Chapter 8: The Germans Invade Greece
Hitler Prepares His Plans
IN November 1940 Hitler had told Mussolini that without safeguards from Yugoslavia no successful operation was possible in the Balkans. Months had therefore been spent trying to persuade her to join the Tripartite Alliance. Although Yugoslavia declined his ‘invitations’, Hitler remained confident that he could control the situation. On 13 December he issued his directions for the occupation of northern Greece; on 22 March 1941, as a result of British support to Greece, he had to order the occupation of the whole country. And, as a reward for his persistence, Yugoslavia, on 25 March, adhered to the Tripartite Pact.
The overthrow of the Yugoslav Government by a military coup d’état on 27 March was therefore a threat to German security in the Balkans. Mr. Churchill had visions1 of a Balkan front and General Papagos suggested2 that the British should move forward from the Aliakmon to the Metaxas line.
To Hitler it was a complete surprise: ‘The Yugoslav coup came suddenly out of the blue. When the news was brought to me on the morning of the 27th I thought it was a joke.’3 Well aware that the British position was now stronger he acted swiftly, determined that there should be no threats to his flank and rear when he attacked either Greece or Russia. The German High Command was hurriedly assembled and told that Yugoslavia must be destroyed ‘militarily and as a national unit.’4 She had to be attacked with such ‘unmerciful harshness’ and such ‘lightning-like’ speed that Turkey would remain inactive and the way be cleared in the southern provinces for an additional thrust into Greece which, like Yugoslavia, had to be overwhelmed in the shortest possible time.
To bring this about he decided to use ten more divisions in the Balkan campaign, bringing the total up to twenty-eight, of which twenty-four had already been detailed for service in Russia. Among them there were, however, seven of his nineteen panzer divisions and three of his twelve motorised divisions, all essential if his
generals were to employ on the plains of Russia the principles of mechanised warfare. If they were used in Greece it would be impossible because of the limited railway system of the Balkans to transfer these divisions to the Russian front in less than two months. He had therefore to tell his Commanders-in-Chief that, ‘The beginning of Operation Barbarossa will have to be postponed up to four weeks as a result of the Balkan operations.’5
That night, 27–28 March, the orders for the campaign in Yugoslavia were drawn up and changes made in the plans for the attack upon Greece. On 6 April both Greece and Yugoslavia would be attacked. In the north-west the Italian Second Army could at least cover the border of Italy and Yugoslavia. Second Army (Field Marshal Weichs) would strike south from Austria into Yugoslavia. The Hungarians would move in to occupy the Banat, their ‘lost province’ to the north-west of Belgrade.
Twelfth Army6 (Field Marshal List), which was now assembled in Rumania and Bulgaria, would attack both Greece and Yugoslavia. Thirtieth Corps7 would deal with the Greek divisions in eastern Macedonia. Eighteenth Corps8 would attack the Metaxas line, one force clearing the Rupel Pass and another entering Yugoslavia by the Strumitsa Pass and then turning swiftly south past Lake Doiran. They would then cross the Macedonian Plain, taking Salonika and threatening the Aliakmon line.
The other three formations of 12 Army would strike westwards into Yugoslavia. The capital, Belgrade, was the objective for two of them: XXXI Corps,9 which would move south-west from Temesvar in Rumania, and Panzer Group 1,10 which would strike north-west along the main highway from Sofia. The third and most southern was XXXX Corps,11 whose orders were to move in two columns to Skoplje and Veles in the Vardar valley, thereby cutting the main line of communications between Salonika and Belgrade. Their next task was to thrust westwards until they had linked up with the Italians at the northern end of Lake Ochrida. They would then have prevented any attack by the Yugoslavs upon the Italian flank and prevented that concerted action by the Allies which Eden and Dill had, so patiently, been attempting to arrange. Moreover, it would also be possible for Field Marshal List to switch some divisions south through Monastir towards Amindaion, Kozani and Larisa. This thrust to the rear of the
Aliakmon line by XXXX Corps and that across the Macedonian Plain by XVIII Corps were those which were most directly to concern the New Zealand Division.
The Invasion of Greece and Yugoslavia, 6–8 April
At first light on 6 April the German armies invaded Greece and Yugoslavia and the Luftwaffe began an intensive bombardment of Belgrade. In the north 2 Army had one corps in Zagreb, the capital of Croatia, on the 11th and another outside Belgrade on the 12th, when it was occupied by Panzer Group 1, which had been sent north through Nish and down the Morava valley from 12 Army in Bulgaria. On the Adriatic side, 2 Italian Army coming through the Julian Alps paraded down the coast to join the force already in Albania.
The efforts of 12 Army in northern Greece were equally spectacular. Thirtieth Corps after some bitter fighting broke through the eastern end of the Metaxas line and then divided, 50 Division turning west towards Salonika and 164 Division turning eastwards to Alexandroupolis and Kavalla, from where in fishing craft, a German steamer and two Italian destroyers its units occupied the islands of Samothrace, Thasos, Lemnos, Mytilene and Chios.
The central sector of the Metaxas line was assaulted by XVIII Corps. In the Rupel Pass, where the Strimon River comes through the mountains, the Greeks held out valiantly for several days, but 2 Panzer Division turned the line by making a wide circling movement westwards through the Strumitsa Pass into Yugoslavia and thence southwards down the Vardar (Axios) valley into Macedonia. The move was a complete success for by 9 April the armoured units were racing through the almost undefended country and preparing to take over the port of Salonika.
In the north-west XXXX Corps had sent two groups into Yugoslavia. The first, 9 Panzer Division and the SS ‘Adolf Hitler’ Division, went through the pass at Kriva Palanka and in the evening of 7 April were at Skoplje, some 60 miles beyond the border. The second, 73 Division, had crossed the border farther south by way of the pass at Carevo-Selo and was at Veles, another town in the upper Vardar valley. Next day, 8 April, the group to the north occupied important centres about Skoplje; the other, swinging south and maintaining the attack, sent its motorised advanced guard into the key town of Prilep. From here the force could turn west again to link up with the Italians or, more important still, it could continue on its southern course towards the Monastir Gap, thereby threatening to encircle the Greeks in Albania and W Force in the Florina–Edhessa–Katerini area.
General Wilson’s Defence Plans on 6 April
The rapidity of the German advance gave General Wilson only four days, 6–9 April, to adjust his defences. Moreover, it was difficult for him to make the swift decisions which the situation demanded. He had always to consider the wishes of General Papagos and, until the worst was known, to allow for the stubborn resistance which the Yugoslavs were confidently expected to provide. Consequently, when General Blamey sent his senior staff officer to press for ‘an immediate withdrawal of the New Zealand division to the passes’ in accordance with the agreement12 reached in Athens twelve days before, Wilson was not prepared, at least on the first day, to make such an important decision. Until more was known of the fighting along the border, W Force would work according to the original plans.
In the Veroia Pass sector the replacement of 12 Greek Division by 16 Australian Brigade would probably take place on the night of 7–8 April. The New Zealanders would complete their defences along the anti-tank ditch to the north of Katerini, but they were warned that their withdrawal to Mount Olympus would begin as soon as 1 Australian Corps could maintain troops in the sector to the north. They could, however, detach units to prepare the defences about the pass. Orders were therefore issued for the withdrawal of 22 Battalion13 from the Katerini to the Mount Olympus area and for the transfer of 21 Battalion14 from Athens to the southern extremity above the Platamon tunnel.
The records of the conference also suggest that the chances of a forced withdrawal were already beginning to worry General Wilson. He spoke of orders for the withdrawal of Greek troops from eastern Macedonia to the Mount Olympus area, and mentioned a Greek division in reserve which could be used in the Servia–Yerania–Elasson area as the basis of a second line which would run from the Mount Olympus line northwards to the Pieria River and the sector held by the Greeks.
