19 Battalion and Armoured Regiment
CHAPTER 8 — Campaign in Greece
Campaign in Greece
… there was strife and there was
Fortitude and there was fierce Pursuit.
—Homer (Bryant’s translation)
NorthernGreece has always been a bulwark to the richer provinces of the south, for Macedonia, mountainous and dessicated, forms a natural barrier against any invader. Even today the main roads and railway lie at the mercy of the side which can successfully hold the few passes piercing the rugged mountains. Possession of these passes meant the prevention of any mechanised movement south-wards, and the defence lines in Macedonia were planned and manned with this in view.
To the east Thrace is open to entry from Bulgaria, and its effective defence unaided by nature would have been a gigantic task. The line which the Allies planned to hold in the event of invasion began where the Aliakmon River emptied through miles of marshy estuary into the Gulf of Salonika, then followed the mountain range which ran north-west to the Yugoslav border. Its left flank rested on the slopes of Mount Kaimakchalan and at Edhessa it cut both road and railway. On the coast, reserve positions covered the main route via Platamon tunnel and the passes over Mount Olympus.
Along the border on the western flank of the line, Yugoslav forces based at Monastir guarded the main route from Yugoslavia into northern Greece. From Florina to Kozani this fine motor road ran through fairly open country, but a few miles further on began the high rugged country which was entered through the Servia Pass (also known as Portas Pass).
The German declaration of war on 6 April came before the Allied forces were fully disposed, and for the next two days the battalion toiled feverishly at Palionellini, hearing for the first time on 7 April the distant rumble which told page 69 of the unhindered advance of the enemy through Thrace. Fourth Brigade prepared for battle. Work went on apace, digging, wiring and siting weapons, and taking every advantage of the limited time to prepare for the onslaught. As a prelude to the battle the weather broke and became cold and bleak. In driving rain, the New Zealand Division put the finishing touches to its defence sector and stood ready for the fray.
But on the 8th came grim tidings. The Yugoslav Army had broken and the German armour was already at Monastir threatening the rear of the Aliakmon line. An immediate revision of forces was therefore necessary and it was decided to first fall back on a line which would block any enemy advance from Florina. An intermediate line running from Platamon on the coast, through the Olympus Pass and then from Servia Pass along the Vermion Range, linking up at Vevi with an emergency force already stationed there, was decided on. Later it was hoped to assemble an Allied force on the Olympus-Aliakmon River line which would pivot on Servia Pass to the range of hills west of the Florina-Kozani road.
As far back as the twelfth century, Samuel, King of the Bulgars, had recognised the strategic importance of Servia Pass and had built his Byzantine castle above it. Its ruins still tower above the sleepy little village of Servia. This historic pass holds an important position in the history of 19 Battalion, for it was here that the battalion was blooded and in its first encounter with the enemy fought and beat off a veteran battalion of Austrian troops.
Late in the afternoon of the 8th 4 Brigade, with 6 NZ Field Regiment and 5 NZ Field Ambulance under command, was hurriedly ordered to occupy the pivot position at Servia, and began to move to the other side of Mount Olympus to take up a covering position under command of the Australian Corps. The 19th Battalion advance party, with the IO, Captain D. S. Thomson1 in charge, left immediately for Servia Pass.page 70
Once more the battalion packed up. Breakfasting at 3 a.m. on the 9th, it then marched in pitch darkness over the mountain roads which were rapidly deteriorating under the heavy rain and the heavy traffic. The unit’s first-line transport was having teething trouble with its new trucks; faulty steering gear added to the dangers of driving on steep slippery routes, but after an anxious hour or so both troops and vehicles made the grade, and at Gannokhora the three-tonners of the Divisional Petrol Company picked up the marching men. In dismal weather the 19th set out in convoy on the 90-mile journey to a new area near Servia.
A poor prospect greeted the battalion on arrival. Night was falling; the rain, sleet, and snow was continuous; there were no tents, and the frowning cliffs which towered above offered little shelter. The road was deep in mud and the weather showed no signs of improving. While the advance party guides floundered their way over the difficult rain-soaked terrain in an endeavour to point out company areas, for the waiting troops it was every man for himself. Companies cowered among the crags and under the sparse shelter of the few stunted shrubs on their new position. Hawke’s Bay Company found a barn, dry but not built to the scale necessary for billeting a hundred or so troops, and crowded in somehow, counting themselves fortunate. The dawn broke fine but freezing cold, and after an uncomfortable night sodden and dishevelled figures crawled from beneath their dripping groundsheets. The company cooks somehow contrived a hot breakfast, and with its aid all felt fit for the move to the new areas.
A hurried early morning conference fixed forward positions. The unit’s role and the company defended areas were defined as follows: ‘The 19th Battalion will hold the road junction and the mouth of the Pass. Wellington Coy, Right, astride Servia Rd. Taranaki Coy, Centre. Hawke’s Bay Coy, Left. Wellington West Coast Coy, in reserve with one platoon on hill 852. Bren carriers to patrol left flank of 4 Bde front and connect up with the carriers from 18 Bn patrolling on the right.’page 71
Servia Pass positions 13–16 April 1941
Hawke’s Bay Company is shown in the position into which it moved on 13 April. Inset map shows changes in battalion dispositions
After all the effort put into digging defensive posts it was ironical that here, where the unit would first see action, it should strike its most difficult digging. The ground was hard, rocky, and open. The tracks up from the road were page 72 steep and tortuous. Hawke’s Bay Company, fortunate in the night, had a rude awakening in the morning. Theirs was the most formidable task of all; the approach grade was almost vertical and their front was exposed and bare. By lunchtime fatigue and aching shoulders were general complaints but the work went on.
In the afternoon it rained again, but by nightfall good progress had been made, and on the following day, after some adjustments to the original sites, the position began taking shape. Visibility was poor but all around the shouts and thumpings of working parties could be heard. Added to the strength of the 19th were six two-pounder guns from 31 NZ Anti-Tank Battery and a platoon from the Australian 2/1 Machine Gun Battalion. Both these detachments were under command. Further back 6 NZ Field Regiment sited its guns to give support. Along the road and riverbed sappers from 6 NZ Field Company prepared a series of demolitions. Toiling, sweating, swearing, the men worked to the limits of endurance and at night slept where they lay, alongside their tasks. All knew that there was no time to lose.
On the 12th it snowed heavily and with the snow came a warning that enemy paratroops might be expected on the front at any time. Patrols were strengthened but work went on. The Bren carrier platoon under Second-Lieutenant Yorke Fleming had on 10 April begun patrolling the front, and the carriers of the other battalions now joined it as an anti-paratroop screen in front of the brigade positions. That day two Australian battalions withdrew through the position and a weary, pathetic procession of refugees, both military and civilian Greeks, began to stream back. All felt sorry for them, but the unit had to be careful and they became a constant embarrassment, for the canker of fifth column had already made its appearance and some of Signals’ newly laid phone lines were sabotaged. Rough peasant clothing or bedraggled Greek Army uniform could easily cloak a German agent.
In the afternoon the sun broke through and the mists rolled back. For the first time the vast panorama of rugged countryside was revealed. Observation to the north, east, page 73 and west was perfect. Below and to the right lay the village of Servia, set in a valley, and behind it a narrow, precipitous rocky ridge, almost unscalable on its northern side, extended to Prosilion, on the left flank of the position. The valley was almost eight miles long, wide at its northern end but narrowing until it reached the throat of Servia Pass, which was barely sixty yards across. Through the pass ran the road to Elasson.
The high rocky hills on which the 19th worked were almost devoid of scrub or trees, clumps of coarse tussocky grass being the only vegetation. In the valley were small areas of cultivation and a few stunted shrubs and trees. To the north the country was wild and broken, with thin patches of pines and beeches. The Aliakmon River flowed north-east almost parallel with the main road between the pass and Servia. At Servia the road veered sharply north to cross the river at a poplar-fringed bridge and turn north-west again towards Kozani and the Yugoslav border.
In the unit area two small streams crossed the road. The first, on the right of Wellington Company’s position, ran under a reinforced concrete bridge; the second was in the pass itself between Wellington and Hawke’s Bay Companies. Three anti-tank ditches had been prepared between them. Commanding the approaches to the pass, the Greek Army under General Metaxas during the Bulgar war had dug a system of posts and trenches, and these were now occupied in part by Hawke’s Bay Company. A concrete pillbox manned by 16 Platoon Taranaki Company, set on the heights and camouflaged, gave an uninterrupted view as far north as Kozani.
