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To Greece

First Moves in the Withdrawal from Servia Pass

First Moves in the Withdrawal from Servia Pass

The British in their turn had been completing their plans and conducting the first stages of their withdrawal to Thermopylae. On 15 April, before Anzac Corps operation orders were issued, Blamey had warned Mackay that the units west of Servia Pass and forward of the Aliakmon River must be withdrawn immediately. Nineteenth Australian Brigade and 26 New Zealand Battalion had then begun their exhausting withdrawal.1 In the afternoon when the shelling and strafing were reverberating through the pass, Mackay, Puttick and Allen, the commander of 16 Brigade, met at Headquarters 4 Brigade and planned their withdrawal to Thermopylae. A quick withdrawal of 16 Brigade from the mountains east of the pass was difficult to arrange, but before morning the battalions were coming down2 from their positions above the snow line. Fourth Brigade was to have withdrawn from Servia Pass on the night of 18–19 April, but during the afternoon of 16 April Headquarters 6 Australian Division instructed Puttick to withdraw one night earlier, 17–18 April.

The first withdrawal from the pass itself took place on the morning of 16 April when 2/2 Australian Field Regiment, having been warned of the heavy shelling of the crossroads, chose to move back through Karperon and Dheskati with 26 Battalion and some of 19 Brigade. The regiment eventually joined the left-flank screen that was assembling at Zarkos; the New Zealanders went to the

1 See pp. 2414.

2 See p. 252.

page 281 6 Brigade area south of Elasson; and the Australian infantry joined the rest of 19 Brigade at Dhomokos, south of Pharsala.

For the units about the pass it was a wet, misty day with no enemy air raids but much heavy shelling about the road junction behind the pass in the 19 Battalion area. In the hills above Servia 18 Battalion was undisturbed, but 20 Battalion on the western escarpment, having a clear view of the withdrawal of 26 New Zealand Battalion and 19 Australian Brigade and no instructions about its exposed left flank, was intensely curious about the changing front. When explanatory orders did arrive Lieutenant-Colonel Kippenberger prepared to refuse his left flank, but before any changes were made his battalion was ordered back to its old position astride the road at Lava.

At 8 p.m. the battalion transport withdrew without headlights along the narrow, slippery road. No losses were suffered at the still heavily shelled crossroads where there was already ‘a smell of death’, but two trucks, one Bren carrier and two motor-cycles were lost over the crumbling banks. The companies marched back, avoiding the dangerous crossroads but spending a wretched night in the wind and rain. They were not in position until 5 a.m. 17 April; ‘they were plastered from head to foot with mud, and were grey with fatigue, but they reported no stragglers.’1

Several of the artillery units withdrew the same night, 2/3 Australian Field Regiment and one troop of 64 Medium Regiment to Dhomenikon, and another troop of the last named to Dhomokos. The Australians had no difficulty getting out but the mediums in that rain-soaked country were not out on the highway until 3 a.m. on 17 April. Sixth New Zealand Field Regiment and one battery of 7 Medium Regiment who had maintained a steady harassing fire all through the night were now the only units of artillery left in the Servia Pass area.

By then it had been decided that 4 Brigade would be withdrawing that night, 17–18 April. Twentieth Battalion would be the rearguard, with Lieutenant-Colonel Kippenberger responsible for blowing the demolitions that were now being prepared along the line of withdrawal. D Company in Lava village would screen the withdrawal of 18 Battalion, B Company on the main highway would do the same for 19 Battalion. They in turn would withdraw through A Company, with C Company and one platoon of A Company back in the pass to cover the southern approaches. Eighteenth and 19th Battalions would begin their withdrawal at 9 p.m. and on reaching the main highway south of the gorge would move off to the Thermopylae area without waiting to form groups page 282 or complete units. The embussing point was south of Sarandaporos bridge, well back in the foothills on a small but distinct plateau which made an ideal turning point for vehicles.

Once the two battalions had embussed, the covering companies of 20 Battalion would move out through a screen of Bren carriers with which Lieutenant-Colonel Kippenberger and Lieutenant Kelsall, after blowing the demolitions, were to bring up the rear.