Journey Towards Christmas
Chapter 6 — Withdrawal From Greece
Withdrawal From Greece
In the Daphni area Company Quartermaster-Sergeant Jack Williams1 stood among piles of new shirts, new underclothes, and emergency rations. A ring of drivers hung round him like wolves but, as he had not yet been given instructions about destroying or giving away his stock, he attempted to fob them off with a few tins of sardines and some deck shoes. The moment his back was turned they snatched shirts, shorts, and underclothing, growing bolder as he grew wearier. Aircraft flew over at frequent intervals and after every alarm the heap was seen to have diminished. Soon most of the drivers were wearing new clothes.
In an area below Kriekouki Sergeant Buckleigh's detachment of nine 30-cwt. lorries (the tenth had been destroyed) was standing by to help with the final withdrawal of the 4th Brigade, which was to hold its present positions at all costs until the next night. The detachment was now under the command of a lieutenant from the 4th Reserve Mechanical Transport Company whose own convoy, originally of thirty lorries, had been depleted by eight. The sunshine was soft and pleasant and our drivers smoked, played cards, slept in the warm grass.
On Kea Island, fifteen miles from the Greek mainland, a party of New Zealanders left the shelter of the olive trees and the wooded gullies and made for the harbour. They had been ordered to sleep near the beaches in case a ship came. Among them were Sergeant ‘Dad’ Cleave,2 Corporal Ian McBeth,3 and some fifteen A Section drivers who had left us the day before to embark from a beach east of Athens with elements of Divisional Headquarters.page 87
‘We were in the last landing craft to leave the beach,’ said Ian McBeth. When she moved off we were under the impression that we were being taken to a ship but as time went by and we seemed to be heading for the open sea we began to wonder. Then the commander of the landing craft spoke to us out of the darkness. He spoke quietly in level tones. He said: “We regret that it is impossible to take you to Crete by destroyer this morning. The destroyer's departure is already overdue and we have decided to take you to Kea Island. There you will be safer from bombing and enemy action than you would be on the mainland. We intend to get in touch with a destroyer and we hope you will be picked up in the course of the next day or two. If that doesn't happen you will have to make your own way to Crete as best you can. Crete is about 150 miles due south of Kea Island.”
‘The voyage that followed was supremely uncomfortable. There were five or six hundred men in the landing craft and except for a small space forward she was decked over. Nearly everyone was wearing his greatcoat, web equipment, and haversack, and we were so jammed together that it was next to impossible to take anything off and difficult even to loosen a strap or unbutton an overcoat. We were standing in a mixture of water, oil, and petrol, and the fumes were so bad that smoking was quite out of the question. Soon we were wet through with sweat.
‘After sailing for four and a half hours the landing craft arrived at Kea Island. The sun was well up and it was a lovely morning. We were ordered to get ashore quickly and disperse ourselves among the olive trees but to stay within call. We needed no urging, for as we were going ashore two German aircraft came skimming over the harbour a few feet above sea level. We got under cover and most of us went straight to sleep.’
They had slept soundly, many of them, even while the harbour was being bombed and low-flying aircraft were strafing the gullies and hillsides. Now, waiting by the beach, few were sleepy. They talked on into the night and no ship came.
Sitting in the darkness and talking about ships—that was what Second-Lieutenant Fenton and the drivers of C Section's administrative vehicles were doing on Anzac evening. They were in the page 88 Peloponnese and in sight of Nauplion harbour. They had destroyed all their lorries except one and that was being kept for New Zealand soldiers who were too sick to march. The sick men, together with some hospital orderlies, had been picked up at Daphni camp the day before and taken by way of the Corinth bridge and Argos to an area near Nauplion, a drive of between eighty and ninety miles. The convoy had been held up in Argos and severely bombed. Here twenty lost men of the Divisional Petrol Company had been taken aboard.
