18 Battalion and Armoured Regiment
CHAPTER 9 — Out of Greece
Out of Greece
The battalion had a couple of free, comfortable days at Molos, undisturbed by the German planes that came buzzing round at intervals. It took the opportunity to tidy up a bit; the men lay under the trees and washed off their grime in the stream; they explored the nearby villages, and bought (or scrounged) food to supplement their rations, which were beginning to run short. Those who had strayed during the withdrawal went back to their own companies, and the names of those missing were sorted out.
And yet the short break wasn't really much of a holiday. The atmosphere was still jumpy and full of rumours. Jerry was hard on the heels of the retreating forces, and there was quite a likelihood that he might try to short-circuit the Thermopylae line by coming across the narrow Aegean inlet by which 18 Battalion was parked. In that case, the battalion would have been right in the way. So on the evening of 20 April A and D Companies went down to a nearby bay to patrol and give warning if Jerry approached. Next day C Company took over the job, and on the 22nd the carriers joined the party. Nothing happened to disturb the peaceful course of these patrols.
On 21 April A, B and D Companies went much farther afield, out to the forefront of the Thermopylae line, to help the battalions of 5 Brigade in their wiring operations. This was a lively enough job for those actually engaged in digging and wiring, but deadly dull for others who had to man standing patrols away out forward of the line covering the working parties. Next morning the companies pulled out again and went back to their quiet retreat at Molos.
These few days had a wonderful effect on the battalion's morale, despite the shortage of food. Most cheering of all was an official story that from now on there would be more air support, backed up by the appearance soon afterwards of a page 110 handful of Hurricanes overhead. The report later turned out to be anything but justified; but at the time it gave everyone's spirits a badly-needed lift.
The 22nd April was a bitter day for the New Zealanders in Greece, for in the morning the expected and yet incredible news came through—Greece was to be evacuated, the whole force was to pull back to various embarkation ports, everything except weapons and ammunition was to be destroyed.
The Division was to withdraw through Athens and out to a number of small ports and beaches east of the city, where cruisers and destroyers would pick the men up. It was to go straight back from the Thermopylae line; 4 Brigade was to leave first and take up a rearguard position south of Thebes, some 60 miles back in a straight line, where the rest of the Division would pass through it.
As usual, 18 Battalion got short notice. Just before lunchtime on 22 April word came down to move that night, which meant fairly rapid preparation during the afternoon. C Company and the carriers were recalled from the beach, and the order went out to destroy everything except what was absolutely essential, and to keep only one blanket each. Everyone felt that this was a bit too sweeping, and events a few days later were to prove this true; but the gear had to be dumped, there was no arguing with the orders.
That evening the battalion set out on its travels again, moving in convoy eastwards round the coast. This time there was not the glut of traffic that there had been on the Larisa road, but for drivers and passengers alike it was a gruelling trip, without lights, over narrow roads that wound in and out, and later (when they left the coast and struck south) up and down. The pace was dead slow all night. Nobody knew where the battalion was going—the only destination given to it had been a map reference, and the CO and company commanders had gone ahead of the main convoy to look the place over. After a roundabout trip of 100 miles, during which the battalion passed through the ancient city of Thebes without caring a damn about it, the convoy met the advance party again in the village of Kriekouki (or Erithrai), nestling at the foot of a long steep hill over which the main road wound through a high pass between bare peaks.page 111
Dawn was just breaking when the unit reached Kriekouki. The trucks dispersed in and round the village, in gardens, under trees, beside houses and stone walls, and everyone settled down for the day, praying that the Luftwaffe wouldn't spot them. While daylight lasted there was no movement at all. It wasn't a comfortable day, as every now and then great swarms of German bombers roared over in the direction of Athens, but none attacked Kriekouki. The men idled the day away, lay in the shade, or bargained with the villagers for eggs to add to their little store of food. Kriekouki was a pleasant, friendly little town, not yet touched by the war, and the battalion sighed with relief when dusk fell and the danger from the air passed.
