Driving along the dirt roads of rural Victoria is the last place you’d expect find a slice of the Peloponnese, but that’s exactly what you’ll uncover a little way out from Warrnambool.
“At various times in my life while I was growing up, people would turn up at the farm not knowing us but having been driving past and seen the sign saying “Kalamata” on the front gate, realising it was soldier settlement property , and so they would come in” – Catherine Bell.
A farm gate adorned with a wonky sign saying ‘Kalamata’ marks the old family home and farmland of the Grant family.
Sydney Grant dedicated his soldier settlement property to the Greek people of Messinia who helped save his life in 1941 during WWII.
The soldier in the 2nd/8th Battalion of the 6th Division managed to flee to safety thanks to the generosity of the Greeks who kept him safe and fed him.
As the British and the Anzacs were being evacuated from Greece at Kalamata port after the Germans took over Greece, Syd was one of a number of soldiers left behind.
Escaping from the prisoner of war camp on the Kalamata beachfront, Syd and a few others scrabbled along the shoreline of the city and fled to the small village of Trachila. Tragically, only a small number of these soldiers made it to safety.
“We hid in the ruins of the old stone church on the hillside above the village and amongst the olive groves nearby,” he said, recounting the story on tape years later.
“We were at Trachila for a day or so and being fed bread and water by the very kind local people. Then during the night, some villagers came and told us that they had seen water coming in on the wash that meant there were big ships going close by along the coast.”
Rushing down to the harbour, Syd used a flashlight to signal SOS, hoping desperately to catch the attention of an allied ship. Worst case scenario, he could be signalling to an incoming German vessel.
Thankfully they were picked up by the British Royal Navy onboard the HMS ‘Hero’ destroyer.
“The only way the skipper of the Hero would let us onboard was by asking us ‘who are you?’,” Syd remembers.
“We said ‘we’re Australians!’ and he said, ‘How do I know?’ And we said ‘Of course we bloody well are!’ So he asked ‘can you sing Waltzing Matilda?’. It was quite a funny sight in the pitch dark, soaking wet, dressed in old Greek clothes and bits and pieces and some blokes with almost nothing on at all, and there we were standing up and singing Waltzing Matilda!”
After returning to his reformed 2nd/8th Battalion in the Middle East, he came back to his native Victoria and set up a sheep farm in the Western District.
The decision to name the property Kalamata was a simple yet poignant gesture.
The sentiment was passed on to his four children, who have fond memories growing up on the property.
“The name Kalamata has such an emotional tug on my heart,” Syd’s daughter Catherine Bell tells Neos Kosmos. “It’s a name that I’ve grown up with all my life.”
She remembers helping her father during lambing season, bottle-feeding the little lambs and taking care of the baby ducklings. An idyllic childhood.
Amazingly, the farm’s name brought with it some chance encounters.
“At various times in my life while I was growing up, people would turn up at the farm not knowing us but having been driving past and seen the sign saying ‘Kalamata’ on the front gate, and realising it was a soldier settlement property, would come in and it was a solider who had been there in Kalamata all those years ago,” she says.
Catherine describes her father as a “character”, a friendly and funny man who went out of his way to help his fellow man.
“He had a big personality, he was a very jovial, funny person,” she says.
“What’s interesting, when he used to talk to us children about his war experiences, he didn’t want to frighten us or upset us, so he would tell us the funny side of life during the war.”
The connection to Greece wasn’t far off. Catherine remembers her father’s huge love of Kalamata olives, eating around 30 olives a night with his glass of whiskey.
He returned to Kalamata in 1977, 36 years after leaving the shores in the chaos of war.
“It’s amazing here with the Greek people,” he said. “A couple of old ladies were very intrigued by the photos that I’d taken in 1941. I think I am the only Australian so far who has come back to Trachila. There were only 69 of us who got away from here after a big mob of us had started out from Kalamata.”
Feeling like the story of Kalamata belonged to her father, she avoided travelling to Greece during his lifetime.
Only in 2013 did Catherine visit Kalamata for the first time to retrace her father’s steps. It was an emotional experience.
“I met a couple of people there whose parents were in their 80s, and who remembered the Australian soldiers in Kalamata,” she says.
“One old man said he remembered the kindness of the Australian soldiers, when as a little boy the soldiers had given him sweets.”
She hopes to visit Kalamata again next year at the 75th anniversary of the Battle of Kalamata.
Former MP John Pandazopoulos hopes to organise a special commemorative service in Kalamata to mark the Anzac connection. The Messinia community of Melbourne will also join in the commemorations.
Messinia community member Paul Sougleris says it’s important to mark the occasion to give some recognition to the Battle of Kalamata.
“Of all the campaigns that were fought in WWII, Kalamata is one of the forgotten historical campaigns,” he says. “It was earlier on in the war, it was before the Kokoda Trail, and a lot of the families’ relatives were captured and ended up as prisoners of war in camps.”
Fifty-thousand Allied soldiers were evacuated out of Greece by 1941 at Kalamata. The Germans captured around 8,000 British and Anzac troops who didn’t make it onto the ship.
Sydney Grant died in 1990. The family held onto the farm for another seven years until it was sold to the current owners. The farm still holds the name ‘Kalamata’.