All suitable natural obstacles to the enemy advance were being strengthened by the sappers. The bridge over the Aliakmon was demolished during the afternoon and the road and stream beds mined in many places; later the anti-tank ditches and the small bridge below Wellington Company were blown. Across the right front of Hawke’s Bay Company’s position a thousand Mark IV mines were planted in an area open to attack by armoured fighting vehicles. The detachment from 6 Field Company, under page 74 Lieutenant Kelsall,2 gave every possible assistance to the battalion in preparing the defences of the pass. On the right, above Servia, 18 and 20 Battalions (the latter around Lava) were hard at work on their sectors. Fourth Brigade Group under Brigadier Puttick was making the most of its waiting time.
The 13th April (Easter Sunday) dawned bright and clear; the sun soon melted yesterday’s snow and the change to fine weather gave a fillip to the work. The toiling troops now got their second wind, but there was still much to do and carrying parties were still constantly being called for. In obedience to a brigade order Hawke’s Bay Company had to be shifted to a new position. Maximum man-loads were small and two Greek Army mules and an emaciated donkey were pressed into service to relieve the sweating soldiers. The donkey, true to the tradition of his tribe, proved recalcitrant, but the indefatigable Captain Bedding, OC Hawke’s Bay Company, saw possibilities in the beast and was persevering. It needed a feed—half a mile away was a small square patch of growing grain—but the donkey refused to budge. To the delight of all ranks the little Greek donkey made the trip to the oats draped across the shoulders of a New Zealand officer. But Bedding’s confidence and energy were repaid, for once fed the donkey made the return trip up the goat track to Hawke’s Bay Company headquarters with two cases of ammunition slung across his bony back.
By evening a feeling of satisfaction over work well done and the smell of cooking food put the troops in a happy mood. Groups began to congregate around the company cookhouses to collect platoon rations. Men lay relaxed enjoying the last rays of the sun. By some unrecorded strategy pork had been procured and was being served as a welcome addition to the Easter fare. The meal promised well.
Suddenly across the sky, silhouetted by the setting sun, a flight of seventeen aircraft made its appearance. The men watched with detached interest and munched contentedly— page 75 ours no doubt; probably Blenheims. Then the leader banked and dived. In a moment all was pandemonium; up and down the line the aircraft flew, roaring and spitting like devils out of hell. The mess groups scattered, each man cowering in whatever cover he could find. Even the deepest slit trenches seemed inadequate. Then as the raid went on the anti-aircraft guns opened up. A Yugoslav battery somewhere behind the position sent up some heavy stuff, while the 19th’s own Bren-gunners emptied magazine after magazine in an ineffectual attempt to bring down one of the snarling Stukas. It was all unavailing, and only when they had exhausted their bombs and ammunition did they head for home.
From Servia to the rear areas at Rimnion the whole position had been well and truly pasted. It was the unit’s first experience of a ‘blitz’, and when the din died down all emerged from cover sobered and shaken. Despite the ferocity of the attack, however, the battalion had only three casualties; Private Spaulding3 of Wellington Company, who later died of wounds, was the first member of 19 Battalion to die through enemy action. The impersonal attitude to war now vanished and his company, gritting their teeth, waited to avenge him. For the first and last time the Luftwaffe had caught the battalion off the alert.
That night was black and moonless and our patrols between the road and river moved with increased vigilance. The events of the evening had made it quite clear that our presence was known to, and the importance of our position recognised by, the enemy. Offensive action by his ground forces could now be expected, and it was no surprise when next morning the signallers working with the Bren carriers out in front helioed his advance. They could see his armour rolling into Kozani. At midday, watchers on the heights saw him approach the blown bridge over the Aliakmon; then as he began to prepare a crossing our artillery opened up, driving him back. His 5.9 guns replied and at 6 p.m. the battalion came under artillery fire.page 76
The battle was now on; both air and artillery were being used against our positions. It was clear that possession of the pass would be hotly contested. That night the Brencarrier screen was withdrawn from the brigade front and the road-blocks prepared by the sappers were blown. The line was extended by 20 Battalion, who moved out from Lava to Rimnion to join up with the right flank of 19 Australian Brigade. The 26th Battalion was attached to this Australian formation, and with the 20th now spanned the Aliakmon River south-west of the pass. Once more the Anzacs were to be associated in battle. Fourth NZ Brigade Group, under command of 6 Australian Division, would fight as part of the Anzac Corps formed on 12 April. The whole line was now prepared to meet the advancing enemy. In the forward positions the night of 14–15 April was passed in tense expectation of the impending attack. Intelligence identified the enemy out in front as 9 Armoured Division.
Commands and appointments in the battalion at 15 April 1941 were:
|Commanding Officer||Lt-Col F. S. Varnham, MC, ED|
|Second-in-command||Maj C. A. D’A. Blackburn|
|Adjutant||Capt H. S. Budd|
|Intelligence Officer||Capt D. S. Thomson|
|Quartermaster||Capt J. H. Danderson|
|Medical Officer||Capt W. Carswell, NZMC|
|Chaplain||Rev C. E. Hyde, CF|
|YMCA||Mr J. H. Ledgerwood|
|RSM||WO I J. W. K. Parker|
|RQMS||WO II C. A. Baynes|
|OC||Maj C. M. Williamson|
|Signals Pl||2 Lt C. W. Taylor|
|Anti-Aircraft Pl||Lt F. P. Koorey|
|Mortar Pl||2 Lt J. I. Thodey|
|Bren Carrier Pl||2 Lt Y. K. Fleming|
|Pioneer Pl||2 Lt L. W. Coughlin|
|Transport Pl||2 Lt F. McB. Stewart|
|OC||Capt C. L. Pleasants|
|No. 7 Pl||Lt C. Meiklejohn|
|No. 8 Pl||2 Lt R. B. Scales|
|No. 9 Pl||2 Lt E. D. Blundell|
|CSM||WO II A. W. Steele|
|CQMS||S-Sgt E. Berry|
|OC||Maj R. K. Gordon|
|No. 10 Pl||2 Lt H. Heiford|
|No. 11 Pl||2 Lt F. M. S. Budd|
|No. 12 Pl||2 Lt C. A. L. Ferguson|
|CSM||WO II J. M. C. Jones|
|CQMS||S-Sgt C. A. Hammond|
|OC||Capt T. G. Bedding|
|No. 13 Pl||Lt J. H. Hutchinson|
|No. 14 Pl||2 Lt K. C. M. Cockerill|
|No. 15 Pl||Lt J. D. Carryer|
|CSM||WO II S. M. Golder|
|CQMS||S-Sgt D. Brown|
|OC||Capt C. E. Webster|
|2 i/c||Capt D. K. McLauchlan|
|No. 16 Pl||Lt H. M. Swinburn|
|No. 17 Pl||Lt A. Lawson|
|No. 18 Pl||Lt K. Staunton|
|CSM||WO II J. B. Coull|
On 15 April, in the darkest hour before dawn, the enemy made his first attempt to penetrate the battalion’s line. Employing three companies of seasoned troops, he approached under cover of darkness on Wellington Company’s front. Two and a half hours later his surviving troops were on their way back—to 4 Brigade Headquarters for interrogation.
The sentries in section posts of Nos. 7 and 8 Platoons, whose line extended across the main road, were suddenly aware of approaching footsteps. They peered into the inky darkness trying to discern the movement below, but could page 78 see nothing. The shuffle of a party coming towards them down the road could still be heard. The challenge was answered with cries of ‘Greko! Greko!’ and the listeners relaxed: more refugees. Private Jack Barley4 left the trench to go down to the tank trap which spanned the road and which the party was now evidently trying to negotiate. He dimly discerned just what he had expected to see, a straggling party of Greeks. A Greek soldier was leading—he signed for them to go on, and went back to his post. It was 5.30 a.m.
