Although his New Guinea journals are few and far between he glosses over (in fact doesn’t mention it at all) that he was awarded the Military Cross for his efforts in commanding a raid on a Japanese post threatening an airstrip. We have a few other stories as well as some “Tall Stories” that Pop wrote based around his time during the war. Will post them as and when i get to them.
HOME IN AUSSIE 1942
We arrived home in Aussie late in ’42 and after home leave a reposting to LAA (Light Anti Aircraft) unit from which I managed to wangle my way back to 2/1 ATK Regt, 2 Bty to which I had now been posted and given embarkation orders to move to NG.
We arrived in Port Moresby just as the Kokoda Trail campaign was finishing. Some of the regiment were at present engaged on the final battles around Buna and the Sanananda Track and it looked as though the rest of the regiment would sweat out their twelve months in NG and then come back to the mainland for a spell. Such was not to be however and after an inspection by Gen (Red Ned) Herring, I received a call one night from our CO (Frank St John) to report to RHQ for a conference. With my BC we duly arrived and were told that G Troup (mine) were to be ready to move next day to Buna (by air) then move up the coast and report into 11 Bty 2/6 Fd Regt (7 Div) and come under command. It was our first operational move by air but we made it OK. After a short stay in Cape Endaquire? area we moved up along the coast by a small trading type ship and were landed at a small bay. Here we met a number of the old regiment who had been transferred to LAA. No one had any idea where we were or where we were going. We eventually hitched a ride in the right direction to a beach west of Coaine from where we started, to walk towards the fight some 50 miles away. The ride we hitched incidentally was by American landing barges (Amphibious Engineers) and from there we walked with our 2-day rations. (From what I have learned since, ‘Q’ movements had nought to do with G Troops movements and only our own efforts got us to where we were going)
Near Lake Salus whilst still marching, the US engineers again picked us up. They gave us a lift to near Aussie Beach where US brigades were being withdrawn covered by an Aussie battalion. Here we linked up with the Aussie battalion whilst the Yanks were withdrawn. Only one attempt was made by the Jap to force the perimeter and unfortunately it hit our troop. We threw it back and killed 26 Japs in the doing but as usual had our own casualties and before moving off, buried two of our old cobbers from the ME, Charlie Quinn and Joe Hanley.
From there we moved off again and linked up with B Troop of 2/6 Rgt. Ian Gamble, an old mate was troop commander and was glad to see us. We were shelled heavily and accurately shortly after our arrival and another attack was expected. (The troop had beaten one off previously and had a few casualties) We dug in with them and in the early morning about 40 Japs launched another assault. They hit more resistance than they had expected and together we knocked over 28 Japs for no loss. My original 35 men had made the difference between the troop being done over or not. No more attacks were put in on this troop and a week later they were moved forward to Coaine Beach, Tambu Bay.
We moved up next day to Tambu area and put in four solid months in action. Our jobs were diverse. We helped man 25 pounder guns from ammo numbers to laying. We did security patrols around the area and steadily built up our tally of Japs. To put the seal on our versatility we did long recce patrols, followed by fighting patrols through the Jap areas, mostly along Scout Ridge (through the US lines) and the Lokanu ridge and the Bay area, took part in several ‘pepper pot’ or lightweight bombardments and even took part in an American amphibious operation into Lokanu Bay. Here we established a platoon post and held it for 3 critical nights, after which US numbers and machines made the place very safe. We finished our tour of duty when Salamaua fell and turned in a very creditable performance of a verified kill of 140 Japs for the loss of 3 killed and 4 wounded. After Salamaua fell, the landings at Lae (Scarlet and Blue Beaches) made the area secure and with 17 Inf Bde (6 Div) who had had 8 months from Wau to Salamaua we were withdrawn for a spell and refitting in Australia. The regiment had by this time and so G Troop 2nd Battery were the last to leave NG on the first tour and everyone agreed that we had acquitted ourselves more than well. I arrived back in Aussie late December, early January after being left behind with a bout of malaria, which had dogged me for several months.
HOME IN AUSSIE 1944
By Feb/Mar the Regt had completed leave and concentrated at Helidon QLD. After our NG tour we were very nearly non- effective with malaria, and as the policy was to cut Anti Tank Regts down to one per Corps instead of one per Division, our future looked rather insecure. At this stage we changed COs and Lt Col St John left to take over 2/6Fd Regt 7 Div. Our new CO was Lt Col McAlister, formerly 2i/c 2/6 Regt, and lately from the ME training Regt and instructor Staff College.
Then came a period of partial conversion from ATK to field when most of the Regt trained on 75mm mountain guns. At last things settled down and 1 Bty kept the 75’s and 3 Bty became the 4.2 mortar bty.
2 Bty whom I was still with, being battery Captain now, were more or less left in the cold and to keep them busy we concentrated on infantry training. This we used to do “off the cuff” when we were supposed to be doing A/TK training and after a few months became quite proficient. How often in the next year used we to thank our lucky stars for our stolen days of infantry training.
At the end of November we had a change of command again and Lt Col Lance Rickard (Tex) took us over. We were a little apprehensive when he arrived as he had recently had three of the “100” regiments and after a month or so with each had disbanded them. No such thing for old 2/1 however and he made it very clear the day after arrival that he was taking us back into action, and very soon at that.
Three weeks after the old procedure stared again, and battery by battery we packed and marched out headed once more for NG. During our stay at Helidon we had reduced from four batteries to three- discarding 4 Bty. It meant the loss of a Bty HQ only as each other battery expanded from 3 Troops to four. As we were well under strength even the absorption of 4 batteries/ 3 Troops did not bring us up to full strength.
2 BTY ARRIVE AT AITAPE, NEW GUINEA
We arrived at Aitape NG early in January and two days later were sent down the coast to join up with the forward troops. The remainder of the regiment remained behind at Aitape and 2 Bty retained its boast of last out and first in. I often disputed it over the Grecian show but as my A Trp 1 Bty were first in there and I was now 2 Bty with a lot of my old troop it didn’t seem to matter much.
The battery followed up 16 Bde but had little fighting to do and after a while settled to maintenance work for the forward Bde. I was able during this period to get forward on attachment to First 2/3 Bn and then 2/2 Bn. We had several good scraps and on one patrol got four Nips and a heavy machine gun. I was also in the company attack that successfully attacked Wonganara Mission and so narrowly missed killing or capturing Gen Naki the Supreme commander of the Japs in NG. It was a brisk fight while it lasted and quite a few scalps fell to 2/3Bn that afternoon. Shortly after this Chickoko Pass fell and 2 Bty who were then about Dagua Airstrip were concentrated for a new task in the inland sector with 17 Bde.
I was recalled and with the battery backtracked to Suaui? where I was told I was to take command and move the battery into Maprik for Special Duties.
At this time 1 Bty (75mm) were moved up to take our place and rehearse for an amphibious operation into Dove Bay. This came off about three weeks to a month after we started patrolling in the Maprik/Hayfield area. At the same time B Bty, once again under Maj “Frog” Fotheringham were committed in the area we had just left and for the first time since Greece all the regiment were committed at the same time. (We had of course fought as individual batteries and troops on quite a few occasions since then- Syria, Papua, NG and now Northern NG again)
And so we finished to the end of the war with 1and 3 Btys on the coastal area with 16 and 19 Bde and old 2 Bty with 17 Bde inland. For our trials and tribulations, and not to say fight, of which we had as much as we wanted and more, the story is recounted far better than I could do so in 2 Btys little volume “On Your Feet”. There in those pages is the story of a tight knitted fraternity who stuck to the last closer than the proverbial “Mud to a blanket”.
There are some headings on the next page to indicate Dad was intending to go on and relate further on his army career post WW11 but apart from short stories that I will transcribe shortly he didn’t complete it.
8 Nov 2006
Information sourced from” Official History of New Zealand in WW2 1939-1945”
21 Battalion Chapter 8 Victory in Egypt for Capt DB Hill m.i.d, Hamilton, born England 11 Oct 1912, land & estate agent, PW 25 Apr 1941 escaped 10 May 1941 returned 2 NZEF Oct 1941. No 20537
Donald Beresford Hill died in Hamilton NZ in 1963 aged 51 years. He is buried in Hamilton Park Cemetery Newstead (NZ records BMD)
Copied from Official History of New Zealand Crete Campaign
1 WO II D. B. Hill (21 Bn).
2 Lt R. B. Sinclair (22 Bn), mentioned in despatches.
3 There were three New Zealanders in the original party—2 Lt Craig (22 Bn), awarded MC, 2 Lt E. F. Cooper (LAD attached 5 Fd Regt), and Cpl Haycock (22 Bn). Cooper and Haycock were mentioned in despatches.
– 75 –
to organise help and rescue for escapers and evaders in both Greece and Crete. Some of the operations in Crete have already been outlined. In Greece food, clothing, and blankets were dropped by air in areas known to harbour these men—Mount Tagetus, Katerini, and Mount Olympus. Agents operating caiques continued to evacuate British and Imperial servicemen, and groups of the newly recruited successful escapers were landed on the Greek mainland to organise further assistance and escape routes.
As the result of their activities a party of 18 was evacuated by caique from the coast near Athens on 22 November, reaching Alexandria five days later.1 After the capture of several agents and MI9 personnel, the Germans and Italians started to set traps for escapers by posing as the representatives of escape organisations. By this means they were able not only to capture a number of escapers and evaders but also to make the remainder suspicious of whoever made contact with them, and genuine MI9 agents had to carefully work out means of proving their identity. It was over five months before the next New Zealander2 was brought out from the Athens area in a party of twenty, which left Porto Rafti under MI9 arrangements on 2 May and reached Turkey two days later.
WE MAKE SYRIA
It was just on dusk when we arrived in Syria proper. There on the station were two burly Aussie soldiers killing time by watching the train come in. We were so pleased to see some of our own fellows in uniform and under arms again that I had to stop myself from shouting out to them and having a yarn. It was asking for trouble to do so in civvies, for the information I wanted was of units and personnel, my own in particular. I suspect any attempt on my part to obtain such information would probably find us in yet another jail as a suspected fifth columnist and that was the last place I wanted to see. We spent the night in Tripoli but didn’t see much of the town. It was an improvement on Aleppo that was just a mud wog town set in a barren dessert. That’s how it impressed me anyway. The next day we moved on to Damascus, which at least had a river. We spent the rest of the day looking at the old portion of the town and the bazaars. We turned in early in anticipation of an early move the next day. The next large city we passed through was Beyrouth (Beirut) and so on to Haifa in Palestine. A city I knew and where I had promised Don a night out.
I must mention before passing, a chance meeting with a British Don R (DR) who clambered aboard the train at Damascus and come through with us to Beyrouth. It was his custom, when the roads were bad or the weather tough; to load his bike on the train and ride down to the end of the run, then make a one-way trip back. As he explained it “only a one way ride chum, machine only gets ‘arf as bleedin dirty and you don’t get held up doing units going and coming.” I thought at the time our people didn’t have a corner on lurks and dodges until our Tommy further confided “ coupla bleedin Orstralian Sigs put me up to it, the run’s a sweet cop now, not ‘arf”my silent approval of a good catch faltered and flashed to trust our b—–s to wake up to that one in a hurry. He mentioned that on the way back he called into some Orstralian units. I asked him if any of them were Anti Tank units. He said yes but couldn’t think of the number. So then I asked him if he knew the COs name and he said “Oh yes- never met him but I seen the letters addressed “Saint John”- must have been a padre!!” I asked him for a sig pad, wrote a sig to the CO telling him I was back & was going to the reo depot in Palestine for re-posting, hoping to be back soon. Had the unit been on the line I would have jumped the train. Alas they were inland in the area of Baalbeck. And so Col St John received the letter, closely questioned the DR as to who gave it to him. He was told “Two big Arab gents on the Haifa Express. One fair one dark and sir one wog says he knew you, wrote the letter and asked me to deliver it. Do you know sir those two wogs could talk English nearly as good as me- had a slight accent something like yours sir” Onto his bike went the voluble DR and off on his run.
I saw him a few weeks later “ floggin his gridiron” along the road between Rayak and Baalbeck. He had the usual bit of time up his sleeve and couldn’t understand why an Australian officer should buy him a few beers and was even more amazed when I denounced his lurk of hopping the Express. However I put his fears at rest re his jumping the rattler, told him who I was and bought him another drink for a good turn. He left in a daze and mumbling things about “ wogs, secret service, Orstralians, Haifa Express” and scratching his head. Half a mile along the road he caught me up and called “where’s the other dark gent sir?” I shouted out “in Egypt” and he nodded his head and shot ahead. No doubt in the NAAFI that night he recounted a great tale of “a coupla Secret Service bods I met__”
Don and I had our night out in Haifa. We were as sick as dogs when we climbed aboard the train next day. We went past Gaza and at New Serratt I took my leave of Don who continued on to rejoin the NZ forces in Egypt. I saw him a few times down there before we left the ME in April 1942 and since then – silence although I wrote at intervals right to the end of hostilities. I only hope he wasn’t knocked at Alamein or any of the NZ fights through to Italy. It would have been hard luck to have collected after what we had survived together- even our cooking.
ARTILLERY REINFORCEMENT DEPOT NEW SERRATT
I arrived at the depot in civvies and amid lots of raised eyebrows found a tent to bunk in and moved in with all my belongings wrapped in a large brown paper bundle. There were three occupants in the tent, two obviously young and raw reo lieuts, the other also a lieut as myself but not raw and with the look of having been around quite a bit and recently. Being in the same boat I introduced myself and sat down on the bed boards next to the other wanderer. He was Joe Brown, ‘Shaggy Joe’, from 2/1 Fd Regt and had just returned from Abyssinia where he had quite some experiences with the Abyssinian irregular forces. They had been giving the works to the Itie forces down in Haile Selassie country. Joe had malaria, he also had the best part of a bottle of whiskey with him and I soon found a second glass. When that was done we sent one of the reos for another and after trying it for size and taste, went and had tea. Unfortunately we had an aversion to line up at an officer’s mess, so walked in and was served at the staff table, much to the disgust of the staff. After quite a row I was outfitted with summer dress again, as was Joe. We retired to the mess until it closed, then went and tried his bottle again. The 2 reos had been joined by several more and they began arguing about who would be going up to the regiments first and who was senior. We grinned at one another and continued our private party. Eventually we told them to pull their heads in and we turned in.
