CHAPTER 21 — Kalamata
The Germans occupy the Peloponnese, 28–29 April
ON 28 April there had been two German forces moving south into the Peloponnese: III Battalion SS ‘Adolf Hitler’ Division from Patrai and 5 Panzer Division from Corinth. The former, having withdrawn the two trains it had sent to Corinth, went down the west coast to Pirgos and on 29 April, when the railway line was found to be undamaged, a reinforced company was sent to Kalamata. It arrived to find, as was the case at Corinth, that elements of 5 Panzer Division were already established in the area.
No unit records describing the movements of 5 Panzer Division on 28 April are now available but one brief report1 states that the unit, with two companies of paratroopers under command, pursued the British through Argos and Tripolis to Navplion and Kalamata. At 6.10 p.m., according to messages from the Luftwaffe, the advanced guard had entered Miloi. A detachment from it was, almost certainly, the force which dealt with the British and Australian troops who had not been evacuated from the nearby ports of Navplion and Tolos. The main body hastened south and later in the day was beyond Tripolis and past the side road along which 6 New Zealand Brigade had gone to Monemvasia. As the Luftwaffe did not observe2 any movement in that area, the troops were left to embark undisturbed. But it meant that the forward company of 5 Panzer Division, when it reached Kalamata that evening, was in time to prevent the embarkation of 7000 men.
1 Appendix 118 to XXXX Corps diary, April 1941.
New Zealand Troops in Kalamata
Among them there were many New Zealanders. At 7.10 p.m. on 25 April the hastily organised Reinforcement Battalion had left Voula Camp and, after collecting the detachments which had been on guard about Athens and Piræus, moved westwards towards the embarkation point at Navplion. As base units of all types were on the highway it was difficult in the stream of traffic to remain as a complete formation, particularly after the irritating traffic jam page 449 which developed when the convoy turned off to collect the guard from the oil dumps at Elevsis. On the other hand there were no air raids. The Luftwaffe was not operating at night so, although there were the abandoned trucks on the cliff road beyond Megara and the wreckage about the railway station at Corinth to impede the way, the majority of the vehicles were, before dawn, across the canal and approaching Argos. In the distance the drivers could see the Ulster Prince at Navplion, aground from the previous night and still burning after the day's air raids.
At this stage the evacuation plans had been changed;1 more use was to be made of Kalamata; and the military police were directing all traffic along the road to Tripolis. The route was therefore south through Argos, past Miloi where 6 Brigade had assembled, and up the winding road to the crest of the Ktenas Range. At sunrise, however, the walls of Navplion could be seen glistening across the bay and many of the officers, not having been warned of the diversion and thinking that some mistake had been made, chose to turn back when half-way up the mountainside. When the traffic jam was at its worst General Freyberg appeared, the vehicles were swiftly turned about again and before long the battalion was through the hills and approaching Tripolis.
From this junction town 6 Brigade, when its turn came, was to withdraw south-east to Monemvasia, but on 26 April any movement on the road was south-west to the port of Kalamata. The headquarters group from the Reinforcement Battalion was therefore instructed by the military authorities in the town to continue south-west with the British and Australian convoys. This meant crossing another range to Megalopolos and continuing south across hills cloaked with bracken and stunted mountain oak to the plain of Messinia, a world of orange groves and cypress trees. Thereafter they skirted the eastern fringe, following the highway lined with aloes and cactus plants and finally turning eastwards over a slight rise to the town and port of Kalamata. The majority of the convoys went through to the eastern olive groves but the trucks of the Reinforcement Battalion, arriving late that afternoon and all through the night, assembled under cover several miles to the north.
In addition there were many New Zealanders who had, in the general confusion of the withdrawal, lost contact with their units. Some had moved south with the hospital cases after the bombing of the Hellas in Piræus harbour; others who came in late that night or early next morning had escaped from the Corinth Canal area. Among them were men from 28 (Maori) Battalion Bren-carrier platoon and remnants of the detachment sent from Voula Camp with Lieutenant J. S. Findlay to guard the Khalkis bridge. The latter had come south to embark at ‘D’ Beach east of Athens, but they had been switched west from Elevsis towards Corinth and after the parachute attack had continued south to Kalamata.
