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Prisoners of War

II: Escapers in Greece

II: Escapers in Greece

Reference was made in the chapter on the Greece and Crete campaigns to the number of British troops who remained at large in Greece2 during its occupation first by the Germans and

2 see pp. 72–5 and 80–2. The subsequent history of those at large in Crete, being shorter and unconnected with Italians, was dealt with in that chapter. see pp. 66–72.

page 228 later by the Italians. It was seen that a good many were able to make their escape to neutral Turkey or to Allied territory by boat within a month or two of the end of the campaigns; others had the misfortune to be recaptured within the same period, or if they had previously evaded capture, to be made prisoners for the first time. Some of these again escaped before being sent to Germany; added to a core of evaders who had been at large since the remnants of the Allied forces had disintegrated after the end of the sea evacuation, they made up a considerable number who remained ‘loose’ in Greece for a year or more after April 1941, and a few even until the British liberation of Greece in 1944.

Although in the days following the cessation of fighting in Greece many of our men, like some of the evaders from the action at Corinth Canal, were able to live more or less openly (even in uniform for a short time), it was not long before enemy efforts to round up British Commonwealth soldiers forced them into the hills. In the latter months of 1941 they were broadly in three areas: the hills of the Peloponnese; the hills behind Megara and Athens, with some men hidden among the populations of Athens and Piraeus; the hills and coast of the Chalcidike peninsula and its three fingers east of Salonika, together with odd ones who had returned west and got as far south as the Larissa plain. In the southern Peloponnese were evaders from the British forces not evacuated, together with others who had made their way from Crete either in launches or by rowing, as one New Zealander and an Australian did. In the northern Peloponnese and the hills behind Megara were evaders from the Corinth action, remnants left behind from the evacuation or survivors from the evacuation ship Nea Hellas which blew up near the shore, and escapers from the Corinth and Athens prisoner-of-war camps. There were many of the latter, too, living in Athens as civilians among the Greeks, helped by the Greek underground and waiting for the opportunity to get away by boat. Almost all those in the north were escapers from Salonika transit camp or from the trains taking them to Germany, though a few had made their way up from the south hoping to get overland to Turkey. Some, disappointed in this hope and also in that of being taken off by boat from the coast east of Salonika, trekked on foot down the eastern hills in the hope of finding better luck at Volos or a more southern port. Lastly there were a few on various islands of the Sporades and Cyclades groups in the Aegean who had accomplished the first stage of the journey to Turkey or North Africa and were awaiting the opportunity to complete it.

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Without the active help of the Greek population these men could not have remained at large for long. Greek families fed them from their own increasingly scanty food supplies, fitted them out with civilian clothes and, when the cold of winter approached, either sheltered them temporarily in their own homes or provided them with blankets and other necessities to enable them to live in a cave or an improvised hut. Many an escaped prisoner who had contracted malaria owed his life to the care of a friendly Greek family which looked after him until he was well enough to move on. Some who spent the bitter winter cold of 1941 and early 1942 above the snowline, were able to do so only because of the food and other generous help they received from Greek shepherds and other hill people. Sometimes these brave and simple village folk were able to smuggle parties of prisoners away to Turkey or guide them to Athens, where better arrangements could be made for them. An underground organisation with its headquarters in Athens supplied those who came to its notice with everyday necessities as well as money, and where possible reimbursed Greeks who were feeding and helping British soldiers.

Of the escapers who reached the Middle East, a good number volunteered to go back and help extricate their comrades still seeking a way out, and a few (including four New Zealanders)1 were selected for an organisation known as ‘A’ Force.2 Under one scheme, members of ‘A’ Force were landed on an island and made their way to Greece with money and stores to aid the Greek underground in its work of sabotage, helping prisoners, and generally resisting the occupation. They stayed on the mainland to collect a party of prisoners and then returned with them to their island base to be evacuated. Two of the New Zealanders (Craig and Redpath) were caught during one of these trips in January 1942 by a large Italian launch patrol, and after a period in noisome island prisons and a lengthy interrogation, were sent to Bari as prisoners of war.

