Chapter 3 — Greece
EARLY on 6 March the battalion embussed on RMT lorries and left Helwan as part of the 6th Brigade convoy. The destination was Amiriya, a transit camp near the coast and not far from Alexandria. It was a monotonous all-day drive, and matters were not improved when the men found that the tented area allotted them was in a dirty, disgusting state after heavy rain. The camp's previous occupants had brought back from the Western Desert a motley collection of campaign spoils. This rubbish was littered all over the camp and several days passed before it was all cleaned up. In any case, there was little else to do. The camp contained few recreational facilities and no leave was granted to Alexandria. Several short route marches helped to fill in the time. Thompson sub-machine guns were issued to the battalion, one to each section. The general unpopularity of Amiriya was increased by two blinding sandstorms which swept the area. On both occasions the sun and all landmarks were blotted out, visibility was reduced to a few feet, and those caught outside the tent lines had considerable difficulty finding their way back in the choking sand. It was almost as bad inside the tents. Candles and lanterns were lit, and when the storms subsided a layer of fine dust, inches deep, covered everything.
After these experiences everyone was glad when embarkation orders were received. The unit transport and the carriers (some under tow) were the first away. Early on the 17th they joined a brigade convoy bound for the docks at Alexandria. There they were loaded on the Koistan, a tramp steamer with limited passenger accommodation. As soon as the loading was completed the drivers embarked, and the steamer joined a convoy bound for an undisclosed destination. The next morning the battalion followed, the troops setting out on foot towards a railway siding two miles away. In addition to normal equipment each man was carrying a base kit and bedroll. Despite orders to the contrary many were also carrying primuses, billies, food page 18 parcels, or other home comforts. Under a blistering hot sun they staggered and stumbled along the road and reached the siding sweating profusely and exhausted.
The train was waiting, and shortly afterwards it left for Alexandria. By 1 p.m. the troops were on the wharf alongside a partially converted troopship, HMS Breconshire. Embarkation began immediately and by half past three was complete. Mooring lines were loosed and the ship began to move up the harbour past several British and French warships lying at anchor. The bosun's whistle blew and all ranks were called to attention —a naval custom unknown to most soldiers. By 6 p.m. the Breconshire had joined the rest of the convoy and Alexandria had dropped from sight. A message from General Freyberg was read to all ranks. The Division's destination was Greece, whose armies had been successfully resisting Italian aggression for some time. Although at peace with Germany, the Greek Government feared that Mussolini's partner was about to extend his operations in the Balkans. The New Zealanders were part of a British force diverted to Greece in response to an appeal for help.
The ship was very crowded, Australian troops outnumbering the battalion and 6 Brigade personnel on board. The holds and passageways were packed with men and the overflow stayed on deck. The crew were unable to provide regular meals but occasionally supplied hot soup or tea. All ranks were carrying three days' hard rations—fifteen ship's biscuits, three tins of bully beef, sugar and tea. Knowing the voyage would last only a few days, everyone was quite content with these arrangements. The weather was fine and the sea calm. On the 20th the snow-capped hills of Crete came into view and several destroyers were sighted in the distance. Early the next morning the news that land was in sight caused a stampede to the ship's rails. As the Breconshire moved down the stream at Piraeus to tie up, everyone strained to catch a glimpse of this new country. The town stretched back from the wharves and sheds of the waterfront up to the lower slopes of greyish hills surrounding it. The national flag of Greece seemed to be flying from every building and fishing smack.page 19
The battalion's transport was lined up at the wharf waiting to carry packs, kitbags, and the heavier equipment to Hymettus Park on the outskirts of the city, where the brigade camp was to be established. The Koistan had berthed at Athens the previous day after an uneventful voyage. The Greek ‘wharfies’ worked slowly, and eventually the drivers themselves lent a hand to unload their vehicles. That night they camped at the park.
By 11 a.m. the battalion was assembled on the wharf ready to begin the 13-mile march to the new camp. Clad in battle dress, the troops set out through the port along streets lined with cheering, flag-waving civilians who seemed to have appeared from nowhere. The road led out into a pleasant countryside green with spring growth. Along the route groups of villagers cheered and waved, while clean and tidily dressed children linked hands with the marching men and ran along with them. It was a pleasant welcome and a good omen for the future. A stop was made for lunch at a point close to the sea. Later, as the columns approached the city the crowds of watchers increased. To the troops the welcome was some compensation for a hot, uncomfortable march on a hard, bitumen road. But it was a severe blow to pride to watch a party of Australian shipmates drive past in New Zealand trucks, leaving the sound of their derisive laughter ringing in all ears.
By four o'clock the battalion had reached Hymettus to find it a carpet of green grass, cool and refreshing and very pleasant after a hot march and months of desert sand. Tents had already been erected and the men quickly settled down. There was to be no move for three days and general leave was granted. Each man was paid 500 drachmæ (18s 7d) and all except guards and pickets were soon strolling towards the main shopping area and the famous ruins beyond it. Athens had much to offer. The shops in the modern section of the city were stocked with goods of all descriptions. Bars and cafeterias did a good trade. Liquor was plentiful: cognac cost 3s a bottle and good German beer 10d. Local brands of wine and spirits—ouzo, mavrodaphne, crassi, and many others—were tried, sometimes with unexpected results. The future was uncertain and the men set out to make the most of the present. There were many hilarious parties and, in the mornings, many sore heads. Athens had other attractions. page 20 Fresh fruit was always available and the drinking water was free of chlorine. The language caused no problem, for many of the civilians spoke surprisingly good English. The activities of the German Consul and his staff caused comment and some anger. Each day the Consul drove through the park, and his staff were seen meticulously noting particulars of units as they arrived or left for the north of Greece. All ranks were warned that many Germans were about the streets seeking information on troop movements.
The stay in Athens was short—too short for most of the men. Early on the morning of the 23rd the unit transport loaded with gear joined a convoy under Maj Samson bound for Northern Greece.1 The rest of the battalion was to follow by rail. It was a warm sunny morning, and in Athens a colourful youth parade was in progress. The troops prepared to march to the Rouf station about three miles away. Base kits and all tropical gear were collected and sent to a depot in the city. A roll-call revealed some absentees and a truck was sent into the city to round them up. These men, together with some others, had been indulging themselves too freely in the local wine. When the companies formed up to march off, the drunks were lined up in the centre column so that their neighbours could support them. Near the King George Hotel, where the King of Greece was waiting to take the salute, Col Page gave the order to march to attention. Some of the centre rankers, bereft of support, ‘bit the dust’.
Large crowds bade the men farewell. When the line of marching men caught up the tune ‘The old red flannel drawers that Maggie wore’ there was a wild outbreak of cheering, the onlookers apparently believing the song to have some national significance. It was noticeable that few of the onlookers were men of military age and that many of the women were in page 21 mourning. At the station the troops climbed into box-wagons resembling refrigeration cars. They were labelled Hommes 40, Chevaux 8, and it was generally agreed that the horses would have been decidedly more comfortable. There was some delay while the remaining winebibbers, about twenty all told, were rounded up and locked in one of the wagons, and it was 5 p.m. before the train got away. As darkness fell each man endeavoured to elbow himself a place to sleep. The frequent stoppages and the constant vibration of the steel floor denied rest to all but the hardiest sleepers. At daylight the train was passing through rugged, hilly country close to the town of Larissa, an important communications centre. At the station the Naafi supplied hot tea and the men were able to buy oranges, fresh raisin bread, and sweetmeats. The journey was completed shortly after midday. The troops detrained at the Katerine station and marched along cobblestone streets, through the old ramshackle town, to a park about two miles away.
At the park company areas were allotted, and before long curious onlookers were mingling with the troops. The road party had not arrived so no tents could be erected, and the men spent the night, one of many in Greece, sleeping under the stars. The air was noticeably cooler than at Athens due to the closeness of snow-clad Mount Olympus. In the morning dozens of hungry Greek youngsters flocked around the camp seeking scraps of food. The villagers followed with baskets of fruit and eggs (cooked or raw) and bottles of wine. Later in the day the road party arrived. It had made overnight stops near the towns of Molos and Tyrnavos. Fine weather and the absence of mechanical troubles had made the journey a pleasant one.
* * *
The defence of Northern Greece was at this stage based on the Aliakmon line, covering the approaches to the Servia and Olympus Passes. (A forward defence line, the Metaxas line, ran parallel to the Bulgarian frontier.) The 19th Greek Division was still occupying the coastal sector to which the New Zealanders had been directed, as it had certain defence works to complete, the most important of which was a wide anti-tank ditch being dug by Greek civilian labour. In the meantime 6 page 22 Brigade was to prepare reserve positions behind the Greeks. When the latter moved forward to the Metaxas line the brigade would occupy the main defences.
Late on the morning of 26 March the battalion set out on foot towards the brigade sector. After a 13-mile march along rough, clay roads and across rugged, hilly country, the companies halted for the night near Koukos, two miles south of the battalion sector. Next morning the march was completed and by noon the four companies were in position: A and B Coys forward with C in support and D in reserve. Throughout the afternoon everyone was busy digging in, but no sooner were the defensive preparations well in hand than an order was received to move. D Coy was to return to Katerine on unit transport, proceed by rail to the Platamon tunnel area, and prepare defensive positions there. The rest of the battalion was to withdraw to the Petras Sanatorium on the forward slopes of Mount Olympus and prepare a defensive position. Both areas would eventually be taken over by 5 Brigade.page 23
Shortly after D Coy left the battalion began retracing its steps along the road to Koukos. Lorries picked up the laden men before they reached the village and carried them through to their destination. The transport reached the area just before midnight but had some difficulty negotiating the sharp bends of the steep, narrow branch road leading up to the Sanatorium. The darkness caused some confusion, but at length the companies were directed through scrub-covered country to their positions. Everyone was tired, cold, and hungry. A few, stumbling about in the dark, came across what they thought were trenches. They slept in them only to find out in the morning that the trenches were empty graves.
Everyone felt much more cheerful in the morning. The sun was shining and the discomforts of the night were soon forgotten. The Sanatorium was a large three-storied building set in pleasant surroundings. Behind it a green forest stretched up to the snow-clad mountain, and beneath the trees primroses, violets, and forget-me-nots grew in wild profusion. Squirrels peeped down from behind the branches and tortoises plodded out of the way. Down nearer the Olympus Pass road, where the ground was more open although covered with light scrub, the companies were endeavouring to erect tents. Colonel Page paid a courtesy call on the doctor in charge of the Sanatorium but found him inclined to be hostile towards his uninvited guests. Later the CO and several of his officers carried out a reconnaissance of tracks behind the camp to select defensive positions which could cover the Pass road. It was decided to widen a mule track, which ran in a southerly direction through forest towards the village of Stavros, so that supplies could be brought in to the area by truck.
