CHAPTER 2 — Greece
Early in March there were some indications, apart from the usual rumours, that the Division would soon be engaged in operations against the enemy. The culmination of the training programme, which seemed to have covered every phase, the checking of unit and personal equipment (including gas respirators), the issue of tommy guns, the sharpening of bayonets, and the assembly of the complete Division by the arrival from England of the Second Echelon were of considerable significance. Conjecture as to the probable theatre of operations was rife, with Greece perhaps the favourite though Libya ran it close.
The decision so far as the New Zealand Division was concerned, however, had been communicated to General Freyberg on 17 February when he was informed that British forces were to proceed to the assistance of Greece, already attacked by Italy and threatened by Germany. It was recognised that the forces available had little chance of success against a full-scale attack, but there were hopes and some prospects that British intervention might result in Yugoslavia and Turkey also coming in against the Axis powers.
The New Zealand Division commenced the move from Egypt to Greece on 6 March, the destination being kept secret, though the brigadiers had been informed and had had an opportunity of studying maps and military reports on Greece and the campaign there. The commanding officers of units had been told that the Division was moving to a theatre of war; otherwise no information was divulged.
On 3 March seven officers and 206 other ranks marched in to the battalion to bring the strength up to establishment plus 1st Reinforcements. Base kits were sent to Maadi for storage on the 4th. An advance party of one officer and nine other ranks left for Amiriya, 12 miles south-west of Alexandria, on the 5th, and 25 Battalion, in a column which included 24 and 26 Battalions, 4 Reserve MT Company and the Petrol Company, left Helwan at 10.30 a.m. on 6 March. Amiriya, 145 miles distant, was reached at 6.45 p.m.page 34
The movement was an impressive one. The column of 394 vehicles, divided into blocks of approximately thirty-five vehicles with five miles between blocks and eighty yards between vehicles, covered 60 miles of road. The sight of one of these columns emphasised the necessity for most accurate staff work (and punctuality) in the despatch of vehicles at the start and in their reception and disposal at the destination. The need for first-class road-discipline and close attention to orders by the drivers and others concerned in controlling the movement was evident, especially so as other columns and individual vehicles would probably be using and perhaps crossing the same roads, all working to a close timetable.
The possibility of air attack could not be disregarded and was met by the provision of two light machine guns in each block of vehicles, while each rifleman carried fifty rounds of ammunition. The main protection against any serious air attack was of course the presence of units of the RAF in the Western Desert and in the vicinity of Cairo and Alexandria.
Amiriya transit camp was a most unattractive area of desert with much fine, loose sand churned up by numerous vehicles; the men were accommodated in tents with none of the facilities and comforts to which they had become accustomed in the permanent camps of Maadi and Helwan. A very severe sandstorm or ‘khamseen’ on 14–15 March is still remembered with great displeasure by members of the battalion who experienced it. The Intelligence Officer of 25 Battalion at the time, Lieutenant Mason,1 wrote a vivid description of it:
The officers of the battalion on embarkation for Greece were:
Lieutenant-Colonel A. S. Wilder, Commanding Officer
Major S. M. Satterthwaite, Second-in-Command
Major C. D. A. George, OC A Coy
Major C. J. Williams, OC C Coy (Seconded temporarily to Divisional Headquarters as embarkation officer, 5–23 March)
Captain J. D. Armstrong, Adjutant
Captain H. F. Smith, OC B Coy
Captain A. J. R. Hastie, OC D Coy
Captain H. G. Burton, OC HQ Coy
Captain H. J. Dalzell, 2 i/c B Coy
Captain W. H. Roberts, 2 i/c A Coy
Captain R. Morrison, 2 i/c D Coy
Lieutenant (T/Capt) S. M. Porter, 2 i/c C Coy (OC C Coy 5–23 March)
Lieutenant W. L. Rutherford, 6 Platoon (Transport)
Lieutenant M. J. Mason, Intelligence Officer
Lieutenant W. J. Heslop, 17 Platoon
Lieutenant H. G. Witters, 14 Platoon
Lieutenant G. A. W. Possin, supernumerary on Bn HQ, later IO
Lieutenant R. M. McLeay, 15 Platoon
Lieutenant G. Colledge, 1 Platoon (Signals)
Second-Lieutenant (T/Lieut) T. W. G. Rolfe, Quartermaster
Second-Lieutenant H. H. Hollow, 5 Platoon (Pioneer)
Second-Lieutenant G. J. B. Morris, 12 Platoon
Second-Lieutenant J. P. Tredray, 11 Platoon
Second-Lieutenant I. D. Reid, 3 Platoon (Mortars)
Second-Lieutenant H. Macaskill, 7 Platoon
Second-Lieutenant A. H. Armour, 8 Platoon
Second-Lieutenant M. Handyside, 16 Platoon
Second-Lieutenant W. M. Clarry, 2 Platoon (Anti-Aircraft)
Second-Lieutenant S. G. L. Smythe, 18 Platoon
Second-Lieutenant A. W. Clark, 10 Platoon
Second-Lieutenant R. F. Sherlock, 4 Platoon (Carriers)page 36
Second-Lieutenant I. C. Webster, 9 Platoon
Second-Lieutenant F. C. Corlett, 13 Platoon
Captain L. H. Cordery, NZMC, Medical Officer
Rev. C. E. Willis, Chaplain
Except for small advance parties and the first-line transport, Bren carriers, and motor-cyclists, which embarked on 12 March and sailed in convoy for Piraeus at noon the next day, 25 Battalion remained at Amiriya until the 17th. It then embarked in the cruiser HMS Orion and in company with HM ships Ajax and Havock and HMAS Perth sailed at noon. The troops were given a warm welcome aboard the cruiser, receiving a good meal right away, and thoroughly enjoyed themselves. ‘The sailors were wonderful to us,’ wrote Wakeling2 of the RAP, ‘and nothing was any trouble.’
This movement of 520 miles across the Mediterranean was not without considerable risk of air, surface, and submarine attack, including mines. But the troops seemed quite unconcerned, being content to leave their protection to the Royal Navy. Actually, few losses of shipping were incurred, a total of seven ships being sunk and four damaged during the whole movement of the British, Australian, and New Zealand forces to Greece. The naval battle of Matapan occurred during the passage of the forces, three Italian cruisers being sunk. Our shipping was affected only to the extent that the ships carrying the vehicles spent some twelve hours longer at sea through being turned back as a precaution for a short period during the battle.
Disembarking at Piraeus after a fast passage of twenty-five hours without incident, the battalion after three cheers for the crew, marched off for Hymettus Camp, ten miles away at the foot of the mountains at the south-eastern outskirts of Athens. ‘What a march and were we welcomed en route,’ commented Wakeling. ‘A thousand Iti prisoners passed down one side of the road as we marched up the other.’
Liberal leave was granted and the opportunity to explore the historic city was eagerly taken. The green countryside, the flowers, the general cleanliness, the almost complete absence of flies, and the warm-hearted welcome of the people were in strong contrast to the conditions experienced in Egypt; it seemed page 37 to be a different world. It was, however, very cold, with snow visible not far away, and winter woollens were much appreciated.
At this time the fighting front was some 270 air-miles north-west of Athens. There the Greeks with about thirteen divisions were holding the Italian invaders (who had been severely mauled) 30 miles inside Albanian territory. Nearly 300 miles to the north and north-east of Athens, on or near the frontier between Bulgaria and Greece, the Greeks had about four divisions disposed for delaying action and defence of selected areas, including Salonika. A further three Greek divisions were allotted for the Aliakmon line, with part of which 25 Battalion was shortly to become familiar. Naturally the best Greek troops and equipment were on the north-western front facing the Italians, the remainder of the Greek forces being in many cases hastily trained and poorly equipped. Their transport was more suited for mountain warfare than for a war of rapid movement over considerable distances, which in fact they were quite unable to undertake.
Marching through enthusiastic crowds in Athens en route to Rouf railway station, three miles away on the northern outskirts of the city, 25 Battalion at 4 p.m. on 21 March entrained for Katerini, a small town on the Gulf of Salonika, 35 miles south-west of the town of Salonika and 180 air-miles north of Athens. Katerini was reached after an interesting though somewhat tiring journey of twenty-three hours, many men being seated on the floor of cattle trucks. With the exception of A Company (which occupied a hall in the town) the battalion marched a couple of miles to an area on the outskirts where the men were accommodated in tents. The first-line transport and motor-cyclists, travelling by road from Athens, arrived the following day. Katerini was a somewhat picturesque and quaint little town, nestling at the foot of Mount Olympus, snow-clad and over 9500 feet high, 16 miles away to the south-west.
The next day, 24 March, a move was made to the village of Alonia, a march of 12 miles to the north of Katerini, and then two days later, to another bivouac area in a defensive position which was being prepared by units of 19 Greek Division three miles to the north. Sixth Brigade took over this position from the Greeks, 25 Battalion relieving 192 (Greek) Regiment on 28 March, though the defences were not actually manned until some days later.page 38
The defensive position was part of the Aliakmon line. The New Zealand Division had been allotted the coastal sector with its left or inland flank resting on high ground at, but exclusive of, the village of Elafina. Twelfth Greek Division was on the left, with another division extending the line north-west to the Yugoslav frontier. Nineteenth Greek Division, on completion of its relief by the New Zealand Division, had an anti-parachute role north of the Aliakmon River and also provided a reserve.
To the north-east of the Allied line the British 1 Armoured Brigade had the role of delaying the enemy by fighting and demolitions, the latter including all crossings of the Aliakmon River.
In the New Zealand sector 6 Brigade was on the right, 4 Brigade on the left, and 5 Brigade in reserve in a defensive position astride the Olympus Pass, 21 Battalion of 5 Brigade being detached to hold the railway tunnel and road at Platamon between Mount Olympus and the sea, 20 miles south of Katerini. The New Zealand Divisional Cavalry Regiment was to oppose the enemy on the Aliakmon River and fight a delaying action back by prescribed routes through the main New Zealand position. No. 3 NZ Machine Gun Company was allotted to 6 Brigade and 4 MG Company was in position south of the Tranos River, about two miles back, to deal with any enemy penetration; the remainder of 27 MG Battalion was with a mixed force (Mackay Force) at Vevi, 50 miles to the north-west, near the Yugoslav frontier.
The New Zealand Divisional Artillery supported the forward brigades, 4 and 5 Field Regiments covering 6 Brigade front; 32 and 33 Anti-Tank Batteries and one troop of the 31st came under command of 6 Brigade.
