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To Greece

The Germans approach Olympus Pass, Night 14–15 April

The Germans approach Olympus Pass, Night 14–15 April

After such preparations and with such natural advantages the battalions all hoped that the Olympus Pass would be the scene of their first engagement. They were standing-to at dawn and dusk; the carrier platoons of 23 and 28 (Maori) Battalions were patrolling the landing ground at Kalokhori; and the Divisional Cavalry Regiment along the Aliakmon River had been in action since the night of 12–13 April.2

The withdrawal from the river was complete by the evening of 14 April when the carrier platoons and the Divisional Cavalry Regiment came back into the pass. The bridges along the eastern approach were blown; the carriers of 22 Battalion came in past the road block and the last demolitions, including that of the bridge in front of 11 Platoon 22 Battalion, were blown at 6 p.m.

Before then enemy reconnaissance aircraft had been flying over the entrance to the pass ‘without hindrance other than ineffective page 261 fire from AA LMGs’, and the forward elements of 2 Panzer Division had reached Katerini. But it was not until 11 p.m. that some motorcyclists from I/38 Anti-Tank Unit raced confidently up the highway, approached the first demolition and were efficiently shot up by 11 Platoon (Lieutenant Armstrong1). Next morning there were five wrecked motor-cycles, some with side-cars, lying along the road. Otherwise the night was quiet, though German transport with headlights full on could be heard moving out from Katerini. Battle Group 2 was moving down the coast towards the Platamon tunnel2 and 21 Battalion; Battle Group 1 had orders to cross by the Olympus Pass to Elasson and Larisa.

Within the New Zealand Division there was a sudden decision for an earlier withdrawal.3 That night, 14–15 April, Brigadier Hargest was recalled by General Freyberg to a conference at Headquarters 6 Brigade and informed that 5 Brigade would, the following night, withdraw to the head of the pass and hold it for twenty-four hours to cover the withdrawal of the brigades from Servia Pass. The general atmosphere was one of surprise and disappointment, but the orders were issued next day and the battalions made their preparations. Reserve rations were distributed, stores and ammunition were sorted out and 23 Battalion sent 8 Platoon back to prepare a line above Kokkinoplos. Then, to the relief and pleasure of the battalions, Brigadier Hargest was ordered to delay the withdrawal for another twenty-four hours, until the night of 16–17 April.

In any case, 15 April had not been the day for serious attacks about Olympus Pass. Battle Group 2 of the enemy had attacked 21 Battalion above the Platamon tunnel but Battle Group 1, having a more formidable task, took longer to assemble and 5 Brigade had a relatively quiet day. The mortar section with D Company 23 Battalion opened up on a patrol that was probing about the right flank; in the pass itself 22 Battalion considered that it had a quiet day, apart from some slight activity in the morning. This is somewhat surprising for the Germans sent forward a fighting patrol from 2/304 Infantry Regiment with supporting mortars, machine guns and anti-tank guns to enter the pass, discover positions and take prisoners. Apparently it did not get far enough forward to worry 22 Battalion. A Company 28 (Maori) Battalion, on the north side of the pass, saw the vehicles coming up the road from Katerini page 262 and with the support of 12 Platoon 27 (Machine Gun) Battalion forced the infantry to debus. Five were wounded, and when 5 Field Regiment shelled the road the patrol withdrew. The 2/304 Infantry Regiment, however, continued to reconnoitre, but no serious attempt was made that day to approach the pass. The Germans preferred to bring up their artillery and, in the late afternoon, to shell the brigade front. They were probably searching for the guns of 5 Field Regiment, whose positions were well camouflaged and too far back to justify any useless counter-fire.

Darkness brought no direct attacks but the Germans were obviously patrolling, particularly across the front of D Company 22 Battalion. They were also, it is now known, replacing 2/304 Infantry Regiment with I/2 Infantry Regiment and preparing to attack up the highway towards the pass. At the same time a patrol from 8/800 Brandenburg Regiment by coming in to the south of the Sanatorium would attempt an indirect approach to the head of the pass.

2 See pp. 2357.

1 Maj C. N. Armstrong, MC and bar, ED; Wanganui; born Wanganui, 12 Sep 1910; barrister and solicitor; p.w. 23 Nov 1941; escaped Poland, Oct 1943; 2 i/c 22 Bn Nov 1944–Jun 1945.

2 See pp. 2448.

3 There is nothing in Anzac Corps or New Zealand Division operation orders to explain why 5 Brigade was to withdraw on the night 15–16 April instead of the night 16–17 April. Brigadier Hargest in each case acted on verbal instructions from General Freyberg.