CHAPTER 2 — Campaign in Greece
Campaign in Greece
In detached units, as engineers, signalmen, transport drivers, or members of the Long Range Desert Group, New Zealanders had taken part in the campaigns of the Western Desert and Cyrenaica, but the Second World War had not yet seen a New Zealand division in the field. Events leading to the appearance of such a force were already in train. Two invading Italian armies had been driven out of Greece by patriot forces vastly inferior in all but courage. Italy was shaken to the foundations of her somewhat insecure structure, but her more powerful partner was preparing to strike. Early in February 1941 German armies moved into Bulgaria. Greece sought British aid, and Britain decided on a course which policy favoured and national honour demanded, but which expert military opinion viewed with considerable misgiving.
Meanwhile, preparations set on foot by the decisions of statesmen, as they expanded in detail and became less easily concealed, sent a ripple of expectation coursing through all ranks of the army in Egypt. The portents were many and obvious. At the end of February bayonets were sharpened by the armourers. Reinforcements arrived from the training camp at Maadi, and the battalions were equipped on a war establishment. The tommy gun made its first appearance, one being issued to each section leader, and a check was made on the fitting of respirators. When 24 Battalion moved from Helwan to Amiriya transit camp, near Alexandria, by motor transport on 5 and 6 March, there was no longer any doubt in the men's minds that they were at least going somewhere. The question of their eventual destination was the subject of much conjecture. Greece was high in the betting list, but there were takers for Libya, and even Singapore was included among the outsiders. Indulgence in such speculations was a welcome pastime— possibly the only one in a place where comforts were so few. Amiriya was a place of transit in every sense of the word, and page 16 units passing through had had to evacuate their quarters at such short notice that no one had had time to clean up. To make matters worse, a succession of sandstorms broke over the Western Desert with such severity that for a time both road and rail traffic were halted. Dust, which was said to have been blown 100 miles out to sea, seeped into every nook and corner. Routine work in the camp almost came to an end. The general misery was alleviated for a brief interval when the men were taken for a swim in the sea, but even this entailed a march of 14 miles.
On 13 March the battalion's transport vehicles and Carrier Platoon moved off in advance to Alexandria and embarked on SS Thermopylae, which sailed two days later. On the 17th the main body left Amiriya for the same destination. Excitement grew as their train drew up at the wharf, for the men had had some experience of troopships and were anxious to know on what kind of vessel they were about to sail. At the wharf lay an old tramp steamer and a cruiser. The general delight on being told they were to sail on the cruiser increased still further when they found that she was no other than the Ajax of River Plate fame. The battalion embarked; Ajax moved out into the stream, waited there till joined by the Perth and the Orion, and then steamed out of the harbour. Travelling at high speed across the Mediterranean, the men had their first experience of what it is like to be looked after by the Royal Navy. Both officers and crew of the Ajax insisted on giving up their sleeping quarters, whenever possible, to the New Zealanders, whom they seemed to regard as honoured guests. Even before embarkation little doubt remained as to where the convoy was bound, but soon after reaching the open sea Colonel Shuttleworth told his men, what most of them had already guessed, that Greece was their destination. Next morning land was in sight; escort planes flew out to meet the ships, and in less than twenty-four hours from her time of sailing the Ajax was berthed at Piraeus. As they disembarked the New Zealanders thanked their hosts in no uncertain terms and expressed a wish that they might meet them again before long. Fortunately there were none present with the prophetic gift who might have foretold how soon this wish was to be fulfilled.page 17
Then began a march which few who took part in will ever forget. The reception camp was on the slopes of Mount Hymettus, about ten miles distant from Piraeus, and the route to it passed through the streets of Athens. ‘The people lined the streets all the way,’ writes Sergeant Bell,1 ‘cheering, clapping their hands and bedecking us with flowers as we wended our way to Hymettus Camp. The little children ran out and clasped our hands, pretty girls kissed us and offered us glasses of cool water, and all the way we could hear the cry, “British”, “English”, and even “New Zealand”. At every halt we were besieged by crowds of people, everybody talking together in Greek and we in English, but the sign language seems universal, and so we had lots of fun making ourselves understood by grins, frowns and gestures.’ Major Mantell- Harding's experience was of much the same kind. Honours were heaped upon him to an embarrassing extent. ‘By the time I arrived in Athens proper I was like a walking flower garden.’2 Twice during the march a batch of Italian prisoners, 1500 to 2000 in each party, passed the New Zealanders on the opposite side of the road. The Greeks were delighted at the contrast between the high-spirited, soldierly looking allies come to fight on their side and the wretched creatures shambling along in captivity.
The camp at Mount Hymettus stood amid groves of pine trees and commanded a magnificent view of the city. It was open to visitors who arrived and departed continuously in large numbers. Among them came the German consul, ostensibly to perform a conventional duty, but actually, no doubt, to do some spying on his own account. Only the fact that Germany and Greece were not yet at war allowed a situation so grotesque. During the three days' stay at Hymettus leave was given to all men who could be spared, but there was much work to be done. The Thermopylae, carrying the battalion's transport, had arrived at Piraeus late on the 18th. The vehicles had been driven to Hymettus and were now being loaded ready for the impending northward move.
Soon after dawn on 21 March the transport, accompanied by page 18 the Anti-Aircraft Platoon, started off on its 300-mile journey, leaving the main body of troops to follow by train. The convoy, of which 24 Battalion's transport formed only a part, consisted of 220 vehicles in all under the command of Major Mantell- Harding. Moving off along the Athens-Corinth road, they took three-quarters of an hour to pass the starting point and stretched out for a distance of 22 miles. The first day the column covered 100 miles and stayed for the night at Kamena Voula, a village near the Aegean coast south-east of Lamia. Scarcely were the vehicles parked under cover in an olive grove when peasants began to appear with gifts of cheese and a heavy, sweet wine known as mavrodaphne. Mantell-Harding and his officers were seized upon and lavishly entertained by the staff of a neighbouring military hospital, and escaped only with difficulty to snatch a few hours' sleep before resuming the journey at dawn. The route now led over rolling hills north of Lamia and out on to the plains of Larissa. Small belts of green crop spaced among ploughed soil of varying colours gave the cultivated slopes the appearance of a patchwork quilt. Villages nestled in unlikely, scarcely accessible spots. The land was open and unfenced; there seemed to be a complete absence of stock; but apart from effects wrought by usage to which they were strange, the New Zealanders saw many points of likeness between this country and their own. The hills south of Elasson, soon to be revisited under more arduous conditions, were bare of cover, and vehicles had to be widely dispersed when they halted there on the night of 22-23 March. Snow-capped Mount Olympus was not far away and there was a frosty nip in the air. Next day the first 15 miles were fairly good going, and then the convoy began a steep climb over the pass that ran west of the summit of Olympus and down on to the seaward plains to the north of it. Though the road was a severe test for drivers there were no accidents, but the convoy got strung out over a great distance. The first vehicles, which had not been expected till the afternoon, arrived in Katerine at 11.30 a.m., and the last not until 4.30 p.m. The main body of 24 Battalion was already there awaiting them.
After the transport had begun its overland journey on 21 March, the battalion's rifle companies and Bren carriers page 19 had been accorded something in the nature of a Roman triumph as they marched to the railway station through the streets of Athens. To their surprise the troops were entrained in horse vans, while the carriers were loaded in flat trucks, one man riding with each carrier. The horse vans were clean and not overcrowded, but in any case the novelty of this mode of travel and the wayside scenery with its ever-changing landscapes made amends for any slight discomfort. At every station on the way Greeks crowded round the train to welcome their new allies. Rail and road followed the same general line of direction as far north as Larissa, but beyond that town the railway continued on through the Peneios Gorge and out on to the narrow coastal strip east of Mount Olympus, while the road branched off westwards. North of Olympus the country opened out into an undulating, partially wooded plain, in the centre of which stood the little town of Katerine; and there the battalion detrained after a journey of rather more than twenty-four hours. The men were billeted in the town and the transport dispersed in an adjacent orchard. Here they remained for two days, and here the first life was lost when Private McKay,3 of A Company, was accidentally shot. The Greeks gave a plot in their local cemetery, and several hundred people, both soldiers and civilians, came to attend the funeral. There could be little doubt in the minds of those present that many more lives would be lost before the war should end, and the occasion was no less solemn and impressive on this account.
