Chapter 19: The Corinth Canal
Preparations for Defence
TO defend the Corinth Canal area, and more particularly the bridge, a miscellaneous collection of units had been assembled, haphazardly and with no unity of command. In the earlier stages of the campaign eight 3·7-inch anti-aircraft guns, eight 3-inch and sixteen Bofors guns had moved into position. Some of the last named were in the immediate vicinity of the canal; others were to the south along the road to Argos. On 23 April, when it was feared that the enemy advancing from Ioannina would reach the Gulf of Corinth, the Greeks had sent a small force to Navpaktos and their Reserve Officers Battalion to Patrai. Having similar worries, General Wilson had sent 4 Hussars to protect the south bank of the canal and patrol the nearby shores of the gulf. With only twelve tanks, six carriers and one armoured car, the regiment, most of whose personnel were now riflemen, was responsible for a front of 70 miles. Consequently only four tanks were in the immediate vicinity of Corinth.
That night, at the request of Brigadier Steel (CRE Anzac Corps), 6 Field Company which had been working with the Australians about Thebes was sent to the coast some three miles east of Megara and from there had to maintain the highway to and across the canal bridge. As explained to Captain Kelsall by Brigadier Puttick, ‘it was his route out ... it was badly straffed by dive bombers, and blocked ... by refugees, carts and donkeys going to the Peloponnese.’ Kelsall had to maintain the highway, prepare the bridge for demolition, repair it if it was bombed and, if that was not possible, to see that 4 Brigade could cross by a pontoon bridge. So next morning, 24 April, No. 2 Section (Lieutenant Wheeler1) was sent to prepare the bridge for demolition. The girders were strapped with gun-cotton and extra explosives placed under the abutments; TNT or gelignite was placed in the centre and wired to safety fuses at the south end. ‘It was the first bridge of that type
which we had seen so we made certain of the job, having plenty of explosive. The general plan was to blow it so that it would drop and block the Canal.’2
The same day, as a result of the absence of air cover, a revised embarkation programme3 was drawn up at Headquarters W Force. Less use would be made of the beaches in Attica and more use of destroyers and the southern port of Kalamata. As the retention of the canal and the defence of the Peloponnese were then vitally important, Headquarters W Force sent Colonels J. S. Blunt and C. D. Quilliam to study the situation. They reported that Patrai was ‘normal and quiet’ but that the Greek commanders at both Corinth and Tripolis, though friendly, wanted authority from
Athens for any future action. Brigadier Lee was appointed area commander of the Peloponnese with definite instructions to be prepared for landings on the airfields, and Isthmus Force was formed to defend the canal area.
The Brigadier hastened to the canal area. That night (24–25 April) when Allen Group was crossing the bridge he asked the Australians for a battalion ‘to help guard the area against possible attack by German armour from the north or against paratroops.’4 Three companies and two platoons from 2/6 Battalion were then detached, one being placed on the north side of the bridge, another with the two platoons going to the airfields near Argos and the third to the Corinth area to join 4 Hussars.
On the same night Major Rattray had brought up to Brigadier Puttick from Headquarters W Force, now in Athens, the instructions about Isthmus Force. It would consist of a company of infantry, 6 Field Company already in the area, one section of 122 Light Anti-Aircraft Battery and one troop of 7 Armoured Division Field Squadron, Royal Engineers.5 If 4 Brigade, as was then planned, was evacuated from Megara on the night of 26–27 April, the force would blow both the road and the bridge and then hasten to embark from Navplion. Should the Navy fail to appear the brigade would withdraw across the canal, the force then coming under the command of Brigadier Puttick.
At 4 a.m. on 25 April Major R. K. Gordon was ordered to take B Company 19 Battalion to the canal area. There he would command Isthmus Force, carrying out the orders from W Force and an instruction from Brigadier Puttick that the road from the north-west through Loutraki must be held in strength. Leaving Lieutenant Heiford6 to take the company to a defensive position north of that village, Gordon went ahead to the canal area, where he expected to meet representatives from the other units of Isthmus Force. Apparently their orders did not arrive until the afternoon for no one appeared at the meeting place. However, the anti-aircraft guns were in position; the engineers were completing their work about the bridge; and, to his surprise, Gordon found the company of Australian infantry on the north side of the canal in defence of the bridge and under the command of Colonel E. G. G. Lillingston of 4 Hussars.
In his instructions Gordon had not been told about this defence system being arranged by Lee Force, nor had Lee Force any
information about the New Zealand company. It was therefore doubtful who was to be in command of the canal area; Gordon had his orders but Lillingston was the senior officer. To clear up the confusion Gordon visited Headquarters Lee Force at Argos, but he got no satisfaction and decided not to hand over his force until ordered to do so by Headquarters W Force. Much time was wasted discussing who would give the orders for 4 Hussars to withdraw and it was evening before Gordon, still without definite instructions, was back across the canal checking the position of his company at Loutraki.
