2nd New Zealand Divisional Artillery
Molos: The Gunners' Battle
Molos: The Gunners' Battle
The enemy was certain to attack in full force on the 24th and he confirmed this by bombarding gun areas in front of Molos at 4 a.m. The shelling lasted for nearly an hour, but did no harm. Soon after dawn a carrier patrol of 24 Battalion reported that a span of the Alamanas Bridge had been replaced, that repair work was continuing, and that an enemy patrol had crossed the river. The 6th Field responded with a heavy and accurate concentration, the first of many this day on the bridge. The 64th Medium was also asked to range on it and help to destroy any completed sections. The medium guns then engaged a hostile battery near Imir Bei and reported scoring a direct hit on it, only to be contradicted shortly afterwards when the battery opened fire again, this time on the medium guns. The 64th then fought a duel which ended successfully. No hostile battery fired from that position again. Of three tanks making their way along the foothills from the direction of the Brallos Pass at 11 a.m., one was disabled and the others disappeared. For the next hour an infantry patrol operated up to the southern bank of the main stream of the Sperkhios and the field and medium guns therefore fired only beyond it.page 85
Brigadier Miles meanwhile took advantage of this slow beginning of the attack to confer with his commanding officers about details of the withdrawal, and General Freyberg arrived at the gathering. He suggested that some guns might possibly be brought out when 6 Brigade withdrew that night. Accordingly, Miles ordered that each battery must take out half its complement of guns, which greatly complicated existing arrangements.
From midday for a full hour the whole front was heavily dive-bombed and machine-gunned from the air. Grey smoke from the bursting bombs covered the gun areas and observation officers on the heights above watched keenly for signs of the long-awaited advance. No immediate danger seemed to threaten, but there was much movement in the distance. Meanwhile an officer of 25 Battalion complained that there were no anti-tank guns in his area, a matter that was hard to check and therefore worrying to Miles's headquarters. (The officer was mistaken: three troops of the 5th Field and six guns of 31 Anti-Tank Battery were all well forward.)
A rather half-hearted attempt by the enemy to get tanks across the swampy land early in the afternoon resulted in one of them getting stuck in the mud, and this deterred the German commander from any further efforts to develop the only kind page 86 of tank attack that had any hope of success. In this at least the Germans were less thorough than their reputation suggested. Their hasty dismissal of the cross-country route to Molos was a godsend to the defence. The tank attack they chose to mount in mid-afternoon was by single file along the road, a method offering such little hope of success (against what must by that time have been recognised by the Germans as a strong gun group) that Miles and Duff had not even considered this possibility. They had not counted on meeting an enemy so impatient and contemptuous of opposition as to mount such a suicidal assault.
The attack along the road, moreover, bore little relation to an infantry attack (supported by a reconnaissance unit) mounted along the road and along the rough country south of it. This was slow to develop, however, having been delayed by 6th Field concentrations in the morning and early afternoon. Motorcyclists and cyclists led the attack along the road at 4 p.m. and for the moment the 6th Field was silent, its communications having been cut by a heavy air raid. The infantry posts on the extreme left of 25 Battalion therefore went into action and quickly checked the advance along the road. For the New Zealand infantry this was the beginning of a difficult action in which the weakness of their dispositions on this flank were soon exploited. The following enemy infantry, unable to get farther along the road, pushed up into the hills and began to turn the flank of 25 Battalion, which responded rather slowly to this challenge.
In so doing, the enemy created acute difficulties for the OP parties of the 6th Field, mostly established in the area of C Company on the left of 25 Battalion. These OP parties had halted the German tanks long before they got within reach of the guns of the 5th Field, whose crews were tensely waiting to take up their anti-tank roles. Now they found themselves fired on by infantry in the hills above and even behind them. Captain Sawyers at the B Troop OP had reported that the linked fire of B and C Troops had halted the tank attack. Then Captain Levy5 at the A Troop OP reported that the withdrawal of C Company had caused him to come under machine-gun fire from the hills. Levy and Major Mitchell6 of 29 Battery page 87 then made their way back by following the telephone line to an alternative OP from which Levy resumed control of the fire of A Troop.
