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To Greece

Sixth Brigade covers the Withdrawal, 18 April

Sixth Brigade covers the Withdrawal, 18 April

At 6 Brigade Headquarters the day had opened with the receipt of disturbing information from the south-east. About 6 a.m. a liaison officer reported that the enemy was in the village of Gonnos and probing southwards towards the Pinios River. Brigadier Allen expected to be closely engaged and to have difficulty in withdrawing. The position of 6 Brigade was now less secure. If the Germans thrust westwards across the foothills of Mount Olympus from Gonnos to Tirnavos they could block the withdrawal of 6 Brigade, and it was always possible that they might attempt to isolate Allen Force, 6 Brigade and Savige Force by landing parachute troops on Larisa airfield.

Brigadiers Barrowclough and Miles acted swiftly. Headquarters 5 Field Regiment and 28 Battery 5 Field Regiment, then in Divisional Reserve, were sent forward, F Troop to join the 26 Battalion carrier platoon and protect the eastern approaches from Gonnos towards Tirnavos and the rest of the force to cover Larisa airfield from the south.

Then about 8 a.m., after Brigadier Puttick had reported that 4 Brigade had almost completed its withdrawal from Servia Pass, Headquarters 6 Brigade learnt that the enemy had attacked the rearguard at Elevtherokhorion. This was most disturbing. It had been expected that the demolitions in the Mount Olympus2 and Servia passes would delay the enemy for at least one or two days. As it was, the Germans had cut off the rearguard of 4 Brigade and, although gallantly opposed by the anti-tank guns at Elevtherokhorion, were about to come through the defile towards Elasson. They appeared about 11 a.m.

The necessary delay was imposed by the artillery. The 4·5-inch guns of the troop from 64 Medium Regiment immediately opened fire and continued until the late afternoon to harass the more distant targets. Then when its ammunition was exhausted it withdrew to Dhomokos. At the same time the German column had been halted

2 See p. 269.

page 304
6 brigade rearguard action at elasson, 18 april 1941

6 brigade rearguard action at elasson, 18 april 1941

by the demolitions and harassed by the 25-pounders. The 2/3 Australian Field Regiment, which had been ordered to engage with heavy concentrations any enemy forces which appeared, had carried out these instructions ‘in a most praise-worthy way.’1 So although the guns had not been used in a strictly anti-tank role their shellfire had ‘a strongly deterrent effect on enemy tanks and many enemy tank movements were stopped and dispersed by our long range gunfire.’2 Due to the amount brought back3 some days before by 5 Field Regiment, there was no shortage of ammunition. The 2/3 Field Regiment4 fired 6500 rounds during the day, the paint

1 NZA report, Part III.

2 6 Brigade report.

3 See p. 260.

4 This regiment afterwards supported the New Zealand Division most efficiently at Kriekouki on the 26th and at Porto Rafti on the 27th. Its commander, Lt-Col H. W. Strutt, took charge of the New Zealand artillery in Crete.

page 305 of the gun barrels blistering with the heat. And the lesson for the Division was that even confident tank crews hesitate to move through concentrations of shellfire.

The Germans, however, showed considerable enterprise and determination. Undeterred by the demolitions and the shellfire, they turned eastwards across very rough country and concentrated just off the secondary road between Tsaritsani and Elasson. By 6 p.m. many infantry carriers and about thirty tanks were in the area supported by covering fire from their own artillery. As several tracks ran down from there to the highway below 24 Battalion, it was obvious that the expected tank attack would be on that front and not across the open country to the west before 25 Battalion. And to make the task more difficult for the defenders, the demolitions made that morning along the road to 24 Battalion's position had been very disappointing. In half an hour a working party could have cleared the way for wheeled traffic. Without explosives for further demolitions, the battalion had no counter to the possible tank attack other than the normal infantry equipment and some pounds of gelignite.

