Chapter 13: The Critical Days, 17–18 April
The Withdrawal of 5 Brigade
IN the initial stages of the campaign General Wilson had thought that the weakest sector of the Allied front was to the south and west of Monastir. And until 16 April the greatest danger did seem to be from the German forces approaching Kalabaka and threatening to encircle Larisa from the west. But after that date the danger point was the Pinios Gorge, which had to be held until the brigade groups had withdrawn: 5 Brigade from Mount Olympus, 6 Brigade from the Elasson area and Savige Force from the western approaches to Larisa. The period, 17–18 April, was therefore one of rearguard engagements and carefully timed withdrawals.
The first step – a temporary one for the night of 16–17 April – was the assembly at Elevtherokhorion of Duff Force,1 with one group in positions astride the road from Mount Olympus, another covering the road from Servia and another the approaches from the west of Elasson. Next day the greater part of the Divisional Cavalry Regiment,2 for a short period under the command of Anzac Corps, returned to build up a more formidable rearguard. B Squadron carriers3 and N Troop 34 Anti-Tank Battery remained in the Dheskati area and the squadron’s armoured car troop was sent hastily to join Allen Force outside the Pinios Gorge, but A and C Squadrons assembled at Elevtherokhorion and took over rearguard duties at the road junction. Duff Force was then disbanded, O and P Troops 34 Anti-Tank Battery coming under the command of the Divisional Cavalry Regiment, 3 Company 27 (Machine Gun) Battalion leaving to support 6 Brigade at Elasson and the three carrier platoons from 6 Brigade returning to their respective battalions.
The two squadrons of the Divisional Cavalry Regiment were in position by nightfall. A Squadron, with P Troop 34 Anti-Tank Battery attached, covered the junction of the roads from Servia
and Olympus Pass and the bridge immediately to the south of it. C Squadron formed an outer screen in the undulating country to the north: one troop, with part of O Troop 34 Anti-Tank Battery attached, was along the road towards Mount Olympus: another troop was some six miles north along the road towards Servia. The remainder4 of the squadron was in reserve, while Regimental Headquarters was well back in the gorge some two miles north of Elasson.
The day was also one of movement for the battalions of 5 Brigade, who since their withdrawal to the crest of the Olympus Pass on the night of 16–17 April had been preparing to form another line. Twenty-second and 28 (Maori) Battalions, supported by 5 Field Regiment and the remaining two-pounders of 32 Anti-Tank Battery, were just south of Ay Dhimitrios. South-east of them on the lower slopes of Mount Olympus, 23 Battalion was holding the rock-strewn col above the village of Kokkinoplos. It was to have withdrawn that night, 17–18 April, but about 9 a.m., when thick mists enveloped the mountains and screened the highway from the view of the German airmen, General Freyberg visited the pass and decided that the brigade should make an immediate withdrawal. So during the afternoon of 17 April when the Divisional Cavalry rearguard was moving into position, the trucks of 4 RMT Company with 5 Brigade aboard were hastening south towards Larisa.
The brigade orders, issued before midday, explained that the German columns threatened to encircle W Force. The Division was consequently withdrawing to the Volos area and from there to the Thermopylae line. Fifth Brigade was to carry out ‘a preliminary withdrawal to the Velestinon–Almiros area near Volos.’ No exact position was named but it was explained that there would be provosts posted along the Larisa–Volos road to give directions.
In the Olympus Pass area the first unit to march back to the waiting trucks would leave at 12.30 p.m.; in the Kokkinoplos area the move would begin at 1 p.m. To avoid congestion it had been arranged that the main highway from Larisa to Lamia should be reserved for 6 Australian Division. The New Zealand convoys, after reaching Larisa, would therefore turn south-east through Velestinon to the Almiros area south of the port of Volos. From there the trucks would return to pick up 6 Brigade; the troops would wait until the transport which had taken 4 Brigade from Servia to Thermopylae could return to take them to the same area.
The immediate problem was the actual disengagement of the battalions. Had the enemy been able to follow up during the night
of 16–17 April the movement would have been difficult, but it was only in the 23 Battalion sector that any fighting took place.
On the wet morning of 17 April the companies, after their exhausting march5 across the mountainside, were in or about Kokkinoplos. A Company (Captain Watson6) was on the col itself, with a platoon on either side of the path, another in reserve in a hollow towards the centre and headquarters on the track itself. The other companies were below in the deserted village attempting to dry themselves or to get some rest. About 7 a.m., however, they were suddenly disturbed by the enemy, who appeared through the swirling mists about the col and opened fire on A Company headquarters. Some of the forward posts were driven back but 10 Platoon (Second-Lieutenant Begg) of B Company hurried up in time to prevent the enemy getting between A Company and the village. Groups from C and D Companies came up later and the line was eventually steadied after a period of exciting close-quarter work in which Sergeant Mulhern7 and Private Brook8 distinguished themselves. The casualties had been one killed and two wounded, both of whom became prisoners of war. After that it was more an exchange of mortar and machine-gun fire, with the Germans’ fire seemingly coming in from the heights on both flanks.
The end of this stalemate came late that morning when Lieutenant-Colonel Falconer, acting on verbal instructions from Brigade Headquarters, ordered the battalion to withdraw immediately to the highway some six miles to the south-west. The companies were deployed to meet any German advance and their withdrawal might have been difficult, but the mist was now to their advantage and they withdrew successfully with C Company as rearguard and the four machine guns of 10 Platoon 27 Battalion giving covering fire.
The German force, 3 Engineer Company and 12 Machine Gun Company of 72 Infantry Division, afterwards reported that ‘The terrain was extraordinarily difficult. The mountain track to Kokkinoplos ran over hills 1200–1400 metres high. All the equipment (heavy mortars) had to be carried. The darkness was so complete that men wandered from the track, and from 2400 to 04009 hrs the column had to rest. At 0600 hrs the personnel of an equipment dump were surprised. 10 men were captured and taken along with us. At 0800 hrs the force again came up against heavy opposition north of Kokkinoplos. 3 Engr Coy and 12 MG
Coy attacked at once. By 1100 hrs they had lost 5 killed (including 2 platoon commanders) and 5 seriously wounded. In this action 2 PW were taken – the enemy (New Zealanders) defended their positions extremely sternly and courageously. Our casualties were caused by direct hits by mortar bombs or accurate MG fire ... about 1200 hours the enemy abandoned his positions.’10
The enemy, exhausted and without food, left 23 Battalion free to reach the village of Pithion, where a hot meal had been prepared, and to march on again to the transport in which the battalion11 joined the never-ending stream of vehicles moving southwards.
Fourth Field Ambulance was already away from the Olympus Pass. The other units, after marching some three miles back to the trucks at Pithion, reached the highway about 3 p.m., first 22 Battalion, with 11 and 12 Platoons 4 Machine Gun Company and 32 Anti-Tank Battery, less three troops, then 5 Field Regiment, less A and F Troops, and finally 28 (Maori) Battalion.
