Other formats

    TEI XML file   ePub eBook file  


    mail icontwitter iconBlogspot iconrss icon

To Greece

The Embarkation of 6 Brigade from Monemvasia, 28–29 April

The Embarkation of 6 Brigade from Monemvasia, 28–29 April

The following day, 28 April, 6 Brigade remained in its dispersal area between the villages of Sikea and Molaoi on the small plain about 15 miles west of Monemvasia. Aircraft were often over the area but the troops sheltering in the magnificent olive groves remained undiscovered. Along the coast it was different. Reconnaissance aircraft appeared early that morning and dive-bombers were soon attacking an LCT which had left Navplion on the night of 26–27 April with 600 Australians. Laid up and unseen during daylight it had, on the night of 27–28 April, been taken south to Monemvasia. There the Australians had disembarked, but the LCT when moving out to a more secluded beach had been observed. She was soon on fire. The embarkation of 6 Brigade had thus become more difficult, the LCAs scattered about the nearby beaches being as yet the only available small craft.

Another problem was that of defence should the Germans come through from the Corinth Canal area. There was no artillery or supporting weapons and only a limited supply of small-arms ammunition. The mountain roads were ideal for demolition but the few engineers in the Peloponnese had limited supplies of explosives. On 26 April, before the move south from Miloi, Lieutenant-Colonel Clifton's demolition party had been very small—a few men from 6 Field Company and six troopers from C Squadron Divisional Cavalry, all survivors from the parachute attacks about the Canal— and his equipment had been two pounds of gelignite, some fuses and some detonators. As the only answer was to use depth-charges, he had consulted the naval officers with Headquarters W Force before they left that night for Crete. The naval tender at Miloi supplied one charge and three more were afterwards obtained from a grounded Greek destroyer at Monemvasia.

With these slight resources the brigade group prepared to cover its embarkation on the night of 28–29 April. Using the depth-charges, the engineers demolished a bridge some 16 miles out from Monemvasia. Brigadier Lee then posted Captain K. A. Carroll with his two platoons from 2/6 Australian Battalion to cover the demolition. About four miles to the south 24 and 25 Battalions were under cover, with the officers reconnoitring the ground and the men enjoying a much-needed rest. The Germans seem to have had no idea that the brigade had turned off to Monemvasia; they must have decided that the force had followed the other British units to page 445 Kalamata. Beyond them again and astride the road was an improvised detachment under Major Petrie,1 18 Battalion, consisting of stragglers from different units and part of Lee Force. Then, some four miles from the other battalions and eight miles from the beach, were 26 Battalion, 4 Field Ambulance and Brigade Headquarters. Strung out along the road from there to the beach were the odds and ends from British and Australian units and finally, in a valley near the harbour, Divisional Headquarters.

The scenery which the majority of the brigade did not see to appreciate when they embarked that night was magnificent. Monemvasia, ‘the Gibraltar of Greece’, was really a peninsula with open roadsteads to the north and south. On its flat crest above the cliffs some 900 feet high a town of 30,000 people had once existed, a key point in the Eastern Mediterranean and the distributing centre for Malmsey wine. In 1941 a few people lived in the old buildings on the south side between the rocky coast and the base of the cliffs, but the majority lived on the mainland in a village overlooking the beaches.

The chief anxiety of the day for General Freyberg, apart from the threat of a German attack, was the uncertainty about shipping. At daybreak he saw the dive-bombers sink the LCT which would have been so useful as a lighter between the shore and the ships. About midday Admiral Baillie-Grohman came down the coast to say that there was still some uncertainty about the arrival of the convoy. But he had one piece of good news. The LCAs, assault landing craft specially designed for working to and from beaches, would be coming in that night. Nevertheless there was still every chance of an incomplete evacuation. One battalion might have to remain until the following night, and since it was the turn of 24 Battalion to undertake the next rearguard duty, Lieutenant-Colonel Shuttleworth had to select the most favourable position for a last stand. During the afternoon, however, several small boats and a Greek caique were made available. Each battalion supplied men accustomed to handling boats and Second-Lieutenant Andrews,2 Divisional Signals, organised a supplementary ferry service from the beach to the caique and thence to the vessels of the convoy. As a result of their labours it was eventually possible for 24 Battalion to embark that night.