The platoons were on high ground about three miles north of the village and Gordon was satisfied with their positions until he was on his way back to establish headquarters near the canal. The country on either side of it was so suitable for parachute landings that he returned to his company and, in spite of the late hour, transferred two platoons to an area some 700–800 yards north of the canal.
That night, 25–26 April, several other units entered the canal area. The Australian company which had been detached to join 4 Hussars had finally been ordered by General Freyberg to clear a detour through the bomb-damaged streets of Corinth. That task complete, it had been sent to defend the ridge overlooking the road to the south of the canal.
Sixth Field Company, whose bivouac area east of Megara had become untenable because of strafing, moved across the canal to an area about two miles south of Corinth. Major Rudd, who had been acting CRE, rejoined Headquarters, which was in an olive grove with No. 1 Section (Lieutenant J. O. Wells); farther along the road was No. 3 Section (Lieutenant St. G. W. Chapman).
Finally, about 2.30 a.m. on 26 April, C Squadron New Zealand Divisional Cavalry Regiment (Major Harford7) came through from the Mazi area with the carrier platoons of 22 and 28 (Maori) Battalions. The journey had been delayed by petrol shortages and engine trouble and the 22 Battalion carriers, by missing the turn-off, had gone south of Corinth and out of the area in which the paratroops were soon to land. The cavalrymen and the Maoris, however, had halted in the olive groves on the terraces between Corinth and the canal bridge. Once it was daylight Harford proposed to carry out the orders given to him at Divisional Headquarters at Mazi: to report to the ‘OC Isthmus Force’ and, on the withdrawal of 4 Brigade across the canal, to move his detachment westwards to Patrai and then southwards to Kalamata.
The Germans Attack from the Air
Now, on 24 April Marshal List had decided that the narrowness of the front and the state of the roads made it necessary for General Stumme (XXXX Corps) to control the advance, with XVIII Corps under command. He had to break through to Athens and establish a bridgehead over the Corinth Canal.
To accomplish the latter objective it was decided to use the parachute troops which had originally been assembled to take the island of Lemnos.8 No battle report describing the capture of the canal area has been discovered but the plan had been prepared shortly after the breakthrough at Rupel Pass. Reinforced, Parachute Regiment 2 (Colonel Sturm), using five groups of Ju52s and 2000–2500 troops, was to land and block the escape of British troops to either Crete or Egypt; gliders were to be used to land troops close to the bridge to prevent its being destroyed; and the units already concentrated about Larisa were to attack on the morning of 26 April.
The Luftwaffe had hitherto been content to bomb Argos and Corinth and strafe the highway between them, but about seven o’clock that morning the canal area was heavily and systematically dive-bombed and machine-gunned. The anti-aircraft gunners were magnificent, but before long many of them were wounded and all their guns wrecked. Then about 7.25 a.m. the Ju52s came over, flying low in groups of three to drop the many-coloured parachutes supporting the troopers and their supplies. At the same time gliders crash-landed near the bridge, the men from one near its south end rushing on to clear the demolitions. They were cutting the fuses when the charges exploded, killing them all and so wrecking the bridge that it dropped neatly into the canal.
The reason for the explosion is still a mystery. Sapper Eastgate9 at the north end and Sapper Mumford10 on the open south bank, picketting the approaches to the bridge, had been surrounded and were unable to do anything. There was no anti-aircraft fire by that time and there was no artillery in the area, so it is hardly likely that a charge was hit by shell splinters.
But there are other possibilities. Two British officers – Lieutenant J. T. Tyson, Royal Engineers, who had assisted the New Zealand engineers to prepare the charges, and Captain J. P. Phillips of the Devonshire Regiment – had spent the night south of the bridge,
and when the Germans landed Tyson had suggested attempting to light the fuse. But it was ‘not more than fifteen feet from the plane which had landed.’11 They had therefore crawled to a shelter bank from which Phillips had fired at the charges strapped to the bridge. After his second shot the explosion12 occurred. They then slipped away to the south-east, joining men from the anti-aircraft batteries and eventually crossing the hills to the Navplion embarkation area.
