Chapter 9: The Monastir Gap
The Assembly of Mackay Force: 8–9 April
IN the extreme north about Amindaion there was even more activity than at Servia Pass. On 8 April 27 (Machine Gun) Battalion had been about to move back1 from the forward slopes of the Klidhi Pass to positions at Sotir behind Headquarters Amindaion Detachment. In the afternoon the order was countermanded, probably because of the decision that Mackay Force in its effort to stop a blitzkrieg must defend the Klidhi Pass between Monastir and Ptolemais. The new gun positions had to be north of the 60 grid line, so Brigadier Lee and Lieutenant-Colonel Gwilliam together decided that they would be on the lower slopes of the high ridge to the east of Klidhi and thence south-westwards to the pass and across it to include the Mala Reka ridge.
The pass itself was not steep, but it was narrow and, except for the cultivated patches in a few re-entrants, was covered with thick scrub. The ridges on either side were nearly 3000 feet high, with a most extensive view across the bare, windswept plain. The road from Edhessa and Salonika came in from the east; another lined with poplars ran north-west towards the border and beyond it to Monastir, less than 20 miles away; and the railway line after coming through the pass swung away still farther west towards Florina. Away to the north were high mountains crested with snow and obscured by mists.
The machine-gun companies moved into position that night, 8–9 April. No. 2 Company (Captain Robbie2) had 6 Platoon (Lieutenant Liley3) about Vevi, 5 Platoon (Lieutenant Newland4) and 4 Platoon (Second-Lieutenant Hatton5) in the stretch from Klidhi across the hills to Point 1001 and beyond it to the
track between Flambouron and Xynon Neron. No. 1 Company (Captain Grant6) had its three platoons on features 807 and 852.
The British units adjusted their positions according to the new orders. A Squadron 3 Royal Tank Regiment moved to the Sotir area from which it could cover the southern approaches to the pass; the other squadrons remained to the south of Amindaion. Sixty-fourth Medium Regiment (less one troop) took up positions covering the whole front, with 211 Medium Battery south of Vevi and one troop of 234 Medium Battery in Klidhi.
Just before midnight General Mackay came up to the pass and immediately took over the organisation of its defence. The reinforcements which were moving into the area would be under the command of Brigadier G. A. Vasey of 19 Australian Infantry Brigade, two7 of whose battalions, 2/4 and 2/8, were now coming up from Piraeus. In the early morning, when the Armoured Brigade came through8 from the Macedonian Plain, 1 Rangers would come under Vasey’s command; the other units of the brigade would carry on to Perdikha as Force Reserve.
The same night General Mackay had a conference with General Karassos9 but because of language difficulties little was accomplished. Arrangements were made for the headquarters of Mackay Force and the Central Macedonian Army to be in the same village, Perdikha, and every effort was made to support 20 Division, whose new position would be in the mountains on the right flank. A reconnaissance was ordered to see if the Germans could use the road to the east of Lake Vegorritis; a battery of 64 Medium Regiment was offered10 to strengthen the Kedhronas area in the extreme east of the front; and later General Wilson ordered that the detachment of 102 Anti-Tank Regiment already with 20 Greek Division should be increased immediately to one battery. So on 9 April D Battery 102 Anti-Tank Regiment sent one troop east of Lake Vegorritis to join the troop already with 20 Greek Division, the other going to the west of Lake Petersko.
At first light next morning, 9 April, the units of Mackay Force were hastening into position. First Rangers left 1 Armoured Brigade when it came through the mountains from Edhessa; motor transport and carriers were sent to the rear and the companies, dropping the role of motorised infantry, took over the line across the pass from Vevi to the western slopes. In front of them 2/1 Australian Anti-Tank Regiment was about Vevi covered by the
New Zealand machine-gunners and to the rear there was a battery from 2/3 Australian Field Regiment.
The 2/4 Australian Battalion (less one company),11 after a long night journey in trucks, had arrived at dawn and moved into the hills to the west of the pass. Here it eventually built up a front which covered the four miles between the left flank of 1 Rangers and the right flank of 21 Greek Infantry Brigade on the western side of Hill 1001.
The 2/8 Australian Battalion after two equally tiring days of travel arrived later in the morning and temporarily took up positions in the Xynon Neron area to the west of the pass. From here, after an unpleasant night in the snow, it moved across the pass to the right of the Rangers to hold the sector from the west of Vevi to the north of Lake Petersko. There was a small gap to the left between it and the Rangers, but on the right flank it was able to link up with the Dodecanese Regiment, which was to be on the left flank of 20 Greek Division in the hill country about Lakes Petersko–Vegorritis.
The Allied front was then complete but no one could confidently say that it was strong. There were Greek units on either flank but little was known of their fighting strength. The ridges were high and the field of fire, except for an area behind the ridge near Lofoi, was excellent. But the three battalions were strung out across a front of over ten miles, a distance far too great for any defence in depth.
The only arm in any strength was the artillery. The 2/3 Australian Field Regiment had come into position to support 2/8 Battalion and 1 Rangers; 2 Royal Horse Artillery would support 2/4 Battalion; and 64 Medium Regiment would cover the whole front.
In an anti-tank role and mostly on the forward slopes were a troop from 2 Royal Horse Artillery and many of the guns of 2/1 Australian Anti-Tank Battery.
The forces in reserve were, for the most part, along the highway to the south. On the Sotir ridge covering the exit to the pass were A Squadron 3 Royal Tank Regiment, whose parent unit was at Amindaion, and A Squadron 4 Hussars detached from the unit now stationed at Kozani. The two troops of New Zealand Divisional Cavalry were with Headquarters 1 Armoured Brigade at Perdikha, the headquarters for 6 Australian Division.
The Germans Approach the Monastir Gap
The Germans in their turn were now interested in the advantages to be gained by an advance across the south-east corner of
Yugoslavia and thence south through the Monastir Gap. They had always been appreciated by Field Marshal List. On 7 April, when Greek resistance along the Metaxas line had seemed unexpectedly strong, he had even considered postponing the advance to Salonika in favour of a major thrust through the gap towards Florina and the rear of the Allied positions. If he had done so the withdrawal of 1 Armoured Brigade from Macedonia would have been an extremely hazardous operation. As it was he persisted in his attempt to break through the Metaxas line, but at the same time prepared to exploit the advantages which XXXX Corps was so spectacularly winning in southern Yugoslavia. If he struck south from Monastir across the border to Florina and Kozani he could threaten the rear of the ‘Florina–Edessa–Katerini front, reported occupied by British troops.’ And if he then swung westwards through the passes of the central ranges towards Koritza or Kastoria he would threaten the withdrawal of the Greeks from Albania. As a preliminary move he had consequently on 8 April ordered 5 Panzer Division, then moving with Panzer Group 1 towards Belgrade, to turn south and assist XXXX Corps.
