Chapter 10: The Greek Front begins to Crumble
General Wavell visits Greece, 11–13 April
IN March, when W Force was assembling in Greece, the Joint Planning Staff at General Headquarters, Cairo, had thought it wise to study the problems of evacuation. A few weeks later the wisdom of their decision was apparent. The Greek armies were in difficulties, Yugoslavia had collapsed and the disasters in Cyrenaica had forced Wavell to retain the Polish Brigade and 7 Australian Division for service in North Africa. Convinced that the Aliakmon line could not be held for any length of time, the planners had ‘asked their respective Chiefs to be allowed to set certain preparatory arrangements for evacuation in action.’ The Royal Air Force and, more particularly, the Navy, with its possible beach and shipping problems, were prepared to act but ‘the Army’s hands were tied.’ The dangerous subject was not to be mentioned. Even when permission was given for Major de Guingand of the Joint Planning Staff to assist in the preparation of inter-service plans, ‘the veto upon raising any matters with the Army still stood.’ The fact was made quite clear to him on 11 April when he travelled to Greece on the same aeroplane as General Wavell. It was ‘pain of death’1 if he mentioned anything to the army in Greece.
The General, who had for the last few days been worried by Rommel’s spectacular advance through Cyrenaica, was now on his way to discuss the future of W Force. On 12 April he was in Larisa explaining to General Blamey the retention of 7 Australian Division in the Western Desert and discussing with General Wilson the problems of W Force. It was difficult to co-operate with the Greek armies, the German armoured divisions were rushing south, the tank tracks of 1 Armoured Brigade were not standing the strain and because of the difficulty of using wireless in the mountains it was not always possible for the authorities in Athens and London to have an exact picture of the swiftly changing front. The generals consequently decided that W Force must be withdrawn still farther to the south.
Wavell thereupon returned to Athens justifiably concerned about the future of W Force. If the Greeks continued to fight the force must remain and play its part; it was morally impossible to leave without the assent of the Greek Government. And even if evacuation were possible, the examples of Narvik and Dunkirk suggested heavy losses in both men and equipment.
No decisions had been made with General Wilson about evacuation plans.2 But on 13 April before he left Athens, Wavell discussed the subject with de Guingand and arranged for the problem to be studied by responsible officers. The naval attaché in Athens thereupon advised3 Admiral Cunningham that evacuation was a possibility; on 14 April the Joint Planning Staff completed its plans; and on 15 April Cunningham was warned that evacuation would probably begin within a few days.
General Wilson decides to Withdraw to Thermopylae
In W Force itself there was, as yet, no suggestion of evacuation; the all-important question was still that of withdrawal. After the discussions of 9–11 April when Wilson and Papagos had decided upon the line for ‘protracted defence’, their respective forces had begun to withdraw. But an undisturbed retreat by the slow-moving Greek armies was almost impossible. On 12 April Papagos was asking the British to send anti-tank guns to the Klisoura, Vlasti and Siatista passes, to use 1 Armoured Brigade in the Klidhi Pass and to provide motor transport for some of the Greek divisions. That night, however, when Wavell met Wilson at Larisa, there seems to have been no thought4 of any withdrawal other than that already agreed upon.
The reports which came in that night and throughout the next day, 13 April, changed the whole programme. The road about Grevena was crowded with Greek troops patiently marching south; the Cavalry Division was still holding the Pisodherion Pass, but 12 and 20 Divisions were said to have disintegrated during their movement across the valley to the Klisoura and Siatista passes.
These reports were probably too critical but they were natural enough, for the simple transport of the Greeks and the detachments of weary soldiers, base troops for the most part, did not inspire confidence. Wilson decided that the Greek GHQ was rapidly losing control and that the Greek Army could no longer be relied on as a fighting force. In this opinion he was undoubtedly unjust to the units remaining in the forward areas.
The other facts which influenced Wilson were the hesitation of Papagos before deciding to withdraw and the relatively slow withdrawal of his armies after that decision had been made. In his opinion ‘the Greek C-in-C. ... could never really bring himself to give up his successful campaign against the Italians.’5 This was likely enough as other Greeks were of the same opinion. When it became known that 3 Corps6 was to withdraw, the Metropolitan Bishop of Ioannina protested. ‘I then implored the army commanders not to carry out this fatal order and to act on their own initiative. This was declined as they considered it disloyal. General Platis (Chief of Staff, Army of Epirus) ... finally stated that he would only withdraw as far as the Greek-Albanian frontier and if he had orders for a further withdrawal he would not carry them out.’7 Papagos may not have known of these discussions, but he knew that his armies would be disappointed and was very appreciative of the dangers which would develop when his slow-moving divisions began their withdrawal.
