The Greek Campaign

Australian soldiers by the Acropolis


I do not intend to give more than a brief description of the ill-advised and ill-prepared involvement of British, Australian and New Zealand Armed Forces in the defense of Greece in April of 1941.

It was a political rather than a military decision to send troops from Egypt to aid the Greeks in the defense of their homeland against the Italians in Albania, and the Germans in Bulgaria.

However, in spite of many difficulties in transporting men and material over the primitive roads and rail network in northern Greece, a defensive position was set up across the Aliakmon River. This was considered secure as long as Yugoslavia remained neutral or was capable of resisting a German advance.

This proved to be a futile hope, as German infantry and armour crossed the Bulgarian border into Yugoslavia in early April. By the 8th they had achieved their objectives and were prepared to move south into Greece.

The Aliakmon Line was now in serious danger of being outflanked, and a new defensive position had to be hurriedly constructed. This merely served to delay the German advance for a few days despite fierce fighting. The few aircraft that the Allies possessed were destroyed at this time and, from then on, the Germans had total air superiority.

A successful defense was now considered impossible and the Allied tactics became a series of rearguard actions carried out under intense bombing to cover the withdrawal of the troops to the south, where they could be taken off the Greek mainland by ship.

The rapid advance of German forces was checked briefly at Mount Olympus, Thermopylae and Thebes, but only delayed the inevitable. By the 27th April, German units had entered Athens. The race was now on to evacuate as many troops as possible from the southern ports of Navplion and Kalamata.

Of a force of 100,000 men that had arrived in Greece in March, over 80% were got away safely. However, over 10,000 men were left on the southern beaches of Greece to face capture and four long years as prisoners of war.
Among them was my father.

Click here for a map of the campaign.

The first picture shows Sgt Eric Shaw, 3RTR on the Vevi Pass in April 1941 with a mixed group of British and Greek soldiers. Sgt Shaw went on to be a POW in Work Camps 924/GW, 1203/L and 2124/L (Thanks to Gordon and Gerry Shaw.) Second left on the same photo is SSM Tom Tasker, 4th Hussars, who was captured at Corinth and ended up in Stalag 344. (Thanks to John Dean, his grandson.) The second picture shows the Aliakmon River. It can be seen that the bridge in the middle distance has been blown. (Thanks to Janet Durbin.) The third picture was brought back by Gnr Jack Heckels, Northumberland Hussars, who was captured on Crete. (Thanks to Julie Turnbull, his granddaughter.)

The following two pictures were sent to me by Peter Watson, son of L/Bdr Tom Watson, Northumberland Hussars. The first shows Tom and two others visiting the Acropolis in Athens. The second shows Tom on the left and his friend Jack Poynter on the right, with a Greek soldier in Edessa. Jack Poynter was evacuated from Crete but killed in North Africa in late 1941.
(Thanks to Peter Watson for the information)

Click on either image to enlarge it.


The following two pictures were sent to me by Kevin Patrick, son-in-law of the late Corporal Pat Fury of the 4th Hussars. The drawing is of an air attack in Greece by what look like Me 110's. The photo is of a column of British POWs being marched through Gravia on their way to the Pass of Thermopylae.
(Thanks to Carole Mules for the information)

Click on either image to enlarge it.
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(According to Linda Watson, her father, Gilbert Bell, is the POW on the left of the third row.)

The following picture is dated 23rd April, 1941 and was taken in Athens. The soldier on the right is 'Stobs' (name unknown) a mate of Gnr D.I. Houston, RA. Both men ended up as POWs in Work Camp 11086/GW.

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(Thanks to Giselle McAndrew, daughter of Ian Houston, for providing the information.)

The following photographs were brought back by Gnr William Robinson, RA, father of Brent Robinson. The centre picture shows a mixture of Greek and British soldiers. Gnr Robinson was captured in Greece, spent some time in Work Camp 10030/GW, and was then transferred to Stalag 18C.

The first photo on the left below shows British POWs being held in the grounds of the High School in Navplion. The centre photo shows the High School in 2015. The last photo shows the 'Ulster Prince' which ran aground in the approach to the jetty at Navplion and so caused delay in getting British troops away from the harbour by the Royal Navy. (And coincidently led to my father becoming a POW for 4 years!) Thanks to Phil Evans.

