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2nd New Zealand Divisional Artillery

Crest Clearance on the Cloudy Slopes of Olympus

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Crest Clearance on the Cloudy Slopes of Olympus

In the Olympus Pass fighting had been going on since 11 o'clock at night on 14 April, when the first adventurous thrust by German motor-cyclists was repulsed by the infantry. The battle that developed was very different, from the artillery point of view, from that which had been planned. Instead of a solid defence by two field regiments, the 4th and 5th, under Lieutenant-Colonel Parkinson, with the 4th Field covering the Maoris on the left, only the 5th Field (less A Troop) under Lieutenant-Colonel Fraser remained to meet the assault. The tremendous labours of 26 Battery to get Nolan's D Troop up to its mountain aerie proved to be wasted. At short notice on the 14th 25 Battery was ordered to pull out its guns and hasten southwards and then round to the west to reinforce an Australian brigade—Savige Force—on the way to Kalabaka, and meet a German advance from Florina which menaced the left flank of Anzac Corps. A few hours later RHQ of the 4th Field and 26 Battery were ordered back to join 6 Brigade at Elasson in Force Reserve. After Parkinson left, the 5th Field collected as many vehicles as it could and loaded them with ammunition left behind by the 4th Field, carrying it over 25 rough miles to Elasson. The men concerned were expected to make only one journey; but by a misunderstanding they carried on right through the night, making two and in some cases three round trips and clearing the whole of the ammunition. They were worn out by the time they finished; but their zeal provided an invaluable supply for a rearguard action a few days later on which the safety of Anzac Corps depended.

The weather in the pass had been bad: days of drenching rain and some snow, with bitter cold in the higher positions. Wisps of white mist curled everywhere among the spurs and often reached down below the pass road, so that visibility was poor and played many tricks on the FOOs of the 5th Field. Observation posts had been selected with great care; but when the weather cleared on the 14th, and particularly on the 15th, defects became uncomfortably obvious. Several ‘dead areas’ of vision were disclosed only by the sudden emergence of enemy parties from them, some of them unpleasantly close. The mists, moreover, had prevented the prior measurement of crest clearances—always the bugbear of gunnery in mountain country—and there were awkward and sometimes dangerous revelations of the inability of some guns to clear crests in front of them.

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The front the 5th Field now had to cover unaided was under the circumstances long and difficult. It was easy to engage the enemy thrusting along the road in the morning of 15 April, and D and F Troops registered zones of fire and were soon landing effective concentrations of shellfire on infantry and vehicles; 27 Battery was even better placed for this, but could not join in because its lines to OPs were cut (by Fifth Columnists, some gunners believed). But the ground in front of 23 Battalion was so tortuous and so frequently veiled with mist that it was hard to bring down useful fire. The gunners were very grateful, however, for two blessings: no counter-battery fire was directed at them and none of the many bombers that passed overhead paid them any attention. The worst troubles this day were in clearing the crests in front of B and C Troops on the knife-edge ridge. B Troop fired three rounds at one stage which hit the hilltop and the base of one of them rebounded, narrowly missing Lieutenant Stanford,15 GPO of C Troop, in his command post. German artillery opened fire late in the afternoon; but none of the rounds fell anywhere near the guns. Perhaps the crest-clearance troubles were compensated for by a parallel difficulty on the enemy side of locating and engaging the New Zealand guns.

Before it was fully light on the 16th a very much heavier action began. A thrust against 22 Battalion was halted well short of the infantry by machine guns and shellfire; but it served to cover the setting up of mortars which could not at first be located from the OPs. A party under Lieutenant-Colonel Fraser himself therefore went out to set up a forward OP, and by wireless it brought down fire from 28 Battery which silenced the mortars. Tanks hitherto hidden among the trees below then advanced unexpectedly. Fraser, controlling the fire of E Troop, ordered a quick switch of line, boldly reduced the range, and ordered 10 rounds of gun fire. The results were most satisfactory. The shells and tanks met and the attack broke up. One wrecked tank remained behind. Other targets on this front—tanks, troop-carriers, staff cars, mortars, and infantry guns, with occasional bodies of infantry—were engaged throughout the day. But the main effort of the enemy in the afternoon was by infantry on both flanks. On the left the Maoris had been greatly handicapped by swirling mist; but this cleared in midafternoon to give them a clear view of the advancing enemy page 43 and the 5th Field guns soon came to their support. It was not until dusk, when the Germans made a most determined attack on a Maori platoon, that there was any real danger to the left; and this was soon overcome.

On the right 23 Battalion suffered a thickening of the mists in the afternoon when the danger was greatest and it was hard to find out what was happening and to provide support. Whenever the enemy tried to concentrate his strength for a decisive thrust, however, the guns found him and put paid to his scheme.

