Journey Towards Christmas
Chapter 5 — The Thunderstorm
SHADOWS over our drivers asleep in their Bedfords, shadows over Greece, and shadows over the cause we were fighting for. Nothing but good news for the Germans and nothing but bad news for us. Yesterday we had given up Bardia in North Africa; to-day—that dangerous and eventful Easter Monday described in the last chapter—the decision had been made to abandon the Olympus line and withdraw to one based on Thermopylae. The reason for this was that the Greeks on our left flank could not be expected to hold out much longer on their own and we could send them no help.
At a late hour that night we were visited by Colonel Crump. After he had gone there was a hurried conference of section officers and presently the sleepy drivers were shaken into wakefulness and told to get ready to move at once. A group of drivers started to strike a tent but the Major told them not to bother with it. ‘You won't need that tent,’ he said. The drivers looked at him for a moment, wanting to ask questions. There was something ominous in the words. They were like the small, chilling whisper from the silver reconnaissance plane: I can see the whites of your eyes. For days past we had been saving things that other people had left behind and now we were ourselves leaving behind things. We didn't like it.
Our orders were to take first our second-line holding and then the ammunition from a nearby field supply depot to a new area near Tyrnavos, some ten miles north-west of Larissa. These were not long trips but they were trying ones, for we were very sleepy.
Soon after midnight word arrived by Don R that all heavy non-combatant vehicles were to be through Larissa and heading south by seven the next morning. Half past six found Workshops, with its great six-wheel Thornycrofts, trying to move through the town but being unable to do so because of a heavy air raid. Eventually the drivers by-passed it by cutting across some fields and through a Cypriot camp. Then they headed towards Athens, ignorant of their destination.page 66
Meanwhile the drivers of the section vehicles had finished clearing the field supply depot and were back in the Tyrnavos area. If they had been counting on a rest they were disappointed. With the exception of fifteen 3-ton and six 30-cwt. lorries, which had been detached on special duty under the command of Second-Lieutenant Fenton, all the load-carriers left under the Major to pick up the 25th Battalion from the Olympus sector and take it to positions covering Elasson. The 4th Brigade was stilling holding at Servia and the 5th Brigade in the Olympus Pass but the design for the withdrawal had begun to take shape.
We were on the road all through the night of the 15th-16th (stopping and starting and dozing off), and the last group of lorries did not get home until the afternoon of the next day. As they were pulling off the road into the Tyrnavos area they were machine-gunned by a single aircraft, and Stan Fisher1 was wounded in the back while returning the fire from B Section's ack-ack truck.
The lorries that had reached home earlier in the day were already back on the road. They had been formed into a convoy to take ammunition from Dolikhe to positions covering the Vale of Tempe, south of Mount Olympus, where the New Zealand Artillery was waiting to meet a German thrust down the east coast. Soon the famous battle of the Peneios Gorge would start.
By dusk, however, all transport was in the Tyrnavos area and it looked as though we should get a night's sleep. We were dead-tired but we were happy and cheerful. The story had got around—and of course we accepted it—that the Germans were being drawn into a trap. Somewhere—at the next row of mountains probably—the exhausted panzers would run head on into the guns, the tanks, the swarms of planes. Was it then or later that we heard about the tens of thousands of Canadians that were pouring into Thrace? And the hundreds of Hurricanes at Athens that were waiting only to have their guns fitted? Yes, there was much to cheer us and as yet we were in no physical distress. The cabs of our Bedfords were comfortable and the man who was not driving could doze off for ten, twenty minutes, an hour at a time. We had plenty of tobacco and we were full of good food—hot food at that. The lorries had small inspection traps that could be opened from inside the cab page 67 and there was always a tin of beans, sausages, or M&V wedged against the hot manifold. We were young, too, most of us—many were only boys. Hell, it was a great adventure! All we needed was a night's sleep.
No sooner had we fallen asleep, it seemed, than the NCOs were going from lorry to lorry and telling us to throw on our ammunition as quickly as possible. By a quarter past one we were heading for Volos, on the coast below Larissa, and half the transport in Greece seemed to be travelling with us. Think of a very old goods train with very loose couplings. Picture it stopping and starting twenty times in a mile and that will give you an idea of our night's progress. It was raining, too, and lorries slipped off the road continually. Sergeant Robin Hood had a motor-cycle accident and broke a leg, and a B Section lorry went over a steep bank, boxes of 25-pounder ammunition falling on ‘Merry’ Meredith2 and ‘Barney’ George3 who were asleep in the back. ‘Merry’ broke a leg and ‘Barney’ was injured in the leg and face.
Dawn of the 17th found us jammed nose to tail in a column that stretched as far as one could see. Fortunately it was still raining, so no aircraft came over. After we had passed through Larissa there were continual halts and at one stage of the journey we took four hours to cover two miles. By the time we had reached our destination, which was near Almiros, some fifteen miles below Volos, and uncomfortably close to an airfield, the weather had begun to mend and we lost no time in dispersing. No sooner had we done so than a flight of Stukas swept in to shoot up two aircraft that were parked nearby. After they had gone the Major searched the airfield for petrol, of which we were extremely short. He found a number of large drums of aviation spirit and from these we filled our tanks.