Bert Jackson

"I was in the 3 Royal Tank Regiment. We were withdrawn from the Western Desert in February 1941 and shipped on the HMS Bonaventure to Piraeus in Greece. Our tanks and transport came later on the Clan Macauley and the Singalese Prince. Once they had arrived, we drove our tanks up to Athens and onto railway wagons. It took us two days and nights to travel up to Northern Greece. On arrival, we took up positions opposite the Monastir Pass on the border between Greece and Yugoslavia."

SSM Thomas Tasker, RAC (4th Hussars)

"Here it was I said good-bye to all and prayed hard as a bomb dropped four yds from myself and Cpl Walker but it failed to explode. However we went back with many visits from the Stuka's and the loss of all tanks of the 3rd Tank Regt through mostly track trouble. Our last bit of sport was blowing up the bridge in our area over the River Aliakmon with Capt Kennard, after doing out-post duties, for 24 hours without food and many scares at night..."

Fred Coulter

"I was in the Tank Regiment, a Gunner/Wireless Operator in a Mark VIB light tank. We first came into contact with the Germans in Northern Greece, when we were ordered to advance. I was manning the machine gun (the only armament on a Mark VIB) when we were hit, taking a round right on the machine gun. I was blown back into the turret and knocked out. When I came round, the front of my tunic was drenched and I thought, 'I've been hit, I'm covered in blood'...but then I looked down and saw that it was only the cooling water from the gun.

We baled out and ran. As I was running, I dropped my .45 revolver and stopped to pick it up. All around where it lay the dust was being thrown up by machine gun bullets. I decided to leave the revolver where it was."

The following accounts are taken from 'Tell Them We Were Here' by Edwin Horlington.

Sergeant Bob Avery, Royal Corps Signals

18th April, 1941. Around 5.30 am we were awakened to bombs, planes swooping down so low, we could see the pilots and 'red sparks' - bullets - coming among us. Those wounded were very bad, with large holes torn into their bodies, not like ordinary bullet wounds.

Larissa town was a shell. Bombing had continued on and off all day. D.R.'s (Dispatch Riders) told us of the thousands of troops - Australian, New Zealand, some Indian - all they had was whatever small arms ammunition they could carry. They were completely exhausted and shattered by the continued air bombing and very embittered by the lack of support, particularly in the air.

At 7 pm we move off. The convoy was endless, hundreds of vehicles. There were many cars and trucks on the roadside, wrecked from the bombing of the day. It started to rain as we were climbing up the mountainside, crawling up roads which seemed to wrap themselves onto the edge of the mountain. From the road we could see tiers and tiers of lorries, climbing and crawling on the road along the face of the mountain. It took six hours to reach the summit and we were continually only a foot from the edge.

The 2/6 Infantry Battalion at Corinth Canal

(From the Unit War Diary, supplied by Alan Raditz, son of Pte George Raditz, 2/6 Inf. Bn., AIF)

On the night 24/25 April 1941, 2/6 Bn was in convoy to evacuation ports. At approx 0300 hrs 25 April, about one and a half miles South of Corinth Canal bridge, Lt Col Wrigley, C.O. 2/6 Bn, ordered that "A" Coy (Capt. Dean O.C.) be detached from the main body to guard the bridge over the canal.

"A" Coy's strength was approx 110 officers and men. Its armament consisted of approx 1 rifle and 50 rounds S.A.A per man, 1 Thompson sub-machine gun and 250 rounds per section, 1 Bren gun per section (all Brens in unserviceable condition). The physical condition of the men was not good - mainly due to lack of rations and loss of sleep for nearly three days.

"A" Coy turned back, recrossed the canal, and debussed at LUTRAKI (phonetic spelling) station, which is approx 200 yds North of the Northern entrance of the bridge. The Coy then came under the command of an English Lt Col of the 4th Hussars, who had under command 1 medium tank, approx 4 Bofors and 3 or 4 heavy A.A. guns. It is believed that "A" Coy was to protect the bridge against a possible parachute landing, but platoons received no definite orders as to their task.

