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Episodes & Studies Volume 2

Escapes in Crete

Escapes in Crete

The Germans caught many men at Sfakia on the south coast of Crete, where they were left behind in the evacuation. These troops had to march back the way they had come across the steep spine of the island. Hungry, tired, and dispirited, most of them took weeks to recover, and the scanty rations in the pen at Galatas did not hasten the return of their full strength. As soon as they explored the camp they found it fairly easy to escape; indeed, many went out regularly on foraging expeditions, finding it possible both to leave camp and return to it unobserved, or sometimes with the connivance of the more tolerant German guards. The count of prisoners was not strictly kept; men who had previously escaped had the habit of wandering back when conditions outside became too difficult; and this indefiniteness about the number of prisoners (in the absence of a formal roll call) helped other parties to pass through the wire later. Supervision was lax, possibly because of the difficulty of leaving Crete.

Some prisoners got out of the Galatas compound in daylight while the camp was distracted by scrambles for bread thrown over the wire by Cretan women sympathisers. One pair was induced to escape because the already meagre bread ration was about to be cut still further. They page 12 took a tracing from a small-scale map of Crete in the camp and got out at night, working their way under the wire; after crossing a road into a ditch, they crawled along it until clear of the camp vicinity. These two, and other parties, made off into the hills, where they nearly always found food and friendship.

Life in the mountain villages of Crete was pleasant if not luxurious. One escaper (Driver Winter1 recovered his strength on a diet of fresh vegetables, eggs, wholemeal bread, and a morning glass of ass's milk, and then, like so many others, was inspired by his good health to look for a passage off the island and, moving away from the safety of a secure hiding place, was caught by a German patrol. The Germans court-martialled him and sentenced him to death, several times warning him to expect execution ‘at dawn’. When he still refused to reveal the names of his Cretan friends, the Germans saw that their bluff had failed and they quietly returned him a week later to the Galatas camp.

Alarmed by the number of prisoners scattered through the hills of Crete, the Germans sent out an increasing number of patrols, which fired at random into the bushes covering the slopes of the upland valleys to encourage prisoners to come out and give themselves up. By this time many Cretans, afraid of the round-ups of able-bodied labourers or of reprisals for acts against the occupation forces, were also hiding in caves in the hills, for it was no longer safe to remain in the farms and villages. Several villages which the Germans accused of guerrilla activities were razed. The entire population of one village was taken out and shot; it is said that two New Zealanders in civilian clothing were among the victims. The Cretans had an efficient ‘bush telegraph’ that reported the movements of German patrols, but the systematic German drives through the hills made it increasingly difficult to live securely even in the open. In any case the condition of the fugitives, venturing out only at night, lousy, dirty, and hungry, was unenviable, and it was discouraging rather than consoling that many Cretans shared it. Under these circumstances it was scarcely surprising that many prisoners were disheartened enough to give themselves up to the Germans. Nevertheless some prisoners hung on for months and even years without detection, usually in the most humble of homes. One prisoner (Driver Phelan2), who was fifteen months free in Crete, had been sheltered by a man who followed the ‘honourable occupation of thief’, a Cretan Robin Hood whose gang of seven men preyed on the wealthy for the benefit of the poor —themselves. All escapers appreciated the great risks the Cretans ran for them as well as the unstinted hospitality of these naturally poor communities, ‘even if’ (as one escaped prisoner wrote) ‘we did rather offend one old woman by refusing the dish of snails we uncovered beneath the new potatoes decorated with cooked rice in pumpkin flowers’.

The escapers scattered through the hill villages were all eager to get a passage to the Middle East and return to their units. The only ways of doing this were in Greek fishing boats or in the submarines of the Royal Navy, which made a number of calls at suitably quiet spots to take off the fugitives. The Germans allowed the local fishing boats only enough fuel for the voyage to the Greek mainland or to some nearer island. Few boat owners were willing to sell, especially

1 Sgt P. L. Winter; Tikorangi, Waitara; born NZ 28 Jul 1919; journalist; p.w. 20 Jun 1941; escaped Mar 1945.

2 Dvr E. J. A. Phelan, MM; born Auckland, 22 Jun 1917; motor driver; p.w. I Jun 1941.

page 13 if the payment was a promissory note; also, they risked German reprisals. The rumour of a ship could tempt men out of hiding, often to their undoing.

