27 (Machine Gun) Battalion
CHAPTER 4 — Withdrawal from Greece
Withdrawal from Greece
After the collapse of the Yugoslav armies and the German drive down through the Monastir Gap, the Greek and British forces were not strong enough to hold the troops and tanks, supported by a virtually unopposed air force, which the Germans could bring against them, and were compelled to withdraw from one defensive line to the next, until in the end the Greeks surrendered and the British were evacuated from Greece.
By delaying the German advance from Monastir, Mackay Force was to have given the Greeks time to withdraw from the Vermion mountain range to positions on the left of the Mount Olympus-Aliakmon River line. While the British were to hold the sector from the Aegean coast to the southerly bend of the Aliakmon River, the Greeks were to continue the line westwards from the river bend to the other coast. The German advance, however, was too swift to allow the Greeks time to complete this withdrawal, mostly on foot over extremely rugged country. Consequently, just as the original Aliakmon line had to be abandoned in face of the threat of encirclement from Monastir, so in turn the Mount Olympus-Aliakmon River line would have to be given up for an even shorter line farther south.
On 27 March 3 and 4 Companies had left 27 (MG) Battalion to join the New Zealand Division in the Aliakmon line. At that time the Division was holding the coastal sector with 6 Brigade by the sea, 4 Brigade inland on the left, and 5 Brigade preparing positions to cover the mountain passes in the rear. With Major McGaffin, who arrived from Amindaion on the 30th, again in command, 3 Company went into positions to support 6 Brigade near the Gulf of Salonika and spent a week or so digging gunpits and communication trenches. Meanwhile 4 Company joined 22 Battalion in divisional reserve and supporting 6 Brigade, and its platoons, after deploying with the infantry companies, also spent some time digging in.page 52
On the day Germany declared war (6 April) Lieutenant Green1 and Private Verdon,2 both of 9 Platoon, were wounded when the latter was examining a booby-trap device, which may have been dropped by a fifth columnist. Succumbing to his injuries next day, Verdon was the first New Zealand machine-gunner to die in Greece.
Before they left their positions near the coast the machine-gunners saw Salonika on fire on the night of 8–9 April. 'Salonika, within view of our positions and across the bay, was heavily bombed3 at nightfall and the sky was lit up all night by the flames of the burning city,’ wrote Private Clemens.4 ‘The Germans marched in and occupied it this morning and it was still burning. All night last night while on picquet I heard roads and bridges all around being blown up in readiness for a “strategic withdrawal” and to hinder the Gerries…. A pitiful sight all day seeing Greek civilian refugees pushing back from the Germans. Women with babies in their arms and children by their sides, all crying, followed by a donkey cart carrying all the chattels….’
Fourth Brigade was sent back to Servia Pass, where it occupied a position overlooking the Aliakmon River valley on the main route to the north-west. Sixth Brigade went back behind 5 Brigade, which was astride the Olympus Pass on the Elasson-Katerini road. Thus, with 21 Battalion blocking the narrow coastal route at Platamon, the New Zealand Division by 11 April guarded the main mountain passes between Servia and the Aegean Sea.
Coming under the command of 5 Brigade, 4 Company went back to Olympus Pass in the early hours of the 10th. The brigade was to defend a narrow defile in which the white ribbon of the road was cut out of the rock walls. To the south the 9000-foot Mount Olympus, coated with snow, resembled a peak in the Southern Alps; to the east and north, beyond the tree-studded coastal plain and the little white-walled villages, was the Aegean Sea. Rain began to fall at dusk and continued throughout the next two days; and then it snowed.page 53
The machine-gun platoons were allotted their areas shortly after arrival and by evening on the 10th all the guns were in position and the men were digging in. ‘I had sited my platoons with the guns fairly close together and high and this proved a good scheme as it enabled them to do some jobs on a wide arc and at long range and later to get out over the back quickly,’ says Major White.
When 6 Brigade withdrew from the Aliakmon line, it left a rearguard comprising 34 Anti-Tank Battery, 3 MG Company, and the Bren-carrier platoons of the three infantry battalions, under the command of the CO 7 Anti-Tank Regiment (Lieutenant-Colonel Duff9). The brigade retired through Olympus Pass to the Ay Dhimitrios-Dholikhi area, and the rearguard came back the following evening to bivouac near the village of Kokkinoplos. The machine-gun company and carrier platoons later joined Divisional Headquarters near Dholikhi in case of parachute and air attack.
After 6 Brigade had gone Divisional Cavalry remained in sole possession of the Aliakmon line, which the Germans approached in the afternoon of the 12th. The cavalry delayed the enemy's crossing of the river before withdrawing through Olympus Pass. Hostile vehicles were reported coming down the road from Katerini towards evening on the 14th, and a party of motor-cyclists rode boldly up the pass road several hours later, but made off when 22 Battalion opened fire with light machine guns. Throughout that night enemy vehicles, their headlights blazing, were seen and heard bringing troops forward.
Realising that the Mount Olympus-Aliakmon River line could not be defended, chiefly because the Greeks could not reach their allotted positions in the time available, General Wilson, GOC British Troops in Greece, decided to withdraw to the Thermopylae line, astride the narrow neck of mountainous page 55 country between the gulfs of Corinth and Euboea, which the British alone might have some chance of holding.
Confident of their ability to make a prolonged stand at Olympus Pass, the officers and men of 5 Brigade Group were surprised and disappointed to hear that they were to withdraw. Brigadier Hargest10 explained at a conference early in the morning of the 15th that the brigade was to go back to the head of the pass that night and hold there for twenty-four hours to cover the withdrawal of the Australians and New Zealanders from positions farther west. Preparations were begun for 4 Company to go to the vicinity of Ay Dhimitrios; Sergeant Reid11 took back 12,000 rounds of ammunition and reconnoitred the new position. Then word was received in the afternoon that the move had been postponed until the following night (the 16th–17th).
No real attack developed on 5 Brigade's front on the 15th. German tanks and vehicles, advancing cautiously, apparently trying to find covered ways of approach, were fired on by the defending artillery, mortars and machine guns. There were no targets for 10 Platoon, but 12 Platoon fired for about half an hour in the morning against tanks approaching along the road —these eventually withdrew—and 11 Platoon was in action most of the day against troop-carrying transport and troops who came within range.
‘When the Jerries came along the Pass Road,’ says Bradshaw (11 Platoon), ‘it was rather like playing a piano. The guns shot on the road, the Jerries got off the road. The guns shot to left and right of the road, the Jerries got back on the road, etc. There was one particularly attractive bend in the road open to the guns but as far as the enemy was concerned [it gave] a visual cover. It was quite intriguing to watch the trucks arriving at the bend, then stopping (hit), running straight on out of control, etc. It was here that Charlie Murray12 achieved some marvellous long range shooting by means of adding clino readings on to his guns when at their maximum sight elevation.’page 56
Tanks opened up with cannons and machine guns on 22 Battalion about 6 a.m. on the 16th. They were promptly engaged by 12 Platoon, the mortars and 25-pounders, and withdrew a short distance for shelter. Snedden's Vickers next brought their fire to bear on a dense smoke screen near a tank concentration where German infantry might have been sneaking into the forest under cover of the smoke, and severely damaged six troop-carriers. When the smoke cleared the machine-gunners, supporting the artillery, continued to harass the tanks.
