Chapter 4: The Olympus–Aliakmon Line
WHILE General Mackay’s force and the Central Macedonian Army were fighting rearguard actions and falling back in the Florina–Kozani Valley, the New Zealand and Australian formations on their right had also been withdrawing to the Aliakmon line, although under less heavy pressure. On the 10th the New Zealand Division had withdrawn to its positions on Mount Olympus leaving the divisional cavalry regiment (with armoured cars and Bren carriers) and a troop of field guns to fight a delaying action from the river back to the Olympus positions. On the afternoon of the 12th the flashing windscreens of a long convoy of German vehicles were seen some 10 miles beyond the river. Motor-cyclists approached the road bridge, which the New Zealanders had demolished, but were dispersed by Bren gun fire. Just before dusk thirty lorries appeared, but quickly withdrew when shells from the New Zealand field guns fell among them. At 9 a.m. on the 13th the enemy tried to cross the river near the road bridge, but from well-concealed positions the defending carriers and armoured cars fired on the German infantry to good effect, and the guns accurately shelled German mortars and vehicles beyond the river and infantry trying to cross the river in rubber boats. It was a fine artillery feat: the foremost New Zealanders were at the southern bank of the river, the Germans were only 100 yards away on the northern bank and the guns were firing from 10,000 yards to the rear.
Enemy tanks advanced and the forward cavalry squadron was heavily shelled by German guns. At 1.30 p.m. the whole delaying force was ordered to withdraw. (This was about two hours before the 1st Armoured Brigade began fighting its final rearguard action at Ptolemais.) The New Zealand cavalry spent the night behind a tank ditch some 10 miles south. At 6 a.m. on the 14th German infantry began to filter across this tank trap and there was a sharp exchange of fire. Then their tanks advanced to the ditch with a strong force of infantry. At 10 a.m. the rearguard was ordered to withdraw to Katerini, and by 4 p.m. it was inside the Olympus defences.
In the meantime the withdrawal of the 16th Brigade to the Servia position had been proceeding. Some donkeys had been collected from the Greek villagers to act as pack animals in the long march over the mountains.1 On the 9th engineers had cratered the pass. When the brigade received orders to march back to Mount Olympus the infantry destroyed much gear which had been brought forward by the trucks and was too
heavy for the donkeys to carry away.2 Tents were burned, reserve ammunition buried, some tools and spare Bren barrels were smashed and, in some companies, all greatcoats and all blankets but one a man were burnt. It snowed at Veria for twenty-four hours before the withdrawal began.
In accordance with Blamey’s order that one battalion be withdrawn without delay the 2/3rd had been moved back to the foot of the pass on the 11th and there took up a covering position near the junction of the main road and the track over which the brigade was to march south over the hills and across the Aliakmon River. Two companies of the 2/2nd and two of the 2/1st left their positions in the pass on the 11th, the remainder of the 2/1st and 2/2nd (which supplied the rear party) on the night of the 12th. The long march was to continue all that night and most of the following day – for the rearmost parties even longer. Carrying 100 rounds of ammunition and five days’ rations, greatcoats, blanket, groundsheet and haversack, and with donkeys carrying the heavy weapons, the main body of the 2/1st reached Leventes at 3 a.m. on the 13th and thence marched south along the track to the village of Avlianna where the leaders woke a villager to show the way to the pass leading over the mountains to the river. They reached the pass after trudging four miles in ankle-deep mud. Now nearly exhausted, they rested in the snow for five minutes in every fifteen, and when a man seemed likely to collapse his mates would distribute his gear among them and help him along. At 6 a.m. they were at the top of the pass and could see the Aliakmon 3,000 feet below and only four miles distant. At the river they were met by a party of seven sappers of the 2/1st Field Company under Lieutenant Cann and Corporal Smeal3 who ferried them across from 8 a.m. onwards in a punt guided by a wire rope and propelled by the force of the river. When they had climbed to the village of Velvendos, overlooking the river from the south, it was estimated that
they had marched 34 miles from their positions in the Veria Pass. The 2/2nd passed through the rearguard position at Leventes at 6 a.m. and had crossed the river by midday; at that time the 2/3rd began to move south. The tail of the column left Avlianna late in the afternoon and from the heights overlooking the Aliakmon Valley watched, as from a grandstand, German aircraft dive-bombing the Servia Pass. It was 10 p.m. on the 13th before the last platoon of the 2/3rd crossed the river and Corporal Smeal sank the punt and led the last men up to Velvendos. Two companies of the 2/1st Battalion covered the river as the 2/3rd crossed.
It had been a gruelling march even for men hardened by months of severe campaigning and they themselves were surprised that they had been able to endure it. In spite of fatigue, heavy going in mud and snow, and ice-covered slopes so steep that men and donkeys slipped and fell, no equipment had been lost and there were few stragglers – only sixteen were counted at Leventes after the first two battalions had passed. “An epic of endurance, physical and moral,” wrote one diarist with pardonable pride.
After General Mackay had left Brigadier Charrington and the 1st Armoured Brigade at the Sotir rearguard position on the morning of the 13th, he had driven south to take command of that sector of the new line occupied by the 16th, 4th and 19th Brigades.4 At 10 o’clock (the withdrawal from Sotir was then taking place) Mackay met Brigadier Rowell at the bridge on which the main road crossed the Aliakmon, told him that the 19th Brigade was worn out, and learnt from him that Blamey had already ordered a New Zealand battalion – the 26th – to cross the river to reinforce them. Mackay remained at the Aliakmon bridge until 3.20 p.m. (the attack on the rearguard at Ptolemais was then in progress), when he ordered Captain Heugh5 of the Australian engineers to blow the bridge, which was of three steel-trussed spans, and carried a concrete roadway across a gap of 450 feet. Lance-Corporal Buckingham6 of the 2/1st Field Company, assisted by sappers of the 580th British Army Troops Company, had placed charges for its demolition. Buckingham fired the charges and all three spans dropped into the river, which was wide and shallow at this crossing. Although the demolished bridge could not be used by vehicles, infantry could still clamber across. Soon after the explosion six British 3-ton trucks arrived on the north bank. Fortunately a pontoon bridge a few hundred yards downstream was still intact, and the trucks crossed it before the engineers sank the pontoons and set the superstructure drifting down the river.