His battle orders for the next two days, 9–10 April, made it quite clear that 12 Army would be entering Greece from Yugoslavia as well as from Bulgaria. It would attack ‘as soon as possible and in the greatest possible strength’, XXXX Corps through Florina towards Kozani, and XVIII Corps through Edhessa–Veroia–Katerini towards Larisa. The former would deliver the decisive blow through Kozani to Larisa, thereby threatening to surround the British forces in north Greece. To cover the western flank and ‘take the Greek front directly in rear’, a motorised force would strike west through the Pisodherion Pass to Koritza and thence south down the valley to Kastoria and Grevena.
The task for XVIII Corps was the crossing of the Axios River and the passage through the mountains to Larisa. Once sound reconnaissances had been made 2 Panzer Division would move through the passes behind Edhessa, Veroia and Katerini.
The two corps, XVIII and XXXX, were not able to attack simultaneously. The former, having just spread out across the plain of Macedonia and into Salonika, needed time to reorganise before attempting to cross the Axios River. So XXXX Corps was left to make the first move, even though its infantry regiments were still crossing the mountains and its motorised advanced guard in the Monastir Gap had not in itself the strength to force the Klidhi Pass. The commanders had therefore to find some solution to this problem.
The advanced guard, relieved of any responsibility to the south, was sent westwards towards Struga, at the north end of Lake Ochrida, where on 10 April it met the Italians advancing from Albania. The necessary weight to break south through the Monastir Gap had to be brought down from the northern group at Skoplje. The roads were cleared and 9 Panzer Division, with the SS ‘Adolf Hitler’ Division as an advanced guard, was diverted south to force the gap.
On 9 April the reconnaissance unit of the SS ‘Adolf Hitler’ Division entered Monastir; by 8.30 p.m. a motor-cycle company was over the border and into Florina. The unit diary even claims that it went forward ‘through English motorised forces’ and occupied Vevi until infantry and artillery opened up. This is hardly likely as neither the infantry nor the artillery of Mackay Force recorded any action at this time.
Next day the main body of the Division rushed through Monastir, having been ordered to reach Kozani and cut off the retreat of the British forces from the passes behind Edhessa, Veroia and Katerini. The striking force, Witt Battle Group,12 crossed the frontier at 9.40 a.m., pushing ahead ‘so quickly that the enemy (English recce troops) was unable to blow or burn bridges on the advance route.’13 This is the only reference to the series of minor engagements that took place that morning when a demolition party, which included some New Zealanders from the Divisional Cavalry Regiment, withdrew before the approaching enemy.
According to the German diaries the column was strafed repeatedly by Hurricanes and Bristol Blenheims, the British in the early stages of the advance having ‘absolute air superiority.’ Nevertheless, in spite of demolitions and air raids the Group by nightfall was outside Vevi and probing the outer defences of the Klidhi Pass. ‘A recce-fighting patrol of one platoon ... was sent round the flank, got behind the foremost English positions NE of Vevi, captured 3 HMGs and 23 PW.’14 The other patrols reported that the pass road to Edhessa was held in strength, that British troops were about the Klidhi Pass ‘on a wide front’ and that the pass road westwards from Florina was held by Greeks.
Mackay Force bolds up the German Advance
The first engagement with the enemy in this sector and the first involving the New Zealand Division in Greece took place on the morning of 10 April. As part of a motorised patrol commanded
by Captain P. G. Page of 1 Armoured Brigade, Lieutenant D. A. Cole’s troop of Divisional Cavalry armoured cars went up the main highway to discover how close the Germans were and to delay them by wrecking several bridges just across the border of Yugoslavia. At one such bridge, the patrol stopped and the engineers, with the armoured cars screening the approaches, set about preparing their demolitions.
Shortly afterwards a German motor-cycle patrol came down the north road followed by a column of ‘limousines, motor-cycles and side cars, light trucks and armoured cars.’ Corporal King15 opened up with Bren fire, the German troop-carriers moved up and their mortars and heavy machine guns came into action. Captain Page still had hopes of finishing the demolition, but the volume of fire eventually forced him to abandon the solid stone bridge. King, who had aggressively maintained his forward position, thereupon withdrew under covering fire from Sergeant Sutherland16 and the whole patrol turned back for Amindaion. A W Force reconnaissance car and the engineers’ truck went on ahead, leaving Captain Page with Cole’s troop to make the final demolitions.17
The next bridge, a wooden one, was wrecked, soaked in petrol and set on fire. Another one beyond it was similarly dealt with and the detachment raced off towards the lines of W Force. But from the crest of the slope above the bridge near the junction with the Florina road the party was astonished to see a staff car on the bridge itself and a line of men and vehicles along the roadside. Lieutenant Cole immediately withdrew his cars behind cover. When the patrol opened fire the astonished Germans withdrew up the road to Florina. The armoured cars were then rushed across the bridge and south to the defences in Klidhi Pass.
Thereafter the front was relatively quiet, the Germans waiting for their artillery to come up and the British busily digging in. Their artillery, both field and medium, relentlessly shelled any visible concentrations of enemy troops and vehicles. A German bomber came over in the evening and a reconnaissance aircraft was driven away by anti-aircraft fire shortly afterwards, but the sky for the greater part of the day belonged to the Royal Air Force. The early morning reconnaissance flights had shown the Prilep–Monastir road to be jammed with vehicles waiting for demolitions to be repaired, so Blenheim bombers were attacking the assembling columns.
The infantry had still to complete their defences. The 2/8 Battalion, after its unpleasant night in the snow to the west of the pass, spent the day moving east across the pass and over the wet ridges to the right flank of 1 Rangers. On the left flank there had been a gap between 2/4 Battalion and the Greeks, but late in the afternoon Lieutenant Newland of 27 (Machine Gun) Battalion, with a section of 5 Platoon and a section of 4 Platoon, was taken over in Australian trucks ‘to close gap on left.’ Once there the party worked with D Company 2/4 Battalion and some Australian anti-tank gunners. When contact was eventually made with 21 Greek Brigade, the left company of 2/4 Battalion went into position on the western slopes of Point 1001.
That night, 10–11 April, was more restless. The Germans were now edging forward behind a screen of infantry patrols and 2/4 Battalion reported that at least one battalion was closing up on the left flank. Several tanks were disabled on the minefields but the majority of the Germans had no great trouble assembling about Vevi.
