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To Greece

The Monastir Gap

The Monastir Gap

There was one serious weakness in this Aliakmon line; it could be turned from Bulgaria by a force which did not directly attack Greece. By driving hard across south-east Yugoslavia the Germans could reach Monastir and then thrust south across the border of Greece to Florina, to Kozani and to Larisa. However, this danger had been accepted in the hope that either the neutrality of the Yugoslavs would be respected or that they would prevent access to Greece by force of arms. Should the Germans overrun Yugoslavia, it was Papagos's intention to withdraw his Greek armies in Albania to link with the left flank of W Force.1

Arrangements2 had been made for a special reconnaissance squadron to operate in such forward areas as the Monastir Gap and to provide communications direct to Headquarters W Force. But this was not sufficient; there had to be a defence force to hold the range which overlooked the southern edge of the Florina area.

On 17 March Brigadier R. Charrington, the commander of 1 Armoured Brigade, was warned that the Germans, if they reached the Monastir Gap, could turn the north flank of the Aliakmon line. In view of this threat the cruiser tanks of 3 Royal Tank Regiment which were then on their way up from Athens were not detrained on the eastern side of the Aliakmon line; they were sent north towards Salonika and then back through the Edhessa Gap to be the nucleus of a force which would assemble about Amindaion, a small town just south-east of Florina. The other regiments remained in Macedonia but they had to be prepared to close the Monastir Gap. If the Germans came across Macedonia to the Aliakmon line, 1 Armoured Brigade would not withdraw southwards ‘over lovely A/T positions’3 to the coastal sector held by the New Zealand Division. It would pull back through the Edhessa and Veroia gaps

1 See p. 102.

2 W Force Operation Instruction No. 1, 10 March.

3 Charrington to Wilson, 18 March.

page 129 and become part of the force that was now assembling about Amindaion.

On 20 March General Wilson was still apprehensive about the chances of an attack from the direction of Monastir. In a letter to General Freyberg he mentioned the steps that he was taking to meet such a threat. ‘Some medium artillery and I believe a MG battalion may be ready to move within the next week. I am also taking their destinations up with Papagos, but I am anxious to increase the reserve consisting of the 3 RTR at Armintion [sic] and will probably send a good proportion there.’1

This explains why on 21 March 27 New Zealand (Machine Gun) Battalion, less one company, received orders to move to Amindaion. Next day Brigadier E. A. Lee,2 of 1 Australian Corps, was warned that if an attack developed in that quarter he was to command 3 Royal Tank Regiment and 27 (Machine Gun) Battalion. In the meantime he was to advise General Kotulas on artillery matters.3 Later 2/1 Australian Anti-Tank Regiment (less one battery) was added to his command.

The advance party from 27 (Machine Gun) Battalion, led by Lieutenant-Colonel Gwilliam,4 left Athens on 22 March and followed the main highway through Larisa to Elevtherokhorion. But instead of branching north-east to Mount Olympus it continued north to Servia Pass, a gap in the northern hills which was afterwards defended by 4 Brigade. The town of Servia was below the escarpment; the Aliakmon River, about to enter the gorge in the eastern hills, was only a few miles farther on; and beyond it there was a long, gradual rise to Kozani, a substantial town from which roads radiated eastwards to Veroia and Salonika, northwards to Yugoslavia and westwards to Albania.

From the wide ridge or plateau about Kozani the road to Yugoslavia descended to skirt the western edge of another plain and then passed through the Komanos Gap, a neat cleft in the low ridge which overlooks the straggling town of Ptolemais. Continuing north, it went through Perdikha and over undulating country until it reached Amindaion, a village set in poplar trees above the blue waters of Lake Petrais; south-west there were the marshes about Lake Roundik; and north again, beyond the two lakes, were high scrub-covered ridges.

1 Wilson to General Freyberg and Brigadier Charrington, 20 March.

2 Lee was a British officer commanding the medium artillery of 1 Australian Corps. All such units were British: 64 Medium Regiment (211 and 234 Batteries) and 7 Medium Regiment (RHQ and one battery).

3 64 Medium Regiment, RA, was supporting 12 Greek Division about Veroia and 20 Greek Division in the Edhessa area.

4 Lt-Col F. J. Gwilliam, ED, m.i.d.; Auckland; born Auckland, 9 May 1904; clerk; CO 27 (MG) Bn, Aug 1940–Jul 1942; 24 Bn Jul–Nov 1942; town clerk, Auckland.

page 130

The arrival of the machine-gunners came as a surprise to the commander of 3 Royal Tank Regiment, for he had received no warning orders and knew nothing about Brigadier Lee to whom the New Zealanders had to report. Somewhat baffled, Lieutenant- Colonel Gwilliam waited for the Brigadier, who did not arrive until 26 March.

Until then he spent his time inspecting the area. In the ridges to the north was Klidhi Pass (‘the key’), by which the road and railway reached the level country east of Florina and fringing the border of Yugoslavia. At first sight this mountain basin was not unlike the Mackenzie Country in New Zealand. But there were no fences whatsoever; a few peasants were ploughing with teams of slow-paced oxen; and about the foothills were white-walled, red-tiled villages. Strategically it was an important area, the meeting place of roads from Salonika, from Yugoslavia and from central Greece and Albania.

The two commanders eventually decided that two machine-gun companies would be forward of the ridge covering the approaches to the pass, one company to the east in the Lofoi area and the other to the west near Palaistra. A third company would deploy on the ridge immediately west of the pass, with the level plain before it patrolled by 3 Royal Tank Regiment. Once these decisions had been made the advance party picked out gun positions and prepared for the arrival of the battalion.

The convoy had left Athens on 25 March and was now well on its way. Three companies were to have gone to Amindaion, but Freyberg had signalled W Force Headquarters that he needed two not one. Nos. 3 and 4 Companies1 had consequently turned off at the Elevtherokhorion junction and gone over Olympus Pass. The others were moving north and finding it ‘a pleasant enough drive through terribly rough country with tiny villages and desperately poor peasants.’ Even so they were given a wonderful reception. There was always a Greek returned from America who could act as interpreter, garlands of flowers would be distributed and glasses of wine handed out to the noble allies.

At last on 28 March the battalion reached Amindaion. No. 1 Company was then sent to Lofoi, 2 Company to Palaistra and Battalion Headquarters with Headquarters Company to a position just off the road to the north-west of Amindaion and near the southern entrance to the Klidhi Pass. Their first task was to make a detailed reconnaissance of the area in front of the pass and to study the tracks over the hills to the rear in case they had to withdraw from their positions on the plain. There was, however,

1 See p. 139.

page 131 an element of uncertainty about all this work. ‘After we got there plans were always changing and we had several alternative positions. We did not know what force would come up.’1

1 Major P. W. Wright, 2 i/c 27 Battalion.