The Withdrawal of 5 Brigade
The Withdrawal of 5 Brigade
IN the initial stages of the campaign General Wilson had thought that the weakest sector of the Allied front was to the south and west of Monastir. And until 16 April the greatest danger did seem to be from the German forces approaching Kalabaka and threatening to encircle Larisa from the west. But after that date the danger point was the Pinios Gorge, which had to be held until the brigade groups had withdrawn: 5 Brigade from Mount Olympus, 6 Brigade from the Elasson area and Savige Force from the western approaches to Larisa. The period, 17–18 April, was therefore one of rearguard engagements and carefully timed withdrawals.
The first step—a temporary one for the night of 16–17 April— was the assembly at Elevtherokhorion of Duff Force,1 with one group in positions astride the road from Mount Olympus, another covering the road from Servia and another the approaches from the west of Elasson. Next day the greater part of the Divisional Cavalry Regiment,2 for a short period under the command of Anzac Corps, returned to build up a more formidable rearguard. B Squadron carriers3 and N Troop 34 Anti-Tank Battery remained in the Dheskati area and the squadron's armoured car troop was sent hastily to join Allen Force outside the Pinios Gorge, but A and C Squadrons assembled at Elevtherokhorion and took over rearguard duties at the road junction. Duff Force was then disbanded, O and P Troops 34 Anti-Tank Battery coming under the command of the Divisional Cavalry Regiment, 3 Company 27 (Machine Gun) Battalion leaving to support 6 Brigade at Elasson and the three carrier platoons from 6 Brigade returning to their respective battalions.
The day was also one of movement for the battalions of 5 Brigade, who since their withdrawal to the crest of the Olympus Pass on the night of 16–17 April had been preparing to form another line. Twenty-second and 28 (Maori) Battalions, supported by 5 Field Regiment and the remaining two-pounders of 32 Anti-Tank Battery, were just south of Ay Dhimitrios. South-east of them on the lower slopes of Mount Olympus, 23 Battalion was holding the rock-strewn col above the village of Kokkinoplos. It was to have withdrawn that night, 17–18 April, but about 9 a.m., when thick mists enveloped the mountains and screened the highway from the view of the German airmen, General Freyberg visited the pass and decided that the brigade should make an immediate withdrawal. So during the afternoon of 17 April when the Divisional Cavalry rearguard was moving into position, the trucks of 4 RMT Company with 5 Brigade aboard were hastening south towards Larisa.
The brigade orders, issued before midday, explained that the German columns threatened to encircle W Force. The Division was consequently withdrawing to the Volos area and from there to the Thermopylae line. Fifth Brigade was to carry out ‘a preliminary withdrawal to the Velestinon-Almiros area near Volos.’ No exact position was named but it was explained that there would be provosts posted along the Larisa-Volos road to give directions.
In the Olympus Pass area the first unit to march back to the waiting trucks would leave at 12.30 p.m.; in the Kokkinoplos area the move would begin at 1 p.m. To avoid congestion it had been arranged that the main highway from Larisa to Lamia should be reserved for 6 Australian Division. The New Zealand convoys, after reaching Larisa, would therefore turn south-east through Velestinon to the Almiros area south of the port of Volos. From there the trucks would return to pick up 6 Brigade; the troops would wait until the transport which had taken 4 Brigade from Servia to Thermopylae could return to take them to the same area.
1 Less the two troops with 1 Armoured Brigade.
On the wet morning of 17 April the companies, after their exhausting march1 across the mountainside, were in or about Kokkinoplos. A Company (Captain Watson2) was on the col itself, with a platoon on either side of the path, another in reserve in a hollow towards the centre and headquarters on the track itself. The other companies were below in the deserted village attempting to dry themselves or to get some rest. About 7 a.m., however, they were suddenly disturbed by the enemy, who appeared through the swirling mists about the col and opened fire on A Company headquarters. Some of the forward posts were driven back but 10 Platoon (Second-Lieutenant Begg) of B Company hurried up in time to prevent the enemy getting between A Company and the village. Groups from C and D Companies came up later and the line was eventually steadied after a period of exciting close-quarter work in which Sergeant Mulhern3 and Private Brook4 distinguished themselves. The casualties had been one killed and two wounded, both of whom became prisoners of war. After that it was more an exchange of mortar and machine-gun fire, with the Germans' fire seemingly coming in from the heights on both flanks.
