Wednesday, August 10, 2022

The Road to Piraeus

Cruiser Tank Mk.II broken down in Greece
Quartermaster Sergeant Joseph Burnside wiped his hands on a semi-clean rag as he turned to Sgt. O'Connell. "Best I can do O'Connell. The transmission is iffy, the clutch should be replaced, and the engine runs rough as Hell. But it's all we've got left. You still want her?"

O'Connell nodded at Fitzhugh who promptly climbed into the driver's position. He started the engine and though it took a minute to catch, was soon running. Roughly, as Burnside said it would, but it was running.

Burnside jumped a bit when the tank moved forward, stopped, then moved back, it was apparent that Fitzhugh was checking the clutch.

After a minute or so more, the engine stopped and Fitzhugh came up out of the driver's seat, nodding at O'Connell as he did so.

"Well, my driver likes her, so rather than walk back to the coast, we'll take her. Ammo?"

"I scrounged up roughly half a full load, over there." Burnside nodded to a number of ammunition crates half-covered by a canvas tarp. "You'll have to load it yourselves, I've got other vehicles I need to get back on the road."

"You know where we're going, right?" O'Connell asked Burnside.

"To the coast, a lot of the units have been ordered to make for Kalamata, awfully far if you ask me. I'd head for Piraeus were it up to me." Burnside answered.

"Our orders say Kalamata as well, we'll go wherever the Royal Navy can take us off. Piraeus you say?"

"A lot of the logistics staff and units are ordered there. They might try to lift our heavy equipment off from there, at least that's what I've been told."

"Piraeus it is, thanks Quartermaster!"

O'Connell and his tank were temporarily attached to the 4th New Zealand Brigade. These troops had been detailed to block the narrow road to Athens leading down from the mountains further north. The Kiwis¹ called the narrow road south, the "24 Hour Pass."

O'Connell and his lads knew nothing of that, their only liaison with the Kiwis had been with a very busy major who told them, "Park your crate here, kill any Huns coming down the road. If you run out of ammunition, throw rocks at them. We're buying time for others to get away. Hopefully we'll get word when we can scarper as well."

"What do we have for support, Sir?" O'Connell had asked the man.

"Those blokes over there, behind that stone wall. If they run, well, I suppose you can run too."

Now they sat and waited. They had all the hatches open and the inside of the tank still felt like an oven. Fitzhugh had been tinkering with the engine and it was running smoother now, but he wasn't confident of the clutch.

"The clutch is constantly slipping Teddy, we might get into a situation of not being able to change gears. If our luck is really bad, it could go out when I'm changing gears and we won't be able to run at all."

"Suggestions? Anybody?"

Finally McTavish spoke up, "If we have to move, put 'er in 2nd gear and leave it there. Should be enough to get us moving and keep us moving, right Fitzie?"

Fitzhugh nodded and said, "I'll bet you never saw a motorcar before ye came down from the Highlands, Fred. But yeah, that's what I'd do. It's a good idea."

McTavish grinned and said, "The only motorcars we ever saw in the Highlands belonged to the lairds. The Army taught me all I need to know about tanks and the like. How can ye even run a tank in Ireland, what with all the bogs and that?"

O'Connell chuckled and said, "That's enough lads, let's get some food down and try to catch some sleep. The Kiwis look to be settled in for now. If the Jerries come, we'll know from all the noise their bloody machines will make coming down this sorry excuse for a road."

"And to think these Greek fellows conquered most of the known world back in the day." Billy O'Shea marveled.

"Well, everyone's roads sucked back then, didn't they? And it warn't the Greeks, 'twas the Macedonians under Alexander, " McTavish pointed out.

"The Masa-whos?" O'Shea asked.

The German sergeant was moving his men up with great caution, they'd been nearly ambushed by a group of Australians the day before, only a passing reconnaissance aircraft dropping a message to them had prevented them from being cut to pieces.

Sunrise wasn't for another two hours, his company commander was convinced that the Tommies were all running for the coast, just like France the Spieß had quipped. The sergeant wasn't so sure, he'd faced the British in France, bunch of tough bastards is what he remembered. Didn't matter what part of the Empire they were from, they knew how to fight. Probably how they got such an Empire one of his men had pointed out.

His point man froze and went down on one knee, signaling for a halt, the sergeant waited a second, then moved forward. He put his ear to the point man's mouth, that man whispered, "I could have sworn I heard a man cough."

The sergeant nodded, he motioned to the squad and the men spread out. Staying low, they moved forward, slowly, cautiously, every sense alert. Gefreiter Pohl heard something, the sergeant watched as his assistant began to point ...

Lance Corporal Hamilton didn't bother with shouting a warning, he assumed that opening fire with his Lee-Enfield would be sufficient to let the lads know what was what. He wasn't wrong.

