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2nd New Zealand Divisional Artillery

Retreat to the Beaches

Retreat to the Beaches

Most of the rearguard troops and B Echelons spent the day under cover and escaped harm. One section (two guns) of N Troop of 34 Battery, however, under the command of A Squadron, Divisional Cavalry, had a long drive to Khalkis in the course of which it was attacked time and time again by Stukas, Messerschmitts and low-flying Dorniers. A warning order to move had come at 1 a.m. on the 24th, but the group did not start to move until just before 8 a.m. It was a fatal delay. As the vehicles began to move they came under attack from the air, which was sustained with great intensity for two whole hours. When the armoured cars, Bren carriers and portees finally moved off the attacks continued relentlessly, an armoured car and at least one carrier were lost, and by mid-afternoon the group was forced to take cover. The Luftwaffe finally lost interest and the group moved on in the evening unmolested from the air. Four miles short of the Khalkis bridge (to the page 96 island of Euboea) it took up a position astride the road in support of C Company of 1 Rangers20 under Major ‘Toby’ Low.

The B Echelons and most of the headquarters staffs of the Divisional Artillery had meanwhile travelled to Atalandi, halfway to Thebes, on the 23rd, and carried on towards Athens next day. Most of them ended up under trees by Marathon, where they destroyed their transport and marched after dark, with 5 Brigade, to the little beach of Porto Rafti—D Beach in the evacuation plan. There they were joined by 1 Survey Troop from Voula transit camp. The sea was calm, and in the night 24–25 April they embarked without incident by means of a variety of landing craft on the cruiser Calcutta and the Glen ship Glengyle and sailed for Crete.

The same night saw the troops from Molos driving southwards with headlights lighting their way after passing Cape Knimis. They made rapid progress; but traffic congestion made some delay inevitable and the tail end of the long column was still some 20 miles north of Thebes, in open, flat country of a kind that invited Stuka attack, at dawn on the 25th. They expected attack from the air and some men were nervous; but no attack came and by 10 a.m. the last of the rearguard passed through the covering position taken up by 4 Brigade at Krie-kouki. Many artillery vehicles pulled off the road there; but Brigadier Miles decided that they had better take advantage of the absence of the Luftwaffe to drive on towards Athens. Miles himself, realising that the route through the city would need picketing, drove on ahead to arrange this. At Force Headquarters, the Acropole Hotel, however, he found that the last two officers were in the act of leaving. He could get no orders about routes or destinations and had to make up his own mind where his men should go. Back he drove to meet the leading vehicles. From among the men in them he arranged pickets and then went on to meet Brigadier Barrowclough of 6 Brigade. While Miles and Barrowclough conferred some miles north of Athens, General Freyberg and his personal staff arrived with orders that the artillery was to drive through Athens and embark at C and D Beaches, Rafina and Porto Rafti.

Miles was doubtless, like Freyberg, sharply aware that this was Anzac Day, the twenty-fifth anniversary of the landing at Gallipoli, and was not happy that his gunners should have to observe it by driving back to the beaches, for the most part page 97 without their guns. Returning on the heels of the artillery column, however, he had some consolation by sharing in one of the most exhilarating experiences of the campaign. The populace lined the streets cheering, clapping and calling out good wishes, bestrewing the dusty lorries with flowers, throwing fruit and cigarettes to the men, and generally treating them like heroes. The gunners, unhappily aware of the shortness of their stay in Greece and of the fruitlessness of their efforts to save the country from the common enemy, expected bitterness and despair, but found no trace of them. Their already high opinion of the Greek people rose higher still and they were sorry indeed to leave them.

Clifton Force, with two troops of the 2nd RHA, a six-gun battery of the 102nd Anti-Tank, and 34 Anti-Tank Battery (less the N Troop section at Khalkis), came under command of the Divisional Cavalry after passing through 4 Brigade and then joined 1 Armoured Brigade in a final rearguard a dozen miles north of Athens. This and the Kriekouki position were the only major obstacles on the 25th and 26th to the German advance on Athens and neither could be held for long, since other routes existed by which they could be outflanked.

At Kriekouki 4 Brigade was supported by the 2nd/3rd Australian Field, which had already given strong assistance to 6 Brigade at Elasson, and also by seven 2-pounders of the 1st Australian Anti-Tank and seven Bredas of 106 Light Anti-Aircraft Battery, RHA, some of them in dual roles, guarding against tanks as well as aircraft. All guns were well forward and two troops of the 2nd/3rd Field were ready to take up anti-tank roles.

