18 Battalion and Armoured Regiment
CHAPTER 8 — Withdrawal from Servia
Withdrawal from Servia
The idea of withdrawing from the Olympus and Servia positions wasn't a sudden or panicky move. It was another of those decisions made reluctantly by the leaders of the British forces in Greece simply because the enemy was too strong for them. As the German advance developed it soon became obvious that no line across northern Greece would be tenable for long, as there were not enough troops to hold it; and by 13 April, before the Germans even appeared on 18 Battalion's front, a withdrawal had definitely been decided on. The next line to be held was at Thermopylae, 90 miles south, where Greece narrows to an isthmus.
Fourth Brigade's part in the general plan for Anzac Corps' withdrawal was to stay in place until the Aussies were out, then to disengage and go back through a rearguard consisting of Divisional Cavalry at Elevtherokhorion (where the roads from Servia and Olympus converge) and 6 Brigade at Elasson, a little farther south. After that the brigade would go right back to the Thermopylae position, leaving the main road at Larisa for a secondary road round the east coast through Volos.
Within 4 Brigade, 18 and 19 Battalions were to pull out under cover of darkness and walk back through the valley south of the Servia Pass. The southern end of the valley would be held by 20 Battalion as a rearguard, and a little beyond that trucks would be waiting to pick the men up. The night of the withdrawal was originally to be 18-19 April. On the 16th it was put forward to the night of 17-18 April.
Time was running short before the changed orders penetrated down to 18 Battalion. They were passed on verbally by Brigadier Puttick at 4 Brigade Headquarters late on the afternoon of the 16th, and by the time Lieutenant-Colonel Gray had gone back to the battalion and got word to the companies page 98 it was too late to make any preliminary moves that night. The prospect of getting the whole battalion, plus equipment, back over the mountain goat-tracks and out of the valley in nine short hours of darkness was rather appalling, but nothing could be carried back in daylight, as the Germans, whatever happened, must not be given the least inkling of what was up. There was only one thing to be done. Colonel Gray reluctantly gave orders that nothing was to be brought out except weapons, ammunition and essential gear. Everything else, including food, blankets, and the nice new two-man bivouac tents only received within the last couple of days, was to be left behind, and if possible destroyed.
The men's feelings on hearing the orders can be imagined. They were aghast. Here they were, prepared to hold firm for ever, and now they had to up sticks and get out, leaving a lot of their possessions for Jerry. Not only that, but they would have to get back over those breakneck tracks at a fast pace in the dark. No wonder that 17 April wasn't a happy day for 18 Battalion. The luckiest men were some in the foremost posts who didn't get word of the move until quite late in the afternoon, so didn't have so many hours to think about it.
The battalion's drivers were busy men that day. The ration dump from which they drew supplies had been abandoned the previous night, so the drivers spent the morning there, piling as much as they could on the trucks, destroying as much of the rest as possible. This seemed a sin, but, as one of them said, everything spoiled was a little less for Jerry. Trucks from other units were also there helping themselves, and also Greeks from the nearby villages, marvelling at this unheard-of windfall. Then after lunch 18 Battalion's transport was summoned up to Lava to load what gear was available, with orders to wait there until the companies came back after dark.
Up in the front line the morning was very quiet, with the mist still thick over everything. It would have been well for 18 Battalion if it had stayed that way. But soon after midday it cleared, and the German artillery and planes began again.
The shelling had hardly begun when C Company suffered a grievous blow. Some incautious movement as the mist cleared must have been picked up by a sharp-eyed observer opposite; the Germans got right on to one of 15 Platoon's section posts, page 99 and landed a salvo of mortar bombs in the trench. The section was almost wiped out—four killed and two wounded. Stretcher bearers were on the job promptly, but took most of the afternoon to carry one man back along that fearful track to Battalion Headquarters, and were completely done at the end.
The front line, despite this calamity, didn't get very much shelling that afternoon, but Lava ‘copped a packet’. As the mist cleared two ‘recce’ planes came snooping overhead, and soon afterwards shells again began to fall on Lava, followed by a bombing and strafing raid. The 18 Battalion ack-ack men stuck to their guns and gave the planes what they could, but with no success. For the rest of the afternoon the shelling was continual, and several men were wounded in Lava. The transport was sent away in a hurry without waiting for the companies, and ran the gauntlet of mud and shells all the way down to the main road.
