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2nd New Zealand Divisional Artillery

Tempe: A Crucial Rearguard

Tempe: A Crucial Rearguard

Lieutenant-General Blamey, commanding Anzac Corps, had been greatly perturbed by reports from Platamon on the 15th and hastened to reinforce 21 Battalion and A Troop of the 5th Field who withdrew to Tempe next day. He had not heard from his CCRA, Brigadier Clowes, when on the 16th he committed 2/2 Battalion of 16 Australian Brigade, weary from a fruitless sojourn in the mountains above Servia and many long marches associated with it. Three 2-pounders of 1 Australian Anti-Tank Regiment were also to go. Later most of the brigade was committed.

Brigadier Miles was asked to help and sent 26 Battery and L Troop of 33 Anti-Tank Battery. Lieutenant-Colonel Parkinson decided to go, too, with a handful of his RHQ and 9 LAD. He went on ahead with the battery captain, L. W. Thornton,45 page 58 and the Battery Commander, Major Stewart,46 also made haste to get to Tempe. Parkinson, Stewart, Macky of 21 Battalion and the Australian battalion commander, Lieutenant-Colonel F. O. Chilton, conferred after dark on the 16th. Early next morning, with Lieutenant Williams of A Troop, 5th Field, and Lieutenant Longmore47 of L Troop, 7th Anti-Tank, they studied the ground.

The Pinios River, flowing generally north from Larisa in a series of bends, turned eastwards to pass south of the large village of Gonnos, nestling in the craggy foothills of the Olympus massif. The road and railway from Larisa linked up with it before it plunged into the deep three-mile gorge, banked by hills rising above 2000 feet to the south and somewhat lower to the immediate north (though the hills there were backed to the north-west by Olympus itself). The narrow road ran along the southern bank and the railway was on the other side. Both had been blocked in the gorge, though not very securely. The railway bridge at Tempe at the western end was destroyed. South of Gonnos (and west of Tempe) the valley was two or three miles wide and five miles long, and if the alpine troops traversed the foothills they could extend the front dangerously far westwards for the force available, now called Allen's Force (from the name of the Australian brigadier, A. S. Allen). But possibilities like this could not weigh heavily on the minds of those who had to make the immediate decisions; for they expected the enemy to appear at any moment in the gorge itself.

The Australian unit had begun to arrive soon after dark on the 16th and 26 Battery turned up at midnight. Williams of A Troop came under Stewart's command. Between them they would have to support 21 Battalion in positions from Ambelakia in the hills on the southern side of the gorge to Tempe, and 2/2 Australian Battalion extending the line south-westwards from Tempe along the road and river and facing Gonnos.

The field guns went into action a mile south of the village of Evangelismos and three miles south of Tempe. Their location, in ploughed fields sheltered by trees and bushes and overlooked from Gonnos, was dictated by the peculiar lie of the land, which made it impossible to bring down fire on the page 59 main demolition in the gorge from any other likely position. Even so, it proved extremely hard to establish communications with observers in the gorge and elsewhere. Captain Nolan of D Troop set up an OP linked by telephone in the hills above the gorge, off the Tempe-Ambelakia road. Captain Bliss48 installed E Troop's OP with wireless communication due south of Tempe. Captain Richardson49 of F Troop went to the left flank to establish observation over the plain south of Gonnos. But none of these observers could bring down fire on a German tank that moved along the railway line in the late afternoon and drew level with the road demolition just outside the 21 Battalion area. The tank opened fire at a New Zealand platoon across the narrow gorge and the platoon withdrew to a better position higher up, after having checked German infantry at the demolished tunnel. An Australian patrol was also in the area and kept up vigorous fire.

It was essential to stop the enemy from clearing obstructions on the railway line and prevent tanks from intervening in the battle; but the field guns could do nothing until communications were working. Nolan could not see from his OP and in the end it was Major Stewart himself who brought down fire on the tank, after an exasperating delay of an hour and a half, by which time it was beginning to get dark. Little did the defenders know that the enemy had already found a place down-stream where the tanks could drive across the river. Five got safely across, though three became bogged in an unavailing effort to get past the first of the road demolitions. Infantry also got across to guard them overnight.

Alpine troops moved boldly in the hills above Tempe during the night, showing many lights, and 26 Battery challenged their audacity with gun fire. The main task fired during the night, however, was on the road block and tunnel demolition. The block was shelled every quarter-hour until 2 a.m., discouraging clearance work and causing 20 casualties among German tank crews and supporting infantry.

