The Olympus Pass Defences
The Olympus Pass Defences
At the same time new positions were being prepared about Mount Olympus. In the pass itself two companies from 18 Battalion had started work immediately after the arrival of 4 Brigade. One had soon returned to its unit but the other had remained until 22 March, when it was relieved by a company from 19 Battalion. After 25 March, when General Freyberg was warned that he must prepare for the withdrawal to the mountains, much greater effort had to be made so the reserve battalions of 4 and 6 Brigades were employed about the pass until 5 Brigade arrived from Athens.
Nineteenth Battalion was brought back on 28 March to the north side of the pass; a guard was placed on that rocky feature called Gibraltar; and positions were prepared on the north bank of the Mavroneri River. Twenty-sixth Battalion, which had moved to the reserve area for 6 Brigade on 27 March, received its orders and page 142 was back that night at the Petras Sanatorium on the south side of the pass. The next two days were spent making a road suitable for motor traffic from the Sanatorium southwards to Ravani. After the campaign Brigadier Hargest when describing the tracks of the area said, ‘one built mainly by 26th Bn was an especially fine piece of work, going from the road straight up a mountain side for hundreds of feet—it was completed in a short day and allowed eight guns to fire from a totally unsuspected spot straight down the enemy's line of approach.’1
The orders for 5 Brigade had already been issued. It had to prepare and occupy defensive positions astride the pass on Mount Olympus, which would be held in strength; the coastal route by way of the Platamon tunnel would be held by one company, though preparations would be made for a battalion ‘should circumstances require it.’
The first unit to arrive was 23 Battalion, which moved into the Sanatorium area on 31 March, thereby making it possible for 26 Battalion to return to the 6 Brigade sector. The following day 28 (Maori) Battalion went to the north side of the pass and 19 Battalion returned to 4 Brigade. The other units of 5 Brigade were not as yet sent to the pass. On 1 April 22 Battalion2 had gone to Tranos, where it was under command of 6 Brigade and part of Divisional Reserve. Twenty-first Battalion3 was still in the Athens-Piræus area under the command of 80 Base Sub-area.
The defences were along the eastern slopes of Mount Olympus, with dense undergrowth on the lower level and an oak-beech forest above. Twenty-third Battalion held the right flank; 22 Battalion, when it returned, was to hold the pass and 28 (Maori) Battalion the left or northern flank. As the front of some eight to nine miles was too wide for the number of men available, the system of defence had to be similar to that adopted by the other brigades: ‘Our sub-sectors will be held by pl or even coy localities and sited on spurs and high ground. Localities will be prepared for all round defence. All posts will be dug in and wired.’4
1 Report by Brigadier Hargest.
4 First supplement to NZ Division Operation Order No. 2, 30 March.
There were admittedly some unpleasant hours of mist and rain, but it was springtime and the woods were ‘carpeted with vast banks of polyanthus, primroses, hyacinths and violets’;1 the newly cut tracks were often greasy and requiring attention, but the life was invigorating and the men were fit. They had to site section posts, cut fields of fire and erect wire through the undergrowth. ‘Rarely, if ever again, did the battalion take such pains over a defensive position.’2
The greatest problem was that of communications. The only vehicle access from the main highway was by the road to the Sanatorium which 26 Battalion had extended along the ridge. The junction, however, being at a lower level, was too far forward of the positions for the route to be a safe supply line. It was therefore decided that a serviceable track must be cut round the shoulder of Mount Olympus and south-west to Kokkinoplos, a village from which a rough but passable road went down to the Kozani-Larisa highway. On 6 April Major Hart3 and 200 men from 22 Battalion came over to begin the work. Soon afterwards when the situation in the Balkans deteriorated and there was every possibility of withdrawal, the track became even more important. The battalion could reach the main highway only by moving across its front to the mouth of the pass where, with others also on the move, there would inevitably be congestion and delay. Engineers were therefore called in to make the track capable of carrying gun tractors over the ridges to Kokkinoplos.
Until 22 Battalion was released from the Divisional Reserve, the defence of the entrance of the pass was the responsibility of B Company 28 (Maori) Battalion. At first the Maoris had one platoon south of the highway ‘on the Gibraltar outcrop’ and the others north of it. Later the whole company went forward another 1000 yards to cover the junction of the highway and the road to 23 Battalion.
The other Maori companies held the left flank or northern side of the pass, first A Company, then C Company behind the village of Kariai and D Company still farther north overlooking Haduladhika. If all went well, the line was to be extended still farther north to link up with 16 Australian Brigade in the Veroia Pass area.
1 23 Battalion war diary.
2 Angus Ross, 23 Battalion, p. 31.
The other units of the brigade group were not so widely dispersed. All B Echelon transport was assembled forward of the pass at Kato Melia. Fifth Field Ambulance, which had moved north with the brigade, had established a Main Dressing Station near Dholikhi, on the western side of the pass, for the use of New Zealand units working in that area. In the event of hostilities the casualties from the brigade would be brought back up the pass road and through the Advanced Dressing Station which had been established between the crest and Ay Dhimitrios.
No guns were yet in the area, for all regiments were needed behind 4 and 6 Brigades. The best that Brigadiers Miles and Hargest could do was to select positions and arrange for the construction of the necessary roads and tracks.
The engineers, however, were able to give more attention to the pass. The sections of 6 Field Company had been called forward to the Aliakmon line, but after 24 March their work at Ay Dhimitrios was continued by No. 2 Section 19 Army Troops Company. The main demolition was initially prepared in the narrow gorge below the village, with a sapper permanently on guard to protect it from enemy or fifth-column interference and, if necessary, to explode it on orders from the officer in command of the covering party. That officer had very definite instructions:
He will receive his orders either in writing signed by Div Comd or verbally from a senior staff officer who will be in possession of written orders from Div Comd. The OC covering party will satisfy himself that these written orders are genuine. Under no circumstances whatever will OC Covering Party fire the charge.
After 5 Brigade took over, the demolition was shifted to the area held in the first stages by 28 (Maori) Battalion. Other demolitions were prepared on the bridges covering the approaches to the pass and three additional charges were placed on the main page 146 highway at points selected by Brigadier Hargest and the CRE, Lieutenant-Colonel Clifton.