Life Stories- Hideriotes and Australia

Grigorios Kambas' Memories from the Albanian Front (1940- 41) Continued

Back: Part One

Narrated by Grigorios Kambas

to Vasilios Vasilas

Above: A portrait taken during National Service.

At the front line, we were always waiting and ready for the next communiqué with the next orders. Whenever we saw the Italians packing their machine guns, we knew they were retreating. They would leave a few men behind to cover them. Our sergeant would order us to follow their retreat, “Kamba, you’re not sleeping here tonight. As soon as we see them leaving, we’ll be behind them”.

Being on the Front for so long, we were given fifteen days leave, which we spent at “Lenitsa”. One day, we were ordered by some officers to meet at a certain point just outside the village. We had no idea what was going on. Upon arrival at the designated place, we were totally surprised to realise a court- marshal was taking place. They explained to us these men were traitors; when they an Italian unit was captured, these Greeks were among the prisoners. Seven were executed. I could not fathom why any Greek soldier would go over to the other side. Witnessing such an experience, however, did have a tinge of sadness about it. Instead of dying for their homeland, these men were executed for treason.

Italy’s Spring Offensive was launched while we were on leave; they only made small gains. Our position was taken by them. By the time we returned (from our leave), our troops had already retaken it. However, our repulsion of the Italian forces was overshadowed by Germany’s invasion of the Balkans, and Greece. While we successfully combated the Italians, Greece just did not have the force, armaments or resources to withstand a German invasion. Troops were being moved to Macedonia in preparation to the German attack. The Italians would have been rejuvenated by these plans and ready to exploit our weaker defence. 

Our pull-out from the Albanian Front was chaotic; just imagine thousands of troops in retreat. Utter Disorganisation. In many cases, there was no leadership. Roads and paths were all crowded. I had promised our sergeant we would stay together and not get lost. During the retreat, however, I felt exhausted as I had not slept for days. While we were crossing a bridge, I do not know whether it was my heavy backpack- which weighed me down- or if I was just pushed over by the current of soldiers, but I fell off the bridge and landed on my back. Luckily, I was wearing my heavy winter uniform and was carrying the sheepskin in my backpack because it softened the landing. I lost my sergeant and unit, until I reached Kastoria, where several Greek generals attempted to galvanise our war-weary troops to attack the advancing German forces. The exhausted body language and sunken eyes of our troops portrayed the reality of our state. While some troops may have responded to this battle-cry, most realised it was futile to withstand another invading army- especially an army much more efficient and deadlier than the Italians. Any resistance was short-lived…

German aeroplanes flew overhead and megaphones, calling out their propaganda, “Greeks… you fought bravely in Albania…we have nothing against you…you are tired…put down your weapons…”  We did not formally lay down our weapons; just throwing them away by the roadside (though we later heard there were designated areas to surrender weapons.

After Kastoria, we all scattered…it was everyone for himself. After a couple of weeks, I reached Kozani, where the Germans placed us in these large apartment blocks and they guarded us. It was a crowded affair, as there were ten soldiers sharing each apartment. We were fed too. I believed it was some sort of prisoner-of-war arrangement; this was probably a transit point before we were moved onto a camp. We were guarded by German guards. Strangely enough, I would see small groups of prisoners leaving the block and they would not return. I did not know what was going on. After raising my courage, I approached the guards, saluted them and walked passed them. Nothing happened. I was free to leave.

When I was in Veria, I was totally broke. It was while I was resting in a kafeneio, one fellow came and asked a few soldiers whether we knew how to dig up fields. Three of us found ourselves digging fields. We were tired and hungry, looking forward for lunch. No lunch. At the end of the day, we were given 10 drachmas. We went to the kafeneio for some decent food. We returned next day for more digging- with the same arrangement.

It was in Veria where I noticed these locals going into a large warehouse where they gave water to horses. There was a lot of movement in-and-out this warehouse. I thought to myself that it would be easy to sneak into the warehouse at night and make off with one of the horses. At night, I cautiously executed my plan; when I opened one of the doors, I surprisingly found German soldiers in there. I quickly shut the door and fled the scene.

 From Veria, I joined the uncountable groups of retreating soldiers. For some reason, I had a towel wrapped around one of my legs. A German motorcyclist noticed me and probably thought I was wounded. He stopped and asked where I was going and I replied, “Athens, Yes?” He continued, “No, no, Thessaloniki”. I could not be fussy with this opportunity and he gave me a ride to Thessaloniki. He even gave me buttered bread to eat. I could not believe my luck.

Thessaloniki was overcrowded with soldiers, especially at the port. I was fortunate to be reunited with my brother, Niko, and many villagers. He advised me to register my name to board the next available ship for our island, “Or you will be waiting forever.” We had a wealthy villager who lived in Thessaloniki; she put up all of us. Niko and I also had uncles in the city- the Sgouradellis’. We did not know them, but we went to meet them. Somehow we ended up in a warehouse, where resistance against the Germans was being organised. I knew something was wrong here. There was all this talk, “Are we going to have the Nazis over us?” and these people even gave us a drink. After so many months at the Front, I did not want to become involved anything- I just wanted to get home. In dialect, I told Niko, and the fellow who was escorting us, we ought to leave and we did.

One morning, I went down to register my name at the docks where the caiques would come and go. As one fellow went to board a caique for the north Aegean islands, I took the risk and followed him. No one said anything to me. Maybe everyone sympathised me, as I still retained the wrapped towel around my leg. I left behind my brother and villagers and finally returned home.

I would like to thank Grigorios Kambas and Maria Prokopiou (nee: Kambas) for all their help in writing this feature.  Vasilios Vasilas