Chapter 2: The German Attack Opens
The commander of the British expedition was directly concerned only with that part of northern Greece which lies east of the towering Pindus mountains and west of Salonika. This area was linked with Athens by one main railway. North of Larisa in the wide plain of Thessaly, this travelled through a narrow pass between Mount Olympus and the sea, and thence across the Aliakmon River. Beyond the river it branched, one line going to Salonika, the second city of Greece, and another climbing through the Edessa Pass to the upland valley of Florina and thence into Yugoslavia. From Salonika a second line entered Yugoslavia through the Doiran Gap. The one main road linking Athens with Macedonia travelled into the Florina Valley west of Olympus – not east of it as the railway did – and thence on to Yugoslavia through the Monastir Gap.
Although it was the principal highway of Greece, the Athens-Florina road was second-class by Western European standards. The surface was generally bitumen interspersed with stretches of macadam, often so narrow that two vehicles could not pass, particularly on hills and side cuttings. The Athens–Salonika railway had a single track and was of standard gauge. A branch line linking this to Volos, the one considerable port between those cities, was only one metre wide. There were but 1,653 miles of railway in Greece, and the rolling stock was correspondingly limited. When war broke out there were only some 350 passenger coaches and about 5,000 goods waggons on the Hellenic State Railways, the standard-gauge system,1 and both rolling stock and fuel were imported.
Piraeus, the port of Athens, was equipped to unload 3,000 tons of cargo a day – enough to maintain a British force of the size contemplated. There now seemed no likelihood of holding Salonika; and Volos, the only other port that could be used effectively to supply the British force, could not accommodate ships of more than 6,000 tons. The small port of Stilis, connected with Lamia by standard-gauge railway, would have been useful, but the Greeks were not willing to make it available because they wanted that dead-end line for storing the railway waggons to be withdrawn from Macedonia when the Germans advanced.
Thus, when Brigadier Brunskill, General Wilson’s senior administrative officer, arrived in Athens on 23rd February to prepare for the arrival of the new British force, he could count on only one considerable port and very limited roads and railways. The railways were already maintaining about 100,000 Greek troops in eastern Albania, supplied through Florina,
where so far the Greeks had been unable to build up even thirty days’ reserve supplies. Fewer than 400 railway trucks would be available to the British force. Brunskill wrote later:
The Greek Army was therefore already using its railways almost to maximum capacity, the country had been denuded of every animal, cart and motor vehicle which was fit for use, the army had taken control of all small ships and practically all caiques; the available civilian labour (men, women and children) was all employed, largely on road maintenance. The civil population, moreover, was already badly off for food; there was no meat, and flour was short and they even had to feed wheat to their pack transport owing to the shortage of barley. The British Military Mission in Athens had placed large orders for equipment, stores, food, coal, etc. at home and occasional ships were arriving from Britain, but the program of fulfilment of the orders could not be predicted at all. From a Greek point of view, therefore, the cupboard was nearly bare of local resources; from a British Army point of view nothing was available locally.2
One of Brunskill’s first steps was to ferry forward to Larisa as soon as possible the stocks of food and ammunition already at the base in Athens; and it was decided that troops arriving at Piraeus from Egypt would also be moved forward piece-meal to Larisa. The object was to place sixty days’ supplies for forward troops at this advanced base and to establish forward depots or dumps at Levadhion, Servia, Kozani, Katerini, Veria, Edessa and Amindaion, the intention being to prepare for probable interruption of railway traffic by German air bombardment. By the end of the first week in April 58 days’ supplies, 38 days’ petrol and lubricants, 70 days’ ordnance stores and 14,000 tons of engineer stores had been landed in Greece, and the forward dumps had been established. The engineer stores included 300 tons of explosives which were later to prove of immense value, particularly as the Australian Corps could obtain only three tons for its ordnance echelon instead of its normal entitlement of 30.3
By 18th March the 1st Armoured Brigade4 and about half the New Zealand Division were in Greece. The 16th Australian Brigade disembarked between the 19th and the 22nd. For the men of the Australian division it was a swift transition. On 8th March when the first “flight” or contingent of Lustre Force was landing at Piraeus, the 16th Australian Brigade was at Tobruk, the 19th near Tocra in western Cyrenaica, the 17th in position on the Tripolitanian frontier beyond Agedabia. That day the 16th Brigade travelled back to Mersa Matruh. There the battalions received some equipment, including a new weapon – the Thompson submachine-gun. From Matruh the brigade moved to its old camp at Amiriya, where the men were given leave in Alexandria and renewed acquaintance with the pleasures of the town for the first time since December. Hundreds
were still on leave in Alexandria on the night of the 17th when an order arrived that the brigade would embark early next day. Military police, who were hurried into the city to summon the holiday-makers to their units, entered cafés and, disregarding secrecy, shouted that all men of the 16th Brigade must return to camp because they were to move next morning. Posters were placed in the streets announcing the news. All night men streamed back to Amiriya, in taxi-cabs, gharries and on foot; by dawn few were missing. For example, when the 2/2nd Battalion embarked only two were absent without leave.
The 2/3rd Battalion embarked next day on the cruiser Gloucester, and Brigadier Allen’s headquarters and the 2/1st and 2/2nd Battalions and attached troops in merchantmen. The Gloucester arrived at Piraeus on the 19th, having left the merchant ships and their escort far behind. One of the more obvious dangers of the expedition to Greece lay in the presence of a considerable Italian air force in the Dodecanese Islands on the eastern flank of the sea route to Athens, and on the 21st the slow ships were attacked by a squadron of Italian dive bombers from that quarter. The Australians fired back with the Brens and with captured Italian Bredas which they had mounted on the decks. Only a tanker was hit, and she did not sink.
As their ships steamed into the gulf towards Piraeus the shores seemed to the New South Welshmen strangely like home – the hard light, the grey-green trees clothing steep hills, and the clear water evoked memories of Australian ports. It was stranger still to find themselves among a friendly people, who cheered them and threw flowers as their trucks drove along the streets to the staging camp at Daphni. For the first time since they had reached the Middle East these men were on the soil of a people who genuinely welcomed them, and in a land as green and pleasant as their own.
