Chapter 3: The Rearguard Actions in the Florina Valley
SNOW fell on the hills flanking the Vevi Pass during the night of the 9th April, and when the men at infantry posts awoke next morning they found three or four inches of it lying on the greatcoats and blankets that covered them. In the pass below, a stream of Greek and Yugoslav refugees was moving through the British line, as they had been for several days, some on foot carrying a few possessions, some with donkeys or little brightly-coloured farm carts. In this slow procession were groups of Yugoslav soldiers, and parties of Greek police whose well-cut uniforms, neat haversacks and long grey coats were in contrast to the shabby dress of the Greek fighting men.
Two patrols of New Zealand armoured cars (attached to the 1st Armoured Brigade) drove forward, saw the head of one German column six miles north of the Vevi line and another at Sitaria, and returned intact after exchanging fire with the enemy. The air force reported that a large collection of vehicles was still waiting on the north bank of the Crna River in Yugoslavia for the bridge to be repaired. About 10 a.m. on the 10th, after German trucks had been seen near Vevi and farther north near Itia, it was decided that the last of the Greek artillery had passed through the Vevi position, and the Rangers blew up the road ahead of their minefield. From about 1 p.m. onwards the British and Australian guns fired at long range on German vehicles, a shell of the first salvo fired by the 64th Medium Regiment with astonishing luck scoring a hit on a German truck. From their posts overlooking the plain across which the enemy was advancing the artillery and infantry observers watched the column of German vehicles moving south “like a dark grey caterpillar on a great green lawn”,1 and in mid-afternoon saw infantry and tanks deploying behind the Sitaria–Lofoi ridge three miles to the north. The defending artillery continued to fire intermittently at German vehicles and infantry but there was no German fire, their infantry and tanks having evidently outrun the guns. It appeared that there would be no coordinated attack that day. This was fortunate because there were only three battalions of infantry to hold the pass, and although the Rangers and the 2/4th had arrived on the 9th in time to occupy their positions that day, the 2/8th was still scrambling wearily up the hills to fill the gap on the right of the line. When the artillery fire opened on the morning of the 10th the company commanders were on the ridge to the east of the road reconnoitring their positions in an otherwise vacant battalion area. To the north they could see the Germans approaching; to the south their own men finishing an eleven-mile march with a steep climb to the positions on which they had yet to dig in.
This day a German force advancing from Florina into the Pisoderion Pass had been held by the Greek Cavalry Division there. Farther left the German and Italian armies linked with each other in the vicinity of Lake Ochrid. To guard the communications of the Epirus Army against attack from the east Papagos ordered his 11th Division from Leskoviki in southern Albania to the Metsovon area.
When General Wilson met General Karassos and General Mackay at Perdika at 2 p.m. on the 10th April to plan the withdrawal from the Vermion–Veria position, they had decided that three nights would be devoted to this delicate operation, largely because the Greeks lacked motor vehicles. The Greeks would withdraw across the valley and occupy the passes to the west of it. Mackay’s force would withdraw to the south. This would concentrate the Greek formations on the left so that there would be one and not three points of contact, as there had been before, and a consequent simplification of command and supply problems. Three Greek battalions would withdraw that night, three on the 11th–12th, and the rearguards and the Dodecanese Regiment, which was on Mackay’s immediate right, on the 12th–13th, after which Mackay’s force would withdraw. These orders imposed on the raw Greek divisions a wearying march from one mountain range to another, and on Mackay’s thin line of infantry the duty of holding an increasing German force for three nights and two days.
A few hours earlier General Blamey, from his headquarters south of the Aliakmon, had given instructions defining the Olympus–Aliakmon position his corps was to hold and, in anticipation of orders to withdraw from Veria, warning the 16th Brigade and 12th Greek Division along what route they would withdraw and where their place in the new line would be. These instructions, issued at 12.10 a.m. on the 10th, proposed that the 12th Greek Division, when withdrawal from Veria was ordered, should cross the Aliakmon on a foot-bridge to be built about eight miles west of Servia and take up a position overlooking the river on the left of the 4th New Zealand Brigade. General Blamey ordered that vehicles not immediately needed should that night be withdrawn south of the “position for protracted defence”, and sent Colonel Wells to the 12th Division to coordinate its movement.
So far as they affected the 12th Greek these warning instructions were countermanded within a few hours by Wilson’s order outlined above that it should withdraw west to the Siatista Pass and not south across the river – an occurrence which again underlined the weakness of the complicated system of command and the desirability of placing the whole of “W” Group under a single field commander, who would necessarily be Blamey. Early on the afternoon of the 10th Wilson sent a “warning order” to Blamey defining the new line and informing him that his junction with the 12th Greek Division would be in the Kerasia area on the high ground north of the Aliakmon, not south of it as Blamey had anticipated. Wilson’s decision was tactically orthodox in that it avoided allowing a
river to form the boundary between one formation and another, but Blamey’s staff protested, though in vain, that it would be extremely difficult for them to maintain part of their force on the north side of the river that could be reached only along rough tracks and crossed by an improvised bridge. In fact, Blamey’s staff had little confidence in the ability of the Greek divisions to reach their new area in good fighting shape and were unwilling therefore to place a flanking force on the far side of the river to link with them.
