leave the previous night lest they get into trouble.

The Andartes were now in the town, and immediately took over the citadel which commanded the main road to the north. Here they wisely took up defensive positions in case the Germans returned. I sent my runner back for my troops to come forward. By 17.00 hours the rain was coming down in torrents, and I welcomed a very bedraggled detachment of British troops leading mules into the first town of any size they had entered for over four months. By this time the Germans were well on their way, and we were able to relax.

Lamia in peacetime is a town of about thirty to forty thousand inhabitants. It possesses four or five impressive squares, many modern buildings, including blocks of flats and hotels. We took over one hotel for the night. The Germans had not destroyed the electric power system, and had done little damage to the water supply. We were told that the reason for this was that several of the senior officers in the town had become friendly with senior municipal officials who had pleaded with them not to destroy the essential services. We were also told senior German officers had occupied our hotel until 03.00 hours that morning. It was nearly midnight before we could get any food cooked. Not that any of us cared. At last it was only a matter of days before we would join forces with our own troops.

It was an extraordinary feeling to be in a proper building after nearly seven months in the wilds. There was electric light, a comfortable bed and a water basin, but unfortunately no running water either in the basin or in the bathroom next door. We were really too tired that night for a party, but how good it was to climb into a comfortable bed. Later in the night I found this bed to be a snare and a delusion, it was full of bugs, and I crept into my sleeping bag on the floor! It was quite like old times.

We had expected the town to be heavily booby trapped, and at first approached the hotel with great caution. Actually the Germans had not left a single booby trap in the whole of Lamia.

Incidentally we had received a signal about a week before, ordering us to remove our beards. This was a tragedy. We had hoped to return to the regiment fully bearded. We had such a wonderful variety, that they had to be seen to be believed. Fortunately I have a photographic record of mine, but not all the men were as lucky.

The first arrival from the South on the morning of the 20th, was Colonel Chris. He had travelled with the advance units of the British invasion army from Athens but had been halted 20 miles South by a major demolition. Walking was nothing to Colonel Chris. He had left the army to battle its way across the obstruction, and had just strolled the remaining twenty miles into Lamia. He thought it would be another two or three days before the recce groups arrived in their jeeps.

We spent a busy day looking for new quarters. The town was beginning to fill up rapidly, and we wanted a house for ourselves. We were successful towards evening, but had great difficulty in finding chairs, tables and beds. Although the Germans had not damaged the buildings in the town to any great extent, they had looted all movable property they could transport. However we managed to fix ourselves up fairly comfortably.

Food was our main problem. With Andartes and surrounding villagers pouring into the town, and no means of food supply being apparent, the position threatened to become serious. Fortunately the Germans had left quite large stocks of food behind them and these the Andartes had taken over immediately. Money was a difficult problem. Our only solution was to sign for everything, hair cuts, shoe shining, food, etc., and then pay when the account reached the equivalent of a sovereign, for the drachmae had dropped to billions to the sovereign.

The civilians in the town were trying hard to get things back to normal, but after three and a half years of German occupation, they were still numbed by the sudden change. An entry in my diary on the 20th amuses me. It reads: "I had my first hot bath to-night after nearly six months." Another entry the next day is interesting. "We have a flat roof to this two-storied house, and looking out from it to-day, I was astonished to see how flat everything looks." We had looked down on Lamia for so many months from the mountains, it seemed most strange to see everything on a flat perspective.

Thank heavens our marching days were over for a spell, I had covered over 2,000 miles in seven months. We wondered if we would be sent back to Athens or join up with the force chasing the Hun. Our kit and general equipment was in poor shape, but we felt our experience in the country might be of some assistance to the fresh troops, if they wanted us.

We were surprised that afternoon when the first patrol of the paratroop battalion and the S.B.S. arrived in the town in jeeps at 16.00 hours. They were astonished to find us already In possession. We had always imagined that when we did link up with regular troops we would be the ones to be looked after and fed, but how different things work out in practice! The advance guard had had a gruelling journey from Athens and we were the first British troops they had met. They seemed to think that all they had to do was to press a button and everything would be provided for them. We did not want to disappoint them, and did our best to make the flow of troops which arrived almost continuously until 03.00 hours next morning, as comfortable as possible.

At that hour Colonel George Jellicoe arrived with Lt. Colonel Coxon, O.C. of the Para Battalion. Colonel Jellicoe was in command of this pursuit force. It appeared from conferences late that night, that my detachment was to be attached to Colonel Jellicoe's force in the race after the Huns.

Next morning, the 22nd, we thought that the invading army were rather an ill-tempered lot. They made and changed plans all morning without consulting either the Mission or ourselves who knew the form better than anybody, but hesitated to thrust our apparently unwanted opinions on to these regular troops. However, by that evening we had got to know one another better and we began to work together. It was probably all our fault anyway. Having been cut off for so long we were rather out of touch with army procedure.

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Next Chapter: Chapter 25

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