Several months later at the regiment, I came in from a job and whom should I strike but one of the belligerent reos-the? senior one, who had just marched in to report for duty! He was very surprised to see me.
The next day Colin Powell, now OC of 3 Battery called in to pick up officer reinforcement and I claimed him. He got quite a shock to see me, as I had been posted killed and several wakes had been held. I rejoined the regiment who at the time were at Cassa. Shaggy Joe had had the depot too and got a lift with us as far as his own unit 2/1 Fd Regt where he settled in and let the 2 units fight out the result on paper. I had no sooner been settled in than I had orders to report to the GOC 6 Div (General Herring) to whom I had to relate my experiences and with his ‘I’ staff they sifted all the information they could. After 2 days they had all the information they wanted and I left with the question to be answered, “Would I, if required, go back to Greece to carry out clandestine work?” I also had the authority in my pocket for 14 days leave in Cairo and a letter of introduction to British Intelligence Middle East.
ANOTHER LEAVE IN CAIRO
Jack Perkins and I went together to Cairo and had the usual wild time. We revisited Sheppard’s and the Long Bar. We saw Rene, the Swiss barman once more. He could produce any drink you wished, (at a price), mix any cocktail known (from memory) for any number of people, pour out the exact number of glasses to the brim, and not a drop would be left in the shaker. I suppose by now, being the greatest barman in the world, he has been imported to the US.
We hired a car and got into the usual scrapes. Saw the Pyramids and Sphinx once more and also the Mena House Hotel, paid visits to the round of clubs (the Bardia Continental, Astor, and Metropolitan). We always spent mornings at the Gyzeria Island Club, swimming, sunbathing, golf and squash with an occasional game of tennis with the sisters of whom we knew quite a few by this visit. At last all good things came to an end and we were once more on the train to Palestine. Once again El Kantara, the Canal, the change over in the dark and then the long haul to the border town of El Arish. We arrived here shortly after dawn and looked for the great lines of date palms just to break the monotony of the Sinai Desert. If anyone ever tells you that the sands of the desert never grow cold, tell them to camp a night on the Sinai. One night will convince the most ardent supporter that the song is true. So we came back to the Regiment and the training was quite a rest after Cairo leave. I don’t know why, but it always took a months hard work to recover after a fortnights in Cairo.
SPECIAL DUTY SYRIA
The round of parties, welcomes home, and just plain old reunions started to get a bit much, and the CO in his wisdom, decided I would be better off in health to take 2 troops to Syria and help in the layout of anti-tank defences, than drown myself in Palestine. So within 2 days we had packed and moved off. We moved via Jerusalem, Bethlehem and Rosh Pinna. It was all country mentioned in both the Old and New Testaments. From there we cut into the centre sector and then on to the coast near Beyrouth. Here we spent the night and next morning started to climb over the hills through Zahlah and the Cedars (where Solomon cut the timber for his temple). We came out of the mountain range onto the Baalbeck Plain near Rayak-now a RAF station, heading north through Baalbeck to Jeideidi where we were to recce anti-tank defence areas and construct them to what we knew as stage one.
We worked and walked for miles, sited guns, made fire plans and occasionally got leave down to Beyrouth or Damascus. It was getting colder by the day now, and when Nim Love (2 i/c) arrived to prepare for the regiments arrival, it started to snow. Before long we were weather bound. The wind blew two ways in this valley-north and south and at one speed, namely gale speed. We didn’t mind the days as we could move about, work and keep warm but the nights were bitter. At the end of each day radiators on all vehicles had to be drained and anti-freeze maintenance carried out. Luckily for us we did not lose an engine block to the cold although several trucks were damaged on icy roads (skids). A leave party, “hove too”, coming home from Tripoli, was rammed by a snow truck and Lt Shellberg was killed when a glancing blow put a dent in the steel body no larger than a saucer. Unfortunately he was sleeping in the back with his head against the steel side.
We didn’t mind the snow so much here as the Regiments were all hutted down and not tented. Our mess however, was built the wrong way to the wind, and lost the roof on all several occasions. Spirit freezes at low temperatures but on Christmas morning we wandered in for breakfast and the spirits had all partially frozen with large crystals in the bottles.
It was here that we had the travelling latrine. Someone scrounging had brought an old bus body back to camp from Rayak and it was immediately converted to a six seater privy similar to the style mentioned in Chick Sales “Specialist”. Unfortunately it also was built the wrong way to the wind and one night disappeared. Next morning we received a call from a unit ten miles north to come and take our latrine to hell out of it as they had a party on that night and it was blocking the entrance to the mess. To assist recovery they towed it near the road. Before the party recovered it, it commenced snowing again and they were lucky to get back without being snow bound. By the next day the “Thing” had disappeared. We reckoned the Wogs must have taken it and were rather peeved for whilst it was gone we performed in a draughty makeshift which, when the breeze is below zero to say the least it makes things hard, The next morning we received a report from the ASC two miles south, to say that it had gone through early in the morning and knocked over their own privy. A search party failed to find it. The next night a change of wind brought the cranking contraption back almost to its start point. It was securely lashed and tied to holdfasts and did a sterling job until our departure. We would still get rude letters, signals and phone calls from ignorant units however informing us our privy had wandered into their lines and would we come and get it. The farthest request came from Homs, 60 to 70 miles to the north.
WE RETURN TO PALESTINE
Shortly after the New Year we returned to Palestine with the full regiment. Rumours were rife re Malaya and our 8 Div there and it seemed certain that the bulk, if not all, of the AIF would soon be heading for new areas in the East, New Guinea or even the Australian mainland. Training continued at an increased tempo and any condition we had put on in the Lebanon and Syria during the snow months was soon taken off. Our only diversions were football, played after stand down and just before we left, about May, the Palestinian Swimming Championships. The AIF fielded a mighty team for that and swept the pool at all open events. I was lucky enough to swim in the backstroke event and with the 400yards sprint team. Records were set for each event and just on every member came away with at least one silver medal. The team is worth mentioning here and consisted of Robin Biddulph (NSW), Bill Fleming (QLD) and Bill Weir (VIC) who had all held State and Australian titles. John Biddulph, Jack Drinkwater (Sydney), a West Aussie? and myself who, one and all, broke the minute for 100yds in our trials, whilst Biddulph was Australian record holder for all distances from 220 yds to a mile. What he did to the records over there was nobodies business.
Shortly after that 7 Div left for home and about a lapse of a month 6 Div followed. The trip home was our trip to the ME in reverse except that Singapore had gone, and after a stay in Ceylon we arrived back home and disembarked in SA. We knew now for where we were destined as the Japs had swept through Malaya, most of Burma, the Dutch East Indies and were half way over the Owen Stanley Range. Rabaul and New Britain had also gone and he was also firmly established in the Solomons. At any time now it looked his next step would be to the mainland of Australia.
photo: Escaping Party Cesme Turkey Sept 1941
Back Row l-r Cpl Blake (RE), Lt CM Johnson (AIF), caique skipper (anon), Pte Russell (AIF), WO2 D Hill (NZ-2/1 Inf Bn)
The journal story then jumps to their arrival in Turkey. Apparently the two must have joined up with the Greek sailors who had said they could get them to Turkey from the outlying islands, as the small skiff was tied behind the larger boat (a caique) on arrival in Cesme Turkey.
Dad related one other story of the journey across the Aegean Sea to my brother Peter.
Sailing out at sea they were stopped by a German floatplane, which had landed nearby. They were asked where they were headed, told “Athens” The pilot helpfully suggested the correct direction, 180 degrees from theirs, and eventually departed in frustration as the obtuse pair insisted on going in THEIR direction.
Looking back over our days in Greece, the hard times recede and the country stands out as one where the people were loyal, big-hearted and essentially honest. They were hard times when we were there, and to become harder still as the months went on. Still the people, knowing the penalties to be incurred in harbouring us, still gave us sanctuary, allowed us to roam in their districts, armed, fed, clothed, entrusted their sons, property and livestock to us, all without a murmur or question. It was truly an openhearted country & people whom, if God spared, I may see again and roam through under more peaceful circumstances.
Our pleasant days in Greece remain always. It was a country of plains & mountains and only known off the beaten tracks. The mountain scenery, plains and woods were all different to the similar scenes in my homeland, still I got to love them and the people like my own.
Huge beech, walnut and plane trees were common through the mountains and it was quite possible to live off the country in season. Along all the tracks were tiny shrines set at intervals & usually at difficult sections of the track. At night as though by magic a small candle was lit and placed in these shrines, for the Greeks live close to the earth and are really devout. One of the mysteries we never solved was “who lit the candles?” We did so on occasions when we had the time and wherewithal. As well as warning of tricky stretches and resting places on difficult tracks, the shrines also served the purpose of a warning system. If after dark we came across an unlit candle, we never proceeded along that track, of that we had been warned and had experience.
Maybe we may be prejudiced, but the fruit, vegetables, cheese, milk and butter, all tasted better than we had ever tasted and the memory still lasts after ten years. The memories of mushrooms fried in oil, vegetable stews, pickled walnuts, local cheeses, the sharp bite of ouzo and the tang of local cognac will never fade. Nor will curling up to sleep with the goats, and hoping the old Billy with his long coat would lie closer and keep us warm, despite the smell. Those are the vivid memories now and the long days and nights when we woke at the crack of a twig with a gun in our hands seem to savour all the melodrama for us.
Perhaps if I had the gift of writing I could tell of the homely scenes, the views, the houses, painted white with blue windows and doors, the national colours of Greece. Those things are little things and would probably fill another book. Still Byron wasn’t wrong when he wrote of the beauties of this wonderful country and its people. If I didn’t see the Parthenon by moonlight it looked just as good to me by day. The magic of the names is still there; Thebes, Sparta, Attica, Trace, Thermopolae and the spirit of their people still remains proud and unbroken.
WE ARRIVE IN TURKEY
The last dash was made in the dark in our usual fashion. The Aegean had behaved perfectly up to this stage but within a few hours became very choppy. By the time we estimated we should be off the coast near the port of Cesme, we were in the middle of a decent storm. How we thanked our lucky stars we were getting a lift in a larger craft. Even then we were tossed like the proverbial cockleshell. Although a good sailor I did not look at our little skiff being tossed about astern without a lot of trepidation. The skipper decided to go straight into the small harbour of Cesme and with all the risks he had run he was not real keen on landing two extras.
Just at the harbour bar, and before daylight, we transferred to our own skiff. The sea was easier, having lost the vicious tops. So giving the caique about ten minutes start we put up a tightly reefed sail and literally ‘tore in’. By daybreak we had anchored near our ‘escort ship’ and were busily pounding the hay. We were dead tired, dirty and salty but Turkey, although looking a bare, barren and rather hostile coast (compared to our Greek coast so lately left) at least did not harbour Germans or Italian soldiers. At the worst we would be interned, at best deported or repatriated over the Syrian border- the last we hoped, but no idea how.
We woke with the sun hot on us and guessed it was about midday. Our watch had stopped for the first time since clearing the PW camp! And then only through lack of winding. It was not the sun that had wakened us but a launch full of Turkish police. They had come alongside the caique and were lining up the crew and passengers, apparently inspecting papers. For the first and only time we had been together, we did our blocks. Don shipped the oars, I cut our rope and while he started off to row I shipped the other pair of sculls and bent my back with him. It was only about three hundred yards to the harbour entrance and we were the best part of the way there before our presence was noticed. Next moment there was a shout and almost immediately the launch was hot on our track. We didn’t have a hope, and talking it over later it seems that both of us had the idea of clearing the harbour and the police couldn’t touch us!! They came alongside. We shipped oars and waited. The officer in charge, or it may have been the deck hand, tossed us a rope which we stared at without seeing. Somehow and for no reason I felt as though I had lost everything. Perhaps after roaming so free and unfettered for six months, the arm of restraint fell heavy indeed. As two members of the crew tried to step aboard I pushed one back into the water with an oar whilst Don shoved the nose out and the other limb of the law did the splits into the harbour. With all the majestic dignity, which seems to surround most of the ‘limbs of the law’ in whichever country you may run across them. The game was up, a carbine was produced, an order shouted and we tied the towline to our front thwart. So we came in silent procession to the local lock-up where indeed we were locked up. Still we had finished as masters of our ship, which by holding onto the bars and looking out the small window, we could still see tied to the jetty across the road. So here we were in the same circumstances as when we had started. This was a real jail and at our first inspection looked hopeless. If we had been confined in the cage at Lamia this was a veritable Bastille. We realised that this time it would take more than low cunning and we would have to do some fast-talking. Shortly after 1400hrs we were paraded before the station Sgt. Through an interpreter we told him we were shipwrecked merchant seamen. I don’t blame him for not believing us.
However he got through by phone to either Symerna or Ankara (the former I think) and an English voice started asking questions, and then demanded our names. We didn’t tell him much and finally the voice said he would be down at once to identify us and to answer questions to no one.
At about five, a tall well built chappie about 50-55; nicely dressed in a light grey suit and carrying a walking stick descended from a large car and entered the Bastille. Within a few minutes he was in to see us with the jailer. He asked us where we came from and we put our cards on the table and told him Australia and NZ. At this he introduced himself and stated he was Col Bill Hughes, also Australian. I was so taken aback at what I reckoned was the crudest trick and trap we had walked into, that I refused his hand and told him that I was “Ned Bloody Kelly” and turned my back on him. I’ve never seen a mans face change so rapidly for in the instant as I was turning he went the colour of beetroot and then purple. He went straight out the door and through the grill he informed us he would be “back in half an hour when we had regained our bloody senses” As he walked off I looked at Don and remarked that if he wasn’t genuine it was the most natural cuss from a non Australian that I had ever heard. We decided to be civil when he returned, for even if he were not genuine, we considered he couldn’t get us to give anything away or get us out of the country without us contacting the British Embassy. Luck was with us and here were the facts.
