2nd New Zealand Divisional Artillery
Evacuation Plans and Moves
Evacuation Plans and Moves
For the first time the Divisional Artillery was to fight as such and its plan was expressed in its Operation Order No. 4, dated 20 April but not issued until the 21st. This noted that the line of the Sperkhios was being patrolled by night by infantry and observed by day by the artillery. The 4th Field had a zone from the mouth of the northern stream halfway to Alamanas Bridge and the 6th Field covered the left half of the front, the 2nd RHA being superimposed (when it arrived) across the whole front from positions behind Molos. The 64th Medium was to cover a huge front from the island of Euboea, across the northern shores of the Maliaic Gulf to the limits of range and round to the left almost as far as the bridge, from positions south-east of Molos and as far back as Longos.
Preparations to put this order into effect went on steadily throughout the 21st. The 6th Field fired from time to time at odd parties of enemy and groups of vehicles seen mostly in the Imir Bei area. All towed 2-pounders of the 7th Anti-Tank were sited well forward, the portées of 34 Battery being held in mobile reserve. The survey troop set up a bearing picket in the 4th Field area. Two light anti-aircraft guns offered some slight opposition to the Luftwaffe in front of Molos and the rest of 155 Battery, RA, a handful of Bofors guns, tried to cover the long stretch of road from Molos to Longos. It was a day of hard thinking and hard work.
It was a day, also, of bad news from other fronts. The Greek Army of the Epirus, essential for the defence of the southwestern part of the Thermopylae line, had been outflanked by the Germans and had signed an armistice. Even before W Force could complete its occupation of the line, therefore, it had to plan for a further withdrawal and an evacuation from Greece. News of this reached General Freyberg next day, 22 April, and was quickly passed on to brigades.
The news was bewildering and to many gunners disappointing. It took all the zest out of the preparations for meeting the Wehrmacht. The gunners were not, by and large, fire-eaters; but they had not so far been worsted in action by the German Army and were conscious of inferiority only with regard to the Luftwaffe. Some of them had become hypersensitive to the sight page 80 or sound of enemy aircraft; but others were filled with an urge to hit back, if not at the Stukas and Messerschmitts then at the enemy on the ground. A common impulse was to have at least one good crack at the enemy before getting out of the country.
Brigadier Miles was told that the withdrawal would start that very evening and that all equipment except signalling and optical stores would be destroyed before leaving Thermopylae. Though 5 Brigade would move back in the night 22–23 April, all guns but the Bredas of 106 Battery, RHA, would remain to support 6 Brigade. Miles himself expected to be busy arranging details of the new plan and therefore put Lieutenant-Colonel Parkinson temporarily in command of the Divisional Artillery.
The new scheme made nonsense of existing dispositions, which presupposed an almost continuous front from Molos to the Brallos Pass. Except for a temporary stopgap called Hart Detachment, 5 Brigade was to depart. The left of 6 Brigade was still to face northwards across the swampy land. When Hart Detachment left, an enemy advancing along the road to Molos would come upon not a whole brigade, but only the left flank of a platoon that was facing north. To cut in behind this platoon would be a relatively simple matter for determined infantry. It might therefore have seemed an elementary precaution to swing the left of 6 Brigade higher into the hills and site it facing along instead of across the road; but this was not done.
Meanwhile the gunners had much to do. The 6th Field found many targets around Imir Bei on the 22nd, including tanks, working parties, and gunners digging in medium guns, as well as infantry by the Alamanas Bridge. All were shelled with vigour. The enemy replied not only with bombers and fighters in large numbers, but with gun fire, which, despite the assistance of spotting aircraft over the New Zealand lines, was quite ineffective. One reconnaissance aircraft landed in front of the 6th Field and a party led by the adjutant went forward and set it on fire. To allay any suspicion the enemy might have of a withdrawal, the 64th Medium also registered targets. The survey troop completed its tasks by establishing a second bearing picket in the 4th Field area and a third in the area to be occupied by the 2nd RHA. Officers from all gunner units, moreover, had to reconnoitre new gun areas to which guns would move after dark.
