27 (Machine Gun) Battalion
CHAPTER 3 — The First Encounter
The First Encounter
Italy invaded Greece from Albania on 28 October 1940. Against great odds but lacking nothing in courage, the Greeks repelled the Italians and drove them back into Albania, but then faced a greater peril from another quarter. When German forces began to concentrate in Bulgaria it became obvious that the day was not far distant when they would come to the aid of their Axis partner. To meet this situation Britain decided, despite misgivings about so hazardous an enterprise, to send a force to assist in the defence of Greece.
The troops despatched were scarcely sufficient for the task: 1 Armoured Brigade, with a regiment of light tanks and one of cruiser tanks which were of little use because of defective tracks; 6 Australian Division, which had taken part in the Cyrenaican campaign; and the New Zealand Division. Nor could they expect adequate protection against air attack while the RAF's eighty serviceable aircraft—Blenheim bombers and Hurricane and Gladiator fighters—were outnumbered by more than ten to one.
Preparations for the move started many rumours, that the Division was going to Greece, Libya, or elsewhere, but the destination was not revealed until after the troops had embarked. The 27th (MG) Battalion received a warning order on 10 March, ostensibly to go on manœuvres. Tents were struck, gear was packed, and the men spent a few nights sleeping in the open. The battalion left Helwan on the morning of the 14th and drove into a dust-storm, one of the worst of the war, on the Mena-Alexandria desert road. Visibility was reduced to less than ten yards, several trucks broke down and had to be towed, and all but two of the motor cycles were forced to fall out. The Intelligence Officer (Second-Lieutenant Leslie1) was injured when he fell from his motor cycle and was taken to hospital.
Late in the afternoon the battalion reached Amiriya transit camp, a most inhospitable place at the best of times but at its worst during a dust-storm, and proceeded to an area just north- page 29 west of Ikingi Maryut where tents had been erected. The transport, the Anti-Aircraft Platoon and an advance party left for Alexandria on the 16th. Kitbags and messing gear were loaded on Australian vehicles and taken to the wharf next day. The machine-gunners paraded in full marching order on the morning of the 18th, each man carrying a pick and shovel and two days' rations in addition to his usual load, and marched to the Ikingi Maryut railway station. After a short train journey, made extremely uncomfortable by the amount of impedimenta carried, they reached the wharf and embarked,2 in company with the Petrol Company and some Australians, including General Sir Thomas Blamey and members of his staff, in the cruiser HMS Gloucester.
The battalion vehicles and their drivers, together with RAF ground crew and equipment, had sailed for Greece the previous day in the Queen Adelaide, a cargo ship of under 5000 tons, as part of a convoy of eleven vessels escorted by three warships. Usually the Queen Adelaide's only defence against air attack was an old Hotchkiss machine gun, which the New Zealanders now repaired. For this voyage her armament was reinforced by ten Bren guns of the Anti-Aircraft Platoon (under Sergeant Brundell3) and a ‘Chicago piano’—four Vickers assembled on a multiple mounting—in charge of Staff-Sergeant Weeds,4 the battalion armourer, with five or six men to maintain the guns and ammunition.5page 30
In the afternoon of the 20th the convoy was attacked by aircraft, and a tanker astern of the Queen Adelaide was struck on the bridge by two bombs, which set fire to her superstructure and put her out of control. 'She immediately lost way and drifted to the rear of the convoy,’ says Private Bayly.6 ‘We later heard the fire in the bridge was extinguished and that she was under control and making for Crete. The plane that bombed her was the one that swung up and then came down on the stern of Queen Adelaide….’ It met a hail of lead from the Chicago piano, fired by Weeds, and went away smoking; it plummeted into the sea some distance from the convoy. The Queen Adelaide's officers and men were delighted. ‘The captain gave us two bottles of “Black and White” and 1,000 yellow cigarettes to divide among the AA gun crews for saving his ship,’ says Weeds. ‘I was given a good nip each night by him also for the same reason.’
The voyage was otherwise uneventful, but it was slow. Rations issued for four days had to last six and a half. There were no proper cooking facilities, but the men improvised as best they could. Water was steam-heated in a four-gallon container and everyone helped himself whenever he could from tea made in biscuit tins. Some flour was given to the ship's cook, who made fresh bread, and an RAF airman produced bully-beef stew and pies all day long.
The journey of the Gloucester had not been altogether without incident. The cruiser left Alexandria shortly after 5 p.m. on the 18th, and taking a course to the west of the island of Crete, made an average speed of 29 knots during the night. Enemy aircraft appeared overhead next morning and aimed four bombs at the ship, but missed, the nearest being only forty yards astern. Piraeus was reached in less than twenty-four hours, and no time was wasted in disembarking the troops.
But the advance party7—Captain Johansen, his batman and Corporal Dowding8—could not be found. Although they had left Amiriya two days ahead of the battalion, their ship, the page 31 SS Hellas, had sailed from Alexandria about the same time as the Gloucester, and, taking twice as long over the voyage, did not reach Piraeus until the afternoon of the 20th, when the CO and the Intelligence Officer (Lieutenant Bradshaw9) were at the wharf to meet them.
The New Zealanders and Australians received a tumultuous welcome from the Greeks, who cheered them in the streets of Athens. It was not without a little interest, however, that they observed the German flag flying from the office of the Embassy and the members of the German staff leaning over the balcony, for Germany was not yet at war with Greece.
