Prisoners of War
II: The Crete Campaign—Prisoners in Greece and Germany
Three weeks after the British evacuation from Greece those British, Australian, and New Zealand troops who were put ashore on the island of Crete had, together with the small British garrison, to defend it from invasion. With barely time to recover from fatigue, to regroup, and to take up defensive positions with the inadequate weapons available, these troops had to deal with a full-scale airborne attack. Preceded by bombing, the first units of the German air invasion force, previously assembled on the Greek mainland, landed on the island on 20 May. The invaders were superior in weapons and were in complete control of the air. Fortunately the Royal Navy made the situation less hopeless by destroying or dispersing the seaborne landing force. The enemy on Crete were at first more than held in some desperate fighting; but once their bridgehead had been strongly reinforced, the British forces were driven back in a series of defensive actions and withdrawals. There was little time for a carefully planned sea evacuation such as that from Greece, and naval losses left fewer ships available. Under such circumstances it was inevitable that many would be left behind, and after the last warship had pulled away from its position off Sfakia in the early morning of 1 June 1941, a large number of our troops still remained ashore.
Of this number some 520 New Zealand wounded had been taken prisoner either on the battlefield or in the first-aid posts and hospitals cut off from possible evacuation by the German advance.1 Apart from other odd groups similarly cut off all along the north-western sector of the island and a few stragglers on the withdrawal routes south, most of those captured were taken near the beach at Sfakia. As in Greece, not all who remained behind fell into enemy hands, and many did so only after a considerable period of liberty. A few made their way in various craft direct to North Africa; many went into hiding on the island and were undiscovered by the enemy for up to two years. Some of the latter got boats and reached Greece or one of the islands of the Aegean, and many of these were able to make good their escape to Turkey or Libya. Nevertheless the great majority of those not evacuated were rounded up by the German forces. In all 2180 of the New Zealanders in Crete became prisoners of war—the largest number to be captured in any single campaign in New Zealand's history.
1 The figure 520 includes those who died of wounds in captivity. A good many walking wounded were able to make their way to the evacuation beach and were among the first to embark on each evacuation night.
1 Prisoners captured in the German thrust into Libya at this period were being similarly forced to unload ‘bombs, food and petrol from JU 52's’, and protests had been made through the Foreign Office.—War Office Directorate of Prisoners of War report for week ending 5 July 1941.
2 According to evidence supplied in the trial of General Student for war crimes, three men who did so were immediately taken aside and shot.
3 One or two German soldiers demanded, under threat of shooting, information regarding minefields ahead, but this does not fall into the category of what is usually understood by interrogation.
4 Similar questions or expressions of surprise at the Dominions' having sent expeditionary forces to aid Britain were the experience of many other prisoners both at this and at later stages of the war.
5 See Chapter 2, p. 23.
At the holding area near Maleme, as at the airfield, there was no attempt to provide rations, and for the first few days there was some kicking and other rough treatment from nervy and ill-tempered guards. The Germans claimed to have found some of their men horribly mutilated and suspected the British troops, though they later admitted this to be quite unjustified. Nevertheless for those captured while the rumour was current, the situation was ugly. A chaplain and some walking wounded were lined up against the outside wall of their RAP ready to be shot, and were saved only by the intervention of a German wounded officer who had been well treated. Similar timely pleas by recaptured Germans probably saved many others, and those who found themselves the prisoners of their former captives reaped the reward of their own treatment of the enemy. The front-line German troops were on the whole much better in their behaviour than some elements of the occupation force which later carried out such brutal mass executions of the Cretan civilian population.
The alleged German use of prisoners during the Crete battle as a ‘screen’ between themselves and British fire became in New Zealand a matter for public controversy at the time of the War Crimes trial of General Student.1 That prisoners were placed in this unenviable situation is clearly stated by so many survivors of the ‘screen’, as well as by those who tried to fire through it, that it may be taken as established. That it was the German troops' intention to use them thus, much less General Student's, is not so clear. A large body of prisoners in the custody of three or four guards would inevitably have to be driven ahead of them, if it were to move at all. The reconstruction in 1946 of the motives behind the conduct of German troops and commanders in the heat of a battle fought in 1941 must have been a task fraught with great difficulty. Our own arrangements for the treatment of prisoners in the field at this stage of the war were of the haziest, and it is not impossible that enemy instructions to their lower ranks on the same topic were equally sketchy.
1 The German officer commanding the airborne invasion force in Crete. His trial as a war criminal took place in Germany during May 1946. He was found guilty of being responsible for cold-blooded shootings and for the use of prisoners in unloading war-like stores, but not for the use of prisoners as a ‘screen’. He was sentenced to five years' imprisonment, but the sentence was not confirmed. See also New Zealand Official History, Crete.
1 Statement by a wounded New Zealand sergeant.
Near the southern village of Sfakia on 1 June the last scenes of the battle of Crete were being enacted. From hill positions overlooking the coast, German alpine troops began mortaring the miscellaneous remnants of the British forces below. Many of them had been without food for several days, and though most had carried their arms, ammunition was in negligible supply. It was known that no further major evacuation was possible, and to avoid purposeless loss of life orders to capitulate had been passed on to senior officers at an early morning conference. There was no alternative for the men but to abandon any thought of further resistance and destroy what weapons they could. When the Germans arrived there was a light search and a German officer gave an address on the exceptional amenities to be found in Germany's prisoner-of-war camps. The crowd of prisoners was moved uphill to a village, and in the afternoon, formed into groups of 200-odd, began the long trek back over the hills to the north.
There were no rations and little water until the end of the second day's march, and for men who started tired and hungry the going was strenuous along hot and dusty roads under a burning sun. Hurried slaking of parched mouths indiscriminately at whatever pools and streams appeared along the route, no doubt bred much of the disease which appeared later. The German guards on the whole do not seem to have been brutal, though they kept the line of march going so that all the prisoners had completed the thirty miles to the north coast by 3 June. Many fell sick by the roadside—an officer who had stuck it out sat down quietly in a doorway in Canea and died; and the exhaustion from the march no doubt helped the mounting toll of sickness among the mob of prisoners now collecting at the former 7 General Hospital area.
