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The system of protection adopted by all the villagers in close proximity to the Germans was quite simple. A roster of every able-bodied man was kept by the village headman, and these men took it in turns at night to guard the approaches to their villages. On the first sign of Hun approach they would give the alarm and the village would be evacuated by those hardy souls who still dared to sleep in their own dilapidated houses.
In addition, there was a small reserve of men who might be required to act as guides, either for the British Mission or for ELAS messengers who might wish to be conducted through the enemy lines. No one, British Mission or Andartes, was allowed to move without a signed pass from the local ELAS brigade headquarters. On production of this pass, the village organisation would immediately provide a guide. Those men not on duty in the village at night would very seldom sleep at home; they much preferred to sleep in the hills, lest by some misfortune the Germans should slip past the guards. When this did happen, and it had on one or two occasions, all the men of the village had been deported to Germany as slave labourers.
We crossed the railway line without incident, and had a long tramp across an old swamp before finally crossing the road just before dawn. We were passed on from village to village and in all were provided with seven different guides during the night. I was most impressed with the efficiency of the organisation, and the willingness of everybody to help. In one case a guide who had only been married that day was ordered out in the middle of the night to take us to the next village. On hearing from Dimitri what the circumstances were, I interceded on his behalf, but the village committee were adamant and out he had to come.
It must be remembered that had these Greeks been caught assisting us by any of the German patrols they would have been shot out of hand. As it was, on this occasion, we did not even see or hear a patrol, and the guides appeared to have the position well taped. All the same, it gave us a big thrill to cross the railway line and road which were wholly German possessions. We kept straight on during the morning as the country round about us was very flat, and I was anxious to get into the hills again.
We arrived at Goura, the Mission headquarters for which we were making at 12.30 hours after seventeen hours' march. There I was met by John Ponder, who was O.C. of this area. After a much needed sleep that afternoon, we held a conference that night with the local guerilla leaders. It was decided that John Ponder and I should push off first thing next morning to recce the Noah's Ark target on the main road. (This target was the one chosen for the big attack on the Germans when they were withdrawing.)
After a five hours' march the next morning we reached the spot. I had never seen a more perfect machine-gun and mortar target. The road twisted and turned for hundreds of yards in what would be within comfortable range of both our types of weapons. The cover was excellent and we would be able to dig in among the rocks. Provided the Andartes supported us with infantry, I considered we should be able to hold the position almost indefinitely.
We could see the road where it came down from the direction of Thermopylae into the plain of Lamia about fifteen miles away. From there we could follow the progress of any vehicles coming into Lamia at the foot of the pass. Again we could watch them leaving Lamia and entering the far end of the valley. Our proposed positions were a good 2,000 feet above Lamia, and from time to time far below us we could see the road as it twisted and turned in its gradual climb. Finally the last mile of the road was well within range as it zig-zagged backwards and forwards in front of us. My only fear was that the Germans would be almost certain to take up these positions themselves, to protect their one and only escape route from Athens to the North, once they decided to pull out. However, the fact remained that up till then they had not done so.
We went on to the road itself and had a good look at the surrounding hills from the enemy point of view. And how ominous they looked. I would have hated to have been a German driving up that pass with the feeling that there might be guerillas just thirsting for my blood on those rugged slopes. This thought was crossing my mind when I was suddenly brought back to earth with a bump as Ponder gave me a shove in the back, sending me sprawling into a ditch on the roadside. He had spotted a Gerry vehicle coming down the road only one corner away. It was evidently free-wheeling as we had not heard a sound. Uncertain whether or not we had been spotted we lay in the ditch until we heard the swish of the tyres going past. We were only armed with revolvers at the time and this taught me a lesson never to move about when in the vicinity of the Hun without my Tommy gun, however much trouble and inconvenience it might mean.