The brigade's frontage was 8000 yards, an excessive front completely beyond the power of a brigade to hold against serious attack. It was finally decided to hold the position with all three battalions forward and thus cover the anti-tank obstacle in front with a more-or-less reasonable amount of fire. This plan left Brigadier Barrowclough with no reserve, a serious matter, and before adopting it he sought and obtained the approval of General Freyberg, who had retained 22 Battalion of 5 Brigade as a divisional reserve.
In contrast with the wooded position of 4 Brigade on its left, 6 Brigade's area was open, undulating country with some steep ridges and valleys running generally east and west. It was very page 39 suitable for tanks and anti-tank obstacles were consequently of major importance. An anti-tank ditch was being prepared by the Greeks along a stream from Skala Elevtherokhorion, and thence along the forward slopes of a ridge to the Toponitsa River, which was a very good natural obstacle. The forward defended localities were sited to the south and covered the ditch, though in some places it could not be covered in this way and would have to be watched by snipers and observers by day and patrolled by night.
A system of concrete pillboxes was planned on the line of the forward defended localities and in positions in depth; SOS light signals were arranged to bring down artillery and machine-gun defensive fire in front of the foremost troops; seven main demolitions were prepared, for a bridge, railway and road embankments, two road culverts, and two tracks over the anti-tank ditch, all on the brigade front. An allotment of 2000 anti-tank mines and 100 anti-personnel mines had been made to 6 Brigade, and of these 750 and 75 respectively were to be issued to 25 Battalion. Passwords were arranged and a white armband was to be carried by each man, to be worn when ordered on either arm as notified from time to time, to distinguish between enemy and friendly troops. Such an arrangement has obvious dangers, the consequences of which could well be disastrous, and, perhaps fortunately, it was never carried out. For some special enterprise, such as a raid, it could serve a useful purpose, as in the trench raids in France in the 1914–18 war where it was frequently used.
Reserves of ammunition and rations were established at suitable points as well as a prisoner-of-war cage and a refugee-collecting centre. Wireless silence was imposed, traffic control carefully planned and put into effect, and the transport in the forward area reduced to a minimum by brigading the surplus vehicles near the village of Korinos, ten miles back.
This detailed description will give some indication of the study and work involved in the planning and preparation of a defensive position. Each position varies considerably and so has its own special problems, and frequently, conflicting requirements necessitate some compromise.
Brigadier Barrowclough placed 24 Battalion on the right of the position, 26 Battalion in the centre, and 25 Battalion on the left, the respective frontages being 1700, 3000, and 3300 yards. Colonel Wilder had three companies forward, D Company page 40 (Hastie3) on the right, B Company (Smith4 in the centre, and C Company (Williams5) on the left. A Company (George6) was in reserve at St. Elias, 2500 yards in rear of the forward defended localities. The positions were not occupied.
Since its arrival in the area on 26 March, 25 Battalion had been working with the Greek troops in preparing the defences and actively continued the work after the departure of the Greeks on the 28th. The plan for the holding of the divisional front, which has already been explained, did not reach finality till 1 April, when the frontage of 6 Brigade was extended to the left to include the hill of St. Elias which previously had been in 4 Brigade's sector.
On 6 April it was learnt that Germany had declared war on Greece and Yugoslavia at midnight 5 – 6 April and 25 Battalion made final preparations to occupy its defensive position at short notice. At dawn the explosion of pre-arranged demolitions in Salonika was heard and left no doubts that war was very near. Work on the defences was accelerated and next day (when, incidentally, a little rain fell and summer time was adopted, clocks being advanced one hour) the fire plan was completed, areas for mines selected, and all was more-or-less ready for an encounter with the enemy.
Fortunately for the comfort of the men and the progress of the defensive works, the weather, apart from a little wind and rain on the evening of the 25th and a dense morning fog a couple of days later, had been delightful. Spring had arrived with all the trees bursting into their new foliage and wild flowers starting to bloom. Judas trees dotted the landscape with their brilliant colour and Greek children selling eggs and figs to the men completed a peaceful and most attractive scene which war was on the eve of destroying.
General Freyberg had clearly stated to General Wilson, the commander of all British troops in Greece, his opinion that the Aliakmon position could not be held for more than a few days with the troops available, and a good deal of work had been page 41 done on the only practicable position, the precipitous Olympus Pass in rear, where 5 Brigade with supporting arms was in position. General Wilson had no illusions on the vulnerability of the Aliakmon position and intended to keep troops there only if the Yugoslavs delayed the enemy advance and prevented the Allied line being turned via the Monastir Pass.
Two days after the German declaration, when it was clear that Yugoslavia could impose little delay, 4 Brigade with attached troops moved from the defensive position on the left of 25 Battalion and, passing over the Olympus Pass, occupied a position on the Aliakmon River at the village of Servia, 30 air-miles south-west of Katerini. There it was under command of Australian Corps. At the same time 26 Battalion, on the right of 25 Battalion, marched back to Olympus Pass to prepare defensive positions there. These movements were of course a prelude to the abandonment of the forward position and the holding of the position in the pass.
In the meantime a detachment of one composite company of 24 Battalion, one platoon of 25 Battalion, and one platoon and a carrier platoon of 26 Battalion was organised to fill the gap between 24 and 25 Battalions. No. 4 MG Company was given a supporting role to the composite company, which was commanded by Major George, 25 Battalion. Sixth Brigade's front was thus generally covered, but the left flank to the west of 25 Battalion, completely uncovered by the withdrawal of 4 Brigade, was to be secured to some extent when the Divisional Cavalry, after vacating the line of the Aliakmon River, went into reserve in a position where it afforded some such protection.
During this day, 8 April, it was learnt that the Germans had penetrated 50 miles into Yugoslavia and that a Yugoslav division had surrendered. The Germans were also reported at Salonika and elements of the Greek Army were falling back through 6 Brigade's lines, together with increasing numbers of refugees from north of the Aliakmon. When darkness came, the sight of fires in Salonika, demolished oil installations, visible about 25 miles away from the higher ground in 25 Battalion's position, was most impressive. At 10.15 that night, on orders from General Freyberg, the Divisional Cavalry demolished the bridges over the Aliakmon and 6 Brigade was ordered to explode its demolition charges, other than those on the railway and road bridges.
The following day the flow of refugees and Greek Army stragglers had increased. Artillery fire and bombing was to be page 42 heard all that day and night, and aircraft, believed to be British, were passing overhead throughout the day. Late in the afternoon, after the battle positions were occupied, 6 Brigade was told that it would be withdrawn to the Olympus Pass position that night or the next day. At 10.30 p.m. 25 Battalion received a warning order to move and a few hours later, at 2 a.m., 10 April, the withdrawal commenced, Katerini being reached after a most arduous 17-mile march at 8.40 a.m. ‘It was one of the worst the Battalion had experienced,’ said one man, ‘rough roads and a fast pace and many fell out.’
Five hours later the journey was continued in first-line and RMT vehicles over the steep and tortuous Olympus Pass to the village of Dholikhi, on the plain at the foot of the mountains, about 30 miles by road from Katerini.
Back at the Aliakmon position a covering force had been left. This consisted of the three carrier platoons of the battalions, 3 Company 27 MG Battalion, and 34 Anti-Tank Battery, all under Lieutenant-Colonel Duff7 of 7 Anti-Tank Regiment. This force remained till all other troops had withdrawn from the defensive position when, at about 4 a.m., it also withdrew. The Divisional Cavalry Regiment, however, maintained its watch on the Aliakmon River. A few hours later, fifteen minutes after 25 Battalion had reached Katerini, the commander of the German 2 Panzer Division in the Salonika area received an order: ‘Send out a strong recce force immediately over the Vardar towards Edessa, Verria (main axis of advance) and Katerini’, and, when asked when the main body could advance, replied that all bridges over and west of the Vardar had been destroyed and that he could not advance until they were repaired. As it happened, the foremost German troops did not reach Katerini till 2 p.m., 14 April.
The first day at Dholikhi was dull and bitterly cold and the men had a welcome rest. A very cold night followed and the morning of the 12th revealed fresh snow on the ranges above the camp as the battalion moved back up the pass for work on road improvements near Kokkinoplos, on the north-west shoulder of Mount Olympus, behind the position held by 5 Brigade. The roads generally required much improvement and the Greek population, consisting almost entirely of old men, women page 43 of all ages, and boys and girls, earned the respect and indeed the commiseration of the troops as they carried out essential maintenance. The elevation above sea level was over 3000 feet, with Mount Olympus (9571 feet) seven miles to the south-east, and the climate was severe for men who had spent some time in Egypt. The road to Kokkinoplos, where 25 Battalion was working, was extremely perilous at any time and snow the previous day made it much more so, the transport drivers earning high praise for their expert handling in such conditions.
Each evening the battalion returned to Dholikhi, but on the 14th it moved forward to the Ay Dhimitrios locality and took over the position just vacated by 26 Battalion, which on the previous day (Easter Sunday) had moved at the shortest notice to fill a gap between 4 Brigade at Servia and 19 (Australian) Brigade on its left. Twenty-fourth Battalion had also been moved, over extremely difficult country, to fill another gap between the left of 5 Brigade and the right of 16 (Australian) Brigade, which had taken up a position on the right of 4 Brigade. These movements formed the new defensive line stretching from 21 Battalion (on the right at Platamon on the coast), along 5 Brigade's front at Olympus Pass and 24 Battalion's new position to 16 (Australian) Brigade. But it was a very temporary affair as after a few hours 24 Battalion was recalled and a general withdrawal was impending.
The enemy advance into Yugoslavia and the early collapse of that country enabled the Germans to turn the left of the Allied line, while his advance to Salonika and across the Axios River directly threatened the Olympus passes. There was a serious risk that the Germans would reach Larisa, the important road and rail centre 30 miles south of Mount Olympus and on the main road to Athens, by an outflanking movement from the north and west and, as it subsequently developed, from the east also through the pass held by 21 Battalion.
The enemy was in close contact with the British at various points. On the afternoon of 10 April an attack was made against Mackay Force in position south-east of Florina (about 50 miles north-west of Olympus Pass), where it was guarding the route southwards towards Kozani and Servia behind the Allied positions on the left of the Aliakmon line. On the 13th the enemy was attacking the New Zealand Divisional Cavalry Regiment 25 miles north-east of the pass; the following day, on the withdrawal of the Divisional Cavalry, 21 Battalion was attacked at page 44 Platamon on the right, and on the same day an attack on 4 Brigade at Servia was repulsed with heavy enemy losses. Mackay Force had withdrawn a few hours earlier. It was obvious the enemy was pressing his advance with vigour, and that the British and Greeks had not sufficient force to hold it.