At the time of 24 Battalion's arrival at Katerine a German army, estimated at 19 divisions, was concentrated in Bulgaria. Faced by the threat of surprise attack, the Allies took up their position along a general line stretching from the mouth of the Aliakmon River in the Gulf of Salonika, westwards through Veria and Edessa, and thence to the frontier of Yugoslavia, at this time an unknown quantity as regards military assistance. The right sector of this, the Aliakmon Line, extending from the coast at Neon Elevtherokhorion about 16 miles due east to Elafina, was held by 19 Greek Division. It was at first intended that the New Zealand Division, gradually concentrating north page 20 of Katerine, should occupy a defensive position between the 19th and the 12th and 20th Greek Divisions which were farther inland. Later it was decided that the 19th would be released for operations farther north, and that the New Zealand Division should hold the sector between the coast and 12 Division. First to move into the line, 4 Brigade was already in position by 27 March, while 6 Brigade was still moving up. Fifth Brigade, last to sail from Egypt, was only now arriving and beginning to concentrate in the Olympus Pass, south of Katerine.
Sixth Brigade was to occupy the right or coastal sector of the New Zealand Division's front. In conformity with this intention, 24 Battalion left Katerine on 24 March and came to Stavros, a small village some five miles to the north, where the men bivouacked in scrub-covered country for two days, and then moved again on the 26th to the vicinity of Sphendami. This village lay only a few miles south of the line on which it was intended to fight a delaying action, and Colonel Shuttle- worth went forward next day to reconnoitre the position his men would shortly take over from a battalion of 19 Greek Division. The Greek battalion commander, however, for reasons that never clearly emerged, was unwilling that any other troops should move into the area for which he was responsible. His attitude caused some bewilderment and was the subject of a message from 6 Brigade to Divisional Headquarters, but when finally the New Zealanders advanced to take over, he and his men had evacuated their positions and moved forward into Thrace.
Scarcely more than a mile apart, the three villages—Neon Elevtherokhorion, Skala Elevtherokhorion, and Pal Elevthero- khorion—lay close to the railway line running along the eastern seaboard of Greece, fronting the Gulf of Salonika. Shuttle- worth took up his headquarters in the school at Pal, southernmost of the three, with Headquarters Company billeted close by. The rifle companies took up positions astride the railway and main north road, with their right flank on the sea coast and their left at a point about four miles inland, where a junction was made with 25 Battalion. On its left the 25th made contact with 4 Brigade. The 19th and 26th Battalions (each less one company) had been sent back to the Olympus Pass on page 21 27 March to begin digging defensive positions for 5 Brigade. The sector for which the New Zealand Division was responsible was of immense length, about 28,000 yards. To hold this front, 4 and 6 Brigades had seven battalions less three detached companies. The battalions took up positions for all-round defence on spurs and high ground, with companies in reserve, ready to counter-attack if necessary. The left or inland portion of this sector was convenient for defence. A sharp ridge ran parallel to the front, and from this ridge well-wooded spurs and gullies branched out to the north. On the right, however, the country was open and suitable for the deployment of armoured vehicles. To meet such an emergency an anti-tank ditch was being dug along the line of the Toponitsa stream, behind which lay 6 Brigade's defence lines, supported by the guns of 4 and 5 Field Regiments. Some miles to the north of this position flowed the Aliakmon River, winding and twisting across an open plain till it lost itself in a morass before emptying into the Gulf of Salonika. Its bridges and crossings were mined ready for demolition by 1 British Armoured Brigade.
Thus, at the beginning of April, British forces consisting of the New Zealand Division and 1 Armoured Brigade awaited a German attack on Greece from the north-east. On their left was the Greek Central Macedonian Army. The 6th Australian Division, which was beginning to arrive, relieved part of 12 Greek Division in Veria Pass. The 19th Greek Division had moved up to the Bulgarian frontier on what was surely a forlorn hope, to defend the passes leading into Thrace against odds likely to be overwhelming. Throughout the greater part of its extent, from the mouth of the Aliakmon to Mount Kaimakchalan on Yugoslavia's frontier, the Aliakmon Line was one of great natural strength. There were but four routes by which an invading army might enter Greece—the passes of Edessa, Veria and Katerine, and along the east coast. So long as each route was held advantage lay with the defenders, but if one were penetrated all forces occupying the others must speedily withdraw to avoid being outflanked. A chain of formidable strength with here and there a weak link, the line was vulnerable to a degree in one respect. If Greece's front door was barred and shuttered, her back door was doubtfully closed. page 22 From Yugoslavia into the heart of Greece, a way lay open through the mountains. Should the Monastir Gap be forced, a hostile army might advance by way of Florina and Kozane, outflanking the line and cutting off the retreat of its defenders.
The first few days of April were spent by 24 Battalion in fortifying and wiring its position. The anti-tank ditch forward of its lines was now complete, and 6 Brigade was supported by two anti-tank batteries and a machine-gun company. The 26th Battalion had been relieved at the Olympus Pass by 23 Battalion, and was in position between the 24th and 25th. The New Zealand Divisional Cavalry was deployed along the Aliakmon River, prepared to fight a delaying action at its crossings. Meanwhile the troops were enjoying themselves. As one of their number remarked, ‘We could have stood a lot of active service under those conditions’.4 As usual Greek civilians vied with each other in offering hospitality. Wine was cheap in the villages, and it was said that one might get drunk for a shilling. For those who were willing to try anything once there was ‘ouzo’, a highly intoxicating liquid which tasted of peppermint and turned milky when mixed with water. A shortage of tobacco was remedied by the inhabitants, who came to the rescue with their own locally grown dried leaves. The sea was close at hand and it was possible to bathe when off duty.
Even in time of peace, periods when life seems to assume an aspect of inviolable tranquillity are of short duration. In war these periods are still more brief. On 6 April Germany declared war on Greece, and next day fires in Salonika could be seen clearly through field glasses from 6 Brigade's position. The 24th Battalion was at once warned to stand by ready to occupy its battle positions. Early in the morning of 8 April the bridge over the anti-tank ditch north of Skala Elevtherokhorion was blown, and late that same night the Divisional Cavalry, which had taken over responsibility from 1 Armoured Brigade, blew up the Aliakmon crossings. Refugees from beyond the river were beginning to come through the New Zealand lines. As time went on their numbers increased, and among them appeared many stragglers from the Greek Army. ‘In spite of all efforts to divert them’, writes Sergeant Bell, ‘since early page 23 morning refugees had been blocking the roads from the villages further north, and as the day wore on the problem became more acute. One could not help feeling sorry for them. They were really pitiful to see as they came limping along the road behind waggons of all descriptions loaded with everything they could get on to them, drawn by horses, donkeys, bullocks and even by hand. They had their sheep and goats with them too. There was no room on the waggons for passengers and so everybody had to walk, old women, children, mothers with babies in their arms, and every one of them looked despondent, footsore and weary to the point of exhaustion. Even the animals looked tired out, for some of them must have been dragging those heavy waggons unceasingly for days. The people were so hungry too and thanked us with tears in their eyes for any food we were able to give them. I wish to God we had had more for them. One cart drawn by oxen had both wheels stripped of their outer rims and was actually running on the spokes.’5
Infected by the prevailing fear, the local villagers gathered in anxious groups to discuss whether they should go or stay. Fear got the better of them; they were about to pack up and leave when Shuttleworth, realising how disastrously their straggling, disorderly columns would cumber the roads, sent for the village priest and persuaded the people through his influence to stay in their homes. The 24th Battalion was now in its battle positions, apparently to stay, but B Echelon was already moving back over the Olympus Pass, and that same evening orders came for the battalion to retire.
By 8 April Greek resistance on the Bulgarian frontier had almost completely broken down. Salonika and the whole of Western Thrace were in German hands. Further west the Allied forces had fared no better. Yugoslav resistance had also collapsed and German armour was driving through the Monastir Gap. British and Australian forces had been detached to meet this threat, but so serious had the situation become that 4 Brigade was ordered to their support, thus leaving 6 Brigade's flank in the air. Nor was this the only factor to cause a weakening of the Aliakmon Line. Once again 26 Battalion had been page 24 sent back to the Olympus Pass, and the gap thus exposed had to be filled by detachments from the two remaining battalions. All advanced forces were dangerously extended and a retreat to some shorter line had become imperative.
