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Episodes & Studies Volume 2

I: Panzer Attack in Greece

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I: Panzer Attack in Greece

Early in April 1941 the German 12th Army invaded Greece with ten divisions. In the north-west 40 Corps, commanded by General Stumme,1 swept almost unopposed through Yugoslavia in three days and broke through the British and Greek positions to threaten Kozani. In view of this unexpected success the Army Commander, Field Marshal List,2 decided to attack the Allied positions between Katerini and Florina with two corps. Forty Corps was to attack in the Edhessa-Florina area with three divisions; 18 Corps, which with 30 Corps had broken through the mountain passes to capture Salonika, was to attack between Katerini and Edhessa with four divisions. List proposed to rely on 40 Corps to turn the Allied position, and he directed 18 Corps to push through the Olympus Pass and also to move down the coast road and advance on Larisa through the Pinios Gorge, better known as the Vale of Tempe. Thus 18 Corps' task became one of pursuit, with the object of cutting off the Allied forces between Olympus and the Pindus Mountains.

The Allied force, chiefly 2 New Zealand Division and 6 Australian Division (grouped as Anzac Corps under General T. A. Blamey), and 1 (British) Armoured Brigade, together with the few ill-equipped Greek troops that could be spared from Greece's memorable struggle with Italy in Albania, was disposed under General Sir H. M. Wilson between Platamon on the coast and the uncertain flank of the Greek army at Lake Kastoria. Wilson decided on 13 April to withdraw all British troops to the Thermopylae line. The success of such a movement now depended on the defence of the narrow pass at Platamon between Olympus and the sea, and the subsequent defence of the Pinios Gorge. Should Larisa, an essential key-point where all important roads from the north converged, be taken by 18 Corps before the withdrawal was completed, List would succeed in his object of cutting off the Allied force. Wilson, at this stage, anticipated the greater threat from 40 Corps, and his rearguards were so disposed.

At Platamon 21 NZ Battalion, commanded by Lieutenant-Colonel N. L. Macky, had dug in with orders to defend the coastal pass until instructed to withdraw. Macky was told that the country ahead of him was quite unsuitable for tank movement, and that he need only expect infantry attacks. Supporting 21 Battalion were the four 25-pounders of A Troop 5 NZ Field Regiment, commanded by Lieutenant L. G. Williams, and a section of engineers from 19 NZ Army Troops Company, commanded by Lieutenant F. W. O. Jones.

Such was the situation when General Boehme,3 the ‘calm, deliberate, conscientious and thorough’ commander of 18 Corps, instructed 2 Panzer Division to capture Katerini and carry on the advance on both sides of Mount Olympus. The 6th Mountain Division was to close up on the high ground between Veroia and the Olympus Pass and was to be in a position to push forward towards Katerini, or to the area south of Servia, according to how the situation developed.

The 2nd Motor Cycle Battalion from 2 Panzer Division, reinforced with engineer, artillery and machine-gun detachments, was leading the way, and by the evening of 14 April had reached page 4 the north-east slopes of Mount Olympus. Reconnaissance elements pushed on towards Pandeleimon and had not gone far when they saw soldiers lounging in pits on the forward slopes of a flat-topped ridge. A ruined castle dominated the ridge where it ended abruptly at the sea. Judging by the casual attitude of the soldiers the patrol believed that its advance had not been observed, but soon guns opened up from behind the castle and prevented any movement. Then the guns, evidently attracted by the rest of 2 Motor Cycle Battalion moving up behind the patrol, increased their range and the patrol reported back.

The reconnaissance report, combined with the sound of demolitions that began at dusk and seemed to get farther and farther away, led to the conclusion that the British were occupying only the ridge near the castle and not the hills about it. The commander of 2 Motor Cycle Battalion decided to attack at first light next morning. Meanwhile General Veiel4 of 2 Panzer Division, still mostly to the north of Katerini, had formed two groups to carry out his task. One group, the main body of the division, was to force the Olympus Pass, while the other, the reinforced Motor Cycle Battalion, was to be joined by ⅓ Panzer Regiment (100 tanks), 11/304 Infantry Regiment (one battalion—not to go forward immediately), and two batteries of artillery. The coastal group was to be commanded by Colonel Balck, 3 Panzer Regiment, a hard, strong-willed man who later commanded an Army Group.