The arrangements for embarkation were most carefully prepared by Lieutenant-Colonel Gentry and other members of the divisional staff and once darkness fell the move to the beaches began. Fourth

1 Major M. De R. Petrie; Wellington; born Christchurch, 9 Aug 1895; company secretary; 2 i/c 18 Bn 1940–41.

2 Maj A. A. Andrews; Wainui, Banks Peninsula; born Fairlie, 28 Sep 1909; civil servant; wounded 25 Nov 1941.

page 446 Field Ambulance and the wounded left first, then 26 Battalion, Brigade Headquarters, 25 Battalion and finally 24 Battalion. As each unit approached the port the men wrecked their vehicles and marched down to join the waiting columns.

About 9 p.m. the first troops arrived and looked anxiously for the ships. ‘I feel sure that those last hours of waiting on the beach were the most anxious that we had had.’1 The evacuation might be incomplete or, worse still, it might not take place at all. Baillie- Grohman had no confirmation that the ships were arriving, he did not know if they would be transports or naval vessels, and, moreover, he did not know if his signal about the actual embarkation point in the large bay had ever been received. To prevent any misunderstanding he sent an officer in an LCA to move beyond the bay. There he found the cruiser and the four destroyers; they were actually on their way in to Monemvasia.

The embarkation which began at 11.50 p.m. was mainly from the two piers and the causeway connecting Monemvasia with the mainland. The cruiser Ajax and the destroyers Havock, Hotspur, Griffin and Isis closed well in and the whole embarkation was then ‘remarkably well carried out.’2

The only delay was in the embarkation of the wounded. They had been sent off first, but the boats had returned with them because only destroyers were then in the bay and they could not accommodate wounded men. The Ajax which had yet to appear would take them all. In the meantime they had to remain on the pier with the anxious controlling staff regretting the delay. However, as more ships and landing craft drew in the speed of embarkation increased. The Ajax approached and the lines of stretcher cases were taken aboard, the columns grew shorter and it became certain that the whole force would be embarked. At 3 a.m. in the last boatload General Freyberg and Rear-Admiral Baillie-Grohman, Brigadiers Galloway, Barrowclough and Lee, with Battle Headquarters, set out for the Ajax. And at eight o'clock next morning, 29 April, the convoy with some 4320 all ranks aboard arrived at Suda Bay.

The same night the destroyers Auckland, Salvia and Hyacinth had gone to Kithira Island and taken off 60 soldiers, 700 Royal Air Force personnel3 and 60 Greek soldiers.

The troops of these two convoys were not landed in Crete. In the original plan all units were to have been taken from Greece to Egypt; the movement to Crete of many formations, including 4 and 5 New Zealand Brigades, had only been an effort to hasten

1 GOC's report.

2 Cunningham's despatch, Enclosure I, para. 47.

3 See pp. 443, 450.

page 447 the turn-round of the ships. Moreover, Admiral Cunningham was extremely anxious to evacuate from Crete as many troops as possible before there was any serious interference from the enemy. Baillie- Grohman had therefore arranged for a convoy with a strong escort to leave Suda Bay that same morning for Alexandria. Seven transports were already assembled when the warships steamed in from Monemvasia and Kithira Island, so the troops in the destroyers and some from the Ajax were immediately transferred to the Thurland Castle and Comliebank. In the other transports there already were the consular staff and British subjects from Greece, Royal Air Force personnel and British seamen, walking wounded and nurses, including the New Zealand group who had been in Crete since 25 April. At 11 a.m. the convoy sailed, and all of 6 Brigade who had embarked at Monemvasia reached Alexandria on 1 May.

General Freyberg and his senior staff officers, Stewart and Gentry, had remained, the General wishing to spend the night in Crete before flying to Egypt the following day in a Sunderland. That evening, however, his departure was cancelled. Next morning, 30 April, Wavell, who had just arrived from Cairo, placed him in command of the forces in Crete, the majority of whom were the British, Australian and New Zealand formations evacuated from Greece.