CHAPTER 4 — With the Division in Greece
With the Division in Greece
GREECE had been fighting Italy since 28 October 1940, and had been fighting with more than moderate success. The Italian invasion was thrust back, and the Greeks in their turn invaded Italian-held Albania. During this period Greece would accept only air support, but when the concentration of German troops in Bulgaria early in March 1941 made it clear that an invasion was imminent, she had second thoughts on the subject and accepted what troops Britain could spare from the Middle East.
Major-General Freyberg was told on 17 February that the New Zealand Division would be sent to Greece as an advance guard of an Imperial force, and he sailed on 6 March with the first flight of troops across the Mediterranean. They reached Piraeus next day. The second flight, with which Supply Column sailed, was less fortunate. Some of its ships were smaller and slower and ran into heavy weather. Vehicles and drivers of the Column embarked on two ships, the City of Norwich and a Greek coaster, Marit Maersk, on 9 and 10 March, and on the 11th the remainder of the unit embarked on the 3000-ton HMS Chakla, an old troopship. The convoy put out from Alexandria early on the 12th. The sea was choppy but not unduly rough as the troops watched Alexandria dwindle away to a pinpoint and disappear below the horizon, but clouds were banking up and a brisk wind came scudding across the white-flecked sea. Off Crete the storm burst over the convoy. Deluged by towering seas and buffeted by a tearing wind, the ships scattered.
Packed away in crowded quarters below, men found rest as best they could. The Chakla was tossed about like a toy and the 1000 men beneath her battened-down hatches lived for three days in a stifling, fuggy atmosphere of stale air and vomit. During one period of twenty-four hours she covered only 40 miles.
Some ships put into Suda Bay for shelter and later straggled into Piraeus in twos and threes. But of the poor page 30 little Marit Maersk there was no sign. Lord Haw Haw later reported her sunk. She wasn't, but there were times when some thought she might be. The Marit Maersk, with a top speed of eight knots, could make little headway against the gale and her master decided to run for shelter behind the south side of Crete. Water sluiced across the decks and poured onto the trucks below, submerging some of them in a glutinous mixture of oil and salt water.
By the time the main convoy had reached Greece the limping Marit Maersk had only reached a small cove on the coast of Crete. Here Sergeant Jefcoate,1 who had been injured during the storm while assisting to move the kitbags of men who were ill, was put ashore. He was taken to Canea hospital, from which after a month's stay he was flown to Athens to rejoin the Column. The ship went on to Suda Bay, and from there was escorted to Piraeus by a Greek corvette, finally reaching port at midday on 17 March.
The only incident of note during this last part of the journey was Lord Haw Haw's announcement that the Marit Maersk had been sunk by a German submarine. Laughable as it might have been, the report showed one disturbing fact: there was clearly a close enemy check on what left Alexandria and what was arriving at Piraeus. Presuming the overdue ship to have been lost, the Germans were only too happy to take the credit.
The Chakla, meanwhile, had put into Piraeus at 11 a.m. on 15 March. Riding in open trucks along the wide, straight road to Athens, Supply Column men could see on their left the towering Acropolis, crowned by the ruins of the Parthenon. Italian prisoners on the march provided some men with their first close-up view of the enemy. The trucks crawled through the crowded streets of Athens, where Greeks waved and shouted their spontaneous welcome, and rolled on past the German Embassy, on which hung the swastika. There was some belligerent talk of pulling it down, but the men reluctantly deferred to the reasoning of their officers.page 31
The Supply Column camp was tucked away in a pine grove at Kamponia, on the lower slopes of Mount Hymettus. It was a pretty spot, and looking up the men could see the mountains flecked with fresh snow.
There wasn't much time, and there was a great deal to do. The training programme, which included route marches through the picturesque, verdant countryside—soft relief for eyes used to the glare of Egypt—was pushed on, and Workshops Section faced the formidable task of reconditioning trucks that had come from the ships' holds sodden with salt water. Mechanical damage was extensive, and motors had to be dismantled and cleaned, electrical systems rewired, and parts replaced.
However, there was time to make friends with the Greeks and to see something of Athens and its inhabitants. There was champagne to be bought at 45 drachmae (1s. 8d.) a bottle, though it cost 440 drachmae in cabarets. There was also 1848 vintage wine to be bought at a monastery on a hill for 18 drachmae. Greek vocabularies that had been issued were well thumbed, and whether they went to see objects of ancient art or history or merely for entertainment, the men found the capital an agreeable city. The only note of unfriendliness was struck by a group of Germans outside the monastery who looked contemptuously at the New Zealanders and spat. On one day German civilians from the Embassy were uninvited guests to the Column's camp, where with interested eyes they strolled casually through the open park.
