By Les Hooper
1948. Salonika, Greece. Two deserters from the Durham Light Infantry on the loose who turned armed robbers. They boldly entered army camps and stole at gun point, often jeeps which were easily disposed of in Greece’s second city. As the robbers wore battledress sentries were easily fooled until it was too late. No one seemed too concerned over the two men.
Creepy Crowley, the OC of 4th (British) Infantry Division Provost Company, shrugged and said casually, ‘They’ll trip up one day and then we’ll crush them.’ A Parachute Regiment captain, his understanding of military police work matched that of Rufus, his pet Alsatian dog, whose main pursuit in life was chasing cats. The captain genuinely believed he was a hands-on leader, a Messiah who flung a blanket of help and protection around his men. Highly praiseworthy motives but it never dawned on him that his clumsy mollycoddling actually achieved the opposite effect, for we considered his intrusions impractical and tried to keep him in the dark as far as was possible.
Most wartime veterans of the unit had departed for home on demob, leaving it sorely depleted of competent NCOs. A young sergeant was acting RSM and Investigations were run by a 19-year-old corporal on his own. That was me, and my shoulders also bowed under the weight of SIB tasks for, attached to 96 Section, I proudly held the fort for the SIB.
The lone SIB sergeant in Salonika had been temporarily called back to HQ in Athens. I got the job because I collared a market stall owner for flogging army gear. It was a piece of cake. All army property carried the unmistakable broad WD (War Department) arrow. Creepy said I had flair for enquiries. Who was I to dispute his judgement?
I was no whiz kid. Like a few other experiences of life, I was still a virgin at the investigations lark. I had yet to acquire those special idiosyncrasies such as instincts, gut feelings and educated guesses that top investigators possessed and knew how to interpret and employ to immense advantage.
I was very cosy with a Greek CID sergeant called Anton. He spoke good English. His main sleaze was consuming free wine and food in a small taverna just round the corner from the commandeered hotel where the Company was billeted. He and I enjoyed many liaison meetings over glasses of retzina. Foul stuff but I liked it.
I told him how anxious I was to trace the two deserters and he promised to keep his radar on full volume to pick up any helpful signals. It wasn’t long before he got a blip on his screen.
1040 a.m. Tuesday, June 3. I strolled into the taverna and spied Anton sitting at a corner table. He looked like the cat that had caught the canary and waved me over. I pulled out a chair and joined him.
‘Okay, why the smug look? Don’t tell me you shot a bandit last night?’
Bandit was the iconic reference to a member of the communist resistance up in the hills fighting a bloody civil war which was tearing the country apart. Shooting supporters in the city earned policemen Brownie points.
‘No,’ Anton replied curtly, ‘I’ve got one of your deserters.’ I bolted upright.
‘You have? Where is he?’ He smirked.
’He’s not exactly stashed in my pocket, but I know where he’s staying.’ My heart flipped. I wondered if Anton noticed my head swelling.
‘Don’t keep me in suspense,’ I demanded. He grinned.
Aetos, the fat waiter, brought over a plate of cheese squares. Anton nibbled a chunk. ‘He is, I think you say, holed up – yes, holed up in a scruffy hotel off Lazaridis Street.’
‘How d’you know that?’
He gave me an old fashioned look which rebuked me for doubting his word and proceeded to sketch an outline of residential laws. What he explained boiled down to one perspective for me, the news that all hotels supplied the police of with guest lists each day.
Watson, one of the wanted men, had booked into the Zeus in the old district of Anopoli the previous night.
My stomach knotted. My brain was racing. I couldn’t believe my luck. I didn’t go quite as far as dreaming of King George pinning medal on me at Buckingham Palace but I saw a huge feather waving in my cap if I could pull it off and arrest Watson. There was one important question first.
‘Is he still staying there?’ The withering glance from Anton could crack an Acropolis statue.
‘I forgot to consult my ouija board at breakfast. How the hell do I know?’ he snapped. His hard face softened. He knew I was green. ‘You can check it out yourself.’
Being an optimist who would bet his last shilling on a Derby outsider, I decided to go for broke and run the show myself. Besides a raw investigator, I was also young and brash. Captain Crowley could whistle. If he learnt I had acted on my own initiative and misled him he would roast me on a spit. But I didn’t intend to share the glory.
