Chapter 11: The New Zealand Division goes into Action
New Zealand Divisional Cavalry Regiment Witbdraws to the Main Defence Line
ON 9 April XVIII Corps (General Böhme) reached Salonika1 and was ordered to attack the Aliakmon line. Strong patrols moved out towards Edhessa, Veroia (‘main axis of advance’) and Katerini, but the swift advance of XXXX Corps (General Stumme) from Yugoslavia through the Klidhi Pass forced the Allies to withdraw2 from both the Edhessa and Veroia passes. The greater part of XVIII Corps was then diverted south towards Katerini and Mount Olympus. Sixth Mountain Division advancing from Veroia would attack the northern slopes in the sector held by 16 Australian Brigade; 2 Panzer Division would cross the Aliakmon River and force the passes leading to Elasson and Larisa, the key towns through which the forward brigades of W Force would inevitably have to withdraw.
In the original plans the New Zealand Divisional Cavalry Regiment was to have opposed the crossing and then, with a series of delaying actions, was to have withdrawn through 5 Brigade astride Olympus Pass. On 10 April, however, General Freyberg had warned Lieutenant-Colonel Carruth3 that it was no longer necessary to get seriously involved. So When rain fell that night and left the roads almost impassable for heavy traffic, the armoured cars were withdrawn from their emplacements along the river bank and moved to cover the more likely crossing places.
On 12 April the observers on the hillsides reported sunlight flashing from the windscreens and then long columns of motor vehicles ‘across the front to our left.’ A Squadron from its position on the river bank opposite the ruins of the road and railway bridges opened fire about 2 p.m. on the motor-cyclists who were confidently leading the way. The troop hastily dispersed, leaving one man and two motor-cycles lying on the road. After that the Germans advanced more cautiously, but it was impossible to prevent them
forming a screen along the northern embankment. At 7.15 p.m., when the forward vehicles of the columns were between Niselion and the demolished road bridge, one gun4 of E Troop 5 Field Regiment sent over the first two rounds fired at the enemy by the Divisional Artillery during the war. The Germans thereupon withdrew out of range to spend the night assembling their assault groups.
Their attack was launched next morning, 13 April, about 9 a.m. when concentrations of shells and mortar bombs fell upon the areas opposite the demolished bridges. A Squadron, well protected by the high floodbanks, suffered no losses and withheld its fire until the Germans attempted to cross near the ruins of the traffic bridge. Then, with the support of E Troop 5 Field Regiment, the crews opened fire with all they had – rifles, anti-tank rifles and machine guns – and scattered the groups attempting to launch kapok floats. One enemy gun received a direct hit as it was being loaded on to a float, several men were wounded, some ammunition was hit, ‘the detonations adding to the dangers of the crossing place.’5 But downstream the enemy were more successful and by nightfall had established a secure bridgehead.
Long before then the New Zealanders had withdrawn. About midday B Squadron had come out from its position up-stream and moved back with the artillery to the anti-tank ditch some six miles away. A Squadron shifted east to watch the railway bridge, where the volume of fire suggested an attempt to cross in that sector. When no attack developed, the squadron withdrew through C Squadron to join the others behind the anti-tank ditch. Thus by nightfall C Squadron was astride the main road overlooking the ditch, B Squadron was along a ridge to the west and A Squadron near Stavros. E Troop 5 Field Regiment was close to Regimental Headquarters, but 3 Section 6 Field Company, having fired all prepared demolitions, was well to the rear.
The night was undisturbed but at first light, 14 April, the Germans again moved forward. The Luftwaffe was no great menace, the few aircraft that came over being content to observe rather than to strafe, but the artillery which had been brought across the river shelled C Squadron in the central sector and covered the infantry when they left their trucks and scrambled across the anti-tank ditch. The tanks concentrated along the coast, groping their way through the minefield and eventually encircling the ditch. No further delaying action being possible, the force withdrew through Katerini to the Mount Olympus area. The artillery rejoined 5 Field Regiment; B Squadron Divisional Cavalry Regiment covered the
entrance to the pass and the other squadrons withdrew over the pass. The three small bridges between Katerini and the pass were blown by a section from 5 Field Park Company with the CRE, Lieutenant-Colonel Clifton, present to check the results.
The carriers of B Squadron were then withdrawn, leaving the armoured cars astride the road. The orders for their withdrawal came over in clear from Colonel Stewart, GSO I. He asked the adjutant, Captain Pigou,6 if he understood Haeremai. That failing, he suggested Talahena as a code-word; it was understood and the instruction was ‘Put it into effect immediately.’ Consequently at 5 p.m., when the artillery observers in the mountains were reporting the appearance of German vehicles along the road from Katerini, the armoured cars of B Squadron were through the lines of 5 Brigade and on their way over the pass to join the regiment in the Dholikhi area.
