CHAPTER 6 — Withdrawal from Greece
Withdrawal from Greece
The decision to shorten the Allied line by a withdrawal to Thermopylae in the south was dictated by enemy penetration in the Florina area and a subsequent push towards Grevena. It had not been possible to build a permanent defensive line in contact with the Greeks. On 15 April Anzac Corps ordered a withdrawal to a line covering the passes at Thermopylae and Brallos. It was hoped that this line would be short enough for British troops alone to delay the enemy. The withdrawal was to be in two phases: in the first 6 New Zealand Infantry Brigade was to move on the night of 15-16 April from its reserve positions behind the Olympus Pass to positions covering the two main roads between Elasson and Tirnavos; in the second 6 Brigade was to cover the withdrawal of 4 and 5 New Zealand Brigades from Servia and Olympus.
Headquarters 6 Brigade and 24 Battalion were established on the 16th on the eastern of the two roads a few miles south of Elasson and below a steep pass above the plains of Thessaly, and 25 Battalion was in position on a commanding ridge on the western road. Immediately Brigade Headquarters was in position L Section began work on the difficult task of taking a cable to 25 Battalion across the precipitous mountain country which lay between the two roads. Owing to the immense difficulties encountered in negotiating the steep country, the line was not completed until the morning of the 18th. It proved of inestimable value during the fighting and disengagement that evening. The commander of 6 Brigade, Brigadier Barrowclough, 1 has recorded his appreciation of its usefulness:
The brigade signal section set about the very difficult task of page 108 running a wire across the mountainous country through Skompa to HQ 25 Battalion on the west road. This difficult task took several days to fulfil but the value of it during the subsequent battle was difficult to overestimate.
…. the long telephone line laid by the brigade signal section to HQ 25 Battalion proved of immense value during the tank action and in the giving of orders for the final withdrawal of the brigade that evening (the 18th April).
Meanwhile, at Advanced Headquarters New Zealand Division at Dholikhi, preparations were afoot on the 15th for the move to the rear. Much had happened since Signals had settled in at Dholikhi five days previously. Despatch riders had worked tirelessly day and night without rest and, it seemed, without any flagging of their energies. It was an arduous and nerve-straining business, this constant traversing of the pass road, especially at night when there were no lights to signal the approach of vehicles on the treacherous and muddy slopes and hairpin bends. The linemen of B (cable) Section had worked ceaselessly on the cable which led over the pass to 5 Brigade and on the poled-line routes which served as alternative circuits between Advanced Divisional Headquarters and the signal centre that had been established at the summit near Ay Dhimitrios.
On 11 April the unit's second-in-command, Major Agar, had gone to 1 Australian Corps at Yerania as Assistant Chief Signal Officer. His duties were taken over by Major Grant, and Captain Smith moved up to command No. 1 Company, leaving the command of A (wireless) Section to Second-Lieutenant Foubister. OC No. 3 Company, Captain Pryor, was at Headquarters 5 Brigade in control of signal communications there during the battle in the pass. Indefatigably, Lieutenant- Colonel Allen moved about on his motor-cycle between Advanced Division and the brigades and field regiments, returning at irregular intervals to look in briefly at his own headquarters, and then setting off again to see, as he put it, ‘how so-and-so was getting on’.
On 16 April Divisional Battle Headquarters was at Elevtherokhorion, near the junction of the Servia and Katerini roads. Allen, with a number of wireless detachments and a few page 109 despatch riders, remained there while the rest of Advanced and Rear Headquarters Signals moved back with the main Divisional Headquarters to a new position near Tirnavos, a little to the north of Larisa. Here Advanced and Rear Signals were combined in one area near a monastery in a grove of trees. Meanwhile Battle Headquarters had closed at Elevtherokhorion and was moving south to rejoin Main Divisional Headquarters, which moved out from Tirnavos on the morning of the 18th to continue the withdrawal to Thermopylae. The roads were dense with transport packed nose to tail. There was abundant evidence of bombing all along the road, particularly at Larisa, where a number of burning vehicles stood abandoned in the rubble-strewn streets.
About noon that day Divisional Headquarters halted near the village of Nikaia, about six miles south of Larisa, and dispersed in the open fields to the east of the road. Almost continuous high and low-level bombing, dive-bombing, and ground strafing tended to keep the men in their hastily dug slit trenches, but Lieutenant-Colonel Allen moved about ceaselessly in the open exhorting them to return the enemy's fire with their rifles. It was a grand example and one that few of the men who were at Nikaia that day will readily forget. They came out of their trenches without a second bidding and blazed away at the low-flying aircraft with tremendous zest.
That afternoon Divisional Headquarters despatched all the unit's transport, except signal office vehicles, two wireless detachments and a number of despatch riders, on their way south. Rough route maps were quickly prepared, and the signals vehicles moved out independently with orders to rendezvous at Molos, approximately 70 miles to the south. They were quickly absorbed into the slowly moving mass of transport on the road.
Later in the afternoon, during a particularly heavy air attack, one of the wireless trucks that had remained at Nikaia was hit and destroyed, but its crew was able to leap to safety in time. By seven o'clock that evening Battle Headquarters had closed at Nikaia and was on the road again. The density of the traffic had increased enormously since the early afternoon and now two closely packed lines of vehicles stretched as far as the eye page 110 could see. To make things more uncomfortable still, the enemy had stepped up the scale of his attack and repeatedly bombed and machine-gunned the mass of transport. Here and there along the road at frequent intervals blazing and smouldering wrecks showed where disabled vehicles had been hastily pushed to the side of the road. With the fall of darkness the attacks ceased, leaving the air strangely quiet, except for the low growling of gears as the lines of vehicles crept slowly and painfully towards Lamia.
Meanwhile, in the Olympus area, 5 Brigade had withdrawn from the pass on the night of 17-18 April and moved quickly to the rear. At Servia 4 Brigade had disengaged on the 17th in readiness to withdraw. Light rain and mist obscured movement in the forward areas, with the result that the brigade was able to get its artillery out unobserved before darkness fell. A rearguard remained in the Servia Pass area that night to fire demolitions after 4 Brigade had passed through to the south, but early next morning it was cut off near Elevtherokhorion and had to fight its way clear after sustaining heavy casualties.