He was an Australian and had lived in Turkey and ME for years. He was a colonel in the British Army and his name was William Hughes. Furthermore he was still on the active list and had command of a British construction unit (working in mufti) in Turkey who were busily engaged in supervising construction of airstrips, dumps and military roads. Better still he was a representative of the British Embassy in Ankara and had us released in his custody.
The first thing we had was a good bath, shave and shower. Then a change of clothes, courtesy of the Ambassador, and then a large meal of steak and chipped potatoes, topped off by half a packet of the colonels’ cigarettes (Benson & Hedges) The Colonel who we found to be a great scout just sat opposite us and marvelled where we put the food. Then paying the waiter he ordered a large basket of fruit to accompany us in his limousine. In a car along the street were Frank and our corp. together with the Greek Officers and the Cypriot. The colonel, Don, Frank and Bill climbed into his big car and the others into a second one and we set off to Symerna where we all booked into a pensione for the night. The old French housekeeper who ran the place knew Billy H and we turned into the softest, cleanest beds we had slept in for over seven months. We spent three days there during which we inspected the city from end to end. The colonel told us we were going to Ankara the next day and after we had made reports to the military attaché arrangements would be put in hand to send us to our own forces in Syria. This he estimated would take about a fortnight to three weeks to arrange with the Turkish authorities.
During this period the Chief of Police interviewed us (with Billy Hughes) in his HQ. He knew one of us was Aussie and the other Kiwi. When we were ushered in he asked Billy H not to announce us. Then for a long minute he closely studied Don and myself. Then in perfect English he announced, “ The tall fair gentleman with the blue eyes is the Australian, the dark gentleman from New Zealand! I am not psychic” he went on, “ but during the last war I fought against your countrymen at what you call Gallipoli. You two look just like those men, your fathers perhaps?” He offered us a smoke and a seat and gave us an interesting talk on old and modern Ankara for about fifteen minutes. He asked about our homelands and our people and then excused the two of us while he had a minute or two with Billy H. At no time did he ask if we were soldiers of the war or where we came from, and when Billy H came out he told us the Chief was satisfied that we were what we claimed—Lord only knows what that was—- and that the three of us were to have dinner with him in three nights time. He certainly turned on a beautiful evening for us.
Whilst we were in Turkey for only a short time and saw only two large cities, Symerna and the capital Ankara, we saw quite a bit of the country from a train window as we travelled south by the Taurus Express, a modern type train to Syria. I formed a few impressions of the country from what I saw.
AFOOT IN GREECE-MAY to SEPTEMBER 1941
When Don and I reached the top of the pass we stopped for a short breather and a last look at the town of Lamia below on the bay. It was bright moonlight and the town, pretty from a distance looked peaceful and quiet. Then without a word we picked up our packs and headed north. The track was shocking, as were all mule tracks in Greece and wound its way uphill and down, across small streams and occasionally past small houses at present in darkness. Luckily even the dogs seemed asleep and as the first signs of dawn appeared we headed into a timbered gully off the track. We had a wash, a small snack and in no time were asleep.
About the third day the range showed signs of dropping into the Larissa Valley. Our indications being the change of direction of the streams and the general ironing out of the crests. We had purposely avoided being seen or contacting any of the locals up to now, but as food was just about done we decided the next farm would be the tester. We had been warned in the camp that the locals (due to the withdrawal) were very anti British and would turn in any escapees or stragglers. How wrong the Hun was, or perhaps he had passed the info to deter any attempt at escape.
At the next farm we were fed, washed and our uniforms exchanged for Greek civvies. When they had finished with us we looked like them and felt confident that except at close quarters we would seem to be a pair of locals about their business. And so we were loaded with bread, local white cheese (all home made) hard-boiled eggs, beans and a cooking tin. Also, bless their hearts, some coarse local tobacco. The family would take no payment for their help but insisted we leave our khaki gear with them. This they intimated they would pick to pieces, remodel and dye so that no one would know it for uniform. So the civvies they had given us were fair exchange.
With our new civvies-my first in nearly four years-we felt confident enough to move by day, still keeping of course to foot and mule pads and crossing over any main roads under cover of darkness. The family when we left gave us a fair amount of local knowledge and tracks and how to avoid Larissa, which contained a German garrison. They told us the area to which we were heading contained ‘good’ people and that the Germans would never find us there. We hoped they were right.
To digress-it may seem odd that two Aussies or at least an Aussie and a Kiwi could at this stage converse with the locals. It is simply explained as we knew a few basic words of Greek and quite a few of the locals knew some English or Arabic. Quite a few Greeks had, it appeared, gone to the USA in their youth or worked on British ships. They had then returned to Greece to settle on their own land. So if the going got hard on the conversational plane, from nowhere, appeared the returned wanderer who with a liberal sprinkling of Goddamns, sons of bitches and a few choice English oaths usually told us the info we were after.
To continue-we crossed the Plain of Larissa at night and crossed a rather decent stream in the process. It was running fairly strongly and it was soon evident that Don was not a strong swimmer. Still by lugging him over first and then going back twice more for our gear we made it. By this time I had had it too and after a couple more miles we came to a large paddock of standing wheat and turned in bang in the centre. We woke just on dawn and to our dismay were only 200 hundred yards from a large highway. There was nothing else to do but lay low for the rest of the day and push off again at nightfall. This we did and the range at the northern side of the plain was made safely.
When well into the hills we skirted the north of Larissa and managed to exist by a move down to potato fields and vegetable gardens at night. We were always careful not to take more than we wanted or to damage the gardens, with the result we remained in this area several days without the locals being aware of our presence. The weather that had been perfect up to now turned threatening and rain built up. The nearest shelter was a small chapel high in the hills and the only building for miles. We headed for that and just made it as the rain came. It really poured. The church was not in too good repair and before long we had to dodge drips from the roof and puddles on the floor. We had noticed another structure at the rear of the chapel and during a lull made a break for it. We had no sooner made it than down came the rain again and we struck a light to see where we were. Believe me we wished we were back in the leaky church, under the trees, anywhere but where we were for we had picked no less a place than the local vault, a veritable charnel house, which was stacked to the roof with the bones and skeletons it seemed, of all ages. After our first scare and mild panic we got ourselves together and decided it was dry and better quarters than the church. After a few more deep breaths and a tug each at a bottle of cognac, with which we had been presented, we felt rather cocky about the situation and had a closer inspection of our roommates. The cellar, for it was half cellar and half vault, was about 20 feet, perhaps more, wide, and about 30 to 35 feet long. Down both walls were racks with a large wire netting rack down the centre. Stacked in these racks were the objects of our original flap and I must say that by candlelight it was eerie to say the least. We didn’t talk much that night, just crawled right to the back of the place with our silent occupants in their racks and went to sleep. Just before dawn I awoke at some noise I couldn’t pick and Don was also awake. We kept quiet and listened. Without any warning the door was wrenched aside and a brilliant storm lantern thrust in. We couldn’t see the holder and apparently he didn’t see us! His reactions however were a shade more violent than our own on sighting the place. He let out a gasp of terror, kicked the door shut and departed hurriedly. We held our breath and crossed our fingers. Had someone given us away or had we been careless and tracked down to our present hiding place? There was no doubt that the searcher was German from his exclamation ’Gott” although as yet we hadn’t seen him. Then we heard voices outside, the lamp was thrust in again and this time the holder let out a great guffaw and swung his boot at a skull, which rolled in our direction. He also left straight away and we then heard several people move off down the track towards Larissa. Little did our second brave know how close he was to a bullet, for as he kicked we saw his jack boots and had no doubt as to the nationality in them. One more step or a fraction more of curiosity on his part and we would have been attempting to gun our way out. Had that happened this account would probably never have been written, or if so, with possibly a vastly different story from this point.
Dawn came but not our confidence. We waited till nearly 10 in the morning before venturing out and then ready for fight or flight. With no one there we took the latter one and changed our hunting grounds, moving over in the direction of Volos and the mountains to the north, the sea and our original plans. Whether the search was routine or not, we never knew but it seemed too deliberate for that, particularly the time it was sprung despite the weather conditions. In all we reckoned our luck was holding well.
We travelled fast and light to the new area-crossed the Pelion Range from which we could look right out over the Aegean Sea. From the height we were and the clearness of the atmosphere we reckoned we could see 70 to 80 miles without any trouble. We hit the coast between the small villages of Pourio and Zagora and the country was to our liking. Before very long the locals were aware of our presence and were help and kindliness personified. In the district were a large number of men whom had undertaken the pilgrimage to America. Our language difficulties were over and we commenced learning the local tongue. After several days rest we decided we would have to work to support ourselves and we were taken on as apprentice fishermen by Toni and his brother Theodopoulos? Their last name we could never pronounce and it gave them much fun to get us to say it. Months later when we bumped in to Toni again his first words were “”Johny and Donny! My brothers, say ————-“ and out would roll his terrific surname. Amid roars of laughter from all sides we would try and untangle our tongues.
WE ARE FISHERMEN
So we became initiated into the mysteries of Greek fishermen. We operated from two small boats and used long set lines or dead lines each about four hundred yards long. At intervals of about ten feet were detachable droppers, which were changed according to the depth of water we were fishing. At the end of each dropper was the hook, which was baited as we coiled the lines onto a large flat board on the stern of the boat. Large glass floats similar to those used to mark lobster pots supported the lot. The whole secret was the coiling of the lines with their one hundred or more hooks each, to pay them out without being dragged over with hooks in you, & to recover the lines, remove fish and coil so that the lines would not become tangled. We did very well with Toni & Theo and the four of us got on famously.
One afternoon Toni & I had set a line just off a point near old Magellan when without warning a fairly large launch with small gun mounts and flying the Italian flag raced out & charged across our line. It dragged the line several hundred yards before dropping it & proceeded on its way. The line was wrecked and could not be replaced. As a sea faring man Toni knew his fair share of oaths & there was no doubt he employed all he knew & created a few more before he stopped. I matched him all the way.
That night we had a council of war & decided to replace the line. Toni & Theo borrowed two mules & packsaddles and that afternoon we set off to cross the range again and cut across one of the main roads on the Larissa Plain. We arrived late the next afternoon & had a quick recce of the phone lines. On one side on large poles was the multiple wired system that had been there when we had moved north. On the other was a brand new double line of military building with scaleable poles. Toni & Theo went to each end of the line to keep watch & Don & I commenced scaling the poles & unlooping the wire. We had about 400yds of double wire unhooked when we heard a shout from Toni. We were a bit late to act on the warning and were caught one at the bottom & one up the pole when 2 motor cyclists and a Hun convoy pelted round the bend. All we could do was to make signs of putting the wire up, instead of down, and must have looked the part. As they drew abreast we stopped work and “Calameried” and waved. Mostly we were ignored but in a vehicle here & there a more friendly soul returned our wave. When they passed the next bend we were down like lightening, cut the ends, hooked the mules onto the centre & moved off. About half a mile away in cover of the scrub we coiled it onto the wooden packsaddles & hit for the hills at a little more than a smart double. The district was definitely not healthy for us but we had what we wanted and didn’t want to outstay our welcome. We arrived at the coast the next afternoon & had a good rest.
About this time we received news that a German patrol was making a sweep through the coastal villages, including our own. This was bad news as we had been near Pourio for about a month & were still hopeful of being lifted via the islands to Turkey when the potato crop was shipped over by caique. This took place during the months of Sept- Oct each year and we felt sure we could get a lift. So for the time we said “Callamera” to Toni & Theo & headed back into the mountains so as to have plenty of room to manoeuvre if it came to running for it. There is no doubt a sea coast does restrict movement.
On the way we first went through Zagora then turned west into the Pelion Mtns, then south to flank the patrol on the only decent mule track. After 2 days we cut the track & saw the patrol heading north. We heaved a sigh of relief & watched them go. There were about twenty all told with six mules so we guessed a platoon patrol with probably an officer in command. Here we met up with Miguel (James) Samseralious, his brother Apostole & their nephew from Egypt who had been caught in Greece when the evacuation happened. He went by the name of Costa & was some boy. The Samseralious’ were farmers and grew a lot of potatoes, enough wheat for themselves and workers and had considerable holdings of timberland from which their workers produced charcoal. Miguel and Costa both spoke excellent English and were wealthy. They told us that we must stop on the property-‘Karragatch’ with them and that they would see we got a lift on the caiques when they came to lift the potatoes to the islands. They sold to Mytalini, Chios, Samos right to within 5 miles of the coast of Turkey. Things seemed to be breaking our way and rather than stay at their home we suggested it would be better for everyone if we worked up on the back and hill portion of the farm and it would appear that we had left the district. They agreed and so we started off after the most terrific meal since we had left the Strathallen in Bombay.
WE BECOME FARMERS.
For the next month we became farmers of sorts. We hoed acres of spuds, watered them, sprayed them and ate them. Every day or so when work was over we would walk down to ‘Karragatch’ or the Sams would come up. We never wanted for anything and they even wanted to pay us for our work!!! That we wouldn’t have and were only too pleased for the sanctuary of the place. They were upset about us working at first but as we carefully explained, we had to keep hard and fit in case we ever had to make a run for it at any time. This point they could see but insisted they were getting the better of the deal! The spuds kept on growing and finished up as big as footballs by the time we left.
