“Get the sheep away from the bridge, the British are going to blow it up tonight!”
—Elderly villager warning sheepherders at the base of the Gorgopotamus viaduct
Supplies for Axis troops in North Africa arrived from Europe one of two ways: in the west through Italy and Sicily and then to Tunis or Benghazi, and in the east through Greece and Crete and then to Benghazi or Tobruk. During the summer of 1942, Lt. Gen. Bernard Montgomery and his Eighth Army were preparing for what would become the Second Battle of El Alamein. Disrupting the Axis supply line in Greece now became a priority. The main supply route there was a single-track railroad line, part of the famous Oriental Express route, that ran down the middle of Greece, terminating at the port of Piraeus. Because the road network in Greece was all but nonexistent and there were so few railways, even a partial destruction of that line would compromise supply efforts. Planners determined that the best choke point was about 75 miles northwest of Priaeus in the rugged Brallos Pass. Three railroad viaducts were located there: Gorgopotamus, Aspops, and Papadice. Commander in Chief Middle East army headquarters assigned Special Operations Executive (SOE) the task of wrecking them. It was SOE’s largest and most complex mission to date. Led by Lt. Col. Edmund “Eddy” Myers, twelve SOE soldiers prepared to launch Operation Harling.
Myers divided the team into three groups of four. Each group contained a leader, an interpreter, a sapper, and a radio operator. The first attempt to insert the teams on Sept. 28, 1942, failed as the three modified B-24 Liberators couldn’t find the prearranged landing zone signal fires. Another attempt was made two days later. This time signal fires were located near Mount Giona in Central Greece. Though the fires’ arrangement was not what everyone had been told to expect, the decision was made to parachute in.
Instead of landing close to each other, the groups and their supplies wound up scattered. The group led by Maj. Christopher Woodhouse landed near the signal fires. Woodhouse, who spoke fluent Greek, soon discovered why the signal fires were odd. They had been set by three villagers who, having heard the bombers two nights ago, hoped that by doing so they’d be rewarded with an aerial drop of supplies and ammunition – not soldiers!
The second group landed some distance away. Because of the rugged terrain and the need to avoid detection, a week would pass before it rendezvoused with Woodhouse’s.
The most harrowing experience occurred with Maj. Cooke’s group. Three members landed near the Italian fortified town of Karpenissi, with one of them landing in the town itself. Friendly villagers managed to help all four evade the Italian troops. Ultimately it took Cooke’s group two weeks to join the others.
During this period the SOE groups encountered Greek andartes (guerrillas) from the two main Resistance groups, the Communist-backed Greek People’s Liberation Army (ELAS) and the right-wing National Republican Greek Leagues. After being briefed on the mission, for the first and only time the two rival groups agreed to work together to help make Operation Harling a success.
Reconnaissance of the three viaducts determined that the Gorgopotamos viaduct was the most vulnerable. The andartes would attack the garrisons stationed at both of the approaches. Once the garrisons had been neutralized, the SOE team hidden in the valley would attach explosives to the base of the pier supporting the middle of the viaduct.
The attack began at 11:00 p.m. on Nov. 25. The assault on the garrisons was supposed to last a few minutes. Instead it continued for more than an hour. Worried about enemy reinforcements, Myers ordered his men to start laying their charges. At 1:30 a.m. on Nov. 26, the first explosions detonated, collapsing two spans. About an hour later the remaining span was destroyed. By 4:30 a.m., with the andartes suffering only four wounded, the attackers departed.
SOE’s success set the stage for similar major operations throughout Europe. It took seven weeks for the Axis to repair the viaduct. Hitler also reassigned six divisions from the Eastern Front to Greece. Woodhouse and a couple other senior members of Harling were ordered to remain in Greece and form the British Military Mission to Greece.
Years later Woodhouse, a retired colonel and the 5th Baron Terrington, recalled that security was a constant problem in Greece. “If one Greek knew, then all knew,” he said. “So we became resigned to the fact there was no real secrecy, whatsoever. However, since nobody told the enemy, our plans were not generally compromised!”
A video clip about Operation Harling can be seen on YouTube at: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4agppakDL6Y.