Fresh attacks up the road, although coming at times within a few hundred yards of 22 Battalion's forward positions, were broken up by the 25-pounders, Vickers, mortars and Boys anti-tank rifles. The effectiveness of this defensive fire is described by a platoon commander in the flanking Maori Battalion, who ‘could see road from Katarina [Katerini] black with enemy vehicles. They advanced right under us … 5th Field 25 pounders opened fire and picked vehicle-tank after vehicle-tank until jerry found it too hot. Staff car came up part of way and lasted one minute and a half before it was blown to hell. Then light tanks, lorries, rushed in and hid behind banks or road right below us but were picked off simultaneously…. There must have been a big number of casualties. 50 or 60 vehicles or so caught fire. I know there were many, for all I did was Hip-hooray for each one hit and that was all day.’
One section of 12 Platoon was extremely successful (according to a message from 22 Battalion) with sustained fire against infantry advancing in a stream bed. Small parties of Germans wearing shorts and jerseys were engaged elsewhere until movement ceased. Towards midday the enemy artillery became active. ‘He got on to us on his fourth shell and accurate shelling followed,’ says Snedden. ‘Two small ration dumps were hit and some blankets were destroyed.’ Heavy fog then descended and there was a lull in the fighting, but later the platoon found targets in front of the Maori Battalion.
Meanwhile, on the right, 23 Battalion had been busily engaged with parties which it was thought were trying to infiltrate around the flank. Heavy fog which came down from the mountains and for several hours reduced visibility to a few yards handicapped 10 Platoon, which nevertheless gave what support it could, shooting by instrument.page 57
Troops advancing on foot took advantage of the fog and rain late in the morning to close up on the Maori Battalion on the left. When the weather began to clear in mid-afternoon the Maoris saw Germans entering the deep ravine of the Mavroneri stream, where they were beyond effective small-arms range. Unfortunately 11 Platoon, whose Vickers would have had some excellent shooting had they still been there, had already been sent out in preparation for the general withdrawal. At dusk the Germans suddenly attacked the Maoris—the only determined infantry attack on the whole front—and overran some foremost posts, but at a disproportionately heavy cost.
Because of an adjustment to 28 Battalion's line, 11 Platoon, having already prepared one position, had moved on the 13th and hurriedly dug another. After being in action most of the day on the 15th and again next morning, these machine-gunners had to withdraw by a slippery ridge track to the road, preparatory to occupying a position at the top of the pass before dawn. Hearing that they were unable to reach the road by the selected route because of the enemy infiltration, Major White ordered the transport corporal (Pulford13) to turn his trucks, ‘a very ticklish undertaking on the narrow winding road in the fog and dark,’ and go back down the pass to the place where they could get straight on them. ‘They brought out all their guns, much ammo and quite a lot of gear,’ says White. ‘It is worth recording of all Pls that in preference to their blankets and personal gear the men brought out fighting equipment.’14
Snedden's platoon also withdrew all its guns and most of its gear. The equipment had to be manhandled down a very steep, slippery, zigzagging track to the bottom of the pass and up to the road near Company Headquarters, which tested every man's stamina. Taking the risk of being left behind, Privates Tong15 and Harris,16 using a commandeered donkey as a pack- animal, returned for a last load after the infantry had withdrawn. The platoon left its rendezvous on the road at 9.15 p.m. and reached Ay Dhimitrios before midnight. It was billeted in a house.page 58
Carrying its Vickers and equipment, 10 Platoon got away before nightfall and withdrew with 23 Battalion about seven miles over a mountain track, roughly parallel with the main pass road, to Kokkinoplos. This route rose 2000 feet above the pass over a shoulder on Mount Olympus, and the distance seemed interminable to the heavily laden men struggling up a precipitous track deep in mud. The platoon remained with 23 Battalion, which it supported in the vicinity of Kokkinoplos next day, and did not rejoin 4 Company until 19 April.
Shortly after midnight on the 17th 11 Platoon was in position near Ay Dhimitrios. It was raining and the men were wet and cold, but they did at least get a hot breakfast before daybreak. The rain stopped, but there was a heavy fog—excellent protection against hostile aircraft—and everything was wringing wet. Major White was getting 12 Platoon into position when he was told of a change of plan: he was to take his guns farther back. By 8.30 a.m. both platoons were in the new positions— ‘real good going, the lads worked like bullocks right through the piece.’ Now about three miles south of Ay Dhimitrios, 12 Platoon was on the right of the road, and 11 Platoon on the left.
In this area, also, 5 Field Regiment sited its guns for an anti-tank role. The 22nd Battalion had completed its withdrawal, but the Maori Battalion, which had been delayed by the German attack the previous evening and had to retire over very difficult tracks to the road, was late in arriving. Some even feared the Maoris had been lost, but they now appeared, ‘much to everyone's jubilation, marching up in formation along the road.’
Fourth Brigade at Servia Pass and 21 Battalion at Platamon had gone into action about the same time as 5 Brigade. Fourth Brigade had no difficulty in driving off the enemy, but 21 Battalion, after repulsing attacks on 15 April, had been forced by the weight of the opposing tanks and infantry to retire next day to the Pinios Gorge, farther south.
Hitherto it had been expected that the main threat to an orderly withdrawal to Thermopylae would be a rapid German advance from the north-west—where the Greek forces were disintegrating—and onto the plain of Thessaly before the retreating columns were clear of the bottleneck of roads at Larisa. Now, however, it was realised that the real danger came from the right flank rather than the left; enemy armour and page 59 mountain troops were advancing down the Aegean coast in greater strength than had been anticipated. An Australian brigade group (Allen Force) was despatched to the Pinios Gorge, the narrow route from the coast to the plain of Thessaly, and together with 21 Battalion was to block this route until Anzac Corps was clear of Larisa.
Major-General Freyberg decided to take advantage of the heavy fog blanketing the hills to accelerate the withdrawal of 5 Brigade, and told Brigadier Hargest to get his brigade back by daylight on the 17th instead of the following night as previously planned.
Only 23 Battalion was in contact with the enemy. A party of Germans had followed the battalion over the track to Kokkinoplos during the night and kept up a steady exchange of fire with it throughout most of the morning, although they had difficulty in picking out targets in the mist. A Company, which was in a col above the village and covering the track leading down into it, bore the brunt of this, but the other companies and 10 Platoon also joined in. A German account says: ‘… the enemy [New Zealanders] defended their positions extremely sternly and courageously. Our casualties were caused by direct hits by mortar bombs or accurate MG fire.’ Exhausted by the trek across the mountain, the enemy did not press the attack, and 23 Battalion, covered by the Vickers, withdrew about midday to the village of Pythion, two miles away, and had a hot meal before embussing.
The rest of 5 Brigade got away without interference. The two machine-gun platoons (11 and 12), which had their vehicles with them, left at 1 p.m. They passed 3 Company, already in position near Elasson with 6 Brigade, which was covering the withdrawal of 4 and 5 Brigades from the Servia and Olympus passes. Major White's party made good progress until they reached Larisa, where they were held up by traffic blocking the roads. The weather began to improve and they had only just got clear of the town and were temporarily halted on the road to Volos when aircraft attacked the town and nearby bridges. ‘A flight of six light planes—fighters—came along and we just sat and innocently watched them. There was a line of field ambulance vehicles in front of us which probably accounted for fire not being opened further along the road. Then “crumph” “crumph” and general scatteration.’ In this raid 4 Company had its first casualties: Lance-Corporal McColl17 and page 60 Privates Steel18 and Eden19 were wounded, and two trucks damaged but towable.
