Page 1

The Fiery Phoenix Published by 2/7 Battalion Association 47 Fifth St., Parkdale, Victoria. 3194

the story of the 2/7 Australian Infantry Battalion 1939-1946 W. P. BOLGER& J. G. LITTLEWOOD edited by F. C. FOLKAND

The Fiery Phoenix Copyright reserved National Library of Australia card number and International Standard Book number 0 9593357 0 6 The publisher, the Battalion Association, has made every effort to ensure the accuracy of this history. However, in parts it has been necessary to rely on the memories of individuals, in some cases many years after the event. If any reader feels there are discrepancies we apologise. Further should it seem that an over-emphasis has been given to any subunit or individual please bear in mind that the book aims to be representative of the part played by the whole Battalion between 1939 and 1946. The preparation of this book would not have been possible without the patient encouragement and ever ready assistance given by the staff of the Australian War Memorial over a number of years, including the supply of official documents, histories and photographs and permission to publish therefrom. Typeset by Axiom Publishing Pty Ltd. South Melbourne. Victoria.

iv Printed by Renwick Pride Pty. Ltd. 53-57 Cambridge St., Collingwood, Victoria.


THE INFANTRYMAN

by Field Marshall Lord Waveil Let us be clear about these three facts: (1) all battles and all wars

are won in the end by the infantry; (2) the infantryman always bears the brunt; his casualties are heavier, he suffers extremes of discomfort and fatigue compared to other arms; (3) the art of the infantryman is less stereotyped and harder to acquire in modern war than that of any other arm. Vl

DEDICATION This war history of the 2/7th Australian Infantry Battalion is dedicated to every member of the Australian Imperial Forces who served in the ranks of this fine unit, for without them it would not have been written.

vii


Colour patch of 2/7 Battalion

"CEDE NUl.US"

The Battalion's Battle Honours North Africa, 1940-42 Bardia, 1941 Capture of Tobruk Greece, 1941 Middle East, 1940-44 Crete Canea 42nd Street Withdrawal to Sphakia South-West Pacific, 1942-45 Wau-Mubo I Bobdubiii Komiatum Maprik Yamil-Upulu Koboibus Kiarivu Liberation of Aust. New Guinea ix


CONTENTS Foreward page xix Preface page xxi Book One

Walker Chapter

Page

1. . ......................... From the Ashes . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 3 2........................... 'You'll be sorry' .......................... 5 3.......................... Pre-embarkation ......................... 12 4....................... Down to the sea in ships ...................... 19 5........................ Where Christ was born....................... 24 6....................... The land of the Pharoah ...................... 29 7....................... Let the battle commence ...................... 34 8................. And so commences the battle of Bardia ................ 37 9..................... The 2/7th's battle of Bardia .................... 42 10.................... Tobruk- before the Rats came ................... 49 11........................ On the road to Barce ....................... 53 12....................... Benghazi and beyond? ...................... 56 13.................. Return to the land of the Pharoah ................. 59 XI


CONTENTS Chapter

Page

14...................... To the land of the Spartan ..................... 63 15.................... The drivers- this was their fate ................... 68 16. . ................. One of the Grecian Greyhounds .................. 73 17. . ........................ The Costa Rica . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 78 18....................... The Brigadier reports ...................... 100 19................. Crete- The ones that got away- No 1 ................ 106 20................. Crete- The ones that got away- No 2 ................ 111 21................. Crete- The ones that got away- No 3 ................ 114 22................. Crete- The ones that got away- No 4 ................ 118 23................. Crete- The ones that got away- No 5 ................ 121 24................. Crete - The ones that got away - No 6 ................ 132 25............ People of Crete- The 2/7th Battalion salutes you ........... 137 26...................... Into the bag- officer style..................... 138 27.................... Into the bag- other rank style ................... 146 28................... If at first you don't succeed- try .................. 149

xii


CONTENTS Book two

Guinn Chapter

Page

29..................... The re-birth of a Battalion .................... 161 30.............. The Battalion is born again- now for Syria ............. 164 31.. .................... A Syrian white Christmas ..................... 168 32.................... Re-supply by Bren gun carrier ................... 172 33........................ The Walls of Jericho ....................... 174 34................. The 2/7th returns again to Palestine ................ 177 35..................... Fare thee well- Holy Land .................... 179 36..................... Going home- the long way .................... 181 37................... Ceylon- after the tension eased .................. 186 38.................. Shall Johnny come sailing home? ................. 190 39......................... Home is the hero ........................ 193 40.................... North to the 'friendly' jungle ................... 196 41.................. The carriers and their fate at Buna ................. 201 42......................... Buna report No 1 ........................ 204 43......................... Buna report No 2 ........................ 208 44......................... Into battle- by air ........................ 211 45......... The 2/7th Battalion is out on- 'Rest and Roadmaking' ........ 224 46..................... The New Guinea mule train .................... 231

xiii


CONTENTS Chapter

Page

47...................... The medical story of Wau..................... 233 48....................... On the road to Salamaua ..................... 236 49................ :. From the hot war to the paper war ................. 247 50..................... The Bena Bena Force report. ................... 259 51......................... The Pimple erupts ........................ 257 52..................... Relief - Rest - Roadmaking .................... 263 53................ The 2/7th and the battle for Salamaua ............... 266 54. . .................. Salamaua and the end is near ................... 277 55......................... Walking wounded ........................ 283 56. . .................... The mainland and leave ..................... 287 57....................... The 'minstering medic' ...................... 293 58................ Reforming- reinforcements- retraining ............... 295 59................... Training and still more training .................. 299 60.................. A change is nigh- farewell Henry ................. 305 61. . ...................... Australia to Aitape ....................... 308

xiv


CONTENTS Book three

Parbury Chapter

Page

62......................... Defence of Tadji ........................ 315 63....................... Touring the Torrecellis ...................... 320 64...................... Maprik - before and after ..................... 327 65....................... Hayfield landing strip ...................... 338 66.................... On to Yamil- Lone Tree Hill ................... 341 67...................... Relief and back to Aitape ..................... 348 68................... Medical report- Balif- Maprik .................. 350 69.......................... Operation Tojo ......................... 355 70...................... The beginning of the end ..................... 359 71........................ As it was in the end ....................... 367 72. . ................ The surrender of General Adachi ................. 374 73.......................... The aftermath ......................... 379 74........................ The order of the day ....................... 386 75........................... The epilogue .......................... 388 XV


List of Appendixes Appendix A ............. Roll of Honour: those who gave their lives ............. 394 Appendix B ....................... Wounded in Action ....................... 400 Appendix C ........................ Prisoners of War ........................ 408 Appendix D ...................... Honours and Awards ...................... 416 Appendix E ......................... Nominal Roll ......................... 420

List of Maps The Western Desert battlefields of the 2/7th Battalion from Halfya Pass to El Aghela The rearguard action of the 2/7th Battalion in Greece Battle sites of the 2/7th Battalion in Crete. Rearguard action of 2/7th Battalion from Suda Bay to Sphakia in Crete Map showing the Aitape-Wewak area where 2/7th Battalion was engaged with the enemy until his surrender

List of Figures The battle of Bardia showing positions of the 2/7th Battalion The battle for Tobruk showing the positions of the 2/7th Battalion in the last phase The sites of the 2/7th Battalion's battles in Papua-New Guinea from Wau to Salamaua

xvi


List of Illustrations Lieutenant-Colonel T.G. Walker DSO, ED Padre Rex Dakers The Governor of Victoria receiving the salute of the 17th Brigade outside Melbourne Town Hall before the brigade's embarkation for the Middle East theatre The Battalion marching through Melbourne on its return from the Middle East theatre, Lt-Col Guinn leading Brigadier Savige, Lieutenant-Colonel Walker, and Captain Savige on board Strathaird Corporal Jock Taylor, mentioned in Chapter 14 Sergeant Reginald Saunders, mentioned in Chapter 24 Captain F.A. Reiter, mentioned in Chapter 40 Padre Paddy O'Keefe and WO I Jock Syms LieutenantColonel P. K. Parbury DSO, MC Surrender flag, Wewak Japanese commander General Adachi negotiating the surrender of his forces in presence of Lieutenant-Colonel Parbury and Captain St. Elmo Nelson General Adachi s-urrendering his sword at Wewak to the GOC 6th Australian Division on September 13th, 1945 XVll

FOREWORD By Colonel Henry G. Guinn DSO.ED. The 217th Australian Infantry Battalion was raised and trained by Colonel Theo G. Walker DSO.ED. at Puckapunyal in Victoria. It embarked on Aprill5, 1940


and went to Palestine for training; thence to Egypt where it took part in the first Desert Campaign, receiving its baptism of fire at the battle for Bardia, followed by the pursuit of the enemy along the north coast of Africa as far west as Marsa Brega on the Gulf of Sirte. It took part in the campaign of Greece and later in the disastrous battles to save the island of Crete. The battalion fought valiantly throughout the numerous battles in Crete, but to no avail. The Allied Command in Crete was forced to a capitulation which included more than 700 personnel of the 2/7th Australian Infantry Battalion. In the words of Major Harry Marshall, "All our efforts and skills were wasted".

The 217th Battalion reformed in Palestine and, to my delight, I was appointed its new commander. Our motto from that time on was, 'We shall avenge'. After service in Syria, training in the Dead Sea areas in Palestine and a watchdog role in what is now Sri Lanka, the battalion moved back to Australia to prepare for campaigning in the mountains and swamps of New Guinea. The New Guinea campaign proved how quickly the Australian soldier could adapt himself from open warfare to the close-type warfare forced on him by the terrain. The first New Guinea operations included the battles of Wau- MuboBobdubi Ridge - Salamaua. The second campaign was carried out by the battalion under the command of Lieutenant Colonel Phillip K. Parbury DSO.MC. who had previously served with distinction in the 2/3rd Australian Infantry Battalion. xix The Battalion fought right through until the Japanese capitulated. Its exploits through the Torricelli ranges brought further glory to its fine record. This is the story of a fine and gallant unit. XX


PREFACE On being asked by the committee of the 2/7th Australian Infantry Battalion Association to write the history of this fine unit, I deemed it an honor to carry on with the work commenced by Captain William P. Bolger MBE. I have made full use of the research material Bill put together and it is sad that he will not see the finished product. He died on December 24, 1975 In explanatory notes to his first draft of book one, Bill explained how the War History Sub-committee wanted the task carried out: "It was agreed that the history should be a family story of the unit from its formation to its disbandment, covering its day-to-day activity as such and not necessarily merely a rehash of the official history volumes already published or are about to be published. It was anticipated that a large amount of personal papers, stories, diaries, etc., would be available and that the proposed history would be written around this material so submitted; this, however, was not so as little usable material in any form has been submitted. "I have been forced to resort to the use of the battalion war diaries as a base for the history rather than, as anticipated, as a guide to correct dates etc. I have too quoted direct from these diaries at length. Many hundreds of hours of research into these and other sources have been spent in the last 18 months or so and in preparation of the first part of the history. "I have endeavored throughout to avoid criticism of any persons, either dead or alive, for their actions or orders. I consider that such criticism, whether justified or not, should not be recorded in a work of this nature so many years after the event. On the other hand, I have tried to give praise where warranted. I have made no attempt to justify the reasons for political or tactical employment of the battalion; nor do I consider that such should be attempted by us". When I read through Bill's notes I decided to stick to the same policy. In order to do this, I relied on my memory of things that had happened so long ago. As each thought came to mind, I contacted the person or persons whom I considered xxi to be the main characters in the event and asked them to submit their stories. In nearly every case, I received the utmost co-operation. Among the many I would like to thank for the work that they did for me I must place Charlie Downing, George Foot, Frank Hall, Russ Savige, Harry Rutley, Geoff Ruddick, Lofty Reynolds, Alby Street and his son, Chook Fowler, Cec Wilton, Bruce 'Doc' Petersen, Pat Boland, W. 'Randy' Wilcocks and Norm Duell. I must also thank my son Robert for all the work that he put in for me, the things that he contributed to ease the load of work. To Graham Moore, from Crawford Productions, for giving me that copy of 'Crete, one man's story', and, last but not least, I would like to thank my wife Marie who put up with me and the tic-tac of my typewriter over the past three years. J.G. 'Jack' Littlewood XXll


Book one Walker Lieutenant-Colonel T.G. Walker DSO, ED.

BOOK ONE

WALKER

CHAPTER 1

From the ashes... The Phoenix, that mythical bird which refused to die and kept rising from the ashes, came immediately to mind when this book was being prepared for publication. 'Mud over Blood' --the name given to the 2/7th Battalion of the AIF-- may well describe what the men experienced in New Guinea, where both were far too familiar. But it also belonged to those who served in the original battalion, the one that fought for Australia in World War 1. Somehow, although it described the color patch the two wore, 'Mud over Blood,' it doesn't fit those who fought a different kind of war. For these men of the 2/7th came from another generation and a country whose aspirations, ideals, and loyalties had changed from the beflagged days that marked the glories of the British Empire. But they inherited from the first AIF 7th Battalion an invaluable spirit which, although immeasurable, became part of their being. That elusive 'esprit de corps' --a tribute to their fathers and others who had served in World War 1-- was, even to the most cynical among them, ever present. It carried them through the long days of training, the 'wait and see' periods, the wondering what would happen and when and, very specially, where they finally got into battle. It was with them during their first successful meeting with the enemy in the Western Desert and it did not leave them during the debacle in Greece and the collapse in Crete. They wanted to fight and keep on fighting --but the Grecian disaster could have ended that ambition. On Crete, most became prisoners of war. A few, using courage and wile, lived for months before finally escaping. There was very little indeed left of the battalion which, although part of the surrendering force, had not been beaten in battle.

3 CHAPTER ONE

FROM THE ASHES

It could almost have been written off. But it was not. Like the mythical bird, it rose from those ashes to become again a well-trained, enthusiastic fighting force, proud of its traditions and anxious to create more. The Western Desert, Palestine, Syria, Ceylon, back to Australia and then into the New Guinea jungle to meet another 'invincible' enemy, the Japanese. They were asked to do the impossible, such as moving against Japanese fortified defences in open-top bren gun carriers trying to do the work of tanks. They did it. They experienced almost every type of terrain war can offer: the hot sands and storms of the desert; the ice and snow of Syria; the monsoons of Ceylon; the steep ridges, jungle, kunai grass and fast rivers of New Guinea. This is the story of the men of the 2/7th Infantry Battalion.

4


BOOK ONE

WALKER

CHAPTER 2

''You'll be sorry'' In a voice matching the melancholy of the times, the Australian Prime Minister, Robert Gordon Menzies, announced on September 3, 1939, that his country had joined Great Britain in declaring war on Nazi Germany. Twelve days later, the force to become known and respected as the 2nd AIF was launched. It was to begin with one division and auxiliary units formed by 20,000 volunteers and serving soldiers. Thus was born the 6th Australian Infantry Division, soon to be commanded by Australia's most experienced and forceful military strategist, Major-General Sir Thomas Blarney. It would comprise initially three brigades, each of four infantry battalions numbered from one to 12 and with the prefix '2' to distinguish them from existing militia battalions, and to which belonged the battle honours of the corresponding units of the old AIF. The 2/7th came into being --along with the 2/5th, 2/6th and 2/Sth battalions-as part of the 17th Australian Infantry Brigade, known as the Victorian Brigade and under the command of Brigadier Stanley G. Savige. On October 23, Lieutenant-Colonel Theo G. Walker, commanding officer of the 24th/39th militia battalion, was named commander of the 2/7th. A 39-yearold 'new generation' officer, he had served continuously with the Citizen Military Forces from their inception in the early 1920s. Two days later, Lieut-Col Walker established his new battalion's HQ at the Melbourne Showground and the first volunteers to become part of the 2/7th Australian Infantry Battalion, 6th Australian Division, 2nd Australian Imperial Force, were accepted. He entered a scene all-too-familiar with allies in World War ll. The army authorities in Victoria were unprepared for the recruitment, reception, clothing,

5

CHAPTER TWO

"YOU'LL BE SORRY"

feeding or equipping of such a large force. Recruiting offices opened in September to take down particulars of volunteers --and then sent them home to await news of whether they were acceptable. Not until October were they ordered to report to their nearest area office for medical examination and attestation. They were told that, if accepted, they would have to report to camp on the same day. In most cases, this was only 48 hours' notice. And, the pink form said, they would have to bring with them personal articles, the cost of which would be paid. However, not one member of the 217th has reported being reimbursed. And for those who, full of zeal, had left comfortable homes, the early recruits found that everything within the showgrounds at Flemington was either badly equipped or under-staffed. It would be kind to call the messing primitive. To avoid the food --particularly that for the evening meal-- most of the new soldiers climbed the wall and went to the city or to their homes for things more edible. The answer, of course, was to engage outside caterers until the army was equal to the task but, in spite of continual grousing, it was 'take it or leave it.' Many left it. Because no training equipment was available, whatever took place was extremely elementary, although the non-commissioned officer instructors from the permanent army did whatever they could do diligently.


A token issue of fatigues and boots could be made to a very small number and the average recruit continued to wear clothes he had brought to the camp --but with no place where they could be laundered. Respect for military authority was not exactly high. One squad commander took his recruits on a route march which halted outside a hotel for a 'quickie.' On re-forming, the commander was asked by one wit if he could break off for 'a second.' The 'second' had no toilet connotation: it was for his second one in the pub. A hastily-formed garrison battalion guarding the entrance to the camp became over-officious in putting the recruits into the guard-house after a meal or unofficial ales in the city. But they were learning fast, how the army operated: undetected entry became possible through a private gateway opened by a sympathetic showground official. They also learned something else at the showgrounds --the army habit of standing idle for hours waiting for something to happen but which seldom did. Then came the news that the whole 17th Brigade, plus its complement of artillery, engineers and other units, would move to the new, partly completed camp at Puckapunyal, near Seymour. The first officers of the 217th Battalion to assemble at the showgrounds were Captain G.H. (Harry) Halliday, and Lieutenants A.E. Bamford, J. J. Hutchinson, Ian Manson, and J. 0. Wicking.

6

BOOK ONE

WALKER

In a muster parade at the Showgrounds on October 28, the unit commanders selected their men. Those who wished to serve in technical units or special ser- vices were fallen out. Those left were allocated to the Poor Bloody Infantry. Hardly in line with modern methods of psychologically and scientifically picking men most suited for a particular job --but that was the army in 1939. The 2/7th was allocated squads of recruits from the Mildura-Robinvale area, where the 7th Battalion, CMF was located, and the Sale-Maffra area, and from city areas such as Caulfield, Malvern, Hawthorn, Camberwell, Box Hill, Oakleigh and Dandenong, which comprised the lOth Brigade training area. They included dairy and wheat farmers, sheep hands, owners of stations, rouseabouts and tar boys, salesmen, bank and insurance clerks, carpenters, drivers, blacksmiths, chefs and even a hotel owner --a very real cross section of the com- munity. On this parade, most of those early recruits first saw their commanding officer, Lieut-Col Walker, and were favorably impressed. Walker, short, dapper, precisely-spoken would, in the true Australian tradition, be known as 'Myrtle' -- with all the affection that can be accorded to the 'old man' by those under his command. Aged 39, Lt-Col Walker was at that time Victoria's youngest C/0 in the 2nd AIF. He had succeeded Stanley Savige in command of the 24th Battalion C.M.F. in 1935, and was one of the few C/O's who had been too young for the First AIF. More officers for the battalion began to arrive at the Showgrounds camp. Among them was Captain R W (Bob) Knights, later to become a major-general in the post-war regular army. An Australian Staff Corps officer, he became the 2/7th's first adjutant. Others were Majors H G Guinn --later to command the unit-- and H CD Marshall and Captain J A (John) Bishop, who also became a major-general, commanding the 2nd Division in the post-war CMF. Lieutenant W H McCorkell came from the 24th/39th battalion and Captain D I A Green -- fated to die in act-ion-- came from the 37th. The battalion advance party --Captains Green and Knights and Lieutenants Bamford and Hutchinson, WO First Class Steve Bernard and 20 ORs-- reached Puckapunyal in heavy rain on November 3. Nobody expected much and were not disappointed. The site --poor brown, heavilystoned, sparsely-grassed soil carry- ing stunted scrub and gums but nevertheless excellent merino country-- was streaming with mud and water and far from idyllic. And 15 of the huts in a partly completed block allocated to the 2/7th were occupied by civilian workers. Puckapunyal --generally accepted as the Aboriginal word for 'death to the eagle,' and therefore prophetic-- was to be the 2/7th's home for the next five months. There were no roads, the only water came from a small creek, the nearest railhead was 11 kilometres away,


and there could be no hopping over the fence for a meal or a drink. The huts were unlined, unpainted corrugated iron sheeting with lift-up shutters of iron instead of windows --but they did have wooden floors. 7

CHAPTER TWO

"YOU'LL BE SORRY"

The rain went, the grass disappeared and fine dust took over, seeping inexorably into everything and, while the men did not think of this, an augury of the coming Western Desert. It got into clothing, eyes, ears, food and caused a mild irritation of the larynx still known as 'Pucka throat'. Today, Puckapunyal is one of the main military training camps in Victoria with splendid barracks, married quarters and amenities, grassed and garden areas, sports grounds and a swimming pool. Some of the original tin huts remain, but they have been painted, lined and modernised to blend with a background of planted trees. In 1959, the 2/7th Australian Infantry Battalion Association erected near the main entrance a memorial to their fallen comrades in the form of a uniquely-designed shelter pavilion. Each year, on the Sunday nearest to the anniversary of the unit's foundation, members pay tribute at a moving wreathlaying ceremony to honor those who fell in battle. On November 5, the CO and Majors Guinn and Marshall arrived at the camp. The battalion's posted strength was then 10 officers and 21 ORs, but next day the first draft of 130 militia enlistees came and were formed into six squads. The Militia non-coms were granted acting ranks one lower than that which they held in the militia. A further 11 ex-militiamen arrived on November 8, followed two days later by the first draft of 110 civilian recruits from the showgrounds. The posted strength had now reached 10 officers and 272 other ranks and the CO allotted personnel into their companies to give the battalion shape. Officers commanding companies appointed were: A Company, Major H G Guinn; B Company, Captain J A Bishop; C Company, Captain W V Miller; D Company, Captain D I A Green; and HQ Company, Major H W D Marshall. Lieutenant Hutchinson became quartermaster for a few months but, granted compassionate leave, did not return to the unit. Warrant Officer Class 2 S Fletcher became regimental quartermaster sergeant. Another draft came from Melbourne on November 11 and, the next day, Major B J (Nunc) O'Loughlin, Lieutenants J 0 Wicking, W H McCorkell, J N Eddy and Ian Manson marched in with 76 recruits plus eight PMF sergeants on loan as instructors in basic training. The battalion strength rose to 13 officers and 434 ORs, with Major O'Loughlin becoming 2 IIC. One draft to arrive would scarcely have created concern in the enemy's mind. It detrained at Seymour and walked --it could hardly be called marched-- the 11 km to Puckapunyal, most still wearing civilian clothes and shoes (worn thin by drilling on Melbourne's bitumen) and carrying a varied assortment of suitcases or travel bags. The only thing to restore what little faith they now had in the army was the arrival of a battalion party supplying a hot meal and tea from a 1914vintage mobile kitchen drawn by a horse! The army cared, it really cared --what a surprise! On arrival they were met by the regimental sergeant major, Steve Bernard, and were impressed by his display of quiet efficiency --and again were shown that the army was not entirely heartless. Company commanders selected personnel 8

BOOK ONE

WALKER

already known to them, or known to their NCOs or draftees already there, and friends were able to join each other without being told, 'you go here and you go there'. Major Guinn, for example, walked up to one of the new arrivals and said, "Bill, I need a company quartermaster sergeant --and you're it"-- and Bill Bolger was inducted into the 2/7th.


Whatever else it was called during periods of exasperation, the raw recruits had reached their home in the 2/7th and many of them would remain with it for the next five years. By their efficiency and thoughtfulness, the early members of the unit had given those recruits their first insight into that most delicate, and yet iron-strong, phrase, 'pride in your unit: esprit de corps,' It began to grow steadily even though the men --still without uniforms or accoutrements-- grubbed out trees and dug drains, attended brigade church parade and did odd jobs around the place, chasing flying paper through the rising dust. After General Blarney inspected battalion lines on November 15 --it was the first time they had seen the famous soldier destined to become Australia's first Field Marshal-- small drafts continued to arrive bringing the strength to 16 officers and 466 ORs and to about half its war establishment. The unit's first transport --to the subdued cheers of the troops-- arrived: riding horses for the CO, the 2 I/C, company commanders and the adjutant. Ironic cheers also greeted several medium draughthorses pulling 1914limbers --not quite the type of vehicle being prepared for the Nazis' blitzkreig on its enemies ... Bill Dunn, George Congress, Joe Oakes and Frank Hall became 'drivers, horse transport' and along came three motor trucks to be used mainly for collecting stores from ordnance depots in Seymour and Melbourne and not, at this stage, for training MT drivers. The 2/7th's first regimental medical officer, Captain R Godby, arrived on November 17 to open the next day the unit's RAP. Before being taken prisoner in Crete, Rus Godby gave outstanding service to the battalion during training and in action. Approachable, kind but firm, he had no hesitation in arguing forcibly for the unit's rights and medical needs. First RAP orderly was Alan Naismith, who was to become famous in the unit, not for his healing of wounds but as a causer of them after he invented the 'Naismith booby trap'. Things were settling down. On November 10, the Regimental Institute was opened in the recreation hut, under the presidency of Major O'Loughlin with Major Marshall, Padre Rex Dakers, A A Buchanan, AN Palmer, B L Geeves, J C Harren and H Henningsen. Acting Corporal Jim Walker --later to be commissioned and reach the rank of major with the 2/6th-- became chief steward. Profits from the sale of confectionary, biscuits, cigarettes, tobacco, soft drinks and toiletries went to buy crockery and cutlery for the men's messes --in place of the regulation tin plates and cutlery drawn from mob siding at Seymour-- sporting equipment and other items required by the battalion. The Regimental Institute was the forerunner of the unit canteen, but it was not until Palestine that the Australian Army Canteen Service began to function.

9 CHAPTER TWO

"YOU'LL BE SORRY"

The meaning of war became a little clearer when, on November 20, the battalion received its first issue of rifles and bayonets. But, as anticipated, they were of the old type, well-used and very greasy, requiring many hours of cleaning to make each look as if it meant business. But, as experienced during the whole of World War II, there were never enough pullthroughs or flannelette to keep them clean. Other weapons, Vickers machine guns and Lewis light machine guns came, as well as welding equipment of the'1908' pattern and, like the rifles, very knocked about and well-used. But still no uniforms or sufficient working clothes -although the sleeping huts now had electric light and work started on levelling a sports area. Before Brigadier Stanley Savige's first formal inspection of the 2/7th and its lines, the rookies had their first taste of an Emu Parade. Everything that even remotely resembled a broken match --though it might be a gum-twig-- was removed...or maybe kicked under a friendly stone. By November 15, battalion strength had risen to 16-570 and a sports committee was formed comprising Major O'Loughlin, Padre Dakers, as his deputy, and A J Cox, A Coy; M A Tully, B Coy; F L Bruton, C Coy; A Collis, D Coy and WAllen, HQ Coy.


The soldier's life became more enjoyable as inter-platoon, inter-company and inter-unit competitons in cricket, football, hockey, basketball, athletics and swimming were organised. The 3rd Military District bandmaster, Captain H Shugg, arranged during a visit on November 27 to form the 2/7th's brass band by providing qualified players and instruments. This band was to win the 6th Australian divisional championship in 1940 in Palestine and much of its success was due to its band sergeant, Arthur Trahair. Another 116, to bring battalion strength to 17 officers, 686 other ranks, 29 horses (15, riding; 14, working), arrived for the night of the first concert party in the new CWO hut. These were to continue through the battalion's encampment. Another great attraction in those early days was Barton's Follies, a non-army vaudeville show with an appropriate 'blue note' which performed in a large marquee and gave 'up the alley' to the Australian vocabulary. Another form of entertainment was provided by a caravan of females but they were soon forbidden to come near the camp; and the Two-Up kings launched the inevitable swy game. These examples of normality in army life must have got through to the authorities: uniforms and other service clothing began to appear. Very imposinglooking issue cards were made out for individuals to present at the Company Q store. And, as usual, they caused quite a stir between the Q man and the pay sergeant who had to make deductions for items lost, stolen or strayed, and the soldier concerned. The uniforms lived up to that old army saying: 'There are only two sizes: too big and too small.' If the jacket fitted, the sleeves were too long. If the slacks were the right length, they were either too tight or too full around the waist. And, very often, if both pants and jacket fitted, they were of different shades of khaki. 10


BOOK ONE

WALKER

So a second hand sewing machine was bought out of regimental funds for the use of the regimental tailor, Sergeant W Rawlings, who soon became the busiest man in the unit lines making uniforms look right. But, for weekend leave, the men swapped jackets and pants with each other so that they could look as much like a soldier as possible, particularly when on Sundays their relatives visited the camp. Things became more serious during the last weeks of November and the early weeks of December. Training became more advanced with platoon and company manoeuvres, day and night. Constant inspections were carried out by battalion and brigade commanders, the brigade major and other senior officers from Head- quarters 6th Australian Division and Southern Command. A steady exodus of members to specialised courses began, the first to go being Captain John Bishop, to the Command and Staff School in Sydney; Lieutenant Wicking and three NCOs to the Small Arms School at Randwick, NSW; Lieute- nant Eddy and eight NCOs to the Southern Command School; and Sergeant Fred Bailey to the Sergeant Cooks and Caterers' School at the AASC School. Poten- tial officers were selected for a junior leaders school, the forerunner of the OTS and OCTUs. The first other rank to be commissioned in the unit was announced on December 4 when Sergeant M W Cramp was promoted lieutenant and ap- pointed regimental signals officer. 11

CHAPTER THREE PRE-EMBARKATION CHAPTER 3

Pre-embarkation Rumors of where the brigade would meet the war flew as fast and as thick as Puckapunyal's spring flies. They buzzed incessantly as Captain D I A Green, and Warrant Officer Wally Angus went on pre-embarkation leave on December 8. They joined the advance party of the Australian Overseas Base, 2nd AIF, and sailed on December 15 for the Middle East on the Strathallan. Captain Bamford became OC D Coy. 'Security' about the actual destination of the battalion was stressed, stressed again and then reiterated. Lectures, posters, constant reminders about the dangers of loose talk and so on. But, when members of the battalion's Q staff picked up clothing and stores from Melbourne bases, crated goods were standing --in full view of the passing public-- boldly stencilled, 'Aust Overseas Base, Port Said'. The soldiers of the 2nd AIF were later to learn that, no matter how hard Divison tried to prevent information leaking out, someone always managed to break the secret by some careless action. The Brigade HQ Intelligence Section was, on December 9, attached to the 2/7th for basic infantry training --a welcomed compliment indeed from the brigadier. Obviously, things were about to move and the men got rid of some of their pentup energy by holding, two days later, the Puckapunyal boxing championships under the guidance of the battalion's 'fighting padre', Rex Dakers. Young 'Meggsie' McDonald --later to be commissioned and die in action-- trained vigorously and did particularly well. Some blood was let: but it had been all 'spit and polish' the day before for an inspection of the unit lines and training by the then Governor-General, Lord Gowrie VC, who was keenly interested in the progress of the 17th Brigade Group. On this day, the battalion officially became a rifle battalion comprising a HQ


with the C/0, 2 1/C, adjutant, intelligence officer, and the Int section, the RSM with the orderly room sergeant and clerks, the regimental police, RMO and RAP 12

BOOK ONE WALKER staff with the band as stretcher bearers, a HQ company with a HQ and six platoons, signals, anti-aircraft, mortar, carrier, pioneer and administration, which was divided into two sections --transport and Q-- with the QM, RQMS and staff and also the technical staff. There were to be four rifle companies each with a HQ and three rifle platoons. The platoons were to be numbered from 1 to 6 in HQ company and from 7 to 18 in the rifle companies, commencing with A company. The battalion had been trained in the new 'threes' drill in anticipation of the change-over. One result, however, was the loss to the battalion of a number of the medium machine gun platoon personnel, including Lieutenant Manson and Sergeant Gordon, to the newly-formed 2/lst Australian Machine Gun Battalion. The 2/7th had its first TAB and anti-tetanus injections on December 13 --and Lieutenant W .H. McCorkell passed out during the inoculation parade. It took many months for him to live the episode down. Dental treatment followed. Private J .H. Kennedy took temporary charge of the band --to produce weird and wonderful noises-- and the battalion had a comfortable win at cricket against a Seymour team. Twenty budding 2/7th drivers began their motor transport course while the draught horses --and possibly the 1914 War limbers-- looked on nostalgically. Nostalgia also arrived with the first visit by about 30 members of the first 7th Battalion Association, among them Mr. Stanton who came from Echuca to see his son, Fred, in A Company. The visitors were led by 'Doc' Gutteridge, the association president, and Bill Jamieson, elder brother of the orderly room sergeant, Bob. From them, the second-seventhers learned a great deal about the traditions of the battalion in the 1st AIF and gained more pride in wearing the same color patch that had won honors in Gallipoli and in France. Although the 2/7th did not live up to the original battalion's reputation of "winning five Victoria Crosses before breakfast", it was, before the end of the war, to achieve equally high merit. The battalion's posted strength had by now reached 19 officers and 842 other ranks and became in fact as well as in name a battalion on the Order of Battle of the 2nd AIF. Among routine orders was one covering the immediate investigation of all complaints regarding the shortage and quality of meat served, which sounded almost like a 'gift' to some of the high spirits. Corporal Douglas R.(J ock) Taylor --who was to become a legendary figure, both in and out of action-sat down, as corporal of the guard, to a late mid-day meal. Jock drew the attention of the mess orderly both to the quality and quantity of the stew he received. The steward said something reflecting on Jock's Scottish ancestry --and, in reply, the mess table was upended to shower the orderly with his meal, dixies, comrades' lunches and everything mobile. Another 'incident' involved Captain Alan Crawford, a grazier from the Tatura district. As orderly officer of the day, one of his duties was to inspect the fresh meat delivered by the contractor to the AASC store. He examined some carcases 13 CHAPTER THREE PRE-EMBARKATION of mutton just arrived --and condemned the lot as unfit for human consumption. Then he looked at the brand. The meat had been grown on his own property!


Though the meals were vastly better than those at the showground, the cooks -ingenious, even if lacking experience-- had to battle with equipment left from the 1914 War: a shallow trench with wood fires which either roared with excess heat or went out. Aldershot ovens on the site were incomplete and practically useless. Nobody could understand why, when building the camp, the authorities had failed to install more modern equipment. However, the 2/7th's Pioneer Platoon, under Sergeant Fred Lovely, improvised in the true Australian way by somehow 'finding' materials which made the cooks' life easier. Another cause for complaint was the ration scale. In the militia battalions, the catering officer was allowed to vary the commodities within the overall contract price covering 'ration per head'. This was controlled by the market price which rose or fell according to the season. No cash adjustment was allowed to meet these variations. The Brigade Commander took this up with Headquarters Southern Command and certain items were increased in quantity and others added to the scale. After this effort, rations (generally speaking) improved and complaints fell, particularly as the cooks gained experience. The CO, Theo Walker, took a keen interest in the A & Q side of the battalion's activities, frequently adding forthright comment before, during and after meals. He thoroughly appreciated that the whole of the war would be a Q one and that arms, equipment, technical stores, aircraft, vehicles, ammunition and rations were most important to the planning of even the most minor operation. On the food side, Bill Bolger told the story of an Australian invention designed to 'revolutionise' the serving of hot meals in the field. Commonly called 'the hotbox' --in army parlance, 'food containers, insulated'-- it held inside two square dixies spring-attached to the lid. The insulation kept the contents really hot and continued the cooking process. It wasn't long before the troops gave the hotboxes another use: when ice could be added, they also kept cheer-up liquids at the desired temperature. Battalion members got their second inoculation on December 19 and personnel on transfer to the 2/1st Australian Machine Gun Battalion marched out. The YMCA and Salvation Army huts opened and, with Anglican and CWO huts already operating, the troops' personal needs were fully supplied. Blarney House, a leave centre for country soldiers, also opened, with voluntary helpers, in Collins Street and was to remain there throughout the war. All excepting a small security guard left the camp on December 21 for Christmas leave, returning on New Year's Day 1940. Inter-company cricket matches were played and the regimental band under Sergeant Trahair made its first appearance for the morning's battalion parade and the evening's changing of the guard. 'Butch' Blake performed well as the drum major. During the battalion's stay at Puckapunyal, the guard change produced great rivalry and it is still argued whether A Company performed the best. 14 BOOK ONE WALKER Training had now become more realistic, with field firing exercises on miniature ranges dug into the base of Blanket Hill. Some members soon became good marksmen with both the rifle and the LMG. More inoculations came on January 4, by which time posted strength had grown to 20 and 823. Lessons for non-swimmers were held and, on the eighth, there was a first overnight bivouac at which Padre Rex Dakers conducted a camp-fire sing-song. When, after marching to Seymour and back followed by work on the rifle range, the troops returned to Puckapunyal it was to learn that the 16th Australian


Infantry Brigade Group had embarked from Sydney on the previous day. They convinced themselves that the 17th would be next! Medical processing continued with blood groupings and the third inoculations. Surely they would soon be on the move overseas! On January 14, it was announced that Sergeants 'Waddie' McFarlane and Keith Walker had been commissioned as from the sixth and then Steve Bernard, Peter Chapman, Mark Howard, Bert Evenson and Jim Carstairs also put on Lieutenant's pips. Apart from the earlier promotion of Murray Cramp, these were the first batches of 'commissioning from the ranks' and some believed that they could be carrying a field marshal's baton in their haversacks after all! Before the war ended, a large number of the 2/7th were also to receive commissions from officer training schools, officer cadet training units or in the field. Some rose to the rank of lieutenant-colonel, field marshals being somewhat rare. Stan Sutton, however, was promoted to take over as RSM from Steve Barnard. The battalion held a second bivouac at Anzac rifle range on January 15 and on the march back to Puckapunyal clipped an hour off the previous time. In a swimming parade at Ash's Bridge on the 18th, the battalion mourned its first fatal casualty, the accidental drowning of Private C. Dusting of HQ Company. The men finally became "Mud over Bloodites" when they received their color patches, unskilful sewing rectified by the more agile fingers of mothers, wives and sweethearts on visitors' days. One could mourn the fact that the present-day soldier no longer wears a color patch. It was, with the 2nd AIF, an outward sign of an inward esprit de corps. The parade ground began to ring with sweet sounds such as 'swing those arms', 'press down on that butt', 'lep-right-lep' as the battalion practised in earnest for the coming march through Melbourne. On the 23rd, a full scale rehearsal was carried out --this time with a new officer, Lieutenant Bev McGeogh, who had joined from the RAA, 3rd Division-- and the men entrained for the city, bedding down in the Exhibition Building. No leave that night and an improvised meal prepared on the oval. On January 24, the citizens of Melbourne had their first look at the new AIF. It was the first big military parade since the 1919 Victory March. Many among the estimated half a million welcomers pushed and shoved to gain positions to kiss --or slap on the back-- the soldiers as they marched, endeavoring to keep formation and march at their best. 15

CHAPTER THREE PRE-EMBARKATION The welcome the people of Melbourne gave was stupendous and, although the Group was to march through its streets again during 1942 and 1943, none who took part in the first will ever forget the public enthusiasm. After lunch at the Exhibition Building, the battalion left immediately for Puckapunyal, some naturally disappointed that no overnight leave pass had been granted. Lieutenant Ken McQueen, from the 29th Battalion, joined the 217th the next day and Lieutenant Mike W ookey became a captain. To a battalion parade on the morning of January 26 --the date on which Captain Phillip arrived to found Australia-- the following congratulatory messages were read. From the General Officer commanding 6th Australian Divison, Major-General Sir Thomas Blarney: "Congratulations all ranks on the careful preparation and excellent execution of the march through Melbourne." From the Minister for the Army, Brigadier Street: "Words are quite useless to


try to describe my feelings, not only of pride, but also of humility as I watched the march yesterday. "Never will I forget the march past of such a magnificent body and the reception given to them by hundreds of thousands of people was worthy of the men and the occasion. ''The bearing, discipline and physique of those who marched confirmed my opinion that nowhere in the world is there finer material." From the Brigade Commander, Brigadier Savige: "I desire to add my appreciation for the manner in which the job was carried out by the commanders, staff and all ranks. In reviewing experience in the last war, a more intricate move is not remembered. "It embraced each way a move by bus, rail and a march and it entailed a billeting plan under the most adverse circumstances. "In the march itself the enthusiasm of the people created great difficulties in maintaining military precision. After the march, the natural feelings of us all tended towards a reunion with our people. Leave was denied to us after careful consideration of higher authority. "All these difficulties were met and overcome. The essential staff work was excellent and the command duties were administered splendidly. Despite these essentials so wisely foreseen, the job could not have been achieved without the splendid bearing and conduct of the troops. "It was evident that they were determined to do the job decently for the sake of the job itself and thereby enhanced the good name of the unit, which was the only reward. "The realisation on our part that we are individual members of a family whose interests we preserve will be more clearly appreciated during the stern days ahead. We will be grateful then to belong to that family --our unit, our home." 16 BOOK ONE WALKER Sergeant Jack Young, later to receive the MBE, and Harry Lunn, who had been serving on the staff of the 17th Brigade HQ, were commissioned and transferred to the 2/7th, bringing its strength at January 31 to 31 officers and 808 other ranks. Early in January, vaccinations and further dental treatment were followed by "weeding out", mainly on medical grounds. The unit lost, among others, Bluey Hodson and Johnny (Bull) Thompson. Both promptly re-enlisted, Johnnie serving with distinction in the 2/14th and later with the 2/24th. Intensive training went on, day and night. On Sunday, February 11 --the day the Brigade church parade was broadcast over Melbourne's 3LO-- the 2/7th was presented with a unit flag and a drum major's baton by the First 7th Battalion Association. Both were unfortunately lost during the campaign in Greece and Crete. In three days on the Anzac range, all personnel fired qualifying courses with the rifle and LMG. On the 28th and 29th, the battalion's first 'reinforcements' brought posted strength up to 32 and 850. On his return from the Staff and Command School, Captain John Bishop left to become Staff Captain with 17th Brigade HQ. He took over from Captain Geoff Brock who became brigade major in the place of Major P. W. Pulver who had been appointed DADOS with HQ, 6th Division. Thus the two major staff appointments on Brigade Headquarters had been filled by the 2/7th. Later, Peter Chapman, Mike Hutchison and Bill Bolger would hold staff captain's postings.


