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Second Attempts

page 508

Second Attempts

On 16 April 1945 Driver P. L. Winter (Div Pet Coy) came safely through the American lines in Germany. His first escape, from Galatas prison camp, had been easy. While two old Cretan women were throwing pieces of bread over the wire to the hungry soldiers, he and Driver H. F. Mace (Div Pet Coy) slipped unnoticed from the camp. A few weeks later the two looked miserably down on the camp; at their lowest in health and spirits they were returning to the imagined security of prison life. A passing Cretan was horrified at this and induced Winter to go with him to the village of Meskla, where he handed the New Zealander over to the care of a family. Mace continued on his way to Galatas, but it was not long before he too was talked out of his intention, though he had to go back to the camp a few months later to get hospital treatment for a bad attack of jaundice.

Winter and Private J. P. Smith (18 Bn) were captured by a German patrol. Back at Galatas camp the day-to-day round was relieved by the arrival of a shipload of sick and wounded New Zealanders from the battle of Sidi Rezegh in North Africa. At Salonika, en route to Germany, Winter sickened and was left out of the train drafts. He spent his time with the others talking and planning escapes. His chance came when returning from a working party; he dropped from the truck, ran off and hid in a cellar.

The same night he knocked at the door of a cottage to ask the way to the coast. The man of the house guided him back to a building in the city, and just in the nick of time Winter realised it was the police station. He moved along country tracks, was fed and sheltered by the Greeks, and finally reached the small village of Hierissos where, he was told, he could hire a boat passage. This was about April 1942. There were plenty of promises of boats in this and other villages but nothing ever came of them. He then started on a slow trek south. Once he was arrested as a vagabond and jailed for a few days. South of Olympus he was captured again. A youth acting as his guide took him to the mayor of a village, who, promising to help him, told him to wait in the café until his return. He returned with police and Winter was arrested.

Prison life was callous and brutal. The Italians tied handcuffs around Winter's legs, cooped him in a filthy cell for three days, and then sent him trussed up to the Larissa concentration camp. The place was indescribably dirty, lice-ridden, overcrowded; the inside guards carried heavy rubber whips. Torture was common. In the special compound Winter met Privates J. D. Ridge (19 Bn) and T. G. McCreath1 (20 Bn). Ridge had evaded capture at Corinth and had been free for some time, while McCreath had jumped the train on the way to Germany. Another New Zealander, Private C. Corney (25 Bn) who had escaped in Athens, joined them here. Soldiers convicted for espionage or sabotage were kept in the main compound with the Greeks, among them Private W. Ditchburn (25 Bn) and Gunner G. F. Mills (7 A-Tk Regt).

1 Escaped in Italy in 1943 and was mentioned in despatches.

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Winter and an English officer, Captain ‘Skipper’ Savage, who had been sentenced to 36 years' imprisonment for espionage, planned to escape during siesta time when the guards generally dozed off. On the day chosen they unpicked their way through the twenty feet of the barbed-wire entanglements, and were crawling over the open space to the outer wire when one of the guards woke up and forced them with shots to return the same way. The two were tied to posts and flogged—40 lashes with the heavy rubber whips on their bare backs.

The prisoners were tied in pairs and sent to Patras for shipping to Italy. The one bright spot was the comfort of meeting more New Zealanders. One of them, Private J. E. Wainwright (25 Bn), was well known for his artistry in annoying the guards. He even went so far as to organise a successful strike. Another New Zealander was Sapper J. L. Langstone (6 Fd Coy) who, passed over as dead by the Germans at Corinth, was nursed back to health by the Greeks. For most of the 16 months he was free he lived in a monastery with Private R. O. Petrie (19 Bn). In September 1942 Winter was shipped to Italy, and on the Italian capitulation in 1943 was sent on to Germany.

Acknowledgment: Narrative (unpublished) by P. L. Winter.