The next day, 18 April, was a day of crisis. Allen's Force had at all costs to delay the enemy until 6 Brigade and Savige Force passed through Larisa, and there was no knowing at this stage when they would come through. The obvious danger was from the infantry in the hills above the river and at page 60 Gonnos and both gunners and infantry engaged them whenever possible. But there was a dangerous blind spot in the defences: the road demolition. Infantry could either cover it at close range or not at all; and at close range they would be open to heavy fire from across the narrow gorge. An artillery observer might have maintained observation without attracting such attention; but the danger was not fully realised.

What was realised, however, was that the great danger to the defence was tank attack, and the ability of the Germans to produce tanks in places considered inaccessible to them had been demonstrated at Platamon. As a general precaution, therefore, Second-Lieutenant Brown50 of A Troop, 5th Field, and Sergeant Gunn51 of F Troop, 4th Field, each took a 25-pounder forward in the night north of Evangelismos to guard the straight stretch of road from there to Tempe against tank attack.

An hour after dawn Nolan directed D Troop against infantry and machine guns north of the river a mile below Tempe and Bliss directed E Troop against similar targets above Gonnos. The enemy, for his part, succeeded in making several of the 21 Battalion positions on the rather bare hillsides south of the gorge untenable and thereby partly disorganising the defence of the entrance. Later in the morning alpine troops were threatening the left flank by the village of Parapotamos, south of Gonnos; but Captain Richardson was still unable to get in touch with his guns. Eventually a Captain Porter of 2/2 Australian Battalion on this flank got through by means of a devious telephone circuit to Lieutenant Hanna52 at the guns and gave a layman's instructions for bringing down fire; for all the deficiencies of procedure, it was highly effective. At this, Lieutenant Clark,53 GPO of D Troop, left his guns in the care of Second-Lieutenant Carson54 and went over to Porter's position, where he gained excellent observation over the left flank beyond Parapotamos and could study the development of the enemy attack southwards from Gonnos toward the river. He page 61 directed D Troop on to mortars, machine guns and groups of infantry at ranges below 5000 yards. The gunners responded excellently, hitting many snap targets without previous registration. German accounts speak of heavy artillery fire here, though only D Troop and later E Troop were engaged. Far to the west and largely out of sight of 2/2 Battalion, the enemy had crossed the river and was developing an encircling movement; but it was not strong enough to contain 2/2 Battalion and 2/3 Australian Battalion, which had arrived and was in reserve south of Evangelismos.

Something more was needed to effect a breakthrough and in the early afternoon the enemy produced it: six tanks, with infantry support, moved on past the road demolition and along the front of 21 Battalion, the companies of which were in largely self-contained pockets on the hillsides, out of touch with each other because very little communications equipment survived the retreat from Platamon.

The four 2-pounders of L Troop, 7th Anti-Tank, were all disposed between the demolished railway bridge at Tempe and a shallow demolition in the road a short distance down the gorge (though accounts naturally confuse this and the main demolition farther down-stream). The demolition was not much of an obstacle to tanks and only the 2-pounders could prevent these from reaching Tempe and moving into the good tank country beyond.

The anti-tank gunners, however, had been led to believe that tanks would appear, if at all, only on the other side, along the railway line, and were taken by surprise when the tanks suddenly appeared on their side of the river at very close range. L4 under Sergeant Cavanagh55 was enfiladed from the approaching tanks behind a steep spur running down to the river and was no more than 30 yards from them when they rounded the spur. But Cavanagh's gun was well hidden and, like a good anti-tanker, he held his fire so as to bring more targets within his reach. The tanks and infantry across the river then knocked out the second L Troop gun, L1 under Sergeant Quinn.56 The tanks halted and their crews climbed out, waiting for the other tanks to arrive. When the third appeared, Cavanagh's crew went into action, after a nerve-racking wait, and fired 28 shots in quick succession at a range of about 100 yards. Two tanks burst into page 62 flames and the third was hit and believed to be disabled, though there is no confirmation of this. The gun crew was then called on to surrender; but the enemy infantry was evidently in doubt as to their exact location in the thick scrub. Realising that he could fire the 2-pounder no more with infantry so close, Cavanagh decided to make a dash for his towing truck 100 yards to the rear, and the crew reached it safely and drove to the road out of sight of the enemy. Other trucks blocked the way, however, and the anti-tankers left their own vehicle and drove the rearmost truck back into the lines of 2/2 Battalion, picking up their troop subaltern, Second-Lieutenant Paterson,57 on the way. They were destined not to escape, however, and ended up in enemy hands, their only consolation being the sight of the two wrecked tanks at Tempe as they were taken by their captors down the gorge.

