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Greek Civil War

We were on our way to Palestine for a rest after battling through Italy when we were told we had to go to Greece as civil war had broken out. The Royalists and the Communists (ELAS) had been fighting amongst themselves and if the Communists had been able to capture Athens then the Russians would have a base in the Mediterranean. We landed in Piraeus about seven miles from Athens and had to fight our way through with the Gurkhas.

As we were a Scottish division we didn’t celebrate Christmas but did Hogmanay (New Year) instead. So ELAS attacked us on Christmas Day 1944 thinking we would be off guard but being Jocks we were all about us.

It was really difficult to know who was who. People who were civilians in the daytime would come and attack you at night. There were 8 year olds rolling grenade down the hillsides to try and get us and old women with grenades in their bras! What could you do? You couldn’t shoot an 8 year old!

I had to take some of the injured down to a field hospital and while I was there I was told I had to escort some VIPs. I found out it was Winston Churchill and Anthony Eden. I’m walking behind Churchill with a Greek lady when a sniper takes a shot at Churchill, misses him and shoots her in the throat and kills her. Churchill was very upset about that, I can tell you!

John Clark

On the journey to Taranto to embark for Palestine we were billeted for a night in a barracks near the town of Chieti, earlier used by the Italian Army as a prisoner of war camp (campo concentramento) to house allied prisoners. Here I was faced with a strange co-incidence for when I was with the South African Army in the Western Desert I had been captured by the 21st Panzer Division. After a few days’ incarceration in an enemy trick (much plagued by the RAF and lack of food) a German officer apologetically explained that I had to be handed over to the Italian army who then ran their “B” echelon. I was transported by the Italian Army to Italy and billeted in the above barracks.

When the Black Watch arrived the barracks had fallen into disrepair; most of the high security walls had been broken down but the hutments were still intact.

When we got to Taranto, we handed in our weapons and were billeted near the harbour waiting to be shipped to Palestine. It appeared that for us the war was over. We had not been there for more than a few days when at about 11pm I was sitting in a taverna with a few fellow officers only to see my CSM appear to tell me to attend a Bn Order Group. I was informed that at about 9 the next morning the Bn was to embark on a ship bound for “somewhere” and that en route to the ship we would be re-equipped. At dawn one brigade of the Division boarded planes for Greece. The 6th Bn boarded a ship at about 9 am. Out of a company strength of about 150 only 2 or 3 were left behind.

On board we were informed that destination was Greece. A few well-meaning officers (from what section of the army I do not recollect) tried to explain to us what the problem in Greece was and what we were supposed to deal with. The instructing officers seemed to have no idea of Greek politics, could not pronounce Greek names and had little or no idea of the military situation except that the Communist Party had taken over on the withdrawal of the Germans and a few gallant Britishers were holding out in the Gran Bretagne Hotel in the centre of Athens and one brigade of the division that had been flown in was besieged at the Athens airport.

The officers and men of Support Co were much confused.

On arrival at the coast of Greece we were ordered to do a beach landing at a beach called Phaleron. The landing was to be done in the early evening. With packets of hard rations, light arms and ammunition, in the dark, we clambered down the side of the ship into boats, which took us within wading distance of the shore. Our only instructions were to go to ground along the coast road and then to take up a company position preferably in some house.

I splashed ashore in the company of the Quarter Master. There was a certain amount of small arms fire taking place in the town but none directed at us. The sky was criss-crossed with tracer fire. Never having made a beach landing before I asked the QM what one did on reaching the shore. He replied: “If you see a pretty girl ask her where her house is and if it is nearby make for it and dig in there.”

As I got ashore just such a pretty girl ran up to me shouting, “Welcome glorious English liberators. My father’s house is nearby and he sent me to invite you and your men to stay. For this day of liberation he has been keeping a case of whiskey”.

