Appendix 2: Escape of the King of Greece
By W. E. Murphy
King George of Greece and his Government had come to Crete with the intention of staying as long as possible. The political reasons for this were obvious and were also appreciated by the British Cabinet. While there was still Greek soil unoccupied by the enemy the legitimate government should remain on it.
Nevertheless, it was also clear that the situation might develop dangerously and that in the event of invasion the presence of the King and his entourage might become an embarrassment to the military commanders. To mitigate this, arrangements were set in train early in May for the evacuation of members of the royal family other than the King and Prince Peter, and of all civilian members of his party whose services could be dispensed with. And on 3 May the King, his Prime Minister (M. Tsouderos), Sir Michael Palairet and General Freyberg agreed that when Freyberg decided that the danger had become too acute he would arrange for evacuation of the Royal party, probably by flying boat, and would issue a statement to the effect that this had taken place at his request and for military reasons.1
To the head of the British Military Mission to the Greek Government, Major-General T. G. G. Heywood, the wisdom of this decision seemed very doubtful. If the King waited until the first attack before leaving, he would in any case be accused of leaving for timorous reasons and so nothing would be gained by waiting; indeed the only result would be that evacuation would be made more difficult and dangerous. If, on the other hand, the King left before the invasion, he would be able to concentrate outside Crete on the problems of the Greater Greece movement and the organisation of reinforcements and resistance. The front line which Crete would soon become was not the place for a King and Government with such tasks to carry out.
These doubts were communicated on 8 May to General Freyberg, who had been told meanwhile by the Foreign Office that he was responsible for seeing that the royal party was not exposed to ‘undue risk’ but that its presence in Crete was important for its effects at home and in neutral countries.2
Feeling that there was a conflict of considerations to be settled, General Freyberg had a meeting on 9 May with the King, his Prime Minister and Sir Michael Palairet. The General said that for the party to remain after 14 May was certain to mean the exposure of its members to undue risk.
He brought the others to this view, concluded arrangements for his taking over command of the Greek army, and had letters prepared in which the decision to evacuate the King and Government was to be explained to the people of Crete. On 10 May he sent General Wavell a message which explained the reasons for the course proposed.3
Wavell did not agree. On 12 May he replied that he felt very strongly that the King and Government should remain even if the island was attacked. Freyberg therefore signalled back that he would take no action and would assume that Middle East would send him appropriate orders when the time came.4
Next day Palairet told the Foreign Office that the King would like to know the reasons for opposition to his evacuation. Both the King and M. Tsouderos felt it was better to go before the German attack because this would look less like flight. Palairet himself, however, felt that their departure before attack might have a bad political effect. The Foreign Office concurred.5
Finally, on 14 May, Wavell told Freyberg that, while he sympathised with his position, both he and the Foreign Office felt the King should remain; when attack became probable General Freyberg should arrange for a safe place in the hills for the royal party whence they could be evacuated to the south coast if necessary.6
Accordingly General Freyberg arranged that the King and M. Tsouderos should move inside his HQ perimeter, although the King still believed that evacuation was the better solution. This did not alter the view taken by the Foreign Office and the War Cabinet.7
On 17 May the King and M. Tsouderos came to look at their new quarters in the HQ perimeter. Their visit coincided with one from the German bombers. While the King and the Prime Minister took the bombing with notable sang-froid they sensibly decided next day that it was unwise to come into an HQ which had probably been located by the enemy. Instead it was concluded that they should move to M. Tsouderos’s house south of Perivolia from which, if need be, they could readily escape into the mountains. Meanwhile B Company of 18 Battalion had taken over the task of protecting the King and deployed during 18 May to defend his existing residence adjoining Transit Camp ‘A’. That evening Colonel J. S. Blunt, the Military Attaché, was put in charge of arrangements to embark the King, M. Tsouderos and their parties, in case of emergency, from a rendezvous on the south coast.8
The plan for evacuation, if that became necessary, had been drawn up during the day. The royal party (including the King, Prince Peter, M. Tsouderos and ten other persons) would be escorted by 12 Platoon of B Company under Second-Lieutenant W. H. Ryan, while M. Tsouderos, himself a Cretan, would organise a further escort of armed Cretans; a
Cretan officer would provide guides and mules. The British Legation party would make its way independently to Tsouderos’s house. If a serious situation developed both parties would make their way to Ay Roumeli on the south coast, where they could be evacuated by warship or flying boat not earlier than the second night after leaving Perivolia. The guards, New Zealanders and Cretans, would be prepared to fight to cover the retreat over the mountains.9
The royal party moved to the new house in the afternoon of 19 May and 12 Platoon took up defensive positions around it. Colonel Blunt, who stayed behind to complete arrangements with Force Headquarters regarding the rendezvous on the south coast, reached the house after dark. The Legation party did not arrive.
