CHAPTER 18 — The First Stages of the Evacuation
The First Stages of the Evacuation
ON 23 April Headquarters Anzac Corps was in the Levadhia area until dusk, when it moved back to Mandra in the vicinity of Elevsis. Before then General Blamey had reported to General Wilson in Athens and had been ordered to leave for Alexandria at five o'clock next morning. He had also been told that the course of the campaign would probably necessitate some revision of the embarkation plans.
The activity of the Luftwaffe over the coast of southern Greece was the deciding factor. On 21–22 April twenty-three vessels, including two hospital ships and one Greek destroyer, had been destroyed. The final disaster was the destruction1 that evening, 23 April, of the Hurricanes at Argos. As this meant that W Force would have to be evacuated without air cover new plans had to be drawn up. When possible, fast-moving destroyers must act as transports. If less use was made of the beaches in Attica and more of those in the Peloponnese, the embarkations would be safer and the sea voyage to Crete and to Egypt much shorter. If there was an early departure from each beach the convoys could possibly reach by daylight the areas screened by the fighter aircraft operating from the airfields in Crete.
On 24 April the new timetable was produced. No troops would leave from Theodhora and 16 and 17 Australian Brigades, instead of embarking from Megara, would move to the Argos area and probably from there to Kalamata, a port in the extreme south of the Peloponnese.
These changes necessitated many new orders. Sixth Brigade was instructed that it must maintain a rearguard covering the road north of Tatoi until 6 p.m. on 26–27 April, the night of its embarkation from Rafina and Porto Rafti. British officers were sent south to ensure the support of the Greek commanders at Corinth and Tripolis; a senior officer was appointed to control the Peloponnese; and a force was hastily organised for the defence of the Corinth Canal.2
The embarkation would be as follows:
German forces cross the Pinios River—a page from a German magazine
The German text read:
A BRIDGE IS FORMED
The Pinios Bridge in the Vale of Tempe has been blown up.
Rubber dinghies have taken the first attacking troops over. Foot soldiers and light vehicles can now get across.
By heavy travel on muddy roads, over swampy fields, through the narrow defile by Pandeleimon and along the railway embankment the bridging column reaches the Pinios. While the sappers build a new bridge near the one destroyed, vehicles are drawn across on a quickly set up ferry. Only a few hours later supplies roll over the new bridge.
German reconnaissance plane in the Molos area
Sunrise near Kriekouki
Kriekouki. Shelling disperses the enemy advanced guard
Brigadier Puttick's map of Attica showing 4 Brigade positions at Porto Rafti (‘D’ Beach)
Athens waves goodbye. A convoy passes through the city during the withdrawal
A Sunderland flying boat lies off the coast of Greece
Commanders' conference near Monemvasia. Standing against the car is General Freyberg. Colonel Stewart (dark glasses) sits in the centre with his back to the car and seated on the bumper is Lieutenant- Colonel Gentry
The Salween disembarks troops at Alexandria
‘X’ and ‘N’
|Rafina||Porto Rafti||Megara||Navplion||E Navplion||Kalamata||Yithion and Plitra|
warned to go
to these beaches.
hoped to be small.
The 24th was also notable for several other incidents and decisions. The capitulation of the Greek Army was now definite; General Papagos resigned his command; and King George with some of his Ministers left in a flying boat for Crete. About midday Blamey reached Alexandria and impressed upon Admiral Cunningham the full seriousness of the situation; Headquarters Anzac Corps finally closed and Advanced Battle Headquarters W Force settled in at Miloi in the Peloponnese. In the afternoon General Mackay and his staff went to Argos, the latter leaving that night by cruiser from Navplion and the General early next morning in a Sunderland from Miloi.
General Freyberg had received identical orders for evacuation on the night of 24–25 April or 25–26 April, but he chose to disregard them. As he explained to Headquarters W Force, 6 Brigade had yet to break contact at Thermopylae and, even if it did so successfully, there were all the hazards of a long withdrawal. In answer to his question about the command of the forces after his possible departure, he was told that the responsibility would be one for Movement Control, in the sense that Movement Control would handle the embarkation.