The 5th Brigade in due course moved back by night through Molos, leaving a gap in the Anzac front which Hart Detach- page 81 ment could not hope to hold against heavy attack. A, B and D Troops of the 5th Field and 33 Battery of the 7th Anti-Tank stayed with Hart. The 6th Field moved back to an olive grove just west of Molos, excepting D and F Troops, which were already there. At the same time H/I Battery and a troop of L/N Battery of the 2nd RHA drove against the tide of 5 Brigade transport from Cape Knimis to south of Molos.
These moves took place in a tense atmosphere. Vehicle lights could plainly be seen after dark on the 22nd on the road from Stilis to Lamia across the Gulf and from Lamia to Imir Bei. A move against the Thermopylae line was imminent; but no ground attack developed on the New Zealand front on the 23rd, though air attack became a commonplace. Despite his command of the air, the enemy seemed curiously unable to pinpoint the gun areas. Air attack on traffic on the roads, however, made it extremely dangerous to travel on them in the hours of daylight. Brigadier Miles, Major Queree, and a party from Divisional Artillery Headquarters nevertheless drove forward in the morning to establish a headquarters alongside RHQ of the 6th Field at Molos, and from there Miles resumed command.
From there, too, he issued his fifth operation order, which outlined a series of complicated operations covering the retreat to the beaches and the evacuation of the Division. The intention was to support 6 Brigade until it withdrew, and then destroy most of the guns and move back to Khalkis. A rearguard from Cape Knimis (later called Clifton Force) would include the battery (less a troop) of the 2nd RHA already there, the portées of 34 Anti-Tank Battery, and one troop of 102 Anti-Tank Regiment, NH. This would cover 6 Brigade on its journey back to Thebes and 155 Light Anti-Aircraft Battery, RA, would carry on to the evacuation beaches. All unessential men and vehicles were to withdraw in the night 23–24 April. Lights might be used south of Cape Knimis, but no halts whatsoever must be made on the road by night.
Long lines of vehicles drove along the road from Lamia to Imir Bei on the 23rd and parked out of range of the 25- pounders, much to the annoyance of the gunners. The 6th Field nevertheless found plenty of targets. When a medium battery took up position by the village, however, Miles took action, calling up three 4.5-inch guns of the 64th Medium to a position just behind Molos from which they could engage page 82 the hostile battery.2 The medium guns did their work well and their counter-battery fire was shared in the afternoon by 29 Battery of the 6th Field, which found another hostile battery south-east of the village within reach and engaged it effectively. A third battery was located beyond the bridge and west of the road, out of reach of the field guns. Two more batteries opened fire from the other side of the Gulf.
The duels that ensued provided an interesting contrast in styles. The enemy used airburst fuses almost exclusively. This was a type of anti-personnel fire that, accurately controlled, could be most effective in flat ground, causing HE shells to explode low over gun positions and similar targets and wounding many men. In this broken country, however, this fire was largely wasted, most of the shells bursting harmlessly behind ridges in front of or behind the New Zealand guns. The 25-pounders and 4.5s, on the other hand, used percussion fuses against targets on flatter ground with far better result. Counter-battery fire took second place as evening approached, however, to concentrations against likely river crossings or strongpoints covering them, and the day ended with a crescendo of fire of this kind by the 6th Field, the 2nd RHA and the 64th Medium. Only those guns, 2-pounders and 25-pounders, in an anti-tank role remained silent; for they dared not disclose their positions. The weight of defensive fire dropped after dark, but field and medium guns kept up harassing fire at odd moments throughout the night.
