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2nd New Zealand Divisional Artillery

Desperate Fighting at Platamon

Desperate Fighting at Platamon

The Division now prepared to do battle on the Olympus line. At Platamon on the right 21 Battalion (Lieutenant-Colonel page 38 Macky11) and A Troop of the 5th Field under Lieutenant Williams12 had been led to expect only a light attack and perhaps none at all. The approach from the north was thought to be too difficult for a large force, though A Troop had used it without great difficulty. The guns were sited in Headquarters Company area, just south-east of the tunnel and the old Venetian fortress that capped the rock above it. Inland was the large village of Pandeleimon and to the north-west Skotina. Between them the infantry companies stretched in an arc up into the thickly wooded foothills of Mount Olympus. The OP was by the ruined fortress.

black and white map of military movement

21 battalion at platamon, 14–16 april 1941

The attack that developed was far stronger than anything that had been envisaged and stronger than 21 Battalion could expect to hold. The first sign of it was a little before 7 p.m. on 14 April, when the OP spotted a German patrol quite close to the tunnel. ‘How they managed to get so close without being seen by us or the infantry will always be a mystery’, says Lieutenant Paterson13 of A Troop. The guns at once opened fire and drove the enemy back out of sight among the olive trees below. Then A Troop engaged vehicles, with tanks apparently among them, which could now be seen farther off. ‘The men behaved very well and the drivers and spare men did extremely good work carrying ammunition’, Paterson adds. A German report mentions ‘heavy, accurate shell fire’ at this stage; but too much must not be read into this and similar reports, as the Germans were inclined to magnify the opposition so as to play up their own achievements when reporting to higher authority. There can be no denying, however, that the fire of A Troop was effective.

The Germans thought even next morning that the position was only lightly held. They therefore attacked with only a motor-cycle battalion and it was soon pinned down by infantry fire and by the guns. A Troop was busy. One shoot was conducted on targets that could only be seen by the infantry on the left flank, and an infantry officer corrected the fall of shot in rough-and-ready fashion, though to good effect. By the afternoon a tank battalion had reached the front and tried to attack; but the going was bad and it made slow progress. The page 39 guns harassed all movement below, including that of the tanks, and they were joined in this by the battalion mortars, anti-tank rifles and machine guns. At dusk, however, a medium troop or battery opened fire on the OP and guns, killing one gunner and wounding four others.14 A Troop returned this fire until shellbursts cut communications with the OP.

Defensive fire by night had been provided for and when enemy tanks passed through the ‘SOS night lines’, as they were called, A Troop brought down fire on the prearranged plan. Had the gunners been more certain that their targets were armoured they would have left the cap on their HE 117 fuses, thereby imposing a delay which, though very slight, would have made penetration of armour more likely. As it was they took the cap off; but even so the infantry reported next morning that several tanks and armoured cars had been put out of action. They caught the German force moving out towards the left flank and again when it returned.

A heavier attack started up soon after dawn on the 16th, above the tunnel and away to the left on the mountainside. A Troop was soon in difficulties. It was heavily outgunned and enemy tanks, mortars and artillery brought heavy fire to bear on the hill from which the OP was trying to operate, wreathing the ruined castle in smoke. Tanks came up the rough mule-track which ascended the hill, but several shed tracks or suffered other damage from the rocks, and others ran on to mines laid by the sappers (whose demolition of the tunnel itself had created less of an obstruction than had been hoped). Ammunition for the 25-pounders was running low and many tempting targets had to be neglected. Derelict tanks blocked the approach of others behind them; but the situation was deteriorating because of infiltration through the infantry positions and an outflanking movement on the left. In case the tanks did overcome their difficulties (there was in fact a mistaken report that they had broken through), the Gun Position Officer of A Troop (Paterson) reconnoitred emergency anti-tank positions for the guns. His communications with the OP were highly uncertain. The telephone line kept getting broken, the wireless was out of order, and the lamp station was shelled heavily. With little time to spare, Colonel Macky had ordered a general withdrawal through the Pinios Pass to the south—the Vale of Tempe of ancient times—and the OP party came racing back to the gun page 40 position, then under accurate shellfire. The enemy had reached the ruins and was clearing the anti-tank mines; but the going was too bad for immediate exploitation of this success. The guns came out under fire, but without harm: ‘every man behaved with great coolness’, Paterson remarks, ‘and there were no casualties’. Fortunately, although many enemy aircraft passed overhead, A Troop was not bombed.

The great surprise of the fighting at Platamon—apart from the size of the enemy force committed there—had been the skill and ingenuity of the German alpine troops in making their way through what had been considered practically impassable country and outflanking the defence, and this at once raised the problem of where to attempt to fight another rearguard action to hold them up. Though the Vale of Tempe itself was narrow and steep and might be defended against tanks, the alpine troops would surely work their way over the lower slopes of Mount Olympus to cut off the rearguard. The corps in which the New Zealand Division was fighting had been renamed Anzac Corps on 12 April—a sentimental gesture—and the Commander Corps Royal Artillery (CCRA), Brigadier C. A. Clowes, had come forward to see for himself how serious the situation was. Anzac Corps Headquarters was worried about the unexpectedly heavy pressure along the coast, which threatened to outflank the whole corps position. Clowes and Macky discussed the matter and decided to try to hold the western or upstream end of the Pinios Gorge.

The gunners meanwhile had to get their guns across the river. A bridge near the mouth had already been demolished and a pontoon that was the only alternative was too light to carry the guns, though it could take 15-cwt trucks. These were therefore ferried across and the guns manhandled through the river. The only road through the gorge ran along the southern bank and the light trucks towed the guns along it. The quads and gun-limbers and the Bren carriers could not get across either way and had to venture along the single-track railway, running five miles along the sleepers, through two tunnels, and over the railway bridge at Tempe at the other end of the gorge. This bridge was then demolished.

By the evening of 16 April 21 Battalion and A Troop were at Tempe and began to prepare a defence of the western end of the gorge. Clowes had pointed out how vital it was to hold up the enemy here until the 19th and steps had been taken to reinforce this rearguard; but the situation remained critical.

11 Lt-Col N. L. Macky, MC, m.i.d.; Auckland; born Auckland, 20 Feb 1891; barrister and solicitor; NZ Rifle Bde 1915–19 (Capt, 1918); CO 21 Bn Jan 1940-May 1941.

12 Maj L. G. Williams, m.i.d.; Upper Hutt; born Christchurch, 2 Jun 1909; draughtsman; wounded and p.w. 21 May 1941; repatriated 1943.

13 Capt N. Paterson; Auckland; born Dunedin, 27 May 1914; insurance agent.

14 Gnr A. K. Worthington killed and Gnrs W. T. Channings, R. L. Gaskin, R. Rennie and R. A. Wade wounded.