Chapter 5
Greece, 1941


The Italians had attacked the Greeks, but the Greeks were putting up a very good fight and the Italians were losing. But then the Germans starting moving down through the Balkans, so it was decided that the Greeks needed reinforcements. Our sister Squadron 211 was sent over there and moved up country. Just about this time there was a very severe earthquake which almost completely destroyed Larissa. 211 Squadron were in the town helping to rescue people when the Italians came over and bombed the town. Anyway, we were then told that we were going to join them, so we went down to Alex and were put in a tramp steamer.

They put us down in the hold, and to get there we had to climb down the steel ladder on the side of the hold, so the chance of getting out if anything happened was practically nil. On the top deck were a crowd of Aussies all with machine guns. We went off in convoy and about a day out from Greece the Stukas attacked. One of our chaps was up the top of the ladder giving us a running commentary on the battle and he said, ‘Here’s one coming straight for us.’ Well the Aussies held their fire until the plane was just on the point of releasing its bomb when they all opened up, hit it, and it went into the sea beside us. A tanker was hit and went up in flames, I don’t know if any one was rescued from it. Certainly none of the convoy could stop because that would have been curtains. It is possible that a destroyer may have gone to help but I don’t think they could have done much.

We got into Piraeus harbour and disembarked and because Greece was not at war with Germany, we were told, the Germans were down on the quayside taking note of all the troops as they landed. We went up to Athens airport and they gave us a pay parade. Now the drachma at that time was about 450 to the pound, so most of us got a thousand drachma note.(£2/10s), and we were let out of the camp.

Four of us went out together and as we were walking along the country lane we noticed a sign on a cafe. It said ‘Amandeggs’, all one word. One of the chaps said, ‘Let’s have a meal.’ So we went in and asked for amandeggs. It came up swimming in olive oil, then one of the chaps spotted something on the side and said, ‘Oh look rice pudding, we’ll have some of that.’ It turned out to be yoghurt, and not like the ones in the shops nowadays but sour goats milk. I didn’t mind it but the others disliked it. We had a bottle of wine with the meal and at the end I said I would pay so that I could get some change from my thousand drachma note, so I passed it over.

The cafe owner looked at it and said something, he had a smattering of English, and eventually indicated that he wanted seven drachmas. I indicated ‘Is that each?’ He replied, ‘No, it is for all of us.’ That was one penny three farthings in old money - we were millionaires! He had never seen a thousand drachma note before and he had to go round the village to collect enough change for me. He came back with a great wad of notes of all denominations, my pockets were full of them.

We went into Athens, saw the Acropolis and other places and got back into camp late that night. The next day we moved up, went through Lamia and Larissa, over the mountain passes on to an aerodrome just beyond Larissa, not far from Mount Olympus.

The Germans had built this airfield on very swampy ground, so to drain it they had dug a great ditch all around it and heaped the soil up on the drome side of the trench. The ditch was full of water and we discovered that when we tried to dig slit trenches they also filled up with water. The aerodrome had been affected by the earthquake, all the buildings were damaged and were unsafe so we erected tents on the side. The surface of the drome was more like a ploughed field, and I remember that one of our pilots, a youngster, was bringing one of our planes in. He had a fitter as a passenger. Well, he made several attempt to land and pulled out to go round again when the fitter panicked, pulled up the flaps and the plane flopped down on to the ground bounced a few times and came to a stop. During the night as we lay in our tents we were often shaken by small tremors and a few more bits fell off the buildings.

After we have been there a couple of weeks, in Larissa about the only building which was hardly damaged was a concrete built cinema and this was opened up for the troops. So on the Saturday afternoon Paddy McQueen and myself went down there and went into the cinema. They were showing the ‘Story of Irene and Vernon Castle’ with Fred Astair. Anyway we were sitting there watching the film when all of a sudden—rumble,rumble, rumble, the lights went up and everyone started rushing for the exits. Paddy said to me, ‘What is it?’ and I replied, ‘Its a bombing raid.’ He said, ‘What are we going to do?’ and I said ‘Well we can’t get out I suppose the best thing to do would be to lay down’. Just then a voice said ‘Its all right.’ I looked round and saw a Greek soldier sitting beside me still trying to watch the film. ‘It is all right,’ he said, ‘it is only an earthquake’. That’s how they treated earthquakes. After it had brought down a few more bits of buildings things calmed down and we saw the film through to the end.

It was coming up towards Easter and we decided we were going to have a slap up meal. Now I had learnt a few words of Greek, how to ask for bread, milk, fish etc, so I was selected to go to the village to get a chicken and the ingredients to make pancakes. I was well known at the village shop-cum-cafe and was greeted by the locals with offers of ouzu. I managed to ask for the chicken OK, but when I tried to explain that I wanted flour and sugar I was waving my hands around trying to indicate making bread. The shopkeeper opened up all his bins and eventually I got all I wanted. We built a clay oven and the meal was a great success.

The following morning a rumour went around the there was going to be a rifle inspection. Now usually we kept our rifles dismantled in our kitbags, you couldn’t go climbing in and out of planes carrying a rifle, however we all got our rifles out and took them down to the drome for cleaning, and about ten o’clock the Messerschmidts came over and started strafing the drome. They had white painted noses and someone said that was Goering’s own squadron, but whether they were or not I don’t know.

