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Infantry Brigadier

4. Greece: The Withdrawal

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4. Greece: The Withdrawal

Brigadier Puttick was in good form but he had no bright news: the whole Army was going back to the Thermopylae position; 4 Brigade Group would pull out that night; the Twentieth would take over rearguard; and I was to control demolitions that the Sappers were preparing on the road, and should be out of the pass by 3 a.m. I got the brigade plan, saw Kelsall, the sapper doing the demolitions, and trudged back to Lava, where Jim had the orders group waiting. Many times in Greece I was thankful for our careful training in the procedure of issuing orders and our innumerable exercises and discussions on it.

This was quite a neat little problem in rearguard tactics. In fact, the whole operation in Greece had rather the nature of an exercise. I remembered sitting for a tactical fitness examination before the war. Keith Stewart had coached me, setting and marking and commenting on exercises in attack, defence, and outposts, and then, being the examiner, setting the paper on the rearguard. It was a consolation that I had passed that examination, anyway. The Twentieth was to remain in position until the Eighteenth and Nineteenth had passed through, then to follow and embus some ten miles down the pass, the demolitions to be blown when everyone had gone. There was not likely to be much difficulty with the Nineteenth, but John Gray and the Eighteenth would have a ticklish job in disengaging. They could either move forward to their F.D.L.s and then through the Castle gap to Lava or back along the hill-sides east of the road (if they could find a track), passing some hundreds of feet above Lava. Communications were bad; I could not find out what page 27 John meant to do, and there was no time for the five-hour journey to see him. I discovered that his second-in-command had orders to bring his transport to Lava, which in fact was impossible, and had to plan on the assumption that the Eighteenth would come out that way.

That accepted, the planning was simple enough. Paterson and Rice would stay in position until the Eighteenth and Nineteenth were through their respective positions, then they would come back through Washbourn. Wilson's company had gone off to picket points on the road that were worrying the Brigadier. Washbourn would then come in, and I would take over with a rearguard of Bren carriers on the road, and in succession blow the demolitions. It all sounded reasonably simple and I had a meal and my first hour's rest for thirty-six hours. Jim Burrows came up and wanted to take over the rear-party job but had to go back to the transport, which was to pick up the troops as they came out of the pass. He said good-bye rather seriously, and about nine o'clock I took post with Kelsall and the rear-party at the first demolition point.

It was a weary, trying night. There was no trouble with the Nineteenth, which came up in good order and was all out before midnight. By then only a few parties of the Eighteenth had appeared. Rice's company came through. More Eighteenth arrived and said they thought the battalion was returning by the hill route. That meant that Paterson would be in a dilemma unless he got the same information, which there was no means of passing on to him. The Germans opened harassing fire on the road behind us, and the shells screamed overhead and burst with terrific noise in the narrow, steep valley. They also mortared the track leading to Lava, and shelled the village. A platoon of Paterson's company came through, in such excellent order that I congratulated its commander. I did not know until years later that he had lost his nerve and pulled out without orders. A complete company of the Eighteenth turned up, then the rest of Paterson's company, splashing along the river-bed below the road. John Gray himself appeared about 2.30 a.m., very exhausted. He said that two of his companies were still on page 28 the hill route and he thought they would have to be abandoned. I gave him some rum and he went on, but Lyons, a Member of Parliament, then second-in-command of an Eighteenth company, promised to get hold of some transport and bring it back to where we were waiting. It seemed no use leaving Washbourn any longer, and he came in and passed nonchalantly on in good order.

The German shelling and mortaring continued steadily. Ross, my faithful driver, continued as steadily to make cups of tea. The Brigadier had warned me to be out of the Pass by three, but two companies were worth waiting for. It was nearly four when another company of the Eighteenth came down the river-bed, climbed up the bank and into the trucks, and not long afterwards the other company appeared. This was better. When there was no response to our calls I ordered Kelsall to blow. This he did with a magnificent crash, but when the echoes had died away we heard a chorus of cries, very far away up the black hill-side, clear and faint, ‘New Zealand here, wait for us.’ I went to the edge of the bank and called out that I would wait, but to hurry. Kelsall very properly reminded me that I was endangering his sixty men, waiting all the wet night at their posts down the Pass, but I replied that I was resolved to wait. I thinned out the rear-party and sent Teddy Dawson off in his carrier with instructions to go as far as Larissa and tell everyone he saw preparing demolitions that I was going to be late and not to blow till I arrived. We moved 500 yards to the next demolition point, the party which had called out arrived, exhausted and grateful, were packed on to one of Lyons's trucks and went away.