This had been chosen as the site for the main prisoner-of-war camp on the island. Here, on a sandy coastal area three miles west of Canea, a mass of prisoners was being herded together to form ‘Dulag Kreta’, better known to most of the prisoners as ‘Galatos Camp’. Prior to the arrival of the long columns from Sfakia, a chaplain and one or two NCOs had succeeded in achieving reasonable order among the small numbers there, salvaging enough bivouac tents to give everyone shelter. But the masses of new arrivals swamped the available facilities, though a New Zealand hospital corporal who had established an RAP made a great effort page 65 to cope with the daily sick parade of several hundred. As they straggled in, hungry, bedraggled and weary from the march north—Australians, British, Cypriots, Greeks and New Zealanders—they lay down on any available open space under what makeshift covering from the blazing sun they could improvise. Dormitory, meal area or latrine, it was all the same—whatever arrangement gave the least effort. For water there were long queues at an old well of the type once worked by an ox. Many of the dead lay still unburied along the roads, in ditches, and among the olive groves, and an overpowering stench and buzzing bluebottles dominated the camp area. Sickness and hunger helped to bring morale to a low ebb. Many, incensed at being the victims of what seemed yet another fiasco, somewhat naturally blamed their commanders and those in charge of the general conduct of the war, and some in their bitter disappointment vowed that they were glad to be prisoners to let someone else have a turn at being muddled about to no purpose.
Gradually officers and NCOs were able to create some kind of order. By 8 June the Australians had been moved elsewhere and the 5000-odd remaining had been organised into groups (one containing 1500 New Zealanders), an area had been allocated to each, and the senior British officer with his adjutant had appointed NCOs to take charge of them. On the 9th the officers were flown to Greece, with the exception of nine who were kept for administrative and medical duties at the camp. Enough tents were salvaged to put everyone under cover in orderly rows, and shovels were obtained to enable proper latrines to be dug. The three hospital buildings, together with a few marquees, were organised by the senior medical officer as a 200-bed camp reception hospital. The poor food, overcrowding, and insanitary conditions produced a crop of scabies and dysentery.1 These cases and others of malaria, of poliomyelitis,2 and of woundings by trigger-happy guards kept the five hospital wards full and their staffs continually occupied.3 After a few weeks the sick and wounded from the dressing stations near Suda, together with the medical staffs looking after them, were brought in too.
1 ‘During June, July and August, estimated that every prisoner of war had at least one attack, and many two of sonne dysentery.’—Lt-Col W. H. B. Bull, NZMC, Medical Report on Prisoner of War Life in Crete.
2 ‘… in all some 15 cases of infantile paralysis appeared with no more deaths.’—Ibid. The first case had proved fatal.
3 The fact that, in spite of the unhealthy conditions in the camp and the lack of facilities in the hospital, only 23 deaths are recorded from 1212 admissions is a tribute to the work of the medical staff.
4 Approximately 1000 calories daily.
Beyond the fatigues of the camp there was little for men to do but sleep during the day, unless they had drawn a place in one of the German burial or working parties.1 The former were avoided as hard and unpleasant work, the latter sought after for the opportunities afforded of picking up extra food. A stretch of beach included in the camp bounds became a means at once of recreation and cleanliness, and was probably the reason that the camp remained so long free of vermin. In the later stages there were improvised games of cricket. In addition to two church services daily, the chaplain organised evening concerts and debates. A wireless set smuggled in by a working party enabled him to tack a news session on to the evening service. Morale improved and the wave of fantastic rumours which swept the camp in its initial stages gave place to a more reasoned and sober view of the war.
1 ‘By arrangement with the Germans, many parties were sent to Galatos for the purpose of identifying & marking British graves.’—Lt-Col Bull, op. cit.
2 There was an issue of field postcards on 26 June, which were sent off later from Germany after censorship. One bears the censorship stamp of Stalag VIIIB and postmark 18 October. It reached New Zealand in late December. None seem to have gone to Geneva.
3 Over sixty New Zealand escapers got back to Alexandria by submarine. This made up the majority of our escapers, a few others having got back via Greece or the Aegean islands. A number of evaders (men who had successfully evaded capture) got back by these two routes and a few direct to North Africa. See also New Zealand Official War History, Crete, Appendix VII.
Most of the escapes took place in June and July2 from the Galatas camp, where the prisoners were at first ‘loosely guarded’. It was said to be comparatively ‘easy’ to crawl out at night under the wire of the compound after a sentry had passed, and under cover of darkness to make the shelter of the vineyards and olive groves across the road. Although some of the nearby fields were occasionally lit up by Very lights and raked with German machine-gun fire, no one appears to have been hit, and the risk seems to have been discounted when planning an escape. In the early days of the camp some of the prisoners were allowed out unofficially to forage for food in Canea or neighbouring villages, and some casually walked away from these outings. For most men it was the lack of food and the appalling conditions of the camp which determined them in desperation to go and live elsewhere (even if only temporarily), quite apart from whether it would be possible to escape from the island. They made for the green slopes leading to the mountains behind, and many collected in the Omolos plateau high up among the ranges. Some roamed about the hills for months, following the mule-tracks from village to village, before stumbling on a means of getting away. Others lived on among the Cretans for a year or so, unable to get a boat, and were eventually recaptured. The idea of securing a boat to escape in had been in the minds of some escapers when they left the camp. But although in the period just following the end of the planned evacuation a party of evaders had reached the coast of North Africa in an MLC,3 and others had got away in caiques and launches, the Germans afterwards kept a close check on all such craft and on likely evacuation points along the coastline.
1 The New Zealand officer in charge of the compound of Greeks puts the figure of escapes from his compound at close on 400.
2 At least forty of the ultimately successful New Zealand escapers got away in June and 13 in July. On the night of 18 June alone 30 broke out of camp.
3 A party of five officers and 154 other ranks reached the North African coast by MLC (motor landing craft) on 9 June 1941. The party included two Maori members of 2 NZEF, Pte Thompson (28 Bn) and Gnr R. P. A. Peters.
Meanwhile the Middle East branch of the War Office military intelligence section (MI9), established to assist British servicemen in enemy territory to escape, had plans in hand to rescue the considerable numbers at large in Greece and Crete. On the night of 17 July a British naval officer2 was landed from a submarine and set about collecting a party of 67 British Commonwealth evaders and escapers. On the night of 27–28 July, according to the prearranged plan, another submarine3 called; the men reached it by lifeline from the beach through rather heavy seas and were taken off to Alexandria, arriving there on 31 July. The naval officer stayed ashore to make contact with those in hiding and to organise a further party. Three weeks later, on the night of 19–20 August, another submarine4 embarked a party of 125 escapers and evaders and brought off the naval officer.
