Istanbul Intrigues » Chapter 10-The Archaeologist's Navy-The Oss in the Aegean, 1943-1944
10 The Archaeologist’s Navy:
The Oss in the Aegean, 1943-1944
Every warrior has his own way of eating Yoghurt.
John Caskey of the OSS had to get on the Ankara-to-Istanbul Anatolia Express. It was almost 6 p.m. on Friday, April 30, 1943. “There are no more tickets, sir,” said the station’s cashier.
“How about third class? I’ll take anything you’ve got.”
“I’m sorry. We can’t sell more tickets than we have seats.” Caskey pleaded to no avail. He ran out onto the platform where the train stood, steam spurting from the connections between the cars, ready to leave in only ten minutes. Leaping up the steps, Caskey bustled down the corridor looking left and right into the crowded compartments. Finally, he saw a man all alone in a first-class sleeper compartment. Fortunately, it was an American diplomatic courier guarding a pile of State Department mailbags. Caskey identified himself and was allowed to use the upper bunk.
The next morning the train pulled into Istanbul’s Haydarpasha station. Caskey grabbed his bag and went to the Tokatliyan Hotel, whose clientele was less Nazi than it had been during Vali’s stay there three months earlier. After checking in, he called on Consul General Burton Berry. Caskey showed his OSS credentials and asked for help in changing $5000 in U.S. currency into gold needed for a secret mission.
Obviously, Berry told Caskey, the man for this job was Earle Taylor,
the wheeler-dealer commercial attaché who was making a fortune on black market currency exchanges. Since it was both a Saturday and a national holiday, shops were closed and money changers were off duty, but Taylor sent out a man who returned at 4 p.m. with a large bag full of British, Swiss, and Turkish gold coins. Taylor, Caskey noted, charged him the official embassy rate though the money had been changed at the black market rate. He estimated that Taylor made about $1000 on the deal. “Under the circumstances,” Caskey wrote, “I didn’t feel I could openly object. Taylor is an influential man who can be a useful ally or a difficult opponent in our work.”
On Sunday, Caskey took an excursion boat to Prinkipo, a pretty island below Istanbul, for a holiday. But he took the opportunity to note the presence of fifteen German barges lying at anchor to the southeast. The next day, he took the morning boat down the Asian coast and then transferred to a train for Izmir, a trip of almost fifteen hours.
Two OSS people, Lansing Williams and Dorothy Cox, met him at the station and took him to the Izmir Palace Hotel. Their job was to use the gold for buying OSS’s first caïque–a small wooden fishing and cargo boat–for intelligence work on the Aegean Sea. Special precautions had to be taken, since German reconnaissance planes flew over Turkey as far as 60 miles inland from the coast. The OSS also had to avoid subverting Turkish neutrality or stirring up the British, who wanted a monopoly on covert operations.
Williams had made a good impression, having bustled around a great deal since he arrived the previous September. He was fluent in Turkish and in touch with everyone in Izmir, gathering intelligence from the British, the Turkish police and Chamber of Commerce, and the local French, Italian, and Greek communities. Cox worked for a relief agency helping refugees from the nearby Greek islands.
The British were already well established. Their first caïque runs in the Aegean brought hundreds of Greek and British soldiers to the Turkish coast after Greece’s collapse in 1941. As many as 4000 Greek escapees were housed at a camp near Izmir. While the Germans gradually tightened control in the islands, over 10,000 Greeks escaped to Turkey during the war. The SOE established a small group in Izmir to interrogate them. Some males of military age were sent to join the Greek exile army in Syria; others were persuaded to return to Greece as agents.
Covert British naval operations were supervised by the Levant
Schooner Flotilla (also known as the Levant Fishing Patrol) in Beirut. A secret base was established near Izmir under the supervision of the British consul, Noel Rees, a retired navy officer who knew the islands well and sometimes paid expenses out of his own pocket. The British had four large schooners anchored in Turkish waters as movable command posts.
Although prodded by Italian and German protests, the Turkish government usually overlooked these activities. The Royal Navy commander in the east Mediterranean wrote, “The assistance given by Turkey was entirely in keeping with a position as an ally, and its behavior throughout [was] satisfyingly un-neutral.” Axis counterparts were treated differently: an Italian arrested photographing Turkish installations in Izmir was executed.