For the next two days the troops, armed with picks and shovels, worked hard on the new road. By nightfall on the 30th several miles of it had been completed at the cost of many blisters. Everything had to be manhandled onto the job for the unit transport was carting metal for roads north of Katerine. The Bren carriers had returned to Koukos on an anti-parachute role. Each day brought its crop of rumours: German panzer divisions were massing beyond the Bulgarian border; Axis planes page 24 would drop parachutists behind the Aliakmon line; the Yugoslavs would not resist the Nazis. Scarcely any official information was given and few in the battalion knew what was going on around them. These rumours were disturbing but were forgotten while the recently arrived mail was read and reread.
On the 30th Brig Hargest, 5 Brigade Commander, arrived at Battalion HQ, and after inspecting the area expressed his appreciation of the road work. On the following day 23 Battalion took over the sector and the troops prepared to rejoin 6 Brigade. By this time 19 Greek Division had moved forward and 6 Brigade was occupying the main line. By nightfall RMT had carried the troops to Sphendami, a village two miles north-east of Koukos. The night was spent in an olive grove a short distance north of the village. From Brig Barrowclough Col Page learned that the battalion would occupy a 3500-yard sector in the centre of the brigade front. There was still no indication of the enemy's intention or of the forces he would employ in an attack.
The battalion moved forward to join 24 and 25 Battalions the following morning, the companies taking up positions along ridges which overlooked the anti-tank ditch and the small stream beyond it. In the distance stretched a wide valley, across which any enemy advance from Bulgaria could be expected. The ground was hard clay as the troops soon found out. The country was very open, and because of this only essential vehicles were left in the sector. Captain Wilson2 and his staff camped in a wooded area about two miles away. Most of the unit vehicles were still under brigade command and were operating from another wooded area about ten miles to the rear. In the battalion sector a start was made on the defence work soon after company positions were allotted. B Coy was stationed on high ground on the left flank with C Coy on the ‘Bastion’, a rounded hill in the centre, and A Coy on lower ground to the right. The 25th Battalion was on the left and the 24th on the right. Greek troops had already dug long, deep, connecting trenches after the pattern of those of the First World War. They were, in this page 25 instance, badly sited and of little use to those seeking to dodge digging new ones, though in some cases use was made of the sandbagged firing pits.
Although digging was slowed up by the hard surface, the defences were practically complete within a few days. Bren-gun pits were dug on vantage points and telephone lines laid from Battalion HQ to each company. The ‘I’ section mapped the area. The only passable roads being through the sectors of flanking battalions and across the front, the troops were given another roadmaking task. Concrete pipes lying out in front of the anti-tank ditch were carried back to fill in large chasms which crossed the proposed new route. Base metal was scarce but the road was open to traffic within a week. Meanwhile several hundred Greeks, most of them civilians, continued to work on the anti-tank ditch, 20–25 feet wide and 8–10 feet deep, which ran across the front about a thousand yards from the forward platoons. Several dumps of wire were found near the ditch and the companies soon had entanglements stretching across the front, sapling stakes being used as standards. Several truckloads of this wire were sent back to D Coy at the Platamon tunnel.
This company, after debussing at Katerine, had continued the journey to Platamon by rail. It was very late at night when the train reached Platamon, so instead of trying to find billets the men slept in and around the small station. In the morning Capt Huggins reconnoitred a camp site at the south end of the tunnel and close to the beach. Tents were soon erected and the company was free to begin its task—the preparation of a battalion position around the tunnel and on Castle Hill above it. Impressed with the urgency of the job the troops set to and worked with a will. The ground was hard and rocky and covered with scrub, but despite inadequate tools good progress was made.
It was not all work. The village of Platamon was only about a mile from the camp, and in one or other of its six wineshops the men spent their off-duty hours. The wines were a mixture of good and bad. Fresh fish and eggs, with brown bread, could be bought at a reasonable price, and this dish was in demand at supper-time. Greek cigarettes and oranges were also procurable. page 26 Two lambs, purchased locally, proved when cooked to be nothing like their New Zealand counterpart despite the efforts of Pte G. C. Ingram, the cook. A quantity of extra rations was bought from the Naafi store at Larissa and the company enjoyed much better meals than the rest of the battalion. Captain Huggins and Lt C. D. F. Bowie organised sing-songs, and it was not uncommon for the villagers to join in and exchange song for song with their visitors.
On 6 April there was a sudden change in the situation. Germany declared war on Greece and Yugoslavia. That morning in its sector north of Sphendami, the battalion woke to the sound of explosions in Salonika, 40 miles away. The realisation that the battle for Greece was about to begin and the appearance of enemy reconnaissance planes lent impetus to the completion of the defence work. In their sector the men of the battalion were confident of their ability to hold their own against German infantry, provided tanks were unable to get across the anti-tank ditch. For the next two days everyone worked hard to perfect the defences. Very little news of the early fighting reached the unit but it was generally known that the enemy was using mobile forces and tanks to spearhead his attack, assisted by a large section of the German Air Force. A division of parachutists was available for use if needed. Despite this knowledge all ranks were keyed up at the prospect of action. More mail had arrived and everyone was in good spirits.
Then, before breakfast on 8 April, came unexpected orders to move back again to the vicinity of Petras Sanatorium. Only the carriers were to remain in the forward area. Together with a small infantry force, they were to plug the gap in the line. The news was not well received. Almost everyone, knowing little of the tactical situation, gave vent to his feelings in no uncertain terms, more particularly as the men considered their defences wellnigh impregnable. Nothing could be done about it so the troops, somewhat resentfully, packed up and prepared to leave. Colonel Page set out with an advanced party for the new area. Headquarters 6 Brigade could tell him little about either the reason for the move or the task ahead of the battalion. Later he learned that it had been decided to abandon the Aliakmon line in favour of the shorter and more easily de- page 27 fended Olympus-Aliakmon River line, which followed the line of the Aliakmon River, Servia Pass, and the Olympus Pass. As a result of this decision 4 Brigade withdrew and moved to the vicinity of Servia, leaving 6 Brigade temporarily on its own with only a light screen of armoured vehicles (Divisional Cavalry) between it and the enemy.
The skies clouded over during the morning and by noon it was evident that rain would soon be falling. An hour later the troops were retracing their steps towards Katerine for the second time. The rain soon began and the clay roads became very slushy. Twelve miles had been covered and it was 4.30 p.m. when lorries picked up the tired, wet, and bedraggled infantrymen and carried them through to their destination. At the time it was small compensation to know that the rain which had made the march so unpleasant had also grounded enemy aircraft. Darkness had fallen and heavy rain had set in by the time the convoy reached the Sanatorium road. Captain Wilson and his staff, who had arrived some time previously, had erected a few tents and had a hot meal waiting. As soon as the meal was over the companies dispersed to the sides of the road and the men lost no time in erecting their tents, for it was now raining more heavily.
At nine o'clock there was a stand-to. Platoon commanders rushed around making sure that their men were ready to move off in battle order at a moment's notice. Wild rumours flashed through the lines. Was this action? Everyone forgot his tiredness and wondered what might be in store. It was strongly rumoured that the battalion would relieve the Maoris in their sector forward of the Olympus Pass. But time passed and nothing happened. The stand-to was relaxed. Nothing out of the ordinary happened for the rest of the night, except that the troops went to sleep in damp clothing to the continual whine of vehicles moving back over the Pass road. Outside in the rain, patrols and pickets plodded around the lines cursing the weather.
It was still raining in the morning, and there was no opportunity to dry out wet clothes for Brig Hargest had given the battalion a number of tasks. The most important was to control the constant stream of traffic moving up and down the page 28 Pass road. New Zealand vehicles were intermingled with Greek ambulances, gun limbers, and even some slow-moving steam engines. Refugees with their handcarts and small wagons were arriving in increasing numbers to complicate matters still further. Most of those not employed on this task and on picket duty were taken by transport to a position high up on the Pass, near where the Brigadier wished to site some field guns. Out came the picks and shovels and the troops began their third roadmaking task within a fortnight. Although the men worked hard on the new road, the period will be better remembered for the hectic journey back to camp each day. The road was steep and slippery with many sharp bends, and the trucks, none of which had chains, slid down inclines and skidded around corners. The troops hung on like grim death, expecting each moment to go hurtling down into the gorge far below.
Meanwhile the Germans were advancing into Greece. On 9 April Salonika fell and the enemy spearheads neared the Divisional Cavalry screen. Late that night 6 Brigade was ordered to withdraw through the Pass, leaving the carriers of the three battalions behind as a delaying force. Except for the news about Salonika, none of this was known at Battalion HQ. The first indication of the brigade's withdrawal was the arrival of the unit transport at the traffic control posts early on 10 April. The transport, still brigaded, continued on over the Pass and finally dispersed not far from Dolikhe, where Divisional HQ was established. Later the same morning Col Page received orders to take his battalion over the Pass to a brigade concentration area north of Dolikhe.
Immediately after lunch B Echelon vehicles loaded with tents and other equipment joined the stream of westbound traffic. After a tedious journey made worse by frequent hold-ups and mishaps, the convoy reached the new camp site near Ag Demetrios. The main body set out on foot at 1.30 p.m. along a road fortunately clear of traffic, and soon afterwards turned onto a secondary road and began to climb through the Pass. No rain had fallen during the morning and the road was in good order, but the men found the 11-mile march most gruelling. Desert training had not extended to climbing mountains with full packs. It was almost dusk by the time the new camp site came page 29 into view. Rain began to fall soon afterwards and for the second time tents were pitched in the wet. Captain McKergow summed up the battalion's recent activities with these words:
He who fights and runs away, lives to fight another day.
He who runs before he fights, lives to climb Olympian heights.
The first night in the new area was a miserable one. The camp was 3000 feet above sea level in desolate, scrub-covered country. Icy winds off the snow made conditions very unpleasant, especially as some of the men were without greatcoats and most of the blankets were being carried by the unit transport. An issue of Ewan's beer to all ranks did little to keep out the penetrating cold. Later that night 2 Lt W. D. Westenra3 arrived with the Carrier Platoon. They had exciting news. As part of the rearguard they had watched the approach of German armour. The anti-tank ditch had not proved a difficult obstacle, and following instructions the rearguard had withdrawn over the Pass.
The defensive line along which the New Zealanders were now in position stretched from the Platamon tunnel area on the coast inland to the Olympus Pass, occupied by 5 Brigade, across to Servia Pass, held by 4 Brigade. Farther west and north-west were Australian and Greek forces whose defences lay forward of the Aliakmon River on towards the Albanian border. Each sector was of necessity held by the minimum of troops. Several lines of approach were open to the Germans, who could outflank the line either by driving down the east coast and around the lower spurs of Mount Olympus or by moving between the Aliakmon River and the Pindus Range on the extreme left flank. Direct assaults could be made on the two main passes, and parachutists could be used to disrupt supplies and communications to force a withdrawal.
