Movement of New Zealand Division to Greece
Movement of New Zealand Division to Greece
ON 24 February General Freyberg told his brigadiers that the Division was going to Greece. They were not free, even among themselves, to discuss the expedition and the movement in its initial stages would have the appearance of a divisional exercise. The unit commanders in their turn were warned that they would soon be moving to ‘a theatre of war’. Intense activity immediately developed in the Base Ordnance Depot where clothes and equipment, including topees,1 were issued and about the camps where equipment was checked and packed into the motor vehicles. The observant rank and file, who had been told nothing, thereupon decided that they were about to move overseas. Some oracles predicted a landing along the North African coast, others thought that the Division would be attacking an island base in the Aegean Sea and quite a number concluded that the objective would be on the mainland of Greece.
The movement orders which were issued by GHQ Middle East2 on 28 February bypassed HQ 2 NZEF and went straight to individual units. The Division was not going to embark as a complete formation. Lustre Force had been divided into flights within which units, and sometimes sections of units, would travel with similar detachments from the British and Australian divisions. On 3 March the assembly commenced, the first flight moving by road or by rail to Amiriya, a dusty transit camp on a windswept stretch of desert some 12 miles west of Alexandria. The loaded vehicles were then taken to the docks, the troops waiting until they received their final orders to move.
2 This system of direct control by GHQ Middle East may have been a measure of security but it led to protests from General Freyberg. On his behalf Brigadier Stevens pointed out to the Higher Command that 2 NZEF was ‘a National Army with its own training and administrative establishments.’ He hoped that in future any details of a basic plan would be ‘forwarded to this office at the outset.’ In the case of the fourth and later flights, HQ 2 NZEF instructed all units that they were to come under command of GHQ Middle East.
General Freyberg had then to make his own preparations for the move. On 5 March he called at GHQ Middle East to meet General Wavell after his return from the conference1 in Athens. The Commander-in-Chief gave him an outline of the defence plan but no estimate of the possible strength of Lustre Force. General Freyberg understood, nevertheless, that twenty-three squadrons of the Royal Air Force would be in support. This was encouraging information though he still had no illusions about the difficulties that Lustre Force would have to face.
The immediate problem was that of transport. The Naval Command had always realised that the Eastern Mediterranean could never be safe from the Axis forces that were operating from southern Italy and the islands of the Aegean Sea. But they had not expected the acute shortage of transport vessels which had developed in February after the enemy, by dropping magnetic mines, had closed the Suez Canal to all shipping. On 3 March, the day the Canal was to have been clear, more mines had been dropped, with the result that half the freighters and all the transports had to remain at the southern entrance. It was just possible for separate convoys of freighters to have the motor vehicles and heavy equipment in Greece before the arrival of the flight, but the troops, if they were to arrive on time, had to travel in the cruisers York, Bonaventure, Orion, Ajax Breconshire, and the motor vessel Ulster Prince.
2 HMS York (Maj-Gen Freyberg, Col K. L. Stewart, GSO I, Lt-Col W. G. Gentry, AA & QMG, Lt J. C. White, Personal Assistant to the GOC); advance parties from 4 and 6 Brigades were in HMS York and HMS Bonaventure; HMS Orion (C and D Coys 18 Bn); HMS Ajax (HQ, A and B Coys 18 Bn); HMS Breconshire (6 Fd Coy); MV Ulster Prince (1 Gen Hosp).
The General had hoped to reveal the secret to his senior officers in Egypt but events had moved so rapidly that he had to be satisfied with a Special Order of the Day1 which was to be opened after the ships were out of the harbour. Through it the men were told that they would be fighting in Greece against Germans; they were warned that they must steel themselves to accept the noise and confusion of modern warfare; and they were reminded that the honour of the Dominion was in their hands.
On 7 March, less than twenty-four hours after it had left Alexandria, the flight had its first sight of Greece. In the clear air of that spring morning the troops could see the outlying islands, and beyond them the harmonious outline of the still distant mainland. As the hours passed the sea changed to darker shades of blue, the white villages along the rocky coastline became more distinct and the isle of Salamis rose up above the waters to the west. At last about midday the cruisers swung east beyond a rocky promontory and the troops about the crowded decks had their first view of the harbour, the factories and the modern buildings of Piræus. Athens, only three miles inland, lay behind the slight rise to the north-east.
The Greeks, who had not expected the arrival of a British expeditionary force, were wildly excited. The seamen on the ships within the arbour cheered as the cruisers drew in; the excited people along the highway and the crowds in the streets of Athens gave the flight —and all successive flights—a spontaneous and tumultuous welcome as they went through to the staging areas outside the city. Kifisia, a summer resort on the lower slopes of Mount Pendelicon, had been reserved for the artillery regiments, the Army Service Corps companies and 1 General Hospital. The infantry brigades, each in its turn, encamped in the pine plantations on the western slopes of Mount Hymettus.