Within a few days of arrival the Column got down to serious work. On 19 March the unit was divided into two, and Headquarters, Workshops Section and No. 2 Echelon were sent to a staging camp at Kifisia, an hour's journey from Athens. No. 1 Echelon remained in the Athens area.
At 7 a.m. on 21 March the trucks of the Kifisia group climbed through the Thebes hills and ran north past Mount Parnassus through the richly green countryside on the first leg of the long journey to Katerini, in northern Greece. Their route took them through Atalandi and along the coast to Molos.page 32
Greece was a country the New Zealanders took to their hearts. It was a country of warm friendliness, of spontaneous welcome: as the trucks whined by, exuberant Greeks waved and shouted, ‘Welcomss boyss howarya.’ It was a country of classic beauty, of green and purple and pale blue hills, of olive groves and vineyards; and through the green ran a tinge of red from the multi-coloured soils. It was a country with an old-world charm, with its quaint churches in which storks nested, plodding mules and trim little donkeys, and shepherdesses in colourful costume. In the disasters to come later men consoled themselves with the thought that Greece was a country worth fighting for; and later still in the war, when the future employment of the Division appeared to hang in the balance, there were veterans of Greece who hoped to return.
On 21 March Supply Column men drank in the impressions that were the genesis of this spirit. They laagered that night south of Lamia, by a small sea enclosed by Euboea Island, where olive groves reached down to the water's edge. Some went in for a swim, though it was a cool night and balaclavas were welcome. Next day the convoy drove north through the morning mist, across the plain of Thessaly and into the rail and road junction of Larisa, a sorry sight after the double destruction of earthquake and Italian bombing.
Leaving the cobbled streets, the trucks travelled on for another five miles before a halt was called, 60 miles from the destination. Next day, the 23rd, the transport crested the foothills to the north and reached the base of the towering mountain range dominated by the snow-capped Mount Olympus. The road zigzagged steeply through the wooded pass, then dipped down through a narrow, sunless defile where Ay Dhimitrios clung to the mountainside. That morning the convoy passed through Katerini and moved on another two and a half miles to the village of Neon Keramidhi, and in an environment so unwarlike as to suggest a rest camp preparations were begun.
It was a green, open country. A river ran by the tented camp, and the dominating mass of Olympus, its peak often wreathed in cloud, was a constant background. Red anemones grew wild, and butterflies added a final idyllic page 33 touch. In nearby Katerini men found plenty to interest them, and friendships were quickly made. The town's shops, quaint to New Zealand eyes, were well stocked, and meals of eggs and chips, and sometimes lamb chops, could be bought in its restaurants.
To supply the forward areas a chain of administration centres was set up. With Athens as Base, Larisa was chosen as Advanced Base. From Larisa four field supply depots were planned, at Katerini, Veroia, Edhessa and Amindaion. As the New Zealand Division was supplied by a daily train from Athens, Supply Column was free to help other administration units stock the FSDs.
No. 1 Echelon, meanwhile, was still back at Athens carrying out transport supply duties in base sub-area. Over 26, 27 and 28 March this group moved to a point about 40 miles north of Larisa, hard up to Mount Olympus on the southern side, and came under the control of 1 Australian Corps, shortly to become Anzac Corps. Here, about three miles north of the Servia-Katerini-Flasson road junction on the Katerini-Elasson road, its transport section was employed in stocking up 1 FSD from the railhead at Larisa, and supply details worked beside RASC men preparatory to taking over the depot on the night of 6–7 April. This depot supplied some units, but the orders given to the officer in charge, Captain Jacobs,2 were to form and hold a depot which would operate as a reserve.
New Zealand units, as they moved up into position, drew from both these depots, those east of Ay Dhimitrios from 4 FSD and those south of Olympus Pass from 1 FSD. They called for supplies with their own transport, which left Supply Column vehicles free to do the tasks involved in establishing both depots and to bring fresh supplies from Salonika.
Thus, at the eleventh hour, preparations went ahead. Supplies, discharged from ships in the south, came north by page 34 rail, and thence by truck along the crowded, twisting roads. North along these roads, too, went other trucks, together with guns, miles of them. No one could know then that all this effort was too late and too little.
The prospect was appalling. For the defenders of Greece it was one of those moments in life when it is better not to know what the future holds. Here, at the beginning of April, Supply Column was assembling its dumps with the patient faith of a man setting himself up in a dry watercourse while his fellows construct a flimsy dam upstream to check a deluge it is known must come. And the dam was never finished.