In the small hours of the morning (10 April), leaving two rifle platoons and the Carrier Platoon as rearguard, 24 Battalion began a 15-mile march to Gannokhora, some three miles north of Katerine. After a long wait it was picked up by motor transport and taken over the pass—a fearsome journey over zigzag roads that crawled along cliff sides—to a valley on the southern slopes near the village of Ag Demetrios. The men had not seen rain for months, but a heavy downpour began as they arrived and camp was pitched under circumstances of great discomfort. The transport had overtaken the marching troops and crossed the pass before them, ‘doing it in spasms, about 200 yards at a time’6 on account of some Greek heavy guns which were being hauled laboriously round the sharp corners. Sixth Brigade was now in rear of the 5th, which held the pass with three battalions and guarded the coastline with another. No troops remained forward of Olympus except the Divisional Cavalry and a detachment of engineers.
Of the two days passed at Ag Demetrios, the first was spent in getting wet and the second in getting dry. The rearguard platoons came in and the Anti-Aircraft Platoon was sent to protect B Echelon, some miles to the rear at Dolikhe. Soon afterwards the battalion was called upon to make a gruelling march into the high country west of the pass road. Livadhion was the destination, a large village marvellously blended with its natural surroundings. Its slate-covered roofs were all of a colour, indistinguishable from the mountain itself and the out- crops of rock from which its houses were fashioned. Isolated and self contained from time immemorial, Livadhion had remained unmolested by the turmoil of politics or war, and the inhabitants at first showed some alarm at being invaded by strangers whose intentions they distrusted. As the troops arrived it began to snow, and by the time their tents were brought up some hours later the ground was covered three inches deep. Pitching camp was a dismal proceeding, and the page 25 Aucklanders, before being able to spread their blankets on the ground, were obliged to spend time and trouble in shovelling away a substance which few of them had ever seen or touched before.
After a day of roadmending near Livadhion, the battalion was ordered forward to a position near Skotina, between 28 (Maori) Battalion and 16 Australian Brigade—a somewhat inaccessible spot, west of the pass summit. For this journey motor transport was of no avail; only on the backs of mules or donkeys could loads be carried over the narrow mountain tracks, but mules and donkeys were hard to come by, for no sooner did the peasants realise what was afoot than they disappeared into the hills, taking their livestock with them. A sufficent number was procured, but even so all difficulties were not at an end. The men were not accustomed to loading equipment on mules, nor were the mules accustomed to being loaded with infantry equipment; but at length, after much pulling back and jibbing, the pack trains started off. Heavily burdened with full marching order, the companies climbed a steep ridge and then, dropping down the other side, camped late that night in a vast beech forest. The final stage of their march was to take place next day, and two officers and some NCOs had gone on to reconnoitre positions, but at midnight orders arrived for the battalion to return to Livadhion as soon as possible. All efforts had been made in vain, and to the weary men, called upon to retrace their steps over the ground they had so recently, so laboriously covered, it almost seemed that they were being made game of by irresponsible authority. But the reasons for their recall were more than adequate, as they were soon to realise.
The Divisional Cavalry had fought a delaying action on the Aliakmon and then retreated in good order behind the Olympus Pass defence lines. German forces followed hard on this withdrawal and by 15 April 5 Brigade was being heavily attacked, not only in the pass itself but also on the sea coast, where 21 Battalion held the Platamon tunnel. Danger threatened this brigade from both front and rear. Driving through the Monastir Gap, the enemy had taken Florina and Kozane and, though firmly held in check for the time being by 6 Australian Division page 26 and 4 New Zealand Brigade, was threatening to cut the only line of retreat for our troops engaged in the Olympus Pass. Still farther west the Greek Army, with sadly outmoded equipment, fought a desperate battle of men against machines. Its defeat—and this was inevitable—would mean yet another threat to the British flank. Such was the state of affairs that made further retreat a necessity.
The Anzac Corps7 was being withdrawn to a new and shorter line astride the narrow strip of mountainous country lying between the gulfs of Corinth and Euboea, but the problem remained of how to get there without being overwhelmed in course of withdrawal. The Anzac Corps' line of retreat from the Olympus and Portas passes lay along two roads which converged a few miles north of Elasson. At the village itself the road forked into two branches which formed a wide loop and then joined each other again at Tyrnavos, about 15 miles to the south. Sixth Brigade's task was to cover the Anzac Corps' retreat by fighting a delaying action astride these forked roads.
The reconnaissance party having been recalled, 24 Battalion's companies left the Skotina woods early next morning and marched back to Livadhion, whence they were directed to continue on in small groups to Dolikhe and wait for motor transport. It was on this march that the troops first began to be haunted by what was to become a familiar and permanent nuisance—a German observation plane which circled above them in leisurely fashion. From that time onward they were seldom to escape its vigilance. Day by day it would seek them out, and its appearance was almost invariably followed by some kind of unwelcome attention from hostile aircraft. At the moment air attack was being concentrated on Elasson, where Shuttleworth and his company commanders had gone, so it was supposed, to attend a brigade conference. Large flights were passing over and returning again after plastering the village with high explosive. After a wait of some hours at Dolikhe, the battalion was picked up by motor transport and driven through Elasson on a pitch-black night. The village was fearfully battered, but it transpired that the Colonel and page 27 his officers had been elsewhere during the worst of the bombing. A few miles south of Elasson the convoy halted; companies bivouacked on the plain and moved next morning to their battle positions.
After leaving Elasson the forked roads already mentioned ran for nearly three miles across a level plain. The eastern branch then began to climb abruptly by a zigzag route over a steep, stony ridge. The western branch made a wider loop to reach Tyrnavos, but, since its bends and gradients were far less acute, it was more easily passable by armoured vehicles. It was regarded, therefore, as the more dangerous, and B Company was detached under command of the 25th to assist in page 28 its defence, while the Aucklanders' three remaining rifle companies took up a position commanding the east road. With C Company (Captain Morrison) right, D (Captain McDonald8) centre, and A (Major Dill) left, the battalion lined a rugged ridge overlooking the plain of Elasson. ‘This position’, writes Major Dill, ‘was so rocky that it was impossible to dig trenches, and we could only build rock walls to lie behind and fire over. I don't think anyone was very happy about having to fight here as the splinter effect from bombs and shell fire would have been great.’9 The slope leading up to Stony Ridge, as the position was called, was gradual at first but grew rapidly steeper towards the summit. The road by which it was approached—the only possible route for tanks—was full of hairpin bends and finally crossed the ridge at a deep saddle. Morrison's company held a position immediately north of this saddle, on the highest point of which stood the crumbled ruins of an old Turkish fort. Supporting C Company was a detachment of three-inch mortars and a section of anti-tank guns, which, however, were sent away to the Peneios Gorge before any action took place. McDonald's platoons lay south of the saddle on the summit of a ridge jutting out to the west, with Dill's company on their south-west flank. Colonel Shuttleworth established his headquarters at a farmhouse on the southern side of the ridge, about two miles in rear of the forward defended localities. Though the guns, field, medium and anti-tank, were sited with scarcely an exception to cover 25 Battalion's front, they also commanded certain exposed portions of ground forward of the 24th's positions. Demolitions, both in front and rear of the position, were prepared by engineers. At first there was no brigade reserve, 26 Battalion having been detached to support 19 Australian Brigade near the Portas Pass, but on 16 April this unit arrived, weary after a long march, and took up a position in rear at Domenikon, on the west road. After acting as rearguard during the retreat from the Aliakmon Line, 24 Battalion's carrier platoon had rejoined at Ag Demetrios, but on the following day had been brigaded and sent as part page 29 of an anti-paratroop force to the plains south of Olympus. There it had the honour of drawing first blood for its battalion when an enemy plane, while bombing road transport, came in too low and received a burst of Bren-gun fire in its tail, which sent it crashing into an adjacent hillside.10 As the 24th passed through Elasson, the Carrier Platoon followed on behind and eventually joined Battalion Headquarters south of Stony Ridge. On the 17th three carrier sections were sent back to Tyrnavos to protect a troop of 25-pounders, and only one remained with the battalion.
