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To Greece

The Escape Parties

The Escape Parties

The position was very different for those members of Allen Force who had been unable to reach the new positions. Many had been forced to surrender and others were still making desperate efforts to move through the occupied areas. Those who did so within the next few days eventually left Greece with the main convoys; others, less fortunate, had to endure long journeys by way of Crete, Cyprus or even Turkey.

Thus Major Harding, who had been following the last two trucks of 21 Battalion, turned eastwards from the ambush and, like many others, followed a road which proved to be blind. When forced to leave his bogged pick-up he trudged south down the eastern side of Lake Voiviis, collecting as he went eight Australians and twenty-two men from 21 Battalion. Late on 20 April when the almost exhausted party was about ten miles from Almiros, Harding went on alone, part of the way on horseback, part of the way with three Australians in a commandeered taxi, and finally in a van which reached Headquarters 5 Brigade at Molos on the morning of 21 April. The probable movements of the 21 Battalion group were explained, possible moves by the Navy to pick up the parties were suggested and two boats were taken across the bay to pick up4 his party.

4 Cody, p. 75: ‘However, two boats were taken across the bay by engineers to pick up the rest of Harding's party.’

page 344

A smaller party, Lance-Sergeant Anderson1 and four other ranks, took a little longer to get clear. They walked through to the Volos area, stole a boat and sailed down the coast to join the battalion at Thermopylae just before it moved south to the embarkation beaches.

Other parties had more difficulty in getting through to the coast and in finding shipping to take them behind the lines at Thermopylae. From the road block outside Larisa Lieutenant Staveley, with one Australian and nine New Zealanders, the majority from 4 Field Regiment, had crossed the swamp to the east and had been taken by a Greek across Lake Voiviis. They reached Volos on the morning of 20 April, but as the Greek headquarters in the area was about to surrender, the party hastened south-east round the peninsula towards Trikeri and on the way was joined by Lieutenants Flavell and Smith from 21 Battalion.2 On the night of 23–24 April some thirty-six all ranks went aboard a caique and sailed through the channel between Euboea and the mainland while the artillery battle was being waged about Thermopylae. Next morning they disembarked at Khalkis, were taken to Thebes and eventually to Argos in southern Greece, from which large-scale evacuations were taking place.

Sergeant Crowley3 and seven other men from 4 RMT Company had similar adventures. They took to the hills after the ambush, found their way to the coast and, by twice using Greek caiques, reached the Allied lines. They were then sent to the embarkation area about Argos and their history, like that of many others in that area, is yet another story.4

The larger groups took much longer to rejoin 21 Battalion. Captain Dutton,5 Father Sheely6 (the battalion chaplain) and Lieutenant Hollis7 of 26 Field Battery, with three or four other ranks who had been forced from the road block into the hills, did not reach the coast near Keramidhi until 21 April but they were able to charter a small caique and prepare to sail to Volos.

At this stage Lieutenant-Colonel Macky appeared with eight officers and thirty-five men. His original intention had been to march from the Tempe area to Sikourion, but the Greeks had

1 L-Sgt F. J. Anderson; Auckland; born Auckland, 12 Mar 1913; labourer; wounded May 1941.

2 See p. 328.

3 Sgt B. J. Crowley, DCM, EM; Auckland; born Dunedin, 24 Jun 1914; salesman; p.w. 28 Apr 1941; escaped 23 Sep 1943.

4 See p. 443.

5 Capt G. A. Dutton; Katikati; born Stirling, Otago, 27 Jun 1910; school-teacher; p.w. 28 Nov 1941.

6 Rev. Fr. W. Sheely, m.i.d.; Te Aroha; born Hunterville, 5 Oct 1907; priest; p.w. 28 Nov 1941.

7 Maj R. A. C. Hollis, MC; Masterton; born Wellington, 12 Mar 1910; public accountant; OC 46 Bty 4 Fd Regt, May–Oct 1944.

page 345 warned him of the German approach to that village and led the party to the snowline level on Mount Ossa and down through the forest to the east coast. So after negotiations with the owner of the caique the parties combined and sailed south, towing a small boat to carry the surplus passengers. At a village south of Zagora the mayor was placed under escort until a more suitable vessel was hired and the party then set off with the intention of getting behind the New Zealand lines at Thermopylae. At Skipelos, however, the sympathetic Greeks warned them that the British were withdrawing from that line and preparing for a complete evacuation. Macky then decided to make for the island of Andros, from which he could sail either to Piræus or to Crete, but by dawn on 24 April the caique was well off course and it was decided to sail eastward to Chios, off the coast of Turkey. From there they sailed south from Island to island, the caique foundering at Siros after a bombing raid and the party, by then fifty-one strong, reaching Crete on 2 May in another caique with a party of Greek officers. The little odyssey in such historic seas had been romantic but exacting, for in the mountains they had been bitterly cold and the food had varied from almost nothing to a plentitude of roast lamb, beans, eggs and olives with ‘enough left over for the next day.’ The majority went on to join the battalion above Maleme airfield but, as was the case with most parties, several members had to be sent into hospital to recover.
Three days later another group arrived in Crete under the command of Captain A. C. Trousdale. With D Company he had overlooked the battlefront at Tempe from the ridge above Battalion Headquarters and had decided that the speed of the German advance southwards made it impossible for him to attempt to reach the road to Larisa. He had therefore led his group south-east over the forested ranges towards the coast, where he hoped to be picked up by the Navy. On the way Lieutenant Yeoman appeared with 41 New Zealanders and 30 Australians and at Spelia there was Major Cohen with over 100 Australians. The parties moved off along the ridge running north of Cape Dhermatas and on the night of 20 April they were joined by Captain Tongue, Second- Lieutenant Mason and seventeen other ranks. Several smaller parties appeared and before long there were 108 New Zealanders and a corresponding number of Australians. As it was almost impossible for any one village to feed the party the men divided into groups, all of which were ‘constantly hungry, tired, footsore and cold, some ill and some wounded.’1 Trousdale and Yeoman reached the coast at Keramidhi and with some Australians went from island to island

1 Report from Captain Trousdale.

page 346 until, on 10 May, they reached Crete with sixty all ranks. An Australian captain and Second-Lieutenant Wilson,1 who had been left on the island of Tinos to bring out two other groups, reached Egypt some weeks later by way of Cyprus.

The group with Captain Tongue, as with all the leaders, changed from time to time, the men being free to make their own choice when they thought they saw better chances to escape. Those who remained with him eventually reached the coast south of Volos and in a hired boat were taken to the south-eastern extremity of the island of Euboea. Unable to hire another vessel, they appropriated three small boats in which they departed eastwards under fire from the exasperated owner.2 Their troubles had only just begun. One boat was leaking badly so the crew of six had to be crowded into the other two. Soon afterwards the bowsprit of the larger vessel cracked, leaving the smaller one to carry on alone and eventually reach Turkey with four men. The crippled vessel, with Tongue in command and sixteen men aboard, reached Skiros after fourteen hours' rowing and from there was sailed to the coast of Turkey. Here they were well cared for, eventually being sent to Egypt with other detachments of Australians and New Zealanders, including Lieutenant-Colonel Chilton of 2/2 Australian Battalion.

1 Capt F. E. Wilson, m.i.d.; Hamilton; born NZ 1 Aug 1915; clerk; p.w. 21 Nov 1941; escaped 16 Sep 1943.

2 In 1941 the New Zealand Government accepted responsibility for honouring Freyberg's promise that Greeks would be rewarded for helping New Zealand soldiers to escape. Later, arrangements were made to compensate Greeks who helped escapers during the war.