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To Greece

The Germans Attack from the Air

page 417

The Germans Attack from the Air

Now, on 24 April Marshal List had decided that the narrowness of the front and the state of the roads made it necessary for General Stumme (XXXX Corps) to control the advance, with XVIII Corps under command. He had to break through to Athens and establish a bridgehead over the Corinth Canal.

To accomplish the latter objective it was decided to use the parachute troops which had originally been assembled to take the island of Lemnos.1 No battle report describing the capture of the canal area has been discovered but the plan had been prepared shortly after the breakthrough at Rupel Pass. Reinforced, Parachute Regiment 2 (Colonel Sturm), using five groups of Ju52s and 2000–2500 troops, was to land and block the escape of British troops to either Crete or Egypt; gliders were to be used to land troops close to the bridge to prevent its being destroyed; and the units already concentrated about Larisa were to attack on the morning of 26 April.

The Luftwaffe had hitherto been content to bomb Argos and Corinth and strafe the highway between them, but about seven o'clock that morning the canal area was heavily and systematically dive-bombed and machine-gunned. The anti-aircraft gunners were magnificent, but before long many of them were wounded and all their guns wrecked. Then about 7.25 a.m. the Ju52s came over, flying low in groups of three to drop the many-coloured parachutes supporting the troopers and their supplies. At the same time gliders crash-landed near the bridge, the men from one near its south end rushing on to clear the demolitions. They were cutting the fuses when the charges exploded, killing them all and so wrecking the bridge that it dropped neatly into the canal.

The reason for the explosion is still a mystery. Sapper Eastgate2 at the north end and Sapper Mumford3 on the open south bank, picketting the approaches to the bridge, had been surrounded and were unable to do anything. There was no anti-aircraft fire by that time and there was no artillery in the area, so it is hardly likely that a charge was hit by shell splinters.

But there are other possibilities. Two British officers—Lieutenant J. T. Tyson, Royal Engineers, who had assisted the New Zealand engineers to prepare the charges, and Captain J. P. Phillips of the Devonshire Regiment—had spent the night south of the bridge,

1 The occupation of Lemnos had been part of the move of Lustre Force to Greece but 1 Battalion, The Bedfordshire and Hertfordshire Regiment, which had been landed on 4 April, had been evacuated on 12 April. With other islands, Lemnos was occupied on 23 April by units of 164 Division, transported on a German steamer, Greek fishing craft and two Italian destroyers.

2 Spr F. T. Eastgate; Lower Hutt; born NZ 15 Oct 1912; labourer; wounded 24 Jun 1942.

3 Spr L. D. Mumford; born NZ 19 Nov 1913; labourer; p.w. Apr 1941.

page 418 and when the Germans landed Tyson had suggested attempting to light the fuse. But it was ‘not more than fifteen feet from the plane which had landed.’1 They had therefore crawled to a shelter bank from which Phillips had fired at the charges strapped to the bridge. After his second shot the explosion2 occurred. They then slipped away to the south-east, joining men from the anti-aircraft batteries and eventually crossing the hills to the Navplion embarkation area.

Such an explosion was possible, for early in the campaign curious engineers had placed some TNT in a bank and found that it could be exploded by rifle fire. But several who worked on the bridge think that the only explosive strapped in packets on the outside of the girders was wet gun-cotton, which could not be exploded by rifle fire.3 Others, however, state that there was some TNT on the deck of the bridge which could have been hit by rifle bullets. There is also a report that two sappers from 6 New Zealand Field Company south of the bridge made a dash and lit the fuse. ‘Just short of the bridge one of the boys fell. The other made the bridge … he seemed to fall but the next moment I saw he was coming back. He looked to have cleared the bridge when it seemed to heave….’4

The Germans, however, make no reference to any spectacular rush to light the fuse; in fact one account states that British resistance had ‘decreased almost to the vanishing point’, and another that a war correspondent was actually standing on the bridge ‘making a film for the weekly newsreel.’ Moreover, their signals sent back during the action give three different explanations for the explosion. The first, which was despatched at 9.45 a.m., stated that the bridge was blown; others stated that it was blown by a remotely controlled or delayed charge; and finally at 11.20 a.m. Colonel Meister signalled, ‘Bridge over canal not blown but destroyed by shellfire.’

Those who had been ordered to capture the bridge intact were very disappointed and exceedingly curious, and after the fighting was over any captured officer who might have some information was carefully cross-examined. Lieutenant Heiford was even asked if there had been a line from the bridge to his position over four miles away. The opinion of senior German officers after the war was that, ‘The bridge itself was blown up, not however by blasting by the British according to plan but by a mere accident. The parachute officer commissioned to remove the explosive charges

1 ‘The Events at the Corinth Canal, 26 April 1941’: report by Captain J. P. Phillips, MC.