Towards the end of February, Stan Fletcher got his commission and his place as RQMS was taken by the A Company CQMS, Bill Bolger, who was promoted to WO 2nd class. Rumors again fermented as packing cases for stores and equipment arrived, marked with the unit's serial number and identifying colors which were retained to the end. The task of packing seemed endless, ranging as it did from reserve boots and clothing to sporting material--but there was no overtime in the army! Field training was now far more advanced and ambitious battalion exercises used live ammunition to test the ability and military knowledge of the section, platoon and company commanders. After Hospital Hill had been attacked and captured three times, the victorious company was ordered on a fourth foray to overcome some earlier errors. A very tired orderly said to the company commander, ''We've taken this bloody hill three times already today. Can we keep it this time, sir?" A new --and unwelcomed-- chore for the soldiers was to beat out their own grassfires in dry; 40-degree heat, and fight 'natural' bushfires in the surrounding countryside. The New South Wales and South Australian unit members had gone on 14 days leave on March 5 and everyone in the 2/7th was talking about when their turn would come. As no official news was heard, they continued with intensified training and became accustomed to shellfire noises from the 2/2nd Australian Field Regiment carrying out shoots on the artillery range. Several all-company exercises were held and, on the 13th, the first full-scale exercise at which the unit was introduced to the Bren gun and the Boyes anti-tank rifle, to become known to 17 CHAPTER THREE PRE-EMBARKATION all who carried it as "Charlie the bastard." Although only one of each was available, they knew that these would be the weapons they would carry into battle. The mammoth task of preparing embarkation nominal roles began on March 19 when Sergeant Bob Jamieson co-opted company clerks and any man with one typing finger. The bulk of the battalion moved out on pre-embarkation leave on the 20th. The guards left behind were reduced so that some could escape the extremely hot weather by swimming at Seymour. As a diarist reported, ''They got very wet inside as well as outside.'' By March 27, nearly all had returned from leave to assist in the final packing. "Tomorrow," nearly everyone said, would be the day. Not until it arrived in Palestine did the unit hear 'Bokarra,' which sounded the same as 'tomorrow.' On the 31st, Padre Rex Dakers performed a mass wedding ceremony for members and the posted strength of the unit was now 33 officers and 893 other ranks. 18


BOOK ONE WALKER CHAPTER4

Down to the sea in ships A battalion parade was held on Aprill in honor of Lieutenant-General Sir Carl Jess, a former commanding officer of the first 7th battalion and honorary colonel of the 2/7th. He wished all the best of luck and a speedy return. The old rifles which the men had restored to something approaching their original standard were replaced by new ones --so once again the degreasing, zeroing and testing. These were the .303s on which so much would depend: their offence, their defence, their very lives. Old webbing was exchanged for 'new' --'new' was still the 1918 pattern. And there were other deficiencies in their war equipment table-- but excitement was running too high for over-grousing. Personnel of the 2/7th had no transport vehicles, no brens, no anti-tank rifles or pistols. Mortars, both two --and threeinch, were issued on a very restricted scale. Shortages also existed in modern signal and other technical equipment. On the credit side, the unit had its full issue of all types of ammunition, clothes and boots. Trial moves saw companies completely clean out their lines, pack everything and stagger a couple of hundred metres ur1der two kitbags, a full pack and haversack, respirator, rifle and bed-roll. What this did do was to persuade every soldier to get rid of those little extras which he had been sure he could not do without. General Blarney reviewed the brigade parade on Apri111 and presented the CO, Lieutenant-Colonel Walker, with his ED (Efficiency Decoration). In his address, Blarney expressed his confidence in all members of the brigade, his interest in its future, and his expectation of great performances to come. This was Blarney's last review as GOC, 6th Division. He moved to command the 1st Australian Army Corps, his place as GOC, 6th, being taken by Major General I. G. Mackay. The news all had been awaiting came on the morning of Apri114. The brigade


would leave Puckapunyal the next day and embark with General Mackay and 19

CHAPTER FOUR DOWN TO THE SEA IN SHIPS other personnel of HQ 6th Division. Also in the party would be the brigade commander and personnel of the 2/2nd Australian General Hospital, including the matron and her nursing sisters. As it was pay day, many of the battalion celebrated in Seymour while the Sergeants' mess entertained the CO, 2 1/C, adjutant and company commanders to dinner. Mess president Stan Sutton presented each warrant officer with a nickel-plated ashtray emblazoned with the rising sun and the recipient's name. The CO announced that a number of other ranks would not sail with the battalion as they had been selected for officer-training. But they were to catch up with the unit during 1940-41, the notable exception being Jimmy Walker who was transferred to the 2/6th. The 2/7th, after watching other units of the brigade move out, began its own departure in the early hours of Aprill5, catching a train in Seymour at 0730 hours for Port Melbourne. The unit arrived at Station Pier at 1000 hours and began embarking on the Straithaird. The improbability of keeping everything secret was illustrated by the presence of farewellers on the esplanade. The Metropolitan Fire Brigade band played on the wharf and a party of senior officers, including Sir Thomas Blarney, General Lavarack, Colonels Berryman, Burston and Rowell, were there to wish them God-speed. The Straithaird cast off at midday and outside the Heads joined the other members of the convoy and its escorts, HMS Ramillies and HMAS Australia, Sydney and Canberra. Lt-Col Walker was appointed OC Troops on Strathaird (officially His Majesty's Transport Y4) and Capt Bob Knights was Ship's Adjutant. Unfortunately the day after sailing Capt Knights was put into hospital with pneumonia; Capt Bamford was appointed Ship's Adjutant, with Capt Harry Halliday assuming command of D Company. Allan Bamford then carried on as Battalion Adjutant until July 1940. Such was the start of an adventure that was to take these men to many strange lands and places to carry out the job they had volunteered to do. Although it had already carried overseas the first contingent of the New Zealand Expeditionary Force and the 16th Australian Infantry Brigade, the Strathaird had not been fully converted from its peacetime role as a passenger ship. Officers used the first class cabins, dining room and lounges. Warrant officers and sergeants used the second class accommodation. The rest were allocated tourist class cabins and their facilities, but A and B companies were given hammocks on H Deck. And they thus were the worst sufferers from seasickness. The ship met the usual rough seas of the Great Australian Bight. The men's messing was a problem as it was their first introduction to the British ration scale and they found it far inferior to their own. Only when Australian cooks took a hand did it improve and grousing subside. Shipboard life was new to most and they made full use of the barber's shop, deck games, library and music room while not being called for boat and lifebelt drill. All had to carry at all times a Mae West and know how to don it quickly in an emergency. 20

BOOK ONE WALKER Straithaird arrived in Fremantle on the morning of April21 and personnel were granted leave from 1030 until midnight, hours in which they met the charming people of Fremantle and Perth, many of whom opened their homes with their


hearts. No liquor then on Sundays; but hotel doors nevertheless quietly opened. The convoy sailed at 1030 the next day with the addition of a troopship carrying the 2111 th Infantry Battalion, raised in Western Australia. As they travelled, the weather warmed and troops were allowed to leave the lower decks to sleep in the open. That is, if they could sleep. The officers had the use of the decks until midnight and at around 0400 came the Lascars with their saltwater hoses and cries of, "Wakey-wakey, Australia, washey decks." Those who did not, received a cold morning shower. The troops were to experience the first of many Anzac Days abroad. They lined the decks at 1045 hours as one of the escorting naval ships, Ramillies, passed through the centre of the convoy. The simple remembrance ceremony, with the bugler sounding The Last Post, came over the ship's amplifiers, followed by a short, sincere talk from Major-General Mackay. He said how proud he was to command the division. The first air-raid alarm the next day proved to be nothing more threatening than a friendly aircraft having a look-see. So the troops returned to boxing and deck games, lectures on all sorts of military subjects, movies and swimming in a portable pool. The pool, the use of which had to be rationed because of its popularity, became especially crowded when it was the nurses' turn to get wet. Australian Comfort Fund handouts included a pair of shorts, shirt, sandshoes, handkerchiefs, towel and pyjamas and in the hot weather, they were allowed to don the shorts and light shirts. They were also given limejuice, reading matter, tobacco, cigarettes and lollies by the Salvation Army, the YMCA and the CWO as well as the Comforts Fund. Their thanks --probably unspoken but deeply felt-went to the people of Victoria who made such comforts available during the war's six years. While on the sea, a Reinforcement Company was set up. Captain C. Pryor was its officer commanding, Sergeant L.L. Bayliss the company sergeant-major. Their job was to make reinforcements who had joined the unit just before embarkation understand more about training and administration. The Q staff set up an office in the ship's nursery to work out what equipment had not arrived or been loaded. Their requisitions were mailed from Western Australia and arrived by air in the Middle East before the battalion. Administration staff established a battalion orderly room in a lounge of a private suite and the troops' rifles were taken out of the ship's armory every few days for cleaning and oiling against the salt air. Other duties were submarine -and aircraft-- spotting, sentry, guard and picket so that everyone was occupied with some task. 21 CHAPTER FOUR DOWN TO THE SEA IN SHIPS Ramillies left on April 28 and the French cruiser, Suffron, took its place. The departure of one and the arrival of the other was celebrated by troops lining the decks and army and navy bands playing. There had to be some problems with so many men. One was with distribution of beer. Officers and sergeants had their lounges, staffed by stewards. Because of a lack of space, the ORs had to parade below decks and drink theirs under the watchful eye of an officer, and then move on for those behind. Discussions with Major O'Loughlin brought more suitable arrangements, but the beer issue still had to be made in the late afternoon, because the ship was blacked out from dusk


to dawn. Another reason for the late issue was the disposal of hundreds of empty bottles: a trail of floaters could mark the way for a submarine commander. The same sort of things happened on other troopships: it was a problem of space that could not be solved to the satisfaction of all. The Crossing of the Line ceremony, with King Neptune in command, produced the gaiety that has disappeared with the once-familiar ocean lines. And lectures on military matters were relieved when Brigadier Eugene Gorman, Commissioner of the Australian Comforts Fund, gave an address on 'racecourses, casinos, and other inanities.' Very early on May 3 the convoy entered Colombo harbor. Troops lined the decks and then received their first pay in foreign money which they could spend on short leave lasting from 1130 hours to 1730. The day ashore was somewhat put out of gear because the men had to wear their winter service dress in the steamy Ceylon climate --and the more they drank, the more they sweated. None could ever forget the first meeting with a race of a different color, creed, and culture: the bazaars, the rickshaws, the tropical flowers and trees. This seemed a veritable paradise, even though there were hangovers from a first contest with the dreaded arrak. They went ashore again the next day, from 1000 hours to 1730, visiting the Colombo racecourse with Arthur Hyde the only man with genuine knowledge of horses. And, from an Australian jockey whose name is forgotten, he extracted some 'good oil'. The convoy said goodbye to the exotic island at 0500 hours on May 5 and members of the 2/7th could never have envisioned their return two years later to help defend it against an aggressor other than the one they had been sent to fight. Destination: unknown. At least, to most aboard. The weather became hot and steamy; common colds spread with Doctor Russ Goodby and the RAP staff handing out aspirin and mistussi. Then came the news of the Germans' successes against Belgium, Holland and Luxembourg. As signals flashed between members of the convoy, rumors spread of a change in destination, wherever it may originally have been. Two destroyers joined the escort and, as they neared Aden, aircraft from the British Air Force base circled overhead. They stopped in Aden on the 12th, only

22 BOOK ONE WALKER long enough to pick up coal and water for the only coal-burner in the convoy. Captain Fletcher went ashore to seek extras for the menu, but returned with nothing. The Red Sea was, as old hands had expected, extremely hot and humid, and the sight of land meant preparations for disembarkation. The convoy reached Suez at 0500 hours on the 17th and the Straithaird entered the Suez Canal just before breakfast, dropping anchor with the others in the Great Bitter Lake. Disembarkation procedure went full pace. Each rifleman was issued with 20 rounds of small arms ammo. Straithaird steamed from the lake at 1700 and troops were ordered to be ready for landing at 2100 hours. The ship made El Kantara in plenty of time to meet this schedule, but, clad in their full marching order, troops remained aboard for 90 minutes before they began to step ashore from the floating home that had been theirs for 34 days. They made their landfall on the Palestinian side of the Suez Canal at El Kantara. The 2/7th Australian Infantry Battalion had landed in the Promised Land and were prepared to meet the unknown. This was to be the starting point of a great,


hazardous adventure for men who, but a few months before, knew little of war. 23

CHAPTER FIVE WHERE CHRIST WAS BORN CHAPTER 5

Where Christ was born While moving along the canal, troops had observed some trenches and barbed wire entanglements: they had been laid by the 1st AIF some 25 years earlier. All but the non-sentimental would have pondered why this arid land had played, and was to play, such a role in Australia's destiny. The first meal ashore was washed down with some British beer drawn from oversized barrels, which one wit declared must also been left over from World War 1. It was very dark, warm and flat. After the food and so-called drink, they entrained at 0300 hours on May 18 from the El Kantara station en route for Palestine. The train was a foretaste of 'amenities': two carriages for officers, box cars-not unlike those used for cattle on the Victorian Railways-- for the others, each holding 20 soldiers, their equipment and baggage. After an uncomfortable journey through the night, with few stops and little sleep, the 2/7th reached its camp site, L3, Beit Jirja. They were there met by members of the 2/3rd AlB in the role of the 2/7th's fostering unit. They had prepared the camp --and the day turned out to be extremely hot and unpleasant with the notorious khamseen blowing. What had at first puzzled the new arrivals was that those already there greeted them clad in winter greatcoats with their assurance that the weather was really cool but could get warmer! The camp tents were the large EPIP, English personnel, Indian-pattern, with hutted kitchens and messes for each company, officers and sergeants messes, a large administrative building, Q store and office, a large men's canteen and recreation hut and a bulk canteen building. A metalled road had been laid down from the main Gaza-Al Madjal road to the administrative buildings. The camp itself was a near triangle formed by the railway line and the main road. The 2/3rd had prepared well: both messes had been stocked and, after the day's chores,

24 BOOK ONE WALKER dust of their first day in Palestine was washed away with ice-cold bottles of Melbourne beer. Capt. D.I.A. (Ian) Green, who was waiting to receive us, assumed command of B Company. A strange transition indeed from one of the world's youngest nations to one its oldest, a land trodden by Christ and his disciples, an ancient land replete with history that had shaped the form of civilisation. Humanity seemed to be still in biblical days, as they appeared in biblical illustations: the wife, with downcast eyes, walking with her children and overburdened with whatever Arab women had to carry while her husband, the undoubted lord and master, rode ahead on a pint-sized donkey. And the pocket-sized vine and melon patches amused those used to the vastness of similar Australian plantations. The name of the village of Beit Jirja was literally 'home of George' and all Australians became known to the Arabs as 'Georges', their cries of 'Saida, George' constantly sounding. Although the camp area was partly under cultivation,


it was more or less barren with large areas of drift sand and deep wadis --dry watercourses-- which produced the right conditions for training in desert warfare. The farther they trudged through the sand, the more their leg muscles became attuned to what had been at first an arduous experience. To protect themselves against anticipated air attacks, the troops camouflaged the tents with mud pies made from the soil and sand. Leaves were allowed on a company-roster system to the two big cities of TelAviv and Jerusalem, the first modern-style one contrasting sharply with the historically-ancient Jerusalem and Jaffa. The troops travelled by Arab bus in the early morning, returning to camp late in the evening. The drivers manipulated their buses through the old cities' narrow streets with a verve verging on the paranoic: they used two speeds, as fast as possible or sudden stop, according to whether pedestrians were able or not to avoid them. Later on, a series of two-day passes allowed troops to stay overnight at Jerusalem's Hotel Fast --conducted by the Australian Comforts Fund-- or in a private hotel at Tel-Aviv. The 'five-bob-a-day' tourists found they could get by on this modest income. On June 6, the 2/7th's band visited nearby Gaza to play in one of the schools, delighting students who never before had heard such brassy music as it had been 25 years since an army band had serenaded Gaza. The General-Officer-Commanding the Middle East Zone, General Sir Archibald Wavell, inspected the 6th Australian Division on a parade held at Kilo 89. He welcomed the Australians to his command and spoke of the tactical situation of the theatre. Soon after, the battalion spent four days carrying out range practice and weapon-training on the Jaffa rifle range, using live ammunition. Equipment and weapons were slowly coming from British sources and, at last, they exchanged their 1918-style webbing for narrower, neater and lighter straps. Gradually, too, vehicles arrived. Some were of the Australian pattern but most were the square Morris desert type which the unit took over from the 16th British Brigade which had used them for years in Palestine. Most were without tools, 25

CHAPTER FIVE WHERE CHRIST WAS BORN spares or canopies and the battalion's mechanics, as well as those from the 2/46th Australian Light Aid Detachment, worked hard to keep as many as possible mobile. In spite of their faults, they enabled the battalion transport officer, Lieutenant Jack Young, and his NCOs to continue with badly-needed drivertraining. And the transport platoon had at last some vehicles of its own. D Company on June 19 carried out a reconnaissance of the Beersheba area, the famous battleground of the Australian Light Horse in World War 1. Members paid a complimentary visit to the Muktar of Beersheba, then visited the Beersheba War Cemetery, spendidly maintained by the Imperial War Graves Commission. The band spent two days in Jerusalem with its music, others swam off a beach near the ancient city of Ascalon and later, during off-duty periods, more swimming at Gaza beach. Early in July, more transport vehicles became available and the rifle companies received enough Brens and Boyes anti-tank rifles to arm personnel. But, although much better armed than when it arrived, the battalion was still short of most technical equipment, compasses, binoculars, watches, 2-inch mortars and signal stores. In their absence, the battalion had to rely on makeshift and imagination. News came that a women's auxiliary had been formed among the wives and mothers of the unit back in Melbourne with Mrs Theo Walker as chairwoman. The auxiliary's objective was to provide comforts for the unit abroad and


assistance to relatives at home. It was to be of tremendous importance to the 217th throughout the war and its members were continually grateful for its untiring work and loyal assistance, to say nothing of the comforts they received. The 6th Australian Division was reorganised to conform to the new War Establishment, losing in the process the 18th Brigade to the 7th Division and gaining the 19th Brigade. This brigade comprised the 2/ 4th infantry battalion from the 16th Brigade, the 2/8th from the 17th Brigade and the 2/ 11th from the 18th. Tropical clothing --khaki shorts, shirts and stockings-- were issued. The navy blue pullovers of enlistment days were replaced by neater-looking khaki ones and khaki pugarees, with the unit color patch, were bought with regimental funds and issued to all ranks. Members of the battalion looked much smarter. On July 8, the 2/7th had its first casualty overseas when Private A F Moyes, of C Company, died and was buried with full military honors in the Gaza cemetery. General Blarney attended church parade on July 14 and stressed to all troops the need for absolute physical fitness for the task ahead. In the afternoon, swimming sports were held at Al Jura beach. Then a few lucky members were granted a four-day leave to Cairo, to return and regale avid listeners with stories as fabulous --and probably as fantastic-- as the city itself. They sounded a little too near highly-imaginative fiction --but old soldiers such as Bill Foxwell and Shorty Walker, smiled with looks of, 'There --we told you so'. Training took on a more realistic note when on July 22 a three-day brigade exercise began, with Brigadier Stanley Savige and divisional and brigade staff of-

26 BOOK ONE WALKER ficers as umpires. More such exercises followed and the battalion felt itself prepared for the action they felt soon would come. They then wished an end to the 'phony war'. But August came in with the battalion band practising for, and then narrowly winning from the 2/5th, the band contest. Band leader, Sergeant Trahair, had never been prouder. A number attended schools and various courses, among them Captains R. W. Knights and A.B. Bamford who went to the British Middle East Staff College at Haifa for four months. Senior NCOs were also selected for the Middle East Officer Cadet Unit. Capt. Peter Chapman became Adjutant, and a few months later, Major B.J. O'Loughlin was posted to DAAG at HQ 6 Aust. Div. when Major Harry Marshall was appointed SecondinCommand. August was a busy sporting month. The 2/7th beat the 2/2nd Australian Field Ambulance at football, cricket, hockey and basketball but lost to them at table tennis, and also to the strong 6th Division AASC team at football. The unit's second overseas casualty occurred when Private R J Reynolds, of B Company, died from an illness. He was buried with full honors in the Gaza cemetery, to join his other comrades. A two-day exercise was held on the Al Jura beach on August 22, the 2/7th's band won the divisional championship from the 2/3rd AlB and the 'Mud over Bloods' were filled with the old esprit de corps. Early in September, more weapons and vehicles arrived along with rumors that the battalion would head for Egypt, supported by a Warning Order issued on the seventh that the 6th Division would indeed move. On that day, Headquarters 6th Division held a race meeting at Barbara --but none of the runners nominated by the 2/7th had success. But it was a most colorful day with both camels and horses racing, the bookies and the tote, the soldiery and the locals, both Arabs and Jews, creating a most picturesque scene.


At 2000 hours that night, the fire alarm sounded. The big canteen building was well alight. Despite all the willing helpers, the wooden building was soon ablaze from end to end. Prisoners were released to join in the hopeless fire-fighting. The bulk canteen, the men's canteen and the recreation hut were completely gutted but the fire was prevented from spreading to the Q store, just opposite, the veranda of which was stocked with hundreds of boxes of 2 --and 3-- inch mortar ammunition delivered the previous day. A Court of Inquiry could neither find out the cause of the fire nor accurately assess damage as all the canteen books had been destroyed. But it was reported that salvage operations had been well carried out and, in spite of the destruction, there appeared no shortage of beer --or mulled ale-- or cigarettes during the next few days. When mail from home arrived, the battalion's most popular soldier was 'Kanga' Greenwood, the postal corporal; when it did not, he became far from popular. Air mail came through quickly and was soon distributed; but surface mail was irregular, often came in huge quantities and 'Kanga' --told by all to 'get on with the sorting'-- had to ask for help from other members of Q and company 27

CHAPTER FIVE WHERE CHRIST WAS BORN clerks to tackle the backlog. The surface mail brought parcels of 'goodies' for many a party and, no matter how outdated, newspapers were read from first to last page. The Australian troops also had their own newspaper, AIF News, an excellent publication issued to all and containing local news and articles of high standard contributed by correspondents in the field. Films were shown, none of which had been made before 1923; leave continued to Tel-Aviv and Jerusalem, where the Australian Canteen Service served Australian beer and other essentials. In the public cafes, beer glasses were in short supply and the Australian gift for improvisation showed through. The 'Lady Blarney' was invented. This was an empty beer bottle cut down to 'glass-size' with a red-hot steel wire and then sanded on the drinking edges. One story credited Lady Blarney herself with the invention. During the battalion's first sojourn in Palestine, on the whole the troops' health was good. Most prevalent was sand-fly fever. Although troops slept under nets, the enthusiastic mites seemed always to manage to find a part of the body for their fever-causing venom. Sand-fly fever was --although the men did not then realise this-- a foretaste of the malaria the unit was later to meet. 28

BOOK ONE WALKER CHAPTER 6

The land of the Pharaoh On September 12 1940, the battalion transport platoon left Beit Jirja in convoy for Egypt. The rest of the battalion, with the unit bulk stores and Bren gun carriers, entrained at Al Majdal, this time in proper carriages. At El Kantara the troops crossed the Canal to entrain on the Egyptian side for Helwan. Helwan was a well-equipped, very dusty camp some 25 km from seductive Cairo. As were camps in Palestine, it had very roomy administrative buildings, men's, sergeants' and warrant officers' and officers' messes, each with good kitchens and staff quarters. Most of the battalion slept in big EPIP tents. Helwan was linked with Cairo by fast diesel --electric trains and leave was available until 0100 hour~ when night exercises were not held.


The only drawback to leave was its cost. Meals, drinks and other pleasures were far more expensive than in Palestine. Five shillings a day, less family allotment, did not go far. Also the average Egyptian was harder to get on with than the Palestinian, the local police were inclined to be aggressive and the Pommy 'Red Caps' had little sympathy for the serviceman. However, a detachment of the 6th Australian Division and the 1st Australian Corps Provost Companies much improved relationships. Generally speaking, the behavior of battalion personnel in Cairo was good with comparatively few military-type offences recorded. Desert training began in earnest and it was all sand that quickly cut through footwear. In Palestine, part-time bootmakers and local contractors supervised by the Base Ordnance Depot at Barbara, the regimental bootmaker, Cpl H Hawkins, kept pace with repairs. At Helwan, it was a different story. The Australian Ordnance Depot used a very large number of civilian repairers but the backlog got longer and longer until the 2/7th Battalion had more than 600 pairs of boots awaiting repair. The only solution was to issue new boots which, with the sand and the heat, produced many sore feet while being broken in.

29

CHAPTER SIX THELANDOFTHEPHARAOH On September 19, A Company took over the guard duties at Tura Cave, the big British base ammunition depot which supplied all the Middle East armies and air forces. A Company's thoughts of lazy nights and off-duty periods on their quarter's beds were shattered on the first night by the resident bed bugs which took delight in their new victims flesh. The Tura Caves had provided stone for the Pyramids and were considered impervious to air attacks. Training, organised and conducted by HQ 17th Brigade, was now on in earnest, particularly in the new 'box' formation: fighting vehicles and anti-tank guns first; artillery on the flanks and rear; and the infantry and 'soft skin' vehicles in the centre. The brigade also began to exercise with the 16th Australian Infantry Brigade. Although the battalion was still short of some Bren gun carriers and vehicles, the men began to get the idea of how big was a modern mechanised infantry division when together and on the move. During these exercises, the troops learned the necessity to work as a team and not as individual units or vehicles. In the last week in September, two companies of the battalion moved to Maadi to prepare a camp for the incoming New Zealand Brigade. This very pleasant site was, compared with Helwan, a veritable paradise in the 'swank' part of Cairo, with grassed and treed surroundings. In Palestine and Egypt, the Australian units drew ordnance stores of a 'domestic' nature from Australian Ordnance and 'warlike' stores from British Ordnance. Although the officers in the British depots were exceedingly cooperative they became rather tight-fisted over clothing, kitchen equipment etc. On the other hand, the New Zealand Government had arranged for the British depots to supply the complete requirements of it's troops. Before the New Zealanders arrived at Maadi, local ordance delivered to the 2/7th the complete War Equipment Table supplies and camp stores requirements, less their weapons. Many items the Australian had been requisitioning for some months turned up, such as pressure stoves, lamps, kitchen knives, oilcans and carpenter's tools. The troops fell to temptation and quickly made up some dificiencies. On the arrival of the New Zealand quartermaster, this slight shortage in


his equipment nearly caused an incident between Australia and New Zealand. With some regret, the Australian Q personnel returned to Helwan and their newly-acquired stores returned to rightful owners. A full-scale divisional exercise held from October 2-4 used the 'box' formation, and, if the frayed tempers were any indication, it was a huge success. It really was a try out for all from Divisional HQ down to brigade, battalion and company level. Many errors were made and detected and their eradication was the keynote of training for the next few days. On October 10-11, another full-scale brigade exercise went much more smoothly, and it now seemed to all troops that at long last, they were ready. More transport vehicles and weapons were received with reserves of stores and

30 BOOK ONE WALKER equipment, in particular anti-gas stores. Three, three-ton trucks had been allotted for transport of these stores, but none came and, as the stores were in light cardboard boxes, their storage posed a serious problem. As well as night leave to Cairo, there were day-time trips to the Pyramids and to other sights in and around the city, including tours by steamer, on the Nile. Vividly visible was the vast difference between classes. The rich were very rich, the poor very poor. Cairo was the headquarters of the British High Command in the Middle East. Many of its officers still saw the station as a peace time one and looked upon the invasion of their clubs, hotels, etc., by soldiers from South Africa, New Zealand and Australia as a catastrophe. The newcomers were people to be avoided like the plague. Their delusions of sanctity were rudely shattered on the morning of October 20, when some Italian aircraft raided Maadi. No great damage was done, but those Egyptians 'sitting on the fence' -- but with leanings towards the Axis Powers-blamed the presence of armed troops for the raid. While the troops were on a battalion exercise on October 22, they saw a second raid on Maadi and their first aerial 'dogfight'. The raiders flew away without causing too much damage. On the 25th, a Warning Order was issued for the 17th Australian Infantry Brigade to move to the Alexandria area. After packing and preparing to depart, a battalion team played cricket against the 2/6th AlB. The result slightly favored the 2/7th. On October 28, the battalion transport vehicles --the platoon now had about 70 per cent WET entitlement-- were loaded and set off in a brigade convoy for their new destination. This was the first time the transport personnel experienced a large, full scale road convoy. The battalion entrained at Helwan in three sections, the Bren gun carriers on flat-top trucks. The first part arrived at the new camp site at 0730 hours, having marched from the railhead. The remainder arrived some hours later. None had any regrets at leaving the hot, dusty and dirty camp at Helwan or the fleshpots of Cairo. Something more than training was in the wind. The camp site at Ikingi Maryut was another very arid one, officially described on the maps as 'flat, undulating sand, covered with scrub' which was quite correct, especially if the last two words were deleted. Buildings near the railway station were said to be the week-end homes of wealthy Alexandrians. Why, was beyond comprehension. The camp was some 24 km from Alexandria, the main naval base for the


Mediterranean Fleet. Its only building was a water tower. Tents were widely dispersed and dug in with slit trenches nearby. The 'diggers' dug fast as there was an air raid alert and bombs could be heard falling near Alexandria. 31

CHAPTER SIX THELANDOFTHEPHARAOH The battalion was soon to learn of the significance of the water tower. Water was rationed and they began a new lesson of modern warfare; water discipline. An early warning was issued that only limited quantities were available for the men and their vehicles. Early in November, about 50 List personnel and reinforcements joined the unit at Ikingi Maryut. They included Captain Mike Wookey, who had been in hospital, and Lieutenant Jim Menzies, the first of personnel left in Australia to attend an officer training unit. It was decided to establish a training battalion for receiving and training reinforcements and 'X List' personnel. Each brigade was to provide staff for the headquarters and a company from each battalion. The 17th Australian Infantry Brigade was called upon to staff the 17th Australian Infantry Training Battalion to be in Palestine. Until then, reinforcements from Australia had been handled by a small depot. However, with the arrival of the, 7th and the 9th Australian Divisions, there was need for a much larger organisation. A reinforcement depot with three training battalions for the 6th Divison was set up and was later to be enlarged for all units of the 1st Australian Corps. Major Henry Guinn became first commanding officer of the 17th AITB and Captain I D McCallum the first OC of the 2/7th Company. Other staff members included Sergeant Bob Jamieson as orderly room sergeant. With much regret, the battalion said farewell to them. The parting was to be brief. As air activity increased, the slit trenches were deepened and lengthened. The first Tuesday in November saw an imprompt 'Melbourne Cup' race conducted by the sergeants' mess. As a cup surprise, 80 bags of surface mail arrived, the first for some time. Brigade and battalion exercises continued and, for good measure, an enemy aircraft dropped a dud bomb on the camp area. Push bikes came from the ordnance depot and, although the going was hard in the sandy conditons, they were very useful for travel between units. None thought then that 'bicycle platoons' would be used in the jungles of Ceylon a couple of years ahead. No spare parts were available and soon the bikes went back to the Q Store, unserviceable. On November 15, the battalion was told that the two officers who attended the Middle East Staff College had Staff postings: Captain RW 'Bob' Knights as Brigade Major on HQ 16th Australian Infantry Brigade and Captain Allan Bamford as General Staff Officer grade 3 (ops) on HQs 6th Australian Division. Their loss was a severe blow to the unit. Brigade and battalion night exercises continued and on November 18, the General Officer Commanding 6th Australian Division inspected unit lines and watched training. A full-scale divisional exercise was carried out on the 21st with the 16th and 17th brigades attacking towards Burg el Arab, where members of the 19th Brigade were entrenched as the enemy. These exercises were an exacting test of the capabilities of the battalion, both tactically and administratively, and woe betide any offender if an error were made.

32 BOOK ONE WALKER During this exercise the unit intelligence officer, Lieutenant Howard Ramsay,


developed acute appendicitis and was evacuated to hospital. His place was taken by Jim Menzies while George Rowden became Regimental Signals Officer. At this time, Company commanders were: A Coy, Capt. Bamford; B Coy, Capt. Green; C Coy, Capt. Knights, and D Coy, Capt. Halliday. Capt. JR (Russ) Savige took over A Coy. and Capt WV (Val) Miller resumed command of C Coy. Another full scale, two-day exercise was held on November 26-27. This time the 2/7th was the enemy and was able to get a bit of its own back on the attackers for a change. Heavy rains made conditions very unpleasant for both attacker and defender. The intensive training allowed only limited sporting activities but intercompany contests in football and cricket were played, Headquarter Company winning both series. Limited leave was available to Alexandria, where the Fleet Club was the first favorite with the troops. The Royal Navy and the Royal Australian Navy treated the troops right royally. Other popular spots were the Greek Cafes, with hors d'oeurves and tasty snacks with every round of drinks. Those lucky enough to get leave visited the many places of historical interest, including the very famous "Sister Street". Another form of entertainment, while the troops were not on the receiving end, was to watch the searchlights as they sought hostile aircraft trying to bomb the docks area and the fireworks display of tracer bullets and shells from land and ship anti-aircraft guns. Rumors flew as the troops heard of the activities of the British 7th Armoured Division, the 4th Indian Division --which now included some old friends of the battalion-- the 16th British Brigade, New Zealand and South African troops in the Western Desert.. The Australians also noticed, with great expectations, the unusually high numbers of supply trains loaded with ammunition and tanks and the constant movement of troops to the railhead of Mersa Matruh. While the 6th Australian Division was carrying out large-scale exercises in the Burg-el-Arab area, it was officially stated that other Allied forces were doing the same in the Mersa Matruh area. An order was received for the battalion to forward all surplus baggage, kit bags, officers trunks, and so on, to the newly-established 'kit store'. This confirmed the rumors of 'something doing'.

33 CHAPTER SEVEN LET BATTLE COMMENCE CHAPTER 7

Let the battle commence December 1940 brought the first batch of reinforcements from the newlyformed 17th AITB in Palestine: four officers and 48 other ranks. An air-co-operation demonstration was held with Lysander aircraft from the soon-to-be-famous No 3 Squadron RAAF. Another three-day exercise organised by HQ 6th Division and using the 'box' formation, was held from December 3-5. When the troops returned to their lines, they heard that part of the 2/2nd Australian Field Regiment was to go to Sidi Haneish to take over some defensive positions. To keep the troops' minds from wandering on such thoughts, exercises were held over the next three nights. Suddenly, a spate of rumors circulated that some British units had gone into battle. Not until December 11 was it officially announced --and jubilantly received by all-- that a British Force 'exercising' in the area had surprised the Italian


defenders, sweeping them off their feet, capturing Sidi Barrani and collecting some 38,000 prisoners, 237 guns and 73 tanks. It was the first land victory for the Allied Forces in a war already more than 12 months old. On the day of this announcement, the Australian 16th Brigade Group quietly folded tents and left for a more forward area. With this news, the morale of the 2/7th reached a new high. Would they also go to those same forward areas? The long-awaited Warning Order was received on December 17 and last-minute checking of weapons and equipment carried out. Christmas Day 1940 was officially celebrated on December 19 that year. Christmas really did come early! The menu included chicken soup, roast turkey, green peas, roast potatoes, pudding, fruit salad and ice cream, washed down with a bottle of beer per man all provided with the help of the supplementary ration account, the battalion's regimental funds and a generous donation from the ladies auxiliary committee in far-away Melbourne. A generous hamper came from the Australian Comforts Fund for each member. Nuts, sweets and other goodies from the Comfort Fund parcel and private parcels topped off a gargantuan feast. 34

BOOK ONE WALKER On a normal Christmas Day, time off from duties would allow the digestive organs to do their work --but, early that afternoon orders came to break camp and prepare to move at first light on December 20. The time had come! Reveille was at 0400 hours. After packing gear and cleaning the camp site, the battalion moved to the lkingi Maryut station. Unit transport once again moved by road convoy. The train was several hours late and then moved out for parts as yet unknown. After travelling through late afternoon and night, the battalion arrived at Sidi Haneish. Sidi Haneish was enveloped by a very violent sand-storm and the troops found that 'Goggles, Anti-gas, Individual' were also a protection against penetrating desert sands. The battalion marched to a bivouac some kilometres west of Sidi Haneish and, after very welcome hot coffee and rum, bedded down for the remainder of the night. The lack of heavier vehicles necessitated the leaving behind of reserve stores, including anti-gas and clothing types. Although the unit had received a large quantity of essential stores since it arrived in the Alexandria area, it was still short of some 20 vehicles, 3 --and 2-- inch mortars and associated technical stores, signal equipment, compasses, binoculars and wire cutters. But stores and equipment had to be pruned to those that could be carried by man and vehicle. Lieutenant Colonel Theo Walker, with the intelligence officer and two company commanders, went on a forward reconnaissance of the Fort Capuzzo area on December 23 and every man sensed it would not be very long before they too would cross the Egyptian border to the sands of Libya. Christmas Eve was highlighted by swimming and relaxation on a perfect beach near the bivouac area. The battalion was placed on a two-hour warning to move, so once again a further check of vehicles, weapons and equipment. The 2/7th was as ready for battle as any unit could be: only time would tell if its state of readiness was enough for what lay ahead. Christmas Day dawned with another violent sand storm and the warning order for movement was cut to 30 minutes. The real Christmas dinner included bully beef and biscuits, with plenty of Libyan desert sand as sauce and very little else. Boxing Day 1940 began with an 0400 reveille and at 0845 hours the battalion embussed on New Zealand Army Service Corps vehicles and set off in convoy.


The unit travelled until dusk, when the convoy halted in a bivouac area west of Sidi Barrani. During the day, the troops had passed compounds of Italian prisoners captured earlier in the month by the British push and signs of the spoils of war: petrol dumps, ration and ammunition dumps and lines of transport vehicles. The following morning at first light, the battalion was again on the move, to stop for the midday meal at 1330 hours, widely dispersed against air attack. Just as well: a little later enemy aircraft dropped several bombs just outside the battalion area. 35

CHAPTER SEVEN LET BATTLE COMMENCE Just before dusk, the convoy moved off again, climbed Halfaya Pass, and halted on the escarpment overlooking Solum. It was a magnificent sight but more enjoyable had it not been so fraught with the danger of more air attacks. At 2130 hours, the head vehicles passed over the border. The battalion was now in Libya. At about midnight the convoy made bivouac near Fort Capuzzo, which had been recced by the commanding officer on December 23. The troops dug themselves in and settled down. During the afternoon of December 28, the battalion moved forward to just off the Fort Capuzzo --Bardia road, about 16 km from the town of Bardia and there awaited its first operational order, the one to launch it into combat and a baptism of fire. This was the time for serious thought. Had they fully absorbed all they had been taught? How would they react when they 'went over the top'? Word was received that some additional vehicles were available from the 6th Divisional Vehicle Reception Pool, near the top of Solum escarpment. These vehicles had been taken over from 7th Australian Division units recently arrived in Palestine. The trucks still bore unit and divisional markings. This stripping of vehicles, weapons and equipment from other units was to become a feature of the war for the 2/7th Battalion. About 12 vehicles were brought back by transport drivers and a re-allocation of transport to the rifle companies and the technical platoons of HQ Company made. Some of the older Morrises were unserviceable. The troops also received leather jerkins. As in the words of the once popular song, 'the sands of the desert grow cold', they were very welcome as were pullovers, mittens and balaclavas from the Australian Comfort Fund and the Salvation Army. The leather jerkins gave rise to the Italians' belief that the 6th Division wore bullet-proof jackets! On December 29, the battalion received its baptism of enemy ground shelling. Several landed in the battalion area but without causing casualties. Patrols from the companies were very active, continually probing forward as far as the enemy's barbed-wire entanglements. Reports they brought back were summarised by Intelligence and quickly passed to 17th Brigade HQ. At last, after 14 months of intensive training, the troops were to test their skills of war, not against the Germans, as they had anticipated, but against the Italians, their ally of World War 1. The Italians at this very moment were firmly entrenched in concrete bastions that went to make up the defences of Bardia.

36


BOOK ONE CHAPTER 8

And so commences the battle of Bardia WALKER The overall story of the Battle of Bardia is best told briefly by the commander of the 6th Australian Division, General Ivan Mackay in his official report. " ..... (a) Concentration of 6th Aust Div in the Bardia area: 16th Aust Inf Bde Group moved by rail and road to Maaten Bagush on the 12th and 13th of December and on their arrival they passed to the command of the Western Desert Force. They moved forward to Sidi Barrani and on the 19th gained contact with the enemy South of Bardia. "Divisional HQ and the 17th Aust Inf Bde Group commenced movement by road and rail on the 19th, Div HQ moving to Sidi Barrani, and on the 21st they moved to Mersa Matruh and on to Fort Capuzzo area. The command of all Allied troops South of Bardia passed to the Commander of the 6th Aust Div at noon on the 21st and comprised, in line, the 16th British Brigade on the right, 16th Australian Infantry Brigade on the left. The members of the 7th British Armoured Division were in observation of the enemy on the left of the 6th Aust Division and they were also astride the road that lead from Bardia to Tobruk. "On the 24th of December, Lieutenant General R N O'Connor DSO.MC, Commander of Western Desert Force, visited me and instructed me that I was to consider plans to capture Bardia. On December 27th 17th Aust Inf Bde HQ and two Battalions took over from the two Battalions of the 16th British Brigade. The third Australian Battalion of the Brigade, owing to transport difficulties, did not arrive until the 30th. In the pursuance of General O'Connor's instructions, the 17th Brigade were instructed to advance their forward battalions so as to gain contact with the enemy and thus enable more information as to the enemy's defences to be gained. "Information in regard to the enemy was very meagre, and the chief impression gained from Intelligence reports being that there were not many troops in Bardia and that the defences thereof were not very strong. Ground and air reconCHAPTER


EIGHT THE BATTLE OF BARDIA BEGINS naissance, however, showed a well constructed wire system protected by an antitank ditch. "This convinced me that the position could not be secured merely by a rapid advance but rather by operations approaching those in France in 1916/18. I reported this view to General O'Connor who promised to make available the maximum of Field and Medium Artillery and an ammunition supply of 500 rounds per gun. He also stated that the 7th Battalion, Royal Tank Regiment, 'I' Tanks, though considerably depleted, would be available for this operation. "As the result of the study of patrol reports, air photos and available maps, I was convinced that, to be successful, the attack against this well protected position by the small force at my disposal must be from an unexpected direction and that to attack directly astride the Capuzzo/Bardia road would only result in our striking the strongest of his defences. The essence of the attack must be to use every means to get the 'I' Tanks through the outer defences and inside the perimeter. "As the result of this, the outline plan, whereby the attack was to be made from the West, was developed and the details gradually worked out. The general plan decided that the 16th Aust Inf Bde would make a bridgehead across the tank obstacle with one Battalion, and that, following the operation, 7th Royal Tank Regiment would enter the defences of the perimeter followed by the other two Battalions of the 16th Aust Inf Bde. The right flank on the sea would be held by one Battalion of the 17th Bde, the remaining two Battalions of which would continue the attack of the 16th Bde. The remaining Brigade, the 19th, would be the Divisional Reserve. "To effect surprise, it was decided that the Artillery, which prior to the battle was comprised as the appendix 3, should be moved to the left flank, only 24 hours before the attack and that the Artillery programme, from the new gun positions, would be based on survey methods and prediction. To heighten this effect, guns which were left in their original positions to the South of the defences became particularly active during that 24 hours. Another ruse, aimed at strengthening the surprise effect, was that for some days prior to the battle our Artillery carried out short intensive bombardments on selected areas and posts, the enemy's reply to the bombardment was carefully noted. "The information thus obtained showed that the number of enemy guns in the position was considerable and a counter battery organisation was therefore set up at Div Arty HQs to deal with this situation. The work of this counter battery section proved to be very effective. The collection at the gun positions of a large amount of ammunition required for the battle represented a most serious problem since the transport available to XIII Corps, the changed title of the Western Desert Force, was inadequate to bring forward, to forward dumps, the quantity required. "To supplement this Corps transport, and to avoid facing the defences for an unnecessarily long time, all second line transport of the Division, as well as a con-

38 BOOK ONE WALKER siderable quantity of first line transport, was used to bring forward ammunition from as far back as Sidi Haneish, to the ammunition dump which had been established in the vicinity of Solum. "The necessary preparation as regards the tactical plan progressed satisfactorily and from this point of view operations could have taken place on 2 January,


but owing to the ammunition situation it was necessary to postpone Zero Day until 3 January. "During all these preparations, as the only Corps Reserve was the 16th British Brigade at Solum, I have been pressing for the early arrival within the Divisional area of the 19th Aust Inf Bde Goup, which has been held a Burg-el-Arab since the departure of Div HQ on the 19th of December. The 19th Bde Group eventually arrived in the Capuzzo area on the evening of the 1st of January and on the night of the 2nd/3rd of January relieved all Battalions of the 16th British Brigade. "The plan, as finally settled, was that the 16th Bde would breach the perimeter between Posts 45 and 47, then with the assistance of 'I' Tanks and Artillery, one Battalion would mop up all the defences as far East as the Capuzzo-Bardia Road whilst the other two Battalions would proceed North and North East respectively to occupy certain features well within the defence system. In the second phase of the attack the 17th Bde, supported by 'I' Tanks and Artillery, would continue the advance along the perimeter to the East. In the preparatory stages much help was to be given by bomber and recce planes of the RAF, whilst a heavy bombardment of the Northern defences by ships of the Royal Navy was arranged to take place on the morning of the attack. (b) The assembling of the 16th Brigade and the final moves of the Arty during the night of the 2nd/3rd of January were carried out without incident and without disturbance by the enemy. At 0530 hours, the Zero hour for the attack, the whole of the Arty opened up on their pre-arranged tasks and the advance of the leading Battalion, the 2/1st Battalion of the 16th Brigade, from its assembly area commenced. Owing to the necessity for surprise no preliminary bombardment for wire cutting had been possible and the task for cutting the wire to make an entry for the Infantry was entrusted to the 2/1st Australian Field Company, RAE, using Bangalore Torpedoes. These proved to be very effective and the Infantry entered the perimeter within the pre-arranged time table. "As soon as the Infantry had silenced the enemy posts immediately in front of the points selected for the entry of the tanks, Engineers began preparing a crossing over the tank ditch. These were made by blowing in the sides of the ditch and partially filling it in. The tanks crossed the obstacle to the time table and from then until the end of the first phase the whole of the operations went as prearranged. To replenish the tanks with fuel and ammunition and to provide for any unseen delays, necessitated a pause of three hours at the conclusion of the first phase. "The second phase consisted of the attack by one of the Battalions of the 17th Bde, the 2/5th Battalion plus two Companies of the 2/7th Battalion, with the sup-

39 CHAPTER EIGHT THE BATTLE OF BARDIA BEGINS port of a timed Artillery programme and such tanks as were available. It was ordered that the attack would proceed, tanks or no tanks, and the rate of advance of the Arty support was based purely on the rate of advance of the Infantry without tanks. This, combined with the essential pause, enabled the enemy in the South Eastern section of their defences to readjust their dispositions, especially Artillery, so as to meet a further advance from the North East. "The action of the 2/5th Battalion was prejudiced by the Commanding Officer becoming a casualty shortly before Zero hour for the second phase. All these factors combined to delay the advance of the tanks to get ahead of the Infantry who were faced with enemy batteries in their front and on their flanks firing at very short range. Although a few tanks followed later and some progress was made,


the fighting became confused in the advance of the Battalion. "In the meantime the 16th Brigade had been subjected to considerable fire and at least one organised counter attack by enemy tanks. The latter were repulsed through quick action by two guns of the 16th Anti Tank Company. During the night of the 3rd/ 4th of January, the situation of the front of the 17th Brigade was still confused. Several efforts were made by Battalions of the Bde to go forward but as these could not, owing to the obscure position, be supported by the whole of the available Artillery, they achieved little progress. On the late afternoon of the 3rd of January the 2/8th Infantry Battalion of the 19th Brigade was placed, under the command of the 16th Brigade, so as to fill the gap and maintain contact between the 16th and 17th Brigades. ''Throughout the 4th of January the 16th Brigade, supported by Artillery and a few 'I' Tanks, made progress on the North and North East and gained the heights overlooking Bardia and a large portion of the enemy's rear position. As a result of this action, Carriers of A Squadron of the 6th Div Cav Regt and some four tanks of the 7th RTR entered the streets of Bardia late in the afternoon, thereby cutting in half the enemy's position. The effect of this was that the bulk of the enemy's troops, in the Northern section, which up until then had not been attacked, surrendered and prisoners in large numbers were collected from that area. ''On the other hand, the 17th Brigade was still fighting against the strongest of the enemy's defences, were unable to make anything but local advances, despite the surrender of the enemy to the North. Those in the Southern Section showed no signs of yielding. Consequently, it was decided to use the 19th Brigade in an organised attack in a South Easterly direction on the morning of the 5th of January in the area immediately North of that gained by the 17th Brigade. This attack was launched at 0900 hours on the 5th of January and, after meeting some opposition at the beginning, resulted in silencing the enemy Artillery and the capture of a large number of prisoners. "This action relieved the pressure on the 17th Brigade who quickly took advantage of the situation to seize the posts which had been obstinately holding out, and by 1100 hours the bulk of the Bardia defences were in our hands. A few

40 BOOK ONE WALKER isolated positions, however, in the wadis at the extreme East of the defences held out for some little time and cleaning up operations continued unti11400 hours. "So ended the Battle of Bardia, during which, in the space of 56 hours, 6th Australian Division, ably guarded on the landward flank by the 7th Armoured Division, supported by RA Units, 7th RTR and the RAF succeeded in capturing the whole of the enemy's defences and upwards of 46,000 prisoners at the expense of just under 500 casualties." Where was the 2/7th Battalion during that 56 hours or so? The situation was reported from the divisional commander's point of view. How was it from the soldier's point of view, way up there at the 'sharp' end? The official history, "Australia in the War of 1939 --1945," edited by Gavin Long and published by the Australian War Memorial, tells of this and many subsequent battles in which the 2/7th Battalion was engaged. It gives detailed accounts not only of the battles but of other factors concerning them. 41

CHAPTER NINE THE 2/7TH'S BATTLE OF BARDIA CHAPTER 9


The 2/7th's battle of Bardia The brigade commander, in executing the divisional commander's intentions, set out in his operation orders and instructions that the role of the brigade, prior to the battle, was to mislead the enemy into believing that the attack, when made, would be against his southern sector, and that during the battle its role would be:(a) To hold the enemy within his lines along Wadi Muatered and, at zero hour, demonstrate in this area; (b) To continue the attack past Capuzzo/Bardia Road with the 2/5th Battalion, plus B Company of the 2/7th Battalion forward and A Company of the 2/7th Battalion in reserve: Objective: Road Sidi Hassen --Post 10 inclusive. (c) 2/7th Battalion, less A and B Companies, in reserve in the present positions. The sector held by the 16th Australian Infantry Brigade was taken over by the 2/7th Battalion on the night of December 28/29. The latter advanced slightly ahead of its artillery positions between that time and the night of the 30/31. The surrounding countryside was generally flat and seemingly featureless, in direct contrast with the extremely rugged ground in the 2/6th Battalion sector. A carefully planned system of patrolling gained necessary information for the general officer commanding 6 Div. On December 31, the intelligence section established observation posts within the two forward companies. A patrol commanded by Lieutenant Timms --included in it were Corporals Baxter and Sym, from A Company-- set out to look for gaps in the wire or bridges over the anti-tank obstacles. This patrol saw working parties at three different points, once crossed the tank trap and came within 20 metres of the enemy. The patrol returned at first light to Battalion HQ, where each man was given a bottle of beer to celebrate the New Year of 1941.