Eighteenth Battalion's general orders were to withdraw on foot to the main road behind Lava, and back through the valley to a spot just beyond its southern end, where ASC trucks would pick it up and head south for the village of Molos, behind the Thermopylae line. The trucks were to leave one by one as they were filled. Twentieth Battalion would provide a company as rearguard, and the last people to leave the valley would be a party of engineers, who would blow a series of demolitions all along the road as they withdrew. They were to be clear of the valley by 3 a.m.
During the day the supporting artillery pulled out, and the infantry was once more on its own. By great ill-luck, the last of the guns were just moving out when the mist cleared, which undoubtedly helped to give the enemy the impression that something was afoot. Eighteenth Battalion's rifle companies, too, had to send carrying parties back in daylight from the forward positions with such things as mortars and spare ammunition. This was contrary to the original plan, but was the only possible way of saving this gear—the risk of being spotted by Jerry, observers had to be taken. It was doubly unfortunate because in the end most of the heavy gear was left behind anyway.
From the forward positions there were two possible ways back, one across the forward slope of the hill and through C page 100 Company's area on the left flank, and the other (the ‘back track’), rougher, longer and rockier, steeply uphill from Kastania through D Company and round the reverse slope. Lieutenant-Colonel Gray's original plan was to send everyone except D Company out by the forward track, but late on the 17th he changed the orders. C Company was now to make its own way to Lava by the shorter track, while the other companies all moved out over the back track—B Company to pull out first and go back through A and D, then A to follow on, and D to come last as rearguard. Men of the Intelligence Section would guide the column on this track.
The forward areas buzzed with activity in the few hours before starting time. Company rendezvous and timings were arranged; runners took the orders round to platoons and sections. The men made ready, packed their most valued and important possessions, and burnt the rest, or buried them, or savagely slashed them with knives and bayonets. Blankets were torn to ribbons. The positions were a chaos of ruined gear when the men left. Everyone, of course, carried out his rifle, Bren or Tommy gun—orders for this were strict and stern. Besides their packs, the men carried picks and shovels, and sandbags containing what felt like tons of spare ammunition.
Back in the battalion's rear areas things were getting organised as well as possible, which wasn't very well. The trucks were hurriedly summoned back to Lava as night began to fall, but didn't get more than halfway, as the road was so deep in mud that they couldn't force their way through. Some of them stuck fast, and the carriers patrolled up and down the road to pull out any that got into difficulties. For half the night the carriers worked hard under shellfire; two of them shed tracks hauling one truck out of a morass, and had to be left behind. The rest were ordered shortly before midnight to leave for the south.
Filling palliasses, Papakura
The battalion goes ashore at Tewfik
A Company signal office, Maadi, 1940
Battalion transport at Kasr-el-Nil Barracks
It was midnight before the first company appeared. This was C Company, which staggered into Lava, a laden, gasping mob too weary even to curse.
The company had been delayed for an hour at its rendezvous by 14 Platoon, which for safety's sake had taken a rough, roundabout way back from its isolated hill, and had only been kept together by the efforts of Lieutenant Pyatt, who had stopped frequently to count heads and had then gone back to round up any stragglers. Not long after the platoons left their forward positions shells began to fall on the track, which was under steady fire by the time the company was together and ready to leave. This was a tragedy—the walk back, everyone knew, was going to be as much as they could bear anyway, loaded beyond normal capacity and moving fast over those rocks and slopes. But there was no choice. The men set out in single file, stooping under their loads, grunting their way up the hill, diving to earth whenever a shell screamed close. They were downhearted, cold, wet and anxious—anxious because flares were being fired away down below in the valley, and the rumour spread that Jerry was following up hard on their heels. They reached Lava dog-tired, mud-caked, and so shaken by the shelling that Major Lynch's2 first words to Major Petrie were, ‘For God's sake don't let us be shelled any more.’
Such a request wasn't easily granted. The German gunners, now free from all molestation by the New Zealand artillery, continued to plaster Lava, the road, and the whole area impartially. C Company, after a short rest, shouldered their burdens and carried on, not down the track, but up a gully page 102 and across country in a vain attempt to dodge the shelling. To reach the road they had to cross a stream bed and crawl up an almost vertical 50-foot bank, quite a feat at any time, but a tremendous effort for tired, overloaded men. They hauled one another up the bank, and found themselves on the road by 20 Battalion's check post, with a worried Colonel Kippenberger asking anxiously about the other companies. Of course, nobody knew where they were, except that they were taking the back track and might by now be anywhere on God's earth. C Company pushed on down the road, breathing easier now despite the shelling.