On the Bulgarian frontier were about ten German divisions, with only weak Greek divisions to check them. New Zealand Division and 1 Armoured Brigade were in forward areas, and 6 Australian Division was arriving. The line chosen for the defence of Greece, the Aliakmon line, ran from Neon Elevtherokhorion, on the coast, to a point near Mount Kaimakchalan, with a detachment at Amindaion to cover the Monastir Gap, through which entry could be gained to Greece from Yugoslavia. Although it was hoped that the Yugoslavs would fight, a second position based on the formidable range around Mount Olympus and the western end of the Aliakmon River was reconnoitred; this line did not depend on Yugoslav participation.
New Zealand Division prepared to hold the east end of the Aliakmon line in an area just north of Katerini, which of course is why Supply Column set up 4 FSD near that town. Just behind this and forward of the Olympus positions, road and bridge demolitions were prepared. Fourth and 6 Brigades were in the forward line, while 5 Brigade was in reserve preparing positions on the slopes of Mount Olympus, with 21 Battalion at Platamon.
The Germans struck down through Greece and Yugoslavia on 6 April, and by the 9th Western Thrace and page 35 Salonika had been swallowed up. Supplies of fruit and vegetables ceased coming to Supply Column on the 8th, but the imminence of German occupation appeared to have no detrimental effect on the inhabitants' hospitality. Lieutenant Tomlinson,3 who visited the city on that day, returned with gifts of Albanian lace and memories of a hero's reception.
Driving down through Yugoslavia against negligible opposition, the Germans reached the Monastir Gap on 9 April, threatening to drive a wedge between the British forces in the Aliakmon line and the Greek forces still grappling with the Italians further west. The Amindaion detachment was reinforced, and 4 Brigade moved to Servia to act as a pivot for the now necessary withdrawal to the Olympus-Aliakmon River line; No. 2 Echelon of Supply Company helped to carry 20 Battalion in this move. This left 6 Brigade with an open flank, but on 9 April New Zealand Division was ordered to draw back to the Olympus Pass and Platamon railway tunnel positions. Sixth Brigade went back to Elasson, leaving 5 Brigade the forward positions on the Olympus line. By the evening of 10 April the New Zealanders were ready in the second line of defence.
All this shifting and shuffling would be complicated enough if it involved only troops. But there was a great deal more to it than that. The step backwards left Neon Keramidhi in no-man's-land, and in a hectic two days every pound of supplies, so carefully built up by Supply Column, had to be packed and shifted back; at the same time supply dumps had to be established for the new positions.
The first ripple of this upheaval reached the Column at 11 p.m. on the 8th in the shape of an order to dump ten days' rations in the battalion areas of two of 5 Brigade's battalions, which were already in their defensive positions at the northern entrance to Olympus Pass. In addition, thirteen days' rations were to be railed to 21 Battalion, which was guarding the Platamon tunnel, between Olympus and the sea. Loading began at 2.30 a.m. on the 9th, and though the Column was short of trucks because of the page 36 absence of No. 1 Echelon at 1 FSD, the supplies for the Olympus position were delivered by 8.30 a.m. that day, and soon afterwards the supplies for 21 Battalion were packed aboard railway trucks at Katerini.
That was a reasonably vigorous start. The next disturbance came from oral orders during the morning to evacuate 4 FSD. First 10,000 rations and 5000 gallons of petrol were to be dumped at the 9 kilometre post at the entrance to Olympus Pass, and 25,000 rations were to be dumped in 6 Brigade's area at Elasson; all that then remained at Neon Keramidhi was to be railed to Larisa. The order for 6 Brigade's rations was later cancelled.
The Olympus Pass dump was established, normal issues for the day made to units, and then the Column began its huge task of clearing away from the path of the approaching enemy 300,000 rations and 86,000 gallons of petrol, in all 1000 tons. Officers and men bent their backs, and by midday the trucks were shuttling over the three miles between Neon Keramidhi and the railhead at Katerini. Help arrived in the form of twenty three-tonners from No. 1 Echelon, which had come forward to carry back 20 Battalion but were not yet required. They continued to assist until evening.
As the work went on into the night, rain and mist came down and the wheels churned the ground around the railway sidings into cloying bog. At last, at 2.30 a.m. on the 10th, when the men had been working twenty-four hours without a break, work was called off for a few hours and there was time to snatch a little sleep. In the bleak early hours the men were roused, and the trucks began moving again. By midday there remained only twenty-five tons of biscuits.