While these dispositions were being made the fortune of war was varying hourly in other places. On 16 April 5 Brigade withdrew from Olympus Pass under cover of mist and moved back through Larissa. That same night 4 Brigade disengaged and accomplished a hazardous retreat from Servia in the north-west. But these movements, which are now historical facts, could not be followed closely at the time, and Brigadier Barrow- clough, commanding 6 Brigade, was faced with a somewhat obscure situation. If his left flank was doubtfully secure, his right was in considerable danger. Forced back from the Plata- mon tunnel, 21 Battalion, now reinforced by an Australian brigade, was being hard pressed in the Peneios Gorge. Report said the enemy was already at Gonnos. Should he succeed in opening a way to Larissa and Tyrnavos, 6 Brigade would indeed be in a parlous condition. By 18 April, however, all doubts were resolved as to what had become of the advanced formations, as these were now known to have withdrawn behind 6 Brigade's lines. Only the Divisional Cavalry remained forward, and in the course of the morning it also withdrew along the western road.
The one remaining carrier section, under Sergeant McDonald,11 was deployed on the plain as a protective screen, but it was recalled when enemy tanks began to appear in the defile north of Elasson about 11.20 a.m. For a while it halted at the foot of the ridge below C Company and then began to make its way up the slope, only to become a target for friend page 30 and foe alike. Shelled first by enemy guns from Elasson and then by one of the Australian batteries, it was fortunate to get back behind our lines unharmed.
Once the carriers had got back the demolition on the road leading to 24 Battalion's position was blown by a party of engineers. The explosion made a great noise but produced little effect. An inspection showed that the crater could be crossed by Bren carriers and that half an hour's work would make the road passable for almost any kind of wheeled traffic. As there was no time to bring up more explosive and lay another charge, the road had to be left inadequately blocked.
In spite of heavy fire from the Australian guns, enemy tanks and lorried infantry moved down towards Elasson continuously in increasing numbers throughout the early part of the afternoon. Obviously something was about to happen; it only remained to be seen what line of attack the enemy would choose. His choice lay between the west road, comparatively easy of approach but more strongly defended, and the eastern branch, far more difficult of access but flanked by woods that might serve as cover. Having weighed these factors in the balance, he decided upon the eastern approach.
At 2 p.m. a few German tanks moved forward below the foothills between Elasson and Tsaritsani to reconnoitre the latter village, and, having done so, retired. Enemy shells began to fall in 24 Battalion's lines late in the afternoon, causing C Company's first battle casualty. The mortars and carriers withdrew behind the demolition prepared in rear of our position, so that it might be blown whenever necessary. Instructions had also been received by the companies to withdraw in the order A, C, and D. Just before dusk about 40 tanks followed by 20 troop-carrying lorries moved out from Elasson along the east road. Reaching the end of the three-mile straight they turned right and at once came under fire from the Australian guns, which forced the troop-carriers to disperse. The tanks, however, kept on till they reached the demolition, ‘which, although ineffective in daylight, would look to be a deep yawning chasm in the gathering darkness when viewed through the periscope or driving slits of a tank’.12 While C Company page 31 withdrew just before nine o'clock, the German armour made no attempt to advance further but shelled our positions, ‘many of their shots going over the crest of the ridge and falling behind the Coy position. Tracer was flying in all directions. It was apparently becoming too dark for aimed fire inside a tank, and their intention was to confuse and terrorise rather than inflict casualties.’13
Since the battalion's withdrawal was made by a gradual process of thinning out, the position had to be held with ever-decreasing fire power. Lest its explosion should betray our intention of withdrawing, the second demolition was not blown till soon after eight o'clock. McDonald's company, the last to leave, was treated to a magnificent display of coloured flares and tracer bullets that might have been better appreciated under other circumstances. One of its platoons lay on the reverse of a slope; another faced west to a flank. Only the third platoon, No. 17, was in a position to see exactly what was going on or to fire upon the halted tanks. Its commander, Second-Lieutenant Reynolds,14 describes the action:
Fortunately I had verified the range to the nearest and last portion of the road on which I could see the tanks, and this was 350 yards. The right-hand section had possession of the Anti-tank rifle, and I made them hold their fire until the leading tank reached this point. Pte Frank Turner15 fired four times and the last round appeared to halt the tank. At any rate it stopped, and Turner fired the one round remaining in the magazine. At this stage a man climbed out of the second tank, and holding something in his hand ran for cover. Pte Adam,16 who was Bren gunner in the left hand section and was ready for action, fired, and in the excitement fired in one burst the whole magazine which was loaded with tracer 1 in 2 for ack-ack. The fire was easily observed and the enemy received the whole magazine in what was easily the best burst I have ever seen. A second man however ran out carrying further bundles, relieved the deceased of his, and safely made cover. Then the trouble started.page 32
A mortar, which is no doubt what was being prepared for action, opened up. The second round demolished the parapet of Turner's sangar and rendered him unconscious, although amazingly, unwounded. Corporal G. Budd,17 the section commander, then assumed command of the Anti-tank rifle. The next mortar round however hit the rifle itself in front of the magazine, and put both Budd and the weapon out of action. Remarkably Budd was only slightly wounded.
The tanks continued to pile up, and became nose to tail back down the hill. Then they all turned their turrets towards the ridge, and opened fire with everything they had—tank guns and small arms—using tracer entirely. This heavy fire was maintained on the two sections which had revealed their positions from about 7.30 to 9.15 p.m. and was a most inspiring sight.18
The tanks stayed where they were, without trying to pass the demolition, and the men of 17 Platoon lay low, withholding their fire. D Company withdrew successfully under cover of darkness, to find Colonel Shuttleworth waiting at his headquarters to see the last of his men safely away.
‘No German vehicles were destroyed in this area’, writes Captain Morrison ‘and probably few if any casualties were inflicted on their personnel, although had any anti-tank guns been available a very different story would have been told. However we had accomplished the task given us of holding the enemy until darkness, and it was very unlikely that he would make any attempt to move before daylight.’
In the meantime Major Mantell-Harding had already set off with the main body, heading south-east for Tyrnavos and Larissa. He was uneasy about the bridges over the Xerias and Peneois rivers, not being at all sure of finding them intact. Well aware that both 21 Battalion and the Australians sent to their support had been overwhelmed in the Peneios Gorge, he was still ignorant of how far the pursuing forces had penetrated. Having passed through Tyrnavos, he came to much- bombed Larissa and found the town in flames but the bridges undamaged. Away to the left flares and tracer bullets showed how dangerously close the enemy was pressing upon the line of page 33 retreat. A few miles farther on a line of blazing lights was seen approaching rapidly from the east—the same direction from which the enemy's thrust might be expected. As the column was brought to a halt by a traffic jam ahead, the lights swung on to the road and proved to be those of an Australian convoy retreating from the Peneios Gorge. Its sudden irruption disorganised the column, but any annoyance caused was soon forgotten in the general relief at meeting friends instead of a hostile vanguard intent on cutting the line of retreat. The night was dark and vehicles carrying the 24th were being driven without lights. ‘We pushed on’, writes Mantell-Harding, and were getting along nicely when I heard a voice call out “Who are you?” I gave our code name and someone called —“Put on your lights and go like hell.”’ The voice belonged to General Freyberg, whose presence was no less encouraging than his instructions were welcome. Expert as the drivers had become through much practice, moving in darkness was an added strain upon tired men.