At approx 0800 hrs 25 April "A" Coy took up positions North of Corinth Canal. Coy HQ occupied a Greek slit trench near the station, No. 7 Pl (Lt Hunter), an old Greek slit trench N.W. of the bridge, No. 8 Pl (Lt Mann) built their shelters N.E. of the bridge, and No. 9 Pl (Lt Richards) dug in on the edge of the canal.

At approx 0900 hrs, No. 9 Pl took over traffic control of the bridge, No. 7 and 8 Pls rested for the remainder of the day until sundown, when the whole Coy stood to.

At 1900 hrs 3 Messerschmidt 110s, with engines cut off, hedge-hopped and straffed all troop positions, then bombed the A.A. batteries. One heavy A.A. gun was put out of action.

At 0600 hrs 26 April, 1 German bomber was sighted heading from the S.E. in the direction of the bridge. R.A. A.A. guns opened fire, and most men took cover in their shelters. At approx 0615 hrs large forces of Stukas dive-bombed and straffed all positions, putting all A.A. guns out of action. The suddeness and intensity of the attack left most men stunned.

After a short lull in the dive-bombing, huge formations of Ju52s came into sight and dropped about 2000 German paratroops on the position. After the paratroop attack, forces of glider troops landed South West of the bridge. There was no British organised resistance - individuals used up the ammunition available, whilst others were immediately taken prisoner. The suddeness of the attack and the unpreparedness of the British force left only one alternative - "Every Man for Himself".

Unknown to "A" Coy, there was a NZ Rifle Coy in the hills, who opened fire immediately and caused casualities among the paratroops.

At approx 0830 hrs, the bridge, which had been mined by the REs two days previously, blew up, killing about 20 paratroops on the bridge, and the German engineers who were neutralising the charges. No satisfactory reason can be given for the explosion.*

*Steve Plowman, son of Spr Arthur Plowman, 2NZEF, may have the answer.

I just stumbled upon the above account on your website and I think I can answer the question posed at the bottom of it as it fits with what my Dad told me about his capture near the Corinth Canal during this ill-fated campaign. The answer to why the bridge went up was that my Dad, accompanied by an Australian and a South African (all engineers) had helped mine the bridge with a large quantity of gelignite while other Kiwis in the 6th Field Company waited in the nearby hills. I suspect these were the New Zealanders referred to in the account above. They drew straws for who would push the plunger and the South African remained behind to blow the bridge while they got as far away as possible. He said he heard later the South African had been killed. Dad and the Australian were captured shortly after the bridge went up. I remember him telling me that the "sky was black" with German paratroopers.

Leading Aircraftsman Bryn Jackson, Royal Air Force

I know that the RAF came in for a lot of criticism but we had very few aircraft in Greece anyway. No match for the flood of German aircraft. We did hear that our Blenheims were very hard pressed and steadily shrinking in numbers, as were the Hurricanes. Not unexpected, as their efforts were spread out, partially assisting the Greek army and air force in pushing back the Italians to the Albanian border and beyond, and also in support of our troops defending the Florina Gap. The odds were just too great.

By the time I left Athens, our air activity had become almost zero due to steady attrition, as the troops knew all too well. Our Blenheims were very hard pressed indeed and suffered steady losses. I do not know if any Blenheims were flown out of Greece at the end. Certainly no Hurricanes escaped. The last six Hurricanes were destroyed on the ground the day after they flew in. Fifth columnists were suspected as the Germans knew exactly where they were in spite of good camouflage.

Sunderland flying boats picking up RAF personnel off Kalamata

Ernest Chapman, 3rd Royal Tank Regiment

We were now told that the Navy was coming to take us back to Egypt, but we should have to make our way to the south of the Peloponese to a place called Navplion, or alternatively Kalamata. We acquired some lorries belonging to various units and set off by night. All lights were banned and the journey was a complete shambles. Then at first light along came the Stukas to keep us company. They kept up their raids ceaselessly.

After taking shelter in lemon orchards and moving when we had the chance, we at last came to the area around Navplion. There was intense air activity going on at the time, with bombers, Stukas, 109's and seemingly anything that would fly joining in. Before long a hit was scored on the 'Ulster Prince' and she was set on fire. She was in the main channel into the harbour, so that meant the evacuation from Navplion was over.

