I SAT on the bunk and laughed. The Rebels joined in. The sailor came forward; it was our first introduction to the typical British Navy man. In the months beginning now, how many, many times we were to bless those same men! Of course they would never have given the dog away; our own sense should have told us that. But, as Poppa so often assured us, we never did have any sense.
The sailor man was unusually interested in Horrie and the Wog-dog took to him at once. It appeared that the mascot they had smuggled aboard was the "dead ring" of Horrie, apparently the same breed. Horrie had a stump for a tail, whereas the ship's dog gloried in a full-length appendage.
"Which the little blighter always carries mast-high when the Jerries tackle us," said the sailor proudly.
That there should be another dog of Horrie's breed surprised us.
"We thought ours was the only one in the world, too," smiled the sailor, "but when you see our Ben you'll know there's another one; ours is as game as a lion and I'll bet yours proves so too. We picked Ben up at Benghazi after the Italians were driven out in the big push of 1941. He'd been abandoned and we couldn't turn the poor little blighter down."
We looked forward to being introduced to Ben. Above all, there was no need to worry over Horrie now, and no need to hunt the ship for a highly problematical "suite".
"You can let him roam about the ship and find his sea-legs," advised the sailor, "as soon as we sail. But keep him below until we do sail, just in case." And with a friendly "We'll be seeing you," he went about his job.
"We're set," declared Feathers. "The crew are all good blokes. This is going to be a happy ship."
And it was.
When well out at sea next morning we brought Horrie up on deck. He took an intense interest in everything; he'd never been aboard before and exploring the ship was great fun but the waters rushing past had him tricked. Cautiously he approached the rails, always ready to leap back; he could not make it out at all, so he back-pedalled up the deck again. Everyone received a sniff and wag of approval and an invitation for a romp around the deck. When the crew produced Ben the packed deck enjoyed a pantomime while the two made friends.
Horrie's envious interest centred on Ben's long tail which Ben erected mast-high for inspection. Ben reciprocated by polite but amused interest in Horrie's stub of a tail and they slowly waddled around one another in a mutual admiration society. Then Ben invited "Come along; I'll show you around the ship!" and waddled off with Horrie staggering at his tail. The little ship was now rolling uncomfortably and there were unhappy signs that many of the soldiers shared Horrie's feelings.
But Horrie had not yet ceased to take an interest in life. When the dogs returned to the deck Horrie was proudly struggling with a bone as large as himself. On their tour of inspection, the first place Ben had introduced him to was the ship's galley and the cook. Just as well, for we only had bully beef to offer him.
As a reward for the bone, Ben expected Horrie to romp and was obviously contemptuous of his efforts. Horrie tried hard but vainly, as he now rolled and staggered with a surprised uneasy expression on his face. He could not understand why his legs were giving way under him, could not make out the sickly feeling stealing over him.
After midday it blew up rough and Horrie lost all interest in fun and games. I never before realized the truth of the expression "sick as a dog". I selected a quiet place to lie down in and die, and Horrie crawled up to me; he could not walk. Surely there never was a more miserable pair. Horrie with his chin rolled on the deck, his little legs stretched out fore and aft, his eyes gazing for hours into my face, beseeching me to do something to stop the ship rolling. I would have moved heaven and earth to have been able to do it, but all I moved was my dinner, which hurriedly went to the fishes.
The crew were wonderful. To anyone really ill they immediately gave up their own bunks, while cheery words and a hot cup of tea were readily available.
Next morning was much calmer, thank heaven. Ben came waddling along to coax Horrie to come and play but he miserably declined. He lay there with envious eyes silently watching the pranks of the old sea-dog.
A sailor asked me, "Can I show your Horrie to the Old Man?"
"Oh, Poppa's seen him often," answered Murchie.
"You take the Wog-dog to the Old Man," said Poppa to the puzzled sailor, "take no notice of this has-been."
"Oh yeh!" growled Murchie.
