Over the sea to Evia

Evia's rich history and brave people helped it survive WWII. Historian Jim Claven talks to Felicia Leonardos about the island's wartime legacy and its Australian connection

As one Evian villager said when told that her house had been burned down by the Germans, “it doesn’t matter so much now. It’s warm and we can live in the open”.

Felicia Leonardos sits in her suburban Melbourne living room recalling how the Second World War came to Evia – the ‘long island’.
Like many across Greece, it’s a story of courage in the face of suffering and retribution from an unwanted occupation.
Evia’s rich history and brave people would help it survive the war. Its location would make it the centre of many great events in Greek history. Evia is found in the pages of Homer – the rocks of Cape Gerastus on its southern tip witnessing the destruction of Agamemnon’s victorious returning fleet after their victory at Troy. The islanders were famed for the production of bronze weapons, bronze giving the name for the capital at Chalkis. They fought at the great victories of Salamis and Plataea over the Persian invaders. Alexander the Great’s famous horse – Bucephalus – was bred on Evia.
Venice would make Evia the centre of its great island empire in the Aegean, until the fall of the fortress at Chalkis in 1470 to a 100,000 strong Ottoman army. The great Evian fighter Govios would also play his role in the liberation of Evia and Greece from Ottoman rule in the 19th century.
Evians were famed too as the sailors of Greece. Hailing from one of the oldest sites of Hellenic culture, with settlements dated to the Mycenean period, Evians were the first to travel across the Aegean and into the Mediterranean, founding the first Greek colonies that would form the Greek commonwealth. Felicia tells of meeting Sicilian migrants in Melbourne from Licodia (the ancient Evian’s colony of Leontini) on Sicily’s east coast who describe themselves as Euboans, thereby acknowledging their links to the Aegean Island. These ancient sea-faring skills would be essential in the years of war.
War arrived in 1941, with German bombing of its harbours and dogfights in the air above the island – the young Roald Dahl flying his Hurricane overhead. The fear the Germans might cut off the Anzacs defending Thermopylae and Brallos saw Allied troops destroy its famous bridge across
the treacherous Evripos channel, with its fourteen tides a day, as they left on 25th April. Evians would have witnessed the evacuations that followed from the nearby mainland port of Rafina.
Felicia recalls her father, the 35-year-old Stamatios Katsatos, coming into the family home at Almiropotamos in the south of Evia telling of the fall of Greece. He embraced his wife Evagelia and their five children, not knowing what the future would hold for them and their island.
The years of the occupation would see food and other essentials taken by the occupiers, resulting in hundreds of thousands of deaths from starvation across Greece.
For Stamatios the war meant the collapse of his trade. A furniture maker, he had to find another way to feed his family. With the help of his friends Kosta and Angelos, fishing would now become his main occupation. He was able to feed his family and provide fish to others on Evia.
Yet, like many others across Greece, Stamatios was not content to merely survive. When he was asked to help ferry Allied soldiers across from the mainland to Evia, he didn’t hesitate.
Following the surrender of Greece and evacuation of the Allied forces in late April 1941, thousands of Allied soldiers – including Australians – were on the run across Greece.
Evia would become one of the main routes to freedom for these soldiers. Its vast expanse and closeness to the mainland, and the difficulty of travelling on the islands rugged southern half, meant the Germans rarely came. Once across the island, its eastern shores gave access to the Aegean, Turkey, the Mediterranean and freedom.
These escape routes were known as the ‘caique runs’, named for the traditional fishing boats of Greece. These boats would sail from many ports across Greece – from Mt Athos in the north to the Peloponnese in the south – bringing Allied soldiers to freedom. The success of these voyages would see the Allies return with supplies and agents to aid the Greek resistance. Evia was a crucial part of this freedom road.
