Chapter 17: The Defence of Brallos and Thermopylae Passes, 24 April
The Germans approach Brallos Pass
ON 21 April the forward elements of 5 Mountain Division had approached the Australian positions about Brallos Pass. Next day 55 Motor Cycle Battalion, crossing the Sperkhios River well up-stream from the Allied positions, had begun an arduous march round the left flank of the Australian lines to Kato Dhio Vouna and Dhelfinon. No. 3 Company 8 Panzer Reconnaissance Unit, which moved from Vardnatais to the foot of Brallos Pass to hold the attention of the British, had been ‘halted by very heavy artillery, mortar and HMG fire which caused its first casualties before it found cover on the hillsides.’1
The situation for the enemy was no better on 23 April. Sixth Mountain Division was now coming in from the east through Volos but 5 Panzer Division had not been able to advance beyond Brallos Pass. Fifty-fifth Motor Cycle Battalion just east of Dhelfinon was attempting to build up its strength, but it was almost impossible for supplies or any heavy weapons to be brought through that wild country. The approaches to the pass were covered by the British artillery which, from the action the previous day, seemed to be of considerable strength. Moreover, there was still congestion along the highway between Larisa and Lamia: demolitions had only just been repaired and both the panzer and mountain divisions were striving to get south. As the former had the priority the mountain troops had, very often, to ‘stand uselessly round’ while a bakery company or the postal services of the panzer division went through to Lamia. Such indeed was the congestion and consequent confusion that about Lamia groups were incomplete and little effective reconnaissance was made of the Allied line.
The change came on the morning of 23 April when General Stumme reached Lamia and put into operation the now definite plans of XXXX Corps. The British were ‘holding the Thermopylae
Pass2 and the Molos area’ so next morning, after a softening-up by Stukas, an armoured force from 5 Panzer Division would attack astride the Lamia–Thermopylae road with the crest of Brallos Pass as its first objective. That accomplished, a fast-moving force, Baacke Group, was to advance through Molos between the hills and the sea. Meanwhile XVIII Corps would send Jais Group from 6 Mountain Division to outflank the pass from the west and cut the Allied line of withdrawal. Eighth Air Corps would support by attacking Allied gun positions and troop concentrations, particularly those in the Skamnos area south of the pass.
The attack began about 7.30 a.m. on 24 April. The Luftwaffe came over searching for gun positions and the main points of resistance; the volume of shellfire increased and the infantry began to move forward.
Nineteenth Australian Brigade had, fortunately, improved its position during the night. The 2/11 Battalion, with a small detachment from 2/8 Battalion under command, covered the highway immediately north of Skamnos. On its eastern flank 2/1 Battalion (less two companies) covered the track through Kalothronion; to the south there was a company in the defile at Gravia through which a road came up from Amfissa. And astride the road beyond Brallos was 2/4 Battalion. The 2/2 Field Regiment, having been severely attacked from the air the previous day, had left its pits camouflaged with nets and moved back about 1500 yards to an area about three miles north-east of Brallos.
To the immediate west of the pass the Germans were unsuccessful. Fifty-fifth Motor Cycle Battalion moved from the Dhelfinon area across the Asopos River, but with almost no artillery support could do little; the companies were pinned down in a ravine west of Kalivia by 2/11 Battalion and the attached machine-gunners. It took the Germans several hours to reach the north slope of the heights to the west of Skamnos.
Still farther west, Jais Group had been assembling in the Kato Dhio Vouna area, but about 10.20 a.m. Colonel Jais was informed of the Allied withdrawals the previous night. No time was wasted. II/141 Regiment altered its thrustline, swinging in closer to Brallos but sending two companies to carry out the original plan of cutting the main highway five miles to the south of that town. By midday 7/141 Regiment, with 1/141 following, had reached the right flank of 55 Motor Cycle Battalion and was under Australian machine-gun and artillery fire.
