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2nd New Zealand Divisional Artillery

Snadden's Gunner Platoon

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Snadden's Gunner Platoon

Captain Snadden left 42nd Street in command of what became known as the Gunner Platoon of 23 Battalion, which brought up the rear of 5 Brigade. They marched rapidly, despite their weariness, along the motor road which led round Suda Bay. Branching off southwards the route got steadily rougher and climbed steeply, so that Snadden began to think they were on the mountain proper. One patch of lights they saw on the way turned out to be the burning stumps of olive trees, glowing in a strong breeze. When a plane came over they stood still and the flare it dropped outlined the welcome sight of a well. In the early hours of the 28th they halted on a stony ridge above the road and at once fell asleep. They were woken at dawn and given a tiny ration of bully beef and a few biscuits each. It was not far from Stilos and 5 Brigade soon found itself fighting a brisk rearguard action in which the Gunner Platoon played its part. An hour later the brigade broke off the action and withdrew. The route was lined with arms and equipment and at a little bridge they saw a derelict Italian 75-millimetre gun. Three young Greek soldiers in an olive grove seemed to be kneeling in prayer; but all were dead. As the road got steeper the day got hotter. Several times it began to descend, only to rise again steeper than ever. In one such pause in the climb, in a little pine-clad valley, Snadden came upon a handful of New Zealand gunners who readily joined him, bringing his party to a total of 15. All were armed, and such was the strength of 23 Battalion that they almost qualified for the title of ‘company’ and were treated as such. Nobody talked on the march, in the course of which they passed scores of men who had fallen out or were struggling to keep going. The urge to help these was strong, but the gunners knew they must keep together and play their part in their adopted battalion. There would be fighting to do on the way. The green freshness of the Vale of Vrises with its many water wells gave them new life and energy. Aircraft were often overhead, and when they had to the gunners took cover from them. By the time they reached the foot of the main pass and the road had degenerated into little more than a cart track, they seemed to be walking on a treadmill past which the scenery was slowly being pushed. Clambering over the loose rock by a gaping demolition was almost beyond their strength. On and upwards they went into the night until the battalion halted near the top of the pass, at a place with the unlikely name of Amigdhalokorfi—it was no more than a name.

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There the Gunner Platoon took up a defensive position on the right of the battalion, which extended along the higher arm of a hairpin bend. The gunners were nearest the actual bend and would therefore be the last to move out. For what was left of the night they slept on boulders, but as Snadden says, ‘it might have been a feather bed’. An Australian rearguard passed through soon after dawn, giving the gunners a few biscuits and chatting with them for an hour or two. Snadden describes the situation:

‘The narrow, rocky, sun-baked gorge got hotter and hotter. We got what little shade we could, all the time keeping a watch on the road that wound below us and the hills that towered around us. Some time in the afternoon a Bren carrier arrived bringing with it water and some food. We gulped our bottles and a fatigue went down to refill them. There was about half a tin of bully each…. Three Henschels and a Stuka flew over and we crouched among our rocks expecting every minute to find ourselves blasted from our scanty cover.’ Late in the afternoon the battalion began to prepare to move on, but before it could do so the enemy appeared on the scene. Snadden's lookout reported that a party of school children and a policeman were coming up the road and round the bend; but it was soon evident that the lookout was mistaken. The party was carrying small arms, rifle fire was soon directed at the gunners, and a machine gun joined in. As they busied themselves with answering this fire, orders came to withdraw. The platoon that was to cover them had already gone and Snadden had to despatch his men up the road in little clusters covered by the rest and in turn covering them. It was a tense little act, but it ended well, though at the finish lungs were bursting. Some of 23 Battalion had evidently been hit, for Snadden picked up a trail of blood that followed a goat track and slightly shortened the route. Soon the fire that was whistling round their ears was checked by the machine guns of an Australian rearguard a mile or so along the road, and the gunners were happy to get behind this and be able to breathe freely. They found the descent in some ways worse than the climb. ‘New muscles ached’, as Snadden says, ‘and the soles of our feet seemed to slip inside our boots. Our socks were full of holes; many of us had wrapped our feet in our first field dressings.’ By the time they reached the wells and the pleasant shade of the Askifou Plain the shadows were lengthening and others took over the task of checking the enemy advance.

