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The Weekend Neos Kosmos : 4 June 2016
DIGITAL.NEOSKOSMOS.COM THE WEEKEND NEOS KOSMOS | SATURDAY 4 JUNE 2016 23 GREECE Greek campaign veterans honoured in Messinia JIM CLAVEN Last week saw another major commemoration held in Greece to honour the Anzacs and other Allied troops who came there in 1941 to assist in the defence of Greece. Following their formal surrender, they were now interned on the outskirts of the city. Some 1,500 Jewish members of the Palestine Labour Corps now became prisoners of the German Army. Some Allied soldiers – including Syd – tried desperately to escape capture by swimming out into Kalamata's great bay towards the lights of ships in the distance. Syd records that many drowned. He made it back to the beach and was captured. But this was not the end. Many Allied soldiers were able to escape from the prisoner's encampment and make their way east into the mountains and villages of the Mani. There they were helped by the local villagers who fed and looked after them at great risk to themselves. The drive to Trachila today takes just over an hour, but one can imagine what it would have been like 75 years ago as Syd trudged along the long and winding track to the village. It winds up into the mountains and along the coast, past olive groves and crystal blue waters. It would have been thirsty work on those hot May days. As I make my own way I notice the caves that dot the mountains along the coast and at the village of Agios Nikolaos I wonder if these are the ones in which Syd hid during his walk south. When Syd and his comrades arrived in Trachila in late April they were welcomed by its villagers. He records how they found accommodation for them in what looked like an old abandoned church on a hill above the town and in the olive groves nearby. Each day women from the village would come to them with food and water. In the village’s little harbour, he interacted with the local men and boys. He captured these scenes for posterity in his photographs. When I showed Syd's photo of his hideout above the village to an elderly villager he immediately recognised it and pointed to the ruined buildings above. The past is never far away in Greece. But Syd's stay at Trachila was thankfully short – for him and for the safety of the villagers. The villagers told Syd that they had noticed the wash in the harbour as evidence of large ships further out. Syd used a torch to signal to the ship in the bay and soon he was alongside the British destroyer HMS Hero. Before they were taken aboard, Syd recorded that the Royal Navy officer insisted they prove that they were in fact Australians by singing Waltzing Matilda – which they did! At 2.30 am on 1 May 1941, Syd was one of the 69 Australians, along with another 41 Allied troops, evacuated by the HMS Hero. Other small parties would similarly be evacuated from other small coastal villages further south, such as Selinitsis and Limeniou. Other Allied escapers – including some 200 soldiers of the 4th Hussars – would hide in the mountains and villages within the Mani for months. As we know from last year's Neos Kosmos report, Syd would eventually return to Victoria and name his soldier settlement farm in honour of the city and its region that has saved his life – Kalamata. And his photographic collection – with its images of the people of Kalamata and Trachila – will be donated to the State Library of Victoria in November later this year. As I depart Trachila for the return to Kalamata I notice the poppies that have sprung up along the route – around the building where Syd was hidden. A fitting reminder of those like Syd who came to this part of Greece in 1941 and the locals who helped them. Jim Claven is a historian and freelance writer. He travelled to Greece for the 75th anniversary of the Greek and Crete campaigns representing the Battle of Crete and the Greek Campaign Commemorative Committee. Moves are now underway to develop memorials as part of an Anzac trail across Messinia and the Peloponnese to assist commemorative visitation to Greece. He thanks Catherine Bell for permission to quote from her father's memoir and acknowledges the support of Melbourne's Messinian community for his visit to Kalamata, in particular Mr Paul Sougleris, Mr George Iliopoulos, Ms Jenny Krasopouli and Mr Rica Soublis. Not far from the Kalamata waterfront that was witness to a major battle in April of that year, a commemorative service was held at the Kalamata Memorial. The memorial was erected by the British veterans of the Greek campaign and supported by the Kalamata municipality. The event was attended by two British veterans – Frank Gil and Jock Watt – as well as many veterans' families from Australia, Britain and Israel. Also present were the Australian Ambassador, his Excellency John Griffin, and his British counterpart. Military representatives included a delegation of Australian armed forces, including the Royal Australian Navy's Paul Cottier, whose grandfather fought in the battle of Greece. Particularly moving was the address by British veteran Frank Gil – the president of the British Greek Campaign Veterans organisation. He talked of his memories of young men killed and the loss of war. We should all commit ourselves to the cause of peace, was Frank's appeal. I was honoured to lay a wreath on behalf of the Battle of Crete and the Greek Campaign Commemorative Committee. An additional service took place at the Kalamata harbourside to honour the 1,500 members of the Palestine Labour Corps who were captured there, and the 200 who were killed in the Greek campaign. Mr Rico Soublis of the Kalamata Society and myself used the opportunity to lobby the local and Australian authorities for the identification of further battle of Greece related sites across the Peloponnese. There is a need for memorials or historic markers to assist families visiting the area. These could include at the site of the battle of Corinth canal, the various points relating to the battle of Kalamata, the embarkation towns from Nafplio to Monemvasia, and the villages that helped the Allied soldiers on the run from the Germans, such as Trachila. This will be a legacy for future generations and of great assistance to commemorative visitors to Greece. After the commemoration in Kalamata, I met with the deputy mayor of Pylos on behalf of the Navarino Society. We discussed the need for two new memorials – at Methoni and Pylos – to honour the Allied POW's who were killed and brought ashore in 1941 and 1942. A submission will be made to the Pylos municipality to progress the erection of these memorial, with the assistance of the Australian Greek community. This will realise the wish of Anzac veteran Mr Bill Rudd, who was one of the survivors of this tragedy off the coast of Methoni. It was also an opportunity to meet with other veterans groups from Britain and Israel. Many original photographs and memoirs were swapped, and research compared. I made a presentation on the role of the Battle of Crete and Greece Commemorative Council in raising awareness both in Australia and in Greece of the service of all veterans in the campaigns. The British veterans’ families referred to their relatives’ service as having been forgotten and that this needed to be overcome. Mr Soublis was presented with an award by the group from Israel in recognition of the work that he and Mr Paul Sougleris have done in promoting awareness of Kalamata's role in the battle of Greece and the Jewish part in this story.
28 May 2016
11 June 2016