The rearguard (A Company 22 Battalion, C Company 28 (Maori) Battalion and F Troop 5 Field Regiment) had a relatively undisturbed withdrawal about 6 p.m. The Germans made no effort to follow up. There had been some movement about Ay Dhimitrios and some seven rounds had been fired to ‘play safe’, but otherwise there was no action. No. 1 Company 2 Infantry Regiment of 2 Panzer Division recorded that it reached the village about 11 a.m., capturing ‘an English rearguard one section strong’, which was probably the unfortunate Maori group that had lost touch with the battalion during the withdrawal on the night of 16–17 April. Then, hearing that the armoured units of the division would be able to get through the demolitions, the advanced guard had rested in the village.
The units of 5 Brigade had therefore been free to move south towards Larisa and the coastal road12 to Volos. From there they were to have been taken south to Thermopylae by the 4 Brigade transport; their own transport was to have returned for 6 Brigade. That morning, 17 April, a reconnaissance party from New Zealand Divisional Headquarters found that the road from Larisa to Volos had become, in certain stretches, quite impassable for motor vehicles. Freyberg had consequently to arrange with Mackay for the New Zealand convoys to use the main highway through Pharsala which had been reserved for the Australians. He also informed Blamey
[This map was marked up by hand in the book that was originally scanned]
that ‘the destination of the 5 Bde is now all put out ... I am on my way to direct our column, and go back to the fwd Div HQ where the withdrawal is proceeding, and is in a rather bad state.’13 The same message asked Blamey to get the Corps provosts to stop the 5 Brigade column half-way along the Larisa–Lamia road so that the transport could return for 6 Brigade, as in the original plan. This change caused great confusion, for Freyberg, not knowing where 5 Brigade would be halted, was unable to give precise instructions at the Larisa end. Along the road itself it appears that some staff officers had been told by Anzac Corps to halt 5 Brigade in areas clear of the road, the transport to return for 6 Brigade, while others, including provosts on normal duty, knew only that all New Zealand transport should have been on the coastal road and made every effort to divert it to that road.
Twenty-third Battalion, the first to move, stopped north of Larisa about 3 p.m. and the men enjoyed one of the features of the withdrawal: free access to the tinned luxuries of a ration dump. The transport officer attached to the convoy left to get further instructions, those drawn up by 5 Brigade Headquarters not having reached the unit. From General Freyberg himself he learnt that the
Larisa– Volos road was impassable and that the convoy must continue south towards Lamia until directed by a staff officer to turn east. So about 5.30 p.m. the convoy moved off again through Elasson to Larisa, where the piles of rubble, the burning buildings and the crumpled bodies of Greeks and Australians were evidence of successful air raids. South again all the way to Pharsala were burnt-out vehicles and bomb craters, further evidence of the activities of the Luftwaffe and of the battalion’s good fortune to be either just ahead or just behind the successive raids.
The transport officer had hitherto understood that the battalion would at some point move due east across the hills to Almiros and the coast road. A road turned to the east at Pharsala, but, when inspected, soon petered out, and Lieutenant-Colonel Falconer ordered the battalion to continue southwards over the mountains to Lamia. The vehicles were without lights, the road crowded and the successive directions not always clear. ‘On this pass the utmost confusion prevailed. Orders and counter orders were given by various staff officers, and vehicles were turned and turned about again on the two way road.’14 Nevertheless, when morning came the convoy was over the pass by Dhomokos and approaching Lamia. Still wanting instructions and not happy about the narrow coast road from there to Volos, Falconer called another halt and returned towards Pharsala in search of Brigade Headquarters. About midday he met Brigadier Hargest, who had been in the town attempting to hurry the traffic through the narrow streets. Hargest told him to go through Lamia and Stilis towards Volos. If the road became dangerously narrow for safety in the event of air raids the trucks were to be driven under cover in the adjoining olive groves. The convoy thereupon moved through Lamia and swung east towards Stilis. Just outside this village orders were received from Brigade Headquarters that the convoy was to go to the Thermopylae area. The vehicles were therefore driven back towards Lamia and then across the river flats towards the Pass of Thermopylae. The battalion’s good fortune continued and by 8 a.m. the companies were under cover in their bivouac area.
Twenty-second Battalion, less A Company in the rearguard, had a more hazardous and more broken withdrawal. The column reached Larisa, where Lieutenant-Colonel Andrew was advised by General Freyberg that the eastern route through Volos was out of order; the convoy must continue south along the main highway until directed along a new route. The obvious turn-off was eastwards from Pharsala, but the more forward section of the column went through the township and into the great traffic
jam which was afterwards to occupy the attention15 of Brigadier Hargest. In this confusion it was impossible to turn, so Andrew at about 1 a.m. on 18 April decided to carry on to Lamia and from there turn off towards Volos.
But it was impossible to direct the long column already strung out for miles along the crowded highway. Second-Lieutenant Donald16 with 14 Platoon C Company went through to Lamia, where the provosts suggested the diversion east towards Volos, but he insisted on going south to Thermopylae. Lieutenant-Colonel Andrew, with Lieutenant Armstrong and part of 11 Platoon C Company, went through Lamia, reaching a point north of Almiros about 8 a.m. on 18 April. B Echelon afterwards arrived in the same area.
D Company and C Company (less 14 Platoon), in all about 250 men, were however stopped at Pharsala and diverted down the third-class road, which faded away to a mule track in the area north-west of Almiros. Here the men were off-loaded and the transport proceeded to Molos. If Major Laws had not refused to turn off the main highway, B Company would also have joined this isolated group. As it was he took his company, less 11 Platoon, through to Lamia and turned east towards Almiros.
During the day Lieutenant-Colonel Andrew learnt from Headquarters 5 Brigade that the battalion was to move to Molos. His small group then returned, meeting B Company on the road and reaching the Thermopylae area about 10 p.m. Before leaving the Almiros area Andrew, acting on the information supplied by a Greek shepherd, sent Lieutenant Hawthorn17 by motor-cycle up the mule track towards Pharsala and the isolated companies. The senior officer, Major Hart, was advised to march the force towards the coast road while Hawthorn went back to arrange for transport.
The Maori Battalion had much the same problem. About 4.30 p.m. on 17 April the main body had withdrawn from Olympus Pass, halted as did the other battalions at Pharsala, and then, throughout the night, was driven along the main highway to Lamia. The convoy was switched east towards Almiros, but in the afternoon of 18 April fresh orders were received, the trucks were turned about and the battalion by 7 p.m. was in the Thermopylae area.
The rearguard companies18 had left the pass and caught up with the column at Larisa, but as the coast road was now repaired they
were sent to Almiros and left there to be picked up later – according to the original orders for 5 Brigade.
While waiting near the landing ground at Almiros they were joined by the two companies from 22 Battalion which had tramped over the hills from the Pharsala deviation. Their plight must have been known to Brigadier Hargest for, in addition to the trucks which he despatched to collect the rearguard group from Almiros, he sent Lieutenant-Colonel Andrew with another dozen vehicles. As a result both groups by midday 19 April had joined their respective units.