By a remarkable coincidence the girl’s house happened to be in my company’s allotted area. I whistled up the company. We moved in. Cooks were put in the kitchen, men in the outbuildings, on the top floor and in the passages, and company HQ established in the comfortable lounge with the wire3less sets, guns, packs etc stacked between and on the furniture. Sentries were posted and we sat down and awaited developments. The owner of the house made a welcoming speech in English to the men on Coy HQ and broached the first bottle. As I was raising my glass to my lips, the CSM came into the lounge, stood at attention, saluted and reported “a deputation from the men request a formal interview with you, “Sir””. I asked “what about” and he said, “They do not wish to fight the communists”. I took a gulp of whiskey and said, ”Bring them in”. They were marched in. They stated that the majority of the men in the company had decided that they were not prepared to fight against their allies and comrades the communists which is why, they believed, we had been sent to Greece. I observed that this amounted to mutiny, was a serious matter, and as we were all rather confused we should talk about the matter. Being rather at a loss myself as to how to deal with the situation like this I order4ed them to be at ease, helped each of them to a large tot of whiskey and invited discussion. The “hard core” of Support Co were artisans mostly from Glasgow and the rest from Liverpool.

As the large tots disappeared down throats a hail of small arms fire hit the house. Tiles fell off the roof and windows crashed in. I stood up and with all the force that I could summon said. “We fight or die. Rally our comrades to their posts to defend ourselves”. The deputation immediately responded and the company stood to arms. As the firing then stopped we did not retaliate and there was no more talk of mutiny.

After a while the men of Company HQ returned to the business of being entertained by our Greek host, more bottles were broached and the night passed.

The next morning I had discussions with some of the members of the deputation and the NCOs on the matter of the threatened mutiny. They said they had not appreciated that we were liable to be attacked, had misunderstood the situation and were prepared to do their duty. Through formal channels (as provided by the Army Regulations) they would like to draft a petition to their MP giving their views. I believe that such a petition was eventually dispatched but not through me.

The Bn with other battalions in the Brigade in the next days advanced street by street towards the centre of Athens, up the main road. Each house was search for arms. It was a laborious business but after a shot or two the “enemy” melted and few arms found. As we advanced it became obvious through contact with the Greeks that ELAS (the name of the Greek Communist Party attempting the take-over) were murdering numerous Greeks as not belonging to the working class, taking hostages, were generally undisciplined, and by now poor fighters. The general population, on the other hand, expressed admiration for the English perhaps largely due to the reputation of Lord Byron!

They were decent people and were starving. The Bn came across a water well in which the bodies of about 50 women and children had been stuffed.

I concluded that the outlook of the men of Support Co had changed. I also believe that out of a population of about seven million about nearly one million had died of starvation or been slaughtered or taken out of the country by the Germans. Inflation was stupendous and the streets were littered with useless money.

While operating in Athens we were existing solely on iron rations. The men gradually got more and more hungry due to lack of bulk and their physical strength decreased. The normal routine was for the company cooks to prepare a hot meal at midday from the iron rations issued to each man, which were pooled. The preparation of the meal usually took place in a street or in the garde3n of a house. Hordes of children (and adults) gathered during the preparation and the consumption of each such meal begging for food. The Jocks gave away, out of pity, more food than they are despite the fact that they were hungry. To preserve their health it was necessary to post guards around the cooking and eating areas to keep these hungry people at bay.

During this period I had arrested and charged a Co cook whom I observed selling a tin of bully beef to a young, pretty girl for favours to be received but as part of the negotiation, demanding before handing over the tine the payment of some money by the girls as the tine of bully beef evidently was more than the market price of her favours. It was unfortunate for the cook that at the time I was looking out of a window and overheard the negotiation.

On Christmas Eve a platoon of the company captured a brewery (owned by a British company) at the foot of the Acropolys. The platoon commander (William Tullig) reported that not much beer was liberated.

Shortly after 25.12.1944 the 6th Bn reached the area of the Acropolys. Support Co was stationed on the top among the columns. We watched the RAF flying over and machine-gunning the streets of the centre of the town. It seemed unnecessary. Support Co was not required to take any action. Representatives of the Greek administration arrived and complained that we were spoiling the marble columns on the Acropolys by using open fires next to them to cook food. The columns provided some protection from the wind.