1 Italian troops occupied the eastern portion of the island, corresponding to the former province of Lasithion, east of the Lasithi Mountains, and are reputed to have treated the inhabitants reasonably well.
3 HM Submarine Thrasher. Only three New Zealanders came off in this party.
4 HM Submarine Torbay. This party included 62 New Zealanders.
… when we reached the little bay we found we were outnumbered by those who had come to farewell us…. the first members prepared to go out to the waiting submarine which had appeared close inshore at a few minutes to 9 p.m. A line had been run out to the shore supported by cork floats and we were instructed to strip and make our way to the sub by grasping this line if we were unable to swim the short distance. It was a tense period before we finally pulled out—there was enough noise to attract Hitler himself to the spot on shore….1
The submarine reached Alexandria on 22 August 1941—a successful conclusion to an operation carried out with great skill and daring.
Equally daring was the exploit of two Australians and two New Zealanders2 who at about this time left the south-west coast in a small open boat, which they rowed and sailed with a blanket sail to Sidi Barrani in 90 hours. Many of those who missed the submarine evacuations made their way in Greek vessels to the mainland of Greece. Greeks and Cretans were leaving the coast at night from the northern tip of Cape Spatha, and many British Commonwealth soldiers hearing of this made their way there, hid in caves, and joined the boatloads. In one such party a New Zealand sergeant reached the south-east coast of the Peloponnese and began to try and obtain a boat that would get them away. After many delays, disappointments, and narrow escapes from capture by Italian soldiers, this party of 17 embarked in a caique. The uncooperative Greek crew had to be overpowered and the New Zealander took command, sailing the vessel to North Africa. After avoiding enemy air attacks and surviving bombing by our own planes on the way across the Mediterranean, they ran out of fuel 20 miles from the coast. The leader of the party went ashore in a dinghy, arranged for fuel to be sent out, returned, and sailed the caique into Alexandria.3
1 Narrative by a New Zealand member of the party.
2 Ptes D. N. McQuarrie (18 Bn) and B. B. Carter (27 MG Bn). All four were awarded the MM.
3 Sgt J. A. Redpath (19 A Tps Coy) was awarded the DCM for this exploit. The other New Zealanders in the party were: Sgt A. H. Empson (18 Bn), awarded MM, Sgt R. R. Witting (19 A Tps Coy), Sgt W. H. Bristow (18 Bn), Pte T. Shearer (20 Bn), Gnr G. E. Voyce (5 Fd Regt) and Dvr R. S. Barrow (Div Amn Coy).
To seal off the coast the Germans established daily sea and air patrols to watch for boats. But in spite of this small parties continued to get away. A British naval officer landed at the end of October to organise parties for evacuation, and after taking one party off he returned in late November for others. Through his efforts two New Zealanders2 came off in a party on a Greek submarine at the end of November, and 28 were among a party of 86 taken off in a large Greek caique3 about the same time.
1 One such leaflet read:
ROYAL BRITISH ARMY, NAVY, AIR FORCE!
There are MANY OF YOU STILL HIDING in the mountains, valleys and villages.
You have to PRESENT yourself AT ONCE TO THE GERMAN TROOPS.
Every OPPOSITION will be completely USELESS!
Every ATTEMPT TO FLEE will be in VAIN!
The COMMING WINTER will force you to leave the mountains.
Only soldiers who PRESENT themselves AT ONCE will be sure of a HONOURABLE AND SOLDIERLIKE CAPTIVITY OF WAR. On the contrary who is met in civil clothes will be treated as a spy.
THE COMMANDER OF KRETA
4 Sgt T. Moir (4 Fd Regt) was awarded the DCM for this escape and for his later work with ‘A’ Force. The other New Zealanders in the party were L-Bdr B. W. Johnston (5 Fd Regt), awarded MM, Pte G. G. Collins (20 Bn) mentioned in despatches, Dvr R. W. Rolfe (4 Res MT Coy), and Pte H. W. Gill (18 Bn).
5 Including nine New Zealanders.
The New Zealand sergeant who escaped in April 1942, now seconded for duty with the Middle East branch of MI9, was convinced that there were still a number of escapers and evaders in hiding on the island and obtained permission to go there to try and collect them for evacuation. He was landed in early February 1943, and on 8 May a party of 51 escapers which he had collected was brought off following a commando raid. He himself was captured2 after having gone back to make contact with yet one more escaper. Those in the party taken off, including 14 New Zealanders, all received recognition for their ‘perseverance and determination under great difficulties’ and for their ‘fortitude in remaining undetected for nearly two years.’ This was the final rescue operation from Crete, as it was reckoned that there were few, if any, British servicemen still at large on the island.3
The spate of escapes from the Galatas camp in June 1941 caused a speeding up of the German evacuation programme, and a number of crowded shiploads of prisoners left Suda Bay for Greece in July and the months that followed. Some of the ships were ‘incredibly filthy’, and for the hundreds crammed below in the holds the quite inadequate supply of food and water, the few rudimentary latrines slung over the side of the ship, and the battening down at night made the four or five-day trip to Salonika something of a nightmare. By August, when the numbers had been greatly reduced, camp conditions were beginning to show considerable improvement—the result of weeks of constant pressure on the Germans. Showers had been installed near the hospital, some razors, blades, and soap were procured, and rations were greatly improved. But in spite of every effort by our own officers no Red Cross supplies were ever obtained, and men began to discuss whether they really existed or were just some kind of propaganda. By early October all had been embarked except a small medical staff and about 800 prisoners for working parties, some of which were transferred to Maleme to work on the airfield.
1 There were eight New Zealanders in this party. It arrived back on 8 June 1942.
3 The last New Zealander to escape from Crete, Dvr W. H. Swinburne, was one of those who broke out of Galatas camp in June 1941 by crawling under the wire. After vainly trying to contact a boat party, he joined a band of guerrillas in June 1942 and stayed with them until taken off on 8 September 1943.
