TWENTY-SECOND TO NONE
The History of the 22nd (N.Z.) Battalion
By Terence Power Mclean
17 Apr – 25 Apr
Retreat through Greece
The first phase of the battle of Greece, of Allied resistance against infantry and armour employed in heavy attacks against the front already was over. From now on, certain, constant and crippling factor of the Allied fight was enemy air superiority. From first light to last, in cloud, sunshine and even rain, Messerschmitt fighters and Stuka dive bombers unfortunately ranged the roads and fields, roaring down to within 20 feet of the earth to kill, wound and destroy scorning the futile small arms fire which was all that could be put up against them. Men grew used to the need of diving from trucks for the scant protection of fields and casualties in materiel and personnel daily grew larger. It was frightening and dangerous and humiliating, all in one, and the survivor never forgot and never forgave.
For the battalion, withdrawal from the occupied positions was not enough. Before first light on 17 Apr, B Coy was moving through Ag Demetrious to a commanding hillside to guard against a German follow-up and in the thin rain men fought to keep awake. At dawn, the coy re-joined the battalion, marching through the village between lines of friendly folk among whom some of the women wore crinoline skirts. Reformed, the unit marched three miles southward to the head of the pass and formed up with 28 Battalion alongside and 23 Battalion on the left, the latter on guard over the Kokinopolos track. There was hot food from B Echelon, a marvellous experience, and for lucky men New Zealand mail, only four weeks old.
At 1200 hours, withdrawal through Larissa to Lamia was ordered. While A Coy of the Battalion and A Coy of 28 were left as a rear guard to hold the pass until 1600 hours, the battalion began a march of three miles to a transport area and at 1500 hours it left by MT for Elasson, 20 miles sough and thence for larissa, another 20 miles on. The destination was given as the Almiroa-Volos area, 40 miles south eastward from Larissa on the Aegean Sea. Not until later was it discovered that by an incredible mischance there had been a typographical error in the divisional order, Volos being written as Molos, a village south west of Volos near the Pass of Thermopylae. Lt HV Donald’s No. 14 Platoon was the only sub-unit to take the correct route and it completed the journey to Molos well ahead of the battalion, thoughtfully uplifting on the way, enough beer to give every man two bottles.
Larissa aerodrome, on which RAF planes had been destroyed in air raids before the fighting at Olympus began, was safely reached on the night of 17 Apr. The Greek population was wonderfully friendly and eager to make gifts of food and wine.
The confusion caused by the order began in the morning of 18 Apr. General Freyberg directed traffic through Pharsala, 30 miles to the south, but at 0100 hours Col Rowe, a New Zealand officer acting as corps observer (and suspected for a time as, of all things, a Fifth Columnist), directed the unit back through Pharsala to Almiros, 12 miles eastward. There were traffic jams ad the battalion became parted, 250 men taking the route directed by Col Rowe and the remainder moving through Lamia and Stylis to Almiros. Brigade was established four miles from Almiros and Col Andrew under orders took the part of the battalion which had travelled through Lamia with him to Molos.
Lt Hawthorne scoured the countryside for the party diverted by Col Rowe and presently located it and the Olympus rear guard force, including the coy of Maoris, in the hills ten miles to the northwest of Almiros. The party was instructed to march by Almiros, Stylis and Lamia to Molos and after traversing a number of paddocks it beheld, on a road, the wondrous sight of the colonel riding pillion on a motor cycle in search of his men.
Demonstrations were discouraged, but the ranks could scarce forebear a cheer and what was afterwards diagnosed as a happy smile of greeting fitfully illuminated the colonel’s face. The colonel took one part of the force in trucks and Captain McDuff looked after the other and the battalion was reassembled at midday on 18 Apr in a place 5.5 kilos west of Molos.
A straightforward account of places passed through and destinations reached must be barren of description of the traffic found on the road. Perhaps the words of Lt McAra best capture the confusion. “On the second night after we pulled out of the pass,” he wrote, “we lost our way and became maddeningly and hideously entangled among an artillery convoy, with sawn only a few hours away and the morrow full of enormous uncertainties. At a crossroad an exhausted dispatch rider was directing the stream of trucks to the right, with instructions to ignore a left turning ad carry straight on across some fields to another road, all in pitch dark, with no lights showing; drivers were worn out and on edge, men so crowded into the rucks that they could not so much as stretch an aching leg; lurching and swaying with every jolt over the fearful ruts.
