2nd New Zealand Divisional Artillery
Rearguard on the Aliakmon
Rearguard on the Aliakmon
The Divisional Cavalry rearguard facing across the Aliakmon to the north had meanwhile been waiting patiently. On the 8th it heard explosions from the direction of Salonika and saw columns of smoke rise from the city. Three 25-pounders of E Troop of the 5th Field under Captain Bevan8 were sited back near Paliambela and the fourth was well forward so as to be able to shell the town of Yidha beyond the river. To get this single gun into position, a road had to be made over the crest of a ridge in rough country.page 35
Bevan eagerly studied the ground ahead, aware that the distinction of firing the first rounds in earnest was to be his and being doubly anxious, therefore, to make them effective. He first saw the enemy in the afternoon of 12 April: a long convoy of vehicles with flashing windscreens about 10 miles beyond the river. Just before dusk some 30 vehicles broke away from the convoy and headed towards the bridge. Bevan decided to open fire on them when they debouched from the nearest village on the way to the bridge. The nearest of Divisional Cavalry were not far from this point and so Bevan added 1000 yards to the range. The first round was, as Bevan says, ‘right for range’. Correcting the line, the next fell on the road. Divisional Cavalry stated afterwards that it fell among the vehicles, but from farther back and in the failing light Bevan page 36 could not be sure. The column withdrew and he ceased fire. The gun sergeant was McCarthy9 and the layer Bombardier Tebbutt.10
Next morning, after a quiet start, a detachment of mortars took up position in an open field. Bevan waited a quarter of an hour and then opened fire, damaging one of the lorries there for certain and possibly another. A general attack against the rearguard at once began. The Divisional Cavalry, well covered by the stopbanks of the Aliakmon, held its fire; but Bevan engaged mortars and transport freely and effectively. Every time the enemy mortars opened fire he silenced them quickly, a splendid performance at ranges up to well over 10,000 yards. When troops came up to the river near the demolished road and tried to cross on floats, both the Cavalry and the field gunners engaged them, causing heavy loss. For E Troop it was a difficult target indeed, as the river was no wider than 100 yards and the Cavalry were close up to the southern bank. Only a gunner with the skill and confidence of Tom Bevan would have ordered fire under these circumstances at a range of 10,000 yards with the mean point of impact on the far bank. Yet not one round fell among the Cavalry. Bevan's OP was shelled throughout the morning; but the main gun position seemed beyond the enemy's range and the three guns were therefore undisturbed by return fire.
At 1.30 p.m. Bevan was ordered to withdraw. The guns were able to do so without incident; but the Bren carrier of the OP party shed a track while on the skyline in full view of the enemy and the party had a lively time getting it back on. As they left a reconnaissance aircraft fired a few parting shots at them. Back at Sfendhami, Bevan learned that E Troop had destroyed two armoured cars at a range of 9100 yards. There the rearguard stayed until the morning, when the enemy attacked again, having bridged the river and got tanks across. E Troop fired a five-minute concentration on the advancing enemy while the OP party raced back a few hundred yards ahead of the tanks. A withdrawal was again ordered, the guns were quickly hooked on to their tractors, and the rearguard made off along the road to Katerini. There it halted and E Troop got its guns into action with an OP nearly a mile ahead page 37 and prepared to fire. At the last moment the order came to move back; Bevan switched the guns to fire on an open field and ‘emptied guns’. By night E Troop was back in the Olympus Pass, to take up the positions prepared for it. No casualties had occurred among the gunners in this their first action of the war.