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Māori Battalion diary - April 1941

Overview

Battalion positions at Olympus Pass

In late March the 2nd New Zealand Division was sent from Egypt to Greece. Just over 700 members of the 28th (Māori) Battalion disembarked at the port of Piraeus and after two days at Athens they travelled by train to the town of Katerini in a doomed attempt to halt the German invasion. A 90-strong Māori reinforcement company was left at Voula, near Athens, while the Battalion's transport platoon drove for three days to ensure the unit's vehicles were available at Katerini. As part of 5 Brigade the Māori Battalion was to prepare and occupy reserve positions covering the pass north of Mount Olympus. The inland pass that headed south to Athens was important for over it ran the main road from Katerini and the north-east provinces. The Māori Battalion would cover the entrance to this pass. The pass was known by several names, including Petras Pass, but Olympus Pass was the one used by the troops.

The Battalion first faced the Germans on 15-16 April, when four of their men were killed. They then fell back to defend the Thermopylae Line, but on 21 April 1941 the British command decided to abandon Greece. Most of the Battalion was evacuated from the Athens area to Crete aboard the Glengyle in the early hours of Anzac Day. They left behind 10 dead and 81 prisoners of war. Of the 700 or so members who went to Greece today there are only two surviving veterans.

Diary

    • 1 April: 0930hrs Battalion departs Katerini. Transport platoon relays companies to Olympus Pass (10 km southwest of Katerini).
    • 2 April: Battalion disperses to company areas.
      A Coy in wild mountainous country on the forward eastern slope of Mt Brusti facing the main road from Katerini. B Coy in the actual Olympus Pass itself covering a side road from Petras tuberculosis Sanatorium. C Coy is on the northen side of the Mavroneri River behind the village of Kariai [i.e. Karyes], while D Coy is further west of them behind the village of Haduladhika. Headquarters Coy is in a cherry orchard at Zazakon village between C Coy and the village of Skoteina. Battalion has a clear view of the Katerini plains to the northeast.  Listen to 2/Lt Charles Bennett's description.
    • 3-5 April: Siting and preparing positions. Strengthening positions with wiring and digging.
    • 6 April: Germany delivers ultimatum to both Greece and Yugoslavia and follows up rejection with an attack against them. B Coy relocates behind A Coy. 2/Lt Ruhi Pene with 12 Platoon takes up a defensive position higher up the Mavroneri Gorge at the timber mill village of Skoteina. An inferior no-exit metalled side road (designed to carry logging wagons) runs from the mill alongside the Mavroneri River weaving its way through the Gorge where after 6.4 km it runs out to the plains and the road to Katerini - the area where A and B Coys are positioned.
    • 7-9 April: Digging, wiring and strengthening positions. Reconnaissance carried out on roads and tracks. Salonika (aka Thessaloniki) falls. This is the second largest city in Greece and is some 64 km to the northeast of Katerini across the Thermaic Gulf.
    • 10 April: B Echelon transport move out with Major George Bertrand and six officers including Capt. Gerry Weir, 2/Lt Charles Bennett and 2/Lt Logan form the nucleus of the Reserve Party. Bertrand, Bennett and Logan later recalled to the gorge.
    • 11 April: Further digging and wiring of positions carried out.
    • 12 April: Receive instructions from 5 Brigade that C & D Coys are to vacate their positions and take up new positions on the southern bank of the Mavroneri River alongside A & B Coys on the slope of Mt Brusti.
    • 13 April: C Coy move from Kariai to a reserve position higher up Mt Brusti on a ridge that allows them to reinforce any one of the other companies if required. The whole Battalion is now in the gorge on the lower slopes of Mt Brusti facing northeast while overlooking the mill road and the Mavroneri River. The terrain is steep and rugged with dense bush. A Company is on the right, B Company in the centre and D Coy left together covering a front of about two kilometres. The left flank of D Coy is about 5 km from Skoteina Village where 2/Lt Pene and 12 Platoon remain. Night patrolling is undertaken.
