19 Battalion and Armoured Regiment
CHAPTER 7 — Over to Macedonia
Over to Macedonia
… wielding in his hand
The Trident—summoned all the hurricanes
Of all the winds and covered sea and sky
At once with mists,
Three ships carried the battalion from Amiriya to Athens. The carrier platoon, the anti-aircraft platoon, and some of the transport were first to embark. They sailed in the SS Clan Macaulay and arrived in Greece several days ahead of the rest of the unit, for which they acted as an advance guard and camp constructors.
The larger groups embarked on 11 March. Thirty-three officers and a few batmen in the Hellas and the main body, including the CO, four company commanders, Second-Lieutenant Heiford1 and 677 other ranks, in the Marit Maersk, a small ship of Danish register whose limited capacity made this unfortunate splitting of the unit a necessity.
Conditions on board the Marit Maersk were crowded: 749 men plus 47 trucks and 20 motor-cycles comprised the cargo. Riding lightly, her holds, top deck and small shelter deck packed with tethered transport and footloose soldiers, the 1800-ton ship put out to await the rest of the convoy. The weather was perfect and after dreary Amiriya even this unkempt tramp seemed cosy and clean. Each man had his rations—seven days’ hard—his rifle, his haversack, his huge tropical topee and one blanket. Gear was disposed of and the cards came out. Despite the crush, groups settled down to enjoy the cruise across the Mediterranean.
Northwards on blue unruffled seas the convoy sailed, five ships with two Royal Navy auxiliary cruisers and two Greek destroyers as escort. The first day passed pleasantly, and at page 58 night in the lee of trucks and deck fittings, rolled in blankets, the soldiers slept soundly in the sweet sea air. This was a change from the Desert. In the morning hot tea was contrived and over section cookers the bully sizzled. Throughout the next day the picnic continued, and in the darkness of the night of the 13th all hands settled down again for another good sleep. Sailing conditions were still good, but the glass was falling fast.
A freshening wind was the first sign of trouble; it caused a gathering in of loose blanket ends, then as the sea began to rise a few of the lighter sleepers woke. By 11.30 p.m. the lightly laden ship began to labour ominously. By midnight dim figures could be seen making for the rail, only to be driven back again shortly afterwards. The Marit Maersk now began to ship it green. Gear got washed overboard: the topees went first. Drenched and cold, those on deck sought shelter in the holds, cabins and companionways; sick and miserable, those below decks sought the fresh air above. The inky darkness added to the confusion.
The Greek captain and his officers, busy as they were, found time to help with the seasick soldiers. Their own cabins, the engine-room and stokehold, were made available to the shivering troops.
In the early hours of 14 March, completely out of control, the ship parted from the rest of the convoy and the master headed her into the gale. The storm showed no signs of decreasing. Temporary fixtures were wrenched off. A water tank and two noisome makeshift privies spilled their contents among the wretched figures cowering in the scant shelter above decks. In the hold a water truck broke loose, crashing against other vehicles with each roll of the ship. Its careering threatened serious damage until Private ‘Fatty’ Langdale2 managed to apply the brakes and others seized an opportunity to rope it firmly down again.
Daylight brought little relief. The ship was still fighting it out with the elements and few found the battle to their liking. The troops as passive spectators clung to whatever page 59 support was available, watching the huge waves mount higher and higher above the bows, then slip sickeningly away beneath the cruiser stern. Each time she seemed certain to slide back into the watery abyss. A big comber came aboard, sweeping all loose gear before it and leaving those unable to find shelter drenched and shivering.
Crete was sighted in the early afternoon and at 4 p.m., under the lee of Selino Kastelli, the Marit Maersk dropped her anchors. The seas were still high and, though conditions aboard improved for the troops, on the bridge the master was having an anxious time. The anchors were not holding; the overworked engines were still required.
When the port anchor became entangled with the starboard anchor chain, ‘an haven of Crete’ was close to becoming a place of shipwreck. These things, however, the troops did not know; numb and nauseated, the majority were huddling together for warmth and shelter, while a few of the hardier spirits clustered around primuses precariously balancing mess tins above the flames. The demand for hot tea far exceeded the supply.
By 6 a.m. on the 15th the danger had passed, the storm had blown itself out, and anchors had been cleared and course set for the naval base at Suda Bay. Another shock awaited two hours later—from the shore signal station a light winked and to the dismay of the shaken soldiers this message from the Navy read, ‘No shore leave.’ Two casualties were carted off to the hospital, and the remainder on board spent the time in port sorting out the chaos of equipment, cleaning up the ship and themselves, and drying out sodden clothing and blankets. The ship’s engine-room looked like a Chinese laundry as more and more wet blankets were draped over the cylinders and boilers.
