Chapter 12: The Defence of the Passes, 14–17 April
The Positions of 5 Brigade about Olympus Pass
IN the weeks preceding the invasion of Greece the attention of the Division had been concentrated on the defences north of Katerini. The preparation of positions in the passes on either side of Mount Olympus had therefore been postponed until the arrival of 5 Brigade. On 6 April 28 (Maori) Battalion had gone to the west of Olympus Pass; 23 Battalion had gone to the east of it; and D Company 26 Battalion on the track above Platamon tunnel had come under command, pending relief by a company from the brigade.
The importance of these positions had then increased with the changing fortunes of the Allies. On 7 April, when the defeat of Yugoslavia seemed certain, the Higher Command decided that the Division must withdraw to defend the passes and, as every hour was important, tentative plans were made for its withdrawal. Fourth Brigade, with 6 Field Regiment in support, would return to a delaying position at the foot of the pass, while 6 Brigade with 4 and 5 Field Regiments would remain in position until contact with the enemy was made and then withdraw through 4 Brigade over Olympus Pass. Thereafter its defence would be the responsibility of 5 and 6 Brigades. As 21 Battalion had not yet been released from Athens the units would be regrouped: 5 Brigade would have 26 Battalion above the Platamon tunnel and 22 and 23 Battalions east of Olympus Pass; 6 Brigade would have 24, 25 and 28 (Maori) Battalions to the west of the pass.
The first steps were taken during the morning of 8 April: 22 Battalion1 was released from service with 6 Brigade and sent to a position in the Sanatorium area east of the pass; 26 Battalion (less D Company) was recalled to prepare positions for 6 Brigade to the west of 28 (Maori) Battalion.
At 11 a.m., however, the overall plan had been changed; General Wilson had decided that W Force must prepare to withdraw to the Olympus–Aliakmon River line. Fourth New Zealand Brigade would be sent to Servia Pass ‘to form the pivot’ on which the
withdrawals from the north would be based. Sixth Brigade must prepare to move to Olympus Pass but it would not, as yet, take over any section of the front; it would either become a reserve for 5 Brigade or be sent to conduct operations in another sector.
That night, 8–9 April, a report was received at Divisional Headquarters that the Germans were expected in Salonika. Twenty-second Battalion was therefore moved to positions astride the road at the entrance to the pass and next day 26 Battalion was given other duties.2 One detachment was sent to control the never-ending stream of lorries and gun-limbers, Greek refugees and New Zealand soldiers; another was transported to the crest of the pass where a steep but usable track to the west had to be constructed for the guns of B and C Troops of 27 Battery 5 Field Regiment. That night the rest of 6 Brigade withdrew behind 5 Brigade and there it was joined on 10 April by 26 Battalion.
The situation was still too indefinite for the brigade to be other than divisional reserve, but the swiftly crumbling front and the decision to withdraw W Force beyond Thermopylae soon forced several adjustments. The Olympus–Aliakmon River line was now to serve only as a covering position for further withdrawals. On 13 April 26 Battalion3 was sent to the west of Servia Pass; on 14 April 24 Battalion moved to the west of Olympus Pass; and then on 15 April 24 and 25 Battalions4 were hurriedly transferred to prepare rearguard positions south of Elasson. Thus the defence of Olympus Pass was in the end the responsibility of 5 Brigade: 22, 23 and 28 (Maori) Battalions.
They had already done much to perfect their defences. In spite of the wind, rain and snow they had been wiring, digging and roadmaking, growing still fitter and becoming more and more conscious of the impending engagement. On 9 April those on the higher slopes saw the smoke of fires in Salonika some 40 miles away across the gulf. Refugees were now streaming through the pass; 4 and 6 Brigades with the attached regiments of artillery were steadily withdrawing, ‘an incessant roar of traffic reverberating through the lines of 5 Brigade.’
On the right flank 23 Battalion, on the lower slopes of Mount Olympus, had been able, after the allotment of the highway sector to 22 Battalion, to extend its right flank high up the mountainside. D Company (Captain Manson5) was well up the ridge above
The position was naturally strong but it had one great weakness. The demolitions which would be blown above the junction of the main highway and the ‘Back Road’ would prevent any withdrawal of the battalion through Olympus Pass. Its safety was therefore dependent upon the completion of the road southwards across the lower slopes of Mount Olympus to Kokkinoplos. The work had been classed as urgent and much had been done. The battalion intelligence section (Lieutenant Bassett8) had studied the route and the pioneer platoon (Second-Lieutenant Ensor9), assisted during 6–9 April by the 200 men from 22 Battalion, had made it possible for trucks to go along the ridge behind each company of 23 Battalion. On the Kokkinoplos side 7 Field Company had been working along the mountainside since 7 April. Two hundred Greeks had been employed and 25 Battalion had given two days’ work before going to Elasson. But the wet weather and the steep rock faces below the crest of the pass were now holding up the work, and although the engineers had by 14 April completed some five miles of the track they would still have taken three weeks to complete the last two miles over the pass.
Barbed wire, rations and ammunition for ten days had come up on 9 April; the B Echelon transport had been withdrawn over the pass to the Pithion area and the battalion posts were well established, the men working all through the moonlight of 11–12 April to complete them. Rain and snow had then retarded the work but by 14 April, when the Bren carriers withdrew from the plain and the demolitions had been blown along the highway, the companies were confident that they could hold the Germans.
The central sector of the brigade front covering the entrance to the pass was held by 22 Battalion. A Company (Captain Hanton10) adjoining 23 Battalion was on the ridge overlooking the Sanatorium;11 C Company (Major I. A. Hart) followed the ridge through the
forest to the Elikon stream; B Company (Captain Laws12), on the ridge beyond, looked north-east towards Katerini down the wide road through the scrub-covered foothills and across the small bridges amidst the successive groves of plane trees; to the north again, on the shoulder round which the secondary road curved west to Skotina, was D Company (Major Campbell13). Back up the pass there was a blunt spur through which the road had been cut; it ended as a rocky hillock crested with some stone ruins. Here on Ruin Hill or Gibraltar were the battalion mortars and back up the road the unit Bren carriers.
The battalion sector was roughly four miles in breadth. Lateral communications were therefore important, but after 14 April, when the demolitions on the main highway were blown, it was impossible to use the road that branched off to the Sanatorium and to the lines of 23 Battalion. A track had therefore been cut from the main highway through the forest and across the gorge of the Elikon stream to give A and B Companies some connection with the highway and the right flank of D Company.
On the left flank 28 (Maori) Battalion had been digging two-men pits and preparing barbed-wire entanglements, but for a long time there had been no certainty as to its final position. Adjustments were made on several occasions; in fact B Company prepared three different positions, D Company had two days to prepare its final position and C Company had only one. As a result the battalion was now strung out across four miles of country, of which only two had any prepared defence system.
A Company (Captain Bell14) was on the right flank beside D Company 22 Battalion. Observation down the road and across country was good, but the immediate front was thick with dense scrub and the more distant approaches divided by several steep-banked streams, all of advantage to infiltrating infantry.