What a contrast! Instead of awaking with eyes, ears and noses full of sand we breathed pure crisp air with the scent of flowers. Flowers! – we hadn’t seen them since leaving Australia. After months of desert glare the landscape at Daphni was a dream come true. The troops stood and gazed at the natural gardens full of shrubs and flowers which scented the breeze; at the grasses that made a swishing noise as you walked through. ... We saw civilians dressed as we used to dress before the war – civilians whom you could trust. ... From the hillside one could look back into the valley below and see Athens.5
The troops who were given leave in Athens acquired an increasing respect and sympathy for the Greeks. “Greeks gloriously happy to see us ... worth fighting for and with,” wrote one young officer in his diary. They found them resolved not to allow pleasure to interfere with the business of war. Greek soldiers were not seen in the city’s few cabarets, and bars were closed at midnight. A cup of coffee at a cafe table appeared to be the only relaxation the drably-uniformed officers and men of the Greek headquarters and depots in Athens allowed themselves – a sharp
contrast to the gaiety and lavish eating and drinking surrounding headquarters in Cairo. The civilians possessed a dignity that the inhabitants of Egypt and Palestine lacked, and there were no beggars or touts.
Most of the men travelled north in crowded railway waggons, but those who went by road in long processions of trucks were hailed by the country folk even more cordially than in Athens. Groups of peasants shouted joyfully, waved and gave the thumbs-up sign, which was gaining as wide a currency among the democracies as the Fascist salutes in Germany and Italy; little girls threw bunches of lilac and buttercups into the moving trucks and boys calling “Englees” and “Zeeto ee Australia” – “long live Australia” – held out handfuls of leaves for the drivers to snatch. It was early spring and the countryside so full of beauty that it would have enchanted the Australians even if their senses had not been starved in the deserts of Egypt and Libya. In Attica the steep hills were clothed with pines. Farther north, in Thessaly, fruit trees in blossom stood in fields in which the young crops were a few inches high, and above the farmlands towered snow-capped Parnassus and Olympus. Some of the fields were still unsown, and old men walked behind the ploughs while women followed scattering the seed – evidently the young men were all at war. Old women were hoeing the fields; little girls drove donkeys laden with brushwood for the fires; small boys with cloaks slung over their shoulders stood herding the sheep and goats which grazed on the foothills, the copper bells at their necks tinkling pleasantly.
Once away from Athens with its trams and taxis (wrote one observer) the past seemed very close. The peasants lived and worked much as they must have done a thousand or two thousand years ago, when other armies followed much the same roads as ours and gave immortality to these towns and passes. At the end of the second day on the road the convoy with which I went north halted by a wide shallow stream between steep hills. As the sun set the men stripped on the shingle and, standing ankle-deep in clear water, had their first good wash for weeks. Some old shepherds stood and watched, leaning on their crooks. The sun, sinking between two hills, gilded the river where the naked men bathed and shouted. They might have been soldiers of any one of the other armies that have marched past Greek shepherds and their flocks and seen the snows of Olympus against the sky.
On 27th March the 16th Brigade Group bivouacked on grassy slopes in the Servia Pass with Olympus rising above them to the east and the Aliakmon River below them to the north. Every few days another convoy arrived at Piraeus and columns of vehicles rolled northwards through Greece, past the excited villagers and the stolid peasant people – probably giving them the impression that a powerful army was moving forward; their own far larger army had fewer vehicles and thus made less show.
By 1st April the New Zealand Division, concentrating east and north of Olympus, was practically complete. On 3rd April three Australian artillery regiments and two more infantry battalions arrived. On the 4th and 5th the fighting troops in Greece comprised the 1st Armoured
Brigade, the New Zealand Division, and the 6th Australian Division less four infantry battalions and one field artillery regiment.6
General Wilson’s headquarters had opened at the Acropole Hotel on 7th March.7 On the 6th General Papagos had informed him that the Greek divisions on the Aliakmon line would be the 19th (Motorised) in the coastal sector, the 12th in the Veria Pass, and the 20th in the Edessa Pass; these would guard the three main passes until the British troops arrived. As the British force went into the line the 12th and 20th Greek Divisions were to side-step to the left. At length the New Zealand Division with the 19th Greek on its right would be in the coastal sector, the 6th Australian would guard the Veria Pass, and the 12th and 20th Greek Divisions would occupy the Vermion Range north of Veria including the wide Edessa Pass.
The next of the senior British commanders to arrive was General Freyberg, who reached Greece on 7th March and promptly went forward to the Vermion-Olympus line. A visit to the 19th and 12th Greek Divisions filled him “with mixed feelings”. The 19th was a division only in name. Brigadier Charrington8 of the 1st Armoured Brigade described it as containing “just over 2,000” men and those “quite untrained”; in his opinion it had “no possible prospect of fighting usefully as a mobile force with its few Bren carriers, motor-cycles, and small cars”. The carriers had only recently been delivered to the Greeks. The 12th Division consisted of six battalions of recently-assembled troops and three batteries. It possessed only six motor vehicles – five trucks, and a car for the commander – and otherwise relied on carts and pack animals. The 20th was similarly composed to the 12th but had a few more field guns. Freyberg discovered that the role of the 19th Greek was to occupy 12,000 yards of open country north of Katerini, while his division held 15,000 yards of
more rugged country on the left. He gave orders that his 6th Brigade should occupy the right and the 4th the left of this position.
At this time, when negotiations with the Yugoslavs were still in progress, Papagos wished to stand on the Doiran–Rupel–Nestos line defending Salonika. As mentioned above, Wilson was not willing to do this; nevertheless he agreed to send his armoured brigade forward between the Axios and the Aliakmon as a delaying force, and to instruct the New Zealand Division to take over the coastal sector of the Aliakmon line while the 19th Greek Division moved forward into the Axios Valley and the Doiran Gap to deal with any paratroops who might be landed there. Weak though it was, the 19th Greek Division’s departure entailed an appreciable loss to the force on the Aliakmon line, where the New Zealanders now became responsible for a front of some 25,000 yards.9
General Blamey did not arrive in Greece until 19th March, but an advanced party of his staff, including Lieut-Colonel Wells,10 his senior liaison officer, had been there since the 7th.11 Wells toured the line and was greatly impressed by the unwisdom of trying to hold the open country north of Katerini, rather than the narrow passes to the south. He reported this to Blamey in Athens. Blamey and his chief staff officer, Brigadier Rowell, drove north on 22nd March to reconnoitre. They visited the Greek corps commander at Kozani, and also the 12th and 20th Greek Divisions and the New Zealand Division. Blamey was impressed by the danger of a possible German move through Yugoslavia and the Monastir-Florina Gap and thus across the rear of the defenders’ position. He and Rowell considered that the Greek senior officers whom they met were lacking in confidence and not well-informed. They decided that the men would be stubborn fighters and would give a good account of themselves in prepared defences in the mountains, but that it was evident that they could not fight a well-equipped enemy in a war of movement – their transport consisted of pack horses, horse-drawn carts and bullock waggons capable of moving at about one mile an hour. In any circumstances the Greeks would have to be supported by British artillery since their divisions each possessed so few field or medium guns and their only anti-tank guns were some captured from the Italians.
