12–13 April: Plans for a General Withdrawal
12–13 April: Plans for a General Withdrawal
The following day, 12 April, Papagos issued the necessary orders. He may have waited too long, especially when the limitations of his antiquated transport system are considered. But it must always be remembered that ‘Few commanders have been faced with a greater dilemma than was General Papagos.’3 He had wished to dominate the Albanian front before the impact of any German attacks and if, in his last offensive, he had captured the port of Valona the Italian divisions might well have been isolated in Albania and the greater part of the Greek Army thus made available for service against the Germans. And even if the attack in Albania had not been an overwhelming success, a Yugoslav advance from the north, for which Papagos had been negotiating right up to the time of the Yugoslav collapse, would have brought about the defeat of the Italians. Moreover, he had always to remember that a withdrawal would weaken the morale of his army, just as a major success in Albania would sustain the sorely tried people of Greece; that its political repercussions might be even more important than its technical difficulties. Consequently, it has been said that ‘the vast possibilities offered by success in Albania should explain the reluctance of General Papagos prematurely to withdraw.’4
The latter would probably be able to check any Italian approach from Albania. The Western Macedonian Army would certainly be reinforced by the remnants of the Central Macedonian Army, but its successful withdrawal to and from Grevena was extremely doubtful. The German columns streaming south through the Monastir Gap appeared to be concentrating to force Servia Pass, but there was always the threat of other units being switched westwards through the mountains to block the withdrawal of the Western Macedonian Army towards Grevena. The Greeks were therefore attempting to strengthen the defences of the passes along their right flank, so that, if they could be held until 16 April, many of the divisions in Albania would have had time to pass through Grevena.
In General Wilson's opinion such a smooth withdrawal was now impossible. Although the Cavalry Division, with 21 Infantry Brigade, was holding Pisodherion Pass in the sector extending from Lake Prespa south to Klisoura, the latest intelligence reports stated that 12 Division about Siatista and 20 Division in the passes west of Vlasti and Klisoura had to all intents and purposes disintegrated. This seems to have been the opinion of those who saw second-line troops struggling back on foot, but other observers assert that the front-line units were doggedly doing their best to prepare new positions.
General Papagos also defined the responsibilities of W Force in a message to General Wilson which opened with the phrase, ‘in accordance with my verbal order to you.’ This was no doubt a reference to their discussions at Pharsala during the night of 10–11 April. W Force was responsible for the Klisoura Pass (inclusive)— Mount Siniatsikon—Mount Bourninos—Servia Pass—the Olympus Pass—the coastal route at the Platamon tunnel. Special attention was to be given to the defence of the passes and to the withdrawal of page 202 the Greek units with W Force. If there was any thrust westwards from Florina through the Pisodherion Pass towards Koritza or Kastoria, 1 Armoured Brigade was expected to counter-attack. To ensure the safe withdrawal of the Dodecanese Regiment—the rearguard of 20 Division—the brigade would ‘have to continue up to the end’ to hold the Klidhi Pass. And in the south-east Veroia Pass would have to be held until the withdrawal of 12 Division. From 13 April, when it expected to be in position, the Greek division would be responsible for the line from Kteni to Kastoria, including the Klisoura Pass and the road Klisoura – Argos Orestikon.
To simplify their withdrawal the Greeks made many requests for British motor transport and, whenever possible, this was given. Another request was for anti-tank guns to cover the Klisoura, Vlasti and Siatista passes. They were difficult to supply for there were only three anti-tank regiments in Greece: 1 Australian with Mackay Force in the Klidhi Pass, 7 New Zealand in the Mount Olympus sector and 102 British (less one battery) whose guns were divided between 20 Greek Division, 4 New Zealand Brigade at Servia and 6 Australian Division. However, on 12 April B Battery 102 Anti-Tank Regiment was transferred from the Servia area to the Siatista Pass in the hills between Kozani and Grevena. Twelfth Greek Division when it arrived on the night of 12–13 April was somewhat disorganised, but its battalions moved on to the bluffs above the guns and prepared to give them covering fire.
It was impossible, in spite of repeated requests from the Greeks, to provide anti-tank guns for the Vlasti and Klisoura passes still farther north in the central range. First Australian Anti-Tank Regiment, after taking part in the initial defence of Klidhi Pass, withdrew to the Servia area and C Battery 102 Anti-Tank Regiment at Proastion had to cover the withdrawal of Mackay Force.
Another problem, one always associated with withdrawals, was that of demolitions. The subject had been discussed as early as 9 April but there seem to have been no direct orders from General Papagos. Both 1 Armoured Brigade and 6 Australian Division had been made responsible at different times for a series of demolitions, but the work had evidently been held up for on 11 April Brigadier Charrington informed General Wilson that, in spite of previous agreements, demolitions were now essential.
A 4 Field Regiment gun crew trains at Maadi on an 18-pounder
19 Battalion at work on the anti-tank ditch at Wadi Naghamish, June 1940
River-crossing training on the Nile, February 1941
Athens welcomes the New Zealanders
21 Battalion men break their train journey north. The troops travelled in box-wagons (Hommes 40, Chevaux 8)
On the Aliakmon line: General Freyberg and his G1, Colonel K. L. Stewart
GOC's conference. From left: General Freyberg, Colonel Stewart (dark glasses), Brig R. Miles (CRA), Brig E. Puttick (Commander 4 Brigade), Lt-Col W. G. Gentry (AA & QMG), Lt-Col G. H. Clifton (CRE), Col H. S. Kenrick (ADMS), Lt-Col S. F. Allen (Divisional Signals)
After this date the desire of the Greeks to keep the roads clear for the withdrawal of their armies from Albania and the wish of the British to protect their western flank created a serious difference of opinion. On 13 April1 General Papagos objected to the British preparing demolitions along the road from Argos Orestikon to Neapolis, Grevena and Kalabaka. He pointed out that it was the only road along which communications could be maintained with his central and western armies. The Western Macedonian Army had already prepared the demolitions to be blown on this road, so he suggested that the British detachments be withdrawn to avoid confusion or misunderstanding. If this request had been granted the road would have been relatively clear for a German advance. According to General Wilson, ‘Greek GHQ issued orders about demolitions, observance of which would have prevented the Army leaving Greece.’2
The orders3 for the withdrawal itself were most carefully drawn up. First Rangers, supported by the New Zealand machine-gunners, was to hold the road through the Klidhi Pass until the Australian battalions on either flank had marched out and embussed for the Servia area. At the same time a small force consisting of 3 Royal Tank Regiment and some supporting units, including 2 Royal Horse Artillery Regiment and a platoon of New Zealand machine-gunners, was to be preparing a covering position on the ridge that runs north-east and south-west through Sotir. From there they could command the open country to the south of the Klidhi Pass.
South of that line on the ridge beyond the village of Ptolemais another covering force was to assemble. In the first stage there would be 4 Hussars (less one squadron) and some attached troops; after the withdrawal from Klidhi Pass there would also be 1 Rangers (less one company) and 27 (Machine Gun) Battalion (less two companies and one platoon); and after the withdrawal from Sotir ridge there would be 2 Royal Horse Artillery Regiment.
1 On 13 April General Wilson decided to withdraw W Force to Thermopylae and issued orders for the preliminary moves. Papagos was not informed of this decision until 16 April and continued to plan until that date in accordance with the arrangements made to hold the Olympus-Aliakmon River line. The two generals were thus working at cross purposes during this period. See pp. 215–17.
2 Wilson's report, Part III, para. 4b.
3 1 Armoured Brigade Operation Order No. 5, 12 April 1941.