5. Greece: Last Days
5. Greece: Last Days
I came back to life, thoroughly refreshed, during the next day. The Division, with 6 Australian Division on the left, was standing at bay on the Thermopylae line. 5 and 6 Brigades were forward, and 4 Brigade in reserve. 20 Battalion's first task was to be prepared to deal with any landing behind the right flank. The companies moved into position, we worked out plans for all the eventualities we could think of, and for a few hours thoroughly enjoyed ourselves. The spring in Greece was very lovely, the ground carpeted with flowers, the air balmy, and the sky a dazzling blue. Also we were very optimistic. No doubt there would be a battle, but we wanted nothing more, and the credulous were cheered by rumours that the Canadians had landed at Salonika and that there were 500 Spitfires at Athens. Meantime the Luftwaffe was always overhead, reconnoitring, machine-gunning on the roads, bombing or about to bomb. But under our olive-trees we were unmolested and not in any way concerned.
Bad news arrived of Teddy Dawson. He had been in a truck which was machine-gunned near Larissa, had stood to his Bren gun, shooting in the teeth of the plane until he had died of his wounds. Teddy was snowy-haired, very small, and beloved by all. He had one disability as intelligence officer, being unable to spell. I long treasured one of his reports in which he had struck out several attempts at ‘vessel’ and substituted ‘ship’.
All the night German transport, with lights full on, poured in an unending column down the Lamia pass. Obviously there would be a battle very soon.
Next day Brigade told us to alter our dispositions. It looked easy on the map. I climbed a very steep hill and was never so puzzled as to how to place troops. Finally I made page 37 a shot at it, a good deal encouraged by Jim's frank admiration of my solution, went down the hill, and then went up again with Gordon Washbourn's company. Gordon was rather startled to see the ground he was to occupy, and not much consoled when I pointed out the glorious view. It was certainly a glorious view, but the climb was unquestionably stiff and it was very hard work dragging up weapons and ammunition, water, and rations. At any moment I expected nymphs or the great god Pan to appear in these flowered glades, but they made no sign and I went down. Half-way I met a runner, a climber rather. He had a message from Dave Cameron that the battalion was to move after nightfall, whither he did not know. The runner went on to A. Company. At the foot of the hill I found Divisional Headquarters moving in. I saw Keith Stewart and without preamble he said: ‘We're hooking it. The Greeks have packed up and we're off.’
Guy Sanders, the Brigade Major, was waiting at my headquarters with orders for the move. It was startling to hear that the field regiments were to destroy their guns before moving. There had been an attack during the day, mainly on 25 Battalion, quite easily held, and there was a pleasing story of tanks knocked out by our twenty-five-pounders. We were to move to the Thebes area and go into a rearguard position there.
As usual Jim went ahead with guides and a reconnaissance party. It was not easy getting up our transport against the stream of traffic moving south, and collecting the companies, packing, and getting off in the dark, but we were away in due time. Driver Hamilton pluckily volunteered to wait with a truck and pick up Deans and Sullivan, whom I had sent on a long tramp to find an alternative route out for Washbourn's company. Private Findlay, forgotten in his sentry post, remained faithfully alone until dawn, and then thought it well to come out with 5 Brigade rearguard, who returned him to us in Crete with no deficiencies of kit.
We travelled with lights full on and before daylight settled down in some olive-groves near Thebes. During the day we went into position on the west of the road climbing the page 38 Kriekoukis pass, with 18 Battalion on our right and 19 Battalion in reserve. Most of the Division had passed through us in the night and we heard that they were heading for embarkation ports. We were told we would have to remain until after nightfall on the next day, Anzac Day. We had seventeen Australian field guns and seven Australian two-pounders in support. We had perfect observation and the enemy practically none, and it seemed to me that the Brigadier's orders, emphasizing concealment and depth, exactly met the situation. His instructions were as follows:
Most careful concealment to avoid enemy discovering presence of a large force in the area. No AA fire of any kind except in case of serious air attack. Wireless silence.
Long-range artillery and MG fire from forward guns on observed and suitable targets. No registration.
Forward defended localities on high ground (six hundred feet above plain) with good proportion in reserve.
By day majority of troops to be in rear of forward slopes. False flanks of detached posts and snipers wide on high ground on flanks.