That night, 13–14 April, Wilson discussed the situation with Blamey and, without consulting Papagos, decided to withdraw to Thermopylae. The preliminary moves would be made as soon as possible.
At first thought too much seems to have been abandoned at too early a date: all Greece was to be left to the enemy, except for the Peloponnese and the narrow strip between Athens and Thermopylae; in future there would be no co-operation with the greater part of the Greek Army; the British would move back swiftly in their motor transport but the majority of the Greeks would have to march 100 or more miles. Moreover, W Force, now in position from the Platamon tunnel to Mount Olympus and Servia Pass, had not been seriously attacked. The Germans were certainly threatening the three passes in the mountains along the eastern flank of the Greek armies but the Central Macedonian Army and the Army of Epirus were still able, in spite of the Luftwaffe, to withdraw along the highway through Grevena.
On the other hand, many of the British commanders had never been confident of the ability of the Greeks to face the highly mechanised units of the German Army. They argued that courage and primitive equipment were no match for a modern army supported by an aggressive air force. To complicate matters, the collapse of Yugoslavia and the crisis in North Africa now made it impossible to establish a Balkan front and difficult for W Force to remain in Greece. As time soon showed, Wilson and Blamey had made the right decision. If the withdrawal to Thermopylae had been delayed any longer, even for one day, the greater part of W Force would never have left Greece.
The orders8 for the move were immediately prepared, but the urgency of the situation was such that nearly twenty-four hours before they were issued on 15 April several units9 had already received their instructions and were moving to build up the successive rearguard positions through which the main body of W Force was eventually to withdraw.
The German Plan of Attack
While these decisions were being made, Field Marshal List had hastened to adjust his plans according to the changes along the front. On 12 April, when one force had entered Edhessa and another was forcing its way through the Klidhi Pass, he issued new orders. Eighteenth Corps would advance upon Larisa from its bridgeheads south and east of Veroia ‘with its main weight going through Katerini.’ Second Panzer Division was therefore preparing to approach Larisa through the coastal gap covered by 21 Battalion10 and through Olympus Pass in the 5 Brigade sector.11
Fortieth Corps on its way south from Yugoslavia had ‘to push 9 Pz Div on through Kozani and the Aliakmon sector’ to the key town of Larisa. That was to be the major effort; and by the evening of 14 April its advanced guard12 was beyond Kozani, with patrols across the Aliakmon River and approaching Servia. At the same time Field Marshal List, still sensitive about his open right flank, had taken good care to screen each gap in the western ranges. In the Pisodherion Pass west of Florina, 73 Division was to force its way through towards Kastoria, but the major diversion was to be made farther to the south. The SS ‘Adolf Hitler’ Division, with 5 Panzer Division ‘following up with all speed’, had to fight its way through the Klisoura Pass towards Kastoria and to send from
there a strong battle group to Koritza in the hope that it might destroy Headquarters Greek Corps and force the surrender of the northern flank of the Greek Army. With his right flank secure he would then, and only then, despatch a force southwards through Grevena to encircle the Allied line.
14 April: The Greek Front begins to Crumble
The threat was soon apparent. On the morning of 14 April W Force learnt that 20 Greek Division in the Klisoura area urgently needed armour and anti-tank guns. Nothing was done to assist it, in fact nothing could be done, and before midday signals were coming through to say that the SS ‘Adolf Hitler’ Division had occupied Klisoura and was striking westwards through the pass. The Greeks drew up orders for an immediate counter-attack but the available reinforcements were so limited that the plan had to be dropped. All that could be done was to order the Cavalry Division to block the Kastoria–Grevena road against a possible thrust from the north. If the Germans broke south towards Grevena, 1 Armoured Brigade must halt them until another line was established to the rear. With these readjustments it was hoped that the Greeks could continue their withdrawal, 9, 10 and 13 Divisions of the Western Macedonian Army moving south towards Grevena and 11 Division on the western flank occupying the Metsovon Pass to check any possible attack from the Epirus.
1 Armoured Brigade Group, including New Zealand units, withdraws from Grevena, night 14–15 April
In the Grevena area the situation had naturally become more tense. On 14 April, after their withdrawal from Vevi and Ptolemais, D Company 1 Rangers and 3 Royal Tank Regiment, now only one squadron strong, were screening the approaches from the north; B Company 1 Rangers and B Battery 102 Anti-Tank Regiment were supporting the Greeks to the east in Siatista Pass; the rest of the brigade group, including 27 New Zealand Machine Gun Battalion (less two companies) and the two troops from New Zealand Divisional Cavalry Regiment, were immediately south of Grevena.
