WHEN the withdrawal commenced it fell to the Rebels among others to keep the trucks moving. Swarms of trucks came down from the mountains and the Albanian front to converge in the pass, trucks loaded with wounded men, with ammunition and gear and stores, with all the flotsam of an army in stubborn, fighting retreat. We rode up and down the long convoy, sorting out tangles and bottlenecks, guiding the harassed drivers, directing them at turn-offs. Ray Thurgood worked like a tiger, setting us an example we will never forget. Other men were toiling similarly far up and down the struggling convoy behind which the rearguard were fighting hour by desperate hour. Every disputed yard against the horde pressing us back was to mean the lives of men- our men. Alas, sunset was falling over Greece, and its shadows were black as the shadows of the mountains that blackened the fateful pass.
Greek soldiers were now drifting back fast from Albania, whole groups of them, bloodstained, muddy, ragged men, haggard of face, exhausted in body, the glare of despair in their eyes. Rags were bound about their feet against the pitiless rocks and thorns and mud; their boots were long since worn out. Like ghosts they came staggering down the hillsides, emerged from the gullies, swayed there to stare at us until we beckoned them to come for help and something to eat. Their gratitude at tins of bully beef and army biscuits was pitiable. Many carried single-shot rifles obsolete before the last war; what other little equipment they had was long since out-of-date. Yet these were the fragments of remnants of the men who for so long had held the Albanian border against Italy. And now along the road from the pass came shuffling in tragically growing numbers that most pitiable flotsam of war - women and children, sick, and old men. Little children bravely clinging to their mothers' skirts, babies clutched tight under shawls, bowed bodies wearily ploughing through mud, marching with the growing trucks back, back, back through mud and sleet and rain. Night crept down, smothering that long trail of misery but through the gloom behind again and again burst the dull red flashes of war. Those who sank by the roadside - alas, they stayed there.
We gave them all the bully and biscuits and blankets and help that we could, but their numbers swelled until at last we had nothing but silent sympathy to give.
The little Wog-dog battled on with us throughout all the retreat, very quiet now; well he sensed that this road was tramped by the tragedy of Despair.
And yet, when we could no longer help these people they still had a friendly wave for us, a sad smile. But when they thought we could not notice, their faces were grim and set.
Pulling up for a much needed rest one morning I noticed an old woman pantingly trying to dig a hole beside her cottage wall. She was one of the "too old" ones, too weak to join the throng battling back, back, back before the roar of war now so close behind. She must stay.
With a pity near to tears I dragged myself up to see what she was doing, and to ask if I might help. The Wog-dog ambled silently up to her and gazed up at the poor old soul. She was labouring to dig a hole in the frozen earth in which to hide a few tins of bully beef the troops had thrown her; her food, it meant possible life to her for just a little while longer, food that she felt she must hide from a mighty army.
"Devourie! Devourie!" she smiled and pointed towards the fateful north.
Hastily I dug the hole, dropped the tins in, covered them and made as sure as I possibly could that no one could suspect a hole had been dug there. That morning was bitterly cold, but through lack of sleep and exhaustion I was sweating before the job was finished. I glanced round, and there she was sitting on the edge of a little stone wall nursing Horrie and murmuring down at him smiling at him from a face of a thousand wrinkles. The guns behind us were breaking into a roar of sound.
Propping the spade against the wall, I crossed over to her and taking Horrie put him within my coat. His little head immediately popped out and gazed at the old woman. With tears welling to her eyes she smiled and put one hand to mine and one to Horrie's head. she mumbled something; I gazed down not daring to speak but Horrie licked the old, gnarled hand.
"God protect you!" I muttered, and hurried back to the convoy.
Raid after raid hurtled down on the badly battered convoy, blasting truck after truck in geysers of mud and splintered metal. As the troops staggered back from cover it was to work like maniacs pushing the burning wrecks from the road. There must be no hold up because following convoys and finally the desperately pressed rearguard must fight a way back along this narrow road around which there was no detour. The lives of all behind depended on those in front to keep moving.
When in sight of Larissa we were too numbed from our own bitter experiences to say much. Larissa was in ruins; God help the friendly people who had cheered us as we passed through only a short time ago! Now only a heap of stone was the church and high steeple where the stork had surveyed the peaceful scene below. I wonder what that stork thought when the bombs came screaming down to blast the church and his home and the little town to ruins.
