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Journey Towards Christmas

Chapter 7 — Island Interlude

page 103

Chapter 7
Island Interlude

WE set off in fairly good order from Suda but after we had marched a few hundred yards the column began to go to pieces. The accumulated tiredness of days was having its effect on us and the 12-hour trip from Greece to Crete had been anything but a pleasure cruise. The Glengyle, carrying Company headquarters, Workshops, and some of the section drivers, had been attacked during the morning, one bomb landing near enough to buckle plates and cause interior damage, against which the Navy had claimed one plane destroyed. Bombs at sea, we had discovered, were far more terrifying than bombs ashore.

Soon men started to drop out and sit down in the cool on the low stone wall beside the lane. Some took off their boots; others opened packets of biscuits and tins of sardines. More men fell out when we came to a little wineshop and no effort was made to stop them. Presently what was left of our column, with the exception of a hardy twenty or thirty who were marching in the lead with Captain Moon, broke into small groups, each going its own pace. When they came to a spot that looked pleasant they halted and made camp. Everyone was tired but happy to be in Crete.

Just before dusk the men who had carried on for an extra mile or so were rewarded by coming to a field kitchen by the roadside. Here you could collect a cup of tea and something to eat. Soon it was dark and the flames from the cooks' fires, leaping and dancing beneath the big dixies, threw a ruddy glow on the faces of the men near them. Few talked or laughed and everyone waited patiently in the long queues as men who are already drenched wait patiently in a rainstorm. We were soaked through with tiredness.

Two searchlights fingered a silver cloud-bank and there was a distant thump but hardly anyone took cover. Hot tea first, then sleep—that was the programme.

By noon the following day all but a few of our drivers had reported at the assembly area, which was three miles west of the town of Canea. They arrived in twos and threes, dripping with page 104 sweat and caked from head to foot with white dust. On the way in they passed a clear pool in which people were laughing, splashing, and laundering their underclothes. Soon the pool was full.

The area, of course, consisted only of rows of olive trees festooned with grey blankets. Scores of little fires were burning beneath them and on every fire there was a battered tin with shaving water in it. We had the rest of the day in which to get cleaned up and that night we had another sound sleep.

Captain Torbet's detachment went straight to Egypt and Major McGuire was given a battalion composed of the combined NZASC personnel in Crete. The rest of us were together in one area by the beginning of May but seldom were we in the same place for two nights running.

During our first four or five days on the island we did little except march, and when we were not marching we were sitting under the olive trees waiting to march or lying down under them exhausted after marching. We marched along the coast road between Canea and the Maleme airfield, casting longing glances at the dark-purple sea. We marched along narrow by-ways, kicking up the white dust with our boots—it was like flour underfoot—until the olive trees by the roadside were pale as powder-puffs. Each night we had a different olive grove for our home and a different stream for our wash-place.

We were infantry now (it exhilarated and disturbed us) and the purpose of this marching, as we saw it, was to get us fit and at the same time confuse reconnaissance pilots.

Our officers—true they were not as heavily laden as we were, their bedrolls, so it seemed, being shifted from place to place by mysterious agencies: donkeys, perhaps, were at the bottom of it—marched with us. In the lead would be Captain Moon, looking as spruce and nonchalant as though he had stepped from the white portico of the old home to give an order to his coloured overseer, and in the rear Second-Lieutenant Toogood, larding the ground like Falstaff but always ready with a word of encouragement or abuse and never too exhausted to join battle with his verbal spar- page 105 ring partner, Alan Falconer.1 Tagging along behind, taking their time because they were encumbered with Bren guns and magazines, came the ack-ack crews. Jim Stanley still had his anti-tank rifle.

We grumbled a good deal, of course, but most of our grumbles were merely a concession to good form. We were fit, the weather was glorious, and we were more than a little pleased with ourselves. The thunder had roared, the lightning danced, and we were hardly any the worse for it. Some had been wounded, some had been taken prisoner, and some were missing, but only one had been killed—no, two; for we counted Norman Chissell.2

Late on 1 May, to everyone's distress, the sections were split up, though the unit remained intact. The NZASC Battalion had been absorbed into Oakes Force, which consisted of artillerymen without guns and drivers without vehicles. We were to operate under our own officers in three infantry companies.