In the Servia Pass, overlooking the bridge and the river, the 4th Brigade had been digging in for three days. On the heights three field
regiments were in position – the 6th New Zealand, 2/2nd and 2/3rd Australian – though the task of the two Australian regiments was to support the Australian brigade on the opposite side of the river. In the course of the day the 26th Battalion had moved to Rymnion, south of the Aliakmon on the left of the 4th Brigade. When it arrived there it had no indication of its role but at length Lieut-Colonel Page7 managed to contact Brigadier Vasey by an artillery telephone, and learnt that he must join the Australians north of the river.
The two weary and depleted battalions of the 19th Brigade had arrived in their new sector during the 13th. Trucks had carried them to the mountain village of Kerasia whence they marched into the hills while the vehicles returned to Kozani and across the river to Mikrovalton. The arrival of batches of stragglers had now increased the strength of the 2/8th to 308, not including about fifty men whose vehicles took the wrong turning at Kozani and who were now south of the river.
On the night of the 14th the 26th Battalion crossed the river by a ferry – a folding boat and a rope – and went into position on the Australian right facing north on a front of more than two miles. The boat could hold only three fully-equipped men, and one company was still on the south bank at daybreak and stayed there. The 2/4th Battalion was on the left facing east with one company on a 3,000-foot ridge on the
right and another on a 4,000-foot mountain on the left overlooking Kteni at the boundary between the British and Greek forces, though no Greek troops were seen in that village by the Australians.8 The depleted 2/8th was in reserve.
No bridge crossed the Aliakmon west of the main road, though the New Zealand ferry was kept in operation; but engineers had been ordered on the 13th to bridge the river on the 19th Brigade’s flank. In the meantime even to send orders to the 19th Brigade was difficult because Vasey’s wireless sets were not always effective; Captain Vial,9 one of Mackay’s Intelligence officers, delivered a signal to him by riding his motor-cycle to the river, swimming the stream, and finding a Greek to guide him through the hills to the Australian headquarters.
Thus by the 15th April, all Blamey’s corps was in position on the Olympus–Aliakmon line except the 16th Brigade, still moving into its sector on the right of the 4th.
The withdrawal to the Olympus–Aliakmon line placed the Greek Army temporarily in a salient with its eastern side lying along the mountain range to the west of the Florina–Kozani valley, its point in the area of the Pisoderion Pass, and its western side stretching thence, south and parallel to the Albanian frontier, to the Adriatic. Each side of this salient was about 75 miles in length. The eastern, soon to be attacked by the advancing German force, followed a tangled mountain range rising to 6,000 feet and pierced by the second-grade roads through the Siatista, Klisoura and Pisoderion Passes. In the upper Aliakmon Valley these lateral routes joined the road which travelled south through Kalabaka to Larisa and was now the only effective supply route for the Greek Western and Central Macedonian Armies. Before the German attack these armies had been maintained chiefly along the railway to Florina and the Larisa–Florina road, both now in German hands. Thus the Trikkala–Kastoria road (with its branch leading through the Metsovon Pass to Epirus) was now of capital importance to the Greek Army.
Thus far, orders had implied that a prolonged defence would be offered on the Aliakmon line with the Greek armies on the left in the passes west of the Florina Valley and along the Albanian frontier, and the order given by Papagos on the 12th, confirming the new line Wilson’s force was to hold, made the British forces responsible for aiding the Greeks with anti-tank weapons (which the Greeks lacked) in the Klisoura and Siatista Passes and the minor pass of Vlasti midway between them. The 6th Australian Division had to be relieved of this task, however, because of its heavy loss of anti-tank guns in the first engagement. Nevertheless, Wilson ordered Mackay to take responsibility for demolitions on the Klisoura road, and the Argos Orestikon–Grevena road10; and a troop of
the 102nd Anti-Tank Regiment was placed under the command of the 20th Greek Division at Klisoura.
Cooperation between allies presents a multitude of problems. Differences in equipment complicate supply. Each is likely to possess his own tactical doctrines. Dissimilarity of national temperament can produce major misunderstandings. It was to simplify such problems that the Allied leaders had agreed to impose on the ill-equipped 12th and 20th Greek Divisions the exhausting and hazardous march from the Vermion passes across the Florina–Kozani Valley to the western passes; by that means the Anzac Corps would have the best roads at its service as its more cumbersome – and more powerful – equipment demanded; and the Greeks with their pack animals and lighter weapons would be in the tangle of mountains on the left, supplied along a road incapable of carrying the trucks the Anzac troops possessed.
But of all obstacles that stand in the way of smooth cooperation between allies, the difficulty of achieving mutual understanding is perhaps the greatest, and the allocation of separate sectors, though it reduces the number of points at which this problem occurs, does not solve it. In the campaign in Greece full understanding was made especially difficult by the fact that few Greeks speak English and fewer Englishmen speak Greek. The unwieldy organisation of the British Command added another complication. In direct touch with the Greek leaders were five independent British commands or missions.
On the morning of the 13th Papagos informed the commanders of the armies of Western Macedonia and Epirus that they were finally to withdraw to the line along the Venetikos River (south of Grevena) and running thence through the Pindus and along the western part of the Albanian frontier to the coast at Lake Vutrinto. This would entail withdrawal from the deep salient in which they now lay to a line continuing the British line in an east-west direction. The British line, although perilously long for two divisions, was, in Blamey’s words, “an immensely strong natural position”; the new Greek line would be in extremely rugged country. Papagos’ orders stated that when the Western Macedonian Army had withdrawn into the upper Aliakmon Valley it would absorb the Central Macedonian and the combined force would continue the retirement along the axis of the Kastoria–Grevena road. The boundary between “W” Group and the Greek Army was to be a line more or less north-south through Deskati. Thus the 1st Armoured Brigade would have to side-step to the east to come into the British area. To reach the new line some Greek formations would have to march about 100 miles. It would be necessary for the Klisoura and Siatista Passes to be held for several days, and the Grevena road for several days more, if the retirement was to be carried out successfully.
In the course of the 13th, however, reports reached Wilson’s headquarters which he and his staff considered extremely disturbing. The road through Grevena, along which the 1st Armoured Brigade was withdrawing, was jammed with Greek troops plodding south. The 12th and
20th Greek Divisions were reported to have “disintegrated” on their way to the Siatista and Klisoura Passes, though the Cavalry Division was still well-established in the Pisoderion Pass farther north.
In his dispatch Wilson later wrote that “from the outset, in spite of every possible effort being made to avoid misunderstanding, the Greek Central Macedonian Army failed in every way to carry out its role in the withdrawal. ... It may be said, in fact, that the Greek 12th and 20th Divisions never regained control after their withdrawal from the Vermion positions, but continued to disintegrate into a disorganised rabble whose main object was to reach Athens.”