As yet there had been no official embarkation from this port, but the Royal Air Force group, acting independently and arriving from Argos on 24 April, had already sent 200 men in Sunderland flying boats to Crete and a still larger number in a 500-ton freighter to the island of Kithira.3 On the night of 25–26 April another Sunderland had been sent over but it crashed in the harbour. Next morning, however, the naval embarkation officer, Captain Clark- Hall, RN, arrived and the Royal Air Force personnel, mostly technical tradesmen, had been given priority when embarkation began that night.
The military units directed south by Army Movement Control had been collecting in the olive groves all through 25 and 26 April and now, under the command of Brigadier L. P. Parrington, MC, there were about 16,000 men: Allen Group (16 and 17 Australian Brigades and Corps troops), many detachments of base troops, Palestinians and Cypriot labourers, Yugoslav soldiers and refugees, Indian mule drivers and Lascar seamen.
Left behind were 8000 men, mostly from base units except for 380 Australians under Lieutenant-Colonel H. G. F. Harlock, 50 men from 3 Royal Tank Regiment who had been manning Royal Air Force trucks and helping stragglers to the beaches south of Corinth, the New Zealand Reinforcement Battalion immediately outside the town, and the 300 men from 4 Hussars who had completed their journey from the Gulf of Corinth and were now the rearguard 20 miles to the north. As a fighting force the group was not strong but Brigadier Parrington, the area commander, assured the senior officers that embarkation was possible that night. So the men did their best to endure another day's bombing and strafing before assembling on the beaches to the east of the town.
After dark on 27 April the groups were on the move, the Reinforcement Battalion taking its vehicles through the town to the assembly area near the junction of the Beach road and that lane from the north which the authorities called the Link road.2 From there the Australians had marched back to the harbour to embark in the destroyers which transferred them to the transports lying off shore. Expecting similar procedure, the columns moved hopefully along the Beach road towards the harbour between the great curving mole to the west and the breakwater to the east. Inset into the waterfront were several landing stages and then the inner basin. To the north, across the open waterfront with its tramline and its garden plots, were the solidly constructed buildings of the business area, the side streets and the railway from the ancient town to the modern port.
The patient columns waited until midnight, when they were told that there would be no embarkation. Many of the men returned to their unit areas, but those who had wrecked their trucks and those who were weary because of long journeys and the strain of air raids took refuge in the nearby olive groves. The majority of the Reinforcement Battalion seem to have returned to their area beside the road and to the north of the town.
The German Advanced Guard enters Kalamata
The plan was never put into operation. The outer screen of 4 Hussars had already been overwhelmed by the advanced guard of 5 Panzer Division, which was now hurrying south from the canal area. No warning could be given to the New Zealand Reinforcement Battalion; in any case, the majority of that unit had already moved into Kalamata. But the covering party, including Captains Yates and Bryson1 and Lieutenant Curtis, who were waiting for stragglers, and Major Thomson,2 who was attending to some wounded, was surprised and captured. Several men attempted to break away. Some were successful, but the majority were checked by bursts of machine-gun fire and soon marched back to join 4 Hussars in the open trucks at the end of the column. The force then moved on, Major Thomson accompanying the German medical officer. Meeting with no opposition and capturing still more prisoners, the Germans entered the town, crossed the bridge over the dry creek and turned south to the harbour, where they drew up near the Customs House. The prisoners were bustled off the vehicles and placed under guard; the Germans, obviously surprised at the number of soldiers about the town, began to probe eastwards along the waterfront.
Just how much time they had to establish themselves before darkness came down it is now impossible to estimate. The important fact was that there had been no serious opposition. The majority of the Allied troops were already to the east of the town; the rest were drifting along the tracks and side roads to the assembly areas. There had certainly been some intermittent rifle fire, but that had been common enough during the day and caused no inquiry. The result was that still more men were surprised and captured.
The greatest misfortune of all was the capture of Captain Clark- Hall, who, with his signalman, had been about to go down to the waterfront. Thereafter the difficulty of communicating with the Navy was to be the vital problem of the evacuation.
