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21 Battalion

CHAPTER 2 — Camberley to Athens

page 26

Camberley to Athens

The new year opened with the battalion cleaning billets in preparation for departure and trying to fight off a feeling of lassitude which under different circumstances might have been a slight hangover after the New Year celebrations. On this occasion it was the first waves of an influenza epidemic. A few men running really high temperatures were sent to hospital and about seventy others too ill to march were taken by bus to the station. The battalion marched out of Camberley at 3.15 a.m. on 3 January and entrained at Farnborough. The train was two hours late, the carriages were unheated, and everybody was extremely cold and miserable. At the same time every man was glad to be moving out, not because he was tired of England but because he was tired of inactivity. There was fighting in Egypt, and men who were civilians when the Second Echelon left New Zealand were now soldiers in the Western Desert. The feelings of 21 Battalion and, for that matter, of the whole of 5 Brigade may be judged by the ironical name of the troopship magazine—The Blitz Tourist.

The troop train's destination was Newport, in Wales, and when that port was reached the battalion was hungry as well as part-frozen. It was also quite fed up with the scenery, which for the first part consisted of a snow-covered countryside and later of miles of coal trucks festooned with icicles.

It was learned at the docks that 21 Battalion was to embark on HMT J24, the Duchess of Bedford, a 20,000-ton liner capable of 20 knots. It was learned a little later that she was scheduled to carry 3040 troops, 25 per cent more than there was hammock space for. The troops embarked by midday and were accommodated in hammocks on D deck. Other units followed at intervals until there were nearly 2800 men aboard, packed almost as tight as sardines.

The last troops came on board the following day and on 5 January three tugs towed the Duchess into the stream, where page 27 she anchored until the 8th. The time was spent in fatigues and in stowing away as much gear as possible in an endeavour to make a little more room.

Six months earlier the conditions on the ship would have created a storm of protest, but those six months had done something to the fiercely individual and comparatively undisciplined volunteers who made up 21 Battalion. They had talked with men who had faced the mechanised might of the German Army; they had seen acres of London burning and had known there were women and children buried under the flames; they had watched white chalk marks drawn across a blue sky and knew they were the vapour trails of planes engaged in mortal combat. They had listened to the wailings of air-raid warnings, the roar of anti-aircraft barrages, the scream of diving planes and the whistle of bombs. Now, instead of watching from the sideline, they were going to join the team. Well, if the Duchess of Bedford was the best the authorities could do, the voyage could not last for ever. And there would be plenty of room in the desert.

The Admiralty order that all men would sleep in their battle dress and never be without steel helmets and life-jackets while they were in dangerous waters sent many a glance at the dark, swirling water and at the sky, darker even than the water. Destruction could lurk in either place.

Three other transports accompanied the Duchess when, guarded by a plane and a destroyer, she wallowed out of Newport into the Irish Sea. It was soon realised that she had not been called the ‘Drunken Duchess’ for nothing. The following morning she was in Belfast Lough, where the convoy was assembling. Sunday, 12 January, was departure day, and 21 troopships carrying 42,000 troops, protected by a battleship, two cruisers, and twelve destroyers, with the RAF overhead, began the seven weeks' voyage to Egypt.

The first leg was north-west into the Atlantic, out of the reach of enemy planes but still within the range of submarines. Boat drill was practised with some zeal after a warning on the second day out to expect a U-boat attack. It did not eventuate, but those who were not lucky enough to have been allotted a place in the boats looked with extreme disfavour at the rafts page 28 which could be the next form of transport. Anti-submarine guards kept a very close watch.

Within a week the northern winter was left behind, and influenza, which had assumed almost epidemic proportions, complicated further by an outbreak of measles, began to abate. To make sure they did not recover too quickly, or so it appeared to the convalescents, everybody underwent another TAB inoculation. The destroyers left the convoy on the 16th. In the late afternoon the Duchess of Bedford pulled out of position and hove to, and all troops paraded at muster stations. There had been a death in 22 Battalion. The soldier had been a member of the battalion's pipe band and was accorded a piper's funeral. On the silent ship heaving in the long Atlantic swell, the piper's lament, ‘The Flowers of the Forest’, was heard on every deck as the remains were committed to the sea. It was a profoundly moving ceremony.

