CHAPTER 3 — Campaign in Greece
Campaign in Greece
The 21st Battalion chafed and fretted in Athens while the Germans made their first moves towards the conquest of Greece. From Hungary, Roumania, and Bulgaria enemy divisions were moving towards the frontier. The northern Greek border is a rugged alpine mass pierced by three main passes —the Struma River valley which crosses the Bulgarian border at the Rupel Pass, the Vardar River valley in the centre, and the Monastir Gap between the Vardar and Albania. In a poor and mountainous country, the campaign would be essentially a struggle for the many mountain passes and the few good roads that twisted through them.
Within two days the ill-prepared Yugoslav Army had been thrust aside and enemy advanced elements were reported to be in Monastir. If the invaders were permitted to debouch from the gap they would be able to cut off the Greek Army in Albania and at the same time outflank the Greek and British forces on the Aliakmon line.
The Greek forces in the Metaxas line covering Salonika were likewise in a critical position, although they were only expected to delay the enemy advance as long as possible. The main German effort was in the Rupel Pass area where the defenders, fighting desperately, were being slowly infiltrated. With his numbers and superior equipment the enemy would have broken through in time, but there was an easier way, again through Yugoslavia. A panzer division followed the Strumitsa River from Bulgaria through the Serbian mountains to Doiran and outflanked the Metaxas line. On 8 April, while the Germans were occupying Doiran, 21 Battalion ceased to be under command 80 Base Sub-Area and entrained for Katerine. Perhaps entrucked would be more accurate, for when the sprinkling of old soldier's saw what was waiting for them at Rouf siding, they muttered sardonically, ‘Hommes 40, Chevaux 8’. Cattle trucks were the usual form of troop transport page 40 in France during the First World War. When it was found that the ‘hommes 40’ was only ‘hommes 34’, they pointed out how much things had improved since they were young soldiers.
The veterans' forebodings were realised to the full, for rain was falling, that light misty rain with no weight but great penetration, and the roofs of the cattle trucks leaked. The train left on its 300-mile journey at 6 p.m., and at first light it was a stiff, sore, and very damp battalion that sniffed the keen Greek upland air and watched the snow-covered peaks of Mount Olympus draw closer.
The B Echelon was luckier, for with the exception of the Bren carriers all 21 Battalion transport, with the Anti-Aircraft Platoon for local protection, travelled by road under the command of Major E. A. Harding. The road twined over wooded hills and hung precariously to the edges of precipices where ranges had been split asunder by prehistoric earthquakes. They passed grey-green olive groves and bright green fields, where workers among the spring crops stopped to wave. At villages and crossroads garlands of flowers were thrust by children upon the embarrassed drivers, while the adults made gestures of welcome. At every halt the villagers offered fresh eggs and wine, which was all they had, and thankfully accepted army biscuits and bully beef in return, for theirs was a hungry and war-torn land.
By the time the entrucked battalion, en route to Katerine, had stamped some warmth into its feet and had eaten its breakfast, the German columns had entered Salonika. To meet the double threat of an enemy advance from both Monastir and Salonika, plans were made for the British and Greek forces to withdraw to a line not dependent on Yugoslav co-operation. An intermediate position was chosen, from the coast at Platamon through the Olympus Pass, and then along the Vermion Range to link up with a hurriedly formed force at Veve covering the approach from Monastir. Fourth Brigade was withdrawn from the Aliakmon line and sent to the Servia Pass, a pivot position for the intermediate line and the final defensive position. Sixth Brigade was withdrawn to a reserve position behind the Servia and Olympus passes at Elasson. Eventually all troops from the Vermion Range and from Veve would be page 41 transferred to positions on the left of 4 Brigade at Servia, and the final position, called the Olympus-Aliakmon River line, would run from Platamon through the Olympus Pass to the Servia Pass, thence north-westward to link up with the Greek Army withdrawing from Albania.
Colonel Macky's instructions were to detrain at Katerine, but on reaching Larissa about midday he was informed by the RTO that telephoned orders had altered his destination to Platamon, 15 miles further on and only half-way to Katerine. The train left Larissa at 1 p.m. on 9 April, and while Battalion Headquarters was pondering over what the sudden change might mean, the Greek commander in eastern Macedonia, completely cut off though his men were still fighting in the Rupel Pass, was surrendering his army and the Metaxas line to the Germans.page 42
The Greek train crew must have been well informed about the potentialities of enemy dive-bombers because, when a small running air fight passed high overhead, the train stopped and the crew took to the hills. Colonel Macky was on the point of recruiting engine drivers from the battalion when the Greeks returned and the journey was resumed.
Platamon is on the coast north of Larissa, but between them is a range of high hills stretching from Mount Olympus to Mount Ossa on the eastern seaboard. At some time before the dawn of history an earthquake had snapped the range like a rotten stick, and the result was the five-mile-long Vale of Tempe, the gorge of the Peneios River. The river has scoured a 30-foot-wide path, on the southern side of which a road and on the northern a single-track railway line have been blasted out of its almost vertical walls. The eastern exit of the gorge is about one mile from the sea in open country which, however, narrows continuously in the next seven miles. The railway is then almost on the beach.
The hope that there would be further instructions waiting at Platamon was not realised, for with the exception of a solitary soldier the station was empty. The soldier said he was from D Company 26 Battalion, commanded by Captain Huggins,1 who was a mile further along at a tunnel where the company was digging and wiring. The train was therefore taken on to the tunnel. Huggins had no definite information, but was preparing a battalion defensive position. Colonel Macky decided that he had reached his destination, detrained the battalion, and sent the trucks back to the station to unload the Bren carriers.
It was about 5 p.m. and, while the battalion had tea and arranged bivouacs for the night, the Colonel and Captain Tongue made a reconnaissance of the area. They found that the tunnel pierced a low ridge, an under-feature of Olympus running eastwards to the sea. To the north the level country widened again as the hills retreated from the seashore. The ridge, comparatively flat on top and about 200 feet high, fell away steeply on each side. At first glance it appeared impassable page 43 to any form of wheeled traffic, but about half a mile inland there was a saddle across which a track alongside the railway deviated to rejoin the line at the tunnel's southern exit.
The partially prepared positions were sited with the object of denying the tunnel and commanding the track. The first area was on the forward slopes above the tunnel and the second at Point 266, a conical hill slightly west of the saddle track. Macky decided to put A Company on the hill, B Company on Point 266, and C and D in reserve. Still without definite instructions and with no means of communication, he had sent Lieutenant Yeoman2 back to Larissa on a motor cycle to see if the track alongside the railway line was practicable for wheeled traffic and to contact Major Harding.
The transport, however, had already passed through Larissa. On arrival Major Harding inquired where the battalion was located and, as nobody appeared to have heard of it, he reported to the Area Commander. He also had never heard of 21 Battalion, but did know that the transit camp nearest to the New Zealand Division was at Elasson at the junction of the Servia-Olympus roads, 30 miles north. The transport accordingly was moved to that area, while Harding went on to locate 5 Brigade Headquarters, which he eventually found on the northern side of the Olympus Pass. Brigade Headquarters knew where the battalion was and gave permission to move the vehicles to a point where they could more readily serve it. Early on the next morning (the 10th) Brigadier Hargest sent his Intelligence Officer with written orders and a letter welcoming the battalion back to the brigade.
Also that morning Major Harding went by truck back to Larissa, then up through the Peneios Gorge to where a barge ferried his truck across the river. The companies were settling in when he arrived and, after a conference with Colonel Macky, he returned to Elasson. The next day, the 11th, the transport moved to the vicinity of the railway station at Makrykhorion, about three miles south of the village of Tempe.
Shortly after Lieutenant Yeoman had set out on his mission on 9 April Lieutenant Jones,3 19 Army Troops Company NZE, page 44 reported from Katerine. His news was disquieting. Katerine was being evacuated and he had brought a section of engineers with explosives, some land mines, and a naval depth-charge to prepare the tunnel and saddle track for demolition. Two hours later Lieutenant Williams4 arrived, also from Katerine. He had with him A Troop of 27 Battery 5 Field Regiment, and was under orders to report to 21 Battalion and to assist in the defence of the Platamon tunnel area.
