I have written previously about some of the Allied escapes from the coastal villages of the Mani following the German capture of Kalamata in late April 1941, including that of Private Syd Grant and his evacuation from the beautiful little village of Trahila. Today I write about another Australian who escaped from the same village as Syd – an Australian soldier who was honoured for his bravery during these dark days, Captain Robert Vial from Camberwell. Recently I began to research Robert’s story, prompted by an inquiry from Paul Orfanos from Delphi Bank, a proud Messinian.
Robert Roy Vial was born in the leafy Melbourne suburb of Camberwell in 1915, a month before the Australian nurses arrived on Lemnos in 1915 during the Gallipoli campaign. Little did he know that world events would draw also draw him to Greece during a time of war.
By the time he enlisted in the Australian Army as the Second World War broke out, Robert was a young bank officer. His previous military experience with the militia forces in Victoria since 1935 was noted. By the time Robert was departing from Egypt on his way to Piraeus as part of the Allied force sent to help in the defence of Greece he held the rank of Captain at the Headquarters of the 6th Division.
As a former bank officer, Robert was not alone amongst the Anzacs serving in Greece. Some estimates report 50 per cent of bank staff volunteering in WWII. Another of those was the commander of the 2/7th Australian Infantry Battalion, Lieutenant Colonel Theo Walker from Hampton in Victoria, who saw service through the mainland and on Crete.
Like many other Australian soldiers, Robert would have enjoyed a few days leave in Athens, maybe visiting the Acropolis and the cafes and squares of Athens. But soon he was off to the front. He is noted as having crossed at the Aliakmon River in northern Greece delivering orders to troops preparing for the looming German attack at Servia. He would have taken part in the Allied retreat across the length of Greece, interrupted by fierce engagements such has at Brallos Pass and Corinth Canal. He would have suffered the constant enemy air attacks as they machine-gunned and bombed the Allied forces as they made their way to the evacuation ports and beaches on Greece’s southern coast.
And so as April drew to a close Robert made his way along with many Allied troops to the port of Kalamata. Despite the fact that thousands would be successfully evacuated, when Kalamata fell to the Germans at 5.30am on 29 April some 8,000 Allied soldiers remained.
But Robert did not wait to be captured. The night before the capture of the city, soldiers were given a choice – they could await the surrender and destroy their weapons and vehicles, or they could attempt their escape. Robert chose the latter course. The account of what happened next can be found in the archives of the Australian War Memorial, in the report of Robert’s fellow officer, 34-year-old Captain Philip Woodhill of the 2/2 Battalion.
It was around 5am on April 29 that Robert – along with Captain Woodhill and another Australian soldier – began their journey south east towards the Mani, using a car until it became damaged and then proceeding on foot along the difficult mountain and coastal tracks. In doing so, Robert was part of an exodus of some hundreds of Allied troops heading along the Mani coast, dotted by villagers and small inlets, all hoping for evacuation by sea. It was during his escape that Robert’s leadership and courage came to the fore.
First, Robert took the initiative to organize an escape by boat. Captain Woodhill writes that north of the village of Trahila they found a 50-ton schooner. Joined by about 50 other Allied soldiers, Robert took charge of preparing the vessel for sea, with Woodhill going off to find the owner. When he returned it was a scene of mayhem, disaster had struck the party, enemy airplanes having machine gunned the schooner and the men in it. Woodhill writes that 7 were killed and the survivors told him the Robert had “saved the lives of several of the personnel on board who could not swim, or who were wounded.”
Rumours from local villagers that Allied ships would come to Trahila saw Robert and his party make their way there. Captain Woodhill writes that Robert made the journey across the rocky trail despite having lost most of his clothes and his boots. Trahila would become one of the main collection points for the evacuation of the Allied soldiers on
the run in Mani, the other villages being Limeni and Selinitsis. By the May 30 around 100 Allied soldiers had made their way to Trahila, where they were helped by the locals, who gave them food and shelter – as well as vital information on the movement of German troops nearby. One of those soldiers was Horsham’s Private Syd Grant of the 2/8th Battalion, who had escaped from German captivity in Kalamata and made his way south. It is thanks to Syd – and his descendants – that have the only photographs to survive from this time, depicting the village and its people.
Captain Woodhill reports that while the senior Allied officer at Trahila had resolved on May 30 to surrender, most of the troops remained hopeful of evacuation. It was now that Robert again exhibited the leadership required in these desperate times. As Captain Woodhill writes Robert revealed a “spirited conduct … He constantly inspired his companions to make further efforts to escape and was quite fearless trying every expedient which might benefit the whole of the troops attempting to escape.” While at Trahila Robert took off north on a false rumour of an abandoned skiff.
Returning to Trahila, he inspired and organized the Australian soldiers there to repair a leaky skiff and successfully rowed it about 5 miles out to sea in broad daylight in an effort to contact any Allied ships that had been rumoured to be there, in Woodhill’s view “a particularly courageous act as German patrol planes were on watch all day.” At the same time other soldiers – British and Australian – were also sailing out to sea in attempts to contact Allied warships, with two successfully directing the warships HMS Kimberley, Isis and Hero to the coastal villages where the soldiers were waiting. At the same time, Robert organized troops into watches of signallers for the night of April 30/May 1 and a boat kept at the ready to go out to any Allied vessel contacted during the night.
These combined efforts – Robert’s singallers and the two boats that contacted the warships in Kalamata Bay – would see the long hoped for evacuation of the Mani to commence at around 1am on May 1. Robert, Captain Woodhill and Syd Grant were among the 235 Allied soldiers – Anzac, British, Greek and Yugoslav – successfully taken off and transported to Crete. The Allied commander at Trahila, who had decided on surrender the previous day, was also one of those evacuated.
It is clear that Robert played an important role in the affecting the Allied evacuation from the Mani. He not only attempted a number of spirited attempts to sail off the coast, but he also appears to have played a crucial role in maintaining morale amongst the troops – when some other officers were opting for surrender. Along with others, he took the imitative to prepare for an evacuation from Trahila and in so doing played an important part in its success. And all this from a young bank officer from the suburbs of Melbourne.
It is no wonder that Robert’s efforts would be recognized. No doubt following Captain Woodhill’s report to senior command, he would be awarded the Distinguished Service Order. The citation, states that it was “conspicuous gallantry and devotion during the evacuation of Greece” in that he organized and effected the escape of many soldiers, his escape attempts by sea and saving the lives of several men, all “displaying great resources, initiative and courage.” Robert went on to serve in New Guinea and survive the war. He passed away in 2008.
Soon the service of men like Robert Vial – the evaders and escapers from the Mani – will be commemorated in the little village from which they made their final escape to Crete and safety, Trahila. With the support of Melbourne’s Pammessinian Brotherhood Papaflessas, I have helped created the new bronze plaque which will be installed at the harbor in commemoration of the service of Captain Vial and these men, and their local helpers.
We should not forget the bravery of men like Robert Vial, who volunteered to serve Australia in time of war, a service that took him across the seas to Greece. His determination to help his men during their escape from the Greek mainland should be remembered.
Jim Claven is a trained historian, freelance writer and published author. His has been researching the Hellenic link to Australia’s Anzac tradition across both world wars for many years, leading commemorative tours to Greece. He is the author of Lemnos & Gallipoli Revealed and the forthcoming Grecian Adventure: Anzac Trail Stories and Photographs – Greece 1941, which will feature his writings on the Mani escapes. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org