We were reshuffled and the next day we marched to a position in the hills about a mile north of Galatas. The area Oakes Force had been given to defend extended roughly from the western outskirts of Galatas to the coast, and we were more or less in the middle of it. Facing north, we overlooked the sea and the tents of the 7th General Hospital; facing south-east, the white buildings and walled compounds of the prison of Aghya. A quarter of an hour up a winding lane took us to the village of Galatas and a good afternoon's walk to Canea. These names meant nothing to anyone at the time.

Here we settled down as infantry. We established ack-ack posts, kept paratroop watches by day, posted strong pickets at night, and at dawn sent out patrols and stood to arms. We had no shovels and no wire and not all of us had rifles. A few were without overcoats, and in the chill of the early morning when the white mists were mounting beneath the olive trees you were liable to be challenged by a figure in a grey blanket with a scarlet stripe. A head-dress of turkey feathers and the illusion would have been complete

Some of us pretended to be bored, adopting the attitude that page 106 tools and engines were our business—not this infantry nonsense. But most of us played the new game with tremendous zest.

Every morning half the unit had leave to go swimming or to visit Galatas and in the afternoon the other half was free. On fine days—and the weather was mostly fine—it was a delightful life, but we were uncomfortable when it rained. Then there was nothing for it but to crouch shivering in rough shelters made from groundsheets and green barley blades and watch the miserable thin rain—it seldom did more than drizzle—prick down like piano wire.

This open-air life made us desperately hungry and the rations, unfortunately, were slender. The cooks were using open fires—gathering wood was one of our daily jobs—and they had no gear except a few dixies and some cut-down petrol tins, but most of them went to a lot of trouble to make the bully-beef stews appetising. They added herbs and vegetables, purchased from a common fund or stolen, and Mark Brown3 (B Section) cooked some delicious meals. The helpings were sometimes smaller than he could have wished but into the serving of them he never put less than his whole heart. From Galatas almost to the sea he could be heard calling his men to breakfast, and drowsy sentries would grip their rifles thinking the Germans had come. As the queue lengthened Mark's barrage of abuse would lift to include each new arrival—he knew everyone in the company—as he dolloped the steaming mess into a collection of old tins. Most of us had a mug or a spoon but few had a complete set of mess gear and some had nothing. Any dixies there were had to do double or treble duty.

We were hungry all the time. Grapes were all about us but they were a few weeks short of being ripe. However, we raided the local potato patches and we killed pigeons. Stuffed with onions and bread-crumbs they were delicious.

The days slipped quickly by. Looked back on they seem all blue and gold. In spite of our many duties we were able to spend hours on the beach and hours in the little wineshops fronting the Mediterranean. For a hundred drachmae you could get as drunk as a lord, but it was more fun to stay sober and watch the Cretan fishermen at work in the calm waters between the mainland and page 107 Theodoroi Island. Towards evening, carrying their catch—red mullet and small silver fish—they would call in for wine. Many of them wore wonderful embroidered waistcoats and a few wore gold ear-rings—like the seafaring rat in the Wind in the Willows, whom they rather resembled. To go with the wine there were little dishes of baked cuttle-fish, chopped egg and tomato, and—most delicious of all—rice wrapped in vine leaves and fried in oil with paprika.

Always at this hour the watch for paratroops was intensified. Throughout the lovely May evenings the watchers sat in pairs on the highest knolls in the brigade area, searching the sky and the surrounding country. The olive trees stretched away in every direction like toy soldiers, parting here and there to allow room for a vineyard, green and tender with young vines, or a square orange grove guarded by white walls. In the background, so massive that the country brushed up to them over the foothills appeared toy-like, were the White Mountains, all grey and purple and dark green until you reached the snow line. On their western slopes the sunlight lay thick and flat as though it had been put on with a paint brush—like yellow varnish. Little white boxes of houses stood out clearly among the green and gold, just a cluster of them here and there, with the biggest cluster, Galatas, close at hand.

