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To Greece

The Positions of 4 Brigade about Servia Pass

The Positions of 4 Brigade about Servia Pass

In the Servia Pass area there had been less time to prepare page 270 positions. On the night of 9–10 April 4 Brigade Group had moved over from Mount Olympus to the southern slopes of the pass and next morning, after some unpleasant hours in the mud, the units1 had moved into position. Eighteenth and 19th Battalions went to the steep escarpment which extends westwards from Servia to the Aliakmon River and 20 Battalion to reserve positions astride the road. After 12 April a company2 from 2/1 Australian Machine Gun Battalion was under command, two platoons going with 19 Battalion and two platoons with 20 Battalion.

For the next few days the weather was severe, with heavy rain in the pass and snow on the higher levels, but the battalions managed to improve the defences. The Germans were moving south and there was a steady stream of pathetic refugees, detachments of Greek soldiers and, on 12 April, a Yugoslav battery3 of 88-milli- metre guns which was placed under the command of 6 Field Regiment in an anti-tank role.

The night, 12–13 April, was one of great activity about the pass. The battalions had been warned that the German columns then approaching Kozani could be expected to appear next morning. The carrier platoons on the river flats below the escarpment were called back through the pass, 18 Battalion transport was brought through to Lava and all units were warned of the possible descent of paratroopers. The 580th Army Troops Company, Royal Engineers, with its heavy equipment, was brought back from the bridge area to a position near 4 Brigade Headquarters, a demolition party4 having been left to deal with the bridge. Finally, during the night of 13–14 April, different units of 6 Australian Division came through, the road south to Elasson having been kept clear for their withdrawal.

By this time the Australian brigades from the north were assembling on the flanks. On 13 April 16 Brigade completed its gruelling march through the hills from Veroia Pass; it was now establishing itself in the mountains to the east,5 no great distance from 5 New Zealand Brigade at Mount Olympus. The country to the west was occupied the same day by 2/4 and 2/8 Battalions of 19 Australian Brigade, who as part of Mackay Force had held the Klidhi Pass and had then been brought back6 to Kerasia, a village from which they had marched south-west to their new positions.

1 See pp. 1848.

2 One other company was with 19 Australian Brigade, another with Savige Force and another in Corps reserve.

3 The battery fired on enemy aircraft on 13–14 April, ran out of ammunition and withdrew south to an unknown destination on the afternoon of 14 April. A Greek battery, probably 75-mm, was also in the area but does not seem to have taken part in the action.

4 The main body of the company moved south on 13 April.

5 See p. 252.

6 See p. 238.

page 271

The expected appearance of the German advanced guard had not taken place. Away to the north beyond Kozani 1 Armoured Brigade had throughout the afternoon and early evening of 13 April been fighting1 the advanced guard of 9 Panzer Division, and now that darkness had fallen over Proastion the British units were withdrawing through Kozani to the Grevena area. The Germans, short of petrol and ammunition, were quite unable to continue their thrust towards Servia. Nor could their supporting units come through from the north. Apparently three columns of traffic all hastening south had caused a gigantic traffic jam in the Klidhi Pass. The reserves did get through by the night 13–14 April, but the last of the Allied rearguard was then west through the Siatista Pass towards Grevena or south through Kozani and across the Aliakmon River to the lines of 4 Brigade.

In the Servia Pass area the 4 Brigade units had spent 13 April improving their defences and anxiously waiting for information about the delaying action then being fought by 1 Armoured Brigade at Ptolemais. The attacks from the air were now both heavy and frequent, with reconnaissance aircraft circling over the pass and directing a series of bomber and fighter attacks along the roads, the infantry localities and the gun positions. But the raids, though spectacular, were not remarkably destructive. The stretch through the pass from Prosilion towards Servia was given special attention but the casualty list was relatively light: three wounded (one fatally) in 19 Battalion and two killed, one wounded, in 20 Battalion.

Nor had the engineers been prevented from completing their demolitions. At 3.30 p.m. Australian units assisted by the detachment left by 580 British Army Troops Company had fired the demolitions on the Aliakmon bridge. The three spans had collapsed into the relatively shallow riverbed, leaving the bridge unusable by motor transport but serviceable for active infantrymen. The temporary bridge a short distance downstream was no problem, the pontoons being sunk and the superstructure left to float down the gorge. The demolitions in and south of the pass were the concern of Lieutenant Kelsall and his section from 6 Field Company. Ever since their arrival at Piræus they had treasured some naval depth-charges, each containing 360 pounds of TNT, and now at last they had them in position, some in the cutting on the Servia side of the pass, one just over the crest on the road westwards towards Dheskati and several on the highway itself as it twisted south towards Elasson and Larisa.

Next day, 14 April, the defenders, knowing that 1 Armoured

1 See pp. 21214.

page 272 Brigade had turned1 westwards through the mountains towards Grevena, waited expectantly for the Germans to enter Kozani and move down the long incline towards the Aliakmon bridge. About midday convoys were seen entering the town, and during the afternoon there was a patrol moving over the demolished bridge and tanks appearing down the highway. The battery from 7 Medium Regiment was already in action when 6 Field Regiment, about 3 p.m., opened fire on the column of vehicles, the groups of tanks and files of infantry.

Overhead the Luftwaffe, doing its best to support the ground troops, was paying particular attention to the guns and any vehicles along the highway. The enemy's artillery came into action about 7 p.m., its airbursts ranging over the road junctions and its shellfire continuing throughout the night, the gunners searching for the Allied batteries and for any traffic on the roads.

As it happened, 20 Battalion was then moving up to new positions. C Company had been left in reserve but the others had been instructed to fill the gap above the cliffs between 19 Battalion and the Aliakmon River. The lorries were machine-gunned just before leaving and came under shellfire at the crossroads above the pass, but there were no casualties and by daylight the companies were along the ridge overlooking the river and the village of Rimnion, with A Company on the right adjoining 19 Battalion, B Company in the centre and D Company continuing westwards to the Aliakmon River. C Troop 31 Anti-Tank Battery was under command to cover the approaches east and west of Rimnion; two platoons of 2/1 Australian Machine Gun Battalion were attached. And as the front was often beyond the range of the artillery on the 4 Brigade front, 7 Medium Regiment covered the approaches. The 2/3 Australian Field Regiment in the Mikrovalton area was to give support if necessary.

Finally that night, 14–15 April, on orders from Brigade Headquarters, the charges to complete the anti-tank ditches across the road in the 19 Battalion area were fired by the sub-section from 6 Field Company which had been standing by.

1 See p. 214.