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Exactly what my paternal grandfather Norman got up to during the Second World War has always been something of a mystery to his family. The mystery is due to the fact that he spent part of it as an officer in the field in the Raiding Support Regiment, a short lived wartime outfit that was a combination of intelligence and special forces. Naturally this sort of thing is kept secret and little information was ever allowed out.
There are family stories that attempt to fill in the gaps, but it's hard to be sure which are fact and which are just fiction. Some are now being borne out by official information, released after standard government time restrictions; or by other documents that we are only now discovering. Others, however, seem to have been either products of hearsay, bad communication or even plain old wishful thinking.
This biography is meant to contain all the versions we, the family, have been told, while trying to differentiate between them to ascertain the most accurate picture possible of my grandfather's activities.
Norman Francis Astell was apparently a very physical and very active man. As far back as his days as a student at Brentwood School in Essex he was a superb gymnast, specialising in the rings. His son Michael, who would later become my father, followed him into Brentwood School but freely admitted that while he had achievements of his own, he failed entirely to emulate his father's sporting accomplishments which were numerous. These physical triumphs were to set the scene for further triumphs during the Second World War.
Before the war, Norman was a physical education teacher and it must have been a reasonably easy segue into wartime work as a Battle Instructor in the Green Howards, stationed in the Yorkshire Pennines, where we would later live as a family. Later, volunteer work was offered and off he went to North Africa to train with the Long Range Desert Group. He was then one of the few people seconded to a new regiment called the Raiding Support Regiment or RSR.
After a period of intense preparation that included parachute training, the RSR embarked for Italy which was to be the gateway into Greece for a key mission. One helpful fact is that at this point Norman was censor for all mail sent back home. He sent regular letters to his wife Mary, and by using a sort of code that may have been tied to bible passages, he was able to make sure she knew roughly where he was at all times.
The mission was an important one that lasted a year and had Norman promoted to Temporary Major and sent behind enemy lines in Greece. The country was divided up into three thirds, and into each was sent an officer and an NCO. Norman was the officer sent into the northern third, based around Salonika. His NCO was a South African, whose name we don't know.
As an aside, South Africans tend to crop up often in Norman's story, and the most important of them is probably Jack Gage. He was the officer sent into one of the other thirds of Greece, and he later published his story as a book called Greek Adventure, which is now key source material for information on the Raiding Support Regiment.
The mission had three three goals. Firstly, each pair should conduct full reconnaissance of their area to ensure that key information be kept as current as possible for when the Germans started retreating out of Greece. Secondly, they should make contact with and befriend the Greek resistance groups, and also arm and train them. Thirdly, as a bonus, they should harrass the enemy any chance they got and cause as much chaos and disruption to the Germans as possible.
By December 1944 the mission had ended, being counted a success, and Norman was waiting for leave in Athens, the capital of Greece. However all leave was cancelled when Winston Churchill visited Athens and, always needing to do something, Norman went out with a dawn patrol and was machine gunned across the lungs. The date was Christmas Eve, and my grandmother always managed to get her name down on the rota to do flowers at church on that day, in his memory.
There are two versions of his death, though both ascribe the cause of it to ELAS, the Greek Communist Resistance. One has it that he died instantly, and the other that he was successfully brought to a field hospital where he regained consciousness long enough to say, 'Tell them I did my best.' This sounds so much like a Hollywood script that it's hard to give it credence. The former has to be much more likely.
After his death, Major Alan Wilkins, who was second in command to the Colonel who ran the Raiding Support Regiment, went through Norman's kit and arranged for it to be brought back to his family in England, including his son Michael who was less than a year and a half old. This included a brand new German camera (a Kontax?) and an Omega watch, which was also brand new. The watch was delivered by an officer returning on leave, and was engraved, 'To Michael, from Alan Wilkins, 24/12/44', the date of Norman's death. The camera was apparently stolen on the train.
I'm told that the family is in possession of a variety of material relating to this period of Norman's life, though I have not seen all of it and only have access to some of it at present. We apparently have maps from his Battle Instructor days, letters, photographs and medals. Norman was awarded five of these and was also mentioned in despatches.