Late that afternoon our drivers saw a tragic sight. The Ulster Prince, a sizeable merchant ship, went aground in Nauplion harbour and while she was lying there helpless the Stukas came over. They circled above her, and then, with beautiful precision, one after another, they dived. The first bombs fell a little wide but the second attack was successful. The ship was hit by an oil bomb dropped by one of the leading Stukas, and the others, following behind, poured streams of incendiary bullets into her decks and superstructure. Presently she was burning from stem to stern. When the fire reached the magazine—that at least was how our drivers saw it—there was a tremendous explosion. Gear of all kinds—derricks, deck-houses, stanchions, whole and in fragments—was thrown upwards in a cloud of smoke and came pattering down into the water. Then she started to blaze in earnest.
No one was surprised when it was learned that there would be no embarkation that night.
And so, on Anzac evening, after spending all day in hiding, our drivers were waiting for the word to move. It came after dark and they marched eight miles to a quiet cove, carrying greatcoats, toilet gear, and one blanket each. When they got to the cove nothing happened, and later they were told that there was no chance of their being taken off that night. They were weary and disappointed and they dreaded another day under the Luftwaffe.
‘Who goes there?’ said an authoritative voice from the darkness. Our drivers were fed up and each of them waited for someone else to reply—a dangerous habit at that time. The challenge was repeated and they could make out an English officer with drawn revolver. It was time somebody answered. Replied Bill Davies,4 wearily, lugubriously, and with perfect timing: ‘Schmidt der Spy!’page 89
To the hungry drivers on Kea Island the ‘Sheriff's’ stew was beginning to smell good. Anything warm and meaty would have smelt good to them for this was their second day on the island and rations were almost exhausted.
The foundation of the stew was a chicken and a kid. The former had been given to ‘Sheriff’ by a village woman; the latter he had returned with after disappearing among the trees. He stirred the pot with his bayonet and thoughtfully sucked a finger. No—it was not quite ready.
Intent on their bellies our drivers were not listening for the assembly signal, but the moment it was heard—three shots in quick succession—hunger was forgotten and they hurried to where the NZASC party was forming up under a captain from the Supply Column who was on the island with 200 others from his unit.
The landing craft had moved a few miles to a safer anchorage and the troops were to march over the hills and join her. They started off in groups of twenty. It was about noon.
For a while the going was flat; then the trail started to zigzag upwards. As soon as one summit was gained another one appeared behind it. ‘Dad’ Cleave made his involved jokes and helped where he could and the men kept going. At last, when they were beginning to feel that everything in the world was vanity except the pleasure of stopping and stretching out at full lengh, the trail began to wind downhill. It wound through a village, and there, by the water's edge, was the landing craft. Three of our drivers were the first to reach her, which was remarkable considering that the NZASC party had been the last to start. They stripped off and fell into the sea, snatching several glorious minutes before it was realised how clearly their white bodies showed up.
The barge sailed at dusk. Early the next morning our drivers were taken aboard the anti-aircraft cruiser Carlisle bound for Crete.
Near the Daphni area the two great Thornycrofts—the Workshops lorry with lathe and drill and work bench, and the stores page 90 lorry with pigeon-holes and bins filled with everything from cotterpins to spare steering assemblies—had been pushed into a gully. One of them lay on its side, three of its six wheels towering high above the mechanics. The other was still upright, its nose crushed into the bank. It was the morning of the 26th.
Gear-boxes, differentials, and engines were stuffed with ammonal, the entire contents of a case about the size of a butter box being used, and fuses were laid. Later it was felt that a smaller amount of explosive would have done the job.
After lunch the drivers were told that if all went well they would embark that night, and at four in the afternoon the remaining transport, with the exception of a pick-up and a breakdown lorry, set out on its last journey, leaving Second-Lieutenant Aitken and a small party to demolish the Thornycrofts.
The fuses were lit—they were supposed to burn for a minute—and the demolition party piled into the pick-up, which stopped dead after travelling some fifty yards, its differential wedged against a rock. The explosion was expected momently and the party's efforts during the next minute may be described as frantic. As it happened there was plenty of time to spare, for the lorries were still intact when the pick-up reached the main road, which was about a mile away. By this time Creek civilians were making for the gully in search of loot, impervious to waves and shouts. The minutes dragged by and at last the lorries disintegrated with a shattering explosion, injuring or killing, our drivers felt guiltily certain, more than one civilian. A column of smoke rose in the air and a flight of Messerschmitts dived on it, their guns firing. Staying no longer, the party headed towards Athens, the driver whose job it was to clear the road of wrecked vehicles taking the breakdown lorry. When we saw him later he told us he had dragged several vehicles off the road, some of which seemed to have been placed there deliberately.