During the morning four trucks were despatched to recover tentage left by 4 Brigade. On the assumption that it had been abandoned the Greek civilians had already descended on the camp and swept it clear of canvas, but after some hard talking it was recovered.
The pile of biscuit boxes was dwindling, and at 3 p.m. twenty Petrol Company three-tonners arrived and gave a hand with the remainder of the biscuits and with engineer stores that had to be moved from Gannokhora.page break page 37
All this feverish activity was watched by the Greeks in bewilderment. They had seen no fighting to warrant a withdrawal, and they were aware of no imminent danger. One who spoke a little English asked, ‘What are the British going to do to stop the Germans?’
Still the Column's task, after more than thirty-six hours, was not ended. The dump at Kilo 9, established only the previous day, had to be moved back 12 miles into 5 Brigade's area; this was done by 7.30 p.m., and at last the Column was free to retire. In the grey dusk the trucks moved out of Neon Keramidhi. Mist turned to rain, and though the trucks ground up Olympus Pass with headlights burning, several jolted into the ditch and had to be coaxed back onto the road. In steady rain the Column reached the fork of Olympus and Portas passes—4 Brigade was in Portas Pass—at 2.30 a.m. on the 11th, just forty-eight hours after the unit began breaking up 4 FSD. It had been intended to join No. 1 Echelon, still under corps command, at 1 FSD, but this echelon had moved up to a new location four miles north of Elasson, leaving only supply details at the depot.
A laager was chosen for the main body of the Column, but it did not allow adequate dispersal and during the day the unit moved back to high ground south of Elasson.
New Zealand Division and other units in the Olympus area now depended solely on 1 FSD for their rations. This was a heavy undertaking for one depot, and to ease the strain No. 2 Echelon on 12 April set up a DID which worked in conjunction. This system was satisfactory.
While members of the main part of the Column had been blistering their hands and straining their eyes in long hours of work and driving, the transport of No. 1 Echelon had been busy too. On the day it helped to clear 4 FSD at Neon Keramidhi (the 9th) the trucks left camp at 4 a.m. and scrambled through Olympus Pass—‘A real mountain track,’ says a driver—in the dark. After helping at Neon Keramidhi they went on to the Aliakmon line, picked up 4 Brigade men and took them to Portas Pass, arriving back at camp at half-past two next morning.
After an hour's rest they were sent away again through Portas Pass and on beyond Kozani. With guns muttering in page 38 the distance, they loaded up stores from the Amindaion dump and moved south again, gathering up en route a host of refugees, many of them women and children.
There was time now for a brief rest; but the peaceful remoteness of the earlier days was gone, and Greece's beauty was veiled by rain.
During 12, 13 and 14 April the Column was engaged in a variety of tasks reminiscent of its general-carrier role in the desert: it carried ammunition, wire and troops for corps, established dumps along the line of defence, and delivered rations for units unable to collect them. The black-crossed wings of the Luftwaffe were about now, but at first Supply Column escaped notice. For the first few days there was only one air attack. This was when a German plane swept down on a truck, shattering the windscreen and riddling the cab with machine-gun bullets. Driver Richards5 and his companion escaped into a culvert. The plane returned and raked the culvert, but they were not hit.
So far aircraft were the only sign of the enemy around the Olympus line, and there was still time to reach forward and salvage supplies. On 12 April thirty-five Supply Column three-tonners carried 10,000 rations, petrol, wire and ammunition through Servia (Portas) Pass, across the Aliakmon River, through Kozani and back in a southwesterly direction along a shocking clay road. There were a few enemy aircraft droning about, and the front was not far away; the undertones of artillery fire could be heard just beyond a snow-capped ridge. Returning through Kozani the convoy was fired on by enemy artillery at long range, but the shells fell well away from the road.
On the run south the convoy halted, as ordered, at 2 FSD, north of the Aliakmon River bridge, but found it empty. After waiting about the men heard that a Captain Weir at 3 FSD, a British dump to the north-east, had no transport, page 39 and they retraced their steps. At 3 FSD they picked up 25-pounder ammunition, which they had heard was short, petrol, rum, tinned fruit, Papistratos White cigarettes and various other commodities, including woollen underclothing. They burned what was left and as a final touch squirted out the contents of fire extinguishers, and moved away south to reach the Aliakmon River bridge at Servia before it was blown at 8 p.m. The trucks rolled across with an hour and a quarter to spare. As the convoy twisted back in snow and sleet through the New Zealand lines in Portas Pass, some of the luxuries picked up from the dumps—in particular the cigarettes—were distributed. The transformation of expression on the strained, tired faces of the chilled men as they saw these ‘gifts from the gods’ handed down was reward for this thoughtfulness. It was a small but important part in fulfilment of the Column's role of catering for the troops. It was a constant task, not to be neglected even in the extremes of a snow-dusted withdrawal.