Carriers of 20 Battalion wide on left flank.
During the day broken Greek troops and refugees streamed through the position. Several large formations of enemy aircraft passed overhead proceeding to and from the direction of the Corinth Canal behind us, and there were fighter and bomber attacks on the road traffic almost incessantly. We sat still and watched with interest. On my trip to Brigade Headquarters for orders I was twice chased into a ditch by low-flying fighters. At the conference, held under a culvert over a side road, the Brigadier noticed that my boots were worn out and gave me a pair he had taken from an Australian soldier who had several pairs hanging round his neck. He also gave Jim Burrows and me a bottle of whisky each. Jim went off with his to where he had our transport parked in olive-groves six miles back. I returned to the battalion and when forced on the way to get into a ditch very hastily, took both boots and whisky with me. Nothing else of importance occurred during the 24th, and that night the Sixth New Zealand and the Nineteenth Australian Brigades passed page 39 through us, moving to the Peloponnesus, and we became the rearguard.
Next day enemy aircraft became more active still, and movement on the road was highly dangerous. We lay very quiet, and though reconnaissance planes flew low and persistently, looking for us, they apparently failed to see us. In the afternoon we got the unwelcome order to stay another twenty-four hours. The men afterwards always called that position ‘Twenty-four hours hill’. I tramped all round my position and examined a track leading from the left of my position back to Vyllia, four miles to the south, and thence to the main road, and decided to retire this way when the time came.
The day was hot and I had trudged and climbed some fifteen miles when I got back to my headquarters in a wretched little shepherd's hut. Dave Cameron and I sat down on the straw and we both thought of the whisky concealed under it. Just as we were about to act Gilmour came in. He stood talking, and I considered whether to give him some. I had just decided that my need was greater than his when he sat down—and got up hastily from the broken bottle. Dave and I were both speechless. Gilly said nothing and in a moment went out, all three of us feeling guilty and stricken. After a few minutes we recovered a little and I wrote out a message to Jim. ‘Send det. carriers one mile W. of Vyllia to watch track from N.W. Stop. Our bottle whisky broken.’ This message of disaster was dispatched and three hours later Jim's bottle arrived, carried by motor-cyclist on the dangerous road. We called Gilly in and one of the crises of the war was past.
Early on the 26th the enemy arrived at last. An immense column of solidly packed transport appeared on the road miles north of Thebes and slowly crawled towards us. It was an alarming sight, a Juggernaut of mechanized might. The head disappeared into Thebes and for some time nothing happened. About 11 a.m. a light tank and some motor-cyclists emerged, followed by about a hundred closely spaced trucks, and moved briskly towards Kriekoukis, the village in front of and below our position. This exactly suited me; a page 40 nice little ambush was ready for any such advanced guard. My idea was that it should be allowed to come up the road right into our position, when we would fall on it with two-pounders, mortars, anti-tank rifles, machine-guns, Bren guns, and rifles, while a party hidden in the village attacked the rear vehicles and put mines on the road. The column would have been very uncomfortable under the circumstances on the winding climb, and I fully expected a satisfactory butchery, but the plan got no trial. The gunners had been warned, but I had had no chance to see the Brigadier and get his approval. So the gunners opened fire under their instructions before the enemy column reached Kriekoukis. It was a pleasing but disappointing sight. The guns had not registered and their shells pitched everywhere but on the road. The Germans in the trucks scattered and there were some signs of panic; but very soon they pulled themselves together, embussed, turned their trucks and scuttled back into Thebes and out of range. At the end the guns got several hits and eight vehicles were left abandoned.
The main column made no effort to come forward. A dozen guns settled down in the open off the road and started to shell us, the twinkling flashes a pretty sight. Our guns replied briskly at anything that looked in the least like a target. Then the column itself turned and moved endlessly into the hills in the east, where our maps showed a bad road leading past our right. The party in Thebes kept quiet and the afternoon passed slowly. C. Company got most of the shelling but had no casualties. At nightfall the long thick snake of transport was still filing into the hills and the guns stopped.
We heard in the afternoon that there had been a parachute landing near Corinth and that our retreat was barred.