The gunners went off to locate suitable ground, construct command and observation posts, lay telephone wires, dig gun-pits, and generally do the things gunners do when they take over a new area. Battalion Headquarters continued to wonder what was going to happen next. The troops slept out in the open, but the bitterly cold drizzle which began at dusk did not dampen the enthusiasm of men who had travelled halfway around the world and, in distance, half-way home again in search of a place in the New Zealand Division. At that moment they were still not with the Division, and the nearest New Zealand unit was on the opposite side of Mount Olympus. While they shivered the night away in almost complete ignorance of the general situation, 4 and 6 Brigades were moving back to their positions at Servia and Elasson and were passing through 5 Brigade, holding on Mount Olympus. The Divisional Cavalry and supporting artillery were forward patrolling the Aliakmon River, while 75 miles away on the left flank 27 (Machine Gun) Battalion, less two companies, was at Veve, crouching in rain-sodden fire-pits waiting for daylight and the invaders.
The troops of 21 Battalion were up and had breakfasted before first light on 10 April, for if the Aliakmon positions were being vacated, enemy patrols at least could be expected within twenty-four hours. A Company looked curiously at, but wasted little time in exploring, the derelict castle that gave their hill its name. The crumbling tower surrounded by battlements was not a real castle but the remnants of the Turkish fort of Skotiniotika Manzarda. The top of Castle Hill was bare, with outcrops of rock and a good field of fire to the edge of the page 45 scrub which covered its lower features. Second-Lieutenant Bullock-Douglas,5 with 8 Platoon, was placed on the extreme right above the mouth of the tunnel. Both Second-Lieutenant Southworth, with 7 Platoon in the centre, and Second-Lieutenant Roach, with 9 Platoon on the left of the company area, commanded the track over the saddle, and theirs were the most forward posts. Captain McClymont's A Company headquarters was situated behind 7 Platoon and higher up the hillside.
Major Le Lievre's B Company area forward of Point 266 was rather more difficult. Dense scrub covered the terrain and the field of fire was limited. Ridges and ravines ran in all directions and mule tracks apparently began and ended at random. Lieutenant Rose,6 with 10 Platoon, held the right flank, Lieutenant Yeoman and Second-Lieutenant Finlayson,7 with 11 and 12 Platoons, were situated on opposite sides of a ravine that also covered the saddle track forward and to the west of 10 Platoon. Company Headquarters was near the junction of the saddle track and another track winding down from Pandeleimon village. If it had needed a name, ‘Monastery Corner’ would have been a good description, for there were ruins there, probably the remains of a Greek monastery.
A more detailed reconnaissance decided Colonel Macky to widen his front. Westward from Point 266 the ridge rose sharply and about a mile inland the village of Pandeleimon clung to the hillside, 1500 feet above sea level and a few chains below the snow line. Pandeleimon was the junction of several tracks connecting with other villages among the hills and on the plains to the north.
One of these tracks wandered in a south-westerly direction to Rapsane, thence to Gonnos on the Larissa end of the Peneios Gorge; another, more substantial than the average, connected Pandeleimon with Platamon station; yet another twisted down behind B Company and joined the saddle track. If the Germans came down the coast and Pandeleimon was not held, page 46 it would be a simple matter to cut the battalion's line of retreat at Platamon station, where the railway runs along the foot of a ridge skirting the beach. It was decided, therefore, to put Captain Tongue, with C Company, to hold Pandeleimon. Even then it was only a matter of how large the opposing force was before the open left flank was turned. The battalion's first assignment was a tough one.
C Company was disposed with 14 Platoon (Second-Lieutenant Smith8) and 15 Platoon (Second-Lieutenant Mason9) covering the mule trails to the coast, and 13 Platoon (Lieutenant O'Neill10) in reserve near Company Headquarters on the path to the saddle track. Pandeleimon was still inhabited by the Greeks.
D Company dug in on the reverse slope of Castle Hill with 17 Platoon (Second-Lieutenant Aickin11) forward on the right, 16 Platoon (Second-Lieutenant Phillips12) rear right near the southern exit of the tunnel, and 18 Platoon (Second-Lieutenant Flavell13) rear left.
While the forward positions were being prepared Captain Sadler (Headquarters Company) made himself familiar with the country south of the tunnel area. Lieutenant Dee's14 carriers were parked a quarter of a mile south of Platamon station and patrolled the beach from the tunnel to the mouth of the Peneios River. They had a busy time checking the Greek boats landing refugees from Salonika and trying to conciliate irate farmers whose oat and barley crops were damaged in the process. In the same locality the Pioneer Platoon began the construction of a siding for the supply train when the administrative service began to function, and in anticipation Captain Panckhurst's15 QM store was established nearby.page 47
Forward Battalion Headquarters was for the time being on the side of Castle Hill, but later was moved into the defile where three sandbagged dugouts had been built, one for signals, one for runners, and one for the CO and the Adjutant. Second-Lieutenant Wilson16 had placed his two mortars in the same locality, an action not appreciated by anybody in the area. Captain Hetherington,17 with his RAP, Padre Sheely,18 and Captain Sadler were located in a house about a quarter of a mile back.
Carrying ammunition, wire, and stores up the hillsides was slow and exhausting work, and some form of transport was badly needed. Colonel Macky had no authority to requisition pack animals, but the inhabitants were friendly and the battalion needed transport. The solution was to purchase some mules, but finance was something of a hurdle. This was finally overcome by platoon commanders taking the hat around and collecting what cash had escaped the Athenian taverns. Receipts were given for every donation to the transport fund, but there is no evidence that they were ever redeemed. Army Pay Office would probably have been very difficult if they had been presented for payment.
With the finance position under control Lieutenant McKay19 was appointed mule purchasing officer, although his knowledge of the Greek language was no greater than that of the rest of the unit, being confined to the challenge Alt tis E? (Halt, who goes there?) used on guard duty at Athens. In spite of the language difficulty, a mixed team of 24 mules and donkeys was acquired, a corral was erected near Platamon station, and private Jim Collingwood,20 a hunting farmer from Tirau, was appointed ‘OC Mule Corral’. Several small boys also attached themselves as mule attendants. It is a melancholy coincidence that both McKay and Collingwood were killed in the battalion's first action.page 48
The night was wetter, colder, and more miserable than the previous one. In 21 Battalion's area the only enemy activity was provided by the reconnaissance planes circling overhead, particularly one that the troops christened ‘Hawkeye’. ‘Hawkeye’ met his end the next day when the one Allied plane seen by the battalion shot him down into the sea.
That night (11–12 April) the Germans attacked at Veve and the left flank of the Allied forces began to move back towards Servia.
In the morning D Company 26 Battalion was ordered to rejoin its unit at Katerine. They went up by train and got there in time to be among the last troops in the town; the RTO shot them back through Platamon the same night. The company went on to Larissa and eventually rejoined 26 Battalion in the Servia area. The 21st Battalion was made responsible for demolishing the road, bridges, and railway in the Peneios Gorge, six miles in its rear, so with everything except direct information pointing to action in the near future, Colonel Macky moved into battle headquarters. The day passed quietly, however. It was cold and wet, and on the higher levels it was snowing.
At Veve the enemy finally broke through the Monastir Gap and on the right flank his leading troops were feeling along the north bank of the Aliakmon River, but it was not anticipated that the German schwerpunkt would come down the Aegean coast. Even though it was the shortest route to Larissa, the key to northern Greece, the only road was worse than third-class, even by Greek standards.
The 13th, Easter Sunday, was another quiet day following a cold night. The sun shone from a cloudless sky and the men were able to dry their blankets, sodden after three rainy nights in the open. No. 14 Platoon celebrated the day by dining off a lamb they had bought for 65 drachmae. It was not much of a lamb, weighing a mere twenty pounds dressed, but it was a reminder of New Zealand and of final leave the previous Easter.
A party from Divisional Signals reported in the same day with a wireless set, which was established in Rear Battalion Headquarters. General instructions were to keep strict wireless silence until battle was joined, but these instructions were page 49 interpreted too narrowly and no listening watch was kept until 13 April, when an officer from Divisional Signals came to investigate. In the meantime Major Harding, at the transport lines, had to continue driving ninety miles to 5 Brigade Headquarters to deliver reports and receive orders.
While the troops were cleaning up and drying out in the warm sunshine that had followed the rain, the enemy crossed the lower Aliakmon. The New Zealand Division was now holding the line from the sea at Platamon to Servia, where 4 Brigade was being dive-bombed in the opening phases of the battle for the Servia Pass.
A train from Katerine passed through Platamon early on the morning of the 14th. The Greek general in charge of the area was on board and gave his certificate that it was the final train from the lost town. The enemy was probably entering Katerine at the same time as the certificate was being handed over. The 21st Battalion had almost caught up with the war, for Katerine was only 20 miles away.
