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To Greece

26 Battalion Completes its Withdrawal—by Train

26 Battalion Completes its Withdrawal—by Train

Late that afternoon, 18 April, the 26 Battalion convoy2 had reached a siding some two miles south of Larisa, where some six volunteers from 19 Army Troops Company had assembled a rake of carriages for the relief train. The Luftwaffe had successfully bombed the area, leaving twisted lines, wrecked carriages and a page 309 useless water system, but the engineers had patiently carried over petrol cans of water to their engine and all was ready for a move that night. Lieutenant-Colonels Gentry and Page, using a 1:1,000,000 tourist map of Greece, decided that the train should be taken to Kifissokhori, a siding to the south of Thermopylae.

At 8 p.m. the battalion moved off, Lieutenant-Colonel Page with the transport column by the main highway and Major Samson with the companies on the train. The former travelled through the night but bomb craters so delayed all traffic that the trucks were not over Dhomokos Pass before daylight. The inevitable air attacks then developed, but the dramatic appearance of Hurricanes from the Athens airfield gave some relief to the column. Two Stukas were shot down; the trucks moved off again and eventually reached the B Echelon group some miles east of Thermopylae.

The train pulled out with Sappers Smith1 and Gibson2 as engine-drivers. There was insufficient coal so some had to be found along the route; the headlights of the engine were smashed but the cab lights could be used for map and gauge readings; there was no signal system but a torch could be flashed to the crews in the brake vans. Moreover, neither of the drivers had been over the track before and much had to be left to providence and their intuition.

At first all went well, a derelict engine at Doxara station providing much-needed coal and water, but the absence of lights and the number of abandoned trucks on the line cost much time Each bridge and tunnel had to be checked. While the line was thus being cleared more and more refugees clambered aboard the roofs, the couplings and the footboards. As a result the engine stopped near the crest of the range and desperate measures had to be taken. The last five carriages, full of Greeks, were uncoupled, all possible pressure was built up and the train at last reached the crest, where more coal and water were obtained.

As two of the abandoned cars had been brake vans the descent was made at a most dangerous speed, the train lurching round curves and racing through tunnels and across bridges. There was one mishap with obstacles on the permanent way which set the engine wheels out of alignment, but the descent was completed and the train switched off the main line towards Lamia, some five to six miles to the east.

Here there was some delay, the engine-drivers stressing the need for a new engine and brake vans, the Greek officials insisting that there must be a Greek crew to interpret Greek signals. The solution was to attach the carriages to a train already assembled for Cypriots and Australians. This had just been done when the Luftwaffe came page 310 over, killing several Australians, damaging carriages and cutting the line behind and in front of the new engine. The New Zealanders were sent back out of the danger spot; Sappers Gibson and Smith, assisted by an Australian driver, made up another train and handed it over to a Greek crew. Then, despite protests from the Greek stationmaster and an attempt by Greek soldiers to clamber aboard, the train was taken back to the main line, where the men of 26 Battalion were collected from the fields of corn and poppies in which they had been sheltering.

After a near collision with an up-train in the valley south of Lamia—this may explain the excitement of the stationmaster—there was no further trouble. Night came on and the train entered the mountains to the south. The troops slept unaware of the spectacular gorges, the seventeen tunnels and the wonderful bridge across the Asopos River, and at 9.30 p.m. they were in the valley which leads to Thebes. The train eventually stopped at Kifissokhori, a siding from which a road led north to the divisional area about Thermopylae. As no transport was available, the men spent an unpleasant night in the open, but next day, 20 April, the British RTO in the area provided rations and arranged for the Royal Army Service Corps to transport C and D Companies the 40 miles to Molos. In spite of crowded roads and casualties from air raids, they joined the B Echelon group about 5 p.m. The other companies marched for about three hours but were eventually picked up by New Zealand Army Service Corps vehicles and taken to the battalion lines within the olive groves.

2 See p. 306. For an account of a similar train journey see Peter Fleming, The Listener, London, 1 Dec 1949.

1 Spr L. L. Smith; born NZ 5 Dec 1911; lorry driver; p.w. Apr 1941.

2 Spr R. C. Gibson; Wanganui; born Ilford, England, 16 Mar 1906; locomotive driver.