To conceal their operations, the caïques’ Greek civilian crews pretended to fish, sponge-dive, or engage in interisland trading. The wooden ships had one or two masts and ranged from 5 to 250 tons. They were slow under sail and had old, sputtering engines. The British kept the boats’ seedy appearance as camouflage but installed powerful new motors, one or two heavy machine guns, sometimes a light artillery piece, and a radio.
The caïques’ first task was to facilitate the escape of British aircrews downed in Greece. They were so successful that a Cairo joke suggested that those who did not return quickly enough should be considered absent without leave. One captured fighter pilot who had been hospitalized evaded German guards by climbing over a wall despite his injured arms. He was rescued by a caïque which also took a group of Greek soldiers. The monks of the monastery of Mount Athos hid six British officers until a boat could be sent for them. The caïque landed in a village north of Izmir, and Rees came with two Rolls-Royces to pick them up.
The caïques also sneaked up to the Greek and Yugoslav coasts to land advisers and supplies for the local guerrillas, both royalist and Communist, organizing to fight the German occupation. By heightening resistance, the Allies convinced the Germans that Greece and the Balkans, rather than Sicily or Italy, were the next Allied objectives in 1943 and thus succeeded in tying down large numbers of enemy troops. Although the British ran these operations, they also brought in
their American partners. By September 1943, there were 257 British and 17 Americans working with the partisans. Between July and September, the U.S. airlift alone brought in 570 tons of materiel, supplemented by an OSS “shipping line” that began carrying 300 tons a week between Italy and the Yugoslav coast.
While these struggles against German occupation were at their height, Istanbul was still a land of plenty .The Greek consulate there held a luncheon whose menu included a luxurious spread of poached eggs in jelly, pâté de foie gras, fillet of fish with rice pilaf and a fine sauce of mussels and mushrooms, breast of wild duck with french fried potatoes, green salad, fruit mold with whipped cream, fresh fruit, and candies. All this was accompanied by wine and followed by coffee and liqueurs. “Everything was wonderful but I didn’t like it,” U.S. Consul General Burton Berry wrote his mother. “I thought of the poor people of Greece….In wartime all that luxury was out of place….How magnificent it would be if the representatives of governments were as fine as the spirit of the people they supposedly represent!”
Life was considerably more spartan at the OSS’s secret bases set up and supervised by Caskey, whose command center was an office at the U.S. consulate in Izmir. His caïques transported, supplied, and collected the intelligence gathered from seventy-five agents in occupied Greece. The main base, code-named “Boston,” was in the little town of Rasadia, 50 miles northwest of Izmir. The wind blew endlessly and sometimes reached hurricane strength, but it was a good location for the boats to anchor between missions. The barracks was an old concrete-floored stone warehouse that formerly housed an olive-oil press. It was now inhabited by ten Americans, fifty Greeks, and long-tailed rats the size of cats. An olive-oil distillery next door emitted an overwhelming smell. The OSS radio antennae, strung inside the building to keep them hidden, kept in touch with OSS-Cairo and agents behind German lines. The equipment was also used for a clandestine radio station for broadcasts to Greece; the commentators included a “reformed Greek collaborationist” (really a Greek-American sergeant), news in Greek for the underground, and news in German that was broadcast just after Berlin’s own program to rebut its claims.
The other base, “Key West,” was in the beautiful fishing town of Kusadasi. Its radio was kept in a four-room stone house overlooking the
sea and the German-occupied island of Samos 3 miles away. The operator sat in an upstairs room facing the Aegean; the first floor office belonged to Turkish Emniyet and Customs officers, providing a perfect cover.
Events in Italy set off the largest Allied military operation in the Aegean. A coup overthrew Mussolini, and the new regime surrendered to the Allies and then declared war on Germany. If the Italian troops who garrisoned many of the Greek islands could be persuaded to turn them over to British forces, the eastern Aegean would be liberated before the Germans reacted.
The day the Italian government proclaimed an armistice, September 8, 1943, two British officers parachuted into Rhodes, the main base in the area, to seek the Italian army’s cooperation. But the Germans were already there, and 36,000 Italians allowed themselves to be disarmed by 6000 Germans.