Throughout the evening and night of 17-18 April two streams of fast-moving transport converged on Elevtherokhorion, where the Servia and Katerini roads met. There they merged into one and flowed south, protected for a time from enemy air observation and attack by low cloud and drizzle. By dawn most of the convoys had reached Larisa. The morning of the 18th broke fine and sunny, and shortly after first light the first of the enemy's reconnaissance aircraft appeared in the northern sky. Less than an hour later the congested road was being subjected to savage attacks by German aircraft, which appeared in small formations at intervals of a few minutes throughout the day.
Below Larisa the dense mass of transport was slowed almost to a walking pace as the congestion grew, but, surprisingly, casualties in vehicles and men were remarkably slight. In the darkening twilight of the 18th 4 and 5 Brigades moved on through Lamia, which was burning fiercely after a dive-bombing attack by thirty Stukas, and down towards the divisional rendezvous at Molos. The last stage of the journey was quiet page 111 and peaceful as the convoys moved along the coastal plain between Thermopylae and the sea. Darkness had now fallen and the German aircraft had gone, leaving the sky free of their raucous din. By late evening the traffic had thinned considerably as units reached their dispersal areas and were directed off the road by guides.
Soon after the last of the 4 and 5 Brigade units had passed through 6 Brigade's positions below Elasson on the morning of the 18th, the Divisional Cavalry rearguard withdrew. Shortly before noon the first enemy armour appeared, and from then until the evening New Zealand and Australian artillery kept up a continuous fire against the steadily growing force deploying in front of 6 Brigade's defences.
Fortunately the long line laid by L Section across to 25 Battalion on the western road remained intact throughout the day, but just before darkness fell it suddenly failed. Orders for the withdrawal of the battalion had already been transmitted, however, so no time or energies were wasted in attempting to restore the circuit. The line to 24 Battalion, on the eastern road, remained intact throughout the action.
Sixth Brigade disengaged at Elasson and moved back through Larisa, now in untidy ruin, and pressed on down the Volos road towards Molos. Behind it elements of Divisional Cavalry and 7 Anti-Tank Regiment staged an orderly withdrawal, and by dawn on the 20th the Division, with the exception of anxiously awaited remnants of 21 Battalion from the Pinios Gorge, was safely behind the Thermopylae positions.
Orders for the defence of the Molos area were issued by Anzac Corps on 19 April. The defence of the Thermopylae Pass—near the historic battleground where, about 2400 years ago, Leonidas and his three hundred Spartans had defied the might of Xerxes' Persian host—became the responsibility of the New Zealand Division, whose line extended from the village of Ay Trias, almost opposite the western extremity of Euboea Island, to a bend in the Lamia-Molos road five miles to the west, and thence south-westwards to join the right of 6 Australian Division, to whom was given the task of holding the Brallos Pass on the main road running south and south-east to Thebes.page 112
Divisional Headquarters was established about eight miles east of Cape Knimis. A signal office was opened immediately and lines put out to 4 and 6 Brigades at Ay Trias and Molos, and to Anzac Corps, which was now established at Levadhia, 22 miles to the south on the main Lamia-Thebes road. All circuits, including the poled-line section of the Corps' line, sustained considerable damage from air bombardment, and B (cable) Section's detachments were hard put to it to keep communications open. A tremendous amount of hard work was done by these B Section men: Lance-Sergeants Pierce and Jones, Signalmen McIvor, Mutch 2 and Munro, 3 to name only a few.
After darkness fell on 21 April Divisional Headquarters moved to a new location near Cape Knimis. This position was well concealed in thick bush from air observation, and here the men enjoyed a welcome respite from the nerve-straining trials of the preceding four days. There was time now to count heads and lick wounds. During the move from Nikaia to Molos the unit had lost ten vehicles and six motor-cycles. Casualties were astonishingly light. One Australian lineman attached from Anzac Corps had been killed, and two Divisional Signals men wounded, one of whom, Signalman Martin, 4 died on 19 April from his injuries. Two days later a despatch rider, Signalman Knight, 5 died from injuries received in a traffic accident during the move to Molos.
In their brief off-duty periods the men gathered in their improvised bivouacs and shelters to discuss the exhilarating experiences of the last week. Their many stories showed that the average soldier's sense of humour had never entirely deserted him, even during the gruelling punishment he had suffered from enemy aircraft. Men recalled again the anxious moments when enemy fighters, swooping low along the crowded road, had brought their trucks to a sudden halt while they had piled out and hurled themselves into roadside ditches, page 113 often inches deep in foul and stinking ooze. Others had taken cover in the roadside fields, where aircraft had played hide- and seek with them among the scarlet poppies.
In one such incident a signals truck had been brought to a screeching halt by the appearance of two fighters viciously strafing the road ahead of it. The truck crew had tumbled out and rushed pell-mell for a deep ditch. Hard on their flying heels had come OC No. 1 Company and his driver, Signalman ‘Shucks’ Bailey, 6 who had tumbled in on top of the inert heap of bodies, pressing down instinctively to gain every possible inch of cover. Arms and legs had protruded in all directions from the tangled heap of bodies, but no one had spoken. Suddenly, from underneath—a long way underneath—a muffled voice, shaking with laughter, had called out to those on top, ‘Keep your battle dress clean and tidy, Divisional Signals’. Even the vicious stutter of cannon and machine-gun fire from the two fighters still lacing the sides of the road could not restrain the laughter which had risen at this sally. Suddenly, a deafening crump from a bomb exploding nearby had changed their mirth to picturesque profanity.
Orders were received at Anzac Corps on 21 April that the British forces were to be withdrawn from Greece. Actually, the decision to abandon the Allies' precarious lodgment in the Balkans had already been taken, but unforeseen events hastened its execution. The complete collapse of the Greek Army of the Epirus in the west, where the Germans, after occupying Grevena on 16 April, had continued in contact with the Greeks until the 20th, when the Epirus forces had surrendered, put evacuation plans in a more urgent light. The way now lay open for a rapid German advance down through Aitolia to Patras in the Peloponnese, and eastwards to the slender defences of Brallos and Thermopylae.
