CHAPTER 5 — Evacuation
CHECKED only by 6 Brigade's covering action at Elasson, the Germans drove through Greece towards the new British line based on a spur of the Pindus mountains, where the Anzac Corps had taken up its positions by 19 April. The central rail and road pass of Brallos was covered by the Australians and the famous Thermopylae Pass by New Zealand Division. Positions were dug, barbed wire erected and guns sited in preparation for the stand.
The main part of the rearguard came scrambling back during the night of 18–19 April, and Australian units, which with the support of the NZ Divisional Cavalry and 7 NZ Anti-Tank Regiment had manned the Dhomokos position, came through the line the following night.
The assembly of Supply Column four or five miles east of Atalandi was completed by the 19th. Atalandi, in low, tree-covered hills, was admirably placed to provide cover and was within easy reach of the Molos and Thermopylae positions.
Fatigue now hung heavily on everyone. In the ten days since they had begun to clear away 4 FSD at Neon Keramidhi, the Supply Column men had worked and driven long hours, sometimes with rests of only a few hours in several days' continuous driving through darkness, rain and sleet and along rough, winding roads under the pressure of imperative speed and air bombardment.
But there was always something to do. Food, fortunately, was plentiful, thanks to the wholesale distribution by 1 FSD, but petrol was low. Supply Column did not have enough to travel ten miles; Petrol Company had even less, and one of its sections was completely immobile. Where petrol was to be found was a problem, and until Second-Lieutenant Ward's convoy arrived, how it was to be obtained was even more puzzling. No dumps could be found around Atalandi. Divisional and Corps Headquarters were still on the move page 51 and could not be found, and all that could be learned from Force Headquarters, then 12 miles east of Thisvi, was that dumps were being established at Kifissokhori, Levadhia and on the coast road four miles north of Livanatais, but how much was there, if any, was uncertain. The Column was asked to try the first two dumps first, as the Livanatais one was intended to supply forward troops.
Their tanks replenished with the petrol brought down from Portas Pass, six Supply Column and six Petrol Company trucks, all under Second-Lieutenant Ward, set out for Levadhia. They reached the railway station some time after midnight on 20 April and found on a siding a mixed pack train. Petrol was found and loading begun, but because it was difficult in the dark to distinguish what was being handled, work was suspended until it was light. In the morning it was found that the train contained high octane aviation spirit which the RTO had orders to hold. It was therefore decided to complete the load with oil.
Half a load of oil had been stacked on the first truck when the familiar angry drone of aircraft was heard. There was a scatter as the first Stukas peeled off and came screaming down on the station. Bombs squarely hit the trucks containing the aviation spirit, and the rake flared up in a towering sheet of flame. In a moment the blaze had spread to adjacent ammunition wagons, and 25 and 60 pounder shells erupted with a roar. Only 20 feet from the blazing train were stacked 2000 rounds of high-explosive shells and mines.
The RTO may have been justified in pronouncing the situation hopeless, but there were at least two who did not agree. Driver Macdonald,1 of E Section, Supply Column, and Sergeant H. Killalea, of the Australian Corps of Signals, who had been on line maintenance, sprinted for the only engine in sight, several hundred yards down the track, where it had been abandoned by its Greek crew. Neither knew how to operate a locomotive, but while Stukas and Messerschmitts swept the area with fire, they got this one into motion and brought it back to the trucks. They hitched up twenty-eight trucks laden with petrol, oil and ammunition, severed the page 52 coupling with the burning wagons, and drew the load to a safe distance down the line.
The others began moving shells and mines from the burning, exploding rake, and Macdonald and Killalea came back to assist with this. Throughout the hour's raid, amidst smoke and flames, oil was loaded onto trucks and shells and mines stacked safely away.
‘Everything that was saved,’ said Ward in reporting the incident to his commanding officer, ‘was due to the initiative and courage of these two men, who were the first to attempt salvage.’ Macdonald was awarded the MM.
All trucks were loaded by late morning and set off for Atalandi. They were trailed on their homeward journey by planes, and 15 miles from Atalandi bomb splinters punctured the tire of one truck and severed an oil pipe. The tire was changed in haste and the truck towed back, reaching its destination late in the afternoon.
The day—it was Hitler's birthday—had been a stormy one at Atalandi, too. Supply Column sprawled on either side of a small blind road near a crossroads. Headquarters was in a wooded, boulder-strewn island area bounded by a curve of the highway. An officers' EPIP tent had been set up, an orderly room RD tent faced the road, there was an RD tent for the CO, and sitting across the road was the cookhouse. Ammunition Company was nearby. This point had been chosen because no maps of the area had been issued, and in the meantime the Column had to be where units could find it. But the enemy had eyes too.
The morning passed quietly. The only incidents of note were the smashing of an effigy of the Virgin Mary at the crossroads by an Ammunition Company truck that missed its turning, and the return of a despatch rider, Driver High,2 who en route to Headquarters Command NZASC at Lamia had been strafed from the air and had his headlamp sheared off by bullets.
After lunch an artillery convoy trundled past the crossroads. A solitary Stuka came over to have a look, dropped a casual bomb and lolled away. About 1.30 p.m., just as another convoy was moving out to load at Levadhia, a page 53 swarm of aircraft swept down and opened up with their machine guns. Rather than give away the position of other vehicles camouflaged from sight, the convoy was left where it was and everyone went to ground. Headquarters and Workshops took the worst of three-quarters of an hour's machine-gunning.
