Harry Spencer – on the WWII battlefields of Greece

In this extract from Never Forget, New Zealand 2nd Divisional Cavalry soldier, Harry Spencer provides a first-hand account of fighting on the front lines in Greece, and narrowly escaping capture, after rescuing his friend, and getting him to hospital while under fierce attack.

Once ashore at Piraeus Port, the Kiwis loaded their armoured vehicles onto trains to save wear and tear on the journey to Katerini.

They arrived on 4th April and that evening received the news that Number One and Number Two troops were to go forward to meet up with the British Armoured Division at Edhessa.

“I had a funny feeling in my stomach. We were on our way to meet the enemy. I still reckon I was scared.”

Harry’s intuition proved correct, and he was part of the first unit of 2nd New Zealand Division troops to engage with the enemy. The Kiwis took off from Edhessa and met up with British Brigadier Harold Charrington. Harry became part of a small Div Cav unit whose task it was to escort some British engineers across the northern border of Greece into Yugoslavia. The engineers were on a bridge-destroying mission in a bid to slow down the advancing German troops. It was dangerous work as the group came under intense fire.

“They had no fast vehicles and our three armoured cars filled the gap,” said Harry.

The crew headed towards Bitolj where there was a bridge to be destroyed. All went well until the German forces came over a rise in the road. Lieutenant Darcy Cole managed to direct the engineers’ explosive-laden lorry to turn around, as Lofty King bravely advanced and fired aggressively at the Germans. The Kiwis and the engineers they were protecting were able to retreat under enemy fire, stopping to set fire to two wooden bridges on the way.

“The Germans watched us from the surrounding hills but only fired small arm bullets at us. All our cars were hit but there were no casualties.”

After they set the second bridge alight, the Kiwi troops continued to retreat towards the southern beaches of Greece, only to find they had been cut off at a culvert by a patrol of Germans.

“Lofty’s car was in the lead and he attacked with both guns firing. Our two cars helped and the enemy retreated. They had about thirty vehicles against us but no tanks thank goodness.”

Harry’s crew managed to reconnect with the rest of the armoured brigade and then drove through the night over the perilous Veria Pass. “I took over the driving at about eleven o’clock at night and the boys lifted me out of the seat at eight the next morning, completely exhausted. The road was full of refugees and the drop over the side was several hundred feet. There was also a complete blackout. It was rough.”

As the troop’s chief mechanic, Harry did some running repairs on Darcy Cole’s armoured car, which had made it over the pass with just one nut left holding the wheel in place. 

With darkness a necessity to protect their position, the work had to be completed by torchlight under a tarpaulin. Harry also managed to fit a new half axle and brake drum on his own car, before continuing on with a new crew, driver Pat Gratton, gunner Shorty Ward and commander Bill Sutherland. 

They travelled alone, as the other crews had already departed while Harry was doing the repairs. Harry, Pat, Shorty and Bill made it to Athens where they ditched the car and boarded a train to Corinth. They were strafed by the Luftwaffe all the way but managed to get there safely. After hitching a ride to Argos they headed straight for the aerodrome and found themselves in the firing line of some German planes, which started to shoot up the Hurricanes parked on the tarmac.

“Shorty and Pat hid under a truck and Bill and I took off. Unfortunately the truck was destroyed by German fire. Pat was killed and Shorty was badly wounded. I managed to drag him away and dress his wounds, which included a badly injured arm. A truck arrived and we loaded Shorty onto it. Bill thought it would be wise if I took Shorty to the hospital in Argos while he stayed and kept contact with the unit we were travelling with. He said I should go to the beach and find them later. It was a horrible mistake as it turned out.”

Harry managed to get Shorty to the hospital, and was met by its sole doctor. He couldn’t speak a word of English but immediately enlisted Harry as his ‘theatre sister’ to help him perform three amputations on wounded soldiers without any anaesthetic. It was a harrowing task.

“We couldn’t communicate by talking, but he showed me what to do. I did my best. It was fortunate I’d done a bit of work with cattle at home but it wasn’t a funny thing.”

Later the horror of the day’s events saw the doctor lose his nerve and he locked himself in his house, refusing to come out, leaving Harry in charge of the hospital.

“Here I was, with a hospital to run and no medical knowledge apart from how to fix a broken leg,” said Harry. He muddled through with the help of an old midwife, some young girls and a 17 year old local boy named Jimmy, who was a ‘terrific help’.

Unfortunately the three amputees all died, and in keeping with Greek custom, Harry attended one of the funerals. It was the first time he had been to a service at a Greek Orthodox church. Back at the hospital there was plenty of work to do and still no sign of the doctor. An exhausted Harry worked until about midnight when the local girls at the hospital made him up a bed on a stretcher.

