Chapter 20: The Evacuation Continues
The German Advance from Thermopylae
AT 2.30 a.m. on 25 April the advanced guard of the German forces had entered Molos soon after 6 New Zealand Brigade Group had left the Thermopylae line. Units from Baacke Group hastened along the coast road, reaching Atalandi by midday and then continuing either along the coast or inland to Levadhia, where they were halted by a demolished bridge.
Next day, 26 April, there were clear-cut orders from General Stumme.1 Fifth Panzer Division was to advance beyond Thebes, the main body approaching Corinth and a small force entering Athens and the ports of Piræus, Lavrion and Marathon. Units of XVIII Corps were to occupy the country north of Athens and east of Amfiklia; away to the west elements of SS ‘Adolf Hitler’ Division were to advance to the Gulf of Corinth, cross to Patrai and enter Corinth from the west.
The forward elements of I/31 Panzer Regiment, a unit of XXXX Corps, thereupon advanced beyond Thebes and came under fire from 4 New Zealand Brigade Group at Kriekouki. The artillery with this reconnaissance force then went into action but no immediate attempt was made to approach Athens by this route. The main body of I/31 Panzer Regiment turned eastwards along the Khalkis road to the Spaidhes area, beyond which there was no further movement by tanks. But 8 Reconnaissance Unit and the motor-cycle platoon of 47 Anti-Tank Unit,2 using armoured cars, continued southwards and by nightfall were at and even beyond Malakasa, a village east of Thebes and north of Athens. In the same area there were 2 Motor Cycle Battalion and elements of 8/800 Brandenburg Regiment. After landing on the northern shores of Euboea they had moved south to Khalkis and returned to the mainland by boat or across the bridge, which they had repaired late that afternoon. As they had orders to approach Athens and not the
country to the east, it would seem that XVIII Corps had disregarded its orders3 from General Stumme and was determined to have one of its own units make the first entry into the historic city.
Withdrawal of 4 Brigade from Kriekouki on night 26–27 April
The main rearguard for W Force after the withdrawal from Thermopylae had been 4 New Zealand Brigade. Eighteenth and 20th Battalions had moved4 back from Molos to the olive groves near Thebes during the night of 22–23 April. Nineteenth Battalion, which had been sent to Levadhia on 22 April, had been recalled and, although left with no extra transport, had by long marches and the relaying of unit transport reached the brigade area. Next day the battalions withdrew some seven miles south of Thebes.
From the ridges above the village of Kriekouki, as it was generally known to the brigade, the force now covered the pass of Kithairon. Whoever held this gap controlled the highway from Thebes to Athens. The defile itself, narrow and rocky, had some useful cover in the scrub and under the scattered pine trees. The crest of the
3000-foot ridge was wide and undulating, but the observation points were excellent and there were good positions for troops and guns, especially if camouflage nets were used. The northern slopes were steep and devoid of cover, but to the south about the villages of Kaza and Villia there were young pine trees, a few olive groves and some dense undergrowth in which well-disciplined troops could remain unseen.
The chances of immediate encirclement were not great. By following the road through Thebes towards the east coast the Germans could possibly outflank the brigade, but the country was not easily negotiable by tanks and still farther east at Khalkis, Skhimatarion and Tatoi there were the detachments from 1 Armoured Brigade. On the western flank the first two miles of country were almost certainly tank proof; there was a track through Villia to Kriekouki but it was steep and easily covered; and beyond that there were five miles of rough hill country and then the shores of the Gulf of Corinth.
To hold the pass there was 4 Brigade Group, a mixed force, with the Australians providing, in addition to artillery and anti-tank guns, 2/8 Field Company, 2/1 Field Ambulance and twelve men from the Australian Corps Signals. Eighteenth Battalion on the right flank and 20 Battalion on the left flank, each with a two-mile front and each supported by machine-gunners from D Company 2/1 Australian Machine Gun Battalion, formed the line, with 19 Battalion in reserve. The Bren carriers from 20 Battalion patrolled beyond the left flank while the carriers from the other battalions, with two platoons from 1 Machine Gun Company, were detailed to resist parachute attacks or encircling movements about either flank. In support of each forward battalion there was a battery from 2/3 Australian Field Regiment, with the most advanced troop in a good position for anti-tank defence. The seven two-pounders of 3 Australian Anti-Tank Battery covered all entrances to the position and seven Bredas from 106 Light Anti-Aircraft Battery, Royal Artillery, were well forward, four covering the gun positions and three in a dual anti-tank and anti-aircraft role.
