The New Zealand Withdrawal
The New Zealand Withdrawal
From the Thermopylae area there had been an equally successful withdrawal. Undisturbed by the enemy the units had withdrawn, embussed and driven south, reaching the main highway north of Levadhia and moving through the 4 Brigade rearguard at Kriekouki.
The plan of withdrawal was for the main body to leave the lines at 9 p.m. and march to the embussing area, a field east of Molos. From there the units would move south in either Army Service Corps lorries or their own first-line transport. One company from each of 24 and 25 Battalions, with one field regiment, would remain in position until the rest of the brigade had gone and would then be picked up in the forward area by unit transport. A brigade rearguard2 would be formed under Lieutenant-Colonel Page. In the original plan the artillery had been instructed to destroy its guns in the gunpits, but about midday General Freyberg had suggested ‘attempting to get some guns away.’ Each battery had been instructed to take out half its guns, but during the afternoon there had been some doubts about the availability of the lorries of the Ammunition Company for troop carrying. Orders had therefore been issued saying that no artillery transport was to be destroyed, no guns were to be towed away, but all efforts were to be concentrated on the evacuation of the infantry.
About 9.30 p.m. the majority of 24 Battalion embussed in the Army Service Corps vehicles; the rest, including part of A Company and all of C Company, remained until the other companies were away and then left on battalion vehicles which had been brought forward to the road fork behind Ay Trias.
South of the road it was more difficult to get clear. There was still machine-gun fire from the Germans high up on the left flank and A Company 25 Battalion had several wounded to bring out. However, with B Company and the remnants of C Company, it moved back through D Company, the covering company, reached the highway and set off down the road to Molos, some in unit vehicles and others on foot.
At this stage two unfortunate mistakes were made. Some drivers of C Company, in spite of warnings, carried on up the road beyond the bridge with the intention of shortening the march for the weary infantry. But they went forward into the lines of I/31 Panzer Regiment, whose diarist reported that ‘suddenly 4 English lorries, completely ignorant of the situation, came round the bend. At the sight of our tanks they jammed on their brakes and stopped a few yards away. Our machine guns shattered their windscreens. Some of their occupants fled into the darkness, falling over themselves in their haste. What did our men care that the Tommies were still all around? By the greatest of good luck they found in the lorries canned fruit, beautiful juicy pears.’2
1 Brig M. C. Fairbrother, CBE, DSO, ED, m.i.d.; Wellington; born Carterton, 21 Sep 1907; accountant; BM 5 Bde Jun 1942–Apr 1943; comd in turn 21, 23, and 28 (Maori) Bns, Apr–Dec 1943; GSO II 2 NZ Div Jun–Oct 1944; CO 26 Bn Oct 1944–Sep 1945; comd Adv Base 2 NZEF, Sep 1945–Feb 1946; Editor-in-Chief, NZ War Histories, 1957–.
2 Appendix to report of I/31 Panzer Regiment.
The carrier platoon was even more unfortunate. The orders had been to return in two carriers and the platoon truck; all other transport was to be destroyed. The three vehicles had been taken down the ridge to the highway beyond that German tank which had penetrated most deeply into the battalion lines. To reach the bridge the little group had to rush past the still blazing tank and in doing so were naturally enough mistaken for a German force. The anti-tank gunners and machine-gunners opened up so the carrier crews, thinking that the Germans held the bridge, returned the fire. All the vehicles were hit by two-pounder shells and the casualties were three killed, seven wounded—all eventually being taken prisoner of war—and one missing.
From then on there was no further trouble for 25 Battalion, and D Company, the rearguard, moved back about 10.30 p.m.
Twenty-sixth Battalion, less B Company, which had been detailed as part of the brigade rearguard, embussed in the Molos area and was clear by midnight.
The anti-tank gunners in the forward area had wrecked their guns and moved back in their own vehicles; only the guns of 33 Battery and possibly some of 31 and 32 Batteries were taken back.
The regiments of artillery had also been withdrawing. Fourth Field Regiment was to have moved out about 7.30 p.m., but because there were both ammunition and targets Lieutenant-Colonel Parkinson had kept his guns firing until about 9.30 p.m. The crews had then emptied recuperators, removed breech blocks and hastened to their trucks, which were now in the stream of traffic moving south. About 9.15 p.m. 5 Field Regiment had wrecked its guns, the men then marching back to the vehicles and all being clear by 10.30 p.m. C Troop (Captain Snadden1) was to have been part of the brigade rearguard, but so much time was lost attempting to bring the trucks forward against the outgoing traffic that the guns had to be left and the men taken south. Sixth Field Regiment, having destroyed all its guns except one, had moved back about 9 p.m. The remaining gun had been retained in an anti-tank role, but when an enemy battery on Euboea opened fire the crew had been ordered to follow up the main convoy.
The brigade rearguard waited until 12.15 a.m., 25 April, and then, still undisturbed, hurried after the battalions.
To add to the excitement, about 11 p.m. a small boat was seen approaching the cape but there was no threat of a German landing. The new arrivals were a Greek and a member of 21 Battalion, who was hastily sent south in one of the passing trucks. After midnight the intervals between the convoys increased; Brigadier Barrowclough came through, and about an hour later Lieutenant-Colonel Page with his rearguard.
The engineers then began their work, Clifton Force moving back from demolition to demolition, collecting the two troops from the Divisional Cavalry Regiment at the junction of the road from Brallos Pass and at dawn reaching Levadhia. After the Australian engineers had demolished a bridge on the Delphi road, the rearguards moved south to Thebes, where there was a covering force from elements of 1 Armoured Brigade. Here Clifton Force was instructed to follow 6 Brigade through the Kriekouki Pass and the lines of 4 Brigade.
Almost all W Force was now south of 4 Brigade at Kriekouki. Units from 1 Armoured Brigade were still about Thebes and a small group was covering the northern flank at Khalkis: C Company 1 Rangers, A Squadron Divisional Cavalry and N Troop 34 Anti-Tank Battery. The New Zealand units had attempted to move back from the Cape Knimis area during daylight but had been forced off the road by the Luftwaffe. Suffering casualties and losing vehicles, they had not reached Khalkis until late that night.