It seems likely that the conviction of the British leader and his staff that the Greek army east of the Pindus was broken derived partly from early impressions of the poor equipment of the Greek Army and largely from its appearance on the roads. The Greeks tramped along the sides of the roads in small groups, wearing dingy uniforms, and using an odd variety of means of transport such as donkeys, farm carts, and a few old motor vehicles. Particularly might reports of confusion and retreat have reached Wilson from observers at various headquarters, who, in a withdrawal (whether Greek or British) inevitably saw more of the service troops moving back than of the fighting men still at their forward posts.
Nevertheless, on the evidence arriving at his headquarters, Wilson saw a serious threat to his inland flank. If the Germans sped south along the Grevena road they might reach the Larisa bottleneck from that direction and cut his road to Athens. He decided to use his only reserve – the 17th Brigade, whose units were then disembarking at Piraeus – to guard this flank.
On the 13th, Brigadier Savige, commander of the 17th, arrived at Blamey’s headquarters for orders. He and his headquarters had reached Larisa on the 11th,11 but his three battalions and the 2/11th, the missing battalion of Vasey’s brigade, had disembarked at Piraeus only on the afternoon of the 12th and were still in Athens. When he arrived at Blamey’s headquarters Wilson was there. Savige was instructed to reconnoitre (a) the road leading from Larisa through Kalabaka as far west as the summit of the Pindus mountains about Metsovon – the road leading to the rear of the Epirus Army, and (b) the Kalabaka–Grevena road – along which the 1st Armoured Brigade and the Western Macedonian Army were then withdrawing. Savige immediately set off and, with his liaison officer, Lieutenant Lowen,12 drove from Larisa, through Kalabaka, without seeing any Greek troops. Thence they drove into the Pindus to a point above the snow-line whence they could see the Adriatic. When they returned to Kalabaka the town was crowded with Greek troops. Early on the 14th Savige was recalled to Blamey’s headquarters where a discussion took place in which Brigadier Galloway pressed Wilson’s request that the 17th Brigade should be sent promptly to Kalabaka. While these three were talking Rowell entered and said that information had arrived that the Germans had broken through the Greeks on the left. Thereupon Blamey ordered Savige to occupy a line covering Kalabaka. Savige recommended holding an area covering both the road to Grevena and the road through the Pindus and this was agreed to. His force was to include the 2/5th, 2/6th, 2/7th and 2/11th Battalions with artillery and other supporting arms. The 2/5th and 2/11th were expected to arrive at Larisa by rail at 9 a.m. that day.
A written order, not signed until that evening, gave Savige the task of holding the junction of the Pindus and Grevena roads and preparing to move north to support the armoured brigade, probably on the Venetikos River. His force was to consist initially of the four battalions mentioned above, seven cruiser tanks of the 3rd Royal Tank Regiment, two troops of the 64th Medium Regiment, a battery of New Zealand field artillery, a battery of Australian anti-tank artillery, a company of the 2/1st Machine Gun Battalion, the 2/2nd Field Company, and 2/2nd Field Ambulance. The dispatch rider who was to deliver Savige’s copy of this order was delayed and Savige did not see it until the morning of the 15th when Lieut-Colonel Garrett, allotted to him from Blamey’s staff as “Operations Staff Officer”, arrived at his headquarters.
Somewhat more encouraging reports had arrived at “W” Group headquarters early on the 14th. The Greek 12th, 20th and Cavalry Divisions were now reported to be in position on the left, and the Cavalry Division was not yet being heavily pressed. About noon, however, news came that German forces had captured the Klisoura Pass. This threatened the withdrawal of three divisions – the 9th, 10th and 13th – of the Western Macedonian Army.
The loss by the Greeks of the Klisoura Pass underlined the conviction already reached by Wilson and Blamey that the Greeks to the north were disintegrating; in addition German air attacks were now becoming more severe. Since the German attack opened the three squadrons of the Eastern Wing of the British air force had not only hampered the German advance but had been the most reliable source of information about the enemy’s movements. On the 6th the Hurricane squadron had attacked twenty Me-109’s over the Rupel Pass and claimed to have shot down five without loss to themselves; on the 7th congested columns of vehicles were bombed in Yugoslavia. Bad weather hampered flying from the 8th to the 12th, but on the 13th it was clearer, and German aircraft, now operating from strips hurriedly prepared at Prilep and Monastir, began dive-bombing the forward Greek and British troops. That day twenty-one dive bombers attacked the positions in the Servia Pass, and on the 14th groups of up to fourteen aircraft bombed and machine-gunned the forward positions and the roads leading to them.13
On the 13th Wilson had decided that the Greek Army could no longer be relied on, and, after conferring with Blamey that day, a decision to withdraw to the Thermopylae line was made.
German air activity [he wrote later] was now on the increase and becoming continuous and widespread; the bombing of a town put an end to all civil control and the functioning of police and telegraphs. The railways also were beginning to show the same symptoms. Our air force, which faced superior numbers valiantly, now began to feel the attrition of combat as well as losses on airfields, with the result that its effectiveness began to wane. ... Farther to the left reports of further disintegration of the Greek forces made me anxious about that flank, fearing that the Germans might thrust down each side of the Pindus on Grevena and Yannina without opposition. There were also reports that Greek troops from the Albanian front were unwilling to take up positions in the line we were now holding and were making for Athens. ... The increasing gravity of these reports caused me to consider a further withdrawal to a position which the British Imperial troops could hold without reliance on Allied support; this position was at Thermopylae, about 100 miles to the south.14
The new line would be astride the Thermopylae, Brallos and Delphi Passes and retirement to it would entail the loss of all Greece north of the Peloponnese except the peninsula, some 35 miles wide, between Lamia and Athens. It would also entail abandoning all prospect of further cooperation with the main body of the Greek Army, and would make it
possible for the enemy to base his fighter aircraft within range of Athens. It was decided to carry out the withdrawal as swiftly as possible. The British force, well-equipped with vehicles, could complete the manoeuvre in a few days, but it would take weeks for the Greek forces to march back so far. Indeed, Wilson’s written order in which the new decision was expressed said that “within the limits of responsibility, Anzac Corps will make every possible effort to ensure that Greek forces do not withdraw on routes available to Imperial forces, and that they do not in any way whatsoever hinder the withdrawal”.