Should he discover my underhand ploy, I would take the sting out of my dereliction by informing him that I picked up the griff about Watson too late to pass it on before taking action. In his world no one dare lie to him.
1130 a.m. I bade farewell to Anton and walked back to HQ to prepare my strategy. A shoe-shine boy squatted next to the wall of the hotel so I got his brushes working. I wanted to look smart for the biggest episode in my life so far. I didn’t pay him. He was only allowed the prime spot if he gave MPs free shines.
Planning! What did I know about such sophisticated matters? Round up a few of the lads, swear them to secrecy, and raid the Zeus hotel. Simple.
Lance corporal Matelot Pointon stretched out on his bed, head buried in a Hank Janson novel. The lurid cover bore a picture of a half-dressed girl with a gun in her stocking top. It was the nearest thing to porn in those days. I stood over him.
‘Pleased to see you’re studying culture.’
He mouthed a rude word and followed it with, ‘What are you up to now?’
I enlisted him without preamble and he jumped at the chance to join the venture. He had spent a few years in the merchant navy, hence the Matelot nickname, and had been round the block a couple of times. Besides which he was a good friend and roommate. I couldn’t think of anyone better qualified to watch my back.
I next recruited Razor Wilkinson, the vice NCO, because he drove a boxed-in 15cwt Fordson, needed to transport the prisoner. I also enjoyed full use of the SIB jeep while the sergeant was absent.
I persuaded two others to join us. Corporal Ken Keighly, the transport NCO and loudest voice singing round the bar and George Mason, a tough lance corporal who loved a scrap.
From the close-knit nature of a provost unit I knew these four colleagues could be trusted to support me although there was one more person needed. Nico, the interpreter. I spoke Greek like a Mongolian half-wit. Thankfully Nico saw it as an adventure, agreed to come along for the ride and promised to keep his mouth shut.
Of course, the question remained whether Watson was still in the Zeus. I decided not to make preliminary enquiries there just in case wind of my interest flushed the quarry prematurely. If he was there that night, well and good. If not, hard cheese.
I arranged a briefing at my favourite taverna. Civvies was the dress of the day; we wore slacks and open-necked shirts in the warm climate. We each carried a personal .38 pistol. Heavy, cumbersome weapons, they were American six-shooters invented in the latter part of the19th century and issued to the British army from almost that time. Ammunition was supposed to be rationed but we all had spare rounds running out of our ears.
11 p.m. Me and my fellow conspirators huddled round a table tipping Dutch courage down our throats. We were so keyed up that I ordered ouzo and told the fat waiter to put it on Anton’s tab. Fiery stuff but works wonders for serenity of mind. We were just young and stupid anyway and looked forward to the mission, although with fluttering hearts, like kids on a mystery coach trip. I decided to strike at midnight, the curfew hour. Watson wouldn’t risk being seen on the deserted streets after then.
I ran through intended action in my mind and a niggle told me I’d missed something vital. I couldn’t think what it could be. Perhaps it was just my nerves playing up but I couldn’t shake off the feeling.
1145 p.m. The chatter stopped and we spilled out of the taverna into the transport. Matelot and Nico rode with me in the jeep, the others with Razor. As we drove along the bleak streets I realised that someone had got the script wrong. A velvet sky dripped stars and a three-quarter moon cast a silvery glaze across the bleak rooftops. Considering our errand, rain should have been lashing down from leaden clouds as lightning flashed and thunder rolled while the wind howled like a banshee.
My destiny would be decreed that balmy summer night.
A Greek army convoy passed travelling north. The trucks were packed with silent troops on their way to join the savage fighting in the mountains. I felt an unexpected pang of guilt. Many of the poor buggers would soon be joining the long train of returning coffins.
Where I was heading was a vicar’s garden party compared with their fate.
1155 p.m. We parked 20 yards from the Zeus on Lazaridis Street. The place loooked dead. I shuddered involuntarily. I tried to appear casual and failed. My left eyelid twitched. The fear that I had overlooked a point still nagged me.
The squalid hotel squeezed slap-bang in the centre of a dilapitated terrace of shabby slums, which included a couple of tawdry tavernas and a flea-pit cinema. I assumed there was no rear entrance. And fire escapes had yet to be invented for Greek hotels.
