Operation Harling: Textbook Guerrilla Warfare

ELAS fighters in mountainous Greece
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It was approaching midnight and the snow-capped peaks of the Roumeli Mountains in Greece could be seen gleaming in the moonlight. The American Liberator aircraft circled Mount Giona a couple of times before Eddie Myers gave the signal to jump.

A few seconds later, he and his fellow saboteurs parachuted from their plane: they were about to embark on one of the boldest sabotage missions of the Second World War – one that would require the joint efforts of British saboteurs and Greek andartes (guerrillas). They were playing for high stakes. If their mission was successful, it had the potential to turn the tide of conflict.

Operation Harling, the first major Anglo-Greek sabotage mission of the war, had been in the planning stage since the summer of 1942. British experts had learned that Erwin Rommel’s army in North Africa was being supplied from Germany by train and ship. Weapons, ammunition and fuel – up to 50 trainloads a day – were being transported by rail to Piraeus, and thence by ship to North Africa.

Those same British experts were quick to spot a weak link in this route. As the trains traversed the Roumeli Mountains in central Greece, they had to cross a long and vulnerable viaduct that spanned the deep Gorgopotamos gorge. If this viaduct could be destroyed, then Rommel’s highly mechanized army would be deprived of vital supplies.

But an act of sabotage on this scale was fraught with difficulties. Indeed it was obvious to those planning the attack that it would only be possible with the help of Greek guerrillas on the ground. They had been toughened by several years of fighting the occupying Germans and Italians and were familiar with the harsh terrain of the Roumeli Mountains. Eddie Myers and his second in command, Chris ‘Monty’ Woodhouse, would need this local expertise if they were to blow the viaduct.

Soon after landing in Greece in November 1942, they made contact with Napoleon Zervas, who controlled a large band of Roumeli andartes. ‘He greeted me with a kiss on both cheeks, which was prickly for both of us. “Kalos ston Evangelon!” he said with quiet satisfaction. “Welcome to the Angel of Good Tidings!”’

Zervas was a godsend: efficient, cheerful and devoted to expelling the hated occupiers from Greek soil. ‘An unpolished Sam-Browne belt around his ample waist supported a small automatic pistol and jewelled dagger whose sheath was liable to stick out from his stomach at a jaunty angle when he sat down.’

Zervas controlled a band of 100 andartes who agreed to join the sabotage operation. But Myers and Woodhouse knew they would need the support of a far larger band of guerrillas if they were to be certain of overwhelming the Italian garrison that guarded the viaduct.

There was a second group in the immediate area – and they were well armed – but they were under the leadership of Aris Velouchiotis, and this posed a serious problem. Velouchiotis was leader of the Greek People’s Liberation Army (ELAS) and his fighters were diehard Communists. Zervas sat on the other side of the political fence. He led the National Republican Greek League (EDES) and his men were all republicans. The two leaders and their men were bitter rivals.

After some astute diplomacy by Woodhouse, the two leaders agreed to lay aside their differences and help the British saboteurs destroy the viaduct. On 23 November, a large band of guerrillas – twelve British and several hundred Greeks – set off through the snow towards Gorgopotamos.

On arriving at the gorge, Myers cautiously approached the viaduct. ‘There, crawling on our hands and knees from cover to cover, through gaps in the slowly moving clouds, we got some excellent glimpses of the viaduct. Several hundred feet below us, it looked like a toy bridge.’ He studied the vast structure through his field glasses, then watched the sentries as they scurried around like ants. It was heavily guarded by Italian troops who would have to be killed or captured before the viaduct could be blown up.

Myers scheduled the attack for that very night and, soon after dusk, the various parties set off to undertake their tasks. Two parties were to cut the tracks to the north and south of the viaduct. Two more were to kill the sentries. The most treacherous task of the night was to be undertaken by Myers’s leading sabotage expert, Tom Barnes. In pitch darkness, he and his small group would have to clamber down the near-vertical gorge accompanied by eight mules carrying all the explosives. They would then have to cross the raging torrent by way of a rickety plank-bridge before unharnessing their mules and strapping the explosives to the girders.

As the groups headed their separate ways, the four commanders – Eddie Myers, Chris Woodhouse, Napoleon Zervas and Aris Velouchiotis – moved to their forward command post, close to the viaduct. Myers was pleased to note that ‘the mist was now thinner and the full moon, trying to get through, lit up the surrounding country sufficiently for our purpose. Conditions were ideal.’

The attack began soon after midnight. Rifle fire and the staccato of machine guns rocked the night as the onslaught on the Gorgopotamos garrison began in earnest. The Greek attackers at the southern end launched a particularly ferocious assault. The Italian sentries who survived the initial blasts now burst out, desperate to make their escape. ‘They just ran away and were shot by the guerrillas,’ said one. ‘It was just a sort of shambles of noise.’

