Appendix 7: Escapes
by M. B. McGlynn
After the last night of evacuation many Australian, British and New Zealand soldiers avoided surrender at Sfakia and others escaped from captivity while still in Crete before removal to Germany. At one time some hundreds were at large in the island, sheltered and helped by the Cretans in defiance of threats and brutal reprisals by the German garrison. Records are incomplete, but accounts have been obtained of nearly 300 New Zealanders who in various ways, and after surviving great hardships and the adventures of the hunted, got back to Egypt and in most cases rejoined their units. Some returned to Greece or Crete to serve with partisans or to assist others to escape; others who escaped were recaptured, but many finally succeeded (often after several attempts) in breaking free from prison camps in Germany, Austria and Italy.
The stories of these men are summarised in this appendix. There is material in their adventures for many books, and their stories are examples of endurance, courage, and resolution worthy of record.
On the day of the surrender New Zealand, Australian, and British soldiers found an abandoned landing barge near Sfakia which they put out of sight in a sea cavern. They sailed the barge out of the cavern on the night of 1 June; the Germans nearby opened fire but no one was hit. An Australian, Private Harry Richards, was skipper and a New Zealander, Private A. H. Taylor (HQ NZ Div), was engineer. The following morning the barge was damaged when it ran ashore on Gavdhos Island but the damage was soon repaired. Richards appealed for volunteers to stay ashore and lighten the load and ten men stood aside.
When the petrol gave out the men put up a jury mast and sail. The wind dropped and the boat drifted. The food ration was cut down to a small drink of cocoa for breakfast, and even this was soon finished. The men became weak; nerves were on edge and outbursts of unreasoning temper added to their misery. Planes flew over but the soldiers dared not wave in case they were the enemy. On 8 June they saw land immediately to the south. The barge drifted, maddeningly slowly, on to a rocky beach near Sidi Barrani. The escapers stepped ashore right in the middle of a British camp and were given a great welcome.
About sixty were on the barge. The only other known New Zealanders were Drivers J. Chappell and A. G. Noonan (both ASC attached 5 Fd Amb).
One hundred and thirty-seven men, mostly Marines under Major R. Garrett, RM, sailed an abandoned landing barge from Crete to Sidi Barrani. Two miles out on the first day, 1 June, they picked up a New Zealander, without any clothes, paddling along on a large plank.
This man was Private W. A. Hancox of 1 General Hospital. He and three other New Zealanders had missed the final embarkation by minutes. The following morning they saw a rowing boat drifting two miles off shore. Hancox stripped off and started swimming towards it but, three-quarters of the way out, saw the boat taken by other soldiers. It was then the barge picked him up; once on it, he could not go back to his friends on the shore.
Seven miles out the men saw bombers attacking the evacuation beach. Air attacks were dreaded but none came; the morning they set out another barge had been bombed and machine-gunned. Fuel ran out and blankets were rigged as sails; often the men had to jump into the water and push the nose of the heavy barge around so that the sails could catch the breeze. Food was rationed to half a tobacco tin of water and a teaspoonful of bully beef a day. During the voyage a British soldier died of exhaustion and a Palestinian committed suicide. On 9 June the barge drifted ashore 15 miles west of Sidi Barrani.
Private Hancox is the only New Zealander known by name to have been in this party. He said there were about eight others. A painting by Peter McIntyre, 2 NZEF Official Artist, illustrates this incident.
Private B. B. Carter (27 MG Bn) was caught by the Germans at Kisamos Bay, not far from where he had landed after escaping from Greece in a fishing boat. A German officer treated him kindly and gave him an easy job in his kitchen. But it did not last long; within two weeks the officer went away and Carter was removed to the prison camp at Galatas. On 1 July he slipped out of camp in the dust of a passing convoy of trucks. Next day he reached Meskla and joined Private D. N. McQuarrie (18 Bn).1
McQuarrie had had a hard time. He was lying wounded in the hospital near Suda when the Germans arrived. Had it not been for the Cretans giving them food for two weeks, he and other patients would have surely starved to death. Life was no better at the prison in the Canea hospital and he saw men dying for want of food and care. Despite the shooting of an unlucky escaper half an hour before, McQuarrie escaped through an obvious gap in the barrier on 18 June; he had not gone far when he heard the fire of tommy guns from the camp. Heading south, he reached Meskla, where he stayed with a friendly family for two weeks. He had plenty of food, sleep and care, but when he saw notices posted in the village threatening Cretans with death if they helped British soldiers, he moved into the hills where he met Carter.
The two hid for a while. They used to watch a German patrol going to Lakkoi every week in a car driven by a New Zealander; they did not worry
because they knew the Germans were after eggs, not escapers. Carter and McQuarrie moved through Lakkoi and Omalo to the coast where two Australians joined them. At Suia the men found a derelict 18-foot dinghy and on 16 July they started to row across the Mediterranean.
The four escapers knew nothing about boats, they had little food, and the dinghy itself was a wreck. They patched it up as best they could: the holes were blocked with socks, but they had to take turns to sit on the biggest hole near the stern while the others bailed water. Lashed oars were the mast and tied blankets the sail. A gale blew all the way. On the fourth evening the gale stopped and they found themselves just off, Sidi Barrani; in ninety hours they had travelled 400 miles.
Soldiers waded out to help the escapers, but when they grasped the boat the top planking came away. Next day when others tried it out to find how such a broken-down craft had stood up to the long and hard voyage, the dinghy fell to pieces. Both New Zealanders were awarded the MM.
After being captured in Crete and escaping from Kokkinia Prison near Athens, Lieutenants R. B. Sinclair (22 Bn) and Roy Farran (3 Hussars) were given berths on a caique bound for Alexandria with ten Greeks and three other soldiers. It was a small diesel vessel about thirty feet long with no mast. The Greek skipper had four days’ fuel, just enough to reach Alexandria if everything went well. The chart was a school atlas and their only provisions a sack of crusts and a few onions.
The second night out the relief man at the tiller took the boat well away from its planned course, a serious error when there was so little fuel. Then it was found that someone on shore had stolen three full tins. The course was corrected and on the fourth morning they pulled into an island for fresh water. The same night, while they were going through the straits between Crete and Rhodes, a sudden storm blew up and for a day and a half the tiny craft battled against the mountainous waves. Thanks to the skill of the skipper the boat rode out the storm. All the fuel had gone, the food also and nearly all the water, which was now rationed to one third of a jam tin a man each day. Makeshift sails were erected but were not much help. Paddling with planks was tried but the men were far too weak. On the seventh day the water gave out. A British seaplane dived over the caique and flew away; everyone was happy, but no rescuing boat came.
By the ninth day the situation was desperate. The men could hardly move, and to speak, at best a croak, was agony. Spirits picked up when the engine was converted to distil fresh water from sea water, bits of wood and oily rags being used for fuel. In an hour enough water dripped through for each to have three mouthfuls. At night they heard ships’ engines and lit flares. Three British destroyers approached; the last one edged alongside, and sailors came aboard and carried the men up the gangway. They reached Alexandria on 10 September 1941. Sinclair was mentioned in despatches.
Acknowledgment: Roy Farran, Winged Dagger (Collins, London, 1948).
After capture in Crete, escape in Greece and sundry adventures, Second-Lieutenants J. W. C. Craig (22 Bn) and E. F. Cooper (LAD attached 5 Fd Regt) and Corporal F. B. Haycock (22 Bn) obtained an unauthorised passage in a caique which had been licensed by the Germans to carry 45 liberated Cretan prisoners to their homes in Crete. Once the skipper had cleared the port of Piraeus (on 26 October 1941) with the approved passengers, he pulled into the bay to pick up the others. The course went past the control point on Chios Island and on to Antiparos, where ships had to stop for examination. The skipper slipped around the point and landed his secret passengers at the house of his fiancée’s family. In four days the check was over, the contraband passengers were picked up and finally the boat reached Candia Bay, where the owner’s family lived. The shipping check was easily circumvented once more.
The owner, Gramatakikis, after changing the crew and picking up some new passengers – there were now three New Zealanders, three Englishmen, and nine Greeks on board – sent the boat away in the early hours of one morning on its four and a half days’ voyage to Alexandria. Not far out, the engine broke down and, when fixed, went only on quarter power. Food, water, and fuel were very low.
By evening on 7 November Alexandria was in sight, and soon they were at the harbour’s entrance after extricating themselves from a minefield. At the port control ship they reported who they were and where they came from, but they were rebuffed by a voice, ‘Oh, you will have to wait a while as we have other shipping to attend to.’ Cooper tells what happened then: ‘We were depressed and the comments were terse. However, the Navy arrived – it looked like the lot of it – led by HMS Prince of Wales and HMS Repulse, then en route to Singapore, followed by cruisers and destroyers. Bert Haycock semaphored the leading ship, using our singlets as flags, and explained that we were prisoners escaping from Greece. The signal came back, “Welcome”. We asked permission to follow the Navy through the boom into the port; again the signal was “Welcome”. We pulled into line astern of the Prince of Wales and ahead of the Repulse and with this imposing escort chugged into Alexandria harbour.’
Craig, who later joined Military Intelligence and went on special service operations in Greece and Italy, was awarded the MC and later won a bar to it. Cooper and Haycock were mentioned in despatches.
