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Those who Died

Those who Died

In July 1941 Private C. C. Nicholl (19 Bn) and Private W. Gilby, an Australian, saw a boat well out to sea. Thinking that there might be people on it who, like themselves, might want to escape from Crete, they piled their gear on the beach and swam out to it. They grasped the side and in broken English and by signs asked the two Greeks on board to take them to North Africa. The Greeks made no move to pull them in; they talked, then screamed, and finally they picked up sticks and hit the soldiers until they had to break away.

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They swam back to the beach but were no sooner there than Nicholl collapsed. Gilby dressed him and watched him during the night. By morning he knew that he would have to get him to shelter and aid. Nicholl was in agony with severe pains in his stomach. They set out over the mountains but Nicholl was too weak and in too much pain to walk any distance. Gilby then carried him for eight miles to a village where there were Germans. The sick man was immediately put to bed. Gilby sat beside him all the time and was with him when he died two days later.1 Gilby went back to the prison camp.

In September 1941 Gunner O. Cole (5 Fd Regt), Private F. M. Blank (23 Bn), and four other soldiers hid in a gully when they heard the Germans were making a drive to round up soldiers still free in Crete. The Germans surrounded the gully and the soldiers, seeing that they did not have a chance, came out with their hands up. The Germans lined them up. On a signal from the officer, a guard fired a burst from his tommy gun and shot two of the men. Cole was killed outright, as was also an unknown soldier.

On the morning of 25 August 1941 three escaped New Zealanders lay down to rest in a dry creek bed in Crete. A German patrol surrounded them and opened fire; the escapers surrendered. Gunner R. G. Dry (5 Fd Regt) was badly wounded and the others dressed his wounds. The Germans tied the hands of the two unwounded New Zealanders, Driver C. F. H. Snell (4 RMT) and Sergeant S. H. Richards (19 Army Tps), and refused their offer to carry Dry between them.

Some of the Germans stayed behind with Dry. The others moved on with the prisoners and came to the top of the ridge. There Snell and Richards heard shots coming from the direction of the creek bed. The Germans who had stayed behind caught up; all the guards then stopped and passed a New Zealand army paybook around from hand to hand. In June 1942 another prisoner of war reported that Dry had been shot and killed while escaping. Dry was awarded posthumous mention in despatches.

On 4 March 1942 Corporal L. D. L. Houghton (23 Bn) was fatally shot while trying to escape from the Larissa prison camp. Houghton, who had fought in Crete, was recaptured in the vicinity of Larissa on 17 February 1942.

The Greek Red Cross sent a letter to New Zealand describing his burial and the last honours paid to him:

‘He was buried at the Larissa cemetery. His funeral was accompanied by an Italian brigade [sic] under a N.C.O., two priests and General Artes, the Larissa president of the Greek Red Cross, as well as the volunteer Red Cross nurses of that town. The Greek Red Cross will put up a cross on his grave with his name and rank.’

Nothing is known about Houghton's experiences while free. He was awarded posthumous mention in despatches.

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Captain J. L. Harrison (18 Bn), captured in Crete, escaped on the way to Germany but was recaptured in 1942 and spent a hard time in the Averoff prison in Athens. He and Corporal F. I. A. Woollams (19 Bn) were put on the Citta di Genova, carrying a small number of prisoners and many Italian troops to Italy. On 21 January 1943 she was torpedoed 18 miles off the coast of Albania. Their cabin filled with water in a matter of seconds and Woollams fought his way out against the inrush of water. On deck he looked for Harrison but could not find him in the confusion.

Woollams managed to get a place in a lifeboat already overloaded with Italians and Greeks; the next morning they were picked up by an Italian gunboat. The whole area was searched and all survivors rescued but Harrison was not among them.

Acknowledgment: F. I. A. Woollams, Corintb and All That (A. H. and A. W. Reed, Wellington).

In an Italian prison camp Private A. B. Wright (18 Bn), who had been captured in Crete, made careful preparations for escape. He collected and saved food, had a wire-cutting tool, and copied a map of Italy and the Balkans. The night of 8 February 1942 was black and stormy and it was snowing—the night Wright was waiting for. He picked a shaded patch of the barbed wire between two searchlights, lay low until the outside patrol had passed, then cut a way through the first fence. An inside sentry spotted him and fired without warning. Wright died almost immediately.

Wright was awarded posthumous mention in despatches.

On 7 February 1943 Private J. R. Stuart (19 Bn) was executed in Athens by the Italians on the charge of ‘political conspiracy, political defeatism, holding of arms and violence against the military.’

Stuart was badly wounded in Crete, but early in 1942 when well enough he escaped in Athens from a prison convoy bound for Germany. Little is known of his life in Greece. When he was recaptured he was immediately recognised by the Italians as an escaped prisoner who had resisted arrest. In May 1942 an Italian secret policeman stopped Stuart and his friend Tony Handkinson, a civil internee, in an Athens street. There was a gun fight and the Italian was wounded in the leg. Handkinson was caught at the same time and both stood trial before an Italian military tribunal. They were condemned to death by shooting.

While waiting trial Stuart was locked up in the dreaded Averoff civil prison. He was cruelly treated but bore his suffering with courage and never gave way to despair. Once he and a Commando captain were given 30 lashes for attempting to escape. Another time Stuart and his cell mate, both desperate with hunger, were badly beaten by the guard. Stuart had a severe internal haemorrhage and was left in an underground cell for weeks. After another attempt he was beaten in his cell every two hours and the floor was flooded with water to stop him resting.

Corporal F. I. A. Woollams heard of Stuart when he came to Averoff prison and later had a talk with him. ‘When I met him he was still suffering from severely mutilated hands and arms. He showed me his legs, which were now a queer colour, having been absolutely blue…’ page 518 The sight of Stuart was saddening. ‘Jack Stuart and his mate (in an attempted escape) were now spending their time in and out of hospital. They both looked wrecks, and could only creep about like very old men. Jack was the worst case of the two….’

At dawn on 7 February 1943 Stuart was taken from his cell and shot. The prisoners heard that he was steadfast and died bravely. The Director of Averoff prison saw the execution and told the Swiss Chargé d'Affaires how impressed he was by Stuart's attitude and bravery.

Acknowledgment: Corintb and All That.

1 On 7 July 1941.