Fourth Brigade Group
Fourth Brigade Group
In the Servia Pass area 10 April had been the day for deployment, not for withdrawals. The weather had cleared and the battalions could see the country which they were to hold. Hills some 4000–5000 feet high were immediately above them to the east and others equally high were away to the west. The five-mile front between the ranges sloped gradually across some two miles of very rough country and then ended in a precipitous escarpment with jagged arêtes and isolated pinnacles. At the base of this rock wall, unseen as yet, nestled the pretty market town of Servia, with plane trees in the square, vineyards on the terraces, and gardens flushed with blossoming plum and almond trees. Beyond it was the Aliakmon River and the long gradual incline up to the town of Kozani.
The crest of the escarpment was to be held with 18 Battalion on the right flank above Servia; 19 Battalion would be responsible for the country to the left on either side of the cutting through which the main highway went down the escarpment to the river valley. In reserve on either side of the highway to the south-west of Lava was 20 Battalion.
Lieutenant-Colonel Gray left a rear headquarters in Lava and had his main headquarters in Kastania, a village on the right flank some 3000 feet above sea level and surrounded by oaks and pines. The view north-west across the river was a gunner's dream, for the main north road was clear almost all the way from Servia to the bridge and for miles beyond that as it gradually ascended to Kozani.
There was, however, one serious disadvantage. The country between rear headquarters at Lava and the FDLs along the crest of the escarpment was incredibly eroded, with winding gullies and yellow-brown ridges, patches of scrub or, in the direction of Lava, groves of oak and pine. In New Zealand it would have been an area of abandoned sluicing claims. To reach their respective areas the companies had therefore to spend many hours following long circuitous tracks; and in the withdrawal which page 186 was eventually to take place this was to mean a most serious loss of time.
The escarpment to the left up to and beyond the main highway through Servia Pass was held by 19 Battalion. Some slight changes1 were afterwards made on 14–15 April but the positions taken over on 10 April were, in the main, those held by the battalion when the Germans attacked. B Company (Major Gordon2) was in reserve well back from the pass and high enough for one platoon to be on the escarpment to prevent infiltration and to link up with 18 Battalion. A Company (Captain Pleasants3) was at the foot of the gap and astride the road where it swung eastwards to round the base of the escarpment. This company was between the more forward of the three anti-tank ditches which the Greeks had constructed, with the precipitous escarpment on the right and a sharp dip into the gully on the left.
On the western side of the road the ridge continued with steep cliffs to the north and the village of Prosilion on the reverse slope. C Company (Captain Bedding4) was to the north-west across the pass from A Company; D Company (Captain Webster5) was to the south and south-west of the village.
In the open country between the foot of the escarpment and the Aliakmon River the carrier platoons of 18 and 19 Battalions patrolled to the villages of Kranidhia and Goules. Parachute attacks were possible, but it was more likely that the Germans would ford the Aliakmon River and approach the pass under cover of the plane trees in the several gullies that ran down from the escarpment.
3 Brig C. L. Pleasants, CBE, DSO, MC, ED, m.i.d.; Wellington; born Halcombe, 26 Jul 1910; schoolmaster; CO 18 Bn and Armd Regt Jul 1942–Mar 1944; comd 4 Armd Bde Sep–Nov 1944; 5 Bde Aug 1944, Nov 1944–Jan 1945, May 1945–Jan 1946; twice wounded; Commander, Fiji Military Forces, 1949–53; Commander, Northern Military District, 1953–57; Central Military District, 1957–.
To the rear again, on the southern side of the watershed, Brigade Headquarters was established. J Section Divisional Signals (Captain Borman2) had no serious difficulty laying the telephone cable from there to 19 and 20 Battalions, even though it meant skirting the weathered hillsides and keeping clear of the road, which was certain to be bombed. The great problem was laying line across the gullies and up the heights to 18 Battalion, but it was complete by the night of 10–11 April and afterwards extended another five miles to bring 64 Medium Regiment, Royal Artillery, into the brigade system.
In support of the brigade were several units of artillery under the overall command of Lieutenant-Colonel C. E. Weir. The anti-tank defence about the pass was the responsibility of 31 Anti-Tank Battery (Major Blake3), two of whose troops came under the command of 19 Battalion and one under the command of 20 Battalion.
Sixth Field Regiment, with lines laid out across most difficult country, was in position by the night of 10–11 April in the valley south and west of Lava. Twenty-ninth Battery on the right was to support 18 Battalion; 30 Battery, less B Troop, to support 19 Battalion. B Troop had been placed farther forward, just south of the Borsana ridge to the east of the pass, to cover the bridge across the Aliakmon River. The observation points along the edge of the escarpment had ‘a wonderful field of view of a most extensive zone’; they were used by the Survey Troop after it was hurriedly brought over from Olympus Pass on 11–12 April.
Next day, 11 April, a battery of 7 Medium Regiment, Royal Artillery, came under command to provide counter-battery fire and to cover the Aliakmon bridge. Both troops were placed well back at the southern end of the pass, the engineers plotting a 400-yard branch road and a Palestinian Labour Company, fresh from Tobruk, completing the work.
The medical unit with 4 Brigade Group was 5 Field Ambulance (Lieutenant-Colonel Twhigg1), which had moved into position on 10 April and now had its Main Dressing Station some eight miles north of Elevtherokhorion on the lee side of a prominent hill. Three miles forward A Company (Major Fisher2) established an Advanced Dressing Station and was immediately accepting patients, in spite of rain during the day and a snowfall during the night.
1 Brig J. M. Twhigg, DSO, ED, m.i.d.; Wellington; born Dunedin, 13 Sep 1900; physician; CO 5 Fd Amb Jul 1940–Nov 1941; p.w. Nov 1941; repatriated Apr 1942; ADMS 3 NZ Div Aug 1942–Apr 1943; DDMS 2 NZEF (IP) Apr 1943–Aug 1944; ADMS 2 NZEF (UK) Oct 1944–Feb 1946.
2 Col W. B. Fisher, OBE, ED, m.i.d.; born New Plymouth, 21 Jan 1898; Superintendent, Waipukurau Hospital; RMO 28 (Maori) Battalion Dec 1939–Aug 1940; 2 i/c 5 Fd Amb Aug 1940–May 1941; actg CO 6 Fd Amb May 1941; CO 21 Lt Fd Amb (NZ) Nov 1941–Dec 1942; 6 Fd Amb Feb 1943–Aug 1944; CO 1 Gen Hosp Aug 1944–Feb 1945; died 17 Jan 1956.