2 Wilson, p. 98: ‘The possibility of this method of setting off the charge has been disputed but on the advice of experts I gave the officers a M.C.’

3 ‘I am very sorry that the story of the Sapper officer blowing up the bridge by firing at the charges is untrue, but it never seemed likely to me!!’—Latham to Kippenberger 14 Nov 1955.

4 H. E. Smith, 16 Jul 1947.

page 419 had piled up the already complete explosive charges owing to a misunderstanding. Coming from a long distance a chance hit of this pile effected the detonation and thus the collapse of the bridge.’1

The two platoons of B Company 19 Battalion in the shelter of the olive groves had not apparently been observed by the enemy, for Gordon had time to organise an attack in support of the Australians. But the small force was soon driven to ground and facing counter-attacks on both flanks. The bridge had been demolished by that time so Gordon decided that the platoons, already short of ammunition, must attempt to join 4 Brigade at Megara.2 Leaving the wounded with Second-Lieutenant Ferguson,3 who was himself a casualty, Gordon withdrew but before long both he and Second-Lieutenant Budd4 had been wounded. Warrant Officer Jones5 then took command of the remnants, who got clear of the canal area and then attempted in small parties to find 4 Brigade. Some actually reached6 Megara and from there joined 4 Brigade at Porto Rafti; the majority were captured; others, assisted by the Greeks, eventually reached Egypt.

The third platoon from B Company in the Loutraki area had seen the paratroopers come down but was too far away to take any part in the action. After midday Greeks warned Lieutenant Heiford that the enemy was in the village and at dusk the platoon hastened to the coast, capturing on the way a drunken paratroop officer who was using a captured motor-cycle. But by the time they had found two rowing boats it was too late to cross the Gulf of Corinth. They waited, hoping to get the use of a motor boat, but next day an English-speaking Greek appeared with the Greek police to say that the cave was surrounded by Germans. As there was no chance of escape the whole platoon had to surrender.

Units on the south bank had more chances to escape. The Australian company was outside the area in which the paratroops landed, but ‘before long paratroops supported by machine-gun fire were advancing towards its position.’7 The commander thereupon decided to move back towards Argos. On the way south the Australians were given transport by the companies of 26 Battalion which had been sent north to block the southward advance of the

1 Supplement to the essay, ‘The Balkan Campaign’, by prisoners of war in Allendorf Camp, 1947.

2 4 Brigade embarked from Porto Rafti. For the change in plan see pp. 4245.

3 Capt C. A. L. Ferguson; Gisborne; born Gisborne, 2 Oct 1915; hardware salesman; wounded and p.w. 26 Apr 1941.

4 Capt F. M. S. Budd; Hastings; born Waihi, 19 May 1913; factory supervisor; wounded and p.w. 26 Apr 1941.

5 WO II J. M. C. Jones; Okoia, Wanganui; born Wanganui, 10 May 1916; farm labourer; p.w. 27 Apr 1941.

6 See pp. 41112.

7 Long, p. 167.

page 420 enemy. Remaining in touch with 6 Brigade, the company eventually embarked with it from Monemvasia.

Headquarters 4 Hussars was a total loss but by midnight the three squadrons (with patrols from GHQ Liaison Regiment under command) had withdrawn to Patrai. As a German landing was imminent, they moved south that afternoon towards Tripolis and Kalamata.

The advance parties from 4 Brigade were less fortunate. The brigade intelligence officer got away with two men, met A Company 26 Battalion and reported to Divisional Headquarters,1 but the supply officer with four men was afterwards reported ‘so far missing.’

Sixth Field Company (less the section at the bridge and the two sub-sections on the Athens road) in its more sheltered area had escaped the early strafing but its position was soon desperate. Major Rudd, who went forward towards the bridge, met survivors of No. 2 Section and with them withdrew towards Argos. Meanwhile Kelsall had organised the rest of the company and put up a stout defence, the Germans afterwards recording ‘heavy casualties’ in the area. But outnumbered, short of weapons and harassed by mortar fire, the company withdrew that afternoon in small groups. Lieutenant Chapman2 and his section got clear. Lieutenant Wells and his group, after going through the outskirts of Corinth and reaching the south road, were taken by a Greek to an air-raid shelter where they planned to stay until nightfall. But a Greek officer appeared with some paratroopers and the party was captured and taken to the prisoner-of-war cage at the cemetery.

