CHAPTER 5 — Greece
By 18 March, when the Divisional Cavalry left Egypt, three flights of ships had already taken the greater part of the Division to Greece. When the regiment's turn came it travelled on two ships, the Anglo-Canadian which carried the vehicles with skeleton crews, and the Ionia which took the bulk of the personnel together with the Australian 2/1 Battalion. Both ships were very crowded, but this mattered little as it was a fairly short trip.
The weather remained fair and the sea reasonably calm until the 20th, when the wind became colder and raised a choppy sea. In the middle of the afternoon some dive-bombers suddenly attacked, but there was still ample time to man the light anti-aircraft guns and, when the Anglo-Canadian was sorted out as a first target, the aircraft were greeted one after another with a tremendous hail of small-arms fire and forced to break away. The welcome they received was not to be wondered at for the ship carried as deck cargo two 3-ton trucks loaded with high explosive, whose presence was an incentive in itself to vigorous and accurate shooting. But the convoy did not get away unscathed. One ship, a tanker, was hit and set on fire and had to fall behind under escort of a destroyer.
The following day, 21 March, the convoy arrived at Piraeus harbour and disembarkation began almost immediately. Transport was waiting at the quay to take dismounted personnel to the transit camp at Kifisia.
Here at last the men found themselves once again on the same sweet, clean, green land as their own homes, and just for the sake of it they lay down for a moment on the grass under the young pine trees. Just for the simple joy of it they took off their jackets so that they could actually hang them on a twig. They bathed in the little streams just to be sure that cold water, as it had done since they were children, could still sting their skin.
The Divisional Cavalry saw little of Athens, for even before the vehicles were unloaded orders had been received to move to battle positions in northern Greece. But what little they did see of the city and its people they fell in love with. The popu- page 52 lace appeared all unbalanced, for Athens, it seemed, was completely empty of men between the ages of sixteen and sixty. The young Greek women were beautiful and, though anything but forward, were quite friendly. On the trip north, where the manual labour on the roads was all being done by women, hardly a girl in any gang looked up until the oldest woman did so and smiled. Then, as if by signal, they all smiled and waved.
The various spirits and wines of the country took some learning. There was koniak. Major Russell's warning to B Squadron was alliteratively succinct: ‘Koniak is a rough kind of brandy. It begins with a “k” and ends with a “k” and has a kick with a capital “K” at both ends!’ There was ouzo, a white spirit, innocently smooth to the palate and tasting strongly of aniseed. Some had tried its like in Egypt under the name of zibib. To be drunk on it was to be drunk for days when any kind of liquid was taken: a frightening drink. Then there was the wine of the country, mavrodaphne; red, resinous, neither sweet nor dry. It was rather heady, indeed extremely so when taken as the beer-drinking New Zealanders did—in great quaffs—much to the surprise of the locals.
Unloading the vehicles went on apace during 23 and 24 March and there were losses on the quayside. Two trucks were written off, one when an armoured car slipped back out of its sling into the hold, suffering some damage, and the other when a guy rope on a crane snapped and the crane, with an armoured car and a truck in its sling, collapsed on to the quay.
The tracked vehicles, two trainloads of them, and the wheeled vehicles started north on the 25th. En route the uninhibited warmth of the people's good wishes touched the New Zealanders' hearts. Without any effort the Greeks made them feel as if they were about to defend their own soil, for they wished them God-speed with a fervour that should only have been possible to their own kith and kin.
Through towns like Thebes, steeped in history and legend, they passed, and in the great pass of Thermopylae they could almost feel the ghosts of the warriors of Leonidas and Xerxes. Wherever they went and whenever they stopped the men felt the warmth of the Greeks' welcome and blessing.
Thus it could reinforce success if Yugoslavia decided to resist Germany. Subsequent events showed that neither happened. The Yugoslavs were soon overrun and the pressure everywhere had become so great that all thought went towards an orderly retirement. Under these circumstances the Divisional Cavalry was a unit that was extended to its fullest. But that is anticipating the story.
The Aliakmon line was still being built by the Greeks across the rolling country about 12 miles from Katerini. Two New Zealand brigades were now digging in along this line and it was Div Cav's task to patrol forward of it to the Aliakmon River. There it was to make the Division's first contact with the enemy, and after making all crossings impassable, to retire behind the main divisional line.
Forward of the Aliakmon and well north of the Division was the British 1 Armoured Brigade, based on Edhessa. This brigade's job was to carry out delaying actions between the Axios River and the Aliakmon line. To the right of the brigade, up in the hills of the border, was the Greek Cavalry Division. This formation was also to impede any enemy advance and to retire back into the main defensive line, using the route through the town of Servia. Thus Div Cav's interest in the enemy concerned those who advanced through Salonika, and the original plans made no mention of Allied troops forward of the river. Nevertheless, though the rail bridge and all secondary road bridges over the Aliakmon were to be destroyed, the main bridge, facing the road junction at Yidha, was to be left until the very last minute.
On arrival in the Katerini area on 26 March the armoured vehicles were immediately unloaded and camouflaged. Urgent work, and much of it, was required on the carriers to make them battle-worthy, for some of them had done as much as 500 miles in Egypt and they had been rushed forward as soon as they arrived in Greece.
Regimental Headquarters took up a position near the village of Aiyinion and the stretch of the Aliakmon River from there page 55 to, and including, the main road bridge became the responsibility of A Squadron. B Squadron covered a similar stretch of river upstream. C Squadron remained in reserve near RHQ.
The large triangle of country between the river and the main divisional line was thoroughly reconnoitred, using as much as possible the armoured cars and some soft-skinned vehicles. The countryside generally caused some misgivings as both that and the roads, to a great extent, were suitable only for tracked vehicles.
Patrols also went forward of the Aliakmon; almost to Salonika; actually to Veroia, and well north to Yiannitsa to make contact with 4 Hussars and the King's Royal Rifles, both part of 1 Armoured Brigade.
Maintenance and reconnaissance kept the regiment fully occupied until 1 April, when orders were received to move forward into proper battle positions, and from then on A and B Squadrons had some 14 or 15 miles of river to watch, from near Aiyinion to the village of Varia, where a secondary road crossed the river. This was considered impassable except at the bridges which, as has been mentioned, had been or were to be destroyed. Over and above such definite orders both Major Potter and Major Russell saw fit to destroy other material. In the A Squadron area, on the near side of the river, there was a large dump of timber suitable for bridge-building. Potter had this burnt. On the B Squadron front, near the secondary road, one of the troop leaders noticed a large crane standing by the far bank. Perhaps it had some connection with a large swamp-clearing contract in northern Greece which had been in the hands of a German firm. Nobody seemed to know. But there the crane stood; by its diary it had only been there a short while. Its control and driving mechanism were mounted unusually high—so high that it could stand in the middle of the river and still work either bank—and it appeared stout enough to handle tanks. It was destroyed with gun-cotton.
* * * * *
Any Yugoslav resistance against Germany was overcome almost immediately, so the responsibility of covering the Monastir Gap, on the border, fell mainly on 1 Armoured Brigade. Atchison's first task was routine patrolling up and down the road to Bitolj in Yugoslavia. On 8 April, when the Germans were approaching the Greek border, he was sent up into the hills due north through Ardhea to watch developments on the Greek Division's front. This was a nerve-racking trip through steep, close country, where to put a wheel over the side of the greasy road could mean a fall of hundreds of feet. Refugees were streaming back, Greek troops were hurrying down the hills to join them, and with gunfire ahead he could see very few places to turn. Radio communication was impossible due to enemy jamming, so having been well forward without making contact, he returned to the most forward platoon of the British troops, where he left two of his cars to give support while he returned to the brigade headquarters to report.
But the German advance down the Axios River valley towards Salonika and Yiannitsa had turned the right flank of the brigade, forcing it to retire. Atchison arrived at Edhessa just as the brigade was leaving and was told to follow it if he could. He raced wildly back for the long 18 miles to withdraw his troop and the infantry platoon, and only just made it under the nose of the German advanced guard.