We waited a little longer. The shelling continued with some shells pitching very close, while far away we could hear the Germans heavily mortaring our empty positions. Then we blew again, and, maddeningly, there were more cries. I waited stubbornly and four stragglers arrived. At 5.30 a.m., just before ordering another blow, I called to the hillside once more. Very faint and far off came one single voice, ‘New Zealand here, wait for me.’ Kelsall looked doubtfully at me but I was unable to leave. We shouted to hurry, page 29 but it was another half-hour before our man slithered down the opposite bank into the stream. He was quite unable to climb the near bank and Sergeant Lawrence went down and dragged him up, a fully equipped, greatcoated private soldier, still carrying his Bren gun and nearly dead on his feet. We put him on a truck, and blew again. It was past 6 a.m. and there were signs of dawn.

We went down the Pass at top speed, stopping at each demolition point, where there was a pair of patient sappers waiting. Kelsall would light the fuse—the rest of us waiting around the next corner—then he and I would run back, see the result, in each case satisfactory, and on to the next. No time was wasted, but it was nearly eight when my little column—some sixty sappers, my three Bren carriers, and my car—emerged from the Pass on to the plain. All the transport had gone, but to my surprise the Brigadier was there. He had listened with satisfaction to the explosions, congratulated us on getting everyone out, made sure that I was personally the last out of the Pass, and sped off.

I formed up my column with my own car at the tail and gave orders to move at ten vehicles to the mile with no halting if attacked by planes. Then I shared a little brandy with Stan Green, the carrier officer, and settled down in the car, saying to Ross: ‘I'll have a sleep now.’

We moved without interruption for a mile or more, and then the morning reconnaissance plane appeared. It was not satisfied with merely discovering us, but dived and machine-gunned. No one was hurt, but the leading trucks stopped and the men scattered, halting the column. The plane went farther down the road and we got moving again, but in a very few minutes it returned and the same thing happened. No one was hurt, but we were dangerously delayed; it was now after eight and full daylight. The column got moving again, not without some angry shouting and gesticulating from me. Again the plane swooped and roared along the road, and again the trucks ahead stopped and the men tumbled out and ran for cover. The plane swung away and in a minute we were moving again.

I decided to go forward through the column and rub it in page 30 to every driver that he must keep going. Not far ahead were the Eleftherokhorion cross-roads, where the road from Mt. Olympus joined that from Servia. It was just possible that the enemy might anticipate me there. It hardly seemed likely; there were surely plenty of demolitions in the Olympus pass, and I knew of no other way. Still it would be as well to be past those cross-roads very soon. I stopped to tell the carrier officer following me to keep his place while I went ahead. Walking back to my car I saw that everyone had stopped again, and saw a truck, half a mile ahead, burst into flames. Another truck blazed up an instant later. The men were scrambling up the low bank right of the road or diving into the shallow ditch beside it. I walked off the road to the left to get a better view, and looked through my glasses. Half a mile ahead, fairly across the road, were two German tanks, firing fast down the road towards me.

As I watched, with bitter disappointment, one swung its turret round and started firing in the opposite direction. I saw tracer from there lashing all round the tanks. Later I learned this was from our armoured car rearguard. It seemed just possible that we might clear the way by attacking with our three Bren carriers and their anti-tank rifles. A two-pounder on portée, presumably cut off from our rearguard, was out on the left firing furiously. A carrier from somewhere ahead in the column swung out from behind a truck and raced straight at the tanks. As I watched it suddenly slewed into the ditch and capsized. There were now three tanks, a hail of tracer round them and bouncing off. I beckoned to the carriers to hurry, and the leading one was moving off the road beside me and had opened fire, when I saw coming across the fields directly towards us truck after truck of lorried infantry, all sitting upright like tin soldiers. I counted seven, more in the distance, and rightly or wrongly decided that the odds were too heavy and we must run. I shouted and pointed to the carriers, the air began to crackle with bullets. Ross jumped out of the car, and we ran together across a ploughed field, up a steep bank, and into cover behind it.

