The New Zealand Sector
The New Zealand Sector
Next morning, 20 April, General Freyberg discussed with his senior officers the defences of the Thermopylae sector. The Divisional Cavalry Regiment and supporting troops were to go forward, keeping in touch with the enemy and acting as a screen behind which demolitions could be prepared. But the move never took place; the demolitions were complete by nightfall and a covering force was unnecessary. The divisional sector was to extend westwards from Ay Trias to the hairpin bend on the Brallos Pass road and the line was to have been along the Sperkhios River, which would be held by infantry fire at night and by artillery during the day. Here, too, there had to be some adjustments. As the marshy flats from the Sperkhios River to Ay Trias were largely untenable by infantry, the forward line was forced back to the edge of the high country and south of the small stream running parallel to the river. The basis of the defence system had, therefore, to be the observed fire of the artillery and, as the gun positions could be encircled by a landing on the coast, the occupied area had to be extended far to the rear. As a result it was decided that in the forward area 6 Brigade would be on the right, 5 Brigade on the left; in reserve and watching the coast for possible landings would be 4 Brigade and the Divisional Cavalry Regiment.
That afternoon and night, 20–21 April, adjustments were made. Twenty-fourth Battalion moved up to the Ay Trias area with its right flank on the nearby coast; 22 Battalion came up to the left and 28 (Maori) Battalion, the original occupant of the area, moved to a sector west of Thermopylae and facing north towards the road.
Still farther west, 23 Battalion had been in the area overlooking the bridge across the Sperkhios River, but it now had to make several laborious adjustments to cover the gap which had been left between the left flank of the New Zealand Division and the right page 356 flank of 6 Australian Division. In the end B Company was astride the road to the south of the bridge; A Company was on the spur to the south and C Company in the high country to the west. D Company, which had been transported at dusk across the front and back up the pass road, was in the rough country just east of the great bend. Once the bridge over the Sperkhios River was blown this company would be cut off from the rest of the battalion; the only line of approach would then be the mile of donkey track from the crest of Brallos Pass in the Australian sector. Finally, late that night the bridge across the Sperkhios River was wrecked1 by 7 Field Company, reports having come through that the Germans had entered Lamia.2
The same day the artillery plan was prepared by Brigadier Miles. Unable to use the marshland near the coast, the regiments were to be on the edge of the high ground west and south of Molos. This meant that the guns to cover the bridge in the 23 Battalion sector would have to be almost in the front line and that the main road west of that from Lamia to Brallos Pass could not be brought under fire. Moreover, the majority of the gun positions, unless carefully camouflaged, would be in full view of the enemy across the gulf. On the other hand the highway would be covered by all the regiments of artillery, British and New Zealand.
The sector was then divided into two zones, anti-tank and field. In the first or western zone to the front of the ridge held by 23 Battalion, K Troop 33 Anti-Tank Battery had one gun looking directly north to the Alamanas bridge and the other three along the road past the baths towards Molos. The two guns of L Troop— all that remained of 33 Battery—were on the ridge overlooking the road just to the east of K Troop. Continuing the line to Thermopylae was 31 Anti-Tank Battery—with only seven guns— one troop on the low marsh ground near the sea and the others on the lower slopes of the 25 Battalion area.
Fifth Field Regiment, which had occupied emergency positions since its arrival on 19 April, now moved to new positions on 21 April. One troop with another 25-pounder under command and E Troop 32 Anti-Tank Battery went to the area between the baths at Thermopylae and the foothills. Another battery was responsible for the remainder of the zone, with its rear boundary at the stream running south to north near Ay Trias. To the rear 32 Anti-Tank Battery, less E Troop, provided anti-tank defence about Divisional Headquarters.
1 Very little time would have been needed to repair it. The following night, 21–22 April, four of the brigade Bren carriers covered the bridge while Lt Hector with a small party from 7 Field Company completed the demolition.
The anti-tank zone was strengthened about Ay Trias when 102 Anti-Tank Regiment, which had been with 1 Armoured Brigade, returned from Thebes on the night of 20–21 April. B Battery was between the foothills and the coast; C and D Batteries, now only six guns, remained at Longos as a mobile reserve. C and F Troops 5 Field Regiment moved in the same night, C Troop placing one section just off the secondary road connecting Ay Trias with the highway and the other between the village and the coast. F Troop, which had originally been with the main body of 5 Field Regiment, had been sent back to the area when it was discovered that the flat, apparently swampy country west of Ay Trias could possibly be traversed by tanks. The guns were put in behind D Company 25 Battalion facing Ay Trias, but with the left-hand gun on a spur from which it could cover several stretches of the main road in front of 25 Battalion.
