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Lieutenant Colonel “Tom” Barnes, SOE Sapper.

Lieutenant Colonel C. E. “Tom” Barnes on right. 

Tom led one of the demolition teams on Op Harling in Greece, he was one of two Kiwis seconded to SOE for the mission.

Originally named Cecil by his parents he was born 30 January 1907. Prior to the war Tom spent time in Australia as a civil engineer working in Tasmania and in little explored parts of New Guinea. When war broke out he came back to NZ and enlisted in the New Zealand Engineers and was soon posted to Egypt. After a year there doing various engineering tasks he was bored and trying to get posted to the Division when he was recruited for a special mission in Greece with SOE.

Major Bowie was manager of several N.Z.E.F. clubs in Cairo and Bari, and got to know Captain Barnes well, he had this to say in an interview.

"When I first met Colonel Barnes," said Major Bowie, "he had returned to Cairo after being in charge of a company which had constructed port facility in connection with the transportation of munitions to Russia. He was appointed adjutant at the engineers training depot in Egypt. but he browned off and sought for more exhilarating and adventurous activities. In September 1942, he was chosen as one of a party of four men who were to undertake special operations in Greece. From what I have since learned from Colonel Barnes, he had indeed a full measure of the adventure and thrills he was yearning for.”

Operation Harling was a sabotage mission by the British Special Operations Executive (SOE), in cooperation with the Greek Resistance groups EDES and ELAS, which destroyed the heavily guarded Gorgopotamos viaduct in Central Greece on 25 November 1942. This was one of the first major sabotage acts in Axis-occupied Europe, and the beginning of a permanent British involvement with the Greek Resistance.

The SOE team numbered thirteen men and was divided into three groups, each including a leader, an interpreter, a sapper and a radio operator. The first group was composed of Lt. Colonel Eddie Myers, CO of the mission and group leader, Captain Denys Hamson as interpreter, Captain Tom Barnes as the sapper and Sergeants Len Willmott and Frank Hernen as wireless operators. The second group consisted of Maj. Chris Woodhouse, 2nd Lieutenant Themis Marinos (a Greek), Lieutenant Inder Gill and Sergeant Doug Phillips. The third group consisted of Major John Cooke, Captain Nat Barker, Captain Arthur Edmonds (another New Zealander) and Sergeant Mike Chittis.

The team was split into groups with each group to jump from a separate B-24 Liberator aircraft. A first attempt to drop them over Greece was aborted as the pre-arranged signal fires had not been lit. During the next flight on 30 September the Harling team was dropped after the fires were located. Major Cooke's group was unable to locate any fires and jumped near the heavily garrisoned town of Karpenissi. One group member even landed inside the town itself, and had to be hidden by local Greeks. Evading the Italian troops searching for them, they made for the hills, where they came upon the guerrillas of Aris Velouchiotis.

In the meantime, the main group was being hidden by the local Greeks and constantly moved around the area to prevent their capture by Italian searching parties.

Myers and Hamson undertook a reconnaissance, with a local Greek guide, of the three prospective targets, and chose Gorgopotamos, which offered the best chance of success: it was guarded by a small garrison of 80 Italians and it had good access, cover and a line of retreat for the attacking force. 

Members of the Greek Resistance.

The force available for the operation numbered 150 men: the twelve-strong British team, which would form the demolition party, 86 ELAS men and 52 EDES men, who would provide cover and neutralize the garrison. According to the plan, the attack was to take place on 23:00 on 25 November. Two teams of eight guerrillas were to cut the railway and telephone lines in both directions, as well as cover the approaches to the bridge itself, while the main force of 100 guerrillas was to neutralize the garrison. The demolition party, divided into three teams, would wait upriver until the garrison had been subdued, and then lay the charges.