The discussion ended with General Wilson obviously and naturally waiting for more detailed intelligence reports. Late that night he learnt that the Greeks still held the Rupel Pass in the Metaxas line, that German columns were rushing westwards across Yugoslavia to the Vardar valley, and that another was approaching the Strumica Pass, from which it could enter the lower Vardar (Axios) valley and edge round the Metaxas line towards Salonika.
To complete the disturbing survey, news had just been received that 7 Australian Division and the Polish Brigade would not be
sent over to Greece. On 31 March Rommel had counter-attacked in Cyrenaica, recovering Benghazi and surrounding Tobruk. General Wavell had thereupon ordered 18 Brigade of 7 Division to be embarked and sent round to strengthen the defence of that port. The Polish Brigade and the remainder of 7 Division would remain in Egypt in readiness for service in North Africa.
The Raid on Piræus Harbour
For the units in the Athens area action began about 11 p.m. on 6 April when the Luftwaffe began a two hours’ bombardment of the crowded harbour of Piræus. The cruiser Ajax and the anti-aircraft cruiser Calcutta put to sea, but the SS Clan Fraser carrying ammunition was hit and exploded at four o’clock next morning. The damage was terrific. Sheds and offices, equipment and rolling stock were wrecked; six merchant ships, twenty lighters and one tug were burnt out and another ship sunk by an aerial mine. The port was closed for two days for clearing and reorganisation, but the damage to the facilities for unloading was a problem for the rest of the campaign. This meant that the shipping programme had to be adjusted and efforts made to use such minor ports up the east coast as Khalkis, Stilis and Volos. The 292nd Army Field Company, Royal Engineers, which should have gone north to assist in the preparation of the defences at Amindaion, was retained to clear the shattered waterfront and a troop of 2/106 Light Anti-Aircraft Battery needed to cover the base at Larisa was retained for service about the harbour.
Several small New Zealand units were in Piræus during the raid, the largest being A Company (Captain McClymont15) of 21 Battalion, with the mortar platoon under command. No. 7 Platoon (Lieutenant Southworth16), guarding the Shell and Socony oil installations about a mile from the docks, did its best with Bren and Lewis guns. No. 9 Platoon (Second-Lieutenant Roach17) was about the main wharf where bombs released by an early flight set fire to the sheds, the ammunition trucks and the Clan Fraser. Until other flights came over and the men were ordered into air-raid shelters, wounded seamen were assisted off the ship and efforts made to control the fires about the docks. In the morning when the ship exploded the men were under cover in the air-raid shelters so there were only two minor casualties, perhaps the Division’s first in
Greece. ‘The main trouble was not exactly the blast but the bloody big pieces of red hot metal which came out of the sky. Some of them were 6 ft in length ... the amn piles started going up ... and to cap it all the amn train caught alight and there were anxious moments while we smothered that. ... An English senior officer then put in an appearance – he was a very grand chap but as I told him everything that was likely to happen had happened.’18
Another unit was No. 3 Section 9 Railway Survey Company19 (Captain Nevins) which was on PAD20 duties and able to assist in the suppression of fires on the decks of two ships. Next morning men from the Reinforcement Camp at Voula were on the scene when a small ship struck one of the aerial mines and broke in half. Two of the seamen who were struggling in the oil-coated harbour were brought in at great risk by Private Coatsworth21 of 20 Battalion.
The Allied Line is Changed
The following day, 7 April, was wet, with difficult flying conditions which prevented systematic reconnaissance by the Royal Air Force. The reports from the fighting line could have been more detailed, but as the hours passed it became clear that the Germans were about to stage another dramatic success. In the extreme east they were forcing their way to the Aegean Sea; the Greek troops in the Rupel Pass were still fighting back but the regiments in the Beles area were giving way; and, most serious of all, the Yugoslavs still farther west were withdrawing up the Strumica valley.
In Albania the Greeks had certainly struck out towards Durazzo but the Yugoslavs, who were to launch a supporting offensive from the north, were at first weak and, in the end, quite ineffective. This failure, together with the succession of disasters in Yugoslavia itself, was a warning that the Allies would probably have to create defences between W Force about Amindaion and the Greek armies in Albania.
In the eastern sector the Allied commanders were now convinced that a shorter front must be prepared. During the morning Generals Blamey and Mackay visited General Freyberg and were shown the defences which had been prepared by 4 and 6 NZ Brigade Groups. Blamey was impressed by the strength of the position along the anti-tank ditch, but he still held to his original opinion22 that the brigades should be withdrawn to the passes about Mount
Olympus. The decision was made that afternoon when General Wilson came up to discuss the problem. ‘It was decided that we should go back as quickly as possible and hold the line of the passes.’23 In other words, all British troops would be withdrawn from the plain of Macedonia: the New Zealand brigades from the Katerini area and 1 Armoured Brigade from the Edhessa sector.
No other decision was possible but it was going to be a costly withdrawal. The New Zealanders, after wasting a month preparing the line, would have to leave a large proportion of their wire and mines alongside the anti-tank ditch. By evacuating Katerini, Veroia and Edhessa the Allied armies were creating most serious problems of communication. W Force, without the railhead at Katerini, would have to be supplied by motor transport from Larisa. The Western Macedonian Army, whose supply line had been the railway from Salonika to Edhessa and to Florina would, in future, have its supplies brought up the long, narrow valley from Larisa to Grevena and Kastoria. That in turn would make it essential for the Amindaion detachment to halt any German advance from the direction of Monastir and Florina. Otherwise it would be possible for the enemy not only to thrust south towards Larisa but also to break through the Western passes and cut the supply line to the Western Macedonian Army.
No Greek Unit can be Transported from the Metaxas Line
That evening, 7–8 April, General Wilson had an interview with General Papagos. Just what the latest information was at this time it is now impossible to decide, but it is reasonable to assume that Wilson was told that, although some of the Greek forts in the Rupel Pass were holding out, the Germans were pressing down the Strimon valley. The report from one Greek source was that the Yugoslavs were falling back in disorder. This was quite correct. Second Panzer Division, supported by a motorised Mountain Rifle Battalion, had taken Strumica and then turned south down the Vardar valley to the Greek border at Devdelija and Lake Doiran. Advanced Headquarters W Force had, however, been told that the Yugoslavs were holding the pass at Kosturino between Strumica and Valandovo but needed the assistance of W Force. As the situation stood it was impossible to provide such support.
In any case the Greeks, well aware of the weakness of their position in eastern Macedonia, were now asking for British transport to bring out some of their regiments from the Bulgarian border to join W Force. The position was already hopeless but General Wilson, anxious to make some gesture, gave orders that
fifty motor vehicles from 1 Armoured Brigade should be sent forthwith to assist the Eastern Macedonian Army. ‘This column actually started, but before it had got any distance the advancing Germans had got between them and their destination, and they were turned back.’24 Next morning it was too late; all units of that army were in contact with the enemy and quite unable to pull out of the line.
The New Zealanders and Australians Continue to Prepare Their Positions
There were few other movements forward that day, 7 April, from the lines of W Force. All units were too busy preparing their positions. Headquarters New Zealand Division issued no orders for the withdrawal of the brigades from the plain, but particular attention was given to the positions of 5 Brigade about Mount Olympus. No. 4 Section 19 Army Troops Company was sent to work on the road within the pass, Headquarters New Zealand Artillery continued to reconnoitre alternative positions within the area and 7 Field Company New Zealand Engineers, when it arrived at Katerini, was immediately sent back through the mountains to assist in the preparation of the road from Kokkinoplos to the rear of 23 Battalion.