The original intention of making the retreat to Thermopylae in a single bound had been discarded, since only half the journey could be performed under cover of night; and travelling by day was unhealthy while Germany ruled the air. The 6th Brigade column, therefore, had been ordered to halt and lie up by day at Nea Ankhialos, where the main road skirted the Gulf of Volos. Mantell-Harding arrived there at dawn, and Shuttleworth, with D Company, an hour or so later. An assortment of the retreating Allies was gathered here—Englishmen, Greeks, Australians, and a few survivors from 21 Battalion —all in various stages of exhaustion. No move was expected until nightfall, and Shuttleworth, having sent away the transport as being no longer necessary,19 disposed his companies for defence. Under shady trees in fields of red poppies, all men not actually on duty lay down thankfully to make up for lost sleep, but their rest was soon broken. The Luftwaffe having made no reconnaissance in this direction, General Freyberg decided that the retreat should be continued by day, and orders to this effect reached Colonel Shuttleworth about page 34 10 a.m. By that time, however, the transport was miles away, beyond possibility of recall. There was no choice but to set off on foot, and this was done at once; but at the same time Lieutenant Carnachan,20 the Intelligence Officer, was sent off in a truck with orders to collect transport from anywhere in southern Greece and return with all speed. As the battalion marched off, a flight of German dive-bombers was seen to attack a ship anchored off the coast. Within five minutes it was ablaze from stem to stern. In full marching order on a boiling hot day, the men marched from 10 a.m. till 12.30, halted for lunch, and then continued on till 2.30 p.m., when Shuttleworth decided to halt once more. He was a little way north of Almiros, and the remaining distance of nearly a hundred miles obviously could not be covered on foot. How close were the pursuing Germans no one knew, but if no transport came, then this was as good a place to fight them as any other. Meanwhile Carnachan had gone right back to Molos, meeting on his way first Major Brooke,21 Brigade Major 6 Brigade, and then the Brigadier, whom he informed of the difficulty. Finally he went on to Divisional Headquarters, where he was provided with the transport required. The stranded battalion, though left without means of conveyance, was never allowed to feel itself deserted. A rearguard of the Divisional Cavalry closed in round it, and the 2/3rd Australian Field Regiment promised artillery support, while the Brigadier himself arrived on the scene at 5 p.m. Carnachan appeared with transport an hour later, and the men at once embussed, but darkness had not yet fallen and the movement was observed by enemy aircraft. ‘Suddenly, as if from nowhere, a German fighter swooped down over the convoy with guns belching fire at our trucks. There was a wild scatter for shelter and from the safety of a ditch we had a splendid display of strafing. Up and down the convoy Jerry dived, spraying bullets and explosive cannon shells in all directions. He kept it up for some time, but eventually tired of the game and made off over the hills, leaving page 35 two bullet holes through the windscreen of one truck—his net result for the expenditure of several thousand rounds of ammunition.’22 Throughout the night exhausted men slept fitfully in jolting trucks, which passed through blazing Lamia and then turned south-east, skirting the shores of the Maliac Gulf. Four miles beyond Molos they halted at dawn, comparatively safe under cover of the RAF, and in rear of 5 Brigade's positions at Thermopylae. B Company, lately detached under command of 25 Battalion at Elasson, had already arrived. Travelling by the shorter inland route via Pharsala and Dhomokos, it had made the journey in a single night and was waiting to guide the rest of the battalion to its dispersal area.
While the position at Elasson was being held, 24 Battalion's B Echelon had remained about a mile south of Stony Ridge until the morning of 18 April, when most of the administrative transport started off for Molos under Captain Brown,23 the Quartermaster—a composite unit amidst the huge stream of traffic making its way southward. The coastal road through Volos was under repair, and as yet there was no alternative to taking the overcrowded inland route through Pharsala and Dhomokos. The convoy moved without serious check as far as Larissa, but there its peaceful progress ended. ‘The town itself was a ruin—telephone and telegraph wires down, fires burning everywhere, and the roads blocked and in places obliterated by rubble and bomb craters. Many of the Australian Military Police on traffic control duties had been killed, but with the help of the few who remained a route (partly by way of the wrecked streets and partly over broken down fences, and through yards and gardens behind the houses) was found for the convoy to pass through to the main road….,’24 Scarcely had the town been left behind when the convoy was attacked by hostile aircraft, and ‘From this time (about 1200 hrs) until dark the longest period without attack from the air was to be less than a quarter of an hour.’25 Trucks of other formations cut in on the line, and before long the battalion convoy was page 36 broken up into disconnected groups. Some drivers stopped their vehicles on the road and made for cover when aircraft dived to attack them. ‘Behind the blockage caused by this the whole mass of transport silted up into a gigantic traffic jam, the road's width across and almost twenty miles long, and for the most part stationary or barely creeping forward. An ideal target for the enemy who was now bombing as well as machine-gunning, and whose attacks had become almost continuous. The bombs fell for the most part to the sides of the road, some of them two hundred yards out, and very few on the road itself which was, however, continually swept by machine gun fire.’26 At first these attacks were suffered without reprisal, but later a few men began to turn their rifles on the aircraft, and thereafter the volume of this fire increased with each attack. Armoured cars ran their front wheels up road banks and brought their Vickers guns to bear on the raiders. If the fire had little result, it at least kept up the men's spirits and discouraged the enemy from coming in too low. The Anti- Aircraft Platoon's truck was hit by bomb splinters. One man was killed, one seriously and others lightly wounded, but all things considered the total damage done was remarkably slight. Regular halts for meals being out of the question, the troops ate bully beef and drank from their water bottles while sitting in the trucks. Now and then conflicting orders were passed back. One of these directed that no attempt should be made to pass halted traffic, but a few moments later Captain Brown sent back word that this order should be disregarded. The 24th Battalion convoy was to keep together and push on towards Molos whenever possible until stopped by the Quartermaster himself. Lamia had been crowded with refugees when the bombers arrived, and corpses, some of them horribly mutilated, lay where they had fallen in the streets. South of the town the convoy had a fairly clear run, and at nightfall the leading trucks passed through Molos. Straggling groups which continued to arrive throughout the night found Brown waiting on the road to direct them to their own parking area. All next day the Quartermaster waited anxiously, for disturbing rumours were coming to hand, but towards evening he page 37 gave orders for a hot meal to be cooked and stored in insulated containers—a precaution much appreciated by the tired, hungry men who arrived next morning.
It will be remembered that three sections of the Carrier Platoon had been sent back from Stony Ridge to Tyrnavos on 17 April, and the remaining section had withdrawn shortly before the companies began to thin out on the following evening. This section was sent on a special mission with orders to occupy the northern outskirts of Tyrnavos and cover the withdrawal through the village. No move was to be made from this position without orders from the officer commanding the rearguard. After waiting there for some time the section was directed by the officer in question to move into the village square and hold it for one and a half hours. The other three sections now withdrew and then, one after another, units of 6 Brigade retreated through Tyrnavos, followed eventually by the rearguard. In ominous stillness Sergeant McDonald and his men waited for the interminable hour and a half to pass, wondering at the same time how close the enemy had come, and whether they would find the Xerias bridge destroyed. Flares were still going up close by to the east, but there was no sound of fighting. At length, just before time was up, the Divisional Cavalry appeared and the carriers tacked on to the end of its column, ‘pulling out as the enemy in force entered the village on its farther side’.27
Next day, while the 24th waited for transport at Almiros, the section caught up, but did not rejoin as it still formed part of the rearguard. On the way to Molos the steering gear of one of the three carriers broke down. The vehicle was pushed over a cliff and its crew were picked up later by the Divisional Cavalry. Meanwhile one of the remaining carriers had gone back to look for the missing one, and in doing so had broken down as well. This crew was not so fortunate in getting picked up, but the men arrived back next day to join the rest of the platoon halted near the hot springs of Thermopylae. The platoon, or what was left of it, being once more assembled, moved into the battalion lying-up area and concealed the carriers under trees.page 38
There, beyond Molos, the battalion rested on 20 April, but before long an observation plane was circling above like a familar spirit. As usual its presence spelt trouble and bombers soon flew over, after which there was little peace until six Hurricanes appeared later in the day. They cleared the sky for the time being, and the sight of them was infinitely cheering to men who had lately seen so much of the Luftwaffe and so little of their own air force. Early on the 21st the battalion made its first forward move since advancing to the Aliakmon, when motor transport took it to positions in the Thermopylae Line.
Broadly speaking, this line ran westward from the coast near Molos between the river Sperkheios and the Brailos Pass, after which it bent south-west, covering Mount Giona, and then turned south through Lidhorikion to Eratini on the Gulf of Corinth. On the right the New Zealand Division held seven miles of front from the coast at Ayia Trias along the southern bank of the Sperkheios River; on the left was 6 Australian Division. The whole New Zealand sector was held by 5 Brigade alone until 21 April, when 6 Brigade moved in on its right and became responsible for the coastal sector. Fourth Brigade remained in reserve, spaced out along the coastline from Molos to Cape Knimis.
These dispositions, however, were not maintained for long. On the day of their completion the Greek Army of Epirus capitulated, and on 22 April the British forces received orders to evacuate Greece. This involved an immediate alteration in all plans. It was now decided that on the night of 22-23 April 4 Brigade should move to a position on the main Athens road, south of Thebes, to cover Anzac Corps' withdrawal, while 5 Brigade, leaving a skeleton force to hold its line, should move out on the same night to the coast road near Cape Knimis, lie concealed there all day on the 23rd, and then go on to Athens and embark from the neighbouring beaches. Sixth Brigade, supported by the whole of the Divisional Artillery, would hold the Thermopylae Line for 48 hours (until the night of the 24th), and then disengage and embark from Khalkis.