They managed to snatch about three hours of miserable sleep at the new headquarters at Perdikha before being roused at daybreak to go on a long reconnaissance towards the Albanian border. This was another arduous trip, cold as charity, and it took the troop past the town of Kastoria. Apparently fruitless, it later turned out for Atchison a most fortunate trip. However, we must leave him for a while, doing maintenance on his cars after his return, and pick up Cole's story again.
By the morning of 10 April the enemy had overcome all opposition in southern Yugoslavia and was approaching the border via the roads through Bitolj. Cole was sent forward to page 58 protect a detachment of Royal Engineers who were to destroy bridges. The first of these to be chosen was just over the border, so paradoxically, the first New Zealand shots fired in the Greek campaign—and for that matter the first decoration won—were actually in Yugoslavia.
The detachment arrived about 9 a.m. and Cole placed Corporal King's3 car about a quarter of a mile up the road, with his own and Sergeant Sutherland's4 cars closer to the bridge at either side of the road, while the sappers began to prepare the demolition.
It was going to be quite a lengthy task as the bridge was very solidly built of large hewn stones. But the enemy came into sight within twenty minutes. In the lead were several motor-cycle combinations, which were first engaged by King and then by Sutherland when he had backed off a little to gain a better fire position. Cole also backed down a little to observe his troop better. Then the sappers themselves, not unwillingly, as they became available, grabbed rifles and joined in. Presently some enemy vehicles moved up through the motor-cycles, bringing more troops, some mortars and heavy machine guns. The chances of completing the demolition were rapidly fading. The enemy were using explosive bullets and the outsides of the cars were rapidly getting stripped of such things as bedding and tools. Cole noticed that he had even lost some of his wheel-nuts; and his turret had become half jammed. With every hit on the cars the crews were being temporarily blinded by flying asbestos from inside the walls.
When Cole saw infantry deploying to both sides he realised that there was obviously going to be no demolition and he radioed King to draw back, fearing that he would be surrounded. King's reaction was to move forward and engage the enemy even more vigorously, replying that to pull back to the bridge would only concentrate all the fire there of all places, just when Cole had to get the explosives truck turned round in almost full view of the enemy. Cole pulled back close by it to make some cover and then recalled Sutherland to where he could give supporting fire to King, who was almost surrounded. King finally consented to return and everyone moved under cover. Suspecting a trap, the enemy did not advance immediately and thus gave the detachment time to pull out.page 59
They drove back helter-skelter for seven or eight miles before stopping at another bridge, this time a wooden one. The explosives truck had not stopped so they pulled off the railings and stacked them in the middle of the deck, soaked them with petrol, and set them on fire. (Sutherland recalls his great annoyance on this occasion when, having spotted the enemy about three-quarters of a mile away, and having reported this to his troop leader, all the party did was to line up on the bridge while the Engineer officer, a Captain Page,5 took their photograph.)
They then drove on a short way and set the next bridge on fire in the same manner, but without the frivolity of taking photographs once the job was done.
Having now gained, so they thought, a good start on the enemy, they were bowling along homewards with more confidence when, at a crossroads a little short of the village of Sitaria, they had a sudden awakening. This shock was mutual to the New Zealanders and to the enemy troops whom they surprised there right on their line of retreat. The enemy were not expecting visitors—not British ones from that direction— and were mainly dismounted and grouped about a culvert enjoying the sunshine. Cole, who was in the lead, pulled up all standing and the two other cars were upon him before he had time to warn them. They all backed off behind a rise to take quick stock of the situation. They were trapped if they did not act pretty quickly for the enemy simply had to turn one vehicle sideways on and they were all ‘in the bag’. But success was the reward of quick wits. Everyone opened fire and they turned the surprise to their own advantage. The enemy troops bolted for their vehicles and made off down the side road whence they had come, while with every gun blazing, the detachment charged the position and was through. And even as they flew by they had the satisfaction of seeing at least four vehicles still standing near the crossroads and of surmising that they had been put out of action.
We must now pick up Atchison's story again. On 11 April he was sent right across into Albania to make contact with the Greek troops there and to make sure that the bridges along the route had been prepared for demolition. Then the next day he was sent back as an escort for some Royal Engineers who were to destroy a particular bridge in Albania. Each of page 60 these drives was all of 150 miles through mountainous country and over difficult roads, and they proved most exhausting. However, the work was done without complaining. Atchison even accepted quite complacently the fact that when he was almost back at Perdikha he found that he was now in enemy-held territory, since the brigade had been forced back in his absence and, before going, had blown a bridge. He had been left to work out his own salvation!
This he did. Stoically he turned his troop about and, after picking up all the petrol he could carry from a dump that the enemy had not yet found, he set off to get back through Albania. All that night he led the way through this long roundabout route, hampered all the way by retreating Greek troops and by refugees, and by eight o'clock the next morning, while heading for Grevena, he stumbled upon the brigade's B Echelon. Nor is there any report that he even complained on reporting to headquarters just to be told that they were surprised to see him.
From here on the story of both troops becomes a story of successive rearguards—forward to destroy bridges; back under fire—and of frequent vicious air attacks which cost them two lives: Trooper Risk,6 killed on 14 April, and Corporal King, who died of wounds on the 17th. They fought rearguards covering the Australians' withdrawal, oddly enough in company with the very same tanks for which the two troops had been exchanged by the New Zealand Division in the first place. Gradually the cars were whittled down and the two troops were merged into one under Atchison, while Cole was left to do road patrol work which finally landed him back almost with his own squadron during the parachute attack on Corinth —except that, and perhaps fortunately for him, he was on the wrong side of the canal at the time. Near Thebes, Atchison's movements coincided with those of A Squadron, and from then on until the evacuation his story merges with the squadron's.
* * * * *
From the moment it arrived along the Aliakmon River until the German attack, the Divisional Cavalry was fully employed, not just with intensive reconnaissance but also with preparations. Roads were far from satisfactory, and all available labour was used to improve those from the troop positions. Troop commanders had been ordered to dig in their vehicles and to camouflage them.page 61
Attached to the regiment was Captain Bevan7 with E Troop, 5 Field Regiment, and O Troop of 34 Battery, 7 Anti-Tank Regiment, under command of Lieutenant Patterson.8 The 6th Field Company, NZE, had sent No. 3 Section (Lieutenant Chapman9) forward to take charge of demolitions, and also some small assault boats so that Div Cav could still do a limited amount of dismounted patrolling forward once the bridges were blown.
As wireless silence was imposed the Divisional Signals ran out a telephone line to RHQ from Divisional Headquarters. At the same time Div Cav took the precaution of netting in, on its forward link to squadrons, one of the radios in the cars sent forward to 1 Armoured Brigade. This step was very soon justified for, during the enemy thrust down the Axios River towards Salonika, a crossing of this river was also made just south of the Yugoslav border. The regiment thus had early warning of the advance towards Yiannitsa which turned the right flank of the Armoured Brigade.
It was doubly fortunate that the regimental forward link was used because the OC A Squadron, Major Potter, was thus immediately in touch with the situation, and when the last of the bridges was ordered to be blown he realised the importance of stalling for time as the tanks which were coming in exchange for Div Cav cars were to use this road bridge. They had not yet arrived, and furthermore, so long as the bridge stood, it was an alternative route of retirement should anything occur to block the whole or part of the Armoured Brigade from getting back through Veroia. Potter compromised in the meantime by blowing the railway bridge and, with the personal assurance of Brigadier Charrington that there yet was no danger, coupled with the fact that the ‘exchange’ tanks were definitely coming, he sent forward Lieutenants Robinson and Ward10 to guide them in whilst he strengthened his position temporarily with a good strong standing patrol at the far side of the bridge. As well as this, he stood by with the sappers to order the firing of the charge should the worst happen.page 62
This initiative was rewarded by good fortune. The Armoured Brigade got clear by the Veroia route and soon after daybreak on the 9th the tanks arrived.
