Greece and Crete
This commemorative publication is a part of the series; Australians in World War II. It contains a selection of images and a brief history of the Greece and Crete campaign. During World War II Greece independence was threatened. Australian and British Troops gave support to Greece against German occupation. This book is supplemented with teaching activities for students in the booklet, Greece and Crete: Educational Activities.
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Chapter 1: That Greece might still be free
The cradle of civilisation
The mountains look on Marathon—
And Marathon looks on the sea;
And musing there an hour alone
I dream'd that Greece might still be free …
[Lord Byron1 ]
In 1821, after centuries of rule by the Ottoman Turks, the people of Greece rose in rebellion. To the British, Greece represented the cradle of European democracy, literature and civilisation, and this rebellion was seen as the righteous insurrection of an oppressed people. But what lent additional lustre to the Greek struggle was the support of a young English poet, Lord Byron, who in 1823 offered his services to the Greek insurgents. Byron died in Greece in 1824, and a few years later, with British and Russian help, Greece became an independent kingdom.
During World War II Greek independence was once again threatened. In October 1940, seeking to make Italy the master of the eastern Mediterranean, Benito Mussolini's armies invaded Greece, only to find themselves beaten back by the Greeks. Unfortunately for Greece, this setback for his Italian ally made the German leader, Adolf Hitler, turn his attention to the possible danger to Germany's ambitions from the Greeks, particularly if they should seek support from Britain. In March 1941, British support became a reality when a military expedition called 'Lustre Force', which included Australian troops, was dispatched to Greece from Egypt.
On 29 March, on his way to defend Greece and all it stood for, Lieutenant John Learmonth, from western Victoria, watched from the deck of a troopship as it sailed up the Greek coast towards Piraeus, the port of Athens. Like Byron before him, Learmonth sensed the enduring significance of this ancient landscape steeped in myth and legend:
A number of pretty little islands have been visible on our starboard quarter since daylight this morning. I have forgotten what little ancient history I ever read; but I fancy Ulysses must have sailed in these seas. I wonder did the Sirens live on one of those little islands over there, now slumbering so peacefully in the warm laughing sea; and do those rocks hide the caves of Cyclops, the one-eyed giant? What history has been made among these seas; what sagas of the human race have had their setting here. Thousands of years ago men have sailed these seas to go to war, and we sail them today for the same purpose.2
John Learmonth was one of more than 60,000 British and Dominion servicemen and women who fought in Greece between November 1940 and May 1941, among them some 17,000 Australians and 16,700 New Zealanders. What circumstances had brought these men and women from half a world away to the aid of the Greeks?
Chapter 2: We cannot leave Greece in the lurch
British aid to Greece November 1940–March 1941
At 5 pm attend War Cabinet at Downing Street. It is decided to proceed subject of course to assent of Aust. Cabinet to use of Australian troops. Nett view, the project has some reasonable chance of success … We cannot leave Greece in the lurch.3
At 3.00 am on Sunday, 28 October 1940, General Ioannis Metaxas, Prime Minister of Greece, was awoken in his Athens home. At the door was the Italian Ambassador, Count Grazzi, with a written ultimatum to the Greek government demanding that Italian forces be given free passage into Greece from Albania and that they be allowed to garrison certain unspecified 'strategic points of Greek territory'. Italy claimed that its request for this 'temporary' occupation was the result of English attempts to involve more and more countries in the war. If Greece refused to comply then resistance would be 'broken by force of arms'.
A reply was demanded by 6.00 am, but Metaxas gave it at once: 'No'! At 5.30 am Italian troops crossed the Greek-Albanian border and Greece was at war with Fascist Italy.
More than a year earlier, on 13 April 1939, after Italy had occupied Albania, British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain stated in the House of Commons that if there was any threat to Greek independence then Britain stood ready to help. Britain's initial aid to Greece in 1940 was limited. Five squadrons of Royal Air Force (RAF) fighters and bombers arrived in Greece to support the Greeks in Albania, a small British force was landed on the island of Crete, and more than 4000 anti-aircraft gunners, RAF ground staff and depot troops were sent to the mainland. On 12 November 1940 a British Military Mission was established in Athens. In Greece, Britain now had a solitary ally on the continent of Europe.
Mussolini had intended a short war, but to his alarm the Greeks had by early December 1940 driven his army back inside Albania. Over the winter of 1940–1941, the struggle between the Greeks and Italians proceeded in countryside which, according to one writer, 'exhausted the epithets of the most hardened journalist':
Those deep dark valleys and ravines along which swirling torrents roared were not made to be violated by motor-transport, and the ridges were swept by icy winds and savage blizzards. It was on those snow-covered ridges that the Greek soldiers fought. The pack-horses froze in their shoes. The mules lay down and congealed where they lay.4
As the RAF pilots soon found, flying in those winter conditions was extremely hazardous. Returning from a raid on Valona, Albania, a Canadian pilot, Flight Lieutenant A Bocking of No. 30 Squadron, struck bad weather:
We tried to get above it, but at 16,000 feet ice was forming on the wings, and the controls began to get very heavy. The cockpit was full of snow; it was difficult to see; then glaze-ice, the most dangerous sort, began to form. Just as we were wondering whether it would be necessary to jump we found a hole in the cloud, quite a tiny affair, and we came down through it and steered a course for home.5
During those months the most visible support for Britain's new ally was from the RAF Gladiators, and, later, Hurricanes, flying from Ioannina and Trikala in west central Greece and Blenheim bombers from Tatoi and Elefsis near Athens. Flying with the RAF in Greece was a small number of Australian pilots, one of whom was Flight Lieutenant RN Cullen of Newcastle, New South Wales. On 28 February 1941 there occurred the largest air battle of the period, when nine Hurricanes of No. 80 Squadron and nineteen Gladiators of No. 112 Squadron engaged a large force of Italian fighters and bombers over Albania. That day, flying in a Hurricane, Cullen shot down five of the enemy—a squadron record—and overall during his time in Greece he was credited with thirteen enemy aircraft. Cullen was killed in action on 4 March 1941. The Greeks were grateful for the courage and sacrifice of the young pilots. An RAF commander reported the effect on local morale of the great air battle of 28 February:
Civilians and soldiers passing us in the streets made the Sign of the Cross saying 'Long life to you. Thank the Almighty who sent you to us'.6
And Compton Mackenzie paid tribute to these forgotten few of the RAF:
Bright in the ever-lengthening scroll of honour, glory, valour and skill which adorns the records of the RAF during the Second World War stand out the names of those squadrons which helped Greece during the last two months of 1940.7
Italy's failure against the Greeks greatly annoyed Adolf Hitler. By late 1940 the Germans were well into preparations for what was to be their great offensive of 1941—the invasion of Russia—and Hitler had hoped to secure Germany's flank in the Balkans by diplomacy. Germany's main fuel supply came from the Romanian oil fields and with Greece now Britain's ally, thanks to Mussolini's desire for swift Italian aggrandisement, the oil fields had become vulnerable to potential RAF bombing from airfields in northern Greece. Greek relations with Germany had been good, but as Hitler saw Italy driven back, he ordered the German army in early November 1940 to prepare for an invasion of northern Greece. By late November this limited strike was enlarged into a plan—'Operation Marita'—for the occupation and subjugation of the whole of Greece.
Learning of German intentions, Britain's Prime Minister Winston Churchill saw an opportunity to create a 'Balkan front' against the Germans that would consist of Greece, Yugoslavia and Turkey. This would require sending a much larger British force to Greece and the need to persuade the Greeks—concerned at this stage to give no provocation to Hitler—to accept this force. However, they recognised that German plans were afoot to invade them and after the death of General Metaxas in late January 1941, the new Greek Prime Minister, Alexander Koryzis, began exploratory talks with the British concerning what forces might be sent to aid Greece against German invasion. The diplomatic story of how Britain induced Greece to accept an expeditionary force is a complex one, but it had its culmination on 22 February 1941 in a high-level meeting between British and Greek delegates in Athens.
Before the meeting opened, Koryzis assured the British that Greece would resist German aggression. The British Foreign Secretary, Anthony Eden, offered three infantry divisions, a Polish brigade, one armoured brigade and perhaps later a second armoured brigade—a total of approximately 100,000 men with 240 field guns, 32 medium guns, 192 anti-aircraft guns, 142 tanks and 202 anti-tank guns. Five additional RAF squadrons might also be available.
This seemed like a formidable force. The observations of Lieutenant Colonel de Guignand, one of the British military delegation, shows this offer in a different light:
Totals of men and guns are generally impressive. In the aircraft flying over I had been asked to produce a list showing totals of items we were proposing to send. My first manpower figures excluded such categories as pioneers, and in the gun totals I produced only artillery pieces. This was nothing like good enough for one of Mr Eden's party who was preparing the brief. He asked that the figures should be swelled with what to my mind were doubtful values. I felt that this was hardly a fair do and bordering upon dishonesty. I don't know, however, whether figures meant very much to the Greeks by the time they were provided.8
For Eden, the meeting was a triumph and Churchill had secured the first link in his sought-after 'Balkan front'. Subsequent British attempts, however, to draw in the Yugoslavs and the Turks came to nothing.
The main forces that Britain had available to send to Greece in early 1941 were predominantly Dominion troops currently either fighting or training in the Middle East. These consisted of the 2nd New Zealand Division and the three divisions of the 1st Australian Corps, Australian Imperial Force (AIF)—the 6th, 7th and 9th. While the British commander-in-chief of the Army of the Nile, General Sir Archibald Wavell, could allocate Australian and New Zealand units to an expeditionary force for Greece, final permission to use such forces rested with the Australian and New Zealand governments. As preliminary planning for Greece was taking place, the Australian Prime Minister, Robert Menzies, arrived in Egypt on 5 February 1941 to inspect Australian troops in the area before proceeding to London.
Menzies remained in Egypt, with short side trips to Libya, until 14 February. On the evening before his departure Menzies met with Wavell, who he had earlier described as a man 'of few words and with sinister left eye'. After this meeting Menzies wrote that Wavell:
… is clearly contemplating the possibility of a Salonika operation [Thessaloniki, the second largest city in Greece].9
Just two days after Menzies' departure and before the Prime Minister had even arrived in London, Wavell summoned to Cairo, from his headquarters 1600 kilometres away in Cyrenaica, the commander of the 1st Australian Corps, Lieutenant General Sir Thomas Blamey. On 18 February Wavell briefed Blamey on the proposed Greek operation. The force to be sent, 'Lustre Force', was to be composed of the 2nd New Zealand Division, the 6th and 7th Australian Divisions, the HQ of the 1st Australian Corps, the 1st Armoured Brigade and the Independent Polish Brigade. On being told by Blamey that this matter would have to be referred to the Australian government, Wavell said that he had already discussed the possibility of this operation with Menzies. On the previous day, Wavell had briefed the New Zealand divisional commander, Major General Bernard Freyberg. Freyberg described his reaction in words that summed up both his own and Blamey's sense of Wavell's way of handling the Dominion commanders:
There was no question of our being asked if we agreed. We attended and were given instructions to get ready to go … At that meeting my opinion was never asked. I was told the bare facts … In any case I never expected to be asked my opinion by the Commander-in-Chief. He was far from co-operative. He had the secrecy mania.10
Menzies arrived in Britain on 20 February and on 23 February he dined with Churchill:
Momentous discussion later with PM about defence of Greece, largely with New Zealand and Australian troops. This kind of decision, which may mean thousands of lives, is not easy. Why does a peaceable man become a Prime Minister.11
On the next day—24 February—the question of sending a force to Greece was placed for final decision before the British War Cabinet in Downing Street. Menzies attended the meeting and, as he was assured that military opinion suggested that the proposed venture had 'a reasonable chance of success', he gave his consent subject to the approval of the Australian Cabinet. He was probably expressing public opinion in general throughout Britain and the Dominions when he confided to his diary:
We cannot leave Greece in the lurch.12
However, Menzies was deeply concerned about the expedition and at the War Cabinet meeting he was the only one to raise any serious questions as to its feasibility. Most members of the Cabinet, he felt, simply bent to Churchill's will. When Menzies forced them to spend time on troublesome details such as the obvious problems facing Lustre Force of air support, equipment, timing and shipping, he felt very much out of step with the normal course of Cabinet proceedings:
I was the only one to put questions, and feel like a new boy who, in the first week of school, commits the solecism of speaking to the captain of the School.13
After this meeting Menzies cabled to Australia to the Acting Prime Minister, Arthur Fadden, recommending the Greek expedition. On 28 February Fadden cabled Menzies that the Australian War Cabinet concurred with the sending of two Australian divisions to Greece provided that proper planning take place 'to ensure that evacuation, if necessitated, will be successfully undertaken'. Thus, from both Menzies and the Australian War Cabinet in late February 1941 one can detect doubts regarding the commitment of Australian forces to Greece. These misgivings were reinforced in early March when it was clear that the Germans were sending troops to North Africa to re-inforce the Italian army there. It also emerged that the Greeks were not carrying out the previously agreed upon British plan for the defence of Greece, and that a British commando force had failed to capture Castlellorizo in the Dodecanese. From this Greek island group, held by the Italians, air strikes could be launched on convoys from Egypt to Greece. While the Australian government clearly had its doubts about the Greek venture, what was the opinion of Australia's chief military leader in the Middle East, Lieutenant General Sir Thomas Blamey?
From the moment he was briefed by Wavell on 18 February, Blamey had entertained serious concerns about Greece. As Australia's national commander in the field, he had the right of access to the Australian government over Wavell's head. However, it was not until 9 March 1941, by which time elements of Lustre Force were already on their way, that Blamey requested of the Minister for the Army, Percy Spender, that he might submit his views. It must have come as a shock, so late in the day, to the Australian War Cabinet to learn that Blamey did not think the expedition had 'a reasonable chance of success'. While the British could muster three divisions and an armoured brigade, against them, Blamey advised, the Germans had 'as many divisions available as roads can carry' and 'within three to four months we must be prepared to meet overwhelming forces completely equipped and trained'. His conclusion was simple:
Military operation extremely hazardous in view of the disparity between opposing forces in number and training.14
Thus did the AIF set out for Greece with the agreement of the Australian government and towards what its commander, who arrived there on 18 March, thought could be disaster.
Chapter 3: A notable success
Convoys to Greece and the Battle of Cape Matapan March–April 1941
The battle of Matapan … was a notable success. It was unlikely that the Italian fleet would venture out for some time, and control of the eastern Mediterranean was to be of crucial importance to British fortunes in the next two months.15
On 7 March 1941, in Egypt's Alexandria harbour, the Royal Australian Navy (RAN) cruiser HMAS Perth embarked 756 soldiers of Lustre Force bound for Greece on convoy ‘AG 3'. Most of them were British—609 other ranks and 58 officers—but also on board were eighty-nine men of the 3rd Australian Casualty Clearing Station. The log of the Perth recorded that the British officers did not travel light:
The amount of officers' baggage was a distinct embarrassment, as included among the allowance of one valise and one suitcase were wardrobe trunks, wireless sets, large heavy suitcases and four dogs.16
By contrast, 554 soldiers of the 2nd New Zealand Division transported by Perth on 17 March came on board with small kit bags, blankets, landing rations, cookers, and Bren guns and stands. On 7 March, Perth, in company with the Royal Navy (RN) cruisers HMS Orion and Ajax, made a fast passage at 26 knots through the Kaso Strait off western Crete and arrived in Piraeus at noon on 8 March. The cruisers had not been attacked, and so passed safely the first Lustre Force convoy involving the Perth.
Between 4 March and 18 April more than 58,500 men and women of Lustre Force and their equipment went to Greece in naval convoys. Cruisers, such as the Perth, were used as transports in twelve special fast convoys designated by the letters ‘AG', and in total 45,793 soldiers travelled in AG convoys. RAN destroyers Stuart, Vampire, Vendetta, Voyager and Waterhen—attached to the British Mediterranean Fleet—acted as escorts to the slower ‘AN' convoys, which carried their troops and equipment on merchant ships. Lieutenant John Learmonth recorded his experience of the voyage to Greece on a Norwegian merchantman carrying elements of the 2/3nd Field Regiment:
The vehicles are parked in the holds practically anyhow; and every available piece of deck space is covered with them … The troops are all sleeping on the decks or in their vehicles. Rations in the form of bully beef, dry biscuits, tea and sugar, are issued to them daily; and they either eat them cold or do their own cooking individually on a primus stove. The ship's galley provides hot water … There are no parades—there is no space for them anyway; and practically no work except that of manning AALMGs [anti-aircraft light machine guns], and mounting a blackout picquet at night to ensure that no one falls overboard unknown to his commander. The troop NCOs [non-commissioned officers] make a roll call to their officers once a day. Otherwise everyone is having nothing more than a perfect bludge.17
Australia's official war correspondent, Kenneth Slessor, sailed from Alexandria on 25 March—Greek Independence Day. Slessor provided a vivid impression of his convoy's passage through the night as it slipped away from the Egyptian coast:
A clear night, brilliant with stars, but no moon. As we plunged on, behind the dim shapes of three warships ahead (looking like heavy destroyers), Alexandria gave us a splendid spectacle from our stern—forty or fifty searchlight beams dancing and weaving … The searchlights were still visible, like spokes across the sky, for hours after … At night the men, who are quartered in the holds, though most sleep on decks, had a singsong concert, and we sat on our beds on the aft deck, listening to ‘Gundagai' and ‘Tipperary' coming up from the hold below.