42 BOOK ONE WALKER New Year's Day dawned with observation posts busily reporting enemy movements within their perimeter. The Italians were using an OP mounted on a truck to try to see what was going on. Again, patrols actively investigated the tank trap and possible approaches. The second day was spent quietly enough -that is, during daylight hours. B Company were shelled lightly and without a casualty. D Company OP reported the continued use of the mobile OP by the enemy. On this afternnon, the RAF bombed the enemy's forward defence lines. The intelligence section manned an OP some 1500 metres from the enemy wire and about 100 metres east of the Bardia Road. Just before midnight, A and B Companies moved to pre-arranged assembly areas. On January 3, at 0730 hours, B Company, under Captain D I A Green, moved from its assembly area and went through the enemy defences over crossings near Post 35, under shell fire. Private Colwell was killed. Near the Bardia Road, B Company again came under heavy shelling and machine-gun fire from its left flank and from Post 26. However, the men arrived at their position on time, 0930 hours, to come under the CO of the 2/5th Battalion. In his report on the operation, Brigadier Stanley Savige records this particular phase: ''The attack from the north across Bardia Road was timed to commence at 1130 hours with artillery fire plan operating at 1125 hours and shelling each post


in succession by observation. What 'I' Tanks that were available were to lead each of the two attacking columns. It was believed that three tanks for each would be available. The rate of advance, 100 yards in three minutes, was regulated by the artillery plan. ''The indication of lifts was a heavier concentration of shelling posts immediately in front of the advancing infantry just prior to each lift. Bad luck centred on this attack from its commencement. Changed plans and final teeing-up gave Wrigley (Major, later Brigadier Wrigley CBE.MC) who had taken over command of the 2/5th Battalion only 12 days previously, little opportunity to finalise his orders and pass them to subordinate commanders. They had a gruelling time in executing their movements, commencing 23 hours before starting off on their attack. "At 1030 hours, Wrigley, whilst carrying out a recce with his company commanders, was wounded. Shortly after the attack had begun, the Battalion Intelligence Officer, Lieutenant L K Shave, and two company commanders, Captain D A I Green of B Company, 217th Battalion, and Captain Smith from the 2/5th Battalion, were casualties also. Major GESell assumed command of the 2/5th Battalion and he started off on another recce with his company commanders. Capt. Green of the 217th Battalion, was, at this time, under heavy shell fire, and Sell ordered him, by message, to proceed as planned. 43

CHAPTER NINE THE 2/7TH'S BATTLE OF BARD lA "Just prior to the attack information reached Sell that tanks were NOT available. It was decided to attack without them." Information received by the battalion was that the tanks could not carry out allotted tasks as they were out of fuel and ammunition. This was to be the soldier's first taste of 'tank support'. B Company moved as planned at 1130 hours under the covering fire of one platoon, and came under heavy artillery fire at short range from its left and machine-gun fire from its front and left rear. Lieutenant Bert Evenson was wounded, but the company was able to continue the advance and to capture Posts 24, 26 and 27. Lieutenant Cec Davis and Corporal Philip were wounded. After the capture of Post 24, two tanks appeared and, although short of ammunition and fuel, their commanders decided to carry on to their limits. The company advanced still farther and, with the help of the tanks, captured Posts 22 and 25. In the process, one tank lost a track. At Post 22, Lieutenant 'Spider' Webb was wounded, eventually having to have one of his legs amputated. Captain D.I.A. Green, after the post had surrendered, was watching with Lieutenant C W MacFarlane the prisoners being rounded up. An Italian popped up from a pit with a rifle and shot Captain Green through the chest. The Italian then dropped his rifle, raised his hands and climbed out with a smile on his face. He was promptly thrown back and killed by a very angry soldier. Other soldiers then demanded that Lieutenant MacFarlane permit them to bayonet all the other prisoners in retaliation. He forbade them and was obeyed-perhaps not without question, but he WAS obeyed. Thus, Capt. Green and Pte. Colwell, both of B Company, were the first officer and other rank respectively, from 2/7th Battalion, to be killed in action. Lieutenant MacFarlane, now the only officer in B company, assumed command, continued the advance with Sergeant Foxwell's platoon and captured Posts


20 and 23. The one surviving tank returned to the rear for fuel and ammunition. The crew of the other worked valiantly to try to reset the lost track. By this time --it was about 1500 hours-- B Company had been severely depleted by casualties and escorts sent to the rear with captured Italians. Its strength was down to one officer and 65 other ranks, nearly half-strength. With only limited tank support, the company had, in about three hours, taken six enemy posts and widened the breach in the Italian line by some 2000 metres. Lieutenant MacFarlane sent out a patrol which later returned without sighting any friendly troops but a little later Major P D S Starr appeared on his left rear with B Company of the 2/5th Battalion. The enemy were now organising resistance in a wadi on the left forward flank and Major Starr agreed to deal with them, while MacFarlane and his company pushed on to Posts 21 and 18, which they attacked and captured. From Post 18, MacFarlane sent an Italian prisoner, who he had been using as an interpreter, to Post 16 --from which they had been heavily shelled-- to demand 44 BOOK ONE WALKER surrender. Watching through binoculars, MacFarlane saw the Italian go to the post and bend over it. A figure half-emerged and shot the interpreter. B Company promptly turned two small captured artillery pieces on to Post 16. In the meantime, A Company, under Captain Rus Savige, had moved forward at 1300 hours and, while crossing the Italian wire in the vicinity of Post 31, was shelled. One vehicle ran over a land mine and wounded its driver. At 1415 hours, the company arrived at its rendezvous where it too came under the CO of the 2/5th Battalion. The brigade commander had sent his brigade major, Major Geoffrey Brock, forward when he heard of the initial set-back to the 2/5th Battalion, and at 1445 hours ordered A Company of the 2/7th Battalion to advance toward the 'triangle', some 3000 metres away. The company advanced in a very open formation, using automatic weapons. After about 1000 metres, the men came under field artillery and machine-gun fire from the left and the front, which became heavier and more accurate as they continued to advance. When about 1000 metres from their objective, Lieutenant B H Timms was severely wounded and died soon after. Two more vehicles were lost to shell fire. The company then found itself close to a group of Italian batteries protected by machine-guns. This group was part of a strong concentration of artillery in the southern sector. Rus Savige attacked with his company, the troops moving forward under covering fire of his LMGs and rifles. After about half an hour of very intense fighting, the attackers had captured eight field guns, seven trucks, machine-guns and anti-tank guns in large numbers. The company continued the advance with Lieutenants Mark Howard and Ted Arnold being wounded. Rus Savige now had as his platoon commanders Sergeants 'Meggsie' MacDonald, Frank Hoban and Norm Corrie. In its advance, A Company captured machine-gun nest after machine-gun nest, several more pieces of field artillery and about 2000 prisoners. As he was now deep into the enemy's artillery positions, Rus Savige decided to halt in the Little Italian Wadi for the night. It had been impossible to evacuate any wounded and by now some 23 members of A Company had been hit. The company medical orderly, Private Alan Naismith, did a sterling job in looking after their needs.


Thus A Company, under the command of Rus Savige, like B Company, under the command of 'Wadi' MacFarlane, had, by a skilful and resolute advance and in spite of heavy casualties, established on its objective. In the meantime, the C/0 of the 217th Battalion, Lieutenant Colonel Theo Walker, at about 1500 hours, conferred with the C/0 of the 2/5th Battalion and the brigade major, who had been sent forward by the brigade commander who, in his report states: "Lt-Col Walker was placed in command of the troops in this area and as the situation had now quietened on the 2/ 6th Battalion front, I established my Ad45 CHAPTER NINE THE 2/7TH'S BATTLE OF BARD lA vanced HQ forward and after a further conference with Walker and Sell I ordered the following moves:

46 (a) D Company of the 217th Battalion, under the command of Captain G.H. Halliday, was to push on through B Company of the 2/7th Battalion and fight his way southward during the night. MacFarlane, of B Company, was ordered to do likewise along the Switch line. Starr of the 2/5th Battalion, who was thought to have his company at about Post 20, was to occupy Twin Wadis. A composite company, under the command of Captain J A Duffy, was ordered to occupy Dump Wadi, and to send out a patrol to link up with the 16th Brigade. (b) The area was divided into two sectors, Walker in command of the forward sector and Sell in command of the rear sector. At dawn, the situation was a follows: Halliday had secured Posts 19 and 17; MacFarlane moved out and after a brisk fight took Post 16 with one man being killed and two others wounded. He then picked up a CT running from the east and the Post which he took to be the Switch. After travelling for approximately 2000 yards, they returned to the Wadi forward of Post 16 and waited for first light. On approaching Rll, they were fired upon over open sights at a range of approximately 500 yards and machine gunned. On hearing this firing, Starr came across and gave support by mortar fire. MacFarlane continued the advance and captured Posts R11 and R9 before he was brought to a halt. (c) Savige, A Company of the 2/7th Battalion, was withdrawn approximately 600 yards before first light on the 5th of January to be clear of the barrage that was to support the attack by the 19th Brigade. Capt. Savige's orders were to assist the 19th Brigade with all available fire power, which he did. It was then decided to continue the advance and to attack and capture, on the right, Posts 12, 15, 10 and 13, and on the left, Posts R7 and R5. As the situation developed, A Company 2/7th Battalion would advance down to the road junction. To give further protection, C Company of 217th Battalion, under the command of Lieutenant Bev McGeogh, would occupy gun positions forward of Post 16. This was to be subject to the result of a conference to be held at Advance Brigade HQ. "The conference was attended by Walker, Sell and arty reps.


Owing to the intense enemy artillery concentration on the 2/7th Battalion HQ, Walker and the forward observation officer (FOO) of the 2/1st Field Regiment had to come back by Bren gun carrier. It was revealed that the strength of his leading companies averagBOOK

ONE WALKER ed out at about 35 to 40 personnel. All had been fighting without respite. ''Walker was then instructed to carry out the attack with his forward right company, supported by his reserve company. In order to obtain the element of surprise, the attack was launched at 0245 hours on June 5 and maintained until daylight. The enemy met the advance with machine- gun fire from the attacker's left rear, and MG and Mortar fire from their front. They put a protective barrage around Posts 17 and 12, which our troops were endeavoring to capture. Added to this heavy concentration of fire was the complete exhaustion of the troops. The attack failed. "Throughout that night and up until zero hour for the attack by the 19th Brigade, our forward troops were under incessant enemy fire. It became impossible to get any food to them. When the barrage supporting the 19th Brigade attack opened, they were subjected to intensive shelling, mortar fire and machine-gun fire. Orders had been issued to Walker to warn his companies on the left flank to give the utmost assistance by fire to the advance of the 19th Brigade, which they did. As the attack of the 19th Brigade advanced, Walker's troops moved on to their objectives down to Post 10. The action ended with our second role completed." To return to the story of what happened within the battalion during that time: after his first conference with the brigade major, the CO ordered the remainder of the battalion forward. Bn HQ and D Company under command of Capt. Halliday, moved to the road junction area at 1600 hours. C Company, at about 1615 hours, took up a defensive position by moving through the gate in the wire on the main Bardia Road, about 1000 metres east of the gateway and about 800 metres in the rear of D Company. At 1730 hours, D Company moved forward in a south easterly direction and contacted B Company at Post 18. At 2330 hours, rations and ammunition were brought forward for all companies and dumped in the rear of HQ Company. Major H Marshall, the Battalion 2 I/C came forward, reaching B and D Companies at about midnight. He issued the changed orders from the brigade commander's conference. The order to Captain Halliday was that he open his attack at 0130 hours and not push beyond Post 10. The changed order to Lieutenant MacFarlane and his actions have been described. D Company advanced at 0135 hours by sending forward a few scouts from a covering platoon, while the other two platoons worked their way to the opposite side of the Post and waited with bayonets fixed. Capt. Halliday and his company captured Post 19 at 0230 hours, taking 73 prisoners, then advanced on Post 14 which was captured by 0410 hours, with another 64 prisoners. Australian losses were one soldier killed and seven wounded. Lieutenant Steve Bernard 47

CHAPTER NINE THE 2/7TH'S BATTLE OF BARDIA played a very prominent part in the capture of both these posts. 2/7th Battalion casualties at Bardia totalled 8 offrs. and 68 ORs.


The official war diary of the 2/7th Australian Infantry Battalion recorded the events of the next three days in very simple terms:Jan 6th --Companies busy cleaning out captured Posts and equipment. Checking proceeding as companies gathered in materials to dumps. A relief after battle strain. The first for the new 7th Bn. Jan 7th --Companies continued to clean up whilst checking went on. Large amounts of equipment have been captured. Transport and artillery form a major part of the captured material. The padre conducted burial services for those killed in action. Jan 8th --A day of rest for the troops. Everyone glad of relaxation. Final check of captured equipment. So was recorded the 2/7th Battalion's activities in the first major battle against an Axis enemy. Its baptism of fire was complete and the battle had been won. Now for the war. 48 BOOK ONE WALKER CHAPTER 10

Tobruk --before the Rats carne The battalion was not allowed to rest for long. At 0800 hours on January 9, the commanding officer and the intelligence officer went forward to the Tobruk area on reconnaissance and the battalion moved out in a brigade convoy to some 36 kilometres east of Tobruk, north of the Bardia road, arriving at 0200 hours on the 1Oth and immediately beginning to dig in. Ten Italian soldiers seen walking along the beach were taken prisoner in the early hours of the morning, questioned and sent to the nearest POW cage. At 0845 hours on January 11th the CO held a conference of company commanders, during which he gave the rifle companies the task of intercepting --under the codename 'Winkling'-- enemy escapees in the area. Many prisoners began to be brought into battalion HQ by the Winklers. The CO and the intelligence officer carried out a reconnaissance of the area occupied by the 2/ 4th Aust Inf Bn on January 11. The first mail for weeks from home arrived and the newspapers were rushed. Soon the troops were back on the old grind of maintaining fitness. Morale was very high after the victory at Bardia and there were no complaints about 15 minutes of PT followed by swimming. Washing and personal hygiene had been most difficult over the past ten days or so, so the swimming parade also enabled personnel to freshen up. An Australian Comfort Fund issue of fruit, cream, canned peas and tobacco was distributed. The CO carried out a recce of positions occupied by the 2/11th Aust Inf Bn. On January 12/13, the rifle companies tested replacement LMGs and the mortar platoon practised with 3-inch mortars. A warning order told all personnel that the battalion would move to a new location during the night of the 15th. A violent sand storm made the movement so uncomfortable it was postponed until noon. 49

CHAPTER TEN TOBRUK Lt-Col Theo Walker, together with the Int Section personnel, moved out during


the morning. The remainder embussed in the early afternoon, arrived outside Tobruk, at about 1900 hours and immediately dispersed and dug in. Among the spoils the battalion had acquired from the Italians at Bardia were very badly needed binoculars and a large diesel water truck which replaced one of the smaller Morrises fallen by the wayside. Other items 'liberated' from the enemy were Biretta pistols and bottles of mineral water, although more pleasant to drink than the brackish water, it had a slight purgative effect which resulted in many shallow holes being dug in the sand, filled in and just as promptly reopened by dozens of scavenging dung beetles. Their task was to keep the desert sand clean. They were soon known to all by a name beginning with'S'. The posts at Bardia had been liberally supplied with large casks of Italian brandy. As well as being drinkable it also fuelled many Primus stoves. A rumor was that the cognac was 'etherised' and some deaths had come from over indulgence, but taken 'medicinally' with the mineral water, the drink was not unpleasant. The emptied wooden casks were excellent water containers. The Italians also had a stew very similar to the Australian meat and vegetable type and tomato paste, which the cooks put to good use as flavoring for bully beef stews. These two items were welcome but the average Italian rations found were far inferior to their own. A few bottles of Chianti in wicker basket covers did not last long. By January 16, the battalion was beginning to take stock of the enemy defences to its front. The forward company, placed well out, was able to see the enemy in defensive positions. Next day, the rifle companies began to send out patrols which were to continue for four days. The first reported a huge tank trap in front of the enemy wire. The trap, which was booby-trapped, seemed to extend right around the wire. The enemy appeared very nervous and frequently fired machine-guns set on fixed lines. The infanteers' incessant patrolling began to pay dividends with detailed reports of the tank trap. One from A Company reported being fired on over open sights. On January 19, patrols from A and C Companies reported shelling by 5.9inch or 6-inch guns, but there were no casualties. The enemy was obviously searching for the 51st British Field Regiment, located behind A Company. Although the average infantryman was happy with artillery support, he preferred it to come from any position other than his own as the outgoing 'mail' inevitably 'drew the crabs'. Examination by experts showed that the Italian shells were of poor quality as evidenced by bad fragmentation. Picric acid deposits indicated the guns were either naval or coastal ones using lyddite as propellent. January 20 began with A and B Companies reporting heavy shelling in their areas but no casualties. Patrols were now accompanied by detachments of the

50 BOOK ONE WALKER battalion's pioneer platoon and engineers from the field company to delouse booby traps and land mines. The terrain was very open and the task of reaching the traps was hazardous. By rendering booby traps harmless, they were ensuring the infanteers would be able to move forward unhampered during the battle for the township and harbor facilities of Tobruk, the next sequence in the battalion's future tradition. The 2/7th's war diary contains the following operational log for the Battle for Tobruk:


21st Jan - Bn HQ moved forward to new position towards assembly area. 0652 hours Int. Officer atOP at Cleo's Needle. 0735 hours leading Company passed the Needle. 0745 hours cannot sight tanks, adv elements going forward to trench. 0810 hours remainder of Bn at assembly area. 0825 hours passing through some prisoners. 0826 hours 2/7th forward elements at wire and following rear elements of 2/6th Bn along wire at bearing of 45 degrees. 0930 hours 2/7th Bn at 41964204 and moving towards objective. Approximately 2000 prisoners up to 0920 hours. 1022 hours two forward companies moving forward to relieve forward companies of 2/lst Bn Posts R74 and R77. At 1015 hours Bn HQ at Post R75. 1025 Hours CO placing reserve companies and then going forward to recce. 2 guns firing very close to HQ. Int. Officer forward on recce over crest to sight for 'I' Tanks. 1035 hours A Company crossing main Bardia Road, no opposition to date but MG fire from left. 1117 hours no shelling 2/7th area since 1100 hours. 1135 hours 2/7th Bn on objective west of Bardia Road, relief completed. 1145 hours A Company at Post R78 awaiting orders; had taken 250 prisoners with light resistance. 1545 hours C Company shelled, 1 wounded, L Wigan. 1705 hours Bn HQ shelled. 1845 hours CO went to Bde for conference. 2120 hours report from Bde HQ that Thermos bombs were found in 16th Bde area. 2130 hours CO held Company Commander's conference. 22nd Jan --C Company completed relief at 0245 hours. 0804 hours A Company preparing to move along Wadi 42304238, one platoon B Company at Post R78. 0930 hours, A Company have taken Sub-command Post Trig 94. Company moving one platoon forward and two platoons in reserve at road junction 42684232 to capture remaining two posts on coast. Casualties Nil. C Company have reached 42184277 and moving west to Wadi in square 420427, approximately 100 prisoners. 1150 hours 158 prisoners including six officers passed through to POW cage. 1350 hours Bn HQ now at Post R93 and operation completed. Area Commander in Post R94 captured by Captain Savige Com d. A Coy. and was made to telephone next post, across a wadi some 300 ft deep, the occupants of which came over to surrender. 23rd Jan --Whole Bn moved to cross roads 42184273 to take over POW cage guard duties. 2 Platoons B Company attached to 19th Bde to move 51

CHAPTER TEN TOBRUK to Derna. Every available man pressed into service as facilities for reception of prisoners very poor. There was a flagrant misuse of the 'Red Cross' by the Italians, the great majority using this sign for their own benefit. Many were detected changing the arm band from one to the other in order to obtain greater amounts of food and water for themselves. Water was a major problem and, together with many prisoners feigning extreme thirst, the job was a heavy one. A 24-hour-a-day job to straighten out the position and introduce system into their feeding and watering. 24th Jan --Position relieved somewhat by extra water being supplied. All prisoners given a drink but trouble caused by utter lack of discipline and selfishness of the Italians themselves. 25th Jan --All ranks worked very hard to put POW cage on a sound basis and now all very satisfied with their efforts. System working well.


26th Jan --POW cage guard duties handed over to 16th Brigade at 1000 hours and companies moved from proximity of cage and took up positions a little further south. The Battle of Tobruk and capture of the town and surrounding countryside sounded simplicity itself; but hidden behind the operational log were the bullets from rifles and machine-guns, of both sides, shells from the artillery, both Allied and Italian, bombs from mortars and all the other calculated risks taken by soldiers on the battlefield. Bill Bolger recalled an incident when B Echelon was in the tank trap and where his troops covered their position with a tarpaulin. Bill was instructed to go back to divisional HQ for stores. When he had collected these and completed the issues, he wearily picked his way to his bunk. It was already occupied by a very dead Italian! He never traced the practical joker. The drivers of the Italian water truck, Alan Anstis and George Caulfield, did a particularly good job while the battalion was on POW cage duties. A very severe sand-storm swept the Tobruk area on January 27, making sleep almost out of the question. Also against sleep was the myriad of particularly large and very vicious fleas. At night, they came in droves to attack, regardless of rank or blood group. A warning order came for the battalion to prepare to move by MT convoy. The 2/7th was scheduled for 0600 on January 28. While discussing the battles of Bardia and Tobruk it should be recalled that the 217th Battalion was very ably supported by the medium machine-guns of the ls~ Battalion of the Royal Northumberland Fusiliers Regiment. The 217th battalion's official casualties for the Battle of Tobruk were: nil personnel killed; one Officer, Lieutenant James Carstairs, and eight Other Ranks wounded. 52 BOOK ONE WALKER CHAPTER 11

On the road to Barce Heavy rain on the morning of January 28, combined with the dust of the previous night, made conditions very unpleasant as the battalion moved off at 0700 hours. Some three hours later, the unit re-established in a large fort in the Ain El Gazala area. The battalion was warned to be ready to move again at 0700 hours the next day, with the company commanders ready at first light for a reconnaissance. The move was postponed for 24 hours, allowing another peaceful day. The company commanders did the reconnaissance and the CO and the Int Officer made a further one to Martuba. The battalion eventually moved out of Ain el Gazala at 1100 hours on January 30 and Bn HQ re-established at Martuba at 1500 hours the same day. Next day the unit was on the move again, this time on foot. After marching for about 32 km, the troops again dug in for an overnight bivouac. Just as this task was started, orders came to push forward past the minefield to a position some 12 km ahead. The move was completed by dusk. At 2300 hours, orders were again to move. This time, the unit was to cover the gap between the 2/5th and the 2/6th Battalions along the Wadi Derna by first light. The unit moved out at 0130 hours on February 1, after embussing in a convoy,


of about 130 vehicles moving on a compass bearing. The battalion was in position some 90 km away by 0400 hours. It moved forward again at 1345 hours and in position at Post 515 at 1640 hours. The battalion was alerted to launch an attack on February 2 and prepare to move at 0700 hours. The 217th Battalion crossed the Start Line at 0800 hours and by 1100 hours was ready to be launched into the attack. An OP established at 1115 hours reported no sign of enemy movement. A fighting patrol, covered by machine-guns from 1st Bn of the Cheshires Regiment and artillery, entered the outer defences at the south east corner without opposition.

53 CHAPTER ELEVEN ON THE ROAD TO BARCE At 1230 hours, the battalion moved forward and, in the village of Elvet el Asel, the only person sighted was an Arab who said that the Italians had left the previous morning, moving west. The Bren Gun carriers sent to chase the fleeing enemy, made the village of Giovanni Berta and send back an 'all clear'. They were the first Allied troops to enter the village. The battalion continued along the road to Giovanni Berta and at 1930 hours the rifle companies were in position east of the town. The day had been long and arduous, and 38 km had been covered. The battalion had marched 120 km in three days over extremely rugged terrain --a notable feat of endurance. On February 3, the battalion set off once more west. Throughout the movement, delays were experienced with tank traps, mines and blown bridges. The enemy was doing his best to avoid contact. After some 20 km on foot, vehicles of the 2/2nd Australian Field Regiment came to carry the troops forward to the village of Kaf omn Gheiba, to bivouac for the night. The troops continued to display maximum enthusiasm and morale was at peak, in spite of the foot-slogging. At 1030 hours on February 4, the battalion was again on the move, still westward. This time they were helped by the artillery regiment's vehicles and at 1145 hours Bn HQ was established two kilometres west of El Faidia. An order was issued that all troops were to have respirators, and prisoners were allowed to retain theirs. February 5, particularly cold and wet, found the battalion awaiting orders to, once again, send it trekking to the west. The sixth was also inclement with temperatures still falling, and at 1930 hours the battalion moved to about six km east of Tecnis. On the seventh, the unit again moved at 0800 hours, over a road which monotonously bogged the vehicles. The movement through the pass took 5 liz hours for a mere 20 km. By 1700 hours, Bn HQ was in the barracks adjoining the Barce hospital and the rifle companies had shelter for the first time since the campaign began. In the meantime, the 7th Armoured Division, travelling due west from Mechili, through Msus to Antelat and Beda Fomm, had intercepted the Italian forces retreating south from Benghazi on February 6, and after a touch-and-go tank battle, defeated and captured the survivors by the morning of February 7. Thus concluded the first Western Desert campaign. Barce was a well-established town, bigger than those previously passed. The countryside was richer in agriculture with quite a large settlement, and had orchards and mixed farming. Barce had been a garrison town for the Italian Army with a well-built barracks, hospital and so on. The supply depot for all troops in the area, it had a large


quantity of rations, mineral water, petrol, etc. Not far away was a large, wellstocked winery, over which the 2/5th Battalion maintained guard. The sergeants mess' obtained permission to liberate some of the wine.

54 BOOK ONE WALKER The smallest barrel they took was an enormous 56-galloner but with no bung for tapping. Warrant Officer Class 2 (W02) Shorty Walker used an axe to stove the top in. With a jug and a few coffee cups from the Italian officers mess, victory was toasted. The battalion continued active patrolling as the Italian settlers were frightened of the Arabs. Strong warnings from the patrols curbed these nomads, but it was also found the the settlers reports were often exaggerated. As it appeared likely the battalion would remain for some time, a training program was started, complete with field firing and range practices. Fresh bread came from the local bakery, a treat after hard tack biscuits. On February 12 a brigade parade was held on the Barce airfield for the Australian Prime Minister, Mr Robert G Menzies, who conveyed the grateful thanks of the Government and the people of Australia for the work of the 6th Australian Division in Cyrenaica. When the Prime Minister said that he had flown many thousands of miles to be with them on this day, an interjector added that he had walked so many 'blankey' hundreds of miles to be there as well. The tactical situation had so eased it was possible for inter-company football matches. The 2/7th Battalion managed to defeat the 2/6th Battalion after a very close game. At this point of time, Capt. G H Halliday assumed command of HQ Company, and Capt. St. Elmo D Nelson took over D Company. More patrolling took place during the next two days. Many members of the battalion visited the Italian barber, who had re-opened. Others persuaded the local womenfolk to do laundry work and soon the battalion was again spic and span. This was helped by replacement clothing, boots and hats. On February 14, the troops received an inkling that their stay in this very pleasant oasis might not be long when the CO and Lieutenant Keith Walker left on a reconnaissance to the south of Benghazi. The weather continued to improve and troops were once more able to bask in sunshine. On February 15, patrolling was handed over to the 2/6th Battalion and, at the same time, the 217th Battalion was placed on a six-hours notice to move out. The CO returned from his reconnaissance and immediately issued orders for this to be during the early hours of next morning.

55


BOOK ONE CHAPTER 8

And so commences the battle of Bardia WALKER The overall story of the Battle of Bardia is best told briefly by the commander of the 6th Australian Division, General Ivan Mackay in his official report. " ..... (a) Concentration of 6th Aust Div in the Bardia area: 16th Aust Inf Bde Group moved by rail and road to Maaten Bagush on the 12th and 13th of December and on their arrival they passed to the command of the Western Desert Force. They moved forward to Sidi Barrani and on the 19th gained contact with the enemy South of Bardia. "Divisional HQ and the 17th Aust Inf Bde Group commenced movement by road and rail on the 19th, Div HQ moving to Sidi Barrani, and on the 21st they moved to Mersa Matruh and on to Fort Capuzzo area. The command of all Allied troops South of Bardia passed to the Commander of the 6th Aust Div at noon on the 21st and comprised, in line, the 16th British Brigade on the right, 16th Australian Infantry Brigade on the left. The members of the 7th British Armoured Division were in observation of the enemy on the left of the 6th Aust Division and they were also astride the road that lead from Bardia to Tobruk. "On the 24th of December, Lieutenant General R N O'Connor DSO.MC, Commander of Western Desert Force, visited me and instructed me that I was to consider plans to capture Bardia. On December 27th 17th Aust Inf Bde HQ and two Battalions took over from the two Battalions of the 16th British Brigade. The third Australian Battalion of the Brigade, owing to transport difficulties, did not arrive until the 30th. In the pursuance of General O'Connor's instructions, the 17th Brigade were instructed to advance their forward battalions so as to gain contact with the enemy and thus enable more information as to the enemy's defences to be gained. "Information in regard to the enemy was very meagre, and the chief impression gained from Intelligence reports being that there were not many troops in Bardia and that the defences thereof were not very strong. Ground and air reconCHAPTER

EIGHT THE BATTLE OF BARDIA BEGINS


naissance, however, showed a well constructed wire system protected by an antitank ditch. "This convinced me that the position could not be secured merely by a rapid advance but rather by operations approaching those in France in 1916/18. I reported this view to General O'Connor who promised to make available the maximum of Field and Medium Artillery and an ammunition supply of 500 rounds per gun. He also stated that the 7th Battalion, Royal Tank Regiment, 'I' Tanks, though considerably depleted, would be available for this operation. "As the result of the study of patrol reports, air photos and available maps, I was convinced that, to be successful, the attack against this well protected position by the small force at my disposal must be from an unexpected direction and that to attack directly astride the Capuzzo/Bardia road would only result in our striking the strongest of his defences. The essence of the attack must be to use every means to get the 'I' Tanks through the outer defences and inside the perimeter. "As the result of this, the outline plan, whereby the attack was to be made from the West, was developed and the details gradually worked out. The general plan decided that the 16th Aust Inf Bde would make a bridgehead across the tank obstacle with one Battalion, and that, following the operation, 7th Royal Tank Regiment would enter the defences of the perimeter followed by the other two Battalions of the 16th Aust Inf Bde. The right flank on the sea would be held by one Battalion of the 17th Bde, the remaining two Battalions of which would continue the attack of the 16th Bde. The remaining Brigade, the 19th, would be the Divisional Reserve. "To effect surprise, it was decided that the Artillery, which prior to the battle was comprised as the appendix 3, should be moved to the left flank, only 24 hours before the attack and that the Artillery programme, from the new gun positions, would be based on survey methods and prediction. To heighten this effect, guns which were left in their original positions to the South of the defences became particularly active during that 24 hours. Another ruse, aimed at strengthening the surprise effect, was that for some days prior to the battle our Artillery carried out short intensive bombardments on selected areas and posts, the enemy's reply to the bombardment was carefully noted. "The information thus obtained showed that the number of enemy guns in the position was considerable and a counter battery organisation was therefore set up at Div Arty HQs to deal with this situation. The work of this counter battery section proved to be very effective. The collection at the gun positions of a large amount of ammunition required for the battle represented a most serious problem since the transport available to XIII Corps, the changed title of the Western Desert Force, was inadequate to bring forward, to forward dumps, the quantity required. "To supplement this Corps transport, and to avoid facing the defences for an unnecessarily long time, all second line transport of the Division, as well as a con-

38 BOOK ONE WALKER siderable quantity of first line transport, was used to bring forward ammunition from as far back as Sidi Haneish, to the ammunition dump which had been established in the vicinity of Solum. "The necessary preparation as regards the tactical plan progressed satisfactorily and from this point of view operations could have taken place on 2 January, but owing to the ammunition situation it was necessary to postpone Zero Day until


3 January. "During all these preparations, as the only Corps Reserve was the 16th British Brigade at Solum, I have been pressing for the early arrival within the Divisional area of the 19th Aust Inf Bde Goup, which has been held a Burg-el-Arab since the departure of Div HQ on the 19th of December. The 19th Bde Group eventually arrived in the Capuzzo area on the evening of the 1st of January and on the night of the 2nd/3rd of January relieved all Battalions of the 16th British Brigade. "The plan, as finally settled, was that the 16th Bde would breach the perimeter between Posts 45 and 47, then with the assistance of 'I' Tanks and Artillery, one Battalion would mop up all the defences as far East as the Capuzzo-Bardia Road whilst the other two Battalions would proceed North and North East respectively to occupy certain features well within the defence system. In the second phase of the attack the 17th Bde, supported by 'I' Tanks and Artillery, would continue the advance along the perimeter to the East. In the preparatory stages much help was to be given by bomber and recce planes of the RAF, whilst a heavy bombardment of the Northern defences by ships of the Royal Navy was arranged to take place on the morning of the attack. (b) The assembling of the 16th Brigade and the final moves of the Arty during the night of the 2nd/3rd of January were carried out without incident and without disturbance by the enemy. At 0530 hours, the Zero hour for the attack, the whole of the Arty opened up on their pre-arranged tasks and the advance of the leading Battalion, the 2/1st Battalion of the 16th Brigade, from its assembly area commenced. Owing to the necessity for surprise no preliminary bombardment for wire cutting had been possible and the task for cutting the wire to make an entry for the Infantry was entrusted to the 2/1st Australian Field Company, RAE, using Bangalore Torpedoes. These proved to be very effective and the Infantry entered the perimeter within the pre-arranged time table. "As soon as the Infantry had silenced the enemy posts immediately in front of the points selected for the entry of the tanks, Engineers began preparing a crossing over the tank ditch. These were made by blowing in the sides of the ditch and partially filling it in. The tanks crossed the obstacle to the time table and from then until the end of the first phase the whole of the operations went as prearranged. To replenish the tanks with fuel and ammunition and to provide for any unseen delays, necessitated a pause of three hours at the conclusion of the first phase. "The second phase consisted of the attack by one of the Battalions of the 17th Bde, the 2/5th Battalion plus two Companies of the 2/7th Battalion, with the sup-

39 CHAPTER EIGHT THE BATTLE OF BARDIA BEGINS port of a timed Artillery programme and such tanks as were available. It was ordered that the attack would proceed, tanks or no tanks, and the rate of advance of the Arty support was based purely on the rate of advance of the Infantry without tanks. This, combined with the essential pause, enabled the enemy in the South Eastern section of their defences to readjust their dispositions, especially Artillery, so as to meet a further advance from the North East. "The action of the 2/5th Battalion was prejudiced by the Commanding Officer becoming a casualty shortly before Zero hour for the second phase. All these factors combined to delay the advance of the tanks to get ahead of the Infantry who were faced with enemy batteries in their front and on their flanks firing at very short range. Although a few tanks followed later and some progress was made, the fighting became confused in the advance of the Battalion.


"In the meantime the 16th Brigade had been subjected to considerable fire and at least one organised counter attack by enemy tanks. The latter were repulsed through quick action by two guns of the 16th Anti Tank Company. During the night of the 3rd/ 4th of January, the situation of the front of the 17th Brigade was still confused. Several efforts were made by Battalions of the Bde to go forward but as these could not, owing to the obscure position, be supported by the whole of the available Artillery, they achieved little progress. On the late afternoon of the 3rd of January the 2/8th Infantry Battalion of the 19th Brigade was placed, under the command of the 16th Brigade, so as to fill the gap and maintain contact between the 16th and 17th Brigades. ''Throughout the 4th of January the 16th Brigade, supported by Artillery and a few 'I' Tanks, made progress on the North and North East and gained the heights overlooking Bardia and a large portion of the enemy's rear position. As a result of this action, Carriers of A Squadron of the 6th Div Cav Regt and some four tanks of the 7th RTR entered the streets of Bardia late in the afternoon, thereby cutting in half the enemy's position. The effect of this was that the bulk of the enemy's troops, in the Northern section, which up until then had not been attacked, surrendered and prisoners in large numbers were collected from that area. ''On the other hand, the 17th Brigade was still fighting against the strongest of the enemy's defences, were unable to make anything but local advances, despite the surrender of the enemy to the North. Those in the Southern Section showed no signs of yielding. Consequently, it was decided to use the 19th Brigade in an organised attack in a South Easterly direction on the morning of the 5th of January in the area immediately North of that gained by the 17th Brigade. This attack was launched at 0900 hours on the 5th of January and, after meeting some opposition at the beginning, resulted in silencing the enemy Artillery and the capture of a large number of prisoners. "This action relieved the pressure on the 17th Brigade who quickly took advantage of the situation to seize the posts which had been obstinately holding out, and by 1100 hours the bulk of the Bardia defences were in our hands. A few

40 BOOK ONE WALKER isolated positions, however, in the wadis at the extreme East of the defences held out for some little time and cleaning up operations continued unti11400 hours. "So ended the Battle of Bardia, during which, in the space of 56 hours, 6th Australian Division, ably guarded on the landward flank by the 7th Armoured Division, supported by RA Units, 7th RTR and the RAF succeeded in capturing the whole of the enemy's defences and upwards of 46,000 prisoners at the expense of just under 500 casualties." Where was the 2/7th Battalion during that 56 hours or so? The situation was reported from the divisional commander's point of view. How was it from the soldier's point of view, way up there at the 'sharp' end? The official history, "Australia in the War of 1939 --1945," edited by Gavin Long and published by the Australian War Memorial, tells of this and many subsequent battles in which the 2/7th Battalion was engaged. It gives detailed accounts not only of the battles but of other factors concerning them. 41

CHAPTER NINE THE 2/7TH'S BATTLE OF BARDIA CHAPTER 9


The 2/7th's battle of Bardia The brigade commander, in executing the divisional commander's intentions, set out in his operation orders and instructions that the role of the brigade, prior to the battle, was to mislead the enemy into believing that the attack, when made, would be against his southern sector, and that during the battle its role would be:(a) To hold the enemy within his lines along Wadi Muatered and, at zero hour, demonstrate in this area; (b) To continue the attack past Capuzzo/Bardia Road with the 2/5th Battalion, plus B Company of the 2/7th Battalion forward and A Company of the 2/7th Battalion in reserve: Objective: Road Sidi Hassen --Post 10 inclusive. (c) 2/7th Battalion, less A and B Companies, in reserve in the present positions. The sector held by the 16th Australian Infantry Brigade was taken over by the 2/7th Battalion on the night of December 28/29. The latter advanced slightly ahead of its artillery positions between that time and the night of the 30/31. The surrounding countryside was generally flat and seemingly featureless, in direct contrast with the extremely rugged ground in the 2/6th Battalion sector. A carefully planned system of patrolling gained necessary information for the general officer commanding 6 Div. On December 31, the intelligence section established observation posts within the two forward companies. A patrol commanded by Lieutenant Timms --included in it were Corporals Baxter and Sym, from A Company-- set out to look for gaps in the wire or bridges over the anti-tank obstacles. This patrol saw working parties at three different points, once crossed the tank trap and came within 20 metres of the enemy. The patrol returned at first light to Battalion HQ, where each man was given a bottle of beer to celebrate the New Year of 1941.

42 BOOK ONE WALKER New Year's Day dawned with observation posts busily reporting enemy movements within their perimeter. The Italians were using an OP mounted on a truck to try to see what was going on. Again, patrols actively investigated the tank trap and possible approaches. The second day was spent quietly enough -that is, during daylight hours. B Company were shelled lightly and without a casualty. D Company OP reported the continued use of the mobile OP by the enemy. On this afternnon, the RAF bombed the enemy's forward defence lines. The intelligence section manned an OP some 1500 metres from the enemy wire and about 100 metres east of the Bardia Road. Just before midnight, A and B Companies moved to pre-arranged assembly areas. On January 3, at 0730 hours, B Company, under Captain D I A Green, moved from its assembly area and went through the enemy defences over crossings near Post 35, under shell fire. Private Colwell was killed. Near the Bardia Road, B Company again came under heavy shelling and machine-gun fire from its left flank and from Post 26. However, the men arrived at their position on time, 0930 hours, to come under the CO of the 2/5th Battalion. In his report on the operation, Brigadier Stanley Savige records this particular phase: ''The attack from the north across Bardia Road was timed to commence at 1130 hours with artillery fire plan operating at 1125 hours and shelling each post


in succession by observation. What 'I' Tanks that were available were to lead each of the two attacking columns. It was believed that three tanks for each would be available. The rate of advance, 100 yards in three minutes, was regulated by the artillery plan. ''The indication of lifts was a heavier concentration of shelling posts immediately in front of the advancing infantry just prior to each lift. Bad luck centred on this attack from its commencement. Changed plans and final teeing-up gave Wrigley (Major, later Brigadier Wrigley CBE.MC) who had taken over command of the 2/5th Battalion only 12 days previously, little opportunity to finalise his orders and pass them to subordinate commanders. They had a gruelling time in executing their movements, commencing 23 hours before starting off on their attack. "At 1030 hours, Wrigley, whilst carrying out a recce with his company commanders, was wounded. Shortly after the attack had begun, the Battalion Intelligence Officer, Lieutenant L K Shave, and two company commanders, Captain D A I Green of B Company, 217th Battalion, and Captain Smith from the 2/5th Battalion, were casualties also. Major GESell assumed command of the 2/5th Battalion and he started off on another recce with his company commanders. Capt. Green of the 217th Battalion, was, at this time, under heavy shell fire, and Sell ordered him, by message, to proceed as planned. 43

CHAPTER NINE THE 2/7TH'S BATTLE OF BARD lA "Just prior to the attack information reached Sell that tanks were NOT available. It was decided to attack without them." Information received by the battalion was that the tanks could not carry out allotted tasks as they were out of fuel and ammunition. This was to be the soldier's first taste of 'tank support'. B Company moved as planned at 1130 hours under the covering fire of one platoon, and came under heavy artillery fire at short range from its left and machine-gun fire from its front and left rear. Lieutenant Bert Evenson was wounded, but the company was able to continue the advance and to capture Posts 24, 26 and 27. Lieutenant Cec Davis and Corporal Philip were wounded. After the capture of Post 24, two tanks appeared and, although short of ammunition and fuel, their commanders decided to carry on to their limits. The company advanced still farther and, with the help of the tanks, captured Posts 22 and 25. In the process, one tank lost a track. At Post 22, Lieutenant 'Spider' Webb was wounded, eventually having to have one of his legs amputated. Captain D.I.A. Green, after the post had surrendered, was watching with Lieutenant C W MacFarlane the prisoners being rounded up. An Italian popped up from a pit with a rifle and shot Captain Green through the chest. The Italian then dropped his rifle, raised his hands and climbed out with a smile on his face. He was promptly thrown back and killed by a very angry soldier. Other soldiers then demanded that Lieutenant MacFarlane permit them to bayonet all the other prisoners in retaliation. He forbade them and was obeyed-perhaps not without question, but he WAS obeyed. Thus, Capt. Green and Pte. Colwell, both of B Company, were the first officer and other rank respectively, from 2/7th Battalion, to be killed in action. Lieutenant MacFarlane, now the only officer in B company, assumed command, continued the advance with Sergeant Foxwell's platoon and captured Posts


20 and 23. The one surviving tank returned to the rear for fuel and ammunition. The crew of the other worked valiantly to try to reset the lost track. By this time --it was about 1500 hours-- B Company had been severely depleted by casualties and escorts sent to the rear with captured Italians. Its strength was down to one officer and 65 other ranks, nearly half-strength. With only limited tank support, the company had, in about three hours, taken six enemy posts and widened the breach in the Italian line by some 2000 metres. Lieutenant MacFarlane sent out a patrol which later returned without sighting any friendly troops but a little later Major P D S Starr appeared on his left rear with B Company of the 2/5th Battalion. The enemy were now organising resistance in a wadi on the left forward flank and Major Starr agreed to deal with them, while MacFarlane and his company pushed on to Posts 21 and 18, which they attacked and captured. From Post 18, MacFarlane sent an Italian prisoner, who he had been using as an interpreter, to Post 16 --from which they had been heavily shelled-- to demand 44 BOOK ONE WALKER surrender. Watching through binoculars, MacFarlane saw the Italian go to the post and bend over it. A figure half-emerged and shot the interpreter. B Company promptly turned two small captured artillery pieces on to Post 16. In the meantime, A Company, under Captain Rus Savige, had moved forward at 1300 hours and, while crossing the Italian wire in the vicinity of Post 31, was shelled. One vehicle ran over a land mine and wounded its driver. At 1415 hours, the company arrived at its rendezvous where it too came under the CO of the 2/5th Battalion. The brigade commander had sent his brigade major, Major Geoffrey Brock, forward when he heard of the initial set-back to the 2/5th Battalion, and at 1445 hours ordered A Company of the 2/7th Battalion to advance toward the 'triangle', some 3000 metres away. The company advanced in a very open formation, using automatic weapons. After about 1000 metres, the men came under field artillery and machine-gun fire from the left and the front, which became heavier and more accurate as they continued to advance. When about 1000 metres from their objective, Lieutenant B H Timms was severely wounded and died soon after. Two more vehicles were lost to shell fire. The company then found itself close to a group of Italian batteries protected by machine-guns. This group was part of a strong concentration of artillery in the southern sector. Rus Savige attacked with his company, the troops moving forward under covering fire of his LMGs and rifles. After about half an hour of very intense fighting, the attackers had captured eight field guns, seven trucks, machine-guns and anti-tank guns in large numbers. The company continued the advance with Lieutenants Mark Howard and Ted Arnold being wounded. Rus Savige now had as his platoon commanders Sergeants 'Meggsie' MacDonald, Frank Hoban and Norm Corrie. In its advance, A Company captured machine-gun nest after machine-gun nest, several more pieces of field artillery and about 2000 prisoners. As he was now deep into the enemy's artillery positions, Rus Savige decided to halt in the Little Italian Wadi for the night. It had been impossible to evacuate any wounded and by now some 23 members of A Company had been hit. The company medical orderly, Private Alan Naismith, did a sterling job in looking after their needs.