Running in a general line from west to east across the New Zealanders' front, the Sperkheios River branched into two page 39 streams before reaching the sea. It was an adequate tank obstacle, but unfortunately the ground on its southern banks was swampy and without cover, so that it was found necessary to choose a defence line some little way back along the foothills of the Kalidhromon Mountains. The river crossings, however, could be kept under artillery fire and watched by strong patrols at night. The principal bridge at Alamanas, south of Lamia, was blown on 20 April.
During the course of many centuries the Maliac Gulf had been gradually filling up, and a flat, swampy, alluvial plain, some thirty square miles in extent, had risen out of the sea. In the days of Leonidas and his Spartans, Thermopylae had been a narrow defile between mountains and sea, supremely advantageous to a small band of heroes bent on holding it against an army, but since then it had been widened into a narrow flat by a gradual process of silting.28 Where once the sea had page 40 rolled there was now dry land, and on part of this naturally reclaimed area stood the little village of Ayia Trias. There, on the extreme right of the line, 24 Battalion took up its battle positions. A Company between village and coast, B slightly forward in the western outskirts of the village, with C on the left and a little in rear of B, immediately north of the Lamia- Molos road, united in forming a triangle with its apex pointing north-west towards the Sperkheios. D Company had its position in reserve on the unit's left rear, close to Battalion Headquarters. The 25th Battalion's positions extended westward for about three miles on the southern side of the road. Astride the road just west of Molos, 26 Battalion was in reserve with the additional duty of watching the coastline, for it was thought possible that the enemy might attempt a landing behind our forward positions.
A powerful concentration of guns supported 6 Brigade. The 2nd Regiment of Royal Horse Artillery, 102 Anti-Tank Regiment (both less one battery), and 155 Light Anti-Aircraft Battery all added their fire power to that of the New Zealand Divisional Artillery. There was some difficulty in siting these guns so that the Alamanas Bridge and Sperkheios River to the east of it came within their range. Most of them were grouped in the foothills west and south of Molos, but some were placed almost in the front line. Two 25-pounders were moved into 24 Battalion's sector between A and B Companies, as it was thought likely the enemy might make a tank attack across the flat country lying between the two streams of the Sperkheios.
The 22nd of April was spent in digging in and camouflaging, practically without molestation; the observation plane did indeed appear, yet no attack followed. In front of the battalion position the ground was covered with scrub and a species of pampas grass, similar to the New Zealand toi-toi, which had to be cut away to make a field of fire. A bridge over a swampy creek on B Company's front was discovered and blown up. Ayia Trias was deserted, but its gardens were full of vegetables which made a welcome addition to bully beef and hard biscuit. ‘In Coy HQ’, writes Major Dill, ‘we had the CSM detailed to milk the goat which we had tethered, feed the page 41 hens, and gather the eggs, while the OC's driver and two HQ batmen became experts at cooking all sorts of things on the primus.’ Coming as it did after much hardship, the short spell of ease was pleasant beyond description, but it was not to last. That night the headlights of an endless transport column could be seen moving through the hills on the opposite shore of the Maliac Gulf. That night also 5 Brigade withdrew, leaving a small force known as the Hart Detachment to bridge the gap that now intervened between the Australian and New Zealand divisions.
Respite from air attack did not extend to the 23rd—a day of annoyance and tribulation. A remnant of the Royal Air Force, hopelessly outnumbered and deprived of any safe base of operations, was about to leave for Crete. Henceforward the wide sky belonged to the Luftwaffe. The infantry were well concealed, but the slightest move on their part drew attention. As instructed, they opened heavy fire with small arms upon every target that presented itself, but their tracer bullets could be seen glancing harmlessly off the plane's armour, and their efforts had little result other than disclosing their positions.
After dark the Hart Detachment withdrew, leaving 25 Battalion's left flank to look after itself; yet at all costs 6 Brigade had to hold its line for another 24 hours lest the whole evacuation should be endangered. Nothing was certain but that an attack would come; only the time of its coming and the tactics that might be employed were still matters of conjecture. The situation was tense; nerves were strained, and every strange sight or sound was a signal to be on the alert. ‘On guard that night proved an eerie business. We were expecting and were continually on the lookout for parachute troops. Having a little knowledge of their methods we knew of the manner in which they use whistles and cries to signal from group to group. About midnight, away in the distance on the right, we heard a weird call that was immediately answered faintly from the distant left. It was a creepy cat-call—sounded like a tomcat in its last agony. It made one's flesh creep and we were certain that we would have parachute troops on our hands at any moment. Once again that eerie call, this time closer and from page 42 a direction between the first two. We piquets kept mighty close together, our rifles cocked and ready to open up at the first sign of trouble. A war of nerves! Jerry up to old tricks we thought. But next day—enlightenment. We were told by some nature-loving bloke who had taken the trouble to enquire from the Greeks, that the cries we heard were actually made by a species of bat that abounded in that part of Greece.’29
It was naturally a matter of the utmost importance to make sure that the Alamanas Bridge, blown on 20 April, was not repaired by night. Each morning at dawn one of the three battalions, taking the duty by turns, sent a carrier section to reconnoitre the demolition and see that it remained in a satisfactory state of disrepair. On 24 April it was 24 Battalion's turn, and on approaching the bridge the carrier section, with Lieutenant Yeoman30 in charge, found repairs in progress. There was little time for detailed observation, however, as ‘at this point of the proceedings [Sgt McDonald] spotted an enemy armoured patrol of some strength advancing from the hill on the south (that is the Allied) side of the river, and at the same time three fighters took off from the enemy's forward landing ground near Lamia, and made towards the carriers’.31 The party was hunted home by machine-gunning aircraft and one carrier was hit, but there were no casualties. Soon after its return, shells from our guns were landing amongst the ruins where the enemy party had been at work.
Before proceeding further the enemy sought to reduce our formidable gun power by counter-battery fire, and by bombing and machine-gunning from the air. There was no longer any RAF; anti-aircraft fire was ineffectual and concealment never more necessary, but the Luftwaffe could not attend simultaneously and continuously to each battery. Once the sky was clear gun crews emerged from cover and gave the enemy an ample demonstration that on this occasion at least there was no shortage of ammunition.
Fortunately German judgment was not infallible. The 24th Battalion might have expected to bear the brunt of an attack page 43 delivered across the swampy though quite passable flat lying to its front, but the attempt, when finally made towards mid-afternoon, assumed the nature of a narrow-pointed thrust along the Lamia road, across the front held by 25 Battalion and into the mouths of the guns sited round Molos and Ayia Trias. Throughout the morning armoured vehicles had been gathering out of range beyond the Sperkheios, and towards 3.30 p.m. tanks, followed by lorried infantry and preceded by motor cyclists, could be seen from 24 Battalion's lines advancing along the Lamia road. The tanks were either destroyed by artillery fire or forced to turn back, but the lorried infantry began to infiltrate into the hills around 25 Battalion's left company, formerly but now no longer guarded by the Hart Detachment. The company drew back a flank to meet them. A second attack followed the first along the Lamia road, which twisted and undulated so that at times the tanks' fire bore upon 24 Battalion's positions. C Company, being nearest the road, was also nearest the scene of action. A single tank, survivor of several, ran the gauntlet to within a few hundred yards of the company's lines before being knocked out. But the main danger lay elsewhere. Pressure on 25 Battalion's left flank increased until the left company had to give ground. An encircling movement through the hills, such as had once been fatal to the Spartans, might cut off the greater part of 6 Brigade, and to meet this threat 24 Battalion's companies were realigned late in the afternoon. Abandoning everything except actual fighting equipment, A Company moved into the hills south of where D and Battalion Headquarters were situated close by the Molos road, while B and C extended their lines to cover the gap left by A. As it turned out this precaution was unnecessary. The 25th Battalion held its readjusted line firmly, and the time was drawing near when 6 Brigade, having held out for the specified time, might evacuate the position.
During the latter part of the day troops had been busy destroying everything that could not be carried away—everything with the exception of weapons and one blanket for each man. When the 24th's companies began to thin out after dark, in what was becoming a familiar movement, they had suffered page 44 no casualties, and C Company alone had opened fire; yet the extent of what they had endured could scarcely be measured in terms so precise. Some of our guns were still firing and others were being dismantled ready for destruction as A, B, and D Companies pulled out at 9 p.m., leaving C to follow later. From across the Maliac Gulf a German battery was shelling the road, but the companies got safely back to Molos and boarded transport which waited to carry them away on yet another lap of their long retreat.