When Winter was returned to the prison camp at Galatas he heard sad news of his friend, Private J. A. McClements (18 Bn): ‘There had been a raid on the village of Meskla but all the soldiers staying there had been forewarned and had made for the hills. Jim McClements and others lived for a time in a cave, where finally [on 3 September 1941] they were found by the Germans. Jim McClements was at the mouth of the cave cooking over an open fire. There was a shot and those inside rushed out to see Jim, with blood running from a wound in his arm, standing with his hands raised facing a patrol of Germans. Another German fired with a tommy gun and Jim fell to the ground wounded through the chest. He was still alive and when the Germans came up he said, “Don't shoot”, whereupon a third German shot him through the head.’

Acknowledgment: Winter's narrative.

Private C. Corney (25 Bn) became skilled in the ways of an escaped soldier during the eight months he was free in Crete. But luck was against him when his broken Greek and strange accent (good enough to pass the ordinary German) gave him away to the Greek interpreter of a patrol. On the way to Germany his prison convoy stopped at the Athens transit camp, and from there he escaped with Privates J. R. Stuart and A. H. Zweibruck (19 Bn). In Athens Corney met a baker who said he knew of a submarine calling at the coast. The baker fixed a meeting place where Corney was to be picked up by car. The car took him straight to the Italian police headquarters.

At the ill-famed Averoff prison in which he was held for five months, Corney was annoyed by an Italian medical orderly called ‘Bianco’, a cripple, whose sadistic amusement was hitting prisoners with his stick. He met Private G. I. T. Tong (19 Bn) here and was distressed to see the large num- page 510 ber of running sores on his head and ears. Tong had been free in Greece for 16 months and the Italian police, thinking that he had something to do with the widespread espionage and sabotage, interrogated and bashed him mercilessly. They forced his arms through the slats of a chair, punched him on the ears with closed fists, and hammered him with a heavy wooden baton until it broke. At Larissa, the next camp, inhumanity and cruelty was still Corney's burden. He was there when his friend, Driver Winter, received 40 lashes for trying to escape; the following morning he saw an Italian sergeant ripping the bandages off Winter's back and expressing delight at the sight of the lacerated skin. From Patras, Corney was shipped to Italy to a prisoner-of-war camp. Zweibruck and Stuart were both recaptured and Stuart was later executed by the Italians.1

The Cretan family of Kandisachis in the village of Spaniakos looked after Private W. E. Wheeler (19 Bn) for about a year and a half. Soon after escaping from Galatas camp in June 1941, Wheeler and two other New Zealanders, Gunners E. J. P. Owen and R. A. Gover2 (both 5 Fd Regt) were guided to the village and remained unmolested until September 1941, when large German forces searched the island for escaped prisoners. This and other raids passed the New Zealanders over, thanks to the help given by the Cretans. With raids, informers, and bogus agents, times became hard and the Cretans a little jittery, as the Germans did not hesitate to shoot, burn, and imprison when they found anybody helping escaped soldiers. Yet all New Zealanders could be sure that a good Cretan was never a traitor.

A ship's captain offered to take a load of prisoners to Alexandria if they gave him enough money to buy a boat. This was done and the soldiers met at the appointed place. While waiting for darkness, they saw a German spotter plane crash into the sea in front of them and saw the pilot paddling to the shore in a rubber dinghy. Ten minutes later three helicopters whirred to a landing right beside the soldiers. They ran away and were sure that the pilots had seen them and had radioed back. Friends told Wheeler some days afterwards that the skipper had taken the boat to the Greek mainland.

At the end of October 1942 Wheeler went to a cave not far away, in which there were twenty soldiers, to discuss escape prospects. He stayed a day or so, but one morning the Germans made a lightning raid and captured the lot. Wheeler underwent a 24-hour interrogation by the Gestapo. He never left the room; he sat in the same chair, was allowed no rest, and as soon as one of the five questioners stopped another carried on the relentless chain.

Wheeler made three breaks from his German prison camp and was free for about eight weeks each time before he was recaptured. Just before Christmas 1944 he escaped into Czechoslovakia and was sheltered by a

1 See p. 518.

2 Escaped in Italy in 1943 and was mentioned in despatches.

page 511 family, members of a partisan organisation, until the arrival of the Russians in May 1945. He married a Czech girl; both went to England and from there came home to New Zealand.

