The Rearguard Action in the late afternoon, 18 April
The Rearguard Action in the late afternoon, 18 April
After the occupation of Tempe and the dispersal, about 5.30 p.m., of C Company 2/2 Battalion, the commander of 3 Panzer Regiment had swung his attack southwards towards Evangelismos, on the road to Larisa; 2 Company 1/3 Panzer Regiment, with 7/304 Infantry Regiment in support, was now breaking the way.
At the same time three other units were on the move. I/143 Mountain Regiment was coming south-eastwards towards the village. On its right flank II/141 Mountain Regiment which had just been rushed over the river was advancing towards Makrikhorion and Makrikhori. And still farther west were the companies of III/143 Mountain Regiment which had all day been enveloping the left flank of the Australians.
To delay the tanks north of Evangelismos and the infantry who had been crossing the river to the east were A Company 2/2 Battalion, supported by eleven Bren carriers (some from 2/5 and 2/11 Battalions and others from 21 New Zealand Battalion), an Australian anti-tank gun and two New Zealand 25-pounders.
The gun from A Troop 5 Field Regiment (Sergeant Franklin1 was to the east of the railway on the southern outskirts of the village, and when the tanks approached the Australian lines, the crew opened fire. The first two were hit and ‘burst with flames.’ The third returned fire, hitting a truck loaded with petrol and explosives and forcing Second-Lieutenant Brown,2 CPO for the two guns, to order a withdrawal. The crew took to the hills and eventually regained the road, continuing south towards Larisa and being picked up by an Australian convoy.
In the country between the tanks and the guns there had meanwhile been confused and exciting activity. The supporting tanks had rolled south from Tempe, spreading out across the western flats and ‘firing madly’ until about 6.5 p.m., when several of them supported by infantry broke into the lines of A Company 2/2 Battalion. Covered by fire from the Bren-carrier group and the 25-pounders, the company moved off to the eastern ridges and hurried southwards. Unfortunately darkness overtook them and they never regained contact with Allen Force.
The tanks had then advanced cautiously through the village towards Headquarters 2/2 Battalion. The Australian anti-tank gun in the area had left ‘without orders’.3 The carrier group, including those from 21 Battalion, was able to move out, but a platoon from 2/3 Battalion and Lieutenant Southworth4 with his platoon from 21 Battalion were forced into the hills. The signals truck from 2/2 Battalion when it raced off across a ploughed field was shot up in flames. It was then about 6.45 p.m., and as other tanks were appearing across the flats from the west and south-west, Lieutenant- Colonel Chilton ordered his headquarters and B Company to withdraw to the eastern hills. Thereafter in several groups they hurried southwards, often under fire from the German units astride the road and across the more open country to the west.
The gully in which Headquarters 26 Battery had been established was soon untenable, so Major Stewart, who had been observing for E and F Troops, made off to the hills and attempted to rejoin his guns. Lieutenant-Colonel Parkinson drove off eastwards, nearly reaching the hill village of Sikourion before he and some Australians turned south to the Volos road.
3 Long, p. 118.
Late that afternoon they had occupied the village of Makrikhori to the north of Point 214 and cleared the ridges to the south-east. The advance had been supported by Stuka attacks on Point 214 and the road to Larisa but, as they afterwards recorded, ‘In spite of this, the enemy fought back hard from 1 Km south of PT 214. AA, A Tk and 105 mm guns fired on our troops over open sights.’1
Such was their opinion of a most gallant and successful delaying action, in the early stages of which the dominant units were E and F Troops of 26 Battery 4 New Zealand Field Regiment. Left with no forward screen after the withdrawal of 2/2 Battalion and with only seven guns between them, they covered the movement of Allen Force to the new line which was hastily being established some four miles to the south. F Troop had moved first, covered by E Troop. On the way one quad had been hit by a shell and two men wounded, including Driver Drinkwater,2 who drove courageously on, clearing the road for the rest of the column. Soon afterwards another quad was hit, the top blown off and two men wounded. In spite of these casualties the troop went into position just north of Makrikhorion and, with Captain Richardson and Lieutenant Dyson3 as observers, shelled the infantry and tanks as they moved through Evangelismos and came south astride the highway.
E Troop had then moved back, the sections leapfrogging through each other. Guns hooked to tractors would be brought back and halted at intervals along the road. The trails would then be swung round and the approaching tanks engaged from the roadside. In this way, over open sights, two tanks were definitely destroyed and several others put out of action. As seen by an Australian infantryman it had been an inspiring sight:
1 3 Panzer Regiment battle report, 18–19 April 1941.
When E Troop was clear, F Troop engaged the enemy and disabled at least one tank. But the German advance was irresistible and the guns had to be withdrawn, one section remaining to support B Squadron New Zealand Divisional Cavalry Regiment in the new line, the others taking up positions south of D Troop.
1 Long, p. 120.
The force had little hope of halting the approaching tanks and, to make the task still more difficult, German aircraft were screaming across the front, strafing and dive-bombing the slightest sign of movement. Even so, the troops fought back when twelve to fifteen tanks broke into the area. Major Stewart, then working across the ridges above the plain, saw Russell ‘magnificently handling his squadron.’2 But Bren guns and Boys anti-tank rifles made no impression on the German armour and by sundown the squadron was withdrawing from the area.
The Australian infantry were even worse off. ‘At one stage … a group of fifteen to twenty men were round a tank firing rifles and L. M. G.s to no apparent effect. This tank crushed two men…. The feeling of helplessness against the tanks overcame the troops and they began to move back in small parties to the trucks.’3
There had been all possible support from D Troop 26 Field Battery; in fact Captain Thornton, at the observation post on Point 214, had been delighted with the accuracy of the concentrations. But after 8.30 p.m. the light had faded and about 9 p.m., when the section from E Troop with the Divisional Cavalry came back, Major Stewart, who had managed to rejoin the battery, ordered a withdrawal.
The whole front was now hopelessly indefinite, but in unprepared positions about 1000 yards to the south of Point 214 a mixed force of infantrymen and Bren carriers had collected to make yet another stand. It served the purpose. The observer in the leading tank was shot, the column halted and a scene of colourful confusion developed across the front, with tanks milling aimlessly about and carriers pulling back in a world of Very lights, tracer bullets and blazing vehicles.
At this stage Brigadier Allen ordered Lieutenant-Colonel Lamb of 2/3 Battalion to withdraw. So, covered by the Divisional Cavalry squadron, the Bren carriers and the lorries with the infantrymen were driven off towards ‘a point where the road crossed a swampy area north of Larisa.’4
2 One armoured car troop (Lt H. B. Capamagian), which had been sent by Brigadier Allen to cover the road from Sikourion, reported that the enemy was not encircling the right flank.
3 Long, p. 120.
4 Ibid., p. 121.
1 Battle report by 1/3 Panzer Regiment, 15–19 April 1941.