As night fell the deserted road suddenly sprang into life. Every cranny seemed to disgorge trucks, which streamed off southwards in long convoys. At 9 p.m. 18 Battalion, complete with weapons and what small amount of gear it still possessed, joined the throng and moved off up the winding hill. The transport went right over the pass and hid in wooded gullies six miles south. The rifle companies, after a hard climb up from the road, reached their position up in the clouds and did their best to settle down before daylight. They didn't altogether succeed—some groups got lost in the dark, and daybreak found A Company still out of position. There was a good deal of moving and scrambling round after dawn until the companies sorted themselves out. Luckily the Luftwaffe wasn't on the job very early.
The position, once they got it straight, was a first-class one. The road twisted its way up a gorge, and after passing through the position lost itself in hills and hummocks to the south. The battalion had a wonderful view down the gorge towards Kriekouki, over the plain to the north, and along the road by which Jerry could be expected to arrive. D Company, on the left, could look across the gorge to the road cut into the other side. Next to it was A Company, with C Company away out on the right, perched on a knoll, separated from A by a steep ravine. The companies were linked to Battalion Headquarters by telephone, laid hastily by signal parties early in the morning.
The lower slopes of the mountain were covered with a stunted scrub rather like broom; farther up was bare rock. Neither gave any cover to speak of. The battalion had to take hasty makeshift measures to hide before the Luftwaffe came snooping round. Men pulled off branches to cover themselves, and those high up above the scrub line tucked themselves in page 113 beside rocks, lay still, and tried to look as much as possible like bits of the landscape. By good fortune the camouflage succeeded. For much of the day little ‘recce’ planes were putt-putting low overhead, while every now and again a stray bomber would roar up and down the road, as one man put it, ‘looking for something to play with’. But not once was 18 Battalion attacked—a tribute to its steadiness and lack of panic. One man losing his head could have brought merry hell down on the whole unit. But nothing of the sort happened. The men lay stock still, hating the Luftwaffe.
Fourth Brigade's orders had been to hold this position for twenty-four hours, but the unit wasn't to get away so easily. On the afternoon of 24 April came word to stay for another twenty-four hours, to give other formations more time to get away. So 18 Battalion hung on, though short of food and water, and chilled to the bone at night without enough blankets to go round. Luckily, it didn't rain. The days were anxious ones, everybody lying doggo for fear of those pitiless planes; the nights were alert, reconnaissance and standing patrols out farther down the hill, ears pricked for any suspicious sound from the north. The road, deserted by day, filled with traffic at night, as New Zealand convoys moved hastily over the pass to get as far south as possible before dawn drove them into hiding, and gangs of Aussie pioneers came out from nowhere to work on demolitions in the road just below the battalion.
Anzac Day passed in much the same way as the 24th—and again that afternoon the battalion's hopes of getting away that night were dashed when orders came to cling on for yet another twenty-four hours. This order, though it sounded like another good old army muck-up, had reason behind it. The original plan to embark the Kiwis from east of Athens had been changed, and the Division was now to go west instead, cross the Corinth Canal, and embark from handier ports in the Peloponnese. The extra day's stand at Kriekouki by 4 Brigade would let 6 Brigade (the last formation to pull out from Thermopylae) get right through and over the canal, with every chance of being unmolested.
Unfortunately, it didn't work out that way. A German paratroop landing at Corinth early on 26 April put it right out of the question for 4 Brigade to get through to the Peloponnese. page 114 During the day the 4 Brigade battalions got hasty orders to pull out that night, and to make as quickly as possible for Porto Rafti, east of Athens.