Such an explosion was possible, for early in the campaign curious engineers had placed some TNT in a bank and found that it could be exploded by rifle fire. But several who worked on the bridge think that the only explosive strapped in packets on the outside of the girders was wet gun-cotton, which could not be exploded by rifle fire.13 Others, however, state that there was some TNT on the deck of the bridge which could have been hit by rifle bullets. There is also a report that two sappers from 6 New Zealand Field Company south of the bridge made a dash and lit the fuse. ‘Just short of the bridge one of the boys fell. The other made the bridge ... he seemed to fall but the next moment I saw he was coming back. He looked to have cleared the bridge when it seemed to heave. ...’14
The Germans, however, make no reference to any spectacular rush to light the fuse; in fact one account states that British resistance had ‘decreased almost to the vanishing point’, and another that a war correspondent was actually standing on the bridge ‘making a film for the weekly newsreel.’ Moreover, their signals sent back during the action give three different explanations for the explosion. The first, which was despatched at 9.45 a.m., stated that the bridge was blown; others stated that it was blown by a remotely controlled or delayed charge; and finally at 11.20 a.m. Colonel Meister signalled, ‘Bridge over canal not blown but destroyed by shellfire.’
Those who had been ordered to capture the bridge intact were very disappointed and exceedingly curious, and after the fighting was over any captured officer who might have some information was carefully cross-examined. Lieutenant Heiford was even asked if there had been a line from the bridge to his position over four miles away. The opinion of senior German officers after the war was that, ‘The bridge itself was blown up, not however by blasting by the British according to plan but by a mere accident. The parachute officer commissioned to remove the explosive charges
had piled up the already complete explosive charges owing to a misunderstanding. Coming from a long distance a chance hit of this pile effected the detonation and thus the collapse of the bridge.’15
The two platoons of B Company 19 Battalion in the shelter of the olive groves had not apparently been observed by the enemy, for Gordon had time to organise an attack in support of the Australians. But the small force was soon driven to ground and facing counter-attacks on both flanks. The bridge had been demolished by that time so Gordon decided that the platoons, already short of ammunition, must attempt to join 4 Brigade at Megara.16 Leaving the wounded with Second-Lieutenant Ferguson,17 who was himself a casualty, Gordon withdrew but before long both he and Second-Lieutenant Budd18 had been wounded. Warrant Officer Jones19 then took command of the remnants, who got clear of the canal area and then attempted in small parties to find 4 Brigade. Some actually reached20 Megara and from there joined 4 Brigade at Porto Rafti; the majority were captured; others, assisted by the Greeks, eventually reached Egypt.
The third platoon from B Company in the Loutraki area had seen the paratroopers come down but was too far away to take any part in the action. After midday Greeks warned Lieutenant Heiford that the enemy was in the village and at dusk the platoon hastened to the coast, capturing on the way a drunken paratroop officer who was using a captured motor-cycle. But by the time they had found two rowing boats it was too late to cross the Gulf of Corinth. They waited, hoping to get the use of a motor boat, but next day an English-speaking Greek appeared with the Greek police to say that the cave was surrounded by Germans. As there was no chance of escape the whole platoon had to surrender.
Units on the south bank had more chances to escape. The Australian company was outside the area in which the paratroops landed, but ‘before long paratroops supported by machine-gun fire were advancing towards its position.’21 The commander thereupon decided to move back towards Argos. On the way south the Australians were given transport by the companies of 26 Battalion which had been sent north to block the southward advance of the
enemy. Remaining in touch with 6 Brigade, the company eventually embarked with it from Monemvasia.
Headquarters 4 Hussars was a total loss but by midnight the three squadrons (with patrols from GHQ Liaison Regiment under command) had withdrawn to Patrai. As a German landing was imminent, they moved south that afternoon towards Tripolis and Kalamata.
The advance parties from 4 Brigade were less fortunate. The brigade intelligence officer got away with two men, met A Company 26 Battalion and reported to Divisional Headquarters,22 but the supply officer with four men was afterwards reported ‘so far missing.’
Sixth Field Company (less the section at the bridge and the two sub-sections on the Athens road) in its more sheltered area had escaped the early strafing but its position was soon desperate. Major Rudd, who went forward towards the bridge, met survivors of No. 2 Section and with them withdrew towards Argos. Meanwhile Kelsall had organised the rest of the company and put up a stout defence, the Germans afterwards recording ‘heavy casualties’ in the area. But outnumbered, short of weapons and harassed by mortar fire, the company withdrew that afternoon in small groups. Lieutenant Chapman23 and his section got clear. Lieutenant Wells and his group, after going through the outskirts of Corinth and reaching the south road, were taken by a Greek to an air-raid shelter where they planned to stay until nightfall. But a Greek officer appeared with some paratroopers and the party was captured and taken to the prisoner-of-war cage at the cemetery.