Some convoys were attacked by enemy bombers. On escort duty for the first convoy, AN17, which left Alexandria on 4 March, HMAS Stuart suffered seven bombing attacks in as many hours. Stuart's captain, Captain Hector Waller, recorded:
The last aircraft seemed to be out for my blood and nursed his second bomb until I remained on a steady course. The bombs being so large, however, they could be followed all the way down and the requisite alteration [to course] could be made.18
It was on the Lustre Force convoys that the AIF suffered its first battle casualties of the Greek campaign. On 1 April 1941, an advance party of the 2/6th Battalion embarked on the MV (Motor Vessel) Delos with the battalion's vehicles and Bren gun carriers and their drivers. A party of twenty volunteers from the infantry travelled with them. Their role was to provide anti-aircraft protection at sea, and Private Fred Quinn recalled that the ‘rails of the ship were literally bristling with Bren guns and Boyes anti-tank rifles strapped to the rails'. They were needed. The Delos was attacked by a wave of Italian bombers and Quinn was in the thick of the action:
I had my first experience of trying to shoot down an aircraft … One ship was sunk and ours was damaged with a direct hit. We had several men killed and wounded but I got off scot free although it [the bomb] landed 20 yards from where I was.19
Sergeant Alec Moodie was not so lucky; the Italian bomb cost him his leg. He died later of his wounds and was buried in the Phaleron War Cemetery, Athens.
In late March 1941, as the Lustre Force convoys steamed night after night for Greece, a far more serious threat to their safety than the occasional Italian air raid was developing. On 28 March, Lieutenant John Learmonth recorded in his diary:
Last night the convoy put about and went 100 miles back towards Alexandria … Two enemy aircraft alerts have been sounded since we sailed; but I have not seen the aircraft … I suspect it was the presence of one of them observing our movements yesterday, which made the change of course necessary last night.20
Convoy AG9 had been sent racing back towards Egypt because of a sighting made by Flying Officer RS Bohm of Rockhampton, Queensland, a few hundred kilometres to the west off Cape Passero, Italy.
Bohm, from No. 230 Squadron RAF, was making a routine reconnaissance flight from Malta in a Sunderland flying boat when he spotted a force of Italian cruisers and destroyers heading south-east from Cape Passero straight towards the convoy routes. The Italian battle fleet, after strong pressure from the Germans, had put to sea. At noon in Alexandria, Admiral Sir Andrew Cunningham, commander-in-chief of the British Mediterranean Fleet, received the news of Bohm's sighting and after dark on 27 March, flying his flag in the battleship HMS Warspite, he took out his fleet and headed west towards the oncoming Italians.
The Italian naval force approaching Greek waters on 28 March was considerably greater than that seen by Flying Officer Bohm. Admiral Angelo Iachino had put to sea in the battleship Vittorio Veneto and accompanying him were eight cruisers and thirteen destroyers. Shortly after 7.00 am on 28 March 1941, Vice Admiral Henry Pridham-Wippell, in a British cruiser force that included the Perth, sighted Italian cruisers south of Gavdho Island. Recognising them to be more heavily armed than his own ships, Pridham-Wippell made off, trying to lure the Italians towards Cunningham's approaching battleships. The Italian cruisers gave chase, firing as they came, but suddenly changed course and retired. Pridham-Wippell's force followed, but at 10.58 am the Admiral sighted the Vittorio Veneto. The British cruisers had been lured towards the Italian battleship, with its 15-inch guns. Able Seaman James Cooper, on the Perth, described what followed:
We just kept going for our life and we thought it won't be long before our big ships are near us and then all of a sudden we ran into these big battle ships with 15 inch guns. The only thing that was wrong they were not our[s]. We thought at first that they were more Cruisers but after they opened fire on us we soon found out what they were. We put up a smoke screen and done everything our Engines would do after they put 15 inch shells around us for two hours our planes drove them off us and we joined up with our fleet … I don't think I ever said so many prayers in all my life. When we were getting the 15 inch at us I thought it was all over and that we were finished. I thought of Etty and Joan at home and what they would do without me and God knows what else, but still I am safe thank God.21
Cooper's planes were an air torpedo striking force ordered up by Admiral Cunningham from the carrier HMS Formidable, with orders to attack the Italians and relieve the pressure on Pridham-Wippell's cruisers. Six torpedoes were fired at the Vittorio Veneto and although they missed, Admiral Iachino broke off the action and headed back to the west. Lacking carrier aircraft of his own, he now realised he was extremely vulnerable to continued British air attack. Moreover, his force was at the extreme limit of possible land-based air cover from Italian airfields in the Dodecanese or German aircraft flying from Sicily.
Throughout the afternoon of 28 March, Cunningham chased Iachino, who was now heading home. In an attempt to slow down the enemy force and bring it to battle, numerous air strikes were made on the Italian ships. At 2.00 pm another striking force from the Formidable attacked the Vittorio Veneto, scored one hit, and managed to get the battleship to reduce speed. Another strike, made after dark, damaged the cruiser Pola and immobilised the ship. Cunningham now decided to press on into a night action, as he realised that the next day would place his ships in range of land-based air attack.
As the British fleet forged ahead, Italian cruisers were spotted on radar. These were the Zara and the Fiume, accompanied by one destroyer. They had been sent back by Iachino to assist the stricken Pola but instead had run into the British battleships. Cunningham described the destruction of the ill-fated Zara and Fiume:
Our searchlights shone out with the first salvo and provided full illumination for what was a ghastly sight. Full in the beam I saw our six great projectiles flying through the air. Five out of the six hit a few feet below the level of the cruiser's upper deck and burst with splashes of brilliant flame.22
Chapter 4: A piece of Australia
The AIF arrives in Greece, March–April 1941
They find themselves in a country that might be a piece of Australia towed across the world. The Greek spring with its white and piercing light, its floods of sun, its clean sharp water and, above all its exiled eucalypts, is closer to home than anything they have seen since they left Fremantle.23
As the troopship MV Cameronia headed across the Mediterranean for Piraeus in April 1941, the men of the 2/6th Battalion AIF were briefed by Captain ‘Bully' Hayes on the nature of the country they were going to defend. In the words of Lieutenant Jo Gullet, Hayes had read the available ‘literature and did his manful best':
They [the Greeks, were not], as most of us might have thought, exclusively engaged in the fish and chip business. They had a splendid military tradition and they were currently belting the hell out of the Italians, but in times past they had also thrashed the Turks and also the Persians. The Turks were only next door, but how the hell they came to be fighting the Persians he could not say … They had other claims to our respect. Greeks it appeared were very strong on culture. They had invented democracy f'instance and the Olympic Games too … Soon you would see their wonderful old buildings. The Parthenon f'instance. Something to do with their religion. A sort of church. Damn near two and a half thousand years old, so we must expect it to be in a rather clapped-out condition, or so the sailors said. Well, that's government departments for you. Same in Greece as anywhere else … There was no point in asking him any questions because we now knew as much about Greece as he did himself. We believed him.24
As the 2/6th left the Cameronia, their commanding officer, Colonel Hugh Wrigley, determined that his unit would not straggle in a rag-tag fashion through foreign streets towards its camp. They were inspected, fallen in properly and with the battalion band playing Waltzing Matilda, they marched through Athens, as ‘Jo' Gullet recalled, ‘not a little pleased with ourselves'.
In Greece the Australians were made to feel welcome and at home. It was spring and as units either marched or drove through the streets to their camp at Dafni, crowds waved and threw flowers into the road. On leave they had their pictures taken, visited the Parthenon and met the guardsmen of the crack Greek regiment – the Evzones. Kenneth Slessor felt that there was a ‘perceptible affinity' between the men of the AIF, the ‘Argonauts of the southern world', and the Athenians who were the ‘descendants of an age-old race whose monuments overshadow them'. Soon the city bars and cafes were crowded with Australians eating and drinking with Greek civilians and soldiers:
In all those places where the Australians meet Greek fighting-men straight from the front line, you see them clustered together, exchanging broken conversation.25
Keen interest was displayed in the local beer, wine and spirits. In a letter home Sergeant Robert Robertson, HQ 1st Australian Corps, provided a detailed account of what was readily available in the Athens tavernas:
Much time had been spent on the transport discussing what type of alcohol would be available and at what cost. But the results surpassed our wildest dreams. It was abundant, it was cheap. Beer brewed from the mountain streams was glorious and always served very cold at 18 dracma or 10 pence Australian the bottle. Koniak, a fierce form of brandy, could be bought at 50 dracmas the bottle or 2 drachs a nip. The same applied to ‘Ouzo' … Proclamations posted in Athenian cafes stated that the sale of Ouzo was forbidden to members of His Britannic Majesty's Forces … The plonk merchants were in heaven and the resultant effects were not in the interest of the army.26
The Australian commander, Lieutenant General Blamey, met the King of Greece, George II, who spoke English fluently and with whom he sat chatting and smoking for 20 minutes:
The King [said Blamey] struck me as an easy and friendly man … eager and quick to respond and remarkably youthful in his manner. He … said how delighted he was to have the Australians in his country, since his dad had always admired them and had followed their deeds closely.27
But beneath the initial colour and euphoria none could escape the fact that this was a nation at war. Athens was a city of women, children and old people, as most of the men of military age were at war in the mountains of Albania, and life was hard:
Everything was grey and the people undernourished … casualty lists were read from the corners and it was touching to hear the women crying and screaming.28
During their brief interlude in Athens the men of the AIF were prepared for war. As Private Charles Robinson of the 2/2nd Field Ambulance recalled:
In the morning we were issued will forms and filled them out sprawling under the olive trees. No one could ever accuse the army of subtlety!29
Soon the Australians were hurrying north to meet the anticipated German invasion. They journeyed through a spectacular landscape of mountains and river plains with place names out of ancient history and legend – Thiva (Thebes), Mount Parnassus, Mount Olympus. Everywhere, as they moved through the countryside in railway wagons or in military vehicles, there was the same warm welcome:
People lined the track cheering, smiling, and calling ‘goodbye'. Little did I realise the significance of this when a young despine (Greek girl) threw me a bunch of wild flowers, and with a wistful look in her eyes, called … goodbye!30
As the 6th Australian Division's fighting units began arriving at Piraeus from mid-March 1941, planning for the defence of Greece by the British force commander-in-chief, Lieutenant General Sir Henry ‘Jumbo' Wilson, and the Greek commander, General Alexander Papagos, was well under way. It was clear that the initial German attack would be across the Greek–Bulgarian border in Thrace, but there was a real danger that German units would also strike through south-eastern Yugoslavia and then turn south and enter Greece via the Monastiri Gap and the Florina Valley. If the Greek and British forces were too far forward towards the Bulgarian border then they could be outflanked from the rear by this German movement through southern Yugoslavia. Consequently, it was decided that the British would hold a line from the sea through Mount Olympus, stretching north to Veria and then bending west towards Florina: the so-called Vermion–Olympus Line.
On Sunday, 6 April 1941, Lieutenant General Blamey learnt that from that day Lustre Force would be on its own. The Germans had attacked in Libya, driven the British back, and it would now be impossible for Wavell to send the 7th Australian Division or the Independent Polish Brigade to Greece. At 5.30 am on that same day in Athens, the German Ambassador, Prince Erbach-Schönburg, presented a note from his government to inform the Hellenic Government that Germany was at war with Greece. The Greeks were given no time for comment, for also at 5.30 am units of the German 12th Army moved into Greece across the Bulgarian border and into southern Yugoslavia.
As the German campaign in Greece opened, they dealt their enemies a severe blow. On the night of 6 April 1941, Able Seaman Patrick Bridges, RAN, was aboard HMS Hyacinth in Piraeus, Greece's premier port and an essential link in the British supply line back to Egypt. He recorded the destruction of Piraeus by the Luftwaffe (German Air Force) in his diary:
Sunday April 6, 1941: Mass air attack here tonight. Hit 1 ship full of TNT, which burnt for 4 hours then blew up. A sheet of the ship's side tore through our bridge and killed Lft Humphrey. Ship broke away from the jetty and we had to abandon it. We pulled it back and tied up and then run the gauntlet through blazing oil and burning ships and magnetic mines with only half a ship's company.
Monday April 7, 1941: Piraeus is still burning furiously. Sky is black with oil smoke and ammunition and dynamite is still exploding. Both our skiffs are holed. Bridge and boat deck are either wrecked or burnt. Great lumps of steel and shrapnel all over the deck. Drifting wreckage all over harbour. 1 plane came over to see damage … Waiting for raiders now.31
The ‘ship full of TNT' was the merchantman Clan Fraser, and the blast as it blew up was felt kilometres away throughout Athens. After the raid, which devastated Piraeus, only five of the port's twelve berths were useable, dozens of small service craft had been destroyed, many skilled workers had been killed and many others quit their jobs.
By 9 April 1941, despite gallant resistance from the border forts on the Greek–Bulgarian border, Greek forces in the north-east were facing defeat. Hitler's Panzers of the Second Armoured Division had swept round the western end of the Greek line near Lake Doirani and down the valley of the Axios River towards Thessaloniki, threatening to cut off Greece's Eastern Macedonian Army. At 1.00 pm on 9 April, the Greek commander in eastern Macedonia capitulated. In southern Yugoslavia the German 40th Corps drove through the hapless Yugoslavs. The SS ‘Adolf Hitler' Division now turned south towards Greece. Coming through the Monastiri Gap on 10 April, the division crossed into Greece and took Florina. At this stage, German progress was somewhat hampered by muddy roads that had also been cratered by British and Australian demolition units and repeated attacks by small numbers of RAF fighters and bombers. By 10 April, however, tanks of the German 9th Armoured Division and infantry of the ‘Adolf Hitler' Division were pressing on towards Vevi and the Vevi Pass.
Chapter 5: The roof is leaking
Vevi and Sotir 9–14 April 1941
Tell him the roof is leaking, he had better come over so we can cook up a plot.32
On the night of 9 April 1941 the men of the 2/4th Battalion arrived at Vevi and began digging in to defensive positions south-west of the small town. Here they waited for the Germans:
We are high up on the pass, and it is bitterly cold and raining. March four miles and dig in. Then march about five miles and dig in … We try to sleep, but rain turns into sleet and ice. Our blankets and clothes are wet through. Hard luck: we move again and dig in for the third time in one night, and no sleep for two nights.33
The 2/4th was part of a scratch force of Greek, British, New Zealand and Australian artillery, tanks, engineers and infantry – Mackay Force – put together under the command of Major General Ivan Mackay of the Australian 6th Division. This force's role, in General Wilson's words, was to ‘stop a Blitzkreig down the Florina Valley' and Mackay's orders were simple – stop the advancing Germans for as long as possible but certainly until the night of 12–13 April. By 9 April, as a result of the Greek collapse in eastern Macedonia, Generals Wilson and Papagos had ordered a withdrawal of British and Greek forces to a more defensible line hinged on the Aliakmos River: the Olympus–Aliakmos Line. Mackay Force's holding of the Germans would cover the withdrawal.
During 10 and 11 April the German advance units worked their way forward of Vevi and began probing the British lines. Captain Gordon Laybourne-Smith, 2/3rd Field Regiment, witnessed the Australian artillery's first encounter with the German army on the continent of Europe since 1918:
In all his insolence he drove his trucks down the main road … to within 3000 yards of our infantry, and proceeded to debus. At first I could not believe it was an enemy, all had been so still and quiet. Then came some sense. My orders flew over the wire and the first rounds screamed through the air … A few furious moments and back went the Hun, but five trucks stayed in the road as silent witness that my Troop could shoot.34
As day dawned at Vevi on 12 April, everyone in Mackay Force realised that a strong German attack was imminent. During the previous 48 hours rain had turned to snow and it now lay more than a foot deep on the hillsides. The Australians were cold and hungry; they began to suffer from frostbite and exhaustion. At 8.30 am the Germans came at the 2/8th Battalion. All day long the assault ebbed and flowed around the Australian positions, but by nightfall the Germans were proving too strong and a withdrawal was ordered back to where trucks were waiting.
As the German attack out of Vevi intensified throughout 12 April, Brigadier George Vasey, commanding the 19th Australian Brigade, realised his men were not going to be able to stage an orderly withdrawal. At 5.00 pm he telephoned the commanding officer of the 2/4th Battalion, Lieutenant Colonel Ivan Dougherty, with the code phrase indicating that a pull-out was now vital – ‘the roof is leaking'. Dougherty was ordered to do the best he could to extricate the 2/4th and get them back to their trucks. Private ‘Dasher' Deacon with two mates – Privates ‘Buck' Buchannan and Charlie Mynett – tried to escape over a hill which was being covered in enemy mortar and artillery fire. Deacon was wounded and being helped by another man, Private Jack Fitzgerald, when:
… along came a fairy in a Bren carrier. It was Colonel Dougherty … he said we had better get going and would we like a lift. Seeing that we were the only ones about and the Huns were breathing down our necks, ‘Fitzy' and I didn't stop to have a committee meeting to decide whether we would accept his offer … That is why even today when I see an unemployed Lieutenant Colonel walking, I always give him a lift!35
The survivors of Mackay Force now withdrew south to Sotir. Here a further delaying action was ordered and Dougherty asked his weary men, who were expecting to be trucked further south to the Aliakmos, to turn and fight:
There was not a murmur from any of the men … They went into it with resolution and determination. They had brought out practically all their equipment (except their bed rolls). I felt proud of my battalion.36
At first light on 13 April the Germans were seen in weapon pits just 1000 metres from the Australians. Vasey, in a white mackintosh, went forward to observe the enemy. He was fired upon and obliged to retire on his hands and knees. The 2/4th and British units returned this fire, not realising that on some ploughed land between the lines the Germans were holding Australian, British and Greek prisoners captured the previous day. Some of the POWs, including Lieutenant John de Meyrick, of the 2/4th, were killed in this cross-fire and thirty others wounded. Seeing that enemy tanks and artillery were not yet fully engaging his positions, Vasey suggested that the 2/4th be allowed to retire gradually. This was no easy task. Many in the 2/4th recalled the German machine-gun fire on their positions that morning as so concentrated and intense that the air seemed like ‘one whining, hissing mass of lead':
At 7.30 am word is yelled from hole to hole to prepare to withdraw and we feel pretty shaky at the idea of having to run about 300 yards up the slope through this inferno completely exposed. The first man in our platoon to poke his head up gets a bullet through it and drops back dead. Not so good. One after another the boys jump up and start to run, while the volume of fire increases. I watch one of our section half way back. As he runs the earth spurts up all around him: he runs through the lot and disappears over the rise, safe for the moment. It is my turn …37
On that morning Private Dick Parry's luck held out as he walked up the slope – his legs simply refused to run – and out of sight over the hill to rejoin his platoon.
