In the counter-attack on Maleme aerodrome, Corporal E. N. D. Nathan (28 Bn) was wounded in the hip and an eye. He went on a barge carrying wounded to Egypt, but off Kastelli enemy planes sank the craft. Nathan swam ashore, hid from a German patrol, and started off for Sfakia. When page 504 he arrived there he saw large crowds of soldiers on the beach surrendering to the Germans. His wounds, his long trek, and this last bitter disappointment were too much for him and he collapsed.
A family in a nearby village found him, carried him to their home and looked after him. Nathan stayed with the family for a long time. He learned the Cretan dialect and moved around freely, even among the German soldiers. He was questioned by the Gestapo but always convinced them that he was a Cretan. The third time he was before the Gestapo, it was definitely proved that he was an escaped soldier. He was badly beaten up when he refused to give the name of the family who had befriended him.
Nathan went to a prison camp in Germany and acted as an English-Greek-German interpreter. In September 1944 he was repatriated to England from Germany because of his bad eye and was later mentioned in despatches. After the war he went back to Crete and married the Cretan girl to whom he was engaged while on the island, the daughter of the family that had sheltered him.
Ten days after they escaped, Privates W. D. Tooke and E. Harland (18 Bn) broke back into the prison camp for extra clothing. The following night they were out again. Tooke then spent nearly five months trying to track down boats and submarines. Once he considered himself hard done by when he lost a card draw for a seat in a small boat, Private D. R. F. MacKenzie (19 Bn) being the winner. He found out years afterwards that he had been fortunate as the boat had landed behind the German lines on the North African coast. Despite this accidental salvation, luck was against him and he was recaptured by a German patrol.
‘A boat with six Greeks was leaving for North Africa and there was room for one soldier. As there were eleven of us, Dean Tooke produced a pack of cards and we cut for the place …. I was the lucky man.
‘The boat, an eighteen footer and well stocked, left on Thursday 18 September 1941 and the voyage was uneventful, it being calm with just enough wind to keep us going. We had no compass, trusting to luck to get there. We first sighted land on Saturday evening, then our next sight was at noon on Sunday when we saw some buildings and a battle in progress, shells were bursting and dust columns from vehicles were rising. We were sailing parallel to the coast, the battle was on our right and we veered to the left, thinking we were passing Sollum which we had heard was the front line. Late in the afternoon some Blenheims crossed our front from the left and bombed something on our right, so completing the illusion. At midnight we landed. A red flare went up in front of us, the moon was bright and we saw several parties standing at close intervals and a patrol advancing along the beach—they were Germans. They had watched us all day and were waiting for us. The following two days we went from one German post to another. While in one not far from Tobruk, Rommel came page 505 in and spoke to the major. I parted from the Greeks at Derna and was sent to Benghazi, where I met Ted Smith and MacGregor who had escaped from Greece, only to be picked up, like me, by the enemy.’
Private H. N. Dagger (5 Fd Amb) spent three months in Crete, then went over to Greece and worked his way up to the Corinth Canal where he met a British officer. The two teamed up together and had many exciting times.
On the island of Hydra they met Sapper J. L. Langstone (6 Fd Coy) and Private R. O. Petrie (19 Bn) and two Englishmen called Joe and Bill. Three of the party made an unsuccessful attempt by boat but bad weather forced them to return. The escapers had to hide in a hole for a week—their food was lemons—while the Italians scoured the countryside for them. Back on the mainland Dagger was captured by Germans, escaped, and made his way to the island of Kithnos. There he fell into the hands of Italians.
In prison Dagger met Second-Lieutenant J. W. C. Craig (22 Bn), Sergeant J. A. Redpath (19 A Tps), and Captain F. Macaskie (British Army), all special service agents, and Sapper R. E. Natusch (NZE). They had been captured a short time before. Some of the party were shifted to Rhodes; then the others followed, and a month later Dagger was shipped to Italy. During the voyage Natusch made a daring attempt to escape by diving over the side but he was recaptured almost immediately.
Driver P. Brocklehurst (Div Sup) heard from the villagers (‘it was uncanny the way the Cretans received their news by bush telegraph’) that two other escaped New Zealanders were coming to the village. They were Drivers W. H. W. Haslemore and W. R. Bullot (both Div Sup). Three other New Zealanders also lived in the district, Corporal S. G. Truesdale and Drivers L. M. Chinnery and J. F. McAnally—all from the same unit, the Divisional Supply Column.
In September 1941 when the Germans started their determined drives, the party had to break up and keep moving from one place to another. In between times they looked for boats. Haslemore and others set off late in 1941 in a lifeboat salvaged from a sunken Italian ship, but the overloaded boat was swamped. Once Haslemore and a Welshman were walking across the hills to their hideout when they saw two New Zealanders picking oranges in an orchard. ‘From a distance I recognised one as Ray Stuck [Private R. H. C. Stuck, 23 Bn] whom I knew before the war.’ In April 1942 a man who appeared to be trustworthy and who had promised Haslemore and others a boat passage, led them into a German trap.