Withdrawal routes to Thermopylae
Taking the coastal route, White's company bivouacked at 10 p.m. at Nea Ankhialos, half-way between Volos and Almiros. A search next morning (the 18th) failed to locate 5 Brigade, which was expected to be at Almiros. The machine-gunners were without petrol, food and orders, but some aviation spirit was found on an abandoned airfield, and rations were obtained at a dump which had been left in the charge of an English corporal, who did not take much persuading that it was time he moved on.
White had a vague idea that the next stand was to be made at Molos, so decided to move off; at that moment somebody arrived in a staff car to tell him to do that. The company caught up with the column including the ambulance that had travelled ahead of it the previous day. Frequent hold-ups occurred. ‘We could see that Lamia was being pasted very heavily. Late in the afternoon we were able to move on. We had chosen a route cutting out across the river flats to avoid the town and were about to turn off when we were halted by a very inquisitive Inf bloke. He had been told that no more of our troops were to come that way and to fire on anything that appeared: he had four A-Tk guns lined up on us and was just waiting to get as many [vehicles] nicely trapped as possible when he realised that there was something familiar about their looks! We continued!’
It was dark by the time 4 Company reached Molos. No guides could be found and nobody seemed to know where anybody else was, so the convoy kept on going down the road, to bivouac eventually at Cape Knimis, ten miles beyond Molos. Next morning (the 19th) it was discovered that 5 Brigade was 11 miles back, and by midday 4 Company, including 10 Platoon,20 was concentrated in the brigade dispersal area.
Despite the confusion caused by the change of roads, also the chaos on the main route jammed with Australian and New Zealand traffic and the persistent low-level attacks of an unopposed German Air Force—which as a matter of fact caused remarkably few casualties—4 and 5 Brigades successfully completed their withdrawal to Thermopylae. First Armoured page 62 Brigade, to which 27 (MG) Battalion less 3 and 4 Companies was still attached, was to have covered the final withdrawal across the Plain of Thessaly, but ceased to be an effective fighting force.
By the time the brigade had reached Grevena on 14 April its tank strength had been considerably reduced, by mechanical breakdowns rather than enemy action. Air attacks now caused further losses. At dawn that day Colonel Gwilliam found that they had been sleeping in an open valley without any possibility of obtaining cover from air attack. ‘In fact,’ he says, ‘with all the troops and transport concentrated in the area it was a real bombers' paradise.’ He therefore ordered an immediate withdrawal and took his battalion across the Venetikos River to an area where it could disperse and camouflage. ‘This was a wise move as not half an hour later the concentrated area was heavily bombed with disastrous results.’
Private Gummer21 says, ‘We had gone a few hundred yards when down swooped three Stukas, laying their eggs willy nilly. Our machine-guns opened fire and just over the hill we saw two of the bombers crash in flames.22 A few trucks hit, but not one casualty. Having made the passage through Hell Fire Pass [the Venetikos gorge], we pulled up for the night with HQ Coy, which had been a day ahead of us…. Within an hour of settling in, a swarm of Stukas came over and caught the tail end of our convoy, an English convoy, and scores of Greeks in the deep pass. They lay their eggs there and from where we were we could see them falling from the dive-bombers. Into the best cover we scampered. An ammunition truck hit burnt and exploded for nearly 2 hours afterwards. Planes came over all the time till darkness fell.’
In the evening Brigadier Charrington decided to withdraw his brigade south of the Venetikos. Heavy dive-bombing of the intermingled Greek troops and refugees, motor transport, and horse and ox-drawn carts packed head-to-tail on the narrow, tortuous road, produced such shambles that the brigade took from just before midnight on the 14th until the following evening to cover the six or seven miles.
The machine-gunners' task on the 15th was the protection of the road in the vicinity of the bridge across the Venetikos. page 63 In rear of the battalion this road passed through a forest, which the enemy bombed all day, dropping many incendiaries as well as high explosive, but fortunately the trees were too wet to burn. As they returned from each raid the aircraft strafed the machine-gun positions and transport, but did no damage.
The B Echelon transport, including Headquarters Company and B Echelon of 27 Battalion, had been sent back to Kalabaka, another 20 miles to the south. Later the LAD truck and orderly-room truck left Battalion Headquarters to join Headquarters Company. Aircraft dive-bombing and machine-gunning near Kalabaka set fire to lorries and an ammunition dump alongside the road. The exploding shells blew a crater in the road, which of course was jammed with vehicles. Private Richardson,23 from the orderly-room truck, directed the trucks past the danger, which permitted the column to proceed and earned him the MM.
Brigadier Charrington ordered Gwilliam to occupy the forest south of the Venetikos that night and remain there the next day (the 16th). After examining the many marks on the ground caused by the day's bombing, the CO did not have much hope for his unit's survival next day. It rained so heavily on the 16th, however, that the enemy planes did not take to the air. By 6 a.m. Gwilliam had sixteen guns sited on both sides of the road and one in mobile reserve. An hour later he was told that he was to withdraw his guns at 1 p.m. and that the battalion was to pass to the command of Anzac Corps.24
The now crippled armoured brigade was ordered to withdraw through the Australian brigade (Savige Force) at Kalabaka, and began to move off in mid-morning. The machine-gun companies left at 2 p.m. and a rearguard an hour later. By midnight the head of the column had gone only 12 miles and the tail had managed only five. An English officer25 says that it was ‘an awful road which had been bombed very heavily the day before. The effect of the rain on the damaged track, metalled only in occasional stretches, was immediate and serious. Our march was a fight. Maps were unreliable and the better looking of two routes petered out in a quagmire. Bomb holes had to be filled in. In places the road had been quite destroyed and deviations had to be made frequently, while every vehicle that used them page 64 made the mud worse. Trucks which slithered off the mountain track and down the hillside had to be hauled back. But the rain and cloud concealed our movement and saved us from the Luftwaffe.
‘Everywhere lay the debris of the retreating army. Ammunition, arms and equipment, derelict vehicles, dead men and animals. And all the time the rain drizzled down.’
The machine-gunners salvaged two three-ton trucks, an anti-tank gun and truck, and a Baby Austin (which they later handed over to Divisional Cavalry—a fine gesture).
The armoured brigade, now ordered to go straight on to Atalandi, south of the Thermopylae position, resumed the retreat before dawn on the 17th. It was still raining and there was much low cloud, but a few miles from Kalabaka the mud track gave way to a tarmac road, to everybody's intense relief. At Kalabaka, which the machine-gunners reached soon after midday, 5 Platoon (brought up to strength by a section of 4 Platoon) was detached for a rearguard role with the Australians.
The brigade column halted for rations and fuel at the next town, Trikkala, which it reached in the afternoon, and then headed eastwards towards Larisa, but soon discovered that the traffic bridge over the Pinios River just beyond Trikkala had been blown up prematurely. An alternative bridge was found, but the deviation caused some delay and the Luftwaffe returned to the attack. ‘Fortunately we were well spaced and could get off the road into the adjoining fields,’ says Gwilliam. Some Australians, whose trucks had been supplying the dump at Trikkala, had two or three casualties, who were attended to by the medical officer (Captain Fulton26).
At Larisa the column met the main flow of traffic streaming back from the Mount Olympus positions and down the road through Pharsala to Lamia. Realising that enemy aircraft had been causing ‘devastating havoc’ on convoys passing through the Pharsala Pass in daylight, Gwilliam (who had been made responsible for the armoured brigade's B Echelon as well as his own transport) decided to go through the pass at night. This he succeeded in doing, although delayed for some time by transport of the Maori Battalion halted in the pass. The Maoris were persuaded to pull off the road beyond the pass.