Because of the crowded conditions there was very little training, but the time passed not unpleasantly with singsongs, quiz tests, impromptu and regular concerts, card tournaments, and housie—that was the official programme. The unofficial programme included two-up, chemin-de-fer, crown and anchor, poker, vingt-et-un, and banker with all its variations. Vocal raid warnings by shrewdly placed scouts precluded any serious attempt by authority to curb the illegal pastimes.

With the coming of hotter days, compulsory showers and feet bathing were routine events, though fresh water was a problem from the beginning of the voyage. For some reason the Duchess had started with 400 tons of water less than capacity and rationing was introduced within a few days of sailing. Clothes washing was permitted only at ten-day intervals.

It was not the malarial season but, with Freetown lying in the fever belt, the troops were issued with a garment known to quartermasters as KDORSL, ‘Khaki drill other ranks shorts long’. They were weird garments designed for malarial stations and had the legs lengthened to about eight inches below the knee, buttons and button holes permitting the extensions to be fastened above the knee. When fastened below the knee they had all the characteristics of a female garment usually hung on the least conspicuous part of the family clothes-line. page 29 The troops disliked intensely these ‘Bombay bloomers’ and, when the malarial belt was passed, rapidly converted the shorts long into shorts short, to the detriment at the next kit inspection of their pay balances.

Freetown was reached on 25 January and the troops passed thankfully through the submarine net into the river port. Four days earlier a special message had been promulgated that the convoy was in the southern danger zone and that at least three enemy submarines were between them and Freetown. Just at the moment when safety seemed assured, for a few days at least, every anti-aircraft gun in the harbour opened fire. The unexpected noise brought all hands on deck, but happily only to follow an unidentified aircraft making off smartly up river. The port was no more inviting than it had been on the previous visit, and after four days of sweltering in the steaming heat, the threat of U-boats was contemplated almost with equanimity. Cape Town was only nine days away, and after all there was quite a strong escort.

It was actually an interesting period. There was a practice shoot en route by Australia and Enterprise, an exercise in signal communication by blasts on the ships' sirens, the laying of a protective smoke screen around the convoy, which may or may not have been for a good reason, the pressing and washing of drill uniforms ready for Cape Town leave, and finally an unexpected payday—for those not working off fines.

The Duchess of Bedford berthed in Table Bay at 10.30 a.m. on 8 February, and leave was granted until midnight for all ranks. There was no repetition of the disorderly horseplay that characterised the first visit.

It was a different battalion that filled the streets of Cape Town—an experienced, disciplined, and battleworthy battalion, heartily fed up with cramped quarters and pleased indeed to bask on sunny beaches and accept the unbounded civilian hospitality. Elaborate entertainment had been planned in preparation for the visit, all buses and trams were free, and friends made on the first visit were waiting with cars and open houses.

During the five days in port the routine was the same—a route march for a couple of hours in the morning and general leave in the afternoon. Even those unfortunates suffering for page 30 military sins and technically denied leave saw, after months of England in the blitz, well-lighted streets and cars with headlights full on, visited shops that sold sugar without ration cards, and ate in restaurants which served as much butter as was wanted.

The Duchess sailed on the afternoon of 12 February and four days later picked up a portion of the convoy that had gone on to Durban. While the convoy was heading towards the Equator for the second time on the voyage, sporting events helped to break the monotony. There were boxing, a tug-of-war, skipping events—even a beauty contest. The Gulf of Aden was entered on 25 February and the following day the enemy-occupied coast of Somaliland could be seen on the port bow.