The bridge was then blown and a temporary wooden structure beside it was hauled down with the help of the tanks. These were then guided back by Corporal Ryan11 to the headquarters of C Squadron, which was still in reserve near RHQ.
A and B Squadrons could now only wait passively for the enemy to arrive. Refugees were coming back and quite substantial numbers using bullock wagons were fording the river in B Squadron's area. However, they were successfully dissuaded by firing bursts of Vickers gunfire along the river.
Until now the weather had been pleasantly warm and the ground reasonably passable for all fighting vehicles, but on the night of 11 April a heavy rain set in which very soon made the ground far too muddy, particularly in the A Squadron area, to risk leaving armoured cars off the road, as in the likely event of having to disengage at close range, this was going to need brisk movement with no delays. A Squadron therefore had to make a very uncomfortable changeover between carrier and car troops in the middle of the night.
All morning on the 12th, Easter Saturday, the forward troops, well dug in along the riverbank, waited tensely.
Then…. The gunners saw them first…. Along the road from Yidha there was sunlight flashing on some windscreens.
Everybody lay low.
About 2 p.m., led by a group of motor-cycle and side-car combinations, some troop-carrying transport arrived. Not a shot was fired, not a soul moved, until the motor-cycles were right up to the bridge approach. Then suddenly the troop on the right of the road opened up with everything: rifles, machine guns, anti-tank rifles. The range was murderously close and only one of the motor-cycles escaped. There was a lull for a while before sniping began from the enemy side. Again the Div Cav men lay low. They would be provoked into betraying nothing; and the tenseness of the afternoon was kept up by the occasional cracks from the snipers' rifles.
The artillerymen were in the same mood. They wanted good targets or none at all. Just before dark the 25-pounders put down two ranging shots on the road back towards Yidha. And they too remained ready and poised.page 63
After dark the enemy began to build up strength. The Divisional Cavalry waited for the dawn. When they hit they had to hit hard. Until a few days previously the Division had not been far behind them, but with its left flank threatened by the rapid German advance through Yugoslavia, it had been drawn back to positions in the Olympus Pass. The regiment was now the best part of 40 miles out in front and, with instructions not to get too heavily involved, savage fire on sure targets was needed to take the enemy's breath away when the moment came to disengage.
The morning was well advanced before things started to happen. About nine o'clock large lorries came forward from Yidha and the mortars were set up in the open. E Troop engaged them. Shortly after this the Div Cav positions at the near end of the bridge came under fire from guns, mortars and machine guns, but this caused little damage to the troops well dug in under the banks. To begin with it provoked nothing from them until, under its cover, the enemy infantry came down to launch assault boats above and below the bridge. Once the boats were well started, down came a repetition of the previous afternoon's point-blank fire. Nothing escaped it.
Three or four times the enemy attempted these crossings but none succeeded. The guns were by now well into the fight. They steadily engaged mortars and transport and even joined in against the assault boats, landing shells without dropping a single one short, within 100 yards of the regiment. But all the while the pressure became greater. Infantry were working down along the river and armoured troop-carriers were coming forward, though with some superb shooting the guns destroyed two of these at over 9000 yards.
Under cover of the attack on the road bridge site another was threatening further downstream at the site of the railway bridge. This of course also threatened the line of retreat through Aiyinion and so the A Squadron reserve troop was sent forward there. On this front, as everywhere else, the enemy was jamming the radio links. He employed a voice which counted steadily up to ten in perfect English, sometimes ending with provocative or insulting remarks. The temptation itself to reply to these put great strain upon the operators! Potter managed, however, to get in touch with B Squadron and learned that Russell had been ordered to withdraw his squadron even though it had not yet been attacked.
A Squadron held on until Potter was sure that B Squadron page 64 was retiring. Heavy fire was now developing against his right flank, while the enemy on his left, at the road bridge, appeared to have had enough. The time had come to pull out. Just after midday the guns were ordered to withdraw and half an hour later the squadron began thinning out, one troop at a time, each coming under fire as it emerged from cover to scuttle back along the road. By four o'clock, with still no enemy across the river, every troop was in position astride the road opposite the ruins of the railway bridge, and an hour later word at last came through from RHQ to be back at Aiyinion within an hour.
Though mud caused some bother getting the armoured cars out, B Squadron disengaged safely as the enemy seemed content to attack along the roads. During the night the squadron had heard plenty of movement towards Veroia and amongst the olive trees across the river. In the morning an enemy reconnaissance plane had been flying up and down the river at tree-top level, but the men were careful not to betray themselves by firing at it.
The retirement was made more or less cross-country to Kolindros and Lieutenant Capamagian's12 car troop, in preparation for this, had improved a cattle track as an alternative route to the road, as the track was completely covered from air observation. It was not needed, but when Capamagian was clear and looked back to see how the carrier troops were faring, he was surprised to see mortar fire landing right on the track, unoccupied as it was. There had been previous orders that, during action, no Greeks were to be considered friendly. In B Squadron at least these orders had been distasteful, as for some days the men had regularly received from a little boy, fresh milk still warm. But obviously all his village was not so genuinely friendly.
Once B Squadron was clear, Colonel Carruth, who had been forward to assess the pressure on A Squadron, withdrew his RHQ and made room for A to fit in just behind C Squadron, in reserve ahead of the anti-tank ditch. A small misinterpretation arose out of these orders for it was Major Harford13 who had the responsibility of finally ordering the blowing of the route over the ditch, so Potter took his squadron right behind page 65 it. However, he had been hitting at the enemy pretty hard and they were not right on his tail, so C Squadron, in its turn, was able to withdraw and effect the demolitions without any trouble and without the need of cover from A. Oddly enough, a day or two later, exactly the reverse happened through another misunderstanding, though this time A Squadron did not manage to break clear quite so easily.
Having already had his nose thoroughly bloodied, the enemy did not come forward on the 14th with quite as much confidence. During the night there had been quite a lot of noise from tanks and transport mustering behind a low ridge, but this time no motor-cyclists heralded the attack in their nonchalant manner. Indeed, at dawn the first enemy to be seen was ‘George’.
‘George’ had already been so constantly about the place that he had acquired this nickname, reminiscent of the inevitable Egyptian who turned up from nowhere away out in the desert at any halt on a route march, bearing a basket of tangerines on his head. This ‘George’ was a light Henschel reconnaissance aircraft which flew about the place, usually at tree-top level. Though not exactly welcome, he was not the kind of visitor that could be actively dissuaded, for he had a vindictive streak and a lot of Stuka relatives in the Luftwaffe and was also in uncomfortably close contact with them. So he flew about the place: ubiquitous, inquisitive, unwelcomed, vindictive and disliked.
C Squadron, straddling the main road at the anti-tank ditch, now held the forward line, with B Squadron on its left deployed well inland. A Squadron was in reserve, but its two armoured car troops were forward in place of Cole's and Atchison's if needed. Regimental Headquarters was behind C Squadron together with E Troop's guns, which were ready to bring down fire on the main road.
Major Harford sent his Intelligence Corporal forward at 6 a.m. to try to get some warning of the enemy approach. This NCO, Corporal Ryan, went rather too far and, though he was able to report plenty of enemy in Kolindros, he was fired on and very nearly cut off on the way back. Soon afterwards tanks came forward and opened machine-gun fire on the squadron to cover the advance of infantry and the setting up of mortars. As there was no river barrier here to cause the building up of a good target before opening fire, C Squadron had to engage as soon as the first enemy appeared. The Boys anti-tank rifles page 66 proved useless against the tanks and their .5 bullets appeared merely to splash off them, but Bren and rifle fire accounted for a lot of infantry who seemed to be armed mostly with Tommy guns. The E Troop guns joined in with some vigour so the squadron was able to hold the position for about two hours. By then Lieutenant Van Slyke,14 on the left flank, had reported German infantry working through the scrub between him and B Squadron, and at the same time armoured vehicles of some sort were getting round the end of the anti-tank ditch on the sea shore.
