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To Greece

Movements to and from Servia Pass

Movements to and from Servia Pass

In the Servia Pass area there was an even greater degree of adjustment and withdrawal. Fourth Brigade was busily establishing itself but on its immediate left flank there was always movement, at first to and then from the scrub-covered hill country on the right flank of the Greek sector.

After the fighting in the Klidhi Pass area the defence of this gap between 4 Brigade and the Greeks had been the responsibility of 19 Australian Brigade, whose two battalions had been taken through Kozani to Kerasia, a village west of Servia and to the north of Dheskati Pass. The 2/4 Battalion was on the high ridges about Kteni; 2/8 Battalion, still only 300 strong, had gone into reserve still farther south. Their transport had returned north to Kozani and south from there across the Aliakmon River, through Servia and west again to Mikrovalton. In this area where 2/2 and 2/3 Australian Field Regiments afterwards went into position, the vehicles were relatively close to the battalions but separated from them by the deep river valley and several miles of complicated hill country.

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withdrawal of 16 and 19 australian brigades, 15–16 april 1941

withdrawal of 16 and 19 australian brigades, 15–16 april 1941

As there was still a great gap between the Australians and 4 New Zealand Brigade at Servia, 26 New Zealand Battalion on 13 April was brought up from the Mount Olympus sector. The battalion transport being away collecting D Company, which was still on its way from the Platamon tunnel, the whole unit was shifted by 4 New Zealand RMT Company. The Australians had entered the sector from the north, but as the Servia bridge was due for demolition the convoy went in from the south, turning westwards on the ridge above Servia—over which the Stukas were diving from a bright blue sky—and eventually stopping about two miles beyond Prosilion.

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The battalion was to come under the command of 19 Australian Brigade, but as it was still impossible to communicate with Brigade Headquarters the companies were sent to temporary positions overlooking the Aliakmon River and the village of Rimnion. With all equipment and extra ammunition, they scrambled down and spent the night digging in. Next morning, 14 April, they were joined by D Company, very travel weary after its roundabout journey1 from the Platamon tunnel. The Luftwaffe was busy strafing the road through Servia Pass but the quartermaster, Captain Wilson,2 went down with the rations towards the river and then back along the south bank to the battalion area.

Meanwhile Lieutenant-Colonel Page had received instructions by using the 11-mile-long telephone system between the Australian artillery and Headquarters 19 Australian Brigade. The battalion was to cross the river that night to positions on the right flank of the Australians. There was, as yet, no bridge across the thirty yards of swift-flowing river, only an assault-boat ferry operated with ropes and pulleys, but the battalion was expected to be in line before dawn. The unit transport would eventually bring forward mortars, cooking gear, bedrolls and extra ammunition to the crossing or to Rimnion by any route the intelligence section could find.

The night, 14–15 April, had consequently to be spent shuffling down the five miles of slippery clay track to the ferry in which the battalion crossed, three men at a time. As the movement was not complete by first light D Company remained on the south bank, the other three companies going into line on the right of the Australians. Next day, to the sound of the guns about Servia Pass, they prepared their weapon pits and waited hopefully for the equipment and bedrolls to come forward.

The same night, 14–15 April, the left flank of 4 Brigade had been extended westwards, 20 Battalion leaving one company in its reserve position south of Servia and going forward to reduce the gap between 19 and 26 Battalions. C Troop 31 Battery 7 Anti- Tank Regiment was under command to cover the approaches east and west of Rimnion, a company (less one, platoon) of 2/1 Australian Machine Gun Battalion was attached and, as the artillery with 4 Brigade could not shell so far forward, arrangements were made with 7 Medium Regiment (one battery) and 2/3 Australian Field Regiment in the Mikrovalton area to give their support. But even then the front was not sound. Direct attacks could probably be held, but encirclement by German forces coming through the lightly held Greek sector to the west was always a possibility.

1 See p. 176.

2 Maj F. W. Wilson, MBE, MC, ED, m.i.d.; Christchurch; born Greendale, 11 Sep 1896; building superintendent; Canterbury Regt 1915–19; QM 26 Bn Feb 1940–Jun 1943.