Early on 22 April 4 Brigade received orders to move that night to occupy a defensive position in the vicinity of Kriekouki, south of Thebes, to cover the withdrawal of New Zealand Division and 6 Australian Division. Next day the brigade was in position on a ridge which rose abruptly to between 2000 page 114 and 3000 feet above the Kriekouki-Thebes plain to the north. The main road from Thebes to Elevsis, at the north-western approaches to Athens, penetrated this ridge through a deep gorge at a height of 1800 feet. The road was tortuous but in good order.
Fourth Brigade's signal communications in this position consisted of wireless to units and to Force Headquarters in Athens. There was also a line to Force Headquarters—laid by an Australian cable detachment—but it followed a shallow ditch flanking the main road and was rendered almost useless by severe damage from bomb blast. J Section, at this time, had almost no cable. Its cable truck, which had been so extensively damaged at Servia, had been taken in tow by 11 LAD, but near Lamia, during the withdrawal across Thessaly, was completely destroyed, together with its cable-laying apparatus No. 3 and cable, by a direct bomb hit. Late on the afternoon of the 23rd, however, Brigadier Puttick, on his return to Brigade Headquarters from a reconnaissance of battalion positions on the ridge, directed OC J Section to a spot half-way up the pass, where a 3-ton lorry had plunged over the bank into a ravine and spilt its load of brand new D Mark III cable. Captain Borman and Sergeant Snow set off immediately and arrived on the scene in time to share the spoils with an Australian artillery officer and three of his men. For two hours the six of them manhandled the heavy drums up the steep slope to the road until they had sufficient for their needs. Lines were run out that night from Headquarters 4 Brigade to both forward battalions, 18 Battalion on the right of the pass road near the summit, and 20 Battalion on the left. Towards dawn a line was completed to 19 Battalion, in the reserve position on the right of the road on the southern side of the pass.
Meanwhile 5 Brigade had commenced its move from Thermopylae to the embarkation beaches near Athens, from which cruisers and destroyers of the Royal Navy took it off on the night of 24-25 April. At Cape Knimis preparations were going forward swiftly for the move back to the beaches. Lieutenant- Colonel Allen's main preoccupation was the fate of his valuable signal equipment, a large part of which had been brought back safely from the Olympus area, together with a considerable page 115 quantity of major items of equipment salvaged during the withdrawal to Thermopylae. The instructions received from Divisional Headquarters were that all surplus equipment other than certain items such as wireless sets was to be destroyed before units left the Molos area. But Allen hoped to save more than wireless sets. Second-Lieutenant Stevenson was hastily despatched to Athens to endeavour to make arrangements with Force Headquarters for the shipment to Egypt of a considerable quantity and variety of signal stores which he had stowed in a 14 LAD 3-ton truck. Unfortunately he failed to convince the naval authorities of the importance of his charge and the equipment was ultimately destroyed and abandoned.
At Cape Knimis, after Stevenson's departure with his load of wireless sets, telephones, testing instruments and instrument mechanics' tools, an orgy of destruction set in in Signals' area. Linemen of B Section chopped their precious cable into short lengths and piled it in a heap until it resembled a huge stack of vermicelli. The orderly-room sergeant and his henchmen at unit headquarters gleefully destroyed maps and papers while in a secluded corner of the area the Adjutant, Captain Burns, hacked his prized air mattress into small pieces. At the quartermaster's store trucks a remarkable transformation was taking place. The Quartermaster, normally a man from whom no article, however insignificant, was ever extracted without protracted debate in which certain expressions such as ‘Stores 108’ and ‘Come back in half an hour’ occurred frequently, was suddenly seized with a mood of lighthearted generosity. Men came and went loaded down with new suits of battle dress, brand-new singlets and shirts, and socks that were still joined together at their tops with the makers' threads. Night fell on this unnatural scene, with groups of men standing about waiting patiently for the ‘spread’ that was to be provided from the reserve stocks of rations in the stores trucks and the tinned delicacies obtained from a nearby detail issue depot.
The greater part of Divisional Signals was to move out that night with Divisional Headquarters to the evacuation beach at Porto Rafti, near Athens. Lieutenant-Colonel Allen, Captain Smith, a B (cable) Section detachment, nine despatch riders, a signal clerk and a number of No. 9 wireless set detachments page 116 remained at Divisional Battle Headquarters. In the splitting up of Divisional Headquarters and its signals component, however, a serious defect occurred. With the main part of Divisional Headquarters went the whole of the Cipher Section—at that time not a part of Divisional Signals organisation but a small and highly trained section of the G Branch of the headquarters. This separation of Ciphers from Signals at Battle Headquarters meant, of course, that all cipher messages reaching the headquarters remained indecipherable.
Before the departure of the main body of Signals all lines were disconnected from the exchange, taken into the G operations office, and each connected to a telephone there.
The main party moved out that night (24 April) under the second-in-command, Major Grant, and arrived at Porto Rafti at dawn next day. Vehicles were dispersed in the olive groves above the beach, and the men lay under cover all that day. At dusk they marched to the water's edge and were taken off in assault landing craft to HM ships Glengyle and Calcutta. The two ships lay off the beaches until embarkation was completed about three o'clock next morning, and then put to sea and joined their convoy, which was attacked by enemy aircraft at eleven o'clock. No ships were hit, however, and the troops disembarked at Suda Bay in Crete that afternoon.
Meanwhile 6 Brigade, supported by a very considerable fire power of various calibres under the command of the CRA New Zealand Division (Brigadier Miles 7), was fully deployed in the Thermopylae line by the evening of 23 April to meet the enemy force gathered below Lamia. All artillery units' lines came into the brigade's exchange, but later, as the fire plan developed, communications were adjusted to meet the needs of the moment. As in the Olympus and Elasson battles, lines formed the mainstay of communications, although continuous watches were maintained on RT throughout the battle.
