Special delivery - a miracle in the Mediterranean war.

Discussion in 'Veteran Accounts' started by Mike L, Jan 1, 2014.

  1. Mike L

    Mike L Very Senior Member

    This story was recently discovered during research into the Mk1 LCTs operating in the Mediterranean in 1941.

    Unfortunately the author, Jack Grant, has now died but his good friend, John Sutton, is still alive and very sprightly for his 94 years of age.

    Exactly how this article appeared in 'Review' (probably a New Zealand magazine) is not known. I have transcribed the article rather than attaching the scanned image and have included it in this post rather than attaching the transcribed word document.

    I hope you enjoy it.

    From ‘Review’ December 1985.

    ‘Special delivery’… by sea.

    This is a true story of an incredible coincidence which occurred during the evacuation of New Zealand troops from Greece in April 1941. It was sent to Review by Lieutenant J. S. Grant RNVR, who lives in Surrey, England.
    Mr. Grant cannot remember the name of the officer of 6th N. Z. Field Regiment mentioned in his story. The name Captain Johnson and regimental serial number are therefore fictitious.
    Over the years Mr. Grant has often wondered what happened to “Captain Johnson”; did he get back safely to New Zealand; did his wife ever know how her parcel was delivered; what happened to the telescope? Indeed would it be possible to trace “Captain Johnson” after all these years?

    My story begins in the early hours of Friday, 25th April, 1941, off the beach of a small Greek fishing village called Raphtis, which is to the south-east of Athens.
    It was the first night of the evacuations of our forces from the mainland of Greece and I was First Lieutenant of a Tank Landing Craft, which for security reasons at that time, were called A-lighters and we were designated A6. We had left England in January 1941 and our LCTs were shipped round the Cape in three sections as deck cargo on merchant ships. They were re-assembled at Suez and Port Said and were intended to take part in an operation to capture the island of Rhodes.

    However, here we were, lying off the beach on a warm but starless night, having embarked 600 New Zealand troops; the last of the destroyers had left. The bigger ships had to clear the area by 0300 hours in order to be as far south as possible before the intensive air attacks began again at daybreak. “Put them on the nearest island and we will pick them up again, if we can” came the order from the Beach Master, Lt. Cdr. Willmott.
    We set off for the island of Zea about 25miles away and in the morning offloaded our tired and weary soldiers onto the beach at Port St. Nikolo. We hauled off and anchored on the other side of the bay in order to not draw the attention of the enemy to where we had disembarked the troops.

    It was a long and harrowing day and we had more than a fair share of dive-bombing and strafing. However, at the end of the day we were still seaworthy and returned to the beach at Raphtis .
    Next morning we were ordered to return to Zea and bring the troops back that evening for evacuation to Crete. After the heavy air attacks we had suffered the previous day we decided to look for a more protected anchorage elsewhere on the island. We eventually found a small cove and tucked ourselves into it. I was then ordered to cross the island and find the soldiers and bring them back before 1900 hours as the boat would have to sail at that time in order to continue the evacuation at Raphtis.
    I set off with a signalman, having no idea where we were or how to get to the troops. The island appeared to be about 12 miles across and was very mountainous (our only chart covered the Eastern Mediterranean and Zea was about quarter inch in diameter).