We ate our supper under the grey olive trees, the drivers hesitating between tinned peaches and tinned cherries, tinned pineapple and tinned pears. On a little grassy plateau a portable gramophone looted from a bombed house ground out the theme song of the campaign:page 68
He's up each morning bright and early
To wake up all the neighbourhood.
He brings to every boy and girlie
His happy serenade on wood….
It was still, even though we were beginning to detect in it a faint note of mockery, a delightful tune.
That night, for the first time in over eighty hours, we enjoyed a long, sound sleep.
The detached vehicles under Second-Lieutenant Fenton had come under the direct orders of Headquarters NZASC two days earlier. On the 16th, while the three-tonners carted engineers' stores from Dolikhe to Elasson, the 30-cwts. stood by under Sergeant Buckleigh in the company's old area near Dolikhe, and that evening they set out to meet the 32nd Battery of the 7th Anti-Tank Regiment at Kokkinoplos, a hamlet perched high in the hills above the Olympus Pass. It was raining and the drivers did not know where the Germans were or whether the anti-tank gunners would be able to reach the rendezvous.
Meanwhile the three-tonners had returned to Dolikhe and Headquarters NZASC had moved south. After travelling all night with his convoy Second-Lieutenant Fenton found it at Tyrnavos, and during the morning he attended a conference about the withdrawal of the 20th Battalion from its rearguard position near Lava, some two miles south of Servia. The whole 4th Brigade Group was to be withdrawn that night—the 20th Battalion by Second-Lieutenant Fenton's detachment and a detachment from the Divisional Petrol Company.
By 9 p.m. the lorries were dispersed some distance from the embussing point, waiting for the signal to move forward to collect the troops. Stacks of supplies were burning not far away and the transport was silhouetted against the rosy light, which faded and glowed jerkily. Presently the order to move came. Leaving the fires behind, the convoy went forward into a blackness so complete that at the first halt the drivers fastened scraps of white paper to the tailboards of their lorries. As they neared the embussing point they could see where German shells were landing and sometimes the shell-bursts could be heard above the whine of the engines. The nearest one was like the sudden opening and clanging shut page 69 of a furnace door. The lorries halted, and the infantry came plodding out of the night, wet, cold, muddy, tired, hungry. They had marched many miles with full equipment but they were cheerful still. The drivers scrabbled among the gear in the backs of the lorries for tins of fruit and packets of cigarettes for their passengers and then stood by to lift up the tailboards. It was not much but it was part of the service.
Through Elasson it went, through Tyrnavos, and, as dawn was breaking, through Larissa. Our drivers could see how thoroughly the Germans had finished what the recent earthquake had started. Alleys and courtyards were filled with rubble, houses had been sheered in half, and the dead lay among the ruins. Sections of the town were still smouldering, sending up streamers and columns of smoke, and a livid ceiling, part weather and part ruin, covered the whole of it.
Our lorries had been crawling all night—the whole of the 4th Brigade Group was on the move—but beyond Larissa the pace slowed still further. Soon they were moving only in starts and stops, and an old refugee, shambling by with his bundle, passed lorry after lorry. Presently the convoy halted for good. Stukas, it appeared, had blown the road ahead and behind, trapping a mass of transport. Aircraft came over, bombing and machine-gunning and taking no notice of the small-arms fire except to send a special squirt of bullets in the direction of any Bren-gunner who was too persistent. After they had gone several lorries were burning and others had to be pushed off the road.
A message from the head of the column seemed to suggest that the halt would be a short one, but the road was badly blocked and after a while the drivers were ordered to disperse their vehicles as best they could. The section of the column that included most of Second-Lieutenant Fenton's detachment—Sergeant Buckleigh's 30-cwts. were now close behind it—was directed on to a hillside, part of which was in crops. To reach it the drivers had to cross a stretch of meadow that was very muddy and had been badly churned up by traffic. The lorries started to shoulder their way out of the congestion, slipping and lurching over the ruined verges and sticking, some of them, and having to be towed out. And all the page 70 time, impudent and unassailable, a German reconnaissance plane was perched in the sky above them—I can see the whites of your eyes—sending messages to its base. The lorries ploughed through the mud and cut swathes through the bright green barley, the infantry running ahead of them, breasting the crops like bathers, seeking the cover of distant trees, desperate to get away from the road and the planes that were coming to bomb it. Farther up the road towards Larissa machine guns were firing.
Presently the whole hillside was still. The lorries were not well dispersed but the drivers had done the best they could. Their nerves were as taut as piano wire and they stood by their lorries and glowered at their nearest neighbours, each believing that it was the other fellow's fault that the transport was not better dispersed. ‘Why can't the mad b—— move his b—— truck over that way?’
