TWENTY-SECOND TO NONE
The History of the 22nd (N.Z.) Battalion
By Terence Power Mclean
1 Apr – 24 Apr
Ordeal by Battle
Greece and Germany were still at peace during the battalion’s 24 hour journey to Katerine and the clanking and rattling of sabres on the Bulgarian frontier. Meanwhile it was not the fashion of Kiwis to be daunted by the future, there was much of interest in the journey and the classical scholars of the battalion were treated with respect as they talked of Parnassus, Olympus and Zeus and his godly company as the train – Chevaux 8, Hommes 40, just like the old days – rattled along through the stoned countryside.
Between Katerine and the Aliakmon River, 15 miles to the north, to smaller rivers, the Tranos and the Asvestaria, ran eastward to the Gulf of Salonika. The military features of the area were anti-tank ditches and concrete obstacles which were positions but not emplacements of the so-called Metaxas Line. The divisional intention was to defend the rivers and the Sixth, Fifth and Fourth Brigades were placed across the front from right to left respectively. The battalion’s role was in divisional reserve for counter-attack and counter-coastal penetration with its carriers on the extreme right flank by the sea. On 2 Apr, Colonel Andrew and other officers made a reconnaissance and the next day the four rifle coys entered a line facing the Tranos with orders to extend the defensive positions. No. 4 Coy of 27 New Zealand Machine Gun Battalion was placed under command.
On 5 Apr Major Hart took a party of 200 men to Petras, near the entrance to the Olympus Pass, to build a road of eight miles through forest and gorge. It re-joined the unit before action and Major Bain meantime had been evacuated because of illness and Captain Campbell was appointed to command D Coy. Just before the first enemy onslaught, Captain Monk, on 13 Apr was appointed 2 I/C of B Coy and Lt MacDuff took his place as Adjutant.
At 1203 hours on 6 April, Divisional HQ flashed an immediate signal to all units that Germany had declared war on Greece and Yugoslavia. A devastating air raid was made upon Belgrade and the German columns began a surge into the Monastir Gap, the ancient military highway into Greece from the north.
German successes to the west soon made the Katerine untenable and plans were made for withdrawal of the Division to the Olympus pass, 25 miles south west of Katerine. The Fifth Brigade moved on 8 Apr and at 0700 hours the battalion began the journey. All day there were repots of enemy moves toward Salonika, 40 miles north east of Olympus.
The battalion’s new position was given a post of honour astride the Saolinka-Athens road in the mouth of the Olympus pass. The road, which within 10 miles rose from a hundred-odd feet to 3000, entered the pass through a deep gorge and the battalion front of 2½ miles was a naturally strong defensive position. Just forward of he foremost defenced locality, Belowa Bluff, there was a bridge over the Elikon River. A little further back a subsidiary road led east and south to the Petras tuberculosis sanatorium, which was staffed by German doctors, and a small road, little more than a track ad running roughly westward to Skoteina, could also be covered from the front line.
The 23rd battalion was on the right of the 22nd and the 28th Maori Battalion on the left. From right to left, or east to west, the 22nd coys were A (in contact with 23 Battalion), C (overlooking Petras Sanatorium), B (astride the main road) and D (overlooking the Skoteina road and in touch with 28 Battalion).
No. 11 Platoon and B Coy was sited on the bluff overlooking the entrance to the pass. No 10 Platoon was on the right of No. 11 and No. 12 was astride the main road 200 to 300 yards behind No. 10. About 800 yards to the rear an old fortification, soon called Gibraltar, rose up commandingly. The three inch mortars were sited on it. Battalion HQ was about 1000 yards behind B Coy with the RAP just behind. No 4 Machine Gun coy with 32 Bty of the Seventh Anti Tank Regiment were placed in support of the Battalion. The anti tank guns were two pounders.
“Roughly imagine a long, steep-sided ravine running up into a mountain,” wrote Lt McAra in one of his letters. “Across the foot of the ravine passed a road crossing the Elikon stream. About 800 yards inside the mouth of the ravine, Gibraltar rose sheer between the opposing slopes, forming the only position from which guns could be brought to bear on the stone bridge crossing the Elikon and the riverbed beyond. The ridge to the right as you looked down the ravine was held by C Coy with A Coy along the face beyond. That to the left, up which wound the road, was held by B Coy with D in line beyond.
“The wedge of dead ground into which the rifle coys could not fire was the weakest point of our front; once the enemy penetrated the bridge end they could work up the gullies on either side of Gibraltar and take us in the rear. The hillsides were so steep, rocky and bush-covered that infiltration had every chance of success. Gibraltar itself had obviously been a natural stronghold from earliest times and had ruins of houses and old fortifications hidden by masses of flowering trees, white and pink, for all the world like some Japanese cherry garden – a dreamlike place in the warm sun with butterflies, flowers and a soft wind and the great wall of snow-covered peaks in a half circle behind towering in the clear blue heavens.”
