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To Greece

The Withdrawal continues through Kalabaka, 16 April

The Withdrawal continues through Kalabaka, 16 April

In the Greek sector the roads were still clogged with traffic. On the night of 15–16 April a British transport company had crossed the Pindhos Mountains for another load of Greek troops. Lieutenant Pool, whose truck had broken down, had not gone with the convoy, but next morning he was sent forward through the mass of refugees with written instructions from Brigadier Savige for the company to disregard the Greeks and to return to Kalabaka. At the foot of the Metsovon Pass he met the trucks returning empty—the Greeks of their own accord had refused to move east. Once back at Kalabaka the company divided, the majority remaining attached to Savige Force, the New Zealand lorries returning to Nikaia.

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At last light 1 Armoured Brigade, now the rearguard, was preparing to hold positions on the south bank of the Venetikos River. But at 11 p.m. its commander, Brigadier Charrington, announced that next day all units would continue southwards through Kalabaka. Accordingly, at 10 a.m. on 16 April the withdrawal1 continued, 27 New Zealand Machine Gun Battalion leaving at 2 p.m. and the rearguard at 3 p.m. Movement was just as difficult as it had been the previous day, but no effort was made to turn eastwards along the Karperon-Dheskati-Elasson diversion, which was still being screened by the New Zealand Divisional Cavalry. Apparently no patrols had been sent to survey this route and the only information available suggested the danger of enemy interference.

The route was therefore south through Velemisti and Kalabaka, along ‘an awful road which had been bombed very heavily the day before. The effect of the rain on the damaged track, metalled only in occasional stretches was immediate and serious …. Maps were unreliable and the better looking of two routes petered out in a quagmire. Bomb holes had to be filled in. In places the road had been quite destroyed and deviations had to be made frequently, while every vehicle that used them made the mud worse. Trucks which slithered off the mountain track and down the hillside had to be hauled back …. Everywhere lay the debris of the retreating army. Ammunition, arms and equipment, derelict vehicles, dead men and animals ….’2

Movement was necessarily very slow. The leading vehicles passed through Kalabaka before nightfall but the main body spent the night in and about Velemisti, about 20 miles along the road. The rearguard had moved only five miles. Yet it had been ‘a blissful day as it poured with rain the whole time with very low clouds, so there was no straffing on the road.’3 As one machine-gunner said: ‘It was the most marvellous move we made—over a mountainous area by roads which if we had seen in daylight we would have classed as impassable. One section of 9 miles took us 6 hours.’4

Next morning, 17 April, as the brigade was continuing its withdrawal through Kalabaka, the question of its future movements had to be decided. General Mackay had hoped to use it in the country south of Larisa to cover the withdrawal of 6 Brigade.5 The orders from General Blamey which arrived about midday were that the force should remain at Kalabaka to cover the with-

1 The bridge over the Venetikos River was left undemolished. Brigadier Savige sent back a British engineer from 292 Field Company, RE, who fired the charges. The Germans by that time were through Grevena.

2 Waller, op. cit., p. 172.

3 CRME file.

4 Major P. W. Wright, 27 MG Battalion.

5 See pp. 2378.

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of Savige Force. But the orders from General Wilson had been that it should pull back into reserve at Atalandi, about 180 miles away and well behind the Thermopylae line. The solution finally adopted was that the brigade should leave a small detachment—a carrier platoon of 1 Rangers, a troop from 102 Anti-Tank Regiment and 5 Platoon 27 (Machine Gun) Battalion, the two troops from the New Zealand Divisional Cavalry Regiment and the seven cruiser tanks from 1 Armoured Brigade—to operate with Savige Force.

The rest of the brigade group went on to the Atalandi area. At the Pinios River the traffic bridge1 had been unexpectedly wrecked but the column was diverted north to another, by which, in spite of air attacks near the river and afterwards about Larisa, it was able to join the main stream of W Force vehicles withdrawing towards Thermopylae. On the evening of 18 April the units were dispersing about Atalandi, 27 (Machine Gun) Battalion (less two companies and one platoon) going to an area eight miles north of the town.

1 See p. 312.