The machine-gunners were taken in 18 Battalion transport— their own being still at sea on the Queen Adelaide—to a tented camp on the slopes of Mount Hymettus, a short distance from Athens. Next morning they found themselves in a fragrant pine forest. ‘A delightful change altogether to hear the birds chirping away…. How nice it is to see real green country, and walk once more on grass.’ Greeks thronged the camp selling eggs, bread, fowls and wine, and offered to wash clothes for a very moderate price.
Leave to Athens was granted during the two days at Hymettus, and in this brief time many men visited the Acropolis, which rises 200 feet above the surrounding city, with the Parthenon, the temple of the goddess Athena, at the summit. They saw other monuments of ancient Greece, the stadium built in 1895 for the first of the modern Olympic Games, and the city's underground railway. They found that their pay—545 drachmae, equivalent to 21 shillings—went further than it had done in Cairo or Alexandria. Wherever they went they were gladly received by Greeks who wished to demonstrate their gratitude to the troops who had come to their aid. It was evident that the people of Athens were acutely conscious of the imminence of invasion.
On 21 March Captain Johansen and the other two members of the advance party reconnoitred a camp site for the battalion at Kifisia, about ten miles north-west of Athens; they erected a number of tents before the main body of the battalion arrived two days later. 'So in fact the advance party actually did the job for which they were detailed,’ says Johansen.
Meanwhile Colonel Gwilliam received orders to go with a reconnaissance party to Amindaion, in northern Greece, where page 32 he was to report to an Australian brigadier. He set out on the morning of the 22nd, accompanied by Lieutenant Bradshaw and the officers commanding 1 Company (Captain Grant), 2 Company (Captain Robbie), and 3 Company (Major McGaffin10).
The remainder of the battalion left Hymettus on the morning of the 23rd, and after three and a half hours' march, reached the green and wooded area of their new camp. Their transport arrived from Egypt a few hours later. They did not have long to refresh their eyes with the beauty of their surroundings; in two days they were away again.
The Allies faced the threat of sudden attack by the German divisions concentrated in southern Bulgaria. In broken, alpine country where the few roads wind through deep valleys and defiles, the invasion could be expected to come by way of the main mountain passes: the Struma River valley, which crosses the Bulgarian border at the Rupel Pass in the north-east, the Vardar (or Axios) River valley in the centre, and the Monastir Gap, between the Vardar and Albania. The Monastir Gap, a valley flanked by mountain ranges, offered an easy route across the frontier between the towns of Monastir in Yugoslavia and Florina in Greece.
In Albania the Greeks were holding the Italians north of the frontier; in the north-east they occupied the Metaxas line, a series of fortifications constructed in the nineteen-thirties and covering Salonika against attack from Bulgaria. They could not bring themselves to surrender their hard-won gains in Albania or to withdraw from the Metaxas line to a shorter and more easily defended line across the peninsula. It was decided, therefore, to take position on the Aliakmon line, which stretched from the mouth of the Aliakmon River in the Gulf of Salonika north-westwards through Veroia and Edhessa to the Yugoslav frontier.
Everything now depended on what Yugoslavia would do. Should Yugoslav resistance or German recognition of Yugoslav neutrality fail to prevent an attack through the Monastir Gap, not only would the invaders be able to cut off the Greek Army in Albania, but they might also outflank the British and Greek forces in the Aliakmon line and by advancing down the valley in the rear cut off the defenders' route of retreat. Uncertainty about Yugoslav intentions and anxiety about a German thrust page 33 through the Monastir Gap led to the formation of the Amindaion detachment, which at that stage was to include 3 Battalion Royal Tank Regiment and 27 (MG) Battalion less one company.
When the machine-gun reconnaissance party arrived at Amindaion, a village near the southern shores of the Petersko and Vegorritis lakes, on the morning of the 24th, Colonel Gwilliam found the acting CO of 3 Battalion Royal Tank Regiment, who said he had not been told that the machine-gunners would be arriving and was unaware of the presence of any Australian brigadier in the area. He suggested that Gwilliam should see the GOC 20 Greek Division at Xynon Neron, a village three miles west of Amindaion, but the Greek general was not interested in the battalion when he found that it would not be operating under his command. Uncertain as to what exactly was intended for their battalion, the machine-gun officers spent the next two days reconnoitring and waiting for orders.
North of Amindaion the broad valley, about 1000 feet above sea level, is cut off by a scrub-covered ridge, broken only by a narrow gap, the Kleidi Pass, which takes its name from a small village on its eastern side. The main road and railway enter this pass and continue north-westwards through the Florina valley and over the Yugoslav frontier to Monastir, about 20 miles away. From Vevi, a village near the northern entrance to the pass, a road leads eastwards around the northern shore of Lake Vegorritis to Edhessa and Salonika; another leads to Florina, about ten miles west.
Obviously the most likely route of attack would be through Kleidi Pass. The ridge on each side, giving wide observation over the Florina valley towards Monastir—a valley bare except for scattered poplars, oaks and willows, and the white-walled, red-tiled villages in the foothills—and also over the valley to the south, in rear of the Aliakmon line, therefore was vitally important. Gwilliam considered that at least a division would be required to defend the pass. Although other troops, British and Australian, were to join the Amindaion detachment, much less than a division was to be available.