Farther north 16 Australian Brigade was beginning to move into the Veroia Pass sector. The battalions, straight from their campaign in the Western Desert, had now to adjust themselves to the rocks and snow of positions astride the mountain road which edged its way over the 3000-foot pass.
Still farther north on the plain to the east of the Edhessa Gap, 1 Armoured Brigade waited for the advancing German columns and consequently was eager to obtain information of any enemy movements. The attached troops (Lieutenant A. C. Atchison) from the New Zealand Divisional Cavalry25 were therefore patrolling east of Edhessa to the Axios River and as far north as Apsalos.
On the other side of the mountains in the Amindaion sector along the border of Yugoslavia the detachment commanded by Brigadier Lee was preparing alternative defences. Sixty-fourth Medium Regiment, Royal Artillery, had new positions near Filotas, 27 NZ (Machine Gun) Battalion was still in the Palaistra–Lofoi area, but since the German advance on 6 April reconnaissances had been made of gun positions some ten miles to the south. And reinforcements were on their way: 580 Army Troops Company,
Royal Engineers, was coming up from Athens; 1 Australian Anti-Tank Regiment (less a battery south of Kozani) was under orders to go to Amindaion.
The Allied Commanders Decide to Withdraw
The intelligence reports received on the morning of 8 April were most discouraging. The Metaxas line, in parts, was still intact but German regiments were almost clear of the Rupel Pass. Others had outflanked the western end of the line and were striking southwards towards Salonika, one column between Lake Doiran and the Axios River and another down the western bank of the river towards Ghevgheli. The only units in their path were one and a half battalions of 19 Greek Motorised Division, whose original sector to the east of the lake had been extended the previous night to include the threatened roads to the west. The resistance they could offer was so slight that General Papagos had earnestly requested the transfer of 1 Armoured Brigade from the Edhessa area to the anti-tank obstacles that were being prepared in the Axios valley.
This would have been a desperate and ineffective change of plans. The information coming in throughout the day made it quite clear that Yugoslav resistance had cracked on all fronts and that the British forces along the line of the passes were now likely to be encircled. A patrol from General Headquarters Liaison Squadron reported that Yugoslav resistance to the north of Monastir was practically at an end; the town was almost empty and some of the Yugoslav General Staff were already over the border into Florina. The patrol could do no more than arrange for the demolition of the main bridge over the Crna to the north of Monastir and shepherd the withdrawal of three Yugoslav tanks and four anti-aircraft guns. The way was therefore clear for the German units now approaching Prilep to rush south and, by nightfall, enter Monastir. From there they could strike south to Amindaion, Kozani and Larisa, thereby outflanking the defences which had been built up to hold the passes behind Edhessa, Veroia and Katerini.
General Wilson discussed26 the situation with General Blamey at Headquarters 1 Australian Corps and decided how W Force could be used to meet the emergency. ‘In order to stop a blitzkrieg’ down the Monastir–Florina Gap and to give W Force time to
organise its main defences, a temporary or intermediate line would immediately be prepared.
At the southern edge of the gap was Klidhi Pass in the Amindaion area. It would be held by a force27 under the command of Major-General I. G. Mackay, who would be directly responsible to Headquarters W Force. Within it there would be the original Amindaion detachment, including 27 MG Battalion, 6 Australian Division less 16 Brigade in the Veroia Pass, 64 Medium Regiment, 1 Armoured Brigade and an engineer company. The Australian battalions would move up to the pass as they became available; the armoured brigade then dealing with demolitions in the Macedonian Plain would withdraw that night and then come under command.
In the Vermion Range to the east and south of Amindaion would be 20 Greek Division,28 south of it would be several units of 12 Greek Division, whose replacement by 6 Australian Division would now be discontinued; Veroia Pass would still be held by 16 Australian Brigade; and in the extreme south the New Zealand Division would hold the sector from Mount Olympus to the Aegean.
No date could as yet be given for the withdrawal from this intermediate line, but it had to be held long enough for the creation of a more permanent one which would run north from the Mount Olympus sector to the Aliakmon River and thence along the south bank to the mountains west of Servia, where it would link up with the Western Macedonian Army. The dumping of supplies to the north of the river had naturally to be stopped, the back lifting of existing depots was considered and General Blamey was instructed to prepare for the occupation of the Aliakmon positions.
The pivot on which the eventual withdrawal from the north could be based would be 4 New Zealand Brigade, which was placed under the command of 1 Australian Corps and warned that it would be withdrawn29 from the Katerini sector to the upper stretches of the Aliakmon River near the township of Servia.
At the same time Headquarters New Zealand Division was told that its 6 Brigade would also be withdrawn from the anti-tank ditch north of Katerini to support 5 Brigade about Olympus Pass or for movement to some other sector. The Divisional Cavalry Regiment and E Troop 5 Field Regiment, the only units to be left in
the plain between Mount Olympus and the Aliakmon, had to be prepared for a swift withdrawal in their own vehicles.
The curious feature of all these decisions is that the urgency of the situation had forced Wilson to act without consulting Papagos, whose orders were not received until 7.50 p.m. on 8 April. His instructions, however, were almost the same as those issued by General Wilson. There would be a co-ordinated front running north from Mount Olympus over the Aliakmon River to Mount Vermion, and thence westwards across the Monastir Gap to Mount Vernon. The western boundary for W Force would include Ammokhorion and Nimfaion; the country beyond that would be the responsibility of the Western Macedonian Army. He also suggested that the reserves of Mackay Force be brought forward to assist in the defence of the gap. ‘In order to gain time for the installation of this line’, he suggested that 1 Armoured Brigade should be advancing towards Monastir to make contact with the advancing enemy and ‘to hinder his advance as much as possible.’30 General Wilson preferred, however, to assemble the brigade as a reserve force to the south of Amindaion.
In any case his plans were already under way. The orders for Mackay Force to assemble had been given at 1 p.m. on 8 April and those for W Force as a whole were about to be issued. The first set issued at 12.35 a.m., 9 April, stated that there was imminent danger of a German thrust into Greece by way of the Monastir–Florina Gap. The organisation of the intermediate or temporary line was then given in detail: about Amindaion there was Mackay Force; to the east and south-east there were the Greeks, 20 Division and part of 12 Division, under General Kotulas; and south of them were 16 Australian Brigade and the New Zealand Division, all under the command of General Blamey.
Later in the day General Papagos informed General Wilson that the Yugoslavs in Veles had surrendered and that the highway from there to Monastir was undefended. His offensive in Albania would therefore be stopped and more troops transferred to hold the central sector about Florina. Unless this was done the German divisions, when they came through from Monastir, could not only continue south from Florina towards Amindaion and Kozani but also westwards through the mountains in the rear of the Western Macedonian Army.
To counter such a threat Papagos had already, on the night of 7–8 April, moved his Cavalry Division to the gap between the left flank of W Force about Amindaion and the right wing of the Western Macedonian Army at Lamos. Its main task was to hold
the Pisodherion Pass through which the Germans, if they reached Florina, could strike west to Koritza or south-west to Kastoria, the key towns along the Greek line of retreat. On 8–9 April he took further steps to strengthen his right flank: 21 Infantry Brigade was sent to the Nimfaion–Xynon Neron sector between the pass and the left flank of Mackay Force; 13 Infantry Division was moved to the north of the pass between Lakes Megali Prespa and Ochrida. W Force and the Greek armies thereafter held, according to the map, a continuous line from the Aegean to the Adriatic.
