18 Battalion and Armoured Regiment
CHAPTER 7 — The First Encounter
The First Encounter
The British and Greek governments had decided in February that a combined Anglo-Greek force would occupy the Aliakmon River line. This line was not fortified, but followed a series of river and mountain obstacles from the mouth of the Aliakmon west and north-west to the Yugoslav border.
Greece's northern frontier adjoins, from west to east, Albania, Yugoslavia and Bulgaria. An enemy thrust through Albania, or through Yugoslavia to Monastir (a frontier township in a natural valley approach), would come in behind the Aliakmon line, but it was hoped that Albania could be taken care of by the Greek armies then holding the Italians there, and that an entry through Yugoslavia would be successfully opposed by the Yugoslavs themselves.
The sector into which the New Zealanders were ordered wasn't too good. It was steep, and mostly covered with small oak saplings. Roads didn't exist, only cart tracks, muddy and slippery after the winter. There were no prepared defences there at all. The Division's front of ten miles was uncomfortably long. Taken all round, the outlook wasn't very encouraging.
But, as mentioned, the men of 18 Battalion (the first New Zealand battalion to arrive in the Aliakmon line) knew nothing of these misgivings. They didn't even mind digging, now that (as they thought) the positions were going to be put to a worthwhile purpose. So when the unit left Katerini it was in first-rate spirits and eager to get going.
For a few days the battalion was split up. Headquarters, B and D Companies and Battalion Headquarters headed north on foot towards their battle sector. A and C Companies rode in more comfort back along the main road to the Olympus Pass to begin work on a position there, covering a demolition which the engineers were preparing on the road in the pass.page 79
The road from Katerini enters the pass through a narrow defile guarded by two abrupt crags. To the higher of these, Point 917, a conical hill west of the road, went A Company. C Company took the other, on the opposite side of the road, a rocky outcrop christened ‘Gibraltar’ by the Kiwis. On these steep slopes the companies set to work to carve out the best positions they could. They wasted no time. They had to get back to the battalion as soon as possible, and holes couldn't be hewn in that rock in an hour or two. Besides, it was cold up there, with the snowline not far above. There was no opportunity the first night to make a proper bivouac, and the next morning everyone woke up lightly coated with snow and aching with cold. This snow wasn't so good at close quarters, the men decided. Later in the day the sun thawed most of it, or reduced it to wet slush which was even worse.
All 19 and 20 March the companies worked. On the 20th the pass road was swarming with activity, and the men looked down on to truck after truck moving north—the rest of 4 Brigade on its way to join 18 Battalion in the line. After their baptism of snow, A and C Companies felt like seasoned winter campaigners, much superior to these newcomers; but it was very nice to see them, just the same.
On the morning of 21 March A Company left Olympus and bounced its way back through Katerini to rejoin the battalion up in the hills. C Company worked on Gibraltar for another day, and on the 22nd handed over to a company of 19 Battalion and moved north in its turn, bringing all of 18 Battalion together again.
The main body of the battalion, when it left Katerini on the 18th, headed north by one of the muddy tracks that criss-crossed the countryside, and after eight miles of ridges and gullies arrived at Palionellini, a huddled-up village built across a saddle, with spectacularly cobbled streets which, 18 Battalion was sure, had never before felt the weight of trucks. Certainly they weren't built for motor traffic. The battalion's arrival caused a local sensation; all Palionellini turned out to gaze as the men came in. There was a small party of New Zealand engineers there already, but the sudden advent of some 300 more strange soldiers was truly an event.There the companies stayed, except for B Company, which went straight page 80 through the village and on another four miles by an even worse track to the hamlet of Mikri Milia, perched on a long east-west ridge. Along this ridge, at Mikri Milia and its companion hamlet of Paliostani, was to be 18 Battalion's battle position.
The job at Palionellini was to help the engineers widen and straighten the alleged road that ran up through the village. A miserable track this was, but it would have to be a main access to 4 Brigade's battle position, and before it could function as such it needed a good face-lift. So for three days the men toiled with pick and shovel—they were pretty good at that by now—and, despite light snowfalls, succeeded in reducing the mud to something like a passable road. Then they packed up and marched away north, company by company, to join B Company. By 22 March the whole battalion (A and C Companies too) was together again, and at last the digging of its first real battle position could begin in earnest.