Despite these local setbacks, the artillery defence stiffened to the point that almost every gun on the front except those in anti-tank roles was offering strenuous opposition to the German advance. Just to the right of 25 Battalion (which faced north) were D and F Troops of the 6th Field, and a little farther back, in a large olive grove in front of Molos, the rest of the 6th Field guns were emplaced. Behind these in turn were the three guns of the 64th Medium which had been brought forward for counter-battery work. The 4th Field guns were sited in a reentrant running south-westwards from Molos, and not far behind them were H/I Battery plus a troop of the 2nd RHA. Farther back still, but well within reach of the enemy because of their long range, were A and C Troops (less the forward guns) of 64th Medium, with B Troop a long way back at Longos.
Their combined fire was a formidable obstacle to the attack and enemy accounts have much to say about the terrible artillery barrages that characterised the Molos battle. These barrages were sustained only by unremitting efforts to keep open communications and to explore alternative ways of bringing down fire when existing ones were interrupted. FOOs were often out of touch with their guns and requests for fire had to be met without their help.
The policy at first had been to conserve fire in case a heavy expenditure was needed at the last moment to help to extricate 6 Brigade. It is always hard to maintain such a policy, however, in face of repeated requests for supporting fire. So great were the demands on the forward troops of the 6th Field—the only field guns that could reach the Alamanas Bridge—that stocks of ammunition at the gun positions began to run low before the morning was finished. The 6th Field had started the day with about 180 rounds per gun, and the only way of replenishing stocks was to drive ammunition lorries forward from a dump south of Molos along a road that was subject to close and merciless air attack, as well as being shelled from Imir Bei and from the other side of the Gulf. Lieutenant-Colonel Weir of the 6th Field had ordered his battery ammunition groups to work forward from this dump as opportunity offered; but it was a nerve-racking task and at the end of it there was much hard work. Lorries could not get off the road and the heavy page 88 ammunition boxes had to be carried over rough country to the gun positions. Bombardier Scoltock7 was in charge of the ammunition group of 30 Battery, which this day made seven trips to the much-bombed dump and back again, carrying more than 1800 rounds to the guns. For this he was awarded an MM and the citation mentions his ‘coolness and complete disregard for hostile aircraft’. Such was the rate of expenditure, however, that even these exertions did not suffice. For two hours in the afternoon the guns of F Troop of the 6th Field were silent while their crews joined in this work of carrying ammunition from road to gun position. Then they resumed their back-breaking work of loading, ramming and firing the guns.
The field guns firing indirectly had been able to deter the German tank commanders from pressing their attack; but late in the afternoon this situation suddenly changed. At a time when the FOOs of the 6th Field, which was best placed to bring indirect fire down on the road, were facing difficulty and danger from German infantry on the hills above them, a score of tanks raced along the road in a suicidal charge. The time had come—about 6 p.m.—for the anti-tank 2-pounders and 25-pounders to play their part.
The foremost of these were the four guns of E Troop of the 5th Field, in roughly the middle of the 25 Battalion area. Next were F Troop of the 5th Field and the few remaining 2-pounders of A and B Troops, 31 Battery. All the other guns of the 5th Field and the 7th Anti-Tank (other than the portees) were north of the road, as were the 2-pounders of the 102nd Anti-Tank. The only guns north of the road which could fire along or across it, however, were a troop of B Battery of the 102nd Anti-Tank and a section (two guns) of C Troop of the 5th Field.
E Troop of the 5th Field fought by far the most important part of the action. The road, from the viewpoint of F Troop looking along it, seemed to curl in and out among the foothills and the tanks racing along it appeared and disappeared as it did so. E Troop was slightly defiladed and when it opened fire the tanks were quite close. The leading gun, under Second-Lieutenant Parkes,8 destroyed three tanks in quick succession at ranges between 400 and 600 yards; all three burst into flames. page 89 Others nevertheless came on and E Troop destroyed them as they did so. Parkes's gun crew worked to parade-ground precision and the gun-layer, Bombardier Santi,9 rose magnificently to the occasion. His shooting remained deadly accurate even when tanks and surviving tank crews fired back at short range. In all Parkes's crew disabled eight medium tanks and one light one, and most of them were set on fire. Another E Troop gun collected two more victims. Still they came on, through the smoke from the blazing tanks ahead of them, somehow working their way round the derelicts and on towards Molos. F Troop joined in and claimed at least three more tanks. A gun of B Troop, 31 Anti-Tank Battery, under Sergeant Gilmer,10 sited near a little bridge on the right of the 25 Battalion sector, opened fire at 600–800 yards and knocked out one tank and damaged a second one, which a 25-pounder at once destroyed. Across the road the foremost anti-tank guns (including the section of C Troop of the 5th Field) were among or in front of the foremost infantry. They, too, joined in when the tanks came close enough, so that the tanks which travelled farthest along the road came under a cross-fire which set the seal to their doom. No tank escaped harm. The scene at the end of their charge was desolate in the extreme.
