2nd New Zealand Divisional Artillery
Back to the Olympus Line
Back to the Olympus Line
Two days later the situation changed dramatically. The Germans had advanced swiftly through Yugoslavia, important parts of W Force had still not reached the forward area, and little help could be expected from the hard-pressed Greek forces. The Luftwaffe reconnoitred overhead freely and the enemy could readily assess the strengths and weaknesses of the Aliakmon line. The Division was therefore ordered back, as Freyberg and Miles had foreseen, to a line based in the east on the Olympus Pass. The New Zealand portion of this had three main components: the Platamon tunnel area between Olympus and the sea, the Olympus Pass itself, and another to the south-west, the Servia Pass. By channelling attack through these three defiles, the new line offered far greater defensive strength for the limited forces available.
The Platamon tunnel area seemed immensely strong. It formed a narrow defile indeed as the little plain surrounding Katerini dwindled south-eastwards towards the coast and the tracks petered out altogether in rocky country. The railway line continued southwards, but had to burrow through a rocky spur which ran out to the sea to get through to the delta of the Pinios River, south-east of the Olympus massif. The railway page 29 tunnel therefore formed a complete bottleneck for motor transport and the hinterland was a wilderness of steep rock faces and abysses which even mountain troops might find it hard to traverse—though their prowess in the event proved greater than expected.
The Olympus Pass seemed almost as strong. The road, mostly single-tracked, from Katerini climbed it in a south-westerly direction over a succession of bridges and culverts—some of them feats of engineering—and round many a hairpin bend to a height of 3000 feet above sea level. On either side the mountains rose to almost double that height, with stunted conifers and scrub and above them bare rock and snow. Only the road itself was passable for motor transport and it seemed easy to block with demolitions of bridges over deep chasms. The village of Ay Dhimitrios sat at the top of the pass and the southern exit opened on to a small plain nursing the little town of Elasson. Flat areas in the pass suitable for field guns were page 30 almost non-existent and there would clearly be much trouble siting guns and providing communications and control; but observation from some points was spectacular in the extreme. Miles and his staff had already studied the ground, and since 30 March 5 Brigade had been constructing defences in the pass.
The Servia Pass was a precipitous route up a rugged face of the Olympus massif. The heights looked across the little plain of Servia, through which the Aliakmon River curled north-eastwards, and beyond it towards the town of Kozani. The road from Kozani, joined by another from Veroia before reaching the river, veered south-westwards on its way to Karperon; but it sent a branch zigzagging up the mountainside after passing through Servia, and this branch road gradually descended from the top of the Servia Pass to the plain of Elasson, where it joined the road from Katerini. It was this branch road, by-passing the main route from the north, which had to be defended, a task which seemed to offer few serious difficulties other than the expected one of finding suitable battery and troop positions in the mountains. Observation over the plain and the crossings of the Aliakmon was superb and the advantage was clearly with the defence. But rain could make it hard to negotiate the pass road and get guns and limbers off it and into position in the heights overlooking Servia; and before the move took place the rain came.
A heavy downpour badly affected the tracks behind the Aliakmon line, and when the 6th Field and 31 Anti-Tank Battery were ordered to withdraw with 4 Brigade into Corps Reserve on 8 April, they found it extremely hard to do so. The progress of the tractors, guns and limbers was painfully slow. It took all day to get on to the road to Katerini and it was midnight before the gun group halted for the night in the Olympus Pass. It was still raining when 4 Brigade moved into the Servia Pass next day. The struggle on the 10th to get the guns into position was exhausting for all concerned. The infantry deployed with 18 Battalion just south of Servia, 19 Battalion at the mouth of the pass, and 20 Battalion in reserve. The field guns were sited in a steep-sided valley south and west of the hamlet of Lava and the observation parties mounted the cliff south of Servia and the lofty Borsana feature. B Troop under Captain Sawyers5 was sited well forward to be within page 31 range of the main bridge over the Aliakmon River. Perhaps the hardest work here was done by G Section, Divisional Signals, which had to connect the gun positions and OPs by telephone. None of the Signals vehicles (called ‘monkey trucks’) could be used and the men had to carry 68-pound reels of wire up slippery slopes, through scrub, and over jagged rocks. Some 30 of these heavy reels were needed to cover 10 miles and it took five days to complete this work. Meanwhile other guns arrived. The 7th Medium Regiment, RA, with only one battery (of 60-pounders) came under command of Lieutenant-Colonel Weir on the 11th and dug in behind the field guns. This was a most valuable addition to the defence; for these guns could easily range up to the Aliakmon bridge and beyond and would be most useful for counter-battery fire. To get them into position, however, was a formidable task and sappers and Palestinian labour had to be called in to build a track. The next arrival was what is variously described as a Yugoslav troop of 88-millimetre anti-aircraft guns, a Greek troop of the same guns, a Bulgarian troop (according to the 7th Medium history) and two troops, one Yugoslav and one Greek. At all events Weir gave a troop of 88-millimetre guns an anti-tank role in the pass. He was also given command of 1 Survey Troop, sent across from the Olympus Pass, and for flash-spotting it gained wonderful observation over the ground the enemy must use.
