The New Zealanders at Bapaume

A view over Bapaume, taken by Henry Armytage Sanders the day after its capture, showing the huge amount of destruction to the town

A New Zealand infantry battalion passing through recaptured Bapaume, 14 September 1918

When the Amiens offensive launched by the Fourth Army astride the Somme on 8 August 1918 ran out of steam, the Third Army took over the main advance. What followed in the last days of August became known as the Battle of Albert. In fact, Albert was taken by III Corps from the Fourth Army, which secured the right flank of the Third. For New Zealanders, though, the last part of August has always been the period of the Battle of Bapaume. The town was the Third Army’s main goal. Advancing in the centre of the Third Army was IV Corps. As the New Zealand Division formed the centre of IV Corps, it was at the heart of the Third Army and, therefore, at the heart of the Battle of Bapaume.

The battle was significant for the New Zealanders in several ways. During its course, they received air-dropped supplies and were counterattacked by tanks for the first time. Three of them won VCs, the most for any battle in the nation’s history. Involving failed and successful attacks in equal measure, it was their toughest action of 1918 and resulted in 3000 casualties, including 821 dead. Many of these were from the large pool of reinforcements that replaced the losses incurred during the defensive fighting. The veterans started to show the war-weariness that was gripping the Australian divisions. Not for nothing do New Zealanders call the battle `Bloody Bapaume’.

As most of the German reserves were facing the Fourth Army in front of Amiens, striking towards Bapaume, 40 kilometres northeast, promised to catch the Germans off balance. The Third Army might then outflank the Germans opposite the Fourth. Field Marshal Haig wanted Bapaume seized rapidly. Between 21 and 23 August the Fourth Army took Albert and the Third reached the Arras-Albert railway, bringing Bapaume within striking distance. Running from Loupart Wood through Grévillers to Biefvillers-les-Bapaume, the last ridge to the west of the town had to fall first. Grévillers and the wood were well defended and the 5th Division, on the left of the New Zealand Division, could not capture them on 23 August. The task passed to the New Zealanders, whose role so far had been limited to gaining the line of the Ancre north of Miraumont. On 24 August the 1st New Zealand Brigade was to advance 450 metres past both Grévillers and Loupart Wood, after which the 2nd Brigade would take Bapaume. The 37th Division on the left would capture Biefvillers.

Following up the German withdrawal to the Hindenburg Line early in 1917, the Australians had passed through this area. When the Germans returned in the Michael offensive in March 1918, they fortified the ruins of the villages they had devastated during their earlier retirement. From the New Zealanders’ point of view, the ground offered good going to tanks as it lay just beyond the 1916 Somme battlefield and was not cut up by shelling. Thirteen heavy tanks and some Whippets supported them. But the uncertainty as to the situation on the evening of 23 August resulted in rushed planning that left no time to organise an artillery barrage. The attack would be a `silent’ one, which initially helped the New Zealanders when they stepped off at 4.15 am next morning. With the darkness and rain blinding the Germans, the absence of a barrage removed their last hope of detecting the assault until it was almost upon them.

The Germans still defended strongly. 1st Wellington took until 12.30 pm to clear Loupart Wood. On their left, 2nd Auckland had enveloped Grévillers by 9 am but could not get beyond it. Engineer Sergeant Sam Forsyth led an assault that took a strongpoint holding up part of the attack. Killed afterwards, he was awarded a posthumous VC. Further left, 2nd Otago and 2nd Canterbury from the 2nd Brigade, and 2nd Wellington from the 1st Brigade, cleared Biefvillers by mid-morning, thereby securing the 1st Brigade’s left flank. The 37th Division, which should have taken the village, had fallen behind. Heading towards the D929, the Albert-Bapaume road, part of 2nd Otago was stopped just beyond Grévillers. The rest continued with 2nd Canterbury towards Bapaume, 1.5 kilometres away on the far side of the D929. Avesnes- les-Bapaume, then a hamlet west of the town, now an outlying suburb, was taken but could not be held.

`One of the toughest nuts to crack’
Since the start of the Third Army’s offensive four days earlier, nine German divisions had reinforced the eight originally opposing it. The Germans ahead of the Third Army thus regained their balance and, as the tough fighting on 24 August showed, were putting up the same stiff resistance that had slowed down the Fourth Army. It was particularly strong in front of Bapaume, which did not bode well for the New Zealanders. In the continuation of the advance on 25 August, in which IV Corps was to reach the line Riencourt-Beugnatre three kilometres beyond Bapaume, they had to envelop the town, thereby forcing the Germans to abandon it. Costly street fighting through its ruins would then be avoided.

At 5 am on the 25th, 1st Auckland and 2nd Wellington from the 1st Brigade headed for the southern side of Bapaume. Hit by heavy fire, they stalled on the D929. Supported by a creeping barrage and 23 tanks, whereas the 1st Brigade had neither, the 2nd Brigade made for the northern side of Bapaume. 1st Canterbury on the right briefly took Avesnes and reached the D917, the Arras road. 1st Otago on the left was halted on the D917. But both battalions got across the road in capturing Monument Wood and part of Favreuil, 1.5 kilometres north of Bapaume, in a second attack at 6.30 pm. Nonetheless, the town’s well-sited and concealed defences had withstood the New Zealanders a second time. As one of them remarked, it was turning out to be `one of the toughest nuts to crack’.

The First Army joined the offensive on the left of the Third on 26 August but it made no difference to the New Zealand Division, which was to advance a third time against Bapaume. South of the town, the 1st Brigade barely progressed beyond the previous day’s line. The only bright spot was the knocking out of three machine-guns by Sergeant Reg Judson of 1st Auckland. He won the VC. North of Bapaume, the Rifle Brigade, which had relieved the 2nd Brigade, reached the D956, the Bapaume-Beugnatre road, a gain of just 450 metres. Pinpointing the cause of the grinding pace of the advance, a New Zealand artillery observer expressed sentiments that the Australians would have echoed: `We share great admiration for the way the machine-gunners of the enemy stick to their work. Most died at their post’.

Another attack that evening achieved little but at least the Rifle Brigade was now firmly ensconced east of Bapaume, threatening the Germans with envelopment. A continuous bombardment commenced to give them every incentive to withdraw. But on 27 August they belted two attacks by the 63rd Division on Ligny-Thilloy, on the right of the New Zealanders, who stood fast that day and the next. The New Zealanders’ patrols still attracted intense German machine-gun fire. An attack on Bapaume was being planned when the fire petered out early on 29 August. Cautiously entering after dawn, New Zealand patrols found the Germans had gone and the town `nothing but a few acres of bricks’, according to Private Stayte of 1st Auckland. It was booby-trapped just as extensively as it had been when the Australians entered in 1917.

Following up
During the day, the Rifle Brigade established a new line 1.4 kilometres beyond Bapaume and Beugnatre. At last able to move around the southern side of the town, the 1st Brigade took the heavily defended sugar factory on the Cambrai road to the right of the Rifles. Both brigades started the 2.2-kilometre advance to the ridge behind the villages of Bancourt and Frémicourt at 5 am on 30 August. They reached the crest but could not hold it. A German counterattack with tanks next morning was driven off. Forming the centre of a wider attack on 1 September, the two brigades took all but the Bancourt part of the ridge. Sergeant John Grant was awarded the VC for clearing machine-guns that held up 1st Wellingtons. Relieving the 1st Brigade and the Rifles that night, the 2nd Brigade secured the uncaptured section of the ridge on 2 September.

`Bloody Bapaume’ was over. Throughout the battle, the New Zealand Division had fought with one, and sometimes two, open flanks because it consistently outpaced the divisions of IV Corps on either side. Major-General Russell, the divisional commander, seemed out of touch, probably because he was tired and quite ill. Partly for this reason, orders often arrived at the last minute. Like the Australians, the New Zealanders had the skill and experience to know what to do anyway. Their effort at Bapaume deserves more recognition but, ironically, some of the blame for its obscurity rests with them. The New Zealand press misrepresented Bapaume as a pushover that cost few casualties. So no-one gave it a second thought, especially since it coincided with the stunning Australian capture of Mont St Quentin, which stole the limelight from everything else.


Kapyong, 23-24 April 1951

Australian soldiers in Korea, part of the United States-led United Nations forces, take a well-earned break. Men like these won a US Presidential Unit Citation for their gallant stand, determination and espirit de corps during the Battle of Kapyong.

Lieutenant Colonel Bruce Ferguson, smoking a pipe in the centre, CO of the 3rd Battalion, Royal Australian Regiment, at Kapyong, discusses his battle plans with a British officer, left in the beret, while an Australia soldiers watches.

The Battle of Kapyong, 22–25 April 1951.

Halting the Communist Advance

The seriousness of the breakthrough on the central front had been changed from defeat to victory by the gallant stand of these heroic and courageous soldiers [who] displayed such gallantry, determination and esprit de corps in accomplishing their mission as to set them apart and above other units participating in the campaign and by their achievements they have brought distinguished credit to themselves, their homelands and all freedom-loving nations.

United States Presidential Unit Citation, awarded to 3 RAR, 26 June 1951

Seeing another wave of communist Chinese troops advancing up the valley as the early dawn light silhouetted them against the towering mountains, Major Ben O’Dowd ordered his radio operator to call for immediate support.