The preparations for the withdrawal that night had, however, been going on very smoothly. The Bren-carrier platoon of 26 Battalion had been sent to support F Troop 5 Field Regiment by patrolling the open country east of Tirnavos. Sixth Field Ambulance, which had had a Main Dressing Station near the township and an Advanced Dressing Station behind each of 24 and 25 Battalions, had thinned out, leaving ambulance cars with the independent groups. The B Echelon transport of the battalions had left early that morning, passing through Larisa to join the convoys now hastening to the area behind Thermopylae. The parties moved separately but all had an exhausting day, particularly when they were part of the long column, nose to tail and two deep, which for several hectic hours had been bombed outside Pharsala. They all reached Molos that night and were soon under the shelter of the olive trees, but several trucks had been damaged and many men killed.

Later in the morning Divisional Headquarters learnt that there would not be enough motor transport to shift the whole of 6 Brigade. The DAQMG, Major Ross,1 suggested that a train could be sent from Larisa and Lieutenant-Colonel Gentry hurried there about midday to investigate. At the railway station he met two sappers from 19 Army Troops Company, one of whom as an engine-driver was convinced that a train could be assembled, provided the bombing was not too severe. Gentry returned to

1 Lt-Col A. B. Ross, MBE, ED, m.i.d.; born NZ 25 Apr 1899; civil servant; DAQMG NZ Div Mar 1941–Jun 1942; AA & QMG 1–27 Jun 1942; killed in action 27 Jun 1942.

page 306 Divisional Headquarters, leaving the engineers to assemble the engines and rolling stock. Orders were then sent to 26 Battalion and about 4.30 p.m. the companies left for Larisa in the trucks of an English transport unit. The journey to the siding two miles south of the town was no different from that of any other road party on 18 April. Outside Larisa the troops had to debus and scatter about the fields while some Stukas attempted to wreck the bridge over the Pinios River. They failed, but one private was killed by a bomb splinter. The unit then continued on its way through the battered town to the open country and the siding with its collection of damaged carriages and wagons.

Fourth Reserve Mechanical Transport Company, which was to bring out 24 and 25 Battalions, had meanwhile assembled to the rear of these units with instructions that the convoy must go south to Larisa and from there follow the secondary road to Volos and Thermopylae. But late that afternoon the failure of Allen Force to hold the Pinios Gorge1 made it necessary to safeguard this route. The battalions, instead of driving straight through to Thermopylae, were ordered to stop at Nea Ankhialos and Velestinon and block the possible encircling movement by the enemy from Tempe towards Lamia.

The more direct threat to 6 Brigade was the armoured force which had, ever since 5.30 p.m., been assembling below 24 Battalion. Its supporting artillery was now shelling more heavily and the attack was expected at any moment. But the day dragged on and at 7.30 p.m., when the withdrawal began, there had still been no movement by the tanks. A Company and 14 Platoon C Company had no difficulties but 13 and 15 Platoons were very close to trouble when the German armour moved forward about 8 p.m. The guns of 2/3 Australian Field Regiment away to the west in the 25 Battalion area forced the lorried infantry to take cover, but the thirty tanks continued to lumber forward, firing steadily and supported by colourful tracer fire curving over from all angles. They passed the forward section of 15 Platoon, forcing it to withdraw hurriedly over the ridges, but at the first demolitions the commanders hesitated, probably because the obstacles in the fading light appeared more formidable than they actually were. The attack gradually lost momentum and by 9 p.m. 13 and 15 Platoons were hurrying through the darkness to the lorries. Away out on the left flank 17 Platoon (Second-Lieutenant Reynolds2) had opened up with Brens and anti-tank rifles, but the concentrated

1 See pp. 32432.

2 Maj J. W. Reynolds, DSO; Hamilton; born Hamilton, 15 Jan 1919; bank clerk; GSO III (Ops) 2 NZ Div Mar–Aug 1943; BM 6 Bde Nov 1944–Jun 1945; wounded 28 Jun 1942.

page 307 fire from the group of tanks soon forced it and the other platoons of D Company to withdraw to the waiting trucks.

There were no casualties but it was a close call. Had the artillery not delayed the tank attack until last light the battalion would probably have been overwhelmed. Instead, it had slipped away. The engineers blew another set of demolitions and at Tirnavos Brigade Headquarters, with Bren-carrier support from 24 and 26 Battalions, waited astride the road for 25 Battalion to come down the western highway.