It was a drastic decision. When it was made the Anzac Corps was not in serious contact with the enemy at any point, although considerable German forces could be seen massing on the lower ground forward of the three main passes held by the corps. In the mountains west of the Florina–Kozani valley the Greeks held two and had lost one of the three passes leading to the Grevena road along which their Central Macedonian Army was retiring. The withdrawal of that army and the Epirus Army had so far not been seriously molested by the Germans or Italians except that German aircraft were now constantly attacking the Greek and British troops on the muddy, winding Grevena road, and traffic congestion was becoming acute.
More powerful factors were present, however, than those revealed by examination of marks made with coloured pencils on the maps at British or Greek headquarters. Before the campaign began some of the British leaders had little confidence in its success and had begun to plan both withdrawal southward through Greece and an embarkation. Barely half the intended British force had arrived in Greece when the Germans attacked. The British and Anzac commanders lacked confidence in their opposite numbers in the Greek Army and had been appalled at the primitiveness of that army’s equipment. The German Army could afford to deploy ground and air forces of overwhelming strength in Greece. How long the Allied force could have stood on the Aliakmon and Venetikos might have remained forever a matter of speculation, had the line held until the withdrawal had been completed. In fact the line was broken – and not only on the Greek front. If the British withdrawal had begun a day later it would have been disastrous for the British force.
Wilson’s order for the retirement to Thermopylae was issued at 9.5 a.m. on the 15th. It handed the conduct of the withdrawal to the commander of the Anzac Corps; the advanced headquarters of “W” Group would be withdrawn south of Larisa. “Maximum demolitions in depth on roads and defiles ... within the time available in order to impose all possible delay on the enemy” were ordered. Four forces had been or were being placed in position to cover the withdrawal. These were the 1st Armoured Brigade (henceforth under Blamey’s command) round Grevena and Kalabaka, Savige Force round Kalabaka, one New Zealand brigade (it would be the 6th) round Tirnavos, and one brigade (the 19th) about Pharsala.
At 6 p.m. on the 15th, in obedience to General Wilson’s order given to him that morning, General Blamey had issued more detailed and comprehensive orders for the withdrawal he was to conduct. There were to be two phases. The first would begin on the 15th (only six hours of the 15th then remained). During the night the 6th New Zealand Brigade – the first rearguard – would move from its position in reserve in the Olympus Pass to a line covering the two roads between Tirnavos and Elasson, where it would be reinforced by the 2/3rd Australian Field Regiment. The 19th Australian Brigade, after withdrawal from north of the Aliakmon, would move in vehicles to Domokos, south of Pharsala, where it would join a force commanded by Brigadier Lee and including the 2/6th and 2/7th Battalions, a company of the 2/5th, the 2/1st Field Regiment (less a battery), which would form a second rearguard to cover the final withdrawal to the new line. This entailed removing the 2/6th, 2/7th and a company of the 2/5th from the force hitherto allotted to Savige. The 16th Brigade – the left flank guard – would begin to move on 15th April on foot to the main road and thence in vehicles to a position astride the Trikkala–Larisa road at Zarkos with a field regiment in support.
These first moves were designed to bring all troops of the 6th Australian Division behind the passes by 8 a.m. on the 16th, when the second phase would begin. In it Freyberg would become responsible for the front and for the withdrawal through the first rearguard of his 5th Brigade Group from the Olympus Pass and his 4th Brigade Group from Servia on the night of the 17th–18th, “subject to ability to disengage”; on the same night Savige Force was to withdraw through the left flank guard. “The rearguard of 6th New Zealand Brigade Group, the left flank guard of 16th Australian Brigade Group, and the troops holding the coast at pass east of Mount Olympus were to withdraw during the night 18th–19th April, 1st Armoured Brigade covering the final withdrawal across the flat, featureless plain of Thessaly on 19th April. From Larisa to the south, New Zealand Division was allotted the coast road via Volos to Lamia and 6th Australian Division and 1st Armoured Brigade the main road via Pharsala.
This was designed to bring New Zealand Division on the right of the Thermopylae position and 6th Australian Division on the left, in the Brallos Pass. All marching personnel were to be carried in motor transport.”15
In Athens planning had leapt even farther ahead, for Admiral Cunningham had been informed on 13th April by the naval attaché at Athens that the evacuation of Greece was imminent, and on the 15th that it would probably begin before many days. In Cairo on the 14th General Wavell’s joint planning staff completed an outline plan for the embarkation of the whole British force.
A few hours before Wilson’s order was signed the Germans gained virtually undisputed control of the air in the forward zone. On the 15th German squadrons made a dawn attack on the airfields in the Larisa area destroying ten Blenheims on the ground. Air Vice-Marshal D’Albiac, who was present when this major calamity occurred, ordered that what remained of the squadrons should withdraw to Athens forthwith. German aircraft then bombed Larisa intermittently throughout the day and heavily bombed Elasson, where Blamey’s headquarters were established. The severe loss of aircraft at Larisa and the withdrawal of what was left of the squadrons to Athens placed them too far away to be used in close support of the troops. The men on the ground had seen little of their own aircraft and knew nothing of the skill and daring with which they were being flown against a vastly superior enemy; henceforward few of them were to see a British machine, and German attacks were to become daily more intense.
What had been the condition of the main Greek armies during the 13th and 14th when this decision was made by the British commander? We have seen that on the 13th the Greeks were holding the Germans in the Pisoderion and Klisoura Passes. The withdrawal of the Western Macedonian Army to the Venetikos position proceeded without interference on the 13th and that of the Epirus Army began that night. About noon on the 14th, as mentioned above, the 20th Greek Division was driven from the Klisoura Pass. What remained of this division was ordered to block the Grevena road farther south. During that day and the following night the withdrawal of the 9th, 10th and 13th Greek Divisions of the Western Macedonian Army was not hindered. That day the 11th Division which had been ordered to the Metsovon Pass on the 10th occupied its positions there.
On the 14th the Germans began probing the positions held by the Anzac Corps in the Aliakmon line. It will be recalled that the New Zealand Division was now holding two passes on either side of Olympus – one the narrow coastal ledge along which a road and the railway travelled, at Platamon; and the other the wider Olympus Pass. A detachment of New Zealand engineers of the 19th Army Troops Company, equipped with some ammonal and gelignite, one naval depth-charge, some anti-tank
mines and a small quantity of other explosives, had the task of demolishing both tunnel and road at Platamon. Only two New Zealand field companies had arrived in Greece, and consequently the army troops company, equipped for work along the line of communication and not for the kind of demolitions that a field company is expected to carry out, had to take the place of the missing field company. Both demolitions were blown on the 14th and both proved unsatisfactory. The bricks lining the tunnel were blown out, but little damage was done to the rock above. The engineers, lacking the pneumatic drills that a field company would have possessed, tried with pickaxes to chip holes for a further charge, but the rock was hard and the second demolition, although more successful, was considered likely to impose a delay of only from four to six hours, if the enemy was left to work without interference.16 An anti-tank minefield was put down covering the road over the saddle.