At half past eight on the following evening the interrupted journey to Greece was continued with a Greek destroyer as escort. After a calm and uneventful trip, the Marit Maersk put into Piraeus next day. The 19th had arrived; a little battered, but intact. The rest of the battalion which had been ashore for some days was waiting anxiously. Rumour had it that the ship had been sunk. The tempestuous page 60 crossing experienced by the convoy from which it had parted company, plus extravagant claims by Radio Roma of Italian successes in the Eastern Mediterranean, made the rumoured fate seem more than a possibility. The men from the Marit Maersk disembarked that winter’s afternoon amid general rejoicing, glad to feel dry land beneath their feet once more. Clambering into trucks driven by men from the transport platoons of 18 and 19 Battalions, the column set off for a camp area on the outskirts of Athens.
The ride from the port of Piraeus to Hymettus Camp was full of interest. The green cultivated fields sweeping up to snow-sprinkled hills were easy on the eye. After the drab, sun-scorched desert this country was refreshingly similar to New Zealand. En route the populace turned out to greet the troops. In Greece beckoning waves from friendly hands and cries of Kalimera (welcome) replaced the familiar outstretched palms and whining baksheesh chorus of Egypt. When the trucks stopped in the tree-studded transit camp the tents were up and waiting. The anti-aircraft and transport platoons had been busy and the new arrivals were grateful to them. Stowing gear, the men drew pay in drachmae and headed for Athens, whose roofs and spires could be seen between and below the pines and cypresses fringing the eminence on which the camp was set.
It was evening by the time they made their way along the ancient cobbled streets of the ‘City of Arts and Eloquence’, and the first visit, though inspired by material rather than cultural instincts, proved an unforgettable experience. Greece was at war with Italy; her heroic but ill-equipped army had for the past five months withstood the modern war machine of Mussolini. After the ignominy of North Africa the Duce’s forces were now seeking fame by pushing around the Balkan peasantry. Mussolini found them made of sterner stuff than was the Italian soldier and the campaign in Albania was marked by the heroism and hardihood of the defenders, who not only kept the frontiers but ventured to attack and beat back the beseigers. The exploits of the Greeks had fired the imagination and won the admiration of our troops. The Athenians hailed the New Zealanders page 61 as allies, believing that they had come to aid their armies and would rid them of the Roman invaders. Their proud city was well within range of Italian bombers and a blackout was enforced. Food was not plentiful and prices were high. Two meat days only each week and no dancing in public places were among the wartime items of self-denial being practised by the population. Despite shortages, they met our men with the warmest hospitality, drew on their slender stores of food, and filled and refilled their cups with strange but potent brews of Bacchus.
Mavrodaphne, ouzo, and Greek cognac were pleasant to take, but there were agonies in the aftermath. In the early hours, streams of stumbling figures groped their several ways along the blacked-out routes between the cafés and the camp. All had overstayed their leave, but next morning, though there were many sore heads, there were no absentees.
On the 18th the drill jackets, plus the few topees that had survived the shipboard journey, were withdrawn. Kits were sorted out again and women refugees from a nearby camp were soon busy doing the battalion’s washing. Bully beef and biscuits were to them a rich payment and our men were only too glad to exchange unattractive rations for clean clothes. On leave in Athens that day the many public baths were well patronised. Fresh and tidy once more, all enjoyed the short stay, sightseeing while daylight lasted and in the evening repeating last night’s programme in cabarets and cafés.
Next morning all was bustle. Barely forty-eight hours after landing, the battalion was again on the move. Unit trucks were packed with equipment and, with a few Bren-gunners for anti-aircraft protection, set off early on 19 March for northern Greece. The rest of the 19th would follow by rail to meet them at Katerini, almost 300 miles away, on the northern slopes of Mount Olympus. Lustre Force was moving to take up positions in Macedonia. It was a small force to pit against the Wehrmacht concentrations in Bulgaria. The 1st Armoured Brigade, the New Zealand Division, 6 Australian Division, and some extra artillery and Corps troops were the total forces that the hard-pressed page 62 Middle East Command dared send to the aid of the Greeks, whose army was already fully engaged on the Albanian front. The magnificent courage of the small Greek nation and the justice of the cause for which it was fighting were worthy of every aid.
In Athens the German Embassy still flaunted its infamous flag. True, Greece was at war, but not yet with the Germans, whose suave civilian embassy staff and jackbooted guards enjoyed a convenient diplomatic immunity from interference, an immunity which all knew they were making the most of.
