Captain Conal O’Donnell

Captain Conal O’Donnell’s story is told by his son on BBC’s World War 2 People’s war site, and copyright rests with his son.  Here it is:

“On the night of 19/20th Oct 1943 my father, a Roman Catholic Irishman, Captain Conal O’Donnell Royal Engineers, aged 28, was parachuted into occupied Greece. He was a British Liaison Officer (BLO) with SOE Middle East, known as Force 133. His mission was to discover and construct isolated mountain airstrips which could be used to receive arms supplies for the Greek resistance in the Peloponnese. It was also intended to build landing grounds from which Allied fighter bombers could harry the Germans once the invasion was underway.

However, progress on this vital work was soon swept away as he and his colleagues were caught up in a German operation which led to the massacre of 497 men and boys in the Greek village of Kalavryta on Dec 13th 1943.

The drama unfolded quickly. On October 17 1943 Communist ELAS partisans captured 81 German soldiers from I Battalion 749 Jaeger Regiment of the 117th Jaeger Division near Kalavryta. The men were not first-rate troops, but should have been able to shoot their way out of the ambush on a mountain track near the villages of Kerpini and Rogoi. Many were Austrians, with a few Alsatians and other conscripts from occupied Europe. The rest were German. The unit was commanded by Hauptmann Johannes Schober.

Four Germans were killed on the spot. Three were taken to hospital at Kalavryta but were later battered to death by the Andartes. The rest were detained at Mazeika south of Kalavryta and treated as prisoners of war until the decision was taken to kill them too. Most were shot dead and some plunged over the cliff near Mazi from the force of the shots. Two German prisoners survived the execution and raised the alarm on the following day 8 December 1943.

The Germans reacted as they always did. Over three thousand troops were deployed in Operation Kalavryta , launched on 4 December from Patras, Aigion and Tripolis, and later from Corinth and Pyrgos. The columns were all aimed at Kalaryta. Their first objective was to draw the andartes into battle and second, to find and free the German prisoners. The German commanders learned of the execution of the prisoners on 8 December and General Karl von Le Suire gave immediate orders for savage reprisals. He himself then flew to Kalavryta to instruct Major Ebersberger, the newly appointed commander of the operation, how to carry out these “atonement measures”. Captain O’Donnell warned personal Greek friends to leave Kalavryta and take to the hills.

In a de- briefing report after the war Capt O’Donnell wrote “I moved to Kalavryta to find a German drive from Patras in full swing. I got to HQ about four hours before the HUN and was made OC of a mule convoy of HQ stores and personnel moving to HELMOS, a mountain about ten hours distant. Here I lay low for twenty days, completely surrounded and with little food.”

As the HQ party – code named ENOCH – retreated the Germans rounded up all males aged twelve and over and marched them out of Kalavryta to a large hollow shaped area of open ground known as Kapi’s Field just beyond the town cemetery. There the Greeks waited thinking they were to be deported. The Germans had already set up concealed machine gun posts. Flares rose up from the village. It was the signal to start killing.

The German machine guns opened up murdering at least 463 men and boys. The women and younger children had been herded into the school. The town was then set on fire. The town’s church clock still stands transfixed at 2.34 marking the time the Germans destroyed Kalavryta. After the war a story arose that a humane soldier opened one of the school doors allowing the women and children to escape. This was untrue: the doors were not locked anyway.

O’Donnell and his party heard the gunfire as they made for Mt Helmos. It was the bloody climax to days of escalating violence. He and other BLOs had witnessed Stukas dive bombing the village of Visoka just to the north of Kalavryta on 29 November. During Operation Kalavryta Mega Spilaio and Agia Lavra monasteries were torched and monks killed.

Signals he managed to get out to SOE HQ in Cairo tell the terse, dreadful story in radio telegraphese. “Kalavryta occupied by Germans burned. Cannot take drop Soudhena as being chased”. And in more detail “Two hundred Germans with mules and artillery collected all fowls, pigs, mules clothing and money found in villages and burned them all except five houses in each…. Guides were forced to bury remains afterwards shot. Population desolate no clothes or houses for winter”.