Meanwhile the main party was on its way through Athens. For most of us it was a trying experience. Flowers and cognac we did not look for. Taunts and jeers—not that we were expecting them—we could have answered with taunts and jeers. A polite acceptance of the fact of our withdrawal we could have faced with equanimity. But when they smiled at us, when they waved to us, when they held up as a gesture—the lorries were moving fast with page 91 the general stream—small presents: cakes, a white rose, a glass of wine; when they did this, the children waving, the men saluting, the women smiling, they made it hard for us. For what were we to do? Wave back? Grin all over our faces like Cheshire cats? Say over and over again our three Greek words—kalimera, kalaspera, kalinikta? No, it was easier to exchange waves with the two drunk Australians, their arms around girls, on a balcony. It was easier, going through Constitution Square, to taunt, as one of our drivers did, with what cruel injustice he could not be expected to know, the lonely airman seated on the café terrasse, elbows on an iron table: ‘Having a good leave, old man?’ The airman did not look up.
The hedges of the pretty road east of Athens were white with dust and in the ditches there were wrecked vehicles. We headed towards Raphena where we were to embark from D beach. After travelling for about fifteen miles we turned off the road into a grassy olive grove. We ate a hurried meal and then repacked our valises, making the final decisons about what to leave behind. We had been told we could take very little.
We were ordered to destroy Captain Moon's staff car and all but two or three of the lorries. Destroying the staff car was good fun: there was plenty of upholstery to slash, plenty of gadgets to break. The indomitable huckster who had been negotiating with a Greek business man looked on in distress. To the dozen or so civilians who had gathered to watch us we gave the back cushion, the radiator muff, a few blankets, and some tins of food. The portable gramophone—the one we had looted—went to a little boy. He was delighted with it and thanked us prettily in correct English.
He was playing it when we moved off at dusk in the remaining transport, and the ‘Woodpecker's Song’, which had greeted us on arrival, made a fitting requiem for the broken, deserted lorries, blurred and shadowy in the twilight, round the little boy and his gramophone.
We dismounted a few miles down the road, leaving the transport to be destroyed by engineers. Then we shuffled down to the beach in pitch darkness. We stood in a long, whispering queue and time lapsed. At last we were packed aboard a landing craft and taken, with water washing about our boots and our heads bowed beneath the steel deck, to the Glengyle. As soon as we had settled down in page 92 the warm, seething, and lighted hold we were given hot cocoa and large bully-beef sandwiches. Then we slept. At three on the morning of the 27th the Glengyle sailed for Crete.
The Greek women saw the flash of ‘Tiny’ Kinnaird's5 rifle, saw the German aircraft spiralling to earth, and sprang to a perfectly natural conclusion. A second later he was being hugged and kissed by half a dozen wildly enthusiastic civilians.
Apart from that, 26 April had not been an amusing day for Second-Lieutenant Fenton and his detachment. Dawn had found them hiding beneath olive trees not far from the Nauplion beaches and from then on they had been in constant danger. Probably there was nothing personal about the strafing. The German pilots went backwards and forwards over likely dispersal areas with the thoroughness of ploughmen and our drivers were not missed. Whenever a large flight of aircraft appeared the watchers half expected to see the sky blossom with parachutes. It was known that paratroops had landed near Corinth.
The landing had occurred at breakfast-time that morning, and by then, after travelling all night, the 6th Brigade was in position between Miloi, a few miles south of Argos, and the town of Tripolis. The NZASC detachment, of course, was still with the infantry, but it was now under the command of Captain Torbet6 (C Section), Major McGuire7 having gone ahead on the night of the withdrawal from the Thermopylae line to report to Colonel Crump.