Aircraft came down as the convoy crawled through the pass, but the trucks got away unscathed.
The next day, 13 April, the Germans began to close in. On the left they came through the Monastir Gap; on the right from south of Salonika. With the support of some 5 Field Regiment guns, the New Zealand Divisional Cavalry, which had been patrolling the Aliakmon, delayed the crossing of this river. This group came back through Olympus Pass, the last of it on the afternoon of the 14th, and highexplosive charges closed the road.
Within two hours of the last cavalry group's passing, German motor-cyclists came riding brazenly up the pass road. On the coast 21 Battalion and New Zealand guns checked an armoured thrust at the Platamon tunnel, and in the Portas Pass 4 Brigade met forces coming down from Monastir.
Pressure in the form of dive-bombers came on Portas Pass on 13 April, and German infantry came into the attack after sustained bombing on the 15th. They were repelled with heavy casualties, and the next day the position was still held. In the Olympus region fighting began on 15 April, and here too the line was unbroken next day.page 40
Aircraft were everywhere: droning Dorniers, screaming Stukas and whining Messerschmitt fighters. One of the lasting impressions the New Zealanders brought out of Greece was of the terror from the sky. On 14 April Supply Column had its first real taste of it.
No. 1 Echelon moved south a little way on this day and dispersed at a road fork near a bridge about a mile north of Elasson. During the morning the men watched Elasson ‘catch a packet’. In the afternoon the Stukas came back; their target might have been the bridge but No. 1 Echelon's area was well in line for its share. The Stukas came weaving through the black ack-ack rosettes, formed into line and came screaming down. From its high ground to the south Column Headquarters watched appalled as bomb bursts blanketed the area with smoke. Dive-bombing is an awesome spectacle. A New Zealand infantryman recalls: ‘We would stand and watch an area being plastered. The planes would come howling down, and the whole area would be smothered with smoke and explosions. All you could think was, “Poor bastards”.’
But the spectators at Column Headquarters had cause to think of their own safety too. Two Messerschmitt fighters broke away to machine-gun Australian transport approaching the area, and there was a scatter. Greek anti-aircraft guns brought down one plane.
Despite the noise and commotion, No. 1 Echelon came through unscathed. The raid clearly showed the vulnerability of its area, however, and it rejoined the rest of the unit south of Elasson. Except for the men at 1 FSD, the unit was again complete.
On this same day aircraft machine-gunned Greek Army transport south of Elasson. The drivers bolted, leaving the road cluttered with carts, mules and horses, which Column men cleared away.
The decision to withdraw to the Thermopylae line was made on 14 April, as the existing line was too long for the troops available. Sixth Brigade and Divisional Cavalry were to provide the rearguard for Anzac Corps. Fifth Brigade, less 21 Battalion, was to withdraw from Olympus, followed by 4 Brigade from the Servia position. The 21st Battalion at page 41 the Platamon tunnel was to withdraw through the Pinios Gorge, but as all roads converged on Larisa this battalion and additional Australian troops were to hold the gorge until the town was cleared. Careful timing was necessary to allow all groups to clear Larisa.
The thinning out began on the 15th. Troops had to be brought out of the line and stores lifted back, but in the confusion of a general withdrawal and constant air attacks there were inevitable delays and short tempers. Two convoys of trucks, one of them from Supply Column, went to Larisa to do a job that had been done earlier in the day by another group of trucks. Supply Column transport moving forward to a point north of Elasson to pick up ammunition was twice ordered back before, on its third run up, it completed its journey, on each trip running the gauntlet of bombers. Twenty-nine bombers were hammering Elasson during the last run through.
Elasson on this day was pounded to pulp. Buildings gaped open, streets were cluttered with rubble, wires were tangled across the debris. Dazed people wandered about as though in a trance. In the midst of this E Section of Supply Column, strung out through the town and around the square in the centre, was untouched, though buildings crumbled on either side.
At 9 p.m. oral orders came from Corps to send forward trucks to bring out 19 Australian Infantry Brigade from Portas Pass and a company of 2/4 Australian Battalion from the Corps Headquarters area near Elasson. Twenty-seven three-tonners sent to pick up 19 Brigade reached the rendezvous at midnight, an hour after the arranged time, but the infantry had not yet appeared. There was still no sign of them in the morning, and the trucks sat there until late afternoon, when the tired men came straggling out. Tins of M and V (meat and vegetables) heated on the exhaust manifolds of the trucks gave them a welcome meal; even while troop-carrying the column remembered its slogan.