Early on the 23rd enemy artillery had begun to shell the brigade positions. The enemy kept up an intermittent fire all page 117 that day while he brought up large concentrations of armour and infantry in readiness for an attack across the coastal river flat. By this time enemy air activity was intense and large formations of dive-bombers were almost continuously over the brigade's positions. At 3 p.m. next day a major attack, preceded by a heavy air bombardment, was launched by enemy armour and infantry on the brigade's forward defensive areas. Although artillery battery lines were severely disrupted by the savage bombing and machine-gunning, E, F and G Sections' lines forward to battery command posts and to Brigade Headquarters suffered only slight damage. The line from Brigade Headquarters back to Divisional Battle Headquarters, however, was frequently interrupted. During the afternoon the CRA moved his headquarters forward to the vicinity of Brigade Headquarters, to shorten communications and make his control of the guns easier.
Thermopylae was essentially a gunners' battle. Throughout the day the guns put down an accurate and devastating fire wherever enemy concentrations appeared. During the afternoon, however, infantry and some armour gained a lodgment on the brigade's left flank and immediately engaged 25 Battalion. Anti-tank and field-gun fire was directed on to this sector, and an infantry and artillery brawl raged fiercely until about 9.30 p.m., when contact with the enemy was broken off in preparation for the brigade's withdrawal. All E, F, G and L Sections' lines continued in operation right up to the time of withdrawal, and as the brigade moved out were abandoned on the ground.
Sixth Brigade's withdrawal was carried out according to plan, and by dawn on the 25th the brigade was safely under cover in its dispersal area south of Oinoi (Mazi), near Headquarters 4 Brigade.
Divisional Battle Headquarters arrived at Oinoi in the early hours of the 25th after a difficult withdrawal in the afternoon and evening of the preceding day. Throughout the move the convoy had been repeatedly attacked by aircraft and a large number of vehicles, mostly those used by liaison officers and despatch riders, had been disabled and destroyed.
Sixth New Zealand Brigade and 19 Australian Brigade had page 118 passed through 4 Brigade early on the morning of the 25th. That afternoon 4 Brigade received orders to postpone its withdrawal twenty-four hours until the night of 26-27 April, when it was to retire across the Corinth Canal to the Peloponnese.
Shortly after midday on the 26th ominous reports began to come in to Headquarters 4 Brigade from various sources of exceptionally severe and continuous bombing of the area near the Corinth Canal bridge and of the presence of enemy parachute troops between Megara, 11 miles west of the Athens- Corinth road junction, and the Corinth Canal. This was an awkward situation for the brigade. Brigadier Puttick immediately prepared a plan for the occupation of defensive positions east of the canal and near the embarkation beaches. The brigade was still fully armed and equipped and had almost its full scale of signal equipment, which had been built up again during the last few days by devious ways, into which the Brigadier did not trouble to inquire too closely.
Each night relays of J Section men had stood at intervals along the road below Brigade Headquarters and scanned the transport passing through to the south. Any vehicle which had displayed any semblance of the blue and white signals emblem had been stopped and its crew questioned closely concerning their load and what they intended doing with any signal equipment they might have. These inquiries had been purely conventional, because as OC J Section plied his questions—to which he had already decided the answers himself—his henchmen were investigating the contents in the back of the truck. Not every dip in the bran tub was a lucky one, but by the end of the second night OC J Section decided that he had enough signal equipment and to spare.
On the evening of the 26th confirmation of the enemy's presence in the Corinth Canal area was brought to Brigade Headquarters by a British officer from 1 Armoured Brigade, who arrived with a signal from Battle Headquarters New Zealand Division ordering 4 Brigade to withdraw that night through Athens to Porto Rafti, where it probably would be embarked the same night by the Royal Navy. By this time 4 Brigade had lost wireless communication with Battle Headquarters, which had now reached Tripolis in the Peloponnese. page 119 Battle Headquarters, therefore, had passed the message to 1 Armoured Brigade for retransmission, but that brigade now had no communication with New Zealand formations or units except Divisional Cavalry, with whom it was operating in the coastal area to the east below Khalkis. The officer from the armoured brigade brought with him details of wireless frequencies and call signs to enable 4 Brigade to break in on his brigade's WT net and acknowledge receipt of the message. Until 1 Armoured Brigade received this acknowledgment, it would not retire from its positions covering the beaches east of Athens. A set was immediately put on the armoured brigade's frequency, but the operator could not break into the traffic passing between the brigade and Force Headquarters in the Peloponnese. At last, after an hour's persistent calling, he received a curt request to pass his message. The acknowledgment was sent, but the armoured brigade operator immediately resumed his traffic with Force Headquarters without giving any indication whatever that he had received 4 Brigade's message. Another half-hour's feverish calling, then suddenly, ‘Pass your message’.
‘Did you receive acknowledgment to message brought by your LO?’
The armoured brigade operator replied, ‘Received your message’, and returned instantly to his Force Headquarters traffic. OC J Section decided to leave it at that and reported to the Brigadier. Preparations then went forward swiftly for that night's withdrawal.
In their positions cunningly hidden in the wooded slopes south of the pass, where incessant enemy air searches had failed to find them during the day, the guns still barked viciously at the enemy concentrations forming south of Thebes. The withdrawal commenced at 9 p.m. and was carried out without incident and at great speed through Athens to the beaches at Porto Rafti where, by dawn next morning, the brigade lay up in its dispersal area complete with equipment, vehicles and guns.
Owing to the quick switch of embarkation points only a few hours before the actual withdrawal, no plan had been made for the tactical deployment of the brigade behind Porto Rafti. page 120 Thus, on the morning of 27 April, it was dispersed over a wide area suitable for concealment but with no regard for tactical considerations. It was expected that the enemy could appear in the actual embarkation area from the north-west by noon that day or from the north at any moment. At 9 a.m. the Brigadier ordered the occupation of a defensive position. During the day the brigade position and the beach area were subjected to several heavy air attacks. About 4 p.m. an enemy force of sixty to a hundred vehicles, of which many were armoured fighting vehicles, had approached the village of Markopoulon, only a few miles to the west of the beaches. They were engaged steadily throughout the afternoon by mortar and artillery fire.
The withdrawal to the beaches was commenced at 9 p.m. and by 2 a.m. 4 Brigade was embarked on HMS Kimberley. As the men moved out from the olive groves and made their way down to Porto Rafti's tiny jetty, where caiques waited to take them to the ship lying offshore in the darkness, light- hearted jests came easily to their lips after the strain of the day's savage bombing and machine-gunning. They were all stripped down to personal weapons, battle dress, steel helmets, and one small haversack each. Everything else from vehicles to wireless sets and smaller items of equipment had been ruthlessly destroyed under the trees before they left, and nothing remained of which the enemy could make much use.
