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2nd New Zealand Divisional Artillery

Action Overlooking Elasson

Action Overlooking Elasson

Two roads led south from Elasson, one up the steep Meneksos Pass to the south-east and the other across the valley into gentler hills. Both met later at Tirnavos on the way to Larisa. Brigadier Miles, in the course of three days of continual and page 55 exhausting travel arranging the complicated programmes for the withdrawal from the northern passes, had had to decide which of the two routes presented the greater danger to the defence and to concentrate his limited resources on that one, leaving the other more lightly defended. He rightly concluded that to hold the Meneksos Pass route needed smaller effort. In support of 25 Battalion on the other road, therefore, Miles put all available guns. Foremost was 33 Anti-Tank Battery less L Troop, and behind it 2/3 Australian Field Regiment with a 4.5-inch troop of 64 Medium Regiment under its command. The 5th Field was disposed with 27 Battery less A Troop in an anti-tank role a mile behind the front and 28 Battery in mobile reserve. The forward anti-tank strength was increased by the portées of N Troop, when these arrived from Elasson, and they took up positions on the slopes in front of the infantry. Observing parties of 1 Survey Troop had established three bearing pickets in the field gun areas.

The Australian guns started to range on the front as soon as Elasson was clear of troops. They had the use of the rounds dumped in the gun area by the 5th Field, at least 3400 rounds. With the 3000-odd rounds the Australians already possessed, they were well supplied. The 4.5-inch guns, invaluable because of their long range and weighty shells, had relatively little ammunition. They, too, fired ranging shots and then waited for targets to appear.

Both field and medium guns could bring down fairly long-range fire on the Meneksos Pass road in support of 24 Battalion there; but no close artillery support for this front could be provided and the infantry there had to rely for anti-tank support on the deterrent effect of heavy concentrations by the field guns and on a few disappointing demolitions of the road up the pass. These proved just sufficient to save them; but it was a close thing. More might have been done had Miles not received an alarming report in the morning about the Tempe battle, which suggested that 6 Brigade might be cut off by a thrust from Gonnos (south of Olympus) to Tirnavos. In consultation with Brigadier Barrowclough, he therefore despatched F Troop of the 5th Field with a carrier platoon to Tirnavos and RHQ and the rest of 28 Battery to guard the southern approaches to Larisa airfield.

Germans appeared in the defile north of Elasson at 11 a.m. and the medium guns shelled them effectively. When they reached the demolished bridge and started to work on it, the page 56 field guns engaged them. The volume of fire was impressive and it clearly delayed the enemy. Observation was excellent until late in the afternoon, when the enemy began working along the foothills towards Meneksos. Brigadier Miles personally assumed control of the artillery from the headquarters of 2/3 Regiment and ordered the Australians to keep the bridge site under fire and engage with heavy concentrations any forces that came within range. This they did splendidly, shooting with great accuracy. Lieutenant-Colonel Kippenberger44 of 20 Battalion, with a party of his men, had been cut off before reaching the road junction north of Elasson and had to walk back. From no-man's land he observed some of this firing. At one stage he saw 10 tanks moving until the guns engaged them and scored several direct hits at what must have been a range of more than 10,000 yards. Only six of these tanks withdrew and the crews of four were seen to climb out. Until late in the afternoon the Australian gunners gained a remarkable mastery of the battlefield.

At this stage the medium guns ran out of ammunition and withdrew. The enemy then began persistent efforts to advance towards the Meneksos Pass. The Australians offered strong opposition, but could not halt the advance, though they certainly slowed it down. German gun fire weakened towards evening and for a brief period the beautiful valley was strangely quiet. Then the enemy attacked up towards 24 Battalion at dusk. The field gunners at once sent a heavy concentration into the midst of the attacking force, compelling the lorried infantry to take cover. But the tanks came on despite the shells bursting about them like twinkling stars—as it seemed from the 25 Battalion area. The foremost of them passed the advanced platoon of infantry, but halted at the demolitions, firing wildly. Under cover of darkness the infantry got away safely.

This made it look as though Brigadier Miles was mistaken in deciding to concentrate his artillery in defence of the other road; but that approach was nevertheless over far better ‘tank country’ and the enemy would certainly have used it had he not been deterred by the strength of its defence. It offered a page 57 much quicker route to Tirnavos than the difficult one through the Meneksos Pass. Had Miles disposed his guns differently the enemy would almost certainly have broken through.

Troop by troop the Australian guns withdrew after dark, with detachments of infantry, until by about 8 p.m. none were left. They had performed splendidly and fired off 6500 rounds, a feat to which the blistered paint on their gun barrels bore witness. The portées of N Troop slowly drew back, as the force withdrew, until they reached the position of C Troop of the 5th Field, which had gone into action in a field role and taken over the defensive fire tasks of the Australian unit. Armoured cars and Bren carriers of the Divisional Cavalry waited in the rear to cover the drive to Larisa. To the anti-tank gunners the delay in moving off seemed interminable. The field guns still sent out long flashes and after long pauses the sound of the bursting shells rumbled back from the hills. Flares sent up by the advancing enemy came closer until they lit the scene with a scintillating brilliance. Then, with great agility, the gunners of C Troop ceased fire and withdrew and the portées followed, picking up the Divisional Cavalry along the road and bringing up the rear on the long drive to Larisa.

44 Maj-Gen Sir Howard Kippenberger, KBE, CB, DSO and bar, ED, m.i.d., Legion of Merit (US); born Ladbrooks, 28 Jan 1897; barrister and solicitor; 1 NZEF 1916–17; CO 20 Bn Sep 1942-Apr 1941, Jun-Dec 1941; comd 10 Bde, Crete, May 1941; 5 Bde Jan 1942-Jun 1943, Nov 1943-Feb 1944; GOC 2 NZ Div, 30 Apr-14 May 1943, 9 Feb-2 Mar 1944; comd 2 NZEF Prisoner-of-War Reception Group (UK) Oct 1944-Sep 1945; twice wounded; Editor-in-Chief, NZ War Histories, 1946–57; died Wellington, 5 May 1957.