Our local community has become a little bit famous in recent years as one of the key homes of Melbourne’s large Hellenic Australian community. For many it has become the go-to-place for those special products or ingredients to remind you of Greece – or just to sit and enjoy the ambience of its many tavernas and eateries.

But as you sit there and while away the hours, spare a thought for one of Oakleigh’s own – 21-year-old George Foot – who left the streets you walk on, maybe even Eaton Mall, and sailed overseas into harm’s way, a journey that would take him across the length and breadth of Greece, playing his part in its defence in 1941.

A labourer from Notting Hill who enlisted at Dandenong on 30 October 1939, George’s Army service records reveal that he had been born in Oakleigh on 1 August 1919. He would be assigned to Melbourne’s 2/7th Battalion.

The story of George’s war in the Greek campaign is one of advancing north to face the German invasion only to be withdrawn into a succession of defensive withdrawals, all under sustained air attack. And so George and his fellow Victorians of the 2/7th advanced as far as Larissa, then withdrawing to the Domokos Pass and then the Brallos Pass. By the 24th they were heading south again, first stopping at Eleusis then Mylio, dispersing into olive groves during the daylight hours. Travelling overnight they arrived at Kalamata in the early hours of 26 April, where most of the battalion was evacuated at 4am on 27 April, sailing in the troopship Costa Rica.

When the battalion sailed away in the darkness from the Kalamata waterfront, George found that he was among the unit’s 51 drivers left behind. Yet their voyage to Crete would be a dangerous one, their troopship being bombed and the men forced to switch ships at sea, before arriving safely at Suda Bay. Meanwhile in Kalamata, George’s adventures were only beginning. What happened next is detailed in George’s own personal written account lodged in the military archives of the Australian War Memorial. This is George’s story.
George heard the sound of gunfire coming from the harbor as the battle of Kalamata waterfront unfolded in the evening of 28 April, news of the final evacuation that took place before daylight the next day, and the final decision by the Allied commander to offer the surrender to the Germans at 5.30am that day.

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George was one of some 8,000 of so Allied soldiers and support personnel who were now given the choice to accept capture and become a prisoner– or to strike off on their own, to evade the advancing enemy and take their chances in getting away to Crete. George was one of the latter, heading east down the Mani coast, part of a mass of men –in their hundreds, maybe even as many as a thousand – who made their way in groups, many taking trucks as far as the roads would allow then walking.

They had no idea whether they would make it off the Greek mainland. What they did have was the hope that somehow, someway, they would make it. Maybe they could find or purchase a boat themselves and sail to Crete or North Africa – or maybe the Royal Navy would return to evacuate them from the Mani coastline. It was this hope, this dream of escape, which drove them onward.

His escape journey began when he joined with the other 17th Brigade troops left behind and drove three undamaged trucks out of the city. After two miles false rumours of Germans occupying a village ahead persuaded some to abandon the attempt. Joining with about thirty other soldiers, George and his party resolved to keep going and “still try and escape.” George tells of how his group then drove a truck as far as they could along the coast, probably at the village of Selinitsis.

While George doesn’t mention the names of the various villages and locations he came to during his journey down the Mani coast, my research reveals that he would have travelled through many of the villages encountered by other Allied evaders – from Selinitsis and Kardamyli, to Trahila and maybe even Limeni further south, but this is unlikely.

The sun was now up on the morning of the 30th and despite the fear of German air attack during the daylight hours, George and the men continued their journey, walking along the coast, eager to find a boat to sail off the Peninsula. After about 5 miles they joined up with another group of Allied soldiers who had found a large fishing to sail to freedom.

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Photograph of Oakleigh-born George Foot on his enlistment at Dandenong in 1939. Photo: National Archives of Australia

Eager to evade the advancing Germans, the group boarded the ship in broad daylight at 1.30pm. But as they tried to get the engine started, the enemy bombed and machine gunned the ship, setting the shop on fire. They were forced to abandon the ship and swim shore, losing all their equipment and supplies. Leaving the twenty casualties behind with a Major Peters, George and the others continued their journey on foot.

