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CHAPTER 4 – DISASTER IN GREECE AND CRETE

The defeat in France in 1940 was followed by the debacles in Greece and Crete in 1941 where the Pioneers suffered heavy casualties. When German forces pushed into the Balkans, invading Yugoslavia and threatening Greece, a joint British-Australian-New Zealand force was sent to support the Greek Army. Included were nine Cypriot companies in 66 group and seven Palestinian companies in 43 group. (In those days Palestinian companies were a mixture of Jews and Arabs).

This account is taken largely from Major Rhodes-Wood’s History.

‘The conditions of the companies left much to be desired. In seven of them the Company Commander had newly arrived from England and was without previous experience of Colonial troops, and in three of these the second-in-command was also a fresh arrival…All companies were without transport and there were inadequate communications between units and their Group Headquarters. Except for some of the Palestinians the Pioneers were unarmed, our losses in France having been so great that at that date the British Government could only provide rifles and ammunition to its front-line troops. No plans were prepared in advance should a concerted withdrawal become necessary.’ (1)

In the north of Greece, disaster began on 12th April 1941 when the enemy broke through near Larissa. An immediate retirement was ordered but the Pioneers had no transport and had to make their way south as best they could, discarding all equipment they could not carry. Some companies in imminent danger of being cut off received no warning of the enemy’s advance. The confusion and doubt caused by lack of information was increased by the appearance of groups of soldiers of the Greek army hurrying through their lines in disorder. Isolated detachments took to the hills where many of the Cypriots changed into civilian clothing and deserted.

607 and 1002 Companies suffered heavy casualties. 604 Company was surrounded by German armour but managed to break out and marched across country to Athens in good order. During this march Sergeant Catt brought down an enemy aircraft with his Bren gun when the unit was being attacked at low level.

An example of the confusion at Headquarters was the ordering of 1007 Company to proceed from Piraeus to Larissa even though that town had already been evacuated. The company arrived during an intense enemy air raid; and although the men dispersed into the surrounding fields many casualties were suffered. Some wandered off having lost contact with their unit in the confusion and made their way southward. The remainder entrained, but were ordered off again to load supplies for the Australians and New Zealanders who were holding the last rearguard positions. For a second time they endured intensive bombing and this time the men made their way into the foothills. Those employed on a huge supply dump which had been found unattended, kept to their work until the infantry were seen streaming through to the evacuation beaches. What was left of the company scrambled on to the last convoy and reached safety.

By 21st April 1941 the British had been pushed back to Thermopylae, and with the Greek army unable to support their left flank, a general evacuation of the country was ordered.

During the evacuation a detachment of fifty Pioneers from 1004 company were attached to 26 General Hospital. It had been moved from Athens to an open-air site at Megra; the 1,500 sick and wounded lying on the ground under trees by the roadside. The Pioneers helped to care for the patients and serve as water carriers. On the night of 27th April the hospital was evacuated by sea. Earlier in the evening the Pioneers had carried out an exercise to test the possibility of taking sick and wounded aboard ship by scaling ladders. After darkness fell the patients were loaded into lighters in groups of forty and from the lighters were guided, assisted and carried in the long climb up the ship’s side. Despite continuous air attacks and being hit, the ship limped into Suda Bay in Crete and the wounded were disembarked.

What remained of 603, 606, 1005, 1006 and 1008 companies embarked on 22 April on two small vessels, Julia and Pankration which sailed shortly after midnight. On the Julia only thirty rifles could be mustered and with these attempts were made to drive off a series of dive bombing attacks by enemy Stukas. After island hopping and surviving further air attacks the Julia eventually reached Suda Bay.

The Pankration was less fortunate. After surviving five air attacks at mast height, the senior officer on board, Major Murray, instructed the master to run for the nearest island, Melos. All troops and stores were safely ashore before the Pankration was sunk in a final air attack. At Melos, Captain E.W.Christie. M.C., and his second-in-command shot down two enemy aircraft with a Lewis gun before the former was killed. The remainder of the party was rescued by Royal Navy destroyers a few hours before the Germans occupied the island.

As the retreat continued all Pioneers who could be contacted were moved to the port of Nauplion for embarkation. They found the port had been unusable because a ship had round aground and blocked the harbour mouth. Of the 8,000 troops stranded at Nauplion, 2,000 were Pioneers. They were now ordered to make for the only available remaining port, Kalamati, on the other side of the Peloponnese Peninsula. The more fortunate got away by rail or caique, but the majority had to make the hundred-mile journey by road.

The troops at Kalamati had been divided into two forces, North and South, each about 8,000 strong. South Force was composed largely of the Anzac Corps. North Force, made up of mixed nationalities, included about 2,500 Pioneers, all that remained of 43 and 66 groups. It was commanded by Colonel Lister of 43 group. Kalamati was under constant heavy air attack and rapidly being reduced to a mass of rubble. The troops took what shelter they could in the surrounding countryside by day and converged on the beaches at night, in the hope of rescue from the sea. The greater part of South Force was evacuated during the night of 26th-27th April.

