Sinking of the Hellas

24 April 1941

The Ira M
The Ira M (later known as the Hellas) in an Italian port, c. 1930s (Ships Nostalgia)

Disaster struck during the hurried evacuation of Allied forces from Greece when hundreds of civilians and Commonwealth troops, including New Zealanders, were killed while they were boarding the Greek yacht Hellas at the port of Piraeus, near Athens.

When the Hellas, a large steam yacht, arrived unexpectedly in Piraeus harbour on 24 April 1941, the captain offered to take 1000 passengers. The ship was instructed to sail after dark, and about 500 British civilians (mostly Maltese and Cypriots) and 400 sick and walking wounded from a British and an Australian hospital were sent on board.

Crammed alongside them were 75 New Zealanders of 4 Reserve Mechanical Transport (RMT) Company and a similar number from 28 (Maori) Battalion. The fitters, electricians, blacksmiths, coppersmiths, carpenters and storemen of RMT Company had been repairing vehicles in Athens for almost a week. The Māori soldiers, on the other hand, were there by chance. During the withdrawal from northern Greece they had become separated from the rest of the battalion and ended up following Australian units to Piraeus.

At 7 p.m., just before sunset, seven German Stuka dive-bombers attacked the Hellas. Five bombs struck their target, setting the ship on fire, while another three burst alongside on the jetty. The only gangway was destroyed and passengers were trapped in burning cabins. There were no working hoses on board and none were available on the jetty for nearly an hour. Eventually the ship rolled over and sank, with the loss of 400 to 500 lives.

The survivors struggled into a nearby warehouse. Soon men lay all around the shelter, many with terrible wounds. Commandeered vehicles ferried them to hospital in Athens, where later most would be taken prisoner. As the vehicles moved out through the dock gates the casualties could be heard crying out in pain from their dreadful injuries. Eyewitnesses knelt, crying and praying to show their sympathy.

Of the 75 men in 4 RMT Company’s Workshops Section, 31 made it to Crete but only seven later rejoined the section in Egypt. The unit had suffered 90 per cent casualties. Most of 28 (Maori) Battalion was evacuated from the Athens area to Crete aboard HMS Glengyle in the early hours of Anzac Day. They left behind 10 dead and 81 prisoners of war. 

A total of 291 New Zealand servicemen died in Greece during the April 1941 campaign. Another 387 were wounded and 1862 were taken prisoner. Most of those who died on the Hellas have no known graves. Their names are recorded on the Athens Memorial in Phaleron War Cemetery, a few kilometres south-east of Athens.