An officer of the US 1st Marine Division answered but, despite the obvious Australian accent, refused to believe it was O’Dowd’s radio operator calling.

Fuming with rage and with seconds before the enemy arrived, O’Dowd grabbed the phone and demanded to speak to the American commanding officer. The general commanding the Marines came on the line, but when O’Dowd reported his position and the imminent attack, the American refused point blank to believe him.

The American insisted the Australian forces no longer existed because the Chinese had wiped them out the night before. Losing patience and with the enemy almost on them, O’Dowd blasted back: `I’ve got news for you-we are still here and we are staying here’.

The Battle

It was 24 April, the eve of Anzac Day, and O’Dowd and his fellow Australians were fighting hand-to-hand for their lives as they repulsed one of the biggest Chinese offensives of the Korean War.

All through the previous night they had been defending a series of ridges strung across the Kapyong River valley, trying to stop wave after wave of Chinese forces advancing south towards the capital, Seoul. The valley was a traditional invasion route and if the Chinese captured Seoul, they may have pushed the foreigners right off the Korean peninsula and won the war.

But UN forces wanted to draw a line in the sand at the 38th parallel, the line of latitude 38 degrees north, where it crossed the Korean peninsula. The Australians were fighting about 60 kilometres north-east of Seoul as part of a United Nations force.

O’Dowd was commander of A Company within the 3rd Battalion, Royal Australian Regiment, which was fighting as part of the 27th British Commonwealth Brigade. The Diggers were also fighting alongside Americans, Canadians, New Zealanders and South Koreans. The Commonwealth Brigade had occupied strategic defensive positions across the valley in an attempt to halt the Chinese advance. As a reserve, British soldiers of the 1st Battalion, Middlesex Regiment, held a position to the rear.

On 23 April the 3rd Battalion, Royal Australian Regiment (3 RAR), under the command of Lieutenant Colonel Bruce Ferguson, and the 2nd Battalion, Princess Patricia’s Canadian Light Infantry, took up their positions on prominent hills on either side of the valley, near where a small tributary joined the Kapyong River. The Diggers, who had been assigned positions on ridges such as Hill 504 overlooking the Kapyong River and one of its smaller tributaries, dug themselves in on 23 April.

It was a tiny force compared to the Chinese juggernaut. The Chinese launched their spring offensive south down the valley with an estimated 337,000 men in the main force across a 7-kilometre front, with an estimated 150,000 attacking further east. The expansive Kapyong valley was too large to defend with the forces available, and the defenders were spread very thinly.

The Chinese first overran American tanks placed unwisely out in front of the infantry and without artillery support. Unsurprisingly the Chinese, who had already occupied Seoul once, quickly overran South Korean forces defending the major invasion route. The Australians of the 3rd Battalion first realised the situation in the evening of 23 April, when South Korean forces came running back past Australian positions along with Korean civilians retreating from the Chinese.

Much to the Australians’ surprise, within minutes Chinese soldiers themselves came running past in the night, chasing the retreating South Koreans. It was difficult to differentiate between the two Asian armies in the dark, with Chinese in among the retreating Koreans, but the shrewd O’Dowd had expected the worst. `I knew that Chinese soldiers would mix in with the civilians’, he said.

They would be in civilian clothes or in uniform, in the half-light, and be penetrating to the rear in numbers. I rang the commanding officer and requested permission to open fire with the machine-guns to stop all movement on the road. This was refused on the grounds Republic of Korea soldiers could still be coming through.

The odd shot rang out and I repeated my request. Nevertheless, the panic became justified as firing broke out around battalion HQ. The enemy was at our rear.

O’Dowd and his men now had to watch their backs. This human wave initially swarmed between the positions of the Australian battalion’s A and B Companies and into the positions they were defending, so the Australians, all of whom were now fully alert, began to let them have it, firing at the Chinese charging in among them and stopping them in hand-to-hand combat.

The Australians killed many, but the enemy soldiers kept on coming and by midnight the Australians were fighting for their lives as the communists began breaking into their inner defences.

Throughout the night the Chinese used grenades and mortars, then repeatedly charged into the Australian positions in waves over their own dead and wounded. The Australians managed to keep them at bay.

It was a close-run thing; no wonder the Americans thought O’Dowd had been killed. O’Dowd said: `Some of the Chinese soldiers did not carry weapons, just buckets of grenades. They had the job of keeping my Diggers’ heads down so their rifleman and machine-gunners could rush in and get among us’.

The Chinese also attacked the nearby C Company and its highly respected commander, Captain Reg Saunders, the first Aboriginal commissioned officer in the Australian army. Saunders reported he had first been alerted to the attack by `the sound of small arms fire’ and `the crash of cannon’ and also seen `flashes of fire coming from the direction of Battalion headquarters’. Saunders `thought the communists were in a good position to cut off our Company’-he was right, as his men had not been able to stop the Chinese. Saunders had no alternative but to retreat.

Then the enemy attacked the battalion headquarters deeper in the Allied lines in overwhelming numbers. The defenders had to withdraw towards the Middlesex position. This loss of the headquarters forced other Allied units to withdraw.

It had been a tough night’s fighting. Mick Servos, a rifleman and forward scout, said the Chinese `were a tough and clever enemy and they just charged in, wave after wave after wave’. At least every twenty minutes on average through the night, he said, the massed Chinese attacks kept coming at the Australians defending their positions on the hills overlooking the Kapyong valley.

When dawn broke on 24 April, most Australians had survived and were still defending their positions. The light enabled O’Dowd to see the Chinese getting ready for another attack on his position, which is when he phoned for support, only to be told by the Americans he had been wiped out. The American commanding officer’s reaction was understandable, though, because so many Chinese had infiltrated Australian positions during the night of 23 April.

O’Dowd mounted a counterattack that forced the enemy back, but `there was absolutely nothing I could do to help my men, beyond walking up and down, watching for the possibility of a break-in and shouting encouragement while attacks were in progress’. The battle was to be largely O’Dowd’s.

Although the Chinese were exposed on the floor of the valley in the daylight where Allied forces could reach them with artillery, during the night they kept creeping forward and the Australians had to stop them with fire or hand-to-hand fighting and bayonets. O’Dowd also called in New Zealand artillery support-he expected a better result in convincing the Kiwis he was still alive.

Fighting continued throughout 24 April. The Australians held their positions, even though US airstrikes accidentally killed two Australians and wounded others with napalm-an example of `friendly fire’. The Canadians also fought off intensive attacks by the Chinese, refusing to be dislodged from their hill-top position.

But it was plain the Australians would be unlikely to survive another night in such an exposed position without great losses, so they planned a night withdrawal along a ridge. Late on 24 April, with more Chinese arriving, the Australians were ordered to retreat to a position that had been successfully defended by the Middlesex men, then establish new front-line defences.

Their fighting withdrawal was supported by New Zealand artillery from the 16th Field Regiment, and as they fired and fell back the Diggers attacked the enemy occupants of their former battalion headquarters, killing 81 Chinese soldiers at the cost of four Australian lives. The Australians had delivered a blow but continued their retreat to safer ground.

Just before midnight on 24 April, the Australians were recovering at the Middlesex Regiment’s position where they had linked up again. On Anzac Day 1951, the Australians rested after their long fight.

They could celebrate as they had slowed and blunted the Chinese offensive for long enough for the Americans to move in and rein force the Kapyong River front. It cost the 3rd Battalion thirty-two lives lost and 59 wounded, but the battalion had certainly stood up well against massive odds. The Australians had taken the brunt of the fighting that first night, with little food and water, limited ammunition and no mines or barbed wire to secure their positions.

The 3rd Battalion held up the Chinese long enough for US reinforcements to reach the Kapyong River front and blunted the Chinese offensive, which never got going again.

After Kapyong the Chinese made only one more attempt to break through UN lines, only to be stopped once again by the Americans.

From then on, the 38th parallel was maintained by the Allies. Cease-fire talks began in July 1951.

It was the most significant and important battle for Australian troops in Korea. The Diggers of the 3rd Battalion RAR, nicknamed `Old Faithful’, along with the Canadian and American units, were presented with the US Presidential Unit Citation.

The commander of 3 RAR, Lieutenant Colonel Bruce Ferguson, was awarded the Distinguished Service Order for his skilful leader ship at Kapyong.

It was a great achievement stopping the communist advance and the capture of Seoul, although it still cost thirty-two Australians their lives. It was a big achievement in Korea and instructors in military academies described Kapyong as `the perfect defensive battle’.

But few in Australia heard about Kapyong-in fact, so many knew so little about the Korean conflict it became known as the `Forgotten War’. The heroes of Kapyong returned to an Australia largely uninterested in their struggle. Australians had plenty of heroes and war stories from World War II.

The Kapyong veterans received little public recognition and even found it difficult to gain repatriation benefits. More than one remembers being turned away from RSL clubs because `that wasn’t a proper war’.