About 3 p.m. another train, this time from Larissa, brought another general to Platamon. This time it was General Freyberg, bearing evil tidings. He informed Colonel Macky that it had not been possible to establish the Allied forces on the Olympus-Aliakmon River line, and that a decision had been made to withdraw south to the Thermopylae line, which it was hoped was short enough for the British alone to impose some delay on the German occupation of Greece. The 21st Battalion's part in the withdrawal to Thermopylae was, for the time being, to hold Platamon Ridge and deny the coast road to the enemy. It was still thought that, if the enemy came that way, it would be with infantry only on account of the terrain. Macky was not so sure, but did not press the point. He knew that the Intelligence Officer (Lieutenant Wallace21) had been forward on a motor cycle and had met a car with the 5 Brigade Intelligence Officer sent on 10 April with orders, and that the car had slid off the road and had been damaged. Lance-Corporal George Palmer22 and Private Don Hookham23 page 50 had been able to go forward with a carrier to recover the car and put it on the train. Also the engineers' trucks and the artillery tractors had come down that road without much trouble. No doubt Corps and Divisional Intelligence could be relied on, but all the same….
The General had not long departed when Colonel Macky's forebodings were fulfilled. The men had been paid, had had tea, and were preparing to stand to, when winking lights like the sun's rays reflected from a moving windscreen were reported to Battalion Headquarters. Macky was holding a conference at the time and suggested to Lieutenant Williams, who was present, that if he went up to his observation post he would see something interesting and, after seeing it, would he please chase it away. The gunner officer shot up the hill almost as fast as one of his own shells, and through his glasses saw an enemy reconnaissance patrol about two and a half miles away, viewing the hill through their glasses. The battery opened fire at 5000 yards' range and an optimistic Bren-gunner let go a burst. The battalion had found its war.
The patrol hurriedly sought shelter, and there was some discussion among the troops whether or not it was a patrol of ours that had been fired on. The argument lapsed when a continuous stream of vehicles was seen passing over a rise in the road about 7000 yards behind the patrol. Fire was opened by the guns but, owing to the dust and reflection from the windshields, observation was poor. At 11,000 yards vehicles that looked very like enemy tanks began to deploy over the plain. They also were fired on, without much hope of damaging them, but with the intention of discouraging their closer approach.
THE ORIGINAL OFFICERS OF 21 BATTALION
Back Row: Lieutenants L. W. Reanney, A. A. Yeoman, G. A. Dutton, C. A. Ferguson, E. G. Smith, R. B. McClymont, G. H. Panckhurst, A. G. Simms, W. Dickson, H. K. Brainsby, S. G. Hirst, K. G. Dee, J. R. B. Marshall, J. B. Cranswick, W. J. G. Roach, W. E. von Schramm, E. B. Butcher, P. B. Allen, H. M. McElroy, H. L. Thomson, R. D. Campbell.
Middle Row: Captains E. C. N. Robinson, A. C. Trousdale, W. M. Tongue, R. W. Harding, G. J. Howcroft, Major E. A. Harding, Lieutenant-Colonel N. L. Macky, Lieutenant M. T. S. Dew, Major R. R. McGregor, Captains C. A. Le Lievre, F. A. Sadler, Lieutenants O. S. Hetherington and R. H. Anderson.
Front Row: Lieutenants G. A. H. Bullock-Douglas, J. N. Stevenson, S. W. Parfitt, R. Penney, G. E. Moore, C. Williams, W. R. C. Saul, W. J. Southworth, A. J. B. Dixon, A. C. Turtill, N. R. Flavell, C. S. Caddie, L. N. Wallace, W. C. Butland, N. MacKay.
Camp at Duder's Beach, near Auckland
Firing Bren guns on the range at Penrose
Farewell march through Auckland, 27 April 1940
Camp at Mytchett, England
The craters along the saddle track also were not entirely satisfactory for the same reason—lack of explosives and equipment for dealing with hard-rock country. As an extra precaution a small anti-tank minefield had been laid out on the forward slopes near the top of the ridge. It eventually caused more delay than all the road blocks put together.
When the engineers were satisfied that they had done all they could, they packed up and departed for the Peneios Gorge to prepare further demolitions on the road and railway. In the meantime the battalion was standing to in real earnest and Captain Tongue, high up at Pandeleimon, was describing to Colonel Macky how artillery and vehicles were parking in well-dressed lines across the plain. He said he could see at least one hundred tanks, but the Colonel told him not to count any further as nobody would believe it. A message was wirelessed that 50 tanks and 150 other vehicles were parking in front of Platamon ridge.24
All night there was the sound of movement as the Germans completed their deployment. No attempt was made at concealment and vehicles moved with headlights burning. Whenever anything came within range the four guns and the two mortars that composed the battalion's supporting arms were on to it. The glare of burning trucks and faint screams and shouting indicated that the fire was not being wasted. The highlight of the night was a direct hit by a mortar shell on a vehicle, which caught fire and blazed fiercely throughout the night.
The night before battle is a time of contemplation, no matter how experienced the soldier, and 21 Battalion was not yet page 52 experienced. Never was a rifle checked more carefully, never a bayonet point thumbed so thoroughly. Letters were written with the greatest casualness. Nothing important really, just thought I'd drop a line home—haven't written home for weeks. Would you mind seeing it's posted, in case of accidents? Sure. Been meaning to write myself ever since we landed in Greece. Don't half go crook at home if a man doesn't write regularly. What do the old soldiers say? Never mind a bullet you hear—it's miles away by then. It's the one you don't hear that hurts. Maybe you're lucky and its a field dressing and a quick move to the RAP. Maybe you're not so lucky and its a field dressing and stretcher-bearers at the double, and if you're really unlucky it's neither—but you won't be taking any interest in the subsequent proceedings.
If Colonel Macky was perturbed at the arrival of the enemy armour he did not show it, but the company commanders were not displeased when he decided to get some sleep. They were as anxious as he that the battalion should acquit itself well in the morning, and they knew as well as he that the only thing that would prevent the tanks from rolling over them was the terrain. It was thought to be tank-proof, and the saddle track was in as big a mess as the engineers could contrive to make it. The men in the forward weapon pits listened to the rumbling of heavy vehicles and the bursting of shells on the plains below them. They passed the night peering into the scrub, fingers on triggers.
Shortly after daybreak on the 15th a patrol consisting of Sergeant Bill Davies25 and Private ‘Tommy’ Thompson26 was detailed to climb to the top of the ridge above C Company and estimate the enemy forces. The two men did not come back, but Major Le Lievre did not report them as missing, maintaining that such experienced bushmen could pass through a German army without being seen. His faith in their fieldcraft was not misplaced. It took them most of the day to scramble through the dense tangle of myrtus,27 fern, scrub, and brambles to a point near the summit, and when they finally got there they could see nothing through a misty drizzle that page 53 blanketed the high country. They did, however, discover a paved track along the top of the ridge, and they also found a party of Germans laying a telephone wire along it. They decided to return with the information but struck too far north and, when they eventually hit the coast, they found, in the words of Sergeant Davies, ‘Jerry, of course, being in large numbers in front, behind and around us.’ There was nothing for it but to make another wide detour southwards, and there we will leave them for the time being.
The first enemy shell arrived with the dawn. ‘Hawkeye’ had done his job well, for the shell burst fairly above the mortar position, but beyond sending Lieutenant Wallace, who was passing at the moment, smartly to earth, it did no damage. A Troop replied, and then all the German artillery emplaced during the night searched the ridge, paying particular attention to A Company.
The castle became the target for shells of various calibre, but of course nobody was in such an obvious position. Smoke was liberally mixed with the high explosives and, after an hour's bombardment, the enemy infantry, supported by fire from the rear, began to search through the smoke and scrub.
A patrol blundered on to a post of 7 Platoon. Second-Lieutenant Southworth had cadged a few sticks of explosive from the engineers when they were mining the saddle track and had also persuaded them to attach detonators and safety fuses. One of the home-made grenades killed the officer in charge and the rest dived back into the scrub. Evidently satisfied that the position was strongly held and required more softening up, the enemy withdrew after an hour's probing.
For the rest of the day the whole ridge was drenched with high explosives, but the weapon pits, hewn out of almost solid marble, gave excellent shelter and there were very few casualties. Up till midday there were none at all. The first battle casualty notified to Battalion Headquarters was Lance-Corporal Lovell28 of B Company.