Soon the bombers came. They came singly and in groups. They bombed and machine-gunned the road and then they concentrated on the paddocks and hillsides. Several aircraft headed straight for where six or seven of our vehicles were parked. They flew low and there was no scream from the bombs—just a swosh-swosh-swosh that was inaudible above the hammering of the engines unless you were close to it. Then came the sheets of flame and the terrific slaps—one, two, three, four—and the sense of being smashed over the head with a rubber truncheon. Black smoke streamed over the hillside and through the murk you could see the red tracers, elongated like jelly beans and travelling, it seemed, no faster than cricket balls, wavering up towards the bombers. The bombers banked and you could see tongues of flame shooting from their wings as their machine guns fired. And then, like an afterthought, came the slap of a last bomb.
The planes had come in so low that some bombs had skidded along the soft ground without exploding.
After they had gone the drivers checked up on the damage. It might have been far worse. There had been casualties and several vehicles were on fire. One of these was parked among Sergeant Buckleigh's 30-cwts. and in the back of it cases of small-arms ammunition were burning like popcorn. A bomb had landed beside one of our 30-cwts. and the driver was muttering all the oaths he could think of. Only a few minutes before, by fitting an extra horn, he had concluded a programme of work that had made his page 71 vehicle the most complete and comfortable in the unit—in the Division. His engine would have taken him round the world and a retreat to Cape Matapan would not have emptied his larder. Now his beauty—his pretty one—was torn and blackened. It was down by the head like a bull beaten to its knees. A mixture of petrol and pineapple juice trickled from holes in its tray and he could have wept.
The enemy came over again and there were more casualties and more lorries were damaged and set on fire. While this raid was in progress Sergeant Buckleigh attended to the wounded, taking no notice of bombs and bullets. Helped by a corporal from the Divisional Petrol Company, who was afterwards awarded the Military Medal, he brought several wounded to the shelter of a small hollow. Among them was Dick Taylor4 (C Section) who had been wounded in the left arm by an explosive bullet.
Several of the drivers did good work that day. Among them was Alf Hallmond,5 Bren-gunner on C Section's ack-ack truck. He shot down one Dornier for certain and our drivers credited him with another. In the course of the day he burnt out two barrels and during one raid he emptied all his magazines.
During the morning something happened to Larissa. The Luftwaffe, perhaps, hit an ammunition dump—or perhaps it was the work of our engineers. At all events a pile of pearl-grey smoke, swift as a genie materialising from a bottle, built itself up, fold upon fold, layer upon billowing layer, until it was as vast as a mountain. It seemed to have the consistency of whipped cream. No one had seen anything like it before.
It was late in the afternoon before any general movement was possible on the road, and all day long the enemy passed backwards and forwards in the sky, owning it. All day long the New Zealanders crouched in culverts or bomb craters or lay hidden in the barley, watching the relentless sky or glancing longingly towards the mountains in the south, towards which the road ran straight and level across the plain. And all day long the transport stayed in the same area. It was near the village of Nikaia, six or seven miles south of Larissa.page 72
At last came the order to move. A prolonged hooting of horns brought the infantry from their hiding places at the double, and they crouched and squatted among the tangles of equipment, edging as close to the tailboards as possible.
Driving conditions were extremely bad. There was only a yard or so between each lorry and here and there a burning or disabled vehicle lay half across the road. You saw bombs bursting ahead of you and every so often a tremendous banging on the cab almost made you jump out of your skin. In one convulsive jerk you grabbed the hand brake, cut the engine, and dived into the ditch. Sometimes a Messerschmitt roared past; often it was a false alarm. In any case many of the infantry would run two or three hundred yards from the lorries—not that our drivers blamed them for this: they knew the infantry had been through far more than they had—and it might be three minutes before the column could again start to move. Progress was so slow that the passengers began to argue among themselves about the wisdom of stopping. Some were for keeping going; some were hotly against it.
‘For God's sake box on, driver.’
‘You're doin' all right, driver. We're not gettin' killed for these bloody jokers.’
‘We'll never get any bloody place if we keep stoppin'. Get on and get it over with.’
Panicky drivers of light or unloaded vehicles—drivers of heavy vehicles too for that matter—lost their heads completely and kept blowing their horns, mad to pass everything on the road whether or not there was room to squeeze by. As soon as our drivers managed to get a little space between their lorries, these others—free lances or interlopers from convoys farther back—cut in. More than one put his vehicle over the bank. At one stage Colonel Crump drove past and shouted that all drivers were to stay in convoy and keep discipline. For a time conditions improved but soon they were as bad as ever.
The time came when the column was blocked by a burning vehicle and a huge bomb crater near a bridge. A detour had been made—was still being made, the shovels darting like tongues under the very wheels of the lorries, which jerked, stopped, screamed in anguish, jerked on—through a sodden meadow. In this several of our vehicles became bogged, and the Luftwaffe came over again.page 73
The hold-up, however, though intensely trying to everyone's nerves, with the mountains and safety beckoning, was really a blessing. It enabled the military police to prevent any driver from turning into the meadow until the vehicle in front of him was a fair distance in the lead. Consequently when the transport got back on the road it was properly dispersed at intervals of from 50 to 100 yards. These intervals were held without much trouble until dusk.
