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Though we have heard of stupid haste in war, cleverness has never been seen associated with long delays.
-- Sun Tzu
21 April 1941
Today the sun is shining and Jerry Bombers have left us alone for a couple of hours. So will try and give a little more detail of events since we went into action. We evacuated our original position, overlooking Salonika. on the 9th. Hated leaving, but there was definitely the fear of being surrounded. So E troop remained behind to harrass and fight a rear-guard action.
Div.Cav. contacted the enemy near a river, which Jerry had to cross by pontoons as the Engineers had blown up the bridge. As Jerry filed into the boats, Div. Cav. turned on their Brens. They mowed them down and mowed them down. One lot killed and another lot would take their place. This went on until the Gunners were sick of the sight of dead and dying men. And no attack was made on the Div. Cav. Apparently the Infantry were well ahead of their supports. At last numbers told and as they advanced E troop opened up and added to the slaughter. In the meantime we had retired past hundreds of poor evacuees to our position in the Katerine Pass. It was raining, cold and about 11 p.m. when we reached our position. About 1 a.m. we had the guns in position and lay down wet through in the rotten drizzle.
However, up at 7 a.m. and the rain had stopped for a while. A cup of tea and bully beef stew made things a bit brighter. We dug holes in the sides of the hills to sleep in. Rained persistently and cold as charity but being weary slept pretty well.
Good Friday! Rained all day and all soaking wet. We are about 2000 feet up here. Heard that Jerry has been active in Africa and successful. Bad business. We get only second hand information about events and some of the rumours are rather marvellous. All the same, things don't look too cheerful.
Today the weather cleared and we managed to air our blankets and clothes. At about 2 a.m. we went up to occupy our O.P. A very steep climb brought us to a clearing in which there was a shepherd's hut thatched with straw and stone walls. An earthern floor, and the place looked like a palace to us. At 4 p.m. it started to snow. We lit a fire, and felt like Christmas. Snowed for some hours, until the ground was covered to a depth of 8 - 12 inches. First time we had slept under a roof since 27.4.41.
Everything snow white this morning. Eventually we climbed to the peak for observation. A very stiff climb. Peak 3000 feet up. Wonderful view. Could hear guns but couldn't see Jerry. Had a rest today.
Today we changed our O.P. Not quite so high but even better observation being below clouds. And at last it looks as if the War has caught up with us. E troop have returned and we now occupy the forward position. Through the glasses we can see the flash of machine-guns and Brens as Jerry comes into Katerine. Div. Cav. retire fighting as they go. Still out of range of our guns.
Last night we did watches in the O.P. Didn't feel very happy about it either. About 74 miles from anywhere with Jerry somewhere out in front. Had my rifle cocked and saw a Jerry in every tree and stump. Was on from 2 a.m. to 6 a.m. Down to have a cup of tea and back again about 8 a.m. At 9.30 a.m. word came through we could register the zone by shooting. Fired two shots on the zero line to one at another point. And then we saw Jerry. At least 80 tanks and A.F.V.'s coming along the road towards us. Personally they had me a bit worried. Looked such a lot that I wondered whether we could stop them. So on to "G.F. Target" with switch and range. "Fire!" And down we sent out first shot of the war. Our second and third halted the convoy and then we got going. Up and down the road we shelled, with tanks going everywhere. They made for shelter and we shelled the bushes and shrubs. In about two hours the convoy turned for Katerine going faster than it came. And we shelled it all the way. In some patches of bush he had left Infantry. We received advice that they were massing. Couldn't see them but knew the locality. So again round after round of G.F. Shortly could be heard the rat-tat-tat of machine and Bren guns as the Maori Infantry chewed them up as they tried to leave the bush out of the shell fire. An Artillery man's picnic and we made the most of it. Jerry had a very hectic day. Word came through that we were to retire further back owing to his breaking through on some other pass. This was cancelled later and we were more than pleased.