The warning order to the 16th Brigade provided that, having sent the vehicles across the Aliakmon that night, the men must march across the mountains to their new sector on the right of the New Zealanders in the Servia Pass. If the men had been carried on their vehicles through Kozani and across the river to Servia they would have had an easy march of five miles or so to their new position. But, climbing through the mountains, they would have to cover 30 miles on the map and considerably more in fact – up one side of a 3,000-foot range and down the other side to the Aliakmon, and thence another ascent to heights above 3,000 feet. Brigadier Allen reflected that there seemed no point in marching the men so far, but surmised that apparently the aim was to prevent traffic congestion by sending the vehicles off without delay. The real reason for
the decision was that Blamey was uncertain whether Mackay’s force at Vevi could withstand a powerful blow, and feared lest a break-through at Vevi should catch the 16th Brigade withdrawing along the main road. To march over the hills was safe, though exhausting; when the order was given the plan was to offer a prolonged defence on the Olympus–Aliakmon line and consequently it was believed that the infantrymen would have time to rest before they were engaged in battle.
During the day the New Zealand Division completed its withdrawal to the Olympus passes, taking all its supplies and leaving only the cavalry screen on the Aliakmon. The 5th Brigade was now astride the main Olympus pass with the 6th in rear of it; and the 21st Battalion had completed preparations to demolish the Platamon tunnel in the pass between Olympus and the sea. The 4th Brigade was digging in at the Servia Pass.
At Vevi, in spite of efforts to ensure coordination with the Greeks, the blowing up of roads and bridges in front of the British line cut off some Greek troops; they and civilian refugees continued to pass through the British lines all day. The refugees were watched somewhat anxiously because the Germans’ use of paratroops in Holland and their rumoured use of “Fifth Columns”, meaning agents or troops disguised as civilians operating behind their enemies’ lines, had made their opponents apprehensive lest these devices should be adopted in Greece. One of the advantages an army gains from the occasional use of such devices is that it induces the enemy to disperse troops on protective duties in rear areas. (It was to guard the headquarters of “W” Group, for example, that a company of the 2/4th Battalion had been detached leaving that battalion now with only three rifle companies in the line.)
The morning of the 11th was fine in the Florina Valley, but it was still snowing on the heights; the weary infantrymen were wet through and miserably cold, and throughout the day snow and mist made it impossible to see more than 50 to 100 yards. The men of the 2/8th were worn out, having marched all the previous day and reached their positions only at dusk. The necessity for linking with the Rangers compelled them to take up exposed positions on the forward slopes. When they began to dig in they found the ground so rocky that only shallow trenches could be made. They had been in position a few hours when they heard voices in the darkness calling in English “Stand up, Steve”, “Friendly patrol here” and the like. Before it was discovered that these calls came from German patrols probing among their widely-spaced platoon positions, five Australians, a section of New Zealand machine-gunners, and six of the Rangers on their left had been taken prisoner. Brushes with these patrols continued all night, and again the men in the forward companies had little sleep. When daylight came none of the enemy infantry was in sight. At 3 a.m. a company of the Rangers was drawn back on that battalion’s right.
Later in the morning a few German tanks appeared; one and then another were disabled by mines in the field forward of the Rangers.2 The field artillery fired intermittently on German vehicles unloading infantry round Vevi, and on German infantry seen digging in along the road to Kelli. In the late morning and early afternoon German artillery arrived and opened fire. As the day went on fire from heavy mortars and machine-guns sited behind the Lofoi ridge became heavier, causing casualties particularly among the Australian anti-tank gunners on the forward slope. Before any concerted attack had been made on Brigadier Vasey’s infantry, however, news arrived of a threatened flanking move by German tanks against a position held by the 20th Greek Division between Lake Petron and Lake Vegorritis. If German tanks broke through here they would threaten the main road at Sotir, six miles south of Vasey’s force. To meet the danger a squadron of the 3rd Royal Tanks and a troop of the 102nd Anti-Tank were sent out from Amindaion to the neck of land at Pandeleimon. Moving in snow and sleet over eight miles of ploughed vineyards six tanks broke their tracks, but the Germans did not continue their attempt to advance in this direction and at length the tanks and guns withdrew.
A little before 5 p.m. German infantry, seemingly two battalions, attacked astride the road, but their advance was stopped by artillery fire when they were half a mile from the forward posts. There was yet no artillery observer forward in the 2/4th’s area on the left and the fire of the guns was directed by Captain Conkey of the 2/4th by telephone through battalion headquarters. During the next four hours the Germans continued to press forward cautiously feeling for the Australian line and, in the dark, still under well-aimed fire from the Royal Horse Artillery, dug in in dead ground on the lower slopes a few hundred yards forward of the defenders.