The brigade was incomplete, however, and there were only enough men to fill twenty-two trucks. These set off for Dhomokos, about half-way between Larisa and Thermopylae, where a rearguard stand was to be made.page 42
Still missing was a company of 2/4 Battalion, and though it was thought it might have been cut off, the remaining five trucks under Second-Lieutenant Ward6 waited in the pass. This decision was to give a queer twist to the story when the Column met up again in southern Greece.
The twenty-two trucks of the main convoy reached Dhomokos without attention from the enemy, but the seven vehicles under Lieutenant Tomlinson that had gone to the corps area to pick up the other company of 2/4 Battalion were not so lucky. These trucks picked up their men at 1 a.m. on the 16th, and as they drove south from Larisa were harassed from the air. Two Australians were killed and four wounded.
Having unloaded the troops at Dhomokos, all vehicles returned to the unit, where they were anxiously awaited.
Column Headquarters and Workshops were ordered back to Atalandi on 16 April while these two convoys were away. But simultaneously the unit was also instructed to send forward all available transport to a dispersal area at the junction of the Olympus and Portas pass roads to bring out 4 Brigade, which was still in position above Servia. Twenty-three vehicles under Captain Hook7 reached the area at 7 p.m. and settled down to wait.
This left the rest of the unit near Elasson immobilised, but the return of the trucks from Dhomokos saved the situation. Column Headquarters and Workshops moved out in heavy rain at 6.15 p.m. on the 17th. The protective rain kept up until they were south of Larisa. Journeying south J Section adapted itself to the role of an LAD and was constantly pausing to drag back to the road trucks that had gone astray. With tanks almost drained, the trucks reached Atalandi at noon on the 18th.
All this time Ward's trucks had been waiting patiently in Portas Pass for the missing company of 2/4 Battalion. Late on the afternoon of the 17th the watch was given up, and ammunition, petrol and various supplies loaded. The trucks page 43 had gone only 14 miles when they overtook seventy-five weary survivors of the missing company. Part of the ammunition was jettisoned and the seventy-five men taken on to Dhomokos.
Reaching Atalandi on the afternoon of 18 April Ward found himself the unit's deliverer. Petrol was critically short; Supply Column was almost immobilised and some trucks of Ammunition Company were drained dry. The petrol brought back from the pass enabled a petrol-seeking convoy to be sent out. On the discovery of petrol depended the Column's final withdrawal to Thermopylae and of course the withdrawal of the troops it was to carry.
While the rest of the Column had been making its various ways south, Hook's twenty-two trucks were still waiting for 4 Brigade. Under cover of darkness the exhausted, mudplastered infantrymen came out of their battle positions during the night of 17–18 April. Embussing began about midnight and the last vehicle cleared the area about 3.30 a.m. In pouring rain they trundled south along the slippery, winding highway, their occupants taking some comfort from the fact that every mile covered in darkness or rain was a mile further from the Luftwaffe. Still in darkness, they filed through Larisa, and as the first light of dawn was streaked across the sky were running across the plains of Thessaly along the only road to the south now open; the road from Larisa to Volos, along which it had been intended that the New Zealanders should go, had been closed by rain and incomplete reconstruction.
The bright sunlight of a clear day revealed a crawling nose-to-tail column of vehicles reaching across the plain. Four miles north of Farsala movement ceased. As far as the eye could see the road ahead was choked with idle transport—New Zealand, Australian, English and Greek. There was nothing to do but grumble, roll a cigarette and wait.
Around 8 a.m., with unfailing punctuality, a German reconnaissance plane droned overhead, then swung away home hot-foot with the glad news. There was a general stir on the ground as drivers and troops scattered in search of shelter. An hour later the throbbing note of approaching aircraft came from the north, and the first flights of fighters page 44 and bombers came winging down on the congested road. Unchallenged except for the futile spitting of Brens and rifles, they ranged along the road at tree-top level in roaring procession. The still sodden earth erupted into fountains, and machine-gun bullets spattered on culverts and ripped through canopies, cabs and windscreens.
Throughout the day the German pilots made the most of this gift target, and there was nothing else to do but grovel in a trench or culvert and let the storm pass overhead. Apparently something was happening up ahead, however, for during the afternoon the jam eased, and about 4 p.m., with the planes still biting at their heels, the trucks were moving along the road again. When dusk came the harassing planes drew off, and after ten hours' continual bombardment the trucks jolted along through the night in peace. The troops were debussed late on the morning of 19 April, and the vehicles rejoined the unit, now at Atalandi.
