Taking cover behind a stone wall in northern Greece on April 12, 1941, two Australian soldiers, Private John McGarrity and Lance Corporal Robert Brown were breathless, having run for their lives through a hail of German heavy machinegun fire.
”I guess that was close,” McGarrity said, figuring they were safe for a moment, despite the enemy’s proximity. ”Let’s make the best of it and have a smoke.”
He rolled his cigarette, but never got to light it. ”He gave a soft cry and collapsed to the ground,” Brown later told the Red Cross.
Almost immediately, Brown was also hit. As the two Diggers lay bleeding on the freezing earth, a German officer appeared. Brown was told he was now a prisoner of war; medics would see to his mate.
”I had one last look at Private McGarrity,” he said in his Red Cross statement, ”but he was lying very still. I cannot say [if] he was dead or wounded – that was the last time I saw him.”
Brown’s testimony, from a German POW camp in 1943, is the only source of information about McGarrity’s fate: his body, like those of up to 20 other Australian soldiers killed during the same battle, was never recovered.
Now, with mixed emotions, McGarrity’s family, including his 75-year-old daughter, is preparing for the possible discovery of his remains in the grounds of a disused military compound near the tiny Greek village of Vevi.
Greece’s minister for Macedonia and Thrace (the region in which Vevi is located) has told Fairfax the Greek government is prepared to fund a dig at a site near where McGarrity and about 20 others are believed to have been buried anonymously in 1941.
If the dig proves its supporters correct, Vevi could resonate for Australians in the same way as the French town of Fromelles where, in 2009, researchers unearthed the remains of 250 Allied soldiers from World War I, including 124 Australians whose identities have been established by DNA tests.
Like the long campaign to unearth the Pheasant Wood site at Fromelles in northern France, the push to explore the fields around Vevi was initiated by amateur historians who have cross-referenced military documents with local knowledge and hearsay.
Keith Rossi, Victoria’s RSL historian for the past 26 years, is among those who believe an investigation of Vevi is well overdue.
”Look at Fromelles, when they had all that evidence – for years they didn’t do a bloody thing,” says the 91-year-old retired brigadier. ”Why doesn’t someone just go up and have a look?”
Rossi was in Vevi in 1991 to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the Greek campaign when he had an illuminating encounter.
”I was standing there at the wreath-laying ceremony and an elderly chap spoke to me,” Rossi says. ”We got talking about dead soldiers and the 2/8th Battalion, and this local said there were Australian soldiers from the war buried across the road – behind the wall.”
Rossi has talked about his encounter ever since, but it has taken nearly a quarter of a century for the conversation to grow into a concerted campaign to unravel the mystery, and to prove – one way or the other – if the rumours are true.
John McGarrity, the son of an Irish Catholic shipwright, was born in Newcastle, England, in 1905, and emigrated to Australia with an assisted passage in 1928, listed as a labourer.
He worked as a farmhand in Victoria and in manufacturing in Sunshine, where he was a member of the local running club. In 1937, aged 32, he married Norma Plumridge. Daughter Patricia was born in October the same year and Margaret in February 1939.
Within months of Margaret’s birth, Australia was at war with Germany. McGarrity enlisted and in April 1940, his 2/8th Infantry Battalion left Melbourne for the Middle East. Having suffered the heaviest casualties of any Australian unit during the first battle for Tobruk in January 1941, it embarked for Greece on March 31.
Twelve days later, McGarrity, a popular soldier ”full of wit and humour”, according to a fellow Digger quoted in his military record, would become one of the first of more than 600 Anzac troops killed in the doomed Greek campaign.
It was an operation that began in the snows of northern Greece, where Australian and New Zealand forces – supported by Greek and British units – took on the might of Hitler’s invading Panzer army, and the SS Leibstandarte, the elite and fanatical Nazi division originally formed as bodyguards for Hitler.
Facing the same troops that had torn through Poland, France and Belgium, the Commonwealth forces were handicapped from the start by inferior armaments, poor communications and virtually no air cover.
On April 12, 1941, the 2/8th Battalion was 16 kilometres south of the border with Yugoslavia, clinging precariously to the eastern side of the Monastir Gap, near Vevi.
For more than 24 hours it repulsed the enemy. The mission was to hold the German advance long enough to allow the withdrawal of Greek forces on the Yugoslav and Albanian borders.
That afternoon, a vital phone line connecting the 2/8th’s front line to Battalion HQ was cut. McGarrity and Lance Corporal Brown volunteered to make the repair.