In spite of such setbacks aid from the Middle East continued, and the Italian occupation forces became alarmed by the increasing activities of bands of armed Greek partisans which had begun operating from the hills in the summer of 1941. Knowing that the Greek underground had active support from the British, they launched a campaign in 1942 to round up all British soldiers who were at large and to punish Greeks who had sheltered and aided them. Rewards of food for the betrayal of a British

1 Lt J. W. C. Craig and Sgts A. H. Empson, T. Moir, and J. A. Redpath.

2 In the rescue of escapers ‘A’ Force worked in conjunction with the Middle East branch of MI9.

page 230 soldier were offered to the now starving Greeks, where the German forces had during their occupation offered money. Stool-pigeons (some of them Greek-speaking Italians) were planted among the Greek population, and even men posing as escaped British soldiers. Pressure was brought on the Greek police1 to assist the occupation forces; and Italian patrols of soldiers and carabinieri (sometimes in civilian clothes) were continually active. Besides the sacrifice of sharing their meagre food supplies with one or more British soldiers, a Greek family, if suspected, often had their house searched or pillaged; if caught, they were sent to one or other of the horrible concentration camps which had been set up in Greece. Yet Greek help, though much more cautious in the later stages, continued until the end of the occupation; and ‘the vast majority of the Greek population, even under circumstances of extreme hardship, repudiated all collaboration’.2

The few Greeks who gave way to greed or fear of starvation were responsible for the capture of many British soldiers who had been at large. During 1942 some of our men had to give themselves up through illness and shortage of food, but many others were betrayed. One New Zealander was sold by the mayor of a small village for four and a half pounds of flour. Most of those taken at this stage were in civilian clothes and therefore not recognised by the Italian authorities as prisoners of war. After passing through various local jails, some extremely dirty and crowded, they were usually taken to the huge Averoff civil prison at Athens.

This prison was largely run by the Italian authorities, though there was a German section for their own deserters and some political prisoners. It was of the traditional type: courtyards leading into a five-storied building with rows of iron partitions and cells. Conditions had at first been universally bad, but in early 1942 under a new commandant they began to improve. Some of the cells became reasonably comfortable, there were showers, and at intervals the British received Red Cross food parcels. Certainly the Italian ration of bread and thin soup was little enough to live on, and many of the 1200 or so Greek political prisoners had to be helped with parcels sent in to them by relatives and friends. Some of these people were awaiting trial for having sheltered British soldiers.

1 The Greek police were in general only too willing to help British soldiers, but were later forced to arrest them if they were betrayed by a ‘Quisling’ Greek. Those who did not ran the risk of being denounced by the same man and sent to concentration camps. Many were.

2 Report on Greece by the Supreme Allied Commander, Mediterranean, to the Combined Chiefs of Staff, 1949.

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One or two New Zealanders and others attempted to escape but were caught and given a period in the dungeons. These, as their name implied, were below ground, dark, filthy and wet. There was no semblance of a latrine, but once in a dungeon the prisoner was allowed out only at the caprice of his guard until his sentence—sometimes of a month or more—was up. After several weeks cooped up in these vile conditions men emerged broken, lousy, and covered with scabies which had turned into running sores. Many of the British who had passed through Averoff were interrogated, some as many as twenty times, often to the accompaniment of beatings up by carabinieri, to persuade them to disclose the names of Greeks who had helped them and the whereabouts of other British soldiers. Some had been tried by an Italian military court, usually on charges of espionage, sabotage, or armed insurrection. Some were sentenced to death,1 others to long terms of imprisonment. A New Zealander who had been condemned to death in October 1942 had his sentence commuted later to 30 years' imprisonment, and was sent off to Bari and later to a penitentiary at Sulmona to serve it.2

Some went from Averoff straight to Patras to await shipment to Italy; others to the Italian-run concentration camps at Xilocastron or Larissa. They travelled under very strong guard, nearly always handcuffed, sometimes in pairs. The concentration camp near Larissa was, in the summer of 1942, crowded with Greek political prisoners, including women and children put there, after confiscation of their property, because one of the family was fighting with the partisans. The fenced-in area covered eight acres or more, on which were some buildings, dirty and infested with lice. Some of the British prisoners who had been sentenced to long terms of imprisonment for ‘sabotage’ or ‘espionage’ were in a main compound with the Greeks, but the ‘less dangerous’ prisoners of war were in a small compound of their own. The camp food was far too meagre to maintain health, and it was fortunate that the Greek Red Cross and occasionally the International Red Cross delegate were able to visit the camp and distribute food and clothing. Many Greeks who did not receive any gifts of food from outside simply died of malnutrition, just as their fellow countrymen died in the streets of Athens from the same cause. The internal guards of the camp carried three-foot rubber whips to enforce discipline. On one occasion in the midsummer of 1942 a New Zealand private soldier and a British