The end of this stalemate came late that morning when Lieutenant- Colonel Falconer, acting on verbal instructions from Brigade Headquarters, ordered the battalion to withdraw immediately to the highway some six miles to the south-west. The companies were deployed to meet any German advance and their withdrawal might have been difficult, but the mist was now to their advantage and they withdrew successfully with C Company as rearguard and the four machine guns of 10 Platoon 27 Battalion giving covering fire.
5 German time was one hour earlier than GMT, British two hours earlier. Thus 4 a.m. German time was 5 a.m. British time.
The enemy, exhausted and without food, left 23 Battalion free to reach the village of Pithion, where a hot meal had been prepared, and to march on again to the transport in which the battalion2 joined the never-ending stream of vehicles moving southwards.
Fourth Field Ambulance was already away from the Olympus Pass. The other units, after marching some three miles back to the trucks at Pithion, reached the highway about 3 p.m., first 22 Battalion, with 11 and 12 Platoons 4 Machine Gun Company and 32 Anti-Tank Battery, less three troops, then 5 Field Regiment, less A and F Troops, and finally 28 (Maori) Battalion.
The rearguard (A Company 22 Battalion, C Company 28 (Maori) Battalion and F Troop 5 Field Regiment) had a relatively undisturbed withdrawal about 6 p.m. The Germans made no effort to follow up. There had been some movement about Ay Dhimitrios and some seven rounds had been fired to ‘play safe’, but otherwise there was no action. No. 1 Company 2 Infantry Regiment of 2 Panzer Division recorded that it reached the village about 11 a.m., capturing ‘an English rearguard one section strong’, which was probably the unfortunate Maori group that had lost touch with the battalion during the withdrawal on the night of 16–17 April. Then, hearing that the armoured units of the division would be able to get through the demolitions, the advanced guard had rested in the village.
1 Report by Captain Baacke on action by 72 Division advanced guard.
2 The three troops of 32 Anti-Tank Battery attached to the battalion were taken by trucks from the Ammunition Company to RHQ 7 Anti-Tank Regiment at Tirnavos. One section from G Troop (Lt R. J. Moor) remained with the battalion until 23 April, the section arguing that as it had no anti-tank guns it was more useful where it was with three Bren guns.
1 No time is given on this message but Blamey did not receive it until 10 p.m. Long, p. 109.
The transport officer had hitherto understood that the battalion would at some point move due east across the hills to Almiros and the coast road. A road turned to the east at Pharsala, but, when inspected, soon petered out, and Lieutenant-Colonel Falconer ordered the battalion to continue southwards over the mountains to Lamia. The vehicles were without lights, the road crowded and the successive directions not always clear. ‘On this pass the utmost confusion prevailed. Orders and counter orders were given by various staff officers, and vehicles were turned and turned about again on the two way road.’1 Nevertheless, when morning came the convoy was over the pass by Dhomokos and approaching Lamia. Still wanting instructions and not happy about the narrow coast road from there to Volos, Falconer called another halt and returned towards Pharsala in search of Brigade Headquarters. About midday he met Brigadier Hargest, who had been in the town attempting to hurry the traffic through the narrow streets. Hargest told him to go through Lamia and Stilis towards Volos. If the road became dangerously narrow for safety in the event of air raids the trucks were to be driven under cover in the adjoining olive groves. The convoy thereupon moved through Lamia and swung east towards Stilis. Just outside this village orders were received from Brigade Headquarters that the convoy was to go to the Thermopylae area. The vehicles were therefore driven back towards Lamia and then across the river flats towards the Pass of Thermopylae. The battalion's good fortune continued and by 8 a.m. the companies were under cover in their bivouac area.
