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To Greece

The Problems of W Force

The Problems of W Force

Neither Blamey nor Freyberg seems to have been fully aware of the web within which the attitude of Yugoslavia had now enmeshed Wilson and Papagos. Anxious about their respective divisions, the Dominion commanders had long since wanted to move back from the plain to the mountains. On 20 March, for instance, after Wilson released 19 Greek Motorised Division from the central sector for an anti-parachute role in the Axios valley and the Doiran Gap, he had to inform Freyberg that his 6 Brigade, instead of filling the gap between 4 Brigade and 19 Greek Motorised Division, would have to take over the coastal sector from the Greeks. The warning order explained the position very bluntly: ‘As soon as you have got two Bdes up you must relieve 19 G Div and let them go. You may not like this but it can't be helped. It is imperative that they be released for service NE.’1

General Freyberg thereupon pointed out that as he would have insufficient troops to hold this extended sector it could not be wise to have them on the plain to the north of Katerini. They would be better placed in the passes adjoining Mount Olympus. The Australian officers were of the same opinion. Lieutenant- Colonel H. Wells, the senior Australian liaison officer, who had already inspected the line, thought that it was not sound ‘to hold the open country north of Katerine, rather than the passes to the south.’ On 23 March Freyberg warned Blamey, who was then inspecting the line, that until reinforcements arrived about 4 April

1 Brigadier A. Galloway, BGS W Force, to General Freyberg, 20 Mar 1941.

page 135 he, Freyberg, had to hold a front of nearly 15 miles with only two infantry brigades, one field regiment of artillery and no anti-tank guns whatsoever. If 5 Brigade and 7 Anti-Tank Regiment did come through by that date his division would still be ‘too thin on the ground.’ Blamey's opinion had then been that the New Zealand Division should be withdrawn from the plain to the foothills of Mount Olympus. In fact he had said that as soon as he became corps commander he would order such an adjustment to the Aliakmon line.1

On the strength of this statement General Freyberg had that same day explained the position to General Wilson. On his present front of 16,000 yards he had 4 Brigade. Given time and material he could, with 6 Brigade and normal fire support, make it reasonably secure. The more level sector along the coast which was held by 19 Greek Motorised Division was a totally different proposition. The retention of its 12,500 yards of front was a task for a complete division. Yet he understood that his three brigades, less the machine-gun companies at Amindaion, would have to take over both sectors. ‘Should this be so the enemy will have no difficulty in penetrating at any place where he chooses to concentrate. In my opinion at best a division on front of 28,500 yards is not a defensive position and it will only be able to delay enemy a matter of one or two days. I am of course not in the picture as regards general situation but if as I understand present line is to be held as a long term policy I suggest it is most unsound and that main position should be prepared and occupied covering mountain pass 14 miles south-west of Katerini. Present position could then be held by mobile troops.’2

The reply from W Force Headquarters on 24 March was that General Wilson ‘considers heavy attack on your front unlikely as compared one via Edessa.’ No additional troops3 were available but General Freyberg had to make certain that the enemy did not force the passes east and west of Mount Olympus. The Divisional Cavalry Regiment, when it arrived, ‘should more than compensate for departure of 19 Greek Div.’4

The same day General Blamey returned to Athens and discussed the subject with General Wilson. The following decisions were made:

The defence of the passes on the British front is of paramount importance. Work on these defences should be given priority. General Freyberg will be so informed by Brigadier Galloway. NZ Div Cav Regt will be avail-

2 HQ NZ Division ‘G’ diary, p. 25A.

3 Two companies from 27 MG Battalion, not one, were switched from the Amindaion area to Mount Olympus.

4 Milgreece to NZ Division, O. 143, 24 March.

page 136 able
very shortly to take over forward role and these are sufficient to relieve remainder of Div in advanced positions to allow the Div to prepare defences of Katerini (Olympus) Pass and pass between sea and Mt Olympus.1

In other words, the New Zealand Division was to remain behind the anti-tank ditch to the north of Katerini, but General Freyberg had, at the same time, to prepare demolitions and garrison the passes about Mount Olympus. He was warned2 that he must make certain of the passes on either side of Mount Olympus. ‘Everything you do in front must be subservient to that important factor, for if the passes are lost it would be awkward.’ Nineteenth Greek Motorised Division had to be released as early as possible. ‘The Greeks are counting on it, for what it is worth—in an anti-parachute role out in front of the plain. They may be of some use.’

1 Notes on interview Wilson-Blamey.

2 Galloway to Freyberg, 25 March.