The passage through the Red Sea proved uneventful, though it was noted that the Duchess did more zigzagging than usual, and the opinion that Red Sea sharks were particularly voracious was not received with any enthusiasm. The voyage ended on 3 March at Port Tewfik. Here there was the usual congestion of shipping, the usual barrage of balloons; and behind the white, flat-roofed buildings of Suez barren brown hills, half hidden in a purple haze, were like a drop scene hiding the desert stage. It was a stage on which the battalion was not yet to play a part, for while it was waiting to land at the southern end of the Suez Canal, the New Zealand Division had commenced embarking for an unknown destination at Alexandria. The 21st Battalion's turn to land did not come until 8 March, the same day as 18 Battalion berthed at Piraeus in Greece.

After disembarking 21 Battalion entrained for Helwan, 26 miles south of Cairo, where the advanced party had prepared the camp and was ready with a hot meal and guides to conduct the men to their quarters. In the canteens were details of every unit in 4 and 6 Brigades, half defiant and half patronising. The third section of the 4th Reinforcements were also there, residents of a fortnight's standing, not quite able to speak of Cairo with bored familiarity, not quite accepted by the First and Third Echelons, and not quite sure how they stood with the touring 5 Brigade. Constraint was broken down by closing time and the newcomers had learnt to say ‘ackers’ instead of page 31 piastres, ‘Ities’ instead of ‘Wops’, and ‘Wogs’ instead of ‘Gippos’. The older residents told of desert marches, the newcomers spoke of the blitz on London, and the reinforcements supplied the latest news from New Zealand. Rumours were taken apart and critically examined, but it. was generally agreed that two-thirds of the Division was on its way to Greece, although the reasons were far from clear; there were enough Italians in North Africa without picking on those the Greeks were so roughly handling in Albania. Overall strategy is not the province of the private soldier and the reasons for the Allied landing in Greece are too involved for this history to examine thoroughly. Briefly, the events leading to the Greek campaign are as follows.

On 28 October 1940 Italy, anticipating an easy victory, had marched into Greece from previously conquered Albania. By the winter of 1940-41 the Italians were no longer in Greece and were in grave danger of being thrown out of Albania. Great Britain, hoping to bring in both Turkey and Yugoslavia against the Axis, and because of a guarantee to render all possible aid should Greece be attacked, made what preparations she could to help. Air support, based on airfields in Greece, had been sent in November 1940, and arrangements were in train to garrison the island of Crete. Further help by way of an expeditionary force on the mainland was being negotiated. Meanwhile the German High Command had been assembling forces in Roumania and Bulgaria for the invasion of Russia. The Greek victories over the invading Italians compelled German intervention, and plans were made for the total occupation of Greece.

During the complicated political negotiations with the Balkan States that followed, Turkey decided to remain strictly neutral but to resist territorial infringement. Yugoslavia first declared for Hitler but, after a coup d'état wherein the Regent was overthrown, decided to resist if invaded.

During this period Britain and Greece had come to an agreement concerning the land forces that could be made available for Greece, in spite of increasing British commitments in the Middle East. The New Zealand Division, training in reserve in Egypt and incomplete until the arrival of 5 Brigade, was to page 32 form the vanguard of an Imperial force of three infantry divisions, an infantry brigade, an armoured brigade, some artillery and corps troops. The first elements of the Division sailed for Greece on 6 March.

To the men.of 21 Battalion, strolling—in some cases rather unsteadily—back to the lines at Helwan, it was clear that they had been side-tracked again. The Division had gone from Egypt, leaving behind a disappointed remnant of itself and a desert full of rumours.

The first morning was given over to settling in and getting bearings. There was 80 per cent leave to Cairo in the afternoon and, with a pocket full of ackers, the battalion set out to smell the characteristic three smells of an eastern town— refuse, human beings, and animals—and to see the sights of a city that for a second generation of New Zealand troops was again a soldiers' playground.

They were warned that the stay in Helwan might be short and to take advantage of whatever leave was going—entirely superfluous advice after a long, cramped sea voyage. Route marches and night training occupied most of the few days the unit was at Helwan.

