Part Five - Other European "Free Men"
Chapter 4 - Greece
After conquering Albania in 1940, Mussolini suddenly used that country as his base for his attack on Greece on October 10, 1940, without telling Hitler. He was surprised by the fierce resistance he encountered from the Greek Army which drove his forces helter-skelter back into Albania.
But when Hitler sent his armies in to extract his Axis partner from his difficulties, they in turn swept the Greek and Anglo-Anzac forces, hastily diverted from North Africa, back into Greece. The victorious Axis forces entered Athens on April 28, 1941.
When the Australians and New Zealanders fought alongside each other in the first desert battles of 1941, they had done so under direct British Command as indeed they did in Greece. But it is arguable that because of the very high proportion of Dominion troops in Greece, General Blamey might well have been given overall command of the Allied troops rather than the British General Wilson (A2 p8-9). But the political objectives in establishing a "Balkan Line" outweighed the military capacity on the ground to satisfy them and Blamey was denied his grand opportunity.
Later, the command of the hastily organised land defence of Crete was handed over to General Fryberg of New Zealand. Many think he had been handed a poisoned chalice. The savage fighting for control of that strategic island was very much "touch and go" and the fierce opposition to the German airborne landings ripped the guts out of their elite paratroopers to such an extent that the German High Command never used bulk airborne troops alone seriously again. They certainly did not persevere with their plans to invade Cyprus by similar means.
Many correspondents and some friends of the Recorder who "were there" in Crete tell him that had the airfields of Maleme and Heraklion been denied to the Germans as landing fields, by the simple expedient of blocking them with old trucks, useless field guns and fallen timber, no successful glider landings could ever have taken place and the end result would have been in favour of the Allies. Although General Freyberg, having recognised this, had requested permission to mine the airfields, this was denied him.
In the withdrawal from Greece, over 10,000 Allied POW remained in enemy hands - 6,508 UK, 2,030 Australian and 1,614 New Zealanders (A2 p183). After the evacuation of Crete, a further 5,099 Allied servicemen became POW - 2,104 UK, 2,154 Australian and 751 New Zealanders (A2 p316).
The strategic battles between the Allies and the Axis in the Balkans and the Peloponnesian Peninsular for control of the Mediterranean and the Suez Canal temporarily bolstered by the German conquest of Greece and Crete, was however finally resolved in favour of the Allies when Montgomery's Eight Army beat Rommel's Afrika Korps at El Alamein, and opened their invasion route to Italy itself. But the confused nature of the fighting during the evacuation first of Greece and then of Crete, saw many resourceful ANZAC soldiers fade underground among the civilian population of those countries.
Some had actually been taken POW by the Germans but had subsequently escaped. Others had never been captured by the enemy at all, but were still carrying out evasive tactics to get to neutral Turkey, across the Mediterranean to Allied Lines in North Africa or to reach Yugoslavia and the Adriatic Coast.
The SOE were swift to capitalise on the active resistance of mountain guerillas who were an inbuilt skein of the tapestry of Aegean life. Together with MI9 they actively recruited POW escapers who had been successful in reaching Allied Lines and volunteered to return behind those of the Axis as active operatives, such as Dick Turner, together with newcomers such as John Ponder, who they recruited as having to special qualifications for work behind enemy lines.
When the Germans finally pulled out of Greece in October 1944, the fighting for control of the Eastern Mediterranean was over, but the political in-fighting of both the Allies and local resistance movements was immense.
The thrust for freedom for most, was driven by a desire to replace former monachistic regimes by socialist democracies, and the often unpalatable fact-of-life was that in most countries, the communist groups were politically the best organised, the best led, and the most experienced in guerilla warfare. Generally these groups were anti-Royalist.
Greece was to enter a modern tragedy greater than any thought up by Socrates or Euripides. In the winter of 1941-42, Athens froze and starved, and the no-quarter civil war flared on.
The King of Greece, George II, was a firm friend (and cousin) of the British Royal family and his Government in exile was based in London as was that of King Peter of Yugoslavia. In general the Greek population was split between the supporters of the Greek General John Metaxa, who was a quasi-fascist political head of the country, and the Royalists who supported the King.
In Greece, ELAS (Ellenikos Laikos Apeleutherotikos Stratos - The Greek Popular Liberation Army) was backed by the EAM (Ellenikon Apeleutherotikon Metopon - The National Liberation Front- dominated by Communists).
EDES (the National Democratic Greek League, backed by the Army) was supported by EKKA (National and Social Liberation Movement - not dominated by Communists) and the EPON (National Panhellenic Youth Organisation) which, however, was basically part of the EAM.