In the midst of a group of men making its way in the dusk towards the beach could be seen a curiously burdened figure. It was Second-Lieutenant Hultquist lurching along with his valise and bedroll perched precariously on top of his head. As he approached the jetty a naval officer stepped forward and asked, ‘What have you got there?’ Without waiting for a reply he continued, ‘Throw the bloody thing into the water. You can't take it aboard.’ ‘Tiger’ obeyed sullenly, letting the bundle fall to the jetty and toeing it gently and regretfully over the side.
By dawn on the 26th Divisional Battle Headquarters had page 121 reached Argos, where troops and vehicles were dispersed under cover from air attacks, which commenced as soon as the first light of day appeared. It was here that Second-Lieutenant Stevenson rejoined Signals after his unsuccessful attempts at Athens to ship the unit's equipment to Egypt. He had travelled from Athens with Brigadier Mathew and Colonel C. D. Clapp, of Royal Signals, who moved on later in the day, leaving behind them at Argos a considerable quantity of signal equipment and vehicles. Lieutenant-Colonel Allen and Stevenson remained at Argos for a spell collecting some of this equipment, while Captain Smith, with some of his wireless detachments, moved on that night to Tripolis, where the main road south branched off to Monemvasia and Kalamata.
Smith and his detachments hoped to find Divisional Battle Headquarters at Tripolis, but there was no sign of it there, so they lay under the cover of some trees. Later in the morning the GOC and his party passed through. General Freyberg told Smith that Battle Headquarters was on its way to Monemvasia and instructed him to make his way there. A short time later Allen and his party came up, and the Signals group moved off towards the south, with the Colonel leading the small convoy and Smith bringing up the rear. It was a warm pleasant day and, strangely enough, the air was free for a time from the sinister roar of aircraft, but south of Sparta a heavy raid forced the party into the cover of the olive trees. Here Allen gave his orders for the destruction of all signal equipment except wireless sets, telephones, and other portable instruments. Trucks not required for the transport of men to the beaches were also destroyed.
A little later Allen left the party and pushed on to Monemvasia alone to make contact with Battle Headquarters and learn the embarkation arrangements. Just after he left enemy aircraft delivered a heavy raid on the grove where Signals was sheltering, and Signalman Bradley received wounds from which he died about an hour later. The only other casualty was Signalman Fearon, 8 who was wounded by the bomb which killed Bradley. Ten Greek civilians in the area were killed instantly.page 122
Shortly after dusk the party left for Monemvasia in the few vehicles which had not yet been destroyed, and arrived at 4 a.m. next morning, the 28th. The sole remaining means of communication with Divisional Battle Headquarters was the No. 9 wireless set mounted in its vehicle. This was immediately put on the air and communication established with 6 Brigade, which until the evening before had been occupying a holding position about ten miles west of Miloi, in the north. The brigade was now making its way as quickly as possible to Monemvasia, where it arrived at 7 a.m.
The GOC expected that the Germans would follow up quickly and that his small force, now entirely without artillery, would have an unpleasant time trying to hold them off until the ships arrived. During the afternoon it was learned that there would probably not be enough space on the ships to take off the whole brigade that night, and that 24 Battalion would have to remain on the beach to be taken off next night. Signalmen Tweeddale and Pye-Smith 9 were detailed to remain behind with the battalion to man the wireless set, which would provide communication between the battalion and, presumably, Crete.
About 10.30 p.m. the Signals party was assembled about two miles from the beach. The remaining vehicles were wrecked by pushing them over a steep cliff above the sea. Each man was given some article of signal equipment to carry to the beach—a telephone, a Fullerphone, or some portable part of a wireless set. Here and there pairs of men stumbled along with the wireless sets No. 9 which Lieutenant-Colonel Allen had salvaged from the equipment abandoned by Force Signals at Argos. These sets were actually of a later mark than those the unit had taken to Greece, and the Colonel considered them valuable prizes which he was determined to get back to Egypt by hook or by crook. One of the last sights the men had of Greece that night, as the assault landing craft took them off to the ships lying in the darkness, was that of the Colonel on the beach setting fire to the equipment which he had been unable to load on the crowded craft.page 123
Towards evening the naval embarkation staff informed the Commander 6 Brigade that there would be ample room on the expected cruisers and destroyers to take the whole brigade off, but that the small craft available for taking the troops off the beaches were too few to enable the embarkation to be completed before dawn. This was a bitter prospect for 24 Battalion, which had to face the task of defending itself for twenty-four hours with only small-arms fire against a vastly superior force. Later, however, a reconnaissance of the beaches disclosed a number of small boats which could be used to supplement the troop-carrying capacity of the Navy's assault landing craft. From each battalion of the brigade men accustomed to handling small craft were organised into small parties and placed under the command of Second-Lieutenant Andrews, of L Section, who was an experienced oarsman. With these boats and men Andrews organised a supplementary ferry service which took no fewer than 800 men to the ships.
Shortly before midnight on the 28th HMS Ajax and three destroyers arrived off Monemvasia and the embarkation commenced. By 3.30 a.m. it was complete, and the ships sailed half an hour later, arriving at Suda Bay about midday. There the troops were transhipped to the Comliebank and taken on immediately to Alexandria. On the voyage from Suda Bay the ship was crammed with men—men who were nearly exhausted but in good heart despite the hazards of the last three weeks. A diary entry by a Signals officer on 29 April says: ‘All dead tired and sleep on decks. Not enough room to lie on our backs so lean on the next bloke.’