1 Only one death sentence was carried out on a New Zealand soldier at Averoff.

2 He and another New Zealander under a 16-year sentence awarded in Greece were liberated, together with other British prisoners, when British officers from Campo PG 78 opened up the penitentiary after the Italian Armistice.

page 232 officer, who were caught while attempting to escape, were tied to posts and given 40 lashes each before a parade of the whole camp, while some of the guards shouted their applause. Both men were nearly unconscious at the end of it and had to have medical treatment.

Eventually all the prisoners of war were sent to Patras, where they were housed in the cells of an Italian artillery barracks. Though rations were poor, treatment was more humane, and one New Zealander who had a spell in the Patras hospital received nothing but kindness and friendliness from the Italians there. In 1942, when these parties of former escapers and evaders were being transported to Italy, the waters of the southern Adriatic were becoming increasingly hazardous for Italian shipping. One of the ships taking prisoners across to Italy was sunk in January 1943, a New Zealand officer losing his life.1 The other New Zealanders went to prisoner-of-war camps in Italy, and found life easy after the hardships of living in hungary Greece or being confined in noisome prisons by the occupation forces.

Although in 1942 few got away from Greece (compared with the numbers who succeeded in 1941) and many fell into the hands of the occupation forces, some remained hidden by the Greeks for periods up to three and a half years. Hunted and often half starving, they held on in the hope of gaining contact with an escape organisation and, as the war took a more and more favourable turn, of seeing the occupation forces go. The activity of ‘A’ Force increased and it developed into a clandestine military mission on Greek soil, recruiting helpers from among the escapers and evaders who knew the language, the geography, the people, and the whereabouts of many of the British soldiers in hiding. Two New Zealanders,2 one an escaper from a train going north from Corinth and the other an evader, were able to get in touch with this military mission in early 1943. They stayed on to work with it until the following year, helping to organise the evacuation of parties of escapers and evaders.

One New Zealand soldier,3 who was among those evacuated in August 1943 on a caique arranged by the British Military

1 The only other New Zealander on the ship was Cpl F. I. A. Woollams (19 Bn). He had evaded capture in Greece for 18 months, survived the torpedoing, and after some months in Italy as a prisoner of war he got away from Campo P.G 78/1 at the time of the armistice. He reached Allied lines at Palmoli on 7 November 1943. For his attempts to escape he was mentioned in despatches.

2 WO II L. N. Northover (19 Bn) escaped from a train in June 1941 and worked for the British Military Mission from March 1943 to August 1944. Sgt R. A. Hooper (1 NZ Gen Hosp) evaded capture and worked for the British Military Mission from April 1943 to January 1944. Both were awarded the MM.

page 233 Mission, had evaded capture after the action at Corinth bridge and had been sheltered and fed by Greek shepherds north of Megara. Later he had moved to Athens and, in spite of a short spell in Averoff jail, had contrived to live as a Greek in a house there until he made contact with the escape organisation.

Another had made two escapes from the Galatas camp on Crete, had reached the Peloponnese in a caique, and was helped there by Greek villagers. After a series of narrow 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 the cottage whose occupants had befriended him. His food was lowered down to him, and when the light was good enough he passed the time by reading a Greek child's primer. When he was at length rescued by the British Military Mission and smuggled away to Turkey on a caique in June 1943, he had temporarily lost the use of his legs and was in a very weak physical condition.1

In 1944 there still remained in Greece and the islands of the Aegean a few Commonwealth troops who, though unable to make good their escape, were determined not to be captured. Some had been wary of having anything to do with an escape organisation, as the occupation authorities had quite early begun to plant bogus ‘agents’ who promised to help British soldiers but betrayed those who unsuspectingly took them for what they claimed to be. Nevertheless the military mission continued to get away small parties in early 1944. In September it evacuated a New Zealander2 who had lived for three years and four months on the island of Kythera.

Finally, in October, when the Axis occupation of Greece came to an end, the British Military Mission was able to unearth those with whom it had previously been unable to make contact, and the men who had stuck it out for the whole period of the occupation were at last evacuated to Allied territory.

1 Sigmn F. Amos (Div Sigs), awarded MM for his ‘unflagging determination to escape’.