The Rearguard assembles at Elasson
The Rearguard assembles at Elasson
On 18 April, when 5 Brigade was approaching Thermopylae, 4 Brigade was clear of Servia Pass and 6 Brigade, now the rearguard, was completing its defences. To the north across the small plain the troops could see the town of Elasson and beyond it the golden domes of the monastery overlooking the entrance to the pass. Behind them was the mountain mass of Akrotiri encircled by two highways, each capable of taking heavy traffic. The more direct route, that to the east, had just been prepared for motor transport. The other, the more ancient, ran through a pleasant valley with picturesque villages and groves of poplar trees until it entered the gorge of the Sarandaporos River and circled south and east to the road junction at Tirnavos.
The approaches to this town had to be held until the night of 18–19 April. Twenty-fourth Battalion was to the east, astride the road and about five miles south of Elasson. There was little cover from vegetation and it was almost impossible to dig weapon pits, but the area had its advantages; any movement about Elasson could be observed and to the west of the road there were several gullies at most convenient angles for defensive fire. C Company was astride the road, covered by a section of L Troop 33 Anti-Tank Battery.1 D and A Companies were to the west of the road.
Twenty-fifth Battalion had a somewhat different task. Its position was two to three miles north-east of Dhomenikon on the low rounded crests between that township and the villages fringing the western foothills. The position was not perfect but the undulations were distinct enough to provide some cover and the observation points gave a clear view of the pass and the roads south from Elasson. D Company was to the east covering a track to the village of Velesnikon; C Company, with B Company 24 Battalion, was astride the highway; B and A Companies were to the west. In support there were, at first, J and K Troops of 33 Anti-Tank Battery.
Twenty-sixth Battalion, after its arduous withdrawal from the west of Servia Pass, was in reserve behind 25 Battalion and near Dhomenikon. Brigade Headquarters was on the eastern road, but the signalmen had laid a wire across the mountains to 25 Battalion. This was a difficult task, the value of which during the subsequent battle it is ‘impossible to overestimate.’2
1 L Troop was withdrawn on 16 April to join Allen Force at Tempe.
2 6 Brigade report. See map on p. 304.
It had also been intended that 7 Medium Regiment, 6 New Zealand and 2/3 Australian Field Regiments should join 6 Brigade, but the situation at Servia Pass had forced a change in plans. The 2/3 Field Regiment and one troop5 64 Medium Regiment had come south that night, 16–17 April, but 6 Field Regiment and one battery of 7 Medium Regiment remained at the pass and afterwards moved out with 4 Brigade.
On 17 April when Brigadiers Miles and Barrowclough had again discussed the strength of the artillery support, they had both been ‘apprehensive of an encircling movement by enemy AFVs round open country on the left or western flank and rear.’ They had decided that the greater proportion of the guns arriving that day must support 25 Battalion; the eastern flank would have no anti-tank guns and certain areas on its front would not be covered by the heavier artillery. ‘In the light of future events this decision was unfortunate, as the enemy did in fact attack by the Eastern route and not by the left flank. Guns on the eastern route would have been very effective ….’6
2 See Chapter 14.
3 Col G. J. O. Stewart, DSO, ED, m.i.d.; Auckland; born Auckland, 22 Nov 1908; importer; CO 4 Fd Regt Aug 1942–Mar 1943, Dec 1943–Mar 1945; CRA 2 NZ Div 22 Feb–16 Mar 1945; wounded 3 Mar 1943.
4 Capt K. A. Longmore; Wellington; born NZ 15 May 1918; clerk; p.w. 23 Jul 1942.
5 The composite battery from 64 Medium Regiment was already with Savige Force; the remaining troop was sent to Dhomokos as there was insufficient ammunition to justify its retention with either of the rearguards.
6 NZ Artillery report, Part III.
The supporting arms from Duff Force2 had come in from the road junction at Elevtherokhorion, the Bren-carrier platoons of 25 and 26 Battalions returning to their respective units along the western road, those of 24 Battalion (less one section) deploying along the eastern road to check any possible threat from the direction of the Pinios Gorge. No. 3 Company 27 (Machine Gun) Battalion, another part of Duff Force, was divided in much the same way. One platoon, less a section, came under the command of 24 Battalion and the rest of the company joined 25 Battalion.
The demolitions in the area had been prepared by 6 and 7 Field Companies. In the eastern sector 7 Field Company had placed charges in the steep road leading up to the 24 Battalion positions and these, with artillery support from the west, would, it was hoped, provide adequate protection. The western approaches had been the biggest problem, the gradient being easier and the countryside more suitable for tanks, but Lieutenant Rix-Trott3 with parties from 7 Field Company had prepared demolitions, wrecked bridges and placed mines alongside the two bridges over the Xerias River. They would be demolished after the withdrawal of the rearguard.
But in spite of all this work and the assembly of so many units, the overall situation was not reassuring. Brigadier Barrowclough had been told little about the fighting on the other fronts, but what information there was suggested that his force at Elasson was in danger of encirclement from either flank. Twenty-first Battalion had withdrawn through the Pinios Gorge and it was quite possible that the Germans would strike westwards to Tirnavos, thereby cutting off 6 Brigade. Savige Force and 1 Armoured Brigade were to the west, but information about their movements was somewhat obscure and it was thought that the enemy could possibly encircle the brigade from the direction of Trikkala. The movement of 26 Battalion to Dhomenikon had been, in part, an effort to cover this exposed flank.
1 With 21 Battalion.
3 Maj K. Rix-Trott, ED; Uganda, East Africa; born South Africa, 7 Jun 1901; civil engineer.