The machine-gun battalion reached its dispersal area, south of Atalandi, in the evening of the 18th, having withdrawn page 65 some 250 miles from its positions near Vevi. The CO reported to Brigadier Charrington, who told him that he had lost all his tanks except five and that all his new tanks had been lost in an air raid on Piraeus harbour. Gwilliam was instructed to report to Headquarters New Zealand Division.
‘The war seems to be all around us, but we have seen damn all,’ Private Clemens (8 Platoon) wrote in his diary on 16 April. That afternoon, in rain that soaked everything, 3 Company moved south, and on the way some of the men called at an ASC dump (which was to be destroyed) and stocked up with all the rations they could carry, including tinned cherries, raspberries, and strawberry jam—items which they had not seen before in an army ration. Next day the company occupied positions with 6 Brigade, which was guarding the two roads between Elasson and Tirnavos, north of Larisa.
On the shorter east route, which crosses a steep pass, 9 Platoon (Sergeant Alborough27), less a section, took up a position with 24 Battalion on top of a ridge. The rest of 3 Company was with 25 Battalion on the longer and easier west route. The supporting artillery (Australian and New Zealand 25-pounders and some medium and anti-tank guns) was also on the west route, where it could bring under fire the open, rolling country in front of the infantry, deployed on rising ground.
At dawn on the 18th a Divisional Cavalry rearguard north of Elasson clashed with the Germans coming down from Olympus Pass, and some of 34 Battery's two-pounder anti-tank guns claimed half a dozen tanks and other vehicles before withdrawing. Sixth Brigade could see vehicles moving in the foothills north of Elasson and approaching the town. A demolition blown in a defile near the town halted the enemy with his vehicles nose-to-tail within range of the 25-pounders, and accurate shelling, mostly by the twenty guns of the Australian regiment, which fired 6500 rounds that day, held up a powerful German force, including a battalion of tanks.
‘Well at last we saw some fun and I suppose you could call it action,’ says Clemens. ‘Had a go at enemy planes that came over and believe we got one—not absolutely sure but near enough—any way I put a burst of 150 at her….’ This plane, a twin-engined Messerschmitt, crashed in 25 Battalion's area and was credited to 8 Platoon.page 66
Early in the afternoon the troops on the west road were shelled by guns east of Elasson, but this fire seemed to be directed—with the assistance of a reconnaissance plane—at the field guns in the rear. Lieutenant Dickinson28 (7 Platoon) located the German gun positions and pointed them out to an Australian observation post officer, but they were beyond the range of the 25-pounders.
From their ridge near the other road 9 Platoon had a grandstand view of the day's fighting. ‘No shots were fired as in late afternoon only tanks were in possible long range, but we were shelled just on dark,’ Alborough says. Having accomplished its task of blocking the two roads until dark, 6 Brigade was beginning to thin out when tanks led troop-carrying vehicles up the road towards 24 Battalion; they met demolitions and concentrated shellfire, but delayed the battalion's departure for a time. Some shells landed within a few yards of 9 Platoon without exploding.
All of the troops from both roads succeeded in getting away safely and withdrew southwards through Tirnavos. To cover this withdrawal Brigadier Barrowclough29 formed a rearguard of a company of infantry and some carriers from 25 Battalion, some anti-tank and field guns, and 7 Platoon. This rearguard passed through Tirnavos shortly after midnight and Larisa an hour later. Larisa appeared to be deserted and was ‘just a heap of smouldering and smoking ruins, with the odd patch still burning here and there,’ says Dickinson. It had been bombed half a dozen times the previous day.
The brigade column took the coastal road through Volos and reached Molos in the evening of the 19th. ‘On the road until 10 o'clock tonight—26 hours in all and it is about the worst trip I have ever done,’ wrote Clemens. ‘… there was a chance of the Gerries cutting us off and the retreat was a real mess up. Passed through many bombed towns and several times had to clear off the trucks when Gerry planes came over….’
The rearguard (including 7 Platoon, less a section which had gone back with the remainder of 3 Company) halted at dawn page 67 astride the road a few miles north-west of Volos, where it was to cover the withdrawal of Allen Force and 21 Battalion from the Pinios Gorge. Very little was known about the situation at the time, but the German column that had come down the coast had been delayed only just long enough in the Pinios Gorge for Anzac Corps to get clear of the Larisa bottleneck. Allen Force and 21 Battalion had been driven into the hills or were making their way south in small groups over boggy farm tracks east of Larisa. The Germans had blocked the road from the gorge a few miles east of that town.
The rearguard, now joined by Divisional Cavalry, remained until about midday in a position of all-round defence and was then ordered to withdraw immediately to Molos. The convoy passed through Volos and down the coastal road, ‘through a deserted countryside…. I remember seeing two Hurricanes sitting on a little airfield. This was pretty cheering until we passed close by and saw both were burnt out,’. Dickinson recalls. Enemy aircraft strafed the convoy.
The journey was continued all next night. Dickinson's truck seized up on the outskirts of Lamia, so he sent the others on ahead to Molos while somebody got some more oil. Another truck ran off the causeway south of Lamia and overturned, but the men jacked it up onto ammunition boxes and toppled it back on its wheels. Dead tired after three days and two nights without sleep, 7 Platoon found 3 Company next morning (the 20th).
Dickinson's men, however, had not been the last machine-gunners to pass through Larisa. Newland's platoon (No. 5), which had joined the Savige Force rearguard at Kalabaka a day or two earlier, drove through the town with the last Anzac Corps troops about 3 a.m., only three or four hours before the Germans entered. This platoon lost a truck and some equipment which went over a bank two or three miles beyond Larisa, but had no casualties then or during some bombing and strafing. It left the Australians at Brallos on the 20th and rejoined 2 Company.
The British now awaited the Germans in the Thermopylae line, at the neck of a long peninsula extending south-eastwards towards Athens. The main road south from Larisa branched at the town of Lamia, from which one road continued southwards across the plain through which the Sperkhios River flows to the sea; this road then zigzagged up Brallos Pass, which was held page 68 by the Australians. The other road, after crossing the Sperkhios, ran eastwards between the mountains and the sea to the village of Molos and down to the coast. It was on this coastal route that Leonidas and his Spartans had held the narrow defile against Xerxes' invading Persians, until outflanked and overwhelmed by men who descended in their rear from a track through the foothills. In the succeeding centuries the silting of the river delta had converted the defile into a coastal flat three or four miles wide, but the modern defenders of Molos were in a position not altogether unlike that where Leonidas had stood in 480 B.C.
Fifth Brigade was deployed along the coastal road west of Molos, in the foothills and covering the bridges on the road to Larisa. Fourth Brigade was on the right watching the coast between Molos and Cape Knimis, and 6 Brigade was in reserve.
On 19 and 20 April 4 Company reconnoitred for positions and dug in in support of 5 Brigade. The Luftwaffe was seldom absent. ‘The Hun Air Force played Merry Hell up and down that road all both days dive-bombing and machine-gunning,’ wrote Major White. ‘Of course movement was cut down to a minimum but some of us had to go out on reconnaissances….’
Three Hurricanes appeared ‘as if by magic’ on the 20th when a score or more German aircraft were busy bombing Lamia and machine-gunning the road out of the town. After some circling about one German plane went into a steep dive with smoke streaming from an engine. A parachute appeared a second or so before the plane hit the sea off Molos and blew up in a fountain of flame and spray. By this time the other German aircraft, hotly pursued by the Hurricanes, were almost out of sight. But this was only a brief respite.
Captain Tong30 set out with two of 4 Company's trucks in the evening of the 19th in search of ammunition and rations, and did not return until the early morning of the 21st. Not able to find any dumps and delayed by air raids, his party went as far south as Levadhia and rescued some ammunition and rations from a train that had been left burning by bombers.