The main body of the battalion, under Major Wright11 (the second-in-command), left Kifisia in its own transport on the 25th, and spent the first night on the coast near Atalandi. Next day's move was ‘through wonderfully picturesque and ever- changing country, along the sea coast, through many villages— page 34 always warmly welcome—over precipitous mountain ranges, through lush valleys’ to a staging area near Larisa. Along the way were innumerable wayside shrines, and also flocks of storks. Fresh-complexioned women worked in the fields and even on the roads in company with old men and boys; the other men were at the battlefront.
From Larisa, which had been wrecked by an earthquake— wreaths lay at the doorways of some of the demolished houses— the route led into mountain country where icy gusts from the snow-covered peaks of Mount Olympus were keenly felt by men who had so recently left Egypt. Orders were received for two companies (instead of one, as at first intended) to report to the New Zealand Division at Katerini, near the Gulf of Salonika, and 3 and 4 Companies therefore pulled out from the column. The remainder of the battalion continued on through Servia to bivouac south of Kozani, and completed the journey on the 28th, when 1 Company was sent to Lofoi and 2 Company to Palaistra to cover the roads north of Kleidi Pass and east of Florina. Battalion Headquarters and Headquarters Company stayed near the southern entrance to the pass.
A day later Grant and Robbie decided to move their companies to alternative positions because they considered it tactically unsound to have them so close to the villages. The wisdom of this was seen when Italian bombers and fighters, flying very high, attacked the villages. There were no casualties, but some people thought that the safest place to be when the Italians bombed a village was in the village itself, so seldom did they get anywhere near the target.
The machine-gunners dug gun emplacements and improved the roads and tracks, and were ordered to stop digging on the 31st because plans had been changed. ‘After we got there,’ says Captain Johansen, ‘plans were always changing and we had several alternative positions.’ Colonel Gwilliam had made his original dispositions on the assumption that he would have three machine-gun companies and that sufficient troops would be available to enable them to be 'so disposed as to use a river on the Yugoslav border as a tank trap and also deny the enemy the high country on each side of the Pass…. With the information coming to hand from time to time as to the troops which would be available for the defence it was consequently necessary to make new plans with the final result that the forward troops were in fact at the foot of the hills the retention of which was so vital to the defence.’page 35
When Germany declared war on Yugoslavia and Greece on 6 April, the New Zealand Division and two weak Greek divisions held the Aliakmon line. Apart from mountain tracks, the only routes by which the line might be penetrated were down the east coast and through the passes of Olympus, Veroia and Edhessa. The New Zealand Division was in the coastal sector and covering the Olympus passes; in the centre 12 Greek Division was occupying the Veroia Pass area, but was expecting to hand over to the Australians, of whom only one brigade had begun to arrive; on the left 20 Greek Division thinly covered Edhessa Pass and as far north as Mount Kaimakchalan. And the Amindaion detachment weakly guarded the Monastir Gap.
The Greeks on the Bulgarian front were in a hopeless situation against an enemy with vastly superior equipment and overwhelming air support. Within two days the Germans, although they encountered extremely stubborn resistance, were infiltrating the Metaxas line in the Rupel Pass area and outflanking the line through the Axios River valley, and by 9 April they were in Salonika. At the same time the sudden collapse of the ill-prepared Yugoslav Army meant that they were in a position to attack from Monastir.
To meet this menace it was decided to reinforce the Amindaion detachment and to pull back the left wing of the Aliakmon line so as to present a continuous front from the Amindaion area across the Vermion range to Katerini. This was to be only an intermediate position, to be held as long as was necessary to withdraw the Greek Army from Albania and to organise with troops from the Aliakmon line a position where it was hoped to make a more protracted defence: the Olympus-Aliakmon River line, which was to extend westwards from Mount Olympus through the high country near the southward bend in the Aliakmon River to Grevena. The force in the Amindaion area, Mackay Force,12 was to defend Kleidi Pass during this redeployment.
Rain had fallen for several days and consequently the machine-gunners had great difficulty in getting into position on the night of 8–9 April. Second-Lieutenant Newland13 says that the journey his men had to make ‘over the worst six miles page 36 of country roads imaginable took approx 4 ½ hours. Each truck had to be pushed through the deep mud many times during the night. Scrub had to be cut in many places….’
Captain Robbie placed 6 Platoon (Lieutenant Liley14) at the entrance to Kleidi Pass, and the rest of 2 Company in the vicinity of Point 1001, a feature on the ridge to the west. Captain Grant deployed 1 Company on two features about midway between Vevi and Point 1001.
As soon as the trucks were unloaded they were sent back to B Echelon, some miles to the rear, which left the platoons feeling isolated and cut off. ‘We were not in the happiest of positions,’ says Liley, who had been told to expect a German attack that night and could obtain no information about other troops in the area. He placed No. 1 Section (Corporal Cook15) about 100 yards to the right of the main road and just high enough on a slope to give a good field of fire towards Vevi and along the road, and No. 2 Section (Corporal Green16) on high ground east of the village. The two sections were about 1500 yards apart and separated by hilly, scrub-covered ground; as there was no telephone they could not be controlled from Platoon Headquarters, which was later established about midway between them. Liley took No. 1 Section (Sergeant Morgan17) of 5 Platoon, which was attached to his platoon, back towards Kleidi and selected a site for it on a forward slope between the village and the road in the pass; this section was to be in reserve to cover the road in case a break-through should occur.