Farther left the 5th New Zealand Brigade was deployed in the Olympus Pass (through which travelled the Katerini–Elasson road), with the 23rd Battalion on the right, the 22nd in the centre, and the 28th (Maori) on the left with its left at Skoteina. The 5th Field Regiment and an anti-tank battery were in support. On the 14th, companies of the 24th Battalion were moving into the hills on the left of the Maoris as a first stage of the intended move of the 6th Brigade to a position on the left of the 5th. Some German vehicles were seen in front of the 22nd Battalion about 5 p.m. on the 14th, but by the time the guns obtained leave to fire they had gone. Throughout the night the New Zealanders saw and heard enemy vehicles with their headlights blazing, bringing troops forward. About 11 p.m. a party of motorcyclists rode boldly up the pass, but when machine-gun fire was directed at them some made off; next morning five motor-cycles were lying by the roadway. During the 15th German tanks and vehicles cautiously advanced, evidently trying to find covered ways of approach and to move round the demolitions. They were fired on by the defending artillery, and about 4.30 p.m. German guns began to reply. No real attack developed during the day.
This narrative left the 16th Australian Brigade (which was to fill the gap between the 6th and 4th New Zealand) when, late at night on the 13th, the tail of the brigade crossed the Aliakmon. During the night the leading half of the 2/2nd moved on to Moskhokori; next day the remainder joined it and by midnight the battalion had taken up its position beyond that village. In the morning of the 14th the 2/1st moved through Velvendos to the foot of the mountains and rested there. The 2/3rd remained in the Velvendos area.
That night, when the moon rose at 10.15, the 2/1st climbed to Moskhokori followed by the 2/3rd. There at dawn on the 15th the 2/1st was met by officers from Allen’s headquarters with the orders that it should climb five or six miles to its position on the right of the brigade’s front. At 6 that morning Corporal Smeal and another sapper who had spent the night at Velvendos with an exhausted infantryman were told by Greek villagers that the Germans had forded the river behind them; the Australians – the last men in the long column – set off with two donkeys, one carrying the sick man and the other their gear. The 2/3rd reached Moskhokori that morning. The weary men were now short of food having lived since the 12th on what they had been able to carry away from Veria Pass. “We stood down at 7 (on the morning of the 15th) and looked hungrily at our rations, debating within ourselves what we could afford to have for breakfast,” wrote a sergeant of the 2/2nd in his diary. “I eventually decided on ‘mush’ and with snow boiled my last packet of biscuits. It was unpleasant – mush without milk or sugar – and one felt as though he was doing a dog out of a good meal.”17
About 9 a.m. on the 15th the 2/1st reached their new position. It was about 5,500 feet above sea level and seamed with precipitous ravines. The slopes here were two feet deep in snow; they prepared to meet German mountain troops, for only mountain troops were likely to use the mule paths that led into that remote area. They found no sign of New Zealanders on their right (the New Zealanders were six miles to the north-east through rugged mountains). The Australians had been climbing with little rest since the night of the 12th, and had only a greatcoat and one blanket each in which to sleep. The 2/2nd completed its occupation of Hill 1628 south-east of Moskhokori on the 15th; the 2/3rd was in reserve south of the village.
It was difficult to convey the new orders for the withdrawal to Thermopylae to the battalions of the 16th Brigade. There was not enough telephone wire to link them with Allen’s headquarters and they could be reached only along bridle paths winding across the slopes of Olympus. Lieutenant Swinton18 of Allen’s staff rode a pony to the 2/2nd, which was to come out first, bearing an order to hand over to the 2/3rd and march out to the southern end of the pass. He reached Chilton at 8 p.m. on the 15th. It was a long and difficult job concentrating companies widely-
dispersed in rugged country on a dark night, but by 2 a.m. on the 16th the battalion had concentrated and was marching out. The 2/1st Battalion was in country so difficult and snow-bound that the brigade liaison officer could not even find it. On the morning of the 16th, however, the commanding officer, Lieut-Colonel Campbell and his pioneer lieutenant, Fairbairn,19 found a track back over the mountains and so learnt that the battalion should have withdrawn the previous night.
Meanwhile, farther left, an attack on the troops defending the Servia Pass had begun. From Kastania to Prosilion the position allotted to Puttick’s 4th Brigade lay along steep slopes behind a still steeper escarpment below which the ground sloped more gradually to the river from two to four miles away and about 2,000 feet below. At Prosilion in the centre of the position the main road climbed through a gap in the escarpment about 500 yards wide. On the south of the gap – the New Zealanders’ side – the main road climbed south-east through a winding valley, and a tributary road travelled south-west and parallel to the river and the escarpment. The battalions had been digging in since dawn on the 11th. The 18th New Zealand Battalion (Lieut-Colonel Gray20) was in position north of Lava from a steep ridge north of Kastania on the right to Hill 882 at the top of the escarpment south-west of Servia; the 19th was on a four-mile front astride the pass. The 19th and 20th Battalions each had two platoons of the 2/1st Machine Gun Battalion under command, one of those with the 19th being forward with the infantry posts in the pass itself. By 15th April the 6th New Zealand Field Regiment, one battery of the 7th (British) Medium Regiment and one troop of the 64th (British) Medium Regiment were in support of the New Zealand brigade.
During the afternoon of the 14th artillery observers on these slopes above the Aliakmon, looking down from about 2,000 feet to the river and the country beyond it, watched columns of German vehicles moving south. On the 13th and 14th when squadrons of German fighters and dive bombers, flying low, had attacked the positions in the pass, the only anti-aircraft guns there were four new Skoda weapons of a Yugoslav battery and four Greek guns which had arrived from the north unannounced and taken up positions near the main road. It was still a new and disturbing experience for New Zealand troops to watch the dive bombers approaching in formation, peeling off one by one, diving to about 1,000 feet to release their bombs and steeply climbing again. The Stukas sought out and attacked the gun positions, and dropped bombs along the road in an effort to crater it. Many of them had a screaming device fitted to them to make them more noisy and unpleasant for the troops below. Clearly this onslaught from the air was a prelude to a concerted attack by the German force then moving steadily forward from Kozani. At 2 o’clock on the 14th the head of the German column was seen at Petrana,
six miles north of the river. At dusk German guns sent ranging shots across the river, and just before midnight began steadily shelling the Anzac positions; but from 8 o’clock onwards the lights of columns of German vehicles were seen moving from Kozani not south but west into the hills towards Grevena whither the armoured brigade had withdrawn.