The party, numbering about fifty and making much noise, crossed the tank trap and continued on down the road until they came to the cutting between the first and second anti-tank ditches. As soon as their leading elements were in this cover, the action began. Heavy firing, directed against the forward posts, broke out from the sunken area beyond the first anti-tank ditch. At the same time No. 8 Section of 9 Platoon (which held an extended line above and at right angles to that manned by 7 and 8 Platoons), from its listening post on the high ground above the obstacle had sensed that something was amiss and opened fire along the road on a fixed line. Hawke’s Bay Company joined in. Bursts from two of the attached Australian machine guns, plus several grenades, prevented any serious attempt to move around the left flank of the battalion position.
While the enemy were giving covering fire to their penetrating party, 7 and 8 Platoons replied vigorously, but by now the ‘refugees’ were behind them and making for the second ditch. Enemy elements still in and beyond the first obstacle brought their supporting weapons, light machine guns and mortars, into operation. A red Very light from 8 Platoon called for an enfilade sweep of the anti-tank obstacle from the Bren gun in No. 7 Section; this combined with the fire of the two platoons kept the attackers down. A grenade thrown into the cutting cleared it of enemy and caused him casualties.page 79
Wellington Company positions, Servia, 15 April
The penetrating party were now proving troublesome, however, and 7 Platoon, whose trenches were on forward slopes, was attacked from the rear. A German captain working ahead of his men killed Privates McCalman5 and Campbell6 and fatally wounded Lance-Corporal Kelly7 with a sudden burst of fire from behind. The German’s career was cut short by Private McKay8 who, leaping on to the parados, evened the score by killing him and two of his followers. Private Jim Frain,9 with a tommy gun, stopped a rush of about twenty Huns, and Corporal George Cooke,10 who had taken a section from No. 8 to investigate in the vicinity of No. 7 Platoon’s position, put up a remarkably cool performance, bringing down two Huns with his rifle while they and their comrades ineffectually tried to deal with him. This NCO, completely ignoring the bullets whistling around him, continued to advance towards the opposition and, seeing the result of his two carefully aimed shots, the rest of the German party capitulated.
Meantime in 8 Platoon’s area similar events were happening, but as the approach to their position was very steep the enemy did not reach a fire position, though a party managed to work round towards the rear of the platoon. Private Wellman,11 stepping out from the back of his trench in the face of their fire, used his tommy gun effectively and this party, too, began to surrender. By now the LMG fire from the forward platoons had practically ended, few targets presenting themselves. For the rest of the action they were mainly concerned with sniping at the enemy as he tried to escape. The German LMGs firing from cover out in front did little damage, causing only three casualties—Privates page 81 Large,12 Duthie13 and Kilkolly.14 One gun, however, turning its attention to 9 Platoon, made things very uncomfortable there, but the gunner’s use of tracer disclosed his position and Private McGregor,15 the Bren-gunner in No. 7 Section’s post, put him out of action.
It was now light enough for 9 Platoon to see what was happening below them, and from their trenches which overlooked most of the area still occupied by the enemy, they brought effective LMG and rifle fire to bear. Sergeant ‘Coffee’ Hardgrave16 with the three-inch mortar soon made the tank obstacle untenable, and before long the majority in that area surrendered. The attackers forward of 7 Platoon were thus disposed of.
On the left of 8 Platoon the trench curved and dipped into dead ground. Out of observation to the riflemen in 9 Platoon, the enemy established a light mortar. This was rested on the bank with the firer standing against the trench. After his first few bombs he was taken on by the two-inch mortar in No. 8 Platoon manned by Privates Erskine17 and Salmon.18 With their fifth bomb the enemy mortar was silenced, the man operating it being found afterwards with a splinter through his back. On 7 Platoon’s front also, their two-inch mortar did some effective work.
The enemy troops were now surrendering all over the area and at 7.15 a.m. a batch of about seventy was sent back. By eight o’clock all those still alive had given up the fight, and a few who could be seen trying to get away towards the Aliakmon River were engaged by rifle fire. page 82 There was some excellent shooting: Private Guilford,19 with his rifle sights at 1000 yards, dropped a man; Lieutenant Denis Blundell20 saw another killed while attempting to take cover about 800 yards away. After the final surrender another batch of approximately fifty prisoners was sent back, and of the three hundred or so who attacked the position, only about twenty or thirty escaped. The enemy killed and wounded numbered about 150, while the 19th’s casualties were two killed and six wounded.
This, the unit’s first encounter with the Hun, had involved mainly Wellington and Hawke’s Bay Companies, and both had every reason to be proud of their performance. True, Wellington Company had been hoodwinked into letting some fifty truppen through its forward posts; neither had its patrols discovered the approach of the attacking force. The constant stream of refugees passing through the position at the time made the first mistake understandable, and in fact, a body in Greek uniform was found among the German dead after the engagement. Some 19th men are still firmly of the opinion that the Jerries tried to get behind the posts by a ruse and that they intended they should be mistaken for Greeks. The German account does not support this however, and their II Infantry Regiment report reads: ‘Also the enemy used a military device which our troops were not prepared for. Taking advantage of his unusually favourable positions, he allowed the companies to run in to a trap and opened fire on them at very short range.’
Some of the statements made by the prisoners taken are interesting. One of the NCOs—a corporal—volunteered the information that there were three companies involved in the attack and that practically the whole force had been annihilated. Several said that they had fought in Poland, France and Greece, but never before had encountered such devastating rifle, LMG and mortar fire. An officer told the page 83 company commander that he had the previous day driven through the pass in an army car abandoned by the Australians—a remarkable assertion, as the bridge was blown on 12 April—although the German war diaries state that ‘Neither air recce nor the general situation indicated that we would run up against a defensive position’.
Neither side had received artillery support. Wellington Company, believing that it had only a fighting patrol to deal with, did not ask for it. The Hun was evidently confident that his silent attack would be successful. He was, however, equipped with a wireless set, but both the operator and the set were rendered defunct by our fire early in the action. His men were magnificently equipped, and from the amount of ammunition carried had obviously expected to take and hold the position until relieved by a larger force.
The cries of ‘Kamerad’ and the waving of white handkerchiefs by Hitler’s much-vaunted troops caused almost as much surprise as their attack. When the firing had ceased and the tension relaxed, our fellows eyed their captives with much curiosity. They were in the main a fine-looking lot but obviously were badly shaken by the reception they had received. Up to now their advance had been easy, and perhaps continued success had made them contemptuous of opposition; but they seemed to bear no resentment. While they were being disarmed prior to being sent back through our lines, one officer remarked that ‘The Greeks were nothing, but your men can fight and shoot.’
As our own and the enemy wounded were being attended to, an act of outstanding fortitude and coolness by Private ‘Vic’ Lee21 was revealed. During the first half of the action a stick bomb thrown by the enemy had exploded, shattering both his legs and feet (his right leg was later amputated). Crawling to the Bren gun, Lee for the rest of the action had sat alongside filling magazines. For this courageous performance he was later awarded the MM.
For the rest of the day the unit was engaged by enemy aircraft and artillery, ‘Hellfire Corner’ just below the pass page 84 being a particularly unhealthy spot. Heavy concentrations of large-calibre shells were put down all over the battalion area. Headquarters Company lost cookhouse and breakfast in one of these ‘stonks’. Fortunately the cooks had taken cover, but the company found their loss grievous enough. Despite the enemy artillery, a party from the carrier platoon ventured out and salvaged a Bren carrier abandoned during the night by another battalion, and later in the day destroyed another some miles away on the left flank. This latter venture was undertaken right under the nose of a German patrol.
About midday a curious incident occurred. Enemy troops, about seventy strong, were observed marching up the road towards the pass, with rifles slung and only two solitary scouts working slightly ahead of them. They were engaged by Wellington Company and scattered in confusion, leaving behind them some twenty casualties. Again at 2 p.m. a party of approximately 150 was seen attempting to cross the Aliakmon. Our artillery opened up effectively. The enemy was finding any movement costly, and at 5 p.m. the unit was not surprised when his aircraft again put in an appearance. For three-quarters of an hour forty-two planes pasted the area, Wellington and Hawke’s Bay Companies receiving special attention, every trench and section post in their positions being thoroughly done over.