The Divisional Cavalry was too thin on the ground to do much more than delay such an advance, so to achieve this for even two hours was naturally quite satisfying.
B Squadron withdrew first, and the estimating of the time it would take to be clear of the road junction so that C Squadron could follow without pause had to be fairly accurate. The men themselves had to be steady under fire, for once B Squadron was clear, C Squadron needed to disengage suddenly and move quickly back to the next obstacle—this time a culvert which they blew.
It is hard to turn your back on an enemy at close range, for the moment you do so the skin prickles up and down your spine with anticipation. But once having run, it is harder still to turn and face him again.
By ten o'clock, when the enemy was reported to be approaching the blown culvert, word had come down from Divisional Headquarters for the regiment to fall back behind the main divisional positions. This order came down by wireless direct from the GSO I to the adjutant, Captain Pigou.15
The ‘G.1’ at the time, Colonel Stewart,16 has a stutter which has delighted many a trooper since long before the war. Its peculiarity is that it increases within each sentence until the important word arrives. Then the rest comes out in a rapid and page 67 fluent flow. The following exchange of extemporised radio security in a mixture of Maori and Arabic cannot get full justice from the written word:
‘D-d-d-y' know th-th' meaning o-of h-h-Haeremai?’
‘Don't get you.’
‘D-d-d-y’ know th-th' meaning of t-t-t-Tala hina?'17 ‘Yes.’ ‘W-w-w-w’ bloody-well p-p-p-p-PUT-it-int'effect-immediately!'
That was not hard to do. Headquarters Squadron had been sent back already. B was on the move and went straight back to the foot of Olympus Pass. The guns were sent quickly back behind Katerini to cover the balance of the regiment as it leapfrogged back. But they were not needed and went straight back from there to revert to the command of their own regiment. B Squadron waited at the foot of the pass until the rest were through and then followed on. And by 4 p.m. the whole regiment was back under the wing of the Division.
Many a man glowed with satisfaction that night. For up to eighteen months now some of them had been worrying day after day whether they would be able to ‘take it’: whether they had the courage to stand up to a real enemy when the time came. It had come and they had not been found wanting— even in their own estimation. They were battle-worthy all right. They had proved themselves able to remain coldly calculating while a good target built up, and coldly calculating when they fell upon it. They had proved able to stand up against superior weight, on a forward slope, at close range; to fight; to retire suddenly; to turn and show fight again. They were a team. They had long trusted each other: now at last they trusted themselves too. So far they had not been seriously attacked from the air though they had seen many aircraft passing back over them. They had had their first casualties when a mortar was thought to have killed two men of C Squadron, but later these turned up in a prisoner-of-war camp. The vehicles threatened to give trouble, the carriers in particular. But their crews felt that, given half a chance, they would coax the work out of them somehow, even though three of them had come back over the pass under tow and one had been lost when its steering gear gave trouble at a critical moment.
The great difficulty became just how to find that half-a-chance. It was never found in Greece.page 68
As the enemy had outflanked the Aliakmon line at its northern end, it had been decided that the New Zealanders and Australians would withdraw to Thermopylae. This would give the defenders a line to hold more in keeping with their numbers. Already the Armoured Brigade was being pushed back from Grevena towards Dheskati and the pressure round Servia was becoming too great. All routes of withdrawal converged on the town of Elasson so, at the Divisional Commander's conference on 14 April, Colonel Carruth was given orders to take Div Cav back there and prepare for another rearguard action through the pass at Dheskati. The regiment would work directly under General Blamey, who now commanded the newly-formed Anzac Corps.
The move began at five o'clock the next morning when B Squadron moved out, and by mid-afternoon the squadron, with No. 3 Section, 6 Field Company, and N Troop, 34 Battery, under command, was in a position between Dheskati and the village of Karperon. The sappers brought with them some 1 ½ tons of explosives and 200 mines, ample to prepare four road demolitions. These they immediately set out to do.
Regimental Headquarters with A Squadron took up a position near the village of Kephalovrysis and C Squadron, in reserve, was farther back near Elasson. Headquarters Squadron was sent back to Tirnavos, half-way to Larisa.
The country was not difficult to defend if sufficient troops were available, for it was steep and the roads were narrow; but to conduct a withdrawal was a different story. It began to rain within hours of B Squadron's arriving in position and the roads showed every promise of cutting up as soon as they were required to carry any bulk of traffic.
The regiment had long since lost its own radio communication with Cole and Atchison, indeed all contact with 1 Armoured Brigade. This was now under command of the Anzac Corps and was known to be withdrawing in the direction of Dheskati. So Lieutenant McQueen was sent forward with seven of the DRs to try to gain touch, but though he found by the next morning its camping site for the 15th, he was not so lucky as Atchison at Grevena to tumble right on to it, for the roads in the meantime had become almost impassable. This added another to the regiment's worries, as completing the demolitions forward of Dheskati could have serious consequences if this cut off the line of retirement for the armour. Yet it would be page 69 hazardous for B Squadron to wait until actual contact with the enemy had been made before blowing the road.
The rain continued all night on the 15th and all next day, adding to the difficulties of 26 Battalion which had been near Servia, and which Div Cav met struggling to retire on foot through the steep country north of the road. At the same time Australian artillery units were coming back in dribs and drabs along the road, which was already cutting up. When 26 Battalion got back to the Div Cav positions its men were already heavy with fatigue and lack of sleep and there was no transport forward to pick them up. However, they did at least get a spell near RHQ while a signal was sent back for their transport. As well as this, all the regiment's B Echelon vehicles that could be mustered up were brought up to help carry them.
This small service initiated a warm understanding between the two units which lasted all through the war. Perhaps it was not coincidence that 26 Battalion, four years later, was chosen to train the Divisional Cavalry for a new task.
By the morning of 17 April General Freyberg's broad intention was to have Div Cav for a screen, with anti-tank support where necessary, covering the whole front of the Division as it retired. Rather than place squadrons under command of various brigades, however, he preferred them under their own RHQ. Thus he could retain direct control of them all, through Colonel Carruth, during their movements in what would be rapidly changing conditions, as well as keeping himself instantly informed of the changing circumstances over his whole front.
The 5th Brigade was due to fall back from the north side of Mt Olympus and, far on the right flank, the enemy was breaking through in some strength in the Pinios Gorge and threatening to cut the withdrawal route at Larisa.
The B Squadron carrier troops were left in the meantime with the whole responsibility for the Dheskati road. A Squadron, with P Troop, 34 Anti-Tank Battery (Lieutenant Moodie18), under command, went to the road junction of Elevtherokhorion, north of Elasson, while C Squadron went back towards Olympus Pass after sending one carrier troop, together with O Troop (Lieutenant Harding19) of the same battery, also under command, some six miles up the Servia road.page 70
An effort was being made at the same time by a force under the Australian Brigadier Allen to plug the gap in the Pinios Gorge, where 21 Battalion was in serious trouble. B Squadron was to send an armoured car troop immediately and was then to withdraw from the Dheskati road and join Allen Force. Lieutenant Kerr's20 troop started for Pinios, but when one of his cars slipped off the road and was lost, Lieutenant Capamagian was sent with his cars.
So by the evening of the 17th the Divisional Cavalry was stretched out over 35 miles in one direction—48 miles by road —and, in the other, 17 miles—a further 34 miles by road. This was in rainy weather, in a general withdrawal—and there was never one without some confusion—over roads which were cutting up, in mountainous country, with radio equipment giving speech communication of only 15 miles under good conditions. The armoured cars were far too big and awkward for the type of country and the Bren carriers were due, and overdue, for replacement even before they went into battle. Command was thus tremendously difficult. Great responsibility fell on the squadron commanders while the efficiency of the whole regiment depended, to an extent they never dreamed of, upon the technical efficiency and the resourcefulness and steadiness of the troopers themselves.