Each company of the Bn was allocated several members of the Greek army or police force to weed out and arrest fighting members of the Greek communist party who had suddenly become civilians. As we moved from street to street these Greek police arrested people. So far as I know without trial or further ado they were put on a ship and transported to an internment camp in Egypt. I felt that many shopkeeper creditors and jealous husbands were shipped off. Not understanding the language and/or local feuds it was impossible to control these arrests. Towards the end of the campaign in Athens there was placed under my command a company of loyal Greek soldiers. They conducted themselves in a disciplined manner, were smart and enthusiastic. They assisted in searching houses for hidden arms as we progressed through Athens. The Greek army had its first meal at midday. We noticed that our Greek comrades were lethargic in the mornings. We invited them to join us at breakfast. They were delighted and became more energetic. The Bn participated in the sweep right through Athens winkling out the enemy and searching for arms with, in the writer’s view, little success except that peace was restored.

Support Company was faced with its only real enemy resistance when the 6th Bn reached the boundary of Athens on the Inland side. When the outskirts of the town were reached small arms fire by a few enemy was directed at the company. This might have been the last “kick” by the enemy in the town. So to discourage them the company for a short while directed all its firepower at the house from which the enemy fire came aided by one of the supporting tanks. After checking with some of the men the writer concluded that this was the first occasion that most of the men had actually fired their personal weapons in battle conditions – small though the “battle” was. In fighting Germans the tendency was to draw as little attention to oneself as possible by not firing one’s weapon.

When Athens had been cleared, after a short rest, the 6th Bn was moved to Larissa on the boundary of the area occupied by ELAS under a truce. Support Co was billeted in a hotel. As were all buildings that had been occupied by ELAS it was in a filthy state with the floors covered with faeces, urine and bits of food. There was no furniture. From enquiry it appeared that all the furniture had been removed to the ELAS quarters across the truce line. We established contact with the loacal commander and arranged to call on him to discuss the possible return of some furniture. The writer, one other officer and an interpreter was received by ELAS in their HQ building They were a grim lot who saw no humour in the request made that we were only wanted to relieve the discomfort. We received a lecture to the effect from a tough-looking woman officer that as representatives of capitalist looters and despoilers of the poor, it was not their business to make us comfortable. They did, however, give us a few uncomfortable chairs, after the lecture.

After Larissa the 6th Bn was moved into the country on to a large farm that was owned by a British company. Support Co was billeted in the house of a manager of this farm. One of the Bn objectives was to search surrounding villages for arms and hostages held by ELAS. A person still living in the manager’s house reported that the house had been attacked by ELAS, the Greek manager had been killed and his wife and their daughter who had been wounded taken as hostages.

While searching a village on top of a nearby hill, I noticed a girl under a blanket in the doctor’s house. I enquired through my interpreter who she was and if anything was the matter with the girl and was informed she was sick and being cared for. I thought the reply was evasive and required that the covering blanket be removed. She had a bullet hole in one breast, which was suppurating. A ghastly wound. The village doctor said he could treat the wound and she should not be removed. I could not help noticing that she was attractive and well formed. I stated that I would call again in a day or two and did so; accompanied by the Bn MO. Obviously the girl was not recovering. I proposed to the doctors that she should be removed to a British hospital. The story then came out that she was the daughter of the farm manager, was being held as a hostage and it would require the consent of the ELAS to remove her. If she was removed without that consent her mother, as a hostage would be killed. I demanded to be granted a discussion with a representative of ELAS who appeared. I removed the blanket, pointed to the wound and stated that unless the girl was hospitalised she would die. After a day or two ELAS agreed to her removal but that on the condition it must be done by a small unarmed party. Bn HQ suspected that ELAS would use the opportunity of the removal of the girl to demonstrate and there might be violence. It was arranged that the Bn MO, a driver, a medical orderly and I would do the removal in a tracked carrier. 25-Pounders would be trained on the village during the operation and in the event of trouble erupting they would open fire without ado and we would fend for ourselves in the confusion.

At the appointed hour we drive up the hill into the village. The two or three streets and the square were crowded with hundreds of men and some women, armed and festooned with bandoleers. They were dressed mostly in ragged civilian clothes or cast-off uniforms. They were dirty and unshaven. There was total silence. Nobody spoke. They just stood and looked up. Over the cobbles we slithered up a steep slope to the house in our tracked vehicle. It was uncanny. I feared that the carrier would slide into the close-packed watchers, cause a panic, violence would erupt and the guns in the valley would open fire. The driver strained every nerve and with skill avoided a mishap. We went into the house, put the girl on a stretcher and placed her in the carrier. I bowed to the ELAS commander and said, “at least we might save one life”. He agreed. Otherwise nobody said a word. The carrier inched its way down and out of the village. The girl was taken to an Army hospital.