Defeating Chinese soldiers had also been downplayed by the great US General Douglas MacArthur, leader of the United Nations forces, who dismissed Mao’s army as `Chinese laundrymen’ who would flee at the first encounter with the Allies in Korea. MacArthur was dismissed just before the battle for failing to follow presidential orders. President Harry S. Truman said:

I fired him because he wouldn’t respect the authority of the president. I didn’t fire him because he was a dumb son-of-a-bitch, although he was, but that’s not against the law for generals in the US Army. If it was, half to three-quarters of them would be in jail.

The American leadership also made too many mistakes in the Battle of Kapyong-especially when they sent Corsair aircraft to hit Hill 504, believing no one could have survived the attacks of the night before, without making sure. The napalm attack killed two Australians and injured several others.

Birth of Australia’s Special Forces WWII

The men of Sparrow Force with a local catch.

Undoubtedly Winston Churchill’s stint as a correspondent for the Morning Post in the Boer War sparked his enthusiasm for the first British commando operations in World War II. At his initiative, a force of 2,000 ‘special service’ soldiers were assembled by June 1940 to carry out tactical raids on the German occupying forces in Europe.

They were trained at Lochailort on Scotland’s rugged west coast by a talented band of instructors. They were led by a young Scottish aristocrat, Major Bill Stirling, his cousin Lord Lovat (also a major) and Captain Freddie Spencer Chapman, who before the war had been an Arctic explorer and mountaineer as well as a teacher at Gordonstoun School, the alma mater of Prince Philip and later Prince Charles. The training was intense, and when the units were let loose on the Continent they scored some minor successes. But when the main body of commandos under Captain Robert Laycock – known as Layforce – was sent to the Middle East for action in the eastern Mediterranean, the military establishment offered scant cooperation. The result was a series of costly failures, and by July 1941 Layforce was in tatters. It disintegrated during the Battle of Crete and many of its number became POWs. British High Command decided (with barely disguised satisfaction) to disband the unit.

Many of the men returned to their previous regiments, while others chose to remain in the Middle East. Among them was the devil-may-care Lieutenant David Stirling, the younger brother of Major Bill, who had abandoned plans to climb Mount Everest to join Layforce. He engaged the support of a family friend, the deputy commander Middle East, General Sir Neil Methuen Ritchie, for a smaller and more mobile unit that would operate behind enemy lines. Ritchie took the proposal to his commander-in-chief, Claude Auchinleck who, in deference to Churchill, signed off on it. Stirling immediately gathered a team of about 60 volunteers and after a short training regime set out to parachute into German-held North Africa and blow up enemy aircraft on the ground.

It was a disaster. In the face of an approaching storm, Stirling insisted on proceeding with the mission. When they jumped, the team were blown wildly off course. Many were dragged to their death on landing. Stirling himself seriously injured his back. Forty-two of his 61 officers and men were killed, wounded or captured. The survivors were rounded up by a New Zealand unit, the Long Range Desert Group, who were already operating behind the lines, but in more conventional mode. Stirling avoided censure by going to ground and then pulling strings to attach the remnant of his unit to a friendly command. Taking a leaf from the New Zealanders, he abandoned parachuting for vehicle insertion and in a series of raids on German-held ports rehabilitated his unit’s reputation.

To disguise its real modus vivendi the force had initially been designated the Special Air Service Brigade. After some discussion with his men, Stirling decided to retain most of the nomenclature, which was soon abbreviated to the SAS. And though Stirling was captured by the Germans in January 1943, the unit would distinguish itself in his absence and subsequently set the tactical framework and the esprit de corps that would characterise Special Forces units thereafter. From this unlikely beginning, the British 22 SAS Regiment became and remains a leader in the field.

The link to Australia’s Special Forces occurred at their birth when in October 1940, five instructors, including Freddie Spencer Chapman in charge of field-craft, arrived to train Australian and New Zealand companies at a newly developed facility at Tidal River on Victoria’s Wilsons Promontory. The Australians felt ‘commando’ was altogether too flashy and settled upon ‘independent companies’ to describe both their role and their relationship to the Big Army.

Unlike David Stirling, the man given charge of the first company raised, Major Alex Spence – a 35-year-old journalist from Bundaberg, Queensland – had no family ties to smooth the way. Nevertheless, he quickly earned the respect of his men and worked well with his immediate superiors. By August 1941, their training in the rugged mountains, dense bush, swamps and beaches of Wilsons Promontory was completed. The men were ready for action.

But it soon became clear that the High Command was divided on how best they could be used. Spencer Chapman saw their role as ‘stay-behind’ guerrillas, who in the event of a Japanese invasion of the mainland ‘would be a thorn in the flesh of an occupying enemy, emerging in true guerrilla style to attack vital points and then disappear into the jungle’. But informal instructions from the hierarchy alerted the officers and men of 2/2 Independent Company to prepare for shipment to the Middle East, where their compatriots in the 9th Division were besieged at Tobruk.

Fate had a very different theatre in store. By early September 1941, the Australian War Council had become deeply concerned about Japanese involvement in Portuguese Timor, where the colonial power was negotiating with Tokyo for a civil air service and the stationing of a Japanese consul in Dili. The following month, the newly installed Curtin Labor Government countered by appointing its own consul, David Ross, and declaring that, ‘It is essential in the event of Japanese attack on this territory [that] Britain should declare war … Portuguese Timor is the entrance door to Australia.’

While a British declaration was desirable, Curtin was well aware that Britain had its hands full defending its own turf and that Australia would have to take the military initiative. High Command chose the 2/40 Battalion and Spence’s 2/2 Independent Company to defend Timor under the command of Lieutenant Colonel William Leggatt, a 47-year-old Melbourne lawyer. Together they would be codenamed Sparrow Force, a gently understated sobriquet for Australia’s first entry to Special Forces combat. In fact, they were embarking on a classic guerrilla action to divert a vastly superior force from their drive towards the Australian mainland and with every intention of inflicting fierce casualties on the aggressors.

Five days after the 7 December attack on Pearl Harbor, Sparrow Force was ready to deploy. The plan was to land at Kupang on the Dutch side of the island, where they would link up with the Royal Netherlands East Indies contingent led by Lieutenant Colonel Nico Van Straaten, newly arrived from Java. By now the Japanese were carrying all before them in a headlong dash down the Malayan Peninsula. To counter their inevitable attack the Allies would reinforce the Dutch territory, while Spence’s 2/2 Independent Company would occupy East Timor with the support of an additional 260 Netherlands East Indies troops.

By 13 December, they were established in Kupang and three days later they boarded the ancient Dutch training cruiser Surabaya for the overnight journey to Dili. With Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF) Hudson bombers in overwatch, the main force made their way stealthily along the coastline, with spotters alerted for Japanese submarines. Intelligence reported a substantial Portuguese force in the capital. Diplomatic negotiations with the colonial power had been inconclusive as Portugal asserted its neutrality and no one knew how the landing would be received. As the troopship approached its destination, Lieutenant Colonel Leggatt and his Dutch counterparts flew from Kupang to Dili and informed the governor, Manuel de Carvalho, that the Allied force intended to land.

The colonial administrator prevaricated. Leggatt joined Spence on board the Surabaya and gave the order to proceed. As the men of Sparrow Force climbed into the long boats for the journey to shore, visions of Anzac intruded. One soldier fingered his rifle and asked, ‘Will I ram one up the spout?’ Spence replied, ‘No, but look as if you’re prepared to meet a challenge.’

When they reached the sandy beach, they were met only by the local bird life and the troops headed in combat formation for the airport about three kilometres from the capital. Once again there was no sign of resistance and they were soon digging defensive trenches around the airfield. Rumours spread that the Portuguese contingent under one Captain Da Costa was in the hills with a native force preparing to attack; but as time passed it became clear that Da Costa had abandoned the high ground (and the natives) for the creature comforts of Dili.

The Australians quickly realised why he had done so. They were poorly outfitted for the tropics and hordes of malarial mosquitoes attacked their bare arms and legs day and night. While the troops were ordered to dose themselves with quinine twice daily, the medicine came only in a powdered form that was thoroughly unpalatable. Many declined to take it and soon more than half of the 115-strong company were hospitalised with malaria.

Major Spence ordered a survey of the nearby hinterland, seeking a healthier campsite, and soon moved the field hospital to Three Spurs, well above the swampy lowlands. He also encouraged his men to make friends with the locals and, where possible, to learn the native Tetum language. It was becoming ever more likely that Spencer Chapman’s vision of the independent company as a ‘stay-behind’ unit acting as a ‘thorn in the flesh’ of the invader would be realised, albeit in a different location from the North Queensland jungles he had expected.

Through Christmas, the tension rose and on 27 December Prime Minister John Curtin made his historic appeal to America for the defence of the homeland. Then, on 25 January, the Timorese defenders caught their first glimpse of the enemy when a Japanese reconnaissance plane flew over Kupang. The following day at 9 am seven Japanese fighters attacked the nearby Penfui airfield.

By now the Japanese Imperial Army was threatening Singapore and on 31 January the last Allied forces left Malaya and blew up the causeway to the island. Japanese infiltrators – often disguised as Singaporean civilians – crossed the Straits of Johor in their wake. Already their air force had sunk the British battleships Repulse and Prince of Wales. The ‘impregnable fortress’ would fall within 15 days.