The fight was more desperate at the northern end of the viaduct. As the gunfight intensified, one of Zervas’s breathless andartes arrived at the command post with the terrible news they were being beaten back. The Italian defenders were too strong.

At this critical juncture, Myers showed decisive leadership. He had withheld a small reserve force of Greeks, to be used in an emergency. Now, he sent them into action and they more than proved their mettle. A ferocious shoot-out was followed by sudden and complete silence. The northern end of the viaduct had also been captured.

Once the andartes were in control, Tom Barnes and his saboteurs could get to work without risk of being fired on from above. They had spent the previous hour slithering down into the deep ravine, forcing their mules down treacherous slopes strewn with loose and muddy scree. Now, they began unpacking the plastic explosives and strapping them to the supporting girders. This took time, but eventually they were all secured. Barnes gave a blast on his whistle, signalling that he was poised to detonate his explosive. He struck the fuse caps, lit them and ran for cover. He and his men had just seconds to take shelter before the explosive charges would blow.

They threw themselves into a ditch just in time. ‘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.’ The cataclysmic explosion was witnessed by Myers, who had inched even closer to the viaduct. He couldn’t resist raising his head as a crash of explosive thunder resonated through the deep gorge. ‘I saw one of the seventy-foot steel spans lift into the air and – oh what joy! – drop down into the gorge below in a rending crash of breaking and bending steel-work.’

When all the debris had fallen back to earth, Barnes went to admire his handiwork. He was staggered by the extent of the destruction. Two of the vast metal spans had crashed into the gorge and lay tangled beyond all recognition. Where once there had been a viaduct, there was now only stars and sky.

Myers now ran down to the viaduct and walked gingerly along the buckled track until he reached the jagged end. He peered over the edge, curious to see the destruction. ‘In front of me I clearly discerned two complete spans which had been dropped into the gorge below.’

With the viaduct damaged beyond repair, Myers sounded the withdrawal. The exhausted men now faced a fifteen-hour hike back to their hideout. They had suffered no deaths and only one casualty, a Greek fighter wounded by shrapnel. The Italians had fared rather worse. At least thirty had been killed, perhaps more. Myers himself had stumbled over half a dozen corpses.

The German High Command was furious when it received news of the destruction of the Gorgopotamos viaduct. Sixteen local villagers were arrested at random and shot at the base of the ruined structure. ‘It was a terrible, terrible war,’ said Woodhouse.

General Alexander Loehr, commander of the German Fifth Army Group, ordered the immediate rebuilding of the viaduct. He optimistically informed Berlin that this would take just seven days. In fact it took fully six weeks before the first supply trains could tentatively use the restored viaduct.

The Gorgopotamos sabotage – a textbook Anglo-Greek operation – was a triumph, as Chris Woodhouse was quick to recognise. ‘It showed for the first time in occupied Europe that guerrillas, with the support of allied officers, could carry out a major tactical operation coordinated with allied strategic plans.’ The fact that it coincided with Operation Torch, the Allied invasion of French North Africa, made it an even sweeter act of sabotage.

‘It had a great effect on Rommel’s supplies,’ said Myers, ‘because it cut for six valuable weeks all supplies going that way.’ In that time, the Afrika Korps was deprived of more than 2,000 trainloads of supplies. By the time the viaduct was finally repaired, the battle for North Africa had slipped from Rommel’s hands and fighting had moved westwards into Libya.

Eddie Myers’s twelve-man team was supposed to be evacuated by submarine just a few days after the attack. But when they finally managed to get a wireless message through the Cairo, they were told to stay in Greece ‘with the object of unifying guerrilla activities.’ The idea was to form a major guerrilla army that could put relentless pressure on both German and Italian forces in Greece.

Myers worked tirelessly to build his guerrilla force, despite the difficulties caused by intense political rivalry between the different Greek factions. He was soon able to report that he was ‘at the head of five thousand armed and disciplined guerrillas’ operating against the Italians in Western Greece. He was also in contact with another group who were tasked with sabotaging Nazi transport ships heading for North Africa. In a single raid, they managed to sink five heavily laden vessels, ‘just one highlight from an underground campaign which has caused the greatest inconvenience to the Axis.’

And so the attacks continued: troop trains derailed, eleven major mines destroyed and Italian outpost garrisons surrounded and liquidated. The German High Command was so infuriated by the Italian army’s inability to contain Myers’s men that they vowed to send ‘two wagon-loads of bloodhounds’ from the Russian front to Greece.

Shortly after the Gorgopotamos viaduct was back in action, Myers’s men scored a second triumph when they succeeded in blowing up the Asopos viaduct, the second of the three crucial bridges in the Roumeli Mountains. Winston Churchill grinned broadly when he was shown photos of the wreckage.

Eddie Myers vowed to continue his work, sending a simple wireless message to London. ‘Give us the tools and we will do the job.’ Churchill had little doubt he meant it.

This article first appeared in Argo Magazine: A Hellenic Review in 2016