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I began to take more interest in our whereabouts, as I picked out the outline of Corfu below us. The three Poles were handing round a bottle of Vodka which always accompanied them, but which Radage and I refused. Taken out of a glass the stuff is strong enough, but out of the bottle it was a bit too much for us. The moon was in the first quarter and there were light, fleecy clouds here and there, which at times thickened up rather ominously.
The outline of the coast with the breakers beating on the shore could be seen as we flew over at about 10,000 feet, and there was still plenty of snow on the mountains although it was May. We could see an odd searchlight further up the coast, and presumed one of the other transport planes was attracting attention. We were due over our dropping ground about 20 minutes after crossing the coast, and as I was O.C. troops in the plane, I had decided to jump first when we eventually reached our area. The dropping ground was a very small one, an isolated valley surrounded by high peaks. The D.Z. (dropping zone) was so small that it was unsafe to jump in "sticks" of more than two, instead of the usual ten. We knew this because one of the Poles, an ex P.O.W. in German hands, who had escaped from Greece, had been there before. These Poles incidentally were going back to Greece to help several hundred of their countrymen to escape from the Germans who had conscripted them into the German army when Poland was overrun.
At 22.35 hours I went forward and chatted to the pilot. He was still doubtful, on account of the cloud which was about, whether or not he would be able to drop us. We decided that in case the weather thickened, we would throw out all our bundles first, and the personnel would be the last to leave the plane. If we couldn't follow, we could easily get a further issue of kit when we returned to Brindisi. If we went first, however, and our kit was lost, matters would be very awkward. At 22.50 hours exactly, we spotted flashes from the ground. Every night each dropping area in the Balkans had a different code sign in the shape of its bonfires, to guide planes to the correct spot. This code sign was generally in the shape of a letter. Once this was picked out, there was an additional recognition signal which was flashed by torch from ground to air, and back from air to ground. Great care was exercised by the pilots in making certain that they were over the correct dropping area. The Germans knew that supplies were being dropped into the Balkans, and had a nasty habit of lighting dummy fires in nearby valleys, in order to mislead the pilots. Flying at 10,000 feet and viewing these fires from different angles, it is quite easy to misread them. The Germans were also in the habit of sending intercepting craft out at night.
On one occasion, the pilot flying round the dropping area and dropping his load on each circuit, was surprised to see flashes from the ground after each run-in. He could not make this out at all, and only when he got back to base did he learn that a German bomber had been following him round bombing the dropping zone just behind him. Neither had been able to spot the other, but the Jerry had been bombing the fires.
On this particular night, all seemed to be well. We recognised the original fires, and the recognition signal was in order. The crew fastened themselves to the plane, put on bulky jackets, gauntlets, and fur-lined caps, until they looked like a couple of huge automatons. They unlashed and pulled in the door. The lights were switched on and everything was got ready. Suddenly there was a scare. The observer had spotted a strange aircraft as the light of the moon glinted on its wings. The lights were immediately switched off and we followed the stranger round and round. We knew none of our other aircraft were due over the same dropping ground that night. The stranger had evidently not seen us. It was an awkward position, especially as our transport plane was completely unarmed. The pilot was beginning to consider making off while the going was good, when we suddenly realised that the other plane was dropping bundles.
We were re-assured, it must be one of our own planes which had come to a wrong area in error. We waited until he had completed his drop, and we then began getting our equipment out. The pilot could not come down below 3,000 ft. on account of the mountains all round the valley, and the disconcerting banks of cloud which kept drifting over. It took five circuits round the area before all our kit was out. By this time the crew were sweating profusely. We, the passengers, had all kept crouched as far away from the door as possible during these proceedings.
As the last bundle left the plane, I went forward to thank the pilot and say cheerio. I told him to have a drink for me when he got back to his comfortable mess that night. It seemed extraordinary that he would be home in a couple of hours, and that we would be cut off from the outside world for at least six months. He asked me how long I wanted between the red and green lights, and I told him not more than five seconds. We had not jumped for nearly five months, and I did not like the thought of hanging about that door longer than absolutely necessary.