Before these orders came through, 18 Battalion had been enjoying its only bit of excitement since coming to ‘Twenty-four-hour Hill’. Late on the morning of 26 April the German spearhead (motor-bikes and tanks followed by troop-carrying trucks) could be seen in the distance, moving through Thebes and well down the road towards Kriekouki. They were too far away for 18 Battalion, but the unit had a fine view of the havoc wrought among the force when it came within range of the supporting Aussie guns. These fired fast and accurately, and the Jerries retired hurriedly through Thebes, leaving knocked-out trucks sitting there at all angles. Shells followed them all the way, and they seemed to have no wish to come back for more.
A few hours of quiet, and then the battalion saw a much more disturbing sight—long German columns turning east off the main road at Thebes on to another road leading well away from Kriekouki. This was more than ominous, it was the end, for this second road led round the eastern flank to Athens, outflanking 4 Brigade altogether. There was nothing the battalion could do about it, only pray that it would be ordered back before its retreat was cut off. This order, as has been said, came through during the afternoon, and it was hailed in 18 Battalion with sighs of mighty relief.
This withdrawal did not compare with the Servia nightmare, but for tired, hungry men it was bad enough—a scramble of anything up to an hour through rocks and scrub to the road, then a six-mile march down to the transport. The Aussie guns were still firing flat out as the battalion left. The future was a bit worrying. Nobody knew how far Jerry had gone on his flanking move towards Athens, or whether the paratroops from Corinth had come up to cut off the withdrawal. You could only get going as fast as possible, and hope that you didn't run into trouble. The trucks had already taken down all their canopies, to give the passengers clear fields of fire in case of a scrap.
By 11.15 p.m. the battalion was on its way. Over the first few miles of curly roads and ragged hills the pace was deadly page 115 slow, so, abandoning all idea of caution, Lieutenant-Colonel Gray gave the order to put on headlights, and away went the convoy, full speed for Athens, 30 miles away. One truck whose lights fused was wrecked and pushed off the road with no ceremony. Only one more range of hills, thank Heaven, and then the road flattened out and became comparatively straight. At 2 a.m. the convoy reached Athens, and sped on through the deserted city, without stopping, shattering every speed limit ever imposed. About 15 miles past the city the trucks stopped and dispersed in an orchard, and the men thankfully crawled out and went to bed. The first signs of dawn were just glimmering in the sky.
For a few hours all was peace. The cooks scratched up some breakfast, and everyone relaxed—until 9 a.m. when, without warning, along came news that rudely woke the battalion. German tanks were already in Athens. The battalion was to turn to at once, destroy its transport and everything not portable, and get away on foot as soon as possible to Porto Rafti, six miles east. There it was to join 19 and 20 Battalions in a defensive position to hold Jerry at bay for the day, and the Navy would probably pick everybody up that night.
There wasn't much time to reflect on this news. The destruction of the trucks was a matter of minutes—all spare parts had already been smashed at Kriekouki, and now the drivers proceeded to break windscreens and headlights with spanners and lumps of wood, to rip tyres, to drain the sumps and run the engines till they seized. From this slaughter one truck for each company was spared, and on these was thrown the little essential gear that remained. The signallers still had some precious telephones and cable, but apart from that there wasn't much left now except weapons and ammunition. The men had very little to carry, only their rifles, what few personal possessions hadn't been dumped, and as much food as they could get hold of. Most of them still had their gas masks.
As soon as the destruction was complete 18 Battalion moved off. The companies soon shook out into open formation, the men going along lanes and through the vines and olive groves, using all the cover they could find, while the remaining trucks used the road, along with the Aussie field guns which had done so nobly at Kriekouki.page 116
It wasn't much over a mile to Markopoulon, the last town of any size that the battalion was to pass through in Greece. Here took place one of the most touching scenes the men ever saw. All Markopoulon was out in the main street to see the battalion pass; the people wept, called down blessings on the soldiers' heads, pressed on them gifts of flowers, water and wine. This display made the men feel as if they were running away, deserting these kindly people, leaving them to the mercy of the Germans. So there wasn't a man in the battalion who didn't feel depressed and sad, and all the less able to bear what came next.