The brigade was now complete – and with remarkably few casualties considering the bombing that took place on 18 April when visibility had improved. On 17 April 4 Machine Gun Company (less 10 Platoon with 23 Battalion) had been bombed near Larisa, losing one truck and having three men wounded. The company eventually came through during the night, 18–19 April, and reached the brigade area near Molos, where 10 Platoon reverted to its command. The only other loss was a Headquarters 5 Brigade postal vehicle destroyed on 18 April near Pharsala. The reason for this immunity may have been the low clouds which limited air attacks on 17 April; it may have been good fortune, for all units reported raids before and behind their respective columns, but it was also due to the skill and determination of the New Zealand Army Service Corps drivers. There were scores of abandoned vehicles along the highway but few New Zealand ones.
The unfortunate changes in the original plan for the withdrawal of 5 Brigade, caused by rain which rendered the route to Volos temporarily unusable, gave rise later to a specific question submitted by Mr Fraser to an Inter-Services Committee in Cairo. Fuller details of this are given in Appendix II to this volume.
It is now clear that the trouble started when Force Headquarters listed the road from Larisa to Volos as one of the ‘four main withdrawal routes’. Anzac Corps then decided that it would be used by the Division and Freyberg accordingly issued his orders to 5 Brigade. When he learnt that the road had become impassable he acted swiftly, arranging with Mackay to use ‘his road’, advising Anzac Corps and warning his battalions to continue along the highway from Larisa to Lamia. That done, there was little more that he could do. Confusion developed, but it was due to contradictory orders from officers of Anzac Corps who, because of delays in communication, were inadequately briefed about the changed route, and to the fact that the motor transport could not, as Freyberg had expected, be diverted east from the main highway to the coast road.
The Rearguard assembles at Elasson
On 18 April, when 5 Brigade was approaching Thermopylae, 4 Brigade was clear of Servia Pass and 6 Brigade, now the rearguard, was completing its defences. To the north across the small plain the troops could see the town of Elasson and beyond it the golden domes of the monastery overlooking the entrance to the pass. Behind them was the mountain mass of Akrotiri encircled by two highways, each capable of taking heavy traffic. The more direct route, that to the east, had just been prepared for motor transport. The other, the more ancient, ran through a pleasant valley with picturesque villages and groves of poplar trees until it entered the gorge of the Sarandaporos River and circled south and east to the road junction at Tirnavos.
The approaches to this town had to be held until the night of 18–19 April. Twenty-fourth Battalion was to the east, astride the road and about five miles south of Elasson. There was little cover from vegetation and it was almost impossible to dig weapon pits, but the area had its advantages; any movement about Elasson could be observed and to the west of the road there were several gullies at most convenient angles for defensive fire. C Company was astride the road, covered by a section of L Troop 33 Anti-Tank Battery.19 D and A Companies were to the west of the road.
Twenty-fifth Battalion had a somewhat different task. Its position was two to three miles north-east of Dhomenikon on the low rounded crests between that township and the villages fringing the western foothills. The position was not perfect but the undulations were distinct enough to provide some cover and the observation points gave a clear view of the pass and the roads south from Elasson. D Company was to the east covering a track to the village of Velesnikon; C Company, with B Company 24 Battalion, was astride the highway; B and A Companies were to the west. In support there were, at first, J and K Troops of 33 Anti-Tank Battery.
Twenty-sixth Battalion, after its arduous withdrawal from the west of Servia Pass, was in reserve behind 25 Battalion and near Dhomenikon. Brigade Headquarters was on the eastern road, but the signalmen had laid a wire across the mountains to 25 Battalion. This was a difficult task, the value of which during the subsequent battle it is ‘impossible to overestimate.’20
The strength of the supporting artillery changed with the fluctuating fortunes of W Force. Every effort had been made to build up fire power, but the desperate situations which arose on other sectors
caused several rearrangements. Fourth Field Regiment, less 25 Battery,21 had joined the brigade after dusk on 15 April and next day 26 Battery had been placed behind C Company 25 Battalion. But before it had settled in orders arrived from Headquarters Anzac Corps for the immediate transfer of a field battery and a troop of anti-tank guns to the Pinios Gorge. The only one available, 26 Battery22 (Major Stewart23), was sent over with L Troop 33 Anti-Tank Battery (Lieutenant Longmore24), and because the situation at Tempe appeared to be serious Lieutenant-Colonel Parkinson of 4 Field Regiment went over in command. As two of the anti-tank guns had been in support of 24 Battalion, the right flank of 6 Brigade was left with no anti-tank weapons other than the unsatisfactory Boys rifles.
It had also been intended that 7 Medium Regiment, 6 New Zealand and 2/3 Australian Field Regiments should join 6 Brigade, but the situation at Servia Pass had forced a change in plans. The 2/3 Field Regiment and one troop25 64 Medium Regiment had come south that night, 16–17 April, but 6 Field Regiment and one battery of 7 Medium Regiment remained at the pass and afterwards moved out with 4 Brigade.
On 17 April when Brigadiers Miles and Barrowclough had again discussed the strength of the artillery support, they had both been ‘apprehensive of an encircling movement by enemy AFVs round open country on the left or western flank and rear.’ They had decided that the greater proportion of the guns arriving that day must support 25 Battalion; the eastern flank would have no anti-tank guns and certain areas on its front would not be covered by the heavier artillery. ‘In the light of future events this decision was unfortunate, as the enemy did in fact attack by the Eastern route and not by the left flank. Guns on the eastern route would have been very effective. ...’26
As it was, 2/3 Australian Field Regiment when it arrived that morning from Servia was sent to the area on the left flank vacated by 26 Battery 4 Field Regiment. One troop from 64 Medium Regiment arrived later, taking up positions behind 25 Battalion, and 5 Field Regiment when it came through that afternoon from Mount
Olympus also went into position there. Twenty-seventh Battery (less A Troop)27 came under the command of 2/3 Field Regiment, while 28 Battery remained on wheels in reserve behind Headquarters 6 Brigade.
The supporting arms from Duff Force28 had come in from the road junction at Elevtherokhorion, the Bren-carrier platoons of 25 and 26 Battalions returning to their respective units along the western road, those of 24 Battalion (less one section) deploying along the eastern road to check any possible threat from the direction of the Pinios Gorge. No. 3 Company 27 (Machine Gun) Battalion, another part of Duff Force, was divided in much the same way. One platoon, less a section, came under the command of 24 Battalion and the rest of the company joined 25 Battalion.
The demolitions in the area had been prepared by 6 and 7 Field Companies. In the eastern sector 7 Field Company had placed charges in the steep road leading up to the 24 Battalion positions and these, with artillery support from the west, would, it was hoped, provide adequate protection. The western approaches had been the biggest problem, the gradient being easier and the countryside more suitable for tanks, but Lieutenant Rix-Trott29 with parties from 7 Field Company had prepared demolitions, wrecked bridges and placed mines alongside the two bridges over the Xerias River. They would be demolished after the withdrawal of the rearguard.
But in spite of all this work and the assembly of so many units, the overall situation was not reassuring. Brigadier Barrowclough had been told little about the fighting on the other fronts, but what information there was suggested that his force at Elasson was in danger of encirclement from either flank. Twenty-first Battalion had withdrawn through the Pinios Gorge and it was quite possible that the Germans would strike westwards to Tirnavos, thereby cutting off 6 Brigade. Savige Force and 1 Armoured Brigade were to the west, but information about their movements was somewhat obscure and it was thought that the enemy could possibly encircle the brigade from the direction of Trikkala. The movement of 26 Battalion to Dhomenikon had been, in part, an effort to cover this exposed flank.