During the afternoon tanks were heard through the smoke, page 54 crashing and threshing about while endeavouring to force a way over the ridge, and about seven o'clock Captain Tongue reported an attack by infantry on his position around Pandeleimon. C Company had watched the enemy build-up during the day, and towards evening suspected that Pandeleimon had been entered. Private Bosworth29 was sent to investigate from the forward section of 15 Platoon and was told by a Greek that the Germans had indeed entered the village. At dusk 14 Platoon was attacked, but the sections stood their ground until dark. Part of 15 Platoon was involved, and there was much confused firing.
The busiest people in the interludes between the attacks were the signallers. The lines were continually cut by shellfire; the one between the artillery observation post and Battalion Headquarters alone had to be mended eleven times.
The third attempt to force the ridge was made with armour leading the attack. The infantry did not emerge from the scrub, but the tanks made a determined effort to climb the ridge. Small-arms fire was poured into them from all angles, but even the anti-tank rifles only raised sparks on their armour. The artillery was unable to protect A Company because of the steepness of the hill, but only one tank succeeded in getting close to 8 Platoon; it was not able to complete the climb and returned baffled to its companions.
The main thrust was along the track between A and B Companies. Two tanks were halted under 9 Platoon's position, though one got past 10 Platoon's post on the side of the track. They were engaged by every rifle that could be brought to bear and retired discomfited by the steepness of the ridge and the demolished track.
Seven more tried to get up the ravine where Yeoman's and Finlayson's platoons were dug in, but were turned back by artillery and mortar fire. At last light the line was intact, the tanks had departed, and the silence was broken only by an occasional shot into the scrub, but A Troop had only 80 rounds a gun left.
The 3rd Panzer Regiment (2 Panzer Division) reported the day's fighting as follows:page 55
At midday on April 15 the head of the Div was halted by stubborn English resistance at Pandeleimon on Mt. Olympus. There the English had taken up positions on a ridge running right down to the sea and greeted us with accurate shell fire. From the left position in an old castle they had splendid observation. The whole regiment moved to the attack, co-operating with infantry and motor cyclists, who were directed to make an outflanking move to the right. The tanks attacking the ridge were forced by the fall of darkness and the terrible going to halt at the foot of the castle. The light troops of the unit advanced to the obstacles just in front of the enemy position, but could go no further. The tanks formed a close laager for the night. The English shells crashed continuously around them, but the English did not counterattack.
The German tanks might have settled down for the night, but nobody else did. A Company was shelled spasmodically, and snipers crept around B Company's posts. Every time a branch snapped under the weight of a German boot, that area was sprayed with fire which was returned by snipers in the vicinity. The tang of burning cordite was mixed with the pungent aroma of smoke lying so heavily in the ravines that each man felt that he was utterly alone—not a pleasant feeling in your first battle, with bullets cracking past in all directions.
As the night wore on the infiltration behind B Company's position increased, and about midnight Major Le Lievre decided to pull 11 Platoon back from its forward area into a reserve role behind 12 Platoon.
High up on the ridge C Company had been forced to give ground after dark. No. 14 Platoon, widely dispersed to cover its sector, was unable to prevent infiltration. A runner informed Captain Tongue of this, and Lieutenant O'Neill was sent with a patrol from 13 Platoon to find and regroup 14 Platoon. While O'Neill was on the way forward a large German patrol swept through the area, across the ridge, through 14 Platoon, 13 Platoon and Company Headquarters. The Germans sprayed tracer bullets at random, put up flares, kept in touch by shouting and whistling—and finally disappeared over the ridge beyond Company Headquarters. No. 14 Platoon was found in one formed group, and the sections were put astride the track between 13 and 15 Platoons. There was no further enemy action that night.page 56
After the failure of the frontal assault, there was only one answer: the turning of the left flank was the obvious enemy move. A brigade with anti-tank guns and field artillery might have held Pandeleimon Ridge against an armoured division, but not a battalion with four 25-pounders in support and no effective anti-tank weapons.
At dawn on 16 April it was clear that the enemy had closed in on C Company from the north and west. Lieutenant Mason went forward from 15 Platoon, surprised a German, and shot him. Farther along the ridge Corporal Bert Howe's30 section (No. 7), covering the track from the village, saw the Germans coming out of Pandeleimon in four columns, evidently under the impression that there would be no opposition. Howe's section opened fire and scattered the enemy, who soon regrouped under cover to attack with the support of mortars and infantry support guns. The section was soon surrounded and taken prisoner. Corporal Jack Gardner's31 section (No. 8), which had withdrawn closer to Company Headquarters during the night, suffered a similar fate. Men from these sections were surprised to find the Germans demanding food—they had not eaten for 24 hours—and were later incensed at being forced to help clear the tunnel demolition.
The remaining section of 15 Platoon, under Corporal Dick Pipe,32 was overrun from the west, after a brisk but one-sided encounter. Captain Tongue sent O'Neill with a fighting patrol from 13 Platoon to help, but this patrol, after moving up the south side of the ridge, was held up by small-arms fire. Sergeant Kibblewhite33 moved forward alone and, although wounded three times, drew sufficient fire to allow the patrol to reach 15 Platoon's area, only to find it empty. In the meantime Tongue had himself been forward, had failed to discover 15 Platoon, and had returned to discover its survivors at Company Headquarters. After giving covering fire to 15 Platoon, page 57 14 Platoon had also closed in to Company Headquarters, which was now virtually surrounded. Tongue ordered 14 and 15 Platoons to withdraw down the ridge under the covering fire of 13 Platoon. O'Neill returned with his patrol to find the company gone and, firing all the way, followed down the ridge to join what had become an orderly withdrawal. Half-way down the ridge it seemed to O'Neill that the enemy attack had petered out, as if its objective had been to clear the C Company area.
Captain McElroy34 had rung through to Colonel Macky before the company withdrew, giving the situation and asking for instructions, but the line went dead before he could get a reply. Macky then instructed Captain Panckhurst to make ready for a withdrawal. Everything was to be destroyed except hot food already prepared, which was left for anybody who passed by.
At the same time as the attack on C Company began, the enemy artillery, supported by a line of approximately fifty tanks, blanketed the rest of the ridge with high explosive and smoke shells. Under cover of the bombardment, infantry attempted to infiltrate between A and B Companies' positions, but made little progress against the steady fire of the forward posts. There was, however, danger of B Company's 12 Platoon being cut off, and Le Lievre ordered its withdrawal to 11 Platoon's area. The position then was that C Company was apparently out of the battle; B Company, with the exception of 10 Platoon, was concentrated in the rear of Point 266; A Company was still holding; and D Company was under enfilade fire from the direction of Pandeleimon.
The carriers were disposed to protect the road out past Platamon station and the guns were prepared to adopt an anti-tank role, but the latter were almost out of ammunition. At 9.40 a.m. Colonel Macky radioed to Corps Headquarters that his position was very serious. Almost immediately the tanks thrust again along the saddle track and, with the local knowledge gained from the previous attempt, made steady headway. Macky, none too soon, gave the order for a general withdrawal.page 58
A last signal that the battalion was retiring was sent at 10 a.m. before the wireless set was destroyed. There was no time to collect the telephone lines, and the loss of this equipment was to have an important effect in the next engagement. A Company came down off the hill in good order and was checked through by Lieutenant E. G. Smith. The right platoons of D Company followed, and then B Company, after making a detour, emerged on a track that ran through 18 Platoon's area.
The steady fire of 18 Platoon kept the enemy in the shelter of the scrub and made B Company's escape possible. Major Le Lievre was checking the last elements of his company through when C Company arrived. They had fought an all-round action for four hours and had finally succeeded in getting clear. They felt that in retiring they had let the battalion down and were very relieved to know that, on the contrary, they were the last company to leave the ridge. No. 18 Platoon finally disengaged with the loss of one man taken prisoner.
The reason the Germans were prepared to break off the battle is clear from the 3 Panzer Regiment's war diary:
In the morning the attack was continued after a heavy preliminary bombardment, this time with the engineers in support. The right hand company of tanks forced its way forward through the scrub and over rocks and in spite of the steepness of the hillside got on to the top of the ridge. The country was a mass of wire obstacles and swarming with the enemy. In the thick scrub visibility was scarcely a yard from the tanks and hardly a trace was to be seen of the enemy except an occasional infantryman running back. The tanks pressed forward along a narrow mule path. Many of them shed their tracks on the boulders or split their assemblies and finally the leading troop ran on to mines. Every tank became a casualty and completely blocked the path. A detour was attempted. Two more tanks stuck in a swamp and another blew up on a mine and was completely burnt out. After strenuous exertions the track was cleared that evening while the engineers carried out a very successful sweep for mines. In the meantime small parties of infantry had followed up the English on foot, driven them completely from the ridge and late in the day hoisted the flag on the castle.
