You waited with a sick feeling, not able to say goodbye to your family
Name: Rick Hunter
Unit: 2/1 Field Ambulance, 6th Div
Location: Middle East
Rick Hunter was a bit of a rebel so when he came into contact with the German authorities whilst a prisoner of war, he determined to give as good as he got.
Typical of his attitude was the determination to escape when captured by the Germans in Crete, the later acts of sabotage he carried out and the many acts designed to disrupt the daily routine of a POW camp.
At the beginning of June 1941, the Australian troops had been fighting a rearguard action against overwhelming German odds in Crete and when they finally ran out of ammunition, food and water, the decision was taken to surrender, after destroying all useable material including guns and vehicles.
The German troops lined the Australians up and pointed loaded machine guns at them, giving the impression all were to be shot on the spot.
"This is where you really felt vulnerable and not too happy looking down the barrel of this gun," Rick wrote in his book Rick's War from Libya to Lamsdorf.
"At this moment you waited with a sick feeling, you are not able to say goodbye to your family. But once we were checked out by the German officer, NCOs were ordered to march back up over the ridge and marched about 50 miles to a prison compound. This consisted of a barbed wire fence, a few tents - not enough to accommodate all prisoners, an open latrine pit which was about 12 foot long with forks both ends for a pole to sit on. Just make sure you kept your balance.
Food, mainly rice with sultanas and grapes. Very hot and dry in the compound so after a couple of days of mumbles of discontent a few groups made their plans and began sizing up their chances of escape. There were a certain number of guards in the front section of the compound but along the rear perimeter there were roving guards in twos. Timing the guard between their perambulations from one patrol to another we realised it could be done, a couple at a time, to slide under the wire.
So began six weeks of freedom under arduous conditions during which the help and compassion of the Cretan locals enabled them to stay ahead of the Germans searching for them.
"Our little band of 16 were deciding on which direction appeared to be the shortest to the hills when a figure moved toward us. We then thought our escape was short-lived, but the person we had sighted came to us with hands open. It was a local native of Crete, realising where we had come from, showed he would help us.
"We went through some sign language to show him where we wanted to go. He let us know we were heading towards the olive oil plant thick with Germans. We pointed to another area, this also was a no no - Germans billeted. He indicated we should stay and wait. This was a very tense period, trying to be invisible.
"Lucky we only saw one enemy patrol pass about three or four hundred yards away. It was nearly dusk when our Crete friend arrived with another man who could speak some English. This made things a bit easier and he had also brought along about four boys aged around 14. They were to act as lookouts front and sides, we were given to understand.
"It took about five hours to reach the hills, having close shaves with enemy patrols and frequent stops while the boys checked the area ahead of us. Finally, we reached a village to find we were expected. We had hot drinks and food given to us by these wonderful friendly people. Although short of food themselves, they insisted we share with them. This village was called Malaria Marri.
After we had eaten they said we would have to move further up as patrols regularly checked the village. Our Cretan friend said he had sent a message to a relative who was a member of the guerilla fighters. These men would help us to get safely up to the mountains. Within a half hour two fighters, well armed, arrived and it was pointed out to us that we had to move quickly. We said farewell and thanked Marcos Kostouris as we had found was his name. As we left the village behind, climbing the hill, we received a farewell wave from the young boys who were still standing sentry at different spots."
Not wanting to depend on the villagers for food the group split up.
"Lofty and I went off to explore and find out what lay ahead over the mountain. After about four hours of climbing we were able to look into the next valley. We rested while we studied the area for enemy patrols. It was pretty bare except for a little village we could see part of on a pretty rocky area.
"The one thing that drew our attention was a small whitewashed building half way up the opposite slope with a fine plume of smoke coming from the chimney. We decided to head for this little hut maybe to get some water. The only water we were able to get during the day was from the radiator of a wrecked truck. Very tasty if you like rust and oil in your drink.
"We were surprised by a welcome from an old man who was living alone there. He had apparently been watching us making our way to his little house and touching our ragged uniform showed us that he knew we were escaped prisoners. He kept on referring to us as Australis.