Blunt telephoned Force Headquarters first thing in the morning to find out what he could of enemy activity. His questions were answered almost at once by the sounds of a great many aircraft, and not long afterwards he could see the troop-carriers over Canea. Soon paratroops were dropping, some of them no more than half a mile away. On Blunt’s advice the party at once made for the mountains, in such haste that a wireless set manned by two British signallers had to be left, together with the mules; the Cretan escort could not be assembled in time, and 12 Platoon ‘had to get out in the clothes we stood up in, our web gear, rifles and ammunition and two Bren guns; we didn’t have time to roll a blanket or groundsheet.’10
There were too many in the party for Ryan’s liking and he was afraid that this might hamper him in his personal responsibility – to guard the King and ensure at all costs that he was not taken prisoner. He therefore sent one of his sections ahead to clear the way, split the second into two detachments moving well out on either flank, and told his rear section to keep stragglers well back from the King’s party. This remained the marching order for most of the journey.11
The climb was steep and the hills bare to the blazing sun. Aircraft flew low overhead but the party, despite its size (and the conspicuous, beribboned tunic the King wore, which Ryan eventually persuaded him to change), was not molested. Parachutes on a hillside ahead caused a change of direction to the south-east, which led through the area of 2 Greek Regiment, whose patrols fired on the party until Prince Peter managed to stop them. A detachment of Greek troops, probably from this regiment, joined the party during this stage of the climb. The Prime Minister and his civilian group had become separated but it was learned at 11.30 a.m., when a halt was called at a cave, that they were making for the village of Ay Panayia, farther into the hills. The climb had been exhausting, and the King’s party rested in the cave while 12 Platoon took up covering positions.
Here there was time to consider the situation. The loss of the wireless set was serious, for Blunt could not get in touch with Creforce and had no
way of knowing whether the arrangements for evacuation had in fact been followed. The King also wanted some papers and valuables he had left behind at the house. So when some mules arrived at three o’clock the royal party, with the Greek detachment and 12 Platoon less one section, made for Ay Panayia, while Blunt himself led the remaining section, under Sergeant Seymour, back down the hillside.
Seymour was given a list of what he was to fetch from the house and was accompanied by a Cretan interpreter. He found the descent, if anything, more tiring than the climb, and at the last crest before the house learned that it had been in vain; for Germans were guarding the house and grounds in more strength than his section could cope with. Wearily the section trudged back to Mournies – ‘a nightmare march’, Seymour says, ‘tired, thirsty and hungry’ – and reported to Colonel Blunt, who had still failed to get through to Canea. Blunt had met Major Wooller, the New Zealand liaison officer with 2 Greek Regiment, and learned that German troops blocked the way north. There was nothing for it but to head back again into the hills.
Back at Ay Panayia it was decided that the royal party should carry on to the larger village of Therisson, at the head of a formidable ravine and some 2300 feet above sea level, while Blunt, with Seymour’s section, made his way back to Suda. Luckily a civil telephone line – at Ay Panayia, or possibly at Mournies; it is not clear which – was found to be still working, and by means of this, about two in the morning, Blunt managed to speak to the Naval Staff at Suda and heard that the C-in-C Mediterranean had been asked to pick up the party, as planned, at Ay Roumeli on the night of 22–23 May.