The New Zealand Division received orders to withdraw to Thermopylae, 100 air-miles to the south and about one-third more by road. Sixth Brigade with attached troops was to withdraw to Elasson, 25 miles to the south-west on the main road to Larisa, a further 25 miles to the south-east. The brigade was to hold a rearguard position at Elasson till the night 18–19 page 45 April. Fifth Brigade from Olympus Pass and 4 Brigade from Servia were to withdraw through 6 Brigade when ordered by New Zealand Division and go in stages to Molos, ten miles east of the Brallos Pass, via Larisa, Almiros and Lamia. The Divisional Cavalry Regiment was to form a rearguard and hold a position east of the junction of the Olympus Pass and Servia- Larisa road until 5 Brigade had passed through and 4 Brigade had cleared the junction.
Orders for the withdrawal were received on the night of the 14th and at 4 a.m. next day 25 Battalion left Olympus Pass and returned to Dholikhi, where it remained till dark. It then proceeded by MT to the position allotted to it on a ridge three miles south-west of Elasson. Just south of Elasson the main road forked into two branches, which joined again 12 miles to the south at Tirnavos and then ran south-east to Larisa. For three miles south of Elasson the two roads traversed level ground. The eastern road then continued to the south over a high pass by a steep and tortuous route till it reached the level ground again six miles south of Elasson, thence it ran along the Larisa plain to Tirnavos, skirting the high ground.
The western road was an easier but much longer route. Between the two roads was some steep country with peaks from 2200 to 2600 feet high, much of it so steep as to be virtually tank-proof. The covering position selected was on the high ground just south of the Elasson plain and extended for six miles. At the moment 6 Brigade had only 24 and 25 Battalions, both without their carrier platoons which were on an anti-parachute role under Divisional Headquarters. Attached troops were to include a field battery (or regiment if available), an anti-tank battery, a machine-gun company, a section of engineers and a field ambulance.
Twenty-fourth Battalion (less one company) on the right covered the eastern road and 25 Battalion (plus one company of 24 Battalion) was astride the western road. There was a gap of three miles between the two battalions. The field artillery was to take up a position near the western road and from there cover the whole brigade front, its tasks being the defile and bridge in Elasson, the flat ground south of the town, and protection of the left flank of 25 Battalion. There was no effective anti-tank obstacle on the western road so all the anti-tank guns were sited to cover that road, although one section (two guns) had initially been allotted to the eastern road to assist 24 Battalion. With the exception of one section allotted to 24 page 46 Battalion, 3 MG Company came under command of 25 Battalion, the forward slopes of the high ground in the gap between the two battalions being its main task. The engineers were given demolition tasks which included a culvert on the western road in front of 25 Battalion.
The situation on the flanks of the position was somewhat obscure. There were routes into Larisa both from the north-east and the west and the safety of 6 Brigade depended as much on the troops guarding those routes as upon the successful defence of its own position against attack from the north. Arrangements were therefore made for a troop of 25-pounders, covered by a carrier platoon when available, to guard the approach to Tirnavos from the north-east. Some safeguard against trouble from the west was to be provided by placing 26 Battalion in reserve at Dhomenikon behind the left of 25 Battalion when the former unit became available.
Next day, Wednesday, 16 April, 26 Battalion made its appearance after a particularly lengthy and very arduous march from an area west of 4 Brigade's position at Servia, 25 Battalion's transport meeting it en route to assist it back to Dhomenikon. Though it had not been in action against enemy ground forces it had experienced heavy air attacks and suffered considerable hardships. The carrier platoons of the battalions also returned the same day, rejoining their battalions with the exception of the platoon of 24 Battalion, which, leaving one section with its battalion, joined the troop of artillery at Tirnavos previously mentioned.
Another very welcome reinforcement was the artillery, the 2/3 Australian Field Regiment, 5 Field Regiment (less one troop), and one troop 64 Medium Regiment, Royal Artillery, taking up their allotted positions, though one battery (less one troop) of 5 Field Regiment was soon sent on to Larisa.
Heavy rain which fell nearly all day caused considerable discomfort but, on the other hand, greatly reduced enemy air activity which had been severe the previous day. In common with the other units, 25 Battalion concentrated on defensive works in its extensive position of 6000 to 7000 yards of front, which it held with all four rifle companies forward. These occupied company defensive localities on high ground overlooking the tiny villages of Stefanovounon (Tsinel Radosivia) and As (Kato) Ompa in front of D and C Companies and to the right front of B Company, while a similar village lay to the left front of B and A Companies. D Company (Hastie) was on page 47 the right with the hamlet of Velesnikon in its area; B Company (Smith) and A Company (George) were on a dominating hill west of the western road and overlooking, in addition to the villages referred to, a small stream in front of Koniste. C Company (Williams) was astride the road and B Company 24 Battalion, which was under command of 25 Battalion, was about a thousand yards behind with its left on the road. As stated, the battalion's front was a very wide one, but being a rearguard position it was required not for prolonged defence but to force the enemy to deploy against it and so cause delay. It was in this position that 25 Battalion at last was to undergo its baptism of fire.
All British forces (the term including United Kingdom, Australian, and New Zealand troops) from the forward areas had passed through the position by the night 17–18 April, with the exception of the Divisional Cavalry which, during the morning of the 18th, withdrew through Elasson and along the western road through 25 Battalion to take up a position covering the approaches from the west.
Following a dive-bomber attack on Elasson at 9 a.m. on 18 April, enemy tanks two hours later appeared in a defile just north of the village and were very effectively engaged by the medium artillery. Many enemy tanks and MT soon appeared and were heavily engaged by our artillery, one troop of Australian 25-pounders firing 2000 rounds (500 per gun) in the course of the afternoon. It was noticeable that even long-range fire from the 25-pounders had a strongly deterrent effect on the German tanks. During the afternoon, and especially as dusk approached, there was some apprehension of enemy movement from the east of 24 Battalion and to meet this possibility a troop of 25-pounders and the carriers of 26 Battalion were moved from the reserve position at Dhomenikon to guard the right flank of the brigade.
Throughout the afternoon the battalion's position had been fairly heavily shelled and enemy aircraft had joined in. ‘Heavy guns going off all round us,’ wrote Wakeling in his diary, ‘… not washed for 2 days and not shaved for 5 days. MGd from the air and 2 men brought in hit by MG from aircraft and knocked about considerably. A/c overhead all day and very disheartening not to have a plane of ours in the air for days while the Hun does as he likes. Heavy gunfire dropping all round us….’
The battalion had its first casualty when a man of A Company was hit on the arm by a rock hurled from a shell-burst, and page 48 its telephone line to Brigade Headquarters had been broken. Orders for the withdrawal had been issued, 24 Battalion moving first and 25 Battalion providing the rearguard, which consisted of C Company, carrier platoon, wireless van and the signal section, one troop of the Australian field regiment, one troop 7 Anti-Tank Regiment, and 7 MG Platoon, and was commanded by Major Williams. This rearguard covered the withdrawal of the battalion, 33 Anti-Tank Battery, and all the medium and field artillery, which withdrew in that order. In his report on the activities of the rearguard, Williams wrote:
‘1900 hours. Sent carrier platoon out to take over forward coy areas–one sec to D Coy area, one to B, and one to support C Coy astride the main road. Two troops of carriers from Div Cav reported to assist in covering C Coy during its march back to the MT—placed them on ridge previously held by reserve coy. Remainder of Div Cav (less one squadron) watching left rear south of Domenikon.
‘Ordered arty to maintain intermittent fire and carriers and forward platoons to fire flares and occasional bursts till times set down for their respective withdrawals. No determined attempt by enemy to come on by night though signs of movement on the other road, to the east…. 2230 hours. C Coy started to move back on foot to embussing area near Domenikon….’
Just after midnight (18–19 April) as the rearguard passed through Tirnavos, where it was joined by a section of carriers from 24 Battalion, the enemy was closing in on the village from the north-east. The bridge there was destroyed by our engineers and the rearguard, urged by Brigadier Barrowclough to make for Volos as quickly as possible, pressed on for Larisa. At 1.30 a.m. the rearguard passed through Larisa. ‘No sign of anyone,’ wrote Williams, ‘town burning. Enemy flares and desultory firing about 3 – 4 miles to NE—evidently from Peneios area where 21 Bn with two Aust Bns had been. 0430 hours. Very difficult driving along narrow swamp road towards Volos.’
The main body of 25 Battalion had embussed at 8.30 p.m. the previous evening, bound for a reserve position three miles south-east of Molos, via Tirnavos, Larisa, Volos, Lamia, and Molos, a journey of about 170 miles. South-east of Larisa the road became progressively worse. Recent rains had created a quagmire in several places and drivers and motor-cyclist despatch riders had a very trying journey until they reached a good tar-sealed surface some miles north of Molo.page 49
Volos was reached about dawn and so far the battalion had escaped the very severe air attacks experienced by those units which had made the journey by daylight, though aircraft occasionally passing overhead were a reminder of the danger daylight could bring.
Just prior to the withdrawal of 6 Brigade, Divisional Headquarters had arranged for the troops to occupy defensive positions in the vicinity of Volos for the day, to cover the withdrawal of the force from the Pinios Gorge. Accordingly 24 and 25 Battalions with their attached troops took up suitable positions, the former ten miles south-west of Volos and 25 Battalion about twelve miles to the north-west at Velestinon, where a secondary road turned southwards off the Larisa-Volos road and rejoined that road three miles south-west of 24 Battalion's position.
The head of the rearguard overtook the tail of the column north-west of Volos about dawn and occupied a rearguard position astride the road. There it collected stragglers from 21 Battalion and Australian battalions which had borne the brunt of heavy attacks by vastly superior enemy forces at Platamon and the Pinios Gorge north-east of Larisa. Trucks and other vehicles of 21 Battalion and the Australians, some guns of 5 Field Regiment, and a squadron of the Divisional Cavalry also appeared at the rearguard position and were directed towards Molos, still about 90 miles away, by a circuitous route skirting Oreoi Strait and Maliaic Gulf.
The enemy did not immediately follow the withdrawal and it was soon obvious that Williams's rearguard, with elements of the Divisional Cavalry, would be able to cover the remainder of the move. General Freyberg, who was present, therefore ordered 6 Brigade and attached troops to resume the march to Lamia and Molos as soon as practicable, to join the rest of the Division at the next defensive position.
