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To Greece

Escape Parties

Escape Parties

Nevertheless, many officers and men had already escaped or were attempting to escape.2 The first to make the effort were twenty-two

2 Some RAF personnel had already been evacuated from Yithion and Kalamata in Sunderland aircraft. Another party at Kardhamili, a village some 20 miles south-east of Kalamata, left in a motor vessel for Crete.—See A. S. G. Lee, Special Duties, pp. 95–105. After the surrender of the main body many British officers and men rushed off by truck or on foot towards this village or the nearby coast, from which on succeeding nights some were collected by the Navy.

page 461 men who had dashed off into the olive groves and avoided capture when the German columns surprised the New Zealand companies outside Kalamata. Reaching the coast just west of the town and hearing the sound of the fighting, they made plans to reach the embarkation beach. Acquiring three small boats they set off, ten in one and six in each of the other two. The largest boat and one of the smaller ones successfully reached the eastern shores of the bay, where they were joined by another boat from Kalamata. Once again assisted by the Greeks, they made plans for a voyage to Crete and sailed that night, 29–30 April. The two small boats soon left the biggest one behind and their history is not known exactly. The big boat with its crew of ten1 carried on all the next day using makeshift sails, a map ‘on the cover of a Greek-English conversation book’ and the compass on the top of a fountain pen. That night the party was picked up by the Isis, one of the flotilla of destroyers sent over from Crete to collect any survivors.

The boat which failed to cross the bay on the first night had finished up some ten miles down the coast from Kalamata. Inland there were German units, but the Greeks gave assistance and Lieutenant Poolman,2 with five men, waited hoping to see ships come in to collect troops. At this stage they were joined by seven men who had escaped from Kalamata after the surrender. The combined groups, less three men who preferred other risks, finally sailed for Crete on 30 April, crossing the bay and by stages sailing down the coast to Cape Matapan. On the way they were joined by some of the men from one of the two smaller boats and on 8 May, by sailing south-east to Kithira and Katra, they reached the port of Kastelli in Crete.

The rear party of the Royal Air Force had a different history. Disappointed at the non-appearance of warships or Sunderlands during the night of 27–28 April, they had on 28 April moved to Kardhamili, a coastal village across the bay and about 20 miles south of Kalamata. A 30-foot motor boat had been chartered and all preparations made for a move that night. So when a motorcyclist brought the news of the German entry into Kalamata, the party left in daylight, creeping down the coast to Cape Matapan and eventually reaching Kithira and, on 30 April, Suda Bay in Crete.

Other parties did their best to escape from the town itself after Brigadier Parrington announced that they would not be taken off by the Navy. In the darkness and confusion of that night it was not easy to find boats and many made off along the coast to the east. Some got away far enough to avoid capture next morning and

1 Second-Lieutenant J. Rose and nine other ranks, including ‘the skipper [Sgt C. West, 20 Bn] who comes from the oyster beds of the Bluff, New Zealand.’

2 Maj F. H. Poolman, MC, ED, m.i.d.; Whangarei; born Greenmeadows, 11 Jan 1905; Govt rural valuer; sqn comd and 2 i/c Div Cav 1944; twice wounded.

page 462 to be picked up by the Navy on the following two nights, but the majority of those who kept to the land were eventually captured.1

Those who found small boats were usually more successful. Private Patterson2 (20 Battalion) and a Maori found a dinghy, put to sea and were picked up by one of the destroyers. Lieutenant E. H. Simpson, after taking part in the recapture of the town, was sent out from the beach with a small party in a rowing boat to contact the destroyers vaguely to be seen off shore. The ships left soon afterwards and the soldiers, using their packing case paddles, were forced to land down the coast. Next night they moved off shore, used the cordite from cartridge cases to make flares and were picked up by HMS Isis.

