Athens News 2/25/01

"Let him be called Hellene!" The last interview with Professor C.M. Woodhouse
by Andrew Leech (

On Feb 13th, at the age of 83, Christopher Montague Woodhouse died in Oxford. For the last few years he had also been known as Lord Terrington, inheriting the family title in 1998 when his brother died. The funeral was impressive; thousands who either loved him or respected what he had devoted his life to, came to pay their respects. For Greece it was a sad day for no Greek who lived WW2 can forget Chris Woodhouse, the man who co-ordinated the only joint operation between ELAS and EDES (the left and right wing partisan forces) during the war. Though one mustn’t forget that after the war Chris Woodhouse continued to fight other battles: first in the Foreign Office and, second, as Conservative MP for Oxford (where he supported Greek Resistance and spoke widely against the Dictatorship.

His multi-facet personality was remarkable. Not only a man to be reckoned with in War and Politics, but also in Education and in Literature! He held Visiting Professorships at both Nuffield College, Oxford, and King’s College, London and was Chairman of the Council of the Royal Society of Literature, an Honorary Fellow of New College, Oxford and a Corresponding Member of the Academy of Athens.

His many books on Greece include the well-known Apple of Discord (which deals with the War years in Greece, the Resistance and the Civil War), Modern Greece: a Short History, The Struggle for Greece (a biography of Karamanlis) Something Ventured (his autobiography) and the Rise and Fall of the Greek Colonels (“my only comic book,” he confided, chuckling) . In a documentary for the BBC in 1985, Operation Harling, CW explained his role in Greece, and the attack on the Gorgopotamos Bridge was re-enacted by the Greek Army. The last book: Rigas Velestinlis (the pro-martyr of the Greek Revolution was published in Greece.

The last time I saw him, C.W. (or ‘Monty’ as he was known to comrades during the War) welcomed me with a twinkle in his eye, wearing an extremely comfortable dressing gown. A tall man with an aquiline, patrician face and thin, wiry athletic body that belied his age. “You’ll have to speak up,” he cautioned me, though, “I’m getting a little hard of hearing, lately.” 

Born in 1917, CW read Classics at Oxford and first came out to Greece in 1938, arriving on the day Hitler and Stalin signed the notorious non-aggression pact. On the outbreak of war, he returned to Britain to enlist and described to me the long journey back: by boat, train and bus, and the detailed interrogation at the French border regarding troop movements in countries he’d passed through. Then, due to knowledge of Greek he was appointed to the 1st Liaison Mission, which had the goal of consolidating resistance against the Axis in occupied countries, and subsequently transferred to Special Operations Executive. He was assigned to Greece in 1941.

So, one late afternoon in 1942 saw CW starting his second visit to Greece —at the end of a parachute. His job was to seek out the viability of forming resistance units, and setting up a headquarters and operations base under Brigadier Eddie Myers and it was quite a revelation to find that groups of andartes already existed. He managed to contact Zervas, the fat, jovial leader of EDES quite soon, but had to walk over the Pindos Mountains for 17 days before finding Aris Velouchiotis, who commanded the ELAS units in the area.

Greek feelings were generally very positive towards us,” he said. “Even when we were retreating, after the Germans invaded, people would still cheer us. It seemed unimportant whether we were winning, the point was they appreciated we were trying to help; and I soon got into the habit of just walking into a village, introducing myself as a British officer and asking for whoever I wanted to see. Never once was I betrayed.”  He continued with a little story about a trip he made into Athens. “I was feeling very proud of myself, quite sure I looked and smelt completely like a Greek shepherd, and having improved my Greek accent tremendously.  However, when I got off the bus, at Omonia, the driver tapped me on the shoulder and said: “Eh, British, if you haven’t got anywhere to stay, I’ve got a spare room!” which totally deflated my histrionic and linguistic pride.”

Once, when officers were parachuted in, the wind blew them off-course and they landed in Lamia town square, with the Italians racing to grab them before they escaped (everybody had been watching them slowly descend for several minutes). Luckily, the Lamians got there first and quickly shuttled them from one house to the other as a search started, and a game of ‘hide the Brit, or pass the parcel’ ensued for the next few hours, until the new arrivals were smuggled out to Chris’s group.

In 1942, the main German supply route to North Africa was through Greece and it was a matter of great strategic importance that supplies were disrupted for several weeks before El Alamein. Greek roads were so bad they’d wear tank tracks out in less than 50 km; and supplies were always transported by train. It was decided, then, in October, to hit the Gorgopotamos Bridge, a curved structure that would be the most difficult to repair. For days, Myers (an engineer) studied the bridge, planning where to put the charges, while CW had the job of persuading ELAS and EDES to co-operate in a joint attack. Alone, neither group had enough men to overcome the enemy resistance and it was impossible to approach the bridge secretly and mine it. Alas, this would be the only time the two groups would work together. Although both aided the British, neither would work with each other.