On the 23rd Blamey visited Freyberg who told him that his division was
holding a front of 25,000 yards with two infantry brigades, one field artillery regiment, and no anti-tank guns and that this position would not alter until 4th April [and] even after the arrival of the 5th Brigade and the anti-tank artillery, we should be far too thin on the ground, especially as at that stage the 5th Brigade were due to go into Corps reserve in a position behind the Veria Pass.
Freyberg contended and Blamey agreed that the line could not be held against a determined attack supported by tanks, and that the wise course would be to pull back to the mouths of the Olympus passes. When he returned to Athens on the 24th, Blamey met Wilson at the British Embassy and obtained his agreement to a plan whereby the New Zealand Division should concentrate on digging and wiring defences in the passes, leaving only the divisional cavalry regiment forward of Katerini. It was agreed that Blamey should establish his headquarters in the Gerania area as soon as possible and take command of the New Zealanders and the troops in the Veria Pass.
After this conference Brigadier Galloway, General Wilson’s chief of staff, informed General Freyberg that he should “make certain of the passes round either side of Mount Olympus”, but that General Wilson considered that the New Zealand front was less likely to be seriously involved than the northern one. No order was given to Freyberg to withdraw his forward infantry to the passes. In delaying such an order Wilson no doubt took into account that he had undertaken to hold a line forward of Katerini and to withdraw to the passes would entail amending his agreement with Papagos; and possibly took into account the possibility of having to move forward to support the Yugoslavs. He was influenced by the fact that, between Katerini and Edessa, the Florina railway along which travelled most of the supplies for the Greek army in eastern Albania lay east of the Vermion Range and thus forward of the line his force was to occupy.
Meanwhile some preparations were being made to cope with the danger that the Germans might push through southern Yugoslavia, swing south through the Monastir Gap and take the Allied positions in the rear. A suitable area in which to hold such a thrust was where the Florina Valley was narrowed by two large lakes, Vegorritis and Petron. Brigadier Charrington had been instructed, on 17th March, to prepare a route for withdrawal through the Edessa Pass into the Florina Valley, where he could help to meet an advance from Monastir, and his 3rd Royal Tanks (the cruiser tank regiment) did not move forward to the Axios with the remainder of the brigade but remained at Amindaion in the lake area. By the end of March there were in that neighbourhood also the 27th New Zealand Machine Gun Battalion (lacking two companies) and part of the 64th Medium Regiment. However, Charrington’s headquarters and the remainder of his brigade were about Edessa, so remote from Amindaion that the detachment there was placed under the command of Brigadier Lee,12 a British officer recently appointed to Blamey’s staff to command the medium artillery, all of which was British. Later the 2/1st Australian Anti-Tank Regiment (less one battery) was added to Lee’s command.
On 5th April General Wilson formally took command of the Allied forces in Central Macedonia, with an advanced headquarters at Tsaritsani, a village near Elasson on the main Larisa-Florina road, and a rear headquarters
at Athens. On the same day General Blamey opened his headquarters at Gerania, a poky village just off the main road on high ground south of the Servia Pass, and took command of the British troops from the sea to the Veria Pass. On his left General Kotulas commanded the Central Macedonian Army, which was the title given to the two Greek divisions in the Vermion mountains north of Veria.
At this stage General Wilson intended that “W” Group, as his force was named, should be deployed as follows: the New Zealand Division on the right from the coast to the Pieria mountains, north-east of Servia, a regiment of the 12th Greek Division in those mountains, one Australian brigade in the Veria Pass, one at Kozani and one at Servia, and the 20th Greek Division and the remainder of the 12th in the Vermion mountains north of Veria. Of the Australian brigades only the 16th, at Servia, was in its intended area. All three New Zealand brigades, however, were in the forward zone. On the 28th March the 6th had taken over the coastal sector formerly held by the little 19th Greek Division; the 4th went into position on its left; and the 5th into reserve in the Olympus Pass, through which the road climbed from Katerini over the mountain and joined the main Larisa-Florina road near Elasson. The New Zealand Divisional Cavalry Regiment was forward of the infantry on the line of the Aliakmon River in a delaying role.
On 5th April – the day on which he took command in the field – General Wilson conferred with General Kotulas at Kozani. Kotulas urged that the Australians should at once begin taking over from the 12th Division, still in the Veria Pass, so that he could use the 12th to strengthen the position held by the 20th in the Edessa area. Wilson said that he hoped that the Australians would have completely taken over in eight days; and later that day he ordered General Mackay, commanding the 6th Australian Division, to occupy part of the Veria position, relieving all but two battalions of the Greek 12th Division; these were to remain on the Australian left in country so rugged that troops could not be maintained there without pack transport.
Mackay had arrived at Gerania on the 5th, having reached Athens on the 3rd. Three of his staff were with him.13 The German invasion was believed to be imminent, but, of Mackay’s brigades, only the 16th was in the forward area. Two battalions of the 19th were moving up, and the 17th had not yet sailed from Alexandria.14 Indeed so little shipping was available that it had been possible to move the force to Greece at the rate of only about a brigade and a half a week, and that only by transporting some units in cruisers. The third convoy had been delayed by storms and the fourth by the battle of Cape Matapan.
The individual units of Lustre Force were fully equipped but, as had been foreseen, the force as a whole was grievously short of air support
and armour. For example, Air Vice-Marshal D’Albiac’s small air force had only eighty serviceable aircraft to meet a German force estimated at 800, not counting an Italian air force in Albania, or operating over Albania from Italy, of approximately 300. He had only one army cooperation squadron, and it had arrived just as the German attack opened. “Unfortunately this squadron rarely had more than one Hurricane aircraft serviceable at a time and, since the remainder of its aircraft were Lysanders, which it was quite impossible to use in the face of enemy air opposition, the squadron did very little useful work.”15
So far only one medium artillery regiment had arrived to support a defensive line which, whatever tactics the Germans employed, could hardly be less than 100 miles in length. The Australian division lacked its cavalry regiment, and a number of necessary technical units had not yet arrived. The inevitable splitting of Wilson’s headquarters between Athens and a village in northern Thessaly put a strain on his signals. He had, however, an independent signal squadron equipped with the best available wireless sets. He allotted one of its stations to the Greek command at Salonika, and another to Kotulas’ headquarters, and held a third ready to join the Yugoslav Army.
