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- greek campaign 1940-41
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- Greece and Europe
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- 26 November 2005
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The Brotherhood of Veterans of the Greek Campaign. 1940-41
President. Mr E. Horlington. MBE. (01255 677178).
Hell on the “Hellas”
By L/Corporal Frank J. Gill. 580 Company, Royal Engineers.
It was in 1938 that a numbers of us lads decided to join the Territorial Army and served together in a Unit called the Lancashire Fortress Royal Engineers. It occupied much of our spare time with drill sessions once or twice a week and weekend camps learning how to fire a rifle amongst other things. It was a new way of life to us, both mentally and physically absorbing; all of us mated together and of course the bounty money of £5.00 was very welcome. Annual Camps in Northern Ireland and Tynemouth were something special, a real holiday at the Army’s expense although we did have to work quite hard at being Soldiers. Even in those days in Ireland one had to be very careful for trouble was there at that time, although on a much lighter scale such as Tarring and Feathering a person and tying them to a lamp post. Those camps were great and we enjoyed them very much; even the coming home again was a special event with being welcomed back by the family and most of all the Bunny- Run girls, one felt almost like a hero; happy days.
It was all too good to last, a crisis was looming with Germany and we were called to Arms. How exciting it was at that time, something different, a journey into the unknown with just a hint of fear of the unexpected. We stood on alert for a few days and sent home again; what a damp squib that was. Apparently our PM, Neville Chamberlain had come to an agreement with Germany that we would never go to War again, so it was back to normal to the girls and dance halls. However the problem never really went away and in 1939 it all blew up again and this time it was for real.
We were back again on the coastal air defence for a spell then the Ack-Ack artillery took over and we moved to Scarborough on the east coast, to us, the other side of the world. After Dunkirk the units were brought together and the 580 Army Troop Engineers Company was formed to carry out duties on defences along the east coast; at times a gruesome task searching for bodies amongst the rubble after an air raid. We had our share of that and eventually moved inland to Cambridgeshire where retraining and kitting out was on the cards for a move to god knows where. It was no surprise really when we arrived at Greenock, boarded the Troopship Cape Town Castle and sailed off into the unknown, exciting but very frightening. With plenty of spare time on the ship the mind wandered back through the past few years; this was the year of my 21st. birthday and I had already lost some of what was supposed to be the best years of growing up. I wondered, what more was I about to lose to satisfy the antics of politicians.
It was a long almost boring journey with daily boat drill, exercises and lots of leisure just whiling away the hours and gazing at a vast ocean. At last a break at Cape Town for a few days, being picked up by local people and entertained; what a relief to stretch ones legs on dry land again and the scenery was wonderful in a climate of lovely warm sunshine. Sadly, it all came to an end at Alexandria; we were disembarked and moved by train to a camp in the desert, about ten miles from the City, and what a hell hole it was. Amariya, better known as dust storm alley, sitting in a bowl of grit and stones at the edge of the Sahara Desert; if the wind blew it was a thick fog of dust which got into everything everywhere and, without the wind, almost unbearable heat and flies. In contrast to daylight, the nights were cold and mosquitoes took over from the flies, as I said, what a hellhole.
No rest for the wicked they say and we were no exception; all our new kit and equipment we had brought with us was replaced with worn out gear, probably used to the limit in the Wavell push to Benghasi and we were not a bit happy about that. However our spirits were really damped when we embarked again on the Cameronian and sailed across the Mediterranean to Pireaus Greece. This military cruise was not quite so relaxing as the last one since the German Air Force seemed determined to stop us getting there with bombs and machine guns. However we did survive and landed at Pireaus harbour Athens to experience yet another change to our way of life.
The weather was beautiful and, under canvas in a wooded area just below the Acropolis, we were in a new world of ancient Greece. In Athens it was a disturbing surprise to see German Soldiers standing on guard outside their Embassy and we were warned to keep away from the area since the reaction of soldiers after a couple of drinks could be catastrophic. This situation changed when the Albanians and Italians, who had attacked and invaded Greece, were pushed back over the Albanian border and the Germans came to the rescue by declaring War on Greece.