The King’s party had reached Therisson during the night – a cold night for Ryan’s men, with no blankets or greatcoats and next to no food – and there Blunt, with Seymour’s section, caught up with them at noon on the 21st. Private Renwick had ‘happened to acquire’ a donkey earlier, and then two more, and so the infantry were relieved of some of their burden when the climb was resumed.
Far below ‘the whole area seemed covered with coloured parachutes. ... Several planes were burning on the Airfield and others were landing and taking off. ...’ But this scene was viewed with mixed feelings by some members of 12 Platoon and one of them, according to Ryan, ‘observed to HM that we were losing a great deal of lawful loot on his account ... The King laughed and said that things were not as good as they seemed and gave the boy his field glasses. ... pointing out different points. The boy remained skeptical, as I did, but the King said that, in his opinion, we were already losing heavily, and the Germans were reinforcing.’
The Cretan guides may have been overawed with the gravity of their charge, for they became, as Blunt put it, ‘quite unnecessarily over-cautious.’ there was a fair route, after a short climb, by way of the large village of Lakkoi and thence south; but the guides took it upon themselves to avoid all villages and followed a sheep track almost straight up the mountainside. Colonel Blunt speaks highly of the way 12 Platoon stood up to this:
Not realising the ordeal ahead, we set off, the platoon carrying Bren guns, sub-machine guns, and two hundred rounds per man. The climb took nearly six hours. It is not possible to speak too highly of the endurance of the New Zealand platoon during this climb, and during the even worse night which followed, when they were obliged to sleep out in the open without blankets or a proper meal at nearly 7,000 feet altitude and in bitter cold. No man fell out except one who went to sleep during an hourly halt and was not missed until the party moved on. He rejoined later.12
Corporal G. Fraser and Private Renwick had a hard time with the donkeys; ‘we had to find tracks or make them’, writes Renwick. ‘Snow made it harder ... it wasn’t thick but it had frozen and was hard and slippery. Sore and blistered feet didn’t help either.’
The night was spent near a shepherd’s hut above the snowline on a western shoulder of the White Mountains. Water had been scarce all afternoon and men sucked snow to quench their thirst. The shepherd killed a sheep and his wife milked others (‘this was new to us cow cockies’, remarked Seymour), a fire was built, and the sheep roasted over the flames. For the New Zealanders, trying miserably to sleep in rock crevices or huddled round the fire or shivering on picket, this night was cold beyond words, and they could all the more sincerely endorse M. Tsouderos’s later tribute to the King of Greece: ‘With a majestic simplicity he shared with us all dangers, all privations, all hardships.’13
The descent next morning to the coast promised to be even harder than the climb and it was out of the question to take the animals. The route crossed a steep ridge and then dropped precipitously to a stream bed far below. So it was decided to send back the mules and donkeys, with some of the automatics and ammunition, in the charge of Sergeant Seymour, who took with him ten men of 12 Platoon whose feet were particularly sore.14 Sergeant L. V. Smith, also of 18 Battalion, who had been attached to 8 Greek Regiment but had escaped capture and, taking to the hills, had joined the party at Therisson on the 21st, took over from Seymour as platoon sergeant. Blunt also sent back the Greek troops and split the royal party into two, the King’s group, with 12 Platoon, going ahead and M. Tsouderos with the civilians and an escort of gendarmes following.
There was still a good deal of climbing on the way south, and in the course of this and the slithering down rocks and screes boots and feet suffered further damage.15
Samaria, a village some 1000 feet above sea level and five miles short of the coast, was reached in six and a half hours. There the villagers, after the King overcame their suspicion that the party might be German, received
Them warmly. And there a runner from Major-General Heywood arrived to say that the Legation party was at Ay Roumeli, a few miles farther on. (Palairet and his party had set out on 21 May, reached Sfakia by road, and then sailed westwards to Skotini, striking inland from there to Ay Roumeli, a mile from the coast.)