Twenty-fifth Battalion accordingly moved off about noon, the rearguard continuing its protective role. About an hour and a half later, however, the rearguard came up with 24 Battalion, whose vehicles had gone on to Molos when that battalion had halted in the morning. While efforts were being made to get the vehicles back or secure others, 24 Battalion had started on foot. Major Williams therefore took up a perimeter position covering the battalion, with the Divisional Cavalry in position on hills to the north-west. Petrol was obtained from Lamia for a number of vehicles and at 6 p.m. Brigadier Barrowclough arrived with RMT vehicles. He directed page 50 Williams to take over the role of advanced guard ahead of 24 Battalion while the Divisional Cavalry would provide the rear-guard, and the column set off. Shortly afterwards it was machine-gunned from the air, losing two trucks and an anti-tank gun and suffering several casualties among anti-tank personnel. Darkness set in, making the drive to Lamia very trying. The advanced guard picketted the route near the Lamia junction with its carrier platoon, MMGs, and anti-tank guns, and, when the column had passed, followed across the Alamanas bridge and through 5 Brigade, then dispersing its sub-units. C Company and the carrier platoon rejoined 25 Battalion south-east of Molos just before dawn. The rearguard had performed an arduous duty with distinction.
Twenty-fifth Battalion had reached its bivouac area the previous evening. The creek bed in which it was situated was thickly covered with trees, providing excellent cover from air observation. There it rested until 21 April.
With the exception of a few stragglers and some remnants of 21 Battalion, the whole Division was now in the Molos area, preparing its defensive position on the right of the Thermopylae line. This extended along foothills from the village of Ay Trias, on the southern shore of the Maliaic Gulf, westward along the Molos-Lamia road to join the Australian right flank, which was astride the main Lamia-Athens road in the Brallos Pass. The Sperkhios River ran in front of the New Zealand position, the road from Molos to Lamia crossing it by a bridge, now demolished, in front of the left flank.
After several changes in plan, the position was organised with two brigades forward, 6 on the right and 5 on the left, 4 Brigade being in reserve near the right or eastern flank. The artillery of the Division had been reinforced by 2 Royal Horse Artillery Regiment (field artillery), 102 Anti-Tank Regiment, three troops of anti-aircraft guns, and 64 Medium Artillery Regiment.
Sixth Brigade's front extended for 6000 yards from the sea on the right to its junction with 5 Brigade, 24 Battalion being on the right, 25 on the left, and 26 in reserve immediately west of Molos. A secondary road from the Molos-Lamia road passed through Ay Trias and, crossing the Sperkhios River opposite the boundary between 24 and 25 Battalions, ran in a north-westerly direction towards Lamia. Behind the front of 25 Battalion south of the Molos-Lamia road the ground rose very steeply, about one in five, to the high range to the south.page 51
C Company (Williams) had first occupied a reserve position behind B Company but on the night of 22 – 23 April took over page 52 the position just vacated by 22 Battalion on the left of A Company. This change was due to the withdrawal of 5 Brigade, resulting from a decision, made known on 22 April, that the British forces were to evacuate Greece; meanwhile 6 Brigade was to hold the position. Some detachments of 5 Brigade were still holding their ground under command of 6 Brigade, three carrier platoons and two platoons of 23 Battalion covering the demolished Alamanas bridge on the left flank about 5000 yards north-west of 25 Battalion; two platoons of 22 Battalion occupied a flanking position a few hundred yards to the left-rear of C Company.
Within the position held by the battalion were numerous guns of the field regiments and the anti-tank regiment. One field regiment had an anti-tank role only and, together with neighbouring two-pounders, was to prove most effective. Also covering the brigade front and under command was 3 MG Company, the platoons being under the battalions, with 7 Platoon under 25 Battalion.
The Germans first made contact on the late afternoon of the 21st when two motor-cyclists rode up to the Alamanas bridge and were engaged by a carrier section there, one being killed and the other wounded. Maps and documents were secured indicating that the men belonged to a reconnaissance unit of 5 Panzer Division. Much enemy movement in the vicinity of Lamia was observed as the enemy built up his forces for an attack, and his air forces also were active. During the 22nd light enemy shelling fell on the New Zealand front and also on the Australians' sector where, in the early afternoon, German infantry were seen at the foot of the Brallos Pass. Although an immediate attack was expected, as had been experienced by 5 Brigade at Olympus and 4 Brigade at Servia, it did not occur, probably because of the delaying effect of the demolitions and traffic jams on the enemy supply system.
It had been anticipated, from General Freyberg downwards, that there would be no retreat from the Thermopylae position and the troops had in fact been so informed. Although 25 Battalion had been through only one minor action the men had been shelled, at Elasson, without being able to retaliate; they had had to leave two positions on which a good deal of hard work had been done; and above all, they had been threatened and harried from the air to their acute discomfort and resentment. Looking around them at Thermopylae they page 53 thought that here they had a strong position where they could meet the enemy on reasonably even terms, which was all they asked for. They had no fears as to the outcome.
It was with some astonishment and disappointment, therefore, that the men heard, in the mid-afternoon of 22 April, of the decision to leave Greece, but when they were told of the collapse of the Greek armies, which left the western road to Athens wide open to the Germans, they realised that no other course was possible.
During daylight on the 23rd, especially in the afternoon, enemy aircraft were busy machine-gunning the roads, and hostile artillery fire was directed at the battalion's area, chiefly at the gun positions. The German guns could not be located for some time and then they were found to be out of range of the New Zealand field artillery. Brigadier Miles8 (CRA) therefore had three medium guns brought forward to the vicinity of Molos and from there about nightfall engaged the enemy batteries. About four that afternoon enemy troops on cycles and motor-cycles appeared at the Alamanas bridge and about eighteen who had crossed the river were driven back by the detachments of 23 Battalion left there to watch the place.
During the afternoon it was decided that the 5 Brigade detachments on the left of 25 Battalion were to be withdrawn that night and that all field and anti-tank guns in front of the spur just east of the Thermopylae baths were to be brought back to positions in the vicinity of Ay Trias and Molos. As this left a troop of 25-pounders (which were in an anti-tank role) in front of the two-pounder anti-tank guns, four other two-pounders were brought up. As the withdrawals proceeded, 25 Battalion established a road block of disabled carriers and logs, covered by a two-pounder anti-tank gun, near a bridge about 1200 yards north of Battalion Headquarters. At dawn next day the block was removed.
In the late afternoon of the 23rd the battalion received orders to withdraw the following night. Early the next morning there was intermittent artillery fire by both sides and shortly after dawn a carrier patrol of 24 Battalion (the three battalions provided these patrols in turn) reported that the enemy had repaired a span of the Alamanas bridge and had a patrol south page 54 of the river. Accurate artillery fire was directed at the bridge and was continued throughout the morning on this and other targets, except during air attacks on the gun positions, which although frequently dive-bombed and machine-gunned, appeared to suffer no damage.
Artillery fire from both sides and enemy air attacks increased considerably during the morning, the latter causing the loss of one carrier. ‘It was during that morning,’ wrote Sherlock,9 the carrier officer, ‘that one of the carriers that had occasion to move down to the road was destroyed by aircraft machine-gun fire. Tracer bullets had hit the petrol tanks and the carrier burst into flames. The crew escaped injury.’
The general situation and the increased enemy activity made it evident that an attack would take place very shortly, and in fact it had been ordered for that day. The German orders for the 24th directed that an armoured force of 5 Panzer Division that morning ‘will attack astride the Lamia-Thebes road with the top of Thermopylae Pass10 as its first objective. After reaching this objective a force is to move on Molos along the northern edge of the mountains…. 8 Air Corps will support the attack from 0630 hours by attacks on known gun positions and enemy troop concentrations…. The main body of 6 Mm Div will advance via Lamia-Kutsia-Molos’, that is, along the road covered by 25 Battalion.
In a later description of the situation the Germans wrote: ‘The English were making use of their last chance for a real defence on the classical ground of Thermopylae. They had blocked and demolished the roads leading south, sited strong rearguards in this most favourable position, and held up the pursuing motorised troops of the Pz divisions since the morning of 21 April. On the right flank [i.e., west of 25 Battalion, up the main Lamia-Athens road through the Brallos Pass] … the main factor holding up the attack was the difficult terrain, but on the left, between the north slopes of Thermopylae and the Gulf of Lamia, the main factor was the great defensive fire power of the entrenched enemy.’
Most of the enemy effort in the morning was directed against the Australians holding the Brallos Pass, but with little success there. A troop of tanks was then diverted to push through alone to Molos, it ‘not being expected that the enemy will defend this page 55 road strongly’. The troop soon reported ‘Unexpected and extremely heavy opposition. Artillery firing like mad. Road block removed. Danger of mines.’
At 11 a.m. three tanks rounding a bluff two to three miles west of C Company were engaged by our artillery, one being disabled while the other two withdrew. These were the tanks diverted from the Brallos Pass attack and not a detachment, as was first suspected, that had crossed the Sperkhios by the Alamanas bridge or between there and the sea. Shortly after midday, when Colonel Wilder was visiting C Company headquarters, there was much air action up and down the road and against the gun positions for about an hour, followed by increased artillery fire by both sides and a good deal of area bombing and machine-gunning by aircraft.
At 2 p.m. tanks were reported on the eastern side of Salt Springs, 6000 yards away, one tank and possibly another being hit by our artillery fire and four retiring behind the aqueduct there. Half an hour later dive-bombing and machine-gun fire from the air became most intense. This was a prelude to an advance by enemy tanks and lorry-borne infantry, preceded by sixty to eighty motor-cyclists, down the straight road from the west towards C Company; a few minutes later a dozen ordinary cyclists near 14 Platoon of C Company were fired on. The attack did not come on but it was not long before enemy infantry on higher ground south-west of C Company were firing down the ridge on the company's positions. Two sections of 14 Platoon were withdrawn to the vicinity of Company Headquarters, where they took up a position in a gap between C and A Companies. About this time, a little after 3 p.m., Colonel Wilder was giving the company commanders their orders for disengaging and withdrawing that night, in accordance with the evacuation plan, though Major Williams could not attend on account of the threat to C Company.
