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To Greece

Withdrawal of 4 Brigade from Kriekouki on night 26–27 April

Withdrawal of 4 Brigade from Kriekouki on night 26–27 April

The main rearguard for W Force after the withdrawal from Thermopylae had been 4 New Zealand Brigade. Eighteenth and 20th Battalions had moved2 back from Molos to the olive groves near Thebes during the night of 22–23 April. Nineteenth Battalion, which had been sent to Levadhia on 22 April, had been recalled and, although left with no extra transport, had by long marches and the relaying of unit transport reached the brigade area. Next day the battalions withdrew some seven miles south of Thebes.

4 bricade rearguard in the kriekouki pass, 26 april 1941

4 bricade rearguard in the kriekouki pass, 26 april 1941

From the ridges above the village of Kriekouki, as it was generally known to the brigade, the force now covered the pass of Kithairon. Whoever held this gap controlled the highway from Thebes to Athens. The defile itself, narrow and rocky, had some useful cover in the scrub and under the scattered pine trees. The crest of the

2 See p. 376.

page 434 3000-foot ridge was wide and undulating, but the observation points were excellent and there were good positions for troops and guns, especially if camouflage nets were used. The northern slopes were steep and devoid of cover, but to the south about the villages of Kaza and Villia there were young pine trees, a few olive groves and some dense undergrowth in which well-disciplined troops could remain unseen.

The chances of immediate encirclement were not great. By following the road through Thebes towards the east coast the Germans could possibly outflank the brigade, but the country was not easily negotiable by tanks and still farther east at Khalkis, Skhimatarion and Tatoi there were the detachments from 1 Armoured Brigade. On the western flank the first two miles of country were almost certainly tank proof; there was a track through Villia to Kriekouki but it was steep and easily covered; and beyond that there were five miles of rough hill country and then the shores of the Gulf of Corinth.

To hold the pass there was 4 Brigade Group, a mixed force, with the Australians providing, in addition to artillery and anti-tank guns, 2/8 Field Company, 2/1 Field Ambulance and twelve men from the Australian Corps Signals. Eighteenth Battalion on the right flank and 20 Battalion on the left flank, each with a two-mile front and each supported by machine-gunners from D Company 2/1 Australian Machine Gun Battalion, formed the line, with 19 Battalion in reserve. The Bren carriers from 20 Battalion patrolled beyond the left flank while the carriers from the other battalions, with two platoons from 1 Machine Gun Company, were detailed to resist parachute attacks or encircling movements about either flank. In support of each forward battalion there was a battery from 2/3 Australian Field Regiment, with the most advanced troop in a good position for anti-tank defence. The seven two-pounders of 3 Australian Anti-Tank Battery covered all entrances to the position and seven Bredas from 106 Light Anti-Aircraft Battery, Royal Artillery, were well forward, four covering the gun positions and three in a dual anti-tank and anti-aircraft role.

All units were in position by the morning of 24 April and every effort was made to prevent the enemy discovering the presence of such a large force. In daylight the majority of the troops were to the rear of the forward slopes, under cover but ready to move at short notice; after dark they occupied the forward slopes and patrolled actively. Strong formations of enemy aircraft passed over the area on several occasions to and from the Corinth Canal area but no anti-aircraft fire was permitted. There was also complete wireless silence, Force and Corps Headquarters both being asked page 435 not to call the brigade over the air, except in an emergency. As a result the defences were almost certainly not located by the enemy, whose records for this period, though not specific on the subject, all suggest that no serious resistance was expected. The British troops had apparently withdrawn to the Peloponnese.