“I had only been asleep for an hour when three journalists arrived. One of them was wounded. I got out of bed and took one of them, an American named Robert St John down to the beach on a motorbike to try and find a doctor. He was a tall chap and had to sit on the parcel-carrier on the back.”

At the beach Harry managed to find two Australian doctors who were too busy to go straight to the hospital but promised to send an ambulance the next day. True to their word two ambulances arrived the following day and managed to clean the hospital out of most of the walking wounded. Soon after they left, the Germans started to advance and bomb the town.

“They didn’t hit the hospital but there was a broken down ambulance nearby with a gas bottle sticking out. When it exploded it was worse than the bombs, blowing all the windows out.”

With the help of a priest, Harry and Jimmy, the young Greek boy, managed to help the remaining few patients downstairs to the cellar. An English military policeman Harry knew arrived at the hospital to tell him the enemy was approaching fast, and would be in the town within half an hour.

“I hated to leave Shorty but the last thing I wanted to be was a prisoner- of-war. We had a talk and I said goodbye to him and the other chaps I had looked after. With a heavy heart, I walked up the steps from the cellar.”

As he left the hospital, an officer and best friend of one of the men Harry had cared for, told him not to worry, that he would look after Shorty and the others, and he knew of a doctor nearby who could help. Harry headed straight for the wharf and managed to talk his way onto the HMS Calcutta, an anti-aircraft destroyer, which was being loaded with troops.

“I must have looked awful and at the end of my tether, as a sailor gave me a lovely cup of cocoa,” he said.

They sailed shortly afterwards and it wasn’t long before the ship was being attacked from the air. Harry lay on the deck beneath a three- point-seven anti-aircraft gun.

“A big sailor was pushing shells through a chute to the gun, and had the misfortune of getting his finger jammed in the chute which cut it clean off. He couldn’t carry on so I took his place. Five hours and three hundred shells later, we arrived at Crete. The date was 26 April 1941, the day after Anzac Day. I’ll never forget it.”

Later, Harry heard the war correspondents had also managed to find their way out of Argos. Unbeknown to him, Robert St John, who he had taken to the beach in search of a doctor, was a famed globetrotting reporter, who mentioned their meeting in his 1942 book Land of the Silent People. Harry didn’t hear about the book until he was in his nineties.

The HMS Calcutta, on which Harry made his spectacular escape, was sunk on its next voyage.

After arriving in Crete, Harry met up with a few of the boys from his regiment and was devastated to hear his good friends, Allan Risk and Lofty King, had been killed after being hit by an enemy Stuka attack. Harry also learned his regiment had been the first Imperial force to meet the Germans. Lofty was the first man to win a military medal in the campaign, which was awarded posthumously.

A few days after Harry’s arrival in Crete, he was summonsed to a tent hospital, which had been established nearby.

“Imagine my surprise when I was taken to see Shorty. His arm had been removed but he had been cleaned up. The doctor asked me if I had put the dressings on Shorty in Argos, and I told him there had been nothing to change them with’. He said Shorty had been lucky, as the maggots in his wounds had kept them clean and saved his life.”

Shorty was also a veteran of World War I, and was aged over 40 by this stage. He told Harry the week in Greece was worse than the three years he had spent fighting in France as a young man. Shorty was eventually sent home on a hospital ship, and Harry saw him once more, 24 years later in Hamilton, New Zealand.

“His experience was a great help to us in Greece. I remember the tin of Riverhead Gold tobacco he carried, and how the cigarettes he shared helped to soothe our nerves during the Greek campaign.”

Gradually more Kiwis arrived at Crete.

“It was a lovely island. We had quite a good spell for a while. Food was short. However there were plenty of oranges, which of course we borrowed.”

After the experiences of the British and Allied forces in mainland Greece, the uneasy peace after their retreat to Crete was welcomed. But it wasn’t to last. The British had cracked some German codes and knew an invasion of the island was imminent. At the time, there were up to 28,000 troops on Crete to defend it under the command of New Zealand Major General Bernard Freyberg. Most were only lightly armed, as heavier equipment had been left in Greece during the evacuation. The Allied forces on the island endured air attacks for about a week before the morning of 20 May 1941, when the German invasion began in earnest.

Harry and fellow soldier, Arthur Collins, had eaten their breakfast of a few broken biscuits mixed up like porridge, before being sent to man a Bren gun on the summit of a nearby hill. It was from this vantage point they saw a terrifying spectacle, as the Germans launched their airborne invasion and the sky filled with parachutes.

Read more about the Battle of Crete and the Kiwi’s escape in Never Forget.