As the Brigadier said, this raised a very awkward problem. I went back to see him and found that pending further information he was preparing a very stout-hearted plan for seizing two hills east of Corinth and close to embarkation beaches. We were fully armed and equipped; in fact we had all the British guns in Greece, seventeen of them, and had several days' supplies. We would destroy the parachutists, page 41 embark if possible later, and in any case have a very good fight. At the worst we could pass the Canal on foot, presumably by swimming it, and march south. Putt. didn't have his red hair for nothing.
This seemed a very good plan in the circumstances, and orders were being prepared for carrying it out when at 6.30 p.m. an officer arrived with a message that gave rather more hope. He came from Brigadier Charrington, commanding the British Armoured Brigade somewhere on our right. Charrington's signals had picked up a message from New Zealand Divisional Headquarters that 4 Brigade Group was to withdraw to beaches to the east of Athens, and probably embark that night, the 26/27 April. Half an hour later a second officer arrived from Charrington with a duplicate of this message and one from Brigadier Miles, the New Zealand C.R.A., with another copy.
The Brigadier wasted no time. A detachment of carriers under an English officer, Lt.-Col. Marnham, was sent along the Corinth road towards Megara to get information. The reserve company of the Nineteenth went back to Eleusis where the Thebes road joined the Corinth–Athens road. An advance party was sent to D. beach at Porto Rafti and a detachment to picket the road through Athens. I was given the rearguard and with a company of Australian sappers was to blow the demolitions from our forward positions back to Eleusis, some twenty miles.
Everything went smoothly although there had been very little time to get out orders. The withdrawal started at 9 p.m. and was unmolested. Transport arrangements were good. The column travelled with lights full on and at high speed. By 4 o'clock next morning, 27 April, it was tucking itself under the olive-groves on the approaches to Porto Rafti.
I had no difficulty with the demolitions. The four Australian sapper subalterns, whose names all began with E, worked things very well, the battalions left no stragglers, and we blew demolition after demolition without any hitch. At the last we had two and a half tons of ammonal left so we added it to the last charge and made a very fine finish. At Eleusis I found a few machine-gunners who had missed the page 42 order to retire and brought them on with me. We sped through the empty streets of Athens just as dawn was breaking. Ten miles on we were stopped by a Twentieth picket, heard that the battalion was in, and lay down to sleep.
Perhaps half an hour later I was wakened, and found myself surrounded by some very serious-looking officers, Strutt, commanding the Australian Field Regiment, his battery commanders, and an Australian machine-gunner. Strutt said with some gravity: ‘There has been a mistake, we should have embarked last night. The Brigadier has gone. Your battalion and my guns are the last British troops in Greece. I have come to put myself under your command.’ This neat little speech woke me up effectively. We counted up our army, one battalion, seventeen guns, one machinegun company, seven anti-tank guns, and some sappers. I pointed out that the force was inadequate to retake Athens and said that we would fall back to the high ground about the beach, lie low or fight as the case required, and hope to embark during the night.
There is nothing like having a plan, even if a poor one, and everyone cheered up. Jim Burrows and my company commanders turned up and I assured them that we would at last have a good fight and it was a pity we would have no spectators.
I left Strutt and Jim to get the troops on the move and went off to the beach, twelve miles away, intending to find out what I could, select a defensive position, and put the troops on it as they arrived. The beach was empty, a single caïque riding in the little bay and no sign of any embarkation parties, and I came away feeling rather doleful. On the way back we saw some abandoned trucks hidden under the olive-trees and as we had no rations Ross and I stopped to examine them. One was an Australian canteen truck, loaded with tinned plums and raspberries. While we were busy transferring this find I saw khaki figures through the trees and came on Brigade Headquarters and the Brigadier shaving. It was a distinct relief. He was very indignant that I had imagined him gone. No one had gone. The whole Brigade was present, evidently well hidden, and we would all embark that night.page 43
Much more cheerfully I went with him on a short reconnaissance, handicapped by the fact that the only map was a 1 : 200,000 motor-map of Attica. No time was wasted about orders: 18 Battalion and 20 Battalion were to be forward on a line just east of Markopoulon, 19 Battalion in reserve, and 2nd/3rd Australian Field Regiment in support.