The two forward platoons of C Company, 15 and 13, kept the enemy pinned down 200 yards away by rifle and Bren-gun fire while the 3-inch mortars maintained a steady fire on the scrub-covered area which sheltered them. The enemy continued to infiltrate on the high ground behind the left of C Company, ground which 7 MG Platoon could not engage because of an intervening ridge. About 4.30 Major Satterthwaite, after telephone discussions with Williams and George (A Company), instructed C Company to withdraw and report to Major George; it was to reorganise behind A Company headquarters and the page 56 two companies were then to hold a defensive position. Instructions were sent to 13 and 15 Platoons and the two forward sections of 14 Platoon by Private Common,11 who volunteered to take a message. The citation for the Military Medal he was awarded explains the situation:
‘On the 24th April, 1941, at Molos, when the coy was almost surrounded and under intense fire, volunteers were called for to take an order for the withdrawal to the fwd pls. Pte Common immediately volunteered, and owing to his dash and daring, the withdrawal was accomplished. Pte Common subsequently did good work in rallying men under fire and volunteered again to wait behind to destroy a truck, a task which he also successfully accomplished.’
The two platoons were in a difficult position with continuous machine-gun fire forcing them to use the lower slopes near the road. Some of 14 Platoon's pits had been occupied by the enemy and fourteen tanks were on the road below A Company, resulting in some of the men being caught by the shortened artillery fire directed against the tanks and in a number of men being cut off. Casualties from enemy machine-gun and rifle fire also occurred. Many of the men were forced to take cover but later were able to get back.
The enemy continued to move along the high ground and soon A Company came under this flanking and reverse fire, its forward No. 9 Platoon also coming under the artillery fire directed at the tanks. No. 7 Section of the platoon fired on the tanks with its anti-tank rifle, only to receive overwhelming retaliation. The platoon was forced to withdraw and was fortunate to get back to a new position below A Company headquarters. To meet the threat from the high ground, 7 Platoon moved two Brens higher up the ridge and a little later Major George ordered a section of 8 Platoon to move higher up also to cover the flank and rear of his company. The absence of reserves on the high ground from which they could anticipate and prevent or delay enemy outflanking movements had created a dangerous situation.
The position at this stage and subsequently has been dealt with in detail in a battalion report:
‘By 1700 to 1715 hours C Coy had fallen back through A Coy positions, moving between Nos 7 & 9 Pls. Before withdrawing a number of C Coy men were seen to gather under a tree where page 57 they became a good target as they moved back in bunches and some men were seen to be hit. At 1710 hrs Sgt Winter12 (No 9 PI) encountered Major Williams who was directed to A Coy HQ and then, on moving forward to make a recce, encountered some two secs of C Coy and endeavoured to indicate to them the best line of withdrawal to higher ground. Cpl Hale Williams13 (who was wounded in the leg) took his section up the spur and Cpl Connor's14 section moved towards the road, where, it is believed, they were fired on by the tanks. At 1715 hrs 14 tanks had passed along the road in front of A Coy's area…. Three lorries of enemy infantry debussed opposite No 9 pl's original positions at about 1730 hrs. At this time B Coy withdrew the left fwd pl (No 12) to higher ground in its rear to deal with the threat on the left flank and to protect the rear of the other two pls. At the same time the centre pl (No. 11) was ordered to place its centre section in a posn to watch the rear and the position vacated by the left platoon….in the meantime most of 13 and 15 pls crossed the creek and were working their way up ridge near A Coy's right pl (No 9). From 1710 to 1740 hrs remainder of coy (C) worked their way up through scrub under heavy MG fire and sustained heavy casualties.
‘Meanwhile several sections to avoid MG fire had gone down ridge to near road where they came under heavy fire from tanks. At this stage our Arty concentrated on road to right of A Coy and many of C Coy men were caught between Arty and enemy MG fire….A few men only found their way to A Coy HQ.
‘Tanks were seen by D Coy for the first time about 1715 hrs. There were four and a fifth one also appeared but only for a few minutes, in front of B Coy area. Of the four, two were hit. Later two more appeared, one getting well through before being stopped. The second tank, in the opinion of one of D Coy sgts., was stopped by A/TK rifle fire damaging the tracks. Shortly after 1700 hrs D Coy was subjected to MG fire from the high ground on their left. Also at this time, some of the men of the forward coys, presumably C, came through D Coy lines. Most of these men were wounded.
‘By 1800 hrs the two secs of No 9 pl, who had moved back earlier, fell further back and were then placed in position at page 58 A Coy HQ. Some of C Coy personnel had also been collected and placed in posn to cover the rear of the spur on which A Coy HQ was situated, where some enemy infantry, who had got out of the tanks, were endeavouring to get behind this position. At 1830 hrs B Coy were heavily shelled. Enemy MG fire was being directed on to occupied areas from the high ground to the rear. Capt Armstrong15 advised Bn HQ accordingly and it was agreed it would be wise to reform the coy front. This was done immediately by withdrawing the centre pl (No 11) to a posn about 200 yards south of the right pl (No 10) and withdrawing the left pl to a posn about 100 yds south of the centre pl. This gave B Coy a new line facing almost due west. (The Coy was previously facing almost due north.) At this stage B Coy HQ was moved back to a position immediately east of the junction between the centre and left pls. Wire was reeled and communication was re-established with Bn HQ. Enemy tanks were reported to be proceeding round the road and two were seen moving back towards the bridge near the track leading to Bn HQ. These tanks were heavily shelled and were stopped, both tanks burning fiercely.
‘1900 hrs. At this time No 5 sec of No 8 pl (A Coy) was moved still higher up the ridge into some ruins which the enemy were approaching and our artillery opened up on this area at the same time. The shelling was ceased on receipt of advice that A Coy were occupying the buildings. About 60/70 had been seen approaching the posn. Phone communication with the Bren carriers established that they had moved up also at this stage to cover left flank. Our artillery also opened up on the forward slope of the ridge previously held by C Coy and now in occupation by the enemy who had debussed from lorries in that vicinity…. Heavy fire from enemy MG positions was directed on to the left pl (No. 12, B Coy) and on account of the setting sun it was impossible to locate these positions. The right and centre pls (Nos. 10 and 11) of B Coy were being continuously shelled by what appeared to be mortars and 2-pounders, presumably by tanks further forward in front of area vacated by B Coy's left pl (No. 12). At 1930 hrs OC C Coy (Major Williams), Lieuts Witters16 and McLeay17 (both C Coy) page 59 and two or three men from C Coy came back to B Coy area. These two subalterns remained with the left pl of B Coy and assisted in re-organising C Coy men to help hold this posn. Shortly after this Sgt Brown18 of A Coy came in through the left pl of B Coy with about 30 men. 2/Lt Morris 19 who showed great coolness under fire, placed them in position on his (Morris's) left flank (of 10 pl). 2/Lt Morris reported that Sgt Brown showed both initiative and courage in controlling his men and getting them into position under fire and also that this NCO went forward again in an attempt to collect more of his Coy personnel….
‘A Coy reported that at about 2000 hrs … voices of enemy who had penetrated through the bush below their HQ were heard, and when they had advanced up to this position they were dealt with by hand grenades, rifle fire, and a brief but decisive bayonet sortie. The enemy's retirement provided A Coy with an opportunity to disengage and commence to withdraw and at approx 2000/2030 orders were given to that effect. A Coy moved back steadily and the three known wounded were brought back to the RAP. The withdrawal was covered by LMGs leap-frogging from ridge to ridge. On reaching B Coy area … the two coys joined forces and moved through D Coy at 2050 hrs. No. 7 pl withdrew through Bn HQ and was then given the task of covering the gully in which Bn HQ was situated.’
At 8.15 p.m. B Company (Armstrong20 had reported that the enemy was working round its left flank and that it was under heavy machine-gun fire from that direction. The company was ordered to withdraw by platoons, at five to ten minutes' intervals, to a ridge farther back. Captain Armstrong with his headquarters withdrew to D Company headquarters, where about the same time Majors George (A Coy) and Williams (C Coy) with their men and the left platoon of B Company also arrived. The men were placed in a small valley under cover and after a conference of the company commanders it was decided that, as darkness was falling, it was advisable to push back with everyone as soon as possible, with D Company holding on for another fifteen minutes. The withdr page 60 ceeded across country to the bridge north of Battalion Headquarters and, after a short delay, the troops were embussed and taken to Molos, where a convoy was joined.
Some of C Company's vehicles which had been sent forward to pick up the men ran into trouble. Although they were warned, they went on too far with the object of saving the men further exertion and ran into the enemy. ‘Suddenly 4 English lorries, completely ignorant of the situation, came round the bend,’ said a German account of the incident. ‘At the sight of our tanks they jammed on their brakes and stopped a few yards away. Our machine guns shattered their windscreens. Some of their occupants fled into the darkness, falling over themselves in their haste. What did our men care that the Tommies were still all around? By the greatest of good luck they found in the lorries canned fruit, beautiful juicy pears. We were thirsty. Our throats were parched. How long had we been fighting?’
The carrier platoon also found itself in serious trouble, which Second-Lieutenant Sherlock describes:
‘The carrier platoon were ordered to move at 2050 hrs night 24/25 April and to move down from the high ground to the road and thence to the bridge. The German tank that had been put out of action just short of the bridge was at that time burning furiously. Knowing that the only way through for him was the road, he [Sherlock] instructed his driver to go straight through the flames that enveloped the road. This was done. He looked back and saw his platoon truck and remaining carrier come through also. At this time the party were only about a hundred yards from the bridge. As he turned round to look to his front again, he was fired on by anti-tank guns and LMGs. The first 2-lb shell passed through the front of his own vehicle. Almost at the same time the platoon truck and also the other carrier was hit…. The casualties were:-Seven wounded, three killed, and one unaccounted for. One of the seven wounded has since died while P.O.W. All wounded were brought back to a Dressing Station and were eventually taken P.O.W.’
It was all most unfortunate and was due to the confusion of battle. When Sherlock's party emerged suddenly through the flames and smoke, the anti-tank gunners and machine-gunners naturally thought they were the enemy and opened fire instantly. Sherlock thought that the Germans had penetrated to the bridge page 61 and returned the fire with a Bren. He then ordered the men to abandon the vehicles and crawled along a ditch to identify his assailants. After a while the password was accepted.
Apart from machine-gun fire from the high ground on the left, between 8 and 9 p.m., D Company (Hastie) was not troubled, the enemy making no attempt to come forward in the dusk. The company kept continuous touch with 24 Battalion. Two forward sections withdrew to Company Headquarters about 9 p.m. while the third section held the vicinity of a track and road junction on the right of D Company's position. About half an hour later, under instructions from Battalion Headquarters, two sections were sent to it down near the road to where the headquarters had withdrawn. A few minutes after this, D Company received orders to hold its position until 10.30 p.m. No. 18 Platoon (Handyside), however, through some misunderstanding, withdrew immediately, together with two sections of 16 Platoon, to Battalion Headquarters, the two sections being sent back to the company.