On 14 March the troops were ordered to be ready to move within 48 hours. Stores from the Duchess of Bedford were slow in coming forward and a working party was sent down to Port Tewfik to expedite the unloading, but even with this extra help lorry-loads of equipment and gear were still arriving on the day of departure. The battalion's first sandstorm blew up the same day and gave some indication of what the First Echelon had endured during its twelve months in Egypt. There is nothing you can do about a sandstorm, short of wrapping a towel around your head and waiting for it to blow itself out. The flour-fine dust gets into your eyes, ears, nose and throat, it floats on your tea and covers your food; but when you are getting fit and preparing for a campaign you train in it just the same.

The battalion marched out of Helwan just before midnight on 16 March and slept for the rest of the night at the railway siding. Breakfast was sent out from camp and the troop train left at 6.20 a.m. for Amiriya transit camp, just outside Alexandria, some 140 miles away.

page 33

One camp in Egypt was very like another—a number of tents grouped around a cookhouse, generally the only permanent building—and in this respect Amiriya was a typical staging area. During the eight days the unit was located there, swimming in the Mediterranean some six miles distant was added to the hardening-up training syllabus, but a succession of sandstorms and cold winds increased the general impatience to be on the way. Amiriya was regarded as a very unpleasant locality with perhaps one pleasant memory. There was a church parade on Sunday the 23rd at which the singing was led by Captain Dutton1 on his piano-accordion.

The battalion entrained at Metras siding on the morning of 26 March en route for Alexandria and its third sea voyage. By 10.30 a.m. it was packed on the 3000-ton Greek ship Ionia. Battalion Headquarters and HQ Company were on the open deck and the remainder below, with even less room than on the Duchess of Bedford. At 4 p.m. the Ionia sailed and joined the other four ships of the convoy. There were three escorting destroyers.

The officers of 21 Battalion on 23 March 1941 were:

Battalion Headquarters

Headquarters Company

  • OC: Capt F. A. Sadler

  • 1 PI: 2 Lt G. E. Moore

  • 2 PI: Lt S. W. Parfitt

  • 3 PI: 2 Lt F. E. Wilson

  • 4 PI: Lt K. G. Dee

  • 5 PI: Lt H. R. Anderson

  • QM and 6 PI: Capt G. H. Panckhurst

  • TO and 6 PI: Lt R. Penney

  • attached: Lt W. J. Daniel

A Company

B Company

  • OC: Maj C. A. Le Lievre

  • 2 i/c: Capt W. Dickson

  • Lt. A. A. Yeoman

  • 2 Lt R. C. B. Finlayson

  • 2 Lt H. G. Rose

  • attached: 2 Lt M. M. Clark

page 34

C Company

  • OC: Capt W. M. Tongue

  • 2 i/c: Capt H. M. McElroy

  • 2 Lt W. K. Henton

  • 2 Lt E. J. Waters

  • attached: 2 Lt H. H. W. Smith

D Company

A special order issued by the GOC (Major-General Freyberg) at the beginning of March was read to all troops on board the transport. It read:

Before leaving Egypt for the battlefront I had planned to say a last word to you. I find that events have moved quickly and I am prevented from doing so. I therefore send this message to you in a sealed envelope to be opened on the transport after you have started on your journey.

In the course of the next few days we may be fighting in the defence of Greece, the birthplace of culture and learning. We shall be meeting our real enemy the Germans, who have set out with the avowed object of smashing the British Empire. It is clear therefore that wherever we fight them we shall be fighting not only for Greece, but also in defence of our own homes.

A word to you about your enemy. The German soldier is a brave fighter so do not underestimate the difficulties that face us. On the other hand, remember that this time he is fighting with difficult communications, in country where he cannot use his strong armoured forces to the best advantage. Further you should remember that your fathers of the 1st New Zealand Expeditionary Force defeated the Germans during the last war wherever they met them. I am certain that in this campaign in Greece the Germans will be meeting men who are fitter, stronger and better trained than they are. You can shoot and you can march long distances without fatigue. By your resolute shooting and sniping, and by fierce patrolling by night you can tame any enemy you may encounter.

