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To Greece

Allen Force is Threatened with Encirclement

Allen Force is Threatened with Encirclement

In the afternoon the situation along the Australian front rapidly changed for the worse. On the extreme left, D Company 2/2 Battalion about Point 156 maintained its position but by 4 p.m., the last time the telephone line was usable, the report to headquarters was that the enemy was relentlessly moving round and digging in south-west of Parapotamos. The patrolling platoon was therefore withdrawn from the river bank and orders were issued for a counter-attack supported by Bren carriers.

page 331

But this did not eventuate. Written orders were received stating that B Company 2/3 Battalion in the rear was ‘now withdrawing’ and that C Company of the same unit should co-ordinate its withdrawal with that of the adjoining D Company 2/2 Battalion. The order was unexpected but by 4.45 p.m. the two companies, covered by the Bren carriers, were marching back to Makrikhori. From there they were transported to the Makrikhorion area to join Brigade Headquarters and the other companies of 2/3 Battalion.

Neither the orders nor the withdrawal had been known to Lieutenant-Colonel Chilton of 2/2 Battalion. When the noise of firing had ceased on his left flank he concluded that the companies had been overrun. Actually there had been a misunderstanding. After the visit1 and the issue of withdrawal orders by General Freyberg, Brigadier Allen had instructed Lieutenant-Colonel D. J. Lamb of 2/3 Battalion to prepare a rearguard position astride the road about two miles south of Makrikhorion. And Lamb's intention had been that his C Company should move out whenever D Company 2/2 Battalion had withdrawn. As it was, the company commanders, misinterpreting the order, had decided that their units were to move back together—and immediately.

The left flank was now wide open but the companies, if they had remained any longer, would soon have been encircled. In the central sector the German commander, anxious because of the slow movement through the gorge, had become more aggressive. About midday 1/143 Mountain Regiment, hitherto staging the feint attack upon Evangelismos, was ordered to ‘cross with all available means at Tempe and open the way out of the gorge for 2 Pz Div.’2 Patrols had already found that the river could be waded to the west of the village and ‘the ever increasing noise of fighting from the gorge’ suggested that ‘the Pz division was making another attempt to break through.’3 So about 1 p.m. the crossing was under way and in an hour and a half, in spite of ‘terrific defensive fire’, the companies were over the swift-flowing river—about seventy feet wide and five feet deep.

They had been harassed by the Bren-gunners of A and B Companies 2/2 Battalion; the two 3-inch mortars with A Company had dropped 350 bombs among the rafts and along the mud banks; and the guns of E and F Troops 4 New Zealand Field Regiment had given their support. As seen by Captain Bliss, who was directing the fire of E Troop, the Germans had ‘formed up in what seemed like platoons in line and three or four platoons advanced … with thirty to forty yard intervals. Rds of gun fire were falling among

1 See p. 333.

2 21/143 Mountain Regiment report on attack over Pinios, 18 April 1941.

3 Ibid.

page 332 them continuously but did not affect the speed of the advance or check it. The inf. advanced to the river … and there waded across on foot. They lay concealed in the scrub on the southern bank of the river ….’1 The companies were immediately reorganised and sent south-eastwards across the open country towards Evangelismos.

By then it was 3 p.m. and Battle Group 2 was emerging from the gorge. The supporting infantry had appeared over the ridges once occupied by 21 Battalion and the tanks, cautiously moving out of Tempe, had approached the positions of C Company 2/2 Battalion. The New Zealand anti-tank crew in that area had already departed,2 so when the only Australian anti-tank gun was disabled, the infantry were in an impossible position. The forward platoon was overwhelmed and the others forced up the ridges on the eastern side of the road.

The Bren carriers of 2/7 and 2/11 Battalions, together with several from 21 Battalion, did their best from hull-down positions astride the road and railway to cover the withdrawal of the infantry. In one 21 Battalion carrier WO II Lockett3 engaged a tank and forced it off the highway, but the halt could only be temporary. The carriers pulled back, leaving the tanks free to turn southwards along the road to Evangelismos.

The stage was thus set for a fighting withdrawal to prevent the Germans from entering Larisa before 6 Brigade had withdrawn from Elasson and Savige Force from the Zarkos area.

1 HQ NZ Divisional Artillery report, Appx E.

2 See p. 327.

3 WO II A. H. Lockett, MM; born Gisborne, 5 Jan 1905; student; killed in action 27 May 1941.