That night Lieutenant-Colonel Carruth received orders to move the regiment to the Dheskati area, where it would be under the command of Anzac Corps and responsible for the road between Karperon and Elasson, a route by which 1 Armoured Brigade might possibly withdraw from Grevena to Larisa. So next day, with N Troop 34 Battery 7 Anti-Tank Regiment and the section from 6 Field Company, the regiment moved across to that area, where the engineers constructed road blocks and prepared demolitions to the west of the town. There were as yet no signs of any Germans, but during 16 April 26 Battalion and elements of 19 Australian Brigade came through after their exhausting withdrawal7 from the upper Aliakmon valley.
The Withdrawal of 6 Brigade to Elasson
In the meantime there had been further movements from the Mount Olympus sector. On 11 April, after the withdrawal of 6 Brigade from the anti-tank ditch to the crest of the pass, Brigadier Barrowclough had been told that until the situation was more definite his brigade must remain in reserve. Arrangements were therefore made for 24 and 25 Battalions to repair the roads to the rear of the pass, the former at Livadhion, the latter at Kokkinoplos. On 13 April, however, several moves had to be made. In response to a request for reinforcements 26 Battalion was sent to support 19 Australian Brigade in the rough country to the west of Servia Pass. The other battalions were made responsible for the sector between the western flank of 5 Brigade and the eastern end of the
Titarion ridge, to which 16 Australian Brigade was now moving. Twenty-fourth Battalion would close the gap between the brigades and 25 Battalion would return from Kokkinoplos to a reserve position near Ay Dhimitrios. The move was simple enough for 25 Battalion but 24 Battalion, after hurriedly collecting mules and donkeys from the Greeks, had to start off at nightfall on 14 April carrying full packs, extra ammunition and two days’ rations. At midnight, after the men had climbed 1000 feet and reached the beech forest above the Ay Nikolaos stream, orders arrived for their return to the pass.
The withdrawal of W Force to Thermopylae was now under way. Sixth Brigade, less 26 Battalion, and 4 Field Regiment, less 25 Battery,8 were to establish at Elasson the rearguard position through which the brigades would withdraw from Servia and Mount Olympus. Fourth Field Regiment9 and 25 Battalion went back that night to the foot of the pass; 24 Battalion joined them during the day. The move was continued after dusk and by 16 April the brigade group was preparing positions three miles south of the town on the southern edge of the small plain across which were the two roads to Larisa.
Movements to and from Servia Pass
In the Servia Pass area there was an even greater degree of adjustment and withdrawal. Fourth Brigade was busily establishing itself but on its immediate left flank there was always movement, at first to and then from the scrub-covered hill country on the right flank of the Greek sector.
After the fighting in the Klidhi Pass area the defence of this gap between 4 Brigade and the Greeks had been the responsibility of 19 Australian Brigade, whose two battalions had been taken through Kozani to Kerasia, a village west of Servia and to the north of Dheskati Pass. The 2/4 Battalion was on the high ridges about Kteni; 2/8 Battalion, still only 300 strong, had gone into reserve still farther south. Their transport had returned north to Kozani and south from there across the Aliakmon River, through Servia and west again to Mikrovalton. In this area where 2/2 and 2/3 Australian Field Regiments afterwards went into position, the vehicles were relatively close to the battalions but separated from them by the deep river valley and several miles of complicated hill country.
As there was still a great gap between the Australians and 4 New Zealand Brigade at Servia, 26 New Zealand Battalion on 13 April was brought up from the Mount Olympus sector. The battalion transport being away collecting D Company, which was still on its way from the Platamon tunnel, the whole unit was shifted by 4 New Zealand RMT Company. The Australians had entered the sector from the north, but as the Servia bridge was due for demolition the convoy went in from the south, turning westwards on the ridge above Servia – over which the Stukas were diving from a bright blue sky – and eventually stopping about two miles beyond Prosilion.
The battalion was to come under the command of 19 Australian Brigade, but as it was still impossible to communicate with Brigade Headquarters the companies were sent to temporary positions overlooking the Aliakmon River and the village of Rimnion. With all equipment and extra ammunition, they scrambled down and spent the night digging in. Next morning, 14 April, they were joined by D Company, very travel weary after its roundabout journey10 from the Platamon tunnel. The Luftwaffe was busy strafing the road through Servia Pass but the quartermaster, Captain Wilson,11 went down with the rations towards the river and then back along the south bank to the battalion area.