The Germans had given the folk of Larissa three hours to vacate the town and the convoy had halted to allow the people to pour out and get a start on down the road ahead. It was humane, and the only thing to be done, though it was to mean hell for us. A Company was hurriedly turned aside to defend the battered airfield while the rest of us closed up where the head of the convoy had halted at Larissa. A train was there, already hopelessly overcrowded. Numerous people and children were still hurrying towards the station while overhead three enemy planes hovered like birds of prey. When riding through the centre of the town I passed thirty little girls all dressed in white marching quietly towards the railway. Six children walked in front carrying a white sheet quartered by a broad red cross; one child held each corner and one each side. The pathetic little party marched bravely on with the roar of the planes low overhead; several little smiles, several little hands fluttered at me as I passed by; surely such little children carrying the emblem of mercy would have nothing to fear. The little party was in the charge of five nuns. Probably they were from a convent somewhere in Larissa.
The convoy pushed on. Outside Larissa the road south was a weary stretch of flat, swampy ground, a nightmare with rain and mud and the churning of countless vehicles. Over this Devil's Crossing there was not a blade of cover so the convoy pushed stolidly on against the scream of planes, hiss of machine-gun bullets, roar of exploding bombs. Hell was here, night and day. Any truck that slid a yard off the road was finished, any truck hit by a bomb was finished. We plodded slowly on, trucks, soldiers, women, children, old men, wounded men, dogs. The roar of hell was above and bursting among us all the time.
While checking the passing of my section trucks I noticed one missing and with a sinking of the heart I turned back towards Larissa to try and locate it. All this time the Wog-dog had stayed quiet as a mouse within my greatcoat. I could feel the warmth of him. He knew something awfully tragic was happening.
I passed a shocking sight as I pushed the bike through the mud. I dare not stop a moment lest I break down or go mad. The huddled, muddied bodies of children in white, fragments of a white sheet with torn cross all muddied and red, red, red. The little bodies lay there like crushed, broken, little red and white roses. An Australian ambulance crew was bending over them, but one glance showed me that few indeed were left to remember their little play-mates. I pushed on, hatred rending me, cursing those inhuman devils, those accursed Goerings and their magnificent Luftwaffe.
Blessed for me it was that soon afterwards Horrie gave me a great fright.
To the roar of planes he leapt from the greatcoat with a warning bark and raced for cover. His little legs could carry him faster through the mud than mine. He paused to see that I was following; then, at the whine of falling bombs, barked frantic warning and leapt ahead plainly saying "Every dog for himself!"
He vanished, and the bombs exploded in mud and flame and choking smoke. As the planes roared away I struggled up from the mud and whistled for Horrie. Strange! He did not return. Feeling horribly sick I staggered in the direction I had seen him last, whistling piercingly. His smothered bark made my heart thump again. I found him in a narrow trench, far safer cover than we had - but what an awful sight was Horrie. He had jumped into a latrine and - phew! The boys laughed hysterically as we struggled back to the trucks. It was not until late that night that I could get petrol to wash the little wretch.
The Greek forces on our left had now been overwhelmed and the enemy was pouring into the rear of the Thermopylae position from Yannina.
The convoys ploughed on and on. The rearguard fought their way back yard by yard, their blood staining the mud a slow purple. Was it not off the shores of Greece that the Romans fished for their royal purple, Purple of the Caesars!
It was while we worked like maniacs at a bogged truck that Don came along. I laughed a silly laugh. How very, very glad I was to see Don. The truck's front wheel had stopped, choked with mud wedged tightly between the mudguard and the wheel. Smoke was issuing from the tyres because of friction between tightly packed mud and rubber; we wrenched the mudguard upwards, the truck moved and slowly the convoy pressed on.
"Phew!" said Don as we parked for a breath, "it's not daisies I smell!"
"It's Horrie!" I gasped.
Don looked questioningly as he held his nose.
"If you ask any more questions I'll burst into hysterics!" I yelled.
Don grinned, crawled up on to his bike and rode away on his job.
At last our section crossed that Devil's mud and ploughed on over the better road towards Lamia. Thank God, the wintry sun sank at last!
We pulled off the road while the drivers just stumbled off the trucks and sprawled down to camp for the night, dead beat, utterly done in. I found Ron Baker's truck where I'd arranged to meet Don and the boys. Horrie leapt out of the greatcoat with a yap of delight to meet his numerous friends and ravenously eat the scraps of bully and biscuit showered upon him. He trotted to truck after truck on visiting bent, and stretching his little legs. I was very worried at seeing no sign of Don. I had been riding at the head of the company, he in the rear. Poppa loomed up out of the darkness. I knew he was weary but his alert eyes and grim, set mouth showed he was set for any emergency.