Little was done on Good Friday, 11 April. Heavy rain continued for most of the day and this, together with the cold wind, made conditions very unpleasant. Greatcoats and blankets were brought from the transport park at Domenikon and everyone felt much happier, more particularly as shortly before dusk it page 30 began to snow. Next morning the countryside was enveloped in a white mantle several inches deep. A cold wind was still blowing and few moved far from the tent lines. The Carrier Platoon was again sent to Brigade HQ on an anti-paratroop role. The same day the Australian and New Zealand troops in Greece became known as Anzac Corps.
As it was expected that the battalion would remain in reserve for several days, at least until the enemy attack developed, a truck was sent to Larissa on 12 April to purchase Naafi stores. Padre Strang and Capt Thomson4 volunteered to go. The journey lay over bad roads and was made in blinding snow and sleet, but the two officers returned with a lorry load of goods, including cigarettes, chocolate, and casks of good wine. Most of the items were paid for and the Naafi obligingly allowed credit for the rest.
Sundays were frequently to prove momentous days for 26 Battalion, and Easter Sunday 1941 was one of them. It dawned fine and sunny and all ranks took the opportunity to hang their wet clothes out to dry. Short church services were held, and everyone was settling down for another day of rest and quiet when word was received that D Coy was in Larissa waiting for transport. All available unit vehicles were unloaded and in a short time were on their way south. Relief was expressed that the company was safe for everyone knew that Platamon was now a forward area. That their fears were not unfounded was confirmed by the company's experiences. On 9 April 21 Battalion had taken over the Platamon area, and three days later Capt Huggins was ordered to board a train which was being sent down from Katerine to take the company back to the battalion. Knowing that the unit had withdrawn through the Pass and the Germans were approaching Katerine, he assumed the train would take his men to Larissa.
However, when the train moved off that night it headed north towards Katerine. Although somewhat alarmed there was nothing Capt Huggins could do about it. In any case he knew little of the arrangements made to get his men away. At Katerine the troops detrained and moved into an empty goods page 31 shed, glad to get out of the uncomfortable cattle trucks. It was 10 p.m. and nobody at the station knew anything about the company. The only New Zealanders in the town were Divisional Cavalry patrols who reported that the enemy was only a few miles away and could be expected to arrive at any time. A Greek general whose headquarters were a mile away confirmed this alarming news. A mistake had been made somewhere, but what was more important, the company was stranded and in danger of being captured. Fortunately the General was able to communicate with Divisional HQ, which arranged for a train to be made available to take the company back to Larissa. The men, realising the seriousness of their position, were impatient to be gone, but the Greek railway officials would not be hurried and it was 2 a.m. before the train left the station. The journey was uneventful, and shortly after dawn the company was in Larissa. While they waited for transport to arrive the men watched British planes from a nearby aerodrome drive off enemy raiders. The battalion vehicles reached Larissa at 4 p.m. and, as soon as the company had embussed, set out on the return journey to Ag Demetrios.
Meanwhile, at Ag Demetrios events had moved swiftly. Shortly before midday General Freyberg arrived at Battalion HQ and gave orders for the battalion to move as soon as possible to 19 Australian Brigade's sector west of the Servia Pass. On arrival in the area the battalion would come under the command of this brigade, which was stationed forward of the Aliakmon River. The General intimated that the unit's probable role would be to strengthen the Australians' right flank and shorten the gap between it and 4 NZ Brigade around Servia. The RMT would carry the troops and all equipment to the new area. Colonel Page wasted no time and within an hour had set out with his company commanders to locate the Australians, leaving Maj Samson to bring on the main body.
The transport arrived and the gear and equipment dumped earlier in the day was reloaded on the trucks. This was the battalion's sixth move in 18 days, but there was surprisingly little comment from the men as they packed up ready to leave. By 2.30 p.m. they were on the lorries and the convoy headed south-west towards Elevtherokhorion and the main Larissa-Servia page 32 highway. It was quite a pleasant trip. The sun was shining and the roads were in fair order. After the trucks turned on to the Servia road they encountered more traffic, but there was no sign of enemy planes until the leading vehicles were on the crest of the Pass road. The convoy stopped and most of the troops debussed to watch enemy dive-bombers in action. Some admiration was expressed for their graceful performance as they dived and rolled in the blue sky—admiration which in the next few days turned to hatred. All around anti-aircraft guns were firing.
After the raid was over the journey was resumed. Instead of continuing down the road leading to Servia the convoy turned west at the crest of the Pass, stopping when about two miles beyond Proselion, a village which had been a target of enemy bombers. Darkness was falling as the vehicles reached the stopping place and the men debussed. Colonel Page had not been able to find the Australians. Headquarters 4 Brigade knew they were somewhere on its left and thought they were across the river; 19 Battalion HQ stationed close to Proselion could offer nothing more definite. Fourth Brigade HQ was trying to page 33 communicate with them by wireless. So while the troops were boiling the billy the Colonel went ahead with a party of officers to reconnoitre possible roles for the battalion. During his absence orders were received through 4 Brigade to occupy a temporary position overlooking Rymnion, a village several miles farther west and at the foot of the hills. By this time the lorries had been unloaded and the cooks were preparing a hot meal.
Before it was ready the companies were ordered to move off. Each man was carrying, in addition to his normal equipment, extra ammunition, Bren magazines and grenades. In the darkness it was difficult to find and follow any track. After crossing a succession of scrub-covered hills, the column turned on to a track leading down towards the river. By 3 a.m. the companies were in position and the troops had dug in. Everyone was very tired and hungry. Meanwhile, the unit transport with D Coy on board had reached the spot where the gear had been dumped, guides having redirected the company along the Servia road. Captain Huggins decided to wait for dawn before rejoining the unit as his men had had practically no sleep for over 36 hours. After an early start the company reached the Rymnion area shortly after 9 a.m., being machine-gunned from the air without loss while on the march.
* * *
Nobody in the battalion was to get much rest during 14 April or the days that followed. At dawn all positions were changed, the three companies moving out onto the slopes directly overlooking Rymnion and the river. D Coy on its arrival was directed to a reserve position. Work on the defences continued throughout the morning. Telephone cable was laid from Battalion HQ to the companies and fire plans were worked out. No. 10 Platoon was sent to occupy Rymnion. It was a clear sunny morning, and from their positions the men had an excellent view of the rolling scrub-covered country which stretched north and west beyond the river to the distant mountains. Little villages dotted the valley. Those who had binoculars soon noticed enemy troops and tanks moving down from the northern passes, while at the foot of the range a level stretch of ground was being used as an advanced landing field.page 34
Enemy aircraft in groups of twenty to thirty were flying overhead almost continually. The pilots displayed no interest in the infantry but bombed and machine-gunned road traffic and gun positions at the rear. For a while Bren gunners and riflemen alike blazed away at the enemy planes until they realised their efforts were futile. Even the fire from anti-aircraft guns in the Pass was apparently having little effect. At the transport park the gear dumped the night before had to be reloaded on unit vehicles, which were then well dispersed. No damage was suffered from the bombing. During the day Capt Wilson arrived from B Echelon with rations, having run the gauntlet of enemy air attacks as he travelled through the Pass. Meanwhile Col Page was trying to get in touch with the Australian brigade. Eventually an Artillery liaison officer was located to the rear of the battalion lines and the CO was able to speak to the Australian commander (Brig G. A. Vasey) over an 11-mile phone link. The Brigadier gave orders for the battalion to cross the river after dusk and take up a position on the right of his brigade, along a front of 3500–4000 yards.
Colonel Page returned to Battalion HQ and ordered the ‘I’ sergeant, Sgt Fraser,5 to endeavour to find a route down to the river or to Rymnion which could be used by the unit transport. Immediately after lunch the CO set out with his company commanders to look over the new sector. The party crossed the river and went to 19 Australian Brigade HQ. Here more was learned of the local position, but it was obvious that the Australians were no more conversant with the general situation than was Col Page. Brigadier Vasey painted a grim picture and was not optimistic that the Olympus-Aliakmon River line could be held. The position on both flanks was obscure and confusing. Fighting was going on around Mount Olympus but nothing was known of the result. On the left flank the Greek defences were very weak and might crumble at any time, allowing the Germans to sweep around and cut off the brigade's line of withdrawal. The Australians were thinly spread across their sector and their platoons were noticeably short of automatic weapons. The arrival of 26 Battalion would still leave a 4000-yard gap to page 35 the left flank of 4 Brigade. In the event of an enemy attack little artillery support could be expected, particularly during daylight when enemy bombers were overhead.
Somewhat disturbed by this news the battalion party set out to reconnoitre the new sector, which stretched from high ground back in a north-easterly direction towards the river. It was not an easy task for the country was very rugged and covered with scrub. Steep hillocks and deep ravines criss-crossed the area and no tracks or paths could be found. It was difficult for the company commanders to pinpoint their respective sectors and those of their platoons. Nevertheless, the tramping done during the afternoon enabled them to familiarise themselves with the ground leading up to their sectors, and this was of great assistance during the night move. The crossing of the river presented the greatest obstacle. A rope ferry on which one assault boat was operated by the use of pulleys was all that was available, and only three men fully equipped could cross at one time. The river at this point was about 30 feet wide, very swift flowing, and about six feet deep in the centre. Steep banks ran down from both sides. Colonel Page ascertained that sappers would be on hand after dusk to operate the ferry.
The Colonel later issued verbal orders for the night's move. At dusk companies were to move down to the ferry and cross the river immediately on arrival. C Coy, which had farthest to go, was to lead. Every effort was to be made to get platoons into position before dawn in case enemy reconnaissance planes appeared. Unit transport was to bring down mortars, stores, cooking gear, bedrolls, and extra ammunition by the route located by the ‘I’ section. Only one map of the area was available; the most suitable road to Rymnion lay through Servia, which at this time was being heavily attacked by enemy aircraft. Several other tracks were shown but it was not known if these could be used by vehicles.
Things did not turn out as planned. When the leading platoons reached the river after a five-mile trek down a slippery clay track and along the riverbed, they found the ferry deserted. There was nothing else to do but learn to manipulate this somewhat crazy craft. After one or two practices a few of the men became quite proficient in handling the pulley ropes and the page 36 troops began to cross the river in a slow but steady trickle. Nevertheless, the non-arrival of the sappers and the inky darkness slowed down proceedings, and the troops towards the rear had a long wait before their turn came to clamber into the boat. When it became evident that all the companies would not be able to cross before daylight, the CO ordered D Coy to remain on the southern side of the river. By dawn three companies were across. B Coy dug in on the right flank close by with A Coy farther forward on its left, C Coy was still moving towards the hilly ground on the left flank, and Tactical HQ was set up behind A Coy.