Meanwhile Lieutenant-Colonel Page had received instructions by using the 11-mile-long telephone system between the Australian artillery and Headquarters 19 Australian Brigade. The battalion was to cross the river that night to positions on the right flank of the Australians. There was, as yet, no bridge across the thirty yards of swift-flowing river, only an assault-boat ferry operated with ropes and pulleys, but the battalion was expected to be in line before dawn. The unit transport would eventually bring forward mortars, cooking gear, bedrolls and extra ammunition to the crossing or to Rimnion by any route the intelligence section could find.
The night, 14–15 April, had consequently to be spent shuffling down the five miles of slippery clay track to the ferry in which the battalion crossed, three men at a time. As the movement was not complete by first light D Company remained on the south bank, the other three companies going into line on the right of the Australians. Next day, to the sound of the guns about Servia Pass, they prepared their weapon pits and waited hopefully for the equipment and bedrolls to come forward.
The same night, 14–15 April, the left flank of 4 Brigade had been extended westwards, 20 Battalion leaving one company in its reserve position south of Servia and going forward to reduce the gap between 19 and 26 Battalions. C Troop 31 Battery 7 Anti-Tank Regiment was under command to cover the approaches east and west of Rimnion, a company (less one, platoon) of 2/1 Australian Machine Gun Battalion was attached and, as the artillery with 4 Brigade could not shell so far forward, arrangements were made with 7 Medium Regiment (one battery) and 2/3 Australian Field Regiment in the Mikrovalton area to give their support. But even then the front was not sound. Direct attacks could probably be held, but encirclement by German forces coming through the lightly held Greek sector to the west was always a possibility.
At the moment the problem for 26 Battalion was one of supply. The unit vehicles, long since dispersed along the ridge to the south, could not be brought down to the river. To get them to Rimnion it would have been necessary to rush through the pass into Servia and then back parallel to the river, possibly in the view of German aircraft and most certainly within range of their newly established batteries. The only other route was a rough track that ran down to the river from a monastery below the crest of the ridge and west of the battalion’s rear headquarters. The Australians were already planning to use mule trains from there, so about midday, after Lieutenant-Colonel Page had insisted that his mortars and supplies should be brought up no matter how difficult or dangerous the route, Captain Foley,12 officer commanding Headquarters Company, set out to find the track and explain13 the situation to the Colonel.
On the way he overtook an Australian officer who had been wandering for hours in search of Brigadier Vasey’s headquarters. The operation orders from Anzac Corps had not yet been issued, but the Brigadier had already been warned to ‘make every endeavour to get out by dawn, 16 Apr’ and the liaison officer was taking forward the final orders. Hence Foley, after reporting to Brigade Headquarters, was able to advise Lieutenant-Colonal Page of the impending withdrawal.
The orders eventually given to Page were that his battalion must cover the withdrawal of the sick and the wounded, the medical units and, finally, that of 19 Australian Brigade. Twenty-sixth Battalion would not move until 11 p.m., when it would cross the river and follow the track up the ridge towards the monastery. The Brigadier said that Australian transport would be available once the battalion reached the road, but if it were not, the unit was to keep moving. At last, after what seemed an age, the companies, already tense from the glow of flares across the front and the sound of shellfire about Servia, stumbled out along the ridges and through the scrub towards the river.
Meanwhile, because of the shortage of signal wire and the difficulties and slowness of other methods of liaison, there was much confusion at Rear Battalion Headquarters. Nothing had come through from Lieutenant-Colonel Page to countermand his orders that the urgently needed supplies must be sent forward at
all costs. Major Samson14 had consequently sent the transport along the road to Servia Pass while he himself went down the clay track to the battalion. With Lieutenant Matheson15 in charge, the transport approached the pass, but it was soon evident that it could not get through. Australian transport was streaming back and all forward movement was halted at a check point. The lorries were accordingly brought back to Rear Battalion Headquarters, where the drivers waited until first light, at which time Major Samson returned from the river crossing, where he had met Lieutenant-Colonel Page and received more definite instructions. All stores and equipment except petrol, rations, arms and ammunition were to be dumped and the lorries sent forward to await the companies as they struggled up out of the valley.
After leaving their prepared positions about 11 p.m. the companies had reached the river about 1 a.m. on 16 April. As Australian and British engineers had completed a bridge by 10 p.m., just as the leading companies of Australians were assembling on the northern bank, the crossing of the river presented no difficulties. With the exception of one Australian company which missed the bridge and had to use a small boat, the forces, Australian and New Zealand, crossed without any loss of time. But the Bren carriers, the lorries and the Australians’ anti-tank guns had all to be abandoned.
