In Peace & War: A Civilian Soldier's Story
3 — A Greek Tragedy
A Greek Tragedy
Egypt was full of surprises. Compared with the lush greens of the Nile region, the train journey from Suez to Cairo gave us our first glimpse of the starkness of the desert with its bare hills and rocky plains. We met up, too, with a variety of those likeable rascals who had earned the title of WOG or ‘Wily Oriental Gentleman’. Having learned to live off their wits in a poor environment, they were as sharp as razors. Able to tell by the colour of our skin that we were newcomers, the newspaper boys arrived on the platform by arrangement with the train driver, crying “Read all about it — good news — ship sunk — British ship”, just as we were pulling out very slowly. The smiling rogues would snatch the 5 piastres proffered by our gullible troops through the train windows. Then, still clutching the papers, they would run off down the train to find another victim before melting away into the crowd. We soon learned their tricks and appreciated their sense of humour. They were all called “George” and we routinely accused them of being Klefti Wallahs or petty thieves. page 19 We had the new and novel experience of having our shoes cleaned very well by the shoeshine boys with their little boxes of polish, rags and brushes conveniently shaped on top to make your shoe more easily accessible. They, in turn, elevated us all in rank: calling us corporals if we were privates or majors if we were captains. They were also great traders who would surprise us by turning up in the remotest regions of the desert with baskets of oranges or eggs to sell.
We scarcely had time to settle in to our desert camp at Maadi. Within three weeks, we were whisked away on an ill-conceived expedition to Greece to counter an expected German invasion. The Greeks had told our High Command they did not want us there unless we were sure we could beat the Germans and our decision-makers were well aware we were not strong enough to do this. We did not have the tanks, the aircraft or the expertise to be anywhere near a match for the victorious German army and, in my opinion, the Allies should never have gone to Greece. However, we were pawns in a larger game, so we had little choice. Perhaps Churchill was trying to convince the Americans we deserved their support; while President Roosevelt was co-operative, the bulk of his nation was not.
For some months, the Greek Army had been confronting Mussolini's forces which had invaded their country through Albania. Although seriously outnumbered, the Greeks had been gradually pushing the Italians back over the border. While fully extended, they were able to cope with the Italians, but were in no position to withstand a German onslaught. When our senior command met the Greek prime minister, General Metaxas, in Athens early in January 1941, they were told that, unless at least 10 British Divisions with equivalent supporting troops could be sent, it would be better not to send anyone and it would be best for the Allies to secure North page 20 Africa. General Metaxas would have made a very useful contribution to the British High Command but, unfortunately, he died suddenly on January 29.
With serious misgivings, it was agreed by the New Zealand Government, and by General Freyberg, that the New Zealand Division would take part in the campaign. So we set sail for Greece, but it is a moot point whether General Freyberg would have been so anxious to co-operate had he had all the facts. By April 1 1941 the complete division was assembled for the first time. Instead of being a training run, our first combined exercise was to become a battle.
As Greece was committed to resisting a German invasion, the new Greek prime minister was faced with a dilemma. He went along with the Allied plans which involved sending the New Zealand Division, an Australian division and a brigade of British tanks, some few aircraft, supporting artillery and a large administrative staff. Half way through the ensuing battle, the Allied forces were shown to be totally inadequate and the Greek prime minister, when attending a conference, was faced with making a crucial decision. He asked to be excused temporarily and his answer — a pistol shot — could be heard from the next room.
The 22nd Battalion traveled north from Piraeus, the port of Athens, by train and soon found itself astride one of the main lines of the German advance at the foot of Mount Olympus. Much history had been made on this ancient battleground and we were to add an uncomfortable footnote. As a division we were reasonably well supplied with personal weapons and artillery, but there was a woeful shortage of supporting tanks and aircraft. We had never been in battle and were facing superbly trained and equipped forces which had swept everything before them during the past two years. As a nation, the Germans had been preparing for war for nearly a decade and they had won every battle so far. As page 21 expected, on April 6 1941 they invaded Greece and two days later we were frantically digging in at the foot of Mount Olympus.
From our vantage point, we watched the Germans approaching in an endless column down the main road towards us, preceded by motor cycles with machine gun equipped side-cars. Troop vehicles, tanks and artillery could be seen in close packed formation, but there was not a plane of our own in sight. They had mostly been taken by surprise and shot up on the ground. A reconnaissance plane hovered overhead, so we did not give our positions away until the last moment. Then, as the Germans approached, our engineers fired a demolition charge in the road ahead of them and the column came to a halt. Our artillery — mortars and machine guns — then opened up and created havoc. The Germans knew then that they had run into something solid.
We held them at bay at Mount Olympus and my good friend Colin Armstrong was awarded a Military Cross for his actions in charge of 11 Platoon of B Company which had to withstand the initial onslaught while defending the main road. We in C Company, on their right, had to resist one probing attack which 14 Platoon threw back. An anxious night followed and I can recall the eerie feeling that behind every tree a Jerry was lurking as I moved in the dark to visit my forward sections. I preferred to do the rounds on my own without the distraction of a companion as absolute stealth was required. Immature as I was, I can remember carrying a hand grenade at the ready in my right hand and my Tommy gun in my left. I soon realised how ridiculous this was and put the pin back in the hand grenade and returned it to its pouch. However, I was determined not to be beaten on the draw and was prepared for instant action. As can be imagined, nerves were drawn very tight and it was a relief to get my rounds completed. The forward sections were pleased to be visited and to be page 22 reassured they were not on their own.