Part of 1 Armoured Brigade18 arrived by the road from Edhessa. The 1st Rangers (a motor battalion of the King's Royal Rifle Corps) was detached from the column and given a position on the line of a minefield that Australian engineers were laying across the entrance to the pass. Two Australian battalions, arriving later from the south, continued the line to the east and west. On the Rangers' left 2/4 Battalion deployed on a four-mile front along the ridge, and on the right 2/8 Battalion occupied positions on the high country between Vevi page 37 and Lake Petersko. Next morning Liley made contact with the Rangers and promised to assist them with fire as much as possible. ‘They were extremely thin on the ground,’ he says. ‘I would estimate some sections were 50 yds apart.’
The Greeks began to evacuate the villages in the Florina valley, taking into the hills some of their more precious possessions and animals. About 2000 men, women and children found shelter in a coalmine in 1 Company's area.
The troops defending Kleidi Pass—the Rangers, the two Australian battalions and the two New Zealand machine-gun companies—under the command of Brigadier G. A. Vasey (commander 19 Australian Brigade), were supported by two regiments of 25-pounders, four batteries of two-pounder anti-tank guns, and three troops of medium guns. The armoured brigade, less the Rangers, was in reserve in the valley to the south of the pass.page 38
First contact with the enemy—actually the first by the New Zealanders in Greece—was made on the morning of 10 April by a troop of Divisional Cavalry which had been given the task of protecting some British engineers sent to destroy a bridge just beyond the frontier on the road to Monastir. Before the engineers could complete the job a German column came down the road, and after exchanging fire the patrol raced back to Kleidi Pass.
Snow had fallen in the high country during the early hours of the morning, but the weather cleared soon after daybreak and observers near the pass were able to report the enemy's approach. After midday the field and medium guns opened fire on vehicles at long range. Second-Lieutenant MacDonald19 (1 Platoon) had an excellent view of the shelling. ‘A shell went over our heads and we thought that the mediums were ranging on the road. However we used our telescope and had a look. Great shock. There were miles of German MT showing up very black on the roads in the clear Greek atmosphere. The shelling stepped up and before long we had a queue waiting to use our telescope.
‘The shelling went on all day for the Germans had a traffic jam. There was untold damage20 and we could see the enemy inf running through the shell bursts for the shelter of shell holes. The country was open and there was practically no cover.
‘Four Blenheims went over and bombed this colossal jam; one was shot down by the German AA guns right up in the forward troops. This was the only time I saw our own planes over in Greece.’
The enemy drew off behind a low ridge three miles away, but did not return the fire, apparently because his tanks and infantry had outrun his artillery. Movement to the west and south later in the afternoon, however, suggested that he might attempt to probe around the left flank, where there was a gap between Mackay Force and the Greek Cavalry Division farther west. The Greek 21 Infantry Brigade, which was supposed to fill this gap, was not seen until next day.
To counter infiltration in this area Newland's 5 Platoon (less the section at Kleidi) and an attached section of 4 Platoon were sent to 2/4 Battalion's left flank to cover the Flambouron-Xynon Neron road over the ridge, and 1 Platoon was withdrawn from 1 Company to occupy Point 1008, south of this road, page 39 where it overlooked the small valley leading to Flambouron. About 9.30 p.m. Newland's two sections fired on motor cycles and infantry entering the village, but could not tell whether they had done any damage.
The Germans occupied Vevi about dusk. After dusk tanks could be heard moving about in front of the Rangers, and men shouting. Both sections of 6 Platoon, which had fixed lines laid out to cover the forward infantry positions, opened fire soon after nine o'clock and were very busy until about midnight, when an enemy mortar tried unsuccessfully to dislodge No. 2 Section, which was about half a mile from the village. An hour later the same section held off an attack by an infantry patrol without trouble.
A section from the Rangers—six men with four Bren guns and an anti-tank rifle—had been attached to No. 2 Section for protection, and some Australians, also armed with Bren guns, were half a mile to the rear. About 1.30 a.m. Corporal Green heard somebody shout and, looking round, saw about thirty yards away in the moonlight some unarmed men with their hands held above their heads, and an armed man in their rear, who shouted that he was an Australian. Green asked this man, who was in German uniform, what part of Australia he came from, and getting no reply, fired at him. Turning quickly Green saw to his front about fifty yards away a dozen Germans fully armed with automatic rifles. One of them shouted repeatedly, ‘Surrender, you are surrounded.’ Green threw a hand grenade and made his escape.
It appears that, while the Germans had been engaging No. 2 Section from the front, a patrol had worked its way around to the rear, captured six Australians, and escorted them down onto the machine-gun positions. Together with the Australians and the Rangers eleven New Zealanders were taken prisoner and marched a few miles, put into trucks and taken north into Yugoslavia.
Green was confident he could recapture the guns and was given permission to try. He took with him Platoon Headquarters and some Rangers, but was unsuccessful; he had to be restrained from rushing the post on his own.
