The Greek Campaign
|Australian soldiers by the Acropolis|
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)
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)
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.
(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.
"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."
"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..."
"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.
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.
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
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
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.
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:CALAMITY BAY
(Many thanks to Miles Constable at Canadian Air Aces and Heroes
for the aircraft pictures.)
Evacuation from Greece
Return to top of page
Return to last page