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To Greece

The Aliakmon Line

The Aliakmon Line

The necessary operation orders3 were accordingly prepared. The battalions of 6 Brigade, having reached Katerini during 22–25 March, were free to take over the coastal sector from the Greeks: 24 Battalion went to the extreme right about Neon Elevtherokhorion and Skala Elevtherokhorion in the strip between the sea and the highway to Salonika; 25 Battalion went to the area about the church to Ayios Elias.4 The unit in reserve, 26 Battalion, was to have been at Koukos, near Katerini, but the task of preparing the defences of the passes, as well as those of the Aliakmon line, forced Divisional Headquarters to send D Company to the Platamon tunnel area5 and the rest of the unit to the Mount Olympus area.

In the sector on the left flank which had been the responsibility of 4 Brigade for the past two weeks, 18 Battalion now held the ridges about the villages of Paliostani and Mikri Milia and 20 Battalion was to its left about Radhani. D Company 19 Battalion was at the entrance to Olympus Pass but the battalion as a whole had been in reserve along the Chaknakhora ridge. Like 26 Battalion in the coastal sector, it was now withdrawn and employed about the eastern approaches to the pass during the period 28 March– 1 April.

The divided interest of the two brigades—along the Aliakmon line and about Olympus Pass—was not the only unusual feature of the defence system. The 15-mile front was so exceptionally

3 NZ Division Operation Order No. 2, 27 March.

4 Ayios, usually abbreviated Ay, means Saint.

5 See pp. 1467.

page 137 wide that areas which would normally have been allocated to battalions were held by single companies sited on spurs or high ground and prepared for all-round defence. There was still an undefended gap of some 5500 yards between the western boundary of 4 Brigade and the mountain sector held by 12 Greek Division. Wire and sandbags were available for 4 Brigade, but 6 Brigade had to make the best use it could of any material left behind by 12 Greek Division. In fact the only strong point appeared to be the deep anti-tank ditch that was being cut from the coast north of Skala Elevtherokhorion to the Toponitsa River and thence to the source of the shallow stream in the area north-west of Paliostani.

In the area behind the line there were equally serious problems arising from limited time and inadequate resources. The different companies of engineers had not only to improve the system of communications but they had also to assist in the preparation of defensive positions. No. 1 Section 6 Field Company had therefore been brought forward from Olympus Pass to the 4 Brigade area, and Nos. 2 and 3 from the north of Katerini to the 6 Brigade area. Nineteenth Army Troops Company had No. 3 Section1 on the western side of Mount Olympus preparing W Force Headquarters at Tsaritsani; No. 2 was completing work begun by 6 Field Company at the crest of the pass; and No. 1 was improving the roads in the Gannokhora area. Fifth Field Park Company was erecting trestle bridges and handling the explosives and stores arriving at Larisa and Katerini. Seventh Field Company reached Katerini on 7 April, just before the divisional withdrawal but not in time to do any work in the forward areas.

So far as possible the engineers, and not the infantry, did the more specialised work along the front. Demolition charges were laid on the bridges, railway embankments and anti-tank crossing in the 6 Brigade area. The allocation of mines and the selection of sites for them are mentioned in official instructions but there is no record of their having been laid in any area. With the anti-tank ditch there was more progress. The Greek plans for a continuous line across the front had to be dropped but every effort was made to complete a series of defended localities. The only trouble was that the half-completed positions were not always suitable for all-round defence. The battalions had therefore to dig, wire and camouflage positions; the engineers had to construct a concrete pillbox in each company area. The local Greeks gave

1 The detachment of this unit from the Division without prior consultation raised some objections from General Freyberg. The BGS W Force, who had used the first available unit, explained his point of view: ‘There is NO intention to start stealing your units again … we are all trying to make this show work at short notice and under great difficulties….’

page 138 what assistance they could, the old men, the women and the boys doing the work of those who were away on active service. Clifton noted: ‘Still some difficulty getting Greek engineers properly functioning on our line of thought regarding defences and pill boxes. They are sound and their 4000 labourers going well, but language is a serious difficulty.’ This was better appreciated by Captain Carrie,1 of the New Zealand Engineers, who had to pay the labourers. On pay-days he would depart ‘dazed and almost crazy leaving behind a mutinous and vociferous crowd whose names had somehow been left off the rolls altogether and who were now adopting a menacing attitude towards the by now demented and almost speechless Union officials.’

At the same time the CRA, Brigadier Miles, and his Brigade Major, Major R. C. Queree, had been preparing for the arrival of the Divisional Artillery. As the extended front, particularly on the left flank, made it impossible for the infantry to hold a complete line, the German advance would have to be checked by artillery fire and counter-attack. The gun positions had therefore to be in places which the enemy could not observe either from his own territory or from the gaps between the defended localities. This necessity, together with the south-easterly slope of the ridges, the steep gullies and the lack of tracks connecting them made the selection of positions difficult, but, in the end, these requirements were met, at the expense, however, of anti-tank fields of fire. No serious consequences came from this decision, but events were soon to show that too much reliance had been placed on the supposedly anti-tank nature of the country.

