The Withdrawal from Thermopylae begins, Night 22–23 April
The Withdrawal from Thermopylae begins, Night 22–23 April
Next morning, 22 April, saw the enemy building up his strength. His heavy guns opened up from the east and south of Lamia; tanks were parked unconcealed; aircraft landed south-east of Imir Bei; and the long vehicle column continued to move in from Larisa.
At the same time there was the ever-increasing fear of German forces encircling either flank of Anzac Corps. No force had landed on Euboea but 1 Armoured Brigade was warned that a landing was imminent, perhaps that night. First Rangers, whose headquarters were at Ritsona, had to send a company to Khalkis and be prepared to demolish the bridge. Three Bren carriers with the three C Squadron New Zealand Divisional Cavalry armoured cars (Lieutenant Atchison) were sent to patrol the island but found no evidence of German landings.
On the extreme left the threat was more serious. The enemy were in Ioannina, and although they had not apparently reached Arta or Preveza the former town had been bombed heavily and was now in flames. To meet the expected attack demolitions were prepared in the Delphi Pass and the Greek headquarters sent infantry and anti-tank guns to come under British command and hold the approaches from Mesolongion to Amfissa. South of the Gulf of Corinth the Reserve Officers' College Battalion was sent to Patrai with some field guns to check any landing party. And the coast from Corinth westwards to Patrai was assigned to 4 Hussars, which had been reorganised into three squadrons, each with two tanks and two Bren carriers.
The only sharp action during the day was on the Australian front. Two 25-pounders below Brallos Pass opened fire on German trucks page 376 moving south towards the Sperkhios River. The enemy replied with medium artillery from the south-east of Lamia, field guns were brought forward to the river, and by midday the position was serious. The stores of shells and charges had been hit and were exploding; one gun was out of action; and the surrounding undergrowth was ablaze. In spite of these difficulties the artillerymen remained in position and did their best to harass some German infantry who were now debussing from trucks at the foot of the escarpment to the west of the road. The officer and his men ‘lifted the trail of the gun on to the edge of the pit so as to depress it enough to fire down the face of the hill and, using a weak charge lest the recoil should cause the gun to somersault, fired more than fifty rounds into the enemy infantry.’1 The Germans replied and, although half the crews were sent out with parts of the damaged gun, the Australian casualties, before the guns were abandoned in the late afternoon, were six killed and four wounded.
The New Zealand sector was comparatively quiet, apart from the ever recurring air raids and some artillery fire at night. The only casualty came with the last raid before nightfall when trucks moving forward for the withdrawal were attacked and one man killed. The night, 22–23 April, in the forward areas was equally undisturbed. The covering platoons from 22 and 23 Battalions were not attacked and the brigade Bren carriers which went forward to patrol the river bank were never challenged, except by the frogs whose croaking was greater than even Aristophanes could have imagined. To the rear, however, there was great activity. Fourth Brigade Group moved out first. Nineteenth Battalion,2 already in the Delphi area, had to be warned of the withdrawal but the other units, 1 Machine Gun Company, 4 Field Ambulance (less one company) and 18 and 20 Battalions, in the lorries of 4 RMT Company, moved back without any trouble to the Thebes area. Twenty-first Battalion, now 200 strong, handed over some twenty trucks to the other battalions of 5 Brigade, followed the 4 Brigade convoy and then carried on beyond Thebes to the Restos area near Athens.
The withdrawal of 5 Brigade from the left flank began about 9 p.m. The units—22 and 28 (Maori) Battalions, 4 Machine Gun Company and finally 23 Battalion—moved to the highway and then marched three miles to embus, after which the convoy moved south to the Ay Konstandinos area, some 15 miles along the coast road.
1 Long, p. 146.
To cover the gap which now existed between the left of 6 Brigade and the right flank of 6 Australian Division a covering force was left by 5 Brigade. Forward of the bridge were the Bren carriers from the battalions; south of the road in the 22 and 28 (Maori) Battalions' areas were Major Hart, Second-Lieutenants Leeks1 and Carter2 and fifty-eight other ranks of 22 Battalion whose task it was to suggest that the line was still occupied. In the 23 Battalion area there were Captain Worsnop,3 Second-Lieutenants T. F. Begg and McPhail4 and two platoons to hold the demolished bridge.
Finally, to check any attempt to scramble through the high country on the western flank of 6 Brigade, 25 Battalion moved its C Company on to the ridge from which 22 Battalion had withdrawn. This feature was an effective tank obstacle, and if it could be held against infantry attacks the Germans would be forced to traverse the very rough country south of the road before they could encircle the defence line and block the withdrawal through Molos. If they did get round below the cliffs and came down the gully between Mendhenitsa and Molos in which Brigade Headquarters and several of the artillery units were established, the position would have been turned. However, this risk was taken and the platoons went into line facing the road at the end of the ridge with the carrier platoon in reserve. As events were soon to show, it would have been better had the flank of 25 Battalion been held in greater strength and much higher up the ridge.
3 Lt-Col J. A. Worsnop, MBE; born Makotuku, 31 Jan 1909; Regular soldier; 23 Bn; 1 Army Tk Bn 1942–43; wounded 22 Jul 1944; CO Div Cav Bn, Japan, 1946; Area Officer, Christchurch; died Christchurch, 24 Jul 1957.