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To Greece

The Germans force the Gorge, 18 April

page 324

The Germans force the Gorge, 18 April

Next morning, 18 April, was bright and clear. Across the river parties of Germans could be seen moving down the tracks towards Gonnos and Itia. In the gorge detachments from 112 Reconnaissance Unit were making another attempt to scramble round the often precipitous north bank. There was aimed rifle fire, but otherwise there was ‘less opposition than the day before’ until opposite the valley between B and C Companies 21 Battalion. Here the Germans halted for some hours, worried by ‘heavy enfilade fire from MGs, mortars and artillery’1 but successfully disturbing with their own weapons the positions on the open ridges occupied by 21 Battalion.

The result was that both the artillery and 21 Battalion gave their undivided attention to these troops and to the groups moving in and about Gonnos. The armoured detachment already on the south bank was unseen and undisturbed. The view of the men of 10 Platoon and Headquarters B Company, the closest to the gorge, was blocked by high ridges; 11 Platoon was too high up the mountain face to report any crossing; no artillery OP covered the road block; and no patrol from 21 Battalion had been sent forward to observe the tunnel area.

No. 7 Company 304 Regiment was therefore free to cross the river on kapok floats. Two platoons hastened to repair the demolitions which were blocking the tanks; the third prepared to meet counter-attacks, an unnecessary task as the unit report duly recorded. Then about midday when the road was clear, six tanks moved forward supported by two2 platoons from 7/304 Regiment and two patrols from 8/800 Brandenburg Regiment.

The fact that the enemy had been able to clear the road block unobserved by the infantry and undisturbed by 26 Battery is one of the main causes of failure in this action. If the shellfire of the previous night had been repeated the clearance of the road block would have been delayed and the advance of the tanks towards Tempe would not have been one of the deciding features of the action.3

1 112 Reconnaissance Unit report.

2 Possibly one—the records are ambiguous.

3 Macky afterwards said: ‘The major mistake at Pinios was the siting of the road block in the gorge. The defending platoon became defiladed. The block was rendered unobserved when this platoon had to be withdrawn …. The effort to put the block under observation was the reason for the Australian engineers’ effort to blow at the end of the spur near Tempe where the road crept round it … realising the vital necessity for this block once we had lost the observation of the gorge block I went down to Brig Allen and he agreed to get his engineers to blow the road at the spur. ‘This should be clearly understood: had we created an effective block which could be held under observation and preferably by artillery then the tanks would never have got out of the gorge. This we could and should have done but all efforts to retrieve our mistake were fruitless.’

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The tanks were first seen by 12 Platoon, the forward element of B Company, which had throughout the morning been engaging the enemy across the river. About 12.15 p.m., when enemy fire from across the river had been intensified, ‘at least 6 enemy tanks came through the mouth of the gorge’1 and rolled on below the company. It might have been possible for the men to scramble back to the other ridges but Major Le Lievre moved his company up the ridge towards Ambelakia.

He was acting on instructions. The movement of the enemy towards the river bank in the Australian sector had already convinced Lieutenant-Colonel Macky that a serious attack was developing to the left rear of his battalion. Late that morning he had called a conference of his company commanders, explained the situation and told them that ‘if completely cut off and overwhelmed those left would make out in small parties to Volos.’2 As there was no system of communication each commander would have to act on his own initiative, though Captain Trousdale was advised that two green Very lights would mean the withdrawal of his D Company to the flat in the rear of Headquarters Company area. It was desperate advice at this early stage, particularly when Brigadier Clowes on 16 April had suggested that if the enemy broke through the gorge the battalion was ‘to fall back to a position astride the point where the road and railway crossed, seven miles south of the western exit.’3 On the other hand, it is extremely doubtful if the companies could by nightfall have crossed the hills to this assembly point.

As it was, 11 Platoon in the high country to the north-east never received the orders to withdraw. All through the morning the men watched the tanks moving through the gorge below them, and when the force appeared to be approaching Tempe Second- Lieutenant Yeoman made inquiries at Headquarters B Company. Astonished to find that it had already withdrawn, he collected his forward sections which were resisting the screen of German infantry and, after some anxious moments, withdrew to the hills above Ambelakia.