From Samaria the way led through a deep ravine, in parts along the bed of a stream which was joined on its herringbone way by many a smaller watercourse – another three hours of difficult going. Then, at Ay Roumeli, Lady Palairet prepared a meal. SOS signals sent out to sea eventually drew an answering flash at 1 a.m. from some miles out, but the rescue ship came no closer. In the end Rear-Admiral Turle and Mr. Harold Caccia of the Legation party put out in the small craft which had brought them along the coast, and in an hour returned with the good news that the signals had come from HMS Decoy.
There had been no intention originally of evacuating 12 Platoon but, with no communications to Creforce and no supplies, Blunt thought it inadvisable to leave Ryan’s men on the south coast and considered that they were in no ‘fit state to make an immediate return march.’ So the platoon was taken off. The embarkation was completed by about 4 a.m. and Decoy, together with HMS Hero, set sail for Alexandria where they berthed late that night.16 Second-Lieutenant Ryan’s personal responsibility for the King’s safety was now discharged. The King was safe and the nucleus of his Government intact. And General Freyberg, when he heard of it, was relieved of a grave anxiety.
Freyberg’s mind had not in the meantime been set at rest by Blunt’s contact with the Naval Staff at Suda. He needed a firm assurance from Middle East that the two parties would in fact be evacuated, and that, in the first instance, he did not get. A message to Wavell on 20 May that the King’s party would arrive at Ay Roumeli and the Ambassador’s party at Sfakia in the night 22–23 and morning of 21 May respectively, and asking that both be picked up, had received a curious reply next day that neither party need be evacuated, that premature departure would have a seriously adverse effect on Greek opinion, and that the message should be passed to the Minister for comment.17
Freyberg then signalled at greater length on 21 May to explain the hopelessness of trying to safeguard the King and his entourage in Crete in the prevailing circumstances. The British ambassadorial staff had been bombed throughout the previous day and the consul had actually to be dug out. Moreover, he was now out of touch with both parties and was extremely anxious to learn that adequate arrangements had been made for their safety and that his responsibilities in this respect were ended. A further message on 22 May pointed out again that he was out of touch but believed that the Legation party was at Ay Roumeli and that the signal arranged was an SOS by torch. The first of these two messages had the desired effect. Middle East replied on 22 May that, if possible, word was
to be got to the two parties that they were to assemble at Roumeli by midnight of 22–23 May, that the signal would be three vertical lights, and that the vessel would call in any case but must leave by 4 a.m. on the 23rd.18 Hence, no doubt, the reluctance of the Decoy to venture close in when the SOS signals were received.
Sergeant Seymour and his ten men found the return journey painful and had to take it slowly. About lunchtime on the 22nd a Cretan ‘turned up with an old white horse’, according to Private Howell, ‘and I had a turn on his back.’ Renwick was in charge of the donkeys and mules and had to suffer the anger of their three owners when he returned them at Therisson. There the detachment settled down for another cold night in the schoolhouse, but the villagers hospitably provided a hot meal and bedclothes. The detachment eventually rejoined 18 Battalion at Suda Bay. It was not a happy reunion. Their company commander and CSM were dead, together with many good friends of 10 and 11 Platoons which had fought so bravely at Galatas,19 and the ranks of B Company were thin.
Back in Egypt after the campaign the King of Greece showed his good opinion of 12 Platoon by conferring decorations on Second-Lieutenant Ryan and members of 18 Battalion who had served in the royal escort. The good opinion was mutual. The King earned respect and admiration and seemed to the New Zealanders to be, as Renwick says, ‘a very fine gentleman, he ate and slept with us and always had a cheery word and a joke ... and never did he show signs of weakening under his heavy and sad burden.’