4th and 6th Reserve Mechanical Transport Companies
CHAPTER 5 — Escape
SOME men mope in captivity, some die, some settle down, some escape. Of the RMT men captured in Crete, Corporal Shand,1 Drivers Barrington, Cumming, Foley,2 Payne,3 Rolfe, Smith,4 Tisdall5 and Toon6 escaped.
Follow Driver Toon to the prisoner-of-war cage at Galatas:
We were told to lay down our arms. The war for us was over. That was our last laugh for some time to come-some for many years. You see what few of us had arms had no ammo. As we trudged our way back up the escarpment there was silence among us. Everybody's thoughts must have been the same: was this really the end for us? From the top of the hill looking down on the beach all one could see were pieces of white cloth. How hellish it looked! Word was soon passed around to every nook and corner and soldiers soon poured out onto the road to start the three-day hunger march.
The first night we were stripped of everything: blade razors and knives and anything that could hurt a Hun. That night we never even got a drink of water. The next day was worse, tired, hungry, we crept along in choking dust. The German guards screaming ‘hoost, hoost’ and pointing their pistols at us never made us go any faster.7 Everyone seemed half dead with thirst and the radi- page 97 ators of all the smashed trucks on the road were drained for drinking water. As night was falling we were turned off into a paddock and every fifth man was given two tins of bully beef and a packet of biscuits to share up between. We still starved that night but a creek with clear cold water we had to ourselves. Freshened up from a dip in the creek we marched our third day and finally into the P.O.W. camp. When I met Sam Payne his boots were falling apart and his feet were a mass of blisters. Separated from us he had not eaten for seven days. On the march he found an egg and the remains of a tin of bully which had been run over by quite a few trucks. ‘It was as flat as a pancake and the meat was a brilliant yellow but I ate it’, he said. We all would have done the same.
The P.O.W. camp at Galatas was the filthiest hole I have yet seen and wish to see: those back streets of Cairo don't stink compared to that camp. Sanitary arrangements were a trench out in the open and the damn wind always blew across that trench and over the camp. Lentils and mouldy bread from Greece were the food they gave us, we were starving all the time. Six men to a bivouac, no blankets, and none of us even had a coat. We slept sitting huddled up to one another. One day an inspection was held by the Camp ‘Com.’ [Commandant] and cameras, watches, etc., were taken. The lousy cows. I got my watch replaced twelve months later-funny too, in exactly the same way. Soldiers were taken sick but nothing was done for them; food they needed, there was none.
While marching to the cage in the remains of the hospital area near Galatas, other RMT men passed liberated Italian prisoners of war. ‘They were very decent to us,’ one driver wrote, ‘and gave freely of the food, sugar and tobacco they had. This made them unpopular with our guards who pushed them aside, and there were several arguments between them.’
At Galatas gaunt, dysentery-weakened prisoners built rude shelters from bits of canvas, wood, and old iron. Sanitary arrangements and living conditions were very crude. Scrounging parties collected their first so-called square meal of green tomatoes, marrow skins and onion tops, and boiled them into a stew. A nearby field of wheat was stripped in a day, prisoners boiling and devouring the heads. British troops succeeded in killing, cooking and eating a donkey and a dog. They declared the dog all right ‘as it was a brown one’.
Hopes for a counter-attack on the island faded. Tom Cum- page 98 ming and one or two companions talked seriously about escape. Once free they would trust to luck. Surprisingly few would take the risk, arguing that they would be much better off in Austria. Others tried to talk Tom out of it. ‘But now I had the idea in my mind I just couldn't drop it. I brooded over it for days, the thought of freedom urging me away from all this monotony of prison life with its filth, hopelessness and hunger.’
In the night of 19 June he and Jim Toon crept to the latrine pit and waited for the sentries, who were in pairs, to pass. The two then clambered through the barbed wire. When the sentries had passed again, they dropped into a dry ditch, crawled through a culvert under the road, and emerged in a field thick with vines. It all seemed so simple.
They made for Galatas and hid in an old farm building. Dawn showed a house nearby where an old lady, at first much alarmed, prepared a banquet of fried potatoes and fresh bread. The next step was to gather food. They stole from house to house, collecting a little here, a little there. One man boldly led the two into a shop and bought a good supply of potatoes. He handed over a groundsheet and described the best way out of Galatas and into the hills. ‘Are there—er— many Germans in Galatas?’ asked Tom. The man smiled. ‘This is their headquarters,’ he said.
It was still early. A few sleepy-eyed Germans drove motorcycles and trucks down a nearby street, but more disturbing were encouraging cries and waves from well-meaning villagers. They passed over an old battleground and collected dixies, a cooking pan, forks and a German bayonet. ‘We chased the only rabbit I ever saw on Crete. Maybe it was a tame one. But I guess it saw the hungry glint in our eyes.’
