Many readers will be aware of the unsung heroism of many Greek civilians during World War II as they valiantly aided many Allied soldiers fleeing Greece, having either evaded capture by the Germans or escaped captivity. The terrible retaliation of the German occupiers in Greek villages testifies to this 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 coastal village on the Mani Coast, south of Kardamyli. I recently revisited the region in search of a place closely associated with this bravery – the Church of Agia Paraskevi of Trahila.
Today the beautiful village – and the surrounding coastal region – is a starting point for many tourists from all over Europe and beyond. The azure waters of Kalamata Bay lap the coast framed by the villages and the soaring mountains of the coast. But by the end of April 1941, Trahila and the region were overshadowed by the war.
After the final deployment of the Greek campaign on the coast of Kalamata and the city’s fall to the Germans on April 29, thousands of Allied soldiers were threatened with capture by the German occupiers. While many accepted their fate after fighting across Greece, hundreds chose to evade capture or flee the loose prison camps set up by the Germans on the eastern outskirts of the city. These men had no idea how they would flee the mainland – only hope of rescue by Allied warships or crossing the sea to Crete on their own.
Among these fleeing Allied soldiers were many Australians. I have already written about three of these dredges – Camberwell’s Captain Robert Vial, Oakleigh’s Private George Foot and Horsham’s Private Syd Grant. All would walk down the Mani coast as best they could. Some drove trucks until the roads were impassable. Most walked the many miles over bumpy trails, wrecking their boots and sapping their energy. Despite their fears, these men would keep moving, staying one step ahead of the advancing Germans and hiding from air raids. One of the main villages where these Allied soldiers congregated was Trahila. At the end of April, a hundred soldiers hid near the village.
If you visit this small village today, it is like many other remote coastal villages in the Peloponnese. You must leave the main road and follow a narrow road that winds close to the edge of the coast before heading inland through olive groves. The village itself is made up of a series of narrow, winding tracks, barely wider than a single car in most places, surrounding the small harbour. Its small village square contains the village’s main church and overlooks the waters of Trahila Bay. Swimmers were swimming in its waters when I visited in late April.
One of the fascinating aspects of the Allied fugitive story associated with Trahila is Private Syd Grant’s photography. Like many Allied soldiers, Syd was determined to photograph his wartime experiences. He had done this in North Africa before arriving in Greece. I am fortunate to have helped the Grant family with the donation of Syd’s wartime photo collection to the State Library of Victoria and the reproduction of his Greek campaign photos in my new book, Greek Adventure.
These Allied soldiers could not have survived long in the wild Mani without the active help of local people, and many dredges reflect this vital help in their written accounts. But as far as I know, only one soldier has attempted to capture that generosity in vivid photos – Private Syd Grant.
Syd’s personal account of his time in Trahila includes evidence that he was hidden in a disused building that was part of a church complex on the outskirts of the village. Similarly, after the war, Captain Vial wrote that he was hidden in a church by the locals. But only Syd could leave a photograph of that place and that help for posterity.
In one of the most unique images of the Greek campaign, Syd’s photo shows two local women bringing food to soldiers hiding in the building complex, with one soldier visible inside and another seated outside. As Syd wrote on the back of the photo, these were just “two of the many Greek girls who brought us bread and water” at the old church in Trahila. He also took two more photos from this spot, one down towards the village harbor and the other across to another hill closer to the sea, on which a lonely stone building rises. I’ve often wondered where exactly this hideout, this place of the Anzac Sanctuary, was located.
So I revisited Trahila at the end of July, accompanied by my partner and translator, Vicki Kyritsis. Armed with a copy of My Greek Adventure with its reproductions of Syd’s photographs, my inquiries in the village soon led to directions to an old church complex on the outskirts of town. “Follow the road out of town until you see a dirt track on your right that leads up into the mountains, that’s where you’ll find it,” the local cafe owner told me.
And sure it was. Driving as far as we could and then continuing on foot – as the excavators had done in 1941 – we came across the old church and surrounding buildings. A comparison with Syd’s war photo confirmed that this was where Syd and his comrades were hiding and aided by the villagers. Further confirmation was found in the view towards the Church, which reflects Syd’s admission in 1941.
How fitting that this church is dedicated to Agia Paraskevi, who in the Greek Orthodox Christian tradition is the protector of the eyes, the healer of blindness, who gave all her possessions to the poor. In this church these weary soldiers received food and aid – and from their heights they could survey the surrounding area for enemies. Perhaps the locals thought that Agia Paraskevi would offer divine protection to these men seeking refuge and protection.
The long journey from Kalamata was worth it. We had found a key stretch of Greece’s Anzac Trail, the actual location where the brave residents of Trahila had housed these fleeing Allied soldiers while they awaited the long-awaited evacuation.
Robert, George and Syd would all be saved. They would be three of over 230 Allied soldiers dropped off the coast of Mani by three British warships – HMS Hero, HMS Kimberley and HMS Isis. During the night of April 31 into the early hours of May 1, the fugitives and runaways from three of the Mani coastal villages where they had gathered were taken to the waiting warships. 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 helping Allied soldiers. The Germans had dropped leaflets warning locals not to help Allied soldiers fleeing. When they finally got to Trahila a few days after the evacuations, the locals were beaten up by the unfortunate German invaders. But when Syd returned to the village years after the war and enjoyed a drink at the harbor where he had waited many years before, the locals he met had no regrets. They were glad to have helped the Allied soldiers.
After meeting Syd’s daughter – Catherine Bell – and researching the history of the Allied evacuations from Trahila and the other coastal villages, I became committed to commemorating not only those Allied soldiers who refused to be captured, but the brave ones as well Villagers who helped them in their hour of need.
For this reason, more than a year ago, I began working with the Pammesinian Brotherhood of Papaflessas to produce a new plaque honoring the Mani evacuations to be installed in Trahila. The plaque is now in Greece and I have been able to hold discussions with the relevant local authorities – both the Mayor of the Westmani, Mr. Dimitrios Giannamaras, and the Prefect of the Peloponnese, Mr. Panagiotis Nikas – about its future placement. Both expressed their strong support for the project.
I look forward to the day the new plaque is unveiled and Trahila and its villagers take their rightful place on Greece’s Anzac Trail as the site of annual remembrance.
Jim Claven is a trained historian, freelance writer, published author, and secretary of the Lemnos Gallipoli Commemorative Committee. He has been researching the Hellenic connection to Australian Anzac history across both world wars for many years. He thanks Melbourne’s Pammessinian Brotherhood Papaflessas for their support of the Mani Evacuation Memorial. His recent releases include Lemnos & Gallipoli Revealed and Grecian Adventure. These can be purchased by contacting him via email at email@example.com.