A number of those in these last shiploads were recaptured evaders and escapers, of whose experiences in Crete some account has already been given. In Greece, too, not all of those who missed the naval evacuations had been made prisoners of war, at all events not immediately. Some had made their way from the battlefield, or had ducked into hiding soon after capture, and were at liberty for months or even years either on the Greek mainland or on one of its satellite islands. Some had reached Crete in time for the fighting, others only to fall into enemy hands almost as they landed, and others still to elude the enemy a second time and make their way back to the mainland. The number of these roving groups and individuals in Greece was being constantly augmented by those who broke away from custody either during a move or while in one of the transit camps.
Not a few of these had made their break from the British hospital at Athens and that at Piraeus, and from the convalescent camp near the latter. This was an old Greek military barracks surrounded by a stone wall, inside which was a barbed-wire perimeter. The houses and gardens of Nea Kokkinia came almost up to the stone wall, which made it easy for messages and food to be thrown across. In a rectangular area of red dust and shingle stood 16 longish brick sleeping huts containing bedboards and straw palliasses, a few other buildings for camp services, and at one time marquees to take the page 73 overflow. To this camp came those sick and wounded who were considered to have sufficiently recovered, but there were also a number of fit prisoners, making up a total varying from one to two thousand. Food was at first poor, but with money subscribed by officers from their pay, augmented by donations from the Greek Red Cross, it became possible to obtain meat and eggs, and a canteen operating in the camp sold fruit, wines and milk supplied by Greek vendors. The prisoners were left pretty much to their own devices, except that working parties were required for Kokkinia hospital on the hill above.
At first men were deterred from escape by the apparent hopelessness of getting a Greek caique and the formidable alternative of a 600-mile trek to Turkey, but messages from friendly Greeks raised their hopes. In early July two New Zealanders1 succeeded in crawling under the wire after dark and getting over the wall into one of the nearby gardens. Through the camp garbage collector they had previously arranged a rendezvous for that night with a Greek family, who took them in and gave them civilian clothes. Next day they were taken into Athens and put in touch with an underground organisation which fitted them up with proper suits of clothes and identity cards. In the subsequent weeks while trying to arrange a boat to take them away, they met a number of other escapers. After the success of the first attempt at the convalescent camp, careful plans had been made by other patients and a mass escape2 took place one night shortly afterwards. Three check roll-calls next morning convinced the Germans that the camp security was falling down somewhere; the commandant was replaced, and guards became considerably more alert.
1 2 Lt J. W. C. Craig and Cpl F. B. Haycock (both 22 Bn). In a party of six, they reached Alexandria by caique. Craig subsequently returned to Greece secretly to assist the Greek underground and help escaping prisoners. He was captured a second time and taken to Italy. Haycock rejoined 2 NZEF. For this escape Craig was awarded the MC and Haycock was mentioned in despatches.
2 One estimate put the figure as high as 45; among them were further New Zealanders.
In the early months escapers and evaders had to depend on help from Greek individuals or from the members of one of the Greek underground organisations, and as enemy security tightened, the parties which got away became smaller. A party of five (including one New Zealander)1 made their way in a caique from near Volos, via Skiathos and the northern Sporades, to Turkey, which they reached on 11 September.
Although it is beyond the scope of this volume to attempt accounts of these improvised voyages, it can be said that they were often fraught with hazard both from the enemy and from the elements. A party of five British (including one New Zealand officer)2 and ten Greeks set sail in a small caique from Piraeus on 3 September, with only a school atlas to guide them to North Africa. They ran out of food and water after three days, and out of fuel just south of Crete. When nearly at the end of their tether, they were picked up at night by a British destroyer and arrived in Alexandria on 10 September.
A party of six,3 all of whom had escaped from the convalescent camp at Nea Kokkinia in early July and had since been looked after by friendly families in Athens, joined forces to secure a boat. They finally made arrangements with the Greek captain of a caique and sailed from the coast of Attica on 26 September, travelled to Antiparos and Paros, skirted Crete, and reached Alexandria on 8 October with food and fuel in hand.
A New Zealand sergeant,4 also formerly in the convalescent camp at Nea Kokkinia, spent two months in Athens running an ‘Intelligence bureau’ for the collection of military information and the helping of escapers. He eventually organised a party of six escapers to go by hired motor caique to Turkey. The party sailed from Marathon on 3 October and safely reached the coast of Turkey six days later. There they managed to climb a steep cliff and were taken into custody by Turkish gendarmes.
3 There were three New Zealanders in the original party—2 Lt Craig (22 Bn), awarded MC, 2 Lt E. F. Cooper (LAD attached 5 Fd Regt), and Cpl Haycock (22 Bn). Cooper and Haycock were mentioned in despatches.
As the result of their activities a party of 18 was evacuated by caique from the coast near Athens on 22 November, reaching Alexandria five days later.1 After the capture of several agents and MI9 personnel, the Germans and Italians started to set traps for escapers by posing as the representatives of escape organisations. By this means they were able not only to capture a number of escapers and evaders but also to make the remainder suspicious of whoever made contact with them, and genuine MI9 agents had to carefully work out means of proving their identity. It was over five months before the next New Zealander2 was brought out from the Athens area in a party of twenty, which left Porto Rafti under MI9 arrangements on 2 May and reached Turkey two days later.
While some fifty had been making away from the convalescent camp, escape activity had been launched also in the hospital set up in the Polytechnic School. A large marble and granite building in one of the main streets of Athens, its situation made contact with friendly Greeks comparatively easy. In mid-July two of the patients made a successful break, Greeks whipping them off to safety almost as soon as they were outside the building. A day or two later some New Zealand medical orderlies successfully broke out through a door leading on to the street, though two were wounded and immediately recaptured. The Germans apparently soon reached the conclusion that this prisoner-of-war hospital was more trouble than it was worth. It was closed down shortly after the escapes, and patients and staff were transferred to Nea Kokkinia, either to the convalescent camp or to the hospital.
Since the hospital's hurried and crowded beginning2 the staff had been able to develop many amenities. A canteen was established, a fund from officers' pay and a subsidy from the International Red Cross Committee funds making it possible for all ranks to buy, though high prices did not allow money to go far. Concerts were put on for the walking patients in one of the large courtyards, and after musical instruments had been obtained an impromptu dance band was able to tour the wards. Patients could write a letter a week and had a camp library to help while away the hours of recovery. As they got better they were allowed to stroll outside the buildings up to the barbed-wire fence, and stretcher cases were taken on to the roof to sunbathe. Men were able for a time to forget their hunger while lying and sitting in the Greek sunshine, reading, playing cards, and talking over the battles through which they had recently come.