The day will always be remembered by those who were there for the many devastating attacks delivered by the Luftwaffe. Near Grevena three raids took place within an hour and a half: ‘The road was littered with vehicles ... three English boys killed at the same AA gun (155 Lt AA Battery) no sooner was one gunner killed than another rushed to take his place. ...’13 The New Zealand
machine-gunners who were farther south sheltering under the olive trees were also bombed and strafed but they suffered no casualties. The two troops from the Divisional Cavalry were equally fortunate when they were sent north of Grevena to cover the demolition of bridges, the move beginning during a raid and continuing with the attached engineers racing their truckload of explosives past the blazing vehicles along the highway.
The brigade had been led to expect another stubborn rearguard action, but as the hours passed Brigadier Charrington decided that the retreat of the Greeks from the passes to the north and the German attack upon Servia Pass14 forced him to order an early withdrawal. The detachments supporting the Greeks in Siatista Pass were therefore withdrawn and that night the units, when ready, joined the line of traffic slowly moving south. Thus, when the Divisional Cavalry troops returned about midnight, the brigade was on its way to positions south of the Venetikos River.
The defence plans of W Force had in their turn to be adjusted to meet this threat from the west. An early air report that morning, 14 April, had certainly mentioned enemy vehicles moving westwards from Klisoura, but the strength of the supporting columns had not suggested that the main thrust was to be made in that direction. With the heaviest volume of traffic on the road from Kozani towards Servia Pass, there had been more reason to think that there would be a drive directly southwards rather than an encirclement of the western flank.
Nevertheless, General Wilson had always expected Marshal List to order an encircling movement through Grevena or, if his column advanced still deeper into the Epirus, a still wider move from Ioannina through Metsovon and across the Pindhos Mountains to Kalabaka. To meet this threat, a brief survey of the eastern approaches had already been made by Brigadier S. Savige of 17 Australian Brigade,15 who had arrived in Greece some days ahead of his battalions and had been sent to reconnoitre these possible lines of advance. On his return to Headquarters Anzac Corps on 14 April the question of a defence line was then discussed, Brigadier A. Galloway, General Wilson’s BGS, pressing for the despatch of 17 Brigade to Kalabaka. The decision was made for them when it was reported that the Germans, having driven 20 Greek Division from the Klisoura Pass, were moving to cut the line of withdrawal of the Western Macedonian Army.
The orders for the assembly of Savige Force were hastily prepared. When they arrived at Larisa at 7 p.m., 2/11 Australian
Battalion and 2/5 Battalion (less one company) were immediately sent on to Kalabaka. The seven cruiser tanks16 of Headquarters Squadron 1 Armoured Brigade, which had been exchanged for the two troops from C Squadron New Zealand Divisional Cavalry Regiment, came up that afternoon. Twenty-fifth Battery 4 New Zealand Field Regiment had already been established in Olympus Pass, but at 5.35 p.m. it received its movement orders and within two and a half hours was making an exciting night drive without headlights to Elasson, Larisa and Kalabaka. Next day it came under the command of 64 Medium Regiment, which had arrived with one composite battery. In support there were also a battery from 2/1 Australian Anti-Tank Regiment, a company from 2/1 Australian Machine Gun Battalion and 2/2 Australian Field Company.
Situation at Last Light, 14 April
On the other sectors of the front there was more confidence. Emphasis was now being given to the fact that Australians and New Zealanders were once again fighting together. A suggestion that the two Dominions should provide a corps had already been made in March 1940, but there had been problems of administration and general policy which had made the authorities hesitate and eventually allow the proposal to lapse. On 6 April, when the different units in Greece had been united to form 1 Australian Corps, the romance of combined action in another April and in a country adjoining Gallipoli had caused General Freyberg to tell his Prime Minister, Mr Fraser: ‘We are now linked with the 6th Australian Division; thus the Anzac Corps is again in being.’17 He seems to have suggested that the official title should be changed from 1 Australian Corps to Anzac Corps, for the cable from Australia to New Zealand announcing the change stated that it was ‘at the request of the New Zealand Division and with Blamey’s full agreement.’18
The announcement to the divisions had been made on 12 April by General Blamey:
As from 1800 hrs 12 April 1 Aust Corps will be designated ANZAC CORPS. In making this announcement the GOC ANZAC CORPS desires to say that the reunion of the Australian and New Zealand Divisions gives all ranks the greatest uplift. The task ahead though difficult is not nearly so desperate as that which our fathers faced in April twenty-six years ago. We go to it together with stout hearts and certainty of success.
The message with this information had been taken to Headquarters New Zealand Division by Captain Morrison19 of 25 Battalion, whose Bren carriers had been dispersed as part of an anti-parachute force about Corps Headquarters. His story is more natural than the text of the message. He had been asked by Brigadier Rowell to wait while the message was being prepared. The Brigadier had then said: ‘I’ll let you know what is in it. It will save you opening it on the way home!’ He read it and General Blamey said: ‘There you are, sonny, you have only got to live till 6 o’clock to-night to be a –– Anzac.’
