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2nd New Zealand Divisional Artillery


page 24

AS A 4TH FIELD gunner leaned over the rails of the Hellas and watched Egypt fade into the night he bade a heartfelt farewell to the land of the Pharaohs in strong language. ‘Don't say that, son’, the gruff voice of ‘Ike’ Parkinson interposed. ‘Some day you may be very glad indeed to see Egypt again.’ But a message from General Freyberg read out to troops on the voyage reminded each shipload that it would be fighting

‘in the defence of Greece, the birthplace of culture and learning …. meeting our real enemy the Germans …. not only for Greece but also in defence of our own homes.’

Such talk was scarcely needed: the mission was in the crusading tradition of Anzac and had overwhelming appeal to all but the few who reflected on the chances of successfully challenging the Wehrmacht on the mainland of Europe. Regardless of the chances it was at least an escape from filth, poverty and disease to a thrillingly beautiful land and a brave people. The approach to the Piraeus, the port of Athens, through the blue Saronic Gulf, speckled with tiny isles and boats, was an adventure in itself. Advanced parties and drivers met contingents on the wharf and the people of Athens, by day or night, gave them a rousing reception.

Most of the gunners camped among pinewoods near Kifisia, six miles beyond the city, while the survey troop settled in at Hymettus, a little nearer. While the gunners who had so far arrived explored the city, the CRA and Major Queree reported to Lustre Force Headquarters1 at the Hotel Acropole and then left by car for the north, reaching Larisa on 20 March and Katerini, north of the Olympus Pass, next day, to reconnoitre the positions the Division was to occupy. Later arrivals were not given leave; but most of them took it. It is hard to find words for the warmth of their reception by the Greeks, though the city was very much at war. By this time poorly equipped and maintained Greek forces had fought their way over mountain passes into Albania, rolling back more numerous and better-equipped Italian forces; but in so doing they had drained page 25 off the strength of the armies of Macedonia and Thrace, facing Yugoslavia, Bulgaria and Turkey. To the New Zealanders they seemed worthy friends and allies.

To the Greeks, in turn, it seemed that their new friends were wealthy beyond belief and enormously strong. They were not used to army transport on the scale of the New Zealand Division. The road convoys that wound their way northwards over roads barely capable of carrying them in the second half of March and the first day or two of April 1941 were warmly applauded. The Headquarters convoy travelled first, starting on the 22nd, and the 4th Field left two days later.2 The Brallos Pass south of Lamia was still under the winter snows, and these two groups therefore had to take the longer coast route by way of Molos and Thermopylae. Later convoys used the pass and all but the drivers found the scenery enchanting. From Brallos trucks seemed to twist and turn in all directions and at all levels in the descent to Lamia. To the north the hills grew more barren and the villages poorer. Larisa on the Plain of Thessaly had suffered a bad earthquake and then Italian bombing. North of it the road deteriorated and groups of women picked and shovelled to keep it open. It wound convulsively through the Olympus or Petras Pass, among stunted firs close to the snowline, and then broke away from the mountains and into the hilly countryside around Katerini. The portees of 34 Anti-Tank Battery made this journey; but the towed guns of the other three anti-tank batteries were thought too likely to suffer damage on the way and went by train, together with their crews—another unforgettable journey through a scenic wonderland thickly interspersed with tunnels. This was wise, since 26 Field Battery had abandoned two damaged trailers on the journey north and 25 Battery a third.

1 The expeditionary force sent to Greece was called Lustre Force, changed later to W Force. Lt-Gen Sir Henry Maitland Wilson commanded it.

2 Before leaving the Athens area, gunners handed in their pith helmets and their kitbags containing personal possessions. They did not see either again.