At 10.30 p.m. D Company withdrew without difficulty and the battalion had successfully disengaged. An NCO riding on the last truck reported to 26 Battalion, which, together with artillery and two ambulances, was providing the rearguard for the journey southwards, that 25 Battalion was clear of the battle area. Two detachments of A Company, who had arrived at the artillery lines at the rear of Battalion Headquarters about 9 p.m., were taken out in the artillery transport. Second-Lieutenant Armour,21 commanding 8 Platoon of A Company, was not so fortunate. He was cut off, but although he evaded the Germans, he could not overtake the battalion and was at large in Greece for several months before being captured.
It will be noted that the weight of the German attack on the New Zealand position fell almost entirely on 25 Battalion and its supporting arms. This was due to two causes: the withdrawal of 5 Brigade from its position between the left of 25 Battalion and the right of the Australians, and the fact that 6 Brigade was deployed facing north with the main road from Lamia entering the brigade's position through its left flank. The gap created by the withdrawal of 5 Brigade left the way wide open for the enemy to penetrate to the high ground to the south, from which he could turn east against and behind the left of the battalion.page 62
The real danger to the position was the German infantry, not the tanks. The enemy tanks had only one feasible line of advance, that is, along or near the road, and a very formidable anti-tank defence was established by the siting of many of the 25-pounders in an anti-tank role to back up the anti-tank guns. With reasonable infantry strength in position to meet enemy infantry advancing along the line of the road and the slopes south of it in support of their tanks, the defence of the road could be regarded as secure for a short term, especially as 24 and 26 Battalions were nearby.
But an enemy advance eastwards along the high ground behind 25 Battalion was a very different matter. Such an advance would immediately render untenable both 25 Battalion's position, including the anti-tank defences within or near it, and the successive artillery positions to the east. The refusal of 25 Battalion's left flank so that it reached well back on the high ground, together with fighting patrols beyond it to conceal the flank, would have increased the security of the battalion and considerably delayed the enemy. If, in addition, a reserve company from 26 Battalion could have supported the refused flank it would have been most valuable. In mountainous areas reserves and patrols on high ground have the great advantage that they can move downhill to counter an enemy moving uphill.
In considering this action of 6 Brigade in general and of 25 Battalion in particular, it must be remembered that it was a rearguard position, to be held for a limited period and therefore permitting dispositions which could not be accepted for normal defence. But although a period for holding the position may be stated, it cannot be taken for granted that that period may not be extended, which was in fact the case in Greece with the rear-guard actions at Servia and Kriekouki. Had 25 Battalion been required to hold its position for a further twenty-four hours the situation could have been very difficult. There was fortunately no question of that, however. But a wide, outflanking movement to cut the brigade's withdrawal route east of Molos would probably have done so by the evening of the 25th.
Caught at some disadvantage, 25 Battalion reacted well, fought stubbornly, and readjusted its dispositions so as firmly to hold the enemy. The Germans were unable to break the defence along the line of the road and were held to some extent along the high ground in rear of the battalion, or on its left when it changed front. The British campaign history describes the battle briefly:page 63
‘On the 24th there was an artillery duel lasting until the middle of the afternoon and culminating in an attack on the 6th New Zealand Brigade at Molos by infantry and tanks of the 6th Mountain and 5th Panzer Divisions. The weight fell on 25th New Zealand Battalion, which stood firm, dealt with the German infantry, and enabled the artillery to destroy about fourteen tanks. At 9 p.m. the action was over and 6th New Zealand Brigade was able to start its withdrawal as intended.’
A controversy arose amongst the Germans as to the parts played respectively by the infantry and the tanks, arising from the award of a decoration to an infantry officer and from newspaper reports neglecting to mention the part played by the tanks. The following extracts from detailed enemy reports on the action give some indication of the enemy's plan and of his difficulties, and at the same time are a tribute to the staunch defence put up by the battalion and its supporting arms, especially the artillery. (German time was one hour ahead of British.)
‘0900 hrs. Baacke Gp (of 6 Mtn Div) ordered to advance … and attack Molos. 112 Recce Unit was to follow immediately behind…. 1200 hrs. Baacke Gp and 112 Recce Unit moved off…. the terrain difficulties (deep gullies, steep hillsides on the right and swamps on both sides of the road) made this attack mainly an infantry one and in fact one for mountain troops…. 1515 hrs. The advance guard made the first enemy contact 1 km west of Weinberg. An attack was mounted from the move, with 2 companies forward. It gained 300 metres and was then halted by heavy opposition and accurate shellfire.
‘1530 hrs. 1/31 Pz Coy with a heavy infantry gun platoon and a battery of AA guns reached Kutsia and stopped there because of the heavy shelling east of it. The company commander (Capt Prince von Schoenburg) planned to take advantage of any pause in the firing to push the company forward against the enemy positions at Molos and roll them up. III/141 Mtn Regt was ordered forward at 1550 hrs….
‘1630 hrs. 2 guns of 61 AA Bty went into position at Kutsia and opened fire on the enemy guns located west of Molos. At the same time the attacking tanks began to advance. This attack was held up south of Trias by accurate concentrated shelling from fresh enemy batteries and by A Tk guns. The country was most unfavourable—steep hills to the right of the road and swamp to the left—and the leading platoon of 1/61 AA Bty could not take up firing positions. Neither could supporting page 64 fire be opened from the road, as this part of the road went up a rise and was blocked by our tanks, which could not leave the road and some of which had been knocked out by the enemy. 8 heavy tanks were burning. Soon afterwards the other platoon of 61 AA Bty had to cease fire as its targets were no longer visible due to the smoke from the burning tanks and the enemy barrage. Also it could not be observed where the foremost attacking troops of 6 Mtn Div had got to. Baacke Gp was having hard fighting and gaining ground slowly. The enemy was being forced farther and farther back to his main positions at Molos. Until 1900 hrs his shellfire continued undiminished. At dusk our troops reached the ridge west of Aj Trias. Not until then did an 88mm bty in position at Stylis [seven miles north of Molos, on the northern shore] open fire in support of the advance guard which had been fighting hard since 1600 hrs in urgent need of support. If arty had been sited in the Stylis area in plenty of time during the previous few days it could have shot the enemy batteries at Molos (6 batteries!) out of their positions from the flank…. The GSO 1 (1900 hrs) wirelessed … to Corps HQ that the cycle battalion was attacking Molos in company with tanks. … At 2000 hrs the advance guard renewed its attack from the area west of Aj Trias and by 2100 hrs had fought its way on to the ridge east of it. [Note: should be ‘west’]….
‘2100 hrs. The commander of 111/141 received detailed orders … to attack on 25 April via … Mendenitsa [five miles south west of Molos] to Kumnina [six miles south-east of Molos. This was the wide outflanking movement referred to earlier.]
‘2230 hrs. Divisional orders for the continuation of the attack on 25 Apr sent to formations. … [A mountain regt and an arty regt were also ordered to move forward to the Koutseki area about six miles south of Lamia by 4 and 5 a.m. respectively.] During the evening of 24 April the enemy west of Molos defended his positions fiercely against our advance guard. The latter cooperated with the tanks and after hard fighting reached the area west and south of Aj Trias. Early on 25 Apr 6 Mtn Div was to continue the attack east by sending troops over the hills south of the road towards Molos. 2330 hrs. Wireless message to 18 Corps that the advance guard had launched an attack on Molos at 2200 hrs. Since 1900 the enemy shelling had been decreasing and at 2300 hours it stopped altogether. About 2100 hrs the advance guard attack was stopped in error by the commander of the armoured unit [this page 65 was denied by the commander referred to]. The advance guard commander was contacted and the error rectified and so the attack on Molos continued at 2200 hrs against weakening resistance. The tanks were asked to take part in the night thrust but their commander refused.
‘Fri 25 Apr 41. 0130 hrs. The attack reached the ridge west of Molos…. 0250 hrs: 2/Lt Elsnitz's MC platoon … reached Molos, after having overtaken some Pz units and found troops of the advance guard moving on from there…. The 6 Mtn Div troops had pushed forward energetically at 2300 hrs, taken the enemy from the flank about midnight, and attacked him so vigorously that he was compelled to evacuate Molos under cover of night with heavy losses and abandoning a large quan tity of equipment. The following extract is from 1/61 AA Bty's report on the action: “The victory at Thermopylae is to be ascribed to 6 Mtn Div, as our tank attack was halted by the enemy fire”.’
So much, then, for the infantry version which, it will be observed, gives no credit for the ‘victory’ to the planned British withdrawal, which was successfully accomplished. Now for the German armour's version, subsequent to the despatch of the troop of tanks from the Brallos Pass attack to push through to Molos, which has already been mentioned:
‘24 Apr 41…. about midday the company [No. 1 Coy, Capt Prince von Schoenburg, 1/31 Pz Regt] was diverted [from Brallos Pass] east along the road to Molos. Here a platoon of 1 Coy sent ahead to recce a flank was halted by terrific shellfire. This fire continued unabated but 1 Coy pushed forward yard by yard to a point 1½ km from Molos. Losses were heavy— there was not a single heavy tank (37-, 50-, or 75-mm) in going order; some of them were brewed up, and others had severe track or mechanical damage, and there were only two able to shoot. 1 Coy could not carry on alone, and about 1900 hours the rest of the unit, which had been waiting at the foot of the pass, was sent up to exploit.
‘About 2100 hrs the unit reached the positions 1 Coy was holding so gallantly and during the night assembled for an attack at first light. 25 Apr 41. During the night the commander discussed with the leader of the mountain division's advance guard an attack on Molos which the latter was mounting at 0230 hrs. Patrols of mtn tps went out and reported at 0300 hrs that Molos and its vicinity were clear. 1 Coy's relentless advance page 66 and the arrival of the rest of the unit (which had been observed by the English) had caused the enemy to abandon his excellent positions under cover of darkness and flee towards Thebes.’
This official report was supported by a very lively appendix of which, unfortunately, there is space for only a few extracts:
‘… a new attack was ordered. Push through to Molos and destroy the artillery. The leading tanks assembled behind a mountain ridge. The enemy had seen us. Naturally he greeted us with heavy shellfire. The shells were bursting damned close. … While this was going on, the boss sitting a little aside was weighing up the chances….He spoke very calmly….Forward! The coy advances without its attached troops. It is going to meet an enemy superior in numbers … and our drivers—they drive like the devil.