The attack on the garrison outposts on the two ends of the bridge began as scheduled, but went on far longer than the time originally allotted. Myers took it upon himself to send the demolition teams in while the fight was still under way. The setting of the charges was delayed also, since the girders to be destroyed turned out to be differently shaped than had been anticipated, forcing the SOE sappers to break down their plastic explosive charges and assemble new ones. After the charges were set and the fuses were lit, the first explosion heavily damaged the central pier and collapsed two spans. The demolition teams then set new explosives to the second pier and the remaining span, which also went off. In the meantime, the guerrilla outposts had engaged and halted a train with Italian reinforcements heading to the scene. By 04:30, the entire attacking force, which had suffered only four wounded, had successfully disengaged and retreated to its assembly area.

The sabotage mission was a major success for SOE, being the biggest such operation carried out until then. Although its original military objective, the disruption of supplies for Rommel's troops, had been rendered obsolete by the Allied victory at El Alamein, it did display the potential for major guerrilla actions in serving Allied strategic objectives, encouraged SOE to aid the development of resistance movements, and provided a major morale boost for occupied Greece. In its aftermath, the Harling mission was not withdrawn, as originally envisaged, but instructed to remain in the country and form the British Military Mission to Greece. 

Tom Barnes (second from left) with Sylvia Apostolides, 'Angelo' Angelopoulos and Angelo's wife Christina in Athens after the German withdrawal from Greece

Major Bowie met Tom again on his return to Cairo and the two men discussed the mission.

"It was 20 months later, in April, 1944, that Colonel Barnes walked in on me in Cairo wearing a begrimed battledress and camouflaged behind a full-grown beard and moustache," said Major Bowie. "He had returned from secret operations in Greece and had been called back to Egypt to meet King George of Greece and the Greek Government. I believe that it was the express instruction of the authorities that he should retain his beard until that meeting was over.

"Although naturally reticent and reluctant to say much about his experiences, I gathered sufficient to appreciate something of the hazardous and dangerous work he had been engaged on. After selection for the mission which was to destroy and disrupt the German lines of communication in the western coast of Greece, then being used for shipping munitions and men across the Adriatic Sea to Italy and thence to North Africa, Colonel Barnes and his three comrades were given a brief training in parachute dropping. He had, I understand, one jump off a fast-moving lorry and two jumps from a warplane as his course of training before being dropped among the hills in North-west Greece. The party of four also included, I understand, another New Zealander, a Lieutenant-Colonel Edmonds.

"Only a sketchy outline of what these four men and the others dropped at other times and places had achieved was related by Colonel Barnes, but enough was told to indicate the tremendous havoc they wrought with the enemy's communications. They blew up bridges and viaducts including one of the largest and most carefully guarded viaducts on the main railway line from Yugoslavia to Corinth. An epic deed had been the lowering of an Englishman to the depths of a ravine to explode a charge that brought the long viaduct crumbling to ruins, while the German guards engaged the others in the party who created a diversion."

"The damage resulting from these activities caused the Germans to divert their transport to the eastern ports of Greece and to ship munitions through the Aegean Sea — this being the purpose of the Allied strategy as it forced the enemy to use the longer sea route on which the transports were subjected to many attacks by British submarines."

"Their primary job completed the men then attached themselves to Greek patriot forces operating as guerrillas and conducting a sabotage and hit-and-run campaign. Colonel Barnes and another joined General Napoleon Zervas and his Patriots." where "They continued to harry the Germans and their sorties and raids grew in strength and effectiveness as communication was established with British bases and more Paratroops and supplies were dropped."

"The Germans made great efforts to get hold of Colonel Barnes," said Major Bowie. 'They knew he was one of the leaders of the raiders and put a price on his head."

In addition to the Military Cross, Colonel Barnes was highly decorated by the Greek government and was also Mentioned In Despatches. 