While the tanks were immobilised the Germany infantry page 59 were prepared to call it a day. Thus 21 Battalion had held up half an armoured division for 36 hours at a cost of 36 killed, wounded, and missing.
The gorge through which the Peneios River flows, and where 19 Army Troops Company was preparing demolitions, offered the greatest opportunities for delaying the enemy advance. The sea is a mile from the mouth of the gorge, but immediately south rise the foothills of Mount Ossa, making a long and difficult detour for wheeled traffic. It would take days to outflank the positions from the seaward side, if indeed it was possible to get around with tanks at all.
The country north of the gorge consists of broken highlands running up to Mount Olympus, roadless and apparently impassable for any transport except a mule train, the only means of communication between the scattered villages in the Greek page 60 highlands. The gorge, five miles in length, is narrow, with on either side a series of spurs that end at the river bank in alternating cliffs and small re-entrants. At the western exit, where the railway crosses the river, the village of Tempe clusters around the station. Opposite, on the northern side of the Peneios, on one of the small flats between two spurs, is the twin village of Itia. Three miles west of Itia the larger village of Gonnos, situated on the edge of the river flats and the foothills, is the terminus of the mountain trail that passes through Pandeleimon. Fifteen miles south of Tempe is Larissa, the bottleneck through which the main force would have to pass en route to Thermopylae. If the Germans reached Larissa in strength before the withdrawal was complete, there would be no escape.
Colonel Macky boarded a carrier and went on ahead, while Lieutenant Dee disposed the rest of his carriers to cover the withdrawal. A Troop formed a gunline near the gorge. The Mortar Platoon, which had thrown its heavy equipment onto the artillery trucks, found on arrival that essential parts were missing, and from then on fought as riflemen.
As the rifle platoons reached the small river flat at the gorge mouth, they were dispersed under the mulberry and poplar trees or in the patches of wheat that covered the area. Enemy planes, mostly bombers returning from assignments further south, passed overhead. C Company and half of B Company were still missing when Brigadier Clowes, CCRA Anzac Corps,35 arrived.
Corps had been thoroughly disturbed by Colonel Macky's comparatively modest estimate of the armour concentrating below Platamon Ridge and had sent Clowes post-haste to take whatever action he considered necessary. (In actual fact there were 100 tanks, 16 guns, one battalion of infantry, one motorcycle battalion, engineers, anti-tank guns, and specialist units.) Corps had expected that the main German effort would be made against the Olympus Pass area and had made its dispositions accordingly. That the enemy was also on the shorter eastern route in strength necessitated a readjustment of the scanty reserves and a new appreciation of the situation.page 61
The advantages and drawbacks to defending the gorge from the seaward flank, the narrow middle, and the western end were considered by Brigadier Clowes and Colonel Macky. Because of the possibility of an outflanking move through the hills to Gonnos, the decision was taken to defend the western end.
Actually they had reached almost the same conclusion as had the Greek generals when discussing the same problem 2000 years earlier. Xerxes and his Persians had landed in the north and were moving on Athens by the coastal route. The Greek commanders planned to oppose him in the Peneios Gorge, but because of the danger of being outflanked and cut off, decided to defend their city at Thermopylae.
Brigadier Clowes, knowing the number of troops that had still to pass through Larissa, instructed Colonel Macky that it was essential to deny the gorge to the enemy until 19 April, even if it meant extinction, and told him that support would arrive within twenty-four hours. His final advice was that, if the enemy broke through the gorge, the battalion was to fall back to a position astride the point where the road and railway crossed, seven miles south of the western exit. The Brigadier departed and the battalion was preparing to cross the river when C Company and the remainder of B Company arrived and the battalion was complete again. The crossing was made on the same flat-bottomed barge that Major Harding had used, and the Pioneer Platoon, acting as ferrymen, found it exhausting work hauling on the heavy ropes. Only a few men could be taken at a time, and it was late afternoon before the troops were all across. There remained the carriers and the guns with their ‘quads’, all too heavy for the ferry. There was a bridge five miles upstream at Tempe, where the railway crossed the river, and it was decided to ferry the guns across and send the rest of the transport along the rail track to this bridge. Lieutenant Parfitt,36 at B Echelon, had received the message that the battalion was withdrawing and had brought some transport through the gorge. The guns were hitched on to these trucks and taken back to rejoin the quads when they arrived.
There were two tunnels and a number of culverts on the page 62 railway, and when the last carrier, which had been used to haul a box-car from a siding into the first tunnel, was clear, the engineers blew the undercarriage off the box-car. The result was a tolerable blockage. The rail track on each side was also blown, to make it more difficult for enemy tanks to tow the wreckage out.
Explosives were still in short supply, but enough was found in a hut on the line to blow one of the culverts so high into the air that the rails came down on the other side of the gorge. The tanks, when they got so far, would certainly have to swim the river before they could advance further. This was a very comforting thought to men who had not slept for 48 hours. Tanks were not very good at swimming rivers in the early days of the war.
Just when the ferry was due for destruction and the hauling ropes cut, there was an incident that could happen only in Greece or in comic opera. Two shepherdesses arrived with small flocks of mixed sheep and goats and requested a passage. The Pioneer Platoon took time off from the war to haul them over before they ensured that nobody else would use the ferry for some considerable time.
The road was blown in the two most likely places, but the resulting craters were only reasonably effective. Second-Lieutenant Rose, with 10 Platoon, was left to cover the second or nearest crater, while Major Le Lievre disposed the remainder of B Company along a stream a mile inside the gorge up to the village of Ampelakia, high in the hills to the south. Finally the railway bridge at Tempe was blown by another section of 19 Army Troops Company which had been sent up for the purpose, and, feeling reasonably secure for the time being, the battalion bedded down for the night.
Battalion Headquarters had been set up in a house in Tempe and shortly after dusk Lieutenant-Colonel Chilton, commanding 2/2 Australian Battalion, arrived with the information that his battalion was on the way. It came up during the night and was disposed with one company near the gorge exit, the next some two miles west along the river bank opposite Gonnos, and the others still further westward. Before dawn 2/3 Australian Battalion was also in position, on the left of 2/2 Battalion.page 63
Meanwhile 5 Brigade was breaking contact with the enemy on Olympus and moving back ten miles to the head of Olympus Pass preparatory to withdrawing to Thermopylae. While 2 Panzer Division was getting its tanks over Platamon Ridge and clearing the tunnel, 6 Mountain Division commenced a flanking movement across the southern slopes of Mount Olympus towards Gonnos, with the task of opening the Peneios Gorge for the tanks if they could not force it themselves. Next morning, the 17th, Lieutenant-Colonels Chilton and Macky, now joined by Lieutenant-Colonel Parkinson37 (CO 4 NZ Field Regiment), who had brought up 26 Battery, and Lieutenant Longmore,38 with L Troop 7 Anti-Tank Regiment, reconnoitred the gorge as far as B Company's road block.
After a meal and a night's sleep in the deserted village, the men of 21 Battalion were in better shape. Enemy planes were passing overhead at half-hourly intervals.
To help replace the tools lost at Platamon, the companies were told to collect any the villagers had left behind. A motley assortment of crude implements was obtained, as well as a varied collection of wines and liquors that had not been included in the instructions. Stray fowls were also captured and were soon cooking in whatever could be found to hold them. Across the river the inhabitants were seen to be evacuating the village of Itia. All day long the peasants were toiling up into the hills, with their belongings strapped onto mules and donkeys and driving their flocks in front.
It was agreed between the commanders that 21 Battalion was to be responsible for the gorge, the high country on its south bank, and the river bank to Tempe village inclusive. Beyond Tempe was the Australians' area. The battalion was disposed for the defence of the gorge exit along a steep shoulder that ran from Tempe village to the main ridge which formed page 64 the south side of Peneios Gorge. Beyond this ridge to the south-east stood Mount Ossa, surrounded by hundreds of square miles of highlands seared with gullies and studded with lines of ranges radiating in all directions. D Company was on the right flank holding the small village of Ampelakia, a thousand feet above the river and about 2000 yards south of it. C Company held from the left flank of D Company down to the gorge road. Forward of this line and between C and D Companies, B Company headquarters and 12 Platoon (Second-Lieutenant Finlayson) were on a spur about 600 yards in rear of the road block still held by 10 Platoon. No. 11 Platoon was detached from B Company and under command of Battalion Headquarters, with the task of patrolling a line parallel with the gorge and about two miles forward of Ampelakia and preventing any infiltrating enemy coming down the goat tracks. A Company, having borne the brunt of the Platamon tunnel action, was in reserve behind Tempe, where another ridge formed the second arm of the small valley enclosing the village. It was also the last ridge of the gorge, and westward of it was a long, wide valley where the Australians were digging in.