Beyond it facing north-west across the Mavroneri stream were two platoons of B Company (Captain Royal15); west again was D Company (Major Dyer16) above the stream and along a front of some 700 yards. Finally, on the extreme left flank was 11 Platoon
B Company (Second-Lieutenant Pene17), almost two miles away18 from the battalion and covering the Mavroneri crossing between the ridge and Skotina village. It had to prevent any encirclement of the brigade front by the track which ran up the mountains from Skotina to join the main highway well up in the pass.
In support of 5 Brigade there were at first 32 Battery 7 Anti-Tank Regiment, 4 Company 27 (Machine Gun) Battalion and 4 and 5 Field Regiments. The anti-tank guns were not well forward covering the approaches to the infantry, but were more to the rear in counterpenetration positions according to theories developed ‘after the French and Belgian campaigns.’ Six were on the right of the main highway and three along the highway itself in front of and behind the Gibraltar position of 22 Battalion. The machine-gunners were dispersed, 10 Platoon with 23 Battalion behind Lokova, 12 Platoon behind C Company 22 Battalion to cover the front between the Sanatorium and the road demolitions, and 11 Platoon at the junction of A and B Companies 28 (Maori) Battalion to cover the approach to the pass and the features opposite B and D Companies.
Fourth and 5th Field Regiments had withdrawn from the plain on 10 April and had been grouped under the command of Lieutenant-Colonel Parkinson of 4 Field Regiment. The former, after much hard work on the steep tracks, was in position near the crest of the pass, with A and B Troops 25 Battery on the eastern side of the highway and C Troop up a precipitous muddy track on the western side. Twenty-sixth Battery was to have gone into position near Ay Dhimitrios on a steep ridge nearly 900 feet above the pass, but after the guns and water cart for D Troop had been winched up and all ammunition carried up by hand, positions for E and F Troops were found near 25 Battery.
On the night of 14–15 April after all this labour the regiment was suddenly withdrawn. At dusk 25 Battery19 was despatched to Kalabaka to come under the command of 17 Australian Brigade. Twenty-sixth Battery and Regimental Headquarters pulled out later, at 1 a.m. 15 April, staging just south of Kato Filippaioi throughout daylight and joining 6 Brigade after dusk in the rearguard position that was being prepared south of Elasson.
This left 5 Field Regiment in support of 5 Brigade. B and C Troops 27 Battery20 were west of the top of the pass, some 5000 yards from the front line on a ridge up which the infantry had
used picks and shovels to build a negotiable road. ‘Even in wet weather which made the clay surface soft and slippery, this road proved adequate and little winching of the guns into position was required.’ F Troop 28 Battery was nearer the entrance to the pass; D Troop and E Troop, after its withdrawal on 14 April from the Aliakmon River with the Divisional Cavalry, were farther back behind 27 Battery.
After 4 Field Regiment had gone there was some discussion as to whether the gun positions should be changed, but a reconnaissance showed that the left flank hitherto covered by 4 Field Regiment was too rough for any large-scale attack by armoured units. In any case, on the morning of 15 April Brigadier Hargest advised Lieutenant-Colonel Fraser that as there would be a general withdrawal that night no changes need be made by his regiment.
The ammunition dumps left in the 4 Field Regiment area were moved, however, by parties from 5 Field Regiment to the end of the straight stretch of highway south of Elasson. They had been expected to make only one trip, but through a misunderstanding which later proved fortunate the men slaved all night, some groups in spite of the wretched, crowded roads making two or three trips and clearing all the ammunition. ‘The whole of this ammunition was subsequently fired by 2/3 Australian Regt., in defence of the Elasson position. Without it, it is doubtful if the enemy could have been held off, as he was, until withdrawal was affected at the stipulated time.’21
The Germans approach Olympus Pass, Night 14–15 April
After such preparations and with such natural advantages the battalions all hoped that the Olympus Pass would be the scene of their first engagement. They were standing-to at dawn and dusk; the carrier platoons of 23 and 28 (Maori) Battalions were patrolling the landing ground at Kalokhori; and the Divisional Cavalry Regiment along the Aliakmon River had been in action since the night of 12–13 April.22
The withdrawal from the river was complete by the evening of 14 April when the carrier platoons and the Divisional Cavalry Regiment came back into the pass. The bridges along the eastern approach were blown; the carriers of 22 Battalion came in past the road block and the last demolitions, including that of the bridge in front of 11 Platoon 22 Battalion, were blown at 6 p.m.
Before then enemy reconnaissance aircraft had been flying over the entrance to the pass ‘without hindrance other than ineffective
fire from AA LMGs’, and the forward elements of 2 Panzer Division had reached Katerini. But it was not until 11 p.m. that some motorcyclists from I/38 Anti-Tank Unit raced confidently up the highway, approached the first demolition and were efficiently shot up by 11 Platoon (Lieutenant Armstrong23). Next morning there were five wrecked motor-cycles, some with side-cars, lying along the road. Otherwise the night was quiet, though German transport with headlights full on could be heard moving out from Katerini. Battle Group 2 was moving down the coast towards the Platamon tunnel24 and 21 Battalion; Battle Group 1 had orders to cross by the Olympus Pass to Elasson and Larisa.
Within the New Zealand Division there was a sudden decision for an earlier withdrawal.25 That night, 14–15 April, Brigadier Hargest was recalled by General Freyberg to a conference at Headquarters 6 Brigade and informed that 5 Brigade would, the following night, withdraw to the head of the pass and hold it for twenty-four hours to cover the withdrawal of the brigades from Servia Pass. The general atmosphere was one of surprise and disappointment, but the orders were issued next day and the battalions made their preparations. Reserve rations were distributed, stores and ammunition were sorted out and 23 Battalion sent 8 Platoon back to prepare a line above Kokkinoplos. Then, to the relief and pleasure of the battalions, Brigadier Hargest was ordered to delay the withdrawal for another twenty-four hours, until the night of 16–17 April.
In any case, 15 April had not been the day for serious attacks about Olympus Pass. Battle Group 2 of the enemy had attacked 21 Battalion above the Platamon tunnel but Battle Group 1, having a more formidable task, took longer to assemble and 5 Brigade had a relatively quiet day. The mortar section with D Company 23 Battalion opened up on a patrol that was probing about the right flank; in the pass itself 22 Battalion considered that it had a quiet day, apart from some slight activity in the morning. This is somewhat surprising for the Germans sent forward a fighting patrol from 2/304 Infantry Regiment with supporting mortars, machine guns and anti-tank guns to enter the pass, discover positions and take prisoners. Apparently it did not get far enough forward to worry 22 Battalion. A Company 28 (Maori) Battalion, on the north side of the pass, saw the vehicles coming up the road from Katerini
and with the support of 12 Platoon 27 (Machine Gun) Battalion forced the infantry to debus. Five were wounded, and when 5 Field Regiment shelled the road the patrol withdrew. The 2/304 Infantry Regiment, however, continued to reconnoitre, but no serious attempt was made that day to approach the pass. The Germans preferred to bring up their artillery and, in the late afternoon, to shell the brigade front. They were probably searching for the guns of 5 Field Regiment, whose positions were well camouflaged and too far back to justify any useless counter-fire.
