Prisoners of War
II: Escapers in Greece
II: Escapers in Greece
Although in the days following the cessation of fighting in Greece many of our men, like some of the evaders from the action at Corinth Canal, were able to live more or less openly (even in uniform for a short time), it was not long before enemy efforts to round up British Commonwealth soldiers forced them into the hills. In the latter months of 1941 they were broadly in three areas: the hills of the Peloponnese; the hills behind Megara and Athens, with some men hidden among the populations of Athens and Piraeus; the hills and coast of the Chalcidike peninsula and its three fingers east of Salonika, together with odd ones who had returned west and got as far south as the Larissa plain. In the southern Peloponnese were evaders from the British forces not evacuated, together with others who had made their way from Crete either in launches or by rowing, as one New Zealander and an Australian did. In the northern Peloponnese and the hills behind Megara were evaders from the Corinth action, remnants left behind from the evacuation or survivors from the evacuation ship Nea Hellas which blew up near the shore, and escapers from the Corinth and Athens prisoner-of-war camps. There were many of the latter, too, living in Athens as civilians among the Greeks, helped by the Greek underground and waiting for the opportunity to get away by boat. Almost all those in the north were escapers from Salonika transit camp or from the trains taking them to Germany, though a few had made their way up from the south hoping to get overland to Turkey. Some, disappointed in this hope and also in that of being taken off by boat from the coast east of Salonika, trekked on foot down the eastern hills in the hope of finding better luck at Volos or a more southern port. Lastly there were a few on various islands of the Sporades and Cyclades groups in the Aegean who had accomplished the first stage of the journey to Turkey or North Africa and were awaiting the opportunity to complete it.page 229
Without the active help of the Greek population these men could not have remained at large for long. Greek families fed them from their own increasingly scanty food supplies, fitted them out with civilian clothes and, when the cold of winter approached, either sheltered them temporarily in their own homes or provided them with blankets and other necessities to enable them to live in a cave or an improvised hut. Many an escaped prisoner who had contracted malaria owed his life to the care of a friendly Greek family which looked after him until he was well enough to move on. Some who spent the bitter winter cold of 1941 and early 1942 above the snowline, were able to do so only because of the food and other generous help they received from Greek shepherds and other hill people. Sometimes these brave and simple village folk were able to smuggle parties of prisoners away to Turkey or guide them to Athens, where better arrangements could be made for them. An underground organisation with its headquarters in Athens supplied those who came to its notice with everyday necessities as well as money, and where possible reimbursed Greeks who were feeding and helping British soldiers.
Of the escapers who reached the Middle East, a good number volunteered to go back and help extricate their comrades still seeking a way out, and a few (including four New Zealanders)1 were selected for an organisation known as ‘A’ Force.2 Under one scheme, members of ‘A’ Force were landed on an island and made their way to Greece with money and stores to aid the Greek underground in its work of sabotage, helping prisoners, and generally resisting the occupation. They stayed on the mainland to collect a party of prisoners and then returned with them to their island base to be evacuated. Two of the New Zealanders (Craig and Redpath) were caught during one of these trips in January 1942 by a large Italian launch patrol, and after a period in noisome island prisons and a lengthy interrogation, were sent to Bari as prisoners of war.
The few Greeks who gave way to greed or fear of starvation were responsible for the capture of many British soldiers who had been at large. During 1942 some of our men had to give themselves up through illness and shortage of food, but many others were betrayed. One New Zealander was sold by the mayor of a small village for four and a half pounds of flour. Most of those taken at this stage were in civilian clothes and therefore not recognised by the Italian authorities as prisoners of war. After passing through various local jails, some extremely dirty and crowded, they were usually taken to the huge Averoff civil prison at Athens.
This prison was largely run by the Italian authorities, though there was a German section for their own deserters and some political prisoners. It was of the traditional type: courtyards leading into a five-storied building with rows of iron partitions and cells. Conditions had at first been universally bad, but in early 1942 under a new commandant they began to improve. Some of the cells became reasonably comfortable, there were showers, and at intervals the British received Red Cross food parcels. Certainly the Italian ration of bread and thin soup was little enough to live on, and many of the 1200 or so Greek political prisoners had to be helped with parcels sent in to them by relatives and friends. Some of these people were awaiting trial for having sheltered British soldiers.
1 The Greek police were in general only too willing to help British soldiers, but were later forced to arrest them if they were betrayed by a ‘Quisling’ Greek. Those who did not ran the risk of being denounced by the same man and sent to concentration camps. Many were.
