of Apostolos Spyrakis
“For over three hours, we were sailing in view of the remains of one of the world's largest landslides: a large chunk of the mountain had collapsed into the sea. Huge chunks of rock jutted out of the water's surface on the sides of Athos, but millions of other tons also hung above, loose and ready to go. And I was startled to notice up there in the overhanging decay of the weathered boulders, there was a distinct path.'
This is how Mount Athos appeared to the young New Zealander Sandy Thomas in 1941. He had previously been captured by the Germans in the Battle of Crete, after being seriously injured, he was taken to the Nice hospital in Athens and from there by boat to the Pavlos Melas camp in Thessaloniki. where in nightmarish conditions he managed to escape before the infernal trains leaving for the north took him to the concentration camps. Through an amazing journey and with the help of the Greek patriots, he managed to reach Mount Athos, where he was hosted and helped by the monks, to cross the Aegean in a boat and reach the free Middle East. His harrowing experience forms the basis of the book he wrote after the war, which became an international bestseller and is considered one of the most successful accounts of the Second World War, as the young soldier at the time proved to be a superb observer, a virtue he developed to the full taking part in deadly skirmishes, while his simple and highly enjoyable writing is a unique document of the conditions prevailing in Greece – especially in occupied Thessaloniki, flooded at the time with troops destined to reinforce Rommel's campaign in North Africa, and in Macedonian countryside, where the first guerrilla groups were developing in the darkness of the Occupation. And if the image of Greece as seen by a young soldier from one country on the other side of the world is one of the best representations of the time, the depiction of Mount Athos is incomparable, as it preserves the unique physiognomy of a region that is always outside the time, while the adventure of the trip to the Aegean is one of the most beautiful that has been written.
And if the image of Greece as seen by a young soldier from one country on the other side of the world is one of the best representations of the time, the depiction of Mount Athos is incomparable, as it preserves the unique physiognomy of a region that is always outside the time, while the adventure of the trip to the Aegean is one of the most beautiful that has been written.
Sandy Thomas, who died in 2017 at the age of 98, is a unique case in the history of the New Zealand military. After his adventure in Greece he continued to fight on the Italian fronts, was decorated many times and, in the words of his famous commander, Lieutenant General Sir Bernard S. Freiberg: "...developed into one of the most daring and experienced Infantry Commanders of the 2nd New Zealand Division'. In the rest of his life he took part in a series of campaigns of the Commonwealth army and reached the rank of Major General and Military Commander of the Land Forces of the Far East, but he never forgot the hospitality of the Greeks and especially the monks, and returned many times in our country visiting the monks who treated him and who always remembered him with love.
The memoirs of World War II soldiers were for a time among the most popular reads, as soldiers rushed to write about the most important experience of their lives, one that marked millions of them and determined their futures. In the case of Dare to be free, however, we are fortunate to have one of the finest examples of this literature, as the then young soldier with an adventurous spirit and iron will gives us his valuable experiences written in a way that cannot fail to move every reader, especially us Greeks. If one adds the excellent work of the translator, Giorgos Spanos, who searched for facts and details by meticulously crossing the testimony of the New Zealand soldier with the historical research and the geographical identification of all the areas mentioned, the result is a wonderful portrait of occupied Greece and the anonymous of people who showed their best selves in the toughest conditions.
Apostolos Spyrakis, diastixo.gr
Boldly for freedom
A true story of resistance to the Nazi occupation
WB Sandy Thomas
translation: Giorgos Spanos