The Aliakmon Line
The Aliakmon Line
The necessary operation orders3 were accordingly prepared. The battalions of 6 Brigade, having reached Katerini during 22–25 March, were free to take over the coastal sector from the Greeks: 24 Battalion went to the extreme right about Neon Elevtherokhorion and Skala Elevtherokhorion in the strip between the sea and the highway to Salonika; 25 Battalion went to the area about the church to Ayios Elias.4 The unit in reserve, 26 Battalion, was to have been at Koukos, near Katerini, but the task of preparing the defences of the passes, as well as those of the Aliakmon line, forced Divisional Headquarters to send D Company to the Platamon tunnel area5 and the rest of the unit to the Mount Olympus area.
In the sector on the left flank which had been the responsibility of 4 Brigade for the past two weeks, 18 Battalion now held the ridges about the villages of Paliostani and Mikri Milia and 20 Battalion was to its left about Radhani. D Company 19 Battalion was at the entrance to Olympus Pass but the battalion as a whole had been in reserve along the Chaknakhora ridge. Like 26 Battalion in the coastal sector, it was now withdrawn and employed about the eastern approaches to the pass during the period 28 March– 1 April.
3 NZ Division Operation Order No. 2, 27 March.
4 Ayios, usually abbreviated Ay, means Saint.
In the area behind the line there were equally serious problems arising from limited time and inadequate resources. The different companies of engineers had not only to improve the system of communications but they had also to assist in the preparation of defensive positions. No. 1 Section 6 Field Company had therefore been brought forward from Olympus Pass to the 4 Brigade area, and Nos. 2 and 3 from the north of Katerini to the 6 Brigade area. Nineteenth Army Troops Company had No. 3 Section1 on the western side of Mount Olympus preparing W Force Headquarters at Tsaritsani; No. 2 was completing work begun by 6 Field Company at the crest of the pass; and No. 1 was improving the roads in the Gannokhora area. Fifth Field Park Company was erecting trestle bridges and handling the explosives and stores arriving at Larisa and Katerini. Seventh Field Company reached Katerini on 7 April, just before the divisional withdrawal but not in time to do any work in the forward areas.
1 The detachment of this unit from the Division without prior consultation raised some objections from General Freyberg. The BGS W Force, who had used the first available unit, explained his point of view: ‘There is NO intention to start stealing your units again … we are all trying to make this show work at short notice and under great difficulties….’
At the same time the CRA, Brigadier Miles, and his Brigade Major, Major R. C. Queree, had been preparing for the arrival of the Divisional Artillery. As the extended front, particularly on the left flank, made it impossible for the infantry to hold a complete line, the German advance would have to be checked by artillery fire and counter-attack. The gun positions had therefore to be in places which the enemy could not observe either from his own territory or from the gaps between the defended localities. This necessity, together with the south-easterly slope of the ridges, the steep gullies and the lack of tracks connecting them made the selection of positions difficult, but, in the end, these requirements were met, at the expense, however, of anti-tank fields of fire. No serious consequences came from this decision, but events were soon to show that too much reliance had been placed on the supposedly anti-tank nature of the country.
It was decided that 6 Brigade, astride the main highway, should be covered by 4 and 5 Field Regiments (less E Troop) and that 4 Brigade should be supported by 6 Field Regiment. Fourth Field Regiment, which had reached Katerini on 26 March, was in position by 30 March with its guns covering the front from the coast to Katakhas. Fifth Field Regiment, arriving on 31 March, sent E Troop 26 Battery to the Aliakmon River on 2 April and moved to the rear of 6 Brigade on 4 April. Sixth Field Regiment reached Katerini on 1 April and was in support of 4 Brigade by 5 April. By then 1 Survey Troop was making a minor triangulation of the front and Headquarters Divisional Artillery had been established in the village of Kalokhori.
The only other supporting weapons were those of 3 and 4 Companies 27 (Machine Gun) Battalion which had reached Katerini on 27 March. The former, under the command of 6 Brigade, now had platoons with the flank battalions to act in a ‘counter penetration’ role. The latter with similar instructions was in the 22 Battalion area along the ridge to the south of Tranos.
The field ambulance with each brigade provided advanced and main dressing stations. Thus 4 Field Ambulance, which was in the rough country with 4 Brigade, had its ADS in dugouts cut into the hillsides and its MDS 13 miles away at Kalokhori. The medical cases from 6 Brigade had at first been the responsibility of an MDS set up near this village by 5 Field Ambulance, but after 30 March 6 Field Ambulance had two ADSs behind the brigade lines, one at Sfendhami dug in and camouflaged, and the other at Koukos in the shelter of a stone shed. The MDS was well back near Kato Melia and among the oak trees at the foot of Olympus Pass.
The structure of the divisional defence system was now complete. No additional troops were ever brought forward but some slight changes were made on 2 April after General Freyberg had discussed the arrangements with the commanders of 4 and 6 Brigades. Divisional Headquarters was moved from Katerini to Ay Ioannis to form a battle headquarters. The boundary between the brigades was shifted westwards, giving 6 Brigade a wider frontage and making it necessary to have three battalions in the line. Twenty-sixth Battalion, now released from the Divisional Reserve because of the arrival of 5 Brigade, was therefore sent forward between 24 and 25 Battalions. In the 4 Brigade sector the only change was the return of 19 Battalion from the Mount Olympus area; as brigade reserve it could now be used for counter-attack without the consent of Divisional Headquarters.
The Divisional Reserve in the Tranos area was still of limited strength. Twenty-second Battalion, with 4 Company 27 (Machine Gun) Battalion under command, was deployed along the ridge, while Headquarters 7 Anti-Tank Regiment with 34 Battery (less O Troop) covered the anti-tank obstacles between Pal Elevtherokhorion and Sfendhami.
1 T. D. M. Stout, New Zealand Medical Services in Middle East and Italy, p. 146.