That night 6 New Zealand and 19 Australian Brigades and Clifton Force, the rearguard, came through from the Thermopylae area. Next day, 25 April, the enemy, delayed by demolitions south of Thermopylae, was still far from Thebes; observation aircraft came over but there were no attacks by the fighter-bomber squadrons. Fourth Brigade was therefore able to adjust its defences, General Freyberg having decided that 6 Brigade,1 instead of taking over the right flank, must leave that night for the Peloponnese. Thereafter the high ground on the right flank north of Tatoi was the responsibility of 1 Armoured Brigade. To reinforce it A Squadron New Zealand Divisional Cavalry and C Company 1 Rangers withdrew from the Khalkis area and that night the rest of the Divisional Cavalry, less C Squadron at Corinth, moved over with one battery of 2 Royal Horse Artillery, 34 New Zealand Anti-Tank Battery, 4 New Zealand Machine Gun Company and two troops of 102 Anti- Tank Regiment.

In the afternoon Brigadier Puttick had been ordered2 to postpone the withdrawal another twenty-four hours, actually until after dark on 26–27 April when, instead of embarking from Megara beach, his brigade would withdraw south of the Corinth Canal. He would be responsible for all demolitions up to and including the canal bridge; and once there his battalions had to be prepared to hold the area against any attacks from the north. These decisions made, Battle Headquarters New Zealand Division left Mazi at dusk for the Miloi area, south of the Corinth Canal and immediately west of Navplion.

On 26 April, after the screening detachments had moved out on the flanks, the troops patiently prepared for another day of concealment. After 7 a.m., however, there were explosions in Thebes; at 10 a.m. the long-expected and apparently endless line of trucks could be seen approaching the town; and then, about 11 a.m., a column of about 100 vehicles led by motor-cyclists and a light tank moved south towards the pass. Closely spaced and in open country the trucks were an excellent target and 2/3 Field Regiment waited until they were within range. As the guns had not registered the shells seemed, at first, to fall everywhere but on the road. All the same the column stopped, the troops scattered and

1 See pp. 4078.

2 See p. 406.

page 436 there was some confusion, but before long they had re-embussed and were hurrying back to Thebes, leaving eight vehicles burning on the highway.

Thereafter the Germans made no effort to force the pass. Some artillery came forward to engage 2/3 Field Regiment but the shelling was neither heavy nor systematic. The Australians, on the other hand, continued to be aggressive, firing freely at any Germans probing south from Thebes and ending the afternoon with a registration shoot over a wide area to give the impression that fresh batteries had arrived.

In other ways, however, the enemy had been very active. His army intelligence authorities were now certain that at least two New Zealand battalions with strong artillery support were holding the area. Reconnaissance aircraft had been taking off from a landing ground near Thebes and fighter-bombers had been attacking any vehicles moving along the road to Athens. About 7 p.m. the observers of 18 Battalion reported that at least 200 German vehicles were about Likouresi, a village about ten miles east of Thebes. This suggested that an effort would be made to by-pass the defences at Kriekouki.

The other and more important problem for Brigadier Puttick had been the activity of the Luftwaffe about Corinth and the appearance of paratroopers between there and Megara. According to Lieutenant- Colonel Marnham and Captain Baker, who had appeared1 from Megara about 2 p.m., medical personnel had come back saying that there were paratroopers along the road to Corinth, transport vehicles which should have returned to Megara had not appeared and the constant bombing in the canal area suggested that the bridge or its approaches might be wrecked. As the brigade was to withdraw over the canal that night this report was very disturbing, but Puttick, who knew the area, remained confident and sent the two officers back to investigate the position still further. Nevertheless, he stoutly prepared for the worst and made his plans for a new defence area about nine miles east of the canal. It would be held during 27 April, and if the Navy could not arrange an embarkation the force would have to force its way over the canal. Should that not be possible the brigade would fight it out near the beach in the hope of possible embarkation.

About 6 p.m. more information was received. Paratroops had definitely landed, and to confirm that fact Marnham and Baker returned after being captured by and then escaping2 from a small force near Megara. But there was still no definite information about the canal bridge and Puttick was preparing to put his new plans

1 See p. 410.

2 See p. 411.

page 437 into operation when, at 6.30 p.m., an officer came over from 1 Armoured Brigade with the wireless message1 from Freyberg ordering 4 Brigade to withdraw through Athens to the Porto Rafti beaches. Embarkation might possibly be that very night, 26–27 April.