The Mikri Milia–Paliostani ridge dropped away abruptly on the north to the Toponitsa River. From it there was a wide view over the lower hills falling away to the Aliakmon plain, and beyond that the peaks of Eastern Macedonia, with Salonika gleaming across the gulf on a clear day. The ridge was a hotchpotch of small ploughed fields, patches of young green wheat, and oak thickets, from which rose the thin smoke of charcoal-burners' fires. It was undoubtedly poor, and so were the two villages crowning it, but they gave the battalion a friendly welcome.
The programme up on the ridge was more digging. The ideal of connected and mutually supporting positions was out of the question here, as there were not enough battalions to go round, and so each one had an uncomfortably wide front to look after. Also, the ridge was too sharp and narrow to be manned in any depth. The only feasible way of meeting these difficulties was to hold the top with a series of ‘company localities’—strong, dug-in positions in the most commanding spots, each holding a company, and placed so as to defend themselves from any direction, against possible paratroops or Fifth Columnists from the rear as well as against the expected attack from the north. This 18 Battalion proceeded to do: one company round Paliostani; one along the ridge a mile east page 81 of it; one at Mikri Milia and on the ridge near by; the fourth in reserve just behind Mikri Milia. Headquarters Company and Battalion Headquarters were at Mikri Milia too.
For the first few inches of top soil the digging was easy, but then came tough clay that really tested the muscles. The holes had to be deep—weapon pits five feet, and roofed dugouts for living quarters deeper still. The men didn't live in the dugouts, but occupied more comfortable quarters in the villages and farms (except for C Company, which spent a week after its arrival in an oak plantation). Mikri Milia and Paliostani were small, and 18 Battalion taxed their accommodation fully and would have overtaxed it but for the monastery. This fine building, in a lovely green valley half a mile north of Mikri Milia, had plenty of room for a company—two of them for a few days. Every rifle company except D had a turn living there. The Greek Orthodox monks evidently housed themselves pretty well. They purveyed excellent wine, and kept their guests supplied with fresh vegetables, which was very good, as since leaving Hymettus the battalion had subsisted mainly on bully and biscuits, and not always much of those.
Up here on the ridge the food situation improved, as the local people nearly always had a few eggs or a loaf of fresh brown bread to exchange for a tin of bully or a few empty petrol tins, which for some reason were much sought after. It was even possible sometimes to buy a chicken or a lamb. For a little more variety many of the men visited Kolindros, a good-sized town on the next ridge north, where there were shops and cafæs, and they could get something to eat and some wine with it. So the short rations didn't worry them too much. Far worse was a tobacco shortage, which caused real hardship to some.
The weather favoured the work. In the first few days there were some light skiffs of snow, but spring seemed to be well on the way, and most days were bright and sunny. The nights were freezing—it must be confessed that 18 Battalion was caught on the hop by the bitter mountain frosts, and many men spent sleepless nights, numb with cold, before extra clothes and blankets were organised. But the battalion was in excellent fettle, and wasn't going to let a little bit of cold deter it. So the work went on, while over the heads of the unheeding page 82 Kiwis far-reaching decisions affecting their future were made.
The original idea had been for the Division's ten-mile front to be held by 4 Brigade on the right and 6 Brigade on the left. This would have strained its resources, but the line could have been made reasonably strong. But now came a bombshell. Nineteenth Greek Division (on the coast) was to move forward to operate north of the Aliakmon. And the only troops readily available to take its place in the line were 6 Brigade.
This was a blow for General Freyberg—at a stroke his sector almost doubled. While before this the Division might have had a chance of holding its line, it would be impossible now. The line would be so thin, with such wide gaps, that the Germans would be able to get through it almost anywhere they chose. So Freyberg thought, and so he told General Wilson, commander of the British forces. The best solution, he suggested, would be to abandon the Aliakmon line and pull back to the higher, steeper country of the Olympus Pass.
General Wilson, unhappily, couldn't agree, as he was working hard for Yugoslav co-operation against the Germans, and so it was still essential to hold a line to the Yugoslav border. Priority could be given, he said, to work on the Olympus Pass line, but the New Zealand Division must stay in the Aliakmon line. So the preparations on the Mikri Milia ridge went on. Eighteenth Battalion, in happy ignorance that its work would probably be useless, toiled on, the companies outdoing each other to perfect their positions. Every few days the companies changed places, to get to know the topography of the whole ridge.