1 Lt-Col A. S. Falconer, diary 17–18 April.
But it was impossible to direct the long column already strung out for miles along the crowded highway. Second-Lieutenant Donald2 with 14 Platoon C Company went through to Lamia, where the provosts suggested the diversion east towards Volos, but he insisted on going south to Thermopylae. Lieutenant-Colonel Andrew, with Lieutenant Armstrong and part of 11 Platoon C Company, went through Lamia, reaching a point north of Almiros about 8 a.m. on 18 April. B Echelon afterwards arrived in the same area.
D Company and C Company (less 14 Platoon), in all about 250 men, were however stopped at Pharsala and diverted down the third-class road, which faded away to a mule track in the area north-west of Almiros. Here the men were off-loaded and the transport proceeded to Molos. If Major Laws had not refused to turn off the main highway, B Company would also have joined this isolated group. As it was he took his company, less 11 Platoon, through to Lamia and turned east towards Almiros.
During the day Lieutenant-Colonel Andrew learnt from Headquarters 5 Brigade that the battalion was to move to Molos. His small group then returned, meeting B Company on the road and reaching the Thermopylae area about 10 p.m. Before leaving the Almiros area Andrew, acting on the information supplied by a Greek shepherd, sent Lieutenant Hawthorn3 by motor-cycle up the mule track towards Pharsala and the isolated companies. The senior officer, Major Hart, was advised to march the force towards the coast road while Hawthorn went back to arrange for transport.
The Maori Battalion had much the same problem. About 4.30 p.m. on 17 April the main body had withdrawn from Olympus Pass, halted as did the other battalions at Pharsala, and then, throughout the night, was driven along the main highway to Lamia. The convoy was switched east towards Almiros, but in the afternoon of 18 April fresh orders were received, the trucks were turned about and the battalion by 7 p.m. was in the Thermopylae area.
4 A Company 22 Battalion and A Company 28 Battalion.
While waiting near the landing ground at Almiros they were joined by the two companies from 22 Battalion which had tramped over the hills from the Pharsala deviation. Their plight must have been known to Brigadier Hargest for, in addition to the trucks which he despatched to collect the rearguard group from Almiros, he sent Lieutenant-Colonel Andrew with another dozen vehicles. As a result both groups by midday 19 April had joined their respective units.
The brigade was now complete—and with remarkably few casualties considering the bombing that took place on 18 April when visibility had improved. On 17 April 4 Machine Gun Company (less 10 Platoon with 23 Battalion) had been bombed near Larisa, losing one truck and having three men wounded. The company eventually came through during the night, 18–19 April, and reached the brigade area near Molos, where 10 Platoon reverted to its command. The only other loss was a Headquarters 5 Brigade postal vehicle destroyed on 18 April near Pharsala. The reason for this immunity may have been the low clouds which limited air attacks on 17 April; it may have been good fortune, for all units reported raids before and behind their respective columns, but it was also due to the skill and determination of the New Zealand Army Service Corps drivers. There were scores of abandoned vehicles along the highway but few New Zealand ones.
The unfortunate changes in the original plan for the withdrawal of 5 Brigade, caused by rain which rendered the route to Volos temporarily unusable, gave rise later to a specific question submitted by Mr Fraser to an Inter-Services Committee in Cairo. Fuller details of this are given in Appendix II to this volume.
It is now clear that the trouble started when Force Headquarters listed the road from Larisa to Volos as one of the ‘four main withdrawal routes’. Anzac Corps then decided that it would be used by the Division and Freyberg accordingly issued his orders to 5 Brigade. When he learnt that the road had become impassable he acted swiftly, arranging with Mackay to use ‘his road’, advising Anzac Corps and warning his battalions to continue along the highway from Larisa to Lamia. That done, there was little more that he could do. Confusion developed, but it was due to contradictory orders from officers of Anzac Corps who, because of delays in communication, were inadequately briefed about the changed route, and to the fact that the motor transport could not, as Freyberg had expected, be diverted east from the main highway to the coast road.