In 1964 or 1965, Norman's wife, Mary, and their only son, Michael, travelled to Greece to visit his grave, which is in the Phaleron War Cemetery, just outside Athens. They met one of the Greeks Norman knew during his mission, who still lived in Greece, and also his son who had moved to Belgium and who was a representative for the British and Foreign Bible Society. He showed them around in his Volkswagen Beetle and corresponded for some years. Another friend from those days who kept in touch with the family was another South African, named Erasmus, who sent food parcels full of dried fruit, which were very welcome during rationing in England. I do not know where Erasmus fits into the picture, but he was apparently not Norman's NCO in Greece.
There were three different grave markers at the Phaleron cemetery. The first was a temporary wooden cross, that listed Norman correctly as being from the Raiding Support Regiment. Its replacement, also wooden, altered this to the Green Howards, the regiment which he had left for the RSR, and the eventual permanent gravestone kept that notation.
This change could be explained by family stories that suggest that the army tried to keep the very existence of the RSR as a secret for many years, and having the name publicised anywhere, such as on a gravestone, would damage that secret. The work the RSR did was tied to intelligence and was thus highly secret, and the regiment had disbanded at the end of the war. Logic decrees that it is always going to be easier to hide the existence of something that does not exist any longer.
One key story goes like this. Some years after the war, another member of the family, whose name I was once told but which I have since forgotten, applied to join the army. When asked which regiment he wanted to join, he replied the Raiding Support Regiment because his relative Norman had belonged to it. This was apparently not a favourable answer because a full colonel soon arrived to inform him that there was no such thing as the RSR, never had been such a thing as the RSR and where did he get the idea that there was?
So there are the family stories. How many of these are accurate is open to question. Let's compare them to the official stories that we are starting to discover and see what happens.
Shortly before his death, my father was told that as next of kin he was entitled to a full transcript of Norman's military record. He duly wrote to the Ministry of Defence and received back a long list of movements, appointments and other information. This confirms much of the information we, as a family, have trusted, but contains some frustrating gaps.
It states officially that Norman joined the Green Howards as a Second Lieutenant and was posted to the Infantry Training Centre in Richmond, Yorkshire. There are promotions and postings that fill in details, but nothing particularly important until he embarked from Glasgow in October 1942 on a long voyage to Africa. This took him to Durban in South Africa, which could partly explain why so many South African names keep cropping up. From there he headed out to the Middle East, and to the No 1 Infantry Training Depot in Egypt where he worked as a Rifle Wing Instructor.
He worked there in more training positions until being posted to the headquarters of the Raiding Support Regiment in December 1943. In the process he was appointed an Acting Major. There is nothing listed on what he did at the RSR but three months later he was promoted to full Captain and appointed a Temporary Major. I am told that field commissions like these were apparently frequent, and were often confirmed by full rank once the relevant mission was over and the officer was safely back home.
Another six months goes by with no information whatsoever, until it lists him as embarking from the Middle East for Italy in mid-September. On the same day he is listed as being entitled to Parachute Pay, maybe because he had completed the parachute training that enabled him to be dropped behind enemy lines in Greece, where he died of wounds on Christmas Eve.
The record also lists his medals as being the 1939/45 Star, the Africa Star, the Italy Star, the Defence Medal and the War Medal 1939/45. It also references his mention in despatches as being in the London Gazette of 22nd February, 1945.
This is all fine and dandy but one downside to this official military record is that the additional information mentioned at the end of it is not entirely correct or complete, thus impacting our confidence in the rest of it. I know that Norman lived at 'Beulah', not 'Beaulah' because I remember seeing the sign, kept on the wall at my grandmother's house in Billericay, while I was growing up. The maiden name of Norman's wife (that same grandmother) is listed as unknown but I know it was King. If there are typographic errors and missing information in the one section I do know something about, how many more examples of the same are in those I know nothing about for sure?
I mentioned earlier a book called Greek Adventure. This was written by Jack Gage, who was also in the Raiding Support Regiment, and who, like Norman, was one of the officers sent into one of the thirds of Greece. The book was only published in Gage's native South Africa, in 1950 by Unie-Volkspers Beperk in Cape Town. It was written, however, at the end of the war in 1945.
