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2nd New Zealand Divisional Artillery

Retreat to Thermopylae

Retreat to Thermopylae

The retreat to Thermopylae from the northern passes used two main routes: the main one was from Larisa through Pharsala, the Dhomokos Pass, the Fourka Pass and Lamia; the secondary one was from Larisa (or Tempe) by way of Velestinon to Volos, and then down the coast through Nea Ankhialos, Almiros and Stilis to Lamia. The Pharsala route was overtaxed and in daylight became the happy hunting ground of the Luftwaffe, which was able to range up and down it at will, bombing and strafing the vehicles, causing no great loss for the tremendous air effort involved, but displaying an insolence that was infuriating to the men of Anzac Corps and made them bitterly regret the slenderness of their anti-aircraft resources, as well as the paucity of their own air support.

The timetable of the retreat of the Divisional Artillery is roughly as follows:

Headquarters (less Brigadier Miles, who was here, there and everywhere) left Tirnavos at 9.30 on the 18th, took the Pharsala route, and reached Longos, 18 miles south-east of Molos (the focal point of New Zealand operations on the Thermopylae front), at 11.45 a.m. on the 19th. A reconnaissance group and some B Echelon transport moved independently.

4th Field: RHQ (less Parkinson and others) left Tirnavos in the morning of the 18th, drove through the night between Pharsala and Lamia, and reached Molos in the afternoon of the 19th.

25 Battery left Sin Thomai in the evening of the 18th, had a relatively quick night drive by way of Pharsala, and reached Lamia next morning.

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26 Battery sent some B Echelon vehicles back before the road to Larisa was blocked and these travelled through Pharsala; the rest, including the guns, traversed swampy land to the Larisa-Volos road and reached Molos by the coast route in the afternoon of the 19th.

5th Field: RHQ, starting from 10 miles south of Larisa at 8.30 p.m. on the 18th, reached Thermopylae by way of Pharsala next afternoon.

27 Battery: A Troop sent three damaged guns back from Tempe during the 18th and the remaining men either drove to Volos, or escaped on foot through the hills, or were captured early on the 19th.

B Troop moved with leading elements of 6 Brigade from the Elasson rearguard to Volos in the evening of the 18th and reached Thermopylae next afternoon.

C Troop was last to withdraw from the Elasson action and spent part of the 19th protecting 6 Brigade on the coast road, reaching Thermopylae in the night 19–20 April.

28 Battery: BHQ and D and E Troops, given conflicting orders by Freyberg and Miles, compromised by travelling with RHQ by way of Pharsala.

F Troop left its position north-east of Tirnavos (where it was sent from the Elasson rearguard) in the evening of the 18th, reached Volos before B Troop, and Thermopylae in the afternoon of the 19th.

6th Field travelled as a unit from Servia on the 17th by way of Larisa and Pharsala and began to reach Thermopylae in the evening of the 18th. It completed its assembly there during the night 18–19 April.

7th Anti-Tank: RHQ, 32 Battery (three guns) and BHQ of 34 Battery left Tirnavos at 10 a.m. on the 18th and passed Thermopylae at 3.30 a.m. on the 19th. (Since 32 Battery had lost most of its transport at Olympus, some men travelled south by train and most of these fell into enemy hands; others rode in vehicles of 33 Battery and arrived safely.)

31 Battery travelled south with 4 Brigade from Servia. At Dhomokos A and C Troops were detached to join Lee Force71 and BHQ stayed with them until late on the 19th, when it drove on to Thermopylae, arriving early on the 20th. The two page 69 troops were misdirected on the 21st (when Lee Force withdrew) to the Brallos Pass and took a long detour by way of Atalandi to Molos, arriving late on the 21st with five guns (having lost two at Dhomokos and a third on the journey).

33 Battery (less L Troop lost at Tempe) travelled with 6 Brigade, BHQ going through Pharsala and J and K Troops through Volos, reassembling at Molos on the 19th.

34 Battery: Part of BHQ and the B Echelon vehicles travelled with RHQ. Three portées (of O and P Troops) which survived the Elevtherokhorion engagement went by way of Pharsala on the 18th. The rest of the portées (mainly N Troop) travelled with Divisional Cavalry rearguards by way of Volos, moving south from Almiros in the night 19–20 April and reaching Molos about 9 a.m. on the 20th.

