Crete research

Charles Robinson’s account of his time at Imbros in May and June 1941 – extract from his book Journey to Captivity

“In the little village of Imbros, high in the White Mountains of Crete, shadows were gradually filling the valley, and the Luftwaffe which had machine-gunned us incessantly throughout the day had flown home owing to the failing light. From clumps of scrub and rocks troops emerged and started to move off down the long precipitous road to Sphakia, and hoped for evacuation by the Royal Navy.

It was late May 1941 and the ill-conceived Greek campaign was nearing its dismal end. Imbros was merely a cluster of a dozen or so dirt-floored houses, and a small stone church shaded by a large tree. The road through the valley hugged the flank of the hill and passed around the church. It was here that the valley floor widened, and in flat ground the area of a football field there was a stone walled well.

We said farewell to our mates as our unit moved out, shepherding walking wounded. Then darkness fell and the rearguard came through. They were being fired at by a sniper from across the valley, his bullets striking sparks from the stony road. The church was serving as a dressing station, and on the bare stone floors were thirty very seriously wounded men and a further twenty lay outside under the tree.

It was impossible to evacuate them and a little party made up of an Australian medical officer ‘Skipper’, two New Zealand stretcher bearers – Jack and ‘Curly’, and two Australians ‘Pinky’ and myself were there to care for them. There was little we could do that night other than make the wounded as comfortable as possible, give morphine as needed, check that dressings were not too tight, and pass around water and cigarettes.

Fortunately these little mountain churches are devoid of furniture so that we could move easily between our charges, who were lying on blankets, quilts or doors taken from the deserted village houses. Memories of that night bring back the stench of pus-soaked field dressings, in some cases fly-blown, of blood and of unwashed humanity; but more than anything the courage of the wounded who suffered great pain and discomfort without a whimper.

Three German prisoners, who spoke good English, had been left with us to interpret when their troops arrived. Without being asked they helped us throughout that long night in easing the wounded into their least painful position. We discovered some Mills grenades, ammunition and two rifles, which had been brought in with the wounded, and would be difficult to explain to the oncoming Germans.

They might well imagine that the church had been used as a firing position sheltering under the Red Cross, and take reprisals. During the night two men died, and as it was getting light we carried them out to a shallow grave, dug with difficultly in the stony ground.

We placed the Mills grenades, rifles and ammunition in the grave, then the two bodies and covered with earth and stones. Whilst Jack was brewing up tea I climbed the hillock overlooking the church to check that the Red Cross sign, made up from a white bed sheet crossed with strips of dark material taken from a deserted house, was still in place.

Alas, a villager must have come down from his hideaway during the night and retrieved his sheet. Whilst re-arranging the material remaining to form a cross two Messerschmidt fighters flew down the valley. I was not wearing my steel helmet, and they obviously took me for one of their forward troops, for on my waving they waggled their wings and flew on.

Down by the church a Bren carrier was trundling up the road, and it returned about twenty minutes later to say that the Germans had been sighted, and would over-run us shortly. The crew called out ‘Good Luck’, and the carrier disappeared around the bend from where a loud explosion told us that they had blown the road.

The approach of the Germans was heralded by a continuous roar of automatic fire as they blasted away at every clump of scrub or large rock thai could possibly conceal an enemy. One of our rearguard returned fire from beyond the village, in line with our position. The Germans must have thought that it was coming from the church. They now directed their fire our way, sending bullets screeching in ricochet off the solid stone walls, and bringing down a shower of broken twigs and leaves on those of our wounded lying under the tree.

We asked one of the German prisoners to call out when there was a lull in the firing and tell mates we were a bona fide dressing station. This he did. but another burst of fire which pinged around the doorway made him withdraw rapidly. He called out again but there was no response until suddenly a German paratrooper leapt through the door swinging his tommy gun at the hip.

He looked so like a film gangster holding up a bank that everyone burst out laughing. This rather dented his moment of glory and in order to regain his composure he gruffly demanded a drink of water. Our German prisoner spoke with him and he left, still in a huff.

All that day German troops passed by in small groups—some in our captured army trucks, others leading donkeys they had commandeered which were loaded with ammunition; and then motorcycle outfits towing light field guns. They didn’t disturb us, but sent some of their own men for treatment. We were desperately busy moving out the wounded on their makeshift litters, whilst the stone floor was washed down with Lysol; cutting away blood soaked clothing to change dressings, and taking doors from the empty village houses for additional litters. Our German prisoners contacted an officer and rejoined their army. We all shook hands.

They commiserated with us on our captivity and we thanked them for their help. We were now able to take stock of our position. Our medical stores consisted of adequate supplies of acraflavine antiseptic, field-dressings, morphine, and sulphanilomide. Where we needed splints, wood was taken from the village and sawn to size. A Holy picture from the wall served as our medical tray, and the stone font held our water supply, topped up as needed from the well. Jack and Curly had buiIt a trench fire outside, and had obtained cooking pots from the ever obliging village. Plenty of tinned food had been left with us—corned beef, meat and vegetable stew, and herrings in tomato sauce formed the main part.