Nevertheless, the withdrawal had up to date been reasonably successful. In the afternoon and evening of 17 April 5 Brigade had withdrawn from Mount Olympus; during the night of 17–18 April 4 Brigade and the Australian units were coming through from Servia Pass. The only troops to the north of 6 Brigade were
the rearguard of 4 Brigade and the screen of anti-tank gunners and Divisional Cavalry at Elevtherokhorion.
Fourth Brigade Completes its Withdrawal, 18–19 April
At first light on the morning of 18 April 4 Brigade was completing its withdrawal from Servia Pass. As yet all had gone according to plan: the Germans were held up by the demolitions and the convoy was making good time along the road to Elasson and Larisa.
The rearguard, on the other hand, was to be less fortunate. At 5.40 a.m. Lieutenant-Colonel Kippenberger, having decided that all 18 Battalion had come through, gave instructions for the first of the remaining demolitions to be blown. ‘The sound of this explosion alarmed further stragglers of 18 Bn who came up within the next 20 minutes, and I then waited a further 20 minutes for a single straggler, blowing the second mine at 0620 hours. This additional delay was most unfortunate and if I had been aware that there was any danger of our retreat being cut off I think I would have abandoned these stragglers.’30 The group then hastened south, blowing several demolitions at which the engineers had been anxiously waiting, and finally reporting to Brigadier Puttick at the assembly area by 7.40 a.m. With the brigade safely away from the pass, the Brigadier left to overtake the main body.
The last four demolitions were then blown and the rearguard moved off at 8.5 a.m., Lieutenant Kelsall leading with the 6 Field Company vehicles, then Lieutenant-Colonel Kippenberger in his staff car and, at the rear, Lieutenant Green with three Bren carriers. Shortly afterwards the first German aircraft came over, so harassing the little column that it halted on three separate occasions before approaching Elevtherokhorion and the Servia–Olympus crossroads, which were covered by the rearguard from the Divisional Cavalry Regiment and 34 Battery 7 Anti-Tank Regiment.
When the leading vehicles were some 400 yards away from the bridge below the pass a shell whistled down the road, hitting one truck but causing no casualties. The anti-tank gunners, who had already observed a German force approaching from the Mount Olympus area, had thought that the rearguard was another German column. Lieutenant Kelsall, who jumped out to investigate, looked back up the road to see how the rest of the column had fared and was amazed to see that two tanks had come over from the Mount Olympus road and driven into the middle of the convoy. And coming over to support them were half-tracked vehicles with
‘motorised infantrymen sitting up ... in rows of four like toy soldiers.’ Fortunately for him he turned about and saw Divisional Cavalry officers at the crossroads waving for him to come on. His truck was rushed over the bridge, up the curve of the road and over the ridge, where the Divisional Cavalry Bren carriers were lying ‘nose to tail in the lee of the hillside.’31
The rest of the little convoy found it more difficult to get clear. Two or three aircraft dived down to bomb and machine-gun the open stretch of road, some of the vehicles were hit by shells from the tanks, and the engineers had to seek shelter along the roadside. It was impossible for Lieutenant-Colonel Kippenberger to organise any counter-attack that would halt the tanks and supporting infantrymen. A two-pounder on portée had soon been silenced ‘and there were two bodies on the platform.’32 Every vehicle had now stopped, dead and wounded sappers lay beside them and on the ridge above them German infantry were debussing.
With a small group of six the Colonel left the road for the western hills and tramped south all that day Away to the left they saw on one occasion the narrow road ‘packed solid with German transport, head to tail, tanks and guns, lorry-loads of infantry’; on another ‘a group of German officers in long greatcoats. ... standing beside a house, looking at maps and southwards through their glasses.’33 Then, as they neared the lines of 6 Brigade, they were shelled by both the defending artillery and the German tanks, but they were eventually able, late that afternoon, to reach the lines of 25 Battalion and be accepted by a naturally cautious sentry.
In the meantime the 4 Brigade convoy had been moving smoothly through Elasson and southwards towards Larisa, from which centre it was to have left the highway and followed the Almiros– Lamia road to Thermopylae. But Brigadier Puttick, when he reported early that morning to Advanced Headquarters New Zealand Division, was advised to move with the Australian convoys along the main highway through Pharsala. The units do not seem to have expected any other route to be followed so the convoy continued south from Larisa without the confusion which was a feature of the withdrawal of 5 Brigade.
Yet the journey was more nerve-racking. The weather of 18 April was very different from that of the 17th. The drizzling rain and mist which had screened 5 Brigade during the early part of its withdrawal had now cleared away. The Luftwaffe was out in strength, dive-bombing and machine-gunning, almost unopposed,
the 70 miles of highway between Larisa and Thermopylae. The Royal Air Force could now give little assistance. On 16 April the squadrons had started to withdraw from the airfields about Larisa, and for the next few days were dealing with the problem of operating from new fields when ground staffs moving south were jammed in the retreating column and the refuelling and rearming parties coming north were blocked by the stream of southbound traffic. Worse still, two squadrons and their ground parties which had been detailed to go to the airfield at Amfiklia, just south of Thermopylae, had continued south to Elevsis, and could not from there give adequate protection to the retreating columns.
It was therefore inevitable that there should be much stopping and starting along the highway. The prescribed distance between vehicles was no longer kept and traffic often jammed the more narrow stretches, especially the cuttings south of Ptolemais and the long climb to the crest of the ridge at Dhomokos. On the appearance of the Luftwaffe lookouts would drum heavily on the roofs of the cabs, drivers would clamp on their brakes and passengers scurry into the fields for safety. Then when the sky was clear there would be an irritating waste of time when nervous individuals hesitated to come back and wrecked trucks had to be pushed off the highway.
The longest halt began about 9.30 a.m. with the hitting of a truckload of explosives and the wrecking of the embankment leading up to the bridge over the Mavrolongos River to the north of Pharsala. The northern half of the column then jammed up head to tail for nearly ten miles, presenting a perfect target for the Luftwaffe. The embankment was eventually repaired by Australian engineers, but it was 1.30 p.m. before the trucks were once again moving towards Lamia.
The raid at 9.30 a.m. had been followed by intermittent attacks throughout the morning and by 2.30 p.m. a continuous attack was being made. Anzac Corps Headquarters appealed to W Force, ‘This road is our life-line for next few days and we must have air protection if humanly possible.’34 Little could be done but next day, 19 April, the two fighter squadrons operating over the plain of Thessaly had some success shooting down aircraft that had been harassing the columns about Pharsala. This would explain the occasion north of Dhomokos when the column was ‘greatly cheered by three Hurricanes which suddenly appeared and downed three Stukas like pigeons.’35 But in most cases the efforts of the outnumbered air force were not observed by many of the ground troops,
hence their tendency, so far as air operations were concerned, to be unjustly critical of the desperate efforts undertaken so gallantly on their behalf.
