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To Greece

Withdrawals from the Thermopylae area, Night 23–24 April

page 381

Withdrawals from the Thermopylae area, Night 23–24 April

When darkness fell over the Anzac area there began another series of withdrawals and adjustments. Fourth Brigade Group, which had been encamped in the Thebes area, moved the few miles south to the Kriekouki Pass and began to prepare the line which it would eventually have to hold as the rearguard of W Force.

In the Australian sector 19 Brigade withdrew to the Brallos area, leaving a two-company rearguard at the crest of the pass overlooking the highway to Lamia. Seventeenth Brigade came back from the rough country on the left flank and with 16 Brigade and Divisional Headquarters moved off in convoy towards the Megara area to await embarkation the following night. The column was eventually stopped near Elevsis, the units spending 24 April under cover in the olive groves.

In the New Zealand sector there was similar activity. Brigadier Barrowclough had decided that Hart Force and the guns in front of the spur immediately east of the baths at Thermopylae should all be withdrawn. After 9 p.m. the 23 Battalion detachment moved back to the old lines of 22 Battalion where the rest of Major Hart's group was waiting. The men clambered aboard the Bren carriers and returned to Headquarters 6 Brigade, where it was expected that transport would be waiting to take them back to 5 Brigade. No lorries appeared so Hart Force remained with 6 Brigade, moving with it to southern Greece and eventually to Egypt. A and B Troops 5 Field Regiment were withdrawn without any difficulty, the first to the right flank behind Ay Trias, the second to the west of Molos. The anti-tank element, 33 Anti-Tank Battery and E Troop 31 Anti-Tank Battery, came out and went into position near Ay Trias and along the road between that village and Molos. This left E Troop 5 Field Regiment in an anti-tank role in front of two-pounder anti-tank guns, so next day, 24 April, four anti-tank guns from the Northumberland Hussars were brought forward.

To the rear of the FDLs there was corresponding activity. At Ay Konstandinos 5 Brigade had spent the day destroying equipment and preparing for the move that night to the embarkation beaches at Porto Rafti, some 150 miles away. Nothing was to interfere with the movement of the convoy: there would be no speed limit; headlights could be used beyond Livanatais; refugees could be moved aside; and, where the road was for one-way traffic only, oncoming vehicles could be stopped. To assist in the work at the control points on the beaches two officers from each battalion were sent forward to report at Headquarters British Troops in Greece in the Hotel Acropole in Athens.

The move began immediately after dark and the road was soon page 382 filled with a steady stream of vehicles. Divisional Headquarters, less Battle Headquarters, had moved back during the afternoon to Atalandi, so it was probably first on the road through Thebes and over the hills to Athens and the lying-up areas near the eastern beaches. Behind it were 4 Field Hygiene Section and 6 Field Ambulance, all in the latter's transport. These units, which had been sheltered in the olive groves of Livanatais, passed through Athens early next morning, 24 April, and the latter, when caught in the first air raid for the day, scattered throughout the olive groves and barley fields on the outskirts of the city. Fifth Field Ambulance, which had been established at Kammena Vourla, a delightful resort on the beaches south-east of Molos, also moved back, the forty-odd patients with the assistance of some Australian ambulance cars moving with the convoy to Athens and thence to 26 General Hospital at Kifisia. When the unit was safely in the lying-up area near the beaches the bulk of its equipment was sent to that same hospital.

The main body—22 Battalion, 23 Battalion, 28 (Maori) Battalion, 19 Army Troops Company and 106 Anti-Aircraft Battery—came through in that order, moving swiftly and with very few mishaps. There was one break in the Maori Battalion column which encouraged an Australian convoy to take the road and led to some trucks following the Australians, but they were able to rejoin the unit for embarkation. Otherwise the convoys were rattling through Athens during the early morning of 24 April. The streets were still empty and windows were shuttered, all very different from the crowded city which had received the Division so excitedly only six weeks before. The troops, if they were awake, were disappointed, but those who went through later in the day soon learnt that the Greeks could remain loyal to an apparently hopeless cause.

East of Athens the convoy hastened for another 25 miles to what was called the Marathon area, and when the sun was rising the trucks were turning off for shelter under the pines or in the olive groves. The men remained under cover. Brigadier Hargest returned to Athens, visited Headquarters British Troops in Greece and saw to it that his troops could embark carrying packs and one blanket as well as their light weapons.

The many other units which had been on the road that night were equally successful. Twenty-first Battalion, which had been encamped at Restos near Athens, and its reinforcement group which had been at Voula Camp, both rejoined the brigade. Fifth Field Park Company and 7 Field Company (less the detachment with Clifton Force) moved to Mazi, south of Thebes, and there assisted page 383 Australian engineers to prepare demolitions. Another convoy of 170 vehicles, mostly from the B Echelons of the Machine Gun Battalion and the Divisional Cavalry and artillery regiments, reached a valley south-east of Levadhia, where they spent the next day under cover of the olive trees.