All was quiet until, at 10 a.m. on the 26th, the long-awaited vanguard of the enemy advance appeared, led by a tank and motor-cyclists. The Australian field gunners had not been able to register targets beforehand for fear of disclosing their positions and their opening rounds seemed somewhat haphazard. The appearance, however, was deceptive. The enemy hastily withdrew, leaving behind eight blazing vehicles. From then onwards the Germans showed no desire to force the issue. The Australians fired freely and the response of the German artillery had little weight or effect. In the evening they made believe that fresh batteries had reinforced them by registering targets over the whole front.

The enemy was evidently impressed, for he made no effort to close on the Kriekouki defences and 4 Brigade was able to page 98 withdraw after dark without interference, passing through Athens and coming to rest on the roadsides leading to the beach of Porto Rafti. There was a chance that the troops would embark at once and no defensive positions were therefore taken up. The chance, however, passed and daylight on the 27th found the brigade group dangerously exposed to attack by German forces which had reached Athens and were pushing on towards Porto Rafti. Hurriedly the troops took up position astride the road from the village of Markopoulon to the beach. Before they could complete this task, however, they were heavily and accurately attacked from the air. Severe bombing at noon destroyed one 25-pounder and six 2-pounders and six Australian gunners were killed. In the ensuing pause all troops hastened to conceal their positions and get under cover. In mid-afternoon German troops appeared at Markopoulon; they were hotly engaged by the Australian gunners and infantry mortars and came no closer. When the gunners ceased fire after dark they concluded the work of the Divisional Artillery in the campaign in Greece.

None of the other rearguards had occasion to fire their guns. The 1st Armoured Brigade retired through Athens without making contact with the enemy and dispersed under cover near Rafina. The section of N Troop, 34 Anti-Tank Battery, moved back with the Rangers from Khalkis by stages, taking up defensive positions at each halt and expecting the enemy to appear from minute to minute. The demolition charges exploded along the route, however, imposed just enough delay and no enemy ground troops came in sight. When the little rearguard reached the crowded precincts of Rafina before midnight on the 26th the retreat from Molos ended.

The embarkation of troops at Porto Rafti went ahead smoothly. The 64th Medium, 4th and 5th Field, and other artillery details climbed aboard the Salween bound for Alexandria or HMS Carlisle, Devonshire or Kandahar for Crete.21 At Rafina, however, there were many stragglers and much confusion. Most of the 6th Field and 7th Anti-Tank boarded the page 99 Glengyle and sailed for Egypt; but more than 1000 men remained, with many gunners among them.

Major Oakes of the 7th Anti-Tank found himself in a difficult situation on the 27th. There was no plan to continue the embarkation from Rafina in the coming night and there was no assurance that the 1000 men there would be taken off. He had no contact with the Royal Navy and none with the troops at Porto Rafti, a distance of 16 miles as the crow flies, but considerably farther by road. The troops at Rafina had only small arms, if anything, and little ammunition and were not disposed for defence. Oakes therefore set out for Porto Rafti, but his vehicle broke down and he finished the journey on foot. After arranging for a ship to call at Rafina he started off back; but the Germans were coming along the road to Markopoulon and he had to take to the extremely rugged country between the road and coast, dodging enemy parties that were exploring the region. Meanwhile the authorities at Rafina, hearing the action near Markopoulon and becoming increasingly anxious, had begun marching the 1000 men along the coast to Porto Rafti. The coast got progressively rougher as they marched and by the time Oakes met them and turned them back to Rafina the leading elements had broken up into small groups, not all of which could be found and redirected. The main body retraced its steps and waited tensely on the beach at Rafina until the early hours of the 28th, when Havock slipped quietly into the cove and began embarking troops. Tightly packed with men below decks, the Havock took off all the troops that could be found and sailed for Crete. All at Porto Rafti were taken off in the Ajax, Kimberley and Kingston and they, too, sailed for Crete, carrying among others the Australian gunners who had served under New Zealand command.

Many other detachments of New Zealand gunners were still in Greece or were making their various ways independently across the Aegean Sea in a variety of small vessels. The main group consisted of reinforcements who had stayed near Athens and were moved at the last moment to Kalamata in the Peloponnese. There an attempted evacuation failed, a brisk engagement with the German advanced guard achieved only temporary success, and most of the troops fell into enemy hands. Among the gunners concerned with this incident was Major Thomson,22 page 100 RMO of the 4th Field, who was caring for the wounded at Kalamata. Another gunner party, mainly of F Troop of the 6th Field, misdirected on the journey to Athens, prepared a Greek vessel for a sea voyage, but could not get the motor to start before dawn on the 29th, by which time the force at Kalamata had surrendered. The 6th Field party,23 under Second-Lieutenant Reed,24 lay low in the boat all day, towed it by dinghy out into the harbour as soon as it got dark, and then set sail for Crete. They spent an anxious time on the 30th becalmed offshore and working hard to repair the engine. A party went ashore to get more water and returned in daylight on 1 May. They spent the next six days drifting or sailing until they reached Crete. Reed in his report to his battery commander spoke highly, in particular, of Gunner McKenzie,25 ‘whose courage, energy and determination were unfailing’ and who was largely responsible for the success of the venture.