Darkness brought no direct attacks but the Germans were obviously patrolling, particularly across the front of D Company 22 Battalion. They were also, it is now known, replacing 2/304 Infantry Regiment with I/2 Infantry Regiment and preparing to attack up the highway towards the pass. At the same time a patrol from 8/800 Brandenburg Regiment by coming in to the south of the Sanatorium would attempt an indirect approach to the head of the pass.
The Main Attack, 16 April
At first light on 16 April A Company of the Maori Battalion reported that the road from Katerini was black with vehicles. To the observers of 5 Field Regiment it was a reconnaissance in force but actually it was the main attack by Battle Group 1,26 with 2 and 3 Companies I/2 Infantry Regiment east and west of the road to clean out machine-gun posts and screen the main body advancing straight down the highway. The flanking companies moved forward very slowly and afterwards complained of machine guns set in excellent positions and giving ‘murderous fire’; apparently the observers for the German artillery had not been able to locate the New Zealanders in the thick scrub. As 5 Field Regiment was also shelling heavily and accurately, the Germans had ‘fairly heavy casualties’27 and were halted long before they reached the lines of 22 Battalion.
The main body moved up the road with 1 Company I/2 Infantry Regiment in front and the motorised troops well forward to exploit the possible break-through. They were stopped by ‘heavy A Tk, HMG, LMG and shellfire’; nine vehicles were severely damaged and another destroyed.
The tanks of 5 Company and a platoon from 6 Company 3 Panzer Regiment then pushed forward, but the blown bridge could not be by-passed and the engineers could not repair it because of the volume
of hostile fire. The companies attempted to silence the New Zealanders, but the fire from 5 Field Regiment was so heavy and so accurate that they had to withdraw, leaving one tank stuck in the stream bed. No. 1 Company I/2 Infantry Regiment fared no better when it was sent forward to clear out the machine-gun posts across the hillside. The platoon to the west of the road and the one which crossed the bridge both made little progress, the line being ‘heavily wired and mined’ and the machine-gun fire too harassing. A battle group of infantry, anti-tank guns and tanks was therefore ordered to push through to the Sanatorium and attempt to silence them from that angle.
As seen by 22 Battalion, the Germans had first been halted by the fire from the unit mortar platoon (Lieutenant McAra28) and the concentrated fire of every battery of 5 Field Regiment. They had then withdrawn to shelter but the tanks had soon returned, moving up and down searching for the battalion’s forward platoons. The anti-tank guns being well back, the German armour was safe from all except concentrated shellfire; so when, about 8.40 a.m., the tanks advanced once again towards the bridge, they were not halted until E Troop sent over ten rounds and left one of them a wreck in the creek bed beside the demolished bridge. From there they pulled back. The rest of the day, for 22 Battalion, was relatively quiet, though the most forward troops were harassed by tank fire and forced to use alternative positions.
The Germans, at last convinced that the road could not be forced, were now developing encircling movements through the scrub and forest on either flank. With 23 and 28 (Maori) Battalions both holding very wide fronts, this was difficult to check; the scrub was too dense and visibility too limited now that a heavy mist was enveloping the ridges and isolating the already widely separated posts.
On the right flank the pressure was greatest about Lokova village in front of C Company 23 Battalion. A section post of 13 Platoon was overrun and its members captured, but the Germans were driven back and the position reoccupied. Farther north there was some probing into the lines of B Company, but as the afternoon wore on the most serious attack seemed to be developing in the extreme east high up along the ridge in the direction of Ravani village. Once when there was a break in the swirling mist 16 Platoon (Lieutenant Bond29) was able to check the infiltrating enemy, but there were always signs of Germans moving up as if
they were attempting to get between 23 Battalion and Kokkinoplos.
At last D Company called up support for 17 Platoon (Lieutenant Connolly30) on the extreme right flank. As the battalion had no reserve, Major Leckie31 took members of the transport platoon, the quartermaster and his staff and several signallers and combed the scrub-covered slope in search of the patrol. They found no Germans, but later in the afternoon another report stated that the enemy had been seen climbing on the slopes of Mount Olympus, a threat which would have cut the line of retreat to Kokkinoplos. Some of the signallers and quartermaster’s staff were immediately despatched to cover odd tracks coming in towards the line of withdrawal and the only carrier32 still available was sent up with Major Fyfe33 and two Bren-gunners. The withdrawal route was thus covered. D Company was still threatened by the probing enemy but any serious movement could be halted by the concentrated fire of 5 Field Regiment.
This activity on the right flank was due to variations in the German plan of attack. Once it was clear that Battle Group 1 could not force its way into the pass the advanced guard34 of 72 Infantry Division had been given two tasks: to advance through Kokkinoplos towards Elasson and to make an encircling movement through Koundouriotissa towards Ay Dhimitrios, the village at the crest of the pass. As a preliminary move 9 and 11 Cycle Companies had approached Ravani. At 6 p.m. 3 Motor Engineer Company and 12 Machine Gun Company came up, a frontal attack was ordered and at dusk the New Zealanders withdrew from their ‘well sited and fortified hill positions.’35 Two companies then attempted to get through to Ay Dhimitrios while 3 Engineer Company and 12 Machine Gun Company followed 23 Battalion as it withdrew36 across the rough pass leading to Kokkinoplos.
On the left flank the experience of 28 (Maori) Battalion was similar to that of 23 Battalion, the morning being relatively quiet with mist and rain cloaking the movements of the enemy. Once the clouds lifted, about 3 p.m., the Germans who could be seen
approaching A Company were engaged with all available arms. The machine-gunners, whose longer range would have been useful, had already been ordered back in preparation for the withdrawal, but the fire from rifles, Bren guns and the 25-pounders of 5 Field Regiment was sufficient. The enemy seemed to move westwards along the front to cross the Mavroneri stream and attempt, unsuccessfully, to approach B Company’s lines.
The Germans then appeared to edge still farther westwards seeking for a gap in the sector held by D Company. To prevent that unit being outflanked, 11 Platoon B Company (Second-Lieutenant Pene) had been placed beyond it opposite the village of Skotina, but with the successive westward moves of the enemy Lieutenant-Colonel Dittmer strengthened the flank with 13 Platoon C Company (Second-Lieutenant Reedy37). The enemy’s approach was carefully observed by three scouts who were sent out as soon as the Germans appeared in front of D Company. One of them, Corporal Tainui,38 dealt with three Germans and reported that a large number were collecting in the gorge.
In the fading light they scrambled out below 16 Platoon D Company and close to the junction with B Company to deliver the most determined attack in the fighting about Olympus Pass – ‘the silent forest had gone berserk with sounds of mortars, rifles, grenades. ...’ Firing sub-machine guns and tossing over grenades, they pressed through the wire, killing three men in the forward section of 16 Platoon. The others were able to withdraw under the covering fire of the section leader, Corporal Taituha,39 who remained behind, badly wounded. The men were then steadied by Corporal Harrison40 of the reserve platoon, the firing died down and when 18 Platoon (Lieutenant Gilroy41) came over to clear the area there were no Germans to be seen.
