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To Greece

Savige Force, including some New Zealand detachments, Withdraws from Kalabaka

Savige Force, including some New Zealand detachments, Withdraws from Kalabaka

The diversion of 6 Brigade along the Volos route left the main highway clear for the force withdrawing from Kalabaka. There had, at first, been some confusion about the actual date. On 16 and 17 April Brigadier Savige had been visited by four different liaison officers. ‘The first discussed administrative arrangements, the second … conveyed the order from Anzac Corps that Savige Force was to hold its positions until midnight on the 18th, when its withdrawal would be covered by the 1st Armoured Brigade. The third arrived … with the written Corps instruction, which provided that Savige should withdraw his main bodies to Zarkos during the night 17th–18th but leave a rearguard at Kalabaka during the 18th. An hour and a quarter later a liaison officer … arrived from the 6th Division with instructions to withdraw that night covered by the 1st Armoured Brigade.’2 The officer also reported that the road eastwards from Trikkala to Larisa was ‘jammed with vehicles of the armoured brigade and vehicles, mules and men of the Greek Army, and that the bridge over the Pinios east of Zarkos had been demolished and a by-pass road, through Tirnavos, was very boggy.’3

The destruction of the bridge had been quite unintentional. On 16 April the engineers of 6 Field Company had decided what explosives were necessary to blow the bridge at the appointed time, but next morning two officers from 7 Field Company appeared on the bridge and suggested that a different amount should be used. To settle the argument a ten-pound charge was exploded on what was considered a relatively unimportant girder. It proved the effectiveness of both charge and girder for one entire span dropped into the river. As General Wilson afterwards noted, ‘The middle of a withdrawal is not the time for experiments of this sort.’4

The position of Brigadier Savige was seriously threatened by this miscalculation. ‘The road behind him was packed with vehicles, a

2 Long, pp. 109–10.

3 Ibid., p. 110.

4 Wilson's report, Part III, para. 4.

page 313 bridge on the only reasonably good road back had been broken, and he still needed time to complete demolitions aimed at delaying a German advance from Grevena.’1 First Armoured Brigade, as he very well knew, was away to the rear and quite unable to cover his withdrawal. Moreover, although the Germans had not yet appeared, he thought that it was necessary to cover the western flank for yet another day. He therefore suggested to General Mackay that instead of withdrawing on the night of 17–18 April the force should remain until the night of 18–19 April.

At 1.30 a.m. on 18 April, however, orders arrived for an immediate withdrawal, otherwise the force would not be able to get through the bottleneck at Larisa before the enemy came south from Elasson or, more probably, westwards from the Pinios Gorge. Savige Force had therefore to concentrate about Sin Thomai to the east of the demolished bridge, reconnoitre the Zarkos position and inform Headquarters 6 Australian Division of its expected dispositions at 5 p.m., 18 April.

The engineers of 6 Australian Division had fortunately been able to find alternative crossings of the Pinios River. By going a few miles north of the wrecked bridge the units could cross by another near Sin Thomai or, by making a long detour along a secondary road, they could reach Tirnavos and the highway towards Larisa.

The withdrawal was therefore possible and 2/11 Battalion went back before dawn to its rearguard position at Zarkos, getting into position by 10 a.m. A company from 2/5 Battalion and 5 New Zealand Machine Gun Platoon, covered by C Troop 25 Battery 5 New Zealand Field Regiment, pulled back at 11 a.m. on 18 April, leaving 2/2 Australian Field Company, which brought up the rear to blow sections of the road.

Seven cruiser tanks and two troops of C Squadron Divisional Cavalry Regiment had been detailed as part of the rearguard, but both groups went back through Larisa to the area of Headquarters 6 Australian Division during the night of 17–18 April. The armoured cars taking the long circuitous route to the north through Tirnavos had been bombed and riddled with machine-gun bullets. Corporal King, who had taken part in the first action at Bitolj,2 was fatally wounded whilst firing the Vickers from his armoured car.

At 11.30 a.m. the Pinios River once more became a problem for those organising the withdrawal. A German bomb exploded the demolition charges on the bridge north of Sin Thomai. Some troops on the west bank were then ferried over but their trucks had to

1 Long, p. 110.

2 See p. 195.

page 314 be switched north to Tirnavos, south to the bridge at Larisa and thence along the east bank to pick up the waiting companies.

Arrangements had also been made by General Mackay for the next rearguard, 2/11 Battalion at Zarkos, to move back to the west of the river and cover the left flank until 3 a.m. on the night of 18–19 April. As the bridges had now been wrecked and because the flank could be covered just as well from the east bank, Brigadier Savige preferred to have his companies ferried over that evening.

The 2/11 Battalion had been taken over by 8 p.m. and 2/5 Battalion then left for the Brallos Pass west of Thermopylae. Next morning 2/11 Battalion moved off and was through Larisa about 4 a.m., by which time 6 New Zealand Brigade had withdrawn from Elasson and part1 of Allen Force had passed through from the Tempe area.

Those who were clear of Larisa continued south through Pharsala, through the Australian rearguard at Dhomokos, through Lamia and then across the valley to the Thermopylae line. The Luftwaffe was still bombing and strafing the highway. Twenty-fifth Battery 5 New Zealand Field Regiment, after suffering casualties as it crossed the range to Lamia, continued along the coast to Molos. No. 5 Machine Gun Platoon moved south with 2/11 Battalion and remained attached until it reached Headquarters 17 Brigade at Brallos and was sent eastwards from there to join the regiment in the coastal sector.

1 See p. 342.