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To Greece

The German Attack is diverted towards Thermopylae

The German Attack is diverted towards Thermopylae

In this area forward of Molos the morning had been relatively quiet. At first light the carrier patrol (Captain Yeoman1) from 24 Battalion had observed engineers repairing the Alamanas bridge and the armoured group across the river to the west approaching Brallos Pass. The artillery fire from both forces and the inevitable air attacks by the Germans had then developed, but the New Zealand gunners had no serious casualties, probably because of efficient camouflage and the policy of ceasing fire when any aircraft were actually overhead. In any case the full weight of the German attack, both by land and air, had been directed towards Brallos Pass.

The first sign of any change in the general plan was the appearance of the platoon of tanks from the foot of Brallos Pass. As they came round the bluffs they were observed by C Company 25 Battalion. The artillery opened up, wrecking one tank and forcing the others to withdraw. The report from the troop commander was ‘Unexpected and extremely heavy opposition. Artillery firing like mad. Road block removed. Danger of mines.’ This did not influence General Stumme; he had already decided to change his plan of attack. The company of tanks, instead of attempting to force the Brallos Pass, would ‘Push through to Molos and destroy the artillery.’2

This led to some confusion for at 10 a.m. the advanced guard of 72 Infantry Division (Baacke Group),3 with the cavalry and cycle squadrons of 112 Reconnaissance Unit under command, had already been ordered to advance through Molos and make a reconnaissance as far as Atalandi. The units had left Lamia at midday, had crossed the river well above the Alamanas Bridge and were approaching the defences when they came upon the tanks of 1/31 Panzer Regiment which had a short time before been checked by the New Zealand artillery. A warning was then flashed back to Headquarters 6 Mountain Division informing it that 5 Panzer Division was also using the highway because the ‘new Thermopylae road’ was impassable. The infantry commander, Captain Baacke, proposed to take the tanks under command, but just then the commander of the armoured regiment came up and decided that his unit would advance in support of the infantry. There was, however, no co-ordinated plan and the tanks and infantry acted independently.

1 Capt A. C. Yeoman, MC; Auckland; born Taneatua, 8 Sep 1904; farmer; twice wounded.

2 Diary and report of I/31 Panzer Regiment.

3 9 and 11 Coys (Cycle) and 12 (MG) from III/124 Regt, Cycle Sqn 72 Inf Div, Cycle and Cavalry Sqns 112 Recce Unit.

page 388
thermopylae, 24 april 1941

thermopylae, 24 april 1941

The move was soon under way, but about 4.15 p.m. the infantry came under fire from 25 Battalion. One company went into position near the highway and the other was ordered to make an encircling movement across the scrub-covered ridges on the left flank of the New Zealand position. But after advancing some 300 yards the attack faded away. The infantry asked for the support of the heavy weapons; mortars and machine guns were hurried forward; and orders were prepared for a more formidable attack.

As seen by 25 Battalion, there had been a lull after the morning engagement with the tanks, though German aircraft had been harassing all areas and the artillery of both forces had been searching all possible assembly areas. Then at 2 p.m. there had been even heavier air attacks, after which tanks, lorried infantry and motorcyclists had been observed along the road to the west. They had been engaged by B and C Troops 6 Field Regiment and the heavy vehicles had been stopped, but the cyclists had raced forward until they came under fire from 14 Platoon C Company 25 Battalion on the extreme left flank. Nos. 15 and 13 Platoons, using small-arms and mortar fire, kept many of them pinned to the road and the nearby scrub, but others took to the ridges and began to climb upwards and forward until they overlooked the lines of C Company. Two sections of 14 Platoon were forced back but they were used page 389 to fill the gap between C and A Companies. The front then remained stable, though dive-bombing and strafing increased and the steady encirclement of the left flank continued.

The next attack began about 6 p.m. with the Germans still underestimating the strength of the defence; in fact, the operation order stated that ‘a small enemy force is offering opposition to us.’1 But the approach of the tanks along the highway and the particularly effective fire from some machine-gunners who had been sent to support the encircling movement beneath the cliffs made the C Company lines quite untenable. About 4.30 p.m. Lieutenant-Colonel Wilder ordered the company to withdraw and Private Common,2 under very heavy fire, took the instructions forward to 13 and 15 Platoons. By then they had very little chance of escaping. Some sections were pinned down by the machine-gun fire from the upper slopes; some were cut off by the Germans now occupying the pits from which 14 Platoon had withdrawn; and others suffered when the New Zealand artillery shortened its range to deal with the approaching tanks. The result was that by nightfall only a few men had rejoined the battalion.