The whole countryside looked like a wonderful old carpet that has lain for long years in a busy, sunny room. The colours, still warm and glowing, were like the ghosts of colours once unbelievably brilliant. Everything had a look of long use. Millions of hands had worn the well smooth; millions of feet had hardened the clay path. Every house and cottage—the feeling was inescapable—was so saturated with family life that the house was the family.

Here the pattern of life had gone on unchanged and unbroken, threaded through by the same customs, the same smells of cooking, the same unaltering round—water to be got from the well and fish from the sea, goats to be milked, grapes to be gathered in and wine pressed out in due season—since Minos was a king in Crete and Theseus slew the Minotaur and Deadalus and Icarus set out to fly to Italy. We were awed by the amount of living that had been done in one narrow island, by the tomes of history and legend that were one island's story—awed and comforted. Centuries of page 108 struggle and catastrophe and darkness, and the children still played in the streets and there was smoke in the chimneys and the girls put on their pretty dresses on Sunday. These things persisted in spite of Minotaurs and Luftwaffes.

On 8 May we left our rifles and ammunition for Oakes Force and marched first to a transit camp east of Galatas and then to one a mile or so south-west of Canea. We were told we should be there for a few hours but the days slipped past and we were still in Crete.

Having no arms we did no guard duties, and as we were on a moment's notice to move there was no leave. This left us unlimited time for doing what we could to make ourselves more comfortable or less hungry. Greek pedlars came round with trays of cakes and pastries and as long as our drachmae lasted we bought them, but they were not cheap. We built shelters of rushes and groundsheets and talked interminably about our experiences in Greece. And we lay under the olive trees, content in the sunshine.

When dusk gathered we built fierce bonfires. Their life was limited to about half an hour because of the blackout, so we built them more for cheerfulness than for warmth. Sometimes a water bottle of red wine would pass from hand to hand and then there would be singing, much to the disgust of Winston Churchill, A Section's old bulldog. He would gaze into the flames with an expression incredibly wise, mournful, and disapproving, and when the concert ended, as it did invariably, to the strains of ‘Ole King Farouk’ (our version—not a respectful one—of the Egyptian national anthem), he would yawn with relief, showing his yellow, broken stumps.

Most of us turned in soon after dark, to lie talking for a long while or gazing up under the enormous yellow moon at a tangle of olive branches, beautiful and complicated as a rood-screen. Often we heard aircraft, and then someone would yell out, simulating panic: ‘Don't look up, boys. Stop smiling, that man with the gold teeth.’ The aircraft would go back to Greece, the talk die down, and a hush fall over the whole island, enabling you to sort out and separate from one another all the small noises of the night: the munching of grass from the tiny erratic tolling of a goat page 109 bell, and both from the far hiss of waves. The thin moaning that had troubled you for some time would identify itself as drunken singing. And with the increased silence (as though sound could impede scent) smells became clearer—from the hills the clean smell of thyme, from the grass a sweetness of dew, from our blankets a sour, sickish smell, and from the beaches, faint but discernible, a lovely suggestion of wet shingle, boats, lobster pots. And sleep would come.

Sometimes we were woken by the sound of strafing, and whenever the harbour was bombed the ground stirred under our ribs as though the island had coughed. Once we awoke to see a plane diving down the white beam of a searchlight, its guns firing.

They were happy and healthy days and the war situation gave us no uneasiness at all. The official news—a neighbouring British medical unit had a wireless set—was mostly bad: it told of heavy night raids on Britain; but from sources within Crete, the workings of which have never been explained satisfactorily, we were supplied with good tidings, and false and genuine news became inextricably mixed. Berlin was in ruins and Hitler had asked Churchill for three days in which to bury his dead. On being refused he had threatened to use gas and Churchill had replied: ‘Go right ahead. That's just the excuse we want. We've got something that'll finish the war in three weeks.’ None of us had actually heard the broadcast of this remarkable exchange but several of us knew people who had. We were sceptical, of course, but the story had its effect and we preferred it to the official news. It was better, at any rate, than Lord Haw-Haw's melodramatic gloating over what he called the Island of Doom.