The Australian command decided to reinforce the Timorese defenders and sent additional infantry and a light aircraft battery under Brigadier William Veale (a civil engineer in private life) to take command of the operation. The constant air attacks that followed blew the island’s air defences away but troop casualties were light and morale remained relatively high. During one raid a soldier had the Australia badge shot off his epaulette, while a second round cut through his shirt under the armpit. His response: ‘As well as khaki shorts and khaki shirt, I’ve now got khaki underpants!’

However, the situation became deadly serious when on 19 February more than 240 Japanese aircraft from the same carriers used in the Pearl Harbor strike force bombed Darwin, with special attention to the harbour and the two airfields. The men on Timor knew nothing of this and at midnight a small fleet carrying 1,500 Japanese troops arrived at Dili. At first the ships were thought to be the expected Portuguese reinforcements from Mozambique. In fact, they had been intercepted by the Japanese and were now on their way to Goa, the tiny Portuguese colony in India. But once the Australians realised the invaders’ identity they opened up with devastating crossfire, killing some 200 Japanese in five hours of battle. All the defenders then made an orderly withdrawal to the hills but for one unit – 7 Section – who drove into a Japanese roadblock. They surrendered and all but one were executed.

Later the same night the Japanese arrived in overwhelming force in Dutch Timor. A massive aerial bombardment spearheaded the landing of 4,000 men and five ‘tankettes’ on the south-west of the island and a paratroop attack on the Penfui airfield. Leggatt moved his Sparrow Force HQ to the east and at the same time engaged the 500 paratroopers. This culminated in a bayonet charge that killed all but 78 of the airborne invaders. However, the effort exhausted both the defenders and their ammunition and Lieutenant Colonel Leggatt had no choice but to surrender. Though he was not to know it then, he was sentencing his troops to a terrible fate as prisoners of war. Over the next two and a half years nearly 200 of them would perish through a combination of brutality and starvation.

The Japanese soon controlled most of Dutch Timor, while Spence and his commandos (who would eventually wear the name with pride) were consolidating their positions in the hills of East Timor. In the west, Brigadier Veale had withdrawn in haste after ordering ‘Every man for himself’. The commandos were unimpressed. Veale escaped with 12 of his headquarters staff and struck out overland, eventually reaching Lebos, 80 kilometres south-west of Dili. In fact, they retreated so quickly that they left behind most of their small arms.

There was a further blow when on 9 March the Netherlands East Indies surrendered to the Japanese. This meant that the remaining 300 Australians on Timor were facing a force of 6,000 battle-hardened Japanese who would not only fight to the death but whose methods were unencumbered by any of the restraints codified in the Geneva convention.

Soon afterwards the invaders passed a message through Consul David Ross under house arrest that the 2/2 should follow Leggatt’s lead and surrender. But when Spence put it to his men the response was immediate and unmistakably Australian: ‘Surrender? Surrender be fucked!’

Spence’s counsel to make friends with the Timorese was literally bearing fruit. The Australians’ informal demeanour and sense of humour struck a chord with the natives after their overbearing Portuguese colonial masters and they were happy to supply them with home-grown fruits and vegetables. The Australians paid with what little money they had and when that ran out they substituted a ‘surat’ system of IOUs that would be redeemed, they said, when they were able to make contact with their headquarters in Australia.

Having established their own modus operandi, the commandos didn’t take kindly to Brigadier Veale’s admonition to shave off their beards. The 2/2’s Lieutenant David Dexter cracked, ‘We lost our razors, not our rifles.’ The brigadier’s response is not recorded. The incident was one more illustration that an officer at general rank had become superfluous to requirements.

By the end of March, the commandos had consolidated their position. They were well established in the hills surrounding Dili. At platoon level they were setting ambushes along the rough roads and jungle tracks the Japanese travelled in their campaign to rid themselves of the Australian ‘thorn in the flesh’. However, they were without any means to contact their compatriots in Darwin, since Veale’s headquarters staff had been unable to salvage a radio during their wild retreat. This became their first priority and responsibility fell on 2/2 company’s signaller, Max Loveless.

Wracked with malaria, Loveless led a small team of signallers in an attempt to cobble together a workable transmitter with parts from an American commercial medium-wave receiver, a damaged army 109 set, the power pack from a Dutch transmitter, aerial wire and a receiving set. Using the most primitive tools – pliers, a screwdriver and a tomahawk – Loveless worked around the clock but to no avail. Then word arrived from a Portuguese ally that there was a radio in the Qantas Airways office in Dili.

They mounted a raiding party and in the dead of night broke into the Qantas premises. The radio seemed perfectly intact and as a bonus there were half a dozen rifles with ammunition to match. Timorese bearers helped to carry their prize across the mountain spine to Veale’s HQ in Mape. However, their joy was short-lived. The radio would not operate without powerful batteries, and those few they had were patently insufficient. Loveless was devastated and retired to his bunk. It took all the psychological subtlety of his section head, Captain George Parker, to revive his spirits; but when he returned to the workroom it was with a brilliant solution. He would hook up the powerful uncalibrated Qantas set to the weak set they had salvaged with a range of only 50 kilometres. The combination should do the trick. All they needed were four more batteries.

Parker organised a foraging party, which ‘liberated’ batteries from Dili plus enough petrol to run a charger. The extraordinary Heath Robinson contraption now occupied a room nearly three-metres square, with equipment on benches around the perimeter attached by various wires to a generator taken from an old car. A further attachment included a metre-diameter wheel with fixed handles to be turned by four native Timorese working in shifts.

On the night of 18 April, Loveless gave the order; the wheel began to turn and suddenly in Darwin the signallers heard a Morse code message from men they assumed had been either killed or captured by the Japanese. But before they could confirm their situation the batteries ran out. Loveless spent the next day refining his contraption, and that night Darwin was waiting. They were also highly suspicious of the contact as a Japanese ploy and when the first message arrived they demanded proof of identity.

‘Do you know George Parker?’

‘Yes, he is with us.’

‘What is his rank? Answer immediately.’


‘Bring him to the transmitter. What is your wife’s name, George?’


‘What is the street number of your house?’


It was enough. Darwin was satisfied. In Timor they were ecstatic. They christened their contraption ‘Winnie the War Winner’. Then they tapped out the message that would send a bolt of pleasure through an Australian command under imminent threat of invasion: ‘The Timor force is intact and still fighting. Badly needs boots, quinine, money and tommy-gun ammunition. Over …’





(By E. Dwyer Gray, Sydney.)

It is, of course, fairly well known that the war tank was really a Western Australian invention. Those who would like to know the details of the occurrences in connection with Corporal Lancelot E. de Mole’s travelling caterpillar fort, will find them set out in the current issue of the “Australian Motor Owner,” which gives the whole story. The magazine does not, however, print the text of a certain striking letter from Perth, addressed to the British Minister for War on September 19, 1914. This not only informed the British Minister for War that the archives of its own department contained the plans for a perfect war tank, but foretold what tanks could do, exactly two years before the inferior Somme tanks appeared so belatedly on the battlefields. This letter is now made available for publication for the first time, and reads as follows:

“The question of armaments being of paramount importance to armies engaged in this great war, may I suggest your placing the plans, specifications, and model, submitted by Mr. Lancelot de Mole in 1912, before a committee of experts, with a view to the adoption of travelling forts against the German forces In my humble opinion no deadlier or more efficient war engine could be used than de Mole’s caterpillar fort, which can travel over broken ground, climb embankments., span canals, streams and trenches with the greatest of ease, and which, if armoured and manned with small quick-firing guns and maxims, will quickly turn the most stubborn of armies, even if they be most strongly entrenched.

A line of moving fortresses – no dreamer’s fancy, but an idea which can be actually materialised – adequately support- ed by artillery, will carry everything before it, and save the infantry. I sincerely trust that you will appreciate the value of my suggestion. Should you require the services of Mr. L. de Mole kindly request the Western Australian Government to communicate with Mr. H. J. Anketell, resident engineer, Department of Public Works, Perth – Yours, etc., G. W. D. Breadon.”

Mr. Breadon was a civil engineer by profession. He was a man of repute and capacity, and shortly after writing this remarkable letter he became a Commissioner for Munitions in India. The letter had no effect whatever. Apparently it went into the same sort of pigeonhole as de Mole’s plans in 1912. Today it accuses the British Minister for War in 1914, or his agents, and the accusation, though it has a particular application to 1914, goes back to 1912.

Some Tragic Questions.

Here observe that on November 17. 1919, a British Royal Commission on Awards to Inventors, presided over by   Mr. Justice Sargant, declared:- “De Mole made, and reduced to practical shape, as far back as the year 1912, a very brilliant lank invention, which anticipated, and in some respects surpassed, that actually put into use late in 1916. Counsel for the Minister for Munitions specifically admitted: ”De Mole’s suggestions would, in the opinion of present advisers, have made a better article than those that went into action.” The Chairman said to him: ”Your suggestion is sent to the Government in 1912 and 1915. Then it gets pigeonholed. That is your misfortune, but not your fault.” But what about his country’s misfortune and the calamitous consequences to mankind? How much would the war have been shortened if Britain had possessed tanks from the beginning? Would there have been any retreat from Mons? Would the war ever have become static? Millions of men may have perished on account of this ineptitude, which in fact prolonged the war for years. Even if the British   Minister for War, or his agents, had acted promptly and with sense when Breadon’s striking letter reached London in October, 1914, the whole history of the war would have been altered, and huge savings would have been effected in human lives. Dead men tell no tales, but live ones can – and this is one of them. It is time to abolish pigeonholes and to substitute searchlights.