Felicia recalls her father describing how he and others would ferry these soldiers from the mainland to Stira, on Evia’s southern coast. They would be re-clothed in local dress for their onward journey. Traversing the island by donkey, they would arrive on its eastern coast where other fishing boats would take them out to sea to be transferred to large vessels waiting to take them to freedom.
One Anzac who could have been helped by Felicia’s father was Frankston-born lawyer Warrant Officer Boulter. Captured at Kalamata on 29th April, Boulter escaped during the march north to Lamia. Helped by local Greek villagers, he along with four others made his way to the mainland coast on 22nd June, where a fisherman ferried him across to Evia.
The hospitality of the Evians was such that the rest of his comrades decided to remain on the island. Sitting with the villagers, they would listen to the BBC and hear the news that Germany had invaded the Soviet Union.
Boulter made his way across the island to the east coast, where the bishop and priests at a monastery welcomed him and arranged for a fisherman to take him to Skyros, finally arriving at Symrne on 25th July after three days at sea.
Australian Lieutenant Colonel Fred Chilton made his way to Evia after the battle of Pinios Gorge on 18th April. Chilton and his comrades made their way through Thessaly “guided on their way by devoted Greeks”. In early May, Chilton and his party were joined by others on Evia, including three from NSW – Ulmarra farmer Captain Charles Hercules Green, Darwin-born Captain Brock, a teacher from Woonona, and former Mosman bank clerk Lieutenant Bosgard. Hiding in the beautiful eastern village of Pili, their time on Evia would be recorded in a famous photograph, taken as they were about to depart for Smyrne on 8th May.
In the winter of 1942, a former motor trimmer from Wagga, Lieutenant Derbyshire would arrive on Evia with ten other Allied soldiers. Having escaped from a prison camp near Athens, he had fought with the Greek resistance and witnessed the terrible suffering of the civilian population under the occupation, of “men, women and little children starving to death”. Like the other Anzacs, they would be carried by an Evian fisherman from its east coast to freedom.
The bravery of Stamatios and others like him was shown despite the retribution of the occupiers. Some 460 villages were completely destroyed, and an estimated 60,000 men, women and children were massacred during this time. But they would not be intimidated. As one Evian villager said when told that her house had been burned down by the Germans, “it doesn’t matter so much now. It’s warm and we can live in the open”.
Churches were also desecrated and icons damaged, especially the small mountain ones dedicated to particular saints.
Felicia tells how the Bishop of Chalkis and his flock acted to protect the Jewish population from the Germans. Some were native to the island, others came fleeing deportations on the mainland, especially from Thessaloniki.
A large Greek Jewish family seeking safety on the island were set upon by German soldiers. As they proceeded to execute the family, two children managed to hide behind a tree, silent and unnoticed, but terrified at what they had to witness. After the Germans had left, a local village woman took the terrified girls to her home. With the help of the local priest, these children survived the war. They would marry local Evian men and raise families. Years later one of these women came to Melbourne and cried with joy at meeting Felicia and other Evians.
Sadly, stories of survival for Greece’s Jewish community would be all too few, as some 81 per cent, or 60,000 of Greece’s pre-war Jewish population, perished in the holocaust.
Coming from a family of priests, Stamatos always felt that he survived the war due to the intervention of St Nicholas. His bravery – like thousands of other Greek civilians – was appreciated by the soldiers he helped. As one Anzac said, “the real heroes of the Greek war of resistance were the common people”.
After the war, Felicia’s father never talked of his wartime exploits. But his modesty would be exposed at his funeral in December 2005, when representatives of the Hellenic Army and the Evian Regional Government attended to honour his wartime service to the Allies and Greece.
Stamatios’ story is one of many repeated across Greece. It is a story that we should never forget.
Felicia Leonardos lives in Melbourne’s suburbs and has been President of Melbourne’s Evian community, the Benevolent Brotherhood of Evia Evripos for the past 18 years. She estimates that there are 500 Evians in Victoria, 1,000 across Australia. We thank her for recounting this story for Neos Kosmos.