Five weeks eluding the Germans in Greece
Name: 'Snow' McBain MM
Unit: 2/3rd Battalion AIF
The thought of spending five weeks travelling through the beautiful Greek countryside would make most people's eyes light up but when Sgt R A 'Snow' McBain and his mate Vic Shannon had that experience, things were a bit different.
It was 1941 and the Germans were in the process of invading Greece and driving out the Allies. Having become separated from their colleagues, Snow and Vic spent the next five weeks hiking over the hills and hiding from the Germans, surviving mainly thanks to their own tenacity and the hospitality of the Greek locals.
The pair were constantly on the alert to avoid German troops as they endeavoured to catch up with the rest of the Australian soldiers before they were evacuated.
"There was to be a stand made by our army about 30 miles south of Larissa on the Athens road so we decided to make on past Volos, keeping towards the west, and if our troops held out long enough we would meet up with them there," Snow McBain wrote in his account of the journey a few days after he reached safety.
Travelling mainly at night to avoid detection by the enemy, the two men set off, carrying a limited amount of food. They were glad in a way that they had become separated from other stragglers. "The Greek peasants were poor and while they would be able to give or sell a few mouthfulls, to expect them to feed a large party would be foolish," Snow wrote.
After passing through a small village they were stopped by a Greek man who advised them the Germans had reached Canaille. As there was no way to go round the town they would have to pass through it.
The man offered to provide them with civilian clothing as a disguise and they debated the merits of the idea knowing that if caught they would be shot as spies. "After quite a bit of arguing we gave in and became Greek peasants," he wrote. "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 before the time factor closed all escape channels.
"Well, we were now 'wogs' right down to the shoes and sox 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."
Felling quite safe in their disguise they decided to travel in daylight before hitting a murderous stretch of rocky track that played havoc with their already tender feet. They were grateful for the cool and soothing waters of a lake and then pressed on to a small stone house they saw ahead of them.
"It was now late afternoon and on reaching the house we were met by an old man who promptly invited us to dine with them," Snow recalled. "Dinner, and it was a dinner, didn't commence until about 10pm and turned out to be a family feast in celebration of Easter. The men sat round a board about 24 square inches, on the floor and the women-folk sat on one side.
"The meal opened with hard boiled eggs dyed red, followed by chicken (a type of chicken gruel), fish, goats meat, plenty of bread and wine and topped of with cheese made from sheep's milk and a kind of solid sweetened junket. Also an assortment of nuts and dried fruits. It was midnight when we finished."
Next day they joined a fisherman in his boat, reaching Canaille to discover the Germans had already been through the town. Pressing on for Volos on the understanding it was still held by the Allies, they cheered silently when passed by an AIF lorry travelling at speed.
A few minutes later a convoy of German troops passed them.
"They all had a good look at us but didn't stop so our first test for our disguises passed quite ok," Snow wrote.
Having spent the night in a haystack, they were forced to avoid a village occupied by Germans and eventually reached the Athens-Volos road.
"There were German cars, trucks and cyclists passing up and down but we ignored them and carried on as many Greeks about that area were doing," Snow recalled. "Farm work was going on as usual, the majority of workers being Armenians. We shared some bread and cheese with one chap and his wife then pushed on."
Next day came their biggest scare. They were standing talking to an old Greek trying to get some directions when around the corner came a German on a motor cycle.
"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."
They met an English-speaking Greek who tried to hire them a boat but ended up giving them his own boat.
"It was an ancient tub and practically unseaworthy but we decided to give it a trial," Snow said. "With stomachs full and about two days' bread and cheese in our bags, we said goodbye to our friend and set out at dusk for Euea Island.
"That night's rowing will live a long time in my memory. We were bailing constantly and for a seat we had a piece of two by two across the boat. Several days with a painful stern kept that piece of wood well in mind."
Their friendly boat owner had asked them to scuttle the boat when they had finished with and this proved to be an easy operation.
"We did this by dropping our oar through the bottom. The old tub was so rotten the oar went straight through and the rush of water tore a hole big enough to crawl through," Snow wrote.
To their dismay they discovered they had landed in the midst of the German army so had to beat a hasty retreat. Once more the locals came to the rescue and arranged for them to be guided over a mountain ridge where they would be guided towards Athens.
Another night of agony passed on the raw steaks they called feet and when they were deserted by their guide the next day, they continued alone. They met up with three Kiwis and the five of them went looking for a boat with the aim of rowing to Skyros.
They rowed out in a 4 metre boat facing a 50-kilometre journey across the open sea, hoping to make Skyros soon after daylight. In the event, it took much longer but they eventually landed and collapsed on the shore.
Having caught a sheep they were able to eat and then the Greek shepherds arrived, they once again enjoyed the local hospitality. They spent four days being fussed over by their hosts, who fed them, washed and mended their clothes, provided them with more clothing and arranged for a boat to take them to Turkey as Crete was too far away.
More Australian troops arrived and were also looked after and when they eventually left it was an emotional farewell.
"I had quite a lump in my throat and it hurt to leave knowing they would be starving very shortly," Snow wrote. "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."
They were joined by another party of 14 Australians from the 2nd Battalion and they all eventually crowded onto the boat which took them to Turkey.
"I don't know how the 32 of us plus two boatmen squeezed ourselves in. The trip was done in two laps, both by night and apart from almost having our mast taken off by a German bomber, was quite successful."
The Turks treated them firmly but in a friendly manner and took them to the village church where they spent the night. They were taken to Smyrna where they were met by a British colonel and an Australian in civvies and taken to the Turkish barracks for the night.
Next day they were provided with civilian clothing, old-fashioned American ready-made suits and set off by train, pretending to be a British construction gang. At Alexandretta 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.
"Although I don't wish to repeat the experience, I am not at all sorry our return to our unit was in this way," Snow wrote. "One lesson above all sticks in my mind and that is 'while there's life there's hope'."
The material for this article was supplied by Ann Donnelly of the Australian Capital Territory
8/01/2002 10:42:05 AM