‘With Lieut Wetstein's platoon leading, 19 tanks in file charged along the yellowish country road. The sun shone down hot on the steel. We had long ago taken off our coats…. Ahead of us the first shells burst on the road … we could not deploy. On our right the hills rose 800 metres, and on our left stretched the dreaded Thermopylae swamp. We had to push on, go on, do anything but stop. Again and again the tanks were shaken as by giant fists. The drivers involuntarily pulled their heads a few inches back from their driving slits…. The shells screamed more and more madly into the middle of the attacking company.
‘In the shallow ditches our forward infantry, who a few hours before had been halted here, lay pressed into the ground. They could not do any more on their own. Suddenly we came under fire from 6 or 8 guns. Without halting we swung our turrets round to the right and answered the fire with great effect. Our guns fired as rapidly as they could and our 50-mm tank shells spread death and destruction. We were still moving. We must get through!
‘But at the next curve all hell broke loose. Shells burst on all sides, and several machine guns chattered. A few Tommies ran across the road and disappeared in the thick scrub. A heavy tank was hit direct. Enemy anti-tank guns! A flash of flame shot from the petrol tank and in a few seconds the tank was ablaze. Thank God the crew jumped out and made for the nearest cover. A few yards farther on a light tank had run into the hillside. Nothing moved round it. Its abandoned machine guns stuck straight up. In its hull was a hole the size of a plate, and its tracks hung in shreds from the driving sprocket.page 67
‘In the middle of the road sat three other tanks, all on fire. Machine gun bullets whistled through the air in thousands. Shellbursts tore the steel bodies apart. The leading tank was still burning and two others were hurled back with serious damage. Where was the boss? Wireless communications were out and in the headphones only fragments of questions and orders could be heard….
‘Shell and anti-tank fire, altogether about 40 guns performed a danse macabre.
‘Forward where the boss was, the situation was grave. Prince Schoenburg had already burst through the enemy's main gun positions, but his tank had been immobilised and he was defending himself hard. Behind him was his faithful paladin, Sjt Maj Nagel, supporting him….
‘The deadly anti-tank shells whistled only a few centimetres over the turrets of these two forward tanks. When would we be hit? When would the English counter-attack? When would reinforcements arrive? The company was completely annihilated. Did it not seem useless to stay there? “I will not think of withdrawing,” cried the boss into the microphone. Fight on. Shell after shell sped from our gun and success was not long in coming…. Help arrived in the shape of our heavy self propelled infantry guns. With incomparable resolution these giants charged the enemy. Their effect was absolutely decisive. From all sides the wounded dragged themselves towards the doctor who began his healing work in the middle of the terrific fire. Friend and foe received first aid. And there were many in dire need of it. Dr Preiss did miracles at the risk of his life. … It must have been almost midnight. Verey lights went up, a few pistols cracked, here and there a rifle shot echoed among the scrub. The battle was over.’
Meanwhile on 22 April 4 Brigade had withdrawn to take up a covering position eight miles south of Thebes, a small town 50 miles to the south-east (but 80 miles by road). Fifth Brigade had gone the same day and, after resting in concealment 15 miles south-east of Molos during daylight the next day, had reached its embarkation beach at Porto Rafti, 20 miles south east of Athens, by dawn on the 24th.
Twenty-fifth Battalion joined the 6 Brigade convoy at Molos about 11.30 p.m. on the 24th and a little after dawn on Anzac Day reached the small village of Oinoi, immediately behind 4 Brigade's covering position. In his diary, Wakeling describes his last day in the Molos position and the withdrawal:page 68
‘Apr 24. Aircraft hammered us all day—dive bombing and MG. Had a poor night's rest as everyone's nerves on edge and an ominous lull of uncertainty still hanging around. Dive bombers still active on the roads and this waiting no good. The Battalion in bloody action to-day and several chaps killed that I know … 14 Hun tanks burnt and hundreds of troops killed, some in a bayonet charge. Leaving to-night. Apr 25. What a night—shelled all the afternoon and as we were pulling out at 9.30, shells falling all around. Travelled all night…. For the first few hours a terrible uncertainty as to whether we should get out or not. Driving past quite close to our big guns for the first five miles and the noise deafening. Lots of wounded about this morning but all brave chaps and still cracking jokes. Camped for breakfast in a wood somewhere near Athens (twenty miles to the south-east). Moved on again at 10 p.m….
A well-wooded area provided ideal concealment for the very tired battalion during the daylight hours of the 25th, though Colonel Wilder and his staff were busy reconnoitring beaches and, owing to alterations due to enemy action, the Corinth Canal area through which 6 Brigade was now to pass.
It was first intended that after crossing the Canal into the Peloponnese, the troops would again rest in concealment during the daylight hours of 26 April, but enemy landings on the northern coast of the peninsula made it necessary to push on, 70 miles to the south-west, in case the route to the beach was cut. Defensive positions covering the roads north-west and south-west of Tripolis, an important road and rail centre, were to be occupied. Moving at dusk on the 25th and picking up the battalion commanders and their staffs at the Corinth Canal, the brigade pressed on for 40 miles through the town of Argos, 25 Battalion going under cover for the daylight hours seven miles farther on in the vicinity of Miloi. This village, on the Gulf of Argolis, is at the foot of a high mountain range which is crossed by the road to Tripolis, 25 miles distant, the road reaching a height of 2600 feet and then descending about 400 feet to the plain on which Tripolis is situated.
If the whole brigade could not reach Tripolis, detachments at least were required to block the roads that day, 26 April. Two rifle companies each from 24 and 25 Battalions were there fore ordered to Tripolis, a disagreeable duty by day as there were certain to be air attacks on the way, though these were rarely very effective in mountainous country. The orders had scarcely been issued when they were amended, a report having page 69 been received that enemy parachutists had landed at the Corinth Canal. This was a very serious matter as 4 Brigade, still holding its covering position to the south of Thebes, about 60 miles by road to the north-east of the Canal, was to cross it that night.
Sixth Brigade was ordered to send two rifle companies to assist the defenders of the Canal area and two companies to occupy defensive positions north of Argos. Twenty-sixth Bat talion was to undertake these tasks, which were likely to be very difficult in the absence of any supporting arms and in the face of severe air attacks. Sixth Brigade was also ordered to have a complete battalion in reserve near Miloi and 25 Battalion, detailed for the duty, occupied a defensive position between the village and the mountains immediately to the west. Twenty fourth Battalion was to undertake the original task of blocking the roads at Tripolis.
There was a great deal of enemy air activity after dawn and 26 Battalion was under heavy air attack on its way towards the Canal. It encountered the enemy in a strong defensive position a few miles south of Corinth and was preparing an attack when it was ordered to break off the engagement and cover the town of Argos and the port of Navplion, from which large numbers of troops, including some New Zealand nurses, were to be embarked that night. The change in role for 26 Battalion was due to information that the Canal bridge had been destroyed. It was therefore impossible for 4 Brigade to cross, and so the reason for 26 Battalion's task, which was to help 4 Brigade to cut its way through, had gone. (After considerable difficulty in getting signal communication with 4 Brigade, a period of acute anxiety for General Freyberg, a message was sent through 1 Armoured Brigade covering the beaches east of Athens. Fourth Brigade had no difficulty in withdrawing to those beaches and embarking the following night, 27 – 28 April.)
In the meantime 24 Battalion had reached Tripolis and was covering the roads as ordered. There was little information regarding the German forces in the Peloponnese but they were clearly in a position to threaten, not only Tripolis, but also the southern embarkation ports. The plan was for 6 Brigade to embark at Monemvasia in the south-east of the Peloponnese, 90 air-miles south of the Corinth Canal. No troops had hitherto embarked from this place, which was about 90 miles from Tripolis by very tortuous roads over several mountain ranges, and was difficult for the enemy land forces to reach. It was also furthest removed from the nearest German airfields.page 70
It was impossible for the whole brigade to cover the distance in one night. Part, therefore, would commence withdrawing that night; the brigade would remain in concealment during daylight on the 27th, move to the Monemvasia area that night, keep under cover till nightfall on the 28th, and then embark.
Twenty-sixth Battalion from its covering position near Argos moved at dusk on the 26th and, passing through 25 Battalion's position at Miloi, crossed the range to the low valleys near Tripolis. The same night 25 Battalion moved to the top of the pass on the Miloi-Tripolis road and held a position there on the 27th, while 24 Battalion remained near Tripolis. These dispositions protected the brigade from an enemy advance from the Canal, and the route through Tripolis was guarded, while 26 Battalion in a central situation provided a reserve for either battalion.
During daylight on the 27th enemy aircraft attacked any movement on the roads, but the troops, being under cover, were not seriously interfered with. The journey to Monemvasia after dark was the vital move. The nature of the country made it slow and difficult and there would be barely sufficient hours of darkness to complete the journey. Everyone was warned to avoid traffic blocks and men were stationed at road junctions to prevent vehicles taking the wrong road. That the latter precaution was necessary had been shown the previous day, when two trucks carrying men of D Company to the reserve position near Miloi missed a turn-off and travelled on to Tripolis, pursued in a platoon truck by Captain Morrison22 and Company Sergeant-Major Daly.23 One truck was turned back but the other, under Corporal Jack Jarvis,24 could not be found and reached Kalamata, where, together with large numbers of British troops awaiting embarkation, the men were captured by the Germans.
Twenty-fifth Battalion had the most difficult task in the impending move. Its vehicles, sheltering on the plain of Tri polis, had to return up the narrow, winding road to the top of the pass and there turn. When the troops were aboard the vehicles were to return down the pass, cross the plain to Tripolis, and then take the road southwards via Sparta to Monemvasia. It was unsafe for the transport to move before page 71 9 p.m. and the column was required to clear Tripolis on the return journey by midnight in order to give 24 Battalion time to complete its journey before daylight on the 28th. If this were not achieved, 24 Battalion would cover only part of the distance and, lying hidden during daylight, would be beyond support from the rest of the brigade if attacked, or the enemy might cut the road beyond it.
All ranks of 25 Battalion were required to be on the alert to avoid the slightest waste of time and to co-operate in speeding the battalion on its way. Brigadier Barrowclough and his staff recognised that time was all too short.
Twenty-fourth Battalion concentrated in Tripolis and, together with 6 Brigade Headquarters, awaited the arrival of 25 Battalion. At midnight, the appointed time, there was no sign of it, and, as always at such times of strain, the suspense grew and imaginations pictured all kinds of misadventures. But at ten minutes past twelve the faint rumble of vehicles in the distance was heard, dim lights appeared, and presently 25 Battalion, its vehicles close-spaced and headed by Colonel Wilder, swept past at speed, its tail clearing Tripolis by 12.30 a.m.
