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To Greece

New Zealand Division Moves up to Katerini

New Zealand Division Moves up to Katerini

The first group to move north—Lieutenant-Colonel G. H. Clifton, 6 Field Company and 2 Armoured Division Light Field Hygiene Section1—left Hymettus for Katerini on 11 March. At

1 This section was soon afterwards withdrawn to join 1 Armoured Brigade; A Company 4 Field Ambulance, which had an ADS for that brigade in the Veroia area, returned to Katerini. The detachment of this company from the Division by the ADMS 80 Subarea was yet another example of that casual use of New Zealand units which always worried General Freyberg. See p. 137, note 1.

page 124 that date there was still rain, sleet and even snow, but for the majority of the Division who moved up towards the end of the month there was all the charm of the Balkan spring, the most enjoyable season of the year. In other months the countryside is dry and bare, for there are few grasses in Greece, but throughout March and April the fields are green with wheat or glowing with asphodels and poppies. In the forests and shaded clearings below the budding oaks and plane trees there are hyacinths, anemones, irises, crocuses, violets and Stars of Bethlehem. And on what would soon be dusty hillsides, pinks and campions, violas and saxifrages flourished in the shaded clefts and cracks.

On the route itself, whether the units went by road or by railway, there was a succession of plains or river valleys separated by ridges that were often high and always formidable. There was little choice of movement. The passes that had once been forced by Persians and Macedonians were the passes through which engineers had constructed railways and through which the battalions of the Commonwealth were to advance and retreat within the next few weeks.

The first stage of the journey was along the Sacred Way from Athens to Elevsis and then north through the hills to the defile of Citheron and the rolling vineyards outside the historic town of Thebes. Here the streets were pink with almond blossom and the famous springs gushed water at every fountain head. Beyond the town the road turned west and the company went up the valley to Levadhia, where it halted for the night. In the gorge beyond that picturesque town men had once consulted the oracle and found the waters of Memory and Forgetfulness.

Next day they moved on, with Mount Parnassus dominating the landscape to the west and great ridges rising to the north. In another age the company would then have turned north-east to the gap between the ridges and the sea which is known as the Pass of Thermopylae. At its narrowest it is wide enough for a road but for little else; there is the shingle beach on one side and 500-foot cliffs on the other. In its more open stretches the scene becomes enchanting: caiques may be anchored close in to the shore; the cliffs are still precipitous and the road is fringed with tall pine trees. In the open country to the north there is the village of Molos, the blue sulphurous stream from Thermopylae, the ancient aqueduct and then the silted plain with the Sperkhios River and the straight road to Lamia.

The railway and modern highway do not use the Pass of Thermopylae. They follow the more direct route to the north-west across the range by way of Brallos Pass. Those who went page 125 north by train remember the slow climb up the valley, the shaded gorges with stands of oak and pine, the succession of tunnels, the great bridge1 across the Asopos River and the run out across the Sperkhios valley to the west of Lamia, a town at the foot of the Othris Range. Sixth Field Company and other road parties recall the succession of curves by which they climbed above the gorges and the railway bridges. The hillsides were a mass of vegetation: myrtle, broom, thyme, Judas trees, wild olives and mountain oaks. The crest of the pass was in a world of pines and firs: ‘—it was a wonderful sight from the top with the road zig-zagging downhill in hair-pin bends, straightening out at the bottom and making a bee-line for Lamia at the far side of the plain. At every village the people gave us a wonderful reception— threw flowers, waved and cheered, and whenever we stopped, brought us wine and eggs. All the schools were closed for the duration, and the children were there in hundreds.’2

The Othris Range beyond Lamia was the next obstacle. The railway line followed the north side of the Sperkhios valley and broke through the hills past Lake Xinias to the south-west corner of the plain of Thessaly. There was a second-class road running eastwards round the coast to Volos, a port from which a narrow-gauge railway and a bad road went through the hills to Larisa, the key town of Thessaly. The main highway ran between these two routes. Climbing north over scrub-covered hills, it reached the plain about Lake Xinias and then went over another ridge near Dhomokos to the undulating country about Pharsala and on to the plain of Thessaly, almost bare of trees, but well cultivated, studded with small villages and encircled by high mountains.

The chief town, Larisa, was not altogether at its best, having been shaken by an earthquake3 only a few days before and bombed on several occasions by the Italians, but it was obviously the key town of central Greece. The railway turned north-east to the Pinios Gorge, the Platamon tunnel and Salonika; to the north through Elasson, Kozani and Florina ran the highway to Yugoslavia; and north-westwards, by way of Trikkala and Kalabaka, was the road to Albania. The company kept to the highway, crossing the Pinios and Titarisos rivers and spending the night at Tirnavos. On 13 March, a cold day with some swirling snow, they went through the hills to another, but much smaller, plain on the northern edge of which was Elasson, a market town remembered for its Turkish minarets. North and across the valley, beyond the monastery with the golden dome, was the narrow pass leading to the bridge

1 See p. 472.

2 Capt M. S. Carrie, Adjutant NZE, extracts from personal diary.

3 On 28 February 1941.

page 126 beside the village of Elevtherokhorion. Beyond it there was yet another plain across which the highway continued north to Yugoslavia and a secondary road branched north-east to Olympus Pass and Salonika.

