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To Greece

21 Battalion Withdraws through the Pinios Gorge

21 Battalion Withdraws through the Pinios Gorge

At dawn, 16 April, there was the inevitable attack. Above the tunnel behind a barrage of smoke and explosive shell the tanks edged forward, forcing the withdrawal of 12 Platoon to the south side of Point 266. A Company above the tunnel was undisturbed, but D Company to the rear was soon under fire from the high country to the west about Pandeleimon village.

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Here 2 Motor Cycle Battalion supported by I/304 Infantry Regiment was threatening to encircle C Company. The full weight of their attack fell upon 15 Platoon on the extreme left flank. Lieutenant Mason1 began the day by shooting one adventurous German, but after that the platoon suffered a succession of disasters. No. 7 Section covering the track out of Pandeleimon had scattered some Germans who had been casually strolling out of the village, but the enemy had immediately re-formed and attacked about 8 a.m., covered by mortar and machine-gun fire. Nos. 7 and 8 Sections were soon surrounded and forced to surrender;2 the other section of the platoon was overrun from the west, some survivors finding their way back to Company Headquarters under covering fire from 14 Platoon.

The reply to this attack had been a fighting patrol from 13 Platoon led by Lieutenant O'Neill, but it had soon been pinned down by small-arms fire and when it did get forward, mainly through the efforts of Sergeant Kibblewhite,3 who was wounded three times, the remnants of 15 Platoon had already withdrawn.

The company commander, Captain Tongue, who had also attempted to reach 15 Platoon, had by then returned to his headquarters, to which 14 Platoon had fallen back after giving covering fire to the remnants of 15 Platoon. Once again there was danger of encirclement. The best that Tongue could do was to order 14 Platoon to withdraw down the ridge, covered by that part of O'Neill's platoon which had not gone out on patrol. Consequently, when O'Neill returned through the scrub with his party he found an orderly withdrawal already under way.

The move had not been unexpected by Battalion Headquarters. The telephone wire had remained intact until 9 a.m. when Captain McElroy,4 second-in-command of C Company, had informed headquarters that the unit was completely surrounded. Macky had then warned his quartermaster, Captain Panckhurst,5 that he must prepare for a withdrawal.

There was little hope of any improvement in the situation. The infantry who had enveloped C Company were almost certain to come down the ridge from Pandeleimon or to follow the track

1 Capt C. T. Mason, MC; born Pukerau, 9 Sep 1915; school-teacher; killed in action 12 Jul 1942.

2 They were afterwards employed digging out the rubble from the railway tunnel and carrying in telegraph poles as pit props.

3 Sgt F. A. Kibblewhite; Thames; born Oamaru, 3 Dec 1905; school-teacher; wounded 16 Apr 1941; p.w. 21 Nov 1941.

4 Lt-Col H. M. McElroy, DSO and bar, ED; Auckland; born Timaru, 2 Dec 1910; public accountant; CO 21 Bn Jun 1943–Jun 1944; four times wounded.

5 Maj G. H. Panckhurst; Waianakarua, North Otago; born Westport, 1 Nov 1906; accountant; twice wounded.

page 250 from there to the railway station. The stretch between Point 266 and the castle, long under fire from artillery and tanks, was now enveloped in smoke, and German infantry infiltrating through this screen had already forced 12 Platoon to withdraw to the 11 Platoon area.

At last about 10 a.m. the tanks, supported by engineers to select a route, were pressing forward along the saddle track towards the crest of the ridge. ‘Many of them shed their tracks on the boulders, or split their track assemblies, and finally the leading troops ran on to mines.’ As every tank of the advancing troop became a casualty the path was soon blocked. When a detour was attempted two more stuck in soft ground and another was ‘blown on a mine and completely burnt out.’ In the thick scrub visibility was very restricted and hardly a trace was seen of the New Zealanders ‘except of occasional infantrymen running back.’1 Still they were making appreciable gains which, with the encirclement of the left flank, finally decided Lieutenant-Colonel Macky that he must order his battalion to withdraw otherwise it would be overwhelmed.