A Company was sited for all-round defence, with Second-Lieutenant Roach forward, Second-Lieutenant Bullock-Douglas in his rear, and Second-Lieutenant Southworth along the river bank. Battalion battle headquarters was in a deep ditch behind Roach and 100 yards south of the road. The RAP was in Tempe, which was defended by Headquarters Company details about a platoon strong under Lieutenant Anderson.39 The Carrier Platoon was deployed a thousand yards south-east of Tempe, while the remainder of Headquarters Company was behind A Company.
The artillery made its own dispositions to support the Australians along the river bank and to cover 21 Battalion inside the gorge, with two 25-pounders forward near Evangelismos in an anti-tank role. By early afternoon of the same day the companies were in position and digging in on the bare and rocky ridge. The position was a strong one but, as has been mentioned, the loss of the telephone wire at Platamon meant that page 65 all messages between the companies and Battalion Headquarters had to be carried by runner.
About midday Brigadier Allen, commanding 17 Australian Brigade, arrived and took command of the composite brigade preparing to defend the approach to Larissa. His headquarters was established at Makrykhorion, a small railway station three miles south of Evangelismos, where the battalion transport was situated.
It was not to be expected that the enemy would waste any time in following the route the battalion had taken, at least until he came to the destroyed ferry. No. 10 Platoon was not surprised, therefore, to see about 5 p.m. a tank lurching its way along the railway on the opposite side of the gorge. Knowing that the tunnel was blocked and the culvert very thoroughly demolished, they watched its progress with some satisfaction and called for artillery fire.
It was at this point that the defence received its first setback, for, owing to the winding gorge and the steepness of the hills, the forward observation officer's wireless set could not make contact with the guns. Consequently the artillery fire was not controlled by direct observation, and the tank remained undisturbed. Close behind it was a party of 112 Reconnaissance Group cyclists, whom 10 Platoon engaged with rifles and Bren guns. The enemy replied with a mortar and a machine gun, whereupon Privates McCabe40 and Clark41 climbed up the cliff behind their post for a better view and helped to silence both weapons. The German infantry took shelter in the mouth of the tunnel, but the tank, impervious to small-arms fire, turned its gun on the post, and after some losses Second-Lieutenant Rose was ordered to withdraw the platoon 200 yards up the ridge to where there was cover from the tank. Both sides had an unseen audience perched high above the tunnel: the missing patrol, Davies and Thompson, were wondering how they were going to cross the river and rejoin their company. They decided that there was nothing for it but another detour southwards.
Just before dusk an Australian patrol came down the road, page 66 evidently under the impression that the enemy was farther back, and was fired on when it reached the block. The patrol took cover and returned the fire. No. 10 Platoon joined in the action until it was dark and the patrol was able to withdraw. The Australians left behind two seriously wounded men who were brought in later by 10 Platoon. While this outpost action was being fought, another demolition was made in the road just forward of Tempe by Australian engineers, and Major Le Lievre was instructed to withdraw 10 Platoon. The men were exhausted after three nights without rest, so the worst cases, including Second-Lieutenant Rose, were sent back to Battalion Headquarters for a night's sleep; the others joined 12 Platoon. Except for the artillery searching the hills above Itia and Gonnos, where moving lights suggested that the expected outflanking march was in progress, and half-hourly shelling of the road below them, the night in B Company's area passed peacefully.
Elsewhere it was not so quiet. Fifth Brigade's transport was pouring back from Olympus through Larissa to the Thermopylae line; 4 Brigade was extricating itself from the Servia Pass and also moving through Larissa; 2 Panzer Division, blocked on the railway track, had found a ford further east and was getting its tanks across the river; 112 Reconnaissance Group was edging along the hills above the railway. Part of 6 Mountain Division was, in fact, nearing Gonnos, with forward patrols already on the far bank of the river. Probably with the idea of identifying the troops in the gorge, the patrols included English-speaking Germans who called out in an accent fondly thought to be Australian. Their inquiries as to which unit was opposite them were answered by A and C Companies on the river bank in what they thought was a German accent, and their remarks were very, very rude indeed.
The morning of the 18th broke clear and fine. As soon as it was light enough enemy movement was detected across the river. Transport was seen in Gonnos and troops were dribbling into the village of Itia. The guns opened on them, and the German mountain artillery replied in an endeavour to protect their infantry moving down the hills and taking position along the river bank. At first B Company, also under artillery page 67 fire, thought our guns were registering short and sent back messages to that effect. Fired on from front, rear and flank, B Company eventually was forced to move further up the ridge. A Company on the ridge below Tempe took a hand as soon as the enemy was within range. The Germans retaliated by changing from counter-battery fire to registering along the river bank and the re-entrants where the anti-tank guns were sited. More and more guns and mortars came into action along the whole length of the front. The 26th NZ Battery crashed 25-pounder shells into them, and every rifle and Bren gun in 21 Battalion searched the opposite hills. The valley was filled with the roar of rushing shells, the thunder of exploding mortar bombs, and the crackle of musketry echoing and re-echoing. The ancient Greek gods who dwelt on high Olympus might have been engaged in combat.
Throughout the morning the enemy's infantry strength continued to increase, as well as the number of his mortars and machine guns. As fast as the artillery silenced one nest, another would come into action. It was clear that an attempt was being made to smother any opposition to a river crossing. Colonel Macky held a conference with his company commanders and ordered that if the battalion was completely cut off or overwhelmed, those who could would make their way out through the hills in small parties and rejoin the Division. Owing to lack of communications, each company would have to act on its own initiative.
The firing continued until eleven o'clock, when the enemy attempted his first crossing. The place was well chosen—in a sharp bend between the two nearest Australian companies. There were no troops in the immediate vicinity, but the movement was seen from Ampelakia and Brigade Headquarters was informed. Colonel Chilton then asked for 21 Battalion carriers to oppose the crossing.
Lieutenant Dee, waiting at Battalion Headquarters where the Australians had laid a line from Evangelismos, raced off and advanced his nine carriers to a position on the right of some Australian carriers already in action. The gunners did not wait until they were within effective range, but opened up at 1200 yards. Some enemy troops were across before the page 68 carriers were within range, but some were killed while still in the water. The Germans did not emerge from the cover along the river bank, and it is probable that the operation was a feint to draw forces from the main attack against the Australians opposite Evangelismos.
Following the first German attack came a double thrust against the gorge defences. Tanks gingerly felt their way over the road blocks, followed by lorried infantry and troops on foot. B Company engaged them immediately but, coming under fire from the tanks as well as from a concentration of mortars across the river, was forced further up the ridge.
Simultaneously with his armoured advance along the road, the enemy laid a heavy bombardment on Tempe and attempted several crossings. Two sections of carriers withdrawn from the Australian area helped A and C Companies to defeat this movement.
Eventually a crossing was effected between Tempe and C Company. It might have been thrown back if the tanks, with rifle bullets flattening themselves on the armour, had not arrived. C Company, on the western end of a small re-entrant where vehicles could deploy, was engaged by 17 tanks. No. 13 Platoon, across the road, was overwhelmed in a cloud of dust and smoke, and the survivors of the company withdrew up the ridge. Our artillery, still hampered by poor communications, rained shells into the area but was unable to stop the advance.
The next obstacle was the cratered road in front of Tempe, where Anderson's platoon was still in possession. Streams of shells were poured into the village, while the leading armour inched its way over the obstruction. At the same time an enemy platoon stormed across the demolished bridge. The defence crumpled under the weight of fire, and only a few men got out to join A Company, grimly awaiting its turn. There still remained the troop of anti-tank guns; two that had survived intense mortaring destroyed two tanks and damaged a third before they were put out of action.
In the meantime Battalion Headquarters had moved from its ditch to the top of the ridge behind. From there it could be seen that the Germans had made good their crossing in front of Evangelismos and were heavily engaged with the Australians, page 69 but the line to Brigadier Allen had gone dead and there was no communication. When the tanks, as was inevitable, overran A Company and debouched from the gorge, the Australians would no more be able to contend with them than 21 Battalion had been.