It was here that the battalion got its first issue of a new weapon, the Thompson sub-machine gun, already famous in underworld legends from America, given now to the New Zealanders at the rate of one to every rifle section. Its reception was a bit mixed at first, the ‘old school’ regarding it with suspicion, the less responsible as something to skylark with. It was in Crete, two months later, that the battalion learnt the value of the ‘Tommy gun’ as a close-range weapon; from then on its popularity never waned, and the man was lucky who could acquire one. The Bren and Tommy guns together made up the chief fire power of a section, and a good heavy fire power it was.page 83
Since 21 March 20 Battalion had been up on 18 Battalion's left, the two units separated by an unmanned gap of two miles. It was no better on the other side—after the change in plans 25 Battalion of 6 Brigade came up on 18 Battalion's right, but its nearest troops were over a mile along the ridge from the battalion's flank. The gap on the left was 20 Battalion's responsibility. That on the right was 18 Battalion's, so from 30 March the carrier platoon sent out daily patrols along the track to 25 Battalion, and from 1 April the right-hand company sent a permanent standing patrol of a platoon out along the ridge to narrow the gap. Of these two the carrier patrol had much the better time. Its official beat was only as far as 25 Battalion, but actually the carriers roamed much farther afield and explored nooks and corners of the countryside unknown to the ordinary infantryman.
While all this was going on up front, the transport was busy carting gravel for various roading jobs all over the place. When off duty it was parked in a very nice spot near Katerini, with a stream running through the area, and plenty of trees. Its trucks were causing some headaches—the bad Greek roads, acting on a congenital weakness in the steering box, were making them crack up, and already several had had their steering replaced. This particular model hadn't really been a happy choice for tough work.
By 6 April 18 Battalion had its positions wired, had cleared fields of fire through the scrub, and was as ready as it could ever have been under the unfavourable conditions. It hadn't been easy. All the wire and sandbags, food, ammunition and other necessaries had been manhandled up. The battalion would have been in a bad position if it had been attacked during that fortnight, especially as until early April it was away up there on its own. Not till 3 April did it get any supporting artillery; then a New Zealand battery came along and dug in a mile and a half to the rear. About the same time two two-pounder anti-tank guns came up and were put in position covering the approaches to Mikri Milia.
Then, on 6 April 1941, Germany declared war on Greece and Yugoslavia, and her troops gatecrashed the Bulgarian frontier and moved swiftly and irresistibly on to Salonika. On 8 April 18 Battalion, from its grandstand seat, could hear page 84 demolitions and see fires in the city. From Salonika the Germans headed round the coast and down, straight at the New Zealanders, while another column moved down the Monastir Gap on to the Aliakmon line's flank. Within two days it became obvious to General Wilson that his Yugoslav gamble had failed—its resistance was weak and quickly collapsed. So on 8 April he abandoned the now useless Aliakmon line and ordered his forces back to the line of the mountain passes behind.
Even at this eleventh hour this move saved the New Zealand Division—as General Freyberg said, if it had been forced to fight on the Aliakmon line it would have been rounded up with all its equipment, and the history it was to make over the next four years wouldn't have been made. But to the men in the rifle companies, who didn't realise what danger was being averted, the withdrawal was a smack in the eye. Prudence, and the need to yield before overwhelming force, seemed to them like cowardice, so eager were they to try their strength against these invincible Germans.
The withdrawal order was only just in time, and the move back became a scramble. The toil of the last fortnight went for nothing; the units couldn't even stop now to recover the wire and sandbags they had so laboriously built into the Aliakmon positions. Brigadier Puttick1 gave his orders verbally late on the afternoon of 8 April, while the men were still putting the final polish on the ridge defences—18 Battalion was to get out before daylight next morning, join the rest of 4 Brigade at an assembly area north of Katerini, and move back through the Olympus Pass (now manned by 5 Brigade). Before daylight next morning! That was short notice indeed.
The battalion sprang into action. The trucks were ordered up to Mikri Milia, and spent the evening loading up all the gear they could as it was brought in from the outlying positions. There wasn't room for all of it—some ammunition and some of the less essential gear had to be left behind, most of it destroyed on orders from Lieutenant-Colonel Gray. As much petrol as possible was crammed on the trucks. The page 85 RQMS, for the first time in history, opened up his ration store to all comers; food was packed into any spare corners of the trucks, and the men took as much as they could, along with their own equipment, rifles and tools, and one Bren gun to each platoon in case German planes came round. Everybody was loaded to capacity.