Thus A Company, under the command of Rus Savige, like B Company, under the command of 'Wadi' MacFarlane, had, by a skilful and resolute advance and in spite of heavy casualties, established on its objective. In the meantime, the C/0 of the 217th Battalion, Lieutenant Colonel Theo Walker, at about 1500 hours, conferred with the C/0 of the 2/5th Battalion and the brigade major, who had been sent forward by the brigade commander who, in his report states: "Lt-Col Walker was placed in command of the troops in this area and as the situation had now quietened on the 2/ 6th Battalion front, I established my Ad45 CHAPTER NINE THE 2/7TH'S BATTLE OF BARD lA vanced HQ forward and after a further conference with Walker and Sell I ordered the following moves:

46 (a) D Company of the 217th Battalion, under the command of Captain G.H. Halliday, was to push on through B Company of the 2/7th Battalion and fight his way southward during the night. MacFarlane, of B Company, was ordered to do likewise along the Switch line. Starr of the 2/5th Battalion, who was thought to have his company at about Post 20, was to occupy Twin Wadis. A composite company, under the command of Captain J A Duffy, was ordered to occupy Dump Wadi, and to send out a patrol to link up with the 16th Brigade. (b) The area was divided into two sectors, Walker in command of the forward sector and Sell in command of the rear sector. At dawn, the situation was a follows: Halliday had secured Posts 19 and 17; MacFarlane moved out and after a brisk fight took Post 16 with one man being killed and two others wounded. He then picked up a CT running from the east and the Post which he took to be the Switch. After travelling for approximately 2000 yards, they returned to the Wadi forward of Post 16 and waited for first light. On approaching Rll, they were fired upon over open sights at a range of approximately 500 yards and machine gunned. On hearing this firing, Starr came across and gave support by mortar fire. MacFarlane continued the advance and captured Posts R11 and R9 before he was brought to a halt. (c) Savige, A Company of the 2/7th Battalion, was withdrawn approximately 600 yards before first light on the 5th of January to be clear of the barrage that was to support the attack by the 19th Brigade. Capt. Savige's orders were to assist the 19th Brigade with all available fire power, which he did. It was then decided to continue the advance and to attack and capture, on the right, Posts 12, 15, 10 and 13, and on the left, Posts R7 and R5. As the situation developed, A Company 2/7th Battalion would advance down to the road junction. To give further protection, C Company of 217th Battalion, under the command of Lieutenant Bev McGeogh, would occupy gun positions forward of Post 16. This was to be subject to the result of a conference to be held at Advance Brigade HQ. "The conference was attended by Walker, Sell and arty reps.


Owing to the intense enemy artillery concentration on the 2/7th Battalion HQ, Walker and the forward observation officer (FOO) of the 2/1st Field Regiment had to come back by Bren gun carrier. It was revealed that the strength of his leading companies averagBOOK

ONE WALKER ed out at about 35 to 40 personnel. All had been fighting without respite. ''Walker was then instructed to carry out the attack with his forward right company, supported by his reserve company. In order to obtain the element of surprise, the attack was launched at 0245 hours on June 5 and maintained until daylight. The enemy met the advance with machine- gun fire from the attacker's left rear, and MG and Mortar fire from their front. They put a protective barrage around Posts 17 and 12, which our troops were endeavoring to capture. Added to this heavy concentration of fire was the complete exhaustion of the troops. The attack failed. "Throughout that night and up until zero hour for the attack by the 19th Brigade, our forward troops were under incessant enemy fire. It became impossible to get any food to them. When the barrage supporting the 19th Brigade attack opened, they were subjected to intensive shelling, mortar fire and machine-gun fire. Orders had been issued to Walker to warn his companies on the left flank to give the utmost assistance by fire to the advance of the 19th Brigade, which they did. As the attack of the 19th Brigade advanced, Walker's troops moved on to their objectives down to Post 10. The action ended with our second role completed." To return to the story of what happened within the battalion during that time: after his first conference with the brigade major, the CO ordered the remainder of the battalion forward. Bn HQ and D Company under command of Capt. Halliday, moved to the road junction area at 1600 hours. C Company, at about 1615 hours, took up a defensive position by moving through the gate in the wire on the main Bardia Road, about 1000 metres east of the gateway and about 800 metres in the rear of D Company. At 1730 hours, D Company moved forward in a south easterly direction and contacted B Company at Post 18. At 2330 hours, rations and ammunition were brought forward for all companies and dumped in the rear of HQ Company. Major H Marshall, the Battalion 2 I/C came forward, reaching B and D Companies at about midnight. He issued the changed orders from the brigade commander's conference. The order to Captain Halliday was that he open his attack at 0130 hours and not push beyond Post 10. The changed order to Lieutenant MacFarlane and his actions have been described. D Company advanced at 0135 hours by sending forward a few scouts from a covering platoon, while the other two platoons worked their way to the opposite side of the Post and waited with bayonets fixed. Capt. Halliday and his company captured Post 19 at 0230 hours, taking 73 prisoners, then advanced on Post 14 which was captured by 0410 hours, with another 64 prisoners. Australian losses were one soldier killed and seven wounded. Lieutenant Steve Bernard 47

CHAPTER NINE THE 2/7TH'S BATTLE OF BARDIA played a very prominent part in the capture of both these posts. 2/7th Battalion casualties at Bardia totalled 8 offrs. and 68 ORs.


The official war diary of the 2/7th Australian Infantry Battalion recorded the events of the next three days in very simple terms:Jan 6th --Companies busy cleaning out captured Posts and equipment. Checking proceeding as companies gathered in materials to dumps. A relief after battle strain. The first for the new 7th Bn. Jan 7th --Companies continued to clean up whilst checking went on. Large amounts of equipment have been captured. Transport and artillery form a major part of the captured material. The padre conducted burial services for those killed in action. Jan 8th --A day of rest for the troops. Everyone glad of relaxation. Final check of captured equipment. So was recorded the 2/7th Battalion's activities in the first major battle against an Axis enemy. Its baptism of fire was complete and the battle had been won. Now for the war. 48 BOOK ONE WALKER CHAPTER 10

Tobruk --before the Rats carne The battalion was not allowed to rest for long. At 0800 hours on January 9, the commanding officer and the intelligence officer went forward to the Tobruk area on reconnaissance and the battalion moved out in a brigade convoy to some 36 kilometres east of Tobruk, north of the Bardia road, arriving at 0200 hours on the 1Oth and immediately beginning to dig in. Ten Italian soldiers seen walking along the beach were taken prisoner in the early hours of the morning, questioned and sent to the nearest POW cage. At 0845 hours on January 11th the CO held a conference of company commanders, during which he gave the rifle companies the task of intercepting --under the codename 'Winkling'-- enemy escapees in the area. Many prisoners began to be brought into battalion HQ by the Winklers. The CO and the intelligence officer carried out a reconnaissance of the area occupied by the 2/ 4th Aust Inf Bn on January 11. The first mail for weeks from home arrived and the newspapers were rushed. Soon the troops were back on the old grind of maintaining fitness. Morale was very high after the victory at Bardia and there were no complaints about 15 minutes of PT followed by swimming. Washing and personal hygiene had been most difficult over the past ten days or so, so the swimming parade also enabled personnel to freshen up. An Australian Comfort Fund issue of fruit, cream, canned peas and tobacco was distributed. The CO carried out a recce of positions occupied by the 2/11th Aust Inf Bn. On January 12/13, the rifle companies tested replacement LMGs and the mortar platoon practised with 3-inch mortars. A warning order told all personnel that the battalion would move to a new location during the night of the 15th. A violent sand storm made the movement so uncomfortable it was postponed until noon. 49

CHAPTER TEN TOBRUK Lt-Col Theo Walker, together with the Int Section personnel, moved out during


the morning. The remainder embussed in the early afternoon, arrived outside Tobruk, at about 1900 hours and immediately dispersed and dug in. Among the spoils the battalion had acquired from the Italians at Bardia were very badly needed binoculars and a large diesel water truck which replaced one of the smaller Morrises fallen by the wayside. Other items 'liberated' from the enemy were Biretta pistols and bottles of mineral water, although more pleasant to drink than the brackish water, it had a slight purgative effect which resulted in many shallow holes being dug in the sand, filled in and just as promptly reopened by dozens of scavenging dung beetles. Their task was to keep the desert sand clean. They were soon known to all by a name beginning with'S'. The posts at Bardia had been liberally supplied with large casks of Italian brandy. As well as being drinkable it also fuelled many Primus stoves. A rumor was that the cognac was 'etherised' and some deaths had come from over indulgence, but taken 'medicinally' with the mineral water, the drink was not unpleasant. The emptied wooden casks were excellent water containers. The Italians also had a stew very similar to the Australian meat and vegetable type and tomato paste, which the cooks put to good use as flavoring for bully beef stews. These two items were welcome but the average Italian rations found were far inferior to their own. A few bottles of Chianti in wicker basket covers did not last long. By January 16, the battalion was beginning to take stock of the enemy defences to its front. The forward company, placed well out, was able to see the enemy in defensive positions. Next day, the rifle companies began to send out patrols which were to continue for four days. The first reported a huge tank trap in front of the enemy wire. The trap, which was booby-trapped, seemed to extend right around the wire. The enemy appeared very nervous and frequently fired machine-guns set on fixed lines. The infanteers' incessant patrolling began to pay dividends with detailed reports of the tank trap. One from A Company reported being fired on over open sights. On January 19, patrols from A and C Companies reported shelling by 5.9inch or 6-inch guns, but there were no casualties. The enemy was obviously searching for the 51st British Field Regiment, located behind A Company. Although the average infantryman was happy with artillery support, he preferred it to come from any position other than his own as the outgoing 'mail' inevitably 'drew the crabs'. Examination by experts showed that the Italian shells were of poor quality as evidenced by bad fragmentation. Picric acid deposits indicated the guns were either naval or coastal ones using lyddite as propellent. January 20 began with A and B Companies reporting heavy shelling in their areas but no casualties. Patrols were now accompanied by detachments of the

50 BOOK ONE WALKER battalion's pioneer platoon and engineers from the field company to delouse booby traps and land mines. The terrain was very open and the task of reaching the traps was hazardous. By rendering booby traps harmless, they were ensuring the infanteers would be able to move forward unhampered during the battle for the township and harbor facilities of Tobruk, the next sequence in the battalion's future tradition. The 2/7th's war diary contains the following operational log for the Battle for Tobruk:


21st Jan - Bn HQ moved forward to new position towards assembly area. 0652 hours Int. Officer atOP at Cleo's Needle. 0735 hours leading Company passed the Needle. 0745 hours cannot sight tanks, adv elements going forward to trench. 0810 hours remainder of Bn at assembly area. 0825 hours passing through some prisoners. 0826 hours 2/7th forward elements at wire and following rear elements of 2/6th Bn along wire at bearing of 45 degrees. 0930 hours 2/7th Bn at 41964204 and moving towards objective. Approximately 2000 prisoners up to 0920 hours. 1022 hours two forward companies moving forward to relieve forward companies of 2/lst Bn Posts R74 and R77. At 1015 hours Bn HQ at Post R75. 1025 Hours CO placing reserve companies and then going forward to recce. 2 guns firing very close to HQ. Int. Officer forward on recce over crest to sight for 'I' Tanks. 1035 hours A Company crossing main Bardia Road, no opposition to date but MG fire from left. 1117 hours no shelling 2/7th area since 1100 hours. 1135 hours 2/7th Bn on objective west of Bardia Road, relief completed. 1145 hours A Company at Post R78 awaiting orders; had taken 250 prisoners with light resistance. 1545 hours C Company shelled, 1 wounded, L Wigan. 1705 hours Bn HQ shelled. 1845 hours CO went to Bde for conference. 2120 hours report from Bde HQ that Thermos bombs were found in 16th Bde area. 2130 hours CO held Company Commander's conference. 22nd Jan --C Company completed relief at 0245 hours. 0804 hours A Company preparing to move along Wadi 42304238, one platoon B Company at Post R78. 0930 hours, A Company have taken Sub-command Post Trig 94. Company moving one platoon forward and two platoons in reserve at road junction 42684232 to capture remaining two posts on coast. Casualties Nil. C Company have reached 42184277 and moving west to Wadi in square 420427, approximately 100 prisoners. 1150 hours 158 prisoners including six officers passed through to POW cage. 1350 hours Bn HQ now at Post R93 and operation completed. Area Commander in Post R94 captured by Captain Savige Com d. A Coy. and was made to telephone next post, across a wadi some 300 ft deep, the occupants of which came over to surrender. 23rd Jan --Whole Bn moved to cross roads 42184273 to take over POW cage guard duties. 2 Platoons B Company attached to 19th Bde to move 51

CHAPTER TEN TOBRUK to Derna. Every available man pressed into service as facilities for reception of prisoners very poor. There was a flagrant misuse of the 'Red Cross' by the Italians, the great majority using this sign for their own benefit. Many were detected changing the arm band from one to the other in order to obtain greater amounts of food and water for themselves. Water was a major problem and, together with many prisoners feigning extreme thirst, the job was a heavy one. A 24-hour-a-day job to straighten out the position and introduce system into their feeding and watering. 24th Jan --Position relieved somewhat by extra water being supplied. All prisoners given a drink but trouble caused by utter lack of discipline and selfishness of the Italians themselves. 25th Jan --All ranks worked very hard to put POW cage on a sound basis and now all very satisfied with their efforts. System working well.


26th Jan --POW cage guard duties handed over to 16th Brigade at 1000 hours and companies moved from proximity of cage and took up positions a little further south. The Battle of Tobruk and capture of the town and surrounding countryside sounded simplicity itself; but hidden behind the operational log were the bullets from rifles and machine-guns, of both sides, shells from the artillery, both Allied and Italian, bombs from mortars and all the other calculated risks taken by soldiers on the battlefield. Bill Bolger recalled an incident when B Echelon was in the tank trap and where his troops covered their position with a tarpaulin. Bill was instructed to go back to divisional HQ for stores. When he had collected these and completed the issues, he wearily picked his way to his bunk. It was already occupied by a very dead Italian! He never traced the practical joker. The drivers of the Italian water truck, Alan Anstis and George Caulfield, did a particularly good job while the battalion was on POW cage duties. A very severe sand-storm swept the Tobruk area on January 27, making sleep almost out of the question. Also against sleep was the myriad of particularly large and very vicious fleas. At night, they came in droves to attack, regardless of rank or blood group. A warning order came for the battalion to prepare to move by MT convoy. The 2/7th was scheduled for 0600 on January 28. While discussing the battles of Bardia and Tobruk it should be recalled that the 217th Battalion was very ably supported by the medium machine-guns of the ls~ Battalion of the Royal Northumberland Fusiliers Regiment. The 217th battalion's official casualties for the Battle of Tobruk were: nil personnel killed; one Officer, Lieutenant James Carstairs, and eight Other Ranks wounded. 52 BOOK ONE WALKER CHAPTER 11

On the road to Barce Heavy rain on the morning of January 28, combined with the dust of the previous night, made conditions very unpleasant as the battalion moved off at 0700 hours. Some three hours later, the unit re-established in a large fort in the Ain El Gazala area. The battalion was warned to be ready to move again at 0700 hours the next day, with the company commanders ready at first light for a reconnaissance. The move was postponed for 24 hours, allowing another peaceful day. The company commanders did the reconnaissance and the CO and the Int Officer made a further one to Martuba. The battalion eventually moved out of Ain el Gazala at 1100 hours on January 30 and Bn HQ re-established at Martuba at 1500 hours the same day. Next day the unit was on the move again, this time on foot. After marching for about 32 km, the troops again dug in for an overnight bivouac. Just as this task was started, orders came to push forward past the minefield to a position some 12 km ahead. The move was completed by dusk. At 2300 hours, orders were again to move. This time, the unit was to cover the gap between the 2/5th and the 2/6th Battalions along the Wadi Derna by first light. The unit moved out at 0130 hours on February 1, after embussing in a convoy,


of about 130 vehicles moving on a compass bearing. The battalion was in position some 90 km away by 0400 hours. It moved forward again at 1345 hours and in position at Post 515 at 1640 hours. The battalion was alerted to launch an attack on February 2 and prepare to move at 0700 hours. The 217th Battalion crossed the Start Line at 0800 hours and by 1100 hours was ready to be launched into the attack. An OP established at 1115 hours reported no sign of enemy movement. A fighting patrol, covered by machine-guns from 1st Bn of the Cheshires Regiment and artillery, entered the outer defences at the south east corner without opposition.

53 CHAPTER ELEVEN ON THE ROAD TO BARCE At 1230 hours, the battalion moved forward and, in the village of Elvet el Asel, the only person sighted was an Arab who said that the Italians had left the previous morning, moving west. The Bren Gun carriers sent to chase the fleeing enemy, made the village of Giovanni Berta and send back an 'all clear'. They were the first Allied troops to enter the village. The battalion continued along the road to Giovanni Berta and at 1930 hours the rifle companies were in position east of the town. The day had been long and arduous, and 38 km had been covered. The battalion had marched 120 km in three days over extremely rugged terrain --a notable feat of endurance. On February 3, the battalion set off once more west. Throughout the movement, delays were experienced with tank traps, mines and blown bridges. The enemy was doing his best to avoid contact. After some 20 km on foot, vehicles of the 2/2nd Australian Field Regiment came to carry the troops forward to the village of Kaf omn Gheiba, to bivouac for the night. The troops continued to display maximum enthusiasm and morale was at peak, in spite of the foot-slogging. At 1030 hours on February 4, the battalion was again on the move, still westward. This time they were helped by the artillery regiment's vehicles and at 1145 hours Bn HQ was established two kilometres west of El Faidia. An order was issued that all troops were to have respirators, and prisoners were allowed to retain theirs. February 5, particularly cold and wet, found the battalion awaiting orders to, once again, send it trekking to the west. The sixth was also inclement with temperatures still falling, and at 1930 hours the battalion moved to about six km east of Tecnis. On the seventh, the unit again moved at 0800 hours, over a road which monotonously bogged the vehicles. The movement through the pass took 5 liz hours for a mere 20 km. By 1700 hours, Bn HQ was in the barracks adjoining the Barce hospital and the rifle companies had shelter for the first time since the campaign began. In the meantime, the 7th Armoured Division, travelling due west from Mechili, through Msus to Antelat and Beda Fomm, had intercepted the Italian forces retreating south from Benghazi on February 6, and after a touch-and-go tank battle, defeated and captured the survivors by the morning of February 7. Thus concluded the first Western Desert campaign. Barce was a well-established town, bigger than those previously passed. The countryside was richer in agriculture with quite a large settlement, and had orchards and mixed farming. Barce had been a garrison town for the Italian Army with a well-built barracks, hospital and so on. The supply depot for all troops in the area, it had a large


quantity of rations, mineral water, petrol, etc. Not far away was a large, wellstocked winery, over which the 2/5th Battalion maintained guard. The sergeants mess' obtained permission to liberate some of the wine.

54 BOOK ONE WALKER The smallest barrel they took was an enormous 56-galloner but with no bung for tapping. Warrant Officer Class 2 (W02) Shorty Walker used an axe to stove the top in. With a jug and a few coffee cups from the Italian officers mess, victory was toasted. The battalion continued active patrolling as the Italian settlers were frightened of the Arabs. Strong warnings from the patrols curbed these nomads, but it was also found the the settlers reports were often exaggerated. As it appeared likely the battalion would remain for some time, a training program was started, complete with field firing and range practices. Fresh bread came from the local bakery, a treat after hard tack biscuits. On February 12 a brigade parade was held on the Barce airfield for the Australian Prime Minister, Mr Robert G Menzies, who conveyed the grateful thanks of the Government and the people of Australia for the work of the 6th Australian Division in Cyrenaica. When the Prime Minister said that he had flown many thousands of miles to be with them on this day, an interjector added that he had walked so many 'blankey' hundreds of miles to be there as well. The tactical situation had so eased it was possible for inter-company football matches. The 2/7th Battalion managed to defeat the 2/6th Battalion after a very close game. At this point of time, Capt. G H Halliday assumed command of HQ Company, and Capt. St. Elmo D Nelson took over D Company. More patrolling took place during the next two days. Many members of the battalion visited the Italian barber, who had re-opened. Others persuaded the local womenfolk to do laundry work and soon the battalion was again spic and span. This was helped by replacement clothing, boots and hats. On February 14, the troops received an inkling that their stay in this very pleasant oasis might not be long when the CO and Lieutenant Keith Walker left on a reconnaissance to the south of Benghazi. The weather continued to improve and troops were once more able to bask in sunshine. On February 15, patrolling was handed over to the 2/6th Battalion and, at the same time, the 217th Battalion was placed on a six-hours notice to move out. The CO returned from his reconnaissance and immediately issued orders for this to be during the early hours of next morning.

55


CHAPTER TWELVE CHAPTER 12

BENGHAZI AND BEYOND?

Benghazi and beyond The battalion left Barce at 0730 hours on February 16 in convoy and was joined by a detachment of the 2/2nd Australian Field Ambulance and a divisional signals van at Tocra. The C/0 moved ahead to attend a conference at the Sup- port Group of the 7th British Armoured Division. En route to the south of Benghazi, the unit was ordered to detach a company to Agedabia for guard duty. This task fell to A Company. The remainder of the battalion was to take up posi- tion at Kilo 822 on the Benghazi-Tripoli road, in the Agheila area. The convoy arrived at 1700 hours after covering 312 km. During the conference at Support Group HQ, it was decided that the 217th Battalion would move to positions previously held by the Kings Royal Rifle Corps at 1630 hours on February 17. Two batteries of the 37th British Light Anti-Aircraft Regt, part of the Royal Artillery, then came under the CO of the 2/7th. Lieutenant Keith Walker was detached as liaison officer with the headquarters of the Kings Dragoon Guards, an armoured car regiment. Also on this day, the 18th, the battalion had its introduction to the 'Stuka', the German dive bomber. Several Stukas attacked the area at about 1500 hours, machine-gunning slightly forward of the unit area. A little later 20 dive bombers --this time Junkers 88s-attacked the 2/7th's positions. There were no casualties. Anti-aircraft fire prevented the enemy planes from returning and one was seen emitting black smoke as it lost height. Brigadier Stanley Savige, the brigade commander, visited Bn HQ at 1700 hours. The brigadier remained overnight and early next morning he and the CO moved forward as far as Marsa Brega. During this day, February 19, the reconnaissance party was attacked by 18 planes. The concentrated attack comprised light and heavy bombs followed by some strafing. The main battalion positions were missed. 56


BOOK ONE

WALKER

Late on this day, A Company rejoined the main force from its guard duty at Agedabia and the two pounder anti-aircraft guns from the 2nd British Armoured Division came under the CO 2/7th Battalion. On the 20th, the Battalion moved at 0900 hours, A Company remaining to guard the rear. At 1330 hours, Bn. HQ was established a kilometre south of Kilo 813. The troops were having their evening meal when orders were received to move out. They went in line with company trucks on a bearing of 360 degrees north. They reached the road and then moved approximately two kilometres to the east, where a position was taken up off the road by 2210 hours. The brigade commander and Lieut-Col. Theo Walker again moved forward on reconnaissance on February 21 while the soldiers endeavoured to camouflage their positions. An OP was established four km to the north-west of Bn HQ from which a large area could be kept under close observation. The Pioneer Platoon was moved forward to Kilo 793. The enemy again struck from the air next morning, bombing the rear area with 20 aircraft. A repeat performance was carried out on the same area but there appeared to be no casualties or damage from either raid. Late in the afternoon, the battalion was again warned for movement, which commenced at 2130 hours and ended by 0300 hours. B Company was positioned at Kilo 794 south of the road, C Company at Kilo 798, south of the road and D and A Companies 800 and 400 metres respectively forward of Bn. HQ at Kilo 803, some 1100 metres south of the road. B Company took over the control of the road block at Kilo 793 from the Kings Dragoon Guards. During the afternoon of the 22nd, 143 reinforcements were quickly integrated and moved forward with the unit. The Pioneer Platoon returned at 0900 hours on the 23rd and the rest of the day was spent digging in. Priority was given to camouflaging the troops and their vehicles. On February 24, the Pioneer Platoon again moved forward of the battalion area, this time to assist the KDG in establishing a new road block further forward. Mines were laid on the airfield, over and along the frontier. Staff Sergeant Lovejoy's platoon used British and Italian mines in alternative rows in the El Agheila area, laying several kilometres. The Italian mines were from a huge dump found by B Echelon at Agedabia. The mines were brought forward in darkness in two large Italian trucks by Lieutenant Keith Walker, W02 Bill Bolger, Sergeant Keith Cockman, and Drivers Harry Button and Alby Hall. Enemy planes appeared over the battalion at quite regular intervals. One was hit by anti-aircraft fire and appeared to ditch into the sea. A fighting patrol of one section of artillery, one squadron of KDG and two platoons of infantry from the 2/7th Battalion, under Lieutenant Mark Howard and Sergeant Alan Palmer, left at 0300 hours on the 25th to patrol and ambush wherever possible. The 26th brought another spate of enemy air activity and again one raider was hit by the anti-aircraft guns and appeared to go to ground. This time, the enemy

CHAPTER TWELVB

BENGHAZI AND BEYOND?

aircraft bombed Marsa Brega. The Int. Officer set out in an endeavor to find an east-west track through the marsh and was successful. The weather on February 27/28 turned windy, the strong, cold winds bringing flying, biting, sands. But it also kept enemy aircraft away.


March came in as the battalion again moved forward two kilometres. Minefields were laid around the marsh on the west and the south sides of its positions. On March 2, the weather began to improve --and back came the enemy aircraft. RAF fighter aircraft put a damper on their activities and probably then originated the saying, 'Famous last words. It's a Hurricane'. The battery artillery of the 2/3rd Aust. Field regiment was busily registering and surveying the area for defensive fire. The fighting patrol despatched on February 24, returned to say that enemy forces were active in the El Agheila area but seemed content to avoid contact. Word was received that the 2/7th Battalion was to be relieved by the 2/5th Battalion during the night of March 4/5, C and D Companies remaining to come under the command of the CO of the 2/5th. This relief in the line was carried out and the 2/7th Battalion moved back to a defensive position astride the Marsa Brega/ Agedabia road. The rest of March 5 saw the battalion, less the two detached companies, digging in. Another quiet day was spent on the sixth and news received that the 6th Australian Division was to be relieved by the 9th Australian Division, which had not long arrived from home. The 6th was to return to Egypt for refitting and retraining.

58 BOOK ONE

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CHAPTER 13

Return to the land of the Pharoah The advance party from the relieving battalion, the 2/17th, from the 20th Brigade, arrived on March 7 and spent the day reconnoitring the unit's defences. The newcomers received a warm welcome from enemy aircraft. During this raid, the bombers ruined the battalion's good water truck with a burst of machine-gun fire, giving the driver, sheltering in a slit trench alongside, a shower bath. More officers and NCOs of the 2/17th Battalion arrived on March 8 and to the 'old hands' of the 2/7th, appeared very 'green'. On the 9th the order to move back to Tobruk was issued and, for good measure, enemy aircraft dropped a bomb in the vicinity of Bn HQ. The battalion was relieved by the 2/17th Aust. Inf. Bn. during the night of March 9/10 and the outgoing unit moved back to some 23 km north of Agedabia in an MT convoy. The move was completed by 0300 hours. At 0800 hours on March 10, the battalion set out in a 17th Brigade convoy to bivouac the night at Tocra. At 0730 hours on the 11th, the convoy again proceeded, without hitch to Derna, where the night was spent some 11 km west of the town. The trip on this day was through mountains and along tracks prepared by the allied engineers. The scenery reminded the troops of Christmas scenes on postcards and was the best in Libya. The 2/7th Battalion continued its journey eastward at 0830 hours on the 12th. The going through the Wadi Derna was particularly slow and over the worst terrain of the trip. The convoy arrived at its bivouac site in Wadi Zeitun, well remembered by troops who had taken part in the Battle of Tobruk. The battalion spent a few days relaxing in Wadi Zeitun and catching up on unit administration.


Here the troops learned that Major Henry Guinn had completed his tour of duty as commanding officer of the 17th AITB centre and was being transferred to the 2/5th Battalion. The RQMS, W02 Bill Bolger, was promoted to Warrant Officer Class 1 and transferred to the 6th Australian ITB as brigade sergeant-major.

59

CHAPTER THIRTEEN

RETURN TO PHAROAH'S LAND

While at Wadi Zeitun, swimming parades were very popular and the soldiers' relaxation continued until March 18, when a warning order came that the battalion prepare to move next day to Mersa Matruh. The unit went in a brigade convoy, leaving Tobruk at 0930 hours and, after some 170 km, halted for the night at Buq Buq. On the 20th, the convoy left Buq Buq at 0800 hours, averaged 19 kph and reach bivouac at Mersa Matruh, llkm from the coastal road to Sidi Barrani at 1630 hours. The next two days were spent collecting kit bags etc., stored in Alexandria plus reading a substantial amount of surface mail. On March 23, the battalion received its first Thompson sub machine-guns, enough to issue down to section level. The troops showed tremendous interest in the new weapons and their simplicity of operation. Nineteen new transport vehicles had been received, the 15 cwt type now being replaced by the one-tonner. The battalion lost the last of its captured Italian vehicles. On March 25 a warning order came for the battalion to move to Amiriya, the transport platoon on the 26th and the remainder on the 27th. The transport platoon, with 100 all ranks of HQ Company, left at 0700 hours and arrived at the destination at 1430 hours. The men were no sooner in Amiriya than orders were to prepare all vehicles for stowage on board ship. The cat was out of the bag! The 2/7th Battalion was off once more --but to where and to what? The remainder of the battalion moved by train, leaving Mersa Matruh at 0745 hours and arriving at Amiriya at 1830 hours, to learn that a part of the unit's transport vehicles was already in the embarkation area. It did not take long for the grapevine to produce the fact that the prospective destination of the 2/7th Battalion was Greece, particularly as it was refitted with clothing, new service dress uniforms, boots and hats. Leave rosters allowed all personnel day, and in some cases, overnight leave from March 28 to 31. Some impatient ones, with paybooks full, had not waited for a leave pass, but were already enjoying the attractions of Alexandria! A small advance party moved to the transit area and on March 29 the remainder of the transport vehicles were in the embarkation area. The next week was spent with troops taking training revision and leave while the CO and the company commanders dealt with the AWLs. On April 8, the advance party boarded the ship and a warning order issued for the battalion to commence embarkation on the 9th. For the move to Greece, the senior officers of the battalion were --C/0 LieutCol. T G Walker; Bn. 2/IC Maj. H CD Marshall; OC A Coy, Capt. J R Savige; OC B Coy, Lieut. C W MacFarlane; OC C Coy, Maj. W V Miller; OC D Coy, Capt. St. ED Nelson; OC HQ Coy, Capt. G H Halliday; Adjutant, Capt. H Goodwin. Among valedictory messages received by the battalion for its part in the Western Desert campaign, the following gave all members an especially warm feeling of having done a good job:-


60 BOOK ONE

WALKER

From Brigadier S G Savige, Commander 17th Aust. Inf. Bde On the battlefield of Bardia 8th Jan '41 My Dear Theo, It is impossible to find adequate words to express my great pride in you and your troops for the part you all played in the recent battle. Deprived of tank support, fighting of a severe nature broke out after crossing the start line. The necessary time to clear the situation lost the close support of the arty barrage. From there on your troops were involved in a fight covering 6,000 yards and the capture of 14 strongly defended posts or really forts. Besides that you attacked batteries firing at you over open sights, cleaned up MG positions and captured several thousands of prisoners. Could troops do more supported only by their personal weapons and own native resources? All of you have the satisfaction of knowing a good job has been done and done decently for the sake of your own self respect, which has always been high, as with worthy soldiers, with the 217th Battalion. I grieve with you at the loss of Green and the comrades who rest by his side. The battle discipline and excellent leadership of your junior officers and NCOs saved many lives. God bless you all. I am proud of the 217th Battalion and its commanders. Yours very sincerely Stan Savige Other congratulatory messages received by the Commanding Officer came from His Majesty King George; the Australian Minister of the Army; the Australian High Commissioner in London; the Commander-in-Chief of the Middle East, General Sir Archibald P Wavell; the General Officer Commanding the Australian Imperial Force, Lieut-General Sir Thomas Blarney; the GOC XIII Corps, Lieut-General R N O'Connor; the GOC 7th Australian Division, MajorGeneral J D Lavarack; the GOC New Zealand Expeditionary Forces, MajorGeneral Sir Bernard Freyberg; Major-General Sir C Rosenthal; the Commander of the HMAS' Sydney, Captain J H Collins; the High Commissioner of Palestine, Sir Harold McMillan; and the Mayor of Gaza, Rushdi el Shave. At the conclusion of the 217th Bn's tour of duty in the Western Desert, LieutCol. T G Walker had been selected to attend the Senior Officers' Tactical School,

61 CHAPTER THIRTEEN

RETURN TO PHAROAH'S LAND

normally a move made prior to promotion to Brigade Commander. However, when he learned that his battalion was to be included in the task force for Greece, he


requested that his nomination be deferred, and that he be left in command for the Greece campaign.

62 BOOK ONE

WALKER

CHAPTER 14

To the land of the Spartan The 2/7th Battalion Transport and Bren Gun Carrier Platoons, embarked on to the Singalese Prince and sailed from Alexandria on April 1. This day was later to prove very prophetic. Aprill, and 13 ships in convoy! The superstitious could have said, "I told you so!" Once out of fighter air protection range, the ships were to suffer one of the most severe and concentrated air attacks of any of the many convoys from Alexandria. The only one not to be hit was the Singalese Prince and it was very lucky, as twice the vessel was straddled by sticks of bombs. Rumor had it that the two ships sunk were carrying tanks and fighter planes. If correct, then enemy intelligence reports were accurate. The night after the arrival of the Singalese Prince at Piraeus, the port was to suffer such a very heavy air attack that its installations were almost useless for any further operations. The remainder of the 2/7th Battalion embarked on the Cameronia and its convoy sailed from Alexandria on AprillO at 2200 hours. The embarkation state for the unit was: 33 officers and 726 other ranks, including transport personnel who had already sailed. The 11th was spent at sea and on the 12th the convoy arrived in Piraeus harbor, the ships cruising around in case of air attack. In the early hours of April 13, the battalion began to disembark by rowing boats to land at Phaliron and quickly move to the army camp at Daphne, near Athens. The unit transport had moved forward to await their arrival. The CO, Lieut-Col. Theo Walker, went to Larisa where he was given orders to prepare a defensive position at Domokos Pass. The CO sent unit transport six km to the rear of the Pass. The residue of the battalion left Daphne Camp at 0730 hours on April 14, just one year away from Port Melbourne, and marched to the railway station at Rouf, to entrain at 1100 hours. Progress was very slow and there were frequent air raid 63

CHAPTER FOURTEEN

THE LAND OF THE SPARTAN

alarms. At 2230 hours, the train stopped at Domokos for the night. At 0730 hours, it moved off, but again the journey was painfully slow. A two-hour stop over at Krannon, where the train officials refused to go any further, didn't help. Major Henry Guinn, an ex-member of the 2/7th Battalion, now of the 2/5th Battalion, came to the rescue. Henry went to Larisa where he was able to arrange for the train's onward movement. The battalion arrived at Larisa at midnight and bivouaced approximately two km down the line. At 0330 hours on Aprill6, the unit was awakened with fresh orders to move back to Domokos Pass as part of a rearguard force commanded by Brigadier C A Lee, CCMA in HQ Aust. Corps. Owing to a heavy air attack


the Germans launched on Larisa between 0200 hours and 0500 hours, the train's crew could not be located. The bombing around the railway yards led Corporal Jock Taylor, Corporal Melville and Private Alan Naismith, to decide to have two engines fired up. One was left with the fire box partially open and with the blower working. This caused a glow in the inky night which German pilots quickly began to use as a target. Meanwhile, the other train was manned by Taylor, Melville and Naismith. They made up its complement while the enemy was bombing the other train some 500 metres away. Complete with its rake of trucks, they moved the train to where the battalion's troops were located. The battalion, which had been kept widely dispersed for three hours, was entrained and began to move at 0730 hours. The simple strategy employed by these three soldiers resulted in saving the battalion considerable trouble and strife. The train arrived at Demerle at 1130 hours. After detraining, the troops moved by transport vehicles to the top of Domokos Pass. On arrival in company positions, as allocated by Lieut-Col. Walker, they spread to dig positions designed to cover the main line of defence in the rear. The CO was already there with the operational plans for the rifle companies and, at the same time, he arranged for the control of all traffic through the Pass. On April 17, Captain Stan Fletcher, the battalion quartermaster, made an unsuccessful attempt to obtain much-needed ammunition and supplies by going back through Lamia/Brallos. He was able later to obtain some supplies at Larisa. Ammunition and 'iron' rations were issued to all personnel. Morale was still at a very high level. Major Harry Marshall Bn. 2IC, 'made a reconnaissance of a possible line of withdrawal. Convoys continued through the Pass throughout the night of April 17/18 with personnel of their units. All this time, the battalion was preparing to give the enemy a very hot reception. The last transport vehicle through the Pass was at 1510 hours on the 18th. The road was blown up in two places by 1615 hours. The 2/1st Aust. Field artillery regiment in support of the battalion carried out a registration practice for the coming enemy attack. At 1800 hours some trucks were observed making very slow progress on the poor road towards the Pass and the awaiting troops. When the vehicles reached the bottom of the Pass, the ar-

64 BOOK ONE

WALKER

tillery fired. Two immediately burst into flames and others were hit. Troops from all vehicles ran for cover. They were Royal Engineers who had been left behind for demolition work and nearly been demolished for their trouble. No warning had been received that this party was to be expected. The survivors later moved out with the battalion when it withdrew from Domokos Pass. Orders came that only ammunition and weapons were to be carried. Air raids during the day and again while the battalion was on the road, and the unit's transport situation, made things seem a little grim at 2030 hours that night as the battalion settled to wait. About this time members first experienced the meaning of 'fifth columnists'. Several were rounded up during the day --12 were captured, two caught breaking bottles over the road to the rear of the battalion. These two were also carrying sticks of gelignite. There were almost continuous air raids during April19 and at 1510 hours, during one attack that lasted almost two hours, Major Harry Marshall and Lieute-


nant Harry Lunn had a very narrow escape when a bomb exploded close to their weapon pit. They were partly buried but otherwise suffered no harm. During this morning it was learned that a train, with a load of gun cotton and ammonal was in the siding at Sofhiades, about three km north of Domokos Pass. Two members of the 2/7th Battalion, Corporals Jock Taylor and Barney Keenan, volunteered to blow up the train to stop it falling to the enemy. Jock and Barney, ably assisted by seven other volunteers, set off. When they arrived at the siding, they found that the engine was also there. They set about raising steam to move the trucks to safety. The train was about to move when a particularly intense air raid came. A German pilot, flying low over the train, machine-gunned and bombed until it blew up. Jock Taylor was blown from the engine's cabin but, together with Barney Keenan and the other seven volunteers, returned to battalion lines unscathed. Lee Force was then ordered to withdraw from its rearguard position at Domokos, and a warning order to move came at 2100 hours on Apri119. The rifle companies moved from their defensive positions in an orderly manner to assemble just above Domokos Pass. The battalion's transport vehicles immediately embussed Bn. HQ and B Company for their new destination where they quickly moved into a defensive position to cover the arrival of the rest of the unit. At this time, there were no indications when the Army Service Corps vehicles would arrive to transport the remainder. At 0245 hours on April 20, the decision was taken that the other companies would walk to the rear, carrying only minimal weapons and equipment. Personal gear and a great amount of small arms ammunition were left behind. After marching along the road for about 10 km, the companies and the ASC transport were at last united, and at 0525 hours the convoy set off to link up with the rest of the battalion. At 0900 hours, the trucks were attacked from the air while passing through Brallos Pass and heavy attacks continued for the rest of the day.

65

CHAPTER FOURTEEN

THE LAND OF THE SPARTAN

During the night of April 20/21, the ASC transport vehicles carried the members of the battalion to Brallos railway station, where they debussed and marched to the creek. They arrived in their new positions between 0300 and 0400 hours. Brig Lee had organised a small rearguard to hold astride the road 16 km south of Domokos. This was commanded by Major Harry Guinn, and included B Coy. of 2/7th Bn., under command of Lieut. C W MacFarlane. About 1100 hrs. on April 20, a German troop-carrying aircraft landed some 5 km north-west of B Coy. position. Lieut. J I Morris, one of the platoon commanders, took three NCOs forward to investigate. B Coy. commander, Lieut. MacFarlane, call- ed to them to come back. The NCOs heard and returned, but Morris went on and was eventually taken prisoner. After effectively delaying the German advance during April 20, the rearguard withdrew in good order to the Brallos'position at 1700 hrs. hat day. The 21st turned out to be very quiet as far as enemy activity was concerned. This was limited to reconnaissance only. The 2/7th Battalion transport vehicles arrived during the morning to move the unit back still farther to a new defensive position in Brallos Pass. This manoeuvre was carried out between 1430 and 1800 hours without aircraft protection.


On April 22, the battalion was ordered on the move once again and started back to the crossroads. The unit spent many arduous hours climbing the hills, the ever-present German air attacks designed to make the job even more hazardous. Their new positions were in fact the original ones adopted on arrival into the Brallos area. Two platoons of B Company were now in reserve. Two platoons of medium machine-guns from 2/1 Aust. MG Bn. remained with the rifle companies and orders were issued for everyone to lie low and remain con- cealed from the enemy. At 2000 hours, the CO attended a conference at 17th Brigade HQ. On April23, plans were completed for the organised withdrawal of the 2/7th Battalion and others. All bridges in the area were destroyed by the engineers. At 2030 hours, all companies were strategically placed along the exit road in readiness for their pick-up by transport vehicles. During the night, a number of stragglers were collected from such units as the 2/1st Battalion, 2/4th Battalion, 2/1lth Battalion; there were artillery personnel, members of the Royal Horse Artillery, Royal Army Service Corps, Australian Ar- my Service Corps, 2/6th Battalion, 2/8th Battalion and the 2/2nd Battalion. In addition, six casualties were picked up and all were to remain with the battalion until returned to their units. Motor transport arrived at 0045 hours on April 24 and embussing completed by 0240 hours. In spite of the heavy shelling of the crossroads, no casualties were reported. The convoy moved out of the crossroads area to north of Eleusis and the unit bivouaced near point 1956. At 2100 hours, the troops were on the move once more. This time, they travelled throughout the night. On Anzac Day, 1941, the 2/7th Battalion arrived at Miloi and defensive positions were taken up in the olive groves. It was just as well that the battalion was

66 BOOK ONE

WALKER

well dispersed and well hidden because German reconnaissance planes were very active. Enemy bombers attacked the harbor, setting fire to one ship and sinking another. At 2245 hours, the 2/7th Battalion was once more in transport vehicles and travelling throughout the night. The battalion arrived at the port of Kalamata during the early hours of April 26, debussed and moved to tactical positions along the road. The whole area was a mass of transport vehicles of all sorts. Members of the unit remained concealed for the rest of the day and finally moved to an assembly area at 1730 hours. Once on the jetty, the personnel of the 2/7th Battalion went aboard the waiting destroyers and were then taken out to the troopship Costa Rica. The Costa Rica was the ship that was later to become famous to all those early members of the unit. The embarked strength of 217 Bn. on the Costa Rica was recorded as 32 offrs. and 728 ORs, but it seems likely that these figures included one officer and 50 ORs of the Transport Platoon, who were in fact left behind at Kalamata also, the losses sustained by the battalion in Greece -- 7 killed, 13 wounded (and not made prisoners), and 73 prisoners.