On 5th April the only British infantry deployed in forward positions on the Vermion-Olympus line were the 6th and 4th New Zealand Brigades which occupied the line covering Katerini from the sea to the northern foothills of Olympus. The 5th Brigade16 was in position astride the Olympus Pass, on a front of 15,000 yards and 3,000 feet above sea level. To the left of the New Zealanders was to be the 16th Australian Brigade which, having spent eleven days bivouacked in the Servia Pass, was to begin moving forward on 6th April to the Veria Pass – which Mackay reconnoitred that day. The Allied staff estimated that the Germans had twenty-three to twenty-five divisions in Bulgaria of which six or seven could be concentrated against the Vermion-Olympus line at short notice.
Moreover, while “W” Group was being concentrated, events in Cyrenaica had removed any prospect of the 7th Australian Division and the Polish Brigade joining the force in Greece. Late in February it had become apparent that a German force was being assembled in Libya. On 24th March the Germans occupied El Agheila and on 2nd April entered Agedabia. Two days later both the depleted 2nd Armoured Division and the incomplete 9th Australian Division were withdrawing eastwards with the enemy pressing hard upon them. Thereupon General Wavell ordered one brigade of the 7th Division – the 18th – to Tobruk to help hold that fortress, and decided that the remainder of the division might also have to go to Cyrenaica. When he learnt of this decision, Blamey cabled Wavell that the retention of Libya was not vital whereas the force in Greece would be in grave peril if not built up to adequate
strength; but Wavell was convinced that the 7th Division could not be spared from Africa.
Blamey learnt of the decision to retain the 7th Division on the 6th April; that morning, at 5.15, the long-expected news had arrived that the German Twelfth Army had begun to advance into Greece and Yugoslavia.
The first shock of the German offensive would be taken by the ill-prepared Yugoslav Army and the thin line of Greeks on the Bulgarian frontier. In that area Papagos had withdrawn all except a few units from Thrace, the narrow territory lying between the Bulgarian frontier on the north, the Aegean Sea on the south, and the Nestos River on the west. Apparently for political reasons, however, the garrisons of two frontier fortresses remained in Thrace with three battalions (the Evros Brigade) in support. To the west, on the Doiran–Nestos line the Eastern Macedonian Army was deployed. On its right the Nestos Brigade (three battalions) was to defend the line of the Nestos to a point some 30 miles from its mouth. On its left the 7th Division (five battalions) held a sector which continued the line of the Nestos and, turning west, ended south of Kato Nevrokop. Thence the 14th Division (six battalions) held a sector extending to the Struma River. The 18th Division (five battalions) was deployed from the Struma to the Yugoslav frontier.
Throughout 6th April the German attack in Thrace and eastern Macedonia, though supported by heavy artillery and air bombardment, made little impression on the Greek frontier forts, and on the 7th even the remote forts at Nimphaea and Ekhinos in Thrace were still holding
out. Nimphaea was overcome at 11.30 p.m. on the 7th after a prolonged attack by German infantry equipped with flame throwers; but Ekhinos held. The Nestos Brigade was covered by these forts and was not yet in contact with the enemy. The 7th Division, next to the left, was fiercely attacked but gave little ground on the 6th. On the 14th Division’s front none of the frontier forts were taken by the Germans that day. In the Struma valley all but one of the forts held out. Farther west, however, German mountain troops advanced between Lakes Kerkinitis and Doiran, due north of Salonika. To meet this threat the Greek Army commander ordered the 19th Division forward to this area, but at the end of the day a gap remained between this division and the 18th.
It was part of the agreement made between the Greeks and Yugoslavs on 4th April that, when the invasion began, they should both attack the Italians in Albania with Tirana and Valona as the objectives. By swift success in Albania they might free their forces there to help meet the Germans on their eastern fronts. Consequently, on the 6th, Papagos ordered his Western Macedonian Army to open an offensive against the Italians next day. However, his Epirus Army was not ready to attack so soon.
A few hours after hearing of the German attack Blamey sent Rowell to Wilson’s headquarters to press for an immediate withdrawal of the New Zealand Division to the passes in accordance with the agreement reached by Wilson and himself in Athens twelve days before. At Elasson Rowell’s request was answered with the argument that it was still desirable to protect the railhead at Katerini. However, Wilson ordered Freyberg to draft more labour into the Olympus Pass – yet to continue to hold the positions forward of Katerini.
At the same time Wilson’s staff began to consider a secondary line – one covering the Olympus passes, pivoting on the Pieria mountains, and then running along the south bank of the Aliakmon. So far as it went this proposed Aliakmon line was identical with the rearmost of the three lines which had entered into Papagos’ planning from the outset. To retire to it, however, would have drastic consequences from the Greek point of view; it would entail supplying the Greek army in eastern Albania along the third-grade mountain road from Larisa through Trikkala and Kastoria.
The German Air Force delivered a very serious blow to the British expedition on the night of the 6th–7th. German bombers attacked Piraeus; the steamer Clan Fraser loaded with TNT caught fire and exploded; largely as a result of this huge secondary explosion, which was heard and felt throughout the city of Athens, seven merchant ships, sixty lighters, and twenty-five caiques were destroyed, an ammunition train and an ammunition barge were blown up, and quays, offices and shops wrecked. The port was closed completely for two days, and its ability to handle the ships that would reinforce and maintain the British expedition greatly reduced. Afterwards only five of the twelve berths could be used; so many tugs and small craft were destroyed that coal and water could not be
obtained by ships lying in the roads; the telephone system was out of action; many skilled workers were killed or injured and others abandoned their jobs.
On the afternoon of the 7th of April the disturbing information arrived at the Greek army headquarters at Salonika that German armoured forces from Strumica in Yugoslavia were moving south towards the practically unguarded Doiran Gap, thus threatening to sweep round the Greek flank and down the Axios Valley to Salonika. The 19th Division which on the 6th had been hurriedly sent to counter the threat of a German advance east of Doiran was now reinforced with some anti-paratroop companies from Salonika and ordered to extend its flank to the Axios, about 40 miles to the west. The German advance-guards entered Doiran on the evening of the 7th. That day the Greek offensive in Albania was opened but made small gains. A Yugoslav division which was to have cooperated failed to do so, but its commander said that he would be ready next day.
In Wilson’s area the 19th Australian Brigade, less one battalion, was now coming forward. It had a battalion at Larisa and one near Tirnavos. Its proposed role had been to go in on the left of the 16th Brigade at Veria, but Wilson now ordered it to concentrate near Kozani where it would be available to reinforce either Veria or the Florina Valley.
