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2nd New Zealand Divisional Artillery

26 Battery at Kalabaka

26 Battery at Kalabaka

As 5 Brigade withdrew from the Olympus Pass and 4 Brigade from the Servia Pass, and as a critical rearguard action developed at the Tempe end of the Pinios Gorge, the front to the west was reported to be crumbling and it was there, to yet another rearguard force, that 25 Battery of the 4th Field had been sent post-haste from the Olympus area late on 14 April. This battery, under Major Lewis,30 had departed at such short notice that one OP party, that of Captain Nicholson31 of B Troop, had been left behind. Lewis was to travel by way of Elasson and Trikkala to Kalabaka and link up there with 17 Australian Brigade which, with 1 British Armoured Brigade, had to guard the vulnerable left flank of Anzac Corps. He took the western of the two roads south from Elasson to Tirnavos, and halfway branched off westwards again along a rough track to a little wooden bridge over the Pinios River and then to Sin Thomai on the Larisa-Trikkala road. On the way he joined up with the reconnaissance party of the battery of 64 Medium Regiment, including the regimental commander, under whose command Lewis placed himself. The CO took Lewis and his troop page break page 49 commanders ahead to reconnoitre gun positions, and Captain Veale32 was left in charge of 25 Battery with orders to meet Lewis a mile south-east of Kalabaka.

colour map of military action

The Pinios Gorge Action. 17–18 April 1941

Away from the clouded hills it was a night of bright moonlight and 25 Battery was bombed several times by single aircraft patrolling the road to Trikkala. A motor-cyclist travelling with his tail light on was machine-gunned for his folly and was lucky to escape injury. These were rare incidents; for the Luftwaffe was seldom active by night over the New Zealand Division in Greece. The only damage was a few shattered windscreens. The road was well-surfaced at first; but after Trikkala it was flanked by swampland, so that vehicles could not pull off the road to pass the crowds of refugees moving along it in the opposite direction. Progress therefore became slow. Several times Captain Veale had to take firm action, to the point of threatening with his revolver, to clear the road and keep his column moving.

The guns went into position in the morning of the 15th around a church in the village of Aimnades, just south-east of Kalabaka. Unessential vehicles and men went back under an Australian officer to an area in the rear. Gun tractors and other troop vehicles were hidden in orchards and scrub within a quarter of a mile of the guns and about half a dozen other trucks containing food, ammunition and other stores were left with the battery captain at the rendezvous.

So far the gunners were very much in the dark about the move. Now they learned that the threat to the left flank of Anzac Corps was not as great as had been feared. On the Venetikos, a tributary of the Aliakmon, 1 British Armoured Brigade was stationed south-west of Grevena and 20 miles from Kalabaka, attacked from the air, hampered by refugees, but out of touch with enemy ground forces, which were still being delayed by Greek forces far to the north-west. Only part of 17 Australian Brigade, known as Savige Force, was in position at Kalabaka, and the medium battery and New Zealand field battery came under the command of the Australian, Brigadier S. Savige. There was no immediate threat except of air attack.

The valley of the Pinios narrowed just north of Kalabaka and the infantry of Savige Force was disposed across this steep-walled defile with the guns in support. Observation posts for the field guns were on the steep hills north of the town and page 50 ammunition was plentiful. An effort to get a truck across the river to equip an OP for better observation of the left flank failed, a wireless set was dropped in the water, and the men got thoroughly soaked.

The scene was like a fairyland. The cliffs looked like pipe organs and several monasteries topped them at dizzy heights. The river seemed to climb steeply into the hills to the west. Refugees still streamed through, many of them in uniform. Rain fell in a steady downpour and vehicles had to be moved frequently to stop from sinking into the ground. There was no dodging air attack when it came; but the gunners suffered no harm from it. On the contrary, when a German aircraft crashed nearby the New Zealanders captured the pilot and handed him over to the medium regiment.

The 1st Armoured Brigade began to retreat through Savige Force on 16 April and most of it had gone by 4 p.m. on the 17th, when Major Lewis was ordered to withdraw at 7.30 p.m. These orders were suddenly changed, however, because of an experiment by New Zealand sappers on the bridge over the Pinios which was to be used for the withdrawal. A whole span fell as a result and Savige Force could not use this bridge.

The first reaction was that the force must stay and fight, since there was no alternative route. The 4th Field men therefore camped for the night. Lewis, who had not used this bridge to get to Kalabaka, took the matter further and returned at 1.30 a.m. on the 18th with the news that Savige Force was to try to cross the little wooden bridge that 25 Battery had used on the way up. A and B Troops and what was left of Battery HQ accordingly set off, losing a limber bogged in the mud but retrieving a tractor which slipped into a ditch on the way. In due course they crossed the bridge. But shortly afterwards German bombers destroyed it and C Troop, following in the rearguard of Savige Force, had to make a still longer detour by way of Larisa to the rendezvous at Sin Thomai, where the guns took up an emergency anti-tank role. But this was not needed and 25 Battery moved with Savige Force through Larisa either late on the 18th or in the very early hours of the 19th and along the road to Pharsala.

30 Maj H. M. Lewis; London; born Wanganui, 27 Dec 1908; company secretary.

31 Lt-Col S. W. Nicholson, DSO, ED, m.i.d.; Auckland; born Auckland, 22 Feb 1914; customs agent; CO 5 Fd Regt Oct-Nov 1944; 7 A-Tk Regt Dec 1944-Mar 1945; 6 Fd Regt Mar-May 1945.

32 Maj L. H. Veale, ED; Wellington; born Christchurch, 1 Nov 1911; insurance clerk; p.w. 1 Jun 1941.