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To Greece

The Rearguard at Dhomokos

page 349

The Rearguard at Dhomokos

On the main highway the rearguard was about Dhomokos, the scene of the decisive battle of the Greek-Turkish war of 1897, and an ancient fortress town on the northern edge of the scrub-covered ridges between Pharsala and Lamia. On 17 April Australian units had moved into position. The 2/6 Battalion, with one company of 2/5 Battalion, was on the eastern side of the road and 2/7 Battalion on the western side, both units immediately to the north of the town, with 2/1 Field Regiment in support. In reserve were 2/4 and 2/8 Battalions of 19 Brigade which had withdrawn from the north. On 18 April, when the withdrawal of W Force was well under way, Brigadier Lee ‘decided that it was unlikely that he would be hard pressed by the enemy before the remainder of the New Zealand and Australian divisions had passed through Lamia.’1 The 2/4 Battalion (less one company) and 2/8 Battalion were then sent back to the Australian sector of the Thermopylae line. At the same time he had to be prepared to halt the tanks of the German advanced guard. Captain Sweetzer2 and eight two-pounders of 31 New Zealand Anti-Tank Battery were therefore withdrawn from the stream of traffic and placed in position to cover the crossroads just north of Dhomokos.

On 19 April there were heavy and persistent air attacks3 along the road between Larisa and Lamia, but the Anzac convoys, miles long and closely spaced, were moving steadily southwards to the Brallos Pass or Thermopylae areas. As the rearguard was still expected to hold Dhomokos Pass until the night of 21–22 April, it was strengthened still further by the addition of the five remaining tanks of 3 Royal Tank Regiment. In the late afternoon, however, when it was evident that the last of W Force would reach the new line without any serious interference from the enemy, General Mackay decided that Lee Force could withdraw that very night, 19–20 April. At 7 p.m., therefore, the first demolitions were blown.

An hour later several trucks came south towards Dhomokos and men from them could be seen repairing the highway. Until it was learnt that they were British engineers and Cypriot pioneers, the men were under fire, but eventually a patrol went forward to bring them in and to wreck the trucks. Another problem arose next morning. No instructions had been given to 31 New Zealand Anti-Tank Battery and its two gun crews forward of the demolitions. Consequently Sweetzer, when he discovered that he was isolated, had to destroy his guns and find his own way back. Elsewhere the

1 Long, p. 135.

2 Maj D. J. Sweetzer, ED; Levin; born Grass Valley, W. Aust., 18 Jan 1910; insurance assessor; 4 Fd Regt 1939–41; bty comd 7 A-Tk Regt, Nov 1941–Jul 1943.

3 See pp. 2979.

page 350
the germans approach thermopylae, 19–21 april 1941

the germans approach thermopylae, 19–21 april 1941

withdrawal which began at 9 p.m. was smoothly executed, the line being clear by 10.30 p.m.

As Lee had already made certain that 6 New Zealand Brigade would soon be through Lamia, his main body went straight back to the Brallos Pass area. But because of the uncertainty about Allen Force and its withdrawal from Tempe, Major H. G. Guinn was left with a small force on the ridges above Lamia to delay the enemy until the last troops had come through from Volos. A company from 2/7 Battalion was astride the road and to the right of it; a 2/6 Battalion company was to the left; the five cruiser tanks were in front of the infantry covering tank country to the west of the road; and Lieutenant Atchison with four armoured cars from C Troop New Zealand Divisional Cavalry Regiment was to the east of the road. In support there was a company from 2/1 Australian Machine Gun Battalion.

No air attacks were made that morning, Sunday 20 April, but about 11 a.m. a large German troop-carrying aircraft landed on the flat country near Xinia, a village some three miles in front of the line. Some Australians started out to capture it but their failure to page 351 hear withdrawal orders led to the officer in command carrying on alone and being captured. Nevertheless, the men of 8 Panzer Reconnaissance Unit, the leading formation of 5 Panzer Division, did not seem to realise that the ridge was held for early that afternoon motor-cycles with side-cars came down the road and were badly shot up. ‘One of our patrols had fallen into an ambush at the northern end of the Furka pass and lost 6 killed ….’1 After that there was a lull, though German infantrymen were occasionally under fire from Australian infantrymen. But at last the German tanks came forward and swung off into the open country to the west of the road. The cruiser tanks then came out of cover, halting at least three of the German tanks and losing one of their own: ‘A thin wisp of smoke climbed from inside it into the twilight sky.’2

The fighting then died down, heavy rain fell and the Germans hastened to bring up their mortars. Half an hour later when the weather cleared they opened fire, but before long the crews and any infantrymen moving below the pass were taking cover from the Australian machine-gun fire. At this stage Lee, having decided that the last of the Australian and New Zealand troops must be through Lamia, advised Guinn that he was free to return. It was then about 5 p.m.

The movement of the infantry from their camouflaged positions soon attracted the attention of the German mortars and light artillery. Some haste and confusion developed and one of the armoured cars when it reached the highway was destroyed by shellfire, but before long the force was clear. Two tanks had held the road, Sergeant Harper3 had brought in one of the anti-tank guns from an exposed position and Second-Lieutenant Hill4 had with great coolness assisted in embussing the infantry and withdrawing the six anti-tank guns.

After the engineers, covered by machine-gun fire, had blown their demolitions along the highway the last of the rearguard withdrew, the armoured cars of the Divisional Cavalry bringing up the rear. Later two of the cruiser tanks which broke down were placed across the road and set on fire, but otherwise the withdrawal through Lamia to the Thermopylae line was completed without further trouble.

1 2 Panzer Division war diary, 21 April, with note about events of 20 April.

2 Von Serbien bis Kreta (From Serbia to Crete), prepared by a German publicity unit in Greece, 1942, p. 90. Translated.

3 Sgt C. H. Harper, MM; born Auckland, 8 Apr 1918; ship repairer; died of wounds 30 Nov 1941.

4 2 Lt M. C. Hill, MC; born Wellington, 11 Jul 1913; assurance clerk; killed in action 25 Nov 1941.