It is essentially a diary, written in simple narrative style, and it is a fascinating read. It mentions Norman but only rarely, because of course he was in another part of Greece entirely. In fact Gage specifically mentions that he kept up with the big picture of the war as a whole by listening to the BBC World Service, but had no specific information at all about the mission elsewhere in Greece. However it can safely be assumed that as the goals of the mission were the same for all its participants, whatever Jack Gage got up to in his third of Greece must be at least similar to what Norman got up to in his.
It is interesting to see all the many differences between the various accounts when it comes to this key mission. Family stories suggest the mission was a year in length; but Norman's military record suggests that while he was with the RSR for a full year, only three months of that time was in the field. What Jack Gage has to say about it comes right at the beginning of his book: Greek Adventure is subtitled 'Six months in the life of a South African Officer in Occupied Greece'.
Gage provides more substantial detail than just a subtitle. He mentions being called into the office of the Colonel, who commanded the RSR, at the end of March 1944, along with Major Douglas Unsworth of the Cheshire Regiment and Major Norman Astell. These three were the chosen officers to lead the mission inside Greece: Gage in the southern third of Greece, based at Lamia; Unsworth the central third, around Mount Olympus; and Norman Astell the northern third, north of Salonika. These three officers then left for Cairo immediately for final orders and briefing.
16th April, 1944 is specifically listed as the date that the three officers and their respective NCOs flew to Bari in Italy. The first chapter of the book details life at Bari while waiting for the most opportune conditions to take them into Greece. Gage and his NCO had already taken off twice from Brindisi and flown over Greece, on 19th April and 25th April, but thick cloud and mist over the dropping area had led them to turn back both times. For some reason Gage provides exact times for all sorts of things on the day he finally got to start his mission, but only 'a cold, blustery morning early in May, 1944' for the actual start date. He does mention that he had to wait the longest to get in: Unsworth and his NCO got in on their first attempt, and Astell and his NCO on their second. This suggests that Norman actually arrived behind enemy lines in late April or very early May 1944.
Gage does however provide dates at the end of the mission. He reached Athens on 2nd November, after a five day trek, three weeks after the relief of the city by British troops after three and a half years of German occupation. Gage then travelled north to Salonika to join the rest of the RSR, arriving on 10th November with the first wave of British troops. Most of the rest of the RSR had already assembled, including Norman Astell. The joyful atmosphere in Athens was not replicated in Salonika as the locals were highly fearful of an uprising by the Greek Communist resistance, known as ELAS. From there, it was back to Athens again and everyone in the RSR who had been involved within Greece had arrived there by 15th November.
This timeframe is relatively explicit and suggests that the mission ran about six months. Family stories that suggest a full year presumably mistook Norman's time served with the RSR for the mission itself. The official military record is also incorrect, and in fact is actively misleading when it comes to everything involved with the RSR.
At least the process of putting all these different versions together is starting to clear things up. The very end of the mission, however, is raising more questions than answers. Gage provides no mention whatsoever of Churchill visiting Athens at this time, but does explain that the situation at large deteriorated considerably throughout the city in November. Athens was crawling with EAM terrorists (EAM being the banner group that included ELAS) and people had been shot. Because of this, the allied command refused to evacuate any further RSR troops. Gage's troops had already been moved back to Italy, so he was ordered back there to join them, thus missing the ELAS uprising and associated street fighting. Consequently his description of what must have been major chaos is limited to a few paragraphs. He does at least mention that the RSR suffered casualties at the hands of these former allies, including Norman who was shot on Christmas Eve.
What seems certain however is that Winston Churchill would not choose to visit Athens while the communist resistance was mounting a blatant and violent attempt to seize control of the city from their former comrades in arms, and there seems to be no actual evidence to suggest that he did. Where this family story came from is anyone's guess but it seems safe to suggest that it's entirely false. So what did go on in Athens?
Letter from Major Alan Wilkins
We are in possession of a letter sent by Major Alan Wilkins, the second in command of the Raiding Support Regiment, to Norman's wife (my grandmother) in January 1945, a mere couple of weeks after his death.
The letter confirms and elaborates on some things. It agrees that Norman died very quickly indeed, omitting the Hollywood ending that would have been so appropriate in a letter such as this. It also highlights that Norman was in Greece for seven months, maybe from May to November, and that he commanded over a hundred officers and men. This ties in with suggestions in Greek Adventure that the three pairings of officer and NCO weren't alone for their entire mission. They may have gone in alone to start with but part of their job was to prepare the way for more men who would join them over time.
