Prisoners of War
I: The Greek Campaign and Prisoners in Greece
I: The Greek Campaign and Prisoners in Greece
EARLY in 1941 it was decided to send a British Commonwealth force to help Greece against German invasion from the north. This decision was to involve the 2nd New Zealand Division in a major fighting role for the first time. The experience was to be a short one. The first New Zealanders of the Greek expedition arrived in Piraeus Harbour on 7 March; on 28 April the last of them to take part in the planned evacuation were taken off by sea. In the three weeks that followed its first actions the Division was engaged in a rapid succession of defensive and rearguard actions, delaying the enemy advance and covering its own withdrawal southward. At Mount Olympus, Servia and Platamon, at Tempe and Elasson, at Thermopylae, at Thebes, at Corinth and on the Peloponnese, and almost up to the evacuation beaches themselves, units of the Division were engaged in holding advanced forces of the enemy in check.
A military withdrawal is difficult to accomplish without numbers of troops being left wounded or cut off, especially if the withdrawal has to be carried out rapidly. In a retreat through Greece of some 300 miles in the space of three weeks, over difficult terrain and harassed by the enemy air force, it is perhaps surprising that the numbers left behind were not higher. Besides those captured in action, a few wounded in each engagement missed being brought out, and those cut off in the north had to try and improvise some means of getting away. A number of stragglers did not reach the evacuation areas in time to be taken off, and at some places the evacuation machinery broke down. Of the New Zealanders who remained behind, 1856 fell into German hands as prisoners of war.
1 The total number captured there according to a German estimate was about 7000. The number of New Zealanders taken was approximately 800.
When the German forces re-entered the area, their prisoners were liberated and their former captors marched to a holding area in a field on the outskirts of the town. The Germans are reported as having been ‘courteous and fair’, though lack of shelter made the holding paddock unbearably hot during the day and water supply proved a problem. Their medical officers assisted our own to establish in the town hall an emergency dressing station for the 250-odd British wounded.2 Within two days all prisoners except these were entrained for Corinth, which had become the prisoner-of-war collecting centre for southern Greece.
2 Maj G. H. Thomson, NZMC, states: ‘I was put in the care of the Medical Officer with the German column…. he was an excellent man as was their Commandant and they both helped me to the utmost of their capacity during the following three weeks…. I have no comment of an adverse nature to make regarding our treatment by the combatant troops at Kalamata.’ They were later transported to Kokkinia hospital, arriving on 16 May.
For all these prisoners in southern Greece the German evacuation plan was the same: to the collection centre at Corinth, thence to Salonika en route for Austria and Germany. Those captured in the north—at Thermopylae or south of Tempe, for example—would go direct to Salonika, passing sometimes through staging camps at Lamia and Larissa. While awaiting transport to a collection centre they might be held in a field, an empty cottage, a schoolhouse or a cemetery. The Germans put many prisoners immediately to work, and men found themselves in a variety of places ranging from a slaughterhouse or a stables to a German quartermaster's store. There does not seem to have been much looting from prisoners—a practice frowned upon by the German officers, though their troops could offer to buy a prisoner's possessions and often paid a good price. Such interrogation as was done was very perfunctory. No effort was made to insist on answers that were not forthcoming, and sometimes the whole matter was disposed of in friendly conversation amid an atmosphere of the greatest good humour. A victorious army sweeping all before it had perhaps no time to niggle over detail and could afford to be magnanimous. But the interrogations later in the year of captured escapers and evaders, to discover who had helped them and where they had been hiding, were severe and intensive.
1 Greek fishing vessel with sail and usually auxiliary engine.
After a fortnight there all patients and staff were moved by ambulance to Piraeus, where the remnants of 5 Australian General Hospital were receiving all British wounded and sick. They had been moved by the Germans to an imposing four-storied, five-block, white stone building standing bathed in sunshine on an area of open wasteland at the foot of the hills behind Piraeus Harbour, and about half a mile above the cluster of houses that made up Nea Kokkinia village. Here British, Australian, and New Zealand medical officers and orderlies were coping with 500-odd cases brought in from emergency dressing stations, using the fairly complete facilities of the Australians and what the Greek Red Cross could supply. Many of our prisoners of war owe limb and life to the operations performed in Kokkinia hospital and to the medical care which followed. To keep enough beds clear for new patients, a walking-wounded and convalescent camp was established in some old Greek barracks below the hospital on the outskirts of Nea Kokkinia.
At the beginning of June, when the influx of wounded from Crete began to arrive by plane, some of the staff were allowed to organise another emergency hospital in the heart of Athens. They were given the large Polytechnic School building with space for 700 beds, and adequate medical facilities appear to have been set up in a very short time. The Germans seem to have left us a fairly free hand at both hospitals. But in both, in spite of help from the Greeks and Red Cross funds, the shortage of food proved a very great difficulty and, especially in dysentery cases, the patients' greatest hurdle to recovery.