As was expected we moved north to the frontier, through villages with broken down shacks as homes, with Goats, Hens and even Pigs all living under the same roof; these people were very friendly, but also very poor. Our journey took us through mountain passes on roads virtually clinging to the mountain sides with a shear drop on one side and a cliff of the mountain wall on the other and, sometimes, just enough room for one vehicle. Any obstruction to the movement of convoys was merely pushed over the edge to smash on the rocks below. We met long columns of Italian prisoners, moving south, with just a couple of Greek guards, to us a most unusual but morale boosting spectacle.
However, the Germans came south through the mountains with a vastly superior force and pushed us back again, though not without considerable loss to his armoured columns. Our morale took a very hard knock and the stigma of defeat, so soon after the evacuation of Dunkirk, dealt a devastating blow to our pride. This time, our journey through the mountains was a nerve wracking experience; it was non stop harassment by his superior Air Force with bombs and machine gun bullets during every minute of daylight. Men clawed the ground in anger and frustration in their inability, without suitable weapons, to fight back. Our job was to ensure a clear passage for the movement of our troops by building bridges and clearing the roads; not an enviable task on roads blocked by derelict vehicles and strewn with bodies and limbs.
Our rearguard columns of Aussies, Kiwis and Brits. fought bravely for every inch of ground, their outstanding actions just too many to record, and with a grim determination to destroy as many of the enemy as possible. The weather was changeable with the warmth of the sun changing to rain, sleet and snow adding further obstruction to our movement, but sometimes blessed for a break in air activity and a chance to rest. Limited to movement in daylight and grasping the opportunity to move at night meant little time for sleep; to lie down on the sodden ground with a Mack underneath and your coat on top, was a blessing from heaven. We lost many of our Company including close friends, both Army and Civilian; buried somewhere in that far away land, their bravery and deeds unsung, with not even a cross to say; we were there.
We arrived back in Athens with a grim sigh of relief and, as we moved through the city, the people, looking sad and fearful of what the future may hold, waved us goodbye with an expression which said “thank you for trying”. At Pireaus harbour the siren sounded and we scattered for shelter, but the plane was an observer and we wondered just what he was planning for us; being able to read his thoughts would have sent shudders of horror down my spine. At the quayside we watched the wounded, walking and on stretchers, boarding a large Yacht, it was the property of King George of Greece. They were followed by women and children, young and old, and finally we were ordered to embark on this Royal Ship already cramped with humanity. We were to occupy the top deck, issued with extra rifle ammo. and instructed to use rifle fire in the event of a raid, as was found to be effective at Dunkirk in keeping the enemy planes as high as possible.
Food was collected from a lower deck and we settled down for our journey to freedom, feeling more relaxed at being involved in a positive move and chatting about our activities of the past few weeks. The familiar drone of planes brought us back to reality and we saw seven coming towards us starting to dive; our natural reaction of survival, practiced during the past weeks, was to dive for cover and that meant the gangway leading below. As we reached the gangway to a lower deck, a couple of Greeks stopped to look and I pushed them down which caused me to fall on my back. There I lay looking up at a stream of bullets cutting holes along the deck, missing my head by inches and tearing the deck to shreds, just where I should have been standing dutifully firing my rifle. I joined a mass of people laying on the lower deck waiting for the next salvo, that of bombs. I joined a couple of Aussies on the deck, body rigid with fear and anticipation of that horrendous scream and crunch which could destroy all including me. The first bomb was ours, the deck heaved and we floated on air then the whole world came tumbling around me; parts of the ship were beating my body bringing pain and the horror of being buried alive, beneath a mountain of debris.