    • 14 April: Battalion Headquarters move to a position just west of C Coy. 
    • 15 April: This is the day on which the Battalion first makes contact with the enemy. Read Corporal Harry Taituha's and RSM AC Wood's accounts of fighting at Mt Olympus.  All morning and into the afternoon there is considerable movement of armoured vehicles and tanks from Katerini towards the Pass. Lt Brant's platoon (attached from 27 Machine Gun Battalion) and 2/Lt Tenga Rangi's mortar platoon fire at extreme range whenever a target presents itself thwarting further German advance. 1540 hrs enemy troops seen moving under cover towards Kato Milia Village. Battalion area first shelled by enemy artillery. Casualties for the day were Sgt Wiremu Hare of Kaikohe wounded by shellfire (died 11 days later) and Pte Vincent Ellison, who enlisted in Wanganui, shell shocked from a near miss. At night enemy party crosses Mavroneri River and probes A Coy’s defences. Capt. Harding Leaf had had his men hang petrol tins on wire and these frighten enemy off.  Read Cpt Porter's account of A Company's role in the action at Mt Olympus.
    • 16 April: From 0610 hrs enemy armoured vehicles and troops spotted approaching the Pass. Sgt George Katene of Porirua with men of the mortar platoon assist 22 Battalion to drive them off. At 1130 hrs cold intermittent rain and heavy fog envelope the gorge limiting visibility to 300 yards. At 1500 hrs, during a slight lift in the weather, enemy seen pouring down feature facing Maori positions and later using fog cover they cross the Mavroneri River and begin working their way up bank towards Battalion's left flank. At 1730 hrs D Coy comes under attack. Read accounts of attack. 2/Lt Gordon Ormond's 16 Platoon is near the bottom of the gorge from where the road and river make a sweeping turn and starts a steepish climb to Skoteina. Cpl Les Wipiti's section from 17 Platoon is on this bend and overlooking the road. Further up the road is Cpl Sam Komene's section. Between them and higher up in the bush is 2/Lt Rangi Logan and 17 Platoon headquarters. None of the sections can see each other because of the distance and bush. Nor could they see 16 Platoon below them. 16 Platoon is forced to withdraw after their forward section is overrun. Three privates killed: Charlie Kaimoana and Matiu Ropata of Wairoa, and John Poutu of Ruatoria, while the section leader Cpl Harry Taituha (of Wanganui?) is seriously wounded and left for dead. This leaves a gap between D and B Coys which the enemy is quick to exploit. Cpl George Harrison of Opunake rallying 16 Platoon's reserve section and B Companies reserve platoon under 2/Lt Horton Stewart restore the situation and Germans withdraw for the night. C Company's 2/Lt Arnold Reedy and 13 Platoon sent to prevent a possible outflanking move through Skoteina while D Coy's 2/Lt George Te Kuru with 20 men (i.e. a section from each of 17 and 18 Platoons) instructed to position themselves in the 5 kilometer gap between Skoteina and D Coy's 17 Platoon. 2230 hrs Battalion pulls out by climbing rugged mountainous terrain in adverse weather conditions. The RSM WOI Ace Wood, with Pte Wiremu (Bill) Hoko of Maketu as guide, is sent to tell platoons at Skoteina to withdraw over mountain.
    • 17April: 0330hrs After at least a 5-hour tramp, described as ‘unmitigated hell' by the RSM, Battalion reaches Olympus Pass road. Read an account of the tramp.  18 men missing including most of Cpl Wipiti's section from 17 Platoon who did not get the message to pull out. Days later these men are captured and become POWs. They include: Cpls Harry Taituha and Les Wipiti, Ptes Nelson Carroll, J.F. Carroll, Joe Hiroti, John Palmer, Boss Pineaha, Ben Thompson and ORs. Battalion moves along the road for a little over a mile to its awaiting vehicles and drivers who transport them beyond Ay Dhimitrios where they take up defensive positions. 1500 hrs after two-mile route march Battalion again transported south.  See Arthur Brooking talking about the battle for Greece.
    • 18 April: After taking a vague and circuitous route via Larisa and then Lamia at 1900 hrs Battalion reached a point southeast of Almiros.