And Horrie waddled away to be introduced to the Captain while Poppa quietly went below. He soon returned and sitting down beside the helpless Murchie began with gusto to suck a large piece of greasy fat. A ghastly sound.
Murchie rolled towards me. "Chuck this --- over-board!" he implored weakly.
Poppa laughed and gurgled.
"What! Not seasick, surely, Murchie?"
"I wish the ship would sink and you too - especially you," moaned Murchie.
"She won't sink," said Poppa confidently. "Don't worry, she's a good ship." And he sucked with a sound that --
"Please go away!" I whispered.
"If only she would sink," groaned Murchie.
"She won't sink," declared Poppa brightly. "Don't worry, Murchie boy."
"That's what I'm worrying about," groaned Murchie. She won t sink.
But the rolling calmed down and gradually we revived. In late afternoon we passed several islands at which Horrie, rapidly recovering, gazed with earnest attention.
"How he'd like to be ashore," smiled Fitz.
"No more than me," said Murchie feelingly.
"We're getting near Bomb Alley, lads!" called a sailor warningly.
Neither Gordie nor Fitz nor Murchie nor Feathers nor I were interested in Bomb Alley or any other alley. But we presently realized that soldiers who had not obeyed the warning to wear life-jackets at all times were now attempting to put them on. The Chakla had made numerous crossings between Alexandria and Greece carrying Australian soldiers and had been heavily bombed in some place called Bomb Alley.
"Better put your life-jacket on, Fitz," I suggested.
"Give mine to Horrie," replied Fitz. This jolt brought us back to life; we'd forgotten all about a life-jacket for Horrie should the ship be sunk.
"Could a pup swim in a sea like this?" I asked Poppa.
"Not for long," he replied doubtfully.
"Couldn't we fit Horrie up with a life-jacket?" suggested Don.
I remembered a broken, discarded jacket and wandered away to get it. We cut three pieces of cork from it and sewed them into a strip of canvas making the jacket into the form of a saddle, one strip to fit down each side and one over the back. I called Horrie, who was playing with Ben. Horrie came inquiringly across the deck but did not seem pleased when we fitted the belt around him. Ben stood with a wary eye on proceedings. Horrie insisted on wagging his tail at Ben which made the fitting difficult. Don hacked a half-moon out of the centre piece of cork and this enabled the jacket to be pulled well forward, the idea being to keep his head more buoyant than his stem.
"What he swallows in the stern won't matter," said Feathers.
The final problem was to fasten the jacket in place. "String would cut into his tummy," objected Gordie.
"Half a mo!" advised a sailor. He returned with a smile and a long bandage - the very thing. We wound the bandage over the jacket and round and round Horrie's middle, then fastened it securely in place. A perfect job.
"It's the first dog's life-jacket ever made," said Murchie admiringly.
"We ought to go into business," declared Gordie.
We'd almost forgotten our seasickness.
"Off you go!" I ordered, and Horrie scampered away to his waiting friend but feeling the life jacket rolled over and energetically kicked out. This effort proving vain, he leapt up and did a buckjumping turn at which Ben barked approval, encouraged by sickly laughs from the soldiers. Horrie when out of breath invited Ben to give a hand and Ben promptly fastened his teeth to the bandage and bracing his legs tugged with might and main and brought Horrie down on top of him. To a startled yelp and struggle from Horrie they sorted themselves out. Then Ben noticed the end of the bandage had become unfastened so he snapped at it and tugged again while I urgently called Horrie. Horrie struggled to obey but was pulled back by Ben. Horrie indignantly wheeled around and snapped at Ben as if blaming him for the laughs at his expense. Then he came trotting across to me but forgave Ben and turned to bark that he "wouldn't be long now". As he turned back towards me Ben grabbed the bandage end and bolted down the deck. And that was the end of the safety jacket.
That evening we steamed into a pretty harbour with numerous small islands and buoys dotted about and - what kindled the troops' enthusiasm after so many months in the desert - beautiful green foliage lining the shore. Bracken fern and green grass and clean white houses, made a lovely sight after the desert. This was Piraeus. If ever troops welcomed a port, we welcomed the Port of Athens.
