WE crowded around him; he was filthy, ragged, caked with mud through which grinned the old Don smile. A wonderful re-union. To hide his feelings Poppa exploded, "So the prodigal sons have returned - and about time too!" as Murchie and Don shook hands.
"All right, all right, take it easy!" laughed Don as he grabbed the excited Horrie. We somehow found room at the table and filled another glass, the signal to fill all glasses.
"Swig it down, then start talking," hoarsely advised Poppa.
"Introduce me to your friends first," laughed Don.
We did so with gusto and Don settled himself for his yarn; it was wonderful to thus meet one by one and hear the dear old Rebels again.
"First of all," smiled Don, "Feathers is O.K. At the present moment he's asleep in one of the trucks, dead beat. Fitz and Gordie are also O.K.; with a little luck they will pull in here before we leave tonight. How's that for news?"
"Hooray!" shouted Poppa. "Let us get tight!" Poppa was already nearly tight and trying to hide his joy that all his old Rebels were coming together again.
"What on earth happened to you?" I asked.
"Well, after we got over that bad patch outside Larissa the old bike went on strike." And Don carried on with one of those many romances of the mountains and the passes, of attacking and retreating armies, and cut-off groups of fighting men in which only the lucky ones came through. Don had joined up with New Zealanders who had circled back to the enemy and then escaped back to us with the last of the rearguard. I'd absorbed quite a lot of wine by this time and my entry of Don's adventures in my diary, I found later, was very incomplete.
When Don had finished his yarn the shadows of evening had fallen.
"What about your outfit?" I asked Archie and Bash.
"Guess they're split up all over the place," Bash replied. "How about if we tag along with you until we locate them again?"
"That's O.K.," answered Sergeant Poppa with military dignity. "You men of the New Zealand Army are on the strength!"
"Have you heard anything about Turkey being at war with Germany?" I asked Don.
"Plenty of rumours," he answered, "but we do not know the truth."
"How about your Greek commandos?" demanded Poppa of Murchie.
"Dash good fighting men!" declared Murchie with a thump at the table. "Where I go they go!"
"Thash all right by me!" declared Poppa. "We'll put them on the strength."
"They can have the truck," said Murchie, "and follow us when we pull out tonight."
"Thash decided!" declared Poppa and rose unsteadily. "And now we must go back to camp. There'll be something doing tonight!" he added darkly. "Give orders to your Greeks to pile into the truck and follow ush."
So we filed back to the lines with the truck loaded and packed with Greek soldiers. We parked them at the rear of our lines and then filled the battered old truck with rations. Shortly after dark the convoy moved stealthily out on to the road.
"German air-borne troops are expected to land at Corinth and cut off our retreat by blowing up the Canal bridge," Sergeant Poppa told us shortly after we had started, "so the convoy keeps moving. See to it!"
And the race commenced to get the convoy through before daylight. Every second or so headlights were thrown on recklessly. It was a "do-or-die" stunt. Hundreds and hundreds of headlights lit the mountain levels as we raced towards Corinth. We made it, passed through Corinth and raced south for Argos. The paratroops were dropped too late. Just after we'd passed Corinth they came to ground in early morning and blew up the main bridge to Athens. The convoy missed disaster or at best a German prison camp by a matter of minutes.
Just at daylight our weary, thankful unit pulled into a friendly little olive grove and there hid for the day.
"Where are my commandos?" demanded Murchie immediately we piled out of the truck.
We searched for the truck, but the Greeks were not there.
"I'm afraid the old truck must have broken down," said Archie with a sigh. "I felt certain when we were travelling it could not have survived that mad run last night."
It was a bitter blow to Murchie; he and the Kiwis and Greeks had been through a lot together.
We found Feathers, but failed to locate Gordie or Fitz, though they must have been somewhere near.
"What day is it?" asked Poppa suddenly.
We had no idea.
"Anzac Day! April 25th!" he declared.
"The landing on Gallipoli!" I exclaimed.
And Poppa was launched on the Landing. We listened sympathetically to the old warrior's memories. Old Sergeant Poppa was in serious vein. We felt serious enough, heaven knows; this meant another Gallipoli for us - not such a creditable one.
"Let's wander up through the village," suggested Murchie.
"Excuse for a bottle of wine," growled Poppa.
"Yes," replied Murchie, "I saw your tongue hanging out."
We passed many trucks hidden among the olive trees with tired soldiers digging shallow shelters for protection. The enemy planes would be seeking us any moment now. Horrie scampered around investigating bushes and any thing that looked like a tree to race back to us full of beans and fun.
"He can take it!" nodded Poppa gloomily.
"Yes, he's setting an example," said Murchie brightly.