If this line could be held even for a few days the British in their valley could prepare the defences about Servia and the Greeks could withdraw to reorganise their Central and Western Macedonian Armies. The Central Macedonian Army (20 Division and part of 12 Division) would be switched from the Vermion Range on the right flank of Mackay Force to the passes in the mountains along the left flank. This was a hazardous undertaking for it meant that the divisions would be moving across the valley which was the only line of withdrawal for Mackay Force. If all went well, however, the Greek armies would then be together and problems of supply and command would consequently be simplified.
The withdrawal of the Western Macedonian Army, even though it meant the abandonment of Greek gains in Albania, had always been an unpleasant possibility. As early as 7 March General Papagos had warned his sector commanders that they must plan in detail the withdrawal of their forces to a new and shorter line. The British would occupy and safeguard the sector from the coastal corridor east of Mount Olympus to the Dheskati bend of the Aliakmon River. The Greek forces of the Western and Central Macedonian Armies would hold a line from the bend to Mount Vasilitsa, and the forces in the Epirus sector would extend the front westwards to the Ionian Sea. Since this warning order had been issued the Germans had broken through the Metaxas line and were overrunning Yugoslavia. So, although the Yugoslavs still declared their determination to continue the struggle, it was almost certain that Papagos would soon have to withdraw his armies from Albania and central Macedonia.
This was made quite clear in the second and more detailed set of orders31 issued on 9 April by Headquarters W Force. In them it was explained that the defence of the Kozani–Florina gap was only an ‘interim arrangement ... a prelude to future development.’ The first task for W Force was to hold its present positions in order to gain time for ‘i. our allies to adjust their disposns incl forces in Albania. ii. organisation of a rearward defensive position’
which would run north from the Mount Olympus sector to Rimnion and thence westwards through Servia and along the south bank of the Aliakmon River to the Grevena area. No estimate could be given of the period of time for which this line should be held but a withdrawal might be necessary at very short notice. Readjustments were being made to ensure the defence of the passes about Mount Olympus and to create a reserve in the Servia area, but it was emphasised that the passes to the east must be held at all costs until the Greeks and 6 Australian Division had withdrawn from the northern sectors.
The Withdrawal Begins on 8 April: 1 Armoured Brigade
The information received by Headquarters W Force during the morning of 8 April was not comprehensive but it was reliable enough to justify the decision to withdraw to the new defences. Eastern Macedonia was about to be overrun, two German columns were rushing south towards Salonika and another was about to move through the Monastir Gap towards Florina, Amindaion, and the rear of the British, Australian and New Zealand forces.
The units in greatest danger were those of 1 Armoured Brigade north of the Aliakmon River between Edhessa and the Axios River. The original orders for the day had been that they should defend Edhessa, but in the afternoon the brigade was instructed to retire through the Edhessa and Veroia passes to the Perdikha area south of Amindaion. The demolitions in each pass would be blown that night.
Fourth Hussars, to which was attached Lieutenant Cole’s troop of New Zealand Divisional Cavalry, sent its B Echelon back through Edhessa and prepared to cover the withdrawal of the brigade. The weather had cleared by the late afternoon and enemy reconnaissance aircraft were circling over the plain but there was little, if any, bombing or strafing. The rearguard detachments were free to observe the approach of the German armour, to blow the bridge over the Axios River and to move back to the Yidha area, where the bridges were blown after the last tank crossed shortly after midnight. The last stage of the withdrawal through Veroia Pass to Kozani and then north to Perdikha was accomplished without incident.
The main body of 1 Armoured Brigade had a more exciting withdrawal. The bad weather of the last two days had made the roads on the eastern side of Lake Vegorritis so difficult for motor transport that the convoys were sent along the road to the north and west of the lake, a route that was unpleasantly close to the Monastir area through which the Germans were expected to
advance. Time was therefore important and the withdrawal had some resemblance to a race, with 20 Greek Division on the way south from Kaimakchalan jamming the track with its pack transport. The Germans, however, were still some distance away so there was no interference and the brigade was through the Klidhi Pass and south of Amindaion by the early hours of 9 April.
The troop from the Divisional Cavalry was to the rear of the column. In the afternoon it had been sent back against the stream of Greek infantry and refugees until it was two or three miles into the pass to the north of the village of Ardhea. From there it eventually returned to its base some 18 miles out of Edhessa and joined up with a platoon from 1 Rangers. Having no orders, Lieutenant Atchison left his three armoured cars and went back to Edhessa, where he learnt that the brigade was pulling out and that his troop was ‘to follow them if possible.’32 He had then to rush back the long 18 miles to collect his troop and the platoon of riflemen. Five minutes after his return they were on the road; they caught up with the main column about midnight and went on with it to Perdikha.
On the south side of the Aliakmon River there was as yet no corresponding withdrawal by the New Zealand Divisional Cavalry Regiment and the attached troop of artillery. Throughout the day they had heard explosions across the bay from Salonika, the stream of refugees across the bridges had grown still more dense and as dusk came on columns of smoke rose from the oil stocks set on fire by the Canadian Kent Corps.33 At 9 p.m. all the bridges except the main traffic one were demolished, with the sound echoing in the hills above the plain.
The orders from Headquarters New Zealand Division had been for its immediate destruction but Major Potter,34 Officer Commanding A Squadron Divisional Cavalry, had postponed the demolition because Brigadier Charrington had been anxious about the withdrawal of his armoured brigade. He had wanted the bridge left intact until he was certain that all his brigade had been able to withdraw westwards through the passes. Moreover, the seven cruiser tanks which had been exchanged for the two troops35 of C Squadron Divisional Cavalry Regiment were somewhere on their way south towards the river. To locate them and to guide them over the river two officers were sent forward while a strong party from A Squadron formed a screen on the north side of the bridge.
After midnight the news came through that 1 Armoured Brigade was safely into the mountains and soon afterwards the cruiser tanks made their way over the bridge. At 4 a.m. on 9 April it was demolished and the temporary wooden structure beside it was pulled down by A Squadron vehicles, assisted by the cruiser tanks. Each of the four gun detachments of O Troop 34 Anti-Tank Battery was now supported by one of the tanks, the Divisional Cavalry headquarters still expecting that they would have to delay the crossing of the river and fight a series of withdrawal actions until they could retire through the anti-tank defences now manned by 4 and 6 Brigades to the north of Katerini.
Fourth Brigade Group is Withdrawn
The decision to withdraw 4 and 6 Brigades to the slopes of Mount Olympus had been made36 during the afternoon of 7 April, but the written orders for the move were not received until the following day, by which time General Freyberg had already instructed 26 Battalion to leave its position on the ridge overlooking the anti-tank ditch. Less D Company at the Platamon tunnel and the carrier platoons which would remain in the area, the battalion would move back to the road junction at the foot of Olympus Pass preparatory to constructing lines for 6 Brigade on the left of 5 Brigade. The companies moved out that afternoon in heavy rain, marching 12 miles along the clay roads before they were taken by motor transport to the Sanatorium area near the foot of the pass. Here they received different orders. Some were detailed to control the stream of motor vehicles, gun limbers and Greek refugees with mules and carts; others were sent back into the pass to prepare the tracks by which the artillery could take its guns off from the main highway.
The sector vacated by the battalion was now held by two platoons from 24 Battalion, one platoon from 25 Battalion and 26 Battalion carrier platoon, all under the command of Major George,37 with 4 Machine Gun Company38 under command.
In the same period between the decision to withdraw to the passes and the receipt of instructions from General Blamey, there had been tentative plans for the withdrawal of 4 Brigade and 6 Field Regiment to a line below the pass, through which 6 Brigade with 4 and 5 Field Regiments could retire after making contact with the advancing Germans.