The other two L Troop guns had no such luck. Mortars and machine guns from across the river supported the oncoming tanks and infantry on the south side. Neither gun managed to fire. But a German lieutenant gained a Ritterkreuz for bravery in tackling with hand grenades an anti-tank position (perhaps meaning both guns) which fought to the last.58 The way beyond Tempe was now open to the remaining tanks.

Nolan had managed, however, to bring down fire on them and perhaps delayed them; for they were slow to develop their attack—so slow, in fact, that the commander of the alpine troops south of Gonnos, who had not intended to make a frontal attack (being true to the old military adage, much admired by the alpine corps, that ‘Sweat saves blood’), felt constrained to do so.

The attack which started in the early afternoon was intended to open the way through Tempe for the armoured force by crossing the river and pushing on southwards. The river here was no more than 70 feet wide and five feet deep; but it was fast-flowing and treacherous to ford. As the alpine troops approached it they came under heavy fire, to which D and E page 63 Troops of the 4th Field made a substantial contribution. Lieutenant Clark's OP with 2/2 Battalion provided a grandstand view and Captain Bliss also brought down fire until his position in the hills became threatened by the advance along the gorge road. Before he broke off and made his way back to the guns, his batteries were fading and his wireless signals hard to understand. Lieutenant Hanna then carried on with both E and F Troops, observing from a perch in a treetop by his command post. Bliss had been much impressed by the way the alpine troops formed up under fire and kept coming on through it regardless of losses.

Clark found the Australian infantry around him were thinning out alarmingly. They had every reason to do so, for the fire was thickening all the time and the enemy, having entered Parapotamos, developed covering fire from there for a further advance. Messages had been getting through to Clark for some time that 26 Battery was to move back, and finally he heard as much from Carson himself, so he made his own way back, with his OPA, Gunner Crompton.59 They had to crawl through long grass, across an area swept by bullets, to do so.

Major Stewart made his way back to the guns some time after 4 p.m., cool and seemingly unaware that the situation was critical. The tanks were past Tempe and coming along the road to Evangelismos. He gave orders to engage them and then passed on Colonel Parkinson's order that D Troop was to move back a mile or two to support a Divisional Cavalry rearguard. Hanna, who had been directing two troops against the river crossing and then against the infantry advancing towards him until ranges were below 1000 yards, had asked for permission to withdraw to a gun position not obscured by trees so that he could take up an anti-tank role; but he did not get it. Clark arrived just as D Troop was moving back and in time to experience a sharp Stuka raid on the gun position. He took his troop back as directed, meeting Brigadier Allen on the way and finding him unsympathetic to the move. F Troop was then moved back about 200 yards in a covering position. Then Stewart went forward again and began to direct E Troop against infantry crossing the river.

The two guns which had been sent forward in an anti-tank role had held their fire. But Warrant-Officer Tasker60 who was page 64 with them engaged many targets with his Boys anti-tank rifle and did some effective sniping.61 Tanks finally broke through from Tempe at about 5.30 p.m. and Second-Lieutenant Brown's two guns went into action. Franklin's62 5th Field gun set the leading tank on fire and then the next. The third tank then scored a lucky hit on a lorry carrying petrol and ammunition and made the vicinity of the gun so dangerous that Brown ordered the crew to withdraw. Then Gunn's 4th Field gun took up the fight and also knocked out two tanks. The third one, as Gunn's men counted them, was not so careless, and from a hull-down position fought a duel in which it had every advantage. Gunn had to move and soon ran out of armour-piercing shot. Gunner Kelly63 therefore went back to the original gun position to collect some HE rounds. Tasker held off infantry with a Bren gun; but a shell wounded three of Gunn's crew.64 Those who remained could not get the gun out and in the end they had to leave it, making their way back on the F Troop tractor. What happened at this stage to the three anti-tank guns with the forward Australian battalion is not clear; but it seems likely that they suffered much the same kind of disability as the guns of L Troop: two were in re-entrants which gave them only a limited field of fire, and once detected there the enemy infantry could easily cope with them. A third withdrew and no doubt had good reason to do so.

General Freyberg had come up to see for himself what the situation was in the early afternoon and had given orders for Allen's force to effect a fighting withdrawal to Larisa, buying as much time as possible to cover 6 Brigade and Savige Force. His orders did not get through to Lieutenant-Colonel Chilton by Evangelismos, however, and much misunderstanding and some recrimination resulted.