British forces were still able to occupy three smaller islands in sight of the Turkish coast: Samos; Leros, with its Italian naval base; and Cos, where there was an airfield. The Italian garrisons gave up or changed sides; the 100,000 Greek residents welcomed the liberators. At Kusadasi, facing Samos, the British set up a secret supply dump with Turkish connivance. Labeled as food for the islands’ civilians, military equipment poured in by railroad from Syria and by caïques, planes, and destroyers from Alexandria; submarines operating out of Beirut or Haifa took supplies, troops, and artillery directly to the islands.
The Germans struck back with dive-bombers from Rhodes and the Greek mainland. British soldiers watched in frustration as the German bombers stayed out of range of their underpowered anti-aircraft guns, while the captured Italian ones were too rusty to be effective. Two British destroyers were sunk near Leros. Turkey allowed British wounded to be evacuated to the resort town of Bodrum; doctors at Izmir’s French hospital performed emergency operations. During the last week of September, the Germans bombed the Cos airfield daily. Engineers desperately filled in the craters. As soon as they were repaired, a new raid knocked the runways out of action again. Working at night, however, the engineers rebuilt the dirt airstrips.
On the night of October 2, cargo planes were able to land with supplies for the first time in five days. Nine Spitfire fighter planes were
parked nearby, their pilots sleeping beside the office trailer. At 5 a.m. the next morning, German commandos sneaked up the beach to the airfield and began knifing the sentries. Hearing their cries, other guards started firing before being wiped out. The pilots scrambled from their sleeping bags and ran into town raising the alarm. As the sun rose a few minutes later, the drone of planes could be heard. German Junker-88s flew placidly in over the sea with navigation lights on, knowing they would face no defending fighters. They first bombed the British telephone exchange located in a small stone cottage, knocking out communications on the island.
Captain M. W. Hollum of the Second Light Anti-Aircraft Battery was already awake nearby, trying to call the shattered switchboard. Around 6:30 a.m., one of the escaped pilots told him the Germans were landing. Hollum prepared his six guns dug in next to a resort hotel while the battery commander went to headquarters to find out what was happening. He roared off on his motorcycle and did not return. The Germans had already cut the road.
Now in charge, Hollum inspected the guns and found them short of ammunition. But the road to the supply dump was unpassable, pockmarked with bomb craters and blocked by uprooted trees. German planes attacked the town, the transport ships in the harbor, and the infantry positions. Hollum’s men shot down a Stuka dive-bomber, which trailed smoke as it fell into the sparkling blue Aegean.
At 10:30, fifteen Stukas appeared and circled for a half hour, pinning down the defenders. German troops arrived on the western end of Cos and advanced eastward. When stopped momentarily by a British strongpoint, they fired a white flare signaling the Stukas to blast it. As the Germans approached, the British commander ordered Hollum to sabotage his guns by throwing their breeches into the sea and to deploy his men as infantry. The British hoped to hold the town and harbor until dark so that reinforcements could be landed.
As night fell and the firing died down, the British were stretched thin across the width of the island. The Durham Light Infantry still maintained its line from the north coast to the main road, with the Royal Air Force regiment in the center and the Italians on the south. The British commander checked the Italian troops and found that only 100 out of the 4000 soldiers were willing to fight. It was clear that the
Germans would quickly break through in the morning. Reluctantly, he ordered everyone to take to the hills and try to escape.
At 1 a.m. the British, already exhausted from a day of fighting with nothing to eat and little to drink, split into small parties and moved off. Half of Hollum’s soldiers became lost and he had only about thirty-seven men left. By dawn, his group found a deep ravine with a freshwater spring where they hid all day Monday and Tuesday watching German seaplanes bringing more enemy troops.
The next afternoon, Hollum went off looking for the British commander. He saw lines of Italian prisoners being marched off by the Germans, was fed by Greek peasants, became lost, wandered into an enemy camp, and arrived back just in time to see his men being rounded up by a German patrol. The Germans ordered him to halt and opened fire as he ran away. Hollum then joined a group of British soldiers marching west to the coast. They hid in a wadi near the beach while, 50 yards away, Germans swam off the deck of a patrol boat.
