Other formats

    TEI XML file   ePub eBook file  


    mail icontwitter iconBlogspot iconrss icon

To Greece

CHAPTER 15 — The Preparation of the Thermopylae Line

page 347

The Preparation of the Thermopylae Line

The Germans approach Thermopylae

ON the morning of 19 April the Germans entered Larisa but, rather surprisingly, the thrust from the north then lost its momentum for two complete days. The groups from 2 Panzer Division which had forced the Pinios Gorge and broken Allen Force were short of petrol. The force coming over Olympus Pass had been halted at Elasson by 6 Brigade and then forced to wait until its engineers had repaired the Pinios bridge outside Larisa. The units from Servia Pass had cleared the demolitions left by 4 Brigade, but they had first been blocked by the traffic from Mount Olympus and then ordered to give priority to the Luftwaffe ground staff. Consequently, it was not until late on 20 April that the advance was once more under way.

On the western flank, however, there had been swifter movement. After its repulse at Servia Pass XXXX Corps had sent detachments from 9 Panzer Division to make an outflanking movement through Grevena. They had met with little opposition and on the night of 16–17 April some were probing east towards Dheskati and others had reached the Venetikos River. Fifth Panzer Division then took over; the river was bridged, and by 18 April the advanced guard had followed Savige Force through Kalabaka to Trikkala and switched south-east through Kardhitsa towards the main highway, south of Larisa and ahead of 2 Panzer Division.

This success decided Marshal List. The double thrust was abandoned and the pursuit of W Force became the responsibility of 5 Panzer Division, whose forward units entered Lamia on the night of 20–21 April.

The Rearguard at Volos

By then Anzac Corps on 19–20 April had completed its withdrawal. On the coastal route 6 Brigade Group had been informed,1 probably after Freyberg had visited the crumbling front about Tempe, that it must cover the withdrawal2 of Allen Force.

1 There is no record of this instruction nor of the means by which it was given; see p. 311.

page 348 Consequently, on the morning of 19 April 24 Battalion was astride the road at Nea Ankhialos facing Volos, and 25 Battalion was on the high ground south of and facing Velestinon. But almost immediately it was decided that the withdrawal should be continued in daylight: the Luftwaffe had made no reconnaissance, remnants of Allen Force had been collected and there were no signs of the enemy following up.

Twenty-fifth Battalion, still having the lorries of 4 RMT Company, was able to make an immediate and undisturbed withdrawal, but for 24 Battalion it was not so simple. The vehicles in which its companies had been withdrawn from Elasson were now 70 miles away in the divisional area at Molos. Uncertain that any transport could be sent back, Lieutenant-Colonel Shuttleworth ordered his battalion to prepare for a long march. At 10 a.m. the companies, loaded with arms and equipment, were on the road to Lamia but they had covered only about 12 miles before they were halted. Shuttleworth had decided that it would be wiser to take up a defensive position just north of Almiros and there wait for the first to come, the enemy or the expected transport.

The brigade rearguard,1 commanded by Major Williams and supported by the Divisional Cavalry Regiment and C Troop 5 Field Regiment, had remained astride the road north-west of Volos directing to Molos the remnants of Allen Force which were coming in from the Tempe area. But about midday it was instructed to withdraw immediately to cover the withdrawal to Molos of 6 Brigade. Outside Almiros it became the rearguard for 24 Battalion, with the Divisional Cavalry Regiment towards the hills in the north-west and the main body in a defensive position supported by C Troop 5 Field Regiment. Meanwhile Regimental Headquarters, Divisional Cavalry Regiment, had wirelessed back to Divisional Headquarters asking for transport. About 6 p.m., as a result of this message, or more probably because Lieutenant Carnachan,2 the intelligence officer of 24 Battalion, had gone back to Divisional Headquarters, the lorries of 4 RMT Company came up from Molos. The battalion crowded aboard and the convoy hastened towards Lamia. As the Germans were known to be advancing towards that junction town the rearguard led the way, leaving the Divisional Cavalry Regiment to cover the withdrawal. There was an almost immediate delay because of an air raid, which resulted in parts of Lamia being in flames when the convoy went through, but by dawn next morning the battalion was safely at Thermopylae.

2 Capt J. L. G. Carnachan; Auckland; born Waihi, 4 Dec 1903; school-teacher; p.w. 30 Nov 1941.

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.

page 352

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.

page 353
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.

page 354

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.

page 355

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.