As the days passed, the battalion became like a battery being charged by incidents of the war. On 8 Apr, the Divisional Cavalry made contact with the enemy in the Aliakmon area. The next day, elements of the Cavalry, the New Zealand Artillery and Greek formations with primitive artillery weapons approached from Katerine and passed through the battalion front. On 10 Apr, the German medical staff at the sanatorium deserted – their interest in A Coy’s weapon pits had been keen – and brigade transport had to be supplied to evacuate the unfortunate patients. Fifth column activity had been reported and the Sanatorium building, with its doors banging hollowly and stray dogs barking inside became a suspected and sepulchred place.
The weather was wet, cold and misty on Good Friday, 11 Apr, and fires were lighted for the drying of clothing. There was a snowstorm on top of the pass on this of all days. Divisional Cavalry inflicted casualties and E Troop of the Fifth Field Regiment fired the first artillery round of the Second NZEF war against Germany. Late in the day, a reconnaissance plane flew over D Coy’s area.
At 1655 hours on 14 April, the last elements of the Div Cav passed through the battalion and 65 minutes later three of the Battalion carriers rumbled across the bridge. Four selected demolitions, including the bridge was then blown and the front was closed. What happened next was “not peace, but a sword.”
The first test was sharp and violent. At 2300 hours on the 14 Apr, enemy motor cycles roared down to the demolition over the Elikon. As they halted, they were engaged with small arms fire and grenades from the Height above by Lt CN Armstrong’s NO. 11 Platoon. The enemy replied, but soon withdrew. Five motorcycles left by the bridge showed that the platoon inflicted casualties and that night, enemy patrols could be heard feeling around the frontal wire.
“Next morning,” wrote Lt McAra, “we were just on the point of sitting down to breakfast (bully beef and biscuit hash), when of a sudden the Vickers guns of C Coy’s ridge opened up. We dropped everything and fairly flew into the mortar pits and the beats of the pulse were as one. The machine guns were firing at long range at armoured cars and no other signs of approaching enemy were seen, but in an hour or two the first shells began to come over. Our own 25 pounders opened up in reply. All day long the firing continued, searching ridges and gullies.
Brigadier Hargest squelched through the mud to Battalion HQ just after first light on 15 Apr and at 0800 hours there was a brigade conference. The general situation was not good. The 21st New Zealand battalion on the right was under heavy pressure on the area of the railroad tunnel on the Katerine-Athens line. On the left of the Imperial Forces, there had been enemy penetration of the Greek line. The threat to the rear was real and withdrawal for six or seven miles accordingly was planned for that night to a line across the valley below Ag Demetrious. The battalion intention was for BHQ and Headquarters Coy to move out at 2130 hours and A, C and D Coys at 2230, with B Coy thinning out from 2230 to withdrawal at 2300. C Coy was to hold a rearguard position on the hills above BHQ until the withdrawal of B Coy was completed.
The morning was quiet with occasional exchanges of fire. Light enemy tanks were active on the road and in the afternoon the German artillery began probing for the 25 pounder guns to the rear. The enemy artillery varied its counterbattery work with fire upon battalion positions. The unit had been supplied with 32 mules to assist in Q work over the rough, stony and muddy roads and at 1030 hours the train began to move non-essential gear. There was one amazing incident, a first indication of the Kiwi capacity – which became narked in later campaigns – deliberately to forget danger for the sake of a matter of personal interest. Two privates, mule drivers for the time being, became argumentative over a matter of precedence, or something equally ludicrous and in that incongruous situation they set to fight it out.
At 1730 hours, Brigade transmitted an immediate order cancelling the withdrawal for 24 hours. For a time, enemy mortaring was extensive and during the night threre was sporadic firing. In the early hours, a force could be heard moving forward of D Coy. The Germans cried out in English to draw fire and one enemy soldier said conversationally, “You’ll have to do better than that,” several times. At first light, the company discovered that the wire it had so carefully staked and the mines it had so precisely planted had both been removed.
At 0635 hours on 16 Apr, B Coy called for artillery concentrations on enemy tanks and vehicles moving up the main road. The battalion mortars and the Vickers guns efficiently sought to catch the unwary and arrogant enemy in a blaze of fire. This was concentrated defensive fire and the enemy force withdrew more than 500 yards to protected positions. Two of the armoured fighting vehicles were destroyed and it seemed hat about a company of enemy infantry had been killed or wounded. The enemy reaction was angry. The battalion’s anti tank guns were sited for counter-penetration and none could be brought to bear upon tanks forward of the demolished bridge. At 0704 hours, five enemy tanks moved to within 400 yards of B Coy’s front a nd with cannon and machine gun fire methodically bombarded the area. The artillery registered and made the tanks pull back 200 yards but from the new position there was not much lessening of the fierce fire. Pte J Whibley, the anti tank rifleman of B Coy, gave a splendid exhibition of courage in the situation, by firing his Boys rifle with regularity at armoured vehicles and enemy machine gun posts and the pile of spent cartridges by his gun was large at the end of the day. A light tank brewed up was credited to the rifle.