By October 10, Hollum was left with three men. He and a Greek Cypriot private climbed to the top of a mountain to get food and news from the peasants there. One farmer gave them cigarettes and said there was someone who wished to meet them. He led them to a Greek squatting among the rocks who produced a message addressed “To all British personnel still at large on Cos.” It stated that the bearer was risking his life to evacuate as many soldiers as possible and that his instructions should be obeyed to the letter. At the bottom was a smudged rubber stamp. The last sentence said, “If this is shown to you after 11 October 1943 you must treat it with the utmost suspicion and reserve.” This last statement convinced Hollum that the message was genuine, although by that point he was so desperate that he would have seized any opportunity.
The Greek introduced himself as Georges Samarkos, a civilian radio operator in Bodrum who had volunteered to carry out this dangerous rescue mission for the British knowing the Germans would shoot him without hesitation if he was captured. Samarkos told Hollum to light a small fire on the shore at midnight to signal in a rescue boat. Meanwhile, Samarkos would visit shepherds to ask their help in rounding up more soldiers. He gave Hollum a note for the ship captain, “Milton.” If Samarkos was not at the rendezvous, the British were to tell Milton to return there the following night.
Hollum and his companions moved down to the beach and lit the fire. There was a full moon. After an hour, he looked through his binoculars and saw the white wake of a ship coming from the Turkish coast. “It almost seemed like a miracle–almost too good to be true. We doused the fire and ran down to the beach. The caïque came in as near as it could, and then one man put off in the dinghy and rowed toward us.”
The nervous sailor in the dinghy called out, “Georges!” The private replied in Greek, “He isn’t here but he told us to meet Milton.” Satisfied, the man picked them up and rowed them to his boat. Three Greek crewmen wearing steel helmets pointed submachine guns at Hollum and the others until persuaded they were British. Then they were taken below to meet Captain Milton as the ship sped toward Turkey.
Milton was one of the most daring and successful Greek caïque captains. He undertook many missions through German-controlled waters and harbors without mishap. The British awarded him two medals, but he told a friend that he would have preferred more money. Captain Milton asked for the soldiers’ revolvers, which otherwise the Turks would take, and gave the men a letter signed by the British consul at Bodrum. On reaching Turkey, the letter explained, they would be put ashore outside town and must walk in, claiming to have come in their own rowboat, which they abandoned on the beach. There must be no connection between them and Milton’s caïque. During the stormy four-hour trip back to Turkey, however, the caïque’s dinghy–tied to its stem–sank and had to be cut adrift, necessitating a change in plans.
At 5 a.m. the caïque came upon a small uninhabited island in Bodrum Bay. Despite the choppy waves, Milton maneuvered his boat right up against the rocks to allow his passengers to step off. They waited on the isle all day and were beginning to feel abandoned when they heard someone whistling from the sea. A Greek lad was rowing toward them in a dinghy from Bodrum. He came ashore and gave them water, bread, and olives. The young man started a bonfire on the cliff facing the town, explaining that the soldiers should say they built it themselves. Then he jumped back into his boat and vanished into the night.
Soon a Turkish patrol boat chugged over to investigate the fire. The four men introduced themselves as British soldiers. The Turks gave them warm handshakes and took them aboard for the trip to Bodrum. As the ship crossed the bay, Hollum looked back at Cos and saw a
British air attack in progress there. One of the Turks nudged him and, with much winking, signaled that the guests should go down into the cabin and remain hidden.
As soon as the boat tied up, the Turkish captain sent for the British consul, Whittall, who quickly arrived accompanied by a Turkish officer. The two men asked what had happened. As the Turks looked on, Hollum recounted a dramatic and false tale of how they had rowed from Cos, landed on the small island, and fell asleep from exhaustion. They awoke to find their boat had drifted away in the storm. Did they have any guns? Hollum glibly replied that they were taken prisoner and disarmed by the Germans before escaping.
The Turkish officer broke in, “Do you want to be interned or ‘Go South,’” a euphemism for returning to British territory.
“We want to ‘Go South,’” Hollum answered.