The explanation for this surprising statement is that when the instructions for the evacuation of Mackay and Freyberg were sent over from GHQ Middle East the last suggested night, 25–26 April, was to have seen all units, except the rearguard, in their lying-up areas awaiting embarkation. It seems that Middle East command was paying particular attention to the safety of the Dominion commanders.page 402
Even so, the closing of Headquarters Anzac Corps does seem to have been somewhat premature. In fact on 23 April, when General Blamey announced the date to Brigadier Rowell, the latter had protested, saying that in view of ‘this changed situation, Anzac Corps headquarters should remain’.1 The General had, however, insisted that the orders were to leave Greece. This meant that Brigadier Allen would have no specially selected staff to assist in the embarkation from Kalamata of the 16 and 17 Australian Brigade Group—seven battalions and two artillery regiments; that after 25 April,2 when the evacuation plans were once again changed, the absence of Headquarters Anzac Corps increased the responsibility of General Freyberg3 and the already overburdened staff of W Force Headquarters.4
1 Long, p. 151.
Embarkations and Movements on the night 24–25 April
The first5 embarkations took place on the night of 24–25 April when the rearguards were still hastening south from Thermopylae and Brallos Pass. In his instructions Admiral Cunningham stated that material must not take precedence over men; the destroyers and the ‘Glen’ ships6 would take their men to Crete and return for a second embarkation; troopships would sail direct to Alexandria.
At Porto Rafti7 there appeared after dark the anti-aircraft cruiser HMS Calcutta, the cruiser HMAS Perth and the ‘Glen’ ship HMS Glengyle with the landing craft. Fifth Brigade Group had already come in from its widespread distribution area, so the transport vehicles were then destroyed and the men covered the last two miles under careful control from collecting area to assembly area, and finally to the point of embarkation. With them they took small packs, respirators, steel helmets, rifles, 100 rounds of ammunition, groundsheets and one blanket per man. The entrenching tools which had been brought by many had to be left behind.
6 Three ‘Glen’ liners had been converted for use as assault landing ships; they had special landing craft: LCT (tanks), LCA (assault personnel) and LCM (mechanised vehicles).
8 5700 is the number given in Cunningham's despatch.
The evacuation had not, unfortunately, been complete. Some 500 men had been left on the beach, about half of them from the Supply Column, the rest from about ten other units, including 28 (Maori) Battalion, 19 Army Troops Company and 5 Field Ambulance. The Navy, however, came to their relief, crowding them aboard a tank landing craft and transporting them the 15 miles to Kea Island. The craft then sailed away, the crew hoping to collect them later but warning them to be prepared to find their own way to Crete. Thereafter the detachments, with Captain Love2 as OC Troops, waited anxiously for the Navy, well aware that there was a shortage of food and some doubts about their chances of evacuation.3
Another group from 28 (Maori) Battalion had also been left on the beach. In the withdrawal the Regimental Sergeant-Major, Warrant Officer Wood,4 had brought up the rear with six trucks on which he collected any Maoris stranded in broken-down vehicles. The party increased in numbers, but the frequent pauses so delayed the little convoy that it reached Athens after the brigade group had gone through to the Marathon area and had therefore to spend the night in the New Zealand Reinforcement Camp at Voula. When Wood learnt that 5 Brigade was leaving from Porto Rafti he took his trucks there, but the convoy had left; the party eventually embarked with 4 Brigade Group on the night of 27–28 April.