The Rangers drew back their right company, leaving No. 1 Section in a very exposed position. The enemy infiltrated into dead ground about thirty yards from the guns, which could now be attacked from the rear. Shortly before dawn Liley saw page 40 some of the Rangers go back past his headquarters and questioned one of them; he then realised he had little time to withdraw No. 1 Section. Private Hall,21 whom he despatched to bring the section back, was fired on by two Germans on the way, but gave the warning, and soon after daybreak the section arrived at Platoon Headquarters. The gun crews brought all their equipment and ammunition, but few blankets. Liley withdrew his men to the top of a long, steep slope; they came under light machine-gun fire on the way, but had no casualties. From this position, about 250 feet up, they could engage targets on the plain below.
Snow fell in the early morning of the 11th (Good Friday) and continued intermittently throughout the day. The machine-gunners, having spent a sleepless night in sodden gunpits, were wet through and distressed by the cold; their boots were water- logged. Snow and mist sometimes reduced visibility to 50 or 100 yards.
‘We engaged targets on the plain throughout the day at medium ranges but were harassed by heavy mortar fire directed by spotter planes,’ says Liley. ‘We fired the Vickers at this plane but it was obviously heavily armoured. The top of this hill was fairly flat, some stunted brush, and impossible to dig. It was rock with a little gravel and soil top. These heavy mortars, apparently directed by the plane, kept us on the move—he was on to us as soon as we opened up on a target, and we would be obliged to shift 100 yds or so.’
On the other side of the pass 2 Platoon (Lieutenant Hains22) and 3 Platoon (Lieutenant Kirk23), which were also shelled, fired on advancing infantry, causing casualties; they put out of action three of the four combination motor cycles the enemy was using to ferry his troops forward. On the left flank Newland's two sections, between snow storms—the snow was from six inches to a foot or more deep by evening—found targets at ranges from 1500 to 2500 yards. They engaged a mule train climbing up towards the Mavro Vouno peak, on 21 Greek Brigade's front behind Flambouron; this they thought was carrying a heavy machine gun or a light mountain gun. Both types of weapon were in action on Mavro Vouno next day.page 41
High up on Point 1008 1 Platoon was not in action during the day, but was not entirely undisturbed. ‘The tracks of a dog in the snow worried us because we thought it might be from a Hun patrol,’ says MacDonald. 'So plunging through the snow and mud we went about 1 ½ miles to the right and down to an A/Tk gun on the road. The men reported it to be a mongrel sporting dog. So we went back and had some more rum.’
Blizzard-like conditions prevailed that night (the 11th–12th). The remaining men of 6 Platoon who were not required to man the two Vickers guns formed a rifle screen facing the rear, from which direction some light mortar shelling was coming, presumably from the Germans who had infiltrated the Australians' lines. The two Vickers fired on fixed lines down a re-entrant that appeared to be a natural line of approach for the enemy. A strong German patrol pushed forward in the darkness, but found that ‘the line on top of the feature was stubbornly defended … got to within 20 paces of the positions, but was forced to ground by heavy, accurate LMG and HMG fire.’24 Soon after daybreak an Australian company commander, reporting that the machine-gunners' shooting had been most effective, told Liley ‘The gully is full of dead Jerries.’ A wounded German from a mountain regiment was brought as an exhibit.
The machine-gunners were scarcely in a fit state to handle their guns. Probably none of them had slept for three nights. Corporal Cook was evacuated with frostbite. ‘After the cold night in wet boots I was very concerned, didn't want to see them crippled,’ says Liley, who withdrew the rest of his men into a small valley for shelter. Colonel Gwilliam and Major Wright brought up dry greatcoats and a rum ration, and some hot food arrived from the Australians, the first food, other than fowls and eggs obtained from the village of Vevi, the platoon had received in four days.
Mackay Force rearguards
While discussing the situation with Liley shortly after 8 a.m. on the 12th, Gwilliam was called away to reconnoitre for the positions in the rear to cover the planned withdrawal, which Brigadier Vasey told him would not be made before 7 p.m. Assisted by Lieutenant Bradshaw, he completed the pin-pointing of gun positions in the Proastion area about 3 p.m. Already 1 Platoon had been ordered to leave Point 1008 to report to 1 Armoured Brigade at Sotir.
The enemy had come to the conclusion (according to German reports) that the feature on which Liley's guns had been in action during the night was the key point in the British line covering Kleidi Pass; from it the British could see the German assembly area at Vevi and could enfilade the pass road. The enemy therefore decided to capture this feature (Point 997) before launching his main assault on the pass.
This preliminary attack came about 8.30 a.m. in the area where 2/8 Australian Battalion's left flank joined the Rangers' position astride the entrance to the pass. The foremost Australian platoon was overrun, but the remainder of the battalion held until the Rangers were seen falling back on the lower ground. The Australians then withdrew their left flank a short distance, but regained some of the lost ground with a counter- attack about an hour later. The Germans, however, retained their foothold on the ridge.
