New Zealand's stand at Thermopylæ 1941


Verified Military
Sep 7, 2006

Assault on Thermopylæ

The decision to evacuate Greece called for new plans. On the night of 22 April the 4th New Zealand Brigade began to move, via Atalante, to Kriekouki in the mountain pass south of Thebes, where it would protect the rearward move of the rest of the Anzac forces. In support it had the 2nd/3rd Australian Field Regiment, an Australian anti-tank battery, some Australian medium machine guns, an Australian Field Ambulance, and two platoons of the 27th New Zealand (Machine Gun) Battalion. With the exception of a small detachment, the 5th New Zealand Brigade also left Thermopylæ, on the first stage of its journey to an embarkation point. The 6th New Zealand Brigade, supported by the whole of the New Zealand Divisional Artillery and two regiments of British artillery, continued to hold the Thermopylæ line.

The enemy land forces still appeared to be in no hurry, but it was obvious that they were building up a strong attacking force. A good deal of transport and armoured vehicle movement could be seen in daylight just beyond effective artillery range on the New Zealand front. Aerial activity, however, became intense. Dive bombers were almost continuously over the 6th Brigade area. They adopted the usual tactics of circling very high over the New Zealand positions to pick out a target, then diving steeply with sirens screaming. During the day of 24 April, dive bombing, and machine-gunning attacks reached their peak.
Furious and repeated attacks were made on our artillery positions, while reconnaissance planes were always overhead, C spotting ' the fall of German shells. Antiaircraft fire was practically useless, and Royal Air Force planes were no longer available to hinder the Luftwaffe. Our gunners took shelter whenever direct attacks were made on their own particular positions, but the moment the enemy planes had gone, they opened fire again. It was the artillery's day.

In fifteen hours of steady accurate firing, the guns at Thermopylæ sent more than 30,000 shells crashing into the enemy's forces. Mortar and machine-gun fire as well as the diving, screaming Stukas and Messerschmitts searched for the artillery observation posts. With a violence almost beyond conception the enemy strove to wipe them out, but, mercifully, casualties were few, and the guns kept firing.

During the morning, three enemy tanks appeared on the south bank of the river, making for the 6th Brigade positions. One was at once destroyed by artillery fire, and the other two retreated. At about 3 o'clock in the afternoon, a particularly heavy bombing attack was made, followed shortly afterwards by a determined infantry and tank thrust. On the front protected by the guns of the 5th New Zealand Field Regiment, which were sited in front of the infantry, a wave of advancing medium tanks was quickly driven back. A second attack, launched soon afterwards with a greater number of tanks, was also repulsed.

Meanwhile, along the section of the New Zealand line held by the 25th (Wellington) Battalion, four more tanks appeared across the river. The artillery observation posts were not able to direct the fire of the guns on to these as the connecting telephone wires had been broken by enemy action. Under cover of scrub and rocks, enemy infantry began to work their way forward. In spite of intense fire kept up by the New Zealanders, a strong force succeeded in reaching the high ground on the left flank, and our two forward platoons were forced to withdraw. As they did so, they came under mortar and shell fire from three tanks, which had taken up a fixed position under cover. Both platoons suffered heavy casualties. More tanks began to approach along the road.

Prompt steps were taken to deal with this dangerous situation. The artillery was given accurate information about the positions of these three tanks which had dealt so severely with our infantry. Two-pounder anti-tank guns came into action and soon all three tanks were blazing. As the crews were forced out by the flames, they were killed by machine-gun and rifle fire. Three field gun's then dealt with other tanks advancing at thirty miles an hour along the winding road. One gun alone destroyed seven, firing at point blank range over open sights, and the other two accounted for five.

From the high ground on the left, the enemy opened machine-gun fire. The artillery and infantry battle continued intensely, about half-past nine that night, when contact with the enemy was broken, and the planned withdrawal began, though not to Khalkis, as had originally been intended. All guns and heavy equipment were destroyed as they stood, and the men marched back to waiting trucks. By midnight, the last of the troops had passed through Molos on the way to the rear, and by dawn on Anzac Day both men and vehicles were scattered and concealed over a hundred miles away behind the 4th New Zealand Brigade's covering position at Kriekouki. In the face of the advancing enemy, a rear party fired high-explosive demolition charges to block the road.