One or two New Zealanders and others attempted to escape but were caught and given a period in the dungeons. These, as their name implied, were below ground, dark, filthy and wet. There was no semblance of a latrine, but once in a dungeon the prisoner was allowed out only at the caprice of his guard until his sentence—sometimes of a month or more—was up. After several weeks cooped up in these vile conditions men emerged broken, lousy, and covered with scabies which had turned into running sores. Many of the British who had passed through Averoff were interrogated, some as many as twenty times, often to the accompaniment of beatings up by carabinieri, to persuade them to disclose the names of Greeks who had helped them and the whereabouts of other British soldiers. Some had been tried by an Italian military court, usually on charges of espionage, sabotage, or armed insurrection. Some were sentenced to death,1 others to long terms of imprisonment. A New Zealander who had been condemned to death in October 1942 had his sentence commuted later to 30 years' imprisonment, and was sent off to Bari and later to a penitentiary at Sulmona to serve it.2
1 Only one death sentence was carried out on a New Zealand soldier at Averoff.
2 He and another New Zealander under a 16-year sentence awarded in Greece were liberated, together with other British prisoners, when British officers from Campo PG 78 opened up the penitentiary after the Italian Armistice.
Eventually all the prisoners of war were sent to Patras, where they were housed in the cells of an Italian artillery barracks. Though rations were poor, treatment was more humane, and one New Zealander who had a spell in the Patras hospital received nothing but kindness and friendliness from the Italians there. In 1942, when these parties of former escapers and evaders were being transported to Italy, the waters of the southern Adriatic were becoming increasingly hazardous for Italian shipping. One of the ships taking prisoners across to Italy was sunk in January 1943, a New Zealand officer losing his life.1 The other New Zealanders went to prisoner-of-war camps in Italy, and found life easy after the hardships of living in hungary Greece or being confined in noisome prisons by the occupation forces.
Although in 1942 few got away from Greece (compared with the numbers who succeeded in 1941) and many fell into the hands of the occupation forces, some remained hidden by the Greeks for periods up to three and a half years. Hunted and often half starving, they held on in the hope of gaining contact with an escape organisation and, as the war took a more and more favourable turn, of seeing the occupation forces go. The activity of ‘A’ Force increased and it developed into a clandestine military mission on Greek soil, recruiting helpers from among the escapers and evaders who knew the language, the geography, the people, and the whereabouts of many of the British soldiers in hiding. Two New Zealanders,2 one an escaper from a train going north from Corinth and the other an evader, were able to get in touch with this military mission in early 1943. They stayed on to work with it until the following year, helping to organise the evacuation of parties of escapers and evaders.
1 The only other New Zealander on the ship was Cpl F. I. A. Woollams (19 Bn). He had evaded capture in Greece for 18 months, survived the torpedoing, and after some months in Italy as a prisoner of war he got away from Campo P.G 78/1 at the time of the armistice. He reached Allied lines at Palmoli on 7 November 1943. For his attempts to escape he was mentioned in despatches.
2 WO II L. N. Northover (19 Bn) escaped from a train in June 1941 and worked for the British Military Mission from March 1943 to August 1944. Sgt R. A. Hooper (1 NZ Gen Hosp) evaded capture and worked for the British Military Mission from April 1943 to January 1944. Both were awarded the MM.
Another had made two escapes from the Galatas camp on Crete, had reached the Peloponnese in a caique, and was helped there by Greek villagers. After a series of narrow escapes from Italian troops and pro-Axis collaborators, he lived for eight months in late 1942 and early 1943 in a small hiding-place under a flagstone in the floor of the cottage whose occupants had befriended him. His food was lowered down to him, and when the light was good enough he passed the time by reading a Greek child's primer. When he was at length rescued by the British Military Mission and smuggled away to Turkey on a caique in June 1943, he had temporarily lost the use of his legs and was in a very weak physical condition.1
In 1944 there still remained in Greece and the islands of the Aegean a few Commonwealth troops who, though unable to make good their escape, were determined not to be captured. Some had been wary of having anything to do with an escape organisation, as the occupation authorities had quite early begun to plant bogus ‘agents’ who promised to help British soldiers but betrayed those who unsuspectingly took them for what they claimed to be. Nevertheless the military mission continued to get away small parties in early 1944. In September it evacuated a New Zealander2 who had lived for three years and four months on the island of Kythera.
Finally, in October, when the Axis occupation of Greece came to an end, the British Military Mission was able to unearth those with whom it had previously been unable to make contact, and the men who had stuck it out for the whole period of the occupation were at last evacuated to Allied territory.