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To Greece

Fourth Brigade Completes its Withdrawal, 18–19 April

Fourth Brigade Completes its Withdrawal, 18–19 April

At first light on the morning of 18 April 4 Brigade was completing its withdrawal from Servia Pass. As yet all had gone according to plan: the Germans were held up by the demolitions and the convoy was making good time along the road to Elasson and Larisa.

The rearguard, on the other hand, was to be less fortunate. At 5.40 a.m. Lieutenant-Colonel Kippenberger, having decided that all 18 Battalion had come through, gave instructions for the first of the remaining demolitions to be blown. ‘The sound of this explosion alarmed further stragglers of 18 Bn who came up within the next 20 minutes, and I then waited a further 20 minutes for a single straggler, blowing the second mine at 0620 hours. This additional delay was most unfortunate and if I had been aware that there was any danger of our retreat being cut off I think I would have abandoned these stragglers.’1 The group then hastened south, blowing several demolitions at which the engineers had been anxiously waiting, and finally reporting to Brigadier Puttick at the assembly area by 7.40 a.m. With the brigade safely away from the pass, the Brigadier left to overtake the main body.

The last four demolitions were then blown and the rearguard moved off at 8.5 a.m., Lieutenant Kelsall leading with the 6 Field Company vehicles, then Lieutenant-Colonel Kippenberger in his staff car and, at the rear, Lieutenant Green with three Bren carriers. Shortly afterwards the first German aircraft came over, so harassing the little column that it halted on three separate occasions before approaching Elevtherokhorion and the Servia-Olympus crossroads, which were covered by the rearguard from the Divisional Cavalry Regiment and 34 Battery 7 Anti-Tank Regiment.

When the leading vehicles were some 400 yards away from the bridge below the pass a shell whistled down the road, hitting one truck but causing no casualties. The anti-tank gunners, who had already observed a German force approaching from the Mount Olympus area, had thought that the rearguard was another German column. Lieutenant Kelsall, who jumped out to investigate, looked back up the road to see how the rest of the column had fared and was amazed to see that two tanks had come over from the Mount Olympus road and driven into the middle of the convoy. And coming over to support them were half-tracked vehicles with

1 Lt-Col Kippenberger, report on operations of 4 Infantry Brigade rearguard, 17 and 18 April.

page 297 ‘motorised infantrymen sitting up … in rows of four like toy soldiers.’ Fortunately for him he turned about and saw Divisional Cavalry officers at the crossroads waving for him to come on. His truck was rushed over the bridge, up the curve of the road and over the ridge, where the Divisional Cavalry Bren carriers were lying ‘nose to tail in the lee of the hillside.’1

The rest of the little convoy found it more difficult to get clear. Two or three aircraft dived down to bomb and machine-gun the open stretch of road, some of the vehicles were hit by shells from the tanks, and the engineers had to seek shelter along the roadside. It was impossible for Lieutenant-Colonel Kippenberger to organise any counter-attack that would halt the tanks and supporting infantrymen. A two-pounder on portée had soon been silenced ‘and there were two bodies on the platform.’2 Every vehicle had now stopped, dead and wounded sappers lay beside them and on the ridge above them German infantry were debussing.

With a small group of six the Colonel left the road for the western hills and tramped south all that day Away to the left they saw on one occasion the narrow road ‘packed solid with German transport, head to tail, tanks and guns, lorry-loads of infantry’; on another ‘a group of German officers in long greatcoats …. standing beside a house, looking at maps and southwards through their glasses.’3 Then, as they neared the lines of 6 Brigade, they were shelled by both the defending artillery and the German tanks, but they were eventually able, late that afternoon, to reach the lines of 25 Battalion and be accepted by a naturally cautious sentry.

In the meantime the 4 Brigade convoy had been moving smoothly through Elasson and southwards towards Larisa, from which centre it was to have left the highway and followed the AlmirosLamia road to Thermopylae. But Brigadier Puttick, when he reported early that morning to Advanced Headquarters New Zealand Division, was advised to move with the Australian convoys along the main highway through Pharsala. The units do not seem to have expected any other route to be followed so the convoy continued south from Larisa without the confusion which was a feature of the withdrawal of 5 Brigade.

