Saturday, October 16, 2010


'Epos,' whence the word 'epic' comes, is most often applied to the superhuman efforts of the Greek soldiers who, commencing October 1940, checked the Italian invasion and liberated large swathes of Greek territory in Northern Epirus. Ancillary to this great epic, is that of the brave western allies, mostly British, New Zealand and Australian, who at great personal risk, remained in Greece after the German invasion, to fight the Axis powers and assist the local population.
One of the epics that tends to be forgotten is that of the Assyrian levies, a force originally formed by the British in Mesopotamia, in order to assist their control over Assyrian dominated swathes of northern Iraq, after the first world war. A parachute regiment of these levies fought with distinction in Greece and Northern Epirus, even seeing action in the beginnings of the Greek Civil War, while earlier, other companies of the levies fought with the British in the Battle of Crete.
The Assyrian parachute regiment was originally formed on the 6th January 1942 from volunteers at RAF Habbanyia in Iraq to safe guard against Axis infiltration through the Caucasus.Lectures were given to the regular Levies on the need to establish a parachute company and volunteers were called for. One thousand volunteered for the task and were put through a rigorous selection process. After two weeks of gruelling training the 1,000 volunteers were filtered down to 200. By December 1942, parachute training had commenced from Vickers Valencia's, the only Aircraft available. The Valencia was so outdated and slow that it was nicknamed the "flying Pig" by the RAF.Group Captain Newnham, an experienced parachute instructor recalls his first experience with the Levy paratroopers, in suitably colonial disdainful manner:
"It was interesting to be in the aircraft with these brown skinned descendants of the mighty Assyrian Empires which had faded into the limbo of antiquity hundreds of years before the birth of Christ. Apparently these selected specimens had lost none of their ancestor's courage, for they showed no hesitation at all in leaving the machine. Indeed I learned at a later date that throughout the entire training of the company only one man had been killed as a result of an accident and there had never been an instance of a refusal to jump or a request to be taken off parachuting".
As well as parachuting, the company was also trained in demolition and small arms, akin to a commando unit. After seeing action in Palestine and Italy, the paratroopers were commanded to join a force thatwas to attack and capture the Northern Epirotan town of Agioi Saranda on the 9 October 1944. The commandos and the partisans were to attack from the north and the Levies were to be landed by Infantry Landing and attack from the south and secure point 264, the prominent feature overlooking the town.
On the 9th at 1:30 the company paraded opposite their Landing Crafts and were issued with rum rations. Sergeant Hormis Youkhana recalls:
"The transports dropped us off on a beach. Near the town of Saranda. We stayed there the first day. On the second day my platoon was engaged in ambushes of two German motor transports. On the third day, we bordered boats and made our way to another beach two hours away, behind the German positions. Then the order came to attack. When we attacked, it was uphill all the way. Our Major warned us that we would be under mortar fire. Just as he said, on the way up we were bombarded heavily, but thankfully, no one was hurt. We advanced very fast, we were like mountain goats, we actually crossed the enemy lines. One of the men from the other platoons fell into a German trench. Two men from our platoon were killed that day.
The landing was silent and the visibility was ten yards due to bad weather, it was raining which helped to reduce the chance of being observed and also to muffle the sounds of disembarkation.Thirty minutes into the advance, a German machine gun opened up from the left flank, 1st platoon engaged the machine gun post and overran the position capturing several prisoners. To appreciate the difficulty of that task, one needs to keep in mind the Germans had four years to dig-in and strengthen their defences, and they were literally looking down on the Assyrian platoon that had to approach them from bellow".

It later transpired that the German commander had seen the landing but decided, that his men could have breakfast first and be ready to fight the enemy on full stomachs. Little did he know that the Assyrians, whose abode was the mountains of Iraq where expert mountain climbers and the mountains of Agioi Saranda, presented little difficulty. Setting off at a jog they outstripped their British officers and caught the German garrison who were just finishing breakfast. After a brisk firefight, the Germans surrendered and the Levies settled down to their breakfast. Unfortunately, the Germans were not the only people taken by surprise. The Royal Navy and the RAF had not realized that the mountain was in friendly hands and attacked with naval gunfire and rockets. Khamshi Schlemon Bukko was dispatched with a patrol to contact the Commando and get them to send a message to HQ that the objective had been captured and would they please ask the Navy and the RAF to cease firing. Seeing troops coming from the direction of the enemy, the commandos opened fire. Bukko was hit but had enough strength left to call out "Stop shooting. We are British". His cry, in a Syriac accent, was greeted with derision and another burst of fire. "British are you? Not b...y likely". Eventually the commandos saw their error and ceased firing. Henceforth the Paratroop Company sardonically referred to themselves as experts in combined operations, having been shot up by the Navy, Army and RAF in a single operation.
Having liberated the town, to the jubilation of its Greek inhabitants, the company was next deployed to Greece to take action against the ELAS. Originally requested to guard prisoners, they were next assigned to clearing and occupying several blocks of houses including a church bounded by M. Botsari and Kiriakou Roads in Athens - this being the beginning of the dirt street fighting marking the 'Dekemvriana' the commencement of the Greek Civil War. In doing so, they came under fire by ELAS forces and soldiers were killed on both sides:Benyamin Shlimon, a private at the time recalls the incident:
"It was very dark, we started crossing a road, Lt Peterson was in the lead and followed by Sgt Ismail Nissan, the rest of us waited to be called to cross. As soon as Lt Peterson was halfway across, machineguns opened up from the other side, we pulled back just in time, we pushed hard with our back on a wall, but we could see Lt Peterson he was laying in the middle of the road, he had been hit and wasn't moving, we tried several times to get to him but failed every time, the enemy fire was very heavy."
After being asked to intervene in the Civil War and experiencing discrimination by the British, the Assyrian paratroopers become increasingly disillusioned. As Benyamin Shlimon comments:
"After our experiences in Athens we became very upset about our dead and wounded, we knew the widows would not receive any help from the British and our wounded would be discharged to fend for themselves. The British commando receives much better pay and if he dies his family wouldn't starve, we didn't want the same pay as them but we wanted things to be a little fair, we didn't want our widows to beg for food if we die, after all we were fighting as hard as the commandos and dying just the same, so we made our feelings felt to the British officers and they didn't like it."
It appears that the British were considerably lacking when it came to looking after their colonial troops. Parachute Sergeant Hormis Youkhana describes his experience after being wounded in Albania:
"After I was wounded in Albania I was told by the doctors that I would need two years of physical therapy to heal, but I was discharged after six months medically unfit. I couldn't get a job after that, they wouldn't even have me working in the camp kitchen."
The Assyrian levies, formed with subtle hints given by the British that participation in them would ensure the granting of an Assyrian homeland, and having played a decisive role in putting down the Nazi-aligned Rashid Ali rebellion in 1941, were eventually disbanded after the withdrawal of British troops from Iraq in 1955. Victims of weltpolitik, like many other small nations of the world, their small contribution to the liberation of Greece, ought to be remembered.


First published in NKEE on Saturday 16 October 2010