3. Greece: The First Action
3. Greece: The First Action
The Twentieth embarked for Operation Lustre at Alexandria in the special landing ship Breconshire, later famous in the Malta convoys. A very heavy storm made the voyage secure against air or submarine attacks and also induced Jim and me to study the Book of Acts and read the Apostle Paul's account of a stormy voyage in the same waters. On the second day I was allowed to open some sealed papers and to tell the men, assembled in the hold, that we were going to Greece.
We landed at the Piraeus and for a few days camped in the pines on Mt. Hymettos, on the outskirts of Athens. Our camp was inspected by some smart-looking Evzones, the German Consul, and a number of half-starved citizens. 18 Battalion, the first to land, had already gone forward. It was impossible to do any serious training and we waited impatiently. At last orders arrived for us to entrain and also for me to leave six out of my forty officers and forty-six of my 813 other ranks. This meant more painful selections and I had to withstand some most urgent protests. But I was determined to have good people in the reinforcements and made no concessions, promising them all plenty of fighting in the good time to come. After a church parade I told the battalion what I could remember about Greece and what it stood for, and we marched through Athens past the crowded balcony of the German Embassy and entrained for the front, now being built up north of Mt. Olympus. It may be of interest, as an example of the fortunes that awaited soldiers of that time, to give here a list of the officers who went forward with the battalion page 17 and those who stayed in Athens, with a note of their subsequent fates.
|2 i/c||Burrows||Brigadier, 5 Bde., 1944.|
|Adj.||Cameron||Wounded twice, N.Z. 1942.|
|Intelligence Officer||Dawson||Killed in Greece.|
|Padre||Spence||Senior Chaplain, 1944–5.|
|Medical Officer||Gilmour||Killed, Libya, 1941.|
|H.Q. Company O.C.||Orr||P.W. Libya, 1941.|
|Transport Officer||Garriock||Wounded in Crete, N.Z. 1941|
|Quartermaster||Jefcoate||Wounded in Crete, N.Z. 1941.|
|Mortars||Rhodes||Wounded in Libya, N.Z. 1942.|
|Carriers||Green||Killed in Crete.|
|Signallers||Murray||2 i/c 26 Bn. 1945.|
|Anti-Aircraft||Bain||Wounded and P.W. Crete.|
|Pioneers||Powrie||Wounded in Crete, N.Z. 1941.|
|A. Company O.C.||Washbourn||P.W. Egypt, 1942.|
|Wood||Wounded in Crete, N.Z. 1941.|
|Scoltock||Killed in Crete.|
|B. Company O.C.||Rice||Killed in Crete.|
|Ayto||Killed in Greece.|
|McLaren||Killed in Greece.|
|McPhail||P.W. Libya, 1941.|
|Poole||Wounded in Greece, N.Z. 1944.|
|C. Company O.C.||Wilson||Killed in Crete.|
|C.O. 26 Bn. 1942–4.|
|Brown||Wounded and P.W. Crete.|
|Aitken||Killed in Tunisia, 1943.|
|Upham||P.W., July 1942. V.C. and Bar.|
|D. Company O.C.||Paterson||N.Z. 1942.|
|O'Callaghan||Killed in Crete.|
|Maxwell||P.W., July 1942.|
|Neilson||Wounded in Crete, N.Z. 1941.|
|O'Rorke||Killed in Greece.|
|Heasley||N.Z. 1941 sick.|
The rail journey was acutely uncomfortable but after some twenty-four hours we stiffly detrained at Katerini and marched to very dirty and crowded billets. I reported to the General and got a very warm welcome, for the Germans were in Bulgaria and invasion of Greece was plainly imminent. My battalion exactly doubled the force at the moment available to meet it. I was ordered to take over and prepare a front of some 6,000 yards about Ryakia, on the left of the Aliakmon line.
Next morning I went ahead with the company commanders to reconnoitre the ground and during the day Jim Burrows brought the battalion up. The position we had to occupy was very extensive, blinded by woods of stunted oak, and could be turned by the empty high ground on our left. It was vulnerable to infiltration tactics and I was very thankful that we never had to fight on it.
