The Germans attack 21 Battalion above the Platamon Tunnel
The Germans attack 21 Battalion above the Platamon Tunnel
In this period 14–16 April, when the rearguards were assembling at Elasson, Kalabaka and Dhomokos, the Germans launched three separate attacks along the Aliakmon line. On the coast above the Platamon tunnel they forced the withdrawal of 21 New Zealand Battalion, in Olympus Pass to the north of Mount Olympus they were checked3 by 5 New Zealand Brigade and in the Servia Pass to the north they were roughly handled4 by 4 New Zealand Brigade.
That towards Platamon was the most unexpected and consequently the most serious of the three attacks. In the morning of 14 April a train came through from the north and stopped at Platamon, the siding on the south side of the tunnel. The Greek general in control gave Lieutenant-Colonel Macky a certificate stating that this was the last train from Katerini. For the German armoured column had crossed the anti-tank ditch and the New Zealand Divisional Cavalry Regiment was withdrawing through the lines of 5 Brigade on the slopes of Mount Olympus.
Later that afternoon when the battalion was preparing to standto, Macky called a conference of his senior officers. Lieutenant Jones was sent off with orders to fire all his demolitions at 7 p.m., but the conference had hardly ended before an artillery OP reported that a German patrol was scanning the front. It was then about 6.30 p.m., but Jones was ordered to blow his demolitions immediately.
The main charge in the tunnel had no noticeable effect but another fifty pounds of gelignite blocked the track and left a shattered roof, from which debris was falling at least a week later. The charges along the saddle track over the ridge were also fired and considered effective. The engineers were then sent back to prepare demolitions in the Pinios Gorge.
At the same time Lieutenant Williams had hastened to bring his guns into action, their ‘heavy accurate shell-fire’1 forcing the German patrol to scatter into a grove of olive trees and hitting several of the distant vehicles, thereby inflicting the first casualties of the engagement.
Nevertheless, the German patrol leader decided that the pass was lightly held; the British were holding the castle area but not the country behind it or on either side of it. His report, coupled with the sound of the demolitions which seemed to get farther and farther away, led the Germans to decide that only Castle Hill was occupied.2 The commander of 2 Motor Cycle Battalion thereupon determined that an attack with heavy artillery support could be made next morning.
The divisional commander in his turn decided that two battle groups must be organised: Battle Group 1 to enter Olympus Pass, Battle Group 2 to force the Platamon position and advance up the gorge of the Pinios River. If they advanced ‘as quickly as possible’ they could cut off the retreat of the British units withdrawing towards Larisa. To bring about this spectacular success 6 Mountain Division was diverted southwards to Katerini.
1 Report by 2/38 Anti-Tank Unit on operations, 12–14 April 1941.
This explains the unexpectedly heavy stream of traffic which assembled that night on the plain below 21 Battalion. The observers had early reported that there were many tanks,1 but the chances are that they were armoured troop-carriers. All the same, there was no doubt about the assembly of a large mechanised force. The successive signals sent back to Headquarters 5 Brigade were that seven tanks had tried to approach, that there were fifteen tanks, that a convoy of thirty vehicles including tanks and troop-carriers had been sighted and that the enemy was debussing some three miles away. C Company from its position on the mountainside reported that there were 100 tanks,2 but Lieutenant-Colonel Macky when mentioning this to Anzac Corps cut the number down to fifty.
Whatever they were it was an incredible number of vehicles to be approaching a pass across which there was a saddle track but certainly no well-defined roadway. The higher commands were inclined to question the messages: Headquarters New Zealand Division at first doubted if they were genuine; Headquarters Anzac Corps asked W Force for an air patrol to report upon the situation.
Next morning, 15 April, the Germans soon learnt that the Platamon ridge was more strongly held than they expected. There had been a short bombardment and the leading company of 2 Motor Cycle Battalion was just beginning to climb Castle Hill when a ‘murderous fire broke out from in front and from the heights further back on the enemy's flank. The company was pinned down and suffered heavy casualties, including its commander … wounded.’ The force sent up to neutralise the flanking fire was itself pinned down and forced to send out a patrol to find out just where the New Zealand left flank actually was. It eventually reported that it was high up the mountain past Pandeleimon.
1 The German war diaries record no tanks in the area until the following afternoon, 15 April.
In the late afternoon the Germans made a second attempt to crash their way through. The I/3 Panzer Regiment,1 which had rushed south ‘disregarding all obstacles’ had arrived that afternoon, Colonel Balck then taking over the front and organising another attack. The whole battalion moved to within range of the castle and fired in support of its light troop, which attempted to follow the saddle track to the crest of the ridge. The fall of darkness and the ‘terrible going’ halted them below the New Zealand lines. At dusk, when the attacks had come to a halt and every tank had ‘shed its tracks’, the crews slipped out under cover of darkness and returned to the battalion.
At the same time the infantry, 2 Motor Cycle Battalion, had attempted an encircling movement, two companies making a direct attack on the New Zealand left flank while another, after climbing still higher, outflanked the defences. The frontal attack had, however, been launched before the third company was in position. The fading light and the thick scrub added to their difficulties, so the attack eventually faded out owing to ‘very fierce resistance and terrible country.’2 The companies spent the night outside the village of Pandeleimon waiting to attack again at first light.
For 21 Battalion this evening attack was more exacting than the first. Above the tunnel the advancing tanks had been harassed by every available weapon: 25-pounders, mortars, anti-tank rifles and even machine guns, but it was the rough track rather than the weight of fire that had halted the advance.
1 Arabic figures are used to denote companies and regiments, roman figures for battalions.
Long before then night had fallen and the attack had faded away across the whole front, but there continued to be a disturbing restlessness that promised greater trouble on the morrow. Very lights were going up, guns were searching for targets, and on the lower slopes German patrols were groping through the scrub. A Troop 5 Field Regiment was still operating but its weight of fire had been seriously reduced. The enemy had located one of the gunpits, a shell killing the sergeant and wounding four of the crew. In any case, with only eighty rounds left for each gun, the targets for harassing fire had to be selected with the greatest care.
Away from the fighting line any large-scale moves made that night, 15–16 April, were on the German side. The Battle Group was reinforced, I/304 Infantry Regiment coming forward and 6 Mountain Division moving high up round the eastern slopes of Mount Olympus to by-pass the Vale of Tempe. Orders were also issued for a motor boat, three assault boats and men from 8/800 Brandenburg Regiment to outflank 21 Battalion by sea and sail up the Pinios River to the Tempe bridge, but, fortunately for 21 Battalion, a heavy swell prevented this movement ever taking place.
To the rear there was less uneasiness, although at the different headquarters everyone was now coming to realise that a major attack which could possibly lead to the encirclement of the force was already under way. Lieutenant-Colonel Macky in his last signal for the day had still been confident in tone: ‘tanks have withdrawn in face of our harassing fire. Present position quiet except for infiltration left flank. Casualties slight but finding it difficult to prevent entry of tanks.’ But there was a shortage of reserves and an overall uncertainty that was disquietening. Macky had suggested, with no result, that the demolitions to the rear in the Pinios Gorge should become the responsibility of Anzac Corps. The senior staff officer of Anzac Corps when visiting Headquarters New Zealand Division had discussed the possible withdrawal of the battalion by train, and General Freyberg, very occupied with the imminent withdrawal of 4 and 5 Brigades, had arranged for Anzac Corps Headquarters to take 21 Battalion under command.