Churchill’s Historic Letter.

On January 5, 1915, Mr. Winston Churchill, then First Lord of the Admiralty, wrote his historic letter to Mr. Asquith (of “Wait and see” fame) on the subject of mechanical warfare. In this he remarked:- “The question to be now solved is not the long attack over a carefully prepared glacis of former times, but the actual getting across of   100 or 200 yards of open space and wire entanglements. All this was apparent more than two months ago, but no steps have been taken and no preparation made. Yet it would be quite easy to fit up tractors with armoured shelters, in which men and machine guns could be placed, which would be bullet proof. The caterpillar system would enable trenches to be crossed quite easily, and the weight of the machines would destroy all wire entanglements. These engines could . . . advance into enemy trenches, smash   all obstructions, and sweep the trenches with their machine gun fire.”

Mr. Winston Churchill began his practical tank activities after a Dukes’ dinner on February 15, 1915, when Major Hetherington and others suggested rolling cars, with wheels the size of the Great Wheel at Earl’s Court, but the above letter shows that he had received inspiration before that date. At the moment he wrote his historic letter his colleague, the Minister for War, or his agents, had Breadon’s letter locked away and ignored, whilst somewhere else in the War Office reposed plans for a perfect war tank travelling on the cater- pillar system on a chain track of steel plates. It was only after spending mil- lions on the secret evolution of an inferior type of tank that “Mother” and its adaptation appeared 0n the battlefields in September, 1916.

The Birth of the Tank.

The standard work on these subjects is “Tanks, 1914-18,” by Sir Albert Stern, long Director of the Mechanical Warfare Supply Department, and an original member of Mr. Winston Churchill’s celebrated Landship Committee of 1915, so detested by the War Office that it refused to give it the accommodation of an un-tenanted room. Britain owed even, the Somme tanks, not to the War Office and the military authorities, who consistently ridiculed and opposed all ideas of landships or tanks, but to the grit, the commonsense, the courage, and the driving force of Sir Albert Stern, and the Naval Department. In his book Sir Albert Stern writes:- “Mr. d’Eyncourt turned down a proposed truck of Balata belting, and once more our hopes sank. Then on September 22 (1915) I received the following telegram from Lincoln: ‘To Stern, Room 59, 83 Pall Mall. Balata died on the test bench yesterday morning. New arrival by Tritton out of pressed plate. Light in weight, but very strong. All doing well, thank you. – Proud Parents.’ That was the birth of the tank.”

That statement is what Mr. Winston Churchill once described as a terminological inexactitude, only in the sense that it is historically untrue. The curious telegram of September 22, 1915, signed “Proud Parents,” was not the birth of the tank. It was only the birth of “Mother” and its adaptations. The birth of the tank took place in Western Australia in 1912. But Sir Albert Stern is not to blame. He did not know de Mole’s story when he wrote his book. That the Director of the Mechanical Warfare Supply Department should never have heard of de Mole’s tank is, however, just one of those mysteries which should have been probed and never was. De Mole’s plans were not merely received and then pigeonholed. They were, on the contrary, examined, and deliberately rejected at least three times – once before the war and twice during the war, or, to be exact, in 1913, 1916, and 1918. There was also Breadon’s letter of September, 1914, and a working model one-eighth of the natural size, which did no more in London than the plans and was eventually found in what the London Press of 1919 described as “the neglected cellar of a Government department.” In 1916 de Mole’s tank was rejected by the Advisory Committee of Scientific Experts. They must have displayed some expert science to keep Sir Albert Stern ignorant of the fact that there was anything of the kind on the planet. But that he was ignorant of the existence of de Mole’s tank can be accepted as sure.

The Royal Commission of 1919 paid a high tribute to the driving force of Mr. Winston Churchill, and probably he deserved it. But no tribute was paid to the driving force of Sir Albert Stern, who deserved it more, and was his teacher about tanks. It is regrettable to have to add that on October 16, 1917. Mr. Winston Churchill weakly dismissed Sir Albert Stern from the Directorship of the Mechanical Warfare Supply Department, at the bidding of British Generals, whoso stupidity in connection with tanks he had dared to oppose and expose: appointed Admiral Moore in his place, who up to the date of his appointment had never even seen a tank, and actually referred Sir Albert Stern to America for a proper development of tanks on a large scale. But it is now a matter of history that Sir Albert Stern won through in the end.

De Mole’s Ideal Tank.        

De Mole’s tank was intended to be 37 ft. long, with a wheel base of 25ft, travelling on a caterpillar track of steel plates. It had a double climbing face, and consequently could have reversed over the roughest battlefields, which the Somme tanks could not. It would have crossed a 16ft trench with ease, either forwards or backwards. It had a high underbody clearance to prevent bogging.

The chain track was fully protected, travelling inside the armour instead of over the top. The Somme tanks were very imperfectly steered by moving the chain track faster on one side than the other, which imposed a strict limitation in length, or they could not be steered at all. ln de Mole’s tank perfect steering was secured, for the chain track could be moved laterally, thus causing it to conform lo curves. This meant that there was no limitation to length, except that imposed by weight, and the   horse-power of the motor engine used. At least three times de Mole offered his brilliant invention to his country for nothing, and it was refused. It is terrible to think what might have occurred If de Mole had been a man of the same type as Grindell Mathews. When in June, 1913, the Director-General of Artillery, wrote to him finally from the War Office, London, definitely declining the invention, and stating “it is not proposed to proceed with the matter,” some of de Mole’s friends suggested to him that he should take copies of his plans to the German Consul in Perth. All was peace, but de Mole said he would have no truck with any foreign Government.

What even the Somme tanks and their developments actually did in the war need not be stressed here. They were one of the chief factors in the final victory of the Allies. Lord Kitchener had no time for them. As Sir Albert Stern says. He was too busy even to look at the first efforts at construction. The chairman of the alleged Australian Inventions Board, sitting in Adelaide during the war was also too busy even to look at de Mole’s plans. Field-Marshal Sir Douglas Haig supported Stern. When the tanks appeared at Delville Wood and other Somme battlefields in September 1916, he wrote: “We take our objectives where the tanks advance. Where they do not advance we do not take our objectives.” In May, 1917, he wrote: “The tanks are wonderful life-savers.” A British private wrote: “Before the tanks came the dead used to be strewn in front of the German gun emplacements like birds before a butt with a good shot inside. Now these tank things just walkthrough.”

The 1919 Tank Awards.

The British Royal Commission on Awards to Inventors accorded the Australian credit and commiseration, to which a grateful Empire added later the sustaining letters, “C. B. E.” To the contrivers of an inferior tank they allotted £15,000 in cash. But the Commissioners had no choice. They were tied by the terms of their appointment, and could make awards only for “tanks actually used by a Government department” – that is, for “Mother” and its adaptations, or to those who could show, “A casual connection” between their conceptions and those Contrivances. The Somme tank awardees were Sir E. H. W. Tennyson-d’Eyncourt, Sir W. Tritton, Major Wilson, Lieut. McFie, and Mr. S. Newfield. A certified verbatim report of the Commission proceedings at Queen Anne’s Gate, Westminster, on November 3, 1919, shows that two of these Somme awardees had, whilst controlling official positions, offered criticisms of de Mole’s tank, which “he felt he could not properly put forward to the Commission as being a reasoned and proper report on the position as it then was”, since “the criticisms contained in that report are criticism, which I am advised are not justified.”

De Mole’s Other Activities.

De Mole conceived his great tank idea or travelling caterpillar fort, while engaged in the organisation of heavy transport work in the South-Western part of Western Australia in 1911, and he first sent his plans to the British War Office in 1912. Caterpillar traction was already known, the celebrated American   Holt tractor being then on the scene. But the steering was awkward, and this was part of de Mole’s triumph. He made perfect steering quite easy. The Holt story is another instance of the ineptitude of the British authorities on some important occasions. They gave to America for nothing plans for which they had paid a prize, and which they were exceedingly glad to use on generous re- turn. In 1902 de Mole invented au automatic telephone similar in operation to that now in use, but the postal authorities would not even give it a trial. The model of his rejected war tank can be seen at the Melbourne War Museum. The British Museum wanted to buy it, but characteristically the Australian soldier refused to sell it, and presented it to the Australian War Museum as a gift. Just now de Mole is a resident of Cremorne, Sydney, and is working out two big ideas in connection with heavy traffic. In six months’ time every city in Australia is likely to know all about them, and the country, too. He is a civil engineer by profession, like his father, who is a citizen of Adelaide. His great-great-grand-father was the eminent engineer, Henry Maudesly, who invented the marine engine, etc.

A generous-minded man. Lancelot de Mole makes no grievance of his wrongs. But the mourning millions will never know what his wrongs cost the world in human lives, or how many of the dead, including 60,000 splendid Australians, would have been saved if the British War Office had been wise in time. The man actually responsible for the pigeon- holing of the Australian corporal’s tank plans in 1912 and the definite rejection of June, 1913, was the man who prolonged the war for years. Who was he?