A lull followed, and into it innocently drove Driver McDonald, the unit's bugler, with the Headquarters' ration truck. Major Pryde and Staff-Sergeant Mitchell3 were talking to him when the planes came down again and let go their bombs. Pryde and Mitchell dived for a sheltering cave that tunnelled under the road. The roof had long since collapsed, and as the first stick of bombs fountained up a few yards away dirt and dust showered down on the deafened occupants, about fifteen in all. Sergeant Jelley4 received concussion and Driver Rod,5 who was unable to reach cover, was wounded and later died.6
When the attackers drew off, the ration truck was found to be smouldering. Its driver, who had taken shelter under a nearby tree, was wounded. As the fire in the truck took hold the burning canopy was torn off and water flung over the flames. McDonald later died, and his bugle was inscribed and sent to his home at Waimate.
The respite was brief, and soon afterwards the planes returned. As everyone went to earth, bullets came zipping through the trees. The attack continued spasmodically for about three hours. The planes followed each other into the target area, let go their bombs, and, as leisurely as though they were over a practice target, returned and sprayed the area with machine-gun fire. Forty bombs were counted in the Column area. Casualties were three men killed, one wounded and one missing. This last, Driver Hansen,7 suffered page 54 concussion and wandered off into the hills. A long search failed to find him, and he was taken prisoner. Material damage from the raid was light: two vehicles were damaged.
Death and destruction apart, one of the most maddening features of the one-sided air war in Greece was the inability of the men on the ground to do much to help themselves. The inevitable frustration found its outlets in various ways, few of them much good except as an escape valve for the emotions. Supply Column's particular emotional outlet was a .55-inch Boys anti-tank rifle mounted on a truck as an anti-aircraft weapon. The theory—quite sound as a theory—was that its armour-piercing bullets could penetrate the armoured cockpits of the enemy planes that shed ordinary bullets like so much rain. Workshops Section contributed the mounting, and the day of the Atalandi strafing offered opportunity for its use.
The gun was with an E Section convoy under Lieutenant Tomlinson that left the unit area in the morning before the hate began. Messerschmitts were playing havoc with road traffic, and after taking two hours ten minutes to cover five miles, the convoy turned for home. Setting out again in the afternoon, the convoy was about a mile from the crossroads when the fun started at Column Headquarters. Riflemen, described as being ‘somewhat organised’, and the Boys anti-tank gun, manned by Corporal Starkey8 and Driver Le Compte,9 let fly. The gun engaged planes three times and got away twelve shots before it over-balanced backwards and sent the firer spinning.
After the raid Column Headquarters moved away from the danger area until nightfall, when it returned to move vehicles to a new laager a mile east of the junction.
C and D Sections, which had been on the point of leaving when the attack began, moved out at 3 p.m. On their way to Levadhia they were delayed for an hour and a half by 4 RMT troop-carriers travelling in the opposite direction. They reached Levadhia in the early hours of 21 April and page 55 found that the rake containing rations had been moved some miles south of the station. By 7 a.m. they had loaded thirty tons of hard rations and dispersed near Atalandi Pass. Because of continued air activity, they remained here during daylight and reached Atalandi about midnight. The rations were delivered to 10 FSD, four miles north of Levadhia, which was taken over on 21 April by Supply Column men of No. 2 Echelon, under Lieutenant McIndoe.
Camouflaged from sight in its new area, Column Headquarters escaped further attention on 21 April. Regularly at 6.50 a.m., 11.50 a.m. and 6.50 p.m., flights of bombers and fighters winged overhead on their way to harass the ports of southern Greece. On one of the return flights two fighters skimmed by at tree-top level but did not open fire.
A firm British line faced the Germans, who without attempt at concealment were preparing for their attack. To the west, on the other side of the Pindus mountains, however, Greek resistance was crumbling; caught in a hopeless position, the Greek Army of the Epirus was attempting too late to move back, and on 21 April news reached the British authorities that this army had surrendered. The British flank was now wide open.
Already, however, evacuation was decided on. When General Wavell reached Athens on 19 April the beginning of the evacuation was fixed for 28 April, but the collapse of the Greek forces resulted in the date being advanced to the 24th.
Anzac Corps planned that 4 Brigade would retire to Kriekouki and there prepare positions for the final rearguard. While 6 Brigade covered at Thermopylae, 5 Brigade was to move directly to embarkation points. Sixth Brigade was then to disengage, destroy its guns and withdraw to embarkation points too. Events, however, forced modification of timing, and 5 Brigade moved south on the same night as 4 Brigade (the 22nd). Sixth Brigade withdrew on the night of 24–25 April.
The decision to evacuate Greece was made known to the troops on the 22nd. Explaining the decision to Supply Column, the Adjutant (Captain Morris10) said, ‘The page 56 evacuation will be arranged by the Navy. I think we shall be in good hands.’
The end was in sight, and sentence of death—it was almost that to NZASC drivers—had to be pronounced on unwanted trucks. Twenty-five of the most roadworthy of No. 2 Echelon three-tonners were selected for troop-carrying, and nineteen three-tonners and 30-cwts were retained to evacuate Supply Column itself.
With ten of the troop-carrying trucks, Tomlinson left for 10 FSD with rations at 6 p.m. on 22 April. After unloading he took his vehicles to a dispersal area near the coast road. He was joined there next day by the remaining fifteen troop-carriers under Second-Lieutenant Surgenor,11 and twenty-five vehicles from Petrol Company. That evening these vehicles came under the command of Major McGuire.12
Heavy black clouds hung on the horizon on 23 April, and rolling thunder overlaid the rumbling guns. Inquisitive planes skimmed low over the trees but though there was activity beneath, there was little to be seen from the air. On the off chance, they sent down an occasional hail of bullets. There was an eerie atmosphere of tension, accentuated by rumours that parachute troops had landed in the area. It was a moment of desperation and distrust: sheep in a nearby field appeared to be mustered into formation, and fires were lit. Already, two nights earlier, a Greek who aroused suspicion had been shot.
