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2nd New Zealand Divisional Artillery


page 74

THE NEW ZEALAND ARTILLERY reached Thermopylae with the following guns:

4th Field 25 Battery 12
26 Battery 7
5th Field 27 Battery 11
28 Battery 12
6th Field 29 Battery 12
30 Battery 12
24 Total 25-pounders 66
7th Anti-Tank 31 Battery 7
32 Battery 3
33 Battery 6
34 Battery 9
25 2-pounders

Two of the 25-pounders, however, were unserviceable through faulty tell-tale valves. For the crucial battle that was impending, therefore, it was short of eight field guns and 11 anti-tank guns. The front the gunners were to cover, moreover, was a long one, from the coast by Molos to the right flank of the Australians in the Brallos Pass, and presented many difficulties for the artillery. They were therefore fortunate to receive considerable artillery strength from the resources of W Force before the battle opened.

This famous battlefield had changed greatly since the time of Xerxes and Leonidas, the Sperkhios River having brought down in the intervening years such a quantity of silt that the narrow gap between the cliffs at Thermopylae and the sea had widened by a matter of miles. The scene, however, retained its beauty, marred only by the pillars of smoke rising from the ruins of Lamia. North of this town and across the Maliaic Gulf the wall of hills was still flecked with snow and the bay stretched out to the east in a purple haze, broken here and there with tiny isles and backed by the large island of Euboea, capped with white.

page 75

The front was to stretch past Brallos to the Gulf of Corinth at Eratini, more than 50 miles in all; but the greater part was so precipitous as to be impassable for motor transport. It was nevertheless the only position from which Attica could be defended, and those responsible for its defence could afford to make no mistakes.

black and white map of pass

brallos pass and thermopylae, 24 april 1941

Two roads ran south from Lamia, one to Brallos and the other curling round the foot of the cliffs at Thermopylae on its way to the bottleneck at Molos. The left of the New Zealand front faced north from a mass of rocky crags and cliffs crowned to the south by the Kallidromon Mountain, an impassable barrier. The coast road came straight for seven miles from Lamia, by-passing the large village of Imir Bei in page 76 the middle of the flat, swampy estuary of the Sperkhios, which it crossed by the Alamanas Bridge before branching along the hills and cliffs for another nine miles to Molos. From the bridge the river split into two distributaries, one of which broke out by the hot springs of Thermopylae to run almost parallel to the road at a distance of less than a mile, and then northwestwards along a promontory to the Gulf. A small village, Ayias Trias, lay a mile or so east of this final leg of the Sperkhios. The other distributary flowed north-west from near the bridge to reach the sea east of Imir Bei. The triangle of land between these streams and the strip between the main one and the hills was marshy and overgrown in places with tall grasses, brushwood and scrub. The distance from the road to the sea narrowed to a mile at Ay Trias and then opened out beyond Molos into a little plain of olive groves three or four miles across. After this the road closed on the coast until it ran at the foot of cliffs which almost reached the sea at Cape Knimis. A re-entrant south-west of Molos was a possible, though difficult, route for outflanking the Brallos Pass.

The front taken up by the New Zealand Division was from the mouth of the stream east of Imir Bei to a spur south-west of Alamanas Bridge, near the tiny village of Koutseki. The obvious tank obstacles were the two streams; but most of the adjoining swampland was unsuitable for infantry defence, and the front was in effect thrown back to the high ground south of the road and the ground in front of Ay Trias.

The main gun positions therefore had to be in the foothills west and south of Molos where most would be in full view of the enemy across the Gulf. Some field guns had to be sited almost in the front line to be within reach of the Alamanas Bridge. ‘The country in the hills in the rear of the New Zealand position was very difficult and it was almost impossible to find positions for medium artillery from which it could compete with the enemy on anything like equal terms.’1

The chief danger was thought to be tank attack breaking through at Molos and then swinging round to isolate the Australians at Brallos. The role of the New Zealand Artillery was therefore chiefly the anti-tank defence of the coast road. The Sperkhios had also to be covered by the field guns. Bridges were prepared for demolition and fords mined. The line along the hills seemed strong, its weakness being that communications page 77 ran across the front. The weak part was thought to be the right of the front, between the road and the coast by Ay Trias.

