The Evacuation Plans for W Force
The Evacuation Plans for W Force
The withdrawal of the divisions from the forward areas demanded more time and more carefully prepared timetables. Blamey had received his orders from Wavell on the night of 21–22 April, but Freyberg and Mackay were still preparing to hold the Thermopylae line. In the preamble to an operation order which was then being page 372 prepared, Freyberg stated that ‘The Div. is fit to fight and again demonstrate its superiority over the enemy … the present position is to be held and from it we shall not retire.’ Mackay afterwards said, ‘I thought that we'd hang on for about a fortnight and be beaten by weight of numbers.’1
The first warning to Freyberg was an order early on 22 April to halt the movement of a battalion to Khalkis and the Divisional Cavalry to Euboea. Then about 6 a.m. Lieutenant-Colonel Wells, senior Corps liaison officer, arrived from Anzac Corps Headquarters with a summary of the evacuation plan as it then stood. That night 4 Brigade and some supporting Australian units would go into position south of Thebes; each division would also withdraw a brigade group, which would wait under cover throughout 23 April, move back on the night of 23–24 April and embark from beaches east and west of Athens on the night of 24–25 April. The same night, 24–25 April, the balance of the force would leave the line, moving through Khalkis to Euboea Island to embark at some yet undecided date. Finally, on the night of 25–26 April the covering force south of Thebes would disengage; no details were yet available as to its place of embarkation.
The brigade commanders were immediately called to headquarters and given warning orders. Hargest was told that 5 Brigade, the forward formation, would be withdrawn from the line that night; Barrowclough learnt that 6 Brigade with all the artillery would remain at Thermopylae and Puttick was told that 4 Brigade, including 19 Battalion then on its way to Delphi, would be the rearguard holding the line south of Thebes.
That afternoon Blamey and his divisional commanders, Mackay and Freyberg, prepared their more detailed orders. The final plans for the withdrawal of W Force were not issued until next day, 23 April, but the main features had already been explained to them.
1 Long, p. 143.
2 The orders actually stated ‘one NZ Div’ but one brigade was meant and there was no confusion.
The orders also gave detailed instructions about the method of withdrawal. The convoys would move by night and to ensure maximum practical speed side-lights could be used; towing was forbidden and all breakdowns were to be hauled aside and their passengers transferred to other vehicles. As the Greek authorities page 374 were most insistent that no long-term damage be done to their railway system1 no major demolitions would be undertaken. In the beach areas, when motor transport would no longer be required, radiators and batteries had to be smashed and the engine casings broken with a sledgehammer. All implements and tyres had to be rendered unserviceable. No fires were to be lit and on no account whatsoever were oil and petrol to be destroyed by fire. Guns were to be rendered useless by the removal of the breech mechanism but all sights were to be brought away. Horses were to be shot; mules could be given to the Greeks. The troops were to leave with greatcoats, full equipment (less pack) and respirators. No other articles whatsoever were to be permitted in the lighters and the crews had to ensure that this order was obeyed.
In the Anzac Corps orders there were further details. Guns and technical vehicles not being used for troop-carrying were to be destroyed on the spot. The covering force would be 4 New Zealand Brigade with several Australian units under command: 2/3 Field Regiment, one anti-tank battery, 2/8 Field Company, one company 2/1 Machine Gun Battalion and one field ambulance. In the orders of Anzac Corps this brigade group was to be evacuated on the night of 25–26 April ‘unless otherwise ordered.’
With the New Zealand orders there were other variations. Fourth Brigade Group would embark on the night 25–26 April as stated in the orders from Corps, not on 26–27 April as suggested in W Force orders. Fifth Brigade Group which would, according to Force and Corps, withdraw to ‘C’ and ‘D’ beaches on the night 23–24 April and embark on the night 24–25 April, would withdraw on the night 22–23 April and embark from beaches east of Athens near Marathon on the night 23–24 April. With 6 Brigade there was another variation. According to both Force and Corps the battalions would embark on the night 25–26 April from the Rafina and Porto Rafti areas; in the divisional orders they would on the night 24–25 April withdraw from Thermopylae and embark from the Khalkis area.
The orders for the divisional rearguard were quite definite. The Divisional Cavalry Regiment, the carrier platoons of 5 Brigade and 34 Anti-Tank Battery, all under the command of Lieutenant-Colonel Clifton, would cover the withdrawal of 6 Brigade from Thermopylae and then the withdrawal of 4 Brigade from Kriekouki.
The distances between the different headquarters, the broken communications and the constantly changing plans had been responsible for these conflicting orders. They were in most cases swiftly adjusted but there was nevertheless a certain amount of confusion. The beach officers, for example, followed Force orders and this led to fierce arguments when New Zealanders were asked to dump certain equipment on the embarkation beaches.