The sun was setting as the main group of our lorries gained the foothills. Spearheads of olive shadow were thrusting across the plain of Thessaly, and the setting sun, with that strange trick it has of picking out, for no particular reason, a single farm or a field of barley, was casting pools of honey-coloured light among the mountains. Two Messerschmitts were still swooping and turning in the gorges, trying to follow the twists in the road with the object of getting in a few farewell bursts, but our drivers were happy now that the mountains sheltered them. Soon it would be dark.
After dark the column closed up until it was travelling nose-to-tail once more. Then there was another long halt and a group of drivers gathered round one of the 30-cwts. They were excited and they laughed a good deal. They ate ravenously for a little while, chopping and changing, turning from this to that—from tinned peaches to pickles, from pickles to condensed milk—but their appetites soon failed. They became solemn and spoke of Second-Lieutenant Norman Chissell6 who had been killed at the rear of the convoy by bomb blast earlier in the day. An original member of the unit, Norman had been commissioned in March and posted to the Divisional Petrol Company.
The driver of the 30-cwt. told how Sergeant Buckleigh's detachment had collected the 32nd Battery of the 7th Anti-Tank Regiment from Kokkinoplos:
‘We did the job two nights ago. They dragged us away late in the evening from a supply dump we were stuck into—beer, tobacco, good tinned stuff. We went along the main road and turned right before it goes up into the pass. We stopped in a paddock for a bit and then set off up a hell of a narrow, winding, rocky track. There was just room for a 30-cwt.—a three-tonner wouldn't have page 74 made the corners. We must have been the first transport to go up there since Adam was a cowboy. It was getting dark now and raining pretty steady and on the left-hand side of the road there was a sheer drop. Away in the hills you could see the guns flashing like summer lightning—at least I suppose it was the guns—but you couldn't hear them or tell whose they were.
‘It took us a while to get to where we had to pick up the antitank jokers and when we did arrive there was a long wait. It was as black as the inside of a cow and raining hard and we had an awkward place to turn the trucks in. One of them had conked out a little way down the track, blocking it completely, so “Buck” gave orders to shove it over the cliff. We had time, though, to strip her of anything worth keeping.
‘The anti-tank boys were just about finished when they arrived. They'd marched miles over the mountains and had had to destroy all their guns and transport. They didn't feel too good about it.
‘We travelled south all the rest of that night and part of the next day, dropping our passengers in an area off the Larissa-Tyrnavos road. After a bit of a rest we headed back to a dump near Tvrnavos to pick up some petrol and stuff that had to be taken to Molos for the 4th Brigade.
‘We got to the area, threw the load on, and still had a bit of daylight left. We were parked right by a river and it was a corker evening. We had a clean up and some of the boys got their rifles out and threw tins in the river for target practice. Some storks came over and we put a few shots round them. There was a supply dump on the other side of the road but the eyes had been picked out of it and the Greeks were lugging away what was left—bully and stuff. Some of the B Section jokers had some beer but not enough for a party.
‘We had a great night's sleep and it was daylight when we woke up this morning. “Buck” came round and said we were to get cracking at once as Jerry was only one jump behind us. It was as quiet as one thing and there was hardly any stuff going past on the road. We caught up the main traffic stream just outside Larissa and got in with you jokers not long before we were bombed.’
By this time most of his listeners had wandered back to their own vehicles. With the two or three that remained the talk became page 75 general. It was agreed that fighters and anti-aircraft guns were on their way to Greece and that the Germans were certainly being drawn into a trap. The next couple of weeks might not be so good but after that—BASH! The bombing had been bad, yes, but look how few casualties there had been. And look, taking it by and large, how few vehicles had been hit! The Germans were getting it, too. Our Divisional Cavalry by the Aliakmon River, our machine-gunners at Veve—this was the story and we believed it—had caused such slaughter among drugged German infantry advancing shoulder to shoulder that many of them had vomited over their guns. But how they came on! ‘A Div. Cav. joker,’ said someone, ‘told me that when the Jerries come to a blown bridge they drive a tank into the gap, and if that doesn't fill it they drive another one in and they keep on driving tanks in until it is filled. Then the rest of the tanks drive straight on over.’
After a while the column moved again. An endless stream of lorries was heading for the Thermopylae line, grinding, clanking, creaking, whining through the night—the drivers, dirty, unshaven, red eyed, sitting stiffly behind their steering wheels, the trays of their lorries packed with sprawling, exhausted troops or with huge, unwieldy, hastily flung on loads. The air was heavy with the reek of burnt petrol. Every now and then the miles-long column ground to a halt and then there was a long, listening silence complete except for the quick whisper of exhausts. Behind every steering wheel a cigarette glowed redly, for no one was any longer observing the rules about smoking. Then the convoy would move on again with a deep growl of lorries in low gear, which presently thinned out to a monotonous whine as the drivers shifted into third.
