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Through the loss of my battery commander, who had left the regiment after breaking his spine (he had his back in plaster for six months, but I met him in Athens nine months later, holding a staff job and almost fully recovered), I was now promoted to troop commander of a machine gun troop, consisting of three sections. My section commanders were: Lieut. Rall, of Dundee, South Africa; Lieut. Wellington, of Port Elizabeth; and Bill Scawin, an Englishman. There were two South African sergeants, but the remainder of the men were Englishmen from many different regiments. They were a great crowd, and were very keen on the job.
Our armament consisted of Vickers and Spandau machine guns, and there was keen rivalry between the sections. Our weapon training was considerably interfered with by the parachute courses which lasted until the end of January, but nevertheless we made steady progress. We spent a very pleasant fortnight in Lebanon getting used to working with mules in the mountains, while our marching, swimming, boating, tough tactics and sabotage training was intensive. We had a first class and unbeaten rugger side, chiefly because we were all so fit. Our greatest rivals were the L.R.D.G. (Long Range Desert Group), who were stationed near us.
I might explain here that raiding forces consisted of a Headquarters commanded by Brigadier Turnbull, L.R.D.G. commanded by Lt.-Col. Owen Lloyd, S.B.C. (Special Boating Squadron) commanded by Major Lord Jellicoe, the Greek Sacred Regiment, and ourselves, the R.S.R. The S.A.S. (Special Air Services) had been transferred to Britain for training prior to dropping behind the lines before the invasion of France. Our general role was to harass the enemy in the Mediterranean and in the Adriatic. The Long Range Desert Group was to be used as in the desert, for offensive reconnaissance. The S.B.S. and G.S.R. were to use Greek caiques (or any other type of boats which were available) for raiding the Baltic coast line, Mediterranean islands and the Dodecanese. Our role was to support either of the other three forces with heavy weapons, to operate on our own, or to support guerilla forces.
By the end of February, 1944, our training was complete. The successful organisation of the regiment had been a triumph for the administrative staff, the Colonel, the Adjutant and the Quartermaster. Never before in the history of the British army had a regiment of this nature consisting of so many mixed weapons been formed. To organise, obtain a war establishment and complete the specialised equipment necessary in the short time available, was an amazing feat. All our guns, ammunition, spare parts, etc., had to be drawn from different parts of the Middle East. One item of our special equipment - Bergen rucksacks - is of interest. After experimenting with these for some time, it was found that we could carry 65 lb of kit on our backs, sufficient for four months' guerilla warfare. This Bergen load of 65 lb. was quite apart from our ordinary equipment such as Tommy guns, binoculars, small pack, etc. At the height of our training we were marching 15 miles a day, carrying 85 lb. of kit.
As it turned out later, we could never do this in practice. Personally I walked over 2,000 miles in Greece, in seven months, and only carried my Bergen once. The continual marching up and down the steep mountains of the Balkans for long stretches at a time made it quite impossible to carry more than a light pack.
One of our batteries, the Browning ack-ack, under the command of Major Bill Mansfield, was sent off on a secret mission. We learned later that they had gone to the island of Vis, in the Adriatic, just off the Jugo-Slavian coast. They were stationed there for three or four months, and staged many raids with commando troops from their island fortress.
During the time our guns and equipment were being collected, our second in command, Major Wilkins, and the battery commanders were putting a tremendous amount of work into the weapon and tactical training of the regiment.
By this time my second battery commander had fallen by the wayside, and I was now second in command of A. battery. I was a bit worried about my new appointment. There seemed no very definite role for a second in command in our organisation. However, as things turned out I could not have been more lucky.
By the end of March we were all getting very fidgety, wondering where we would be used and where we would go. Then, one momentous day the Colonel returned from a conference in Cairo, and called my battery commander, Major Douglas Unsworth of the Cheshire Regiment, Major Norman Astell (who was later killed in Athens during the Civil War) and myself into his office. He did not beat about the bush. "I have chosen you three officers," he said, "to go into Greece to reconnoitre three different areas, prior to the arrival of your troops. You Astell will be in charge of the Northern area, North of Salonica. You Unsworth will be in command of the central area in the vicinity of Mount Olympus. You Gage will go to Lamia. I do not know how you will arrive at your destination. You may go by submarine, aeroplane or caique. Your orders are to reconnoitre the main roads and railways in your area. To ascertain the strength and morale of the enemy; to build up food supplies for your men when they arrive; and finally to check for suitability certain targets which have been chosen by British liaison officers who are already in Greece, for a final assault on the Germans when they withdraw. You will proceed to Cairo immediately for final orders and briefing. I wish I were coming with you."
It was a great moment and I was tremendously thrilled. The only fly in the ointment was that it meant the breaking up of the battery. My particular force was to consist of two sections of Spandaus, commanded by an old friend of mine, Vincent Hoey, and Dick Gammon. They were both splendid lads, and there was no one I would rather have chosen to be with me.