Razor and Ken remained with the vehicles and the rest of us slipped into the cramped, gloomy vestibule of the Zeus. Paint peeled off the walls. A small man with an enormous black moustache nodded sleepily in a chair behind a scarred desk. The register lay open in front of him. Nico flicked the pages and stabbed a finger at an entry. The only word I understood was “Watson” and my heart stepped up a notch. Moustachio slept on.
‘’Room 13,’ Nico whispered. ‘Top floor.’
Why is it that whenever you visit a hotel the person you wish to see always occupies a room on a high floor? I hoped No13 wasn’t unlucky.
I told Nico to stay in the lobby with George, whose task was to block Watson should he escape down the stairs. George rubbed his large hands with glee. The sod was hoping Watson dodged me. Should he evade George there remained the back-up of Ken and Razor outside.
I crept up the narrow uncarpetted, creaking stairway with Matelot breathing down my neck. I don’t know why I crept. Other residents used the stairs so Watson shouldn’t be alarmed by the sound of footsteps.
Now my heart was slamming into my ribs like a steam hammer. I glanced at Matelot. His face looked pale in the weak naked light bulb on the top landing. His eyes were wide, unblinking. I derived a glimmer of amusement from his wild appearance, for it meant my loose bowels had company. Then I realised I had nothing to fear; I was just 19 and naturally immortal.
0010 a.m. We stood shoulder to shoulder outside No.13. Adrenalin coursed madly through my veins. I gripped my pistol until my knuckles gleamed white. Cliché time. The moment of truth. Sort the men from the boys. Watson had no record of physical violence but he carried a gun and only providence knew whether he would use it.
The hotel may be shabby but the door, although chipped and scratched, looked strong. I stared at it and what had been badgering my mind became obvious. What a damned fool! We had no means of busting in. I’d have to retrace my steps and get a key from the lobby below. And on the threshold of grabbing Watson, speed could be essential.
Matelot nudged me and pointed a finger. I peered closer and couldn’t believe my eyes. A key poked out of the lock on the outside. Who said there was no God? I gave Matelot a nod and gently turned the knob. The door opened an inch noiselessly. I flung the door wide open and charged in yelling ‘Military police!’.
The only illumination was the yellow light filtering in from the landing. Two figures lay entwined in a narrow bed. One of them sat up and screamed. It was a naked girl, who, even in the pale light, was no Rita Hayworth lookalike.
The other was a blonde-haired man. He was slower on the uptake. By the time he opened his eyes I leapt on top of him. Matelot followed, landing on top of me. The girl scrambled out of bed and stood by the window, still screaming as she tried wrapping a tatty curtain round her skinny body.
I rolled around on the bed and seconds passed before I remembered the gun. I slid a hand under the pillow and pulled out a Smith & Wesson .38 pistol.
‘I’ve got it,’ I cried in triumph.
A contrite voice said, ‘It’s not loaded.’
I lifted my eyes. The blonde man, obviously Watson, also naked, stood alongside the screaming girl. Under me on the bed Matelot struggled. I felt foolish but elated. Matelot laughed and I laughed. Amusement triggered a calm as the tension eased. Momentarily life was wonderful and the world a brighter and better place. I swiftly came back to earth. Watson wore a face of stone and the girl screamed.
Watson, disconsolate, dressed and we escorted him downstairs in handcuffs. The tart remained in the room, still screaming. Moustachio rubbed his eyes and looked bewildered. George cracked his knuckles with disappointment.
2.30 a.m. All was shipshape and Bristol fashion, as Matelot observed. Watson had little choice but to open his soul and spill everything, not that much hope abounded of recovering any of the stolen goods or jeeps. He swore he didn’t know the whereabouts of his fellow robber, Rifleman Mullins. They had fallen out over a girl. I wondered if he meant the screaming scrubber. There’s no accounting for tastes.
As the cell door clanged shut, Watson gave me a quizzical glance between the bars.
‘You want something?’ I inquired.
‘Tell me, ’ he ventured, ‘If I tried to escape would you have shot me back there?’
My eyes were slits.‘You’ll never know,’ I said evilly. ‘You’ll never know. . . .’
Good God! I sounded like Humphrey Bogart.
Author’s note: I believe that this escapade so early in my career sparked my future in the Branch and I recounted it with a great deal of pleasure.