Tripiti, Western Crete
Location of the last major escape of Allied soldiers from Occupied Crete during World War (7-8 May 1943)

© 2012-13 Ian Frazer

 

Background - How the rescue came about and how it was carried out
 

The final evacuation of Allied soldiers from Crete was organised by the Cairo office of  MI9, the British secret service that was primarily responsible for rescuing escapers and evaders from occupied territories in World War Two.  MI9 had the assistance of SOE Cairo (Special Operations Executive) and ISLD (Inter Services Liaison Department) both of which had agents operating in Crete in 1943.

In carrying out its work in Greece and Crete, MI9 made a special point of recruiting ex-escapers and ex-evaders who after getting back to the Middle East, volunteered to return to the occupied territories and organise further rescues.  Apart from the experience and knowledge that they had of the places where they needed to operate, the main advantage in using ex-escapers is that they had the perfect ‘cover’ story should they be unlucky enough to be recaptured.  They could always say that they escaped from one of the prison camps and been at large ever since.  As we shall see, this proved to be a critical precaution in the case of the Tripiti rescue mission.

The ex-escaper who volunteered to return to Crete for the final rescue was the New Zealand Staff Sergeant Tom Moir of the 4th Field Regiment 2NZEF.  After fighting in the battle for Crete, Moir was one of hundreds of New Zealand soldiers left behind on 1st June when the main evacuations ceased.  He spent around three weeks in the German prison camp set up just outside Hania, Dulag Kreta, before breaking out and taking to the western end of the island.  One of his close companions at the time was another gunner, Dudley Perkins, from the 5th Field Regiment.  They spent the next eight months in the west trying to find some way off the island.  It was not until April 1942, after numerous failed attempts, that Moir and his friends succeeded in seizing a small sailing boat that might get them to the coast of North Africa.  There were nine on board when the boat left – five New Zealanders, three Australians and one Royal Marine – and in six days they finally made the coast of North Africa close to Sidi Barrani.

Soon after getting back to Egypt, in May 1942, Moir was taken on the strength of ‘A’ Force Intelligence Section to carry out further escape operations in Crete.  Soon after he was taken on, rescue operations were suspended – primarily because of the fighting taking place in the Western Desert – and were not resumed for another eight months.  It was not until early 1943 that Moir was able to return to Crete, and on 14 February he was landed by motor launch at Treis Ekklesies at the eastern end of the island.  His instructions were to make his way to the west, and in six weeks round up all the remaining Allied soldiers on the island and prepare them for evacuation by the beginning of April.

These instructions did not take account of the weather and exceptionally heavy snow on the mountains.  Moir got as far as  the Apokoronas area where Fielding and Reade were based, in early March, but was then prevented from crossing over to Koustoyerako by the snow.  It was not until the end of March that he made the last part of his trek, guided by Petros Georgiakakis from Koustoyerako.  By this time, Moir had missed the first deadline.

Moir’s arrival in Koustoyerako was the first time that word reached the west of a planned rescue of remaining Allied soldiers.  That it was Moir himself who brought the news and was going to carry out the evacuation, was even more exciting.  As a close friend of some of the Kiwis and a former escapee in the west, he could not have had more credibility for the task, and there were immediate offers of assistance and support from everyone waiting to get off the island.

Moir did not waste time getting on with evacuation arrangements.  Koustoyerako became the centre of operations and the three Australians who had been living there for over eighteen months – Charlie Hunter, Jack Simcoe and Frank Ezzy – immediately picked up all the responsibilities that went with that, ably assisted by their close friends and host families at Koustoyerako  Among many other things, they would have to deal with a large influx of extra people as escapers from all over the western half of the island gradually converged on the village and surrounding hiding places ready for what soon became known as R-Day – Rescue-Day. 

Moir formed a small organising committee, an inner circle, to try and control too much information getting out, and getting into the wrong hands.  Because of the time that it took to get everyone together, and the number of people involved, this was a real concern.  Charlie Hunter was on the committee and so was Sergeant John Corbould, another Australian who was very familiar with the Kissamos area in the north-west of the island, and all places in between.

One of the advantages of Koustoyerako, being up in the mountains, were the numerous hiding places not far from the village.  They included a large cave, Nerospili, more than one kilometer away, which served as one of the main gathering areas for new arrivals.  When that became full another camp was set up ‘Canyon Camp’ further into the mountains.

Soon after he arrived, Moir sent Petros Georgiakakis with his donkey on a food run to Hania, a 50 to 60 km return trek across the White Mountains, a trek that had to be repeated again and again as the numbers built up.  Moir also made a reconnaissance of likely beaches for the evacuation with Charlie Hunter, Jack Simcoe and Petros, finally settling on Tripiti as the preferred site.

Wireless communication at this time was exceptionally unreliable.  Moir was largely dependent on Fielding and his radio set for getting messages to and from Cairo.  This was impractical enough, being on the other side of the mountains; but it was made worse when the set kept on breaking down.   The only other SOE set was much further east on the slopes of Psiloritis where Tom Dunbabin (up until February 1943) and Paddy Leigh Fermor were based.  As a last resort, when nothing else was available, Moir and his group sought the assistance of an ISLD party based near Livathas with their own wireless transmitter.  The ISLD party had only recently arrived, in November 1942, and were not originally intended as a back-up for SOE and MI9, but as it turned out their help was critical to the ultimate success of the evacuation.