Kelsall and some fifteen other ranks crawled through the low vines, came unexpectedly upon a farmhouse occupied by Germans and then scattered. Kelsall and another sapper escaped, joined two Australians and two English soldiers from the anti-aircraft batteries and with them went over the hills hoping to reach Navplion. Informed by Greeks that embarkation from that port had ceased, they turned south-east through wild, romantic country and eventually reached the coast, from which on 29 April they were ferried across the bay to Spetsai Island. Here two officers and 40 other ranks of 4 Hussars appeared with some Australians. The combined parties hired a caique and sailed to Velopoula, where they picked up a sub-lieutenant from Piræus, whose boat had been shot up off the island. That night, 1–2 May, the party weathered a severe storm and reached Milos with a disabled ship. While they were attempting to obtain another more escapees arrived and other ships24 called on their way to Crete. Finally on 8 May, after a Cretan colonel had
forced the Greeks to produce a ship, the party prepared to sail – in all 320, including 180 Cretans from the Albanian front. But next evening as the ship was about to leave Milos, three German motor boats appeared and the odyssey came to an end.25
Other men of 6 Field Company were more fortunate. Sapper Carson,26 after being wounded and cared for in hospitals at Corinth and Piræus, escaped with Lance-Bombardier Marshall27 of 7 Anti-Tank Regiment and reached Euboea. From there they sailed to Skiros and were taken by Greek fishermen to Turkey, reaching Egypt in September 1941. Sapper Stuart28 escaped into the hills to join two other sappers and two Australians. The peasants were hospitable – ‘we were kissed, wept over, given bread, cheese and wine and provided with a guide in the space of half-an-hour.’ They eventually reached an island and became members of a party of sixty-four New Zealanders, Englishmen and Australians who were eventually taken by Greeks to Turkey.
The only other New Zealand units in the Corinth area were C Squadron Divisional Cavalry Regiment and the carrier platoon from 28 (Maori) Battalion. The landing began while the men were still digging in and before Major Harford could find the ‘OC Isthmus Force’, but the units put up a solid resistance, WO II Seccombe29 being very effective with his Vickers. But it was soon obvious that the group would be overwhelmed, so with the intention of withdrawing and then reorganising, orders were given by wireless and by runner for the units to withdraw along a track which seemed, according to the map, to rejoin the main road south of Corinth. The crews from three or four Divisional Cavalry and four or five Maori carriers did not get clear by this route; some were casualties, some prisoners, and others the fortunate crews of carriers which reached the highway. The main party – two armoured cars and five carriers of C Squadron (about thirty men) and two carriers from 28 (Maori) Battalion (about ten men) – got clear, but the track petered out and the carriers were eventually run into a deep gully. The crews, guided by Greeks and very exhausted, then hurried over the hills towards Navplion, hoping that they would be in time for the embarkation30 which was to take place that night.
The Germans were not able to interfere with this operation nor had they captured the bridge intact, but they had split the British
forces in Greece. South of the canal were the units to be evacuated from Navplion, Monemvasia and Kalamata. To the north artillery regiments were already assembling to embark from the Marathon beaches, but the rearguard – 4 Brigade and units from 1 Armoured Brigade – was still in position south of Thebes. Their successful evacuation now depended upon the receipt of wireless messages31 from General Freyberg, upon the flexibility of the overall plan, and upon the efficiency of the Navy.
Thus it was natural that in all German reports the action was described as yet another triumph. At the cost of only one or two aircraft, 63 killed, 158 wounded and 16 missing, they had captured the canal area; the Allied casualties were not stated but the Germans claimed to have 921 British and 1450 Greek prisoners of war. Later they argued that the attack had been excellent training for the airborne troops who were soon to make the landing on Crete.
More important, however, was the Germans’ failure to appreciate the strength of the force now isolated on the ridges south of Thebes. Had they realised that it was 4 Brigade Group and not just a small rearguard they would undoubtedly have made greater efforts to prevent its eventual evacuation.32
Action is taken to prevent the Parachute Troops moving South
The security of 4 Brigade and the successful embarkation that night of the units assembled about Navplion were the major problems for General Freyberg, who was now at Miloi, a fishing port and the headquarters of both W Force and New Zealand Division. The first warnings which were received about 9 a.m. suggested that only a hundred paratroopers had landed. But when Lieutenant-Colonel Lillingston of 4 Hussars, who was also present, stated that he had only thirty men in the area, Freyberg gave verbal orders to Brigadier Barrowclough for 6 Brigade to give some support. Lieutenant-Colonel Page of 26 Battalion was thereupon instructed to prevent the parachute force blocking the withdrawal that night of 4 Brigade across the canal. Two rifle companies and the carrier platoon would assist troops in the area; the rest of the battalion would remain in reserve some three or four miles north of Argos. The move was urgent and ‘relatively high density’ on the highway had to be risked; ‘the utmost speed was essential.’33
Soon afterwards the first stragglers came through from Corinth with exaggerated accounts of the attack and the suggestion that the Germans were already striking south towards Argos and Navplion.