There had been, so far, relatively little fighting for the new Anzacs but every effort was being made to complete the defences before the storm broke. The New Zealand Divisional Cavalry Regiment, having withdrawn20 from the plain about Katerini, was by nightfall behind 5 and 6 Brigades. Sixteenth Australian Brigade21 had arrived in the mountains to the west; 4 New Zealand Brigade was established about Servia Pass; and 19 Australian Brigade22 was still farther to the west adjoining the right flank of the Greeks. No orders for the withdrawal to the Thermopylae line had been issued, but the assembly of rearguards through which these forward brigades would eventually be withdrawn was already under way. General Freyberg had been asked to ‘expedite the withdrawal of NZ Div Cav’ to positions covering the western approaches from Dheskati to Elasson. His 6 Brigade Group, which was moving to positions between 16 Australian Brigade and 5 Brigade, was that night recalled23 to form a rearguard covering the two roads between Elasson and Tirnavos.
15 April: The Situation becomes More Serious
The following day, 15 April, was one of disaster. Away to the north, the request of the Yugoslav Government for an armistice was to lead two days later to the official capitulation of that ally from whom so much resistance had been expected. The Army of Epirus was withdrawing with only slight interference from the Italians, but the Western Macedonian Army was already crumbling before the swiftly moving German armoured columns. In the mountains west of Florina the Greeks had not been strongly pressed, but farther south 20 Division, forced out of the Klisoura and Vlasti passes, was withdrawing across the Aliakmon River to the Neapolis area. In the Lake Kastoria area, where the Germans
reported stubborn resistance, 13 Division and the Cavalry Division had held the towns of Argos Orestikon and Kastoria until late afternoon, but by nightfall the SS ‘Adolf Hitler’ Division had broken through to the Kastoria–Grevena road, thereby preventing any further withdrawals to the south. The two Greek divisions, together with 9 and 10 Divisions which had been falling back towards the west branch of the Aliakmon River, withdrew south-west to the Pindhos Mountains. And still farther south 12 Greek Division, which had retired from the Siatista Pass area, was assembling to the west of Grevena.
The day was also notable for a sudden increase in the number of air attacks. After the raid on the night of 6–7 April the bombing of Piræus harbour had continued ‘until the port was almost wholly disorganized’;24 the minor ports of Khalkis and Volos, being possible bases for W Force, had been bombed and magnetic mines had been laid across the Saronic Gulf. But the Royal Air Force had still been able to patrol the frontier and attack the German lines of communication, even though bad weather during 8–12 April had limited its activities, especially its invaluable reconnaissance flights. Now that the weather had cleared it was hopelessly outnumbered. German aircraft, transferred from Yugoslavia and operating from hastily prepared airstrips about Prilep and Monastir, were therefore able to begin that ‘widespread, continuous and intense’ strafing and bombing which was to continue throughout the campaign.
The Royal Air Force, now unassisted by a Greek observer system, was very hard hit. At dawn the Hurricanes at Larisa and the Blenheims at Niamata were badly damaged. The railway station at Larisa was bombed throughout the day, the civilian staff being so disturbed that the British were forced to provide crews to operate the trains. Air Vice-Marshal D’Albiac, who observed the raid on Larisa, promptly decided that the few remaining aircraft must be sent back to the Athens area even if it meant that W Force would have to operate with less protection from the air.
The result was particularly noticeable in the Greek sector. First Armoured Brigade had left25 the Grevena area before midnight on 14 April, but it was not until the evening of 15 April that it was across the Venetikos River, no more than 12 miles away. The gorge south of Grevena, the sharp ridges, the corkscrew bends and the narrow bridges had encouraged a paralysing congestion of traffic. At dawn, 15 April, ‘it was possible to see the road ahead packed with Greeks, Yugo-Slavs 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.’26 When the two troops from the New Zealand Divisional Cavalry caught up with 1 Armoured Brigade they found the road ‘a shambles of destroyed vehicles, bomb craters and all sorts of equipment.’27
By 5 p.m., when the worst was over, 102 Anti-Tank Regiment and 1 Rangers were in position above the Venetikos River with the brigade taking up positions behind them. The Germans were now miles to the north. Fourth Hussars, the last unit to come out, had seen nothing of them and a patrol that was sent back that evening reported that the enemy had not yet entered Grevena.
Meanwhile, to the rear, in the Kalabaka area, Savige Force was preparing another line. Instead of a position near the junction of the Grevena and Metsovon roads, the Brigadier had chosen a sector some two to three miles west of Kalabaka, with the upper Pinios River on his left flank, a stream across the front and more open country on the right which would have to be defended in depth. The straggling Greek troops had already been cleared from the area; 2/5 and 2/11 Australian Battalions were preparing the line; the artillery were south of Kalabaka, 25 Battery 4 New Zealand Field Regiment being near the village of Aimnades and the medium artillery to the east of Kalabaka below the great cliffs which overlook the upper Pinios River.