The climb16 from there to the monastery was only nine miles but the ridge was steep, the track muddy, and the equipment heavy. In all it took at least seven hours to reach the crest of the ridge and the trucks assembling on the Elasson-Karperon road.
But as Divisional Headquarters had not received any warning of the withdrawal there was no additional transport. And to complicate matters, some of the unit vehicles were small and others were required for the mortars, ammunition and heavy equipment. The majority of the 600 men had, therefore, to continue their way on foot. ‘Packs, bedrolls, blankets, new two-men tents, and the Naafi stores bought four days earlier’ were dumped, and while men searched for odds and ends among their personal gear ‘the vehicles were organised in readiness to begin a shuttle service.’17
At 19 Brigade Headquarters Lieutenant-Colonel Page had been told that his battalion would move east to Servia Pass, where it was hoped that sufficient transport would be made available. But
because his transport column reported that the road was under fire above Servia Pass and that the B Echelon trucks of 19 Brigade had moved south through Dheskati, he decided that his battalion should do likewise. All gear, except weapons and essential equipment, was then dumped, the trucks were loaded with men and a shuttle service begun, with detachments being taken four or five miles and then left to march while the trucks returned for another load.
The transport followed muddy roads south-west to Karperon and then sharply east over the pass to Dheskati, the village to which many of the parties on foot had come south from Elati. The shuttle service towards Elasson went on with increased vigour. The weather, at first overcast, turned to unpleasant misty rain but it meant that no enemy aircraft disturbed the march. About 2 p.m., however, a shortage of petrol sent several drivers straight through to Elasson and left many weary men to plod along on foot and hope for the return of the lorries.
This made the withdrawal as arduous as any undertaken during the campaign. The men had dug in at Riakia on the night of 13–14 April and prepared new positions next morning; that same day they had crossed the Aliakmon River to spend the night of 14–15 April and the day of 15 April preparing fresh positions. Since then they had been marching for another night and day, in all about three nights and four days of heavy work, little sleep and limited food.
In the afternoon of 16 April the weary files were given some encouragement when they marched through the forward detachments of the Divisional Cavalry Regiment18 whose squadrons were strung out along the road between Dheskati and Elasson. All their available transport was rushed forward and by 10 p.m. the battalion was enjoying a hot meal about Regimental Headquarters at Valanidha.
The day had also been an uncertain one for B Echelon. In the morning Captain Wilson, the quartermaster, had left Dholikhi with rations for the battalion, but when he turned west from Servia Pass to Prosilion he found that the companies had climbed out of the Aliakmon valley and were somewhere westwards along the road to Dheskati. No information could be obtained as to their whereabouts; in fact, when he mentioned the problem to Lieutenant-Colonel Kippenberger of 20 Battalion, that officer was surprised to learn that his western flank had been left unprotected. In the end Wilson returned and moved B Echelon back to Dhomenikon.
The late arrival of the relief transport takes more explanation. Apparently the wireless signals from the Divisional Cavalry
Regiment were not received by Divisional Headquarters, nor had Headquarters 6 Brigade received any report from the officers who were fortunate enough to return with the first vehicles. It was not until the appearance of the transport officer, Second-Lieutenant Bethell,19 that the need for transport was explained and all available vehicles from 24 and 25 Battalions were sent out to find the rest of the battalion. They arrived in the Divisional Cavalry lines about midnight and soon had the companies with B Echelon at Dhomenikon. Next day, 18 April, the battalion rejoined 6 Brigade in the rearguard positions south of Elasson.
The Australian battalions, after they had reached the road above the river, were taken in unit transport to Dhomokos, where Brigadier Lee was organising the rearguard through which W Force would withdraw on its way to Thermopylae. The 2/2 Field Regiment and some groups from 2/4 and 2/8 Battalions made the long detour through Karperon and Dheskati, ‘an action of which Mackay strongly disapproved.’20 The gunners then joined the force which was assembling at Zarkos; the infantry eventually joined the rest of 19 Brigade at Dhomokos. Finally, after dark on 16 April 2/3 Field Regiment withdrew to Elasson to become part of the rearguard with 6 New Zealand Brigade.
The Germans attack 21 Battalion above the Platamon Tunnel
In this period 14–16 April, when the rearguards were assembling at Elasson, Kalabaka and Dhomokos, the Germans launched three separate attacks along the Aliakmon line. On the coast above the Platamon tunnel they forced the withdrawal of 21 New Zealand Battalion, in Olympus Pass to the north of Mount Olympus they were checked21 by 5 New Zealand Brigade and in the Servia Pass to the north they were roughly handled22 by 4 New Zealand Brigade.