By this time A Company had been threatened with encirclement. One section of 9 Platoon had opened fire on the tanks with its anti-tank rifle but the return fire had been too punishing. Soon afterwards the New Zealand artillery had once again shortened its range; the whole platoon came under fire and was finally withdrawn to positions below Company Headquarters. At the same time the Germans on the left flank, still supported by machine-gun fire, had been steadily coming over the ridges once occupied by C Company. To counter this Bren-gunners from 7 Platoon were sent up the ridges and a section from 8 Platoon was moved to cover the left flank and rear of the company.

The situation continued to deteriorate, more German infantry pressing forward and the machine-gun fire increasing. At 6.30 p.m. it was decided that the front must be adjusted. The platoons of B Company (Captain Armstrong) were swung round very neatly to form a line facing west rather than north, with 10 Platoon near the road, 11 Platoon above it and 12 Platoon still farther south. The platoons of A Company, reorganised approximately along the spur from Headquarters A Company and also facing west, were in front of and out of touch with the left of B Company. To the rear was D Company, on the ridge above it the battalion Bren carriers and above them a group from A and C Companies collected by

1 Appendix to report by Capt Baacke on action of Advance Guard 72 Infantry Division at Thermopylae, 23–25 April 1941.

2 Pte R. W. Common, MM, m.i.d.; born NZ 26 Mar 1917; seedsman; killed in action 23 Nov 1941.

page 390 Sergeant R. Brown.1 By then the light was fading and the enemy was about to complete his movement round the hillsides, but the battalion front had been adjusted to meet it.

The weight of the attack then fell upon A Company. Some sections were forced to withdraw and some Germans did get through to Company Headquarters, but they were dispersed by hand grenades and a short impromptu bayonet charge. Another group which had come in high up and behind A and B Companies approached the Bren-carrier group (Second-Lieutenant Sherlock2), but the forward section effectively checked that threat of encirclement. The front was then extended farther up the ridge but by then the attack had faded away. A and B Companies were still harassed by fire from mortars and tank cannon but the encircling infantry made no further approach. As the German report explained it, the defences had ‘strengthened surprisingly; the English defenders were excellently organised and camouflaged.’

The surprising feature—to the Germans—had been the complete failure of 1/31 Panzer Regiment to break through to Molos. The German commander, after losing one tank in the swampy country towards the coast, had recklessly decided that they should advance in single file along the roadway. Brought forward shortly after the second attack had commenced, the tanks had passed the infantry sheltering in the ditches beside the roadway and raced forward, turning their turrets to the right and shelling the forward companies of 25 Battalion. According to one German report:

19 tanks in file charged along the yellowish country road …. Ahead of us the first shells burst on the road. White clouds of dust shot up, mixed with black powder smoke, and were carried away swiftly by the wind. We could not deploy. On our right the hills rose 800 metres, and on our left stretched the dreaded Thermopylae swamp. We had to push on, go on, do anything but stop …. Then the dust rose right in front of the tracks … suddenly we came under fire from 6 or 8 guns. Without halting we swung our turrets round to the right and answered the fire with great effect …. We were still moving. We must get through. But at the next curve all hell broke loose. Shells burst on all sides, and several machine guns chattered. A few Tommies [the section of 9 Platoon 25 Battalion on the north side of the road] ran across the road and disappeared in the thick scrub. A heavy tank was hit direct … in the middle of the road sat three other tanks, all on fire ….3

Before long there was ‘not a single heavy tank, 37, 50 or 75 mm in going order; some had brewed up, others severe track or mechanical damage, only two able to shoot.’4 They were reinforced by two tanks with 75-millimetre guns and one was able to support

1 WO I R. Brown, MM, m.i.d.; Wellington; born Junee, NSW, 12 Aug 1896; master grocer; won MM with AIF, 1917.

2 Lt R. F. Sherlock; Christchurch; born Cobden, 15 Sep 1916; engineer; wounded Apr 1941.

3 Appendix to I/31 Panzer Regiment report.

4 I/31 Panzer Regiment report.

page 391 the company commander's tank, but the other which advanced towards the New Zealand guns was destroyed by a direct hit. The 1/61 Anti-Aircraft Regiment which had advanced with the tanks could do little: one troop, two 88-millimetre guns, in the rear attempted to silence the New Zealand artillery ‘which could be seen by muzzle flashes’; the other moved with the tanks, but the smoke from those which were hit and the uncertainty of the whereabouts of the men clambering round the hillsides above 25 Battalion checked their supporting fire. A Stuka raid in the late afternoon seemed to quieten the New Zealand artillery and as the light faded the rest of I/31 Panzer Regiment moved forward from Lamia, but by then, as the risks were too great, their commander had decided to wait until daylight.