The constant danger under which this rescue operation was conducted was brought home in late April when news came in that three New Zealand soldiers were captured within days of preparing to travel to Koustoyerako.  They were part of a group of six that had been living in caves on the northern side of the White Mountains not far from the village of Varipetro.  They had been there, on and off, for over eighteen months, and were celebrating their success in surviving for such a long period, when they were raided.  Someone had informed on them.  Fortunately they were not all together when the raid took place, and only half were captured.  The other half got away and succeeded eventually in joining the evacuation.

About the same time as this happened, around 23 - 24 April, Moir had to leave Koustoyerako to collect some intelligence for an upcoming sabotage operation in which SOE and SBS were involved.  Many of the arrangements for the evacuation had been sorted by this time.  Charlie Hunter had been involved from the beginning so he was put in charge while Moir was away.  By this time a third new deadline had been set for May 7.  The main thing now was to send out messengers for the last round-up of escapers and be prepared to receive the last new arrivals as they turned up at the holding area near Koustoyerako.

Moir carried out his reconnaissance mission on the northern side of the island and was returning to Kousoyerako on the 3rd of May.  He was accompanied on his trip by Harry Barber, an RAF corporal who had survived a plane crash and been in Crete for several months.  On their way back they were accompanied by a loyal Cretan who was on the run from the Germans.  The small party reached the village of Moni directly below Koustoyerako and were resting there when they saw a mixed patrol (Germans and Greeks) coming through the village.  The Cretan could not risk being questioned and immediately decided to bolt for it.  Moir and Barber quickly off-loaded all the incriminating papers they were carrying.  They then prepared to meet the patrol while their Cretan friend took off.  As soon as Moir and Barber were questioned, the interpreter with the patrol became suspicious and realised they were English-speakers rather than Greek.  They were arrested.

News of the arrest got back to Koustoyerako the same evening and immediately  contingency plans were put in place to continue with the evacuation.  Charlie Hunter had been in charge while Moir was away and so there was no question that he should continue in that role and follow through with the evacuation on 7th May.  Fielding was only just leaving Apokoronas at the time, with Arthur Reade, and several of their Cretan assistants.  Fielding was also accompanying Katina Beirakis who had been part of his Hania-based intelligence network, had recently been compromised and was being sent off the island for her own safety.  Fielding was fortunate in being able to rely on Hunter and his companions to complete the operation that Moir had started.

Moir maintained his ‘cover’ under the grueling interrogation that followed his arrest, and persuaded his captors that he was an escaper who had been on the run since 1941.  There were rumours that he had escaped and was returning south to Selino but such rumours were ill-founded.  What did take place for certain is that Fielding put up a bribe of 165 sovereigns to try and secure Moir’s escape from Ayia prison but the go-between being used to hand over the money, pocketed it instead and disappeared.  Moir and Harry Barber, with the three New Zealanders betrayed at Varipetro, were all flown out of Crete in early June to Athens, and from there by train all the way through Greece and Yugolsavia to prison camps in Austria.

On the 7th May, the large evacuation party which was gathered at Koustoyerako, made up of 15 Australians, 14 New Zealanders, 8 British, and 14 Cypriots, made the long and difficult descent from Koustoyerako to the evacuation beach at Tripiti.  As they had to go the long way for security reasons, going further into the mountains before descending to the beach, this entailed an incredibly difficult and dangerous mountain journey through some of the most rugged country in all of Crete, climbing nearly 2000 metres before descending through Tripiti Gorge to the mouth and the beach nearby where the pick-up would take place.

At the beach there were another five SOE personnel waiting to board the boat as well as nine Cretans.  There was also a huge crowd of Cretans from the Selino district who had heard about the boat and saw this as an opportunity to try and get to the Middle East.

Captained by Lieutenant Geoffrey Searle, ML355 arrived off the coast late afternoon on the 7th.  The final approach was left until after dark and was only completed when coded signals appeared from the shore.  The boat anchored at 2220 hrs and when rubber dinghies were launched to load the evacuation party, they were rushed by the crowd of Cretans on the shore and overturned. Fielding had to try and clear the crowd with his rifle butt while the ‘official’ party did their best to get on board.  Among the extra passengers there was a newly married Cretan lady who had married one of the British soldiers, Sydney Robinson.  All passengers were embarked within about 90 minutes, and the boat immediately started the return journey, heading directly for Mersa Matruh.

Sources
Fielding, Xan   1943 reports.  The National Archives HS 5/725
McDevitt, J. (2002)  My Escape from Crete,  Papatoetoe: J.T. McDevitt.
MI9 Report: Summary of MI9 Activities in the Eastern Mediterranean 1941 – 1945.
The National Archives WO 208/3253
Reade, Arthur  1943 report. The National Archives HS 5/730
Searle, G. (2005) At Sea Level, Sussex: The Book Guild Ltd.