That day the 16th Brigade began to take up its positions in the Veria Pass. For these Australians a more complete change from conditions in Cyrenaica could hardly be imagined, and to describe their experiences is to describe those of other battalions then digging in above the snow-line. The brigade was perched astride a mountain road some 3,000 feet above the sea, with higher peaks towering above them. Troops in positions on the heights above the pass had to carry all their gear, ammunition and rations, either by hand or on the backs of a few donkeys borrowed from the Greeks. As an example of the difficulties, it took three hours to climb from one end of the 2/2nd Battalion’s position to the other; the battalion’s headquarters were at 4,200 feet along a foot track which took two hours to climb, and its left company was 2 miles farther on. The normal telephone equipment of a battalion – eight telephones with 8 miles of cable – was quite inadequate for such conditions; one battalion fortunately had increased its equipment to twenty-three telephones and 25 miles of cable by collecting Italian gear captured in Libya, and needed all of it.
From the 8th onwards snow fell intermittently on the mountains and rain in the valleys, and sometimes a fog enveloped the mountains until about 10 a.m.; when the air was clear the Australians could see Salonika, and the mountains of Yugoslavia where the distant battles were being fought. For shelter each platoon had only a tent-fly which sagged under the weight of the snow. Lack of interpreters caused much delay.17 One advanced party had to speak in signs; for example, they suggested a tank
by crawling with one hand forward and saying “Bang, Bang!” The Australians were surprised not only by the primitive equipment of the Greeks but by their lack of tactical knowledge. There is a record of one Greek company which possessed only one automatic weapon (faultily mounted in a conspicuous position) but had piles of stones ready to push down on the advancing Germans. Lieut-Colonel Chilton of the 2/2nd decided not to relieve the Greeks in the defences they had prepared, because he considered these not tactically sound for troops equipped as his were; his company commanders chose new positions. However, the Greeks handed over to the Australian engineers an effective flame-throwing device which won their admiration. It was a fougasse consisting of drums of petrol and crude oil to be projected along the road by a charge of ammonal with “Elektron”18 turnings for igniting the oil. It produced a flame up to 50 yards long and 5 feet wide.
On 8th April, owing to rain and snow, there was little effective air reconnaissance, but throughout the day enough news of the German advance into Yugoslavia reached Greek and British headquarters to give a fairly clear picture. A British patrol which thrust to the north of Monastir reported that the southern Yugoslav army had collapsed, Veles and Skoplje had fallen, three divisions had surrendered, and fugitive Yugoslav staff officers were collecting at Florina. The patrol led back three Yugoslav tanks and four anti-aircraft guns. Early in the day the German armour advancing through the Doiran Gap thrust back units of the 19th Division and was approaching Kilkis. Papagos requested that the 1st Armoured Brigade take immediate action to strengthen the few Greek troops in the Doiran Gap. It was too late for such measures. Soon after midday the 4th Hussars, who formed a screen on the Axios plain, saw German tanks approaching, whereupon they damaged the railway bridge and blew up a road bridge across the river and, in the evening and during the night, in accordance with orders from Wilson, withdrew to Kozani, part through the Edessa Pass and part through the Veria. A commando party of the Canadian Kent Corps Troops destroyed the oil stocks at Salonika, in accordance with a plan secretly prepared. In conformity with the withdrawal of the Hussars, the New Zealand divisional cavalry regiment blew the bridges over the Aliakmon and the 6th New Zealand Brigade blew up those on its front.
From the Struma eastward the Eastern Macedonian Army was still holding firm, but the German column moving down the Axios Valley reached Kilkis late on the night of the 8th. The 19th Greek Division (scarcely a brigade strong) was swept aside, and nothing then lay between the invading army and Salonika. That night the commander of the Eastern Macedonian Army sent an envoy to the German armoured division in the Axios Valley to propose an armistice, and informed his subordinates that he had done so, but ordered them to fight on until a decision had been reached.
In Albania the Western Macedonian Army had resumed its attack on the morning of the 8th, and the Yugoslavs attacked too, but their gains were small and Papagos ordered that the offensive cease because of the uncertainty of the situation in southern Yugoslavia generally.
Fearing that a German advance through the Monastir Gap would threaten the rear of his Western Macedonian Army in Albania and of “W” Group, Papagos decided to withdraw the troops who were in the mountains north of the Edessa Pass to Lake Vegorritis, where they would link with Wilson’s proposed defensive line across the Florina Valley at Vevi. He instructed “W” Group and the Western Macedonian Army that their line would henceforward run from Olympus on the right, through the Vermion range to Lake Vegorritis, and across the valley to Nimfaion at the entrance to the Klisoura Pass, the central of three passes leading through the range flanking the Florina Valley to the west. There the British left would link with the right of the Western Macedonian Army. The linking formation would be the Greek Cavalry Division which, on the 7th, had been moved from Koritza to the Florina area to protect the Pisoderion Pass, the northernmost pass leading west from Florina.19 He instructed Wilson to send his armoured force towards the Monastir Gap to gain touch with and delay the German advance. As the British force would be too weak to extend its left flank to Nimfaion, the Greek 21st Brigade was to be interposed between the British area and the Cavalry Division. Before these instructions reached Wilson, however, he had made his own plans and issued his orders.
At 11 a.m. on the 8th, at a meeting at Blamey’s headquarters, Wilson had already decided that a force should be formed, including Lee’s Amindaion detachment and such troops of the 6th Division as became available (except the 16th Brigade), “to stop a blitzkrieg down Florina gap”.20 General Mackay would command it from headquarters near Perdika close to those of General Kotulas, and would be directly under Wilson’s command. At the outset his force would include the 19th Brigade (only two battalions), 2/3rd Field Regiment, and Lee’s detachment (3rd Royal Tanks, 27th New Zealand Machine Gun Battalion, less two companies, 2nd Royal Horse Artillery, 64th Medium Regiment, 2/1st Australian Anti-Tank Regiment). It was a minute and ill-balanced force with which to meet what might be the main German thrust into Greece.
At the same conference it was decided that the 6th Australian Division should not continue the relief of the 12th Greek at Veria; the Olympus–Vermion–Amindaion line was now to be regarded merely as a rearguard position which would give the division time to form up later on the Aliakmon line which Wilson had considered as a possibility on the 6th. Blamey was ordered to prepare for the occupation of the Aliakmon line, his command including the New Zealand Division, 16th Australian Brigade, and 12th Greek Division. It was decided to transfer the 4th
New Zealand Brigade to the Servia Pass “to form a pivot on which later withdrawal from the north could be based”; and to leave only mobile forces forward of Katerini in the New Zealand sector. The 6th New Zealand Brigade was ordered to withdraw through the 5th, in the Olympus Pass.