It was decided that 6 Brigade, astride the main highway, should be covered by 4 and 5 Field Regiments (less E Troop) and that 4 Brigade should be supported by 6 Field Regiment. Fourth Field Regiment, which had reached Katerini on 26 March, was in position by 30 March with its guns covering the front from the coast to Katakhas. Fifth Field Regiment, arriving on 31 March, sent E Troop 26 Battery to the Aliakmon River on 2 April and moved to the rear of 6 Brigade on 4 April. Sixth Field Regiment reached Katerini on 1 April and was in support of 4 Brigade by 5 April. By then 1 Survey Troop was making a minor triangulation of the front and Headquarters Divisional Artillery had been established in the village of Kalokhori.

There were no anti-tank guns until 7 Anti-Tank Regiment arrived at Katerini on 2 April. As the most suitable route for enemy tanks was along the main road and railway, 32 and 33 Batteries, with B Troop from 31 Battery under command, were

1 Maj M. S. Carrie, m.i.d.; Hastings; born Wanganui, 18 Apr 1910; research chemist.

page 139 allocated to 6 Brigade, whose sector included these avenues of approach. The great difficulty was the shortage of men and guns. Battalion commanders were inclined to expect anti-tank gunners to cover gaps in the infantry positions; the gunners complained that obvious anti-tank positions had to be left unoccupied because no infantry support was possible. Another problem was the actual siting of the guns. The fashionable theory brought out from Britain by the gunners was that the tanks should be knocked out after they had penetrated the infantry positions. The infantry commanders naturally preferred that the tanks should be halted as they approached their defences. In the end three guns were placed well forward to cover the crossings over the anti-tank ditch and the others sited behind the main ridge. As 4 Brigade occupied an area that was less suitable for tanks, only 31 Battery, less the troop with 6 Brigade, came under its command. The eight guns were then placed under the command of the battalions and incorporated in their defence plans.1

The only other supporting weapons were those of 3 and 4 Companies 27 (Machine Gun) Battalion which had reached Katerini on 27 March. The former, under the command of 6 Brigade, now had platoons with the flank battalions to act in a ‘counter penetration’ role. The latter with similar instructions was in the 22 Battalion area along the ridge to the south of Tranos.

The field ambulance with each brigade provided advanced and main dressing stations. Thus 4 Field Ambulance, which was in the rough country with 4 Brigade, had its ADS in dugouts cut into the hillsides and its MDS 13 miles away at Kalokhori. The medical cases from 6 Brigade had at first been the responsibility of an MDS set up near this village by 5 Field Ambulance, but after 30 March 6 Field Ambulance had two ADSs behind the brigade lines, one at Sfendhami dug in and camouflaged, and the other at Koukos in the shelter of a stone shed. The MDS was well back near Kato Melia and among the oak trees at the foot of Olympus Pass.

At this stage of the war there was ‘a very general opinion that the German Army would not respect the Red Cross if displayed by our medical units. It … led to unnecessary difficulties in the forward medical units. Partly because of this, the forward ADSs and MDSs were placed in positions chosen for their obscurity and camouflage value and the possibility of sinking the tent floors below ground level. There were no large Red Crosses displayed on the roofs of ambulances. As a result medical units were subjected to bombing and machine-gunning from the air. As the short cam- page 140 paign proceeded it was learnt that the Germans did respect the Red Cross.’1

The structure of the divisional defence system was now complete. No additional troops were ever brought forward but some slight changes were made on 2 April after General Freyberg had discussed the arrangements with the commanders of 4 and 6 Brigades. Divisional Headquarters was moved from Katerini to Ay Ioannis to form a battle headquarters. The boundary between the brigades was shifted westwards, giving 6 Brigade a wider frontage and making it necessary to have three battalions in the line. Twenty-sixth Battalion, now released from the Divisional Reserve because of the arrival of 5 Brigade, was therefore sent forward between 24 and 25 Battalions. In the 4 Brigade sector the only change was the return of 19 Battalion from the Mount Olympus area; as brigade reserve it could now be used for counter-attack without the consent of Divisional Headquarters.

The Divisional Reserve in the Tranos area was still of limited strength. Twenty-second Battalion, with 4 Company 27 (Machine Gun) Battalion under command, was deployed along the ridge, while Headquarters 7 Anti-Tank Regiment with 34 Battery (less O Troop) covered the anti-tank obstacles between Pal Elevtherokhorion and Sfendhami.