Rev Robert Alexander Simmons, 64th Medium Regiment, Crete 1941
My name is Geoff Simmons and I live in London. My Father was a Padre in the 64th Medium Regiment, Royal Artillery and was captured on Crete on 1st June 1941. He arrived there from Greece on HMS Carlisle on 26th April. I am now in the process of writing up his story thanks to a full set of diaries and notebooks which he kept through his entire Second World War experience. He died in 1979 when I was still quite young and I’m very keen to build up an understanding of his time there to get as accurate a picture as I possibly can. I know he was based mostly around ‘42nd Street’ between Chania and Souda. Soon after the German invasion began he was at Perivola and then followed the evacuation trek to Sphakia, via Vrysses, Askifou and Imbros. I’m particularly fascinated by his last days of freedom near the village of Komitades - sleeping in caves, desperate for any scrap of food and in constant fear of bombing.
Dad wrote his Crete account several months after the event, when he was in a German POW camp called Stalag XC in Lubeck and was obviously imprecise about dates and the names of many places. However because of a very clear description of the death of one soldier, Private Frederick Sawyer of the 64th Medium Regiment (recorded as 26th May on CWGC site) I was able to pinpoint the precise time of the start of his journey to Sphakia. On Mon 26th there was heavy bombing of Chania, Dad was at that time located at what he referred to as ‘The Kings House’ where as a non-combatant he’d been ordered to go several days previously. This I understand to be Perivola, a location just south of Chania where the King of Greece was briefly in residence before his own evacuation. Dad was still very much in touch with senior personnel of the 64th who at this stage were lead by Major Mike Hunt and Adjutant Tim Wilson after the death of Colonel Syer in Greece. Other names that are mentioned quite frequently are Denis Edwards, Bob Halligan, Robbie Burns and Ted Eason. At Perivola, my Father describes Sawyer’s body being dug out of the bunker he’d been sheltering in which had taken a direct hit at about 8pm. Shortly after midnight the order came to evacuate the area.
By dawn on 27th they had marched past Souda and up into the mountains, still seemingly unaware of where they were going or what was happening. There was continual blitzing which tailed off in the evening. Dad describes walking through a valley ‘which seemed as if it was entirely on fire’ - British ammunition dumps having been hit. At this point he describes ‘a very English looking’ village ‘with several big trees in a kind of square’ - this sounds like Vrysses/Vrises. Not far past here that night he lost contact with the 64th when he stopped to pull a stone from his boot and fell asleep. Not long after this he was fortunate to cadge a lift on the wing of a 5 tonne truck. When this vehicle ran out of water and seized-up, he helped push it down a ravine. Day and night seem to blur, as chaos and confusion reigned and he alternated between the crowded main route south and seeking solitude in the hills. He slept in caves, was given scraps of food and water by Cretan people and at one point a local woman even washed his shirt and socks. This I think was very close to Askifou as there is a very clear description of the Askifou plain and the break in the mountains just beyond it. Possibly somewhere around Imbros he describes hold-ups and delays as the vast amount of men converging towards the coast seemed to create a human traffic jam. There were barricades and a build-up of discontent and disorder set in as it became clear that getting on a boat to Egypt might not be so easy. At this point Dad describes entering a gorge full of men ‘crawling about like monkeys’. Caves were full of retreating soldiers and he tells of meeting some of the 64th. He slept on a ledge and the next morning Friday 30th May, he describes how ‘after walking about a mile the gorge began to widen out, and presently it came out on a wide barren plateau. Just ahead and a little to the right was a village’ This I believe was Komitades. On the plateau and in the ravines around the village he observed hundreds of desperate servicemen seeking shelter from German planes in numerous caves. He sought water and food but over the entire weekend his only sustenance was some rice and two boiled eggs. He mentions the presence of Spanish commandos, two pretty Greek nurses with soldier boyfriends and ravenous Australian soldiers slaughtering a donkey - all references I have seen in other published accounts. There is also crucially mention of a walled well - and the one just below Komitades is apparently the only one of its kind in this area. On Saturday 31st, to escape the continual tension of aerial bombardment and acute hunger he bathed in the sea at a point some way below the gorge. Here he was alerted by an agitated young Greek airman to the presence of the Germans. They had arrested this man and taken his papers but he jumped into the gorge and evaded capture. The next morning, Sunday 1st June, Dad was in a cave crowded with soldiers close to the village when a British officer announced the surrender of Allied forces. This was formally given that day by Lt Col Theo Walker of the 2/6th Australian Battalion who incredibly stepped off the last vessel evacuating in order to stay with his men. A short time later Dad was stopped by a German soldier (very likely Austrian) pointing a Tommy Gun and taken to a church which was used as a hospital. It was a grim sight and he describes ‘men being brought in on stretchers dripping with blood in various stages of butchery’. Sometime that afternoon he began the long arduous march north, so famished that he ate two handfuls of sugar lifted straight out of the gutter. He was subsequently taken to camps at Maleme and Chania before being flown to mainland Greece in a Junkers and starting almost four years as a Prisoner-of-War. He was released in April 1945 and returned to England.
It would be my dream to actually speak to someone who was present in Crete at the time but I realise that those that are left are all now very old. I am certain there are many people out there who have been interested and involved in this far longer than myself and if anyone could please advise me on whom I could speak to who might have some knowledge of events on those last days near Sphakia before the surrender, I would be very grateful. I’ve read the Anthony Beevor account, Gavin Long’s Australian War History and Evelyn Waugh and studied many of the official documents in The National Archives. I’m in the process of listening to some extremely vivid aural accounts in The Imperial War Museum. What I would really like to find are some photographs of Komitades at the time.
Thank you very much for any help you can give me and if anyone is interested in reading any of my Father’s account of this period I am more than happy to share it.
11th November 2012
For a map showing Rev Simmon's travels please click on this link. Cretemap.pdf
Many Thanks to Geoff for this fascinating insight into a veterans time in Crete.