By that time C Company (Captain Tongue), on the ridge running up to Ambelakia, had been dispersed by the advancing tanks. No. 13 Platoon (Lieutenant O'Neill) on the flat between the road and the river had learnt of their approach when Captain Nolan, the artillery observer, called down, ‘Infanteers, the

1 Lt Finlayson, 21 Battalion.

2 Lt-Col Macky, report on 21 Battalion in Greece. Macky had seen the NZ Division Operation Order No. 3 which stated that the Division would ‘withdraw to the Volos area as a preliminary to the subsequent withdrawal to the Thermopylae Line.’

3 Cody, p. 61.

page 326 tanks are coming.’ Very shortly afterwards the tanks had edged forward to the foot of the ridge, where they waited for nearly two hours, firing at the men climbing up towards Ambelakia and being shelled in turn by 26 Battery under Nolan's direction. Nos. 14 and 15 Platoons were forced up the ridge but 13 Platoon, in its shallow weapon pits about 100 yards from the tanks, was trapped. About 2 p.m. when the tanks, hitherto ‘very cagy about sticking their necks out’,1 at last moved on towards Tempe and the supporting enemy infantry came over the ridge, the platoon had to surrender. A slight rise in the road, the hesitancy of the Germans to come over the crest, and the shelter of the shallow weapon pits had limited the casualties to one killed and two wounded.

The tanks then moved very cautiously round the butt of the C Company ridge and into the area covered by the guns of L Troop 33 Anti-Tank Battery. Much depended upon them and their history must be studied gun by gun. L1, which had been placed to cover the demolition at the foot of the ridge, was probably silenced by machine-gun fire. The battle report of 1/3 Panzer Regiment states that the anti-tank gun 50 metres beyond the road block had been kept quiet by machine-gun fire from the north-east of Itia.

The second gun (Sergeant Cavanagh and crew) was not brought into action too hastily. The first tank crossed the demolition but Cavanagh, only 100 yards away and wanting as many targets as possible, waited until the second had got through. The tank crews, surprisingly confident, got out and waited for the third tank to appear. When it came up they returned to their tanks. L4 was then brought into action. Twenty-eight shells were fired in quick succession, setting two tanks on fire and, it was thought, crippling the third.

The German account, however, states that ‘The two leading tanks … now advanced to attack the village of Tempe but both were hit by A Tk fire and knocked out … 3 killed, 6 wounded. The anti-tank gun (which was very cleverly sited) was put out of action by 7/304 Regiment….’2

This was probably correct for the men from that unit and the patrols from 8/800 Brandenburg Regiment had been advancing over the ridges, supported by fire from the tanks and from 112 Reconnaissance Regiment across the river. They sent in no reports of any opposition but they did mention that ‘about 80 PW were winkled out from the hills.’ So it was probably they who appeared over the ridge once held by C Company and called upon the anti-tank gunners to surrender. Preferring to risk an attempt to get to

1 Lt O'Neill, 21 Battalion.

2 Reports of 3 Panzer Regiment, 1/3 Panzer Regiment, II/304 Infantry Regiment.

page 327 a gun quad which was parked nearby behind a stone wall, the gunners dashed back1 and eventually came out through Tempe to the lines of C Company 2/2 Battalion.

The other two guns, L3 and L2, have no tanks to their credit; in fact little is known of their crews and their work. The gunners with L3 may have put up a stout resistance for the citation for a Knight's Cross won by an officer of 7/304 Infantry Regiment who was working with the tanks states that ‘he personally destroyed with hand grenades an A Tk position which fought to the last….’2 Nothing definite is known about the history of L2 in the Australian area. According to C Company 2/2 Battalion, the crew removed the breech block of the gun and withdrew.3

The artillery observers who had seen a good deal of the engagement both managed to get back to their unit. Captain Bliss on the A Company ridge was back in the gun lines by 4 p.m. Captain Nolan, farther forward on the C Company ridge, had spent the early afternoon directing fire on the tanks. He had seen Sergeant Cavanagh's gun crew halt the tanks and then about 2 p.m., when members of 21 Battalion were withdrawing up the ridge, he had crawled to his vehicle and driven back under fire to the outskirts of Tempe. The road being blocked, he had jumped out and hastened back to safety.