1 Mme. Zannas of the Greek Red Cross was active in organising food for prisoners in Greece. At one stage the Greek Red Cross was spending 1,000,000 drachmae a month in ‘sending gifts to the wounded and on the revictualling of the canteens installed by their efforts in the hospitals at Kokinia and the Polytechnic School.’—Report for June 1941 by Dr. Brunel, delegate of the IRCC in Athens.
2 Dr. Brunel reported that the hospital held 1676 (including medical personnel) on 6 June 1941. A member of the medical staff reported that it had between 800 and 900 beds at the peak period after the battle of Crete.
In August and September the Germans pushed ahead with the transport north of the prisoners in hospitals and transit camps in and around Athens. For the sick and wounded this posed a difficult problem because of the breaks in the Athens-Salonika railway line over which it was necessary to march, and because of the absence of suitable rolling-stock. A typical journey by this route has been described, and parties of convalescents, some with only partially healed wounds, fared little better. In late August a large batch of sick and wounded from Kokkinia hospital were driven to Piraeus docks in large passenger buses and embarked on the Italian hospital ship Gradisca. Those who travelled on her for the five-day voyage to Salonika speak in glowing terms of the care and good food they received from the Italian medical officers and sisters. The rest of the convalescents went north on small cargo vessels, on which the treatment and food seem to have been reasonably good although the holds were much overcrowded.
Almost all prisoners of war captured in Greece and Crete who did not escape passed through the main transit camp at Salonika, known as Frontstalag 183, an old, disused Greek barracks on the outskirts of the town. Some stayed only twenty-four hours; others were kept there up to several months to do forced labour for the Germans. Many had already been through Galatas or Corinth and other camps, but Salonika capped them all, and in its first six months of existence earned for itself an infamous reputation.
1 Some of the officers had beds, which were, however, no protection against most of the varieties of vermin encountered there. Many officers preferred to lie outside at night, until indiscriminate shooting by guards made this unnecessarily risky; it was forbidden for other ranks.
In one corner of the compound—formed by the original high brick walls and fences of barbed-wire—were two concrete huts, which were set up as a 65-bed hospital shortly after the camp opened in May and manned by Serbian2 doctors and orderlies. At that time there had been only some 300 British Commonwealth prisoners there, but it was realised that large numbers would arrive when the evacuation of Corinth began. Fortunately a few British medical orderlies were able to prepare a nearby two-storied hutment to accommodate a further 160 patients.
In early June the first drafts from Corinth began to arrive, most of them exhausted from their forced march over the Brallos Pass but somewhat cheered by their friendly reception from Greeks in the streets of Salonika. Many were by now an easy prey to sickness; some had reopened wounds. They kept on pouring in during the month until the camp population rose as high as 12,000. Throughout June more than 400 cases were treated daily at the camp medical inspection room.3 Food was the worst that the prisoners had yet experienced. Daily rations comprised three-quarters of a hard Italian army biscuit, about four ounces of bread, sometimes mouldy, a pint of watery lentil soup with an occasional flavouring of horseflesh, and two hot drinks of German ‘mint’ tea. On this diet men soon lost weight and it is little wonder that beriberi made its appearance, though the German medical officer refused to recognise it, and cases eventually rose to as high as 600. Nor is it surprising, in view of the location of the camp in the centre of a malarious belt, that there were many cases of malaria, and the German authorities were forced to make a daily issue of ten grammes of quinine. As for disinfectants, the camp hardly ever saw them, and the only drugs available were captured supplies left by our own medical units. Although not able to help in this direction, the Greek Red Cross did splendid work in providing milk, brown bread, rice, fruit, vegetables, eggs, and cigarettes for the hospital patients—a task made by no means easy by the German commandeering of local supplies.
1 At one period as many as 500.
2 There were some 1600 Serbian prisoners there at that time.
There seems little that can be said to the credit of the German authorities at Salonika. To put the best construction on things, the conditions were the result of lack of provision and supervision by the German Higher Command,1 whose main attentions had been diverted elsewhere. But the conditions were also the immediate result of cynical neglect and exploitation by the German line-of-communication authorities on the spot, who imposed little if any check on the acts of brutally minded guards and delayed granting permission for delegates of the International Red Cross Committee or of a neutral power to pay a visit of inspection.
In the height of the summer of 1941, although many thousands had already gone north by train, the shiploads arriving from Crete again made the camp badly overcrowded. A variety of diseases was rampant, and with the sick and wounded also coming up from Athens the camp hospital and auxiliary huts at one period held 800. By working long hours British Commonwealth medical officers and orderlies managed to cope somehow with the 3000-odd patients who passed through the hospital, and it says much for their efforts that the death-roll was kept down to 80-odd. Fortunately the amputees, blind, and other serious cases in transit from Kokkinia hospital did not have to wait more than a few days for transport on to Germany, though too many had to make the journey lying on the straw of a cattle-truck.
1 Commonwealth troops taken prisoner in Greece and Crete amounted to some 25,000, the feeding and administration of whom in a hostile country just occupied would no doubt present a considerable problem.
From the many working parties at Salonika and from the main camp itself right up to the end of its existence, numbers of prisoners, including many New Zealanders, made breaks for freedom. Some got away and were recaptured several times, only to be finally taken off to Germany; others made their way to Turkey and eventual freedom. Two parties got out through a camp sewer. An officer1 cut his way through a barrack backdoor and, dodging the camp searchlights, crawled through the wire and scaled a wall into the street; another party of twelve used a similar route a little later. Once in Salonika they were almost always able to rely on temporary help from Greeks, though it was not always possible to trust all civilians or police, many of whom were not unnaturally fearful of German punishment. An MI9 organisation was set up in Salonika as well as in Athens to collect parties of escapers and evaders and arrange for them to be got away by caique.
Most escapers made for Stavros or the east coast of the Agion Oros finger of the Chalcidike peninsula, the north-eastern strip of Greece being soon in German hands and policed by Bulgarians. From the coast the next step was to reach Turkey, either direct or via the island of Imbros. Many who made breaks from trains en route for Germany followed the same plans. Some navigated their own boats across the stormy waters of the northern Aegean; others persuaded Greeks to take them on trading or fishing vessels.