I stopped at the top and looked back. The carriers had page 31 stuck in the plough and the crews were running for the bank. On the road every truck was stopped and several were blazing. There was no sign of any sappers except dead and wounded near some of the trucks. The two-pounder was silent and there were two bodies on the platform. Some of the troop-carriers were quite close to the road and German infantry were debussing. I dropped down behind the bank, hurried down a narrow watercourse until out of sight from the top, and paused to view the situation.

Six men, Green, Ross, two infantrymen, a stray sapper, and an equally stray cavalryman, collected round me; others could be seen already farther away. There was no time to waste and we moved off in single file. There was still firing from the direction of the cross-roads and we turned parallel with the road, hoping to join our rearguard. Very soon the firing slackened, until there was only one Bren gun firing lonely-sounding bursts, then it stopped. I realized that our rearguard had gone and slackened our breathless pace. We crossed a tiny stream, knee-deep, came into a lovely little glade, ideal for a picnic, and I decided to stop, rest, count our resources, and consider a plan.

There was no sign of any pursuit and so, as a first step, I made everyone strip and bathe. Much refreshed, we shared our food, enough for a tiny breakfast. Then we counted arms, and as I decided we must travel fast and light, dumped them all in the stream except one pistol, which I kept. I had a compass and binoculars but no map. There was no more food and not a greatcoat between us. We had a discussion on prospects and it was made clear that I was commander of the unit.

My idea was the obvious one: to travel south during the day, cross the road down which the German army would be pouring, by night, and then head east for the coast. First we must get some food and perhaps help from the villagers, and so two of the party set off for a village near by. We were out of sight of the road and all the country-side was bright and silent. Before they had gone out of earshot we heard, startlingly, the thudding of guns far to the south. I jumped up. ‘That's our rearguard at Elassona; they are certain to page 32 have orders to stay till night,’ I said. And at once we all started southwards as fast as we could walk.

For an hour we plodded on. Small groups of peasants were tramping towards high hills to the west and we passed a few shepherds with little flocks. We said ‘Elassona?’ to one, and he pointed the way we were going. The thudding and rumble of guns continued, almost seemed a little nearer, and we began to have hope. I called a halt and said that we would observe the regulation ten minutes' halt before every clock hour, and otherwise would walk on all day; that we had a chance, just a chance. We were very weary and hungry, the ground was rough and tumbled; but we trudged on hour after hour, crossing little streams, scrambling through scrub, literally over hill and dale. Soon after midday we came in sight of the road again, packed solid with German transport, head to tail, tanks and guns, lorry-loads of infantry, all halted, with the men strolling about. We turned out of sight, crossed a difficult ravine very slowly, and started to climb up a steep valley leading to the crest of a distinct line of low hills. The guns were undoubtedly nearer, though muffled by the hills, and I thought I could distinguish the nearer crumps of the shell-bursts. The valley was steep and we were desperately tired, but we were hopeful now and somehow kept going.

At last we reached its head and the party rested while I climbed the last few feet to look. A mile to the left the road was still packed with halted German transport. A group of German officers in long greatcoats was standing beside a house, looking at maps and southwards through their glasses. Elassona itself was hidden by higher ground along the ridge which we had climbed. In front the ridge fell away sharply to a fair-sized, sluggish-looking river; then there were three miles of undulating plain and another ridge. It seemed likely that our rearguard would be holding the ridge. I watched a German plane fly along it and draw a furious crackle of small-arms fire. Our object, therefore, must be to cross this No Man's Land before the enemy could mount an attack and before the rearguard retired.

The party came up and we moved down the forward slope page 33 at our best speed. Suddenly four shells burst neatly round us, simultaneously, and beautifully spaced. Then another four, also exactly right for range and direction, and then four more. We hastily got under cover and considered the situation. Some very smart O.P. officer evidently took us for enemy infantry and it would not do to upset him any more. After a short discussion we emerged from shelter again, in a solid clump to look as little like troops as possible, and all waving our jackets furiously. It worked and we were not fired on as we walked on down to the river. Here we were lucky; it was shallow enough and we walked across waist-deep and continued in the same formation. After going a few hundred yards we could see Germans over our left shoulders, shells bursting steadily among the houses, and some ugly slugs, German tanks, on a steep bank above the houses. They saw us and opened fire, and again we scurried for a hollow.

