The Positions of 5 Brigade about Olympus Pass
The Positions of 5 Brigade about Olympus Pass
IN the weeks preceding the invasion of Greece the attention of the Division had been concentrated on the defences north of Katerini. The preparation of positions in the passes on either side of Mount Olympus had therefore been postponed until the arrival of 5 Brigade. On 6 April 28 (Maori) Battalion had gone to the west of Olympus Pass; 23 Battalion had gone to the east of it; and D Company 26 Battalion on the track above Platamon tunnel had come under command, pending relief by a company from the brigade.
The importance of these positions had then increased with the changing fortunes of the Allies. On 7 April, when the defeat of Yugoslavia seemed certain, the Higher Command decided that the Division must withdraw to defend the passes and, as every hour was important, tentative plans were made for its withdrawal. Fourth Brigade, with 6 Field Regiment in support, would return to a delaying position at the foot of the pass, while 6 Brigade with 4 and 5 Field Regiments would remain in position until contact with the enemy was made and then withdraw through 4 Brigade over Olympus Pass. Thereafter its defence would be the responsibility of 5 and 6 Brigades. As 21 Battalion had not yet been released from Athens the units would be regrouped: 5 Brigade would have 26 Battalion above the Platamon tunnel and 22 and 23 Battalions east of Olympus Pass; 6 Brigade would have 24, 25 and 28 (Maori) Battalions to the west of the pass.
The first steps were taken during the morning of 8 April: 22 Battalion1 was released from service with 6 Brigade and sent to a position in the Sanatorium area east of the pass; 26 Battalion (less D Company) was recalled to prepare positions for 6 Brigade to the west of 28 (Maori) Battalion.
That night, 8–9 April, a report was received at Divisional Headquarters that the Germans were expected in Salonika. Twenty- second Battalion was therefore moved to positions astride the road at the entrance to the pass and next day 26 Battalion was given other duties.1 One detachment was sent to control the never-ending stream of lorries and gun-limbers, Greek refugees and New Zealand soldiers; another was transported to the crest of the pass where a steep but usable track to the west had to be constructed for the guns of B and C Troops of 27 Battery 5 Field Regiment. That night the rest of 6 Brigade withdrew behind 5 Brigade and there it was joined on 10 April by 26 Battalion.
The situation was still too indefinite for the brigade to be other than divisional reserve, but the swiftly crumbling front and the decision to withdraw W Force beyond Thermopylae soon forced several adjustments. The Olympus-Aliakmon River line was now to serve only as a covering position for further withdrawals. On 13 April 26 Battalion2 was sent to the west of Servia Pass; on 14 April 24 Battalion moved to the west of Olympus Pass; and then on 15 April 24 and 25 Battalions3 were hurriedly transferred to prepare rearguard positions south of Elasson. Thus the defence of Olympus Pass was in the end the responsibility of 5 Brigade: 22, 23 and 28 (Maori) Battalions.
They had already done much to perfect their defences. In spite of the wind, rain and snow they had been wiring, digging and roadmaking, growing still fitter and becoming more and more conscious of the impending engagement. On 9 April those on the higher slopes saw the smoke of fires in Salonika some 40 miles away across the gulf. Refugees were now streaming through the pass; 4 and 6 Brigades with the attached regiments of artillery were steadily withdrawing, ‘an incessant roar of traffic reverberating through the lines of 5 Brigade.’
The position was naturally strong but it had one great weakness. The demolitions which would be blown above the junction of the main highway and the ‘Back Road’ would prevent any withdrawal of the battalion through Olympus Pass. Its safety was therefore dependent upon the completion of the road southwards across the lower slopes of Mount Olympus to Kokkinoplos. The work had been classed as urgent and much had been done. The battalion intelligence section (Lieutenant Bassett3) had studied the route and the pioneer platoon (Second-Lieutenant Ensor4), assisted during 6–9 April by the 200 men from 22 Battalion, had made it possible for trucks to go along the ridge behind each company of 23 Battalion. On the Kokkinoplos side 7 Field Company had been working along the mountainside since 7 April. Two hundred Greeks had been employed and 25 Battalion had given two days' work before going to Elasson. But the wet weather and the steep rock faces below the crest of the pass were now holding up the work, and although the engineers had by 14 April completed some five miles of the track they would still have taken three weeks to complete the last two miles over the pass.
Barbed wire, rations and ammunition for ten days had come up on 9 April; the B Echelon transport had been withdrawn over the pass to the Pithion area and the battalion posts were well established, the men working all through the moonlight of 11–12 April to complete them. Rain and snow had then retarded the work but by 14 April, when the Bren carriers withdrew from the plain and the demolitions had been blown along the highway, the companies were confident that they could hold the Germans.
