Greece
Home Up Greece Matapan Island defences General Freyberg

 

Air War
Flt. Sgt. Mason
The German and Allied activity in Greece prior to the invasion of Crete.

Site Map

Captain John Manussis

I have been sent information that relates to Flight Sergeant Frank Mason who flew with XI Sqn.  See separate page.

Extracts from 211 Sqn ORB.

Photos from Peter Harris

Wavell's report on evacuation

In December 1940 Allied intelligence sources, some of it via ULTRA, had detected signs of the build up of Richtofen's VIII Fliegerkorps in Rumania.  Also via ULTRA the Allies were aware of Operation MARITA, the proposed invasion of Greece, and on the 10th of January Churchill learnt that the German build up in Romania had now become a grave threat to Greece.  Churchill now wanted an Expeditionary Force to be sent to mainland Greece, consisting of British and Dominion troops.  Because of the secrecy surrounding ULTRA, and the intelligence gained from it, very few were aware of its existence.  Wavell at this time was unaware of the information from ULTRA regarding the German intentions on Greece.  Consequently he was not aware of the information available to Churchill, on which the decision to help Greece was made.  To assist Greece, and so allow attacks to be made on the oil supplies at Ploesti, Churchill needed co-operation from Greece and or Turkey.  Neither were a party to the output from ULTRA, both wished to avoid antagonizing Hitler, and so neither was willing to take Churchill's offer of an Allied expeditionary force.  To bolster the forces in Greece, the 2nd Yorks & Lancs Battalion and the Black Watch had been sent to Suda Bay to allow the release of the 5th Cretan Division to mainland Greece.

As well as the move of the Germans into the Balkans, they would also have an effect on the balance in the Mediterranean.  German airpower would become a potent force against the British fleet in the area.  The first real illustration of this came in January 1941 with an attack on the carrier Illustrious.  She was very badly hit by German dive bombers, the Ju87 Stuka, and had to go to Malta to begin serious repairs.  The fleet had learned how to cope with aerial attack from the Italian Air Force, as they tended to bomb from some 10,000 ft.  The Stuka was something else.

In February 1941 Wavell's troops had reached Benghazi.  Churchill had previously told him that when he reached Benghazi he must stop and release 4 Divisions for deployment to Greece, so allowing the opening of a Balkan front.  This would be Operation LUSTRE.  Wavell, as ordered, released the British 1st Armoured Brigade, the New Zealand Division and the 6th Australian Division.  These were to be followed by the 7th Australian Division and the Polish Brigade.  Unfortunately these dispositions were made without prior consultation with General Thomas Blamey and General Bernard Freyberg, commanders of the Australian and New Zealand forces involved.  This would later cause political resentment over the way Britain treated her Dominions.

General Metaxas had not been in favour of the Allied expeditionary force moving into Greece, he wanted a major force or nothing, but on 29 January he died, and the King regained some of the power he had lost under the General.  On the 22nd February the King agreed to the Allied plan for deployment of the force, but in the meantime delay and indecision over the last few months had led to misunderstandings between Greece and the Allies.  Wavell had not been helped in his planning by the intelligence he was receiving from Major General Heywood of the British Mission in Greece.  His views of the strength and capabilities of the Greek forces were far too optimistic.  However, these forces and the Cretans did perform well against the Italians, whose attacks in March were brought to a standstill.  The result was that Salonika would not be defended, the defence line was to be the Aliakhmon Line south west of Salonika.  The first Allied troops arrived in Greece at the port of Piraeus on the 7th March, and moved north to take up their positions on the Aliakhmon Line.  The New Zealand Division were on the right, the British 1st Armoured Brigade to the North and Northeast with the 6th Australian Division on the left of the line. 

Prince Paul of Yugoslavia eventually gave in to the pressure from Hitler, and signed the Tripartite Pact on the 25th March.  Hitler wanted them in the pact so that he could use the Yugoslavian railway system to help move his invasion forces.  Two days after signing, Prince Paul was deposed in a coup d'etat, Hitler was furious.  On the 6th April Hitler activated MARITA and Germany attacked Greece and Yugoslavia in strength.   He wanted opposition in the Balkans crushed before Barbarossa began.

While events were unfurling in Greece they were also turning against Wavell in North Africa.  The Afrika Korps under Rommel started to reverse the collapse of the Axis forces in the desert.  By the 3rd April he had recaptured Benghazi. 

