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After my long talk with Colonel Hammond that first morning, May 5th, I went off with Dimitri to look for one of my bundles which was missing. We went back to the dropping ground, and I was amazed that we had all come to no harm when I saw its size in daylight. The area was criss-crossed with ditches, trees and rocks, and the entry into the field itself was approached on three sides by narrow ravines, and on the fourth by a river.
The drop had been scattered, and there was a lot of equipment missing. One of the Poles had lost all his kit, while each of the rest of us had lost at least one bundle. In the end I turned out to be the luckiest. I did recover all my bundles, but the missing one had been badly pilfered. Amongst other things which had been stolen were all my boot polish, a couple of bottles of Vicks, my soap, riding trousers, and most precious of all a pair of spare boots. All these items were quite irreplacable. I had been warned by Tom Barnes about this sort of thing. Now I had learned what to expect in future from personal experience.
Sergeant Radage had lost his sleeping bag and various oddments which were wrapped up in it. This did not matter very much as our sleeping bag issue was in two parts and I was able to give him one half of mine. Later, experience taught us that we never carried our sleeping bags but left them at base.
Vinyani was three days march from the area in which my troops were to operate, and as John Ponder was to move across to another mission beyond my area, it was decided I should move off with him the following morning. Accordingly, Dimitri, Radage and I sorted out our kit into two mule loads and set off on our first march in Greece next morning. It was a ten hour journey over most precipitous paths. I was most struck by the similarity of the country to Basutoland in South Africa. The paths were almost identical to the Basutoland mountain paths, while it was most amusing to hear the same greetings made by travellers we passed on the road. "Where are you going?" and "Where do you come from?" seems to be the universal greeting of all people who walk.
The weather at this time of year was perfect, cold at nights and beautifully warm during the day. Never a cloud in the sky, and the mountain air crisp and invigorating. Radage and I were out of training through our enforced idleness, first in Cairo and later in Bari, and we were extremely tired when we reached Fournas, our destination for the night. Fournas was the headquarters of the mission in my area, and was commanded by Major John Mulgen. We held a conference that night and Mulgen decided to move his headquarters nearer the main German lines of communication, and to leave Fournas as a rear base.
I had been most surprised the previous day at the way in which we were able to walk about the country in broad daylight, but I was to learn later that the Andartes had a very fine system of guard posts on the edge of all German occupied territory. Later in the year when the Germans raided Vinyani and razed it to the ground, the mission and ELAS headquarters had ample warning and everything, except their bath, was moved in time.
It took Mulgen a day to pack up his headquarters so my party had a day in which to recover before moving off again. On Sunday, May 7th, we made our way across the mountains to a small village, Paliokastra, where the local guerilla brigade headquarters was situated. Here we had a two days' conference with the Brigadier and his staff. This was my first contact with the guerilla leaders. This particular brigade was fortunate in possessing a Brigadier who knew his own mind and was prepared to assist us in every possible way. Unfortunately about a month later he was removed from office.
The country in which we had now arrived was very different from that where we first landed. The mountains were not so steep and the villages all bore the mark of Italian and German aggression. Paliokastra itself was rather off the beaten track and still had a few houses left standing. These had been requisitioned by the Brigade, but the villagers lived in patched-up hovels consisting of one or two habitable rooms in their original houses. I was surprised to find over a hundred Russians billeted and being fed by the Mission in this area. They were deserters from the German army, and like the Poles had been conscripted when the Hun overran parts of their homeland. The Mission was doing its best to arrange for the evacuation of these men. Meanwhile their feeding was proving a great strain on local food resources.
I had my first experience of bugs in Paliokastra and killed forty in one night. This was a lesson to me, and I had part of my parachute made into a flea bag. I carried this wherever I went in the future, and would crawl into it and tie it tightly around my neck before going to sleep. Borrowed blankets held no terrors for me during the rest of my stay in Greece. Dimitri was always a great favourite with fleas for some reason; even a flea bag could not keep them out.
The beds in Greece are all made of planks, not springs like our own, so it doesn't really make much difference whether one sleeps on the bed or on the floor. While the weather was fine we generally slept outside, a habit which our hosts could never quite understand.
Radage's and my beard, which we had started in Italy, were becoming quite presentable by this time and we did not feel such outsiders amongst all the bearded guerillas with whom we mixed. Radage's caused great admiration with its brilliant red colour. Mine was developing a rather ominous streak of grey about my chin, caused by old rugger injuries. This became so marked later that I made Dimitri cut out the hairs one by one! Eventually Radage had one of the best beards in Greece, and it came as a sad blow when a signal came from Cairo just before our amalgamation with the army of liberation, ordering us to "remove all beards forthwith".
We spent a couple of days looking for suitable dropping areas round Paliokastra before moving on to one of Mulgen's outstations, Tsuka, where Major Pat Wingate of the R.E.'s was in command (Pat was no relation to the late General Wingate). The mission house in Tsuka was delightfully situated on the top of one of the foothills overlooking the plain of Lamia. Wingate was a most interest character. He had been in the country longer than almost any one at this period. He had covered nearly every inch of the railway from Lamia to Larissa, and had a detailed map of every bridge, road, crossing, and German pillbox on the line.