67 CHAPTER FIFTEEN CHAPTER 15

THE DRIVERS' FATE


The drivers --this was their fate When the battalion troops boarded the Costa Rica, most did not know that 50 transport drivers, under Lieutenant Jack Young, were left in Kalamata. This is Jack Young's story of what followed:"At 1400 hours on the 26th Apri11941, the Commanding Officer, Lieut-Col. Theo Walker, gave me the following orders: 'You and your men will now come under the control and command of the 17th Brigade HQ and you will stand fast at this assembly area until you are contacted by brigade with a direct order from the brigadier or the brigade major to destroy your vehicles. (The assembly area was some ten km north of Kalamata.) "At approximately 1630 hours I was contacted by Lieutenant I. Lowen, the liaison officer and Captain Tyrell, the brigade ASC officer, who ordered me to collect all the rations and petrol that were available and despatch them to the beach at 2000 hours that evening. This task required the use of two 30 hundredweight vehicles. On making inquiries as to the possibilities of my troops be- ing evacuated, Lieutenant Lowen replied that, 'We will probably be on the beach for the next two days; that is the reason for moving the rations to there'. "During that first night, the traffic on the road to Kalamata was very heavy, mainly with refugees, Greeks and Yugoslavs. The 17th Brigade HQ failed to make any further contact with me that night. With the coming of dawn, I put Corporal George Foot on duty at the assembly point on the road. "I then proceeded to the beach where I met Captain R R Vial of the 6th Australian Division HQ who informed me that the division had been evacuated on the previous evening, the 26th of April. After taking my leave of Captain Vial I returned to the transport lines and immediately ordered the complete destruc- tion of all the unit and the ASC vehicles under my command. "When this unhappy task had been completed, I moved the entire detachment of transport personnel down to the beach where we joined forces with the 17th

68 BOOK ONE

WALKER

Brigade Transport and Orderly Room personnel and we immediately dispersed into the surrounding hills and olive groves. "At 2000 hours on the 27th of April, the whole of the AIF personnel left behind on Kalamata (some 380 in all) formed into their various units and marched to the quay to await destroyers expected to return to the harbor after dark. They did not arrive so, at 0400 hours on the 28th, all personnel were dispersed once more to the hills and the olive groves. At the same time as on the previous night, the troops were once again formed up and moved to the beach. "At 1800 hours the German Forces attacked the town and the quay, which they captured, including the Royal Naval beach-master. A small force of AIF transport personnel laid on a counter attack and they were successful in regaining .. control of the quay and the town; but we now had no means of contacting the destroyers, which by this time had entered the harbor. The Royal Navy commanders would not recognise our signals and they eventually lifted their anchors and withdrew from the bay. "At approximately 0345 hours on the 30th of April, the senior officer in the area, Brigadier Farrington, surrendered the force to the Germans. Some of our


transport personnel took to the hills and managed to avoid being taken prisoner. The remainder of my troops were handed over to the Germans, with the rest of the surrendering troops.'' Some of the transport platoon and a few personnel detached from their companies and units were able to escape and rejoin the reformed 2/7th Battalion in Palestine. Alan Anstis and J B Green were among those, but unfortunately landed in enemy-held Libya, to be taken prisoner. Reports from some who made it to freedom speak for themselves. The first came from VX 5845 Corporal George Foot. "On the night of the 27th of April1941, when the battalion moved to the beach at Kalamata to embark, the transport drivers were told they would be remaining behind to destroy their vehicles. Lieutenant Jack Young was waiting on the road and he told me he was awaiting this instruction. After that, we would be moving down to the beach. I went back to where the other drivers were sleeping and went to sleep. "At 0300 hours on the 28th I was awakened by Lieutenant Young. He told me that he thought there must be something wrong as no message had been sent back to him. I stayed awake with him until 0700 hours, when he told me to go to see if I could locate the 17th Brigade HQ. I collected a vehicle and Lieutenant Young came with me. We drove through Kalamata and when we were near the beach, Jack Young saw Captain Vial. After a conversation with that officer, Lieutenant Young and I returned to our drivers. "We had learned that the 2/5th and 2/6th Battalion transport drivers had been left behind as well and that all of us were to be taken off the beach that night. Jack Young ordered everyone to destroy his vehicle. It was a little sad but had to

69 CHAPTER FIFTEEN

THE DRIVERS' FATE

be done. When everyone had complied with the order, we were told to move in small groups to Brigade HQ. "While this was in progress, German bombers were very active and it was approximately 1500 hours when the last of our personnel arrived. When they were all together, I made up a nominal roll and reported to Captain Gray. He gave me instructions that at 2000 hours I was to march the driver personnel to the road leading to the beach and report back to him. I was then informed that we would move to the place of embarkation with the rest of the waiting force. After waiting on the beach until 0200 hours on the 29th of April, it was decided that the Navy wasn't coming and that all troops should return to the hills to await nightfall. "While in the hills that day, German aircraft carried out many raids on the areas we had vacated the day before. During the afternoon, I noticed a small sail- ing boat entering the harbor. This boat was machine-gunned by planes but, from what I learned since, it appeared this was only a ruse. At about 1600 hours, I heard several bursts of machine-gun fire in the distance. It did not sound familiar, and I thought nothing of the incident. "At about 1930 hours, the troops began to move down from the hills. While coming through the scrub and nearing the road, rifle and machine-gun fire were heard nearby, intermingled with several rounds from a field piece fired down the road and into the nearby hills. "At this stage, everyone was a little doubtful as to what was going on. We decided to move forward alongside the roadside. While we were passing a white


house, we were met by a hail of machine-gun fire that appeared to be coming from out to sea. All now realised the German troops were in possession of the town and the jetty. "Things were soon organised and the New Zealanders took the front line, with the other troops forming a reserve line, along a dry creek bed. After about one hour's fighting, the Germans were apparently wiped out. All firing ceased with the exception of one machine-gun from a boat in the harbor. After a short while, this weapon, was also silenced. The time would now be about 2330 hours on the 29th of Apri11941. "The troops were lined up in ranks of 12 along the beach waiting to be taken off by the navy, only a short distance from the shore. As far as I could ascertain, the wounded were the only troops to be taken off that night. "At about 0245 hours on the 30th of April, the naval vessels pulled away from the shore. They left between 8000 and 9000 troops on the beach. "Soon after, an English brigadier called a conference of all officers and we were told that the force intended to remain on the beach and surrender to the Germans in the morning. "It was then that Lieutenants Young, Patterson and Benz got the 17th Brigade drivers and clerks together and it was decided we would try to escape.

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"The officers managed to get three trucks in good condition and we drove down the road for about three km. The trucks stopped and everyone got out. We were then told by the officers that they also intended to surrender in the morning, but anyone wishing to continue on their own could do so. Seven drivers, two members of the intelligence section and myself, all from the 217th Battalion, decided we would still endeavour to escape. "The men who made up our party were: from the intelligence section, W P Dowd and Charlie Broadbent; the drivers, Max Wallenaffer, L Setford, C Williams, Frank Hall, W Hanley and myself, George Foot. With our party were about 20 other soldiers from various units. We drove a truck to the next town, but had to abandon it because we had literally come to the end of the road. "It was now breaking daylight and several enemy planes were already cruising overhead. We decided to work our way along the coast looking for a suitable craft. After walking for about eight km we saw a large fishing boat of approximately 150 tons. Other troops were at the boat and they agreed we could go with them as the craft could carry about 70 men. At about 1330 hours on the 30th of April, everyone was aboard. They were trying to get the engines started when we heard German aircraft overhead. "The boat was soon under attack from three German single-engined dive bombers. They dropped about nine bombs but I think only one hit the ship. Everyone remained calm and stayed below deck. When the bombs were not successful, the pilots began to strafe with their machine-guns. The boat was soon enveloped in flames. "All managed to get off from the burning wreck to swim ashore but we lost all our equipment, clothing and food. Casualties would have been about 20. Captain Vial and an English major, whom I believe to be a Major Park, did very fine


work. Major Peters volunteered to stay with the wounded men and the rest of us decided to push on. "Our movement down the coast had now become very difficult. We had no boots and very little clothing, and that given to us by the Greek people. After travelling over some very rocky terrain, we arrived at the next town, about eight km from the sinking, at 1700 hours. The inhabitants told us that British ships often passed by the next town along the coast, so we decided to push on. Wearrived in the village at about 2000 hours. ''All that night, we waited nearby but no ship appeared. In the early daylight hours of the 1st of May, we went in to the hills to lay up until darkness. Several enemy planes were overhead during the day but did not see us. In the afternoon, we were told that the Germans had sent a note asking if we intended to surrender or fight on. As we had very few rations and almost no weapons, a note was sent offering our surrender. "At about 1900 hours, two English signallers asked for volunteers to go on guard and watch for any passing ships. W P Dowd, Charlie Broadbent, Max 71

CHAPTER FIFTEEN

THE DRIVERS' FATE

Wallenaffer, L Setford, C Williams, Frank Hall, W Hanley and myself and the two signallers went out to a peak to keep watch. "The members of the third watch heard a ship and flashed an SOS which was answered. The signallers then flashed the full particulars of our situation. Soon a boat came ashore. There were three destroyers. After looking further along the coast for other escapees, we left the coastline of Greece at 0500 hours on the 2nd of May."

72 BOOK ONE

WALKER

CHAPTER 16

One of the 'Grecian Greyhounds' One member of the battalion captured by the German Army at Kalamata managed to escape. Charles Downing, a driver, told the story of his trials and tribulations while he roamed free, his travels through the Balkan states and his return to the battalion. During the short time the 2/7th Infantry Battalion was in Greece, Ch&rles Downing was the driver of a platoon stores truck and arrived with the battalion at Kalamata. Most of the battalion was taken aboard the Costa Rica but the transport drivers were left behind to destroy their vehicles. When they gathered once again on the beach, the destroyer took on some wounded and left. Around midnight on April 29, it was heard that the remaining allied forces on Kalamata had surrendered. About this time, Charles Downing joined up with a large crowd of soldiers in a storage shed near the wharf, and found a corner for his best night's sleep in weeks. (As Charles recalled it 36 years later.) "On the morning of the 30th, I was rudely awakened by a great, hulking form in field grey. It was a German soldier and he appeared to be very angry and shouted at


me. The building was now deserted. I had slept so soundly I had heard nothing when the others left. I got the German's message that he wanted me to move out. I went. "The soldier took me to a prisoner assembly area. The numerous machineguns at one stage, all appeared to be aimed at me. Later that day, we were taken from Kalamata inland to Corinth and incarcerated in what appeared to be Greek Army barracks. The many large buildings were very well supplied with minute livestock such as lice, fleas and bugs. To break the monotony, several of us held competitions to see who could slay the most. But, no matter how many were exterminated, the numbers always seemed to have multiplied when nightfall came. "We were held at Corinth for a few weeks and moved to Salonika. The trip to this seaport in the Gulf of Thermai was extremely long, made more so because

CHAPTER SIXTEEN

A 'GRECIAN GREYHOUND'

much was on foot. Our escort, members of the Austrian Alpine troops appeared a decent bunch of blokes. "Salonika No 1 camp held far too many prisoners and the stench was often overpowering as the sewage system had broken down. The conditions forced me to the conclusion that the German war machine would be far better off without me, so escape from their clutches I must. The country to the north of Salonika seemed to offer the best chance of a successful escape attempt, as the borders of Yugoslavia and Bulgaria were close by. "While in the Salonika No 1 Camp, and later at the No 2 Camp, I had a couple of trial runs. Both were unsuccessful, but I reckon that with a good pair of wire cutters I would have made it. One date I will never forget was Friday 13th of July 1941. On this day, our German guards herded us on to a train that surely must have been headed for Germany. 'Splinter' Cooper and I did most of our travell- ing together, mainly, because we both had that crazy urge to be on our way. The thought of a tourist trip to Germany at this time did nothing. "We were close to the Yugoslav border when 'Splinter' jumped from the train, to be followed by me a few minutes later. Splinter was soon rounded up by the Germans. I next saw him 15 years later. The train had slowed down to cross a river bridge. I have always thought that jumping from a moving train was a risky business at any time; but to do so in the darkness and in a strange country, on Fri- day the 13th was pure foolhardiness. "I took that first long step into space and made a beautiful tumble fall that led me to land rather softly, but also rather prickly, into a blackberry bush. To make matters worse, I landed just opposite a small German camp for bridge repair gangs. By the time I extracted myself from the blackberry bush, it was Saturday the 14th and almost daylight. "The terrain on both sides of the river was hilly and very open, with little or no cover, apart from what grew on the river banks. I hid there to await nightfall. In one of the longest days I have ever spent, I watched the German gangs working on the bridge and wondered just how long before they spotted me. I knew I would have to cross the river to head north for Yugoslavia. "When the moon rose, I moved into the river and commenced my trek to freedom. For two nights, I tried to put the Greek countryside as far behind as possible. Two days after jumping from the train, I managed to hitch a ride from two Greek peasants in a horse-drawn cart. I thought they would surely kill me with kindness! They gave me cigarettes made from home-cured tobacco which on a very empty stomach caused me quite a bit of discomfort. They took me to the village of


Platonaki, about a mile south of the junction of the Yugoslav and Bulgarian border. "I remained in the village as the guest of those wonderful people for about four weeks and was joined by another Australian, a member of the 2/2nd Australian Field Regiment. I cannot recall his name. We both agreed that this village was 74

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the lap of luxury and managed to stay for a further four weeks before deciding it was time to move on. The villagers were sad to see us go but could not have fed us indefinitely. "As the country was still inclined to be very open, we moved by night, maintaining contact with the smaller Greek villages recommended by our friends in Platonaki. We arrived near a fairly large city called Kilkisnia. To reach it, we had to cross the river by one of two bridges, one for trains, about 100 metres apart. The railway bridge was guarded by a German at each end, but none was on the road bridge so we just shuffled across, in full view of all! "We moved through Kilkisnia and continued our southerly trek to within eight km of Salonika, where we were joined by two ex-prisoners; Bill Shepherd, of the 2/5th Battalion and an Englishman. While on the move we had been hearing that a Greek submarine had been cruising the coast picking up escapees. The submarine was reported to be operating off Stavros, to the east of Salonika. I have a fair suspicion that these stories may well have been part of Aesop's Fables. But we decided to give it a try. As we made progress, the local road traffic to Stavros became impregnated with German troops. "When any vehicle headlights approached, we would move back from the road 100 metres or so. But on one night, I well remember, we became a little careless and decided just to drop down the embankment. We were behind some bushes when a truck of Germans stopped to make use of the bush we were hidden behind. We damned near got urinated upon. After the troops had moved on, we unanimously voted that the traffic was too heavy and that we move on a southeasterly tangent. We heard more rumors of another submarine operating in the Mount Athos peninsular area so decided to make for the coast. The peninsular country is particularly rugged and covered with some dense scrub so we were able to use daylight to cover more distance each day. Wild chestnut trees in the area gave us plenty to eat. "At the tip of the peninsular, we were given sanctuary in a monastery I believe was called Lavra Monastery. We were well fed and, for the first time in many months, our worries about our German pursuers ceased. By this time, there were six of us. On October 19 we took leave of the monks and their peaceful haven and were given a ride in a fishing boat which, we hoped, would land us closer to our destination, Egypt --but this was not to be. Our benefactors landed us on that island of First World War fame, Lemnos. "We found the Germans had many troops and heavy guns stationed there, so decided to split up as six men were too conspicuous. Three of us borrowed a rowing boat that night and headed out to sea for the island of Imbroz, under Turkish domination. We reasoned that internment by the Turks was far better than incarceration by the Germans. We were making quite a lot of headway when out of nowhere a storm blew up. No matter how we tried, we could not maintain our


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course. We finally made landfall on the island of Samothrace, to the north of Imbroz. "We decided to rest up on the.island for a few days as we appeared in no immediate danger from our pursuers. Our leisure was broken by the arrival of the remainder of our party who had been blown off course by the same storm. Bulgarian servicemen occupied the island and their efforts to effect our capture made life a little difficult. The wonderful Greek residents took tremendous risks each day to bring food to our hideout in the nearby hills. I know of at least one Greek civilian who suffered a terrible bashing at the hands of the Bulgars --but he did not reveal our hiding place. "On November 19, four of us borrowed another boat and made the island of Imbroz, the following day. We spent five days there with the most wonderful Greeks. We had our first hot shower in a long time, were given clean sets of clothing, plenty of food and wine. Life indeed was good. When the time came, it was like leaving our home and our friends. "We made our way from the island, this time by the coastal steamer for Canakkale, on the famous Dardanelles. There I was given money and a passport, of all things, by a Colonel Hughes. After three days, we took a steamer for the Turkish city of Izmir(Smyrna), where we were given a wonderful reception by the Turkish people. For once, there was no restrictions on our movements as we were now in a neutral country. In both Canakkale and Izmir, we were boarded at the best hotels, all paid for by the British Consul. "Three days after our arrival in Izmir, we boarded a train for Ankara where we were taken by car to a private home owned by a French family. While in Ankara, we had to remain under cover but didn't complain as there was plenty of food, beer and cigarettes. On December 2 1941, we again boarded a train, this time for the last leg of our journey, Cairo. "Our train was met by British army intelligence personnel and after several days of intensive interrogations, we returned to the 17th Australian Infantry Training Battalion and, after a period on the 'X' List, back to the battalion in Syria. "How wonderful was the spirit of the Greek people who helped us so much. I do not think any others would have taken such risks, especially when to be caught meant certain death. They gave us food I am certain they could ill-afford and yet, to them, we must have just been foreigners from a far away land. "I forgot to write the name of the member of the 2/2nd Field (Regiment) in the little notebook I carried at all times. The others I can recall were Bill Shepherd, of the 2/5th Battalion; Bill Le Lievu, from New Zealand and Fred Speyers and Len Rogers, of the British Army. During our travels together there were many amus- ing --and some not so amusing-- incidents. This will convey some of the problems we had to face.

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"It happened to Bill Shepherd. Bill, who had wandered off from the party, met two Greek peasants who gave him a cigarette. He was enjoying his first puff when a motor cycle, with two German soldiers pulled up. All they wanted was a light from Bill's cigarette! "After the war had been won, the soldiers who had escaped from Greece were called 'Grecian Greyhounds'. It could have come from the infamous Lord Haw Haw, who termed the 6th Australian Division in Greece the 'Larissa Harriers'. 77

CHAPTER SEVENTEEN CHAPTER 17

THE COSTA RICA

The Costa Rica The troopship Costa Rica moved out of Kalamata at about 0400 hours on April 27, with 2,600 trooips including its share of very tired - but with morale high -


men of the 217th Australian Infantry Battalion. The whole time taken to embark the troops and get underway was one of incessant German air attacks. How the troops wished for some planes, preferably fighters, carrying the British roundels. Although there was one near miss, intense anti-aircraft fire managed to hold the bombers off. At 1440 hours on April 27, the luck that had so long been with the battalion, ran out. Three German bombers glided out of the sun; engines switched off, to take the convoy by surprise. The bombers were invisible until they dropped their bombs. Two landed close to the port side of the Costa Rica and rendered the ship's ejector valves useless. Several plates were apparently sprung and the engines stopped. The order came to abandon ship and by 1505 hours, the escorting destroyers had taken most of the troops from the stricken vessel. The discipline displayed was in the best traditions of the Australian fighting soldier. The only blemish occurred when four crew members tossed life rafts overboad with the cry 'Everyman for himself'. This caused some soldiers to leap from the decks. The presence of about 20 men in the water prevented the destroyers' rescue operations on the port side. Two destroyers took soldiers from the starboard side. Eventually the ship's complement was taken off by the destroyers. The Costa Rica finally blew her boilers and sank at 1610 hours, without loss of life. At 1815 hours, the destroyers disembarked their cargo of troops at Suda Bay, on the Mediterranean island of Crete, a name to be written in the annals of Australian military history, alongside Gallipoli, as another glorious campaign. A report on the sinking of the Costa Rica was written by Lieutenant Colonel Theo Walker, the commanding officer of the 2/7th Battalion.

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A report on the sinking of the Costa Rica was written by Lieutenant Colonel Theo Walker, the commanding officer of the 2/7th Battalion. ''The ship left Kalamata carrying approximately 2600 troops of various units of the 17th and 19th Australian Brigades and their details. Shortly after dawn, she was attacked by enemy aircraft. Bren and Vickers guns had been mounted for anti-aircraft defence and it was their fire that forced the enemy aircraft to attack from a higher altitude than desired by the pilots. A further attack was made during the morning but the AA fire from the Army and Navy caused the enemy to desist, although some bombs dropped very close to the stern of the HMS Hero. "By this time, every available space on the bridge and the boat deck was being used for AA Guns and the loading parties that had been organised for ammunition supply. At approximately 1440 hours, another attack was made. At that time the ship was moving directly away from the sun and the enemy was thus presented with the most favorable of targets in the most favorable of positions. The enemy aircraft were detected at approximately 5000 to 6000 feet gliding out of the sun, with their motors off, and all guns of the ship and navy engaged. "Apparently, the bombs had been released as the enemy aircraft pulled out of their dive and a few seconds later two bombs exploded in the water on the port side at approximately seven or eight feet from the ship's side. Immediately the engines stopped and the chief engineer reported 'making water in the engine room'. At this time, it was thought that the damage was insufficient to cause her to sink. However, at 1500 hours it was reported that the water was coming in fast and orders were given for all personnel to fall in on deck.


"At this stage, owing to the numbers on board, all personnel could not be accommodated on the decks and the alleyways and cabins on the promenade deck had to be used as well. Many troops were now on the deck below, standing there in complete darkness, however, their behavior was exemplary, the soldiers were standing silently on parade. The port side boats were ordered away and the men filed into them in an orderly manner. A destroyer, the HMS Defender, came up along the starboard side. It was about this time that four of the ship's crew, aft on the port side came up on to the deck and commenced to throw liferafts overboard shouting 'every man for himself!' "About twenty soldiers broke the ranks and jumped. This action considerably hampered HMS Hero, which could not get alongside as the destroyer had to pick up these individuals. On the starboard side, the ships were falling and rising some eight to twelve feet and the men had to swing down ropes and jump for the destroyer's deck. On obtaining a full complement, this destroyer pulled away from the stricken ship and was immediately replaced by HMS Hereward. "It was at this time that the ship's officers informed me that the hip might sink at any time. However, the men were filing up from the lower decks in good order and, when the destroyer pulled away, the last soldiers to jump were the antiaircraft gunners who had been instructed to remain with their guns in case the enemy aircraft should return to interfere with the transhipment.

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"HMS Hero then came back alongside and took off about 20 military personnel and the ship's officers. "At this stage, the ship had settled and listed so much that this party simply stepped off the lower bridge of the stricken liner on to the forecastle of the destroyer. The ship then listed still farther and caught the destroyer for a few seconds. The latter had to cast off mooring lines to get away. Some 10 or 15 minutes later, the 'Costa Rica's' boilers burst and she disappeared from our view. The transhipment of all personnel was completed at 1550 hours, occupying just 45 minutes. "It was later to prove very unfortunate that the troops had lost most of their arms and personal equipment. It was lost owing to (a) the impossibility of allowing anyone to go below after the ship was hit, and, (b) the necessity for the maintenance of AA protection during the period of transhipment. Many weapons were thrown on to the destroyers' decks, and, (c) the failure of the lighting system below the promenade deck, and, (d) the men having a long jump or having to swing down on the ropes. ''Generally, the conduct of the troops was equal to the highest of military traditions and the work of the Navy cannot be too highly commended. Before leaving the Costa Rica, I personally visited the two decks which I found to be deserted and I am of the opinion that all personnel were transhipped.''

The Battle For Crete After disembarking at Suda Bay at 1815 hours on April27, the battalion marched to a point some five kilometres east of the jetty where they settled down for the night. One blanket and rations were made available about midnight. At 1600 hours on April 28, the unit was ordered forward, around the bay, and moved


eight kilometres to a well-concealed defensive position about two kilometres south of Kalives. It was early spring with its contrast of warm heady days and crisp nights. The coastal plain which rose from the northern beaches was divided by steep culverts and brilliant white rivers of pebbles in dry water courses. The hills were covered with dense olive groves or vineyards, wheat fields, vegetable crops in tilled red 'SOil, and wildflowers, and dotted with tiny villages, and grazing sheep and goats. Although it had three airfields the island was very primitive and had no railways and only one good road which ran along the northern coast. The south coast could be reached by one road or track which wound up through the scrubby volcanic ranges of the interior (which rose to snow-capped peaks at 1200 metres) and petered out at the edge of the escarpment a few kilometres above the town of Sfakia.

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On April29, personnel received an issue of towels, shorts, shirts, socks, cigarettes and soap. The soldiers who had poured onto Crete bathed in the sea and streams, and sunbaked. They foraged for oranges, fished in pools with Mills bombs and bought eggs, chickens, fruit, dried fruit, wine, rice, bread and milk. The peasants were hardy people who led a frugal existence but showed great hospitality and generosity to the troops and were mostly reluctant to accept money for food. Imagine the men's response to these variations from iron rations. There were still some weeks before the invasion was expected. The use to which the Allies put this time was vital. There were poor communications between Crete and the outside world, and within the island itself, no defensive works and a great scarcity of supplies and difficulties in obtaining them. During this preparation period enemy aircraft dive-bombed the Allied forces, restricting greatly the approach of the Navy and unloading of vital supplies and equipment and hammering the anti-aircraft batteries. There was little air support --none by the time of invasion. A great many non-combatant troops had been diverted to the island. They were disorganised, got in the way and helped consume resources. They should have been evacuated --but lack of shipping made this difficult. The island basically was divided into defence sectors from east to west: 1. The Heraklion sector (also called Candia): Here there was an airfield and beach to protect. This sector became completely cut off from the others. 2. The Retimo sector: Tasks were to defend a harbour and airfield and prevent sea-borne troops landing in Georgioupolis Bay. The 2/7th was stationed near Georgioupolis before being rushed to-3. The Canea-Suda Bay sector with the harbour and army base to be defended. Here the 2!7th were in action before the withdrawal. 4. The Maleme sector: Here there was an airfield and long beach to defend .

•

Churchill in a message to Wavell on April28 said "It seems clear from our information that a heavy airborne attack by German troops and bombers will soon be made on Crete..... It ought to be a fine opportunity for killing the parachute troops. The island must be stubbornly defended." May 1: The battalion was split up into five rifle companies --A, B, C, D, and E, and one company --F, formed from 2/5th and 2/6th Battalion personnel. E


Company comprised former HQ Company personnel, and was commanded by Captain Halliday. Rifles were coming to hand, but little ammunition. These were issued to the rifle companies along with brens --approximately one per platoon. Most of the troops received bayonets, some of them English, gleaming with nickel plate. There were no scabbards to distribute, so the best place for them was on the bayonet boss on the end of their rifles. Four shovels per company were also issued --one-fourth the standard issue. This allowed a modicum of digging in.

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On May 2, Major-General Freyberg (Commander N.Z. Forces), who had been appointed Commander of Forces in Crete, addressed the officers and N.C.O.'s on the situation in Crete, and the Allies' task and morale. Methods of dealing with parachute troops and landing forces were discussed. Airborne troops were then outside our men's experience. The 2/7th was next for duty, and D company sent two platoons to a position 26 kilometres from camp, covering the main bridge at Georgioupolis. Guards were maintained in the village and on the bridge, while watches were posted on all high points against parachutists. On May 3, general training continued, but was still hampered by lack of equipment. Gradually the feeling of tiredness that had dogged the troops was leaving them. Peace and rest and improved diet were having their effects. A scene of regenerative tranquility, in contrast to the pressures of Greece. That afternoon, however, there was a severe air raid. 35 planes attacked the area for some 35 minutes from 1430 hours. An anti-aircraft barrage and two Hurricanes dispersed the enemy, bringing down five planes. On May 4, by 1130 hours, the battalion was on the move in Royal Army Service Corps transport, as they had none of their own. They were moved to the 19th Brigade under Brigadier George Vasey (along with the 2/lst, 2/8th and 2/11th Bns.), defending the Retimo sector. As mentioned, Retimo had a harbor, airfield and about 11 kilometres of beach along Georgiou polis Bay, which had to be protected against invasion. Their bivouac area was about 300 metres west of the village of Georgioupolis on either side of the road, and here they'arrived about 1645 hours. The coastal village of Georgioupolis had a population of about 200 and was approached over a bridge, following which one came across two cafes --one called the "New Cafe". That night they were issued with tinned fruit provided through the Regimental funds. The men must often on such occasions have remembered with thanks the 217th Women's Auxiliary, which raised money for the funds. On May 5, at 0830 hours, all companies moved to take up defensive positions round Georgioupolis. An operation order was issued concerning defence procedure against the air invasion. At a later stage it was learnt that the invasion date was to be the 20th -two German fliers, shot down off Crete, bragged to the fisherman who rescued them.


Patrols day and night were to be carried out throughout the battalion's allotted area, and security measures observed against parachute troops and possible fifth columnists.

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During the night it rained --only lightly-- but this was potentially serious as the men had nothing but their uniforms and no shelter. On May 6, a "Guide for Anti-parachutist Measures" was issued. Little experience is available as a guide for anti-parachutist measures. It is understood that the enemy's method is as follows: 1. (a)Heavily bomb suspected ground defences. (b) Land stores and light guns by parachute. (c) Land paratroops in large numbers, closely followed by paratroop leaders with red parachutes. (d) Paratroops concentrate on leaders, collect stores and advance on ground defences. 2. Equipment: consists of high proportion of automatic weapons, grenades, folding bicycles, light howitzers and probably our own uniforms. 3. Our methods: from 1(a) it will be seen that it is essential that our ground defences remain hidden during the bombing stage. Aircraft will not be fired upon unless it is obvious that a ground target has been spotted and is being deliberately attacked. A limited number of guns should fire upon the plane. 4. From l(b) and (c), it will be seen that paratroops require a period, said to be about 15 minutes, in which to organise themselves. This is their vulnerable time and requires prompt action on our part. Fire will not be opened until paratroops are close to the ground since fire will probably be ineffective owing to range miscalculations and it will prematurely disclose our positions. 5. Two cases are considered-- (a) When paratroops land amongst our troops: This requires immediate action by platoon and section Commanders. (b) When paratroops land some little distance from our own troops: Company Commanders will immediately organise some form of attack covered by fire from their own resources. Bn. Commanders will lay down areas in which Coy. Commanders will act, and in the event of paratroops landing outside of these areas will be prepared to organise an immediate counter-attack upon the paratroops. H.K. Goodwin- Adjutant.

Meanwhile, barbed wire was being uncoiled at each section, and in water; trenches dug, well concealed; and patrolling continued. Air raid activity was fairly light.


The troops were on good terms with the locals who were poor and tough, and pressed on with their agricultural way of life while preparations for warfare were going on around them. However, the Australians' rapport with civilians was not unblemished. This may have been caused by the heady effect of the local wine, (retsina) on the Diggers who were mainly used to beer, and not much at that.

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The following warning from Brigade HQ was issued by the Adjutant: ''DISCIPLINE: (i) During the short period that this Force has been in the Neo Khorian area, 19 cases of crime by A.I.F. personnel have been reported to this headquarters by civilian authorities. These all involve injury to civilians or damage to their property. (ii) The number of soldiers in our ranks responsible for these offences is fortunately very small but the ill repute which they bring to the A.I.F. as a whole is out of all proportion to their number. Accordingly I am to say that it is the duty of all ranks to remain at all times constantly alert to see that the good name of the A.I.F. is maintained and not to hesitate to assume the role of policemen should circumstances require. (iii) In the meantime action by higher authority is necessary and accordingly all villages are placed out of bounds until further notice except for authorised personnel who will be issued with a written pass under unit arrangement." Whilst the battalion was at Georgioupolis Lieut. Carstairs was appointed to act as Town Marshal and the divisional prison compound was in the charge of first, Lieut. Walker, then Lieut. McGeoch. May 7: It was disconcerting to those troops who had been enjoying fresh cow and goat milk when an order was issued to cease this practice. TB was pronounc- ed to be present in the herds of both these animals in Crete. Milk boiled for three minutes was considered fairly safe. During this time at Georgioupolis troops were on half rations. Food like the other supplies they urgently needed was scarce. All soldiers with any stevedoring experience were at Suda Bay working night and day to unload ships, a situation of extreme danger. Hulks of bombed out ships were part of the scenery in the bay. Enemy aircraft were constantly hammering the area. The erection of barbed wire entanglements continued. On May 8, Lieut-Col. Walker and other unit commanders dined with King George of Greece in Canea. An entry in Col. Walker's dairy says "Things getting serious. It's to be a blitz". Intelligence, which had estimated the invasion force at 5,000-6,000, were getting reports that the force would be much larger. On May 9 and 10, general preparations continued, with little enemy activity. On May 11, the 2/7th officers entertained the local village dignitaries to tea under a roadside tree, and a return visit was agreed upon. By May 12, a feeling of disquiet was growing. Troops had received no mail since Amiriya. On 1230 hours on May 13, a Messerschmidt 110 recce plane crashed eight kilometres east of Retimo. It was discovered to contain maps of Greece and Crete, and an aerial photograph of the Retimo area, with some slit trenches


around Retimo landing ground marked on it. That night air raid activity was stepped up. On the evening of May 14, troops put on a concert.

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May 15, improvements were still going on. By now it was getting hard to keep the pressure upon the troops because of the inactivity of the enemy and the tension of waiting for an unknown hour. A walk through the village that night showed it to be practically deserted, as the inhabitants were taking to the hills. All ranks were warned to be on their guard against German Secret Service agents. A so-called 'German Jew' at Canea, and one at Heraklion had been arrested by Greek authorities. They had recently come to the island as refugees but were known to be spies. Their presence reasonably indicated that others might be on the island. In another incident at Suda Bay, a German agent had arrived in a caique wearing a Royal Marines uniform with a major's crown on the shoulders. He was unlucky enough to present his false papers to an officer of the British Security Police who was equipped with a list of Royal Marines Officers! On May 16, patrols and wiring continued. Mines were being laid on the beach and through the wire. Another troop concert was held that night. On this day, an Intelligence report indicated that Crete would be attacked by 25,000 to 35,000 men coming by air, and 10,000 by sea. On May 17, enemy aircraft activity was stronger. The roads and bridges were to be blown up by engineers and preparation was being made. May 18 was a quiet day. The battalion officers were entertained at a return tea party by the locals in the village. On May 19, stand to was held at 0400 hours with all companies inspected. Enemy aircraft were passing overhead. (A note on Allied air strength: The three planes (Hurricanes and a Gladiator) remaining on Crete were sent back to Egypt that day. For them it was hopeless. General Freyberg wished to mine all airfields to prevent their use by Germans. He was refused permission. All three fields had to be preserved as it was planned that fighters would return as soon as possible.) May 20, was a clear still day. Zero day. About 0800 hours, German parachutists and glider-borne troops landed around Maleme air field; later in the morning landings were made in the Canea area; and then at 1630 hours, further landings were made at Retimo and Heraklion. Posted as they were at Georgioupolis the 2/7th were betwixt and between, but able to observe the action at Maleme-Suda to the west in the morning, and in the afternoon to the east at Retimo. Thunderous bombardment especially to west. Reports from the fronts became scarce and then ceased entirely. On May 21, the battalion was alerted to stand by to move at 2000 hours. The battalion area was dive-bombed during the early morning. The day continued quietly.


Whilst Retimo and Heraklion landing grounds were still held by the Allies, the Germans gained a tenuous grip on the airfield at Maleme. The enemy position was insecure, but they had sufficient control for a steady stream of aircraft to land and take off. There was a danger that the enemy, who were establishing

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themselves in an area south (Aghya Reservoir) would drive north to the coast and cut the N.Z. division in two. It was decided that a 19th Brigade battalion --the 2/7th-- would be brought in from Georgioupolis in trucks to replace the 20th (N.Z.) battalion just west of Canea. The 20th N.Z. Battalion would then use the same trucks to proceed west along the coast to reinforce the 5th (N.Z.) Brigade in an attack that night. At this stage, the 2/7th were a tried and disciplined unit, who had never suffered a defeat in battle and were probably more experienced under air attack than any other unit in Crete. Furthermore, because they had suffered no great losses in Greece they were strong in numbers. Lieut-Col. Walker had warned the battalion to be ready to move at 2000 hours, but these plans were only formulated during the afternoon. He proceeded forward to recce the area, not liking the plan. To attempt to bring forward by night, a battalion that lacked its own transport, was 29 kilometres away and not connected by telephone to headquarters, in time for it to relieve another battalion that was to make an attack that same night seemed ill-inspired. Meanwhile at 2/7th Bn. Headquarters, Major Marshall was in command. He received orders to move off as near to 1700 hours as possible. "During the afternoon (wrote Marshall in his diary later) the transport arrived in dribs and drabs from all sorts of sources....The RASC drivers were unnerved by bombing and the threat or sound of planes and were sheltering away from their trucks as they considered their vehicles the targets.... "I hoped to get away at 1700 hours and speeded things up. Odd planes had been over our area all day and nothing had happened. Just as we had completed the embussing of the battalion in their areas, with exception of D company, whose drivers were still coming in, some enemy planes... discovered us... The planes were concentrating as well on a supply dump about a mile nearer to Neo Khorion. Everyone else was ready except D company so I left Halliday to hurry them on and I started off with the planes still around. It followed on our idea from Greece that the best way is just to go on in the face of an attack .... "We whizzed down the road and passed the food dump and breathed again. Then we turned a corner and found half a dozen planes above with the obvious intention of attacking us. I stopped the column until I was sure Savige with A company had caught up and then we sailed on. It was rather exhilarating. The planes had now obviously got onto us, but the road was winding along a valley and there were few straight stretches waiting for us... Twice I watched a plane single us out, bank and turn to machine gun us along the straight, aQd I told the driver to crack it up. It then became a race to the curve... We streaked along and I hoped the battalion was following." The head of the column departed from Georgioupolis between 1700-1800 hours and the tail departed about 2000 hours when the leaders were just arriving in the 20th N.Z. Bn. 's area. The relief of the 20th Bn. was completed about 2330 hours. They in turn went off to battle.


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On May 22, the battalion which was under heavy air attack all day was now occupying a position on the beach defence. Naval action was taking place off the beach and a constant vigil was kept for sea-borne troops. However, the Navy was in control as usual, and no enemy landed. Two platoons of E company were required to guard the bridge running over a creek on the Canea road. Large numbers of German troops were being landed by plane. The troop carriers arrived in batches of three, with an average of five minutes between batches. Planes came in over the battalion area at a height of 15 to 30 metres. As a result of their low flying, the AA guns were unable to train onto them. The planes came in a continuous stream from 1000 hours to 1500 hours. Meanwhile the battle for Maleme airfield was going on. Fighting was bitter and losses were heavy on both sides. Air support on the side of the Germans was beginning to tell, however. Each machine that landed at Maleme was gradually increasing the enemy strength. By 2200 hours that night, a decision was made to withdraw the Allied forces from the ground they held west of the Platanias River valley. This meant that the enemy could use Maleme airfield unhindered. It also signified an acceptance that Crete was lost. That night citizens remaining in Canea were persuaded to leave town and take shelter in the hill villages. Although the Canea-Suda sector was still under Allied control, it was feared that heavier bombing might cause the civilians to panic. On May 23, a warning order was issued to move the battalion at 0300 hours that morning under cover of darkness to a new defensive position. The 2/8th (at half strength) were on their left and the 28th N .Z. (Maori) Battalion on their right. During that day, they were heavily blitzed. For two hours in the morning and continuously during the afternoon up till 2000 hours. This kept heads down, meanwhile allowing the Germans to land more troops, stores and equipment. That evening C and D companies moved into a forward position, while slightly in the rear and between the former was E company, under Captain Halliday. A and B remained in reserve. May 24 was Empire Day --a day which caused some bitter reflection. Whilst there was no ill-feeling against Menzies there certainly was against Churchill. On the morning of the 24th the western flank of Creforce was an arc, curved round the south west of Canea with a radius of some five kilometres. Against it were pressing the now combined German forces of that area and a strong force of Mountain troops was advancing east through the hills to descend on Suda Bay from the south and encircle the defenders. During the afternoon strong German patrols probed the 4th (N.Z.) Brigade front and there were signs that the enemy was preparing a large scale attack. During the morning the air attacks and mortar and machine gun fire on the western front increased in intensity. At about 1600 hours a heavy thrust was made on the 18th (N.Z.) battalion about three

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kilometres from the 2/7th. The line was restored by counter attack and held. That afternoon Canea was bombed ruthlessly, the Germans seemed intent on destroying it entirely. The 2/7th were not being pressured too greatly that day by the enemy who fired sporadically on them from their terraced positions on the hills two kilometres away. The distant sound of planes told of continuous landings at Maleme. On May 25, to the right of the 19th Brigade, about three kilometres away, a fierce battle was raging. Although the line was being held, casualties were mounting, fatigue increasing and prolonged gruelling air attacks were wearing down the defenders' spirits. There were no attacks against the 19th Brigade that day --except aerial blitzing. Enemy planes hammered them remorselessly all day --the kind of attack against which the troops were powerless to retaliate. Meanwhile German troops continued to land at Maleme (two Mountain battalions and a motorcycle company that day). On May 26, at 0100 hours, the forward units were ordered to withdraw to a new line along a creek about two and a half kilometres west of Canea. The 2/7th would be covering the withdrawal and falling back to a new position. They came under air attack once more when it was light enough for planes to be in the air. There were no casualties and the "battalion's tail was up!" The men of the 5th (N.Z.) Brigade, retiring from the savage engagements of yesterday were weary, hungry and jaded. There were many stragglers, isolated groups of near-exhausted men who were hard to locate in the thick olive groves. Constant air attack made re-grouping difficult. Adding to this confusion were men from some of the base units at Suda who had been ordered to make their way over the hills to Sfakia on the south coast. The news spread and some combatant troops who could not find their units moved along the road with them. In their new positions, the 2/7th came under a heavy air blitz preceeding the enemy's attack. There followed a barrage of mortar and machine gun fire which covered the advance of the German troops. Band E companies met the attack (about 1200 hours), E company retired and B, although cut off, held its ground. The 2/Sth on the left flank was forced back, leaving the left flank unguarded. D, C and A companies covered the withdrawal. The German machine-guns, invisible in the orchards, raked the roads and olive groves continuously. Any vehicles that moved on the road were strafed. Overall, the situation of the Allied forces in Crete was now grave. At the limit of their endurance in many cases, the small, ill-equipped immobile force had little chance against the German attack. It was questionable now how many could be evacuated if the order was given to withdraw from Crete. That night, after holding the enemy for almost 24 hours, the 19th and 5th (N.Z.) Brigades were ordered to withdraw. The 2/7th was on the march by about 2350 hours after having to disengage from the enemy. They were withdrawing

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without the protection of a rearguard. This was to have been provided by a British Brigade, but in the confusion the British Brigade was withdrawing too, along the coastal road. During the day the Germans dropped pamphlets over the Allied lines, which read:


TO THE POPULATION AND THE MILITARY FORCES ON CRETE It has been brought to the notice of the German Supreme Command that German soldiers who fell into the hands of the enemy on the Island of Crete have been illtreated and even mutilated in a most infamous and inhuman manner. As a punishment and reprisal therefore it is announced as follows: 1. Whosoever commits such crimes against International laws on German prisoners of war will be punished in the manner of his own cruel action, no matter be he or she a man or a woman. 2. Localities near which such crimes have been perpetrated will be burned down. The population will be held responsible. 3. Beyond those measures further and sharper reprisals will be held in store.

THE GERMAN SUPREME COMMAND. The 2/7th Battalion tramped through the night of May 26/27, smouldering rubble which had been Canea.

passing the

Fortysecond Street The new line to which they marched, a defensive position at the head of Suda Bay, was called 42nd Street. No one is sure how the 'street' came to be named. It was a straight narrow earth road stretching between olive groves. From here it was possible to see the Jetty at Suda Bay, where stores were still being unloaded-and further out wreckage of all sorts of craft. Hurriedly, they took up a position occupying about 400 metres square in an olive grove. It was dawn. All units were tightly packed, the 28th (Maori) Bn. occupying a front of about 250 yards, and the depleted 21st (N.Z.) Bn. a far narrower one. The Australians were quite confident. From early in the morning of the 27th, the Germans were on the attack -bombing the battalion's positions and raking them with machine-gun fire. Ahead, a composite brigade (1/Welch, 1/Rangers, and Northumberland Hussars) was retiring in tatters. They abandoned their transport which the enemy used to considerable disadvantage of those at 42nd Street. In justice to this Brigade, it had advanced under orders and did not know that the Allies were

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withdrawing. Totally stranded, they fought bravely. Losses were heavy and one company was completely surrounded. The rest fell back. British prisoners were driven before the Germans in their first attack on the 2/7th that morning. The attack was stemmed, the Germans withdrawing. The CO's of the 28th (Maoris), 2/7th and 21st (N.Z.) agreed that morning that if the enemy came on to close quarters, their battalions would open fire and charge.