No time was lost in the endeavour to cover the hundred miles of unfamiliar mountainous road in the five hours of darkness still remaining. Though almost worn out, the drivers drove as their duty required, with skill and concentration. Nothing was allowed to delay the column and any vehicle breaking down was pushed off the road, its load being transferred to other vehicles. By dawn on Monday, 28 April, the battalion, followed by Brigade Headquarters and 24 Battalion, had arrived at its destination and was under such cover as was to be found amongst the rocks and olive trees in the neighbourhood.
It was of course possible for the enemy to follow and inter fere with, or even prevent, the embarkation, as in fact had happened the previous night at Tolos, east of the old concen tration area at Miloi, although this was not known at the time. The troops at Monemvasia were disposed over a wide area, Divisional Headquarters being near the beach, where it was endeavouring to get in touch with the naval authorities. Twenty-fourth and 25th Battalions were 12 miles away, and there were two Australian platoons in a covering position astride the road eight miles farther north. Ample warning of an enemy approach would thus be given to enable the two battalions to take up suitable tactical positions.page 72
Shortly after dawn the inevitable flight of enemy bombers appeared. ‘I counted about 70 in the first covey,’ said Colonel Gentry.25 ‘They did not spot any of 6 Bde and as far as I know dropped no bombs on any NZ troops.’ The bombers attacked a small trawler in the bay and eventually sank it but the troops were not molested all day.
There was considerable anxiety among commanders and staffs as to whether all the troops could be embarked that night. There would be ample accommodation in the ships but it was doubtful whether the number of small craft for ferrying the men from shore to ship would prove sufficient. It was possible that one battalion would have to stay until the next night, an unpleasant prospect which ‘was accepted cheerfully by 24 Battalion’, which was next for duty for a task of this nature. However, a search of the beaches in the district revealed a number of small boats, some of which were sufficiently water tight to be used, and a flotilla, organised by Lieutenant Andrews26 of the brigade signal section, an experienced boat man, and manned by suitable men from the units, stood ready to ferry the troops from the shore to a Greek caique, which would take them to the ships. In the event the arrangement worked splendidly, the small boats taking off about 800 men; and so, to the relief of all, 24 Battalion did not have to stay behind.
After dark 4 Field Ambulance with the wounded went to the beach and was followed at stipulated times by the other units, each accompanied by stragglers who had joined up during the last few days. There was no sign of enemy troops. As each unit arrived at the beach it destroyed or seriously damaged its vehicles, some being pushed over the cliffs while others were drained of oil and water and their engines run until they seized. Engines were broken up as much as possible with hammers and tyres were slashed. Fire as a destroying agent was out of the question since it would provide beacons for the page 73 enemy. As was the case at all the other embarkation beaches in Greece, the locality was a veritable graveyard of mechanical transport.
This destruction was naturally the cause of deep regret to all the troops. These vehicles had performed such vital service, and driven and maintained with skill and devotion, had alone enabled a successful withdrawal to be made to the beaches.
After the troops had arrived at the beach a considerable tim elapsed before the ships appeared. This period—the arrival of the ships, the embarkation, and the departure—is graphically described by Brigadier Barrowclough in his report:
‘The vanguard of the force arrived at the beach shortly after 9 p.m. and then ensued a long rather anxious wait for the ships. This was no fault of the Navy. Obviously the ships had to stand off the coast a considerable distance during the hours of daylight or they would have been subjected to heavy attacks and more over the course they were steering would have indicated the point of embarkation….
‘At last however the watchers on the beach became aware of dim lights in the bay and presently the dim but unmistakable outline of destroyers was seen. Then came the welcome sound of the Diesel engines of the ALC approaching the shaded guiding lights which indicated the embarkation points…. The first boat loads were naturally the wounded but to the con sternation of all these boats returned with the information that only destroyers were in the bay and that the destroyers could not accommodate the wounded. There was nothing for it but to carry the wounded ashore again and leave them there pending the arrival of the Ajax. Unwounded troops were then embarked but the rate of embarkation seemed disappointingly slow. Not all the destroyers had arrived yet and some of the ALC had not yet put in an appearance. The naval officers on the beach began to express doubts as to whether some of the rescue ships might not have been bombed and sunk. The Admiral said that he felt compelled to warn us that possibly only half our force could get off and that we must take precautions for the disposing of the remainder in some defensive position ashore. The situ ation caused considerable anxiety to all who were responsible for the success of the operation.
‘Soon after one o'clock however more destroyers had arrived, more ALC were on the job, and miraculously the tempo of the operation was appreciably increased. Boat-load after boat-load got away and at ever diminishing intervals there came the wel- page 74 come signals for the next boat-party to move down to the beach. Finally HMS Ajax herself appeared and to the great relief of everybody the lines of stretcher cases on the beach were put on board and safely embarked on to the cruiser.
‘It soon became apparent that the whole force was going to be got off, especially as the Admiral indicated that the ships were prepared to stay until 4 a.m. and take their chance of getting clear of the coast before the enemy dive-bombers could approach them. Shortly before four o'clock there came the complaint from the Navy that boats were waiting and that there were no troops to fill them. The explanation was that practically the last boats were filled by the personnel of the skeleton divisional and brigade staffs and others who were superintending the loading operations. HMS Ajax was already on the move as the divisional and brigade commanders and their staffs climbed up the ladders to the decks and almost immediately the ship was making at full speed for Crete and Suda Bay.
‘The welcome of the Navy was typical and hundreds of weary officers and men were being revived with hot meals produced miraculously from the overtaxed resources of the ship. Every cabin and indeed every square inch of space on the ship's decks were soon crowded with officers and men whose one thought was sleep undisturbed by any possible threat of enemy action. We were more than happy to leave to the Navy the task of dealing with them whilst we enjoyed the luxury of sleep. The following morning found all the ships in Suda Bay.
Sixth Brigade arrived safely in Suda Bay, Crete, about 8 a.m. on Tuesday, 29 April. There it was learnt that 4 and 5 Brigades and some divisional troops were already in Crete, and the arrangements at the moment were that they would remain there until transport was available to take them to Egypt. Sixth Brigade was to go on to Egypt immediately. Australians and other men of units which did not form part of the brigade were disembarked and the brigade transferred from HMS Ajax and the destroyers Griffin and Isis to the SS Thurland Castle and SS Comliebank. These ships sailed at noon in a convoy with a large naval escort and arrived at Port Said at 2 a.m. on 2 May.
And thus, for 25 Battalion and the rest of 6 Brigade, their first experience of war came to an end.
Subject to some slight degree of error (though the figures agree very closely with those compiled elsewhere) 25 Battalion's page 75 casualties in Greece were 13 officers and 167 other ranks. Of these, 1 officer and 12 other ranks were killed, and 4 other ranks died of wounds. Four officers and 55 other ranks were wounded, of whom 47 other ranks were taken prisoner of war, about twenty of them after being evacuated to hospital in Athens. A further 8 officers and 96 other ranks were also prisoners of war.
Lance-Corporal Kerr,27 reported as missing, was taken prisoner 15 miles south of Lamia on 25 April. After a week at Lamia and a fortnight at Chalkis, he was sent to Larisa. A week later he escaped by means of a rope made from pack-straps, walked to Katerini, thence by the regular sea service to Salonika and on foot to Stavros and towards the Bulgarian border. Hearing that escape that way was impossible he returned to Salonika, which he reached on 30 May.
Through the Greek police and the American consul he met a British agent, who arranged accommodation and also for a boat to pick him up, together with other refugees, at Oros. On 8 June he set off for Oros with a British WO II, a Greek nurse, a Greek officer and the latter's fiancee. But the Germans arrested those bringing the boat round as well as the agent, and, sheltered by the monks till 1 July, the party remained at Oros. Kerr then walked to the vicinity of Stavros and, with two other escapees, hid in the fields till 26 July. Then by easy stages they walked to Eviron, where they bought a boat from the monks on the promise of £50 and on 4 August left for Turkey. Calling at Imbros and Tenedos, and not being allowed to land, they succeeded in landing on the Turkish mainland only after their boat had been sunk.
For his excellent initial escape and subsequent persistence, enterprise, and endurance, Lance-Corporal Kerr was awarded the Distinguished Conduct Medal.
The number of prisoners of war had been swelled very con siderably by the capture at Kalamata of the majority of the battalion's ist Reinforcement, which had been left at Athens on 21 March, and of eighteen men of D Company whose truck was directed in error to Kalamata on 27 April. Sixth Brigade's casualties for the campaign were 261 killed and died of wounds, 387 wounded, 1856 prisoners of war (of whom 212 were wounded and 30 died of wounds).
5 Lt-Col C. J. Williams, ED; Opotiki; born England, 16 Apr 1907; school teacher; served with UNRRA and Allied Military Government, Germany, 1945-47; International Refugee Organisation 1948–52; Principal, Opotiki College.
7 Brig C. S. J. Duff, DSO, m.i.d.; Wellington; born Wellington, 19 Nov 1898; Regular soldier; comd 34 NZ A-Tk Bty 1939–40; 7 A-Tk Regt Oct 1940-May 1941; 4 Fd Regt Aug 1941–Apr 1942; CRA 3 NZ Div Aug 1942– Oct 1944.
8 Brig R. Miles, CBE, DSO and bar, MC, ED, m.i.d.; born Springston, 10 Dec 1892; Regular soldier; NZ Fd Arty 1914–19; CRA 2 NZ Div 1940–41; comd 2 NZEF (UK) 1940; wounded and p.w. 1 Dec 1941; died Spain, 20 Oct 1943.
20 Vice Capt H. F. Smith, evacuated 22 April; Lt Mason was appointed Adjutant vice Armstrong.)
25 Maj-Gen Sir W. Gentry, KBE, CB, DSO and bar, m.i.d., MC (Gk), Bronze Star (US); Lower Hutt; born London, 20 Feb 1899; Regular soldier; served North-West Frontier 1920–22; GSO II NZ Div 1939–40; AA & QMG 1940-41; GSO I May 1941, Oct 1941–Sep 1942; comd 6 Bde Sep 1942–Apr 1943; Deputy Chief of General Staff (in NZ) 1943–44; comd NZ Troops in Egypt, 6 NZ Div, and NZ Maadi Camp, Aug 1944–Feb 1945; 9 Bde (Italy) 1945; DCGS 1946–47; Adjutant-General 1949–52; Chief of General Staff 1952-55.