There were several stragglers on this trek south. One was the breakdown Thornycroft known as ‘Flannagan’, which became detached from the main convoy on the way to Atalandi. South of Lamia, Drivers Hyland8 and Roberts9 pulled off for a brew up. Nearby was a broken-down English quad to which was attached a medium field piece. The Tommies were having little success with their repair attempts and finally came over to the Thornycroft and asked for a tow.
The New Zealanders couldn't offer a tow for both the quad and gun, but as the Tommies were anxious to get the gun under cover, they were willing to take this. The Thornycroft paraded proudly into the camp at Atalandi with this piece of ordnance behind it—who else had got themselves a gun?—and Hyland offered it as ack-ack protection for the sorely tried Column. No one was willing to try his hand, and the gun remained a proud though idle possession until the artillerymen retrieved it.
Almost the last trucks to rejoin the unit were those of a convoy detailed to pick up quartermaster's stores that had been left at Elasson. These were salvaged without trouble, page 45 but yellow-nosed Messerschmitts hounded the trucks all the way south. As each attack came down the drivers fled for shelter, returning and continuing the journey when the danger had passed. After a hazardous trip of stops and starts they reached Atalandi, only to find that surplus equipment was to be destroyed.
When an army retires one of its incidental problems is to clear away its supply dumps—either to shift them back with it or to destroy them. An army naturally likes to take its supplies with it—as New Zealand Division did when it pulled back behind the Olympus line—but in mid-April 1941 the army had little time to withdraw the troops and wasn't particularly concerned what happened to supplies, provided the enemy didn't get them.
That left the issue delightfully simple: destroy everything left behind. Simple enough in principle, but in the circumstances in which 1 FSD found itself profoundly complex. Holding enough supplies for an army, it was not permitted to do anything that would give the enemy any clue of what was happening.
This order came to Jacobs and McIndoe, who were in charge of the DID, from General Headquarters in Greece and was given orally by an officer, who told them the date of the intended withdrawal and that Corps would advise them later of their destination. Jacobs asked whether he could blow up his dump, as explosives were available from Ammunition Company across the road. The answer was no.
As a precaution Jacobs placed petrol tins near all dumps and applied himself to a less conspicuous way of destroying the dump.
The enemy undoubtedly knew of the dump, for a German Fiesler Storch, a slow-flying reconnaissance plane, had already circled the area, apparently taking photographs.
‘I ordered all details out with their rifles and we opened rapid fire,’ writes McIndoe. ‘It was apparently effective because the Jerry fired a white Very light, probably hoping to induce us [to believe] that he was one of ours, and lit out smartly.’page 46
Jacobs and McIndoe asked Division for some protection, and two or three carriers were sent and took up positions on high ground around the FSD.
The breaking up of the dump began on 15 April, as trucks streamed south past the area. Standing on the roadside, a group of men threw onto passing vehicles anything troops wanted or would take. When units came for their normal issues next day they were simply given as much as they could take, and were told there was more if trucks were brought back for another load. The open-handed issue continued from the roadside and appreciable inroads were made into some commodities, but there were still large quantities of foodstuffs on the ground. Staff-Sergeant Reese10 writes:
The final day (17 April) in the life of this supply point was a miserable one. A thin, misty rain made the already wet ground a quagmire. Units drew into the area for the last time, and the issuers saw that all went away with as much as they wanted. Drivers from the units and the staff exchanged brief farewells, cheerily making appointments for the next rendezvous. They had grown to know each other well. We all knew that bitter fighting was going on and we wondered if and when we would see each other again, though no one had any premonitions of impending disaster.
Units had now taken all they could, and still there was more. Jacobs had already informed the gendarmerie at the nearest village that villagers could take what they wanted on the final day, and dozens of Greeks now stood around. They were told to help themselves. Reese continues:
They rushed from place to place, picking up this and that. Bewilderment was soon written on their faces. They could not read English and did not know what was in the various tins. The chaps led them from one stack to another and told them what to take and what to leave. Small donkeys were soon seen, heavily laden, being rushed away and brought back for more loads. Tea, flour, sugar and salt they recognised, and many disturbances had to be quelled as they fought to secure possession. The depot staff quickly checked this by taking charge and issuing to the people, who were told to file past in line.page break
Supply Column on the after-deck of the Sobieski
Rough going behind Maadi in March 1940
Supply railhead at Abu Haggag—Capt H. M. Jacobs
Railhead in the Western Desert
Dumping petrol in the Western Desert
Anything that could be used as a container was pressed into service. Old men and women—even toddling kiddies—came past, and one or other of the various commodities was doled out into sacks, hankies, hats and shirts. One man took off his boots and filled them with salt. A woman turned her back and a minute later faced about with a pair of long-legged bloomers in her hands. By tying the extremities with string she had a pair of twin sacks, into one of which a soldier poured flour while a sergeant gravely filled the other with tea. We found old sacks and reserved them for the kiddies, giving them as much as they could carry.