It was some time whilst we were working here that we noticed a few strange things happening and as we were on the run they seemed suspicious and a little threatening to our safety. We mentioned these things to the Sams but they brushed our fears aside or else quietly changed the subject. At last we put our cards on the table and told him we were moving on if our worries weren’t settled. One evening a couple of days later we scouted out “Karragatch’ (our usual procedure before eating) and found a fierce looking grey haired middle aged Greek with Miguel. We were signalled in and the stranger introduced. We were told he was from the district and had been a mayor in the Eryone? Regiment (the Greek Guards). He looked a real soldier even in Greek working clothes as we all were. When he was satisfied with us, which was a lengthy business, as Miguel and Costa had to translate, it appeared he had a band of about twenty in the mountains behind us and was also being supplied in the main, by the Sams. We were not really surprised as Miguel had been an army officer and Apostole a sergeant. They were intensely proud and fond of Greece, which was evident in almost everything they did or said. As we thought, we had been watched and had made it very hard for the watchers by moving camp after dark, seldom sleeping in the same area twice and generally making it hard for anyone to keep continual tabs on us. Luckily it had been friends watching us or we would have been gone coons long ere this. Parrartrus, which was the major’s name, had decided on a small campaign of sabotage over in the Plain of Larissa and the area of the Volos. He had it appears already started on wire cutting, undermining and smashing culverts and interfering with MT lines and parks. However he hadn’t much gear with which to do all this and was restricted in efforts. Still he was depending on the arrival as he informed the others of the Greek submarine ‘Popa Mickolus” and thus unfolds a fantastic story: –
About a week later a young Greek whom we called “the Englishman” came into our camp and told us that he wanted us to go down to the coast with him and that “Popa Mickolus” was due. We went, about a three-hour walk and right on the coast we met our first sentry. He was armed with a rifle and would let only “the Englishman” through. The Englishman moved off and it seemed hours before he returned. He had the OK for us to go down to our own beach. We went down and on the beach, a small shingle landing, we met of all people a British matelot talking to Parrartrus and in English. We had spoken to him for some time on various occasions and always Miguel or Costa had interpreted for our conversations. He stopped when we appeared and the rest of the conversation was carried out through one of his chaps who had followed us up, no doubt because we had refused to part with our arms. On moving we were allowed to keep our arms and after a few minutes Parrartrus went off in a small boat to the alleged “Popa Mickolus”. After about half an hour we were told to hop aboard the dinghy, which we found was an inflated job, and went seawards pulling on the rope. We went no further than 100 yards and miracle of miracles there was a submarine. We stayed in the dinghy and the Englishman spoke to the sailor in the boat. We were questioned and particulars taken and then we were returned to the beach. The officer, or who we surmised was an officer, had said he would take our particulars back to Alexandria so we reckoned it would not be very long before they would be back to pick us up. Alas for our hopes. It was several days after the visit of the “Popa Mickolus” that we changed our occupation to charcoal burners and so began a new phase of our sojourn in Greece.
WE BECOME CHARCOAL BURNERS
Miguel and Apostole visited us the next day and put the proposition to us that we move further back into the hills and work on their charcoal making areas. This meant a move into the hills of an additional two to three miles. We agreed to it as we hadn’t much option but M and A had explained that the area was to be more closely patrolled and we would be better off further into the hills. They also told us that Parrartrus wanted us closer to him so that he could see us easily, so off we went.
We were apprenticed to a master charcoal burner by the name of Christos. Here we learnt the trade of felling small trees, cutting them into five foot lengths, digging the charcoal pit, stacking and firing it and attending to the banking of fired pits. That sounds a mouthful but that is what we learnt and in the doing became as black as niggers and stayed like it whilst on the job.
When we were sufficiently dirty enough Parrartrus came to see us and through Christos who was an American/Greek gave us the job of taking a mule train of charcoal to the outskirts of Volos. We didn’t like the job very much but when it was explained that charcoal burners were supposed to be a bit mental and we wouldn’t be questioned we decided it might be OK. Parrartrus was dead set against us going armed but we were adamant. Still, he compromised by giving us two American type .38 pistols and relieved us of our rifles and German pistol. These rifles incidentally we had cut down during our stay with Toni and Theodopoulos– they had no butts and a very short barrel very much like the guns used by the buffalo shooters in the NT from where I got the idea. Our main job apart from delivery of ten mule loads of charcoal was a recce of the bridge just out of Volos which Parrartrus had intentions of closing. We travelled via the village of Mecko (?) and StJim(?) pronounced Sinjim and left our load at a wayside depot on the Volos side of the bridge. The German guard had let us cross to the Volos side OK but in the morning on our return trip wouldn’t let us pass. We were in a bit of a quandary at this and even being dumb charcoal burners (and we were dumb) wouldn’t give us safe passage. So back to the depot we went, had a snack and as it was getting dark set off again across country to outflank the bridge and get back without crossing the checkpoint at the bridge. The first part was easy that is to outflank the bridge and guard. To get their bloody mules across the creek however was a different matter. They had been tractable up to this but other than walk up to their knees in water not another thing would they do. I swam the stream to see how deep it really was and except for three or four yards in the centre it was not much above my thighs. We had to make strangle halters and flog the beasts across but we did it—and it took a full day to get the ten beasts across and we had had it. We faded into the bush on our side and with our ten irate mules camped for the night. Two days later we arrived back in the old Magella area and checked in to Parrartrus. I cant say reported because he persisted in talking to us through an interpreter although from the “Popa Mickolus” episode we knew he could speak English fluently.
Parrartrus decided he would blow up the bridge on the info we had given him. About a week later four of us set off with the same stubborn mules and with us were two of his tough guys. We got to the bridge OK and the four guards recognised Don and myself and passed us through. The two tough jobs were held up and as we were nearly over started shooting. The two guards on the other end raced at us with rifles ready to give their pals at the other end a hand. They would have done better had they started shooting from their end for as they passed and in the interests of our own safety we shot them down. As far as we were concerned we had done our part so we turned the mules about face and set off home. We had been travelling about fifteen minutes when we heard the noise of the explosion, which Parrartrus toughies had set on the bridge. We were out of sight when it went up and couldn’t assess damage but a later look (some weeks) revealed the bridge in the creek and not usable. Till the time we left it was not rebuilt and it caused a detour to a ford about four to five hundred yards down stream.
Parrartrus toughies caught us up at our camp that night and nearly got shot doing so for the way they breezed in. They had stripped the four guards of the lot and I should imagine they had been left in their birthday suits. Arms, tunics, boots, trousers, socks and equipment was all taken and carried away.
We did not return to the area west of “Karragatch” but continued north on mule tracks past Platamen and Evangeliasmous to a small village off the main road to Salonika. Here we traded our charcoal for olive oil (who said the Greek wasn’t a business man) and a good meal and then by a different track headed back to the mountain area behind Zagaria. Here we got word from Parrartrus that all charcoal makers, dealers and vendors were being scoured out of a large area by Hun patrols and taken into Volos for questioning. We got through to the Sams by night, turned in our mules, washed, fed, changed our clothes and our jobs and set off with his blessing to the area west of Platimon.
WE BECOME SHEEPMEN AND GOATHERDERS
Within hours of arriving at our new area we inherited a mixed mob of goats and sheep, which we were told to graze back to the Sams place. We were given 14 days to bring them back over our tracks, and so with bags, cloaks and crooks, we started off. I suppose no one appreciated the position we were in more than us. We appeared to be getting further away from escape than ever & we could see the war being over with us still roaming Greece as “jack of all trades” and finally being put into a vault similar to the one, which we had spent a night in. To have stood off & watched ourselves would have been a first class turn-had we a sense of humour. We didn’t!
At this stage we both had full-face beards and goodly moes, our hair was long& we carried crooks. We both wore Greek type coat/ cloaks favoured by the grazing gentry & our pants were tucked into what passed for our socks. From ankle to knee we had wrapped under our pants a pair of long puttee type garments if you could call them such and our boots had extension laces, which went round, & criss crossed, tied around our knees. The effect was something like a lairy set of bowyangs & what their purpose was I never learnt. Still all the shepherds wore them and so of course did we.
It was nearly 3 weeks before we arrived back at the Sams. The delay was not our fault as the flaming mob decided to lamb & whatever goats do on the track. Starting off with about a hundred head, we arrived at “Karragatch” with about one hundred & thirty head. From the brothers remarks we were shepherds of note!
We had been told on our arrival that the Germans were handing over control of all central Greece to the Italians. The locals didn’t like the idea but we silently rejoiced for if captured now we had only to give another name & number & reckoned we could not be associated with our past misdeeds. We selected a couple of names & numbers & rehearsed ourselves in them. Luckily we didn’t have to put them to the test.
Parrartrus had his own ideas too. Whereas he had left German patrols well alone, he tampered successfully with the Italians. We went on several ambushes set to catch them shortly after they left the main road in the Larissa Plain & headed into our mountains. It was almost pitiful to see the reluctance that the point men started their march & the way the rear was packed. Snipers soon made both ends unhealthy & before long patrols left our area of country very much alone. The only reprisals taken were when an Italian plane, usually a fighter very similar to our old Gladiator, would drop down & machine gun coastal villages. Few people were hurt & to our knowledge no one was killed in the petty reprisals. Why the enemy didn’t launch sea borne reprisal parties no one knows, but he didn’t.
It was during this time that the “Popa Mickolus” returned. We did not go out to her this time but received a message to say she would not be taking us back (to wherever she came from) & that supplies landed for Parrartrus were to be utilised by us also. They also mentioned in the message that our HQs had been informed & that our NOK would know we were all right. This was the biggest joke of all for we had been posted missing, then missing believed killed and remained so until we got ourselves out of the mess we were in.
We started to dig potatoes shortly after the visit of the “Popa M” and were kept busy taking them in sacks by mule down to the beach, where they were put in a shed to await loading. At this time too the wheat in the various paddocks over the Sams place was harvested and carried in sheaves to a threshing floor on the headland below Karragatch. Here it was spread out about 2 feet deep and an ox was hitched to a board like sled with a knife arrangement underneath. This was driven round & round until the heads were separated & the straw cut as fine as chaff. It was then winnowed by tossing with a paddle like implement, which allowed the heavy grain to fall to the floor & the chaff to blow into a heap downwind. Not a straw was wasted, for after the grain was bagged & stacked away in a concealed silo, the chaff was also bagged & a proportion put away for winter feed for the goat & sheep herds. The remainder was taken back to the fields & ploughed back into the ground. It may have explained why the crops were so prolific here and was an object lesson for our own people who use headers & burn the stubble. Still I have mentioned this procedure to some of our farmers and they shake their heads & remark it isn’t worth a bumper or the trouble. Perhaps the latter hits the mark.
The last couple of weeks before we finally hit out for the far shore of the Aegean were the happiest we spent in Greece. With all the harvests gathered, there began a round of harvest celebrations, which entailed visits to numerous little shrines & chapels scattered for several miles through the forests and mountains. By this time we were accepted almost as part of the district and came in for a lot of pampering from the old Mammas who baked us bread and gave us gaily-painted hard-boiled eggs. There was usually a little flask of ouzo or cognac with the bundle. Sometimes a piece of the local white cheese made from goat or sheep milk and of which we were passionately fond.
We met a lot of old acquaintances this last few weeks and spent some of it fishing with our old pals Theo & Toni. Somehow each day we went out we got big catches and had lost none of our skill with sail oars & line. How glad we were later on that our hands were hard and muscles conditioned to sustained effort.
It was about this time that Miguel & Apostole gave us some bad news. The caique skippers were not prepared to lift us from the mainland to Turkey but thought they would give us a lift if we could get to Mitilini or Samos Islands. That was the problem- getting there! So we were back to our old plan of a small boat and island hop. The Sams didn’t like the idea and frankly said so, but agreed to procure a suitable boat as soon as possible. They didn’t want us to go as they considered the war would soon be over with disaster to the Germans. We had known for some time that Russia was in the War, that America was being fully geared and that our own 7 Div had ousted the Vichy from Syria with other Aussie and British troops.
The Sams reasoned that it would be a hazardous crossing for us and that not being sailors the attempt would end in disaster. However our calculations on the islands showed that the longest single hop was approximately 40 miles of open sea, which was not beyond our capabilities, with a sail, oars and compass to assist, to complete in eight hours of darkness.
The boat was eventually procured and although not to the liking of the Sams, was considered ideal by us. It was about sixteen feet long, clinker built, not very wide and was lighter than we had ever hoped for. This last point was the Sams biggest worry as they had something in the style of a ships lifeboat as being the most suitable type. With anything that solid we would have needed a crew to man it. That was definitely out, as two would not have shifted it a mile in an hour. I was sure they produced the light skiff as a deterrent and were surprised and not a little dismayed when we stated it was just what we needed. She sailed like a bird, steered well, didn’t crab much and you could row it all day The time was getting close now to move, as the weather was perfect for what we had in mind. Good seas, breeze in the right direction and we were really fit. If we delayed it another month we stood the chance of being weather bound over winter and anything could happen if we stayed in the district another six months.
Although we had been sheltered and warned of any movements against us there was always the chance of a sell-out in such circumstances as we were in, combined with the fact that a big price had been put on the heads of prisoners and soldiers at large. Although we were in a district that was intensely loyal, perhaps the most loyal in Greece, the feeling always remained that perhaps some time, any hour of the day or night we may have been sold out in the manner of Judas, for the price on our head.
So it was decided that we should set off the following Saturday night as soon as it was dark for the island of Skiros just off the coast. Saturday night was considered best, for on reliable authority the Italians still considered Sunday a day of rest and Saturday night the night to see if the old vino still looked as red and tasted as good.
The night we pushed off from the beach below “Karragatch” it seemed that all our old friends had gathered to see us off. Miguel and Apostole, Costa, Toni and Theo, Old Christo the charcoal burner and his wife & son, Nickola & a girlfriend, the Englishman and Donny the foreman. Three drovers arrived later and as we were about to shove off the silent Parrartrus with two of his strongarm body guards arrived & wished us “God speed Johny, God speed Donny”- the only English he had ever addressed to us. It was a quiet leave taking, a handshake all round, a murmured “Cala Nita” & off into the darkness we went.
We had a good offshore breeze blowing & estimated we were making between six & seven mph. Half a mile off shore we set our course for the first island, trimmed up and hoped for the best. At last we were really on the track home.
Moved from field form HQ by M/C combination north from Sparta area, staging near Thermopolae where 18 med and 4-6 light enemy tanks had been destroyed, majority burnt. Numerous enemy graves were along the roads each with a large wooden cross to which was nailed an identity disc. The lot was topped off with a soldier’s helmet- a really good sight.
