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When paratroops filled the sky

The Anzacs at Corinth 1941

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The Isthmus of Corinth.

07 April 2017

This is the first story of four on the Anzacs in the Argolis.

The drive down the freeway from Athens is an easy drive, with the sun shining and a gentle breeze cooling the air. In 1941 the then narrow road was known as the Kakia Skala - the evil stairway - as it clung to the coast. On the night of Anzac Day in 1941 the road was jammed with Allied troop trucks and other vehicles headed for evacuation beaches south of Corinth.

On the road were Australian nurses as well as the 33-year-old Major Edward 'Weary' Dunlop from Wangaratta, one of the last Australian medical officers to leave Athens. Today's one-hour drive from Athens to Corinth took more than seven hours as the convoy struggled to avoid the bomb craters, destroyed vehicles and animal carcasses left by the daytime German air attacks. Amidst the destruction, the surrounding fields were full of poppies reminding the Anzac troops that it was Anzac Day.

Approaching the northern end of the bridge, some reported seeing "troops digging themselves in or seeking rock-protected positions." Many of these were Australians of the 2/6th Battalion's A Company commanded by Captain Henry Dean, a 27-year-old farmer from Geelong. Further north, 24-year-old former shepherd Corporal Fred Woollams of the New Zealand 19th Battalion heard the incessant noise of the traffic.

Crossing the narrow bridge above the ribbon of sea below, the trucks were waived on by other 2/6th Battalion soldiers commanded by Lieutenant George Richards, a 37-year-old watchmaker and jeweller from Wonthaggi in southern Victoria. Standing in the middle of the bridge last year, I gazed east and west along the canal, musing on the throng passing over that night 76 years ago.

As they crossed the canal these Allied troops were crossing time as well. Most if not all of the Australians there that night would have been unaware of the Australians that preceded them many years before. Photographs in the Australian War Memorial show the sailors of the HMAS Parramatta sailing the canal, headed for the occupation of the defeated Ottoman Empire in late 1918. And other Australian warships had taken the great Venizelos to London via the canal earlier that year.

The story of the Isthmus and the famous canal takes us back into classical history. This was a vital crossing point between east and west, north and south – a trade that made Corinth and its residents wealthy. Before the canal goods and even ships were transported by land between its ports on the east and western ends of the Isthmus. Plans for a canal go back to Alexander the Great and Julius Caesar. It would be the Roman Emperor Nero who would bring Jewish prisoners from Palestine to commence the first attempt to build a canal across the Isthmus. But it would be under an independent Greece that the project would be recommenced and completed.

The Isthmus of Corinth today.

As the convoy passed south and through a silent Corinth town in the early hours of 26 April, their truck lights may have seen the fleeting images of another hundred or so Australians completing their construction of a road by-pass around the town begun during the day under German air attack. Commanded by 25-year-old Ballarat-born textile manufacturer Captain John Jones, these men of the 2/6th Battalion's B Company then moved off to dig slit trenches at their defence position on a ridge running parallel to the south side of the canal. Further to the south, the 28-year-old bank officer from Colac Captain Keith Carroll led the 2/6th Battalions C Company in defending the two airfields at Argos.

The tired, hungry, and exhausted Australians had not slept for three days. Arriving at the canal earlier on the 25th, they joined the canal defence force of New Zealand and British troops, supported by artillery and armoured vehicles that was strung out from Loutraki in the north to Argos in the south, with its force centre on the canal bridge itself. Overall command of the hastily assembled thousand or so strong force was confused.

As the first rays of sunshine broke on the morning of the 26th, the defenders were woken by a sustained German bombing and machine-gun attack that in
the words of 24-year-old Lieutenant John Daish from Caulfield "stunned" the Australians in position north of the bridge.

An hour later at around 7.00 am first came the gliders and then paratroops streaming from the troop carriers in the sky. One New Zealand soldier recalled the "sky was black" with paratroopers, another found the experience futuristic.