The distribution of command was proving extremely complex. Blamey from his corps headquarters at Gerania now commanded the New Zealand and part of the Australian and the 12th Greek Divisions; there was a Greek commander of the Central Macedonian Army, which now included little more than the 20th Division; Mackay’s force was directly under Wilson. Wilson’s staff was divided, his advanced headquarters being at Elasson not far from Blamey’s, his rear headquarters in Athens, more than 200 miles away. In Athens there were also a British air commander who was independent of Wilson, an independent naval staff, and a British Military Mission. General Papagos’ headquarters were also there. Discussing the difficulty of coordinating these diverse commands, Brigadier Brunskill later wrote:
As regards command, it seemed obvious to army officers that the army commander should have become supreme commander of all British forces in Greece, with the air officer commanding as his deputy. He should have then remained in Athens with the higher staffs of all three British fighting Services and the Ambassador, as closely knit into a team under him as possible. The British Military Mission should have been abolished and the Military Attaché absorbed into the staff. The Australian corps headquarters should have been expanded to command all the British and Greek troops on the Aliakmon position. Dealings with the Greeks should have been direct at all levels. Our habitual excruciating public-school French, with an interpreter to supply missing words, was adequate as a medium for military conversations.21
When General Mackay arrived at Lee’s headquarters at Sotir a few minutes before midnight on the 8th to take command in the Vevi Gap there was no infantry unit in the area. Brigadier Vasey of the 19th Brigade was present but his 2/4th Battalion was still moving forward, his 2/8th (in obedience to earlier orders) was in the Veria area, and his 2/11th had not yet landed in Greece. The only units Lee commanded were the 64th Medium Regiment, 2/1st Australian Anti-Tank Regiment, and the New Zealand machine-gun battalion. However, the 1st Armoured Brigade had been ordered to concentrate at Amindaion before dawn and therefore Mackay might anticipate that it, like the 19th Brigade, would be included in his force. He decided to place Vasey in charge of the defence of the gap, to add the 1/Rangers, 2/1st Australian Anti-Tank Regiment and the New Zealand machine-gun battalion to his command, and to place the remainder of the armoured brigade in reserve. He put his artillery commander, Brigadier Herring, in control of the three regiments of field and medium artillery. Although it possessed not even a complete brigade of infantry,22 the force was relatively strong in artillery – an arm in which the Germans, pushing along boggy roads and past
demolitions, were likely to be weak, at least at the outset. Mackay and his staff were handicapped by the lack of an interpreter. On the 7th he had managed to exchange some information with the commander of the 12th Greek Division in French, but it had been a slow and irritating process.
At 1 p.m. on 9th April the Greek Commander in eastern Macedonia capitulated. Although, from the Struma eastward, his troops had yielded little territory, despite three days of vigorous attack by far stronger German forces, his army was now isolated. The Greek commander has recorded with pride that on the 10th, when the garrisons of Rupel and other forts formally surrendered, the Germans congratulated them warmly, that the commander of the German 72nd Division declared that he had
not met such effective resistance in Poland or France, and that the Greek army was the first in which dive bombers did not inspire panic. He adds that senior German officers said that the Greek forts represented a golden mean between the French, on which too much effort had been spent providing comfortable living conditions and too little on armament, and the forts of “other Powers” in which there was insufficient care for the men and an excess of armament. They praised the skill with which the Greek engineers had provided exit trenches for surprise counter-attacks by the garrisons.
The four-day campaign in eastern Macedonia had followed a course not unlike the invasion of France eleven months before. The German
success had been achieved by advancing through the territory of a third party and round the flank of a strong fortified line. The Greek commander had too small a reserve to block or to counter-attack the armoured forces outflanking him. Papagos’ understandable determination to hold Salonika – the price of effective cooperation with the Yugoslavs – had resulted in the loss of four of the six Greek divisions available to meet the German invasion.23
On the morning of the 9th Wilson issued orders for withdrawal to the Aliakmon line. On the 10th he conferred with Mackay and General Karassos, who had replaced Kotulas in command of the Central Macedonian Army. When he returned to his headquarters he learnt from Brigadier Galloway that General Papagos had been informed of the proposal to withdraw and had approved it. Papagos had asked that Wilson should meet him at Pharsala on the 11th.
As a result of these decisions Papagos ordered preparations for a withdrawal by stages from both Albania and central Macedonia to his third line of defence mentioned above. This line would, on the right, include the Olympus-Aliakmon position, but it would omit the passes west of the Florina Valley. From the British left westward it would follow the Venetikos River, and thence run more or less due west to the sea. This withdrawal would entail the loss not only of nearly all the territory gained in Albania but of practically all Macedonia.24 The removal of supplies from the base at Koritza was begun. Papagos ordered that the retirement of the Greek forces in the Vermion area across the valley into the mountains to its west was to be “concealed until its completion by means of a vigorous defence by the (British) forces in the Kleidi position”. These Greek divisions – the 12th and 20th – were to hold the Siatista and Klisoura Passes, while the Cavalry Division held the Pisoderion.
In his detailed instruction of the 9th April Wilson had defined his “rear defensive line”, as it was now called: from the Olympus defiles, via Servia to the escarpment to the west of it, and thence along the south bank of the Aliakmon. On this line a “protracted defence” was to be offered. The Vevi position was to be held as long as possible to gain time for the Greeks to adjust their forces both in Macedonia and Albania, and for the Aliakmon line to be prepared. The Aliakmon front was to be divided into three main sectors. On the right Blamey’s command would include the New Zealand Division, the 16th Australian Brigade and the 12th Greek Division except for two battalions on the left; on the left Karassos would command the 20th Greek Division and the remainder of the 12th; to the north was Mackay’s force, in which the whole of the 1st Armoured Brigade would now be included. Blamey’s forces in the Veria area had the responsibility of holding until the 20th Greek Division and Mackay’s force had fallen back. Wilson ordered that the vehicles of the Greek divisions be withdrawn, the 12th’s south of the Aliakmon to
Deskati, the 20th’s to Grevena, leaving them only with pack animals. The Greeks were to be helped with supplies from British dumps.
During the 9th the New Zealand Division began to adjust its positions. On the right the newly-arrived 21st Battalion was now at the Platamon tunnel in the narrow pass between Olympus and the sea. Warning orders to withdraw into reserve were given to the forward battalions of the 6th Brigade. Divisional headquarters began to move back to Dolikhe. By the evening of the 9th the 4th Brigade had arrived in the Servia area.