Throughout the day the Column, in a mood as black as the sky, carried out a systematic course of destruction. The drivers had acquired an affection for their vehicles that had grown over thousands of miles of road and through scores of adventures. They knew every squeak and rattle, and the precise pitch of the engine's note when everything was running well. They knew their vehicles' moods and how to coax them when the going was hard. They had adorned them with the names of their best girls or with monograms or symbols. At least one driver, with tears in his eyes, flatly refused to wreck his vehicle. This was Hyland, driver of page 57 ‘Flannagan’; he moped away while someone else did the butchery for him.
With reluctant hands the drivers drained away the oil and set the engines running until bearings seized. With sledge hammers they cracked open engine blocks and stove in radiators; they slashed at tires with axes and soused equipment with acid. Workshops Section tearfully hammered at brand-new equipment, only a week out of the case, and destroyed a pile of gear that had been obtained only a week previously at a Greek base workshops at Larisa.
All that could not be destroyed, including personal gear, was buried, and when the work was completed the men each had a rifle, steel helmet, greatcoat and pack, into which were stuffed as many rations and cigarettes as could be carried.
In spite of rumours and scares, the day passed quietly. During the afternoon Captain Boyce,13 Lieutenant Rawle14 and five other ranks made a reconnaissance of a back road from Malesina and established control points. As a road it was a poor affair—the headlamp of one of the motor cycles was shaken off—but it was a way of escape.
At 6 p.m. 10 FSD closed. Supply Column cleared the area at 7.30, and as dusk came down was jolting and jarring at a cautious pace over the uneven surface. Sidelights in the half light were useless, and about half the distance to the main road had been covered when the fifth vehicle from the rear ran its back wheels into a ditch and slewed at right angles across the road. Using lights, the front part of the convoy went on and at the main road joined the ASC convoy. It took about an hour to free the ditched truck, and the tail-enders reached the main road some miles behind the main convoy.
Traffic packed the main road. Nose-to-tail and with lights burning, trucks were threaded in an endless stream through swarms of refugees, their carts stacked high with belongings, past wrecked and burning trucks, and across bridges where toiling sappers were preparing demolitions. Like an unending glittering snake, the column of trucks droned along the page 58 flat at a good clip, but as it wound up into the hill country south of Thebes it dropped to a snail's pace.
The New Zealand Provost Corps did a commendable job in keeping traffic in the right direction. Men at each crossroads directed trucks with the aid of lighted signs and arrows set in the road.
Athens, reached in the early morning of 24 April, was a dead city—how dead after its warmth and life a month earlier. Streets were deserted, and nowhere along their empty lengths were there to be found pickets to direct traffic. For several hours trucks roamed aimlessly down silent streets until at last Movement Control was located at Force Headquarters in the Hotel Acropole. After some delay in mustering wandering transport part of the Column's convoy was led to a dispersal area on the plain of Marathon, eight or ten miles from C Beach at Porto Rafti. Unable to find the leading section of the convoy, Boyce took the remaining Column trucks to Kamponia. He was directed by Movement Control to embark that night at D Beach.
Fifth Brigade, too, was ready to embark. Throughout this day its men had lain concealed within sight of the sea, and that night, under the cover of the same moonless darkness that was concealing the withdrawal of 6 Brigade from Thermopylae, they converged on the beaches.
Beneath the trees the Supply Column men had a sing-song while waiting for the order to start for the beach.
In Morris's field notebook the orders looked like this:
“D” Beach Starting 8 p.m.
Drivers to remain with vehicles
embarking takes place 1 hr after dark
90% 3500 approx tonight
Beach cont. off for Aus Maj Sheppard
All ranks carry three days rations
in their pockets
Not to go to Refini [Rafina]
25 men in each veh.
remaining veh. dest.
Body arrangements not unit
Trucks took the men to within two miles of Porto Rafti, and as they trudged on towards the beach they could hear behind them the clatter of the last vehicles being destroyed. Thoroughly exhausted—the men had spent most of the campaign in their trucks and were anything but fit—they reached a feature overlooking the Aegean Sea. Here a naval officer was directing troops and urging haste. From one of the evacuation ships standing off shore a signal lamp was winking. On shore the embarkation officers kept up a running description of the progress being made.
The men felt sand under their feet; it was now about 8 p.m. Ahead of them stretched a dark queue of the thousands who had been waiting for interminable hours to be taken off by the landing craft running a shuttle service between shore and the ships.
There was no end to time. Every so often the line of men, exhausted from tense days, sleepless nights and long journeys, shuffled forward a few yards. Intermittently the cool voice of a naval officer said, ‘Keep together in line. There must be no smoking. Troops will not lie down.’ To have lain down would have induced the slumber of fatigue that would have dislocated the evacuation.
It was about seven hours before the last of the queue in front of Supply Column men melted away and the lapping sea lay before them. The night was nearly gone. At 3 a.m., when the operation was about to end, the first Column men scrambled into landing craft, the engines gave a surge of power and the water creamed up behind as the boats faded away into the darkness. Left on the beach were about 500 New Zealanders, half of them Supply Column men. The deadline had been reached, and to be clear of enemy aircraft before daylight the ships could wait no longer. Captain Morris and Sergeant-Major Pullen could have gone in a launch in which two seats had been reserved for them, but preferred to remain on shore with the men. Morris was the senior NZASC officer present.
A naval officer said, ‘Attention everybody. It is too late to take any more off tonight, so the rest of you will disperse and sleep. Be here tomorrow night and the Navy will try to take you off. Gentlemen, I am sorry. Good luck to you page 60 all.’ Then, almost before the despair of this announcement had taken effect, his voice came again, ‘Remain where you are.’ The faint throb of a motor came in from the sea, and as the men stared into the darkness a tank landing craft took shape and bunted inshore. The queue moved forward and the men groped their way into the black depths of the craft. Slowly they packed in till it was full; there was still a crowd on the beach. Those on board compressed themselves further into the boat, and the remaining men came on. The barge pulled itself clear of the sand and moved away from the deserted beach.