All units were in position by the morning of 24 April and every effort was made to prevent the enemy discovering the presence of such a large force. In daylight the majority of the troops were to the rear of the forward slopes, under cover but ready to move at short notice; after dark they occupied the forward slopes and patrolled actively. Strong formations of enemy aircraft passed over the area on several occasions to and from the Corinth Canal area but no anti-aircraft fire was permitted. There was also complete wireless silence, Force and Corps Headquarters both being asked
not to call the brigade over the air, except in an emergency. As a result the defences were almost certainly not located by the enemy, whose records for this period, though not specific on the subject, all suggest that no serious resistance was expected. The British troops had apparently withdrawn to the Peloponnese.
That night 6 New Zealand and 19 Australian Brigades and Clifton Force, the rearguard, came through from the Thermopylae area. Next day, 25 April, the enemy, delayed by demolitions south of Thermopylae, was still far from Thebes; observation aircraft came over but there were no attacks by the fighter-bomber squadrons. Fourth Brigade was therefore able to adjust its defences, General Freyberg having decided that 6 Brigade,5 instead of taking over the right flank, must leave that night for the Peloponnese. Thereafter the high ground on the right flank north of Tatoi was the responsibility of 1 Armoured Brigade. To reinforce it A Squadron New Zealand Divisional Cavalry and C Company 1 Rangers withdrew from the Khalkis area and that night the rest of the Divisional Cavalry, less C Squadron at Corinth, moved over with one battery of 2 Royal Horse Artillery, 34 New Zealand Anti-Tank Battery, 4 New Zealand Machine Gun Company and two troops of 102 Anti-Tank Regiment.
In the afternoon Brigadier Puttick had been ordered6 to postpone the withdrawal another twenty-four hours, actually until after dark on 26–27 April when, instead of embarking from Megara beach, his brigade would withdraw south of the Corinth Canal. He would be responsible for all demolitions up to and including the canal bridge; and once there his battalions had to be prepared to hold the area against any attacks from the north. These decisions made, Battle Headquarters New Zealand Division left Mazi at dusk for the Miloi area, south of the Corinth Canal and immediately west of Navplion.
On 26 April, after the screening detachments had moved out on the flanks, the troops patiently prepared for another day of concealment. After 7 a.m., however, there were explosions in Thebes; at 10 a.m. the long-expected and apparently endless line of trucks could be seen approaching the town; and then, about 11 a.m., a column of about 100 vehicles led by motor-cyclists and a light tank moved south towards the pass. Closely spaced and in open country the trucks were an excellent target and 2/3 Field Regiment waited until they were within range. As the guns had not registered the shells seemed, at first, to fall everywhere but on the road. All the same the column stopped, the troops scattered and
there was some confusion, but before long they had re-embussed and were hurrying back to Thebes, leaving eight vehicles burning on the highway.
Thereafter the Germans made no effort to force the pass. Some artillery came forward to engage 2/3 Field Regiment but the shelling was neither heavy nor systematic. The Australians, on the other hand, continued to be aggressive, firing freely at any Germans probing south from Thebes and ending the afternoon with a registration shoot over a wide area to give the impression that fresh batteries had arrived.
In other ways, however, the enemy had been very active. His army intelligence authorities were now certain that at least two New Zealand battalions with strong artillery support were holding the area. Reconnaissance aircraft had been taking off from a landing ground near Thebes and fighter-bombers had been attacking any vehicles moving along the road to Athens. About 7 p.m. the observers of 18 Battalion reported that at least 200 German vehicles were about Likouresi, a village about ten miles east of Thebes. This suggested that an effort would be made to by-pass the defences at Kriekouki.