During the next few days the Division assembled for the first time. 4 and 6 Brigades were forward on the Aliakmon line, 5 Brigade prepared a reserve position in the Olympus pass. 4 Brigade had Eighteenth and Twentieth forward and Nineteenth in reserve, with 6 Field Regiment under command. We dug very hard, everyone taking things seriously but enjoying the work, the clean spring air, the sight of snowcapped Olympus, the budding trees, and the zest of anticipation. We dug hard, and, we thought, cunningly, practised patrolling into the woods ahead of us that soon would shelter an enemy, and rehearsed counter-attacks. I tried, secretly, to discover a way of retirement over the trackless foothills behind if the next battalion gave way and we had to go; but Jim could find no way of getting our transport out. Still, it would not be necessary: Yugoslavia had decided to fight, and we would doubtless soon be moving into Macedonia.
Germany declared war on Greece and to our surprise we still made no move forward. Across the bay one evening we heard the faint rolling thunder of distant bombing and saw the dull glow of fires in Salonika. It could not be long now.
This was quite a difficult operation. It was dark and cold when I got back to my headquarters, having given by phone an order very cautiously worded, for our lines were being constantly cut or tapped and there were many fifth columnists about. The orders group1 was assembled, however, and the men were busy packing or having a hot meal. We had over ten miles to march, over rough tracks and with heavy gear, the companies moving in the dark from widely separated areas. First-line transport2 was to move over newly constructed roads to a rendezvous only indicated on a bad map, and there we were all to meet in the morning and meet our troop-carriers. It was quite dark when the company commanders left, and as there was nothing more I could do I settled down for a good meal and slept soundly till midnight.
1 Orders group: those officers of a formation or unit who must be given the Commander's orders before any operation or move. In a battalion the company commanders, signals officer, M.O., and adjutant, and the commanders of any attached sub-units.
2 First-line transport: the vehicles carrying the fighting equipment, ammunition, and signals gear.
The journey up the Sarantoporon pass was slow and unpleasant, in heavy rain at first and later snow, on winding, slippery roads. At one point an Australian truck had gone over the bank and half a dozen bodies were lying beside it. About midnight on Easter Eve the battalion debussed near the village of Lava in the midst of a traffic jam and dispersed to sleep in the mud. The more lucky ones found some nice shingle heaps to rest on. Gilmour, our young Medical Officer, said later that he was quite cheered by my remark that it was like old times.
18 Battalion and 19 Battalion had gone forward to position on the high ground south of Servia town, 20 Battalion was in reserve astride the road. In the morning we took up our positions and started to dig. Paterson with C. Company occupied the squalid little Lava village on high ground right of the road; Rice with B. Company, a bold spur on the left. Wilson and Washbourn and Battalion Headquarters were in the flattish ground in the centre. In front, the ground sloped away for two miles, fantastically broken by ravines as far as the black, sombre-looking hills held by the other battalions. There were two gaps in these hills: one where the main road came through, held by Bedding's company of the Nineteenth; another where a track from Servia wound through a steep pass guarded by an ancient fort and held by Lynch's company of the Eighteenth. The Eighteenth was in extremely difficult country and could only be approached and supplied through its own F.D.L.s.1 The whole position appeared very strong and had good observation, but it was over-extended and artillery support must have been very difficult. Steve Weir got the Sixth Field Regiment into position behind the Twentieth, but except through the Castle gap he could not have dropped shells anywhere near our forward positions.