The British 1st Armoured Brigade now took up the challenge of the advancing German armour and infantry. In one of the few major tank battles of the campaign the enemy was held and a number of its tanks destroyed. Most importantly, the advance was held until the evening of 13 April, when the 1st Armoured Brigade withdrew. However, the 1st Armoured had also been severely mauled and paid a high price for this brief pause in the German advance:
There was no possibility of replacing the tanks. In two sharp actions they had delayed the Germans' approach to the main British defence line and knocked out a number of tanks, but the cost was the virtual disappearance of the one small armoured force the Allied army in Greece possessed.38
As the British force began its withdrawal from northern Greece, there occurred an event that recalled Australian experience of the Great War. On 12 April, Lieutenant General Blamey informed his commanders that as of 6.00 pm that day the Australian and New Zealand divisions in Greece would be united under his command into the Anzac Corps. Rather optimistically, given his earlier assessment of the potential outcome of the Greek campaign to the Australian government, Blamey added to this announcement:
The task ahead though difficult is not nearly so desperate as that which our fathers faced in April twenty six years ago. We go to it together with stout hearts and certainty of success.39
It was perhaps not Blamey's place at that point in April 1941 to remind his men that the Gallipoli campaign had ended in an evacuation.
Chapter 6: We pulled him along
Across the Aliakmos River 9–16 April 1941
A straggler fell out here and there but was quickly dragged back … One, who had been off colour for several days fell from sheer exhaustion an hour before dawn. One man took his haversack, another his rifle, another his blanket and we pulled him along, slapping his face all the while to keep him awake.40
One of the first Australian units to arrive in Greece and go north was the 16th Infantry Brigade –the 2/1st, 2/2nd and 2/3rd Battalions. On 7 April the brigade went into position in the Veria Pass, 1000 metres above sea level with even higher peaks towering over them. So spread out were the battalions across the mountains that it took over three hours to climb from one end of the 2/2nd Battalion's line to another. Stores and equipment could only be got to the high mountains by donkey or human effort:
The Greek peasant's donkey is a small animal able to carry a load of fifty pounds or so on mountain tracks. One 2/2nd man records that at Veria Pass … Corporal Dick Powell, finding that he and his men, having only one blanket each, could not sleep in the snow, walked two miles to his coy [company] HQ and alone carried back a tent, ‘a thing no mule could manage'.41
From the Veria Pass the Australians could see the lights of Thessaloniki and the fires created by the German advance down the Axios River valley. The weather was terrible – freezing rain often turning to snow.
One ‘honorary' Australian who felt the cold of the Greek passes was a dog called Horrie, known colloquially to the men of the 2/1st Machine Gun Battalion as ‘Horrie the Wog Dog'. He had adopted the unit in Egypt, and when they sailed for Greece, Horrie went too. The motor cyclists carrying Horrie in the passes near Mount Olympus felt him shivering:
So we dismounted and very soon fitted Horrie with his ‘nightie' [a sock with the heel and toe cut off]. It was a tight fit and he looked comically uncomfortable but as he felt the warmth his tail began to wag and he gazed up with appreciative brown eyes plainly saying ‘Thanks boys. You two certainly do know just what a fellow needs'.42
On 9 April 1941, the 16th Brigade was ordered to withdraw from Veria to new positions 50 kilometres away at the Servia Pass. They were to move through the mountains because there were fears that, if they went by road in trucks, a sudden breakthrough by the Germans through the rearguard at Vevi might cut them off. On the march each man carried 100 rounds of ammunition, five days' rations, his greatcoat, blanket, groundsheet and haversack. The only transports available were the Greek donkeys and they carried the heavy weapons. Much of the route was covered in ankle-deep mud and the cold was intense. Roy Waters of the 2/2nd wrote of this journey:
What a sight it was to see us all strung out winding over the mountains. Gee it was tough going but our movements were automatic. A water bottle of cognac I had helped me along. My old donkey had a ton of guts, and with the aid of my biscuits and kind words stood up well. As we reached the summit the moon came out and what a grand sight it was. But no time for sightseeing …43
Some men fell out with the strain and exhaustion but, as Captain Jack Blamey of the 2/2nd recalled, when this happened to one man the others simply ‘pulled him along slapping his face all the while to keep him awake'. At the Aliakmos River, seven men of the 2/1st Field Company, Royal Australian Engineers, had built a punt to ferry the infantrymen across the icy waters. By 10.30 am on 13 April the last platoon was over the river and the engineers sank the punt. The weary battalions now struggled on to positions high up in the Servia Pass, having come through what one battalion war diarist described as:
An epic of endurance, moral and physical.44
By 15 April, the Australian and New Zealand units of the Anzac Corps had reached their new positions along the Olympus–Aliakmos Line. They were not to remain there long. Events in Greece were now moving fast and by 13 April General Wilson had already decided, after conferring with Blamey, that the whole British force would have to withdraw to a new line 180 kilometres further south – the Thermopylae Line. There, Wilson argued, ‘British Imperial troops could hold out without reliance on Allied [i.e. Greek] support'.
What worried Wilson was what might happen to the Greek armies to the north-west of the British positions. If the Germans moved west and cut the Greeks off, then they could send their tanks in a great flanking movement to the south down behind the Anzac Corps. Basically, Wilson felt that the poorly-equipped Greek armies were no match for the mass of tanks, artillery and war planes which the Germans could now push forward into central Greece. The Greeks might break at any moment and endanger the survival of the whole British force. General Papagos, too, realised the danger and on 13 April ordered his Epirus Army and Western and Central Macedonian Armies to withdraw back to the Venetikos River. Papagos met with Wilson at Lamia on 16 April and agreed to the British withdrawal to Thermopylae. By this time he had learnt of a German breakthrough in one of the passes to the north and realised that his own armies had taken to the mountains further west to avoid capture.
On 15 April Anzac Corps Headquarters at Elasson completed plans for the withdrawal. A number of combined artillery and infantry forces would mount rearguard holding actions at various locations while engineer units were to ensure ‘maximum demolitions in depth on roads … to impose all possible delay on the enemy'. What was vital was that the roads to the south from the Aliakmos, especially the main road through Elasson, Larissa, Pharsala, Domokos, and Lamia to the Brallos Pass, were held open for the long convoys of men and equipment.
A couple of days before the orders for the withdrawal were given it was realised that Anzac Corps units north of the Aliakmos, such as Vasey's 19th Australian Brigade comprising the 2/4th and 2/8th Battalions, had no bridge to get them across the fast flowing river. After a reconnaissance of possible crossing points on 13 April, a section of the 2/1st Field Company was sent in to construct a bridge and an approach road for the trucks. Armed with only rope, picks, shovels, other hand tools and spikes, the Australian engineers, assisted by British engineers and New Zealand infantrymen, began work at dawn on 15 April and by 10.00 pm a workable bridge to bring out the infantry spanned the Aliakmos.
The night withdrawal across the Aliakmos was remembered by Vasey's supply officer as a ‘tough night'. The general had used his personal supply of toilet paper to mark the route down the mountain to the river for the 2/4th Battalion. Vasey was worried also by the fairly flimsy footbridge over which his men would have to cross a river 50 metres wide, flowing at about nine knots and with a water temperature of zero. However, everyone got safely across except for one company of the 2/4th under Captain John McCarty. Private Vic Hill recalled the experience of ‘A' Company that night:
Down, down and down we went, sliding and tripping over the treacherous slopes and just missing the sheer drops. Everybody fell a dozen or more times, but miraculously only a couple sprained ankles. When we finally reached the bottom of the mountain we swung left to where the guides should have been. But this way we were also moving towards the enemy. Our nerves grew more taut with every step. By 3.45 am we had gone two or three miles towards the enemy and still hadn't found the guide … At first light we sighted the deep, swiftly flowing river. There was no bridge or likely fording spot. However, after a time, a rowing boat was found and the slow process of getting 100 men across by sevens and eights at a time began …45
By the morning of 16 April 1941, the British forces in Greece were in full but organised flight south towards Thermopylae, fearing a German flanking movement from the west. But it was not from the west that the threat emerged. On 16 and 17 April, elements of the German 3rd Armoured Regiment and 6th Mountain Division, coming down the east coast, began to move over the passes beneath Mount Olympus and into the Pinios Gorge.
Chapter 7: When the stukas struck
Pinios Gorge and the withdrawal to Brallos Pass 15–19 April 1941
The convoy was approaching the outskirts of Larissa when the Stukas struck again. They were coming for the town and we watched as bombs sent the walls of two houses crumbling. A woman ran down the road screaming. Further on was passed a dead civilian, a pool of blood around his head which a dog was lapping up.46
The gorge created by the Pinios River as it gouges its way from the plain of Thessaly through the southern slopes of Mount Olympus to the sea is a dramatic sight and rich in history. According to the ancient Greek historian Herodotus, in 480 BC the Athenians assembled a force at the western end of the gorge to hold back the great army of Xerxes, the King of Persia. Herodotus also recorded, somewhat sceptically, that the creation of this spectacular cleft in the earth was the work of the god Neptune:
Any man who believes that Neptune causes earthquakes, and that chasms so produced are his handiwork, would say, upon seeing this rent, that Neptune did it. For it plainly appeared to me that the hill had been torn asunder by an earthquake.47
On 16 April 1941 the 21st New Zealand Battalion was forced by heavy German attacks to abandon its positions on the seaward side of the gorge at Platamon. As the New Zealanders withdrew they were told that help was on the way and that the western end of the gorge must be denied to the enemy until at least 19 April. They were to hold on even if this meant 'extinction'. Anzac Corps HQ now diverted two battalions on their way south to Thermopylae—the Australian 2/2nd and 2/3rd Battalions—to the western end of the Pinios Gorge near the village of Tembe. Here on 18 April, with the New Zealanders, they met the Germans advancing over the slopes of Mount Olympus and through the gorge. That day, according to Australia's official historian Gavin Long, 'seemed likely to be the critical hours of the campaign'. If the Germans broke through too quickly and reached the major road junction of Larissa, they could cut in two the whole British withdrawal down through central Greece.
Lieutenant Rex Moore of the 2/2nd Battalion tersely summed up the battle of 18 April at the gorge:
Hun attacked at 7.30 am we were completely outnumbered. Panic set in and the troops dispersed. Hun tanks making a hullabaloo. NZ gunners were wonderful. At dusk I got 8 carriers [Bren gun carriers] out to Bde [Brigade] and tanks followed. Lost many trucks. Col Lamb [2/3rd Battalion] gathered the rest together and all off.48
However, it had taken a much larger force of German infantry supported by tanks and air cover until nightfall to drive the Australians and the New Zealanders from their positions and into the hills. At some points the defenders inflicted heavy casualties on their attackers:
To the right of us Huns waded the river with water up to their armpits and although they were peppered with our lights [light machine guns] and mortars, and left a lot of dead and wounded to float down the river, large numbers managed to get over.49
As the Germans pressed their attacks at the Pinios Gorge, to the north-west elements of the 2nd and 9th Armoured Divisions tried to force their way through a mainly New Zealand force guarding the road over the Menexes Pass to Elasson. Supporting the New Zealanders was the Australian 2/3rd Field Regiment. As the Germans advanced, the regiment's guns fired so constantly that the paint on the gun barrels blistered and peeled off and some gun crews suffered severe haemorrhaging of their ear-drums from concussion. The regiment's war diarist summed up their achievement on that critical day for the British withdrawal:
Exciting day in which 6500 rounds were fired by the regiment. Tanks appeared in the early morning and troops formed up but the consistent shooting of the regiment stopped the enemy and the infantry made no contact.50
Of the 2/3rd's performance that day the regiment's historian, Les Bishop, records:
The opening shots of the Elasson action heralded what is regarded as the Regiment's finest performance as a unit in war. Many valiant battles were to follow, but never again would it line up its guns and stand off the full assault of an attacking enemy.51
As dusk came on 18 April, many German tanks were across the Pinios River and pushing hard against the rearguard there. Brigadier General Arthur Allen, the commanding officer of the 16th Australian Brigade, watched the almost surrealistic action:
It was a fantastic battle. Everybody was on top (no time to dig in), and all in the front line, including artillery, Bren carriers, infantry and various unit headquarters, with unit transports only a few hundred yards in rear. Some confusion could be expected with every weapon firing and aircraft strafing from above. If you saw it at the cinema you would say the author had never seen a battle.52
Darkness finally rendered the Panzers ineffectual and allowed the surviving Australians and New Zealanders to escape:
The commander of the leading tank stood waist high in the turret peering out into the darkness; he was riddled by the fire of the troops … Lieutenant Colonel Lamb's [commanding officer, 2/3rd Battalion] voice could be heard above the tumult shouting, 'Make every shot tell, men; these tanks can't fight us in the dark'. All the German tanks wheeled and stopped, firing at random.53
While that day at Pinios Gorge many Australians and New Zealanders felt the individual bitterness of defeat and capture, the force as a whole had achieved its aim. By dawn on 19 April the British convoys were all south of Larissa.
From the air the 112 kilometres of the main road south between Larissa and Lamia on 18 and 19 April revealed an endless stream of British military vehicles, in places travelling nose to tail. Over the convoys there flew unhindered the dive bombers and bombers of the Luftwaffe, for by mid-April the Germans had achieved virtual air superiority in Greece. As Private Charles Robinson remembered, the most loathed of the German aircraft was the Stuka dive-bomber:
Its evil silhouette, with cowled wheels on a fixed undercarriage resembled the talons of a bird of prey, its strangely shaped wings with air-brakes to control the dive were akin to flight feathers of some monstrous creature from a childhood nightmare and the shriek of its siren as it dived vertically seemed to penetrate your brain.54
Private Jack Daniel, 2/6th Battalion, recalled the seemingly endless nature of the German air attacks on the convoys:
2 pm—Well, we have just got up off our bellies after a visit from some of the Hun bombers … we seem to be in a bad spot here. A man will be getting blisters on his belly from diving for cover.55
Sergeant Robert Robertson left a grim description of the chaos on the road south of Larissa and over the passes:
Never have I seen so many planes and never again do I want to. The great passes through Larissa to Lamia and the Pass of Thermopylae were narrow, the road churned into thick, gluey mud and embellished on both sides with burning and tipped-over transport artillery put out of action, dead horses, mules, sheep, and cows, Greeks walking and riding in wagons drawn by all types of motor and animal powers.56
The attack with the most serious potential to halt the convoys came at 9.30 am on 18 April. A German bomb missed the Enipeus River bridge just north of Pharsala but hit a truck-load of explosives and the blast cratered the road leading to the bridge. Soon there was a 16-kilometre back-up of trucks, prime targets for the German bombers and fighters who now roared overhead and set fire to a few vehicles. Brigadier Clive Steele, the Anzac Corps' chief engineer, arrived at the bridge and took charge of the situation. An officer was sent back along the rapidly growing line of trucks to order every driver forward to the bridge with his pick and shovel and, with help from various units and a Cypriot pioneer company, the crater was filled in and a detour cut around it. Eventually, a complete by-pass was built down the embankment round the crater and up to the bridge. By 1.30 pm the work was done and the long column of trucks moved forward.
During those days of retreat and air attack, senior commanders tried to keep up morale by showing their willingness to share the danger of the ordinary soldier. General Freyberg was observed casually ignoring an enemy aircraft as it machine gunned him and later he helped clear a traffic jam. General Mackay sat out in the open for his men to see during an air raid. In Gavin Long's words, 'each was frequently forward with a rearguard brigade at critical moments'. On another occasion, a couple of days later, Brigadier Vasey spotted some of his men taking cover from distant German planes. Determined that the enemy in these unopposed air attacks should not undermine confidence, Vasey strode over to them:
'What are you doing there', he demanded. 'The Stukas, sir', they replied. 'What bloody Stukas? All I can see is bloody crows!'57
Two groups who were not normally caught up in action found themselves very much in the front line during the withdrawal in Greece—the drivers of the AASC (Australian Army Service Corps) and the Provost Corps (Military Police). During an attack by a dozen dive-bombers near Pharsala, Driver Felix Craig engaged the enemy planes with a machine gun and, while making himself a target until he was killed, he allowed other trucks to escape. Soldiers paid tribute to the attention and care of the drivers whose skill on the narrow Greek mountain passes undoubtedly avoided many a life-threatening accident. The unenviable job of the Provosts was to keep the line of traffic moving and at times this involved considerable danger, as can be seen in the citation for the Military Medal awarded to Sergeant Tom Osborne:
He volunteered to take charge of a traffic control party at the Portas Pass … [and] kept the pass open for traffic. This pass was vital … and was subject to enemy artillery fire as well as being frequently bombed and machine gunned from the air … [He] patrolled the danger area continuously … until he was severely wounded.58
While the soldiers endured enemy air attack, all around them the people of the small towns and villages of central Greece lost both their lives and their homes. From the start of the campaign on 6 April lines of refugees streamed south and packed into centres like Larissa and Lamia. For the Australian war correspondent, Kenneth Slessor, the refugees were the 'saddest sight of all':
Some trudge on foot, others are on gaunt farmhorses or walk beside tiny mules tottering under their loads. Each has all he can call home rolled up in a blanket … A woman with a pinched face … rode holding two babies, one gnawing a biscuit. A man in a tattered uniform toiled wearily at the side. Beside them two bullocks pulled a covered wagon in which sat two women hooded in black and with black shawls across their faces. It might have been a funeral van. They were lucky, for many of the women were walking, some of them lifting bruised feet clad in soft felt slippers.59
Driving south on 18 April, Sergeant Lawson Youman, AASC, watched the destruction of Lamia by the Luftwaffe. As he passed through the town just before the raid, he saw hundreds of women and children packed along the streets. Watching the bombs hit, it seemed as if Lamia was 'flying in the air' and Youman felt that many of them must have been killed or maimed. Later, he became separated from his unit and like other Australian soldiers he had occasion to be grateful to the Greek people for their help despite their own desperate situation:
Some of the Greeks have taken me in and have given me a feed of eggs and a bed on the floor and I am glad to get to bed after such a day and narrow escapes. I thank God for keeping me safe.60
By late on the evening of 20 April 1941, most of the British force, except for stragglers, was beyond the Brallos Pass and behind the new Thermopylae Line. The withdrawal had not been effected without loss in both men and equipment. An air attack on 19 April, for example, had seen two Australian battalions—the 2/6th and 2/11th—lose seventeen killed and thirty-five wounded. But many kilometres of cratered road now faced the Germans before they could advance on this new defensive position. For those with a sense of ancient Greek history, however, the location of this new line might have seemed ominous. It was at Thermopylae in 480 BC that Leonidas and his gallant Spartans had defied the might of King Xerxes' Persian army and, for all their bravery, lost the battle.