He writes of the difficulties of the journey on foot along the coast, traversing “very rocky country” with no boots and only a little clothing that the locals had given them. It was “now very difficult travelling” he writes. Locals advised them to head for an unnamed village where British warships had been seen offshore. This was probably the village of Trahila. George and his group arrived at the village at 8pm, where they met other Allied troops and waited for the wished for ships.

George writes that the senior Allied officer had decided on the surrender the village the following morning. But George had still not given up hope of escape. Dispersing into the surrounding hills, his party kept a roster looking out from a nearby peak for any Allied ships they might see or hear approaching off the coast.

It was during this night that they heard the sound of a large ship off the coast. Signal contact was made and details communicated as to how they would be evacuated. Soon a boat arrived along the shore at the agreed time and the men were taken out to the waiting ship. Back in Notting Hill, George’s mother Christina would have been relieved if she had known of his escape.

George doesn’t name the ship but we know that it was one of three British Royal Navy warships sent to evacuate any Allied soldiers from the area – the HMS Hero, HMS Kimberley and HMS Isis. During the night of 30 April/1 May, some 235 Allied service personnel were successfully evacuated by these ships and taken to Crete. All under the weight of German air attack and their advance across the Mani peninsula.

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Trahila harbour, from where Oakleigh’s George Foot was evacuated in the early hours of 1st May 1941. Photo: Jim Claven 2016.

George had missed the boat at Kalamata, survived his own boating disaster, only to be saved in the Mani by the Navy. It’s no surprise that George ends his escape account with the following statement, “it was a marvellous piece of work on the part of the NAVY.”

George survived the Greek campaign, returning to the Middle East in May, serving in New Guinea, reaching the rank of Lieutenant and returning to Australia, marrying and living in Mount Waverley. He would be awarded the Greek Campaign medal by the Hellenic Government.

One thing is clear from George’s tale – the help of locals was essential to his escape. They provided him with civilian clothing, the means of escape and vital intelligence about Allied ship movements. This is the story of many evaders and escapers who came to rely on the support of brave locals. His experience was similar to that of Private Syd Grant, who managed to photograph his helpers at Trahila as part of a unique collection of photographs which is what was my pleasure a few years ago to assist his family – especially Catherine Bell – in their donation to Melbourne’s State Library.

George’s story and Syd’s collection – along with that of Sergeant Alfred Huggins – will be a feature of my new book – Grecian Adventure – due to be released to coincide with this year’s 80th anniversary of the Greek campaign. And last year it was my pleasure to assist Melbourne’s Pammessinian Brotherhood Papaflessas in the creation of a new bronze plaque commemorating the Mani evacuations and the local who helped. This will be installed at Trahila in coming months.

The beautiful Kalamata Bay from the pier, with the brooding mountains of the Taygetus and the Mani beyond, where George Foot headed in late April 1941. Photo: Jim Claven 2018

And next time you’re in Oakleigh, take a stroll to the nearby Oakleigh-Carnegie RSL, order a cool beer – maybe a Mythos – or an ouzo and admire the beautifully framed photograph of Australian soldiers and Evzones at the Acropolis in March 1941. George Foot would be proud. Make sure you raise a glass to George, Oakleigh and the Hellenic link to Anzac!

Jim Claven is a trained historian, freelance writer and author of Lemnos & Galllipoli Revealed. He is currently completing his new book on the Hellenic connection to Anzac – Grecian Adventure – Stories from Greece’s WW2 Anzac Trail – to be released as part of this year’s 80th anniversary of the Greek campaign. The publication is supported by the Victorian Government, the Pammessinian Brotherhood Papaflessas and Neos Kosmos. For more information on this please contact Jim via email – jimclaven@yahoo.com.au