Place and time: Central Greece, August 1944
In a few places in the stories posted by other members of this forum they refer to the, sadly not un-common form of retaliation by the occupation forces when one of their own falls victim to local resistance fighters. I have no wish to enter into a fruitless debate about the issue beyond stating that public notices were prominently displayed in all public places for a number of years all over the occupied countries informing people of the consequences of resistance. From the time of the signing of the surrender documents the initiative for each episode, which we now call an atrocity, lay with the partisans. And, in the final analysis, the whole war was one monstrous atrocity. The story I shall write to-day is intended to remind the readers that a compassionate person in some circumstances in the right place at the right time can minimise the damage, even prevent the atrocity from happening. All you have to do is follow your better instincts.
In mid-August 1944, when I returned from my three-week sniper training in Bohemia, I found myself attached to a different squad from the one I knew like a bunch of brothers. The reason was simply that eight of the ten members of my squad were killed during my absence by just one home-made anti-heavy-vehicle mine somewhere on the main road between the cities of Volos and Larissa. For a long time it was our company's duty to check out that section of road for mines every morning before breakfast. Only after we declared it safe for use could vehicles of all kinds start going about their day's business.
All of the twelve squads in our company of Pioneers (Field Engineers) took their turn. On the day when, during my absence, our squad was comprised of only nine men, they drove up to a freshly disturbed section of the road surface and indeed found that two staggered pairs of mines were laid during the night. With one man on the back of the open truck manning the mounted machine gun, two men got to work on each of the four mines. In a few minutes three of the teams finished their task, but the fourth mine proved to be somehow more complicated and was going to take a little longer.
So, the scene was something like this: two men on their bellies dealing with their mine, one man at the machine gun, one man crouching in the roadside ditch with his shorts around his ankles and four others standing around, smoking and impatiently waiting for the journey to resume and to return to the unit for a late breakfast. And that's when the partisans who laid the mines and now waited in hiding, set this last one off by some kind of remote control. The one man in the ditch was the only survivor. I don't know what retaliation followed on this occasion and, forgive me, but I don't want to know.
I didn't ask then and no-one spoke about it. Life, such as it was, simply went on. It was war and people were dying. Luckily, events such as I have just recounted, did not happen very often. The daily road inspections were part of a routine. On one of the last days in August I was on the road at daybreak with my new bunch of buddies.
There were no mines to be found that day. At least, not on the road to Larissa. On the way back to the Company base in Agria, as we were accustomed to do from time to time, we have stopped the truck for a few minutes in a couple of places and from the open fields gathered a modest amount of produce like potatoes, onions, tomatoes, capsicums and also some grapes here and there from an inviting-looking vineyard. All right, I know that it was stealing, but at the time no-one was going to charge us with theft. This morning too, there was such booty rolled up in a groundsheet on the floor of our truck.
Our return to base was interrupted by a field cop on a motorbike re-directing our vehicle to a nearby railway station of Velestinon with orders to report to a waiting officer. When we found him we were told that not far from the railway station a short while ago a train was blown up by mines under the tracks and several people, both soldiers and civilians, were killed. He was now waiting for a truck bringing five convicted members of the Resistance to the scene of the attack, where they were to be executed in an act of Retaliation. My God, I thought, he expects us to do the killing.
I was never before, or – thankfully – since, that close to such a situation. Pretty soon the expected truck arrived with its unfortunate cargo of four men and one woman, all aged somewhere between 25 and 40. It parked under a tree which afforded a little shade. The time was by then mid-morning and the sun was climbing high. The officer in charge of the situation was pacing up and down chain-smoking, steeling himself for what was to come. That's when I walked up to him and asked if I may offer the people on the back of the truck some grapes. To my great relief he said "yes" and, thankful for another postponement, lit another cigarette.
He was still smoking it when a dispatch rider arrived on a motorbike with orders from the Division to stop the execution because orders came from Berlin to prepare for an orderly evacuation of Greece and re-deployment of our whole division, the SS-Polizei Division to the Eastern Front. I never thought that I shall end up welcoming a move to the Eastern Front with such relief.
There is more of a Serendipity taste to this story of five saved lives. Only one day after the above described events took place I came down with my annually recurring malaria. I was taken to the Regimental sick-bay in Volos and stayed there for the next seven days. I have missed out on all the "fun". All the packing and loading was done by my healthy comrades while I was in turn shaking and sweating with fever.
My attacks for that year have just run their course when a personnel carrier with my squad in the back pulled up in the street below and I was loaded on the floor like a piece of baggage for the trip North. I often wonder what would have happened differently if I had fallen ill just two days earlier.