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Thursday, June 20, 2019

Blowing Up Bridges with the Marines of the OSS (with an Army Air Corps Guy, Too)

A while ago I was watching Harrison Ford and Robert Shaw blow up a bridge to thwart the Nazis in "Force 10 from Navarone" and wondering whether there was any background truth to the story. Some of my interest was that the filming of the picture took place in Montenegro, using Đurđevića Tara Bridge.* The original book was written by Alistair MacLean author of The Guns of Navarone, which was one of my favorite movies when it came out in 1961.
Đurđevića Tara Bridge

More on the Force 10 movie here.

At any rate, the premise of the movie was the need for the heroes of the Guns movie to perform another mission - which somewhere along the way shifted to them needing to destroy a huge dam to wash the bridge away. The plot seems to be unnecessarily complex, but really it's all about blowing things up, so it has that going for it.

My interest being piqued, I did some research on whether the U.S. and its allies sent people into the Balkans to blow up bridges in a clandestine way. The answer is "yes," as it seems a certain group of U.S. Marines were given the task in Greece, which they accomplished under the auspices of the OSS (sort of the daddy of the CIA). The source for what follows is a work titled "Herringbone Cloak--GI Dagger: Marines of the OSS" by Major Robert E. Mattingly, USMC Marine Corps Command and Staff College from 1979 which can be found here. While you might enjoy the whole thing, here's the part I enjoyed:
All the different kinds of leaders were grouping and re-grouping, forming alliances and breaking them up with threats of assassination: the klephts, the primates, the bishops, the islanders, Greeks from abroad, and the British."1 Those words, were written to describe the situation in Greece during the winter of 1821 but could serve equally well--with the inclusion of the Americans--as a synopsis of the same season in 1943.

Greece was then occupied not by the Turks, but rather by Germans, Bulgars, and a few Italians. To make the scene complete, there were competing guerilla forces which owed allegiance to either the non-resident monarch, King George, or the Greek Communist party. British SOE was having great difficulty sorting out exactly who was loyal to whom, under what circumstances, and four what price. When OSS opened its Cairo station in 1943, it stepped squarely into the political dung heap.

Exiled Prime Minister George Papandreou summed up the atmosphere accurately: "The country is an inferno. The Germans are killing. The Bulgarians are killing. The Security Battalions are killing. The guerillas too are killing. Everyone is killing and burning. What is going to be left of our unhappy country.?"2

Several Marines would soon find out.

Captain Gerald F. Else, USMCR, was born in Redfield, South Dakota in July 1908. Else entered the University of Nebraska in 1924, but transferred to Harvard, where he graduated summa cum laude in 1929. A scholar of classical Greek and Latin, Else remained in Cambridge, completing his M.A. in 1932, and receiving his PhD. in 1934. He then took a teaching job in the Department of Greek and Latin, until he was recruited into COI as a civilian.3

By January 143, it was apparent that Greece was a target of increasingly high intelligence priority. Similarly, it was clear that those OSS personnel not in uniform as officers would soon find themselves draftees. Else therefore applied for a direct commission in the Marine Corps Reserve, and OSS endorsed his request with a plea for retention within the intelligence agency.

Although he was over-age and color blind, Else was finally commissioned in August 1943, under Special Program 28-42 and assigned straight back to OSS as a Captain.4

Captain Else continued to work in the Greek Section of SI's Washington headquarters until late summer 1943. Then he shipped out for Egypt via Brazil and Nigeria.

"I was delayed enroute by problems unspecified (I realized later that the reason with the Cairo and Tehran Conferences, which must have produced an acute shortage of air transport) . . . It amuses me to recall that I was originally recruited for OSS because of my known Greek--ancient Greek--and that Knowledge was one of the chief obstacles to learning the modern language which I tried to do after reaching Cairo."5

Else arrived in Cairo during November 1943, and set to work developing a network of agents who could be infiltrated into predetermined target areas.

The biggest problem faced by OSS in the Middle East was not recruitment or training, but rather transportation. Parachute training (usually conducted in British Palestine) was inevitably followed by excruciating delays in aircraft availability. The British, who controlled all air assets for operations in Greece and the Balkans, carefully placed American requests for support at the bottom of the list. "The question of a small air unit under OSS control was unsuccessfully raised. Motor Torpedo boats were requested repeatedly but never arrived. Of all means available, Greek caiques, which usually transported agents in about one and a half months, proved to be the fastest."6

Caiques were small vessels used for fishing or limited cargo hauling. Varying in size from two to eighty tons, these were manned by crews ranging up to six or seven men. Few could make more than 4 knots. Of course, all were virtually defenseless.