Captain G. A. Hook4 (Supply Column) and Captain Moon (acting officer commanding Ammunition Company) stood under an olive tree and watched Father Jim Henley5 (NZASC chaplain) spin a coin. The matter at issue was whether we should go to Egypt or stay in Crete.

Originally the intention had been to evacuate both the Supply page 110 Column and the Ammunition Company in the Nieuw Zeeland but the available space had been reduced unexpectedly and it had been decided to embark either the whole of the larger unit, the Supply Column (less certain details that would have to remain in Crete to administer the detail issue depot), or the whole of the Ammunition Company plus the Supply Column's workshops and specialist personnel. But which was it to be?

Father Henley took a coin from his pocket and spun it, Captain Moon calling heads. Heads it was.

Accordingly, on 14 May, at half past one in the afternoon, we set out for Suda.

We went aboard the Nieuw Zeeland late in the evening and at dusk she began sidling into the stream. The gap between her side and the wharf widened like a slow yawn, and then, just as the slack water was beginning to ruffle, a man pounded on to the wharf. Without hesitating, he flung his revolver to someone on the weather deck and made a flat gangling dive. He came up gasping and spluttering and was dragged aboard at the end of a life-line. We laughed and clapped and gazed again at the lonely diminishing figures still standing on the wharf while the beautiful island, like an island in an old story, melted into the twilight behind them. The incident had been very dramatic—the revolver flying through the air, the plunge into the black water, the widening ripples, the gasping, spluttering swimmer being dragged aboard—and we knew now that we had witnessed an escape. We too, perhaps, were escaping.6

We knew now that the Germans would come—tomorrow or in a week's time. Captain Moon, perhaps, had known all along. Anyhow, the coin which Father Henley had tossed was in his pocket. He was keeping it as a souvenir.

The Nieuw Zeeland took us safely to Port Said, which was reached at two in the afternoon on 16 May. We waited by a railway siding until ten that night, arriving in Helwan Camp at breakfast-time the next morning. On the morning after that we took part in a cere- page 111 monial parade for the Prime Minister of New Zealand, the Rt. Hon. Peter Fraser.

We had nothing in common any longer with the gipsy company that had lived in rags under the olive trees. Our island days were like a dream and it was as though we had never been away. Under the newly risen sun—it would be a scorcher later on—we stood stiffly to attention. Everything we wore, from boots to despised sun helmets, was brand-new. We were clean, shaved, regimented, and—for the moment—bored.

1 Cpl A. Falconer; truck driver; Wanganui; born Leuchars, Fifeshire, Scotland, 25 Nov 1916.

2 At that time we were unaware that Alan Bradbury had been killed and two sub-sections captured. Our casualties in Greece were: killed 2; wounded 12; missing 31; Total 45. The following were captured as a result of wounds, injuries, or sickness: Sgt Robin Hood, Dave Adams, Charlie Black, Alan Bush, ‘Kolynos’ Carroll, Dave Forbes, Barney George, Jim Nichols, Fred Wells, and Harry Wishaw.

3 Cpl J. M. Brown; cook; Rotorua; born Wanganui, 11 Jul 1900.

4 Capt G. A. Hook; motor mechanic; Hastings; born Marton, 10 Jan 1905; p.w. 2 Jun 1941.

5 Rev. Fr. J. F. Henley, CF; Roman Catholic priest; Eltham; born Palmerston North, 10 Sep 1903.

6 We left behind Capt H. A. Rowe (posted to unit 27 Mar 41: attached to Supply Column 27 Apr 41), Lauris Newfield (his batman-driver), Cpl Keith Smith (sick), and Jim Winstanley and Stan Barrow (missing when we embarked).