Episodes & Studies Volume 2
Assembly Point and Attack
Assembly Point and Attack
The attack on the garrison was to be by night, and if possible by surprise. Two parties of eight Andartes each were to cut the railway and telephone lines and were to remain to cover the demolition and hold up reinforcements until the withdrawal signal, a green Very light, was given. The main force of a hundred men was to attack at 11 p.m. on 25 November. Mikhali page 11 Myridakis, a regular artillery officer and second-in-command to Zervas, was to lead a party of eighty against the main garrison, while another party of twenty was assigned to deal with the northern defences. The demolition party was split into three teams of four men, each under one of the sapper officers, Barnes, Edmonds and Gill. Another party of three under Hamson was to assist as required. The demolition party was to wait five hundred yards upstream from the viaduct until the signal—a white light from the north bank and a red one from the south—was received that the garrison had been eliminated. Headquarters was to be set up on the north bank with Zervas in charge, and Myers and Woodhouse were to remain there.
The move to the Gorgopotamos viaduct began on 24 November. The whole force, with the exception of Ares and a few of his men, moved off that morning for the assembly point on top of Mount Oiti. Ares had a reason for delaying his march as the men found out later from Barker, who had stayed with him. A man from a neighbouring village was accused of sheep stealing and Ares summoned all the villagers to the square to witness the trial. In villages to which Ares had access, he had dissolved the civil police and had undertaken to maintain law and order himself. Ares thrashed the man mercilessly with his leather whip until he was forced to confess. Ares then drew his pistol and shot him through the head. He told the people that was how he dealt with wrongdoers.
The trudge up the mountain was exhausting and Edmonds marvelled at the way Zervas, singing jazzy songs, led his men through the falling snow. The weather worsened and by the time they reached the top at four in the afternoon there was a howling blizzard. The soldiers were glad to creep into the cramped shelter of an old derelict sawmill while the Andartes sheltered in the timber stacked outside. During the night a fire broke out in one of the stacks, caused no doubt by a careless Andarte trying to keep warm. Everyone turned out to fight the fire and after an hour's frantic effort it was put out. Fortunately the fire did not go near the explosives, while the leaden sky and the falling snow hid the blaze from the enemy. Next morning the two guerrilla leaders with Myers and Woodhouse left, making a rendezvous for the main party for one o'clock at a spot about half an hour from the viaduct. All were there on time. It was bitterly cold and everyone kept warm by stamping around the small plateau, swinging their arms and blowing on their hands.
Just on dusk Myers despatched the two parties who were to cut the telephone and railway lines. An hour after darkness the rest of the party moved down to the flat. The moon was not up; in pitch dark the silent men groped their way down the slope, keeping contact by placing their hands on the shoulders of those in front or by holding on to the tails of the mules. Later on the moon gave light, but fortunately there were enough clouds in the sky to keep it from getting too bright. The force stopped at the source of the Gorgopotamos stream—three large springs flowing from the base of the cliffs—and was here split up into the prearranged teams. While the two attacking parties moved quietly off, the demolition party unloaded the explosives from the mules and arranged them into carrying loads. With Yianni of Stromni village acting as guide, the party reached its assembly point before zero hour. Here they were to wait for the signal announcing the capture of the garrison.
Suddenly there was a roar of fire—the attack had started. The Andartes opened up with everything they had and for ten minutes there was a deafening din. The firing died down to surge up page 12 again every few minutes into concentrated volleys. Half an hour went by—the estimated time limit for the capture of the garrison—but the firing was still going on.* The anxiety, and also the impatience, of the waiting men grew as the minutes stretched out to an hour. Then, faintly above the roar of the stream, they heard Myers calling out, ‘Go in, Tom!’ A short pause followed and again it was the same call, ‘Go in, Tom!’ The relief was like the release of a trigger; the agonizing wait for the past hour was forgotten as Barnes and his party walked quickly in single file towards the viaduct. The demolition plan had been worked out on the assumption that the garrison would be destroyed before the charges were laid. However, Barnes and the others had prepared themselves for an eventuality like this, and they were confident that they could blow up the viaduct while the Andartes engaged the garrison.
Barnes cut the wire around the base and, regardless of possible mines, he and the others ran to the pier. In the manner so often rehearsed the three sapper officers and their assistants placed themselves by the pier legs ready to tie the charges. But the frames to which the charges were attached refused to go into the leg section of the pier. To their dismay they found that the leg sections, instead of being L-shaped as they had been told, were more like a square U. They cursed underneath their breath as they ripped the charges off the frames; they could still do the job but it would take longer. Working like madmen, they packed the charges inside the leg sections and within half an hour had finished. They paused for an instant when they noticed that the firing had died down on both banks. Then, carefully and quickly they fixed the detonators and fuses in two places on the rings of explosive fuse connecting the charges. Barnes blew a whistle warning the assistants to take cover. At that instant a red flare shot up from the south bank. The garrison had been overcome. But there was no signal from the north bank; it was heard afterwards that the officer there was immobilised by a leg wound and did not get word of success from his men who were busily collecting loot.
Barnes and Edmonds struck the fuse caps, waited until they were well alight and then dashed for cover about twenty yards away. Flattened out against the ground, they were shaken by the sudden tremendous blast and by the thousands of pieces of red hot metal flying in all directions. As soon as the last echo had died away, they were on their feet again and were delighted to see that two of the spans were down and that one was twisted completely out of shape. The remains of the pier stood at a rakish angle with eight feet cut from its base.