On the knife-edge ridge the eight gun teams of 27 Battery (under Sergeants Penk,16 Clark,17 Gunn,18 McIntyre,19 Dolamore,20 Nicholass,21 Ames22 and Tavendale23), crowded together, worked until their backs ached. By the end of the day the 5th Field had fired more than 3000 rounds—not a great amount by later standards, but for the type of action and under the circumstances it represented much hard work. Support for 5 Brigade had not been powerful in terms of weight of fire; but it had been incontestably effective, as the German battle reports amply confirm. The gunnery had been flexible, well-timed and accurate.

Orders had been issued during the day for 5 Brigade to withdraw as soon as it got dark. As the two troops on the knife-edge ridge did so they were mortared and shelled; but the ridges which had hampered them during the day now protected them and they emerged unharmed. Driving through a pitch-black night, the gunners of 27 Battery passed through the lines of 28 Battery (which had F Troop dangerously far forward at this stage, almost in the new front line) and on to Kokkinoplos, a village off the main road near the south-western end of the Olympus Pass. F Troop in due course retired; but the other two troops of 28 Battery stayed in position near Ay Dhimitrios page 44 until 3 a.m. on the 17th, by which time all the infantry using the pass road had gone through.

The three 2-pounders of 32 Anti-Tank Battery which had been sited in the 22 Battalion area beside the pass road had no difficulty in getting back when the infantry withdrew; but the fourth one which was on the right of the area and the eight guns with 23 Battalion were all dependent on the construction of a so-called Back Road which was far from completion when the time came to withdraw. None of these guns had had occasion to fire a shot in the course of the action and the prospect of losing nine out of twelve of the complement of a battery under such circumstances appalled all the anti-tankers, including the second-in-command of the regiment, Major Oakes, a man of exceptional energy and determination. Oakes therefore decided that the seemingly impossible task of getting the nine guns away should be attempted. It meant manhandling them through a stream and over a steep shoulder to Kokkinoplos in the black of night. Oakes came forward before dark with a party from his own RHQ, Lieutenant Neale24 and the men of 15 LAD with ropes and tackle, and when the time came he mustered all possible help from 32 Battery. No progress at all could be made, however, except with three guns, which were dragged, carried, pushed and in other ways struggled with until they were got to a point about halfway to Kokkinoplos. Beyond this it was humanly impossible to move them. The effort failed. All the gunners had managed to salvage were the telescopes and they could do no more than scramble up the rocks and then down to the village. Some of them joined A Company of 23 Battalion for the time being and served as infantry. Others were so exhausted when they reached the village that they fell fast asleep. But Oakes would not rest until he had replaced essential clothing and equipment (other than the irreplaceable guns) and he occupied himself with this task for three further days, working himself to such a point of exhaustion that at the end of it he sat down on a rock in pouring rain and fell asleep.

F Troop of the 5th Field remained, with the three guns of 32 Anti-Tank Battery which had withdrawn from the 22 Battalion area, at Ay Dhimitrios with two companies of infantry as a little rearguard covering the additional demolitions made after 5 Brigade withdrew, while 23 Battalion held the ridge above Kokkinoplos. They were to stay there until dark on 17 April; but Freyberg decided not to wait so long and sent lorries page 45 to pick up the infantry in the afternoon. In the middle of the afternoon enemy infantry began to advance in neat order along the road towards the rearguard; but shells from F Troop struck them accurately and they did not persist in their advance. Covered by mists, the last of the rearguard on the pass road withdrew, the field guns last of all. The 23 Battalion rearguard, however, had a sharp skirmish above Kokkinoplos before withdrawing and some of the 32 Battery ‘infantillery’ were involved, though they suffered no harm.

15 Maj R. J. StanfordLondon; born Palmerston North, 10 Jul 1917; continuity writer.

16 Lt B. A. Penk; Auckland; born Auckland, 25 May 1919; clerk.

17 Sgt W. J. Clark; Auckland; born Auckland, 22 Nov 1916; wood turner.

18 2 Lt A. D. J. Gunn; born NZ 11 May 1910; mental nurse.

19 Sgt H. K. McIntyre; born NZ 8 Jun 1917; labourer; wounded and p.w. Apr 1941.

20 Sgt J. B. Dolamore; born Gore, 1 Feb 1915; Regular soldier; twice wounded; killed in action (drowned off Tobruk in sinking of Chakdina), 5 Dec 1941.

21 WO II C. W. Nicholass, MBE; Henderson; born England, 10 Apr 1911; motor assembler.

22 Sgt K. S. Ames; Otaki; born Wellington, 8 Jun 1908; accountant; wounded May 1941.

23 Capt W. J. S. Tavendale; Palmerston North; born Palmerston Nth, 2 Jan 1914; Regular soldier; p.w. 1 Jun 1941.

24 Lt J. W. Neale; Wellington; born New Plymouth, 3 Aug 1909; salesman.