John Palmer of D Company was part of a ten-man section belonging to 17 Platoon left behind in dense bush near the foot of the steep Mavroneri Gorge (Greece) in 1941. After a brief frantic fight with German forces the order to withdraw was passed along Battalion lines. It was a dark wet and windy night and word never reached the section to which John Palmer belonged.
In part one of this three part interview John recounts the moment he and his friends realised they had been left behind. Their main concern was finding food and catching up with the Battalion.
John Palmer: Its something one never forgets, it was as quiet and we heard birds twitting in the trees, you know. It was just becoming dawn... All of a sudden we heard a voice behind us, my mate and I. "Have you seen anybody?" ...
We said "No."
"Gee, that's funny". So he went along to the next trench no that's right went along and there was no one there. So we got up, had a look right around, and the whole battalion had pulled out.
Question: And it was just the three of you?
John Palmer: Six of us left behind. Ha, ha. So we couldn't understand it. Anyway we made our way up to Battalion Headquarters, through the trees. It was foggy, fog whatever, drips of rain. The tracks up to the top of the range were just goat tracks. And you could see where the men had slipped off the tracks, slid down the hillside in the dirt. They'd just taken off all their gear and they'd just left all their packs and everything down below and they climbed back on the track and away they went. And all we were after was, well naturally wasfood. We used to have tins of, what did we used to call them , emergency rations - a block of chocolate in a special air to air tight tin. I think there were enough for a week. A square for each day you know a special type of chocolate. So anyway we got a half a dozen of those, we robbed the packs, you know. We got halfway up through the mist and the fog and we heard a voice say "who's that?" We yelled "it's us, it's us, it's us." We got up to Battalion Headquarters, another two Māori boys they were machine gunners, no tommy-gunners, that's right. They were told, that's right, ordered by the sergeant to watch a little gully sort of, one on either side. It was true because one of them said, they'd shot a whole section that'd come up, the corporal was in the front. Thats right, they were creeping up this sort of, whatever you call it, a wadi or whatever. He remembered the corporal saying "gamma, gamma." Which in German means hurry up. So he must've heard that. Otherwise he wouldn't have had a clue about the German word. So anyway they were all gone. They'd probably picked up all their dead. So there was eight of us then.
John Palmer, Ngāti Raukawa, Ngāti Toa Rangatira, Ngāti Tūwharetoa (1918-2011), interviewed by Mathew Devonald.
Family collection. Courtesy of Hanatia Palmer.