During the time that the men of A, B and D Sections had been living these anxious moments in their travels with Divisional Battle Headquarters in the Peloponnese, other groups of Divisional Signals were undergoing no less exciting experiences near the embarkation beaches around Athens. One of these groups was H Section, some of whose men had a curious adventure with a suspected enemy agent who later had turned out to be a senior officer of Royal Signals. This officer probably owes his life to Lieutenant Paterson, whose timely intervention restrained two enthusiastic NCOs from despatching their ‘fifth columnist’ on the spot.page 124
H Section, with Headquarters 7 Anti-Tank Regiment, had arrived in a dispersal area near C Beach at Rafina on the 26th. There they destroyed all their transport except one vehicle by pouring sulphuric acid from wireless batteries into the vehicle engines. All their signal equipment was also destroyed, except six No. 11 wireless sets which Paterson was determined to hold until the last possible moment in the hope that he might be able to take them aboard the ship. The regiment had a quantity of valuable equipment, including gun dial sights and directors, which they also hoped to take off with them. The task of caring for all this precious equipment was entrusted to a rear party which included seven men from H Section. This party was under the command of the regiment's second-in-command, Major Oakes. 10 Needless to say, Paterson stayed behind too; no one who knew Tom Paterson could imagine that he would do otherwise.
At 9 p.m. H Section and the main party of the regiment left the dispersal area for the beach. The rear party followed two hours later, but Paterson learned when he reached the beach that no equipment could be embarked; only men and their personal weapons were to be taken off. He returned to his men and the one remaining truck in which the wireless sets were stowed, and was instructed by Oakes to dispose of the equipment quickly and get his men aboard. The truck was manoeuvred on to some rising ground and faced down a steep slope which ran to the water's edge. The driver started it off down hill, accelerated and jumped out nimbly, leaving the vehicle to plunge down the hill into the sea. Unfortunately it did not enter the water far enough to submerge, but came to a halt with the top of its radiator and bonnet showing above the surface. This was not good enough for Paterson, who had the six wireless sets brought ashore again. The party then made its way to the embarkation point, assuming—but without conviction—that the destruction of the truck would be completed by the tide, which they hoped was making and not ebbing.
When they reached the embarkation point they found that the ship had sailed. They were weary and irritable and cursed page 125 Paterson and his wireless sets in subdued undertones. Major Oakes instructed the party to take cover in the trees above the beach and get some rest. With the wireless sets on their backs, the men stumbled through the trees in the darkness, casting about for a suitable resting place.
Sergeant Forrester 11 and Corporal Fitzgibbon 12 set off to look for a more comfortable bivouac than the sparse cover of the trees. After a time they came upon a church which appeared to offer good shelter for the night, but as they approached a man dressed in a British officer's uniform emerged and asked what they were seeking. They told him of their search for shelter, whereupon he advised them to look elsewhere, but Forrester and Fitzgibbon had decided that the church would be a good roosting place and were not to be put off lightly. Moreover, Fitzgibbon's suspicions as to the identity of this officer had been aroused. The officer claimed that he was a Royal Signals officer operating a wireless link to Force Headquarters in Athens. Neither Forrester nor Fitzgibbon had disclosed that they were Signals personnel, so they immediately commenced to ply him with questions on the tactical employment of signals, hoping to catch him out. The answers which they received were disappointingly satisfactory, so Forrester asked to see the officer's British Forces identity card, but he claimed that he had lost it. This was enough for the two NCOs. The corporal poked his revolver into the officer's midriff, while Forrester cocked his rifle and skirmished menacingly in close order in the rear.
At that moment another H Section soldier happened to pass by and he was despatched post-haste to bring Lieutenant Paterson, who would give the formal order to shoot. Paterson arrived in due course and interrogated the prisoner closely. After a time he was satisfied that his identity was clearly established as a Royal Signals officer, so he ordered the NCOs to lower their arms.
Several hours later Paterson and his men, refreshed by a brief rest, returned to the beach. Daylight had brought hordes page 126 of enemy aircraft, which bombed and machine-gunned the trees and other places where troops might lie in shelter. Towards evening the men discovered a small two-masted schooner or caique riding at anchor in a small bay. This aroused the adventurous instincts of Paterson, who immediately saw a means of getting his beloved wireless sets away to Egypt. With two signalmen, he donned civilian clothes borrowed from some Greeks in a nearby village and the three set out to find the owner of the craft. The owner appeared willing to take them off, but unfortunately the auxiliary engine of the caique was not working. A soldier was quickly found who knew a little about diesel engines and the party rowed out to the craft to investigate. They found that little was needed to put the engine in running order apart from what could be done by a Greek engineer who was brought off protestingly from the shore. The men immediately set about making preparations for their voyage.
Meanwhile Major Oakes, in a wide reconnaissance of the area, had been to another embarkation beach many miles away to see if any ships were expected there that night. He returned with the news that the troops dispersed at the other beach were being taken off that night in cruisers. If time and space permitted the ships would call at C Beach to pick up the regiment's rear party and signals. At this news Paterson abandoned his preparations for escape in the caique and reluctantly gave orders for the destruction of the six wireless sets, apparently convinced at last that his efforts to evacuate them were doomed to failure. The men agreed heartily.
Twilight faded and darkness closed over the beach. A picket was posted to watch for the arrival of the ships while the rest of the men lay down to snatch some sleep. Some hours later a motor launch was heard out to sea and as it came nearer the men gave a shout. Faintly an answering hail came out of the darkness across the water. In a short time the men were wading through the shallows to the launch, which took them off to the ship in several lots. At 3 a.m. on the 28th HMS Havock sailed out of the bay and headed for Crete, where the men went ashore at Suda Bay at eleven o'clock.page 127
All that remains to be told of the adventures of New Zealand Divisional Signals in Greece is the story of what befell the unit's first reinforcements. On the day that Divisional Signals left Athens for Katerini the reinforcements were moved to Voula, about 12 miles from Piraeus, where the New Zealand Reinforcement Depot was established. At first Signals' reinforcements consisted of two officers and four signalmen only, but during April a number of the unit's men who had been evacuated sick and wounded to field ambulances and casualty clearing stations found their way through the British general hospital in Athens to the depot.