Three companies of II/2 Infantry Regiment had been sent up to relieve I Battalion and to capture Point 917 by this encircling movement from the west. They had reached the stream bed north-west of the steep slopes of Point 917, but 8 Company to the east had been pinned down by machine-gun and mortar fire; 7 and 9 Companies had rushed across the Mavroneri stream, coming under heavy fire and losing three officers wounded, including the commander and adjutant. No. 7 Company and then 8 Company, When it was clear, both failed to make any impression. ‘The knocking out of several enemy MGs in the thrust through the first belt of wire had also
failed to diminish the volume of fire.’42 The acting battalion commander had then used the gathering darkness to cover his withdrawal across the creek to the high ground opposite.
Fifth Brigade could therefore claim that it had repulsed attacks on all three fronts. And it has also recorded that the day’s success was due in no small measure to the swift and effective support of 5 Field Regiment, which fired more than 3000 rounds and ‘won the highest praise of all ranks of the Infantry.’ In the German reports there are constant references to the New Zealand shelling of tanks and troops and many complaints about the absence of Stuka support and the difficulty of spotting the New Zealand artillery.
5 Brigade begins its Withdrawal, Night 16–17 April
Once night fell German activity faded away on all sectors of the front. Having realised that a direct assault was unlikely to succeed, they were waiting for the advanced guard of 72 Infantry Division to complete its encircling move through the wild country to the south of the pass. Fifth Brigade was therefore able to complete the first stage of what was to be an unexpectedly smooth withdrawal.
On the right flank 23 Battalion had to climb across the range to Kokkinoplos. With the help of a Greek mule train the sick and the wounded had been taken over during the day. The mass of essential equipment had been taken in the 15-cwt trucks to the end of the Back Road but the Greeks, disturbed no doubt by the shellfire, refused to pack it over to Kokkinoplos so there it remained, the men having more than enough weight of weapons and equip ment, as it was, to carry out over the rough mountain track.
Headquarters Company came out at dusk; B Company followed about 8 p.m., then A Company and Battalion Headquarters. They waited along the Back Road for C Company, which had some difficulty in disengaging and did not appear until 9 p.m. In case some German mountaineers had climbed round Mount Olympus, 11 Platoon B Company (Lieutenant Begg43) went out as a vanguard, the other companies following and being joined by D Company from the ridges on the right flank. The pioneer platoon brought up the rear, demolishing the Back Road in six places.
In the seven miles from there to Kokkinoplos the companies had to cross the Poros stream and climb over 2000 feet by a track that was sometimes knee-deep in mud, often precipitous and naturally very difficult to follow that pitch-black night. The way seemed
interminable, packs and personal gear were often cast away but weapons and ammunition were all brought out. Eventually, about 6.30 a.m. on 17 April, A Company left a rearguard along the crest of the pass and the battalion stumbled down to the empty houses of the little village, where the men dried their clothes or fell asleep.
Elements of some supporting units had moved with the battalion. The observation post party from 5 Field Regiment had been able to join the unit transport on the Olympus Pass road, but 10 Platoon 27 (Machine Gun) Battalion, with all its heavy Vickers machine guns and equipment, had struggled out with the battalion. The guns of 32 Battery 7 Anti-Tank Regiment were a different proposition. The three on the pass road from E Troop could be withdrawn; the nine to the south of the highway with 23 Battalion could not be brought out. The CRE had thought that they could be manhandled over the Poros stream and over the col to Kokkinoplos, so Major Oakes,44 with a party from Regimental Headquarters, and Lieutenant Neale,45 of 15 Light Aid Detachment, with heavy tackle and wire ropes had come up to give assistance.
The F Troop guns were taken to the Poros stream but they could not be taken across. They were therefore stripped of their telescopes and rolled into the gorge. The three guns south of the road with 22 Battalion were dismantled where they stood, the two G Troop guns with 23 Battalion were wrecked, the crews under Second-Lieutenant Moor46 attaching themselves to A Company 23 Battalion and serving as infantrymen.
The companies of 22 Battalion were astride the main highway, but even so their withdrawal was not simple. The precipitous ridges and the dense undergrowth, the muddy tracks and the pitch-black night made it so difficult to get clear that C Company, the nearest, took three hours to reach the highway. However, by 8.30 p.m. the files were trudging past the check point, carrying practically all their arms, ammunition and equipment. Two miles back waited the motor transport which took them to Ay Dhimitrios by 4 a.m., 17 April. The only late arrivals, a party of forty men from D Company led by Captain T. C. Campbell, came out from the north side after climbing first west and then south, keeping direction by the sound of the 25-pounders and coming out on the highway below Ay Dhimitrios.
The demolitions to the rear were blown by the pioneer platoon (Lieutenant Wadey47) at 1 a.m.; B Company, after screening the approaches to Ay Dhimitrios, came through at dawn. The battalion, some men on foot and some on trucks, then moved back about three miles from the village and stood to in mist and rain waiting for the Germans to press forward.
On the left flank, to the north of the pass, 28 (Maori) Battalion had to withdraw across country not so high as that traversed by 23 Battalion but much more heavily timbred. The dusk attack on D Company had also taken some time to fade out, so it was not until 10.30 p.m. that the Maoris could begin their withdrawal along a mule track that ran from Battalion Headquarters to the main highway east of Ay Dhimitrios. The intelligence section had marked the track with white paper and cigarette packets and some heavy equipment had already gone out with the mule trains, but once the withdrawal began the Greeks and the mules were not to be found. The already weary Maoris had therefore to carry out unnecessarily heavy packs.
The march out from Battalion Headquarters with B Company as rearguard has been described as a ‘terrible nightmare’ which made ‘perhaps, a more lasting impression on the minds of those who faced the ordeal than any subsequent experience of war. In single file and for hours and hours the men of the battalion trudged across these miles of rugged, mountainous countryside with their backs bent under the heavy loads that they were asked to carry.’48 In places they had to feel their way through the scrub; at the halts there was always the fear of falling asleep and being left behind. So heavy was the going that Lieutenant-Colonel Dittmer eventually ordered all packs to be dumped. Better time was then made and the greater part of the battalion reached the highway in the pass about 3.30 a.m., 17 April, just as the engineers were about to blow the demolitions. It had been a very close call, for at 3 a.m. Brigadier Hargest had reluctantly decided that if the Maoris did not appear within the next half hour their transport would be withdrawn and the road blown. They were now taken back into the pass to the temporary positions beyond Ay Dhimitrios.
Eighteen men were lost during this withdrawal. The detachment under Lieutenant Te Kuru49 from D Company, which had been posted as a link between the company and the platoon near Skotina, did not get clear. No. 11 Platoon (Second-Lieutenant Pene) and 13 Platoon C Company (Second-Lieutenant Reedy) lost eight men
during their exhausting climb from the extreme left flank to Battalion Headquarters and thence along the track to the pass.