A further word to you, many of whom, I realise, will be facing the ordeal of battle for the first time. Do not be caught unprepared. In war, conditions will always be difficult, especially in the encounter battle; time will be against you, there will always be noise and confusion, orders may arrive late, nerves will be strained, you will be attacked from the air. All these factors and others must be page 35 expected on the field of battle. But you have been trained physically to endure long marches and fatigue and you must steel yourselves to overcome the ordeal of the modern battlefield.

One last word. You will be fighting in a foreign land, and the eyes of many nations will be upon you. The honour of New Zealand is in your keeping. It could not be in better hands.

The voyage to Greece took three days and included several changes of direction which even the most knowledgeable found hard to explain. With the Italian fleet ready to pounce from the safe shelter of the Adriatic upon Allied shipping in the Mediterranean, the most direct route to port seemed indicated. In point of fact the convoy had been turned back to leave the British Fleet unhampered by troopships for the action that was later known as the Battle of Cape Matapan. The Italians had been attempting to interfere with the flow of convoys to Greece but the British Fleet, aware of the movements of the Italian ships, succeeded in bringing them to battle, with very unfortunate results for the Italians.

By the evening of 28 March the convoy was in sight of the island of Crete and by 10 p.m. the next day, after threading its way through the islands of the Aegean, it was safely berthed at Piraeus. The troops were immediately disembarked and taken by train to the staging camp at Mount Hymettus on the outskirts of Athens.

Daylight disclosed the panorama of the Greek capital to the troops camped under the pine trees along the slopes of Mount Hymettus. The Acropolis, a rocky citadel rising above Athens, was the subject of much speculation, and there were sufficient learned men in the battalion to describe some of the ruined temples on its sides. Those with memories of first-year Greek art and literature lectures were able to explain that the topmost ruin was known as Parthenon, the temple of the city's patron goddess, Athena, and that the Turks during their occupation of Greece had used it as a powder magazine. It was a very good magazine until a shell exploded the powder and blew off the roof, leaving the ruin as it is today. Delving deep into an academic past overlaid with a year's soldiering, the learned ones went on to explain that, because of the shape of the temple steps, a hat placed in the centre of a step would disappear page 36 from sight if you sat at the end. The general opinion was that it was not necessary to go to all that trouble to lose a hat—it could be done much more easily in camp.

The novelty of the second foreign country in two months made the troops more or less disregard a rumour that seemed too bad to be true. The 21st Battalion was not going up the line with 5 Brigade, it was said, but was to remain in Athens guarding aerodromes, docks, and dumps. There was a near riot the next morning, 1 April, when orders were received to move from Mount Hymettus to Kamatero village, some nine miles away. Company commanders lectured the men on the importance of anti-paratroop duties, which role curiously enough also embraced guarding docks and supply dumps. The men were assured that the rest of the Division was only digging and labouring and that there was no fighting in sight, but it was a disgruntled battalion, bitterly alluding to itself as the ‘Greek Home Guard’, that settled into the pleasant tree-studded area at Kamatero.

It was an interesting sight that met their jaundiced eyes on arrival at Kamatero. The previous day Colonel Macky and Major Harding had been to the village and had pegged out the company areas, explaining to the head man through an interpreter that the troops would be moving in next day. The place selected for the camp was easy, rolling country dotted with olive trees under which bearded wheat was still in the green stage. The villagers evidently had not taken the warning seriously, but when they saw that the troops had really come to stay they set to work to salvage what they could of their crops. Men, women, and children turned out with sickles and got to work in the national style, when reaping or hoeing, with their heads down and tails in the air. The whole area was cleared and the crop removed within an hour.

While 21 Battalion, under command of 80 Base Sub-Area, with the worst of ill graces was guarding docks and dumps at Athens and generally performing its duties as ‘Home Guards’, the line of battle was being drawn across north-west Greece. German divisions were poised in southern Bulgaria and Greek troops were holding the Metaxas line and the Bulgarian gateway page 37 at the Rupel Pass, where the Struma River breaks through the mountains. If, however, the Greek position was forced or, as actually happened, outflanked, the way was clear to Salonika and thence down the east coast. It was to counter this possibility, and with the knowledge that the Allies would not have sufficient resources to defend the whole of Greece, that the line of defence, known as the Aliakmon line, was chosen. Commencing on the coast at Neon Elevtherokhorion and running from Veria roughly north-west along the mountains to the Yugoslav border, it was a strong position with good natural defences. Three passes—the Olympus Pass, behind the line on the coast, and the Veria and Edessa passes—carried the only good roads suitable for a mechanised army.