Whittall turned to the Turk. “We can easily fix it. You haven’t seen them. I haven’t seen them.” The Turkish officer shrugged his shoulders, laughed, and agreed.
Whittall and the Turk then took the men a few yards down the waterfront to where two British military cargo ships were tied up in the nominally neutral port. The crew gave them a terrific meal, with toasts to the Turkish guest. Later, when they were alone, Whittall brought the men new uniforms and gear and heard the true story. Nine other British soldiers rescued by Samarkos soon joined them.
The British troops were put on a caïque which sailed all night. At dawn the next morning it put in at a small bay where caïques and over twenty dinghies were drawn up to appear like innocent local fishing vessels. There was a shack with a radio and a stock of English books and magazines. Two German planes flew low over the bay. If they knew what was going on, there was no way they could intervene in those neutral waters.
Hollum and his party were transferred to a larger caïque carrying a very mixed party of passengers including an Italian colonel, his orderly, an Italian navy officer just escaped from Athens, two Nazi agents captured in Turkey, a man who had been a British agent but who had double-crossed them and was now under arrest, and a young German Communist deserter. They set off that evening for Cyprus. The caïque passed four unidentified warships, scrambled back to hug the coast for
safety, and then headed straight for Cyprus, where Hollum rejoined his unit.
Although Britain’s Aegean offensive was a military failure it did have the benefit of making the Germans expect a full-scale invasion of Greece. To counter such a move, Berlin sent there dozens of planes, ships, and regiments from the Russian front, Italy, and France. British planes and warships, guided by code breakers, inflicted heavy losses on German convoys. So efficient was this surveillance system that the British were able to attack German cargo ships in the few minutes before their armed convoys arrived. In November 1943 alone, Allied forces sank 23 percent of the German ships in the Aegean.
But having lost Cos and its airfield, British forces on the other captured islands could not hold out long. A caïque armada left Turkey on the evening of November 19 and brought back the British and Greek garrisons from Samos, about 1500 Greek civilians, and over 3000 Italian troops. Two thousand more Greeks crossed in their own boats. Rescue parties continued landing on the islands even after the Germans occupied them. In the following weeks, they saved 714 British soldiers, Greek civilians, and Jewish refugees from Leros and elsewhere.
During the evacuation, one of their first missions, the OSS’s caïques provided extensive help. The British commander commended Captain Caskey and his thirty-six caïque fleet for having “rendered most excellent service” in the Samos evacuation. The achievement was all the more impressive given the fact that few of the caïques were faster than the ships of Odysseus. They had to make 300-mile runs on converted tank motors whose top speed was only six knots. Missions that might have been performed in a single night took up to ten days. Supplies from Cairo came late. An order for sail-cloth made in October 1943 took ten months to arrive. Nonetheless, the caïques kept sailing between the Rema Bay and Kusadasi bases, Cyprus, Alexandria, and occupied Greece.
The Greek crews were loyal, daring, and, as an OSS report affectionately described them, “masters of smuggling, thievery and goldbricking.” No American boat was lost through enemy action, though one was accidentally sunk by a British torpedo boat, another ran aground after being abandoned by its crew during a wild Christmas party, and a third disappeared under circumstances giving rise to rumors of desertion.
Although an American officer generally accompanied each mission, the OSS Maritime Unit was quick to explain that it had no one aboard on those three occasions.
The Allied operations also benefited by knowing, from broken German coded messages, that Hitler repeatedly vetoed any proposed attacks on Allied warships in Turkish waters. The Germans did, however, escalate protests to the Turkish government. In turn, Ankara complained that the British and Americans were going too far. One British caïque, for example, captured a German military boat carrying supplies and reinforcements to Cos and towed it to Bodrum. Thus, the British and the OSS issued a new order: ships could not dart from Turkish waters to attack the Germans and run back again within twenty-four hours. Boats must be moved more frequently and dispersed into smaller, better-camouflaged groups. Only anchorages approved by the Turkish government would be used. The British also took out insurance. In Kusadasi, they paid the local Emniyet chief more money than did his own government.