That towards Platamon was the most unexpected and consequently the most serious of the three attacks. In the morning of 14 April a train came through from the north and stopped at Platamon, the siding on the south side of the tunnel. The Greek general in control gave Lieutenant-Colonel Macky a certificate stating that this was the last train from Katerini. For the German armoured column had crossed the anti-tank ditch and the New Zealand Divisional Cavalry Regiment was withdrawing through the lines of 5 Brigade on the slopes of Mount Olympus.
About 3 p.m. General Freyberg came up by train to explain the situation. As the Allied forces were withdrawing to Thermopylae,
21 Battalion must halt any attempt to advance down the coast and through the Pinios Gorge towards Larisa. With the country as rough as it was the Higher Command still thought that the most the battalion would have to face would be an infantry attack. The actual demolitions in the tunnel and along the track were now the responsibility of Lieutenant-Colonel Macky; for the evacuation of wounded the railcar on which the General had come up would be available.
Later that afternoon when the battalion was preparing to standto, Macky called a conference of his senior officers. Lieutenant Jones was sent off with orders to fire all his demolitions at 7 p.m., but the conference had hardly ended before an artillery OP reported that a German patrol was scanning the front. It was then about 6.30 p.m., but Jones was ordered to blow his demolitions immediately.
The main charge in the tunnel had no noticeable effect but another fifty pounds of gelignite blocked the track and left a shattered roof, from which debris was falling at least a week later. The charges along the saddle track over the ridge were also fired and considered effective. The engineers were then sent back to prepare demolitions in the Pinios Gorge.
At the same time Lieutenant Williams had hastened to bring his guns into action, their ‘heavy accurate shell-fire’23 forcing the German patrol to scatter into a grove of olive trees and hitting several of the distant vehicles, thereby inflicting the first casualties of the engagement.
Nevertheless, the German patrol leader decided that the pass was lightly held; the British were holding the castle area but not the country behind it or on either side of it. His report, coupled with the sound of the demolitions which seemed to get farther and farther away, led the Germans to decide that only Castle Hill was occupied.24 The commander of 2 Motor Cycle Battalion thereupon determined that an attack with heavy artillery support could be made next morning.
The divisional commander in his turn decided that two battle groups must be organised: Battle Group 1 to enter Olympus Pass, Battle Group 2 to force the Platamon position and advance up the gorge of the Pinios River. If they advanced ‘as quickly as possible’ they could cut off the retreat of the British units withdrawing towards Larisa. To bring about this spectacular success 6 Mountain Division was diverted southwards to Katerini.
This explains the unexpectedly heavy stream of traffic which assembled that night on the plain below 21 Battalion. The observers had early reported that there were many tanks,25 but the chances are that they were armoured troop-carriers. All the same, there was no doubt about the assembly of a large mechanised force. The successive signals sent back to Headquarters 5 Brigade were that seven tanks had tried to approach, that there were fifteen tanks, that a convoy of thirty vehicles including tanks and troop-carriers had been sighted and that the enemy was debussing some three miles away. C Company from its position on the mountainside reported that there were 100 tanks,26 but Lieutenant-Colonel Macky when mentioning this to Anzac Corps cut the number down to fifty.
Whatever they were it was an incredible number of vehicles to be approaching a pass across which there was a saddle track but certainly no well-defined roadway. The higher commands were inclined to question the messages: Headquarters New Zealand Division at first doubted if they were genuine; Headquarters Anzac Corps asked W Force for an air patrol to report upon the situation.
Next morning, 15 April, the Germans soon learnt that the Platamon ridge was more strongly held than they expected. There had been a short bombardment and the leading company of 2 Motor Cycle Battalion was just beginning to climb Castle Hill when a ‘murderous fire broke out from in front and from the heights further back on the enemy’s flank. The company was pinned down and suffered heavy casualties, including its commander ... wounded.’ The force sent up to neutralise the flanking fire was itself pinned down and forced to send out a patrol to find out just where the New Zealand left flank actually was. It eventually reported that it was high up the mountain past Pandeleimon.
The accounts from 21 Battalion confirm this story. The German advance through the dense undergrowth towards A Company on the ridge had faded out. Few of the enemy reached the clearing on the crest and those who did withdrew hastily, Lieutenant W. J. Southworth of 7 Platoon using grenades made by the engineers from sticks of explosive, detonators and safety fuses. B Company, higher up the ridge, had produced its disconcerting flanking fire and the Germans had gone to ground below the companies, leaving patrols to test the strength of the battalion front. Thereafter the New Zealand artillery concentrated on the neutralisation of the
enemy batteries, in which work it showed a fine and necessary discrimination, there being no great reserve of ammunition.