Even if Larissa was not entered in force before dark, there was no apparent escape by road for the troops in the gorge. Captain McClymont was therefore instructed to prepare to withdraw the survivors of A Company up the ridge, after they had delayed the enemy as long as possible. Lieutenant E. G. Smith was shown a point on the ridge and told to go there, dispose the platoons as they arrived, and wait for McClymont. Only a few of A Company reported at the rendezvous and Smith, after leading a mixed party of New Zealanders and Australians by foot, boat, truck, and train, missing embarkation and, getting as far as the very toe of Greece, was eventually taken prisoner.
A Company, with a section of carriers in support, was now the last obstacle, but its rifles were no more effective against German armour than were those of the other companies. There was a longer delay than was justified by the strength of the position and it may have been because the carriers, in spite of severe mortaring, helped to keep the enemy infantry pinned down. It was clear that the enemy infantry would not advance without the tanks, and vice versa. At approximately 4.30 p.m. the tanks broke past A Company. Sergeant-Major Lockett,42 in a last despairing effort to stem the flood, rammed the leader with his carrier and forced it off the road. He won 21 Battalion's first MM.
Four of the six carriers holding the river line were knocked out; the others withdrew behind the artillery and asked if they could assist. The guns, however, did not need local protection, so the carriers went in search of the battalion transport.
It is not clear whether Second-Lieutenant Southworth ever received the withdrawal instructions, and as both he and Captain McClymont were killed in Crete, the point may never be cleared up. What is certain, however, is that this gallant young page 70 officer led his platoon out, reported to Colonel Chilton, and fought with 2/2 Australian Battalion until it in turn was forced into the hills.
Colonel Macky watched in the fading light from the top of the ridge and saw the first three tanks destroyed by the forward guns of A Troop 26 Battery before it in turn was overrun. Then the tanks fanned out and passed round the rear of the nearest Australian company. The 26th Battery, fighting a stubborn rearguard action, saw to it that they did not get into Larissa before dark, but the tide of battle had passed beyond 21 Battalion, shouldered aside by the tanks. With inadequate numbers and inferior equipment, it had done everything possible. The remnants of the forward companies moved back into the foothills, but from various vantage points enemy flares and signal lights could be seen far ahead—too far ahead to walk around. There was only one road left to safety—perhaps. It meant climbing over Mount Ossa to the coast, obtaining boats and rejoining the Division wherever it was making the next stand. And all the time Major Harding was waiting with transport to take them out.
As liaison officer Major Harding had been present at the corps conference that had decided on the composite brigade's movements. It was a most secret conference and no notes were permitted. The battalion transport was to proceed forthwith to Molos. The unit was to be withdrawn on the night of the 18th and taken by trucks to Molos, where it would rejoin its own transport. This arrangement was to avoid unnecessary congestion of traffic at the last moment, but it was later modified and Major Harding was told to arrange the move with his own vehicles.
Lieutenant Penney,43 battalion transport officer, was accordingly instructed to take the trucks to Molos, dump loads, and report back on the afternoon of the 18th. He was not able to return, but sent a despatch rider with a message to the effect that Colonel Clifton,44 CRE NZ Division, had countermanded page 71 his instructions on the grounds that all roads were needed for southbound traffic.
The battalion was then in the position of having no transport, and Harding set off post-haste to Corps Headquarters for new instructions. Corps Headquarters had moved in the meantime, but was eventually run to earth in an olive grove 20 miles south of Larissa. Harding was advised to get in touch with New Zealand Division.
Divisional Headquarters was located two miles south of Larissa and, when the position was explained, Colonel Stewart,45 GSO 1 NZ Division, made 20 trucks available from the Reserve Mechanical Transport Company. They were to rendezvous under a bluff in the area that the battalion transport had left, and Major Harding went on ahead to await their arrival. En route he met General Freyberg returning from Brigadier Allen's headquarters and was told that contact with 21 Battalion had been lost, the tanks were in Tempe, and the battalion was probably dispersing.
Before the General's visit Brigadier Allen had received two less-exalted callers. The two-man patrol last heard of above the halted tank opposite B Company had squirmed their way through the enemy around Gonnos and had persuaded a friendly Greek to row them across the river. They were making towards the sound of the fighting when, as Sergeant Davies describes it:
We ran slap bang into an Australian patrol who took us under close arrest to their Brigade Headquarters. After a thorough check up Brigadier Allen told us that Col Macky and the Battalion were in a tough spot. It was not possible to make contact owing to the enemy having made several crossings of the river. He asked me if we would go into the scrub again and endeavour to contact the Bn and apprise them of the position. He pointed out that no definite order for withdrawal could come from him but to tell Col Macky that he would be a very wise man if he foresaw such an order and acted accordingly.page 72
The pair took off again but had not gone far when they met Captain Dickson46 and four B Company men. They exchanged stories and went back to Brigadier Allen's headquarters, moved out with the Australians, and rejoined the battalion transport at Molos.
The RMT arrived at the rendezvous about 5 p.m. The position at that time was that 21 Battalion was isolated and dispersing, 2/2 and 2/3 Australian Battalions were disintegrating, the light was beginning to fail, and numbers of enemy planes were trying to silence the guns before darkness immobilised the tanks. The aircraft did not succeed, and 26 Battery withdrew of its own accord after dark.
In the meantime Penney had arrived from Molos, and Harding, disliking the prospect of passing the convoy through Larissa, where bombing was heavy and continuous, sent him to reconnoitre an overland route which would bypass Larissa and join the Volos road further south. Penney did not return from his mission; he ran into an ambush, was wounded, and was taken prisoner.
Colonel Parkinson had left 26 Battery firing on two fronts, successfully preventing the junction of a new enemy force coming up from the south-west with the tanks still unable to get on to the Larissa road. His idea was to ascertain Colonel Chilton's intention and to see how his two forward guns were faring. He found an empty battlefield: the Australians were gone, the enemy infantry was under cover waiting tank support, and his own guns were silenced. He did meet some troops, however—about 150 men of 21 Battalion, mostly Headquarters Company, who had decided to take a direct route along the lower slopes of the hills. Parkinson got them into formation and led them back to the 26 Battery position, where Harding was waiting. By seven o'clock another fifty men had arrived, and the convoy was sent off under the command of Captain Sadler, while Harding remained behind with two vehicles in case any more troops came down.
The leading trucks of Sadler's convoy ran into the same ambush that had captured Penney, and when they were fired page 73 on the men jumped out and scattered in the darkness. An attempt was made with a carrier and a volunteer crew to smash through the trap. Private Bond47 drove and Sergeant-Major Lockett, Sergeant Marshall-Inman and Private Black,48 armed with Bren guns, formed the crew. They headed straight into the ambush, spraying the road in front with fire, but the carrier was hit by a mortar bomb and lifted off the road. Lockett's gun was shot from his shoulder, and the carrier landed in a bog on the side of the road. Before they could make dry land again the carrier was bellied on a rock and, as they were now sitting shots, the crew decided it was time to abandon ship and head into the darkness. The remaining trucks made a wide detour and after some trouble struck the main road south of Larissa. Once on the main highway they travelled all night and reached Molos about midday (19 April), with 114 men of all ranks.
The two trucks retained by Major Harding, with Second-Lieutenant Rose in charge, collected a few more men and about 9 p.m. joined the rear of an Australian transport column that was taking out the survivors of 2/3 Battalion. Larissa was thought to be in enemy hands, but as a matter of fact was still held by us, and the ambush that caused all the confusion was the daring action of a handful of Germans who had penetrated through the area between the Elasson road and the Tempe-Larissa road, swum the Peneios River and set up a road block at a point where the road and railway cross. The route followed by the Australian convoy was an exceedingly poor one skirting the foothills, and progress was slow. Rose's trucks were the last in the convoy, with Harding following in his pick-up, and when they eventually reached Molos on 20 April Harding was missing.
The battalion strength was then 132 all ranks: the commanding officer, second-in-command, adjutant, the four rifle company commanders, and the second-in-command of A, C and D Companies were missing. The men dug trenches in an olive grove, while enemy planes machine-gunned and dive- page 74 bombed at random without locating the troops under the trees.
The Thermopylae line, behind which the Anzac Corps was regrouping, extended from the coast near Molos along a ridge running east and west to the Pindus Mountains. These mountains, not unlike the Southern Alps of New Zealand, were the backbone of Greece and formed a natural barrier between the east and west. There were only two passes in the area: Thermopylae, on the east along the coast in the New Zealand sector, and Brallos, where the road and railway passed through the Pindus Mountains, defended by the Australians on the west. The Sperkhios River ran along the whole length of the front, mostly through marshy plains—difficult terrain for tanks—and added considerably to the natural strength of the broken country behind it.
