Chapter 14: The Pinios Gorge
The Selection of the Defence Line
ON the afternoon of 16 April 21 Battalion had withdrawn from the Platamon tunnel to the western end of the Pinios Gorge, that narrow cleft between Mounts Ossa and Olympus which is famous in history as the Vale of Tempe. Into one of the two tunnels on the north bank the last Bren carrier had towed a railway box-car with which Lieutenant Jones and his section from 19 Army Troops Company, by wrecking the wheels and undercarriage, had effectively blocked the line. On the south bank the engineers had then blown two demolitions in the road, but they were not really formidable obstacles. No. 10 Platoon B Company (Second-Lieutenant Rose1) had been posted some three miles east of Tempe to cover the second or nearest crater; the other platoons had remained about a mile east of the village in the valley which runs up from the river to the village of Ambelakia. The demolition of the railway bridge just west of Tempe was the responsibility of Major C. Langbein with another section from 19 Army Troops Company. Explosives, as usual, were short, but Sapper Gordon came through the air raids with ammonal and gelignite from Larisa and at 8 p.m. the bridge was successfully wrecked.
By then reinforcements2 were on their way. At dusk Lieutenant-Colonel Chilton appeared, closely followed by 2/2 Australian Battalion, confident but tired after its long night marches3 from Veroia to the mountains east of Servia Pass. Twenty-sixth Battery came through from Elasson about midnight and the following afternoon, 17 April, 2/3 Battalion appeared, slightly below strength because some lorry drivers had missed the turn-off at Larisa and continued with the main stream of traffic towards Thermopylae.
The earlier arrivals had already been hastening to select and prepare a line.4 At 8.30 a.m. Chilton and Macky, together with Lieutenant-Colonel Parkinson and Major G. J. O. Stewart of
4 Field Regiment, Lieutenant Williams of A Troop 5 Field Regiment and Lieutenant K. A. Longmore of L Troop 7 Anti-Tank Regiment, had inspected the western half of the gorge as far as the road block covered by 10 Platoon B Company. Knowing that the Germans might appear at any moment, the commanders accepted the immediately available positions along a dangerously extended front.
To the west there lay the level open country south of the Pinios River. In the centre the road and railway from Larisa went through the villages of Makrikhori5 and Evangelismos, but just west of Tempe the railway bridged the river and continued eastwards along the north bank. The road followed the south bank between the river and the ridges of Mount Ossa. At the foot of the first ridge was Tempe, a collection of white houses with peach trees in the gardens and an ancient mosque beside the Greek Orthodox church.
Beyond it in the steep valley between the second and third ridges were vineyards and terraces of olive groves. And above them among oaks, elms and chestnut trees, Ambelakia overlooked the Pinios River and the lower slopes of Mount Olympus.
At the foot of the third ridge the gorge proper began and the road, cut from the mountainside and shaded by tall trees, was almost too narrow for wheeled traffic. But it had always been the natural avenue for the invader; the ruins of old fortresses and old chapels were proof of that. The river was no longer ‘clear as crystall glass over the gravelly stones’ but it was still ‘pleasant to behold for the grasse upon the bankes, and resounding again with the melodious concert of the birds.’6 To the ancients the vale was an abode of the gods; in the spring of 1941 to the soldiers from the Antipodes it was a world of hyacinths and cyclamens, crocuses and anemones, below scarlet Judas trees and budding planes and chestnuts.
On 17 April it was more important to consider the possible movement of the enemy from the Platamon tunnel area. With the mountains and the sea cliffs making it virtually impossible for any movement down the coast, the attacks when they came would be through the gorge or over the southern ridges of Mount Olympus. And in spite of the majestic scenery neither route was impracticable. If the tanks crossed the river they could then follow the road along the south side of the gorge. If the infantry wished to cross the mountain there was a road, difficult but not impossible for motor traffic, from the coast to the mountain village of Rapsani and mule tracks from Skotina and Pandeleimon to Gonnos, a village from which the mountain troops could approach Tempe or begin an encirclement of the western flank.
The same weaknesses had been apparent to the Greeks when Xerxes moved south towards Athens. They had gone into position ‘along the course of Peneus, having the range of Olympus on the one hand and Ossa upon the other.’ After a few days they had withdrawn. ‘In my opinion what chiefly wrought on them was the fear that the Persians might enter by another pass, thereof they now heard, which led from Upper Macedonia into Thessaly through the territory of the Perrhaebi, and by the town of Gonnus – the pass by which soon afterwards the army of Xerxes actually made its entrance. ... The Greeks, on their return to the Isthmus, took counsel ... and considered where they should fix the war, and what places they should occupy. The opinion which prevailed was, that they should guard the pass of Thermopylae; since it was narrower than the Thessalian defile, and at the same time nearer to them.’7
Unlike the Greeks the British could not make a sudden withdrawal. Allen Force had orders to stand fast until 6 Brigade from Elasson and Savige Force from Kalabaka had passed through Larisa. Chilton and Macky therefore decided that 21 Battalion, from the high country on the south bank, must cover the gorge from the road block to Tempe village. The 2/2 Australian Battalion would occupy a position in depth at the entrance to the gorge. And because Chilton thought it probable that the Germans would attempt to turn the left flank, his battalion front had also to be extended westwards along the Pinios River.
The position of the anti-tank guns caused some discussion. Macky wanted them so deployed as to threaten the tanks when they emerged from the gorge, but in the end three of them were on the flats between the ridges of Mount Ossa. From there they could direct enfilade fire upon the tanks before they ever left the gorge. The fourth gun was placed in the area of C Company 2/2 Battalion to cover any possible movement from the gorge.
Chilton also decided that 2/2 Battalion would send a patrol back into the gorge to discover whether the crossing place at the north-east end had been seized. A picket would be sent to the high country east of Evangelismos and, once a ford could be found, a patrol would go over to the north side of the river. Twenty-first Battalion had left all its telephone cable at Platamon, but the Australians from their precious horde of Italian equipment brought over from Libya were able to link up the two headquarters.
By nightfall the units were in position. On the sharply defined ridges above and beyond Tempe village were the companies of 21 Battalion. B Company (Major C. A. Le Lievre) was well
forward and somewhat dispersed, 10 Platoon still covering the road block in the gorge, 11 Platoon (Lieutenant Yeoman8) patrolling forward from Ambelakia village to prevent any movement along the mountain tracks and 12 Platoon (Lieutenant Finlayson9) with Company Headquarters on the more forward of the three ridges.
D Company (Captain A. C. Trousdale) in the high country east of Ambelakia overlooked the gorge and covered the right flank, round which mountain troops could possibly infiltrate. C Company (Captain W. M. Tongue) held the central sector, with 13 Platoon (Lieutenant M. C. O’Neill) on the flat across the road and 14 and 15 Platoons up the rocky ridge towards Ambelakia. A Company (Captain R. B. McClymont) was in reserve behind the third or western ridge, ready to meet an attack across the river or from the rear. No. 9 Platoon (Second-Lieutenant W. J. G. Roach) was on the lower slopes of the ridge looking into the gorge; 8 Platoon (Lieutenant Bullock-Douglas10) was facing the river; and 7 Platoon (Second-Lieutenant W. J. Southworth) was west again on the flat facing the river and linking 21 Battalion with 2/2 Battalion.
In Tempe village itself was the RAP covered by details from Headquarters Company under Lieutenant Anderson.11 The remainder were with A Company. Just south of the village and some 100 yards east of the road, Battalion Headquarters was located, with the carrier platoon beyond that again. As all signals equipment had been left at Platamon the only form of communication between companies was by runner.
The battalion was overlooked from the high country north of the river and its position was hazardous if enemy tanks pushed through into Tempe or if the infantry crossed the river and succeeded in driving back the Australians. But the positions seemed the best in the circumstances. To support the anti-tank gunners and to halt any infantry moving forward with the tanks, the companies were sited low down the ridges.