2 Maj G. H. Thomson, OBE, ED; New Plymouth; born Dunedin, 5 Mar 1892; obstetrician; gunner, 4 How Bty, Egypt and Gallipoli, 1914–16; RMO 4 Fd Regt Sep 1939–Apr 1941; p.w. 29 Apr 1941; repatriated Oct 1943.
Two New Zealand officers, Lieutenant Daniel1 and Second- Lieutenant Willis,2 after bringing their men to the waterfront, had gone to MacDuff's headquarters near the junction of Link and Beach roads. On their way back along one of the side streets they saw grey-uniformed soldiers in the distance but thought that they were some of the Yugoslavs—until a German had appeared from a doorway with an automatic and marched them back to the Customs House area, already packed with prisoners, lorries and AFVs.
The Germans had by then realised that they were in great danger. They questioned prisoners about the arrival of the convoy; they wanted to know how many men were at the other end of the waterfront and when there were signs of a counter-attack they became very disturbed. The prisoners were then marched back towards the town, across the bridge and along the highway to the waiting vehicles of the main body.
While this was taking place, the arrival of the enemy force had become known to the thousands assembled in the olive groves.
When the first reports reached the different headquarters the senior officers had been inclined to doubt the nerve of their informants. But a liaison officer ordered back to 4 Hussars returned to say that the road through the town was blocked by the enemy; lorry drivers rushed back from the hospital area calling out that there were Germans in the town; more regular bursts of machine-gun fire were heard; and men could be seen running back to the safety of the olive groves.
The next stage of the action cannot be told in exact detail but the first serious opposition seems to have come from Major B. Carey, 3 Royal Tank Regiment, who with Major Pemberton, Royal Signals, had been walking towards the harbour when excited men had rushed back along the waterfront. Pemberton went back to warn Brigadier Parrington. Carey, collecting a Bren gun, spent the next two hours on the seaward side of the Beach road firing at the German guns on the quay and encouraging those among the Allied soldiers who wished to fight.
The small Australian force, though short of weapons, was equally active. Lieutenant-Colonel Harlock organised parties while Captain A. W. Gray sent one platoon with the New Zealand groups and led another along the waterfront.
The other source of resistance—probably the major one—was the New Zealand Reinforcement Battalion, whose headquarters had been established by Major MacDuff at the junction of the Link and Beach roads. Before the fighting actually started, Lieutenants O'Rorke1 and Rhind2 had been sent to see that the covering companies went into position. On their instructions Captain Simmonds,3 with men from B Company, Lieutenant D. R. Brickell and his platoon, and Lieutenant J. W. Moodie from Battalion Headquarters moved back to cover the Sparta road and the eastern exit from the town. Warned by lorry loads of troops yelling ‘Jerries in town’ and by Greeks who called out ‘Germania’, the group reached the crossroads ‘on the run’. Directed by Moodie, who knew the latest technique of street fighting, they had pulled down stone walls and prepared a defence post. At the same time Lieutenant F. G. Spackman had been sent forward by Major MacDuff to find out who was responsible for the bursts of rifle fire: ‘if Greeks to shut them up; if Germans to find out where they were.’ At the bridge he collected a German car, the disturbed occupant of which was taken back to the beach for cross-examination. Soon afterwards a truck drawing a heavy gun and then a motor lorry had approached the road block, but bursts of fire had forced their drivers to swing hurriedly away. Thereafter the group was not disturbed; heavy fighting could be heard about the harbour, but it eventually died down and about midnight the men were ordered back to the beaches, where the crowds were assembling for the expected embarkation.
Meanwhile O'Rorke and Rhind, when moving towards the centre of the town, had heard bursts of fire and seen Germans in the area to the west where A Company was to have been placed. They had returned to the road junction, collected about twenty New Zealanders and Australians, and moved towards the enemy, Rhind along the waterfront, O'Rorke one street inland.
1 Lt F. O'Rorke; born England, 31 Jul 1906; sheep-farmer; killed in action 28 Apr 1941.
By then the light was fading and there was hopeless confusion in the thickly packed olive groves. If a soldier wished to fight he could do so—if he hesitated it was simple enough to remain among the excited thousands. Nevertheless, through the efforts of Geddes, Harlock and MacDuff, several parties had already moved off or were about to do so. The officers and men did not always know each other so it is impossible to record the names of many who took part in the actual fighting. But it is known that from this area patrols went in led by Lieutenants Canavan,1 Simpson, Watt, Davies,2 Buckleton,3 Fay4 and Harris.5 Moving through the eastern outskirts of the town, they reached the back streets and approached the quay from the north.