The snow was now from six inches to a foot deep over the whole of Hill 1001 – the 3,000-foot ridge on which the 2/4th were deployed – and there was snow on the hills on the right flank, where from 10 p.m. the Germans made sharp attacks on the 2/8th, but now it was the Australians who took prisoners.3 In one night affray two wounded Germans were taken and found to belong to the “Adolf Hitler” motorised division of the S.S.4 The night fighting and the intense cold further wearied the 2/8th, whose men were near the limit of their endurance. Few had
blankets because men could not be spared to carry them forward – the arduous scramble into the hills from battalion headquarters to one of the companies took from an hour to an hour and a half. The men could not heat their food. The battalion was now spread across a front of two miles and a half, having taken over part of the Greek front on its right and filled a gap between its left and the Rangers.
To the north-west, in the Pisoderion Pass, the Germans again probed forward against the Greek Cavalry Division on the 11th and were again repulsed. Italian attacks on the Albanian front were also held by the Greeks.
Early on the 11th April General Papagos had discussed the reinforcement of the Allied left flank by transferring troops from Albania, and later in the day informed Wilson’s rear headquarters at Athens that he would withdraw his right corps (the III) in Albania, provided the 1st Armoured Brigade operated in the Florina area to protect its withdrawal. British rear headquarters gave an assurance to this effect, evidently ignorant of the situation at the front. Wilson was already contemplating withdrawal. At 3.45 next morning (the 12th) he issued a comprehensive instruction to the formations under his command for retirement to the Olympus–Aliakmon line “as soon as possible”. This instruction elaborated the decisions made at his conference with Mackay and Karassos on the 10th. Except for small mule parties the 20th Greek Division, which had been marching across the valley during the 11th, was to be west of the main road by 2 p.m. on the 12th; the Dodecanese Regiment was to come under Mackay’s command during its withdrawal. As mentioned above, the 19th Brigade was to withdraw to the Kerasia area, north of the Aliakmon, and link with the Greeks there; but the artillery was to retire across the river; and the armoured brigade, after protecting the withdrawal of the remainder of the force, to Grevena. It was to be south of the new line by 8 p.m. on the 13th. Already the New Zealand brigades had gone back to the Olympus passes; and on the afternoon of the 11th Blamey had ordered that one battalion of the 16th Brigade at Veria should begin to withdraw forthwith.
On the morning of the 12th two of the three nights during which Mackay had been ordered to hold at Vevi had passed without the line being seriously threatened. Yet it was now becoming apparent not only that a concerted German attack would soon be made, but that fatigue and cold would begin to cause serious casualties; already infantrymen were being taken out of the line suffering from exhaustion and frost-bite.
Late on the 11th Mackay had learnt that the commander and staff of the Central Macedonian Army had departed from Perdika to Vateron, without warning him. When he visited the Greek headquarters next morning he found there only a “sickly” colonel named Pappas. Mackay was anxious to begin moving the last Greek regiment – the Dodecanese – across from his right to his left as soon as possible, and he was concerned to learn from Pappas that the regiment was 4,500 strong, not 3,000 as
he had been informed the previous day. He wrote an order to the Greeks that they were to begin withdrawing at 3 p.m. and allotted them thirty 3-ton lorries to carry their sick and wounded, estimated at 1,200.
In his detailed orders to the 19th Brigade Mackay said that the 2/4th and 2/8th Battalions were to embus behind the Vevi position; they were to begin thinning out at 7.30 p.m. on the 12th and to begin embussing at 8; and the Rangers (being astride the road) were to cover the withdrawal. All were to be in their vehicles by 4 a.m. on the 13th.5 Part of the armoured brigade, including one company of the Rangers, withdrawn earlier, was to occupy a position at Rodona and Sotir astride the road six miles to the south to cover the main withdrawal. The rest of the brigade was to occupy a final rearguard position three miles south of Ptolemais, through which the Sotir force would withdraw. After the withdrawal of the 19th Brigade, the whole of the 1/Rangers, the 2nd Royal Horse Artillery, and the New Zealand machine-gunners were to revert to command of Brigadier Charrington of the armoured brigade.
Before Mackay had begun his conference with the sole remaining Greek staff officer the expected German attack developed. At 8.30 a.m. on the 12th, supported by intense mortar and machine-gun fire, the Germans advanced with determination on a wide front east of the road against the left companies of the 2/8th and at the junction of the 2/8th and the Rangers. Their grey-clad infantry moved in close formation – surprising tactics to the Australians who had been schooled in the necessity for dispersion in the attack – and, near the left flank of the 2/8th, succeeded in overrunning the foremost platoon (Lieutenant Oldfield’s6) all but six of which were killed or captured. The remainder of this company (Captain Robertson’s) , supported by enfilade fire from the company on its right, held and inflicted casualties on the attackers, Lieutenant Gately displaying notable coolness and determination in a dangerous crisis. About 11 a.m., however, Captain Coombes’ company on the Australian left saw the Rangers in the valley below (possibly believing that the 2/8th’s positions had been overrun) begin to withdraw. Robertson’s remaining platoons fell
back to positions farther up the slopes and Coombes’ men also were moved about 150 yards back. The low ground forward of the 2/8th was now alive with tanks and troop-carrying trucks and guns, but for several hours the Germans made no concerted attack. The right-hand companies of the 2/8th, Simpson’s7 and McDonald’s, which were not being attacked, were still able to enfilade German infantry swarming up the hill against the companies on the left and coolly to observe the enemy’s tactics. The German infantry jumped from their trucks close to a start-line, formed up and advanced close behind the tanks (as the Australians had done in Libya), one platoon accompanying each of the tanks, which fired briskly using high explosive shell. At intervals the leading infantry sent white Very lights into the sky to indicate their positions to their artillery.