Two hours on watch last night. Could hear plenty of movement going on along the road. At 5 a.m. was up at the O.P. Just got there when out of the semi-dark pandemonium broke loose. The call for help from the Infantry went up Green Red and Green flares. Grabbed the phone and shouted "C.D.F. C.D.F. !!!" Seemed hours before the guns roared but actually about a minute and a half. While waiting I watched the battle below. German Infantry, Tanks, Bren guns, machine guns all blazing away and our chappies answering back. Verey lights going up like Guy Fawkes. And then the roar of the guns. A wonderful sound. We put down round after round. I called for a switch left of one degree, and then another plus 50 yards. In ten minutes of this, and Jerry was quiet. Saw one shell land right on top of a Bren gun nest. Finis. Then we settled down to range the road again. And was there plenty to hit! D. Troop took the near stuff - at least 100 tanks - as we couldn't get crest clearance to reach them. But we fouplenty! It was just open slather again. In the distance we saw the flash flash from some heavy guns and Jerry was having a smack at us. Shells flew over pretty close, making us bob our heads pretty low. So we ranged onto the flashes and about the fourth shell made it. And then G.F. right in amongst them. That was the last we heard from that Battery. But we couldn't locate a Trench mortar they had firing at us. He was persistent and unpleasant.
A Jerry observation plane flew over. spotted our guns and the O.P. and dropped flares over each. But we had the wood on Jerry. We could see him and observe whereas he couldn't see us. All the morning our guns and the other troop's guns smashed his tanks. Below us four went up in flames and they were scattered everywhere. It was the same as yesterday, only more so. But Jerry was given a break. A very thick mist came down and we couldn't see through it. Excepting that we had all details to various areas and did blind shooting. At 4.30 came orders to move and move fast. His big mortars had our range too and every few yards we had to hug the ground. Rather unpleasant and a good idea of what Jerry had had to put up with for two days. Got most of our gear out and all our guns. Some guns were lost by the 4th Field and the Anti-tanks lost 11. We went up the Pass and F. Troop had the job of covering the rest of the Division. All the rest went out, the Engineers blew up the bridges and we sat and waited. It rained again, and we were wet and cold. But on 17.4.41 as we stood to, we had the satisfaction of receiving General Freyburg's congratulations. Brig. Miles said "We are proud of the Artillery". Brig. Harvest could say nothing but "Marvellous, marvellous. Proud to have been in front of such artillery". And I was speaking to Col. Dittmer whose Maoris were supporting us. He said "A wonderful performance. Best I've seen". Best of all, however, was the praise and thanks of the old foot sloggers who were in front of us. They reckon we were just great. And that's praise from the men who needed us. Sounds a bit like skite. It is skite, but we are proud of it and the performance the "glamour boys" as they call the 2nd Echelon put up. Anyway we parked there all day looking down the valley at the end of which was a village "Ag Demetrus". About 3 p.m. through the glasses we spotted a large number of people leaving the village and coming towards us. Could not make out whether they were Jerry Infantry or evacuees. They looked suspicious and things were too grim to take chances. So we fired a shot that hit the road right in front of them. They stopped and so did we. Just before we prepared to follow the rest of the Div. we played safe by sending down half a dozen more rounds. Then up and away toward Larisa. Reached a field about 7 p.m. and lay down for the first decent nights rest in just on a week. No wash, shave or change of clothes.
Up at 7 a.m. Much refreshed. Just thinking of breakfast when again urgent orders "move immediately!" So again into our trucks and on the road. Went past the A.S.C. Depot where our stores were held. Tons of stuff left for the Greeks to pillage. No room to take it. We rushed in as we passed and grabbed some cases of fruit, bully beef etc. Were lucky we did because we had to live on them. And then old F Troop receives instructions to turn off at Tyrnavos, to a spot where there was every likelihood of Jerry having broken through. We didn't like it one little bit, Jerry was following up behind - no one knew how close. And here he was expected at this other point which made us the meat in the sandwich. However, in we went, set up the guns, and were they camouflaged? We went up a high hill not far away and couldn't pick them. And just as well since Jerry bombers came over continuously on their way to Larisa. And we watched them bomb it in relays. Thankful that it wasn't us. Just below us we watched a Jerry Messerchmitt come down the road and machine-gun a staff-car, killing a Capt. and wounding the driver in the leg. We waited and waited, hoping nothing would happen, and that the Jerry bombers would miss the bridge that lay between us and escape.