There now began a field artillery action as skilful and thrilling as any recorded. Stewart had ordered his troops to effect a fighting retreat and they did so. They thought—wrongly it would seem from Australian records—that all of Chilton's men had withdrawn; and Chilton's remaining men, seeing them go, drew the wrong conclusions. The retreat, however, was not before time. Tanks were coming along the road page 65 towards them, with enemy infantry fanning out behind. F Troop withdrew about 2000 yards to cover E Troop, going into an anti-tank position for this purpose. Then two guns of E Troop moved 1000 yards past F, while the other two guns stayed to fight tanks at close range. Then these guns withdrew, leapfrogging back behind the others and quickly turning to face the enemy again. F Troop and the other two guns engaged tanks over open sights and gun sections broke off the action individually. They knocked out three tanks and caused many casualties among the enemy infantry; but they did not come through unscathed. Four gunners were wounded and one of them, Gunner Drinkwater65 of F Troop, though painfully injured, regained control of himself and drove on regardless of it, knowing that if he halted he would block the route for those following; for this he won an MM.

D Troop had gone back as ordered to join a Divisional Cavalry rearguard consisting of B Squadron under the dauntless Major Russell,66 who had arrived in the early afternoon. Captain Thornton had taken over from Nolan when D Troop arrived and quickly registered target areas. When the Cavalry carriers scattered before the oncoming armour near Makrikhorion, Thornton called for gun fire and the gunners responded superbly, halting the advance. Some tanks received direct hits and the infantry with them reeled back. F Troop joined in and so did the Cavalry machine guns. Lieutenant Clark had picked up a useful supply of ammunition on the way back and this was decisive at this stage, when the issue was still in doubt. When the enemy finally turned back in the gathering dusk he was dangerously close to Thornton's OP.

Though the plight of 21 Battalion and most of 2/2 Australian Battalion was serious, for they were mostly scattered among the hills and greatly disorganised, their losses in terms of killed and wounded were not very heavy. With the support of their carriers, the Divisional Cavalry, and 2/3 Battalion, and of course the guns, they had achieved a purpose which, though vital, had seemed at certain stages of the afternoon to be unattainable. Enemy tank losses, not counting those lost in the river, numbered 15 and 14 more were damaged. The supporting artillery undoubtedly accounted for the bulk of these and page 66 German accounts are most respectful of it. Though an enemy detachment had managed to block the road behind Allen's Force and was to cause much trouble during the night, Larisa had been kept clear for Savige Force and 6 Brigade, the last elements of which did not pass through until just before dawn on the 19th. The Battle of Tempe was not, perhaps, as successful as it might have been had the danger of tank attack through the gorge been more accurately assessed; but the circumstances were always difficult. Moreover, the battle certainly provided some remarkable feats of gunnery and the leapfrog withdrawal of E and F Troops will rank with anything in the long record of the Royal Regiment.

After nightfall white flares rose on three sides of Thornton's rearguard and tracers whipped across from both flanks. The OP ridge was shelled; but the guns had begun to move back and no harm was done. Alpine troops had trudged round the left flank and were far behind D Troop, their luminous bullets and pistol flares, fired in great profusion, looking like a distant firework display.

Part of this display was provided by a road-block on the way to Larisa at which several wounded gunners were captured, some of the vehicles of 9 LAD were lost, and the popular OME67 of the 4th Field, ‘Harry’ Bauchop,68 was killed. Things might have been much worse for the gunners had Captain Nicholson of the 4th Field not reconnoitred beforehand another way out and shepherded the vehicles along it. Most of them travelled either on tracks or cross-country to the Larisa-Volos road and then headed for Volos.

The retreating gunners learned at one stage that Colonel Parkinson was missing and were saddened by the news; for ‘Ike’ was like a father to them. But he found his way back after guiding infantry to safety and, unrecognised in the darkness, had been directing traffic.

Of its 12 guns, 26 Battery had lost two in action, another bogged in the dark on the way out, and two more before reaching Thermopylae, the present goal of the retreat. A Troop of the 5th Field had lost one in action and the other three all developed defects (in two cases a faulty tell-tale valve) and had to withdraw. The 4th Field gun lines had been shelled frequently during the day and many concentrated bombing page 67 and aerial strafing attacks were directed at them. From all this the sole casualty was one man killed by shellfire.69 This is all the more remarkable because the guns kept firing regardless of attack, as is evident from their expenditure of ammunition: 3350 rounds (including 100 armour-piercing and 50 smoke).70 This total was fired by a gun group which for most of the day numbered only 11 guns and therefore represents an even higher average per gun than the exceptional rate of fire maintained this day by 2/3 Australian Field Regiment overlooking Elasson.