Eventually, OSS put together a fleet of 36 such rafts,most of which were leased by British SIS.* The port of Alexandria was the normal "jumping off" spot. From there, the boats usually proceeded to one of several small harbors in Cyprus. Here agents went aboard still smaller caiques which ran into a clandestine base at Kusadasi, Turkey; transferred to even more flimsy (and usually wind-powered) versions; and in these made the final stage of their trip to occupied Greece.7

Merely sailing the Aegean Sea was a tricky business. Although men had been doing it for thousands of years, they had done so by

*SIS was only too glad to help anyone having problems with SOE.

choosing their season and waiting for the weather. The Aegean has no tide, and the winds blow north only during the summer. In the winter, storms come up from any direction, and the shallow bottom makes for dangerous waves. Of course there are hundreds of rocks to run upon as well.8 But the OSS "navy" proved equal to the task, and Else's section put more than 80 agents--primarily Greeks--ashore during 1944.*

Else remained in Cairo until the Fall of that year, serving as assistant to Rodney Young, a former archeologist who had spent years in Greece and soke the language fluently. As the Germans began slowly to retreat northward, OSS set about organizing the usual "capital liberation team." Young was to command with Else as his Executive Officer. On 12 October, they and two other members of the cairo staff flew directly into Athens, arriving there days before the transport rich British could get in. Soon afterward, Young resigned and Captain Else became Commander of the Athens mission.9

Civil war broke out in Greece on 3 December 1944, with the British backing the EDES guerilla army (royalist) against the ELAS (communist) irregulars. OSS personnel termed this "the unpleasantness," and attempted to carry on as neutrals. This was not easy since fighting raged in Athens proper. As one agent put it:

* The Germans mercilessly hounded any team which was unlucky enough to be compromised. The taking of hostages, summary executions, and torture were routine.

"During the first week the combination office-billet was situated a half-block from the front lines. With a British machine gun firing day and night from next door, a Greek military barracks down the street, and ELAS mortar shells falling all about, there were few periods quiet enough to concentrate on long reports."10

In January, Else left Athens for Caserta to head the Greek SI desk for the entire European Theater. Within a month of his arrival, the situation became so befuddled by conflicting State Department directives that he was recalled to Washington. After a short mission to Liberia, he was demobilized in December 1945.

While Captain Else was providing some of the "brains" behind OSS operations in Greece, Gunnery Sergeant (later Warrant Officer) Thomas L. Curtis, USMC, was supplying the brawn.

Curtis, unlike many Marines in OSS, was a career man. Born in Massachusetts, he enlisted in 1935, served in Hawaii until 1939, and was discharged. The next year, Curtis joined up again. Soon, he was hard at work in the Reconnaissance Section of Amphibious Corps, Atlantic, teaching rubber boat handling to members of what became the 1st Raider Battalion.11 When OSS began to become involved in paramilitary training, Curtis was one of the first Marines to be transferred to the new organization. It was not much of a transfer. Headquarters of the Amphibious Corps in those days was at Quantico. So was the OSS training camp.

Sergeant Curtis taught new recruits the fundamentals of clandestine entry, patrolling,submarine exiting procedures, and hand-to-hand combat. He was a big, tough, beefy man, and he knew his trade. In October 1943, now a Gunnery Sergeant, Curtis was tapped for an operational mission.12

Curtis arrived in Cairo after a stop at Oran, Algeria. Immediately, he was made a member of the team being put together for an important sabotage job in German-occupied Greece.

The commander of Curtis' mission was Army Air Corps Major Jim Kellis, an unusual recruit in an unusual outfit. Most men joined OSS based on vague promises of "dangerous work behind enemy lines." Kellis actually proposed his own project to Army G-2 as part of a comprehensive plan for clandestine warfare to be conducted in his ancestral homeland and site of his own college education. This, in brief, is how a Marine Gunnery Sergeant found himself aboard the caique St.John several hundred yards off a swampy area of northeastern Thrace in early May 1944.13

Kellis and two Navy enlisted men were already in Greece, having infiltrated by foot across the Turkish border in December. It was their radio message to the secret base at Kusadasi which initiated the second phase of the EVROS mission. When the St. John cautiously worked her way toward the landing area it was nearly midnight. Everything was quiet, and the beach seemed deserted. But Kellis was waiting.

"One of my guerillas who had contacts in the vicinity had lined up some fishing boats which we needed to get through the swamp, and also to unload the caique, which couldn't come in very close because of the shoal water. The rest of us lay low in the cane . . In gathering the boats, my men were observed by some fishermen. So our presence would not be leaked to the Germans, we took into custody everyone who saw us. By nightfall we had sixty boats and 120 fishermen under guard. That night I rowed out to meet the St. John. The plan was for me to flash an "O" when I saw her, and they would reply with an "M". We had to be pretty careful, for German "E boats" patrolled the areas; moreover there were coastal batteries and searchlights on the hills; and a division and a half of German and Bulgarian troops were stationed at Alexandroupolis, a few miles from our pinpoint. At eleven-thirty I spotted the schooner. She kept moving around slowly, and I was not sure of her identity, having never seen her before. Finally after half an hour, I decided to chance it and flashed by recognition signal. It was returned immediately."14

Quickly, Kellis gave the go-ahead for unloading, and his armada of requisitioned lighters sallied from the swamp. In less than an hour, the entire EVROS team was ashore with Thompsons, grenades, and enough explosives to do the job for which they had been sent. At that moment, several important Greek bridges were doomed.