The Wog-dog who was barking his joy to the shore, was hurriedly popped inside the kit-bag. Ben thought it a new game and playfully nipped the bulging bag, to an agonized howl from Horrie. This was a bad start as we were not lining up for disembarkation, but Horrie, stung to the quick by the unfair attack, was determined to bark his way off the ship. I was trying to stand at ease while the gangway was lowered but Ben waddled around and barked up at Horrie's muffled barks. The crew enjoyed themselves but I was sweating, for the chorus of barks was creating more attention than the orders of the commanding officer now giving us disembarkation orders without, it would seem, even dreaming there was a Wog-dog on board. Thankfully I saw a fleet of small lighters drawing alongside the ship. We began to clamber cautiously down the gangways.
From the lower end of the gangway to the small craft bobbing on the swell below was a precarious drop of three feet or more. A man had to pick his time and, helped by the outstretched arms of the Greek sailors, to jump. If he missed the jump he went into the Drink.
The cheery Greeks were helping the boys by catching the kit-bags dropped to them. I had no option so carefully dropped my bag into the outstretched arms of a Greek sailor and then jumped. As the Greek clutched the bag Horrie wriggled and growled and snapped and the surprised Greek toppled backward. I snatched the kit-bag and bustled in among the boys. The sailor picked himself up with a surprised expression that changed to alarm as the air-raid siren above us whistled piercingly. To urgent shouts and gesticulation among the Greeks our lighter steered an erratic course towards shore, sped by the bomb bursts and shrieks of diving planes. When we leapt ashore Horrie sprang out of the bag with a bark of delight and led the scramble for cover. The Greek anti-aircraft guns crashed into action and Horrie leaped around as if thunderstruck and scampered to me terrified. I snatched him up and raced to a drain into which the boys were disappearing. Horrie was trembling like a leaf. We crouched in the mouth of the drain and watched the raid while I tried to soothe Horrie. Ships were fighting for their lives, searchlights swept the sky to catch a gleaming plane that missed, turned and dived while shooting machine-gun bullets down the beam of light. As plane after plane was caught in the searchlights the sky broke into a roar of bursting shells intermingled with the red and yellow and green of flying onions and streams of tracer bullets, a terrifyingly beautiful spectacle. Then came the deep "whoomph!" of a bomb landing fairly close and Horrie with bristling hair leapt into action to bark furiously at the silver planes in the sky. With tail erect and eyes fiery gold he barked his defiance to the Luftwaffe away up there dodging the slowly moving streams of fiery onions that were now bursting from every point of the compass. Horrie had made good.
An hour later and we trailed off through the night to the little Greek village of Dophney. During the early hours, low-flying, hostile aircraft dropped their eggs with a roar that shook the ground, showering leaves on the tent roof. Dazed by the fiery explosions the little Wog-dog crept to my bunk and buried his cold nose under my armpit. Presently he gained courage again and growled, a low growl, but I'm afraid he did not really mean it.
"Just you come down here so as Horrie can get his teeth into you!" yelled Murchie as an enemy plane roared overhead.
"He can't put the wind up Horrie," came Feathers's voice from the darkness, "like he's got it up me."
"Hah!" came Poppa's growl. "Soldiers!"
"The old relic is keeping his courage up," came Fitz's distant voice. I yelled out for Gordie and caught a muffled answer. The Rebels were all right so far.
Dawn, smiling over sea and hills, found us in a delightful spot. Green fields, green crops, well tended vineyards, fields of poppies, little white houses all welcoming a glorious April sunshine. Then Feathers called out in delight.
"Good old gums! Well I'm blessed! We're camped under Aussie gum-trees."
And so we were - a good omen, the familiar, dear old trees to shelter and welcome us.
"This is a country worth fighting for," declared Gordie. And we all agreed, gazing over the lovely scene. And so this was Greece.