Sergeant J. A. Redpath (19 A Tps Coy), after several vain efforts to get a boat in Crete, led a party over to Greece where he thought he would have a better chance of escape. The party landed in Greece on 13 August 1941 near a lighthouse, which unknown to them was occupied by Italians. Fortunately, the enemy opened fire too soon at long range and the escapers were able to take to the hills safely.
Redpath bargained with a Greek for a caique, but the arrival of Italian troops scared the owner, already under suspicion, so much that he refused to have anything to do with the party. After interminable haggling with another boat owner and some forceful persuasion another boat was obtained. Just before the date arranged for departure the owner tried to inform on them but friends came to Redpath’s help.
Three days later, on 9 October, the party stole a caique and put to sea in it. The voyage was well planned and conducted. The men were capable, resolute and used to hard conditions, and Redpath was a good leader. On the morning of 11 October two British planes came in low and each dropped a bomb within twenty feet of the boat. Luckily neither bomb exploded. Two days later a German plane bombed and machine-gunned the boat until it ran out of ammunition. The plane came back, but a sandstorm off the land hid the caique completely.
When the North African coast was reached, Redpath went ashore in a dinghy to obtain diesel fuel. The caique berthed at Mersa Matruh and from there Redpath took it along the coast to Alexandria. There were ten Australians, one Englishman, and seven New Zealanders in this party. Besides Redpath, the New Zealanders were Sergeants R. R. Witting (19 A Tps Coy), A. H. Empson and W. H. Bristow (both 18 Bn), Gunner G. E. Voyce (5 Fd Regt), Driver R. S. Barrow (Div Amn Coy), and Private T. Shearer (20 Bn). Redpath and Empson went back to Greece on special service. Redpath was awarded the DCM and later the MM. Empson, who was awarded the MM, died of sickness in Greece in 1946.
Moir and Perkins
Staff-Sergeant T. Moir and Gunner D. C. Perkins (4 Fd Regt) escaped from the Galatas prison camp and spent weeks searching the coast for boats. They headed inland, there to find the mountain villages swarming with escaped soldiers. They knew the Germans would soon raid the locality, so they headed for the rugged and sparsely populated west coast. The village folk, though poor, were most hospitable. Moir gives an instance: ‘On one occasion, when they discovered us, sleeping off the effects of several liberal draughts of wine taken during the heat of the day, under a grove of olive trees not very far from a village, we were plied with so much food and wine that after three days we managed to continue on our way only by sneaking off during the dead of night during a lull in hospitality. We carefully avoided villages during the next three days until our supply of food ran out.’ they roamed the hills for weeks to get the lie of the country, then settled and became attached to two or three villages in a small area.
Moir and Perkins were always on the watch for boats, and many times they set out only to be forced back again by the weather, or by the many reefs on the coast or the wretched condition of their craft. Once they were lucky to escape drowning. The escapers moved freely around the western end of the island and were often chased by the Germans. In one German drive they were machine-gunned from a range of 200 yards and had a hectic game of hide-and-seek with a patrol of eight Germans for the rest of the day.
In April 1942 (not many soldiers were then still free in Crete) Moir and Perkins followed up separate leads on likely boats. At Mesara Bay there were 14 boats under German guard. Accessories such as oars and sails were kept in a locked shed; the owners slept in the boats but the
German guard was away at the entrance to the bay. Moir planned to steal one of these boats. Perkins was then haggling with a man for the hire of a boat and had reasonable prospects of getting it. Moir continued with his plan and Perkins arranged to meet him with his boat in a familiar cove. If Perkins’ deal fell through he intended to join Moir’s party.
The appointed night was so pitch black that the soldiers lost their way. Next night they met and, amidst much shouting and waving of arms by the owners, selected a good boat and sailed it unchallenged past the German post. By morning they were snug in the cove waiting for Perkins. They waited two days but he did not turn up. They searched all his usual haunts but he could not be found. The wind changed to north-west and to delay longer would be dangerous. The high wind and rough sea gave natural protection from nosing aircraft, and several planes, German and British, flew over them. On the late afternoon of the fourth day, after sailing 300 miles, the party landed on a small beach a few miles west of Sidi Barrani.
Three months later Moir met Perkins in Cairo and heard his story. Perkins went down on the night arranged, saw no one and thought Moir had got away. He then returned inland and heard when it was too late of the party’s departure on the following night. A short time afterwards Cretan friends told Perkins that there were Germans in British uniforms wandering around the district. Perkins traced the men and found, as he had suspected, that they were commandos off a Greek submarine. Perkins and other soldiers on the spot were given a passage in the submarine to Egypt.
There were five New Zealanders, two Australians, and one Englishman in Moir’s party. The New Zealanders were Staff-Sergeant Moir, Lance-Bombardier B. W. Johnston (5 Fd Regt), Privates G. G. Collins (20 Bn) and H. W. Gill (18 Bn), and Driver R. W. Rolfe (4 RMT).
Moir went back to Crete on special service and was captured. Perkins went back also, became a guerrilla leader and was killed in an ambush. Moir was awarded the DCM, Johnston the MM, and Collins a mention in despatches. Moir was later awarded the MM for his special service work.
After his escape Moir worked for Military Intelligence. He went on several special service operations and in February 1943 volunteered to go back to Crete to collect soldiers in hiding. By May 1943 he was in touch with 51 soldiers and had arranged their escape, but the evacuation date was altered and he had the worry of keeping a large body of men in one place for over a week. The Germans heard of this party, and although the 51 men were taken off, Moir walked into a police patrol containing an interpreter who was not deceived by his Greek as the usual German patrol would have been. There were 14 New Zealanders in the party which Moir organised and all were mentioned in despatches for their courage and determination in not submitting to captivity. This was one of the final rescue operations from Crete.
After interrogation, Moir was sent off to Germany, marked as a dangerous prisoner. He was cooped up with three other ‘bad’ prisoners for 32 days in a small cell in a Russian prisoner-of-war camp. They forced the door and an outer window but were caught in the act of getting through the three sets of double barbed-wire fences around the camp. They were then placed in the punishment cells without boots or bedding and allowed only one pair of underpants and a singlet each.
In the next camp Moir and another New Zealander, Bombardier M. J. C. Robinson (4 Fd Regt), volunteered to go to a working camp within striking distance of the Hermagor Pass into Italy. The two broke camp in June 1944 and headed for the coast, hoping to find a boat to take them to southern Italy. When they reached the mountains where the partisans were fighting, the place became alive with German troops. On the seventh night out the escapers were caught while trying to cross a bridge. The river was wide and swift and the bridge had appeared to be unguarded. They were sentenced to solitary confinement and then sent back to the ordinary prison camp.
After a month of near starvation in Galatas prison camp, Lance-Sergeant G. M. Davis and Signalman M. F. Knight (Div Sigs) broke camp and spent a day foraging for food. The Cretans were so friendly that the night after their return to camp they went through the wire again, this time for good. The first few days were spent with their newfound friends; they then moved to the village of Lakkoi, where great numbers of escapers were hiding in a nearby gorge. The two New Zealanders heard that they were waiting for sea transport to pick them up. This was not true, and as the villagers were finding it hard to feed the men, Davis and Knight moved on to the village of Meskla. An English-speaking Cretan took them into his home and they lived there for the next ten months. Within a few weeks the Germans put in their first big sweep to capture escaped prisoners, but the family hid the two safely in a small gully.
In April 1942 they joined three other New Zealanders – Privates R. Huston and C. J. Ratcliffe (19 Bn) and Driver J. Symes (Div Pet Coy) – and an Australian in a hideout in caves half-way to Canea, where they lived for a year. Friendly villagers supplied them with food. At times they were forced to raid gardens under the guidance of a Cretan, who directed them to homes of German sympathisers or of people who had plenty. In April 1943 the Germans swooped down on one of the caves just after dawn. Somebody had betrayed them. Davis, Huston, and Ratcliffe2 were caught and were sent to prison camps in Germany. The Germans knew that there were six soldiers altogether but they missed the two caves where the other three were hiding.
At that time Moir was going over the island collecting soldiers still in hiding, and shortly after the German raid he located the three survivors. They left Crete in May 1943.
After a course in sabotage and guerrilla warfare Perkins was landed in July 1943 near Koustoyerako to act as second-in-command to another
British agent, Major A. Fielding. He spent some time becoming familiar with the White Mountains area and set up his headquarters in Selino, on the south-west corner of the range. At this time (September 1943) there was widespread unrest among the Cretans, culminating in the abortive and expensive revolt led by Mandli Bandervas, who retreated from the east end of the island to the west. The Germans then carried out large-scale reprisals all over Crete. Koustoyerako suffered severely, being burnt out on 2 October. The villagers took to the hills and Perkins, better known to the Cretans as Kapitan Vassilios, formed them into a well-armed organised force about 100 to 120 strong. This force held the area above Koustoyerako while the Germans occupied the area below.
Perkins arranged air drops of supplies and arms from Allied planes. He was especially active in carrying out night raids on German positions, aimed usually at recovering sheep and cattle which had been taken by the Germans. The Germans often sent patrols up into the hills to find out the strength of the guerrillas. On one of these occasions Perkins lured a patrol of twenty men up to Alladha and surrounded them in a stone hut. He crept up, threw a hand grenade in and killed ten. The rest were taken prisoner and shot. In this fight Perkins was wounded, the bullet hitting him in the neck and travelling down his back. A Cretan butcher traced the bullet with his knife and cut it out. He continued his work of organising other bands of guerrillas, all of which took their orders from him. During this time he was promoted to the rank of staff-sergeant.