“Somewhere up in front of us a driver lost hs nerve and stopped. The whole convoy pulled up and for miles in rear of us artillery, infantry and Army Service Corps units slowed and stopped. Furious voices bawled inquiries in the darkness and above them rose a bleat from the offending truck, “Tell that fellow to come and show us the way. I can’t see a bloody thing.” We sat and listened in resigned despair while the request was shouted back. I could just picture the weary fellow at the traffic point, badgered and fed up after hours of keeping there column moving. When he heard what we bawled back, it must have been the last straw. An overwrought screech came out of the night: “Tell him to clean the -- -- out of his eyes!” Somehow it seemed the funniest moment in years, probably because of the vent given to what everyone felt. Every lorry within earshot shook with mirth. For the rest of the night it became a sort of watchword, whose mere mention raised a laugh and cleared the air; but you had to be there to understand why.”
The new task of the fifth Brigade was the defence of positions in the foothills and across the cost road south of Lamia. On the left, Australian forces were placed astride the historic pass of Thermopylae in which in 300BC Spartans of a force of 6,000 Greeks for three days resisted the onslaught of overwhelmingly larger forces of Xerxes’ Persian army. On 19 Apr, the battalion took up a front facing the Spherkeios River. 2/Lt McGlashan’s platoon was detached to guard the road near Stylis, but it returned before first light on 20 Apr, a Sunday.
At 0800 hours on 20 Apr, the first enemy planes flew over the new positions and their attendance thereafter was constant. In mid-morning, however, four planes which were neither Messerschmitt nor Stuka crossed the line. Unbelievably, they were Hurricanes, the few, in the RAF tradition, against the many. A Stuka was slow getting away and the Hurricanes pursued it out to sea. There were sounds of machine gun fire and smoke began to pour from one of the Stuka engines. The Hurricanes closed in and the German fell away in a spin. It straightened at last and as it dived headlong into the sea there was an explosion and a burst of smoke to mark the spot.
For miles along the front, men stood up out of their weapon pits and cheered and shouted and pounded each other’s back in a very ecstasy of excitement. “It was like a Derby finish. Men were leaping in the air, hoarse with excitement, as the black shape hit the sea, exploded and vanished,” Lt McAra wrote.
Alas, there were few Hurricanes and many Germans. At midday, a plane bombed D Coy and 2/Lt McGlashan, Sjt JSM Dring, L/Cpls AE O’Neill and GM Sandiford and Pte LP Bosworth were killed and six men, including two officers, were wounded. In the evening, the battalion took up a position five kilometres from the springs of Thermopylae with B, C and A Coys from right to left across the front and D in reserve. The carriers were brigaded with 28 Battalion and patrolled the marshy ground and the banks of the Spherkeios at night. At 2100 hours, the bridge across the Spherkeios was demolished.
From first light on 21 Apr, digging and wiring of the new positions proceeded at speed. Air sentinels were appointed and it became the custom for men to work hard at their tasks until the warning call, at which everyone hastily erected camouflage before going to ground. The Sixth Field Regiment was now in support o the Fifth Brigade, and during the day it fird upon German tank movement across the river. At 2030, the battalion gave up its hardly-dug positions to the 25th Battalion and marched to a position one and a half kilometres nearer the springs. The cooks had excelled themselves with a fine hot meal.
Activity during the night was mostly counter-artillery, but on the German side there was evidence of massing of forces in preparation for an assault. All night long, German transport could be seen moving on the hill roads behind Lamia and battalion picquets grew tired of counting the vehicles. It rankled sorely that the Germans drove with lights full on. Enough bombers, enough fighters, even perhaps enough long-range artillery, and that arrogant attitude of conscious superiority might be changed to the skulking furtiveness with which, for want of these things, the Allies were compelled to travel.
From daylight of 22 April, too, there were more demonstrations of German preparations. The unit could see a landing strip under construction two miles to the west of Lamia and east of the town there was digging in of big guns. Unhappily for A Coy, a troop of 25 pounders was sited for snapshooting in its area and reconnaissance planes constantly searched for the guns. Later, artillery ranged the area, though without effect.
Col Andrew returned from a Brigade conference at 1500 hours, The news was black indeed. Greece had capitulated and support for her gallant forces could no longer be expected. There was now no alternative to evacuation of the country by all of the Imperial forces. The evacuation must proceed at speed and to assist it, that which could not be carried on the person must be destroyed.
