Anzacs and Greek soldiers sharing a drink before the onslaught of the German military machine.
Overwhelmed by Hitler’s blitzkrieg on mainland Greece and evacuated by ship to Crete, British and Anzac forces joined Cretan soldiers to defend the island.
With the Germans astride the line of retreat at Corinth, the retiring defenders comprised widely separated forces, the main part of which was Allen Force, along with large concentrations of base troops, south of Argos. The last remaining rearguards were in the pass above the town of Kriekouri, where Puttick’s 4 NZ Brigade stood sentinel, supported by the irrepressible 2/3rd Field Regiment, and at Patras, where the remnants of 1st Armoured Brigade still held the left flank route to Athens. On news of events at Corinth, Freyberg ordered Puttick to pull out so as to be ready to embark from the Athens beaches the following night, 27 April. This movement was not affected without pressure from the Germans — New Zealand and Australian artillery engaged a German column advancing on the 4 NZ Brigade from 11.00 a.m. — and an artillery duel followed from 1.00 p.m. Once again, the Anzac artillery provided the shield behind which the infantry got away. Puttick’s men embussed at 9.00 p.m. and drove south, blowing bridges behind them as they went. The 1st Armoured Brigade did the same, assembling at Patras and moving back from 2.00 p.m. on 26 April. Wilson chose this dreadful moment in the campaign to leave Greece, blithely informing Freyberg that he would be flying out that night, which he duly did aboard a flying boat departing from Miloi. Thus, by the evening of 26 April, Freyberg was the only general officer still in Greece, despite the urgent need to snatch upwards of 20,000 remaining troops from the clutches of the Germans.
While Wilson got away safely, the embarkation effort reached a critical phase. On the night of 26 April, evacuations were mounted from three sites: the beaches of Athens, where a big artillery group waited at Porto Rafti, and the 1st Armoured Brigade reached Rafina; the Argos beaches; and Kalamata, where Allen Group was ready to get away. West of Athens, things did not go completely to plan — loading at Porto Rafti was delayed while a vital landing craft recovered men deposited on an outlying island, forcing the British 102 Anti-Tank Regiment and 2 Royal Horse Artillery to move onto Rafina. The proud hope of the British gunners that they could lift off their guns and heavy equipment proved far too ambitious, and all their gear had to be abandoned. Focusing strictly on recovering personnel, the troopships Glengyle and Salween were loaded and away by 2.00 a.m., and the anti-aircraft cruiser Carlisle and destroyers Kingston and Kandahar embarked another 2720 troops. Even so, Brigadier Charrington (the CO of 1st Armoured Brigade) and his headquarters, elements of the 1/Rangers, and parts of the 102 Anti-Tank Regiment were left behind at Rafina.
Further south, untold disaster befell the men who embarked from Navplion. Plans there were first compromised by the loss of the amphibious ship Glenearn, which was bombed on approach. Badly damaged, she had to be towed back to Suda Bay and then to Alexandria. The destroyers hoping to enter the port to load troops could not then get past the gutted Ulster Prince, still stuck fast in the channel. Small boats therefore had to be used to shift the troops out to the ships waiting in the open sea, but a choppy swell was running so strongly that it washed men overboard, several of whom drowned. With loading delayed on this account, the ships did not leave until 4.30 a.m. — perilously late to evade the inevitable air attacks — carrying 2600 troops, but leaving another 1700 ashore.
Included among those left behind were the men of the Australian Reinforcement Battalion, who were advised to move down the coast to Tolos to await a further embarkation effort, which they did. Those carried away were mostly base troops, but they included the greater part of the remaining personnel of the 3rd Royal Tank Regiment. These men had bravely crewed the medium tanks that had fought at Ptolemain and Domokos, and they deserved a better fate. The troopship Slamat, having defied orders to sail at the hour needed to escape the Luftwaffe, was caught and sunk at 7.30 a.m. In company with Slamat was another troopship, the Khedive Ismail, which was defended by an anti-aircraft detachment provided by men due to join the 2/8th Battalion as reinforcements from the base camp at Julius, Palestine. Manning machine-guns on the deck of the Khedive Ismail, the Australians had a horrifyingly close view of the attack on the Slamat. After five Stukas were beaten off, they recorded that
[a] sixth machine delivered a surprise attack from the sun scoring a hit with a very heavy bomb in superstructure beneath bridge of the ship just above the rail. All forward superstructure wrecked including bridge and A. A. fire ceased immediately.