On the night of the 14th Brigadier Puttick moved the 20th Battalion to the left flank above Rymnion to link with the 19th Australian Brigade north of the Aliakmon. Thus the front held by his three battalions was increased to 15,700 yards, though of that distance 9,500 were along an escarpment so steep as to be almost unscaleable and watched only by patrols.
Before dawn on the 15th – the day after General Wilson had ordered the retirement from the Aliakmon line – the men in the forward posts of the 19th New Zealand Battalion saw a party of Germans straggling along the road like Greeks, for whom they were at first mistaken. Some of them had passed the sections guarding the road before they were recognised and dispersed by fire from infantry and Lieutenant Sampson’s21 platoon of the 2/1st Machine Gun Battalion forward in the pass. An attack at midday and another at 5.45 p.m. were easily repulsed. Germans ran for cover in the small bushes growing on the hillside but after machine-gunners and riflemen had lashed the area with fire they began to emerge waving white handkerchiefs. The New Zealanders sent forward patrols which rounded up 147 unwounded officers and men and from 30 to 40 wounded Austrian infantrymen of the 9th Armoured Division. The enemy’s total losses were estimated at about 400, though the New Zealanders suffered only eight casualties.22 Such losses were not surprising in a frontal attack launched without the help of air or artillery bombardment against posts well-sited and securely dug in and commanding a clear view of the slopes up which the attackers must advance. .
In spite of their set-backs the Germans continued to press the attack. Parties of enemy infantry assembled in strength in Servia, where the buildings gave cover; the village was kept under constant artillery, mortar and small arms fire. In the course of the night Sampson reported that his position forward in the pass was practically surrounded and enemy infantry was under the scarp where his guns could not reach them. Under cover of darkness he withdrew to a new position higher up the slope. Two platoons of the 19th Battalion made a counter-attack here and drove out a patrol of about forty Germans who had established themselves on the slopes below Prosilion village.
Early in the afternoon of the 15th and before his comprehensive order for the withdrawal was completed Blamey had instructed Mackay that, as a first step, he must move the 19th Brigade back across the Aliakmon
that day. Only a few hours of daylight remained, the river was not yet bridged and wireless communication with Vasey was unreliable. The 26th New Zealand Battalion had crossed the Aliakmon by means of a ferry contrived with folding boats travelling along a rope, but the building of a bridge presented greater difficulties. When, at the order of Colonel Lucas,23 Captain Reddy24 had reconnoitred the site on the 13th, he had had to walk six miles to reach the New Zealand ferry, and there found a swollen torrent 140 feet wide, flowing at eight to ten knots and about 10 feet deep in midstream. The shortest way out was straight up the side of the hill which rose 1,200 feet in two miles and a quarter. Next day Lieutenant Chester25 and a section of the 2/1st Field Company were sent forward to build a timber trestle bridge. The men carried picks, shovels, and other hand tools, spikes and rope; a second section (under Sergeant West26) was ordered to make a road to the bridge. These teams reached the river after dark on the 14th and began work at dawn next day. They laboured all day, helped in the afternoon by New Zealanders of the 26th Battalion and two sections of a company of British engineers, but were still cutting timber for the bridge when at 2 p.m. an order arrived that it must be ready for the 19th Brigade to cross at 9 p.m. At 10 p.m. the bridge was finished and decked with slats six inches apart – a notable achievement by a small body of sappers equipped only with such tools as they could carry to the river along rough tracks. By the time the final gap of 45 feet was being spanned the leading companies of the 19th Brigade were assembling in the darkness on the opposite bank.
The order to withdraw had not reached Vasey until 5 p.m., although he had received a warning at 1 o’clock. Again, as at Vevi, the 2/4th Battalion was so widely spread that it had not enough telephone wire to reach its outlying company (Captain McCarty). When the order to withdraw arrived Lieut-Colonel Dougherty and his Intelligence sergeant, Falla,27 had just returned from a visit to that company. Falla immediately returned to the company with the new orders and came out with it – a fine feat of endurance. The fifteen Bren carriers of the two battalions and the ten trucks28 and guns of the anti-tank battery were driven down to the river blazing a trail for the infantry with their commander, Lieutenant Maddern,29 leading the way with a hand torch; but when they arrived they found that the bridge could not carry vehicles. An attempt was made to raft a carrier across but the raft was overturned and swept away by the
current. Consequently the crews smashed the engines of their vehicles with hammers and grenades, the gunners threw breech-blocks into the river, and guns and vehicles were abandoned. However, the company of the 2/1st Machine Gun Battalion carried all twelve of their guns back across the river. The 2/8th and the 2/4th (without McCarty’s company) had crossed the bridge by 1 a.m. and, carrying some wounded men on improvised stretchers, began climbing a goat track leading up the steep escarpment to the Mikrovalton road. The 26th New Zealand Battalion formed the rearguard, and remained in position until the 2/4th and 2/8th had crossed. Chester and the New Zealand sergeant in charge of the ferry remained at the bridge and ferry until daylight, awaiting McCarty’s missing company, but it did not arrive.
A guide posted at the junction of the track leading to the river seems to have left his post and McCarty’s company missed the track. After an arduous night march it reached the river at daylight at a point some miles east of the bridge where the river was 300 yards wide. Some men tried to wade across but after 200 yards the water was too deep Finally Lieutenant Hyles30 found in the stream a little boat which would carry seven men at a time, swam out and fetched it, and the company, reduced by its losses at Vevi to sixty men, was ferried laboriously over, Hyles and Lieutenant Millar31 rowing. By the time each return journey was over the boat had drifted 150 yards downstream and had to be hauled upstream again. When the men began scaling the escarpment they were so weary that they climbed for five minutes and then rested for ten, during which nearly all of them fell asleep. Eventually they reached the 2/3rd Field Regiment, learnt that their vehicles were gone, and remained with the gunners, who were under orders to withdraw and could find room for these weary infantrymen on their trucks.