    • 19 April: Maori Battalion front four miles long. Coys establish themselves in their respective areas: A, B and C forward with D in reserve.
    • 20 April: Aerial bombing and machine gunning of Battalion positions ineffective. At dusk Battalion returns to Lamia and occupies new positions north-west of Molos. Lights of enemy vehicles seen as they poured into Lamia from the pass behind the town.
    • 21 April: New front known as Thermopylae Line. Maori Battalion front over a mile long. D, B, C Coys forward with A in reserve. One company of 18 Battalion assists Maori with defences.
    • 22 April: 0738 hrs A battery of enemy guns shells positions left of Battalion near Thermopylae Pass. NZ artillery replies with effect. Battalion area is shelled at 1240 hrs but no casualties. 2000 hrs Transport lines in rear of Molos machine-gunned by Messchersmitt 109F. S/Sgt Jim (Diamond) Warihi of Rotorua was wounded. Lt-Col George Dittmer imparts news to Company commanders that Greeks have capitulated. NZ Division to withdraw towards port of embarkation. 2100 hrs companies march to forming-up area and then four miles to unit transport. 2/Lt George Bennett and Bren Carriers Platoon remain behind as rearguard. During the 17-mile drive south along the congested roadway, part of C Coy separated. Battalion bivouacs under olive trees in the seaside village of Ay Konstandinos.
    • 23 April: Whole day spent at Ay Konstandinos avoiding the attentions of enemy reconnaissance planes. Villagers have fled to hills so some of the men help themselves to a cognac distillery. Lt-Col Dittmer orders the destruction of any cognac found on the troops. 2030 hrs moved out again on 150 mile drive south to Athens.
    • 24 April: 0700 hrs arrived at Marathon about six miles south of Athens where Battalion stays under cover of olive trees all day. The large yacht Hellas arrives at the port of Piraeus. In the afternoon she takes on board over 1000 personnel including British civilians and wounded and sick men. C Coy’s 13 Platoon and part of 15 Platoon also boards. Headquarters Company’s Mortar Platoon joins them. 1900 hrs German aircraft attack and set Hellas on fire. Passengers and wounded men are trapped in burning cabins; the only gangway is destroyed, and eventually the ship rolls over. The following C Coy men believed to be killed here: Cpl Mita Tahata of Ruatoria, Ptes John (Bunny) Brown and Charlie Horne of Gisborne and Percy Goldsmith of Ruatoria. (See Miki Harrison talk about the attack on the Hellas). Estimates of the total numbers who die range from 500 to 700. 2100 hrs Battalion moves by transport to the fishing village of Porto Rafti.
Sinking of the Hellas - an Anzac story
  • 25 April: 0230 hrs first men of Battalion arrive on board Glengyle. 0400 hrs Boat weighs anchor and sails. Two ships in the convoy and an escort of four destroyers. Subjected to one or two aerial attacks but they are of no consequence.  1600 hrs Arrive Suda Bay on the island of Crete.  March six or seven miles to camp site.
  • 26 April: In the morning, having been guided to the wrong location Battalion shifts a mile to its proper bivouac area.
  • 27 April: 0930 hrs march to defence area in vicinity of Aghya village which is reached at noon. Company areas occupied immediately.
  • 28 April: Companies settling in. 5 Brigade conference at 1000 hrs which the CO attends. 1430 hrs CO discusses with company commanders possible German invasion of the island. Meanwhile the Battalion's 90-strong Reinforcement Company that had been left at Voula at the end of March are captured at Kalamata in Greece. Read accounts of what happened to the Reinforcement Company from Lt. Wiremu Herewini and Rāwhiti Īhaka.
  • 29 April: Front extended to include southern half of 23 Bn sector. Company dispositions readjusted. HQ Coy reorganised into a fighting unit (less mortars and signallers).
  • 30 April: Further adjustments of left flank due to 21 Battalion move to Maleme aerodrome. Māori Battalion to guard Aghya Valley against enemy airborne troops and to be prepared to move at very short notice in the event of enemy anywhere in the 5 Brigade area.

Reference

Archives New Zealand = Te Whare Tuhituhinga o Aotearoa.
Ref:  28 NZ (Maori) Battalion Diary, WAII 1 1664 DA 68/1/17, pp 13-18

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