The EVROS team had been launched into action in accordance not only with Kellis' ideas, but upon formal request of the JCS. German steel production was a concern to the strategic planners and a key ingredient in the process was chrome ore. Much of this came from neutral Turkey. OSS was directed to cut that supply.15 The Research and Analysis branch in Washington had information that most of the ore was carried into Nazi controlled territory by two rail lines. Both of these wound through the eastern mountains of Bulgaria and Greece, crossing several major gorges atop modern bridges. Dropping these would at least partially solve the problem.

Kellis had hoped to blow the huge "International Bridge" which connected Greece and Turkey at the Evros River border. "This was a huge structure and although a difficult operation its destruction would have stopped literally all rail traffic into Greece. The State Department vetoed this plan for fear of Turkish reaction . . .16 Instead, the two spans picked by R&A were targeted.

The first of these was the Alexandroupolis Bridge in Greece, the second Svilengrad Bridge in Bulgaria. Kellis took Svilengrad, along (210 foot) low affair which would require over a thousand pounds of plastic explosive. Curtis drew Alexandroupolis, tottering on fifty foot piers in the center of a deep ravine. This one would need only about 550 pounds of demolitions,since its height would magnify any damage and make repair much more complicated.

There were more than 300 Greek guerillas involved in training for the mission. Of these, 30 were specially selected members of the elite "Black Squad." Only they were told of the exact targets.

Their supplies supplemented by clandestine parachute drops, the team practiced for several weeks before Kellis decided the time was right. On 27 May 1944, both sabotage units moved into positions near their respective targets. Meanwhile, a third unit was sent in the opposite direction and directed to launch diversionary attacks to mask the true purpose of the burgeoning resistance battalion.17

Curtis' group of 50 men (including 15 Black Squad experts) soon determined that their bridge was guarded by a screen of German patrols with thirty Greek policemen actually stationed on both ends of the span. After a hair-=raising near ambush by one German reconnaissance party, all of the raiders managed to slip inside the roving cordon. Below them was the target, codenamed JOLIET. Curtis started down.

Packing a Thompson, two .45s, and an assortment of charges and detonators, Curtis walked straight up to the nearest policeman, shoved his submachine gun into the man's stomach and calmly announced in fractured Greek, "I'm going to blow this bridge and I'll do the same to you if necessary." The Greek and some of his contingent decided instead of resisting to help. The less willing were tied to trees and work proceeded.18

Suddenly, rifle shot began ricocheting off the steel girders. A German patrol had arrived. While the Greek guerilla security element fought a short but savage engagement with the intruders, Curtis hurried witt the charges. When everything was set, he cut the time delay from nine minutes to three and pushed the plunger. Then the greatest middle distance sprint in Greek history got underway.

"The Gunny had done his work well. An explosion shook the wooded hills, and the huge bridge went skyward as one unit, lifting and twisting high in the air. The flame of the exploding charges was visible 20 miles away, and a shower of debris rained down for several minutes after it was over. Hemingway would have gnawed his beard with envy."19

After several brushes with Germans and Bulgarian rushing to the respective scenes of carnage, both attack groups made it safely back to their operating base. Word of the mission's complete success was flashed to Cairo and the goat-skin wine bladders were passed around. It took several months before either bridge could be put back into even a shadow of its former capacity.20

Six weeks later, the EVROS mission was withdrawn from Greece by caique, returning to Egypt through Turkey. Kellis received the Legion of Merit and Curtis the Bronze Star. Both men would later serve with OSS-trained guerillas in China, and both would win the Silver Star there. For his performance in Greece, Gunnery Sergeant Curtis was meritoriously promoted to Warrant Officer.21

Captain Else and Gunny Curtis provide an interesting duet in the libretto of Marines with OSS. One a scholarly organizer, observer, and analyst; the other a burly operator. Curtis retired as a Captain in the early 1960s. Else returned to academia and became Director of theCenter for Coordination of Ancient and Modern Studies at the University of Michigan. He never did fully master modern Greek.
*About the Đurđevića Tara Bridge:
Much of Montenegro, including the Tara Canyon, came under Italian occupation following the German-led invasion of Yugoslavia in April 1941. As the mountainous terrain made it suitable for guerrilla warfare, a partisan uprising occurred in the area. Italian forces took control of the Tara Bridge during an Italian offensive in 1942.

A Yugoslav Partisan raiding party blew up the central arch with the aid of one of the bridge engineers, Lazar Jauković. The attack cut the only feasible crossing over the Tara Canyon halting the Italian advance. When Jauković was eventually captured, however, the Italians executed the engineer.
It was rebuilt in 1946.

This adventure is also featured in Sabotage and Subversion: The SOE and OSS at War
by Ian Dear

The OSS was unusual. But they blew things up!

1 comment:

  1. Anonymous4:16 PM

    Interesting background to Force 10.