Hard on its heels, and in much the same condition, came a party of fifteen from Battalion Headquarters under Captain Smith,3 and then the mortar platoon and Second-Lieutenant Ryan's4 12 Platoon of B Company, all of which had taken C Company's route out. No. 12 Platoon had had a man killed by the shelling, and five others had fallen behind (they were picked up by the Germans next day).
Not far down the road the waiting battalion trucks relieved the men of their gear, took it on another three miles to the ASC trucks, then came back to wait for the next load. The men walked the three miles, crawled into the ASC trucks, and most of them were asleep almost before the trucks moved off.
There was still no sign of the rest of 18 Battalion, and at I a.m. Major Petrie and the rest of Rear HQ pulled out from Lava, assuming that the companies were somewhere up the hills on the back track and would probably miss Lava. The rearguard company of 20 Battalion also pulled out, leaving Colonel Kippenberger and his small engineer party as 18 Battalion's sole covering force. Before the night was out 18 Battalion was to have cause for eternal gratitude to them.
C Company's withdrawal, as has been seen, was a tough ordeal. But for the other companies on the back track it was only just short of impossible. Only the thought of Jerry behind kept many of the men from lying down halfway and giving up the struggle.page 103
B Company was nearly three hours late coming back through Kastania—being so closely under the enemy's eye it hadn't been able to get its heavy gear back any earlier. By the time the company reached Kastania the men were already staggering. On they went, panting up the slope with their loads, with A and D following on behind. Luckily, the shelling that was plaguing C Company hadn't yet got over as far as the back track, except for a few odd ones now and again. Just as the last half of D Company was hauling itself over the top of the ridge a sudden fierce barrage fell on Kastania and the hillside they were leaving—only a few minutes too late to do any real damage.
Over the ridge the track led down through a sort of basin where the column was comparatively safe from shelling. But its troubles were only beginning. It was pitch black by now, drizzly and cold, and you could hardly see a yard ahead. As the battalion stumbled down the hill the night's culminating series of heartbreaks began.
The track, which wasn't much of a track to begin with, soon petered out among broken, rocky spurs and gullies. The guides lost their way, and small blame to them—as one said, ‘It was a matter of sheer luck to find one's way in the dark without a track, up hills and down and round other hills etc.’ There were delays as the guides sought desperately for the right way; there were false starts that took the column by roundabout ways over frighteningly steep country. Men tripped and fell over stones, staggered to their feet and reeled on, still dragging their sandbags of ammunition. Other men sat down to rest while the line went on past them, and the companies began to get mixed up. At the frequent halts some would nod off to sleep, holding up those behind them and breaking the column—as it got near where Lava ought to be, the officers several times had to halt the line, go back to round up the strays, and push them forward to catch up. This took a lot of time. It was getting late, and though the officers fumed at the delays, swore, cajoled and bullied, they couldn't get the pace any faster. A few men sat or lay down and refused to go any farther.
Finally (it was after 1.30 a.m. by now, high time the whole battalion was out), Colonel Gray, who was in the lead with B Company, struck the mud track from Lava to the main road. page 104 This was largely due to one man, Corporal Fred Redfern, 5 who had taken over the guiding halfway and led the column confidently in the right direction. The leaders drew breaths of relief—and then it was found that only about a dozen of B Company were there. Somewhere back in the darkness the file had broken again, and only the head of B Company had kept up.
There was no point in going back or waiting. Down through the slush of the track the little party waded, and at the junction with the road found Colonel Kippenberger. Gray told his sad story—two and a half companies were still somewhere up there, wandering in the dark, and he was afraid they would have to be abandoned. Kippenberger sent the group off down the road, arranged for the battalion trucks to ferry them down to the ASC park and come back for another load, then settled down again to wait, heedless of the impatience of the engineers, who were anxious to blow the demolitions and be gone.
