Other formats

    TEI XML file   ePub eBook file  


    mail icontwitter iconBlogspot iconrss icon

To Greece

Action in Servia Pass, 15 April

Action in Servia Pass, 15 April

The enemy had also been very active. After the engagement at Ptolemais the leading units of 9 Panzer Division had been organised into groups and the forward one2 led by Colonel Graf

2 11 Inf Regt less 7 Coy, two coys 59 MC Bn, HQ 102 Arty Unit with part of the observation battery, III/102 Arty Unit less 7 Coy, III/102 Lt Arty Coln, HQ and 2 Coy 86 AA Unit less 1 pl, 3/50 A-Tk Unit, 1 pl 33 Pz Regt, HQ and 1/86 Engr Unit, 1 bty AA guns, 2/60 MDS Sec.

page 273 von Sponeck1 had entered Kozani about midday. No. 8 Company 11 Infantry Regiment had then been sent to take the Aliakmon bridge before it was demolished. The attempt was unsuccessfu but the commander reported that there was little activity on the south side of the river. The shellfire was accurate but by 7.30 p.m. the company, supported by machine-gun and mortar sections, had clambered over the ruins of the bridge and was advancing warily along the few miles of straight road towards Servia.

No serious opposition was expected. The general situation indicated that the British were withdrawing and according to an air report ‘there was not a single enemy soldier between the river and the heights S.W. of Servia.’2 The German High Command had therefore decided that a swift assault even by a small force would capture this important pass. So about 2 a.m. when 8 Company, now supported by 6 Company, was approaching Servia, orders were received for the force to turn west towards the pass. The heights immediately south of the town would be the responsibility of 1 and 3 Companies 59 Motor Cycle Battalion.

Two artillery regiments were brought up during the night to give their support and the road south from Kozani was cleared to let the engineers build up their equipment. But they were unable to construct any bridge that night; the best that they could do was to cut an approach to a possible ford. In that stretch, however, the current was so swift that after one tank had been lost in the river the anti-tank guns and heavy supporting weapons of the infantry were left on the north bank.

This setback did not delay the two companies of infantry, for they continued unsupported and by first light were approaching the pass. The fact that they had captured two Greeks who were escaping on horseback had strengthened their belief that the Allies were making a hurried withdrawal and were not likely to offer any serious resistance. But when the greater part of the force was just through or in the deep cutting between the first two anti-tank ditches the New Zealanders opened fire and by 8 a.m. the two companies had been destroyed, only a few stragglers getting back to report the disaster.

This neat and spectacular success was the work, for the most part, of A Company 19 Battalion. In the stretch between the eastern and central anti-tank ditches, 7 Platoon had been on the south side and 8 Platoon on the north side of a deep cutting through the projecting ridge. South of them on the rising ground between the road and the base of the escarpment the sections of 9 Platoon were

1 9 Panzer Division war diary: Corps orders, 11.30 p.m., 12 April 1941.

2 9 Panzer Division war diary, 14 April.

page 274
enemy attack on 19 battalion, morning 15 april 1941

enemy attack on 19 battalion, morning 15 april 1941

extended eastwards towards Servia, with a listening post between them and the road, and a 3-inch mortar group behind and above them. In the pass itself just above the road fork to Grevena was 16 Platoon D Company; across the road on the other side of the pass, higher up and north-west of the junction to give covering fire, were C Company and a section from 2/1 Australian Machine Gun Battalion.
About 5.30 a.m. the German companies were casually walking towards the pass, and having no apparent order they had not been any different from the normal groups of straggling refugees.1 At the tank trap they paused and made no attempt to keep silent. As a result the New Zealand sentry who went down to investigate thought that they were just another party of Greeks and turned back to his trench on the hillside. The more forward of the Germans went across the tank obstacle, through the deep cutting between 7 and 8 Platoons and almost to the point where the road branched south towards the pass and west towards Grevena. Then it was that

1 The two Greek captives with their horses may have created this false impression. Actually a legend developed that the Germans were disguised as Greeks. In the first reports of HQ 4 Brigade there was no suggestion of this; but within twenty-four hours the Germans had been led by Greek civilians, one of whom ‘was killed in the action.’ He was probably one of the two unlucky escapees. According to Graf von Sponeck, ‘the enemy had used a military device which our troops were not prepared for … be allowed the companies to run into a trap.’

page 275 the centre section of 9 Platoon, having been warned by the listening post of unusual movement about the cutting, opened fire on the too-confident enemy.