Though the 20 tanks had no chance of breaking through, they could and did cause much trouble. For one thing, even two or three tanks advancing together could develop great fire power. Their heavy machine guns swept the slopes on which 25 Battalion was fighting its difficult action with German infantry. Moreover all did not happen at once. Though the tanks came on fast, they were spaced about fifty yards apart in the first instance and later arrivals had to pick their way past derelicts and through the clouds of smoke. Artillery farther back had time enough to bring down indirect fire astride the road. Some men of 25 Battalion, falling back, had to pass close to the tanks and came under deadly fire at close range. Some of them had to pass through the artillery fire as well. A Company of the 25th was by now in difficulties, attacked from above by infantry and from below by tank fire. The last straw was when fire from the New Zealand guns began to fall thickly in one platoon area. This in turn, by hastening the collapse of the left flank of 25 Battalion, brought OP parties and then gun page 90 crews in the area under fire from the German infantry outflanking the battalion.
Such an action breaks up on close analysis into a series of episodes each more or less complete in itself to those directly concerned, though the pieces can never be fitted as neatly together as the pieces of a jigsaw puzzle. Thus Parkes's gun team found themselves being stalked, in the course of their anti-tank action, by the crew of one of the tanks they had disabled. The infantry in front of them had withdrawn—perhaps shot out of their positions by close-range tank fire—and the gun team left their shallow pit and salvaged a Bren gun left behind by the infantry. They then fought a fresh duel with the tank men, killed or wounded them all, and then carried on with their anti-tank action.
Captain Sawyers had been forced to move when his OP came under machine-gun fire from the left front and he resumed control of his B Troop guns from a new position to the east. Tanks directed heavy fire at the A Troop OP and it was also attacked by infantry. Captain Levy and his telephonist, Gunner Durham,11 managed to get away; but three other gunners were captured.12 These are typical of the trials of OP parties of the 6th Field.
To Miles, Barrowclough and others farther back who were trying to understand what was happening, it was not immediately apparent that the enemy had avoided the front of 6 Brigade and was restricting his efforts to the road and the hills to the south. When this did become clear, Miles ordered the 4th and 6th Field and the 2nd RHA to prepare a special anti-tank defensive fire task on the road by Thermopylae, which they did with all haste. The concentration of fire thus produced by three field regiments in depth on the narrow road was terrifying and the enemy made no further effort to bring tanks forward.
Gunners had been surprised in the morning to see Germans preparing gun pits on the other side of the Gulf with no attempt at concealment. Some of them thought it must be a ruse to distract attention; but later in the day the pits were occupied and long-range shelling of the Molos positions began from across the water. When the tank attack along the road had made some progress and the possibility of a tank pene- page break page 91 tration as far as Molos could not be ruled out, Brigadier Miles ordered Colonel Fraser of the 5th Field to bring forward his B Troop, hitherto in a reserve anti-tank position some miles to the south-east of Molos, to an emergency position west of the town. C Battery of the 102nd Anti-Tank was also ordered forward, but could make no headway against a strong stream of road traffic. B Troop of the 5th Field got through and took up position as ordered, though by this time the tank attack had been defeated. When the guns across the Gulf became troublesome Miles ordered this troop to engage them.
Major Bull,13 second-in-command of the 5th Field, accordingly took charge of one gun of B Troop and conducted a remarkable counter-battery shoot. Searching and sweeping with the single gun at almost extreme range, observing with binoculars at the gun position, he managed to keep the hostile batteries quiet. This was a task of a kind normally reserved for a heavier calibre of gun and later some guns of the 64th Medium joined in with the object of destroying the guns across the Gulf. In this they claimed success; at all events, no further trouble came from that source. Major Bull's shooting and that of the medium gunners were examples of unusually skilful gunnery.