On 8 April, however, very different orders were received from General Blamey. The New Zealand Division which General Freyberg had been attempting to keep together as one force was to be split far more widely than before. Fourth Brigade, with supporting artillery and engineers, would retire forthwith through the mountains and go north to Servia, where it would, as Corps reserve, occupy the vital sector39 of a new line that was being built up along the Olympus Range and the upper Aliakmon River. The other units of the Division, less the outer screen of Divisional Cavalry, would prepare to withdraw to Olympus Pass.
That night, 8–9 April, the artillery with the 4 Brigade Group began its withdrawal, 6 Field Regiment pulling out over the rain-soaked tracks and roads to the western side of the pass, where it camped for the night. Next morning it moved north to the southern end of Servia Pass and sent out reconnaissance parties to look for gun positions. Thirty-first Anti-Tank Battery should have withdrawn that night but clear orders were not received in time. However, B Troop returned that night from 6 Brigade and the whole battery was able to assemble at Ay Ioannis, from which it moved next morning to join the main convoy.
Eighteenth, 19 and 20 Battalions had the night of 8–9 April in which to make their preparations before marching to an assembly area just north of Katerini. The unit transport took all equipment of immediate importance; anything else was left under guard until arrangements could be made for transportation. In the early hours of 9 April, with the sky to the north-east now red with the flames from the demolitions in Salonika, they left the anti-tank ditch, the gun positions and the wire entanglements which they had taken so much trouble to prepare. From the assembly area where they were joined by 1 Section 6 Field Company and 31 Anti-Tank Battery, the battalions were taken over the mountains and north to Servia Pass in the trucks of the Divisional Supply Column and the Divisional Petrol Company.
Once there the brigade group40 was to have gone to a bivouac area, but at Kato Filippaioi the column was ordered to proceed immediately to positions about the pass. Instructions in greater detail had already been given to Brigadier Puttick, who had driven ahead of his brigade and reported at Headquarters Australian Corps at Yerania. In order to prevent any sudden penetration from the north his brigade, with one battalion in reserve, would take up a defensive position along the line Kastania–Servia–Prosilion. It had to be held at all costs because through it units from the north
would eventually withdraw. So, with this definite assignment, the brigade group continued on its way.
21 Battalion Moves up from Athens to the Platamon Tunnel
The other unit on the move during the night of 8–9 April was 21 Battalion, now released from guard duties about Piræus. Its movement north to Katerini had been suggested by General Wilson during the conference41 on the morning of 6 April, so that very night, shortly after the bombing of Piræus, Colonel Macky received his orders from 80 Base Sub-area. The B Echelon transport, with the anti-aircraft platoon for protection, thereupon moved off during the morning of 8 April; the companies in railway cattle trucks left that afternoon and reached Larisa about midday on 9 April.
By then the decision had been made to withdraw the New Zealand brigades from the Katerini area to the passes about Mount Olympus. Twenty-first Battalion, instead of joining 5 Brigade, would take over the defences which D Company 26 Battalion had been preparing above the Platamon tunnel. Consequently, when the train reached Larisa Colonel Macky was told by the Railway Transport Officer that the battalion would detrain at the tunnel, some 15 miles away.
In that stretch the train stopped three times: twice in sidings to allow trains bearing Greek troops to come south and once because the engine crew took to the hills, until they were certain that an air battle overhead was not the prelude to an attack by dive-bombers. Naturally enough it was late afternoon when the companies detrained just south of the tunnel. No definite orders had as yet come through, but Captain Huggins, who was already there with his company from 26 Battalion, had certainly been preparing the position for a battalion. Colonel Macky therefore decided that he was expected to take over the defences. A Company was sent to Castle Hill, B Company to Point 266 and C and D Companies were meantime kept in reserve.
Later in the night a section of engineers from 19 Army Troops Company (Lieutenant F. W. O. Jones42) and A Troop 27 Battery 5 Field Regiment (Lieutenant Williams43) drove in from Katerini to come under command of the battalion. Now that the Division was withdrawing to the passes the engineers, with explosives, land mines and one naval depth-charge, had to prepare for the demolition of the tunnel.
Next morning, 10 April, a message came through from General Freyberg stating that the battalion would hold the sector and mentioning that only infantry attacks need be expected as the terrain was too rough for tanks. This advice is surprising. The original report44 from the GSO III (Intelligence) had certainly suggested that vehicles could use this coastal route, and only a few hours before the supporting troops from Katerini had brought their trucks and guns across the main ridge. The explanation probably is that General Wilson had repeated to General Freyberg his earlier statement45 that the main attack would be made in one of the passes to the north.
Later in the day more detailed instructions were received from Brigadier Hargest. The battalion would complete the defences according to the prepared plan; it had to deny the approaches to the gap, watch for landings along the coast to the south and defend Castle Hill and Hill 266. If either of them were captured there had to be an immediate counter-attack; there would be ‘NO retirement.’
The ridge certainly had many advantages. Any Germans advancing south from Katerini would have very little cover. With the sea cliffs on one side and the apparently inaccessible ridges of Mount Olympus on the other, there were few chances of an outflanking movement. The communications to the rear were reasonably good; the artillery had the choice of several excellent gun positions. But there was one weakness which could be exploited by a resolute enemy. The ridge, apart from some clear patches about the castle and Pandeleimon, was heavily timbered from the beach at Platamon to the snowfields on Mount Olympus. And such conditions, as time was soon to show, were ideal for those German regiments which had been trained for mountain warfare and a policy of infiltration.
In the meantime the companies after a wet night in the open had occupied the ridge from the sea cliffs to the lower slopes of Mount Olympus. On the extreme right in the A Company sector (Captain R. B. McClymont) the crest of the ridge was bare, but its northern face was cloaked with bay trees, oleanders and a few scattered Aleppo pines. The romantic feature was the Frankish castle with its relatively sound outer walls and its crumbling central tower, from which the plain looked like a great isosceles triangle cut by the road and the railway and studded, in the foreground, with olive and mulberry trees, prickly pears and blackberries and, as the soil grew richer, with fields of maize, tobacco and cotton about white farmhouses set in groves of oaks and plane trees.
B Company (Captain Le Lievre46) was higher up the ridge and forward of Hill 266, a neat cone which broke the gradual incline of the ridge and created on either side a natural track for any attacking force. At this height shrubs flourished along the crest and limited the field of fire from all section positions.
To the left again, some 1500 feet above the sea, was C Company (Captain Tongue47) in the belt of oaks, beeches and chestnuts about Pandeleimon, a small village at the junction of three
important mule tracks. One ran south-west to Gonnos, a village which overlooked the Larisa end of the Vale of Tempe; another branched south to the railway station; and yet another swung in to the rear of B Company.
Behind this line and to the south of Castle Hill, D Company (Captain Trousdale, MC48) was in reserve; Headquarters 21 Battalion was behind the castle; the mortar platoon was nearby; the carrier platoon patrolled the coast from the tunnel to the Pinios River and endeavoured to check the refugees that were being brought over by coastal ships from Salonika.
The supporting arms under command remained near the coast. The troop from 5 Field Regiment sited its 25-pounders about 500 yards to the south of the Platamon railway station in pits beneath some willow trees. The section from 19 Army Troops Company left the tunnel open to traffic but did its best to prepare for its demolition, the main charges, 350 pounds of gelignite and the depth-charge, being placed in a safety bay near the centre of the tunnel and sandbagged in to increase the force of the blast. At each end of the tunnel charges were laid so that the rails could be cut and the approaches cratered; and in the A Company area demolitions were placed on the track to the north of Point 266 and an anti-tank minefield was laid out across the front of No. 9 Platoon.