While this move was taking place the battalions of Mackay Force south and east of the village were constantly under pressure. Heavy mortar fire had to be endured and probing infantry had to be checked, but all went well until about midnight when the Germans made a successful raid near the junction of 2/8 Battalion and 1 Rangers. They captured some men from each of these units and all, except one man, of 2 Section 6 Platoon 27 MG Battalion.
This irritating pressure from German patrols continued throughout the night until at 3 a.m. the Rangers withdrew for some distance the company on the extreme right flank. No. 1 Section 6 MG Platoon, having been left in an exposed position, was then withdrawn behind the Rangers to positions on the eastern side of the pass, and 2/8 Australian Battalion, already tired after its exhausting march from the western side of the pass, had to adjust its left flank to conform with that of the Rangers.
Plans for the Withdrawal of the Allied Forces
This pause in the German advance gave the Allied Command the necessary time to organise the controlled withdrawal of the Greek and Australian divisions from the north-eastern flank. Otherwise there could easily have been that confusion which so often develops during the strain of a retreat. In the morning General Papagos made a definite statement about his future policy. He confirmed in general the instructions18 already issued by General Wilson, but he also made some important variations for the safe
withdrawal of his armies from Albania. The new line would certainly extend westwards from Servia Pass but it would not, as Wilson suggested, continue westwards to Grevena. Once it reached the central range it would switch north-westwards along the hills from the Siatista area to Lake Kastoria. In the Siatista Pass would be 12 Greek Division; in the Vlasti and Klisoura area 20 Greek Division; in the Nimfaion area 21 Greek Brigade; and still farther north protecting the Pisodherion Pass there would be the Cavalry Division.
The movement to the Olympus–Servia-Kastoria positions was to be complete by 14 April, and the move of 12 and 20 Greek Divisions across the valley from the mountains on the right flank to the passes in the central range would be covered with ‘a vigorous defence by the (British) forces in the Kleidi position.’
The western sector of the line might be held either permanently or as a covering position which could at some later date be swung back to Mount Grammos. Papagos’s ultimate intention was to withdraw the Greek armies to a line running westwards from the Aliakmon River across the Pindhos Range to the Adriatic Sea near Santa Quaranta.
That afternoon Wilson. Mackay and General Karassos met at Perdikha and drew up the necessary timetable.
As the Greeks were short of motor transport the move would occupy three nights. That night, 10–11 April, three battalions would move out, on 11–12 April three more, and on 12–13 April the rearguard, including the Dodecanese Regiment from the right flank of Mackay Force, would begin its withdrawal to the Servia area.
Sixteenth Australian Brigade in the Veroia Pass area to the south of the Greeks would march to the mountain sector on the right flank of 4 New Zealand Brigade at Servia. This meant that the infantry, instead of being transported across the Aliakmon River and left to climb a mere five to six miles, would have to trudge some 30 miles through the hills and then form a line 3000 feet above sea level. The move would be exhausting, but it meant that if the Germans broke through Mackay Force at Amindaion the brigade would not be caught strung out along the main highway. Nevertheless, it was a lot to ask of troops unaccustomed to mountain warfare.
No time was lost in beginning these withdrawals. Two battalions from 20 Greek Division left shortly after the conference on a 25-mile march from positions south of Lake Vegorritis to the Klisoura and Vlasti areas. The same afternoon and night 2/3 Australian Battalion marched to the south end of the Veroia Pass
and formed a line to cover the junction of the main road and the track by which 16 Brigade was to cross the mountains.
A serious difficulty was the fact that the main highway had to be used by both mechanised forces and ‘Greek divisions with bullocks.’ To simplify matters it was agreed, next day, that the Dodecanese Regiment which was to protect the right flank of Mackay Force should, temporarily, come under the command of 6 Australian Division. To speed up the withdrawal about 500 of the 3000 Greeks were to be carried to the Klisoura area in British transport vehicles during the night of 11–12 April.
The overall situation was most disturbing. During the day the Germans had occupied Florina and moved south towards the Klidhi Pass; they had approached the Pisodherion Pass and had been halted by the Greek Cavalry Division; and away to the north they had joined forces with the Italians in the Lake Ochrida area. As the safe withdrawal of the Greek armies from Albania was now threatened, General Papagos instructed 11 Greek Division, which was in reserve, to safeguard the passes in the Metsovon area of the Pindhos Range. British transport, including a few vehicles of 4 RMT Company, was provided to assist in the move.19
Shortly after midnight Papagos met Wilson and discussed the situation which would develop after the cessation of his campaign in Albania. The chances were that the left flank of W Force would have to be strengthened.
11 April: Fighting in the Klidhi Pass Area
The following day, 11 April and Good Friday, was bitterly cold with intermittent snowfalls making life wretched for the defenders, the majority of whom had just come over from the Western Desert. Visibility was very limited so there were no nuisance raids by the Luftwaffe, but when the sky did, on occasions, become clear the defenders could see German reinforcements20 debussing on the right flank near Vevi and Kelli. The Witt Battle Group was preparing ‘to thrust through with all possible speed to Kozani in order to cut off the retreat of the English from the Katerini-Veria-Edessa line.’21 A reconnaissance unit was moving eastwards through Kelli and into the mountains in order to link up with those units of XVIII Corps which were coming through the pass from Edhessa.
The mortars with the Group had been brought up during the night and were harassing the anti-tank units on the forward slopes; artillery was getting into position and bringing the whole front under steadily increasing shellfire but there were, as yet; no serious
moves by the German armoured units. In the morning at least two tanks were disabled on mines outside the Klidhi Pass and in the afternoon there was a suggestion that a tank attack was developing in the Greek sector between Lakes Vegorritis and Petersko. A Squadron 3 Royal Tank Regiment was then sent from the Sotir ridge to the north of the pass to halt any advance along the northern edge of Lake Petersko. C Squadron and C Battery 102 Anti-Tank Regiment were despatched to Pandeleimon through a snowstorm and across eight miles of soft vineyard country. But no attack developed, so the only result of the counter-move was the loss of seven cruiser tanks because of engine trouble and broken tracks.
The more serious threats were from the infantry who, in spite of harassing fire from the artillery and the machine-gun companies, were probing forward across the whole front. Late in the afternoon Point 852 was attacked; in the evening it was the high ground east of Vevi at the junction of the Dodecanese Regiment and 2/8 Australian Battalion. Both attacks were repelled, but it was clear that the Germans were taking advantage of the snowstorms and moving up to force a passage through the pass itself.
They had actually hoped to get through that day, but Major Witt had postponed the assault because some of his heavy weapons had been held up by the demolitions on the road. Besides this, the snowstorms which had lasted until 6 p.m. had made it impossible for the artillery to give effective support.
