Many readers will be aware of the quiet heroism of many Greek civilians during the Second World War in bravely assisting many Allied soldiers who were on the run in Greece, having either evaded capture by the Germans or escaped their captivity. The terrible retribution visited by the German occupiers on Greek villages is testimony to that bravery.
One of the lesser known examples of this bravery that I have researched and written about is that of the people of Trahila, a small seaside village on the Mani coast, south of Kardamyli. Recently I revisited the region in search of a location intimately connected with this bravery – the Church of Agia Paraskevi of Trahila.
Today the beautiful village – and the surrounding coastal region – is a base for many tourists from across Europe and beyond. The azure blue waters of Kalamata Bay lap the seaside, framed by the villages and rising mountains of the coast. But in late April 1941 Trahila and the region were under the shadow of war.
After the final engagement of the Greek campaign on the Kalamata Waterfront and the fall of the city to the Germans on 29 April, thousands of Allied soldiers faced capture by the German occupiers. While many accepted their fate after fighting across Greece, hundreds decided to evade capture or escape from the loose prisoner compounds set up by the Germans on the eastern edge of the city. These men had no idea how they would escape off the mainland – only the hope of either rescue by Allied warships or by making their own way across the sea to Crete.
Amongst these Allied soldiers on the run were many Australians. I have written previously about three of these diggers –Camberwell’s Captain Robert Vial, Oakleigh’s Private George Foot and Horsham’s Private Syd Grant. All would make their way down the Mani coast as best they could. Some travelled by truck until the roads were impassable. Most walked the many miles over rough tracks, wrecking their boots and sapping their energy. Despite their trepidations, these men would keep moving, one step ahead of the advancing Germans and hiding from air attack. One of the main villages where these Allied soldiers gathered was Trahila. By the end of April a hundred soldiers were hiding near the village.
When you visit this little village today it is like many other isolated seaside villages across the Peloponnese. You have to leave the main road and follow a narrow road, winding close to the edge of the coast before taking itself inland through olive groves. The village itself is a series of narrow, winding tracks, hardly wider than a single car in most places, surrounding its small harbour. Its small village square contains the main village church and looks out on to the waters of Trahila Bay. When I visited in late April, swimmers swam in its waters.
One of the fascinating aspects of the Allied escaper’s story connected to Trahila is the photography of Private Syd Grant. Like a number of Allied soldiers, Syd was determined to photograph his wartime experiences. He had done so in North Africa prior to his arrival in Greece. I am fortunate to have assisted the Grant family in donating Syd’s wartime photograph collection to the State Library of Victoria and reproducing his Greek campaign photographs in my new book, Grecian Adventure.
These Allied soldiers could not have survived long in the wild Mani without the active help of the local population, with many diggers reflecting on this vital help in their written accounts. But as far as I know only one soldier sought to capture this generosity in vivid photographs – Private Syd Grant.
Syd’s personal account of his time in Trahila includes references to him being hidden in a disused building that was part of a church complex on the outskirts of the village. Similarly, Captain Vial wrote after the war of being hidden in a church by the locals. But only Syd was able to leave to posterity a photograph of this location and this help.
In one of the most unique images from the Greek campaign, Syd’s photograph depicts two local women bringing sustenance to soldiers hiding in the complex of buildings, one soldier visible inside and another sitting outside. As Syd wrote on the back of the photograph these were only “two of the many Greek girls who fed us with bread and water” at the old church in Trahila. He also took two other photographs from this location, one down towards the village harbour and the other across to another hill, closer to the sea, with a solitary stone building on its rise. I have often wondered where exactly this hide-out, this place of Anzac refuge, was located.
So it was in late July that a made another visit to Trahila, accompanied by my partner and translator, Vicki Kyritsis. Armed with a copy of my Grecian Adventure with its reproductions of Syd’s photographs, my enquiries at the village soon led to directions to an old church complex on the outskirts of town. “Follow the road out of the town until you see a dirt track on the right leading up to the mountains, you’ll find it there”, the local café owner told me.
And sure it was. Driving as far as we could and then proceeding on foot – as the diggers had done in 1941 – we came across the old church and its surrounding building. A comparison with Syd’s photograph from the war confirmed that this was the place where Syd and his comrades had been hidden and helped by the local villagers. Further confirmation was found from the view across from the church, mirroring that captured by Syd in 1941.
How appropriate that this church is dedicated to Agia Paraskevi, who in the Greek Orthodox Christian tradition is the protector of eyes, the curer of blindness, who gave all her property to the poor. At this Church, these weary soldiers were given food and help – and from its heights they could survey the surrounding area for the enemy. Maybe the locals felt that Agia Paraskevi would provide divine protection for these men seeking shelter and protection.
The long trip from Kalamata had been worthwhile. We had found a key part in Greece’s Anzac Trail, the actual location where the brave locals of Trahila had sheltered these Allied soldiers on the run as they awaited the long hoped for evacuation.
Robert, George and Syd would all be saved. They would be three of over 230 Allied soldiers taken off the Mani coast by three British warships – HMS Hero, HMS Kimberley and HMS Isis. During the night of the 31st April and into the early hours of the 1st May, the evaders and escapers were ferried out to the waiting warships from three of the Mani coastal villages at which they had gathered. Along with Trahila, they were evacuated from Selinitsis and Limeni.
We know from Syd’s post-war account that the villagers paid a personal price for their helping the Allied soldiers. The Germans had dropped leaflets warning the locals not to aid Allied soldiers on the run. When they finally arrived at Trahila a few days after the evacuations, the locals were roughed up by the unhappy German invaders. But when Syd returned to the village years after the war, enjoying a drink by the harbour where he had waited many years before, there were no regrets by the locals he met. They were glad to have helped the Allied soldiers.
It was after meeting Syd’s daughter – Catherine Bell – and researching the story of the Allied evacuations from Trahila and the other coastal villages that I became committed to helping to commemorate not just these Allied soldiers who refused to be captured but also the brave villagers who helped them in their hour of need.
That’s why more than a year ago I began work with the Pammessinian Brotherhood Papaflessas to produce a new commemorative plaque, honouring the Mani evacuations, to be installed at Trahila. The plaque is now in Greece and I was able to hold discussions with the relevant local authorities – both the Mayor of West Mani, Mr Dimitrios Giannamaras, and the Prefect of the Peloponnese, Mr Panagiotis Nikas – concerning its future installation. Both expressed strong support for the project.
I look forward to the day when the new plaque is unveiled and Trahila and its villagers take their rightful place on Greece’s Anzac Trail, as a place of annual commemoration.
Jim Claven is a trained historian, freelance writer, published author and Secretary of the Lemnos Gallipoli Commemorative Committee. He has been researching the Hellenic link to Australia’s Anzac story across both world wars for many years. He thanks Melbourne’s Pammessinian Brotherhood Papaflessas for their support of the Mani Evacuation Memorial. His most recent publications include Lemnos & Gallipoli Revealed and Grecian Adventure. These can be purchased by contacting him via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.