The four guns of L Troop 33 Anti-Tank Battery had been placed in position very carefully. In the early stages L1 was well forward covering the road block but too far in front of the infantry. At 6 p.m. it was, with Brigadier Allen’s consent, brought back towards
the village. Thereafter, the foremost gun was L4 (Sergeant Cavanagh12), in the gully behind the C Company or central ridge and covering the road behind the demolition13 which was made that evening by the Australian engineers. L1 (Sergeant Quinn14) was in the same gully, but in a position nearer the road and actually covering the new crater. L3 was farther back behind a bluff in the same gully, while L2 was in the 2/2 Battalion sector covering the railway bridge and the road out of Tempe village.
The Australian Positions
At 1 p.m. Brigadier Allen15 arrived in the area and took command, establishing his headquarters at Makrikhorion. He realised that to hold the wide front for any length of time there should have been twice as many troops and guns, but he also knew that the Germans were almost certain to attack the following morning. The best he could do was to make some slight adjustments in the Australian sector and to place the greater part of 2/3 Battalion, which was now arriving from the Servia sector, in positions to the rear at which the enemy could possibly be held until the brigades from the north and west had passed through Larisa.
The final arrangement saw C Company 2/2 Battalion with one New Zealand anti-tank gun astride the road on the flat just west of Tempe. South of it was A Company (less a platoon) protecting the approaches to Evangelismos; B Company (less a platoon) and Battalion Headquarters were south of that village. The two16 platoons from the companies had been sent to occupy Hill 1005 just south of Ambelakia.
On the extreme left flank, at the suggestion of the Brigadier, D Company was sent to Point 156, the hill feature overlooking the river between Makrikhori and Parapotamos. This reduced the danger of an encircling movement from the west, but left a 3000-yard gap in the FDLs which was covered by the Bren carriers and a patrol, one platoon strong, from D Company. The gap was wide but there was little cover in the flat fields of spring wheat. Nevertheless, it was through this gap that the enemy was to achieve his early success.
Finally, three guns from 2/1 Australian Anti-Tank Regiment were sited in the area, one with A Company, one in Evangelismos and another with B Company to the south of that village. The guns might have been more useful in the restricted area of the gorge but they had arrived late and some depth in the defence was thought necessary.
In the afternoon 2/3 Battalion arrived. C Company was sent to the left flank to an area west of and overlooking D Company 2/2 Battalion. B and D Companies were placed in reserve astride the highway north and south of Makrikhorion, about four miles south of the rear company of 2/2 Battalion. A Company was sent to patrol the mountain tracks from the east and south-east through Sikourion and Ayia.
The Supporting Artillery
A Troop 5 Field Regiment, which had supported 21 Battalion in the tunnel area, was now under the command of Major G. J. O. Stewart, who had arrived from the Elasson area with 26 Battery 4 Field Regiment. The guns had been dug in and camouflaged among the trees and bushes of the fields to the west of the road south of Evangelismos. From there they could shell the road blocks in the gorge and any movements across the Pinios River. One change was afterwards made. On the night of 17–18 April two guns were moved forward and given an anti-tank role: one from 26 Battery to the west of the road and just south of the village; the other, from A Troop 5 Field Regiment, to the east of the road. The observation post for D Troop (Captain Nolan17) was on the ridge above C Company 21 Battalion; that for E Troop (Captain Bliss18) in the A Company area south of Tempe; and that for F Troop (Captain Richardson19) in the D Company 2/2 Battalion area near Makrikhori. To the south of Evangelismos Major Stewart had his headquarters in the B Company 2/2 Battalion area; Lieutenant-Colonel Parkinson, who had left his Regimental Headquarters in the Elasson area, was with Headquarters 2/2 Battalion.
The Germans enter the Pinios Gorge, Afternoon 17 April
On 15 April when Battle Group 2 of XVIII Corps was approaching the Platamon tunnel, 6 Mountain Division which had been preparing20 to attack in the Veroia area was diverted south to give
its support. Next day its commander, General F. Schoerner, was warned that he must be prepared to make an encircling movement across the southern slopes of Mount Olympus to the village of Gonnos, close by the western entrance to the Pinios Gorge. Without waiting for any further orders, he had sent his advanced guard over the ridges above the Platamon tunnel and to the rear of 21 Battalion. Thus on the afternoon of 17 April, when Allen Force was preparing to defend the western entrance to the gorge, Battle Group 2 was already in the gorge and 6 Mountain Division was descending the mountain tracks towards Gonnos.
In the gorge the enemy was approaching by way of the railway line on the north bank. The cycle squadron of 112 Reconnaissance Unit – on foot – led the way, but about 5 p.m. it was halted at the second tunnel – ‘even the engineers could do no good, so thoroughly had the English carried out their demolitions.’ Thereafter the men attempted to clamber round the steep, exposed hillsides. That was not without its dangers for 10 Platoon B Company at the forward road block immediately opened fire. The Germans set up a mortar and a machine gun, but after Privates McCabe21 and Clark22 had climbed to higher ground and directed the counter fire they were forced to take shelter in the tunnel.
At this stage the leading tank of 1/3 Panzer Regiment appeared and the battalion commander ‘took this squadron under his command’ because of the ‘determined resistance in the gorge.’23 The fire from the tank eventually forced 10 Platoon to find better cover some 200 yards up the ridges. The New Zealand artillery had been asked to give its support and an armoured car had been sent to observe, but the depth of the gorge and the succession of ridges had made it impossible to use the wireless sets. The telephone at the observation post in the A Company area was eventually used, but it was then 7.30 p.m. and the engagement had become more complicated.
The reports are confused, but the Germans seem to have opened fire not only on the New Zealanders but upon the platoon from 2/2 Battalion which was moving in to report upon German movements through the gorge. Unaware of the enemy about the tunnel, the Australians suffered severe casualties before they could take cover and conduct, simultaneously with 10 Platoon, a small-arms engagement which lasted until they withdrew after dusk.
Shortly afterwards 10 Platoon was recalled by Lieutenant-Colonel
Macky, the men having been three days without rest and the other demolition having been blown outside Tempe. With two Australian wounded whom they had recovered the men returned, some to Battalion Headquarters, others to the B Company area. By then the artillery had opened fire and checked any other efforts to infiltrate beyond the tunnel.
The important point, however, is whether a stronger force should not have been sent to cover the road block. The gorge was narrow, cliffs overlooked the road and any additional troops in the area would have been just as vulnerable as the two platoons. Even so, the road opposite 10 Platoon was the best position for an effective road block and determined soldiers in prepared positions and supported by artillery fire might have delayed the clearing of the track and the dramatic approach next morning of the German tanks.
But farther back in the gorge the Germans had been incredibly successful. Unobserved by any New Zealanders, they had discovered a ford by which tanks could cross to the south bank. ‘A Mk II tank drove determinedly down the high steep embankment into the water. It struggled through the river like a walrus, with nothing showing except its turret; it appeared to be swimming. But the driver carried on calmly, although he was sitting up to his middle in water and the waves completely prevented him from seeing anything. Finally the tank climbed out on the other side amid loud cheers from the spectators and pushed on forward.’ Other tanks followed, two missing the exact crossing and sinking helplessly with no possibility of salvage. But five24 in all crossed and moved forward to the demolition, where ‘ 3 tanks stuck in a bog trying to bypass this in the water.’25 Night had then fallen so the tanks, screened by the mountain troops, laagered for the night.