When the Germans moved off O’Donnell made his way back through Kalavryta and was one of the first British officers on the scene. To his credit he helped one of the few survivors of the mass-execution to reach better shelter in the ruined town, and contacted the Red Cross. He later made himself unpopular with Cairo for demanding relief drops took priority over continued arms supplies. Later in June 1944 he and Major Campbell MC travelled on foot and by mule distributing air dropped British gold sovereigns to devastated communities including Kalavryta.

He never really talked about the massacre apart from remarking that the wailing of the women was “unbearable”. The experience badly affected him. After the war he suffered dreadful nightmares- what might now be called” post-traumatic stress” as did hundreds of thousands of ex-servicemen. Too many to treat, even if the diagnosis had been made. His strong Roman Catholic faith helped him cope with the experience .

In 1978 he returned to Kalavryta with his wife and was generally well received, although he resented the way some Communist sympathisers tried to claim that the British were in some way responsible for the tragedy. He couldn’t bring himself to watch TV footage of later violence in the Balkans in the 1990s. It reminded him too much of wartime Greece. He was also outraged that the UN Secretary General Kurt Waldheim was never held to account for his role as a German staff officer in Greece. A German report on the massacre was intialled by Waldheim. Following O’Donnell’s death in 1996 his family discovered he’d always paid for a Requiem Mass to be said for the people of Kalavryta each Dec 13th.

After Kalavryta he resumed his reconnaissance duties trying to find suitable air strips. It was hard frustrating work tramping the southern Peloponnese together with a radio operator, interpreter and sometimes armed partisan guards. Lake Kaiafa was identified as a suitable sea plane base. “Soundings and measurements were taken and the information passed on, but no ruling given. The local BLO (Major Reid) rather objected to any activities in this area lest it attract the attention of the Germans to a beach close by where he was receiving supplies by sea”.

There were many disappointments like this. Later he recalled the sense of elation and then despair. A possible air strip would be identified and the map references radioed to Cairo. A day or two later he would see the vapour trail of a reconnaissance Spitfire passing over at 30,000ft plus. Then a veto, often he felt an overcautious one. On one occasion Cairo rejected a strip he’d prepared . Days later a German Fiesler Storch spotter plane started operating from it. He signalled Cairo that while it might be unsuitable for the RAF the Luftwaffe were apparently satisfied with his work!

In the often lethal game of cat and mouse in the mountains the Storch had been searching for O’Donnell and his party for some days. Indeed the German officer sent him a message via a Greek intermediary saying :”Tell the English Captain he can have his (expletive !) mountain I am going back to base for a good long hot bath!”

Then there was his arrest by Greek Communist guerrillas. Throughout the war BLOs faced constant intimidation and sometimes death at the hands of ELAS who took British arms supplies but looked to Soviet Russia for inspiration. Ultimately their game plan was to survive the German occupation then armed to the teeth seize power in Greece. O’Donnell in full British uniform was arrested as a “spy”.

He was abducted to a mountain village on horseback. Haughtily and inaccurately he told his captors British officers didn’t walk. He didn’t expect to be killed, except by accident. The Andartes were equipped with Italian army rifles which they waved around in excited fashion often misfiring. The captivity was quite a comfortable one. The village had hot springs. But eventually this palled and one night O’Donnell successfully escaped jumping from the first floor of a room where he’d been locked in.

Escape was not always possible for everyone in the sporadic but brutal war in the hills. O’Donnell encountered a group of ELAS Andartes who had just captured a young German who had somehow lost contact with his unit. The soldier was a good looking blonde haired teenager aged about 18. It was obvious the Andartes meant to kill him. The German met O’Donnell’s gaze pleading for help. He even uttered a few words in English. To add to his dismay O’Donnell realised the boy was also a Roman Catholic and that there was no way the Andartes were going to show mercy. The encounter was cause for a regretful comment years later. So too was the German treatment of a young Greek boy who used to run messages for him. He was captured and tortured, the Germans cut the soles of his feet so he was no longer able to walk.