The Germans were then pressing hard against the Greeks in the passes north of the Aliakmon. On the evening of the 14th when the British anti-tank battery supporting the Greeks at the Siatista Pass withdrew on Brigadier Charrington’s orders, the Germans were within 200 yards of the guns, and the Greek infantry were dribbling back. The armoured brigade in the Grevena Pass now lay astride the route of the German flanking move. That night Brigadier Charrington began to move back from the Aliakmon to the Venetikos; so congested was the traffic, which included Yugoslav and Greek trucks, and so rough and narrow the road that it was evening on the 15th before the move was completed. Colonel Waller of the 102nd Anti-Tank Regiment, described the road as being
packed with Greeks, Yugoslavs and British, military and civilians, motor, horse and ox transport, all intermingled, head to tail, and two lines deep wherever the road permitted it. An awful sight, made more dreadful by certainty that the
arrival of the Luftwaffe would not be long delayed .... It was a clear, bright, sunny day and from about 0700 dive-bombing and machine-gunning attacks were continuous along the whole length of the road. It seemed that aircraft succeeded aircraft almost without a pause – yet we struggled forward and our loss was surprisingly slight. ... By tremendous efforts we at last reached the river about 1700 hours – 12 miles in 16 hours!32
On the 14th and 15th the 3rd Royal Tanks had to abandon seven tanks which broke down beyond repair and thus the regiment was reduced to only six out of their original fifty-two, but the brigade was still strong in artillery, the fine 2nd Royal Horse Artillery being “as good as ever” and the 102nd Anti-Tank having lost only six guns. Charrington, however, was perturbed by a report that the Central Macedonian Army was incapable of further effective resistance. He felt that his brigade was no longer able to act as an aggressive fighting formation, that further withdrawal would prove difficult because of the condition of the roads, the congestion and dive-bombing, and that both the brigade’s flanks were in the air. Not all of these fears were justified. A patrol of the 4th Hussars, who formed the rearguard, went forward in the evening and discovered that the Germans had not yet crossed the Aliakmon nor were they in Grevena. On 14th April General Wilson visited the 1st Armoured Brigade and ordered it back to Kalabaka.
Meanwhile Savige Force was assembling, though in less strength than had originally been intended. By the night of the 14th seven cruiser tanks of the headquarters squadron of the 1st Armoured Brigade (under Captain Dale33), the 2/5th Battalion (less a company) and 2/11th Battalion,34 a battery of the 2/1st Australian Anti-Tank Regiment and a company of the 2/1st Machine Gun Battalion had reached Savige at Kalabaka. Next day artillery and other detachments moved in, but at 4 p.m. General Wilson arrived and informed Brigadier Savige that the 2/6th and 2/7th Battalions and the missing company of the 2/5th would not join him but would be needed to augment a new rearguard at Domokos.35 This was a consequence of the decision to withdraw to Thermopylae, but Savige had not yet received his copy of the Corps order of 6 p.m. on the 15th placing these battalions under Brigadier Lee’s command at Domokos.
The main point of contact between the British and Greek forces was now in the Grevena–Kalabaka area. When Wilson saw Savige on the afternoon of the 15th he told him that about 3,000 Greek soldiers conveyed in trucks provided by “W” Group would be deposited in his area that night and on the following two or three nights. The first 3,000 arrived that evening and, Savige wrote later, “cluttered my forward area
and added weight to the stream of refugee troops, mule trains and mule carts passing through from Grevena to Trikkala”. So far as Savige’s staff could discover the Greek troops had been ordered to vacate their positions, leave their weapons and make for Trikkala where they believed they would be refitted and rearmed. At Trikkala, however, no arms or clothing to re-equip these men could be found, but only dumps containing chiefly petrol, ammunition, and British rations.
In the evening Savige met Lieut-Colonel Barter,36 leader of a British liaison team attached to the staff of General Tsolakoglou, commanding the Western Macedonian Army, and told him that he was anxious to clear his forward defended localities of Greek troops. “I was informed by Barter,” wrote Savige afterwards, “that Tsolakoglou was a member of a rich and influential Greek family, who, when a captain, had deserted his company in action during the Balkan War in 1912, but this particular act had no adverse effects upon his subsequent career because of his powerful family connections. Barter ... held out little hope that Tsolakoglou would cooperate with me in clearing his troops from my FDLs,37 and did not provide any hope that he would fight if the Germans advanced upon us.” However, Barter, who spoke Greek fluently, arranged an interview between the two commanders for 9 a.m. next day – the 16th.
The events of the morning of the 16th impressed themselves on Savige’s memory and later he wrote an account of them.38
General Tsolakoglou was quartered in a two storey stone house in the village some mile and a half north of Kalabaka. The house faced the village square in which there were numerous splendidly-uniformed Greek officers, mainly in small groups, without apparently anything to do. Barter led the way and Garrett accompanied me. We climbed a rickety staircase to the first floor and into a room where Barter introduced Garrett and me to the general. He was a man in his middle fifties, some six foot two inches tall, of splendid physique, and handsome. From memory, he wore a dark uniform and either top boots or leggings, which added to his vigorous personality. A strong odour of perfume filled the room.
On us entering the room the general was partly sitting on a bare table with one foot on the floor. He was holding an egg cup in his hand from which he was scooping out the contents of an egg with a spoon. He rose as he received us, and immediately resumed his position and occupation of devouring eggs.
With Barter interpreting, I expressed my concern at the large number of his unarmed troops cluttering my FDLs, crowding Kalabaka, and choking the roads. With a wave of his spoon he said “Machine-gun them. They are all deserters.” With a smile, I informed him I was a British officer and we did not act as he advised. I pressed my point and requested his assistance by dispatching a number of his officers to organise his troops and march them to some area outside the area in question, where I expected to fight the Germans in the very near future. I further requested that his officers meet incoming convoys, provided by the British Command, to debus his troops and march them to pre-selected areas outside those areas held by my troops. He airily agreed to do so.
We then listened to Barter’s interpretation of the general’s repeated evaluation of himself. He by words and stance, drove home the fact that he commanded the
“Armies of Macedonia”. We listened with attention, and with appropriate dignified fervour, praised him, his troops and the Greek nation. I gathered he was assembling his “Armies of Macedonia” in positions in the Pindus Mountains. I informed him I had made a recce to the summit and that I then had a section of engineers, protected by some infantry, engaged in assisting Greek engineers to place demolitions in the road tunnel. He at once demanded their withdrawal on the grounds that this area was within his command. I pleaded that operational necessity prevented this until his troops were in occupation of the area. His vigorous insistence on the withdrawing of my parties, in addition to his generally unhelpful attitude, raised a feeling in my mind that he did not intend to fight. I expressed this to Barter and Garrett who, while not disagreeing with my view, expressed the opinion that I could not press the question further. I knew I couldn’t, so I reluctantly agreed to withdraw them. I felt that the general was double-crossing.