But though these men were off Greece, they were a long way from rescue. The Navy was already heading for the open sea.
Crowded into the thick atmosphere of diesel fumes and unwashed bodies, the 500 men in the pitching tank landing craft, held awkwardly upright by their pressing neighbours, consoled themselves that their destination could not be far away. Heavily overloaded, the craft rose sluggishly to each wave and slapped sickeningly with racing propeller into each trough. At every cant of the ship the compressed mass of men leaned on each other; around their feet bilge water lapped and gurgled. Many men, dressed still in their greatcoats and carrying their packs, slept as they stood. Others, less fortunate, were seasick.
The landing craft continued to labour interminably through the heaving sea. Then from the hatch above Captain Tui Love,16 of the Maori Battalion, called for attention. ‘The warships have gone and you are being taken to Kea Island,’ his voice said through the darkness. ‘It is the best the Navy can do. When you reach your destination you will disperse but remain on call in case the Navy can arrange to pick you up. Otherwise you must find your own way to Crete. One last word: you must expect aerial attacks and be prepared to repulse landing parties.’
There was a general grumble of discontent from various parts of the barge, and a member of the Pay Corps, speaking in a loud, high-pitched, nervous voice, began to curse the page 61 whole Army, Navy and Air Force. Fearing panic, Pullen flashed his torch on the man and told him to ‘Shut up’. Nothing more was said.
Kea Island lay 15 miles from the Greek coast, but the craft took four hours to make the journey, and in the welcome sunlight of 25 April—twenty-six years after the Gallipoli landing on a beach not so very distant—the men waded ashore. On the beach stood several islanders, including small children holding hands. Others, fearing that this was a German raiding party, had fled but soon returned.
In compliance with orders, the men dispersed into olive groves to sleep, and within half an hour the only outward sign of activity was the tank landing craft putting out from the bay.
Kea was typical of the many picturesque islands scattered across the Aegean Sea, extending Greek territory almost to Turkey. Behind the tumbledown fishing village, with its cobbled jetty and anchored caiques, the green hills rose steeply. Dotted here and there were white houses and an occasional church. Like so many parts of Greece where these men had been, it had an idyllic tranquillity that until it was sharply shattered by the Luftwaffe seemed a stubborn denial of reality.
While the men rested, the senior representative from each of the eleven groups attended an officers' conference called by Captain Love. Infantry, engineers, NZASC and medical were the main groups, the largest, under Morris, being Supply Column. Love was selected as OC troops.
A stocktaking showed that resources were low. The only food was the few biscuits and tins of bully beef the men had in their packs, and the islanders, themselves on a frugal diet, could not for too long support their uninvited though not unwelcome guests. Jacobs was instructed to use regimental funds brought from Greece to secure what food he could.
Ammunition was down to ten rounds a rifle. The officers resolved that in the event of invasion, and in the absence of any evacuation arrangements, the small force was to resist to the limit of its resources, and after that there was no alternative but to give up.page 62
A further problem was the presence of medical men, who of course were non-combatant. Arrangements were made to put them aboard a steamer bound for Turkey, which was anchored in the harbour. They were lightered out, but when they were 300 yards from the ship a shot skipped across their bows. With understandable discretion they turned back to shore, and it was later found that the ship's captain had decided that whether they be combatant or non-combatant, he wanted nothing to do with soldiers. The ship was, in any case, already overcrowded. As it turned out it was a fortunate twist of fortune. The ship was later sunk and all those on board were lost.
Several officers, Love among them, took up quarters in a large, square, white building on the waterfront formerly used by the Danish ambassador as a holiday residence. A quarter of a mile along the road Sergeant-Major Pullen, Sergeants Balkind17 and Sargent,18 and Lance-Corporal Duke19 set up another section of Headquarters under a culvert where the road began to climb into the hills. This was a comfortable nook and a good administrative centre—if only there had been something to administer. The only misfortune was the presence of a dead cat.
Jacobs, meanwhile, was going about his task of finding food. Collecting several NCOs from No. 1 Echelon supply details, the entire strength of which was on the island, he went to a nearby village and, after making himself understood with difficulty, bought a small supply of fresh vegetables, which included lettuces, onions and radishes. He also bought a baker's meagre supply of black bread and arranged for him to bake more later in the day. More bread was found to be available at a village four miles away in the hills. A party was despatched, but on arrival found that the bread had already been sent down on donkeys; bush telegraph had been well ahead of them.page 63
From under a tall hedge by a goat track, supply details distributed the food. There was insufficient to go around, and the two headquarters groups on the waterfront and under the culvert made do with a redolent meal of spring onions and garlic from a nearby garden patch. Other men scoured about for food, one or two finding chickens.
The future food situation was precarious. The island's flour resources were low, and though villagers promised to search the island for more, there was a limit to what could be found.
Several times during that day the bell of St. Agrystrakos church tolled a warning as Messerschmitts swooped down over the island and swept the valleys with machine-gun fire and dropped bombs in the harbour. At each alarm the islanders fled and the New Zealanders concealed themselves.
By evening there was still no clue as to how a rescue could be made, and various schemes for escape were hatched. The men were told that if the Navy could not take them off they would have to make their own way to Crete in whatever boats were available. Morris and Rawle had befriended the Greek harbourmaster, Spiros Bogdanos, who would have been useful in securing a small craft for the Aegean crossing. Crete and Turkey were about equidistant, though Turkey had advantages: it could be reached by island-hopping and the route was less likely to be watched by Germans. Evacuation, however, was still a reasonable expectation and no action was taken.