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The plain was a small basin or saucer less than a mile square, south of the main pass, but still high among the mountains. It sheltered several little villages, of which the first was Sin Kares. The road skirted the western edge of the plain, passed up a narrowing valley, and climbed again to the village of Imvros, beyond which it climbed again before descending steeply to end a quarter of a mile west of Komitadhes, almost due east of Sfakia, but far above it in the hills.

C Troop of the 2nd/3rd Australian Field had brought two Italian 75s over the mountains and they were in the Askifou Plain when 23 Battalion came through Sin Kares late on the 29th. A mile above the village a company of 18 Battalion held a rearguard position and engaged the enemy as soon as they appeared. The 50 men concerned, however, could easily be outflanked on either side, and it was not long before the enemy had a machine gun covering the road behind the rearguard. This was a chance for the Australian gunners which they quickly seized. Brigadier Inglis,53 himself a machine-gunner, indicated the target and Lieutenant-Colonel Gray of 18 Battalion observed for the guns. ‘It was the first time I had ever spotted for artillery and Geoff Kirk54 and I sat on the rocks above the road directing the fire and calling out corrections to the guns’, Gray wrote two months later. ‘The range, by trial and error, was 3200 yards and they literally rocked it in, firing, I believe, all the 40 rounds which was all they possessed.’ There is a message from Inglis timed 6 p.m. which informed the commander of C Troop that the enemy in unknown strength was in contact with our troops north of Sin Kares and that the gunners were to watch both flanks. This they did most effectively; but Gray was mistaken about the ammunition, for the Australians still had some left and Captain Laybourne-Smith was at that time reconnoitring positions for a further rearguard. The two guns were in action as late as 31 May. It was a splendid achievement by the Australians and one for which the New Zealanders were grateful. Duigan says of them that they deserved ‘the highest praise for the offensive spirit they showed at all times’.

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Snadden's Gunner Platoon had meanwhile carried on with 23 Battalion, spent a quiet day on the 30th, expecting to be evacuated that night, and then learned that the unit was to stay another day. The gunners had already given up their water bottles for the benefit of others who could not go that night. They had suffered agonies from thirst and were shocked at the thought of a day in the barren hills under a hot sun with no water at all. Fortunately the bottles came back and a fair supply of water with them. Snadden describes it thus:

‘That night there was a mug of water per man and a full bottle for every four men to be consumed on the morrow. We took as long over our water ration as a four-course meal. In the gathering dusk we smoked our last grains of tobacco.’

Early next morning the Gunner Platoon was on its way down the precipitous track, with its series of hairpin bends, which led down the cliffs to Sfakia. They found the village much damaged by bombing and were exploring the beach when they heard they had to provide their share—three men—of a large patrol which was to climb up the face of the cliff to guard against infiltration. The three were chosen by ballot. ‘Nobody said much’, Snadden comments; ‘everyone was dead tired and many were ill with dysentery’. The three disappeared in the rugged heights above and the remainder found their strength increased by Lieutenant Johnston55 and six men of the 4th Field. Then rations were issued, a thing they had ceased to hope for. It worked out at one spoonful of ‘M and V’56 and six biscuits per man. Taking cover in a gully some distance above the beach, the ‘platoon’ met another party of gunners under Lieutenant Young57 which brought the strength to 30. The newcomers were doubly welcome, for they had more rations, and the outlook seemed quite cheerful. In due course the standing patrol returned, Snadden's enlarged party descended to the beach, and it was taken off after dark.

53 Maj-Gen L. M. Inglis, CB, CBE, DSO and bar, MC, VD, ED, m.i.d., MC (Gk); Hamilton; born Mosgiel, 16 May 1894; barrister and solicitor; NZ Rifle Bde and MG Bn, 1915–19; CO 27 (MG) Bn, Dec 1939-Aug 1940; comd 4 Inf Bde, 1941–42, and 4 Armd Bde, 1942–44; GOC 2 NZ Div, 27 Jun-16 Aug 1942, 6 Jun-31 Jul 1943; Chief Judge of the Control Commission Supreme Court in British Zone of Occupation, Germany, 1947–50; Stipendiary Magistrate; died Hamilton, 17 Mar 1966.

54 Maj G. C. Kirk; born Auckland, 8 Apr 1917; insurance clerk; wounded Nov 1941; died of wounds 4 May 1943.

55 Capt I. T. Y. Johnston, ED; Hamilton; born Gisborne, 25 Apr 1912; mercantile clerk.

56 Meat and vegetables.

57 Capt J. H. Young; Christchurch; born Marton, 17 Feb 1906; insurance representative.