During the early part of the night nearly everyone drove without lights, but later, as there was no evidence that the Luftwaffe was on night duty, sections of the column, one after another, switched on their headlamps, and soon the road was twinkling and sparkling for miles. It was as though a necklace of brilliants had been flung around the dark shoulders of the hills. Sometimes a British military policeman, standing at bridge or crossroads, would call out: ‘Switch off those lights, chum, or you'll get bombed’. Then a section of the necklace would vanish, only to appear again ten minutes later.
For a long time the drivers had been puzzled by a rosy glow ahead of them. It was a town burning and someone said it was page 76 Lamia. A group of our lorries halted in the main street and the drivers were able to look around. Ordinarily they would have been sad to see Greek houses—houses from which people had waved to them and brought them presents—burning steadily, but today they had been through enough emotional experiences and if they felt anything at all it was gratitude for the pleasant warmth. A rain of soft hot ash was falling in the street and the atmosphere belonged to a drowsy afternoon in midsummer. The fire had eaten up about three-quarters of the main street and was now consuming the rest without any unnecessary fuss or noise. No one was trying to put it out: possibly everyone had fled. It was a fantastic sight. Each naked rafter wore a comb of fire and little questing flames were flickering about the charred doors and windows in search of further nourishment. In the ruins of the local cinema what was left of the grand piano glowed like a yule-log.
Leaving it behind for the Germans—it was only a tiny incident in the long Walpurgis night they had wished on the whole world—our lorries drove on into the cold darkness, which seemed to be unending and immutable. Nine miles was as much as they did in any hour and sometimes they did no more than two.
Dawn came at last and the journey ended soon afterwards. Second-Lieutenant Fenton's detachment dropped the 20th Battalion in its new positions and then set out to rejoin the unit, finding it on the coast below Molos. Sergeant Buckleigh's detachment off-loaded and remained under the command of the 4th Brigade.
The rest of our load-carriers had also been on the road that night and the day before. On Friday the 18th at seven in the morning a Don R had arrived from Headquarters NZASC and told the Major to take us back to the Tyrnavos area. We were to help withdraw the 4th Brigade Group.
Refreshed by our sound sleep we set out in good spirits along the coast road and although we were attacked from the air no harm was done—the heavy bombing and strafing of Second-Lieutenant Fenton's and Sergeant Buckleigh's detachments was taking place on the inland road. The convoy was halted and dispersed about eight miles south-east of Larissa and the Major went ahead in his car to see how the land lay. The situation was page 77 obscure and the available reports were not reassuring. He passed through Larissa, which was being heavily bombed at the time, and carried on until he reached the Tyrnavos area, where he found the 4th Reserve Mechanical Transport Company. No instructions had been left for him.
Puzzled, he returned to the lorries and at the entrance to the dispersal area was met by a Don R who handed him a message cancelling his previous instructions and telling him to go back to Almiros to await others. The convoy started at once.
To move in or out of many roadside areas in Greece was impossible without wheel chains, and we seemed to spend half our days kneeling in the mud with broken finger nails and bleeding knuckles grappling to our chests the dead weight of those icy, slimy, accursed, indispensable chains. On the roads they were a nuisance because they worked loose and flailed the mudguards.
The drivers of a three-tonner at the tail of the convoy were removing theirs when they were attacked by three Messerschmitts. Their lorry was set on fire and destroyed, and Captain Sampson's pick-up, which they had pulled out of the mud a little earlier, had to be abandoned with four flat tires.
During the journey to Almiros the convoy was attacked several times and A Section's ack-ack crew did good work. If Percy Sanders and Jim Stanley had been using a heavier gun in Greece, a .5 instead of a .303, they would have been shooting down aircraft instead of merely opposing them. They cost the Luftwaffe some flying time (because even bullet holes have to be repaired) and probably, by keeping irresolute pilots high, they saved some lives; but a light machine gun—and this applied equally to B and C Sections' crews—was not the weapon they deserved. Percy was hitting the bombers with his Bren—you could see the tracer stubs flaking away as the bullets hit the armour-plating—but, heart-breakingly, they seldom took notice. No wonder he was seen, after one raid, to throw his gun on the ground and jump on it. Jim was using the Boys anti-tank rifle (weight 34 lb.), firing it from the shoulder until he was a mass of bruises. ‘I'll get the bastard,’ he used to say, savagely jamming shells into the magazine. ‘He's only got to fly low and slow and I'll get the bastard.’ One day the chance he had been waiting for came. He was sitting on a grassy slope with the rifle between his knees when a fighter-bomber cruised page 78 lazily down the valley. When it was level with him and about seventy yards away he heaved the rifle to his shoulder, took careful aim—Jim had smashed as many clay pigeons as any man in New Zealand—and squeezed. The rifle misfired. Jim was too upset even to swear.