Later there was a telephone message from a detachment of 4 Hussars west of Corinth stating that the Germans were crossing in small boats in the vicinity of Patrai. The General consequently made every effort to cover the embarkation which was to take place that night from Navplion. In the Argos area Brigadier Lee was put in charge of one and a half companies of 2/6 Australian Battalion, the troops from 2 Heavy Anti-Aircraft Battery, remnants of 3 Royal Tank Regiment who had been Force Headquarters guard, two ‘Bofors A Tk guns’ and about two platoons of stragglers. There they would remain until nightfall, when they would move south to prepare a defensive position outside Monemvasia. In the Miloi area 25 Battalion remained in reserve. The original task for 6 Brigade, the holding of the road junction at Tripolis, was therefore delegated to 24 Battalion, which moved south soon after midday.
A and D Companies 26 Battalion had already moved off to assist the troops in the canal area ‘to retain possession of the bridge’.34 The sky was clear and enemy aircraft were about, but the orders were to push forward, stopping only if there were direct attacks. D Company was halted by punctures and minor damage due to machine-gunning but A Company (Captain Milliken35) carried on, one lorry eventually being hit before the troops could take cover. The majority of those on board were wounded and the vehicle was soon blazing fiercely, but in spite of more machine-gunning at least twelve men were saved by Privates Struthers,36 Morrison37 and Delaney,38 who dragged them into a nearby culvert.
The troops were eventually forced by enemy aircraft to take cover just north of Golomos, a village five miles south of Corinth. Shortly afterwards in the narrow gorge ahead of them they saw the helmets of a German advance party. The enemy were neatly rounded up and ten Allied soldiers set free. Lieutenant-Colonel Page arrived shortly afterwards, D Company followed and the two companies deployed along the ridge on either side of the gorge. As they were doing so a lorry with 28 (Maori) Battalion markings appeared. The German driver was killed and the German recognition flag confiscated. The companies then completed their move to the crest of the ridge, from which they engaged the approaching paratroopers. Shortly afterwards the air attacks were renewed, it was difficult to move forward, and there seemed little chance of the companies ever reaching Corinth.
The problem was solved for them by the appearance of Lieutenant Beale,39 Intelligence Officer 4 Brigade, from the direction of Corinth. As he reported that the bridge had been blown that morning, there was no need for the companies to remain in their isolated position. Orders had therefore been issued for the move back to the vehicles, but Major J. I. Brooke, from Headquarters 6 Brigade, appeared with fresh instructions: General Freyberg, now that more information had been received, did not think that the two companies were strong enough for the task assigned to them so they were to withdraw and cover the approach to Navplion from the high ground north of Argos.
After further delays due to air attacks and damaged transport the companies moved south, assisting wherever possible the British and Australian stragglers40 – some one to two hundred – who were trudging back on foot. When in position astride the road near the village of Nemea, they remained until midnight. In all there had been twenty-one casualties, including four killed and two who later died of wounds.
The rest of the battalion had moved forward during the afternoon to Ano Fikhtia, a village about 20 miles north of Miloi, where they had settled in with orders to remain until midnight covering the approaches to Navplion; after that they would withdraw, even if the forward companies had not yet come through.
New Plans and Further Withdrawals, 26 April
The day had also been very tense and exciting for the Divisional Headquarters staff at Miloi. Once the news had been received of the probable capture of the canal area fresh plans had been hastily prepared, particularly for the 4 Brigade Group in the Kriekouki area whose position was even more perilous than that of 6 Brigade in the Peloponnese. Using the Middle East and naval wireless links, General Freyberg had attempted to warn Brigadier Puttick but for several hours there was no response to any signals. Efforts were therefore made to get in touch with Brigadier Charrington of 1 Armoured Brigade, who was known to have a No. 9 wireless set at his headquarters north of Rafina. As all codes had been destroyed the message was sent in clear:
Operation Priority. Send LO and tell Puttick that Corinth Canal has been captured by German parachute troops. Instead of withdrawing as ordered he is to move and withdraw from the beaches Hargest used. From N.Z. Division.
To the intense relief of General Freyberg a message came back from 1 Armoured Brigade asking for the date of evacuation. This was, as yet, undecided but the reply was that shipping would probably be available that night or the next.
