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Via Turkey

Via Turkey

Escaping after capture in Crete and imprisonment in Salonika, Private E. A. Howard (19 Bn) was for some time sheltered by the monks on Athos Peninsula in Greece. He and four other soldiers searched the peninsula for boats. Twice they set out in stolen craft, but each time the wind changed and blew them back. The party, grown to thirteen, bought a sailing boat for 24,000 drachmae, donated by Greek friends, and crossed to Lemnos, a German-occupied island. Here the boatman left them stranded. As there was little cover, the men split up into smaller parties. After 14 days Howard and his four companions were lucky to find a derelict rowing boat and they immediately pushed off for the Turkish island of Imbros, only twelve miles away. The boat leaked like a sieve and the men not rowing had to spend the 17 hours of the voyage in baling. At Imbros they gave themselves up to the Turkish police who, after a series of interrogations, handed them over to the care of the British Consul.

Howard, who was awarded the MM, was killed in action in the Western Desert on 21 July 1942.

Lance-Corporal W. T. F. Buchanan and Private J. M. R. Brand (both 23 Bn) were captured in Crete and with fellow-prisoners spent a month tunnelling out of the Salonika prison camp. They prised open a trapdoor over a cellar, dug three and a half feet down in the ground and tunnelled for thirty feet with a bread knife. Fourteen men altogether went through the tunnel. With five other escapers they walked to Athos Peninsula, where a Greek who had been 17 years in Australia befriended them. The Greek watched a beach where there were two boats and reported the habits of the boatmen to the soldiers. One night they stole the marked boat and also page 502 kidnapped the owner to stop him giving away the escape to the Germans. But his misery and his continual prayer, ‘Have mercy, Mother of Christ’, induced them to row back and put him ashore.

The boat made ten miles the first night and was allowed to drift the following day to give the appearance of a fishing craft. At night they set out to pass between the islands of Lemnos and Imbros but a storm blew them well away. They rowed for the island of Samothrace and were about to land when a Greek told them there were Bulgarian troops nearby. They rowed to another part of the island and were again warned away by another Greek. As they turned the boat around, Bulgarian soldiers fired at them with rifles.

The escapers rowed north and landed at Lithos in Turkey. The next three days they covered 30 miles in nine different bullock wagons until they reached Kesan, directly north of the Gallipoli peninsula. The following day the police handed them over to the Greek consul, who arranged the first step of their journey back to our lines. Brand, who was awarded the MM, was killed in action in the Western Desert on 17 December 1942; Buchanan later won the MM in Tunisia and was also mentioned in despatches.

Shortly after arriving in Athens prison hospital from Crete, Second-Lieutenant W. B. Thomas (23 Bn) nearly had his badly wounded leg amputated but at the last minute the leg was operated on and saved. In August 1941 Thomas and one of the men from his old platoon, Private S. W. J. Schroder, DCM, cut the prison wire and ran for it, but they did not get far. Thomas next tried to escape by hiding in the ration truck but was seen. He then pretended to be dead in the hope that he would be carried out of the camp in a coffin, but by this time the Germans knew him too well. The close watch on him hampered his attempts, so he induced the doctors to pass him as fit to go to a prison camp where his chances of escape would be better.

Salonika prison was surrounded by a forest of barbed wire and was also heavily guarded. Thomas found it just as filthy and wretched as had many other New Zealanders. He found a weak spot in the barrier—a barrack by the fence corner with a strongly barred and wired door on the roadside. Three nights running he carefully undid the fastenings, and on the fourth he made a clean break. With much difficulty he reached a village where he found WO II R. H. Thomson, DCM (4 RMT) and Private J. C. Mann (18 Bn), who were sick and resting for the winter. He stayed a few weeks with them and then on the way back became so weak that he almost collapsed when he reached the coast. Friendly Greeks nursed him back to health. His life became a succession of excursions for boats and confinements to bed. There was always some compassionate person at hand to care for him. At last he reached Mount Athos—the Holy Mountain— the famous religious sanctuary of Greece; he had been told that this was the best place to try to get a boat. The monks were good to him; when he was sick, as he often was from his bad leg, they never failed to look after him.

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In one attempt Thomas collected a party of two British soldiers, one Russian, and two Greeks and stole a boat. Next day they hid the boat in a sheltered bay where one of the Greeks left them. That night the party made good progress until a sudden storm blew up. The boat, out of control and full of water, was tossed about like a cork by the mountainous seas. The storm continued on the next day and threw them back to the land, ten miles from where they started. Exhausted, and glad to be safe, they slept. The local police sergeant, a personal friend, came by night and told Thomas that he would be back in his official capacity on the morrow to arrest them—he expected not to find them then. Another time Thomas and the two British soldiers stole a boat from an open beach but forgot to put in the bung. Finally he managed to reach Turkey and was soon back with the New Zealanders.

His escape ended in a pleasant surprise. In May 1942 he walked across the Turkish border into Syria directly into the outposts of his own battalion, actually from his brother's company.

Acknowledgment: W. B. Thomas, Dare to be Free (Wingate, London, 1951).

Driver E. F. Foley (4 RMT) hid in the hill village of Fournes for four weeks until the Germans burnt and ravaged the district in reprisals. He broke through the cordon and from then on had to be on the alert to dodge the relentless German drives. Late in 1941 Foley joined the escapers at Treis Ekklisies waiting for a boat, only to have his hopes dashed when the British special service agent told the party to scatter to safety. In March 1942 Foley unluckily walked into several German soldiers on the road and was taken prisoner.

As soon as he arrived at the port of Piraeus on 6 April 1942 he gave the guard the slip and was immediately sheltered by a Greek family. Next day he took the ‘Metro’ to Athens, where the escape organisation arranged a passage for him on a boat bound for Turkey. A mixed party of thirty left from near Porto Rafti on 2 May 1942 and after seven days at sea (four without food or water) reached Turkey safely. Foley was awarded the MM.

Signalman F. Amos (Div Sigs) escaped twice from the Galatas camp on Crete, reached the Peloponnese in a caique, and was helped there by Greek villagers. After a series of escapes from Italian troops and pro-Axis collaborators, he lived for eight months in late 1942 and early 1943 in a small hiding place under a flagstone in the floor of a cottage. His Greek friends lowered food down to him and he passed his time learning Greek from a child's primer book. The escape organisation smuggled him by caique to Turkey in June 1943. He was mentioned in despatches.