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To Greece

15 April: The Situation becomes More Serious

15 April: The Situation becomes More Serious

The following day, 15 April, was one of disaster. Away to the north, the request of the Yugoslav Government for an armistice was to lead two days later to the official capitulation of that ally from whom so much resistance had been expected. The Army of Epirus was withdrawing with only slight interference from the Italians, but the Western Macedonian Army was already crumbling before the swiftly moving German armoured columns. In the mountains west of Florina the Greeks had not been strongly pressed, but farther south 20 Division, forced out of the Klisoura and Vlasti passes, was withdrawing across the Aliakmon River to the Neapolis area. In the Lake Kastoria area, where the Germans page 224 reported stubborn resistance, 13 Division and the Cavalry Division had held the towns of Argos Orestikon and Kastoria until late afternoon, but by nightfall the SS ‘Adolf Hitler’ Division had broken through to the Kastoria-Grevena road, thereby preventing any further withdrawals to the south. The two Greek divisions, together with 9 and 10 Divisions which had been falling back towards the west branch of the Aliakmon River, withdrew south-west to the Pindhos Mountains. And still farther south 12 Greek Division, which had retired from the Siatista Pass area, was assembling to the west of Grevena.

The day was also notable for a sudden increase in the number of air attacks. After the raid on the night of 6–7 April the bombing of Piræus harbour had continued ‘until the port was almost wholly disorganized’;1 the minor ports of Khalkis and Volos, being possible bases for W Force, had been bombed and magnetic mines had been laid across the Saronic Gulf. But the Royal Air Force had still been able to patrol the frontier and attack the German lines of communication, even though bad weather during 8–12 April had limited its activities, especially its invaluable reconnaissance flights. Now that the weather had cleared it was hopelessly outnumbered. German aircraft, transferred from Yugoslavia and operating from hastily prepared airstrips about Prilep and Monastir, were therefore able to begin that ‘widespread, continuous and intense’ strafing and bombing which was to continue throughout the campaign.

The Royal Air Force, now unassisted by a Greek observer system, was very hard hit. At dawn the Hurricanes at Larisa and the Blenheims at Niamata were badly damaged. The railway station at Larisa was bombed throughout the day, the civilian staff being so disturbed that the British were forced to provide crews to operate the trains. Air Vice-Marshal D'Albiac, who observed the raid on Larisa, promptly decided that the few remaining aircraft must be sent back to the Athens area even if it meant that W Force would have to operate with less protection from the air.

The result was particularly noticeable in the Greek sector. First Armoured Brigade had left2 the Grevena area before midnight on 14 April, but it was not until the evening of 15 April that it was across the Venetikos River, no more than 12 miles away. The gorge south of Grevena, the sharp ridges, the corkscrew bends and the narrow bridges had encouraged a paralysing congestion of traffic. At dawn, 15 April, ‘it was possible to see the road ahead packed with Greeks, Yugo-Slavs and British, military and civilians, motor, horse and ox transport, all intermingled, head to tail, and two lines

1 Cunningham, p. 340.

2 See pp. 21921.

page 225 deep wherever the road permitted it. An awful sight, made more dreadful by certainty that the arrival of the Luftwaffe would not be long delayed …. It was a clear, bright, sunny day and from about 0700 dive bombing and machine gunning attacks were continuous along the whole length of the road.’1 When the two troops from the New Zealand Divisional Cavalry caught up with 1 Armoured Brigade they found the road ‘a shambles of destroyed vehicles, bomb craters and all sorts of equipment.’2

By 5 p.m., when the worst was over, 102 Anti-Tank Regiment and 1 Rangers were in position above the Venetikos River with the brigade taking up positions behind them. The Germans were now miles to the north. Fourth Hussars, the last unit to come out, had seen nothing of them and a patrol that was sent back that evening reported that the enemy had not yet entered Grevena.

Meanwhile, to the rear, in the Kalabaka area, Savige Force was preparing another line. Instead of a position near the junction of the Grevena and Metsovon roads, the Brigadier had chosen a sector some two to three miles west of Kalabaka, with the upper Pinios River on his left flank, a stream across the front and more open country on the right which would have to be defended in depth. The straggling Greek troops had already been cleared from the area; 2/5 and 2/11 Australian Battalions were preparing the line; the artillery were south of Kalabaka, 25 Battery 4 New Zealand Field Regiment being near the village of Aimnades and the medium artillery to the east of Kalabaka below the great cliffs which overlook the upper Pinios River.

In the afternoon of 15 April General Wilson had appeared, hoping to discuss the situation with General Tsolakoglou, the commander of 3 Corps [the Western Macedonian Army]. He failed to find the General but was able to inform Brigadier Savige of the withdrawal plans3 to be issued by Anzac Corps at 6 p.m. The 2/6 and 2/7 Battalions and a company from 2/5 Battalion and 2/1 Field Regiment (less a battery), all on their way north from Athens, would not come through to Kalabaka. With 19 Australian Brigade, which would be withdrawing that night from the hills west of Servia, they would instead establish a rearguard4 at Dhomokos, a town in the hills north of Lamia.

He also warned the Brigadier that his force must have on hand the necessary transport for a swift withdrawal. So it was arranged

1 Waller, Journal of the Royal Artillery, July 1945, p. 171.

3 See pp. 2278.

4 See p. 227.

page 226 that eighty1 trucks should be available from a convoy of 120 three-tonners which was coming through that night with 3000 Greek troops2 from the western side of the Metsovon Pass to the crossroads north of Kalabaka. The convoy, which included eighteen trucks from 4 New Zealand RMT Company under the command of Second-Lieutenant Pool,3 came through successfully but the Greeks did not go into the line at Kalabaka. They cluttered up the forward areas and ‘added weight to the stream of refugee troops, mule trains and mule carts passing through from Grevena to Trikkala.’

Kalabaka, famous for its monasteries perched on the tops of pinnacles or clinging to the cliff faces, had long since been in a state of turmoil: ‘the straggling Greek troops, without food, took what they could from the shops and houses …. civilians took their current and reserve needs from the now-unprotected dumps, from which Greek troops had fled to join the procession eastwards.’4

1 At the request of HQ Anzac Corps the number was afterwards reduced to fifty.

2 They were probably part of 11 Greek Infantry Division, a reserve formation of the Western Macedonian Army, ordered to move by British transport to hold the crossings over the Venetikos River south of Grevena.

3 Lt-Col J. Pool, m.i.d.; Te Kopuru, North Auckland; born England, 12 Jun 1904; credit manager; LO with SHAEF in Europe 1944–45; LO with British Army staff Paris, 1945–46.

4 Brigadier Savige, in Long, p. 103.