As a result of these unpleasant conditions 4 Brigade Group did not reach Thermopylae until the night of 18–19 April. The infantry losses, considering the traffic blocks and the numerous air raids, were relatively low: 18 Battalion had three killed and twenty wounded; 19 Battalion had two killed and three wounded; 20 Battalion had some slight casualties. The artillery units were more fortunate. Sixth Field Regiment had been caught in the great traffic block south of Pharsala but, unlike 64 Medium Regiment, RA, which had suffered heavily when the Heinkels came over, all guns had been brought out and no casualties were reported. Thirty-first Anti-Tank Battery, which had left Servia Pass after 6 Field Regiment, was strafed several times along the highway and, after an ammunition truck was hit by a bomb, continued south in several groups. Battery Headquarters, some B Echelon vehicles and one gun were in Molos by nightfall, but the rest of the unit had been detained to support Brigadier Lee in his rearguard position at Dhomokos.
The British and Australian convoys had more trouble than this but it was the resulting loss of time that at this stage gave the Higher Command cause for concern. Early in the afternoon Anzac Corps Headquarters sent an officer forward to see if Generals Mackay and Freyberg with the rearguard could remain in position for another twenty-four hours. That, however, was impossible. When the officer reached Mackay’s headquarters about 4 p.m. the Germans had already forced a crossing36 of the Pinios River and were threatening to enter Larisa and cut the withdrawal route of 6 Brigade and Savige Force.
The Rearguard at Elevtherokhorion, 18 April
The day was equally tense for the rearguards which had been detailed to cover the withdrawal. The forward platoon of 5 Company II/3 Panzer Regiment – motor-cycles with sidecars, followed by tanks – had left Ay Dhimitrios about 6 a.m. and come down from the Olympus Pass to the blown bridge north of Sadovon. Lieutenant Harding,37 who was with the forward gun of O Troop 34 Anti-Tank Battery, thereupon ordered it into action and informed the troop from Divisional Cavalry, which then withdrew, leaving one Bren carrier with the gun. The second shell halted the leading
tank, forcing the crew to bale out and take cover with the motorcyclists. But the approach of other tanks on the right flank forced an immediate withdrawal. Bombardier Titley38 had been wounded but the crew managed to pull back, covered by the next gun along the road. After firing several rounds and halting another tank, this gun team in its turn pulled back, losing the portée and gun in a bog. Sergeant Stobie39 and his crew then took to the hills and rejoined the unit some days later. The other anti-tank guns, those on the Servia road and the others on the Mount Olympus road, had, in the meantime, withdrawn behind A Squadron Divisional Cavalry Regiment.
The enemy had meanwhile advanced not only along the road from Mount Olympus but also across the open country to the west. By so doing they were to reach the Servia road above the junction and cut off the withdrawal of Lieutenant-Colonel Kippenberger and the 4 Brigade rearguard.
The next position held by the rearguard was a ridge on the south side of the Elevtherokhorion stream, manned by P Troop 34 Anti-Tank Battery (Lieutenant Moodie40) and a troop from A Squadron Divisional Cavalry Regiment (Lieutenant Robinson41). They had heard the sound of the guns as the tanks came through from Mount Olympus and had sent a motor-cyclist to investigate. He brought back news of the German approach and was followed, very shortly afterwards, by C Squadron Divisional Cavalry and the three guns of O Troop 34 Anti-Tank Battery. Behind them from the Mount Olympus road German tanks could be seen moving westwards towards the road from Servia. At the same time Lieutenant-Colonel Kippenberger’s convoy suddenly came down that road and, by mistake, one of the P Troop guns opened fire upon it. But the immediate turmoil when two of the tanks cut into the little column made it quite clear to everyone that this was the 4 Brigade rearguard. Signs were frantically made to hasten the vehicles across the bridge, but only one truck42 came over before the engineers were forced to demolish it. With the last of A Squadron, they then withdrew over the southern ridge under fire from the tanks now approaching over the undulating country between the two roads.
The only German account is brief and somewhat exaggerated. No. 5 Company 3 Panzer Regiment had ‘a brush with 2 enemy tanks, destroying one. It pushed on and came up with a retreating column of enemy tanks and wheeled vehicles. The company opened fire from hull down positions on both sides of the road, while the leading platoon pushed on at full speed to the bridge 1 Km N W of Elefserokori [ Elevtherokhorion]. This bridge was blown as the platoon approached. ...’43 Unfortunately the Germans were not held up for any great length of time. A steep-sided ford was found just below the bridge and the tanks pushed on towards Elasson.
They had for some time been under fire from P Troop: Bombardier Bellringer44 and Sergeant Fowler45 with their crews on the right of the road and Sergeant Cutbush46 on the left. These guns had opened fire when the tanks came south across country and down the Servia road. The forward gun (Bellringer’s) disabled one tank and, although the orders were to withdraw after the demolition of the bridge, the crew fought on until the gun was knocked out by tank fire. Bellringer and another gunner died of wounds and the rest were captured. The other right-hand gun (Fowler’s) was very successful, disabling four tanks, two armoured cars and one heavy truck and making a successful withdrawal after manhandling the gun up a steep slope. Sergeant Cutbush’s gun joined in the action but was ditched when the coupling hook broke. The approaching tanks had the gun under fire but Gunner Schultz47 dashed back and removed the firing mechanism. The force then withdrew through the gorge to Elasson and thence across the plain to the lines of 6 Brigade, where the remaining three guns of O and P Troops 34 Anti-Tank Battery went to the 26 Battalion area south of Dhomenikon.
During the engagement the small force covering the road from Dheskati to Elasson came through, first N Troop 34 Anti-Tank Battery and then B Squadron Divisional Cavalry Regiment, whose late appearance had led to some anxious but unnecessary preparations to cover its withdrawal. With Regimental Headquarters and detachments from several other units, the squadrons went through Elasson to positions across the plain towards the left flank of 6 Brigade. The Luftwaffe chose this moment to stage a raid and at the cost of one aircraft caused casualties in both the anti-tank and Divisional Cavalry units, one officer and four other ranks being killed and two officers and two other ranks wounded.
After the attack the columns moved on, the Divisional Cavalry taking up a covering position on the left flank of 25 Battalion. As soon as they had passed through, Lieutenant Thomas48 with a subsection from 7 Field Company demolished sections of the road in the narrow gorge to the north of Elasson. The German tanks which came through shortly afterwards were held up there for several hours.
Sixth Brigade covers the Withdrawal, 18 April
At 6 Brigade Headquarters the day had opened with the receipt of disturbing information from the south-east. About 6 a.m. a liaison officer reported that the enemy was in the village of Gonnos and probing southwards towards the Pinios River. Brigadier Allen expected to be closely engaged and to have difficulty in withdrawing. The position of 6 Brigade was now less secure. If the Germans thrust westwards across the foothills of Mount Olympus from Gonnos to Tirnavos they could block the withdrawal of 6 Brigade, and it was always possible that they might attempt to isolate Allen Force, 6 Brigade and Savige Force by landing parachute troops on Larisa airfield.
Brigadiers Barrowclough and Miles acted swiftly. Headquarters 5 Field Regiment and 28 Battery 5 Field Regiment, then in Divisional Reserve, were sent forward, F Troop to join the 26 Battalion carrier platoon and protect the eastern approaches from Gonnos towards Tirnavos and the rest of the force to cover Larisa airfield from the south.
