Episodes & Studies Volume 2
Escapes in Greece
Escapes in Greece
Together with those soldiers fortunate enough to avoid capture altogether, some hundreds of escapers roamed Greece for months, indeed years, after the unlucky spring of 1941. Guerrilla warfare broke out in Greece almost immediately after the surrender of the Greek army to the Germans, and British servicemen were associated with many of the partisan groups. A prisoner who escaped from his Greek prison in an ingenious manner1 afterwards joined a so-called guerrilla group in the hills: ‘they were an idle, drunken crowd and we spent most of our time in the cafes While in their company I was very seldom sober.’ This gang lived partly by stealing, partly by ‘sponging on’ relatives in the nearby villages. This man was recaptured when he walked into an inn full of Germans, and was returned to prison after three months' liberty ‘suffering from the combined effects of too little food and too much wine’.
As they had done in Crete and were later to do in Italy, the escapers threw themselves on the mercy as well as on the hospitality of the local population, and found that their trust was seldom misplaced. Yet in Greece popular opinion was a little fickle. One escaper who spent much time with the Greeks said Greece was the land of ‘you never know’. Certainly instances can be cited both of betrayal of escaped prisoners by Greeks to the Germans and of magnificent self-sacrifice by Greeks to shield prisoners from discovery and recapture. Civilian Greeks and British servicemen did not run the same risks: for the latter the penalty on recapture was return to the status of prisoners of war; for the former the penalty for helping a British serviceman was death, with or without reprisals against the offender's family. Thus it is amazing that the Greeks so generally helped prisoners.
One of the monasteries on Mount Athos visited by Lt W. B. Thomas in his search for refuge, and described in Dare to be Free
A cartoon on tunnelling, by W. A. [gap — reason: unclear]pps in Interlude, a book compiled by British prisoners of war at Stala[gap — reason: unclear] IIIA at Gorlitz, east of Dresden
Head monks at Lavra monastery, Mount Athos. Third from the right is the only doctor in a community of 6000 monks; he helped Thomas considerably
Two prisoners of war in disguise before their escape from Stalag XVIIIA
Passo Moro, used as an escape route from Northern Italy to Switzerland
A German photograph of a hole in a wall made for an attempted escape by four officers in Oflag IX A/H at Spangenburg
A corner of Shamshuipo Camp, Hong Kong, scene of a daring escape by a New Zealand naval officer, Lt R. B. Goodwing
One of these three men escaped later from Salonika, cutting unobserved through the barbed wire at the back of a group of buildings. After some time at large, during which he had another bout of malaria, he was arrested by the local Greek police on Cassandra Peninsula. They treated him well but handed him back to the Germans. Yet another escaper was saved by the timely intervention of a Greek policeman from entering a café full of Germans. The same man was both helped in his escape plans by Greek police and later arrested elsewhere as a vagabond: the fact that he was an escaped prisoner of war was an embarrassment to them and one policeman connived at his escape from the civil jail.
The land route to Turkey, the ignis fatuus of many escapers in Greece, was cut off by the invading Bulgarians, hostile to all Britishers, and even in the nominally Greek areas in the north some villages, particularly the settlements of White Russians, were pro-Axis. But the district to the east of Salonika, where the picturesque Chalcidike Pensinsula reaches, like Neptune's three-pronged trident, out into the Aegean towards Turkey, offered the shortest journey by sea to freedom. (The most northerly of the three peninsulas is commonly called Mount Athos and is famous as the seat of Greek monasticism.) Thus the men who had failed to find a way through to Turkey-in-Europe had a second chance of reaching Turkey-in-Asia by sea. But boats were rare, and when one was found it might not be able to take all the escapers waiting to sail.
A New Zealander, who had suffered the chagrin of missing a passage to Turkey, abandoned the north of Greece in favour of a more southern ‘escape route’ which he had heard was controlled by the Greek trunk-line telephone operators, and which was supposed to ship men away from somewhere in the Athens area. He walked by night; this is the custom among the Greeks themselves thanks to the daytime heat of the sun, so that the night traveller did not draw any special attention to himself, although he could not escape the clamours of the fierce dogs whose teeth were one of the hazards of the country for fugitives. He found the Mount Olympus area in the hands of Communist partisans who had attracted deserters of like mind from among the German and Italian occupation troops. He had begun by being guided, but somehow the guiding system broke down, and finally he was left at a loose end, out of touch with any sympathisers. His luck had nearly run out. Although he managed to convince a plain-clothes carabiniere (the Italians occupied southern Greece, the Germans most of the north) that he was a German simply by showing him his German-inscribed prisoner-of-war registration disc, the mayor of a village where he appealed for help promised him guides but instead produced two Greek policemen. He was arrested and handed over to the Italians.page 20
Greece was also a land of deluding promises. Greek sympathisers held out hopes of all sorts of help to escapers out of sheer amiability, and it was sometimes several weeks before their guests realised how little reliance could be placed in Greek promises. On the other hand the same Greeks, often miserably poor people, were as generous with the practical help—food, civilian clothing, secure shelter—which they actually could supply as they had been with promises of help beyond their power to give. One very poor family who slept on the floor of one of their two rooms had in the other room a fully made-up bed, which they kept only for possible visitors and which they gladly put at the disposal of a New Zealand escaper.