"He was all hospitality, giving us a drink of water. He then showed us a plate and pointed to his mouth. Yes we were hungry, but we did not want to take his food and leave him short. But he would not take any notice of our protests. Out came a big iron pan and a splash of oil and garlic. While this was heating up he moved a slab of rock in the corner revealing a deep hole under the corner stone of the little kitchen and out came a bottle of home made wine. We were given a mug each of this and were surprised to find how cool the wine was. This was his cooler, under the corner stone.
"While we sipped the wine he busied himself over the pan. The smell of cooking with the oil and garlic was really making us hungry. When the food was placed in front of us - a lump of home made bread and lovely rolls of white meat. It was delicious and Lofty commented how even the rolls of chicken were. Stop! chicken? We did not see any chickens around but we finished our meal and were about to take our leave when we pantomimed chicken and pointed at the plates. He looked puzzled at first and then he laughed. He showed us an area at the back covered with wire and bits of material with some greens growing underneath with the biggest snails we had ever seen. Escargot with a big E. I don't know if we would have eaten them had we known before they were cooked, but I had to admit they were delicious.
"He wanted us to stay and rest the night but we had to meet the others of the group to find out if they had had any luck."
After they had been on the run for about a month they learned that there was a monastery by the sea where it was said soldiers were getting to Egypt with the assistance of the priests.
"It took us a couple of days to get to a vantage point where we could see the monastery," Rick wrote.
"We studied this monastery for some time. A couple of our group were willing to try, but the majority of us were of the same opinion that this place would be closely watched by the enemy. As a matter of fact from our vantage spot we saw two enemy patrols while we were watching crossing the lower slopes. We retreated to a village where we were told we would be safe.
"After a couple of days with these hospitable people we said goodbye and found a spot in the olive trees which were a good shelter. We had a long discussion and finally came to the conclusion that we could not exist like this as we were into the sixth week on the loose with little or no hope of getting off the island.
"Everyone was asked to vote for surrender as it had been mentioned that in giving ourselves up there was a chance that we could be shot as we had been told this had happened elsewhere. We also understood that the prisoners compound was now empty as they had been transported to Germany. We had made the decision so the 16 of us marched along the road under a white flag which was a piece of material given to us by our Cretan friends to use for bandages if needed.
It was not long before we sighted a German patrol marching towards us. When we were seen we were yelled at to 'Alt!' We felt a bit worried as some of the patrol put their arms at the ready. Their NCO studied us for a few minutes. This made us sweat it out for an order from him would have been our finish. Then an officer arrived and after questioning the NCO he gave orders and within a few minutes a truck arrived and we were transported to a building with a brick wall surrounding it. When we were inside the gate we found this two storey building was with smaller buildings. Afterwards we found we were at a radio station that was to be repaired and we were to be the labourers.
The next day we were detailed off for various jobs, some were detailed to brick up the badly damaged wall around the station. Some to dig trenches for the cables. Lofty and I were to work for an engineer to position generators and assist as labourers while the main diesel motor was repaired to supply the power needed to run the new generators and put the station back on the air. Right from the start we ran foul of this young engineer who did not speak any English. He pointed, he screamed, he did not seem to be able to speak normally, but we did seem to understand that we were 'swine' and 'dunpkofs'. This went on day in and day out.
"Moving a generator into position one day we did not seem to please him in any way. We had the generator up off the floor with our pinch bars when a furious torrent of abuse erupted from him as he went down on his knees and placed his hand just under the generator and screamed something over his shoulder, that is when Lofty and I looked at each other, nodded and dropped the motor on his fingers. This set off such screams that everyone raced in, one of the guards ordering us to lift the motor. All of this caused orders for everyone on parade while the commandant decided what was to be done.