Next day (the 26th) a bullock was bought for 8000 drachmae (£16) and slaughtered, but was never eaten. The carcass was being cooked around noon when a naval lieutenant in white shirt and shorts came panting over the island with the news that the men would be evacuated by a ship that would leave the other side of the island at 8 p.m. that day. It was agreed that the signal for assembly would be three shots from Morris's pistol at 2 p.m.
The six or seven miles to the other side of the island was considered by the natives to be arduous, and surplus gear was dumped. Morris still had with him a suede-covered portable gramophone that he had bought at Athens and which one of the men had dutifully carried to Kea. This, page 64 he decided, must go, and he selected as its recipient a pretty 18-year-old Greek girl who was a nurse in an Athens hospital. She bristled with suspicion when he attempted to press the gift on her, but with the aid of the village barber he made her understand what it was all about. Her mother insisted on paying for it with four eggs and a hatful of peanuts.
Four eggs in this situation were precious, and Morris approached ‘a seedy looking individual’ whom he took to be a fisherman, and asked him to tell him where he might cook them. The ‘fisherman’, in a cultured English voice, told him a sailor standing by a brazier on the deck of ‘that fishing smack’ would cook them for him. Taken aback, but by now ready to accept almost anything as possible, Morris went aboard and, gesticulating to the sailor by the brazier, said, ‘Agfa—you cook please.’ The reply, in broad Cockney, was that he would be pleased to, for the price of one egg.
Morris might have been excused if all sense of reality left him, for he found he was on board a ship that had all the qualifications of fiction. The ‘fisherman’ was a naval officer assisting in the evacuation of Greece. The fishing-smack was a powerfully engined ship; in a huge radio compartment into which Morris had a glimpse, a radio transmitter was in constant communication with the War Office.
Morris fired his pistol at 2 p.m., and after assembling at the church the men moved off in groups of twenty at two-minute intervals under an officer or NCO. Some were missing, but time was too short to wait until they could be found.
For three miles the road followed the coastal shelf. Near a placid inlet, where a caique lay anchored, the hills came down to the sea and the track wound up into the mountains. The pace slackened and the groups began to string out. As the faster climbers of each group overtook the stragglers of the group ahead, a continuous line of men was formed plodding in the broiling sun up the twisting track. As aircraft zoomed overhead the men flattened themselves under cover, and the planes passed without seeing them. These rests were welcome, but it required a stern effort to set legs moving again on the seemingly unending climb. Each crest was an illusion; beyond always lay page 65 another. Some lightened their loads by throwing away what they could.
As the peak was breasted the pace became rapid. At the risk of wrenched ankles, the now straggling line made good time down the rough track. There was no time to lose. At 7.50 p.m., ten minutes from the deadline, the tail of the column was still making its way down the mountain, and valuable minutes were lost taking cover when aircraft came over. These men could see the waiting landing craft, the same that had brought them to the island, barely discernible beneath the evening shadow of the sheer bluffs. At last steep steps led down into a cove, and a goat track to a rocky area and the 12-inch board that was the gangplank of the barge. There were a few who had a swim before they were dragged, dripping and blasphemous, aboard the landing craft.
At the tail of the column came a New Zealand doctor, De Clive Lowe,20 leading a donkey laden to capacity with most of the effects discarded by the men on the mountain, and much of what had been cast aside could be reclaimed.
There was a brief alarm when a German plane skimmed across the entrance of the cove about 100 feet from the water, but it went by without seeing the ship, and the craft moved away from the blurred outline of the rugged coast. Ten members of the Supply Column who were missing when the trek started had still not arrived.
As the craft headed for the open sea a watch was kept for floating mines. For some hours it churned through the Aegean. Then its engines were shut off and it lay for a while in the darkness, surging in the lapping water. The distant sound of surf could be heard. A light winked in the void. Minutes passed, and a ship took shape; it was the trooper Salween. The Navy, as usual, was in a hurry, and minutes were precious. A swell was lifting the two vessels and joggling them now together, now apart, and every attempt to tie them together failed. A few men scrambled up a rope ladder, but at the end of an hour the landing craft had to pull away with most of the men still aboard.page 66
The craft next picked up the low-decked flak ship HMS Carlisle, and the Kea men were quickly put aboard. Among the ship's passengers they found two Greek girls in New Zealand uniforms.
Fourteen times aircraft attacked the convoy on its way to Crete. On board the Carlisle New Zealanders helped to man the anti-aircraft guns, and very pleased about it they felt, particularly when a Junkers 88 tumbled into the sea. Sitting on the deck the Maoris let go their anger by firing skywards with everything at their disposal: rifles, Brens and even pistols. Says one passenger: ‘A solid hail of lead seemed to be flying heavenwards.’
While the Carlisle was steaming towards Crete, there remained on Kea several men to whom the future seemed to hold little chance of escape. Four of the ten left behind were taken off the same night; the remaining six, who had set off in pursuit of the main party, reached the top of the island in time to see the landing craft pulling away.
Another taken off that night was Driver Bradshaw,24 whose linguistic abilities were almost the cause of his downfall. Greek was among the languages he had mastered, and when most of the men were setting off for the other side of the island he was still talking with villagers. He, too, was rescued by a destroyer.
Six others, including Drivers McArthur,25 Palmer,26 Broadbent27 and Honniwell,28 were less fortunate. They page 67 had taken up their quarters in caves on the second day on the island. At midday they ate their slender ration of bully beef and stretched out to sleep.
‘Suddenly I woke to what I thought was the sound of three shots,’ writes Broadbent. ‘Some of the others were already awake, but as they appeared to have heard nothing I decided I must have been dreaming, and let the matter drop.’
The rest of the afternoon was whiled away at poker and pontoon. About 5 p.m. a Greek boy came to the mouth of the cave but failed to make himself understood. He went away and returned in a few minutes with an old man, who began gesticulating frantically in the direction of the mountains and repeating some such words as ‘Tria stratiosis’.