What is completely new are a few suggestions about the level at which both Norman and Major Wilkins operated. This letter points out that they worked together well before the Raiding Support Regiment, having met at the Middle East Battle School in Egypt which they apparently ran together. The most important revelation is that they formed the Raiding Support Regiment itself.
This is a highly important claim and may have something to do with the entries in Norman's military record for 1943. He worked at the No 1 Infantry Training Depot at the very end of 1942 but this changed subtly in April 1943 to include the words 'Battle School'. He was appointed Temporary Captain on the same day, and less than a week later was attached to the Mountain Warfare Training Centre.
What we end up with here is another set of questions founded on a little evidence and a lot of guesswork. Maybe the Mountain Warfare Training Centre was part of the Battle School and rather than running the entire thing, Norman and Major Wilkins ran just this Training Centre. What is the connection, however, between the Mountain Warfare Training Centre and the Raiding Support Regiment? Whatever the connection, it certainly appears that Norman had become involved with the RSR long before the first mention of it on his military record, which was when he was posted to its HQ on 2nd December, 1943.
The Raiding Support Regiment
One of the most important uses of the World Wide Web is as a source of information. It is reasonably easy for anyone anywhere to post anything, and with the power of Google it is far easier to put together disparate sources of information than ever before. Here in this article I have a lot of pieces of a jigsaw. Other people have posted other pieces online and together we can see something a lot closer to the full picture.
Three articles in particular have helped with this, two by relatives of members of the RSR and one by someone who actually served with the regiment during World War II. Captain Harry Boddington CD wrote about his experiences with D Squadron of the RSR in Yugoslavia in an article that is highly interesting, but, because he served in a different arena, only useful to Norman's story in its description of the bigger picture.
He does explain that the personnel of the Raiding Support Regiment were entirely volunteers, drawn mostly from the British, South African and Rhodesian armies. The commanding officer was South African and the second in command Rhodesian. The RSR was also adopted by the City of Johannesburg in 1943. No wonder so many South African names kept cropping up!
More immediately useful are two articles hosted at the website of the Allied Special Forces Association, by Simon Dawkins and David Carter. They too provide some solid detail of the big picture but also help greatly with the two key questions that I've ended up with: where and when was the Raiding Support Regiment formed, and what happened in Athens in December, 1944?
Simon Dawkins is the grandson of Sgt Robert Parkes RA, who served in the RSR in Greece and the Adriatic Islands. His article on Sgt Parkes and the Raiding Support Regiment is the shorter of the two but it provides some incredibly specific detail, especially when it comes to the mission in Greece.
Dawkins explains that the major part of the Greek operation began in September 1944, and within three months "185 men of the RSR had destroyed 17 bridges, blown up 6 roads, wrecked hundreds of metres of railway line on 18 different occasions, shot up and derailed 5 trains, blew up 5 petrol and ammo dumps, knocked out 150 vehicles and 60 horsedrawn carts, destroyed a dam and a mine and killed 300 enemy. RSR casualties: 4 killed, 4 wounded and 6 taken prisoner." Whether this was for the whole of Greece or just a single third, I have no idea, but no wonder the mission was declared a success!
This date is also notable. We've established that Norman entered Greece in late April or early May 1944 with only a single NCO for company, and Greek Adventure talks about how other members of the RSR would gradually infiltrate Greece over time to join the men already there. The letter from Major Alan Wilkins suggests that many did this as Norman apparently commanded over a hundred officers and men within Greece. Now we see that the bulk of these men must have arrived by September 1944.
There are movements listed on Norman's military record for this date that we know for a fact didn't happen then. Presumably therefore they only officially happened then. Maybe there was a change in classification at this point, from a highly secret mission to merely a secret one. Who knows? I'm sure it can't just be coincidence that entitlement to parachute pay should officially come four months into a mission, but at the exact same time that it should grow into a major operation.
Dawkins provides answers to both of my key questions, and David Carter does likewise in the other article, about Gunner Stanley Carter and the Raiding Support Regiment. Carter is especially helpful on the ELAS uprising, as Gunner Carter, like Norman, was shot during the chaos in Athens in December, 1944.