The machine-gun battalion (apart from 3 and 4 Companies) left its bivouac area north of Atalandi and rejoined the Division on the 20th, after an absence of over three weeks. The convoy was bombed and strafed while pulling into an olive grove near Cape Knimis. The attack lasted six hours. Sergeant-Major page 69 Hunter31 and Private Comer32 were killed and two others wounded, but it was surprising that casualties were so few. The men, remaining concealed as best they could all afternoon, were unable to dig slit trenches until darkness fell, when they set to work with a will.
The Division's front was adjusted next day when 6 Brigade, with 3 Company still under command, moved forward on the right of 5 Brigade. In addition to supporting the infantry west of Molos, the machine-gunners were to watch the coast to the east, in case the enemy might attempt a flanking move along the island of Euboea and a landing behind the line. While two platoons of 1 Company joined 4 Brigade, the third (2 Platoon), together with 5 Platoon from 2 Company, watched the beaches on each side of the Longos headland. They did not see the enemy.
The Division's dispositions were not maintained for long, however. Already it had been decided, with the consent of the Greek Government, which feared that a prolongation of the struggle would end only in the devastation of the country, that the British should evacuate Greece.
Colonel Gwilliam explained the orders for the evacuation to his officers on the morning of the 23rd. Everything not absolutely essential was to be destroyed, including all except twenty-nine vehicles, without using fire or explosives. The men were to take only the clothing they wore, their personal equipment and ammunition, greatcoats, and one blanket each. The battalion, less the two platoons of 1 Company with 4 Brigade, 3 Company with 6 Brigade, and 4 Company with 5 Brigade, was to leave that night.
Aircraft passed overhead all day, but the battalion had escaped the Luftwaffe's attention since the unfortunate day it arrived near Cape Knimis, no doubt because the trucks were well camouflaged and the men kept to their trenches. The convoy pulled out in the late evening and, passing through Atalandi, stopped before daylight in a valley beyond Levadhia, where it remained concealed all next day, while planes still searched continuously. The following night the convoy passed through Thebes to a lying-up area south of Mazi, 20-odd miles from Athens, and dispersed in a wooded valley, in which the open spaces were thickly carpeted with red poppies. Next day (the 25th) was Anzac Day.page 70
The third night move, this time through Athens, brought the machine-gunners to the shelter of trees beside a small village about 12 miles from Porto Rafti. ‘We had quite a lot of trouble with various ORs who went into the village sampling the wines with disastrous results,’ says a platoon commander. The men gave the villagers food and anything else they no longer wanted.
The CO had received no information about embarking his men, so towards evening on the 26th sent Lieutenant Bradshaw to find the headquarters controlling the arrangements. Bradshaw found an Australian major who thought the machine-gun battalion was to leave from C beach (Rafina), not D beach (Porto Rafti) as guides had stated earlier in the day. He next saw Brigadier Miles, who gave him orders that the machine-gunners were to follow 5 Field Regiment at 8.45 p.m. to D beach. He returned to Battalion Headquarters with little time to spare.
When the convoy approached Porto Rafti about 10 p.m. Brigadier Miles asked that a party be left to provide road blocks, and Second-Lieutenant Luxford33 and the Anti-Aircraft Platoon were detailed for the task. Luxford recalls that ‘just as we were being lined up ready for embarkation Lt-Col Gwilliam came to me and told me … to take 30 ORs and myself and 4 drivers and put in 4 road-blocks to cover the withdrawal of the 4th Brigade on the Sunday night [the 27th]. To make up the 30 ORs I had to get some of 6 Platoon, mainly drivers. I started off about mid-night from Porto Rafti and finished putting in the last road-block about 3.30 a.m. next morning….’ This composite platoon, armed with four Vickers and four Bren guns, established a post on the road to Rafina, another at the turn-off on the main Athens road, and two on the road to Porto Rafti.
Battalion Headquarters, Headquarters Company (less the reinforced Anti-Aircraft Platoon), 2 Company and 2 Platoon, after debussing near the Porto Rafti beach, formed squads of about 100 men each. One squad took the wrong turning and reached the beach only just in time to board the last caique (Greek fishing boat) ferrying troops to the transport Salween, on which they were all embarked by 2 a.m. on the 27th. Below decks they found steaming hot coffee waiting for them. They spread their blankets wherever they could, on the decks and tables, and slept. Later they discovered that 3 Company was also on board.page 71
After the departure of 5 Brigade from Thermopylae on the night of 23–24 April the defence of the pass had been left to 6 Brigade, supported by 3 Company and a formidable array of artillery—a medium regiment, four field regiments, two anti-tank regiments and a light anti-aircraft battery. No. 8 Platoon was with 24 Battalion near the little village of Ayia Trias, two miles west of Molos, 7 Platoon with 25 Battalion, which was extended three miles along the southern side of the road towards Lamia, and 9 Platoon with 26 Battalion, in reserve immediately west of Molos.
About mid-afternoon a much larger group of tanks and lorried infantry pushed along the road against 6 Brigade. ’… with very little warning four tanks came round a bend and straight in the middle of the 25 Bn position,’ writes Dickinson. ‘They had huge swastika flags flying and were closed right down almost nose to tail and line ahead on the main road with no infantry at all to support them.
‘Looking back now, with experience of armour in my subsequent career, their tactics were shocking and they deserved all they got.
‘The lead tank halted at the approach to a bridge, within 25 yards of my No. 1 Gun and the rest closed up behind him. Being closed down he was fairly blind and he didn't see the 2 pdrs nor the 25 pdr sitting within fifty yards of him.
‘It must have been a shock to the Kiwis but they quickly recovered. The 25 pdr whipped off his net and slammed a shot in at point blank range. So did the 2 pdrs and another 25 pdr only about 200 yards away. It was glorious while it lasted.
‘Seeing their leader go west the other three turned tail and fled. Unfortunately vision was limited to less than half a mile of the road but our guns got two more tanks and only one managed to get round the bend again and I think he was badly hit.’34
The enemy retaliated with a flurry of shells, mortar and small-arms fire. The guns of 7 Platoon had been sited well forward with the 25-pounders and anti-tank guns, but were useless against tanks even at that range. No. 1 Section was enfiladed from the road along which the enemy approached, and Dickinson decided to bring it back into the main battalion position, where it could engage the ground on the left flank from which the small-arms fire was coming.
‘The tanks did not come on our flank,’ says Clemens (with 8 Platoon near Ayia Trias), ‘but we were treated to a grand stand view as our anti-tank units and 25-pounders engaged them about ½ mile to our left—bullets and shells flying all ways.’ When 25 Battalion was forced to give ground on the left 8 Platoon saw men running across open country. ‘I did not fire as I was not sure if they were enemy and no one could tell me where 25 Bn was,’ reported Lieutenant Howell,35 the platoon page 73 commander. ‘I think in view of subsequent information that these men were enemy who later took up a position enfilading our position with a machine gun.’ But there was much confused movement at the time, and the men Howell saw could easily have been New Zealand infantry or gunners.
The fighting died down in the evening. Having fulfilled its task of holding the Thermopylae position for the specified time, 6 Brigade began to withdraw. The infantry thinned out and boarded the transport, and the medium and field guns, which could not be evacuated from Greece, were reluctantly wrecked, the last of them—those of the Royal Horse Artillery—shortly before midnight.