In a few minutes there was action all along the highway. Grenades tossed into the cutting soon silenced that section and left the Germans in two groups. Those through the cutting and strung out towards the crest of the pass were under fire from 16 Platoon D Company to the east and from C Company and the Australian machine-gunners to the west. And when they turned on their tracks there were 7 and 8 Platoons of A Company waiting on either side of the cutting. The north side of the road was somewhat broken so the more serious German attack was across the southern slope between the road and the base of the escarpment in the sector held by 7 Platoon. As the defences of this platoon had been designed to meet an attack from Servia the retreating Germans were at first successful, reaching the crest of the ridge and firing down into the weapon pits on the forward slopes. Two men had been killed and another wounded before Private McKay1 leapt up and tossed a grenade which killed the German officer and two of his men. Private Frain2 with his tommy gun halted another group and Corporal Cooke3 came over from 8 Platoon with a section which killed and captured more Germans. As a result, any Germans between the road and the escarpment had, before long, surrendered or taken cover.

On the north side where the slope dropped more sharply into the gully the Germans found it difficult to withdraw. They did attempt to clamber up the ridge above the cutting but Private Wellman4 was able to jump out of his trench and use his tommy gun so effectively that the attack faded away.

Thus when daylight came those Germans west of the cutting were in an impossible position. Overlooked and harassed by 9 Platoon and the 3-inch mortar detachment, they could find no security in the central anti-tank ditch. Their only shelter was in its extreme northern end, and from there a mortar continued to be a nuisance until silenced by the 2-inch mortar with 8 Platoon. After that there was no further opposition and by 7.15 a.m. some seventy Germans from the west of the cutting were being marched back over the pass.

To the east of the cutting the Germans who had endeavoured to move up to support the forward sections had quickly been forced

1 Pte R. McKay, m.i.d.; born NZ 5 May 1914; house painter; killed in action 27 May 1941.

2 Pte P. J. R. Frain; born NZ 28 Jan 1918; clerk; killed in action 20 May 1941.

3 Cpl G. C. Cooke; born Wellington, 17 Mar 1906; clerk; died of wounds 23 May 1941.

4 Pte R. C. Wellman, MM; Wanganui; born NZ 7 Apr 1913; labourer.

page 276 to take cover from the fire of all three platoons of A Company and, when the light permitted, from the long-distance fire of the company's snipers. Some Germans were able to crawl away towards the Aliakmon River but after daylight the majority were forced to stay where they were. The commander of 8 Company 11 Infantry Regiment who escaped reported that ‘the enemy was firing accurately at every individual man who emerged from cover anywhere.’1 Their only chance was to surrender and this they hastened to do, until by 8 a.m. another fifty prisoners were on their way back to 4 Brigade Headquarters. In all 3 officers and 150 other ranks were captured;2 the casualties for 19 Battalion were two other ranks killed and five wounded.

Once the front was secure the wounded were evacuated and the German weapons and equipment examined. It was remarkable how much the enemy had been carrying: drum magazines for the light machine guns, range-finders for the mortars, a wireless set which had, fortunately, been wrecked very early in the engagement and a surprising number of stick bombs. Many of them had been used but they had not been so destructive as the Mills grenades. The only one to do any damage had severely injured the feet and legs of Private Lee,3 who had, however, most gallantly continued to fill Bren magazines for the rest of the engagement.

Neither side had called for the support of its artillery. In the early stages Headquarters 19 Battalion had thought that it had to deal with nothing stronger than a German patrol; the Germans had expected such support to be unnecessary.4

The rest of the day saw only one other attempt to approach the pass. In the morning shortly after the advanced guard had been overwhelmed another group of Germans, some seventy strong, had moved along the road from Servia towards the lines of A Company 19 Battalion. ‘They were coming along the road with a file on each side … and a scout about 50 yards in front with rifle slung. They were simply marching towards the position. Unfortunately a section of No. 9 Platoon opened up too soon before they came into view of Nos. 7 and 8 and they immediately took cover.’5 The 3-inch mortars were then used and the Germans withdrew.

It is now known that a machine-gun platoon and a mortar section from 9 Company 11 Infantry Regiment had been ordered to cross the river and support the units detailed to capture the pass. At first

1 Lieutenant Hoffman, report on action of 8 Company on 14 and 15 April 1941.

2 11 Infantry Regiment gave its losses as 21 killed, 37 wounded and 168 missing.

3 Pte A. V. Lee, MM; Waihi; born Mercer, 24 Apr 1909; clerk; wounded 15 Apr 1941.

4 When Brigadier Puttick asked one prisoner why the companies had advanced so carelessly the Austrian infantryman explained that some German officers were not very good at tactics!

5 A Company report.

page 277 light they had crossed on pontoons, moved on to Servia and, hearing the sound of fighting in the pass, had marched forward to play their part. They had endeavoured to use their mortars against A Company, but the disadvantage of being under observation from ‘those commanding British positions’1 had soon forced them to withdraw to the nearby village of Avles.

Two companies from 59 Motor Cycle Battalion came over about the same time with the intention of forcing the steep escarpment immediately south of Servia and opening the pass from the rear, probably by the steep track from the township to the centre of 18 Battalion. But as the official report afterwards stated, ‘the fact that they had crossed the river much later than 6 and 8 Coys saved them from sharing these companies' fate. One company had entered Servia but the other was in the open when the New Zealanders2 overlooking them opened a destructive fire which pinned them down in what cover they could find.’