This, of course, failed at times. Indeed, the very next day a serious situation arose because one man failed badly in his duty to deliver a message.
While the regiment had been well forward of the Division it had been spared air attacks, but now that it was back near the main defences it began to suffer its share. As soon as they were in position on the Dheskati road on 15 April, every squadron suffered heavy machine-gunning and dive-bombing attacks from the Luftwaffe. Movement had been very closely followed, and no doubt accurately reported, by ‘George’. For his constant companionship he had been given only this quasi-affectionate nickname; otherwise he was left strictly alone. But even he had his moments of evil temptation and, for all the kindly tolerance shown to him, had little gratitude. For on the morning of the 18th he even forgot his manners so far as to start machine-gunning the regiment.
Major Potter had already met Brigadier Puttick and learnt that Lieutenant-Colonel Kippenberger23 was coming back down the road from the Servia Pass with the 4 Brigade rearguard, but he was not yet in sight. Firing broke out just along the road ahead of Lieutenant Robinson's prepared demolition, and presently tanks came rolling into view with one single New Zealand truck ahead of them. This truck was frantically beckoned on while the guns of P Troop opened fire and halted the tanks. But soon the squadron found itself under mortar fire, so Potter pulled it back, leaving Robinson to hold on as long as he possibly could. Colonel Kippenberger had not been accounted for, nor had Lieutenant Macdonald24 of C Squadron who had also been left up the same road.
Robinson and the anti-tank guns hung on for over an hour, suffering vicious fire from the tanks. One of the armoured cars was hit on a wheel but remained mobile, and another suffered page 73 a mechanical breakdown at this awkward moment and had to be repaired under fire. Having caused this valuable delay Robinson gave the order to blow the bridge, by which time, had he but known it, Kippenberger had taken to the hills and got clear. Macdonald, on the other hand, did not have the long cross-country walk to Elasson that the 4 Brigade rearguard had to make. He, too, found the remains of battle where Kippenberger had been cut off but there was nobody in sight. So he drove until he could not get past the abandoned vehicles, ‘bailed out’ of his own, took to a nearby creek, and in a few minutes had joined up with Robinson. Indeed, he was with him in time to join in some sniping against German infantry, who were by now trying to outflank the position along the hillside.
This effective little rearguard action managed to gain precious time. It can claim four tanks, two armoured cars and a lorry. Much of the credit goes to the anti-tank gunners, though they were not without loss in men killed and wounded and in knocked-out guns. But that is their story.
As B Squadron had not yet arrived back from Dheskati the enemy had to be denied entry into Elasson at all costs. Slowly Potter withdrew A Squadron towards the town, until when within sight of it he came under the protection of the field guns behind. B Squadron had been ordered back when the enemy was reported at Elevtherokhorion, and since the various troops were placed at intervals along the Dheskati road, some of them took quite a while to retire. As a result, when RHQ passed through Elasson and found Major Russell there with his squadron headquarters, A Squadron was called back. Not until after this was it realised that Russell's squadron was not yet all accounted for and another hasty line of defence was organised north of the town. However, the last of B Squadron arrived by 10.30 a.m. after doing some further demolitions on the way. Regimental Headquarters, A and C Squadrons were able to retire through the 6 Infantry Brigade positions and move out as a guard on the left flank. B Squadron had other work to do.
In the meantime RHQ and A Squadron had their troubles. The squadron had come back more or less in close order and, halting near Elasson, was unable to disperse sufficiently. Together with RHQ this proved a tempting target, which was pounced upon by three Stukas which peeled off from a passing formation. Regimental Headquarters got the full force of the page 74 attack and suffered several casualties, including Trooper Reeve25 who was killed. In return for this unkindness the Stukas were met with a solid barrage of small arms, which shot one of them out of the sky and no doubt gave the pilots of the others some earnest thought when they came to survey the damage after landing.
As has been related, both the armoured car troops of B Squadron had gone to join Brigadier Allen in the Pinios Gorge, and now the balance of the squadron was sent to help in the delaying action at Tempe. It arrived at Allen Force headquarters just after midday, and by three o'clock was astride the railway near Makrikhorion. The infantry by now had been withdrawn and the squadron, with D Troop of 26 Battery, page 75 4 Field Regiment, immediately behind it, was detailed to fight the rearguard. The enemy tanks kept up full pressure, coming through the trees, and though the squadron was being steadily forced back, it did this so reluctantly that it actually became intermingled with the enemy.
The 26th Battery commander, Major Stewart,26 looking down from the hills at the time, commented afterwards that he could see Major Russell ‘magnificently handling his squadron’, and an Australian infantryman described the whole action as looking ‘like a drawing by someone who had never been to a war, but the whole thing was unreal….’
The spirit of that afternoon had caught on for Stewart's remarks could just as easily have been applied to his own three troops, D, E and F, whose 25-pounders—and not without losses —steadily destroyed enemy tanks trying to overrun them as they leap-frogged back through each other. Major Russell's instructions were to hold the enemy until 3 a.m., by which time Allen Force should be clear, but by dusk the Australian infantry towards which the squadron was retiring had pulled out and left it in the air. Nevertheless the whole retirement was made very slowly indeed. Trooper Campbell,27 for example, fired his Boys anti-tank rifle at a tank but round after round just bounced off. In a furious rage he took out the lock and flung it from him as far as he could. This was not surprising even in a man of such placid temperament as Campbell, for though in the heat of close-range action much goes unnoticed, this particular weapon administers such an enormous kick that the blow along the firer's jawbone can cause mild concussion. To suffer that several times for nothing would be quite sufficient.
One carrier was retiring with its commander, Corporal White,28 lying prone, firing his Bren gun over the back. The carrier was hit twice by shells from the tanks. One landed amongst the tins of water and petrol, almost in his face, while the other passed under him, through blankets, packs and everything, and finally bounced over into the front cockpit. But the carrier still kept going with the crew extinguishing a fire as they went. That carrier, long overdue for replacement like so many others in page 76 the regiment, stood up to a lot of punishment. The laconic remarks in White's diary for the next day read, amongst other things: ‘Had good feed of beans and eggs. Had to hold in gears with my feet. Fine day’—and rather sadly for the next day, the 20th, now 50 miles farther back: ‘Had to abandon carrier as fan belt's gone….’
After dark on the 18th, Russell himself got into trouble whilst disengaging. At the time friend and enemy were so intermingled that Russell's own DR had walked to within fifteen yards of an enemy tank in the dark, mistaking it for his car. Of all awkward occasions, it capsized while climbing up on to the road. Lieutenant Wynyard,29 finding Russell was missing, made a wild dash back and rescued him. It could well be said, therefore, that the squadron disentangled, rather than disengaged, from the enemy. It began to pull back, but not before Lieutenant Andrews30 had found time to lay some mines across the road. Shortly afterwards, one of his troop heard a loud explosion, but it was impossible to find out if they had collected a tank or not.
By 11 p.m. the squadron had been forced back to a railway crossing a little short of Larisa only to be greeted by the news that the town itself seemed to be in enemy hands. Lieutenant Capamagian went forward and discovered that some Australian infantry, trying to pass through the town, had been turned back by machine-gun fire. It was established later that though the road here was blocked by the enemy, the town itself had not been occupied. It had suffered heavy dive-bombing, many buildings were on fire, and the place was littered with dead and the wrecks of ruined vehicles amongst the rubble. Had this been known at the time, no doubt Russell and his squadron, in the mood they were in, would simply have rushed the road block and opened it up again for everybody. But they were not to know this and they accepted the fact that there was no alternative but to try a cross-country run to get back on to the road at Volos.
Other troops had already gone this way and guides had been left to mark the turn-off. But these men had apparently not stayed long, so Russell simply had to turn east and hope that luck would hold while his squadron floundered along boggy farm tracks in the dark. The Volos road was reached by 4 a.m., page 77 but not without the loss of two cars capsized and three carriers abandoned. Two of these had broken down beyond quick repair and a third was hopelessly ‘bellied’ on a rock.