By midnight the battalion was ready to go. A few hours' sleep, and then it was 3 a.m., time to be up and going.The companies assembled just outside Mikri Milia, where the monastery track turned off, and at four o'clock set out back through Palionellini and down the track towards Katerini. In a glum silence the men sloshed through the mud, the same mud that they had traversed with such confidence a fortnight before. The withdrawal was a bitter dose to swallow. The only comfort was that at that hour of night their friends the Greeks weren't around to see them go.
The transport didn't leave Mikri Milia until 7 a.m., as driving over those tracks in the dark was almost impossible. It rejoined the companies at the assembly area; the whole battalion dispersed, with 19 and 20 Battalions, and settled down to wait for the ASC trucks which were to take it whereever it was going. The men hadn't the faintest notion where that was to be, and for the time being they didn't much care.
After a long morning's wait the ASC arrived and the long brigade convoy moved off. Nature was obviously in sympathy with the general mood. It was dull and lowering as the convoy swung out to bypass Katerini, and the same all the way to the Olympus Pass, through 5 Brigade and the artillery positions; and later it began to rain, lashing, soaking rain that froze you through and through. For the drivers, peering through their misted-up windscreens, trying to keep an eye on the chap ahead and at the same time keep from sliding off the road, it was no worse than for the infantrymen, sitting squashed up in the back, getting colder and colder. Those unlucky enough to be in open trucks were soaked to the skin before very long.
Their destination was the tiny village of Lava, from which they were to move forward to a position at Servia and the Portas (Servia) Pass, blocking the road by which the Germans were approaching from the Monastir Gap. From Katerini to Servia is only 30 miles in a straight line; but the road, away page 86 down south-west over Olympus and then north again at an acute angle, is three times as long, so it was an all-day trip for 18 Battalion, especially as most of the New Zealand Division seemed to be on the move at the same time. The drivers had had a taste of it before, but for most of the passengers it was the first long trip over the celebrated Greek roads, through the gorges, round the precipices, zig-zagging up and down dizzy slopes, with barely room for two lanes of traffic, through mud and potholes, in the rain. Before long everyone was praying for journey's end.
But when journey's end arrived, it wasn't any better than the trip. Late that afternoon a drenched battalion was decanted from the trucks on to the roadside miles from anywhere, and told to make the best of a patch of mud which was its bivouac area for the night.
The men were still debussing when three big bombers, roaring at low level up the road, turned every heart upside down and caused a spontaneous scatter to what cover the roadside afforded. They were British planes, as it turned out. But a senior officer remarked that the lesson of cover from the air had obviously been well learnt—the men vanished in the flash of an eye, like rabbits down a burrow.
Never in 18 Battalion's history, before or afterwards, was there such a night as that. A night of cold driving rain and sleet, with no tents, and no cover except that offered by the odd tree trunk or fold in the ground. Most men could only spread groundsheets on the mud, lie there in their blankets and take it. The only lucky ones were the drivers, who had the cabs of their trucks to sleep in, and the carrier crews, who rigged up their canvas covers and kept fairly dry. The cooks, all honour to them, fought to get their burners going, and managed late in the evening to turn on tea and stew—the first hot food for twenty-four hours. But it was a wretched, sleepless night, and everyone was fed up next morning, and ready to express free opinions of the Army and life in general.
Early on 10 April the battalion got further orders—go forward over the hills and take up a position overlooking Servia and the road from the north. It would be 4 Brigade's right-hand unit, with 19 Battalion on its left, and on its right the high, almost trackless Pierian Mountains, with no friendly troops nearer than the Olympus Pass.page 87
Within an hour of getting the orders the troops were on the move, with their soaked gear on their backs, trudging in single file up a bridle track away from the road. The country was rugged, rocky and treeless, a dismal contrast to the cultivation farther east. At the village of Lava, a mile and a half off the road, they dropped Rear Battalion Headquarters, the cooks and other odds and ends; then the companies split up, B and C following one steep, slippery track, while A, D and Battalion Headquarters took another one farther to the right, over the shoulder of a hill and down the far side to the village of Kastania.