To look at Pat you would never imagine him as a soldier at all, much less as a sabateur, but he had a magnificent record behind him, and had probably been the cause of more damage to the German lines of communication than most people. He had a frail figure and I could never understand how he stood up to the rigours of the country. He always wore a huge Australian hat and his original barathea jacket with which he had arrived in the country over 18 months before. Naturally by now this was in a most bedraggled state with patches all over it. But even on the hottest days Pat would never leave his sanctuary for a trip down to the line without wearing his precious jacket.
He had a very fine telescope mounted on his verandah, through which he could study the hide-out of a fellow engineer, Major Tim Foley, whose house was similarly situated on a hill far across the valley, about ten miles walking distance away, but only about five as the crow flies. Further down the valley to the east it was possible to see the nearest German garrison town of Makri.
Pat gave us a warm welcome and we had a very pleasant evening. I tasted the local retsina wine for the first time and found it a great improvement on the more popular drink of ozo, a type of arack or absinthe. Radage took to ozo like a duck takes to water, but I became a confirmed wine drinker when it was available, which was not often unfortunately.
Two of Wingate's N.C.O.s, Sergeants John Mackay and Lou Northover, had had interesting careers. Originally with the L.R.D.G. in the Desert, Mackay had been one of the band to drop on Leros in that ill-fated expedition nearly a year before. He had been captured by the Germans, transhipped to Athens, and from there was on his way by train to Germany. The L.R.D.G. had trained their men to look after themselves in these sort of circumstances, so Mackay took it as a matter of course to escape from the train during his journey and made his way into the mountains. The Greek Andartes had eventually led him to the Mission, with whom he had elected to stay, rather than be repatriated.
The other N.C.O., Lou Northover, of New Zealand, had been left behind when the original evacuation of Greece, in 1941, took place. Northover had lived in Athens, hidden by loyal Greeks, for many months. Later he was assisted out of the city and made his way on foot and by truck into the mountainous parts of Greece. He, too, had contacted the Mission, and like Mackay had elected to remain in the country. These two men were typical examples of what many others had done. They had come to admire the Greek resistance to such an extent that they felt they would be deserters if they accepted the offer of evacuation.
I was quartered for the night in a house at the extreme end of the village. After my discomfort of the two previous nights I was lucky enough to find a clean room, and slept well. At 5.30 in the morning I was awakened by the sound of a machine-gun and mortar fire in the distance. Not knowing the form and with no sign of any excitement in the village, I remained in bed, studying my Greek. At about 7 o'clock Pat's interpreter, Nick, came along to tell me that the Germans seemed to be starting a drive, but there was no immediate hurry. This was a typically Greek understatement of fact, but I had yet to learn that these young Greek students were in the habit of underrating anything done by the Germans.
I packed in a leisurely way and strolled up to the Mission for breakfast. To my amazement all the Mission stores had been packed up and the last mule was anxiously being held back for my kit. The village was otherwise deserted, and breakfast was off. I had had no idea that we were in very close touch with the Hun. Had I realised what the true position was I would have moved very much more quickly.
There was a fairly brisk action going on between the Andarte outposts and the Germans moving up from the plain below. The only usable track, for motor vehicles, up to the village was well mined and crated, so there was no chance of sudden rush by mechanised troops. While we were watching proceedings from the balcony of the Mission house we could see that little progress was being made by either side. The village below, however, about two miles distant, was burning furiously, and refugees from the neighbouring villages were pouring through, carrying what possessions they could.
It was a constant source of surprise to me to observe the way in which every villager always hung on to his one or two pigs, sometimes almost at the expense of his children. Why they valued these pigs so much I could not understand. In all my months in Greece I never once saw a Greek killing one of his pigs, although we did on occasion succeed in buying one for ourselves.
Dimitri was just as surprised as I was at some of the habits of his fellow countrymen. The lives of the townspeople in Greece and the lives of the peasantry were as different as chalk from cheese. Except for their common language they might have been of different races.
The Germans began putting a few shots into our village, and I saw my first civilian casualty in Greece. It was a child. A little girl of about ten, who had been playing in the fields where her parents had been busy working an hour before. The family procession passed below our balcony. They looked quite helpless and bewildered. Dimitri and I followed them to their house. We went to see if there was anything we could do, but there was nothing. The child had a bullet through her lung and was spitting and coughing blood. The look of hurt surprise and dumb bewilderment was pathetic. The mother was groaning away quietly. The child died while I was in the room.
Compared with the horrors of the concentration camps about which we read so much since, this appears a trifling incident, but it was my first experience of German callousness. One had long since got used to soldier casualties but somehow there had been no need for this death. The usual German practice when staging a drive of any sort, was to open fire indiscriminately on anyone they could see. By these terror methods they drove the population away and hoped to intimidate the Andartes. They always succeeded in the former case, but the Andartes had become adepts at knowing just how long to hang on to their positions before withdrawing to others further back. Their delaying actions gave most of the population time to evacuate nearby villages before the Germans swept in and burned them to the ground.
This particular morning the Germans had evidently decided to limit the extent of their advance. They were making it into a tactical exercise for their troops, prior to what we found later was to be a very much more serious drive in the area. About midday, the Germans began to withdraw. Pat Wingate recalled his muleteers and their mules and took up residence once more. John Mulgen and I left with our party to reconnoitre another village where we intended, should it prove suitable, to open our forward headquarters.
Previous Chapter: Chapter 6
Next Chapter: Chapter 8
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