Unable to assist the Australians in such close fighting—the attack had been made in heavy fog—Liley withdrew his guns 100–150 yards. He next sent No. 1 Section 6 Platoon back to the position that No. 1 Section 5 Platoon had been occupying near the village of Kleidi, where the men could rest, and brought the less weary 5 Platoon section forward to the reverse side of the hill, not quite as far forward as the 6 Platoon section had been but nearer the road. Most of the cloud cleared from the sky and the day became warmer.page 44
The two platoons of 1 Company on the other side of Kleidi Pass, where they had been supporting the Rangers—one Vickers gun had been put out of action with a bullet through the rear casing—realised something was wrong when they saw the enemy scrambling over the high ground on their right. The Rangers prepared to pull out and, although Captain Grant did his best to persuade them to stay, left their heavy equipment and retreated through the machine-gunners about 11 a.m. Finding themselves now the only troops forward of the artillery, 2 and 3 Platoons kept up a steady fire to their front until about two o'clock, when the CO 2/8 Battalion advised Grant to retire and said his infantry would cover the withdrawal. While the machine-gunners were carrying their guns, ammunition and equipment to the southern foot of the hill, Lieutenant Hains was asked by an artillery officer to explain the situation to the latter's commanding officer by telephone. Learning what had happened, this CO immediately communicated with the Australian Brigade Headquarters, which refused to believe that the Rangers were not still in position.
Captain Purcell25 had a similar experience when he spoke to Brigade Headquarters from a medium battery. ‘The HQ appeared still confident that all infantry were still in position and no penetration had been made. I did my best to advise him that at that moment the infantry (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. The enemy by now had established OPs on the high ground and some observed gunfire on HQs and gun lines soon convinced all in rear that the situation had changed.’
The two platoons became split up into groups of three or four men. Some found transport when they reached the road; others continued on foot. ‘About 4 miles further on our trucks were waiting for us and were we relieved,’ says Sergeant Philpott.26 ‘We were so done after our forced tramp we could not have gone much further. As we retreated, several shells fell close to us and we were lucky that the shrapnel flew over our heads, although we suffered a few casualties.’
Lance-Corporal Bergin27 was severely wounded. ‘I remember page 45 calling out to be picked up but no one seemed to hear. Finally a 3 ton truck towing a 25 pounder stopped and the Aussies picked me up….’
The Germans launched their main attack about midday, or shortly afterwards, against 2/8 Battalion's exposed left flank, and later tanks and infantry reached the whole of the battalion's front, east of the pass. The Australians, lacking adequate anti-tank defence and now under fire from their left rear and also from the right (where the Greek Dodecanese Regiment was putting up a stiff rearguard fight), retreated over the ridge with heavy losses, mostly men captured.
The section of 5 Platoon was forced back after inflicting casualties on German infantry at ranges of about 500 yards or less. The Germans ‘were more closely bunched than usual and presented a perfect target for MMG fire,’ Liley recalls. Early in the afternoon 6 Platoon had given overhead fire from the rear position. This had been put down, at the Australians' request, to the left of the section of 5 Platoon. ‘I was told by an infantry officer that the shoot was at least partly successful; he said the enemy withdrew a little but so did some of his [the Australian] forward sections. They could probably hear it going over and thought they were being fired on from the rear.’ Liley returned from the 6 Platoon section to the forward 5 Platoon section about the time the main German attack began.
‘It must be remembered that few if any of the infantry engaged in this attack were dug in and when enemy tanks appeared on the top of the hill our defence was completely disorganised. At the same time I saw that the road defences had gone and enemy infantry were moving unchecked up the road. There was in fact nothing to stop them except the sec of 6 Pl in reserve and further back some Artillery. As far as I could see there was no infantry reserve and no tanks or anything else to restore the position. At that time everything must have been wide open to the enemy for some miles to the south.
‘I accordingly ordered Sec Comdr 5 Pl to withdraw his Sec and came back to the reserve position. Must have made good time running almost parallel with the road and helped by enemy fire from those on the road. Sec 6 Pl had a wonderful position just where the bend in the road appears … slightly above and looking right down a straight road for perhaps 1000 yds. We held our fire until the enemy were about 150 page 46 yds distant and then opened both guns on road. The enemy were thick on the road as they thought probably they had passed all opposition. Both guns fired several belts rapid before it was necessary to search for targets. Enemy casualties in this action must have been extremely heavy28 as there was little cover on either side of the road. We maintained this position for quite some time, probably at least an hour before enemy commenced firing on us from our left rear. 25 Pounders were now shelling the road just behind our position and we withdrew accordingly on the west side of the road and about 200 yds from it. Sappers then blew the road as we passed. I am pleased to say we brought out all our guns and equipment.’
Carrying their guns and equipment, the machine-gunners withdrew five or six miles on foot. Liley was later awarded the MC for his ‘most commendable courage and coolness’. Apart from the eleven men captured, the casualties included Corporal Dowding, who had been killed during the last attack at the forward position on the 12th.
Convinced that the infantry in the centre had retired, Mackay Force Headquarters ordered the artillery to pull out. The last to leave was a troop of the Royal Horse Artillery astride the road at the southern entrance to the pass. Supported for a time by two Australian anti-tank guns, these four 25-pounders held the gap in the late afternoon while the rest of the force went back to the delaying positions farther south. They fired over open sights on the advancing Germans until they were less than a quarter of a mile away, and then calmly withdrew.
The machine-gunners on the heights above Flambouron had been firing at long range on the Germans working around the left of the Greek brigade, which was observed to be gradually drawing back. But the collapse at Kleidi Pass placed 2/4 Australian Battalion and its supporting troops, including the machine-gunners, in grave danger of being cut off. About five o'clock Brigadier Vasey told the battalion commander that the front had ‘lost all cohesion’, and ordered him to withdraw. Half an hour later Captain Robbie, who had already received instructions from 27 Battalion for the planned withdrawal later that evening, overheard on an Australian telephone circuit a conversation which indicated that the situation was hopeless. page 47 He got in touch with the Australian CO and was told that a general withdrawal was in progress. He then advised Newland by despatch rider to get his two sections out as soon as possible.