From Lava to the forward line was only a mile and a half, but the scramble over the tracks, up wild ravines and across slopes of loose shingle, took a good two hours. The men were tired and wet to begin with, and when they reached their positions, weighed down under weapons, equipment and personal gear, they were reeling with fatigue.
If the view from Mikri Milia had been splendid, that from the Servia position was breathtaking, if 18 Battalion had had any breath left to take. Kastania crowned a precipitous hillside dropping 1500 feet to Servia and the Aliakmon valley. The sun breaking through the rain clouds showed the Aliakmon winding eastwards three miles off, and beyond it knobbly hills, with the road twisting away north among them. Somewhere along that road the Germans were coming, with only a weak detachment of Aussies and New Zealanders ahead to hold them up. This detachment, 18 Battalion was told, would withdraw through the Servia positions, and then it would be their turn.
Servia was a wonderful defensive position. The only road from northern Greece crossed the Aliakmon there; for six miles east and west of the town the southern wall of the Aliakmon valley rose almost vertically, cut only by the pass west of Servia, where the road wound up the hill. From the top the road carried on for five miles through an open valley (this was where 18 Battalion had spent the night), closed at the south end by two steep peaks. Fourth Brigade, holding the cliff top, would be well placed to see off any attack.
Lieutenant-Colonel Gray set up his headquarters at Kastania. B and C Companies went a mile or so ahead of Kastania, down the forward slope—C Company, perched on the cliff page 88 immediately overlooking Servia, had the left flank, and also pride of place nearest the enemy. Both companies had wide fronts, and their platoons were sited on the spurs, some of them separated by deep clefts. C Company's left platoon (14 Platoon, under Lieutenant Pyatt2) shared a prominent height with 19 Battalion's right-hand platoon, but was cut off from the rest of 18 Battalion by a deep ragged gash in the hill, and could be reached only after a 45-minute scramble from Company Headquarters.
Farther east were A Company (on B Company's right rear just north of Kastania) and D on the right flank, a little farther back still, high up a bald mountainside, with some of its posts above the snowline. The snow was dry and powdery, and not unpleasant, but what the men found very awkward was that fresh snow fell nearly every night, blotting out the tracks by which supplies were carried up after dark.
Weary as the men were when they reached their positions, they had no rest that day. They dumped their loads, then immediately turned round and crawled back to Lava again for a hot meal and another load of gear. The second trip forward was a killer. Only those who actually trod the Lava-Kastania tracks will ever fully realise their endlessness, the aching lungs and leaden feet, the mighty relief when you reached the position and threw your load down before collapsing on top of it. The loth April was only the beginning of the ordeal.
After unloading, most of the transport went back from Lava to a brigade park some miles back. Cookshops and a few other essential vehicles stayed at Lava, dispersed in the shelter of stone huts and walls. The carriers went down into the Aliakmon valley and camped on the outskirts of Servia to act as outposts and keep an eye out for paratroops. The signallers ran out telephone cable from Battalion Headquarters to the companies, but not to the platoons, which had to rely on runners for their communications. The isolated 14 Platoon had a signal lamp to pass messages to C Company headquarters—the number of times this method was used throughout the whole war must have been few.page 89
Once more 18 Battalion settled down to make its position as strong as possible in the time available. The companies dug themselves into the rocky slopes, and camouflaged the posts as well as they could with stones and scrub. Camouflage, both from the ground and air, was a most particular item of their orders. No more indiscriminate firing at planes—the men were to lie still, very still indeed, unless the planes had obviously seen them. They didn't like this restriction, but before long they were to discover its good sense.page 90
For the same reason unnecessary movement in daylight was forbidden. After 10 April all supplies—food, ammunition, wire, sandbags—were hauled up to the forward positions at night by carrying parties from Lava, helped by a few conscripted local donkeys. Breakfast and dinner became nocturnal meals, eaten in haste with your loins girded. For lunch you took away some bully and biscuits to eat at leisure in your barn or dugout.
The unit would have been hard put to it to keep the supplies up had it not been for the ‘donks’. Acquired first on 10 April to carry gear up the steep slopes from Servia to the forward positions, they were later organised into trains which operated forward from Lava, and literally took a great weight off the shoulders of the nightly carrying parties. Some of them had owner-drivers who entered 18 Battalion's employ for a wage of bully and biscuits; the ownership of others was shrouded in mystery, and best not inquired into. For a week they served the 18th well, and when the battalion left Servia their final duty was to bring out some of the heavier gear, which otherwise would have been left behind.