45 Lt-Gen L. W. Thornton, CB, CBE, m.i.d.; Wellington; born Christ-church, 15 Oct 1916; Regular soldier; BM 6 Bde Feb-Sep 1942; GSO II 2 NZ Div Oct 1942-Jun 1943; CO 5 Fd Regt Jun-Dec 1943, Apr-Jun 1944; GSO I 2 NZ Div 1944; CRA 2 NZ Div 1945; DCGS Apr 1948-Jan 1949; QMG, Army HQ, 1955–56; Adjutant-General 1956–58; Chief of SEATO Military Planning Office, 1958–60; Chief of the General Staff, Sep 1960-Mar 1965; Chief of Defence Staff, Jul 1965–.

46 Col G. J. O. Stewart, DSO, ED, m.i.d.; Auckland; born Auckland, 22 Nov 1908; importer; CO 4 Fd Regt Aug 1942-Mar 1943, Dec 1943-Mar 1945; CRA 2 NZ Div 22 Feb-16 Mar 1945; wounded 3 Mar 1943.

47 Capt K. A. Longmore; Wellington; born NZ 15 May 1918; clerk; p.w. 23 Jul 1942.

48 Maj H. C. Bliss, m.i.d.; Christchurch; born Christchurch, 22 Sep 1914; dairy farmer; p.w. 22 Jul 1942.

49 Capt J. Richardson, ED; Auckland; born Auckland, 26 Jan 1913; salesman; wounded and p.w. 23 Nov 1941.

50 Lt J. C. Brown; Auckland; born NZ 15 Dec 1913; departmental manager; wounded 30 Nov 1941.

51 Capt J. R. A. Gunn; Wellington; born Durban, Sth Africa, 20 Dec 1914; clerk; wounded 18 Apr 1941.

52 Lt-Col G. P. Hanna, OBE, m.i.d.; Auckland; born Auckland, 21 Apr 1916; solicitor; BM 2 NZ Div Arty May-Nov 1942; GSO II 2 NZ Div Nov 1943-Jun 1944, Oct 1944-Feb 1945; GSO I (Ops) NZ Corps 9 Feb-27 Mar 1944; CO 5 Fd Regt May-Sep 1945.

53 Capt J. S. Clark; Auckland; born Glasgow, 27 Aug 1917; bank clerk; p.w. 1 Jun 1941.

54 Maj W. N. Carson, MC, m.i.d.; born NZ 16 Jul 1916; warehouseman; wounded May 1941; died of wounds 8 Oct 1944.

55 Sgt D. E. Cavanagh; Auckland; born Hamilton, 15 May 1917; commercial traveller; wounded and p.w. 18 Apr 1941.

56 Sgt A. Quinn; Te Awamutu; born NZ 3 May 1908; truck driver and mechanic; wounded 18 Apr 1941.

57 Capt T. M. Paterson, m.i.d.; born NZ 24 Dec 1912; farmer; died of wounds 16 Jul 1942.

58 An Australian account says that one anti-tank crew here deserted its gun; but many such critical references to New Zealand operations at Tempe are found in Australian reports and they may be offset against similar criticisms of Australians by New Zealanders who fought there. Several such references from either side that can be checked are clearly misunderstandings of what actually happened. The paucity of communications between Australian and New Zealand forces at Tempe explains much. Macky, thinking the Australians had been outflanked, ordered his men to take to the hills.

59 Gnr B. D. Crompton; Wellington; born Patea, 13 Jul 1917; civil servant; wounded 27 May 1941; p.w. 28 May 1941.

60 WO II N. C. Tasker, MM; Christchurch; born Christchurch, 17 Aug 1918; letterpress apprentice; p.w. Apr 1941.

61 Tasker's MM was partly for what he did here and partly for what he did in Crete.

62 Lt J. H. Franklin, MM; Napier; born Levin, 11 Oct 1918; clerk.

63 Gnr J. Kelly; Petone; born Auckland, 13 Mar 1910; insurance agent.

64 Bdr ‘Tom’ Hitchings lost a foot, Gnr G. D. Stuart was also wounded in the foot, and Gnr J. W. Lichtwark was hit in the shoulder.

65 Sgt H. R. Drinkwater, MM; born NZ 25 Jul 1917; labourer; wounded 18 Apr 1941.

66 Lt-Col J. T. Russell, DSO, m.i.d.; born Hastings, 11 Nov 1904; farmer; 2 i/c Div Cav 1941; CO 22 Bn Feb-Sep 1942; wounded May 1941; killed in action 6 Sep 1942.

67 OME = Ordnance Mechanical Engineer.

68 Lt H. A. Bauchop; born London, 16 Jul 1918; motor-vehicle engineer; died of wounds 20 Apr 1941.

70 It was Capt Nicholson's energy and resourcefulness that made so much ammunition available. He went back to Larisa, found some in a railway siding, more in an abandoned dump, and on the way back reconnoitred the route to Volos.