At this stage, about 2 p.m., the future movements of 21 Battalion seem to have been decided. The German infantry could be seen across the river and approaching the Australian positions; the tanks, now unopposed, would soon be able to fan out into the open country west of Tempe. This would mean the overrunning of A Company 21 Battalion and C Company 2/2 Battalion, a thrust south-west- wards towards Larisa and the isolation of B, C and D Companies now climbing up the ridges to Ambelakia. So when Captain McClymont went up to Battalion Headquarters on ‘top of the ridge behind’ its original position, he was told that A Company after delaying the enemy as long as possible would move up the ridge and cover the withdrawal of the battalion towards Volos. Lieutenant Smith was sent to select platoon positions; McClymont returned to his company.

The Germans took some time, however, to get clear of the gorge and the task commander, cautious after his losses, did not occupy Tempe until 3 p.m. And 112 Reconnaissance Unit, which was scrambling along the north side of the river—as well as troubling 21 Battalion—did not reach the village until 3.30 p.m. and the blown railway bridge until 4.45 p.m.

1 They were unfortunate enough to be captured that night, probably at the road block outside Larisa. See pp. 3402.

2 Perhaps this refers to Cavanagh's anti-tank gun.

3 See p. 332.

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A Company and the detachment in Tempe had by then dispersed. No. 7 Platoon (Lieutenant Southworth) on the river flat had been able to withdraw westwards and join 2/2 Battalion. Those with Lieutenant Roach went up the ridge, joined the battalion and were eventually evacuated; others joined Lieutenant Smith and with him, ‘by foot, boat, truck and train’, reached the toe of Greece only to be taken prisoner.1 The adjutant, Captain Dutton, who had been at Battalion Headquarters attempting to direct artillery fire upon the approaching tanks, had moved back round the lower slopes collecting men from Headquarters and A Companies and eventually coming out on the flat behind the Australian reserve at Evangelismos. Here he joined the medical officer, Captain Hetherington,2 and the group—about 150 all ranks—was eventually directed by Lieutenant-Colonel Parkinson to the area behind 26 Battery where Major Harding was waiting with motor transport.

The fact that trucks were there at all justifies some explanation for the incident is typical of the swiftly changing front. At an Anzac Corps conference Harding had been told that the battalion transport must be sent back to Thermopylae; other trucks would go forward for the battalion. But the orders were changed and Harding himself had to arrange transport for the withdrawal. He sent the trucks back, the loads were dumped and an attempt made to return for the battalion. But the movement was halted because all roads were being kept clear for southbound traffic. Harding was then instructed by Corps Headquarters to explain his problem to Divisional Headquarters. Twenty trucks from A Section 4 RMT Company and two from C Section were allocated to him and by 5 p.m. were dispersed south of D Troop 26 Battery. Shortly afterwars General Freyberg came through from Headquarters Allen Force with the news that the battalion had been dispersed. However, the group brought in by Lieutenant-Colonel Parkinson eventually appeared and by about 7 p.m. other parties had come through, making the total about 200 all ranks—Australians and New Zealanders. With Captain Sadler3 in command, the convoy set out along the road to Larisa. Harding, who remained with two trucks to collect any late arrivals, came out4 about 9 p.m. behind 2/3 Australian Battalion.

The rest of the battalion was scattered along the ridges about Ambelakia. Two B Company platoons had come back through D Company; the other with Lieutenant Yeoman was coming in from

1 See p. 344.

2 Capt O. S. Hetherington, MBE; Rotorua; born Thames, 3 Apr 1903; medical practitioner; RMO 21 Bn Jan 1940–May 1941; p.w. 23 May 1941; repatriated Sep 1944.

3 Maj F. A. Sadler; Auckland; born Dunedin, 11 Feb 1902; clerk; wounded 27 May 1941.

4 See p. 343.

page 329 the eastern flank. C Company had climbed up its ridge through D Company, which in turn had moved off about 1 p.m. after two green Very lights had been fired from Battalion Headquarters. Another group, eight officers and about thirty other ranks, had climbed up from headquarters with Lieutenant-Colonel Macky. Thus by nightfall all these parties, by different routes, were moving towards the coast and the port of Volos.