There was one battery of New Zealand guns supporting the battalion—29 Battery of 6 Field Regiment, the same one that had been behind the 18th at Mikri Milia. It had pulled out from there the evening before the infantry, came straight to Lava, and laboriously hauled its guns into position behind the town on that fearfully wet evening of 9 April. The battalion's own mortars were placed behind the crest of the hill, just above Lava. The anti-aircraft Brens were dug in round Lava to give what protection they could to Rear HQ and the artillery. The 18th had no anti-tank guns this time, as there was no chance of tanks getting up that precipice.
Things soon began to liven up. The scratch force ahead of 4 Brigade took a terrific hammering from the Germans, and from 11 April Aussies and Greeks began arriving back at Servia in disorder, some without arms, units mixed up and tangled with swarms of civilian refugees. For 4 Brigade this was a disheartening sight, for who was left now to stop the German Juggernaut? Just as disheartening was the mournful stream of refugees from Servia and farther north, women and children mostly, carrying on their backs as much of their page 91 possessions as they could. Some climbed the hill in 18 Battalion's area and sought shelter in caves; others plodded on back through the lines and were lost to sight. The Kiwis, while desperately sorry for these people, at the same time eyed them askance, for what would be easier than for a few Fifth Columnists to slip through with them? There were already strong rumours that the countryside was full of spies.
The refugees also brought back news of the German advance, the first news that the men in the companies had—the Germans were 20 miles away—ten miles—they were close behind. The battalion speeded up its digging, and metaphorically spat on its hands and tensed itself for the onslaught. The carriers were recalled from Servia to Lava after a couple of days; the valley was so swarming with people that they couldn't have done much against paratroops. They came back in a snowstorm that blinded everyone that evening and left a coating of white on the ground next day.
This snow, and the rain before it, following so closely on the long dry period in Egypt, had one unfortunate effect—a lot of boots disintegrated. The Q staff, luckily, had built up a reserve of several sacks of boots, not only enough to see 18 Battalion through the emergency, but also to give some help to 20 Battalion, which was not so fortunately placed.
On 11 and 12 April, while the fugitive stream was at its height, 18 Battalion could see and hear bombing away to the north, and gradually getting nearer. The 13th (Easter Day) brought the war at last, quite suddenly, right to the battalion's doorstep.3page 92
It happened early in the afternoon. A little earlier a couple of enemy reconnaissance planes had flown overhead without attracting more than brief attention. Now, suddenly, the sky directly above the battalion was split by a mighty roar, and down swooped a long file of planes.
This was the men's first personal acquaintance with the Luftwaffe, and it was anything but admiration at first sight. Low over B and C Companies they swooped, with a snarl that turned every heart upside down—‘We were sure they had us’, commented one man. But they didn't go for 18 Battalion. They dived over the brow of the hill one after the other, vertically downward it seemed, and sent their bombs crashing into Servia, which disappeared in smoke and dust. The battalion's forward companies couldn't have had a better view. They were not yet hardened to death and destruction; Servia's agony horrified but fascinated them. It was over in a minute or two. The planes made off, and the smoke cleared over Servia, revealing jagged ruins where the bombs had hit, and here and there fires burning.
Events moved fast for the rest of the afternoon. Barely an hour after the raid the Aliakmon bridge beyond Servia went up with a roar, the first indication 18 Battalion's forward troops had that they were now in the front line, with no protection between them and the enemy. A little later word was passed down that digging in daylight was to stop, as the Germans were expected very soon and the positions would be in full view. Late in the afternoon the first shells of the Servia battle whistled overhead as the artillery began to register targets beyond the river.