During April the port of Piraeus came in for much attention from enemy aircraft, and the men in the Reinforcement Depot were employed on various internal security duties. Some were stationed at Piraeus on mine-spotting duties and others manned ack-ack machine-gun posts on ships lying in the port and in Faliron Bay, below Piraeus. In the dock area of Piraeus, where 21 Battalion was employed on anti-sabotage duties, the wharves were dotted with large dumps of artillery ammunition, aerial bombs, and other highly explosive material unloaded from several ships in the harbour. On the evening of 6 April aircraft raided the port and dropped a number of mines which, besides causing a large number of civilian casualties outside the dock area, blew up a shed packed with artillery shells. Close by an ammunition ship tied at the wharf was set alight by a flying fragment of red-hot metal and began to burn at the stern. Many other ships were saved from immediate destruction by men of 21 Battalion, who ran around the decks and scooped up red-hot splinters with their steel helmets and threw them overboard. But the ammunition ship was well alight and in the early hours of next morning blew up and turned the ammunition-laden wharf into a vast conflagration. Other craft in the harbour were set afire by falling debris, and altogether the shipping losses from this one raid were very heavy.
In one of the salvage parties which were hurriedly sent from the New Zealand Reinforcement Depot at Voula to assist at the port was Signalman Hayward, 13 who during the rescue page 128 operations dived into the harbour fully clothed and saved several members of the crew of one of the ships. In a report which Lieutenant Wilkinson, the officer in command of Signals' reinforcements at the depot, prepared at the time from eye- witnesses' accounts, the incident was described as an act of outstanding gallantry.
Some time later Wilkinson, with some sick and walking wounded, left Voula to go to one of the embarkation beaches near Megara. At Daphni, a few miles from Athens, his small convoy was taken off the road by some Australian military police for some obscure reason—the MPs made some vague references to a Force Headquarters order which restricted travel on the roads after nightfall. The party remained at Daphni for some days, anxiously watching the road for some New Zealand transport in which it could continue its journey. At last some New Zealand Divisional Postal Unit and ASC vehicles appeared. Quickly Wilkinson arranged with the officer in charge of the postal unit vehicles to carry his men. The party reached Navplion, in the Peloponnese, in safety and was taken off by naval vessels.
The party which remained at Voula, and which consisted of Second-Lieutenant Hill and about fifteen men, was not so fortunate. It left Voula on the 23rd and arrived finally at Kalamata—or ‘Calamity Bay’, as it was known to most of the men taken prisoner there—in the south-west of the Peloponnese. Hill then had twenty men. They included Signalman Wrathall, Major Agar's driver, recently discharged from a British general hospital in Athens; and Signalmen Butterworth, Pritchard, 14 Atkin 15 and Hartigan from A Section. It is not clear from which place Pritchard, Atkin and Hartigan had reached Kalamata, but they arrived with their wireless truck and set still in perfectly good working order. From D Section were Signalman Drake, 16 a despatch rider who had been evacuated with a broken wrist, and Signalman Sullivan, 17 who had page 129 earned high praise while driving for an artillery officer of the Reinforcement Depot during the rescue operations at Piraeus a few days previously. From J Section was Signalman Miller, 18 the housie magnate, still with his ‘Joey Ward’ moustache carefully waxed to two slender points, and happily oblivious of the four charges of ‘conduct to the prejudice of good order and military discipline’ pending against him at Headquarters 4 Brigade.
Of these twenty men with Hill, only two, ‘Steamboat’ Brown 19 and Tubby Atkin, were successful in getting aboard the last boat to leave that night for the cruiser lying off shore. This was about half an hour after midnight on the 28th, after German columns had already closed in on the town. The surrender of the troops left in the town and on the beaches took place five hours later, but most of Signals, together with men from other units, took to the hills. Some gave themselves up after a few days to avoid reprisals against Greek civilians who had been warned by the Germans that they would be shot if found ‘in the vicinity of enemy troops’. Others held out in the hills for weeks, but ultimately most of them were assembled under German guards at Corinth. On 4 June Second- Lieutenant Hill, together with other New Zealand officers, was taken away from his men and sent to Salonika and thence to Germany.
And so, with the surrender at Kalamata, the Greek campaign came to an end, a campaign which had lasted only three short weeks and in which a small British force with slender resources in equipment had stood against a vastly superior enemy, retiring to stand and fight again and again, until at last it had withdrawn in good order from open and unprotected beaches to the island of Crete.
Against the German formations employed in Greece—three panzer divisions, four infantry divisions, two mountain divisions and an independent brigade—W Force had arrayed only two complete infantry divisions, one British armoured brigade, and a handful of artillery and supply services. The RAF in Greece page 130 had been greatly inferior in numbers to the German Air Force, had operated on two fronts, and had also to provide air defence for Piraeus, W Force's only major supply port. In addition, aircraft had been required for the defence of lines of communication and for co-operation with the Royal Navy. The Germans had maintained air superiority throughout the campaign, but there is no doubt whatever that the RAF had done all that it humanly could against crushing odds.
This German superiority in the air had had its effects on morale. In very many cases the effects of bombing and low-flying cannon and machine-gun attacks are moral rather than material, and this is especially the case when ill-disciplined troops come under such attacks. Those units in which discipline is lax cannot stand the acid test of violent and unopposed air attacks. In the greater dispersion required of troops and transport in modern warfare, a greater responsibility falls not only upon junior leaders but also on each individual soldier. Unfortunately many of the lessons inflicted by enemy air attacks in Greece were not absorbed by many of the troops; these lessons were to be learned again, more bitterly and more painfully, in the battle for Crete which was to follow.
Apart from the effect of air attacks on morale, the principal lessons learned by Signals in Greece were chastening. The general standard of army communications was inferior to that of other services, and also, it was suspected, to that of the German Army. One of the main reasons for this may have been that Royal Navy and RAF communications were designed and based of necessity on the use of wireless. The Army, on the other hand, relied primarily on line communications backed up by a comparatively weak wireless organisation, and so ran the risk of almost complete breakdown of communications when lines were damaged by air bombardment and other causes, and also when frequent and unexpected changes occurred in the locations of formations and units. Although wireless provided greater flexibility than line communication, it was found that a greater degree of mobility was essential, especially in operations in mountainous country such as that of Greece. Wireless sets—and wireless vehicles—in most cases were unnecessarily cumbersome and heavy. Even the wireless set No. page 131 11, with its spare batteries and impedimenta, was more than a pack load for three men.
Overhead telephone lines are especially vulnerable to damage by bombing and machine-gun fire from the air. They are also easily visible from the air. On the other hand, ground cables are frequently cut by shellfire and tracked vehicles. If they cannot be buried, or laid and built well away from main routes, they cannot be regarded as reliable means of communication. Alternative means of communication must therefore be provided.