A party of four who met in Stavros in July 1941 bought a boat for a promised £50 and sailed it to the Turkish mainland, which they reached in early August. Of the two New Zealanders in the party, one had got away from the transit camp at Larissa and walked north;2 the other3 had crawled out under the barbed wire at Salonika transit camp in the early hours of one morning and had been looked after by friendly Greeks. Both made their way eventually to Stavros, where they met.page 81
Another party of 16 which had collected on the island of Imbros was taken over to the Turkish mainland in September 1941. Three New Zealanders had all reached the island separately. They had been helped by Greek civilians and police, one of them1 having been taken across personally by a Greek policeman for a small fee. This ex-prisoner and one of the others2 had escaped from the train taking them to Germany, and the third had got away from the Corinth camp and made his way north on German trains.3 All three had eventually walked to the Agion Oros peninsula, where they had been helped to get boats.
In October a New Zealander4 and two companions rowed across the Aegean to Turkey in an open boat, a remarkable feat of daring and endurance. Two others,5 both escapers from Salonika, who had made their way to Agion Oros, seized a boat and put to sea on 30 October when they heard of a large German patrol coming to search the area. Their party of seven made the island of Imbros and reached Turkey on 10 November. Another party of seven, including four more New Zealanders6 from Salonika, also seized a boat about the same time, sailing to Lemnos and Imbros and reaching Turkey a day behind the others.
9 Lt Thomas (23 Bn). See p. 80.
The move of prisoners to Austria or Germany was for most of the British officers and men transported their first experience of travelling long distances in closed cattle-wagons. From June 1941 until April 1942 long trainload after long trainload of this human cargo travelled north on journeys lasting from five to ten days. Accounts of the experiences of various parties at different periods vary in details, but there are features common to almost all. An average of 35 officers in a wagon made it difficult for everyone to lie down; yet the numbers rose to 55 for other ranks. Biscuits and tinned meat—the only rations—seem usually to have been issued only for a four-day journey and generally on a very lean scale. The Serbian populace, however, seems to have been very generous with gifts of bread and farm produce as the trains passed through their pleasant countryside, and the Serbian Red Cross at Belgrade met many of them with hot soup, food, and cigarettes. On the longer journeys, too, there seem to have been small additional German issues, albeit rather haphazard. As the cattle-trucks had the openings barred or wired and the doors fixed to prevent escape, the lack of a supply of water and of any sanitary arrangements in them was probably the most serious hardship—the more so as many men were suffering from intestinal disorders. On occasions trucks were not opened for as long as 22 hours. Sleep was of course difficult on the hard, jolting floor of a goods-wagon, and in the summer the chilling draughts at night following the baking, sweaty heat of the day did not make it any easier. For those who travelled in winter in these cold trucks the icy temperatures encountered as the trains moved north over the ranges became something of a torture. One report by a senior officer speaks of the guards on his train as correct in their behaviour; but it is clear at least that on many trains the truck doors could have been opened more frequently. It is probable that guards were few and overworked and not over-comfortable themselves; and it may be that their omissions to attend to the physical needs of the prisoners were the result of laziness rather than of malice.
1 An account of the few who managed to remain at liberty and finally escaped to Allied territory is given in Chapter 6, pp. 227–33. Those recaptured by the Italians were claimed by Italy as her prisoners of war.
The first trainload of officers was unloaded at Biberach in Bavaria on 16 June and marched to the nearby camp, Oflag VB. After the gruelling journey north following weeks in the transit camps of Greece, they arrived in Germany, as one officer put it, ‘lousy, bearded, hungry, tired, and dejected’. There was apprehension about how much longer their health would survive the type of conditions under which they had been living in Greece, and dread that Germany might be even worse. Having resigned themselves to the almost continual state of disorganisation in which they had existed since capture, they were quite unprepared for their reception at the oflag. Here, after a routine search and a hot shower provided by the Germans, they went into an orderly camp, where food and friendliness were lavished on them by the occupants. They discovered with surprise that British Navy, Army, and Air Force officers had already built up an organisation capable of coping with most of the difficulties of life in a prison camp and with the idiosyncrasies of German guards. No one seemed hungry, everyone had the appearance of fairly good health, and morale was high. Hope dawned for the newcomers, and a few encouraging words of greeting from the senior British officer, Major-General V. M. Fortune,2 acted like a tonic on morale. One of the officers present still remembers his words well enough to repeat them ‘almost verbatim’:
Gentlemen. In spite of being prisoners of the enemy you are still honourable British officers. You have not disgraced yourselves nor have you been dishonoured by others whom you may think have contributed to your capture. You have not been defeated, nor has the Empire, nor will it
1 Pte Blunden (20 Bn) was, so far as is known, the only New Zealander in this party to reach Allied territory.page 84 ever. We have all suffered a few temporary reverses, but these should only serve to strengthen us for more bitter struggles before final victory is achieved. We as prisoners of war still have our duty clearly before us, we must continue the fight behind the enemy lines.
2 Later Sir Victor Fortune, KBE, CB, DSO.
In Biberach everyone had his own eating utensils, a clean palliasse, pillowslip, and towel—luxuries indeed for the new arrivals. They were housed in modern concrete blocks, divided into separate rooms with a reasonable number in each. These contained steel-frame two-tier beds with wooden slats, of the type later well known in many German camps for officers and NCOs. The camp was free of vermin and there were good washing facilities, with hot showers at least every ten days. The German rations were much better than the prisoners from Greece had yet experienced; they were supplemented from Red Cross supplies, and the meals were properly cooked in a central kitchen. Letter-cards were regularly issued for writing home; pay in camp money (Lagergeld) was regularly credited. There were organised educational classes and facilities for sport and exercise. To those with fresh memories of Corinth and Salonika it all seemed like a pleasant dream. But it should not be forgotten that such a state of things was the fruit of months of hard work, good leadership, and skilful handling of the German authorities.
As further parties of officers arrived from Greece, some of the original occupants of the camp were sent to Titmoning. The health of the newcomers rapidly improved with the better food and camp conditions, though it was to take a long time to recover the two stone in weight which some had lost. A committee controlled attempts at escape, newcomers being allowed for the time being to assist but not actually to make a break. During the summer a number of such breaks were made, mainly by means of disguise or concealment on transport, and on 14 September 26 got clear through the longest tunnel that had yet been made. After each break there were the usual searches, extra parades, and minor restrictions. It was probably the considerable number of breaks from the camp, together with the closeness of Biberach to the Swiss border, that decided the Germans to transfer the officers elsewhere. In October they were moved to a large vacant camp at Warburg, where British officers from all over Germany were being collected.