The threats of an attack wide out on either flank seemed, for the moment, to be less serious. In the mountains to the east 20 Greek Division had settled into position; 21 Greek Division was coming into line to the west; and west again in the Pisodherion Pass behind Florina another German advance had been halted by the Cavalry Division.
At the same time the opening moves of the withdrawal were under way. Units of 12 Greek Division had begun a long march to Kteni, where the new Greek line was to link up with the left flank of 1 Australian Corps. Twentieth Division was thinning out its forward battalions in the Lake Vegorritis area and the two troops from 102 Anti-Tank Regiment in that area were to move out during the night to positions near Komanos from which they could help to cover the withdrawal of Mackay Force.
In the rear 1 Armoured Brigade had sent its B Echelon and other non-essential transport to Trikkala; senior officers were studying the Sotir ridge from which a rearguard would eventually have to cover the withdrawal of Mackay Force; and General Mackay moved his headquarters from Sotir to Perdikha to have
closer liaison with Headquarters Western Macedonian Army. But the Greeks, without any reference to the Australians, shifted that night to Vateron. The move was certainly not far but this lack of liaison indicates one of the difficulties under which the campaign in Greece was conducted.
At a still higher level General Papagos had been preparing to withdraw his armies from Albania. He had advised General Wilson that he would ‘instruct right corps on Albanian front to withdraw provided he was assured that 1 Armd Bde would operate against enemy in Florina should the latter attempt to interfere with the above withdrawal.’22 The British Military Mission in Athens assured the General that the brigade would make such an attack to prevent the Germans moving through the Pisodherion Pass to cut the line of retreat. But Headquarters W Force telephoned to Athens bluntly stating that 1 Armoured Brigade could give ‘no such assistance as they can’t get out to do it, the gap being closed by mines.’23
12–13 April: Plans for a General Withdrawal
The following day, 12 April, Papagos issued the necessary orders. He may have waited too long, especially when the limitations of his antiquated transport system are considered. But it must always be remembered that ‘Few commanders have been faced with a greater dilemma than was General Papagos.’24 He had wished to dominate the Albanian front before the impact of any German attacks and if, in his last offensive, he had captured the port of Valona the Italian divisions might well have been isolated in Albania and the greater part of the Greek Army thus made available for service against the Germans. And even if the attack in Albania had not been an overwhelming success, a Yugoslav advance from the north, for which Papagos had been negotiating right up to the time of the Yugoslav collapse, would have brought about the defeat of the Italians. Moreover, he had always to remember that a withdrawal would weaken the morale of his army, just as a major success in Albania would sustain the sorely tried people of Greece; that its political repercussions might be even more important than its technical difficulties. Consequently, it has been said that ‘the vast possibilities offered by success in Albania should explain the reluctance of General Papagos prematurely to withdraw.’25
As the first move his Cavalry Division would that day counterattack towards Florina in order to block any German advance
through the Pisodherion Pass and across the line of withdrawal of the Central Macedonian Army. On 13 April that army and the Army of Epirus to the west would begin their withdrawal to the new line 100 miles to the south in the mountainous country of north-east Greece. With British forces already in position from the sea to Mount Olympus and westwards towards Servia Pass, the Greek line would run south to Grevena and along the Venetikos River, through the Pindhos Mountains and westwards roughly parallel with the Albanian frontier to the Adriatic coast near Lake Vutrinto. The eastern sector adjoining the British line would be held by the Western Macedonian Army; that to the west through the mountains to the sea would be the responsibility of the Army of Epirus.
The latter would probably be able to check any Italian approach from Albania. The Western Macedonian Army would certainly be reinforced by the remnants of the Central Macedonian Army, but its successful withdrawal to and from Grevena was extremely doubtful. The German columns streaming south through the Monastir Gap appeared to be concentrating to force Servia Pass, but there was always the threat of other units being switched westwards through the mountains to block the withdrawal of the Western Macedonian Army towards Grevena. The Greeks were therefore attempting to strengthen the defences of the passes along their right flank, so that, if they could be held until 16 April, many of the divisions in Albania would have had time to pass through Grevena.
In General Wilson’s opinion such a smooth withdrawal was now impossible. Although the Cavalry Division, with 21 Infantry Brigade, was holding Pisodherion Pass in the sector extending from Lake Prespa south to Klisoura, the latest intelligence reports stated that 12 Division about Siatista and 20 Division in the passes west of Vlasti and Klisoura had to all intents and purposes disintegrated. This seems to have been the opinion of those who saw second-line troops struggling back on foot, but other observers assert that the front-line units were doggedly doing their best to prepare new positions.
General Papagos also defined the responsibilities of W Force in a message to General Wilson which opened with the phrase, ‘in accordance with my verbal order to you.’ This was no doubt a reference to their discussions at Pharsala during the night of 10–11 April. W Force was responsible for the Klisoura Pass (inclusive)–Mount Siniatsikon–Mount Bourninos–Servia Pass–the Olympus Pass–the coastal route at the Platamon tunnel. Special attention was to be given to the defence of the passes and to the withdrawal of
the Greek units with W Force. If there was any thrust westwards from Florina through the Pisodherion Pass towards Koritza or Kastoria, 1 Armoured Brigade was expected to counter-attack. To ensure the safe withdrawal of the Dodecanese Regiment – the rearguard of 20 Division – the brigade would ‘have to continue up to the end’ to hold the Klidhi Pass. And in the south-east Veroia Pass would have to be held until the withdrawal of 12 Division. From 13 April, when it expected to be in position, the Greek division would be responsible for the line from Kteni to Kastoria, including the Klisoura Pass and the road Klisoura – Argos Orestikon.
To simplify their withdrawal the Greeks made many requests for British motor transport and, whenever possible, this was given. Another request was for anti-tank guns to cover the Klisoura, Vlasti and Siatista passes. They were difficult to supply for there were only three anti-tank regiments in Greece: 1 Australian with Mackay Force in the Klidhi Pass, 7 New Zealand in the Mount Olympus sector and 102 British (less one battery) whose guns were divided between 20 Greek Division, 4 New Zealand Brigade at Servia and 6 Australian Division. However, on 12 April B Battery 102 Anti-Tank Regiment was transferred from the Servia area to the Siatista Pass in the hills between Kozani and Grevena. Twelfth Greek Division when it arrived on the night of 12–13 April was somewhat disorganised, but its battalions moved on to the bluffs above the guns and prepared to give them covering fire.