During the night of 14-15 April 2 Motor Cycle Battalion formed up to attack the castle, concentrating behind a ridge with the object of attacking the inland flank. Shelling from behind the castle, an irritated diarist says, ‘plagued us, front and rear, right and left… things were damned sour with us for a while’. In the morning, after a brief artillery bombardment, the battalion moved forward, making good progress until it reached the forward slopes of the castle ridge. Here a ‘murderous fire’ broke out, and the leading company suffered heavy casualties, including the company commander. The companies on the west flank found unexpected opposition, and a reconnaissance patrol was sent out to determine 21 Battalion's left flank. This patrol brought back the disconcerting information that the ridge was held as far inland as the village of Pandeleimon.

Colonel Balck arrived to take command at two o'clock in the afternoon. He found that the Motor Cycle Battalion had gone to ground in the tangled undergrowth, boulders and scrub on the forward slopes of castle ridge. Balck gave instructions for the battalion to be withdrawn and reformed. It was then to move out in a wide encircling movement to attack 21 Battalion from above Pandeleimon, while ⅓ Panzer Regiment attacked frontally at the coast. This regiment, commanded by Lieutenant-Colonel Decker,5 had been ordered up from north of Katerini that morning. The roads were crammed with traffic, but the tank battalion rushed up, ‘disregarding all obstacles in its path… a few other vehicles learnt by experience that their mud guards and radiators are not so hard as tanks’. The tanks reached Katerini at two-thirty in the afternoon and Platamon just before six o'clock.

Balck ordered the tanks to attack immediately. The whole of ⅓ Panzer Regiment pushed to within 1200 metres of the castle and deployed to support the unit's light platoon of five Mark II page 5 tanks. These advanced on the castle by a narrow cart track, the only means of approach. A terrific fire from rifles, machine guns, and mortars met the tanks, but it was evident that no anti-tank guns protected the castle. The rough country prevented the tanks from closing in, although one tank almost reached a weapon pit. All five of the Mark IIs shed their tracks on boulders and were abandoned under cover of darkness. The regiment suffered no casualties during this attack.

Meanwhile, 2 Motor Cycle Battalion had been attacking C Company 21 Battalion at Pandeleimon. Three of the four companies attacked, as the fourth company had been pinned down in front of the castle until after dark when trying to disengage earlier in the afternoon. One company swung well round over country that was ‘terribly difficult, mountainous and pathless, with slopes of 700 metres to surmount’, and reached Skotina. By some error the two companies attacking frontally made contact before the outflanking company had got into place, and although some positions were siezed at great cost, they were all lost during a sharp counter-attack. The Motor Cycle Battalion called the attack off until dawn next morning, but remained in position close to Pandeleimon. Colonel Balck, after the failure of both tank and infantry attacks, reported to 2 Panzer Division:

The fight for the castle began at nightfall. End not yet in sight. Very fierce resistance, and terrible country.

In the meantime General Boehme had issued a Corps order stating that 2 Panzer Division's main effort was now to be between Olympus and the sea, with Larisa as its objective. The 6th Mountain Division was to assist by capturing the northern foothills of Olympus west of Pandeleimon, and should 2 Panzer Division be further delayed at Platamon, was to move through the mountains to Gonnos to attack the Platamon and Pinios positions from the rear. A special patrol from 6 Mountain Division was to climb Mount Olympus with the German flag—the swastika would pay homage to Zeus.

Elements from 8/800 Brandenburg Regiment, a special unit largely recruited from Germans familiar with foreign countries to undertake intelligence or sabotage tasks, were to outflank the Platamon position by sea in one motor boat and three assault boats. The force was to sail up the Pinios to capture the traffic bridge.6

That night, 15-16 April, 2 Panzer Division sent up reinforcements—1/304 Infantry Regiment and more engineers and artillery. The Germans now had 100 tanks, one battalion of infantry (1026 men), the reinforced Motor Cycle Battalion (more than 1050 men), 1/74 Artillery Regiment (twelve 105-millimetre and four 150-millimetre guns), and other artillery and specialist units. These opposed 21 Battalion, one troop of 25-pounders and one section of engineers, a total of little more than 700 men. So effective had been the fire from the four 25-pounders that 2 Panzer Division estimated that from two to three troops (8-12 guns) were in support of the castle position.