A critical examination of the working of communications in the New Zealand Division during the Greek campaign revealed many weaknesses. While some of these defects were more or less omissions in routine training, or even, in some cases, failure to exercise common sense, others sprang from deeper causes. In the divisional concentration area at Katerini, where 65 miles of cable were laid out on the ground, there was only one case where cable was laid really badly—a hastily laid line in 4 Brigade's area which sustained very severe damage indeed from passing transport before it was built back from the track along which it lay. In most cases line detachments did not leave their emptied drums on the lines as they proceeded, with the result that when cable had to be taken in quickly no drums were readily available. The practice of recovering empty drums as lines were laid originated in training exercises in the Desert, where bedouin often removed drums, probably under the mistaken impression that they had been abandoned.
In Greece no serious interruptions to communications were caused by the cutting of lines by fifth columnists, although there were several cases in which definite evidence was disclosed that lines had been tampered with.
Some linemen adopted unorthodox methods of building lines and making cable fast. Building lines through villages was often a difficult task. Although villages were avoided as much as possible on a cable route, it was not always possible to do so, and in many cases the use of tracked vehicles to lay cable away from villages would have been necessary.
War equipment scales in cable were not sufficiently elastic. page 132 Brigade signal sections, for example, held only ten miles of D Mark III cable, a quantity which in very few cases might have been sufficient in desert operations, but which was quite inadequate to provide lines to all units of a brigade in operations in close country, where the amount of cable laid often represented nearly twice the total air-line distance between brigade headquarters and units. Sections attached to field regiments, with only six miles of D Mark III cable each, had an equally difficult problem. In some locations in Greece field regiments had batteries sited both forward and behind regimental headquarters, with the result that the link line between batteries alone would absorb all the section's cable.
The despised cable-laying apparatus No. 2 found an unexpected popularity in some locations in Greece because of the ease with which it could be used to lay short lines over broken country. It was designed to take No. 1 cable reels, which held only a third of a mile of D Mark III cable. There was no way in which No. 5 drums, which held one mile of D Mark III cable, could be fitted to this apparatus, so that it was often necessary to transfer cable from drums to the smaller reels.
Drum barrows came in usefully for laying longer lines over country that could not be traversed by cable-laying vehicles. This apparatus consisted of a light, strong, metal frame on which was fitted a mounting to take a square spindle for carrying drums No. 5 or No. 7, the capacity of the latter being two miles of single D Mark VIII cable. The barrow was carried on two light wheels fitted with pneumatic tires, and two men could easily propel it over semi-broken country. There was a number of uses to which the barrow could be put. L Section made a simple modification to one of its barrows to enable spare drums of cable to be carried. J Section fitted a light wooden deck, which enabled a No. 11 wireless set and a spare set of batteries to be carried by two men.
Maintenance of lines in 1941 had not yet been reduced to the art it became during the desert campaigns of 1942. The principal failure in maintenance procedure in Greece lay usually with section commanders and signal office superintendents, who failed to ensure that line parties were despatched promptly from both terminals when faults occurred. Sometimes the delay page 133 in the despatch of fault parties was caused by the difficulty which superintendents often had in deciding whether the fault was on the line or in the universal call switchboard. This type of switchboard had many shortcomings, of which the most trying was its instability. If it was adjusted finely for buzzer calling it responded well to all ringing impulses, but it was prone to fall out of adjustment very easily, especially if bombs fell nearby. At battalion terminals, where six-line universal call switchboards were invariably used, a telephone connected across the line side of the board enabled any failure in its adjustment to be detected more easily.
In Greece most formation and unit commanders enjoyed odd moments of optimism, but none of these, it is feared, sprang from their experiences with wireless as a means of communication. In most cases wireless communication was disappointing; in some it was non-existent. This failure was attributed to two main causes: incorrect calibration of sets and the inexperience of operators. Perhaps the latter was the greater cause. Operators did not seem to be able to get the best out of their sets. For one thing, few of them understood the correct adjustment of ‘anode tapping’ and aerial tuning controls. Others—and this was a graver fault—could not master that nicety of adjustment in the beat frequency oscillator pitch control, which caused a weak signal to penetrate atmospheric and other interference which assailed their receivers. In most cases the calibration of sets supplied from Ordnance was incorrect and, as there was no sub-standard wavemeter on the equipment scale of a divisional signals, little could be done to overcome this difficulty. The rod aerial supplied with the No. 11 wireless set limited its performance considerably; it was found that the use of a half-wave horizontal aerial brought better results. The circuit arrangement which accommodated the output meter of the set, however, was not suitable for use with a half-wave aerial and here again the operator fell into difficulties.
In contrast to these criticisms the general deportment of the men during the campaign deserves more than passing notice. These men, particularly those of B (cable) Section and the despatch riders of D Section, displayed a remarkable appetite for endurance and fortitude. In the brigade and field regiment page 134 sections, too, the men bent their energies to the immediate tasks in hand without thought for their own safety or comfort. That is not to say that the men in other but less arduous employment did not measure up to the standards of soldierly demeanour. In Greece there were no recorded instances of any indiscipline among the other ranks of the unit in the presence of the enemy.
1 Maj-Gen Rt Hon Sir Harold Barrowclough, PC KCMG, CB, DSO and bar, MC, ED, m.i.d., MC (Gk), Legion of Merit (US), Croix de Guerre (Fr); Wellington; born Masterton, 23 Jun 1894; barrister and solicitor; NZ Rifle Bde 1915-19 (CO 4 Bn); wounded 1917; comd 7 NZ Inf Bde in UK, 1940, 6 Bde May 1940-Feb 1942; GOC 2 NZEF in Pacific and GOC 3 NZ Div Aug 1942-Oct 1944; Chief Justice of New Zealand.
7 Brig R. Miles, CBE, DSO and bar, MC, ED, m.i.d.; born Springston, 10 Dec 1892; Regular soldier; NZ Fd Arty 1914-19; CRA 2 NZ Div 1940-41; wounded and p.w. 1 Dec 1941; escaped 29 Mar 1943; died in SpainOct 1943.