D Company 26 Battalion left the pass for Katerini by train during the night of 12–13 April. To its surprise the town was almost empty; the only New Zealanders to be seen were the patrols49 of the Divisional Cavalry which had withdrawn from the Aliakmon River before the advancing Germans. However, with the assistance of the Greek general in the area, Captain Huggins was able to communicate with Headquarters New Zealand Division, on whose instructions the company at 2 a.m. boarded another train and returned through the tunnel and the Pinios Gorge to Larisa, where transport from the battalion was waiting to take it to Ay Dhimitrios in the Olympus Pass area. En route the company was diverted northward, 26 Battalion having been moved to the west of Servia Pass, and it was not until 9 a.m. on 14 April that it rejoined the unit in the Rimnion area.
By then the defences about the Platamon tunnel had been more firmly established. Two signalmen from A Section Divisional Signals had appeared with a No. 11 wireless set; Major Harding,50 second-in-command of the battalion, with a small train – one engine
and four trucks – was delivering rations and ammunition; any loose money there was about the battalion had been collected to purchase some mules to carry supplies from the tunnel to the gun positions up the mountainside. And to encourage the companies in the preparation of the defences, Greek civilians and stragglers from the army were still trailing through from Macedonia, tired, wet and dejected.
Withdrawals and Adjustments during 9–10 April
The refugees were just another proof of the collapse of the Allied defences along the border of Greece and Bulgaria. According to the latest reports the Germans now controlled the greater part of eastern Macedonia. Their forward screen was moving from Khilkis towards Yiannitsa; the Greeks were certainly holding some of the forts of the Metaxas line but German motorised columns were now through the Rupel Pass; Salonika had been occupied and the attack switched westwards towards the Axios River. Sixteenth Australian Brigade had therefore destroyed the bridge at Veroia and all bridges between Yiannitsa and Edhessa.
In the north towards the border of Yugoslavia a stream of equally pathetic refugees was moving through the lines of the Amindaion detachment in Klidhi Pass, for the unexpected collapse of Yugoslavia had left the way clear for a German advance southwards to the Monastir Gap. It is surprising that they were not already beyond that town and across the border towards Florina. Apparently they had been held up by the wretched roads of southern Yugoslavia, by the problems of an extended supply line and the adjustments necessary now that the attack was being directed southwards into Greece as well as westwards towards Albania.
The next two days, 9–10 April, were therefore free for the withdrawal and adjustment of those units of W Force which were still on the plain of Macedonia. South of the Aliakmon River the forward New Zealand unit was the Divisional Cavalry Regiment. In the original orders the squadrons were to have fought a series of delaying actions, but the latest instructions from General Freyberg were that the regiment was to make contact with the enemy along the line of the river and then retire to Olympus Pass without becoming seriously involved. The elaborate plans for a fighting withdrawal were therefore shelved.
To the rear of the Divisional Cavalry the withdrawal which had begun on the night of 8–9 April was now at its peak. On 9 April Headquarters New Zealand Division, leaving an advanced headquarters at Sfendhami, retired over the pass to Dholikhi, where
within the next twenty-four hours it was joined by the headquarters of the Artillery, Engineers and Army Service Corps.
To prepare the way for 4 and 5 Field Regiments the Survey Troop had left that morning, 9 April, to establish bearing pickets in the Olympus Pass sector. The troop arrived in the Ay Dhimitrios area to find that the only existing survey data consisted of the co-ordinates of three trig points so high up the mountainsides that it took two and a half hours to reach one of them. Rain that day and snow on 10 April prevented further high-level observations, but trig stations were erected at lower levels and calculations made from them.
The reconnaissances for gun positions in the pass had already been made. Fifth Field Regiment to cover the right flank and centre had to place one battery on the west side of the pass opposite Headquarters 5 Brigade and the other on the same side of the road but farther up the pass. Fourth Field Regiment, covering the left flank, had to place one battery beyond that again and the other still higher up the pass, almost at the village of Ay Dhimitrios. The guns were to be thinned out gradually from the plain so that there would be some cover along the front for 6 Brigade when it withdrew from the coastal sector. The ammunition left by 6 Field Regiment after its move to Servia Pass was taken back to the foot of Olympus Pass for the use of the other two regiments; the ammunition from these two units was collected and taken to the railhead at Katerini.
Movement began during the late afternoon of 6 April when RHQ 4 Field Regiment with 25 Battery and RHQ 5 Field Regiment with 28 Battery (less E Troop with the Divisional Cavalry) withdrew into the pass, moving slowly because of wet roads and heavy streams of traffic. In the evening Headquarters New Zealand Artillery moved back to Dholikhi, Brigadier Miles and two officers remaining at Sfendhami as advanced headquarters. Twenty-sixth Battery 4 Field Regiment withdrew before midnight and 27 Battery 5 Field Regiment (less A Troop with 21 Battalion) left at 2.15 p.m. on 10 April, some time after the withdrawal51 of 6 Brigade had begun. Miles was then free to retire to Dholikhi.
Thirty-second Anti-Tank Battery and 4 Company 27 (Machine Gun) Battalion also withdrew to the pass on 10 April, both units coming under command of 5 Brigade.
The group most heavily employed during this period of withdrawal – if such distinctions are possible when all units were working their hardest – was that of the Army Service Corps. To allow for the rearrangement of the Division in the shortest possible time,
stores had to be lifted and new dumps established. In the Katerini area this was the responsibility of No. 2 Echelon52 of 1 Supply Column which controlled No. 4 Field Supply Depot at Neon Keramidhi.
The orders for the evacuation of the depot were received on 9 April, so once the normal issue for the day was sent out Lieutenant McIndoe53 and his Supply Details54 set about the movement of some 1000 tons of stores – 96,000 gallons of petrol and 300,000 rations. Supplies for ten days were dumped for 5 Brigade at the foot of the pass and thirteen days’ rations were railed to 21 Battalion at the Platamon tunnel, but the major task was the transfer of the rest of the stores from the depot to the railhead at Katerini for transportation to the Larisa area. Some twenty-four load-carriers from No. 1 Echelon which had not been wanted for the movement of 4 Brigade were available during the day, but thereafter No. 2 Echelon laboured alone.
The work continued that night and throughout 10 April until 4 p.m., when heavy rain made it impossible to use the sidings. By that time the hands of many men were skinned or blistered, but when the rain ceased during the night work recommenced and continued until midday on 11 April. Then, after dealing with such minor problems as the despatch of four lorries to collect tents left in the lines of 4 Brigade and to provide stores for the Divisional Cavalry on the Aliakmon River, Headquarters No. 2 Echelon withdrew over Olympus Pass to join No. 1 Echelon which, except for the Supply Details who had remained with Captain Jacobs55 at No. 1 Field Supply Depot, had been transferred from Larisa to an area just south of Elasson. The maintenance of the New Zealand units holding Olympus Pass was now a task of No. 1 Field Supply Depot. To simplify the problem Lieutenant McIndoe, with a detachment from No. 2 Echelon, established a Detail Issue Depot, the stores of which were to be invaluable during the final withdrawal.
The other unit of the New Zealand Army Service Corps to assist in the withdrawal was the Ammunition Company, which had been working for 81 Base Sub-area at Larisa. On 8 April the crews were sent back over Olympus Pass to Katerini to pick up its normal G109856 holding. The crumbling road and the difficulties of driving
without lights over the mountain range brought the spare drivers out on the running boards to give directions, and even forced some drivers to remove their windscreens and endure the evil weather. After it had unloaded at Dholikhi the company crossed again on 10 April to pick57 up some of 24 and 25 Battalions and to salvage MT stores from Gannokhora. Next day the Officer Commanding, Major McGuire,58 returned with a convoy to salvage stores and supplies left by 6 Brigade in the Aliakmon line. While in that area those drivers not needed for the stores had two urgent tasks. They had to repair and metal the crossing by which the AFVs of the Divisional Cavalry were to withdraw across the anti-tank ditch and bring back from Aiyinion a supply of machinery and MT stores, particularly some spring steel, which would otherwise have been left to the enemy.