But for once Poppa did not "bite"; he was taking Anzac Day very seriously. To spend this day hiding and running away from the enemy vividly contrasted against that great Landing at Gallipoli.
"Cheer up, Poppa," I advised. "It's not over yet."
"No," he replied, "but it stinks a bit."
"I'd rather stop with the Greeks than run away," frowned Murchie.
We walked on quietly for a while thinking of the game little country and the old people and children we were leaving behind.
"Perhaps we may come back some day," remarked Don.
"I'll be in on that!" declared Feathers.
"Me too!" replied all of us and the Kiwis.
As we strolled into the village we saw the Greek folk in the street quietly talking in little groups. Poor souls, they knew what this was to mean to them. Even so, they had a smile for us as we passed by.
"For God's sake, let's get a drink!" growled Poppa.
We found a little deserted cafe. Eventually the proprietor came in and served us with wine. Presently, Horrie's energetic barking outside brought us to the door. Horrie, while investigating a little cottage on the other side of the street, startled a very annoyed hen and her brood.
"Horrie, get back!" I called, and very reluctantly the little wretch came to heel and followed us back into the cafe.
"Better leave the commandeering to the enemy, Horrie," grinned Don.
"He thinks he may as well snatch a feather or two before they arrive," said Poppa grimly.
Some time after we had settled down again at the table, an elderly Greek woman timidly approached, smiling wist-fully. She was carrying two trussed up fowls. She held them out to me in voiceless invitation while Don held the eager Horrie.
"For you, for you!" she then said in hesitating English.
Poppa thrust a handful of money into her protesting hand; she was voluble and almost violent about it but we firmly insisted. Regretfully she put the money away and smiling, beckoned us to follow her, pointing through the open doorway at her cottage across the street, by signs inviting us to a drink and bite to eat.
"I'm going to accept," growled Poppa. "Come along."
With Don firmly carrying Horrie we followed her across the road to her humble home, a little square cottage of rough-hewn stone with an archway covered with grape-vines, looking clean and cool against the background of whitewashed stone wall. Beckoning us into the dining-room she motioned us to be seated at a large table. The neatly clean room seemed to occupy most of the cottage. The furniture was home-made, rough but comfortable. On the mantelpiece above the open fireplace stood a little bronze crucifix. The room was bright and peaceful but there stole upon me a most uncomfortable feeling of sorrow. I noticed that the Rebels, when they did speak, did so almost in whispers. The old sergeant sat glum and frowning, Don spoke to Horrie in low voice, Feathers and the Kiwis sat quietly. The spell was happily broken when the old lady returned from the kitchen with a bottle and glasses, brown bread and white, and sour cheese made from goat's milk. She smiled to us to help ourselves and put a little glass bowl with gherkins in olive oil upon the table.
We set to, smiling our thanks. Her kind face beamed as we made short work of the little offering; it really was tempting, but I realized Poppa was eating like a wolf just because it so obviously pleased her as she fussed around us.
When we protested that we simply could not eat one crumb more we sat and tried to make conversation for a while, feeling queerly embarrassed and wishing we were back in the cafe again. She smiled, nodded "wait a moment" and disappeared soon to return with a small photo of two Greek soldiers, proudly erect in their national uniform. We saw at a glance they were father and son.
We gazed at it each in turn. Standing quietly there her face reflected pride and sorrow. Not knowing what to say, we handed the photo back. She closed her eyes and for a moment inclined her head on her hand. And then, through tear-dimmed eyes, she smiled at us and whispered "Italiano. Albania."
Father and son slept in Albania.
Poppa stood up and kissed her hand. "Let us get out of this!" he whispered.
We made our adieux and silently walked down the narrow winding street in the direction of camp. We heard her voice calling to us; she was hurrying after us holding up the trussed fowls that I had hidden in the room. We had to take them again. We tried to apologize for being so stupid as to forget them.
Back at camp, we roasted the fowls over a slow fire.
"Anzac Day!" said Poppa bitterly.
It was not a happy meal, but Horrie enjoyed his share and more.
After dark, while the camp was quietly preparing to move, the Rebels got busy. Scrounging all the blankets and rations we could we sneaked away up into the quiet, dark little street. Very quietly we crept to the cottage of sorrow and loneliness and gently placed the bundle under the vine-covered arch. Then we sneaked away.
The convoy started on its last run; in the early morning we arrived at Kalamalta and feverish activity as convoy after convoy came pouring in followed by war-weary troops - British Tommies, New Zealanders, Australians, Greeks, Yugoslavs. For miles around us troops were wearily plodding to positions, artillery moving to their last position, weary movement everywhere. For here was to be staged the last organized stand in Greece.
The oncoming enemy had to be held back while all troops possible were to be evacuated - if possible!