He received orders in February 1944 to go to the village of Asigonia and join Major Denis Ciclitiras, another British agent. On the first day of the journey Perkins and his party of four Cretans fell into a German ambush. Perkins, in the lead, was killed instantly. One of the Cretans, Andreas Vantoulakes, was also killed outright, while the two brothers Seirantonakes, both wounded, threw themselves over a steep cliff and hid at the bottom. The remaining Cretan, Zabiakes, was badly wounded; lying in the open, he held the fifty Germans in the patrol back for three hours until darkness, when he managed to escape and join the other two Cretans.
The Germans took Perkins’ body to Lakkoi and buried it just outside their barracks. By his kindness and help to the Cretans and by his daring exploits against the Germans, Perkins was well known throughout the island. The Cretans kept his grave covered with flowers. Captain John Stanley (Royal Signals), who was also in Crete on special service, tells of the admiration the Cretans had for Perkins: ‘No other member of an Allied Mission was loved, respected and admired as was Kiwi (Perkins). I know the people in the area that he covered, intimately, and even now when they are talking of the war years his is the first name that comes up – he has grown into a legend that will never be forgotten.’ A photograph received from Crete in April 1951 shows a small girl about to lay a wreath of flowers on Perkins’ grave. The following was written on the photograph: ‘Grave of the most fearless of fighters ever to leave New Zealand, known to all Cretans as the famous Kapitan Vassilios. Killed over 100 Germans single handed during the occupation. Led a guerrilla band, and
fell from machine gun fire in February 1944, near Lakkoi – the last gallant Kiwi killed in Crete. This man is honoured by all Cretans.’ Perkins was awarded posthumous mention in despatches.
Acknowledgment: Auckland Weekly News – article by N. C. R., 2 May 1951, and one by J. W. Bain, 11 Jul 1951.
As far as is known the largest number of New Zealanders to come off Crete at one time was in the submarine Torbay on 20 August 1941. Sixty two New Zealanders were in the party of 125. A New Zealander who escaped on the Torbay wrote the following account of his final days on the island:
‘Eventually, through the Greeks, we learned of the plan to evacuate as many as possible per submarine. For a while we remained in one place while others joined until there were about 22 in the group. On the night of the 18th August the party was led helter-skelter to the rendezvous. The day of the 19th was one of many rumours and anxiety as to when the submarine would arrive. In the early hours of the morning we went aboard the Torbay. Just before dawn the submarine submerged out from the coast and remained under water till night. It was a hard day and with so many extra on board, the atmosphere by evening was very sticky and everyone was very weak and limp. The remainder came on board that night. After a good surface crossing we arrived at Alexandria on the 22nd August 1941.’
Sixty-seven soldiers were waiting for the submarine Thrasher when it appeared off Crete on 28 July 1941. A lifeline through the heavy seas helped the men, and when all were on board the submarine turned around for Alexandria, arriving there on 31 July. Three New Zealanders, Sergeant F. Davis and Corporal S. B. Onyon (18 Bn), and Gunner J. Reid (5 Fd Regt), were in the party. Reid was killed in action in the Western Desert on 1 December 1941.
Private L. S. Rosson (19 Bn) and Driver S. N. Loveridge (Div Sup) escaped from Crete on 28 November 1941 in a Greek submarine and were safe in Alexandria four days later.
Early in June 1942 some New Zealanders hiding in a Cretan village were astonished to see four heavily armed British soldiers walking along the street. They soon found out that they were commandos landed on a patrol from a Greek submarine. On 15 June they and other soldiers were taken on board the submarine ( Papanicolas) and four days later were safe in Alexandria.
‘I got to hear of a boat,’ writes Driver J. F. Kerr (ASC), ‘and the five of us in the party managed to get enough money to buy it. One fine evening, loaded with water and provisions, we set sail with a good following wind. We were well on our way to Gavdhos Island when the sea became
very choppy, and as luck would have it a plank gave way in the boat. As Gavdhos was a fortified island I decided it was best to start and row back to Crete. There was a bit of panicking about throwing everything overboard. Only the Australian and I could row – we were used to the sea – and it was over to us to put a stop to all this panic. After many hours of hard rowing, including bailing, we got ourselves back to Crete and while returning the boat to the owner we narrowly missed a patrol boat.
‘From here there were only four in the party and we made our way westward to Vauta. After spending many days in this area a Greek known to us as Manos told us he knew where there was a transmitter and receiver. This outfit was carried to an unpopulated hilltop on one of the darkest nights, myself and Ken Payne [Gunner K. J. Payne, 5 Fd Regt] being the only ones allowed to go with it. We weren’t even allowed to see it prior to leaving. On arriving at the hilltop I found that it was a German set and, if the batteries had been up, was only capable at the most of sending signals about seventy-five miles.
‘We were told about the boats smuggling supplies from the Greek mainland to Crete. Ken Payne and the two Australians were very keen to try their luck on the mainland either by getting a boat or travelling around and down through Turkey. The scheme did not appeal to me but I offered to go and see them off. On arriving at the place we found hundreds of civilians and soldiers waiting for boats, so we climbed up on the ridge to see what was on the other side. Below in a bay we could see at least two boats and it was here that I said goodbye to the three before they left for Greece.
‘I returned back in stages to Vauta and on arriving I was, unbeknown to me, politely held prisoner by the Cretans as they thought I was a German spy and had handed over Ken Payne and the two Australians to the German authorities. It was arranged for a New Zealand signaller to sit concealed on a track while I passed by with some Cretans. If he knew me he was to break cover and shake hands; if not, he was to stay where he was. I found out later that all of Crete knew of this little scheme except myself.
‘As it was coming winter I made this area a sort of headquarters and spent my time looking around the coast and meeting other New Zealanders. All these I knew quite well but as the Germans were making it so hard for us, everyone was called by a Greek name. At this time I met Tom Moir who told me that Dudley Perkins was at another village very sick with yellow jaundice. I decided to go and see him and we became close friends as he got better. We collected some money to buy a boat. It was gladly given by the Cretans and came to about 380,000 drachmae. A few days after Tom Moir’s party had left Crete, we learnt that a submarine [Papanicolas] had landed some commandos and we set off to find it, which we did and we were taken to Egypt.’
By Naval Craft
On 25 November 1941 a caique officered by the Navy and manned by commandos rescued 86 soldiers from Crete. There were 28 New Zealanders in the party.
Soldiers came to Staff-Sergeant W. G. Penney (17 LAD) in the prison camp at Galatas and talked over their escape plans with him. Penney himself was keen to escape but first he had to help his comrades. His self-imposed task of escape organiser came to an end and then he was free to go himself. He and three other New Zealanders hid in a cart carrying wood from Galatas to the hospital. They got clear of the camp but the three others were captured soon afterwards in a wine shop.
Penney’s life now was just like that of the rest of the escaped soldiers on Crete, moving from village to village and hoping to find a way off the island. He was in the party of 140 hiding in the rocks at Treis Ekklisies (Three Churches) waiting for the boat that never turned up.3 After this he and eight New Zealanders moved around the country as a party.
The other men also had hard and varying experiences and all had to endure the bitter winter in the hills. One had escaped from the last lot of prisoners to be moved from Galatas camp for shipment to Italy. Another was captured three times before making his final escape on Christmas Eve 1941.
In May 1942 they stole a boat and were picked up by a naval patrol vessel out at sea. They were landed at Bardia on 25 May. Penney was awarded the MM.
On 6 June 1942 nineteen soldiers, including eight New Zealanders, left Crete in a small boat and were picked up by a warship in the Mediterranean. They were put ashore at Bardia on 8 June.
Sergeant D. Nicholls (4 RMT) was free in Crete for two years. On his return to Egypt in June 1943 he became a special service agent and worked in the Balkans and Italy. Nicholls was mentioned in despatches.
The people in the second village where Drivers W. H. Swinburne and F. P. H. McCoy (both Div Pet Coy) stayed became very nervous when the Germans started rounding up escaped soldiers and wanted them to move on. A polite but pointed eviction notice was served on the two New Zealanders and also on an Australian. The local policeman escorted them to the boundary, and apologising for his action, shook hands and wished them a successful escape. At the next stop McCoy became ill with jaundice and had to give himself up for treatment. The other two joined four British soldiers who had news of a coming boat. One was a doctor, an elderly man failing badly in health, and it was clear he had not long to live. He rode on a donkey and was cared for by a batman. After a break of a few weeks during which the doctor died, the party worked its way east across the Mesara Plain and eventually went down the coast to Treis Ekklisies.
The second day at Treis Ekklisies, a hundred and more escaped soldiers arrived under a guerrilla escort. Here a British agent, Captain ‘Monty’, had fixed a rendezvous for a boat to pick them up early in January 1942, but bad weather and leakage of the news resulted in the evacuation being called off. In the sorting of the men into travelling parties Swinburne had a Scotsman as a companion. The two went north and settled in the village of Episkopi Pediada, about 20 miles from Heraklion, where a small group of families looked after them until September 1942. Traitors informed on the Scotsman, and the police, great friends of the two, though much distressed were obliged to arrest him. Swinburne, living in another house, was warned in time to get away.