The Germans cross the Mountain to Gonnos, 17 April
North of the gorge 6 Mountain Division, using the high mountain tracks through Skotina and Kallipevki, had been moving towards Gonnos. In his orders General Schoerner had described this as the most difficult task the division had ever had. All officers were instructed ‘to throw themselves heart and soul into making the task a success’ and, if necessary, ‘to act with the utmost severity.’26 Food would be dropped by aircraft and every means would be used to bring up supplies, but the problem would never really be solved until the Germans took Larisa. As it happened, food was sometimes acquired on the way, and in one village the inhabitants were ordered to bake bread for the troops.
The advanced guard from 143 Mountain Regiment and 1/118 Artillery Regiment reached Gonnos about noon on 17 April. Somewhat to their surprise they had approached the village without any opposition. From there the force had to make the first moves to break the defences, occupy Larisa and cut the Allied line of withdrawal from the north and west. That night the General issued his orders for an attack across the river on 18 April.
Allen Force completes its Defences, Night 17–18 April
Across the river Allen Force was attempting to improve its defences. The platoons of 21 Battalion on the rocky ridges and the Australians on the flat were all digging slit trenches or erecting stone shelters. In the late afternoon the senior commanders had decided to move the Australian anti-tank guns farther forward, to use two of the 25-pounders in an anti-tank role and to crater the road at a point where it could be covered by artillery fire. The moves were made and that evening 2/1 Australian Field Company, using naval depth-charges, blew27 a shallow crater forward of Tempe below the central spur held by 21 Battalion. A minefield or an anti-tank ditch from there to the river would have been better but the engineers had neither the time nor the equipment for such a task.
The Germans with their pack animals were already descending the ridges south of Mount Olympus. An Australian patrol which had secured a punt was therefore sent over after dark to investigate. It reported that the enemy was already in Gonnos, that some detachments were moving west towards Elia and that the men left guarding the punt had successfully driven off a German patrol.
The gunners were active all through the night. They opened fire when lights were seen moving on the hills above Gonnos and, at regular intervals between 11 p.m. and 2 a.m., they shelled the areas about the tunnel and the road block. In the narrow gorge the detonations echoed viciously, the Germans afterwards reporting that the shells ‘crashed in quick succession in the tank laager. Branches and stones fell from the hillsides. Everybody jumped for cover behind, under and in the tanks to escape the splinters. Here and there a man who had not escaped cried for help. ... The MO had a lot of work to do, for there were dead and wounded on both sides of the Pinios.’28 In this one action I/3 Panzer Regiment and the covering patrols from 8/800 Brandenburg Regiment had three killed and seventeen wounded.29
The Germans force the Gorge, 18 April
Next morning, 18 April, was bright and clear. Across the river parties of Germans could be seen moving down the tracks towards Gonnos and Itia. In the gorge detachments from 112 Reconnaissance Unit were making another attempt to scramble round the often precipitous north bank. There was aimed rifle fire, but otherwise there was ‘less opposition than the day before’ until opposite the valley between B and C Companies 21 Battalion. Here the Germans halted for some hours, worried by ‘heavy enfilade fire from MGs, mortars and artillery’30 but successfully disturbing with their own weapons the positions on the open ridges occupied by 21 Battalion.
The result was that both the artillery and 21 Battalion gave their undivided attention to these troops and to the groups moving in and about Gonnos. The armoured detachment already on the south bank was unseen and undisturbed. The view of the men of 10 Platoon and Headquarters B Company, the closest to the gorge, was blocked by high ridges; 11 Platoon was too high up the mountain face to report any crossing; no artillery OP covered the road block; and no patrol from 21 Battalion had been sent forward to observe the tunnel area.
No. 7 Company 304 Regiment was therefore free to cross the river on kapok floats. Two platoons hastened to repair the demolitions which were blocking the tanks; the third prepared to meet counter-attacks, an unnecessary task as the unit report duly recorded. Then about midday when the road was clear, six tanks moved forward supported by two31 platoons from 7/304 Regiment and two patrols from 8/800 Brandenburg Regiment.
The fact that the enemy had been able to clear the road block unobserved by the infantry and undisturbed by 26 Battery is one of the main causes of failure in this action. If the shellfire of the previous night had been repeated the clearance of the road block would have been delayed and the advance of the tanks towards Tempe would not have been one of the deciding features of the action.32
The tanks were first seen by 12 Platoon, the forward element of B Company, which had throughout the morning been engaging the enemy across the river. About 12.15 p.m., when enemy fire from across the river had been intensified, ‘at least 6 enemy tanks came through the mouth of the gorge’33 and rolled on below the company. It might have been possible for the men to scramble back to the other ridges but Major Le Lievre moved his company up the ridge towards Ambelakia.
He was acting on instructions. The movement of the enemy towards the river bank in the Australian sector had already convinced Lieutenant-Colonel Macky that a serious attack was developing to the left rear of his battalion. Late that morning he had called a conference of his company commanders, explained the situation and told them that ‘if completely cut off and overwhelmed those left would make out in small parties to Volos.’34 As there was no system of communication each commander would have to act on his own initiative, though Captain Trousdale was advised that two green Very lights would mean the withdrawal of his D Company to the flat in the rear of Headquarters Company area. It was desperate advice at this early stage, particularly when Brigadier Clowes on 16 April had suggested that if the enemy broke through the gorge the battalion was ‘to fall back to a position astride the point where the road and railway crossed, seven miles south of the western exit.’35 On the other hand, it is extremely doubtful if the companies could by nightfall have crossed the hills to this assembly point.
As it was, 11 Platoon in the high country to the north-east never received the orders to withdraw. All through the morning the men watched the tanks moving through the gorge below them, and when the force appeared to be approaching Tempe Second-Lieutenant Yeoman made inquiries at Headquarters B Company. Astonished to find that it had already withdrawn, he collected his forward sections which were resisting the screen of German infantry and, after some anxious moments, withdrew to the hills above Ambelakia.
By that time C Company (Captain Tongue), on the ridge running up to Ambelakia, had been dispersed by the advancing tanks. No. 13 Platoon (Lieutenant O’Neill) on the flat between the road and the river had learnt of their approach when Captain Nolan, the artillery observer, called down, ‘Infanteers, the
tanks are coming.’ Very shortly afterwards the tanks had edged forward to the foot of the ridge, where they waited for nearly two hours, firing at the men climbing up towards Ambelakia and being shelled in turn by 26 Battery under Nolan’s direction. Nos. 14 and 15 Platoons were forced up the ridge but 13 Platoon, in its shallow weapon pits about 100 yards from the tanks, was trapped. About 2 p.m. when the tanks, hitherto ‘very cagy about sticking their necks out’,36 at last moved on towards Tempe and the supporting enemy infantry came over the ridge, the platoon had to surrender. A slight rise in the road, the hesitancy of the Germans to come over the crest, and the shelter of the shallow weapon pits had limited the casualties to one killed and two wounded.
The tanks then moved very cautiously round the butt of the C Company ridge and into the area covered by the guns of L Troop 33 Anti-Tank Battery. Much depended upon them and their history must be studied gun by gun. L1, which had been placed to cover the demolition at the foot of the ridge, was probably silenced by machine-gun fire. The battle report of 1/3 Panzer Regiment states that the anti-tank gun 50 metres beyond the road block had been kept quiet by machine-gun fire from the north-east of Itia.
The second gun (Sergeant Cavanagh and crew) was not brought into action too hastily. The first tank crossed the demolition but Cavanagh, only 100 yards away and wanting as many targets as possible, waited until the second had got through. The tank crews, surprisingly confident, got out and waited for the third tank to appear. When it came up they returned to their tanks. L4 was then brought into action. Twenty-eight shells were fired in quick succession, setting two tanks on fire and, it was thought, crippling the third.