I had first met Hoey at the Staff College, Pretoria, when he had been one of my pupils. We were both Captains in those days. On the day of his wedding in Pretoria which I attended, I reverted to the rank of Lieut. On transfer to the 6th Division. We flew back to Egypt together, and when I decided to second to the British Army in October, Hoey was sorely tempted to do likewise, but decided to hang on for another couple of months. Eventually, like me, he couldn't resist the temptation to move off to what appeared to be more exciting work. On joining the R.S.R., Hoey reverted to Lieut., by which time I was once more a Captain. Later in Greece he got his Captaincy back, and I got ahead once again when I got my Majority. Vincent finished up on top, however, for on my return to the Union I reverted once more to the rank of Lieut. And he is still a Captain. As amateur soldiers we got a lot of amusement out of our various changes in seniority.
Dick Gammon was a great lad. He came to the Raiding Support Regiment from the Fourth Parachute Battalion, and was never tired of holding up this wonderful force to us as an example of what we should attempt to, but would never succeed in emulating. At times this used to bore us a little, but eventually it became a standing joke. As Gammon was one of the original British paratroopers, having joined them in 1941, fought with them and been wounded in Tunisia, and again fought with them and been wounded in Sicily, his loyalty was not surprising. Unluckily for him in the Sicily show his ear drums had burst, when he landed almost on top of an ack-ack gun, and the para. Battalion would not accept him back at the time. Our standards were not quite so strict, and he had been passed by our doctor. He is now back with his old formation, and is happy again at last. I am quite sure, knowing Dick, that he is holding up the R.S.R. as an example to his para. Battalion! He is well known to all paratroopers for the Gammon sticky bomb which carries his name. He and his fellow instructors invented this bomb early on in the war. It is carried by all paratroops in action. It is a special type of hand grenade, easily handled which will stick to metal, and is invaluable for close quarter work against tanks.
Finally the force was to be completed by the inclusion of one Mortar section, under command of Ossie Kingaby - one of the keenest of the younger officers in the regiment. He was an adept at wangling anything from a bottle of beer to a mountain gun, from whoever happened to possess such items. With him in the party, I was quite certain that we would never want for anything, provided it was obtainable.
At the time of our interview with the Colonel, we were not allowed to let any of the other officers or men know what was taking place. The whole plan was still Top Secret. I did, however, manage to convey a hint to Vincent without breaking security.
Each of the three officers detailed to go into Greece, were to take one N.C.O. with them. I chose Sergeant Radage, one of the original members of my first section in the regiment. A first class N.C.O. and a man who fully justified his selection during the months to come.
We left for Cairo on the 31st March for final briefing. There we were met by Tom Kennedy of the Cheshires, our conducting officer. He was a most delightful person, and it came as a sad blow when I heard of his death during a raid on the island of Corfu, a few months later. We spent ten busy days absorbing the very latest intelligence reports from Greece; being lectured on the Greek political set-up; the Greek character; and generally what to expect when we arrived in the country. Finally, we were each specially briefed by an expert in our own particular area. By the time this was over, we knew pretty well all there was to know about modern Greece, the German dispositions, and the general features of the country to which we had each been assigned.
We were to live on the land, and our diet was to consist mainly of beans and black bread. Our medical supplies were very limited. We were to be given golden sovereigns - our only means of currency. We would, if necessary, purchase our own mules for transport purposes. We would walk or ride wherever we went in the country. Only on very rare occasions could we expect parachute drops of food. We were to be entirely self-sufficient. The British liaison officers already in the country would help us as much as possible. Until the last moment we did not know where we were going, and had, of course, no time to learn the language. We were to take the minimum of clothes, only as much as we could carry. We could expect to be cut off for at least six months.
It was a prospect which thrilled us all, for we would be able to fight the Hun just when and how it suited us. The only point we viewed with slight misgiving was how and when our troops would reach us. The original plan was for my detachment to be infiltrated along the East coast of Greece. But more of that later.
Our initial role was to harass the enemy to the greatest possible extent, disorganise his communications, blow up bridges, attack strong points, and generally keep him jumpy. All this we were to do in conjunction with the Greek guerillas, to whom we were, in theory, to lend moral and heavy weapon support. Finally on the signal "Noah's Ark" we were all three to attack three selected targets on a day when the High Command decided that the Germans had commenced their final withdrawal from Greece. We would be in constant wireless communication with the war station in Cairo, through the British liaison officers in the country.
Our mails, we were told, would be most irregular and we were not allowed to inform even our wives that we were doing anything out of the ordinary. Arrangements were made to send fortnightly telegrams from regimental headquarters, purporting to come from us, to the effect that we were safe and well. We could send letters out by caique when opportunity offered.
Eventually after several delays we flew to Bari on the 16th April. Here it was decided that the best way of getting us in to Greece, was by parachute. This brings us back to the beginning of the book. The other two parties were more fortunate than Radage and I, Unsworth and his N.C.O. had got in at the first attempt, Astell and his N.C.O. at the second, and here was I actually on my third attempt. This thought brought my mind back to my present surroundings.
Previous Chapter: Chapter 3
Next Chapter: Chapter 5
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