Some were indefatigable in their search for boats. In Crete Driver Phelan made many attempts to negotiate a sale. Twice he actually set out: once the boat sank a few hundred yards out, and on the second time the motor broke down a mile from the shore. On a third occasion he carried out the much bolder plan which led to his recapture. Equipped with arms, a Mediterranean chart, and a compass ‘taken from a crashed British bomber’, he and four Australians walked eighty miles from their place of shelter to the Gulf of Kisamos, the headquarters of a Greek-manned boat which was shipping cargo to Athens for the Germans. After a few days’ wait the 45-foot boat was seized at anchor at night (one prisoner swam out and brought the dinghy ashore for the others), the Greek crew of seven were overpowered, and the boat taken to another bay to wait until the next night, when the party could leave at dusk and gain the full advantage of the hours of darkness in avoiding the next morning's air patrols. This was an unlucky miscalculation, as at daybreak they found themselves within the field of fire of a German post which opened up with a machine gun to indicate that the crew should come ashore to explain who they were. The Greek crew were sent ashore in the dinghy while the prisoners slipped over the seaward side and swam to the land. This stealth was in vain, however, as a German patrol recaptured them a few hours later.

A New Zealand sergeant (J. A. Redpath1) found out from the Cretans some weeks after the fall of Crete that some Greeks were running a regular service (surreptitiously, but apparently with German acquiescence) bringing back to their homes Cretans who had been serving with the Greek forces on the mainland. He induced the Greek launch owner to take back a party of escaped prisoners (three Australians and three New Zealanders) to the mainland on the empty return trip. The six prisoners were put ashore near Cape Malea, and were seen landing by the Italian garrison of a lighthouse there. Fortunately the jittery Italians opened fire at a range of several hundred yards, giving the escapers the opportunity to make a dash for the hills, where they hid with sympathetic Greeks. This group eventually reached Egypt after an eventful voyage by caique across the Mediterranean.

One New Zealander's experience was typical of that of the hundreds of men who were taken off the south coast of Crete by submarine. Gunner Diver2 had escaped with a friend from the German prison camp and had found his first shelter with a Greek spiritualist and his Irish wife, themselves refugees from Canea. They stayed later in a cottage on a high summer farm in the hills, where two friendly Cretans fed them until their health had improved sufficiently for them to resume their search for a way out. A month of wandering ended at a lonely spot on the coast where the ‘bush telegraph’ had said something might happen. They had been wearing civilian clothes and had picked up enough of the language to converse with the Cretans, but had not risked any contact with the Germans. A hungry twelve days' wait in the neighbouring hills was rewarded

1 WO II J. A. Redpath, DCM, MM; Kerikeri; born NZ 2 Feb 1904; company manager; p.w. 20 Jun 1941; escaped 26 Jul 1941; wounded and recaptured, Antiparos, 22 Feb 1942; escaped, Italy, 13 Sep 1943; served in ‘A’ Force (MI9) in Middle East.

2 WO II F. M. Diver, MM; Rototuna, Hamilton; born NZ 16 Jun 1912; dairy-factory hand; p.w. 1 Jun 1941.

page 14 by the appearance of a large British submarine, which came in close to the shore at night. A line supported on cork floats was run out from the ship to the shore and the escaping prisoners made their way to the submarine, first discarding most of their civilian clothes on the beach. It was ‘a tense period before we finally pulled out—there was enough noise to attract Hitler himself to the spot on shore, from those who thought they were drowning on the way out, and out on the sub itself as civilians were regretfully but firmly refused a passage’. The submarine took off 125 men on this occasion, including 62 New Zealanders. On board, the escapers were provided with clothes and cigarettes, a tot of rum all round, innumerable cups of tea and slices of bread and butter. The submarine's commander took the risk of travelling most of the way to Alexandria on the surface, for greater speed and the greater comfort of his passengers. On land, too, their welcome was bounteous: ‘The final touch occurred when Red Caps threw in crates of beer as the express was pulling out.’ Before rejoining their units these men were all placed under oath of secrecy as to the mode of their escape.