In September 1941 a smuggler's boat carried Gunner W. J. Griffiths (5 Fd Regt) from Crete to Greece where, he thought, the chances of escape were good. Griffiths had spent four months in Crete scouring the beaches for a boat, but had had no luck. Greece was not much better, as he found out: ‘Spent some weeks with malaria and lost a good deal of constitution. Then had yellow jaundice and finished up living in a monastery in the mountains to recuperate….’

In June 1942 Griffiths went by sea to Athens where he lived with a family, moving around freely. A professor from the Athens University obtained a place for him on a boat going to Smyrna on 23 July 1942. The night before it was to sail, the Gestapo raided the house and took Griffiths away. He had been betrayed; the one and a half million drachmae reward for the capture of an escaped soldier was too much of a temptation for someone who knew his plans.

After two unsuccessful breaks from German prison camps, Griffiths got away on his third attempt and came through the American lines to safety.

Sergeant A. C. Barker (4 RMT) hid in Crete until September 1941. He then rowed over to Greece, where he and an Australian who had joined him lay up in a village until May 1942. Three carabinieri surprised them one night when they were taking a walk. They refused to surrender. The carabinieri opened fire and the escapers fired back and killed one. The Italians combed the countryside. The two were swift and elusive in dodging the patrols, but in July 1942 they were betrayed by pro-Axis Greeks.

Barker would not talk, or ‘confess’ as the Italians put it, and for five days the guards tortured him. They gave him no food or water, tied him to a chair and punched and kicked him throughout the days. The two ware moved to Xilocastron concentration camp, where they lived for three weeks in appalling conditions. In October 1942 Barker and the Australian appeared before a court which, after a farce of a trial, condemned them to death. The Italians chained them hand and foot for 24 days and then by the hands only for another seven days. On the way to Bari in a ship, they and other prisoners were chained in gangs of twelve. Bari prison, where they stayed a month, was filthy and crawling with lice; food was scarce and the prison staff stole much of it. At Sulmona prison Barker and the Australian were put in the dungeons and kept apart from the other prisoners. By this time Barker's sentence had been commuted to 30 years' imprisonment.

In September 1943 the prisoners rioted, the cells were opened, and Barker escaped into the hills near Pratola, where he hid for 20 days. He and two other soldiers found a guide who offered to take them down to our lines. They had a narrow shave once when they were stopped by Germans at Pietro in Valle and forced to dig gunpits along with thirty Italians. On 23 October 1943 Barker came through our lines at Castropignano. He was awarded the MM.

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During he fifteen months Driver E. J. A. Phelan (4 RMT) spent in Crete, he made 16 attempts to track down seaworthy boats. Twice he actually set out: the first time the boat sank under him and, on the other, the engine broke down. In a determined effort to catch him, the Germans terrorised the family and relatives of his Cretan friend, a robber in the Robin Hood style.

Phelan and four Australians, heavily armed, overpowered the crew of a large motor vessel and took it out to sea. When they pulled into the island of Gavdhos at dawn to repair the engine, two German planes machine-gunned the boat. German guards chased the soldiers across the island, caught them and sent them back to Crete, where they were grilled by the Gestapo for four weeks.

His next prison was in Athens. He was not there long before he made a break, reached the hills, and was cared for by a band of fugitive Greeks. They called themselves andartes (guerrillas) but, in fact, were an idle, drunken crowd living by stealing and by sponging on relatives; still, they looked after Phelan and never betrayed him. He was captured again when his fair complexion gave him away.

Phelan was moved to a prison camp in Germany. In the summer of 1943 he determined to escape. This was difficult: he was on the ‘black list’, was closely watched, and was not allowed to go out on working parties. He changed identity with another soldier and went to work in a cement factory close to the village of Lidice. The Czech workers there who ran an escape organisation listed him as an intending escaper. The organisation was destroyed when a recaptured Palestinian soldier turned informer. Fourteen of the underground group were shot.

Soon afterwards Phelan escaped on his own and travelled to Prague by a series of local workers' trains. One day he went to a cinema to keep out of the way. A propaganda film was screening and it was so full of Nazi strutting and fiction that Phelan laughed, whereupon a Gestapo agent sitting nearby arrested him for disrespect to the Reich. His real identity was discovered and back to camp he went for a spell in the punishment cells.