The collapse in Greece was rapid.  On the 9th April the German 2nd Panzer Division captured Salonika, and pushed on down through the Monastir Gap.  The strength of the German attack on the Aliakhmon Line forced the troops to retreat to a second line at Thermopylae, but this would not hold the German advance.  On the 16th April General Papagos asked the British to withdraw.  The Greek Army of the Epirus surrendered on the 20th April.  All that the Allied troops could do now was retreat to the beaches, destroy their equipment and await evacuation by the Navy.  The majority of the forces retreated across the Corinth Canal to the beaches of the Peloponnese.  On the 26th April however the bridge at Corinth was captured by a German paratroop assault led by General Sussmann who would later command the German forces of Group Centre in the attack on Crete.  This airborne attack did not meet with the approval of General Student who felt that this might pre-warn the Allies of the possibility of a similar assault on Crete.  The loss of the bridge caused the 4th New Zealand Brigade under Brigadier Inglis to head South East to Porto Rafti and Rafina.  By the 28th April the evacuation was complete with almost all of the forces successfully taken off.  The Navy came to the rescue of the army here in Greece and again in Crete.  Admiral Cunningham assigned six cruisers and nineteen destroyers to the evacuation of the land forces.  One sad aspect of the evacuation was that while all forms of transport were pressed into service, space was not made available for Greek or Cretan troops.

The evacuation took place over a few days from the 25th April, with troops often going only as far as Crete rather than all the way to Egypt, thus allowing a quicker turn round of the ships, but this did not happen for all convoys from Greece.  One consequence of this would be that many units would be split up, and others would be separated from their equipment.
One of the ships evacuating troops from Greece was the Glenearn.  She was was damaged on the 25th April by a single bomb that landed very close and caused sufficient damage for it to have to be taken in tow by the Griffin and taken back to Suda Bay.  On board was a young sailor, David Satherley and Gerald Allcock, whose father was killed in the Juno, met him and obtained a photo of David.  

The photos below were sent to me by Peter Harris and show individuals that his family were familiar with from the events in Greece.

The original notes for these photos say they were taken in Greece in April "about a week before the battle".  They were taken at Monastir in Macedonia.  In the photos "Wilf" is Peter's father, Captain W.G. Harris Eagle Troop 2RHA.

John D., Wilf, Len (Lennox John Livingstone-Learmouth RHA)

Wilf, John Davies and Len having lunch in a cherry orchard.

John Davies, Len and John Harvey having lunch outside the Mess.

Wilf in a mountain stream.

On the evacuation from Greece; Gordon McFall (RHA) and Frank Mitford later killed in N. Africa.

The notes say Tom, Gordon & Frank (I assume it is the group of three on the right)

The following is an account of a Ju88 attack on a ship evacuating the troops from Greece;

"There it was, motionless, no wake, and we were moving towards this unique target: "Switch the fuse box on, all bombs at once!"  The navigator reacted accordingly.  I turned my Ju88 a little in order to approach the target slightly diagonal.  Cooler flaps shut, propellers back into the half-past-eight-position.  Their rotation became slower and the noise became lower.  The target down there slipped through the red stripe across the window below my feet.  We were now in the 60 grade angle for diving.  I pushed a little knob, the air brakes came out of the wings - and down we went with increasing speed.  The ship, now in front of my nose, seemed to become bigger and bigger.  I hardly felt my navigator's fist hammering on my knee.  "Thousand!" he cried.  I lifted the aircraft's nose a little and pushed the red button.  The bombs went their way and the Ju88 hers, flattening out her dive.  This had been a text-book attack, and I brought the aircraft back to normal.  I could not see whether the bombs had hit, but my radio-operator and my air-gunner, both looking to the rear, suddenly shouted simultaneously: We've hit her!  Two full hits, two bombs near misses.  Water cascades and high flames."    Gerd Stamp, from 'Crete 1941 Eyewitnessed'.