Robbie was assured that the machine-gunners could be of no further assistance. The vehicles arrived and Second-Lieutenant Hatton's29 guns (section of 4 Platoon) were manhandled to the road well south of Point 1001. Johansen had set off already with Company Headquarters.
It was discovered that the engineers had blown up a bridge and completely blocked the road east of Xynon Neron. Here part of Battalion Headquarters under the Adjutant (Captain Cooper30), Headquarters 2 Company and the section of 4 Platoon were held up until an alternative route could be found. The track selected petered out in an open field only 40 yards from the main road. Eight vehicles were hopelessly bogged and had to be set on fire; only three trucks could be pushed out, and the men from the burning vehicles were loaded onto these and passing Australian transport.
Newland received at 6 p.m. Robbie's order to retire immediately. By this time the enemy in the hills to the west was shelling the machine-gunners' positions and the road ‘probably hoping to cut us off by coming in from the left flank.’ Newland had a hurried conference with the officers commanding the Australian infantry company and an Australian anti-tank troop; they decided that the anti-tank guns and their vehicles would have to be destroyed, and that the infantry would cover the machine-gunners' withdrawal.
Newland's two sections managed to carry out most of their equipment and ammunition, some of the men making five trips to the gun positions, but had to abandon much personal gear. They were shelled as they drove along the road to Xynon Neron, but no damage was done. They saw fires beyond the village (probably the burning trucks left by the other machine-gun party) and deviated over the fields to the main road further south. The Australians who delayed their departure to cover Newland's withdrawal were not so fortunate. After reaching the main road near Xynon Neron they had a brush with some German motor-cyclists, in which the company commander was killed, and they then walked into a strong enemy position astride the road, where some seventy of them were captured.page 48
While returning from his reconnaissance of the Proastion rearguard position in the afternoon, Colonel Gwilliam met traffic heading southwards. Lieutenant Hains, asked why he was withdrawing before 7 p.m., explained the situation to him, and the CO then took back to Proastion the vehicles that were ready. There the RSM (Sergeant-Major Ross31) and the Provost Sergeant (Sergeant Olney32) accomplished the almost impossible task of sorting out other battalion vehicles as they arrived mixed up with the packed transport retreating south, and by 9 p.m. most of the machine-gunners were in the positions selected by the CO.
Meanwhile the first rearguard prepared for action near Sotir, where the main road passes between a low spur rising to the north-east and a marsh stretching south-westwards to Lake Rudnik. In front of this position a small stream, swollen by the rain and snow, formed a tank obstacle. Two Australian companies, strung out along the ridge on the right, watched the stream and the approaches from Amindaion; a company of the Rangers less than two platoons strong, supported by 1 Platoon and some anti-tank guns, covered the road and a demolished bridge on the left; two field batteries covered the whole front, and two squadrons of the Royal Tanks were in reserve behind the ridge.
The Germans did not attack that night (12–13 April), but a patrol came up to the demolished bridge, only 40 yards from the machine-gunners, who kept quiet and allowed them to retire unmolested. A frosty dawn revealed the enemy camped on the flats south of Kleidi Pass. Through his binoculars MacDonald saw trucks, half-tracked vehicles, motor cycles, and men getting up and stretching themselves. The commander of the armoured brigade (Brigadier M. V. S. Charrington) was surprised when MacDonald pointed out the enemy to him. ‘He asked me what I was going to do and said to shoot when the light was better. Opened up at 600 yards and finished up at 3000 yards. Had 10,000 rds a gun and used the lot—two guns firing straight down the road and two enfilading—an MG paradise; open country, no cover. This was the advance party. Soon inf came over or up to [support] them from the pass area. They came in small groups and deployed, but we stopped that effort. The next attempt was on our right flank—we were page 49 warned by runner that the Hun was coming that way. Stopped that.’
The infantry advance was broken up by artillery, machine-gun and small-arms fire. It would be hard to say how many of the enemy had been hit, and how many had just thrown themselves flat. One small party of Germans succeeded in crossing the stream and took cover behind an overhanging bank, but the tanks in hull-down positions prevented any further progress.
The rearguard then began to retire. MacDonald's platoon was extricated without casualty, although the guns had to be manhandled in the open—very quickly too—over the crest of the ridge to the transport. When the rearguard was completely withdrawn about 10 a.m., the enemy, who previously had used only small arms and mortars, launched a fresh attack from Xynon Neron and pasted the ridge with shellfire.
The Sotir force went south through Proastion, where the second delaying position was astride the road at the northern entrance to a gorge with hills rising a thousand feet on each side. Three companies of the Rangers were deployed on a low ridge, in front of which, as at Sotir, flowed a small stream. A squadron of the Royal Tanks and 4 Hussars (less a squadron on the left flank) watched the northern approach on the right flank, and two batteries of 25-pounders, seven two-pounder guns and twelve Vickers guns were in support. Grant's 2 and 3 Platoons had been in position along the ridge since 5 a.m., and Hatton's 4 Platoon was on high ground in the rear by midday.