The rest of the column waited about half an hour after losing the leaders, not suspecting that it was anything but another of those halts while the guides cast round for clues. Then, quoting Captain Kelleway:
A call came down the column for me…. To my consternation, I found on arrival that this was the situation—the twelfth or thirteenth man from the head of B Coy had gone to sleep, and the C.O. with Bill Evans and the guide had disappeared…. As the senior officer remaining, I had to make a quick decision—I knew the Pass was to be blown, I hadn't the faintest idea where we were, but had to do something, and Kelleway:
An impromptu conference of the nearest officers—Captain Kelleway, Lieutenants Pike6 and Evans7 of A Company, Captain Sinclair8 of D, Lieutenant Brown 9 Second-Lieutenant Coote10 of B—met to consider the situation. As page 105 they talked, occasional shellbursts silhouetted the hills across the valley to the right, and Brown recognised landmarks that, he said, should lie in the right direction. It was decided to change course and head straight across country in the direction of these landmarks, stopping for nothing. Kelleway gave the order to dump surplus gear—‘It was not until this stage,’ he says, ‘that the 3” mortars of B Company went, plus the useless 2” mortars the rest of us had.’ Then the column headed off as fast as their aching legs could carry them. Evans took the only compass to keep direction.
This part of the trip was the worst nightmare of all. The men had no idea what was going on, only rumours flying up and down the column that Jerry was chasing them. They were not only lost, but frightened. Some of them threw away everything. Quoting one of them, ‘The tension increased in bounds in an atmosphere of doubt and bewilderment. We pushed on leaving a sea of gear littered around.’ They slithered down hillsides, crawled on hands and knees up the other side. They were drenched with sweat, muddy, bruised, shaking with fatigue.
But they were going the right way. After about half an hour the leaders saw the dim outline of the road ahead, across a gully and up a steep bank, the same bank that had nearly finished C Company. On the road were lights, and men moving up and down, and a little farther on was the sound of truck engines, the friendliest sound the men had ever heard. The climb up to the road was almost more than they could manage, and some who had carried gear and rifles all night threw them away on this last little bit; but up they scrambled, clawing frantically at the earth. At the top helping hands lifted them to their feet. They were bundled into the trucks, where they collapsed in heaps. The time was 4 a.m., and the first signs of dawn were showing. When all were on their way Kippenberger ordered the engineers to blow the first demolition.
The explosion brought despairing cries from stragglers in the gully and back up on the hillside. There were a lot of them— nearly half of D Company, which had lost the column some time before, and odds and ends from the other companies who had been picked up en route. They arrived in little exhausted groups and stumbled off down the road. Even after the second demolition had gone up more men came in, the last few alone page 106 and almost out on their feet. It was 5 a.m. before all were clear. Then, at long last, the rest of the demolitions were blown, and the rear party withdrew.
This was an epic night in 18 Battalion's history, a night demanding hardihood and endurance from all. Those who failed were few. The courage of the forward troops, some of them out on the hillsides for nine hours, was matched by the courage of the truck drivers, who stuck to their job all night through continual shellfire, and didn't leave until the whole battalion was safe. And the battalion could thank Lieutenant-Colonel Kippenberger and the engineers, who would not abandon even the last few stragglers, but ensured the unit's safety at the cost of their own. They were cut off by German tanks as they withdrew, and had a perilous, hectic trip across country, suffering heavy casualties before they got clear.
Eighteenth Battalion's journey south was plain sailing at first, with a fairly fast pace. The road wasn't bad. It left the bare mountains for fertile valley lands, and south of Elasson passed through miles of vines and wheatfields bright with red poppies, a pleasant contrast to the rocks and snow of the Servia heights. Then down on to the Thessalian plain and through Larisa, scarred by a recent earthquake and soon to be devastated entirely by the Luftwaffe.
It was still dark when the first trucks carrying 18 Battalion reached Larisa. All sorts of units and vehicles were pouring south, most of them converging on the main road at Larisa, and it was clear that there was going to be a pretty tight jam on that road later. The road through Volos had turned out to be unfit for heavy trucks, and the entire traffic of the Australian and New Zealand divisions was compelled to use the one narrow main road.
Just after dawn a flight of marauding Jerry planes came over, very low, bombing and machine-gunning up and down the road. A few trucks were hit; men scattered to the fields. When the planes had gone 18 Battalion (such of it as was present) started up and got going again, but found itself in the middle of a jam of traffic that got worse every minute. There was New Zealand, British and Australian traffic all mixed up. Everyone knew that the Jerry planes would be back, and signs of panic were beginning to show here and there.page 107
There was peace for an hour or two, however, while the traffic moved on very slowly. As far ahead as you could see there was still the same solid line of trucks, sometimes two or three abreast. The delays seemed endless, and everyone's nerves were on the jump.
