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To Greece

New Zealand Divisional Cavalry Regiment Witbdraws to the Main Defence Line

New Zealand Divisional Cavalry Regiment Witbdraws to the Main Defence Line

ON 9 April XVIII Corps (General Böhme) reached Salonika1 and was ordered to attack the Aliakmon line. Strong patrols moved out towards Edhessa, Veroia (‘main axis of advance’) and Katerini, but the swift advance of XXXX Corps (General Stumme) from Yugoslavia through the Klidhi Pass forced the Allies to withdraw2 from both the Edhessa and Veroia passes. The greater part of XVIII Corps was then diverted south towards Katerini and Mount Olympus. Sixth Mountain Division advancing from Veroia would attack the northern slopes in the sector held by 16 Australian Brigade; 2 Panzer Division would cross the Aliakmon River and force the passes leading to Elasson and Larisa, the key towns through which the forward brigades of W Force would inevitably have to withdraw.

In the original plans the New Zealand Divisional Cavalry Regiment was to have opposed the crossing and then, with a series of delaying actions, was to have withdrawn through 5 Brigade astride Olympus Pass. On 10 April, however, General Freyberg had warned Lieutenant-Colonel Carruth3 that it was no longer necessary to get seriously involved. So When rain fell that night and left the roads almost impassable for heavy traffic, the armoured cars were withdrawn from their emplacements along the river bank and moved to cover the more likely crossing places.

On 12 April the observers on the hillsides reported sunlight flashing from the windscreens and then long columns of motor vehicles ‘across the front to our left.’ A Squadron from its position on the river bank opposite the ruins of the road and railway bridges opened fire about 2 p.m. on the motor-cyclists who were confidently leading the way. The troop hastily dispersed, leaving one man and two motor-cycles lying on the road. After that the Germans advanced more cautiously, but it was impossible to prevent them

1 See p. 159.

3 Lt-Col H. G. Carruth, ED, m.i.d.; Whangarei; born Whangarei, 6 Nov 1895; solicitor; CO Div Cav Feb–Jul 1941; Comp Trg Depot Jul 1941–Apr 1942; wounded Apr 1941.

page 236 forming a screen along the northern embankment. At 7.15 p.m., when the forward vehicles of the columns were between Niselion and the demolished road bridge, one gun1 of E Troop 5 Field Regiment sent over the first two rounds fired at the enemy by the Divisional Artillery during the war. The Germans thereupon withdrew out of range to spend the night assembling their assault groups.

Their attack was launched next morning, 13 April, about 9 a.m. when concentrations of shells and mortar bombs fell upon the areas opposite the demolished bridges. A Squadron, well protected by the high floodbanks, suffered no losses and withheld its fire until the Germans attempted to cross near the ruins of the traffic bridge. Then, with the support of E Troop 5 Field Regiment, the crews opened fire with all they had—rifles, anti-tank rifles and machine guns—and scattered the groups attempting to launch kapok floats. One enemy gun received a direct hit as it was being loaded on to a float, several men were wounded, some ammunition was hit, ‘the detonations adding to the dangers of the crossing place.’2 But downstream the enemy were more successful and by nightfall had established a secure bridgehead.

Long before then the New Zealanders had withdrawn. About midday B Squadron had come out from its position up-stream and moved back with the artillery to the anti-tank ditch some six miles away. A Squadron shifted east to watch the railway bridge, where the volume of fire suggested an attempt to cross in that sector. When no attack developed, the squadron withdrew through C Squadron to join the others behind the anti-tank ditch. Thus by nightfall C Squadron was astride the main road overlooking the ditch, B Squadron was along a ridge to the west and A Squadron near Stavros. E Troop 5 Field Regiment was close to Regimental Headquarters, but 3 Section 6 Field Company, having fired all prepared demolitions, was well to the rear.

The night was undisturbed but at first light, 14 April, the Germans again moved forward. The Luftwaffe was no great menace, the few aircraft that came over being content to observe rather than to strafe, but the artillery which had been brought across the river shelled C Squadron in the central sector and covered the infantry when they left their trucks and scrambled across the anti-tank ditch. The tanks concentrated along the coast, groping their way through the minefield and eventually encircling the ditch. No further delaying action being possible, the force withdrew through Katerini to the Mount Olympus area. The artillery rejoined 5 Field Regiment; B Squadron Divisional Cavalry Regiment covered the

1 The gun was commanded by Sgt W. F. McCarthy, who died of wounds on Crete on 21 May 1941; the gun-layer was Bdr R. H. Tebbutt, who was taken prisoner in Crete.

2 Report by 2/38 Anti-Tank Unit on operations, 12–14 April 1941.

page 237 entrance to the pass and the other squadrons withdrew over the pass. The three small bridges between Katerini and the pass were blown by a section from 5 Field Park Company with the CRE, Lieutenant-Colonel Clifton, present to check the results.

The carriers of B Squadron were then withdrawn, leaving the armoured cars astride the road. The orders for their withdrawal came over in clear from Colonel Stewart, GSO I. He asked the adjutant, Captain Pigou,1 if he understood Haeremai. That failing, he suggested Talahena as a code-word; it was understood and the instruction was ‘Put it into effect immediately.’ Consequently at 5 p.m., when the artillery observers in the mountains were reporting the appearance of German vehicles along the road from Katerini, the armoured cars of B Squadron were through the lines of 5 Brigade and on their way over the pass to join the regiment in the Dholikhi area.

That night Lieutenant-Colonel Carruth received orders to move the regiment to the Dheskati area, where it would be under the command of Anzac Corps and responsible for the road between Karperon and Elasson, a route by which 1 Armoured Brigade might possibly withdraw from Grevena to Larisa. So next day, with N Troop 34 Battery 7 Anti-Tank Regiment and the section from 6 Field Company, the regiment moved across to that area, where the engineers constructed road blocks and prepared demolitions to the west of the town. There were as yet no signs of any Germans, but during 16 April 26 Battalion and elements of 19 Australian Brigade came through after their exhausting withdrawal2 from the upper Aliakmon valley.

1 Lt-Col W. R. Pigou, ED; Spring Creek, Marlborough; born Tua Marina, Marlborough, 18 Apr 1900; farmer; Adjt, Div Cav, May 1940–Jun 1941; Chief Instructor, AFV School, Waiouru, Dec 1941–Dec 1942; CO Otago Mtd Rifles Dec 1942–Jun 1943.

2 See pp. 2414.