Fifth Field Regiment had been withdrawing ever since the late afternoon, although a report that the enemy had broken into the lines of B Company 28 (Maori) Battalion sent F Troop 28 Battery hurrying back to cover the left flank from positions at the head of the pass. Twenty-seventh Battery withdrew about 8 p.m., the guns being roped down the wet clay tracks. D and E Troops 28 Battery came out last after twenty hours’ continuous action and the whole regiment was in position south of Ay Dhimitrios by first light.
The demolitions to the rear of the brigade were the responsibility of 3 Section 7 Field Company (Lieutenant Hector50), which had returned from Kokkinoplos on 15 April to continue the work begun by 5 Field Park Company and 19 Army Troops Company. Hector had taken over three demolitions and set about the preparation of a fourth, two sub-sections working in shifts for twenty-four hours, blasting a hole 14 feet through solid rock and placing two cases of gelignite and half a ton of ammonal in position.
At 12.15 a.m., 17 April, the charge near the forward positions was fired, but instead of the road and retaining wall being cut away there was only a series of easily negotiable craters. The second and third demolitions had no better results. The fourth, the one prepared near the head of the pass by 3 Section 7 Field Company, was fired at 7 a.m. after the withdrawal of 28 Battalion. Once again the cliff face did not fall away but the crater was much deeper and a more effective obstacle. Even so, to the advancing Germans it was no great barrier – a most disappointing fact when it is remembered that the Division had had five weeks in the area to prepare for just such an event. As it is opinions still differ as to what would have been the best method of demolition. Charges along the outside of the road to supplement the inner charges might have sliced away the road. But that method needed additional charges, and explosives in Greece were not plentiful. Some delay might have been caused if the cliff face above the road had been blown down on to the road itself. Whatever the reason, the important fact was that the Germans were free to make an unexpectedly swift crossing that nearly brought disaster to those withdrawing from Servia Pass.51
The Positions of 4 Brigade about Servia Pass
In the Servia Pass area there had been less time to prepare
positions. On the night of 9–10 April 4 Brigade Group had moved over from Mount Olympus to the southern slopes of the pass and next morning, after some unpleasant hours in the mud, the units52 had moved into position. Eighteenth and 19th Battalions went to the steep escarpment which extends westwards from Servia to the Aliakmon River and 20 Battalion to reserve positions astride the road. After 12 April a company53 from 2/1 Australian Machine Gun Battalion was under command, two platoons going with 19 Battalion and two platoons with 20 Battalion.
For the next few days the weather was severe, with heavy rain in the pass and snow on the higher levels, but the battalions managed to improve the defences. The Germans were moving south and there was a steady stream of pathetic refugees, detachments of Greek soldiers and, on 12 April, a Yugoslav battery54 of 88-millimetre guns which was placed under the command of 6 Field Regiment in an anti-tank role.
The night, 12–13 April, was one of great activity about the pass. The battalions had been warned that the German columns then approaching Kozani could be expected to appear next morning. The carrier platoons on the river flats below the escarpment were called back through the pass, 18 Battalion transport was brought through to Lava and all units were warned of the possible descent of paratroopers. The 580th Army Troops Company, Royal Engineers, with its heavy equipment, was brought back from the bridge area to a position near 4 Brigade Headquarters, a demolition party55 having been left to deal with the bridge. Finally, during the night of 13–14 April, different units of 6 Australian Division came through, the road south to Elasson having been kept clear for their withdrawal.
By this time the Australian brigades from the north were assembling on the flanks. On 13 April 16 Brigade completed its gruelling march through the hills from Veroia Pass; it was now establishing itself in the mountains to the east,56 no great distance from 5 New Zealand Brigade at Mount Olympus. The country to the west was occupied the same day by 2/4 and 2/8 Battalions of 19 Australian Brigade, who as part of Mackay Force had held the Klidhi Pass and had then been brought back57 to Kerasia, a village from which they had marched south-west to their new positions.
The expected appearance of the German advanced guard had not taken place. Away to the north beyond Kozani 1 Armoured Brigade had throughout the afternoon and early evening of 13 April been fighting58 the advanced guard of 9 Panzer Division, and now that darkness had fallen over Proastion the British units were withdrawing through Kozani to the Grevena area. The Germans, short of petrol and ammunition, were quite unable to continue their thrust towards Servia. Nor could their supporting units come through from the north. Apparently three columns of traffic all hastening south had caused a gigantic traffic jam in the Klidhi Pass. The reserves did get through by the night 13–14 April, but the last of the Allied rearguard was then west through the Siatista Pass towards Grevena or south through Kozani and across the Aliakmon River to the lines of 4 Brigade.
In the Servia Pass area the 4 Brigade units had spent 13 April improving their defences and anxiously waiting for information about the delaying action then being fought by 1 Armoured Brigade at Ptolemais. The attacks from the air were now both heavy and frequent, with reconnaissance aircraft circling over the pass and directing a series of bomber and fighter attacks along the roads, the infantry localities and the gun positions. But the raids, though spectacular, were not remarkably destructive. The stretch through the pass from Prosilion towards Servia was given special attention but the casualty list was relatively light: three wounded (one fatally) in 19 Battalion and two killed, one wounded, in 20 Battalion.
Nor had the engineers been prevented from completing their demolitions. At 3.30 p.m. Australian units assisted by the detachment left by 580 British Army Troops Company had fired the demolitions on the Aliakmon bridge. The three spans had collapsed into the relatively shallow riverbed, leaving the bridge unusable by motor transport but serviceable for active infantrymen. The temporary bridge a short distance downstream was no problem, the pontoons being sunk and the superstructure left to float down the gorge. The demolitions in and south of the pass were the concern of Lieutenant Kelsall and his section from 6 Field Company. Ever since their arrival at Piræus they had treasured some naval depth-charges, each containing 360 pounds of TNT, and now at last they had them in position, some in the cutting on the Servia side of the pass, one just over the crest on the road westwards towards Dheskati and several on the highway itself as it twisted south towards Elasson and Larisa.
Next day, 14 April, the defenders, knowing that 1 Armoured
Brigade had turned59 westwards through the mountains towards Grevena, waited expectantly for the Germans to enter Kozani and move down the long incline towards the Aliakmon bridge. About midday convoys were seen entering the town, and during the afternoon there was a patrol moving over the demolished bridge and tanks appearing down the highway. The battery from 7 Medium Regiment was already in action when 6 Field Regiment, about 3 p.m., opened fire on the column of vehicles, the groups of tanks and files of infantry.
Overhead the Luftwaffe, doing its best to support the ground troops, was paying particular attention to the guns and any vehicles along the highway. The enemy’s artillery came into action about 7 p.m., its airbursts ranging over the road junctions and its shellfire continuing throughout the night, the gunners searching for the Allied batteries and for any traffic on the roads.