Australian Submarine – HMAS AE2

The loss of HMAS AE2 in Turkish waters was the final blow for the Australian submarine fleet after its sister sub AE1 had been lost while patrolling off New Guinea in 1914. The wreck of the AE2 was found by divers in 1998. AWM

Undeterred by the failure of British submarines to penetrate the Dardanelles, Lieutenant Harry Stoker, front row centre, bravely steered his little HMAS AE2 submarine through to the Sea of Marmara, aiming to torpedo enemy ships transporting Turkish reinforcements to Gallipoli. AWM

It was 25 April 1915 when this battle got under way-the same day Anzac troops landed on the western beaches of the Gallipoli peninsula. The troops planned to attack Constantinople (Istanbul) overland fighting their way up this peninsula, but there was also a sea route to Constantinople along the Dardanelles Strait between the peninsula and the mainland which passes through the Narrows and into the wider Sea of Marmara.

HMAS AE2 was bravely trying to help with that bloody battle by sneaking around the eastern side of the same peninsula, attacking the Turks from the rear by destroying transports before they could ferry more troops across the Sea of Marmara and also distracting any warships shelling Allied troops landing on those beaches.

The hazardous mission was directed by top British naval officers anxious to stab Turkey in the back. Admiral John de Robeck told Stoker that if AE2 got through, then `there is nothing we will not do for you’. Stoker was ordered to sink any mine-laying ships he saw in the Narrows and, as the landings were due at dawn the next day, to `generally run amok’ around Cannakale to cause maximum disruption to the Turks.

It was a tall order and a dangerous one for a tiny submarine and inexperienced crew in the narrow confines of enemy-infested waters.

Leaving her base near the mouth of the Dardanelles, AE2 started early so she could reach the entrance to the mighty waterway at 2.30 a. m. under cover of darkness. At first AE2 was able to sail along on the surface under cover of darkness, sailing between the land either side where lights could be seen from fortifications, streets and the homes of Turkish families. Stoker noted that the moon had just set and searchlights played across the dark waters, but: `As the order to run amok in the Narrows precluded all possibility of making the passage unseen, I decided to hold on the surface as far as possible’.

Then, at 4.30 a. m., about the same time as the first of the Anzacs landed on the beaches under fire from the Turks, the enemy guarding the Dardanelles spotted the sub. Stoker said `a gun opened fire at about one and a half miles [2-kilometre] range . . . I immediately dived and . . . proceeded through the minefield’.

So far so good. AE2 dodged that first enemy fire and sailed submerged, covering an impressive 10 kilometres of the 60-kilometre channel. It got lighter until by 6 a. m. AE2 reached Chanak, the narrowest part of the strait, and Stoker saw the first target he could `run amok’ with-the Turkish gunboat Peyk I Sevket. There might have been enemy ships all around him, but Stoker coolly lined up the Turkish boat, fired off a torpedo and hit the bull’s-eye before escaping.

The Turks, alerted to the immediate presence of a deadly submarine in their midst, now hunted AE2 in earnest. Forts on either side sprang into action. Heavy fire opened up from Fort Chemenlik at Cannakale and from Kilitbahir on the other side of the Narrows, while gunboats and destroyers criss-crossed the surface.

Luckily the shore batteries were too far away for accurate shooting, but in the excitement Stoker ran his submarine aground directly under a Turkish fort, which luckily was unable to lower its guns to range on AE2. After four anxious minutes exposed on the surface, the submarine worked itself off the shore while shells fell all around it, and slid back into deeper water.

Stoker immediately submerged and continued bravely weaving his way through a web of lines tethering the mines that filled the waters of the Dardanelles, trying not to hit the bottom but nevertheless grounding from time to time, and bouncing towards the surface now and then, yet making steady progress towards the Sea of Marmara.

Soon after another grounding and a return towards the surface, Stoker realised he had passed through the Narrows successfully-but he was surrounded by enemy ships.

When his periscope was sighted by a Turkish battleship firing over the peninsula at British positions, there was only one thing he could do: dive to the bottom.

By this stage many Turkish ships were on the lookout for AE2. They could not find the submarine’s position when it was submerged and it could attack only when it surfaced. On the other hand, submarines passing through the Dardanelles needed to surface frequently to take accurate bearings from landmarks, otherwise they risked running aground. Feeling he had sufficient data for his course, Stoker now headed the AE2 down the straits past Nara Burnu at some depth before he risked further observations at periscope depth.

Coming back up once more, Stoker saw they were well past the Narrows, but the Turks saw him too and the chase resumed. Diving deep again, the next time AE2 surfaced Stoker saw straight ahead two Turkish tugboats with a cable stretched between them to catch the submarine’s conning tower.

Stoker took AE2 to the bottom and settled the vessel there with engines off. They did not have enough power left in the batteries to get through to the Sea of Marmara, and recharging them would require running on the surface under diesel power.

It was 8.30 a. m. on 25 April 1915. As the Anzacs tried to advance up the cliffs of Gallipoli, these sailors of the Royal Australian Navy were almost through the Dardanelles and into the Sea of Marmara where they could really have a go at Johnny Turk.

Stoker spent the rest of that first Anzac Day sitting on the bottom, hoping the ships searching for him would give up. It was Sunday so, at about the time most Christians would have been going to church back home, Stoker held prayers then gave the crew a chance to sleep.

Overhead they could hear the Turks looking for them and later something being towed from the surface hit the side of the vessel. Leaks were bringing significant amounts of water into the bilges and this water, if pumped out, could reveal their position because it contained large amounts of oil. All day the crew worked carrying water to other parts of the submarine.

At 9 p. m. Stoker finally brought AE2 back to the surface, where he saw his strategy of laying low and hiding had paid off-no enemy ships were in sight. They had spent more than sixteen hours under water. The air become so stale in the submarine that a match would not burn for more than a fraction of a second.

The crew were hurried up top for gulps of fresh air and Stoker restarted the diesel engines, moving ahead to charge the batteries.

Travelling through the night and against all odds, Stoker and his crew made it through the Dardanelles and into the Sea of Marmara by the early hours of Monday 26 April-a major breakthrough. The AE2’s wireless operator repeatedly beamed a message back to the invasion fleet to say they had made it through the Narrows and were into the Sea of Marmara, but no answer was received and AE2 ran on into the night.

Unknown to Stoker, AE2’s message had been heard and news of the submarine’s success conveyed to the top commanders. After the war Stoker was told by Admiral Roger Keys of the morale-boosting effect of the news, as General Sir Ian Hamilton (Commander-in- Chief, Mediterranean Expeditionary Force) had been pondering whether to evacuate the Anzacs. Charles Bean noted in his diary that news of AE2’s breakthrough arrived at headquarters on Gallipoli at about 2.30 a. m. on 26 April 1915. An Australian soldier ashore on that night also said later that the following message was posted at Gallipoli: `Australian sub AE2 just through the Dardanelles. Advance Australia’. It was indeed a great morale booster.

Now the excited Stoker planned to claim a few scalps. From the morning of 26 April and for the next few days, AE2 hunted for Turkish ships in the southern Sea of Marmara. She may not have run amok, but she certainly made her presence felt and deeply rattled the Turks.

AE2 boldly sailed along on the surface, with Turkish fishing boats all around, as Stoker set out to deter Turkish shipping from sailing out south through the Dardanelles with reinforcements for Gallipoli. At one point the cunning Stoker even took AE2 back below the top reaches of the Dardanelles then travelled up through them again with his periscope up, trying to convince the Turks that yet another submarine had broken through the Narrows.

It is a pity Australia’s original fleet of two subs was not still together. AE1 had been lost off New Guinea the previous year.

Just after he tried to create the impression there was another sub with him and just when things were getting too hot, a second Allied boat did arrive. Inspired by Stoker, the British submarine E14, commanded by Lieutenant Commander Edward Boyle, had also got through the gauntlet of the Dardanelles and now joined AE2 to help attack enemy shipping.

Stoker and his men were greatly relieved to see friendly faces:

Five days, about, had passed since we had entered the Dardanelles, vouched for by our experiences, the only true recorders of time’s every varying flight. As one by one the five days had slipped by, the habit of thinking we were alone became so ingrained that realisation of the reverse brought very pleasant surprise. 

The two sub captains agreed to run amok together the next day. With double the strength they could really hope to claim some scalps, but next day, 30 April, the torpedo-boat Sultan Hissar, with a gunboat in support, spotted AE2 and forced Stoker to dive as quickly and as deeply as possible.

Then something went wrong and AE2 began to rise uncontrollably, surfacing with its bow sticking out of the water less than 2 kilometres from the torpedo-boat. The submarine had hit swirling patches of denser water that caused it to lose its capacity to stay in balance.

An alarmed Stoker tried to dive again, but AE2 was still out of control and headed well below its maximum permitted depth. There was now the danger it would be crushed by the weight of water, so Stoker ordered full speed astern and blew air into his main ballast tanks. AE2 responded, and this time her stern broke the surface in full view of the Turkish torpedo-boat.