It was in this area about that time that a platoon of the 6th Bn was ambushed and captured in the hills while “brewing up”.

Months later when I was stationed in Athens, a young Greek called on me and said that he had been asked by the girl who had been rescued to tell me that she was recovering and hoped to be completely fit in time, that she wished to thank me and would be pleased if we could meet. I did not find it possible to arrange a meeting.

After a period in Athens, the Bn was stationed in a province on the Albanian frontier in the town of Jannina. We really acted as civilian administrators. It was a mountainous, desolate area. It was reported that the mountains were infested with bandits and smugglers. There were a large number of unoccupied houses in the town. Prior to the war it had been a silver manufacturing centre run by Jewish people. The Germans moved all these people to Germany. The Greek citizens locked up their houses and maintained them in the hope that one day these people would return. In the village that my company occupied we were kept busy by trying to restore the essential services. By that time Greek government nominees were being appointed as civilian servants. They did very little and I had to appeal to “communists” to assist. They responded.

Two English women arrived in the town with equipment to bathe children. They had been sent by an English Society which believed that the Greek children in the area needed cleaning up for health reasons. They asked the Bn for the loan of a truck to carry their equipment into the mountains. I understand that they refused hospitality in the mess because alcohol was consumed. I was told that after a week or two they returned. Their bathing equipment had been punctured by bullets fired by bandits and the mothers in the mountains did not consider it healthy for children to be washed. They decided to return to England.

During the winter I was requested to take a small party to visit a number of villages that had no road access and to ascertain their requirements that could be supplied under Marshal Aid. The object was really to make a shopping list of articles such as sugar, nails, glass etc. The trip was so arranged that the party would walk from village to village spending each night in a village. I did two such trips each lasting about 7-8 days. On each trip we visited four or five villages. They were situate along top of the central mountain range. None of them had any road access. Only access was by foot paths. Most of the villagers had had no contact with the outside world since 1940. Not even the Germans visited these villages. The villagers were overjoyed to receive us. They regarded us almost akin to “gods”. We would be billeted in a house. The mountain was snowed in. In each village the mayor would organise a feast. A lamb would be killed and cooked and vast quantities of a form of country ouzo (almost pure alcohol) would be consumed. We contributed what we could from our meagre supplies. It was cold, the houses had no windows and there was no means of drying clothes. Lists of requirements were made and I heard that in due course the goods were delivered.

During the second of these trips one of my men fell ill; it seemed with appendicitis. He was unable to walk. I hired a Greek and a mule, put the sick man on the mule, tied him on and set off. It was about a 5 hour march to the nearest town in a valley where we might expect to find transport. As went along the condition of the patient deteriorated – not unexpectedly – and I pushed the pace as hard as I could. I found to my delight I could outwalk the Greek muleteer. He asked to rest at intervals. We got to a village at the bottom of the mountain and hired a car from a Greek and instructed him to take us to the nearest British camp. That happened to be the HQ of another Bn in the brigade. That Bn was having a sports meeting. We arrived at the guard house in an ancient Greek car: The sick man, the muleteer (who came along for the ride), the taxi-driver and myself. I had spent some days in the mountains, had just done a forced march and did not look my best. The two Greeks looked like bandits and the patient was prone.

The sentry at the post said that the Colonel and all the officers were watching the sports and pointed to them sitting in a stand and said if I wished to see the Colonel there I must go. It all looked very smart and organised. There seemed to be no option for it so I instructed the driver to drive across the field and draw up facing the stand. Our arrival caused some astonishment and brought a race to a halt. I got out of the car, drew myself up, saluted and explained. When it was realized that I was not a bandit the atmosphere eased and the position dealt with. I had to borrow some money to pay the owner of the car and the muleteer, which caused a problem. The army is not geared to just fork out cash. Eventually I was offered a cup of tea and transport to take me to the 6th Bn. The Jock was taken to hospital and recovered.

R M Honey

5th May 1987

Episodes in Greece by R M Honey


This is a long video, but John had such a great story seems a shame to cut any out. This also covers Palestine