For the next nine months Swinburne and an Australian hid in caves near a river on the south coast. Again a few families in the neighbourhood made themselves responsible for their welfare. In May 1943 the two walked east to the headquarters of a guerrilla band in the Lasithi Mountains. They became members, and although there was no fighting at the time, they did their share of guards, patrols and other work.
At the end of August 1943 Swinburne and 20 others, mostly Greeks, left Crete in a motor torpedo boat early one morning. At six that evening Swinburne was safe in Mersa Matruh.
Escaping after capture in Crete and imprisonment in Salonika, Private E. A. Howard (19 Bn) was for some time sheltered by the monks on Athos Peninsula in Greece. He and four other soldiers searched the peninsula for boats. Twice they set out in stolen craft, but each time the wind changed and blew them back. The party, grown to thirteen, bought a sailing boat for 24,000 drachmae, donated by Greek friends, and crossed to Lemnos, a German-occupied island. Here the boatman left them stranded. As there was little cover, the men split up into smaller parties. After 14 days Howard and his four companions were lucky to find a derelict rowing boat and they immediately pushed off for the Turkish island of Imbros, only twelve miles away. The boat leaked like a sieve and the men not rowing had to spend the 17 hours of the voyage in baling. At Imbros they gave themselves up to the Turkish police who, after a series of interrogations, handed them over to the care of the British Consul.
Howard, who was awarded the MM, was killed in action in the Western Desert on 21 July 1942.
Lance-Corporal W. T. F. Buchanan and Private J. M. R. Brand (both 23 Bn) were captured in Crete and with fellow-prisoners spent a month tunnelling out of the Salonika prison camp. They prised open a trapdoor over a cellar, dug three and a half feet down in the ground and tunnelled for thirty feet with a bread knife. Fourteen men altogether went through the tunnel. With five other escapers they walked to Athos Peninsula, where a Greek who had been 17 years in Australia befriended them. The Greek watched a beach where there were two boats and reported the habits of the boatmen to the soldiers. One night they stole the marked boat and also
kidnapped the owner to stop him giving away the escape to the Germans. But his misery and his continual prayer, ‘Have mercy, Mother of Christ’, induced them to row back and put him ashore.
The boat made ten miles the first night and was allowed to drift the following day to give the appearance of a fishing craft. At night they set out to pass between the islands of Lemnos and Imbros but a storm blew them well away. They rowed for the island of Samothrace and were about to land when a Greek told them there were Bulgarian troops nearby. They rowed to another part of the island and were again warned away by another Greek. As they turned the boat around, Bulgarian soldiers fired at them with rifles.
The escapers rowed north and landed at Lithos in Turkey. The next three days they covered 30 miles in nine different bullock wagons until they reached Kesan, directly north of the Gallipoli peninsula. The following day the police handed them over to the Greek consul, who arranged the first step of their journey back to our lines. Brand, who was awarded the MM, was killed in action in the Western Desert on 17 December 1942; Buchanan later won the MM in Tunisia and was also mentioned in despatches.
Shortly after arriving in Athens prison hospital from Crete, Second-Lieutenant W. B. Thomas (23 Bn) nearly had his badly wounded leg amputated but at the last minute the leg was operated on and saved. In August 1941 Thomas and one of the men from his old platoon, Private S. W. J. Schroder, DCM, cut the prison wire and ran for it, but they did not get far. Thomas next tried to escape by hiding in the ration truck but was seen. He then pretended to be dead in the hope that he would be carried out of the camp in a coffin, but by this time the Germans knew him too well. The close watch on him hampered his attempts, so he induced the doctors to pass him as fit to go to a prison camp where his chances of escape would be better.
Salonika prison was surrounded by a forest of barbed wire and was also heavily guarded. Thomas found it just as filthy and wretched as had many other New Zealanders. He found a weak spot in the barrier – a barrack by the fence corner with a strongly barred and wired door on the roadside. Three nights running he carefully undid the fastenings, and on the fourth he made a clean break. With much difficulty he reached a village where he found WO II R. H. Thomson, DCM (4 RMT) and Private J. C. Mann (18 Bn), who were sick and resting for the winter. He stayed a few weeks with them and then on the way back became so weak that he almost collapsed when he reached the coast. Friendly Greeks nursed him back to health. His life became a succession of excursions for boats and confinements to bed. There was always some compassionate person at hand to care for him. At last he reached Mount Athos – the Holy Mountain – the famous religious sanctuary of Greece; he had been told that this was the best place to try to get a boat. The monks were good to him; when he was sick, as he often was from his bad leg, they never failed to look after him.
In one attempt Thomas collected a party of two British soldiers, one Russian, and two Greeks and stole a boat. Next day they hid the boat in a sheltered bay where one of the Greeks left them. That night the party made good progress until a sudden storm blew up. The boat, out of control and full of water, was tossed about like a cork by the mountainous seas. The storm continued on the next day and threw them back to the land, ten miles from where they started. Exhausted, and glad to be safe, they slept. The local police sergeant, a personal friend, came by night and told Thomas that he would be back in his official capacity on the morrow to arrest them – he expected not to find them then. Another time Thomas and the two British soldiers stole a boat from an open beach but forgot to put in the bung. Finally he managed to reach Turkey and was soon back with the New Zealanders.
His escape ended in a pleasant surprise. In May 1942 he walked across the Turkish border into Syria directly into the outposts of his own battalion, actually from his brother’s company.
Acknowledgment: W. B. Thomas, Dare to be Free (Wingate, London, 1951).
Driver E. F. Foley (4 RMT) hid in the hill village of Fournes for four weeks until the Germans burnt and ravaged the district in reprisals. He broke through the cordon and from then on had to be on the alert to dodge the relentless German drives. Late in 1941 Foley joined the escapers at Treis Ekklisies waiting for a boat, only to have his hopes dashed when the British special service agent told the party to scatter to safety. In March 1942 Foley unluckily walked into several German soldiers on the road and was taken prisoner.
As soon as he arrived at the port of Piraeus on 6 April 1942 he gave the guard the slip and was immediately sheltered by a Greek family. Next day he took the ‘Metro’ to Athens, where the escape organisation arranged a passage for him on a boat bound for Turkey. A mixed party of thirty left from near Porto Rafti on 2 May 1942 and after seven days at sea (four without food or water) reached Turkey safely. Foley was awarded the MM.
Signalman F. Amos (Div Sigs) escaped twice from the Galatas camp on Crete, reached the Peloponnese in a caique, and was helped there by Greek villagers. After a series of escapes from Italian troops and pro-Axis collaborators, he lived for eight months in late 1942 and early 1943 in a small hiding place under a flagstone in the floor of a cottage. His Greek friends lowered food down to him and he passed his time learning Greek from a child’s primer book. The escape organisation smuggled him by caique to Turkey in June 1943. He was mentioned in despatches.
In the counter-attack on Maleme aerodrome, Corporal E. N. D. Nathan (28 Bn) was wounded in the hip and an eye. He went on a barge carrying wounded to Egypt, but off Kastelli enemy planes sank the craft. Nathan swam ashore, hid from a German patrol, and started off for Sfakia. When
he arrived there he saw large crowds of soldiers on the beach surrendering to the Germans. His wounds, his long trek, and this last bitter disappointment were too much for him and he collapsed.
A family in a nearby village found him, carried him to their home and looked after him. Nathan stayed with the family for a long time. He learned the Cretan dialect and moved around freely, even among the German soldiers. He was questioned by the Gestapo but always convinced them that he was a Cretan. The third time he was before the Gestapo, it was definitely proved that he was an escaped soldier. He was badly beaten up when he refused to give the name of the family who had befriended him.
Nathan went to a prison camp in Germany and acted as an English-Greek-German interpreter. In September 1944 he was repatriated to England from Germany because of his bad eye and was later mentioned in despatches. After the war he went back to Crete and married the Cretan girl to whom he was engaged while on the island, the daughter of the family that had sheltered him.
Ten days after they escaped, Privates W. D. Tooke and E. Harland (18 Bn) broke back into the prison camp for extra clothing. The following night they were out again. Tooke then spent nearly five months trying to track down boats and submarines. Once he considered himself hard done by when he lost a card draw for a seat in a small boat, Private D. R. F. MacKenzie (19 Bn) being the winner. He found out years afterwards that he had been fortunate as the boat had landed behind the German lines on the North African coast. Despite this accidental salvation, luck was against him and he was recaptured by a German patrol.
‘A boat with six Greeks was leaving for North Africa and there was room for one soldier. As there were eleven of us, Dean Tooke produced a pack of cards and we cut for the place. ... I was the lucky man.