There was still time for more work. Charges were fixed to the span which was not twisted and also to the second pier. Glancing over to the north end of the viaduct from which they heard a voice, they were happy to hear Myers calling out, ‘Congratulations, good work.’ Shortly afterwards Woodhouse, from the west side of the stream, yelled a message to them: ‘Reinforcement train has arrived from Larissa. Andartes have stopped them and are holding them. As soon as you have fired the charges the withdrawal signal will be given. You will have to get out immediately.’ They looked up to the bank and saw the train. The enemy soldiers had taken cover and were firing back at the Andartes. Barnes and his men had almost finished fixing the charges and it did not take them long to attach the detonators and fuses. The charges were fired. Again there was an ear-splitting explosion. At the same time the party saw a green light, the signal to withdraw.page 13
British agents with Greek guerrillas. C. E. Barnes (then Captain) is second from the left, wearing beret
The Simplon-Orient express on the Gorgopotamos viaduct. The saboteurs used this photograph which, with the print below, was the only information available before the operation
ASOP[gap — reason: unclear]DUCT
This photostat of a [gap — reason: unclear] 1909 was an important aid for the special [gap — reason: unclear]nning their work
Major C. M. Woodhouse (left), who in September 1943 succeeded Brigadier E. Myers as commander of the British Military Mission in Greece. Major ‘Jerry’ Wines, US Army, co-commander of what became the Allied Military Mission, is on the right
Lieutenant-Colonel Edmonds (left) shown with other special service agents. The two in the middle are Captain Keith Scott and Lieutenant Harry McIntyre, the sappers who fixed the charges to Asopos viaduct. The photograph was taken near Lamia
The retreating men were dead tired. They dragged themselves up the mountain slope; often they fell down exhausted and at the limit of endurance. Some even fell asleep. Those who were on their feet helped and urged the others on. Edmonds describes the climb: ‘As I began to climb my system reacted to the unusual exertions of the past forty-eight hours. My legs suddenly became heavy and the strength seemed to flow out of my body. I was compelled to sit down utterly exhausted. I could have easily thrown myself down and gone to sleep.’ On his frequent pauses to rest Barnes watched the Andartes struggling up the slope and admired their endurance: ‘It is a tribute to Greek Andarte endurance that these Andartes, for the most part badly clothed, badly shod (many barefooted except for a piece of cloth or goat hide) accomplished the descent and ascent of Mount Oiti, 5,000 feet high, and walked mostly through deep snow for 25 to 30 hours in all. This included carrying their arms and a three hours battle at Gorgopotamos bridge. One hurried meal was all the food they had in this period.’
Thus ended the first organised attack in occupied Greece on Axis forces. It was also the first and the only time that the Andarte forces of EDES and ELAS fought together. During the rest of the occupation their differences grew into hatred to the point of civil war. Fighting the Germans seemed to take second place to angling for control of the country after its liberation. The ELAS and EDES underground papers published glorious accounts of the fight, glamourising the part of their forces and minimising that of the other party. This increased the antagonism between the parties but also helped recruiting for both sides. It was seven weeks before the enemy had rebuilt the viaduct, and thereafter trains could cross only at slow speeds.
At the sawmill the tired men slept the clock round. When they awoke they found that Baba Niko, highly delighted at their success, had a big meal ready for them. The rest over, the whole force moved back to Mavrolitharion, where it broke up into separate groups. Ares and his guerrillas were the first to leave. A special farewell was given to Baba Niko before he returned to his village. All were sorry to see him go. Barnes paid this tribute to the old man: ‘Here we left our friend who for two months by cajoling, threats and visits to villages had obtained our food from the terror-stricken villagers. He was our quartermaster, cook, safe guide and counsellor. He never once failed us in a task which I now know to have been well nigh impossible in those circumstances.’ Myers and his party attached themselves to Zervas and started off with him to his headquarters in western Greece. Zervas moved warily through the country, dodging the numerous enemy patrols sent after him. The Andartes had no ammunition and were in no condition to fight it out with the strongly armed enemy forces. On 10 December the party arrived at Zervas' headquarters in Valtos and were billeted in Megalokhori village.
This was the first step on their way back to Egypt. They had accomplished their task and all were now keen to rejoin their units. Woodhouse, Marines, and two wireless operators were to stay on. On 12 December the remainder of the party left for the coast to meet the submarine which had been promised before they had left Egypt. They were at the rendezvous in time but the submarine never came. The trip to the coast was difficult enough but the one back to Zervas' headquarters was even more so. Barnes described their hardships: ‘This was for all of us the hungriest and most uncomfortable three weeks in our lives as we carried all our gear—we had no mules–travelled mostly at night in bad weather, and food was scarce indeed in Epirus.’page 22
In the weeks which followed the men felt frustrated and out of temper with the authorities in Egypt, beginning to doubt whether they were making a genuine effort to help them. Their life was now one of run-and-hide from village to village to keep clear of the searching Italians. The winter was severe and all suffered intensely from the cold. Myers went down with a very bad attack of pneumonia and his condition was critical for some time. Meanwhile Zervas was active in carrying out raids on the Italians. Wireless communication was regularly maintained with Cairo; a New Zealander, Captain Bill Jordan,4 was parachuted into Greece for this work. Frequent air drops of arms and ammunition were received and these were distributed among the Andartes. On 1 March 1943 a message came through from the Middle East ordering the party to stay in Greece to arrange supplies for the Andartes, to organise them into strong forces and help them in their fight against the enemy.
* ‘We had hoped for surprise but the garrison was alert.’—Comment by Lt-Col Edmonds.