That morning as the unit marched, bayonets fixed, through the city on its way to the railway station, the population lined the streets. They showered the marching men with flowers. Not even in New Zealand had the 19th received so rousing a reception. It was a heartwarming experience, to be repeated again and again during the move northwards. The thumbs-up sign seemed to be a national gesture, children ran out to grasp the hands of the marching men, and young girls in gay traditional aprons banded blue, rose and orange, hung garlands of bright flowers on their bayonets. The older women and the men clapped and waved enthusiastically. Despite the gaiety, however, there were unmistakable signs of war among the throng. Black armbands, ribboned lapels, and the general absence of young men told the story of a costly campaign. The valiant little Greek Army had withstood a hard winter on its western frontiers and now Greece was threatened from the north.
The send-off at Rouf railway station while awaiting the arrival of the train was as spontaneous as the street scenes. Civilians, though not permitted on the station, shook hands and passed flowers and flagons of wine through the fence. Officer or private, it did not matter, all were pressed to drink. The march had been hot and after two nights of Greek hospitality there were many parched throats. When, at 2.30 p.m. the unit packed into box-cars—forty-five men plus their equipment to each car—there were many in that happy condition where the desire for sleep could conquer all discomfort. The entraining was reminiscent of France page 63 in the 1914-18 War; each box-car was marked Hommes 40 Cheveaux 8. It was not de luxe travelling, but it was a satisfactory feeling to know that every puff from the engine took the train closer to the destination which had eluded the battalion for the past fourteen months. As it made its way always northwards, through green mountains and closely cultivated plains, all knew that they were constantly creeping nearer the enemy.
At eight o’clock next morning the train stopped at Larisa. The troops were cold and numb, but breakfast was waiting; none slept in. While stretching cramped legs and stamping up and down along the track, the men could see glimpses of the stricken city. Wrecked by a recent earthquake, it was now the target for Italian bombers. Many of its inhabitants, evacuated to Athens, had been camped close to the battalion in a refugee compound at Hymettus. Others who remained turned out that morning to wish the troops well.
At 10 a.m. the journey was continued. On pulling out, a check of the train revealed that there were two extra men aboard, men who as a punishment for misdemeanours had been ordered to stay behind with the reinforcements. It was too late to send them back now, and a little later the unit was glad they were with it. Both rendered stalwart service in the rigorous campaign which followed.
Katerini was reached in the early afternoon and the troops were marched to a camping area among the pines in the town park, where stood a marble memorial to the fallen of the First World War. Once again a warm welcome awaited the New Zealanders and leave in the township that evening was marked by handshakes and hospitality. Next morning the unit transport, under Lieutenant Stewart,3 arrived and on the 21st the battalion moved to its allotted tasks. For the next two weeks all wielded picks and shovels and by hard work and sweat cured an epidemic of change-of-climate colds. In the bracing mountain air men got fit and hard once more digging defensive positions and on road construction work. Each man tackled his task with a will, page 64 but the battalion was never destined to occupy the sector on which it first worked.
Intelligence summaries indicated that the German concentration on the Yugoslav and Greek frontiers totalled twenty-one divisions, and included the headquarters of the air organisation which had earlier operated so successfully in Belgium and Holland. Field Marshal List had led his army to victory in many parts of Europe; now he stood at the doorway to the Balkans, which Hitler claimed to be ‘Germany’s south-east flank’. There could be no mistaking his intention, and the presence of paratroops, panzers, and mountain troops all added up to one word: invasion. In Roumania and Bulgaria the Reichswehr had spent the winter building roads and railways which constantly crept southwards.
On the peaceful northern slopes of Mount Olympus it was hard to visualise the war that would soon ravage this quiet countryside. The Macedonian peasants toiled on their land from daylight till dark, tending every tree and each small square of growing crop with painstaking care and skill. Spring was close and already the wild flowers were blooming. Blue anemones with their backs to the breeze, yellow crocuses, primroses, violets and wild sweet peas—life in the company camping areas seemed like a bushland holiday.
Battalion Headquarters was established in a little stone house in the village of Palionellini. Its whitewashed front and its trim tidiness were a treat to men who had spent so long in bivouacs and under canvas.
