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Documents Relating to New Zealand's Participation in the Second World War 1939–45: Volume I

385 — General Freyberg to the Minister of Defence

page 283

General Freyberg to the Minister of Defence

8 May 1941

On 26 April, when the Division was south of the Corinth Canal,1 I took over command of the British forces in Greece from General Wilson who was leaving. The position was most critical. We were in full retreat and had been ordered to blow up our guns and abandon all equipment, except personal weapons and equipment, and make for the beaches. The New Zealanders then under my command were the 4th and 5th Infantry Brigade Groups.2

The British authorities had issued sums of money to their troops to buy food or hire boats in the event of their being left on the beaches or cut off. I considered that I should do the same and distributed £2000 in Greek currency.

I wish to point out that it was [obvious ?] we were fighting a [hopeless ?] battle, the enemy having landed airborne troops against us at Corinth and bombing us without respite. The supply system had broken down entirely and we should be forced to live on the country. I issued money to all New Zealand officers I could contact to enable them to buy food and to pay Greek boatmen should this be necessary. Many New Zealand officers to whom I gave money spent it and others are still missing.

During the next three days the situation was as critical as can be imagined and I was unable to keep any records of decisions. Eventually we took 3820 men from Monemvasia and a like number from Marathon beach, east of Athens. Unfortunately, a certain number of New Zealanders who were at the Base and not under my orders have not yet arrived; many men are still arriving by small boats from Greece.

Under these special circumstances I would ask the Government to approve my action and accept responsibility for the special sums that have been issued. As it is I have offered to pay any Greek shipowner [four words uncipherable]3 for any New Zealand soldier, i.e., rescued from mainland or island, and I would request the Government to give me financial authority to deal with rescue work we are endeavouring to carry out.

page 284

You can gather from the foregoing what a critical position our forces were in during the last days in Greece when we carried out our role of rearguard covering the retreat of the British forces.

1 One New Zealand brigade only, the 6th, plus Divisional Headquarters, crossed the Corinth Canal. On 26 Apr the 5th Brigade was in Crete while the 4th Brigade was south of Thebes holding the Kriekouki Pass. The 4th and 5th Brigades were evacuated from beaches east of Athens and the 6th from Monemvasia, in the south-east of the Peloponnese.

2 This should read: ‘4th and 6th Infantry Brigade Groups.’ The 5th Infantry Brigade had embarked on the night of 24–25 Apr.

3 This was probably the amount of the reward.