Australian troops estimated the attacking force at 2,000. While some troop carriers were destroyed and paratroops killed as they descended, the Germans who landed near the bridge had soon overwhelmed the Allied troops and anti-aircraft guns at both ends in hard fighting. The bridge was now in German hands.

Yet as German troops dismantled the explosive place by Allied engineers, they made the fatal error of gathering the explosives on the bridge itself. A rifle shot from nearby British officers at around 8.30 am detonated the charges, sending the bridge to the canal below and killing the Germans on the bridge. One of those killed was Ernest von der Heyden, a German war photographer whose photographs of his final moments crossing the bridge survived the blast. Both British officers were awarded the Military Cross for their bravery.

With paratroops landing all around them, the Australians north of the bridge were soon heavily outnumbered and platoons became isolated. The leadership of one by Warrant Officer Ernest Stevenson, a 37-year-old brewery worker from Preston would see him mentioned in despatches. Private Cyril Coulam, a 35-year-old shoe salesman from South Yarra, would be awarded the Military Medal for his bravery that day, throwing back German grenades until one exploded in his hand. The Company's commander Captain Dean would be awarded the Military Cross for his leadership at Corinth. Lacking ammunition, the remaining diggers to the north of the bridge surrendered just after 11.00 am. Half an hour later those remaining New Zealanders to their north who could do so attempted to escape east, with many being captured.

The situation to the south was much the same. Most Allied troops were soon overwhelmed, suffering many casualties. Some surrendered and others dispersed as small groups. By early morning Corinth itself had fallen.

The Australians defending the ridge south of the canal fell back further south under sustained air attack, many led by Lieutenant Wilfred Sherlock, a 32-year-old farmer from Coleraine. During the withdrawal Private George Young from Parkdale was severely wounded and would die in captivity. As one Australian later wrote, in the end it was "every man for himself."  

Private George Young's tombstone.

The summit of Acro-Corinth commands one of the most magnificent views in all Greece. On a clear day one can see far-off Athens and the Cyclades, distant Mount Parnassus with Delphi below and across to the mountains of the Peloponnese and the sea. Looking across the plain of Corinth today, I imagine the scene of smoke and carnage that one would have beheld on 26 April in 1941.

As the survivors retreated south many would pass the ancient ruins of Mycenae, Tyrins, and Argos, locations rich in allusions to wars centuries past. These were the citadels of a kingdom that had once dominated the region, the home of Homer's great Agamemnon who launched the fleet that would destroy Troy and who would be murdered in his own palace. Herodotus wrote of the men of the region fighting at Thermopylae, Salamis and Plataea. One British officer, the former Oxford Classics academic Lieutenant Colonel Stanley Casson, remarked that as in antiquity "death and fire" had come again "to the peaceful plains of Argos."

As the sun set on the 26 April the battle of Corinth was now over. The Germans had overwhelmed the defenders but failed to secure the canal bridge and suffered over 280 casualties. Over 900 British and Commonwealth troops were captured, nearly 200 of these Australians. While the Germans repaired the ferry across at the eastern end of the canal, they were unable to exploit their advantage and halt the massive Allied evacuations that would continue over the coming days.

The Anzacs from the suburbs of Melbourne and the western district of Victoria to Wonthaggi in the east, from New South Wales and New Zealand – the farmer and the shepherd, the shoe salesmen and the lawyer, the brewery worker and jeweller - had all experienced their first airborne assault. Some of those who were there quickly wrote detailed reports on the German tactics involved. But would they be learnt before the great airborne assault on Crete in a month's time?

* Jim Claven is a freelance writer and trained historian. He has researched the Anzac trail in Greece across both World Wars, and especially the Hellenic connection to Anzac through the role of Lemnos in the Gallipoli campaign. He has been Secretary of the Lemnos Gallipoli Commemorative Committee since its creation and is a member of the Battle of Crete and the Greek Campaign Commemorative Council. He can be contacted at jimclaven@yahoo.com.au

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