Meanwhile, on the 9th, British armoured cars drove forward to a point 5 miles north of Monastir and saw a column of German vehicles accumulating on the north side of the River Crna where the bridge had been demolished. By 4.50 p.m. the German advance-guard had still not entered Monastir and it was evident that they could not reach the positions occupied by Mackay’s force that day.
At 6 a.m. on the 9th Mackay and his senior staff officer, Colonel Sutherland,25 had met General Karassos at Kozani. A difficult three-hour conference followed, during which the commanders exchanged views through interpreters and liaison officers and, in Mackay’s opinion, little was gained. Mackay told Karassos that his headquarters would be at Perdika, close to the Greek headquarters; and the British anti-tank guns supporting the left of the Greek 20th Division were increased from a troop to a battery.
During that day the 1st Armoured Brigade and the two battalions of the 19th Australian arrived and began to deploy. On their right was the Dodecanese Regiment in the area of Lakes Vegorritis and Petron. The 2/8th Battalion was next to the left, then the 1/Rangers, astride the road, and the 2/4th on a four-mile front along the hills to the west. The three battalions had travelled in trucks along the greasy roads all night; and the 2/8th had spent the previous night on the road, and the night before that in crowded railway waggons in which sleep was almost impossible. After leaving their vehicles the weary men, fully laden, made long marches to positions allotted to companies and platoons above Xinon Neron where they spent the night of the 9th in the snow without shelter; next morning (the 10th) they began to move forward to new positions on the right at Vevi.
At Vevi the Monastir Valley narrows. To the west steep hills rise to more than 3,000 feet; east of the pass, the lakes Vegorritis and Petron lie across the path of an advance over the foothills. The pass itself varied in width from 100 to 500 yards and followed a winding course through a defile flanked by steep rock-strewn hills with few trees. It was a strong natural position, but on each flank the front was so extended that it was necessary to separate platoons widely, and some could keep in touch only by patrolling the considerable gaps between. On the right and left the steep hillsides and the lack of tracks made it necessary to man-handle
all weapons and supplies to the forward positions, and rapid movement of troops from one part of the front to another was not possible. In the centre the strong contingents of medium, field and anti-tank artillery and machine-gunners helped to offset the thinness of the infantry line. One platoon of New Zealand machine-gunners was with the left company of the 2/8th, two companies left of the road supporting the Rangers and the 2/4th Battalion. Forward of the Rangers the 2/1st Australian Field Company was completing a mine-field. The 2/4th made contact with the 21st Greek Brigade (part of the Cavalry Division), Lieut-Colonel Dougherty’s left company establishing a jointly-held post about five miles west of the road on the western slopes of Hill 1001. Strung out along a front of about ten miles the three battalions waited for the German attack.
In the first quarter of 1941 the German High Command had assembled an army of twenty divisions for the conquest of Greece – Operation MARITA. As mentioned above Hitler issued his directive for the invasion of Greece on the 13th December 1940.26 In it he stated:
1. The result of the battles in Albania is not yet decisive. Because of a dangerous situation in Albania, it is doubly necessary that the British endeavour be foiled to create air bases under the protection of a Balkan front, which would be dangerous to Italy and to the Rumanian oilfields.
2. My plan therefore is (a) to form a gradually increasing force in southern Rumania within the next month, (b) after the setting-in of favourable weather, probably in March, to send this force to occupy the Aegean north coast by way of Bulgaria and if necessary to occupy the entire Greek mainland.
On 17th February he ordered that his troops should cross the Danube on 2nd March. The coup in Yugoslavia seriously upset his intention to win Yugoslavia by other than military means, and greatly increased his commitments in the Balkans and contributed to a postponement of the attack on Russia. He declared at a conference on 27th March, the day of the coup, that Yugoslavia must be occupied, and added:
Politically it is especially important that the blow against Yugoslavia is carried out with unmerciful harshness and that the military destruction is done in a lightning-like undertaking. In this way Turkey would become sufficiently frightened and the campaign against Greece later on would be influenced in a favourable way. It can be assumed that the Croats will come to our side when we attack. A corresponding political treatment (autonomy later on) will be assured to them. The war against Yugoslavia should be very popular in Italy, Hungary and Bulgaria, as territorial acquisitions are to be promised to these states; the Adriatic coast for Italy, the Banat for Hungary and Macedonia for Bulgaria.
Hitler ordered that the air force should “destroy the capital Belgrade in attacks by waves”. On 4th April M. Molotov informed the German Ambassador in Moscow that the Soviet Government had concluded a treaty of friendship with Yugoslavia; but already the German Army was on the move against Russia’s fellow Slavs.
The achievement of Hitler’s plan to occupy Greece was allotted to the Twelfth German Army, commanded by Field Marshal List. It had fought
in France, and had begun to assemble in western Rumania at the end of 1940.27 A major problem facing the German commander was to construct sufficient crossings of the Danube to enable him to move his army swiftly through Bulgaria. The only first-class bridge was that at Czernawoda, carrying the railway to Constanta, and, in the spring, the lower Danube is swollen by the thaw and carries down much floating ice. Late in February the river was in fact blocked by ice as far upstream as Giurgiu; and such an interval elapsed before the ice loosened and began to move downstream that the German engineers had time to make only three additional bridges before the Twelfth Army began to advance into Bulgaria. One, at Bechet, was broken by a storm while troops were crossing; another was at Turnu Magurele; the third and most important was a 1,200-metre bridge at Giurgiu. The entry into Bulgaria was delayed for several days after 2nd March.
Hitler wished the invasion of Greece to begin on 1st April, but left it to List to fix the precise date, after taking the weather into account. Hitler’s order that Yugoslavia must be occupied necessitated the hurried reinforcement of his army in the Balkans. The Twelfth Army then included twenty divisions. The attack on central and northern Yugoslavia was allotted to the Second Army (Field Marshal von Weichs), which was in the area of Graz in southern Austria. It was to be reinforced by divisions from Germany and France, but chiefly from the Twelfth Army, until eventually it would include the following formations:
49th (Alpine) Corps (General Kübler)
1st Mountain Division
51st Corps (General Reinhard)
46th (Armoured) Corps (General von Vietinghoff)
8th Armoured Division
14th Armoured Division
16th (Motorised) Division
First Armoured Group28 (General von Kleist)
5th Armoured Division
11th Armoured Division
60th (Motorised) Division
4th Mountain Division
41st (Motorised) Corps (General Reinhardt)
SS “Reich” (Motorised) Division
“Graf Prachwitz” (Bulgarian) Division
“Hermann Göring” Regiment
The 49th and 51st Corps were assembled in the Steiermark province of Austria, the 46th in western Hungary. The First Armoured Group and 41st Corps were concentrated in Bulgaria and were to remain under the command of the Second Army until several days after the invasion began. Of the formations in Austria and Hungary only the 46th Armoured Corps was ready for action on 6th April.