Most of the officers from Crete who had been held some weeks in Salonika were finally transported to the Baltic port of Lubeck and accommodated in Oflag XC, a few kilometres out. A former German army camp, its quarters and general facilities were on a par with those at Biberach, and the canteen seems to have been much better stocked. But no well-organised British community was page 85 in occupation to welcome the newcomers and show them the ropes;1 and no Red Cross food was available during their six weeks' stay. The greater part of the German food provided consisted of potatoes and bread, and was so meagre in quantity that loaves were often divided with the aid of a ruler to ensure that each man got an accurate share. The effect of the lean camp rations on these men who had come there after months in bad transit camps was so obvious when, in early October, they were all transferred to Warburg, that they were given double Red Cross issues there for a while to enable them to recover lost weight.
The trainloads of other ranks were distributed between the town of Marburg, on the Drau just south of the Yugoslav border, and Wolfsberg, a little to the west in Austria. By July 1941 Stalag XVIIID, at Marburg, contained nearly 4500 British Commonwealth prisoners from Greece and Crete, including 800-odd New Zealanders. Over a thousand were in tents while new buildings were being constructed. The buildings already in existence were dirty and swarming with lice and bedbugs, and the camp was, in the opinion of the senior British medical officer,2 overcrowded beyond safety. There were shootings for breaches of discipline, by guards all too quick on the trigger. Yet many of the prisoners preferred Marburg to camps they went to later. At the beginning of September the arrival of a Red Cross consignment gave a great boost to morale, and thereafter regular supplies ensured a sufficient diet and at least some medical supplies for the camp. Moreover, although the German commandant and some of his staff were usually inefficient and unreasonable, guards were often rather easygoing, and it was comparatively simple (especially with Red Cross chocolate and cigarettes) for prisoners to persuade them to give them an outing—to the cinema, to a swimming hole, or to the local store for shopping with the 70 pfennigs3 a day they earned on working parties.
2 Maj G. H. Thomson, NZMC, who was awarded the OBE for his continuous efforts to secure better conditions for British prisoners of war in Germany in the course of his duties as a camp medical officer.
3 A Reichspfennig was one-hundredth of a Reichsmark. At the exchange rate agreed by Britain and Germany of £1 = 15 RM, 70 pfennings represented just over 11d. The pay was really 1.80 RM a day, from which 1.10 RM was deducted for food, board, and camp fund thus:
|Camp fund||.10 RM|
The truckloads of prisoners not destined for Marburg found their way to Wolfsberg in south-eastern Austria. The little town is set in a broad green valley against a background of snow-capped mountains and fir-planted slopes. The camp just outside the town had originally held Belgian officers,2 but for some months before the arrival of British prisoners had become a base camp for Belgian and French labour detachments and had been renamed Stalag XVIIIA. In order to keep the camp free from vermin, the trainloads which began to arrive from Greece at the end of June were temporarily segregated in eight large tents erected on a spare piece of ground outside the camp. They were searched, given a hot shower, their clothes were deloused, and they were registered in the camp records. Some were issued with assorted pieces of captured continental uniform, with wooden clogs, and with unfamiliar square pieces of cloth in place of socks. As fresh trainloads (sometimes a thousand strong) arrived, all fit prisoners who had been ‘processed’ were sent off to working camps to make room for the new arrivals. Those who remained were housed in converted brick stables, where three-tier bunks with a palliasse and a blanket had been prepared for them and rather primitive washing troughs and latrines improvised. By 21 July the camp strength included some 5500 British and Dominion prisoners, 3700 of whom had been sent on to various work detachments.
1 Sentences of up to ten years' imprisonment (in a military prison) for the prisoner of war.
2 At that time it was known as Oflag XVIIIB.
3 The estimate is that of an IRCC delegate (a doctor), and would have been made before the ration cut of June 1941.
It did not take the British Commonwealth prisoners long to weld themselves into a strong community. An energetic ‘man-of-confidence’ was elected to deal with the German authorities in all matters regarding the prisoners' welfare;1 a senior warrant officer took charge of internal discipline and administration, presiding over a committee of hut commanders. At first no one knew the rights of prisoners under the Geneva Convention, but they were quick to learn after the visits of United States consular representatives and delegates from the International Red Cross Committee. Non-commissioned officers who had unwittingly obeyed orders and gone out to work were informed of their privileges. When British battle dress arrived in September, the prisoners finally had their way over the control of its issue, though not without considerable argument. No doubt their path was made a little easier by the fact that the deputy commandant was reasonably well disposed towards them.
Gradually the amenities of the camp were improved. Some books arrived in August and gave men something to talk about other than the campaigns they had just fought, which had up till then been the subject of endless recountings, elaborations, and sometimes recriminations. A small theatre was rigged up in one of the rooms. The arrival of mail from England in September supplied the link with the outside world for which many were hungry, though men from Australia and New Zealand had to wait longer for their first letters from home. As winter drew on the cold began to cause hardship to the many with insufficient underclothing, no socks, and worn-out boots. The stables proved damp and comfortless and the promised shelter for latrines and washing troughs did not materialise. By October the German camp authorities were administering some 22,500 prisoners, whose representatives were encountering that delay in effecting promised improvements which many camp leaders elsewhere were also finding so exasperating.
1 The term ‘man-of-confidence’ is a literal translation of the French ‘homme de confiance’, which appears in the French text of the 1929 Geneva Prisoners of War Convention, its equivalent in the English text being ‘representative’.
Many of the later train-loads of prisoners leaving Salonika between August 1941 and April 1942, including medical officers and convalescents, travelled north as far as Silesia to Stalag VIIIB at Lamsdorf.2 The camp had a different atmosphere from that of the days when the British Army prisoners from the campaign in France straggled wearily in and the RAF NCOs and other ranks began to arrive from Dulag Luft. To the newcomers the contrast with what they had known up till then of prisoner-of-war conditions was as striking as that experienced by the officers who had gone to Biberach. The impression made is expressed in one report thus: ‘On 20 October 41 our arrival at Lamsdorf seemed to afford a glimpse of another world—a well-organised camp, food in plenty, PWs smart in new battle-dress and a high morale….’ As at Biberach, the progress made was largely attributable to the efforts of the camp leaders, in this case two very competent British Army warrant officers. A new German commandant appointed in 1941 seems to have been more amenable to reason than his predecessors. This is not to say that material conditions at Lamsdorf were comfortable.