The 19th, as reserve battalion to 4 Brigade, had its companies on road work and digging in the brigade FDLs.4 They were dispersed as their tasks demanded and lived on the job: Headquarters Company at ‘Oak Ridge’, five miles to the north, Wellington Company at ‘Watch Tower Hill’, Wellington West Coast Company near the little village of Paliostani, Hawke’s Bay Company at Rodhia, while, fittingly enough, Taranaki Company had been spirited away from Katerini to the ‘Mountain of the Gods’. There they relieved C Company of 18 Battalion in a page 65 defensive post overlooking the main road. All unit transport was brigaded at Neon Keramidhi and the Commander New Zealand Engineers drew on men and vehicles according to the requirements of the work in progress.
In this small sector of a 100-mile line which ran from the Aegean Sea east of Mount Olympus to Veroia and Edhessa and thence northwards to the Yugoslav frontier, the New Zealand Division took up its battle positions. It occupied the right of the line and had the responsibility of guarding the Olympus passes. There was one disturbing factor, however. The security of the Aliakmon line depended on the Yugoslav Army. The position was a strong one, but it could be turned if the Hun broke through at Monastir.
The weather was fine and the unit was happy. Fraternising with the local population, for whom each man’s admiration constantly increased, added a pleasant homely touch to the experience. Some soon acquired a taste for the resinated wines; others more fortunate sampled dolma, a local dish of chopped spiced meat and rice wrapped in a leaf, and found it a palatable change from army rations. Eggs and almonds were purchased to add to the army fare, and green vegetables, too, were daily on the menu.
Then, on the 28th, when most of the officers were away on a reconnaissance, a sudden order directed the unit to concentrate at the foot of Olympus Pass. The company NCOs were not found wanting and the dispersed platoons pulled up their stakes in record time. At five o’clock that evening the whole battalion bivouacked at the appointed spot. Next day fresh tasks were assigned. More defensive positions to dig, with locations even more idyllic than the last. The snowy dome of Olympus towering above, and trees, scrub, wild flowers and mountain streams all created a nostalgic atmosphere. The unit no longer felt strangers in a strange land. Here was a typical New Zealand setting, and the 19th revelled in its surroundings.
On the following day companies again dispersed to dig. Battalion Headquarters in its Oak Grove had a sylvan setting; pale-green budding boughs and a Judas tree with bright purple flowers cast lacy shadows on their tents. The page 66 days were sunny and the air sweet. The transport, now back with the unit, lay concealed in bush and scrub while the drivers tended their trucks.
These new positions were prepared on the high ground. Wellington Company at Haduladhika dug in along the north bank of the Mavroneri River and added to its task the reconnaissance of the steep mountain tracks over the south side of the pass. Wellington West Coast Company worked on the forward slope of a high feature between the pass road and the river valley. Hawke’s Bay Company was on the south bank of the mouth of the gorge near a modern sanatorium. Taranaki kept vigil at ‘Gibraltar’, a position overlooking the pass road. As the unit dug, peasant women, old men, and even the children toiled to mend the roads which ran below. Watching them silenced any grouching.
There was little time to lose for events in Yugoslavia had given Hitler the excuse he was waiting for. Germany chose to regard the coup d’état of 27 March as a traitorous move. List made plans to deal with this ‘threat’ to his flank. Waiting for the war to begin, the men lapped up every item of news and the BBC bulletins were as eagerly awaited as the cookhouse call. Not all gave grim tidings. The Navy’s victory at Matapan on the 28th was a rousing round in the fateful shadow-sparring contest to which our troops were daily listeners. Here was a final and conclusive fight and it caused more comment than all Rommel’s advances in Africa, List’s menacing moves in Middle Europe, or the Luftwaffe’s brutal bombing of Britain.
On 1 April the almost completed posts were handed over to 28 (Maori) Battalion—a sour joke after so much hard work—then back went the 19th to the Palionellini positions it had left over a week earlier. Taranaki Company this time moved with the unit, and with the carrier platoon in an anti-paratroop role, the battalion went to work again as reserve battalion to 4 Infantry Brigade. Once more companies bivouacked near their defensive positions.
Digging in respirators, worn for increasingly long periods each day, soon ceased to be amusing. A visit from an page 67 English gas expert (Lieutenant-Colonel Marnham) quickly convinced the men that these precautions were necessary. Gas warfare was painted as a vivid nightmare for the unprepared; the Germans, he reported, were already beginning to manufacture gas in Bulgaria. So, putting the best face on the business, all ranks endured the monstrosity of the masks and, after the first few practice alarms, became experts in anti-gas measures. Meanwhile work went steadily on.
On 6 April Hitler, howling vengeance on ‘traitorous Yugoslavia and pro-British Greece’, declared war. To the unit the impressive news was somewhat lost, for that same day the battalion received its first New Zealand mail since leaving Egypt.
4 Forward Defended Localities.