About 10 a.m. Lieutenant-Colonel Gray, intending to bring his battalion together again, pulled off the road, and as each 18 Battalion truck hove in sight it was called in and dispersed in a field. The men were only too pleased to have a wash and a bite of bully beef, then most of them stretched out and dozed, feeling superior to all the unfortunates still crawling along the hot road. Suddenly the planes reappeared. There was another scatter, men ran vaguely here and there—and down came a plane, just above ground level, straight at them. There was no time to dodge. Some dived under the trucks, others didn't even jump out. A stick of bombs crashed along the field. One truck was hit direct, the bomb killing three men and wounding half a dozen more. Up and down the road swept the planes, bombing and strafing mercilessly. Their roar was appalling— they were so low that some of the bombs didn't even have time to straighten out, but slid along the ground on their sides without exploding.
Panic spread through the mass of traffic. Drivers speeded up and tried to jostle their way through the jam, heedless of all else. Some trucks ran off the road and capsized; some stalled and were ruthlessly shoved off the road. And still the planes strafed up and down at will. Men deserted their trucks and ran for the open country, others huddled in the ditches.
Compared to the rest, the Kiwis had little to be ashamed of. Most of them stuck to their trucks. Some grabbed their rifles and fired at the planes swooping overhead; it didn't seem to do them much harm, but it was a gesture of defiance and a relief to the feelings.
When the raid eased off and the traffic began to move the 18 Battalion trucks were out on the road again, in the crush, crawling painfully south through the chaos of trucks and gear that lined the route. There wasn't a hope of any fast progress. The whole road was one huge jam, accentuated by bomb craters, broken bridges, and the abandoned trucks that narrowed down the free road surface.page 108
The raids kept on, too. After the pass south of Larisa there wasn't much bombing, but for the rest of the day, with scarcely a break, the accursed planes were overhead, savagely strafing the column. A truck containing half of 18 Battalion's precious signal gear was hit and set on fire. Every truck had a spotter on the back, whose job was to hammer a warning on the roof of the cab whenever the planes reappeared. At first the trucks all stopped whenever this happened, and everyone tumbled out and took to the ditch. But it was clear that the convoys would never get anywhere that way. Colonel Gray drove along the road, ordering all 18 Battalion trucks to keep going, raids or no raids, and just to drive round halted vehicles. This was better; the pace got a little faster, though it was still not much more than a fast walk.
It was nearly sunset before the raids stopped. The final one came when the battalion's trucks were in the last mountain pass before Lamia, a fair-sized town just north of the Thermopylae line. It was so savage that the traffic had to stop until it slackened off. Then merciful darkness fell, and the battered convoys could go on in peace.
The battalion carried on through Lamia, turned off the main road to the left, along the coast through Molos, and about 11 p.m. reached its destination, which in daylight turned out to be a pleasant tree-shaded area by a stream. But when the men arrived that night they didn't give two hoots for the shade or the stream. They fell out of the trucks, flopped down on the ground, and slept like the dead. Most of the ASC trucks carrying the last of the battalion came in during the night and early morning, and also four of the carriers, which had very sensibly left the road during the raids and gone across country.
Next morning 18 Battalion set to work to lick its wounds. It had had three killed and twenty wounded on the trip, the highest casualties of any New Zealand unit. It had lost only four trucks, which was a wonder. Far more serious was the loss of six carriers, one bombed and the rest broken down or bogged.
For the next few days the battalion rested in this nice quiet spot, while once more the war rolled southwards towards it.
1 Maj-Gen Sir Howard Kippenberger, KBE, CB, DSO and bar, ED, m.i.d., Legion of Merit (US); born Ladbrooks, 28 Jan 1897; barrister and solicitor; I NZEF 1916–17; CO 20 Bn Sep 1939-Apr 1941, Jun-Dec 1941; comd 10 Bde, Crete, May 1941; 5 Bde Jan 1942-Jun 1943, Nov 1943-Feb 1944; GOC 2 NZ Div, 30 Apr-14 May 1943, 9 Feb-2 Mar 1944; comd 2 NZEF Prisoner-of-War Reception Group (UK) Oct 1944-Sep 1945; twice wounded; Editor-in-Chief, NZ War Histories, 1946-57; died Wellington, 5 May 1957.