At 2 p.m. Lieut-Colonel Mitchell of the 2/8th, who had reinforced his left with a platoon (from McDonald’s company) led with great dash by Sergeant Duncan,8 ordered a counter-attack which regained some vital ground on top of the ridge at the junction of Coombes’ and Robertson’s companies. After six hours of intermittent fighting in the pass and on the slopes to the east, the 2/8th still held the heights though their left had been mauled; the Rangers, however, were rallying astride the road about two miles to the rear, but five of the six supporting guns of the 2/1st Anti-Tank Regiment had been left without protection and abandoned. Thus the ridge held by the 2/8th formed a deep salient.
The withdrawal of the Rangers left no infantry forward of the supporting artillery of the 2nd Royal Horse Artillery except a platoon of New Zealand machine-gunners. This was reported to Vasey’s headquarters by Captain Grant9 of the New Zealand machine-gunners and Lieut-Colonel Aikenhead10 of the RHA but brigade headquarters insisted that the Rangers were still in position. About 3 p.m. Vasey ordered the Rangers to hold until dark, keeping in touch with the 2/8th on their right; but in fact the Rangers were far to the rear of the 2/8th.
Soon afterwards the Rangers made a second withdrawal, this time to the pre-arranged rearguard position at Rodona. On the right about this time a concerted German attack was made. By 4 p.m. the last of the Dodecanese had withdrawn and not only was Mitchell’s left being hard pressed but his battalion was under machine-gun fire from heights on his right.11
On the left his headquarters, ammunition dump and regimental aid post12 were under the fire of German machine-guns sited to his left rear. His telephone wire, which had run through the Rangers’ to Vasey’s headquarters, went out of action about 4.30 because of the Rangers’ retirement, and his line of retreat along the main road was cut. Some time before the renewed German attack opened, Mitchell had summoned the company commanders to issue orders for the withdrawal that evening: to the south-east since it was impossible to withdraw along the road on which German tanks were then moving. Because signal communication at least to some of the companies had been broken Mitchell could not now have countermanded the order to attend a conference even if he had wished. About 5.30, as the company commanders were returning to their men, German tanks and about 500 infantry reached the Australian positions along nearly the whole front, and particularly on Coombes’ company on the left. Efforts were made to organise a withdrawal but the tanks, impervious to the fire of anti-tank rifles, were now deep into the Australian position and, in the search for cover, sections were separated from platoons and platoons from companies. When the men reached the floor of the valley behind them, they came under the heavy machine-gun fire that had long been enfilading the headquarters area; dispersed they made their way over the next ridge. Some officers and men decided that if, in their weary condition, the men tried to carry out their weapons and equipment they would be cut off and captured, and that their only chance of escape was to move fast and use what cover the hills offered. In McDonald’s company on. the right “the men were simply too tired to withdraw carrying weapons, and perhaps 20 per cent threw away Brens and even rifles”. A platoon commander in another company ordered his men to drop their equipment. Weapons were lost not because of disorganisation – though the withdrawal became confused as darkness fell – but because of sheer weariness.
On the left Lieutenant Fleming,13 Mitchell’s Intelligence officer, remained to collect stragglers after the battalion headquarters had gone. Tanks were firing and German infantry were moving across the battalion’s line of withdrawal and towards Kleidi. When he, with McDonald, Lieutenants Austin,14 Diffey and others, under fire from a group of tanks 500 yards away, reached the top of the ridge they saw the main body of the battalion plodding wearily south in open order. When darkness fell the men marched on through heavy mud. The leading companies reached the reserve position at Sotir, ten miles from where they had set out, about 9 p.m., and two hours later were at the forked roads at Rodona where their
vehicles awaited them. Small parties of weary men arrived to rejoin the battalion at intervals during the night, until about 250 had assembled; about half of the officers and two-thirds of the men were then still unaccounted for.