The more fortunate groups were able to find seaworthy vessels. Sergeant Grimmond3 (24 Battalion) and seven others seized a caique and Grimmond navigated it to Crete.4

Another caique was taken out by the men5 from 6 Field Regiment who had reached Kalamata quite independent of the New Zealand Reinforcement Battalion. Not confident of getting away, Lieutenant Reed and his party had been encouraged by Gunner McKenzie6 to arrange for their own evacuation. During the morning they had found a caique anchored well out from the mole and had left Sergeants Fenton7 and Lydster8 and Gunner Hodgetts9 to prepare her for the open sea and to keep guard over her until nightfall. Unfortunately for them the Germans arrived just before dark, came along the mole and took the caretakers back to join the prisoners near the Customs House. The other members of the party, after the counter-attack and the announcement that there would be no evacuation, returned to the caique, took aboard the supplies McKenzie had collected, and remained hidden all through 29 April—not smoking, not talking, very hot and sometimes worried by the sound of German voices. No investigation was made, however, and when darkness came two men used the rowing boat and towed the caique beyond the mole and out to sea. They then made their way down the coast and across to Crete, where they landed on 7 May.

1 Sergeant A. V. D. Flett and Private D. W. Donald of 24 Battalion were at large in Greece for over a year before being caught.

2 Pte D. D. Patterson; Invercargill; born Glencoe, 24 Nov 1916; machinist; p.w. 1 Dec 1941.

3 Sgt A. J. Grimmond, BEM; Auckland; born Australia, 9 Dec 1910; plasterer.

4 R. M. Burdon, 24 Battalion, p. 48.

5 See p. 450.

6 L-Bdr N. G. McKenzie; Wellington; born NZ 12 Feb 1911; commercial traveller; p.w. Dec 1941.

7 Sgt F. T. Fenton; Te Puke; born Auckland, 15 Sep 1913; solicitor; p.w. 28 Apr 1941.

8 Sgt N. R. Lydster; born NZ 10 Nov 1918; cashier; p.w. 28 Apr 1941.

9 Gnr W. G. Hodgetts; Gore; born NZ 14 Jul 1904; driver; p.w. 28 Apr 1941.

page 463

The Navy had in the meantime kept its promise to return. On 29–30 April, the night after the fighting, the destroyers Isis, Hero and Kimberley came over from Crete and picked up along the coast to the east of Kalamata some 16 officers and 17 other ranks, mainly from English units. The following night, 30 April–1 May, they were more successful, collecting 23 officers and 178 other ranks. And from Milos the Hotspur and Havock evacuated some 700 British and Palestinian troops who had reached that island from parts of Greece other than Kalamata.

Thereafter, until the airborne attack on 20 May, small parties made their way to Crete. Sometimes names were recorded, but very often the records were left behind on that island. The only reference may be a cable from Crete to New Zealand Headquarters in Egypt such as ‘Arrived Crete 14 May 13 other ranks’; a note that on 4 May forty arrived from Crete, ‘mostly New Zealanders’, who had been guarding the Shell Oil refinery; or the name of a Maori who had been captured at Kalamata and who by some unstated means had managed to escape. Sometimes those who reached Crete rejoined their units, took part in the fighting and were then killed or captured. The Mobile Dental Unit, for instance, records that Driver Ferris1 escaped by small boat but was compelled to return to land for ten to fourteen days. There he met Drivers Easton2 and Craig,3 who had been captured at Kalamata but had escaped and made their way through to the coast. Joining forces with eight other fugitives and securing a small boat, they reached Crete some days before the air attack. The survivors from the fighting joined in the march over the hills to the evacuation beaches, but several ‘have not yet reported.’4 Such a note in many of the war diaries for the Crete campaign explains why there are so many gaps in the history of the last few days in Greece.

1 Dvr W. W. Ferris; Dunedin; born Oamaru, 16 Dec 1914; driver.

2 Dvr J. Easton; Oamaru; born Invercargill, 13 Oct 1908; butcher; p.w. 29 Apr 1941; escaped to Crete; recaptured 1 Jun 1941; repatriated Nov 1943.

3 Dvr J. C. Craig; Westport; born Westport, 23 Jan 1910; service-car driver; p.w. 29 Apr 1941; escaped to Crete; recaptured 1 Jun 1941; repatriated Nov 1943.

4 War diary of ADDS, NZ Dental Corps, May 1941, Appx VI.