The decision came as a shock to Anzac Corps Headquarters. At 9.20 a.m. a message had been received saying that the battalion's left flank was seriously threatened. Twenty minutes later, and again thirty-five minutes after that, the message was more or less repeated. At 10.15 a.m. the last message to be received had ended: ‘W/T Sta 21 NZ Bn closing down. Getting out.’

The order of withdrawal was A Company, then two platoons of D Company and finally, when the last of B Company was coming out, the hitherto missing platoons of C Company appeared from the upper slopes. They fell back through 18 Platoon D Company (Lieutenant Flavell2), which in its turn got clear with the loss of only one man taken prisoner. The troop from 5 Field Regiment, after searching for a medium battery alongside the beach, had already left for the mouth of the Pinios Gorge; so with the carriers detailed to cover them, the companies began to make their way back to the bridge across the Pinios River.

To their infinite relief this stage of the withdrawal was quite undisturbed. The enemy's tanks had reached the crest of the ridge, his engineers had begun to clear away the mines and the more romantic had hastened to hoist the Nazi flag from the castle tower. But the blown tunnel and the wretched surface of the track, which made it necessary for the tracked vehicles to be towed over, prevented any immediate exploitation of the situation. It was not until

1 Report by 3 Panzer Regiment.

2 Maj N. R. Flavell; Dunedin; born Auckland, 17 Jan 1915; school-teacher; wounded and p.w. Apr 1941; escaped; reported safe 30 Nov 1941.

page 251 the following afternoon, 17 April, that the tanks were rattling along the railway track towards the Pinios River.

To the German High Command this pause of over twenty-four hours must have been decidedly irritating. Battle Group 1 to the north of Mount Olympus had not been able to force 5 Brigade1 from Olympus Pass; XXXX Corps had found it ‘impossible to build a bridge north of Servia2 because of enemy interference’; and the forces advancing through Grevena towards Kalabaka and Larisa required yet more time. The investment which was most likely to give the best and quickest return was therefore an advance from the Platamon ridge through the Pinios Gorge towards Larisa, the crossroads along the line of withdrawal. Consequently on 16 April, after 21 Battalion had withdrawn, XVIII Corps was signalling 2 Panzer Division: ‘Please push on with all possible speed to Elason and Larissa. Very important to reach Larissa.’3

By then 21 Battalion had formed another line. The first choice, a narrow gap between the hills and the sea about a mile south of Platamon railway station, was not reassuring. The battalion had consequently marched about six miles through olive groves and across sandy flats to the ferry across the Pinios River, at the seaward end of the Pinios Gorge about four miles from the coast. Here Lieutenant-Colonel Macky and Brigadier Clowes,4 who had been sent up by General Blamey to take what action he considered necessary, discussed whether the gorge should be defended at the seaward end, in the middle or on the edge of the plain about five miles inland. The defence of the seaward entrance was possible, but as it would have been comparatively simple for the German mountain troops to cross the ridges and encircle the pass, they finally decided that 21 Battalion should withdraw to hold the western entrance.

Brigadier Clowes' instructions to Lieutenant-Colonel Macky were that it was ‘essential to deny the gorge to the enemy till 19th April even if it meant extinction.’ Support would arrive within twenty-four hours. When all the battalion had crossed, the ferry boat was to be sunk. Special attention had to be paid to the country on the north side of the river through which he expected the enemy to develop an outflanking movement and, if the Germans did force their way through the gorge, the battalion would withdraw to the road and railway crossing some seven miles south of the western exit.

1 See pp. 25469.

2 See p. 273.

3 2 Panzer Division war diary, 10–21 April 1941.

4 CCRA, Anzac Corps.

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The guns were then uncoupled, manhandled down the steep slope and taken across in the ferry to the south bank, along which they were hauled by trucks which had been brought up from B Echelon. The heavy gun tractors, ammunition limbers and Bren carriers went back along the track, through the tunnel and over the railway bridge at Tempe, some five miles up-stream. As this took time it was not until late afternoon that all were across and the ferry could be sunk—but not before the unit pioneers had in a most gentlemanly way ferried across ‘a large flock of sheep and goats and then two shepherdesses.’ The first tunnel and the rail track were blown by the engineers and the weary battalion was then free to prepare its new positions.