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To Greece

The Raid on Piræus Harbour

The Raid on Piræus Harbour

For the units in the Athens area action began about 11 p.m. on 6 April when the Luftwaffe began a two hours' bombardment of the crowded harbour of Piræus. The cruiser Ajax and the anti-aircraft cruiser Calcutta put to sea, but the SS Clan Fraser carrying ammunition was hit and exploded at four o'clock next morning. The damage was terrific. Sheds and offices, equipment and rolling stock were wrecked; six merchant ships, twenty lighters and one tug were burnt out and another ship sunk by an aerial mine. The port was closed for two days for clearing and reorganisation, but the damage to the facilities for unloading was a problem for the rest of the campaign. This meant that the shipping programme had to be adjusted and efforts made to use such minor ports up the east coast as Khalkis, Stilis and Volos. The 292nd Army Field Company, Royal Engineers, which should have gone north to assist in the preparation of the defences at Amindaion, was retained to clear the shattered waterfront and a troop of 2/106 Light Anti-Aircraft Battery needed to cover the base at Larisa was retained for service about the harbour.

Several small New Zealand units were in Piræus during the raid, the largest being A Company (Captain McClymont1) of 21 Battalion, with the mortar platoon under command. No. 7 Platoon (Lieutenant Southworth2), guarding the Shell and Socony oil installations about a mile from the docks, did its best with Bren and Lewis guns. No. 9 Platoon (Second-Lieutenant Roach3) was about the main wharf where bombs released by an early flight set fire to the sheds, the ammunition trucks and the Clan Fraser. Until other flights came over and the men were ordered into air-raid shelters, wounded seamen were assisted off the ship and efforts made to control the fires about the docks. In the morning when the ship exploded the men were under cover in the air-raid shelters so there were only two minor casualties, perhaps the Division's first in

1 Capt R. B. McClymont; born Rongotea, 30 Aug 1906; public servant; killed in action 22 May 1941.

2 Lt W. J. Southworth, m.i.d.; born Christchurch, 30 May 1918; school-teacher; killed in action 22 May 1941.

3 Maj W. J. G. Roach, MC; Wellington; born Levin, 12 Oct 1909; bank officer; 2 i/c 21 Bn Oct 1943–Mar 1944; wounded 22 Nov 1941.

page 162 Greece. ‘The main trouble was not exactly the blast but the bloody big pieces of red hot metal which came out of the sky. Some of them were 6 ft in length … the amn piles started going up … and to cap it all the amn train caught alight and there were anxious moments while we smothered that…. An English senior officer then put in an appearance—he was a very grand chap but as I told him everything that was likely to happen had happened.’1

Another unit was No. 3 Section 9 Railway Survey Company2 (Captain Nevins) which was on PAD3 duties and able to assist in the suppression of fires on the decks of two ships. Next morning men from the Reinforcement Camp at Voula were on the scene when a small ship struck one of the aerial mines and broke in half. Two of the seamen who were struggling in the oil-coated harbour were brought in at great risk by Private Coatsworth4 of 20 Battalion.

1 Major Roach.

2 See pp. 912.

3 Passive Air Defence.

4 Pte F. J. C. Coatsworth; born NZ 5 Sep 1918; plumber; p.w. Apr 1941; died while p.w. 10 Aug 1942.