By Pierre Kosmidis
Bernard O’ Connor is the author of the book “Sabotage in Greece”, which offers a unique insider’s view on the Operations conducted in occupied Greece by the Allies during World War II.
Many are aware of the Operation to blow up Gorgopotamos bridge, which was the one and only event that united all Greek guerilla forces under a common goal, to destroy a vital rail transport network that fed the German Afrika Korps in northern Africa.
Relatively few know though that a series of other sabotage operations were constantly organised mainly by British operatives, such as the daring Asopos viaduct destruction and the operations against mines that produced mineral ore, such as chrome, in order to disrupt the German military machine.
What lied in obscurity for decades, since WW2 ended, was Operation “Noah’s Ark”, which was essentially a plan to harass the German withdrawal from Greece in the Autumn of 1944.
|Americans Spiro Cappony, Mike Angelos, and Jim Kellis (left to right) begin preparations for the Evros mission soon after arriving in Greece and locating guerilla forces.|
The author answers many questions, especially regarding the fact that the retreating Germans suffered relatively light casualties while on their way out of Greece, compared to the terrific losses the nazis sustained in Yugoslavia and offers fascinating insight on the events that led to the success of those Operations, from the protagonists themselves, i.e. the official reports that were submitted by the British saboteurs and remained hidden for decades after WW2 ended.
|Preparing to destroy a bridge, guerillas move through extensive brush while wary of being discovered by the Germans.|
Bernard O’ Connor sheds light on Operation “Noah’s Ark” and a variety of other Operations and offers his insight on the process of researching the sources for his book.
On top of these, possibly for the first time, we have the opportunity to read about the German stay-behind sabotage plans, which included a wide variety of personnel, both German and Greek, who were specifically trained and equipped to destroy vital infrastructure after the German withdrawal in 1944.
This RAF photograph was taken October 5, 1944. The caption reads, “RAF lands in Greece: The first arrival on the mainland of Greece of our forces, which included British land forces and units of the Royal Air Force Regiment; met with a wildly enthusiastic welcome from the inhabitants.
On a beach in Greece, BAC. Frank Harper, 160 Canongate, Edinburgh (left), and BAC Edward Carswell, Ivy Cottage, Stanley, Stoke-on-Trent, members of the RAF Regiment, share their early morning breakfast rations with a little Greek boy.” He seems to be enjoying breakfast with his new friends. Notice what looks to be a landing craft in the background.
Why did you decide to write a book on Allied Sabotage in Greece?
I live near RAF Tempsford, about 59 miles north of London and half way between Cambridge and Bedford. Between 1942 and 1945, it was the base of the Special Duties Squadrons which supplied resistance movements across Western Europe and parachuted in agents.
|Bernard O’ Connor’s book “Sabotage in Greece”|
I researched and published a number of books on its history, the missions carried out and accounts of some of the secret agents, focussing on the women’s stories.
As I give talks to various groups across the region, I generated a Powerpoint presentation of the buildings used by the Special Operations Executive and in 2013 published Churchill’s School for Saboteurs STS 17 Brickendonbury Manor.
It included three examples of sabotage action as my editor considered the original book too long.
So, not wanting my research to be wasted, I self-published accounts of sabotage in Norway, Denmark, Holland, Belgium and France and another on blackmail sabotage (French manufacturers supplying the Germans were told to allow sabotage of their vital machinery – and be compensated after the war – or have your factory bombed by the RAF or USAAF).
I then researched sabotage in Greece, Gibraltar and Britain.
The value of self-publishing is being able to update your account as you get more information.
Hence the first edition of Sabotage in Greece (2015) did not include the chapter on the Germans’ sabotage plans.
I found that info whilst researching their post-invasion stay-behind sabotage plans.
What were your main sources and how long did it take you to go through them?
My sources were mostly agents’ personnel files and mission report found in the British National Archives in Kew.
The National Archives’ online Discovery page allows one to search for names, places, dates, missions etc.
The files can be ordered and sent to you (at a price) or read (or photographed) at Kew.
My links with the SOE user group on Yahoo.com which has copied most of the SOE files mean that I can request and get sent files on disc or transferred online (and pay for them) from my armchair.
|Axis occupation zones 1941-44|
I also read numerous biographies, autobiographies, articles in academic journals and historians’ accounts of the war in Greece.