In the Brallos (‘new Thermopylae’) Pass the attack was made by 1/31 Panzer Regiment, reinforced with four Mark IV tanks from 3 Company, the 88-millimetre guns from 1/61 Anti-Aircraft Regiment, engineers, motor-cyclists and assault guns. The greater part of the force was to attack the prepared positions commanding the tortuous highway; one platoon would ‘turn off from the pass road ... push through alone to Molos’ but it was ‘not expected that the enemy will defend this road strongly.’3
After a preliminary attack by Stukas the tanks set off along the straight road from Lamia. The Sperkhios River was crossed by a temporary bridge and they were soon approaching the demolitions at the foot of the pass. The first crater was passed but a wrecked bridge and a still bigger crater stopped any further advance. The XXXX Corps commander, General Stumme, then came forward to study the situation. In the meantime the selected platoon from 1/31 Panzer Regiment turned off at the foot of the pass and
approached the New Zealand lines in the gap between the mountains and the sea.
The German Attack is diverted towards Thermopylae
In this area forward of Molos the morning had been relatively quiet. At first light the carrier patrol (Captain Yeoman4) from 24 Battalion had observed engineers repairing the Alamanas bridge and the armoured group across the river to the west approaching Brallos Pass. The artillery fire from both forces and the inevitable air attacks by the Germans had then developed, but the New Zealand gunners had no serious casualties, probably because of efficient camouflage and the policy of ceasing fire when any aircraft were actually overhead. In any case the full weight of the German attack, both by land and air, had been directed towards Brallos Pass.
The first sign of any change in the general plan was the appearance of the platoon of tanks from the foot of Brallos Pass. As they came round the bluffs they were observed by C Company 25 Battalion. The artillery opened up, wrecking one tank and forcing the others to withdraw. The report from the troop commander was ‘Unexpected and extremely heavy opposition. Artillery firing like mad. Road block removed. Danger of mines.’ This did not influence General Stumme; he had already decided to change his plan of attack. The company of tanks, instead of attempting to force the Brallos Pass, would ‘Push through to Molos and destroy the artillery.’5
This led to some confusion for at 10 a.m. the advanced guard of 72 Infantry Division (Baacke Group),6 with the cavalry and cycle squadrons of 112 Reconnaissance Unit under command, had already been ordered to advance through Molos and make a reconnaissance as far as Atalandi. The units had left Lamia at midday, had crossed the river well above the Alamanas Bridge and were approaching the defences when they came upon the tanks of 1/31 Panzer Regiment which had a short time before been checked by the New Zealand artillery. A warning was then flashed back to Headquarters 6 Mountain Division informing it that 5 Panzer Division was also using the highway because the ‘new Thermopylae road’ was impassable. The infantry commander, Captain Baacke, proposed to take the tanks under command, but just then the commander of the armoured regiment came up and decided that his unit would advance in support of the infantry. There was, however, no co-ordinated plan and the tanks and infantry acted independently.
The move was soon under way, but about 4.15 p.m. the infantry came under fire from 25 Battalion. One company went into position near the highway and the other was ordered to make an encircling movement across the scrub-covered ridges on the left flank of the New Zealand position. But after advancing some 300 yards the attack faded away. The infantry asked for the support of the heavy weapons; mortars and machine guns were hurried forward; and orders were prepared for a more formidable attack.
As seen by 25 Battalion, there had been a lull after the morning engagement with the tanks, though German aircraft had been harassing all areas and the artillery of both forces had been searching all possible assembly areas. Then at 2 p.m. there had been even heavier air attacks, after which tanks, lorried infantry and motorcyclists had been observed along the road to the west. They had been engaged by B and C Troops 6 Field Regiment and the heavy vehicles had been stopped, but the cyclists had raced forward until they came under fire from 14 Platoon C Company 25 Battalion on the extreme left flank. Nos. 15 and 13 Platoons, using small-arms and mortar fire, kept many of them pinned to the road and the nearby scrub, but others took to the ridges and began to climb upwards and forward until they overlooked the lines of C Company. Two sections of 14 Platoon were forced back but they were used
to fill the gap between C and A Companies. The front then remained stable, though dive-bombing and strafing increased and the steady encirclement of the left flank continued.
The next attack began about 6 p.m. with the Germans still underestimating the strength of the defence; in fact, the operation order stated that ‘a small enemy force is offering opposition to us.’7 But the approach of the tanks along the highway and the particularly effective fire from some machine-gunners who had been sent to support the encircling movement beneath the cliffs made the C Company lines quite untenable. About 4.30 p.m. Lieutenant-Colonel Wilder ordered the company to withdraw and Private Common,8 under very heavy fire, took the instructions forward to 13 and 15 Platoons. By then they had very little chance of escaping. Some sections were pinned down by the machine-gun fire from the upper slopes; some were cut off by the Germans now occupying the pits from which 14 Platoon had withdrawn; and others suffered when the New Zealand artillery shortened its range to deal with the approaching tanks. The result was that by nightfall only a few men had rejoined the battalion.