As they made their way forward, the German attack intensified. The 2/8th’s front line began to disintegrate, overrun by German infantry and fast-moving Panzers.
About 4pm, exposed in open ground, McGarrity and Brown came under heavy machinegun fire. The stone wall they sheltered behind proved useless, with both men shot and Brown taken prisoner of war.
McGarrity was among 28 Australian troops killed at Vevi, many of whom, from the 2/8th and 2/1st Anti Tank Regiment, were never recovered.
He was reported as ”missing in action, presumed killed” and it would not be until 1944 that McGarrity’s wife, Norma, bringing up their two daughters in Kew, would receive confirmation from the army that her husband was dead. They could not tell her what happened to his body.
If Allied prisoners died of their wounds in enemy hands, German burial units would usually identify them from identity discs or paybooks and create written records, simplifying identification of a burial site and the individuals within it years later. No such documentation has ever been found for McGarrity and a number of other members of his battalion who fell at Vevi.
After Greece was liberated in 1944, the work of the Australian War Graves Commission – charged with finding burial sites – was hampered severely in northern Greece by the Greek Civil War. The remains of those who were found were reinterred at Phaleron War Cemetery in Athens. Some 2029 Commonwealth servicemen who died on the mainland in the Greek campaign are buried or commemorated at Phaleron; 596 of the burials are unidentified. Only one member of the 2/8th Battalion killed on April 12, 1941, has a known grave at Phaleron.
Maria Cameron is one of three amateur historians involved in research on the Vevi missing.
The Port Fairy researcher, whose other projects include identifying the remains of World War I Diggers at Fromelles, has cross-referenced Australian and German military records, and believes there is ample evidence to support the proposition that Vevi still holds the remains of Australians killed there.
”If the AWGC did recover bodies in the area after the war, the German records would have given the recovery units a clue. For McGarrity and others, there are no records of that kind at all,” Cameron says.
”The absence of information in the records on John McGarrity and others from the 2/8th show they’re the ones who were never recovered. ”It’s the same as Fromelles, we couldn’t say they were definitely there.”
Melbourne military historian Carl Johnson has also examined the records relating to Vevi, and says that McGarrity qualifies as a leading contender for a soldier who fell at Vevi and is likely to be still there.
”His files were held open to September 1945, which shows the total lack of information the military had about his final resting place,” says Johnson.
”In addition to McGarrity, I’d say there’s strong evidence for others being contenders for those never recovered from the 2/8th and 2/1st Anti Tank Regiment. There could be up to 20, from both units all told.”
A third researcher, Newcastle schoolteacher Tom Tsamouras, who has been working on identifying the site pointed out in 1991 by Rossi, is also confident about the location. ”What needs to happen is for the Australian government to help the Greek authorities investigate it,” he says.
A spokesperson for Unrecovered War Casualties – Army, the unit of the Australian Defence Force that investigates alleged burial locations of Australian soldiers, said while the department had ”no verifiable evidence”, it was looking into the matter.
The Greek government has been more enthusiastic. ”The army have already drafted plans for a preliminary 15-day dig covering an area of two acres at the location, which is near a disused military compound,” says Tsamouras, who, through Greek contacts, brought the matter to the attention of Greece’s Minister for Macedonia and Thrace, Theodoros Karaoglou.
Karaoglou confirmed these details and says he believes the cost of an initial dig would be less than €30,000 ($41,000). He has vowed to authorise the expenditure personally.
Karaoglou says the dig will go ahead once the Greek army, on whose land the site sits, gives permission.
Despite the likely imminence of the dig, there has been no communication between the Greek authorities and the Australian Defence Force, according to the UWCA spokesperson.
Nonetheless, members of McGarrity’s family believe the Australian government should get involved.
Daughter Margaret died last year, but Patricia still lives in Melbourne’s eastern suburbs. Pat’s daughter, Loren Brown, says she and her mother support the idea of an investigation taking place – whatever its findings.
”The possibility of an investigation has raised a mix of emotions in the family. Some believe we should leave history as it is, undisturbed. Others feel cautious optimism, to finally know the truth,” says Loren.
”It would be wonderful to give our grandfather a proper grave, titled and recognised. These men gave their young lives for their country. Surely it is Australia’s responsibility to find them and give them the recognition they deserve.”
Margaret’s son, Phillip Wittmer, agrees. ”It’s about honouring his memory,” he says. ”These men made the ultimate sacrifice. We owe them the honour of a proper burial, to dignify their lives, rather than leaving them. At the same time, I’m not getting my hopes up too much. What will be will be.”