The German account, however, states that ‘The two leading tanks ... now advanced to attack the village of Tempe but both were hit by A Tk fire and knocked out ... 3 killed, 6 wounded. The anti-tank gun (which was very cleverly sited) was put out of action by 7/304 Regiment. ...’37
This was probably correct for the men from that unit and the patrols from 8/800 Brandenburg Regiment had been advancing over the ridges, supported by fire from the tanks and from 112 Reconnaissance Regiment across the river. They sent in no reports of any opposition but they did mention that ‘about 80 PW were winkled out from the hills.’ So it was probably they who appeared over the ridge once held by C Company and called upon the anti-tank gunners to surrender. Preferring to risk an attempt to get to
a gun quad which was parked nearby behind a stone wall, the gunners dashed back38 and eventually came out through Tempe to the lines of C Company 2/2 Battalion.
The other two guns, L3 and L2, have no tanks to their credit; in fact little is known of their crews and their work. The gunners with L3 may have put up a stout resistance for the citation for a Knight’s Cross won by an officer of 7/304 Infantry Regiment who was working with the tanks states that ‘he personally destroyed with hand grenades an A Tk position which fought to the last. ...’39 Nothing definite is known about the history of L2 in the Australian area. According to C Company 2/2 Battalion, the crew removed the breech block of the gun and withdrew.40
The artillery observers who had seen a good deal of the engagement both managed to get back to their unit. Captain Bliss on the A Company ridge was back in the gun lines by 4 p.m. Captain Nolan, farther forward on the C Company ridge, had spent the early afternoon directing fire on the tanks. He had seen Sergeant Cavanagh’s gun crew halt the tanks and then about 2 p.m., when members of 21 Battalion were withdrawing up the ridge, he had crawled to his vehicle and driven back under fire to the outskirts of Tempe. The road being blocked, he had jumped out and hastened back to safety.
At this stage, about 2 p.m., the future movements of 21 Battalion seem to have been decided. The German infantry could be seen across the river and approaching the Australian positions; the tanks, now unopposed, would soon be able to fan out into the open country west of Tempe. This would mean the overrunning of A Company 21 Battalion and C Company 2/2 Battalion, a thrust south-westwards towards Larisa and the isolation of B, C and D Companies now climbing up the ridges to Ambelakia. So when Captain McClymont went up to Battalion Headquarters on ‘top of the ridge behind’ its original position, he was told that A Company after delaying the enemy as long as possible would move up the ridge and cover the withdrawal of the battalion towards Volos. Lieutenant Smith was sent to select platoon positions; McClymont returned to his company.
The Germans took some time, however, to get clear of the gorge and the task commander, cautious after his losses, did not occupy Tempe until 3 p.m. And 112 Reconnaissance Unit, which was scrambling along the north side of the river – as well as troubling 21 Battalion – did not reach the village until 3.30 p.m. and the blown railway bridge until 4.45 p.m.
A Company and the detachment in Tempe had by then dispersed. No. 7 Platoon (Lieutenant Southworth) on the river flat had been able to withdraw westwards and join 2/2 Battalion. Those with Lieutenant Roach went up the ridge, joined the battalion and were eventually evacuated; others joined Lieutenant Smith and with him, ‘by foot, boat, truck and train’, reached the toe of Greece only to be taken prisoner.41 The adjutant, Captain Dutton, who had been at Battalion Headquarters attempting to direct artillery fire upon the approaching tanks, had moved back round the lower slopes collecting men from Headquarters and A Companies and eventually coming out on the flat behind the Australian reserve at Evangelismos. Here he joined the medical officer, Captain Hetherington,42 and the group – about 150 all ranks – was eventually directed by Lieutenant-Colonel Parkinson to the area behind 26 Battery where Major Harding was waiting with motor transport.
The fact that trucks were there at all justifies some explanation for the incident is typical of the swiftly changing front. At an Anzac Corps conference Harding had been told that the battalion transport must be sent back to Thermopylae; other trucks would go forward for the battalion. But the orders were changed and Harding himself had to arrange transport for the withdrawal. He sent the trucks back, the loads were dumped and an attempt made to return for the battalion. But the movement was halted because all roads were being kept clear for southbound traffic. Harding was then instructed by Corps Headquarters to explain his problem to Divisional Headquarters. Twenty trucks from A Section 4 RMT Company and two from C Section were allocated to him and by 5 p.m. were dispersed south of D Troop 26 Battery. Shortly afterwars General Freyberg came through from Headquarters Allen Force with the news that the battalion had been dispersed. However, the group brought in by Lieutenant-Colonel Parkinson eventually appeared and by about 7 p.m. other parties had come through, making the total about 200 all ranks – Australians and New Zealanders. With Captain Sadler43 in command, the convoy set out along the road to Larisa. Harding, who remained with two trucks to collect any late arrivals, came out44 about 9 p.m. behind 2/3 Australian Battalion.
The rest of the battalion was scattered along the ridges about Ambelakia. Two B Company platoons had come back through D Company; the other with Lieutenant Yeoman was coming in from
the eastern flank. C Company had climbed up its ridge through D Company, which in turn had moved off about 1 p.m. after two green Very lights had been fired from Battalion Headquarters. Another group, eight officers and about thirty other ranks, had climbed up from headquarters with Lieutenant-Colonel Macky. Thus by nightfall all these parties, by different routes, were moving towards the coast and the port of Volos.
The Germans cross the Pinios River on the Australian front, 18 April
On the night of 17–18 April the German force assembling across the river – 143 Mountain Regiment, less II Battalion, and supported by twelve 7·5-centimetre artillery guns from I/118 Mountain Artillery Regiment – had received its orders. The English ‘apparently 2 Companies strong’ and ‘without artillery’ seemed to ‘intend to resist’, so at 7 a.m. 1/143 Mountain Regiment would make a feint attack, mainly by fire, on the ‘ Tempe-Parapotamos line’, the Australian right flank. Half an hour later III/143 Mountain Regiment would cross the river and encircle the Australian left flank, west of Parapotamos. And to complete the encirclement of Allen Force 2 Company45 of the regiment would, early that morning, cross the river still higher up, move west of the hills adjoining Makrikhori and attempt to cut the road to the north of Larisa.
At 9 a.m. I/143 Regiment made the first move – the feint attack into the river bend east of Parapotamos – which brought heavy fire from the Australian machine guns and mortars and several concen trations from the New Zealand artillery. Nevertheless, by 12.30 p.m. the Germans were assembling opposite Evangelismos and under fire from D Company 2/2 Battalion about Point 156.
To the west of Parapotamos a dawn patrol from III/143 Regiment had found a boat and crossed without any opposition. All through the morning the battalion progressed, advancing south-eastwards and forcing ‘the English (who were in the act of taking up positions immediately S.E. of Parapotamos) to withdraw.’46
As it happened, D Company 2/2 Battalion had watched the German files moving down from Gonnos but had not been able to observe their river-crossing. At 9 a.m., however, when grey-clad figures were seen moving out of the village, a patrol was sent to investigate, but outside the village it came under fire and withdrew. Bren carriers were then sent out to check the movement, but they too came under fire from German mortars and there were several casualties.
The artillerymen were able, however, to give some supporting fire. The infantry officers over their line circuit sent back directions to the guns until Lieutenant Clark47 of 5 New Zealand Field Regiment arrived at Headquarters D Company. For the rest of the morning he directed the fire of D Troop48 upon any Germans moving about the flats south of Gonnos. Thereafter III/143 Mountain Regiment was content to complete its crossing and to develop an encircling movement round the left flank, where D Company 2/2 Battalion about Point 156 and C Company 2/3 Battalion to the south were attempting, with little or no equipment, to create a line.
