The Supply Problem
The Supply Problem
There was also the question of supplies. The DA & QMG for W Force, when he arrived in Athens in February, had found that the British, if they were to fight a campaign in Greece, would have to supply themselves and very possibly the Greeks.
The Greek Army was … already using its railways almost to maximum capacity, the country had been denuded of every animal, cart and motor vehicle which was fit for use, the Army had taken control of all small ships and practically all caiques; the available civilian labour (men, women and children) was all employed, largely on road maintenance. The civil population, moreover, was already badly off for food; there was no meat and flour was short and they had even to feed wheat to their pack transport owing to a shortage of barley. The British Military Mission in Athens had placed large orders for equipment, stores, food, coal, etc. at home and occasional ships were arriving from Britain, but the programme of fulfilment of the orders could not be predicted at all. From a Greek point of view, therefore, the cupboard was nearly bare of local resources; from a British army point of view nothing was available locally.1
As the greatest needs of the Greeks were supplies and transport vehicles, an embarrassing situation developed when the convoys brought over hundreds of MT vehicles and the stores which were to be the ninety days' reserve. The obvious deduction was that the British should do more to support their allies. The military mission pleaded with W Force Headquarters, but the decision was that any assistance given to the Greeks at that time would be at the expense of British movements and reserves. In any case the volume of supplies necessary for any appreciable assistance to the fifteen ill-equipped Greek divisions would have been enormous.
In making such preparations the Allied Command had to accept several very unpleasant facts. Salonika could be bombed from airfields in Bulgaria; ships could not clear the port and be out of fighter-bomber range before daylight; the railway from Salonika to Edhessa could easily be cut if the enemy turned the Metaxas line; and the railway centre at Katerini, though close to Salonika, was forward of the Aliakmon line.
The maintenance of the right flank of the Greek Army in Albania and of the forces along the Aliakmon line had therefore to be from the port of Piræus and the minor port of Volos. From Piræus a standard-gauge railway line ran north, with one branch line going north-west to the romantic monastery town of Kalabaka and another, with a metre gauge, coming in from Volos to Larisa, the key town of Thessaly. From there the main line went through the Pinios Gorge and up the coast to Katerini and Salonika.
The main highway was typical of a country with limited finances and considerable coastal shipping. Some stretches were not tar sealed, others could not take two lanes of traffic. In the mountains there were formidable hairpin bends and sections which could be badly iced and often blocked with snow. Several of the bridges were limited to one-way traffic; all of them could easily be damaged by enemy bombers; and because the distance between Piræus and the base at Larisa was some 200 miles, a large number of motor vehicles had always to be on the road.
The only advantage in the system was that the highway ran north-west to Larisa, to Kozani and on to the Monastir Gap directly behind the whole length of the Aliakmon line. The roads which branched off eastwards were consequently the supply lines for the troops who were defending the more accessible passes. D Company 26 Battalion,1 above the Platamon tunnel, was guarding the approaches to an ancient and now third-grade road which went through the Pinios Gorge; the rest of the New Zealand Division covered the entrance to Olympus Pass and the second-class road to Larisa; 6 Australian Division was taking over the defences of the Veroia Pass by which the main highway crossed from Kozani to Veroia; north of that again, another road, the responsibility of 20 Greek Division, went over the mountains from Florina to Edhessa.
1 On 9 April 21 Battalion took over the defence of this area.
To make the problem still more difficult, the units which had been trained to handle supplies were not sent over to Greece in time to prepare for the reception of the convoys of supply ships. Like many New Zealand formations the supply groups were often sent over in different flights and forced to wait several days for staff, vehicles and equipment to be complete. The result was temporary congestion and confusion about the depot on the Athens racecourse and along the sidings at Larisa. In time, however, there were field supply depots at Livadhion, Servia and Kozani and forward dumps at Katerini, Veroia, Edhessa and Amindaion.
First Armoured Brigade which went into the Macedonian Plain was supplied from the field supply depots at Veroia and Edhessa. The New Zealand Division in its sector was supplied by a daily pack train from Athens to Katerini, where the first-line transport of most units picked up their supplies. These arrangements left 4 NZ RMT Company and 1 and 2 RMT Companies of the Royal Army Service Corps free to work from the Advanced Base at Larisa establishing the field supply depots. Later, when 6 Australian Division came north, the pack train to the New Zealand Division was continued and the other troops in the line were supplied from the field supply depots2 at Servia and Kozani.
1 CRME 1514, Engineer Report No. 2, 15 March 1941, Appendix A.