The general position was much the same as in Yugoslavia where both Tito, a Communist and Croat, and Michailovitch, a Royalist and Serb, had to be supported by the Allied Missions, while their own agenda was to defeat each other, rather than the Axis. But this required the supply of arms and supplies, which could only be obtained from the goodwill of the various British Missions. In Greece, the ELAS actually attacked the EDES. in the Autumn of 1944, in preference to attacking the enemy forces. The final solution for the Allies was to actively move against the Communist influence, whereas that for Tito was to lay that doctrine aside, when the opportunity came his way to lead a united Yugoslavia.
While in Italy, there were the same multiplicity of political parties as there were in Greece, their Monachy had signed an Armistice with the Allies on their own territory. The political parties were able to organise themselves to co-operate, more or less harmoniously and enthusiastically on the main task of ridding their country of the Germans. And as they retreated and finally surrendered, to take over local administrative duties in areas their own military operations had liberated before allied troops arrived.
In Greece however, when the Germans finally pulled out, the Greek Papandrou Government, backed by British forces under General Scobie, established itself in Athens. The Rightist immediately moved against the EAM. Scobie proclaimed martial law and fighting broke out between ELAS and British troops, who had been so enthusiastically welcomed in 1941 as the saviours of Greek democracy.
In February 1945, the Varkizia Agreement was signed, under which ELAS surrendered its arms and EAM lost its representation in the Government.
Terror reigned the streets but the British Government still ran Greece, although Churchill had failed in his attempt to restore a truly acceptable Monachy. The Americans became involved through the Truman Doctrine, pouring in massive supplies and administrative personnel. The unofficial civil war became an official one.
One of the SOE operatives plucked out of the Eight Army was John Ponder - "a schoolmaster at war". A Greek scholar, he was given a brief crash-course in Modern Greek and then parachuted on to Mount Olympus as a British Liaison Officer. He writes elequently of his time there in his book "Patriots and Scoundrels" E18.
In his book "Beyond Olympus" E6, Chris Jecchinis, half-English, half-Greek by birth, describes his recruitment by SOE as an interpreter on whom so many British Missions had to rely, and his search to join Major Ponder. He managed to do so and became much more than an interpreter. He joined in sabotage raids on German installations. He shared the dangers of "train busting" to disrupt enemy communications and supply. He shared the hardships and the loyalties of tight-knit scouting operations to obtain field intelligence of enemy strengths and movements. He became a typical SOE controlled "freedom fighter" alongside many such similar from many other nations, including the United States.
While some 5,000 Australian POW finished up in Germany, some like Bruce Vary, AASC, and Dick Turner, AASC, evaded capture and fought on with local guerillas in Greece. Others such as bombardier L.J. Lind, 2/3rd Fld Rgt, managed sucessfully to stay on "underground" in Crete until the SOE arranged to include him in a POW group being taken off the island by boat, back to Alexandria (See "Escape from Crete" C12).
NX3048 Sgt Dick Turner (pictured here) of the 6th Division Supply Column received the MM. He was shot by a German sniper en route to the Athens airport for repatriation.
NX12177 Lt Maxwell Derbyshire managed to survive underground in Athens despite illness.
VX12521 William Bazeley MM MID also was recruited by the SOE after he escaped and returned to Greece to work for a British Mission under a Captain Parish.
Others such as NX9269 Sgt (Later Lt) John Sachs MM and NX18434 WO II Francis Barrett, were to return to Australia. Francis Barrett spent considerable time in Yugoslavia before returning with much intelligence information to Greece.
Both were to perish later, fighting with "Z" Force in the Pacific.
A2 Vol II "Greece, Crete and Syria", Gavin Long, AWM, 1953.
C3 "Air-borne Invasion", John Hetherington, Sydney, 1944.
C4 "All That Grief", Allan & Wendy Scarfe, Hale & Iremonger, Sydney, 1994. ISBN 0868065129
H1 "Albanian Assignment", David Smiley, Chatto and Windus, London, 1984.
E6 "Beyond Olympus", Chris Jecchinis, Harrrap, London, 1960.
C8 "Crete 1941 - Eyewitnessed", Hadjipateras & Fafalios. ISBN 1869411153 1989
C16 "Greece and Crete -1941", Christopher Buckley, Efstrathiadis Gp, Athens 1977.
E11 "Greek Entanglement", E.C.W. Myers, Rupert Hart-Davis, London, 1955.
E12 "Greek Tragedy '41", Heckstall-Smith & Baillie-Grohman, Anthony Blond, London, 1961.
E15 "Irregular Adventure", Christie Lawrence, Faber and Faber, 1946.
"Escape from Crete", L.J. Lind, Australasian Publishing, Sydney, no date.
E14 "I Lived with Greek Guerillas", Bruce Vary, Ed. Turton, Melbourne, 1945.