To explain the presence of the New Zealand nurses it is necessary to review the fortunes of 1 General Hospital. The majority of the officers and staff had left for Egypt on 19 April, but thirty orderlies were still attached to 26 British General Hospital and over fifty nurses had been left1 behind when the hospital ship Aba made its hurried departure from Piraeus. On 22 April the nurses were instructed to move south by train, but the bombers had by then disorganised the railway system. Next morning, however, the party with 100 British and Australian nurses left for Argos, 120 miles to the south and near Navplion. Travelling that day and all night, they got clear and halted for breakfast some ten miles south of Corinth. Shortly afterwards one of the vehicles carrying nineteen New Zealand nurses overturned and all were injured, though not seriously. Some Yugoslavs gave assistance and eventually an Australian detachment, passing through with empty ambulances, took the party south until air raids forced a halt in a cemetery until nightfall. At 8.45 p.m. the convoy reached Navplion and the more badly injured were taken to the quay; the others walked to the embarkation point. Then, in an old caique, they were taken to HMS Voyager, one of the destroyers protecting the convoy, which reached Crete2 the following afternoon, 25 April.
The thirty orderlies from 1 General Hospital who were attached to 26 General Hospital at Kifisia continued with their duties until 24 April. They had been ordered to report at Force Headquarters that afternoon for instructions, but the bombing of Piraeus harbour kept them taking casualties from there to Kifisia and they did not report until 10.30 p.m. They were then sent south to Navplion and the majority were evacuated on the night of 26–27 April.
About 7 p.m., when the Merchant Navy officers from vessels sunk by enemy aircraft were deciding how to get the ship to Alexandria, she was bombed and set on fire. The only gangway was destroyed, passengers were caught in the burning cabins and eventually the ship rolled over and sank. The possible casualties were 500–700 men.
Staff-Sergeants Wilson1 and Cooney2 had organised rescue parties which did magnificent work, but over half the seventy-five men of E Section suffered in some way from this disaster. At least seven had been killed and the wounded, who were sent to 26 General Hospital at Kifisia, were afterwards taken prisoner. The others were taken to Daphni Camp, a collecting point from which E Section, now only about twenty strong, moved on 25 April to the Argos area. Stragglers brought the total up to about twenty-five. On the night of 26–27 April they moved over to ‘T’ Beach (Tolos) east of Navplion and were taken on a landing craft to the destroyer HMAS Stuart, from which they were transferred to HMS Orion, which landed them on Crete on 27 April. Others who were afterwards taken from a Piræus hospital to Argos, and from there to Kalamata,3 reached Crete with the Australian group and made the total of survivors from the Workshops section 31 out of 75.
25 April: The Second Revision of the Evacuation Plans
On the morning of 25 April General Freyberg, with Lieutenant- Colonel Gentry, his AA & QMG, had set out to find Headquarters Anzac Corps, which had been in the vicinity of Elevsis. Actually it had closed down and departed on the previous day, but the General was able to telephone W Force Headquarters in Athens and then set out to visit General Wilson.
He afterwards wrote:
What I saw on the comparatively short drive through to Athens filled me with concern; all the dumps of military stores, petrol, food and trucks that are part of the Base organisation of an Expeditionary Force were left completely unattended. There were numbers of Greeks looting everything that had been left. This disorganisation and appearance of almost desperation had not been evident in the forward areas. We moved through streets page 406 crowded with bewildered people. There were reports that the Germans were coming along the Yanina [Ioannina] road from the Albanian front, having completely broken through and barred the withdrawal of the force which had carried the war against Italy into Albania. It was with rather an uneasy feeling that I went into Athens wondering what attitude the Greeks would adopt towards the British troops and whether German Fifth Column would have an effect upon them. As a matter of fact, the attitude of the Greek population, both military and civil, was perfect. They were most courteous and eager to help us in any way and they appeared heartbroken that our efforts to help them had brought disaster upon our forces.1
In Athens Freyberg found Wilson in conference with Rear- Admiral Baillie-Grohman and the Joint Planning Staff. He was able to describe the situation in the north and to help in the adjustment of the embarkation plans. The position was serious. The panzer divisions were approaching from the north and the Luftwaffe was continuing to exploit its mastery of the air. Drastic changes had therefore to be made.