It was gathered that the others had gone, and gathering up their equipment, the six New Zealanders followed this energetic old man along the coast and up the mountain track. As they reached the peak at dusk they heard what they took to be a German plane. Then in the bay far below they saw the smudged outline of what was obviously the landing craft pulling out to sea.
On the point of exhaustion, the men rested for a while before they returned the way they had come. They reached the inlet at the base of the mountain about midnight, ignorant of the fact that again they were missing rescue by a destroyer by a narrow margin, and settled down thankfully in the church by the sea to sleep. They were roused at the chilly hour of 4 a.m., and led by their Greek friend, skirted the bay in darkness. The seizing of the caique anchored off shore was mooted, but their guide shook his head. They were given food at a farmhouse, and reached the port in daylight. A medium-sized Turkish ship was anchored on the far side of the harbour, and two French civilians at the village, one a journalist, said they were sailing on her for Turkey. The six New Zealanders decided to follow suit unless something better turned up that day. Like the earlier ship, this one also was later sunk.
During the morning they bought bread and found there was meat to be had that had been paid for by Jacobs. After their meal they went to a hotel and slept until midday. An page 68 hour later two medium-sized caiques came into the harbour and tied up at the jetty. From one stepped the trim figure of a British naval officer. He greeted the New Zealanders' recital of woes with only casual interest, but assured them that they could go with him when he sailed in about three hours' time. There were, he said, already about sixteen New Zealanders in the hold.
Asking the New Zealanders to carry two wounded Greeks up to the village, he went off for some sleep. At sailing time—4 p.m.—the six men were told to go below and stay there. Enemy attacks were likely if it was suspected there were troops on board.
There were fifteen New Zealand sappers and a Greek officer in the hold, and scattered about was a quantity of ammunition, hand grenades and TNT. In the centre was a keg of rum, and watching over it an inebriated sapper. The caique, he said cheerfully, hadn't a hope of getting through. The beach it was going to was already in German hands. As the caique chugged slowly towards the open sea, the rum went the rounds, and everyone began to feel better.
The first three-quarters of an hour passed peacefully. Then a sapper who was peering through a hatch said tersely, ‘German planes coming’, and as the men flattened themselves among the cargo of explosives, three planes dived. They roared low, spattered the ship with bullets, and passed on. Half an hour later four fighters came down and, skimming just above the surface, poured machine-gun and cannon fire into the ship. The bullets plopped against the stout timbers, and then these planes, too, went on their way. As the sound of their motors died away and the men in the hold picked themselves up, one of them emerged from beneath boxes he had piled on himself. Questioned by a sapper, he pleaded ignorance on their contents. ‘Just grenades,’ said the sapper. The laughter lifted the tension.
Twice more aircraft swooped down and sprayed the ship from sea level before land was sighted about dusk. More stragglers were picked up from the mainland, and early during the night the caique met the cruiser Kimberley at a rendezvous at sea. Crete was reached next morning (28 April).page 69
While Supply Column men were making their devious ways from Porto Rafti to Crete, the melancholy business of Greece was drawing to a close. It was a creditable ending, in the best traditions of orderly withdrawal.
With the complete artillery of the Division thundering behind it, 6 Brigade met determined attacks at Thermopylae and hung on to its positions in the face of severe mortaring, bombing and tank attacks. The brigade withdrew on the night of 24-25 April through 4 Brigade which, with Australian artillery and anti-tank guns, was screening the evacuation with a line at Thebes. To relieve the strain on the evacuation beaches near Athens, 6 Brigade crossed the Corinth Canal one jump ahead of the German paratroopers, and shedding as it went trucks that had given up the ghost, made its way to ports in the Peloponnese.
As the Germans pressed south the situation became critical, and into this confusion were precipitated a number of stragglers from Supply Column. Sixth Brigade slipped across the canal on the night of 25-26 April. At first light next day the Germans began a furious air attack on the canal area, culminating in an airborne landing that failed in its object of securing undamaged the bridge—blown up at the height of the attack after splendid efforts by individuals from British units, among them two men from 2 Section, 6 Field Company. The actual cause of the explosions remains a matter for conjecture.
At Thebes, meanwhile, 4 Brigade and the Australian guns were hitting hard at a surprised enemy, whose reconnaissance had failed to reveal the existence of the rearguard line. When the link with the Peloponnese was cut, however, 4 Brigade was left in a tight corner and was evacuated from Porto Rafti.
In the Peloponnese the final evacuations were carried out at the three ports of Navplion, Monemvasia and Kalamata in a tense atmosphere and with some disappointments. In addition to the paratroopers who had come down at the Corinth Canal, a second German force, thrusting down from the east, had crossed to the Peloponnese at Patrai. As the Germans began to squeeze up the last part of British-occupied Greece, each minute at the evacuation beaches became page 70 vital, and at Kalamata delay turned certain rescue into bitter disappointment for 7000 men, among them some from Supply Column.
At this point the evacuation of Greece disintegrated into individual escapes, and here again Supply Column men were among those who, by whatever means they could, cleared the Greek mainland under the eyes of the vigilant Luftwaffe and patrolling launches.
The last organised group of Supply Column on Greece was that which had been put under the command of Major McGuire to help bring out 6 Brigade. This brigade was embussed on NZASC transport during the evening of 24 April—just about the time that the rest of Supply Column was joining the embarkation queue at Porto Rafti—and the trucks were away by 11.15 p.m. Almost blind with only the meagre glimmer from sidelights, drivers smashed dusty windscreens, but even so bumpers, mudguards and lights suffered as trucks crashed together. Moving back through 4 Brigade's positions, the convoy halted at dawn and dispersed under cover. Tomlinson found at this halt that the tray of his 15-cwt was littered with grenades that had tumbled from their container. Still with him was his inseparable companion Mitzo, a St. Bernard he had bought as a month-old puppy on 2 April for 200 drachmae (13s.). The dog was a well-known personality in the Division until accidentally shot a year later at Baalbek in Syria.