Lots of smiling, dark-eyed youngsters soon came to invade the camp. We made good friends. Who can help making friends with youngsters? No man but could help be bashfully flattered when these youngsters looked upon us as heroes come to save their land.
A particular delight to the kiddies were the tins of bully beef we gave them. Meat of any kind seemed very scarce, a luxury of luxuries to the youngsters. Here too the Wog-dog had his first offering of bully-beef and - turned up his nose.
Next morning we passed in triumphal procession through cheering Athens. The people went almost frantic; they rained flowers upon us from streets and balconies. The little army of these folk, so very, very few, had held back the might of Italy for many long, bloody months. And now just as the hordes of Germany were marching to overwhelm them, here were we come to save them. As our convoys of trucks rolled through the streets the soldiers scrambled to the truck roofs, swarmed on the mudguards, catching the flowers thrown by the people, giving cheer for cheer in tumultuous greeting. On the Rebels' truck Horrie was wildly excited, barking from the roof of the truck at the footpaths and up to the balconies. In the roars of cheering and laughter and whistling he was like a cat on hot bricks not knowing which way to turn. The sun shone smiling upon this lovely land, and these warm-hearted people. Lots and lots of folk laughed and waved to the little excited pup. Their wave of greeting is unlike our own. They extended the hand with the palm turned up, closing, opening and closing the hand more in a beckoning attitude than a wave. The meaning was similar to our "Good luck", but meant more precisely "Go and return!"
"I wish we were the last truck in the convoy!" sighed Don.
And Feathers in spick and span uniform had smiling eyes all for the laughing dark-eyed girls crowing around the slowly moving trucks.
"I'd shed no tears," said Gordie thoughtfully, "if we were left behind amongst this crowd."
"A flat tyre would be welcome right now," mused Fitz.
Murchie was balancing precariously on the truck roof enthusiastically waving his rifle to the shouts of "Benghazi! Benghazi! Benghazi!" The fall of Benghazi to the Australian troops was a beacon light in the minds of the Greek people, and here was Murchie taking all the credit.
Our reception was that of conquering heroes. Perhaps the Greeks knew better what lay ahead of us, realized more than we. Surely they had hoped for a far greater force. The story of David and Goliath is not repeated in modern warfare when it is a handful against many men and many machines. We were to give our very best but --
At last we were clear of the city.
We gazed back at Athens. High up on a hill the ruins of the famous Acropolis seemed brooding over the city. Then we were travelling along the northern road, going inland, winding through village after village with quaint square-built whitewashed houses, each little village with its own church with high steeple, each with its little village square with a white wooden cross in the centre. The trucks rumbled along cobbled streets, sometimes so narrow there was only room for a military truck to pass. The footpaths were crowded with cheering villagers, the windows in the dwellings above the shops all with their laughing people showering flowers and good wishes down upon us. Most of the folk wore their national costumes, and the village lasses were a picture. Jet-black hair and laughing brown eyes were emphasized by the smooth, olive skin. They were dressed in white, ankle-length skirts, embroidered with flowers of contrasting colours - lively young things in their white lacy blouses pulled in tight around tempting waists and little vests of vivid blue or red laced crisscross down the front with silk cord. Strong, shapely arms showed from wide, puffy sleeves caught in tight above the elbows. Little sandalled feet peeped from below generous skirts. The men folk were mostly at the front, but those that remained wore long sheepskin coats and black velvet trousers caught in below the knee after the style of "bowyangs", their headgear small skull caps. Here and there was a Greek priest in long, black gown. Nearly all the men wore short beards.
Horrie was almost exhausted with excitement. As we passed through village after village the funny little dog frantically barking and dancing up on the roof of the truck was a source of attraction and laughter.
"He thinks the whole show is being put on for him," laughed Don.
"If only I could command as much attention!" sighed Murchie as we saluted a gay bevy of beauty.
"You're attracting plenty of attention," growled Poppa, "they haven't seen such an ugly man since Caesar passed through."
But Murchie was too busy with the girls to reply.