We decided to visit a village on the Gulf of Lamia called Stilis, which John considered might be a suitable target for an attack by my men when they arrived. It was reputed to be garrisoned by Italians. Towards evening we were approaching a small village on a hillside when we became aware that it appeared to be in the process of evacuation. There were people running in all directions. We presumed that there must be Germans approaching from the other side of the hill, and therefore altered course to miss the village, moving round the flank. To our surprise the direction of flight by the villagers altered in the opposite direction. Suddenly and quite unexpectedly we found ourselves surrounded by five angry Greeks armed with revolvers, Tommy guns, and hand grenades. For a moment the position looked ugly. I hadn't the foggiest idea what was happening, but John being able to speak the language fairly well, soon realised that we had been mistaken for Germans.
We produced our passes and with much hand shaking and words of goodwill we were allowed to proceed on our way. This incident proved to me once and for all how completely terrified the Greek peasantry were of their oppressors.
We lost our way that night and only found somewhere to sleep at about 20.00 hours. The village at which we arrived, was rather near the German lines, and nobody was very keen to put us up for the night. I was too tired, however, to go further after my long day and night's march across the road and railway the day before. Eventually a school teacher and his wife took pity on us and hid us in the straw in their loft. They need have had no fear, however, as nothing untoward happened during the night.
We left before daylight and got on to the hills above Stilis a couple of hours later. With the sun behind us we were able to move about quite freely and have a good look at the Italian positions. I did not like the look of the target, and decided against it unless we were stumped for anything better to shoot up later. We had a long nine hour march back to Goura that afternoon. By now I was getting into training, however, and didn't feel any the worse for the journey. Also I was most elated with the target area we had seen on the main road and looked forward to showing it off to my section commanders when they arrived.
John Ponder was a great believer in travelling light and during the three days' journey we had existed on bread, cheese and water. This taught me another valuable lesson. Dimitri and I on our many long marches in the future never moved without tea and sugar, even at the expense of clothing. Without exception tea is the most refreshing drink in the world when one is physically exhausted. It became so precious to us in the months to come that we even enjoyed tea which was first brewed in the morning and was still being heated up for supper at night.
The following morning we held further conferences with the Andarte leaders in the area, at which we planned where we would make our hidden ammunition dumps, build up our food stores, etc. for the time my men arrived. I was anxious to see the road where we had crossed it on our way to Goura, in daylight, on our return. Accordingly Paul and I left Goura again at midday. When we reached the place we lay up near the road for some time, but did not see a single German vehicle, so we slipped across in daylight and made for the railway line.
I had been told of an English speaking Greek, who was the Manager of a Greek pumping station draining the marshy land over which we had passed on our way across the area four nights before. I decided to call on him on my way back to obtain any information which he might have.
Once more the village organisations were most helpful. They sent forward a recce party to the Manager's residence while we stood in the shadows just outside the compound, within three or four hundred yards of the nearest German sentries.
An emissary came back to say, the Manager would be pleased to see us. We slipped in under cover of the shadows and were taken through a darkened doorway into a well-lit and comfortable parlour. The Manager with his wife and two attractive looking daughters were sitting round the fire. It made a most homely scene and it was hard to realise that there were Germans almost on the doorstep. The Manager's first words were to the effect that if we were surprised we were to go down into the cellar.
We settled down to a pleasant hour's chat during which I was given the location of every German machine gun, sentry post and strong point in the area. We had tea and cakes, my first cakes for nearly a month. Being a non smoker I missed cakes and chocolates a great deal. The Manager had been to school in England and spoke excellent English. He was forced to work for the Hun, for a refusal would have meant a concentration camp. He asked that he should be warned if we decided to attack the station so that he could get his wife and family away beforehand. Later this man helped us to contact the German commander when we were trying to negotiate the surrender of the garrison.
The guides escorted us across the line between a couple of enemy patrols but the Germans at this time were not very alert, and we had no difficulty in getting safely across. We slept on the outskirts of Dereli village where we arrived at midnight, and got back to headquarters in time for breakfast next morning. I had covered about 120 miles on foot in 4.5 days and was extremely tired.
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