One of 9 Platoon’s sections overlooked the road on a forward slope. A bomb, grazing the ridge, ricocheted down the hill to explode right outside one of their weapon pits. Greatcoats and loose apparel were all blown out of the trench and the men had their faces blackened by the blast. All were severely shaken and Private ‘Goldie’ Whalen22 was wounded, but he was able to make his way back unaided and the remainder stuck to their post until ordered in after dark that night.
Casualties from this raid were negligible but the mines laid forward of Hawke’s Bay Company area were detonated by the dive-bombing. As in all air attacks, the ack-ack page 85 platoon under Lieutenant Pat Koorey23 kept their Brens firing. Theirs was a thankless, dangerous and unavailing task, for the planes seemed impervious to small-arms fire. The pilot of one particular Me110, after the first day, used to dive down and wave to one of the crews after each attack—a gesture of admiration or, perhaps, of derision.
During this blitz enemy infantry were seen advancing approximately 2000 yards away, and under cover of the dive-bombing they prepared to attack. They were continually kept under observation, however, and when the last planes were going away were within 400 yards of 8 Platoon. By the way they reacted to the opposition they met, it was evident they had expected to find the position completely reduced by their bombers. Fired at from the front by Wellington Company and from the flank by the Australian MMGs in Hawke’s Bay Company’s area, they quickly retired, leaving behind between twenty and thirty casualties. Some of their wounded were brought in later, but our stretcher-bearers were exhausted through lack of sleep, and the long carry involved, plus the constant duel of fire now going on, meant that those further away had to be left out in the open. At nightfall a red Very light fired from the area silenced the enemy artillery and indicated that he had returned to retrieve his wounded. On the following day our patrols could find only dead.
The events of the 15th had reflected considerable credit on the unit and it was a matter for great regret when its commander, Lieutenant-Colonel Varnham, had the misfortune to sustain an injury which necessitated his evacuation. Under his guidance and leadership the 19th had developed from a keen but untrained mass of men into a solid battalion fit to fight side by side with seasoned troops. It was the worst possible luck that the unit should lose him now. His battalion, proved in battle, was taken over by Major Blackburn,24 second-in-command since 1939.page 86
Rain and sleet ushered in 16 April and with daylight the position became more and more unhealthy. The complete capitulation of the Yugoslav Army was now only a matter of hours. With the left flank of the force now wide open and the enemy completely superior in the air, it was clear that withdrawal was the only course. Preliminary orders were issued and movement began immediately. The forward platoons of Wellington Company were withdrawn from the road on to higher ground above the pass. Hawke’s Bay Company came further back and Wellington West Coast Company took up a position on the left rear of the battalion. The rain and mud made the going difficult, and all moves involved further heavy carrying by troops who had now for long periods been almost without sleep.
The units on the right and left withdrew also and the sticky task of negotiating the road and pass through ‘Hellfire Corner’ was accomplished by 18 Battalion without incident. Their progress was watched with bated breath for shelling had been constant and severe, but for some reason the enemy batteries closed down and a passage was made unhindered. Despite visibility difficulties owing to the bad weather, the enemy artillery had all roads in the vicinity well taped, and one of 31 Battery’s anti-tank guns sited just clear of the corner was knocked out by his fire, three men being killed. The Australian MMGs also had casualties.
There was some patrolling by both sides, but the day saw no further engagements for the enemy was now wary and had little liking for the treatment his infantry had received the day before at our hands. The bad weather kept his aircraft away and only an odd reconnaissance plane was seen. Increased shelling, however, showed that out in front his forces were massing.
The 17th opened still dull, wet and misty. Orders for withdrawal at dusk were issued. Meanwhile 19 Battalion patrols working forward as far as the river kept a tag on the enemy infantry. One of these patrols, commanded by Sergeant Dave Rench25 and including Privates ‘Buzz’ page 87 Nathan,26 Guy Roberts,27 and ‘Rab’ Campbell28 of 9 Platoon, worked as far forward as the area midway between the 19th positions and the village, where the ground overlooked the village of Servia. Its purpose was to ascertain whether the enemy had crossed the river and also to search all enemy dead and wounded. They found between 100 and 120 dead in and around the tank traps, and three badly wounded Huns on the road back towards the village. After collecting all personal papers found on the bodies, the patrol returned and had the satisfaction of learning later that among the documents they had brought in was a complete enemy cipher.
Dusk came without the withdrawal preparations being discovered and movement began in pouring rain. The enemy shelling was still regular but unobserved, and for once all were grateful for wet weather. The ten-mile march to the embussing point, with the tired troops carrying all weapons and equipment, was a severe test but the battalion came out in good order. The first troops passed through the control posts at 9 p.m., the last some hours later. With the rearguard came Lance-Corporal Lockett,29 of the sappers, who had set the time fuses on road demolitions which would hinder the enemy’s advance once he discovered we were gone. The Sigs, under Second-Lieutenant ‘Buck’ Taylor, who had done outstanding work throughout, kept the line communication with each company right up to the time they withdrew, while the Bren carriers remained forward of the pass in a rearguard role as the battalion thinned out.
So ended the engagement at Servia. It had been a testing time for every man in the unit. In the positions above Servia Pass the battalion had battled with the ground, the elements, and the enemy. After eight days of unremitting toil and tension it was abandoning the battleground; but it page 88 was not beaten. To the rank and file the backward move was bewildering for they felt that Servia Pass was impregnable: come what may, they felt that they could have held on indefinitely. Now, just when the unit had the measure of the Hun, it was disengaging.
The withdrawal, carried out according to plan, was dictated by events far from our front. The collapse of the Yugoslav Army and the overwhelming of the Greeks in northern Epirus had given the enemy a clear field. The four-day check he had suffered on the Aliakmon had been worth every effort. From a rapid rolling forward, his advance for the rest of the campaign became a series of cautious movements. A few British troops and British guns had turned List’s triumphal march into a costly campaign. Of Servia, a German writer with their forward troops said:
The Britisher was tough, his positions were superbly selected and adapted. For four days he held us off…. Yesterday evening (17th April) a scout brought the first word of the withdrawal of the Britisher from the commanding position, into which on Easter Monday they had enticed one of our Bns, the marksmen who had won the first bridge over the Aliakmon. During the night probing patrols brought confirmation of the news: protected by the misty weather the Britisher is withdrawing just in time to avoid a flanking attack of another Division which would have led to his encirclement.
In pitch darkness in pouring rain, weighed down with equipment and ammunition, the battalion completed the gruelling march to the embussing point. The move was difficult for the road was under fire and the rough tracks on the steep hillsides were serpentine and slippery. Still, though fatigued almost beyond endurance, the unit made it to the last man and the last item of portable equipment. Just out of range of the German guns, a canopied line of waiting 3-ton trucks loomed up and the weary troops staggered to their allotted transport, crowded aboard and slept as they were and where they lay, exhausted. Few felt the convoy move off.
Through the night the column of transport made good progress, for as far as Larisa the way south was clear. From there on enemy bombing had made the town and the routes page 89 out of it a shambles. The harassed remnants of the small RAF detachment in Greece had recently been compelled to abandon their forward airfields in this area. The Luftwaffe had shown the place no mercy. A detour was made on to the Volos road; then as the going proved poor, back went the column on to the main south route. Here the convoy received its first check for the highway was literally crawling with moving vehicles. They came nose-to-tail in an unbroken stream and the pace was slow. Once in the column the 4 Brigade convoy moved on again, and by now the troops in the trucks, refreshed by their first full night’s sleep for over a week, began to sit up and take notice of their surroundings. There was general amazement at the extent of the trek for they were now well into Thessaly and still moving southwards. The day was fine, and as the sun grew hotter the trucks were festooned with discarded clothing. Up to now the ride had been enjoyable.
But the column soon began to behave like a concertina and it was clear that somewhere ahead trouble was waiting. The sound of distant detonations told all too clearly what was occurring, and even at this stage there was some confusion, for contrary to all army rules of the road some vehicles kept cutting in and splitting up unit convoys. Control was difficult, and just as the leading truck of first-line transport had got through Farsala the convoy was attacked for the first time. The Stukas roared up and down the road, dive-bombing and machine-gunning. Vehicles were abandoned while the men sought cover wherever it could be found. An air blitz was a nerve-racking experience even when protected by well dug-in posts. On the open road the effect was indescribable. Lying in the scant cover of grass, trees and drains, the troops watched the planes scream downwards with engines at full throttle. They could see the bombs leave the racks and whistle downwards, projected from the fast-moving plane like an aimed rocket. At each dive the forward guns blazed, and as the aircraft straightened out the rear gun carried on the venemous work—a cacophony of hate which had to be endured for the rest of the day, and to which there was no effective reply. The page 90 battalion Brens did their best, and Private Gray30 was one who gained a great reputation for sticking to his gun. When the attacks started he would hop off the truck, lie on his back and, firing from the shoulder, get away a burst at any Stuka strafing the road.