The following night the inevitable happened, and we had to withdraw as the Germans had overrun the Greeks on our left flank. For 14 Platoon this entailed a three hour trek in the dark across rough, unfamiliar country in the foothills of Mount Olympus. The track was marked on the map but was difficult to follow. Several times I temporarily lost my way in the dark and progress was slow when out of the gloom behind me came a voice, “Stick to the mud, Boss”.
“Is that you, Alex?” I asked, recognising the voice.
“Yes, stick to the mud,” he said.
“Come on, you take over,” I replied, realizing that mud on the boots was second nature to a dairy farmer from Eketahuna where it always seemed to be raining. Alex Kenny then led us out without hesitation, we arrived on time and I learned a never forgotten lesson — always respond to what the troops had to say.
Our next defensive position was at the Thermopylae Pass some 200 miles further south. We were all given detailed instructions about the route to be taken as our convoy was likely to be disrupted by air attack. Sure enough, 14 Platoon's truck was soon on its own as frequent air attacks created confusion on the road crowded with transport. At Pharsala we came to a crossroads where someone in uniform, possibly a fifth columnist, was directing traffic. He tried to direct us to the left but I knew our route was straight on so I told my driver to ignore him. Unfortunately, the rest of the battalion all took the wrong road which petered out some miles short of Thermopylae, and they had to abandon their trucks and vehicles and march the remaining miles to the rendezvous at the Thermopylae Line.
As luck would have it, on our way south, we spotted an abandoned Australian supply depot so we called in to replenish our rations. What a goldmine it was with cases of page 23 canned beer, cartons of chocolate and boxes of tinned fruit. I had thought our 3 ton truck was fully loaded with troops, but we managed to make room for enough beer to distribute two cans to every man in the battalion and six cans to each man in C Company as they arrived at their destination thoroughly exhausted after their long march. This was my one claim to fame during the Greek campaign and I am not sure our act of kindness was not resented more than appreciated. We had driven all the way while they all had to march those last miles. Such is the perversity of human nature.
At Thermopylae, history records that in 480 BC, during the third invasion of Greece by the Persians, Leonidas and his 300 Spartans had delivered a temporary but crushing defeat on Xerxes and his invading hordes. In fierce hand to hand fighting, the Spartans held the narrow pass with little loss to themselves while inflicting hundreds of casualties on the Persians. Ours was to be a vastly different encounter fought at long range with high explosives rather than hand to hand with swords and daggers.
We manned the Thermopylae Line for about a week, long enough to check the German advance and, apart from heavy bombing and strafing from the air and some shellfire, our battalion was not attacked in strength. It was a rare sight to see any of our own aircraft and we became heartily sick of cowering in slit trenches under the olive trees all day, so we welcomed the order that came through on April 22 to move to the embarkation beach at Porto Rafti near Athens. Instructions to throw away our gear were partly obeyed, but we retained our weapons and, especially, our toilet kits. It was my belief that no man was any good until he had shaved in the morning and I was strict about this.
What should we do with the Boyes rifle issued to the platoon as a protection against tanks and armoured cars? It had not been used, was cumbersome and awkward to carry and the page 24 troops were sceptical of its effectiveness. No one wanted to carry it or its ammunition on the long march to the beach so, rather than toss it away, I carried it and took it aboard with me. At one point, I propped it up on a long forked stick in an attempt to shoot down a cheeky German reconnaissance plane continuously hovering above us quite low and at slow speed. No one had succeeded in shooting one down with rifle or Bren gun fire and it was believed that the lone pilot was protected by armour plating in the cockpit. I did not succeed either, but I think I gave the pilot a fright.
Our transport officer, Barney Clapham, had the melancholy task of cutting up the bagpipes and drums which could not be taken aboard with us. Fortunately, our benefactors from the Wairarapa provided us with a complete new set of instruments when we re-grouped back in Egypt.
During the night of April 24 we waded out to the lighters and were taken aboard the HMS Calcutta, feeling safe and secure in the hands of the navy. A mug of steaming hot cocoa and a slice of bread and jam made us feel a great deal better. Our battalion casualties had amounted to 52, with 12 killed, 23 wounded and 17 taken prisoner. We were frustrated and angry we had been defeated and were unable to strike back as we would have wished. We had no doubt that we would ultimately win the war but had little to ensure that would happen except faith. Utterly exhausted, we stretched out on deck wherever a space could be found and slept heavily, only to be woken soon after by the strident shriek of an air raid siren. Bombs were dropping but our ship was not directly attacked and the convoy pushed on, a magnificent spectacle as the ships zig-zagged through the blue Mediterranean, sending showers of bow spray sparkling in the bright sunlight.
Four thousand men were taken off by several naval vessels in the nick of time that night. Our 5th Brigade was evacuated successfully from the eastern beaches, followed later by the page 25 4th Brigade. Divisional headquarters, including the General, and 6th Brigade were taken off from Monemvasia, on the Peloponnese south coast, by the cruiser Ajax. Unfortunately, 2,000 New Zealand reinforcements, who had just arrived and had not been posted to the division, were taken prisoner at Kalamata. Of the 62,000 Allied troops sent to Greece, 46,000 were evacuated. Approximately 1,000 were killed and over 1,000 were wounded and some 14,000 were taken prisoner. We had lost much valuable equipment, all in short supply and, in the meantime, Rommel had landed in Tripoli with his Afrika Korps and was menacing the Allies from the West. Churchill had ruled out further Allied advances in the Western Desert in favour of the Greek campaign. If only he had listened to General Metaxes, Rommel might never have been able to land. This proved to be one of the war's most serious blunders.