At Kriekouki 4 New Zealand Brigade had to hold its rearguard positions for another twenty-four hours. On the eastern flank near Tatoi units from 1 Armoured Brigade would cover the approaches to Rafina and Porto Rafti. Sixth New Zealand Brigade which was to have had this task would then move to the Peloponnese. As the Athens area was now in close range of fighters and dive-bombers, only one more evacuation would take place from Rafina and Porto Rafti. The balance of the troops would be evacuated from the beaches west of Athens and the harbours in the Peloponnese. This meant that the timetable which was to have ended with the evacuation of five brigades and thousands of attached troops on the night of 26–27 April had now to be extended for three more nights.
On the night of 25–26 April 19 Australian Brigade would embark from Megara and not from the beaches east of Athens. No other units could be evacuated but there would be many adjustments of position. The New Zealand artillery and the forces already in the collecting areas would move to the lying-up areas for Rafina and Porto Rafti. Sixth New Zealand Brigade would cross the Corinth Canal and continue south towards Tripolis. Detachments from the New Zealand Division would move east to support the rearguard north of Tatoi and Isthmus Force at the Corinth Canal would come under the command of General Freyberg.
On the night of 26–27 April, after the departure of Wilson for Crete, Freyberg would command the forces in the Peloponnese. The artillery group and the eastern rearguard would embark from Rafina and Porto Rafti. Fourth New Zealand Brigade Group would withdraw to become the rearguard immediately south of the Corinth Canal. Base Details, 4 Hussars and 3 Royal Tank Regiment would page 407 embark from the Navplion beaches; 16–17 Australian Brigade Group would embark from Kalamata in the extreme south of the Peloponnese.
The subsequent withdrawal of the New Zealand troops and those under command would be directed ‘with all possible speed’ and in ‘approximately equal proportions’ to the beaches at Monemvasia, Plitra, Yithion and Kalamata. From there they would embark on the nights 28–29 and 29–30 April. Any other troops in the Peloponnese and those not evacuated from the Navplion beaches on the night of 26–27 April were to proceed ‘as quickly as possible’ to Monemvasia, Plitra and Kalamata for embarkation on the night of 28–29 April.
New Zealand Division during 25 April and Night 25–26 April
The movements of 4 and 6 Brigades were immediately adjusted according to these changes in the plan of evacuation. From the north, where 4 Brigade1 was preparing its defences at Kriekouki, the units for Isthmus Force2 went south to the canal area. The same morning, 25 April, 6 Brigade and the three artillery regiments came through from Thermopylae. The artillery, on orders from Brigadier Miles, continued to move south, following the twisting and winding highway through a world of pine-clad ridges to Elevsis and then following the highway eastwards into Athens. There the convoy was given a wonderful reception; the populace was charged with emotion, the men cheering and the women showering the trucks with flowers and saying ‘Thank you for your help’ and ‘Come again’. To the east of the city in the ‘Marathon area’ inland from Rafina and Porto Rafti, the column was halted by the embarkation staff and the units were directed to lying-up areas, where they were to remain that night and all the next day, 26 April.
With 6 Brigade the withdrawal was one of successive adjustments and changes of plan. At daylight the rear of the convoy was still north of Thebes, but German air activity was not intense and the convoy passed through the village of Kriekouki, over the steep ridge now held by 4 Brigade and south beyond the dusty village of Mazi. Here in a dry, rock-strewn countryside cloaked with an extensive forest of young pine trees the battalions took cover preparatory to moving to the neighbourhood of Tatoi to cover the beaches at Rafina and Porto Rafti. In fact the Brigadier and his staff had been on their way to study the new positions when they met General Freyberg returning from Athens with the news that the embarkation plans had been changed. The brigade was that night to go to the Peloponnese and spend the following day, 26 page 408 April, under cover a few miles to the south of the canal. The units under command were to continue on their way to the Porto Rafti area.