‘the boat, an eighteen footer and well stocked, left on Thursday 18 September 1941 and the voyage was uneventful, it being calm with just enough wind to keep us going. We had no compass, trusting to luck to get there. We first sighted land on Saturday evening, then our next sight was at noon on Sunday when we saw some buildings and a battle in progress, shells were bursting and dust columns from vehicles were rising. We were sailing parallel to the coast, the battle was on our right and we veered to the left, thinking we were passing Sollum which we had heard was the front line. Late in the afternoon some Blenheims crossed our front from the left and bombed something on our right, so completing the illusion. At midnight we landed. A red flare went up in front of us, the moon was bright and we saw several parties standing at close intervals and a patrol advancing along the beach – they were Germans. They had watched us all day and were waiting for us. The following two days we went from one German post to another. While in one not far from Tobruk, Rommel came
in and spoke to the major. I parted from the Greeks at Derna and was sent to Benghazi, where I met Ted Smith and MacGregor who had escaped from Greece, only to be picked up, like me, by the enemy.’
Private H. N. Dagger (5 Fd Amb) spent three months in Crete, then went over to Greece and worked his way up to the Corinth Canal where he met a British officer. The two teamed up together and had many exciting times.
On the island of Hydra they met Sapper J. L. Langstone (6 Fd Coy) and Private R. O. Petrie (19 Bn) and two Englishmen called Joe and Bill. Three of the party made an unsuccessful attempt by boat but bad weather forced them to return. The escapers had to hide in a hole for a week – their food was lemons – while the Italians scoured the countryside for them. Back on the mainland Dagger was captured by Germans, escaped, and made his way to the island of Kithnos. There he fell into the hands of Italians.
In prison Dagger met Second-Lieutenant J. W. C. Craig (22 Bn), Sergeant J. A. Redpath (19 A Tps), and Captain F. Macaskie (British Army), all special service agents, and Sapper R. E. Natusch (NZE). They had been captured a short time before. Some of the party were shifted to Rhodes; then the others followed, and a month later Dagger was shipped to Italy. During the voyage Natusch made a daring attempt to escape by diving over the side but he was recaptured almost immediately.
Driver P. Brocklehurst (Div Sup) heard from the villagers (‘it was uncanny the way the Cretans received their news by bush telegraph’) that two other escaped New Zealanders were coming to the village. They were Drivers W. H. W. Haslemore and W. R. Bullot (both Div Sup). Three other New Zealanders also lived in the district, Corporal S. G. Truesdale and Drivers L. M. Chinnery and J. F. McAnally – all from the same unit, the Divisional Supply Column.
In September 1941 when the Germans started their determined drives, the party had to break up and keep moving from one place to another. In between times they looked for boats. Haslemore and others set off late in 1941 in a lifeboat salvaged from a sunken Italian ship, but the overloaded boat was swamped. Once Haslemore and a Welshman were walking across the hills to their hideout when they saw two New Zealanders picking oranges in an orchard. ‘From a distance I recognised one as Ray Stuck [Private R. H. C. Stuck, 23 Bn] whom I knew before the war.’ In April 1942 a man who appeared to be trustworthy and who had promised Haslemore and others a boat passage, led them into a German trap.
Constant raids and alarms convinced the villagers that the Germans knew they were sheltering an escaped soldier. The soldier, Private A. W. Gleeson (22 Bn), had been there ten months but now he had to move to a safer place. With his dog, a great companion, he went off to the hills. One day Gleeson badly wanted a smoke, so he went into a wineshop in a close-by village. Too late he saw two German soldiers there. They picked him as an escaped soldier, took him over to their table and gave him wine and food. ‘they were decent enough blokes and we had a merry time.’
Driver A. H. H. Lambert (4 RMT) was unlucky with submarines: at Sfakia he waited a week for one; at another rendezvous the Greek agent, Colonel Papadakos, told him and other escapers that there had been a leakage of news and that it was not safe to wait any longer. Yet another time he was in touch with an organised party but was away when the submarine made its hurried pick-up, and he was one of the 140 who waited at Treis Ekklisies. In the year that Lambert was free he roamed from one end of Crete to the other, having many narrow escapes from capture.
Life was hard. ‘Anyone left in Crete felt in the depth of despair and we had little happiness, though there were one or two lighter moments ... ‘ Lambert accepted the cold, the hunger, and other miseries as part of his hunted life. Generally he and his companions had just enough to live on, though there were times when they starved and were glad indeed to eat such things as slugs. Once when desperately hungry they called on the nearest police station and demanded a meal, which was gladly given them. Sickness was an added affliction. Cretan friends nursed him back to health during these hard times. Clothing was fairly easily picked up but was not warm enough for the rigorous winter, and they found it impossible to obtain boots. Their boots quickly wore out and they had to do all their walking on bare feet. Lambert was well treated by the Cretans and remembers them with affection.
At a village on the western side of Mount Ida Lambert and Lance-Corporal E. T. Goodall (4 RMT) were given up to the police by an informer. The police hated arresting them but had to do so for fear that the informer might betray them also to the Germans. Lambert later escaped in Greece.
WO II R. H. Thomson, DCM, who had been captured in Crete and moved to Salonika prison, missed the train drafts to Germany by using the old soldier dodges of doctors’ chits, feigning sickness, or just by being absent when the drafts left. There came a time, however, when he had to go on the train. But he went prepared and from a belt around his middle hung knives, files, and pliers belonging to him and other hopeful escapers.
The cattle truck he was in had an opening covered with barbed wire high up in the side. He cut the barbed wire carefully and tucked in the ends at the bottom. While he was doing this, six soldiers in the next truck sawed a hole through the wood, but when they jumped from the bumper of their truck the guards opened fire and killed four and wounded one; the other made a clean break. From then on two German soldiers rode on the bumper, a few feet away from Thomson, guarding the sawn hole. The night was full of more stoppings, more shooting, more examinations. When one German was taken off the bumper and the other was out of sight, Thomson squeezed through the opening, dropped flat on the track and lay still until the train was out of sight.
He eventually reached Salonika and, after being rebuffed by several householders, met four young Greeks who promised to take him in their chartered boat to Alexandria. The day before sailing two Greeks betrayed him and had him arrested by the Germans, who recognised him as an escaped soldier by his army boots.
In his basement cell in the Salonika prison Thomson was troubled with dysentery and had to go often – under escort – to the latrine at the end of the corridor. He worked out a plan of escape. He developed a limp, carried a boot in his hand, and then at the chosen time hit the guard hard on the back of the head. Instead of collapsing, the guard bellowed, swung around and hit Thomson over the head with his bayonet. In a minute the corridor was full of abusing and punching Germans.
Thomson’s hands were tied with wire, and as soon as the officers had left the three guards of his section dashed into the cell and hammered him with heavy sticks. They poured water on the floor to stop him resting and every hour they took him outside and beat him. Twenty or more Germans came along in the morning to look at the Englander Schwein and they cheered and clapped while the three guards rained blow after blow on him.
Thomson was then put on board a train for Germany. The guards were instructed to keep a close eye on him, so they put him in their carriage in a small compartment with a little seat and a window beside it. A guard sat in front of him with his rifle and bayonet at the ready. After a time the Germans closed the door, being content to make sudden and surprise checks on their prisoner. Thomson worked his hands free of the wire, and retied them so that they could be quickly slipped free. He opened the window and closed it; then he waited. He dropped from the train (it was travelling fast over open country) and landed on the jagged stones by the track. Skinned and bruised – his left hip was the only part unhurt – Thomson set out on foot and finally reached Salonika.
Thomson moved slowly northwards from village to village, and when he met Private J. C. Mann (18 Bn) he stayed with him. It was winter, the people were friendly and the two escapers were weak, so they decided to lie up until spring and then continue their journey. It was during this time that Second-Lieutenant Thomas (23 Bn) came and stayed with them for 19 days. Thomas went south and in the end managed to escape from Greece.4 Four months later the two friends started walking for Turkey. They reached the Struma River, where some smugglers promised to ferry them across to Bulgarian-occupied Greece, but an old man induced the smugglers to hand them over to the police. On the night of their capture they lowered themselves out of the high window of their prison by knotted canvas strips but had the misfortune to walk into the arms of a returning patrol. They worked on the padlock of their next prison and would have escaped if the Germans had not come to collect them.
On the train to Germany from Salonika prison, Thomson was tied hand and foot to the seat and had one guard by day and two by night during the ten days’ journey. In Germany he was court-martialled and sentenced to eight months in a punishment prison. Thomson was mentioned in despatches.
Acknowledgment: R. H. Thomson, ‘Captive Kiwi’, radio script broadcast by NZBS.
On 16 April 1945 Driver P. L. Winter (Div Pet Coy) came safely through the American lines in Germany. His first escape, from Galatas prison camp, had been easy. While two old Cretan women were throwing pieces of bread over the wire to the hungry soldiers, he and Driver H. F. Mace (Div Pet Coy) slipped unnoticed from the camp. A few weeks later the two looked miserably down on the camp; at their lowest in health and spirits they were returning to the imagined security of prison life. A passing Cretan was horrified at this and induced Winter to go with him to the village of Meskla, where he handed the New Zealander over to the care of a family. Mace continued on his way to Galatas, but it was not long before he too was talked out of his intention, though he had to go back to the camp a few months later to get hospital treatment for a bad attack of jaundice.
Winter and Private J. P. Smith (18 Bn) were captured by a German patrol. Back at Galatas camp the day-to-day round was relieved by the arrival of a shipload of sick and wounded New Zealanders from the battle of Sidi Rezegh in North Africa. At Salonika, en route to Germany, Winter sickened and was left out of the train drafts. He spent his time with the others talking and planning escapes. His chance came when returning from a working party; he dropped from the truck, ran off and hid in a cellar.
