Navy survivors thank Greek war hero 60 years on

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The Independent Online

It reads like a lost chapter from the novel Captain Corelli's Mandolin. One of Britain's most illustrious warships is sunk during the battle of Crete, 722 men die and, 60 years later, six survivors return to a tiny Greek island to pin a medal on the chest of the man who helped to save their lives.

But this is not fiction. It happened yesterday in the peaceful harbour of Kapsali on Kythira ­ Aphrodite's island according to Greek mythology ­ which rises, pretty and unspoilt, off the southern tip of the Peloponnese.

Under the proud gaze of its few inhabitants, John Stevens, 83, Len "Al" Bowley, 81, Billy Grindell, 84, Melvyn Baker, 82, Ken Macdonald, 84, and Ernie Evans, 78, came to thank Nickos Sotirchos, a man remembered by them as a 15-year-old who risked his life to save theirs during one of the darkest episodes of British naval history.

In May 1941 Kythira was under German occupation and found itself embroiled in the savage battle for Crete. Germany had launched the first airborne invasion in history: 23,000 troops dropped onto the island over three days while, at sea, the Royal Navy tried desperately to halt any seaborne incursions. But Britain's air support had been withdrawn to Egypt, leaving the navy horribly exposed to attack from the air.

In the middle of the battle was HMS Gloucester, known as the Fighting G because of her record of getting into ­ and out of ­ the most dangerous of scrapes. On 22 May 1941, however, her luck ran out. While assisting in the rescue of the crew of another vessel, she came under attack by Stuka dive bombers 13 miles off Kythira. She was hit again and again but her crew fought back until they ran out of ammunition. In the end, they had only blanks and star shells to fire at the German aircraft but they fired them anyway.

Eventually the captain, Henry Rowley, ordered the crew to abandon ship. The survivors were left at the mercy of German pilots who bombed and strafed them in the water in revenge for the destruction by the Royal Navy of a virtually defenceless German invasion force two days earlier. Of the 807 men on board the Gloucester, only 85 survived. They were picked up by Germans and taken to Kythira. Furious at the earlier killing of their own men, the Germans were not intent on taking prisoners.

"They stripped us and lined us up against a wall to shoot us," recalled Ernie Evans, one of the Gloucester veterans, yesterday. "I remember not caring. I was exhausted and had seen all my friends die. We were just waiting for the bullet. "

But it never came. A German officer intervened and, instead, the men were herded into a small house and compound at the edge of Kapsali harbour. They were fatigued, in shock and desperately thirsty, but the Germans refused to feed or water them, claiming they had only enough provisions for themselves. And that is where the young Nicos Sotirchos came to the rescue.

While two friends distracted the German guards, he sneaked in as much bread and milk as he could for three days ­ a time during which many of the survivors would otherwise have died, says John Stevens, another of the survivors.

"Nicos and his friends saved our lives at enormous risk to themselves," Mr Stevens said. "If they had been caught, the Germans would have shot them. They were very clever; two of them would distract the guards at the front while Nicos slipped in with bread and milk in the back. He was very brave.

"Not many people know what he did and what happened to us. They left us behind, you see, so after the war they hushed it up because of the shame it would have brought on the Navy. Now the bravery of the Gloucester and the kindness of the people of Kythira can be told."

After three days of sneaking in food, the young Nicos persuaded the Germans to let the people of the island feed the British prisoners.

He borrowed a donkey from another friend and went around Kapsali collecting from the already hard-pressed Greeks. In spite of their own privations, the people of Kythira provided ample food, drink and clothing ­ someone even donated half a cooked sheep. After 10 days, the men were moved to prisoner of war camps where two more of them died.

The kindness of the Kythirans was rewarded yesterday with a plaque on the house where the men were held captive and a medal for Mr Sotirchos engraved with the words "He Who Dared". His friends died some years ago.

Mr Sotirchos, 75, who went on to become a carpenter, modestly played down his role. "We were young ­ we didn't think about the danger," he said. "These men had come to help us and now they needed our help. I am only glad that we were able to do something. It is very touching that they remember; today I am a very proud man."

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