From there on we alternated formations, moving as a clump when the ground concealed us from the Germans and we could be seen by our own gunners, extending to forty paces when the Germans could see us, and moving in bounds from one piece of cover to the next. It was a slow business; we were all tired out and starving, the day was hot, and at each halt half the party would fall asleep and have to be kicked awake for the next bound. The ground was covered with spring flowers and the birds were singing. Evidently we puzzled the gunners of both sides, for sometimes we would make our move in peace, the next time be fired on, and once both parties joined in to fire on us. We reached a wretched little hamlet, empty of inhabitants, and spent some time looking in vain for water.

At last, after hours, I decided that it would be safer to adopt formation A. We were quite close to where our infantry were likely to be, and we emerged more or less boldly on to the road and shuffled along it, feeling very anxious indeed and waving briskly. The artillery duel was going on over our heads and any moment we expected some over-zealous Bren gunner to mow us down. Suddenly we were halted by a sharp challenge. The party stood frozen while page 34 I obeyed a very keen-looking New Zealand infantryman standing in a slit trench and pointing a sub-machine-gun at us. He told us to stand fast with hands up, and one to advance. I did so, with hands well up, and he kept us all very efficiently covered while I tried to account for myself. He took some convincing, but suddenly decided in our favour. He gave us two tins of fruit, said that 25 Battalion was doing the rearguard and would have a hell of a fight later, and we went gratefully the last few chains over the ridge and into safety behind.

The crew of an anti-tank gun was sitting under a culvert eating tinned peaches taken from an overturned canteen truck. They welcomed us in and for half an hour we sat and ate about three tins each. We were a little offended that they were only mildly interested in our experiences, being much more concerned with the tough fight they themselves expected shortly. We, for our part, were now safely within our own lines and not to be worried about anything. The artillery affair went on very rowdily but we felt it was no concern of ours and set off light-heartedly down the road. We were considering taking over an abandoned traction-engine for transport when an anti-tank portée came along. We clambered aboard and were taken to where 26 Battalion was embussing, some miles farther to the south.

Here I joined Rusty Page and took a seat in his car, the others travelling in one of the trucks. We passed through burning Larissa in the early evening and halted in the station yard. There my party reassembled and happily drank beer from a dump about to be abandoned, while the Twenty-sixth entrained, providing its own engine-drivers and firemen. There were lots of difficulties. The town was bombed, there was a scare of German tanks having got in—as they had—but nothing disturbed our perfect equanimity. I said it was nonsense about the tanks, and indeed they had gone out again. So after dark we went most contentedly off in 26 Battalion's transport, Rusty Page again taking me as passenger. His rifle companies had gone in the train and he was travelling with his transport—and was not to have an easy moment till he saw the companies again.

page 35

The night's journey across the Thessaly plain was an experience. The Luftwaffe had had a good day with the transport of the retreating Army, and I saw no such picture of disaster till the pursuit after Alamein eighteen months later. However, I was quite happy; I seemed to be completely dehydrated, and bottle after bottle of beer had no influence. I had heard that the Twentieth had passed Larissa and would now be far to the south. It was good not to be a prisoner and I felt sure the Brigadier and the Twentieth would be glad to see me. So I remained cheerful all night, though it seemed some years since I had slept, and though checks were innumerable. At one village we stopped so long that Rusty and I got out and walked forward. We found that the column had halted because one driver had stopped for some uncertainty and had gone to sleep, everyone else doing the same or simply waiting. At daylight we found ourselves in a complete traffic jam where the road wound out of the plain at Domokos. The reconnaissance plane came over and found us, as expected; then came some forty Stukas and bombed and strafed, also as expected. It was unpleasant, but only a few trucks were hit and not many men, and we were all greatly cheered by three Hurricanes which suddenly appeared and downed three Stukas like pigeons. At last the block cleared, we wound slowly over the hills, stopped and bathed at beautiful Lamia, and then to our joy found ourselves amid New Zealand infantry.

Rusty took me to 4 Brigade Headquarters and went on to find his own battalion. The Brigadier greeted me like a prodigal son, Jim came up and handed over the Twentieth with all the pleasure in the world, and I went happily back to it.

I found that Kelsall had somehow got out from the trouble at Eleftherokhorion, that Teddy Dawson was missing, and that the battalion had lost about thirty men—from air attacks—on the way down. I had a shave with borrowed gear while Jim and I talked, then went to sleep for twelve hours.