The route for 6 Field Company lay across the plain and up through the forested foothills to the crest of the pass. Mount Olympus was now to the south of them, white with snow and often obscured by clouds. Below them at the head of the gorge was the village of Ay Dhimitrios, where No. 1 Section remained to improve the road. In the next ten miles the forest changed imperceptibly from fir to pine, to oaks and beeches, to plane trees and finally to the shrubs of the foothills. Here No. 3 Section was left to ease corners, construct passing bays and generally improve the surface of the road which the engineers thought ‘wasn't so bad, … the main jobs were widening a few of the hair-pin bends and some of the culverts, but it was a pretty tricky road much like some of the back-country roads in New Zealand, and a big change from Egypt.’1

Company Headquarters and No. 2 Section then continued on their way across some 12 miles of undulating country on which shepherds watched flocks of long-tailed sheep and farmers ploughed the open fields for crops of maize and tobacco. A straight stretch of road lined with poplar trees took them into Katerini, a flourishing country town with a market square, a railway station and public gardens. The engineers, and for that matter the whole Division, had not yet been issued with bivouac tents so they were billeted2 in houses and public buildings. In this case it was only for two days, the men finding it much more convenient to be back at the base of the pass, where they worked until their services were required after the arrival of 4 and 6 Brigades.

The next unit to leave Athens was 18 Battalion. The road party with the transport vehicles left on 12 March, followed the route of the engineers and reached Katerini the following evening. But it was different with the main body of the battalion: the rifle companies and the Bren-carrier platoon. They started the fashion for the majority of the Division and went up by train, leaving Athens on 13 March and reaching Katerini twenty-two hours later.

The journey was one that no soldier ever forgot. Sometimes there were old-fashioned carriages, but for the most part the troops were in goods wagons, horse vans and cattle trucks. ‘Dry rations, tins of bully beef and stew and some bread were carried on the

1 M. S. Carrie, diary.

2 No troops were billeted after 15 April. The prices for a room in a village had not to exceed 18s. 3d., in a town 18s. 9d., a month. The bills were paid direct to the householders by the unit pay officers.

page 127 train. Tea was made with the aid of primus stoves, and luxuries like eggs and fresh Greek bread, brown and nutritious, could be purchased at some of the wayside stations.’1 The route across the succession of plains and valleys had been much the same as that of the highway but in the mountain sectors there were pronounced differences. Instead of windswept passes and great panoramas there were precipitous cliffs, heavily timbered gorges, the Asopos bridge, the charming Vale of Tempe and the coastal strip between the Platamon tunnel and Katerini, with the sea on one side and the timbered ridges of Mount Olympus on the other.

In Katerini the battalion spent several days waiting for instructions. The companies marched and trained; the transport platoon shifted road metal for the engineers; and in the evenings the rank and file enjoyed the hospitality of the township, sipping ouzo, a close relative of vodka, and sampling such wines as krassi and mavrodaphne.

By this time General Freyberg, having returned through the now snow-covered passes, was discussing with the Greek commanders the boundaries of the divisional sector in the Aliakmon line and studying with Colonel Stewart the defence positions for 4 Brigade. The final decision was that the brigade should move beyond Katerini and fill half the gap between 19 Greek Motorised Division on the coast and 12 Greek Division in the mountains; 6 Brigade when it arrived would go to the west of 4 Brigade and take over the rest of the sector. In other words, the brigades would share a front of 12,000 yards, much of it along low ridges studded with oak saplings.

For 18 Battalion this meant the end of its pleasant sojourn in Katerini. On 18 March it moved out, A and C Companies to cover the demolition parties in Olympus Pass, Battalion Headquarters and the other companies to Mikri Milia, a village in the open country between Katerini and the Aliakmon River. As the other battalions had already left Athens, they appeared shortly afterwards and went straight to their respective areas. Twentieth Battalion, which arrived on 19–20 March, had to prepare positions at Riakia, a village three to four miles west of 18 Battalion. On 20–21 March 19 Battalion, as brigade reserve, arrived to assist the other units and to replace the companies which 18 Battalion had sent to the pass.

Brigade Headquarters was at Palionellini, where the supporting units were now assembling. No. 1 Section 6 Field Company, which had been brought down from Olympus Pass on 17 March, was assisting in the preparation of roads and defensive positions. Fourth

1 Draft narrative 18 Battalion, pp. 51–2.

page 128 Field Ambulance, which had reached Katerini on 18 March, had, before the week was over, an Advanced Dressing Station burrowed out of a ridge to the north of the village and its Main Dressing Station to the west of Katerini in the village of Kalokhori, where there were already Headquarters New Zealand Division and the office of the Assistant Director of Medical Services (Colonel Kenrick). Fourth Field Hygiene Section which arrived on 20 March was established beside the Main Dressing Station. As malaria was prevalent in summer the unit, in addition to checking the water supply and the sanitary arrangements, had to drain pools and ponds and oil all standing water in which mosquitoes might breed.