On the mountain, looking down onto the bridge, was the large Ghiona cave, where all explosives and andartes were hidden until the attack started. For a whole day the men waited, watching the activity below and putting the finishing touches to the attack plan. The Italians had an armoured train nearby, and one group had to prevent it bringing reinforcements while another engaged the Italians on and under the bridge, and a third set the explosives to the huge bridge supports.

Suddenly, CW recalled, “we had a moment of panic. A local family named Tempelis — but definitely not lazy — used to graze their sheep alongside the bridge supports. And when Grandma Tempeli suddenly appeared on a ledge above and called loudly down to those below. “Get the sheep away from the bridge, the British are going to blow it up tonight,” I was sure the plan was blown. But luck was with us and nobody but the shepherds understood Granny’s words. This matter of security troubled us throughout the War. If one Greek knew, then all knew, so we became resigned to the fact there was no real secrecy, whatsoever. However, since nobody told the enemy, our plans were not generally compromised!”

The bridge was useless for six weeks — one of the main supports completely destroyed and another badly damaged; and it was a further six months before it could support a fully loaded train - well after El Alamein had been won. Then, with the Invasion of Sicily being planned for 1943, it was imperative to make the Germans believe the real landing was meant for Greece and Sicily only a diversion. This meant increasing the level of sabotage in Greece.

The success of Gorgopotamos inspired Myers and CW to plan another attack, this time on the Asopos Bridge, thought unapproachable, having a revolving searchlight that covered the ground around every 30 seconds. The 11 Brits and New Zealanders involved managed to get close by crawling slowly and freezing immobile - trying to look like plants - every time the searchlight passed over them. That bridge, too, was destroyed, prompting the Allies to increase the size of the Greek Mission, with specialists in all kinds of sabotage; even a ‘Propaganda Officer’ - Ian Scott-Gilbert - whose job was to reduce the morale of German troops. CW told me “I didn’t have any great belief in it, as his technique appeared to be standing, or hiding, near the roadside and using a primitive loudhailer to shout slogans or threats at German convoys going past, but it was interesting to watch!”

Only after the War, when German documents were studied, was the degree of success appreciated. Apart from those already in Greece, Hitler ordered other Divisions removed from the Russian Front (and sent to Greece), severely weakening his offensive strength, and troops in Italy were not reinforced. This had the subsequent effect of reducing opposition in Italy, and facilitating the Sicilian landings, while, concurrently, tying up 6 unused Divisions in Greece.

At one time it seemed that Churchill would close down the Greek operation, after Aris Velouchiotis had killed one of the New Zealander officers; and CW made a hazardous journey to persuade him to change his mind. It was when he met his late wife, Davina. On arrival in UK, Anthony Eden asked him to pick ‘someone’ up and bring her down for a weekend at Chequers, the PM’s country house. The ‘someone’ was Davina Lytton, widow of the Earl of Erne.

During the dinner with Churchill, CW made his points for continuing the Greek operation as strongly and eloquently as he could, being supported by others in the Cabinet, even suggesting that the whole team might be killed if they tried to pull out (a bluff on CW’s part, but not impossible) provoking Winston to take him aside and growl in his ear: ”I am most impressed ... and oppressed ... and depressed!” However, he gave the green light to continue the Greek operation.

Our conversation then moved on to his vehement opposition to the Greek Dictatorship in British Parliament and CW told me two amusing stories. First, when he visited the Junta in 1970. Only Pattakos agreed to meet him, the others refusing to discuss with a man totally opposed to the regime. “What I can’t understand, Mr Woodhouse,” Pattakos asked, “is why you seem so bent on us having free elections. What is the necessity of them. The people are quite happy to be governed by us.” And, “strange to say,” continued CW,  “he actually seemed to believe it!

Later, at Oxford, he was asked to describe Pattakos. “Well,” said CW, thinking for a minute, “if you took Mr Agnew (Spiro Agnew was Vice-President under Nixon) and Mr Pattakos and got them to change places, I don’t think anyone would notice the difference!” And the laughter that followed was loudest from American students who obviously knew Agnew better than the British ones.

My final question covered any criticisms he might have of Greece. “The worst trait I can think of is that many Greeks in the political world have been unable to distinguish a real gift horse from the Trojan variety and have missed out on many valuable opportunities. They are just too busy counting the teeth to look at the legs, which saddens me.” 

When one considers that not only was CW imbued with a love for Greece from an early age, but that he then volunteered to return, at 24, to fight alongside Greek resistance fighters; and later devoted his life to Greek Studies and championing Greek rights in politics, this must certainly put him among the cream of Philhellenes. My final thought, on leaving, were the the words of the philosopher Isocrates (4th Cent. BC): “And if a man should partake of our culture, let him be called Hellene!”

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