Meanwhile in the central sector astride the road the guns of the 2nd Royal Horse Artillery with two Australian anti-tank guns filled the gap during the late afternoon and held the German infantry and tanks there. They engaged the advancing enemy over open sights until they were under small arms fire from less than 400 yards, and then were coolly withdrawn. They saved the day.15
After having telephoned Mackay and told him that the situation was becoming “serious” Vasey, about 5 p.m., had warned Dougherty on the left, who had not been attacked, that the front had lost all cohesion and ordered him to withdraw to his embussing point south of Rodona. Dougherty ordered his carrier platoon and Lieutenant Wren’s16 rifle platoon to take up a position on his right to cover the withdrawal of his forward companies, the carriers to hold until 8.30 and then to go back along a route well to the west of the main road in case the Germans should be in possession of it; and he sent messages to the companies instructing them to withdraw. In anticipation of such a move Dougherty had already instructed his centre company, Captain McCarty’s, to thin out leaving only one platoon on Hill 1001; and Conkey’s company on the right had already withdrawn on to battalion headquarters as a result of earlier orders and in consequence of the withdrawal of the Rangers on their right. Dougherty could now communicate with the remainder of McCarty’s company and Major Barham’s17 on the left only by runner because the battalion had never enough telephone wire to reach Barham’s positions, five miles from the main road and about 1,500 feet above it, and the wire to McCarty’s company was broken. Before the runners had climbed the steep snow-covered slopes to McCarty, who had withdrawn one of his two platoons to the rear slopes of the ridge, Captain Luxton,18 a liaison officer on Vasey’s staff, arrived and told him he was to withdraw immediately. McCarty sent two of his men, Corporal West19 and Private Murphy,20 to pass the order to Lieutenant Copland, who commanded the platoon still on Hill 1001, and led out the remainder, taking the precaution to keep well to the west of the road, along which the enemy was advancing.
Copland had already intercepted and read a written order to withdraw which Private Coles,21 a runner from Dougherty’s headquarters, brought to the forward slopes of Hill 1001 at 7.30, believing all McCarty’s company was still there. Copland directed Coles to McCarty’s new position, as he believed, and added to the message a request that a Very light signal should be made if he also was to retire immediately. No signal appeared but an hour later, at 8.30, the two runners whom McCarty had sent forward appeared in the distance and signalled to Copland to move out. At this time German infantry were climbing the forward slopes of Hill 1001. Copland deployed his platoon in readiness to meet attacks from flank or rear and marched his men down the hill to Xinon Neron, four miles away. It was now dark – about 9.30 p.m. – and, after having failed to find a road leading south from the village, though the map showed three, he decided to march east to the main road and then south. Dougherty, believing that Barham and Copland had received instructions to keep well west of the main road, had left Xinon Neron in his carrier at 9 p.m.
When he received the order to withdraw Major Barham delayed the retirement of two of his rifle platoons until two sections of New Zealand machine-gunners who were in support had moved out. These machine-gunners withdrew in their vehicles after having carried all their equipment to the foot of the hill. A troop of Australian anti-tank gunners, under Lieutenant Smith,22 destroyed their guns and withdrew on foot with the infantrymen. Thus Barham at length arrived at Xinon Neron with two platoons23 under Lieutenants Irwin24 and de Meyrick,25 and with Smith’s troop of the 2/1st Anti-Tank. Barham said that he knew well the way to the new embussing point and moved the little force on to and along the main road, in column, with himself, Copland and two others bringing up the rear. Apparently he had not received Dougherty’s message telling him to keep well west of the road. Just past the road junction a small group of German motor-cyclists appeared. After an exchange of fire, in which Barham shot a German soldier and then was killed himself, the Germans rode off. The column moved on but only to walk, section by section, into a strong enemy position astride the road. There, covered by Germans in weapon pits, they were disarmed and shepherded into a near-by field. There were about seventy Australians in the group.
The outcome of the engagement was that although the Vevi position had not been held until 8 p.m., as had been planned, except on the 2/4th’s sector where Barham’s depleted company and Copland’s and Wren’s
platoons had been in position until after that hour, it had been held long enough to enable both flanking battalions to complete their withdrawal under cover of darkness. Vasey’s handling of his thin line during the critical afternoon had been cool and resolute – one observer recorded the opinion that the atmosphere at his headquarters was “almost too cool and calm” – at one stage this atmosphere may have been due to the failure of headquarters to realise how badly the fight was going.26 Some casualties had been inflicted on the Germans, but the price the defenders had paid had been far higher in relation to the size of the small force to which they belonged. During that night only 250 of the 2/8th were assembled at Rodona, and many had no weapons. The Rangers also had lost heavily. The 2/4th had only three rifle companies at the outset and the equivalent of one of those companies had now been captured. The artillery had remained in action until the enemy was only a few hundred yards away. The 2/3rd Field Regiment (Lieut-Colonel Strutt27) had lost two guns which had become bogged28 and the 64th Medium one. The Australian anti-tank gunners who, in Mackay’s opinion, had been sited too far forward – and they had certainly been a target for German artillery and machine-gun fire all day – had suffered heavy casualties and lost sixteen guns, ten of them in Captain Crawford’s29 2nd Battery which had been cut off by a demolition in the road and some eighty officers and men captured.
