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To Greece

Preparations for Defence

Preparations for Defence

TO defend the Corinth Canal area, and more particularly the bridge, a miscellaneous collection of units had been assembled, haphazardly and with no unity of command. In the earlier stages of the campaign eight 3·7-inch anti-aircraft guns, eight 3-inch and sixteen Bofors guns had moved into position. Some of the last named were in the immediate vicinity of the canal; others were to the south along the road to Argos. On 23 April, when it was feared that the enemy advancing from Ioannina would reach the Gulf of Corinth, the Greeks had sent a small force to Navpaktos and their Reserve Officers Battalion to Patrai. Having similar worries, General Wilson had sent 4 Hussars to protect the south bank of the canal and patrol the nearby shores of the gulf. With only twelve tanks, six carriers and one armoured car, the regiment, most of whose personnel were now riflemen, was responsible for a front of 70 miles. Consequently only four tanks were in the immediate vicinity of Corinth.

That night, at the request of Brigadier Steel (CRE Anzac Corps), 6 Field Company which had been working with the Australians about Thebes was sent to the coast some three miles east of Megara and from there had to maintain the highway to and across the canal bridge. As explained to Captain Kelsall by Brigadier Puttick, ‘it was his route out … it was badly straffed by dive bombers, and blocked … by refugees, carts and donkeys going to the Peloponnese.’ Kelsall had to maintain the highway, prepare the bridge for demolition, repair it if it was bombed and, if that was not possible, to see that 4 Brigade could cross by a pontoon bridge. So next morning, 24 April, No. 2 Section (Lieutenant Wheeler1) was sent to prepare the bridge for demolition. The girders were strapped with gun-cotton and extra explosives placed under the abutments; TNT or gelignite was placed in the centre and wired to safety fuses at the south end. ‘It was the first bridge of that type

1 Lt C. M. Wheeler; Singapore; born NZ 28 Dec 1914; civil engineer; wounded 25 Jun 1942.

page 414 which we had seen so we made certain of the job, having plenty of explosive. The general plan was to blow it so that it would drop and block the Canal.’1
The same day, as a result of the absence of air cover, a revised embarkation programme2 was drawn up at Headquarters W Force. Less use would be made of the beaches in Attica and more use of destroyers and the southern port of Kalamata. As the retention of the canal and the defence of the Peloponnese were then vitally important, Headquarters W Force sent Colonels J. S. Blunt and C. D. Quilliam to study the situation. They reported that Patrai was ‘normal and quiet’ but that the Greek commanders at both Corinth and Tripolis, though friendly, wanted authority from
corinth canal positions, 26 april 1941

corinth canal positions, 26 april 1941

1 Sapper L. D. Mumford, 6 Field Company.

2 See pp. 4001.

page 415 Athens for any future action. Brigadier Lee was appointed area commander of the Peloponnese with definite instructions to be prepared for landings on the airfields, and Isthmus Force was formed to defend the canal area.

The Brigadier hastened to the canal area. That night (24–25 April) when Allen Group was crossing the bridge he asked the Australians for a battalion ‘to help guard the area against possible attack by German armour from the north or against paratroops.’1 Three companies and two platoons from 2/6 Battalion were then detached, one being placed on the north side of the bridge, another with the two platoons going to the airfields near Argos and the third to the Corinth area to join 4 Hussars.

On the same night Major Rattray had brought up to Brigadier Puttick from Headquarters W Force, now in Athens, the instructions about Isthmus Force. It would consist of a company of infantry, 6 Field Company already in the area, one section of 122 Light Anti-Aircraft Battery and one troop of 7 Armoured Division Field Squadron, Royal Engineers.2 If 4 Brigade, as was then planned, was evacuated from Megara on the night of 26–27 April, the force would blow both the road and the bridge and then hasten to embark from Navplion. Should the Navy fail to appear the brigade would withdraw across the canal, the force then coming under the command of Brigadier Puttick.

At 4 a.m. on 25 April Major R. K. Gordon was ordered to take B Company 19 Battalion to the canal area. There he would command Isthmus Force, carrying out the orders from W Force and an instruction from Brigadier Puttick that the road from the north-west through Loutraki must be held in strength. Leaving Lieutenant Heiford3 to take the company to a defensive position north of that village, Gordon went ahead to the canal area, where he expected to meet representatives from the other units of Isthmus Force. Apparently their orders did not arrive until the afternoon for no one appeared at the meeting place. However, the anti-aircraft guns were in position; the engineers were completing their work about the bridge; and, to his surprise, Gordon found the company of Australian infantry on the north side of the canal in defence of the bridge and under the command of Colonel E. G. G. Lillingston of 4 Hussars.

In his instructions Gordon had not been told about this defence system being arranged by Lee Force, nor had Lee Force any

1 Long, p. 161.

2 C Squadron Divisional Cavalry Regiment and the carrier platoons of 22 and 28 (Maori) Battalions were added later.

3 Capt H. R. Heiford, ED; Auckland; born Napier, 10 Sep 1906; factory manager; p.w. 27 Apr 1941.

page 416 information about the New Zealand company. It was therefore doubtful who was to be in command of the canal area; Gordon had his orders but Lillingston was the senior officer. To clear up the confusion Gordon visited Headquarters Lee Force at Argos, but he got no satisfaction and decided not to hand over his force until ordered to do so by Headquarters W Force. Much time was wasted discussing who would give the orders for 4 Hussars to withdraw and it was evening before Gordon, still without definite instructions, was back across the canal checking the position of his company at Loutraki.

The platoons were on high ground about three miles north of the village and Gordon was satisfied with their positions until he was on his way back to establish headquarters near the canal. The country on either side of it was so suitable for parachute landings that he returned to his company and, in spite of the late hour, transferred two platoons to an area some 700–800 yards north of the canal.

That night, 25–26 April, several other units entered the canal area. The Australian company which had been detached to join 4 Hussars had finally been ordered by General Freyberg to clear a detour through the bomb-damaged streets of Corinth. That task complete, it had been sent to defend the ridge overlooking the road to the south of the canal.

Sixth Field Company, whose bivouac area east of Megara had become untenable because of strafing, moved across the canal to an area about two miles south of Corinth. Major Rudd, who had been acting CRE, rejoined Headquarters, which was in an olive grove with No. 1 Section (Lieutenant J. O. Wells); farther along the road was No. 3 Section (Lieutenant St. G. W. Chapman).

Finally, about 2.30 a.m. on 26 April, C Squadron New Zealand Divisional Cavalry Regiment (Major Harford1) came through from the Mazi area with the carrier platoons of 22 and 28 (Maori) Battalions. The journey had been delayed by petrol shortages and engine trouble and the 22 Battalion carriers, by missing the turn-off, had gone south of Corinth and out of the area in which the paratroops were soon to land. The cavalrymen and the Maoris, however, had halted in the olive groves on the terraces between Corinth and the canal bridge. Once it was daylight Harford proposed to carry out the orders given to him at Divisional Headquarters at Mazi: to report to the ‘OC Isthmus Force’ and, on the withdrawal of 4 Brigade across the canal, to move his detachment westwards to Patrai and then southwards to Kalamata.

1 Lt-Col E. R. Harford, DSO, ED, m.i.d.; Waitara; born Nelson, 8 Mar 1904; farm manager; 2 i/c Div Cav Regt Jan–Apr 1942.