At about 1100 hours the Australians spotted a raiding party of about 400 Germans advancing. The 2/7th had two companies forward --D to the left and C to the right. Major Miller, commander of C company, sent forward a patrol under Lieut. McGeoch to keep the enemy under observation while he planned a counter attack, and sent this information to Captain St. Elmo Nelson commanding D company, with the suggestion that he should join the attack. Nelson dispatched a runner to Col. Walker. The C/0 sent the order forward to both C and D companies to attack, but to allow the Germans to come close up before striking. ''When this order went out it seemed to lift the tension that had been hanging over us for the past few days. The time had come when we were going to show Jerry a few tricks...", observed Col. Walker's batman, Private Passey, later. McGeoch's patrol had worked their way about 200 metres forward. The enemy was approaching. The Aussies could hear their voices. The German soldiers had no idea they were so close. They came over a rise 50 metres in front. "...I saw a German soldier stand up in clear view... He was my first sure kill... I can remember feeling a moment that it was just like shooting a kangaroo... just as remote (said Reg Saunders). After that many Huns appeared, and for them and for us it was pretty confused.'' The Germans, some of whom had been raiding an abandoned depot, were completely surprised. Major Miller was on his way forward to join Lieut. McGeoch when firing began. He signalled the company forward. They covered the distance and went to ground, a platoon on either side of McGeoch's patrol. Meanwhile, Nelson's company had come up on the left flank. Here the Germans became most concentrated. The two sides were firing at each other at close range, Miller called for mortars. About six bombs and the enemy started to break. One soldier, Mick Baxter, a submachine gunner, stood up with his tommy gun and said "Jesus... I can't see a bloody thing from here." Then he walked straight into concentrated German machine-gun fire. He started to trot, then to run hard, firing from the hip as he went. "It was then we charged --more to save Mick, I suppose than anything else", said Mick's mate, Reg Saunders. The advance gathered momentum. St. Elmo Nelson tore along, waving to his men and shouting "Get into them!" Someone gave a courage rousing yell and everyone took it up. They were charging along shouting at the top of their voices. They ran, they stumbled, they got up again and ran onwards. Everyone was in it. To the left, Maoris were haaka chanting. The flashing of brilliant nickelled

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bayonets. "It was crazy, crazy... the most thrilling few minutes of my life" continued Saunders. "We were all obsessed with this mad race to slaughter with the bayonets. It wasn't like killing kangaroos anymore. When we got there they were real men... excited like us and some of them terribly frightened. They were highly trained Germans, but they got such a shock." Nelson, shot in the shoulder, was bowled over. Lieut. Bernard took over, leading the headlong rush, even after being wounded himself. Mick Baxter was pelting towards a group of Germans in a wadi. As he came closer, the wellprotected Germans climbed out of the wadi and, throwing away their arms, fled literally for their lives. Many of the ditched weapons were automatic and the Australians (some didn't have bayonets) seized them and turned them on the Ger-


mans. At such close range they were devastating. A platoon led by Sergeant Reiter drove the Germans from the cover of the abandoned depot. He continued to lead his men though wounded in the head. A significant thing was that this was the first time the unit had actually been in hand-to-hand combat. They had suffered plenty of air and land bombardments, and a fair number of casualties but never before had they been at such close grips with the enemy. In a beaten army they were unbeaten men. From them exploded this swift, defiant action of white hot ferocity. It was a holocaust in which they destroyed the crack German troops (Jais' 141st Mountain Regiment), part of the pride of the Wehrmacht. The Germans were fresh-faced, fresh and fit. One soldier later commented that "The Germans were shaved and fresh --just dropped that morning (this was not correct, however). They had everything." Before this smaller, seemingly crazed force of Australians and New Zealanders, they dropped back in disorder. They ran, terrified. Some dropped shamming dead, but mostly they just threw down their arms and ran. By about 12 noon, the enemy were two kilometres back and still retreating. The advance was halted by orders for the battalion to withdraw to its original position, there being no further cover from view from the air. Stretchers were sent for. Now the groves and dirt track of 42nd Street were seen to be littered with the corpses of dead German soldiers. The Germans later made allegations against Australians and New Zealanders, accusing them of committing war crimes by killing men who were lying wounded on the battle-field. Col. Walker replied: "In close fighting of this nature, as it was among the olive trees, a burst of automatic fire is almost certain to prove fatal, as would also bayonet wounds. In point of fact we captured three wounded men and it would be reasonable to suppose that some wounded men got back to German areas. Outside the heat of the moment in battle, or when wounded men still continued to engage us, no man either wounded and offering to surrender, or unwounded and offering to surrender, was shot.''

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Saunders commented: "It was a short range very bloody action in which most wounds were fatal ones. Certainly skulls were broken and men stabbed ... it was hand-to-hand combat, and that's what happens. Presumably there were some wounded men who got away, but mostly fighting was at such close quarters that it was a case of death or nothing at all. I am quite positive that no wounded man was killed by Australians." Later reckoning put the battalion's casualties at 10 killed and 28 wounded, against 200 Germans dead and three taken prisoner. The prisoners were sent back to Brigade Headquarters. The advancing Germans had received a severe shock, but by 1430 hours on that afternoon of May 27, were again on the offensive with mortar and machine-gun fire. Aerial attacks stepped up. During the day hundreds of Germans were seen moving round the hills to the south, steadily encircling the Australians and the New Zealand positions.


The Germans with their total mastery of the air were not only able to dive bomb the defending troops, but also to drop any amount of supplies to their own troops. A moment of consolation came for some 2/7th troops who had captured signal flags (red with a swastika in the centre). They spread these out on the ground and German aircraft, responding to the signal, came over and dropped food ("bully beef and biscuits"). Other stories are told of Australians receiving medical supplies and one group --a motor cycle! Now the withdrawal from Crete was on. The 19th Brigade was to withdraw to Neo Khorion. Communications on the overall level had failed, so co-ordination was on an immediate level. It was not until 2130 hours that the battalion could withdraw, being under incessant machine-gun and mortar fire. Even though they had a rearguard on their hands they were caused considerable delay by a rabble of men from base units at Suda, cluttering the road. A massive number of unarmed, non-combatant troops was roaming about. There were units that had come out of the line, were sticking together and marching with their weapons, but in the main, it was a disorganised horde making its way painfully and doggedly south. There were literally thousands of them including Cypriots and Palestinians. Without leadership, or any sort of discipline, nothing else could be expected of troops untrained as fighting soldiers. Somehow or other, the word Sfakia got out and many of these people had taken a flying start in any available transport they could steal and which they later left abandoned. The disorganisation and almost complete lack of control of that endless stream of trudging men was described by Frey berg as ''unforgettable''.

Withdrawal to Sfakia The road to Sfakia, along which all must travel, wound up and across the mountainous backbone of Crete reaching a height of 1,000 metres. Some 11 kilometres north of Sfakia, it passed through the upland plain of Askifou, a basin

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of about one and a half kilometres in width and three in length. Further on, the road ended two and a half kilometres from the little beach at Sfakia and then only foot tracks led down steeply to the sea. The task of the Allied fighting troops was to hold a series of rearguard positions astride this mountainous road, along which a densely packed column was now retreating and finally to disengage and embark. Early on May 28, the battalion had marched till about 0300 hours. In a valley near Stilos, they had been told they could rest. By dawn, the 19th and 5th (N.Z.) Brigades, each little stronger than battalion strength were deployed along the road from near Suda Bay to Babali Inn 10 kilometres away. Before light, the Germans were upon them again, firing light machine-guns. The New Zealanders forming the forward part of the rearguard were attacked and suffered heavy losses. The 217th was ordered to hold its position till 1130 hours or the last N .Z. troops were through, whichever was earlier. At 0800 hours some 3 ,000 Italian prisoners of war marched through from the south, waving white flags. The battalion diarist remarked somewhat cryptically. "We had no ammunition to spare on them."


By 1145 hours, the 2/7th was withdrawing from a swiftly pursuing enemy. It had been decided that the men were not fit to fight all day and march all night. They would withdraw during the day in a series of leap-frogging rearguards in echelons of three with approximately one kilometre between each. They retreated this way, all the way to their final rearguard position above Sfakia. Sometimes they glimpsed German motor-cycle patrols about two kilometres from the rearguard. The unit was almost cut off before reaching Babali Inn, where they withdrew behind a second rearguard. Mortar shells were flying overhead. They maintained good order, marching single file on either side of the narrow road, with the sections well spread out. At Babali Inn they rested till about 1600 hours before pressing on up into the mountains. For the first time since the 20th, air attack was relatively light, probably because the German planes were concentrated over Heraklion. They knew they were taking part in a retreat, but more truthfully it seemed a rout. Hordes of disorganised troops had hurried along the road. Many had thrown away their rifles and even tunics, as it was a hot day. Badly wounded soldiers in filthy blood-stained bandages made the trek on foot; men with limbs blown off staggered along, numb with suffering, some of them using rifles as crutches. Nearly every yard of the road and of the ditches on either side was strewn with abandoned arms and equipment, blankets, gas masks, packs, kit bags, sun helmets, cases and containers of all shapes and sizes, tinned provisions, boxes of cartridges and hand grenades; now and then one ran across officers' valises and burst open suitcases. Overhead German planes droned, while there was always

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the whine of bullets and sometimes the thud of bombs, and never far away the rat-tat of machine-guns in isolated delaying actions. Officers and men were by now feeling the effects of the bitter, gruelling marches and short rations, some not having had anything to eat for two days or more. Men were falling out from the ranks to the roadside. Their mates would not leave them. They heaved them up and supported them along the way. Only if they were really too ill to move were they left behind. They were proud but more than a little embittered. They felt, as did the New Zealanders, that they were better fighting soldiers than the Germans, but had been given little opportunity to show what they could do. Also they felt they had been poorly disposed --the Australians often found themselves occupying lower ground than the enemy. And they had the feeling of being sold out; even exploited. This attitude did not corrode their morale and discipline as a unit, and marching through the pitch darkness they maintained good order, dispersed in their sections each side of the road. A German aircraft dropped a flare. Lieut-Col. Walker sent a spoken message along the column that if a flare was dropped again, he would blow his whistle and every man would lie face downwards off the road. The message was repeated swiftly back along the column and forward again. Another flare was dropped, the whistle blown, and instantly every face was on the ground (where they would not catch the light), every body motionless, and the flare illuminated only an empty road.


They made their way through Vrises, Cadiri and up to the Askifou plain. They reached Imvros at 0300 hours on May 29, and fell into the shelter of the trees. Some went to sleep on piles of blue metal. It was cold, but they were so exhausted they slept regardless of the temperature. Their tiredness was such that they felt even a long sleep would not help. They dined that morning on the first food issue for two days --one tin of bully beef shared between six men. Each had two biscuits. Water from wells at this stage was plentiful. Some troops, detailed to collect the rations from a food dump were compelled by a British officer to sign a receipt! Shortly afterwards the lot went up --bombed by enemy aircraft. The troops felt the receipts would not do the British officer much good. While the men were resting they were informed by Captain Halliday that the battalion had lost the toss, unfortunately out of four fighting units they must fight the last rearguard action. While waiting for the order to move, they could see the enemy plainly, moving over the hills about four kilometres away. Plans had been finalised for the embarkation from Sfakia. By dawn next day the 19th Brigade (2/7th, 2/8th Bns. with a Marine battalion, and supported by two Italian 75 mm guns --the only ones to come over the mountains, and two machine-guns), covered by a forward party (comprising three remaining light tanks and three carriers of the 2/8th) was to occupy the final rearguard position.

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On the evening of May 29, at about 1900 hours, as they were on the road under shellfire, withdrawing to their position --eight kilometres or so from the beach they began to meet base unit troops. Thousands, lined up as on parade, waiting to be embarked. The 2/7th had to stumble along the rocks at the side because the road was blocked. A British officer ordered them to stop, and men in the queue, like old people in a food queue, querilously complained in the same strain. The officer threatened to fire. The C/0 told him what he thought of him and that he should have kept the road clear for the men who were to fight his rearguard for him. For kilometres they made their way past this queue. Lack of ammunition was a cause of real anxiety. They secured all the spare rounds they could from the British troops along the road. Some submachineguns and brens too. 路 At their rearguard position that night the men were able to rest under cover of darkness. On May 30, light broke and with it each company was allotted to its area. A and B Coys. were forward, E slightly to the rear on the right alongside the road, on the extreme left and also slightly to the rear were C and D Coys. They came under shellfire early. There was no chance of digging in as the country was too mountainous and rocky. The valley was 1,000 metres wide and very open. The only means of obtaining cover was by building up a wall of stone around one's allotted area. The stones, however, were of such a large size it was not possible to heave them around much. The consequent lack of cover resulted in three soldiers being killed and 10 wounded in B and C Coy area. However, German aircraft, overhead all day, did not discover the battalion. Forward, the tanks and carriers fought a brave delaying action from about


0500 hrs. until1500 hrs. when they ran out of ammunition. The tanks were used as road blocks, the carriers withdrawing behind 217th lines to the end of the road now swept by enemy shellfire, where they were wrecked by their crews. All in all, they caused the Germans to abandon the road and advance over the hills west where they attacked the 2/8th Bn. The day was hot. There was little water or food --half a tin of bully beef and 1/lOth of a gallon of water per man. The ammunition situation was bad. In one company --a couple of clips for each rifle and 20 rounds to a bren. The enemy always seemed fresh. All day recce planes searched overhead and shell fire was continuous. A party reconnoitred a route to the beach and found the road ended two kilometres above Sfakia. In this dispersal area swarmed crowds of men, chiefly base troops, who had lost their units and were now at a loose end, and were devouring the rations and using up the water that fighting troops needed. Below this on the beach, the situation was worse.

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The track down from Khomitadhes had been made into a sort of sheep race by Movement Control, where once a man got into the stream of traffic he just could not (and was forbidden to) stop. Later an old track connecting Sfakia and Askifou was discovered and a small proportion of traffic streamed this way. It was estimated that the total force round Sfakia now included some 1,200 N.Z., 1,250 Australian, and 1,550 British Infantry and some 5,000 depot troops and scattered detachments. All the rations had now been issued and the men were hungry and thirsty. In addition it required much effort to supply the rearguard on the heights with water. Twelve men working for eight hours were able to carry the 217th and Maori Bn. only 250 gallons. An effort had been made to obtain carrying parties for rations from men on the beach. There was no response except for men from the 2/6th Bn. who did a wonderful job carrying rations eight kilometres up the escarpment from the beach to the road, where trucks brought it to the unit. The C/0 ordered all food to go to the rifle companies, retaining only 6lbs for Headquarters personnel. Diary entry: "A small amount of water arrived late in the day and was greatly appreciated as the men were very weak." It was planned that a British plane would drop food into the Marines' area that night. Flares and a bonfire were lit, but no drop was made. A Sunderland is said to have come in and dropped bully beef. If so, it all went to the stragglers on the beach; the men up top saw none of it. On May 31, the food shortage remained acute. Ammunition was now critical. The enemy was pressing in, working on both flanks. During the afternoon, enemy mortars were again active. A high ridge on the right flank was now occupied by the Germans. From this point they directed fire onto the Battalion's positions. The troops were powerless to retaliate --their fire was unable to reach the enemy. The heat was scorching and nerves were straining under the constant hammering. All the troops were anxious to be allowed to attack but General Weston would not agree to this.


Orders came at 1700 hours to hold on for another 24 hours. The Navy would not be in. Everyone's hopes were shattered. The rations and ammunition situation was hopeless notwithstanding the efforts of Captain Stan Fletcher, Quartermaster, and his staff, and the fact that no further ammunition could be expected to arrive made it necessary to safeguard every round. Lack of air support made their position untenable. Overhead, the Jerries cruised unhampered, magnifying the difficulties of facing the enemy. At 1900 hours rations arrived --one tin of bacon to 21 men and one tin of potatoes to 12 men. 200 gallons of water had just been obtained and distribution arranged when orders were received to withdraw. By 2100 hours, the withdrawal commenced. A Company, the last out, came under fire as the enemy noticed the movement. In the pitch dark they picked their

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way down an earthern slippery-dip. The going was so rough that some of the men dropped out, completely exhausted. Major Marshall, .second-in-command, who was with the last company, later wrote: "I could have no mercy on them and I had to haze them, and threaten them and push them into a faster speed. We crossed the road and stumbled on after Pte. Atock (Intelligence Section), who was guiding us down the centre of rocky valley. Falls were numerous, but I would permit no delays as I knew that time was against us. One of the A Company men fell and refused to get up, wanting to be left where he fell, and not caring if he was captured or not... I pulled him up and supported him for the next eight kilometres; every time we stopped, he sagged and pleaded to be left. ..'' At length this last company caught the remainder of the battalion but just short of Komitadhes village there was a halt. Major Marshall found Lieut. Lunn, Intelligence Officer with another company. Lunn said the remainder of the battalion had moved off on a different route to the one recced. He dared not abandon the company he was guiding. Sgt. Harry Thomas (Intelligence) thereupon guided the two companies over the "nightmarish country" in pitch darkness until the weary column reached the beach road and heard voices of others in their unit. Some were so tired they fell to the ground and slept. At this point, in the absence of an order from superior authority, Lieut-Col. Walker decided to head the 19th Brigade personnel and battalion forward. Descending the road to sea level they encountered a vast rabble of troops. To some of the men at least this was a shock --''We thought everyone had got off while we were holding." June 1: In the pitch dark they had difficulty staying together --pushed and jostled as they were by the seething mass of disorganised, hysterical men who tried to break into and through their ranks and who were trying to mob the beach. One could hear the C/0 calling to the 217th to keep to the left --the remainder to the right. Lieut-Col. Walker ordered them to keep hold of the belt of the man in front. This way they stayed together, remaining formed up into a complete battalion. Worn out and weary, they kept on, inspired by their C/O's determination, magnificent spirit and leadership. It was a slow march with incessant holdups. Often they were delayed by men sitting down, and many officers challenging anyone approaching, wanting to know who they were.


About 400 metres from the beach there was a naval officer standing on a building trying to bring about some order and threatening to shoot if his commands were not obeyed. He gave the battalion the priority they were meant to have. They marched along past the queue, while the men in the queue complained. The Battalion was drawn up in order on the beach when the last barge went off. The C/0 had been organising them into two loads, the first of them boarding this last barge. Word went round that the Navy were moving out and no more were

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going off. As the barge drew away an officer on board watched the battalion standing there "quiet and orderly in its ranks". Sure enough they heard the anchor chains going up. It was about 0300 hours. Still the men remained calm. Their behaviour was magnificent. The 16 members who boarded the barge were embarked on HMS 'Phoebe'. That night, they slept the sleep of the dead and were landed at Alexandria at 1800 hours on June 1 --16 men from a battalion strength of 581 landed on Crete. The battalion's losses in Crete were officially listed as --27 killed, 60 wounded, and 431 prisoners-- a total of 518. Shortly after, Col. Walker addressed his men more or less as follows: "Well, lads, it seems we've struck a patch of trouble. The Navy has gone and will not return. I propose to move you up the side of the cliff in order to find cover in the caves before the bombers start at dawn. Our ammunition is just about finished, but I think we shall find some dumps where we can obtain our requirements. This we will do at 'first light. I propose to fight our way into the hills and then endeavour to find boats to make a get-away. I feel bound to tell you that our difficulties will be great and the best chances go to those who work in small parties. In the circumstances I must offer you the choice of coming with me and fighting it out or to make your way in small parties." There was silence for a few moments, then a universal cry: "We'll stick with you, sir," and then wild cheering for their C/0 Some rations were scrounged and distributed amongst the men, and they marched into Sfakia to get some water. Col. Walker decided the men needed a rest for a few hours before moving away. They took up positions in and around caves in a big wadi not too far away. At about 0630 hours, news reached them that the stragglers in town were burning arms and ammunition and hoisting white flags everywhere. On going to investigate, the C/0 found the order had been left by General Weston that the force had been surrendered and all arms were to be broken and ammunitions and paybooks destroyed. Walker called a battalion parade. The troops just stood gathered around him. He told them the news --they were going to capitulate. There were white flags all around the village. They must break their arms, he said. If they wanted to, they could carry some rations and take to the hills. It was every man for himself but each man was to destroy his arms. He wished them well. The troops stood round in groups debating the possibilities. Some were for taking to the hills, others for going along the coast to find boats --others were exhausted and did not think they could go on any further. Weakened by lack of food, injured or ill, they were not able.


The unit delayed its surrender in order to give a start to the escapees. Their small parties, some officers and men, others with cobbers, dwindled and disappeared from sight.

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Then the will that had sustained the unit through all seemed gone. Proud, bit- ter and exhausted, some fighting back tears, these men who had come so far and endured so much turned down to the village --and surrender. Thus almost an entire battalion was lost. The 217th Battalion had sailed from Egypt to Greece at full war establishment, almost 800 strong. Yet, when the unit was reformed in Palestine, there were approx. 69 members of the original bat- talion to answer the call. In the coming months in Palestine, however, the 217th would be rebuilt to previous strength with reinforcements. It is characteristic that in the Australian Armed Forces a unit is never disbanded. The soldiers who belong to it will always expect to return to it after recovery from wounds, or escape from capture. As in the Great War, these men were fighting battles on the other side of the world from their remote homeland without any hope of return- ing home for leave. Thus the unit is home and the members of that unit were in a very real sense their family.

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THE BRIGADIER REPORT

The brigadier reports On return to Egypt, the commander of the 17th Australian Infantry Brigade, Brigadier Stanley G. Savige, wrote a report to the president of the original Seventh Battalion, 'Doc' Gutteridge.


"Dear Gutteridge, "Your copy of 'Despatches 1941' came in to my hands and on it is written 'Please pass on the best wishes of the old mob'. I have tried to face up to writing to you, and through you to so many of that old mob that I know. The story that I have to tell you is that you are but one of the 'old mob'. There is another valiant 'old mob' and a 'new mob' is in the course of assembly. "I was also unable to write for censorship reasons until I knew that the casualt lists had been published after being cabled home. I wish to tell you of the actions in Greece and the very little that is known of Crete. Walker's 'Mob' left for Greece in good form and full of fight. They had got something of the measure of the German airman in their last desert job and they had beaten him, their tails were well up. "The nature of the campaign in Greece and the fast changing situations foun Brigade HQ and the Vic. Scottish securing the flank about the centre of Greece. Walker and the middle number Battalion were to join me with a Western Australian lot, but they were turned back to hold a line to cover the withdrawal. Although they had no land fighting, they had full measure of bombing. The Commander of that force told me what a fine mob Walker and his mob were. I first saw them some days later. It was about midday. They had come in through the new line at Thermopylae after a bad plastering from the Hun airmen. ''During the day, they got a lot more while they were dispersed in their bivoua area. We were ordered to take up certain dispositions for which Walker made hi recce that afternoon. At dark, new orders forced an entirely different job and th battalion was on the move all night. The front to be occupied by the battalio

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was in a huge sump, as it were, and into it the men climbed. At the end of two days, the grand withdrawal began. "The brigade, holding four and a half miles of the toughest country imagineable, had to withdraw and embus. I chose Walker for the rearguard and timed the show to have him embussing at 1.30a.m. Just before the show started, new orders forced the creation and despatch of a mixed force to cover a flank further south. Despite this, the withdrawal, with a little sharp fight thrown in for luck, went like clockwork. Walker's mob beat my timetable by five minutes, the chances were they would not make it on account of the ground and the almost impossibility of scaling up to the road. They did it. "Before pushing off to the beaches, we smashed all windscreens to give the drivers better vision. The troop carrying three ton vehicles were filled with men but a margin of trucks allowed for vehicle casualties. We arrived not far from Athens by dawn. The troops were very weary and the drivers particularly so. No rest had been possible for many days. I consider the feat of Walker's mob and Wrigley's mob withdrawing as they did and travelling approximately one hundred miles ranks as the greatest feat of this AIF and other observers say of the old AIF, too. "We hid under olive trees by day, which reminds me to suggest to you the planting of an olive tree as a memorial to these fellows. Walker and I often said, during these days, that we could grow an olive tree as a shrine on our return. That expressed the point of view of all the fellows. That night we set off again, passed Corinth Canal and wound our way along the narrow winding road of the moun-


tains. Wrigley was ordered, about 2 a.m., to detach most of his show to guard important points against parachutists. "We lay up all Anzac Day chatting and trusting that the low flying recce planes had not and would not spot us. Walker and I, I remember so clearly, pictured the situation in Melbourne. The great march and the proud hearts of the 'old mob' as they gathered together. We pondered, as we talked, how you all would have felt had you but known of our desperate situation that day. "At dusk we were off again and the going was terrific. The mountains seemed to get worse and the road narrower yet those wonderful drivers of ours just bowled along at 20/30 miles per hour. A number of vehicles had broken down and 30/35 men were jammed in a truck. The rule was that if a vehicle took longer than five minutes to get going, then over the side with it. Not only were the troops weary beyond words but the drivers had reached a stage of utter exhaustion. They had been working both day and night for at least two weeks and had faced all in the way of unrestricted bombing and machine gunning, and what guts that demanded. "The problem of keeping the miles of column flowing was at least tough. It was overcome by making each truck a sub-unit under command of an officer, and, when they ran out, the balance under an NCO. We travelled using parking

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lights as we reckoned it would be difficult for the Hun to fly about these mountains by night. When a halt took place the driver put out the lights. In a great number of instances the lad would lean forward and switch off the lights then fall over his wheel asleep. "To get on the move it was the duty of the truck commander to dismount and move to the truck ahead. When movement was heard it was his job to see that the driver was awake, so from front to rear, from truck to truck, the drivers were kept awake. We fetched up at Kalamata just after daylight. Walker and Wrigley were ordered to take cover before going through the town. The embarkation staff had been collected hurriedly and had no chance to plan. It was not known if the Navy would come in that night, and if so, whether we should embark from the jetty or the open beach. "During the day, as on all previous days, enemy recce planes swept over us, but never once saw us, so good was the discipline of the lads and the control by Officers and NCOs. We dribbled the troops forward to the beaches and dumped rations and SAA and petrol nearby during the afternoon. Serials and march tables were worked out and, by nightfall, all were faced up to embark any way they wanted. The drivers remained with the vehicles to destroy them when so ordered to do so. "About 11 p.m., a belated order got the movement going to the pier. The destroyers were in. Some bloody fool staff officer, not an Australian, got a bit excited and ordered any unit that he met to proceed to the pier. Bang went our carefully prepared plans and out went our staff officers and leaders to keep the show together and the stream flowing. Walker's mob fetched up on the Costa Rica, less their drivers. The Vic. Scots had little chance, so my staff, weary as they were, and I went for them and they got aboard to a man. Brigade HQ, Wrigley's small lot and an Artillery Regiment were sitting pretty but, alas, the for-


tunes of war intervened and those who were first were last and those who appeared to be last were first. "The gangway was lifted and a good number of my headquarters and some artillery did not get aboard. The order to destroy vehicles arrived just before the order to move. The carefully laid plans were beaten by the darkness and the difficulties of olive groves, winding streets, time and space, our drivers missed out. Captain Gray, of my staff, the only one familiar with the rendezvous, volunteered to collect them and embark the next night as was planned. My Brigade HQ Staff missed out. "Captain Tyrell volunteered to stay, as did Gray. No undue alarm was felt as we knew that the navy was returning again the next night and the Germans could not make it by then. Wrigley's men saw to that delay at a cost of a company and a half. Dawn found us still landlocked in the gulf and over came the planes up to about 50 strong. The lads used Bren guns, anti-tank rifles and rifles. The first at- tack was vicious as were the five or six to follow. The price for a Bren gun was a

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fiver. Reminder of the prices for a posse to meet the big Turkish counter attack at Anzac. 'Here is the test of discipline. Every man took his rifle and complete ammunition aboard. Every Bren gun, anti-tank rifle, and full complement of boxes of SAA were dragged aboard by men almost to weary to walk. The last attack was launched in the early afternoon. Early our lads had brought down at least four planes for certain by their rifle fire. During the last attack and at the very end a plane came out of the sun with engines cut off and dropped a bomb near the stern of the Costa Rica. Plates were sprung and she began to list and settle at the stern. "We watched and saw Walker's mob and others fall in on deck. Boats were lowered and destroyers came alongside. Walker took post alongside the Captain on the bridge. Members of the crew threw rafts overboard and called 'every man for himself'. About a dozen accepted the invitation but none of Walker's mob. Walker remained with the captain until the last man had left, then personally went below and searched the decks for any strays. The deck was awash as they stepped on to the destroyer's deck and the crippled vessel sank within a few minutes of them leaving. "The behavior of the troops was magnificent. They fell in and never moved except when ordered to do so. The first direct blow from that unhappy sinking was that the destroyers, full of men, went full steam for Crete and they couldn't return to Kalamata that night. They did so the following night but our fellows were fighting the Germans, whom they had defeated, but some confusion caused the vessels to put to sea. About 14 drivers of Walker's mob refused to capitulate and under Young, the transport officer, made off. Young collapsed and couldn't go any farther, but the others escaped in native boats in an incredible way. "Walker's whole show fetched up in Crete, but had lost most of their weapons with the ship. They had some pleasant days bivouacked under olive trees and enjoyed fish caught by mills bombs. They were caught up in the blitz, but held their ground and prevented the capture of areas that they were responsible for. They littered the ground with dead paratroopers. Things became worse and heavy attacks were launched by the enemy. During one day 273 bombers were counted in


action at the same time. There were never less than 200. They had full and complete mastery of the air. "Movement by day was impossible except when the opposing forces were joined closely. At night, the fellows raided and cut up enemy elements. When sufficient forces were concentrated and to give some idea of troop landings, when an aerodrome was captured the timings for one day showed an average landing of one plane per 30 seconds and that went on for hours. "The big attack came with Walker's mob in the centre and a unit on either side. The right unit gave away under pressure. Walker moved a Company to fill the gap. The enemy were stopped there. The people on the left were forced back and 103

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by the brilliant distribution of two other companies the 'old mob' stopped the advance here also. "Young Captain Nelson, the foremost company, advised that he had a bayonet charge teed up. Walker went forward and ordered Nelson's company to attack in conjunction with Major Miller's company. Walker went up to a lad and said, "Give me your rifle". The lad simply said, "Excuse me, sir, I want to be in it, too, and it IS my rifle". Major Marshall and the adjutant then came forward and persuaded Walker to refrain from going forward as his presence was still most valuable. He wisely consented to return to his headquarters. "Miller led his company with splendid dash and the boys were on his heels cheering like hell. Nelson led his men and was bowled over by a bullet through the shoulder. The next senior took charge and was wounded; the next took over command and was soon a casualty; and the surviving officer finished the job. They chased the Germans for a mile and in front of one company, 150 Germans lay dead who were killed in the initial fight for fire supremacy. The boys tell me that the only difference between the Dago and the Hun is, that although both surrender when attacked, the Hun runs the better. "They then joined in the general withdrawal and, so far as I can ascertain, marched some 60 odd miles and fought six bloody engagements. The goat tracks over the mountains were so rough that the men's feet were soon raw. Sergeant Thomas, the intelligence sergeant, like others, carried men. At one stage he heard, at 3 a.m. that a party was still out and exhausted; he returned and brought them in. During this time, many unarmed service troops, such as Rear Workshops etc., had made for the beach. Included in this horde were Greeks, Cypriots, Palestinians etc. ''Though there were rations on the beach, carrying parties could not be got from this, now panic-stricken, crowd. Some of Wrigley's men heard of the plight of Walker's mob and at once volunteered to take them water and rations. Walker's lot were on one tin of bacon to 19 men, a half a gallon of water to 14 men plus two biscuits to a man. The greatest glory of all was that Walker's men never moved except in threes or in battle formation; not only did every unit on Crete hear of this, but it spread to Egypt. They were a proud battalion and their CO was an inspiration. "The last night brought tragedy. Orders came that they were not amongst those for embarkation that night, but about 9.30 p.m., this order was reversed as some could be taken off. Walker issued his orders clearly and to the point. They


had about six miles to go and the last mile was down slopes and finally down a cliff face. Walker ordered single file, each man to hang on to the belt of the man in front. Walker led and reached the beach. He turned aside to turn the companies into line or groups of lines ready to facilitiate embarkation on pontoons corning forward. "His Battalion HQ were in front and close to the water. Before anyone realised what took place, there was a stampede of these 'cave dwellers' who, uncontrolled,

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swept the BHQ personnel aside as the barges were rushed and pushed off. The last seen of Walker's mob was their standing in formation without any movement in the ranks. Thus they were lost. Walker had enough ammunition for one day and he would probably fight. It is known that he planned to escape through the country and hoped to get native boats. "There is no word or sign of either alternative coming off. All I know is they never failed and would not fail. Walker served under me as a lieutenant, a number of his officers started off as privates when I had the old 24th Battalion at Surrey Hills. Others served me when I had the lOth Brigade and came from Gippsland, among whom is my cousin. You won't mind me admitting that I had to leave this letter a few times. to compose my emotions. They were and are very dear to me. "You can all be proud of them. Just a reminder of some achievements: At Bardia, when the tanks did not turn up, nor was the Cav. on the flank, Vic. Scotts moved forward at the appointed time. Walker came in when things were bad and pushed the show on. Sol Green lost his life but all through the night they gained ground and, with bomb and bayonet, saved the day. Walker was brilliant and his command backed him up by fighting of equal brilliance. "At Tobruk he worked his show like an automatic machine. They advanced in the face of heavy machine-gun fire and cleaned up the enemy on the flat ground and worried them in the wadis. At Derna, they marched distances over incredible country that will remain a record. They deployed, captured a fort, sent carriers ahead and captured an important town, and then marched over twenty miles that day. Footsore and weary men refused a lift when offered. The mob always stuck together and were proud of their marching ability. "They did the job decently for their own self respect''. "When you tell the 'old mob, No. 1' the story, you might get in touch with General Drake-Brockman. Walker and most of his officers served under him a good number of the troops came from his command. He may be interested and I simply cannot write the story twice. Remember me to Geo Holland and many other friends in your Association. Each and all of you can say --'The boys did us well'".

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CHAPTER19

Crete --the ones that got away-- No. 1


When the battalion was taken back off the beach at Sfakia, Theo Walker gave his men the option of surrendering with the Allied Forces or making their way into the hinterland and from there endeavoring to escape. Many chose the latter option and some finally succeeded. In all, three officers and 64 other ranks of the 217th Battalion eventually escaped from Crete. One was Corporal R.R. Gordon MM. He recalled that on the morning of June 1, 1941 the battalion was awakened from a sleep of sheer exhaustion by a nearby bomb explosion and then the news that the island had capitulated and all arms were to be destroyed before surrender. Mustering the prisoners had begun when two German Stukas began a heavy bombardment. Heavy casualties occurred among the assembled personnel, including a German officer wounded while unfurling the Nazi flag. The German officers seemed sincere in their apologies for the attack. Corporal Gordon continued, "At 1700 hours, our captors, after making a rough search for concealed arms, started moving us back towards the road. The main body of prisoners reached the top of the pass, and slept the night by the roadside. The next morning, the head of the column was held at the second village along the road until 1100 hours to allow stragglers to make up some ground. By nightfall, we were stretched over many miles of road. The Germans seemed to be content to allow us to make our own pace. ''The second day, at a village on a river, we were issued with the only rations we were to receive on the march --one packet of biscuits per man. On the 3rd, the Germans began to tighten up on discipline to a certain degree; and, at 1700 hours, we arrived at the area that had been occupied by the 7th General Hospital on the coast in the Canea area. While passing through the outskirts we passed a large body of former Italian prisoners of war captured by the Greeks on the Albanian 106

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front. These people were very friendly and gave us sugar, flour and rice. The German guards gave them scant respect, cuffing and even kicking them when they held up the column. This contrasted sharply with the treatment we received at their hands, which was most considerate. "While in the area of the hospital, two issues of rations arrived, and yet another on the following day. These comprised a tin of bully beef and three packets of biscuits to five men. At 1700 hours, on June 5, all Australian prisoners of war, and some 700 or 800 British Royal Marines, were lined up and marched some 18 kilometres to Aleekenu, where we were placed in a small compound which had formerly held 1000 Italian prisoners. Living conditions were filthy; the latrines were particularly bad and the whole area infested with vermin. "Our captors issued us with one blanket to every 12 men. For the first few days, rations were far better than we expected. They included rice, beans and lentils; but soon afterwards the scale was so reduced that it became very difficult to get even one reasonable standard meal each day. At this stage, the troops, having recovered somewhat from the apathy of their capture, began to discuss plans to escape from this compound. Anything on the outside of the wire was much more acceptable than the conditions they were being forced to submit to. "On about June 10, all the officers of the battalion, with the exception of Lieutenant Colonel Theo Walker, were flown to Germany. Also left behind were


the adjutant, Lieutenant H.K. Goodwin, the regimental medical officer, Captain Rus Godby and Padre Rex Dakers. We understood they were still busily tending wounded back at the hospital. Lieutenants Wicking, Steve Bernard and Jim Carstairs, we believed, were still somewhere in the Cretan mountains. "The officer commanding the German paratroops doing duty as our guards presented every member of his regiment with the Iron Cross. This officer informed Colonel Walker that he considered the 217th Australian Infantry Battalion had the best fighting troops his unit had encountered, as we had given them a pretty bad mauling at Suda Bay. A day or so later, the paratroop guards were relieved by what appeared to us to be a detachment of the Hitler Youth Movement. "On the night of June 16, at 2105 hours, we crawled under the barbed wire at a place we had selected. This area was without any cover and it was assumed the guards would be much laxer here than where the wire ran through good cover. By following a route we had also pre-selected, we made our way to the top of a very high ridge which overlooked the compound. "After daybreak on June 17, we made our way along the far side of the ridge in a westerly direction, all the time looking for a good place to secrete ourselves during daylight. At 0700 hours, we came upon a Greek woman and, after assuring her we were not German soldiers, she took us to her home for a very welcome breakfast of eggs and oaten bread. Our benefactor indicated in sign language that we should make our way to a village we could see nestled against the mountains on the other side of the valley to the south.

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"Totally disregarding the advice so freely given by the Greek woman, we continued to move along the ridge, always in that westerly direction. We reached some excellent cover and decided to hole up for the day. A Cretan came up the hillside and, despite a limited knowledge of English, pointed out his home across the valley and made it known that there we would be given bread. He assured us that there were no German troops in the area. We were treated to another meal and fresh fruit. At this house we met a Cretan who spoke almost perfect English and who advised us to make our way towards a village named Amalos. This was in the mountains at a height of about 7000 feet above sea level in a basin at the south end of the island. The English-speaking Cretan also told us that from there we could make our way to a quiet and rugged section of the coast where there was a chance of being taken off. "Towards sunset that day, another Cretan peasant took charge of us and we made another steep climb up to his home on a high ridge with an excellent view of the north coast of the island. From here, we were also able to see the Maleme air- drome and our old home, the POW compound. After another very large meal, we were guided into the mountains and, early the following morning, the track to Amalos was pointed out. Amalos comprised a number of huts scattered around a heart-shaped plain of approximately 500 acres and is only occupied during the summer. "Here we received the latest information regarding other Allied troops in the area, some of whom had escaped from different compounds on the island. Most were those who had taken to the hills after the Allies had capitulated. Our determination to reach the coast caused us to push on to the next village, Ag Irene, the next day. During the walk to Ag Irene, we met up with two other members of the


2/7th Battalion. One was Corporal Howard Martin, the other we did not know. On our arrival at Ag Irene, we made contact with another Australian who had been a member of the 2/8th Field Company. "After we had been in the village for some time, we met a New Zealand sergeant carrying two .303 rifles and some M36 Mills bombs. He informed us that, with six other soldiers, he had located two small boats at Sula Bay, at the mouth of the Ag Irene River. These boats were guarded by their owners. The sergeant had volunteered to make a trip back across the island for some weapons to take one or both the boats by force. He also passed on information that a Ger- man patrol boat called at Sula Bay about twice a week while patrolling the coast from Sfakia to Pallochria. "The next day we made our way down the valley to the coast, passing through the villages of Apanahorie and Kambernose. Arriving near the coast early the next morning, we again made contact with our two 2/7th Battalion friends who were making their way back inland, very disappointed with the reception they had met at Sula Bay where they had been asked if they wanted to give themselves up to the Germans. They said they had not seen the two boats. We later learned that the Cretans hid their boats whenever any Allied soldiers appeared.

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"We realised that any further visits to the village would only arouse the villagers' suspicions, so made our way to one called Muni, about one and a half hours walk back up the river bed. The reception there was in direct contrast with the one at Sula Bay. The villagers of Muni welcomed us, gave us a meal and food to take with us. ''After leaving Muni we returned to a spring in the main valley and met a man driving two mules. He insisted we accompany him to a village called Kosta Jericho. We followed him up to his village on the slopes of the Omalos mountains. This village was to be our firm base for the remainder of our stay on Crete. By this time we had conceived two definite schemes for getting off the island. The first was to gain the confidence of the Greek boat owners and make off with one of their boats. The second scheme was to obtain arms and ambush the German patrol boat when the occupants came ashore at Sula Bay. We would hide the captured boat until the search for it had been abandoned. "We decided that the latter scheme would only be put into operation as a last resort as the Germans would carry out reprisals against the Cretans who, in the main, were our friends. During the first fortnight in this district, two unsuccessful attempts to escape were made. The first was by the New Zealand sergeant. With two other soldiers, he had managed to get away in one of the two boats, but, without supplies of any kind, was compelled to put in to Gavados Island. They were captured and returned to Sfakia. "The second was made by another party that had purchased another boat --the one we eventually escaped in-- for 14,000 drachmas. But, after getting some distance out to sea, they decided the vessel was unseaworthy and returned to shore, selling back the boat to the original owners for 8,000 drachmas. It was inexperience that misled them; for, while the combing and the top planks were in a very bad state, the rest of the craft was quite sound. "The escapees, disgusted with all their failures, left the district, leaving us a free hand to put our plan into operation. The first part called for us to obtain and


pack foodstuffs near the beach. This was successfully carried out. We traded our watches for water containers and obtained a large blanket to use as a sail. While the first part of the plan was being put into action, we carefully observed the movements of the fishermen to enable us to steal a boat without them being aware of their loss or us being captured by them. "We were to make two attempts to get off the island. The first failed when the goat skin water container was torn on a jagged rock; the second when the owner of the desired craft moved it to another hiding place. "On July 14, Bob Buchecker went on a fishing expedition with some Cretans to locate a spring we were led to believe existed somewhere on the coast near Sula Bay. Bob arrived back the next day, having succeeded in his mission. About the same time, two New Zealand soldiers, Privates Carter and McQuarrie, arrived in Gavdhos, where I was to meet Bob. The two were informed of the scheme and,

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on our advice, went to Muni for some supplies. That night, they met us on the beach. The theft of the fishing boat went off without incident and, after filling our water containers --two goat skins and a large water jar-- we launched the boat and headed south at 0225 hours. "In order to give Gavdhos Island a wide berth, we rowed south all day and, when nightfall came, were at a point about eight kilometres to the West of Gavdhos. When a fresh breeze sprang up, we were able to hoist our sail and changed course to a south easterly direction, maintaining this until the night of July 18/19 when the weather got too rough for comfort. We then decided to head south in the hope that the escarpment in Libya had been passed. Our guess proved to be correct and we made landfall at Sidi Barrani at 2030 hours on the night of July 19, 1941!' 110

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CHAPTER20

Crete --the ones that got away-- No. 2 Another member of the 217th Battalion who made a successful escape from the German invaders of the Island of Crete was Private H.R. Horne. After the Allied Forces on Crete had capitulated Lieutenant J. Pawson, 2/6th AlB, told Horne and the others they could decide whether to surrender or try to escape in one of the barges lying near the shore. Horne asked Lieutenant Colonel Theo Walker the whereabouts of the 217th Battalion and was told it was in the hills to the rear of him. He made his way there, came across Lieutenant P. Catchlove, Drivers Hansen and Anstis and Privates Green and Grosser. They said they would endeavor to get away in a boat and Horne joined them. A landing craft in charge of Lieutenant Day, of the Welch Regiment, was further down the beach with a number of British troops aboard. The Australians were welcomed on and the large barge headed out to sea. German aeroplanes appeared to be bombing and machine-gunning the area


they had left. The barge pulled into a small island just off Crete where a well supplied all the water they could carry. Several Greek refugees slaughtered and boiled a couple of sheep for the escapees plus a small quantity of bread. On the island they met an Australian sailor named L. Donnelly, a member of HMS Kipling recently sunk off the island. He thought he was the only survivor. Donnelly joined the party. In darkness the barge set course south to south west, hoping to make landfall at Derna, the nearest land. For the 40 men, there was a tin of biscuits, nine of bully beef, four of meat and vegetable, two of bacon and one of preserved fruit plus a partly-consumed sheep's carcase. Rations were fixed at one biscuit covered with bully beef or bacon per day and four large spoonfuls of water at night and morning. The party comprised five Australians --Drivers I. Hansen and Alan Anstis, Privates H.R. Horne, J.B. Green, L.L. Grosser, and the Sailor L. Donnelly; Lieutenant Day and a number from his regiment, some Marines and Commandos. Also on board was a Greek interpreter named Georgacopoulos, a 111

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total of 44 men. The 80 gallons of petrol lasted until 1200 hours on June 2, when a sail was made from a couple of blankets. During the afternoon of June 2, Lieutenant Day and seven of his regiment, Driver Alan Anstis and Private J .B. Green, of the 2/7th Battalion, decided to take the long boat the barge had been towing, to try to get some help. They rigged up a sail and, with four oars, left at about 1600 hours, setting a course on a southerly heading. They took most of the rations and about four days' supply of water. If either boat was picked up, it would report the other as being adrift. It was the last those aboard were to see of the small party, but it eventually reached Egypt. Until the long boat left, the navigation of the barge had been carried out by Driver Hansen and two members of the Welsh Regiment, each doing two hours on duty and four off. After Lieutenant Day left, Driver Hansen assumed command of the barge and the water. Driver Hansen said he was able to navigate as he had done quite a lot of fishing. The barge drifted along, with the wind to the south by south west. As Private Horne recounted, "During darkness, we lit flares of rope soaked in oil. From June 2 to 5, we had biscuits only to eat but even that supply gave out on the 5th. From then on, we had nothing to eat but managed our ration of water. At about 0200 hours on the June 6, a plane passing high overhead failed to notice our flares. It was showing wing lights and we thought it was a Short Sunderland Flying Boat. "On June 8, some of the Commandos started to drink sea water. Driver Hansen had a Thompson sub machine-gun and he warned the offenders that if they did not cease, he would take severe action. This threat proved effective because they stopped. To alleviate our thirst, we drew some rusty water from the ballast tanks and boiled it; but very little was drinkable. "At about 0930 hours on June 10, we sighted land. A British plane flew overhead, returned our signal and kept flying around us for quite some time. Later we spied four British torpedo boats, going away from us. The plane came again and dropped a message to one of the MTBs, which came to our rescue and


towed us to land near Sidi Barrani. There, a company of British troops gave us every possible assistance and later, took us to the staging camp at Mersa Matruh. The next day we were sent to the 19th Casualty Clearing Station at Fayid by hospital train. We were kept in the hospital from June 11 to 25 when we were given railway passes to rejoin our units. "The members of the 217th Battalion reached Kilo 89 on the June 27 and on that day we reported back into our unit. Driver Hansen was taken to another hospital in Egypt and did not return to Palestine, to the best of my knowledge. I have not seen him since.''