Finally, I reverted to the question of his removal of his troops from my defended localities because of an expected imminent attack on me by the Germans. He asked when I expected the attack. With my tongue in my cheek, and in order to get immediate action, I said “Late this afternoon or early tomorrow morning.” He looked at me and said “So soon.” I said “Yes.” He then promised to issue orders to clear his troops immediately and we agreed to meet again at 2 p.m., at his H.Q., for further discussion about cooperation.
On reaching the main Kalabaka–Pindus Road, I drove to the bridge, which was covered by 2/5 Bn, to meet Lieut-Colonel R. King, from whom I had received a report (as I left to keep the appointment with Tsolakoglou) that trouble was developing with Greek troops in that area. I found King grappling with the problem of moving Greek troops, coming along the road from Grevena, westwards across the bridge; and preventing Greek troops, moving down from the Pindus Mountains, crossing the bridge eastwards towards Kalabaka. Our troops, with fixed bayonets, were holding angry Greek soldiers at each end of the bridge, and literally forcing them to move into, or back into the mountains.
King and I then moved to the bank of a low cutting near the road junction, a short distance east of the bridge. We were there only a few minutes, and it was within half an hour of my departure from Tsolakoglou’s H.Q., when a convoy of magnificent cars and charabancs, filled with Greek officers, drove past to cross the bridge. In the second or third car was General Tsolakoglou, who leant out the window and waved farewell to me with a broad smile on his face.
On the 15th about 6 p.m. the head of the German column advancing through Klisoura had reached the Kastoria–Grevena road at Argos Orestikon cutting off the Greek Cavalry Division and the 9th, 10th and 13th Divisions – the main body of Tsolakoglou’s army, which began to withdraw westwards along the tracks leading into the Pindus mountains. What remained of the 12th and 20th Greek Divisions this day withdrew west across the Aliakmon to Neapolis and Grevena.
Thus when Savige saw Tsolakoglou next morning Tsolakoglou’s army had been reduced to the remnants of two weak divisions round Grevena and a stream of apparently leaderless men trudging south through Savige Force towards Kalabaka and Larisa. The devious Tsolakoglou himself (whose army had now been re-named the III Corps and placed under the command of General Pitsikas, leader of the Epirus Army) had driven west evidently towards Pitsikas’ headquarters.
When General Wilson reached his headquarters at Soumpasi after dark on the 15th he found a message from General Papagos asking him to meet him at Lamia at 6 o’clock next morning. Although he left Soumpasi at
1 a.m. to keep this appointment only 50 miles away, the roads were so congested and an air raid caused so prolonged a traffic jam in the streets of Pharsala, that it was 10 a.m. before he reached Lamia. There Papagos described the situation of the Greek Army – the Klisoura Pass had been lost and the Western Macedonian divisions “had taken to the mountains and were likely to turn up at Metsovon or Kalabaka but not for several days”.39 Wilson informed Papagos of the decision to withdraw to Thermopylae and Papagos expressed approval. Papagos appears not to have been aware that the withdrawal was then in progress.40
Although on 13th April the greater part of the “Adolf Hitler” Division was sent west into the Klisoura Pass, Stumme’s main effort was first towards the Servia Pass. It was intended in due course to make a flanking movement through Grevena and turn the Aliakmon sector from the west. The 9th Armoured Division advanced through Kozani and patrols crossed the Aliakmon on the 14th. The German staff then believed that on the 14th the 6th and 7th Australian and New Zealand Divisions and part of the 2nd British Armoured Division had begun a “full retreat” from the Olympus–Aliakmon position, and that there were “withdrawal moves” on the eastern flank of the Greek front. The attack at Servia was made chiefly by the 11th Infantry Regiment and the German losses were 36 killed, 72 wounded and 190 missing.
It was the “Adolf Hitler” which reached the Kastoria–Grevena road on the 15th, thus cutting the communications of the Greek army retreating from eastern Albania
The German leaders then moved up the 73rd Division “to protect the flank of 40 Corps facing the Greek front”. They did not consider that front to have “disintegrated”. Indeed on the 15th the evening report of the Twelfth Army said: “The Greeks are offering stubborn resistance west of Florina and at Kastoria.” (But, at that time, their commander, Tsolakoglou, and his staff, had abandoned them.)
Boehme’s mountain corps (the one which had occupied Salonika on the 9th) had at first been ordered to attack the Edessa Pass with one mountain division (the 6th) and the Veria with the 5th Mountain Division and 2nd Armoured Division. However, Stumme’s advance to Kozani and the British-Greek withdrawal from Edessa and Veria made that operation unnecessary, and Boehme was ordered to pursue the enemy southwards. The 6th Mountain Division advanced across the Aliakmon from Veria and began climbing the northern slopes of Olympus on the 14th close on the heels of the 16th Australian Brigade, while the 2nd Armoured Division advanced towards Larisa both through the Olympus Pass and on the route between Olympus and the sea – that is to say against the weak eastern flank of the New Zealand line where only the 21st Battalion was in position.
Meanwhile in Yugoslavia – and here our account of the operations in Yugoslavia so far as they concern the campaign in Greece can be completed – the German Army was in effective possession of the country lying north and west of a line through Zagreb, Belgrade, Nish and Skoplje by the 13th April. The Italians had advanced to Ljubljana. The Croats, who had welcomed the Germans in Zagreb, declared that there would be no real resistance in Croatia, Dalmatia or Bosnia. What effective Yugoslav forces remained had withdrawn into the vast tangle of mountains to the west. In fact, three German columns aggregating three armoured, two mountain and six infantry divisions had occupied the northern plain of Yugoslavia without a fight; the more difficult task remained of mopping up the forces in the western mountains, and in fact, it was never done; but the fighting in Yugoslavia could now have no influence on operations in Greece. Troops of Reinhard’s corps occupied Sarajevo, having travelled part of the way by rail. On the 15th the Yugoslav commander asked for an armistice. The Germans demanded an unconditional surrender, and obtained signatures on the 17th to a capitulation under which the Yugoslav leaders agreed to surrender all war material.
The German superiority in men and tanks was now immense. Field Marshal List had three corps, including three armoured divisions (2nd, 5th and 9th), two mountain divisions, and five of infantry. In reserve he had two infantry divisions. To the north, Field Marshal von Weichs’ army, now fourteen divisions, including three armoured (8th, 11th and 14th), had completed its main task and, if necessary, could spare most of its formations to reinforce List. East of the Pindus watershed List’s army faced six shattered Greek divisions, and the two divisions of the Anzac Corps.