One of the riggers was down in the tail of a plane replacing rivets which had been sprung. To get in to the tail of a Blenheim you had to sit on the bottom of the gun turret, turn it round and crawl out down the inside of the tail. We banged on the side of the plane and yelled, ‘Air raid!’. The fitter shot out of the plane in less than a minute. I’ve no idea how he managed it and nor had he. As we hadn’t any slit trenches we managed to lie up against the side of the banks around the drome and fired at the planes as they came towards us, then we went over the bank to face them coming the other way.

We shot down four of them by concentrated rifle fire, as we only had one machine gun in defence of the drome. Anyway after a short while they changed their tactics and started strafing up and down the mounds of earth so we had no protection there. Another chap and myself dived into a hollow between two of our aircraft. Both the planes had been hit and had caught fire. On one of them the engine started to turn and I was laying there fascinatedly watching the flames dripping off the propeller. I think the Messerschmidts were over the other side of the drome strafing there when suddenly it occurred to us that the planes were bombed up. We were up over the hump, over the water and running toward some drums out in a field. I suddenly shouted they’re full of petrol so we changed direction towards the village. Meanwhile the planes were exploding and bits of engines, wheels and fuselage were dropping all around us. We reached the village, dived under the bridge and landed among a crowd of frogs.

When we got back to camp the CO said, ’Right we’re pulling out this evening.’ The Messerschmidts came back and as they had destroyed all the planes concentrated on our transport, we had to dump all our kit and cram ourselves on to the remaining lorries. I was sitting on top of the cab clinging on like grim death.

We came to Larissa, which the Germans had been bombing all day and it was a mass of flames. We’d go down one road find a great crater in it and have to back out.There was no civil defence and everyone was attempting to get out of the town just leaving the place to burn.

Eventually we got through the town and out on to the mountain road, where there was every kind of vehicle trying to get away. Some were walking, some on bicycles and some on donkeys. It was a narrow gravel road with about a thousand foot drop on one side and I did see one loaded horse and cart go over the side. Nothing could be done for them.

We finally got through and it was dark by this time and we were tearing down the road when we suddenly heard the scream of a Stuka diving on us. We banged on the roof of the cab and the driver stopped immediately, we leapt off and the bomb hit the road about fifty yards in front of us. We hadn’t thought about the road edge when we jumped off and it was just lucky that we had all gone on the right side. We went off down the road and were stopped by a couple of army officers who asked, ‘Didn’t you know there was a plane around?’ We replied that it was us they were after.

A bit later our driver went to sleep because he had been driving for several hours. We went off the road but luckily it was on the ditch side so all we got was a shaking up. Next morning we hid up in a wood and the CO sent someone into a village to get food. All they were able to get was some rye bread but even that was welcome. The CO came round and had a look at us. We were all sitting there feeling very sorry for ourselves and I remember thinking that I didn’t want him to see us like this. On the other hand we were despondent and we had no idea what was going to happen. We started off again that night and arrived back at Athens the next morning.

I did hear later that after we evacuated the Larissa airport the German paratroopers arrived there the next day, and some months later we saw a picture of them examining our aircraft in Picture Post. Also we were told that our kitbags had been collected up and Lord Haw-Haw read out our names as having been killed in Greece. I don’t think anyone at home heard about it. Anyway, they gave us another pay parade: we’d only had one a few days before but it seemed to be the rule that if they had a lot of money they would rather share it out among the troops, possibly so that it would not get captured.

Picture Post
While we were on the pay parade the Flight Sergeant told us to form another group and not to wander away. There was a big complaint because we had not yet erected our tents and some drifted off as they left the pay parade. As I was fairly late coming off the parade I was roped into the new group. Then a sergeant came along and asked each of us what our trade was, and sorted us out. Tradesmen on the left and clerks, cooks and aircrafthands on the right. Then he counted us and called to the adjutant that he had one hundred and fifty. The adjutant told us to get on some lorries which had just arrived. We had no idea what was happening and there was speculation as to whether we were going back to the front. Well, we drove off and went back down the road we had just come in by.

All along the road the Greeks were standing at their doors clapping and giving us the thumbs up. Then the air raid sirens sounded and they all made for the shelters. We just carried on, and I now believe that it was a false alarm to get rid of the spectators because we turned off onto the road down to the docks and stopped on the quay. The sergeant said, ‘You’re going back to get some more planes, 75 of you on the refugee ship and 75 on the destroyer, HMS Flamingo.’ I was in the latter group; twenty minutes later we were out at sea. We didn’t believe the story about the planes because they would have sent pilots back for them. What we didn’t know was that it was the start of the evacuation of Greece. We were the first ones out from there. Most of the others, those who got away, left from the beaches.

They put six of us to a mess, joining six sailors. Each mess looked after themselves, drawing rations and getting them cooked. What with that and the rum ration we didn’t do too badly at all. Suddenly the siren sounded and all the sailors dashed out locking the bulkhead doors behind them; we had no way of getting out if anything happened. They went to action stations and picked up a submarine, they cruised around for a while and dropped some depth charges but I don’t know if they got anything as they had to return to guard the convoy. That was the only incident we had and we sailed into Alex about three days later. We disembarked, the Flamingo turned round and was sunk on the return to Greece.

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