The attempt of the Axis and Allied powers to exploit Turkey’s neutrality in the Aegean produced some bizarre situations. When the open sea became too dangerous for the Germans during the day, they began sailing in Turkey’s territorial waters. It was not unusual for a British and a German ship, both flying false Turkish colors, to pass a few yards from each other. British SOE men sailing down from Izmir on the Turkish ferry could see the faces of German soldiers on the islands they passed. One of them asked that the ship’s radio be switched to the BBC news, which was reporting heavy British air raids and German losses. German and Hungarian passengers objected that this was an unneutral act. The exasperated captain ordered the wireless turned back to safely uncontroversial Turkish music.
In addition to hitting German shipping, rescuing Allied fliers, and delivering agents, the caïques out of Bodrum and Kusadasi also began raiding German installations. On a moonless night in June 1944, a fast motorboat left the Turkish coast with six British marines on board. Their mission was to attack German ships shown by aerial reconnaissance to be anchored by Leros. Each man carried a rubber-encased hacksaw blade hidden in his beret, a silk handkerchief map, gold coins, and rations. A mile and a half off Leros, the marines blackened their
faces and hands, made a final check of their magnetic limpet mines, and pushed their three canoes overboard.
The sea was gentle as the marines paddled into Leros’ bay. A German sentry called out and a searchlight skimmed across the water, but the guard decided he had only imagined hearing something. The two-man crew brought the first canoe alongside three escort ships and attached two delayed-action mines to each. After an hour’s maneuvering, the men put two more mines on a destroyer and then rowed out to a nearby island. The sun was peeking over the horizon, and the two marines hid their canoe in the rocks and laid low all day.
Meanwhile, one of the other crews, quickly sighted by sentries, had to race away. The third team put all its mines on another destroyer. Slowed by a leak, the canoe was still on the open sea at dawn. A Greek fishing boat pulled alongside and provided food and water; the Greeks offered to take the marines back to Bodrum but were scared off by a distant machine-gun volley. The next night, all three canoes met their mother ship and safely reached Turkey at dawn to a great reception: the three escort boats had blown up and sunk; the two destroyers had been knocked out of action.
The OSS, however, was unwilling to use the caïques for saving Jewish refugees. Although Kurt Waldheim, a German army intelligence officer in Greece and Yugoslavia, claimed to be ignorant of nearby atrocities committed during this era, plenty of details about them were reaching Istanbul. In March 1943, the Jewish population of Salonika was deported. Two men, allowed to leave because they had Turkish passports, told the Balkan Reporting Unit’s Greek expert, Homer Davis, of the crowded cattle cars, the deliberate starvation, and the victims’ probable fate. In April 1944, mass deportations began from Athens. SS officers refused to let the Jews take food. A workman at the railroad station commented, “I am a German but I can’t stand this.”
Davis asked if the OSS could help Jews who escaped or were in hiding. Caskey said it could do so only if the Turkish government agreed to accept the refugees. Davis sent the State Department in Washington a strong cable requesting action. Nothing happened due to bureaucratic inertia.
The caïques coming back to Turkey empty were going out to Greece and Yugoslavia loaded with military supplies. Throughout 1943 and
1944, partisans in those two countries, helped with aid and advisers from the SOE and OSS, became stronger. Refugee and intelligence reports recorded their successes in destroying bridges, sabotaging railroads, and ambushing German troops. More somber news also filtered out about German reprisals against civilian hostages. Communist and non-Communist partisans competed in seeking Allied support and sometimes fought each other. While suspicious of the Communists’ postwar intentions, the British and Americans chose, as Donovan ordered, to “show preference among resistance groups or prospective successor governments only on a basis of their willingness to cooperate [in fighting the Germans] and without regard to their ideological differences or political programs.”
OSS conducted many missions into occupied Europe to aid partisans, gather intelligence, and evacuate downed U.S. airmen. Operation Featherbed provides examples of their problems and achievements. British agents notified the OSS that American airmen from three B-24s shot down over Greece were being moved by partisans to a British secret airfield, code-named “Featherbed,” behind the German lines. Meanwhile, Captain Ehrgott, one of the OSS military advisers who was working with a Greek guerrilla cavalry unit nearby, made an urgent appeal for vital supplies. The OSS decided to conduct a combined supply-and-rescue mission and borrowed from the air force a DC-3 transport plane which was loaded with 4800 pounds of equipment. The OSS was withholding weapons for the time being, however, because the Greek guerrilla factions were fighting among themselves.