However, he and Percy continued to stand by their guns, and they stood by them valiantly on 18 April on the road to Almiros. This was a town about twenty miles south-west of Volos, four from the coast, and between fifty and sixty miles by road from the Thermopylae line. No fresh orders awaited the Major when he got there, so at ten that night he set out for the Thermopylae line—an action he was told later was correct.
By daylight we were in an area near Longos, a small coast village some fifteen miles east-south-east of Molos. There was no work for us that day, so we tried to get some sleep, but sleep was almost impossible. All day long reconnaissance planes hovered noisily above our olive trees in search of dispersal areas and we strongly suspected that they were being helped by fifth columnists. We were warned to be on the lookout for a blue touring car, the driver of which was believed to be signalling to aircraft by parking it near areas that contained troops and vehicles. Only a short while before two drivers had halted just such a car, something about it having aroused suspicion. They had searched it but had found nothing to justify their detaining the driver and his passengers.
The next day was 20 April, a Sunday. It was also Adolf Hitler's 52nd birthday. Congratulatory messages were in order and the Luftwaffe decided to say it with bombs. Bombs fell on roads and bridges, bullets pruned the olive trees in the dispersal areas, and we were grateful that we were not called on to make any general move. By this time Company headquarters had shifted to an area near Atalante, some fifteen miles farther down the road, and a small convoy of our load-carriers, which had spent the night there, had to rejoin the sections at Longos. The birthday bombs fell steadily all the way but no one was hurt, the narrowest escape occurring when a piece of shrapnel the size of a flat-iron passed between two drivers and out through the back of their cab.
Workshops, which had been in an area off the Thebes-Khalkis road since the 16th, also had cause to remember the birthday. At eight in the morning three sticks of bombs fell on a nearby Aus- page 79 tralian ambulance unit. Our drivers dug slit-trenches and then went on with their work. About ten o'clock, eight aircraft (to choose the most conservative sum from a mass of hasty arithmetic) started to bomb and machine-gun the area. One bomb landed a few feet from a staff car without damaging it but shrapnel and bullets sped unerringly towards a new radiator just fitted to a load-carrier. A chin-strap broke when a steel helmet was torn from its wearer's head by blast and that was the sum of the damage—a not very impressive total for a raid in which between forty and fifty bombs had been dropped.
The raids continued and by three in the afternoon the drivers had retired in disgust to a dry creek-bed some distance from the area, leaving a sergeant, a corporal, and two volunteers to operate a report centre.
Just on dusk two Messerschmitts flew low over the area. By this time it was pitted with bomb holes, so the pilots may well have gone home to report that in addition to the damage done to Khalkis harbour during the day a scene of chaos existed beside the Thebes-Khalkis road. The truth would have disappointed them. A direct hit had been scored on the cookhouse, smashing the two olive trees between which it had been set up and strewing the neighbourhood with dixies, flour, and tinned food—this was the worst damage—and the water cart had been riddled with holes, but it would still go and the bottom half of the tank would still hold water.
Workshops inspected its area with wonder and happy pride. The drivers gathered beside the indestructible staff car to marvel at the enlargement of the original crater by a second bomb. They agreed that a greatcoat riddled by machine gun bullets had certainly been mistaken for a prone soldier and that the administrative corporal had cut a ludicrous figure while sheltering in a too-small slittrench. They wondered how the sections had got on.
The sections had got on very well. The same euphrasia was being experienced in the Longos area and here, too, the tendency was to laugh and talk. The birthday had been going on all over eastern Greece all day.
During the afternoon the spare men and the drivers without vehicles had been given a particularly unpleasant task—the loading of the unit's transport with 3000 rounds of 25-pounder, all of which was in a single stack a few miles from the area. The Major himself page 80 superintended the operation, taking with him enough labour to load two or three lorries at a time, his idea being to get the job done quickly so that the men could return to the comparative safety of the olive trees. The lorries were held on the road two to a mile and as they were needed they were signalled forward by Dick Grant,7 the Major's driver. His was an unenviable job and he performed it with such coolness that he was later awarded the Military Medal. Enemy aircraft were overhead nearly all the time but the Major refused to allow anyone to take cover. Consequently the stack was soon cleared and the lorries safely dispersed in the unit area.
The birthday ended when night came, and although it had been our most dangerous day so far only two men had been injured—neither seriously. They were Jack Murdoch8 (C Section) and ‘Scotty’ Reid9 (B Section).
By now the New Zealand Artillery had taken up positions in the Thermopylae line and at midnight we started delivering ammunition to the guns. While we were doing this the Major was asked for enough transport to move the 24th Battalion to a fresh position in the line. Hardly a load-carrier was in the area, but he rushed round to the various regiments and by three in the morning a convoy had been assembled and was embussing the infantry. It returned to Longos the next day, and but for the Luftwaffe, which seemed remarkably fresh after the birthday celebrations, we should have spent a quiet afternoon.
The sea was nearby and that evening many of us had a quick bathe. The water was cold but it was deliciously refreshing. When aircraft came over we stretched ourselves on the pebbles and lay still, letting the creamy surf wash over us.