Still large bodies of enemy infantry were moving south mostly young & good types. They had very little MT on these roads and had transport- cookers GS wagon, blanket wagons were moving with the marching troops. Often the Hun was singing on the march, good tunes and sounded as though they had even been trained at that. I noticed also a considerable number of hand carts- light with 2 bicycle type pneumatic wheels on which seemed mainly to be carried arm SA med type MGs, mortars both light & medium and sig stores. Men’s equipment on march being a small battle pack, arms & respirator- wouldn’t have been surprised if packs with HT accompanying, if so a good idea.
There was very little sign of local populace. They still hadn’t re appeared. Quite a change to when we moved north when every village was out to welcome us with flowers, flags and cognac!!
Arrived in the PW camp late in the afternoon & the feeling of being a prisoner was really coming out. It looked as though this place had been a school or convent with the original iron barred fence strengthened & improved with Hun wire. And with the addition of sentries.
There were about 150 all told here including six officers- 5 NZ and self. The occupants were roughly three quarters NZ and the remainder British with only one other Australian in the camp. Had never seen him before & he had cobbered up OK with the NZ troops.
The camp commandant (NZ) was a Major Le Liever (inf) and his 2ic Capt Seaton Porter? 2/NZ bn. The place looked easy enough to crack so I started to make a few tentative enquiries among the NZ troops for a travelling partner. Working on the theory of two heads better than one & three being a crowd. Takers were not forthcoming as everyone was still a bit buggered, and in the main thought it too far to get back to ME forces. I didn’t shelve the plan, which was to get to Turkey and if possible work my way around to Palestine. Sounded easy but was a hell of a long way with the chance of being interned (and a big one) in Turkey or being picked up by Vichy French in Syria. Of course the chances of being shot on the way out and being picked up by the Hun on the way were other minor considerations. Still I didn’t want to stay with Gerry any longer than necessary to be fit to travel. Another thing I wanted was a pair of boots as at this stage the pair I had had also had it.
The place wasn’t without its moments of humour. There was a mad scurry to hide all matches boxes etc as dame rumour had it that they were to be confiscated! It all started by the NZ sense of humour that was as rugged as our own. The latrines & toilets were the ‘footprint’ type common in ME & Mediterranean countries and were just partitions, a hole in the floor into a drain through which water continually ran, connecting all the holes. It was considered a great joke for the occupant up stream to light some paper, drop it in the hole where it would drift down with various effects on the bare tails of users downstream. This was considered a good joke until the afternoon the guard commandant (a man without any sense of humour) was the peanut downstream. He bellowed like a mad bull and was fortunately heard & recognised so by the time he had upped draws and investigated, the place was empty. Hence the threatened taking over of all matches. The climax, or anti climax, was the decision by the investigation party that it had been decided the event occurred through natural causes- possibly marsh gas!!! Who said the Hun had no sense of humour??
The time the same commandant (Hun) occupied the only seat in the WC in the dark was a lesson in recce before occupation, for in this instance someone had emulated a kangaroo on the seat.
Hun troops were still moving south and whilst watching one day & silently putting on the hex who should come along but a regiment of spick and span wop Basaglieri troops. Cocks feathers in tin hats, riding breeches on officers & brilliantly polished riding boots. Unfortunately they stopped (nose to tail) in the street outside our camp and proceeded to lunch. This was no doubt a tactical error on their part for as soon as their soldiers recognised our uniforms & badges in the compound the abuse started. Then the bricks started from the cobbled road and from our own exercise yard, blocks of wood followed. Our own chaps were holding their own in abuse & stoning when rashly the Ities decided to storm the Bastille & eliminate a few Aussies & NZ’s. Palings, legs from bunks, pieces of fencing wire appeared as if by magic & we were winning a defensive battle hands down.
Then when an Itie decided to produce a rifle & discharge same, the German guard decided they had better take a hand. Led by a private 1st class (one stripe) he led about half a dozen or more out of the sally porte (side gate) took the Ities on the flank and routed them with rifle butts, boots & fists to the joy & cheers of the inmates. The Itie Commandant was briskly told to get to hell with his convoy and away they went. As we had to be punished for the scene we were confined to our barrack rooms until next morning but strangely received extra rations for the evening meal and the thanks of the guard commandant for assistance given in quelling the RIOT!!- We never understood our jailers I’m afraid!
Several days later we were confined in our barracks from 1000hrs one morning until 0900hrs next day. No explanation was advanced until we were released when a guard told us, with puffed chest and a confidential whisper, that “Der Fuehrer” had passed on his way to the Athens victory march- we remarked we hadn’t smelt anything but it went over his head. Several days later it happened again (the confinement) so we could only presume that “Der Fuehrer” had shot off back to “Der Reichstag”??
STILL ON THE CAMP
We had been in the camp about two to three weeks (didn’t keep track of the time in the early stages) when considerable air activity began to take place on a strip along the “mad 5-mile” between Lamia and Thermopolae. German troop planes of the old tri motored Junkers type began arriving, some with up to two gliders- some without any. We didn’t know at the time but we were witnessing some of the preparations for his aerial attack on Crete.
We were confined indoors when the aircraft took off on the first day of their task. After several hours we were allowed out but none returned that day. It was on the second day that we heard a number of A/C returning at about 1200hrs. They dropped rapidly through Brailos Pass and several went straight in to land. We noticed that of 10- 12 craft that came in at least 8 had apparent damage to wings and fuselage, some instances considerable. It made some of us wonder (not being aircraft know alls) just how the machines flew at all.
One, which particularly intrigued us, had 8-9 paratroops swinging in their lines and bunched towards the rear of the fuselage. This plane circled the Bay of Lamia several times, we surmised to allow the paratroops to unclip their harness, drop into the bay and be recovered by several small launches which appeared to be waiting with that object in view. No one dropped. After about four or five circuits the plane straightened up for its run in to land & did so with half opened chutes & lines trailing their loads in the dust. It wasn’t good to see, but a great cheer went up despite the intent interest of several guards who were also watching. The result a few wild swings of rifle butts, some of which connected, and banishment to the barrack rooms. This happened on several more occasions so we can only surmise it was for the same reason each time. Damaged aircraft we were allowed to watch land & I must say that they could fly them.
PLANS FOR THE BREAK
I had at last found after 10-14 days another starter to go through the wire. He was CSM Donald Beresford Hill of 2/1 NZ Inf Bn. He had heard I was considering going from Capt Porter & as it looked like he alone wanted to be in it with me. First impressions are lasting- I liked him and accepted his offer and never regretted it.
Our plan was simple and was to stay in the cellar after evening roll call & when dark enough time the sentry on his beat, crawl through & lie in a nearby bombed house. On the next trip of the sentry the next passenger was to go through, both link up & proceed on our way.
It was made reasonably simple by an early roll call and NOT being confined for the night immediately afterwards- the fact that the sentries moved on their beats with clock work precision and timing & that the wire where we were going through had been badly laid- particularly at ground level. All we now wanted was a late moon rise, dark for the break and light for travelling. Conditions would be perfect in about 8-9 days by our calculations.
We had been collecting an escape kit each unbeknown to each other. When we talked over what we wanted, most things were immediately ticked off as held. I had by this time managed to get a pair of boots from the scrounger in the guard. They were British Abs not worn & I had managed to break them in by walking about the exercise yard.
Our pooled kits contained among other things an oil compass; two tins emergency rations (choc type), two large knives, one sheath & missed in the search and one clasp. A good local map found in the school earlier, two groundsheets, 10000-drachma equal approx to 10pound sterling. In addition I had a school atlas map of Greece & surrounding islands to Turkey in the east & Crete in the south. It was from this we were to work when we ran off the large-scale local map, which took in the surrounding area of approx 5-8 miles.
We had also made arrangements for supply of two days rations with Capt Porter when we decided to break. He agreed to do this at a moments notice and did not quibble or ask for details of plans. His only reaction was to once try to dissuade us but when he saw we were determined, said no more and wished us luck.
On clearing the compound fence our plan was to head NE from Lamia, our town of incarceration, into the Pindos Mtns, skirting the town of Volos, which stands at the seaward end of the Plain of Volos and Larisa on the plain. Our choice of this area was made simply because of lack of formed roads. For the Hun to track us down he would have to walk to do it and in country more in favour of the hiders than the seekers. Both of us had traversed portions of these areas from as far north as Veve Pass on the inland sector and Catarini (Castle Hill on the coast) down to Volos a distance of about 100 miles. From Volos area to Lamia I had covered the track on foot & estimated it about 30 miles. To the Turkish border on the Dardenells was a considerable distance with several large river obstacles, main arterial roads to cross or traverse as well as several large towns, and the city of Salonika to avoid. Our other choice was to hit the coast north of Volos and try to buy beg borrow or steal (whichever was offering) a small boat and island hop across the Aegean Sea to Turkey, thence by night get as far south as could be got, if possible Palestine. So much for our plan. It is a wonder to many people how such items were found, concealed, made or got into a PW camp even such an amateurish one as ours. The Hun, after a cursory search for weapons usually left a detailed search until later with the result that articles could be hidden on the person safe from sight or quick search & then buried in the camp. Whilst detailed searches of personnel & kits took place, small articles were often hidden in the crutch of trousers high up & missed detection without exception.
With 8-9 days for a favourable moon, time dragged but we kept ourselves fit, were not seen too much together alone and kept away from our recced portion of the fence We timed & re timed the sentries until we knew individuals by their step. We were still 2 days off our date when the Hun commenced to wire the perimeter for lights and informed us that the next day or the next the officers were to be segregated & moved to Germany. The remainder (ORs) were to follow within a week. They also told us the camp was to become a staging camp for the movement of PWs in southern areas & Crete through to Germany. We decided to go that night. To diverse.
One story I liked which was told to us by an arrogant Ober Lieutenant concerned the Austrians and Italians. He had questioned us earlier on what we thought of the fighting qualities of various troops, on which we were rather non-committal. Still he persisted. He wasn’t too pleased when I stated it had taken the whole of the German army to push our little army out of Greece. (Actually five divisions were used with four more in reserve and two more were moved down from Yugoslavia & Bulgaria. We had one division of Aussies with most units below strength. One NZ division plus some British engineers, artillery, some infantry from the rifle bde. In all about two divisions not at full strength.)
Still back to the story of our Ober Lieutenant. He eventually asked us what we thought of Austrian troops and we told him, “Not much, & they were bits of pansies much like the edelweiss they wore on their tunics”. Strangely he agreed and made the statement that “The worlds worst soldiers were the Austrians & that God made the Italians so they would have someone to beat! Of course I’m Prussian” he said and couldn’t understand why several of us burst out laughing. The German humour, if only they knew it existed, made us laugh many times. The only thing being that they were serious & not trying to be funny.
We were in the cellar waiting for it to get really dark. Noise was magnified and every step we heard seemed to be the step of a guard coming right in on us. The air felt heavy, damp and ready to explode, Dons breathing sounded like the snorting of a loco at Central waiting to move out with the Melbourne Express. Don later confessed that he thought I was putting on a good imitation of a sawmill steam engine with several circular saws biting at once. At 2100hrs the guard changed and we decided to go before his eyes became accustomed to the dark. We tossed for first start & I won. I made the gap at the wire easily enough but had trouble undoing a most troublesome strand. Intent on the task I completely missed the turn around of the sentry & had to lie in an 8-inch ditch until he had gone down & back and passed once more. On the last jump down from the wall I straddled a taut strand of barbed wire, tore my strides and flesh with a noise like a flatulent elephant. It caused no investigation and so I gained the bomb-ruined house to wait for Don. Whilst there I tied my pants up, stopped the blood with a handful of cobwebs and thought I heard Don. I moved to the
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WE LEAVE ALEX FOR GREECE– MARCH 41.
It was embarkation day once more. With arms, sea kits and packs we went aboard to follow the MT, guns and heavy baggage which had preceded us by several days. This previous convoy incidentally was the one that had been used for bait to pull the Itie fleet down towards our own Mediterranean fleet. After dark they had put back to Alex (our MT convoy) and their place was taken by the fleet. The resultant battle was the British victory of Mattapan after which the Itie fleet became almost non-effective. From that day Mare Nostrum became ‘Cunninghams Lake’ after the Admiral Commanding and surface vessels were no longer a threat. The German Luftwaffe took their place, with far greater menace than Musso’s fleet.
And so, on the 1st or 2nd of April we arrived at Port Piraeus the seaport of modern Athens. We stayed only the remainder of that day and one night at Glyphadia, a few miles out of the city. It was sufficiently long enough to ‘see’ the city including the Parthenon on a hill dominating Athens, the Eogene Guards, a quick motor through the modern portion of the town and of course a quick visit to the main night club-a tame affair after Alex and Cairo. Already we were striking comparisons with Egypt, the country we most detested to be stationed in.
Still, if Athens didn’t have a riotous nightlife, they made up in everything else. The more we saw of the country and its people the more we came to admire, respect and love them. With nothing, they had almost flogged the Italian Armies in Albania, a far greater feat of arms than our own victories in Egypt and Libya, for compared to them, our equipment was modern and in abundance (which it wasn’t) and compared to both of us the Itie had equipment to burn, which we both did our best to assist him with. There the advantages ceased. The Itie army had less spirit (except in bottles and his Chianti WAS good) in a Division than a platoon of Aussies or Greeks. As a fighting man we both rated the Itie very low in the scale-something on a par with the Gypo and with very few exceptions his fighting forces weren’t worth very much. That he was on the Huns side was a good thing for he would have hindered us more than the Germans, who were really ruthless with him. As one German officer remarked to us at a later date “I suppose its our turn to suffer him, your allies had him for nearly five years last time!” Another time we heard some particularly scathing remarks on his qualities and capabilities, but that is another story.
