2nd New Zealand Divisional Artillery
‘Action Front: Tanks!’
‘Action Front: Tanks!’
Two more rearguards still existed and both had had fighting to do, some of it difficult: 6 Brigade at Elasson and the force at Tempe. The action at Elasson, however, had been preceded page 51 page 52 by a quick, sharp engagement at the crossroads of Elevtherokhorion in the hills just to the north. Another Duff Force had been formed to cover the withdrawals from the Olympus and Servia passes and its operations were co-ordinated with rearguard operations by the Divisional Cavalry in close co-operation with 34 Anti-Tank Battery with its 2-pounder portées.
N Troop portées had gone to Dheskati, south-west of Servia, with B Squadron on the 15th and covered the retreat of 26 Battalion and many Australians. They returned in the night 17–18 April and were some miles short of Elasson at dawn. The second Duff Force consisted of Duff's RHQ, 34 Anti-Tank Battery less N Troop, a machine-gun company and the three carrier platoons of 6 Brigade. It assembled at Elevtherokhorion in the night 16–17 April, covering the junction of the Olympus and Servia Pass roads, and was reinforced next day by Divisional Cavalry less B Squadron. The Cavalry armoured-car troop, however, was rushed away to Tempe. Duff Force then disbanded, leaving O Troop of 34 Anti-Tank Battery with C Squadron, Divisional Cavalry, north of the crossroad and P Troop with A Squadron at the road junction.
O Troop under Second-Lieutenant Harding33 clashed with the enemy, led by motor-cyclists and tanks, from the Olympus Pass, while breakfast was cooking on the 18th. The gun O4 under Bombardier Titley34 backed up a crest and with its second shot sent a tank plunging into a ditch.35 The Brengunner of the gun team and a Cavalry Bren carrier drove the motor-cyclists back. A moment later Titley was badly wounded. Harding ordered the gun to withdraw and it was followed by heavy but inaccurate fire. The gun O3 commanded by Sergeant Stobie36 then took up the fight at 1400 yards' range and Stobie kept raising his sights until he hit a tank at an estimated 2100 yards, a remarkable performance with the little 2-pounder. The portée then got bogged in mud and had to be abandoned, the gun-crew getting back on foot.
C Squadron and the other three portées then withdrew to the road junction and a bridge near it was demolished when tanks were within 50 yards. P Troop with A Squadron then page 53 took up the fight. Three of its four guns fired and between them they inflicted considerable loss on the enemy vanguard. Exact figures are now unobtainable, since no adequate enemy record has been found and many of the crews concerned were killed or captured. Bombardier Bellringer's37 gun fired first and the survivors of his crew (all of whom were captured) later claimed two tanks disabled for certain and a third damaged. Sergeant Fowler's38 gun, with Lance-Bombardier Pavey39 as layer, was credited with four tanks, two armoured cars and a heavy lorry; it got out safely. Sergeant Cutbush's40 gun fired with obviously good effect, but could not be withdrawn because its coupling hook broke. Seeing this and realising that the gun was in danger of being captured in working order, Gunner Schultz41 dashed back on foot under heavy fire and removed the firing mechanism—an act which gained him an MM. In this brief but hot exchange of fire two anti-tank gunners were killed (one of them Bellringer) and five captured, three of them wounded. Their efforts were well rewarded in terms of losses inflicted on the enemy; but they could not impose much delay, for there was a passable ford to the flank which the enemy soon discovered and used.
Divisional Cavalry ordered a retreat and the little rearguard quickly moved back to Elasson. There it was soon joined by B Squadron and N Troop from Dheskati, who arrived unaware of the excitement, but in time to experience a sharp divebombing attack on the town. The first Stuka to come down at them with siren blaring met fire from the Lewis guns of Divisional Cavalry and the Bren guns of the anti-tankers and it failed to pull out of its dive. The commander of 34 Anti-Tank Battery, Major Jenkins, and Second-Lieutenant ‘Toby’ Lewis42 of N Troop were wounded in the bombing, though they stayed in action, two gunners were killed outright, and a third gunner died on the journey to hospital, gallantly joking page 54 to the last about his terrible wounds.43 Major Jenkins's car was destroyed. Shortly afterwards the bridge at Elasson was demolished and the troops there raced across the little valley to the south and up into the area of the 6 Brigade rearguard which had been waiting overnight.