The formation of the Raiding Support Regiment seems to be well documented. To stop the Nazis from reinforcing northwest Europe, Raiding Forces had been given the task to keep them busy instead in the eastern Mediterranean. To do this they had to cross over from North Africa and the Middle East to attack the Germans amongst the islands of the Adriatic, which hosted important airfields and radar stations.
This was a job for the Commandos, as well as other special services units such as the Long Range Desert Group (LRDG), the Special Air Service (SAS) and the Special Boat Squadron (SBS). However it was decided at a conference of the Combined Services to create a further special service unit, specifically to support these existing units with more powerful weapons and superior firepower. This would be the Raiding Support Regiment, which was founded at the Base Camp ta Azzeb in Palestine on 10th October, 1943, and it would go on to fight not just on the islands of the Adriatic but within Italy to the left and Greece and Yugoslavia to the right.
This timing is very notable. Given that the initial training for the new recruits of the Raiding Support Regiment included mountain warfare training, endurance marches and parachute training, it would make sense for Norman to have been a major part of it. After all he had recently been an instructor at the Mountain Warfare Training Centre, which he may have co-run, and had relinquished this appointment a month before the founding of the RSR. We also know that he was in Palestine at some point before parachuting into Greece.
So it is very possible that Norman was a key name in the formation of the Raiding Support Regiment, as Major Wilkins claims in his letter. That's one question down and one to go. What happened in Athens in December, 1944? Carter provides a very detailed answer to this question, with a little support from Dawkins.
The Civil War in Greece
The Germans had finally withdrawn from Athens in October, 1944, after three and a half years of occupation. They had left the city's infrastructure in a very poor state indeed, leaving British troops to distribute food in an effort to avert mass starvation and to repair water and electricity services. There were also major political storms brewing. Throughout the war there had been two separate factions of Greek partisans, who both hated the Germans but who rarely agreed on anything else. Now, with the Germans gone, the communist faction known as ELAS wanted to take complete control of the country themselves.
The British Commander, General Scobie, could see what was going on. He saw that ELAS were well equipped with weapons supplied to them by the Allies for the fight against the Nazis, and that they were using these for their new purpose. Athens was destabilising rapidly with shootings and other disturbances on the rise. He therefore decided that he should disarm everyone other than the police and decreed 10th December, 1944, as the deadline for handing in all weapons.
ELAS realised that the British troops were still small in number and so decided on a full scale attempt to overthrow the Greek civil government and the British Army in Athens. They pulled all their forces out of the mountains and concentrated around the capital, with men parading the streets openly. On 1st December, ELAS organised a mass meeting in Syntagma Square as a demonstration to the authorities of just how powerful they were. This began peacefully, but as the crowd, whipped up by the communists, began to move towards the Government buildings, a panicked police force began to fire upon them. ELAS took immediate advantage of this and hit the streets fully armed.
Given that there were over 50,000 armed men working for ELAS, which also possessed surrendered Italian tanks and artillery, this was obviously a very serious situation indeed. It escalated into civil war when they began to attack Greek police stations on 4th December, and British troops answered the call for assistance.
As fighting began, the British troops were pulled back into an area of about one square mile, occupying strongpoints in strategic positions. These were well trained men, but they must have had immense difficulty even identifying the enemy, who had only recently been their allies, who severely outnumbered them and who were fighting on home ground. They had to avoid shooting the innocent, yet the seemingly innocent were happy to shoot them.
After five or six weeks of bitter street fighting and building clearances in the narrow streets and alleys of Athens, the 2nd Independent Parachute Brigade and the Raiding Support Regiment defeated ELAS who sued for peace in January 1945. Though this ended British involvement in Greece, the Civil War was to break out again and last a number of years.
Six months of fighting Germans behind enemy lines had cost the RSR four dead and four wounded. Six weeks of civil war fighting the communist resistance in Athens cost them five dead and thirteen wounded. In all, 250 British soldiers lost their lives fighting ELAS. Gunner Stanley Carter was shot by a sniper on 8th December; Major Norman Astell was machine gunned on Christmas Eve.
In other words more men from the Raiding Support Regiment died in Greece fighting their former allies than in fighting the Nazis. My grandfather was one of them.
Last update: 15th February, 2019