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Sea Borne Escape from Crete in a Damaged Landing Craft

Updated: Jul 26, 2021

Colour Sergeant Charlie Bowden, who died aged 94 2011, was a Royal Marines gunner who survived being shot at by both the enemy and his own side before taking part in a remarkable seaborne escape from Crete in 1941.

On May 20 1940, when the Germans invaded Crete, Bowden was in a hospital suffering from dysentery. Soon he and the other patients were being marched, in their pyjamas, into captivity.

Bowden's column was attacked by a patrol of New Zealanders, however, and in the confusion he escaped and hid in a cave near Suda Bay until he could set out to discover his own battery. He eventually located it but, still dressed in pyjamas, was shot at by a sentry.

Scrounging a uniform and a rifle, Bowden manned the guns until receiving the order to blow them up rather than let them fall into German hands. His unit then became part of an infantry platoon under the command of Major Ralph Garrett which, during the next four days, fought a bloody rearguard action. Retreating to the island's south coast, half the men of the formation were wounded or killed.

There Garrett told survivors that they could wait to be taken prisoner, join the resistance, or try to make their way off the island. Bowden chose to stay with Garrett who, when they found an abandoned landing craft, called out: "Who's for home? All aboard the Skylark."

They set out with 139 men, including 56 Marines, some Australians, New Zealanders, a Greek and two Palestinians. There was little fuel, food or water, but Bowden had found a map of the Mediterranean in a deserted school and this became their chart. "It was all in Greek," he recalled, "but we could still recognise the shape of the countries."

Their supplies were a travelling clock, odd tins of oil and petrol, and biscuits and bully beef which had been abandoned on the beach. With only one engine working, and the deck just above water level, they set sail at 08.55 on the morning of June 1.

When they ran out of fuel they used their bootlaces to stitch together a sail of blankets, and dived over the side in groups to steer the landing craft by swimming. After nine days, during which time two men died, the craft beached on the North African coast. Many of the survivors were so weak that they could not stand, but two Maoris went to search for water. Meanwhile, not knowing if they were behind British or German lines, Bowden and a young Australian officer set off into the darkness to reconnoitre.

A pipeline led them to a British anti-aircraft battery, where they summoned transport, and Bowden returned to the beach to report to Garrett. Though many were ill and without boots, they marched to a rendezvous which Bowden had fixed, where a convoy of lorries was waiting to take them to safety. Within days Garrett's Royal Marines were re-equipped and ready to fight again.

Image; A painting by Lt-Cdr Roland Langmaid of the landing craft in which Bowden and 140 others escaped from Crete

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