Wilson and Freyberg had also arranged for the evacuations south of the canal. From Monemvasia the Navy would take off 6 New Zealand Brigade and all troops not directed to Kalamata. At the same time it was decided that Wilson and W Force Headquarters should be responsible for the evacuation of non-fighting troops.41 This left Freyberg responsible for Lee Force in the Argos area, for 4 Hussars now hastening south from Patrai and for 6 Brigade assembling about Tripolis. No reference was made to the troops assembling still farther south at Kalamata; in fact the only reference to them by General Freyberg is his statement that he had not been informed of the large group to be evacuated from that port.
The withdrawal of 4 Hussars was the most difficult to direct. In the morning when news was received of the parachute landings, Colonel Lillingston at Divisional Headquarters had asked Freyberg to extricate his three squadrons from the Patrai area. One of their officers was immediately sent to get in touch with them and towards evening two others, with petrol and Greek money, were sent with orders for the squadron to withdraw through Tripolis. To prevent any diversion Greek guides had been stationed along the route to direct the approaching columns. The advanced guard joined 6 Brigade at Tripolis, linked up with the survivors from the Corinth area and with them was evacuated with 6 Brigade from Monemvasia. But the main body – some 300 strong – seems to have mistrusted the Greeks for it continued south to become involved in the disaster at Kalamata.
Other units were more fortunate. After suffering some casualties from air attacks 24 Battalion had moved south that afternoon, 26 April, to the Tripolis area. Beyond Miloi there was the endless series of hairpin bends to the crest of the Ktenas Range, a wild and rugged country looking more charming than it really is because of its softness of tone and harmony of colours. Thence the road swung down to Tripolis at the crossroads of the Peloponnese. To the west dark hills overlooked the town, but elsewhere there were fertile fields of corn, grapes and tobacco, groves of oak trees and avenues of cypress trees.
There had been more strafing en route but the widely dispersed trucks and efficient lookouts had prevented any serious damage. The only mishap was the loss of one and a half platoons from
A Company and one platoon and a small group from B Company. The military police outside the town had been instructed to divert all 24 Battalion transport into Tripolis, but these platoons had been left to continue along the road to Kalamata with the reinforcement troops, the Palestinian labour units and the Australian detachments hurrying to join their units. The depleted battalion had meanwhile taken control of the roads leading into Patrai, C Company that from Kalamata and D Company the highway along which it travelled from Miloi.
At nightfall, 26–27 April, the main withdrawal began, General Freyberg and his staff leaving Miloi to set up headquarters some ten miles south of Tripolis and Lee Force moving from the Argos area through Tripolis to Sparta and the approaches to Monemvasia.
Headquarters 6 Brigade followed about midnight to the high country east of Tripolis; with it were the detachments from 22 and 23 Battalions which had, as Hart Force, masked the approaches to the Thermopylae line. About the same time 26 Battalion pulled out from Ano Fikhtia, leaving a small party to link up with A and D Companies when they came through from their rearguard position north of Argos. Next morning the battalion was off the road and under cover east of Tripolis. Twenty-fifth Battalion had followed up to a position astride the road at Akhladhokambos, a village in the hills to the north of Tripolis. The three battalions now controlled the approaches to the town and there they were to remain until after dark on the night of 27–28 April, when they would withdraw to Monemvasia for embarkation the following night.
Evacuations Continue during the Night 26–27 April
The night was also notable for the number of successful embarkations. At Miloi the Force Headquarters group had assembled on the quay, confident about a caique which one of the staff had chartered but doubtful about the destroyers and the flying boat whose despatch had not been confirmed by the authorities in Crete. The flying boat was there but no destroyer. After waiting until midnight Rear-Admiral Baillie-Grohman, who wished to take his staff and beachmasters to Monemvasia, left in the caique, but shortly afterwards the Havock arrived and in her the party hastened down the coast, enemy air superiority making it essential to reach the port before daylight. Outside the port they unexpectedly came upon the ten LCAs42 sent on from the bombed
Glenearn. The party landed in them and waited in a small bay four miles north of Monemvasia; the LCAs were scattered along the beaches about half a mile apart.
At Miloi itself the patience of the flying-boat group – General Wilson, Prince Peter of Greece and certain Greek Ministers, Major-General T. G. G. Heywood and some members of the British Military Mission – had been severely tested. As the pilot explained, he could not risk a landing in Suda Bay until 6.30 a.m. and he could not make an immediate departure because he had not the petrol to remain in the air all that night. Consequently they had to wait. The hours passed by; the 6 Brigade rearguard passed through to Tripolis. Since there was then no force between the flying boat and the advancing enemy, the pilot taxied off down the coast in an unpleasantly choppy sea until at last he was able to take off for Crete.