Sitting on the end of the bridge just outside the village, the battalion ammunition truck was blown to atoms. The bridge itself, a much-bombed target, was damaged and this further delayed progress. When the all clear was given troops scrambled back into the trucks, those whose vehicles had been damaged riding wherever they could find room.
From then on the column consisted of a higgledy-piggledy mass of transport, and with each succeeding air attack throughout the day the confusion was multiplied. Orders to get off the road and disperse, given by various authorities at various points along the route, were not obeyed by all, and soon both vehicles and men became inextricably mixed.
By the time Lamia was reached, each truck carried a conglomeration of men from all units of the British force. The road was fringed with broken and abandoned vehicles but still seemed to carry a solid stream of trucks of all types. Military police and staff officers worked valiantly to maintain order and give direction. No. 7 Platoon Wellington Company was among those detached for special policing duties along the route. Next morning it seemed a miracle when the battalion found itself at its destination, just east of Molos, near the historic pass of Thermopylae. The day was spent gathering in personnel who had gone astray en route and the final count was surprising. There were but three missing (two of them believed killed) and three wounded. Corporal Ken MacKenzie,31 a Military Medal winner of the First World War and one of the most popular NCOs in the battalion, and his companion Private Arthur Golder,32 both of Headquarters Company, were afterwards confirmed as killed during the raid at Farsala.page 91
The Bren carriers got in that night with their own ten vehicles, plus the one they had salvaged at Servia Pass. They had had a difficult journey, milking abandoned trucks en route for petrol and nursing their vehicles through air attack and mechanical troubles. They were the same old carriers they had used in Egypt; throughout the Desert and in Greece they had given stalwart service. The Sigs truck, one of the last to leave Servia, came in loaded with stragglers and salvaged Naafi stores. Despite its nightmare journey the unit was still intact.
While dispersed in the Molos area the battalion was given a coastwatching task, and except for a few air attacks, which caused no casualties, found their role easy. On the 20th Wellington West Coast Company was detached and sent to take up a defensive position on Thermopylae, while the rest of the unit was put to work digging close to the bivouac area. On the 22nd Wellington West Coast Company rejoined the battalion, and on the same evening the unit moved out to occupy its newly made posts.
It had not been in position for an hour when new orders were received: ‘Move immediately to a new bivouac area five miles north west of Levadeia prior to taking up an independent role in defence of the Delphi Pass.’ Companies collected their gear once more, some moving three or four miles to reassemble at the same spot they had left an hour or so previously. At 5 a.m. on 23 April the last vehicle left Molos en route for the opposite coast. Another sleepless night.
The battalion had been placed directly under command of Anzac Corps Headquarters, which was then at Levadhia. The orders were to move to a position south of the pass and await further instructions. None came. Before leaving the CO had been informed by Headquarters 4 Brigade that Australian and New Zealand sappers were at the Delphi Pass preparing road demolitions. After waiting two hours at the rendezvous, Major Blackburn went forward some ten miles into the pass but found no sign of the sappers or of prepared road blocks. While he was away Major Williamson, second-in-command, returned to Levadhia. Anzac Corps Headquarters were feverishly packing up and making page 92 arrangements to get out. Interviewing General Blamey, Williamson asked for orders and for MT to get the battalion back. The General regretted that there would be no transport available until the next day, and on Major Williamson’s return the battalion prepared to move by march and shuttle system using its own trucks. The plan had changed again. Another backward move of 25 miles was necessary. The ASC transport had of course left. Cursing heartily, the unit nevertheless undertook the unpleasant march sturdily. The battalion transport, desperately short of petrol, levelled up the tanks of all vehicles and loaded them to capacity with stores and troops. As the trucks set off, the rest of the unit began their long march.
By now it was common knowledge that the British forces in Greece were evacuating. Every step along the hot, dusty road was taking the troops nearer the embarkation beaches. It was hard marching, however; rations and water were short and the road was crowded with transport. As the trucks passed the trudging column they piled on board those who were too fatigued to march further, and later in the day our own transport returned to pick up another load of troops. By daylight on the 24th the whole unit was in the new bivouac area near Thebes. It was a tribute to the good heart and discipline of the battalion that none went astray during that difficult move. Even those who, when exhausted, had accepted lifts did not allow themselves to be carried past the appointed place and on to the beaches. All were tired but still in fighting trim, and as the unit rested under the olive trees out of sight of enemy aircraft, plans were made for the last stand on Greek soil.
The enemy’s planes were still troublesome but his intense activity had reaped little tangible result. It was a war of nerves rather than casualties, and despite the mix-up which his mastery of the air had caused during the retirement, it was significant that all units of 4 Brigade Group had assembled at the rendezvous ready for action and practically complete. His constant harassing tactics, however, did contribute to each man’s fatigue and irritation.page 93
Though the unthinking and the uninformed blamed the RAF for their discomfiture, the air force in Greece had fought to its last Hurricane. At Athens airfield on 20 April the epic battle between the RAF and the Luftwaffe had been their swan song. It had cost the Germans a six-fold sacrifice to keep the RAF out of the skies, and finally, without an airfield on which they could land, the last few British planes were forced to head for Crete.
During the evening of 24 April the battalion with the rest of 4 Brigade Group, plus Australian artillery and MMG units under command, moved to Kriekouki Pass to cover the withdrawal of the rest of the New Zealand Division. The orders were to hold here until the evening of the 26th. To avoid giving away the position all movements were made by night, and both men and transport were effectively concealed by day. From daylight to dark on the 25th the Luftwaffe searched frantically, trying by every means to make the brigade disclose its position, but wise to the ways of the Hun it held its fire and hid, taking advantage of every scrap of natural cover the country could provide.
The 19th was the reserve battalion behind the pass. It held a line across the main road, through which 18 and 20 Battalions were to pass as soon as withdrawal was ordered. Contact with the enemy ground forces was considered unlikely, and once more Wellington West Coast Company was sent off in a detached role, this time to the Corinth Canal. With its going the unit sustained the most grievous loss of its career for the company was not seen again. Before the 19th left Greece two of their number had made their way back to tell of the action at Corinth in which, though they were overwhelmed, the men from Wanganui had given a good account of themselves. Their story is told elsewhere in this narrative.
On the 25th and 26th the unit prepared the position—as far as was consistent with concealment—for defence. At the same time foraging parties were sent out for food and water. The battalion had received no official issue of rations for the last nine days, but Captain Jack Danderson seemed to be able to smell any ration dump within a radius of 30 page 94 miles. He had already been to Athens and come back well stocked, when Brigade Headquarters advised battalion QMs to head for that destination. Those who went found that the dumps on the racecourse had been thrown open to the Greek public and that supplies had completely disappeared. The 19th, however, fed well, and as the rations at this stage had for some time been reduced to biscuits only, the QM’s initiative was keenly appreciated by the hungry troops. On a previous occasion while in bivouac near Thebes Danderson had conjured up several demijohns of rum, an unheard of luxury.
Preliminary orders were now issued and arrangements made for the withdrawal, but about midday on the 26th enemy AFVs33 were reported in the vicinity of Thebes. From Brigade Headquarters came the message: ‘Withdrawal postponed twenty-four hours; contact with enemy now likely.’ The brigade settled down to fight again, but despite careful probing by low-flying aircraft kept its positions concealed. From cover watchers saw two enemy motor-cyclists race out of Thebes and halt just beyond. They dismounted and scoured the pass with glasses, then came on. They were allowed to approach unmolested. They halted again just short of the forward positions, carefully scrutinised the countryside once more, then turned and tore back through Thebes. The trap was set.