"Where's Don?" he asked.
"We'll find him. Who is the last man to have seen him, and where?"
"Ron Baker. At the tum-off."
"Come on, and be smart about it!"
So Ron Baker and Reg. Jenks and I slouched back along the dark road amongst the strangely quiet trucks to the turn-off. We scouted round, and on hands and knees in the darkness traced where two trucks had missed the turn-off.
"It's all right," sighed Sergeant Poppa. "Don's gone after them. He'll bring them back before they can run into the enemy lines. We'd better return to the unit in case we're needed."
As we ploughed slowly back, several little fires suddenly appeared on the hills around.
"Spies or Fifth Columnists!" growled Poppa. "Lighting fires to show the Luftwaffe where we are." He seized a handy anti-tank gun and blazed towards the fires; the stutter of a machine-gun suddenly awakened the night as it sprayed bullets towards the tell-tale fires. The fires were quickly extinguished.
"They didn't think we'd wake up," growled Poppa. "I'd love to have enough men to surround that hill."
"It's only a very little hill, hardly a pimple," said Reg. "but I doubt if there's a man in the unit capable of climbing it. I can hardly stand myself."
Dead to the world, it was two o'clock in the morning when I was forced back from deepest sleep. The dim form of Poppa was bending over me.
"Your turn for picquet duty, lad," murmured Poppa.
I dragged myself up and staggered into the darkness. I crawled some fifty yards up the hill from the trucks and fought against sleep with my tortured mind going back, back to the little children of Larissa, flitting from there to Don's absence, then back to the little children again. Horrie sat between my legs; I felt the warmth of his little tongue in sympathy upon my numbed hand. All pressed down we were by the pall of nights deathly silence over all the exhausted convoy. Away back - the thunder of guns, crackling bursts of rifle fire. But around our sleeping camp was utter silence.
A low growl from Horrie startled me back to duty.
"What is it, Horrie?" I whispered. His body stiffened, his hair stiffened, he took a few paces up the hill, stopped, and growled again. "The men who lit the fires!" flashed through my mind and I clenched my rifle while sinking to the ground and trying to silhouette the hilltop against the sky. I crept up to Horrie, laid my hand upon him and felt him quiver in warning. He could see what I could not see.
"What is it, Horrie?" I whispered.
He growled menacingly.
Strain as I may, I could only distinguish the dim outline of rocks. Horrie began to advance with a threat in every movement of his tiny body; it was no longer comical to me. Bent low to the ground I followed on noiseless feet. I dare not call to the sleeping men below lest it prove a false alarm but I knew this was no false alarm. Horrie insistently advanced and presently I saw he was growling towards a crouching rock now barely thirty feet away. With the sickening feeling of a bullet in the pit of the stomach I whispered "Stay put, Horrie!" and touched him and then crawled away to outflank that crouching rock, my eye upon it, the rifle poised to fire. I had only gone a little way when Horrie growled and rushed in at the dim form on the ground. I leapt in and called "Halt!" as a shadow rose to Horrie's attack.
"Kalanite!" came the cry from a figure now standing motionless. Growling fiercely, Horrie ran back to me to face back at the stranger with a growl.
"Advance one pace," I ordered, "but no more or I shoot!"
Again he replied "Kalanite!" Kalanite was Greek for "Good night", but the shadow took one pace forward. I moved in close and motioned him down to the camp with the rifle, Horrie growling at his heels. I manoeuvred the stranger to the O.C's truck. Captain Plumer sent for the Greek interpreter and interrogated the man. His story was that he was a shepherd seeking goats that had strayed from this flock upon the hill. Surprised at sight of the trucks (at night he could not have distinguished them from where he was) and startled by the dog he had laid down, fearful he might be mistaken for a Fifth Columnist.
He stuck to the story, which was feasible enough. In the circumstances, nothing could be done. He was escorted from the camp to return to his flock. When daylight came I searched the hill. There was no sign of the shepherd. Nor was there the faintest sign that animals of any description had been anywhere upon that hill for a very long time.
"You little trimmer," I said to Horrie, "you probably saved the camp. That fellow was in readiness to signal the Luftwaffe. We would have awakened to a tornado of bombs - those of us who did awake."