About the time the companies began their march down to the river, Maj Samson moved the unit transport along the road to Rear Battalion HQ, which had been established close to the road at the top of the clay track. Captain L. G. Smith, the Adjutant, was in charge but could give the Major little detailed information about the movements of the battalion except that the companies were crossing the river. Colonel Page himself had not returned from the afternoon reconnaissance but had stayed on the north bank. Sergeant Fraser had gone down as far as Rymnion by the Servia route and on the way back had been shelled by enemy field guns on the north bank of the river. Australians belonging to B Echelons had told him they were vacating Servia as a forerunner to a general withdrawal from the Olympus-Aliakmon River line. The Adjutant also reported that the area around Rear Battalion HQ had been bombed and machine-gunned several times during the day. At length it was decided to disperse the vehicles to the sides of the road and look for a safer hideout at dawn. Early next morning a suitable place was found about two miles away and the drivers dispersed their trucks for the third time. Shortly afterwards the ‘I’ officer, 2 Lt Kennedy,6 arrived with a message ordering the transport to bring mortars, ammunition, etc., down to the river crossing, where D Coy would carry them to the forward troops.
Since dawn enemy aircraft had been making frequent sorties over the area and Maj Samson was very anxious that they should not discover the transport park. In view of Sgt Fraser's page 37 report it seemed folly to attempt to travel through Servia to the river, and the ‘I’ section was ordered to make a detailed reconnaissance of other routes. Unfortunately, there was no way of communicating with Col Page except by runner, and that would take several hours. Lieutenant Tolerton,7 the Signals officer, had attempted to link Rear Battalion HQ and Tac HQ by phone but had run out of wire at the bottom of the clay track. He had set up his Signals Centre at this point but, like those on the hill above him, was unaware of the exact location of the troops and had received no message from them. The battalion was now divided into three almost independent groups: B Echelon near Divisional HQ at Dolikhe; Rear Battalion HQ on the Proselion road, and the companies in the valley. Rear Battalion HQ had been further divided when the transport moved to its third dispersal area. Lack of direct communication between the three groups created difficulties and misunderstandings.
During the morning an Australian supply depot was found in a farmhouse not far from Capt Smith's Rear HQ. Arrangements were made to draw petrol at dusk as most of the unit's reserve stock had been used in the trip from Larissa. The Supply Officer confirmed that the Servia-Rymnion road was no longer safe for traffic. He intended to supply his troops in the valley by using mules to carry rations down what was known as the Monastery track. The Monastery lay at the end of a short branch road, the turn-off being very close to the transport park, and the track led down from it. Shortly after midday a second and more urgent written message was received from Col Page: mortars and supplies were to be brought down to the river no matter how difficult or dangerous the route. On receipt of this order Capt Foley and Lt Horrell8 set out to find the Monastery track and acquaint the Colonel of the latest developments. Enemy aircraft were still overhead at frequent intervals but they had not attempted to attack the battalion vehicles.page 38
Leaving Lt Horrell to return to Rear Battalion HQ and report, Capt Foley went down the Monastery track and, after passing through D Coy and crossing the river, continued on towards Tac HQ. He overtook an almost exhausted Australian officer who was carrying an urgent order to 19 Brigade HQ to withdraw. Line communications with the brigade had broken down and the officer had already covered 16 miles at a fast pace. Captain Foley took the message from the weary Australian and delivered it to Brig Vasey, and then reported to Col Page. By this time it was late afternoon and the defences across the river were almost completed.
Throughout the day the forward companies had worked hard. As soon as they had reached their sector and been directed to their positions, the men had begun to dig in—a difficult task in such rough country. By 5 p.m. the work was completed. A thin line of defences, unprotected by armour, wire, or anti-tank devices and manned by tired, hungry men, stretched across to the river. All ranks were reconciled to spending another unpleasant night without a hot meal or blankets. Colonel Page was very concerned at the non-arrival of the mortars and the reserve supplies of ammunition. Brigadier Vasey had switched two platoons of Vickers gunners and 2/8 Australian Battalion (300 strong) across in support of the right flank, but nobody in the battalion was confident that the defences could withstand a sustained enemy attack. All day enemy planes had passed overhead unhampered and unmolested, and towards nightfall heavy gunfire could be heard in the distance.
Although expecting a frontal attack, it was felt that the real danger lay in the possibility of the brigade being encircled. Rumours that Yugoslav resistance had ended and that the Germans had broken through the Greek defences on the left flank supported this view. It was obvious from the sounds of the shelling that 4 Brigade had been engaged and that the enemy was close to the river if not already across it. Everyone expected that the next 24 hours would see an end to the waiting period.
Captain Foley's news completely changed the position. Companies were ordered to prepare to withdraw, and Col Page went to HQ 19 Australian Brigade. Brigadier Vasey detailed his plan of withdrawal. The Australians were already recrossing the page 39 river, and the Brigadier proposed to withdraw his men first, leaving 26 Battalion to form the rearguard covering the river crossing. He expected to have all his men across by 11 p.m. Colonel Page was not to move his men until that time. Once across the river the battalion would be on its own until it could rejoin 6 Brigade, thought to be somewhere in the neighbourhood of Elasson, about 60 miles to the south-east. No transport could be provided and the unit would have to make the best use of its own vehicles. The Brigadier confirmed that the Germans had made a serious break-through on the left flank, and there was a grave possibility that the line of withdrawal to Elasson and Larissa had been cut by enemy spearheads. Communications with the rear had broken down completely and this added to the confusion and uncertainty.
Colonel Page returned to Tac HQ and informed his company commanders of the latest developments. All gear which could not be carried was destroyed and the men settled down in the darkness to wait the order to move back. All knew that another sleepless night lay ahead of them. The wait was long and unnerving. Flares were going up all around and the noise of shelling seemed louder. At length it was eleven o'clock and the companies began moving. It was very dark, and this made the trek across the ridges and ravines much more difficult. The low scrub was particularly annoying. At the crossing a satisfactory, if precarious, footbridge had been erected by sappers with the help of D Coy, and this saved many hours' delay when time had become important.
Meanwhile Rear Battalion HQ had been expecting a message from the CO countermanding his earlier order concerning the transport. At dusk Lt Tolerton had received no word, so Maj Samson decided to send the transport along the Servia route while he followed the clay track down to the river crossing to find out what was amiss. Lieutenant Matheson9 was placed in charge of the convoy. ‘I’ personnel who knew the route were to act as guides. The trucks had not gone far before they encountered withdrawing Australian vehicles. The narrow, winding road leading down from the Pass was very congested page 40 with traffic, and near the bottom the column was halted by a road block. There was nothing else to do but turn back. Jammed nose-to-tail, with the Australian vehicles moving in the opposite direction and shells exploding close at hand, it was not an easy task to turn on the road. Fortunately only one truck was lost in the manæeuvre, and that solely due to the impatience of an Australian driver who bumped a B Coy 15-cwt. over the side of the cliff. Luckily the New Zealand driver was able to jump clear. Before long the transport was back at Rear Battalion HQ, Matheson having learned from an Australian major that a complete withdrawal to a line near Athens was in progress. This was confirmed by the volume of traffic on the Proselion road, which hampered the battalion convoy as it moved on to the transport park.
By this time Maj Samson was at the crossing, having stopped at the Signal Centre on the way. From Lt Tolerton he learned that troops were coming back across the river, although there was no word of the battalion. Realising that the transport would be needed to effect the withdrawal, the Major sent Lt Horrell, who had accompanied him, to Rymnion to turn back the unit vehicles should they succeed in getting through the Pass. The crossing was a hive of activity. Sappers were working on the footbridge and the assault boat was still in use. Colonel Page was there, and after a short discussion with him Maj Samson set out up the Monastery track with the intention of having the transport ready to ferry the troops when they reached the Monastery. It was almost dawn when he arrived at the transport park. The drivers were wakened and ordered to dump all gear apart from petrol, rations, arms and ammunition. Later some of the drivers were able to collect petrol from the nearby supply dump before the Australians spiked the tins. Sergeant Robertson,10 Provost sergeant, was posted to direct the vehicles along the Monastery road.
* * *
For the troops the trek to the river was but the beginning. Ahead of the weary men lay what was to be the longest forced march of the campaign. It was also their third night without page 41 sleep and proper meals. Silently and in single file they set out along the riverbed and up the steep, winding clay track. Hour after hour the march continued. As the going became tougher anti-tank rifles, Bren tripods, and other equipment were thrown to one side. Australians, many of them unarmed, mingled with the New Zealanders, all peering into the darkness and groping forward. Aussie stretcher-bearers aroused great admiration as, six to a stretcher, they carried their patients to safety. The hourly ten-minute halts became all too short. As dawn approached almost everyone collapsed at each halt and had to be roused to start climbing again.
Finally, seven hours after they had begun the climb, the leading troops reached the Monastery. Only nine miles had been covered! It was just breaking dawn and it seemed that the day was going to be fine. The unit vehicles, 15-cwts. for the most part, were either at the road junction or on the way there—a pitifully small number to carry over 600 men. Some of the HQ Coy vehicles, being loaded with mortars, ammunition, etc., could carry few troops. Not far away was the dumped gear—packs, bedrolls, blankets, new two-men tents, and the Naafi stores bought four days earlier. While the men rested or rummaged through the untidy heaps to recover personal possessions, the vehicles were organised in readiness to begin a shuttle service. Drivers were instructed to carry each load of men three to four miles and then return for another load. Soon afterwards, packed with troops, the trucks set out along the inland road to Elasson via the Diskata Pass. Very little was known about the condition of this road. It had been used by the Australians in their withdrawal, but there was a possibility that the Germans driving down from the north-west might reach the Diskata Pass before the battalion.
Realising that the faster the battalion moved the greater its chance of escape, Col Page gave orders for those left behind to start marching. Nobody was to stop or wait for trucks to return. As each company reached the top of the track, a lucky few boarded trucks and the rest set out on foot along the road, rapidly becoming slushy. Almost miraculously, dark clouds had appeared in the sky and within a few minutes rain had begun to fall. Although the drizzle made conditions unpleasant, it page 42 also grounded the enemy aircraft which had bombed and machine-gunned the area many times the day before. The last to leave were Lt Tolerton and his signallers. By the time they had reeled in their line and set out in two trucks to catch up with the battalion, it was nearly 11 a.m. They found the troops still cheerful and still marching although spread out for miles.
The road quickly became a quagmire of squelching mud, and the easy slopes of the early part of the march had given way to steep inclines. Each group of men plodded along in the truck ruts, hopeful it would soon be their turn for a lift. Many Aussies were still on the road. Some were marching; others were sheltering out of the rain or were huddled around a small fire and a billy of tea. A shouted invitation to those on the road brought a quick response, for the troops had had no hot tea for several days. Nearly everyone was carrying a tin of bully beef, which did little to ease the pangs of hunger. The men's strenuous exertions and lack of sleep were having their effect. On the Sunday night the troops had marched to positions overlooking Rymnion; on Monday night there was the move over the river, and on Tuesday night the difficult climb up the goat track. The hours of daylight had been spent in trucks or preparing defence works. Hot meals had not been possible and rations were scarce. Now after twelve hours on the march the men were still a long way from their destination. A soup kitchen was set up in a church in one village but it closed down before many of the men reached it. One B Coy platoon found some overproof rum which, to quote one of the platoon, ‘produced a glow that even the rain couldn't dampen’.
