21 Battalion Moves up from Athens to the Platamon Tunnel
21 Battalion Moves up from Athens to the Platamon Tunnel
The other unit on the move during the night of 8–9 April was 21 Battalion, now released from guard duties about Piræus. Its movement north to Katerini had been suggested by General Wilson during the conference1 on the morning of 6 April, so that very night, shortly after the bombing of Piræus, Colonel Macky received his orders from 80 Base Sub-area. The B Echelon transport, with the anti-aircraft platoon for protection, thereupon moved off during the morning of 8 April; the companies in railway cattle trucks left that afternoon and reached Larisa about midday on 9 April.
By then the decision had been made to withdraw the New Zealand brigades from the Katerini area to the passes about Mount Olympus. Twenty-first Battalion, instead of joining 5 Brigade, would take over the defences which D Company 26 Battalion had been preparing above the Platamon tunnel. Consequently, when the train reached Larisa Colonel Macky was told by the Railway Transport Officer that the battalion would detrain at the tunnel, some 15 miles away.
In that stretch the train stopped three times: twice in sidings to allow trains bearing Greek troops to come south and once because the engine crew took to the hills, until they were certain that an air battle overhead was not the prelude to an attack by dive-bombers. Naturally enough it was late afternoon when the companies detrained just south of the tunnel. No definite orders had as yet come through, but Captain Huggins, who was already there with his company from 26 Battalion, had certainly been preparing the position for a battalion. Colonel Macky therefore decided that he was expected to take over the defences. A Company was sent to Castle Hill, B Company to Point 266 and C and D Companies were meantime kept in reserve.
Later in the night a section of engineers from 19 Army Troops Company (Lieutenant F. W. O. Jones2) and A Troop 27 Battery 5 Field Regiment (Lieutenant Williams3) drove in from Katerini to come under command of the battalion. Now that the Division was withdrawing to the passes the engineers, with explosives, land mines and one naval depth-charge, had to prepare for the demolition of the tunnel.
Next morning, 10 April, a message came through from General Freyberg stating that the battalion would hold the sector and mentioning that only infantry attacks need be expected as the terrain was too rough for tanks. This advice is surprising. The original report1 from the GSO III (Intelligence) had certainly suggested that vehicles could use this coastal route, and only a few hours before the supporting troops from Katerini had brought their trucks and guns across the main ridge. The explanation probably is that General Wilson had repeated to General Freyberg his earlier statement2 that the main attack would be made in one of the passes to the north.page 175
Later in the day more detailed instructions were received from Brigadier Hargest. The battalion would complete the defences according to the prepared plan; it had to deny the approaches to the gap, watch for landings along the coast to the south and defend Castle Hill and Hill 266. If either of them were captured there had to be an immediate counter-attack; there would be ‘NO retirement.’
The ridge certainly had many advantages. Any Germans advancing south from Katerini would have very little cover. With the sea cliffs on one side and the apparently inaccessible ridges of Mount Olympus on the other, there were few chances of an outflanking movement. The communications to the rear were reasonably good; the artillery had the choice of several excellent gun positions. But there was one weakness which could be exploited by a resolute enemy. The ridge, apart from some clear patches about the castle and Pandeleimon, was heavily timbered from the beach at Platamon to the snowfields on Mount Olympus. And such conditions, as time was soon to show, were ideal for those German regiments which had been trained for mountain warfare and a policy of infiltration.
In the meantime the companies after a wet night in the open had occupied the ridge from the sea cliffs to the lower slopes of Mount Olympus. On the extreme right in the A Company sector (Captain R. B. McClymont) the crest of the ridge was bare, but its northern face was cloaked with bay trees, oleanders and a few scattered Aleppo pines. The romantic feature was the Frankish castle with its relatively sound outer walls and its crumbling central tower, from which the plain looked like a great isosceles triangle cut by the road and the railway and studded, in the foreground, with olive and mulberry trees, prickly pears and blackberries and, as the soil grew richer, with fields of maize, tobacco and cotton about white farmhouses set in groves of oaks and plane trees.
B Company (Captain Le Lievre1) was higher up the ridge and forward of Hill 266, a neat cone which broke the gradual incline of the ridge and created on either side a natural track for any attacking force. At this height shrubs flourished along the crest and limited the field of fire from all section positions.
Behind this line and to the south of Castle Hill, D Company (Captain Trousdale, MC1) was in reserve; Headquarters 21 Battalion was behind the castle; the mortar platoon was nearby; the carrier platoon patrolled the coast from the tunnel to the Pinios River and endeavoured to check the refugees that were being brought over by coastal ships from Salonika.
The supporting arms under command remained near the coast. The troop from 5 Field Regiment sited its 25-pounders about 500 yards to the south of the Platamon railway station in pits beneath some willow trees. The section from 19 Army Troops Company left the tunnel open to traffic but did its best to prepare for its demolition, the main charges, 350 pounds of gelignite and the depth-charge, being placed in a safety bay near the centre of the tunnel and sandbagged in to increase the force of the blast. At each end of the tunnel charges were laid so that the rails could be cut and the approaches cratered; and in the A Company area demolitions were placed on the track to the north of Point 266 and an anti-tank minefield was laid out across the front of No. 9 Platoon.
D Company 26 Battalion left the pass for Katerini by train during the night of 12–13 April. To its surprise the town was almost empty; the only New Zealanders to be seen were the patrols2 of the Divisional Cavalry which had withdrawn from the Aliakmon River before the advancing Germans. However, with the assistance of the Greek general in the area, Captain Huggins was able to communicate with Headquarters New Zealand Division, on whose instructions the company at 2 a.m. boarded another train and returned through the tunnel and the Pinios Gorge to Larisa, where transport from the battalion was waiting to take it to Ay Dhimitrios in the Olympus Pass area. En route the company was diverted northward, 26 Battalion having been moved to the west of Servia Pass, and it was not until 9 a.m. on 14 April that it rejoined the unit in the Rimnion area.
1 Lt-Col A. C. Trousdale, MC; Howick, Auckland; born Canada, 20 Oct 1895; estate agent; comd 1 Bn, North Auckland Regt, Aug 1942–Jul 1943; CO 21 Bn 21 Jun–9 Jul 1944; comd Freyberg Wing, Reception Gp (UK) 1944–45; wounded 22 Nov 1941.