After the 6th Field left the Aliakmon line, parties of the 4th and 5th Field carted ammunition from the vacated gun pits back to the foot of the Olympus Pass, a precaution which was to prove wise indeed. At the same time the surveyors, before they moved to the Servia front, did what they could to survey gun positions in this pass. They established bearing pickets with great difficulty because of poor observation. Then they were called away to Servia.
Part of the artillery withdrew from the Aliakmon line as early as 6 April: RHQ and 25 Battery of the 4th Field and RHQ and 28 Battery (less E Troop) of the 5th Field. In the evening Brigadier Miles sent his headquarters back through the Olympus Pass to Dholikhi, keeping only a skeleton staff with him at Sfendhami. The rest of the guns stayed to cover the withdrawal of 6 Brigade, though all spare ammunition was sent back to the railhead at Katerini. The move continued on 9 April and carried on throughout the night, covered by a rearguard under Lieutenant-Colonel Duff which consisted of the 6 Brigade carrier platoons, a machine-gun company, and page 32 page 33 his own 34 Battery, the portées of which brought up the rear. A Troop of the 5th Field had been sent on the 9th to join 21 Battalion in guarding the Platamon tunnel area.
The rest of the field guns were to take up positions in the Olympus Pass, with the 5th Field forward. The pass, however, presented extraordinary difficulty for an artillery defence. For the first five miles from the Katerini end there were practically no flat areas at all. The first possibility was a tiny ledge high above the road and only 3000 yards from the projected front line, and D Troop of the 5th Field was hauled up to it. The only other feasible position was a knife-edge ridge some 2000 yards farther back, which had room for eight guns, but which first needed an approach to be built, a task on which the infantry laboured without machinery and completed in eight hours. This track, rising 450 feet, proved most serviceable. B and C Troops used it and got their guns into position with surprising ease. A patch of ground a little farther back and just off the road proved adequate for F Troop, though rather far back, and a further location behind it was earmarked for E Troop when it withdrew from the Aliakmon. Yet another position had to be found, however, for D Troop, which was discovered, when the infantry fully occupied their positions, to be dangerously exposed. Back it came, therefore, and managed to squeeze in alongside the E Troop position. Observation posts for B and C Troops were well forward, the former with 22 Battalion guarding the road and the latter with 23 Battalion extending to the south-east and overlooking the Petras Sanatorium.
The 28 (Maori) Battalion positions to the left (or west) of the road were to be covered by the 4th Field; but this was an even harder task. D Troop's guns were dragged up an extremely rough track to a little ridge 900 feet above the road. The rest of 26 Battery was to follow; but Brigadier Miles intervened. Already he had in mind the possibility of further withdrawal and he ordered E and F Troops to be sited with 25 Battery in more accessible positions farther back. In the end they were emplaced just off the road near Ay Dhimitrios in the middle of the pass. In their mountain aerie the shivering gunners of D Troop under Captain Nolan6 became snowbound.
The anti-tank defence of the pass was easier, because the terrain itself gave considerable protection. There were few page 34 places off the road where tanks could possibly operate and the road itself was expected to be effectively blocked by demolitions. The only approach to the right of 22 Battalion and the whole of the extensive 23 Battalion position was by means of a track which branched off the pass road due southwards to the Sanatorium. It branched off, however, in front of the infantry positions and would therefore not be available for a withdrawal. The engineers thought that, given time, a withdrawal route might be constructed over the hills southwards to the village of Kokkinoplos. Accepting this risk, 32 Battery sited eight of its 2-pounders with 23 Battalion and the remaining four (one of which had to come in by the Sanatorium road) with 22 Battalion.7 The ground on the left, guarded by the Maoris, was too rough for tanks.
7 The official historian comments (To Greece, p.259) that the anti-tank guns ‘were not well forward covering the approaches to the infantry, but were more to the rear in counter-penetration positions according to theories developed “after the French and Belgian campaigns”’. The ‘theories’ he presumably means were the tactics whereby anti-tank guns were sited so as to give each other support. These tactics were adopted by all armies at that time, including the German, and expert opinion was unanimous as to their soundness. They were developed long before the German invasion of the Lowlands and France and experience in that fighting gave no grounds for modifying them. It is true that infantry officers sometimes wanted anti-tank guns to fire straight ahead from the forward infantry posts and were disappointed when the guns were sited differently. But guns sited as they wished would have disclosed their positions with their first round (if not sooner) and would easily have been eliminated by the enemy. Only with the advent of far more powerful guns which could engage tanks at ranges upwards of 2000 yards was it wise to site anti-tank guns firing straight ahead. Even then, if they were to be sited well forward, they needed strong armoured protection, as the Germans demonstrated later in Italy with their Panther turrets fixed into ground emplacements. With the limited performance of the 2-pounders defilade positions were generally preferable.