The contribution this day of the 4th Field, deployed in the re-entrant south-west of Molos, was less spectacular than that of the anti-tank 25-pounders of the 5th Field and the field gunnery under difficult circumstances of the 6th Field; but the fire of this regiment became more and more valuable as the day advanced. The allotted zone—the right half of the front—was relatively quiet and the 4th Field became increasingly concerned with the attacks from the direction of Thermopylae. The targets engaged were tanks, working parties, groups of infantry—any enemy activity within reach that could be observed by the OPs in the heights north-west of the gun positions. The story of H/I Battery (plus a troop) of the 2nd RHA, to the right rear of the 4th Field, was much the same. The decisive effort of both units, however, was when Brigadier Miles brought them into concert with the 6th Field in the evening to fire the special anti-tank defensive fire task on the road by Thermopylae whenever tanks appeared.
The gun positions of the 4th Field proved to be well protected from hostile batteries at Imir Bei and across the Gulf, and no page 92 more than a few shells landed in the gun area. Even the intense bombing and strafing of the region caused only two casualties in the 4th Field.14 A far greater danger to the gun positions seemed in the early evening to threaten from the penetration of the left flank of 25 Battalion and the outflanking movements the Germans were attempting in the hills. If this danger developed the two battalions and all the guns in front of Molos might be cut off. But the enemy attempted no such ambitious move. The 4th and 6th Field and 2nd RHA helped to check the advance in the hills, though they all found it hard to bring down effective fire in this extremely rugged country. The gunners, moreover, were only vaguely aware of the extensive rearrangements 25 and 26 Battalions were making to meet this threat. The 4th Field at one stage fired at some ruins high up a ridge, not knowing that a detachment of 25 Battalion had already climbed up to them.
As the threat to the 4th Field eased, the gunners of the forward troops of the 5th Field, B and C Troops of 31 Anti-Tank Battery, and D and F Troops of the 6th Field came under increasing danger. By about 7 p.m. E Troop of the 5th Field was all but surrounded and F Troop and the forward 2-pounder troops were in an increasingly difficult situation. The field guns nevertheless kept firing, though observation and control of fire became hard to maintain. Lieutenant Cropper15 of F Troop, 6th Field, unable to communicate with his OP, went forward from the gun position with one signaller, Gunner Lepine,16 and began observing from a point 200 yards in front of his guns. As dusk approached the gunners grew anxious to fire as many rounds as they could before their guns came out of action and the rate of firing increased considerably. They knew they would be unable to destroy unexpended ammunition. All guns in a field role continued to fire at least until dusk—about 8.30 p.m.
Late in the afternoon Brigadiers Miles and Barrowclough had been worried about getting enough transport forward to carry out the infantry. Lorries of the Ammunition Company were to carry 24 Battalion; but they could not be found. In the end Miles decided to use artillery vehicles in the forward area to carry infantry and accordingly cancelled the order to bring out half the guns. There was no need for this, as it happened; the page 93 NZASC lorries drove forward in time to take the infantry. But there was in any case no possibility of withdrawing those guns that were so far forward that their crews were under small-arms fire and virtually unprotected by infantry. Some of these were spiked; others were disabled by draining their buffer-recuperators of oil, firing them, and then removing breech blocks and firing mechanisms.
Getting the gun crews and observation parties out, however, still presented difficulties. The drivers of E Troop of the 5th Field and B and C Troops, 31 Anti-Tank Battery, had to drive against a flood of vehicles travelling away from the front after dark. By a very determined effort they managed to do so and collected their men. The enemy was fortunately unenterprising and did no more than send up flares and occasionally machine-gun the general area, causing little harm. Just after the crews of D and F Troops, 6th Field, withdrew, however, guns on the other side of the Gulf began to bombard the gun position. One 6th Field gun had been given an anti-tank role; but its crew was released from this task at this stage and this gun, too, was disabled. Lieutenant Turner,17 who was last to leave, reported that an F Troop gun was hit shortly after its crew departed; other witnesses speak of three abandoned guns hit in this bombardment. Luck was clearly on the side of the New Zealand gunners.