It was impossible, in spite of repeated requests from the Greeks, to provide anti-tank guns for the Vlasti and Klisoura passes still farther north in the central range. First Australian Anti-Tank Regiment, after taking part in the initial defence of Klidhi Pass, withdrew to the Servia area and C Battery 102 Anti-Tank Regiment at Proastion had to cover the withdrawal of Mackay Force.
Another problem, one always associated with withdrawals, was that of demolitions. The subject had been discussed as early as 9 April but there seem to have been no direct orders from General Papagos. Both 1 Armoured Brigade and 6 Australian Division had been made responsible at different times for a series of demolitions, but the work had evidently been held up for on 11 April Brigadier Charrington informed General Wilson that, in spite of previous agreements, demolitions were now essential.
The Greeks had certainly prepared demolitions in the Klisoura Pass and along the road26 from Kastoria into Albania, but after
11 April British engineers moved across the mountains to safeguard the western flank of W Force. Third Cheshire Field Squadron, Royal Engineers, was on the road south from Argos Orestikon to Siatista and Grevena. The 2/1 Australian Field Company on the same stretch also dealt with the road through the pass from Siatista to Kozani.
After this date the desire of the Greeks to keep the roads clear for the withdrawal of their armies from Albania and the wish of the British to protect their western flank created a serious difference of opinion. On 13 April27 General Papagos objected to the British preparing demolitions along the road from Argos Orestikon to Neapolis, Grevena and Kalabaka. He pointed out that it was the only road along which communications could be maintained with his central and western armies. The Western Macedonian Army had already prepared the demolitions to be blown on this road, so he suggested that the British detachments be withdrawn to avoid confusion or misunderstanding. If this request had been granted the road would have been relatively clear for a German advance. According to General Wilson, ‘Greek GHQ issued orders about demolitions, observance of which would have prevented the Army leaving Greece.’28
The orders29 for the withdrawal itself were most carefully drawn up. First Rangers, supported by the New Zealand machine-gunners, was to hold the road through the Klidhi Pass until the Australian battalions on either flank had marched out and embussed for the Servia area. At the same time a small force consisting of 3 Royal Tank Regiment and some supporting units, including 2 Royal Horse Artillery Regiment and a platoon of New Zealand machine-gunners, was to be preparing a covering position on the ridge that runs north-east and south-west through Sotir. From there they could command the open country to the south of the Klidhi Pass.
South of that line on the ridge beyond the village of Ptolemais another covering force was to assemble. In the first stage there would be 4 Hussars (less one squadron) and some attached troops; after the withdrawal from Klidhi Pass there would also be 1 Rangers (less one company) and 27 (Machine Gun) Battalion (less two companies and one platoon); and after the withdrawal from Sotir ridge there would be 2 Royal Horse Artillery Regiment.
12 April: The Fighting in Klidhi Pass and the Withdrawal of Mackay Force
The timing of this withdrawal did not go according to plan, for Headquarters W Force, having decided that the moves must be speeded up, had already at 3.45 a.m. issued fresh instructions. The withdrawal had to be completed ‘as soon as possible’. No exact time was given for the British units but the evacuation of the Greeks had to begin immediately; except for some small mule parties the last units of 20 Greek Division had to be west of the main south road (Amindaion–Kozani–Servia) by two o’clock that afternoon. The Dodecanese Regiment was to withdraw under Mackay’s command, but he was rather surprised to learn that it contained not 3000 but 4500 men. However, he agreed that thirty 3-ton trucks should be provided to bring out their sick and wounded. The others withdrew at 3 p.m., marching out across the valley towards Klisoura Pass.
The object of these orders was obviously the clearance of the highway before the withdrawal of Mackay Force, but it increased the almost impossible task of the Greek divisions. They had ‘straggled out, stolid and quiet’, but according to General Papagos only a small section30 of 12 Division reached the Siatista Pass; 20 Division was dispersed, and its fighting potential diminished, only a fraction of the men reaching the Vlasti-Klisoura sector.
Nineteenth Australian Brigade had to move to the Kerasia area and occupy the ground north of the Aliakmon River between the left flank of 4 New Zealand Brigade above Servia and the right flank of 12 Greek Division about the Siatista Pass. The regiments of artillery would withdraw beyond Servia Pass and 1 Armoured Brigade, after covering the withdrawal of 19 Brigade, would retire through Siatista Pass to Grevena, where it would refuse the left flank of W Force. It had to be south of the ‘ Olympus – R. Aliakmon Line’ by 8 p.m., 13 April. So, although no fixed times were stated for the units of Mackay Force, they would probably withdraw during the night of 12–13 April, thereby holding Klidhi Pass for two and not for three nights as originally intended.
In view of the impending attack and the nature of the weather this was a sensible decision. The night of 11–12 April had been bitterly cold, with blizzard conditions developing in the hills. The New Zealand machine-gunners on either side of the pass had been firing effectively along fixed lines, but at first light many of them were in no fit condition to work the guns. East of the pass No. 6 Platoon, after sending out three men with frostbite, sought shelter
in a gully to which food and greatcoats had been brought up. Across the pass No. 1 Company endured equally evil conditions, while the Australian infantry fresh from North Africa and now tired after their long march into position ‘were being taken out of the line suffering from exhaustion and frost-bite.’31
The only reassuring fact was the appearance of the orders for the movement of the Force to the Aliakmon line. The Australian battalions, the artillery and finally 1 Rangers would withdraw that night through a rearguard which would be established along the Sotir ridge under the command of the commanding officer 3 Royal Tank Regiment. Another rearguard under the command of the commanding officer 4 Hussars would assemble farther south at Proastion, where a reconnaissance party was already selecting the defence line.
After 8.30 a.m. the chances of this withdrawal very soon declined. The German infantry, supported by heavy mortar and machine-gun fire, attacked the ridges east of the pass at the junction of the Rangers and 2/8 Australian Battalion. The two Australian companies on the left flank were forced to withdraw up the slopes, but early in the afternoon the Australians counter-attacked and regained the crest of the ridge. The Germans, however, retained part of the western slopes of Point 997 and were able, in the area below it, to assemble guns, troop-carriers and tanks for yet another attack.
Meanwhile the Rangers, observing all this movement about Point 997 and thinking that the Australians were withdrawing, pulled back into the pass, hoping that they could form a new line about two miles to the rear. The supporting units were left to shift for themselves. No. 1 New Zealand Machine Gun Company, through whom the Rangers withdrew, remained in position and gave covering fire until the afternoon, but the six guns from 2/1 Australian Anti-Tank Regiment were left unprotected and five had to be abandoned.