As it turned out, this was quite the most pleasant jump I had ever made. The big door in the D.C. compared with the tiny one in the Hudsons made the jump very much easier. Radage followed out right on my heels, and we were so close together in the air that we could talk to one another on the way down. During our training, jumps had varied from 1,000 to 400 ft. above the ground and we were quite amazed at the length of time it took us to come to earth from 3,000 ft. We seemed to be swinging about in the heavens for a very long time, before definite features began to take shape below.
As we dropped lower, we drifted apart, and lost touch with one another. I seemed to be making straight for the fires, and could see one or two tiny figures silhouetted against their glow. Compared with our specially prepared dropping zones in training, this was a most unlikely looking spot. I managed by pulling the rigging lines, to clear a stream and just miss a large tree in my final rush. My parachute caught in the tree but I landed on my back just next to it.
Before I could get out of my harness, willing hands were around me, all jabbering away in what I presumed to be Greek. Out of the confusion, a voice spoke to me in English. "Are you all right, Sir? You are with friends, and we are very happy to welcome you to Greece." It was a young Greek student from Athens who spoke to me. He was, the next day, to be appointed my interpreter. Under no circumstances could I have had a more charming, devoted and loyal friend that Dimitri, and it was a strange coincidence that he should have been the first person to whom I spoke on landing in his country.
I had arranged with the pilot of the aircraft that he was not to drop the rest of the party until he had received an O.K. by torch flashed by me from the ground. I did this immediately, and then began to take stock of my position. My parachute, a most valued possession, was well and truly caught in the thorny tree. I gave strict instructions to Dimitri to remain with it until the Greek Andartes - the name by which Greek guerillas are known - had disentangled it, and made him responsible for its return to me. I had heard many stories of how these precious parachutes had a habit of disappearing.
I made my way towards the fires and was greeted by Major John Ponder of the buffs, a New Zealander, and Capt. Blocks, Chief Signals officer in enemy Occupied Greece. They were busy organising the collection of the various bundles which had been dropped earlier. They were annoyed because the first plane had dropped its load at the wrong dropping ground. This meant that a mule train of about 40 mules would have to be organised next day to move all the bundles, a matter of two days march, to their correct destination. Also the drop being from such a height, the bundles had been scattered all over the countryside.
We watched anxiously to try to pick out the three Poles on their way down, but could not see them anywhere. Radage came across about 10 minutes after I had arrived, humping his parachute on his back. He appeared quite unconcerned, although he had landed in the middle of a tree, and had to climb down. Like me he was quite uninjured. The night was rather warm, and we discarded our thick, sidcut flying suits in which we had dropped. These padded flying suits helped a lot in saving minor bruises and injuries in a drop of this nature. We were beginning to get anxious about the Poles as there was no sign of them anywhere.
There was a sound of desultory small arms fire in the distance during all this time, but I was told on enquiry that this was just the Andartes on the surrounding hills, firing to keep the villagers to their houses, while the stores were being rounded up. It is difficult for those who have not experienced the privations of the Greeks, to realise the very great temptation it was for them to get hold of the food and clothing bundles which were dropping like manna from Heaven. But the fact remains that they could not always resist this temptation and parts of most drops were generally found to be missing.
The plane had flashed its farewell signal 30 minutes before. There was nothing we could do in the dark, so Major Ponder decided that we could move off to the local village headquarters and leave the Andartes to bring in the Poles.
We had been walking for about half an hour, when we suddenly came on a babel of voices. It appeared that the Poles had had a very bad landing in the ravine, through which we were now passing. Two of them had only been saved by their parachutes catching in trees. One had hung suspended over a precipice for nearly an hour before the Greeks had managed to throw out ropes and pull him in. The other had landed on the step side of a hill, where the shale had given way. He had been rolling towards a steep drop when his chute had caught in the scrub and his roll had been stopped in the nick of time. The third member of the Polish party had landed uneventfully nearby, in some bushes. With the whole party now re-united we moved off once more. It was a lovely night. I found it extremely hard to believe that we had really arrived in Greece at last.
As we walked through the ravine, the moon shone on the snow-capped tops of Mt. Tymphistros, and a nightingale serenaded us from the ravine below. An auspicious welcome. Rounding a bend we were suddenly challenged by a Greek guard. This came as a surprise to me. John Ponder told me that every village in Greece had its guards posted at all the entrances to the village, every hour of the day and night, and no stranger was ever allowed to pass. The village at which we had arrived was the headquarters of the allied mission in Greece. Its name was Vinyani, and it was situated on the slopes of Tymphistros.