All Hell broke loose when enemy rifle fire penetrated the still of the night. It had also penetrated Gefreiter Pohl who now lay sprawled in the road, hit squarely in the chest. He was still alive but couldn't cry out, he was desperately trying to breathe, he assumed that he'd had the wind knocked out of him. He was right but his wound was far more serious than that, his left lung had collapsed.

He was gasping for breath when he felt hands pulling on his Y-straps² to get him out of the road. All he could think of was where he'd left his rifle. The Spieß would surely chew his ass for losing another rifle. He'd already had one shot out of his hands in France.

The sergeant was directing his squad to fall back, they'd done their job, the enemy was located. He was helping the Sanitäter trying to patch up Pohl and keeping an eye forward at the same time. They were protected in the ditch they were in, but if the enemy moved up?

"How long, Sani? We need to move."

The medic looked up, "Let's go, Franz is dead."

The sergeant looked once more at his assistant squad leader's corpse, "See you in Valhalla Franzchen.³"

"What the Hell is going on out there, Teddy?"

McTavish couldn't see much from his gunner's position, rifle fire in the night was never a good thing.

"Bit of a skirmish, I think Jerry's pulled back but the Kiwis caught some in the road from the sound of things. Let's get ready lads, you know the drill, the buggers will be back, probably with tanks. Fitzie, let's move up to that next dip."

The engine revved, everyone in the crew could hear the transmission grinding. Fitzhugh's shout of, "C'mon ye filthy bastard!" could be heard over the noise of the engine without the intercom as he struggled with the gears. The tank then lurched forward, the engine nearly stalling, before it started to move forward.

When the tank reached the position O'Connell had pointed out, Fitzhugh came over the intercom, "Much more like that and we'll be a pillbox Teddy."

"I know Fitzie, I know, but there ain't anything I can do about it, is there? Hang on a bit, keep her in gear, I'm goin' down the road to see how we're sitting."

O'Connell climbed down from the tank, he liked where they were, the hull was completely covered by the berm to the front of the vehicle. He walked down the road about 50 yards then looked back at the tank. Throw a few boughs over the turret and the Jerries might not notice them at all. He was satisfied.

As he walked back to the tank, he noticed the body in the nearby ditch. A German, probably killed by the rifle fire in the night. The man's eyes were still open, his tunic was open as well, a swath of bloody bandages were on his chest. Obviously a medic had tried, and failed,  to save the man. O'Connell was still not used to seeing the dead left behind.

He walked over to the side of the road and knelt next to the body. He said a quick prayer, crossed himself, then closed the dead man's eyes. "Rest in peace, ye Hun bastard."

¹ Traditional nickname for New Zealanders.
² German load-bearing equipment were leather straps, two in front, one in the back. Laid out they looked like a "Y."
³ Affectionate nickname for Franz, literally "little Franz." (German)


  1. So...Pohl and Fitzhugh "earlier". Good exposition, Sarge.
    Just a little taste of Greece and lives before. Amazing how folks "got around" in the European war; though I can think of an example or two from the Asian war as well.
    Drive on Sarge, and give the Muse a wee dram for me.
    Boat Guy

  2. Life and death on the road. Made me enjoy my next breath.

  3. "Throw rocks at them"... tough times.

    1. I recall Spike Milligan recounting something similar from his experiences in North Africa - chuck rocks at the turret until Jerry pops out to see what was going on, then hit him with a pickaxe handle.

    2. Nice!

      Ah, Spike was a lovely man.

  4. Fifth section down, "he was desperately trying to breath" should be "...breathe".
    I like how the story breaks down into little episodes of violent encounters, many quite personal. It wasn't all big battles, was it?

    1. Fixed it!

      Most big battles are a bunch of little battles mixed together.

  5. Just one more in a long line of well researched and well written episodes, all enjoyable, instructive and immersing the reader in the action. Lex would approve, highly.
    John Blackshoe

  6. Just a trivia: one of places of delaying action was a little pass between mountains and the sea on the road to Athens. A place named Thermopylae. Yes, the very same place.

  7. Penetrated the night, and penetrated his chest! That's some creatively morbid writing there, and I like creatively morbid writing!

  8. Sarge, the consistency of your writing amazes me. Every vignette is well written and gripping. Well done.

    Second gear all the way. I can only imagine. Not that I, personally, have ever cursed a clutch...

  9. Til Valhal ! , That's the best us Nordic types can hope for. Unfortunately I seem destined for a peaceful death, not one with sharpened steel in my fist. I've got a couple of books to recommend about occupied Norway. Will dig them up and pass along the titles.


Just be polite... that's all I ask. (For Buck)
Can't be nice, go somewhere else...

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