A few of us set off back inland with the vague idea of going through the German lines. Alas we ran foul of a party of German paratroopers, and a couple of pistols are not a lot of use against fifteen or twenty Schmeissers. Discretion prevailed.

Driver Edmund Sharpin, Royal Army Service Corps

At Sparta I joined up with other troops also going south - to a port called Kalamata. The Hun had got into Kalamata and set up 88mm guns on the mole. Now the battle of Kalamata started on land. Short and sharp it was. Maybe two days, if I can remember.

I was ordered to volunteer to drive my wagon into Kalamata. I picked up about twenty very unusual characters, all 'volunteers', but one young Aussie could have been a mountain - about 6' 9" to 6' 10", maybe bigger. He carried a Boys Anti-Tank Rifle with a bayonet permanently wired to it and he fired this gun from his shoulder. There were also some Kiwis and K.R.R.C's (King's Royal Rifle Corps) with Tommy guns and Brens but not too much ammunition.

After all was made ready we charged down the road onto the mole. We sped down the mole, came to a sharp stop and out we jumped, firing at anything that moved. To me it seemed only minutes, but all was cleared except for a German officer, in between the wheels of the 88mm gun. Up came the Aussie Hulk with his Boys Anti-Tank Rifle and fired through the wheel. So ended a German captain's service to Hitler. With their hands up the rest of the Germans surrendered.

One thing now hit us. Our mouths were like cotton wool. Thirsty men and with no water around, we started to fight our way into the town and came to rest in a hotel-cum-bar on the front. I drank two bottles of beer straight down. I don't drink alcohol but I shall never forget those two gorgeous bottles of beer.

Then in swarmed the Hun and, for a period, street fighting was going good. But ammunition was short and tiredness beginning to show, also thirst. The cafe we were in was overrun by Jerry. I can't remember a lot about it as I had a bayonet wound to my chest. I was picked up by a Medical Corps man and taken to a field hospital. This was under German control. I was a prisoner of war now.

The most authoritative account of the Battle of Kalamata can be found the New Zealand Electronic Text Collection.

The Kalamata Memorial

In 1994, The Veterans of the Greek Campaign arranged for the dedication of a memorial to those who died or were captured in the Battle of Kalamata on 28 April 1941. The following pictures of the memorial were kindly supplied by Ian Raw, son of Sgmn R.L. Raw, Royal Signals, and were taken by a very kind soul from the Kalamata Tourist Office.

Signalman Fred Bundy, Royal Corps Signals

Fred was captured at Kalamata. He wrote this poem as a memento of the experience:


Way down south in Calamity Bay,
Sat 10,000 men who were trying to get away.
The Navy came and took away the sick and the ill,
While the rest of us crept back into the hill.
Boom, Boom, Batter, Batter went the guns
All day long as we lay perfectly still,
Hidden in the ditches of Calamity Hill.

All next day they repeated the dose,
The planes flew low and the bombs fell close.
Nightfall came and we assembled in the Bay,
But the ships that appeared all went away.
Dit, Dit, Dit, Dat, Dit, Dit, Dit
Dit, Dit, Dit, Dat, Dit, Dit, Dit
Oh! Hark to the cry of the wailing morse,
Where in the hell is the Royal Air Force?

Monday night was the finish of the fun,
Cause as well as the ships came the ruddy Hun.
Swim, said the Brigadier, swim if you like,
But I've had enough and I'm going to hike.
Bang, Bang, Crash, Smash, muck up MT
Push, Shove, Splash, shove stuff in the sea.
This we did without any fuss
Cause we've got the Dunkirk habit with us.

Tuesday morn we were prisoners of war
At least that's something we've never been before.
Life since then hasn't been too sweet,
With nothing to do and still less to eat.
Sleep, sleep, eat a little then sleep more,
Sleep, sleep, eat a little then sleep more.
Each day passes in the same old way,
To commemorate the chaos at Calamity Bay.

(Many thanks to Miles Constable at Canadian Air Aces and Heroes for the aircraft pictures.)

Some Got Away

This account is concerned with those men who were captured in Greece, but I feel that the following link is well worth visiting. It describes how the 2/1st Machine Gun Battalion, Australian Infantry Force got away from Kalamata on the SS Costa Rica. Their journey to Crete was eventful.

Evacuation from Greece

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