Bombs appeared to be falling all over the ship and it was some time before I realised that I could move and struggled free of the debris; at the same time I uncovered the Aussies but they appeared to be dead and flames were fast taking over the ship. The heat was overpowering, boiling water from fractured pipes was scalding the flesh from my bones and, as the state of shock started to ease from my body, the pain in my arm brought the mind back to sanity. Believing my arm was broken I held it to my chest and struggled to get free from that devils cauldron of bodies, limbs and a mass of humanity trapped amongst the flames and calling for help. I could see a woman with both legs trapped and her body engulfed in flames; there was nothing I could do and she disappeared as the deck collapsed beneath her. Ammunition we had loaded as a means of defence was exploding with the bullets flying everywhere and the screams of survivors fighting to get off, what was left of the ship, was pounding in my ears. As I moved across the threadbare deck I could see hundreds of soldiers and civilians lying dead below and one unforgettable sight, that of a girl pinned to a cabin door by a piece of shrapnel through her stomach, remains clearly in my mind.
I eventually found the gangplank which had been replaced and could see soldiers and civilians in the water, who had dived or been blown over board, struggling to survive amongst many who had been suffocated by oil and drowned. By now, I was out of the thick cloud of smoke and, in the light, could see the shattered bone of my arm with the flesh hanging free and blood pouring down my body. The pain was becoming unbearable and my clothes, even my boots, were soaked in blood; so much had happened so quickly, I shuddered at the horror of it all. Even back on the quayside the danger remained; German sympathisers with rifles were firing at the survivors from the roofs of a warehouse and soldiers, who had survived the horrors of the ship, lay dead on the road.
I staggered across to a wall for some protection but could not negotiate it and somehow crawled and struggled to the protection of a warehouse. Inside, one of our Staff-Sergeants looked at my arm and said “god what a mess that arm is”, a comment which did nothing to boost my sagging morale; but he did apply a shell dressing which stopped me looking at it and feeling sorry for myself. I moved on and someone took my watch off which had stopped at eight minutes past seven, recording the instant the first bomb had struck. An Aussie put another bandage around my wrist and took me to an air raid shelter where someone produced a shot of Whiskey, I could feel the warmth surging through my veins which did much to calm my shivering body, but terrible pain from burned flesh was getting worse. Wounded men lay all around the shelter, many with terrible untreated wounds and blood was flowing everywhere, by comparison with some, mine was almost a mere scratch.
A Greek came and took me outside where a number of my comrades were wandering around inquiring about mates they feared lost, the scene was one of utter confusion and concern for others who had served and fought together. By comparison with the large number who had boarded the ship, a mere handful appeared to have survived. The Greek took me to an ambulance which was full of men crying out in pain with terrible untreated wounds and, as the vehicle moved out through the dock gates, people stood crying and praying on their knees, in a show of sympathy for all who suffered in that terrible disaster. The ambulance suddenly stopped and the driver ran off leaving us in an almost deserted street; he had seen people running and, fearing another raid, had run for cover leaving us at the mercy of the planes; fortunately the planes passed overhead probably heading for another easy target.
Another drive took over and drove us to a Greek hospital on the outskirts of Athens where, once again, the floors were strewn with casualties waiting to be treated. Some who had survived the sea were having the oil cleaned from their body and amongst them two of my close friends Eric Hitchcock and Sgt. Millwater; we hugged each other as fellow survivors with wishes for a speedy recovery from our wounds. It was later revealed that they had risked their own lives saving many others from the sea. Whilst waiting in an endless queue to see a Doctor, Eric partly cut my jacket off to try and ease the pain which was killing me, but time seemed endless until I eventually stood before a Greek Doctor. He could speak no English and I no Greek so, when he muttered something that sounded like cut, I almost went mad fearing he was going to cut off my arm; he guessed my thoughts from my reaction and shook his head with a smile much to my relief. Finally, with my wounds dressed and my arm in a cage strapped to my chest, my bloody clothes were cut off and I was put to rest in a bed. I was exhausted, but the pain of my shattered arm and the burns on my face denied me the sleep which my body needed and craved for so much. The mental torture of laying awake in an atmosphere of groaning men begging for help and dying around me was a constant torment which makes me wonder how I survived the trauma of it all.
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