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To Greece

W Force Moves into Position

W Force Moves into Position

At the Athens conference1 on 2–4 March the final arrangement was that three Greek divisions from the Central Macedonian Army would assemble with all possible speed and take over a sector of the Aliakmon line. The British, Australian and New Zealand troops of Lustre Force, henceforth to be known as W Force, would be sent north as rapidly as possible to take over the remainder of the line. All units, both Greek and British, would take their orders from General Wilson who, in turn, would be under General Papagos, Commander-in-Chief of the Allied Forces in Greece. For security reasons and because the Greeks did not wish to provoke the Germans, General Wilson was to remain incognito with the pseudonym of Mr Watt until the German attack was about to be launched.

After the conference General Wilson made a swift reconnaissance of the Aliakmon line, a natural but as yet unprepared defence system that extended from the Gulf of Salonika to the border of Yugoslavia. To approach it the Germans now moving into Bulgaria would have to break through the Metaxas line and cross the plain of Macedonia. Once they were past Salonika and over the Vardar (Axios) River,2 they had the choice of attacking several different gaps in the mountain ranges. South of Mount Olympus the rail-

1 See pp. 1058.

2 This river is known in Yugoslavia as the Vardar and in Greece as the Axios.

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and a third-class road turned west through the Pinios Gorge (the historic Vale of Tempe) to Larisa. Immediately north of the mountain a narrow but well formed road went through Olympus Pass to Elasson. South-west from Veroia the main highway went over the ranges to Kozani, and still farther north to the west of Edhessa a pass linked the Salonika area and the small plain about Florina.

As the forcing of any one of these passes would be long and costly, it was quite possible that the Germans might attempt to turn the left or northern end of the Aliakmon line by way of Yugoslavia and the Monastir Gap. Should Yugoslavia object to such movement across her territory she would almost certainly be invaded, and much would then depend upon her powers of resistance. If she was unable to halt a German thrust towards Monastir the Aliakmon line would have to be adjusted. Units would be withdrawn from Edhessa and Veroia, the Mount Olympus sector would be retained, and a new line established westwards from there to Servia and the Greek sector about Grevena. The highways which came south from Florina and Kastoria would thus be blocked.

To cover the concentration of W Force, Greek units would be sited on the three main routes: 19 (Motorised) Division in the coastal sector, 12 Division in Veroia Pass and 20 Division in Edhessa Pass. In due time the New Zealand Division, with 19 (Motorised) Division on its right flank, would, take over the coastal sector. Adjoining it to the west in the Pierian Range would be regiments from 12 Greek Division. The defence of the Veroia Gap would be the responsibility of a brigade from 6 Australian Division. The Vermion Range, the Edhessa Pass and the rugged Kaimakchalan sector on the border of Yugoslavia would be held by 20 Greek Division and the remainder of 12 Greek Division. On the Macedonian Plain to the east of Edhessa 1 Armoured Brigade would hold the line of the Axios River in order to delay the enemy and cover the parties preparing demolitions.

While movement orders were being prepared, General Freyberg, with Colonel Stewart, went by air to Larisa and then motored to Kozani. From there they went through the pass to Veroia and returned by way of Katerini and Olympus Pass to Larisa and, even tually, to Athens. The General was impressed by the commanders of the Central Macedonian Army but disturbed by the sight of 12 Greek Division moving into position: ‘their first line transport was composed entirely of ox wagons and pack animals which of course could only travel a very limited distance in a day at a very slow speed—actually at a slower pace than troops could march.’1

1 General Freyberg, Report on the New Zealand Division in Greece, p. 7.

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On 9 March he received his orders from W Force Headquarters. There had been some changes in the plan which had been drawn up at the conference in Athens on 2–4 March. In the southern sector the line had been swung north from Mount Olympus to include the great triangle of open ground between the mountain range and the Aliakmon River. The Division, less 5 Brigade as Corps Reserve behind Veroia Pass, would be responsible for the quadrilateral between Meliki, Neon Elevtherokhorion, Katerini and Mega Elevtherokhorion. The Greek divisions which were already in the sector would eventually be withdrawn, leaving the New Zealanders with a front of 15 miles: from the coast to the ridges of the Pierian Range immediately north of Mount Olympus. In the more level country adjoining the coast a deep anti-tank ditch was now being dug, but even with this barrier the defence of such an extended front was no ordinary task for two infantry brigades.

To make the situation still more difficult there were serious problems of time and transport. As a result of the dispersal of the units throughout the different flights, men who should have been among the first to reach Katerini were held back for days or even weeks. The GSO I and the AA & QMG had travelled with General Freyberg but the other members of his staff did not reach the area until 25 March, nearly a fortnight after the arrival of the advance party. The artillery units required time for the preparation of their positions but they were among the last to move in, 7 Anti-Tank Regiment, in particular, appearing only a few days before the German invasion. Once the units arrived in Greece the hastily organised base headquarters in Athens did its best to send them forward, but that was not always easy to organise. If the flights were delayed by bad weather or by the activities of enemy aircraft, there had to be alterations and adjustments in the movement orders that caused the greatest anxiety. Moreover, the staff had always to remember that between the transit camps about Athens and the divisional area at Katerini there were 250 miles of indifferent roadway and a succession of great mountain ranges.