The next morning early we commenced our move north and passed through Daphne and Sparta skirting our way round a huge range and keeping almost to the sea. The 22 miles to Sparta were the longest I have ever driven and I can imagine why the courier who ran with the news of the victory of Marathon dropped dead after giving his news. Our modern runners probably do it in faster time but the original runner did so after fighting all day, and ran armed.
It was towards the end of the next day’s move that a DR came back down the column at a great pace. As he came towards “Beverley” (officially RA) he flipped a message to me and whizzed on. It was from my BC, Nim Love, and was orders for O Group RV, some few miles ahead, and the time to be there short enough for me to tell my driver Long John Silver (Simkins) to step on it and overtake the convoy without killing me. At the same time I cursed old Nim under my breath for starting an R and O exercise when we were damn tired and near the end of a long trip. How little I knew.
I met Major Love sitting on a boulder just off the road and reported in. Hazy Ball the RO marked my map for me and being clam like in the fashion of most RO’s just grinned and said naught. The other troop Commanders arrived soon after, Dick MacIntosh who had B troop and Hub Rigby who had C. Our troop sergeants were with us so we were ready to start.
Nim cleared his throat and began- ‘Gentlemen, a few hours ago Germany declared war on Greece and we have to put a screen down across the front here.’ He waved his arm across a vast expanse of country. ‘Over there’, pointing to a high range some 8-10 miles to the north’ is Yugoslavia. Some fighting is going on and we expect the enemy to reach here anytime after midday tomorrow.’ We didn’t believe him and he sensed it. ‘Gentlemen this is NOT bull. I will give orders here in fifteen minutes and we will occupy tonight. Remember these are Huns not Ities so your men had better dig tonight like they have never dug before because my info says that we cannot expect any infantry here before late tomorrow night.’
We lay on the hilltop and searched the area below and in front of us. Ahead was a nasty looking knoll, which would look into our area if allowed out of our hands. It was named immediately ‘The Pimple’ and was to become a veritable boil on our nose. We got our orders, A troop on the right, C troop on the left and B troop in depth through the Veve Pass. Forward gun gp RVs were sent back by DR, the recce carried out and the fire plan developed. With no infantry, our brens (LMG) and every spare rifleman was sighted to cover our area rather than our guns, a forlorn hope if the thrust came hard with infantry, but still with a sting particularly if armour was used to try and break into the position.
The regiment was deployed from Lake Vegoritis on the right across Veve Pass to a secondary pass several miles on our left. 3 Bty held from C troops left to the impassable area (to tanks & vehicles) to the west of the 2nd pass.
Well over to the west again was 4 Bty in the Aliack area.
1 Bty guns were in shortly after dark and camouflaged before midnight. Piquets were posted and a listening post established two miles up the road which ran straight to Florina Pass about six miles ahead, one of the highways into Greece.
At 0100hrs I was woken by a piquet to say that there was movement on the road. I looked once, rubbed my eyes to make sure they were clear and agreed. Movement was an understatement; the country crawled with hundreds of headlights coming down Florina and even into Veve Pass- and us. The report went back and the Bty Capt promised me reinforcements at once. I knew who they would be- Capt Foote and the BHQ merry men- a full twenty strong, two brens and fifteen or so rifles. HELL!!!
Still the gesture was there and I heard vehicles coming up behind me in the pass and thanked God for staunch hearts and cursed the fact of no infantry.
I raised the guns on our Itie phones, carried with us from the desert, knew they’d be alert & standing by. Told them not to fire until I put up the flare bomb (also Itie & carefully smuggled around out of sight of our Bty Capt)
As we watched them come on with lights full on and nose to tail we decided that they couldn’t be German or even Itie but who were they??? Up went the flare and the convoy stopped, out got several figures with their hands up & the light went out. They were only 200yds from us so we moved forward and called on them to do the same. To cut a long story short it was the Yugoslav Army coming back our way. After arguments about lights through our pass- they moved on without lights and disappeared through Veve Pass. We were heartened, for here was assistance, guns and infantry. They must have had a date for some other engagement other than war for they continued south and were reported as being embarked at Piraeus plus equipment two days after the fighting started in earnest. In any case they didn’t to our knowledge fire a shot in Greece. All night they passed through. Troops, guns, vehicles, field artillery and anti aircraft weapons, heavy stores vehicles, troop carriers and ammunition lorries. All came and went until well after first light the next day.
The next day was miserably cold, rain in the air and a chilly breeze from the west. With the wind came the long streams of refugees from the north. It was a pitiful sight with old and young moving at walking pace. They had bullock carts and horse drays, wheelbarrows and bundles of belongings on their backs. At 1100hrs the stream looked endless so we established a roadblock a mile to the north and diverted the stream two ways. One to the track leading past the lake to the east and the other to the west up the secondary pass. A trickle still got through but the main road was fairly clear for our eagerly awaited infantry and guns. That afternoon the 2/3 Regiment put their batteries down in and behind the pass and commenced silent registration (they fired on a few points) Late that afternoon a labour corps company arrived with some engineers and commenced to lay a mine field across our front and including the road. Just on dark Nim Love who had been on a final recce sent a runner in to say he was bogged in the town of Veve, forward & on our right. We left a piquet on a minefield gap to guide him in and sent some assistance. They arrived about 2100hrs and reported the Hun was in Veve with a recce force and that it had passed down the next street. They had worked like beavers, got the vehicle out and headed for home. That night the troop had a brush with a patrol that withdrew and in the morning I could see two Jerries flat out on the slope about 100yards ahead. Three more were in a short sunken road just this side of the two we had got and it was 1000hrs before we had outflanked them and sent them to join the others. A bit of rifle & LMG fire was coming from The Pimple but we couldn’t hold it without infantry so kept our heads down, returned fire with an LMG from near my troop command post. We succeeded in keeping them quiet.
That afternoon a battalion of KRRs (Kings Royal Rifles 2 Bn the Sherwood Rangers) arrived and dug in on our right and rear but for some reason would not occupy ‘The Pimple’ region, which was an ideal platoon position.
Towards evening a German armoured vehicle, large and with a decent gun aboard tried to crash the road to the pass. It was supported by mortar fire, which wasn’t very pleasant. He reached the minefield and No2 opened at 400yds and made a direct hit. He rolled onto a mine and stopped. Bill Fleming (Sgt no1) dropped the crew of five as they abandoned the vehicle. The KRR patrol removed the arms that night & so its teeth as we thought. That night 2/8 Bn, 2RAA Regt and some medium artillery arrived in the area. 2/8 holding in the area of 3 bty and in the west. That made things a little more pleasant for us, but our luck at about 0200-0300hrs it started to snow, the first snow I had seen.
Our guns, carefully dug in camouflaged and with even wheel tracks not giving anything away were not in a position to stand up to such a sudden change of conditions. To put it plainly, they stood out like the rear appendages of a dog. Although well dug in, so much so that only a direct hit would shift them, they were very obvious to his recce plane, the Henchel Storch, which looked like our Lysander.This meant one thing, unless we moved our guns and changed our fire plan, our guns would be methodically shelled out and not a tank would appear within thin arcs of fire.
All that day an enemy artillery unit put concentrations on my guns and Hubs. They were accurate and had the Hun only known he could have pushed his tanks in and the fire put down would have flattened our gunners. It was neutralization at its best or worst whichever way you looked ar it.
We decided that night to move to alternate positions. By much hard work and a few casualties we got three guns back into alternate positions. One we had to leave to cover the minefield but of course moved it to another position.
The BC (Nim) decided we would need a roadblock and told me that evening that he would arrange it. I was after materials for a dummy gun. With Jim Aldridge my orderly & confidant we visited the Veve railway station to get such material as was needed. Imagine our surprise to find that the stationmaster was still in occupation and fiercely resisted our efforts to pinch his downpipe. We squared him off with a signal pad receipt (how often was that done?) and departed.
Jim and I were busily erecting the dummy gun positions in our two abandoned positions. As far as I could see the dummies were good, and to help, the snow started to come down again.
We had almost gained the main road when we heard a tank moving along the branch road towards Veve Town. We knew we had no armour handy so the first thing we thought was that the Hun tank had got in behind and where there was one there would probably be a number more. The place was quiet and we ran like steam to where we had dumped our gear, among which was our tank surprise. It comprised of about a dozen sticks of gelignite with a short fuse. We headed off to the noise and waited by the road in a ditch. The area had gone deadly quiet but the rumbling and clanking of the tank continued. Closer it came and Jim was about to light the fuse when I stopped him. Now it was almost on top of us it somehow didn’t sound like a tank although it was pitch black and we couldn’t identify it. Almost on top of us it stopped!! We risked a look and then a door clanged, a light blazed out and there was the biggest steamroller I had ever seen. Driven by ‘Woy Woy’ Downing, it had been sent along to be wrecked on the road for our roadblock. It had scared six months growth out of the whole sector. We cursed old Woy Woy so he started off again and twenty yards further on hit a mine, which as far as we knew was not laid by any of our people and so was blamed on the Hun patrol. The roller survived but the yolk broke and the old roller sat down fair in the road the next best job to an immovable block you could see.
All next day the Hun arty concentrated on the pass and the dummy guns. Our own guns were giving him as good and our patrols of Hurricane fighters Beaufort bombers kept his aircraft away.
That afternoon from my troop ‘lookout’ as the HQ was called, I saw two tanks pick their way through a path in the minefield that had been blasted by their field artillery. They sheared off the dummy gun positions, gained the sunken road and moved across towards us at the HQ. It was obvious they intended to poke into the pass so a gun was to move forward up the pass to a defiladed position about 40 feet below my lookout and with a range of about 40yards. They were not dug in, the position had not been recced and the detachment were not really aware of what they had to do. I slid down the slope, which was deep in snow, shouted to them to put their gun to cover the road, which they did. As I moved to them they loaded and lay on the road where it came round the bend. About half a minute later, though it seemed like fifteen, the tank poked round the bend, advanced about twenty yards, stopped for a look and our guns went to work. It took three in the guts, which seemed to make no effect because as the shot hit the tracer it shook loose and ricocheted up the hill. Then without any warning it started to burn. Only one member of the crew jumped down from the tank & Jim chopped him down with the bren before he started to move five yards. I moved to the end of the spur only a matter of another thirty yards and there was the other tank poking along the road towards Woy Woys steamroller roadblock. The detachment manhandled the gun forward about 40 yards and there was the tank rear end to us at a range of about 200 yards. The No1 gave his fire order as though on parade and off the wheels (the emergency firing position of the 2 pounder) he bored 5 rounds right up its stern. It stopped, started to slew left into a deep ditch by the side of the road and started to smoke. The crew tried to get out and make cover of the ditch but about every LMG of the KRRs was on it and as they came out so they passed out – four of them. The Hun started to lay down a concentration (at least 20 guns) at the entrance of the pass and the gun and tractor were lucky to pull back behind the next bend without casualties.
I was making my way to BHQ to report, a matter of only five hundred yards when I heard the first salvos come over. They were his ‘double bungers’, which air burst and then again on landing. I went to ground and as I did so saw my troop HQ get a direct hit. Old Hub Rigby, Jim Waldy and Jim Aldridge were in it so I raced back to give a hand. The 2 Jims were OK but Old Hub was partially buried. We got him out and he said he was all right! I started off again and was only forty yards away when down they came again in the same place! Back I went & the Jims were OK but Hub was buried a little deeper, once again he said ‘I am alright this time!’ To cut a long story short Jim A came with me this time and at about the same distance the same thing happened. Back we went the third time, dug Jim Waldy out but couldn’t find Hub. So we dug and under a few cwt of dirt & slushy snow was a body. We lifted it out and didn’t feel too good. As we half laid & half dropped it on the ground it came to life & said “This time I’m buggered” He was only slightly wounded but badly shocked so back we took him to RAP where he was evacuated with a wound, severe shock and suffering from exposure. Hub was sent to the rear and we didn’t see him again until we returned to Australia.
Several infantry assaults were put in late that afternoon but were repulsed without a great deal of trouble, although one platoon area on the right of the KRRs was taken back with a sharp counter attack with a bayonet. Everyone spent an uneasy night and at 0300hrs in the morning withdrawal parties were sent back to recce positions immediately in rear and also back over the River Aliakmon about 10-15 miles to the rear. We thought we were doing all right, and were, on our sector- however on the left flank things were worse and several minor losses of ground had occurred. A withdrawal appeared imminent. From first light the next morning heavy artillery and mortar fire was brought down right across our sector. It appeared the enemy intended to force or out flank Veve Pass and that we were in for it. At 1630hrs the KRRS on the right started to step back. As yet we had no orders to do so and A1 gun was left out alone. When orders came for us to pull back through B troop three attempts to retrieve the gun were unsuccessful and I lost a towing vehicle in the last attempt. The detachment was then instructed by Bty HQ through the KRRS to remove sights and blow the gun-, which was done. The detachment under Sgt George Manson came out OK with the KRRS (who they caught up) with the telescope, spare striker, their LMG and rifles.
The rest of A troop I got out without much trouble. C troop were in a bad way and as Hub had gone I sent one gun up an old goat track, which I had recced earlier. Managed to tow another out the same way but was stumped with a soft skinned tower to get the two forward guns out as the area was being swept with LMG and mortar fire. However Stewart Foote our battery Capt came to light with a bren carrier. With a Tommy driver & John Archer (Gnr QX1) as machine gunner, went in over the area, recovered one gun and detachment and went back & brought out the other. It was a piece of daring impudence that only Capt Foote could have done and got away with!!
We stepped back through the rest of the afternoon, which was long as it did not get dark until well after seven. Eventually we broke clear after having to burn several trucks that had bogged in an apparently solid field. The guns got us out combined with the fact that the German Luftwaffe was strip bound in Yugoslavia due to a thaw, which we were just starting to feel. Had they been able to operate we would have been in a bad fix from air activity in daylight.
Although the field arty got us all out (inf & A/T) they were not last out. We covered them to step back too and if our guns weren’t used on the move back, our small arms were so hot as to be uncomfortable to hold and we did our share. Later reports confirmed that one of Hitler’s SS battalions had been so badly mauled in the attack that they were withdrawn and took no further part in operations in Greece or Crete. The only other troop that fired main——– during the action was Eric McDonalds that engaged infantry and MG targets on the left flank. And so as night fell we withdrew over the Aliakmon River and travelled throughout the night to positions in the Veve Pass. These we occupied the next morning.