Unaware both of this opposition and of the disaster in the pass, von Sponeck shortly after 9 a.m. sent two companies from I Battalion 11 Infantry Regiment to support the forward units. In the clear light of that hour no movement about the bridge and along the road from it into Servia could be hidden from the observers on the crest of the escarpment. The shellfire from the defending artillery was therefore unpleasantly accurate. No. 2 Company, which attempted to cross above the demolished road bridge, suffered so heavily that the attempt was abandoned. No. 1 Company crossed downstream but lost several pontoons and left equipment on a sandbank in the middle of the river.

By then von Sponeck had learnt of the disaster in the pass but he knew nothing about the motor-cycle companies in the Servia area. No. 2 Company I/11 Infantry Regiment was therefore ordered to get across the river in spite of the shelling. He led the way himself but it meant a swim before they could get to the other side. Once over he spent an uneasy day, always disturbed by the shellfire from the southern ridges and increasingly worried about the chances of a counter-attack. As every movement was now ‘visible from the craggy hills nearby’,3 von Sponeck decided to withdraw to better positions between the village and the river. His patrols continued to operate below the pass, but once darkness came the battalion withdrew towards the Aliakmon bridge, where it formed a screen about the bridgehead and waited to repel any New Zealand counterattacks.

1 Report on events on 15 April 1941: Lieutenant Behrends, 9 (MG) Coy 11 Inf Regt, 16 April 1941.

2 18 Battalion.

3 11 Infantry Regiment operational report, 16 April 1941; ‘Report on Attack Stena Portas’, Graf von Sponeck.

page 278
4 brigade at servia, 15–18 april 1941

4 brigade at servia, 15–18 april 1941

page 279

The day had thus been a triumph for 19 Battalion and its commander, Lieutenant-Colonel Varnham. Consequently it was almost tragic that he should that day have the misfortune to be injured and eventually to be evacuated. The battalion was taken over by Major Blackburn.1

The day had been equally exciting for the New Zealand units along the ridges overlooking the valley. On the extreme right flank 18 Battalion had seen German vehicles drawing up under the trees on the north side of the river and troops assembling near the ruins of the bridges. The German artillery had been shelling all possible positions and their aircraft had been roaring backwards and forwards across the front. Those men who stayed still were reasonably safe but anyone moving across country was likely to be strafed. For his courage and endurance as runner between headquarters and the forward platoon, Private Moors2 of 18 Battalion was afterwards awarded the Military Medal. The heaviest raid came in the early afternoon when the whole front was attacked by dive-bombers. The only casualties were three other ranks of C Troop 31 Anti-Tank Battery, attached to 20 Battalion on the left flank and killed by a direct hit in their slit trench.

Conditions were no easier for the signallers. Lines were always being broken but, strafing or no strafing, they had to maintain them, particularly in the 19 Battalion sector at the crest of the pass. For such hazardous work Lance-Corporal Scott3 and Private Spilman4 from 20 Battalion and Private Porter5 from 19 Battalion were awarded the Military Medal.

In its turn 6 Field Regiment was hard at work, particularly between air raids, when the enemy were shelled as they attempted to cross the river in pontoon boats or to clamber across the demolished bridge. In the German reports this very accurate shellfire restricted all serious movements about the bridge and along the road towards Servia. ‘The bridge building operation made no progress because the enemy's accurate shellfire made it impossible at times to work on the bridge and destroyed what work had been done.’6

And over the crest of the pass the Advanced Dressing Station

1 Lt-Col C. A. D'A. Blackburn, ED, m.i.d.; Gisborne; born Hamilton, 8 May 1899; public accountant; CO 19 Bn Apr–Jun 1941; CO 1 Army Tank Bn (NZ) Jan–May 1943.

2 Pte H. Moors, MM; Whangarei; born Okaihau, 20 May 1911; farm labourer; wounded 20 May 1941.

3 L-Cpl A. G. Scott, MM; Auckland; born England, 22 Sep 1918; bank officer; p.w. 1 Dec 1941.

4 Capt A. K. Spilman, MM; Marton; born Stratford, 7 Aug 1912; stock inspector; QM 20 Regt, Apr 1944–May 1945; wounded 24 Nov 1941.

5 L-Cpl W. Porter, MM; Te Whaiti; born Levin, 19 May 1918; timber worker; wounded 22 May 1941; p.w. 15 Jul 1942.

6 9 Panzer Division war diary, 15 April.

page 280 of A Company 5 Field Ambulance had a heavy day, 53 wounded being admitted, of whom 40 were German prisoners. To complicate matters the station was raided four times and had, in consequence, to be shifted still farther back into the pass.