Action was taken immediately. Marnham and Baker were sent with four carriers along the Corinth road to report upon the situation and to pick up any men left about Megara. To support them and to prevent any German interference with the withdrawal of 4 Brigade, two infantry platoons and five Bren carriers were sent to a position just west of the Elevsis road junction. The route through Athens was picketed and an advance party was sent to Porto Rafti. All units were told that the timings for the withdrawal that night would stand, but that instead of crossing the canal they would assemble near Porto Rafti.

The withdrawal began at 9 p.m. and proceeded very smoothly, with no stragglers and no interference from the enemy. The men came in past the check point, marched to the transport area and climbed aboard the vehicles of B Section 4 RMT Company. The convoy, with lights on, raced back through Athens and east towards Porto Rafti. The rearguard followed under the command of Lieutenant-Colonel Kippenberger, with 2/8 Australian Field Company blowing a series of demolitions in the stretch between the pass and Elevsis.

Thereafter the withdrawal towards Porto Rafti continued without any interruption. The groups from Megara were collected, the carrier force sent to cover the western approaches came back without any opposition from the parachute units, and the machine-gunners at the four road blocks2 arranged by Brigadier Miles were picked up by the rearguard as it came through.

At daylight on 27 April the brigade group was under cover of the olive trees which flourish on the small plain to the north-west of Markopoulon. Running southwards was the highway to Lavrion; branching eastwards was the road across the foothills and down the fertile valley to the beaches of Porto Rafti. Movement there that night, 27–28 April, would not be difficult; the problem for Brigadier Puttick was the safety of his brigade during the next twelve hours.

The change of embarkation beach only two and a half hours before the withdrawal commenced and the possibility of evacuation that night, 26–27 April, had prevented the preparation of any defence scheme. The embarkation staff, thinking of concealment and ease of embarkation, had dispersed the battalions along some 15 miles of road in no tactical formation whatsoever. As the

1 See pp. 4245.

2 See p. 428.

page 438 advanced guard of the German force which had swung south-east from Thebes could be expected at any moment, Puttick had therefore to organise his defences in open daylight.
4 brigade positions, porto rafti, 27 april 1941

4 brigade positions, porto rafti, 27 april 1941

The brigade would go into position east of Markopoulon and astride the road to Porto Rafti. Eighteenth Battalion would hold the undulating country to the north of the road, 20 Battalion the ridge running south-eastwards from the white-walled chapel behind the village. This would give each unit a front of 5000 yards. Nineteenth Battalion (less one company at Corinth), 2/8 Field Company and three machine-gun platoons would be in reserve astride the road about a mile from the beach. Two machine-gun platoons supported each of the forward battalions; three guns from 3 Anti-Tank Battery supported 18 Battalion and the four others supported 20 Battalion. The 2/3 Field Regiment had one troop with each forward battalion in an anti-tank role and the rest of its seventeen guns farther back to cover the whole front.

page 439

About 9 a.m. the Brigadier, disregarding the policy of concealment hitherto in force, ordered the immediate occupation of these positions. The troops had enjoyed a quiet breakfast, but the pleasant Sunday morning with the Greeks preparing for devotions or offering their simple hospitality now became one of intense activity. All went smoothly until about 11 a.m., when some twenty aircraft made a sudden and very destructive attack. Machine-gun fire exploded a 25-pound shell, which in its turn produced other explosions until trucks, fields and pine plantations were ablaze. ‘Nine guns of the 2/3rd [Field Regiment] or the anti-tank battery attached to it were destroyed, and six artillerymen … killed ….’1 More serious still was the damage to 20 Battalion. Caught in the narrow valley when the aircraft began their attack, B Company had some twenty casualties, including two officers. Eighteenth Battalion had a small number of casualties and lost some vehicles. Nevertheless by 1 p.m. units were in position and able to give more attention to concealment.

1 Long, p. 176.