1 It included, for example, 500 grammes of bread, as against the ordinary ration of 320 grammes.
2 see pp. 30–1 for an earlier account of the camp.
If the buildings and sanitation left much to be desired, their standard was very little lower than that of the German rations. Fortunately there was a stock of Red Cross food parcels sufficient for a while to issue one a week. Potatoes were cooked, and soup and hot drinks made in a central kitchen in huge boilers. One warrant officer summed up the food situation by saying, ‘You could exist but not get fat’. In the sleeping barracks, to which the food was carried in large containers, there was less than half the number of tables and forms necessary to seat all the occupants, and no eating utensils were supplied.
2 The delousing station was outside the camp but was operated by British Commonwealth medical orderlies from within. It was used not only for British but also for Russians. Typhus broke out in the camp on 28 November, the first six cases being from among medical orderlies working in the delousing station. On the orders of the senior British medical officer, Lt-Col Bull (NZMC), all hair was removed from the heads and bodies of the inmates of the camp within the next four days and a strenuous effort was made to rid the camp of lice. When fresh cases occurred on 6 December, Bull strongly recommended to the German authorities certain improved arrangements for isolation, disinfestation, and personal hygiene. These were accepted and put into practice. Only 18 cases of typhus occurred in the camp and only three of these proved fatal.
Recreation seems to have been well organised and aided by ample equipment, thanks largely to the World Alliance of YMCAs: sports, games, theatre, arts and handicrafts, and gardening were all flourishing. Music was of a good standard, with an orchestra performing as early as 1941. After much persuasion the Germans agreed to set aside half a barrack each for a church, a theatre, and a school. The last was inadequate to accommodate all those who flocked to the language and other classes offered.
A New Zealand warrant officer who was at the camp wrote:
The bearing of the British soldiers who were captured in France and their generosity and organisation was the biggest factor in improving morale ….
Most informants are agreed that an adequate supply of food from whatever source sent morale up, and lack of it caused despondency. For a while the German authorities broadcast ‘Lord Haw-Haw’ sessions over the camp loudspeakers in an effort to obtain converts. But the scornful laughter that greeted the more far-fetched of the broadcast statements, and the lack of any tendency on the prisoners' part to act otherwise than as the temporary detainees of a nation that would ultimately be defeated, probably influenced the authorities in later discontinuing them. Indeed the early German propaganda was so naïve, and showed so little psychological understanding of British prisoners, that many of the latter developed the habit of disbelieving on principle every statement, oral or printed, which came from enemy sources. Escape from the heart of western Europe was in this period generally considered wellnigh hopeless, though a camp organisation helped a constant succession of attempts, mostly from working camps. For many, breaking camp was merely a means of relief from an undesirable working party, as on recapture the offender was returned to stalag.
1 There were ten compounds, each of four barracks intended to hold about 1000 men, but in which more than 1500 were packed on occasion. At the end of 1941 the camp population (all nationalities) was about 20,000.
At Oberursel interrogation centre it was still the policy to solicit information in a smooth and plausible manner, and on release to the adjacent transit camp, to almost kill the prisoner with kindness. Thanks to adequate supplies of Red Cross food parcels, the food was good and well prepared. In the spring ski-ing parties gave place to pleasant walks in the woods. Nevertheless, by the end of the summer of 1941, 19 had made breaks from the transit camp and five from the hospital. In Stalag Luft I at Barth the spring and summer of 1941 saw regular supplies of Red Cross food coming into camp, the arrival of sports gear and books and the purchase of musical instruments, all of which gave considerable fillip to sport, educational classes, and entertainments. This period saw, besides several unsuccessful attempts, the first two Air Force escapes from Germany, two RAF officers getting to Sweden.
1 Although 50 officers were sent from Stalag Luft I at Barth to Stalag XXA at Thorn in February 1941, and another 50 to Oflag XC at Lubeck in July, by the end of the year there were still 230 at Barth. The NCOs' compound contained 550 as early as June 1941.
2 Their boots were taken away and they were made to move in wooden clogs at their fastest pace at rifle point round a field for two and three-quarters hours, even though many men were physically weakened on account of the poor rations received over the previous months.
The last considerable batch of those seriously sick and wounded, who had come up from Athens in the Gradisca, had left Salonika by hospital train in November. The train, which was properly equipped with hospital beds and orderlies in attendance in each carriage, also carried German casualties. The journey took a devious route, dropping on the way patients, both British and German, at various hospitals which specialised in certain types of sickness or wound. In German military hospitals our men seem to have received very similar treatment to that given to the German patients. Eventually they found their way to prisoner-of-war hospitals, which varied to some extent according to the attitude of the local German authorities, though most seem at this stage to have suffered from overcrowding and to have had to rely mainly on British Red Cross supplies of bandages and dressings. The 450-bed hospital, or Lazarett, attached to Stalag VIIIB, Lamsdorf, was equipped for almost any type of operation and fully staffed by British medical officers and orderlies. On the other hand Lazarett Dieburg (attached to Stalag IXB), to which some of our wounded were sent, was reported as having rather out-of-date equipment. Others who went to Lazarett Rottenmunster (attached to Stalag VB) were reported in September as needing Red Cross supplies of food, clothing, and blankets. The efforts of British medical officers and orderlies in hospitals and camp sick-bays to secure better treatment and comfort for sick and wounded prisoners, as well as their own care for them, are beyond praise.
1 The German Government had by then agreed not to make further use of fortresses or penal establishments to house British prisoners of war. But Oflag IVC remained an obvious contravention of this principle.
1 Articles 68 and 74.
2 In addition 35 Germans and 700 British Commonwealth protected personnel were selected including a few New Zealanders. Britain had also agreed to include a number of German civilian women and children in the transport leaving from her port.
3 Dieppe was to have been the port of exchange.
4 For this reason most careful preparations were made in each later repatriation operation to avoid publicity until it was an accomplished fact.