In the afternoon of 15 April General Wilson had appeared, hoping to discuss the situation with General Tsolakoglou, the commander of 3 Corps [the Western Macedonian Army]. He failed to find the General but was able to inform Brigadier Savige of the withdrawal plans28 to be issued by Anzac Corps at 6 p.m. The 2/6 and 2/7 Battalions and a company from 2/5 Battalion and 2/1 Field Regiment (less a battery), all on their way north from Athens, would not come through to Kalabaka. With 19 Australian Brigade, which would be withdrawing that night from the hills west of Servia, they would instead establish a rearguard29 at Dhomokos, a town in the hills north of Lamia.
He also warned the Brigadier that his force must have on hand the necessary transport for a swift withdrawal. So it was arranged
that eighty30 trucks should be available from a convoy of 120 three-tonners which was coming through that night with 3000 Greek troops31 from the western side of the Metsovon Pass to the crossroads north of Kalabaka. The convoy, which included eighteen trucks from 4 New Zealand RMT Company under the command of Second-Lieutenant Pool,32 came through successfully but the Greeks did not go into the line at Kalabaka. They cluttered up the forward areas and ‘added weight to the stream of refugee troops, mule trains and mule carts passing through from Grevena to Trikkala.’
Kalabaka, famous for its monasteries perched on the tops of pinnacles or clinging to the cliff faces, had long since been in a state of turmoil: ‘the straggling Greek troops, without food, took what they could from the shops and houses. ... civilians took their current and reserve needs from the now-unprotected dumps, from which Greek troops had fled to join the procession eastwards.’33
Anzac Corps delays the German Advance; Withdrawal Orders are Prepared
In the eastern sector on 15 April the British units had been in close contact with the enemy. Above the Platamon tunnel 21 New Zealand Battalion34 had to check the advanced guard of the unexpectedly large force moving down from Salonika; from Olympus Pass the guns with 5 New Zealand Brigade35 had opened fire on a column of tanks and vehicles. In the wild country some six miles south-east of Servia, 16 Australian Brigade36 was moving into positions after its long march from Veroia Pass. West again in the Servia sector 4 New Zealand Brigade37 had surprised and captured a confident advanced guard; and still farther west across the river and adjoining the Greek right flank, 19 Australian Brigade and 26 New Zealand Battalion,38 as yet undisturbed by the enemy, were hastening to establish defences.
At the different headquarters there was a corresponding sense of urgency that was intensified after 9.5 a.m. when Headquarters W Force issued its orders for the withdrawal to Thermopylae. To
cover the withdrawal of the deployed brigades, four forces were already being organised to hold the successive rearguard positions: 1 Armoured Brigade, operating directly under Anzac Corps, in the Grevena sector; Savige Force in the Kalabaka area; 6 New Zealand Brigade south of Elasson about Tirnavos; and the not yet formed Lee Force at Dhomokos to cover the road and rail routes south of Larisa. The engineers would carry out maximum demolitions in depth along the roads and in the defiles. As for the Greeks, Anzac Corps would make every effort ‘to ensure that GK forces do not withdraw on routes available to Imperial Forces, and that they do not in any way whatsoever hinder the withdrawal.’ These arrangements were the responsibility of General Blamey, the inevitable political problems39 making it necessary for General Wilson to be in Athens.
Accordingly, at 6 p.m. that same day, 15 April, Headquarters Anzac Corps issued detailed orders.40 There would be two phases. In the first the rearguards would be established and the preliminary withdrawals undertaken. Sixth New Zealand Brigade, instead of linking 5 and 16 Brigades, would move to positions ‘astride the circle of roads from Elasson to Tyrnavos’ where, supported by 2/3 Australian Field Regiment, it would be the rearguard through which 5 New Zealand Brigade would withdraw from Olympus Pass and 4 New Zealand Brigade from Servia Pass.
Nineteenth Australian Brigade and 26 New Zealand Battalion would withdraw from the Servia Pass area, where they were to have linked Anzac Corps and the Greek right flank. Twenty-sixth Battalion would rejoin 6 Brigade; the Australians would be transported through Larisa and Pharsala to Dhomokos where, with 2/6 and 2/7 Battalions, a company of 2/5 Battalion and 2/1 Field Regiment (less a battery), all hitherto detailed to join Savige Force, they would form Lee Force.
Sixteenth Australian Brigade, which had been moving41 through the mountains ever since 12 April and was now in position between 5 New Zealand Brigade in Olympus Pass and 4 New Zealand Brigade in Servia Pass, would march out that night to the south side of Servia Pass, and from there be transported to Zarkos. There, with the support of one field regiment, it would be astride the Trikkala–Larisa road covering the withdrawal of 1 Armoured Brigade from Grevena and Savige Force from Kalabaka.