The other and more important problem for Brigadier Puttick had been the activity of the Luftwaffe about Corinth and the appearance of paratroopers between there and Megara. According to Lieutenant-Colonel Marnham and Captain Baker, who had appeared7 from Megara about 2 p.m., medical personnel had come back saying that there were paratroopers along the road to Corinth, transport vehicles which should have returned to Megara had not appeared and the constant bombing in the canal area suggested that the bridge or its approaches might be wrecked. As the brigade was to withdraw over the canal that night this report was very disturbing, but Puttick, who knew the area, remained confident and sent the two officers back to investigate the position still further. Nevertheless, he stoutly prepared for the worst and made his plans for a new defence area about nine miles east of the canal. It would be held during 27 April, and if the Navy could not arrange an embarkation the force would have to force its way over the canal. Should that not be possible the brigade would fight it out near the beach in the hope of possible embarkation.
About 6 p.m. more information was received. Paratroops had definitely landed, and to confirm that fact Marnham and Baker returned after being captured by and then escaping8 from a small force near Megara. But there was still no definite information about the canal bridge and Puttick was preparing to put his new plans
into operation when, at 6.30 p.m., an officer came over from 1 Armoured Brigade with the wireless message9 from Freyberg ordering 4 Brigade to withdraw through Athens to the Porto Rafti beaches. Embarkation might possibly be that very night, 26–27 April.
Action was taken immediately. Marnham and Baker were sent with four carriers along the Corinth road to report upon the situation and to pick up any men left about Megara. To support them and to prevent any German interference with the withdrawal of 4 Brigade, two infantry platoons and five Bren carriers were sent to a position just west of the Elevsis road junction. The route through Athens was picketed and an advance party was sent to Porto Rafti. All units were told that the timings for the withdrawal that night would stand, but that instead of crossing the canal they would assemble near Porto Rafti.
The withdrawal began at 9 p.m. and proceeded very smoothly, with no stragglers and no interference from the enemy. The men came in past the check point, marched to the transport area and climbed aboard the vehicles of B Section 4 RMT Company. The convoy, with lights on, raced back through Athens and east towards Porto Rafti. The rearguard followed under the command of Lieutenant-Colonel Kippenberger, with 2/8 Australian Field Company blowing a series of demolitions in the stretch between the pass and Elevsis.
Thereafter the withdrawal towards Porto Rafti continued without any interruption. The groups from Megara were collected, the carrier force sent to cover the western approaches came back without any opposition from the parachute units, and the machine-gunners at the four road blocks10 arranged by Brigadier Miles were picked up by the rearguard as it came through.
At daylight on 27 April the brigade group was under cover of the olive trees which flourish on the small plain to the north-west of Markopoulon. Running southwards was the highway to Lavrion; branching eastwards was the road across the foothills and down the fertile valley to the beaches of Porto Rafti. Movement there that night, 27–28 April, would not be difficult; the problem for Brigadier Puttick was the safety of his brigade during the next twelve hours.
The change of embarkation beach only two and a half hours before the withdrawal commenced and the possibility of evacuation that night, 26–27 April, had prevented the preparation of any defence scheme. The embarkation staff, thinking of concealment and ease of embarkation, had dispersed the battalions along some 15 miles of road in no tactical formation whatsoever. As the
advanced guard of the German force which had swung south-east from Thebes could be expected at any moment, Puttick had therefore to organise his defences in open daylight.
The brigade would go into position east of Markopoulon and astride the road to Porto Rafti. Eighteenth Battalion would hold the undulating country to the north of the road, 20 Battalion the ridge running south-eastwards from the white-walled chapel behind the village. This would give each unit a front of 5000 yards. Nineteenth Battalion (less one company at Corinth), 2/8 Field Company and three machine-gun platoons would be in reserve astride the road about a mile from the beach. Two machine-gun platoons supported each of the forward battalions; three guns from 3 Anti-Tank Battery supported 18 Battalion and the four others supported 20 Battalion. The 2/3 Field Regiment had one troop with each forward battalion in an anti-tank role and the rest of its seventeen guns farther back to cover the whole front.