C28 "The Fall of Crete", Allan Clark, Four Square, London, 1954.
C18 "My Escape from Crete", Jim McDevitt, Nelson, NZ, 2000. ISBN 0473083108
C24 "Ten Days to Destiny", C.G. Kiriakopoulos, NY, 1985. ISBN 0532097854
E21 "The War I Went To", Bob Vial, Self-published, Melbourne, 1995.
M35 "The Special Operations Executive", M.R.D. Foot, BBC, London, 1984. ISBN 07493037861
M44 "The Partisans", David Mountfield, Hamlyn, London, 1979. ISBN 600371522.
C23 "Sydney Daily Mail", Keith Hooper, Military reporter (various articles).
Acknowledgements and Thanks to:
The "Craigie" Party
Among the Allied soldiers awaiting evacuation from the Peloponnesian port of Kalamata, were a group of 15 New Zealand soldiers of the 6th Fld Coy together with 1466 Lt Charles Kingston Reed, who later was to receive a DSO for his actions.
Although Allied naval vessels continued evacuation from the port, the rescue attempts were spasmodic. It was becoming increasingly evident to all of the 8,000 waiting men, that a significant proportion of them would not be able to be withdrawn.
Forward scouts of the rapidly advancing German forces had already been sighted, so to many it seemed prudent to look around for any caique in the harbour that looked seaworthy and that might serve for a "Do-It-Yourself" escape. A quick reconnaissance of the harbour by Lt Reed located a 40 foot sailing caique with an auxiliary engine which looked appropriate. So three members of the sapper group with some experience of sailing were detailed keep a watch on that particular boat. They were Tennent Fenton, Norman Lydster and Bill Hodgetts.
The remainder of what came to be known as the “Craigie” party resurrected an abandoned army truck and began to load it with fuel, food, water, weapons, a compass and anything else that could provision the caique. But on driving the loaded truck as close as they could to the wharf, they found no sign of the 3 man watch party. Nor did they have much time to transfer supplies, and at nightfall had to hide in the boat.
All next day, April 29, 1941, they heard signs of a German occupation of Kalamata with artillery fire quite close and the rumble of heavy transport increasing. So as soon as darkness fell again they cast off. Favoured by the wind they slipped out the harbour entrance and were close to the open sea.
But they lacked water and so sent two crew members to a nearby village in a dinghy to fill up various containers with water for the voyage.
Despite a series of scares and near mishaps, they returned with water supplies. Attempts were made to get the engine going with a blow torch - without any luck. Nevertheless, as best they could, they rigged a sail and set a course towards Crete and soon lost all sight of land.
On the sixth day of drifting and being tossed about by storms, land was sighted to the north east and with modifications and emergency repairs to the rigging, set a course for it. On the morning of the eighth day a beneficial breeze blew them towards a very rocky coastline, where some civilians were moving around.
Finally they made landfall and found to their delight that, indeed, they had made it to Crete.
Acknowledgements and Thanks to:
ANZAC "Freemen" POW Honour Roll - Greece
There were 29 AIF "Freemen" casualties in Greece and they are listed here in .pdf format.
There were 111 NZEF "Freemen" casualties in Greece and they are listed here in .pdf format.
CNS = Cause not stated
DOD = Died of Disease
DOI = Died of Injury
DOW = Died of Wounds
KIA = Killed in Action
Acknowledgments and Thanks to:
Australian Casualties - Greek Campaign - By Unit
|2/1 Inf Bn||16||17||51||84|
|2/2 Inf Bn||14||16||112||142|
|2/3 Inf Bn||12||31||62||105|
|2/4 Inf Bn||26||38||106||170|
|2/6 Inf Bn||28||43||73||144|
|2/7 Inf Bn||7||13||163||183|
|2/8 Inf Bn||21||33||37||101|
|2/2 Fld Rgt||11||10||23||44|
|2/3 Fld Rgt||7||17||2||26|
|2/1 A Tank||18||16||79||113|
New Zealand Casualties - Greek Campaign - By Unit
|Div Cav Rgt||11||14||43||68|
|4 Fld Rgt||7||21||61||89|
|5 Fld Rgt||3||11||32||46|
|6 Fld Rgt||3||16||20||39|
|7 A Tank||19||33||61||113|
(Men who were wounded before being made prisoner or died of wounds in enemy hands are not included under the heading "POW" in this table but are so included in the AIF figures.)
This table is based on the official war history "Greece, Crete and Syria", by Gavin Long (page 183) and is not all inclusive. The figures would be higher if Corps troops were included.