On the other side of the Pindus it was a different story. The Greeks, previously reluctant to give up a winning campaign against the Italians in Albania, were now forced to withdraw and had only tortuous mountain tracks left to them. Without transport, ammunition or supplies, they could do nothing against the weight of armour, guns, planes and men thrown in against them. Courage, all that remained to the Greeks, was not enough. The position was recognised as hopeless. The Greek Prime Minister committed suicide, and arrangements were pushed on to evacuate the Allied army. On 21 April the Greek Army in Epirus capitulated and the Thermopylae line was left with an open left flank.
For 21 Battalion the 21st was like the previous day, with machine-gunning and bombing attacks, again without casualties. The battalion was in reserve, while 6 Brigade held the right and 5 Brigade the left of the line, and 4 Brigade and the Divisional Cavalry kept watch on the coast in case a landing was attempted from Euboea Island.
A conference was being held at Molos between General Freyberg and Brigadier Hargest on the morning of 21 April when Major Harding reported. He explained that his pick-up had been bogged and that he had walked most of the way.
This explanation was rather an understatement. Soon after leaving his bogged pick-up he had met some of the battalion who had been in the convoy when it had been shot up in the page 75 German ambush. With a party of 30, of whom eight were Australians and the remainder from 21 Battalion, he had marched all day along the eastern side of Lake Voiviis. At the village of Kanilia they had been fed by the inhabitants, rowed across the lake, and provided with a guide who took them by a short cut through the hills to the Volos-Lamia road. The men were pretty well exhausted by then and were told to take a two-hour rest and push on to Lamia, while Harding went on to try and find some transport. He travelled part of the way on horseback and part in a commandeered Greek taxi shared with three Australians, which had brought them to a demolished bridge. On the other side they had found a serviceable civilian van, which carried them to Lamia and on to the Sperkhios River, where the bridges were down and the outposts on the alert. It was now dusk and a burst of Bren-gun fire had decided the party to wait until morning. At first light they had hailed an engineer who was making a report on the demolished bridges and, with the help of some planks, had got across without having to swim.
The General questioned Harding about the probable movements of the part of the battalion still missing, and said that arrangements were being made with the Navy to patrol the coast between the mouth of the Peneios River and the port of Volos. This was probably found impossible, for no troops were picked up by the Navy. However, two boats were taken across the bay by engineers to pick up the rest of Harding's party.
The news that Greece had capitulated and that the force was to leave the country was circulated among the troops on the morning of 22 April. Orders were issued by Harding, who had assumed command of 21 Battalion, to destroy all surplus gear, including tents, orderly-room records, and clothing. Every man was given an opportunity to change his clothing at the quartermaster's store, and what remained was sprayed with fire-extinguisher fluid and buried. The general scheme of retirement was for 4 and 5 Brigades to begin moving back towards embarkation points, while 6 Brigade, supported by the whole divisional artillery and two British artillery regiments, continued to hold the Thermopylae line. The 21st Battalion, being so very much under strength, was to be the first unit page 76 away on the road to Athens for embarkation. It was to leave after dark that night and to report to Headquarters British Troops in Greece at Athens for further orders. Before leaving, however, the battalion strength rose by five men: Lance-Sergeant Anderson,49 of A Company, and four other ranks came in after walking to Volos, stealing a boat, and sailing down the coast.
By dawn about fifty miles had been covered and the column was at Thebes. Enemy planes were strafing the road, but the drivers had been warned that there was no time for safety tactics; they were to keep their intervals and stop for nothing. The instructions were obeyed to the letter, and in spite of a series of attacks the column had reached Restos, about five miles outside Athens, by 9 a.m. The transport was dispersed in an olive grove while Harding went to Headquarters British Troops in Greece for orders. He was instructed to take the troops to Voula reinforcement camp and be prepared to move after dark to a point on the Athens-Rafina road, where guides from the embarkation staff would be waiting. One glance at the chaos at Voula was enough. The instructions about taking the men there were immediately forgotten, and they remained under the olive trees.
There were, however, some 21 Battalion officers and men at Voula. Four attached officers (Lieutenants Campbell50 and Daniel51 and Second-Lieutenants Stevenson52 and Clark53), together with a handful of NCOs and men, had been left behind when the battalion entrained for the front. They had been transferred to Voula, where a reinforcement camp had been established, and had been occupied on guard duties. When the situation began to deteriorate the reinforcement groups were organised on a battalion basis, with Stevenson commanding C Company and Campbell in charge of the platoon page 77 containing 21 Battalion personnel. Men from hospital and stragglers from the front had brought the numbers up to approximately forty, of whom a dozen were out on guard duty when Harding arrived. He obtained the release of the 21 Battalion platoon, which rejoined the battalion. Stevenson remained with the rest of his company and was captured, as was Clark, who was in charge of the men on guard. Daniel had been sent to Athens on special duty and escaped to Crete.
The troops of 21 Battalion hid all day under the olive trees. At 10 p.m. they started for Rafina, via Athens, and arrived at 2.10 a.m. The men were led away to dispersal areas, and the drivers took the trucks to another area and damaged them as much as possible without burning them. The strictest orders were issued against movement during daylight, but to lie quiet for a day in peaceful surroundings was no great hardship. About 10 p.m. that night (the 24th) the troops moved in small parties to D beach near Porto Rafti, were taken out in landing barges to the transport Glengyle, and climbed up nets to the dark decks above. They were ordered to throw overboard everything except arms, ammunition and personal gear, to save weight and space; they were fed on mugs of hot coffee and biscuits, and went to sleep wherever a space could be found to lie down. By 4 a.m. 5700 men had left Greece.
The 21st Battalion's casualties in Greece were: 14 killed and died of wounds, 26 wounded, 235 prisoners of war (of whom nine were wounded and eight died), a total of 275.
24 German records make it appear unlikely that enemy tanks were opposite 21 Battalion that evening. Probably the tracked infantry carriers were mistaken for tanks. The enemy unit was 2 Motor Cycle Battalion, reinforced with engineer, artillery and machine-gun detachments. Tanks (? Panzer Regiment) did not reach Platamon until the middle of the following day, 15 April. A reconnaissance, combined with the reports of the demolitions, gave 2 Motor Cycle Battalion the impression that the ‘enemy’ (21 Battalion) was holding only the ridge near the castle.
27 A shrub closely resembling New Zealand manuka.
37 Maj-Gen G. B. Parkinson, CBE, DSO and bar, m.i.d., Legion of Merit (US); Christchurch; born Wellington, 5 Nov 1896; Regular soldier; NZ Fd Arty 1917-19; CO 4 Fd Regt Jan 1940-Aug 1941; comd 1 NZ Army Tank Bde and 7 Inf Bde Gp (in NZ) 1941–42; 6 Bde Apr 1943-Jun 1944; 2 NZ Div (Cassino) 3–27 Mar 1944; CRA 2 NZ Div Jun-Aug 1944; comd 6 Bde Aug 1944-Jun 1945; Quartermaster-General, Army HQ, Jan-Sep 1946; NZ Military Liaison Officer, London, 1946–49; Commandant, Southern Military District, 1949–51.
44 Brig G. H. Clifton, DSO and bar, MC, m.i.d.; Auckland; born Green-meadows, 18 Sep 1898; Regular soldier; CRE 2 NZ Div 1940–41; Chief Engineer 30 Corps 1941–42; comd 6 Bde Feb-Sep 1942; p.w. 4 Sep 1942; escaped, Germany, Mar 1945; NZ Military Liaison Officer, London, 1949–52; Commandant Northern Military District, Mar 1952-Sep 1953.
45 Maj-Gen K. L. Stewart, CB, CBE, DSO, m.i.d., MC (Greek), Legion of Merit (US); Kerikeri; born Timaru, 30 Dec 1896; Regular soldier; 1 NZEF 1917–19; GSO I 2 NZ Div, 1940–41; Deputy Chief of General Staff, Dec 1941-Jul 1943; comd 5 Bde Aug-Nov 1943, 4 Armd Bde Nov 1943-Mar 1944, and 5 Bde Mar-Aug 1944; p.w. 1 Aug 1944; comd 9 Bde (2 NZEF, Japan) Nov 1945-Jul 1946; Adjutant-General, NZ Military Forces, Aug 1946-Mar 1949; Chief of General Staff Apr 1949-Mar 1952.