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By the morning of the 23rd, Colonel Jellicoe had made his plans. He had decided to split his force into two. The chief reason for this was the fact that rations and petrol were in very short supply, and so was transport. It was, therefore, impossible to move the whole force. I was appointed Staff Officer to Major Ian Paterson, O.C. of Pat Force who were to lead in the chase.
This force consisted of a company of Colonel Coxon's para battalion, my two machine gun sections, a detachment of the S.B.S. engineers, four 75 mm. guns, and an ambulance detachment. It was remarkably pleasant to be amongst regular troops again, and see all the units functioning in their own specialised branches, instead of trying to improvise everything on our own.
Transport was the main problem, and lack of this prevented the mortars from being attached as well. They were to wait in Lamia, until further transport could be provided to move them. We packed up that night, and loaded what little kit we possessed with our guns and ammunition, on two three tonners. We thought what fun it would be to travel by M.T. after months of foot slogging. Later, next day we weren't quite so sure, as travelling by three tonners over bad roads is a miserable performance at the best of times, but when the road is perfectly frightful through deviations caused by demolitions, it is unpleasant in the extreme.
Ian Paterson, had put up a very fine performance at Patras, about two weeks before, when he had bluffed a German garrison into surrendering to his very small advance party. He was dead keen to get after the Hun. The column was to leave at first light next morning, the 24th. It was most interesting to my detachment to drive up the road from Lamia towards the summit of the pass. It was good to see the enormous amount of ammunition which the Germans had used in shelling our positions. We had never imagined we had caused them quite so much trouble. There were also numbers of trucks scattered about which had been tipped off the road down into the valley below, which we had not been able to see from our old positions. We were all very disappointed at not being able to take Dimitri with us on this final trip. We had got him down to Lamia where a Greek doctor insisted that he should proceed immediately to Athens for proper treatment.
We kept along the main road for a distance of about thirty miles before coming to the first German demolition, where we deviated through a river. On the whole the Germans had done very little damage to the road until we reached Larissa, scene of a magnificent rearguard action by the Australians and New Zealanders in 1941. The Germans had mined the aerodrome and all the approaches, but the advance party had recced a route through the town, and we were not held up.
North of Larissa, the Germans had mined and blown up several large bridges. To attempt to repair these or make deviations round them would delay us to such an extent that the Hun would get clean away. The advance parties had recced a route to the West which they thought might be O.K. although they had not got right through on it as yet.
Ian decided to take a chance and we branched off on some dreadful side roads and long deviations before arriving at Trikkala at 20.00 hours that night. Here we decided, on account of the petrol shortage, to leave part of the force behind, until further supplies came up. The petrol position was acute, chiefly owing to the fact that very few vehicles had been landed in Athens, by the time the force had left.
In order to have any chance of catching the Germans at all, it had been necessary to send Colonel Jellicoe's force away at the earliest possible moment. The demolitions in the harbour at Piraeus had been so severe, that the off-loading programme was far behind its schedule. This meant that the column had set off with insufficient vehicles to carry its full petrol supplies, with the promise that further supplies would follow immediately the vehicles were available. We fed on army rations that night for the first time in months, and how good they seemed.
The following morning, the 25th October, Ian, Jimmy Gourlay, O.C. the Para company, and I went ahead in one of the jeeps in case we should bump into the tail of the Hun column. Again we struck heavily demolished roads, but by 13.00 hours we arrived at the village of Siatista, where there was a strong British Mission. Our long deviations had taken us some way from the main road. The Mission had only been in possession of Siatista since the Germans evacuated the town a short time before.
We were told that the Germans were still passing through Kozane, a town on the main road about ten miles distant. We went forward on a recce, and saw the same old columns moving through. Ian Paterson was all for attacking this army that same night. I had had a considerable amount of experience with these Germans by now, however, and urged that it would be wiser to try to negotiate the withdrawal of a Greek garrison of 600 troops in the town, who were working with the Germans as security battalions, before we attacked. Ian eventually agreed. The Mission infiltrated agents into Kozane, and that night we held a conference with delegates from the Security battalion who promised that these Greek troops would withdraw, unknown to the Germans, the following night.
