2nd New Zealand Divisional Artillery
A Dominant Position above Servia
A Dominant Position above Servia
The action in the Servia Pass, concurrent with that in the Olympus Pass, was different in two vital respects: the Germans there were better supplied with guns and used them vigorously and they were strongly supported by the Luftwaffe. The first sign of the enemy there had been in the morning of 11 April, when three Yugoslav aircraft flying over attracted anti-aircraft fire from somewhere near Kozani. In the same direction next day OPs reported signs of bombing. In the afternoon of the 12th snow began to fall in the pass, and that night and next morning withdrawing Australians crossed the Aliakmon and came up through 4 Brigade, looking as though they had had a hard time. Enemy transport was seen in the distance in the afternoon and the Aliakmon bridge was demolished. The Servia positions began to be attacked from the air, but with little effect at first. Soon the 60-pounders of 7 Medium Regiment, RA, were firing at transport in the distance. Both medium and field guns took the opportunity to register targets and prepare range cards. After dark they fired intermittently on the bridge and on the road past it to the town of Servia. The brilliant flashes, each lighting for an instant the tense crew, and the echoing and re-echoing among the hills of the gun fire and of the distant burst of shell, building up at times until the air seemed to tremble, made this a dramatic experience for gunners in their first action.
This firing proved to be well placed and timed; for a pontoon bridge was seen near the site of the demolished bridge at day-light and was soon destroyed by B Troop of the 6th Field from its forward position. The enemy then opened systematic counter-battery fire, probably with 150-millimetre medium field howitzers. For more than an hour he bombarded the forward troop of the medium regiment, then each troop of the 6th Field in turn was given 20 minutes of concentrated attention, though page 46 it did no harm. The history of 7 Medium Regiment does not mention this, but it records that one man was killed and three wounded by bombing on the 14th. Positions had been chosen with care and were well-protected. Small parties of infantry and groups of vehicles were seen at various times and shelled with obvious effect; for observation was excellent. At one stage C Troop under Captain Lambourn25 was asked to fire ‘off the map’ in support of 19 Battalion and did so with good results.
The guns of 31 Anti-Tank Battery had so far been distributed between the two forward battalions, the 18th and 19th. In the afternoon C Troop was detached to support 20 Battalion in positions on the left overlooking the village of Rimnion and the higher reaches of the Aliakmon River.
After another active night, with the enemy guns this time also taking part, the morning of the 15th started with a sensational incident in the 19 Battalion area when two German companies, with two captured Greeks on horseback, sauntered through the lines and up the pass road for some distance before they were recognised as Germans and not, as had first been thought, refugees. Almost all were killed or captured, with many of the latter wounded.
The day became one of almost incessant attack from the air by diving Stukas or low-flying Messerschmitts. Each big raid was taken to be the prelude to an attack on the Servia defences; but none came. The only moves on the ground were small and easily repulsed. Several attempts to replace the bridge over the Aliakmon were frustrated by shellfire. Though the field and medium guns seemed to be engaged on tasks of small consequence, their fire created a deep impression on the German command. What had at first been taken to be a lightly-held position was now regarded as almost impregnable, and the main effort was therefore diverted away from Servia to an outflanking movement far to the west. The field gunners suffered only one minor casualty this day; but the anti-tank gunners, shelled and bombed mercilessly, suffered the loss of a sergeant and two gunners killed and a lance-bombardier wounded26 in the crew of one of the C Troop guns which was supporting 20 Battalion.page 47
Heavy mists on the 16th kept the Luftwaffe quiet, but did nothing to silence the German guns. This day, more than any other, they plastered a certain road bend in the 19 Battalion area which inevitably earned the nickname of Hellfire Corner. Lieutenant-Colonel Weir's command increased for the space of a few hours almost to the strength of a divisional artillery by the arrival in the morning of 2/3 Australian Field Regiment and 64 Medium Regiment, RA, from Vevi. The extremely rugged ground behind the field guns, however, permitted little scope for deploying medium guns and only one battery went into position: a 4-5-inch troop and a 6-inch howitzer troop. Brigadier Miles arrived in the afternoon, however, and sent the Australian regiment back that night to Elasson, and the 6-inch howitzer troop, which was short of ammunition, he sent to Dhomokos Pass, far to the south. It was at least as hard to get these weighty weapons out as it had been to get them into action and it was 3 a.m. on the 17th before they got away. The other troop of 64 Medium Regiment moved, on Miles's instructions, to Dhomenikon, a few miles past Elasson.
The plan at this stage was to withdraw the 6th Field after dark on the 17th; but the day dawned so mistily and enemy observation was so restricted that Brigadier Puttick of 4 Brigade suggested to Lieutenant-Colonel Weir that an earlier start might be made. Rain had set in, the ground was getting muddier all the time, and Weir was not looking forward to the task of getting the guns out in the black of night. So E Troop began to move at 1 p.m. Three tractors had to be winched to each gun and it took more than two hours to get the four guns on to firm land. Rain on top of the melting snow had turned the gun position into a morass. Each troop in turn of anti-tank, field and medium guns was thus laboriously withdrawn in the course of the afternoon until only A Troop of the 6th Field was left. All but the anti-tank guns continued to fire until the last moment and the enemy responded. By the time A Troop's turn came the clouds were lifting. The four guns were near a good track and little trouble had been expected. The first two came out under fire and the other two stayed with reduced crews. Hurrying to get these last two out before the clouds deserted them entirely, the gunners managed to get them out of their pits and into the open. Then the sky cleared with dramatic suddenness, fully exposing the two guns to the enemy observers. Gun fire was concentrated on them and they were in imminent danger of destruction. Two drivers, Gunners page 48 Tombleson27 and Bunton,28 took their quads over the ridge, with shells splashing around them, and ‘with great skill and coolness manoeuvred their tractors under heavy fire … and succeeded in bringing both guns and detachments out safely’.29
Concurrently with this arduous work by the gunners, the signalmen undid five days' hard labour by reeling in telephone wires, which meant more scrambling over slippery rocks under fire. The anti-tank gunners, too, had had to get some of their guns out under fire, in some cases small-arms and mortar fire; and at the end of it they had to drive round Hellfire Corner in full view of the enemy. All but the last of the anti-tank guns had got on to the pass road by 8 p.m. and started on a long journey south which took them as far as Pharsala by daybreak.
29 Extract from the joint citation for the award of a Military Medal to each of the drivers.