The 24 Battalion convoy continued on its way, passing through Larisa, where many buildings were on fire, and then turning eastwards towards Volos and the coast. About five miles beyond the town the lights of trucks were seen approaching from the east and many feared that they came from the German column that was emerging from the Pinios Gorge. To everyone's relief they were Australian, part of Allen Force withdrawing from Tempe. Shortly afterwards General Freyberg appeared, ordered all lights to be switched on and sent the column on its way. By 2.30 a.m., 19 April, the battalion was at Nea Ankhialos, where the companies debussed and the transport continued south. Lieutenant-Colonel Shuttleworth with his unit rearguard arrived about 6.30 a.m.

There was less urgency about the withdrawal of 25 Battalion. The machine and anti-tank gunners had engaged odd targets at long range and 2/3 Australian Field Regiment had been shelling continuously, but no enemy force seriously threatened the battalion. Small detachments had consequently been free to make an early withdrawal. One battery of 2/3 Australian Field Regiment left shortly after 26 Battalion. B Troop 5 Field Regiment left at 7 p.m. and with F Troop from the eastern road moved for the Volos area, where the brigade was to make a temporary stand.

The main body, with B Company 24 Battalion and other units, embussed about 8.30 p.m. and passed through Tirnavos shortly after 24 Battalion. Some vehicles were ditched and had to be abandoned along the highway which was rapidly breaking up, but before dawn the convoy reached its destination south of Velestinon.

The rearguard1 (Major Williams2), with the Bren carriers from Tirnavos, was to cover the withdrawal of the whole brigade. The Divisional Cavalry Regiment,3 with the remaining eight guns of

1 C Coy 25 Bn, the carrier platoon 25 Bn, 7 Pl 3 MG Coy, N Tp 34 A-Tk Bty, one tp 2/3 Aust Fd Regt.

2 Lt-Col C. J. Williams, ED; Opotiki; born Lydbrook, England, 16 Apr 1907; schoolteacher; Chief Instructor, NZ Tactical School, Feb–Sep 1942; Chief Administrative Officer, International Refugee Organisation, Germany, 1947–50; Director of Budget and Management, International HQ, IRO, Geneva, 1951–52; Principal, Opotiki College.

3 Less B Squadron with Allen Force in the Pinios Gorge.

page 308 34 Anti-Tank Battery under command, was to follow up the rearguard and advise the engineers so that they could blow the demolitions when all troops were through. Once through Larisa it was to keep in touch with its B Squadron,1 which was to cover the withdrawal of Allen Force from Tempe.

At 7 p.m. the carrier platoon had taken over the company areas, the remaining guns of 2/3 Field Regiment were firing intermittently and C Company, still astride the highway, had been detailed to put up flares and tracers until the time of withdrawal. Then at 8.30 p.m. C Troop 5 Field Regiment, south of Dhomenikon, began to shell the road towards Elasson and continued to do so until ordered to follow up the main convoy of 25 Battalion. C Company then marched back to its trucks and, with the supporting arms and last guns of 2/3 Field Regiment, left at 11.30 p.m. The Divisional Cavalry Regiment followed up with one two-pounder anti-tank gun on a portée in case the enemy followed up too quickly.

At Tirnavos, where the 24 Battalion Bren carriers were waiting, Brigadier Barrowclough ordered the units to get through to Volos as quickly as possible. The engineers waiting at the bridge just north of Larisa were told that they could demolish it and the column went through the almost empty town. Streets were cluttered with rubble, wrecked vehicles and the bodies of both Greek and British soldiers. Away to the north-east the scattered flares and the sound of irregular fire suggested that Allen Force was still in contact with the German force coming through the Pinios Gorge, but the column was undisturbed and able to reach the Volos area next morning, 19 April.

Two isolated units had to solve their own particular problems. Headquarters 5 Field Regiment and 28 Battery (less F Troop) had gone south that morning to cover Larisa airfield. At 7.30 p.m. General Freyberg ordered the detachment to move north through the town and then eastwards along the road to Volos, but the stream of southbound traffic was such that the gunners had to retire with it to the Thermopylae area. The other detached unit, 26 Battalion, completed its journey south by train.

1 See pp. 333, 3389.