His citation for the Military Cross read: "In September 1942, Captain Barnes was one of a sabotage party recruited to destroy railway viaducts in Greece. On 30 September this group parachuted into Greece and joined up with local partisan groups. By November, a large group of locals had formed a plan to attack the local enemy garrison while Captain Barnes with his party destroyed the Gorgopotamos viaduct. On 25 November this plan was put into effect and despite charges having to be reset due to faulty information, the main pier was destroyed. Although enemy reinforcements had arrived and heavy firing was taking place, this officer placed further charges and destroyed a further span and pier. This attack had required the utmost in fortitude and physical endurance as the attacking party had to climb mountains of 5,000 feet and deep snow. The leadership of Captain Barnes helped to sustain these men during the 25 hours (including a 3 hour gun battle) it took to complete the attack and destruction of the viaduct. Unable to return to Egypt, Captain Barnes helped organise the local forces in their fight against the enemy. In the three or four weeks immediately prior to the Allied landings in Sicily in July 1943 maximum efforts were required in Greece in order to divert German troops attention. During this period, Captain Barnes personally supervised attacks on three bridges, each separated by most of a day's march in mountain country, in the course of five nights. In addition to leading and directing specific attacks, his special task was liaison officer with Colonel Zervas of the EDES guerrilla band. (The above is based on the account contained in 'New Zealand in the Second World War, Official History, "Special Service in Greece"' and other records of that period.)"

Captain Barnes was eventually promoted to the rank of lieutenant Colonel. After the war he started a family and at the time of his death aged 45 he had two children, named Chris and Debbie, and an unborn daughter he never met Rosalind Anne. Cecil Edward “Tom” Barnes died of injuries sustained in a car accident on the 22nd June 1952 in Victoria. His ashes were scattered in Spirits Bay.

The Sabotage Diaries from Katherine Barnes on Vimeo.

Tom’s daughter in law Katherine Barnes wrote a full account of his exploits in the book "The Sabotage Diaries" this is a great book and well worth a read, pictures are from the facebook page with the same name.


  • Hi Jan Roberts Billett. I am the youngest daughter of Tom Barnes. He died in 1952 in a car accident. Kathie, my sister-in-law wrote Sabotage Sabotage Diaries and both my sister and I were part of the proofreading. The book, as Kasthie wrote in "A note to the reader’ is not 100% factual. Most of the conversations. for example, are made up but based on fact as is Tom’s narrative. I hope that is helpful. If you. anyone reading this has any further questions about Tom, please do not hesitate to contact me on

    Rosalind Stephens
  • What an incredible person.
    Been a former Warrant Officer in the Royal New Zealand Engineers I find his exploits incredible to say the least.
    I’ve created a FB page titled Roll of Honour for Royal New Zealand Engineers. The purpose of the creation of the page is to pay homage to those Engineers that have gone before me and to ensure their memories are not lost to time. Please feel free to view the page.
    If anyone can point me in the right direction to information about this brave man and his early days prior to joining the military, I’d appreciate it.

    Regards Bruce Jackson

  • I can’t believe that I missed this exhibition at the Shrine in Melbourne. It has openened up more queries for me as I have just published a book ‘The Yachties: Australian Volunteers in the Royal Navy 1940-45’ in which most of the men served in Combined Operations some assisting the Partisans in Yugoslavia and Greece . I have a photo from Lieutenant Ted Gregg, O/C LCI 277 in Athens ( on the day Athens was liberated?) with himself, Tom Barnes and Greek Partisans. According to Ted, Tom Barnes was killed by rival Partisans towards the end of the war, which I now know was incorrect. Good to know he was not and I will hope to correct this in my book.
    Could you please send me email details for Katharine Barnes so I can refer to her.
    Thank you,

    Jan Roberts Billett

    Jan Roberts Billett
  • How wonderful that Rosalind and family return each year to commemorate Tom’s amazing contribution. I was very moved by Katharine’s book The Sabotage Diaries.
    Anne McNamara
  • Yes, they do. Every year on the Sunday nearest to November 25, the day of the destruction of the bridge, they commemorate in the platia above it. My family have been going each year since 2002 and we lay a wreath in his name and the other Harling members. This year it will be 80 years.

    Rosalind Stephens

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