When the OSS found that a British rescue flight was about to be sent, it was determined to arrive first. Lieutenant Colonel Paul West, chief operations officer for OSS-Middle East, reported, “I had no intention of allowing the British to land first and pick up our American airmen.” The DC-3 took off just after midnight on October 21, 1943, for the four-hour flight. After landing on a makeshift runway marked with flares, the plane taxied immediately to a takeoff position at the end of the field in case of German attack. Guerrillas ran up and unloaded the plane within ten minutes, but the DC-3 was bogged down in the heavy mud. There were only enough camouflage nets to cover one wing, and the rest of the plane had to be hidden with branches. The work was finished just as the sun was rising.
West, met by Captain Ehrgott, went to a deserted summer resort about 8 miles away where he found the American airmen underclothed and hungry, shivering in the damp, forty-degree coolness, sleeping on straw scattered about the stone floor. After reassuring the Americans, West and Ehrgott inspected the cavalry regiment Ehrgott was advising and met with the Greek Communist guerrilla leader, General Serafis. Even the Communists were eager to convince their people that they had American support. “I am certain,” West reported, “the General will endeavor to construe [my visit] to indicate…backing of his cause by the United States.” He told Serafis that Ehrgott could not take command of a unit: he was there only as an adviser. West noticed that the cavalry standards consisted of the emblem of ELAS (the Communist front) together with an American flag. West explained that this was out of the question. “We cannot…be affiliated in any way with any political organization.”
The general then gave the Americans a list of equipment he wanted: uniforms and boots, antitank weapons, automatic rifles with armor-piercing ammunition, mortars, and machine guns. West explained that the British had banned sending arms and ammunition until political differences between warring factions were settled. The Allies were not going to fly arms and ammunition to Greece for use in an internal civil war while the country was occupied by the Germans.
In addition to separating politics from warfare, the OSS had to separate rumor from fact. Shortly after meeting with the Greek general, West was told by an OSS captain that 2000 Italian troops recently disarmed by ELAS had been robbed of their clothing and were hungry. West reported: “An hour later, however, they began arriving, seemed quite cheerful, and were in reasonably good shape….It is true that they had not eaten that day but neither had we. And it is equally true that they had but one meal a day before, which also applied to us Americans.” West continued: “I talked with some of the Italian officers, who…expressed some fears of possible rough treatment at the hands of the Greek guerrillas. I asked the Italian Colonel if his fears could possibly be based on the fact that the Italian troops had completely destroyed by fire some 20 Greek villages in the vicinity, and he agreed that this might have something to do with it. That night the rumor came through the camp that four Italians had been killed by Greeks
and were being placed on poles outside the camp….Another check, however, indicated that they hadn’t been killed outside the camp…. A third check indicated that they weren’t killed at all…but had died of malaria. Peace reigned again in our camp.”
On October 23, the guerrillas and British engineer officers anchored two chain pulleys which pulled the plane’s wheels out of the mud and up a makeshift track to firm ground. West held a meeting of the local partisan leaders to thank them. “They replied, and I think quite genuinely, that they could never do enough to aid Americans who were fighting for their cause in Greece.” The plane took off a few hours later with its ten rescued airmen and safely returned them to Cairo.
West reviewed the mission’s accomplishments: “The plane had been flown into an [airfield] 10 miles from the local German headquarters…unarmed and unescorted over at least four large German airdromes….German reconnaissance planes must have finally pierced our makeshift camouflage for, three hours after our take-off…a flight of Ju-88s and Me-109s bombed and machine-gunned Featherbed.”
As valuable as the caïque and partisan operations were, the OSS’s main job in Istanbul was to gather intelligence. Shortly after arriving, Lanning Macfarland, the head of OSS in Turkey, linked up with a remarkable network of agents that extended throughout the Balkans. In addition to supplying much valuable intelligence, this spy chain seemed able to help secure the surrender of Hungary. This operation, whose agents were all named after flowers, would be, at first, Macfarland’s greatest success and then his ruinous debacle.