The right flank, adjoining Tempe and the 21 Battalion sector, had seen less direct action. C Company 2/2 Battalion had observed and engaged at long range the many groups approaching the river. The 21 Battalion carriers (Lieutenant Dee49) to the south-east of the demolished railway bridge and the Australian carriers, to the left and closer to the river, had been worrying any Germans approaching the bank. Still farther to the left, A Company 2/2 Battalion had been harassing any parties moving from Gonnos towards the river bank, and the 3-inch mortar platoon by using exceptionally heavy charges was engaging the enemy at 2000 yards. The Germans in this sector were not, however, attempting to cross the river. They were making a feint attack to cover the more serious movement on their right flank. In this they were successful for about 11 a.m. Lieutenant-Colonel Chilton asked Lieutenant-Colonel Macky for the use of 21 Battalion Bren carriers to repulse the expected attack between A and B Companies 2/2 Battalion. It never developed, but because Macky had no means of communicating with his carriers they were, for the remainder of the action, under Australian command.
Allen Force is Threatened with Encirclement
In the afternoon the situation along the Australian front rapidly changed for the worse. On the extreme left, D Company 2/2 Battalion about Point 156 maintained its position but by 4 p.m., the last time the telephone line was usable, the report to headquarters was that the enemy was relentlessly moving round and digging in south-west of Parapotamos. The patrolling platoon was therefore withdrawn from the river bank and orders were issued for a counter-attack supported by Bren carriers.
But this did not eventuate. Written orders were received stating that B Company 2/3 Battalion in the rear was ‘now withdrawing’ and that C Company of the same unit should co-ordinate its withdrawal with that of the adjoining D Company 2/2 Battalion. The order was unexpected but by 4.45 p.m. the two companies, covered by the Bren carriers, were marching back to Makrikhori. From there they were transported to the Makrikhorion area to join Brigade Headquarters and the other companies of 2/3 Battalion.
Neither the orders nor the withdrawal had been known to Lieutenant-Colonel Chilton of 2/2 Battalion. When the noise of firing had ceased on his left flank he concluded that the companies had been overrun. Actually there had been a misunderstanding. After the visit50 and the issue of withdrawal orders by General Freyberg, Brigadier Allen had instructed Lieutenant-Colonel D. J. Lamb of 2/3 Battalion to prepare a rearguard position astride the road about two miles south of Makrikhorion. And Lamb’s intention had been that his C Company should move out whenever D Company 2/2 Battalion had withdrawn. As it was, the company commanders, misinterpreting the order, had decided that their units were to move back together – and immediately.
The left flank was now wide open but the companies, if they had remained any longer, would soon have been encircled. In the central sector the German commander, anxious because of the slow movement through the gorge, had become more aggressive. About midday 1/143 Mountain Regiment, hitherto staging the feint attack upon Evangelismos, was ordered to ‘cross with all available means at Tempe and open the way out of the gorge for 2 Pz Div.’51 Patrols had already found that the river could be waded to the west of the village and ‘the ever increasing noise of fighting from the gorge’ suggested that ‘the Pz division was making another attempt to break through.’52 So about 1 p.m. the crossing was under way and in an hour and a half, in spite of ‘terrific defensive fire’, the companies were over the swift-flowing river – about seventy feet wide and five feet deep.
They had been harassed by the Bren-gunners of A and B Companies 2/2 Battalion; the two 3-inch mortars with A Company had dropped 350 bombs among the rafts and along the mud banks; and the guns of E and F Troops 4 New Zealand Field Regiment had given their support. As seen by Captain Bliss, who was directing the fire of E Troop, the Germans had ‘formed up in what seemed like platoons in line and three or four platoons advanced ... with thirty to forty yard intervals. Rds of gun fire were falling among
them continuously but did not affect the speed of the advance or check it. The inf. advanced to the river ... and there waded across on foot. They lay concealed in the scrub on the southern bank of the river. ...’53 The companies were immediately reorganised and sent south-eastwards across the open country towards Evangelismos.
By then it was 3 p.m. and Battle Group 2 was emerging from the gorge. The supporting infantry had appeared over the ridges once occupied by 21 Battalion and the tanks, cautiously moving out of Tempe, had approached the positions of C Company 2/2 Battalion. The New Zealand anti-tank crew in that area had already departed,54 so when the only Australian anti-tank gun was disabled, the infantry were in an impossible position. The forward platoon was overwhelmed and the others forced up the ridges on the eastern side of the road.
The Bren carriers of 2/7 and 2/11 Battalions, together with several from 21 Battalion, did their best from hull-down positions astride the road and railway to cover the withdrawal of the infantry. In one 21 Battalion carrier WO II Lockett55 engaged a tank and forced it off the highway, but the halt could only be temporary. The carriers pulled back, leaving the tanks free to turn southwards along the road to Evangelismos.
The stage was thus set for a fighting withdrawal to prevent the Germans from entering Larisa before 6 Brigade had withdrawn from Elasson and Savige Force from the Zarkos area.
The Orders for Withdrawal
In the original orders56 of the New Zealand Division on 16 April 21 Battalion and other units in the Pinios Gorge were to disengage and move back by motor transport during the night of 18–19 April. Next day, when Brigadier Allen was instructed to prevent the occupation of Larisa from the east, no definite time seems to have been given for the withdrawal. The movements of Allen Force and the New Zealand Division to Larisa and eastwards through Volos were the responsibility of General Freyberg.
The first instructions from Headquarters New Zealand Division were given in a signal57 timed 12.40 p.m., 18 April. As 6 Brigade in its withdrawal58 from Elasson had to clear Larisa before Allen Force, the Brigadier had to hold, until 3 a.m. on 19 April, a line
running north-west to south-east through the junction of the Tempe–Sikourion roads. His force could thin out earlier, but the roads through Larisa were reserved for 6 Brigade until 1 a.m., 19 April. The New Zealand Divisional Cavalry Regiment was sending ove a squadron from Elasson to assist in the withdrawal; it would remain under the Brigadier’s control until it was south of Larisa. Thereafter the movement of Allen Force through Volos to the Thermopylae line would be covered by the New Zealand Divisional Cavalry.
The orders were taken forward to Headquarters Allen Force by a liaison officer who arrived in the mid-afternoon. Lieutenant-Colonel Chilton of 2/2 Battalion had line communication with Brigade Headquarters so he was swiftly given an outline plan of the withdrawal. Movement would not begin until 3 a.m., 19 April, though ‘it was hoped to get the time put forward.’59
Soon afterwards General Freyberg, who had received disturbing reports about the situation, appeared at Brigade Headquarters and spoke over the telephone to Chilton. It was impossible to get a message through to 21 Battalion, which had been forced up the ridge towards Ambelakia. The General then went forward, studied the situation for himself and decided that the proposed line could not be held until midnight. To delay the enemy Allen Force would have to conduct a fighting withdrawal towards Larisa. Sixth New Zealand Brigade and Savige Force, which would be coming south that night, would thus be given time to move through towards Volos and Thermopylae.
The necessary orders were prepared, confirming the general plan of withdrawal but ordering the forward units to break contact at dusk. As line communications had broken down shortly after the General’s departure, an officer was sent forward in a Bren carrier to deliver the orders to Chilton and Parkinson. Moving up against the stream of men and vehicles, he reached the forward artillery area only to be told, incorrectly, that Chilton’s headquarters had been overrun by the German tanks. He left the orders for Parkinson with Captain Thornton60 of 26 New Zealand Battery and, seeing men on the eastern slopes, went across hoping to find Chilton. In this he was unsuccessful; Battalion Headquarters and B Company 2/2 Battalion were still in action about Evangelismos – and were so until about 6.45 p.m.
Finally, about 6 p.m. Headquarters 16 Brigade moved back from Makrikhorion to the crossroads where Lieutenant-Colonel Lamb and 2/3 Battalion were endeavouring to build up another line.