Major McGaffin had received orders in the afternoon to pull out after dark, the platoons with the battalions to which they were attached, and his company headquarters with Brigade Headquarters. Only 7 Platoon had difficulty in getting away. Dickinson sent a despatch rider back for the transport, but it could not be found. It was subsequently discovered that the five trucks had left the dispersal area at the right time and had headed down the road towards the platoon, but had been stopped by an infantry officer who had told the drivers there was nobody in front of them and they were to take on troops and go back, which they did. Dickinson embussed his platoon with 25 Battalion. All the guns and equipment and some ammunition were brought out.
The company had only one casualty. Private Goodwin36 had evolved a theory about the duration of the danger period after the explosion of a shell: he stoutly maintained that if you took cover and counted slowly up to twenty after hearing the explosion, it was then quite safe to raise your head and look around. His theory was exploded near Molos. A shell scored a direct hit on a derelict Bren carrier in front of his slit trench. He raised his head above ground level at the expiration of the twenty-second period, just in time to receive a hefty clout by a portion of the carrier's tool box.
The last vehicles were clear of Molos by midnight. Some three hours later, when the Germans formally attacked and captured the vacated position, the brigade column, travelling with lights south of Atalandi, was well on its way towards Athens, and by 6 a.m. on the 25th 3 Company was assembled in the Mazi area, where it spent the day under trees.page 74
McGaffin received orders early in the afternoon to go to D beach. The company was delayed at the start by attacking aircraft, but drove through Athens and reached its bivouac area two miles from Porto Rafti about midnight. In the city ‘the reception was tremendous and it was an occasion I shall never forget,’ says Dickinson. ‘The Greeks knew we were deserting them and knew what was in store for them, yet they cheered and thanked us as we went.’
The men were concealed in the olive groves all next day, and destroyed their vehicles and surplus gear. Each man not carrying part of a gun was told to take two belts of ammunition, which he draped about his body. Late in the evening they made their way to the embarkation point, where an Australian naval officer told them to dump their guns and ammunition, but they had no intention of abandoning the weapons at this stage, and after an argument took them on board the Salween. There ‘we had the most welcome reception of all. Waiting for us was a feed of stew, fresh bread and hot cocoa.’
The battalion (less 4 Company, two platoons of 1 Company, and the reinforced Anti-Aircraft Platoon) sailed for Egypt on the Salween. The Vickers were manned in an ack-ack role during five air-raid alarms on the 27th and another next day; whenever the raiders appeared they ‘went into action from all directions and I know the ship's funnel got a few holes,’ says Dickinson. ‘By this time the gunners were so fed up with the Hun they just put their sights on the plane and swung the gun from start to finish.’ Although bombs were dropped and one ship had a near miss, the convoy reached Alexandria unscathed early on the 29th.
Meanwhile 4 Company, after withdrawing from the Thermopylae line with 5 Brigade on the night of 22–23 April, was given another rearguard task.
The company did not leave Thermopylae without loss. Its vehicles were held at the brigade dispersal area until dark, but a German plane, out later than usual, strafed them as they were going forward to pick up the platoons, putting a truck out of action and killing the driver (Private Ramage37).
The company bivouacked at 3 a.m. at Ay Konstandinos, and later in the morning received orders making it part of a divi- page 75 sional rearguard commanded by Lieutenant-Colonel Clifton.38 It was a strong force, also including armoured cars of Divisional Cavalry, a battery of the Royal Horse Artillery, about fifteen anti-tank guns, the carrier platoons of 22 and 28 Battalions, and a few engineers. At dusk the three machine-gun platoons moved to their positions astride the road, between a rocky spur and the sea west of Cape Knimis. The road was under constant air attack all next day (the 24th), but the gunners were not spotted. They could hear the battle for Thermopylae raging ten miles away.
Sixth Brigade was late in reaching the rearguard that night, but the transport, after streaming back head-to-tail, began to thin out at midnight. The machine guns were then taken back to their trucks, and the road demolitions were blown shortly before 2 a.m.
White led part of the rearguard back to the road junction south-west of Atalandi, where an Australian picket reported that all the Australians from Brallos Pass had gone through and had last made contact with the enemy 20 miles back. Clifton's force now became the Anzac Corps rearguard. White's group waited fifty minutes at the road junction, as planned, until orders came by wireless from the main group to continue towards Thebes. A halt was made near that town while Clifton ascertained the next move. The convoy got away again in daylight and passed through 4 Brigade, which was dug in and awaiting the enemy at Kriekouki, before stopping to rest among the trees south of Mazi.
White now learned that his company was under the command of Divisional Cavalry as part of a force covering the embarkation from beaches north of Athens. The company kept under cover until the air activity ceased for the day and as darkness fell set off for Tatoion (about 12 miles north of Athens), which was reached at 1.30 a.m. on the 26th. A reconnaissance was made for gun positions, but the machine-gunners did not occupy them because Divisional Cavalry patrols would give them sufficient warning to do so if necessary. Sergeant Bradshaw was sent off at midday with a section from 11 Platoon as a road block. His orders were: ‘If attacked defend position to death. page 76 If no attack before midnight, return to main rearguard.’ The section returned without having been in action.
After spending a quiet day 4 Company piled onto the few remaining trucks about 8.30 p.m. and set off for the beach at Rafina. The company became divided on the way and White tried to collect it together at the point where the last vehicles were destroyed, but was told by the embarkation officers: ‘All unit organisation wiped out. Do exactly as we say.’
Groups of men from many units were shepherded silently down to the beach. When told to throw away their Vickers and tripods—‘personal weapons only’—the machine-gunners stepped out of the ranks, hurriedly rearranged their loads, dumped the tripods, and hid the guns and some belts of ammunition under their greatcoats. They then made their second approach, but not all of them got away that night. In the end, however, the eleven serviceable guns of 4 Company were salvaged; four were taken to Egypt and the remainder to Crete.
Major White, Captain Tong, Lieutenant Snedden and some sixty machine-gunners, most of them from 4 Company, were taken by landing craft to the Glengyle in the early hours of the 27th. They soon produced their Vickers, lashed them to the rails and manned them for action. At midday the ship was attacked by dive-bombers, and a near miss that lifted the bow violently out of the water damaged some plates and started a leak. The raiders were met by a tremendous volume of fire from the Vickers, anti-tank rifles, Brens and rifles, and the ship's own armament. There were no further attacks and the Glengyle reached Alexandria in the early morning of the 29th.
Half of 11 Platoon, most of 10 Platoon, and others had been left at Rafina. ‘We returned unhappily to the hills,’ says Bradshaw, but next evening (the 27th) it was ‘Down to the beach again … embarked on destroyer (HMS Havock) … had to dump tripods, but stuck to guns amid protests by Navy.’ Next morning they arrived in Crete.
After leaving the Molos area on the night of 22–23 April 4 Brigade Group had occupied a position on a ridge between Kriekouki and Mazi, south of Thebes on the road to Athens, to cover the withdrawal of the other British forces to the beaches from which they embarked. This covering position was astride the road through a gorge in the ridge which rises abruptly 2000 to 3000 feet above the plain south of Kriekouki. The three New Zealand battalions (18th, 19th and 20th) were page 77 supported by seventeen Australian 25-pounders, seven Breda anti-aircraft guns of the Royal Horse Artillery, seven Australian anti-tank guns, some Australian engineers, and an Australian machine-gun company; 1 NZ MG Company (less 2 Platoon) was in a valley on the Athens side of the pass. ‘The valley was only about half a mile to mile wide and cultivated,’ writes Sergeant-Major Johnstone.39 ‘Most of the hills on the North side were wooded right down to the edge of the valley. The trees were, for the main part, pine and holly with a fair sprinkling of oaks; this made excellent cover and it did not take the boys long to get their trucks completely camouflaged. Now so well was this done that at no time did the Jerries realise that we were occupying the position.’