Constant raids and alarms convinced the villagers that the Germans knew they were sheltering an escaped soldier. The soldier, Private A. W. Gleeson (22 Bn), had been there ten months but now he had to move to a safer place. With his dog, a great companion, he went off to the hills. One day Gleeson badly wanted a smoke, so he went into a wineshop in a close-by village. Too late he saw two German soldiers there. They picked him as an escaped soldier, took him over to their table and gave him wine and food. ‘They were decent enough blokes and we had a merry time.’page 506
Driver A. H. H. Lambert (4 RMT) was unlucky with submarines: at Sfakia he waited a week for one; at another rendezvous the Greek agent, Colonel Papadakos, told him and other escapers that there had been a leakage of news and that it was not safe to wait any longer. Yet another time he was in touch with an organised party but was away when the submarine made its hurried pick-up, and he was one of the 140 who waited at Treis Ekklisies. In the year that Lambert was free he roamed from one end of Crete to the other, having many narrow escapes from capture.
Life was hard. ‘Anyone left in Crete felt in the depth of despair and we had little happiness, though there were one or two lighter moments …’ Lambert accepted the cold, the hunger, and other miseries as part of his hunted life. Generally he and his companions had just enough to live on, though there were times when they starved and were glad indeed to eat such things as slugs. Once when desperately hungry they called on the nearest police station and demanded a meal, which was gladly given them. Sickness was an added affliction. Cretan friends nursed him back to health during these hard times. Clothing was fairly easily picked up but was not warm enough for the rigorous winter, and they found it impossible to obtain boots. Their boots quickly wore out and they had to do all their walking on bare feet. Lambert was well treated by the Cretans and remembers them with affection.
At a village on the western side of Mount Ida Lambert and Lance-Corporal E. T. Goodall (4 RMT) were given up to the police by an informer. The police hated arresting them but had to do so for fear that the informer might betray them also to the Germans. Lambert later escaped in Greece.
WO II R. H. Thomson, DCM, who had been captured in Crete and moved to Salonika prison, missed the train drafts to Germany by using the old soldier dodges of doctors' chits, feigning sickness, or just by being absent when the drafts left. There came a time, however, when he had to go on the train. But he went prepared and from a belt around his middle hung knives, files, and pliers belonging to him and other hopeful escapers.
The cattle truck he was in had an opening covered with barbed wire high up in the side. He cut the barbed wire carefully and tucked in the ends at the bottom. While he was doing this, six soldiers in the next truck sawed a hole through the wood, but when they jumped from the bumper of their truck the guards opened fire and killed four and wounded one; the other made a clean break. From then on two German soldiers rode on the bumper, a few feet away from Thomson, guarding the sawn hole. The night was full of more stoppings, more shooting, more examinations. When one German was taken off the bumper and the other was out of sight, Thomson squeezed through the opening, dropped flat on the track and lay still until the train was out of sight.
He eventually reached Salonika and, after being rebuffed by several householders, met four young Greeks who promised to take him in their chartered boat to Alexandria. The day before sailing two Greeks betrayed him and had him arrested by the Germans, who recognised him as an escaped soldier by his army boots.page 507
In his basement cell in the Salonika prison Thomson was troubled with dysentery and had to go often—under escort—to the latrine at the end of the corridor. He worked out a plan of escape. He developed a limp, carried a boot in his hand, and then at the chosen time hit the guard hard on the back of the head. Instead of collapsing, the guard bellowed, swung around and hit Thomson over the head with his bayonet. In a minute the corridor was full of abusing and punching Germans.
Thomson's hands were tied with wire, and as soon as the officers had left the three guards of his section dashed into the cell and hammered him with heavy sticks. They poured water on the floor to stop him resting and every hour they took him outside and beat him. Twenty or more Germans came along in the morning to look at the Englander Schwein and they cheered and clapped while the three guards rained blow after blow on him.
Thomson was then put on board a train for Germany. The guards were instructed to keep a close eye on him, so they put him in their carriage in a small compartment with a little seat and a window beside it. A guard sat in front of him with his rifle and bayonet at the ready. After a time the Germans closed the door, being content to make sudden and surprise checks on their prisoner. Thomson worked his hands free of the wire, and retied them so that they could be quickly slipped free. He opened the window and closed it; then he waited. He dropped from the train (it was travelling fast over open country) and landed on the jagged stones by the track. Skinned and bruised—his left hip was the only part unhurt—Thomson set out on foot and finally reached Salonika.
Thomson moved slowly northwards from village to village, and when he met Private J. C. Mann (18 Bn) he stayed with him. It was winter, the people were friendly and the two escapers were weak, so they decided to lie up until spring and then continue their journey. It was during this time that Second-Lieutenant Thomas (23 Bn) came and stayed with them for 19 days. Thomas went south and in the end managed to escape from Greece.1 Four months later the two friends started walking for Turkey. They reached the Struma River, where some smugglers promised to ferry them across to Bulgarian-occupied Greece, but an old man induced the smugglers to hand them over to the police. On the night of their capture they lowered themselves out of the high window of their prison by knotted canvas strips but had the misfortune to walk into the arms of a returning patrol. They worked on the padlock of their next prison and would have escaped if the Germans had not come to collect them.
On the train to Germany from Salonika prison, Thomson was tied hand and foot to the seat and had one guard by day and two by night during the ten days' journey. In Germany he was court-martialled and sentenced to eight months in a punishment prison. Thomson was mentioned in despatches.
Acknowledgment: R. H. Thomson, ‘Captive Kiwi’, radio script broadcast by NZBS.