If these moves were complete by 8 a.m. on 16 April the second phase of the withdrawal could begin, with General Freyberg responsible for the front. On the night of 17–18 April, ‘subject to ability to disengage’, 5 Brigade at Olympus Pass, 4 Brigade at Servia Pass and Savige Force in the Kalabaka area would be withdrawn through the rearguards to the Thermopylae line, 100 miles to the south.
The following night, 18–19 April, 6 New Zealand Brigade from the Elasson area, 16 Australian Brigade from Zarkos and 21 New Zealand Battalion from the Platamon tunnel on the coast would withdraw, ‘ 1st Armoured Brigade covering the final withdrawal across the flat featureless plain of Thessaly on 19th April.’42 In turn its withdrawal would be covered by Lee Force astride the road at Dhomokos in the hills to the north of Lamia.
All marching personnel would be carried in motor transport, the New Zealand Division following the road to Volos and thence along the coast to Lamia and through the pass at Thermopylae. The Australian Division, continuing south along the main highway, would use the main road through Pharsala and Dhomokos to Lamia and thence to Brallos Pass in the mountains to the west of Thermopylae. The actual transportation of the brigades from the forward areas was a task for the reserve motor companies, of which 1 RMT Company, RASC, and 4 (New Zealand) RMT Company, less the vehicles attached to assist the Greeks, were with Anzac Corps; 2 and 308 RMT Companies, RASC, were retained by Headquarters W Force.
The Deputy Director of Supplies and Transport, Brigadier Collings, had already been warned that 81 Base Sub-area was to move from Larisa to the Thebes area. So during the night of 14–15 April all the workshop sections with their heavy equipment had been on the road, and trainloads of base troops, ammunition and essential stores had left by rail from Larisa.
Withdrawal of 1 General Hospital
Among the units which made this early withdrawal was 1 New Zealand General Hospital, which had been at Pharsala ever since 22 March. On the night of 14–15 April the patients were taken to a train at the Demerli railway siding, but the orders were countermanded and they had to be brought back to camp. The following evening, however, sisters, staff and patients were all evacuated. The sisters43 left in the transport provided by the Mobile Dental Unit. The 428 patients moved at first light, 112 convalescents
walking with the staff to the siding some six miles away, and the others being transported in relays in the six available vehicles. The expected hospital train did not arrive, but one without an engine was made up from the wagons at the siding and, in spite of protests from the Greek transport officials, was added to another which came through from Larisa.
Once daylight came, those aboard had their exciting moments. There were air raids and the Greek engine-driver did not want to work, but a New Zealander and an Australian kept him to his task and in the afternoon of 16 April the train reached Athens. The patients and the majority of the staff went either to 26 General Hospital or 2/5 Australian General Hospital. The others44 went to Voula, where on 17 April they established a convalescent hospital at the Reinforcement Base Camp. Next day the sisters who had been billeted in Athens were transferred to houses in Kifisia.
The Withdrawal Plans have to be Changed, 16 April
On 16 April the Higher Command was at last certain of the order in which the enemy now proposed to play his much superior cards. The encirclement which General Wilson had expected from the west via Grevena and Kalabaka was certainly developing, not because it was a major feature of the original plan but because the commander of 9 Panzer Division had made45 it quite clear to the commander of XXXX Corps that any frontal attack upon the escarpment above Servia ‘would be pointless.’ Consequently, when 59 Motor Cycle Battalion had linked up with the SS ‘Adolf Hitler’ Division, it had been decided to rush 5 Panzer Division through the Siatista Pass to become, once the bridge south-east of Grevena had been repaired, the spearhead of an attack through Kalabaka and Larisa. At the same time the main body of SS ‘Adolf Hitler’ Division, now in the Kastoria area, would be relieved by 73 Division and hurried south to advance via Grevena and Dheskati to Elasson, ‘with the object of getting behind the Servia positions and causing them to collapse.’46 The one point to the advantage of W Force was that both these encircling moves demanded time.
It was suddenly apparent, however, that the more dangerous
threat to the security of W Force was the German attack47 on 21 Battalion above the Platamon tunnel. In the opinion of the Greeks, no strong attack could be developed in this wild country and their appreciation had been accepted by Wilson, Blamey and Freyberg. Attacks on 15 April and during the night of 15–16 April had been checked, but at nine o’clock next morning an encircling movement in conjunction with a frontal tank attack had forced the battalion to withdraw up the Pinios Gorge. Eighteenth Corps, with 2 Panzer Division along the coast and 6 Mountain Division on the slopes of Mount Olympus, was now threatening to break through to Larisa, the key town on the line of withdrawal.