The Sultan Hissar immediately launched a torpedo, which hit and blasted a hole in AE2’s engine room.

Stoker had hoped to use his sub to ram the enemy, but that was now out of the question and he decided to surrender. He ordered his crew on deck immediately, telling them to scramble on board the Sultan Hissar alongside, then scuttled AE2 before the Turks could stop him.

`Within seconds the engine room was hit and holed in three places’, Stoker noted.

Owing to inclination by the bow, it was impossible to see the torpedo boat through the periscope and I considered an attempt to ram would be useless. I therefore blew the main ballast and ordered all hands on deck. Assisted by Lieutenant [Geoffrey] Haggard, I then went round opening all tanks to flood the sub. [Lieutenant John] Cary, on the bridge, watched the rising water to give warning in time for our escape. But then came a shout from him-`Hurry, sir, she’s going down’. As I reached the bridge the water was about two feet from the top of the conning tower. 

Stoker got out in the nick of time and, as he boarded the Sultan Hissar, he had the satisfaction of watching his sub sink to the bottom in 55 fathoms. He had done his duty as every captain wished to do on surrendering, cheating the enemy out of taking his vessel as a prize.

The AE2 went down at 10.45 a. m. on 30 April 1915, sliding to the bottom of the Sea of Marmara about 6 kilometres north of Kara Burnu.

Although the Turks herded him and his crew off to a prisoner-of-war camp for the rest of the war-at least none of them had died in this battle.

An Anzac Dunkirk I

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.’

An Anzac Dunkirk II

An Anzac Dunkirk: the evacuation beaches, and major force movements, April 1941

In different circumstances, Bob Slocombe, one of the survivors from 2/8th Battalion’s engagement with the SS at Vevi, managed to keep his tin hat, although the reasons for wanting to would later escape him. Slocombe was one of the Australians who ended up in the sea when Costa Rica finally foundered. He’d had the good sense to take off his boots in preparation for the swim but, inexplicably, he left his helmet on. A passing carley float (life raft) provided temporary respite, before he was picked up by another destroyer; still crowned with his helmet, Slocombe dried out on the engine-room gratings on the passage to Crete. Jim Mooney, one of Slocombe’s comrades in the 2/8th Battalion, recalled the miscalculations of other men, such as those who took off their boots and patiently tied a knot in the laces so they could hang them around their necks. Inevitably, when the boots filled with water and weighed them down, these men found their fastidious preparations no aid to their breast-stroke.

The sinking of the Costa Rica inflicted an unwanted diversion on the survivors. Instead of going back to Egypt, the survivors who had crammed aboard the three destroyers were offloaded at Suda Bay, Crete. In this chance way, these men were set on another path of tragedy and suffering.

While the Costa Rica drama played out, the Greeks awaited their fate on the mainland. Early on 27 April, the Germans finally entered Athens. On a ‘mellow spring morning, with an early nightingale singing in the pines and the hills glowing with wild roses’, mechanised columns entered the ancient birthplace of democracy.49 To complete the Nazi triumph, two German officers immediately hoisted the swastika on the Acropolis and just as quickly sent a telegram to their Führer, laying claim to the feat. This act of self-congratulation set off yet another spat in the ranks of the Wehrmacht, this time over who was entitled to claim the title of conqueror of Athens — the flag bearers or their commander. One Greek soldier, lying wounded in hospital, marked the occasion with a very different act of symbolism: he asked his nurse ‘to help him tie something up in his handkerchief’, which proved to be a handful of earth, since ‘he wished to save a little of Greek soil while it was still free’.

Some Anzacs were there to greet the Germans. Left behind at their hospital at Kephissia was Major Brooke Moore, a 42-year-old general practitioner from Bathurst, New South Wales, now commanding the six other officers and 150 non-commissioned ranks of the 2/5th AGH. With 112 patients too ill to move, the medical staff remained behind to care for them. Vince Egan was one of the hospital orderlies who, having spent the night on duty, awoke to be informed that he was now a prisoner of war. The Germans arrived at Kephissia on the morning of 27 April and placed a guard on the hospital, but otherwise allowed the staff to continue their work.

While the citizens of Athens contemplated occupation, the last military evacuations were still underway. By 27 April, Freyberg described conditions at the remaining embarkation beaches as ‘chaotic’. His 4 Brigade spent the morning moving into a defensive position near the village of Markopoulon, in order to block the road from Athens to Porto Rafti. This movement was detected by the ever-present Luftwaffe, which mounted a sharp raid before noon by 23 aircraft. These managed to start a fire in an ammunition wagon of the 2/3rd Field Regiment, with disastrous results: ammunition set off by the fire set in train a series of explosions, and ‘soon shells were bursting everywhere, vehicles burning, and the ripe crops in the fields and the trees in the pine woods blazing fiercely’. When the Australian gunners and the nearby New Zealand infantry of the 20 Battalion emerged from the mayhem, they left behind six artillerymen who had been killed, and 30 more Kiwis who had been killed or wounded. The loss in equipment was also severe — nine guns from the 2/3rd Field and an attached anti-tank battery were smashed and burnt. Warrant Officer C. V. Shirley, a 24-year-old clerk from Invercargill, was among the New Zealanders:

I was only about one hundred yards down the road when a number of aeroplanes swooped very low over the ridge. The men were still in their trucks, awaiting dispersal orders but immediately the attack began they scattered and took what cover they could on both sides of the road. The attack continued for some considerable time, the planes swooping very low up and down the road and strafing the road itself, the trucks and men. All the vehicles except the OC’s 8-cwt truck were ‘brewed up’ by incendiary bullets, which also set fire to [the] crop in which some of the men were sheltering.

Observing this devastation were the villagers of Markopoulon. With the Germans on their doorstep, and the sky black with smoke as their crops burnt, the Greeks stood outside their houses to cheer on the Kiwi infantry, and give what support they could — ‘Women and girls ran forward with cups of water and old men gave the thumbs-up sign.’ For good reason, many of the Anzacs interviewed for this book still had tears in their eyes 60 years later when they were asked to comment on the support they got from the Greek people.

Despite the air attacks, the 4 NZ Brigade got into position, and they watched mid-afternoon as a German column moved into Markopoulon. The Anzacs declined to fire into the village, and instead opened a barrage from field guns and mortars only when the German vehicles appeared from it. A determined attack did not eventuate, and this allowed Puttick to get his brigade and its attached artillery back that evening to Porto Rafti, where the cruiser Ajax, and the destroyers Kingston and Kimberley, carried away 3840 troops. At Rafina, the destroyer Havock took on another 800 men — the final elements of the 1st Armoured Brigade, with Charrington still in command.

One of the New Zealand infantrymen who embarked that night at Porto Rafti was Eric Davies with the 19 Battalion. He got out to the Kingston, and climbed the netting strung down the side to bring the troops aboard, initially in fine military order. Davies had both a rifle and a tommy gun, with ample ammunition for both, but made no allowances for the man above him, who panicked as they went up the side. When his comrade lashed out in fright, Davies was kicked off the netting. Weighed down by the hardware, Davies recalled, ‘I reckon I went down 25 feet, but by the grace of God, the net went that far, and I grabbed onto it. I got back up, ammunition and all.’

At Kalamata on 27 April, the only organised force was the NZ Reinforcement Battalion and the elements of the 2/1st Field Regiment and transport personnel under Lieutenant Colonel Haylock, marooned after the big embarkation the night before. The rest of the men at Kalamata were disorganised base troops under Brigadier Parrington. They spent the day beneath the olive trees, under regular air attack — the worst of them at dusk, when 25 bombers crisscrossed the town at only 500 feet, unloading sticks of bombs as they went. There would be no respite that night for the men at Kalamata. No naval force was sent there on 27 April, and so they had to wait another day to see if rescue was still a prospect the following night.

One of those waiting under the trees at Kalamata was John Crooks. He had set off from Athens with seven or eight of his own signallers, and along the way inherited about 120 other men. He recalled: ‘As the gathering collection of miscellaneous soldiers appeared to have no leader and I was the only officer in sight, I felt that I would have to show some sort of leadership and take the whole party with men.’

On 28 April, all was set for one final effort to shift the men from Kalamata. The only organised fighting force still ashore — Barrowclough’s 6 NZ Brigade — had reached Monemvasia after its rearguard work, and was also standing by to embark. Doug Morrison, at the head of his company in the 24 Battalion, spent his last days in Greece at Tripolis in the central Peloponnese, holding the road junction there which led to Monemvasia. Moving back to the port itself, Morrison’s men occupied a hill overlooking the bay, holding the very last perimeter of the campaign. By then his men were exhausted, and he recalled that ‘chaps were sleeping on their feet’.

For some, the Greek campaign ended on 28 April, and with it, their fighting careers. The Australian Reinforcement Battalion managed to move down the coast to Tolos from Navplion after it was left behind on the 26 April, but even this exertion proved to be in vain. While waiting at Tolos for embarkation, this isolated group was overrun by the Germans, and the greater part of it was forced to surrender. Some scattered parties took to the hills, and some others took their chances in small boats; but, for most, long years of captivity began that day.

