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15 October 2014
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Keyman - A Somewhat Soldier (Part 3)icon for Recommended story

by Austin_DeAth

Contributed by 
People in story: 
Austin William Woodford DeAth
Location of story: 
Dorset, South Wales, South Africa, Egypt, Palestine, Albania, Italy, Greece
Background to story: 
Article ID: 
Contributed on: 
19 March 2005

At long last we were informed that the pilot could see the lights of a town. This was the town of Korca in Eastern Albania and was the nearest large town to our drop destination. Our travels were nearly over — and just beginning. With all my other kit I had been issued with a flask of rum (I still have the flask) and thought to boost my courage with a good swig before leaving the plane. Unfortunately; perhaps due to the altitude at which we were flying, I was quite unable to unscrew the top of the flask. I would have to go out cold! As with the Wellington exit from the Halifax was via a circular hole in the floor. When our parachute straps had been attached to a strong point in the plane, the dispatcher removed the hole cover and black night roared by beneath. After we had thrown out bundles of leaflets, the first two men were seated facing each other on opposite sides of the hole, feet down the hole. Normal jump procedure obtained, red warning light, green go light. The dispatcher headphones on waited for his signal. It came. Raised arm brought down sharply he shouted to be heard above the roar of the engines, “No. 1 GO!, No. 2 GO!”. The plane now did a circuit and the next pair were attached to the strong point and readied facing one another and the same procedure followed. I no longer recall in which order of going I was, whether fourth, fifth or sixth, but I shall never forget oscillating violently beneath my opened parachute and seeing the plane, against a background of starlit sky, flying away.

After the hours long roar of the aircraft everything was beautifully peaceful and quiet.

Now I could see the fires, our aiming mark, in the shape of a letter ‘L’ far below in the valley bottom. I seemed to be drifting away from them. The trouble was that the pilot instead of flying at mountain height along the valley, chose to fly much higher across the peaks. Consequently, we were dropped at a far greater height than was intended. I tried the ploy of spilling some air from my parachute by pulling on the rigging lines. The object was to accelerate my descent and avoid being blown off course; but I got scared that I might collapse the parachute and so desisted. Apart from the marking fires all was pitch black and I was quite surprised to suddenly contact the ground. I was well away from the fires and on the wooded slope of the mountainside.

After I had disengaged myself from my parachute and was pondering on my next move, the decision was taken out of my hands by the arrival of two shadowy figures who turned out to be friendly. They had watched my descent and had at once set off to collect me and escort me down the mountainside to the fires. Happily all bodies (the technical term) had arrived in one piece. Handshakes and congratulations all round! At last I was able to remove the cap from my flask and treat myself to a well deserved, long, swig. So this was Albania! I had also obtained a very quick promotion! At the instant of landing I had immediately become a full corporal.

After a brief supper of fried eggs, bread and champagne in a hut close to the village of Stylle, we were bedded down on the upper floor of one of the houses in the village and there managed to sleep for an hour or two. Next morning Albania was revealed to us. How different was its mountainous scenery and mediaeval-like housing from the dry sandiness of Egypt. The village consisted of a collection of rather primitive farm buildings with no made streets but dusty alleyways between. We were warned not to stare at the women. Albania had been a part of the Ottoman Empire and the peasants still clung to Moslem ways.

Several days passed as it was necessary to organise mule transport to take our belongings to an area which had been assigned to us. The majority of our stuff had landed safely. My radio was soon in working order and I was able to make my first contact with the base station in Egypt. When all was ready our team of three complete with mule train commenced our journey along mountain paths and unmade roads toward the west. Accompanied by Partisan guides, we stopped each night along the way at convenient villages and put up at the houses of local village leaders and given a meal. We had been provided before we left Egypt with a large sum of Marie Theresa gold coins to use for necessary local purchases. Each of us had in addition a small sum, as I recall, ten coins in the event of being inadvertently separated from the others.

When we had travelled a few days during which time I made radio contact, whenever the geography of the country permitted, we arranged for a supply drop to be delivered. These supply drops were always at night. Bearings having been given and acknowledged, a date was agreed. Fires were lit in an agreed pattern and a recognition Morse code signal was to be flashed at the aircraft as soon as it became visible.

The drop was sometimes a hazardous operation: the parachutes fixed to the long steel containers sometimes failed to open so that the container came whistling down and would likely do serious damage if one happened to be in the wrong place. Since the drops were always at night, the possibility of one being in the wrong place was enhanced! The drop provided weapons for the locals and essential supplies and comforts for us.