While B Squadron was embroiled with the Pinios action the rest of the regiment, together with the remaining eight 2- pounders of 34 Anti-Tank Battery, was still north-west of Larisa covering 6 Brigade's withdrawal. This brigade retired from Elasson by two routes, and Div Cav's task was to cover the left one and be ready to order the blowing of more demolitions, including the Pinios River bridge just north of the town, once everybody was clear. This was all done and the last of the regiment just clear of Larisa by 3 a.m. on the 19th. B Squadron was expected back by 3.30 a.m., about the time it was approaching the Volos road much farther south. Lieutenant- Colonel Carruth decided to wait where he was while B Squadron was repeatedly and unsuccessfully called on the wireless. This had gone on for two hours when distant sounds of movement were heard coming from the Trikkala road. Guessing by the number of flares being fired that the noise was coming from an enemy force, Carruth decided to wait no longer and gave the orders to move off.
They had gone only about ten miles towards Volos when they met Brigadier Allen with Major Russell and his squadron, together with some artillery personnel, patiently waiting. So the drive back to Volos continued with the whole regiment being used as divisional rearguard. Though the weather was fine the Luftwaffe left them alone. It was concentrating on the inland road, the direct route from Larisa to Lamia. During the afternoon 24 Battalion was overtaken marching out on foot and Div Cav elected to halt while it wirelessed Divisional Headquarters for the battalion's transport to come back for its tired men. Once this had been organised it moved off again, rolling steadily on right through the night.
All this driving was taking steady toll of the vehicles. The ponderous and awkward armoured cars were very easily capsized and this misfortune befell Colonel Carruth's car during the night of the 19th. The carriers were also steadily cracking up, needing great efforts from the crews to keep them going at all. Physically, too, the men were beginning to show the strain. The majority of them had had little or no sleep for four days and this, try as they might, was making them unreliable. In the case of many vehicles it took teamwork to keep them running efficiently; and the men themselves, with normal body reflexes page 78 slowing down from fatigue, or with just momentary lapses into unconsciousness, were discovering that even driving was becoming somewhat hazardous.
Rearguard positions had been taken up by the regiment while waiting for transport to return for 24 Battalion but no action resulted. Nor was this necessary at Almiros, where a similar halt was made before finally retiring through Lamia. The Division was by now assembling at Thermopylae and making preparations for a prolonged defence there.
It was intended to hold the Thermopylae line with the whole Anzac Corps and, to that end, 1 Armoured Brigade had been retiring direct from Larisa. Brigadier Lee, in command of the Corps' medium artillery, was now responsible for covering this retirement, but was not certain of the position of Brigadier Allen's force coming back from the Pinios Gorge. He decided to prepare some demolitions just north of Lamia and establish a delaying force there. Here we again pick up the story of the two C Squadron armoured car troops which had by now been placed under the command of an Australian, Major H. G. Guinn.
They were now reduced to four cars and, merged into a single troop under Atchison, took up their places in this rearguard with accompanying tanks, two companies of Australian infantry, an Australian MG company, and six New Zealand anti-tank guns.
About midday on 20 April the usual German motor-cycle and side-car vanguard which arrived was thoroughly mauled. After a pause of an hour or so, enemy tanks came forward and were engaged by our cruiser tanks, with losses on both sides. By late afternoon the whole position was under fire from mortars and light artillery and it was time to blow the demolitions and get clear, under cover of the machine guns. By the time this was completed yet another of the armoured cars had been lost to enemy shellfire before the whole force retired through Lamia to Thermopylae.
The defence of the Thermopylae line was designed to be essentially a gunners' battle. Though few at this time knew it, already British troops, because the Greek Army's front on the Adriatic was crumbling and the whole effort in Greece had by now become hopeless, were preparing to leave the country. So Thermopylae became a battle to gain time to organise, however hastily, an evacuation.page 79
In the Divisional Cavalry the men themselves were never actually told this. Rather did the truth gradually dawn on them. In the meantime it was just one more battle to be fought. Even after a week of difficult retirements morale was high, and the general feeling was that this was merely some sparring for the most advantageous ground upon which the Division could really ‘step its frame out’.
The regiment at long last was no longer needed as a screen and the chance was offering to do much-needed maintenance. It was sent back behind Molos with no active part to play in the battle in the meantime.
Right from the very first retirement through Katerini, HQ Squadron had been sent back, step by step, always just one bound ahead of the fighting squadrons. It now joined them for this period, and from now on its story merges with those of the other squadrons.
The period of rest, such as it was to have been, did not last more than twenty-four hours. The large island of Euboea, opposite the east coast, presented a potential threat to the right flank, since there was a strong possibility that the enemy could land there by boats taken from Volos. Greek sources had indeed reported that this was already happening. On 21 April the Corps Commander ordered that Div Cav should patrol the island. But the order could not be complied with that day as there was not a single vehicle which could move off at short notice without workshop attention, such had been the demands made on them.
The deterioration in Greek resistance farther west was bringing the distinct danger that the enemy would break through to Corinth and into the Peloponnese, denying the use of evacuation beaches there. The defence of Thermopylae therefore could not be a prolonged one, nor Div Cav's rest anything but short. Once the Division began to retire to the evacuation beaches either at Marathon or in the Peloponnese, the regiment would be back at work as a protective screen.
Though by 22 April General Freyberg had been informed that the British forces would be leaving Greece and told not to send any substantial forces to Euboea, anxiety about the island remained. Finally it was the Armoured Brigade which sent a patrol there across the great swing bridge at Khalkis, using Atchison's armoured cars and some Bren carriers. Atchison continued to patrol during 23 April and managed to find a large party of some eighty Australians and New Zealanders page 80 who had worked their way south after the Pinios fighting and got on to the island. A little later some Germans were indeed encountered, but the patrol was able to return to Khalkis with the definite news that no real threat need be expected from the east.
An operation order of the previous day had detailed the plans for withdrawing from Thermopylae. The 5th Brigade was to withdraw to the Marathon beaches while 4 Brigade, already in reserve, was to form a defensive position covering Kriekouki between Thebes and Athens whilst 6 Brigade disengaged and withdrew through it, and was then to embark. To screen the brigades through Kriekouki and—though plans were changed later—to screen 4 Brigade from there to the evacuation beaches, a force was formed under the command of the CRE, Lieutenant- Colonel Clifton.31 This consisted of the Divisional Cavalry less A Squadron, the carriers of 22 and 28 Battalions, 34 Anti-Tank Battery less N Troop, and a battery of the RHA. A Squadron and N Troop had a similar job to do for 1 Armoured Brigade, now at Khalkis, as it withdrew to the beaches at Rafina and Porto Rafti, east of Athens.
Increased German pressure against the Thermopylae defences coincided with the preliminary thinning out of the New Zealanders during 23 April, and came to climax on the 24th when an attempt to force the position with tanks was heavily repulsed by the guns. At the same time the Luftwaffe, by now with the air entirely to itself, hammered increasingly. The Divisional Cavalry, which had been delayed in starting for Levadhia, where it would be in a suitable position to cover the withdrawal, until the early morning of the 24th, had therefore to travel by daylight and suffer all the consequences of so doing. Messerschmitts swept low along the roads, strafing the traffic from almost ground level. Stukas kept at it all day with dive-bombing attacks, and even Dornier bombers, with their flaps down to decrease flying speed, were used to keep the attacks incessant. The regiment was not the only unit to find—in fact every unit found—that, considering attacks of such intensity, the total damage for the day was most amazingly small. Colonel Carruth's armoured car was caught during the morning. He and page 81 his driver were both wounded and the OC 34 Battery, Major Jenkins,32 who was with them, was mortally wounded. The car had to be abandoned. Nor was that all the Colonel's bad luck for that day, for later on he lost another car when it was set on fire by machine-gunning.