About 9 a.m. the Brigadier, disregarding the policy of concealment hitherto in force, ordered the immediate occupation of these positions. The troops had enjoyed a quiet breakfast, but the pleasant Sunday morning with the Greeks preparing for devotions or offering their simple hospitality now became one of intense activity. All went smoothly until about 11 a.m., when some twenty aircraft made a sudden and very destructive attack. Machine-gun fire exploded a 25-pound shell, which in its turn produced other explosions until trucks, fields and pine plantations were ablaze. ‘Nine guns of the 2/3rd [Field Regiment] or the anti-tank battery attached to it were destroyed, and six artillerymen ... killed. ...’11 More serious still was the damage to 20 Battalion. Caught in the narrow valley when the aircraft began their attack, B Company had some twenty casualties, including two officers. Eighteenth Battalion had a small number of casualties and lost some vehicles. Nevertheless by 1 p.m. units were in position and able to give more attention to concealment.
The Germans enter Athens; 12 Army issues Further Orders
The reconnaissance units of XVIII and XXXX Corps had meanwhile been hastening southwards. At a demolition south of Malakasa they were held up until it was partially repaired, but the motorcyclists had then, very unsportingly, raced ahead, leaving the armoured car groups to complete the task. The motor-cycle platoon of 47 Anti-Tank Unit and elements of 8/800 Brandenburg Regiment entered Athens at 8.10 a.m. and hurried to raise the swastika on the Acropolis. The two officers then sent an unauthorised telegram to Hitler informing him of the capture of the city. Months later the commander of 5 Panzer Division was still protesting that the work of his unit had been disregarded. As it was, the armoured car group had arrived shortly after the motor-cyclists and the city had been officially surrendered to its commander. The leading elements of 2 MC Battalion also reached the city, but the commanders of XXXX Corps and 5 Panzer Division, Generals Stumme and Fehn respectively, arrived about the same time and soon sent them out of the city and south-eastwards towards Lavrion.
That afternoon, 27 April, 12 Army issued further orders and cleared the situation: XVIII Corps would occupy Athens; the SS ‘Adolf Hitler’ Division would move down the west coast of the Peloponnese towards Pirgos; XXXX Corps would despatch the advanced guard of 5 Panzer Division as fast as possible towards Lavrion and the main body through Corinth to Argos, Tripolis, Sparta and Kalamata.
The day was therefore notable for the occupation of Athens and
the brief engagement at Markopoulon between the force moving south-east towards Lavrion and 4 New Zealand Brigade waiting to embark that night from Porto Rafti. Fifth Panzer Division reached Corinth, took over the area from the parachute units and constructed a bridge across the eastern end of the canal. Away to the west at Patrai III Battalion SS ‘Adolf Hitler’ Division crossed the Gulf of Corinth and captured any detachments from 3 Royal Tank Regiment which had not been able to withdraw with the main body. Assembling two trains and acting on its original orders, the battalion then went to the canal area only to find 5 Panzer Division alread established.
Second Motor Cycle Battalion, the German force detailed to occupy Lavrion, left Athens at 3 p.m., and when the commander approached Markopoulon he was surprised to be told by his advanced party that ‘between Markopoulon and Porto Rafti there were English troops who were abandoning their vehicles and fleeing on foot towards the coast.’ Troops were immediately sent to investigate, but once through the village they came under the accurate fire of ‘at least 6 guns, mortars and MGs.’ A fighting patrol which was then sent forward reported the strongly held positions between the village and Porto Rafti. The German commander, having no artillery, sent his adjutant to ask XXXX Corps for a Stuka attack and ordered his own troops not to advance east of the village. Fortunately for 4 Brigade it was then too late for this attack to be arranged and too late when the adjutant returned for the battalion to move forward. The brigade group was therefore able to make its undisturbed withdrawal, a German patrol reporting next morning that all the British troops had gone.
Fourth Brigade embarks at Porto Rafti
As seen by the men of 4 Brigade, the engagement was naturally more tense and more dramatic. About 3.30 p.m. the long German column had come into sight, armoured fighting vehicles had approached the village and the artillery with 4 Brigade had opened up. Some reports say that the guns and mortars dealt with the Germans only when they emerged from the village; other observers saw ‘shell after shell land ámong the homes of the peaceful friendly folk of Markopoulon.’12 As it was, the Germans made no serious effort to advance beyond the village; their main stream of vehicles was moving south to Lavrion and their more serious offensive was to have been the air attack which did not eventuate.