The width of the front Vasey had to hold had made it impossible for him to form a reserve which might have been used to restore the sector lost by the Rangers, and impossible to link the outlying companies on the left by telephone; afterwards Vasey decided that his headquarters were too far back, in the circumstances. If Barham and Copland had received the order to withdraw sooner and had received the order to move well to the west of the road, it is probable that they would have reached the embussing position safely. There were not men enough to organise defence in depth, but only to attempt to hold the crest of the heights, which resulted, in Mackay’s words, in “a type of guerilla warfare”. The sheer fatigue of the troops, who had been hurried into position after several sleepless nights, and the intense cold, had contributed to the confusion of the 2/8th’s withdrawal. “The 2/8th Battalion,” wrote Vasey, “was completely disorganised. A large percentage of the men had thrown away their weapons. Subsequently only 50 armed men could be raised from
the battalion. The C.O. was completely exhausted.” This bleak statement was not the whole truth. A battalion hurried from the Western Desert with no time for re-training or even the elementary training of its raw reinforcements, with little proper rest or food since it left Athens seven days before, had been hurried into a position two miles and a half in width and above the snow-line. There they had beaten off confident German patrolling and attacks for two days, withdrawing only when both flanks were in the air, when the battalion was under enfilading machine-gun fire, and tanks were milling round the company areas.30
A main task of Mackay’s force had been to cover the withdrawal of the 20th and 12th Greek Divisions and Mackay had been constantly anxious to ensure that this was done. After the war Papagos strongly criticised “W” Group for having failed to protect the Greek withdrawal.
At 6 p.m. on April 12th, though the damage and the losses sustained by the forces defending the Kleidi position in no way justified such, a hasty move, Group W ordered its forces who were fighting in this area to withdraw (Papagos wrote) ... The order of withdrawal ... was given by Group W without taking into consideration that immediately west of Lake Vegorritis there were still forces of the 20th Infantry Division, that the 12th Infantry Division was still east of the highway Servia–Kozani–Ptolemais and that Group W had been instructed to hold the Kleidi position until the forces of the 12th and 20th Greek Divisions, which came under its orders, had completed their movements to the west. Moreover, this decision was taken without any warning to the Cavalry Division, whose right wing (21st Infantry Brigade) was in contact with the left flank of the forces defending the Kleidi position. The movement of the 12th Division to the west having been resumed since 9 p.m. on 12th April, following the second order of Group W, was carried out under such great difficulties, owing to bad roads and unfavourable conditions, that only a small section of the forces of the division managed to reach the pass east of Siatista in the night of the 12th to 13th April. The forces of the 20th Division, who also had to change positions in a hurry, came up against such difficulties . .. that great disorder ensued; one section was dispersed, their fighting ability was reduced, and only part of them managed to reach the Vlasti–Klisoura area in the night of the 12th to 13th April.31
Papagos’ criticism is based on the fact that his orders were simply that Mackay’s force was to protect the withdrawal of the 12th and 20th Divisions and the whole of “W” Group to be on the Aliakmon line “by April 14th at the latest”. In keeping with these orders Wilson, Mackay and the staff of the Central Macedonian Army had agreed on a plan whereby that army would withdraw bit by bit on the nights of the 10th–11th, 11th–12th and 12th–13th. In fact Mackay’s force had held the Vevi Pass until after dark on the 12th and was to hold the rearguard position at Sotir six miles to the south during the following night. It is true that after the early hours of the morning of the 12th it was probably impossible for troops of the Greek 20th Division to move along the road leading
into the Klisoura Pass, which ran just north of the British rearguard, but the Australians knew that the 20th Division had been ordered to be west of the main road by 2 p.m. and believed they had done so. Mackay’s anxiety at this stage was for the Dodecanese Regiment to which he had allotted thirty trucks to accelerate their withdrawal. The retirement of the 12th Greek Division was protected during the whole of the 13th.32 The truth appears to be that the Greek troops were set too hard a task and were ordered to begin to thin out too late, and that liaison with their staffs was lamentably weak and left much room for misunderstanding. The British and Greek forces spoke different languages not only in the literal sense but in the sense that one was a highly-mobile, expertly-staffed army and the other an army of foot-soldiers served by pack animals which moved so slowly that probably many Greeks who withdrew from the Vermion mountains to the east of the valley on the first night had not yet arrived at the Klisoura and Siatista Passes to the west of it on the third night. Australian accounts of the withdrawal of the Greeks, and German accounts of the dogged fight the 20th and 12th put up in their new positions strongly suggest that Papagos was wrongly informed concerning the proportion of Greeks who did carry out the withdrawal successfully. The 21st Greek Brigade on the left of Mackay’s force fought hard after the 2/4th Battalion’s withdrawal and later joined the 12th and 20th Divisions. The Greek troops generally seemed dogged and capable of great endurance, and likely to arrive at their destination and make a good stand there.
Meanwhile, on Papagos’ orders a large-scale withdrawal of the Greek western armies had begun – a pressing necessity since they occupied a deep salient on the left of the Allied line. During the 12th April the Western Macedonian and Epirus Armies withdrew to positions covering passes on each side of the Albanian frontier. As part of this movement the Cavalry Division was ordered to hold the Pisoderion Pass until the withdrawal was completed, because a German advance through it would cut the road from Koritza along the upper Aliakmon Valley, now the main line of supply of the Western Macedonian Army.