What came next was the Luftwaffe. The battalion was just leaving Markopoulon, with a swarm of children still running alongside, when four Messerschmitts suddenly swooped out of the blue and dived on the road. The men ran desperately for open country, but the trucks and guns couldn't do that. They were caught with no cover handy, and didn't have a chance. The planes (now joined by about fifteen more) strafed along the road, concentrating on each vehicle in turn till it went up in flames. Then they machine-gunned at random over the surrounding country, where the men were lying huddled in furrows or under trees as inconspicuously as possible. Some men stood their ground and fired back, but without success. Incendiary bullets set alight a dry field of grain in which Headquarters Company had taken refuge, and the men had to move out in a hurry.
It seemed hours that the planes were overhead, but actually it was only ten minutes. They left a shambles behind them, burning trucks all along the road, an ammunition truck going up in countless small explosions. In 18 Battalion six men had been killed and twelve wounded. The battalion was so scattered that it took some time to reassemble; then it moved on again, across a flat tree-studded plain that ended four miles ahead in low hills hiding the Promised Land of Porto Rafti. Abandoned weapons and gear littered the countryside, and at one spot the men saw dozens of trucks sitting smashed and desolate among the trees, just like the ones they themselves had left.
Cooking in the field. Note the drip-burner stoves—see p. 36
Wadi Naghamish. 18 Battalion at work
Dinner time, Baggush
Dinner time, Mikri Milia, Greece
Pause on roadside, Greece—Lt-Col Gray on the left
Looking down on Servia
German troops on the march towards Sfakia
18 Bn Porto Rafti
In the afternoon the action flared up again. First of all the field guns opened up, and men looked at each other and wondered, ‘What's this?’ Then from somewhere in the distance the mortars joined in. And then, soon afterwards, the rumour went round that Jerry was in Markopoulon, a big force of tanks and infantry. It looked as if they might be caught right at the finishing post, because, despite plenty of will to fight, they had nothing much now with which to stop Jerry tanks.
But the miracle happened—the enemy didn't stir past Markopoulon, and 4 Brigade finished the day undisturbed, which was more than it had hoped for. All that happened was that some more planes came over about 5 p.m., and roamed round uselessly strafing empty boats off the coast.page 118
We know now that the German force was a small, lightly equipped flying column of one motor-cycle battalion with no tanks and no means of launching a really heavy attack, and that it wasn't really directed on Porto Rafti at all, but on Lavrion, a larger port some miles south. But even at that, 4 Brigade owed its escape to Jerry's providential lack of radio communication. Let the German report speak for itself:
The battalion left (Athens) for Lavrion at 1400 hours. The advance company had no contact with the enemy, and advanced through Markopoulon towards Lavrion, but while the battalion commander was at Markopoulon the report came in that between Markopoulon and Porto Rafti there were English troops who were abandoning their vehicles and fleeing towards the coast.
3 Coy was instructed to pursue them. Just east of Markopoulon the company came under accurate fire…. A fighting patrol immediately went out, and reported that the heights between Markopoulon and Porto Rafti were strongly held, and that the enemy line curved right to Porto Rafti bay.
As our heavy weapons and artillery were not up with us, the battalion adjutant was sent to contact the Corps Chief of Staff to ask for Stukas. The companies were ordered not to go further forward than Markopoulon so that the Stuka attack could take place. The adjutant did not arrive at Corps HQ, till 1730 hours, and therefore Stukas could not then be made available for the same day. By the time the adjutant got back it was dark, and therefore impossible for the battalion to mount an attack.
At daybreak a fighting patrol was sent out and reported that the enemy had disappeared….
And now, after this brief peep over the fence, let us return to 18 Battalion, sitting among the trees outside Porto Rafti Late in the afternoon the order that the unit was praying for arrived. It was to be the first of the battalions to withdraw, moving after dark to Porto Rafti, where the Navy would take over and do the rest. The word went swiftly round. When darkness fell the companies assembled and moved off, each one separately, on the last four miles of their trek through Greece. The Aussie guns were still firing, but nothing came back in return.