In the late afternoon the Germans made a second attempt to crash their way through. The I/3 Panzer Regiment,27 which had rushed south ‘disregarding all obstacles’ had arrived that afternoon, Colonel Balck then taking over the front and organising another attack. The whole battalion moved to within range of the castle and fired in support of its light troop, which attempted to follow the saddle track to the crest of the ridge. The fall of darkness and the ‘terrible going’ halted them below the New Zealand lines. At dusk, when the attacks had come to a halt and every tank had ‘shed its tracks’, the crews slipped out under cover of darkness and returned to the battalion.
At the same time the infantry, 2 Motor Cycle Battalion, had attempted an encircling movement, two companies making a direct attack on the New Zealand left flank while another, after climbing still higher, outflanked the defences. The frontal attack had, however, been launched before the third company was in position. The fading light and the thick scrub added to their difficulties, so the attack eventually faded out owing to ‘very fierce resistance and terrible country.’28 The companies spent the night outside the village of Pandeleimon waiting to attack again at first light.
For 21 Battalion this evening attack was more exacting than the first. Above the tunnel the advancing tanks had been harassed by every available weapon: 25-pounders, mortars, anti-tank rifles and even machine guns, but it was the rough track rather than the weight of fire that had halted the advance.
Up the ridge outside Pandeleimon in the C Company area the attack had developed about 7 p.m. Private Bosworth29 had gone forward and observed the German approach, but the company was holding so wide a front that it was impossible to arrange an immediate counter-attack. The infiltration continued, particularly on the left flank, where 14 Platoon had to be assisted by a patrol led by Lieutenant O’Neill30 from 13 Platoon. In its absence a German patrol plunged through the company lines firing in all directions, putting up Very lights and whistling to each other as they disappeared across the ridge. No harm was done and in time O’Neill with his patrol and Lieutenant Smith31 with 14 Platoon fell
back to be placed between 13 and 15 Platoons, astride the track into the village.
Long before then night had fallen and the attack had faded away across the whole front, but there continued to be a disturbing restlessness that promised greater trouble on the morrow. Very lights were going up, guns were searching for targets, and on the lower slopes German patrols were groping through the scrub. A Troop 5 Field Regiment was still operating but its weight of fire had been seriously reduced. The enemy had located one of the gunpits, a shell killing the sergeant and wounding four of the crew. In any case, with only eighty rounds left for each gun, the targets for harassing fire had to be selected with the greatest care.
Away from the fighting line any large-scale moves made that night, 15–16 April, were on the German side. The Battle Group was reinforced, I/304 Infantry Regiment coming forward and 6 Mountain Division moving high up round the eastern slopes of Mount Olympus to by-pass the Vale of Tempe. Orders were also issued for a motor boat, three assault boats and men from 8/800 Brandenburg Regiment to outflank 21 Battalion by sea and sail up the Pinios River to the Tempe bridge, but, fortunately for 21 Battalion, a heavy swell prevented this movement ever taking place.
To the rear there was less uneasiness, although at the different headquarters everyone was now coming to realise that a major attack which could possibly lead to the encirclement of the force was already under way. Lieutenant-Colonel Macky in his last signal for the day had still been confident in tone: ‘tanks have withdrawn in face of our harassing fire. Present position quiet except for infiltration left flank. Casualties slight but finding it difficult to prevent entry of tanks.’ But there was a shortage of reserves and an overall uncertainty that was disquietening. Macky had suggested, with no result, that the demolitions to the rear in the Pinios Gorge should become the responsibility of Anzac Corps. The senior staff officer of Anzac Corps when visiting Headquarters New Zealand Division had discussed the possible withdrawal of the battalion by train, and General Freyberg, very occupied with the imminent withdrawal of 4 and 5 Brigades, had arranged for Anzac Corps Headquarters to take 21 Battalion under command.
21 Battalion Withdraws through the Pinios Gorge
At dawn, 16 April, there was the inevitable attack. Above the tunnel behind a barrage of smoke and explosive shell the tanks edged forward, forcing the withdrawal of 12 Platoon to the south side of Point 266. A Company above the tunnel was undisturbed, but D Company to the rear was soon under fire from the high country to the west about Pandeleimon village.