Then about 8 a.m., after Brigadier Puttick had reported that 4 Brigade had almost completed its withdrawal from Servia Pass, Headquarters 6 Brigade learnt that the enemy had attacked the rearguard at Elevtherokhorion. This was most disturbing. It had been expected that the demolitions in the Mount Olympus49 and Servia passes would delay the enemy for at least one or two days. As it was, the Germans had cut off the rearguard of 4 Brigade and, although gallantly opposed by the anti-tank guns at Elevtherokhorion, were about to come through the defile towards Elasson. They appeared about 11 a.m.
The necessary delay was imposed by the artillery. The 4·5-inch guns of the troop from 64 Medium Regiment immediately opened fire and continued until the late afternoon to harass the more distant targets. Then when its ammunition was exhausted it withdrew to Dhomokos. At the same time the German column had been halted
by the demolitions and harassed by the 25-pounders. The 2/3 Australian Field Regiment, which had been ordered to engage with heavy concentrations any enemy forces which appeared, had carried out these instructions ‘in a most praise-worthy way.’50 So although the guns had not been used in a strictly anti-tank role their shellfire had ‘a strongly deterrent effect on enemy tanks and many enemy tank movements were stopped and dispersed by our long range gunfire.’51 Due to the amount brought back52 some days before by 5 Field Regiment, there was no shortage of ammunition. The 2/3 Field Regiment53 fired 6500 rounds during the day, the paint
of the gun barrels blistering with the heat. And the lesson for the Division was that even confident tank crews hesitate to move through concentrations of shellfire.
The Germans, however, showed considerable enterprise and determination. Undeterred by the demolitions and the shellfire, they turned eastwards across very rough country and concentrated just off the secondary road between Tsaritsani and Elasson. By 6 p.m. many infantry carriers and about thirty tanks were in the area supported by covering fire from their own artillery. As several tracks ran down from there to the highway below 24 Battalion, it was obvious that the expected tank attack would be on that front and not across the open country to the west before 25 Battalion. And to make the task more difficult for the defenders, the demolitions made that morning along the road to 24 Battalion’s position had been very disappointing. In half an hour a working party could have cleared the way for wheeled traffic. Without explosives for further demolitions, the battalion had no counter to the possible tank attack other than the normal infantry equipment and some pounds of gelignite.
The preparations for the withdrawal that night had, however, been going on very smoothly. The Bren-carrier platoon of 26 Battalion had been sent to support F Troop 5 Field Regiment by patrolling the open country east of Tirnavos. Sixth Field Ambulance, which had had a Main Dressing Station near the township and an Advanced Dressing Station behind each of 24 and 25 Battalions, had thinned out, leaving ambulance cars with the independent groups. The B Echelon transport of the battalions had left early that morning, passing through Larisa to join the convoys now hastening to the area behind Thermopylae. The parties moved separately but all had an exhausting day, particularly when they were part of the long column, nose to tail and two deep, which for several hectic hours had been bombed outside Pharsala. They all reached Molos that night and were soon under the shelter of the olive trees, but several trucks had been damaged and many men killed.
Later in the morning Divisional Headquarters learnt that there would not be enough motor transport to shift the whole of 6 Brigade. The DAQMG, Major Ross,54 suggested that a train could be sent from Larisa and Lieutenant-Colonel Gentry hurried there about midday to investigate. At the railway station he met two sappers from 19 Army Troops Company, one of whom as an engine-driver was convinced that a train could be assembled, provided the bombing was not too severe. Gentry returned to
Divisional Headquarters, leaving the engineers to assemble the engines and rolling stock. Orders were then sent to 26 Battalion and about 4.30 p.m. the companies left for Larisa in the trucks of an English transport unit. The journey to the siding two miles south of the town was no different from that of any other road party on 18 April. Outside Larisa the troops had to debus and scatter about the fields while some Stukas attempted to wreck the bridge over the Pinios River. They failed, but one private was killed by a bomb splinter. The unit then continued on its way through the battered town to the open country and the siding with its collection of damaged carriages and wagons.
Fourth Reserve Mechanical Transport Company, which was to bring out 24 and 25 Battalions, had meanwhile assembled to the rear of these units with instructions that the convoy must go south to Larisa and from there follow the secondary road to Volos and Thermopylae. But late that afternoon the failure of Allen Force to hold the Pinios Gorge55 made it necessary to safeguard this route. The battalions, instead of driving straight through to Thermopylae, were ordered to stop at Nea Ankhialos and Velestinon and block the possible encircling movement by the enemy from Tempe towards Lamia.
The more direct threat to 6 Brigade was the armoured force which had, ever since 5.30 p.m., been assembling below 24 Battalion. Its supporting artillery was now shelling more heavily and the attack was expected at any moment. But the day dragged on and at 7.30 p.m., when the withdrawal began, there had still been no movement by the tanks. A Company and 14 Platoon C Company had no difficulties but 13 and 15 Platoons were very close to trouble when the German armour moved forward about 8 p.m. The guns of 2/3 Australian Field Regiment away to the west in the 25 Battalion area forced the lorried infantry to take cover, but the thirty tanks continued to lumber forward, firing steadily and supported by colourful tracer fire curving over from all angles. They passed the forward section of 15 Platoon, forcing it to withdraw hurriedly over the ridges, but at the first demolitions the commanders hesitated, probably because the obstacles in the fading light appeared more formidable than they actually were. The attack gradually lost momentum and by 9 p.m. 13 and 15 Platoons were hurrying through the darkness to the lorries. Away out on the left flank 17 Platoon (Second-Lieutenant Reynolds56) had opened up with Brens and anti-tank rifles, but the concentrated
fire from the group of tanks soon forced it and the other platoons of D Company to withdraw to the waiting trucks.
There were no casualties but it was a close call. Had the artillery not delayed the tank attack until last light the battalion would probably have been overwhelmed. Instead, it had slipped away. The engineers blew another set of demolitions and at Tirnavos Brigade Headquarters, with Bren-carrier support from 24 and 26 Battalions, waited astride the road for 25 Battalion to come down the western highway.
The 24 Battalion convoy continued on its way, passing through Larisa, where many buildings were on fire, and then turning eastwards towards Volos and the coast. About five miles beyond the town the lights of trucks were seen approaching from the east and many feared that they came from the German column that was emerging from the Pinios Gorge. To everyone’s relief they were Australian, part of Allen Force withdrawing from Tempe. Shortly afterwards General Freyberg appeared, ordered all lights to be switched on and sent the column on its way. By 2.30 a.m., 19 April, the battalion was at Nea Ankhialos, where the companies debussed and the transport continued south. Lieutenant-Colonel Shuttleworth with his unit rearguard arrived about 6.30 a.m.
There was less urgency about the withdrawal of 25 Battalion. The machine and anti-tank gunners had engaged odd targets at long range and 2/3 Australian Field Regiment had been shelling continuously, but no enemy force seriously threatened the battalion. Small detachments had consequently been free to make an early withdrawal. One battery of 2/3 Australian Field Regiment left shortly after 26 Battalion. B Troop 5 Field Regiment left at 7 p.m. and with F Troop from the eastern road moved for the Volos area, where the brigade was to make a temporary stand.
