While there are many accounts of the Nazi blitzkrieg across Europe and the Battle of Britain in World War II, less has been written about the Axis attack on Greece.
Hoping to share in the territorial conquests of the Nazis, Italian dictator Benito Mussolini joined the Axis alliance in June 1940. In late October, Italy invaded Greece, moving its forces eastward through Albania.
The Greek army was able to push the Italians back, but soon afterward the Germans took over the fight. Despite help from a British expeditionary force, the Greeks were defeated, and their government forced into exile in Egypt.
Just 4 years old at the time, Warrenton resident Marilene Henry found herself and her parents in the middle of the chaos as Greece fell, struggling to flee the country before the German occupation.
Marilene still remembers -- all too vividly -- parts of her family’s exodus. The stories shared by her parents Peter D. and Inga Patten, in American and Swedish newspapers, provide a gripping account.
Peter Patten represented an oil company; he and his family had been living in Athens for six years. Swedish-born Inga Patten, aware of the rumors of famine and violence in countries conquered by Germany, could have fled home with her daughter Marilene, but resolved to remain with her husband.
However, by April 1941, it was clear that the end was near. “From dawn to dusk, the clear skies were full of enemy airplanes,” said Inga Patten in an article in a Swedish newspaper published in 1946.
“Numerous ships and boats had met with disaster as they tried to sail from the port of Piraeus.”
An opportunity to escape came with a phone call from Capt. Constantine Tsallis, a family friend and commanding officer of the Greek destroyer Thyella (“Storm”). He had been ordered to leave Athens and head for Crete, where the Greek king and his cabinet had already fled. The Pattens could join him.
However, the departure was delayed and the Thyellawas caught in the harbor by German bombers. “I watched her sink slowly into the sea,” wrote Inga Patten.
The voyage begins
Determined to avoid capture, Tsallis came up with a desperate plan to flee across the Mediterranean on his unfinished 33-foot sailboat, the Palaimon (“God of the Sea”), and again asked the Pattens to join him. “ThePalaimon was elegant but had no engine, and her teak deck was far from finished,” recalled Inga. The only navigation equipment on board was a compass.
The Greek Admiralty allowed Tsallis his pick of three sailors and provided maps and information about the minefields. The German air attacks intensified, and Inga Patten witnessed the destruction of yet another Greek warship in the harbor.
At dawn on April 23, 1941 – three days before German troops entered Athens – the Palaimon set sail. They passed the island of Aegina, and seeing a German aircraft pass uncomfortably close, decided to sail on the far side of the island of Poros.
Thus, began a tense game of cat-and-mouse through the islands south of Greece. The goal was to reach Crete, and eventually Egypt.
They sailed across the Bay of Nafplio, where the last of the British force was being evacuated by sea. “Numerous times we were becalmed,” recalled Peter Patten in an interview with the Detroit Times.“Finally, the superstitious sailors went to the captain and complained, ‘The wind has left because Madame paints her lips,’ and he asked her to remove her makeup.”
At first Inga Patten refused, but after witnessing an attack on the British transport ships, she complied – and the wind picked up. Reaching Momenvasia, they tied up for the night near two small warships. Peter Patten and the crew went ashore to find food.
While they were gone, German bombers attacked. “All of a sudden, I saw a number of planes coming around the bend. They seemed to be targeting us,” Inga Patten ecalled. “I jumped down into the cabin with Marilene and pushed her to the floor, holding my hands over her ears while trying to cover the two of us with blankets and pillows.”
At least a dozen bombs exploded nearby, and waves washed over the Palaimon,which twisted from side to side, up and down. One of the two boats nearby was split in half, the other engulfed in flames. Of the incident, Peter Patten noted, “Only this once did I see my wife nearly hysterical.”
After rowing to shore and spending the night in a cave, the party sailed for Cape Matapan and into a storm, where they lost their cooking stove. A German aircraft appeared and fired upon them, but no one was hurt.
The next stop was the island of Cythere, where an old lady gave them some slices of bread, goat cheese and an orange.
Learning that German aircraft were approaching, Inga and Marilene Patten ventured inland, but soon came under attack – an incident that Marilene still remembers. They hid behind a low stone wall, but one of the German planes dove directly at them, firing. “Holding Marilene to my belly, I crept as close to the wall as I could, and heard the bullets bounce off the stones,” Inga Patten recalled. “When the plane gained altitude and turned, I rushed to the other side of the wall and tried to make Marilene and myself as small as possible.”
The ordeal ended when a British airplane blundered onto the scene. Seeing a better target, the German pilot shot it down and circled it as it sank.
A stormy passage
The Palaimonstopped at the island of Anticythere, where they washed their clothes in the village fountain and obtained provisions. “The place was swarming with British soldiers, who were waiting until nightfall to be rescued by submarines,” recalled Inga Patten.
Their first experience at Sfinari, on the west coast of Crete was disturbing, as the natives accused the sailors of being spies, and until Tsallis could contact the admiralty, their fate was unclear.
Although they had not secured enough provisions to make the final leg of the voyage to Egypt, they departed – into the mouth of a bad storm, which lasted 48 hours.
The Palaimonsuffered damage, and most of their food and cooking utensils smashed. “Worst of all, the container with the 200 eggs from Sfinari was rolling back-and-forth,” said Inga Patten. When the storm finally broke, they had completely lost their bearings, “…and the sailors looked more dead than alive.”
That evening, they encountered an English warship, and learned that they were only 60 miles from the Egyptian port of Alexandria. Upon reaching port, a pilot-cutter ordered them to zig-zag through the minefields.
A customs officer later cleared them to come ashore, where Inga and Marilene Patten were taken to the Hotel Metropole. “So many lights! And ladies wearing evening gowns!” exclaimed Inga Patten. Her husband praised Capt. Tsallis’s skill as a navigator. “He took us 850 miles across the Mediterranean without a sextant or chronometer. His only instrument was a compass.”
The 15-day ordeal aboard the Palaimon was over, but the Pattens were not “home” yet. They were taken to Cairo by a British army truck. From there, they passed through Suez to Bombay, India and then to Capetown, South Africa. There they boarded the S.S. President Garfield, sailing to Trinidad before landing in New York. This part of the journey took 32 days.
For the duration of the war, the family stayed with Peter Patten’s brother, Marc Patten, in Bloomfield Hills, outside of Detroit, and later in New York. When the war was over, the couple divorced, and Inga and Marilene Patten returned to Sweden.
Lifetime of learning
Schooled in Europe and fluent in five languages, Marilene later married Jean-Francois Henry, a physicist. They raised three children in Belgium – sons Yves and Francois and daughter Anne-Marie, before coming to the United States seeking employment with firms that could use Henry’s expertise in solid state applications.
After working on special projects in New York, the Henrys moved to Warrenton in the early 1970s, where Henry worked at InterTechnology Corporation, George Szego’s firm on Main Street, Warrenton. He later held teaching positions.
Marilene Henry earned her undergraduate degree in economics and master’s degree in French at George Mason University, and her doctorate in French Civilization from the University of Virginia in 1986. She has also taught French language and literature at George Mason University.
Marilene has also written two historical books about World War I and served as the academic dean at Wakefield Country Day School in Huntly.
The Henry family has always been involved in equestrian events. In addition to riding, Marilene served as the bookkeeper for the Warrenton Pony Show, and her late son Yves was a well-known rider and trainer in Fauquier.
An animal lover, Marilene has been a member of the Fauquier SPCA board, as well as a canine volunteer with her therapy dog, Jazz, under the auspices of Fauquier Hospital.
Reach John Toler at email@example.com