Nearly everyone was in good fettle. From the downward curve of the sun you could trace the upward curve of our spirits: it was a new law of nature introduced by the Luftwaffe. We boasted about our prowess as runners, making it the subject of ridiculous comparisons (‘Boy, did I move? Lovelock's a slug to me.’), and every- page break page break page 81 thing at all funny was treasured and passed around. The best story, perhaps, was about a B Section driver. He was travelling along the road when he heard what he thought was a motor-cycle roaring behind him. He indicated that the road was clear and a Messerschmitt swept by at hedge height. He swears that the pilot leaned out of the cockpit and acknowledged the courtesy with a gracious wave.
Bombing in Larissa
A convoy halted in Volos
‘A direct hit on the cookhouse’—page 79
Laughing and talking and calling to one another in the darkness, the drivers ate their supper and turned in. Presently the whole area was hushed. All you could hear was the footsteps of the sentries as they strolled under the olive trees, a muffled grumble of talk coming from a lorry far up the hillside, and the occasional sweet, clear pipe of a night bird. We had been told that the German paratroopers signalled to one another by imitating bird calls.
All night long, silent, impassive, stoical, in twos, in tens, in twenties, not glancing at the sentry who stood in the entrance to our area, Greek soldiers trudged south. None of them had rifles; few carried anything beyond a small bundle. They were like the chorus in a Greek tragedy. They were not men, you felt, but symbols of defeat, expressing all the pity and terror of the world we live in but feeling none of it themselves. Probably, though, they had fought with unbelievable bravery and their hearts were full of bitterness and anguish. Or were they merely dead-tired and longing for home and glad that for them the war was nearly over?
The sentry at the entrance was puzzled. He did not know that a Greek army in the Epirus had been surrounded and forced to capitulate to the Germans, nor did he know that during the day the Greek Government had asked the British to withdraw their troops from Greece.
General Wavell himself had gone to Athens to make sure of the Government's attitude. It was sensible and honourable. Greece could hold out only a few days longer. Let the British save what they could while they could.
We were told about this the next day. Our first reaction to the news, human and perfectly pardonable, was one of relief. Freedom from Stukas, a hot bath, leave in Cairo—it sounded like Heaven. Then we remembered the old men who had saluted us, the women we had seen working on the roads, and the hundreds of baby fists, page 82 so cocky and confident, that had waved frantically for notice or had been held up proudly for our attention: Look, English—the sign! Your sign! Thumbs up! We remembered the storm of flowers and the faces in the twilight in Athens. There would, of necessity, be a ride back.
And we remembered other things. ‘The English? They know only one military operation—re-embarkation.’ Lord Haw-Haw had called us ‘Freyberg's Circus’, and how did it go, that epigram? Give the Canadians more motor-cycles and they'll break their necks; leave the Australians alone and they'll kill each other off; pay the New Zealanders an extra pound a week and they'll drink themselves to death. No libel so wounding as the one with a small core of truth. No, we were not looking forward to that second ride through Athens.
The Major told us of the withdrawal after breakfast on the morning of the 22nd and he added a word of warning. He had noticed, he said, that some of us were getting jittery. He reminded us that only one man in the unit had so far been killed, though all had had narrow escapes. It was better, he said, to go home without an arm or a leg than with broken nerves.
After that the odd men and the drivers without vehicles stacked their kitbags in a dry ditch, guessing they had seen the last of them, though there was some talk of sending them down later. Then they climbed aboard two A Section lorries and were driven south under the command of Second-Lieutenant Toogood. Their destination was an assembly area near Daphni on the outskirts of Athens. They were attacked several times on the way down and on one occasion six A Section drivers could find nothing to shelter behind except a lone sapling whose trunk was as slender as a drainpipe. They packed round it tighter than piglets round a trough and waited for the bullets, but they never came. The Messerschmitt rose to avoid the sapling then dipped to machine-gun the drivers from the second lorry who were sheltering in a ditch by the roadside. No one was hurt.
When the party reached the Daphni area they found that Company headquarters was already there. Workshops arrived the next day.page 83
Moved off (noted the senior NCO, Staff-Sergeant Jim Harley),10 at 5 a.m. after making sure that everything possible was destroyed. Went through Thebes and were lucky enough to find gap on main south road through which to move our convoy. Destroyed vehicles lying on both sides of road. Had anxious time getting our heavy vehicles past some of the wrecks.
8 a.m. Were caught in Thebes Pass. Enemy planes overhead had caused a large convoy to stop. Strafing but no damage done.
9 a.m. Got going again. Orders were for us to destroy Workshops and stores waggons by running them over the steepest cliff in the pass but thought better of it and took them on.
2 p.m. Arrived Daphni. Quite a number of unit vehicles parked in olive grove. Dispersed and settled down for a meal.
4 p.m. Enemy planes over; no damage.