By this time A Company had been threatened with encirclement. One section of 9 Platoon had opened fire on the tanks with its anti-tank rifle but the return fire had been too punishing. Soon afterwards the New Zealand artillery had once again shortened its range; the whole platoon came under fire and was finally withdrawn to positions below Company Headquarters. At the same time the Germans on the left flank, still supported by machine-gun fire, had been steadily coming over the ridges once occupied by C Company. To counter this Bren-gunners from 7 Platoon were sent up the ridges and a section from 8 Platoon was moved to cover the left flank and rear of the company.
The situation continued to deteriorate, more German infantry pressing forward and the machine-gun fire increasing. At 6.30 p.m. it was decided that the front must be adjusted. The platoons of B Company (Captain Armstrong) were swung round very neatly to form a line facing west rather than north, with 10 Platoon near the road, 11 Platoon above it and 12 Platoon still farther south. The platoons of A Company, reorganised approximately along the spur from Headquarters A Company and also facing west, were in front of and out of touch with the left of B Company. To the rear was D Company, on the ridge above it the battalion Bren carriers and above them a group from A and C Companies collected by
Sergeant R. Brown.9 By then the light was fading and the enemy was about to complete his movement round the hillsides, but the battalion front had been adjusted to meet it.
The weight of the attack then fell upon A Company. Some sections were forced to withdraw and some Germans did get through to Company Headquarters, but they were dispersed by hand grenades and a short impromptu bayonet charge. Another group which had come in high up and behind A and B Companies approached the Bren-carrier group (Second-Lieutenant Sherlock10), but the forward section effectively checked that threat of encirclement. The front was then extended farther up the ridge but by then the attack had faded away. A and B Companies were still harassed by fire from mortars and tank cannon but the encircling infantry made no further approach. As the German report explained it, the defences had ‘strengthened surprisingly; the English defenders were excellently organised and camouflaged.’
The surprising feature – to the Germans – had been the complete failure of 1/31 Panzer Regiment to break through to Molos. The German commander, after losing one tank in the swampy country towards the coast, had recklessly decided that they should advance in single file along the roadway. Brought forward shortly after the second attack had commenced, the tanks had passed the infantry sheltering in the ditches beside the roadway and raced forward, turning their turrets to the right and shelling the forward companies of 25 Battalion. According to one German report:
19 tanks in file charged along the yellowish country road. ... Ahead of us the first shells burst on the road. White clouds of dust shot up, mixed with black powder smoke, and were carried away swiftly by the wind. We could not deploy. On our right the hills rose 800 metres, and on our left stretched the dreaded Thermopylae swamp. We had to push on, go on, do anything but stop. ... Then the dust rose right in front of the tracks ... suddenly we came under fire from 6 or 8 guns. Without halting we swung our turrets round to the right and answered the fire with great effect. ... We were still moving. We must get through. But at the next curve all hell broke loose. Shells burst on all sides, and several machine guns chattered. A few Tommies [the section of 9 Platoon 25 Battalion on the north side of the road] ran across the road and disappeared in the thick scrub. A heavy tank was hit direct ... in the middle of the road sat three other tanks, all on fire. ...11
Before long there was ‘not a single heavy tank, 37, 50 or 75 mm in going order; some had brewed up, others severe track or mechanical damage, only two able to shoot.’12 They were reinforced by two tanks with 75-millimetre guns and one was able to support
the company commander’s tank, but the other which advanced towards the New Zealand guns was destroyed by a direct hit. The 1/61 Anti-Aircraft Regiment which had advanced with the tanks could do little: one troop, two 88-millimetre guns, in the rear attempted to silence the New Zealand artillery ‘which could be seen by muzzle flashes’; the other moved with the tanks, but the smoke from those which were hit and the uncertainty of the whereabouts of the men clambering round the hillsides above 25 Battalion checked their supporting fire. A Stuka raid in the late afternoon seemed to quieten the New Zealand artillery and as the light faded the rest of I/31 Panzer Regiment moved forward from Lamia, but by then, as the risks were too great, their commander had decided to wait until daylight.