Most could be ordered and paid for online and all I had to do was answer the door when the post arrived.
I confess not to have read any Greek or German accounts of the war, hence my account is very British-centred.
|The Gorgopotamos raiding force|
I would transcribe interesting, relevant snippets to my account and then edit and revise.
I’d say it took me just over a year to complete the first edition but I have to say, I spend several hours a day typing, editing etc.
Which single operation did you find more interesting and why?
Whilst describing the human story of the sabotage attacks on the viaducts was fascinating, perhaps the most interesting section was the German’s sabotage plans.
I found on the CIA website, a similar searchable database to the National Archives and typing in sabotage or saboteur and Greece I found lots of files of interrogation reports of captured Nazi personnel, including the officers sent to Greece to initiate and implement the sabotage plans.
|The Asopos viaduct in a contemporary image|
Few persons are aware of the magnitude and complexity of the Allied, mainly British, sabotage efforts in occupied Greece. Looking back at all the information you processed, what are the key lessons learned from a historian’s perspective?
I felt whilst working on these documents that I was one of the very few people to have read them since they were written and I could not imagine anyone would have read them all to get an overview of the German’s successes and failures.
|KIA Allied soldiers in Greece, 1941|
These files also provided links to German sabotage plans in Italy, the topic of another book!
As regards lessons learned, it’s very rare that two sources tell exactly the same story.
The more you can find, both primary and secondary, the better picture you can paint.
Just because you find one account which you know contradicts what you’ve read elsewhere, still include it and point out the differences, or sometimes leave the reader to pick up the errors.
Make you readers think for themselves or they’ll rely too heavily on you for the truth.
It’s impossible to tell the whole truth of a war in a book as no one can know the complete story, only put together the disparate snippets of evidence as you find them.
I sometime describe my work as being rather like an archaeologist, piecing together some ancient artefact but from pieces that are not always from the same site.
The artefact may not look perfect, it hopefully resembles the original, it’ll have cracks and may well collapse with no support.
It’s like doing a jigsaw but there’s no box, the pieces are all over the place, there’s no lid so you’re making guesses where each piece goes.
It might fit but you need most of the pieces before you can get the overview. My work I have to admit is not 100% accurate as I don’t have and can’t have all the pieces. I can’t read Greek or German.
|Gorgopotamos bridge today|
I am not a professional historian.
My work is not a dissertation for a University degree; it’s not an attempt to test a hypothesis or disprove another historian’s theory; it’s the human story of the men and sometimes women engaged in the planning, preparing, facilitating, supplying and implementing the acts of sabotage.
I acknowledge there may be factual, chronological or spelling errors and invite corrections so that the next edition provides a more accurate, complete and interesting story for the general reader.
The Asopos viaduct and the mines destruction operations seem to have been vital, perhaps more than Gorgopotamos itself. What is your opinion on that?
Few cases of sabotage action produce permanent destruction.
The human reaction is to repair, mend, replace and get production back to normal. Stoppage would have been days, weeks or months.
|Asopos viaduct today|
Saboteurs knew that so sometimes, once it was repaired, they’d blow it up again.
The viaducts were repaired, the railway lines replaced, the bridges rebuilt, the tunnels cleared, railway locomotives, trucks, ships etc. were replaced.
Sabotage was a series of pinpricks, increasing or decreasing in intensity, which irritated the enemy and drew troops away from other centres but, in itself, did not win the war.
Reprisals were an issue but it provided knowledge and skills for the saboteurs, a boost to individual, group and national morale, a sense of purpose, something with easily observable results, stories to tell family and friends, even write or tell reporters/historians about.
|Another contemporary view of the Asopos viaduct|
You refer in your book “Sabotage in Greece” to a sinking of a ship laden with oil barrels in Sifnos island. Any more details?
The Sifnos attack was referred to in a specific file I researched.
I guess reports were handed in to SOE and someone compiled them in chronological order. So who it came from I don’t know.
Copies of the book can be obtained from:
Extracts from other historians on
Operation Noah’s Ark
|The Struggle for Greece, 1941-1949 Christopher M. Woodhouse|
Chant, Christopher, The Encyclopedia of Codenames of WW II
(Routledge Revivals) 1986
|Brewer, Greece, the decade of war: Occupation, Resistance and Civil War, I.B. Taurus, London, 2016|