The Artillery prepares to Cover the Withdrawal
The artillery units with Allen Force had now to prepare for a series of rearguard actions. In the morning there had been sixteen61 25-pounders, but after midday three guns from A Troop 5 Field Regiment had been sent back to Larisa, two of them with faulty tell-tale valves. One from F Troop 4 Field Regiment and one from A Troop 5 Field Regiment were in anti-tank positions near Evangelismos and the other eleven had been giving supporting fire across the six-mile front.
In the early afternoon the artillerymen were well aware of the changing front. Stragglers had reported that 21 Battalion was pulling back, in the central sector Germans could be seen to have crossed the river and from the west reports had come in of the enemy about Parapotamos. Every effort had been made to halt these movements but the targets had been too numerous for the limited number of guns, and now that the front was disintegrating it was difficult to get accurate information. By 2 p.m. the only observation post functioning was that of Captain Bliss on the ridge of A Company 21 Battalion and the signals from him were becoming increasingly faint. The shelling of the river crossings was then directed by Lieutenant Hanna,62 who had scaled a tree at the command post. The same officer, when news came through of the tanks entering Tempe, suggested that the guns should be moved to positions better suited for anti-tank warfare, but permission was refused.
Shortly afterwards, however, probably because of Hanna’s representations, D Troop 4 Field Regiment was recalled by Lieutenant Carson,63 the acting64 command post officer. As it was moving back through the other two troops, Stukas bombed the guns and caused much confusion and delay but no casualties. At the end of the raid Major Stewart, on orders from Lieutenant-Colonel Parkinson, instructed Clark to place his troop in a rearguard position. On the way Clark met Brigadier Allen, explained his task and was left to select the positions for himself. The guns were eventually in
position east of the road and behind Point 214, a good observation point.
The other troops, E and F, remained in their original positions to oppose the German advance towards Evangelismos and to cover the inevitable withdrawal.
The Rearguard Action in the late afternoon, 18 April
After the occupation of Tempe and the dispersal, about 5.30 p.m., of C Company 2/2 Battalion, the commander of 3 Panzer Regiment had swung his attack southwards towards Evangelismos, on the road to Larisa; 2 Company 1/3 Panzer Regiment, with 7/304 Infantry Regiment in support, was now breaking the way.
At the same time three other units were on the move. I/143 Mountain Regiment was coming south-eastwards towards the village. On its right flank II/141 Mountain Regiment which had just been rushed over the river was advancing towards Makrikhorion and Makrikhori. And still farther west were the companies of III/143 Mountain Regiment which had all day been enveloping the left flank of the Australians.
To delay the tanks north of Evangelismos and the infantry who had been crossing the river to the east were A Company 2/2 Battalion, supported by eleven Bren carriers (some from 2/5 and 2/11 Battalions and others from 21 New Zealand Battalion), an Australian anti-tank gun and two New Zealand 25-pounders.
The gun from A Troop 5 Field Regiment (Sergeant Franklin65 was to the east of the railway on the southern outskirts of the village, and when the tanks approached the Australian lines, the crew opened fire. The first two were hit and ‘burst with flames.’ The third returned fire, hitting a truck loaded with petrol and explosives and forcing Second-Lieutenant Brown,66 CPO for the two guns, to order a withdrawal. The crew took to the hills and eventually regained the road, continuing south towards Larisa and being picked up by an Australian convoy.
The second gun, that from F Troop 4 Field Regiment (Sergeant Gunn67 was more to the south and west. The first two tanks to appear from that angle were knocked out, but another came up and from a hull-down position began to make a systematic search for the camouflaged gun. The crew then manhandled it about 100 yards to the right and from a slight hollow carried on the duel. When the only remaining armour-piercing shells had been used
Gunner Kelly68 went forward under fire to the first position to collect some high-explosive charges. Then, when the supporting enemy infantry were seen to be closing in, WO II Tasker69 engaged them with a Bren gun and kept them at a distance, but the end came when a tank shell burst below the 25-pounder and wounded three of the crew. The others attempted to bring out the gun, but the quad could not be backed into the hollow and the unwounded of the crew could not pull the gun out on their own. Tasker and Gunn did the best they could, slipping away in the quad and eventually reaching the F Troop positions, where the fit members remained and the wounded were sent on to Larisa.
In the country between the tanks and the guns there had meanwhile been confused and exciting activity. The supporting tanks had rolled south from Tempe, spreading out across the western flats and ‘firing madly’ until about 6.5 p.m., when several of them supported by infantry broke into the lines of A Company 2/2 Battalion. Covered by fire from the Bren-carrier group and the 25-pounders, the company moved off to the eastern ridges and hurried southwards. Unfortunately darkness overtook them and they never regained contact with Allen Force.
The tanks had then advanced cautiously through the village towards Headquarters 2/2 Battalion. The Australian anti-tank gun in the area had left ‘without orders’.70 The carrier group, including those from 21 Battalion, was able to move out, but a platoon from 2/3 Battalion and Lieutenant Southworth71 with his platoon from 21 Battalion were forced into the hills. The signals truck from 2/2 Battalion when it raced off across a ploughed field was shot up in flames. It was then about 6.45 p.m., and as other tanks were appearing across the flats from the west and south-west, Lieutenant-Colonel Chilton ordered his headquarters and B Company to withdraw to the eastern hills. Thereafter in several groups they hurried southwards, often under fire from the German units astride the road and across the more open country to the west.
The gully in which Headquarters 26 Battery had been established was soon untenable, so Major Stewart, who had been observing for E and F Troops, made off to the hills and attempted to rejoin his guns. Lieutenant-Colonel Parkinson drove off eastwards, nearly reaching the hill village of Sikourion before he and some Australians turned south to the Volos road.
Astride the highway there were now the tanks from
3 Panzer Regiment, supported by units from II/304 Infantry Regiment. On the western flank and advancing with the tanks were the units from 6 Mountain Division. 1/143 Mountain Regiment which had, since dawn, lost 12 killed, 69 wounded and 1 missing, had not moved south of Evangelismos. Its place had been taken by I/141 Mountain Regiment which, with II/141 coming up in support, was now closing in from the north-west. Their objectives were Point 214, the Nessonis swamp, and possibly – Larisa.
Late that afternoon they had occupied the village of Makrikhori to the north of Point 214 and cleared the ridges to the south-east. The advance had been supported by Stuka attacks on Point 214 and the road to Larisa but, as they afterwards recorded, ‘In spite of this, the enemy fought back hard from 1 Km south of PT 214. AA, A Tk and 105 mm guns fired on our troops over open sights.’72
Such was their opinion of a most gallant and successful delaying action, in the early stages of which the dominant units were E and F Troops of 26 Battery 4 New Zealand Field Regiment. Left with no forward screen after the withdrawal of 2/2 Battalion and with only seven guns between them, they covered the movement of Allen Force to the new line which was hastily being established some four miles to the south. F Troop had moved first, covered by E Troop. On the way one quad had been hit by a shell and two men wounded, including Driver Drinkwater,73 who drove courageously on, clearing the road for the rest of the column. Soon afterwards another quad was hit, the top blown off and two men wounded. In spite of these casualties the troop went into position just north of Makrikhorion and, with Captain Richardson and Lieutenant Dyson74 as observers, shelled the infantry and tanks as they moved through Evangelismos and came south astride the highway.
E Troop had then moved back, the sections leapfrogging through each other. Guns hooked to tractors would be brought back and halted at intervals along the road. The trails would then be swung round and the approaching tanks engaged from the roadside. In this way, over open sights, two tanks were definitely destroyed and several others put out of action. As seen by an Australian infantryman it had been an inspiring sight:
The officer stood out in the open directing the fire, the crews crouched behind the shields and fed and fired the guns while everything the enemy had was being pelted at them. ... They looked like a drawing by someone who had never been to a war, but the whole thing was unreal. They got
two tanks, lost one gun and pulled the other gun and their wounded out, having done what they could. There was nothing to stop the tanks then, and they formed up and came on.75
When E Troop was clear, F Troop engaged the enemy and disabled at least one tank. But the German advance was irresistible and the guns had to be withdrawn, one section remaining to support B Squadron New Zealand Divisional Cavalry Regiment in the new line, the others taking up positions south of D Troop.