At that time it was the intention to withdraw the 4th Brigade across the Corinth Canal, so as soon as it was known that paratroops had landed near the bridge the 26th Battalion was ordered to send back two rifle companies to help the small mixed force that was defending it. Two of our lorries carried them.page 93
‘We were heavily bombed and strafed on the way up,’ said Reg Troughear8 (C Section), ‘and finally we were halted by a big bomb crater in the middle of the road. After we had filled it in I went back to my lorry, but I couldn't find Arthur Hearn9 who was the other driver. I knew he was dead-tired, so I supposed he had lain down somewhere and gone to sleep. I didn't worry much because the officer in charge of us had decided not to take the other Ammunition Company lorry any farther, his idea being to keep at least one lorry in reserve in case his transport got badly knocked about. I told the drivers of this lorry, Corporal Ivan Hogg10 and Alan Bradbury11 (B Section) to look out for Arthur, and I went on with the rest of the convoy.
‘So much time had been wasted in taking cover from aircraft that now we just carried on. We debussed the infantry and pretty soon they were in action, though they were too late to do anything about the Corinth bridge, which had been blown up before they arrived. I didn't see any paratroops but I saw plenty of enemy aircraft and I kept my head down.
‘The infantry held their positions until evening and then they moved back to fresh ones—the idea, I think, was to cover the withdrawal of wounded and stragglers. Anyway it was late at night before we got back to where we had left the B Section lorry. What was left of it was still burning and there was no sign of Arthur and the others.’
Bradbury and Hogg had been told to stay where they were until a given hour and then move south. They were joined by Arthur Hearn, and later, as there was no sign of the infantry, they pulled on to the road. At once they were machine-gunned from the air, the lorry being set on fire. Alan Bradbury was killed, Ivan Hogg wounded in the hand and leg, and Arthur Hearn in the thigh.
Meanwhile the rest of the 26th Battalion had moved to positions about twenty miles north of Miloi, leaving the 25th in reserve near that town and the 24th in positions protecting Tripolis. The page 94 situation in the Peloponnese was getting graver every hour. German troops had crossed the Gulf of Corinth near Patras and were advancing down the west coast, threatening Tripolis and the port of Kalamata, from which the 6th Brigade was to have been the last fighting force to leave Greece. Now it was to embark from Monemvasia, far down on the south-east coast.
‘These daylight moves,’ said Captain Torbet, ‘were made under merciless attacks from the air. We left the Miloi area at one in the afternoon with the 24th Battalion. From a hilltop near the coast we had a clear view of the Nauplion harbour. Clouds of smoke were trailing across the water and peeping through them were the masts of precious shipping.
‘In Tripolis, which was being bombed as we passed through it, we were met by civic officials who handed us a sheet of typescript stating that no British troops were to stage within three miles of the town as their presence was likely to provoke air raids.
For No. 9 and No. 10 sub-sections, which were travelling at the end of the convoy with instructions to pick up stragglers, it might have been better had the signboards been switched earlier, for they were directed to Kalamata and had no trouble in finding their way there. They arrived at the beach that night with stragglers riding on the mudguards of the lorries and on the cab roofs, but they were not embarked.
North of the canal, too, the situation was becoming graver. Throughout the 26th, Sergeant Buckleigh's 30-cwts. had continued to stand by for the withdrawal of the 4th Brigade from its positions at Kriekouki.
‘During the day,’ said ‘Chum’ Thomas12 (B Section), ‘scraps of news came back to us. We heard that the enemy was in Thebes, then that a German column was heading towards the pass. We heard our artillery getting stuck into it and later we were told it had been driven back. Then we heard about the paratroops at page 95 Corinth and that the Germans were working round east of us, and we knew things were sticky.
‘The withdrawal started when it got dark. The infantry marched to the end of the pass and we picked them up and headed towards Athens.’
Near the beach at Nauplion Second-Lieutenant Fenton's detachment had come to the end of its second day of waiting. No paratroops had landed there, the last Messerschmitt had gone singing into the sunset, and it was dark again. Our drivers were happy in the lovely darkness and for the moment they were not worried about the morning, though they knew now that if they were not taken off that night they were unlikely to be taken off at all.
Presently they were ordered to go to the beach and they fell in at the end of a long column of Australians who were marching nine abreast. They could not believe there would be enough shipping in the harbour to hold all those Australians and themselves as well. When they got to the beach they were ordered to about turn. This put them at the head of the column, which apparently had marched past the embarkation point in the darkness. Wading, swimming, floundering, they boarded a landing craft, and as soon as it was full it put off, slapping through the salty darkness. For a while the commander of the craft believed he would have to make Crete on his own, but after heading out to sea for two miles—by now it was almost dawn—he found HMAS Perth, which had been embarking troops at the nearby port of Tolos.