The rest of the unit spent the day in the Longos area. The Luftwaffe was never very far away but good luck and good management kept our drivers safe until the friendly darkness arrived, bringing them a second night of sound sleep. The next morning, however, the enemy came over before he was expected, catching B Section off guard. Its area was heavily bombed and machine-gunned, Georgie Ireland11 and R. V. B. Brown12 being partly buried by a bomb and Claude Hitchon13 and ‘Kolynos’ Carroll14 wounded. Two vehicles, one an LAD,15 were damaged.
Later in the morning we were told to keep two lorries for unit transport and destroy the rest, with the exception of eighteen from C Section, four from A Section, and three from B Section, which were to stand by to help with the withdrawal of the 6th Brigade. First we removed the petrol tanks for delivery to the New Zealand Artillery, which was short of petrol. Then we drained the oil from sumps and differentials and poured grit in them. We started the engines and pulled the throttles wide open. They hammered for a time; then they began to cough and spit. Finally they clattered page 84 into silence. The Major went round with his tommy gun and delivered the coup-de-grâce. They were good lorries. They had covered thousands of miles in Egypt and the Western Desert, and in Greece most of them had done about 4000 miles. For many months they had been our jobs and our homes. Savagely we drove picks into headlamps, radiators, windscreens; we slashed tires, destroyed dynamos, batteries, distributors.
Then we sat down to refresh ourselves with tinned fruit. The twisted roots of the olive trees were now our larders, their cleft trunks our wardrobes, their branches our coat-hangers. Owning nothing except what we stood up in and could carry, and having nothing to take care of any longer except our rifles and ourselves, we felt strangely free.
Late that afternoon, with many glances at the sky, the drivers whose vehicles had been destroyed left for Daphni in the two lorries that had been kept for that purpose, Captain Moon leading them in his staff car. They arrived safely, as Workshops had done earlier in the day. The Longos area was empty now except for the transport that was standing by to shift the 6th Brigade. At eight the evening before twenty-five vehicles from the Supply Column and twenty-five from the Petrol Company had come under the Major's command for this job.
Since dawn on the 23rd the 6th Brigade, supported by the New Zealand Artillery and a number of British guns, had been holding the coast sector of the Thermopylae line. By day it had been under almost constant attack from the air and during the afternoon of the 24th our infantry and artillery engaged enemy tanks and infantry. The men were to withdraw with their guns that night, relying on speed and darkness to see them safely through the dangerous miles that lay between Molos and the 4th Brigade's covering positions at Kriekouki, a mountain pass south of Thebes.
On the evening of the 23rd the Major had been shown the embussing point in the 6th Brigade headquarters' area by the Brigade Major and told that his transport was to be there at nine o'clock the next night. Later, however, it was decided to advance the hour so as to free the narrow coast road for south-bound traffic engaged in earlier withdrawals, but because communications had broken down the Major did not get his fresh orders. (It would have page 85 made no difference if he had. Nothing—not even a motor-cycle—could move on the road in daylight.) Consequently, when the convoy did not arrive at the embussing point in the afternoon, the brigade concluded that it was lost and the 6th Field Regiment was ordered to destroy its guns to free transport for evacuating men.
Following what he thought was still the plan, the Major left the Longos area after dark with the intention of getting his convoy to the embussing point at nine o'clock, but even this was not possible. The timetable had broken down and the convoy was delayed by south-bound Artillery transport.
As the lorries drew near the danger zone—Molos had been shelled heavily a few hours earlier—flares and Very lights made everything as bright as day, and our drivers, with lorry almost touching lorry, felt certain they had been spotted. Subsequent talks with the infantry suggested that fifth columnists were responsible.
The infantry, as it happened, were also late in arriving, but at half past nine the vehicles from our unit embussed the 24th Battalion. Under the weird light, fantastic with leaping shadows and sudden gouts of darkness and sinister with small sounds, the lorries were loaded and in no time they were down on their springs with their canopies bulging like untidy parcels. Some of the men were famished and our drivers showed them where the food was kept and the cigarettes.
One by one the lorries disappeared in the darkness and went lurching along the narrow road, travelling without lights. The Major and Second-Lieutenant Butt16 stayed behind with their lorries to pick up stragglers. They collected twenty-one and pulled out just in front of the rearguard, beating the enemy by twenty minutes and passing through Atalante ten minutes before the arrival of an enemy force that had driven down the centre of Greece.
More than a hundred miles were covered before daylight and morning found the brigade well south of the last line of defence. The 24th Battalion was hidden in an oak grove near Eleusis, a few miles north-west of Athens, with the transport camouflaged and the infantry sleeping. Re-embarkation had started already and that night the brigade was to go to a beach near Marathon.
It was Anzac Day.
6 2 Lt N. F. Chissell; garage attendant; born NZ, 25 May 1917; killed in action, 18 Apr 1941.
7 Dvr R. S. Grant, MM; garage attendant; Frankton Junction; born NZ, 29 Nov 1911.
10 Capt J. W. Harley; mechanic; Leeston; born NZ, 23 Apr 1911.
14 Dvr G. M. Carroll; cook; born England, 6 Jun 1916; wounded and p.w. Apr 1941.
15 Light Aid Detachment.