Early in the afternoon the ferry service slowed down. The road became progressively worse and the hills steeper. Several trucks became stuck in the mud and the passengers had to clamber out and lend a hand. A more serious problem was the shortage of petrol. It had been intended to fill the tanks at dusk the previous day but the move to the river prevented it. At dawn the Australians had spiked most of the petrol tins in their supply depot. Major Samson, who was marching with C Coy, had earlier sent the water cart to Elasson with a message asking for transport and petrol. At two o'clock there was no sign of any help. Consequently, drivers with their petrol gauges show- page 43 ing almost zero packed on as many troops as they could and set out for Elasson. By 3 p.m. only a handful of vehicles was left. Some of these stalled on the steep slopes of the Diskata Pass. Fortunately, one or two trucks had chains and they towed the others and some Australian lorries out of the mud.
The departure of so many vehicles meant that the troops could hope for little relief for the rest of the journey. Colonel Page had gone ahead in his car over the Pass and encountered the divisional rearguard—a squadron of the Divisional Cavalry. The battalion was safe, but this was little comfort to the line of weary men strung out for miles back down the road. By 5 p.m. most of them had reached the Divisional Cavalry screen. There was no thought of stopping and still no sign of help. Darkness fell and it was no longer possible to follow the truck ruts. Each man mechanically walked behind the one in front of him and equally as mechanically carried his rifle or automatic weapon on an aching shoulder. Tired eyes peered into the darkness and ears strained for the sound of oncoming trucks. Everyone was weary, desperately weary, but grimly determined to complete the march. The long climb up the Pass and beyond it was the hardest stretch of all. Hours passed, and it was 10 p.m. before word was received that transport was definitely on the way. By this time most of the men were at the Divisional Cavalry headquarters near Diskata and the rest close to a small village about four miles away. The Cavalry cooks provided hot soup and earned the whole-hearted gratitude of the wet, bedraggled infantrymen.
About midnight the expected transport arrived and the troops embussed to fall asleep almost immediately. A long, uncomfortable journey followed. The road was poor, and towards the end of the journey the convoy was cut by other columns of vehicles, all moving south. The first vehicles reached their destination, the village of Domenikon, about 4 a.m. and the last over four hours later. The weary passengers, half asleep, tumbled out of the trucks into the nearest barn or building and slept, regardless of their wet clothes and empty stomachs. The march was over; in the morning every man was accounted for except one driver and his truck. This truck, together with several others, had been commandeered by Australians during page 44 the withdrawal. The only other casualty was a truck which had ended up in a ditch several miles west of Elasson. Each man retained his arms and all equipment save that dumped by the transport.
B Echelon had also arrived at the village, having moved down from the Dolikhe area during the afternoon. Earlier in the day 2 Lt Bethell,11 the Transport Officer, had gone to Brigade HQ area to find the headquarters gone. Nobody seemed to know where it was, so Bethell went to Divisional HQ at Dolikhe to find out the brigade's new location. Meanwhile, Capt Wilson had set out to take rations through to the battalion. He reached the original debussing point on the Proselion road only to find that the battalion had gone. On his way back he visited 20 Battalion HQ. The CO of this battalion, Lt-Col H. K. Kippenberger,12 was very disturbed about the sudden withdrawal of the Australian brigade and 26 Battalion. He had received no warning of it and was now left with one flank unprotected. By this time Bethell had learned that a general withdrawal was in progress and that HQ 6 Brigade was now based on Tyrnavos, a town several miles south of Elasson on the main road to Larissa. As he passed through Elasson he saw several of the battalion 15-cwts., packed with troops, on the roadside. He directed them to Brigade HQ, where officers in the party told the story of the battalion's withdrawal. The assembly of sufficient transport to bring out the unit was a difficult task and was handled by Brigade HQ. No RMT was available, and 24 and 25 Battalions were both using their own vehicles. When the latter vehicles became free a convoy was organised and sent to Diskata. Meanwhile, Capt Wilson had returned and B Echelon had moved to Domenikon, a village on a side road linking Tyrnavos and Elasson, which was chosen as an assembly point for the battalion.page 45
Misty rain continued during 17 April but there were few of the battalion interested in the weather, at least until after midday. The men awoke to find that several bags of mail and parcels had arrived. Wet clothes and sore feet were forgotten as the news from home was read and the contents of the parcels eaten. Those who only a short time before had been disgruntled and depressed now gathered around to laugh and joke. But if the home news was reassuring, that received from Brigade HQ was the reverse. The Olympus-Aliakmon River line had been abandoned and the Anzac Corps was withdrawing to the region of Thermopylae, a neck in the peninsula in which lay Athens. On the immediate front 24 and 25 Battalions, with artillery and anti-tank support, were covering the two roads leading south from Elasson. Apart from demolitions, rearguard parties and a Divisional Cavalry screen, these two units formed the only barrier to an enemy advance on Larissa. There was a possibility that enemy spearheads might drive around either flank and encircle the New Zealanders. Sixth Brigade, as the Division's rearguard, was to withdraw after dusk on the 18th.
After its recent unfortunate experiences 26 Battalion was in no state to take an active part in the brigade defence scheme. During the 17th and 18th efforts were made to remedy this.
An attempt was made to recover the gear dumped on the morning of the 16th, but the presence of enemy troops on the Diskata road forced the truck to turn back. Captain Wilson located a British supply dump not far from Domenikon and arranged to draw supplies from it. When he returned with some vehicles he found the depot unguarded and Greeks busy helping themselves. In a short time the trucks were loaded with blankets, boots, and all manner of wearing apparel. Two cookers were salvaged and used to replace others lost earlier. A large supply of tinned fruit and over a thousand bottles of beer were obtained from an Australian canteen near Larissa. Ammunition was drawn from another dump. Meanwhile the troops were resting and by the morning of the 18th were feeling much refreshed and in better shape to take a more active role.
Shortly after breakfast the battalion moved out of the village to take up a position astride the Domenikon-Elasson road behind 24 Battalion. A shortage of picks and shovels slowed up the page 46 defence work but by midday the companies had dug in. Each man knew that the day would be a crucial one. The rain had ceased and the skies were clear. Enemy planes seemed to be everywhere. Elasson was heavily bombed, and so were some towns and villages farther south. Disturbing reports were received from Brigade HQ: enemy armoured spearheads were converging on the area from three directions. The Divisional Cavalry screen had withdrawn from the Diskata Pass and was stationed a short distance forward of 24 and 25 Battalions. The enemy was advancing down this road and also along the Servia road. The third threat was developing from the north-east, where enemy troops were advancing around the southern spurs of Mount Olympus. The Carrier Platoon, which had rejoined the unit, was ordered to patrol the open ground east of Brigade HQ.
It was an anxious period. Nobody knew just where the enemy was or from what direction an attack might develop. Field guns dug in forward of the battalion were already engaging enemy targets, and everyone hoped that their fire might delay the assault long enough to enable the brigade to disengage and withdraw at dusk. Captain Wilson and his staff had already left and the rest of the battalion was ready to follow at a moment's notice. Slowly the time passed and the noise of the shelling grew louder. The order to withdraw came at 3 p.m. and with it a change of plan. Originally the battalion was to move on RMT by road direct to the village of Molos, 120 miles away, while the rest of the brigade followed another route which took them through Volos. The rifle companies were now to travel south from Larissa by rail. Lorries from the RMT company would carry the men to the railway siding.
Shortly before four o'clock the transport arrived, and as the troops were embussing Col Kippenberger arrived with the remnants of the 4 Brigade rearguard. This party had had little sleep for many nights, had marched across country practically the whole way from Servia, and were completely done in. A stiff whisky and the Colonel settled down in the CO's car to sleep. The other members of the party climbed into one of the trucks and followed suit.page 47
The trucks moved off shortly afterwards, travelling through Tyrnavos and along the main road to Larissa. A steady pace was maintained and by five o'clock the troops had debussed at the siding. There had been a temporary hold-up on the outskirts of the town when Stuka dive-bombers brought the column to a halt and bombed a bridge about 100 yards ahead of the leading vehicle. The bridge was not damaged, and by the time the planes turned to machine-gun the stationary vehicles and the roadside the troops were well scattered. Some of them were sheltering in a nearby cemetery. One soldier (Pte G. T. Webster)13 was killed instantly by a bomb splinter. Larissa was a shambles. Burnt-out and burning trucks and fallen masonry littered the streets. Here and there lay a body roughly covered by a tarpaulin. Most of the buildings were in ruins and some were on fire. No civilians were in sight. At the crossroads in the town the provost on duty misdirected part of the convoy down the Volos road. These vehicles went some distance before finding out what had happened, but after some delay rejoined the rest of the convoy at the siding.
It was soon apparent that the train journey was going to be no ordinary one. The station had been badly damaged. All types of carriages and wagons, including some with Red Cross markings, had been smashed. Several lines were cut by bomb craters. This was the first time the troops had seen the havoc which could be wrought by air power and consequently all were keen to get away before the bombers reappeared. Greek officials had abandoned the line on the 16th and the assembly of the train had been entrusted to sappers from 19 NZ Army Troops Company. Two of them, Les Smith14 and ‘Hoot’ Gibson,15 had volunteered to drive the train south, and they were busy getting everything ready. Gradually a motley collection of carriages and wagons was assembled. The engine had obviously seen better days. The overhead system had broken down and water for the engine had to be carried in petrol cans.page 48
Three hours passed before the sappers were ready to move off. In the interim the troops had found a stock of tinned fruit and beer. In stores across the road there was fresh bread, a commodity not seen for some time. While these discoveries were being made, an electrifying rumour that the Germans had entered the outskirts of the town spread through the station yards. Although false, it did have the effect of speeding up the move. Soon after eight o'clock the last train from Larissa headed south towards Lamia. The destination was Kephissokhori, over a hundred miles away. Exactly where it was nobody knew. Major Samson was put in charge of the rail party, Col Page electing to travel with the unit transport which had been waiting at the siding. Both parties had eventful journeys before they reached Molos and Capt Wilson's hideout.
The transport column travelled right through the night to reach Molos about two o'clock the following afternoon, 19 April. Darkness had overtaken the convoy as it headed towards Pharsala. The road was fairly free of traffic, and it was decided to travel with lights on as the enemy was doing no night flying. However, the trucks had not gone more than 20 miles before the head of the column caught up with a slow-moving convoy travelling without lights. When spoken to about using lights the RASC major in charge quoted regulations and angrily threatened to shoot out those of the battalion vehicles. There was no way of passing the British trucks and the slower rate of progress had to be accepted.