After the transfer of 41st Corps and Kleist’s group to Second Army, List’s Twelfth Army in Bulgaria would be reduced to:
40th (Motorised) Corps (General Stumme)
9th Armoured Division 73rd Division
SS Leibstandarte “Adolf Hitler”
XVIII (Mountain) Corps (General Boehme)
2nd Armoured Division 5th Mountain Division 6th Mountain Division 72nd Division
125th Infantry Regiment
XXX Corps (General Hartmann, later General Ott) 50th Division
In reserve were two divisions, the 46th and 76th. The 16th Armoured Division was deployed on the Turkish frontier throughout this period; no account is taken of this division in this or later statements of the forces available to List.
At the beginning of April the German Army as a whole contained 153 divisions. They included 14 armoured, 8 motorised infantry (3 of these being S.S. divisions and one a light division serving in North Africa), 124 infantry, 6 mountain, and one cavalry. By the beginning of June, 2 armoured and 18 infantry were to be added; and 24 garrison divisions for service in occupied territories. Thus 6 out of the 14 available armoured divisions were allotted roles in the Balkan campaign, and 4 out of the 6 available mountain divisions, but only a small proportion of the available infantry divisions-16 out of 124.
The command of the Balkan operations was allotted to the Commander-in-Chief of the Army, Field Marshal von Brauchitsch, who moved his headquarters from Berlin to Wiener Neustadt, south of Vienna; it was decided to do without an army group commander. The German plan, rapidly revised after the decision to attack Yugoslavia, provided that one armoured division should move across the Drave River on Zagreb while the remainder of Vietinghoff’s corps, advancing between the Drave and the Save rivers, attacked Belgrade. Reinhard’s infantry corps was to advance towards Zagreb and then wheel towards Belgrade. Kübler’s Alpine Corps was to cover the mountainous western flank. This plan – to strike at the heart of Yugoslav resistance – displeased the Italian leaders. General Roatta, the Italian Chief of the General Staff, wished the Germans to attack south-west and deal with the Yugoslav formations opposite Albania; and the Italian Commander-in-Chief, General Ambrosio,
at first declined to follow a German suggestion that the Italian army in Albania should attack the Yugoslavs, but finally agreed to feign an offensive.
List’s army was hurriedly regrouped after the Yugoslav coup d’état. Kleist’s Armoured Group, at first including one armoured, one mountain, one motorised and two infantry divisions, was to attack from Sofia northwest towards Belgrade, in cooperation with Second Army under whose command it was later to come. Stumme’s corps was to advance into southern Yugoslavia, break up the Yugoslav army in the Skoplje area and link with the Italians at Lake Ochrid. Boehme’s corps was to thrust through the Metaxas Line. On the left flank Hartmann’s small corps was to advance on Cavalla in western Thrace. When this plan was made the German commander believed that the Yugoslavs had sixteen divisions, concentrated mainly round Nish, Skoplje and Veles.
One main problem of the German commanders was to move forward their columns along mountain roads so narrow and winding that there were points where engineers had sometimes to widen them by blasting to make it possible for guns to be hauled round the bends. As a rule more than one division had to share a single road. In Yugoslavia the Drave and Save rivers, which Weichs’ army had to cross, were swollen by the thaw.
On the German right, units of Vietinghoff’s corps crossed the Mur and Drave rivers against weak resistance, capturing several bridges intact. Many prisoners were taken in the field; deserters from the air force flew to Graz in Austria and surrendered themselves and their aircraft. So few German troops were yet available – only three divisions were on the frontier – that, despite these easy successes, Brauchitsch decided to keep to the original plan – to wait until 10th April before launching the main advance on Belgrade. It was evident that the knowledge of the treachery of the Regent, Prince Paul, his Ministers and a proportion of the military leaders had so shaken the faith of the people that little resistance was
likely except by small, stubborn groups which had not succumbed to the general despair.
Farther south, Stumme’s corps crossed the frontier in two columns, the 9th Armoured and the “Adolf Hitler” Divisions by way of Kriva Palanka and Kumanovo towards Skoplje, the 73rd Division towards Veles. Both columns reached the Vardar (Axios) on the 6th; Skoplje was occupied on the 7th; and the 2nd Armoured was approaching Strumica. Yugoslav resistance was negligible. By the 8th resistance in southern Yugoslavia had been broken and only fragments of the defending divisions remained. The “Adolf Hitler” wheeled left and advanced through Prilep into the Monastir Valley; the 2nd Armoured was approaching Salonika along the Axios Valley.
From the Greeks on the Metaxas Line Boehme’s corps met resistance of an entirely different kind. This line resembled the Maginot Line in France and consisted of forts cleverly camouflaged and commanding the main points of entry. Boehme’s first task was to break through on both sides of the Rupel Pass with two mountain divisions (5th and 6th) and heavy artillery detachments. The 72nd Division was to advance from Nevrokop via Serrai and Drama taking the Rupel Pass position in the rear and clearing the way for the 2nd Armoured Division to sweep down the Axios Valley towards Salonika.
But the forts were doggedly held. The “Hellas” fort fell only after the entire artillery of the XXX Corps had been in action against it for thirty-six hours; the Ekhinos fort held out for days in the German rear after the mountain troops had broken through. However, by the afternoon of the 6th the 6th Mountain Division was at Rhodopoles on the Salonika–Serrai railway. Next evening (7th April) the 5th Mountain Division broke through west of the Rupel Pass though “some heroic garrisons of a few as yet unconquered forts”29 were still holding out in the rear, and the 125th Regiment was held by the Greeks in the defile itself. On 7th April the 72nd Division had broken the line south of Nevrokop and was moving through Serrai. The 2nd Armoured Division, swinging round the western flank, occupied Salonika on the 9th.
On the left Hartmann’s corps, with its 164th Division on the right and the 50th on the left, overcame bitter resistance at the frontier forts and advanced to the sea. Thence the 50th Division swung west towards Salonika, and the 164th, using a German steamer, Greek fishing craft, and two Italian destroyers, occupied the islands of Samothrace, Thasos, Lemnos, Mytilene and Chios.