There wasn't much to Porto Rafti—a cove with a jetty, two or three buildings, a few fishing boats drawn up on the beach, and that was about all. But waiting for 18 Battalion was a team of efficient naval officers and New Zealanders, who now stepped in and took command.page 119
Their first order was a familiar one—all surplus gear to be thrown away. The ships were going to be jammed tight with men, as tight as they could be, and there wasn't room for gear, beyond rifles, small haversacks and greatcoats. Everything else had to go. By now the men had little that could be called surplus, but there was a mess and a scramble in the dark as they shoved the most indispensable items into their small packs. Then big packs, gas masks, a few odd blankets that had escaped the previous purges, all were tossed aside. Colonel Gray commented later that this was ‘criminal and scandalous’— but the beach staff had its orders, men before equipment, so the equipment had to go. A few men kept their Brens, and the signallers somehow managed to sneak on board a few telephones, an exchange and some coils of cable. Very little of the New Zealand Division's signal gear was rescued from Greece, and it was quite a notable feat for the 18 Battalion ‘sigs’ to talk their way on to the ship with this.
There were still two hours to wait before anything was due to happen, and a long two hours they were, with the thought still in all minds that a sudden onslaught by Jerry, or failure by the ships to keep their appointment, might yet cook the whole thing and put them all ‘in the bag’. The men sat, stood, or strolled aimlessly round, silent and on edge.
They needn't have worried. Punctually at 11 p.m. small boats appeared out of the dark, and things began to move. Some of the men were taken off by a big barge, no wet feet, no discomfort. Others had to wade out to small boats, some of them into two feet of water, and one party, after embarking, had to get out again and push their boat off the bottom. As each boat was filled it moved quietly out to the ships lying offshore, and the men hauled themselves clumsily up landing nets to the decks, helped by sailors whose kindness was tinged with good-humoured, tolerant contempt for these landlubbers. The men peeled off their wet clothes, appeased their raging hunger with biscuits and treacle and cocoa, then settled down to sleep wherever they could find a spot. When the ships got under way most of 18 Battalion was ‘out cold’.
The battalion's old friend HMS Ajax took off most of the men; others were on the destroyers Kimberley and Kingston. The convoy headed south-east at full speed, and at 10 a.m. next day reached Crete and anchored in Suda Bay.page 120
That was how the main body of 18 Battalion left Greece. But there were other small parties as well, who got separated from the unit somehow or other and had a variety of adventures before getting away.
There were, first, the four remaining carriers. On the evening of 26 April, when the Kriekouki position was abandoned, they were ordered to the Corinth Canal to rescue a party of Kiwis stranded there (or, for all anyone knew, captured by the German paratroops). Corporal Owsley,1 who was with this party, reports: ‘After travelling a few miles we came to a small village …, and from an old house … a “welcome” of rifle & machine gun fire was very heavily turned on us. Lucky for us it was dark or the result would have been finish for all of us, but we got through.’ The carriers filled themselves up with the New Zealand party plus an odd assortment of Aussie and Cypriot stragglers (all starving), then ran for it, the crews holding their breath as they passed the danger point. Luck was with them. They caught the tail of 4 Brigade's column before it reached Porto Rafti; there the carriers were destroyed, and the bereaved crews embarked on HMS Kimberley in the evening.
Next there was an advanced group of eight under Major Petrie, which had left Kriekouki for the Peloponnese on 25 April, before the Corinth landing put the lid on 4 Brigade's embarkation plan. This little party got as far as Corinth by the morning of the 26th, and had a grandstand view of the paratroop drop. They were chased by Jerry planes all the way south to Monemvasia, at the south-east corner of the peninsula, and were evacuated from there along with a hotchpotch of New Zealand engineers and stragglers from all sorts of units.
