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2nd New Zealand Divisional Artillery

The Aliakmon Line

The Aliakmon Line

Brigadier Miles and his BM, in reconnoitring the allotted front, were soon aware of the dangers of a strategy which committed the small W Force to such a large task. The Division was to hold a front of 25,000 yards with 6 Brigade (7000 yards) on the right and 4 Brigade (18,000 yards) on the left, facing north. The ground was broken and heavily wooded and the front ran mostly along a crest line. A further extension of the page 26 line, moreover, was contemplated and the Division had also to make some provisions to defend three passes: the Olympus Pass, another between Mount Olympus and the sea, and a third overlooking Servia to the south-west. If the forward line broke these passes must be held.

black and white map of division sector

the aliakmon line
the new zealand division's sector, 5 april 1941

page 27

Adequate artillery coverage of even the forward line was quite beyond Miles's resources. He therefore had to make assumptions that he would not care to have tested: that certain parts of the front were more or less tank-proof, for example, and that counter-attack and shellfire could conceivably beat back penetrations between rather widely separated infantry positions. An elaborate scheme was designed to make the most of the available artillery. Calling regimental commanders forward, he outlined this to them; but before they could work out details and site their guns and observation posts, Miles was back at the Olympus Pass devising another scheme. He had little faith in the forward positions. The official New Zealand campaign history3 says that ‘too much reliance had been placed on the supposedly anti-tank nature of the country’; but the real trouble was that the front was too long and the guns too few.

Another trouble was the scarcity of lateral communications. To get from one part of the front to another involved long detours over primitive tracks, capable of carrying one-way traffic only. To cover the assembly of the Division on this line, the 4th Field dug in along the whole front, starting on the 29th. Regimental Headquarters moved to Sfendhami, a large village a mile or two back, and gun teams lived mostly under canvas. Within a day or two the 4th and 5th Field were grouped under the command of Lieutenant-Colonel Parkinson in support of 6 Brigade on the right, while the 6th Field supported 4 Brigade on the left. The Divisional Cavalry Regiment went forward to guard the crossings of the Aliakmon River, which flowed obliquely down from the north a few miles in front of the line. E Troop of the 5th Field and O Troop of the 7th Anti-Tank were sent forward to support this advanced guard. The 32nd and 33rd Batteries, plus B Troop, came under the command of Brigadier Barrowclough4 of 6 Brigade, the 31st (less B Troop) came under the command of Brigadier Puttick of 4 Brigade, while the 34th (less O Troop) joined Divisional Reserve.

These dispositions entailed much work in siting and digging in guns, constructing command and observation posts, laying page 28 telephone lines, planning and preparing alternative positions, and dumping ammunition on the scale of 150 rounds per field gun. Besides this, the gunners had to labour ceaselessly to keep the tracks open for traffic.

The main ridge gave fairly good observation and two OPs per field battery were sited, dug, camouflaged and equipped with cable and wireless communications. Each battery also maintained another OP in depth, connected by short lines with its command post, from which possible areas of enemy penetration between strongpoints might be observed and shelled. The view from high ground on the right of the line, across the Gulf of Salonika, was of breath-taking beauty; but the deficiencies of the line itself were only too evident to many officers and detracted from their enjoyment of the scene. A few days of warm weather with only occasional showers of rain allowed the gunners to complete their arrangements, and the defences of the front were co-ordinated and largely ready when Germany declared war on Yugoslavia and Greece in the night 5–6 April 1941. But neither gunners nor infantry were happy about the position.

4 Maj-Gen Rt. Hon. Sir Harold Barrowclough, PC, KCMG, CB, DSO and bar, MC, ED, m.i.d., MC (Gk), Legion of Merit (US), Croix de Guerre (Fr); Wellington; born Masterton, 23 Jun 1894; barrister and solicitor; NZ Rifle Bde 1915–19 (CO 4 Bn); comd 7 NZ Inf Bde in UK, 1940; 6 Bde, May 1940–Feb 1942; GOC 2 NZEF in Pacific and 3 NZ Div, Aug 1942–Oct 1944; Chief Justice of New Zealand, Nov 1953–Jan 1966.