I was most intrigued as we climbed its narrow streets to note the complete disregard by the population of the fact that that night supplies of food and ammunition had been dropped into their area. I was to learn later that demonstrations of any sort were strictly discouraged by the guerilla leaders. Eventually we arrived at our destination, the headquarters of the mission. Here some hot coffee, black bread, and cheese awaited us.
By now the reaction had begun to set in, and we were feeling very tired. We were conducted to our various billets for the night. I was given a room in a house with a most comfortable double bed and linen sheets. I was past being surprised at anything by now, however, and just crawled into bed and immediately fell asleep.
My store of surprises was nto at an end, for, next morning, on leaving my room in search of water for a wash, I met an extremely attractive girl. During my stay in Italy I had learned about a hundred Greek words which I thought would be of use to me in Greece. I proceeded to ask the charming stranger in my best Greek where I could find water. She replied in almost perfect English: "Come with me, Sir, and I will show you." After all the hardships we had been led to expect during our briefing in Cairo, this unexpected comfort and luxury was most surprising. I remembered reading "For Whom the Bells Toll" and began to get all sorts of romantic ideas. As it turned out, however, my two nights' stay in Vinyani were quite the most comfortable of my entire sojourn in Greece. The headquarters personnel of the Allied mission very wisely made themselves extremely comfortable.
The girl to whom I spoke that morning was Dimitri's fiancee, Bertha. She had left Athens with Dimitri and two or three other Greek students about ten days before. They had travelled by train from Athens to Khardista, and had walked from there across the mountains to join the Greek guerillas. Both had one time served with the International Red Cross organisation in Athens. They had, however, aroused the suspicions of the Germans and had thought it wisest to get away while they still had the opportunity.
Most of the interpreters to the mission throughout Greece were drawn from the ranks of these Greek students. They all spoke excellent English, and in many cases had studied in Paris and London, as well as being students at the American college in Athens. In peacetime many of them had spent their holidays on mountain excursions, a favourite pastime amongst young Athenians. They were, therefore, eminently suited to the work for which they had volunteered. They had no military training, of course, but they were physically fit and tremendously keen. They also knew and understood the German mentality, having lived amongst them in Athens for a couple of years. How they hated them!
Vinyani was a most picturesquely situated village on a mountain top. I learned later, from bitter experience, that every village in Greece was perched on the top of a mountain. The end of a day's march inevitably meant scaling a precipitous 1,000 ft. track to the top of some stony crag for a night's shelter. There were higher mountains towering all round Vinyani, all thickly wooded to the snow line. The village itself was built into the sides of the hill, with the quaintest little alleys, doors, and private stairways. There was a small balcony outside my room, as was common to most houses in mountainous Greece. Every morning all the multi-coloured blankets are hung out from these balconies for airing, and combined with the white walls and red tiles, make the village a most colourful sight.
I was surprised by the methods of washing in Greece. Although there is unlimited water in the mountains, and the most elaborate wells and fountains have been built up, there is no running water "laid on" anywhere. The method is quite simple. The woman carry empty barrels on their backs to the spring, and bring them back filled for household use. This often involves a walk of one to two miles, which is repeated two or three times during the day. Perhaps in these circumstances it is not surprising that no one in the mountains in Greece ever appears to have a bath! One member of the household pours water from a jug, over the hands of the other member. This is sluiced over their faces and hair, and washing for the day is over. Once more the mission in Vinyani had excelled itself and acquired a bath which had been carried for days by mule over the mountains. Where it had originally come from is a mystery, but I suspect that some German had accepted British golden sovereigns in exchange for its loss.
I moved over to mission headquarters for breakfast, and there met Lt.-Col. Hammond, who in the absence of Colonel "Chris", was acting O.C. He was a most charming man and had been a Professor of Archaeology before the war. He had spent many years in Greece studying Greek Archaeology with his wife in pre-war days, and he knew the country and the people intimately. His continual good humour and general cheerfulness even when the Greek ELAS leaders were most difficult, was truly amazing.
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