Early on the 25th the last of Anzac Corps—6 New Zealand Brigade, 19 Australian Brigade and Colonel Clifton's rearguard (including 4 Company)—retired through 4 Brigade's positions. Orders were received in the afternoon, however, that 4 Brigade was to postpone its withdrawal twenty-four hours to the following night (the 26–27th). Detachments were sent out to protect both flanks and deal with paratroops. One detachment, including 1 Platoon, four Bren carriers, an infantry platoon from 19 Battalion and one anti-tank gun, went to a road junction, where it covered the road through Megara from the Corinth Canal.
‘We were told to hold the road at all costs,’ says Second-Lieutenant MacDonald. ‘It was not a pleasant task getting to our positions—planes were skimming over and we were well bombed and strafed. It seemed like a death warrant with the stuff that was flying about when moving in daylight on that road. Dived so often into the prickly-pear on the side of the road that I arrived a mass of blood. A very windy trip.
‘Reached our destination in the dark and the Greeks said that the Huns were just down the road. Had 4 MGs and 4 Bren Carrs—put two MGs on road side and two on the rly line two hundred yards away—three Bren Carrs dug in.’
Fourth Brigade Group, still undetected, heard explosions in Thebes on the morning of the 26th, and about 11 a.m. a column of a hundred vehicles, closely spaced and with motor cycles and a light tank some fifty yards ahead, approached along the road. They continued in this formation, the vehicles jammed almost tailboard to radiator, until the leading motor cycles were only page 78 2000 yards away and the rear of the column was within range of the Australian artillery. The guns opened fire and the Germans were seen to scatter and then board their trucks again and drive back to Thebes, leaving eight vehicles on the road.
About midday came the expected air attack, the rearguard position having now been revealed. ‘In a few minutes over came the recce planes and they flew close to the ground seeking our whereabouts,’ writes Johnstone. ‘Soon they were followed by a number of Dorniers and in about an hour there were over a hundred planes [including Messerschmitts] in the air. Some of them flew that low that we were looking on top of the pilots. But still not a move by our chaps and the Jerries could not find the Aussies' guns, they had been as well camouflaged as our positions … the bombers started dropping a few bombs about 2000 to 3000 yards behind our positions hoping to find the position of the guns. At this time the Jerries have brought up another column of trucks and tanks and had reached the position that the previous one had … the whole twelve guns opened up again and repeated the damage they had previously done … soon the planes were over again…. This time they bombed and machine gunned the place that they had done before, with of course the same results, absolutely no damage at all…. It was a grand sight to see countless bombs falling on to an uninhabited and defenceless bit of ground…. Now the guns are silent again and the enemy planes begin to get fewer and fewer until there are only about 20 left. The time is now 3 o'clock and the sun shines down (on this side of the hill) on smoking trees and a torn and blistered hillside, some cautious movement is noticed near the concealed guns as more ammo. is brought up, (on the other side) on smoking and burning trucks and tanks, dashing ambulances and frantic repair gangs seeking a way through the tangled wreck. Afar on the edge of the swampy plain tanks can be seen exploring a way round the swamps. Motor cyclists are dashing hither and thither trying, I suppose, to reorganise the wrecked column.’
German artillery went into action and a gun duel continued all afternoon. Infantry moving towards the left flank were dispersed by machine-gun fire. Johnstone took out a patrol to see that the enemy did not infiltrate through a gap in the hills on the right flank, but saw nothing there.
Disturbing reports were received early in the afternoon that German paratroops had landed on the road between Megara and Corinth, and that the bridge over the Corinth Canal had page 79 been destroyed. If true, these reports posed an awkward problem, for 4 Brigade Group had been ordered to retire over the canal that night. Confirmation was received about 6 p.m. that paratroops were on the Corinth road, but there was no definite news that the bridge had been destroyed.40 Soon afterwards, however, a message came from Divisional Headquarters that the brigade group was to withdraw through Athens to the beaches in the east.
As darkness fell the artillery began to pack up, but the guns still fired when no planes were directly overhead. When it was completely dark 1 Company's drivers brought their trucks out from their hiding places and lined them up close together in column. In silence every man went about his task, packing on the machine guns and stores that were to be taken; other gear, including blankets, was buried. Captain Purcell returned from a visit to Athens with a supply of petrol and some bread.
The brigade group began to withdraw at nine o'clock and was soon speeding up to 30 miles an hour with lights on along the roads to Porto Rafti. Demolitions were blown by the Australian engineers under the direction of the officer commanding the rearguard, Lieutenant-Colonel Kippenberger.41 The troops that had been detached to the flanks rejoined the brigade. MacDonald's detachment had remained in its position near Mandra until 2 a.m., ‘and would still be there if Lt Col Kippenberger had not come down in a car and told us to pull out on the tail of 4 Bde.’
The brigade group passed through a sleeping Athens, and some miles beyond dispersed all guns, vehicles and equipment under the olive trees. The units were spread along about 15 miles of the road and, as the enemy was known to be approaching Athens,42 Brigadier Puttick decided to take up a defensive position covering Porto Rafti. While the troops were moving in daylight to their positions about four miles from the beach, they were detected by 20-odd German aircraft and severely page 80 machine-gunned. This fire exploded a shell in an Australian ammunition wagon, which produced other explosions, and soon vehicles, crops in the fields and trees were blazing fiercely.
The machine-gun platoons had split up into groups and Johnstone's party was passing through the village of Markopoulon when the aircraft attacked. ‘We saw the Greekos pointing upwards so we looked up and, oh hell, the air was black with Messhies and Dorniers and they let us know that they had come in no uncertain manner. Our party (as soon as the truck had stopped) sprinted down an alley way and took refuge in a fowl house which gave us cover from view but not from fire. The people of the village opened their doors to the boys and took them into their cellars; not only did they take them in but they gave them soft seats to sit on, water to wash in, wine to drink and food to eat…. They were full of sympathy for us and all assured us that we would be back some day; for they were very concerned for our safety.’
About half an hour later, when the planes turned their attention elsewhere, Johnstone's party climbed onto their trucks, ‘and off we went at a hell of a bat, she was doing about sixty along the road outside the village. The road was lined with burning cars and trucks and an ammunition van was popping off in great style.’ The aircraft returned, and the men dived off the truck, which ‘went up in a puff of greasy black smoke.’ The men took to the fields and for the next mile or two dodged from tree to tree. These olive trees were ‘the biggest I have seen yet … some have a girth of 15 feet; so big that four of us could dodge the Messies who were flying at ground level….’
A detour was attempted through a cornfield, but this was set on fire. ‘We stopped to help three girls who had been working in the field and had come under the displeasure of the blonde gods of the skies … and had stopped a hail of bullets, one girl (about 10 years old) had her arm shot off … she had guts if ever anybody had, not a murmur out of her as we dressed her arm.’
Nine Australian guns had been destroyed by the explosions, and many New Zealand infantrymen had been killed and wounded. By one o'clock, however, 18 and 20 Battalions were in their intended positions, 19 Battalion in reserve, and the Australian artillery and New Zealand machine guns in support. ‘Took up a defensive position on the hills above Porto Rafti. H. Purcell and I had MGs in truck plus A/Tk gun and crew,’ page 81 says MacDonald (1 Platoon). ‘Our platoon took up positions behind and supporting A Coy. of the 20th Btn.,’ adds Philpott (3 Platoon).