Phelan met another New Zealander, Sergeant B. J. Crowley (4 RMT), and both planned a further escape. Phelan's luck was out when he sickened and went to hospital. Crowley and an Englishman carried on and in the end reached Sweden. Phelan organised another escape party, this time with Driver E. Silverwood (4 RMT) and an English soldier. They made the break on 23 December 1943 and, posing as foreign workers, travelled by train to Berlin. During a bombing raid on the station they slipped unnoticed onto the train to Stettin, and on arrival there dodged the strict check by going out the back of the station. The escapers wandered around the outside of the heavily guarded waterfront looking for Swedish boats. After days of hide-and-seek a friendly Swede smuggled them on his boat and stowed them away until Stockholm was safely reached. Crowley was awarded the DCM, Phelan and Silverwood MMs.

Driver W. J. Siely (Pet Coy) was shocked by the brutality of the reprisals taken by the Germans on Cretans suspected of helping escaped soldiers. He page 513 hated to think that these people might have to suffer on his account, and although he escaped three times, this thought always made him return to the prison camp.

In October 1941 Siely was moved to Stalag VIIIB at Lamsdorf in Germany, where he posed as a corporal. In the summer of 1943 he helped 32 prisoners to escape from a working party at Stranberg but was frustrated in his own attempt by being arrested as an agitator. After a punishment of seven days in the cells, he was sent to Arbeitskommando 399 at Oberwichstein.

Here he filed the window bar in his billet and was free for four days. At the next working camp (Freiwaldau) he and two other soldiers prised open the trapdoor in the theatre of their Lager and managed to reach Olmutz, in Czechoslovakia, by train before being recaptured by the Gestapo. The next attempt was made at Parschnitz, where he was working on the railway track. On the first favourable opportunity Siely and another soldier went to a nearby shed and climbed through the rear window. Both walked across the Czechoslovak frontier, only to be betrayed by the wife of a Sudeten German whom they had asked for help.

At a cement factory in Munsterburg Siely and a British soldier made careful and thorough plans for escape. On 14 July 1944 they pulled a bar from the window of the washhouse in their billet; they then walked to the railway station and caught the train to Breslau. They travelled by train all the way to Stettin and their forged identity passes were never questioned.

In Stettin they met a Frenchman who hid them in his Lager. Soon they were negotiating with two Swedish seamen for a passage on a boat. On 24 July the Swedes smuggled the two soldiers and two Frenchmen on board and hid them in the airshaft of the main funnel. They stayed there for five days until clear of dangerous waters, when the captain was informed of their presence. The escapers were put ashore at Kalmar, in Sweden, and reached Stockholm on 1 August 1944. Siely was awarded the DCM.

On 21 December 1943 Private H. A. Hoare (23 Bn), who had been wounded and taken prisoner in Crete, climbed the fence of the Unterbenstatten (Austria) labour camp in daylight. He crossed the border of Hungary and within five days was in Budapest. There he was arrested and imprisoned in the old castle at Szigetvar which had been turned into an internment camp.

When the Germans marched into Hungary in March 1944, Hoare escaped from the castle but was caught three days later and sent to the prison at Zemun. Although he was most persistent in cutting the barbed wire entanglement, he was always unlucky to be caught in the act. One day Allied bombers came over and destroyed, among other places, the prison camp. When the bombers had finished and the danger was over, Hoare and two other prisoners escaped.

The patriot forces in the locality took the escapers under their wing. Hoare repaid their friendship by serving with them for three months. On 20 July 1944 a plane took him back to Allied lines in Italy. He was awarded the MM.

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Private P. E. Minogue (20 Bn) first escaped from a party working at the stables in Salonika.

‘One day there were no guards about, so I dropped my broom and walked down the road. I walked very slowly to the corner, then took to my heels and only stopped when out of breath. A few minutes later a woman from a house beckoned me. I went in and she gave me clothes to change into. She went out into the street and beckoned me again. I followed for half a mile when another woman took over. She led me to her home where her family gave me food and money. An hour later the same woman guided me to the house of Madame Lappa and I met two Aussies and three Tommies there. That night I went to a family to stay— their names were Costa and his wife, Koola, and their son, George. It was like heaven, I had everything.