In early 1944 O’Donnell was joined by Sgt Thompson RE. Together they continued surveying with better results. At Hanipanopoulou they organised local labour to build a strip. O’Donnell reported “Hanipanopoulou Runway 1,000 yards with extension up to 1,200 yards on a bearing of 271 degrees. Surface excellent with good drainage. Approaches and take off unobstructed. Approved for all types of aircraft day and night”. Success at last!

But it had all taken its toll. In his de- brief O’Donnell wrote that after ” four months continuous march, irregular meals and often the lack of them I had scabies, boils, discharging ears and indigestion”. As relations with the Communists continued to deteriorate he and most of the other Peloponnese BLOs were withdrawn on June 22nd 1944. O’Donnell was taken off by submarine.

He was parachuted back into Greece on the night of Sept 19/20th to prepare for the invasion of Greece-Operation Manna – which began in early October. In his de-brief he wrote “I consider myself one of the luckiest of the mission officers as I had a front seat from beginning to end of the liberation of good old Greece, which we all so loved to moan about”.

Basically his role was to parachute into an area, organise local labour to clear existing airfields or construct new strips. Fighter bombers -mainly adapted Spitfires-would then use them as advanced forward bases to attack the retreating Germans. Speed was essential. Sometimes a rudimentary air strip could be prepared in 20 minutes. Methods were crude. Flocks of sheep were driven across airfields mined by the Germans before fleeing.

Accidents were frequent. A terrified horse ran across an airfield straight into the path of a Dakota.The propellers chewed the frightened animal to death in seconds. On another occasion a formation of Greek RHAF Spitfires-doubtless exhilarated at returning home- performed some show off aerobatics before landing. They collided killing the pilots in their moment of victory. The informal crowd watching were stunned.

At Araxos aerodrome he came up against what amounted, he thought, to Communist sabotage. “Requests for labour to villages were not passed on. Victory parades, celebrations, etc, were organised as counter attractions, and I regret to say I was forced to issue a few short sharp orders before I got any noticeable cooperation”. While Araxos was slowly repaired he constructed an alternative air strip from which aircraft provided cover for the Allied convoy into Patras as well as harrying the Germans retreating to Athens. Then after a forty five minute torrential downpour the air field was flooded. By nightfall stranded Spitfires were under four feet of water. There were a few ribald jibes about “The Spits of the Lake”.

As soon as a field was operational the drill was that he’d take his re-packed parachute and drop to a new location either near or behind the retreating German lines and do it all over again. It was a little like leap frog. The next target was Megara airfield just outside Athens. The parachute assault force suffered 25% casualties -most swept to their deaths in the sea after unexpected 35 mph high winds developed. He was lucky to escape. The parachute RE squadron soon had the airfield operational and so O’Donnell pressed onto to Kalamaki-Athens airport-this time hitch-hiking !

A lift in a jeep took him to Kalamaki in two hours where he arrived at 5.15pm on Oct 14th. Ahead, he liked to claim, of Jellicoe and the Second Special Air Service Brigade who were officially credited with being first into Athens. A rudimentary air strip was operational in twenty minutes and Air HQ Greece arrived three days later. A few weeks afterwards Churchill’s Skymaster touched down as the Prime Minister personally arrived to broker a deal to save Greece from the Communists

O’Donnell had done well. “Having reported my activities, I was granted a week’s leave by the AOC, complete with his aircraft to take me where I wished – Excluding the UK!” The leave – as welcome to him as a bravery award – marked the Balkans Air Force appreciation of the efforts of O’Donnell and his colleagues.

From their airfields fighters and medium bombers of the BAF were now constantly harrying the retreating Germans, often catching them as sitting ducks in stationary convoys, sometimes trapped by partisan ambushes; at other times just paralysed in military traffic jams as units fought to get out of the Balkans and back home for a last stand. In all this O’Donnell had some third party revenge at a distance on 117 Jaeger Div who suffered heavy casualties as they pulled out. By 1945 they had lost 6,000 men.

The rest of the war was more of the same A Lysander mission to Salonika to establish an airfield in the north. Then to Crete with a detachment of the RAF regiment where airfields at Kastelli and Iraklion were secured so fighter bombers could attack the German garrison left stranded there. In 1945 he was awarded the MBE (Military Division).