Some folk were greedy and loaded so much on their donkeys that they collapsed under their loads. Never had these people seen so much food before. To them it represented a time of plenty—if they could hide it from the advancing Germans.
But still there was more food than could be given away. Cases were smashed open, tins pierced, and petrol poured over biscuits. Hour after hour the destruction went on: two or three men spent the afternoon on a huge stack of tinned milk, puncturing each tin and tossing it into a nearby creek.
A trickier prospect was an adjoining petrol dump, which was not really Supply Column's responsibility at all. Here Petrol Company had about 25,000 gallons of petrol in cases and 1000 gallons of oil in steel drums camouflaged under prickly scrub in small gullies. A sergeant and two men were operating the dump.
On 15 April McIndoe was told by the sergeant that he had no orders, but that he thought the ASC would lift the dump. Three three-tonners turned up a day or so later, loaded up and left.
At 3 p.m. on the 17th, while Greeks swarmed over the supply dump, McIndoe walked over to the petrol dump and was appalled at the huge quantity of petrol and oil still remaining. The sergeant and two men had gone. McIndoe decided to destroy what was left. He summoned all men available and set to work with axes and spades, gashing at cases and tins and spilling the contents on the ground. A few cases were set aside for Divisional Cavalry, which was to fight a rearguard action.page 48
‘Rivers of pink petrol were soon running down the gullies, and the men were ankle deep in it,’ writes McIndoe. ‘The fumes were overpowering at times, and I was afraid a spark from an axe or shovel striking a stone would send up the whole area, including ourselves, in a gigantic burst of fire.’
For two hours the men toiled, their hands torn by the thorns of the camouflage, their clothes soaked with sweat. Petrol fumes rose around them in an invisible choking fog. When the petrol was gone, they turned to the oil.
Jacobs, meanwhile, still had no orders to withdraw, but about 6 p.m., learning that the Maori Battalion, the last troops between the depot and the enemy, were pulling out, ordered his men to stand by and asked whether the battalion's Bren carriers could shield his convoy while it got away.
As they slashed at the oil drums, the men in the Petrol Company area could see the others perched on top of the loaded trucks, anxiously watching the thinning line of vehicles go by.
Just before we emptied the last of the oil drums (says McIndoe) a despatch rider left the road and bumped over the rough ground in our direction. He pulled up and saluted and said, ‘Excuse me, sir, but I think you had better start moving. The Jerries are just coming down the pass.’ There was no time to waste. We nipped over to our trucks—the engines were running—clambered aboard and were off at the high port. On the way down the road we passed Div Cav carriers, which had taken up positions to fight a delaying action. I advised their commander where I had left the petrol.
The convoy shuffled south along the sloppy road, part of a column crawling along without lights. At the top of a hill north of Elasson Jacobs encountered Major-General Freyberg and Colonel Stewart11 and was told to go back to page 49 Thermopylae, where he would be further directed. Elasson was a complete ruin, and at Larisa there was an interminable wait caused by bomb craters. The trucks drove south throughout the night, squeezing through Lamia, crowded with Greek soldiers and refugees, just before the Luftwaffe gave it another plastering. Near Thermopylae the convoy was directed to Atalandi.
11 Maj-Gen K. L. Stewart, CB, CBE, DSO, m.i.d., MC (Greek), Legion of Merit (US); Kerikeri; born Timaru, 30 Dec 1896; Regular soldier; 1 NZEF 1917–19; GSO1 2 NZ Div 1940–41; Deputy Chief of General Staff Dec 1941-Jul 1943; comd 5 Bde Aug-Nov 1943, 4 Armd Bde Nov 1943-Mar 1944, and 5 Bde Mar-Aug 1944; p.w. 1 Aug 1944-Apr 1945; comd 9 Bde (2 NZEF, Japan) Nov 1945-Jul 1946; Adjutant-General, NZ Military Forces, Aug 1946-Mar 1949; Chief of General Staff Apr 1949-Mar 1952.