Here 2 Motor Cycle Battalion supported by I/304 Infantry Regiment was threatening to encircle C Company. The full weight of their attack fell upon 15 Platoon on the extreme left flank. Lieutenant Mason32 began the day by shooting one adventurous German, but after that the platoon suffered a succession of disasters. No. 7 Section covering the track out of Pandeleimon had scattered some Germans who had been casually strolling out of the village, but the enemy had immediately re-formed and attacked about 8 a.m., covered by mortar and machine-gun fire. Nos. 7 and 8 Sections were soon surrounded and forced to surrender;33 the other section of the platoon was overrun from the west, some survivors finding their way back to Company Headquarters under covering fire from 14 Platoon.
The reply to this attack had been a fighting patrol from 13 Platoon led by Lieutenant O’Neill, but it had soon been pinned down by small-arms fire and when it did get forward, mainly through the efforts of Sergeant Kibblewhite,34 who was wounded three times, the remnants of 15 Platoon had already withdrawn.
The company commander, Captain Tongue, who had also attempted to reach 15 Platoon, had by then returned to his headquarters, to which 14 Platoon had fallen back after giving covering fire to the remnants of 15 Platoon. Once again there was danger of encirclement. The best that Tongue could do was to order 14 Platoon to withdraw down the ridge, covered by that part of O’Neill’s platoon which had not gone out on patrol. Consequently, when O’Neill returned through the scrub with his party he found an orderly withdrawal already under way.
The move had not been unexpected by Battalion Headquarters. The telephone wire had remained intact until 9 a.m. when Captain McElroy,35 second-in-command of C Company, had informed headquarters that the unit was completely surrounded. Macky had then warned his quartermaster, Captain Panckhurst,36 that he must prepare for a withdrawal.
There was little hope of any improvement in the situation. The infantry who had enveloped C Company were almost certain to come down the ridge from Pandeleimon or to follow the track
from there to the railway station. The stretch between Point 266 and the castle, long under fire from artillery and tanks, was now enveloped in smoke, and German infantry infiltrating through this screen had already forced 12 Platoon to withdraw to the 11 Platoon area.
At last about 10 a.m. the tanks, supported by engineers to select a route, were pressing forward along the saddle track towards the crest of the ridge. ‘Many of them shed their tracks on the boulders, or split their track assemblies, and finally the leading troops ran on to mines.’ As every tank of the advancing troop became a casualty the path was soon blocked. When a detour was attempted two more stuck in soft ground and another was ‘blown on a mine and completely burnt out.’ In the thick scrub visibility was very restricted and hardly a trace was seen of the New Zealanders ‘except of occasional infantrymen running back.’37 Still they were making appreciable gains which, with the encirclement of the left flank, finally decided Lieutenant-Colonel Macky that he must order his battalion to withdraw otherwise it would be overwhelmed.
The decision came as a shock to Anzac Corps Headquarters. At 9.20 a.m. a message had been received saying that the battalion’s left flank was seriously threatened. Twenty minutes later, and again thirty-five minutes after that, the message was more or less repeated. At 10.15 a.m. the last message to be received had ended: ‘W/T Sta 21 NZ Bn closing down. Getting out.’
The order of withdrawal was A Company, then two platoons of D Company and finally, when the last of B Company was coming out, the hitherto missing platoons of C Company appeared from the upper slopes. They fell back through 18 Platoon D Company (Lieutenant Flavell38), which in its turn got clear with the loss of only one man taken prisoner. The troop from 5 Field Regiment, after searching for a medium battery alongside the beach, had already left for the mouth of the Pinios Gorge; so with the carriers detailed to cover them, the companies began to make their way back to the bridge across the Pinios River.
To their infinite relief this stage of the withdrawal was quite undisturbed. The enemy’s tanks had reached the crest of the ridge, his engineers had begun to clear away the mines and the more romantic had hastened to hoist the Nazi flag from the castle tower. But the blown tunnel and the wretched surface of the track, which made it necessary for the tracked vehicles to be towed over, prevented any immediate exploitation of the situation. It was not until
the following afternoon, 17 April, that the tanks were rattling along the railway track towards the Pinios River.