As for us of the convoys, we broke into an orgy of destruction. Thousands upon thousands of trucks were destroyed, the oil and water drained from the engines then the motors raced dry until they seized; tyres were slashed and all conceivable damage done except burning as the fires would have betrayed the positions to enemy planes. Now it all depended on the British Navy. If the Navy could not evacuate us that night then - it would be just too bad!
Blankets and goods and all stores possible were given to the frugal villagers, old men, women and children who came swarming to us for many miles around. Poor folk. It all depended on the food they could hide as to whether they would survive the fast-coming bitter months.
All day long giant Sunderlands were roaring in hastily to evacuate the many wounded from the beaches. It was uncanny how again and again they missed the Luftwaffe; the Luftwaffe would roar in to bomb the countryside, then hurry away for more bombs and ammunition. By magic the Sunderlands would appear, quickly load with wounded and be away just as the Luftwaffe reappeared again to bomb and machine-gun position after position all through the tragic day.
Greek villagers for miles around were guiding weary troops to places of concealment until the anxiously awaited night should fall, a night that seemed never, never to be coming. While men and women still toiled on the road filling in bomb craters as the last convoys struggled in, weeping girls clung to soldiers imploring them to take them away before the Germans arrived.
And right here, amongst the slaving toil of the Rebels out of the corner of my eye I noticed a little romance. Two beautiful young Greek girls. In no time (I could not take my eyes off them) they were in Australian uniform, toiling among all the muddy, oily, sweaty lot of us.
Many hours later I noticed them on the transport as through that hellish night we steamed for Crete. Alas, since then we have wondered whether they jumped from the frying-pan into the fire.
But we were still on the land fronting the beach, longing for the night that would not come. As we toiled at destroying the trucks, Greek families with their men folk missing, packed our goods on donkeys and then on their backs to hurry the good food and warm blankets away to hiding places. Old men, women and children toiled with the energy of despair. Well they knew what was coming on the swift wings of flame and rapine and murder. Pray God a similar tragedy never happens to my own dear country!
The Rebels, like all others, toiled to exhaustion by the roadside. We watched out for dear old friends among which were cobbers of the 1st Anti-tank Regiment. We located a few, but others were never to be seen again.
A war-stained Digger in a crowded truck noticed Horrie and yelled "Stick to him, Dig!"
"My - oath!" shouted Don as the truck hurried past.
The faces of the Diggers under their mud and sweat were bitter in defeat. Throughout it all I sensed everyone had learned a lesson in courage from the quiet Greek people.
Darkness found us crowded on the beach. A great crowd, crowds of silent men, silent shadows breathing with the night a voiceless prayer of bitterness and despair and wistful hope.
Would the Navy make it?
Before us were the gods of war belching flame with rending crash of bomb and shell, roar of rifle-fire. Behind us, at our very feet - the sea.
Would the Navy make it?
At half-past one that night lights suddenly blinked out at sea.
"Christ!" whispered a voice, "they've made it!"
I near crushed Horrie under my arm; I could sense the feeling of utter relief that arose all along that crowded beach. Sergeant Poppa crouched as if about to leap into the sea, his eyes glaring in the starlight.
"Of course they made it!" he hissed. "You damn old nitwits, of course the Navy made it! They always make it!"
Poppa was in charge of the Rebels and our New Zealand cobbers, Archie and Bash.
Dim shapes came swift and stealthily to beach and wharves, clouds of shadows moved towards them. In silence and mob discipline we swarmed aboard craft that swiftly glided away to troopships to return again and again and again. It was a magnificent job by the Navy and merchant seamen. As for the Rebels, there was no need to hide Horrie now. I just kept a tight grip on him; he was a veteran now. Long since he had learned how to behave from the example of the troops. We piled aboard the destroyer Defender and were swiftly ferried to the troopship Costa Rica. A sad farewell to Greece. Morning found the troopships steaming line abreast, the Costa Rica on the left flank, the City of London in the centre, the Delwarra on the right flank. Our particular escort comprised the destroyers Defender, Hereward, and Hero, with the "ack-ack" cruiser Calcutta.
The Stukas came with the dawn and attacked in screeching waves, hurtling down through the shell-bursts from the destroyers. It did the heart good to see the swarms of soldiers quietly, setting up Bren guns, others taking positions for rifle-fire entirely on their own. This was a heaven-sent chance to hit back. I saw Don blazing away among the crowd, so tied Horrie up and joined him.
"Pool your ammo., boys!" someone shouted, and soldiers appeared carrying large dishes. Into these was thrown ammunition by man after man who had bullets to spare, while the dishes were carried round and soldiers with no ammunition helped themselves. A growing volume of small-arms fire arose from the crowded ships while the destroyers blazed away.