The field and medium artillery had already fixed and camouflaged their gun positions. On 19 April 4 Field Regiment had hastily occupied positions at Kammena Vourla, but it was now farther forward in a dry stream bed nearer Molos. The same day 6 Field Regiment had moved into positions near Molos, but since then it, too, had made several changes. To avoid dead positions, especially on the left flank towards the road to Brallos Pass, and to limit the areas exposed to fire from across the gulf, D and F Troops in that order were now in a small valley just east of D Company 25 Battalion.
Second Royal Horse Artillery Regiment had been moving back with the rest of the 1 Armoured Brigade group from Atalandi when orders were received to join the New Zealand Division. When turning about it suffered air attacks and seems to have spent 21 April under cover, but next morning one battery was in the Cape Knimis area in an anti-tank role and the other battery in an area south-east of Molos. The guns of 64 Medium Regiment went into position on 21 April, with two troops four miles east of Molos and one troop well back 15 miles east of the village. The 234th Battery, less C Troop, remained with 7 Medium Regiment in the Kifissokhori area.
In the Brallos Pass area to the west of the New Zealand sector were the Australian brigades. On 18 April 2/4 and 2/8 Battalions of 19 Brigade had come back from the Dhomokos area; next day and night 2/1 and 2/5 Battalions had come through with Savige Force from the Kalabaka area and the remnants of 2/2 and 2/3 Battalions had straggled in from the Pinios Gorge. After some adjustment, the position by the end of 21 April was that 19 Brigade extended westwards from the New Zealand sector to the main page 358 highway, beyond which 17 Brigade covered the deep gorge and the country to the west of it, in all about six miles. In reserve was 16 Brigade, with the responsibility of defending the roads through the mountains from the west.
Another problem for W Force was the defence of the east coast. There was always the possibility of the enemy crossing to the island of Euboea and moving south to the swing bridge at Khalkis well behind the New Zealand lines. In the original plan 1 Armoured Brigade was to have protected this flank but its units were not available. Third Royal Tank Regiment with its few remaining tanks had been sent to the Athens area for local defence; 4 Hussars was still about Thebes, but the majority of its tanks had been lost on the long withdrawal from Macedonia; and 1 Rangers, which was still recovering from the engagement at Vevi, had an anti-parachute role near Force Headquarters at Thebes. Consequently the only unit sent to Khalkis was 155 Light Anti-Aircraft Battery, which then came under the command of the New Zealand Division.
On 21 April the threat became more serious, particularly when the Greeks informed Headquarters Anzac Corps that German troops had landed on the north end of Euboea. Freyberg was ordered to send his Divisional Cavalry Regiment to the island; 1 Rangers was to hold Khalkis bridge; and a New Zealand battalion was to take up an anti-parachute role east of Thebes. The orders for the Divisional Cavalry Regiment were not immediately put into operation, probably because Freyberg preferred to guard the flank from the mainland and perhaps because the vehicles of the unit all required workshop attention. As for the other moves, they were delayed once it was known that evacuation was pending.
The last and most obvious problem was the almost complete absence of air cover. Using the landing grounds about Larisa, the Luftwaffe had been ruthlessly bombing and machine-gunning the convoys along the highway and the more important assembly areas to the rear. The headquarters of both Anzac Corps at Levadhia and W Force at Thebes were bombed and the telephone system disrupted. Working parties had often to break for cover but the casualties throughout the Division were surprisingly light, a single bomb in the 22 Battalion area causing the heaviest casualties—six killed and five wounded.
To check these raids there was little that the Royal Air Force could do. The Wellington bombers had been flown to Egypt on 17–18 April; the Blenheims after 19 April were taking key airmen to Crete or operating from there to protect the convoys as they came in from Greece.
The fighter squadrons which had done their best to protect the columns as they came south from Larisa were still using Menidi and Elevsis, the airfields near Athens, but they now had an impossible task. On 20 April a formation of Me110s slipped through and damaged a dozen Blenheims at Menidi; on three other occasions the fighters beat off the enemy; and then in the afternoon nearly a hundred German aircraft attempted to bomb Piræus. At least eight were destroyed and two damaged, but five of the fifteen Hurricanes which intercepted them were shot down. Such odds were obviously too great, so on 22 April the remaining Gladiators were sent to Crete and the fifteen Hurricanes to the Greek training airfield at Argos. From there they could possibly cover the movement of troops about the evacuation beaches to the west and south of Athens.