At 2100, the first company passed the start point for the first stopping place, Ag Constantia, 17 miles south east on the Gulf of Euboea. A clean break from the enemy could not be risked and within the brigade the 22nd and 23rd Battalions were required to supply a rearguard force. In the case of the 22nd, this consisted of Major Hart in command, Lt Leeks and TR Carter and 58 ranks and file in addition to the carrier platoon. The rearguard force was placed under command of 6 Brigade with orders to be prepared to hold the positions for 48 hours. The 23rd Battalion force covered the area of the demolished bridge and the 22nd occupied skeleton positions in the 22nd and 28th Battalion’s areas. Part of the carrier platoon’s task was to simulate normal activity with road traffic by day.
Brigadier Hargest walked among the members of he main battalion party as they waited to emboss after a march of three miles and talked to them of the campaign and their share in it. The march had reduced the distance to Ag Constantia to 15 miles, but part of the convoy was misdirected along a deviation near Molos and did not reach the destination untiul dawn on 23 Apr, several hours later than the firs party.
The 23rd of April was a day to remember, for it was spent in comparative peace in an olive grove. In the afternoon, the battalion heard of further plans for the evacuation. Anyone cut off was to take to the hills before making for the coast and endeavour to pick up either a British ship or a Greek caique. Appropriate signals from shore to sea were explained and first glimpses were given of a service which later efficiently saved hundreds of men rom the desolation of prison camps.
Petrol for 150 miles and rations were drawn from a supply issues depot. The rations included 12 demijohns of rum. In the cold misery of Olympus Pass, it was often asked for and often refused because, it was said, there was not a gallon of rum in Greece. How it had been given without the asking. It had a fate which in later stories was made into a mock Greek tragedy and the CO considered that the liquor could only have a bad effect upon men so dangerously tired. At his order, Lt Hawthorn faithfully destroyed each jar.
At 2030 hours on 23 Apr, there began a nine hour drive to an olive grove north east of Athens, 139 miles south. Ten or 15 miles south of Ag Constantia, the lights were turned on in the trucks and Athens was reached in the early dawn.
The battalion was assembled at 0600 hours on 24 Apr, and embarkation arrangements for the night were made. Late in the afternoon, the task of destroying superfluous vehicles was undertaken. In some cases, all the water and oil was drained from an engine which was then run hard until it seized. In others, sand was added to the petrol with the same dire results. Picks were used on tyres, chassis and batteries. Some of the trucks had been driven less than 2,000 miles and were in perfect condition. Lt McAra grimly commented that only a shareholder of the Ford Motor Coy or General Motors could have been pleased by the destruction.
At 2040 hours on 24 Apr, all men boarded the trucks for beach D, Porto Rafti, in Raftia Bay, 20 miles eastward of Athens. There was further destruction of transport and then a two-mile march to the beach. In the darkness, tired men waded into the sea with arms, respirator, shovel, tin hat and pack still grimly held, to pick up a naval landing craft. Soon, they were boarding either HMS Glengyle, a 10,000 ton invasion craft, or HMS Calcutta, a cruiser, stumbling aboard in gestures of utter weariness and resignation.
“The kindness of those sailors and their mothering way with the dog-tired troops made one want to weep in one’s silly, feeble state,” said Lt McAra. “The Navy has been father, mother and all to us.” At 0400 hours on 25 April, 26 years to the hour since their fathers were in the last stages of preparation for their assault on Gallipoli, Calcutta and Glengyle bore away for Crete. Decks, companionways, off corners, were cluttered with dirty, unshaven, tired men, the first British soldiers since Dunkirk to fight against the Germans.
Meanwhile, the rearguard party had had fighting. After beating off Germans near the demolished bridge over the Spherkeios, the 23rd Battalion force withdrew through the 22nd and the force made its way to Cape Kiminia. On the following day, 24 Apr, the force was bombed and machine-gunned. It withdrew with 6 Brigade through Thebes towards Athens and from there toward Argos and Corinth. On 26 Apr, there was more bombing and machine-gunning and the force was placed in anti-paratroop defence. Gradually a withdrawal was made to Tripolitis and from there to Momenvasia, near the southern extremity of Greece, and on 30 April the Brigade and the rearguard force put to sea. They arrived at Port Said on May 2.