I had an accident in my jeep at 04.00 hours, while taking the delegation back towards Kozane. There had been great competition amongst them to travel in a jeep, and eventually two elderly gentlemen had been allotted to my vehicle. I must have been more tired than I realised, for I fell asleep at the wheel. The next thing I knew was that the jeep had upset with us underneath. We had not had the hood up, and I was relieved to hear my two Greeks at least making some sort of noise from the back. We crawled out none the worse except for a few scratches. The Greeks helped me push the car back on to its wheels, but politely refused any further lift, saying that they could quite easily walk the remaining distance to the rendezvous!
The approaches to the position which we intended to take up when attacking Kozane, were fully exposed to a German outpost on the hill above the town. We had, therefore, got all our troops forward during that first night, 25th October, and hid them in a small, deserted village below a large hill which concealed them from the enemy view. They spent the day of the 26th there.
Colonel Jellicoe arrived that afternoon, and he approved of Ian's plan for the attack at dawn next day, though he obviously wished that he had more troops at his disposal. Our strength totalled one company of paratroopers, a small detachment of the S.B.S., four 75 mm. guns and my two machine gun sections, about 250 troops in all. The strength of the enemy at Kozane was reported to be in the vicinity of 1,000 troops, 600 of whom we hoped would desert that night. In addition to this there were continual columns passing through.
Our plan was for the para company under Jimmy Gourlay, to seize a strategic hill held by the Germans just north of the town. The capture of this hill would ensure the control of the road to the North. As long as this hill was in our possession, no traffic could move Northwards. The S.B.S. detachment was to seize a small feature just East of the village where we were camped. The four 75 mm. guns and my machine guns were to give supporting fire as required.
The morning of the 27th was dull and misty. We had spent an uncomfortable day and night well within range of German mortars, had they discovered our positions. It was a relief when the time came for the troops to move off on their different tasks. By 08.00 hours we, at the command post, had still not heard a shot fired, or received any signal as to what was happening.
We could see nothing on account of the mist and there had been no call for support fire from the advance troops. Even if there had been, the gunner observation post would not have been able to direct any fire, as we could see nothing. At last at 08.30 hours the mist began to rise, and we got a message through on our wireless from Gourlay, to say that he had captured his objective at 06.30. Presumably we had not heard the firing on account of the mist blanketing the noise.
A runner also came back from the S.B.S., and my own machine gunners to say that as the mist rose, they found themselves almost under the nozzles of the guns of strongly held enemy positions. Having captured the main objective, Ian decided to concentrate on holding it, and sent the machine gun sections off to join the para company on its hill. The S.B.S. were told to hang on where they were.
By 10.00 hours the Germans were reacting strongly to this threat to their line of withdrawal. Firing all round our positions became extremely heavy. Ian ordered the S.B.S. to withdraw, deciding to move them round across country in their jeeps, mounted with .5 Brownings to assist Gourlay's men. By now we were getting signals from him to say he was being very heavily counter-attacked and did not think he could hold his position. He was loath to abandon it before dark, however, on account of his wounded. The inter-comm was so bad that we decided that I should go round to join Jimmy on the hill, give him the picture, and if possible evacuate his company.
It was quite clear by now that the Germans were full of fight and no mere show of force on our part would persuade them into surrendering. The 600 Greeks had not deserted the night before as we had hoped, and the convoy was massing up in the town. It was only a matter of time before the Huns, through sheer force of numbers, would steam-roller their way back on to the position which the Para company had so gallantly assaulted earlier in the morning.
By the time I arrived, at the foot of the position which was held by Jimmy's men, it was 15.00 hours. It was still raining intermittently and mist was coming and going off the top of the hill. I started to climb the mountain, but by the time I was half way up I met the first party of paratroops withdrawing. They were having a difficult job in getting their wounded down the almost sheer face of the cliff.
Eventually I met Jimmy near the top of the hill, bringing up the rearguard, with my machine guns putting in a final burst at the enemy before withdrawing. We were in a very unpleasant position. Should the enemy rush the top of the hill, they would find that it was completely deserted, and there was nothing to stop them coming to our side of the summit and shooting up the whole of the Para company in their withdrawal.