At last when the light had faded the final stage of the withdrawal began. The field guns were wrecked about 8.45 p.m., the anti-aircraft guns thereafter covering the road from Markopoulon and the coastal
track from the south. Stage by stage units came through the lines of 19 Battalion; the pinnaces, whaleboats and caiques took the men out to the cruiser Ajax and the destroyers Kingston and Kimberley; 19 Battalion then went aboard and finally the embarkation staff. In all 3840 men13 were taken off and landed next morning at Suda Bay in Crete.
The group at Rafina, about 1000 men, had an even more anxious time waiting under cover in the scrub on the south side of the harbour and disturbed by aircraft bombing the abandoned transport about the area. Brigadier Charrington had made plans for some to leave that night in a caique and for the majority to march to Porto Rafti to embark with 4 Brigade.
The information was taken across to Puttick’s headquarters, probably by Major Oakes14 of 7 Anti-Tank Regiment, but when the Germans approached Markopoulon the move from Rafina was impossible. The naval officer with the beach staff then arranged for the destroyer Havock to be diverted to that port and Oakes returned to warn the group of the change of plans.
Brigadier Charrington and about 600 men had in the meantime set out after dark to march the 15 miles to Porto Rafti. On the way they found that the Germans were between them and the port but, fortunately, they met Oakes and the majority of them returned to Rafina. There they waited anxiously for the destroyer to appear. About midnight one of the ship’s boats, whose crew had been drifting about the bay waiting for the sound of English voices, came up to the beach. The two groups,15 Charrington’s and that from the caique, were then swiftly embarked and taken to Crete with 4 Brigade Group from Porto Rafti.
The Withdrawal of 6 Brigade to Monemvasia, 27–28 April
On 27 April, when 4 Brigade was waiting to embark from Porto Rafti, 6 Brigade was in the Tripolis area preparing to move south that night to Monemvasia. As the troops had by then learnt the value of concealment they suffered little from air attacks. Those who took the greatest risks were the staff and reconnaissance parties moving south to the embarkation area. General Freyberg visited Brigade Headquarters and it was decided that there should be one long night withdrawal, a distance of over 100 miles across several mountain ranges with tortuously winding roads. The instructions were then issued, but it was suddenly decided that 26 Battalion should move that day, leaving the road relatively clear for the other battalions.
About midday the companies were strung out along the highway and enemy aircraft were soon active. However, a working party went ahead to fill in bomb craters, orders about dispersal were strictly enforced and the Divisional Supply Column drivers maintained a high average speed, driving south-east across the plain and over the mountains to the Sparta area, one of the loveliest in Greece. Away to the west was the blue wall of the Taygetus Range overshadowing the orange and mulberry groves, the oleanders and cypresses, and the fields of gladioli, hyacinths and asphodels. The road continued southwards over the hills, passing one village after another, each with its flock of sheep, its pigs, its goats and its fowls, its olive trees and its dark-green orange grove. Finally, instead of continuing south to Yithion, the port of Sparta, they turned south-eastwards to the small plain about Molaoi, about 15 miles from the evacuation beaches at Monemvasia.
The withdrawal that night of 24 and 25 Battalions was not delayed by the approach of any German force. The Divisional Supply Column moved forward up the narrow, winding one-way road to the defences on the northern hills. After turning round at the crest of the pass – no other suitable point could be found – the Column collected 25 Battalion and hastened south through Tripolis. The companies of 24 Battalion, already embussed and waiting in the centre of the town, then moved off, the drivers concentrated on their task and by morning, after the fastest night move of the campaign, the battalions were safely under cover near Molaoi. Fourth Field Ambulance, which had left about 8.30 p.m., was already there with the thirty-seven wounded, some of them from the Greek hospital in Tripolis.
Embarkation Successes and Disappointments, Night 27–28 April
For other units in Greece the night of 27–28 April had probably been more tense than it had been for 6 Brigade. Fourth Brigade at
Porto Rafti and the mixed group at Rafina, though in contact with the assembling German forces, had been left to embark undisturbed. But for those waiting on the beaches at Tolos and Kalamata there were only hours of disappointment.