Another bold escape was staged by a group of a dozen anti-tankers under Lieutenant Patterson26 of 34 Battery and another of the same size under Second-Lieutenant Harding. They were among those who failed to get orders to turn back to Rafina on the final night of the evacuation from Attica. The two parties joined forces, but the country proved too rugged and treacherous to negotiate in the dark. Harding and two or three men therefore went ahead to get help, were rowed part of the way by Greeks, and reached Porto Rafti, where they embarked in the Ajax. Patterson and the main party hid all day on the 28th and then sailed in a 40-foot boat from island to island until they reached Crete, being picked up in Suda Bay by HMS Widness when at the end of their resources.

Other gunners had similar adventures in their efforts—not always successful—to avoid capture and get back to their units. Some reached Crete, others got to Egypt, and a few, including Lance-Bombardier Marshall27 of 31 Anti-Tank Battery, passed page 101 through Turkey. Some of those who reached Crete by such efforts still failed to elude capture; for they ended up in enemy hands after the campaign there. Getting safely away from Greece in some such unofficial evacuation was a matter of luck; but it was also a matter of initiative and determination and often of severe hardship.

By such means the figures of ‘Missing’ were gradually reduced and the NZA casualties for the campaign in Greece eventually came to be listed as follows:

Killed in Action and Died of Wounds Wounded Prisoners
4th Field 4 16 69 (5 of whom were wounded and 3 died of wounds)
5th Field 3 7 36 (4 wounded)
6th Field 2 14 23 (2 wounded, 1 died of wounds)
7th Anti-Tank 18 22 75 (11 wounded, 1 died of wounds)
1 Survey Troop 1
—— —— ——
27 59 204

The total was thus 290, of whom 32 died. Nearly half of them, including over half of those killed, were from the 7th Anti-Tank, as might have been expected. The bulk of the prisoners of war, however, did not serve with the units in Greece: they were with the reinforcement draft that did not get past Athens and was captured in a body at Kalamata. Apart from this unlucky loss, casualties for the campaign were relatively light.

20 Also known as 9 Bn, King's Royal Rifle Corps.

21 The embarkation staff at Porto Rafti, under Australian command, included three NZA officers, Capts J. L. Duigan, G. M. Beaumont and A. E. Lambourn. They did their work well. At Rafina the naval officer in charge disappeared, some senior officers of 1 Armd Bde unwisely interfered with arrangements worked out by the embarkation staff, which included Maj Oakes and other NZA officers, and many contradictory orders were issued, including some about taking or not taking the barrels of the few remaining 2-pounders aboard ship. None of the gun barrels could in fact be taken and most of them were tipped off the end of a little jetty.

22 Maj G. H. Thomson, OBE, ED; born Dunedin, 5 Mar 1892; obstetrician; gunner, 4 How Bty, Egypt and Gallipoli, 1914–16; RMO 4 Fd Regt Sep 1939–Apr 1941; p.w. 29 Apr 1941; repatriated Oct 1943; died New Plymouth, 14 Jul 1964.

23 Sgts N. R. Lydster and F. T. Fenton and Gnr W. G. Hodgetts had been left to guard the boat and were captured. Another three-gunners had gone missing in the dark on the way to Kalamata.

24 Maj C. K. Reed, DSO, m.i.d.; Napier; born Tolaga Bay, 3 Mar 1915; bank clerk; 6 Fd Regt 1941–45; 2 i/c 4 Fd Regt Feb-Jul 1945; wounded 1 Dec 1941.

25 L-Bdr N. G. McKenzie; Wellington; born NZ 12 Feb 1911; commercial traveller; p.w. Dec 1941.

26 Lt-Col D. B. Patterson, m.i.d.; Auckland; born Auckland, 30 Nov 1910; asst architect; 2 i/c 14 Lt AA Regt Apr-Nov 1944; CO 14 Lt AA Regt Jun-Jul 1944; comd Miles Wing, Prisoner-of-War Reception Gp (UK), Jun-Sep 1945.

27 Bdr F. S. Marshall; born NZ 3 Nov 1914; insurance agent; wounded and p.w. Apr 1941; escaped Jul 1941; killed in action 1 Dec 1941.