The Importance of the New Zealand Artillery
This dramatic check to the German advance was almost wholly the work of the artillery. Twenty-fifth Battalion had certainly covered the left flank and adjusted its front under fire, but the other battalions of 6 Brigade had heard much but seen little of the action. B Company 24 Battalion had occasionally seen tanks and lorried infantry but the battalion had not been seriously attacked. Its task when the Germans began to encircle the left flank was to bring A Company over from the coast to protect the area between it and 26 Battalion. That unit to the rear heard the action but was not involved until late afternoon, when its C Company was sent forward on the left flank to cover the long re-entrant into Molos. And the piatoons of 3 Machine Gun Company, one with each battalion, had not been seriously involved, though No. 1 Section on the left flank had been forced to withdraw when the left flank of 25 Battalion had crumbled.
Fifth Field Regiment, used in an anti-tank role, and the defensive fire of 4 and 6 Field Regiments and 2 Royal Horse Artillery had saved the day.
The guns of 5 Field Regiment had been on both sides of the road. To the north, C Troop was in the 24 Battalion area from the coast to Ay Trias and thence to the highway. In support, just short of a stream that crossed the front, was a troop of two-pounders from 102 Anti-Tank Regiment. South of the road was E Troop (5 Field Regiment) in the area of B Company 25 Battalion, and farther back along the road was F Troop in the D Company area. There concealed, they had waited for the German attack.
In the morning and early afternoon they had remained silent under their camouflage nets, leaving the strafing aircraft to harass the regiments about Molos. The only group to be noticed was C Troop,
which for almost four hours was dive-bombed and machine-gunned.
Then, when the Germans made their first approach, the fire of all guns, and particularly those of B and C Troops 6 Field Regiment, had forced the tanks and motor transport to halt before they reached the forward platoon of 25 Battalion. The tanks seemed to withdraw or, at least, to take cover; the infantry began their encircling movement below the cliffs and forced the withdrawal of C Company 25 Battalion.
Indirectly this meant trouble for the artillery. Its forward observation posts had to be vacated in a hurry to avoid encirclement. One was surrounded but Captain Levy13 and his assistant managed to escape; three men with the OP truck were captured. The telephone lines to the forward posts were cut but Lieutenant Cropper,14 hastening forward with signallers and wire, established another OP for the use of 6 Field Regiment.
The second attack developed about 6 p.m. with the tanks advancing in single file at intervals of about 50 yards. When they came forward the guns in the Molos area opened up and shells began to explode all along the road. ‘As the road twisted and turned about the foothills there were portions of the road that we could see and when the tanks reached one portion about 600 yards range’15 the forward troops of 5 Field Regiment opened fire. The tanks continued to rush forward, but when they were 300–400 yards away F Troop used armour-piercing shells and high-explosive shells with the caps left on. It was afterwards thought that the troop accounted for three tanks before the column disappeared into a hollow along the undulating road.
There it was ruthlessly dealt with by E Troop firing in enfilade at very short range from the south side of the road. With one gun was Bombardier Santi,16 ‘the perfect gun layer, a natural’,17 who remained cool and in spite of the fire from the tanks soon had eight mediums and one light tank disabled or on fire. Another gun of the troop claimed to have set one on fire and to have disabled another. Even so, the tanks still pressed forward, one getting through to within a few hundred yards of the bridge in the area of D Company 25 Battalion, where it was dealt with by B Troop of 31 Battery 7 Anti-Tank Regiment, the only New Zealand two-pounder to open fire in this action.
While this was taking place the units on the north side of the road were being rewarded for their hours of dive-bombing and machine-gunning, small-arms and mortar fire. One gun, that of Sergeant Ames,18 probably hit two tanks and may possibly have halted others; eventually it was hit by German fire, a solid shot hitting the recuperator and damaging the sights. The troop of two-pounders of 102 Anti-Tank Regiment came into action soon afterwards and secured hits on five tanks.
In all some twenty tanks were claimed to have been hit. The artillery report states that the column was brought to a halt with the loss of fifteen tanks, most of them in flames: the brigade reported that the artillery had accounted for thirteen tanks and suggested that there could be ‘no question that any enemy movement along the road must have been seriously discouraged by the prospect of these gutted tanks and the dead bodies of their crews.’19 The Germans admit that all the tanks in the action – 18 or 19 – were damaged, 12 of them being total losses.