Chapter 8: Come back—you must come back again
The evacuation of Greece 20–29 April 1941
We were nearly the last British troops they would see and the Germans might be on our heels; yet cheering, clapping crowds lined the streets and pressed about our cars … They threw flowers to us and ran beside us crying ‘Come back—you must come back again—Good-bye—Good luck'.61
Between 20 and 22 April 1941, Australian, British and New Zealand units dug in on the Thermopylae Line and waited for the German advance across the plain from Lamia. The New Zealanders defended the famous Pass of Thermopylae where the Spartans had fought the Persians. By 1941 this area was no longer the narrow defile between land and sea it then had been, for the silting of a local river delta had since pushed the coastline 8 kilometres away from the mountains. The Australians took over the left of the line, occupying positions in the Brallos Pass and on the surrounding mountains. At that moment the opinion of senior commanders such as General Mackay was that at Thermopylae they were going to stand and fight. In the colourful words of Brigadier Vasey in his response to a question from one of his men: ‘Here you bloody well are and here you bloody well stay!' But despite the determination of the soldiers, Greece was collapsing.
At a meeting between Generals Wilson and Papagos on 16 April, the Greek commander-in-chief had suggested that the British should leave Greece. Hurrying down to Athens, Wilson, on 17 April, met with King George and his advisers. He found a growing mood of despair about the country's morale and the situation of those Greek armies in the north-west now being supplied by a long and exposed road along the west coast. Defeatism, Wilson wrote, ‘was now getting widespread'. That evening the Greek Prime Minister, Alexander Korizis, went into his study and shot himself after telling the King that ‘he felt he had failed him in the task entrusted to him'.
On 19 April General Wavell arrived from Egypt and a conference was held at the Royal Palace in Athens to determine the future of Greece and the British force. General Wilson was in favour of a determined defence at Thermopylae. The Greek government's willingness to prolong the nation's suffering in the face of ever-increasing German strength, however, was waning. Another month of war and Greece's armies and her civilian population would be devastated. The decision was now taken that the British should evacuate, that the Greek armies in the north-west should fight on for as long as possible and that the:
War was … to continue in the islands with all the means and the naval forces available, since Greece was indissolubly bound up with Britain and her resolve was to fight to the end by the side of the British Empire.62
From this Greek government there would be no capitulation.
The story of the evacuation from Greece is a complex one. Firstly, there were the many engagements with the enemy by the rearguard, whose task was to hold the advancing Germans for specific periods so a swift and orderly withdrawal could proceed. An enemy breakthrough would have resulted in the capture of thousands of men. Secondly, there were the many dramatic incidents as the troops made their way to the embarkation ports and beaches. And finally, there was the embarkation itself and the hazards of the voyage from Greece.
The commander-in-chief of Britain's Mediterranean Fleet, Admiral Sir Andrew Cunningham, had long been expecting an evacuation:
When the decision to send troops [to Greece] was finally taken we started at once to think of how we should bring them out.63
Between 24 and 29 April, the Mediterranean Fleet, including warships of the RAN and attendant merchant vessels, evacuated an estimated 50,732 men and women of the British force from five embarkation areas. These were Rafina, Loutsa, and Porto Rafti to the east of Athens, Megara west of Athens, and beaches at Nafplion, Monemvassia and Kalamata in the Peloponnese. As the German hold on Greece strengthened by the day, the British and Allied army looked to the navy for its very survival.
On the night of 24–25 April, the evacuation began with the removal of more than 12,000 British and New Zealand troops from Porto Rafti and Nafplion. Between 21 and 24 April, the rearguard at Brallos Pass and Thermopylae fought back the German advance from Lamia. A minor epic of this four-day action involved two guns of the 2/2nd Field Regiment. They had been sited on a ‘mere ledge' on the forward slope of an escarpment to cover a key bridge across the Sperkhios River on the plain between Lamia and Brallos. At 6.00 pm on 21 April, a line of German trucks emerged from Lamia and raced towards the bridge. The Australian gunners opened fire and inflicted enough damage to cause the enemy to flee back into Lamia.
Throughout the night the lights of hundreds of German vehicles were observed coming down the pass into Lamia and on the morning of 22 April German guns opened fire on the Australian positions. Throughout the day an artillery duel ensued as the enemy trucks raced across the plain and their gunners tried to range in on the Australian gun pits. By 1.00 pm one gun was out of action. At this point Lieutenant John Anderson, in charge of the Australian guns, saw German infantry getting out of trucks at the foot of the escarpment. The enemy had found another route to the Brallos Pass out of sight of the Australians. Anderson and his men now lifted the tail of their one remaining gun on to the edge of the gun pit and depressed it sufficiently to allow close range bombardment of the German infantry below them. They fired fifty rounds at the enemy until German shelling destroyed their gun and forced them to withdraw. During the engagement six gunners had been killed and three seriously wounded. The 2/2nd Field Regiment's historian wrote:
Their action had undoubtedly saved a more precipitate retirement of the Anzac Corps … For these dead gunners there could well be repeated and paraphrased, the message of Leonidas: ‘Go stranger, tell at Melbourne that we who lie here died content'.64
Gradually, between 24 and 29 April, thousands of British, Australian and New Zealand soldiers were trucked through Greece to the waiting ships. During the day the trucks would stop, camouflage nets would be hung over the vehicles and the men would hide from German air attack under olive trees. The experience of any member of the AIF during this time was much like another. One who recorded her impressions of the journey was Sister Sylvia Duke of the 2/6th Australian General Hospital, and in a letter to a friend in Australia she conveyed something of the tension, anxiety and fear of her last days in Greece:
Then the nightmare drive over the mountains through the blackness of the night with no head lights … the boys clearing the road of obstruction every little while for us to proceed … driving at reckless pace around bomb holes on the roads that had sheer drops down to the sea – abandoned trucks on every side – the awful sense of complete desolation everywhere – the welcome daylight really brought no relief – we breakfasted on the roadside on tinned bully beef and dry biscuits with no cutlery just our fingers … enemy planes overhead, the convoy stopped we left our trucks and scattered running for cover into barley fields lying face downwards hugging Mother Earth and wishing our tin hats were somewhat bigger to cover more of us – we spent all day there – there was a small cemetery nearby and we camped amongst the headstones all day … Sophie it really was a terrible day – then with the night on our way again to complete our nightmare journey.65
For those who escaped from Greece during those hectic days of the evacuation, the heroes of the hour were the sailors of the British and Allied navies and the merchant ships. For the weary and harassed soldiers their reception after they had groped their way in the dark up the side of a friendly warship must have felt like a homecoming. Sergeant Lawson Youman described his relief as he was evacuated from Nafplion after a couple of unsuccessful attempts to get away:
After marching a couple of miles we came to the beach and a barge was there to take us to the boat but once again our hopes were sunk again. The barge had grounded near the beach and they could not shift it … about 0330 [28 April] they got it floated again, we waded in waist deep water to get aboard and when it was full we sailed out to where the boat was waiting for us. What pleasure awaited us when we got to the boat. The boat we loaded on was our own Aussie battle cruiser ‘Perth' and what a welcome they gave us, each man of us was given a steaming hot cup of cocoa and biscuits. You could see the change on each man's face as soon as he hit the deck, I could have cried for joy … I think the sailors were just as pleased to see us as we were to see them … We sighted Crete … and steamed up the harbour to Suda Bay and landed on a small destroyer … As the destroyer pulled away from the ‘Perth' we all sang ‘For they are jolly good fellows' and the harbour rang with our three cheers for them.66
Even once they had put to sea they were not out of danger. As the Germans advanced down through Greece they were able to launch air strikes with dive-bombers well beyond the Greek coast and the evacuation ships came under attack during daylight hours. Men fought back with whatever was available and many German planes ran into a barrage of fire from rifles, Bren guns and other small arms. Sometimes this defence was of no avail. At approximately 2.40 pm on 27 April, two bombs exploded in the water close to the port side of the troopship Costa Rica with 2600 mainly Australian soldiers on board. By 4.10 pm the Costa Rica had sunk, but not before the Royal Navy had rescued all but one of those on board. In his report of the sinking, Lieutenant Colonel Theo Walker of the 2/7th Battalion described how two British destroyers – Defender and Hereward – positioned themselves right beside the stricken ship and took the soldiers off:
At this stage, owing to the numbers on board, all personnel could not be accommodated on the decks and the alleyways and cabins on the promenade deck had to be used as well. Many troops were now on the deck below, standing there in complete darkness, however, their behaviour was exemplary, the soldiers were standing silently on parade … On the starboard side, the ships were falling and rising some eight to twelve feet and the men had to swing down ropes and jump for the destroyer's deck … the work of the Navy cannot be too highly commended.67
For the sailors on the warships making the night run from the embarkation beaches to the island of Crete, it was a nerve-racking and exhausting time. Anzac Day 1941 was no holiday for Able Seaman Patrick Bridges, RAN:
Heading for Suda Bay [Crete] with other ships loaded with troops. Germans attacked us with heavy bombs. Soldiers sleeping all over the place. No sleep last night. Pulled alongside jetty to unload troops. Went alongside another big ship and unloaded another 1000 troops. Pulled alongside wharf again and then went out and anchored. Dropped down in a corner dead beat and fell asleep straight away.68
Undoubtedly what many Australian soldiers took away with them from Greece was the manner in which the Greek people, who had greeted them so warmly on their arrival, did not desert them in defeat. As a detachment of the 2/3rd Battalion acted as a rearguard near the evacuation beaches at Kalamata they passed the cottage of an elderly Greek lady who stood by her door ‘with a tray of sliced cake and glasses of Retsina, a local wine':
She offered these to each of the soldiers as they passed by, an act which touched us deeply. We could not understand what she was saying as she tearfully proffered her gifts, but her meaning was clear and we all said things like, ‘Never mind, Ma; we'll be back and make up for all of this'.69
They never came back and mainland Greece entered a long dark night of enemy occupation.
Chapter 9: Adolf Hitler's Isle of Doom
Crete, May 1941
So now it looks like betting even
A man will soon become a Cretan
And spend his days in blackest gloom
On Adolf Hitler's Isle of Doom.70
Private Charles Robinson, 2/2nd Australian Field Ambulance, stepped ashore in Crete on 27 April 1941, one of those rescued by British destroyers during the sinking of the Costa Rica. He admired the ‘wonderful seamanship and courage' of the men of the Royal Navy who had saved his life. As Robinson marched up the dusty road that climbed away from the harbour at Suda Bay, he could see that Crete was, in one respect, no safer than mainland Greece. The island was in range of the bombers of the Luftwaffe:
We looked back to the pall of black smoke from a burning ship and the cruiser York lying half submerged and beached on the far shore.71
Those of the British force who had been saved from possible captivity in Greece were undoubtedly grateful for their rescue. Brigadier George Vasey, the senior Australian officer on Crete, said to one of his chaplains:
You know Padre, those bastards might have beaten us. Without God's help we would not be here. You had better offer thanks for us and arrange a service for everyone in the brigade tomorrow.72
On 4 May 1941, church services were held all over Crete as a thanksgiving for the deliverance from Greece. At Kalives, the local public school building was filled three times for services conducted by Chaplain Youll. An Australian officer wrote of another service:
I've attended church services in many parts of the world and in outstanding buildings, but that little service under the olive trees in Crete will stand always in my mind as outstanding in its sincerity and impressive impact.73
There now began for Private Robinson, and many thousands of other Australian, New Zealand and British evacuees from the mainland, what he called three weeks of ‘gypsy life'. Many men had left nearly all their personal equipment behind at the evacuation:
I had a blanket and a greatcoat and for a week or more shared the blanket with three others. We would sleep in a row with greatcoats on and the blanket over our feet … I slipped into Canea [Hania] and bought a brush and a razor. Except for a table knife that was all my equipment.74
From the army they received cold tinned food and biscuits. Many men had to eat without implements and the empty cans were used as mugs. The food, often herrings in tomato sauce, was christened ‘goldfish in blood' and the nature of the army biscuits was summed up in the phrase ‘bathroom tiles'. Baths were taken in icy streams and clothes washing was done by local women. However, pay arrived and the local villagers soon responded to the needs of the thousands of soldiers who had so suddenly arrived among them. Fresh Greek bread was available from roadside ovens and a local taverna under a plane tree, near where Private Robinson was billeted, provided egg and chips, goat cheese and Krassi, a potent rough wine. Later, an old shepherd came through their lines with a goatskin of wine and filled any drinking vessel the soldiers offered:
Our little party had a gourd or calabash made from a scooped out marrow and this would be eagerly quaffed before bedding down in the hope of early oblivion, and surcease from the cold. Don [Private Don McCaskill] was a teetotaller but he, no doubt, obtained some warmth from the fumes exuded by the rest of us.75
Robinson's most potent memory of those ‘gypsy' weeks on Crete concerned an enterprising entrepreneur of Neo Khorion. Under the olive trees he erected a restaurant consisting of a camp stool, a board, a bag of eggs, a bottle of olive oil, a large frying pan, one plate and a knife and fork. Clients sat on the stool while the board was placed on their lap along with the plate and the knife and fork. The cook then threw olive twigs on the fire and proceeded to whisk up two eggs in olive oil until they had absorbed the oil. The cooked eggs, complemented by a slice of rough local bread, were then transferred to the plate. Afterwards the plate was wiped clean with a rag and the next customer took his place:
To this day my favourite winter breakfast is eggs scrambled Crete fashion.76
But more desperate days lay ahead for the British force on Crete. In the evenings, Charles Robinson and his mates listened at the local taverna to the English language broadcasts from Germany of the infamous British traitor ‘Lord Haw-Haw'. Haw-Haw dubbed them the ‘Island of Doomed Men' and boasted that there was a German ‘bomb for every olive tree' and a ‘bullet for every blade of grass' on Crete. The doom that the Germans were preparing was an airborne invasion of the island.
Even though his divisions had captured all of mainland Greece, Hitler was still concerned that long-range RAF bombers, operating from Crete, might threaten the vital Romanian oilfields. Seizure of Crete would prevent this and move the Luftwaffe much closer to British supply lines to the Middle East. On 21 April 1941, Hitler met with General Kurt Student, commander of the XI Fliegerkorps, who assured the Führer that his paratroopers, assisted by other airborne and naval units, could capture Crete. The next day, Hitler gave the order for ‘Operation Merkur', the invasion of Crete. The German plan was to drop paratroopers near the three airfields on the north coast of Crete at Maleme, Rethymno and Heraklio. Once these had been taken, reinforcements could be quickly brought in by air transports. Additional forces would be despatched from the mainland by sea. Throughout late April and the first three weeks in May 1941, the Germans assembled their airborne forces in Greece for what would be the greatest German parachute operation of World War II.
By 28 April the Greek government of Prime Minister Emmanuel Tsouderos, along with the King, George II, had established itself at Hania in Crete. They offered to place all Greek forces on the island under a British commander and Churchill cabled General Wavell in Cairo that ‘the island must be stubbornly defended'. Churchill had learned that the Germans were preparing an airborne landing and he thought that a stubborn resistance would be a ‘fine opportunity for killing the parachute troops'. Major General Bernard Freyberg, the commander of the 2nd New Zealand Division, was appointed as the British commander-in-chief of what became known as ‘Creforce'.
Creforce was basically a motley collection of units that had been evacuated from the Greek mainland, a small British force that had been on the island for a number of months, and local Greek forces. All in all it amounted to some 39,250 soldiers—15,000 Britons, 7750 New Zealanders, 6500 Australians and 10,000 Greeks. Among the British forces, a considerable number were base troops, untrained for battle. Most of the Greek troops had had but five weeks training, their weapons were antiquated and most men had never fired a shot. The force had virtually no air cover and it lacked basic military equipment such as proper modern artillery pieces and tanks. Eventually, a small number of reinforcements along with a few tanks arrived on the island, but of one hundred anticipated artillery pieces, Creforce received only forty-nine French and captured Italian field guns:
Sufficient to say that many did not arrive, others came without their instruments, some without their sights, some without ammunition, and some of the ammunition without fuses … The gunners … were either British Regular Army, Australians or New Zealanders; men of infinite resource and energy; they set to work and one lot made a sighting appliance out of wood and chewing gum … Nobody groused and everybody got on with the job.77
Freyberg allocated his men to the defence of the three airfields. These, he knew, were the key to a German airborne attack. If one of them fell then the enemy would be able to mount a sustained build-up which must lead to the likely defeat of Creforce.