I was contacted in May this year (2001) by a Dan Manussis whose grandfather was in the Battle of Crete.  Dan's grandfather, John Manussis was the Greek liaison/interpreter officer to the RAF's 211 Squadron in Greece before the evacuation.  The following is an extract from Antony Beevor's book "Crete, the battle and the resistance" where he makes a brief reference to 211 Squadron.  [See Don Clark's site on the history of 211 Squadron, he also has some info from Dan Manussis regarding his father.]
The young pilots who followed had the happy-go-lucky attitude of the time.  In 211 Squadron, a small number were motor racing enthusiasts who had known each other from the paddock at Brooklands.  Nicknames were compulsively applied to everything and everyone, with "kites" called "Bloody Mary" and "Caminix", and pilots known as "the Bish" Gordon-Finlayson, "Twinkle" Pearson and "Shaky Do" Dawson.
They soon settled into their new life.  By day they carried out bombing raids on the Albanian ports of Durazzo and Valona - a dangerously repetitive pattern known as "same time, same place" jobs.  And by night they enjoyed themselves in Athens, starting at Zonar's, then going on to Maxim's or the Agentina night-club, where they rubbed shoulders, and occasionally came to blows , with unconvincing German "holiday makers".  At the Argentina, they used to chat up a blonde singer and dancer called Nicki after the show, unaware that she was the girlfriend of a member of Section D (another forerunner of Special Operations Executive) working under cover in the Legation.
Dan wrote that "He got away from Naphlion ( I believe this might be Nauplion) in a Sunderland sea plane (in the toilet) and landed in Suda Bay where he stayed throughout the invasion. He escaped across the mountains following the defeat and was evacuated from Sphakia."  The following is another extract from Antony Beevor's book which is pertinent to Dan's grandfather leaving Nauplion.
After Attica's rapid occupation by the Germans, evacuation continued during the last nights of April from the ports and beaches of the Peloponnese.  Every form of transport available was pressed into service: destroyers and cruisers of the Royal Navy, requisitioned merchant vessels, caiques and aircraft.  Blenheims ran a shuttle service to Crete with men packed with dreadful discomfort in the bomb-bays and turrets of each aircraft, while Sunderlands took them off the beaches in the Gulf of Argos  and round Kalamata.  One somehow managed to take off from the Gulf of Argos with eighty-four men on board, nearly three times the maximum permitted on its civilian equivalent, the Imperial Airways flying-boat. 
Following his escape from Sfakia Dan's grandfather "..later joined the British army as a captain and worked in intelligence".
Also able to get away was Dudley Webb, the following is from an email he sent to me.  "My father, Dudley Webb, swam from Beach "T" (Toulon) near Nauplion in April 1941 during the evacuation of troops following the collapse of the allied defence of Greece. He was picked up by a group of British sailors who had stolen a boat with a view to getting to Crete. He eventually made it to Crete and was evacuated, I believe, the day before the 
German paratroops arrived. I would dearly love to know if any of the British blokes (Dad called them "Tommies") are still alive and remember the trip. Your site may well be the link I have been looking for.

Peter Webb"
Report by General Wavell to C.I.G.S 30 April

"Evacuation now complete, only small number picked up by destroyer last night at Kalamata which is in enemy hands.  majority cut off at Kalamata believed to be labour and non combatant units.  Total number safely evacuated estimated 43,000.  Casualties at sea during evacuation apparently not more than 500 lost in destroyers Diamond and Wrynack which picked up survivors of Slamat.  Of those who actually reached recognised evacuation beaches believed only between 3,000 & 6,000 not picked up of which majority at Kalamata and Nauplion.  Cannot at present give figures of wounded and sick left in hospital or casualties before evacuation, but total in Greece before German attack probably 55,000 to 56,000.  Troops in good heart all brought away personal equipment, gun sights, optical equipment etc., as far as possible.  No doubt that our troops were completely on top wherever they met Germans under reasonable conditions and inflicted heavy losses on them in personnel and materiel.  Great numerical superiority in the air and numbers of A.F.V. were the only factors in which enemy had advantage." (CAB 7)

At the end of it all the move into Greece had been costly for the Allies, particularly in materiel.  While only some 2000 of the force of 58,000 had been killed or wounded, and another 14,000 taken prisoner, much equipment that would have been useful on Crete was lost.  The loss of 209 aircraft would be particularly significant, as well as more than 100 tanks.

Military moves in the Balkans and North Africa in the Autumn of 1940, apparently unrelated to Crete, were now to result in the first airborne invasion of a country in history.  On the 25th April Hitler confirmed to General Student his decision to attack Crete, Operation MERCURY was to go ahead. 

Extracts from 211 Squadron Operational Record Book.  Kept on microfilm in PRO at Kew.
March '41 based at Paramythia (Greece) with Blenheims.  On 13 April, 3rd raid of the day.  6 aircraft carried out raid on Monastir, Wing Commander & Sqn Ldr took places of two regular observers.  All aircraft lost, Flight Lieutenant Griffin takes temporary command.
On 14/4 a Yugoslav aircraft came in with King Peter, met by escort of 6 Gladiators.  Ground crew form honour guard.  King Peter's comment "tell the n.c.o. i/c that this is the smartest Guard of Honour I have ever had, and most certainly the first on a battle field."
15/4 commence evacuation of Paramythia, the last ones were taken out 8 in an aircraft.
On 20th & 21st operating from Menidi, night raids by single Blenheims.
22/4 Ferry remaining personnel to Crete, spent night in Heraklion.
23/4 all aircraft left for Heliopolis, ground personnel to Suda Bay and sleep under trees
24/4 final personnel leave by flying boat for Egypt.