I then returned to the battalion and as usual found that Jim had everything ready and the orders group waiting. About 10 o'clock we were able to get on the road in our turn, moved to just short of Markopoulon, and pulled into the olive-groves again. I had been ahead with the company commanders, had given them their orders, and when I got back the men had debussed and were starting with some zest to destroy the vehicles. This is not easy to do when fire cannot be used, and heavy desert tyres are extremely difficult to injure. Oil was drained and the engines run till they seized. There was still no sign of the enemy and I told the companies to move independently to their positions and settled down to breakfast and shave.
Reprehensibly, though perhaps it should not have been necessary, I gave no special warning about precautions against air attack. The road was still crowded with transport and as the men moved off by sections, they became part of a very good target. I nearly intervened to order them off the roads; but they were hot and heavy laden and very tired, so I weakly let them go. Retribution came very quickly. I had not finished shaving when a score of German fighters appeared and dived savagely. For ten minutes there was a roar of cannon and machine-gun fire, punctuated by sharp explosions, and then they flew away. Half a dozen black columns of smoke curled up near the village, and an ammunition lorry started a fireworks display. I went along very anxiously and found that B. Company had lost two officers killed, McLaren and Ayto, and thirty men. The Brigadier said it was the only foolish thing the Twentieth did in the campaign; and it had been sharply punished.
The next few hours were rather anxious: A., B., and C. Companies got into position and reported so in good time; but D. Company was astray for some hours and Headquarters page 44 Company retreated nearly to the beach. I was standing in the little square in Markopoulon when one of the companies marched through, sections in single file and intervals of a hundred yards between sections. The square was crowded with Greeks, men, women, and children. They knew we were leaving them to darkness and oppression but there were no reproaches. Instead they gave the men oranges and water, showered flowers on them, and some cried: ‘Come back again, New Zealand!’ I saw one sweating infantryman turn and shout: ‘We'll bloody well come back again!’
For some worried hours Cameron and I were alone on the clump of rocks that we had selected for a headquarters, without information or means of getting any, and with nearly half the battalion astray. It was nearly four in the afternoon before, by one means and another, we had found and brought back the two missing companies and got our headquarters and signals established.
This was such a relief that a message from Rolleston, one of the forward platoon commanders, that eighty A.F.V.s had moved into Markopoulon was hardly alarming at all. Still it did not sound well. My mortars shelled the village and we reported to Brigade. I rather discounted the message but the gunners had reported to the same effect and got busy shelling enemy transport which we could all now see coming down the Athens road. It looked very like a fight before nightfall and a very difficult embarkation. The Brigadier sent out a message that there was every prospect of an A.F.V. attack being beaten off by gunfire and that if the front was irretrievably broken the troops would fall back to the steep hills near the beach and hold them as infantry positions until embarkation became possible. As he explained to me that night, if there was any difficulty about water or rations we could always descend into the plain and ‘savage’ the Boche for what we wanted.
I thought poorly of the prospect and, against his vigorous protests, sent Jim to report to Brigade where he would be available for the embarkation, which looked like being sticky. About an hour later he returned, looking much more cheerful, accompanied by driver and batman. They did not have page 45 knives in their mouths but otherwise appeared fully armed. He stated that Brigade did not want him, that he would take no more such bloody orders from me, and he sat down defiantly.
We were all rather fed up with the long withdrawal and would have liked to have seen some German infantry, though we were not particularly keen on the A.F.V.s. Nothing happened, however, though the enemy continued to stack up on our front. After dark we moved smoothly back through the Nineteenth and on to the beach, where we sat for some hours. All guns, heavy weapons, and equipment were destroyed by order and we were told to discard our packs. After a very trying trip on a tank lighter, which for an hour or so stuck on a sandbank, we scrambled aboard the cruiser Ajax and ended our share in the Greek campaign.
We had had eighty-five casualties, including three officers killed. Among the missing was Corporal Denvir of A. Company, who three and a half years later was to reappear as a Yugoslav partisan battalion commander. B. Company had suffered the worst, losing forty-four, of whom sixteen were dead. Most unfortunately, we also lost the first reinforcement of six officers and forty-six other ranks whom we had left in Athens. They were caught in the unfortunate affair at Kalamata—where Sergeant Hinton of C. Company won a Victoria Cross—and were mostly taken prisoner.