2nd New Zealand Divisional Artillery
The Passes of Dhomokos and Fourka
The Passes of Dhomokos and Fourka
The road south from Pharsala followed foothills for 10 miles and then climbed a steep pass to the town of Dhomokos. From there it led to a flat east of Lake Xinia and then rose again to page 72 cross a larger and higher range of hills before Lamia. The hamlet of Fourka in this second range gave its name to the pass just north of Lamia. Rearguard actions were fought at both the Dhomokos and the Fourka Passes.
Lee Force defended Dhomokos and began to take up position on 17 April north of the town: two Australian battalions plus a company and 2/1 Field Regiment. There were no anti-tank guns, and when most of 31 Anti-Tank Battery under Captain Sweetzer76 reached Dhomokos about 7.30 p.m. on the 18th, Brigadier E. A. Lee stopped Sweetzer and told him to get his guns off the road and attend a tactical conference at once. Sweetzer had with him eight 2-pounders and these went into position under heavy air attack. Next day air attacks were almost incessant. The rearguard was expected to stay there until the night 21–22 April; but the Australian Major-General I. G. Mackay decided that there was no need to stay so long and ordered Lee to withdraw after dark on the 19th. Demolitions were blown at 7 p.m. Then the Australian field guns engaged an approaching convoy until it was discovered to be friendly. Lee Force then withdrew; but nobody told Captain Sweetzer. Two of his guns were ahead of the demolition and could not be brought out. Next morning the 31 Battery detachment found itself in sole occupation of the Dhomokos position. The crews of the two isolated guns came back on foot and the whole detachment made off along the road to Lamia.
Lee had left another rearguard at Fourka, however, and this, too, had no anti-tank guns. So Sweetzer's six remaining guns went into action in defence of the Fourka Pass. Here they suffered more than air attack; for the enemy brought up artillery and made liberal use of mortars. Tanks also appeared and were engaged by tanks with Lee Force. As the engagement was warming up word came that all other troops were safely past Lamia and this final rearguard could withdraw. The injudicious dissemination of these orders to men engaged with the enemy (though not, again, to Sweetzer) caused something of a panic as infantry raced to their vehicles. In the midst of the storm the six guns of 33 Battery attracted much fire and could not reply to it. The anti-tankers responded splendidly and two of them were decorated later for what they did here: Lance- page 73 Sergeant Harper77 (MM) and Second-Lieutenant Hill78 (MC). One gunner was not decorated but rebuked for indifference to danger that amounted to foolhardiness.79 Harper's citation reads in part that his gun position,
‘owing to the sudden retirement of the infantry and MG platoon, was exposed to accurate observed fire of enemy 5-9-inch infantry guns. In withdrawing his gun L/Sgt Harper showed the utmost coolness and parade precision in giving his orders and seeing them carried out, with the result that his gun and detachment were enabled to get out from what appeared to be an impossible position. On reaching the position of assembly, to which the shelling had switched, this NCO again showed marked coolness in holding his men together in spite of a general panic of infantry and tanks….’
And Hill, according to his citation,
‘supervised the embussing of Australian infantry on such vehicles and tanks as were available under considerable and accurate shelling of the road … and … was largely responsible for the safe withdrawal of the infantry and anti-tank guns and preventing the incipient panic from spreading….’
Both citations actually speak of the Dhomokos Pass; but the Fourka Pass was the scene of the actions for which Hill and Harper were decorated. The anti-tankers were not sorry to leave it. As they passed through Lamia the Stukas were sleeping, but the town still cringed from their blows and fires were alive in many places among the shattered buildings.