The rearguard by then was in position about the road and railway crossing of Makrikhorion. If the line could be held until dark the movement of the tanks would be more limited; if yet another withdrawal was necessary, there were several possible defence lines between there and Larisa. The Australian infantry – one company 2/2 Battalion and two companies 2/3 Battalion, both reduced in numbers – were astride the road. In reserve there were Bren carriers from 2/2, 2/5, 2/11 Australian and 21 New Zealand Battalions and a company from 2/3 Battalion, only some thirty strong. And near the railway station was B Squadron of the Divisional Cavalry,76 which had arrived about midday from the Elasson area. Its
commander, Major J. T. Russell,77 had been instructed by Brigadier Allen to maintain a line across the valley until 3 a.m. and then to cover the withdrawal of the force. To the east of the road and south of Point 214 was D Troop 4 Field Regiment.
The force had little hope of halting the approaching tanks and, to make the task still more difficult, German aircraft were screaming across the front, strafing and dive-bombing the slightest sign of movement. Even so, the troops fought back when twelve to fifteen tanks broke into the area. Major Stewart, then working across the ridges above the plain, saw Russell ‘magnificently handling his squadron.’78 But Bren guns and Boys anti-tank rifles made no impression on the German armour and by sundown the squadron was withdrawing from the area.
The Australian infantry were even worse off. ‘At one stage ... a group of fifteen to twenty men were round a tank firing rifles and L. M. G.s to no apparent effect. This tank crushed two men. ... The feeling of helplessness against the tanks overcame the troops and they began to move back in small parties to the trucks.’79
There had been all possible support from D Troop 26 Field Battery; in fact Captain Thornton, at the observation post on Point 214, had been delighted with the accuracy of the concentrations. But after 8.30 p.m. the light had faded and about 9 p.m., when the section from E Troop with the Divisional Cavalry came back, Major Stewart, who had managed to rejoin the battery, ordered a withdrawal.
The whole front was now hopelessly indefinite, but in unprepared positions about 1000 yards to the south of Point 214 a mixed force of infantrymen and Bren carriers had collected to make yet another stand. It served the purpose. The observer in the leading tank was shot, the column halted and a scene of colourful confusion developed across the front, with tanks milling aimlessly about and carriers pulling back in a world of Very lights, tracer bullets and blazing vehicles.
At this stage Brigadier Allen ordered Lieutenant-Colonel Lamb of 2/3 Battalion to withdraw. So, covered by the Divisional Cavalry squadron, the Bren carriers and the lorries with the infantrymen were driven off towards ‘a point where the road crossed a swampy area north of Larisa.’80
The enemy made no serious attempt to follow up. The darkness and the danger of supporting units firing on each other forced them
to laager for the night, send out patrols and prepare for an advance at daybreak, 19 April. The casualties of I/3 Panzer Regiment had been low, only 4 killed and 37 wounded, but its tank losses had been high: ‘2 MK IV, 4 MK III and 13 MK II either total losses or out of action for a very long time (including 4 lost in crossing the river) 2 MK IV, 12 MK III and MK II slightly damaged.’81
The Road Block outside Larisa, Night 18–19 April
To complete the day’s disasters the company84 from I/143 Mountain Regiment, with a machine-gun platoon under command, had at last reached the road to the north of Larisa. Early that morning they had swum the river just north of Point 264 and, observing the Australians east of Parapotamos, had turned away to the west through Mavrolithos. When approaching Koulouri they had attempted to reach a German airman who had been forced down and was about to be captured by ‘English troops who rushed up in trucks.’85 But the English under cover of machine-gun fire had collected the airman and then driven hastily towards Larisa, where their excited reports were the probable reason for the rumour that the enemy had entered the town that afternoon.
The company had then turned to the railway embankment, following it for about two miles and observing only a few hundred yards away to the east the transport moving up to relieve Allen Force. The road crossing some two and a half miles north-east of Larisa was reached about 8 p.m. and almost immediately two vehicles came through from the battle front. In the first of them was Lieutenant Penney,86 the 21 Battalion transport officer who had been sent south to find a route to Volos by which the battalion transport could keep clear of the now badly battered Larisa. The machine-gunners opened fire, wounding the three occupants and forcing those in the second truck to surrender.
The Germans state that some nine or ten fully loaded English ammunition trucks were the next to be captured, but it has been impossible to decide what unit they came from. The earliest detachment of which there is any record seems to have been two Australian Bren carriers, followed by 9 Light Aid Detachment87 and Lieutenant
Staveley,88 the medical officer of 4 Field Regiment, with an F Troop vehicle filled with wounded. Sharp bursts of fire halted the little column; the Bren carriers attempted to counter-attack but organised resistance was unsuccessful. Some men, including the wounded artillerymen, were taken prisoner but others in the darkness were able to make off on foot towards Volos.89
Immediately after this disaster vehicles from the forward areas were coming through almost continuously. At the head there seems to have been a mixed group which included perhaps seven of the 4 RMT lorries bringing out Australians and members of 21 Battalion. Led by Lieutenant J. Pool, who was familiar with the route, the convoy turned east before the road block and crossed the open country to the Volos road. Guides were left at the turn-of but they must have departed soon afterwards, leaving the other convoys to continue on their way and be abruptly halted at the railway crossing.
It is now impossible to give an exact and detailed description of the fighting which developed but the general outline is clear enough. At 10.30 p.m. when the leading vehicle, an Australian one, had pulled up before some obstacle on the highway, the Germans had opened fire, killing or wounding every occupant. In a few minutes other groups of vehicles were jamming up head to tail along the narrow road above the sodden countryside. No large-scale operation was possible. Some men got out of the way, others took cover and opened fire on the crossing, and others, in small groups, organised counter-attacks. Several New Zealand Bren carriers came forward, a volunteer crew was collected for one of them and an attempt was made to smash through the road block.
With Private Bond90 as driver, Sergeant-Major Lockett, Sergeant Marshall-Inman91 and Private Black92 led the way in a carrier, and an Australian rushed up his lorry with Driver Snell93 on the running board to hurl hand grenades. As seen by the Germans, ‘two armoured cars came up, firing with all weapons, and tried to crash through the block to the south-east.’94 But the explosion of
a mortar bomb left the carrier ‘slewed across the road’, blocking any further movement forward.
Attempts were then made by mixed groups of Australians and New Zealanders to subdue the post, one party afterwards claiming to have killed95 the four men in a gun position east of the road. But the Germans were never seriously disturbed and by midnight the attacks were fading away leaving, according to German accounts, 8 killed, 20 seriously wounded and some 30 prisoners of war.
The long column of vehicles strung out along the road to the rear had by then dispersed, the troops having been warned by the streams of tracer fire, the glowing flares and, above all, by the excited reports that came back from the crossing. ‘Our carriers returned hot foot with the news that Jerry had taken Larissa. We learnt afterwards that parachute troops had done this. Our retreat was blocked. Ahead lay enemy country, behind were his tanks and on both sides was the bog.’96 The drivers hastened to turn their vehicles eastwards and to make off along the boggy farm tracks or across the open country.