In the afternoon the German infantry supported by tanks attacked for the second time and 2/8 Australian Battalion was soon in difficulties. The signals communications to Headquarters 19 Brigade had been cut; the left flank was under fire from the Germans moving through the pass; and, most important of all, there were no anti-tank guns. The end came about 5.30 p.m. when the tanks broke through and forced the Australians to begin an exhausting march across country to Sotir and thence to the trucks assembled at the crossroads near Rodhonas. From there the battalion – with half the officers and two-thirds of the men still unaccounted for –
went south to extend the western flank of 4 New Zealand Brigade in the Servia Pass area.
The New Zealanders with 2/8 Battalion, a section from each of 5 and 6 MG Platoons under the command of Lieutenant W. F. Liley, had a correspondingly difficult day. In the morning when the Australians moved back the section from 6 Platoon joined 5 Platoon in the pass and supported the Australians with overhead fire. When 2/8 Battalion counter-attacked, 5 Platoon, with an Australian ammunition party, had moved forward in close support. Thereafter the platoons provided harassing fire until the approach of the tanks had forced the Australians to withdraw. No. 6 Platoon then gave covering fire but the Germans pressed forward; their artillery came into action and machine guns opened up in the pass from the area once occupied by the Rangers. The sections, taking the only course open to them, carried their guns across five or six miles of open country and were eventually transported to the Proastion area.
In the centre the Rangers after their morning withdrawal had not been able to build up a sound line in the Klidhi Pass. Because of the inevitable confusion which thereupon developed, Captain Grant, of 1 MG Company, lost touch with them and was obliged to rely upon the information he received from 2/8 Battalion. Consequently, when that unit fell back during the afternoon, its headquarters suggested that 2 and 3 Platoons of the machine-gunners should be withdrawn to the south side of Point 1009.
Their appearance in that area surprised the gunners of 2/3 Australian Field Regiment and 64 Medium Regiment. Communications were immediately established with Headquarters 19 Brigade whose staff, confident that all infantry units were still in position, was astonished to hear that the Rangers ‘were already in rear of the guns and that in a very short time the medium battery would be under direct small arms fire from the enemy.’ However, about 3 p.m. Headquarters 6 Australian Division ordered the artillery to pull out, 64 Medium Regiment to Perdikha and 2 Royal Horse Artillery to the Sotir ridge. No. 1 Troop of the latter, supported by two Australian anti-tank guns and, in the last stages, firing over open sights, checked the German tanks and covered the withdrawal of the group.
At this stage, about 3 p.m., the engagement was not going according to plan. In fact, when the reconnaissance party returned from Proastion the Rangers were withdrawing from the pass, the enemy had occupied the hills on either side and the artillery had withdrawn. Major D. R. C. Boileau, second-in-command 1 Rangers, who had been with the party, thereupon ordered formal
withdrawal to the Sotir ridge where 1 MG Platoon and a troop from C Battery 102 Anti-Tank Regiment were already in position. The former had been recalled that morning from Point 1008 and told that ‘the whole show was pulling back from the Pass’; the rearguard of which it would be a part must give the rest of Mackay Force ‘a chance to get back’ to Proastion. So when the Rangers re-formed, C Company went on to the ridge and the others hastened southwards. Soon afterwards Brigadier Charrington took command and got permission for 2/4 Australian Battalion, when it withdrew, to be placed on the right flank of the company. Other groups were detached and by nightfall 2 Royal Horse Artillery, A Squadron 4 Hussars and 3 Royal Tank Regiment, less A Squadron, were assembled behind the ridge. The troop from D Battery 102 Anti-Tank Regiment had come back from the Petras area, but its guns had been abandoned owing to the premature demolition of the bridge near Amindaion.
The other problem was the withdrawal of 2/4 Australian Battalion from the sector to the west of the pass. Once the eastern and central sectors had collapsed there had been every likelihood of this unit and its supporting troops being unable to reach the main highway. The company overlooking the pass had fallen back when the Rangers withdrew and the central company on Point 1001 had afterwards been ordered to thin out, leaving on the feature one platoon of infantry and a section from 4 Platoon of the New Zealand machine-gunners. Then about 5 p.m. Brigadier Vasey ordered the battalion to retire to the embussing point south of Rodhonas as ‘the front had lost all cohesion.’
Captain Robbie with 2 Machine Gun Company was advised of the withdrawal and placed under command of 2/4 Battalion. He had already arranged for trucks to bring out the section of 4 Platoon from Point 1001 and had sent a runner to advise Lieutenant Newland, who was with 4 and 5 Platoons on the extreme left flank, that he must prepare to come out with the Australians. About 5.30 p.m., however, Robbie overheard a discussion on the telephone circuit which suggested that the overall situation was now very serious. Headquarters 2/4 Battalion confirmed the fact, explaining that the general withdrawal was already under way. The section on Point 1001 therefore began its withdrawal and Newland was advised to move out as soon as possible.
By this time Lieutenant-Colonel Gwilliam, who had been with the reconnaissance party, had returned and been informed of the plans for the withdrawal of his machine-gunners. With such vehicles as were available he returned to prepare for their arrival in the Proastion area. His headquarters staff waited on the
roadside to sort out the unit vehicles as they came through along the now crowded highway.
The first group to arrive came from the immediate west of the pass. The section from Point 1001, after bringing out its guns, had joined up with Headquarters 2 Company and the remaining vehicles of Battalion Headquarters. When their route southwards was blocked by a demolished bridge, they followed a track and ended up hopelessly bogged only forty yards from the main highway. Only three of the eleven vehicles could be extricated; the rest were set alight and the men crowded into the other vehicles or were brought away by the passing Australian transport and taken to the Proastion area.
On the extreme left of the 2/4 Battalion area the sections from 4 and 5 Platoons of 27 (Machine Gun) Battalion were with Australian infantry and anti-tank gunners. Lieutenant Newland, on receiving the withdrawal orders about 6 p.m., discussed the situation with the respective commanders. They decided that the anti-tank guns would have to be destroyed: the retirement of the machine-gunners would be covered by two platoons of Australian infantry. Leaving much of their personal gear, the gunners loaded their trucks with guns and ammunition and left about 7.10 p.m. for Xynon Neron. There they saw in the distance the flames of what were probably the burning vehicles of 2 Company, and by making a deviation across the fields reached the trucks waiting on the main highway. By 9 p.m. 27 (Machine Gun) Battalion, less the two companies in the Mount Olympus area and 1 Platoon on the Sotir ridge, had assembled with the rest of the rearguard in the Proastion area.