As it happened, 20 Battalion was then moving up to new positions. C Company had been left in reserve but the others had been instructed to fill the gap above the cliffs between 19 Battalion and the Aliakmon River. The lorries were machine-gunned just before leaving and came under shellfire at the crossroads above the pass, but there were no casualties and by daylight the companies were along the ridge overlooking the river and the village of Rimnion, with A Company on the right adjoining 19 Battalion, B Company in the centre and D Company continuing westwards to the Aliakmon River. C Troop 31 Anti-Tank Battery was under command to cover the approaches east and west of Rimnion; two platoons of 2/1 Australian Machine Gun Battalion were attached. And as the front was often beyond the range of the artillery on the 4 Brigade front, 7 Medium Regiment covered the approaches. The 2/3 Australian Field Regiment in the Mikrovalton area was to give support if necessary.
Finally that night, 14–15 April, on orders from Brigade Headquarters, the charges to complete the anti-tank ditches across the road in the 19 Battalion area were fired by the sub-section from 6 Field Company which had been standing by.
Action in Servia Pass, 15 April
The enemy had also been very active. After the engagement at Ptolemais the leading units of 9 Panzer Division had been organised into groups and the forward one60 led by Colonel Graf
von Sponeck61 had entered Kozani about midday. No. 8 Company 11 Infantry Regiment had then been sent to take the Aliakmon bridge before it was demolished. The attempt was unsuccessfu but the commander reported that there was little activity on the south side of the river. The shellfire was accurate but by 7.30 p.m. the company, supported by machine-gun and mortar sections, had clambered over the ruins of the bridge and was advancing warily along the few miles of straight road towards Servia.
No serious opposition was expected. The general situation indicated that the British were withdrawing and according to an air report ‘there was not a single enemy soldier between the river and the heights S.W. of Servia.’62 The German High Command had therefore decided that a swift assault even by a small force would capture this important pass. So about 2 a.m. when 8 Company, now supported by 6 Company, was approaching Servia, orders were received for the force to turn west towards the pass. The heights immediately south of the town would be the responsibility of 1 and 3 Companies 59 Motor Cycle Battalion.
Two artillery regiments were brought up during the night to give their support and the road south from Kozani was cleared to let the engineers build up their equipment. But they were unable to construct any bridge that night; the best that they could do was to cut an approach to a possible ford. In that stretch, however, the current was so swift that after one tank had been lost in the river the anti-tank guns and heavy supporting weapons of the infantry were left on the north bank.
This setback did not delay the two companies of infantry, for they continued unsupported and by first light were approaching the pass. The fact that they had captured two Greeks who were escaping on horseback had strengthened their belief that the Allies were making a hurried withdrawal and were not likely to offer any serious resistance. But when the greater part of the force was just through or in the deep cutting between the first two anti-tank ditches the New Zealanders opened fire and by 8 a.m. the two companies had been destroyed, only a few stragglers getting back to report the disaster.
This neat and spectacular success was the work, for the most part, of A Company 19 Battalion. In the stretch between the eastern and central anti-tank ditches, 7 Platoon had been on the south side and 8 Platoon on the north side of a deep cutting through the projecting ridge. South of them on the rising ground between the road and the base of the escarpment the sections of 9 Platoon were
extended eastwards towards Servia, with a listening post between them and the road, and a 3-inch mortar group behind and above them. In the pass itself just above the road fork to Grevena was 16 Platoon D Company; across the road on the other side of the pass, higher up and north-west of the junction to give covering fire, were C Company and a section from 2/1 Australian Machine Gun Battalion.
About 5.30 a.m. the German companies were casually walking towards the pass, and having no apparent order they had not been any different from the normal groups of straggling refugees.63 At the tank trap they paused and made no attempt to keep silent. As a result the New Zealand sentry who went down to investigate thought that they were just another party of Greeks and turned back to his trench on the hillside. The more forward of the Germans went across the tank obstacle, through the deep cutting between 7 and 8 Platoons and almost to the point where the road branched south towards the pass and west towards Grevena. Then it was that
the centre section of 9 Platoon, having been warned by the listening post of unusual movement about the cutting, opened fire on the too-confident enemy.
In a few minutes there was action all along the highway. Grenades tossed into the cutting soon silenced that section and left the Germans in two groups. Those through the cutting and strung out towards the crest of the pass were under fire from 16 Platoon D Company to the east and from C Company and the Australian machine-gunners to the west. And when they turned on their tracks there were 7 and 8 Platoons of A Company waiting on either side of the cutting. The north side of the road was somewhat broken so the more serious German attack was across the southern slope between the road and the base of the escarpment in the sector held by 7 Platoon. As the defences of this platoon had been designed to meet an attack from Servia the retreating Germans were at first successful, reaching the crest of the ridge and firing down into the weapon pits on the forward slopes. Two men had been killed and another wounded before Private McKay64 leapt up and tossed a grenade which killed the German officer and two of his men. Private Frain65 with his tommy gun halted another group and Corporal Cooke66 came over from 8 Platoon with a section which killed and captured more Germans. As a result, any Germans between the road and the escarpment had, before long, surrendered or taken cover.
On the north side where the slope dropped more sharply into the gully the Germans found it difficult to withdraw. They did attempt to clamber up the ridge above the cutting but Private Wellman67 was able to jump out of his trench and use his tommy gun so effectively that the attack faded away.
Thus when daylight came those Germans west of the cutting were in an impossible position. Overlooked and harassed by 9 Platoon and the 3-inch mortar detachment, they could find no security in the central anti-tank ditch. Their only shelter was in its extreme northern end, and from there a mortar continued to be a nuisance until silenced by the 2-inch mortar with 8 Platoon. After that there was no further opposition and by 7.15 a.m. some seventy Germans from the west of the cutting were being marched back over the pass.
To the east of the cutting the Germans who had endeavoured to move up to support the forward sections had quickly been forced
to take cover from the fire of all three platoons of A Company and, when the light permitted, from the long-distance fire of the company’s snipers. Some Germans were able to crawl away towards the Aliakmon River but after daylight the majority were forced to stay where they were. The commander of 8 Company 11 Infantry Regiment who escaped reported that ‘the enemy was firing accurately at every individual man who emerged from cover anywhere.’68 Their only chance was to surrender and this they hastened to do, until by 8 a.m. another fifty prisoners were on their way back to 4 Brigade Headquarters. In all 3 officers and 150 other ranks were captured;69 the casualties for 19 Battalion were two other ranks killed and five wounded.
Once the front was secure the wounded were evacuated and the German weapons and equipment examined. It was remarkable how much the enemy had been carrying: drum magazines for the light machine guns, range-finders for the mortars, a wireless set which had, fortunately, been wrecked very early in the engagement and a surprising number of stick bombs. Many of them had been used but they had not been so destructive as the Mills grenades. The only one to do any damage had severely injured the feet and legs of Private Lee,70 who had, however, most gallantly continued to fill Bren magazines for the rest of the engagement.
Neither side had called for the support of its artillery. In the early stages Headquarters 19 Battalion had thought that it had to deal with nothing stronger than a German patrol; the Germans had expected such support to be unnecessary.71
The rest of the day saw only one other attempt to approach the pass. In the morning shortly after the advanced guard had been overwhelmed another group of Germans, some seventy strong, had moved along the road from Servia towards the lines of A Company 19 Battalion. ‘They were coming along the road with a file on each side ... and a scout about 50 yards in front with rifle slung. They were simply marching towards the position. Unfortunately a section of No. 9 Platoon opened up too soon before they came into view of Nos. 7 and 8 and they immediately took cover.’72 The 3-inch mortars were then used and the Germans withdrew.
