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To Greece

The Withdrawal Plans have to be Changed, 16 April

The Withdrawal Plans have to be Changed, 16 April

On 16 April the Higher Command was at last certain of the order in which the enemy now proposed to play his much superior cards. The encirclement which General Wilson had expected from the west via Grevena and Kalabaka was certainly developing, not because it was a major feature of the original plan but because the commander of 9 Panzer Division had made2 it quite clear to the commander of XXXX Corps that any frontal attack upon the escarpment above Servia ‘would be pointless.’ Consequently, when 59 Motor Cycle Battalion had linked up with the SS ‘Adolf HitlerDivision, it had been decided to rush 5 Panzer Division through the Siatista Pass to become, once the bridge south-east of Grevena had been repaired, the spearhead of an attack through Kalabaka and Larisa. At the same time the main body of SS ‘Adolf HitlerDivision, now in the Kastoria area, would be relieved by 73 Division and hurried south to advance via Grevena and Dheskati to Elasson, ‘with the object of getting behind the Servia positions and causing them to collapse.’3 The one point to the advantage of W Force was that both these encircling moves demanded time.

It was suddenly apparent, however, that the more dangerous page 230 threat to the security of W Force was the German attack1 on 21 Battalion above the Platamon tunnel. In the opinion of the Greeks, no strong attack could be developed in this wild country and their appreciation had been accepted by Wilson, Blamey and Freyberg. Attacks on 15 April and during the night of 15–16 April had been checked, but at nine o'clock next morning an encircling movement in conjunction with a frontal tank attack had forced the battalion to withdraw up the Pinios Gorge. Eighteenth Corps, with 2 Panzer Division along the coast and 6 Mountain Division on the slopes of Mount Olympus, was now threatening to break through to Larisa, the key town on the line of withdrawal.

The moment General Blamey had clear evidence of this threat he realised that 21 Battalion must be reinforced.2 In fact he had, at 1 a.m., already despatched his artillery commander, Brigadier C. A. Clowes, ‘to ascertain the position’ and ‘to direct the Battalion Commander as to his course of action.’ His direction was that the western end of the gorge must be held at all costs.

Variations in the plans of Anzac Corps were accordingly made late that night, 16–17 April. Sixteenth Australian Brigade,3 instead of going to Zarkos to cover the western approaches to Larisa, would now cover the western exit of the Pinios Gorge. Under the command of Brigadier A. S. Allen there would also be 21 New Zealand Battalion, 4 New Zealand Field Regiment (less one battery), one troop 7 New Zealand Anti-Tank Regiment and eleven carriers from 2/5 and 2/11 Australian Battalions.

In the withdrawal General Mackay of 6 Australian Division would be responsible for protecting the right and left flanks4 of the New Zealand Division until it passed through Larisa. After that he would control the withdrawal through Dhomokos to Thermopylae of Savige Force, Zarkos Force and finally of Lee Force. First Armoured Brigade would cover5 the withdrawal of Savige Force to Larisa and thereafter that of 6 Australian Division, under whose command it would then be. As Allen Force, like the New Zealand Division, was to withdraw through Volos, it would be controlled by General Freyberg. All engineers were placed under Corps control, with each force commander becoming responsible for demolitions on his section of the highway. If sufficient delay was imposed upon the enemy the following timetable was to be adopted: on the night of 17–18 April Savige Force would come page 231 back to Zarkos and 4 and 5 New Zealand Brigades would withdraw beyond Larisa; on the night of 18–19 April 6 Brigade would continue the withdrawal through Larisa. The subsequent withdrawal of Allen and Savige Forces would be decided by Generals Mackay and Freyberg.

The more detailed orders for the New Zealand Division had already been issued by General Freyberg. As the first step, 5 Brigade on the night of 16–17 April was to pull back to temporary positions on the crest of Olympus Pass. Duff Force with anti-tank guns, machine guns and the carrier platoons from 6 Brigade was to occupy defensive positions about the road junction at Elevtherokhorion. Next day the Divisional Cavalry Regiment, less one squadron to the west along the road to Dheskati, would take up a covering position just to the north of the road junction. The following night, 17–18 April, 4 and 5 Brigades would withdraw As 4 Brigade Group moved south, 26 Battalion would rejoin 6 Brigade in the Elasson area and 7 Medium Regiment, Royal Artillery, 6 New Zealand Field Regiment and 2/3 Australian Field Regiment would come under the command of the CRA New Zealand Division in support of 6 Brigade. The other units would turn off south-east at Iarisa and follow the Velestinon-Almiros road to the Molos area behind the Thermopylae line. The same night 5 Brigade Group would be taken to a staging area between Velestinon and Almiros. The transport would then return for 6 Brigade, the 4 Brigade transport returning to take 5 Brigade to the Molos area.

The Divisional Cavalry Regiment at Elevtherokhorion, 6 Brigade to the south at Elasson and 21 Battalion in the Pinios Gorge would hold on throughout 18 April. After darkness fell they would disengage and, with the Divisional Cavalry Regiment in the rear, move back to Thermopylae.

2 See p. 280.

3 SS ‘Adolf Hitler’ Division because of rain and demolitions, did not complete this move. On 19 April, when the forward battalions were beyond Milia, new operation orders were issued. ‘The enemy has abandoned the Servia positions under the influence of our flanking move, whose effect was beginning to be felt.’ The division was then ordered to advance south-west from Grevena towards Ioannina to prevent the main body of the Greek Army withdrawing south.

1 See pp. 2448.

2 21 Battalion was under the command of Anzac Corps, General Freyberg being occupied with the withdrawal of his brigades from the northern sectors.

3 Less 2/1 Battalion in divisional reserve.

4 In the event Allen Force came under the command of New Zealand Division and thus its right flank was protected.

5 See pp. 2323.