Yet the journey was more nerve-racking. The weather of 18 April was very different from that of the 17th. The drizzling rain and mist which had screened 5 Brigade during the early part of its withdrawal had now cleared away. The Luftwaffe was out in strength, dive-bombing and machine-gunning, almost unopposed,

3 Ibid., p. 32.

page 298 the 70 miles of highway between Larisa and Thermopylae. The Royal Air Force could now give little assistance. On 16 April the squadrons had started to withdraw from the airfields about Larisa, and for the next few days were dealing with the problem of operating from new fields when ground staffs moving south were jammed in the retreating column and the refuelling and rearming parties coming north were blocked by the stream of southbound traffic. Worse still, two squadrons and their ground parties which had been detailed to go to the airfield at Amfiklia, just south of Thermopylae, had continued south to Elevsis, and could not from there give adequate protection to the retreating columns.

It was therefore inevitable that there should be much stopping and starting along the highway. The prescribed distance between vehicles was no longer kept and traffic often jammed the more narrow stretches, especially the cuttings south of Ptolemais and the long climb to the crest of the ridge at Dhomokos. On the appearance of the Luftwaffe lookouts would drum heavily on the roofs of the cabs, drivers would clamp on their brakes and passengers scurry into the fields for safety. Then when the sky was clear there would be an irritating waste of time when nervous individuals hesitated to come back and wrecked trucks had to be pushed off the highway.

The longest halt began about 9.30 a.m. with the hitting of a truckload of explosives and the wrecking of the embankment leading up to the bridge over the Mavrolongos River to the north of Pharsala. The northern half of the column then jammed up head to tail for nearly ten miles, presenting a perfect target for the Luftwaffe. The embankment was eventually repaired by Australian engineers, but it was 1.30 p.m. before the trucks were once again moving towards Lamia.

The raid at 9.30 a.m. had been followed by intermittent attacks throughout the morning and by 2.30 p.m. a continuous attack was being made. Anzac Corps Headquarters appealed to W Force, ‘This road is our life-line for next few days and we must have air protection if humanly possible.’1 Little could be done but next day, 19 April, the two fighter squadrons operating over the plain of Thessaly had some success shooting down aircraft that had been harassing the columns about Pharsala. This would explain the occasion north of Dhomokos when the column was ‘greatly cheered by three Hurricanes which suddenly appeared and downed three Stukas like pigeons.’2 But in most cases the efforts of the outnumbered air force were not observed by many of the ground troops,

1 Anzac Corps to BTG, O. 331. This was the second of two urgent messages.

2 Kippenberger, p. 35.

page 299 hence their tendency, so far as air operations were concerned, to be unjustly critical of the desperate efforts undertaken so gallantly on their behalf.

As a result of these unpleasant conditions 4 Brigade Group did not reach Thermopylae until the night of 18–19 April. The infantry losses, considering the traffic blocks and the numerous air raids, were relatively low: 18 Battalion had three killed and twenty wounded; 19 Battalion had two killed and three wounded; 20 Battalion had some slight casualties. The artillery units were more fortunate. Sixth Field Regiment had been caught in the great traffic block south of Pharsala but, unlike 64 Medium Regiment, RA, which had suffered heavily when the Heinkels came over, all guns had been brought out and no casualties were reported. Thirty-first Anti-Tank Battery, which had left Servia Pass after 6 Field Regiment, was strafed several times along the highway and, after an ammunition truck was hit by a bomb, continued south in several groups. Battery Headquarters, some B Echelon vehicles and one gun were in Molos by nightfall, but the rest of the unit had been detained to support Brigadier Lee in his rearguard position at Dhomokos.

The British and Australian convoys had more trouble than this but it was the resulting loss of time that at this stage gave the Higher Command cause for concern. Early in the afternoon Anzac Corps Headquarters sent an officer forward to see if Generals Mackay and Freyberg with the rearguard could remain in position for another twenty-four hours. That, however, was impossible. When the officer reached Mackay's headquarters about 4 p.m. the Germans had already forced a crossing1 of the Pinios River and were threatening to enter Larisa and cut the withdrawal route of 6 Brigade and Savige Force.