When it became clear that there was no need to use artillery vehicles to carry infantry, orders were issued that C Troop of the 5th Field was to bring out its guns and join the 6 Brigade rearguard. One of the guns, however, had already been destroyed in action and the tractors for the other three could make no headway against the stream of traffic moving in the opposite direction at that late hour. They had only a mile and a half to travel; but they had still not reached the gun lines by 10 p.m. The subaltern in command at the gun position, finding that all other troops in the neighbourhood had by this time withdrawn and hearing enemy patrols approaching, decided to disable his guns and bring his men out on foot.
The 4th Field had originally been meant to cease fire at 7.30 p.m.; but the hour was put back. Targets were plentiful and so was ammunition, nobody felt like ending the party, and so it carried on for well over two more hours. When the 4th Field ammunition expenditure was totalled the figures were page 94 startling. The seven guns of 26 Battery fired (in about half the time) nearly twice the number of rounds that 11 guns had fired in the Pinios battle: almost 5000 rounds. Before the Molos battle, 25 Battery had not fired its 25-pounders in anger; but this day it kept pace with 26 Battery and brought the day's average for the regiment to about 650 rounds per gun, most of them fired in the afternoon or evening.
The last shots in the Molos battle, however, were fired by the 2nd RHA. The battery and troop of this regiment carried out their work splendidly. Although their proportionate ammunition expenditure is not known, it must have equalled, if it did not surpass, that of the 4th Field. At a late stage a New Zealand gunner overheard a memorable order at a gun position of the 2nd RHA: ‘Gun fire till I say stop’. Gunners were used to ‘One round of gun fire’, or two rounds, occasionally five rounds, rarely indeed as many as ten rounds: only in their dreams did they hear such an order as this. H/I Battery finally ceased fire about midnight and with its last shot the battle ended. These guns, too, were disabled and their crews withdrew.
All field guns were thus destroyed or disabled and most antitank guns. At the end of the day the only remaining guns were the portées of 34 Anti-Tank Battery and some of the towed 2-pounders of 33 Battery and the 102nd Anti-Tank, NH, together with six Bofors of 155 Light Anti-Aircraft Battery, RA (by this time very short of ammunition). No gunner would call this a happy ending to the Molos battle. The guns had been the centre of attention through months of training and most gunners were sorry indeed to have to leave them behind. Guns and limbers swinging and bouncing along behind their vehicles had become a fact of life for gun crews, and many a gunner cast an instinctive glance backwards during the night journey only to be reminded that the gun which had been the object of his care and attention for many a month was no longer there. It gave him a blank feeling, almost a sense of bereavement.
The cost to the gunners of the Molos battle in human terms was fortunately small. A day in which the gun areas had been the prime target of enemy guns and aircraft had ended with remarkably few casualties among the gun crews. Since some of these had started with little or no infantry support and many more had become uncovered by infantry in the course of the fighting, this was indeed a lucky outcome. No member of a New Zealand gun crew was killed in action during the day page 95 and only one gun was destroyed while the crew was at hand to serve it. The forward gun crews of the 5th Field had charmed lives and came through unscathed. The gun positions of the 6th Field had been bombed and shelled throughout the day and one gun suffered a ‘narrow miss’ which set fire to some charges, badly burning the gun sergeant.18 A junior officer of the same regiment was wounded by a shellburst near B Troop OP in the afternoon and in the evening a gunner was hit by a bullet and later died.19 To these must be added the losses, if any, of the attached gunners of the RHA and RA (including the Northumberland Hussars), whose presence did much to strengthen the Molos defences and who did some excellent shooting.
There was much activity behind the front, too, and air attack made some of it extremely dangerous. Some stretches of road south of Molos were so closely watched by German fighter aircraft that it took a good deal of courage to venture along them. Major Jenkins, the popular OC of 34 Anti-Tank Battery, a mild and unassuming man, had much to do to prepare for the rearguard role of his 2-pounder portees on the march south. In so doing he made one trip too many along this road and was gravely wounded by aerial machine-gunning. The sad news later reached his battery that he had died in hospital.
12 Gnrs F. R. Browne, J. A. Thomson and G. Barnaby.