The battalion commanders and the Brigade Major then went south to select positions in the canal area. The route over the hills to Elevsis was uneventful but the journey westwards to the canal was disturbing. The view across the bay to Salamis was enchanting and the road above the cliffs was remarkable from an engineering point of view, but it was a death-trap for any large unit which attempted to use it during daylight. For miles it was strewn with wrecked trucks and discarded equipment.
That afternoon the brigade's role was changed once again. The battalions would hasten some 70 miles south of the canal to Tripolis, a town in the centre of the Peloponnese at the junction point of roads from Patrai, Corinth and Monemvasia. If the whole brigade could not get there by next morning, 26 April, detachments at least were to be sent forward to block the western approaches. So, as soon as it was dark, 6 Brigade was on the move. About midnight, 25–26 April, the battalion commanders were met at the Corinth Canal, the altered orders were explained to them and the long convoy carried on southwards towards Argos.
The Evacuation from Megara, night 25–26 and day 26 April
On the morning of 24 April Allen Group (16–17 Brigades) had halted near Elevsis, taking advantage of the olive groves and waiting to embark that night from the beaches at Megara. During the day, however, the overall plan had to be changed:1 the brigades would move across the Corinth Canal to the Argos area and probably from there to Kalamata. Nineteenth Brigade Group, the rearguard which was to come south that night, 24–25 April, from the Thermopylae line, would take cover near Megara on 25 April and embark from there on the night of 25–26 April.
As there were several groups already in that area, among them the New Zealanders from Voula, it was doubtful if all the troops could be embarked that night. Orders were therefore sent from General Wilson's headquarters instructing Brigadier Vasey to retain sufficient vehicles to transport the surplus to the Marathon beaches, from which they could be evacuated on the night of 26–27 April. Unfortunately, when the orders were received most of the vehicles had been wrecked, those remaining being sufficient for only 300 men.page 409
For those troops who had been several days in the area, 25 April was a difficult day. German aircraft were over in still greater strength and in the New Zealand Convalescent Hospital group some patients were inclined to be hysterical. However, the long-expected orders came through for embarkation, vehicles were wrecked and at 9 p.m. the men in groups of fifty walked out to join the British and Australian columns assembling on the two beaches. The convoy waited half a mile off shore, boats glided in to the beaches and the long columns slowly shuffled forward. Nineteenth Australian Brigade Group embarked successfully from one beach but the sick, the wounded and the miscellaneous companies from the other beach were less fortunate. On the orders of Brigadier Vasey all fit soldiers had been taken off first. The worst cases of the wounded had then been moved but the breakdown of an LCT so delayed operations that by 2.30 a.m., when the last boat moved out, some 500 men, including the majority of the New Zealand group, were still on the beach. As all subsequent embarkation would be from the Peloponnese, they were advised to make their way as quickly as possible across the Corinth Canal.
Using twelve vehicles, including some of 4 Light Field Ambulance, RAMC, Captain A. N. Slater sent on some 200 of his patients. They were over the Corinth Canal by seven o'clock next morning but, unfortunately, their arrival coincided with the German parachute attack. Some of the ambulances were wrecked, others were driven south to safety, but the majority of the group were captured.
1 Lt-Col G. R. Kirk, OBE, m.i.d.; born Gisborne, 18 Jun 1907; physician; RMO 20 Bn 1939–40; physician 1 Gen Hosp 1940–41; 1 Mob CCS 1942; in charge medical division 1 Gen Hosp, Sep 1942–Jan 1945; died Dunedin, 31 Aug 1956
4 Staff-Sergeant J. Russell of the Mobile Dental Section and 13 others got away to the Navplion area, failed to leave ‘T’ Beach but got away to Spetsai Island, thence to Milos Island, where on 9 May they were captured. See pp. 420–1.