6 On 10 April the staff, mostly Germans, disappeared. Next day HQ 5 Brigade arranged for the patients to be evacuated by the Divisional Ammunition Company.
The battalion sector was roughly four miles in breadth. Lateral communications were therefore important, but after 14 April, when the demolitions on the main highway were blown, it was impossible to use the road that branched off to the Sanatorium and to the lines of 23 Battalion. A track had therefore been cut from the main highway through the forest and across the gorge of the Elikon stream to give A and B Companies some connection with the highway and the right flank of D Company.
On the left flank 28 (Maori) Battalion had been digging two- men pits and preparing barbed-wire entanglements, but for a long time there had been no certainty as to its final position. Adjustments were made on several occasions; in fact B Company prepared three different positions, D Company had two days to prepare its final position and C Company had only one. As a result the battalion was now strung out across four miles of country, of which only two had any prepared defence system.
A Company (Captain Bell3) was on the right flank beside D Company 22 Battalion. Observation down the road and across country was good, but the immediate front was thick with dense scrub and the more distant approaches divided by several steep-banked streams, all of advantage to infiltrating infantry.
2 Brig T. C. Campbell, CBE, DSO, MC, m.i.d.; Auckland; born Colombo, 20 Dec 1911; farm appraiser; CO 22 Bn Sep 1942–Apr 1944; comd 4 Armd Bde Jan–Dec 1945; Commander of Army Schools, 1951–53; Commander, Fiji Military Forces, 1953–56; Commander, Northern Military District, 1958–.
4 Maj R. Royal, MC and bar; Wellington; born Levin, 23 Aug 1897; civil servant; served in Maori Pioneer Bn in First World War; coy comd 28 (Maori) Bn 1940–41; wounded 14 Dec 1941; 2 i/c 2 Maori Bn (in NZ) 1942–43; CO 2 Maori Bn May–Jun 1943.
In support of 5 Brigade there were at first 32 Battery 7 Anti-Tank Regiment, 4 Company 27 (Machine Gun) Battalion and 4 and 5 Field Regiments. The anti-tank guns were not well forward covering the approaches to the infantry, but were more to the rear in counterpenetration positions according to theories developed ‘after the French and Belgian campaigns.’ Six were on the right of the main highway and three along the highway itself in front of and behind the Gibraltar position of 22 Battalion. The machine-gunners were dispersed, 10 Platoon with 23 Battalion behind Lokova, 12 Platoon behind C Company 22 Battalion to cover the front between the Sanatorium and the road demolitions, and 11 Platoon at the junction of A and B Companies 28 (Maori) Battalion to cover the approach to the pass and the features opposite B and D Companies.
Fourth and 5th Field Regiments had withdrawn from the plain on 10 April and had been grouped under the command of Lieutenant-Colonel Parkinson of 4 Field Regiment. The former, after much hard work on the steep tracks, was in position near the crest of the pass, with A and B Troops 25 Battery on the eastern side of the highway and C Troop up a precipitous muddy track on the western side. Twenty-sixth Battery was to have gone into position near Ay Dhimitrios on a steep ridge nearly 900 feet above the pass, but after the guns and water cart for D Troop had been winched up and all ammunition carried up by hand, positions for E and F Troops were found near 25 Battery.
On the night of 14–15 April after all this labour the regiment was suddenly withdrawn. At dusk 25 Battery3 was despatched to Kalabaka to come under the command of 17 Australian Brigade. Twenty-sixth Battery and Regimental Headquarters pulled out later, at 1 a.m. 15 April, staging just south of Kato Filippaioi throughout daylight and joining 6 Brigade after dusk in the rearguard position that was being prepared south of Elasson.
After 4 Field Regiment had gone there was some discussion as to whether the gun positions should be changed, but a reconnaissance showed that the left flank hitherto covered by 4 Field Regiment was too rough for any large-scale attack by armoured units. In any case, on the morning of 15 April Brigadier Hargest advised Lieutenant-Colonel Fraser that as there would be a general withdrawal that night no changes need be made by his regiment.
The ammunition dumps left in the 4 Field Regiment area were moved, however, by parties from 5 Field Regiment to the end of the straight stretch of highway south of Elasson. They had been expected to make only one trip, but through a misunderstanding which later proved fortunate the men slaved all night, some groups in spite of the wretched, crowded roads making two or three trips and clearing all the ammunition. ‘The whole of this ammunition was subsequently fired by 2/3 Australian Regt., in defence of the Elasson position. Without it, it is doubtful if the enemy could have been held off, as he was, until withdrawal was affected at the stipulated time.’1
1 Report on operations, HQ NZ Divisional Artillery.