Men of 1 Survey Troop took a luxurious hot bath in an aqueduct by Thermopylae for an hour or two in the middle of the 18th, while Captain Kensington sought and found a suitable camp site, well-covered from aerial observation. From there they watched the Luftwaffe begin the bombing of Lamia. Next morning they set out a measured base and took astronomical observations at each end.

By this time 5 Brigade was deploying across the front with 30 Battery of the 6th Field in support. Brigadier Miles reached Thermopylae at midday and set about collecting all the guns he could find—a difficult task, for the first thought of the gunners on arrival was to service their guns and vehicles after their long drive. Most were in urgent need of attention. Guns were taken to bits as soon as their owners settled down off the road and many of them could not go straight into action. All Miles could do at first was to organise an emergency anti-tank defence in depth with groups of 2-pounders and field guns. All of the 6th Field soon went forward to guard the whole front. They were deployed in a narrow area astride the road just east of the hot springs, with OPs in depth and along the heights. Troop wagon lines were set up near the guns. The 5th Field (less C Troop) and some guns of the 7th Anti-Tank were also in temporary positions in support of 5 Brigade by dark on the 19th. The 4th Field arrived in so many different groups that it first had to sort itself out. Orders nevertheless arrived from Miles at 7 p.m. for Lieutenant-Colonel Parkinson to deploy all his guns in an anti-tank role from the coast across the road and up a little valley to a hospital at Kamena Voula at the foot of the cliffs.

Two units of 1 Armoured Brigade came under Miles's command during the day and they were welcome indeed: 102 Anti-Tank Regiment, Northumberland Hussars, equipped with 2-pounders, and 2 Regiment, Royal Horse Artillery (2 RHA), with 25-pounders. Then he was given command of 64 Medium Regiment, RA, of which one troop was 15 miles back and the rest of the troops were in front of the infantry at Ay Trias. Surveying was started on the 20th on the measured base set out by 1 Survey Troop the day before; but it was greatly expedited by the arrival in the area of 4 Durham Survey Regiment, RA, which left the surveying of the field guns to the New Zealanders and began the difficult task of surveying in page 78 the medium guns. Anti-aircraft strength, which hitherto had been almost completely lacking, was provided on paper by 155 Battery of 13 Light Anti-Aircraft Regiment, with Bofors guns; but these had gone into position at Khalkis, miles behind the front. The 106th Light Anti-Aircraft Battery, RHA, however, with seven Breda heavy machine guns, also came under Miles's command. On the 20th, too, the Luftwaffe began to take an interest in the Molos area and kept up bombing and strafing attacks, often by single aircraft, almost all day. Worse was to come.

In the morning artillery positions were divided into forward and rear zones, with the accent in both on anti-tank defence. The anti-tank defence of the forward zone was to be co-ordinated by Lieutenant-Colonel Duff of the 7th Anti-Tank, and of the rear zone by Lieutenant-Colonel Waller of 102 Anti-Tank Regiment, NH. Duff had to site his own 2-pounders and twenty 25-pounders of the 5th Field, all of them well forward. Waller had C Troop of the 5th Field and B Battery of his own regiment in front of Ay Trias. He found it hard to persuade infantry commanders to place their men in the open ground in front of the village and therefore had to site some of his guns in front of the infantry. Carrier patrols were consequently provided to screen the guns, especially by night.

A final series of rearguards operating between Molos and Stilis during the 20th included two field guns and four anti-tank guns. They saw no action and the field guns retired to Imir Bei and the rest to Molos. Next day 6 Brigade took over the right of the line in front of Ay Trias. On the 21st, too, the ground between the two arms of the Sperkhios proved on closer inspection to be less of a tank obstacle than had been assumed, causing a revision of defence plans. This, in turn, caused friction between artillery and infantry officers. The latter had not, at this early stage of the war, come to realise the critical importance of a sound anti-tank layout and were reluctant to dispose their troops in the light of any other considerations than those imposed by the weapons the infantry possessed. The artillery, in their view, would simply have to conform by supporting these positions as best they could. Infantry struck water two inches below the surface in front of Ay Trias and could not dig in as they wished. But guns simply had to go into action there in anti-tank roles, and it seemed to many infantry officers that it was putting the cart before the horse to plan infantry defences to fit artillery arrange- page 79 ments. Even so, gunner officers complained of inadequate infantry protection. It was a matter on which experience would draw the two closer together.

1 Lt-Col E. E. Rich, ‘The Campaign in Greece’, an official British narrative (unpublished).