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Greek Adventure

Chapter 6

That first morning I learned a great deal about the general set-up of the Allied Military Mission in Greece in particular, and in the Balkans in general. The country was covered with a network of missions. Each of these missions consisted of a minimum of one British officer and a couple of wireless N.C.O.'s. Some of them were considerably larger and included two or three R.E.'s and surplus N.C.O.'s who had escaped from the Germans, and who had elected to remain in Greece to assist in sabotage work, rather than be evacuated when they had the opportunity.

The work these missions were doing was invaluable. They were continually collecting and sending out information to the war station in Cairo about the German formations in Greece. They were assisting in the organisation of the Greek guerillas, distributing food, clothing, arms and ammunition, as it arrived. They were always encouraging and assisting the Andartes in the prosecution of their underground war against the Germans, by organising road and railway bridge demolitions, etc. In fact they were doing all in their power to keep the smouldering fires of resistance against the German aggressors alight.

The internal Greek political situation was rather complicated. A short survey of the position as it stood in May, 1944, will make it easier to follow the content of my story:

When the British forces in the country were driven from Greece by the victorious German Army in April, 1941, there was an organised underground movement in the country, the EAM. This group had been working against the Greek government prior to the occupation of the country by the Germans.

It was a simple matter to transfer their political intrigues against the Greek government to a subversive movement against the hated Germans and Italians.

The main problem EAM had to face was lack of troops to carry out aggressive guerilla warfare against the enemy. They set about overcoming this difficulty in a most systematic way. At the time of the British withdrawal from Greece, the Germans by-passed many mountain villages and large areas of apparently barren mountain fastnesses. The remnants of the gallant Greek Army from Albania took refuge in the bypassed areas and gradually formed themselves into independent guerilla bands.

Their numbers grew from day to day as they were joined by peasants and young men from the towns.

EAM saw their chance. If they could amalgamate these guerilla bands under one leader, chosen by them, they would have the army they required. They began operations by infiltrating members of their organisation into key positions in the different bands.

At first they had little difficulty in persuading the smaller bands to join forces, but later it became evident that some leaders with more personality and ambition than others were not so keen to subordinate themselves to this central control.

In addition to these guerilla bands which were active against the Germans and Italians, there were bands of Greeks formed by the Germans to assist in policing and in garrison duties in the occupied areas.

These Security Battalions, as they were called, were recruited chiefly from young townsmen who had no means of support and in many cases only joined the Germans in order to get food and shelter in a starving country, and not necessarily because they were collaborationists. A good many of them also thought they might help the Greek cause in an underground way by joining this force.

Finally, there was a third group who tried to keep out of quarrels on either side. This group consisted of isolated villagers, whose only interest was to protect their own particular village from interference from either the Germans or the guerilla bands.

This, then, was the general set-up when the first British officers were dropped into Greece by parachute in September, 1942. These officers went in with a specific task to blow up a large bridge, the Gorgopotomus, on the main Salonika-Athens railway line, just prior to the battle of Alamein. For this work they succeeded in persuading the two largest guerilla forces - ELAS, commanded by General Serafis, and EDES, commanded by General Zervas, to work together.

Here I must explain that ELAS was the armed force which EAM had at their command.

The operation was a complete success, but was the only occasion when ELAS and EDES combined against the enemy throughout the war. The bridge was destroyed and Rommel did not receive vital supplies which he needed urgently during the battle of and retreat from Alamein.

Having completed their specific task, the British officers prepared to leave Greece, but before getting away they were asked to volunteer to remain in the country with a view to forming a permanent British Mission to assist the organisation of resistance against the Axis and the supply of arms and clothing to the guerilla forces.

Gradually the mission was enlarged and operations against the enemy garrison's outposts and lines of communication were intensified. The Axis in their turn realised what was happening and started their counter measures. These consisted of shooting hostages and burning villages as reprisals for acts of sabotage, and intensifying propaganda to sow seeds of distrust and hate between the main guerilla bands.

Their method was quite simple. They spread rumours among each band that the other bands were negotiating with them. This always worked. The Greek is a born intriguer and he always believed the Hun when he was told, for instance, that a rival band had just released some German prisoners in return for arms, or that the rival band was planning to desert to the Germans, etc., etc.

The British liaison officers did their best to smooth over these difficulties, but in November, 1943, open civil war broke out between the two main guerilla bands, ELAS and EDES. By that time these two groups had absorbed nearly all the smaller bands. Most of the British liaison officers in the ELAS area found themselves under close arrest and one officer was shot. At no time had EDES ever arrested British officers, and their general co-operation had been excellent.

Eventually, after a month's fighting both bands agreed to an armistice and an uneasy truce was arranged. In the subsequent negotiations it was agreed that each group should operate against the common enemy in its own specified area. As ELAS troops numbered between 40,000 and 50,000 men compared with EDES 10,000, the former controlled most of Greece and the latter were confined to operations in Epirus on the West coast.

During all this time the guerillas were keeping a large portion of Greece free and were a continual source of irritation to first the Italian and later the German garrisons. When the Italians capitulated the guerillas raced the Germans in taking over Italian garrisons and were able to augment their supplies of arms and ammunition considerably.

Shortage of heavy weapons was the chief problem, however, and it was to remedy this shortage that the R.S.R. were being sent to Greece.

Both bands were wholehearted in their hatred of the Germans, but each band distrusted the other and believed every bit of propaganda the Germans put out against its rival.

EDES supported the Allied High Command policy without question; ELAS on the other hand were obstructionists on many occasions, but at other times, particularly when they wanted fresh supplies of arms and ammunition, were prepared to co-operate. The rank and file of both bands were completely pro-British, but many of the political officers of ELAS, the EAM representatives, were very obstinate and were continually making difficulties unforgivable under operational conditions.

The mountain villagers and peasants were open in their admiration and love for Britain. Had they wished they could have betrayed the presence of the missions to the Germans at any time.

Their great hope was that Britain would bring in a large invasion army in order to avoid a civil war when the Germans left.

Unfortunately the relationship between the villagers and the guerillas were not always a happy one. There were faults on both sides. The guerillas were short of money and were often forced to requisition quarters and food from the villagers. Also for operational purposes it would be necessary to "freeze" all mules in certain villagers in case of a sudden drive by the Germans, when all animal transport would be required to move their arms and equipment in a hurry.

The heaviest fighting against the enemy generally took place during harvesting time when the villagers wanted their mules to move wheat into the mountains away from the Hun. Naturally each party thought their claim to the animals was the more important. As the guerillas were armed they always got their way and this did not add to their popularity.

In some areas the secret EAM representatives would go so far as to have villagers who had been particularly co-operative with British forces arrested on some minor pretext. This then was the general picture when Sergeant Radage and I arrived in Greece at the beginning of May, 1944.

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Next Chapter: Chapter 7

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