On the coast east of Athens the rearguard position about Tatoi had been maintained during the day by 1 Rangers, A Squadron Divisional Cavalry Regiment, N Troop 34 Anti-Tank Battery and L/N Battery 2 Royal Horse Artillery; in the evening C Company 1 Rangers and N Troop 34 Anti-Tank Battery had covered the withdrawal to the beaches at Rafina. Assembled there when the Glengyle arrived off shore with the destroyers Nubian, Decoy and Hasty were 6 Field Regiment, 7 Anti-Tank Regiment, 2 Royal Horse Artillery, 102 Anti-Tank Regiment, 155 Light Anti-Aircraft Battery, Divisional Cavalry Regiment (less C Squadron), 1 Armoured Brigade and many odd detachments from the Athens area, such as the group of New Zealand reinforcements who had been guarding the Hassani airfield. Uncertain about their orders to move with the Reinforcement Battalion to Navplion, the men had collected some thirty stragglers of all nationalities in Athens and then followed their original orders to move to Rafina.
Owing to the heavy swell the Glengyle had to remain a mile and a half out to sea; this meant that if the convoy was to sail at 3 a.m. the last boat had to leave the beach by 2.15 a.m. The result was that, although men43 were taken to the destroyers as well as to the Glengyle, several hundred were still on the beach when the convoy departed.
There were 800 of 1 Armoured Brigade, 250 of 1 Rangers, 117 of 102 Anti-Tank Regiment and many New Zealanders from 34 Anti-Tank Battery, 4 Machine Gun Company and A Squadron Divisional Cavalry Regiment. On the orders of Brigadier Charrington the groups moved to the low ridge on the southern edge of the beach. There in the shelter of the laurels, myrtles and
scattered olive trees they took cover and hoped for the return of the Navy the following night.
At Porto Rafti44 there had been the troopship Salween, the cruiser Carlisle and the destroyers Kandahar and Kingston. Most of Advanced Headquarters New Zealand Artillery, 4 Field Regiment, 5 Field Regiment and 64 Medium Regiment (less Headquarters 234 Battery and D Troop) went aboard the Salween. Sections from the last named and from 5 Field Park Company and 7 Field Company were also taken by the troopship; the remainder left in the escort vessels. Headquarters 27 (Machine Gun) Battalion, with 2 Company complete and 1 Company, less 1 and 3 Platoons with 4 Brigade, had come south with Duff Force. Second-Lieutenant Luxford45 and a small group were now manning the road blocks until 4 Brigade reached the area but the others went aboard the Salween, complete with Vickers guns less tripods. To their surprise 3 Company was already aboard, having come south with 6 Brigade and been directed46 from Mazi to Porto Rafti for embarkation.
The night was also notable for the reappearance of the 500 men47 who had been taken to Kea Island on the night of 24–25 April. To their great relief a naval officer had appeared about noon on 26 April to say that the tank landing craft would be leaving the other side of the island at 8 p.m. The men had been hurriedly called together and in groups of twenty despatched across the mountains. Once the majority had arrived the landing craft had hastened to Porto Rafti. The heavy ground swell prevented all but a few getting aboard the Salween, but the others eventually got aboard the Carlisle. In the meantime the destroyer Nubian had called at the island only to find that the men had already been collected. Three fortunate men from the Supply Column who had missed the LCT were then evacuated.
The convoy sailed at 3 a.m., 27 April; the destination of the troops was to be decided later that night.
In the Peloponnese, units embarked from Navplion, Tolos and the southern port of Kalamata. According to the original plan, the landing ship Glenearn was to have gone to Navplion but she was bombed and disabled; her invaluable landing craft had to be disembarked and sent to Monemvasia.48 Vice-Admiral Pridham-Wippell thereupon sent the destroyer Stuart to assist the ships already at Tolos and took the cruisers Orion and Perth to Navplion, where the
cruiser Calcutta, the troopships Slamat and Khedive Ismail and four destroyers were already anchored.
At Navplion the hulk of the Ulster Prince made it impossible for the destroyers to get alongside the quays and the choppy sea made it dangerous to use small boats; in fact one report has it that 100 men were drowned. And there was only one motor caique transporting men to the Slamat, so although the Navy did what it could with its own boats the Khedive Ismail embarked no troops at all.
To complicate matters word was received during the embarkation that the Stuart at Tolos was full and that many troops still remained ashore. The Stuart was thereupon brought back to Navplion, her troops were transferred to the Orion, and with the Perth she was sent back to continue the embarkation. The naval records state that 1559 were taken off from Tolos; another source49 states that about 2000 embarked and that some 1300 were left on the beach.
