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To Greece

Anzac Corps assembles on the Thermopylae Line

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Anzac Corps assembles on the Thermopylae Line

Actually Lee Force was not the last of W Force to reach the Thermopylae line. All through 20 April several New Zealand detachments were out along the coast road to and beyond Stilis. In the morning A Troop 25 Battery 4 Field Regiment was sent round to check enemy tanks which were expected to come through from Volos, but the CRE, Lieutenant-Colonel Clifton, sent the troop back to Anthili, where with C Company 20 Battalion (less a platoon to protect demolition parties) it went into an anti-tank position covering the highway south from Lamia. The engineer officers and their respective groups remained about Stilis to complete the demolitions. Second-Lieutenant Wells1 of 6 Field Company dealt with the bridge over the ravine at Pelasyia; Lieutenants Hector and Lindell2 from 7 Field Company with the launches and sailing craft along the coast as far as Stilis; and in the little port itself Captain Woolcott3 with a party from 6 Field Company smashed up the boats along the waterfront. All parties, engineers and supporting troops then withdrew, firing minor road demolitions and leaving the VolosLamia road to the enemy.

The same day engineers from 7 Field Company had gone back to Lamia, where they collected engines and rolling stock and brought two trains south beyond Thermopylae. There had been a third train but Australian engineers, probably working to a timetable, demolished a viaduct before it was clear of the town. The train was run into the river below and the engineers tramped back towards the defences. Unfortunately they were thought to be German patrols, the infantry opened fire and it was not until next morning that they could establish their identity.

Finally, there was the recovery of survivors from Allen Force who might have reached the coast near Volos. On the night of 21–22 April Captain Woolcott with his demolition party set out from Atalandi in a small diesel-engined fishing launch and picked up on the north-west corner of Euboea Island two Australians and six members of 21 Battalion.

South of the rearguards, Anzac Corps had been assembling behind the Sperkhios River, the New Zealand Division in the narrow strip between the sea and the mountains known as the pass of Thermopylae and 6 Australian Division on the range to the west about Brallos Pass. In classical times the entrance to the coastal gap

1 Capt J. O. Wells; Horotiu, Waikato; born Wellington, 14 Sep 1909; structural engineer; p.w. Apr 1941.

2 Maj G. A. Lindell, DSO, OBE, ED; Wellington; born Taihape, 26 Nov 1906; engineer; 7 Fd Coy 1940–41; Adjt, NZ Div Engrs, 1941–42; SSO Engrs, Army HQ, 1943–44; OC 7 Fd Coy 1944–46; twice wounded; CRE NZ Div (Lt-Col) 1953–55.

3 Maj H. C. S. Woolcott; born Auckland, 29 May 1909; civil engineer; wounded 1 Dec 1941; died of wounds 24 Oct 1942.

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the thermopylae battlefield, 480 bc and 1941

the thermopylae battlefield, 480 bc and 1941

had been narrow, but the silt brought down by the Sperkhios River had extended it some five miles to the east. Between the road and the sea there were now swamps and sodden fields. But the blue sulphurous stream still flowed from Thermopylae and to the west there were still the scrub-covered ridges and the precipitous water-courses below the grey, forbidding cliffs. To the rear again, beyond the village of Molos with its plane trees and its grape vines, there were fields of corn and magnificent olive groves, and then the narrowest strip of all with the blue sea on the one side and 500-foot cliffs on the other.

The Australians held the range which runs westwards into the interior. It was high and remarkable for its pinnacles and precipices, for the dense undergrowth on the hillsides, for the stunted oaks in the gullies, the world of pines about Brallos Pass and the narrow highway winding south to Thebes. Below it and to the west lay the deep gorge of the Asopos River through which the railway disappears into tunnels1 or edges round buttressed embankments.

1 See p. 472.

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In 480 BC Xerxes, the Persian, unable to force the coastal gap, had sent his Immortals into the Asopos Gorge. Thence, after a short distance, they had turned eastwards up the ridges and through the groves of oak to surprise the Phocian sentries and outflank the forces of Leonidas, the Spartan king. In April 1941, with the Australians holding Brallos Pass, there was no danger of another surprise attack by this route, but the natural advantages of the ThermopylaeBrallos line could still be seriously threatened. If the Germans were able to seize the island of Euboea they could outflank the New Zealand sector. Should they circle through the mountains to the west they could come in behind the Australians by way of the secondary roads to Gravia and Amfissa, or, if they followed the roads from Epirus, they could turn in along the north coast of the Gulf of Corinth towards Amfissa and Delphi. Much therefore depended upon the resistance of the Greeks along this western flank.

The task for the moment, however, was the preparation of new defences. The orders received verbally from Anzac Corps at Levadhia on the morning of 19 April were that the New Zealand Division should prepare to defend the pass at Thermopylae, and Brigadier Puttick, as the senior officer in the area, had instructed 5 Brigade to take up a position covering the whole front. Twenty-first Battalion had been shattered at the Pinios Gorge and 22 Battalion had been troubled by the diversion near Pharsala, but the greater part of the brigade had reached the area and had been able to rest and reorganise. Twenty-eighth Battalion therefore moved to the Ay Trias area on the right flank near the coast; 22 Battalion went to the west of Molos; and 23 Battalion to the left of the sector but not as yet to the steep positions east of Brallos Pass.

In the narrow strip between the sea and the hot springs at Thermopylae 6 Field Regiment, which had come back with 4 Brigade Group, deployed to cover the road from Lamia. The other regiments of artillery, having been dispersed to support several different formations, had to be organised as they came in. In the meantime the CRA, Brigadier Miles, collected all the artillerymen he could find and organised temporary anti-tank defences with groups of 25-pounders and two-pounders along the highway between Thermopylae and Molos. Through this line his detachments came in from the north: 25 Battery 4 Field Regiment with Savige Force from Kalabaka; 26 Battery with Allen Force from Tempe; 27 Battery 5 Field Regiment, less A Troop, with 6 Brigade from Elasson; and finally 28 Battery, less F Troop with 6 Brigade, from the Larisa airfield.

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Late that afternoon, 19 April, General Freyberg took command and was able to report to Headquarters W Force that his division had successfully withdrawn. Twenty-first Battalion was ‘in a bad way’ but the move had been completed more successfully than had been expected. Twenty-fourth and 25th Battalions were coming in from the Volos area and 26 Battalion was completing its train journey to the rear of the Australian lines. Trucks were still turning off from the long convoys and a general sorting out of troops was still taking place. But it was often difficult to locate units for some had been directed to areas far behind the line, Divisional Headquarters, for instance, having been sent by Anzac Corps to Longos, well back from the forward area.