On November 25, 1942, a combined operation between British special forces and the various factions of the Greek resistance succeeded in blowing up the Gorgopotamos bridge over the Brallos pass. I spoke to Themis Marinos, the last surviving member of the Harling Mission.
The one thing you learn about history as you grow older is that there is no such thing as a definitive account.
The greater part of history is written in retrospect by those who come out on top. Soviet history, and more recently Chinese and North Korean history, has been notorious for literally air-brushing individuals out of history.
So when someone says “this is what really happened” it only ever means “this is what I believe happened” or often as not “this is what I want to believe happened”. Objectivity in history is a rare commodity.
During my five years in Greece I learnt a little about Greek history but every time I discussed aspects of my new found, albeit limited, knowledge there was always someone – such as Paul Johnston, who weaves the Second World War, Civil War and the cruelty of the colonels into his excellent series of Mavros crime novels – ready to offer a completely opposite version. For which I thank him.
Even those who took part in an event can sometimes not give the full story because even they may only have learnt the full story afterwards. And the telling of the tale can take on a personal, sometimes political angle.
Who to believe?
In this instance, I have gone to the source. Themis Marinos was in the Greek Army and then, after the evacuation of Crete, he worked with SOE. He was parachuted back into Greece where he worked with the resistance. Their most celebrated operation was the destruction of the bridge at Gorgopotamos, 70 years ago on November 25, 1942.He is now 95. I met him in 2007 to ask him about that episode. This is what he had to say.
ESCAPE FROM CRETE
“We stayed in touch until the end,” he says. “Eddie Myers, Chris Woodhouse, we used to stay at each other’s homes, Inder Gill was a great friend, Tom Barnes the New Zealander…I am the last one left, you know.”
Rewind 70 years to 1942 and the same band of men were involved in the first real act of resistance anywhere in Europe against the occupying Nazi forces and the only operation which involved British special forces as well as the various factions of the Greek resistance – the communist ELAS/EAM andartes under Aris Velouchiotis and the nationalist EDES guerrillas commanded by Napoleon Zervas.
Marinos was 25 at the time, a second-lieutenant in the Greek army, a veteran of the Battle of Crete in May 1941. His escape from the island was an adventure on its own.
“I was taken prisoner by the Germans but managed to escape into the hills where I acted as interpreter between some of the British and Australian troops who were hiding out there and the locals.
“One night (July 25) one of the Australians told me that a submarine (HMS Thrasher) would be coming the following night but that it was only for Commonwealth troops.
“I went anyway and decided to give it a go so I swam out to the submarine which was lying in the bottom of Limni beach in front of the Monastery at Prevelli with just the conning tower visible.
“The officer, who was checking people in, recognised me and told the captain he could vouch for me and asked permission for me to come in.
“Just to show how clever the Greeks can be, when I got below I found ten others already down there.
“The journey to Egypt was exciting because at one point we were being hunted by enemy ships and aircraft and had to sit on the bottom of the sea for several hours until it got dark and we could surface. The problem there was the lack of oxygen. It became a real effort to breathe but we managed.”
In September 1941, Marinos was drafted into the Special Operations Executive (SOE) and served in Palestine with the British Greek Army Middle East. In the summer of 1942 preparations started for the Harling Mission.
Harling was the name given to the 12-man SOE team, under the leadership of Brigadier Eddie Myers, that parachuted into Greece in September and October 1942 to coordinate the blowing up of Gorgopotamos railway bridge.The purpose was to sever the German supply line south through Greece and onward to North Africa where Rommel and Montgomery were preparing for their historic rendez-vous at El Alamein.
As it happened, by the time the bridge was blown, Rommel had already been defeated but it still had the effect of slowing down supplies and deflecting Nazi attentions and resources away from the Eastern Front.
The plan was devised by Myers but it needed the full cooperation of the resistance. Historians differ on the input of the two sets of resistance; they are generally united though in their opinion of Zervas as ineffective and self-serving.
In his excellent book Inside Hitler’s Greece, Mark Mazower says “Zervas was slow to show much enthusiasm for any fighting at all” and quotes a British agent who described the leader as a “bland and easy-going company director”.
Marinos, though, is under no doubt about who offered the greater help.
“Zervas was outstanding, a warm human being who was deeply patriotic and entirely committed to liberating Greece.
“When we met up with him, he hugged us and immediately committed his forces to making the mission work.”
This is in stark contrast to Marinos’ view of the communist Velouchiotis.”When we first made contact he wanted to eliminate us. Said we were Germans and locked us up. It was only his military leader, Nikiforos, who persuaded him that it was a great mistake because the people knew that we were British. He said they couldn’t go against the Allies.
“Then Velouchiotis turned around and greeted us like a friend.”
Marinos also believes that the EAM/ELAS forces did their best to scupper the operation.
“I don’t believe they wanted it to work. They had orders not to get involved from their headquarters in Athens but because Zervas was cooperating and the operation was in Velouchiotis’ area, he didn’t really have much choice.
“But all the problems leading up to the operation were due to the andartes of ELAS and even during the fighting they were not fully involved. They didn’t even tell us about a reinforced machine gun post that we didn’t know about but they did.”
Questions have also been raised as to whether the ELAS forces tipped off the Italians who were guarding the bridge on the night of November 25.
“The Italians were waiting for us, they fired first,” says Marinos.
“(Major Chris) Woodhouse says in his book that he went to visit a hotel close to the bridge some years later and the owner told him that on the evening of the operation, he was with the goats or the sheep grazing when his grandmother told him to bring them in early because the Allies were going to attack the bridge. Everybody knew.”
BATTLE FOR THE BRIDGE
The battle for control of the bridge was relatively short in spite of the machine gun as the Italian defenders gave way to the 200 or so resistance fighters.
The first set of charges failed to do a thorough job so the bomb squad set about making a second set. At this point a train of reinforcements came up the line which is where Marinos led his small force in an ambush, holding up the enemy and allowing time for the second charges to blow.
Remarkably for such a mission the SOE and resistance forces suffered no fatalities and only two men were injured.
“One was injured in fighting at the north end of the bridge and the other, well it was his own fault because when the charge went off, he put up his head to see what was happening and got a slight wound.”
An ugly follow-up to the operation, however, were the Nazi reprisals which saw several dozen locals executed in cold blood.
If the blowing of the bridge did not have the direct impact on the North Africa campaign that was originally intended, Marinos still maintains it had a major impact.
“It was important for three reasons. It was the first major operation by the resistance anywhere in Europe and that made the Allied command think that these kind of operations could have an effect elsewhere.
“It also lifted the morale of the resistance fighters in other countries and it also gave hope to the local population in Greece. They could see something was happening and that we could be liberated.”
There is no doubt that Greek resistance sapped German strength in terms of the number of troops and hardware that was diverted from other campaigns.
Marinos stayed in Greece after Gorgopotamos and worked with Zervas coordinating resistance in western Greece and the Ionians.
Marinos may still be a sprightly nonagenarian but he no longer travels to Gorgopotamos for the annual celebrations.
Instead the politicians will line up to bask in the reflected glory of a famous moment in modern Greek history.
One can only hope that they aspire to the same level of bravery and self-sacrifice that some of their countrymen achieved during those dark years of Occupation. And let us hope they remember Marinos and his colleagues, from the left and the right of the political spectrum, who made it happen.
©Barney Spender 2012
By the way you can follow me on Twitter on @bspender