There were others, too, who lost the battalion somehow or other in the withdrawal and made their way south, mostly small groups mixed up with men from other units. Some joined an organised stragglers' company, which got as far as Kalamata, away down on the south coast of the Peloponnese; but here they were trapped, and most of them were captured by a German column before the Navy could take them off. Among them was Bill Flint,2 of the ‘I’ section, who later became page 121 a persistent escaper from German prison camps. Another of the party, of whom 18 Battalion is not proud, became one of the very few New Zealand prisoners to collaborate with the Germans.
Some 18 Battalion men were included in a group of several hundred who, when the Germans broke through, were in hospital at Athens or convalescing at the New Zealand base camp. They were sent off by train or truck to Megara, just east of the Corinth Canal, where they spent three uncomfortable, hungry days in hiding while waiting to be evacuated. About half the party was taken off by ship on the night of 25 April. The rest were out of luck; they were picked up by the German paratroops at Corinth next morning. Two 18 Battalion officers, Lieutenants Matheson3 and Foot,4 were among the unlucky ones, and also Private Jack Hooper,5 who escaped to the hills and spent the remaining war years with the Greeks.
A few others also succeeded in escaping from German hands and rejoined the battalion after varying adventures. There was, for instance, Lieutenant H. B. J. Sutton, who was in hospital in Athens when the Germans arrived. He later crawled under the wire of the Athens convalescent camp, and, along with eighteen others, was evacuated to Egypt in a fishing smack with the help of the Greek ‘underground’. Bill Pritt,6 of 12 Platoon, had an even shorter captivity—he escaped after only two days, accompanied the German army south dressed in Greek uniform, and was back with 18 Battalion inside two months. Lieutenant Foot made a break from Corinth, sailed a small boat to Pirfæus, and rejoined the battalion at Porto Rafti.
Eighteenth Battalion had a reinforcement company in Greece, mainly 4th Reinforcements drafted to the Division just before it left Egypt. This company was camped near Athens page 122 with the other New Zealand reinforcements, and spent its time guarding dumps and installations of various kinds in Athens and Pirfæus—a dull job, brightened up occasionally by air raids on Pirfæus harbour.
On 25 April all the New Zealand reinforcements were ordered to Navplion, in the Peloponnese, for evacuation. Shipping losses made this impossible, so the group was sent farther south to Kalamata, where most of it was captured. Some sixty of the battalion's reinforcements suffered this fate, but the rest, under Second-Lieutenant Nelson,7 commandeered a fishing boat and escaped to Crete after a five-day trip. They were received with open arms by 18 Battalion, which was crying out for reinforcements to fill some of the gaps left by the Greek campaign.
For 18 Battalion, as for the rest of the Division, the Greek campaign was the most disappointing they were ever to experience. The men had started out full of confidence and high hopes; they finished up disillusioned and depressed, feeling that they had been pushed round to no good purpose and hadn't even got a good crack at Jerry. Their main impression of the campaign was one of backbreaking loads and perpetual weariness, of hostile planes snarling overhead, and (in the later stages) of nagging hunger. The battalion had lost 23 dead, 42 wounded, 117 captured. Every company had its losses, and they were all the heavier because they seemed to have been in vain.
But the men had also learnt an invaluable lesson. They were blooded now. They had seen the artillery in action and admired the way the gunners stuck to their posts under direct air attack; they had blessed the friendly ASC drivers, who were so generous with the spare rations they always seemed to have on their trucks; they even had words of praise for the provosts who braved the bombs to keep the traffic moving. The battalion was to approach its future actions in a different frame of mind, not so cocky, better aware of its role as one piece of the intricate formation that was the New Zealand Division.
2 Pte W. Flint; Invercargill; born Invercargill, 27 Jan 1919; civil servant; wounded 28 Apr 1941; p.w. 29 Apr 1941; escaped Jun 1941; lived 1½ years in Greece before being recaptured; made several escapes in Germany, but was recaptured.