In the city itself Advanced 2 Echelon and Base Pay Office were established; Major Rattray,2 the New Zealand Liaison Officer, went to Headquarters, British Troops in Greece. At Voula, a pleasant resort along the coast to the south-east of Piræus, the Reinforcement Camp was set up.
Moreover, at this season of the year there was always the danger of severe storms. On 13–15 March the transit camp at Amiriya had heavy rain and then a memorable sandstorm that stopped the movement of all vehicles on the desert road between Cairo and Alexandria. The second flight2 which was at sea during 9–17 March consequently saw the Mediterranean at its worst. The Greek steamer Hellas, with Headquarters Divisional Engineers on board, was hove-to for a day; the Ionia, with 4 Field Ambulance and 19 Army Troops Company, had her holds battened down and was hard put to it to make two knots; the Marit Maersk with 19 Battalion drifted out of the convoy, was hove-to south of Crete and forced to put in to Suda Bay before she could go on to Piræus.
With the third3 and fourth flights which were crossing during 17–22 March it was not the weather but the Luftwaffe that was dangerous. Dive-bombers came over on several occasions but caused no damage until 21 March, when the SS Barpeta had a near miss and a tanker was hit and had to be towed off to Suda Bay.
The fifth4 flight with the much-travelled 5 Brigade crossed during 25–29 March, the period of the naval Battle of Matapan. On 27 March, when the convoy was south of Crete, the Admiral learnt that the Italian Navy was steaming into the Aegean Sea. The convoy was ordered to steam on as a decoy and, after nightfall, to reverse its course. Next day when the battle took place it was well out of the way, though the diversion meant another twelve hours at sea and an unexpected arrival at Piræus on the evening of 29 March. With no unit vehicles waiting for them, 23 and 28 (Maori) Battalions had to march the ten miles to Hymettus Camp; 21 Battalion went by train, 22 Battalion by motor transport.
2 HMS York (Div Pro Coy, 4 Fd Hyg Sec); HMS Breconshire (20 Bn); HMS Chakla (Sup Coln); SS Korinthia (HQ 4 Bde, Div Postal, Fd Pay); SS Hellas (HQ Div Engrs); SS Ionia (4 Fd Amb, 19 A Tps Coy); SS Marit Maersk (19 Bn).
3 HMS Ajax (24 Bn); HMS Orion (25 Bn); HMS Breconshire (5 Fd Pk Coy, 26 Bn); HMS Gloucester (27 MG Bn, Pet Coy); HMS Chakla (Div Sigs); HMAS Perth (CRA and BM Div Arty); SS Hellas (4 Fd Regt, Adv Pty Div Sigs); SS Korinthia (part Div HQ); SS Ionia (4 RMT Coy, 1 Fd Wkshops, Div Cav Regt); SS Barpeta (6 Fd Amb, HQ 6 Bde, HQ NZASC, part Div HQ, Fd Security Sec). No New Zealand units were with the fourth flight.
4 MV Cameronia (nurses 1 Gen Hosp, Comd 5 Bde and staff, 23 Bn, 28 (Maori) Bn, 5 and 6 Fd Regts); MV Ulster Prince (1 Svy Tp); SS Ionia (HQ 5 Bde, 21 Bn, 11 offrs 5 Fd Regt, Adv 2 Ech); SS Hellas (22 Bn); SS Korintbia (7 A-Tk Regt, 5 Fd Amb).
The major portion of the New Zealand Division was then in Greece. The only New Zealanders with the sixth flight on 1–3 April were 7 Field Company, the Mobile Dental Unit and a detachment from the YMCA. A seventh flight was at sea on 6 April when the German invasion began, but as chance would have it no New Zealanders had been detailed to go with it.
After that date it would have been foolish for General Wavell to send any other troops to the Balkans. The armies of Yugoslavia were disintegrating and it was doubtful if a solid front could be established. In North Africa the situation was even more disturbing. On 31 March Rommel had opened that spectacular counter offensive by which he was to recover Cyrenaica, surround Tobruk and threaten Egypt. Instead of sending 7 Australian Division and the Polish Brigade to Greece, Wavell retained them in Egypt and eventually sent them as reinforcements to Tobruk. The seventh flight was consequently the last to reach Greece. The transport vehicles of 10 Railway Construction Company had been shipped to Greece, but the personnel and a composite section from the Railway Operating Companies, who were to have sailed with an eighth flight, and 21 Mechanical Equipment Company which was to have moved with a ninth flight, never left Egypt.