Some actually encircled the Germans and continued south through Larisa and along the main highway to Thermopylae. The majority found their way to the Volos road and travelled south with the convoys from 6 Brigade now coming through from Elasson. Those from 26 Field Battery used a road that had, fortunately, been reconnoitred by Captain Nicholson.97 The two lorries held back by Major Harding to collect the last of 21 Battalion moved through with those of 2/3 Battalion and managed, by skirting the foothills, to reach the road and continue south through the defensive positions which 6 Brigade was preparing to occupy in the Volos area.98
By the night of 20–21 April it was possible to estimate, provisionally, the losses suffered by Allen Force. Two hundred and fifty all ranks from 2/2 Battalion and 500 all ranks from 2/3 Battalion had reported to Headquarters 16 Australian Brigade in the Brallos area west of Thermopylae. In the action the former had lost 44 killed, 18 wounded and 67 missing. Twenty-first Battalion’s battle casualties had not been heavy – only one officer and three other ranks had been killed or wounded but on 20 April there were only 132 all ranks in the Thermopylae area. The majority of the battalion including the ‘commanding officer, second-in-command, adjutant,
the four rifle company commanders, and the second-in-command of A, C and D companies’99 were missing.
The Germans enter Larisa, 19 April
By then the enemy had occupied Larisa. On the morning after the fighting the German commander at the railway crossing had been told by a civilian that the town was clear of British troops. Quickly sending out patrols, he had begun to move his company southwards along the highway. The advanced guard of 3 Panzer Regiment had then appeared and before midday infantry and tanks had entered the town together. ‘As in France trucks in convoy stood on the road and in bushes. All round were guns and A Tk guns, shell shattered or manned only by corpses, and among them Bren carriers and two tanks.’100 This may be exaggerated, but the earthquake101 early in the year and the successive air raids in April had certainly left a badly damaged Larisa. Nevertheless, there was still much that could have been destroyed, for the Germans were delighted to find supplies of petrol, stores of all kinds and an airfield immediately available for all types of aircraft.
The Escape Parties
The position was very different for those members of Allen Force who had been unable to reach the new positions. Many had been forced to surrender and others were still making desperate efforts to move through the occupied areas. Those who did so within the next few days eventually left Greece with the main convoys; others, less fortunate, had to endure long journeys by way of Crete, Cyprus or even Turkey.
Thus Major Harding, who had been following the last two trucks of 21 Battalion, turned eastwards from the ambush and, like many others, followed a road which proved to be blind. When forced to leave his bogged pick-up he trudged south down the eastern side of Lake Voiviis, collecting as he went eight Australians and twenty-two men from 21 Battalion. Late on 20 April when the almost exhausted party was about ten miles from Almiros, Harding went on alone, part of the way on horseback, part of the way with three Australians in a commandeered taxi, and finally in a van which reached Headquarters 5 Brigade at Molos on the morning of 21 April. The probable movements of the 21 Battalion group were explained, possible moves by the Navy to pick up the parties were suggested and two boats were taken across the bay to pick up102 his party.
A smaller party, Lance-Sergeant Anderson103 and four other ranks, took a little longer to get clear. They walked through to the Volos area, stole a boat and sailed down the coast to join the battalion at Thermopylae just before it moved south to the embarkation beaches.
Other parties had more difficulty in getting through to the coast and in finding shipping to take them behind the lines at Thermopylae. From the road block outside Larisa Lieutenant Staveley, with one Australian and nine New Zealanders, the majority from 4 Field Regiment, had crossed the swamp to the east and had been taken by a Greek across Lake Voiviis. They reached Volos on the morning of 20 April, but as the Greek headquarters in the area was about to surrender, the party hastened south-east round the peninsula towards Trikeri and on the way was joined by Lieutenants Flavell and Smith from 21 Battalion.104 On the night of 23–24 April some thirty-six all ranks went aboard a caique and sailed through the channel between Euboea and the mainland while the artillery battle was being waged about Thermopylae. Next morning they disembarked at Khalkis, were taken to Thebes and eventually to Argos in southern Greece, from which large-scale evacuations were taking place.
Sergeant Crowley105 and seven other men from 4 RMT Company had similar adventures. They took to the hills after the ambush, found their way to the coast and, by twice using Greek caiques, reached the Allied lines. They were then sent to the embarkation area about Argos and their history, like that of many others in that area, is yet another story.106
The larger groups took much longer to rejoin 21 Battalion. Captain Dutton,107 Father Sheely108 (the battalion chaplain) and Lieutenant Hollis109 of 26 Field Battery, with three or four other ranks who had been forced from the road block into the hills, did not reach the coast near Keramidhi until 21 April but they were able to charter a small caique and prepare to sail to Volos.
At this stage Lieutenant-Colonel Macky appeared with eight officers and thirty-five men. His original intention had been to march from the Tempe area to Sikourion, but the Greeks had
warned him of the German approach to that village and led the party to the snowline level on Mount Ossa and down through the forest to the east coast. So after negotiations with the owner of the caique the parties combined and sailed south, towing a small boat to carry the surplus passengers. At a village south of Zagora the mayor was placed under escort until a more suitable vessel was hired and the party then set off with the intention of getting behind the New Zealand lines at Thermopylae. At Skipelos, however, the sympathetic Greeks warned them that the British were withdrawing from that line and preparing for a complete evacuation. Macky then decided to make for the island of Andros, from which he could sail either to Piræus or to Crete, but by dawn on 24 April the caique was well off course and it was decided to sail eastward to Chios, off the coast of Turkey. From there they sailed south from Island to island, the caique foundering at Siros after a bombing raid and the party, by then fifty-one strong, reaching Crete on 2 May in another caique with a party of Greek officers. The little odyssey in such historic seas had been romantic but exacting, for in the mountains they had been bitterly cold and the food had varied from almost nothing to a plentitude of roast lamb, beans, eggs and olives with ‘enough left over for the next day.’ The majority went on to join the battalion above Maleme airfield but, as was the case with most parties, several members had to be sent into hospital to recover.
Three days later another group arrived in Crete under the command of Captain A. C. Trousdale. With D Company he had overlooked the battlefront at Tempe from the ridge above Battalion Headquarters and had decided that the speed of the German advance southwards made it impossible for him to attempt to reach the road to Larisa. He had therefore led his group south-east over the forested ranges towards the coast, where he hoped to be picked up by the Navy. On the way Lieutenant Yeoman appeared with 41 New Zealanders and 30 Australians and at Spelia there was Major Cohen with over 100 Australians. The parties moved off along the ridge running north of Cape Dhermatas and on the night of 20 April they were joined by Captain Tongue, Second-Lieutenant Mason and seventeen other ranks. Several smaller parties appeared and before long there were 108 New Zealanders and a corresponding number of Australians. As it was almost impossible for any one village to feed the party the men divided into groups, all of which were ‘constantly hungry, tired, footsore and cold, some ill and some wounded.’110 Trousdale and Yeoman reached the coast at Keramidhi and with some Australians went from island to island
until, on 10 May, they reached Crete with sixty all ranks. An Australian captain and Second-Lieutenant Wilson,111 who had been left on the island of Tinos to bring out two other groups, reached Egypt some weeks later by way of Cyprus.
The group with Captain Tongue, as with all the leaders, changed from time to time, the men being free to make their own choice when they thought they saw better chances to escape. Those who remained with him eventually reached the coast south of Volos and in a hired boat were taken to the south-eastern extremity of the island of Euboea. Unable to hire another vessel, they appropriated three small boats in which they departed eastwards under fire from the exasperated owner.112 Their troubles had only just begun. One boat was leaking badly so the crew of six had to be crowded into the other two. Soon afterwards the bowsprit of the larger vessel cracked, leaving the smaller one to carry on alone and eventually reach Turkey with four men. The crippled vessel, with Tongue in command and sixteen men aboard, reached Skiros after fourteen hours’ rowing and from there was sailed to the coast of Turkey. Here they were well cared for, eventually being sent to Egypt with other detachments of Australians and New Zealanders, including Lieutenant-Colonel Chilton of 2/2 Australian Battalion.