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Privates Anstis and Green and the rest of the party in the long boat reached the Libyan coast on the wrong side of Sidi Barrani and were captured by Italian troops. They finished the war as POWs, after all.

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rete --the ones that got away-- No. Private J .C. Thompson was another member of the 2/7th Battalion on Cret ho managed to evade his pursuers and eventually make his escape. He wa bove Sfakia beach and saw the chaotic disorder as the "rabble" sought to escap o the destroyers. One English officer was on the roof of a house in Sfaki aliantly trying to get these troops into some order. As the 2/7th passed, he was hreatening to shoot if his orders were not obeyed but the undisciplined men coninued to press on in what appeared to Thompson to be total disorder. Major Miller, Thompson's company commander, told him that the Allie orces had capitulated and, if any of us wanted to make a break for freedom, h ould wish us the best of luck. Six decided to join Sergeant Bill Ledgerwood i is plan to find a boat. After collecting what rations were available they mad heir way along from Sfakia. Not far away, they found that a number of smal raft had been set adrift and others damaged, presumably by Fifth Columnists he six decided to rest long enough for a swim but German aircraft came over so hey had to hide. Other troops, sheltering in a nearby cove, were also sighted b he enemy pilots and bombed. In Thompsons's own words, "While we were hiding under a ledge we heard oat being rowed. It carried Privates Gorton and McMillan, also members of ompany of the 2/7th Battalion. They agreed to row us in two trips to a larg ave near which they had found the boat, large enough to carry four. Gorton an cMillan said they would row to a nearby island they had observed and would b ble to make their way to Egypt from it. Private Doran said that he would like t o with them. The rest cut the cards to see who would occupy the fourth berth. on the seat by cutting the Jack of Spades. "We divided all the rations between the two parties. The boat party's shar omprised four bottles of fresh water, four to five pounds of plain four, one ca f preserved plums, three pounds of dried rice, three small pieces of cheese and 14

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quarter of a tin of margerine. As we rowed away from Crete, the others set out for the mountains. We rowed all night, Private McMillan steering by the stars. Dawn found us still many miles short of the island; but there was a smaller one, called Passell Island, for which we now headed for fresh water and shelter from German planes. "Finding neither shelter nor water there, we set out for the island of Gavdhos, which we reached at 1430 hours on June 2. Even at this early stage we were show-


ing the physical results of being on the open seas in an open boat and our tongues were swollen from lack of water. In a deserted house on Gavdhos, we found water, a dozen eggs and half a cooked chicken. "We then made for a distant village where a number of the local inhabitants were very generous in their hospitality. A Greek youth who spoke some broken English told us that there was a boat with British troops some five miles away. It was a Motor Landing Craft with soldiers from Britain, New Zealand and Australia, some Commandos and two British officers aboard. "Permission to join them was quickly given and that evening the MLC left on its journey. The craft was under the command of Private H. Richards, of the 2/11th Australian Infantry Battalion. Before sailing, Private Richards told us he intended to make for Egypt but there was only enough petrol to cover a quarter of the distance. He hoped to drift on or be picked up by a passing vessel. Both rations and water were seriously short. He told us that the people on the island were friendly and every man must make a decision to sail or not. A number decided to remain on the island.'' The story of the events during the next nine days is best told by the ship's log book maintained by Private Richards. When he sailed on June 2, the vessel had procured more water and food but no more petrol. Richards hoped to intercept a patrol vessel that night or drift around until he did. The next day, June 3, he discovered that grounding on a rock had loosened a plate in the starboard balance tank and the MLC was making water fairly fast. All hands were awakened to bail out. Several verey light flares were fired at half-hour intervals until 0500 hours, but no response came. The leak in the ballast tank was repaired and incoming water was now well under control. At 1615 hours, a vessel was seen to the east and excitement ran high. It turned out to be another invasion barge on the same mission. By 1730 hours, fuel had run out and the vessel was at the mercy of the drifting seas. On June 4, a jury mast was rigged with four blankets as a sail. The crew stitched the blankets together. Next day, June 5, the vessel was still making good progress to the south east, but food supplies were very short. All hands had a quarter of a pint of cocoa for breakfast. By 1600 hours, the MLC stopped drifting in a flat calm. Everyone on board was now very hungry and getting weak. Richard's later entries read:路 June 6: 1030 Hours: We now have nothing to eat or drink, but the spirits of the whole crew are excellent, so I do not intend signalling blindly to a plane at night, for a day or two yet. 1200 hours: There is now a light breeze from the 115

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north. Once more we are making slow progress to the south. We have made an issue of water but the food is no more. June 7: 1200 hours: A number of planes, approximately 17 or 18, flew over our bow but they were too far away to distinguish whether they are Allied or enemy planes. 1500 hours: A German long range bomber flew directly overhead on an easterly course. June 8: 1000 hours: I have sighted land immediately to our south, so it is obvious that we have maintained a fairly good course throughout the journey. I have disclosed this to the members on board and they are jubilant. Excitement prevails everywhere. Five of our members decided to make a raft and head for land. I have advised against this course of action. The breeze is very light from the west and we are unable to get our barge to sail, so we are just drifting towards land, which is damned awful.


June 9: 0230 hours: We have safely grounded on the rocks at Sidi Barrani, having traversed the whole of the sea journey under our own power. Every member of the crew has disembarked and we find that we have landed in the midst of a 'Tommy' camp. Here we have been treated like lords. There is plenty of food, tea, cigarettes and shelter, which is greatly appreciated by all, and so ends our sea voyage.'' Private Thompson now resumes his story: "We were very hungry and we were more than thirsty at times; but we made the grade. When our water supply ran out, we began to distil sea water. The result was brackish but was drinkable. We were able to distil enough of this precious liquid to keep us going. On Sunday June 8 our spirits were very low; half the morning had passed and there was still no sign of any land mass. We had been afloat for eight days and we were very weak indeed. "A suggestion was put that we hold a church service. Everyone joined in. All denominations and beliefs were united in a small service that was as simple as it was impressive. We knelt in silent prayer; and later, Private Richardson said, ''Well boys I guess that our prayers have been heard, I can see land.'' "After gradually drifting in with the tide, we jumped ashore in the bright moonlight at 0200 hours Monday, June 9. We came upon a cook house of one of our RASC convoys. There were cigarettes, fruit, bread, milk and a good, big, man-sized mug of steaming hot tea. "The commanding officer of the RASC advised the RAF of the other craft we had passed on the way. We were advised that the vessel had finally reached land farther down the coast. Later that day, we were taken by motor transport to Mersa Matruh. From the staging camp, we went by train to Amiriya. Major Eugene Gorman, of the Australian Comforts Fund, met us and helped us in every way possible before we were taken to a staging camp. "I must pay tribute to Private Richards whose work in commanding and navigating our small vessel, and whose care for all of us, was beyond description. 116

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He exercised his command in a masterly manner and by example inspired everyone of us to keep our spirits raised at all times". 117

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CHAPTER22

Crete --the ones that got away-- No 4 Yet another member of the 217th Battalion who refused to take that very uncertain trip to Germany was Corporal I. W. Walker. In the company of several other members of the unit, Ian managed to make good his escape from Crete. After the capitulation, Walker's platoon commander gave the now-familiar orders. After passing these on to his section, Corporal Walker sought his brother, Lieutenant Keith Walker. He was with Captain Harry Halliday and they decided to try and get off the island in a motor landing craft. Some English troops had already found one but were unable to start the engines. While Ian was trying to get them going, Lieut. Walker and several members of HQ Company


came on board. Keith Walker had made a bargain with the English officer, Major Garrett of the Royal Marines: he would help get the engines running if Maj. Garret would take him and his party to another barge apparently drifting out to sea. The engines started and Maj. Garrett headed out to the other barge. They managed to get within 200 metres when it took off with both motors working and out-distanced them. Garrett started to return to collect the rest of his party but a large force of enemy planes began to bomb Sfakia and the be_ach. As Maj. Garrett had to consider the 140 personnel already on board, he made instead for the island of Gaydhapoula, about 12 km away. There they set about repairing the engines and removing a length of steel hawser wrapped around the port propeller. Garrett also organised parties to forage for food and water. Water was located and all containers filled. Rations were collected from the men and three cases of bully beef and two cases of biscuits found in the engine room were added. The barge pulled out at 2130 hours on June 1 and travelled until early the next morning when the steering cable broke causing a delay of one and a half hours. At 0630 hours, the supply of petrol began to get very low and so they made an attempt to run the engines on a mixture of kerosene, crude oil and petrol. Finally, the port engine broke down and the barge drifted. Flares were burned at night and a double lookout kept throughout the journey.

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As Corporal Ian Walker wrote, "On the fourth day out, a ten-gallon drum of petrol was found but after we had restarted the engine, the clutch of the second engine broke down. After failing to effect repairs, we changed the gearbox and clutch from one engine to the other. This was no easy job owing to the limited space and the fact that nearly everyone was seasick and weak from the lack of food and water. The ration of half a biscuit, with enough bully beef to cover the surface, and a quarter of a milk tin of water per day, was hardly sufficient to keep everyone on their feet. Any effort to do manual tasks was terrible. "On the seventh day, several of the Australian soldiers on board started to build a raft on which they hoped to reach land before us and bring some help. They completed the raft, tied it to the barge and decided to wait until the next morning before shoving off. Next morning they found the rope had snapped and their craft was nowhere to be seen. "Another raft was started by Lieutenant McCarthy, Corporal Nugent and Private Smith, all of the 2/llth Australian Infantry Battalion, but it would not float. The radio on the barge was repaired by my brother, Keith, but its batteries were too weak. Cordite was taken from the few rounds of ammunition we had left for flares, but once again results were negative. "On June 7, several of the men began to distil some sea water by using twogallon water tins connected by a length of hose, the condensor was placed in a bucket of sea water. The result was three gallons of brackish water. On this night, a Palestinian soldier shot himself. The next day, Sunday, an Englishman died. Both were buried at sea. "By this time, we were trying to aid our drifting with sails comprising 12 blankets sewn together with our bootlaces. The letters SOS had been embossed on them with bandages. They were hoisted by Private Legge, but they proved of little use until June 8 as there had been very little or no wind. Also, every time that the barge got out of the path of the wind, some of the stronger men had to get in the water to push the back of the vessel around.


"At 1000 hours on June 8, a church service was held by Maj. Garrett. It was very short but did a lot to bolster our flagging spirits, particularly when at the end a Hurricane flew overhead. In spite of our frantic signals, the pilot failed to notice us. This was the third day we had observed planes but they were too far distant. At about 1100 hours, a breeze sprang up. Land was sighted at around 1330 hours and all the complement began to gather belongings in anticipation of going ashore. "We had no idea just what part of the coastline we had sighted. Was it in our hands, or was the enemy there? Were we going to do the frying pan and the fire trick? At 0130 hours on June 9, we landed in Libya, between Sollum and Sidi Barrani. We immediately sent out some small patrols for water. After walking for some 22 km, Sergeant Keith Cockman returned with the news that a road was 119

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about 11 km from the beach and that we had landed about 30 km West of Sidi Barrani. "Sgt. Cockman's party had made contact with a convoy on the road and obtained some rations. We then marched to the road, where the convoy awaited to carry us to an English anti-aircraft unit. The Regiment had a wonderful hot meal ready for us. We rested until 1700 hours when we were taken to the staging camp at Mersa Matruh. We remained there until 0600 hours on June 10, when we entrained for Amiriya.'' (Ian and Keith Walker rejoined the 2/7th Battalion. Ian was later to earn his commission. He was killed in action during that ill-fated attack on Buna on December 5, 1942.) 120

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CHAPTER23

Crete --the ones that got away-- No 5 This could be an account of one of the longest periods of freedom on Crete, as described by then VX 5550 Sergeant Geoffrey C Ruddick. After capitulation, everywhere soldiers were breaking their rifles and anything of military value. Most must have felt as Ruddick did, confused, dazed, not believing that a wonderful fighting machine was no more. On June 1, Geoff Ruddick was to have been in the party associated with Keith and Ian Walker and was on the beach when the barge in charge of Major Garrett did not return to Sfakia because of the German air attack. After the planes left, some German soldiers on the slope opposite the beach called upon the would-be escapees to surrender. The men made their way up the hill. What would happen to them? Were they really taking prisoners? Or being rounded up to be shot? They were soon part of a steadily growing crowd on a small plateau where the German commander said that the pilots had been unaware of the capitulation and a number of Germans had been killed while laying out ground panels to warn them off.


Late that afternoon, the prisoners marched back over the Sfakia Pass to the prison compound at Galatas, just outside Canea. A Messerschmidt 109 roared along the length of the column and one wit called out, "It's alright, it's one of ours". No need to scramble for cover, no more sweating it out. Just a matter of waiting until the war was over and then go home. No more worries or anxieties. To many, confused and near to exhaustion, these defeatist thoughts came easily and without shame. After Galatas, the prisoners moved to a smaller camp at Skenes. Italian prisoners had been interned here and the area apparently attracted enemy bombers. There were many bomb craters in the compound and a few unburied bodies. The camp was very crowded and conditions so poor that Lieutenant Colonel Theo Walker unsuccessfully requested that numbers be reduced for health 121

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and hygiene. But they remained there all of June, during which many troops went through the wire and to the hills. Late one evening, began the march to Suda Bay. Whenever prisoners dropped out to answer the call of nature, a German guard would attend the stragglers. As Geoff Ruddick reported, "After a while, we noticed that the guards did not always wait. My brother Cliff suggested we take advantage and try to make a break. When it was quite dark, Cliff, Horrie Blandthorn and I dropped out of the column. We made the appropriate signs to the guards and, getting the hurry up sign in response, left the road. The end of the column passed and, after a minute or two, we pulled up our trousers and took off in to a more covered spot and prepared to doss down for the night. "When daylight came, we decided we would head for the hills, but first go to Suda Bay to say goodbye to our mates. Why we ever agreed on such a foolish move, I will never know, but at that time it seemed the right thing to do. "Passing through Canea, we were given food, money and even a haircut each. We were banking on the theory that, as there were still a number of prisoners of war working at various places, three more walking openly through the town would not attract undue attention. We passed a number of German soldiers and they didn't appear concerned by our presence. We left the city and were close to Suda Bay when we noticed a German soldier, a Greek policeman and a civilian behind us. We sat on the side of the road and waited for them to go by. Such was not to be. The German, a sergeant, asked us in a mixture of English and German where we were going. We told him, Suda Bay. Why? "To rejoin the other prisoners and then go on to Greece". "Too late", he said. "They left last night". "The German sergeant told us to wait until he came back, leaving the policeman as guard. The Greek appeared terrified we would escape and, as that would put him in danger of reprisal, we decided to sit it out. An hour or so later, the German sergeant returned in a truck and soon we were in the civilian prison at Canea. "We were put in a small cell but the German sergeant would not allow the policeman to lock its door. We had left our bags in the office. Cliff asked if we could get them for something to eat. Surprisingly we were allowed to do this. Even more surprising, the German (he told me that his name was Johnny Wagner), threw open the cell door and invited us in the office to eat at the table,


sending a policeman out for four cups of coffee. We exchanged views on such subjects as Hitler, Churchill, Stukas, Spitfires, our winning the war and so forth. Wagner went off duty and was relieved by a more aggressive individual, not given to fraternising. In next to no time the three of us were put on a truck and sent to one of the cemetery working parties. At the end of the working day, we were taken back to Galatas compound. So much for the right thing to do! 122

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The perimeter wire in the compound comprised two rows, six or eight feet apart. At one place, the inside fence had been pressed down to only two or three feet in height. Cliff commented how easy it would be to break out. So soon after dark, we casually went to the low wire. Cliff stepped over it and, crouching low, was about to start crawling to the outer fence when I called sharply, "Down! Don't move". "Thirty or forty yards from the wire, the Maleme road ran past, through a cutting and, leading from where the fence was pressed down, another cutting had been cut to the Maleme road. As luck would have it, seconds after Cliff had made his exit, two patrolling guards met right opposite us at the end of the cutting. It was bright moonlight and the two were easily discernable against the light background of the road. Cliff immediately flattened out and was not visible from the road. The guards talked for about a minute, then each went his way. I gave Cliff the 'all clear', but he had decided that discretion was the better part of valor and crawled back in to the compound. The incident had unnerved us and we thought that it would be better to make an attempt the following evening. During the day, we more closely studied the German security arrangements and discovered that a machine-gun post was in the corner of the compound, about 100 metres or so down to our left, and that, from the late evening, the guards patrolled inwards from the corner and the main gate. "As darkness settled, we again made our way to the point for our 'break out'. Having seen the guards pass at the end of the lane, we waited a few minutes, then crawled through one fence, then the other and took cover in an olive grove between the wire and the road. We were free once more, or were we? Behind the trees we felt safe; but in the open the moon was like a spotlight. We decided it was too dangerous to continue and that it would be better to wait for the moon to rise later. Back inside again, we had to put up with a bit of good-humored derision from Bluey Lea and a few others who knew of our plans. "At eight thirty p.m. on July 12, we were all set to go and more prepared. Our boots were in our bags, with a tin for eating from, a spoon and what little food we had managed to gather. Once again we went through the wire into the olive grove. Moving stealthily through the trees, we came to a rock wall above the edge of the road. To the road below was about three metres, which we thought was a bit too much. We continued until the distance was less and decided we would make it. I threw my legs over the low wall, sat for a few seconds then dropped quietly down. Another quick look each way and then a dash across the road. As I reached the other side, I heard a terrible clatter behind and, as I climbed up the face of the cutting, CRASH --RATTLE!! again, followed by a scuffling behind me --close. Cliff reached the top of the cutting beside me, already on the run. His dash past me would have done credit to Jessie Owens. I took off after him and we ran, silently now, for about five minutes, then stopped and listened for any sound of alarm or pursuit. Only our own heavy breathing. We had made it.


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"As Cliff had dropped down to the roadway, his sandbag caught the top of the wall. The ropes slipped from his shoulders and when, he landed, the bag hit the ground. Then, on dashing across the road, he had mistaken the darker shadow of the side drain for the face of the cutting, had jumped too soon, stumbled into the drain and over-balanced. "Soon it was bright moonlight so we pressed on steadily until, on reaching a vineyard, we heard movement ahead and the raucous braying of a donkey scared the living daylights out of us. We stood up feeling foolish but very relieved, and then, "Hey, George". We were sure that our little trip to freedom had ended. Then, "lnglesi?" --"Yes", answered Cliff, as a figure emerged from the shadows of a small hut. It was the owner of the vineyard. When he discovered we had come from the prison camp, he went back into the hut for a loaf of hot bread which he broke in half, handing us one piece. The ceremony of breaking bread amongst one's friends: it was the first of countless examples of the unselfish generosity of the people of Crete we were to experience during many long months to come. "We thanked this generous Cretan and pushed on to the outskirts of a village where we rested for the remainder of the night. Very early the next morning, we risked entering the village in the hope of getting some information on the locality and where it may be best to travel. But, on turning the corner, we saw through an open doorway of a large building some blue-grey jackets on the wall. We beat a hurried retreat, circled around the village and headed in roughly a southerly direction. After crossing the Skenes road, we made across gently rising ground to a village in the foothills of the White mountains. Some weeks earlier Cliff had got a small German map. We presumed that the village was Varipetron. "Near the village, a young Cretan shepherd greeted us and we asked, by word and sign, the name of the village, and if there were any Germans about. It was indeed Varipetron and there were no Germans. Soon we were met by villagers with happy, smiling faces. A young man, with one arm, whom we later knew as Nick, introduced himself to us in reasonably good English, and led us to a small clearing on the other side of the village and told us to wait there and he would take us to a safer place laterin the day. He would also have some food sent. "Soon the first food arrived, then more food and still more food. After so many weeks of short rations, we could eat very little but could not resist frequent snacks. At dusk, Nick took us to a small cave on the hillside about a half mile away. We slept like babes to awaken with a wonderful feeling of freedom, a feeling I find impossible adequately to describe. Nick asked us if we had decided on our course of action. We told him our first objective was Vamos. Nick suggested we stay for another day or so to build up our strength. All that day we rested and ate and when Nick came that night, we told him we would be pressing on in the morning. After another good night's sleep, we were ready to move when Nick arrived with some hard boiled eggs and bread. He led us further up the hill to a track which he said would take us to the next village, Alitrovari.

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"In Alitrovari, we were met by one of the most lovable characters on Crete-Panayiotis Koundourakis-- whom we immediately nicknamed Billy Gilbert due to


his striking resemblance to that fat, spluttering screen comic. Panayiotis took us under his wing, and he and his wife cared for and watched over us for the four or five days we stayed with them. While at Alitrovari, we met the Frawley brothers, who had made their escape a few days earlier than Cliff and I, and they told us of the unfortunate death of Ken Atock, of the 2/7th Battalion Intelligence Section. This had occurred the night after our own escape at the very spot where we made our own breakout. The brothers didn't stay very long as we all agreed it was better to be in small groups when on the move.'' (Private Ken Atock died on July 13, when the unit no longer existed as a fighting force and when members were mostly in the hands of the Germans. Doug Twaits later came up with this explanation: "Private J .K. Atock, VX 5403, was a member of the Intelligence Section of the 217th Battalion. He died trying to escape from the hospital area on Crete, not for personal reasons. Ken, on toilet paper and other scraps of writing material, had compiled information on every move made by the German airborne attack. He was obsessed with the urgency of getting his report back to the authorities in Egypt. He visited me in the hospital, where I was seriously ill, and told me that he planned to stay and hide in the ward until after darkness, when he would try to go over the wire. I pleaded with him to wait until he had a plan with a reasonable chance of succeeding. He was so keen to get his report back that he ignored the obvious risks he was about to take. His parting remark to me was, "The Government will look after my family". I hope that his remark came true because about ten minutes later I heard the burst of firing that I had been dreading.") Geoff and Cliff were rather sorry to leave Alitrovari on the next leg. They were to return to Alitrovari many months later for a brief visit and it was like returning to one's home. After the war they heard the sad news that Panayiotis had been killed in an uprising during late 1943. Their next stop was Samona, where they were greeted with a little suspicion. They had decided to go on their way when a smallish man watched them for some time and in a strong Australian acccent, said, "It's alright, fellas. There's no need to worry. The people were a bit afraid you might be German, but I just told them that I could hear by what you were saying that you're OK. My name is Mike Doulis. I'm from Perth." The surprise on the travellers' faces must have been very amusing because the villagers changed their mood to one of happiness. They were to see Mick Doulis often over the next few weeks; then he moved away from the area and, apart from some vague rumors that about 12 months later he was working on the Dimbaki aerodrome, they heard no more of him. The two Australians were taken by two young men to a terraced olive grove higher in the hills, where they stayed for more than a week. Their plan to go to Vamos was abandoned when they heard that a large force of German troops were 125

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garrisoned there. In Samona, three members of the 16th Australian Infantry Brigade --Bert Scarrot, George Smith (who always referred to himself as George Pattison Smith) and Bill Hughes-- joined them. George Smith forwarded the idea they steal a boat in the Suda Bay area to try and make Africa. This suggestion was accepted and they set out the next evening for the coast. Reaching the flat coast in darkness, they could see the German searchlight, at the entrance to the bay sweeping an almost complete 360 degrees.


The closer they got to the coast, the more their early enthusiasm waned, and all agreed the scheme was not feasible so they headed back to the hills. Geoff Ruddick continued: "I was with Cliff and we had only gone about 30 metres when we realised we were among some tents. Cliff whispered, 'We're in a bloody Jerry camp. Let's out, quick'. Giving the danger area a wide berth, we moved off and found our way back to Samona early the next morning. That afternoon we were taken to a cave outside the village where we remained for about a month. "Luckily, we all got on well together and often held impromptu concerts and variety evenings. Some items became serials and it was amazing just how inventive we became, with such themes as 'Crime does not pay', 'Honorable Archie' and 'Fitzpatric Travel Talks'. Cliff was often a 'professor' who gave talks on anything and everything. "Early in September, we had word of a submarine coming to the Sfakia area. Luckily, as it turned out, we were a little late leaving. By early afternoon, we were still some miles from Sfakia when we met a New Zealander who told us the Germans had spread the story around that a ship was coming and had the whole area surrounded. The Kiwi had been lucky to avoid getting caught and even luckier that we had met him. "We turned back and, after crossing the mountains, Cliff and I thought that this would be a good opportunity to move to another area. We parted company with the others and headed in the general direction of Georgioupolis. We thought it would be best not to arrive in a village in the dark. Early next morning, after a chilly night, all we could muster as food were a few olives, a small quantity of ouzo and a couple of pieces of paximathi, a dried bread which first had to be soaked in water. But we had no water so used our ouzo for one of the hottest breakfasts we had had for many a day! A passing shepherd told us the nearby village was Filipo, and that it would be alright for us to go there. "When we arrived, the people seemed to be pleased to see us, but we could never be sure what our welcome would be when entering a village for the first time. At Filipo, we met up with an Englishman named George Broadhurst. George, who had escaped from Galatas and had only just arrived in the village, proved good company. "Filipo was to become our 'home town' until the following January, first in nearby caves and finally in a house on the edge of the village. Christmas came

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and went; but when we celebrated Bardia Day in nearby Vrises, a large garrison town teeming with Germans, we blotted out copybook and were politely but firmly asked to leave. We made many good friends at Filipo, expecially Mick Xanthos, village leader, farmer, family man, thief and fierce patriot. And at Filipo we met with Bill Ledgerwood, of the 217th Battalion, and Dave Pettigrew, whom we often met or stayed with from that time until our eventual escape. "From Filipo, we went to Aspro Sika, a small village close to Georgioupolis. While here, we were able to meet many we had known before the invasion; but, as the Germans were camped nearby and were often in the old battalion township, it was not a particularly safe place. So, after only a few days, we again moved on, this time to quite a large town a few miles to the north on the Kefalas headland which took its name from the area, Kefalas. Here we were to meet another color-


ful character named Johnny Gaitanis, who had lived in the United States for many years and served in the US Army towards the end of World War 1. ''Johnny was to prove a valuable contact many times in the months ahead. While at Kefalas, we all went down with a severe illness and the local people administered the unusual treatment of blood-letting. For this treatment, the back is sterilised, nicked many times with a razor blade and the blood drawn off by heated tumblers. We were very fortunate none of us suffered any really serious illness on the island and later medical examinations were to show we were in exceptionally good shape. "Some months later, we left Kef alas for Mathe, in the mountains just above Georgioupolis, where we met an old acquaintance of many members of the 2/7th Battalion, Pete the Barber. Pete was quite a dynamic personality, and it was mainly due to his efforts that we were looked after so well while in Mathe. We were located on the mountainside above it at a place named Three Wells, where we joined up again with Bill Ledgerwood and Dave Pettigrew. We received word of another boat, so once again were on the move. ''We were passed from area to area and, after about four days of really hard slogging, arrived in Sata, some three miles or more from Dimbaki airfield. Our contact at Sata told us that we could not go on as a commando raid on the airfield had stirred the possum and the whole area was alive with Jerries. In view of this, our party split up and dispersed over a number of villages. Cliff and I were taken to a hideout nearby, where we remained for the next couple of days. On our journey from Mathe, we had been joined by Wally Allen who, when we stopped at Sata, returned to the area he had been in. We saw Wally a couple of times later on, then no more until our escape from Crete during May the following year. "The commando raid had put paid to any chance we had of getting to the getaway point in time but, when things had calmed down, Cliff and I decided to give it a go. A small party of very argumentative Cypriots told us that the submarine had departed two nights earlier. We headed back to the western end of the island once more. As we passed through Sata, we were rejoined by George Broadhurst.

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"Many days later, we reached Sfakia road and, as we approached to cross, saw a German soldier outside a house at the side of the track. We could only keep on walking and, on reaching the road, turned down the hill so as to put the house between us and the German. Then we heard a vehicle coming up the hill; so, taking the bit between our teeth, we left the road and ran for our lives for some light scrub near a small lake in the hollow. We looked back as we ran to see a truck stop about a quarter of a mile down the road. A dozen or so German soldiers jumped from it and ran down the slope towards the lake. We reached the cover of the scrub just as they opened fire --at some ducks on the water! Days later, we were told that three Englishmen had been shot near the lake. "Early that evening, we reached Mathe, which we had left about a month previously, and it did not take long to contact Pete the Barber. He took us to the village Cafe Neon and there told the eagerly listening customers a long and detailed account of our travels since we had left them. He told them that we had escaped to Africa and been sent back to carry out special intelligence work, but the details were absolutely secret and there were to be no questions asked of us. He then passed on some very encouraging war news which we had 'told' him.


"We didn't stay very long at Mathe and returned to Kefalas, where we were given a great welcome and pressed for a full account of where we had been and what news we had. We really had itchy feet by this time, and about half way through September we thought it might be worthwhile returning to the Sata area, again in the hope of catching a boat. So once again we set off. This time we were just Cliff, George Broadhurst and myself. Crossing the mountains again at Gonia, we made our way along the island and arrived at Sata a few days later, moving on to Foofoora, a much larger town. Here we set up home in a large cave in the foothills of Mount Ida. Dimbaki aerodrome was not far away and we often heard the rumble of bombs at night when the drome was being raided. One morning in early October, after one of these raids, we were talking about the general state of affairs when George very casually said, in his broad North Country accent, "Here comes Father Christmas". A man winding his way down the rocky slope was carrying a red sacouli (a large ruck sack). He was, indeed, Father Christmas. After greeting us wearily, he opened the bag and very proudly pulled out three pairs of boots, three woollen undershirts and three woollen scarves. He explained that there had been a parachute drop of stores the night before the air raid. The final surprise was a cigarette each. The boots were more than welcome, as our footwear was literally falling to pieces. "A week or so later, the local people were becoming more than a little concerned by our presence as there had been an increase in German activity in their vicinity. So once again we headed back westward. Just outside Sata, we were taken to an isolated house a short distance away to meet a British intelligence officer. His news was very exciting. The Battle of Alamein had commenced and the Germans in Africa were falling back. As we made our way 'homeward', we were able to tell each village the good news, knowing that this time it was the truth. 128 BOOK ONE

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"Our journey back took much longer than previously, as we frequently had a two --or three-- day stopover in the villages. George Broadhurst left us on the way to join up with Wally Allen and we did not see any more of either until our own escape. It was early December when we eventually arrived back at Three Wells where we again met up with Bill Ledgerwood and Dave Pettigrew, who had a couple of New Zealanders with them. "Just before Christmas, Cliff and I left the others and moved over to Kefalas. The people seemed a little apprehensive and a few days later we moved to an isolated spot on the coast a mile or so from the village. Later that day, Bill, Dave and the two Kiwis joined us and we heard that there was a great deal of German patrol activity over the whole area. We were left in no doubt about this when two German soldiers appeared on the hill top above us sending us scuttling for cover. The two came down to where we had been but were obviously new arrivals on a sight-seeing tour. Bill Ledgerwood stayed in the open and, when he spoke to them in Greek, they apparently didn't understand a word. A young lad from the village arrived that afternoon, took us to an isolated house and told us to remain there until someone came for us. Soon after dark, Johnny Gaitanis came to the house very agitated. The village was full of German soldiers and nearly every village in the area was in the same condition. The people were very frightened and we would have to leave. "About midnight, Johnny and two or three other men arrived and they escorted us clear of the village. They apologised most profusely for having to put us out and urged us to get as far away as possible. Our party split up. Cliff and I decided on Mathe, in the hope of getting some news from Pete the Barber; but


early next morning, New Year's Day, as we were about to enter the village, we were frantically warned off. The Germans had been there during the previous evening and were expected back. All the men had taken to the hills and the whole village was very frightened. We thought it would be best and safest for all to make our way to where we were known so, keeping well up in the hills, we headed towards Filipo; but our arrival there was a repeat performance of Mathe and it was repeated again when we had moved on to Samona. "Our next objective was Alitrovari and our old friend 'Billy Gilbert', but before we got there we were a-ble to hole up in the village of Dhrakona. A scare in the middle of the first night sent us on our way, but we lost our direction in the darkness and next morning found we were only a mile or so from the village. It wasn't long before it was known that we were there but, fortunately, there was no alarm and we were allowed to remain in the cave we had found. The next night it snowed heavily and Cliff became snow blind for most of the day. "The other villages nearby were rather poor and we had to travel some distance in our quest for food, but we fared reasonably well and we were still at Dhrakona in early April when we received word of yet another boat. By this time, we had been joined by Dave Pettigrew again, an Englishman named Ambrose and a Cypriot. There was an air of excitement as we awaited our guide. When he arriv129

CHAPTER TWENTY THREE

THEONESTHATGOTAWAY-5

ed he told us something had gone wrong and that the boat could possibly be coming in a few weeks' time. It was a bitter disappointment. Cliff suggested that we make the run anyhow. So shortly after, he and I set off. The journey took us through Therriso, over the mountains, across the Omalo flats and, at last, we reached the main concentration of escapees. "There were many familiar faces among the assembly --Claude Peck, Johnny Duncan, Tommy Spriggs, and 'Money Bags' Corbould. Cliff and I agreed it was not wise to remain too long in an unfamiliar area, so the next day headed back to Dhrakona. A couple of weeks later, when we had left our cave unbeknown to anyone in the village, a runner came through the area with the news of another boat. He was taken to our cave but, finding it deserted, had gone on his way. By this time, incidentally, our party had grown quite considerably following the false alarm three weeks earlier and now numbered ten. Cliff and I as the only ones acquainted with the area, decided to go on a scrounge for food. "At last, fate smiled upon us. On this trip, we caught up with the runner who gave us the information about the craft. We hurried back to the rest of the party, nearly walking into the arms of a couple of German soldiers on our way. Having convinced everyone that the news was true, we set off soon afterwards over the route Cliff and I had traversed some weeks earlier. All that afternoon, right through the night and all the next morning, we travelled until, at last, we met up again with our old mates. This time they included Johnny Greaves and Slim Howard. Soon after crossing the Omalo flats, we were joined by the escape organiser, Captain Xan Fielding. "We holed up in a large cave that night and the next day and, as evening approached, set off toward the coast, slipping and sliding in the loose shale, until we reached a small sandy cove surrounded by rocky outcrops. The boat was due to arrive at 9.40 p.m. As darkness settled in, the tension and the excitement began to build up. Then there was a deep rumbling out to sea. Twenty minutes or so later, the vague outline of a boat could be seen. What it was, no one knew. Then the engines stopped. It was 9.40 p.m.


"Captain Fielding flashed a brief signal with a lamp. No reply was made. Minutes passed. Then we heard a sound close into the shore and saw a dark outline on the water a few yards out. Then, "Captain Fielding?" It was May 6 1943 and we had almost made it. Our boat had arrived and soon a small two-man dinghy started ferrying the 40 odd anxiously-awaiting throng to the ship. Cliff and I made sure that we got in the same lift, just in case. We clambered up the side of the boat and were quietly led to our waiting area. An hour passed, a second; then, soon after midnight, the ship's engines burst into life and the boat began to move. Quickly it built up speed and, with sparks belching from the funnel and the engines going full blast, pulled away from Crete and the Germans. "The 2/7th Australian Infantry Battalion personnel who came off Crete that night were Claude Peck, John Duncan, Jack Corbould, John Greaves, Vic Howard, Dave Pettigrew, Wally Allen, Cliff Ruddick and myself.

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''The German listening stations just along the coast of Crete must surely have seen our departure, but all went without incident. As soon as we were under way we were served mugs of steaming hot, thick soup, with bread and butter and each man was given a blanket. All through the night, our little ship raced along, but we were too excited and too cold, despite the blanket, to sleep much. With daylight, came mugs of hot cocoa, bread, jam and cigarettes, as many as we wanted. Soon after midday, we could see the hazy outline of the African coast. About one hour later, we were racing towards the entrance to Tobruk harbor. "Just as the ship was entering, a small launch sped towards us, signal lamp blinking, and we suddenly veered away to starboard and proceeded to follow the smaller boat into the harbor. Our ship, a sub-chaser, was apparently unfamiliar with the Tobruk defences and we heard later that we were heading straight for a minefield when warned away. The ship tied up at the wharf. We were free at last. "After being issued with British army uniforms at Tobruk, we were taken to Alexandria for interrogation. After the debriefing, we were required to sign an undertaking not to divulge any details of our escape. The security for the entire Cretan rescue operations was pretty tight; so much so, in fact, that the drivers of the British transport unit which met and later moved us were only told to pick up some cave men from Tobruk. "What do I remember of Crete? The unselfish help given by the people, their loyalty and courage and their unswerving faith in ultimate victory. The many characters that we met --Nick, Billy Gilbert, Mick the thief, Pete the Barber, Yankee Johnny and many more. We saw no evidence of any reprisals carried out by the Germans, although we heard of a few imprisonments for helping prisoners to escape. "On our return to Australia we were given some leave and those who were to rejoin the 2/7th Battalion did so at Wondecla, in the Atherton Tablelands, as the unit was arriving home after its magnificent victories in the Wau-Salamaua campaign. Tommy Spriggs missed the boat from Crete and was taken off at a later date, as was Bill Ledgerwood, who remained behind to work with some British intelligence officers. 131

CHAPTERTWENTYFOUR CHAPTER24

THEONESTHATGOTAWAY-6


The ones that got away --No 6 Yet another member of the 2/7th Battalion who defied the German Occupation Forces on Crete and managed to elude capture long enough to get away to rejoin the unit was VX 12843 Sergeant Reginald Saunders. Saunders was on the Costa Rica and well down in its bowels with other soldiers when the alarm bells began ringing. Some bright spark got from his hammock and said, "Right oh, fellas. There goes the breakfast gong". He and the others got on deck, fast, to be taken off and landed in Crete. When capitulation came, Saunders and most of his platoon from 'C' Company, including Mick Baxter were against surrender. Some said to Saunders, "You know a bit about the bush. What do you reckon?" He replied that it would be for the best to leave the coast and head inland. On the high ground they watched the Germans round everyone up. The cumulative effect of the debacle of Greece and Crete, the frustrations and physical exhaustion had taken hold of a lot who just sat down and waited. There were eight in Saunders original party including Slim Edward, Cliff Blythman, Artie Ericson and Big Paddy Potter. Most finally got off the island but at this moment they had no food and weren't too sure of help from the Cretan population. They did know that some food stores were buried in the 42nd Street area and decided to go there. In the mountains, the party reached a little village, desperate and foodless. The Cretans advised them to go into the valley, where it was safer. They chose a spot about a kilometre away. By this time there were about 14 in the party and the villagers brought enough food to sustain the men. The Cretans were really marvellous, willingly handing over part of their meagre supplies for one small meal a day. Slim Edward, as quartermaster, issued the food the Cretans brought. Some time later, a couple arrived with a donkey laden with bread, cheese, olives, meat and sour milk.

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The Cretans heard on the grapevine that the Germans knew too much and decided to move the Australians away from the area. Food was now no problem as Cretans on the coast were sending it by the donkey load, under the disguise that it was for the villagers. Instead, it was for the hundreds of troops throughout the area, especially on the big mountain. About mid-June, the escapees, split into small parties. In Saunder's were George Burgess, from the 2/3rd Battalion, and Lambert and, for a time, Paddy Potter and Cliff Blythman. They were still dressed in the Australian uniform which was similar to that of the Greek army as a lot of Cretan soldiers were wandering around in their old uniforms, and it would be unlucky to meet a Greek-speaking German. Saunder's party moved to the coast on a small track and into the highlands above Georgioupolis to a little village called Lubini. The Cretans there were very friendly and hated the Germans. If Germans were seen the shepherds would shout warnings to each other for relay to the village. If in danger, the Australians would move back into the hills with the shepherds. The intense winter cold of the mountains would drive them down to the warmer coastal regions. They would observe a village about 300 metres below for any


German activity. If none, they then moved after dusk to near the village. They were usually challenged by a Cretan. The reply was "Englese", having learned that "Australian" sounded too much like "Austrian". Once a very nervous little shepherd took them to his house where five children were about to eat from one bowl of food. He told the children to go to bed and the Australians to sit down and eat. Such generosity happened many times and respect for these very fine people continuously increased. As Reginald Saunders wrote, "At one stage, George Burgess and I were wandering around. The Cretans used to give us a handful of money which had no value outside the villages. We decided to go to the Cafe Neon. Every Cretan there knew who we were. When inside, we noticed about eight stacked rifles. I bloody near fell over and so did George. Sitting at a table were six or eight Germans. George and I sat at the next table. We spoke Greek fairly fluently. We just sat there, undid our coats, showed our old uniforms underneath, and ordered drinks. The Cretan barman brought them with his eyes sticking out and others had their mouths open. "The Germans took no notice of us. George went to them and asked one in Greek for a cigarette. The German gave him one and offered me one. We thanked him in Greek. I thought the Cretans were going to have pups. "The German Forces on Crete decided to undertake a massive clean-up and what followed was often referred to by us as the nine day run. There were about 90 of us in the area and the Germans began to really hunt us because we had been causing quite a bit of trouble. The aerodromes were being blown up and there were all sorts of things going on. The German authorities attributed these to the 133

CHAPTERTWENTYFOUR

THE ONES THAT GOT AWAY-6

numbers of prisoners who had escaped into the hills and were setting up telephone communications. "My party took part in these activities quite frequently, but at first we were a little apprehensive because the Germans would come down and wipe out a village. We were reluctant to bring reprisals on the heads of our Cretan friends, but we did supply the British air force with enough information to keep the aerodromes out of commission. We had an intelligence service on the island and a radio. Some of us worked on the aerodromes. "The enemy would arrive in trucks, round up every male in the village and tell them that they would be working on airfield repairs. They would give them a ticket for work next day. It was quite obvious that some Australians would be caught in these raids and finish up working on the airfield. When the airfield looked as though it would be operative again within 24 hours, the Australians would pass on the news and a runner despatched to the radio, operated by some members of Army Intelligence who had been landed on the island. The message would be passed on to Cairo and the situation remedied. "One day, about 50 German JU52s, which were troop carriers and transports, took off from various aerodromes around the island. The intelligence people were able to notify Cairo at the same time. That great fighter pilot, Squadron Leader Cunningham, got his Beaufighters airborne and at a point between Crete and Tobruk, his squadron destroyed the lot. "After I had been on Crete for about 13 months, word came that we were to be evacuated. About 90 assembled at the Monastery of the Three Churches, Tris Eklisea, in the south. From there, we were taken down a very high cliff. The


movement of such a large party was fairly audacious because there was a German post about a mile and a half to our right and another about the same distance to our left. We took the path between them, moving into position after dark. "Intelligence personnel organised the evacuation. One reason was that we had become a nuisance by causing the Germans too much trouble; and, also, there were too many of us. We were also causing the Cretans trouble because there was always the chance a traitor would tell the Germans where the English or Australians were. "Of the 90 members of the party, quite a few were Australians. There was also an air crew of South Africans, a few New Zealanders, some British Commandos who had landed on Crete during the Battle of Suda Bay and quite a lot of Greek soldiers, mainly from the mainland. On the afternoon of May 23, 1942 we arrived on the cliff. At about 3.00 p.m. an old British trawler, flying an Italian flag, was about 1060 metres off shore, moving to give the impression it was on patrol. "When darkness fell, we moved to the beach. Some soldiers in full battle order were dragging little rubber boats ashore and unloading supplies on to two small donkeys. I was told to carry two leather pouches, to a cave. It appeared that Intelligence was paying the Cretans in gold. Some of the others and I took about

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three or four loads of supplies to the cave while others were being evacuated. The soldiers had picked the youngest and the fittest as many of the group were in poor condition. Finally we were taken back to the beach, put aboard the rubber dinghies and pulled by rope to the little ship. The empty dinghies were then filled with supplies for pulling back to the beach. "The skipper of the craft and engineer were Scotsmen and the three crew British. When the loading and unloading was completed, the ship moved away to Egypt and freedom. On the trip from Egypt it had carried Marine Commandos who landed in Crete with their guns and supplies and, of course, their sovereigns. The craft which could only do six knots, headed for Bardia. ''Suddenly the exhaust stack caught fire, spewing flames and smoke. Everyone on board 'stood to' machine guns. After about 30 minutes, the fire died down. German E boats came to search the area in which we had been with searchlights but went away without having seen us. ''When daylight came, we could still see the mountains of Crete. We were issued a pannikin of rum and a few got quite merry on the one mug. The ship had people in the holds, in the wheelhouse and on deck. Sheets over the tops of the deck hid the guns and the troops. "At about 1400 hours, power ceased and the trawler started to wallow and drift with the current. Then the skipper roared, "Under cover!" We had been fully briefed on what to do when enemy aircraft appeared and a squadron of enemy fighters flew around us. The Italian flag was flying and the skipper waved an Italian cap at the aircraft. "The ship was nicknamed 'Hedgehog' because of the guns bristling all over. When it reached the patrol area just outside Bardia, trouble started. We reached there just on dusk and had to sail through it in darkness. The area was particularly dangerous as if sighted by a submarine we would have been fired on. That night, every man performed voluntary submarine lookout duty. But we finally made landfall on the beach of Bardia just after daylight. On landing we were in-


structed to remove all our clothing and put on hospital pyjamas. In hospital, we were given a medical examination. Some of the escapees had scabies and most some skin problem. Fortunately, there was nothing wrong with me. "I was issued with a British Army uniform because most of the Australians had gone home. All that was left was the 9th Australian Division and this was just before the Battle of El Alamein. Later, all escapees were taken to Cairo and placed under very strict security; in fact, we were all locked up. The Australians, New Zealanders and South Africans were incarcerated together. The Greeks and those not from the Commonwealth countries were taken elsewhere. "Locked up in the Ebusu Barracks, we had security people with us at all times, even at meals. We were not allowed out of the barracks until we had been interrogated and every man sworn not to reveal how he had escaped or anything about 135


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hat had happened on the island. The interrogation lasted for four days, the firs wo entirely in Greek. "Looking back on my stay in Crete, there remains in my memory the generosi y and loyalty of the Cretan people who had so little to give yet gave it so willingl o men not of their race or creed. And of the Sagarkis family who house eorge, Arthur and me when we were on the run, though they knew that it mean eath if we were found in their house. "Vasalike Sagarkis was a fabulous woman. I don't think it is possible for an ther woman to have had her courage. Beautiful-looking, she was a second o hird sister and therefore, with no dowry, had to accept any man that came along She was married to Kostelli, a little Greek who, according to his brother-in-la as the greatest thief in the whole of Crete. Her brother, Stefan, was an officer i he Greek army, an extremely brave and very proud man. He was to be execute y the Germans for killing German soldiers. I once asked Stefan if anyone eve ame into his home uninvited and he said no. What about the Germans? He said ven they cannot come in here uninvited. I am the master of this house. I sai hat that was all very noble, but what would happen if they forced their way in tefan told me that they would have to climb over him to do it. "One day, German search forces surrounded the little village and finally got t tefan's place. When Stefan came downstairs, they said that they were comin n. Stefan slammed the door in their faces and raced upstairs to get his Luger. H ame down again and said, what did you say? They repeated that they were co ng in. Stefan said, "No, your're not", and started shooting. He killed three o hem. They managed to disarm him and bashed him very badly. "Helene Sagarkis was the daughter of Varsalike and Kostelli and like h other, was a beautiful person. She taught me the Greek that helped so muc hroughout my stay on the island. These things I will never forget.'' 36


BOOK ONE CHAPTER25

WALKER

People of Crete --the 2/7th Battalion salutes you To those of the battalion who managed to escape from Crete, the inhabitants of that rugged Mediterranean Island were of more than valuable assistance, before and after the surrender. Many scores of Allied soldiers spent several months on the island, made possible only with the help and co-operation of the Cretans. This help was given by people fully knowing what the outcome would be if they were caught. Many were caught and many reprisals carried out against entire villages. Yet these brave people never turned away from their self-appointed task of supplying food, shelter and information to the small bands of hunted men. The Cretans nursed the sick or wounded in their homes, provided clothing and disguises for them. For assisting and harboring these fugitives, the Germans burned entire villages. In one near Othune, 18 villagers were shot. In the Meschla area, German troops machine-gunned several villages, killing more than 100 inhabitants. Two Greek soldiers were tied to chairs and shot at short range in full view of the villagers from Lubini, nevertheless, in the village of Omalo, Private J Potter, who become very ill, was treated and cured by the local doctor. Through the complete co-operation of the local people and Allied agents, a number of fugitives were taken off the island by Royal Navy submarines, subchasers and trawlers. Howard Martin spent almost four months on Crete and Reg Saunders 11 months while the oldest 'inhabitant' was Claude Peck, Geoff and Cliff Ruddock and the party that came out on May 6, 1943. These had spent 17 months as guests of the Cretans. The evacuees, and many like them, rejoined the battalion and fought, many conspicuously, in the campaigns against the Japanese in New Guinea. To the people of Crete, the 217th Battalion says thank you for the help you gave during those those dark dark days. days. Its Its m members will always remember those who gave gave during their lives so that others could live.