To the German High Command this pause of over twenty-four hours must have been decidedly irritating. Battle Group 1 to the north of Mount Olympus had not been able to force 5 Brigade39 from Olympus Pass; XXXX Corps had found it ‘impossible to build a bridge north of Servia40 because of enemy interference’; and the forces advancing through Grevena towards Kalabaka and Larisa required yet more time. The investment which was most likely to give the best and quickest return was therefore an advance from the Platamon ridge through the Pinios Gorge towards Larisa, the crossroads along the line of withdrawal. Consequently on 16 April, after 21 Battalion had withdrawn, XVIII Corps was signalling 2 Panzer Division: ‘Please push on with all possible speed to Elason and Larissa. Very important to reach Larissa.’41
By then 21 Battalion had formed another line. The first choice, a narrow gap between the hills and the sea about a mile south of Platamon railway station, was not reassuring. The battalion had consequently marched about six miles through olive groves and across sandy flats to the ferry across the Pinios River, at the seaward end of the Pinios Gorge about four miles from the coast. Here Lieutenant-Colonel Macky and Brigadier Clowes,42 who had been sent up by General Blamey to take what action he considered necessary, discussed whether the gorge should be defended at the seaward end, in the middle or on the edge of the plain about five miles inland. The defence of the seaward entrance was possible, but as it would have been comparatively simple for the German mountain troops to cross the ridges and encircle the pass, they finally decided that 21 Battalion should withdraw to hold the western entrance.
Brigadier Clowes’ instructions to Lieutenant-Colonel Macky were that it was ‘essential to deny the gorge to the enemy till 19th April even if it meant extinction.’ Support would arrive within twenty-four hours. When all the battalion had crossed, the ferry boat was to be sunk. Special attention had to be paid to the country on the north side of the river through which he expected the enemy to develop an outflanking movement and, if the Germans did force their way through the gorge, the battalion would withdraw to the road and railway crossing some seven miles south of the western exit.
The guns were then uncoupled, manhandled down the steep slope and taken across in the ferry to the south bank, along which they were hauled by trucks which had been brought up from B Echelon. The heavy gun tractors, ammunition limbers and Bren carriers went back along the track, through the tunnel and over the railway bridge at Tempe, some five miles up-stream. As this took time it was not until late afternoon that all were across and the ferry could be sunk – but not before the unit pioneers had in a most gentlemanly way ferried across ‘a large flock of sheep and goats and then two shepherdesses.’ The first tunnel and the rail track were blown by the engineers and the weary battalion was then free to prepare its new positions.
The Transfer of 16 Australian Brigade to Pinios Gorge
By this time the disturbing reports which had been sent back that morning by 21 Battalion had convinced General Blamey that reinforcements must be sent to the Pinios Gorge. As 17 Brigade had been absorbed by Savige Force at Kalabaka and by Lee Force at Dhomokos, his only available reserve was 16 Brigade, which had marched the 35 miles from Veroia to Servia and then gone into position in the mountains to the east of the pass. The 2/1 Battalion on the right flank was in a world of snow and precipices about 5000 feet above sea level; 2/2 Battalion was south-east of Moskhokhori; and 2/3 Battalion was in reserve to the south of that village. On 15 April they were, like 6 New Zealand Brigade,43 to have come down from the mountains, but the difficulty of getting messages through to them and the absence of any roads other than bridle tracks had postponed their withdrawal until the morning of 16 April when 2/2 Battalion, the first44 out, had reached the highway south of Servia Pass about 10 a.m.
Here they had embussed and were about to move to the Zarkos area45 when a liaison officer appeared with orders for Lieutenant-Colonel Chilton to report to Headquarters Anzac Corps. There he was told that the last signal from 21 Battalion had been most alarming and that Brigadier Clowes, who had been sent to find out what had happened to the battalion, had not yet returned. Chilton had therefore to hold the western entrance to the Pinios Gorge for ‘possibly three or four days.’46 To support his battalion there would be a battery of field artillery, a troop of three anti-tank guns and the carriers from two battalions.
Chilton then hastened southwards. Outside Larisa he met Brigadier Clowes, who told him that 21 Battalion had already withdrawn into the gorge, and at Tempe he found Lieutenant-Colonel Macky, who described the positions now occupied by his battalion. As it was then dark they arranged to meet early next morning to discuss the deployment of their forces.
Before then General Blamey, still worried about the situation, had decided to strengthen the force still further and to place it under the command of Brigadier Allen. So when that officer reported to Headquarters Anzac Corps at 2 a.m. that night, 17 April, he learnt that he was to command a brigade group, the final strength of which would be 2/2 and 2/3 Australian Battalions, 21 New Zealand Battalion, 26 Battery 4 New Zealand Field Regiment, L Troop 7 New Zealand Anti-Tank Regiment, three guns of 1 Australian Anti-Tank Regiment, four carriers from 2/11 Australian Battalion and seven from 2/1 Australian Battalion. His instructions, given ‘with the aid of a map and a torch’,47 were to prevent the Germans entering Larisa from the east. As his first move he met 2/3 Battalion, still coming down from the mountains, and sent it on to the Pinios area. The 2/1 Battalion which was still withdrawing along the Fteri–Livadhion track became divisional reserve.