As May wore on, the German air offensive on Crete intensified. On 16 May the 2/4th Battalion positions at Heraklio suffered a particularly heavy attack:
Rolfe [Captain Rolfe] and his two sigs [signallers] hugged the bottom of their dugout as they waited for the scream of the bombs … The bombs landed horribly close – ten feet away. Moses asked Rolfe if he was all right. Rolfe replied ‘Don't wake me. I can hear angels singing'. There was a sudden burst of profanity from Warrant Officer [Harry] Watts which brought everyone back to reality. He had been airing his clothes alongside a box of hand grenades … A bomb splinter had sent the grenades off as well as Harry's clothes. All he could find in the debris was his Rising Sun hat badge and his colour patch. The rest had just disappeared – with the grenades.78
At 6.45 am on 20 May 1941, General Freyberg and his staff stood watching as a massive German aerial bombardment hit positions round the Suda Bay area. The Germans were pinpointing the anti-aircraft guns and each gun was being attacked by up to three Stukas. Clouds of dust from the bomb bursts filled the air. This seemed to be more than the normal daily raid that the men of Creforce had become used to:
I stood on the hill … enthralled by the magnitude of the operation. While we were still watching the bombers, we suddenly became aware of a greater throbbing in the moments of comparative quiet, and, looking out to sea with the glasses, I picked out hundreds of planes tier on tier coming towards us – here were the huge, slow-moving troop carriers with the loads we were expecting.79
The German paratroopers were heading in towards Crete.
Chapter 10: The place is alive with parachutists
Maleme airfield and the evacuation from Sfakia, 20–29 May 1941
One chap stood up in the trench and said ‘The place is alive with parachutists'.80
On the morning of 20 May 1941 Lance Corporal Lindsay Negus was a patient in a British military hospital south of Hania. He got out of bed at 7.00 am, washed and was getting ready for breakfast at about 8.00 am when he heard aircraft overhead. For what seemed like two hours, Negus and others sheltered in a slit trench as the hospital area was bombed and machine gunned by the Germans. As the bombing stopped, Negus looked skyward and saw:
About 500 planes of all sizes, fighters, bombers, gliders and troop carriers. We said quietly ‘a bloody invasion!' One chap stood up in the trench and said ‘The place is alive with parachutists'.81
That morning General Student's XI Fliegerkorps landed parachute and glider-borne troops in a number of locations along the coast to the west and south-west of the Cretan capital, Hania. At many places the parachutists came under heavy small arms fire from the ground and many were killed.
The landing ground most crucial to the Germans was around the airfield at Maleme. Here they met the defence of the 22nd New Zealand Battalion, which battled throughout the day to deny the paratroopers this vital position. However, by the evening of 20 May Student's men had secured a toehold on the western end of the airfield and during the next two days they stoutly defended this position despite counter-attacks by the New Zealanders. Ominously for the defenders of Maleme, at 8.10 am on 21 May a German transport plane was able to land and take off under artillery fire and by late afternoon enemy transports were landing in a steady stream. A last New Zealand counter-attack on 22 May failed to make progress and that night it was decided that a withdrawal would take place from the airfield area back towards Hania. As Gavin Long records in the Australian official history of the events:
This decision, made about 10 pm on the 22nd, was an acceptance that Crete had been lost. Thenceforward the enemy could use the airfield without hindrance.82
That same night, the King of Greece and his government were taken off Crete in two British destroyers.
As the German assault from Maleme airfield developed, the Australian 2/7th Battalion was brought eastwards from Rethymno to reinforce the New Zealanders. Brigadier Vasey moved to Hania, where he now had two battalions – the 2/7th and 2/8th. There were also other Australian units in the area, such as the 2/2nd Field Regiment (minus its guns and acting as infantry), the 16th and 17th Australian Composite Brigades and various other units made up of artillerymen, engineers and base troops. Reg Burgoyne, a 2/2nd Battalion soldier in the 16th Composite Brigade, had little faith in the battalion's fighting capacity:
It was a horrible thing. We were only a depleted battalion made up of odds and sods. Cooks, clerks, you name it and they were all there. Some could shoot, some couldn't. And all we had was out-of-date equipment … We had a Hotchkiss gun from World War I with a strip magazine but we had no strips for it. We had a Vickers machine gun but had no tripod mounting for it. We had a 3-inch mortar but had no base plate for it and that was our armaments.83
By 26 May the British force at Hania was in severe difficulty. Hunger, tiredness and constant unopposed German air attack had taken its toll. General Freyberg sent a message to General Wavell in Cairo which began:
I regret to have to inform you that the limit of endurance has been reached by the troops under my command here at Suda Bay … A small ill-equipped and immobile force such as ours cannot stand up against the concentrated bombing that we have been faced with over the last seven days.84
Permission to evacuate Crete came through on 27 May, but even before this many men had been told to begin making their way south over the mountains to the little coastal village of Sfakia.
As the force withdrew, the 2/7th and 2/8th Battalions formed part of the rearguard, along with a force of British Royal Marine Commandos and New Zealand infantry. On 27 May, strung out from north to south along a road known as 42nd Street, they met the Germans advancing eastwards from Hania. Here the commander of the Maori 28th Battalion, Colonel Dittmer, informed the Australian battalion commanders that if the Germans came to ‘close quarters' with his battalion then he would order his men to rush them. The Australians agreed to cooperate and there followed one of the minor epics of the 2/7th Battalion's war history – the charge at 42nd Street. At 11.00 am, 400 of the enemy were sighted moving astride the Suda Bay road. Tension among the men of the 2/7th was high. For days they had been pulling back under heavy enemy aerial bombardment, unable to really engage the German infantry. Now they were being given the order to attack:
When this order went out it seemed to lift the tension that had been hanging over us for the past few days. The time had come when we were going to show Jerry a few tricks.85
A patrol now worked its way to within 200 metres of a group of Germans who were raiding an abandoned depot. They charged and drove off the startled Germans. Soon two companies of the 2/7th were rushing forward:
Nelson [Captain ED Nelson], shot in the shoulder, was bowled over. Lieut. Bernard took over, leading the headlong rush, even after being wounded himself. Mick Baxter [Private BA Baxter] was pelting towards a group of Germans … As he came closer, the well-protected Germans climbed out of the wadi [gully] and, throwing away their arms, fled literally for their lives. Many of the ditched weapons were automatic and the Australians … seized them and turned them on the Germans. At such close range they were devastating.86
By 12 noon the German line was in full retreat. The 19th, 21st and 28th New Zealand Battalions were also prominent in this action but there was uncertainty as to whether it was the New Zealanders or the Australians who charged first. After the war Colonel Dittmer graciously wrote:
The 28th Battalion thought the 2/7th Australian Battalion a really great unit and does not wish to deprive the 2/7 of any credit that is its due.87
The battle of 42nd Street did little more than delay the Germans, who worked their way to the south of the British rearguard and forced it back. By the night of 27 May the British force was in full retreat over the mountains. While the rearguard and some others maintained discipline, among other units there was a desperate scramble to get away from the Germans and towards possible evacuation:
I knew I was taking part in a retreat; in fact I wondered if it should not be called more correctly a rout as, on all sides, men were hurrying along in disorder. Most of them had thrown away their rifles and a number had even discarded their tunics, as it was a hot day … Nearly every side of the road and of the ditches on either side was strewn with abandoned arms and accoutrements, blankets, gas masks, packs, kit-bags, sun helmets, cases and containers of all shapes and sizes, tinned provisions, and boxes of cartridges and hand grenades; now and then one ran across officers' valises and burst-open suitcases.88
As he made his way up the narrow zig-zag road into the mountains, Charles Robinson, 2/2nd Field Ambulance, came upon an awful sight. A number of infantrymen who had been fighting hard for days at Maleme had fallen asleep by the roadside and had been run over by a truck which failed to stop. There were broken thighs, a fractured pelvis and broken ankles. The Australian medical team did what it could, then pressed on hoping that the advancing Germans would give proper care to their suffering comrades.
The fate of a large part of the British force on Crete was now, once again, in the hands of a fighting rearguard and the sailors of the Mediterranean Fleet. Between 28 and 31 May approximately 14,500 men made their way over the mountains of Crete and assembled around the end of the tarred road near Sfakia. From there a narrow goat track wound its way down to the small fishing village with its narrow beach. As the rearguard did its best to hold up the Germans, the embarkations began. On the night of 28–29 May four destroyers, including HMASpierASzam, embarked 744 evacuees. Official figures forpieright were thirty-six officers, 260 other ranks, three women, one Chinaman, one Greek, ten merchant seaman and one dog. Over the next three nights a further 8703 were taken off by groups of warships, among which werePerth,pierzam. Approximately 5000 men were left behind to become prisoners-of-war. Lance Corporal Lindsay Negus was one of the lucky ones:
It took us from the 27th to the night of the 30th May to reach our embarkation point. I was knocked over by a lorry, fell down the hill-side twice, and had no sleep for a week, frightened to go to sleep, legs and hands cut and full of thorns, but we all kept going – anything to beat our ruthless enemy. I was on board H.M.A.S. Perth and slept for a couple of hours after a cup of hot cocoa and biscuits. You have no idea of what it feels like to be safe, just going from hell to heaven. I shall never go to sleep before thanking God for bringing us out. Our arrival at port [Alexandria, Egypt] was greeted by the Red Cross with steaming hot tea and cocoa and biscuits, fruit and chocolates … All I have at present is one pair of shorts and a shirt plus my razor and pay-book. Everything that you gave me [his mother] is gone, my souvenirs and things I bought to send home to you all, but never mind, I still have my life, thanks to our lads who fought rear-guards to keep the Hun back while most of us escaped … I know what it is like to be hungry and thirsty.89
As therth towards Egypt in the daylight hours of 30 May with Corporal Negus and 1187 other soldiers and refugees on board, it was attacked by dive-bombers.rth direct hit behind the bridge. The bomb penetrated to the ‘A' boiler room then exploded, killing two cooks, two stokers, two Royal Marines and seven soldiers. Warrant Officer Henry Hill and Stoker Petty Officer William Reece stayed in a boiler room full of scalding steam as they tried to rescue another sailor. They brought him out, but he died and they were both badly scalded. For their courage Hill received the DSC (Distinguished Service Cross) and Reece the DSM (Distinguished Service Medal). Both men were later lost in the sinking of therthion against the Japanese on 1 March 1942.
Perhaps one of the saddest stories of the Sfakia evacuation is that of the 2/7th Battalion and its colonel, Theo Walker. The unit fought its way as part of the rearguard along the road leading to Sfakia from the north of Crete. On 29 May the men were informed that ‘they had lost the toss' and were to hold the last rearguard position with other units in the hills above Sfakia. They struggled against the long queues of soldiers on the approaches to Sfakia and took up their positions many kilometres from the village. During 30 May the sun beat down and the 2/7th came under fairly constant enemy shell-fire. Ammunition, food and water were all low. Twelve men worked for eight hours to carry 110 litres of water to the 2/7th and a Maori Battalion. By 31 May the Germans were close and directed machine-gun fire from higher up upon the 2/7th positions. The Australians found their return fire was not reaching the enemy and they were anxious to attack to break the unending strain of this fairly inactive defence. Then, at 9.00 pm, came the order to withdraw to the beach.
For kilometre after kilometre, most of it downhill over very rough ground, the 2/7th made its way to what all hoped was evacuation and blessed rest. As Major Henry Marshall recalled, they were exhausted:
I could have no mercy on them and I had to haze them and threaten them and push them into a faster speed … Falls were numerous … one of the A Company men fell and refused to get up, wanting to be left where he fell, and not caring if he was captured or not … I pulled him up and supported him for the next eight kilometres; every time we stopped he sagged and pleaded to be left.90
In the blackness of the early hours of 1 June 1941, various parties of the 2/7th managed to make their way to the Sfakia beach. On the tortuous path leading down to the beach Colonel Theo Walker kept them together by having each man grab hold of the belt of the man in front as they made their way through a mass of disorganised troops. Finally, the 2/7th assembled in ranks on the beach as the last naval barge left for the awaiting destroyers. A naval officer on this barge watched the battalion standing there ‘quiet and orderly in its ranks'. Colonel Walker was on this barge and he realised that his men were not going to make it:
So Walker said ‘Alright. Well if you can't get my men off put me back on shore'. And him and his offsider went back on shore again. And I remember seeing them in POW camp. He used to walk round in a pair of pyjamas. And he was CO of the battalion. He said ‘If it's good enough for them it's good enough for me'. He was safe, he was home, and he went back to his men.91
The 2/7th sailed for Greece on 10 April 1941 with thirty-three officers and 726 other ranks. In Greece the battalion lost seven dead and seventy-three became POWs. From Crete, just sixteen men made it back to Alexandria. For the 2/7th, Crete had proved to be an ‘Isle of Doom'.
Chapter 11: Guarding it even in death
The Australians at Rethymno 20–29 May 1941
And so the Bren was relayed through the section until it almost reached the well in the hands of the last runner; and he too was killed as he went down kneeling over it, guarding it even in death.92
The German paratroopers came to Rethymno shortly after 4.00 pm on 20 May 1941. Along the coast, between the villages of Perivolia and Stavromenos, a distance of some 8 kilometres, 161 slow-moving Junkers JU-52 transports dropped 1500 men of Colonel Sturm's 2nd Parachute Rifle Regiment from a height of 120 metres. Private Tom Halliday of the 2/1st Australian Machine Gun Battalion watched the Junkers fly down the coast as his Vickers heavy machine gun went into action:
Our positions were unknown to the Germans who flew along the beach at exactly the right height for our guns to do the most damage and they certainly did … several Junkers crashed, no troops jumped from others and few planes did not suffer some casualties. Many paratroopers landed in our gun position and were all killed. One by Ted Banfield with the spare barrel!93
At Rethymno the Germans fell to earth in an area where the defence was composed mainly of Australians – the 2/1st and 2/11th Battalions, supported by elements of the 2/3rd Field Regiment, the 2/1st Machine Gun Battalion, a Greek battalion and about 800 ‘well-disciplined' Cretan policemen. Lieutenant Colonel Ian Campbell of the 2/1st Battalion commanded the force and its task was simple: to deny the Germans the airfield at all costs.
A considerable number of paratroopers dropped straight on to one of the most vital points at Rethymno – Hill ‘A', overlooking the eastern end of the airfield. As the paratroopers landed, the fighting on Hill ‘A' turned into a series of isolated small actions fought by individuals to kill the Germans or drive them away from their positions. The gunners of the 2/3rd Field Regiment were virtually defenceless, as few of them had rifles or machine guns. Soon Germans were moving around looking for Australians to kill and one of them found three gunners hiding in a slit trench:
The machine-gunning had scarcely ceased … when a German appeared on his hands and knees at the edge of the trench … and facing me [Doug Morris]. He had a hand grenade in his mouth, a machine pistol in one hand, and an automatic pistol in the other. There was a split second's shock delay during which time it came to me that he was too far away to grapple with – nevertheless I made a move towards him, but had scarcely risen when he fired … Fortunately he was a poor shot, or still shocked, since he merely hit my steel helmet … he then emptied his pistol into us at random and I received multiple wounds … I was in great pain but unable to get out of the trench.94
Fighting, severe at times, went on throughout the late afternoon and early evening at ‘Hill A' as the Australians, and their Greek allies, fought to contain the German landings. Many paratroopers were killed in the air as they floated down near the positions of the 2/11th Battalion, further to the west at ‘Hill B'. Strong parties of Germans were seen moving west of Hill B towards the small village of Perivolia, and by nightfall significant areas of Hill A were in German hands. But the paratroopers had suffered heavy casualties, and the all-important airfield had not been captured.
On 21 May, the men of the 2/1st Battalion made a concerted effort to drive the enemy from Hill A. An initial early morning advance ran into difficulties, and when it looked as if the whole position might fall, Captain Orpen Boyd Moriarty telephoned Colonel Campbell at headquarters with the simple message that things were ‘very desperate'. Campbell personally led reinforcements to Moriarty's position, and ordered that the Germans be driven from the hill as soon as possible. Moriarty organised his force into four groups and pushed forward vigorously, one group outflanking enemy positions by moving down a gully west of Hill A. The paratroopers were beaten off their positions, down on to the level country towards the sea, and then to the east. Here they fortified an olive oil factory close to the village of Stavromenos. Campbell later wrote that ‘the crisis on Hill A seemed to be over along with the immediate threat to the airstrip'.
For the next five days a battle raged at the olive oil factory as a combined Australian and Greek force tried to dislodge the Germans. The thick-walled buildings offered the paratroopers good cover, and an attack led by Captain Moriarty on the morning of 22 May, despite good artillery support from guns of the 2/3rd Field Regiment on Hill A, was aborted. While scouting ahead of his men, Moriarty was killed. Campbell planned an attack later that day but this too, despite a determined charge by men of the 2/1st Battalion, who ‘rushed forward with a yell', was unsuccessful. It was clear the Australians were fighting an elite German force and Campbell later wrote that the paratroopers were:
… the finest looking group of young men I have ever met. Handpicked. The fought bravely and fairly. We had 500 of them as prisoners of war, so I saw a lot of them.
Despite these setbacks, Campbell's force, by comparison with allied efforts on other parts of the island, was doing well and the allied commander, General Freyberg, congratulated them: ‘You have done magnificently'. The olive oil factory finally fell to the 2/1st on 26 May, ending any threat to Campbell's force in the east.
Meanwhile, to the west closer to Rethymno, another fierce struggle developed. Here the 2/11th faced a strong group of paratroopers under Captain Weidermann. These men had been able to collect up their heavy weapons after landing and they attempted to take Rethymno itself, but were beaten off by the Cretan police. They then established themselves in Perivolia. Between 21 and 28 May, the 2/11th in a series of counter-attacks attempted to drive the Germans from the village.