About teatime the planes arrived again, as suddenly as before, and gave Servia another pasting. This time, to 18 Battalion's surprise, they were greeted by anti-aircraft fire from the rear, an unheard-of thing. This heart-warming support continued next day (14 April), but then fell silent, to everyone's disgust. Later the men heard through the grapevine of a Yugoslav anti-aircraft troop which had come in among the New Zealand field guns near Lava, but after only a day's firing had run out of ammunition. It would have relieved a sore need later on.page 93
From daylight on 14 April every eye was strained northwards, towards the road that twisted away among the hills. There wasn't long to wait. Quite early in the day, away in the distance beyond the river, appeared a line of dots, which as they advanced took the unmistakable shape of troop-carrying trucks, with tanks following. Behind the leaders came more and more. This was no mere patrol or advance guard—this, as an 18 Battalion man said, looked like the whole bloody German army arriving at once, arriving in a confident, unhurried way, almost as if they were on a picnic. About 10 a.m. a car came down the road towards the river; it stopped, and the occupants got out, but a salvo of New Zealand shells made them hop back in and drive away smartly. The battle was on.
For the rest of the day the forward troops had nothing to do but sit and watch, though the Germans were still so far away that few details could be picked up. About 2 p.m. a column of trucks came forward nearly to the river, where men debussed from them and began to move forward to the river bank. Despite the New Zealand artillery, which sent shell after shell in among them, the Germans reached the river and set about erecting a pontoon bridge. They certainly were no cowards. All afternoon, under shellfire, they battled to get their bridge across the river; but by nightfall they hadn't managed it. Everyone knew, however, that in the darkness they would cross. The night was a restless, alert one, with everybody on the jump.
The weight of the German air raids on 14 April was directed at the artillery. For the time being the Germans weren't interested in the New Zealand infantry, or perhaps hadn't discovered exactly where their positions were; but they did their best to prevent that annoying shellfire from interfering with their bridging. During the day there were several bombing and strafing raids on the guns. Eighteenth Battalion, obedient to orders, lay doggo and refrained from firing at the planes, except for the ‘ack-ack’ platoon and the carriers, which were uncomfortably close to the guns. They opened up with their Brens and gave the raiders as hot a time as they could. It took all the guts you had to stick to your gun and keep on firing when a dirty big black plane was diving right at you, page 94 with its guns belting away. That evening, too, the German artillery opened up for the first time, also firing at the guns, and the battalion was under its first artillery duel. Some stray shells fell in C Company's neighbourhood, cutting the company's telephone line.
These raids on 14 April, 18 Battalion thought, were bad enough. But from a very early hour next day it became obvious that they ‘hadn't seen nothing yet’. As soon as it grew light the German planes were over in swarms—‘the sky seemed full of them’, said one man. They bombed, they strafed; sometimes they dived vertically with an unnerving scream, which added to the horror and the strain on the nerves until the men realised that it was only noise, and didn't make the planes any more lethal. They were lethal enough anyhow. Now that the Yugoslav ack-ack guns had folded up they grew more daring and came down low, unhindered except by Bren fire. Lava, the artillery and the main road all caught it. Not a single British plane put in an appearance, which was bewildering and depressing.
The shelling persisted on 15 April. The New Zealand artillery was under constant fire, which meant that the Bren carriers got their share. During the day the first shells fell on Lava, and 18 Battalion lost its first man killed in action, Private Claude Finch4 of the transport platoon. Of the forward troops, only 14 Platoon on the extreme left had any shelling.
During the night of 14–15 April a strong German force crossed the Aliakmon and moved up towards the New Zealand positions. The first attack, unexpectedly, fell on 19 Battalion, which trapped two companies of German infantry and captured them complete. Eighteenth Battalion, sitting on its ridge top, heard the firing over to its left, but didn't know till later what had happened, although C Company's forward posts got in a few cracks at odd parties of Jerries moving round on their front. There was nothing more to be seen straight down below, though all eyes were glued to the valley floor for signs of the enemy.
Late in the morning he reappeared. There was a lot of movement at the Aliakmon crossing, too far off for 18 page 95 Battalion's weapons, and in a little while groups of infantry came in sight, advancing among the trees, heading for Servia. As they came within range the battalion's mortars opened fire, and a little later, as the enemy approached Servia, B and C Companies went into action. It was ideal shooting, and quite a number of Germans dropped, but they kept on steadily, taking full advantage of the cover in the valley. About midday the first of them entered Servia itself. Early in the afternoon they got machine guns into position in Servia, and some of B Company's posts came under fire.
The rest of the day was quite lively, both sides keeping up a steady fire with machine guns and rifles. Throughout the war there were to be few occasions when the battalion had such perfect conditions for sniping. For the moment it had every advantage of ground and cover, and it used them to the full. The Germans pouring across the valley towards Servia were harassed all the way with bullets and mortar bombs; the mortars in particular did good work, engaged the Jerries in Servia and kept their fire down. At nightfall, when activity slackened off, the honours were definitely with 18 Battalion, which had done considerable damage to the enemy with only one casualty of its own.