The trail to the mountains led through vineyards where a Cretan (‘he reminded us of “a well-informed circle” ’), generous with wine and tomatoes, said Russia, now at war, was attacking Turkey for allowing German troops free passage. [Germany invaded the USSR at 4 a.m. on 22 June 1941.] Far more important, he rolled cigarettes from a packet of New Zealand makings found on the battlefield.
In the heights above Galatas friend and foe lay buried in a page 99 common grave beneath a large cross. An attempt had been made to pretty-up the surroundings. Odd parachutes and empty canisters still lay around. And an odd body or two, overlooked. The drivers felt a cloud come over the sun. They gladly got out of the place. In the late afternoon families in a tiny village crammed their two sandbags with bread, olives, bottles of olive oil, a little flour, sugar, and, best of all, tea, which had been snatched from army dumps and hidden at once. ‘The women were very sympathetic and wept for us, patting our hands and heads, and crying down all sorts of curses on the “Germanos”. We left with the women praying for our safety.’
Luckily they skipped the next village and were sitting down to rest when vicious machine-gun fire broke out below. The screaming of women and girls went on for quite some time. Later they found out what this meant—reprisals. Weak from so much climbing and from so much food, the two settled down for the night in a strange spot—ancient ruins overgrown with vines and creepers. These rustled faintly now and then. Suddenly a voice began calling. The voice came closer. One New Zealander held the bayonet ready. Then a Greek priest, fully robed, appeared in the dusk. Determined no German in disguise would stop them now, the two called softly. The priest was genuine enough, and distracted too, and kept on his way, his cries growing fainter and fainter until silence returned to the ruins. They slept uneasily through the first free night.
Three young women halted them next afternoon near the village of Therisso. One, a refugee from Athens, speaking good English, invited them to her house to rest, eat and meet her brother, an officer from the Greek Navy. Friends gathered. Wine and cigarettes went round. Escaped prisoners? Wonderful ! Wives? Children? Mothers? Photographs of them, perhaps? Excellent! Admiration, especially for children, grew. Tom, a father, patted frequently on the back, felt like a national hero. Happily they sat down to fried eggs, chips, salad, cheese-curd and milk, when through the door burst an old woman crying:‘Germanos etho! Germanos etho![‘Germans here!’]
Every man raced for the woods. The two New Zealanders slept on a bed of pine boughs. In the morning the girls arrived page 100 with food, money, the last of their cigarettes, and a map of Crete. They farewelled the New Zealanders with tears and begged them ‘to tell the British to come back’. Supper that night was eaten with a humble goatherd in his stone cottage. The family sat round a square slab of stone. In the centre lay a dish of boiled milk, a plate of olives, and bread. Everyone ate with spoons from the same dish. With the others beating them to it, the two soon improved their technique. After supper the children went to bed on layers of moss and hay and the men curled up in sheepskins under a tree.
Jim and Tom made off for Sfakia, clambering over rock and crag until their boots gave out. They were now about 4500 feet up. They lit fires, for the nights were bitterly cold. Confronted by even steeper ranges, they turned back and went east, running into men and women threshing wheat.
‘It was surprisingly primitive. Down in a hole paved with flat stones a donkey walked round and round pulling a small sledge with cutting edges on it. A child stood on the sledge to add weight. Once the straw is cut sufficiently fine someone grabs a large wooden fork and tosses it into the breeze, which blows away the chaff. It's very slow, though very little wheat is lost.’
Here they stayed for a week. Tom, greatly alarmed, ate his first dish of snails, but was reassured by Jim, who had eaten and enjoyed them in New Zealand. They also became fond of garlic, said to be good for the stomach and also for keeping snakes away during afternoon siestas. They met guerrillas. One, Petro, had worked in coal mines in the United States and had returned to a small vineyard near Palevora. He had taken part in the fighting, shooting down several parachutists and cutting the throats of others. His farm now looted and destroyed, Petro was a fugitive, well armed with five rifles and plenty of ammunition. Another guerrilla, one of the best killers in that area, travelled with three rifles, an automatic, a wicked looking knife and a haversack of cartridges.
‘Petro's sons and nephews visited us, bringing from hiding places their rifles,’ said Cumming. ‘They played with them like children with toys, saying what they would do to any Germans who came their way. They would load and unload page 101 them, clean them, aim at a target, and get all excited over some stories of past fights.’
Jim and Tom moved to the little village of Drakona, closer to the coast but still far enough in the mountains to be safe from enemy patrols, usually restricted to villages linked by roads. Sympathetic villagers provided food. They slept in a cave, exchanging army dress for civilian clothes and keeping only identity discs and paybooks. Long hair and moustaches completed their disguise.
‘People kept asking: when would the British return? In their view the war started and finished in Crete. Sometimes we were told Britain seemed to talk too much and not fight enough. We felt their confidence was waning. They got more radio news from Moscow. They then pinned their faith in the Russians and assured us that one day hundreds of aeroplanes would appear over Crete, dropping hundreds of thousands of parachutists. We were also dismayed by the news from Libya, with the enemy back to the border.’