At 0730, an enemy column three miles long of armoured fighting vehicles, tracked troop carriers and motor cycles came into view on the road from Katerine and when a halt was made within half a mile of the battalion front it was seen that there were at least 40 vehicles, including a 20-ton tank, in the column. Some shooting by the 5Fd was inaccurate and there were complaints of shorts in B Coy’s area. The commanding officer of the regiment, Lt Col Fraser, himself sought to correct the fault and for two hours he calmly directed fire while sitting on a collapsible stool in the Coy area. The score from the Artillery, anti tank rifle and small arms shooting within two hours mounted to ten vehicles, including and ammunition truck, fired by Pte Whibley, and a tank.
Three enemy tanks charged the demolition at 0918 hours and the leading tank drove into the crater to form a bridge. Its crew was killed by rifle fire from No. 21 platoon and the other two tanks, in spite of attempts, could not cross the makeshift bridge. They fired heavily upon nearby targets before they withdrew. Before 1030 hours, B Coy had seven casualties. Four men, Ptes HH Burgess, J O’Brien (A Maori), J Tustin and D Wilson were killed and Ptes CJ Harnish, CS Lovett and AC Murray wounded. Volunteers south to help the chief stretcher bearer, Cpl Hagen, and L/Cpl Donoghue gave covering fire from a Bren, but the enemy response was so vigorous that the bearer party could not reach within 50 yards of the bodies.
Meanwhile the fighting had become general. D Coy’s area was ranged in the early morning and from shell fire in the area of Battalion HQ, Sjt T Logie was killed and Sjt J Tregea had his arm blown off. Tregea’s behaviour was astonishing. Looking down at his dismembered arm he said casually. “Get my wrist watch off it, will you? I don’t want to lose it, too.”
C Coy was attacked by a company of infantry and No. 14 Platoon, against which the main trust was directed, used its 2” mortars as well as rifles and Brens in reply. To avoid further casualties, the Germans were compelled to dig in. The activity on the A Coy front was minor, but the Maori BATTALION’s assistance with mortaring was appreciated.
At 1530 hours a tank reached the remains of D Coy’s wire and bombarded its positions. An enemy armoured troop carrier moved close enough to the line for soldiers to disembark under cover and it was reported that the enemy had penetrated the ravine between Gibraltar and C Coy. A reserve force consisting of “I” personnel, Sigs and ? in the famous phrase, odds and sods was dispatched to hold the position. C Coy put in a patrol and found nothing.
None of us slept that night ands dawn found us cold and tired in the pits, said McAra. “I walked half a mile up the road to our trucks and was just on the point of retuning when the early morning stillness was shattered by the machine guns on the ridges. An instant later, the quick, lighter chatter of Brens started up from B Coy. One of my guns (Sjt Smith’s) opened up on the bridge and the river bed. It took me 15 minutes to return and the that time my chaps had fired 180 bombs – the whole riverbed was full of drifting smoke and the echoes of violent claps dying among the ridges. A number of light and medium tanks had attempted to reach the bridge, but had failed to get through the blast put down.
“By now rain had set in and was falling steadily. Nor shall I ever forget B Coy’s front line – just a soaked and silent man every 20 yards or so along the hillside, lying in gathering pools of water and watching the silent dripping bush in front. Most of their section posts had been made untenable. The eeriness was extreme – the drip drip of the rain among the motionless leaves, the sense of danger impending, the strained faces and the rifles glistening with wet as they poked through the undergrowth. The sunken piece of road where the company had its headquarters was a sad sight with dead and badly-wounded men lying silent and bloodied in the shelter of the cookhouse tent with others struggling up the steep slope or being brought in by stretcher bearers.”
[text lost] of heavy armour and air had been used by enemy against the front. A kind word was spoken by Brigadier Hargest. “The 22nd made a steady withdrawal absolutely to time and without excitement,” he wrote in a dispatch. “It had borne the heat and burden of the day.”
“Heavy mist blotted out the road and hid the retiring coys from the German gunners, a marvellously fortunate thing for us,” wrote Lt McAra. “In the disk the silent billows of vapour rose slowly up the gullies, wet and impenetrable, obliterating ridge after ridge. The trip out was a nightmare with infantry and trucks all mixed up the narrow, winding road and all vehicles overloaded and lightless. Just one long strain to keep on the dim road at all and avoid the collisions and overturnings that were fearfully frequent.
“I shall never forget the scene – we were busy loading two trucks when the first of the rifle coys came along the road on their way back, rain beating into their faces and glistening on ground sheets and helmets as they trudged slowly by – the wearing, dragging pace of exhausted men.”