    My intention was to climb as high as necessary to get a bird's eye view of the island in order to identify the bay of Port St Nikolo. Before we had gone far we met an old shepherd who was obviously on our side by the way he greeted us. He had seen us manoeuvre into the cove and quickly appreciated our intentions. He indicated to us to follow him and set off a cracking pace up the mountain. He must have been over 60 years of age, I had just celebrated my 21st birthdav and the signalman was no more than 19 years, but before long I had to call for a rest! I tried to explain that we had had little sleep in the last few days but I could see he was not impressed and was anxious to get going again.
    As he climbed, and the morning mist cleared, the view about us became breathtakingly beautiful and it seemed incongruous that death and destruction should be taking place in such an idyllic setting.
    Eventually we reached a point where we could see Port St Nikolo far below us and at about 1230 hours we entered the village after marching for about six hours. As we walked down the village street the troops came running from all directions and the cry went up "It's the Navy. The Navy's here" I must admit I felt about 18 feet tall a bit like the Pied Piper; more and more followed me as I made my way to their Headquarters.
    I explained to the Commanding Officer, Major Love, that it had taken six hours to reach them and we had to be back on board by 1900 hours, so there was no time to lose. It was agreed that with so much air activity we should return in small parties and that I should lead the first party of about 50 and drop men at intervals to guide the rest across the island. Our worthy shepherd was still with us and obviously thoroughly enjoying his role as expert navigator.
    In spite of the miserable and depressing position the troops were in, their morale and bearing were of a very high order. They had already dug defensive positions and were intent on defending the island. I also remember the difficulty Major Love had in getting officers to go with the first party - they all insisted that they should stay and go with the last party. I had to explain that we could get everyone on board and there was no question of anyone being left behind, provided we moved fast.
    Finally, the party fell in and we moved off. A young Maori officer was in command and he appeared wearing his full kit as if he were attending a Passing Out Parade at Sandhurst. He was an outstanding example to everyone and the sight of him certainly raised my own flagging spirits. Headed by our kindly shepherd we set off once more across what was now a hot and dusty island. The air activity was still intense and each time I heard bombs falling in the direction of our cove I prayed the A6 would not be hit. To bring all these men across the island only to find that the ship had been sunk was something I dared not contemplate.
    At about 1839 hours we came over the brow of the last hill and there she was, still afloat, with the White Ensign fluttering gently in the evening breeze. For the second time that day I felt very proud and instinctively put my arm round the shoulders of the old shepherd, who had played such an important role in getting us back in time.

    There were seven or eight of us left and, before scrambling down to the boat, we stood for a moment to say goodbye to our shepherd. I tried to give him something for his help, but he would have none of it. We shook hands, and then he stood back and gave me such a sweeping salute, which he then repeated to each of the remaining members of the party. It had undoubtedly been a great day in his life, as indeed it had been in ours.

    As we climbed over the side of A6, the Coxwain was trying to hook something out of the water and at that moment he flipped it on to the deck in front of us. It was a mailbag, tied at the neck and containing enough air to float, no doubt blown out of a ship which had been sunk off the coast. The Coxswain cut the rope securing the neck and emptied the contents on to the deck. They were small parcels of registered mail.

    "Anything for me?,” Called down "Nobby" Clark from the pom-pom platform, where he had been watching the Coxswain’s efforts with interest. “Not unless your name is Captain Johnson of the 6th New Zealand Field Regiment," replied the Coxswain picking up one of the small parcels. "My name is Captain Johnson and I'm in the 6th Zealand New Zealand Field Regiment," said the chap standing next to me. 'What is your number, sir," asked the Coxswain. "234765" was the reply. ''It's yours” said the Coxswain, handing the parcel to the astonished officer.
    When he had recovered himself, he turned to me and said: “I accept that the Navy can do the impossible, but this is bloody ridiculous!"
    Holding the parcel in his hand, almost too afraid to open it, he went on: “I had a letter from my wife recently to say she had sent my telescope to me and this is it".
    And it was.

    Other parties began to come aboard and we had to get ready for sea. A few hours later we put our soldier friends aboard HMS Ajax and hoped they would be returned safely to Crete.

    A6 carried on with the evacuation and finally limped back to Crete, the only unit to do so from her flotilla which had been sent to Greece. However, a few weeks later, when on passage from Suda Bay to Sfakia to take part in the evacuation of Crete, she was sunk by a single bomb from a fighter-bomber and all her crew were eventually taken prisoner.

    A6 had a very short life. She was commissioned at the end of March 1941, and sunk at the end of May 1941. During that short time she saw almost continuous action and certainly she was well rewarded. Her skipped, Sub- Lieutenant John Sutton was awarded the DSO and Mentioned in Despatches for the actions in Greece and Crete, all before his 22nd birthday. Five other decorations were awarded to the officers and crew.
    In September last year, John Sutton and Jack Grant visited Crete and discovered the wreck of A6 off the west coast of Crete where she had been abandoned 43 years ago. Her bows were still defiantly pointing to the sky and refusing to slip below the water. This year, John Sutton and Jack Grant are returning together to say their last farewell to A6.
    As Jack Grant said in his letter to us: "She was ugly, noisy, uncomfortable and dangerous with her high-octane petrol, but she did a good job and, after all, she was all we had."

Share This Page