Perhaps the most remarkable feature of the gunnery this day, however, is that it was maintained despite ceaseless air attack and almost regardless of it. Gunners jumped in and out of slit trenches all day, scampering to their guns when immediate danger passed, and demonstrating plainly the inability of even the most earnest efforts of the Luftwaffe to keep them quiet. In this they were greatly helped by the infantry, who opened fire at any low-flying aircraft with every kind of small-arm including pistols, so that the air seemed to quiver with bullets and was thick with tracers, to which the solitary Bofors gun on the roadside before Molos could make but a small addition. If all this had little observable effect on the enemy aircraft, it served at least to reassure the gunners that they were not alone in their battle. Apart from the effects on the nerves of some page 83 of the men, these air raids did little damage. No guns were hit. Only a few men were wounded and one or two vehicles were destroyed or damaged. The chief trouble to the artillery was that telephone lines kept getting broken. On the other hand, the gunners were greatly cheered by the sight of Stukas diving time and time again on the gun positions vacated the previous night by the 6th Field.
Behind the guns the B Echelons and headquarters staffs had a busy day preparing for the night journey. Everything not needed for the evacuation—documents, equipment, personal belongings, even vehicles—was destroyed. Even the treasured instruments of medical staffs were to be thrown out and Lieutenant Cook,3 RMO of the 7th Anti-Tank, recalls that he demurred when told to get rid of his surgical equipment. The rear areas became almost chaotic in the rush to get rid of all encumbrances and yet make the most of whatever could be used. The Thermopylae line had been provisioned for a go-day battle and there was therefore a huge surplus of stores, including some rare delicacies of food. When supply depots were ‘opened to the public’ the nearby troops took what they could.
Far to the rear, at Kriekouki south of Thebes, 4 Brigade settled into a covering position supported by Australian artillery. The survey troop, with nothing more to do on the Molos front, drove through to Athens, reaching the pretty suburb of Daphni at 4 p.m. and settling in at Voula transit camp a few hours later. Another detachment that travelled this day along roads patrolled and attacked from the air was from the 7th Anti-Tank. It consisted of Major Oakes, Captain Jones4 and a few others detailed to help embarkation staffs at the beaches, and it rested for the night under pines by the little port of Rafina, a few miles east of Athens.
Brigadier Miles and his small staff had to provide for all the many foreseeable contingencies of the evacuation; but they also had to study with great care the implications of the many moves for the battle which must still be fought in front of Molos. Hart Detachment was to withdraw this night, 23–24 April, and an unplugged gap thus left in the Thermopylae line would give rise to many difficulties. Miles and Lieutenant-Colonel Duff both studied the forward artillery zone on the 23rd and they came to the same conclusion: that the road along the foot of page 84 the hills to Molos was easy to defend against tanks and that serious danger of tank breakthrough existed only on the narrow strip of land between the road and the sea at Ay Trias.
They therefore revised the anti-tank defences to strengthen this part of the front. This gave greater depth to the anti-tank defence there, in the sector of 24 Battalion. At the same time, with guns to spare when Hart Detachment withdrew, they strengthened the 25 Battalion sector on the left. The nine remaining 2-pounders of 32 and 33 Anti-Tank Batteries were also posted around Ay Trias and along the road to Molos.
The final dispositions on the Molos front therefore were strong in artillery and comparatively weak in infantry. The two battalions forward, the 24th on the right and the 25th on the left, were supported by most of a medium regiment, four field regiments all but one troop, two somewhat depleted anti-tank regiments, and a few light anti-aircraft guns.
The transport needed to serve the guns and in the end to withdraw the gunners was sent as far forward as possible and hidden under the trees. All other artillery transport was destroyed or driven back after dark on the 23rd in a long convoy of 170 vehicles plus 10 of Divisional Cavalry, all under Colonel Duff.
2 This regiment suffered from a shortage of certain types of ammunition, which made some of its troops of little use for the forthcoming battle, and 234 Battery (less C Troop) therefore accompanied 5 Brigade in the night 22–23 April, leaving 211 Battery (plus C Troop) in support of 6 Brigade.