A little later a column of a hundred enemy vehicles led by two motor-cyclists and a light tank made its appearance. They came on in close formation as if on a peacetime parade. The troops in the pass waited breathlessly. Then the 25-pounder guns of ⅔ Regiment AIF opened up. Eight hits were scored as the stricken column tried to disperse. Panic-stricken infantry leapt off the trucks and fled pell-mell in search of cover. Burning vehicles littered the road; the rest turned tail and fled. Had the artillery held their fire a little longer even greater damage would have been done.
The advance was stopped but the position was now known. As darkness fell the enemy artillery opened up on the pass, but taking advantage of the check he had received, page 95 withdrawal began that night. Unwanted stores (including the thirty ‘bicycles, push’ issued to the battalion in the Western Desert) were discarded, and at 2 a.m. the unit moved back two miles to an embussing point, bound for an undisclosed destination.
The vehicles and drivers of 4 RMT Company did good work that night moving 4 Brigade Group from a position which by daylight would have been untenable. Food was short and ammunition limited to what was on the spot. Supply systems had broken down and another twenty-four hours at Kriekouki Pass would have killed any chance of the brigade’s withdrawal from Greece. The sterling work of 4 RMT throughout the campaign gained them many friends. To the footsore infantry, the line of drab 3-ton trucks waiting to ferry them over miles of hard roads ahead was a heartening sight. The ASC bus service seemed to be one of the few things which could be depended upon to run to timetable. Once more the unit clambered aboard and, sodden with sleep, felt and saw no more until morning.
Sergeant Dave Rench has supplied the following account of the withdrawal from Kriekouki Pass:
Half of No. 7 Platoon under Lieut Ron Scales34 was detailed to picquet the route to Megara and left in the afternoon. With Bill Ivamy35 as driver I was detailed to pick up the picquets after the convoy had passed through. Our position in the convoy was between Lt/Col Kippenberger’s36 car and the truck of Australian engineers who were responsible for the demolition of all bridges.
We would travel at a fast rate for some distance then halt while the fuses were lit to blow up a bridge, and then on for about half a mile when we would halt again to await the explosion. This procedure was repeated some 20 times I should think. Col Kippenberger personally ensured that all demolitions were fired.page 96
On some occasions we flew past intersections to be hailed by anxious shouts and much waving from the picquet, who justifiably thought he would be left behind.
Having heard of the fate of WWC Coy before we left we were most apprehensive of the safety of the remainder of the platoon and were both relieved and surprised to find Lt Scales with his party intact plus two members of the platoon whom he had found during the afternoon. The men, Pte Duthie and Pte Kilkolly, had been wounded at Servia Pass and were inmates of a medical camp at Megara.
The debacle which followed the capitulation of the Greek Army at Epirus on 21 April left the Division in a very sticky position. Its extrication reflected great credit both on the skill of its leaders and the energy and tenacity of its troops. Even before the withdrawal from Macedonia, each brigade had worked for weeks without respite. Once movement commenced, the pace became hectic. Unforeseen events, order, and counter-order followed in rapid succession. Plans had to be made and changed from hour to hour. The situation was fluid and dispositions had to be elastic. For formation staffs and units there was little rest. Supplies became a major problem, transport difficulties were a nightmare, and the Luftwaffe harassed each moving vehicle, diligently searching for hidden halting places. Yet despite fatigue and a few brief inevitable periods of disorder, units stuck together and were ready at a moment’s notice to turn retirement into attack. The German ground forces found that they had to move with caution. The discipline of the New Zealand Division was undoubtedly its salvation.
At Thermopylae, and later at Thebes, the enemy AFV spearhead had taken a drubbing at the hands of the gunners. In all the withdrawals the rearguard had left behind a series of demolitions to delay the enemy’s advance. Moves were now made only at night, and the nights were fortunately black and moonless. Units became adept at concealment and strict orders not to fire at low-flying aircraft kept the Hun guessing and rendered his air reconnaissance fruitless.
On the night of 25 April 5 Brigade, which had laid up during daylight near the beaches of Marathon, Rafina and Porto Rafti, was evacuated. The Royal Navy was doing page 97 the job quietly and efficiently. Sixth Brigade at Thermopylae had covered the withdrawal, disengaged with difficulty, and passed back through 4 Brigade to cross the Corinth Canal. Now in the Peloponnese, they waited their turn near the port of Navplion. At Kriekouki 4 Brigade in a covering role was ready to move quickly to the beaches below Megara and be taken off there. Isthmus Force at Corinth Canal was holding the bridge lest the plans should miscarry, in which event 4 Brigade would be forced to take the same route as the 6th and get off the mainland.
The landing of German parachutists at Corinth on the morning of the 26th changed everything. No longer could the beaches at Megara be used and, with the bridge across the canal blown and the route in enemy hands, the brigade was in danger of being completely cut off. Sixth Brigade units came back from their lying-up area south of the canal and made a gallant attempt to probe the situation at Corinth. Their efforts undoubtedly kept the Hun busy and prevented him from spreading too quickly towards the routes leading in the only direction now open for the evacuation of 4 Brigade. Porto Rafti, on the east coast, was its last chance.
On the night of the 26th the move was made, and by daylight the whole brigade had arrived in a position within easy distance of the beaches. Dispositions for defence were hurriedly decided upon, for news from the Corinth area, from Athens, and from the north showed that the brigade was isolated. Few knew how close it had been to being completely cut off. As the convoy with its sleeping troops had passed that night through the outskirts of Athens, German forces from the north were already rolling into the capital. Next morning the German flag was hoisted on the Acropolis.
Before the battalion left Kriekouki, news of the fate of Wellington West Coast Company at Corinth had been brought back by Privates Jones37 and Sullivan.38 The 4th Brigade rearguard had watched enemy convoys moving page 98 confidently along the coast road to Athens, their headlights blazing. There were still twelve hours to wait for darkness and the coming of the ships. In that time anything could happen; up to now the brigade had been lucky.
After daylight on the 27th the battalion dispersed under cover about a mile west of the little village of Markopoulon. It was Sunday morning and the villagers, early astir, were dressed for their devotions. From under the cover of the olive groves the troops listened to the church bells ringing; there were few who did not think of home. The peaceful, cultivated countryside with its green crops, its barns and buildings and yellow reed windbreaks, drowsed in the early morning sun. Rations were distributed. It was a quiet breakfast; each man, weary with the hardships of the past month and busy with his own thoughts, sprawled in the shade, content to eat in silence.
The spell was soon broken, for breakfast was barely finished when the Luftwaffe found the brigade concentration. Once again the air vibrated with the noise of snarling aircraft, bomb explosions, and the whip of bullets. The battalion was fortunate: it was still under cover and had no casualties, though 20 Battalion, caught on the move, had over thirty. When the raid was over orders came to destroy all equipment which could not be carried. Fires were forbidden so the transport was rendered useless by draining sumps, running the engines, breaking components and chopping tanks and tires. There was to be no coming back. Extra clothing, a few blankets and personal effects which some men still held, was now an encumbrance; these were given away to the friendly Greeks. Then, without its transport, the battalion marched to its position on the high ground above the beach at Porto Rafti.
The Greeks, who throughout the whole campaign had been magnificent, now watched the troops pass without rancour. The thumbs-up sign was still given to cheer them on their way. Their Kalimera became Kalo kalevothi (pleasant journey). They still smiled. One woman drawing cool water from a well held the bucket while man after man drank. The Greeks had little to give but what they had page 99 they gave gladly. A handful of fresh green peas, a pail of sweet water, flowers, a few currants and, above all, a friendship that left a lump in the throat.
The Luftwaffe sent flight after flight to harass the move to the beach but even this did not deter the villagers. They dived for cover too, and came up smiling once again to go on drawing water or to clap the passing troops. The courage of these simple folk was an inspiration; they had known ages of adversity, now they were sharing ours. Their friendship and their indomitable will left an impression which the years will not dim. The New Zealander who served in the Balkans will always remember the Greeks with affection.
4 Brigade positions, Porto Rafti, 27 April
As the afternoon wore on all waited impatiently for darkness, and when it came the really trying time began. None doubted the Royal Navy; yet as the parties began to move through the 19th’s lines down to the beaches, every man who had a watch consulted it frequently and anxiously. The other battalions and units out in front seemed to take hours to come through the position. Four o’clock next morning was the deadline; after that those still on land would be left behind. Would the enemy attack before the job was completed? What would happen if the battalion did not make it? A thousand and one such questions and theories were developed in each man’s mind as, crouching in his post, he waited—waited—waited. A smaller perimeter was made at 9 and again at 11 p.m.; parties from the rear, however, kept on coming and as the darkness swallowed them up it grew cold. Some worthy souls worked full time over a primus brewing tea.