Next day, 12 April, the company had still another urgent task in the withdrawal. The lorries were sent from the base at Dholikhi to the forward area at Amindaion59 just before the Germans broke through the Klidhi Pass. The petrol dump the company was to lift was six miles south of Amindaion, but the convoy by some error went into and out of the village just as the shelling began. Then, when the dump was found and the petrol lifted, spare rations were added to the loads and the crews were given a free hand with any luxuries. So far as can be ascertained this was the first of many occasions during the withdrawal from Greece that the ration dumps were more or less given to the ranks. That concession enjoyed, the company moved south with the retreating transport of Mackay Force and dumped the petrol at the southern side of Servia Pass for 6 Australian Division and 4 New Zealand Brigade.
With all this movement on the roads the Divisional Engineers had still more work to do. Headquarters, after checking the demolitions and arranging for the withdrawal of supplies, withdrew during the night, 9–10 April, to Dholikhi. The same night 5 Field Park Company moved back over the pass to a site near Kokkinoplos, from which it issued and transported RE supplies and provided detachments to help in the preparation of demolitions on the forward approaches to the pass.
In the pass itself the road, sodden with melting snow and jammed with trucks, guns, refugees and farm stock, was now crumbling and demanding constant attention. Its maintenance became the responsibility of 19 Army Troops Company. No. 1
Section60 had been sent to assist 21 Battalion in the Platamon tunnel and since 8 April Headquarters had been at Pithion, but the other three sections were given tasks about the pass: No. 2 at Ay Dhimitrios, No. 3 at Tsaritsani and, after 7 April, No. 4 about the crest of the pass.
The removal of any vehicles that were likely to hold up the endless stream of traffic was the responsibility of the recovery team from the Divisional Workshops. The main body of that unit, after closing on 8 April and sending any vehicles that could not be immediately repaired to the railhead at Katerini, pulled back over the pass during the night of 9–10 April to an area near Kato Filippaioi.
The servicing arrangements for the Division were then reorganised. In addition to a British ordnance field park which had been attached at Katerini, two independent brigade workshops were now working with the Division. Each of the three workshops was then allocated a section of the Ordnance Field Park and units of the Division were grouped61 for servicing under the direction of ADOS, Major Andrews, and DADOS (E), Captain Kelsey.62
The medical units also moved during the night of 9–10 April, 4 Field Ambulance withdrawing from the plain and taking over next morning from 5 Field Ambulance, which moved forward to support63 4 Brigade in the Servia area. Thereafter 4 Field Ambulance had A Company near the crest of Olympus Pass at Ay Dhimitrios; Headquarters and B Company were at Dholikhi in charge of the Main Dressing Station vacated by the other company. With them there was 4 Field Hygiene Section, still supervising sanitation and enforcing precautions against malaria throughout the divisional area.
The Withdrawal of 6 Brigade
The withdrawal of 4 Brigade had taken place during the night of 8–9 April, but the movement orders for 6 Brigade were not issued by Divisional Headquarters until after midnight and, to complicate matters, the greater part of the next day had passed before Brigadier Barrowclough received his copy of them. The
brigade had therefore continued to prepare its section of the line, but once it was learnt that 4 Brigade had already withdrawn, plans were prepared for 6 Brigade (less 26 Battalion) to move over Olympus Pass, ‘Date and time of the move ... uncertain.’64 Until they were decided the position astride the highway would be held. As much surplus stores and motor transport as possible would be sent over the pass to Dholikhi and after the Divisional Cavalry had withdrawn the crossings over the anti-tank ditch would be blown. If the German armoured units did break through along the road the position would still have to be held until it was possible to arrange a night withdrawal. The tanks would then be less mobile, and if the flanks and rearguard provided adequate defence the infantry and transport could be withdrawn.
In the late afternoon, however, Brigadier Barrowclough was at last given a definite date for the withdrawal of his brigade group. That evening or the following day his units would withdraw to Olympus Pass. Well aware of the danger from air attacks during any daylight movement, the Brigadier immediately obtained permission to move his battalions to the embussing point that same night, 9–10 April.
The withdrawal of the 6 Brigade Group, instead of being a separate movement, thus became part of the general withdrawal which had been going on for the last forty-eight hours. The guns of 4 and 5 Field Regiments65 which had been supporting the brigade had already been moving out that afternoon, but it was now decided that some from each unit would be left in position to cover a wide front until the infantry had withdrawn. The platoons from 24 and 25 Battalions attached to George Force in the gap left by 26 Battalion were ordered to rejoin their units; 4 Machine Gun Company, which had been part of this composite force, reverted to the command of Headquarters New Zealand Division. Once in the pass it would, with 32 Anti-Tank Battery, come under the command of 5 Brigade. The new rearguard under the command of Lieutenant-Colonel Duff was formed from the carrier platoons of the 24, 25 and 26 Battalions, supported by 3 Machine Gun Company and 34 Anti-Tank Battery.
So by 1 a.m. on 10 April the battalions were coming out along the tracks with orders to reach the area about Gannokhora before daylight and there lie up until the afternoon, when they would embus in the trucks of 4 RMT Company. Time being the essential factor, the 17-mile march had been undertaken at very short notice; in fact there was no meal before starting and nothing to eat during the night. ‘That march would be remembered by most,
a few had had a couple of hours’ sleep, no officers had slept at all and we plodded steadily along, stopping only 10 minutes in the hour.’66
Notwithstanding these disadvantages the march was performed in magnificent style, fully justifying the attention the Brigadier had given to long route marches during the training period in Egypt. The following afternoon the vehicles of 4 RMT Company appeared and the battalions were conveyed across the plain and into the pass, where the road twisted and turned, covering some ten miles and climbing over 3000 feet before it reached the crest and the village of Ay Dhimitrios.
Twenty-fifth Battalion and 33 Anti-Tank Battery were then taken across the pass to the divisional area at Dholikhi, but Brigade Headquarters and 24 Battalion encamped on the southern slopes about two miles beyond the village. Here they were joined by 26 Battalion, which had that morning been ordered to leave the 5 Brigade area in which it had been working ever since its withdrawal67 on 8 April. The unit transport having been sent ahead, the men had walked to the crest of the pass – ‘the most gruelling march to date’, 11 miles with a climb of 3000 feet. They arrived at dusk just when rain was about to fall. The B Echelon transport for the whole brigade was over the pass in the Dholikhi area with the greatcoats of some soldiers and the blankets of still more, so the two battalions in their tents among the shrubs shivered through the night of rain and snow.
The last unit of the brigade group to come over the pass was 6 Field Ambulance. A and B Companies, leaving an ambulance car with Duff Force, withdrew during the day to headquarters at Kato Melia, near the foot of the pass, and at 8 p.m. moved off again, ascending the pass and encamping just north of Ay Dhimitrios.