Balck decided to attack again from front and flank. The 2nd Motor Cycle Battalion was to re-attack Pandeleimon, supported this time by 1/304 Infantry Regiment; ⅓ Panzer Regiment, with one company of infantry under command, was to attack frontally; the artillery was to fire a preliminary bombardment and would then give close support. To Balck's annoyance contact was lost during the night between tanks, infantry and motor cyclists, and it was not possible to synchronise the attack.

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At nine o'clock in the morning of the 16th, following a deception attack at first light, the bombardment started against the castle and surrounding field positions. On the flank the Motor Cycle Battalion attacked with one company moving up behind Pandeleimon, the other three on front and flank. After a very bitter struggle with little success the appearance of 1/304 Infantry Regiment coming up to give support turned the tide, and Pandeleimon was captured with all field positions in the area. Success gave the opportunity to move down the ridge along a good track to roll up the rest of 21 Battalion.

The tanks had been accompanied by engineers to help force a passage, and their story is well told by a participant:

The right-hand company of tanks forced its way forward through scrub and over rocks, and in spite of the steepness of the hillsides got to the top of the ridge. The country was a mass of wire obstacles and swarming with the enemy. In the thick scrub visibility was scarcely a yard from the tanks, and hardly a trace was to be seen of the enemy except an occasional infantryman running back. The tanks pressed forward along a narrow mule path. Many of them shed their tracks on the boulders, or split their track assemblies, and finally the leading troop ran on to mines … and completely blocked the path. A detour was attempted. Two more tanks stuck in a swamp and another was blown up on a mine….

Colonel Macky withdrew his battalion a few minutes before ten o'clock, and Balck signalled to 2 Panzer Division that the castle had been captured at five past ten; he said that his forward units had suffered 25 per cent casualties. The 21st Battalion got clean away, crossed the Pinios River, and by nightfall reached the village of Tempe at the western end of the gorge; its casualties had been light—36 killed, wounded and missing.

The Germans tried to press the pursuit, but immediate advance was impossible as the tanks could not get down the castle ridge. The infantry, badly mauled, needed reorganising. The tunnel through which the railway passed the castle ridge almost at the edge of the sea had been so thoroughly blown that the engineers estimated it would take five days to clear. Actually temporary repairs were effected sooner, but as late as 20 April engineers reported that the tunnel kept falling in and no set time could be given for repairs. One company of tanks tried to get forward along the edge of the sea but found this impossible. In the end the tanks were towed over the ridge, such a slow process that only 25-30 tanks had been got across by eleven o'clock next day.

On 17 April 21 Battalion was joined by 16 Australian Brigade Group, for General Wilson had now realised the danger to his right flank. Brigadier A. S. Allen, who took command with the task of barring the way to Larisa, deployed his force—three battalions including 21 Battalion —east and west of Tempe village on the south side of the river. The Germans carried on with their plans for getting through to Larisa in time to cut off the British troops: Balck was to push through the Pinios Gorge, and was further reinforced with 11/304 Infantry Regiment; 6 Mountain Division, in view of the delays imposed on 2 Panzer Division, was to march through the mountains to Gonnos.

Balck's troops got away from a bad start:

The coast road was a quagmire as a result of the heavy rains, and was impassable. The tunnel could not be repaired…. Tanks were moving forward … but all petrol for them had to be manhandled up. Ground heavily mined … 149 wounded in hospital at Katerini and a large number more still with the forward troops….

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It was midday before the forward troops reached the Pinios at the east end of the gorge, followed by the first of the tanks which had bumped down the coast from Platamon on the railway track. The walls of the gorge rose steeply on both sides of the Pinios River. On the south side the road wound and twisted just above the riverbed, while on the north side the railway line clung to the narrow river bank. The reconnaissance squadron of 6 Mountain Division, which had moved down to the mouth of the Gorge from the hills while the rest of the division carried on to Gonnos, had already found that the bridges and ferry had been demolished and that the railway line was effectively blocked about half-way up the gorge. The squadron had met such a hail of machine- gun fire from the south bank that it had not been able to get beyond this demolition.