Why should my father’s war be anything more than of interest to his family? For a number of reasons I hope. First the work that he and the other 80 SOE BLOs undertook in uniform did keep the Russians out of Greece and helped defeat a Communist take-over. Europe to-day is a better place because of that.

Second he felt strongly that Kalavryta, and the suffering of the Greeks generally, wasn’t widely enough recognised outside Greece. Discussions about German atrocities always quoted shocking, but very well known instances like Lidice and Oradour-sur-Glane. He felt Kalavryta deserved its place in any pantheon of horror.

Thirdly I hope it emphasises in some way the contribution made by the 50,000 Catholic Irishmen who volunteered to fight even though their country was neutral. My father did not have to fight. Neither did his brother Captain Godfrey O’Donnell, a doctor in the R.A.M.C., who served at the same time as my father in the Western Desert where they were both badly wounded.

Indeed on one occasion in 1941 O’Donnell – serving with 292 field sqdn RE- was blown up while defusing Italian grenades. By pure coincidence as he regained consciousness he found his brother bending over tending to him. At first he thought he was dying, or hallucinating just before death. In fact Godfrey had arrived from the Sudan and came upon him by chance.

Dr O’Donnell wrote to his parents in Gurteen, Sligo:- “Honestly,ye just haven’t the faintest idea how much like a novel my story of meeting Conal is-one day Please God I shall be able to tell ye all about it but the scope of this letter is not enough. I had been camped beside him for 14 days earlier on and didn’t know it and have actually driven THROUGH his camp lines on a few occasions as a short cut to mine and didn’t know it! It’s just incredible but there it is”

Dr Godfrey O’Donnell returned to the UK in poor health only to be sent to Arnhem. Years afterwards he’d visit the Dutch family who sheltered him following the Airborne troops defeat. My father ended the war in bad shape too. A poor parachute landing left him with permanent back pain. An American Dakota crew was responsible. They declined to drop him at the correct altitude for fear of hitting mountains. O’Donnell threatened them with his sidearm and they relented a little. Still he was dropped in the wrong place and badly injured himself on impact. Local women rubbed honey and herbs onto his back but the novel treatment didn’t really work.

Stress and a bad diet also caused a duodenal ulcer – the remedy for which then was drastic surgery. This put paid to his hopes of a regular army career which he so desired. He was disappointed too with the MBE. This was not vanity, but resentment in that he felt as a Southern Irishman he was being fobbed off with the MBE while his contemporaries got DSOs. A DSO would also have improved his chances of getting into the Regulars, or so he believed. Years later his wife, Teddy, wrote to Buckingham Palace asking for the medal. It was presented on the doorstep by the postman.

A successful marriage put him back on track and he resumed his pre-war career in local government. Even so it was not plain sailing. Ever the individualist he found it hard to kow-tow to councillors. As surveyor to a small town in Norfolk he caused outrage by playing golf instead of attending a council meeting. The local paper headlines screamed for an apology but he gave none. Then in 1955 he successfully sued his employers – East Dereham Urban District Council – for libel. Clearly he had rubbed some councillors up the wrong way. But they made the mistake of saying he was incompetent which he most certainly was not. The case attracted national attention-leaders in The Times BBC TV News- for then it was unheard for a public servant to sue a public body. He won large damages and bought a house and constructed a swimming pool. But it was something of a pyrrhric victory. He was unsackable but also unpromotable-a marked man but fireproof too. It suited him fine. The rest of his life he devoted to his family and to his garden.

In many ways his death was organised as if it was his last mission. He declined surgery which may have prolonged his life. “I’m not a piece of meat “he told his doctor. Then his best friend , Sir Ralph Howell, the former MP for North Norfolk and an ex RAF bomber airman, was summoned for a last bedside Bells Whisky. The priest followed. He gave the Last Rites. When he offered to call again my father replied “No more priests!”. Then he fell asleep with the ease all ex-servicemen seem to develop-the nap between the action. Only this time there wasn’t going to be any more action. He died in the early hours of September 3rd 1996 aged 81. Christos Anesti !