Some difficulty was experienced in Pharsala in finding the south road, and through this delay the battalion column was able to give the British convoy the slip. Excellent progress was maintained until the trucks reached the foot of the Domokos Pass, north of Lamia. Bomb craters on the road ahead were holding up about eight miles of closely packed traffic. Everyone was impatient to be gone before daylight, but at dawn there was no sign of movement. Enemy planes made their expected appearance and, although none of the unit vehicles was damaged, several trucks at the head of the column were set on fire and destroyed. Just as the enemy planes turned to leave, three Hurricanes appeared. Before an excited and enthusiastic audience they shot down two Stukas in as many minutes. All along page 49 the roadside Bren guns were firing and there was great jubilation when a third Stuka crashed in flames.
About 10 a.m. the columns began to move but at only a crawling pace. Three hours later as the battalion vehicles neared the top of the Pass, five more fighters appeared. The trucks stopped, and everyone dashed into the nearby fields only to find that the aircraft were friendly. An enemy reconnaissance plane was shot down. The troops re-embussed, much cheered by the morning's activities. At Molos the CO was directed to Capt Wilson's camp, several miles east of the town.
The advanced party, which had arrived about midnight, had also been subjected to air attacks and had suffered casualties. After leaving Domenikon, the twelve vehicles which formed the convoy continued through Larissa without stopping, having passed the now deserted Australian canteen with some reluctance. No sooner had they cleared the town than it was heavily bombed. The road traffic did not escape unscathed, and shortly afterwards the battalion suffered its first casualties, Pte J. Young16 being killed and Pte H. D. Tod17 mortally wounded. Enemy pilots were giving the troops little opportunity to dive to shelter and were machine-gunning the roads, ditches and fields, as well as the stationary vehicles.
By the middle of the afternoon the road was jammed with vehicles, nose-to-tail in two lines as far as the eye could see. It was a splendid target which the enemy did not neglect. Each truck hit or damaged caused delay; many were pushed into the deep ditches which ran parallel to the road. As darkness fell the twelve drivers heaved a sigh of relief. The rest of the journey was uneventful, and soon after midnight the party reached Molos. At the crossroads was the familiar figure of Capt Barrington,18 Staff Captain 6 Brigade, and he directed Capt Wilson to the new area. After parking the lorries close up page 50 against a cliff face out of sight of enemy planes, everyone settled down to sleep amongst the olive groves.
* * *
Colonel Page on his arrival was more concerned about the rail party than with lost sleep. Divisional HQ advised that transport to carry the rifle companies from Kephissokhori to Molos, a distance of over 40 miles, could not be made available for another twenty-four hours. As the companies in all likelihood had reached their destination, Lt Tolerton was sent to advise Maj Samson of the delay. The troops were to set out on foot along the road to Molos so that the transport on its arrival could complete the transfer during the hours of darkness. However, the rail party was still many miles from Kephissokhori. At the outset the orders given Maj Samson and the sapper train crew had been brief and uninformative, as could be expected from such an impromptu arrangement. The two sappers had not been over the line before nor did they know if it was still open. The engine was a different type from any they had driven before, and only sufficient fuel and water could be taken on to last 60 miles. The engine had no braking system and the only means of stopping the train was by flashing a torch signal to personnel operating the brake vans near the end of the train. It is probable that had the sappers been aware of what lay ahead they would never have attempted the journey. As it was each new danger was met and countered as it came along, and by dint of common sense and skill the journey was brought to a successful conclusion. Most of the time the troops cramped in uncomfortable wagons were unaware of the dangers so narrowly averted.
Recruits en route to the Burnham train, May 1940
Farewell march through Christchurch, 17 August 1940
Company lines, Maadi Camp, September 1940
At the Demerli Junction the train crashed into a stationary engine and five carriages. Although there was plenty of noise, surprisingly little damage was done. Within half an hour the obstruction had been pushed onto a siding and the Larissa train was beginning the long climb over the Domokos Pass. The gradient was steep and the speed of the engine gradually dropped until, half-way up a particularly steep pinch, it shuddered to a stop. All brakes were quickly applied. It was obvious that the engine would never reach the crest of the Pass pulling such a load, so the New Zealanders were crammed into the first nine wagons and the Greeks induced to move into the rear five, two of which were in one of the many tunnels. The sappers built up steam and the rear five wagons were quietly uncoupled. The ruse succeeded and the train slowly moved up the gradient, leaving the unauthorised Greek passengers behind. Unfortunately, two of the brake vans had had to be left behind to hold the abandoned wagons and the train was now without sufficient brakes.
This was quickly evident as the train began to travel down the reverse slope of the Pass. Within a few minutes the engine and wagons were swaying perilously as they swept through tunnels and across viaducts, gathering speed all the time. At the risk of blowing the cylinder heads and wrecking the train, steam was slowly reversed through the engine. To the intense relief of those in the cab this dangerous measure succeeded. Shortly after daylight the train came out of a tunnel to run into a set of driving wheels which saboteurs had placed lengthwise on the track. The train swayed dangerously but, by using steam judiciously, Gibson was able to stop the engine before it left the track. The obstruction was cleared and the journey continued at a fast pace, but without further incident, to Lamia.page 52
The train stopped at the marshalling yards and Maj Samson went on to the station to find out what could be done about a new engine and brake vans. Greek officials still on duty were adamant that no train could move south without a Greek crew who understood the signals system. A British RTO who was present promised to help. An hour passed and nothing happened. Meanwhile the troops had detrained. In the station a train was being assembled to carry a battalion of Cypriots and some Australians, and the British officer in charge agreed to the Larissa wagons being attached to it. The sappers shunted the wagons on and the troops entrained again, but the train had moved only a few yards before the air-raid siren sounded. The New Zealanders needed no urging. Those who could were racing for the fields. The bombs fell in and around the station, doing considerable damage. No New Zealanders were hit, but several of the Australians who remained in their carriages were killed. Three wagons were damaged beyond repair and, worse still, the railway line was cut behind and in front of the new engine.
The sappers had no alternative but to try to make up a new train on another line from the undamaged rolling stock in the station. It was obviously going to be a long job, so the troops were sent a mile down the line away from the danger of further air attacks. Slowly the two sappers and Lt Horrell, who had been called in to help, cleared another section of the line and a second train was assembled. A new engine was the problem. The sappers felt it was courting trouble to continue with the Larissa engine. Every engine in the yard was examined but each had some mechanical fault. The language difficulty was a great handicap, and the stationmaster, very agitated about the New Zealanders' high-handed action, made himself a general nuisance. At length, when it had been reluctantly decided to use the Larissa engine, another arrived with an Australian at the controls. It was quickly coupled on to the head of the train and the Cypriots and Australians climbed on board. This was a signal for hundreds of Greek soldiers to rush the wagons but they were kept back by deftly wielded rifle butts. A Greek crew, followed by the gesticulating stationmaster, climbed into the cab of the engine and stood over the throttle. Failing to see any reason for further delay, Lt Horrell drew his revolver. The page 53 stationmaster was unceremoniously dumped out of the cab and the Greek crew persuaded to open the throttle.
Once started the Greeks were unwilling to stop, and further ‘moral persuasion’ was required before the train pulled up alongside the fields of corn and poppies where the troops had been resting. There was only one more incident of note before the train reached Kephissokhori. Shortly after picking up the troops, an oncoming train was sighted on the line. A collision seemed imminent but was avoided by the other train backing onto a siding. (This was probably why the stationmaster was making so much fuss.) At 9.30 p.m. the train reached Kephissokhori. Stiff and weary, the troops detrained. The 130-mile journey had taken over a day and everyone was glad it was finished.
Lieutenant Tolerton was at the station when the train arrived and he passed his message to Maj Samson. The rest of the night was spent out in the open about two miles from the village. It was a cold, unpleasant night and few of the men had other than groundsheets to keep them warm. Some who had had visions of more comfortable billets in the village protested, but their murmurs were silenced next morning when enemy planes heavily bombed the station and the village. Terrified civilians fled into the open countryside. The British RTO stationed in the locality was very helpful. Not only did he provide rations, but he was also largely responsible for the arrival of RASC transport from a nearby camp. These vehicles, ten in all, reached the camp site about 9 a.m. and C and D Coys embussed and set out for Molos, arriving there about eight hours later, after frequent stoppages. Enemy aircraft several times attacked traffic on the road and there were further delays while wrecked and damaged vehicles were cleared away. Stationary and jammed close together, the columns of traffic were excellent targets, and considering the intensity of the air assault the two companies escaped lightly. Two men were wounded and one truck was damaged.
Enemy aircraft hovered around Kephissokhori for most of the day and A and B Coys kept under cover. During the morning Capt Wilson arrived from Molos with hot stew, which unfortunately had been so long in the containers that few could page 54 eat it. At dusk the two companies set out on foot along the road to Molos. A brisk pace was set, and three hours passed before oncoming transport met them. The troops embussed and several hours later reached Battalion HQ. The rest of the night was spent sleeping in olive groves nearby.
A lot had happened during the two days the road party had been in the area. Enemy bombers had been over and three men had been killed. As rations were short, Capt Wilson set out with several trucks on a foraging expedition to a large supply dump at Lamia. The risks of such a journey in daylight were counter- balanced by the good supply of rations, chiefly tinned food, brought back. Shortly after C and D Coys arrived at Molos, Col Page received orders from Divisional HQ to move his battalion to Cape Knimis and patrol the beaches. It was thought that the enemy might attempt sea landings in order to outflank the Thermopylae defences. By 8.30 p.m. the two rifle companies were in position and Battalion HQ had been set up near the village of Longos. Before dawn next morning the remainder of 6 Brigade arrived and with it the Carrier Platoon. For the first time for several days the battalion was reassembled, and nobody was more relieved than was the Colonel.
On 21 April 6 Brigade took over the coastal sector of the Thermopylae line. The day was fine and enemy air attacks began soon after dawn. No fires could be lit and consequently no hot meals or tea could be prepared. The troops were ordered to keep under cover as much as possible, and no casualties were suffered. After breakfast a reconnaissance was made of the Cape Knimis area with a view to moving A and B Coys into position after dusk. Later in the day the battalion was ordered to take up a reserve position in the 6 Brigade sector west of Molos. At this stage the Anzac Corps had withdrawn from Northern Greece to man a defensive line across the isthmus, 6 Australian Division on the left, covering the Brailos Pass, and the New Zealanders on the right, extending inland from the coast opposite Molos. Fifth Brigade was deployed in hilly country with 6 Brigade on its right. Fourth Brigade was in reserve. The infantry had in support the divisional field and anti-tank artillery, plus several batteries of British medium field and anti-tank guns.page 55
Unaware of this the troops spent the following day (22 April) digging in and preparing the defences. B Coy with two sections page 56 of carriers had taken over the coastwatching. A Coy was inland on its left with C Coy in reserve. D Coy was on the left of the main road behind 25 Battalion. Telephone cable was run out from Battalion HQ to each of the companies and a platoon of machine-gunners (No. 3 Coy, 27 MG Battalion) was deployed in close support. Enemy aircraft were very active and restricted movement to some extent, but did not prevent most of the work being completed by nightfall. The presence of a number of field guns nearby was viewed with some apprehension, but the enemy aircraft did not spot them and bombed areas to the rear. Just before dusk eight fighters strafed the battalion's lines but nobody was hit. Brigadier Barrowclough was now aware that the Anzac Corps was evacuating Greece and that 6 Brigade would form the rearguard at Molos. Fourth Brigade had already moved back to Kriekouki to take up a defensive position covering the plains north of Athens, and 5 Brigade was to withdraw behind this screen after dusk and embark from the beaches near the capital. Sixth Brigade, with artillery and other supporting arms under command, was to remain in position a further 48 hours. On the left 6 Australian Division would also withdraw.
