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To Greece

The Road Block outside Larisa, Night 18–19 April

The Road Block outside Larisa, Night 18–19 April

To complete the day's disasters the company4 from I/143 Mountain Regiment, with a machine-gun platoon under command, had at last reached the road to the north of Larisa. Early that morning they had swum the river just north of Point 264 and, observing the Australians east of Parapotamos, had turned away to the west through Mavrolithos. When approaching Koulouri they had attempted to reach a German airman who had been forced down and was about to be captured by ‘English troops who rushed up in trucks.’5 But the English under cover of machine-gun fire had collected the airman and then driven hastily towards Larisa, where their excited reports were the probable reason for the rumour that the enemy had entered the town that afternoon.

The company had then turned to the railway embankment, following it for about two miles and observing only a few hundred yards away to the east the transport moving up to relieve Allen Force. The road crossing some two and a half miles north-east of Larisa was reached about 8 p.m. and almost immediately two vehicles came through from the battle front. In the first of them was Lieutenant Penney,6 the 21 Battalion transport officer who had been sent south to find a route to Volos by which the battalion transport could keep clear of the now badly battered Larisa. The machine-gunners opened fire, wounding the three occupants and forcing those in the second truck to surrender.

The Germans state that some nine or ten fully loaded English ammunition trucks were the next to be captured, but it has been impossible to decide what unit they came from. The earliest detachment of which there is any record seems to have been two Australian Bren carriers, followed by 9 Light Aid Detachment7 and Lieutenant

4 See p. 329.

5 Report of action by 2 Company 143 Mountain Regiment at Larisa, 18–19 April 1941.

6 Capt R. Penney; Hamilton; born Scotland, 18 Dec 1909; sawmiller; p.w. 18 Apr 1941.

7 Attached to 26 Battery 4 Field Regiment.

page 341 Staveley,1 the medical officer of 4 Field Regiment, with an F Troop vehicle filled with wounded. Sharp bursts of fire halted the little column; the Bren carriers attempted to counter-attack but organised resistance was unsuccessful. Some men, including the wounded artillerymen, were taken prisoner but others in the darkness were able to make off on foot towards Volos.2

Immediately after this disaster vehicles from the forward areas were coming through almost continuously. At the head there seems to have been a mixed group which included perhaps seven of the 4 RMT lorries bringing out Australians and members of 21 Battalion. Led by Lieutenant J. Pool, who was familiar with the route, the convoy turned east before the road block and crossed the open country to the Volos road. Guides were left at the turn-of but they must have departed soon afterwards, leaving the other convoys to continue on their way and be abruptly halted at the railway crossing.

It is now impossible to give an exact and detailed description of the fighting which developed but the general outline is clear enough. At 10.30 p.m. when the leading vehicle, an Australian one, had pulled up before some obstacle on the highway, the Germans had opened fire, killing or wounding every occupant. In a few minutes other groups of vehicles were jamming up head to tail along the narrow road above the sodden countryside. No large-scale operation was possible. Some men got out of the way, others took cover and opened fire on the crossing, and others, in small groups, organised counter-attacks. Several New Zealand Bren carriers came forward, a volunteer crew was collected for one of them and an attempt was made to smash through the road block.

With Private Bond3 as driver, Sergeant-Major Lockett, Sergeant Marshall-Inman4 and Private Black5 led the way in a carrier, and an Australian rushed up his lorry with Driver Snell6 on the running board to hurl hand grenades. As seen by the Germans, ‘two armoured cars came up, firing with all weapons, and tried to crash through the block to the south-east.’7 But the explosion of

1 Maj J. M. Staveley, MC; Auckland; born Hokitika, 30 Aug 1914; medical officer, Auckland Hospital; medical officer 6 Fd Amb Mar 1940–Jan 1942; OC 2 Field Transfusion Unit Aug 1943–Apr 1944; Pathologist 2 Gen Hosp Apr–Nov 1944; three times wounded.

2 See p. 344.

3 Pte G. R. Bond; born Scotland, 8 Mar 1916; truck driver; killed in action 26 Nov 1941.

4 Maj R. A. Marshall-Inman; Tokoroa; born Te Mata, 9 May 1914; linesman; wounded 27 Jun 1942.

5 Pte G. R. A. Black, m.i.d.; Auckland; born Whangarei, 19 Apr 1918; labourer; wounded and p.w. 1 Jun 1941.

6 Dvr J. A. Snell, DCM; Auckland; born Opotiki, 8 Sep 1915; painter.

7 Report of action of 2 Company 143 Mountain Regiment at Larisa, 18–19 April 1941.

page 342 a mortar bomb left the carrier ‘slewed across the road’, blocking any further movement forward.

Attempts were then made by mixed groups of Australians and New Zealanders to subdue the post, one party afterwards claiming to have killed1 the four men in a gun position east of the road. But the Germans were never seriously disturbed and by midnight the attacks were fading away leaving, according to German accounts, 8 killed, 20 seriously wounded and some 30 prisoners of war.

The long column of vehicles strung out along the road to the rear had by then dispersed, the troops having been warned by the streams of tracer fire, the glowing flares and, above all, by the excited reports that came back from the crossing. ‘Our carriers returned hot foot with the news that Jerry had taken Larissa. We learnt afterwards that parachute troops had done this. Our retreat was blocked. Ahead lay enemy country, behind were his tanks and on both sides was the bog.’2 The drivers hastened to turn their vehicles eastwards and to make off along the boggy farm tracks or across the open country.

Some actually encircled the Germans and continued south through Larisa and along the main highway to Thermopylae. The majority found their way to the Volos road and travelled south with the convoys from 6 Brigade now coming through from Elasson. Those from 26 Field Battery used a road that had, fortunately, been reconnoitred by Captain Nicholson.3 The two lorries held back by Major Harding to collect the last of 21 Battalion moved through with those of 2/3 Battalion and managed, by skirting the foothills, to reach the road and continue south through the defensive positions which 6 Brigade was preparing to occupy in the Volos area.4

By the night of 20–21 April it was possible to estimate, provisionally, the losses suffered by Allen Force. Two hundred and fifty all ranks from 2/2 Battalion and 500 all ranks from 2/3 Battalion had reported to Headquarters 16 Australian Brigade in the Brallos area west of Thermopylae. In the action the former had lost 44 killed, 18 wounded and 67 missing. Twenty-first Battalion's battle casualties had not been heavy—only one officer and three other ranks had been killed or wounded but on 20 April there were only 132 all ranks in the Thermopylae area. The majority of the battalion including the ‘commanding officer, second-in-command, adjutant,

1 The German losses were 2 killed, 2 wounded.

2 M. Uren, Kiwi Saga.

3 Lt-Col S. W. Nicholson, DSO, ED, m.i.d.; Auckland; born Auckland, 22 Feb 1914; customs agent; CO 5 Fd Regt Oct–Nov 1944; 7 A-Tk Regt Dec 1944–Mar 1945; 6 Fd Regt Mar–May 1945.

4 See pp. 3478.

page 343 the four rifle company commanders, and the second-in-command of A, C and D companies’1 were missing.

1 Cody, p. 73.