At a conference on the 27th, priorities were allocated for the embarkation of North Force. The order of evacuation was to be Anzac and British troops first, Palestinian Pioneers next and, last, Cypriot Pioneers. The Palestinians were given priority above the Cypriots because, being Jews, and many of them German Jews, they would get short shrift if they fell into enemy hands. The Cypriots could speak the language of the country and could disappear into the hills and merge with the civilian population.

By now Kalamati was under attack by German land forces. Pioneers joined New Zealanders in an infantry role to repel the attack.

At midnight on the 28th Colonel Renton, the senior Pioneer Corps commander remaining, was notified that further evacuation from Kalamati was impossible. The men should be directed to Monemvasia where embarkation by small boat would be attempted. About fifty men, the greater part wounded, were evacuated.

A conference of all commanding officers at 3.45 a.m. on 29th April was informed by the senior officer at Kalamati, Brigadier Parrington, that the situation was hopeless and that he had sent an envoy to the German divisional commander offering to surrender at 5 a.m. Protests by Colonel Renton and others that there was still time to save the men by dispersal, were overruled. At the end of the conference Colonel Renton told his Pioneer officers that he had no intention of surrendering and that they should let their men know that they were at liberty to attempt to escape - as he proposed doing. He suggested that they should move along the coast in parties of three or four and look for small boats in which to try to make their way to Crete.

Approximately 12,000 Imperial troops, many Pioneers, were taken prisoner at Monemvasia and Kalamati, but many of them took Colonel Renton’s advice and did escape.

The Greek campaign was an unmitigated disaster. Major Rhodes-Wood has this to say in his History.

‘As had been the case less than a year before in France the Army was being taught the lesson at a tragic cost, the cost of men’s lives being needlessly squandered, that its Pioneers must be treated as soldiers and armed as soldiers. When the men had been able to obtain weapons they rendered a good account of themselves, for the majority of them were not without experience of firearms. But the tragedy of the campaign was the demoralizing effect on unarmed men in combat areas with no chance of self-preservation or opportunity to retaliate. Company commanders, through no fault of their own, were out of touch with higher formations and had very little information with which to counteract the mass of rumours that frustrated every attempt to sustain the morale of their men. Of the original 2,500 Cypriots only 820 reached Crete. With the Palestinians the proportion of casualties was higher since for them the facility to disappear into the civilian population did not exist.’ (2)

The Pioneers who escaped to Crete were to endure further traumas. The remnants of the original sixteen companies were reorganized into three Cypriot companies and one Palestinian company. Major Murray was appointed to command all Pioneers on the island.

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Although the British had been on Crete for six months, little had been done to prepare its defence, largely because A.A. guns could not be spared from other fronts. Six successive commanders had been appointed to the island in as many months and when General Sir Bernard Freyberg took over, in April 1941, he had uncertain support from the Royal Navy, little from RAF, no artillery and indifferent stocks of ammunition .

After a week of continuous bombardment an attack by wave after wave of glider-borne paratroops began on 20th May. Palestinian Pioneers under Captain McCulloch and Cypriot Pioneers under Captain Fenn were sent to defend part of the line. The enemy aerial bombardment continued without lessening on the second day. 606 Company were pinned down for hours in their slit trenches. By 2 p.m. the last A.A. guns had ceased to fire and enemy planes came over at almost ground level, spraying the area with light cannon and machine-gun fire.

With the German advance continuing, a general retirement was ordered on 27th May but notification to the Pioneers was overlooked (again!). At 5 a.m. Major Murray called his officers and section commanders together and told them that the defence of Crete had come to an end and that the army was retiring to the south.

Ignorant of their destination, following blindly in the wake of the throng of troops hurrying southwards, parties of Pioneers set out on the road, the only road and little better than a cart track, that wound upwards over the mountain range which forms the spine of Crete. The weary men stumbled on over the discarded arms and equipment that covered every yard of the way, crowding to the verges to give passage to impatient transport. During every hour of daylight, the enemy air force flew backwards and forwards collecting their grim harvest as, without opposition, and almost at ground level, they emptied their guns into the retreating army,

Eventually the weary Pioneers reached Spakhia on the south coast. The only road to it passed through a narrow gorge at Imbros, a gorge that was defended by armed picquets and through which none were allowed to make their way to Spakhia and the evacuation harbour without an official pass. The small harbour could only accommodate two picquet-boats at the same time and evacuation was restricted to the period between midnight and 3 a.m. On 29th May Major Murray and the Pioneers were passed forward from Imbros to Spakhia but none got away that night, priority being given to front-line units. Major Murray then established his Headquarters in an olive grove in the upper village from where, for each of the four successive nights, he led his men down to the harbour where they joined the queue of those hoping to get passage to the ships lying offshore. Each night a few were fortunate but for the mass of the Pioneers there was only disappointment. On the fourth night Major Murray’s party got within a hundred yards of the harbour only to learn that the last boat had gone and the evacuation was over. For them the war, too, was over and there only remained the march back across the mountains as prisoners of war and years of incarceration.

Of the two Group Headquarters and sixteen companies which took part in the campaigns of Greece and Crete, some eighty per cent, about 50 officers and 4,500 men, became casualties. The greater part of the Pioneer corps in the Middle East had been lost.

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Notes

1.WHRPC p.97
2 ibid p.106