At last came whispered orders for the withdrawal—but not yet. In companies, by platoons, with Headquarters Company the last to go and the signals platoon as rearguard for that company. The wrist watches in the last platoons still ticked on—2.45 a.m.—movement began at last. The guide led on down a track to the shore. Here busy black figures could be dimly discerned sorting out the patches of troops crowded together waiting their turn for the caiques and whaleboats which would ferry them out to the warships. God bless the Navy!
The rear elements halted again while the little ships disappeared, the men standing in the darkness listening to the lapping of the water on the beach and the chugging of engines as a pinnace fussed about helping the more clumsy page 101 craft out in the bay. There were no doubts now. The embarkation was going according to plan, but time, too, was moving on. Each man was still weighted down with weapons, ammunition, respirators and other items of army impedimenta. The Sigs had lugged all their instruments, from telephone exchanges to signal satchels, with them. It was a wasted effort for the naval guide ordered that everything except weapons and ammunition should be destroyed. Haversacks had to be discarded. All extra clothing was to go, respirators also. Sorrowfully the signallers broke, tramped on, and tore apart the delicate instruments they had so carefully nurtured and carried throughout the whole campaign. Clad now in bare necessities only, with weapons, ammunition, webb and water bottle, they moved on once more. ‘Every alternate man to the left’ was the order, and so the last platoon split up and filed to their ferries.
The last caique to leave the jetty was loaded to capacity. The Royal Navy crew worked feverishly to get every man aboard and when they cast off she was so deeply laden that her bow stuck firm. The engines raced full astern but to no avail. It was a case of get off and push, and on to the jetty leaped a dozen or so of her passengers. While they pushed the others moved towards the stern, rocking the boat in an endeavour to get her free. With a rush that threatened to leave the jetty party stranded she swung clear, and in the mad scramble to jump on to her fast receding bow, two fell into the water. They were fished out quickly and the caique headed out into the bay.
Even when the dim shape of the destroyer Kimberley loomed up out of the darkness the caique’s troubles were not over. Wind and current were conspiring against her, and twice she missed the lines while the crew tried to bring her alongside. It was nearly 4 a.m. and the skipper of the Kimberley was getting anxious—so were the soldiers.
Everybody was edgy. It was right on the deadline for sailing and it seemed an interminable time before the caique slowly came about again. Those on her felt that they were fated to circle round in the darkness for ever. But this time there was no mistake, and as she made fast, eager page 102 hands reached out from the destroyer’s deck to pull the troops aboard. How many men that last caique carried has never been recorded; their transfer to the warship, however, was over in a few seconds. The wounded were helped off, a few stretcher cases hoisted up; then as the caique cast off, Kimberley trembled to the turning of her screws and moved out and away from the mainland.
Passed along amidships by cheerful sailors, the troops crowded below decks and squatted to drink the welcome mugs of steaming hot cocoa which had been handed to each man as he was shepherded to his place. A tin of cigarettes followed the cocoa and curious and admiring sailors stood about fingering the weapons. ‘Blimey,’ said one, ‘Look at this!’ He drew a machete from its sheath and passed it to his friends. This to them was the army version of the cutlass and it was handed around ceremoniously for inspection. Then another picked up a tommy gun—by the trigger. The resulting burst ricocheted round the steel walls but fortunately no one was hurt. Amid the oaths a very startled sailor was heard to exclaim: ‘Eee lad, but they’re a bloodthirsty lotta fellas!’
So 4 New Zealand Infantry Brigade Group left Greece. Ajax, Kimberley, and Kingston carried them safely out into the night and into the Mediterranean. ‘The Navy, God bless them!’ was the last thought of many a weary man as he dropped to sleep, sprawled serene and undisturbed against the steel bosom of a British warship.
The New Zealand Division had now tasted war, had faced its hardships and fought against heavy odds. In the bitterness of withdrawal they had proved their worth as men and as fighting units. Sticking together, carrying their wounded with them, they had as a complete force made their way through the whole length of Greece. Neither fatigue nor foe had stopped them. Fifth Brigade, and now the 4th, were safely away. The 6th would soon follow. With the last caique on to the Kimberley had come the commander of 4 Brigade, Brigadier Puttick, who of his men could say: ‘The conduct of all ranks during the operations was of the highest order’. Of his own leadership, and of the mettle page 103 of the units he commanded in a difficult campaign, there can be no finer tribute than that paid by General Godley, the commander of 1 New Zealand Division in the 1914–18 War. He wrote:
My Dear Puttick,
I have just been listening on the wireless to the account of your most gallant and splendid rear-guard action and must send a line to congratulate you and your Brigade on a feat of arms which will be a glorious page in the military history, not only of New Zealand, but of the whole Empire. Will you please convey my warmest congratulations and good wishes to all ranks of your Brigade and tell them their performance makes me prouder than ever of having been a New Zealand soldier.
Good luck to you all.
Next morning as dawn broke fine and clear, the few figures who rose from sleep on the throbbing deck of the destroyer watched the sunrise playing on the wake foaming at the stern. Sitting relaxed, and secure, the events of the last month seemed to have been a dream. Every man had but one wish now: to sleep on and on and on.
The 25th April (Anzac Day) saw a dawn parade for Wellington West Coast Company. At 4 a.m. the Company Commander, Major Gordon,39 was given orders to report with his men to Headquarters 4 Brigade for a special task. His company packed up quickly and, leaving its position on the left of the battalion line at Kriekouki, set off for a rendezvous at the rear of Brigade Headquarters.
The company had been cast for an important role. The Corinth Canal bridge and the road leading to it were vital to the evacuation plan for 4 Brigade, which was to be taken off by the Royal Navy at Megara on the following night, 26 April. If this plan should miscarry, then the brigade would cross the Corinth Canal and be evacuated from one of the beaches in the Peloponnese near Navplion.
Early that morning 6 Brigade crossed the canal bridge and before daylight lay up near Miloi, just south of Argos. page 104 Fourth Brigade would go next. The canal, unguarded since the Greeks were evacuated from their positions some days before, was an obstacle which, if the enemy were to destroy the bridge, could seal the fate of the troops on the north side. Once our forces were across, however, its destruction by us would delay the German advance and allow more time for evacuation.
Prepare both the bridge and the road for demolition.
Should 4 Brigade be successfully evacuated from Megara, the demolitions would be fired and Isthmus Force would make for Navplion and be taken off there. If, however, 4 Brigade had to cross the canal, the force would come under its orders once more.
Isthmus Force included Wellington West Coast Company of 19 Battalion, one section of the British 122 Light Anti-Aircraft Battery, 6 Field Company New Zealand Engineers, one squadron of the Divisional Cavalry, a small detachment of the Royal Hussars and some Royal Engineers. Major Gordon was to command the force, and he set off immediately for a rendezvous with the representatives of the other units, timed to take place at Kolatski at 10.30 a.m.
Loading up with six days’ rations, the company, under Lieutenant Harold Heiford, moved off to take up a preliminary position astride the road north of Loutraki, where it was thought likely that the enemy might attempt to get through. They made the trip without incident and set up on high ground overlooking the canal.
Wellington West Coast Company positions,
Corinth Canal, 25–26 April (Not to scale)
The presence of these additional Australian troops was most welcome, for already the enemy was displaying much interest in the position and the anti-aircraft guns were bombed several times during the day. With the strong possibility of enemy aircraft landing between Loutraki and the canal, where the country was flat and suitable, it was deemed wise to move two of the platoons from Wellington West Coast Company down from the high ground and closer to the canal.
That evening Company Headquarters and 11 and 12 Platoons moved to a small fir-covered hill to the north-east of the bridge and some 800 yards away from it. No. 10 Platoon remained on the Loutraki road about three miles page 106 away. The new positions were taken up at dusk and the two platoons dug in, then made contact with the troops round the bridge to let them know their dispositions. The next move was up to the enemy. At daylight next morning (the 26th) it came.