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.

page 357

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.

The outstanding effort of the day was probably that of Driver Macdonald,1 who had been sent with others of the Supply Column to find some urgently needed petrol. Three trainloads of petrol, shells and anti-tank mines had eventually been located at Levadhia, but in the early morning when the trucks were being loaded Stukas

1 Dvr J. G. Macdonald, MM; born Oamaru, 18 Jun 1909; clerk; killed in action May 1941.

page 359 had come screaming down towards the railway yard. Petrol trucks were hit and soon ablaze; the flames spread to other trucks and heavy shells began to explode. Macdonald and Sergeant H. Killalea of the Australian Corps of Signals thereupon dashed to the only engine in sight, discovered how to operate it and shunted into safety twenty-eight trucks loaded with petrol, oil and ammunition.

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.

Adjustments to the Line, 21 April, and Night 21–22 April

In the New Zealand sector on 21 April the troops were hastily digging in, camouflaging and preparing barbed-wire entanglements across the front. Changes were still being made to adjust the line so that each brigade should have two battalions forward and one in reserve, but this meant further movement for several units.

On the right flank 24 Battalion, which had already moved forward, was now well established about Ay Trias, a deserted village with spring vegetables and abandoned poultry. The line ran roughly north and south from the sea to the LamiaMolos road. Three companies, A, B and C, held from the coast to the road, while D Company was in reserve behind C Company and just south of the highway. Twenty-fifth Battalion now came up from the Molos area to take over the area in which 22 Battalion had been preparing positions and linking up the left flank of 6 Brigade with the right flank of 5 Brigade. All six platoons of D and B Companies were in line along the hills. A Company was at right angles to the road, with 9 Platoon astride it and 8 and 7 Platoons on the south side towards the hills.

page 360

Twenty-sixth Battalion, which had just come through1 by motor transport from the Australian sector, was in brigade reserve to the west of Molos with its Bren carriers patrolling the coast between 24 Battalion and 4 Brigade.

Farther west in the 5 Brigade sector there was similar haste in the preparation of the line and in the movement of units. Twenty-second Battalion had moved forward for the third time and was now between 25 and 28 (Maori) Battalions. The Maoris, assisted by a company from 18 Battalion, were wiring and preparing slit trenches and enjoying the bath houses alongside the upper reaches of the Thermopylae stream. And on the extreme left 23 Battalion was busily settling down. The Australians had taken over the great bend in the road below Brallos Pass, leaving D Company free to join A Company and to assist in the packing of wire and supplies up the steep slopes.

As 27 (Machine Gun) Battalion had reassembled after the withdrawal from the north, companies were allocated to support all units: 3 Company with 6 Brigade; 4 Company with 5 Brigade; 1 Company, less a platoon, with 4 Brigade; and 2 Company, less a platoon, in Divisional Reserve. The detached platoons were about the Longos headland with a beach-watching role.

In the forward areas the situation throughout the day gradually became more tense. German vehicles could be seen entering Lamia and late that afternoon the Australian artillery on the Brallos Pass road opened fire on transport moving south towards the Sperkhios River.

About the same time two motor-cyclists rode confidently up to the demolished bridge which was picketed by the carrier platoon. One German was killed, the other captured. They were from 8 Potsdam Reconnaissance Unit (5 Panzer Division), of which one company had entered Lamia about midday. The main body of the division was still strung out along the highway, but after dark the lights in the distant hills showed that hundreds of vehicles were approaching the town.

There was also much movement behind the New Zealand lines, where 4 Brigade was preparing to take over its task of coast-watching and anti-parachute defence in the rear areas. At dusk 20 Battalion moved to the stretch between Karia and Cape Knimis, 19 Battalion began to move south-east of Molos and 18 Battalion went to the south of Skarfia. These moves were being made when orders were received for one battalion to be sent immediately to a dispersal area four miles west of Levadhia. From there it would reconnoitre defensive positions in the Delphi Pass. No reasons page 361 were given and no record can be found, but it is probable that the news of the Greek surrender in Epirus forced this move to cover the extreme left flank. Whatever it was, 19 Battalion in the hastily collected trucks of the Ammunition Company was taken that night to Levadhia.

1 See p. 310.