In mid-afternoon a column of sixty to a hundred German vehicles entered Markopoulon. The guns did not fire on the village, but whenever vehicles emerged they were met by concentrated fire from the field, anti-tank and machine guns and mortars; they returned to the sanctuary of the village. The attack, expected hourly, did not come, but aircraft returned to strafe.
From a hill high above the sea Johnstone watched the British make their second-last stand in Greece:43 ‘The day is beautiful. … the sun shines brightly and the scent of flowers is everywhere. If one could not hear the noise it would represent a very peaceful scene indeed. The noise comes from many sources; the battery of 25 pounders are still firing though the bombing has silenced all but two of them. Several planes have been shot down and they are in various stages of destruction, all burning with a cracker effect as their ammo explodes. There are several trucks burning, the incendiaries have done their work. There seems to be hundreds of planes in the air and they are all doing their damndest to make the noise more terrific. They are gunning everything they see moving….’
The brigade began destroying its remaining trucks, and when darkness was falling, the last of the guns. The withdrawal began at nine o'clock. ‘We covered the last four miles to the beach on our only two trucks, some 15 on each,’ writes Philpott. ‘If we had to walk quite a number would not have made the grade. Our trucks were destroyed some short distance from the beach and gun equipment and personal gear were then carried to the beach.’
The men were ferried in caiques and other light craft to the cruiser Ajax and the destroyers Kimberley and Kingston. Some of the seriously wounded had to be left behind. In defiance of the officers controlling the embarkation, who ordered them to destroy their guns, 1 and 3 Platoons took their eight Vickers onto the ships.
Luxford's composite platoon of about thirty men, who had been ordered to provide road blocks covering 4 Brigade's withdrawal, also embarked that night. Although he had been told he would be under the command of 4 Brigade, Luxford did not receive any orders—apparently Brigade Headquarters did page 82 not know he was under command. Early on the 27th he grew anxious about the situation and decided to withdraw his men. ‘When I got to the post on the main Athens road, an Australian Ambulance was coming from Athens so I stopped it and asked the driver what the situation was. The driver replied that he was taking some stretcher cases into Athens but was stopped by M.P.'s. and told not to go any further as the Germans were already in Athens. Having got this information I then made my way back to the beach….’ On the way he met Captain Grant, who told him to embark with 1 Company.
Among the 2500 New Zealanders, Australians, British and Greeks in the Ajax were two Greek girls in battle dress ‘smuggled on by the Aussies’. The ships sailed about 4 a.m. on the 28th, and disembarked the troops—and the girls—at Suda Bay, Crete, six hours later.
In Greece the machine-gunners had inflicted many casualties on the enemy, just how many it is impossible to tell. Their own casualties were surprisingly few: eight other ranks killed, one officer and twelve other ranks wounded, three officers and thirty other ranks captured. Of the thirty-three who became prisoners of war, some were convalescents and reinforcements who had been in the transit camp at Voula, near Athens.
Some 800 New Zealanders, organised as a reinforcement battalion, left Voula on 25 April and crossed the Corinth Canal to Argos, in the Peloponnese peninsula. They were to have been evacuated at Navplion, but because of the arrival of a large number of Australians and the loss of the transport Ulster Prince, which grounded and was bombed and gutted by fire, were directed to Kalamata. There 8000 troops, mostly Australians, were taken off by destroyers on the night of 26–27 April, but nearly as many were left, including the Reinforcement Battalion.
Next day ‘we were bombed and machine-gunned by German planes,’ says Second-Lieutenant Mabin.44 ‘There were all different sorts of troops camping around this area—New Zealand, English, Aussie, Cypriots and a number of Yugo-Slav soldiers, all waiting to be evacuated. We all moved down to the wharf at 8.30 p.m., taking up our position for embarking. We waited until midnight but no ships turned up and so we were ordered back to our camping areas….’page 83
A small German mobile column drove into Kalamata in the afternoon of the 28th. A fierce counter-attack retook the town— in this action Sergeant Hinton45 (from 20 Battalion) won the Division's first VC—but only 300-odd men were evacuated by destroyer that night, and 7000 or 8000 surrendered to the enemy who arrived in force next morning.
But they did not all surrender. Some escaped into the hills and remained on the loose for months before they were picked up by the enemy or succeeded in making their way back to the Allied lines. Mabin was a member of a party of eleven who escaped in an 18-foot fishing boat. The journey of more than 150 miles to Crete took nearly twenty days, ‘with the Jerry one jump ahead or behind us all the time.’ They rowed or sailed at night and hid on the Aegean islands in the daytime. ‘We can't say enough about the way the Greeks helped and fed us because without their help we could never have made the trip.’
10 Brig J. Hargest, CBE, DSO and bar, MC, m.i.d.; born Gore, 4 Sep 1891; farmer; MP 1931–44; Otago Mtd Rifles, 1914–20 (CO 20 Bn, Otago Regt); comd 5 Bde May 1940–Nov 1941; p.w. 27 Nov 1941; escaped Mar 1943; killed in action, France, 12 Aug 1944.
14 While visiting 27 (MG) Bn at Maadi in Aug 1941 Gen Freyberg referred to the carrying of the MGs from Olympus Pass and said: ‘I don't know whih company it was but I'm very proud of that company.’ One gun had been damaged at Olympus Pass and had to be destroyed before 4 Coy left Greece; the others were all saved.
20 10 PI had travelled with 23 Bn down the Larisa-Pharsala road, but had found the route from Pharsala to Almiros impracticable, so had continued through the night to Lamia. It had then been told to take the coastal road to Stilis and Almiros, but before reaching Stilis had been ordered to turn round and make for Molos, which it had reached in the evening of the 18th.
29 Maj-Gen Rt Hon Sir Harold Barrowclough, PC, KCMG, CB, DSO and bar, MC, ED, m.i.d., MC (Gk), Legion of Merit (US), Croix de Guerre; Wellington; born Masterton, 23 Jun 1894; barrister and solicitor; NZ Rifle Bde 1915–19 (CO 4 Bn); comd 7 NZ Inf Bde in UK 1940; 6 Bde 1 May 1940–21 Feb 1942; GOC 2 NZEF in Pacific and GOC 3 NZ Div 8 Aug 1942–20 Oct 1944; Chief Justice of New Zealand.
38 Brig G. H. Clifton, DSO and 2 bars, MC, m.i.d.; Porangahau; born Greenmeadows, 18 Sep 1898; Regular soldier; served North-West Frontier (MC Waziristan); CRE 2 NZ Div 1940–41; CE 30 Corps 1941–42; comd 6 Bde Feb–Sep 1942; p.w. 4 Sep 1942; escaped, Germany, Mar 1945; NZ MLO, London, 1949–52; Commandant, Northern Military District, Mar 1952–Sep 1953.
41 Maj-Gen Sir Howard Kippenberger, KBE, CB, DSO and bar, ED, m.i.d., Legion of Merit (US); born Ladbrooks, 28 Jan 1897; barrister and solicitor; 1 NZEF 1916–17; CO 20 Bn Sep 1939–Apr 1941, Jun–Dec 1941; comd 10 Bde, Crete, May 1941; 5 Bde Jan 1942–Jun 1943, Nov 1943–Feb 1944; GOC 2 NZ Div 30 Apr–14 May 1943 and 9 Feb–2 Mar 1944; Prisoner of War Reception Group (UK) 1944–45; twice wounded; Editor-in-Chief, NZ War Histories, 1946–57; died Wellington, 5 May 1957.