Ahead of these parties, however, was another collected and led by Sergeant Hinton,6 20 Battalion. At the sound of firing he had gone to the headquarters corner and attempted to find out what was happening. Unable to get any response in the general confusion, he had moved along the Beach road towards the town and had then crawled across to Major Carey's gun post near the beach. With Carey's assurance of covering fire he had returned, collected about a dozen New Zealanders and started up the road to deal with the big gun which had just opened up. When machine-gun fire became too heavy, the party turned north up a side street and then went forward again a block or two inland from the waterfront. In this street Hinton dealt with a machine-gun post set up at a corner to cover the eastern and northern approaches.
Meanwhile Rhind, with the supporting fire from Carey's group along the Beach road, had led his party from block to block along the waterfront until it met those coming in from the side streets. They were reorganising when ‘a truck went up the road towards the German positions, loaded with N.Z. and Australian troops.’2
This truck, driven by Sapper Gourlick3 with eight men aboard, including Privates Snooks,4 Turner5 and Lewis,6 had been sent in by MacDuff. At some speed it had been rattled along from the olive groves, turned on to the waterfront and rushed forward to within 50 yards of the first gun. There it had been pulled up sharply, the crew dashing to cover up the nearest side street and opening fire on the Germans about the gun and along the open pavement of the quay. Their fire, Hinton's advance from the side street and, most probably, the never-ceasing machine-gun fire from Carey forced the gun crews to seek refuge in the buildings along the waterfront. Behind them they left the biggest collection of killed and wounded seen by any of those who took part in the action.
2 Information from Captain Rhind to D. J. C. Pringle (co-author 20 Battalion history); Major F. B. Topham; notes from Gourlick, Lewis, Snooks and Turner.
7 This officer, who had been captured outside the town, had ‘filed off’ when the fighting began and taken cover until he met a New Zealand officer, with whom he ‘doubled back’ to MacDuff's headquarters.
No account of the initial stages of the surrender was prepared by the British. Members of the different groups very often did not know each other and within a few hours they themselves were to be taken prisoners of war. In a German propaganda publication1 there is, however, an account which more or less agrees with the reports of those who are known to have been in the immediate vicinity. The details are not always accurate, but the personal reference to at least one British officer suggests that the author had interviewed German officers who had taken part in the action.
According to him one of the British had called upon the Germans to surrender. A lieutenant had replied, ‘Fire stopping—finished’, and had then been sent over with instructions not to surrender but to make a parley: ‘We haven't a shot left. Gain time.’ He had been forced to call over his company commander, but the ‘Australians’ had threatened to shoot both Germans ‘unless within five minutes all encircled in the harbour laid down their arms.’ At this stage an ‘English Colonel’2 arrived and conducted the negotiations. The Germans probably mentioned the force outside the town and the hopelessness of the situation so far as the British were concerned, for they record that ‘The wild fellows … bellowed with indignation.’ And that seems to have decided the case for by midnight the Germans had surrendered to whoever happened to be near and the final number was over 120 all ranks.
Their casualties had been heavy, particularly about the more forward of the two heavy guns and in one of the side streets where ‘somebody must have caught them with a bren.’3 In all there were 41 killed and 60 wounded. The British casualties were 3 officers and 30 other ranks killed and 50 or more wounded, who were cared for ‘in what was called a British Hospital where a New Zealand doctor4 was doing magnificent work with negligible equipment.’
The chances of evacuation now seemed to be good. Barriers were erected to control the roads, parties were detailed to hold them and efforts were made to signal the Navy.
2 Just who this was it is now impossible to say.
3 It has not been possible to find out who was responsible for these casualties.
4 Major Thomson.
Troops collecting on beach south-east of town. All firing ceased in town. Consider evacuation possible from beach. Brigadier is reporting.
