5 Brigade begins its Withdrawal, Night 16–17 April
5 Brigade begins its Withdrawal, Night 16–17 April
Once night fell German activity faded away on all sectors of the front. Having realised that a direct assault was unlikely to succeed, they were waiting for the advanced guard of 72 Infantry Division to complete its encircling move through the wild country to the south of the pass. Fifth Brigade was therefore able to complete the first stage of what was to be an unexpectedly smooth withdrawal.
On the right flank 23 Battalion had to climb across the range to Kokkinoplos. With the help of a Greek mule train the sick and the wounded had been taken over during the day. The mass of essential equipment had been taken in the 15-cwt trucks to the end of the Back Road but the Greeks, disturbed no doubt by the shellfire, refused to pack it over to Kokkinoplos so there it remained, the men having more than enough weight of weapons and equip ment, as it was, to carry out over the rough mountain track.
Headquarters Company came out at dusk; B Company followed about 8 p.m., then A Company and Battalion Headquarters. They waited along the Back Road for C Company, which had some difficulty in disengaging and did not appear until 9 p.m. In case some German mountaineers had climbed round Mount Olympus, 11 Platoon B Company (Lieutenant Begg2) went out as a vanguard, the other companies following and being joined by D Company from the ridges on the right flank. The pioneer platoon brought up the rear, demolishing the Back Road in six places.
Elements of some supporting units had moved with the battalion. The observation post party from 5 Field Regiment had been able to join the unit transport on the Olympus Pass road, but 10 Platoon 27 (Machine Gun) Battalion, with all its heavy Vickers machine guns and equipment, had struggled out with the battalion. The guns of 32 Battery 7 Anti-Tank Regiment were a different proposition. The three on the pass road from E Troop could be withdrawn; the nine to the south of the highway with 23 Battalion could not be brought out. The CRE had thought that they could be manhandled over the Poros stream and over the col to Kokkinoplos, so Major Oakes,1 with a party from Regimental Headquarters, and Lieutenant Neale,2 of 15 Light Aid Detachment, with heavy tackle and wire ropes had come up to give assistance.
The F Troop guns were taken to the Poros stream but they could not be taken across. They were therefore stripped of their telescopes and rolled into the gorge. The three guns south of the road with 22 Battalion were dismantled where they stood, the two G Troop guns with 23 Battalion were wrecked, the crews under Second- Lieutenant Moor3 attaching themselves to A Company 23 Battalion and serving as infantrymen.
The companies of 22 Battalion were astride the main highway, but even so their withdrawal was not simple. The precipitous ridges and the dense undergrowth, the muddy tracks and the pitch-black night made it so difficult to get clear that C Company, the nearest, took three hours to reach the highway. However, by 8.30 p.m. the files were trudging past the check point, carrying practically all their arms, ammunition and equipment. Two miles back waited the motor transport which took them to Ay Dhimitrios by 4 a.m., 17 April. The only late arrivals, a party of forty men from D Company led by Captain T. C. Campbell, came out from the north side after climbing first west and then south, keeping direction by the sound of the 25-pounders and coming out on the highway below Ay Dhimitrios.
The demolitions to the rear were blown by the pioneer platoon (Lieutenant Wadey1) at 1 a.m.; B Company, after screening the approaches to Ay Dhimitrios, came through at dawn. The battalion, some men on foot and some on trucks, then moved back about three miles from the village and stood to in mist and rain waiting for the Germans to press forward.
On the left flank, to the north of the pass, 28 (Maori) Battalion had to withdraw across country not so high as that traversed by 23 Battalion but much more heavily timbred. The dusk attack on D Company had also taken some time to fade out, so it was not until 10.30 p.m. that the Maoris could begin their withdrawal along a mule track that ran from Battalion Headquarters to the main highway east of Ay Dhimitrios. The intelligence section had marked the track with white paper and cigarette packets and some heavy equipment had already gone out with the mule trains, but once the withdrawal began the Greeks and the mules were not to be found. The already weary Maoris had therefore to carry out unnecessarily heavy packs.
The march out from Battalion Headquarters with B Company as rearguard has been described as a ‘terrible nightmare’ which made ‘perhaps, a more lasting impression on the minds of those who faced the ordeal than any subsequent experience of war. In single file and for hours and hours the men of the battalion trudged across these miles of rugged, mountainous countryside with their backs bent under the heavy loads that they were asked to carry.’2 In places they had to feel their way through the scrub; at the halts there was always the fear of falling asleep and being left behind. So heavy was the going that Lieutenant-Colonel Dittmer eventually ordered all packs to be dumped. Better time was then made and the greater part of the battalion reached the highway in the pass about 3.30 a.m., 17 April, just as the engineers were about to blow the demolitions. It had been a very close call, for at 3 a.m. Brigadier Hargest had reluctantly decided that if the Maoris did not appear within the next half hour their transport would be withdrawn and the road blown. They were now taken back into the pass to the temporary positions beyond Ay Dhimitrios.
2 28 Battalion narrative, pp. 155–6.
3 2 Lt G. A. Te Kuru; born NZ 22 Sep 1908; civil servant; killed in action 21 May 1941.
Fifth Field Regiment had been withdrawing ever since the late afternoon, although a report that the enemy had broken into the lines of B Company 28 (Maori) Battalion sent F Troop 28 Battery hurrying back to cover the left flank from positions at the head of the pass. Twenty-seventh Battery withdrew about 8 p.m., the guns being roped down the wet clay tracks. D and E Troops 28 Battery came out last after twenty hours' continuous action and the whole regiment was in position south of Ay Dhimitrios by first light.
The demolitions to the rear of the brigade were the responsibility of 3 Section 7 Field Company (Lieutenant Hector1), which had returned from Kokkinoplos on 15 April to continue the work begun by 5 Field Park Company and 19 Army Troops Company. Hector had taken over three demolitions and set about the preparation of a fourth, two sub-sections working in shifts for twenty-four hours, blasting a hole 14 feet through solid rock and placing two cases of gelignite and half a ton of ammonal in position.
At 12.15 a.m., 17 April, the charge near the forward positions was fired, but instead of the road and retaining wall being cut away there was only a series of easily negotiable craters. The second and third demolitions had no better results. The fourth, the one prepared near the head of the pass by 3 Section 7 Field Company, was fired at 7 a.m. after the withdrawal of 28 Battalion. Once again the cliff face did not fall away but the crater was much deeper and a more effective obstacle. Even so, to the advancing Germans it was no great barrier—a most disappointing fact when it is remembered that the Division had had five weeks in the area to prepare for just such an event. As it is opinions still differ as to what would have been the best method of demolition. Charges along the outside of the road to supplement the inner charges might have sliced away the road. But that method needed additional charges, and explosives in Greece were not plentiful. Some delay might have been caused if the cliff face above the road had been blown down on to the road itself. Whatever the reason, the important fact was that the Germans were free to make an unexpectedly swift crossing that nearly brought disaster to those withdrawing from Servia Pass.2