Better luck attended Barrowclough and his men. On the evening of 28 April, with its discipline intact, the 4 NZ Brigade formed up on the causeway between Monemvasia and the mainland. Heading their way was first the destroyer Isis, followed shortly thereafter by the hardworking cruiser Ajax and the destroyers Hotspur and Havock. On the voyage north, Havock swooped in the darkness on what she thought was a submarine — but the small object in the sea proved to be a rubber dinghy carrying the crew of a spotter plane that had been catapulted off Perth earlier in the day. This machine was a ‘Walrus’ biplane amphibian, a wonderful contraption of pusher engine, high-mounted wings, and bracing wires, which ironically emanated from the same stable as the sleek Spitfire of Battle of Britain fame. The Walrus, unfortunately, had come across a prowling Junkers 88, which had quickly dispatched the Australian spotter plane. Closing in to depth-charge what she thought to be a submarine, Havock recognised her error at the last minute, and the hapless aviators became the first rescued souls for the evening.

At Monemvasia, the New Zealand troops formed up in good order at five points along the causeway, and were carried to the warships on board landing craft left behind by Glenearn. Baillie-Groham, waiting for embarkation along with General Freyberg, thought their organisation and discipline ‘magnificent’. Peter Preston’s platoon of the 26 Battalion was even ordered to shave and clean up before embarkation, to ensure that the brigade went away with the correct bearing. Setting this standard was Freyberg himself. Preston remembers the general striding the quay, demanding in his ‘funny, high-pitched voice, “Who’s in charge of that boat?”’, when something went even slightly awry. Freyberg’s equanimity was largely a show for the troops, as the general was actually a bundle of nerves:

I feel sure those last hours of waiting on the beach were the most anxious that we had had. The ships did not arrive to time. At 11.30 there were no ships in sight and we were in a state of desperation for, given the most favourable circumstances, I considered that anything up to 1500 troops would be left behind. Another difficult situation faced us. Suppose they did not turn up at all? Spread out all over the area were over 100 vehicles, we had our stretcher cases out on the pier and there were also walking wounded … the anxiety of those last hours was indescribable.

‘When, lo, out of the darkness, there was light

There in the sea were England and her ships.’

Without major mishap, the troops were embarked; so, by 3.00 a.m., after a last sweep of the beach by Freyberg and Baillie-Groham to see that no stragglers had been left behind, the New Zealand general and the British admiral were at last aboard the Ajax.

Further south at Kithera, a smaller evacuation mounted by Auckland, Salvia, and Hyacinth was also a success that night. Unfortunately, the good luck ended at Kalamata. There, 7000 troops remained, together with 1500 Yugoslav refugees, whose likely fate in German hands was too hideous to contemplate. Coming to their aid was a powerful convoy of warships, led by Lieutenant Commander Bowyer-Smyth aboard Perth, together with another cruiser, Phoebe, and the destroyers Decoy and Hasty. Sailing north, these ships were joined by four more destroyers, Nubian, Hero, Hereward, and Defender, the whole group aiming to arrive at Kalamata at 10.00 p.m. To undertake a reconnaissance, Bowyer-Smyth sent ahead Hero, commanded by Captain Biggs, at 7.30 p.m. Good practice though this reconnaissance might have been, it unfortunately did more harm than good. Nearing the port at 8.45 p.m., Biggs saw evidence of fighting in the town as tracer fire lit the night, and someone on the breakwater then signalled the destroyer, ‘Bosch in town’.

Indeed they were. An assault party of two companies of the 5th Panzer Division, with two field guns, had attempted a daring coup by storming the town. One of the units awaiting embarkation was the New Zealand reinforcement camp: it held men from 31 different units of the 2nd NZEF, awaiting orders to go forward as replacements. With the help of a number of officers, Major MacDuff organised the men into a battalion headquarters and three rifle companies, and these preparations were warranted. At around 5.00 p.m., the German column suddenly entered the town and got as far as the quay, where they captured the naval sea-transport officer in charge of the embarkation, Captain Clark-Hall.

Small groups of New Zealand and Australian infantry quickly counterattacked, many not even needing orders before pitching in. Sergeant Jack Hinton of the 20 NZ Battalion was one of the men from the reinforcement camp who took matters into his own hands. Fighting his way through the town, Hinton was finally faced at a distance of 200 metres by a post of two machine-guns and a mortar, placed to cover one of the German field pieces. One of his 20 Battalion comrades, Private Jones, recalled:

Hinton started off again and in a very short time cleaned out the two LMGs and the mortar with grenades. Simultaneously a 3-tonner driven by an Aussie and carrying a load of Kiwis rushed the heavy gun from the south. I cannot say whether Hinton or the chaps on the truck cleaned up the big gun. A few minutes after this episode, which was really the turning point of the whole show, Jack was severely wounded in the stomach.

For his bravery in this action, Hinton was awarded the Victoria Cross. Pockets of Germans armed with machine pistols fought it out from the balconies of houses along the quayside, before being persuaded to surrender. The defenders had killed 41 Germans, wounded more than 60, and taken between 80 and 90 prisoner.

Still waiting in the olive groves, John Crooks was a witness to this battle. With his sergeant, he made to enter the town looking for instructions:

[W]e set off on our own to walk along the road in the direction of the town and the pier. I estimated it was about two kilometres ahead of us. At this time sounds of a fierce battle developing could be heard. Almost immediately a shell burst some 15 yards to our left and a little ahead of us. This shell killed one of two British soldiers who were also attempting to find out what they ought best be doing. I … judged it would not be prudent to proceed further. What with the gathering darkness and with no troop dispositions or password known, the possibilities were ripe for either side to have a shot at us, so we walked back to our olive grove hiding place.

While the battle raged along the harbour front, out at sea on board Hero, Captain Biggs acted to clarify the position ashore, landing his first lieutenant in search of Parrington. Biggs’ signal to Bowyer-Smyth to indicate the presence of the Germans reached Perth at 9.10 p.m. Without waiting for a further assessment, or even asking for one, Bowyer-Smyth turned the rest of his force around at 9.29 p.m., abandoning the Kalamata troops to their fate. Bowyer-Smyth subsequently justified his decision on the grounds that his warships were too valuable to risk, and that fire from fighting ashore would silhouette his force and leave it vulnerable to attack by enemy surface vessels. There were no signs of such enemy intervention and, in an any event, Pridham-Wippell had already accepted the risk of loss when Bowyer-Smyth’s force was sent north. By the time Biggs established that evacuation was still possible, Bowyer-Smyth was long gone. Joined by three other destroyers — Kandahar, Kingston, and Kimberley — Biggs took on board Hero as many troops as he could, but this amounted to only 332 men. One of the lucky few was Kevin Price of the 2/1st Anti-Tank Regiment, who had been in the first action of the campaign at Vevi and was now one of the last off. Carrying a heavy Boys rifle, Price walked out into neck-deep water to scramble aboard a boat taking troops out to the Kingston. Safely on the destroyer, Price took a mug of hot cocoa. He remembered thinking, ‘[This is] the best drink I’ve ever had.’ Then he lay down on the deck and did not move until the Kingston reached Crete the next day.

Admiral Cunningham wrote later that Bowyer-Smyth had come to an ‘unfortunate decision’, but his reaction at the time suggested an even stronger sense of disapproval. Under his direct orders, the destroyers Isis, Hero, and Kimberley were sent back to the Kalamata area the following night, 29 April, to see what could be done. By then, as predicted by Parrington, the Germans had arrived at Kalamata in force and had compelled most of the remaining troops to surrender. John Crooks was one of them. According to him, at about 8.00 a.m. on 29 April, ‘a solitary German soldier, not much more than five feet tall, nonchalantly walked along the road with rifle slung casually over his shoulder and shepherded [the remaining troops] in a slow march into and through the town of Kalamata’.

The following night, Isis did pick up a boatload of New Zealanders who had managed to get 16 kilometres out to sea; with them, a sweep of the shore netted a total of 202 troops When some of these claimed to be Australians, their identity in the darkness was established by the destroyer crews asking the question, ‘What was Matilda doing?’ Cunningham sent ships north for the last time on 30 April. With another handful of stragglers rescued that night, the naval effort had managed to get away from Greece the grand total of 50,662 men, not counting the various parties making their way through the Aegean islands.

In this way, the Anzac campaign on mainland Greece ended. Whatever its motives, whether it was the mirage of a Balkan Front, a desire to impress American public opinion, the need to uphold British honour by helping the valiant Greeks, or some combination of all these, the cost of the campaign was high. Of the Australian contingent, 320 lay dead in Greek graves, another 494 were wounded, and 2030 began four long years as prisoners of the Germans. The Kiwis fared little better: 291 New Zealanders were dead, 599 wounded, and 1614 made prisoner. Militarily, the cost would be measured not only in casualty lists, but in foregone strategic opportunities, and the fragmentation and dispersal of first-class units like the 6th Division AIF and the New Zealand Division.

The Greek campaign was not just a failure in its own right, but it meant that the chance to finish the war in North Africa in 1941 was lost, forcing Britain and her empire to spend time, money, and lives that might have been better expended securing Malaya, Singapore, and Australia against the Japanese threat. Churchill, however, was well pleased, telling Wavell on 28 April that the whole campaign was a ‘glorious episode in the history of Britain’ which had greatly impressed the Americans.