Our drivers were given sandwiches and hot drinks and while they were enjoying these they discovered that the Perth's crew, under the impression that the men ashore were in trouble, had volunteered to a man to cover their embarkation.13
The next day—the 27th—was lovely—a perfect spring Sunday.
The Greeks wore their best clothes and went to church. Under the baroque spires and onion-shaped domes, pink, golden, or gleaming white, they prayed fervently for the strange soldiers, a stream page 96 of entreaties going up to Heaven when engines were heard and ripples of dark shadow rushed over the bright domes.
The soldiers with the shabby uniforms and tired faces were still there after the service. When you spoke to them, saying ‘Nike’ (victory), or gave them the thumbs-up sign, they answered in their foreign language: ‘That's right, Dad. How you doin’, anyway?'
‘It was all pretty quiet and peaceful,’ said ‘Chum’ Thomas, ‘with people going to church and that sort of thing, but we were expecting the Germans to appear any moment. The 4th Brigade Group was dispersed between Athens and the beaches. I don't think anything interesting had happened to any of our drivers during the night journey from the Kriekouki positions. There was nothing to do, so we kept under cover and waited for orders.
‘During the morning we were told to destroy our trucks. Stan Barrow14 and I drained our oil and we were just going to put grit in the sump when the order was countermanded. By now the other boys had wrecked their trucks and started out for the beaches, but all ours needed was a fill of oil. We had mortars on board and these were wanted by one of the companies of the 20th Battalion chosen to cover the embarkation.
‘We had been under attack from the air all day long and when we moved back towards Athens, heading for Markopoulon, a little village some six or seven miles west of the beaches, we were quite expecting to get it. There were about eight lorries in our convoy—our own was towing three others—and I dare say it was the last lot of British transport moving north of the Corinth Canal. Anyway, as we were coming over the brow of a hill about sixteen Messerschmitts came down on us. Our passengers tumbled into the ditch and I jumped from one side of the cab and Stan from the other. An Australian artillery officer was killed beside me and four vehicles were destroyed, ours included. The Messerschmitts stayed for some time and when the officer in command called a muster he found that eight or nine men had been killed—I think that's right—and others were casualties. There was no sign of Stan.
‘Soon shells started to land near us and from then on it was rather like a bad dream. German motor-cyclists came down the road and we fired on them. I remember the tracers and the noise page 97 and the flash of mortars and I remember noticing that our truck was still burning. This went on for some time and then things quietened down.
‘Later we were given orders to go to the beach and after a march of about five miles we went straight on to the landing craft. When I got aboard the ship I met some of the other boys and they had the surprise of their lives. Stan, who had made his way to the beach after our truck was hit, had told them I had been killed in the raid.’
The ships that sailed that night were the last to embark troops from the Athens area and in them went all Sergeant Buckleigh's drivers except two—‘Chum’ Arblaster15 and Bill Dolphin16 who had been sent out to collect supplies two days earlier and had not been seen since. That left only Captain Torbet's detachment in Greece.
The morning of the 27th—that brilliant and interminable day—found the 6th Brigade still guarding Tripolis. It was to hold its positions until dark and then move as quickly as possible to a dispersal area near Monemvasia. As the enemy had not put in an appearance by noon the 26th Battalion started the journey in daylight. The bulk of Captain Torbet's transport stayed behind with the 25th and 24th Battalions. The latter was to be the rearguard.
All day long fighters, bombers, and little impudent Henschels, like dragonflies, brushed the tree-tops, searching for troops and vehicles. No cooking was done and our drivers moved only when the camouflage nets had to be shifted to cover the changing shadows cast by the lorries.
‘Some of us,’ said Captain Torbet, ‘were hidden among olive trees on the slopes of a little valley, and during the day an elderly man in peasant clothes strolled down the centre of it, glancing from side to side and calling out with a strong American accent: “Come out, boys! Come on out! Don't be scared!” No one moved and he went away.’page 98
That evening Captain Torbet heard a German radio announcer state that the Luftwaffe had been looking for the remnants of the New Zealand Divison all day but had been unable to find them owing to their clever camouflage.