A Squadron suffered just as much difficulty that day trying to get back to Khalkis. For some unknown reason it did not start until 8 a.m., some seven hours after the order to move had arrived. As soon as it came out of the cover of the trees at Cape Knimis it was pounced upon by the Luftwaffe. Major Potter struggled to keep his squadron moving but by the middle of the afternoon, having lost an armoured car and a carrier, he had to give up and wait under cover until the evening brought enough respite to allow him to reach his destination.
The next day, the 25th, 6 Brigade was due to move back and Clifton Force, whilst covering it, had the task of making the final demolitions at various points down the road. Once again there was a delay, the brigade not managing to get clear until 5 a.m., but as luck would have it, the Luftwaffe was not nearly so active as on the previous day and the convoys were able to roll back through Thebes and Kriekouki with less interruption, Div Cav having duly picked up in passing two C Squadron troops which had been guarding a vital crossroads since the night before. By mid-afternoon Clifton Force, the last of the Division, was back through the 4 Brigade positions and the Divisional Cavalry, still less A Squadron with 1 Armoured Brigade, was tucked away amongst the young pine trees south of Kriekouki beyond the little village of Mazi.
That evening orders were changed again. Clifton Force was relieved of its job of covering the withdrawal of 4 Brigade, which now had to hold on for another twenty-four hours. The beaches of Rafina and Porto Rafti could not hold as many troops for embarkation as originally planned, and 6 Brigade, which was to have embarked there, was now to go back through Corinth and embark from beaches in the Peloponnese. In its place 1 Armoured Brigade was ordered to take up positions round Tatoi, some 20 miles north of Athens. It was later to embark at Rafina and Porto Rafti whilst 4 Brigade withdrew to another defensive position just south of Corinth.
The bridge over the Corinth Canal thus became a vital feature and C Squadron was ordered, together with 22 and 28 page 82 Battalions' carriers, to add to the force guarding it until both brigades were across it and the bridge blown.
The balance of the regiment, now including HQ Squadron, was to move across to the Armoured Brigade to help there, and to cover its withdrawal to the beaches.
The Divisional Cavalry had had all its share of hardships in the withdrawal from the Aliakmon: strain, hunger, lack of sleep, and more strain. But it was spared, thank Heaven, the greatest unhappiness of all. Unlike many other units, it did not have to suffer the distress of having to accept the expressions of friendship, and faith in a lost cause, by the people of Athens. It passed through the city during the night and thus was allowed to avoid in defeat the tearful, indeed the loving, farewell of a brave people. A few of the regiment had to go through this trial and that was enough. The following afternoon a patrol was sent back north of Athens under Lieutenant Wynyard as there had been a report of German motor-cycles within 15 miles of the city.
Regimental Headquarters, HQ and B Squadrons arrived at Tatoi at daybreak on the 26th and dispersed amongst the trees for the day. A Squadron retired steadily as cover for the Armoured Brigade as it came through Skhimatarion and Kalosalesi to Malakasa.
There was no fighting that day and by late afternoon the men were ordered to destroy equipment before embarking that night.
Little should be said of that destruction. It was a painful business. It is hard to take the parts of a weapon, for months cleaned and oiled to a state of silky perfection, and just throw them over your shoulder out of sight for good. Fire would have been a kind and quick destroyer for the vehicles, but fires were as forbidden as mortal sin. It is hard and cruel, after long periods of straining every sense and sinew to keep a motor turning, ever turning, to drain out its oil and water and set it turning for the last time. Some of those motors took a long time to die, and a painful death too. As they overheated, the smell was cruel and heathen in the nostrils, and the laboured scream of overwrought metals was prolonged and agonising before they seized up with a thud. It was a painful form of human ingratitude.
A Squadron arrived during the afternoon, and by early evening the regiment, now with only sufficient vehicles to carry it there, left for the Rafina beach. By midnight it was embarking. page 83 A strong swell was running and only the lee side of the ship, the Glengyle, could be worked. As a result, by 3 a.m. when she had to leave, though there were over 4000 men on board, there were still some 700 men on the beach, 150 of them from the Divisional Cavalry.
Deprive a soldier of his weapons and you render him as powerless as Samson shorn of his locks, for not only is he physically powerless, but morally too, and will lose much of his hope and much of his resource. It was a disconsolate band that wandered back up behind the beach to hide up for the 27th. There was little cover: a few stunted trees, bushes of laurel and myrtle, and on the ground great patches of the little rock-daphne. What help was that to these men, fought to exhaustion, now weaponless and powerless? There seemed nothing left to do but sleep and wait the inevitable.
However, the sleep itself was a help and by the time the afternoon was well advanced they were refreshed enough to set out, when orders came from Brigadier Charrington, to march to Porto Rafti where 4 Brigade, because of events at the Corinth bridge, was now to be embarked. But they were turned back because the enemy was between them and this beach and, still in reasonable order, they returned to Rafina.
Luck was with them. Hope returned as evening gave place to night and they patiently waited for something they did not expect. It came. HMS Havock arrived at Rafina, and by the small hours of next morning they were on her firm decks, sleeping the sleep of the exhausted as they headed at high speed for Crete.
About this time most of C Squadron was also on the water but not as guests of the Navy. Some men had left Greece in commandeered caiques. Others were still looking for such craft.
We last heard of C Squadron as it was setting out for Corinth to help in protecting 4 Brigade's withdrawal route. Major Harford's orders on the 25th were to report to the OC of ‘Isthmus Force’ (Major Gordon33 of 19 Battalion) at Corinth and, once 4 Brigade had passed through, to go to Patrai, prepared to resist any landing of enemy forces coming across from Agrinion, and thence proceed down the coast road for embarkation at Kalamata. The swift passage of events precluded the carrying out of much of these orders.page 84
After a slow and difficult move from Mazi during which the squadron had a lot of engine trouble, probably through being given high-octane petrol intended for the RAF, it crossed the canal bridge about 3 a.m. on the 26th. Harford swung his column down a side road to wait for daylight and a chance to seek detailed orders. In turning off he lost touch with Lieutenant Macdonald, who had been at the back of the column with a truck to pick up the crews of any vehicles that simply refused to go any farther, and with the carrier platoons of 22 and 28 Battalions. Macdonald and his troop were gathered up later by Colonel Clifton and used to help with demolitions farther south.
The Divisional Cavalry learnt a lesson in Greece that it never forgot. Never again did it pull into a position at night and laager in such a way that it was not ready for instant action either in the dark or in the dawn. At Corinth, as the sky began to lighten, Harford ordered his squadron to disperse and camouflage. But this order was already too late. The Luftwaffe took control, and an attack began at full pressure before the squadron was properly ready.
It was dispersing amongst some anti-aircraft guns which opened up against the first aircraft—high-level bombers. That marked the end of any further movement as these very guns had been chosen for complete annihilation. The moment they were located down came the Stukas in such numbers that they simply wiped the guns out of existence, though the ‘Tommy’ gunners fought back magnificently. Without pause the immediate area of the canal was subjected to a tremendous softening-up of bombing and strafing, and from the moment it started, every living soul was pinned to earth. The strafing Messerschmitts came down until they were almost touching the vines and oat tops as they flew round and round in increasing circles, neutralising the whole area.
All this could prelude only one thing. The parachute attack which followed was launched with such perfect timing and perfect drill that it was almost paralysing. There was a short while in which people could look up: and there they were, wave after wave of big slow Ju52s in arrowhead formation, fuselage doors open, and only about 300 feet up. Literally in seconds the air was filled with the fascinating but chilling sight of hundreds of parachutes in several colours, mainly white. When Harford gave the order to open fire, everything possible was turned on them, belt after belt, magazine after magazine.page 85
This is better described in Cpl Adams's34 words:
‘… Tony Connelly's35 Vickers was the first to open up. He had twitched it up with wire to a log on a bank as we had no tripods. You could always tell Tony's gun. He could tune it to 50 rounds faster than anybody else. Garth36 saw him rake the fuselage of one Junkers from end to end…. Garth was firing the Bren out of the turret as hard as Tommy37 could hand him up magazines. That was the only time I ever saw Tommy without that comical twinkle in his eye, for he was as grim as a morgue. Like the rest of us he was hoping for the best but expecting the worst…. Then Bonny38 turned to me and said: “See if you can get Div.” I had no callsign and no frequency. I searched and searched; for anybody; squadron frequencies, regimental frequency; any English voice; for no matter what I did now I could not make matters worse—only better. But the machine was dead—dead as mutton….’
