Episodes & Studies Volume 1
In German Hands in Greece and Crete
THE GERMANS made little attempt to provide properly for the prisoners taken by them in Greece. Though some prisoners did not leave that country for more than a year after their capture, every camp in Greece was little more than a transit camp. Some of the men captured at the evacuation beaches in the Peloponnese were held a few days at Nauplion in the playground of a school before they were taken to Corinth, where an old stone barracks had been named a transit camp for prisoners of war. Into it, without blankets or mattresses, over five thousand men were crowded; they were each given one cooked meal a day and a ninth of a kilogram (approximately quarter of a pound) of bread.
Corinth was only a staging base to the ‘frontstalag’ at Salonika from which prisoners were sent on by train to Germany. There were two camps at Salonika—a barracks building in the town and a camp farther out. The first months there were the worst. Dysentery and malaria were rife, the food poor and insufficient (a 70-pound bag of lentils—and nothing else—was daily made into soup for the 5000 men in the camp; in addition each man received a biscuit or a small piece of bread), and the guards were aggressive. The Greek Red Cross supplied some cigarettes, fresh fruit, and vegetables, but it was many months before any other Red Cross supplies appeared.
Conditions in the German cages in Crete were very similar to those in the camps on the Greek mainland. Most of the New Zealanders were held in a dusty seaside camp at Galatas where the only amenity was bathing in the sea, ‘a tremendous asset in keeping down the vermin’. The rations issued were mostly captured British stores, but the guards kept the lion’s share for themselves and tantalised the hungry prisoners by the amount of food they wasted. One prisoner performed the dangerous feat of stealing a 50-pound bag of oatmeal from a dump guarded by a German sentry. On good days the prisoners had light gruel for breakfast, a hunk of bread for lunch, perhaps with mint tea, and in the evening a thin stew of bully beef, lentils, and beans, ‘all stirred up into something that revolted the hungriest of us’. The best part of the food was the bread. The more enterprising of the prisoners got out at night, picked up what food they could find on the neighbouring farms, chiefly bread, raisins, and vegetables, and returned to camp the next night with their booty. The Austrian guards were generally lenient and some winked at these expeditions.
The prisoners from Crete were taken to Salonika for transport to Germany. The first stage of the journey was the unpleasant, crowded voyage in the holds of some commandeered Greek cargo vessel; the luckier batches of prisoners were allowed up on deck during the day. Even Galatas with the wretched shelter of its tents seemed better than the crowded, verminous barracks at Salonika, without beds or blankets, living on food which had already produced beriberi in those who had had to endure it longest. Mint tea was the total breakfast, a lentil soup with the appearance of ‘horse-meat having walked through it’, the dinner, and an Italian biscuit the tea. The journey to Germany, crammed into cattle-trucks, was terrible. Food which would have been adequate for two days had to last the prisoners, with very little supplement, a journey of five or six days, sometimes extended to ten. On some trains no one was allowed to leave the trucks during the whole of the journey. Men arrived in Germany weak, exhausted, lousy, and with their spirits the lowest of the whole period of their captivity.