Kelsall and some fifteen other ranks crawled through the low vines, came unexpectedly upon a farmhouse occupied by Germans and then scattered. Kelsall and another sapper escaped, joined two Australians and two English soldiers from the anti-aircraft batteries and with them went over the hills hoping to reach Navplion. Informed by Greeks that embarkation from that port had ceased, they turned south-east through wild, romantic country and eventually reached the coast, from which on 29 April they were ferried across the bay to Spetsai Island. Here two officers and 40 other ranks of 4 Hussars appeared with some Australians. The combined parties hired a caique and sailed to Velopoula, where they picked up a sub-lieutenant from Piræus, whose boat had been shot up off the island. That night, 1–2 May, the party weathered a severe storm and reached Milos with a disabled ship. While they were attempting to obtain another more escapees arrived and other ships3 called on their way to Crete. Finally on 8 May, after a Cretan colonel had

1 See p. 424.

2 Chapman arrived in Crete with two officers and sixteen men on 11 May.

page 421 forced the Greeks to produce a ship, the party prepared to sail—in all 320, including 180 Cretans from the Albanian front. But next evening as the ship was about to leave Milos, three German motor boats appeared and the odyssey came to an end.1

Other men of 6 Field Company were more fortunate. Sapper Carson,2 after being wounded and cared for in hospitals at Corinth and Piræus, escaped with Lance-Bombardier Marshall3 of 7 Anti- Tank Regiment and reached Euboea. From there they sailed to Skiros and were taken by Greek fishermen to Turkey, reaching Egypt in September 1941. Sapper Stuart4 escaped into the hills to join two other sappers and two Australians. The peasants were hospitable— ‘we were kissed, wept over, given bread, cheese and wine and provided with a guide in the space of half-an-hour.’ They eventually reached an island and became members of a party of sixty-four New Zealanders, Englishmen and Australians who were eventually taken by Greeks to Turkey.

The only other New Zealand units in the Corinth area were C Squadron Divisional Cavalry Regiment and the carrier platoon from 28 (Maori) Battalion. The landing began while the men were still digging in and before Major Harford could find the ‘OC Isthmus Force’, but the units put up a solid resistance, WO II Seccombe5 being very effective with his Vickers. But it was soon obvious that the group would be overwhelmed, so with the intention of withdrawing and then reorganising, orders were given by wireless and by runner for the units to withdraw along a track which seemed, according to the map, to rejoin the main road south of Corinth. The crews from three or four Divisional Cavalry and four or five Maori carriers did not get clear by this route; some were casualties, some prisoners, and others the fortunate crews of carriers which reached the highway. The main party—two armoured cars and five carriers of C Squadron (about thirty men) and two carriers from 28 (Maori) Battalion (about ten men)—got clear, but the track petered out and the carriers were eventually run into a deep gully. The crews, guided by Greeks and very exhausted, then hurried over the hills towards Navplion, hoping that they would be in time for the embarkation6 which was to take place that night.

The Germans were not able to interfere with this operation nor had they captured the bridge intact, but they had split the British

1 German reports state that ‘19 Officers and 105 English OR’ were captured.

2 Spr S. E. Carson, m.i.d.; Lyttelton; born Lyttelton, 9 Dec 1914; plumber; wounded and p.w. 26 Apr 1941; escaped Jul 1941; safe in Egypt Sep 1941.

3 Bdr F. S. Marshall; born NZ 3 Nov 1914; insurance agent; wounded and p.w. Apr 1941; escaped Jul 1941; safe in Egypt Sep 1941; killed in action 1 Dec 1941.

4 Spr J. B. Stuart; Te Awamutu; born Auckland, 28 Nov 1910; farmer.

5 Capt G. T. Seccombe, DCM, m.i.d.; Upper Hutt; born Whangarei, 27 Oct 1915; Regular soldier; wounded and p.w. 1 Jun 1941.

6 See p. 429.

page 422 forces in Greece. South of the canal were the units to be evacuated from Navplion, Monemvasia and Kalamata. To the north artillery regiments were already assembling to embark from the Marathon beaches, but the rearguard—4 Brigade and units from 1 Armoured Brigade—was still in position south of Thebes. Their successful evacuation now depended upon the receipt of wireless messages1 from General Freyberg, upon the flexibility of the overall plan, and upon the efficiency of the Navy.

Thus it was natural that in all German reports the action was described as yet another triumph. At the cost of only one or two aircraft, 63 killed, 158 wounded and 16 missing, they had captured the canal area; the Allied casualties were not stated but the Germans claimed to have 921 British and 1450 Greek prisoners of war. Later they argued that the attack had been excellent training for the airborne troops who were soon to make the landing on Crete.

More important, however, was the Germans' failure to appreciate the strength of the force now isolated on the ridges south of Thebes. Had they realised that it was 4 Brigade Group and not just a small rearguard they would undoubtedly have made greater efforts to prevent its eventual evacuation.2

1 See pp. 4245.

2 See pp. 43741.