The enemy came on rapidly in tanks and armoured troop-carriers, which were assisted over the demolitions by bridge- laying tanks, and began to shell the rearguard in mid-afternoon. Tanks, approaching through the village of Asvestopetra on the left, threatened to outflank the position and were engaged by the Royal Horse Artillery over open sights. At the same time an attack on the right flank was held by the infantry and armour. Favoured by fine weather, German aircraft appeared for the first time in large numbers and began to dive-bomb and machine-gun. ‘We were machine gunned three times by several ’planes within 2 hours at Coy. H.Q.,’ says Philpott. ‘One complete gun team in my Platoon were rendered casualties, all receiving wounds which required immediate attention.’ The aircraft also caught 6 Platoon, which was in reserve farther back along the road and was ordered to pull out late in the afternoon. ‘We had not gone very far before we were attacked page 50 by fighters and heavily strafed,’ says Private Saunders.33 ‘Jack O'Donnell34 was badly hit … and died shortly after.’
At dusk, when German tanks and infantry began to close in from the left flank, orders were given for the withdrawal of 2 and 3 Platoons, which were then deployed on the left of the road at the entrance to the gorge, where they maintained a dense volume of fire for five to ten minutes in the general direction of the enemy and assisted materially in holding the attack while the transport and artillery pulled out. As darkness fell Brigadier Charrington told the machine-gunners to get away. ‘“Cease fire—embus” was ordered,’ says Purcell, ‘and in a matter of moments we had joined the fast moving column of vehicles moving rearwards.’
Hatton's platoon also received orders to withdraw. ‘It was now quite dark and there was heavy tank and small arms fire from our right flank as we moved down the road. Several of our trucks and tanks were blazing by the roadside. By the direction of the enemy fire, there was a lot of tracer, it was quite obvious that the encircling movement by the enemy, which we had observed earlier in the day, was almost closed. We were then stopped on the road in an area which must have been adjacent to 1 Armd Bde HQ (there were quite a number of tanks commanded by the Brigadier) and told to bring whatever fire we could to bear on our forward and right flank. Enemy fire at this time was quite heavy, both tank fire and small arms. We dismounted our MMGs from the trucks and fired rapid for 5 to 10 minutes. Our tanks and small arms were also in action. We were then told by the Brigadier to on trucks and off—we were only too pleased to oblige. The enemy had apparently withdrawn or not yet reached the road to our front as we went through the gap without incident.’
The whole of the rearguard force managed to get clear that night and retired to Grevena. The enemy did not follow up because—as is now known—he had run out of petrol and ammunition.
2 i/c: Maj P. W. Wright
Adj; Capt A. W. Cooper
IO: Lt R. C. Bradshaw
MO: Capt J. R. H. Fulton
QM: Lt R. P. Williams
Sigs Pl: Lt R. I. Crafts
TO: Lt D. J. Parsons
AA Pl: 2 Lt M. B. Luxford
OC: Capt J. L. Grant
2 i/c: Capt H. A. Purcell
1 Pl: 2 Lt H. J. MacDonald
2 Pl: Lt R. L. Hains
3 Pl: Lt G. C. Kirk
OC: Capt J. K. Robbie
2 i/c: Capt C. C. Johansen
4 Pl: 2 Lt O. J. Hatton
5 Pl: 2 Lt C. A. Newland
6 Pl: Lt W. F. Liley
OC: Maj R. L. McGaffin
2 i/c: Capt E. S. McLean
7 Pl: Lt A. H. Dickinson
8 Pl: Lt R. H. Howell
9 Pl: Lt A. T. B. Green
OC: Maj A. W. White
2 i/c: Capt E. J. Tong
10 Pl: 2 Lt D. G. Carnachan
11 Pl: 2 Lt P. A. M. Brant
12 Pl: Lt J. A. Snedden
5 With the assistance of Sgts W. S. Dawes (NZOC) and D. H. Luke (MT sgt) Weeds built the Chicago piano at Baggush in Aug 1940. ‘There wasn't any gas welding equipment on issue then,’ he says, ‘so everything had to be either rivets or bolts, all bending done cold using a railway truck buffer as an anvil.’
7 The advance party was to have a camp ready for the battalion when it arrived.
10 Lt-Col R. L. McGaffin, DSO, ED; Wellington; born Hastings, 30 Aug 1902; company manager; comd 3 Army Tank Bn (in NZ) 1942; CO 27 (MG) Bn 31 Jan–3 Apr 1943; 19 Armd Regt 1943–44; Advanced Base, Italy, 1944.
12 Mackay Force comprised HQ 6 Aust Div, ? Aust Fd Regt, 2/1 Aust A-Tk Regt, HQ 1 Armd Bde, 2 Regt RHA, 102 A-Tk Regt RA, 3 RTR, 4 Hussars, 1 Rangers, 580 Fd Coy RE, 64 Med Regt RA (less a troop), 27 NZ (MG) Bn (less two companies) and one or two small detachments.
24 Battle report of Leibstandarte SS ‘Adolph Hitler’ Div.
28 The battalion of the SS ‘AH’ Div which attacked Kleidi Pass reported that its casualties during 10–13 Apr were 37 killed, 98 wounded and 2 missing. It also claimed that this ‘bold attack to open the door to the heart of Greece paved the way to final victory in Greece.’
34 Pte J. T. O'Donnell; born NZ 8 Sep 1905; labourer; killed in action 13 Apr 1941.