One of the most determined of the Australian attacks on Perivolia was made at dawn on 27 May. Before the infantrymen of the 2/11th could advance, supported by two tanks, a particularly threatening enemy machine-gun and observation post in the tower of the nearby St George's Church had to be removed. This task fell to the 2/3rd Field Regiment:
We felt our way around the dark deserted group of houses and selected the kitchen of a house which had a window facing Perivolia. The gun squeezed into the room and the long barrel poked out the window … At first light we trained the gun on the dominant steeple of St George's. We observed through our binoculars and could see movement in the three small windows of the steeple. The gun was loaded and we aimed at the top of the window. The recoil was like the kick of a dozen mules and the bark was deep and metallic. We were using armour piercing shot and we followed the track of the tracer. It curved in a flat trajectory and the shot was a bullseye. It punched a hole clear through the back wall of the steeple. In quick succession direct hits were scored on the other two windows … There was no further movement from the steeple.95
After the destruction of the German position in St George's, the tanks advanced. However, they did not get far. One was hit by a shell and caught fire. The other, not realising that the 2/11th infantrymen had crawled to a ditch straight in front of them, opened fire and hit two of their own men. The tank went another 30 metres before it struck a mine, lurched a few metres further and then bogged in sand. In the first tank was Gunner George Eldridge, 2/3rd Field Regiment, who recalled the moments after the shell hit:
I was dazed and almost suffocated by the cordite fumes. When I looked down I saw my legs were almost pulp. Using my arms, I yanked myself back into the main compartment. Ian McNeilage was slumped over the breech of the two pounder. I sensed he was dead. The blast from the shell had almost cut him in half … Something told me I had to get out of the tank … The tank was still in motion. It had been left in gear when the driver jumped out … Suddenly the bullets stopped hitting the tank. I ducked my head up and saw a building was between me and the Germans. Knowing it was now or never, I heaved myself up and rolled down the back of the tank. I don't remember hitting the road. I just kept rolling until I fell into a gutter. My last view of the tank was it lurching along the road to Rethymno.96
At this point, Captain Ralph Honner, 2/11th Battalion, thought that it would be pointless to press the attack without tank cover. Then he heard that one of his forward platoons might have broken through the German line into Perivolia and Honner felt he must go forward to support this platoon. As nine men led by Corporal Tom Willoughby went forward to give cover to the advance with their Bren gun, there occurred one of the tragedies of the 2/11th's war on Crete. Honner ordered them to make for a stone wall around a well about 20 metres from the German line:
As the rest of the company opened rapid fire on the trenches and the houses to quieten the enemy's guns Willoughby's gallant team leaped from the ditch and started racing along a low hedge leading past the disabled tank to the well. Willoughby was nearly there before he fell. Behind him the Bren-gunner went down. The next rifleman caught up the gun in passing and went on until he was killed, and so the bren was relayed through the section until it almost reached the well in the hands of the last runner; and he too was killed as he went down kneeling over it, guarding it even in death. Eight brave men were lost there.97
Despite further efforts, the 2/11th were unable to break into Perivolia.
By 28 May, the British main force on Crete at Hania was in full retreat towards Sfakia and evacuation. Unfortunately, messages to Colonel Campbell telling him of the situation never reached Rethymno. One of these was in a code no German would have been able to decipher:
Waratahs Bulli Puckapunyals St Kilda Gropers Albany Bogin Hopit.98
Loosely translated this indicated that New South Welshmen (Waratahs), Puckapunyals (Victorians) and Gropers (Sandgropers – West Australians) should all make for the south coast, indicated by the placenames Bulli, St Kilda and Albany. ‘Bogin hopit', according to Gavin Long in the official history, meant ‘Fight your way; get moving'. However, by 29 May strong German forces stood between Rethymno and the road south to Sfakia. The Rethymno force was trapped and their ultimate position hopeless. While they had not been able to drive the Germans from Perivolia, Campbell's men had denied the paratroopers the airfield, contained them to a small village, killed more than 500 of them and taken 500 prisoners.
On 29 May, Colonel Campbell decided on surrender. The commander of the 2/11th, Lieutenant Colonel Raymond Sandover, gave his men the option of either surrendering or, after destroying their weapons, taking to the mountains and trying to escape from Crete in any way possible. White flags were now hung out around the Australian positions and Campbell led his men into captivity. It was a moment brilliantly captured by Captain Cliff Mott, 2/3rd Field Regiment:
I recall the march down the road at the end. Out front was that grand man, Lieutenant Colonel IR Campbell and with him, carrying a white flag, the commanding officer's quartermaster. Our Battery Commander, Major Ian Bessell-Browne and I came next and behind us the troops – our troops, the Gunners. How, I wondered, were they reacting to capitulation? Angry? Surly? Complaining? Resentful? Noisy? I felt that I should not look round and kept ‘eyes front' myself. But it seemed important to know and at last … I turned my head … What did I find? Every gunner was in step, every man erect, every man looking his own height and straight to the front. Not a word was spoken, not an eye twitched. Never, I felt, would 6 Battery be defeated. And never, I knew, would 6 Battery be humiliated.99
Chapter 12: Remember this is war
Heraklio: Defence and evacuation 20–29 May 1941
This is the Bridge. We have been hit. Precious lives have been lost – but remember this is war. We are still in convoy and we have not lost speed. Thank you for your calmness. We will make it.100
For XI Fliegerkorps the attempt to capture Heraklio and its airfield was a disaster. On 20 May 1941, as at Maleme and Rethymno, the paratroopers dropped after an intensive Luftwaffe bombardment:
For more than an hour the area was ceaselessly bombed and machine-gunned by aircraft which came so low that one flew below a strand of barbed wire which the troops had strung between the two Charlies [two rocky hills]. The noise was stunning; the bombs falling at intervals of a few seconds or less, made the ground quake; but again few men were hit.101
At 5.00 pm 240 Junkers transports came into view. The aerial convoy stretched for 8 kilometres, flying parallel with the coast and about 30 metres above the water. One Australian soldier was ‘spellbound by the futuristic nature and magnificence of the scene'. As they turned inland for the drop zones, the transports rose to 80 metres, dropped their paratroopers, then turned out to sea. As they came in over Heraklio, the slow-moving planes became targets for the twelve Bofors guns of the 7th Battery, 2/3rd Australian Light Anti-Aircraft Regiment, and the British 156 Light Anti-Aircraft Battery. Norm Johnstone and Dick Parry, both of the 2/4th Battalion, later wrote of the dramatic scene as the gunners' shells struck their targets:
Nine troop carriers came straight at us. There was a familiar series of explosions from the drome [airfield] and we watched red streaks of tracer shells carrying upwards. The first plane was hit squarely on the nose and, bursting into flames, crashed on the shore. The next plane also caught fire and crashed in front of us before any paratroops had succeeded in jumping. The third was hit and caught fire but blew up. The fourth plane burst into flames, the men jumped and most of their ‘chutes opened but the flames from the burning plane seemed to reach down and I saw puffs of smoke as each parachute burned and the poor devils hurtled to their deaths. The fifth plane had its tail shot off and crash-landed just to our left; the troops jumped at about fifty feet and all were killed. The sixth plane dropped its men but was hit and almost crashed on us, passing over our heads with a bare six feet to spare and crashed fifty yards away. The rest of the planes were brought down on our right, so not one escaped.102
As they floated to earth, many Germans were killed by small arms and machine-gun fire and those who did reach the ground among the British and Australian infantry positions were quickly dealt with. One transport crash-landed near C Company, 2/4th Battalion, and was attacked by three soldiers who threw hand grenades into the plane and machine-gunned it. By the morning of 21 May it was clear that the German assault on Heraklio had failed. Enemy intelligence had underestimated the number of British troops in the area and the air-drop itself had been badly coordinated. More than 950 German dead were collected in the British defended areas and a further 300 in the town defended by Greek battalions.
A tragic aspect of the Heraklio fighting was the involvement of the local population. The Germans accused the Greeks and the military forces in the area of atrocities against their paratroopers and on 23 May leaflets outlining these accusations were dropped over Heraklio. In retaliation, the Germans threatened wholesale destruction of villages and reprisals. The historian of the 2/4th Battalion described the Australian soldiers' reaction to these leaflets:
The leaflets fell in the battalion area in both languages [Greek and English]. The men were not impressed with their message. Some tried them as a substitute for cigarette papers, a very scarce commodity at the time, but the paper was porous and too thick. Others found a more obvious use for them and for which purpose they were found to be admirable. And others merely folded them and put them in their wallets as souvenirs.103
Whatever the truth of the enemy allegations, between 23 and 29 May the Luftwaffe destroyed Heraklio, the largest town on Crete with a population of 36,000. A particularly severe air raid occurred on 23 May after the Greek garrison refused a German call to surrender. A chemical store near the harbour was hit and, in addition to the normal dust raised by bomb explosions, red smoke filled the skies. The civilians were now evacuated and a British unit garrisoned the town. Captain Paul Tomlinson, the 2/4th's Regimental Medical Officer, provided a stark description of the ruins:
Heraklio was one large stretch of decomposing dead, debris from destroyed dwelling places, roads were wet and running from burst water pipes, hungry dogs were scavenging among the dead. There was a stench of sulphur, smouldering fires and pollution of broken sewers. Conditions were set for a major epidemic.104
After their initial failure to seize the airfield and the town, the Germans flew in more men and equipment, regrouped and began probing the defences preparatory to a major attack. This build up was partly delayed by a British naval battle group patrolling the seas north of Crete looking for German sea-borne reinforcements. On 22 May, the Perth sank a Greek caique with German troops heading for Heraklio. Later, a much larger force of reinforcement ships, also heading for Heraklio, was sighted. The British warships gave chase but abandoned the search as enemy air attacks increased. Perth was shaken by near-misses and two British ships were hit.
Even before the Germans were ready to mount a full-scale attack on Heraklio, the garrison had been given orders to evacuate. At 11.30 pm on 28 May a naval force consisting of the cruisers Orion and Dido, and six accompanying destroyers, arrived off Heraklio to embark the force. As the men of the 2/4th Battalion slid away in the darkness towards the awaiting destroyers, they deceived the enemy into thinking that their positions were still held. In much the same way as their forefathers had done on Gallipoli twenty-six years previously, they rigged up cans of water to pieces of string attached to the triggers of rifles, which fired as the cans fell.
As the warships sped off into the night from Crete, the soldiers relaxed after weeks of tension and bombardment. They were not able to do so for long. At 4.00 am on 29 May, the steering gear of the destroyer Imperial broke down and her evacuees were transferred to the Hotspur. To prevent the ship falling into enemy hands,Hotspur torpedoed it. Unfortunately, one Australian, Private Alexander Webb of the 2/4th, had been asleep below decks on the Imperial and he was left on board. Webb, hearing the torpedoes strike, rushed on deck and, just before the ship sank, dived into the water. He was not observed and picked up but finding a piece of wreckage to cling to, he drifted back to Crete where he eventually fell into German hands and became a POW.
The convoy dashed on but at 6.00 am more than a hundred Stukas appeared. The destroyer Hereward was hit and Gunner William Morris Dellar, 2/3rd Australian Light Anti-Aircraft Regiment, described what happened:
Shortly afterwards though, there was another alarm, then a bomb, exploding in the water close to the destroyer, shook the plates against which I was resting. Another bomb landed amidships and apparently penetrated to the boiler room, bursting the pipes and causing some of the crew to be badly burned around the face and exposed parts of the body, by the escaping steam. The lights in our compartment faded and we were in complete darkness except for the meagre light from the manhole above. Most of us climbed or were pulled through the manhole to the upper deck.
It was a scene of confusion on deck, a petty officer was giving instructions to those left on board to leave the destroyer immediately. He said that it was a case of everyone for himself. The Hereward was making no leeway. The sea was dotted with soldiers and sailors, some clinging to Carley floats, others drifting on the surface. In the immediate neighbourhood of the Hereward, the surface of the water was covered with a film of oil and ropes fastened to the top rail dangled into the water supporting apparently those who could not swim and had no other means of support. Baff Burns, one of the members of my gun crew, and I decided to explore the ship for anything that might float. On entering a cabin, we found two blow-up type lifebelts hanging on a hook beside the cabin door. One was a good one but the other one was slightly damaged as the plug that kept the air in, was missing. However I blew it up, tied the rubber teat with a piece of cord, doubled the teat over and tied it again, as one would with a football bladder. No doubt it was mainly instrumental in saving me from drowning. We pulled the door off its hinges and souvenired a hammock from the cabin, then searched for a rope to lash the rolled up hammock to the door. One of the guncrews had been hit by a bomb. With guncrew members dead about the gun, one of them with half his head blown away, we had to move him to get the rope he was lying on.
I went down over the side on one of the ropes, into the water, then Baff threw our improvised raft down to me and came down the rope too. One on each side of it, we started to paddle it along the side of the destroyer. At each rope we came to, those holding on made a grab for our raft until eventually it sank from weight of numbers. I asked Baff what he was going to do. He said that he would go back on board, but I told him I would swim out to sea as I could see smoke rising from the destroyer and I decided that I would sooner drown than be burned to death. So some of those on board pulled Baff up on board whilst I swam away. Enemy planes were circling and I thought the quicker I got away from the ship the better. That was the last I saw of Baff. He went down with the Hereward when I was about half a mile from it.105
Those on the Hereward were lucky. Ships of the Italian navy rescued most of them, including Gunner Dellar.
The enemy was not finished with the convoy. Over the next few hours, most of the ships were hit. At 10.45 am, 160 kilometres from Crete, the Stukas struckOrion, which had more than 1100 soldiers on board. One bomb passed through the bridge and exploded on a mess deck, killing 260 and wounding 280 others. Next, the Dido was hit. Bill Andrews, 2/4th Battalion, was on board:
The scene was shocking. Most of the members of our particular section were dead. Those surviving, with a few exceptions, were shockingly burnt. The few survivors were removed and a naval fire control gang took over the clean up, which consisted mostly of stokers' shovels along the red hot steel deck and the placement of the shovels' contents into sandbags where any discs [personal identity discs] were extracted and placed in a heap.106
It was at this point that Private Kenneth Moses, 2/4th Battalion, remembered the words of the Dido's captain coming over the ship's public address system: ‘Precious lives have been lost—but remember this is war'. The convoy finally steamed into Alexandria at 8.00 pm that night and landed 3486 soldiers, some 600 having been killed or captured on passage from Crete. Among the dead were forty-eight members of the 2/4th Battalion and the 7th Battery of the 2/3rd Light Anti-Aircraft Regiment.
In the naval battles and evacuation convoys round Crete the British Mediterranean Fleet lost three cruisers and six destroyers. More than 2000 naval personnel were killed. It had been a battle not of warship against warship but of ships against bombers and dive bombers. In his summing up of the naval contribution to the battle for Crete, Admiral Cunningham wrote of the mental and physical exhaustion of his sailors and that by the end they had been near ‘breaking point'. There can be little doubt, however, that the sentiments of one Australian soldier rescued from Crete, about these same sailors, would have been endorsed by all those rescued from ‘Adolf Hitler's Isle of Doom':
Once again the AIF is saying from the depths of its heart, thank God for the Navy, who have twice saved our lives and succoured us into safety.107
Chapter 13: A great risk in a good cause
Australia and Greece, 1941
Australia was not likely to refuse to take a great risk in a good cause.108
After the evacuation of Crete, the Greek government established itself in London and called on all free Greeks to continue the struggle against the enemies of their country. The survivors of the Greek armed services regrouped in Egypt, where they fought on with the Army of the Nile, the British Mediterranean Fleet and the RAF against the Germans and Italians. A Greek brigade was part of that large international army, including the Australian 9th Division, which gained such a complete victory over Germany's Afrika Korps under General Erwin Rommel at El Alamein in October and November 1942. But when the British and Dominion forces finally left Greece in late May 1941, the ordinary people of Greece faced the challenge of occupation, a challenge dramatically described by that great English champion of Greece, Compton Mackenzie:
When darkness fell upon May 31st 1941, and mercifully hid from the German bombers the ships bearing the last soldiers that the Royal Navy could evacuate from Crete, the Hellenic people entered that dark night of the soul which for nations and individuals alike is the Divine test of their spiritual life.109
The Nazis saw Greece as simply another country to plunder for their war effort and they diverted Greek industrial and agricultural production to this end. As a result, it is estimated that in four years of occupation more than 450,000 Greeks died from malnutrition. A further 25,000 were executed for guerrilla activities or during reprisals for partisan activities. Of Greece's pre-war 80,000 Jews, only 10,000 survived the war. Greeks also remember the harshness of the Bulgarian occupation of Thrace during those years.
For the British and Allied force which had come to the aid of Greece in April and May 1941 the campaign was a disaster. In the fighting in Greece and Crete, 2535 servicemen lost their lives and 25,328 were taken prisoner. Most of these served out the rest of the war in POW camps in Germany and Italy. A further 3475 were wounded, some of them severely. In total, these figures come to just over half of all the servicemen and women the British sent to Greece between November 1940 and May 1941.
The Australian losses in Greece and Crete were virtually all from the ranks of the 6th Division, AIF. Of the 594 who were killed, 320 died in Greece and 274 in Crete. The largest single number of dead, as might be expected, were from the nine infantry battalions of the 16th, 17th and 19th Brigades – 332, around 55 per cent. Other units, however, also suffered, in particular the artillery regiments. The Australian wounded amounted to 1001. However, what temporarily destroyed the 6th Division as a fighting force, apart from the loss of most of its equipment, was the staggering number of prisoners-of-war: 2030 in Greece and 3102 in Crete, a total of 5132. Again, a high proportion of these POWs were from the infantry battalions – 2779, approximately 54 per cent. Of the 8184 Australians taken prisoner by the Germans and Italians in World War II, 62 per cent fell into enemy hands in Greece and Crete. Taken together, the figures for the Australian dead, wounded and POWs amounted to 6727, virtually 39 per cent of the 17,125 Australians estimated to have been in Greece when the campaign opened on 6 April 1941.
The British and Dominion dead of 1941 lie buried in either the Phaleron War Cemetery in Athens or the Suda Bay War Cemetery on Crete. After the war it was decided to bring the bodies of all British and Dominion servicemen killed in 1941 into these two cemeteries from smaller burial grounds all over Greece and Crete. On the Greek mainland, British units were assisted in this task by the 21st and 22nd Australian Graves Registration Units. The Australians themselves undertook the work on Crete. Those whose bodies were never recovered, or who were unidentifiable at burial, are commemorated on the Athens Memorial to the missing at Phaleron. There are 331 Australian names on this memorial, representing 56 per cent of the Australian dead of the Greek campaign. Above the north entrance to the memorial in English and above the south entrance in Ancient Greek, are these words attributed to the ancient Greek poet, Simonedes:
WE, WHO TO CLOTHE HELLAS IN FREEDOM FOUGHT,
LIE HERE AT REST IN PRAISE THAT FADETH NOT.