But our luck was again almost unbelievable. The final burst of firing from the machine guns just delayed the enemy long enough. They decided to give the hill another plastering before rushing it. By the time they had done this a light mist covered the top of the hill, and gave us another fifteen minutes grace. It was an extremely uncomfortable hour before all the wounded had been carried down to where we had managed to get the jeeps.
I was really pleased with my men, who had not only got on to the position in broad daylight, but had done so carrying their guns and ammunition on mules. It went to show that our mountain warfare during the last four months had not been in vain, and that our specialised training had certainly taught us how to move about the country without attracting enemy attention. The paratroops had suffered heavy casualties in comparison to their numbers, six killed and eleven wounded. Amongst the killed were three of the officers, while Gourlay himself was wounded. The only officer to come out unscathed was Dougie Rall. They were wonderful troops with whom to fight.
By 18.00 hours the mist had lifted but it was too late for the enemy to do us any harm. The S.B.S. jeeps with their .5 Brownings had arrived just before this and kept the enemy penned down, and only inaccurate and sporadic mortar fire came from the hilltop. We were back at Siatista by midnight.
The action had only delayed the Germans for a few hours, but had given them a surprise as they had obviously not expected British troops in the areas for some considerable time. The result of this surprise was the hustling up of the enemy departure, and the burning of a considerable amount of stores in order to hasten his withdrawal. By midday the following day reports from the Andartes indicated that the town was clear. The Andartes themselves put in a good show that morning when they pressed into Kozani on the tail of the Germans, causing the enemy further casualties and hastening his retreat.
The rain which had fallen since our arrival had completely cut off our communications with the South. We had been lucky to get through on comparatively dry roads, but for the next three days nothing came through, and the column was forced to buy food locally. The tanks of the vehicles were completely dry, so nothing further could be done about chasing the Germans. By the 28th it was obvious that the force was unlikely to overtake the enemy in Greek territory. However a couple of lorry loads of petrol did come in that day, and a small column moved North in what turned out to be a fruitless attempt to catch the retreating Germans.
The only action, therefore, which the British army fought against the enemy in Greece was at Kozane where they took a hiding. It was certainly not the fault of the officers and men concerned in the expedition itself. It was purely owing to the enterprise and initiative of Colonel Jellicoe and his staff that the German column was caught at all. If the high command had had sufficient troops available to drop straight into strategic points in Greece to link up with the Mission and R.S.R. troops already in the country, a great deal more damage could have been inflicted on the enemy.
It was obvious to Colonel Jellicoe and Colonel Chris, who had joined the force some days before, that there was no point in sending my small detachment off on a wild goose chase. The men were tired out, our clothing was in a dreadful state, and our equipment almost non-existent. I received orders, therefore, to return to Athens in the empty vehicles that had brought up the petrol. There was great rejoicing amongst my small party. During the past three months we had fought thirty two engagements, quite apart from innumerable unsuccessful night ambushes, futile marches, etc. We felt that a short break was what we needed. We had learned a great deal that would be of use to us in Jugoslavia where we imagined we would be sent after a short leave.
It took us five days to get to Athens where we arrived on the 2nd November. Colonel Devitt was there to meet us, and it was good to hear all the regimental news. There had been a tremendous welcome for British troops when they first arrived in Athens, three weeks before. All the best accommodation had been taken up by the local administration which had followed in the wake of the army. My men, who had been in Greece for so long, were billeted in a transit camp on the outskirts of the town. Such is life in the army! But there were no complaints provided they could be got to Italy soon.
Athens in the early days of November was a delightful city. The weather was perfect, the people were tremendously pro-British, and were most hospitable. Only the subdued rumbling of the threatened ELAS rising could be heard. Everybody was so pleased with the relief of Athens after three and a half years of German occupation, that they could not believe that the ELAS forces would go to extremes.
The Allied command, however, were fully aware of the position, and would not allow any troop movements out of the country. Colonel Devitt pleaded the cause of my detachment successfully, however, and they left Athens by sea on the 8th November. There were the rest of the R.S.R. in Greece to be collected, however, and the Colonel decided to take me with him to Salonika where the balance of our troops were ordered to concentrate.