The Carrier Platoon moved in advance, but before long two more vehicles broke down and had to be destroyed. Skirting the coast for 20 miles, the road followed by the convoy turned sharply west at Atalante, exposing the brigade's right flank to any enemy forces that might conceivably have filtered through from the Brailos Pass. To protect the exposed flank Lieutenant Yeoman, with part of his command, occupied a branch road leading in from the north-west, while Sergeant McDonald went on with his section in search of a point where the two main roads from Brailos Pass and the coast formed a junction. His orders were to hold up the New Zealand convoy until the Australians retreating from Brailos had all passed through, so that confusion might be avoided. In the darkness, without either map or route card, he could only guess at the position, which did not appear to be exactly as described. Uncertain whether he had chosen the right crossroads, he was further perplexed when 6 Brigade arrived before the Australians.32 In some trepidation he allowed them through, but all went well, and at the tail of the convoy Brigadier Barrowclough turned aside to give orders that the remaining carriers be destroyed and abandoned. The dismounted men then boarded two trucks reserved for their use and followed on behind the convoy. Crowded in vehicles of all descriptions, riding where necessary on hoods, bonnets, and mudguards, the battalion travelled throughout the night and arrived on the morning of Anzac Day among wooded hills north-west of Eleusis. There, immediately in rear of 4 Brigade, it remained till darkness fell, hidden beneath oak groves, with lookouts posted to watch page 45 for hostile aircraft which constantly flew over at low altitudes without discovering any sign of the retreating troops.
Most of 5 Brigade had embarked from the beaches of Porto Rafti on the night of 24-25 April, and it had been intended that all remaining New Zealand troops should embark from the same or nearby places on the following night, but it now became evident that enemy pressure on land, and, above all, enemy command of the air, would make it necessary that further embarkations should be more widely dispersed and the time for the operation extended. Fresh plans were made accordingly. While 4 Brigade held its position astride the Thebes-Eleusis road, 6 Brigade would cross the Isthmus of Corinth, move on from there to Tripolis, and hold the north-western approaches to that town. Fourth Brigade would then follow across the Isthmus—to be held meanwhile by a small mixed force—and embark from the beaches of the Peloponnese on the night of 26-27 April. Sixth Brigade was to embark two nights later. The commanding officers of the three battalions had already gone with Brigadier Barrowclough to reconnoitre a position covering the beaches near Marathon, when they were met by General Freyberg who explained that the centres for embarkation had been shifted from the eastern to the southern coastline; in consequence, 6 Brigade would cross into the Peloponnese that night (25 April) and spend the next day under cover in a position to be chosen somewhere south of the Corinth Canal.
The 24th Battalion left its camp near Eleusis late on the night of Anzac Day, crossed the Isthmus of Corinth early Next morning, and came to Miloi at the head of the Gulf of Argos. Before starting, it was discovered that Second-Lieutenant Carroll33 and 28 men were missing. There was no choice but to leave them and proceed. Actually they were safe, though nothing more was heard of them till they reappeared in Egypt a week later. Their vehicle having broken down on the way back from Molos, they had been picked up by passing transport and carried on through Athens to be embarked at Porto Rafti with elements of 5 Brigade.page 46
The halting place at Miloi, a dried-up riverbed, was not specially suitable for concealment, but during the last few days camouflage had taken its place among the fine arts. Trucks were made invisible from the air and would doubtless have remained so but for an unfortunate circumstance. Several truckloads of Australians, who should have embarked the previous night at Megara but for various reasons had been unable to do so, were pushing on through the Peloponnese, and, seeing a friendly camp, made towards it most imprudently in broad daylight. As the trucks drew close they were seen by enemy aircraft approaching from the north. The drivers at once turned off the road and the men got out and ran for cover, leaving the vehicles standing in the open—a target that cried aloud for the Luftwaffe's attention. Before the trucks could be moved away and concealed dive-bombers arrived on the scene, and at intervals for the next hour they plastered the whole area with high explosive. For 24 Battalion the chief danger lay not in the precision of their bombing but in the lack of it. Bombs intended for the trucks fell in the riverbed, where flying fragments of rock made every explosion more deadly. After two bloodless actions at Elasson and Molos, the battalion suffered four fatal casualties through the carelessness or ignorance of friends.
While these events were taking place, the Germans had already begun to land paratroops around the Corinth Canal and attack the small detachment defending the Isthmus. At this stage it was still intended that 4 Brigade should cross into the Peloponnese,34 and to keep its line of retreat open, two companies of 26 Battalion were sent back to assist in defending the canal bridge. The 25th remained in reserve at Miloi, while the 24th was ordered to start off at once in broad daylight and take up a position around Tripolis.
The battalion moved off at 1 p.m. with vehicles widely dispersed for safety, but the convoy was soon joined not only by the Australians who had so recently brought disaster upon it, but also by all the human debris of retreat which clung for guidance and protection to any well ordered formation page 47 that came in sight. Reinforcements under no command, British troops whose officers had been killed, Australians, members of the Palestinian Labour Corps, most of them heading for Kalamata on the south coast, all tacked on to the convoy as opportunity offered and made their contribution towards retarding its orderly progress. Between Miloi and Tripolis a high mountain range supervened. ‘It was an eventful trip climbing up thousands of feet on a road which zig-zagged and wound over the sides of the mountains. As we climbed higher and higher we could look down and see the road below us as a series of steps banked by stone walls. The road was really a marvellous feat of engineering and under any other circumstances the journey would have been an enjoyable experience. As it was it proved to be just the reverse. Every now and again a number of Messerschmitts dived down over the truck with machine guns and cannon blazing, which sent us scrambling off the truck, diving for shelter. All along the route abandoned trucks could be seen overturned, wrecked at the bottom of valleys, or hanging on the brink of the road with terrific drops beneath them. I don't think human beings could move faster than we when the lookout shouted his warning, “Aircraft!” We had learned how dangerous it was to lie in the deep watercourses at the side of the road, for it was a favourite pastime of Jerry's to sweep along the side of the road with a murderous hail of fire. So it was that we had to scatter very smartly for yards around and dive for the first tree or shelter off the road. We also had to wait until the planes were well clear before coming out of shelter, but many a man lost his life in Greece after the planes had passed overhead, when he had stood up and been promptly mowed down by the rear gunner.’35
Under such circumstances it was indeed strange there should have been scarcely any casualties, but narrow escapes were many, and among them that of Colonel Shuttleworth. ‘The CO had gone on ahead of us to do a recce’, writes Major Mantell-Harding, ‘and you can imagine how I felt when about two miles from Tripolis I saw ahead of me his car lying on the side of the road in a ditch. I stopped but could not see anyone, but on investigation found three bullet holes in the car. page 48 His batman came running towards me and told me that the CO was all right, but the Adjt had been hit in the head. I found Morrison36 sitting in a field with his field dressing on and he seemed quite happy. I pushed on to Tripolis and met the CO who was all in one piece.’
The troubles of this unfortunate day were not yet over. Travelling in rear of B Company as second-in-command, Captain Webb37 arrived on the outskirts of Tripolis to discover that a military policeman was directing all traffic to Kalamata. Having carefully instructed the man that 24 Battalion traffic must on no account be sent there but to Battalion Headquarters in Tripolis, he went on to join his own company but found subsequently that his precautions were too late. Two entire platoons, with their commanders and portions of two others, were found to be missing from A and B Companies. It was surmised they had gone to Kalamata, and a despatch rider was sent there with orders for their immediate recall, but either they lacked the means by which to return or were forbidden to do so. It was a mischance that cost the battalion dearly. Out of the 130-odd prisoners of war lost in Greece, a large proportion came from these platoons so unfortunately misdirected; but not all were captured. Sergeant Grimmond38 and a party of seven others seized a caique and sailed it to Crete, finally arriving back in Egypt and there rejoining the battalion, while Sergeant Flett39 and Private Donald40 were at large on the mainland for more than a year before being taken prisoner.
On the evening of 26 April, 24 Battalion's companies were spread defensively on all sides of Tripolis, while the 25th still remained at Miloi. Before the two companies of the 26th, page 49 driving to the scene of action at Corinth, had reached their destination and joined battle, word came that the canal bridge had been blown to prevent reinforcements from reaching the enemy's airborne troops. The bridge no longer requiring their protection, the two companies were ordered to return and follow the main body of their unit over the passes into the low valleys lying north of Tripolis. That same night 25 Battalion moved to the summit of the pass between Argos and Tripolis.