The main body, with B Company 24 Battalion and other units, embussed about 8.30 p.m. and passed through Tirnavos shortly after 24 Battalion. Some vehicles were ditched and had to be abandoned along the highway which was rapidly breaking up, but before dawn the convoy reached its destination south of Velestinon.
34 Anti-Tank Battery under command, was to follow up the rearguard and advise the engineers so that they could blow the demolitions when all troops were through. Once through Larisa it was to keep in touch with its B Squadron,60 which was to cover the withdrawal of Allen Force from Tempe.
At 7 p.m. the carrier platoon had taken over the company areas, the remaining guns of 2/3 Field Regiment were firing intermittently and C Company, still astride the highway, had been detailed to put up flares and tracers until the time of withdrawal. Then at 8.30 p.m. C Troop 5 Field Regiment, south of Dhomenikon, began to shell the road towards Elasson and continued to do so until ordered to follow up the main convoy of 25 Battalion. C Company then marched back to its trucks and, with the supporting arms and last guns of 2/3 Field Regiment, left at 11.30 p.m. The Divisional Cavalry Regiment followed up with one two-pounder anti-tank gun on a portée in case the enemy followed up too quickly.
At Tirnavos, where the 24 Battalion Bren carriers were waiting, Brigadier Barrowclough ordered the units to get through to Volos as quickly as possible. The engineers waiting at the bridge just north of Larisa were told that they could demolish it and the column went through the almost empty town. Streets were cluttered with rubble, wrecked vehicles and the bodies of both Greek and British soldiers. Away to the north-east the scattered flares and the sound of irregular fire suggested that Allen Force was still in contact with the German force coming through the Pinios Gorge, but the column was undisturbed and able to reach the Volos area next morning, 19 April.
Two isolated units had to solve their own particular problems. Headquarters 5 Field Regiment and 28 Battery (less F Troop) had gone south that morning to cover Larisa airfield. At 7.30 p.m. General Freyberg ordered the detachment to move north through the town and then eastwards along the road to Volos, but the stream of southbound traffic was such that the gunners had to retire with it to the Thermopylae area. The other detached unit, 26 Battalion, completed its journey south by train.
26 Battalion Completes its Withdrawal – by Train
Late that afternoon, 18 April, the 26 Battalion convoy61 had reached a siding some two miles south of Larisa, where some six volunteers from 19 Army Troops Company had assembled a rake of carriages for the relief train. The Luftwaffe had successfully bombed the area, leaving twisted lines, wrecked carriages and a
useless water system, but the engineers had patiently carried over petrol cans of water to their engine and all was ready for a move that night. Lieutenant-Colonels Gentry and Page, using a 1:1,000,000 tourist map of Greece, decided that the train should be taken to Kifissokhori, a siding to the south of Thermopylae.
At 8 p.m. the battalion moved off, Lieutenant-Colonel Page with the transport column by the main highway and Major Samson with the companies on the train. The former travelled through the night but bomb craters so delayed all traffic that the trucks were not over Dhomokos Pass before daylight. The inevitable air attacks then developed, but the dramatic appearance of Hurricanes from the Athens airfield gave some relief to the column. Two Stukas were shot down; the trucks moved off again and eventually reached the B Echelon group some miles east of Thermopylae.
The train pulled out with Sappers Smith62 and Gibson63 as engine-drivers. There was insufficient coal so some had to be found along the route; the headlights of the engine were smashed but the cab lights could be used for map and gauge readings; there was no signal system but a torch could be flashed to the crews in the brake vans. Moreover, neither of the drivers had been over the track before and much had to be left to providence and their intuition.
At first all went well, a derelict engine at Doxara station providing much-needed coal and water, but the absence of lights and the number of abandoned trucks on the line cost much time Each bridge and tunnel had to be checked. While the line was thus being cleared more and more refugees clambered aboard the roofs, the couplings and the footboards. As a result the engine stopped near the crest of the range and desperate measures had to be taken. The last five carriages, full of Greeks, were uncoupled, all possible pressure was built up and the train at last reached the crest, where more coal and water were obtained.
As two of the abandoned cars had been brake vans the descent was made at a most dangerous speed, the train lurching round curves and racing through tunnels and across bridges. There was one mishap with obstacles on the permanent way which set the engine wheels out of alignment, but the descent was completed and the train switched off the main line towards Lamia, some five to six miles to the east.
Here there was some delay, the engine-drivers stressing the need for a new engine and brake vans, the Greek officials insisting that there must be a Greek crew to interpret Greek signals. The solution was to attach the carriages to a train already assembled for Cypriots and Australians. This had just been done when the Luftwaffe came
over, killing several Australians, damaging carriages and cutting the line behind and in front of the new engine. The New Zealanders were sent back out of the danger spot; Sappers Gibson and Smith, assisted by an Australian driver, made up another train and handed it over to a Greek crew. Then, despite protests from the Greek stationmaster and an attempt by Greek soldiers to clamber aboard, the train was taken back to the main line, where the men of 26 Battalion were collected from the fields of corn and poppies in which they had been sheltering.
After a near collision with an up-train in the valley south of Lamia – this may explain the excitement of the stationmaster – there was no further trouble. Night came on and the train entered the mountains to the south. The troops slept unaware of the spectacular gorges, the seventeen tunnels and the wonderful bridge across the Asopos River, and at 9.30 p.m. they were in the valley which leads to Thebes. The train eventually stopped at Kifissokhori, a siding from which a road led north to the divisional area about Thermopylae. As no transport was available, the men spent an unpleasant night in the open, but next day, 20 April, the British RTO in the area provided rations and arranged for the Royal Army Service Corps to transport C and D Companies the 40 miles to Molos. In spite of crowded roads and casualties from air raids, they joined the B Echelon group about 5 p.m. The other companies marched for about three hours but were eventually picked up by New Zealand Army Service Corps vehicles and taken to the battalion lines within the olive groves.
The Withdrawal through Volos
Meanwhile at Nikaia, a village just south of Larisa, Headquarters New Zealand Division had been deciding the route of withdrawal for 6 Brigade. The main highway through Pharsala was still clogged with traffic but the DAAG, Major Peart,64 had been able to use the road from Larisa to Volos and the Australians had reported that repairs to some 200 yards would make it passable for heavy traffic. The CRE, Lieutenant-Colonel Clifton, had therefore been ordered to arrange for its immediate improvement.
‘It consisted of a dead straight earth embankment, flanked by deep ditches, in process of being metalled ... with care and in daylight it was passable. ...’ Beyond it there was a washed-out stretch ‘where the muddy ruts seemed bottomless.’ The rest of the road was reasonably good.
All available engineers were sent over and under the direction of Lieutenant Chapman,65 3 Section 6 Field Company, a deviation was prepared and marked before nightfall.