Should the British force and its Australian contingent have been sent to Greece to face the German Army at the height of its power during World War II? Many of the soldiers who fought there felt some bitterness towards those whom they saw as responsible for the decision and for the failure to adequately equip the force, especially in relation to armour and air power. Against the pitifully few RAF squadrons, amounting to just eighty serviceable aircraft, the German and Italian air forces combined were able to put into the air more than 1100 planes. The commander of the British 1st Armoured Brigade in Greece, Brigadier HVS Charrington, wrote upon his return to Egypt:
There will I fear be a lot of muck dragged up over the whole expedition … the Australians (with some justice) demand a full enquiry as to why the promised air support they had insisted upon before allowing their troops to participate was not forth-coming … I don't know whether they could have spared more aeroplanes but the Australians are terribly bitter about it.110
The whole question of Australian participation, at least from the view of Prime Minister Menzies, centred on the proposition that the force had a ‘reasonable fighting chance'. Such an expectation could only come from the military assessment, to which Menzies was privy, that this ‘chance' existed. The Royal Navy were less optimistic and always felt that early evacuation would be the outcome in Greece. Lieutenant General Blamey's detailed opinion, which stated that the expedition was ‘extremely hazardous', was made late in the day –10 March – and by that time convoys taking the soldiers to Greece were already under way. Both men, however, have been criticised: Blamey for failing to put his considered position to his government when he first heard of the expedition in February 1941, and Menzies for not having pushed his deep concerns about the expedition much harder in London. But much blame has also been heaped on the shoulders of Churchill. His determination to send the force to Greece has been described in The Oxford Companion to Australian Military History as ‘the worst piece of Churchillian strategy of the war'.
From a purely military point of view, however, there was one positive outcome of the defeat in Greece. The XI Fliegerkorps, Hitler's elite parachute unit, was virtually destroyed in Crete. Of the 3986 Germans killed or missing in the campaign, more than 3000 were paratroopers killed before or soon after landing, by a defence force that was largely ready for them. Taken together, the German dead and wounded amounted to 6580, nearly one third of all the German force employed in the operation. To that extent, Crete lived up to Churchill's hope that the defence of the island would provide a ‘fine opportunity for killing the parachute troops'. As a result of Crete, a proposed parachute landing on Cyprus was abandoned. The paratroopers were later used by Hitler as ground forces in his ultimately disastrous Russian campaign where, as a German veteran of Crete concludes, ‘there bled to death the greater part of those who survived the Battle of Crete'.
Despite the defeat, many in Greece still remember that Britain, its Empire and Dominions, did not desert them in one of the darkest periods of modern Greek history. In 1975 at Stavremenos, near Rethymno, on Crete, where Australian and local Greek forces held back the German paratroopers in May 1941, the local community erected a memorial to commemorate that event. A plaque on the memorial records, with attendant colour patches, every major Australian unit that fought the Germans at Stavromenos, at Perivolia and in the Rethymno area in general. In 1977, the Australian Government presented the Stavromenos memorial with two anti-aircraft Bofors guns, the type used by Australian anti-aircraft gunners in action against the Luftwaffe in May 1941. The guns were brought from Australia by the flagship of the RAN, HMAS Melbourne, while on a visit to Suda Bay.
Other memorials tell of the help by the Greeks to Australian escapers. After the evacuation of the Greek mainland and the surrender on Crete, hundreds of British, Australian and New Zealand soldiers took to the hills and the countryside to avoid captivity. A report to the Australian government in late 1941 estimated that there were between 4000 and 5500 allied soldiers still at large in Greece. Of these approximately 500 were in Crete. Another 1400 men were calculated to have either escaped from captivity or been evacuated to Egypt. There are dozens of amazing stories involving service with Greek and Yugoslav partisans, long distance treks through Greece, journeys by boat through the Greek islands, single handed feats of navigation across the Mediterranean to North Africa and, for some, eventual return to Egypt and Palestine. Above all, there was the vital help – food, clothing and shelter – given to the escapers by the Greek people. In doing so they risked their lives, and one remembers that tragic figure of 25,000 Greeks shot by the occupying forces. On 24 May 1985, the Australian Ambassador to Greece unveiled a memorial recognising the debt owed to the local people by the escapers in the Prevali area of southern Crete.
Perhaps the attitude of the Greeks to the thousands of allied POWs who were kept among them until they could be transported to Germany is captured in this story from Compton Mackenzie:
On one occasion a squad of British prisoners … was being marched through the streets of Athens. The Athenians cheered them, and the prisoners answered the sympathy of the crowd with the gesture of ‘thumbs up'. The German officer commanding the guard disliked this expression of popular feeling and drawing his pistol he fired it into the air. The crowd cheered more loudly. The German sent a shot over the heads of the bystanders; but nobody paid any attention. Then a little loustros (shoeblack) stepped up to the German officer and pulling open his shirt presented his bare breast. ‘If you want to shoot, shoot here', he challenged. It is an agreeable novelty to be able to conclude this story by relating that the German officer put his pistol back into the holster and shook hands with the boy.111
Today, thousands of Australians visit Greece. Many are Greek emigrants, or their children, returning to visit relatives in the land of their ancestors. Others are simply tourists drawn, no doubt, by the lure of Greece's extraordinary history and the country's magnificent mainland and island scenery. Hardly any of them miss the Parthenon before hurrying off to island playgrounds such as Mikanos or the dramatic land and seascapes of Naxos or Santorini. How many, one wonders, visit Phaleron or Suda Bay war cemeteries and wander among the headstones with inscriptions recording the presence here of men from the 2/11th Battalion or the 2/3rd Field Regiment, men from the 6th Australian Division who fought and died for Greece and Australia? If they read the cemetery register with its brief outline of the campaigns in Greece and Crete they will encounter placenames such as Vevi, Aliakmos, Tembe Gorge, Thermopylae, Hania, Rethymno and Heraklio, placenames recalled by many Australian families in the years after World War II. They might also ponder this passage from the diary of Lieutenant John Learmonth, 2/3rd Field Regiment, written as his troopship approached Pireaus on 29 April 1941:
It is only a quarter of a century since the Australians of the first A.I.F. made history here, yet this was the cradle of history before the Australians, or even the British, had come into being. I wonder shall we in our turn add fresh deeds to the story of mankind, deeds that will go down from generation to generation for thousands of years to come; and I wonder also what new races will rise up and fight their wars here, when we are as long-distant and forgotten as the Ancient Greeks … now seem to us.112
Learmonth's question is one that those who contemplate Australia's graves and monuments in Greece and Crete must answer for themselves. They might also ponder whether it was correct in 1941 to send Australian troops to Greece when Australia's senior commander thought that the expedition could end in disaster. Or whether, to use Menzies' phrase, Australia was right, whatever the odds, in taking ‘a great risk in a good cause'.
Biography—Fancy seeing an Aussie girl too!
The nurses of the 2/6th AGH
In early April 1941, nurses of the 2/5th and 2/6th Australian General Hospitals (AGH) and the 2/3rd Australian Casualty Clearing Station (ACCS) accompanied the 6th Division to Greece. The 2/6th and 2/3rd nurses arrived at Piraeus just days before its destruction by German air attack. The situation in Greece was already deteriorating, and the 2/6th nurses were withdrawn to Kephissia, where they served in a British hospital.
Amongst the staff of the 2/6th AGH was Sister Sylvia Duke. In a letter to her friend Sophie Healy she described conditions at the hospital:
My dear those days we spent nursing in a hospital about 14 miles out of Athens are just like a nightmare—streams and streams of ambulances bringing our boys back, lack of equipment, lack of foods, not enough hands to really make them even a bit comfortable, the Huns dive bombing & machine gunning the ambulance trains, and the ambulance boys taking eight days even to cover a distance that should normally take a few hours—wounded boys coming to us hungry and very little food to give them, boys in agony and a shortage of drugs only to be given in extreme cases. No forceps to do dressings, no sterile dressings even rolls of gauze and cotton wool. There was no advance dressing station ahead. The boys came back with just field dressings on their wounds in their torn and bloody uniforms, unwashed for many days and then if they had the good fortune to have a sponge, their intense gratitude and 'Gee oh Sister, that's great' and 'fancy seeing an Aussie girl too!' and my dear their sigh of relief to have their boots taken off after being on for weeks—Sophie dear some of those lads were so badly knocked about, such awful wounds and they were all so brave113
Major General Burston, Director of Medical Services, AIF, ordered the withdrawal and evacuation of the Australian nurses, but the British medical authorities decided that some sisters should stay to care for those sick and wounded patients who could not be moved.
On 23 April, Colonel Kay of the 2/5th AGH informed Matron Katie Best that all but forty of her nurses would be evacuated. It was up to the Matron to decide who should stay:
I told them that those who volunteered to stay behind would almost certainly be taken prisoner. I asked them to write their name on a slip of paper, together with the word 'Stay' or 'Go'. Not one Sister wrote 'Go'.114
Evacuating proved to be almost as hazardous as staying behind, as Sister Duke discovered:
… and then my dear the awful sensation of helplessness, that awful hopelessness when evacuation was imminent—we nurses were put on trucks and sent off down to the water front … we arrived at the docks in the midst of an air raid, and as the planes were dive bombing the harbour they cut the ships ropes and away she went leaving the remainder of us on shore. We returned to our former hospital and attempted to carry on—casualties still pouring in every hour of every day … Sophie dear, how it hurt to go and leave them there and then my dear once more army trucks and we were on our way, leaving all our gear behind, taking just what we could carry in our hands—and the Huns so close behind … then a nightmare drive over the mountains through the blackness of the night with no headlights, treachery on every side. Fifth Columnists breaking into our convoy and attempting to stop us—the boys clearing the road of obstructions every little while for us to proceed, shooting out headlights with their revolvers, driving at reckless pace around pot holes in the roads that had sheer drops down to the sea.
The following day, an enemy air raid forced the nurses of the 2/6th AGH to take cover in a cemetery:
We left our trucks and scattered running for cover into barley fields, lying face downwards hugging mother earth and wishing our tin hats were somewhat bigger to cover more of us. We spent all the day there. There was a small cemetery nearby and we camped among the headstones all day. It really was amazing to see the girls, and the boys too, lying flat down on their faces as the planes flew over us machine gunning on & off all day … but we boiled our billy on the tomb stones and had a cup of tea.
When they finally reached the port of Nafplion, they found HMAS Voyager able to take them to safety on Crete, where they tended casualties before finally being sent on to Alexandria in Egypt:
We had about a mile and a half's walk from the trucks to small boats & we had to carry all our gear … It got heavier every step of the way and girl after girl began discarding even the few possessions she had carried so far. Anything went in our endeavour to lighten weight. At last we board the small boats and out across the black harbour past burning ships that seemed to illuminate a huge area around them, and then alongside a destroyer and then being pulled up on board—big eager sailor's hands. Oh it was marvellous that haven—a supreme sense of security. At last we felt safe … The crew went mad not knowing their passengers were to be Sisters, they had expected to get troops aboard and when they discovered we were Australian girls they hugged us tight. We were all so tired.
Reflecting on the evacuation, Matron Best described the dedication of her nursing sisters:
I am afraid it is beyond me to describe fully those last few days in Greece and the loyalty and courage of the Sisters. Their one thought was for the patients and the Hospital. Their loyalty to me was the finest thing I have known, never once did they question any decision made for them, and they stood behind me and helped me in every way they knew. No one wanted to leave but they all knew the common sense of it.115
Biography—Here, you bloody well stay
Brigadier George Alan Vasey
Commander, 19th Brigade, AIF, Greece, April 1941
Commander, Australian Forces, Crete, May 1941
George Alan Vasey was born in East Malvern, Victoria, on 29 March 1895, to George and Alice Vasey. He proved to be an able scholar and in 1915 graduated from the Royal Military College, Duntroon. Ironically, his final report described him as ‘perhaps a little weak in command'.
After graduation, Vasey served with the Australian Imperial Force in France during World War I. He spent the years between the wars in various staff and regimental postings.
In March 1941 he commanded the 19th Brigade and led his troops through the fighting in Greece and Crete. The Brigade fought a rearguard action at Vevi during the withdrawal to the Aliakmos Line, and also held the Brallos Pass during the withdrawal to the Thermopylae Line.
Vasey was fond of a relaxing drink at night, particularly gin, and when the Germans were moving into Vevi, he said to the commanding officer of his artillery support regiment, ‘Remember how many gins I bought you in Alexandria, I want a hundred rounds in the village for every gin'.
When Australian troops took up positions at Thermopylae after the withdrawal down mainland Greece, Vasey issued instructions in characteristic style: ‘Here you bloody well are and here you bloody well stay. And if any bloody German gets between your post and the next, turn your bloody Bren around and shoot him up the arse'.
After the evacuation from Greece, Vasey commanded the Australian forces in Crete, where his tenacious defensive action enabled large numbers of men to escape German capture.
Upon his return to Australia in 1942 he was promoted to Major General and briefly took command of the 6th Division in Papua, before being sent forward as commander of the 7th Division. Vasey held this post until his death, leading the 7th Division through the push towards Kumusi, the battles for Gona, Sanananda and Nadzab, and the fighting in the Ramu Valley. The rigours of this campaign and the relentless manner in which he drove himself took a toll on his health, and Vasey was evacuated sick to Australia shortly after the division was withdrawn from operations. He spent much of 1944 recovering from polyneuritis and reporting on the future direction of RMC Duntroon.
In early 1945 Vasey was given command of the 6th Division, and was flying north to take up his posting when his aircraft crashed into the sea off Cairns, killing all on board.
Vasey was known as an extremely able and hard-working leader, noted for his ability to read a tactical situation and formulate a plan quickly. The official historian, Gavin Long, described him as a man ‘highly strung, thrustful, hard-working, who concealed a deeply emotional even sentimental nature behind a mask of laconic and blunt speech'. His style of leadership was that of a ‘digger general', frequenting the forward lines and talking to his troops, assessing their circumstances personally. Lieutenant Colonel RAJ Tompson, chief engineer of the 7th Division, summed up Vasey's personable characteristics in a letter to Vasey's wife, Jessie: ‘We in 7 Div had gained an affection for him; he had endeared himself to everyone as a leader and as a man'.
Biography—Sgt Ra 'Snow' McBain Mm
Snow' McBain and his mate Vic Shannon were amongst the thousands of Allied soldiers forced to retreat down the Greek peninsula in the face of an overwhelming German force
Having become separated from their colleagues, they spent five weeks hiking over the hills, surviving by their own tenacity and the hospitality of the local villagers.
Travelling mainly at night to avoid detection by the enemy, the men hoped to reach their battalion south of Larissa before the evacuation. They could only carry a limited amount of food, and were glad not to be part of a larger group. In an account of his escape, written a few days after he reached safety, Snow wrote:
The Greek peasants were poor and while they would be able to give or sell a few mouthfuls, to expect them to feed a large party would be foolish.116
Forced to pass through territory known to be in enemy hands, Snow and Vic debated whether to accept an offer of assistance from a Greek local and disguise themselves as peasants. If caught in disguise, they could be shot as spies.
After quite a bit of arguing we gave in and became Greek peasants. We were later on very pleased with our disguises for we certainly found we could pass through areas and they were our means of reaching safety … but there was one snag; the shoes, queer shape, between size and a mountainous inner-sole almost had us on our hands and knees within half an hour – so off they came.
The disguises allowed them to travel during daylight, but their progress was slowed by having to negotiate the rough tracks on bare feet. With the help of locals, who fed them and took them part of the way by boat, they eventually reached the Athens–Volos road. The following day, they came close to disaster when a German motorcyclist rode towards them.
He propped his bike up and had a good look at us but apparently we were too low a pair of objects to be worth notice so with a dainty toss of his head and a strut he turned his back on us. He will never know how close he was to dying. I had my automatic in my pocket and when I first heard the bike I cocked it and held it ready, just in case. However, I was pleased nothing further developed as he was followed by two truck loads of his comrades and Vic and I did a pretty left turn and ambled out along the beach.
An English-speaking Greek offered them a boat, which they rowed all through one night, bailing water constantly from the rotten hull. Scuttling the boat by the simple means of dropping an oar through its bottom, they discovered to their dismay that they had landed in the midst of the German army. Once again, locals came to their rescue and guided them over a mountain ridge towards Athens. They met up with three New Zealanders and again took to sea, rowing all the way to Skyros in a 4-metre boat, a journey of some 50 kilometres.
Having collapsed on the shore in exhaustion, they were taken in by some Greek shepherds, who fed them, washed and mended their clothes and arranged for a boat to take them to Turkey, along with nine men of the 2/2nd Battalion. When it came time to leave, there was an emotional farewell.
I had quite a lump in my throat and it hurt to leave knowing they would be starving very shortly. The Huns had already taken all the flour, cigarettes, sugar and coffee, yet these people dug out their little hoards of luxuries and forced them on us. Old men kissed us and wept and old women knelt and kissed our hands. It is little wonder we were affected when leaving them.
The Turks treated them firmly but in a friendly manner, and took them to Smyrna, where they were met by a British colonel who provided them with civilian clothing and put them on a train for Alexandretta, disguised as a British construction gang. From there they boarded a Norwegian tanker, arriving at Port Said a few days later. They were quickly reunited with their mates at Julius, 35 km from Gaza, the camp they had left nine months earlier. Of his escape and dangerous journey, Snow wrote:
Although I don't wish to repeat the experience, I am not at all sorry our return to our unit was in this way. One lesson above all sticks in my mind and that is ‘while there's life there's hope'.
Biography—Caught chickens and ate them raw
Captain Reginald Walter Saunders
2/7th Battalion, AIF
Reginald Walter Saunders was born at Portland, Victoria, on 7 August 1920. His brother Harry was born two years later, and in 1924 their mother died of pneumonia after giving birth to a baby girl, who also died. Reg and Harry lived with their father and maternal grandfather in a shack near the Lake Condah Aboriginal mission. Reg was a natural sportsman, and played Rugby League, Rugby Union, Australian Rules and cricket. He also boxed and went hunting and fishing.