Little of this was known to the troops. After dusk they watched the lights of oncoming vehicles moving over the Domokos Pass towards Lamia. The enemy vehicles continued to move forward until engaged by field artillery. Next morning, Wednesday the 23rd, the rank and file learned with some consternation that 5 Brigade had withdrawn during the night leaving only a small rearguard force, the Hart Detachment. Later in the morning 6 Brigade Operation Order No. 5 was received at Battalion HQ. It detailed the plan for the withdrawal of the Division and 6 Brigade's part in it. It was expected that the enemy would be in a position to attack by the afternoon of the 24th, but it was hoped the brigade, with the full support of the Divisional Artillery, could hold out until dusk. The 26th Battalion would remain in position until the forward battalions withdrew and would provide the rearguard party. The latter was to consist of one rifle company, the Carrier Platoon, one troop of anti-tank guns and one of 25- pounders. All surplus ammunition, field guns, mortars, etc., were to be destroyed.page 57
During the day the enemy intensified his air attacks and it became dangerous to move about in the open. Several times the battalion sector was bombed and strafed but without damage. The 25-pounders were now firing and this indicated the presence of enemy ground troops. At dusk the shelling ceased and the night passed uneventfully. The Hart Detachment was withdrawn to Brigade HQ, leaving the left flank of 25 Battalion unprotected. Early on the 24th the enemy stepped up his air assault and movement of even small parties became risky. Fighters and bombers were overhead practically all the time, but the troops were more concerned about the possibility of a tank attack. Everyone knew that the next few hours might see the brigade heavily engaged. Field and anti-tank guns were firing at a much increased rate and it was evident something was afoot. From Battalion HQ came a message to prepare to meet a tank-supported infantry attack. As the morning wore on the tempo of the artillery fire increased and the air attacks became more vicious. The rattle of machine-gun fire left no doubt that the enemy was not far away.
As had been expected the enemy attempted a frontal attack. Tanks and motor cyclists had approached along the main road but were forced to retire after suffering heavy casualties from artillery and machine-gun fire. Shortly afterwards 25 Battalion reported that enemy infantry were infiltrating into the hills north-west of its sector. This exposed left flank was causing some concern, for as soon as the enemy became aware it was undefended it would only be a matter of time before his forces circled around behind 6 Brigade and cut the line of withdrawal. The most likely approach route to accomplish this was by a narrow valley stretching down from the hills to Molos. The 26th Battalion was ordered to cover the valley entrance, and Col Page moved C and HQ Coys around to the left rear of D Coy. The carriers of 25 and 26 Battalions were sent up onto a nearby hill feature, which not only gave excellent observation over the brigade sector but also of the narrow valley. Although there was some enemy shelling both these tasks were carried out without loss.
In the meantime the left of 25 Battalion was being heavily attacked. For a while it seemed that the Germans would achieve page 58 a break-through, but by nightfall the battalion had recovered most of the lost ground. The enemy disengaged at dusk—much to the relief of the defenders. In 26 Battalion's sector the men had waited about expecting to see tanks come lumbering towards them at any minute. Tension had been high as the noise of battle grew louder. Little news of what was happening had been received at Battalion HQ and the troops could only surmise. Although the enemy had disengaged, a lot remained to be done before the battalion was safe. The forward battalions moved back and the supporting arms began to wreck their guns. Before long the battalion was on its own. Everyone was packed and anxiously awaiting the arrival of transport.
About 9 p.m. troop-carrying vehicles arrived at the transport park near Molos and the withdrawal began. The men embussed quickly, keen to leave before the enemy realised that only a few hundred infantrymen stood in his way. Silence reigned except for the purring of motors as drivers waited for the order to move. C Coy was the last to embus, and shortly after eleven o'clock the convoy moved out, leaving B Coy behind, with Col Page, as the rearguard company. The main convoy soon caught up with the long stream of southbound traffic bent on reaching safety before dawn and the appearance of enemy aircraft. After the trucks passed another rearguard party at Cape Knimis, side lights were permitted and the speed increased. Atalante was left behind; later headlights were turned on. By daybreak on the 25th the convoy had passed through 4 Brigade's positions, and the trucks were turning into a densely wooded valley south of Thebes where the rest of 6 Brigade was sheltering.
A little later Col Page and the rearguard party arrived. After the main body left this party had had an anxious wait in the darkness until word was received that all convoys had passed the control point near Cape Knimis. Towards the end of its wait each minute had seemed like an hour. Flares were going up all around, some only a few hundred yards away, and it was clear the enemy thought a withdrawal was in progress. The silence was eerie. Now and again an owl would hoot and this uncanny sound only heightened the tension. Just before 1 a.m. Col Page gave the signal for the last trucks to move off. The small convoy sped along a road deserted except for burnt-out page 59 and abandoned vehicles, until it finally linked up with the rest of the unit.
The brigade remained under cover for the rest of the day. As enemy planes were frequently overhead, no hot meals could be cooked. Fortunately the RMT lorries were carrying a good stock of tinned rations which the drivers freely distributed. Everyone was tired and slept most of the day in readiness for another sleepless night ahead. Many of the men were suffering from some form of dysentery caused mainly by the ill-balanced diet of the past week. It was Anzac Day, and all ranks were hoping it would see their departure from Greece. Their hopes were soon dashed. Soon after his arrival from Molos, Col Page attended a conference at Brigade HQ and learned that 6 Brigade would cover the withdrawal of 5 Brigade from the Marathon beaches near Athens.
The CO accompanied Brig Barrowclough and the other battalion commanders on a reconnaissance of a suitable position for this role. On the way south the party encountered General Freyberg, who advised that the plans had been changed. Sixth Brigade was to move south at dusk, cross the Corinth Canal, and halt in a suitable lying-up area a few miles south of it. The GOC indicated that the brigade would now embark from a beach somewhere in Southern Greece. Brigadier Barrowclough sent the battalion commanders ahead to locate a suitable lying-up area while he returned to the brigade to organise the 80-mile night move.
This change of plan meant that the brigade would require further rations. Captain Wilson was detailed to take two trucks and draw some from the huge supply dump at the Athens racecourse. After he left another order was received. Sixth Brigade was to endeavour to reach Tripolis during the night. This town lay about 80 miles south of Corinth, and the brigade was to take up a position covering the roads leading into it. No reason was given for the change or any information as to the whereabouts of the enemy. In view of the length of the journey a start was made immediately after dusk. Headlights were used most of the way, but this did not prevent frequent hold-ups caused by traffic congestion and breakdowns. One unpleasant spot which few of the battalion will forget was passed fairly page 60 early in the night. About 80 Argentina mules lay dead on the side of the road. Their military value had ended many days before when enemy planes had machine-gunned them. The stench was terrific and lingered in the nostrils for many miles. Corinth had received a heavy pounding from the air during the afternoon and was ablaze as the columns turned south over the canal bridge. A few miles beyond the city Col Page was picked up, and the convoy carried on to stop before daylight in the hills near the little village of Miloi. Tripolis was about 30 miles away.
Captain Wilson, sent to Athens racecourse the previous day, caught up with the battalion as the trucks turned off the road. The party had had an eventful time. The daylight journey through to Athens had been exciting, but the enemy aircraft failed to cause damage to either men or vehicles. At the supply depot Greek police were vainly trying to restrain civilians from looting the stores. Rifles and revolvers were being freely used; bullets were flying in all directions but nobody seemed to be getting hurt. The spectacle would have been rather amusing had the men not had to load up and get away as soon as possible. It was obvious the police were not going to be able to hold the people back much longer. By 9 p.m. a good assortment of rations, including chocolate and some rum, had been collected and the party headed towards the crossroads to wait for the battalion to pass on its way to Corinth. Unfortunately civilians misdirected the party, which ended up on a blind road miles from the rendezvous. When the vehicles eventually reached the crossroads the battalion was a long way ahead, and the two drivers increased speed to catch up. A little later they encountered masses of Greek troops and had to slow down. Once across the Corinth Canal speed was increased again and the next 50 miles were done in quick time.
* * *
Tripolis was a large town set in the centre of a wide plain where roads from the north, south, east, and west converged. Before Brig Barrowclough could deploy his troops to cover these roads, an alarming message was received that enemy parachute troops had been dropped a few miles south of the Corinth page 61 Canal. Fourth Brigade was to cross the canal after dusk, and if the enemy gained control of the bridge before then there was a grave danger that the brigade would be cut off. Colonel Page was ordered to send two companies back to Corinth to keep the bridge open another twenty-four hours. By acting swiftly the companies might be able to achieve their purpose before the enemy was properly established. The message was received at 10.30 a.m., and within half an hour the first company was on its way, the second following soon afterwards. Colonel Page waited only long enough to make arrangements for the rest of the battalion to follow before he too left.
It was a gloriously fine day and enemy pilots soon spotted the trucks. Company commanders had been ordered to disregard normal air precautions and to stop only if enemy aircraft made direct attacks. Spotters standing on the running-boards of trucks found it very difficult to sight the aircraft in the bright sunlight, and the troops were forced to dive hurriedly for shelter on a number of occasions. At length Capt Milliken,19 A Coy commander, decided too much time was being wasted, and he ordered the drivers not to stop unless absolutely forced to do so. D Coy, in the meantime, was held up by punctures and minor repairs, the results of machine-gunning. A little later, when the company was on the move again and passing through a small village, one truck was hit and set on fire. Persistent enemy attacks had also forced A Coy to stop about a mile farther on. The leading truck had crossed a small bridge and had been about to climb a narrow defile when four Stukas attacked. The troops dashed to shelter—some under a road culvert and others along the creek bed. Corinth was still five miles away. Suddenly and unexpectedly German helmets were seen bobbing up and down in the defile.
The stentorian voice of Capt Milliken warned the men of the new danger. The enemy came into view. A volley of shots and it was all over. A small enemy scouting party was rounded up. Ten Allied soldiers were freed and they confirmed the presence of a large number of parachutists in the neighbourhood. Colonel Page arrived and took command. Enemy planes again returned page 62 to the attack, and this time they killed a transport NCO (Cpl J. F. Don).20 Later, as the platoons extended along the bed of the gully and began to climb the ridge, suspicious movement was seen on their left. Lieutenant Westenra, who had come up in the only serviceable carrier, was sent across to investigate. He found a crowd of Greek civilians who, terrified by the outburst of firing, were seeking to escape into the hills but were frightened of drawing fire on themselves. In the meantime D Coy had arrived and was deploying on the right of the road. A truck bearing Maori Battalion markings came through the defile. It was driven by a German; he was promptly killed and the large Nazi flag on the bonnet souvenired.