This man, Private Rex Slade,5 was wounded on patrol down in the valley that afternoon. As the Germans approached Servia, CSM McCormack6 of B Company got together a scratch patrol of half a dozen men, scrambled down the hill and went as far as the outskirts of Servia, where they shot up the Germans at close range. Such a foray could depend only on surprise, and couldn't last long. The patrol didn't wait to be overwhelmed by numbers, but hit as hard as it could and then withdrew uphill followed by German machine-gun fire.
At nightfall, then, activity on the front died down. But not altogether. Both sides were jumpy and apt to put up flares and open fire at the least noise. A few more bold spirits from the battalion went snooping about the valley floor; Lieutenant Pyatt went as far forward as the river, but saw nothing except page 96 some guns going into position. The artillery duel, though it slackened off, didn't die out entirely—from time to time a few harassing shells went over in both directions. The tension in the forward posts was increased by rumours that Jerry patrols had climbed the cliff and were in the area. The rumours were groundless, but their effect was that carrying parties, or other groups of men moving about 18 Battalion's lines, had to make themselves known very clearly and promptly when approaching a position. Everyone was glad to see daylight again.
The 18th had some cause for pleasure, too, as 16 April was a day of heavy fog and drizzle. A strange thing to rejoice at, perhaps, especially as the tracks in the area were pools of deep mud in places, but it gave the men a day's blessed freedom from air attack. It was a quiet day except for spasms of shellfire on Lava, the guns and C Company.
But again events were moving on a high level, and the battalion's stand at Servia was to be cut short. The Germans didn't look like making any headway there—4 Brigade was full of confidence that it could hold off the whole Jerry army if need be—but elsewhere it was different. The line of the mountain passes was to be abandoned, and the whole Allied force pulled back.
1 Lt-Gen Sir Edward Puttick, KCB, DSO and bar, m.i.d., MC (Gk), Legion of Merit (US); Wellington; born Timaru, 26 Jun 1890; Regular soldier; NZ Rifle Bde 1914-19 (CO 3 Bn); comd 4 Bde Jan 1940-Aug 1941; 2 NZ Div (Crete) 29 Apr-27 May 1941; CGS and GOC NZ Military Forces, Aug 1941-Dec 1945.
|CO: Lt-Col J. R. Gray||9 PI: Lt R. G. Parkinson|
|2 i/c: Maj M. de R. Petrie||OC B Coy: Maj W. H. Evans|
|Adjt: Capt N. B. Smith||2 i/c B Coy: vacant|
|QM: Lt S. N. S. Crump||10 PI: 2 Lt C. M. Coote|
|MO: Capt J. Dempsey||11 PI: Lt K. L. Brown|
|Padre: Rev. F. O. Dawson||12 PI: 2 Lt W. H. Ryan|
|IO: 2 Lt C. G. Gentil||OC C Coy: Maj R. J. Lynch|
|OC HQ Coy: Capt A. S. Playle||2 i/c C Coy: Lt H. M. Green|
|Signals: Lt D. H. St. C. Macdonald||13 PI: Sgt E. G. Shucksmith (acting)|
|AA: Lt J. R. McGruther||14 PI: Lt W. A. Pyatt|
|Mortars: 2 Lt E. F. Kent||15 PI: Lt J. E. Batty|
|Carriers: Lt J. K. Herdman||OC D Coy: Capt R. S. Sinclair|
|Pioneers: 2 Lt R. F. Lambie||2 i/c D Coy: 2 Lt D. L. Robinson|
|TO: 2 Lt O. B. Copeland||16 PI: Sgt C. O. McGruther (acting)|
|OC A Coy: Capt C. T. Kelleway||17 PI: 2 Lt J. C. Cullwick|
|2 i/c A Coy: Capt W. J. Lyon||18 PI: 2 Lt J. L. Harrison|
|7 PI: Lt R. McK. Evans||RSM: WO I G. R. Andrews|
|8 PI: Lt P. R. Pike|
6 WO II E. J. McCormack; born NZ 24 Jun 1918; miner; killed in action 25 May 1941.