Earning their keep, the two New Zealanders helped charcoal burners chop young firs, cut up the logs and set them alight to smoulder under coverings of earth. One worker, a strict vegetarian, shunning milk, cheese and meat, had fought in Albania and returned to Crete by boat. In the firelight, silent and rapt, he studied for the priesthood of the Greek Orthodox Church.
Many ex-prisoners were moving through Drakona to the eastern end of the islands. They brought stories of shootings and burning. One man had jaundice. The Cretans treated him for it by cutting the membrane of his lower lip. Fed up with hanging about, the two New Zealanders decided to move east, Tom going ahead via Caboose, Ramallie and Kares.8 Near Kares he met three ex-prisoners, two New Zealanders and an Australian. ‘I felt by my reception I was hardly welcome. Lots of chaps were jealous of spots they had found where food was obtainable and sometimes plentiful. I didn't blame them. After all we were nothing but a lot of hoboes wandering around the country.’page 102
Tom, now separated from Jim, met up with a party of RMT men. Crossing hot, dry, barren hills they made for Sfakia, dodging patrols and running mostly into goat and sheep herders. Germans used the roads regularly, the people were less friendly, and food, except for grapes and figs, became harder to get. ‘At all times we found that, as everywhere else, the poorer people were always the most insistent that we eat with them.’ A turn for the better began in one village on the way to Sfakia. With growing excitement the New Zealanders listened to a Cretan of some authority. He said a British officer was getting men off the island in submarines. The Cretan would find a guide to take them towards the rendezvous.
With their water bottles filled to the brim, they waited expectantly outside the village. The bearded guide, Petro, hard as nails, turned up. The party set off at a smart clip along steep tracks winding through thick scrub. Petro had eyes like a hawk. He suddenly lunged into the scrub, startling the men behind until they saw a three-foot snake dangling dead on the handle of his stick. They walked all night, pausing at a village where a priest passed on the latest war news. Next day Petro entertained them royally at his home, which was also the village smithy, and begged them to sign his ‘visitors' book’. The RMT men, still a little suspicious, wrote down anything. Some Australians had signed before them, splashing titles, rank and decorations right and left. Through the humble smithy apparently had passed every male descendant of Ned Kelly, Phar Lap, half the Australian stud book, and the Sydney Harbour Bridge.
Down gullies and around cliff faces they continued to a hideout, where Petro told them to wait a day or two while he spied out the land ahead. Time passed. Petro did not return. The submarine had been expected on 13 August. It was now about 18 August. Someone went back to the smithy and found Petro. He was stretched out dead drunk on a week's ‘bash’.
Alone and disheartened they pushed on, bearded and ragged, their broken boots hanging together with bits of wire and tin tacks. Luck led them to another contact man who promised to have them on the way to Alexandria within two days. A youth led them over rocky and dangerous hillsides to the village page 103 of Morjou, overlooking the coast sweeping up to bitterly remembered Sfakia.
A guard at Papakura Camp, November 1939
Training convoy in Nile Delta
The first anniversary dinner at Fuka, October 1940
A trench and dugout near Mersa Matruh
Another guide, a man well over six feet tall and heavily built, took over, making for a distant cave where eight fugitives were waiting. Clambering over cliff and rock, breathless and faint, the men looked down upon Germans bathing and playing about the beaches some two miles below. Far away monasteries sat like toy houses on top of two precipitous hills. Every day the monks came down to attend to their crops, sheep and vineyards.
More guides arrived. The men split into small parties. Time running short forced them to sprint at intervals along goat tracks until the coastal hills and the road from Prevalee were reached.
Here we saw another group of prisoners coming from the village. We did not join forces until it was quite dark. A crowd of Cretans followed us. We gave away what clothing we carried and also our tobacco leaves. The head monk came down on a mule to give us his blessing. We moved off in silence, warned if any trouble broke out the submarine would not come in.
Reaching the cliffs we fumbled past bay after bay until we came to a very small beach. We had trouble keeping silence here. Everyone was tremendously excited. We had not long to wait. Within half an hour we heard a swishing sound and against the background of the dark sea we saw the conning tower of a submarine. We felt like cheering or crying, so great was our relief. Again we declared that the Navy was certainly the Service.
A rubber dinghy approached. We soon had a line from the submarine. Just before entering the water we were eagerly assisted by the Cretans who fought among themselves for our possessions. One helped me out of my jersey and another was undoing my trousers while a third snaffled my boots. The only article I brought off was my paybook and family snapshots, which I held between my teeth. We made our way out, swimmers helping non-swimmers who held onto the line supported by lifebelts.
Eager hands assisted us on board….
7 On the other hand, an official German account,From Serbia to Crete, describing Suda Bay prisoners who were exhausted and meticulously sharing their last food and water, says: ‘Why should we not admit it frankly? In these moments, when we were ourselves on the point of exhaustion, we were proud of our enemies.’
8 The spellings of some of these place-names are phonetic. Probably small villages, they cannot be found on the maps available.