At 6 p.m. Headquarters New Zealand Division attempted to move north to Larisa in order to turn south-east by this route, but it was almost impossible to advance against the stream of traffic. To complicate matters the leading vehicles, when attempting to make such a move, caused a congestion of traffic which attracted the attention of the Stukas. The rear of the headquarters column suffered some damage, but after the raid it struggled forward again, until an officer appeared with the alarming story66 that the Germans were in Larisa. The convoy was then turned about and directed south by the normal route. Movement was slow that night and next day there were delays because of air attacks about Dhomokos, so it was not until the night of 19–20 April that all the vehicles had reported at Divisional Headquarters on the coast road east of Molos.
The few vehicles which did get north from Nikaia on the night of 18–19 April took the GOC, his GSO I, and several other officers to the Larisa crossroads. Here the General met 6 Brigade and bustled it south-east67 along the newly repaired road towards Volos and the east coast, where it was to be the rearguard covering the withdrawal of Allen Force.
Behind 6 Brigade was Major Williams with the rearguard, which went through Larisa about 1.30 a.m. when the town was almost empty of Allied troops and the sound of fighting could be heard along the road to Tempe. The column turned off along the narrow swamp road towards Volos and about dawn caught up with the last vehicles of 6 Brigade. Williams was then ordered by General Freyberg to take up a defensive position astride the road leading into the town. Any stragglers from Allen Force were to be assisted and all information collected about the action at Tempe and the fate of 21 Battalion.
Still near Larisa were the Divisional Cavalry Regiment, less B Squadron, and the engineers who had blown the bridge over the Pinios River to the north of Larisa. Once through the town the regiment had been halted and several attempts made to get into touch with B Squadron, which was acting as rearguard for Allen Force. This squadron was expected to withdraw about 3.30 a.m. but there were no signs of it, nor of Allen Force. Finally, about 5 a.m., when Very lights were glowing in the distance and the
rattle of heavy vehicles came over from the north-west, Lieutenant-Colonel Carruth decided that the Germans must be approaching. The regiment moved off and about ten miles along the road to Volos found the remnants of B Squadron and scattered groups from Allen Force.68 The whole group continued south and by midday had withdrawn behind the rearguard organised by Major Williams.
Savige Force, including some New Zealand detachments, Withdraws from Kalabaka
The diversion of 6 Brigade along the Volos route left the main highway clear for the force withdrawing from Kalabaka. There had, at first, been some confusion about the actual date. On 16 and 17 April Brigadier Savige had been visited by four different liaison officers. ‘The first discussed administrative arrangements, the second ... conveyed the order from Anzac Corps that Savige Force was to hold its positions until midnight on the 18th, when its withdrawal would be covered by the 1st Armoured Brigade. The third arrived ... with the written Corps instruction, which provided that Savige should withdraw his main bodies to Zarkos during the night 17th–18th but leave a rearguard at Kalabaka during the 18th. An hour and a quarter later a liaison officer ... arrived from the 6th Division with instructions to withdraw that night covered by the 1st Armoured Brigade.’69 The officer also reported that the road eastwards from Trikkala to Larisa was ‘jammed with vehicles of the armoured brigade and vehicles, mules and men of the Greek Army, and that the bridge over the Pinios east of Zarkos had been demolished and a by-pass road, through Tirnavos, was very boggy.’70
The destruction of the bridge had been quite unintentional. On 16 April the engineers of 6 Field Company had decided what explosives were necessary to blow the bridge at the appointed time, but next morning two officers from 7 Field Company appeared on the bridge and suggested that a different amount should be used. To settle the argument a ten-pound charge was exploded on what was considered a relatively unimportant girder. It proved the effectiveness of both charge and girder for one entire span dropped into the river. As General Wilson afterwards noted, ‘The middle of a withdrawal is not the time for experiments of this sort.’71
The position of Brigadier Savige was seriously threatened by this miscalculation. ‘The road behind him was packed with vehicles, a
bridge on the only reasonably good road back had been broken, and he still needed time to complete demolitions aimed at delaying a German advance from Grevena.’72 First Armoured Brigade, as he very well knew, was away to the rear and quite unable to cover his withdrawal. Moreover, although the Germans had not yet appeared, he thought that it was necessary to cover the western flank for yet another day. He therefore suggested to General Mackay that instead of withdrawing on the night of 17–18 April the force should remain until the night of 18–19 April.
At 1.30 a.m. on 18 April, however, orders arrived for an immediate withdrawal, otherwise the force would not be able to get through the bottleneck at Larisa before the enemy came south from Elasson or, more probably, westwards from the Pinios Gorge. Savige Force had therefore to concentrate about Sin Thomai to the east of the demolished bridge, reconnoitre the Zarkos position and inform Headquarters 6 Australian Division of its expected dispositions at 5 p.m., 18 April.
The engineers of 6 Australian Division had fortunately been able to find alternative crossings of the Pinios River. By going a few miles north of the wrecked bridge the units could cross by another near Sin Thomai or, by making a long detour along a secondary road, they could reach Tirnavos and the highway towards Larisa.
The withdrawal was therefore possible and 2/11 Battalion went back before dawn to its rearguard position at Zarkos, getting into position by 10 a.m. A company from 2/5 Battalion and 5 New Zealand Machine Gun Platoon, covered by C Troop 25 Battery 5 New Zealand Field Regiment, pulled back at 11 a.m. on 18 April, leaving 2/2 Australian Field Company, which brought up the rear to blow sections of the road.
Seven cruiser tanks and two troops of C Squadron Divisional Cavalry Regiment had been detailed as part of the rearguard, but both groups went back through Larisa to the area of Headquarters 6 Australian Division during the night of 17–18 April. The armoured cars taking the long circuitous route to the north through Tirnavos had been bombed and riddled with machine-gun bullets. Corporal King, who had taken part in the first action at Bitolj,73 was fatally wounded whilst firing the Vickers from his armoured car.
At 11.30 a.m. the Pinios River once more became a problem for those organising the withdrawal. A German bomb exploded the demolition charges on the bridge north of Sin Thomai. Some troops on the west bank were then ferried over but their trucks had to
be switched north to Tirnavos, south to the bridge at Larisa and thence along the east bank to pick up the waiting companies.
Arrangements had also been made by General Mackay for the next rearguard, 2/11 Battalion at Zarkos, to move back to the west of the river and cover the left flank until 3 a.m. on the night of 18–19 April. As the bridges had now been wrecked and because the flank could be covered just as well from the east bank, Brigadier Savige preferred to have his companies ferried over that evening.
The 2/11 Battalion had been taken over by 8 p.m. and 2/5 Battalion then left for the Brallos Pass west of Thermopylae. Next morning 2/11 Battalion moved off and was through Larisa about 4 a.m., by which time 6 New Zealand Brigade had withdrawn from Elasson and part74 of Allen Force had passed through from the Tempe area.
Those who were clear of Larisa continued south through Pharsala, through the Australian rearguard at Dhomokos, through Lamia and then across the valley to the Thermopylae line. The Luftwaffe was still bombing and strafing the highway. Twenty-fifth Battery 5 New Zealand Field Regiment, after suffering casualties as it crossed the range to Lamia, continued along the coast to Molos. No. 5 Machine Gun Platoon moved south with 2/11 Battalion and remained attached until it reached Headquarters 17 Brigade at Brallos and was sent eastwards from there to join the regiment in the coastal sector.