The more advanced of the walking wounded and those who were driving through from Athens or from 4 Brigade were immediately in danger of capture. Major Rattray, the New Zealand liaison officer at Headquarters, British Troops in Greece, Athens, was particularly unfortunate. After remaining in the city to arrange for the evacuation of many stray detachments, he had left with two vehicles, picking up many walking wounded and approaching the canal just before the attack developed. Strafing aircraft forced the party to take cover and before long paratroopers had surrounded and captured it. Those farther back along the cliff road had more time to deal with the situation. Captain Neale1 of 4 Field Ambulance had been forced to leave his vehicle and take cover, but risking air attacks he now returned with Captain Kirk to warn the detachments along the road, the party still at Megara and 4 Brigade Group at Kriekouki. Borrie, McDonald and those in the more forward sections of the scattered medical group were surrounded early that afternoon and taken to a collecting point about three miles east of the canal. Others not so far forward were able to return to Megara, where efforts were now being made to avoid capture.
After the walking party had moved off that morning the medical group under Captain Slater and the embarkation staff, under Lieutenant-Colonel R. Marnham, had been preparing to follow it up. But the news of the parachute landings brought in by Kirk and also by Lieutenant Baxter2 of the walking party had forced a change in their plans. The embarkation staff hired a caique and proposed to sail that night for Crete.
In the meantime Marnham and Captain Baker took possession of a truck, drove north and reached Headquarters 4 Brigade about 2 p.m. After describing the situation, so far as they knew it, they were sent back by Brigadier Puttick to investigate still further, to collect all the troops about Megara and to be prepared to join the 4 Brigade column when it passed through the area.
Those who remained to leave by sea were more fortunate. Because of a report that parachutists had landed near the beach, the caique sailed before dark and after five days sailing from island to island reached Crete. Lieutenants Porter and Baxter were on board as well as Captain Kirk, who had preferred the risks of a run across open country to the beach to the indefinite chances of an escape that night.
Another group, Lieutenants C. A. Morton and Foot1 with 19 other ranks, had started off for Athens in a truck, but warnings about the parachute troops had brought them back to the coast, where they took over a caique and spent the night attempting to sail for Crete. The craft had to be beached next morning so the party broke up. But when a Greek reported that there would be an evacuation that night from Rafina, Morton, Foot and three others commandeered a bus and hastened to Athens. There they hired a taxi to Rafina and left on the night of 27–28 April.
Other groups of which no record exists escaped,1 but the great majority of the men left about Megara Beach or along the highway were prisoners for the rest of the war. The medical officers, Slater, Foreman, Borrie and Neale, were taken to Corinth the following day, 27 April, by Dr Bauer of the parachute force. There through the efforts of the Greek Red Cross personnel, Miss Ariadne Massautti2 in particular, they established a hospital in the Ionian Palace Hotel. Shortly afterwards the dental group—Lieutenants Warren,3 Noakes,4 Dodgshun5 and Spencer6—were brought in as additional medical personnel. Food and equipment were obtained from the Greek Red Cross; Sergeant E. O. Jones7 of 1 General Hospital appeared with twenty men from the prisoner-of-war camp in the Greek barracks; Private Savery8 of the same unit was the sole attendant or self-appointed doctor for another twenty in the Grande Bretagne Hotel. In all 122 patients of many nationalities went through these hospitals before 10 May, when they were closed, the remaining patients and staff being taken to 2/5 Australian General Hospital at Kokkinia, a suburb of Athens. Thereafter their story is one of movement to Salonika and eventually to the prisoner-of-war camps in Germany.
1 Two officers and 18 men, including Driver J. B. Morice of 1 Ammunition Company and Private W. T. Phillips of the Field Security Section, left in a motor boat with no rudder and a useless diesel engine. They were blown to Skaramanga, where the party broke up, Morice and Phillips taking to the hills and reaching Athens. With Greek assistance they remained until October, when they were assisted to escape to Turkey.
2 She was later awarded the George Medal.