In April 1940, inspired by his father's stories of service with the 1st AIF, Reg Saunders enlisted in the Australian Army and served with the 2/7th Battalion in North Africa, Crete and New Guinea. In Greece he was evacuated with the 2/7th on the Costa Rica, which was sunk on 27 April 1941. All on board were rescued by the Royal Navy.
After the Allied defeat in Crete, Reg Saunders escaped and he lived on the run for eleven months, concealing himself in caves and searching for food at night. He wore the same set of clothes from 30 June 1941 until his escape from the island on 7 May 1942:
The pressure was tremendous. Each night the Germans were horribly close, but too exhausted to close in on us. They would sleep until daylight, and we'd have to move as hard as we could in the dark to put some distance between them and us. On almost no food and no sleep, it wasn't easy. For two days, we ate no food of any kind … As we waited above Sphakia [Sfakia], a few of the lucky ones caught chickens and ate them raw … entrails and all … for the last couple of days we were without water … At times we were almost running to keep up with the battalion. Every one of us knew that it was a race against time, as it had been in Greece, and that anyone who stopped had had it.117
After his escape from Crete, Saunders rejoined his battalion in New Guinea and was later wounded in action. In 1944 he was promoted to the rank of lieutenant, making him the first Aboriginal commissioned officer in the Australian Army. The decision was of such significance that it was referred to the commander-in-chief, Sir Thomas Blamey.
After the war, Saunders found that Aboriginal people would not be accepted for the British Commonwealth Occupation Force (BCOF) in Japan. He went on to serve in Korea and fought in the Battle of Kapyong. Saunders resigned from the army in 1954 and in 1969 took a position with the Office of Aboriginal Affairs. Later he became a member of the Council of the Australian War Memorial. Reg Saunders died on 2 March 1990, remembered as a proud man who ‘coped with discrimination with remarkably good grace and always remained committed to achieving a better deal for Aboriginal people'.
Appendix—Befriended by the Monks
The Monks of Preveli, Crete
After their escape from Rethymno, members of the 2/11th Battalion made their way over the mountains to the south coast of Crete. There, in May 1941, the village of Preveli became a place of welcome respite for the battalion's survivors and for many other Allied troops. The monks of the Preveli Monastery fed and sheltered British, Australian and New Zealand servicemen, and facilitated their escape from the island.
As German surveillance increased, it became safer for the men to hide in the mountains, and the Preveli Monastery became a rallying point for Allied soldiers who were sheltering in the area. Amongst them were Geoffrey Edwards and Bill McCarrey, 2/11th Battalion, who had escaped from a German prisoner-of-war camp at Skines and crossed the White Mountains on foot:
There would have been a couple of hundred British, NZ and Australian soldiers sheltering in the mountains around the Monastery. They were split up into mixed groups of about twenty and each group was looked after by its own village … All this was organised by the Head Monk of the Preveli Monastery … He had to be extremely careful for by now the Germans had a garrison in all the fishing villages on the coast and were keeping watch on the Monastery.118
Edwards describes how a British secret service agent was landed to assist with the evacuation of escapees, and how the British submarine, HMS Thrasher, evacuated many of the men who had been hiding in Preveli:
He made contact with the Monastery who in turn notified the various groups … Then the following week and in the middle of the night about seventy of us assembled on the beach in the little bay of Limni just below the Monastery to rendezvous with a British submarine … A thick strong rope was soon connected from the sub to a large rock on the beach and the Captain sent word that he would pack us all in … Now came the time to say goodbye to our Cretan friends who had come down to see us off. There were emotional scenes as we thanked them for what they had done for us. They had proved true and trusted friends, as they had so little yet they had shared it willingly with us. We had nothing to offer them yet they had risked their very lives for us. I promised them that I would never forget them.119
The generous and courageous support of the Monks of the Preveli Monastery and the Cretans of the local villages was not forgotten. In 1979, the Chapel of St John the Theologian was erected in Margaret River, Western Australia, as a symbol of the special bond that was forged between Australians and Cretans during the German occupation of 1941. Proceeds from the sale of Geoffrey Edwards' account of his experiences in Crete, The road to Prevelly, went to build a Memorial Water Fountain at the Monastery in Preveli.
Donations from veterans in Britain, New Zealand and Australia established a scholarship fund in Hanea, Rethymno and Heraklio, and a plaque at the Monastery bears the following message in Greek and English:
This tablet commemorates the deep gratitude of the British, New Zealand and Australian servicemen befriended by the Monks of Preveli Monastery and Cretans from surrounding villages, who at great personal risk helped them to escape by British submarines during the dark days of 1941.
Appendix—Australia Hellenic Memorial
Anzac Parade, Canberra
The Australia Hellenic Memorial stands at the top of Anzac Parade in Canberra, close to the Australian War Memorial. It is one of many memorials set along this major ceremonial avenue, each recognising a facet of Australia's military history. Each year on Anzac Day and Remembrance Day, these memorials become the setting for the gathering of thousands of visitors who come to the national capital to pay tribute to the courage and commitment of Australia's servicemen and women.
Dedicated in 1988, the Australia Hellenic Memorial commemorates all those who died in the Allied campaigns in Greece and Crete during 1941. The Memorial takes the shape of an amphitheatre in which a Doric column symbolizes the birth of civilization. The column is embossed with the cross of the Greek Orthodox Church, representing a hero's grave and epitomizing classical sophistication, in harsh contrast to a nearby bomb-damaged steel fragment representing the destructive forces of war. These elements stand on a mosaic-covered pavement, which is a graphic interpretation of the Greek mainland and outlying islands, with a jagged flintstone rock outcrop representing the rugged coast of the Peloponnese.
Inscribed on the Memorial in Greek and English is the following text:
This Memorial commemorates all those who died in the Greek Campaign of World War II particularly during the battle for Crete, those who died at sea while serving with the Royal Australian Navy and the Merchant Marine in the Mediterranean Sea, members of the Royal Australian Air Force, women of the nursing services, special covert forces, Greek civilians who risked their lives in helping Australian and other Allied soldiers to safety, together with those who died on Greek soil during World War II.
- 1George Gordon, Lord Byron, Don Juan, Canto 3, 'The Isles of Greece'
- 2Lieutenant John Learmonth, 2/3rd Field Regiment, AIF, diary, 29 March 1941, Kathy Baulch, Koroit, Victoria (hereafter Learmonth diary)
- 3Robert Gordon Menzies, Prime Minister of Australia, diary, 24 February 1941, in AW Martin and Patsy Hardy (eds), Dark and hurrying days: Menzies' 1941 diary, Canberra, 1993, p. 65 (hereafter Menzies diary).
- 4Compton Mackenzie, The wind of freedom: the history of the invasion of Greece by the Axis Powers, 1940–1941, London, 1943, p. 93 (hereafter Mackenzie, Wind of freedom).
- 5Mackenzie, Wind of freedom, pp. 91–92.
- 6Quoted in John Herington, Air war against Germany and Italy, 1939–1943, Australia in the war of 1939–1945, Series three, Air, Vol. 111, p. 84
- 7Mackenzie, Wind of freedom, p. 92
- 8de Guignand, quoted in Gavin Long, Greece, Crete and Syria, Australia in the war of 1939–1945, Series 1, Army, Vol II, Canberra, 1953, p. 10 (hereafter Long, Greece, Crete and Syria)
- 9Menzies diary, 13 February 1941, p. 53
- 10Freyberg, quoted in David Horner, High command—Australia's struggle for an independent war strategy, 1939–1945, Sydney, 1982, p. 67 (hereafter Horner, High command)
- 11Menzies diary, 13 February 1941, p. 64
- 12Menzies diary, 24 February 1941, p. 65
- 13Menzies diary, 24 February 1941, p. 66
- 14Blamey, quoted in Long, Greece, Crete and Syria, p. 17
- 15Long, Greece, Crete and Syria, p. 23
- 16Hermon Gill, Royal Australian Navy, 1939–1942, Australia in the war of 1939–1945, Series 2, Vol 1, p. 305 (hereafter Gill, Royal Australian Navy)
- 17Learmonth diary, 28 March 1941
- 18Gill, Royal Australian Navy, p. 306
- 19Quinn, quoted in David Hay, Nothing over us—The story of the 2/6th Australian Infantry Battalion, Canberra, 1984, p. 38 (hereafter Hay, Nothing over us)
- 20Learmonth diary, 28 March 1941
- 21Cooper, diary, 28 March 1941, 3DRL/6478, Australian War Memorial (hereafter AWM)
- 22Cunningham, quoted in WC Pack, The Battle of Matapan, London, 1961, p. 135
- 23Kenneth Slessor, official Australian correspondent, Athens, 30 March 1941 in Clement Semmler (ed), The war despatches of Kenneth Slessor, Queensland University Press, 1987, p. 140 (hereafter Slessor despatches)
- 24Henry ‘Jo' Gullet, Not as a duty only – An infantryman's war, Melbourne, 1976, pp. 40–41
- 25Slessor despatches, ‘Arrival in Greece', Athens, 30 March 1941, p.140
- 26Letter, Sergeant RG Robertson, 19 May 1941, 2DRL/1304, AWM (hereafter Robertson letter)
- 27Slessor despatches, ‘Blamey and the King of Greece', Athens, 1 April 1941, p. 141
- 28Bob Holt, quoted in Margaret Barter, Far above battle – The experience and memory of Australian soldiers in war, 1939–1945, Sydney, 1994, p. 83 (hereafter Barter, Far above Battle)
- 29Charles Robinson, Journey to captivity, Canberra, 1991, pp. 65–66 (hereafter Robinson, Journey to captivity)
- 30Sergeant Vic Hill, 2/4th Battalion, quoted in White over green –The 2/4th Battalion with reference to the 4th Battalion, Sydney, 1963, p.105 (hereafter White over green)
- 31Patrick Bridges, diary, 1941, in private hands (hereafter Bridges diary)
- 32Telephone message, Brigadier George Vasey, 19th Brigade, AIF, to Lieutenant Colonel Ivan Dougherty, 2/4th Battalion, evening, 12 April 1941, quoted in David Horner, General Vasey's war, Melbourne, 1992, pp. 95–96 (hereafter Horner, Vasey's war)
- 33Dick Parry, quoted in White over green, p. 113
- 34Laybourne-Smith, quoted in Les Bishop, The thunder of the guns – A history of the 2/3rd Field Regiment, Sydney, 1998, p. 189 (hereafter Bishop, Thunder of the guns)
- 35Deacon, quoted in White over green, p. 121
- 36Dougherty, quoted in Horner, Vasey's war, p. 96
- 37Dick Parry, quoted in White over green, p. 122
- 38Long, Greece, Crete and Syria, p. 69
- 39Blamey's message, quoted in Long, Greece, Crete and Syria, p. 70
- 40Captain Jack Blamey, 2/2nd Battalion, quoted in Barter, Far above battle, p. 88
- 41Footnote in Long, Greece, Crete and Syria, p. 73
- 42Ion Idriess, Horrie the wog dog, written from the diary of Private J B Moody, Sydney, 1951, p. 64
- 43Roy Waters, quoted in Barter, Far above battle, p. 88
- 44Quoted in Long, Greece, Crete and Syria, p. 74
- 45Hill, quoted in White over green, p. 128
- 46Robinson, Journey to captivity, p. 68
- 47Herodotus, quoted in Long, Greece, Crete and Syria, p. 96
- 48Rex Moore, quoted in Barter, Far above battle, p. 91
- 49Captain Jack Blamey, 2/2nd Battalion, quoted in Barter, Far above battle, p. 91
- 50Quoted in Long, Greece, Crete and Syria, p. 124
- 51Bishop, Thunder of the guns, p. 212
- 52Allen, quoted in Long, Greece, Crete and Syria, p. 121
- 53Recorded in Ken Clift, War dance—A story of the 2/3rd Aust. Inf. Battalion A.I.F., Sydney, 1980, p. 139 (hereafter Clift, War dance)
- 54Robinson, Journey to captivity, p. 71
- 55Daniel, quoted in Hay, Nothing over us, p. 148
- 56Robertson letter
- 57Vasey, quoted in Horner, Vasey's war, p. 103
- 58Citation quoted in Glenn Wahlert, The other enemy?—Australian soldiers and the military police, Sydney, 1999, pp. 110–111
- 59Slessor despatches, A Trip up the Line, Elasson, 13 April 1941, p. 147
- 60Staff Sergeant Lawson Youman, AASC (Australian Army Service Corps), diary, 18 April 1941, PRO00954, AWM (hereafter Youman diary)
- 61Lieutenant Colonel RP Waller, 1st Armoured Brigade, quoted in Long, Greece, Crete and Syria, p. 155
- 62Official communique, quoted in Long, Greece, Crete and Syria, p. 132
- 63Cunningham, quoted in Gill, Royal Australian Navy, p. 318
- 64Action front – The history of the 2/2nd Field Regiment, Royal Australian Artillery, A.I.F., Melbourne, 1961, p. 108
- 65Letter, Sister Sylvia Duke to her friend Sophie in Australia, 12 May 1941, in private hands
- 66Youman diary, 27 April 1941
- 67Walker, quoted in WP Bolger and JG Littlewood, The fiery phoenix — the story of the 2/7th Australian Infantry Battalion 1939–1945, Melbourne, no date, pp. 79–80 (hereafter Walker, Fiery phoenix)
- 68Walker, quoted in WP Bolger and JG Littlewood, The fiery phoenix — the story of the 2/7th Australian Infantry Battalion 1939–1945, Melbourne, no date, pp. 79–80 (hereafter Walker, Fiery phoenix)
- 69Unidentified Australian soldier of the 2/3rd Battalion, quoted in Clift, War dance, p. 151
- 70From ‘Boff' Ryan, ‘On Crete, Isle of Doom', in Clift, War dance, p. 170
- 71Robinson, Journey to captivity, pp. 77–78
- 72Vasey, quoted in Horner, Vasey's war, p. 114
- 73Unidentified Australian officer, quoted in Horner, Vasey's war, p. 114
- 74Unidentified Australian, quoted in Long, Greece, Crete and Syria, p. 206
- 75Robinson, Journey to captivity, pp. 78–79
- 76Robinson, Journey to captivity, p. 79
- 77Freyberg, quoted in Long, Greece, Crete and Syria, p. 216
- 78White over green, p. 152
- 79Freyberg, quoted in Long, Greece, Crete and Syria, p. 221
- 80Lance Corporal Lindsay Negus, personal account of his time in Greece and Crete, 3DRL/4052, AWM (hereafter Negus letter)
- 81Negus letter
- 82Long, Greece, Crete and Syria, pp. 237–238
- 83Reg Burgoyne, quoted in Barter, Far above battle, p. 108
- 84Freyberg, quoted in Long, Greece, Crete and Syria, p. 247
- 85Walker, Fiery phoenix, p. 90
- 86Walker, Fiery phoenix, p. 91
- 87Dittmer, quoted in Long, Greece, Crete and Syria, p. 252
- 88Lieutenant Stephanides, from ‘Climax in Greece', quoted in Long, Greece, Crete and Syria, pp. 253–254
- 89Negus letter
- 90Marshall, quoted in Walker, Fiery phoenix, p. 97
- 91Reg Burgoyne, quoted Barter, Far above battle, p. 121
- 92Captain Ralph Honner, quoted in The 2/11th (City of Perth) Australian Infantry Battalion, 1939–1945, Perth, 1984, pp. 112–113 (hereafter The 2/11th)
- 93Halliday, quoted in Philip Hocking, The long carry: A history of the 2/1st Australian Machine Gun Battalion, 1939–1946, Melbourne, 1997, p. 88
- 94Morris, quoted in Bishop, Thunder of the guns, p. 336
- 95Lew Lind, quoted in Bishop, Thunder of the guns, pp. 334–335
- 96Eldridge, quoted in Bishop, Thunder of the guns, p. 336
- 97Honner, quoted in The 2/11th, pp. 112–113
- 98Quoted in Long, Greece, Crete and Syria, p. 272
- 99Mott, quoted in Bishop, Thunder of the guns, p. 342
- 100Ship's captain, HMS Dido, 29 May 1941, quoted in White over green, p. 176
- 101Long, Greece, Crete and Syria, p. 281
- 102Norm Johnstone and Dick Parry, quoted in White over green, p. 157
- 103White over green, pp. 163–164
- 104Captain Tomlinson, quoted in Long, Greece, Crete and Syria, p. 291
- 105Gunner William Morris Dellar, 2/3rd Light Anti-Aircraft Regiment, MSS1254, AWM
- 106Andrews, quoted in White over green, p. 176
- 107Unidentified Australian soldier, quoted in Gill, Royal Australian Navy, p. 363
- 108Menzies, quoted in Long, Greece, Crete and Syria, p. 17
- 109Mackenzie, Wind of freedom, p. 243
- 110Charrington, quoted in Horner, High command, p. 97
- 111Mackenzie, Wind of freedom, pp. 248–249
- 112Learmonth diary, 29 April 1941
- 113This and following quotes taken from private letters lent to The Great Search, Australians at War, Department of Veterans' Affairs, unless otherwise marked.
- 114Matron Kathleen Best, quoted in Richard Reid, Just wanted to be there: Australian service nurses, 1899–1999, Canberra, 1999, p. 57
- 115Matron Kathleen Best, quoted in Rupert Goodman, Our war nurses—the history of the Royal Army Nursing Corps, Brisbane, 1985, p. 134
- 116This and following quotes taken from private documents lent to The Great Search, Australians at War, Department of Veterans' Affairs
- 117Reg Saunders, quoted in Harry Gordon, The embarrassing Australian, Cheshire–Lansdowne 1965, p. 85
- 118Geoffrey Edwards, The road to Prevelly, Armwe, 1989, p. 47
- 119Edwards, The road to Prevelly, p. 48
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