COME BACK – YOU MUST COME BACK AGAIN
The evacuation of Greece 20–29 April 1941
We were nearly the last British troops they would see and the Germans might be on our heels; yet cheering, clapping crowds lined the streets and pressed about our cars … They threw flowers to us and ran beside us crying ‘Come back – you must come back again – Good-bye – Good luck’. 61
Between 20 and 22 April 1941, Australian, British and New Zealand units dug in on the Thermopylae Line and waited for the German advance across the plain from Lamia. The New Zealanders defended the famous Pass of Thermopylae where the Spartans had fought the Persians. By 1941 this area was no longer the narrow defile between land and sea it then had been, for the silting of a local river delta had since pushed the coastline 8 kilometres away from the mountains. The Australians took over the left of the line, occupying positions in the Brallos Pass and on the surrounding mountains. At that moment the opinion of senior commanders such as General Mackay was that at Thermopylae they were going to stand and fight. In the colourful words of Brigadier Vasey in his response to a question from one of his men: ‘Here you bloody well are and here you bloody well stay!’ But despite the determination of the soldiers, Greece was collapsing.
At a meeting between Generals Wilson and Papagos on 16 April, the Greek commander-in-chief had suggested that the British should leave Greece. Hurrying down to Athens, Wilson, on 17 April, met with King George and his advisers. He found a growing mood of despair about the country’s morale and the situation of those Greek armies in the north-west now being supplied by a long and exposed road along the west coast. Defeatism, Wilson wrote, ‘was now getting widespread’. That evening the Greek Prime Minister, Alexander Korizis, went into his study and shot himself after telling the King that ‘he felt he had failed him in the task entrusted to him’.
On 19 April General Wavell arrived from Egypt and a conference was held at the Royal Palace in Athens to determine the future of Greece and the British force. General Wilson was in favour of a determined defence at Thermopylae. The Greek government’s willingness to prolong the nation’s suffering in the face of ever-increasing German strength, however, was waning. Another month of war and Greece’s armies and her civilian population would be devastated. The decision was now taken that the British should evacuate, that the Greek armies in the north-west should fight on for as long as possible and that the:
War was … to continue in the islands with all the means and the naval forces available, since Greece was indissolubly bound up with Britain and her resolve was to fight to the end by the side of the British Empire. 62
From this Greek government there would be no capitulation.
The story of the evacuation from Greece is a complex one. Firstly, there were the many engagements with the enemy by the rearguard, whose task was to hold the advancing Germans for specific periods so a swift and orderly withdrawal could proceed. An enemy breakthrough would have resulted in the capture of thousands of men. Secondly, there were the many dramatic incidents as the troops made their way to the embarkation ports and beaches. And finally, there was the embarkation itself and the hazards of the voyage from Greece.
The commander-in-chief of Britain’s Mediterranean Fleet, Admiral Sir Andrew Cunningham, had long been expecting an evacuation:
When the decision to send troops [to Greece] was finally taken we started at once to think of how we should bring them out. 63
Between 24 and 29 April, the Mediterranean Fleet, including warships of the RAN and attendant merchant vessels, evacuated an estimated 50,732 men and women of the British force from five embarkation areas. These were Rafina, Loutsa, and Porto Rafti to the east of Athens, Megara west of Athens, and beaches at Nafplion, Monemvassia and Kalamata in the Peloponnese. As the German hold on Greece strengthened by the day, the British and Allied army looked to the navy for its very survival.
On the night of 24–25 April, the evacuation began with the removal of more than 12,000 British and New Zealand troops from Porto Rafti and Nafplion. Between 21 and 24 April, the rearguard at Brallos Pass and Thermopylae fought back the German advance from Lamia. A minor epic of this four-day action involved two guns of the 2/2nd Field Regiment. They had been sited on a ‘mere ledge’ on the forward slope of an escarpment to cover a key bridge across the Sperkhios River on the plain between Lamia and Brallos. At 6.00 pm on 21 April, a line of German trucks emerged from Lamia and raced towards the bridge. The Australian gunners opened fire and inflicted enough damage to cause the enemy to flee back into Lamia.