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At the moment the problem for 26 Battalion was one of supply. The unit vehicles, long since dispersed along the ridge to the south, could not be brought down to the river. To get them to Rimnion it would have been necessary to rush through the pass into Servia and then back parallel to the river, possibly in the view of German aircraft and most certainly within range of their newly established batteries. The only other route was a rough track that ran down to the river from a monastery below the crest of the ridge and west of the battalion's rear headquarters. The Australians were already planning to use mule trains from there, so about midday, after Lieutenant-Colonel Page had insisted that his mortars and supplies should be brought up no matter how difficult or dangerous the route, Captain Foley,1 officer commanding Headquarters Company, set out to find the track and explain2 the situation to the Colonel.

On the way he overtook an Australian officer who had been wandering for hours in search of Brigadier Vasey's headquarters. The operation orders from Anzac Corps had not yet been issued, but the Brigadier had already been warned to ‘make every endeavour to get out by dawn, 16 Apr’ and the liaison officer was taking forward the final orders. Hence Foley, after reporting to Brigade Headquarters, was able to advise Lieutenant-Colonal Page of the impending withdrawal.

The orders eventually given to Page were that his battalion must cover the withdrawal of the sick and the wounded, the medical units and, finally, that of 19 Australian Brigade. Twenty-sixth Battalion would not move until 11 p.m., when it would cross the river and follow the track up the ridge towards the monastery. The Brigadier said that Australian transport would be available once the battalion reached the road, but if it were not, the unit was to keep moving. At last, after what seemed an age, the companies, already tense from the glow of flares across the front and the sound of shellfire about Servia, stumbled out along the ridges and through the scrub towards the river.

Meanwhile, because of the shortage of signal wire and the difficulties and slowness of other methods of liaison, there was much confusion at Rear Battalion Headquarters. Nothing had come through from Lieutenant-Colonel Page to countermand his orders that the urgently needed supplies must be sent forward at

1 Maj W. C. T. Foley; Waiouru; born Stratford, 7 Jul 1916; Regular soldier; 26 Bn, 1940–41; sqn comd 2 Tank Bn (in NZ) 1942–43; LO, Special Tank Sqn, 2 NZEF (IP) 1943; 20 Armd Regt, 1945; 2 NZEF, Japan, 1945–46.

2 The available signal wire was only sufficient to reach from Rear Heaquarters to the foot of the clay track.

page 242 all costs. Major Samson1 had consequently sent the transport along the road to Servia Pass while he himself went down the clay track to the battalion. With Lieutenant Matheson2 in charge, the transport approached the pass, but it was soon evident that it could not get through. Australian transport was streaming back and all forward movement was halted at a check point. The lorries were accordingly brought back to Rear Battalion Headquarters, where the drivers waited until first light, at which time Major Samson returned from the river crossing, where he had met Lieutenant- Colonel Page and received more definite instructions. All stores and equipment except petrol, rations, arms and ammunition were to be dumped and the lorries sent forward to await the companies as they struggled up out of the valley.

After leaving their prepared positions about 11 p.m. the companies had reached the river about 1 a.m. on 16 April. As Australian and British engineers had completed a bridge by 10 p.m., just as the leading companies of Australians were assembling on the northern bank, the crossing of the river presented no difficulties. With the exception of one Australian company which missed the bridge and had to use a small boat, the forces, Australian and New Zealand, crossed without any loss of time. But the Bren carriers, the lorries and the Australians' anti-tank guns had all to be abandoned.

The climb3 from there to the monastery was only nine miles but the ridge was steep, the track muddy, and the equipment heavy. In all it took at least seven hours to reach the crest of the ridge and the trucks assembling on the Elasson-Karperon road.

