Tuesday, 23 December 2014

Ken Moses - Evacuation of Greece 1941

On 1 April 1941 members of the 2/4th Battalion, with soldiers from other Australian units, left for Greece aboard a Dutch ship the s s Pennland. Two thousand five hundred soldiers were loaded into the ship for the three day journey to Piraeus, near Athens.

Ken Moses with a number of other members of the battalion, who were recovering from wounds or illness incurred during the desert campaign, remained in Egypt when the Greek campaign began. Ken had been hospitalised with bronchitis and he and the other soldiers spent time in hospital in Alexandria before being transferred to El Kantara on 28 March. From there they went to the Australian Convalescent Depot at Julis in Palestine until they were well enough to return to the Infantry Training Battalion, also at Julis.

The campaign in Greece was not going well so the decision was made to evacuate the troops. On 22 April at the Julis camp ten men, including Ken, were told that they were off to Greece on one of the evacuation ships. They were sent back to Alexandria and two days later they travelled in a fishing caique to reach the Dutch ship Costa Rica which they boarded by climbing up a Jacob's ladder. The men were to serve as ack-ack gunners for the evacuation using four 1914 Hotchkiss strip feed guns. Five hundred rounds of ammunition was supplied for each gun. The Costa Rica sailed in a convoy from Alexandria with six other ships and was later joined by an escort of cruisers and destroyers.

Soon after dusk on 24 April the convoy experienced the first raid when they were attacked by 12 Italian bombers. However there was no damage to the convoy due to the firing of a barrage pattern of shells by the ships limiting the accuracy of the bombers.

There was more activity on Anzac Day when six Stuka raids were encountered by the convoy. After the second attack Ken Moses and Bill Leonard were minding their gun when a ship's engineer brought his wireless on deck so that they could listen to the Anzac Day service from Westminster Abbey. The congregation was singing 'For those in peril on the sea' when seven Stukas attacked the Costa Rica. As they fed the clips into the gun Bill Leonard exclaimed, "If only that mob could see what is coming at us now, they would lift the roof off that bloody cathedral!" The Stukas missed. (White Over Green pages 142-143)
Southern Greece and Crete
Off Kalamata, on the night of 26-27 April, the Costa Rica waited for the arrival of the troops from Greece. Destroyers brought the men to the ship and 2,500 men, who had spent the previous two nights near the beach waiting for rescue, were loaded on to the Costa Rica. Before dawn the Costa Rica with two other ships plus their escort headed back towards Alexandria.
Bren gunners aboard the Costa Rica - AWM image
The first Stuka raid came at dawn. Ammunition for the Hodgkiss guns was running low so additional assistance was provided by other soldiers using the weapons they had been issued for Greece including Bren guns, Vickers machine guns, Boyes anti-tank rifles and other rifles to supplement the fire-power of the other naval defence. The convoy experienced and survived nine raids that day however at 2.40 pm a lone Stuka appeared 'out of the sun' and, although the bomb missed the ship, the plates of the ship were damaged and the engines stopped. The ship started to sink. The Defender positioned itself at the side of the ship to transfer the men who jumped to the decks or swung on ropes to safety. Those who had jumped into the sea were picked up by the Hero which then came to the side of the ship to collect those on the upper decks who had been manning the guns while the Hereward, replacing the Defender, collected the remainder of the men. It took only ninety minutes for the Costa Rica to sink. Only one man died during the rescue. The survivors were taken to Crete for the next battle.
HMS Hereward taking troops from the Costa Rica - AWM image
Another convey evacuating troops from Greece was not so lucky. Also on 27 April the Dutch troop ship, the Slamat, was sunk as well as two British Navy destroyers, HMS Diamond and HMS Wyrneck, resulting in the loss of more than 980 lives. There were only 66 survivors from these three ships.

The book, White over Green, has a section on the experiences of the 2/4th Battalion in Greece. There is also a chapter on the Costa Rica, written by Ken Moses, which provided the basis for this post.

Other books on experiences of Australian troops on Greece and Crete during the Second World War include:
Australians in World War II: Greece and Crete published by Dept of Veteran Affairs 2011 This publication is also available online
Diggers and Greeks: the Australian campaigns in Greece and Crete by Maria Hill 2010

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