I Was There! - We Went in a Motor-Boat from Crete to Africa

The War Illustrated, Volume 5, No. 101, Page 21, August 8, 1941.

One party of soldiers and airmen who escaped from Crete crossed the Mediterranean to North Africa in a boat designed for calm coastal waters. Their story is told here by an Australian sergeant air-gunner.

My aircraft had to make a forced landing on the beaches of Crete. The other three members of the crew and I all got clear of the machine, and not far away we found some Army and Royal Air Force personnel awaiting evacuation. We stayed the night and following day with them, and next evening another British aircraft made a forced landing within 500 yards of our own machine. We were joined by its crew, and at about the same time a Hurricane pilot arrived.

Next morning the Germans began bombing a near-by village, so we moved. It was good to see them bombing two wrecked aircraft on the beach. The German pilots must have made fantastic claims of successes, because the wrecks were set on fire several times.

During the night we sent out patrols to forage and they brought back onions, lettuces, beans and green mulberries. I was scrounging in a fowlhouse when a German plane dropped bombs close by. The fowlhouse was demolished and fell on top of me.

Eventually we met some more British and Australian troops and decided to try to launch a flat-bottomed landing craft which had been washed up and abandoned on the beach. Men of various regiments were detailed to find fuel and rations. The Australians were to try to launch the craft, while the Air Force was made responsible for its navigation. Launching seemed an impossible task, but we were hastened by the Germans firing tommy-guns. A patrol in a rowing boat was fired on and one officer was wounded. Other members of the crew jumped over the side and towed the boat out of range before climbing back and returning to us.

That evening we got our craft away and set course for North Africa. There were about 77 of us. The sea, which had been beautifully calm for two days, became rough, and we found that the compass from my aircraft was useless. Our boat, 50 feet long with a 10-foot beam, had a flat bottom and little freeboard, so we had to bale out all the way over. Most of us were horribly seasick. We navigated with a small pocket compass in daytime and in darkness by the stars.

Early next morning we sighted a submarine. Somebody on board the submarine said something in English which cheered us up no end. We soon found it was not one of ours, for it opened fire across our bows and stopped us. Our senior officer was ordered to leave, and he swam across to the submarine which afterwards came alongside and took off all the officers except the wounded Australian. The submarine commander then told us that we were free, but that we must return to Crete.

Instead, we reset our course for North Africa. Only one of the engines was working and we had to check our course continually. Our supply of water was very foul, and for food we had one quarter of a tin of bully beef per man twice daily. There were also a few onions.

Early during the afternoon of the third day we had our first sight of land and thought at first we had fallen into the hands of the Germans, because we saw a tank which did not look like one of ours. Two of us swam ashore to investigate and discovered we were within four miles of the point we had aimed at. We all swam ashore, to be warmly welcomed by South African troops.

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