From the time we stepped back from Veve the weather began to clear, the snow and rain was finished and the sun was strong and warm. Although we enjoyed the change in weather it had its drawbacks and the worst was the fact that the German Air Force began to operate in increasing numbers and efficiency. From then on we saw nothing of our aircraft, they were all hostile & became increasingly cheeky. The day we arrived over 70 stukas dive-bombed our area and a nearby dump. Some fires were started but casualties were few. Two of their planes were knocked down by small arms fire, one a Dornier twin-engine bomber, the other a single engine fighter probably a Messerschmidt.
On our right was the mighty Mt Olympus, still snow clad & standing aloof from surrounding peaks. Mostly the cover in this area was olive trees, some very old, and in bloom with their tiny white flowers & dark green narrow leaves, they were a picture. Only man spoilt it with artillery and planes.
From here we were pulled back to a new area near Larissa & I was detailed to take A troop to join 2/2 inf bn who were occupying a position near Tempe (actually closer to
Here for 2 days we had a stiff fight against Hun infantry and mountain units supported by tanks. Three assaults were made to cross the Pinios River each being thrown back until the river was stained with mud, possibly blood. Large numbers of Hun were floating down the fast moving stream for a distance of no less than two miles.
Late the second afternoon his tanks crossed and broke into our positions. We picked up two very smartly, one a burner & the other 6 moved back out of range. At dark we were ordered to withdraw & did so by a little track leading back through Larissa. At the top of the pass bombers had blown up the road and we were forced to roll the vehicle and gun over the edge into the gully several hundred feet below. From there we cut the NZ withdrawal route & with our small arms & LMGs got a lift aboard some Bren carriers. It was now dark and entering Larissa by an embanked road we ran slap into 2 German MG posts. Quite a bit of transport had been held up here & as we went round to engage the posts the leading carrier went up on a mine! We couldn’t shift it nor get round & as we were under cross fire decided to root them out with small arms & grenades. We got one post in the dark but suffered quite a few casualties & could not dig out the other. However we neutralised it sufficiently with an LMG to get most of the transport through.
Then came a two-day walk to regain our own lines, which had leap frogged back to Thermopolae and Brailos Passes. We arrived on the hills overlooking Lamia & the mad 5 miles just on dusk. Below us was a battery of German artillery shooting across the bay onto our positions at the bottom of the Pass. We crawled down close to the battery after dark & at about 30yds range gave them 2 mags of gun and a mag of .303s. In the confusion we raced for the water, quietly slipped in and struck out for the opposite shore. It must have been several hours before we made it across. We were muddy, cold & exhausted. We headed for where our guns had been firing & found nothing except abandoned positions and piles of empty cartridge cases. We found enough clothes to keep us warm, had some bully from which we had to wash sump oil, & set off to catch up. Early next morning some Greek engineers in an old lorry gave us a lift. As the bridges were down we forded the streams & eventually found signs of our forces near Sparta. Here we reported and helped to man an anti tank gun. Late that afternoon we knocked over 2 armoured half-tracks & then curled up for a sleep. The next morning we were shelled, bombed & strafed from the air & a mortar took our gun slap on our reserve ammo. We were half buried, stunned & dazed. One was killed. We crawled into the next hole to clear our heads & work out what to do next when 3 Huns with a machine carbine & rifles covered us, hopped in with us & there we were!! Our own arty barrage came down with a crash & we sensed that our people were getting out under cover of it. Things seemed hopeless, we were dead beat, the gash on my face had opened up & I was blood from my face to my waist. I borrowed a field dressing, tied it on & lay back exhausted. I must have dozed despite the noise for I started when the guns stopped & I was pushed back smartly with the muzzle of a rifle. After about 10 minutes we were motioned to our feet & the four of us, 3 NZs and myself were marched up the road to a large white building we had been told was a hospital. Here we were fed on thick bean soup & black bread from a mobile field kitchen belonging to a German medical unit. An HQ had also been established there & after a brief questioning for number name & rank we were locked in a room for the night& promptly fell asleep.
The next day we were questioned again, this time by an officer who made notes of everything said. We were kept singly after this & questioned at intervals several times during the day. Although physical threats were not made we were told that we would get nothing to eat until such time as we told our captors something he didn’t know & which was of value. I was lucky I was not wearing my badges of rank and was classified as a gunner from the circumstances of our capture. I didn’t tell them I was an officer after the veiled threat as I woke to the fact that I would probably be concentrated on. So we remained “dumb gunners”, gave nothing away, & when pressed for details of our equipment I gave a detailed description of the old 18 pr MK2, which was carefully written down. I was then returned to the others & we were all fed. The next day the NZ Liet.and 2 others were moved out to a prison camp & the remaining Kiwi & myself were told we would follow on the next available transport. Unfortunately for us it turned out to be a motorcycle combination with a hare brained rider!!
Photo: Lt CM Johnson Egypt just prior to Embarkation for Greece 1941
Our rail move to the training areas of Palestine was uneventful and we eventually arrived at Beit Jala a few miles north of the ancient town of Gaza. We were on the main coastal road that ran from Gaza to Tel Aviv and on to Haifa, thence the Syrian border.
Palestine was a land of contrasts to us. The narrow coastal strip was mainly sand dunes & wind blown dust hills, none more than a few hundred feet high. The Arab population outside of town, or ‘gutter’ Arabs, lived a nomadic life depending on their sheep & goatherds, donkeys and camels. They occasionally scratched a precarious grain crop when seasonal conditions were right and used the implements of biblical times. A wooden plough, single furrow and iron tipped were all they used to break the dusty soil whilst it was not uncommon to see donkeys, camels and even people in the traces, singly, in pairs, or mixed. The queerest combination however was the camel and donkey with one of the women folk spelling whichever appeared to need a rest.
Beyond Beersheba however the nomad was seen in his natural unspoiled and wildest best. They were superbly mounted on Arabian horses or the huge white racing dromedary. Their harness and trappings were tooled leather often coloured and decorated with brass studs & cotton tassles. The men were a proud and arrogant race and were clean considering the dusty wastes they lived in and the scarcity of water. Almost every mounted man was armed. Sometimes a lance sometimes a firearm but the most picturesque carried as well a sword. Occasionally they were the curved scimitar type but usually a long straight double –edged job with a plain hilt. Enquiries revealed that there were a large number of the old crusader swords among the latter type, which had been handed down through the centuries. The police post we enquired at produced several. They were beautiful pieces but as the Sgt said, “Valued above life” and only procured in the same circumstances that they procured them, which was in the uprising of 1936.
The police stations I have just mentioned dominate Palestine from end to end and look like modern versions of the old ‘Beau Geste’ forts of the films. They have the high walls and lofty lookout tower enclosing a large courtyard, admin offices jail & quarters. Each post is in touch with the one on either side or HQ by wireless, have their own supplies and wells within the walls. Stables are also inside and an armoury of all kinds of weapons from shot guns and machine carbines to light mortars. On top of all this it is unusual to find an armoured car with crew ready for instant move at each post or within close wireless call. To all purposes they could withstand assault by anything but heavy artillery.
At Beersheba is a small British war cemetery, which is probably unique for its size anywhere in the world. Here are buried the sons from all parts of the Empire who fell in the battles of Beersheba in 1916-17. It is a quiet little place well tendered and with an imposing monument. What makes it unique is that no less than seven V Cs are buried here. Of particular interest to most Aussies is the grave of ‘Tibby Cotter’, one time top test cricketer of Australia. He is in good company. From Beersheba the road goes north through the Hebron Hills still the ‘hide out’ of bandits and thieves (although to a lesser extent than the bad old days) and the only portion of Palestine where reasonable areas of wooded country can still be found. The road to the west leads back towards Gaza, which rang the bell with us of Sampson and his deeds. Try as we could however we couldn’t find a worthy descendant of Delilah as the bints there were typical gutter arabs, dirty and hideous. Just outside of Gaza lies a great pillar shattered in two and just off the main north/south highway. This legend has it was the pillar that Sampson toppled to bring destruction on his enemies. I’ll comment no more than to say that Mr Sampson must have been some man, as I couldn’t put my arms around the thing.
The Jewish population of Palestine (or should I say the new Jewish population?) have on the other hand done wonders on the land compared with the Arab. Numerous farming settlements are scattered throughout the country and with irrigation they are producing wonderful crops of citrus including the famous jaffa oranges, grain and vegetables. Their breeding of stock and poultry is on a higher and scientific plane compared to the Arab.
During our stay in Palestine I was fortunate enough to visit Tel Aviv and Jerusalem several times on twelve hour leaves and with Dick MacIntosh spent seven wonderful days leave in Cairo, but more of that anon.
Hard training in the mean time occupied most of our time and everyone was in the pink of condition and on the verge of being used in battle. At the present time rumours were rife about the destination of our division and before long orders were received for the southward move to training areas in Egypt-just out of Cairo and Alexandria. As the Itie was right up to the borders of Egypt and had occupied Sidi Borani and Mersa Matruh it didn’t need much imagination to pick that the big battleground was to be the Western Desert and that the Australian 6 Division would be used.
So once again it was pack for move and this time it looked as though ourselves and the war must meet somewhere in the South. At this stage officers were needed to go to the 1 Anti Tank Regiment AIF expected soon from England with the 2/3 Fd Regiment. I would have preferred to have stayed with Fd but with the alternative of transferring to Anti Tank or staying in Palestine as an Instructor, I decided to stay with the Division as an anti tanker and so gave Old Dame Fate a hard nudge in the ribs and went with the wave to see how things panned out.
Many people have tried to paint in words their feelings when first under fire. That feeling I’m afraid is one of those things that can never be accurately reproduced. It is like an artist attempting to portray the first flush of a good old Aussie sunset; the colour is captured perhaps, the shape and form true to eye, but the atmosphere of tenseness can never go on canvas. And so with the feelings of mere man, too few can put what they see on paper even when those things are known and recognised. How more difficult to portray fear, anticipation, determination, anxiety, hate and cunning all by a few sentences. One thing only stands out in my mind and that by repetition over a score or more of times. The icy creep up the back like the ‘goose pimples ‘ of winter, the feeling as though the hairs on the back of the neck were standing out like wires, the straining of the eyes (till they felt like organ stops) to try and see through bushes and behind walls. The tense taut spring feeling of waiting for the starter’s gun. Then the job begins in earnest, the tension goes like the tearing of a piece of stiff cloth and almost the feeling of normalcy returns. The task ahead becomes one of urgent, puffing haste and the goose back and wire hair become normal again-until the next major effort when things don’t seem too good to you. Funnily I could always raise a good spit. Things would have been grim to have a mouth like a dry chip as well!
Still get any soldier to try and portray his reaction the very first time and you will find he has forgotten, remembers some trifling detail, hedges the question and passes it off with a shrug or else looks at the questioner with the thought in his mind-“you’ll know when you are up against it and the sooner the better”.
Perhaps it was even thus in the times of the ancient wars. The soldier on the job has never much time to weigh up the pro’s and con’s of his emotions –he has a job to do, he’s in a jamb which he has to turn to his advantage, and fast, so he thinks little except of the job. Afterwards there are always more important things, like leave.
INDIA to MIDDLE EAST
At Bombay our new ship awaited. Not the Strathallen this time but a Free French vessel of (if I can remember) 13 to 14,000 tons. She had not the room of the Strath, nor was she clean. She had the sour smell common to a lot of Continental ships and ships a long time at sea. Still we had good company on board- Aussies with whom we had originally embarked, and NZ troops also bound for the ME. We lay in the harbour for the day whilst coaling was completed by a seemingly jumbled mass of Indian labour. All done by hand with sack and basket to assist. Order came out of chaos and we were ready to sail. The “Felix Roussel”, for that was our ships name, turned for the outer roads and as the Gateway to India, Taj Mahal, & Greens Hotels sank lower on the horizon the Felix commenced to roll, and we were on our way again. The next day we started to form a convoy. It was a large one & the last large convoy, as later convoys were much smaller. To the horizon on all points were ships, liners, tankers, troopers, cargo vessels and freighters. Large and small of every shape and capacity and I suppose cargoes. In and out fussed the frigates, destroyers and two AA ships, HMS Coventry and I think the Birmingham. To see one of these super speedsters turn it on and leave a destroyer behind was really something. Further out were the cruisers and destroyer screen, the only cruiser we could identify being HMNZ Leander. Several hundreds of ships comprised the convoy that was the first one up the Red Sea since the Ities decided to be monkey to organ grinder Adolph.
Things were uneventful to Aden, a bare rocky outcrop of fantastic shape, dominating the narrows. It was hot dry and uninviting. The country as far as could be seen arid, treeless and without shrubs grass or vegetation of any kind. We got ashore for a short while and were glad to come back to our ship.
At nightfall we proceeded and the heat increased. Practically everyone slept on deck “a la nude” and great was the consternation during early morning hosing down! The next day was uneventful except for the air patrol, which covered us from Aden. Actually it was an anti-sub watch as it was done with old Ansons and an occasional ‘modern’ Beaufort.
The next day was our introduction to bombing and 2-3 planes so high to be just silver specks came in and dropped a number of bombs on the convoy. No damage from that height- thank heavens they were Ities. Further excitement that night when our escorts opened up with star shell and HE at something beyond range of our vision. It appears that two Itie destroyers and a suspected submarine had had an attempt to do some work on the left (port) flank of the convoy. They were unsuccessful and left at full speed to get under the guns of a fort on their Eritrea coast. So to bed after an eventful day.