The moment General Blamey had clear evidence of this threat he realised that 21 Battalion must be reinforced.48 In fact he had, at 1 a.m., already despatched his artillery commander, Brigadier C. A. Clowes, ‘to ascertain the position’ and ‘to direct the Battalion Commander as to his course of action.’ His direction was that the western end of the gorge must be held at all costs.
Variations in the plans of Anzac Corps were accordingly made late that night, 16–17 April. Sixteenth Australian Brigade,49 instead of going to Zarkos to cover the western approaches to Larisa, would now cover the western exit of the Pinios Gorge. Under the command of Brigadier A. S. Allen there would also be 21 New Zealand Battalion, 4 New Zealand Field Regiment (less one battery), one troop 7 New Zealand Anti-Tank Regiment and eleven carriers from 2/5 and 2/11 Australian Battalions.
In the withdrawal General Mackay of 6 Australian Division would be responsible for protecting the right and left flanks50 of the New Zealand Division until it passed through Larisa. After that he would control the withdrawal through Dhomokos to Thermopylae of Savige Force, Zarkos Force and finally of Lee Force. First Armoured Brigade would cover51 the withdrawal of Savige Force to Larisa and thereafter that of 6 Australian Division, under whose command it would then be. As Allen Force, like the New Zealand Division, was to withdraw through Volos, it would be controlled by General Freyberg. All engineers were placed under Corps control, with each force commander becoming responsible for demolitions on his section of the highway. If sufficient delay was imposed upon the enemy the following timetable was to be adopted: on the night of 17–18 April Savige Force would come
back to Zarkos and 4 and 5 New Zealand Brigades would withdraw beyond Larisa; on the night of 18–19 April 6 Brigade would continue the withdrawal through Larisa. The subsequent withdrawal of Allen and Savige Forces would be decided by Generals Mackay and Freyberg.
The more detailed orders for the New Zealand Division had already been issued by General Freyberg. As the first step, 5 Brigade on the night of 16–17 April was to pull back to temporary positions on the crest of Olympus Pass. Duff Force with anti-tank guns, machine guns and the carrier platoons from 6 Brigade was to occupy defensive positions about the road junction at Elevtherokhorion. Next day the Divisional Cavalry Regiment, less one squadron to the west along the road to Dheskati, would take up a covering position just to the north of the road junction. The following night, 17–18 April, 4 and 5 Brigades would withdraw As 4 Brigade Group moved south, 26 Battalion would rejoin 6 Brigade in the Elasson area and 7 Medium Regiment, Royal Artillery, 6 New Zealand Field Regiment and 2/3 Australian Field Regiment would come under the command of the CRA New Zealand Division in support of 6 Brigade. The other units would turn off south-east at Iarisa and follow the Velestinon–Almiros road to the Molos area behind the Thermopylae line. The same night 5 Brigade Group would be taken to a staging area between Velestinon and Almiros. The transport would then return for 6 Brigade, the 4 Brigade transport returning to take 5 Brigade to the Molos area.
The Divisional Cavalry Regiment at Elevtherokhorion, 6 Brigade to the south at Elasson and 21 Battalion in the Pinios Gorge would hold on throughout 18 April. After darkness fell they would disengage and, with the Divisional Cavalry Regiment in the rear, move back to Thermopylae.
The Withdrawal continues through Kalabaka, 16 April
In the Greek sector the roads were still clogged with traffic. On the night of 15–16 April a British transport company had crossed the Pindhos Mountains for another load of Greek troops. Lieutenant Pool, whose truck had broken down, had not gone with the convoy, but next morning he was sent forward through the mass of refugees with written instructions from Brigadier Savige for the company to disregard the Greeks and to return to Kalabaka. At the foot of the Metsovon Pass he met the trucks returning empty – the Greeks of their own accord had refused to move east. Once back at Kalabaka the company divided, the majority remaining attached to Savige Force, the New Zealand lorries returning to Nikaia.
At last light 1 Armoured Brigade, now the rearguard, was preparing to hold positions on the south bank of the Venetikos River. But at 11 p.m. its commander, Brigadier Charrington, announced that next day all units would continue southwards through Kalabaka. Accordingly, at 10 a.m. on 16 April the withdrawal52 continued, 27 New Zealand Machine Gun Battalion leaving at 2 p.m. and the rearguard at 3 p.m. Movement was just as difficult as it had been the previous day, but no effort was made to turn eastwards along the Karperon–Dheskati–Elasson diversion, which was still being screened by the New Zealand Divisional Cavalry. Apparently no patrols had been sent to survey this route and the only information available suggested the danger of enemy interference.