Throughout the night the lights of hundreds of German vehicles were observed coming down the pass into Lamia and on the morning of 22 April German guns opened fire on the Australian positions. Throughout the day an artillery duel ensued as the enemy trucks raced across the plain and their gunners tried to range in on the Australian gun pits. By 1.00 pm one gun was out of action. At this point Lieutenant John Anderson, in charge of the Australian guns, saw German infantry getting out of trucks at the foot of the escarpment. The enemy had found another route to the Brallos Pass out of sight of the Australians. Anderson and his men now lifted the tail of their one remaining gun on to the edge of the gun pit and depressed it sufficiently to allow close range bombardment of the German infantry below them. They fired fifty rounds at the enemy until German shelling destroyed their gun and forced them to withdraw. During the engagement six gunners had been killed and three seriously wounded. The 2/2nd Field Regiment’s historian wrote:
Their action had undoubtedly saved a more precipitate retirement of the Anzac Corps … For these dead gunners there could well be repeated and paraphrased, the message of Leonidas: ‘Go stranger, tell at Melbourne that we who lie here died content’. 64
Gradually, between 24 and 29 April, thousands of British, Australian and New Zealand soldiers were trucked through Greece to the waiting ships. During the day the trucks would stop, camouflage nets would be hung over the vehicles and the men would hide from German air attack under olive trees. The experience of any member of the AIF during this time was much like another. One who recorded her impressions of the journey was Sister Sylvia Duke of the 2/6th Australian General Hospital, and in a letter to a friend in Australia she conveyed something of the tension, anxiety and fear of her last days in Greece:
Then the nightmare drive over the mountains through the blackness of the night with no head lights … the boys clearing the road of obstruction every little while for us to proceed … driving at reckless pace around bomb holes on the roads that had sheer drops down to the sea – abandoned trucks on every side – the awful sense of complete desolation everywhere – the welcome daylight really brought no relief – we breakfasted on the roadside on tinned bully beef and dry biscuits with no cutlery just our fingers … enemy planes overhead, the convoy stopped we left our trucks and scattered running for cover into barley fields lying face downwards hugging Mother Earth and wishing our tin hats were somewhat bigger to cover more of us – we spent all day there – there was a small cemetery nearby and we camped amongst the headstones all day … Sophie it really was a terrible day – then with the night on our way again to complete our nightmare journey. 65
For those who escaped from Greece during those hectic days of the evacuation, the heroes of the hour were the sailors of the British and Allied navies and the merchant ships. For the weary and harassed soldiers their reception after they had groped their way in the dark up the side of a friendly warship must have felt like a homecoming. Sergeant Lawson Youman described his relief as he was evacuated from Nafplion after a couple of unsuccessful attempts to get away:
After marching a couple of miles we came to the beach and a barge was there to take us to the boat but once again our hopes were sunk again. The barge had grounded near the beach and they could not shift it … about 0330 [28 April] they got it floated again, we waded in waist deep water to get aboard and when it was full we sailed out to where the boat was waiting for us. What pleasure awaited us when we got to the boat. The boat we loaded on was our own Aussie battle cruiser ‘Perth’ and what a welcome they gave us, each man of us was given a steaming hot cup of cocoa and biscuits. You could see the change on each man’s face as soon as he hit the deck, I could have cried for joy … I think the sailors were just as pleased to see us as we were to see them … We sighted Crete … and steamed up the harbour to Suda Bay and landed on a small destroyer … As the destroyer pulled away from the ‘Perth’ we all sang ‘For they are jolly good fellows’ and the harbour rang with our three cheers for them. 66
Even once they had put to sea they were not out of danger. As the Germans advanced down through Greece they were able to launch air strikes with dive-bombers well beyond the Greek coast and the evacuation ships came under attack during daylight hours. Men fought back with whatever was available and many German planes ran into a barrage of fire from rifles, Bren guns and other small arms. Sometimes this defence was of no avail. At approximately 2.40 pm on 27 April, two bombs exploded in the water close to the port side of the troopship Costa Rica with 2600 mainly Australian soldiers on board. By 4.10 pm the Costa Rica had sunk, but not before the Royal Navy had rescued all but one of those on board. In his report of the sinking, Lieutenant Colonel Theo Walker of the 2/7th Battalion described how two British destroyers – Defender and Hereward – positioned themselves right beside the stricken ship and took the soldiers off:
At this stage, owing to the numbers on board, all personnel could not be accommodated on the decks and the alleyways and cabins on the promenade deck had to be used as well. Many troops were now on the deck below, standing there in complete darkness, however, their behaviour was exemplary, the soldiers were standing silently on parade … On the starboard side, the ships were falling and rising some eight to twelve feet and the men had to swing down ropes and jump for the destroyer’s deck … the work of the Navy cannot be too highly commended. 67
For the sailors on the warships making the night run from the embarkation beaches to the island of Crete, it was a nerve-racking and exhausting time. Anzac Day 1941 was no holiday for Able Seaman Patrick Bridges, RAN:
Heading for Suda Bay [Crete] with other ships loaded with troops. Germans attacked us with heavy bombs. Soldiers sleeping all over the place. No sleep last night. Pulled alongside jetty to unload troops. Went alongside another big ship and unloaded another 1000 troops. Pulled alongside wharf again and then went out and anchored. Dropped down in a corner dead beat and fell asleep straight away. 68
Undoubtedly what many Australian soldiers took away with them from Greece was the manner in which the Greek people, who had greeted them so warmly on their arrival, did not desert them in defeat. As a detachment of the 2/3rd Battalion acted as a rearguard near the evacuation beaches at Kalamata they passed the cottage of an elderly Greek lady who stood by her door ‘with a tray of sliced cake and glasses of Retsina, a local wine’:
She offered these to each of the soldiers as they passed by, an act which touched us deeply. We could not understand what she was saying as she tearfully proffered her gifts, but her meaning was clear and we all said things like, ‘Never mind, Ma; we’ll be back and make up for all of this’. 69
They never came back and mainland Greece entered a long dark night of enemy occupation.
61: Lieutenant Colonel RP Waller, 1st Armoured Brigade, quoted in Long, Greece, Crete and Syria, p. 155
62: Official communique, quoted in Long, Greece, Crete and Syria, p. 132
63: Cunningham, quoted in Gill, Royal Australian Navy, p. 318
64: Action front – The history of the 2/2nd Field Regiment, Royal Australian Artillery, A.I.F., Melbourne, 1961, p. 108
65: Letter, Sister Sylvia Duke to her friend Sophie in Australia, 12 May 1941, in private hands
66: Youman diary, 27 April 1941
67: Walker, quoted in WP Bolger and JG Littlewood, The fiery phoenix — the story of the 2/7th Australian Infantry Battalion 1939–1945, Melbourne, no date, pp. 79–80 (hereafter Walker, Fiery phoenix)
68: Bridges diary, 25 April 1941
69: Unidentified Australian soldier of the 2/3rd Battalion, quoted in Clift, War dance, p. 151