The same night he knocked at the door of a cottage to ask the way to the coast. The man of the house guided him back to a building in the city, and just in the nick of time Winter realised it was the police station. He moved along country tracks, was fed and sheltered by the Greeks, and finally reached the small village of Hierissos where, he was told, he could hire a boat passage. This was about April 1942. There were plenty of promises of boats in this and other villages but nothing ever came of them. He then started on a slow trek south. Once he was arrested as a vagabond and jailed for a few days. South of Olympus he was captured again. A youth acting as his guide took him to the mayor of a village, who, promising to help him, told him to wait in the café until his return. He returned with police and Winter was arrested.
Prison life was callous and brutal. The Italians tied handcuffs around Winter’s legs, cooped him in a filthy cell for three days, and then sent him trussed up to the Larissa concentration camp. The place was indescribably dirty, lice-ridden, overcrowded; the inside guards carried heavy rubber whips. Torture was common. In the special compound Winter met Privates J. D. Ridge (19 Bn) and T. G. McCreath5 (20 Bn). Ridge had evaded capture at Corinth and had been free for some time, while McCreath had jumped the train on the way to Germany. Another New Zealander, Private C. Corney (25 Bn) who had escaped in Athens, joined them here. Soldiers convicted for espionage or sabotage were kept in the main compound with the Greeks, among them Private W. Ditchburn (25 Bn) and Gunner G. F. Mills (7 A-Tk Regt).
Winter and an English officer, Captain ‘Skipper’ Savage, who had been sentenced to 36 years’ imprisonment for espionage, planned to escape during siesta time when the guards generally dozed off. On the day chosen they unpicked their way through the twenty feet of the barbed-wire entanglements, and were crawling over the open space to the outer wire when one of the guards woke up and forced them with shots to return the same way. The two were tied to posts and flogged – 40 lashes with the heavy rubber whips on their bare backs.
The prisoners were tied in pairs and sent to Patras for shipping to Italy. The one bright spot was the comfort of meeting more New Zealanders. One of them, Private J. E. Wainwright (25 Bn), was well known for his artistry in annoying the guards. He even went so far as to organise a successful strike. Another New Zealander was Sapper J. L. Langstone (6 Fd Coy) who, passed over as dead by the Germans at Corinth, was nursed back to health by the Greeks. For most of the 16 months he was free he lived in a monastery with Private R. O. Petrie (19 Bn). In September 1942 Winter was shipped to Italy, and on the Italian capitulation in 1943 was sent on to Germany.
Acknowledgment: Narrative (unpublished) by P. L. Winter.
When Winter was returned to the prison camp at Galatas he heard sad news of his friend, Private J. A. McClements (18 Bn): ‘there had been a raid on the village of Meskla but all the soldiers staying there had been forewarned and had made for the hills. Jim McClements and others lived for a time in a cave, where finally [on 3 September 1941] they were found by the Germans. Jim McClements was at the mouth of the cave cooking over an open fire. There was a shot and those inside rushed out to see Jim, with blood running from a wound in his arm, standing with his hands raised facing a patrol of Germans. Another German fired with a tommy gun and Jim fell to the ground wounded through the chest. He was still alive and when the Germans came up he said, “Don’t shoot”, whereupon a third German shot him through the head.’
Acknowledgment: Winter’s narrative.
Private C. Corney (25 Bn) became skilled in the ways of an escaped soldier during the eight months he was free in Crete. But luck was against him when his broken Greek and strange accent (good enough to pass the ordinary German) gave him away to the Greek interpreter of a patrol. On the way to Germany his prison convoy stopped at the Athens transit camp, and from there he escaped with Privates J. R. Stuart and A. H. Zweibruck (19 Bn). In Athens Corney met a baker who said he knew of a submarine calling at the coast. The baker fixed a meeting place where Corney was to be picked up by car. The car took him straight to the Italian police headquarters.
At the ill-famed Averoff prison in which he was held for five months, Corney was annoyed by an Italian medical orderly called ‘Bianco’, a cripple, whose sadistic amusement was hitting prisoners with his stick. He met Private G. I. T. Tong (19 Bn) here and was distressed to see the large
number of running sores on his head and ears. Tong had been free in Greece for 16 months and the Italian police, thinking that he had something to do with the widespread espionage and sabotage, interrogated and bashed him mercilessly. They forced his arms through the slats of a chair, punched him on the ears with closed fists, and hammered him with a heavy wooden baton until it broke. At Larissa, the next camp, inhumanity and cruelty was still Corney’s burden. He was there when his friend, Driver Winter, received 40 lashes for trying to escape; the following morning he saw an Italian sergeant ripping the bandages off Winter’s back and expressing delight at the sight of the lacerated skin. From Patras, Corney was shipped to Italy to a prisoner-of-war camp. Zweibruck and Stuart were both recaptured and Stuart was later executed by the Italians.6
The Cretan family of Kandisachis in the village of Spaniakos looked after Private W. E. Wheeler (19 Bn) for about a year and a half. Soon after escaping from Galatas camp in June 1941, Wheeler and two other New Zealanders, Gunners E. J. P. Owen and R. A. Gover7 (both 5 Fd Regt) were guided to the village and remained unmolested until September 1941, when large German forces searched the island for escaped prisoners. This and other raids passed the New Zealanders over, thanks to the help given by the Cretans. With raids, informers, and bogus agents, times became hard and the Cretans a little jittery, as the Germans did not hesitate to shoot, burn, and imprison when they found anybody helping escaped soldiers. Yet all New Zealanders could be sure that a good Cretan was never a traitor.
A ship’s captain offered to take a load of prisoners to Alexandria if they gave him enough money to buy a boat. This was done and the soldiers met at the appointed place. While waiting for darkness, they saw a German spotter plane crash into the sea in front of them and saw the pilot paddling to the shore in a rubber dinghy. Ten minutes later three helicopters whirred to a landing right beside the soldiers. They ran away and were sure that the pilots had seen them and had radioed back. Friends told Wheeler some days afterwards that the skipper had taken the boat to the Greek mainland.
At the end of October 1942 Wheeler went to a cave not far away, in which there were twenty soldiers, to discuss escape prospects. He stayed a day or so, but one morning the Germans made a lightning raid and captured the lot. Wheeler underwent a 24-hour interrogation by the Gestapo. He never left the room; he sat in the same chair, was allowed no rest, and as soon as one of the five questioners stopped another carried on the relentless chain.
Wheeler made three breaks from his German prison camp and was free for about eight weeks each time before he was recaptured. Just before Christmas 1944 he escaped into Czechoslovakia and was sheltered by a
family, members of a partisan organisation, until the arrival of the Russians in May 1945. He married a Czech girl; both went to England and from there came home to New Zealand.
In September 1941 a smuggler’s boat carried Gunner W. J. Griffiths (5 Fd Regt) from Crete to Greece where, he thought, the chances of escape were good. Griffiths had spent four months in Crete scouring the beaches for a boat, but had had no luck. Greece was not much better, as he found out: ‘Spent some weeks with malaria and lost a good deal of constitution. Then had yellow jaundice and finished up living in a monastery in the mountains to recuperate. ...’
In June 1942 Griffiths went by sea to Athens where he lived with a family, moving around freely. A professor from the Athens University obtained a place for him on a boat going to Smyrna on 23 July 1942. The night before it was to sail, the Gestapo raided the house and took Griffiths away. He had been betrayed; the one and a half million drachmae reward for the capture of an escaped soldier was too much of a temptation for someone who knew his plans.
After two unsuccessful breaks from German prison camps, Griffiths got away on his third attempt and came through the American lines to safety.
Sergeant A. C. Barker (4 RMT) hid in Crete until September 1941. He then rowed over to Greece, where he and an Australian who had joined him lay up in a village until May 1942. Three carabinieri surprised them one night when they were taking a walk. They refused to surrender. The carabinieri opened fire and the escapers fired back and killed one. The Italians combed the countryside. The two were swift and elusive in dodging the patrols, but in July 1942 they were betrayed by pro-Axis Greeks.
Barker would not talk, or ‘confess’ as the Italians put it, and for five days the guards tortured him. They gave him no food or water, tied him to a chair and punched and kicked him throughout the days. The two ware moved to Xilocastron concentration camp, where they lived for three weeks in appalling conditions. In October 1942 Barker and the Australian appeared before a court which, after a farce of a trial, condemned them to death. The Italians chained them hand and foot for 24 days and then by the hands only for another seven days. On the way to Bari in a ship, they and other prisoners were chained in gangs of twelve. Bari prison, where they stayed a month, was filthy and crawling with lice; food was scarce and the prison staff stole much of it. At Sulmona prison Barker and the Australian were put in the dungeons and kept apart from the other prisoners. By this time Barker’s sentence had been commuted to 30 years’ imprisonment.
In September 1943 the prisoners rioted, the cells were opened, and Barker escaped into the hills near Pratola, where he hid for 20 days. He and two other soldiers found a guide who offered to take them down to our lines. They had a narrow shave once when they were stopped by Germans at Pietro in Valle and forced to dig gunpits along with thirty Italians. On 23 October 1943 Barker came through our lines at Castropignano. He was awarded the MM.