We had a very pleasant trip up by sea on H.M.S. Sirius, a cruiser, and sister ship of the Orion. This was a real holiday cruise for me. Usually the trip takes a matter of twelve hours, but for various reasons the journey took us four days. Two of these were spent at the island of Skaithos, swimming and sun bathing in beautiful surroundings. The Navy was hospitality itself. Their gin and whisky tasted extremely good after the ozo we had consumed in Greece.
On arrival with the first wave of British troops to land in Salonika on the 10 November, we found that most of the remaining R.S.R. had already assembled. The atmosphere in Salonika was nothing like as cheerful as that in Athens. It was quite obvious here that the machinations of the EAM politicians were very much more active at this early stage, than they were in Athens, and the population obviously dreaded a rising. The arrival of such a small British force was a great disappointment to them.
The common people throughout Greece had hoped for a large British army of occupation which would have held EAM in check. As it turned out, however, it was probably better that the rising should have taken place as it did in December, and been a failure, than to have continued festering underground indefinitely.
It was good to meet all my old friends from the early Azzib training days. Bill Collins was amongst the troops and so was Norman Astell, who was later tragically shot by ELAS troops in Athens on Christmas Eve.
The R.S.R. troops in the central sector had had a most unfortunate experience. They had been caught in a German drive very soon after their arrival, and had not been as lucky as we had been in the South. Most of their heavy weapons had been found by the Germans, where the detachment had hidden them when forced to beat a hasty retreat. They had however, managed to do a certain amount of demolition work on the road and railway. The detachment in the North under the command of Hennie Cronje, had evidently put up a first class show. They earned high praise from both the Mission personnel and the Greeks.
Sea transport was in very short supply so it was arranged that the majority of troops were to be flown back to Athens as aeroplanes became available. I flew down on the morning of the 12th November, and started to arrange evacuation for the balance of the troops from there. Eventually the remaining troops of the R.S.R. who had been in Greece, were assembled by the 15th November.
Dimitri was out of hospital by now and had quite recovered. He got fixed up with a job with the Allied Military Liaison, and went off to Salonika just before I left Athens for Bari by plane on the 18th November.
All sorts of complications cropped up in the following few days, and I was back in Athens by the 21st. The situation in the city had deteriorated considerably in the past few days. The allied command refused to evacuate further detachments of R.S.R. troops. The city was being paraded daily by EAM terrorists, and one or two people had been shot. As my troops had all left the country, however, the Colonel ordered me to return to Italy. I was fortunate enough to miss the subsequent rising and street fighting in which the R.S.R. suffered casualties inflicted by Greek ELAS troops, who had once been our allies.
Finally there appeared to be great doubt as to the future role of the regiment, and as it was obvious there would be nothing doing for some time, Collins and I applied for and were granted leave to return to South Africa. General Theron, G.O.A. for South African forces in the Mediterranean was extremely kind to us in Rome, and after hearing our story about Greece, arranged for us to have an interview with Field Marshal Smuts on our return to South Africa.
This interview took place in the Prime Minister's office in Union Buildings, Pretoria, on the 19th December. I had never seen the Field Marshal in person before. When we were shown into his study, he greeted us both very warmly, and we imme�diately had the impression that he really did look upon all South African soldiers as his own particular boys.
His profound knowledge of the Greek political set-up was a revelation to us. The questions he put to us, and his comments on our story made it quite clear that he knew the full implications of the Greek position, and had foreseen the rising long before it took place. The Field Marshal's general vitality was tremendous despite all his cares of state, and it was amazing to see with what zest and keenness he approached these foreign problems.
His sense of humour and the twinkle in his eye showed that in spite of the burden which he had borne during the last six years, his optimistic vision of the future happiness of mankind, for which he has since worked so hard at San Francisco, was not affected.
Bill and I left the Prime Minister's study with the feeling that there was still hope for the survival of mankind with men like Field Marshal Smuts working out our salvation.
Previous Chapter: Chapter 24
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