In addition, the other artillery regiments, 4 and 6 New Zealand and 2 Royal Horse Artillery, had been firing a special anti-tank defence task on the road about Thermopylae. This concentration halted the supporting tanks and infantry so effectively that one German afterwards wrote of the shell and anti-tank fire performing a ‘danse macabre’.20 In the cruder language of the New Zealand Division the artillery had fired its first ‘stonk’: the terrifying concentration of the fire of all the divisional artillery upon a single crucial point. Later on in the desert when the system of mobile columns and brigade groups had been dropped and the Division was operating as a complete formation, there were many variations of this device, all based on the groundwork prepared by Brigadier Miles.21
To be so successful the artillerymen had overcome several difficulties. In the morning, when it was expected that heavy fire would be needed to cover the withdrawal, the policy had been to conserve fire, but after midday the supplies of ammunition had been increased. The dump and the four-mile stretch of road between it and the guns were often attacked from the air, but supplies had been hastened forward and gun numbers had assisted in carrying supplies from lorries to the guns.
Later in the day, when it was evident that no attack was to be expected across the low-lying country between the road and the coast, there were some slight changes in position. B Troop 5 Field
Regiment was shifted to cover the roads and tracks leading into Molos from the west and south. C Battery 102 Anti-Tank Regiment was ordered forward from reserve to an area between Molos and Ay Trias, but because of the difficulty of moving along the exposed highway it remained some three miles east of Molos. The artillery fire from the Germans had not been heavy. B Troop 5 Field Regiment and F Troop 6 Field Regiment had both searched for enemy guns across the bay, but the range in both cases was extreme and the counter-battery fire was left to 64 Medium Regiment, Royal Artillery, whose work was excellent.
The Australian Withdrawal
In the Australian sector the right flank was not threatened and 2/1 Battalion had, by the late afternoon, been withdrawn to the main highway. West of Brallos Pass, however, there were three attempts by the Germans to turn the left flank. In the 2/11 Battalion area 55 Motor Cycle Battalion had been held up in the gorge west of Kalivia by artillery and machine-gun fire. But II/141 Mountain Regiment had completed a left hook across the rough country west and south of the defences about Skamnos. Fifty-fifth Motor Cycle Battalion renewed its advance and with mortar fire and subsequent attack forced the withdrawal southwards of the forward companies to another line at which there was the reserve company, and from which the machine-gunners could cover the vacated territory. A second and wider move to the west by two companies of II/141 Mountain Regiment was apparent about 6 p.m. and until dusk the company from 2/1 Battalion about Gravia was under fire.
With these threats of encirclement and the possibility of 2/11 Battalion being in serious difficulty, Brigadier Vasey decided about 6 p.m. that the withdrawal of 19 Brigade must be advanced by half an hour: 2/1 and 2/4 Battalions and attached troops to 8 p.m. and 2/11 Battalion to 8.30 p.m.
Meanwhile the Germans were struggling to cut off the withdrawal of 2/11 Battalion. Nos. 6 and 7 Companies from 141 Mountain Regiment appeared to the south-west of Skamnos but they were soon held up by ‘heavy shellfire’. No. 7 Company and 1 Company, which had been following it, were then ordered to cut the main road by moving through the scrub and over the ridges to Paliokhori, but by the time they reached it the Australians had withdrawn. And away to the south 8 and 9 Companies approached Gravia but had to halt just short of Evangelistria.
At 9 p.m. 2/11 Battalion and the company from 2/1 Battalion had moved back to the embussing area near Brallos, from which by 10.15 p.m., when the last trucks were moving off, the German
flares could be seen rising away to the south-west. Later in the night the 2/5 Battalion group which had been covering the road from Delphi withdrew and moved south through Thebes.
The German attempt to turn the left flank of W Force had failed. The country had been too rough, food had been short and the supporting artillery could not be brought within range. The Australian defensive fire, particularly that of 2/2 Field Regiment, had been most effective.22 And now on the morning of 25 April 19 Brigade was through the New Zealand rearguard south of Thebes and moving back to the olive groves at Megara and the beaches from which it was to embark that night, 25–26 April.
The New Zealand Withdrawal
From the Thermopylae area there had been an equally successful withdrawal. Undisturbed by the enemy the units had withdrawn, embussed and driven south, reaching the main highway north of Levadhia and moving through the 4 Brigade rearguard at Kriekouki.