The convoy moved on at 6 p.m., rumbled across the Corinth bridge and twisted through burning Corinth itself. Trucks now were being discarded as they broke down. As each was jettisoned, its passengers piled out and swung themselves aboard the next. Stragglers, too, were grasping at tailboards, and soon some trucks were stern down under double loads. Straining, overheated engines were drawing up petrol at the rate of a gallon every three or four miles.
There was little cover to be found at dawn on the 26th, and trucks dispersed as best they could. The planes came down with joyful gusto and kept up their pounding all day. South again that night, and at daylight dispersal. Tomlinson found that his ten trucks were reduced to six, all heavily overloaded.page 71
During 27 April 6 Brigade formed positions around Tripolis. The 26th Battalion moved out about midday, but the other two battalions remained. Tomlinson went off to a nearby village to see if he could get any of the famous Greek brown bread for the men, who were heartily sick of army biscuits. He was gladly given what he believed was the village's last loaf and was not permitted to pay for it, in spite of his protests. He encountered here a number of Greek officers, including a general, in a great state of alarm. They had apparently deserted their troops and begged Tomlinson to arrange for their evacuation.
The remainder of 6 Brigade pulled out at 9 p.m. and at dawn were a few miles from Monemvasia. Throughout the 28th the infantry, concealed from searching planes, was prepared to meet any ground attacks. That night trucks moved off in groups. At Monemvasia, when troops had debussed, the empty vehicles were toppled over a cliff into the sea or otherwise destroyed, and the remaining distance was covered on foot. Mitzo alone was privileged; he was carried by his master.
The first men who crunched down on to the sands searched the night for the rescue ships. Nothing stirred on the flat calm sea, and for hours as the crowd grew they watched and waited and listened, feeling every precious minute slip away. At last, silent shadows in the darkness, the destroyers moved in. There were more delays and heartbreaking uncertainties, and a probability that because there were not enough small craft one battalion would have to wait another day, but as more boats were gathered up and put into service and more ships arrived with additional landing craft, the operation gathered pace. The last boat, in which were the admiral and Major-General Freyberg, ran alongside HMS Ajax at 4 a.m.
As he came aboard HMS Isis each man was given a steaming hot mug of cocoa—a miraculous sustainer for morale and warmth for the dead-tired. To provide it the Navy used its precious fresh water reserves. Even Mitzo, with his master on the Isis, was capably cared for. At Crete men were transferred to the Thurland Castle, and they reached Port Said on the morning of 2 May.page 72
Not far behind 6 Brigade across the Corinth Canal were three Supply Column men, Drivers Swale,29 Hetherington30 and Hay,31 but the few hours made the world of difference to their comfort. Involved in a motor-cycle accident when the unit first arrived in Athens, Swale spent three weeks in hospital and was still at a New Zealand transit camp near Piraeus when the evacuation order was given. He went with British troops to the evacuation port of Megara, between Athens and Corinth, arriving there on the morning of 25 April. After lying up all day he joined up that evening with Hay, but after a long walk the two reached the evacuation beach at 2 a.m., only to find that no more troops were being taken from it. They were told to go to Navplion. Hetherington joined them at the beach.
At dawn the three men decided to try to repair one of the destroyed trucks in the area. They found one still in good condition, and picking up a load of men drove down the road to Corinth, along which others of the beach party were straggling. They had crossed the Corinth bridge and were still north of the town when the German blitz burst around them. First silencing the protecting Bofors, the bombers came over in droves, rocking the earth with their bombs. Fighters swept low and raked the area with machine guns and cannons. Then from their hiding places the men saw parachutes blossoming in the sky as with textbook precision the Germans developed their airborne attack.
None of these troops dropped near the Supply Column men, but when the Germans began to deploy it was clearly time to leave. As paratroopers approached, they made a dash for their truck, a few yards away, and set off to the south. They raced through Corinth, flattened by the air bombardment, and drove on to the south-west. They passed through 6 Brigade's defensive positions at Argos and went on to Navplion. They found evacuation ships either sunk or burning in the harbour, and returned to Argos. Next day (the 27th) they went to Kalamata, where they were taken on a page 73 destroyer which went direct to Egypt. Bombers attacked the convoy and two ships were sunk.
Not so fortunate were Drivers Gibson,32 Wright33 and Fraser,34 who were among the 7000 left at Kalamata the following night (28-29 April). Gibson was another who had been sent to hospital when the unit first reached Greece, and was at Piraeus when the evacuation order was given. The three men travelled with a convoy across the Corinth Canal and south through the Peloponnese. After encountering air raids and a resultant traffic block in the Corinth Pass, they reached an area north of Kalamata at nightfall on 28 April. With many other New Zealanders they converged on Kalamata, to which the cruisers Phoebe and Perth and six destroyers had been sent to make the last evacuation from Greece.
Many who were evacuated from Greece could almost feel the breath of their pursuers on their necks; the men at Kalamata on this night found the Germans not merely behind them but in front of them too. The German forces that had crossed the Gulf of Corinth at Patrai moved on to Kalamata via Megalopolis. They penetrated into Kalamata with light forces, and when the ships arrived at 9 p.m. a spirited battle was in progress for possession of the jetties. Owing to an error in judgment all ships except Hero withdrew. Late that night three other destroyers arrived, but due largely to the earlier capture of the Naval Beach Officer and his staff no ships came to the quays and only a handful of men were evacuated by the ships' boats.
