The Withdrawal of 4 Brigade, 17–18 April
The Withdrawal of 4 Brigade, 17–18 April
A fog which shrouded the front on 17 April limited visibility to no more than 500 yards. Any movement by the Germans could not be clearly observed, but that weakness was more than balanced by the chances there now were of making an unobserved and undisturbed withdrawal. The artillery, instead of thinning out at 7 p.m., began to move at 1 p.m., the arrangement being that A Troop 6 Field Regiment, having the advantages of a reasonably sound track, would come out last.
The guns of 7 Medium Regiment were out by 5 p.m. E Troop 6 Field Regiment had also reached the highway, but it had taken three tractors and a team of men to move each gun across the rain-soaked slopes. The others were being brought out with less difficulty when the mist lifted and left the two guns of A Troop out of the pits and in full view of the enemy. The shellfire which soon came over was heavy but two drivers, Gunners Bunton1 and Tombleson,2 resolutely went in with their quads and retrieved them. That done, all guns, including those of 31 Battery 7 Anti- Tank Regiment, were on the main highway and soon rattling south towards Larisa and Thermopylae.
Once darkness came the infantry were on the move. Nineteenth Battalion, having brought in its outlying platoons the previous night, lost no time before it started the gruelling ten-mile march from the pass to the embussing point. The demolitions3 prepared by the engineers in the pass were blown so there was little chance of a German attack. The greatest threat was the consistent shelling of the highway from the crossroads above the pass to a point not very far from the embussing point.
Battalion Headquarters, A, B and D Companies withdrew by the ‘back’ route, which was safer but longer, the track circling above Lava and then joining the highway much lower in the gorge. The mountain village, Kastania, was under shellfire when they began their march but no casualties were suffered. The great difficulty of the route was the broken terrain, made all the more complicated and confusing by the blackness of the night. ‘We moved in single file and we moved fast. It was dark; the rocks of the track showed up a ghostly blurr. It was a killing pace and with full equipment…. Having been told nothing we had no idea exactly what the position was …. Gradually we all became imbued with the gravity of the situation and this was confirmed when the order was given to abandon packs …. the tension increased in bounds in an atmosphere of doubt and some bewilderment.’1 The company commanders emphasised the necessity of getting out to the highway before daybreak, but in spite of their appeals the long strung-out columns broke, separated and dropped behind schedule.
The first company reached the road about 2 a.m. and reported to Lieutenant-Colonel Kippenberger, who was waiting with the rearguard at the demolition point north of the Sarandaporos stream and opposite the rough country round which the companies were withdrawing. These men knew nothing about Battalion Headquarters and the other two companies nor could they suggest their possible route, except that it was to the east of the road. The senior officer, Captain Lyon,2 did however point out that the men would be exhausted and would have neither the strength nor the time to march on to the turning point where the trucks had now been assembled. He was therefore sent on by Kippenberger to collect unit transport to convey the exhausted groups to that area. To make this possible, the sappers in their turn had to lift the surface charges from three demolitions in the 12-mile stretch between the rearguard and the embussing point.
1 Cpl E. A. Howard.
That over, Lieutenant-Colonel Kippenberger and Lieutenant Kelsall waited for the transport to come up and for the missing companies of 18 Battalion to reach the highway. Second-Lieutenant Green1 with the Bren carriers from 20 Battalion provided a screen to the north; the Colonel waited at the ‘tin hut’ north of the Sarandaporos stream and on the western side of the long valley leading up to Servia Pass. All was darkness, with shells coming over from the Aliakmon and small parties of men calling out across the gully. Each group in its turn was urged to stumble down to the creek and clamber up the face to the highway and the waiting vehicles.
At 5 a.m., long after the rearguard should have been clear of the pass, small groups from 18 Battalion were still appearing out of the darkness. Kippenberger decided that he must wait still longer, for it was hardly likely that the Germans would be able to clear the demolitions in the Olympus Pass and cut off the line of retreat.
As it was possible for the demolition charges to be blown too soon, Lieutenant Dawson2 was despatched to warn the engineers that the highway must be kept clear for a swift withdrawal. The RAP and WT trucks were sent back but Kippenberger, with the rest of the rearguard, waited until dawn, still collecting stragglers from 18 Battalion.
The same night German patrols sought to find out why the New Zealand shellfire had now ceased. At 6 a.m. they reported that ‘the strongly constructed positions’ were unoccupied, but the units which hastened to advance were held up by the blown bridges, the minefields and the demolitions.