‘On the twelfth night George said, “Hurry, get ready, you are going to Cairo.” He led me to another house and I saw the Aussies and Tommies again. Madame Lappa, the brains of the outfit, came and told us we were going on a submarine. She guided us to the outside of the town where she handed us over to two men. These men took us up to the third floor of a big building by the docks. One asked us if we would like coffee or whiskey. We said, “whiskey”. He produced a bottle of Scotch and we were drinking a toast to success when we heard “Hands up!” What a shock, there at the door were two Gestapo men with guns out. I've seen this sort of thing in the pictures but never dreamed it would happen to me.’

Back at Salonika prison camp Minogue joined his friend, Private P. R. Blunden (20 Bn), and several others who had worked in the stables. They knew they were going to Germany by train and they prepared for escape by collecting all sorts of handy tools.

‘At six when it was dusk we cut a hole in the side of the cattle truck, put a hand through, undid the wire holding the catch and pushed the door open. We argued about who was going first and last, so we cut the cards. There were twelve altogether, I drew fourth place and the train was going twenty-five miles an hour when I jumped. Peter and I went back to Salonika to warn the people about the submarine. Next afternoon we saw our friends and were just in time to save twenty soldiers from the submarine fraud.

‘Madame Lappa took us to Madame Tousula's home where we stayed for six months. While there we became very friendly with Bill Flint [Private W. Flint, 18 Bn] who was living at another house. Food was soon extremely hard to get in Salonika and I moved back to Costa and Koola because two in one home was too much of a struggle. Costa and Koola were going short for me and I didn't like that. One day I said I was going to visit Peter; instead I hit the trail out of town. I walked all night. I passed through a village at two in the morning when a Bulgarian grabbed me and handed me over to the police.’

Minogue found out that of the twelve who had escaped Blunden was the only one who was still free. In the camp Minogue took part in digging a tunnel under the barracks of the camp leader (a British sergeant-major). It was almost finished when the guards rushed in and went straight to it. page 515 The soldiers were sure that the sergeant-major, a toady of the Germans, had betrayed them. On yet another train journey to Germany Minogue escaped, this time with seven others. He and an Australian named Sid decided to walk down through Greece and find a boat to take them to Turkey. The Australian insisted on going into a strange village in daylight and the people thought they were Germans posing as escaped prisoners. The Greeks did eventually find out who they were but only when it was too late to do anything. The soldiers were then in the custody of the police and the Gestapo had been notified.

Salonika prison closed down and the few prisoners left were locked in cattle trucks for the trip to Germany. The sergeant-major was there—he travelled in the carriage with the Germans—and he suggested that those who wanted to escape should travel in the second truck.

‘Late that night we were sawing away when the train suddenly stopped and guards ran up to us and shone torches on the hole. They battened up the hole and took our saw but we still had a file. Once everything appeared settled, we filed the wire off the window. Johnny Leach [Gunner J. J. Leach, 4 Fd Regt] was second through the window. I was about to follow when the train slowed down and, after a few minutes, stopped. The guards came down the left side, spotted Johnny, and started running. Johnny ran around the back of the truck to the other side up past where we were. Then the guards on the right side saw him; Johnny turned again to run and they shot him in the back. He lay outside our window and we heard him say that they had got him in the back and then had put the boot in. He lived five minutes. They took us out of our truck and put us in the other. And so I landed in Germany.’

Eight months later Flint arrived in the prison camp and Minogue learnt of the happenings in Salonika. Blunden was taken off Greece a few weeks after Minogue had left Costa's house. Within a short time of this, the Gestapo raided Blunden's old place and Flint was eventually tracked down. Flint heard that the Greek women, Lappa and Tousula, and also several others were sent to German concentration camps.

‘Bill Flint and I were cobbers all through Germany. He would escape, get picked up, do a stretch in the cells, and away again he would go. I know he was away about eight times. We had a final flutter towards the end of the war and managed to come out through Prague and Pilsen.’1

1 Blunden received the MM for his escape and Leach, who was killed on 24 Apr 1942, was awarded posthumous mention in despatches.