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New Zealand Medical Services in Middle East and Italy

General Military Plan of the Campaign

General Military Plan of the Campaign

The defence of Greece against the threat of invasion by the Germans coming from Bulgaria was undertaken by a composite force, comprising elements of the Greek Army and a British Expeditionary Force sent hurriedly from Egypt. There had been a small RAF force assisting the Greeks in their defence against the Italians in Albania, but Lustre Force—comprising 1 British Armoured Brigade, 6 Australian Division, the New Zealand Division, and some British artillery and ancillery troops—was sent to help the Greek Army against the Germans. The 7th Australian Division and a Polish brigade were not sent as planned because of the serious threat to Egypt following Rommel's thrust south of Benghazi, and one brigade of 6 Australian Division arrived in Greece too late to take part in the operations. The total British and Imperial force sent to Greece was approximately 58,000, of whom 23,000 were Base and L of C troops. Very little reinforcement of the RAF was possible owing to the deficiency of the force generally in the Middle East.

The New Zealand Division shortly after its arrival in Greece took up its allotted position to the north of the Olympus Pass. It was somewhat handicapped because 5 Brigade had just arrived from England and had had no time to become acclimatised to Mediterranean conditions or to mould itself into the rest of the Division.

In the Aliakmon line the Division was responsible for the defence of the right flank between the coast and the Pierian Range where there was the widest of the three gaps in the mountain barriers. Across the Pierian Mountains, which rose to three and four thousand feet, 16 Australian Brigade was to defend the Veroia Gap through which ran the Aliakmon River and the main road to Salonika. The Vermion Range, which reached a height of 6000 feet and was manned by two weak Greek divisions, separated the Veroia Gap from the Edhessa Gap to the north, and beyond that again were the mountains of the Yugoslav border. Through the Edhessa Gap, 1 British Armoured Brigade went forward to delay the German crossing of the Axios River. A brigade of 6 Australian Division was to be allotted to Kozani to be available for the defence of the Edhessa Gap and the remaining brigade was to be located at Servia, but neither brigade had time to reach these positions.

While the New Zealand Division manned the Aliakmon line, it prepared defensive positions behind the line at the Olympus Pass and also at the Platamon tunnel, which was situated between Mount Olympus and the sea, and through which ran the main railway from Salonika to Athens. The Olympus positions later formed part of the second line of defence, the Olympus-Aliakmon River line.

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The Greeks decided to fight the Germans in rearguard actions at the passes along the Bulgarian frontier, 100 miles north of Olympus. The upper Vardar valley gave easy access into central Greece through the Monastir Gap, but it was hoped that the Yugoslavs would deny the Germans the use of that route. A force was formed under Major-General I. G. Mackay, commanding 6 Australian Division, to defend the left flank and cover the Monastir Gap. This was composed of part of 19 Australian Brigade, with British tanks and artillery of 1 British Armoured Brigade, and part of 27 NZ (Machine Gun) Battalion.

Such, briefly, was the position taken up by a small British force, consisting of less than two infantry divisions with one armoured brigade and inadequate air support, assisted by two weak Greek divisions—the whole force now named W Force and under the command of General H. M. Wilson—against a well-trained and powerful Germany army, greatly superior in numbers and armour and devastatingly superior in air power.

A last line of defence had been planned by General Wilson more than 100 miles to the rear at Thermopylae. This extended for 40 miles in the rugged mountains between the Euboea Channel and the Gulf of Corinth.