One of the biggest worries was petrol. As the original intention had been to embark the brigade from Khalkis the drivers had started out with only one case of spare petrol on each lorry, and now, with a journey of about eighty miles in front of them, their reserves were dangerously low. Corporal Roy Hintz17 had returned from a foraging expedition with six cases, and these, together with a few gallons obtained by draining the tanks of abandoned vehicles and a few more allocated to Captain Torbet from supplies requisitioned in Tripolis, enabled our lorries to move out that night with a reasonable chance of reaching Monemvasia. The total reserve—two gallons—was carried in C Section's LAD.
It was difficult to guess how much petrol the lorries would burn. They had been heavily laden when they left the Thermopylae line and since then a large number of stragglers had been picked up and many vehicles had been destroyed or had broken down, so that now the remainder were loaded far beyond the safety mark and were gulping petrol. The LAD—a 30-cwt.—was to end the journey with thirty-five men aboard.
The convoy passed through Sparta, which looked pretty and peaceful in the quiet starlight. Indeed many of the drivers recall to this day how charming it looked, and doubtless at the time, as they drove through its graceful streets, little scraps of forgotten knowledge, things they had heard in childhood about Sparta and the Spartans, stirred in more than one tired mind. And they drove on, perhaps, thinking of Sparta at war with Athens, or of the small boy and his fox, until with a start and a sudden breath-taking swerve they were back in the present and their own chapter of Greek history. Then they would remember where they were and what they were doing and determine to banish everything from their minds except the tailboard of the vehicle ahead. But thoughts would come drifting back, thoughts and dreams, and the road would fade in front of them and the unmeaning gabble of the engine change to music—the kind of music that Caliban heard on his island: page 99 ‘sounds and sweet airs, that give delight, and hurt not’—and mix gently with the conversation of people they had known at home. Then one of them would sleep for a few seconds—sleep soundly until an urgency of disquiet, a subconscious warning that something was terribly amiss somewhere, pulled him back on to the road to Monemvasia. At once he would wake his friend, slumped in the seat beside him drenched and drowned in sleep, so that he could have a rest from driving or at least have someone to talk to.
Before daylight brought the Luftwaffe the transport was dispersed some miles from the beaches and drivers and infantry were prepared for another day in hiding. The first wave of aircraft came over soon after dawn and sank a small ship in the harbour, and from then on the sky was seldom completely empty; but the hours dragged by and still the battalion areas had not been attacked.
The day seemed endless.
And the next day—the 29th—seemed endless in a little town some miles from Kalamata, but punctually at seven in the evening, as they had said they would, the Germans arrived. They came in a British staff car, which was for two British officers, and a British lorry, which was for sixty-odd British other ranks and three New Zealanders. The Germans could congratulate themselves on a little tableau that exemplified the efficiency of the Wehrmacht in a really striking manner.
‘For three nights running,’ said Corporal Wally Dahl,18 ‘we had gone down to the beaches. The last was the 28th-29th and during the day and the early part of the night there had been fighting in Kalamata. In the small hours, when all hope of a planned evacuation seemed to have ended, the thousands of troops in the area were told that the senior officer present, a British brigadier, intended to surrender to the Germans at half past five in the morning. On hearing this, Les Robinson19 and Arthur Davie20 and I—C Section had become split up into small groups by this page 100 time—decided to put as much distance as possible between ourselves and the beaches. We marched seven or eight miles, taking our rifles with us. Towards daylight we came to an empty farmhouse, which we broke into. Here we rested for about two hours; then we heard shooting, so we pushed on, marching for five and a half hours through a swamp. Les Robinson had an infected hand and by now it was up like a balloon and he was feverish and in great pain. It was clear he couldn't be expected to carry on much longer, and as we didn't want to leave him on his own, which was what he wished, we began to think there was nothing for it but to give ourselves up. Late in the morning we came to a little town and there we were met by two British officers and a civilian. The civilian, they told us, was a German policeman. They said there were about sixty British soldiers waiting in a building in the town for the arrival of the Germans. They had sent word that they would be there at seven that evening. The officers told us we would have to surrender our rifles, so we smashed them. Then we joined the others in the building. We gave our names and addresses to a Greek woman—a Red Cross worker—and she promised to write to our families. The civilians were very decent to us, giving us soup, bread, and eggs. Then we settled down to wait for the Germans.