Under the direction of the CO the two companies moved forward to the crest of the ridge and engaged the parachutists with Brens and rifles. Enemy aircraft returned again and again to the attack as if determined to prevent the troops from crossing the ridge. As the hours passed the situation became more serious. There appeared to be no possibility of reaching Corinth, and the companies held such a short line that the enemy could easily outflank them, particularly after dusk. News of the situation at Corinth arrived in an unexpected manner. Lieutenant Beale,21 4 Brigade Intelligence Officer, was seen approaching the ridge, having made his way through the enemy lines. He reported that Corinth bridge had been blown during the morning. In view of the importance of his news a 15-cwt. truck was made available to carry him to Divisional HQ.
There was now no necessity for the companies to remain in position and the order was given to disengage and move back to the trucks. Major Brooke,22 Brigade Major 6 Brigade, who arrived about this time, brought fresh instructions. The two companies were to withdraw to a position astride the main road, north of the port of Nauplion, to cover the embarkation of a large number of troops and some New Zealand nurses. By page 63 midnight the port would be clear and the companies were to return to the 6 Brigade area near Miloi. There were now not enough trucks to carry the troops. Two had been badly damaged and a third lent to Lt Beale. Fortunately Lt Matheson arrived at dusk with more 15-cwts. and the convoy was soon heading south towards the port. The trucks picked up many British and Australian troops who were cheerfully but wearily making their way south. Some time later the companies took up a position in the hills north of the port and remained there until midnight.
The rest of the battalion had moved up during the afternoon to the little village of Ano Fikhtia, about twenty miles north of Miloi. Enemy aircraft had given the convoy little peace until it dispersed near the village. No news was received from the forward companies and at midnight Maj Samson, acting on instructions from Brigade HQ, gave orders for the troops to embus and the convoy set out back along the road to Tripolis. A small party was left behind to link up with the forward companies if and when they came through. About an hour later they arrived, and in the darkness the small party was nearly missed and left behind. Both convoys continued past Miloi and by daybreak had linked up and were dispersed under cover a few miles north of Tripolis. The rest of the brigade had also withdrawn south during the night, following reports of a threat to Tripolis by enemy forces moving down the western road.
Twenty-one casualties, including four killed, had been suffered during the day. Two later died of wounds. Most of these had resulted from a direct hit on the D Coy truck which had been set on fire in the race to Corinth. Few of the passengers had had a chance to dive out of the vehicle when the enemy plane attacked. Of those on board, the majority were wounded. Three who were not, Privates Struthers,23 Morrison,24 and Delaney,25 immediately began dragging the wounded off the blazing truck to the safety of a nearby culvert, despite continued air attacks and the dangers of exploding ammunition. By their page 64 efforts the lives of twelve men were saved. Later, when the action was over, 2 Lt Bethell took the wounded in two trucks to a Greek hospital in Tripolis.
Sunday, 27 April, was not a day of rest. Enemy planes were overhead early in the morning but few men were astir to watch them. Early in the morning it was learned that the Germans were moving south much more rapidly than had been expected, and it was decided to accelerate the withdrawal to the embarkation beach at Monemvasia. The 24th and 25th Battalions were astride the western and northern approaches to Tripolis and were likely to be engaged by enemy spearheads before dusk. To clear the road for a rapid move south by these two units after dark, 26 Battalion was ordered shortly before midday to set out in daylight. The men, remembering their experiences of the day before, were not enthusiastic and saw no sense in tempting providence any further.
Nothing could be done about it, and when the time came to leave everyone was there. Lieutenant Matheson was sent ahead with two truckloads of men to fill in any road craters that might delay the main body. They found nothing of consequence and, like everyone else, soon became more concerned about their own safety. The convoy, widely dispersed, had not gone many miles before enemy reconnaissance planes spotted it. As had been feared, fighters and bombers were soon ranging up and down the column, strafing and bombing, but surprisingly enough causing few casualties and little damage. Everyone became adept at diving out of the trucks the moment spotters standing on the running-boards gave warning. These mad rushes had their humorous moments. On one occasion two men dived headlong into some blackberry bushes. They had little difficulty getting in, but judging from the sounds coming from the unfortunate pair, getting out was very painful. Another time several men from one truck finished up in a ditch half full of muddy water.
Despite the many stoppages drivers were maintaining an excellent speed. Shortly after leaving Tripolis the convoy climbed up into hilly country along a narrow, winding road, through Sparta and south towards Monemvasia. Much of the ground was very fertile and in places cornfields, orange groves, and vineyards stretched as far as the eye could see. Everywhere the page 65 Greeks turned out to wave and cheer and press gifts on the troops, although they must have known their visitors were about to leave them to their fate. To tired, hungry, unshaven and dusty soldiers this spontaneous outburst of feeling was a cheering and yet a moving sight. As darkness fell the vehicles began to turn into a wooded area about ten miles from the Monemvasia beaches. The occupants tumbled out, each truckload with a different story to tell of narrow escapes and dangers averted. Nearly every truck was spattered with bullet holes. Some had been so badly damaged that they were abandoned, the passengers climbing on to another. The drivers had shown great skill in completing the 80-mile journey—some had driven part of the way on flat tires—in such good time.
But the journey was over and everyone was glad of it. The rest was up to the Navy. All ranks settled down in the cool grass beneath the trees and slept. During the early hours of the morning the rest of 6 Brigade arrived, and at daybreak enemy reconnaissance planes passed overhead diligently searching for the missing New Zealanders. The day was perfect with scarcely a cloud in the sky. The wooded valley was an ideal spot for a picnic. In such peaceful surroundings the war seemed far away. But at various headquarters plans for the embarkation were being discussed and finalised. Scouting parties were sent along the coast in search of more small boats to carry the troops out to the warships when they arrived. By tea-time everyone had shaved and washed in readiness for the sea voyage. The cooks provided an excellent meal which was capped by an issue of rum—the first of the campaign. The warships were expected to arrive before midnight and dry rations for use on board were distributed.
At eight o'clock the battalion embussed and travelled down the narrow, winding road to the little seaside village. From there the troops marched down to the beach. Drivers drained the oil from their trucks and ran the engines until they seized, and then they followed the troops. It was a sad end for the transport which had served the battalion so well. Down on the beach all eyes had turned towards the open sea, but the darkness was impenetrable. An anxious wait followed until finally at eleven o'clock the first small craft were sighted nosing their way page 66 into shallow water. More followed and soon the embarkation was in full swing. The battalion was the second unit to leave and the troops boarded one or other of the four warships—the cruiser Ajax and the destroyers Isis, Griffin, and Falcon. The sailors appeared to regard embarkations as part of their daily routine. Soon after 3 a.m. everyone was aboard and the ships lost no time in putting out to sea and heading for Crete.
On each warship the troops were packed in wherever there was room. The majority remained on deck, where they received a salt-water bath each time their ship lifted her nose out of a deep swell. With traditional hospitality the Navy provided hot cocoa. It was only a short voyage, and by 9 a.m. the warships had reached Suda Bay in Crete and the battalion was transhipping to other vessels. The greater part boarded either the Thurland Castle or the Kingston. These two transports formed part of a large convoy which sailed soon after the re- loading was completed. On board each vessel the troops were packed like sardines with no regard for comfort or meals. Each soldier, whether Australian, British or New Zealander, sorted out a place for himself, and it ill behoved him to leave it for any length of time. In any case, movement on board was practically impossible. On occasions hot tea was available in the galleys, but not everyone had containers nor was it always possible to get there in time. Each soldier was carrying dry rations and with these he had to be satisfied. Everyone was too thankful for his narrow escape and too weary to worry much about the conditions. Fortunately for those on deck the weather remained fine.
Lunch on tent bales, Katerine—this group Includes Capt F. W. Wilson (left) and Lt V. D. Westenra (right)
Climbing up the Monastery track from the Aliakmon River to the Pass road
The campaign in Greece was over. The battalion's casualties totalled 76. Eleven men were killed, four died of wounds, and 42 were wounded. Ten of the wounded, together with twelve hospital cases and seven others were taken prisoner. Nearly all the casualties were the result of the enemy air attacks in the later stages of the withdrawal. To those who had come overseas to fight it had been a disappointing campaign in many respects. During its 39 days in Greece the battalion had stayed overnight in 18 different localities. On no fewer than nine occasions defensive positions had been prepared, but each time the enemy approached the order came to withdraw. These frequent moves and the paucity of information circulating down to the troops had caused general discontent. This was a complaint common throughout the army at this time but which was rectified as the war progressed. In the meantime, everyone was pleased to be back in Egypt, away from enemy dive-bombers and free from the tension of not knowing what was going to happen next.
1 Main appointments at 21 Mar were:
2 i/c: Maj J. M. Samson
Adjt: Capt L. G. Smith
QM: Capt F. W. Wilson
MO: Capt W. W. Little
Padre: Rev. J. S. Strang
TO: 2 Lt R. Bethell
IO: 2 Lt A. B. Kennedy
A Coy Comd: Capt T. Milliken
B Coy Comd: Capt H. G. McQuade
C Coy Comd: Capt J. W. McKergow
D Coy Comd: Capt F. W. Huggins
HQ Coy Comd: Capt W. C. T. Foley
Signals: 2 Lt W. Tolerton
Carriers: 2 Lt W. D. Westenra
12 Maj-Gen Sir Howard Kippenberger, KBE, CB, DSO and bar, ED, m.i.d., Legion of Merit (US); Wellington; born Ladbrooks, 28 Jan 1897; barrister and solicitor; 1 NZEF 1916–17; CO 20 Bn Sep 1939–Apr 1941, Jun–Dec 1941; commanded 10 Inf Bde, Crete, May 1941; 5 Bde Jan 1942–Jun 1943, Nov 1943–Feb 1944; 2 NZ Div 30 Apr–14 May 1943 and 9 Feb–2 Mar 1944; twice wounded; Editor-in-Chief, NZ War Histories.
18 Brig B. Barrington, DSO, OBE, ED, m.i.d. (2); Wellington; born Marton, 2 Oct 1907; Army officer, NZTS; SC and BM 6 Inf Bde 1941–42; DAQMG 2 NZ Div, 1942; AA & QMG 1942–44; DA & QMG NZ Corps 9 Feb–27 Mar 1944.
22 Col J. I. Brooke, OBE, m.i.d., Legion of Merit (US); Waiouru Military Camp; born Dunedin, 20 Nov 1897; Regular soldier; BM 6 Inf Bde, 1940–41; GSO 1 3 NZ Div 1942–44; Camp Commandant Waiouru, 1951–.