Thus the last New Zealand brigade to leave Greece lay concentrated for withdrawal, while yet remaining ready to strike at whatever pursuing forces might seek to hinder its operation. The principal threat seemed likely to come from the north-western Peloponnese. Enemy forces were said to have crossed the Gulf of Corinth at Patrai and might soon be expected in the vicinity of Tripolis, or even farther south- towards Kalamata, from whose adjacent beaches it was intended that a large number of our troops should embark. So seriously indeed was this threat regarded that the place of embarkation was changed from Kalamata to Monemvasia in the far south-east, which from one point of view had the considerable disadvantage of being much farther away. In the event, there was no choice but to undertake a long night journey, which must in all urgency be contrived without hitch or hindrance. From dawn till dusk on 27 April the brigade would lie concealed; it would then travel throughout the night to lie up once again on the 28th in the vicinity of Monemvasia, and would embark from there as soon as darkness fell.
After taking up positions around Tripolis, 24 Battalion's companies sent out patrols north and west to discover how far the enemy had probed southward. All of these patrols returned without incident. Although it must have been painfully evident to the local Greeks that their allies faced withdrawal or inevitable defeat, yet they did not hold them cheap on that account, but still continued to offer whatever hospitality lay in their power. ‘The inhabitants… treated us royally’, writes Major Dill, ‘and when they found that we had no blankets, these having been abandoned at Thermopylae, the head man of the village produced a blanket for every man we had there; some of these were lovely handwoven blankets, the best they page 50 had; they also gave us bread and wine, and we suspect went without themselves to do so.’
No sooner had darkness fallen on 27 April than the plan described above was put into operation. The battalions were to move in the following order: 26th, 25th, 24th, with the last-named providing the rearguard. The extrication of the 25th from its position astride the high pass in time to conform with the general programme promised to be an affair of some difficulty. The unit's transport could not with safety start from Tripolis till 9 p.m., after which it would have to negotiate a steep, winding road to the summit of the pass, for there and there only was a spot to be found where the vehicles could be turned. Should 25 Battalion fail for any reason to pass through Tripolis as arranged and be clear of the town by midnight, the 24th would be delayed in starting, and a delay that would prevent it reaching its destination by dawn might prove a disaster beyond redemption. Meanwhile the companies dispersed around Tripolis were withdrawn into the town and formed into columns of motor transport, the heads of which converged on the principal square, where they waited in painful suspense.
An air-raid siren wailed. Transport massed in narrow streets courted destruction, but no air raid followed. Midnight came, but no 25 Battalion. The fate of all present depended on its prompt arrival. The time would soon come when hope of life and freedom would diminish with every passing moment. Ten minutes after midnight, however, the lights of an approaching convoy were seen, and before long the anxiously awaited force was driving through Tripolis at speed with vehicles closely spaced. By 12.30 the last of them was through, and 24 Battalion had begun to move off in their wake.
En route to Papakura Camp
On the Empress of Japan—crossing the line
A Company men in Athens watch Italian prisoners from the Albanian front
At Mount Hymettus
That afternoon (28th) Colonel Shuttleworth attended a conference at Divisional Headquarters and returned to inform his men that as rearguard to 6 Brigade they would be the last to leave; and not only this—it was possible they might not go at all that night because of a shortage of small craft for ferrying troops out to the warships. In such a case they would be required to stay a further 24 hours, the only complete British fighting unit on Greek soil, and make head as best they could against odds without limit. These were grim tidings, for the time could not be far away when the Navy would no longer be able to come close inshore, and if the present opportunity of embarking were lost, no other might occur. But by this time adversity had taught the Aucklanders to accept the direst mischance with equanimity. ‘If we don't get off tonight it is just too bad’, they said, while Shuttleworth went to reconnoitre a defensive position that would have to be held with nothing but rifles and machine guns against an enemy far more lavishly equipped.
Prospects became less gloomy, however, when a number of small Greek craft, capable of being used for carrying troops, were found on an adjacent beach; though there still remained some doubt as to whether all the men could be embarked, since the ships could not afford to stay close inshore later than 3 a.m. owing to risk of attack by hostile aircraft. At 11 p.m. the battalion left Molaoi in motor transport and drove to within two miles of the jetty at Monemvasia. Here it page 52 debussed, and all trucks were pushed over a cliff, while the troops stood by and watched with sentimental concern the destruction of vehicles they had come to regard with feelings almost amounting to affection. Till past midnight the battalion's fate still hung in the balance, for some of the ships were late in arriving; but as the troops marched down to the jetty General Freyberg greeted them in person, and then, with feelings of profound relief, they heard that 24 Battalion was to go after all. Embarkation began at 2 a.m. Forming up in parties of fifty, the men were taken off successively in small boats to the warships, the majority being received by HMS Ajax, which had carried them to Greece some six weeks previously, and the remainder boarding the destroyers Hotspur and Havock.41
At 4 a.m. the ships sailed, their decks packed with tired, unwashed bodies, and at dawn they steamed into Suda Bay on the north coast of Crete. But Egypt, not Crete, was 6 Brigade's destination, and all troops aboard the Ajax not belonging to 24 Battalion were landed on the island as soon as possible. The cruiser then sailed at midday, arriving at Alexandria on the afternoon of 30 April, when the men were disembarked and driven to Amiriya Camp, a place they had once been glad to leave but were still more glad to see again. Hotspur and Havock transhipped their complement to the transport Comliebank, which made a much slower voyage and did not reach Port Said till 2 May. The separate parties were eventually reunited as a battalion at Helwan Camp on 6 May —exactly two calendar months after having marched out of that same place with high hope and boundless enterprise for an unknown destination.
Apart from the heavy toll taken in prisoners, casualties had been surprisingly few. While effecting a retreat of some 400 miles, closely pressed by an enemy vastly superior in numbers and armament, 24 Battalion had twice stood firm and checked its pursuers, had twice successfully broken off an engagement to withdraw unscathed. Successive withdrawals with their irrefutable implication of defeat might well have tested the morale of veterans. But these men, who with few exceptions were seeing war for the first time, rose superior to the occasion of page 53 apparent failure and discerned the fine point of difference between victory won on equal terms and victory as the inevitable consequence of purely material advantage. At some future time they might confidently expect to reverse the fortune of war that had been so heavily loaded against them.
The battalion's casualties for the campaign in Greece were:
|Died of wounds||–||2|
|Prisoners of war (includes 6 ORs wounded and p.w. and 1 officer and 1 OR died of wounds while p.w.)||4||134|
2 Letter, Maj Mantell-Harding.
4 Letter, Sgt Bell.
6 Letter, Maj Mantell-Harding.
9 Letter, Maj Dill.
12 Letter, Capt D. G. Morrison.
18 Letter, Maj Reynolds, 11 Jan 1949.
19 ‘The troop-carrying vehicles of 24 Bn, however, had been ordered to the rear when the battalion put itself in a posture of defence. This was a natural and very proper precaution.’—Narrative, 6 Bde war diary.
22 Letter, Sgt Bell.
24 Letter, WO 1 K. J. H. Cohen (then CQMS, A Coy).
27 Letter, Sgt McDonald.
29 Letter, Sgt Bell.
31 Letter, Sgt McDonald.
32 It seems probable that McDonald had gone to the wrong place, and that the Australian column had already passed through on its correct route.
35 Letter, Sgt Bell
36 Lt-Col W. R. K. Morrison, DSO; Waiouru Military Camp; born NZ 23 Jan 1914; Regular soldier; GSO 32 NZ Div Jan-Feb 1942; GSO 3 GHQ MEF Feb-Apr 1942; GSO 2 (Ops) GHQ MEF Apr-Aug 1942; twice wounded; OC Central District Training Depot, May 1952-.
37 Lt-Col R. G. Webb, ED, m.i.d.; Pukehou; born Stratford, 5 Aug 1906; schoolmaster; OC 2 NZ Fd Maint Unit Nov 1941-Jan 1942; 2 i/c 24 Bn 26 Apr-22 Nov 1942; CO 24 Bn 22 Nov-16 Dec 1942; wounded and p.w. 16 Dec 1942; released 10 May 1945; headmaster, Te Aute College.
41 Both destroyers had been in action at Narvik.