Thus, on the morning of the 13th, the British rearguard was astride the road at Sotir; and Greek rearguards in the three passes through the mountains to the west, one of which – Siatista – was still covered by Brigadier Charrington’s force. The rearguard position at Sotir lay across a neck of land about five miles in width between Lake Vegorritis on the right and a marshy area on the left. The rearguard occupied a ridge rising to a height of 600 feet which lies across this gap. The Amindaion creek on the right and the marsh on the left, which came up to the main road, were impassable to tanks. Charrington had obtained Mackay’s leave to add the 2/4th Australian Battalion to his force to strengthen his infantry,
of which he still had only a company of the Rangers. The 2/4th, now reduced to two rifle companies, had therefore been halted and deployed during the night on a line some three miles long, on the right of the ridge, with the Rangers on their left, “There was not a murmur from any of the men of my tired battalion,” wrote Dougherty two days later, “when told they had to fight this rearguard action.” In support were the 3rd Royal Tanks less one squadron, a squadron of the Hussars, the 2nd Royal Horse Artillery, a platoon of New Zealand machine-gunners, and an anti-tank battery of the 102nd Regiment.
Before dawn Vasey and Dougherty went forward to the companies. As light came they saw the enemy in weapon pits on the flat about 1,000 yards away, and a machine-gun opened up on them as they stood exposed. The British line opened fire not knowing that in between on the ploughed land near Sotir lay the Australian, New Zealand, British and Greek prisoners taken the previous night. Lieutenant de Meyrick and some other prisoners were killed by this fire; the tireless Copland was shot and wounded by a German when trying to signal to the party of prisoners to move west in the hope of avoiding the fire and returning to their own lines. Some of the prisoners managed to reach protection or to hide in the young crops. When the Germans assembled the Australian prisoners after the fight more than 30 out of 123 had been wounded.33
Soon after dawn the German infantry advanced in open order supported by machine-gun fire. They were effectively shelled by the R.H.A., but by 7.30 had penetrated the Rangers’ position. A squadron of the Royal Tanks then moved forward and stemmed the advance. During the next two hours the rearguard withdrew, unit by unit, while the tanks held the enemy down and finally themselves retired to a position already organised a few miles south of Ptolemais. The 2/4th, which at Vasey’s suggestion was withdrawn first, now left the armoured brigade and travelled in its trucks to Kozani and thence south to take up its pre-arranged position with the remainder of the brigade on the left of the Aliakmon–Olympus line.34 It will be recalled that the plan of withdrawal provided that the armoured brigade should be south of the Aliakmon by 8 p.m. on the 13th, but, with the object of giving the Greek 12th Division more time to complete its withdrawal across the line of retreat, Wilson had ordered Charrington to hold the German advance as long as he could. Consequently Charrington prepared to maintain a prolonged defence in the second rearguard position. Here Colonel Lillingston35 with his Hussars, a squadron of the Royal Tanks, part of the Rangers, a battery of anti-tank guns, and two platoons of New Zealand machine-gunners had prepared a position. The road ran through a gorge with hills rising to 1,200 feet above it on either side. The rearguard had a clear view of the German
tanks and troop-carriers steadily advancing, and of their men repairing the cratered road as they moved forward. By 2.30 the Germans were exchanging fire with the British forward patrols and half an hour later their guns began accurately shelling the Rangers’ posts.
The frontal advance was held by the Rangers and the anti-tank gunners astride the road, but about thirty tanks swung over the foothills, round the British left flank and by 7 o’clock were moving towards the road near Mavropiye where Charrington had his headquarters, three miles behind the main British position. Here a fierce fight ensued, German aircraft strafing and dive-bombing the defenders for the first time in the campaign. In the failing light Lieutenant Trippier’s36 gunners of the 102nd Anti-Tank believed that they knocked out eight tanks, and two troops of medium tanks which were hurried into action were considered to have destroyed five more. The men of brigade headquarters went into action with rifles and Brens, and the New Zealand machine-gunners who were then moving back halted and deployed. “It was a most pretty sight,” wrote Colonel Waller37 of the anti-tank regiment. “Blazing tanks and trucks, 2-pounder and 50-mm tracer, flashes from guns and rifles, and bursting shells, with the last afterglow of the setting sun and the dark mass of the mountains as a background.”38 The German attack was held for the time, but Charrington decided to withdraw his force without delay. The withdrawal was covered by the tanks and armoured cars which, when the infantry and artillery had got clear, themselves retired under cover of a smoke-screen unmolested by the battered German tank force. The depleted brigade retired to Kozani and thence along the mountain road to Grevena. A small rearguard stood astride the road at Mavrodendri until 1.30 a.m. on the 14th, but was not attacked by the Germans, who had evidently suffered severely. It then rejoined the brigade at Grevena.
Charrington’s brigade had been reduced almost to impotence. Its armoured regiment had been depleted, chiefly by mechanical breakdowns, to one weak squadron. Its infantry battalion had lost half its men; its antitank regiment had lost six guns. There was no possibility of replacing the tanks. In two sharp actions they had delayed the Germans’ approach to the main British defence line and had knocked out a number of tanks, but the cost was the virtual disappearance of the one small armoured force the Allied army in Greece possessed.
