The forgotten Anzacs

War torn: A German tank crossing the swollen Pineios River, during the battle at the Vale of Tempe in 1941. Below, Commanding officer Colonel Neil Lloyd Macky.
Photos: From The Sixth Man by James McNeish
War torn: A German tank crossing the swollen Pineios River, during the battle at the Vale of Tempe in 1941. Below, Commanding officer Colonel Neil Lloyd Macky.

It has been overshadowed in history by the brutal fighting in Crete, but 70 years ago New Zealand and Australian troops fought a valiant battle for survival through the same gorges as the heroes of ancient Greece. By Rob O'Neill. 

WHEN THE commander of New Zealand's troops in Greece, Crete, North Africa and Italy Lieutenant-General Lord Freyberg looked at the achievements of his troops, he took the time to correct an error.

In his introduction to 21 (Auckland) Battalion's unit history he welcomed the chance to put the record straight. He wrote: "In some cases we now know what appeared as a disaster has since been shown to be a gallant action in an inevitable defeat."

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In trying to right an old wrong, he described 21 Battalion's defence and rearguard action at the Vale of Tempe in Greece, on April 18, 1941 – 70 years ago last Monday – as an engagement "fought with determination and great courage".

It was a re-evaluation and an apology Freyberg may have tried to deliver in person to 21 Battalion's commander on that desperate day, Colonel Neil Lloyd Macky, who was unofficially relieved of his command and invalided home after the battle. According to historian RCJ Stone, Macky was invited to Government House after the war by then Governor-General Freyberg. He never responded.

Tempe was an engagement that carried a whiff of failure, and Macky suffered for it, but the battle almost certainly saved thousands of British and Commonwealth troops who lived to fight another day. The battle delayed the German advance just long enough for most of the 55,000-strong Allied force to escape south through Larissa a few miles south.

In Greece, unlike the earlier, more famous and equally failed Churchill-inspired operation at Gallipoli in the Great War, New Zealand, Australian and British troops didn't even have the advantage of surprise.

In addition to a massive number of tanks, the German forces enjoyed almost total superiority in the air.

The 700 troops of 21 Battalion arrived at the port of Pireaus, in Athens, at the end of March, and were greeted by air raids which set fire to an ammunition ship close to where they docked. The New Zealanders saved that ship and headed to Platamon, north of Thessaly on the coast of Homer's "wine-dark" Aegean sea and in sight of fabled Mt Olympus.

On April 15 the Germans attacked. Unexpectedly they came with two Panzer divisions, displaying for the first time their ability to produce tanks in places considered inaccessible. They would do so again three days later at Tempe.

21 Battalion's first engagement, and losses, continued on the 16th before the Germans managed to move their tanks over rough terrain and mines and break the New Zealand line. In close combat the New Zealanders found their position untenable.

Macky, known as "Polly" to his troops, gave the order to withdraw after 21 Battalion had held up half an armoured division, with 100 tanks, for 36 hours with 36 troops killed, wounded and missing, battalion historian JF Cody wrote.

The Kiwis retreated inland and regrouped in an historic and forbidding gorge: the Vale of Tempe.

It had been the scene of many battles, most famously offering the Greeks their first line of defence against the Persian invasion of 480BC. Back then the Greeks re-evaluated their strategy and retreated to another narrow gorge, called Thermopylae, from which 300 Spartans stood and repulsed a massive Persian army.

In contrast, the retreat of the Anzacs and other Allies in Greece did not end until they reached North Africa, tired, bloodied and battle-hardened, ready to meet and defeat Rommel's Afrika Korps.

"At some time before the dawn of history an earthquake had snapped the range like a a rotten stick and the result was the five mile long Vale of Tempe, the gorge of the Pineios River," Cody wrote in his 1953 history.

The gorge had a railway on its northern side and a road on the southern. Both had to be blocked to prevent the Germans getting to an open plain to the south leading to Larissa. On the 16th the railway tunnel was blocked and the road pitted with explosives and then the railway bridge was blown.

The defenders, like the Greeks over two millennia before, decided to defend the gorge from its western end to stop the Germans from outflanking them through the hills. Finding cover, 21 Battalion ate, slept and waited.

The Australian 2/2 Battalion arrived that night and took up a position near the gorge exit and further back near a village of Gonnos to prevent a flanking attack, which would come in the form of the German 6 Mountain Division. Australian 2/3 Battalion arrived before dawn and took position near 2/2.

The New Zealanders had the gorge and the high areas on its flanks while the Australians had the area beyond Tempe village at the gorge exit and dug in on the plains behind.

According to Cody, the troops at Tempe were ordered to fight to the end. James McNeish, in his biography of soldier and diplomat Paddy Costello, said that their transport was taken away to make sure they did. That order to fight, "if necessary to extinction" came from Anzac Corps Brigadier Clowes, who ordered the gorge held at least until the 19th to allow the retreat of Allied forces through Larissa.

21 Battalion itself had a pitiful armoury of four anti-tank guns and two mortars. Cody writes that the mortars were inoperable after the battle at Platamon.

The first German tank trundled up the gorge and was engaged by artillery at 5pm on the 17th. Then a German cycle patrol arrived prompting a small arms engagement.

Unseen, however, 2 Panzer Division found a ford on the swollen river and crossed with five tanks turret-deep. German troops were also flanking the gorge to the west near the Australians.

THE MORNING of the 18th was clear, revealing the enemy had made progress to threaten most of the defensive units. Firing erupted at Gonnos and spread quickly.

The New Zealand units in the gorge took heavy fire, in one case from three sides. Small arms and machine gun fire grew to a crescendo.

"The valley was filled with the roar of rushing shells, the thunder of exploding mortar bombs and the crackle of musketry echoing and re-echoing," Cody wrote. "The ancient Greek Gods who dwelt on Olympus might have been engaged in combat."

The German infantry attempted to cross the river and then tanks began to move up through the gorge followed by more infantry. Tempe village was bombarded and more crossings attempted and defeated by Australian artillery and 21 Battalion.

Eventually tanks arrived to support the crossing troops. 21 Battalion's C company was stalked by 17 tanks as the Germans inched towards Tempe. Infantry finally crossed the destroyed railway bridge and defences began to crumble.

New Zealand anti-tank guns destroyed two tanks and damaged a third before falling silent. The Australians were also heavily engaged along the line. The game was up and the surrounded New Zealanders withdrew into the hills.

At 4.30pm the German tanks broke past A company. Astoundingly, Sergeant Major Lockett rammed the leading tank with his gun carrier forcing it off the road. For that, Lockett won a Military Medal. He was killed in action a month later.

The first three German tanks were destroyed by A Troop 26 Battery before it was overrun.

Then began one of the most effective and destructive of rearguard artillery actions.

The history of the 2nd NZ Divisional Artillery, by WEMurphy, records that "the guns kept firing regardless of attack". In total 3350 rounds were fired by only 11 guns. This, Murphy said, represents an even higher average per gun than the "exceptional" rate achieved by 2/3 Australian Field Regiment overlooking the village of Elasson that day.

Then, on the night of the 18th, the Germans paused, waiting for infantry support.

The German commander later praised 21 Battalion's tough defence.

In total, 21 Battalion took 275 casualties, lost 14 in Greece and another eight died as prisoners; 26 more were wounded and 235 became prisoners of war.

Much of 21 Battalion then had to find its own way to Crete, in batches, over mountains and by sea in small boats. The ones who made it south were transported by the Royal Navy on the night of April 24 – Anzac Day, 27 years after another Auckland battalion prepared itself to land at Gallipoli.

Sunday Star Times