We had no mess gear and empty tins had to serve as receptacles. The stew tins were used as drinking mugs, the oval herring tins as plates, with the edges carefully beaten down to give a smooth rim. The corned beef tins opened with a key, and therefore left a shaip edge which couldn’t be blunted. They were used as urinals and handed out with the warning—’watch the edge we can’t treat circumcisions’.

Steel helmets were stripped of their inner lining and used as bed pans. A detachment of Germans encamped near the church, and some of them would come over to speak with our wounded and bring little gifts of oranges and cigarettes. They were well supplied with captured English rations and Jack was able to swap our large stock of tinned marmalade for corned beef and other goodies.

The Greeks Return
The Greeks gradually returned to the village from their hiding places in the hills, and some of the women would call with gifts of olives and goat cheese. Wc warned them to be careful as the Germans did not approve of fraternisation, and we also apologised for having pillaged their houses. However on seeing the wounded they realised our need, and forgave with smiles. One charming lady called each morning with her small son who had a badly burnt face. He had been rummaging around some wrecked trucks and had struck a match near some leaking petrol. The resulting flash had singed off most of his hair and scorched his face. Pinky treated him with tannafax ointment, and fortunately it did not become infected. His mother brought eggs or cheese on each of her visits, and would walk amongst our wounded smiling and nodding. She was very popular, and quite unconcerned as to what the Germans might think.

One of our oddest treatments was on a thigh wound which we discovered, on changing dressings, was seething with maggots. Skipper prescribed a loose dressing without any antiseptic, to be changed daily and any dead maggots scraped from the edges of the wound. Within a few days the maggots had eaten away the dead flesh leaving a nice clean wound. Work for all of us was extremely hard. Skipper as the only doctor was in constant demand. Pinky and I did the rounds with him. and on his instructions gave morphine, changed dressings, and cared for the patients as best we could. Jack was an excellent cook, making rich stews of corned beef laced with onions and other vegetables, donated by the villagers: or concocting soft egg dishes for those who could only digest light food. Young Curly who was about eighteen thrived on hard work, gathering firewood, carting water from the well, and doing the hard thankless jobs. None of us had regular hours. We would just lie down, utterly exhausted, to snatch a few hours sleep when circumstances permitted.

Sadly during the next few days three other chaps died, and were buried alongside their mates. It was a great sadness to see them go, as however bad the wounds we always hoped that we could help them pull through. Sole Captives It was now five days since the Germans had overrun our position, and we imagined ourselves the sole captives in that part of Crete. Then in the afternoon we heard shouting, and a mob of over a thousand men came over the hill. They rushed the well like stampeding cattle. All were in a bad shape, having had little or no food for several days. Many had broken boots and others suffered the agony of dysentery.

There were about twenty wounded amongst them, and we persuaded the guards to let them stay with us together with ten ambulance personnel. Within half an hour the guards had the mob on the road again, headed towards Canea. They were a woeful sight and we were particularly depressed to see that the gallant rearguard had been nabbed. The battalion had got to Aphakia only to see the last boats sailing away.

The following day the Germans sent a truck over the mountains from Canea, and we loaded some wounded abroad and sent ambulance personnel with them. This procedure went on for the next ten days until we had only two patients left. One of ihem had a stomach wound but was making a good recovery. Skipper asked the Germans for an extension in time as he knew that a bumpy ride could prove fatal. They were quite adamant—we were all to go with them. So we set off for Canea and captivity, and our patient died on the way.”

Charles Robinson’s account of his return to Imbros in the 1960s

“In 1962 I returned to Crete and hired a taxi with an English-speaking driver, to take me over the mountains to Imbros. Entering the small bare church I noticed that the Holy picture we had used as our medical tray was now back on the wall.

There was no evidence of our stay, but the memories came flooding back and I could picture that first night in the minutest detail. When I came out, a little knot of men had surrounded the taxi driver, and he translated as I asked whether they knew of a young boy we had treated for burns. A big strapping fellow hugged me by the shoulder and led me over to a dirt-floored house. Some of the others followed and crowded into the little room where, seated on wooden fruit boxes, we ate black olives and goat cheese and drank raki.

I was pleased to note that his face was unscarred, and asked after his mother. He told me she had been betrayed to the Germans for helping escaping soldiers, and was taken away and never heard from again.

We stayed yarning and drinking until the taxi driver insisted on leaving, so as not to be on the mountain road in the dark. As we drove away I looked back, but heavy dark clouds which had been hovering on the peaks had swirled into the valley. The little church was blotted out as though by a curtain and I suddenly felt very alone. Next day I went to our war cemetery on Suda Bay where our five dead had been re-interred with honour.”