The plan of withdrawal was for the main body to leave the lines at 9 p.m. and march to the embussing area, a field east of Molos. From there the units would move south in either Army Service Corps lorries or their own first-line transport. One company from each of 24 and 25 Battalions, with one field regiment, would remain in position until the rest of the brigade had gone and would then be picked up in the forward area by unit transport. A brigade rearguard23 would be formed under Lieutenant-Colonel Page. In the original plan the artillery had been instructed to destroy its guns in the gunpits, but about midday General Freyberg had suggested ‘attempting to get some guns away.’ Each battery had been instructed to take out half its guns, but during the afternoon there had been some doubts about the availability of the lorries of the Ammunition Company for troop carrying. Orders had therefore been issued saying that no artillery transport was to be destroyed, no guns were to be towed away, but all efforts were to be concentrated on the evacuation of the infantry.
This doubt about the movements of the Ammunition Company had been due to a misunderstanding. The Brigade Major and the company commander, Major W. A. T. McGuire, had inspected the collecting point east of Molos, but the latter had left thinking that he had to bring up his vehicles that evening from the company area near Longos, thus escaping the bombing but still arriving to fit in with the withdrawal timetable. The brigade commander,
however, expected the vehicles to arrive during the afternoon. So with the Germans attacking and no transport appearing, the situation became somewhat disturbing, and about mid-afternoon Divisional Headquarters was asked to locate the company. Captain Fairbrother24 was sent to find it but his vehicle was shot up along the highway and no information could be obtained until the Luftwaffe vacated the skies at last light, when Lieutenant-Colonel Gentry successfully moved down the road and found McGuire. By then Barrowclough and Miles had decided that as many infantry as possible must be taken back on the artillery vehicles; the rest would have to march. At 9.15 p.m., however, just when they were on their way to the control point to issue these orders, they received a message from Gentry saying that the vehicles were arriving and that the withdrawal could take place as arranged. Apparently they had been held up by the craters on the road and by the stream of first-line transport withdrawing with the artillery regiments.
About 9.30 p.m. the majority of 24 Battalion embussed in the Army Service Corps vehicles; the rest, including part of A Company and all of C Company, remained until the other companies were away and then left on battalion vehicles which had been brought forward to the road fork behind Ay Trias.
South of the road it was more difficult to get clear. There was still machine-gun fire from the Germans high up on the left flank and A Company 25 Battalion had several wounded to bring out. However, with B Company and the remnants of C Company, it moved back through D Company, the covering company, reached the highway and set off down the road to Molos, some in unit vehicles and others on foot.
At this stage two unfortunate mistakes were made. Some drivers of C Company, in spite of warnings, carried on up the road beyond the bridge with the intention of shortening the march for the weary infantry. But they went forward into the lines of I/31 Panzer Regiment, whose diarist reported that ‘suddenly 4 English lorries, completely ignorant of the situation, came round the bend. At the sight of our tanks they jammed on their brakes and stopped a few yards away. Our machine guns shattered their windscreens. Some of their occupants fled into the darkness, falling over themselves in their haste. What did our men care that the Tommies were still all around? By the greatest of good luck they found in the lorries canned fruit, beautiful juicy pears.’25
The carrier platoon was even more unfortunate. The orders had been to return in two carriers and the platoon truck; all other transport was to be destroyed. The three vehicles had been taken down the ridge to the highway beyond that German tank which had penetrated most deeply into the battalion lines. To reach the bridge the little group had to rush past the still blazing tank and in doing so were naturally enough mistaken for a German force. The anti-tank gunners and machine-gunners opened up so the carrier crews, thinking that the Germans held the bridge, returned the fire. All the vehicles were hit by two-pounder shells and the casualties were three killed, seven wounded – all eventually being taken prisoner of war – and one missing.
From then on there was no further trouble for 25 Battalion, and D Company, the rearguard, moved back about 10.30 p.m.
Twenty-sixth Battalion, less B Company, which had been detailed as part of the brigade rearguard, embussed in the Molos area and was clear by midnight.
The anti-tank gunners in the forward area had wrecked their guns and moved back in their own vehicles; only the guns of 33 Battery and possibly some of 31 and 32 Batteries were taken back.