Twenty-six years before, in April 1915, an Australian and New Zealand Army Corps had landed on Gallipoli, where, in eight months of bitter and costly fighting, Australian and New Zealand soldiers had established an enduring military tradition. Several of the senior leaders of the force now in Greece, including Blamey, Mackay and Freyberg, had served at the
landing.39 In this April, twenty-six years later, Australian and New Zealand brigades were again fighting side by side on a battlefield in the Levant, and old memories were stirred. In the early morning of the 12th Blamey sent the following message to his divisional commanders:
As from 1800 hrs 12 Apr I Aust Corps will be designated ANZAC CORPS. In making this announcement the GOC ANZAC CORPS desires to say that the reunion of the Australian and New Zealand Divisions gives all ranks the greatest uplift. The task ahead though difficult is not nearly so desperate as that which our fathers faced in April twenty-six years ago. We go to it together with stout hearts and certainty of success.40
We now know that soon after Stumme’s 40 Corps had reached the Axios and also had gained contact with the Italians in Albania, Field Marshal List ordered it to wheel south by way of Monastir and Florina to Kozani and thus take in the rear the Greek and British force which was establishing itself on the line Katerini–Edessa–Florina, leaving the mopping-up of the scattered fragments of the southern Yugoslav army to Kleist’s Armoured Group. For this operation the 5th Armoured Division was detached from Kleist’s Group which was meeting little resistance in Yugoslavia, and added to Stumme’s corps, which thenceforward comprised the 5th and 9th Armoured Divisions, the 73rd Infantry Division, and the S.S. “Adolf Hitler” Division. On the 9th 40 Corps reached Monastir and on the 10th the “Adolf Hitler” crossed the frontier and occupied Florina. That day the German corps, advancing down the Florina Valley, made little progress along the muddy, cratered roads and it was repeatedly attacked by British bomber and fighter aircraft; farther east the 6th Mountain Division and a detachment of the 2nd Armoured crossed the Axios and advanced towards Edessa. At the outset the German Intelligence staff’s estimate of the British force awaiting them about Kozani and Katerini had included three or four divisions including the 6th and 7th Australian and the New Zealand, with part of the 2nd Armoured – in fact, the force that had been intended for Greece. It seems that their agents
in Egypt had served them well by informing them of the composition of the force allotted to Greece, but that their officials in Athens had failed to discover what formations had actually arrived.
The German commander believed that the Australian and New Zealand divisions were on a line approximately east-west from Katerini to Kozani, where, he believed, Corps headquarters were situated. The attack at Vevi was made chiefly by units of the “Adolf Hitler” (as Vasey learnt after two prisoners had been taken); there were also tanks of the 9th Armoured Division. A battalion group attacked at Vevi after dark on the 11th with only one company forward, but the attack was eventually stopped because it was decided that the artillery support was inadequate. The Germans deployed three “battle groups” for the attack on the 12th. On their left one group, including five companies with artillery, was to thrust to Kelli (on the front of the Dodecanese) and thence along the ridge to Petrais; the other group was to advance through Vevi and Kleidi and on to Kozani. A third group was later to advance to Xinon Neron round the British left rear. The group on the German left attacked at 4.20 p.m., reached Kelli at 6.15 and Petrais, where “60 Australians and Greeks were captured”, at 8.15. The group in the centre opened a preliminary attack on the dominating feature on the left of the 2/8th Australian Battalion at 10 a.m. (8.30 according to Australian records) and its main attack at 3 p.m., when the whole group advanced astride the road. According to List’s chief of staff, Major-General Greiffenberg, the German losses were “relatively high” – about forty men killed. The Germans claimed 480 “English” and 40 Greek prisoners. After this fight the “Adolf Hitler” wheeled west towards the Klisoura Pass and the 9th Armoured Division continued southward. A “fierce tank battle” at Ptolemais followed, in which the 33rd Armoured Regiment lost four tanks. After this the British force was believed by the Germans to have withdrawn that night behind the Aliakmon. At this stage the Germans were not seriously attacking in the Pisoderion Pass, where they had deployed only a battalion less two companies.
Meanwhile, Vietinghoff’s corps of the Second German Army had begun its advance on Belgrade through the bridgeheads held since the 6th by the 14th Armoured Division. On the 9th it crossed the Yugoslav–Austrian border on a front of about 100 miles; on the 10th the 14th Armoured attacked Zagreb. General Kuhn entered the town that evening with one battalion and was cheered by the people. The 14th Armoured Division was followed by the 8th, and both then advanced through Bares along the road south of the Drave to Vukovar and Mitrovica and on towards Belgrade; the 16th Division advanced via Nasice to Mitrovica. On the 12th, after a march that had been impeded less by Yugoslav fighting troops than by boggy roads and some demolished bridges, Belgrade was entered by troops of Vietinghoff’s corps from the west, of Reinhard’s from the north-east, and of Kleist’s group from the south. The degree of Yugoslav resistance can be gauged by the fact that in Reinhard’s corps only one officer was killed, and he by a civilian.