During he fifteen months Driver E. J. A. Phelan (4 RMT) spent in Crete, he made 16 attempts to track down seaworthy boats. Twice he actually set out: the first time the boat sank under him and, on the other, the engine broke down. In a determined effort to catch him, the Germans terrorised the family and relatives of his Cretan friend, a robber in the Robin Hood style.
Phelan and four Australians, heavily armed, overpowered the crew of a large motor vessel and took it out to sea. When they pulled into the island of Gavdhos at dawn to repair the engine, two German planes machine-gunned the boat. German guards chased the soldiers across the island, caught them and sent them back to Crete, where they were grilled by the Gestapo for four weeks.
His next prison was in Athens. He was not there long before he made a break, reached the hills, and was cared for by a band of fugitive Greeks. They called themselves andartes (guerrillas) but, in fact, were an idle, drunken crowd living by stealing and by sponging on relatives; still, they looked after Phelan and never betrayed him. He was captured again when his fair complexion gave him away.
Phelan was moved to a prison camp in Germany. In the summer of 1943 he determined to escape. This was difficult: he was on the ‘black list’, was closely watched, and was not allowed to go out on working parties. He changed identity with another soldier and went to work in a cement factory close to the village of Lidice. The Czech workers there who ran an escape organisation listed him as an intending escaper. The organisation was destroyed when a recaptured Palestinian soldier turned informer. Fourteen of the underground group were shot.
Soon afterwards Phelan escaped on his own and travelled to Prague by a series of local workers’ trains. One day he went to a cinema to keep out of the way. A propaganda film was screening and it was so full of Nazi strutting and fiction that Phelan laughed, whereupon a Gestapo agent sitting nearby arrested him for disrespect to the Reich. His real identity was discovered and back to camp he went for a spell in the punishment cells.
Phelan met another New Zealander, Sergeant B. J. Crowley (4 RMT), and both planned a further escape. Phelan’s luck was out when he sickened and went to hospital. Crowley and an Englishman carried on and in the end reached Sweden. Phelan organised another escape party, this time with Driver E. Silverwood (4 RMT) and an English soldier. They made the break on 23 December 1943 and, posing as foreign workers, travelled by train to Berlin. During a bombing raid on the station they slipped unnoticed onto the train to Stettin, and on arrival there dodged the strict check by going out the back of the station. The escapers wandered around the outside of the heavily guarded waterfront looking for Swedish boats. After days of hide-and-seek a friendly Swede smuggled them on his boat and stowed them away until Stockholm was safely reached. Crowley was awarded the DCM, Phelan and Silverwood MMs.
Driver W. J. Siely (Pet Coy) was shocked by the brutality of the reprisals taken by the Germans on Cretans suspected of helping escaped soldiers. He
hated to think that these people might have to suffer on his account, and although he escaped three times, this thought always made him return to the prison camp.
In October 1941 Siely was moved to Stalag VIIIB at Lamsdorf in Germany, where he posed as a corporal. In the summer of 1943 he helped 32 prisoners to escape from a working party at Stranberg but was frustrated in his own attempt by being arrested as an agitator. After a punishment of seven days in the cells, he was sent to Arbeitskommando 399 at Oberwichstein.
Here he filed the window bar in his billet and was free for four days. At the next working camp (Freiwaldau) he and two other soldiers prised open the trapdoor in the theatre of their Lager and managed to reach Olmutz, in Czechoslovakia, by train before being recaptured by the Gestapo. The next attempt was made at Parschnitz, where he was working on the railway track. On the first favourable opportunity Siely and another soldier went to a nearby shed and climbed through the rear window. Both walked across the Czechoslovak frontier, only to be betrayed by the wife of a Sudeten German whom they had asked for help.
At a cement factory in Munsterburg Siely and a British soldier made careful and thorough plans for escape. On 14 July 1944 they pulled a bar from the window of the washhouse in their billet; they then walked to the railway station and caught the train to Breslau. They travelled by train all the way to Stettin and their forged identity passes were never questioned.
In Stettin they met a Frenchman who hid them in his Lager. Soon they were negotiating with two Swedish seamen for a passage on a boat. On 24 July the Swedes smuggled the two soldiers and two Frenchmen on board and hid them in the airshaft of the main funnel. They stayed there for five days until clear of dangerous waters, when the captain was informed of their presence. The escapers were put ashore at Kalmar, in Sweden, and reached Stockholm on 1 August 1944. Siely was awarded the DCM.
On 21 December 1943 Private H. A. Hoare (23 Bn), who had been wounded and taken prisoner in Crete, climbed the fence of the Unterbenstatten (Austria) labour camp in daylight. He crossed the border of Hungary and within five days was in Budapest. There he was arrested and imprisoned in the old castle at Szigetvar which had been turned into an internment camp.
When the Germans marched into Hungary in March 1944, Hoare escaped from the castle but was caught three days later and sent to the prison at Zemun. Although he was most persistent in cutting the barbed wire entanglement, he was always unlucky to be caught in the act. One day Allied bombers came over and destroyed, among other places, the prison camp. When the bombers had finished and the danger was over, Hoare and two other prisoners escaped.
The patriot forces in the locality took the escapers under their wing. Hoare repaid their friendship by serving with them for three months. On 20 July 1944 a plane took him back to Allied lines in Italy. He was awarded the MM.
Private P. E. Minogue (20 Bn) first escaped from a party working at the stables in Salonika.
‘One day there were no guards about, so I dropped my broom and walked down the road. I walked very slowly to the corner, then took to my heels and only stopped when out of breath. A few minutes later a woman from a house beckoned me. I went in and she gave me clothes to change into. She went out into the street and beckoned me again. I followed for half a mile when another woman took over. She led me to her home where her family gave me food and money. An hour later the same woman guided me to the house of Madame Lappa and I met two Aussies and three Tommies there. That night I went to a family to stay – their names were Costa and his wife, Koola, and their son, George. It was like heaven, I had everything.
‘On the twelfth night George said, “Hurry, get ready, you are going to Cairo.” He led me to another house and I saw the Aussies and Tommies again. Madame Lappa, the brains of the outfit, came and told us we were going on a submarine. She guided us to the outside of the town where she handed us over to two men. These men took us up to the third floor of a big building by the docks. One asked us if we would like coffee or whiskey. We said, “whiskey”. He produced a bottle of Scotch and we were drinking a toast to success when we heard “Hands up!” What a shock, there at the door were two Gestapo men with guns out. I’ve seen this sort of thing in the pictures but never dreamed it would happen to me.’
Back at Salonika prison camp Minogue joined his friend, Private P. R. Blunden (20 Bn), and several others who had worked in the stables. They knew they were going to Germany by train and they prepared for escape by collecting all sorts of handy tools.
‘At six when it was dusk we cut a hole in the side of the cattle truck, put a hand through, undid the wire holding the catch and pushed the door open. We argued about who was going first and last, so we cut the cards. There were twelve altogether, I drew fourth place and the train was going twenty-five miles an hour when I jumped. Peter and I went back to Salonika to warn the people about the submarine. Next afternoon we saw our friends and were just in time to save twenty soldiers from the submarine fraud.
‘Madame Lappa took us to Madame Tousula’s home where we stayed for six months. While there we became very friendly with Bill Flint [Private W. Flint, 18 Bn] who was living at another house. Food was soon extremely hard to get in Salonika and I moved back to Costa and Koola because two in one home was too much of a struggle. Costa and Koola were going short for me and I didn’t like that. One day I said I was going to visit Peter; instead I hit the trail out of town. I walked all night. I passed through a village at two in the morning when a Bulgarian grabbed me and handed me over to the police.’
Minogue found out that of the twelve who had escaped Blunden was the only one who was still free. In the camp Minogue took part in digging a tunnel under the barracks of the camp leader (a British sergeant-major). It was almost finished when the guards rushed in and went straight to it.
The soldiers were sure that the sergeant-major, a toady of the Germans, had betrayed them. On yet another train journey to Germany Minogue escaped, this time with seven others. He and an Australian named Sid decided to walk down through Greece and find a boat to take them to Turkey. The Australian insisted on going into a strange village in daylight and the people thought they were Germans posing as escaped prisoners. The Greeks did eventually find out who they were but only when it was too late to do anything. The soldiers were then in the custody of the police and the Gestapo had been notified.
Salonika prison closed down and the few prisoners left were locked in cattle trucks for the trip to Germany. The sergeant-major was there – he travelled in the carriage with the Germans – and he suggested that those who wanted to escape should travel in the second truck.
‘Late that night we were sawing away when the train suddenly stopped and guards ran up to us and shone torches on the hole. They battened up the hole and took our saw but we still had a file. Once everything appeared settled, we filed the wire off the window. Johnny Leach [Gunner J. J. Leach, 4 Fd Regt] was second through the window. I was about to follow when the train slowed down and, after a few minutes, stopped. The guards came down the left side, spotted Johnny, and started running. Johnny ran around the back of the truck to the other side up past where we were. Then the guards on the right side saw him; Johnny turned again to run and they shot him in the back. He lay outside our window and we heard him say that they had got him in the back and then had put the boot in. He lived five minutes. They took us out of our truck and put us in the other. And so I landed in Germany.’