1 Miss Ariadne Massautti commandeered the hotels, persuaded the Germans to allow the transfer there of captured medical personnel, organised the Greek Red Cross sisters and VADs to work there, arranged for supplies of all kinds, and generally set an example of cheerfulness and energy. She was awarded the George Medal for her efforts.
2 There were also 1100 Yugoslavs. Dr. Brunel, the IRCC delegate, gives the total in the camp (excluding Italians) as 12,000.
Senior officers had a constant struggle to wring something approaching adequate rations from successive German commandants, some at least outwardly courteous but none very concerned about the welfare of a large mob of prisoners. Dried or salt fish, lentils or rice, a little oil, and a hard army biscuit1 or one-ninth of a loaf of bread, with a very little sugar or honey, were a typical day's rations, the whole estimated at about 800 calories. But it was possible to supplement this to a limited extent. Gifts from the Greek Red Cross2 of whole sheep and other foods helped to thicken the camp soups. A Greek market allowed to operate inside the camp supplied those who still possessed drachmae. Other ranks sent out on working parties, to the Piraeus aerodrome for example, did not want for whatever the generous Greek population could make available to them, and some of these were able to help out their less fortunate officers. Nevertheless, after a week or two many within the camp began to have the ‘black-outs’3 which were to become a common experience in prisoner-of-war camps short of food; and men acquired the habit of hanging about the camp perimeter in the hope that a friendly Greek might throw them something to eat.
1 About 5 ins by 5 ins and about half an inch thick, very like some of our dog biscuits in appearance and flavour.
2 Besides its own resources, the Greek Red Cross was being supplied with funds by the International Red Cross Committee to expend for British Commonwealth prisoners of war.
3 Feeling of faintness (actual fainting in extreme cases) on suddenly standing up or other sudden bodily action; attributed by medical officers in prison camps to lack of sufficient nourishment, and also sometimes to prolonged inactivity.
The coming and going of Greek vendors in and out of the camp in the first weeks gave many of the Palestinians and Cypriots an easy opportunity to get away, and other prisoners were also able to make a break before German security was tightened up. One New Zealander1 made his way to Salonika, travelling at times under the coaches of troop trains. He spent a week and a half in Salonika, alternately sheltering with Greek families and spending the night in the streets, as the Germans had announced that Greeks helping British troops would be shot. After hiding for a while in a village some 30 miles to the north, he made his way with the aid of Greek police and civilians to the Agion Oros (Mount Athos) peninsula.2 Here he was helped with a boat which took him to the island of Imbros, where a party of escapers had collected. Another boat took the party on to Turkey, whence the Turkish authorities returned them to Allied hands over the borders of Syria. It is difficult to say how many prisoners broke out from the Corinth transit camp, as there is no official record of many who temporarily regained their liberty but were recaptured. But this account may be taken as typical of the experiences of some thousands of Allied troops at that time at liberty in Greece.
2 Agion Oros (Holy Mountain) is the name given to the Athos Peninsula which contains many Greek Orthodox monasteries. The most easterly of the three south-pointing fingers of northern Greece, it was used by many escapers as an embarkation point in attempts to reach Turkey by boat.
In the early hours of 5 June the first party of some hundreds, including most of the officers, marched the eight miles to connect with the train on the other side of the Corinth Canal. After some weeks of comparative inactivity and poor food, many found such a march, carrying all their belongings, a strenuous one. But the 25-mile trek which followed the train journey to Gravia (near Levadhia), over the hot, dusty shingle of the 4000-foot Brallos Pass, left everyone exhausted. They had been warned beforehand that any man falling out would have to discard all his gear, an order which made them angry and determined. No one fell out on this party, though two of a later party died on the road. A few had the daring to break from the dusty line of march, ducking into the scrub by the roadside, and the good luck to remain undiscovered, until nightfall enabled them to get clean away. Near Lamia, on the other side of the pass, the prisoners were packed into cattle-trucks and carried north to Salonika,1 where they were marched through the crowded streets to the prison barracks. They were spared more than a day or so in this place, and then, again pushed into cattle-trucks, they began their long journey north to Germany.2 In the week that followed, the exodus from Corinth continued, and the evacuation was reported to be complete by 11 June. Some parties went through to Germany almost immediately, but numbers of men had to remain at Salonika to work for the Germans and to endure for some time longer conditions similar to those they had already experienced in other German transit camps in Greece.
2 Subsequent parties had very similar experiences, except that many were able to get food and drink from friendly Greeks who were waiting along the route, at great risk to themselves from some of the German guards. Many of the later parties stayed some time in Salonika transit camp.