The screen along the anti-tank ditch had been provided by Duff Force. Headquarters, which had been organised just after midnight on 9–10 April, was formed from members of Headquarters 7 Anti-Tank Regiment and set up at Pal Elevtherokhorion with the unit wireless vehicles; 34 Anti-Tank Battery, less O Troop as yet with the Divisional Cavalry Regiment, was at the rendezvous; the carrier platoons from the battalions of 6 Brigade were patrolling across the front once held by the brigade; and 3 Machine Gun Company was in its original position. In the afternoon orders came through for the force to withdraw over the pass. Headquarters 7 Anti-Tank Regiment, with 34 Battery68 now complete, went to the
Ay Dhimitrios area at the crest of the pass; 3 Machine Gun Company went through to the Dholikhi area, and the carrier platoons rejoined their respective battalions.
Thus by 4 p.m. the only New Zealand unit left on the plain was the Divisional Cavalry Regiment, with E Troop 5 Field Regiment, along the south bank of the Aliakmon River. General Freyberg thereupon closed his advanced headquarters at Sfendhami and moved back to Dholikhi.
Fourth Brigade Group
In the Servia Pass area 10 April had been the day for deployment, not for withdrawals. The weather had cleared and the battalions could see the country which they were to hold. Hills some 4000–5000 feet high were immediately above them to the east and others equally high were away to the west. The five-mile front between the ranges sloped gradually across some two miles of very rough country and then ended in a precipitous escarpment with jagged arêtes and isolated pinnacles. At the base of this rock wall, unseen as yet, nestled the pretty market town of Servia, with plane trees in the square, vineyards on the terraces, and gardens flushed with blossoming plum and almond trees. Beyond it was the Aliakmon River and the long gradual incline up to the town of Kozani.
The crest of the escarpment was to be held with 18 Battalion on the right flank above Servia; 19 Battalion would be responsible for the country to the left on either side of the cutting through which the main highway went down the escarpment to the river valley. In reserve on either side of the highway to the south-west of Lava was 20 Battalion.
At 8.30 a.m. 18 Battalion picked up some of its equipment from the vehicles in Lava and began the first of several weary climbs up rain-soaked gullies and round steep rock faces to the company positions. The troops’ one relief was the low mist that hung heavily about the hillsides and kept away the flights of German bombers. D Company (Captain Sinclair69) went to the extreme right, south-east of Kastania, with one platoon well above the snow line. A Company (Captain Kelleway70) kept below the village in an area of rocky outcrops and thick undergrowth. The long ridge to the west and above Servia was left for B Company (Major Evans71) and C Company (Major Lynch72). To it there came up
from Servia a winding track that followed the eastern side of the narrow gorge which was one of the few faults in the long escarpment. Westwards again, the left flank extended up to and including the hilltop of Point 852.
Lieutenant-Colonel Gray left a rear headquarters in Lava and had his main headquarters in Kastania, a village on the right flank some 3000 feet above sea level and surrounded by oaks and pines. The view north-west across the river was a gunner’s dream, for the main north road was clear almost all the way from Servia to the bridge and for miles beyond that as it gradually ascended to Kozani.
There was, however, one serious disadvantage. The country between rear headquarters at Lava and the FDLs along the crest of the escarpment was incredibly eroded, with winding gullies and yellow-brown ridges, patches of scrub or, in the direction of Lava, groves of oak and pine. In New Zealand it would have been an area of abandoned sluicing claims. To reach their respective areas the companies had therefore to spend many hours following long circuitous tracks; and in the withdrawal which
was eventually to take place this was to mean a most serious loss of time.
The escarpment to the left up to and beyond the main highway through Servia Pass was held by 19 Battalion. Some slight changes73 were afterwards made on 14–15 April but the positions taken over on 10 April were, in the main, those held by the battalion when the Germans attacked. B Company (Major Gordon74) was in reserve well back from the pass and high enough for one platoon to be on the escarpment to prevent infiltration and to link up with 18 Battalion. A Company (Captain Pleasants75) was at the foot of the gap and astride the road where it swung eastwards to round the base of the escarpment. This company was between the more forward of the three anti-tank ditches which the Greeks had constructed, with the precipitous escarpment on the right and a sharp dip into the gully on the left.
On the western side of the road the ridge continued with steep cliffs to the north and the village of Prosilion on the reverse slope. C Company (Captain Bedding76) was to the north-west across the pass from A Company; D Company (Captain Webster77) was to the south and south-west of the village.
In the open country between the foot of the escarpment and the Aliakmon River the carrier platoons of 18 and 19 Battalions patrolled to the villages of Kranidhia and Goules. Parachute attacks were possible, but it was more likely that the Germans would ford the Aliakmon River and approach the pass under cover of the plane trees in the several gullies that ran down from the escarpment.
Twentieth Battalion was to the rear, in reserve and actually quite close to the crest of the pass, with D Company (Major Paterson78) to the right in Lava, A Company (Captain Washbourn79) astride the road, and B Company (Captain Rice80) on the bald ridge
across the road to the west. C Company (Major Wilson81) was in reserve between Lava and the road.
To the rear again, on the southern side of the watershed, Brigade Headquarters was established. J Section Divisional Signals (Captain Borman82) had no serious difficulty laying the telephone cable from there to 19 and 20 Battalions, even though it meant skirting the weathered hillsides and keeping clear of the road, which was certain to be bombed. The great problem was laying line across the gullies and up the heights to 18 Battalion, but it was complete by the night of 10–11 April and afterwards extended another five miles to bring 64 Medium Regiment, Royal Artillery, into the brigade system.
In support of the brigade were several units of artillery under the overall command of Lieutenant-Colonel C. E. Weir. The anti-tank defence about the pass was the responsibility of 31 Anti-Tank Battery (Major Blake83), two of whose troops came under the command of 19 Battalion and one under the command of 20 Battalion.
Sixth Field Regiment, with lines laid out across most difficult country, was in position by the night of 10–11 April in the valley south and west of Lava. Twenty-ninth Battery on the right was to support 18 Battalion; 30 Battery, less B Troop, to support 19 Battalion. B Troop had been placed farther forward, just south of the Borsana ridge to the east of the pass, to cover the bridge across the Aliakmon River. The observation points along the edge of the escarpment had ‘a wonderful field of view of a most extensive zone’; they were used by the Survey Troop after it was hurriedly brought over from Olympus Pass on 11–12 April.
Next day, 11 April, a battery of 7 Medium Regiment, Royal Artillery, came under command to provide counter-battery fire and to cover the Aliakmon bridge. Both troops were placed well back at the southern end of the pass, the engineers plotting a 400-yard branch road and a Palestinian Labour Company, fresh from Tobruk, completing the work.
The section of 6 Field Company (Lieutenant Kelsall84) had fortunately come north with more than the normal demolition equipment. Weeks before it had taken over from the Naval Ordnance Stores at Piræus some twenty-three depth-charges, each containing 360 pounds of TNT. It had taken these treasures over the
mountains to Katerini, back again to the main highway and north to the Servia area, where they were to be the most effective road demolitions in the whole campaign. The destruction of the bridge over the Aliakmon River was a task for 580 Army Troops Company, Royal Engineers, but all demolitions from Servia to the pass and southwards towards Elasson were the responsibility of the New Zealanders. So next day, in spite of strafing and dive-bombing, the work began on the concrete bridge outside Servia and on the three anti-tank ditches along the road to the crest of the escarpment. Westwards from there along the road to Prosilion was another anti-tank ditch; southwards there was the highway to Elevtherokhorion, where the road came in from Mount Olympus and 5 Brigade. In all these places demolitions had to be prepared.
The medical unit with 4 Brigade Group was 5 Field Ambulance (Lieutenant-Colonel Twhigg85), which had moved into position on 10 April and now had its Main Dressing Station some eight miles north of Elevtherokhorion on the lee side of a prominent hill. Three miles forward A Company (Major Fisher86) established an Advanced Dressing Station and was immediately accepting patients, in spite of rain during the day and a snowfall during the night.