It takes only a matter of seconds for a paratrooper to descend 300 feet. It was an impossible task for any squadron to wipe out a thousand men in this time. These well-drilled soldiers seemed literally to fall out of their harness as they touched the ground, take a quick look round for a red coloured parachute—the leader's—rally there, and each group was off to its appointed task in short, quick rushes.
No contact had yet been made with Isthmus Force and Harford set out for Corinth to find its headquarters before the enemy had time to organise. But he found the way hopelessly blocked by a huge bomb-crater in the town, with other vehicles already jammed against it. Before he had extricated himself from this situation he had been straddled by a stick of bombs and had been fired at from the buildings.
Nobody could have failed to recognise the tremendous clap of thunder when the canal bridge blew up, so he knew now that there was no question of 4 Brigade fighting its way through. He decided to take his squadron back clear of the area, to try to locate the carrier platoons, and then to make some decision page 86 on what to do next. Communications were bad, owing to the low state of the wireless batteries, and he could only hope that those of his squadron whom he could not reach by this means would be keeping an eye on him when he set off for a rendezvous about a mile back. After waiting there for those who were able to disengage and follow him, he decided to follow the road he was on as his map promised that this should be a reasonable track south through the hills to the road south of Corinth. If he could reach this he could perhaps prevent further penetration southwards. But a mile or two farther on he was in trouble again. The road, such as it was, ended at a village, and nothing but a goat track continued. Either he turned back and tried to fight his way through to Corinth—and even then he had to find a way through the town—or he abandoned all the vehicles and set out on foot for Navplion some 30 miles away. He decided on the latter as a more hopeful choice.
An hour before midday all the vehicles had been smashed by running them into a deep ravine, all possible food and weapons collected and, with a guide from the village, the party had set off. Nor was this before time, for they were not out of sight of it when a strong enemy patrol arrived in captured vehicles, looking for them.
One man had failed to catch up and his tale bears telling. When Harford ordered dispersal at first light, Lieutenant Van Slyke had a position of very poor observation and, being on the right flank, no contact farther right. He had gone forward a short way to get a place of better view for his troop. He was caught out in the open when the attack started and was pinned with his face to the ground until it was all over. It was more than an hour before he got a chance to return and by then the squadron was gone. He could actually hear it making off in the distance and managed to follow the track-marks for quite a way, ducking into the crops when any planes came over. But he was spotted and three of them dived at him in quick succession. When they had passed on, he looked up into the barrels of a whole section of German Tommy guns. He was looted of anything of any value and held prisoner for about three hours. By then there was quite a group of prisoners and the paratroopers had decided to shoot them. They had all been lined up and already one, a Greek, had been shot when a party of infantry crashed in and shot up the guard, releasing them. Later Van Slyke was picked up by a truck and taken to Navplion, where he was put on a destroyer that landed him in Crete.page 87
It was a well defined route that the squadron took and it was given a fresh guide at each village it came to, and after long drinks of cold water and perhaps a little food, the crews set off again over the next of many barren ridges. Finally, just on dusk, at the limit of endurance after the pace set by this series of fresh guides, they arrived in sight of Navplion.
Embarkation was still going on and they took their place at the tail of a long column. They waited their turn until 3 a.m. on the 27th when, just as they were almost to the ship…. She was full.
They were advised to head towards Argos to a defended locality along the gulf, so they set off again. But the gruelling walk in the heat, the cold wait, the disappointment proved too much. They rested for a few hours and pushed on again, not arriving until mid-afternoon. Here they were divided into boatloads of twenty and waited in vain all that night. The next morning, the 28th, embarkation was decided for them, but in quite another form, for enemy troops had made contact with their lightly-held perimeter. They took all the caiques they could find and set out to row.
Many stories are told of boatloads of men who rowed or sailed to Crete. Every single one is an epic of courage. The greater part of C Squadron made such a trip, one way or another. Harford's boat actually was the first to arrive, having been rowed in continuous shifts day and night till 1 May by the dozen men on board. They had cause and reason to work hard. Harford was very ill with dysentery and his men never let up trying to get him into proper hands until they were taken aboard a scow, which they met at the island of Antikithira, by some Greeks who were themselves heading for Crete.
For the next two or three weeks men were arriving in small groups. Mostly they arrived in Crete, the next logical step from Greece; some finished up in Egypt, after being picked up at sea; one at least arrived there much later, after having come through Turkey. Not one of these was without his tale of the extremes of courage and unselfish help given by the Greek people. Many a man, in his gratitude and his admiration for these people, arrived with a deep resolution to go back after the war, and if he could trace her, marry the brave girl who had helped him.
5 Royal Engineers.
8 Lt-Col D. B. Patterson, m.i.d.; Auckland; born Auckland, 30 Nov 1910; assistant architect; 2 i/c 14 Lt AA Regt Apr-Nov 1944; CO 14 Lt AA Regt Jun-Jul 1944; comd Miles Wing, PW Reception Gp (UK), Jun-Sep 1945.
15 Lt-Col W. R. Pigou, ED; Spring Creek, Marlborough; born Tua Marina, Marlborough, 18 Apr 1900; farmer; Adjt, Div Cav, May 1940-Jun 1941; Chief Instructor, AFV School, Waiouru, Dec 1941-Dec 1942; CO Otago Mtd Rifles Dec 1942-Jun 1943.
16 Maj-Gen Sir Keith Stewart, KBE, CB, DSO, m.i.d., MC (Gk), Legion of Merit (US); Kerikeri; born Timaru, 30 Dec 1896; Regular soldier; 1 NZEF 1917–19; GSO I NZ Div 1940–41; Deputy Chief of General Staff Dec 1941-Jul 1943; comd 5 Bde Aug-Nov 1943; 4 Armd Bde Nov 1943-Mar 1944; 5 Bde Mar-Aug 1944; p.w. 1 Aug 1944; comd 9 Bde (2 NZEF, Japan) Nov 1945-Jul 1946; Chief of General Staff Apr 1949-Mar 1952.
17 Arabic: ‘Come here!’
23 Maj-Gen Sir Howard Kippenberger, KBE, CB, DSO and bar, ED, m.i.d., Legion of Merit (US); born Ladbrooks, 28 Jan 1897; barrister and solicitor; 1 NZEF 1916–17; CO 20 Bn Sep 1939-Apr 1941, Jun-Dec 1941; comd 10 Bde, Crete, May 1941; 5 Bde Jan 1942-Jun 1943, Nov 1943-Feb 1944; GOC 2 NZ Div, 30 Apr-14 May 1943, 9 Feb-2 Mar 1944; comd 2 NZEF Prisoner-of-War Reception Group (UK) Oct 1944-Sep 1945; twice wounded; Editor-in-Chief, NZ War Histories, 1946–57; died Wellington, 5 May 1957.
31 Brig G. H. Clifton, DSO and 2 bars, MC, m.i.d.; Porangahau; born Greenmeadows, 18 Sep 1898; Regular soldier; served North-West Frontier 1919–21 (MC, Waziristan); BM 5 Bde 1940; CRE NZ Div 1940–41; Chief Engineer, 30 Corps, 1941–42; comd 6 Bde Feb-Sep 1942; p.w. 4 Sep 1942; escaped, Germany, Mar 1945; Commander, Northern Military District, 1952–53.