1 Survey Troop left Elasson at 11 a.m., 17 April, passed through Pharsala at 4.30 p.m., and camped at Dhomokos at 11 p.m. Setting out from there at 5.30 a.m. on the 18th, it reached Thermopylae at 11.30 a.m. and was therefore the first to arrive.

black and white map of pass

holding the dhomokos and fourka passes

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These are bald facts about a journey that was for all concerned an unforgettable experience. Most of those who went by way of Volos were lucky. Those who drove by daylight between Larisa and Lamia on the 18th or 19th will remember skies that seemed never to be free of Stukas and Messerschmitts and twin-engined Dorniers. They will remember eyes searching the skies and ears keyed to detect among the noises of motor transport warning of the torment from above. For most of them the journey was a succession of scrambles off and on vehicles and of jumping in and out of ditches or of racing across paddocks scarred with the fresh brown earth of bomb craters. The wrecked vehicles which lined the route and the equipment and personal possessions strewn everywhere—the evidence that always betrays an army in retreat and some of which even for the victor is sad to see—became for those who took part the hallmarks of this campaign. It offered no more exasperating experience than that of lorry-loads of men waiting and waiting for hours on end in full view of the Luftwaffe while engineers toiled to overcome obstacles or open diversions round them.

This was a phase of the campaign in which headquarters men and those in the B Echelons suffered more than the front-line troops; for the guns travelled mostly by night or by way of Volos. The recollections of an NCO of the 6th Field are typical:

‘… Elasson, with bomb craters down the main street. Shops bore a dishevelled appearance and overturned cafe chairs and tables were strewn around. The poor Greek army was marching by in single file in small but endless groups. Some still had horses. Some were walking in their bare feet and carrying … boots.

‘At Larissa we drove into the Australian canteen and hurriedly ransacked the place for beer and canned fruits…. We drove on and had only just left the place when German bombers gave it a good doing-over. The going was good until we got to Farsala where we were halted by forty planes trying to destroy the bridge. The others went up and down the road … with machine guns while we lay in a blue funk until it was all over. There was not one casualty…. We halted just short of Lamia for the night but got no sleep owing to the endless stream of traffic passing through all night.’

The material damage caused by these air attacks was not great in terms of transport and equipment lost, and among page 71 the gunners very few men were hit. The worst hit was the convoy of vehicles of the 7th Anti-Tank which left Larisa in the afternoon of the 18th, in which several vehicles of 33 Battery were disabled and 34 Battery had Lance-Bombardier Luks72 and Gunner Smith73 wounded; and then in a later air raid Luks was again hit, this time fatally, and Gunner Richardson74 was killed.75

Night brought relief from the strain of air attacks; but the long journeys in darkness over roads still smarting from the bombing of the day were filled with strange experiences. Greeks of the country are individualists to a man and the countryside by night had an eerie quality. Sheep-bells would tinkle and bonfires would suddenly blaze on the hillsides. On the roadside smouldering wrecks would sometimes burst into flame. Men whose nerves were stretched taut by the events of the day were ready to believe the wildest rumours and to disbelieve the best-authenticated facts. A Canadian corps had reached Athens, so it was said; the retreat was luring the Germans into a trap. At one place villagers broke up even their own furniture to provide a footing for lorries to mount the slippery clay bank of a stream beside a broken bridge. Many a group of trucks on its way through narrow village streets unwittingly entered a cul-de-sac, creating a knot of traffic that somehow had to be unravelled. The portées of 34 Battery with Divisional Cavalry in the final rearguard on the Volos route made a fast journey by night; but in the course of it several overworked armoured cars broke down and were pushed off the road and set on fire—actions which seemed strangely in conflict with the orders which caused them to drive over perilous mountain roads with no lights.

71 See pp. 723.

72 L-Bdr E. A. Luks; born Auckland, 7 Oct 1905; garage manager; killed in action 18 Apr 1941.

73 Gnr G. E. Smith; born Auckland, 19 Aug 1918; tractor driver; wounded 18 Apr 1941.

74 Gnr J. N. Richardson; born Opitiki, 23 Mar 1910; production manager; killed in action 18 Apr 1941.

75 The 4th Field lost an officer wounded and a Signals truck destroyed in the bombing of the road convoys. The 6th Field lost two quads and a pick-up truck. The 7th Anti-Tank lost four men killed and at least five vehicles destroyed. Headquarters NZA, the 5th Field and 1 Survey Troop suffered no loss.