The Australian withdrawal went less smoothly. The company on the extreme left, after covering the withdrawal of the New Zealand machine-gunners, moved back to Xynon Neron with the troop from 2/1 Anti-Tank Regiment. By moving eastwards from there the Australians came in behind the forward elements of the German advanced guard. In the fighting which ensued the company commander was killed and some seventy Australians were captured. The rest of 2/4 Battalion, now only two rifle companies, came out safely to the waiting transport and moved off to the south. But instead of continuing as far as the Aliakmon line the battalion, at the request of Brigadier Charrington, was halted on the Sotir ridge and placed on the right of the company of Rangers. Here by 9.15 p.m. it was once again digging in and preparing to resist attack.
According to the German war diaries 1 Company SS ‘Adolf Hitler’ had at 5 p.m. forced its way through the Klidhi Pass and taken eighty prisoners in the area. An hour later the forward
elements of Witt Battle Group were at the south-eastern exit. ‘As far as the eye could see were enemy motorised columns of infantry and artillery retreating towards Ptolemais.’32 The tanks and machine-gun units harassed the British but the heavy weapons were still to the rear, blocked for the time being by the demolitions on the road. An attempt was made to approach the British rearguard along the Sotir ridge but the harassing fire was heavy and the Germans withdrew, digging in astride the road, facing south. It was while they were digging in that the Australian company from 2/4 Battalion came up from the rear and was captured. The German commander thereupon decided that though Sotir was reported to be clear he would not move forward again until the roads had been repaired sufficiently for the movement forward of his heavy weapons and anti-tank guns.
The Situation by Nightfall, 12–13 April
Thus by nightfall the Allies were away from the Klidhi Pass and covered by a rearguard that had assembled along the Sotir ridge some six miles from the southern exit. Twenty-first Greek Brigade to the west of Mackay Force had fought stubbornly and then withdrawn to join 20 and 12 Divisions in the line of the passes: Klisoura–Vlasti–Siatista. The withdrawal of the Dodecanese Regiment from the eastern side of the Klidhi Pass had been hastened by the use of Australian trucks,33 but 20 and 12 Divisions, moving on foot and using only pack animals, were not yet in position. This was the reason for a complaint34 made later by General Papagos that W Force had given insufficient protection during the withdrawal of his Central Macedonian Army. Yet it is difficult to see what could have been done to assist it. Time was a vital factor, but the Greeks had virtually no transport and the problems of liaison between the Allies had been too great.
Mackay Force had suffered severely, not so much in the fighting about the pass but in the withdrawal to the waiting transport. The 2/8 Battalion after a long march to the Rodhonas area had only 250 men, many with no weapons; 2/4 Battalion had lost one of its three35 companies; 1 Australian Anti-Tank Regiment had lost sixteen guns, ten of them when a demolition had isolated eighty officers and men, and five when the Rangers had withdrawn from the Klidhi Pass; 2/3 Field Regiment had destroyed two guns when they were bogged in soft ground. The British losses were also serious. The Rangers had lost heavily, both in men and equipment,
102 Anti-Tank Regiment had been forced to destroy a troop of guns on the east flank and 64 Medium Regiment had been forced to leave a gun.
The New Zealand losses were difficult to estimate but twenty men were missing, of whom twelve36 were believed to be killed. Two Vickers guns had been lost to the German raiders on the night of 11–12 April, and one had been destroyed when the eight transport vehicles had been left in the open country near Xynon Neron.
The German losses are difficult to estimate but they were relatively low. The assault unit, I Battalion SS ‘Adolf Hitler’ Division, had 37 killed, 98 wounded, and 2 missing, a small price to pay for what was described as a bold attack which opened the door ‘to the heart of Greece’ and ‘paved the way to final victory.’37
The German Plans, 13 April
Once through the Klidhi Pass the Germans during the night of 12–13 April made their plans38 for two separate thrusts into northern Greece. The SS ‘Adolf Hitler’ Division would send a force south-westwards towards the Klisoura Pass and Kastoria with the intention of destroying 3 Greek Corps headquarters at Koritza and forcing the surrender of the northern section of the Greek army in Albania. Ninth Panzer Division would continue the advance southwards towards Kozani and Larisa. Next morning a mobile force, preceded by a strong reconnaissance patrol and followed by tanks, would hasten through SS ‘Adolf Hitler’ Division, following hard on the heels of the British and giving him ‘no time to prepare any organised resistance.’39
At dawn, however, the forward units beyond the Klidhi Pass were forced to fight a minor engagement with the British rearguard which was holding the Sotir ridge in unexpected strength. It was not until 10 a.m. that the forward elements of 9 Panzer Division were over the ridge and following the now retreating British, who were described in air reports as ‘large motorised columns and an English armoured division’, withdrawing towards Ptolemais and Kozani. Thirty-third Panzer Regiment was hurriedly brought forward and at Proastion there was the second rearguard engagement of the day.
The Rearguard Along the Sotir Ridge, Morning 13 April
The enemy had approached the ridge the previous evening but had been content to send out patrols and to harass the front with
light tracer fire. The British had therefore been free to organise their defence system. The main road bridge to the west of the line had been demolished and 2/4 Australian Battalion, now only two companies strong, had dug itself in along the eastern section of the ridge.
The position was well suited for a delaying action. To the south-west were miles of swamp and lake from which the ridge rose abruptly and extended north-eastwards towards Lake Vegorritis. The road which squeezed its way through between swamp and ridge bridged the stream below the ridge and ran northwards across the plain to the Klidhi Pass. In the distance were the poplar trees about Amindaion, the hill country which had just been defended and the white road below it which ran westwards towards Kastoria.
The Australian companies held the three miles to the east overlooking the stream and the approach from Amindaion, leaving the Rangers on their left to watch the road and the demolished bridge. C Battery 102 Anti-Tank Regiment (less one troop) covered the road and the western end of the ridge and 2 Royal Horse Artillery the whole front. The New Zealand machine-gun platoon had two guns covering the road and two sited for enfilading fire to the east and west. In reserve were two squadrons from 3 Royal Tank Regiment.
At dawn the men, if they had binoculars, could see the enemy moving about their lorries and half-tracked vehicles and unconcernedly preparing for another day’s work. The whole front opened up and the Germans were ordered to take cover, having as yet no support other than 37-millimetre anti-tank guns. Very soon, however, the infantry, supported by machine-gun fire and then by artillery, crossed the stream below the Rangers and crept forward until they were halted by B Squadron 3 Royal Tank Regiment, which had moved up to hull-down positions along the ridge.
The withdrawal then began. The 2/4 Australian Battalion was away by 9 a.m., travelling by truck through Kozani to Kerasia and thence to the sector west of Servia. The forward battery of 2 Royal Horse Artillery and C Battery 102 Anti-Tank Regiment pulled out, the latter coming up under the covering fire of the New Zealand machine-gun platoon. Finally, B Squadron 3 Royal Tank Regiment moved forward towards the enemy, covering the front while the Rangers and machine-gunners withdrew to the waiting transport.
