New Zealand Troops in Kalamata
New Zealand Troops in Kalamata
Among them there were many New Zealanders. At 7.10 p.m. on 25 April the hastily organised Reinforcement Battalion had left Voula Camp and, after collecting the detachments which had been on guard about Athens and Piræus, moved westwards towards the embarkation point at Navplion. As base units of all types were on the highway it was difficult in the stream of traffic to remain as a complete formation, particularly after the irritating traffic jam page 449 which developed when the convoy turned off to collect the guard from the oil dumps at Elevsis. On the other hand there were no air raids. The Luftwaffe was not operating at night so, although there were the abandoned trucks on the cliff road beyond Megara and the wreckage about the railway station at Corinth to impede the way, the majority of the vehicles were, before dawn, across the canal and approaching Argos. In the distance the drivers could see the Ulster Prince at Navplion, aground from the previous night and still burning after the day's air raids.
At this stage the evacuation plans had been changed;1 more use was to be made of Kalamata; and the military police were directing all traffic along the road to Tripolis. The route was therefore south through Argos, past Miloi where 6 Brigade had assembled, and up the winding road to the crest of the Ktenas Range. At sunrise, however, the walls of Navplion could be seen glistening across the bay and many of the officers, not having been warned of the diversion and thinking that some mistake had been made, chose to turn back when half-way up the mountainside. When the traffic jam was at its worst General Freyberg appeared, the vehicles were swiftly turned about again and before long the battalion was through the hills and approaching Tripolis.
From this junction town 6 Brigade, when its turn came, was to withdraw south-east to Monemvasia, but on 26 April any movement on the road was south-west to the port of Kalamata. The headquarters group from the Reinforcement Battalion was therefore instructed by the military authorities in the town to continue south-west with the British and Australian convoys. This meant crossing another range to Megalopolos and continuing south across hills cloaked with bracken and stunted mountain oak to the plain of Messinia, a world of orange groves and cypress trees. Thereafter they skirted the eastern fringe, following the highway lined with aloes and cactus plants and finally turning eastwards over a slight rise to the town and port of Kalamata. The majority of the convoys went through to the eastern olive groves but the trucks of the Reinforcement Battalion, arriving late that afternoon and all through the night, assembled under cover several miles to the north.
In addition there were many New Zealanders who had, in the general confusion of the withdrawal, lost contact with their units. Some had moved south with the hospital cases after the bombing of the Hellas in Piræus harbour; others who came in late that night or early next morning had escaped from the Corinth Canal area. Among them were men from 28 (Maori) Battalion Bren-carrier platoon and remnants of the detachment sent from Voula Camp with Lieutenant J. S. Findlay to guard the Khalkis bridge. The latter had come south to embark at ‘D’ Beach east of Athens, but they had been switched west from Elevsis towards Corinth and after the parachute attack had continued south to Kalamata.
As yet there had been no official embarkation from this port, but the Royal Air Force group, acting independently and arriving from Argos on 24 April, had already sent 200 men in Sunderland flying boats to Crete and a still larger number in a 500-ton freighter to the island of Kithira.3 On the night of 25–26 April another Sunderland had been sent over but it crashed in the harbour. Next morning, however, the naval embarkation officer, Captain Clark- Hall, RN, arrived and the Royal Air Force personnel, mostly technical tradesmen, had been given priority when embarkation began that night.
The military units directed south by Army Movement Control had been collecting in the olive groves all through 25 and 26 April and now, under the command of Brigadier L. P. Parrington, MC, there were about 16,000 men: Allen Group (16 and 17 Australian Brigades and Corps troops), many detachments of base troops, Palestinians and Cypriot labourers, Yugoslav soldiers and refugees, Indian mule drivers and Lascar seamen.
Left behind were 8000 men, mostly from base units except for 380 Australians under Lieutenant-Colonel H. G. F. Harlock, 50 men from 3 Royal Tank Regiment who had been manning Royal Air Force trucks and helping stragglers to the beaches south of Corinth, the New Zealand Reinforcement Battalion immediately outside the town, and the 300 men from 4 Hussars who had completed their journey from the Gulf of Corinth and were now the rearguard 20 miles to the north. As a fighting force the group was not strong but Brigadier Parrington, the area commander, assured the senior officers that embarkation was possible that night. So the men did their best to endure another day's bombing and strafing before assembling on the beaches to the east of the town.
After dark on 27 April the groups were on the move, the Reinforcement Battalion taking its vehicles through the town to the assembly area near the junction of the Beach road and that lane from the north which the authorities called the Link road.2 From there the Australians had marched back to the harbour to embark in the destroyers which transferred them to the transports lying off shore. Expecting similar procedure, the columns moved hopefully along the Beach road towards the harbour between the great curving mole to the west and the breakwater to the east. Inset into the waterfront were several landing stages and then the inner basin. To the north, across the open waterfront with its tramline and its garden plots, were the solidly constructed buildings of the business area, the side streets and the railway from the ancient town to the modern port.
The patient columns waited until midnight, when they were told that there would be no embarkation. Many of the men returned to their unit areas, but those who had wrecked their trucks and those who were weary because of long journeys and the strain of air raids took refuge in the nearby olive groves. The majority of the Reinforcement Battalion seem to have returned to their area beside the road and to the north of the town.