The stricken Slamat hove to, and the destroyers Wryneck and Diamond took off survivors before the blazing troopship was sent to the bottom by torpedo. They, in turn, were attacked by strafing fighters that silenced the gun crews, before Junkers 88s pounded them with heavy bombs. Diamond was hit once, and then for a second time:
[The bomb] went down into the after end of the engine-room, and the explosion brought the after mast and funnel crashing to the deck and hurled a score of soldiers overboard. Steam gushed in all direction and geysers of scalding water poured down on the wounded men and the sailors fighting to launch [the life rafts.]
Wryneck was also hit, ‘her port side forward blown in by a bomb which reduced the stoker’s mess, filled with soldiers and ratings, to a shambles of dead and mutilated men’. Both destroyers sank within minutes. From them and the Slamat, just one naval officer, 41 ratings, and eight soldiers were rescued.
Earlier in the night at nearby Tolos, the Australian destroyer Stuart, under the command of Waller, did mighty work on her own to bring succour to the troops. Waller had already distinguished himself in the command of British destroyers along the Libyan coast during O’Connor’s successful offensive from December to January, and then at the Battle of Matapan. His reputation as one of the best Australian naval commanders in the war was confirmed that dark night off the Greek coast. Pridham Wippell, in his flagship Orion, had sailed to Navplion in company with Perth, to be what help he could there, while he sent Stuart on to Tolos. There, Waller found more than 3000 troops ashore, and the prospect of removing them was complicated by a sandbar in the channel to the tiny port, on which the only available landing craft became repeatedly stuck. Undeterred, Waller patiently loaded Stuart to the gunwales, and then sailed in search of Orion to transfer troops and free his decks up for more — signalling to Pridham-Wippell, as he did so, that further help was required. In response, Perth was sent to Waller’s aid and, thanks to his calm but resolute leadership, 2000 troops were embarked from Tolos by the time the warships departed at 4.00 a.m. Even so, 1300 were left ashore, with more to come from those moving south from Navplion.
At Kalamata, the southern-most embarkation point, between 18,000 and 20,000 troops had assembled by the evening of 26 April. One third of these comprised Allen Group, and the Australian brigadier in command insisted that his fighting men take priority in the evacuation over base troops. This hard military calculation was implemented by dividing the conglomeration of men into four groups: Allen Force itself; all troops north-east of the town under the command of the British regular soldier, Colonel M. D. B. Lister; those who’d arrived by train, under Major Pemberton; and a fourth group of all other ranks, led by the camp commandant on the staff of Brigadier L. Parrington, the British officer in charge of the port. Within these groups, men were organised into batches of 50, and a serial number was then allocated to each of these multiples.
In retrospect, these arrangements read as a model of organisation, but on the ground the experience was less orderly. Don Stephenson and his platoon of the 2/6th Battalion got to Kalamata by a process of circumnavigation:
We had to take up a new position, and a captain marched us up and down these hills. We were footsore already, so when we came to a little village with a crystal-clear mountain stream, the officers wanting us to move on, we refused until we washed our feet. Anyway we get to this new position, and it’s right next to where we started.
Finally reaching Kalamata and resting in the olive trees, the Australians were given little rest by the ubiquitous Messerschmitts. One twin-engined Bf 110 heavy fighter strafed Stephenson’s position and, as it passed over, the rear gunner threw out an object — down fluttered a toilet roll to help the Australians deal with their nerves. ‘At least he had a sense of humour,’ recalled Stephenson.
By this stage, laughter was rare, because the ultimate tragedy of the campaign was now hitting home to soldiers and Greek civilians alike. As Stephenson and his tired comrades tramped through Kalamata, an old lady came out and offered him a piece of chicken. Immediately struck by the nobility of her offer, he recalled his embarrassment later: ‘All you’re worried about is getting out, and she’s trying to give you this bit of chicken.’
Also on his way to Kalamata was Bill Jenkins and the 2/3rd Battalion. He remembered going past a farm house where another elderly woman stood by with a tray of cake, and little glasses of ouzo and wine, as tokens of appreciation for the Australians. ‘She was crying her eyes out,’ recalled Jenkins who, with his comrades, accepted the offering and assured her, ‘Don’t worry, Ma, we’ll be back.’ That night, when Bill Jenkins finally managed to get aboard a troopship, it dawned on him that their bravado was hollow. As he and his comrades gained the deck in the darkness, carrying what weapons they could, and grabbing hold of comforting cups of strong, sweet tea from the ship’s crew, someone remarked, ‘We won’t be coming back.’ Jenkins realised then the bitter truth of it, and what the Greek civilians who had welcomed them so warmly might now be facing.