It was not easy to get a passage away from Greece. Although many small craft plied between the Greek islands and the mainland, they were strictly controlled, their fuel rationed, were guarded well by night, and at sea were liable to be stopped and questioned by Italian patrol boats. The owners were unwilling to sacrifice their livelihood and risk their necks by undertaking a forbidden voyage, and the prospect of a reward or a substantial sum in payment for the boat itself was of small account when set against the safety of their families. Yet one Greek was willing to attempt to take a party to Alexandria instead of the much shorter and easier voyage to Turkey, because he was afraid of the treatment he might receive from the Turks who have old quarrels with the Greeks.
The small party under Sergeant Redpath which reached the Greek mainland from Crete (as described above) found staunch friends there but had great difficulty in getting a boat. They were helped by many English-speaking Greeks in the area near Neapolis, where they hid after landing under fire. The local priest was a particular friend and he organised contributions to the cost of feeding the escapers and helped them to negotiate for the purchase of a launch, a project that eventually came to nothing. Meanwhile the Italian garrison in this area was actively seeking out British troops in hiding. The position became more and more precarious. The Italians carried out house to house searches while the forewarned escapers retired to caves nearby. With this increasing intimidation of the neighbourhood, the men realised that if they were to get a boat at all they would have to seize it by force.
Their first seizure of a vessel went smoothly enough, but unluckily the fuel tanks were empty: she had just finished a voyage. Later they boarded a caique of 150 tons and seized it at pistol point, but this too did not have the fuel to reach Egypt.
These two frustrated attempts showed the escapers the wisdom of acquiring a supply of diesel oil for themselves. Their third seizure of a ship went well. They—the party had now grown to about twenty—boarded a caique at night, shut up the Greek crew in their own cabins, and put to sea. They had fuel for thirty-six hours' sailing. Their navigation instruments were an army compass and a protractor, while their chart was a small-scale map of Europe. In order to pass the inshore waters unmolested, they left the swastika flag flying from the masthead. Here they had reckoned without the RAF, and they had the unpleasant experience of being bombed by their friends. Fortunately they were a small target and escaped damage. Later, after they had hauled down the Nazi flag and were obviously on an illegal course, they were bombed and machine-gunned four times by German aircraft. They ran out of fuel before sighting the coast of Egypt, but continued under sail. Although a storm damaged the sail, they reached the North African coast near Mersa Matruh after a five-day voyage.page 21
Lieutenant Thomas, whose escape from Salonika is mentioned earlier, made four unsuccessful attempts to get away while in hospital in Athens recovering from severe wounds suffered in the counter-attack at Galatas. The Germans asked the Australian medical officer in charge of the hospital ‘why there should be a combatant officer in a fit state to escape yet remaining in the hospital. He asked them to look at my leg. Now with the running around the wound had reopened, not painfully, but most spectacularly, and the German officers came over, shook hands with me and sent me back to bed.’ On his ingenious second attempt he ‘died’ from pneumonia and hoped to pass out of hospital in a coffin, but a German doctor decided to look at the corpse. Later in Salonika when his wound had healed, but before his strength had been fully restored, he devoted prolonged study to the defences of the camp, and finding a weakness, used it to escape. He threw himself on the mercy of a poor household on the outskirts of the town. These and later Greek hosts proved faithful and hospitable, though he had many rebuffs as well as welcomes in the course of several months' peregrinations in search of a passage to Turkey. On one occasion he collapsed in the middle of a village street and was found there by a Greek soldier who hid him in a remote hut. This was a bad village to go to for help, as the Germans had shortly before obliged the mayor to choose five young men whom they had shot as a punishment for the many British escapers who had used the village's boats. He found a haven of refuge on Mount Athos peninsula, though not an entirely secure one, as some monasteries, of White Russian monks, were pro-Axis and were said to have already betrayed escaped British prisoners.
On Easter Saturday 1942 he took advantage of the general preoccupation with religious observance to steal a boat, and put to sea with four companions, two Englishmen, a Russian pilot, and a Greek officer. They ran into a sharp storm which split their sail, nearly swamped the boat, and eventually drove them back about 60 miles to the coast of Athos near their starting point. Later, elsewhere in Greece, the second of two other attempts at stealing a boat was successful. After a voyage lengthened out to five days by unfavourable winds, his party landed in Turkey 80 miles north of Smyrna. Two weeks later he crossed the Turkish border into Syria, where the first troops he met were New Zealanders of his own battalion and the first officer he saw was his brother. Persistence had brought good luck in the end.
1 While lodged in a small civil jail in Athens, he noticed that the shower room had lockers large enough to hold a man. One night he hid in a locker and, on a signal from his fellow prisoners, got out and walked to the gate. After some moments in hiding near it, he passed out of the gate between the retreating backs of two sentries woodenly pacing up and down outside on regular, symmetrical beats.