The last organised body of New Zealanders in Greece turned their backs on the sea and found refuge where they could. The three Supply Column men went up into the hills, returning next day. They repaired a semi-demolished truck and, picking up other New Zealanders, drove into Kalamata. While Fraser and Wright stayed with the truck, the others went into an orchard and were peacefully peeling oranges by the roadside when a German armoured car went page 74 by at high speed. Believing it to be a captured one, the New Zealanders ignored it, but at that moment four more came into view. One opened up with a machine gun, killing or wounding four of the eight on the roadside. The two with the truck were taken prisoner.
Gibson, and a Maori, Private Atta,35reached safety by squirming through a culvert under the road and making back into the hills. From here they could look down on the final battle and the surrender next day of the exhausted New Zealanders. They made their way down the coast, and on the night of 1 May fell in with a group of nine New Zealanders who intended sailing that night in an 18-foot boat. There was room for two men but a shortage of food and water.
On a calm, still night, they rowed steadily down the coast; along the shore the fires of German bivouacs glimmered. They put into shore at first light, hid the boat and took refuge in a house. In this fashion they reached the tip of the Peloponnese in three days. Their next objective was Kithira Island, about 25 miles south-west of the mainland.
‘We were ready to sail just before dusk,’ writes Gibson, ‘when a Greek caique pursued by a German launch appeared in the inlet. Fortunately for us the chase continued out of sight. We waited some time before setting sail.’
They reached Kithira early next morning and were informed that the Germans had not yet landed there. They went out again early in the afternoon and when about two miles off shore were closely inspected by a low-flying Messerschmitt. They apparently passed as civilians for the aircraft turned away. Three hours later they pulled in at the tip of the island for a spell. An English-speaking Greek volunteered to inquire whether there was any planned evacuation from the island, but returned with the alarming news that the Germans had landed the previous evening and patrols were out in search of stragglers.
In spite of this information, the New Zealanders decided that the safest course was to wait until dusk before resuming their voyage. Again fortunate, they were on the point of page 75 leaving when a rowing boat with a German launch in pursuit came into view. The launch was seen to pull alongside the boat, then darkness concealed the scene.
Still unobserved they reached the open sea and the next morning were at Antikithira, 26 miles away. Greek soldiers gave them food, and at nightfall they set out for Crete, 30 miles to the south-east. Guided by anti-aircraft fire over Suda Bay and hurried along by a strong following wind, they reached Crete at 9 a.m. next day (14 May), twelve days after they had set out from Kalamata.
Another of those left high and dry in Kalamata was Corporal Begg,36 who was in hospital at Athens when the withdrawal from Greece was ordered. When the German forces came into Kalamata on 29 April Begg was hiding beneath trees with a number of other New Zealanders from various units. About midday they heard a car pull up on the road nearby. A sergeant and a corporal who went to investigate found it to be a German staff car in which was a blue-uniformed officer, revolver in hand. He called on the New Zealanders to surrender, but with an automatic stuttering behind them, they wheeled and dived back under cover like rabbits. The whole group took to their heels, racing madly across vineyards and open fields and bursting through cactus hedges with little attention to the jagged thorns. When they paused for a rest, a count showed there were now twenty-two of them, including three officers.
Crawling through ditches, sneaking beside hedges to evade the constantly patrolling aircraft, and finally wading a waist-deep swamp, they made their way to the coast about a mile from Kalamata. Not far away the guns were hammering, and Greeks told them that the Germans were in the town. Civilians guided them to a nearby village, where they acquired two small boats and a larger one. Begg was in the larger one.
The plan was for the three boats to keep within hailing distance of one another, with the largest leading. With little wind to aid it, however, this boat was left behind by the other two and contact was lost in the mist.page 76
Wielding cumbersome oars with difficulty, those in the large boat made tedious progress. About 3 a.m. they heard what sounded like turbines, and shielding their torch with a steel helmet they flashed an SOS. Their signals were either not seen or ignored.
Contact with the other boats was regained at dawn, and the three put into the shore again. Utterly exhausted, they slept until the roar of low-flying aircraft disturbed them. Well-meaning Greeks brought food and water, but their attentions were an embarrassment for they were likely to attract the interest of German troops who passed their shelter throughout the day.
Stocked with food and water and helped along by a slight breeze, they pushed off that evening, navigating towards Crete by using the stars. Again the large boat was left behind. At dawn it was decided to make for an island some distance off. German aircraft passed continuously but ignored them. At midday the wind dropped entirely, and again the men took up the heavy oars and dragged the boat towards the island. Like a mirage, the island never seemed to come closer, and when night came the boat was still far out on the empty sea.
They toiled on wearily. Attempts to snatch a little sleep between turns at rowing were frustrated by a leak that demanded the energies of every spare man to keep the boat bailed out.
About midnight they were jerked back from nodding fatigue by the sound of throbbing engines. Peering through the darkness they could make out the shapes of three warships approaching. Again they tapped out an SOS with their torch, and the ships began to circle and come in closer. An English voice was heard, and shortly afterwards they were scrambling up rope ladders put down by the nearest ship. They were taken direct to Egypt.
And so it was that in one way or another almost every man of Supply Column came out of Greece; only eleven failed. Some of these were caught when the Germans descended on Corinth on 26 April. Others fell into German hands through various misfortunes during the scramble of the evacuation.page 77
Otherwise casualties were light and give a guide to the amount of bombardment by high explosive that men can endure almost with immunity. Three were killed, two died of wounds, and five (including one of those captured) were wounded and survived.
15 Lt-Col G. F. Bertrand, OBE, ED; New Plymouth; born Urenui, 9 Feb 1891; school teacher; 1 Bn Wgtn Regt 1914–19 (OC 1 HB Coy 1918; wounded three times); 2 i/c 28 (Maori) Bn Nov 1939–Oct 1941; CO 2 Maori Bn and Maori Trg Unit (in NZ) Apr 1942–Oct 1944.