The regiments of artillery had also been withdrawing. Fourth Field Regiment was to have moved out about 7.30 p.m., but because there were both ammunition and targets Lieutenant-Colonel Parkinson had kept his guns firing until about 9.30 p.m. The crews had then emptied recuperators, removed breech blocks and hastened to their trucks, which were now in the stream of traffic moving south. About 9.15 p.m. 5 Field Regiment had wrecked its guns, the men then marching back to the vehicles and all being clear by 10.30 p.m. C Troop (Captain Snadden26) was to have been part of the brigade rearguard, but so much time was lost attempting to bring the trucks forward against the outgoing traffic that the guns had to be left and the men taken south. Sixth Field Regiment, having destroyed all its guns except one, had moved back about 9 p.m. The remaining gun had been retained in an anti-tank role, but when an enemy battery on Euboea opened fire the crew had been ordered to follow up the main convoy.
The brigade rearguard waited until 12.15 a.m., 25 April, and then, still undisturbed, hurried after the battalions.
Some eight miles east of Molos at Cape Knimis the divisional rearguard, Clifton Force,27 was waiting to cover the withdrawal. In the early part of the day it had been shot up by the Luftwaffe and Major Jenkins,28 OC 34 Anti-Tank Battery, had been mortally
wounded, but once the light faded the attacks stopped and the next worry for the troops was the late withdrawal of 6 Brigade. Once it did appear, every vehicle on the road was moving south, with Clifton urging each group to use its lights and see that no time was wasted.
To add to the excitement, about 11 p.m. a small boat was seen approaching the cape but there was no threat of a German landing. The new arrivals were a Greek and a member of 21 Battalion, who was hastily sent south in one of the passing trucks. After midnight the intervals between the convoys increased; Brigadier Barrowclough came through, and about an hour later Lieutenant-Colonel Page with his rearguard.
The engineers then began their work, Clifton Force moving back from demolition to demolition, collecting the two troops from the Divisional Cavalry Regiment at the junction of the road from Brallos Pass and at dawn reaching Levadhia. After the Australian engineers had demolished a bridge on the Delphi road, the rearguards moved south to Thebes, where there was a covering force from elements of 1 Armoured Brigade. Here Clifton Force was instructed to follow 6 Brigade through the Kriekouki Pass and the lines of 4 Brigade.
Almost all W Force was now south of 4 Brigade at Kriekouki. Units from 1 Armoured Brigade were still about Thebes and a small group was covering the northern flank at Khalkis: C Company 1 Rangers, A Squadron Divisional Cavalry and N Troop 34 Anti-Tank Battery. The New Zealand units had attempted to move back from the Cape Knimis area during daylight but had been forced off the road by the Luftwaffe. Suffering casualties and losing vehicles, they had not reached Khalkis until late that night.
The German Occupation of Molos
At that time – about midnight 24–25 April – the Germans at Thermopylae had been preparing yet another attack. The forward company of tanks had been roughly handled but the rest of I/31 Panzer Regiment had been rushed forward to relieve it. The commander, who had received no other orders, was not eager to risk the dangers of a night attack but Baacke, the infantry captain, was still aggressive. He sent his companies forward and they reported that Molos was clear of British troops. The tanks soon advanced but there was no immediate rush in pursuit of 6 Brigade; the German plans at this stage did not go beyond the capture of Molos and the movement forward of the main body from Lamia.
When the campaign was over the German commanders began a paper war in which infantry and armour competed for the battle honours. Baacke, the infantry captain, was awarded the Knight’s
Cross to the Iron Cross; his divisional commander grudgingly admitted that the tanks had ‘arrived just at the right time to exert a favourable influence on the advance guard’s attack.’29 The commander of 5 Panzer Regiment declared that I/31 Panzer Regiment had broken through ‘the foremost enemy gun positions and fought the second line of guns to a standstill so that the enemy lost many killed, wounded and PW and fled from the position after nightfall. Not until nightfall when the fighting was over, did the advance guard of the mountain division (cyclists) appear and clear Molos.’30 The heated argument even reached the level of Army Headquarters. More important to 6 New Zealand Brigade and the supporting artillery was the fact that they had been able to make a smooth withdrawal and that ‘out of 18 tanks in the action 12 were total losses, and ... out of 70 men (all ranks) 7 were killed and 22 wounded.’31 The 1/61 Anti-Aircraft Regiment and 704 Heavy Infantry Gun Company had between them four killed and seven wounded. Baacke Group had lost 15 killed and 48 wounded, mainly from shellfire.