By then Bowyer-Smith, acting on the earlier signals and observing fires and explosions ashore, had at 9.29 p.m. abandoned the operation and was moving south with all ships except the Hero. He did not alter his decision.
As the Hero had only two whalers the chances of embarkation were very limited. But the naval authorities in Crete, having been told that there were 1500 Yugoslavs and thousands of troops still in Kalamata, had sent over the Kandahar, Kingston and Kimberley to assist the original force. These destroyers arrived at 1 a.m. and more embarkation was possible. The sick and wounded from the hospital and the men wounded in the town had by then been taken to the beach, but there was still a shortage of boats and very little available time. So in the end only 332 all ranks were evacuated. As some fit men, including several New Zealanders, were among that number, it is regrettable that the majority of those who did the actual fighting were not evacuated. They saw the last boat leave the beach and were told that it would be back again. But it never appeared. The destroyers moved out about 3 a.m., signalling ‘Many regrets’ several times. The disappointed troops, unable to understand the departure of the ships, found their own solution and accepted the often repeated and quite incorrect rumour that the approach of an Italian fleet made it necessary for the destroyers to get clear of the coast.
The Brigadier then had the unpleasant task of calling his senior officers together and informing them of their hopeless situation. Any further resistance was considered impossible and unnecessary. Calls were made for any officer who could speak German and Captain Kennard was sent back with his German officer to say that the force would surrender before daybreak. Next morning swastikas were spread out on the beaches as a warning to the Luftwaffe to cease its bombing; the troops were assembled by the now exultant Germans; and for several days trainloads of prisoners were taken north to Corinth and to four unhappy years as prisoners of war.
1 Captain Sir Philip Bowyer-Smith, RN.
The German Account of the Action at Kalamata
The only official German report of the action, the propaganda publication already quoted, gives few details: there had been a ‘violent engagement’ and 7000 British troops had surrendered. According to this booklet, one company from 5 Panzer Division had approached Kalamata about 6.30 p.m., collecting ‘little groups of stranded Tommies’ on the way and entering the town. ‘Things were quiet’ so the force carried on to the waterfront. There was still no movement. Then about 7 p.m. rifle fire ‘began to crackle … isolated shots at first, so that nobody bothered’, but suddenly it increased in volume, the British ‘sweeping the long quay with their fire.’ One of the three armoured vehicles was put out of action and had to be shepherded into cover by the other two; the prisoners were sent back to the main body which was now outside the town; and the company prepared for all-round defence.
On the waterfront two machine guns and three PAK guns1 returned the fire and the motorised battery of two 15-centimetre guns went into action, firing over open sights in the direction of the olive groves. All British accounts state that only two shells came over, but the Germans describe how the twelve gunners worked with ‘furious calm’ until eight of them had fallen to the British fire. The machine-gunners, equally exposed, had their casualties, resistance slackened, and before long the British were appearing out of ‘each side street and lane’. The German commander, collecting his men, made a last stand in some buildings towards the southern end of the waterfront. But they were ‘shut in from all sides’, and when their ammunition was exhausted they asked for a parley and were forced to surrender.
The enemy prisoners were marched back to the beach where British officers ‘wrapped in their greatcoats’ were waiting for the expected convoy. It did not appear, and about 4 a.m. on 29 April a British officer asked the captured company commander to take him as envoy to the highest-ranking German officer outside the town. So back they went to the battalion commander and the 450 men who were ‘waiting with unspeakable impatience for the dawn.’ The surrender was soon negotiated, the Luftwaffe was warned not to bomb the area and at dawn the British became prisoners of war.
1 Panzerabwehrkanone: anti-tank gun.
2 Some RAF personnel had already been evacuated from Yithion and Kalamata in Sunderland aircraft. Another party at Kardhamili, a village some 20 miles south-east of Kalamata, left in a motor vessel for Crete.—See A. S. G. Lee, Special Duties, pp. 95–105. After the surrender of the main body many British officers and men rushed off by truck or on foot towards this village or the nearby coast, from which on succeeding nights some were collected by the Navy.