Lieutenant MacDonald40 with his machine-gunners came out without any casualties. They had fired the last of their 10,000
rounds, dismounted the guns and carried them back to the trucks in which they travelled to the rearguard position, then just south of Proastion.
The operation was over by 10 a.m., by which time the Germans were preparing an attack from the Xynon Neron area and shelling the ridge with 88-millimetre anti-aircraft guns. The casualties had been very light but 3 Royal Tank Regiment had lost five more tanks, four from mechanical defects and one from enemy action.
The Rearguard in Action: Afternoon 13 April
In the afternoon the Germans approached Proastion, a village south of Ptolemais and at the northern entrance to the Komanos Gap. Across the front, as at Sotir, a stream flowing north formed a natural anti-tank ditch. Above it from north-east to south-west there was a range of hills some 1500 feet high from which any movement along the main highway was clearly visible.
The rearguard was already in position, having used the night and the time gained that morning during the engagement at Sotir. The Rangers, less 1 Company, were astride the road at the entrance to the pass. Fourth Hussars, less one squadron and supported by A Squadron 3 Royal Tank Regiment, watched the right flank; the other squadron of 4 Hussars covered the left flank from the sharp ridges above the plain. Nos. 2 and 3 Platoons 1 New Zealand Machine Gun Company and 4 Platoon 2 Machine Gun Company were deployed along the ridge with 1 Rangers. B Battery 102 Anti-Tank Regiment (now reduced to seven guns) was on the left flank, whilst two batteries of 2 Royal Horse Artillery were well back in depth.
In the original orders 1 Armoured Brigade was to have been south of the Aliakmon River by 8 p.m., but there had been doubts about the ability of 12 and 20 Greek Divisions to complete their withdrawal across the valley to the rear of the defence line. Brigadier Charrington had consequently been warned that he must force the maximum delay upon the German advance. He, in turn, had asked for a more definite time and mentioned that there were apparently no Greeks still to the north-east of Kozani, but the absence of any reply to this message suggests that he was left to act upon his own judgment.
Meanwhile the units on the ridge had been watching the Germans advance swiftly and methodically from the Perdikha area. They came ‘in groups of tanks and armoured tp. carriers with bridge laying tanks well forward. By 1430 they were in contact with our patrols south of Ptolemais.’41 More important still, they
found that a ditch some 500 yards south of the town was a perfect obstacle to the tanks. If they turned east there was the stream and a blown bridge. To the west was a swamp with several ditches full of water, but it was possible for the tanks to get through and surround the British rearguard.
That decided, the Germans made every effort to force their way through before nightfall. The weather had at last cleared, so dive-bombers for the first time in the campaign were sent over in large numbers. On the ground the pressure was maintained across the whole front, but the main effort was an encircling movement behind the left flank of the British position. All through the afternoon a steady stream of armoured vehicles moved through Asvestopetra and swung back towards Mavropiyi, a village near the main highway and the headquarters of Brigadier Charrington.
Towards dusk about thirty tanks were through the swamp and threatening Mavropiyi. A troop from 102 Anti-Tank Regiment and 2 Royal Horse Artillery (L/N Battery) did their best to halt them but the Germans still came forward. ‘HQ 4 H. and a tp. of 3 RTR went to meet them but the enemy’s Mk. IIIs were too heavy metal for the old light Mk. VI of 4 H. who were driven back. A very unpleasant situation now developed with the enemy pressing forward towards the main Kozani road in rear of our positions.’42 The rearguard was saved by Lieutenant A. W. Trippier of 102 Anti-Tank Regiment, who skilfully shepherded the enemy armour into a gully and knocked out several tanks with very slight losses to his own troop. C Troop 3 Royal Tank Regiment then came across from the right flank to the high country west of the main road and supported the anti-tank guns.
At this point the New Zealand machine-gun platoons were brought more prominently into the engagement. Up till then they had been well forward, enduring air and artillery attacks but seeing very little of the fighting on the left flank. At dusk, however, ‘everything seemed to happen at once.’43 On Brigadier Charrington’s orders the two platoons from 1 Machine Gun Company were withdrawing down the main highway, but when the German tank force threatened to break through they were stopped and deployed along the ridge on the left of the road to the west of Komanos. From there, while guns and transport were withdrawing southwards, they maintained a volume of covering fire until they too were withdrawn by Brigadier Charrington.
No. 4 Platoon 2 Machine Gun Company came out shortly afterwards, having received its orders to withdraw when the other machine-gunners were in action west of the road. It was almost
dark by then, but a second engagement between German tanks and British tanks supported by the Royal Horse Artillery had flared up to the west of Brigade Headquarters. The platoon was ordered to give what fire it could. ‘It was a most pretty sight. Blazing tanks and trucks, 2-pr. and 50 mm. tracer, m.g. and bren tracer, flashes from guns and rifles, and bursting shells, with the last afterglow of the setting sun and the dark mass of the mountains as a background.’44
At 7.30 p.m. Charrington decided to withdraw behind the third rearguard position at Mavrodhendhri; the main body of his force could go to Kozani and thence westwards through the Siatista Pass to Grevena. The infantry and artillery were first away, the armoured units following under cover of a smoke screen.
The third rearguard position, at Mavrodhendhri, was occupied by a small force but the Germans made no effort to go beyond Proastion. The forward units, having expended all their ammunition and almost all their petrol, were forced to wait for supplies, which did not get through until the following day. Apparently 9 Panzer and SS ‘Adolf Hitler’ divisions in their haste to get forward had entered the Klidhi Pass at the same time, thereby creating a congestion of traffic that had stopped the movement of both troops and supplies. The fact that the pass was not clear until after dark probably explains the respite given to 1 Armoured Brigade. The rearguard fell back at 1.30 a.m. on 14 April, 4 Hussars, 102 Anti-Tank Regiment, 1 Rangers and 27 (Machine Gun) Battalion (less two companies) going to the Grevena area.
The overall position now was that W Force and the Greek armies were in their respective sectors of the Aliakmon line. The German approach had been checked but it was questionable whether the cost had not been too great. Nineteenth Australian Brigade had lost heavily and 1 Armoured Brigade, the only Allied unit of its type in Greece, had been shattered. Fourth Hussars still had the majority of its light tanks, but 3 Royal Tank Regiment because of mechanical defects was reduced to one composite squadron. The 102nd Anti-Tank Regiment and 2 Royal Horse Artillery had both lost guns and 1 Rangers had lost at least 15 per cent of its establishment.