We, in our travels, encountered various partisan leaders all of whom begged us for arms to fight, they said, the occupying Italian enemy. However, most of the partisan bands were more intent on getting the weapons to use against rival groups.

As we continued on our way westward across the mountains, the news reached us that the Italians had capitulated and that German troops had now moved in to take over. This left the Italians in a really bad way; the local people hated them and refused to feed them; the Germans felt that the Italians had let them down and would have nothing to do with them. They, the Italians, could not get back to Italy and many must have starved to death or been killed for whatever of value they might possess. We, British, could only help on a very limited scale. We supported two Italian officers and a sergeant major who, in return for food, did us whatever service we required of them, including information which we were able to transmit to our base station.

We had, by this time, set up camp on a mountainside near to a level area remote from any roads and suitable for another supply drop. Major Tilman had walked over from his station in the south to request our aid as his radio was out of order. Used to the mountains Tilman probably in his fifties, was able to show locals half his age a clean pair of heels! We had been informed on the radio that a supply drop would come that night, and the officers left to go to the drop field. We had been told to expect some personnel at this drop including a Captain Carless and, no doubt, others. The roar of the four engined Halifax became louder and louder — then a flash lit up the night sky. It had crashed, killing all on board.

Major Tilman left us to return to his area in the south and we moved on. Over another mountain and down to a village close to the main road which we would have to cross on our way westward to the coast. There we lodged in an old mosque. Because of the crash another drop had to be arranged. At last conditions were right and we received a signal giving us the time of arrival. A drop zone had been arranged on a plateau of the mountain above the village. This time the team were led by a Captain Smart.

The plane arrived earlier than we had expected and it was flying low enough to see the St Elmo’s fire effect on the leading wing edge. Whether the altimeter was wrong or whether it was pilot error we would never know, for suddenly the engine noise rose to a scream and then there was another flash in the Albanian night sky. The pilot had suddenly seen the mountain right in front of him and had tried to climb and clear it. Too late. The only whole body was discovered in the broken off tail section. Our leader Major Faure-Field of the Cheshire Regiment was very disillusioned at the waste of British life on behalf of the Albanians who did not appreciate our sacrifice on their behalf. I don’t believe he ever got over it!

With our equipment loaded on mules we crossed the main road at night and started to climb the last range of mountains to the coast. I recall that it took four hours to reach the top of the range and another two hours to reach our destination on the coast. On either side of a narrow valley were two caves. The valley led on down steeply to a little bay. We moved into the left hand cave and I set up my radio on the hillside above. I constructed a little table and chair from the local rock and slung my aerial between two small trees which were pointing in, more or less, the right direction. From where I sat I could plainly see the island of Corfu across the water. Many years later my wife and I visited Corfu and I had the reverse view.

When more space for accommodation was required, we other ranks moved across the little valley to the opposite cave. Once I had established radio contact we were kept busy sending and receiving messages, some of which due to atmospheric conditions, took a long time to read. Once received we then set to work decoding the incoming and coding the outgoing signals. It was a very busy period for me. Conditions improved once the base station had moved to enemy free southern Italy.

From southern Italy a boat service was organised. Its object was the carriage of personnel to and fro across the southern end of the Adriatic Sea to Italy. Thus we were able to bring in some Americans to their Office of Strategic Services (OSS) and also to evacuate various persons including a friendly Italian, Generalo Infante, who spoke excellent English and claimed that his daughter was a true blue Cockney, since she had been born within the sound of Bow Bells when he was a military attaché in London. One of our arrivals, one dark night, (of course all arrivals and departures were at night), was the actor Anthony Quayle; a Major.

Our diet either came by air or was locally purchased. For this purpose we were supplied with Marie Theresa gold coins. On one occasion we dined off a very tasty wild boar. For our Christmas dinner a little goat kid was brought in and then slaughtered; one had to eat! Fish was another dish we enjoyed. They were caught by a rather unusual method, explosives were thrown into the water which stunned them. They were then collected as they floated to the surface. Our ‘boss’ Major Faure-Field had had previous experience of this method of fishing, but as he was putting his experience to practice in our little cove, he caught the blast from the bomb as he dived into the water and was badly injured. It was arranged by radio that he had to be evacuated in rather a hurry. Since I now had no boss I too was evacuated shortly afterwards. It was sometime early in 1944.

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