But as Divisional Headquarters had not received any warning of the withdrawal there was no additional transport. And to complicate matters, some of the unit vehicles were small and others were required for the mortars, ammunition and heavy equipment. The majority of the 600 men had, therefore, to continue their way on foot. ‘Packs, bedrolls, blankets, new two-men tents, and the Naafi stores bought four days earlier’ were dumped, and while men searched for odds and ends among their personal gear ‘the vehicles were organised in readiness to begin a shuttle service.’4

At 19 Brigade Headquarters Lieutenant-Colonel Page had been told that his battalion would move east to Servia Pass, where it was hoped that sufficient transport would be made available. But

1 Maj J. M. Samson, ED; Blenheim; born Dunedin, 27 Feb 1904; company director; wounded 27 Apr 1941.

2 Capt J. E. Matheson; Pahiatua; born Middlemarch, 7 Apr 1905; solicitor.

3 The Australian stretcher-bearers, much to the admiration of the New Zealanders, still managed to bring out the wounded.

4 F. D. Norton, 26 Battalion, p. 41.

page 243 because his transport column reported that the road was under fire above Servia Pass and that the B Echelon trucks of 19 Brigade had moved south through Dheskati, he decided that his battalion should do likewise. All gear, except weapons and essential equipment, was then dumped, the trucks were loaded with men and a shuttle service begun, with detachments being taken four or five miles and then left to march while the trucks returned for another load.

The transport followed muddy roads south-west to Karperon and then sharply east over the pass to Dheskati, the village to which many of the parties on foot had come south from Elati. The shuttle service towards Elasson went on with increased vigour. The weather, at first overcast, turned to unpleasant misty rain but it meant that no enemy aircraft disturbed the march. About 2 p.m., however, a shortage of petrol sent several drivers straight through to Elasson and left many weary men to plod along on foot and hope for the return of the lorries.

This made the withdrawal as arduous as any undertaken during the campaign. The men had dug in at Riakia on the night of 13–14 April and prepared new positions next morning; that same day they had crossed the Aliakmon River to spend the night of 14–15 April and the day of 15 April preparing fresh positions. Since then they had been marching for another night and day, in all about three nights and four days of heavy work, little sleep and limited food.

In the afternoon of 16 April the weary files were given some encouragement when they marched through the forward detachments of the Divisional Cavalry Regiment1 whose squadrons were strung out along the road between Dheskati and Elasson. All their available transport was rushed forward and by 10 p.m. the battalion was enjoying a hot meal about Regimental Headquarters at Valanidha.

The day had also been an uncertain one for B Echelon. In the morning Captain Wilson, the quartermaster, had left Dholikhi with rations for the battalion, but when he turned west from Servia Pass to Prosilion he found that the companies had climbed out of the Aliakmon valley and were somewhere westwards along the road to Dheskati. No information could be obtained as to their whereabouts; in fact, when he mentioned the problem to Lieutenant- Colonel Kippenberger of 20 Battalion, that officer was surprised to learn that his western flank had been left unprotected. In the end Wilson returned and moved B Echelon back to Dhomenikon.

The late arrival of the relief transport takes more explanation. Apparently the wireless signals from the Divisional Cavalry

1 See pp. 2367.

page 244 Regiment were not received by Divisional Headquarters, nor had Headquarters 6 Brigade received any report from the officers who were fortunate enough to return with the first vehicles. It was not until the appearance of the transport officer, Second-Lieutenant Bethell,1 that the need for transport was explained and all available vehicles from 24 and 25 Battalions were sent out to find the rest of the battalion. They arrived in the Divisional Cavalry lines about midnight and soon had the companies with B Echelon at Dhomenikon. Next day, 18 April, the battalion rejoined 6 Brigade in the rearguard positions south of Elasson.

The Australian battalions, after they had reached the road above the river, were taken in unit transport to Dhomokos, where Brigadier Lee was organising the rearguard through which W Force would withdraw on its way to Thermopylae. The 2/2 Field Regiment and some groups from 2/4 and 2/8 Battalions made the long detour through Karperon and Dheskati, ‘an action of which Mackay strongly disapproved.’2 The gunners then joined the force which was assembling at Zarkos; the infantry eventually joined the rest of 19 Brigade at Dhomokos. Finally, after dark on 16 April 2/3 Field Regiment withdrew to Elasson to become part of the rearguard with 6 New Zealand Brigade.

1 Capt R. Bethell, MBE, m.i.d.; Culverden; born Christchurch, 17 Oct 1905; sheep-farmer.

2 Long, p. 102.