As the Kalamata evacuation approached its critical phase, the Australian and British officers were gravely concerned that a collapse in discipline might result in disaster. Parrington issued an order of the day demanding that ‘the highest standard of discipline be observed in accordance with Imperial traditions’. Allen went further — he bluntly ordered his provosts to shoot any man who fired a shot, lit a fire, or panicked.
By these drastic measures, 8000 men were loaded onto ships off Kalamata on the night of 26 April — the largest single effort of the entire evacuation. Inevitably, within this overall success, misfortunes still befell some men. Confusion over the destruction of the Australian motor transport led Allen to leave behind some staff officers to supervise the work and the later embarkation of those still ashore performing it. Parts of the 2/1st Field Regiment also remained ashore when the ships pulled out, including its commander, Lieutenant Colonel Harlock. Years later, Bill Jenkins attended a public meeting, to find an artillery officer talking about Greece. As all good artillerymen would, the gunner lamented having spiked his guns, and went on to recount how he had waited for hours on the quay at Kalamata for the number of his group to be called. Brigadier Allen, however, had given priority to his infantry; so, when a ragged group of infantry came along, they were given preference to the artillery officer and his unit. No sooner were the infantry aboard than the gangplank was pulled up and the gunners were left behind, to face four long years as prisoners of war. On hearing this recollection, Jenkins, the last aboard, knew immediately that it had been him leading that final section of infantrymen. Such was the narrow and arbitrary difference between rescue and captivity.
For those who did get away, evacuation still meant facing the gauntlet thrown down by the Luftwaffe. In order to concentrate his firepower, Pridham-Wippell ordered all the ships from the night’s embarkations to concentrate north of Crete. With Suda Bay, hitherto used as a staging post but now dangerously overcrowded, the British Admiral hoped that this large convoy, codenamed GA.14, would then proceed directly to Alexandria. In this, he was only partly successful, thanks to the efforts of the German bombers. Apart from its strong contingent of warships, GA.14 comprised the troopships Glengyle, Salween, Khedive Ismail, Dilwarra, City of London, and Costa Rica.
The Dilwarra carried among others the 2/3rd Battalion, including the battalion transport officer Frank Reid and the young Bill Jenkins. Reid spent Anzac Day at Kalamata destroying gear and transport. He recalled, ‘[We were] dog tired, we hadn’t had a sleep for a week.’ Once aboard, going out to the Dilwarra via the destroyer Hero, Reid got orders from Battalion CO Jimmy Lamb to organise a makeshift anti-aircraft defence. By this stage of the campaign, relations between Lamb and Reid, were tense indeed, soured by the long and unnecessary march back from Veria. When the young officer received the order to mount his Bren guns for anti-aircraft work, he told Lamb he would get to it eventually, and received the frosty reply, ‘Immediately.’ Too tired to argue, Reid repaired to a spare cabin, and bribed an Indian ship’s steward with one half of a pound note, and the promise of the other half if the steward woke him up at first light. The Indian dutifully obliged, but could only rouse Reid from his deep slumber by determined means — ‘When I awoke, I was seated on the edge of the bunk. He had me by the ears and was vigorously shaking my head from side to side.’ The Australian subaltern, after weeks in the field, found the accompanying breakfast of poached eggs, hot buttered toast, and fresh tea easily justified the second half of the pound note.
Sustained by his cooked breakfast, Reid collected his ‘ack ack’ platoon and climbed up to the boat deck, which he found ‘nice and clear’ of obstructions and thus well-suited to his purpose. With their four Brens lashed in place, Reid and his platoon sergeant scoured the boat for other weapons; but, when the first Stukas arrived, few gunners had answered the call. As the screaming Junkers fell upon the convoy, suddenly ‘Bren guns came on deck from everywhere’, and the Australians set up to fight it out. Before long, Reid had 27 Bren guns under command, and he directed these by ordering that they all take their firing cue from the forward port gun — ‘When it fired, all would fire, but neither sooner nor later.’ The young lieutenant found the Dilwarra quickly singled out by six dive-bombers ‘circling like Indians in the movies’, and directed his gunners to aim ‘a hand’s distance in front’ to estimate the deflection needed to hit their plunging targets. Through bitter experience, Reid now had a perfect understanding of Stuka tactics, and used these to concentrate the fire of his impromptu battery at the decisive moment:
Attacking Stukas always circled over their target at about 2000 feet; they then peeled off one by one, and dived. At between 1200 and 1000 feet the pilot took aim at the target — after this, it was virtually impossible for him to make any further correction. At about 800 feet he had to release his bomb irrespective of whether his aim was good or bad; otherwise, he could not pull out. This [meant that] the ideal time to fire a volley at a Stuka [was] during the few seconds [it was] between 1200 and 1000 feet).