Balck took the squadron under command and ordered it to press on along the northern bank. The tanks were ordered into the gorge, but found that the demolitions on the railway line had been so thorough that not even the engineers could promise an immediate passage. Two officers looked for a ford over the river so that the tanks could use the road on the south bank, and by swimming and wading found a passable spot.

A Mark II tank drove determinedly down the high, steep embankment into the water. It struggled through the water like a walrus, with nothing showing except its turret … the driver … was sitting up to his middle in water and the waves completely prevented him from seeing anything. Finally the tank clambered out on the other side, amid loud cheers from the spectators … now the leading five tanks crossed the river one after the other. Two missed the track and sank helplessly….

By nightfall only four tanks had crossed the river. Three of these were bogged in a swamp while trying to get round a demolition in the road, and the decision was made to halt for the night. Nothing had been seen of the British positions, but patrols found to their cost that the demolitions were covered by machine-gun fire. The Germans soon found, too, that the gorge was within range of British artillery, for scarcely had they—

… bedded down when there was a whistling through the air … everybody jumped for cover behind, under, and in the tanks…. The detonations echoed viciously, we thought the enemy was shelling us with super-heavy guns. More and more accurately did the shells fall… repeated almost hourly until morning … there were dead and wounded on both sides of the Pinios.

On the morning of the 18th one company from 11/304 Infantry Regiment crossed the river on kapoc floats and was immediately put to work filling in the demolition that prevented the tanks from advancing along the road to Tempe. Patrols from 8/800 Brandenburg Regiment and a platoon from this company then attacked along the road, supported by the six tanks now across the river. The squadron from 6 Mountain Division worked along the north bank. It was approximately midday, and by this time troops from 6 Mountain Division, which had, unopposed, crossed the tortuous mountain paths of Olympus to Gonnos, had forced a crossing west of and behind 21 Battalion. The 3rd Panzer Regiment burst through the mouth of the gorge at Tempe and joined forces with 6 Mountain Division, completely cutting off 21 Battalion. Apart from delaying actions by the rest of Brigadier Allen's force, the battle for the Pinios Gorge was over.

Largely because of 21 Battalion's resistance between the night of the 14th and the late morning of the 16th, and the subsequent delays imposed by the skilful demolitions behind Platamon and in the Pinios Gorge—the responsibility of sapper Lieutenant Jones—Wilson's force was through page 8 Larisa by the time the Germans arrived early on 19 April. Seldom in war, however, were tanks forced through such difficult country, or had foot soldiers, already with over 500 kilometres' marching behind them, pushed forward so rapidly under such punishing conditions; it was a record of which any soldier could be proud. That 21 Battalion, though finally broken and dispersed, had thwarted these determined soldiers was a feat not surpassed by any British unit in Greece.

Sources: An essay on the Balkan campaign, by General von Greifenberg.
Mountain Troops in Greece and Crete, a German souvenir publication.
From Serbia to Crete, by a publicity company of the German Army, Athens, 1942.
12 Army and 18 Corps reports.
War diaries of 2 Panzer Division, with appended orders and reports, 3 Panzer Regiment, ⅓ Panzer Regiment, and 2 Motor Cycle Battalion.
War diary and reports from 6 Mountain Division.
Personal reports on German officers, German Military Documents Section, War Department, Washington.

1 Died of heart failure, Alamein, 24 October 1942.

2 Dismissed September 1942 because of a difference of opinion with Hitler over conduct of the Russian campaign; sentenced to life imprisonment in 1947 for war crimes in the Balkans.

3 Rose to Army Commander; committed suicide while awaiting trial as war criminal on charges of killing hostages in the Balkans.

4 Transferred to Reserve in 1945 and was to be discharged as ‘not enthusiastically in favour’ of National Socialism.

5 Awarded the Knight's Cross for the Pinios action. Described as a particularly dashing and versatile commander in mobile operations: a commander above average in every respect, unshakeably cool. Committed suicide May 1945 just before American forces overran his sector.

6 This operation could not be carried out owing to a heavy swell.