This story began as I stood at a solitary grave in the Allied War Cemetery at Phaleron in Athens and ended in one of the remote villages in Mani. It is the story of a Digger from the Melbourne suburb of Prahran who travelled to Greece in 1941 only to be killed as so many others were in that fateful campaign. This is the story of Private William Salter.
If there is danger of not escaping from the Mani it is …
from the hospitality and goodness of the Maniotes. – Patrick Leigh Fermor, Mani: Travels in the Southern Peloponnese
William was born in Prahran in December 1915 – just as the Australian troops were making their way to the island of Lemnos at the end of the Gallipoli campaign. The Prahran he knew was a growing and bustling suburb, home to many new arrivals, working in the suburb’s many factories. After the end of the war, Prahran’s prewar Hellenic community was joined by new arrivals. Young William may have looked into the Greek-owned cafes of Windsor and wondered what the lovely cakes tasted like. And maybe he played with some of the community’s children in the local schools.
When WWII erupted in 1939, the local Hellenic community in Prahran was soon demonstrating its solidarity with Australia and its struggle. A photo from a newspaper of the day shows the Greek community presenting the mayor of Prahran with a large Greek national flag to be flown from the town hall as a symbol of the common struggle of Greece and Australia against the Axis invaders.
Young William was 23 years old when he decided to enlist with the Royal Australian Army Service Corps (RAASC) at the South Melbourne Recruitment Centre.
As he donned his new uniform one wonders what his wife Pearl would have thought, no doubt a combination of admiration and foreboding.
After initial service in the Middle East, William and his comrades were off to take part in the defence of Greece, and arrived at Piraeus in early April 1941. Hopefully he was able to enjoy a few days leave in Athens to enjoy the sights and hospitality of the city as so many other Diggers did, including fellow Service Corps soldier Kevin Byrne.
Most of the unit was deployed north to the defensive line established at the Aliakmon River. Others were deployed to defend the rear area around Athens, including its aerodromes. Wherever William was deployed he would have faced the dangers of war.
William’s unit was essential to the organisation of a modern army. The RAASC was responsible for the transportation of troops and supplies to and from the front. A major transport hub was Larissa and its surrounding region. With the German invasion on 6 April, Allied troops were subjected to almost constant air attacks from the Luftwaffe as the German army pushed south. Operating on the key supply lines for the Allied army, William and his unit were subjected to air and land attacks as they endeavoured to extricate troops from encirclement and constantly moved supplies to where they were needed. Some were killed, like Ararat’s Felix Craig who died bravely defending his convoy from a German air attack. This was William’s war.
As the Allied troops made their withdrawal south to the evacuation ports and beaches around Athens and across the Peloponnese, it was William and his comrades who drove the trucks and supplied the petrol and ammunition to get them there. It appears from the records that towards the end of April William made his way to the port of Kalamata.
Standing today on the harbour front it is hard to imagine the scene that would have confronted William in the dying days of April, 76 years ago.
Thousands of Allied troops gathered at Kalamata, all with the hope of evacuation. Between 26 April and the early hours of 29 April over 9,000 troops sailed from the harbour for Crete or Egypt. But as the German troops arrived to close the port on the morning of 29 April, some 7,500 Allied troops remained.
Unlike nearly 230 of his fellow Service Corps comrades, William was not captured. Like many other Allied soldiers, he decided to make a run for freedom. Some escapers and evaders made their way west to Koroni but others headed east to Mani. We don’t know whether William made his way along the roads or whether he obtained a boat and sailed south. If he had travelled by land he would have hidden in the ruined buildings and caves that dotted the landscape. Yet no matter how he made his way, William would have had to survive the almost constant harassment from enemy air attacks during the day and the advance of German troops at their heels.
What we do know is that Kalamata fell on 29 April and William made his way south to evade capture. Proastio lies approximately 69 kilometres from Kalamata and based on the journeys of other Diggers, he probably arrived in the area around 30 April.
Many other Anzacs were hidden and helped in the villages of Mani, and enjoyed the friendship and hospitality of the brave locals who faced terrible retribution from the Germans should they be discovered. The Australian War Memorial contains the detailed escape reports of three Diggers – Captain Woodhill (of the 2/2nd Battalion), Private Wood and Corporal Harrison (both of the 2/6th Battalion) – who had made their way down Mani through the villages of Kardamyli, Trachila, Selinitsis, and Limeniou. Another Australian on the same route was Private Syd Grant of the 2/8th Battalion, who was helped by the villagers of Trachila and recorded this in his unique photographic collection. Those four Diggers were among the 74 Australians (in a total of 202 Allied soldiers) evacuated from the villages and beaches of Mani in the early hours of 1 May 1941 by the British Royal Navy. But William and his comrades were not saved. Records show that William died and was buried in the village cemetery at Proastio on 6 May 1941. He was buried along with three other Diggers and a British major. All of the Australians were killed on the same day. Two of the other Diggers were from Victoria – Driver Donald Berry from William’s unit came from Mildura and Private Murray Moore of the 2/6th Battalion hailed from Portland. Private Charles Sheppard of 2/1st Battalion was from across the border; Mudgee in NSW. The British soldier buried with them was Major Julian Frederic Doelberg of the Royal Engineers who had been killed earlier, on 29 April.
The records are silent as to how William and the other Diggers were killed. We know from the accounts of other Allied soldiers on Mani that enemy aircraft were constantly strafing the area and German soldiers were advancing down the peninsula in pursuit of the evaders. It is more than likely that William and the other Australians were killed in a German air attack or in a fire fight with the advancing Germans troops.
The village of William’s burial is one of the oldest in Mani, its villagers are said to be descended from Maniot sailors. It is also said that there is a church for every family in the village, and the Church of Agios Nikoalos has some of the finest 17th century Byzantine murals in Greece. Did William make it to the village alive? Did he wander its streets? And if so, did his mind flood back to memories of his Greek neighbours in far off Prahran and whether he would ever see them again?
A recent visit by researchers Barry Parkin and Janet Parkin of the British-based Brotherhood of Veterans of the Greek Campaign 1940-41 has provided more clues in William’s story. Sitting in one of Proastio’s kafenia, local villager Takis remembered the burials of Allied soldiers at Proastio. A young boy during the war, he remembered that a number of Allied soldiers were buried first in a field near the village then exhumed and re-buried in the then village cemetery, now abandoned. This re-burial was supervised by the Red Cross and the Italian occupation forces. He recounted how he and some other school boys carried the boxes containing the soldiers’ remains to their new resting place. Meanwhile back in Prahran, Walter had left behind his grieving widow Pearl.
After the war, the remains of the Allied soldiers who had failed to escape through Mani were recovered and re-buried at Athens’ Phaleron War Cemetery, including William Salter and his three fellow Diggers who were re-buried in a collective grave.
Sipping my coffee in the coastal village of Kardamyli, just below Proastio, I wondered at the story of William Salter and soldiers like him. The web of history ties this small village to Australia. And I think of the people of Prahran – and especially its Hellenic community – and how they should remember and be proud of one of their own who fought and died in Greece. Maybe it’s time for a small memorial to be erected at Proastio in memory of William and his comrades.
*Jim Claven is a historian and freelance writer who has researched the Anzac trail in Greece across both world wars. He is secretary of the Lemnos Gallipoli Commemorative Committee and a member of the Battle of Crete and the Greek Campaign Commemorative Council. Jim acknowledges the assistance of David Sanderson, Janet Parkin, and Barry Parkin in the researching of this story. Jim can be contacted at [email protected]