It is now known that a machine-gun platoon and a mortar section from 9 Company 11 Infantry Regiment had been ordered to cross the river and support the units detailed to capture the pass. At first
light they had crossed on pontoons, moved on to Servia and, hearing the sound of fighting in the pass, had marched forward to play their part. They had endeavoured to use their mortars against A Company, but the disadvantage of being under observation from ‘those commanding British positions’73 had soon forced them to withdraw to the nearby village of Avles.
Two companies from 59 Motor Cycle Battalion came over about the same time with the intention of forcing the steep escarpment immediately south of Servia and opening the pass from the rear, probably by the steep track from the township to the centre of 18 Battalion. But as the official report afterwards stated, ‘the fact that they had crossed the river much later than 6 and 8 Coys saved them from sharing these companies’ fate. One company had entered Servia but the other was in the open when the New Zealanders74 overlooking them opened a destructive fire which pinned them down in what cover they could find.’
Unaware both of this opposition and of the disaster in the pass, von Sponeck shortly after 9 a.m. sent two companies from I Battalion 11 Infantry Regiment to support the forward units. In the clear light of that hour no movement about the bridge and along the road from it into Servia could be hidden from the observers on the crest of the escarpment. The shellfire from the defending artillery was therefore unpleasantly accurate. No. 2 Company, which attempted to cross above the demolished road bridge, suffered so heavily that the attempt was abandoned. No. 1 Company crossed downstream but lost several pontoons and left equipment on a sandbank in the middle of the river.
By then von Sponeck had learnt of the disaster in the pass but he knew nothing about the motor-cycle companies in the Servia area. No. 2 Company I/11 Infantry Regiment was therefore ordered to get across the river in spite of the shelling. He led the way himself but it meant a swim before they could get to the other side. Once over he spent an uneasy day, always disturbed by the shellfire from the southern ridges and increasingly worried about the chances of a counter-attack. As every movement was now ‘visible from the craggy hills nearby’,75 von Sponeck decided to withdraw to better positions between the village and the river. His patrols continued to operate below the pass, but once darkness came the battalion withdrew towards the Aliakmon bridge, where it formed a screen about the bridgehead and waited to repel any New Zealand counterattacks.
The day had thus been a triumph for 19 Battalion and its commander, Lieutenant-Colonel Varnham. Consequently it was almost tragic that he should that day have the misfortune to be injured and eventually to be evacuated. The battalion was taken over by Major Blackburn.76
The day had been equally exciting for the New Zealand units along the ridges overlooking the valley. On the extreme right flank 18 Battalion had seen German vehicles drawing up under the trees on the north side of the river and troops assembling near the ruins of the bridges. The German artillery had been shelling all possible positions and their aircraft had been roaring backwards and forwards across the front. Those men who stayed still were reasonably safe but anyone moving across country was likely to be strafed. For his courage and endurance as runner between headquarters and the forward platoon, Private Moors77 of 18 Battalion was afterwards awarded the Military Medal. The heaviest raid came in the early afternoon when the whole front was attacked by dive-bombers. The only casualties were three other ranks of C Troop 31 Anti-Tank Battery, attached to 20 Battalion on the left flank and killed by a direct hit in their slit trench.
Conditions were no easier for the signallers. Lines were always being broken but, strafing or no strafing, they had to maintain them, particularly in the 19 Battalion sector at the crest of the pass. For such hazardous work Lance-Corporal Scott78 and Private Spilman79 from 20 Battalion and Private Porter80 from 19 Battalion were awarded the Military Medal.
In its turn 6 Field Regiment was hard at work, particularly between air raids, when the enemy were shelled as they attempted to cross the river in pontoon boats or to clamber across the demolished bridge. In the German reports this very accurate shellfire restricted all serious movements about the bridge and along the road towards Servia. ‘The bridge building operation made no progress because the enemy’s accurate shellfire made it impossible at times to work on the bridge and destroyed what work had been done.’81
And over the crest of the pass the Advanced Dressing Station
of A Company 5 Field Ambulance had a heavy day, 53 wounded being admitted, of whom 40 were German prisoners. To complicate matters the station was raided four times and had, in consequence, to be shifted still farther back into the pass.
The German Plans are Changed, 15–16 April
As a result of this unexpected resistance the German commanders now adjusted their plans. That night, 15–16 April, General Stumme of XXXX Corps ordered 9 Panzer Division to spend the next day preparing to attack on 17 April. But the divisional commander, General Hubicki, knowing the country and realising that he needed still greater artillery support, met Stumme and convinced him that another attack would be both pointless and expensive. Instead XXXX Corps would ‘tie the enemy down in the Servia position’ and thrust through Grevena towards Elasson, thereby outflanking the Aliakmon line. There need be no further attack in the Servia sector; if the line was outflanked through Grevena the British would have to withdraw.
First Moves in the Withdrawal from Servia Pass
The British in their turn had been completing their plans and conducting the first stages of their withdrawal to Thermopylae. On 15 April, before Anzac Corps operation orders were issued, Blamey had warned Mackay that the units west of Servia Pass and forward of the Aliakmon River must be withdrawn immediately. Nineteenth Australian Brigade and 26 New Zealand Battalion had then begun their exhausting withdrawal.82 In the afternoon when the shelling and strafing were reverberating through the pass, Mackay, Puttick and Allen, the commander of 16 Brigade, met at Headquarters 4 Brigade and planned their withdrawal to Thermopylae. A quick withdrawal of 16 Brigade from the mountains east of the pass was difficult to arrange, but before morning the battalions were coming down83 from their positions above the snow line. Fourth Brigade was to have withdrawn from Servia Pass on the night of 18–19 April, but during the afternoon of 16 April Headquarters 6 Australian Division instructed Puttick to withdraw one night earlier, 17–18 April.
The first withdrawal from the pass itself took place on the morning of 16 April when 2/2 Australian Field Regiment, having been warned of the heavy shelling of the crossroads, chose to move back through Karperon and Dheskati with 26 Battalion and some of 19 Brigade. The regiment eventually joined the left-flank screen that was assembling at Zarkos; the New Zealanders went to the
6 Brigade area south of Elasson; and the Australian infantry joined the rest of 19 Brigade at Dhomokos, south of Pharsala.
For the units about the pass it was a wet, misty day with no enemy air raids but much heavy shelling about the road junction behind the pass in the 19 Battalion area. In the hills above Servia 18 Battalion was undisturbed, but 20 Battalion on the western escarpment, having a clear view of the withdrawal of 26 New Zealand Battalion and 19 Australian Brigade and no instructions about its exposed left flank, was intensely curious about the changing front. When explanatory orders did arrive Lieutenant-Colonel Kippenberger prepared to refuse his left flank, but before any changes were made his battalion was ordered back to its old position astride the road at Lava.