"When everyone was assembled the Commandant questioned the engineer who began to wave his bandaged hand and yell pointing to Lofty and myself. The Commandant stopped him with a very stiff order. He then approached Lofty and me with an interpreter who asked our version. I pointed out that we had been working quite well as others would agree, but it was almost impossible with this screaming of abuse at us. We did not seem to be able to please him in any way. On this occasion he was more abusive than ever and when he went down on his knees and yelled over his shoulder we thought that this was where he wanted it, we dropped it there not knowing his fingers were under it.
"This was passed onto the commandant who just looked at us during the explanation, he then looked as though he gave a trace of a smile and the message passed onto us was that it could have happened as we said. We then went back to work under the eyes of an older and quieter engineer. Finally, all the main boards were in position and wired to the generators. The cables were laid in floor channels and metal plates placed over them."
The Germans then had a ceremony to officially open the radio station. The next day during siesta, Rick was restless and went for a walk to the motor room
"Everything seemed to be running smoothly. There was an old Cretan man whitewashing the ceilings with a long handled brush. I walked into the main room, I looked at the main switch quarter on the large amp meter on the wall above with the needle hardly moving.
"The thought entered my head: what would happen if the switch were to be thrown full on? I decided to do it and see what would happen. When I did, I moved fast back to the tent. Blue flame raced along the metal plates on the floor before I heard three small explosions. then the shit hit the fan. Guards were yelling at the tent, 'Raus! Raus!' until we were all lined up.
"Out of the main building came a furious Commandant with his interpreter. Then the interrogation began. One at a time we were questioned as to our whereabouts at the time of the occurrence. All said they were resting in the tent including Lofty and myself.
"Those of his own staff who were on duty at the time saw nothing and I think they were all taking it easy. The next thing I knew, they had found the little old painter, the only person that could tell them that he had seen me. I thought this was the end for me, but this little old man, God bless him, stuck to his story that he did not see or hear anything until there was fire on the floor that frightened him so much his heart hurt and he ran outside.
"The Commandant at this stage was so furious I thought he was going to have a heart attack. The end result was that to find the saboteur we should all be executed. Lofty and I got special attention I think because of our altercation with the young engineer. In the meantime, a truck arrived and we were told to take our belongings and get in the truck and we were told in no uncertain terms that we now were really going to work hard in a tough prison camp in Germany, pointing at Lofty and I as he said it.
"We then travelled to Maleme aerodrome and loaded on a Junkers cargo plane for Athens. A very uncomfortable ride sitting on the floor without restraints of any sort. Leaving the island of Crete and thinking back at the time we spent under mass bombing attacks, strafing by fighter planes and bomber fighter planes such as the Black Dorniers. The fierce fighting between ourselves and the German paratroopers to a point where I thought this will go on until everyone is dead.
"As was said by a number of well known persons, the battle for Crete was the most significant of the Second World War. This was a battle against far superior forces who were well equipped in comparison to our poorly equipped and without reserves of stores and ammunition. Owing to the fact that the Germans met such solid resistance and had to throw so much of their resources into this battle it ruined their hopes on the Russian Fronts.
"Owing to our resistance, they were not able to send the necessary troops to Russia, so when they were able to send troops, the Russians had been given breathing space of six months or more, and the German troops were left floundering and freezing to death on the outskirts of Stalingrad."
Rick continued to cause problems in the German POW camps which often caused him to receive "special attention". At one stage all prisoners were hand cuffed during the day after a mass escape attempt but they soon found how to undo the cuffs. Rick was taking a shower, having removed his handcuffs when an unexpected visit by German officers took place. He just had time top slip the handcuffs back on and the Germans left wondering how he had managed to remove his clothes with the handcuffs in place. After that the practice of handcuffing prisoners was abandoned.
"On another occasion he was in the kitchen where he worked when he saw a German with his vicious guard dog attached to his belt. The dog had spotted Rick looking out the window and when Rick deliberately made threatening gestures, the dog jumped through the window and his guard was flattened against the wall. Rick copped a beating which left him in hospital for six weeks.
But it was to pay off in the long run for when Rick came out of hospital, his name was on the list of prisoners to be repatriated. Most of the others were sick and wounded who were unable to work.
The material for this article was supplied by Rick Hunter of New South Wales