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Episodes & Studies Volume 1

The Mediterranean: Greece

The Mediterranean: Greece

WEIGHED DOWN under greatcoats, haversacks, valises (with blanket rolls bound round them), full web equipment, rifles, ammunition, water bottles, respirators, and in some cases kitbags as well, besides those few heart-breaking odds and ends that constitute the final straw (haversack rations no haversack will hold, ukuleles and cameras they were never intended to hold), the New Zealanders staggered on to the wharves at Alexandria and into the ships that were to take them to Greece. Straps (supporting, web) cut into their shoulders, their arms ached intolerably, and they answered the mocking questions of the Egyptian stevedores with less than their usual good humour.

To make sure that it would not be crippled before it saw action, the Division was divided into small parties, called flights, and in this way 16,500 men were brought safely to Piraeus, the port of Athens, in the spring of 1941, in ships of the Merchant Navy and the Royal Navy. Some of the earlier crossings were rough and one convoy was attacked by aircraft, bombs falling near the SS Barpeta, carrying Headquarters 6th Brigade, and setting fire to a tanker, but there was no real interference from the enemy. For this the Division could thank the Royal Navy, which had beaten the Italian Fleet at the Battle of Matapan (28–29 March).

In the crowded holds of merchant ships and on the mess decks of destroyers comfort was neither found nor expected. Anyway, the trips were short, the warships taking only about twenty-four hours and the slowest convoys not much more than a week. The men slept where they could in their clothes, washed where they could, and spent most of their time keeping an eye on their gear, which lay in contiguous heaps on all the decks.

The Division left Greece six weeks later—this time with only light luggage. At Raphena, Porto Rafti, Nauplion, Kalamata, and Monemvasia, sometimes with nothing but a rifle and what they stood up in, the troops shuffled on to the embarkation beaches in the pitch darkness and into the landing craft, too tired even to think. The landing craft took them to the Ajax, Griffin, Calcutta, page 28 Vampire, Voyager, Perth, Kingston, Glengyle, and other ships great and small, some of them merchantmen, and the sailors leant out of the darkness to help them up the last rungs of the ladders, relieved them of rifles and packs, handed them through blackout curtains, pointed the way they were to go, and went back to help more men aboard. The men, in torn and filthy battle dress, some with overcoats, some without, sat, crouched, or lay down in the brightly-lit mess decks. Sailors came round with hot cocoa and thick, bully-beef sandwiches, saying: ‘Take a couple, chum.’ Ave a fag. Make yourself at home at our place’. Then they went back to their watches above, or to their broken watches below, as they had been doing for days past, mocking with their levity and common sense all the tales of heroes at Trafalgar and Thermopylae.

Under bombs and machine-gun bullets, the ships went to Egypt or Crete, and a month later the men who had been in Crete came back at last to Egypt, again in ships of the Navy and Merchant Navy. This time they had less luggage than ever. They limped, strolled, swaggered down the gangways in the bright sunshine, boots cut to ease blistered heels and raw feet, and the sailors said: ‘So long, Kiwi. Be good, Snow. Bye, Bill’.

The soldiers met them later in the Fleet Club, but not all of them. Men were missing from most ships, and the cruisers Gloucester and Fiji, the anti-aircraft cruiser Calcutta, the destroyers Juno, Greyhound, Kashmir, Kelly, Hereward, Diamond, Wryneck, and Imperial, and the transports Ulster Prince, Costa Rica, Araybank, and Pennland were lost.