Bill Jenkins was with Reid that harrowing day as wave after wave of German bombers sought to turn the evacuation convoy into a maritime morgue. Jenkins installed himself on the deck, re-loading the magazines of the machine-guns — these held 20 rounds, which could be fired off in a couple of short bursts. As each gunner threw a magazine to the deck and replaced it with a fresh one, Jenkins and others caught them and restocked them with cartridges. Jenkins was by now a hardened infantryman, but by the end of the day even his gnarled hands were blistered and raw from the intensity of the action.
Forever after, Jenkins testified to the ferocity of the impromptu defence organised by Reid. ‘He should have been decorated,’ Jenkins insisted, because the machine-gun rounds that Reid coordinated meant that the Germans ‘could have landed on the amount of lead going up’. Yet the German dive-bombers came through this wall of fire, hoping that their screaming sirens would psychologically break the gunners and thereby allow the bomb-runs to be pressed home from low and decisive heights. Undaunted, the Australians kept to their guns, and their work was effective enough to keep the Germans at a distance. The most damage inflicted on the Dilwarra came from high-level bombers that damaged her stern and wrecked all the lifeboats.
As the long and trying hours of daylight dragged on, it seemed that Convoy GA.14 might survive with only this very limited damage to Dilwarra. Unfortunately, at 3.00 p.m. a flight of three Junkers 88 bombers slipped unnoticed out of the sun. Before effective fire could be directed at them, a stick of bombs landed close by the Costa Rica, crammed with 2500 troops from a variety of units. The ship escaped a direct hit that would have inflicted horrific casualties, but one near-miss split the steel sides of the ship just abreast of the engine room. Don Stephenson and his platoon of the 2/6th Battalion were right next to the towering splash caused by the bomb blast. ‘We were drowned,’ Stephenson recalled, by this mountain of water that engulfed his battalion. Jack Burke with the 2/1st Field Ambulance Company was down below, preparing a meal of sausages from a tin long he’d coveted during the evacuation. He vowed and declared, ‘I’m going to get those bloody sausages,’ and maintained his defiance until the ship’s lights went out and all the internal spaces were plunged into utter darkness. He finally relented. ‘Bugger the sausages — I got out,’ he recalled.
As water poured in through the fractured hull of the Costa Rica, her captain concluded she would founder within the hour. According to Stephenson, the ship’s crew made their own initial assessment of the damage: ‘The first thing we know, the crew are in the boats — they expected the thing to blow, with the cold water rushing in on the boilers.’
Fortunately, the boilers held, and destroyers were brought alongside to take off the longsuffering Anzacs. As the British destroyers Defender, Hereward, and Hero nosed up to the stricken troopship, those being rescued faced a challenging and dangerous feat of acrobatics to regain safety. A large swell was running, and to jump from sinking deck to rolling destroyer required good timing — and gumption. Stephenson recalled how military discipline prevailed with guards on the decks, which ensured an orderly evacuation, and with the ‘blokes from below off first’. Some of the men from the 2/6th broke bones on landing, and one poor unfortunate landed in the water between the ships. As one of the Royal Navy’s finest fished the soldier out with a boat hook, he provided a running commentary to keep up surrounding spirits, saying things like, ‘Good fishing today, mates!’ This kind of black humour served as an antidote to the gravity of the moment, as when one soldier received little sympathy for the predicament he found himself in:
[O]ne bloke decides he’s going down a rope, but he gets down there and the destroyer’s above. ‘What am I going to do?’ he says, and our bloke says ‘pull your finger out and scuttle yourself!’ You can’t beat our blokes in situations like that.
Even those who made the jump safely found the landing below a tense affair. Jack Burke judged his departure from the Costa Rica perfectly, but found his hobnail boots gave an excellent impersonation of ice skates when he hit the deck of the Hereward below. Careering across the destroyer, Burke’s further passage was arrested by the rope rail guarding the far side of the ship; the tin hat he wore met no such impediment, though, and over the side it went. Many years later, Burke mused about his contribution to maritime archaeology: ‘There’s a rusty old tin hat in the Mediterranean somewhere.’