The route was therefore south through Velemisti and Kalabaka, along ‘an awful road which had been bombed very heavily the day before. The effect of the rain on the damaged track, metalled only in occasional stretches was immediate and serious. ... Maps were unreliable and the better looking of two routes petered out in a quagmire. Bomb holes had to be filled in. In places the road had been quite destroyed and deviations had to be made frequently, while every vehicle that used them made the mud worse. Trucks which slithered off the mountain track and down the hillside had to be hauled back. ... Everywhere lay the debris of the retreating army. Ammunition, arms and equipment, derelict vehicles, dead men and animals. ...’53
Movement was necessarily very slow. The leading vehicles passed through Kalabaka before nightfall but the main body spent the night in and about Velemisti, about 20 miles along the road. The rearguard had moved only five miles. Yet it had been ‘a blissful day as it poured with rain the whole time with very low clouds, so there was no straffing on the road.’54 As one machine-gunner said: ‘It was the most marvellous move we made – over a mountainous area by roads which if we had seen in daylight we would have classed as impassable. One section of 9 miles took us 6 hours.’55
Next morning, 17 April, as the brigade was continuing its withdrawal through Kalabaka, the question of its future movements had to be decided. General Mackay had hoped to use it in the country south of Larisa to cover the withdrawal of 6 Brigade.56 The orders from General Blamey which arrived about midday were that the force should remain at Kalabaka to cover the
withdrawal of Savige Force. But the orders from General Wilson had been that it should pull back into reserve at Atalandi, about 180 miles away and well behind the Thermopylae line. The solution finally adopted was that the brigade should leave a small detachment – a carrier platoon of 1 Rangers, a troop from 102 Anti-Tank Regiment and 5 Platoon 27 (Machine Gun) Battalion, the two troops from the New Zealand Divisional Cavalry Regiment and the seven cruiser tanks from 1 Armoured Brigade – to operate with Savige Force.
The rest of the brigade group went on to the Atalandi area. At the Pinios River the traffic bridge57 had been unexpectedly wrecked but the column was diverted north to another, by which, in spite of air attacks near the river and afterwards about Larisa, it was able to join the main stream of W Force vehicles withdrawing towards Thermopylae. On the evening of 18 April the units were dispersing about Atalandi, 27 (Machine Gun) Battalion (less two companies and one platoon) going to an area eight miles north of the town.
Collapse of Greek Resistance
By then the Greeks had ceased to make any serious efforts to halt the German columns. On 15 April, after his failure to find the Greek commander at Kalabaka, Wilson had returned to his headquarters which were now south of Larisa. There he received a message to meet Papagos next morning at Lamia. Outside the town they met58 and discussed the situation. The Germans were through the Klisoura Pass and the Greeks were taking to the western hills; in Albania the Italians were pressing forward along the whole front. Wilson mentioned his decision to withdraw to Thermopylae, and Papagos, who does not seem to have known that the move was already under way, expressed his approval. To avoid further devastation Papagos also suggested that the British forces should be withdrawn from Greece. General Wilson immediately arranged that General Wavell in Cairo should be informed of the proposal.
The same morning Brigadier Savige was able to meet General Tsolakoglou in Kalabaka. As the straggling Greek troops were still hampering the efforts of the Australians to prepare defences, the Brigadier suggested that the Greeks should be organised and marched outside the areas in which fighting might take place. The General agreed but his vigorous objections to Australian engineers
preparing demolitions on the road across the Pindhos Mountains to Ioannina suggested that he was ‘double-crossing’.59 The Australians were not surprised when half an hour later the General and his staff left for Ioannina, the headquarters of the Army of Epirus.
That army, not greatly harassed by the Italians, had been steadily withdrawing but the senior commanders had shown no desire to make any heroic stands, particularly against the German columns. Convinced that their cause was hopeless, they had already on 14 April petitioned the High Command and the Greek Government to end the war. In the Athens area Greek troops were now for some unknown reason enjoying general leave and wandering aimlessly about the streets. And the day that General Tsolakogloa left Kalabaka the Metropolitan Bishop of Ioannina, who was pro-German in his sympathies and anxious to save his country from the Italians, was urging the Prime Minister, M. Koryzis, to end the war.
The Overall Situation
Elsewhere the situation was even worse. In North Africa the advanced guard of Rommel’s army was approaching the border of Egypt while the main body was probing the outer defences of Tobruk. Its repulse on 14 April showed that the situation was not altogether hopeless, but this success was already balanced by expected but yet disturbing news from the Balkans.
On 13 April, the day that Wavell returned to Egypt, the Germans entered Belgrade. The armies of Yugoslavia were then in such confusion that on 15 April60 their commander asked for an armistice. So whatever the conditions in North Africa, it was essential that Wavell should in the very near future return to Greece and there decide whether the expeditionary force should fight it out or be evacuated by the Royal Navy.