CHAPTER TWENTY-SIX

OFFICER STYLE

CHAPTER26

Into the bag --officer style To complete the picture of the trials and tribulations of the men of the 2/7th Battalion, this is the story of one officer of the unit, Captain Russ Savige 0/C 'A' Company. Savige's narration begins at 42nd Street where the 2/7th helped turn a defensive position into a determined bayonet attack which left the Germans in complete disarray. They suffered very heavy losses in their first defeat on Crete.


After the battle for 42nd Street, the rearguard action over the mountains to Sfakia began. The Germans had become very wary of the Australians who were feeling more than their equal. As Russ Savige said, ''During the withdrawal, the thought of defeat never entered my head. I felt then, as I do today, that all this would not have been necessary had the Australian and Allied Forces on Crete been used in an aggressive and attacking role instead of being assigned a passive defensive role after taking over from a disorganised New Zealand battalion near Suda Bay. "The men of the 2/7th Battalion were spoiling for a fight. If they had been used intelligently, free from higher command jealousies, they would have tremendously contributed to making the Maleme story a vastly different one. The position of the battalion covering the road to Sfakia was a very sticky one. The soldiers could see the Germans moving around the mountains on each side of them, as well as those attacking frontally. The Australians maintained their positions until late in the evening when Major Harry Marshall informed me that the rest of the battalion was moving back to where the evacuation was taking place. This was indeed a surprise to me. The 2/7th Battalion, as the rearguard, had a priority, so it was up to me to get my men cracking. "We began to move out of our defensive positions immediately and experienced great difficulty finding and moving down the precipitious track to the beach and the evacuation point. I was appalled by the confusion and lack of discipline 138 BOOK ONE

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I in this area and we had to use some stern measures to link up with the rest of the battalion. I have always been intensely proud of my 'A' Company and the battalion. As I moved forward to report to our commanding officer, Theo Walker and noted the spirit and discipline of the men, my pride welled up. "Lieutenant Colonel Walker was at the head of the battalion at the evacuation point and some members of Battalion HQ were on the barge ready to move out to the ship that could just be seen through the mist. Theo Walker greeted me with "Where the hell have you been?" and indicated that we were being taken off. The young naval officer controlling the evacuation said to him, "Time to go, sir". As the colonel climbed aboard, the naval officer added, "This is the last barge, sir". The C/0 answered, "I am not leaving without the rest of my battalion" and stepped ashore. That one step was the beginning that could end only in a German prison camp. Thus ended a military career of great promise for a man who rarely showed his emotions. Later as the senior officer, it fell to his lot to surrender the force to the Germans. "I returned to my Company, told the men the situation, and suggested small parties go into the hills or to any other place of shelter and hole up for the day. We said our farewells with no suggestion of defeat. It seemed to be unanimous that we evade capture in order to fight again. "The medical officer of the 2/7th, Captain Russell Godby, and Major Harry Marshall and I moved from the beach until we located a small cave to crawl into. The day was well advanced, the weather extremely hot and the floor of the cave a


moving mass of blood-thirsty fleas. Russ Godby couldn't stand it any longer and left the cave to go to a nearby spring for a wash and a drink. Within half an hour, a party of German soldiers poked automatic weapons through the cave centrance and invited us to 'come out'. I hesitated long enough to plant two compasses. "The three of us were taken to a nearby village for a thorough search. I had some difficulty getting rid of a Luger and a Mauser I had in my pockets. Our steel helmets were taken away and we commenced the long trek back over our rearguard route where the battalion had fought so valiantly. Delayed action of exhaustion of mind and body set in during this trek and I have only the most hazy recollection of it. "We were halted, allowed to rest and issued with cards to indicate to our next of kin that we were fit and well. I filled mine in with great scepticism but was to learn many months later that that card had arrived at my home. Thoughts of escape filled my mind but the almost complete lack of food seemed to dull my reaction to the many opportunities which, in retrospect, did occur. On the march back, we passed swollen bodies of the war dead, grim reminders of the recent events. Each of us seemed to experience a feeling of thankfulness that we were still alive. "We were eventually herded into an Italian camp at Skenes where I met up with many fellow officers and some members of my compariy. After a day or so, we were told that officers would be flown to Greece. The news inspired a group of 139

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us, including Harry Halliday, George Bolding, Ian Felstead and one or two others, to plan to take over the plane. This must have been one of the first planned hijackings in the history of aviation. Soon after, the officers were taken to Maleme airport and loaded into a Junkers transport. Our plans for the hijacking vanished when we noted the number and the armaments of our escorting guards. It was a pretty wildcat scheme, in any case. "After a hair-raising flight to Athens, we were marched through the streets of that famous city. Heart-warming sights were the large numbers of 'V for Victory' signs from the Greek people. We were marched through Syntagma Square, past the Hotel Bretagne, which was crowded with arrogant German officers, to the jail, a bug-ridden place, where we parked on concrete floors. Harry Halliday, a good scrounger, went to the gate in search of food. There was none but he could get two bottles of ouzo, a very strong Greek beverage, at a price. Harry, George Holmes, from the 2/lst Australian Infantry Battalion, and I pooled resources. That was a night to remember. The bugs bit to no avail. The more we drank, the softer became the floor. Harry finished up by upending a British colonel who had the gall to admonish us for our behavior. "The next day we were again marched to the railway station. According to rumor, we were headed for Salonika. Some Greek women gave us bread, cucumbers and small raisin cakes in defiance of the threats of our guards. This little episode only strengthened my admiration for the Cretan and Greek women, an admiration which has remained with me until this day. Their bravery in defiance of the German armed forces was an inspiration to all of us. "We were marched through Salonika to an old Turkish barracks complete with the ever-present bugs, very little food and no bedding. Our guards were a sadisitic, moronic lot who seemed to have a complete disregard for human life. They were shooting people for no reason at all. Dysentery and illness were rife


among the prisoners. I managed to survive and, more than ever was looking for an opportunity to escape. "Not long after arrival in the Salonika camp we were warned of a journey to take us into Germany. With a sense of relief, we left the filthy, inhuman place with its rats as big as cats, bugs and the cold-blooded shootings by the 'human' monstrosities that were our guards. At the railway station, we were herded into cattle trucks at the rate of 33 to the truck. Greek men and women endeavored to give us food and water but were forced back by the guards. One girl managed to pass a bit of bread to a prisoner. She was hauled back by a German feldwebel who fired three shots between her feet. She stood her ground and he eventually slunk away. Had it not been for women such as she, I sometimes wonder how we would have survived. "Our home for the next ten days or so was to be this cattle truck as we journeyed through Yugoslavia and on into Germany. Many prisoners had dysentery and, with no facilities, the stench was incredible. We took it in turns to stand up or lie down. Once, sometimes twice a day, the train would stop and the

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guards allowed us to relieve ourselves at the side of the trucks. Some of us were so weak they were unable to get out of the trucks. Those who did had to be helped back by the stronger. On a Sunday, the train arrived at Lubeck, in Northern Germany, and the prisoners were marched into their first prisoner of war camp to the town's church bells. "In the barracks, we had palliasses filled with wood shavings and one blanket. The bunks were double deckers with bed boards. My palliasse had some hard lumps. To my pleasant surprise, they turned out to be French Army biscuits apparently hidden by the former occupant. We soaked them in water and, after the stove was lit, ate a glorious tin of porridge. "We were counted twice a day and during these checks one of the prisoners always managed to steal the German officer's half- smoked cigar while he was checking his figures. Our diet consisted mainly of mint tea collected every morning, two slices of bread, a bowl of soup and one or two potatoes at about midday. Not very much, but it kept one nice and slim. The camp was surrounded by a double, eight-foot-high barbed wire fence, the space of eight or nine feet between filled in with coiled dannert barbed wire. Sentry boxes, at a height of about 20 feet, were spaced at regular intervals along the fence and manned by sentries with automatic weapons. The fence was also patrolled by the guards. About four metres inside the fence, a plain wire was stretched above the ground. To step on or lean over this would bring an instant burst of gunfire from the ever alert sentries. ''The prisoners continually talked of, and planned, escapes but, because of the lack of good food, were always too weak for a try with more than a 50-50 chance. The Royal Air Force dropped incendiaries on the camp and one prisoner lost a leg. The German officers mess was also lost. "We did not remain all that long in Lubeck. We were marched to the railway station and loaded on a train and taken to Warburg, in Central Germany, not far from Kassel. Warburg Stalag was really no different from Lubeck's, except that the complex was much larger. The stalag contained some 2,000 officer prisoners, including officers from the 51st British Division which won fame during the


evacuation of Dunkirk, and their commanding officer, General Fortune. By this time, the officers had sorted themselves out into different groups of kindred spirits. They moved into barracks divided into rooms holding about 14 bunks. In the group that occupied the hut I was in were Harry Marshall, George Bolding, Harry Halliday, John Wicking, Ian Felstead, Brian O'Flynn from the 2!7th Battalion; Peter Eckersley and Murray Daly, of the 2/8th Field Company, Royal Australian Engineers; Jack Martin of the 2/8th Battalion; Basil Ponting and Nick Carter from New South Wales; Keith Travis, also from the Engineers and, last but most certainly not least, Don Quartermaine, another Victorian. We also met up with many friends from other 6th Australian Division units captured in Greece. 141

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"In Warburg, the prisoners received their first Red Cross parcel, and behaved like excited children at Christmas time. After trying a bit of this and a bit of that, our stomachs rebelled and most became violently ill. However, it was not long before we became accustomed to reasonably good food. Because of our poor health, we were given extra food parcels. Were it not for the Red Cross food and the Red Cross clothing --in fact, if it were not for the Red Cross-- many of our fellows would not have lasted the distance under the conditions that prevailed in German stalags. "With good food and being reasonably well clothed, thoughts of escape again became uppermost. Three of us put before the Escape Committee a scheme to take us to freedom. The committee vetted and controlled all escape attempts from the camp, providing advice on routes, assistance with escape food and the actual escape attempt itself. It was highly organised and very efficient. The day after I was informed that our plan had been submitted previously and that that night an air force officer had used it to get out. His escape was very short lived. We were very upset and gave vent to our feelings to the people concerned. They reciprocated and a certain coolness ensued. However, I must give credit where credit is due because we were treated with respect and fairness in all our future activities. "In between 'jobs', there were many occupations: lecture and study groups, concert and theatrical activities, gardening, assisting with long term escape plans and so on. The talents and skills of the prisoners were of a very high order. The English officer prisoners maintained a superior, condescending and aggravating attitude towards the Germans which was quickly absorbed by the Australians. Everyone went out of their way to confuse the Germans during count parades. The German soldier seemed to have the ability only to count in groups of five. Merging files always created confusion and anger, much to the amusement of the prisoners and the even greater confusion of their enemies. Yes, even while incarcerated in stalags, the German was still our enemy. Just because he is caged, there is no need for the soldier to give up. At Warburg, we had the joy of receiving our first mail from home and our first clothing parcels which also contained some bars of chocolate, a much-prized escape food. ''The prisoners in the stalag at Warburg were issued with two letter cards and three postcards per month. Letter writing went a long way toward alleviating boredom. Escape was always uppermost in our thoughts. In Warburg, many and very varied were the methods of escape but tunnelling and fence jobs were the main ones. At one stage the members of our room dug a tunnel which was a masterpiece. We worked on it for three months and were ready to make our break-out when, unbenown to us, a similar tunnel was given the OK to com-


mence. It was discovered in the vulnerable early stages. The alerted Germans discovered ours within a few hours. "Not to be dismayed, John Wicking and I had a go at the fence two nights later and were progressing very well when the moon put in an appearance and we were both caught. The experience of that attempt taught us much. 142 BOOK ONE

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"Soon after our subsequent confinement ceased, the prisoners were moved to a stalag at Eichstatt, in Bavaria. This proved to be another escape-conscious camp where 40 odd prisoners got out through a tunnel and were caught the next day by the Hitler Youth, civilians and soldiers. Many of these escapees were sent to the 'escape proof' castle of Colditz. When news was received of an impending visit by a German general and his staff, a spectacular escape attempt ensued. The camp tailors and the needle workers suddenly became very busy and three British officers were fitted out with uniforms as a German general and his two staff members, a remarkable achievement. "The basic thinking behind the escape attempt was that the German other ranks were so overawed by their officers, especially those of field rank and above, that any other shortcomings would not be noticed when the officers marched out of the gates. It worked out that way. Our general, of course, spoke German quite fluently. "The real German party arrived at the gates and, after much clicking of heels and saluting, disappeared into the camp. After an interval, the bogus party emerged from the buildings and approached the gates. Again there was much clicking of heels and saluting, the gates were opened and the 'general' and his staff moved off through the town. Thirty minutes later, when the real German party reached the gates, the guard wouldn't let them through! After much shouting and gesticulating, a German NCO was placed under arrest --and then the penny dropped. Our party was finally apprehended just clear of the town, but the attempt was a great morale-booster. "Early one morning all prisoners were herded on the parade ground and confronted by a large number of civilian and uniformed personnel, armed and with very nasty expressions. GESTAPO was the word. A thorough and individual search followed. The day was hot. Off came the civilian coats and side arms and were placed on tables in full view of all. This was too much for Lieutenant Mark Howard of 'A' Company, 2/7th Battalion. Having been searched, he put his clothes on, casually picked up two revolvers and belts from the table and sauntered off to plant his loot. With the search concluded, the Gestapo personnel discovered the revolvers missing, to their great consternation. After a great deal of unpleasantness and a promise extracted from them not to search the hospital, the revolvers and belts were returned and the crestfallen Gestapo departed. "Brian O'Flynn, myself and some other prisoners, were moved from the stalag to a new destination by rail. Brian and I wanted to jump from the train but three things deterred us: the German guards took our boots away; they placed a guard in our compartment and the train travelled too fast. Our destination was Rothenburg in Northern Germany where we finished up in a senior officers' stalag. It was a large three-storey building previously a girls' school. Our room had a bell press at the door with a notice 'Ring the bell for a mistress'. The ringers were disappointed. I would have liked to have seen the expressions had one actually appeared!


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''The war was going our way and we were taken for walks once a week. The whole German attitude was changing. All stalags had secret radios and here I had my only opportunity to listen to the BBC. "Escapists were not popular with the Germans but there were some very excellent attempts. Brian and I tried to go through the wall three storeys up in the main building. The wall was two feet thick and, after a long and painstaking task, we were all set. One night, we lowered a rope of blankets over the wall to a courtyard. Bad luck; a piece of masonary fell and the alarm sounded. So ended another try. "At Christmas, the prisoners sang carols in the dining room while the Germans in their guard room sang the same tunes in German. War and hatred seemed far away. By now, the German armed forces and the civilian population's morale was at very low ebb. "Rumors, to which the Germans contributed, came to fruition when we were moved on Good Friday. For the next ten days or so we marched --if one can use that word-- by day and camped in farm buildings by night. Soap, which the prisoners had, would buy anything; in particular, eggs and bread. With great satisfaction, we dug potatoes from the farmer's paddocks, milked his cows for our own needs and killed his poultry and generally lived off the land, the German land. I suppose this was a mild form of retribution. "During the march, air activity, mainly British, became very intense. Once the marching column had been recognised, the planes caused us no concern, but the German people were truly cowed. The guards would seek cover while their prisoners stood up and cheered. The Germans could also hear Allied guns to the west and Russian Artillery to the east getting closer each day. It would not be long now. "Earlier in the march, a group of us feigned illness and dropped out to the rear with a German soldier who respected and liked the Australian soldier because of his experiences during World War 1. We planned, when the main party was out of sight, to make a break and head to the west. A party of very nasty Germans put an end to this plan, which was to be our final wild cat scheme. Soon there would be no further need to plan for freedom. ''According, to our guards, the Austrian Stronghold was our destination but all was utter confusion at this stage. We were in the beautiful Hartz mountain area with the American forces getting closer and our guards more and more jittery. That evening, the commander of a German mobile anti-aircraft unit surrendered his depleted formation to me. After an explanation of my situation, we settled for an exchange of cigarettes for food. "Next morning, Friday 13th April 1945, we awoke to find that our German guards had left with the exception of the medical officer. At about 11.30 a.m. an American brigadier, named Caldicott arrived in the village and, after some pleasantries, advised us to stay where we were. All that day, a continuous stream

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of armour, supply and personnel vehicles drove through the village in search of the fleeing Germans. Some of us helped to round up German stragglers. It was now our turn. "A day or so later, we were taken to a primitive airfield crowded with aircraft of all types, and loaded on to a plane for Brussels. The next day, we flew in Halifax bombers over the invasion coast to Britain. An Australian reception centre had been set up in Eastbourne. To be in the hands of our own Australians once again, to feel free and relaxed and to meet long-lost friends, was a remarkable experience. "After three weeks of reunions, trips to London to be fitted with uniforms, parties and dances in the mess, where our guests, girls from the WAAF, demolished the supper while we consumed outragious quantities of liquor, some 15 of us grabbed an early opportunity to return home. We boarded the Rangitata at Liverpool for home to Australia via the Panama Canal and New Zealand. "After some five and a half years, I arrived at the Royal Park reception centre where my father and my sister Meryl were waiting. Then off to the old home town of Moe, an impromptu welcome in the street and then the old house in which I was born, where friends had prepared a royal welcome. This was it. Home in familiar surroundings with my family and special friends --the moment I had dreamed of in many and varied circumstances. "Some six months later, after a spell in Heidelberg, I was discharged and returned to "Bindarring", where many years later, I wrote these somewhat disjointed notes. In retrospect I look upon this brief experience as one out of which came enduring friendships and a deeper understanding of myself and my fellow man.''

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CHAPTER27

Into the bag --other rank style Two days after the 2/7th Battalion arrived in Crete from the ill-fated Costa Rica, Corporal Harry Rutley was admitted to the Maleme hospital with a broken heel. Kept there until the blitz, he lost track of the battalion. German paratroopers landed near the hospital and a number of the patients, including Rutley, were taken prisoner. It appeared to him that the Germans intended to use the hospital inmates as a shield whenever they met Allied resistance. This did happen during the first afternoon but, to the dismay of the Germans, the ruse was not successful as the patients were released by a mixed patrol of Australians, New Zealanders and Cretans. A doctor assumed command and ordered them to make for the beach at Sfakia. After five days hobbling across difficult country, they arrived at the beach after the last rescue ship had long departed. At Sfakia Harry Rutley met up with several members of the battalion to learn that 'B' Company had fought the rearguard action against the German Forces and acquitted itself well. Those who couldn't run any further were taken back to Suda Bay to an internment camp, then to another camp at Stellos. Rations were so poor that when a donkey wandered into the compound it was promptly slain and cut up into edible-size pieces --a "little luxury".


Taken back to Suda Bay, the prisoners boarded a tramp steamer for Salonika, a four-day trip. Most of the troops were suffering from dysentery and the toilet facilities could not cope. On arrival at Salonika, they were far from the spic and span troops that had arrived in Greece during April. After two weeks in Salonika, the men were transported to Germany through Yugoslavia in cattle trucks, each packed with about 50. They were given four days' rations for a journey that was to take eight days. A small grille allowed in the only fresh air and everyone had dysentery. Because of the dysentery and the lice, most of the time was spent in the nude. On the outskirts of Belgrade, German guards allowed them to take a very welcome shower and the Red Cross gave out food and drink. 146

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On the eighth day, they reached Hammelberg where some French prisoners of war had a very good, hot meal ready. They then moved to the place they would occupy for the next few years, Stalag Xlll C. After a couple of weeks, they went on 30-men working parties, mainly on the roads. More by good luck than good management, Rutley was appointed cook and did no pick-and-shovel work. The village, where the men worked most was responsible for feeding prisoners and did this very well. After four weeks of road building and maintenance, the men were sent back to Hammelberg and from there to some farms as laborers. While they worked on the farms they received the best of treatment, much better than expected. In almost every case, they ate the same food as the family, plus a "bonus" of newlaid eggs each day. After about five months on the farms, Rutley's broken heel, began to trouble him so much that he was sent to a German military hospital at Wursburg, where he was accepted as if a member of the German forces. They gave him the best treatment and built a special boot. After he returned from Wursburg, a German corporal told Rutley that Unter Offiziers --corporals, sergeants and staff sergeants-- did not have to work, so he immediately did the Australian Army a favor and put on two stripes. Probably because of this sudden rise in rank, he was sent to the prisoner of war cage at Stalag 383, an NCO camp, to join the real NCOs of the 2/7th Battalion and various other units. One German guard remarked to Rutley that the Australian Army had more NCOs than any other! It was one way of not having to work for the enemy! Stalag 383 held about 5,000 prisoners, mostly Australians, New Zealanders, South Africans, English, Scottish and Greeks. At each morning's roll call eight companies lined up and members kept moving back and forth to confuse the Germans in case any one was attempting escape at that moment. It was a satisfying game. Red Cross food parcels and sporting goods such as footballs, basketballs, boxing gloves, cricket equipment and parts for the concert party happily arrived. As other prisoners have said, were it not for those Red Cross parcels, many could not have survived four years of internment. A supply of Australian Rules footballs enabled four teams to play in the firsts and two teams in the seconds. The teams were given such Australian names as Kookaburras, Emus, Kangaroos and Wallabies. The seconds teams were the Snakes and the Goannas. Several teams were also organised for rugby and soccer.


Rutley believed that they were treated much better at Stalag 383 than those in other stalags. The camp commandant's son was a prisoner of war in Canada. He received such good treatment the commandant treated his charges in a like manner. Bill Walker, of the 217th Battalion, umpired throughout the football series. Players such as Alan Mathews, Bert Baxter, (2/7th) Jim Mooney (2/8th) and 147

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Johnny Wakeman (Ordnance) could have made any Victorian Football League team. They also played many cricket test series, the Australians against the English. A band was formed and each Anzac Day they lined up behind Major Brooke Moore, the camp surgeon who did a marvellous job in keeping the prisoners fit. The German guards were puzzled, but such activities kept morale high. Each year was also held an August Bank holiday athletic meeting. There were many excellent runners in the camp and one, named Leggett later ran third in a Stawell Gift. Bookmakers held the currency of the day, the humble cigarette. After the British organised the Commando raid on Dieppe, the Germans would each morning handcuff all prisoners as a reprisal. They were supposed to wear manacles throughout the day but some enterprising occupant found out that with some slight endeavor, the handcuff's would open. The Germans soon gave up trying to make the prisoners keep them on. The men were finally released by the United States Army and started on the way home.

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CHAPTER28

If at first you don't succeed --try .... Perhaps no other soldier comes so close to epitomising the calibre of the men who served under Lieutenant Colonel Walker than VX 5853 Private Albert Street. After the capitulation on Crete, on June 11941, Albert Street and his brother, Jim, moved from the main body of the unit up a gully and into a cave. The gully was being continually strafed and bombed by ME 109s and JU87Bs. The brothers decided to stick together and head for the mountains. When on top of the cliffs, they could see a rowing boat with two Australians being machine-gunned by a fighter plane. The one-sided contest was quickly over, the boat sunk, the soldiers dead. The two had been travelling for another two hours when disaster struck. Around a huge boulder stepped a German soldier. He was as startled as they were. Although a short man, he had an advantage: a 9mm Schmeisser. The German took the Streets to a column of marching prisoners heading for the Suda Bay area. They were weary, tired, hungry and dispirited. While marching, Albert discussed with Jim the possibility of escaping during darkness. The chance came sooner than they had imagined. A soldier in front collapsed with a huddle of bodies around him. As the guard raced down to see what was wrong, Jim and Albert took a running jump into some scrub just off the track and lay still. As the column sorted itself out and disappeared into the darkness, they moved in the op-


posite direction. But as they turned a sharp bend in a track, they ran slap bang into another marching column of prisoners. They were in the bag again. The officer in command spoke excellent English. He heard the two telling some of the other prisoners that this was their second time inside. He turned and said, "Bad luck boys. I had better keep my eyes on you both". They were taken to the camp at Skenes, and put to work burying German soldiers. While at Skenes, Bert was asked by a group of German officers standing over a cauldron of boiling water if he knew how to make tea. He filled his tunic pocket with tea, then told

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them they should use three or four teaspoons for each person, boil for five minutes, let it cool and drink without milk or sugar. That would have been one strong brew! One day, while exercising, Albert made a dash through the open main gate. He was about six metres from the exit when a burst of 9mm fire thudded in front of him. A big German with a big grin waved him back into the camp. The captives were taken to Greece for the second time. The German garrison troops there were 'pure illegitimates'. Any Greeks showing friendship were immediately placed under arrest. The truck convoy, headed for Salonika, and halted at a deep ravine where Australian Engineers had blown the bridge, where the march began the going was very tough. The column got to the top of one mountain, only to see another immediately in front. With another attack of dysentery, Albert Street felt too sick and tired to care. He was about 100 metres behind the others when a guard looked under him, made a gesture that meant 'you've had it' and left him to die. Bert must have collapsed. When he regained his senses he was alone. It did not register that he was out again. He began to wander on, neither knowing nor caring about direction. Only when he saw Jim and Les Manning did he realise he had caught up with the column and was in the bag again; but this time it was a little different. He had virtually volunteered. About this time, an Australian officer who had refused to leave his men collapsed and died, his heart given out. At a railhead there was a well, but it was impossible to get near because of the masses of thirsty soldiers. Bert remembered he still had tea and carrying a jam tin as a billy, water bottle and a stew pot he crawled to the engine driver and asked for hot water. The man blew some steam off and out came boiling water. Bert crawled back with the hot, welcome tea to Jim and Les. About 56 prionsers were loaded into each 'dog box' and the train headed for the prisoner of war compound at Salonika. The German guards were the most vicious they had experienced. They gloated that all prisoners were to exist at five percent below the starvation line to make them more willing to work when they got to the Fatherland. Albert Street heard rumors of an escape committee in the camp and managed to make contact. Under the old barracks were sewer tunnels up to about 14 inches in diameter. To qualify for an escape attempt required keenness and ability to obey strict instructions. If credited with escape attempts, all the better. Jim and Albert Street had these qualifications and were briefed on the procedure. Around the exercise area was a series of manhole covers. On the day a team would be 'off and running', a game of two-up would be organised, the manhole cover removed and the hole covered by a blanket. The signal was 'Two bob in the centre to see him go'.


The blanket was to be whipped back, the selected ones --usually a pair-- would go down the hole and the cover put back. If followed, the directions would lead

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to a right hand corner, then a half right turn to an opening revealing three houses close together. The team would make for the centre house to meet the civilian half of the organisation, which would provide clothing, supplies and a route to safety. Albert and Jim were in position and awaiting to go when all hell broke loose. Squads of German soldiers opened every manhole, threw hand grenades down, then jumped down and opened up with Schmeissers. Albert did not know how many prisoners were down there, but very few returned to the surface. Much later, he learned that one man had got stuck in an outlet and died. He also heard that about 90 prisoners had escaped. For transhipment to Germany, the 1,000 prisoners were issued with rations for the journey and promised a hot meal at Belgrade, in Yugoslavia, and another on arrival at Saltzberg, in Austria. At the start, they got a loaf of bread, about the size of a medium dinner plate and two tins of meat. The meat had a high proportion of pig fat. The rations, plus the hot meals, were to last an estimated seven days. They were crammed into dog boxes covered with barbed wire, and with no sanitary arrangements. The Germans had machine-gun nests on the roof of the wagons. Somewhere near the Yugoslav border, there were heavy bursts of fire and the train was at a standstill for some 30 minutes. The later news was that about 18 prisoners had escaped, but some had been killed. When the train reached Belgrade, the Germans refused to allow the hot meal. The Yugoslav Red Cross protested strongly but to no avail. The same thing was repeated at Saltzberg; no food as a reprisal for the escape attempt. Finally, the train stopped at Hammelberg, later to be made famous by the TV series, 'Hogan's Heroes'. Not one prisoner was able to move. Starvation had done what the German Army had failed to do --beat the AIF to its knees. A German officer, covered in silver braid, walked from one end of the train to the other, called for the commander of the guard and gave him hell. Doctors from the lager gave a unanimous opinion: starvation. Mobile cookers were brought and a form of porridge served. Many could get down only two spoonfuls. After several hours and more attempts to eat and drink, the men who could still stand staggered off to Stammlager X111c. As a punishment for cancelling hot meals at Belgrade and Saltzberg, the guard and its captain, were given an extra two days duty. Camp life for the first few days was a novelty: meeting up with old mates, earbashing and swapping experiences. A team was sent to the village of Oberelsback and billetted in a two storey building formerly occupied by a Jewish family. It came complete with bullet holes. For labouring at road work, they got a piece of stale black bread in the morning and a bowl of potato soup in the evening. While on the road, a huge boulder rolled down and smashed a prisoner's toe. When the guards were asked to get a doctor, they said there were no doctors for POW. The injured man lay for about a week and a strike was threatened if he didn't get some medical treatment. After a couple of days, a detail took him to the station at CHAPTER TWENTY-EIGHT

IF AT FIRST....


Mellrichstadt in. a four wheel farm cart. In Hammelberg, he underwent surgery and lost his toe and part of his foot. The French and Belgian forced-farm-workers returned to their homes and the later prisoners took their places. Albert Street drew a farm run by an old man and his daughter-in-law. Later the two brothers were sent to another village called Stettin. Jim was allocated to the local blacksmith and Albert to a family named Schilling, rabid Nazis. One son had been wounded and discharged as disabled but was later called up as a machine-gunner in a bomber. At Stettin, they met 'Chook' Fowler, Frank (Slug) Hurley, Les Beer, Ted Kennedy and Roy Honour, all ex members of the 2/lst Australian Infantry Battalion. There were also Dick Schrive and George Heald, from the 2/llth and Gordon Scales from the 2/7th. All did farm work in the summer and forest work in the winter. Jim Street was a very sick man but still was forced to work. In the days prior to 1943, if the Geneva Convention was quoted, the Germans would point to their rifles or their soldiers. Jim was unable to eat the food given him and vomited blood. He was practically a skeleton and, in fact, a burial detail had been picked. Then came the victory in North Africa when the British and the Americans captured around 800,000 German troops. Suddenly Red Cross officials were allowed into the camps, Red Cross parcels started to appear and later the men got new British uniforms and warm underwear. Swiss Red Cross personnel immediately ordered Jim to hospital. He was sent to Thorn, in Poland, and later evacuated to a camp south of Hanover where he was released by British Troops in 1945. Albert became known to the Germans as 'Die Burrser Gefanganer', the bad POW. One morning, he awakened to find he could not move and was completely paralysed. Chook Fowler informed the guard, a new member and a decent type. He rang the doctor in Ostheim, a nearby village, who told him that he did not treat POW. Chook spent two nights working on Albert to get his limbs to work. Albert Street tells his own story: "A short time later, I jacked up and informed the guard that I would work for any decent German but not for these Nazi bastards. I soon had a visit from the Gestapo, a major and a corporal. I was told to work or die. I repeated that I would willingly work for any decent German, but Nazis were out. "I was told no work --no food. I was made to stand rigidly to attention all day, from the time they came until they left. It was harvest time and I was too valuable as a work unit. It was a gamble, but I reckoned that the odds were with me. The boys were bringing me food at night after the Gestapo left. The Gestapo corporal told me what they did to people like me before they finally knocked them off. A civilian would be beaten daily with a special rubber baton. For a soldier, they would use a steel-shod rifle butt. I told him that he had better have one up the spout or I would take the rifle from him and ram the barrel down his throat.

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"I lasted eight days, then I was taken to a farm. The Gestapo major told me that I would work for this man. I had knowledge of this farmer and I couldn't have had a better boss. I told the major that I would work and he departed. The farmer's name was Edwin Gumpert. The Gestapo major was still keeping an eye on me. He would turn up at all sorts of times. One day I was splitting wood, with a Canadian-type double-bitted axe. He stood about eight feet away and he called


me a 'Schwein'. I called him a bastard. His hand went to his holster flap. I told him that if he pulled that Luger, I would split his skull down to his throat. I told him I knew he had already killed two prisoners. That gave him a bit of a shock. "There was a persistent rumor going around the different work camps that the inmates were being picked up and formed into columns. I discussed this with Edwin Gumpert and told him that if we were taken away, I would attempt to escape. His only answer was to make me up a food pack. The furphy was true. We were put into a column and marched on a south easterly course. We ascertained this information with our prison made compasses, pieces of illicit equipment made from razor blades shaped and magnetized and fitted into a Gibbs Dentifris case. Its accuracy was soon to be tested and proven. "While on the march, I took notes of all the places we passed through, including sign posts, and made eight roughly drawn maps which I distributed to any group planning to give it a go. One night we bivouacked in a big barn and overheard some South Africans telling their guards about the escape maps. We managed to get the informers to one side and, in German, warned them to button up or they were dead. Our group was armed with five open razors and was quite capable of using them for any purpose other than shaving. When we assembled next morning we passed the word around and about 200 of us demanded that the South Africans march at least 50 yards behind the main column. This was designed to serve three purposes: It stopped them from mingling with us; it took away a number of guards; and in the event of an air attack, they would take the initial brunt. As it turned out later, a couple of American planes dived out of the clouds and started on the rear of the column before realising who we were. They aborted the attack. Those rockets were really something. "Shortly after this attack, the marching column entered a forest. I had a feeling that opportunity was about to knock. Chook must have had the same feeling because he told me to keep my eyes open. The column halted for a rest. Our group sat on a fallen log. The road ahead took a bend, with just one guard covering that area. Below us was a washaway, behind and about 20 feet away two guards were immersed in conversation. "We gave each other the nod. The lone guard at the bend was the one to watch. As he turned to look at the bend, over the log went the first man. At the same time, Chook moved into the space he vacated. Chook made his move and I took his place. Now it was my turn. I rolled over into the vee cutaway and wriggled down on my stomach. I spotted Chook's signal on my left and was joined by

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Les Beer, Frank Hurley and Gordon Scales. We lay in the dense scrub, just underneath the two guards who were farther down the road, still talking. "Orders of 'Raus-Raus' sounded and the column moved off. After a few minutes, there was a burst of Schmeisser and rifle fire. We saw 18 to 20 prisoners going for their lives. We promptly moved off, still under cover, in the other direction. We set our course west by north west. In our little group was Chook Fowler. He stood about 6 foot 2 inches in stockings and was an ex-champion woodcutter from New South Wales. At one time, he was a sparring partner for 'Young Stribling', the American boxer. Chook was a quiet, steady, good natured man, but as tough as nails. Next was Frank --better known as Slug-- Hurley. Frank was an ex-professional wrestler and with a pair of arms that should have


been classified as lethal weapons. Les Beer also stood 6 foot 2 inches. He too was a good man to have around in a fight. I should know. I sparred with him one day and he nearly broke my neck and had the cheek to tell me that he pulled his punch. These three were all from the 2/1st Battalion. "The two Victorians were both of the 2/7th. Gordon Scales stood about 5 foot 9 inches, had no fistic qualifications but spoke German quite fluently, which was to prove very handy. Last, but not least, was myself. I stood about 5 foot 8 inches, had no fistic qualifications beyond a good right cross, about sixteen years military training and quite a good knowledge of weapons. ''We decided to move on a course which should eventually bring us back to familiar countryside. If we did not link up with the Americans, we knew some German civilians we could trust. By this time, our food supply had dwindled to nothing, but we had a fair supply of water. Alternately, Chook and I took turns at the head of our small party, putting our complete faith in the compasses. At this stage, we estimated we had travelled more than 100 miles. We began to note familiar landmarks. "We laid up in the forest until the early evening when Chook led. As we neared a bend in the track, we nearly ran headlong into a group of about 30 'Volksturmner', men over the military age called up for the defence of the Third Reich. We immediately flattened in the grass. A bullet from the 'oldies' was just as deadly as one from any other troops. They passed within 50 yards of us. I gave the 'all clear' and we plodded on. "It began to rain and, in the immortal words of Chook Fowler, "The night is as black as a cow's guts and just as wet!" I led now, crashed down a 15 foot embankment and broke my compass. We had quite a few near misses with German patrols throughout the night. "It was Gordon Scales' turn up front and we were in dense forest. Suddenly, we walked slap-bang into the blast of a German field gun and back tracked. We hadn't gone much farther when we sighted a German patrol coming up the hill, advancing on an angle to take them across our front. We stiffened hardly daring to breath in case the vapor from our mouths gave us away. They didn't see us, I

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don't know why. We heard the rumbling of trucks and tanks on a road about a quarter of a mile away. We got to hell out of there to arrive at a very swiftflowing river. We knew we did not have the strength to swim to the other side. There was a bridge, we would have to go through a small town to cross it and German troops were in occupation. We decided to go through the town during the night and, if necessary, try to bluff our way across the bridge. It started to rain again. This was a blessing as khaki and field grey look the same when wet. "We decided that, if we made the bridge, Gordon would engage the sentry in conversation to allow Frank Hurley to get behind to render him harmless. It was late and nicely inky-black when we set off. I reckoned that each of us uttered his own private prayer because that was all we had left. We set off marching down the main street. A German soldier opened a door. He flashed his torch to see what was behind the barn door --bloody great Tiger tanks! We got within sight of the bridge. No sign of any guards. We passed a German soldier. It was too late. He was an Officer and we didn't salute him. We apologised to him and told him that we were Hungarian troops and lost from our unit. He was doubtful but gave us the benefit of the doubt. We saluted him and marched off. We passed several


other groups of German soldiers before we finally made the bridge. Our boots rang hollowly on the wooden decking. It seemed to match the beating of our hearts. "We crossed the bridge and, to create the effect of diminishing footsteps, dropped out one by one to the grass verge. Once off the road, we made for the open country and came to a railway line. There was a station about 150 yards away. It is well known that there are signal wires alongside railway tracks all over the world. Frank Hurley forgot the fact and tripped over them. Twang! all the way up to the station house. Soldiers boiled out and opened fire in our direction. We took off up a hill, bullets snapping all around us. "We finally took cover in a young pine forest and our small group got its first look at American action. They call it artificial moonlight --huge searchlights sweep the whole area. We were not alone. Germans were holding positions all around us. We also had other unwanted company, a wild boar in the scrub nearby. "The Americans put a barrage down on the Germans and us. We kept a sharp eye on the boar which was crazed with fear. Finally, the Germans pulled back and the guns shifted target to a village on our left, which appeared to us to be Neustadt. In no time, the whole place was a mass of flames. We broke cover and crossed the valley to a forest we could see in the distance and tried to pinpoint the origin of that barrage. We came to a clearing, just in time to see five German soldiers filing out of the undergrowth and heading the way we had just come from. We crossed the clearing, in the middle of which was a freshet of water. Normally, we would stop to drink, but this time something made us step over it and continue onwards. 155

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"We got within 20 to 30 yards from the edge of the other forest when the air about us seemed to explode with rifle and machine gun fire. We hit the dirt. It was just pure luck that we happened to be in some 'dead ground'. We were able to crawl all the way to the forest and cover. When we reached comparative safety, we drove ourselves as fast as we could up and over a hill until we reached about a quarter of the way down the other side where we paused at a fallen log to catch our breath. As we struggled to regain control over our tortured breathing, the quietness of the forest settled about us. We heard someone whistling. Our first thoughts were that the Germans had nothing to whistle about. It must be the Yanks. We selected Gordon Scales to lead us out as he was the youngest. I had a whistle, a relic from my compulsory service days during 1929. I gave it to Gordon with the instructions that he was to blow it if he made contact with the Americans. We moved out at 30 foot intervals so that, if they were Germans some of us would have a chance of getting away. We heard the whistle and came upon Gordon, still in the scrub. We asked him why he had blown the whistle. He replied that he was sure that they were Americans. Had he spoken to them? No. We assumed our positions once again. We moved out. The scrub began to thin out. Oh, God! What a beautiful sight. In front of us were trucks with stars on them and 155mm guns, battery after battery, still in their firing positions. "We broke into a run. Some Americans came to see who we are. They were as pleased to see us as we to see them. They took us to an officer, who asked for our


identification details, then if we were hungry. We told him we had almost forgotten what eating was all about. The American cooks put plates of ham and eggs on the table, and steaming mugs of real, fair dinkum, coffee. After we had eaten, I pulled out my pipe and carved a bit of tobacco root. The Americans asked me what the hell I was smoking. When I told them, they produced cigarettes from everywhere. One went to a truck and returned with arms full of cartons. He told us we now belong to the 202nd AFA and this was our first cigarette ration. "We were taken before the American commanding officer and, with him, we pored over maps of the area. The C/0 showed very keen interest in our oneremaining compass. It worked out that we had travelled some 200 miles since we parted company with our captors and were only 15 miles away from our destination, Stettin. The Americans were very impressed and told us that if we were a sample of the men of the Australian Army, then they were glad we were on the same side. One American was detailed to drive us to Stettin in a jeep. It was here that I renewed my acquaintance with Edwin Gumpert. He was overjoyed to see me. "It was to be some time before my friends and I were to return to Australia and, in that time, we journed to Nancy, Paris, Le Havre, then to Aylesbury in England". This is the last story about the men of Walker's Command. Although most finished the war in German prison camps, this very fine formation of fighting

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men was never defeated. In their short history, they had defeated the Italians and the Germans. That magnificent tradition was to be upheld by the new members of this fine unit. 157


The Fiery Phoenix  

The story of the 2/7 Australian Infantry Battalion 1939-1946

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