We were waiting for the dark, and at 8.30 p.m. just as we decided to move, over in our sector we could see Bren gun tracer bullets. tank shells and sound of firing. So, as our job was done, we jumped to it and away we went. Despite Jerry's continual bombing, he had missed the bridges, and we entered Larisa - a smashed town. Why it was smashed no one knows. He hit neither road nor bridge. Anyway on we went for hours. All night, and up to 3 p.m. Saturday. when we arrived at a spot near Atlanta. Here we parked, the guns going back about 4 miles as tank guns. We slept that night like logs.
Woke up about 7 a.m. No tea or breakfast officially, but were lucky enough to have the pillaged stores. And then over came the Jerry bombers. Continuously. Bombed us and machine gunned us. All day we were in our slit trenches as he roared above us. "Where is the R.A.F.?" That cry has gone up from our boys and the Aussies the last few days as Jerry has raked us from all angles. Never a plane of ours until this morning when 7 Hurricanes came over and shot down a bomber and a reconnaisance plane. But they were away shortly after and over came Jerry again, all the afternoon. To get our meals we would wait until he had roared over, dash across with our dixies, and rush back. A hectic day with no damage done except to our nerves, and the leg of a Maori. Further over he killed five of the 22nd Battalion, and Bill Donaldson was hit in the back by a flying stone. A weeks rest for him.
Today a very peaceful day with a few scares, but no bombs. Sunny and somehow too good to be true. 6.30 p.m. Just received orders from Capt. Hardy to go up to the gun positions. Arrived there about 11 p.m. and immediately started with Gnr. Nicholl to dig a hefty slit trench. Dug until 4.30 a.m. and then had an hours sleep.
This morning found that the position of the slit trench not so hot so dug another. Never too tired these days to dig trenches! A nice cool stream handy here, so all hands in for a wash while things are comparatively quiet. 7 p.m. From the shelter of our trench have been watching Jerry blast the road below us with his machine guns. 12 planes in relays of 4 roared over for half an hour. Killed a truck driver, and set fire to a few vehicles. Got Gnr. Brown of "B" troop with a bomb - blew his leg off.
Guns firing regularly at the Hun at various ranges, but chief object to prevent tanks breaking through. At 3 p.m. Capt. Hardy told me to report back to H.Q. The guns were staying for 48 hours, and all personnel not needed were to move out. So walked the 3 miles back to Camp. but not along the road. Arrived in time for tea and discovered that we were all leaving at 8.30 p.m.
Travelled all night, pulling into cover about 4 a.m., just before dawn. Found a creek with good steep sides so parked ourselves there. washed ourselves and our socks, and to sleep. Jerry searching all day, and machine-gunning and bombing the road below. During the afternoon found an A.S.C. dump, and dined on tins of milk, beef, jam, margarine and fruit. Felt considerably better. On the road again at 8 p.m., just on dark, travelling again all night until 4.30 a.m.
Today for the first time we travelled by day. Started off at 10 a.m. on a dash to Athens - 30 miles. Twice attacked by Jerry, but Ernie Neal drove them off on the first occasion with the Bren. Eventually made Athens, and here we received our greatest and most pleasant surprise. Sort of expected a cool reception, if not actually hostile, from the Greeks. We felt that they might feel we had let them down. The Jerries had driven us back, and would soon take Athens. We were unshaven. tired and dirty. But the Greeks lined the streets - men, women and children were weeping, but all cheered and clapped their hands, crying "Bravo N.Z. Come back again N.Z." Pointon was with Collins in the front seat and was kissed on the cheeks by Greek men who ran alongside. Women and men kissed our hands as we drove slowly along. We felt like howling ourselves. Someday we hope to meet them again and justify by results more successful their opinion of New Zealanders. On to a temporary camp where we washed, shaved, ate and rested. At night moved again, stopping under cover near morning.
A restful day and quiet. Late afternoon we commenced a most unpleasant job. Destroyed our quads, trucks etc. Slashed the tyres and ran the engines until they seized. A heart-breaking job, but at any rate Jerry would not benefit much from the material left behind. Then, at 8.45 p.m., again on the road on our last lap. About 15 miles brought us to the sea. A wait of about 3 hours, and we were on a scow which took us out to a destroyer - the H.M.S. Kingston. Up anchor at 3 a.m. and we relaxed. Were given tea and crawled under some torpedo tubes and slept. Jack Cooper was with me right through.
Note: by Alan Jackson, 5th Field Regiment
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