Battle of Thermopylae (1941)
|Battle of Thermopylae (1941)|
|Part of the German invasion of Greece|
German forces in Thermopylae following the battle
|Commanders and leaders|
6th Mountain Division|
5th Panzer Division
|Casualties and losses|
15 tanks destroyed
Following the retreat of Allied forces from the mountain passes at Olympus and Servia, British Commonwealth forces began to set up defensive positions at the coastal pass at Thermopylae, famous for the Battle of Thermopylae in 480 BC. The New Zealand Army's 2nd Infantry Division under Lieutenant-General Bernard Freyberg was given the task of defending the pass, while elements of the Australian 6th Infantry Division, under Major General Iven Mackay, defended the village of Brallos.
In the New Zealand sector, the 5th Brigade was deployed along the coastal road, the foothills south of Lamia, and the Spercheios River, with the 4th Brigade was on the right flank, where it had established coast-watching patrols. The 6th Brigade was in reserve. The Australian force defending Brallos was comprised predominantly of two battalions from the 19th Brigade, under Brigadier George Vasey: the 2/4th and 2/8th battalions. On 19 April they were augmented by the 2/1st and 2/5th battalions (from the 16th and 17th Brigades respectively), which were also put under Vasey's command. Later that day and during the early hours of 20 April, the 2/11th Battalion, the third battalion comprising the 19th Brigade, also arrived at Brallos.
Freyberg and Mackay had been informing their subordinates that there would be no more withdrawals, but both were unaware of higher level discussions on the evacuation. After the battle, Mackay was quoted as saying: "I thought that we'd hang on for about a fortnight and be beaten by weight of numbers."
On the morning of 23 April, ANZAC Corps was ordered to retreat. It was decided that Thermopylae and Brallos would nevertheless be held by a rearguard comprising two brigades. The New Zealand 6th Brigade, under Brigadier Harold Barrowclough and the Australian 19th Brigade were to hold the passes as long as possible, allowing the other units to withdraw. Vasey said: "Here we bloody well are and here we bloody well stay." This was interpreted by Vasey's brigade major, A. T. J. "Ding" Bell, as meaning that the brigade would "hold its present defensive positions come what may", until the withdrawal had been completed.
A German battlegroup based on the 6th Mountain Division, under Generalmajor Ferdinand Schörner, attacked at 1130 hours on 24 April, meeting fierce resistance. Another battlegroup, drawn from the 5th Panzer Division also attacked.
The Australians and New Zealanders held out for an entire day, destroyed 15 German tanks and inflicted considerable casualties. With the delaying action accomplished, the rearguard retreated towards another defensive position at Thebes.
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The Germans would continue their march down the country, eventually occupying the country.
The absence of the Greek Army, from a battle at a site as significant to the national psyche as Thermopylae, was controversial within Greece, as General Georgios Tsolakoglou had already capitulated. After the war, Aris Velouchiotis – a veteran of the 1941 campaign and leader of the Greek People's Liberation Army – argued that this fact was an eternal "shame" for the Greek regime that didn't take part in the battle.
- J.E. Brooks wrote a poem about this battle entitled "Thermopylae 1941".