Everyone was busy from first light next morning counting escorts and convoy. Everyone arrived at a different total for the convoy and as we weren’t sure of the right number anyway the result wasn’t really a success. With the escorts however it was quite a different matter- we couldn’t account for two destroyers and so speculation was rife. At 0930-1000hrs HMNZ Leander disappeared to the southeast at great speed. She went below the horizon and speculation started afresh. At approx 1700hrs the same afternoon from the direction she disappeared came two warships. They took some time to catch the convoy and we weren’t very fast –10-12 knots sometimes 8. When they came alongside and passed, we could see the destroyer was in tow and had several shot holes in her hull amid- ships, as well as some super structure damage. We got the story that night and whether it was confirmed or not, I can’t say. After the night action the two destroyer escorts had hunted after the Itie craft and they as reported previously had gone under the shelter of shore guns. Standing off the destroyers saw something was wrong with one of the Itie ships and established that it had grounded trying to navigate into their port. So without any more ado one destroyer had charged in and engaged her whilst the other had closed and engaged the fort. Between them the Itie destroyer was torpedoed as she lay and as they were getting out of range, the fort guns came to life again and scored some hits. Both managed to get out of range and as engine room damage had been received Leander was asked to tow. So already we were veterans of a sea bombing and sharers in spirit anyway of a naval victory! We had our after mess drinks that night full of praises for our navy you can be sure.
Water was running low and we were ordered out of the convoy into Port Sudan. Here we arrived just after lunch next day and tied up behind a trooper disembarking Indian troops. It was a dreary place, as dry & bare as Aden but quite flat and if anything, seemed just a little more dead than the former town. The Indian troops had almost disembarked when a solitary plane very high but quite visible let go a stick of bombs. We were straddled two in the water, one on the wharf alongside and two or three more beyond the wharf sheds and into the open. We suffered no casualties but the Indians were not so lucky as the bomb on the wharf killed several. We felt the war had come closer and that the Itie should have more than a few back in return.
A NZ trooper who had been rather ill on the way up the Red Sea died the next day after leaving Port Sudan. He was buried at sea with full honours, the other ships closing in during the service. Not a few of us wondered how long before such a sight would be common and if we would be among the lucky ones to qualify for RSL badges.
An international tug-o-war was held on the ‘Felix’ between NZ, France and Australia and I was considered big & ugly enough to pull with the winning team (Australia)
The only other thing that struck our attention was on our last evening out of Port Tewfick when we ran into a terrific school of large fish, perhaps dolphin can’t remember. As far as the eye could see they were breaking, turning and jumping. Behind the lot was a sunset straight from the artists’ conception of an Egyptian sunset and at last I had to believe my own eyes that such colours were possible in nature.
Before entering Tewfick Harbour on the western end of the canal, the padre on board carefully explained to all interested, the phenomenon of Moses crossing the Red Sea and the place and explanation of the event. It was easy to half shut ones eyes and imagine the water only a few feet off the shoals & it was quite possible. Of coarse the shipping channel has long since been dredged, but without it the event appeared well within the bounds of possibility. It was all spoilt of course by the unit wag (Snow Carr?) carefully pointing out a chariot wheel to the ‘village dill’ (every ship & unit seems to have one too!) and the clown was convinced he could see it and was carefully pointing it out to the others. There weren’t many straight faces behind me.
We did not disembark at Tewfick and the next morning set sail through the canal to the great joy and interest of all on board. Egypt and its deserts were like we had pictured, the Sinai date palms, camels and feluccas looked for all the world like a postcard come to life. As we proceeded it appeared that the water ahead of the ship left the sides of the canal and came to meet the ship. It was not an illusion as considerable stretches of the bank & walls became visible as the water left them. We never did find a satisfactory explanation but no doubt it is quite simple.
******** Years later returning from UK in 1946 the explanation was given that the ships screws driving the water to the rear in a confined canal caused the water ahead to rush under the ship exposing the banks of the canal ahead of us, sounds OK!!
It was uncanny too when the canal took a bend, looking back or ahead it appeared that the ship and feluccas astern were ships marooned in a vast desert- not a drop of water in sight.
We passed Ishmalia with its huge memorial to the desert troops of the 1914-18 war among them the Diggers and Kiwis. It’s an imposing sight and one we carefully inspected at a much later date. And so through El Kantara where the rail runs to Cairo and Alexandria in the south and through Palestine, Syria, Turkey and so on to the Continental Express across Europe & by boat train across the channel to England. I’ll bet Adolph H wished it were that easy.
Eventually to Port Said on the western end of the canal, our port of disembarkation.
It was nearly dark when we anchored in Port Said Harbour so we were kept aboard until next morning. The city was ‘blued out’ and after dark the search light batteries for miles around came to life like fireflies almost turning the night sky into day again. To say there were thousands may be a slight overstatement but I’ll bet there were hundreds- we never did count them!!
In the morning we came ashore. Our tourist days were over and hard months of training lay ahead for all of us. From our ship (we had got to like the ‘Felix’ in a sort of way) we came to earth and in an Egyptian troop train steamed off for El Kantara- the crossing we were to know so well by the time we left the ME. Here was our introduction gained to the ‘orangee man’- the touts with the beauteeeeful seesters! One born in France one born in Italy one Egyptian, my Mother very good sport officer!!! The gully gully man who did amazing tricks with day old chicks, brass eggcups & a dozen variations of the pen & thimble trick. Here also was ‘the feelthy pitchure’ man, the thieves, the can cans and the filth until one wondered if all Egypt was just a cesspool of diseased wogs. How they had ever been the seat of a high and ancient civilization? Things improved when we passed through El Arish, the border town of Egypt and Palestine. – But not much.
After months of training in the semi desert I felt for the digger, who when writing home said’ Dear Mum I am in the land where Christ was born and wish to Christ I was in the land where I was born!!’ Very few of us didn’t feel like that at some stage of training in the semi desert areas of Palestine
So first post from my grandfathers journal. Collated and translated by my mother. As far as i am aware all people mentioned in this journal are now no longer alive. All typos, grammar etc were left in.
These recollections were apparently written in the early 1950s as recollected by my father Lt Col Clifford Marwood Johnson MC (9/7/1919 – 2/12/2002)
The photo (at the beginning of the blog) was taken circa 1937 when my father was in the 1 Field Cadre in Sydney
It was a bleak old day when we embarked on the “Strathallen” at Princes Pier Port Phillip. We left in the late afternoon and as though by design, hit “The Rip” just as dinner was being served. I had sailed before but even then had to force myself to finish the soup that was bouncing about in all its wicked greenness.
We all turned in early that night and could do so without the troop deck checks of later trips as everyone was accommodated in cabins.
We called into Adelaide for 48 hours and then an average trip across the Bight. It tried hard to put on a turn for us but only produced a long lazy roll which did not affect very many on board.
Our last port of call was Fremantle, the port of the friendliest capital in Australia- Perth. We all enjoyed our stay here this time and on other occasions we had to pass through. I was lucky as I was to stop off here on 3 more separate occasions, each one better than the one previously – if that were possible. We left Fremantle in brilliant sunshine, with the Western Command Band playing on the wharf and the ship full of West Aussie wild flowers. I kept a piece of Kangaroo Paw as a mascot of sorts and even the other day, ten years after, I came across it in my gear withered and dry, but still recognisable and still holding some colour.
Everything seemed to combine to give us a memorable farewell even to a school of porpoise and two huge spouting whales which turned up to see us on our way.
We were not sure of our next port of call but as we proceeded north day after day, betting became even on Singapore and Colombo.
We had army, air force and civilians on board and as the ship was full but not overcrowded we had a really enjoyable time.
Eventually we entered the Sundra Straits and saw our first land since leaving Fremantle. Here we also saw our first volcano smoking away but otherwise quiet. It was this old boy which had erupted violently several years earlier and it reportedly can be seen at night over one hundred miles away.
The Singapore betters collected and we moved in and commenced unloading aircraft which had been stowed on hatch tops and part of the boat deck. The RAAF boys left us here too and conditions on board, always good became luxurious. We didn’t see much of Singapore but had a look in to Raffles Hotel and had a conducted tour of the graving? Dock, which would take the longest ship in the world. As a matter of fact the Queen Mary was sitting in there being scraped painted and refitted as a trooper.
We were soon off, this time to Colombo, where we stayed 3 or 4 days. We visited Gaul Face Hotel, Mount Lavinia, the palm lined beach resort with a pub almost as large as the Gaul but not nearly so well appointed. We also had a trip to Candy; saw the temple Tooth, Esmakiah Gardens, which contain specimens of every spice in the world. On the way up to Candy we saw tea, rubber and rice plantations. What really caused our eyes to pop more than anything else was the sight of land being cleared and timber stacked by elephants? Not so much the elephants, as we had seen pictures of them at work but that their drivers were little Ceylonese boys naked except for a turban, who perched on the mighty necks & kicked and punched them behind the ears, shrieking orders & instructions incessantly. Amazingly the lumbering leviathans obeyed. The care with which a mighty trunk would gently pick up the lad, lower him down and bend a knee for him to sit on or slide down to the ground amazed us all. Particularly when those same trunks had a few seconds before been lifting and pushing huge logs and stumps.
We enjoyed our short stay in Ceylon but soon we were off again and heading for Bombay.
We were as fit as fiddles and brown as nuts by this time and really enjoying life. It was too good to last all way to England. Most of the passengers and troops were good sailors long before we arrived at Singapore and so far we had had a perfect cruise. Often afterwards I have thought of that lazy perfect trip. It has almost a holiday to close the old eyes and just think of the grand days in the old Strath. Alas she has gone where many a proud ship went this war. She fell victim to a German sub somewhere off the Azores. Luckily she was not trooping at the time she stopped the “fish”.
Great was the disappointment when we learned we were to leave the Strath at Bombay. We had been sure we were going to England to rejoin our regiments but it seemed that Dunkirk had changed all that and now that Italy had come in against us we were more urgently needed in the Middle East. We disembarked near the Gateway to India at Victoria Dock and came to spend a happy six weeks between Bombay and Deolali, the oldest British military camp in India. Things were grim; I was left on board to supervise off loading of unit stores whilst the remainder went to be billeted at Braebourne Station, the holy of holies of Indian club and cricket life- such hardships!! A further blow waited, for when reporting ashore the next day I was informed that accommodation was strained at the club. Together with 3 other officers we would have to ‘slum’ it at the Taj Mahal Hotel. The Taj is the sort of place one dreams about or sees in Hollywood pictures. It was the equivalent of 6/- (say 7 1/2 rupees) for a whiskey and two bob (21/2 rupees) to have the top lifted off a small bottle of beer. I never did actually price how much the contents were!! Here I stayed for almost a fortnight (sleeping & meals only) reporting each morning and afternoon for parades and on conclusion getting in really fine trim in the tiled swimming pool at the Cricket Club of India (Braebourne Stadium) The club secretary was at the time organising the Championships for Western India and by invitation myself & another officer plus a relay team (of which we were two of the four) were entered in the championships. It was given wide publicity in Bombay and the local British Commandant, after inspecting our training (and us), decided we would do all right and OK’d us to swim. He also wangled every afternoon off for training. We played ball, trained hard and really got into good nick. It was rumoured he had a score to settle against the local club team who had thrashed his services team three years running and were very cocky about it. In any case he kept an eye on us and even appeared on several occasions with a worried aide with two stop watches to put us through our paces. He got more affable as the seconds came off our times and at last reckoned we had things sewn up, promising us a victory dinner (if we brought him home the bacon).
A week or ten days before events took place we were all sent to Deolali- up country. We were naturally disappointed at missing dinner and beer on the Commandant .On arriving we found out he had had the pool at the station cleaned out, whitewashed and filled & most afternoons reserved for HIS teams training swims. I heard later the locals had tried for ages to get the pool put into shape. Deolali was hill country and as well as swimming we roamed the hills with a gun and bearer. When he pointed out a game bird we did our best to knock it. We were often successful too. It was here that during a drive organised for visiting officers the beaters flushed out a large spotty cat about the size of an Airedale dog. It was too far to hit with a gun (I was too surprised anyway) so I just watched it streak off. I was told later it was a cheetah – the fastest animal on 4 legs in the world and that there were a few about. I always had a pocket of buck and BB shot after that, but never saw another.
We were sent down for the carnival and this time stayed at the Cricket Club, which was a close second to the Taj. The swimming eventually came off and the Aussie team won the open and medley relays, the 100yd sprint, backstroke and a close second in the 200yd open event. The old commandant was more than pleased & turned it on as promised. Training rules and conditions took a terrific bump that night. We hadn’t much longer to sojourn in Bombay and Deolali however and soon received warning orders for embarkation.
Before we left however we fitted in a terrific round of parties, played the Bombay Ducks water polo (& won Lord knows how!) Had a game of cricket on the holy of holies and lost. Even saw local cotton industries, Bombay duck (fish) being caught and dried and curry being made from a funny looking nut. Saw mangy old dogs asleep & worse on mountains of drying Bombay duck which put us right off same. I did like it until then too.
One trip we had heard about however and which we hadn’t made (for the simple reason it was strictly out of bounds to all troops and I don’t mean maybe!!) was Grant Road of great infamy. So off to our old friend the Commandant, who hummed and hawed, then gave us a provost escort and a vehicle.
Grant Road is the Red Light district of Bombay and a viler mile of squalor and vice I doubt exists in any other city in the world. Every place on both sides of the road for a solid mile is a joint. There is nothing concealed and the harpies are displayed in cages in the window fronts. No doubt a price tag is displayed somewhere handy. We saw more thugs, louts & hangdog characters there than I ever wish to see again. The whole place reeked of rottenness. We were glad of the escort, the vehicle and above all to get out but curiosity was squashed and the whole trip took no longer than 15 mins. We all felt like a good bath when we got back to quarters & had material for much solid thought and condemnation
The last few days were busy preparing for embarkation. Rolls and manifests, packing and final buying of articles of kit and clothing. All cotton goods were amazingly cheap and I had 2 officer pattern summer uniforms made for twenty-four shillings each. They were tailored into the bargain, hand sewn and fitted like a glove. The drill material couldn’t have been bought in Australia for three times the total cost of making.
At last we were ready, camp was closed and we were ready to take our next trip along the way to the “Big Adventure”.