VX5731 Bruce Vary AASC 6th Division
Bruce Vary enlisted into the AIF in October 1939, and after initial training sailed to war in early April 1940 in the "Strathaird" as a member of the AASC. He saw his first action at the battle for Sollum on January 3, 1941, a battle that lasted three days. He then went back through Tobruk, Derna and Benghazi, and finally finished up in Alexandria. There at Easter, he received an embarkation order and some days later disembarked at Piraeus, the Port of Athens.
His job was to ferry supplies from that port in his truck to Larissa. The conditions were vastly different to those in the desert, driving mostly at night on roads so narrow that two trucks could just manage to crawl past each other at walking pace. "Then came the day when there was nothing to get through. Jerry had smashed the last of our transport and there was nothing more to take their place. The AASC was turned into infantry and sent to guard Tetoy, the main aerodrome at Athens" (see "I Lived with Greek Guerillas" E14 p16).
Soon after, he found himself a German POW in a holding camp at Corinth where conditions were deplorable. When finally put on a prison train going north to Salonika, he determined to escape or die in the attempt. The journey was interrupted many times, since the Allies had destroyed many of the bridges, and its POW passengers and their guards had to march to another train, which brought them to another destroyed bridge when the process was repeated. Many POW tried to escape during these marches, but Bruce bided his time until he could plan more properly. He felt his chances would be better the further north he got.
This he finally managed to do, jumping from the train, with another Australian and an Cypriot. The trio had planned to go east to Thrace and so over the border into Turkey. But this plan was abandoned when a friendly Greek told them that would be suicide as the route was tough and the border extremely well guarded. A plan proposed by another seemingly friendly Greek to get them them to the coast in a Red Cross Ambulance was a trap, and landed them outside the Gestapo HQ back in Salonika. After torture, they were once more entrained for Germany. This time Bruce decided to escape alone, having realised that to avoid recapture, he would have to learn to speak Greek and be dressed and act like a Greek.
He once again made a jump in the same way and finished up taking shelter in a cornfield. After many harrowing experience and becoming progressivly weakened with malaria, he finally found refuge in a Turkish-speaking village, where he was nursed back to health and taught Greek by a young girl. He next moved into the neighbouring Greek village of Katerine whose inhabitants were protecting four Australians, six New Zealanders, one English and two Arabs. It was a large village, more a town of about forty thousand people "lousy with Germans". Bruce Vary became "Yanny, the Greek" and stayed ther for seven months the first four of which he never moved out of his room, except for exercise at night.
But while "Yanny the Greek" assimilated in Katerine, the war was moving on. A British Colonel and two radio-operators had been dropped on Mount Olympus and had established his HQ at Pulyana, high up on the mountain, in such rough country that it could only be supplied by pack mules.
The winter of 1942 had been a bitter one and hundreds of people had died of illness and starvation in Katerine and thousands in the bigger cities like Athens. The mountains of Greece had always been infested by bandits, men driven by starvation, who had given up trying to feed their equally starving families and had gone off to live wild. They existed by any means at their disposal, thieving and raiding villages and moving on, always moving about. They were an accepted part of the local scene. But with the area south of Olympus controlled by the Italians and that of the north controlled by the Germans, the bandits had turned themselves into patriotic guerillas.
The British Colonel, in radio contact with Cairo, had the job or organising them into an effective counter force to liberate Greece. Most of the guerillas held to the tenets of Communism and believed that through Communism, the Greeks would obtain complete freedom. They had converted themselves into "freedom fighters" and were fed and supported by the local villagers. But it was only the British who could supply them with the arms, ammunition and explosives to carry out effective action against the Axis occupiers of their country. One of the favourite items among the increasingly effective air-drops were lumps of coal packed with TNT. There was nothing to distinguish it from ordinary coal, but when shovelled into the furnace of a steam locomotive, it blew it up more effectively than any external grenade attack could do.
Bruce finally arranged an interview with the British Colonel and was accepted by him as an active member of the SOE controlled British Mission. He was attached to a band of guerillas operating on the southern slope of Mount Olympus both guarding local villages from sudden raiding parties of Italians and their Greek police and at the same time raiding German supply convoys, whose movements were tracked by informers and relayed to Mission HQ.
Gradually the Resistance Movement was developed. Better landing spots were picked out, more British officers and radio operators were dropped and intelligence exchanged between Pulyana and Cairo. But twelve months of work with the British Mission on top of the previous eighteen months of sickness and starvation had brought Bruce to the end of his physical tether.
He was virtually invalided home, via an arranged pick-up off the coast, and a trip to Turkey. He arrived back to Australia in a new motorship of 10,000 tons, the "Darra", to be sent to hospital and eventual discharge.
E14 "I lived with Greek Guerillas", E.B. Turton, The Book Depot, Melbourne, 1945.