Until the full strength allotted to the defence of northern Greece arrived the New Zealand Division was to prepare defences in the coastal sector of the Aliakmon line. From Katerine there were two possible thrust lines south, one along the railway line through the Platamon tunnel on the coast, and the other over the western shoulder of Mount Olympus by way of the Olympus Pass. Fifth Brigade, less 21 Battalion, was preparing reserve defences at the Olympus Pass, while 4 and 6 Brigades occupied the divisional sector of the Aliakmon line. One rifle company from 6 Brigade was sent to the narrow plain between the under-features of the mountain and the sea at Platamon, with instructions to prepare a defensive position for one battalion.

On the Division's left flank 6 Australian Division, still arriving, was to cover the Veria Pass, with the Greeks holding the Edessa Pass on the Australians' left. In addition there was the British 1 Armoured Brigade, some artillery and anti-aircraft units in support, and a few line-of-communication troops. It was hoped that Yugoslavia would withstand any German attack and prevent an attack on Greece through the Monastir Gap.

Germany declared war on both Greece and Yugoslavia on the night of 5-6 April. The declaration was followed next night by an air raid on Piraeus where, with the Mortar Platoon under command, A Company of 21 Battalion was guarding various oil depots and wharves. Magnetic mines were dropped page 38 in the harbour and bombs on land targets. Most of the bombs landed in the sea, but a lucky one hit the end of the main wharf, setting fire to the wharf shed and an ammunition ship moored alongside. Between the shed and the ship were a number of railway trucks, one already loaded with ammunition. No. 9 Platoon was on the wharf. Second-Lieutenant Roach,2 with some of the platoon, assisted in carrying wounded men from the ship, while Lieutenant Smith3 prevailed on the reluctant Greek fire brigade to fight the shed fire. Another wave of bombers came over and Captain McClymont4 ordered his men to take cover in the air-raid shelters.

Meanwhile Second-Lieutenant Southworth,5 with 7 Platoon, was having a wonderful time. They were a mile away at the Shell and Socony oil installations, and the planes passed low overhead as they came in to make their attack. From various posts on the roof of the buildings the platoon fired drum after drum of Lewis-gun and magazine after magazine of Bren-gun ammunition, as well as every available rifle, into the invaders. No planes were brought down, but the fire must have been a nuisance because the buildings were straddled with bombs and the platoon was extremely lucky to escape without loss.

There were, however, hundreds of casualties among the Greeks living in the dock area, where bombs fired an area of poorly built houses. The ammunition ship with 400 tons of explosives blew up at 4 a.m., and six merchant ships, twenty lighters, and one tug were sunk or set on fire by the explosion. Another ship blew up shortly afterwards; among her cargo were new banknotes printed in England for the Turkish Government. Two hours later and a mile away the sky literally rained banknotes, and the troops plucked them out of the air as they floated down. A Company had two minor casualties in this raid, probably the first in the Greek campaign.

1 Capt G. A. Dutton; Katikati; born Stirling, Otago, 27 Jun 1910; schoolteacher; p.w. 28 Nov 1941.

2 Maj W. J. G. Roach, MC; Inglewood; born Levin, 12 Oct 1909; bank officer; 2 i/c 21 Bn Oct 1943-Mar 1944; wounded 22 Nov 1941.

3 Capt E. G. Smith; Lower Hutt; born New Plymouth, 28 Aug 1906; schoolteacher; p.w. Apr 1941.

4 Capt R. B. McClymont; born Rongotea, 30 Aug 1906; public servant; killed in action 22 May 1941.

5 Lt W.J. Southworth, m.i.d.; born Christchurch, 30 May 1918; school-teacher; killed in action 22 May 1941.