The boat which failed to cross the bay on the first night had finished up some ten miles down the coast from Kalamata. Inland there were German units, but the Greeks gave assistance and Lieutenant Poolman,2 with five men, waited hoping to see ships come in to collect troops. At this stage they were joined by seven men who had escaped from Kalamata after the surrender. The combined groups, less three men who preferred other risks, finally sailed for Crete on 30 April, crossing the bay and by stages sailing down the coast to Cape Matapan. On the way they were joined by some of the men from one of the two smaller boats and on 8 May, by sailing south-east to Kithira and Katra, they reached the port of Kastelli in Crete.
The rear party of the Royal Air Force had a different history. Disappointed at the non-appearance of warships or Sunderlands during the night of 27–28 April, they had on 28 April moved to Kardhamili, a coastal village across the bay and about 20 miles south of Kalamata. A 30-foot motor boat had been chartered and all preparations made for a move that night. So when a motorcyclist brought the news of the German entry into Kalamata, the party left in daylight, creeping down the coast to Cape Matapan and eventually reaching Kithira and, on 30 April, Suda Bay in Crete.
Those who found small boats were usually more successful. Private Patterson2 (20 Battalion) and a Maori found a dinghy, put to sea and were picked up by one of the destroyers. Lieutenant E. H. Simpson, after taking part in the recapture of the town, was sent out from the beach with a small party in a rowing boat to contact the destroyers vaguely to be seen off shore. The ships left soon afterwards and the soldiers, using their packing case paddles, were forced to land down the coast. Next night they moved off shore, used the cordite from cartridge cases to make flares and were picked up by HMS Isis.
Another caique was taken out by the men5 from 6 Field Regiment who had reached Kalamata quite independent of the New Zealand Reinforcement Battalion. Not confident of getting away, Lieutenant Reed and his party had been encouraged by Gunner McKenzie6 to arrange for their own evacuation. During the morning they had found a caique anchored well out from the mole and had left Sergeants Fenton7 and Lydster8 and Gunner Hodgetts9 to prepare her for the open sea and to keep guard over her until nightfall. Unfortunately for them the Germans arrived just before dark, came along the mole and took the caretakers back to join the prisoners near the Customs House. The other members of the party, after the counter-attack and the announcement that there would be no evacuation, returned to the caique, took aboard the supplies McKenzie had collected, and remained hidden all through 29 April—not smoking, not talking, very hot and sometimes worried by the sound of German voices. No investigation was made, however, and when darkness came two men used the rowing boat and towed the caique beyond the mole and out to sea. They then made their way down the coast and across to Crete, where they landed on 7 May.
4 R. M. Burdon, 24 Battalion, p. 48.
The Navy had in the meantime kept its promise to return. On 29–30 April, the night after the fighting, the destroyers Isis, Hero and Kimberley came over from Crete and picked up along the coast to the east of Kalamata some 16 officers and 17 other ranks, mainly from English units. The following night, 30 April–1 May, they were more successful, collecting 23 officers and 178 other ranks. And from Milos the Hotspur and Havock evacuated some 700 British and Palestinian troops who had reached that island from parts of Greece other than Kalamata.
Thereafter, until the airborne attack on 20 May, small parties made their way to Crete. Sometimes names were recorded, but very often the records were left behind on that island. The only reference may be a cable from Crete to New Zealand Headquarters in Egypt such as ‘Arrived Crete 14 May 13 other ranks’; a note that on 4 May forty arrived from Crete, ‘mostly New Zealanders’, who had been guarding the Shell Oil refinery; or the name of a Maori who had been captured at Kalamata and who by some unstated means had managed to escape. Sometimes those who reached Crete rejoined their units, took part in the fighting and were then killed or captured. The Mobile Dental Unit, for instance, records that Driver Ferris1 escaped by small boat but was compelled to return to land for ten to fourteen days. There he met Drivers Easton2 and Craig,3 who had been captured at Kalamata but had escaped and made their way through to the coast. Joining forces with eight other fugitives and securing a small boat, they reached Crete some days before the air attack. The survivors from the fighting joined in the march over the hills to the evacuation beaches, but several ‘have not yet reported.’4 Such a note in many of the war diaries for the Crete campaign explains why there are so many gaps in the history of the last few days in Greece.
4 War diary of ADDS, NZ Dental Corps, May 1941, Appx VI.