‘They arrived punctually at seven and we were taken to a barracks near Kalamata. On the way we drove past an endless column of marching prisoners, among whom I recognised two C Section boys. Later we met the others.’
At eleven the night before, Captain Torbet's transport had been marshalled in a dry creek-bed and about an hour later it moved off towards the beaches at Monemvasia. It crossed a bridge and this was demolished behind the last vehicle by New Zealand engineers, the flash and the explosion causing some of the drivers to think that page 101 the convoy was being bombed. At the top of a steep cliff, about a quarter of a mile from the beach, the lorries were halted in line, the infantry forming up on the right-hand side of the road. On the other side there was a drop of 200 feet to the sea. An order was given and a dozen men collected round each vehicle. One after another the lorries were pushed over the cliff. Some smashed on rocks and others fell into deep water, while the headlamps of a few could be seen shining under the sea. It is hard to explain how they came to be switched on and why they were not broken. Some of the vehicles on the rocks started to burn. There were hundreds of vehicles below the cliff and our drivers heard later that the Navy came back and destroyed them completely by shellfire.
In groups of seventy the men marched down to the beach. A wait followed and Captain Torbet was told that about 200 men, including his own drivers,22 might not be embarked until the next night. He was informed of the signals that would be used in that event.
Through the small hours of the morning, when the sky is darkest and the human spirit reaches its lowest ebb, the drivers waited on the beach, hope and courage running out like sand. They heard the putter of engines as landing craft went backwards and forwards in the bay and they knew there were not many troops left on the beach.
Finally, when hope was beginning to seem foolish, they were taken to the Ajax, the last ship to be loaded. The last boatload reached her just before four in the morning.
In Ajax, as in Havock, Griffin, Isis, Calcutta, Vampire, Voyager, Perth, Kingston, Glengyle, and all the other ships that had taken part in the evacuation, everything was under control. The sailors relieved our drivers of their valises and handed them up the gangway. The decks were heaped with equipment and the companion-ways were blocked with troops, but it was like stepping out of chaos into order. After days of confusion and destruction and falling back the journey had ended in a place where panic was unthinkable. You felt that if the last trump sounded and the page 102 graves started to give up their dead Ajax would be standing by to proceed with the evacuation of His Majesty's subjects from the four corners of the earth. The very sight of the bluejackets—their levity, their good humour, their confidence—was better than a promise from St. Michael that in the last event Hitler would not prevail. We understood now why Napoleon had failed to invade Britain, and why Hitler would fail also, and why no one would ever invade her successfully; and the reason was this: the people of Britain in time of danger, knowingly or unknowingly, thought of their island as a ship, and worked and fought her as a ship, and behind them to teach them how was the knowledge and experience and steadiness of a hundred generations of seamen. ‘Stand by to repel boarders….’
Soon the soldiers of the Wehrmacht would be trampling over the whole of Greece, a country lovelier and older than anything they could understand, but not over Kent and Sussex, and never would a single German soldier set foot in the Ajax or in any ship of the Royal Navy.
As soon as our drivers had settled down they were given hot cocoa and bully-beef sandwiches. They tried to say thank you but it was no good. ‘Garn,’ said the sailors. ‘'Ev another muckin’ cup. My oath, Miss Weston….'
It is good to be with you after three years.
5 Dvr F. H. Kinnaird; bush hand; Ruahine, Southland; born Taumarunui, 21 Oct 1911.
12 Dvr B. A. Thomas; bricklayer; Pinner, Middlesex, England; born England, 26 Oct 1913.
21 They were Cpl Wally Dahl, Cpl Cam Grinter, Bill Dalton, Arthur Davie, Jack Donnelly, Ted Donnelly, Don Hourigan, Bill Johnson, Bill Leathwick, George Le Comte, ‘Red’ Lee, Ted Malcolm, Bob McNee, Phil Moore, Les Robinson, Jack Shaw, and Sid Spilsbury.