1 F.D.L.s: Forward Defended Localities—the line of the posts held by the forward infantry.
Next day, 11 April, the war at last reached us and we had our first casualties. Through the Castle gap we saw German planes bombing and machine-gunning transport in Kozani, some miles to the north. Then the stream of refugees thickened and began to include Greek and Yugoslav soldiers, including a dignified General and a beautifully equipped Yugoslav heavy anti-aircraft battery, which settled in unpleasantly close to my headquarters. German planes came over us, bombed Servia, and some tackled Upham's platoon and wounded two men. A nice little red-headed boy named Kelly was killed by a bomb—our first killed in action. A New Zealand machine-gunner arrived at Upham's platoon. He said he was the sole survivor of the Machine-gun Company which we had forward with the British light armour. I assured Upham that he was a runaway, and sure enough the machine-gunners came back later, in good order and with some astonishing stories of the Adolf Hitler storm-troops that they had slain. At that time it was not always realized that troops who disappear when fired at have not necessarily been hit. In the late afternoon we could see, also through the gap, German transport in the far distance and a burning village.
During the morning of 16 April I was disturbed that my patrols found no one on the left. Far below we could see parties of infantry crossing the river, apparently in retreat. Brigade knew nothing about it. Jim Burrows went out to find what he could, and, miles away, met an officer who had returned to look for some missing men. The Australians and the Twenty-sixth were retiring and had failed to let us know. I altered positions, refusing the left flank, and waited on. The Brigade Major arrived and told us that Bedding's company had beaten off another attack, taking over a hundred prisoners. He got me to take him round my front because he needed exercise, which I did not, and warned me to be ready for a move back to my original position that night. We had come forward by a narrow and dangerous road and I sent Teddy Dawson off to reconnoitre a cross-country route for the rifle companies.
At nightfall the orders arrived, and at eight we set off on a very difficult move. The transport moved by the narrow winding road cut out of the side of a steep cliff with corners cambered the wrong way. The night was nearly pitch-dark, we used no lights, and it was a nightmarish trip. A man had to walk by the running-board of each vehicle where the driver could just see him. A three-tonner, a Bren carrier, a watercart, and a motor-cycle went over the bank and had to be abandoned, as also had an Australian twenty-five pounder which was blocking the corner at Prosylion and which Jim Burrows ordered to be thrown over. It was nearly dawn when we passed Pleasants' corner, where there was already a smell of death, and passed the marching companies. The short cut had given them a terrible tramp, they were plastered from head to foot with mud, and were grey with fatigue, but they reported no stragglers. By midday we were back in our old positions except that my area page 25 had been so shelled and bombed that I decided to move into Lava.
I waited to see the companies in, then struggled through foot-deep mud to Lava. Everyone had gone to sleep and the sentries had no idea where Headquarters was established. By the time I found it I was in a vile temper, and Adjutant, I.O., and batman, all got a savage tongue-lashing. They listened with respect, for such outbreaks were uncommon—until poor Neville, my batman, mollified me with some tea and stew.
We then settled down to rest, when suddenly there was an unmistakable shell-burst close outside. I went to the door as the smoke and dust were clearing, and through the Castle gap saw, far out on the plain, four quickly flickering flashes. I started to count the seconds, but before the sound of the guns had arrived there were four sharp explosions, neatly spaced among the buildings. The corner of one house collapsed and the guns flashed again. I returned inside and remarked that we were perfectly safe as two shells never landed in the same spot, whereupon with a howl one entered the room above my head, passed through the next wall, and burst feebly, slightly wounding a pig. This confirmed my opinion that we were perfectly safe as certainly no three shells were likely to land in the same place, so we sat through the twenty-minutes bombardment in moderate tranquillity.
The idea of a sleep had to be abandoned, however, when a message arrived for me to report at Brigade. Cameron and Gilmour came with me, and we laboriously slogged our way through the mud out on to the road. The German gunners opened again and seemed to follow us. I had another chance to develop my theories as to the incidence of shell-bursts. There were two huge rocks behind which I averred it would be perfectly safe to shelter. We did so for a while, and left a moment before a shell burst exactly where we had been. After this I advanced no more theories and we very slowly made our way out on to the road and down to Brigade. While we did so, four Blenheims in close formation passed northwards, and thirty German bombers passed them in the opposite direction, neither group taking any notice of the other.