Just after dawn a vicious dive-bombing attack, directed particularly against the anti-aircraft guns guarding the bridge, commenced and was kept up until the last gun was put out of action. Ground strafing then started and suddenly the air was full of planes. While the fighters mercilessly gunned the Australian positions, troop-carrying aircraft came slowly down, turned into the wind and, when at about three to four hundred feet, disgorged their cargoes. The paratroops dropped mainly between the bridge and the two platoons. Obviously the company’s position under cover of the firs was unknown to the enemy and he had not reckoned with their presence. Those who dropped within range were soon disposed of.
The Aussies were overwhelmed immediately and the tanks, too, were forced to withdraw under the concentrated air attack. The enemy was putting in an all-out effort to take the bridge intact. Anxious to make every shot tell, Wellington West Coast Company pushed forward an attack. But enemy reinforcements were constantly arriving and the second wave of troop-carrying aircraft numbered no fewer than ninety-seven. Paratroops now were dropping all around, and some who had got into position were beginning to take a toll of the 19th’s men, but the company fought on. At this stage there was a tremendous explosion and Corinth Bridge, which the Hun had already flattered himself was in his hands, blew up. With it went a German photographer who was standing on one of the piers filming its capture. The sappers had done their work well.
With the blowing of the bridge the German attacking force turned its whole attention to the area in which our men were operating, and heavy fire was brought to bear from both flanks. The position was hopeless, and Major Gordon began to withdraw his men. They would try to reach the brigade, which was thought to be at Megara, page 107 Privates Jones and Sullivan volunteering to try to get back and let Headquarters know what was happening. Disengaging was difficult, for now they were being fired at from three sides. Gordon and both his subalterns (Second Lieutenants Chas Ferguson40 and F. M. S. ‘Buzz’ Budd41) were wounded. Ammunition was running low, so gathering the wounded together Major Gordon handed over the survivors to CSM Jones,42 with orders to continue the withdrawal. Collecting all available ammunition the survivors set off, the wounded giving them covering fire until they were clear.
After the CSM’s party withdrew the enemy advanced and picked up our wounded men. They were obviously disconcerted by the unexpected resistance they had encountered and chagrined over the destruction of the bridge. The two platoons had upset their carefully laid plans and caused them heavy casualties. It was learned later from Australian officers, who after capture had been made to assist, that they had buried no fewer than eighty-eight German dead. Many more paratroops were wounded.
The Germans themselves, writing of the action, said: ‘In the storming of “Blood Hill” too, as the little fir covered mountain to the north east has been called since yesterday—the Britishers with troops from their auxiliary nations had dug themselves in properly. Many were placed in the trees barely visible—and didn’t they shoot well!’
As the paratroops were collecting our wounded, Jones and his party fought their way out of the bridge area and made for Megara, but unable to get through, took to the hills. While their supplies and ammunition held they carried on a guerrilla fight with Hun parties. Several highly successful ambushes were staged and enemy transport and troops suffered some rude shocks. As the day wore on, however, and the area became thickly occupied by the Wehrmacht, page 108 they were forced to split up into smaller parties. Supplies, too, became a problem. Some men tried to get away by sea but were picked up in the attempt. Some were wounded in skirmishes, and some were betrayed by fifth columnists.
Privates Hill,43 Watson,44 and Nielsen45 remained at large, living in the hills, always moving, always alert, hunted and hungry. Sheltered by friendly Greeks for short periods, they lived by foraging and fieldcraft until in 1945, when the Allies again landed in the Balkans, Hill and Watson were able to report back to the British Army. Nielsen had been evacuated in August 1943 on a caique arranged by the British military mission.
While the battle for the bridge raged below them at Corinth, the men of 10 Platoon at Loutraki were at a loss to know what to do. They could see the paratroops landing three miles away, they heard the firing and the explosion as the bridge blew up, but, obeying orders, they sat astride the road expecting either the brigade or the Hun at any minute. Their visual signals to Company Headquarters were not answered and there was no other method of communication. At midday Greek civilians told them the Germans were in the village below. It was then obvious that the game was up.
Lieutenant Heiford decided to try to get back to the unit and he and his men lay concealed and waited for darkness. About dusk they captured a German paratroop officer riding one of the motor-cycles formerly belonging to their own Company Headquarters. He was evidently out for a joyride and was drunk. When darkness fell the platoon, with its captive, set off for the sea, intending to get a boat across the gulf and make for the unit positions at Kriekouki.
Their furtive progress northwards and their difficult task in locating boats took until almost daylight on the 27th. It was clear that it would be inviting trouble to make the attempt then, for they would have hardly left the shore before they would be discovered. Once more the platoon page 109 hid to wait for darkness. A Greek fisherman had promised his motor-boat for the next night, and provided they could see the day out, things looked rosy. The captured German officer proved their undoing. Agitated and now very sober, he did some talking to some civilians who visited the cave in which the platoon was hiding. At midday Greek police arrived as emissaries for the German Army—the cave was surrounded.
The story of Wellington West Coast Company told as the experiences of its individual members would fill many books. The battalion learned the brief facts of the engagement at Corinth from the two men, Privates Jones and Sullivan, whose stout journey back to the unit is well worth recording. Ordered by their wounded company commander to get back as quickly as possible to Brigade with the news of the destruction of the bridge and the overwhelming of Isthmus Force, they took the company truck and, avoiding the roads, set off for the hills to the north-east, bypassing the area in which the enemy were active. They intended to pick up the road again on the outskirts of Megara. After a long period of rough cross-country driving they were compelled to abandon their vehicle, and decided to try for the main road on foot. When they reached it they hid in the scrub until a civilian car appeared. They stopped the driver, found he was headed for Athens via Megara, and learned that the enemy was already in the latter place. They took a risk and, lying on the floor of the car, sped through the town; once clear, they left the Greek to go on his way and set off on foot once more towards Villia, where the brigade had last been located.
Darkness fell, but they plodded on, fighting off fatigue and fearful that at any moment they might walk into enemy hands. About 10 p.m. they hit the road once more and dived quickly for cover at the sound of approaching vehicles. They were Bren carriers—their caution gave place to relief and, rushing out, they contacted Lieutenant-Colonel Kippenberger and part of the brigade rearguard. After telling their story they were picked up and taken to a spot where they were told to await the arrival of a liaison officer.page 110
While the carriers rattled off on their duties, the two weary men waited, fearful lest they should fall asleep and miss their only chance to join the unit, which was now well on its way to the opposite coast. The truck turned up on time. In it was Lieutenant Latimer, lately of their own company, who was now doing duty as liaison officer at 4 Brigade Headquarters. He picked them up, but their adventures had not yet ended. Lights appeared along the road—a convoy was coming. The New Zealand truck turned off the track and waited. Soon a long stream of German transport began to pass, travelling in the same direction as that which the brigade had taken not two hours before. Quick thinking saved the situation; turning the truck into a break in the column, the New Zealanders now continued as part of the enemy convoy. Moving unnoticed in the middle of the enemy was a nerve-racking experience but it was the only course, and when, at the crossroads, the truck got away in the new direction without a challenge, all aboard breathed a sigh of relief. For the rest of the journey Jones and Sullivan slept soundly and next day woke up to find themselves at Porto Rafti, back with their unit.
Fred Woollams,46 one of the Wellington West Coast Company NCOs, has given a graphic account of the fortitude of those men who for long periods managed to elude capture. His book, Corinth and All That, is a stirring story of courage and adventure as well as a tribute to the fine Greek folk who defied the threats of the Germans and Italians and did so much to help our troops.
The gratitude he feelingly expresses is shared by all the 19th men who, when all possibility of organised resistance had ceased, broke up into small parties and took to the hills, facing a hard and precarious existence in a bold bid for freedom.
33 Armoured Fighting Vehicles.
36 Maj-Gen Sir Howard K. Kippenberger, KBE, CB, DSO and bar, ED, m.i.d., Legion of Merit (US); Wellington; born Ladbrooks, 28 Jan 1897; barrister and solicitor; 1 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; 2 NZ Div 30 Apr-14 May 1943 and 9 Feb-2 Mar 1944; 2 NZEF Prisoner of War Reception Group in UK, 1944–45; twice wounded; Editor-in-Chief, NZ War Histories.