The cruisers, destroyers and the troopship Slamat took away from Navplion a possible 2968 men; another source states that they sailed with 2600 men, leaving 1700 ashore,50 including 700 from the Australian Reinforcement Battalion.
The LCT which had been operating at Navplion departed next morning for Monemvasia51 with 600 Australians, but the evacuation was still incomplete. According to the naval sources approximately 5500 men, and not the 8000 as planned, had been evacuated from the area (Navplion and Tolos).
The troops evacuated had been for the most part from Base and W Force Headquarters, but there had also been fighting units such as 3 Royal Tank Regiment, less C Squadron,52 and small detachments of New Zealand troops, including some medical orderlies from 1 General Hospital53 and the remainder of E Section (Workshops) 4 RMT Company.54 There were also those wounded from Megara who had been fortunate enough to be south of the Corinth Canal before the parachutists landed. Less fortunate were the men from C Squadron Divisional Cavalry Regiment who had managed to cross the hills from the Corinth Canal area. Sent to the tail of a long column ‘with a half promise that there might be some room in a ship’, they had almost reached the water’s edge when embarkation stopped and they were once again left to their own resources.
At Kalamata there had been less trouble getting aboard ship but more men left on the beaches. Instead of some 8000 men collecting
in the area for embarkation there had been about 15,000. The first to get away were 16–17 Australian Brigade Group and some base details, in all about 8650 men in the troopships Dilwarra, City of London and Costa Rica and their screen of five destroyers. But left patiently waiting on the beach were still 7000 men, including the New Zealand Reinforcement Battalion.55
Next morning all three convoys were still within range of German aircraft. The ships from Kalamata and those from Rafina and Porto Rafti were attacked on several occasions but no great damage was done. The convoy from Navplion and Tolos was less fortunate. By leaving the former port at 4.15 a.m., although ordered to do so at 3 a.m., the Slamat was exposed to too great a risk. At 7 a.m. bombers came over; the transport was hit and began to sink. The destroyer Diamond was sent to her aid and about 9 a.m., when three more destroyers joined the convoy, the Wryneck was sent to help with the rescue work. Most of the survivors had been picked up but at 10.25 a.m. the Wryneck signalled for fighter protection. Then all was blank until a destroyer that night picked up some survivors. From the two destroyers and the Slamat, on which there were some 500 soldiers, only 1 officer, 41 ratings and 8 soldiers survived. Among those drowned were the New Zealand medical officers Captains Douglas56 and Newlands.57 They had been members of a group of 12 medical officers and 24 orderlies who had been sent aboard the transports by the Middle East command, which wished for the best and earliest care to be given to the evacuated troops. Of the eight New Zealanders in the Slamat only one was saved: Private Kellec,58 who was taken aboard one of the destroyers. It was afterwards sunk, but he reached a raft from which he was picked up next morning by another destroyer.
By then the convoys were approaching Crete and the decision for the naval authorities was whether all the ships should be sent to Alexandria or some to Suda Bay. As there was now insufficient room in the bay and because the changing situation ‘made any further delay dangerous’, the ships were regrouped 20 miles north of Maleme airfield with the Royal Air Force giving all possible cover. The naval vessels with some artillerymen, machine-gunners and the greater part of 7 Field Company went on to Suda Bay. The others formed an escort for the transports, Glengyle, Salween, Khedive Ismail, Dilwarra, City of London and Costa Rica, and proceeded towards
Alexandria. Air attacks continued but little damage was done until about 3 p.m., when an aircraft came out of the sun, bombs hit the Costa Rica and she had to be abandoned. Although the ship was rising and falling some 18–20 feet, the destroyers Hero, Hereward and Defender took off the 2500 Australians without the loss of a single life. These men were then taken to Crete.
The result was that by 29 April the New Zealand Artillery group was divided: 6 Field Regiment and the greater part of 7 Anti-Tank Regiment had reached Alexandria in the Glengyle but 4 and 5 Field Regiments were hopelessly dispersed, some men having arrived in the Salween and others having been taken to Crete, where they were to serve as infantrymen in the coming campaign.
The last embarkation of any importance that night was not arranged by the Navy. On the night of 25–26 April a group from 80 Base Sub-area had moved out of Athens and, like the New Zealand Reinforcement Battalion, was to have embarked from Navplion. But in the morning, 26 April, it had been diverted to Tripolis, where it remained all day under cover. That night it had gone south to Yithion, the port of Sparta. No arrangements had been made for its embarkation but an advance party had fortunately been able to charter three caiques, one of which was already engaged by some Greek Army cadets. They sailed that night, 26–27 April, two of them eventually reaching Crete and the third having to turn back with some Royal Army Service Corps personnel because it was too heavily laden.