At 8 p.m. the battalion transport withdrew without headlights along the narrow, slippery road. No losses were suffered at the still heavily shelled crossroads where there was already ‘a smell of death’, but two trucks, one Bren carrier and two motor-cycles were lost over the crumbling banks. The companies marched back, avoiding the dangerous crossroads but spending a wretched night in the wind and rain. They were not in position until 5 a.m. 17 April; ‘they were plastered from head to foot with mud, and were grey with fatigue, but they reported no stragglers.’84
Several of the artillery units withdrew the same night, 2/3 Australian Field Regiment and one troop of 64 Medium Regiment to Dhomenikon, and another troop of the last named to Dhomokos. The Australians had no difficulty getting out but the mediums in that rain-soaked country were not out on the highway until 3 a.m. on 17 April. Sixth New Zealand Field Regiment and one battery of 7 Medium Regiment who had maintained a steady harassing fire all through the night were now the only units of artillery left in the Servia Pass area.
By then it had been decided that 4 Brigade would be withdrawing that night, 17–18 April. Twentieth Battalion would be the rearguard, with Lieutenant-Colonel Kippenberger responsible for blowing the demolitions that were now being prepared along the line of withdrawal. D Company in Lava village would screen the withdrawal of 18 Battalion, B Company on the main highway would do the same for 19 Battalion. They in turn would withdraw through A Company, with C Company and one platoon of A Company back in the pass to cover the southern approaches. Eighteenth and 19th Battalions would begin their withdrawal at 9 p.m. and on reaching the main highway south of the gorge would move off to the Thermopylae area without waiting to form groups
or complete units. The embussing point was south of Sarandaporos bridge, well back in the foothills on a small but distinct plateau which made an ideal turning point for vehicles.
Once the two battalions had embussed, the covering companies of 20 Battalion would move out through a screen of Bren carriers with which Lieutenant-Colonel Kippenberger and Lieutenant Kelsall, after blowing the demolitions, were to bring up the rear.
The Withdrawal of 4 Brigade, 17–18 April
A fog which shrouded the front on 17 April limited visibility to no more than 500 yards. Any movement by the Germans could not be clearly observed, but that weakness was more than balanced by the chances there now were of making an unobserved and undisturbed withdrawal. The artillery, instead of thinning out at 7 p.m., began to move at 1 p.m., the arrangement being that A Troop 6 Field Regiment, having the advantages of a reasonably sound track, would come out last.
The guns of 7 Medium Regiment were out by 5 p.m. E Troop 6 Field Regiment had also reached the highway, but it had taken three tractors and a team of men to move each gun across the rain-soaked slopes. The others were being brought out with less difficulty when the mist lifted and left the two guns of A Troop out of the pits and in full view of the enemy. The shellfire which soon came over was heavy but two drivers, Gunners Bunton85 and Tombleson,86 resolutely went in with their quads and retrieved them. That done, all guns, including those of 31 Battery 7 Anti-Tank Regiment, were on the main highway and soon rattling south towards Larisa and Thermopylae.
Once darkness came the infantry were on the move. Nineteenth Battalion, having brought in its outlying platoons the previous night, lost no time before it started the gruelling ten-mile march from the pass to the embussing point. The demolitions87 prepared by the engineers in the pass were blown so there was little chance of a German attack. The greatest threat was the consistent shelling of the highway from the crossroads above the pass to a point not very far from the embussing point.
The withdrawal of 18 Battalion from the high country east of Servia was more exposed and more complicated. A section rejoining
D Company and parties from B Company, moving in broad daylight, seem to have attracted attention for the two tracks on the forward faces were under artillery fire from last light until nearly midnight. However, C Company by following one on the left flank reached Lava and, after five exhausting hours, came out on the main highway. Here it was met by Brigadier Puttick, who hustled it off down the road towards its transport.
Battalion Headquarters, A, B and D Companies withdrew by the ‘back’ route, which was safer but longer, the track circling above Lava and then joining the highway much lower in the gorge. The mountain village, Kastania, was under shellfire when they began their march but no casualties were suffered. The great difficulty of the route was the broken terrain, made all the more complicated and confusing by the blackness of the night. ‘We moved in single file and we moved fast. It was dark; the rocks of the track showed up a ghostly blur. It was a killing pace and with full equipment. ... Having been told nothing we had no idea exactly what the position was. ... Gradually we all became imbued with the gravity of the situation and this was confirmed when the order was given to abandon packs. ... the tension increased in bounds in an atmosphere of doubt and some bewilderment.’88 The company commanders emphasised the necessity of getting out to the highway before daybreak, but in spite of their appeals the long strung-out columns broke, separated and dropped behind schedule.
The first company reached the road about 2 a.m. and reported to Lieutenant-Colonel Kippenberger, who was waiting with the rearguard at the demolition point north of the Sarandaporos stream and opposite the rough country round which the companies were withdrawing. These men knew nothing about Battalion Headquarters and the other two companies nor could they suggest their possible route, except that it was to the east of the road. The senior officer, Captain Lyon,89 did however point out that the men would be exhausted and would have neither the strength nor the time to march on to the turning point where the trucks had now been assembled. He was therefore sent on by Kippenberger to collect unit transport to convey the exhausted groups to that area. To make this possible, the sappers in their turn had to lift the surface charges from three demolitions in the 12-mile stretch between the rearguard and the embussing point.
In the meantime the companies of 20 Battalion had withdrawn. B Company had come in after covering the withdrawal of 19 Battalion. Some of 18 Battalion had passed through Lava, but now
that the great majority was coming out by the high route D Company 20 Battalion could begin its own withdrawal. The other companies down the gorge were on or close to the highway so before long the battalion, tired and muddy, was back at the assembly point, embussed and on its way to Larisa.
That over, Lieutenant-Colonel Kippenberger and Lieutenant Kelsall waited for the transport to come up and for the missing companies of 18 Battalion to reach the highway. Second-Lieutenant Green90 with the Bren carriers from 20 Battalion provided a screen to the north; the Colonel waited at the ‘tin hut’ north of the Sarandaporos stream and on the western side of the long valley leading up to Servia Pass. All was darkness, with shells coming over from the Aliakmon and small parties of men calling out across the gully. Each group in its turn was urged to stumble down to the creek and clamber up the face to the highway and the waiting vehicles.
At 5 a.m., long after the rearguard should have been clear of the pass, small groups from 18 Battalion were still appearing out of the darkness. Kippenberger decided that he must wait still longer, for it was hardly likely that the Germans would be able to clear the demolitions in the Olympus Pass and cut off the line of retreat.
As it was possible for the demolition charges to be blown too soon, Lieutenant Dawson91 was despatched to warn the engineers that the highway must be kept clear for a swift withdrawal. The RAP and WT trucks were sent back but Kippenberger, with the rest of the rearguard, waited until dawn, still collecting stragglers from 18 Battalion.
The same night German patrols sought to find out why the New Zealand shellfire had now ceased. At 6 a.m. they reported that ‘the strongly constructed positions’ were unoccupied, but the units which hastened to advance were held up by the blown bridges, the minefields and the demolitions.