In the Tolos– Navplion area 1500 men had been left16 behind on the night of 26–27 April. Many were stragglers, but there were 200 men from 3 Royal Tank Regiment who had become detached from the main body and 150 from the ‘Australian Composite Battalion’ who had been sent back from Tripolis Pass to cover the embarkation They now provided a rearguard covering the beach at Tolos, where the others in four columns waited for the destroyers which never appeared. At 3 a.m. they dispersed, efforts were made to collect boats or caiques, and officers were told by Colonel J. H. Courage that they and their men could take to the hills or escape by boat. The small force from the Australian battalion attempted to hold the beach but by the late afternoon, 28 April, it had been overwhelmed.17
At Monemvasia there was as yet no embarkation staff. The only group at the little port was that of Colonels Quilliam and Blunt who had been acquiring local caiques for future evacuation. They left that night for Kithira Island,18 where they set about organising the evacuation of the several hundred men who had missed the other embarkations.
Farther south at Kalamata ships had been expected and some 7000 men, including the New Zealand Reinforcement Battalion, had assembled19 on the beach. But the Navy did not arrive. Some
units kept their formation and returned to their particular areas but others broke up, the men seeking cover in the extensive olive groves between the town and eastern mountains.
The Embarkation of 6 Brigade from Monemvasia, 28–29 April
The following day, 28 April, 6 Brigade remained in its dispersal area between the villages of Sikea and Molaoi on the small plain about 15 miles west of Monemvasia. Aircraft were often over the area but the troops sheltering in the magnificent olive groves remained undiscovered. Along the coast it was different. Reconnaissance aircraft appeared early that morning and dive-bombers were soon attacking an LCT which had left Navplion on the night of 26–27 April with 600 Australians. Laid up and unseen during daylight it had, on the night of 27–28 April, been taken south to Monemvasia. There the Australians had disembarked, but the LCT when moving out to a more secluded beach had been observed. She was soon on fire. The embarkation of 6 Brigade had thus become more difficult, the LCAs scattered about the nearby beaches being as yet the only available small craft.
Another problem was that of defence should the Germans come through from the Corinth Canal area. There was no artillery or supporting weapons and only a limited supply of small-arms ammunition. The mountain roads were ideal for demolition but the few engineers in the Peloponnese had limited supplies of explosives. On 26 April, before the move south from Miloi, Lieutenant-Colonel Clifton’s demolition party had been very small – a few men from 6 Field Company and six troopers from C Squadron Divisional Cavalry, all survivors from the parachute attacks about the Canal – and his equipment had been two pounds of gelignite, some fuses and some detonators. As the only answer was to use depth-charges, he had consulted the naval officers with Headquarters W Force before they left that night for Crete. The naval tender at Miloi supplied one charge and three more were afterwards obtained from a grounded Greek destroyer at Monemvasia.
With these slight resources the brigade group prepared to cover its embarkation on the night of 28–29 April. Using the depth-charges, the engineers demolished a bridge some 16 miles out from Monemvasia. Brigadier Lee then posted Captain K. A. Carroll with his two platoons from 2/6 Australian Battalion to cover the demolition. About four miles to the south 24 and 25 Battalions were under cover, with the officers reconnoitring the ground and the men enjoying a much-needed rest. The Germans seem to have had no idea that the brigade had turned off to Monemvasia; they must have decided that the force had followed the other British units to
Kalamata. Beyond them again and astride the road was an improvised detachment under Major Petrie,20 18 Battalion, consisting of stragglers from different units and part of Lee Force. Then, some four miles from the other battalions and eight miles from the beach, were 26 Battalion, 4 Field Ambulance and Brigade Headquarters. Strung out along the road from there to the beach were the odds and ends from British and Australian units and finally, in a valley near the harbour, Divisional Headquarters.
The scenery which the majority of the brigade did not see to appreciate when they embarked that night was magnificent. Monemvasia, ‘the Gibraltar of Greece’, was really a peninsula with open roadsteads to the north and south. On its flat crest above the cliffs some 900 feet high a town of 30,000 people had once existed, a key point in the Eastern Mediterranean and the distributing centre for Malmsey wine. In 1941 a few people lived in the old buildings on the south side between the rocky coast and the base of the cliffs, but the majority lived on the mainland in a village overlooking the beaches.