Eight months later Flint arrived in the prison camp and Minogue learnt of the happenings in Salonika. Blunden was taken off Greece a few weeks after Minogue had left Costa’s house. Within a short time of this, the Gestapo raided Blunden’s old place and Flint was eventually tracked down. Flint heard that the Greek women, Lappa and Tousula, and also several others were sent to German concentration camps.
‘Bill Flint and I were cobbers all through Germany. He would escape, get picked up, do a stretch in the cells, and away again he would go. I know he was away about eight times. We had a final flutter towards the end of the war and managed to come out through Prague and Pilsen.’8
Those who Died
In July 1941 Private C. C. Nicholl (19 Bn) and Private W. Gilby, an Australian, saw a boat well out to sea. Thinking that there might be people on it who, like themselves, might want to escape from Crete, they piled their gear on the beach and swam out to it. They grasped the side and in broken English and by signs asked the two Greeks on board to take them to North Africa. The Greeks made no move to pull them in; they talked, then screamed, and finally they picked up sticks and hit the soldiers until they had to break away.
They swam back to the beach but were no sooner there than Nicholl collapsed. Gilby dressed him and watched him during the night. By morning he knew that he would have to get him to shelter and aid. Nicholl was in agony with severe pains in his stomach. They set out over the mountains but Nicholl was too weak and in too much pain to walk any distance. Gilby then carried him for eight miles to a village where there were Germans. The sick man was immediately put to bed. Gilby sat beside him all the time and was with him when he died two days later.9 Gilby went back to the prison camp.
In September 1941 Gunner O. Cole (5 Fd Regt), Private F. M. Blank (23 Bn), and four other soldiers hid in a gully when they heard the Germans were making a drive to round up soldiers still free in Crete. The Germans surrounded the gully and the soldiers, seeing that they did not have a chance, came out with their hands up. The Germans lined them up. On a signal from the officer, a guard fired a burst from his tommy gun and shot two of the men. Cole was killed outright, as was also an unknown soldier.
On the morning of 25 August 1941 three escaped New Zealanders lay down to rest in a dry creek bed in Crete. A German patrol surrounded them and opened fire; the escapers surrendered. Gunner R. G. Dry (5 Fd Regt) was badly wounded and the others dressed his wounds. The Germans tied the hands of the two unwounded New Zealanders, Driver C. F. H. Snell (4 RMT) and Sergeant S. H. Richards (19 Army Tps), and refused their offer to carry Dry between them.
Some of the Germans stayed behind with Dry. The others moved on with the prisoners and came to the top of the ridge. There Snell and Richards heard shots coming from the direction of the creek bed. The Germans who had stayed behind caught up; all the guards then stopped and passed a New Zealand army paybook around from hand to hand. In June 1942 another prisoner of war reported that Dry had been shot and killed while escaping. Dry was awarded posthumous mention in despatches.
On 4 March 1942 Corporal L. D. L. Houghton (23 Bn) was fatally shot while trying to escape from the Larissa prison camp. Houghton, who had fought in Crete, was recaptured in the vicinity of Larissa on 17 February 1942.
The Greek Red Cross sent a letter to New Zealand describing his burial and the last honours paid to him:
‘He was buried at the Larissa cemetery. His funeral was accompanied by an Italian brigade [sic] under a NCO, two priests and General Artes, the Larissa president of the Greek Red Cross, as well as the volunteer Red Cross nurses of that town. The Greek Red Cross will put up a cross on his grave with his name and rank.’
Nothing is known about Houghton’s experiences while free. He was awarded posthumous mention in despatches.
Captain J. L. Harrison (18 Bn), captured in Crete, escaped on the way to Germany but was recaptured in 1942 and spent a hard time in the Averoff prison in Athens. He and Corporal F. I. A. Woollams (19 Bn) were put on the Citta di Genova, carrying a small number of prisoners and many Italian troops to Italy. On 21 January 1943 she was torpedoed 18 miles off the coast of Albania. Their cabin filled with water in a matter of seconds and Woollams fought his way out against the inrush of water. On deck he looked for Harrison but could not find him in the confusion.
Woollams managed to get a place in a lifeboat already overloaded with Italians and Greeks; the next morning they were picked up by an Italian gunboat. The whole area was searched and all survivors rescued but Harrison was not among them.
Acknowledgment: F. I. A. Woollams, Corinth and All That (A. H. and A. W. Reed, Wellington).
In an Italian prison camp Private A. B. Wright (18 Bn), who had been captured in Crete, made careful preparations for escape. He collected and saved food, had a wire-cutting tool, and copied a map of Italy and the Balkans. The night of 8 February 1942 was black and stormy and it was snowing – the night Wright was waiting for. He picked a shaded patch of the barbed wire between two searchlights, lay low until the outside patrol had passed, then cut a way through the first fence. An inside sentry spotted him and fired without warning. Wright died almost immediately.
Wright was awarded posthumous mention in despatches.
On 7 February 1943 Private J. R. Stuart (19 Bn) was executed in Athens by the Italians on the charge of ‘political conspiracy, political defeatism, holding of arms and violence against the military.’
Stuart was badly wounded in Crete, but early in 1942 when well enough he escaped in Athens from a prison convoy bound for Germany. Little is known of his life in Greece. When he was recaptured he was immediately recognised by the Italians as an escaped prisoner who had resisted arrest. In May 1942 an Italian secret policeman stopped Stuart and his friend Tony Handkinson, a civil internee, in an Athens street. There was a gun fight and the Italian was wounded in the leg. Handkinson was caught at the same time and both stood trial before an Italian military tribunal. They were condemned to death by shooting.
While waiting trial Stuart was locked up in the dreaded Averoff civil prison. He was cruelly treated but bore his suffering with courage and never gave way to despair. Once he and a Commando captain were given 30 lashes for attempting to escape. Another time Stuart and his cell mate, both desperate with hunger, were badly beaten by the guard. Stuart had a severe internal haemorrhage and was left in an underground cell for weeks. After another attempt he was beaten in his cell every two hours and the floor was flooded with water to stop him resting.
Corporal F. I. A. Woollams heard of Stuart when he came to Averoff prison and later had a talk with him. ‘When I met him he was still suffering from severely mutilated hands and arms. He showed me his legs, which were now a queer colour, having been absolutely blue ... ‘
The sight of Stuart was saddening. ‘Jack Stuart and his mate (in an attempted escape) were now spending their time in and out of hospital. They both looked wrecks, and could only creep about like very old men. Jack was the worst case of the two. ...’
At dawn on 7 February 1943 Stuart was taken from his cell and shot. The prisoners heard that he was steadfast and died bravely. The Director of Averoff prison saw the execution and told the Swiss Chargé d’Affaires how impressed he was by Stuart’s attitude and bravery.
Acknowledgment: Corinth and All That.
New Zealand Searcher Party’s Inquiries
After the war the New Zealand Searcher Party in Crete followed up every lead in an attempt to find out what had happened to missing New Zealanders. There were no survivors of the Battle of Crete still in hiding, and all the evidence collected on missing soldiers convinced the Searcher Party that they must have died.
In the case of Gunner W. Hodgson (5 Fd Regt) the party did not have much to go on. In 1941 there were rumours that Hodgson was alive in Crete, though when escapers from Crete were questioned they said they had never come across him in the hills. Never at any stage was he reported as a prisoner of war. Further inquiries drew a blank and Hodgson was listed as presumed dead.
Escapers from Crete in the early part of 1942 said that Private J. H. McGill (19 Bn) was a prisoner of war. In June 1942 another escaper, Private G. M. Orr (19 Bn), reported that McGill had escaped twice but had been recaptured. Private A. R. Grant (27 MG Bn), who escaped from Crete in May 1943, was with him for a while shortly before he left.
After the war the New Zealand Searcher Party, having made exhaustive inquiries, was convinced that McGill was dead. It was known that in 1943 the enemy combed the hills very thoroughly for escaped soldiers in hiding and shot or captured nearly all of them. It was then that McGill must have lost his life.
Staff-Sergeant W. G. Penney reported in Egypt that he had met Driver J. N. Campbell (ASC attached 5 Fd Amb) and Sapper M. F. Little (7 Fd Coy) in December 1941 at the village of Sata. Campbell had been suffering from shrapnel wounds in the back but Penney said he had completely recovered. Another successful escaper, Private D. M. Catherwood (HQ 4 Inf Bde), reported that he had talked with Little in September of the same year.
At the end of the war there was no sign or trace of either Campbell or Little. The Field Searcher Party visited Sata but was unable to find any clue. The people of the village, a very small one, could not pick them from the four hundred soldiers who had passed through on their way to Tymbaki. The villagers took out their treasured photographs, letters, notes and souvenirs given them by the passing soldiers, but there was no
trace of these two men. The Searcher Party appealed through the two Heraklion newspapers for information and assistance but again without success.
It was known that the Germans had been ruthless in hunting escaped soldiers about the time (December 1941) the two New Zealanders were last seen, and it seems most likely that they were killed then.
This appendix does not give the names of all soldiers who were free in Crete. So many escaped prisoners moved around the island and so much happened to them that it is practically impossible to trace all of them or relate all their adventures. Lack of records and passage of time are yet further bars. This list of escapes has been made as complete and accurate as possible. Enough has been written to mark these soldiers as men of hope and courage.