The chief anxiety of the day for General Freyberg, apart from the threat of a German attack, was the uncertainty about shipping. At daybreak he saw the dive-bombers sink the LCT which would have been so useful as a lighter between the shore and the ships. About midday Admiral Baillie-Grohman came down the coast to say that there was still some uncertainty about the arrival of the convoy. But he had one piece of good news. The LCAs, assault landing craft specially designed for working to and from beaches, would be coming in that night. Nevertheless there was still every chance of an incomplete evacuation. One battalion might have to remain until the following night, and since it was the turn of 24 Battalion to undertake the next rearguard duty, Lieutenant-Colonel Shuttleworth had to select the most favourable position for a last stand. During the afternoon, however, several small boats and a Greek caique were made available. Each battalion supplied men accustomed to handling boats and Second-Lieutenant Andrews,21 Divisional Signals, organised a supplementary ferry service from the beach to the caique and thence to the vessels of the convoy. As a result of their labours it was eventually possible for 24 Battalion to embark that night.
The arrangements for embarkation were most carefully prepared by Lieutenant-Colonel Gentry and other members of the divisional staff and once darkness fell the move to the beaches began. Fourth
Field Ambulance and the wounded left first, then 26 Battalion, Brigade Headquarters, 25 Battalion and finally 24 Battalion. As each unit approached the port the men wrecked their vehicles and marched down to join the waiting columns.
About 9 p.m. the first troops arrived and looked anxiously for the ships. ‘I feel sure that those last hours of waiting on the beach were the most anxious that we had had.’22 The evacuation might be incomplete or, worse still, it might not take place at all. Baillie-Grohman had no confirmation that the ships were arriving, he did not know if they would be transports or naval vessels, and, moreover, he did not know if his signal about the actual embarkation point in the large bay had ever been received. To prevent any misunderstanding he sent an officer in an LCA to move beyond the bay. There he found the cruiser and the four destroyers; they were actually on their way in to Monemvasia.
The embarkation which began at 11.50 p.m. was mainly from the two piers and the causeway connecting Monemvasia with the mainland. The cruiser Ajax and the destroyers Havock, Hotspur, Griffin and Isis closed well in and the whole embarkation was then ‘remarkably well carried out.’23
The only delay was in the embarkation of the wounded. They had been sent off first, but the boats had returned with them because only destroyers were then in the bay and they could not accommodate wounded men. The Ajax which had yet to appear would take them all. In the meantime they had to remain on the pier with the anxious controlling staff regretting the delay. However, as more ships and landing craft drew in the speed of embarkation increased. The Ajax approached and the lines of stretcher cases were taken aboard, the columns grew shorter and it became certain that the whole force would be embarked. At 3 a.m. in the last boatload General Freyberg and Rear-Admiral Baillie-Grohman, Brigadiers Galloway, Barrowclough and Lee, with Battle Headquarters, set out for the Ajax. And at eight o’clock next morning, 29 April, the convoy with some 4320 all ranks aboard arrived at Suda Bay.
The same night the destroyers Auckland, Salvia and Hyacinth had gone to Kithira Island and taken off 60 soldiers, 700 Royal Air Force personnel24 and 60 Greek soldiers.
The troops of these two convoys were not landed in Crete. In the original plan all units were to have been taken from Greece to Egypt; the movement to Crete of many formations, including 4 and 5 New Zealand Brigades, had only been an effort to hasten
the turn-round of the ships. Moreover, Admiral Cunningham was extremely anxious to evacuate from Crete as many troops as possible before there was any serious interference from the enemy. Baillie-Grohman had therefore arranged for a convoy with a strong escort to leave Suda Bay that same morning for Alexandria. Seven transports were already assembled when the warships steamed in from Monemvasia and Kithira Island, so the troops in the destroyers and some from the Ajax were immediately transferred to the Thurland Castle and Comliebank. In the other transports there already were the consular staff and British subjects from Greece, Royal Air Force personnel and British seamen, walking wounded and nurses, including the New Zealand group who had been in Crete since 25 April. At 11 a.m. the convoy sailed, and all of 6 Brigade who had embarked at Monemvasia reached Alexandria on 1 May.
General Freyberg and his senior staff officers, Stewart and Gentry, had remained, the General wishing to spend the night in Crete before flying to Egypt the following day in a Sunderland. That evening, however, his departure was cancelled. Next morning, 30 April, Wavell, who had just arrived from Cairo, placed him in command of the forces in Crete, the majority of whom were the British, Australian and New Zealand formations evacuated from Greece.