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To Greece

The Allied Commanders Decide to Withdraw

The Allied Commanders Decide to Withdraw

The intelligence reports received on the morning of 8 April were most discouraging. The Metaxas line, in parts, was still intact but German regiments were almost clear of the Rupel Pass. Others had outflanked the western end of the line and were striking southwards towards Salonika, one column between Lake Doiran and the Axios River and another down the western bank of the river towards Ghevgheli. The only units in their path were one and a half battalions of 19 Greek Motorised Division, whose original sector to the east of the lake had been extended the previous night to include the threatened roads to the west. The resistance they could offer was so slight that General Papagos had earnestly requested the transfer of 1 Armoured Brigade from the Edhessa area to the anti-tank obstacles that were being prepared in the Axios valley.

This would have been a desperate and ineffective change of plans. The information coming in throughout the day made it quite clear that Yugoslav resistance had cracked on all fronts and that the British forces along the line of the passes were now likely to be encircled. A patrol from General Headquarters Liaison Squadron reported that Yugoslav resistance to the north of Monastir was practically at an end; the town was almost empty and some of the Yugoslav General Staff were already over the border into Florina. The patrol could do no more than arrange for the demolition of the main bridge over the Crna to the north of Monastir and shepherd the withdrawal of three Yugoslav tanks and four anti-aircraft guns. The way was therefore clear for the German units now approaching Prilep to rush south and, by nightfall, enter Monastir. From there they could strike south to Amindaion, Kozani and Larisa, thereby outflanking the defences which had been built up to hold the passes behind Edhessa, Veroia and Katerini.

General Wilson discussed1 the situation with General Blamey at Headquarters 1 Australian Corps and decided how W Force could be used to meet the emergency. ‘In order to stop a blitzkrieg’ down the Monastir-Florina Gap and to give W Force time to

1 This discussion led to the following operation orders: 1 Aust Corps Op Instr No. 4, issued at 1 p.m., 8 April; instructions to 1 Armoured Brigade were telephoned between 1.35 p.m. and 2.35 p.m.; General Freyberg received his orders that afternoon and NZ Div Op Instr No. 4 was issued at 6 p.m., 8 April; W Gp Op Instr No. 9 appeared at 12.35 a.m., 9 April, and No. 10 in the evening of the same day.

page 166 organise its main defences, a temporary or intermediate line would immediately be prepared.

At the southern edge of the gap was Klidhi Pass in the Amindaion area. It would be held by a force1 under the command of Major-General I. G. Mackay, who would be directly responsible to Headquarters W Force. Within it there would be the original Amindaion detachment, including 27 MG Battalion, 6 Australian Division less 16 Brigade in the Veroia Pass, 64 Medium Regiment, 1 Armoured Brigade and an engineer company. The Australian battalions would move up to the pass as they became available; the armoured brigade then dealing with demolitions in the Macedonian Plain would withdraw that night and then come under command.

In the Vermion Range to the east and south of Amindaion would be 20 Greek Division,2 south of it would be several units of 12 Greek Division, whose replacement by 6 Australian Division would now be discontinued; Veroia Pass would still be held by 16 Australian Brigade; and in the extreme south the New Zealand Division would hold the sector from Mount Olympus to the Aegean.

No date could as yet be given for the withdrawal from this intermediate line, but it had to be held long enough for the creation of a more permanent one which would run north from the Mount Olympus sector to the Aliakmon River and thence along the south bank to the mountains west of Servia, where it would link up with the Western Macedonian Army. The dumping of supplies to the north of the river had naturally to be stopped, the back lifting of existing depots was considered and General Blamey was instructed to prepare for the occupation of the Aliakmon positions.

The pivot on which the eventual withdrawal from the north could be based would be 4 New Zealand Brigade, which was placed under the command of 1 Australian Corps and warned that it would be withdrawn3 from the Katerini sector to the upper stretches of the Aliakmon River near the township of Servia.

At the same time Headquarters New Zealand Division was told that its 6 Brigade would also be withdrawn from the anti-tank ditch north of Katerini to support 5 Brigade about Olympus Pass or for movement to some other sector. The Divisional Cavalry Regiment and E Troop 5 Field Regiment, the only units to be left in

1 See 1 Aust Corps Op Instr No. 4.

2 General Wilson met General Kotulas that afternoon at Kozani and arranged for the withdrawal of this division from the Kaimakchalan sector north of Edhessa Pass to the gap on the right flank between Mackay Force and Mount Vermion.

3 See pp. 1713.

page 167 the plain between Mount Olympus and the Aliakmon, had to be prepared for a swift withdrawal in their own vehicles.

The curious feature of all these decisions is that the urgency of the situation had forced Wilson to act without consulting Papagos, whose orders were not received until 7.50 p.m. on 8 April. His instructions, however, were almost the same as those issued by General Wilson. There would be a co-ordinated front running north from Mount Olympus over the Aliakmon River to Mount Vermion, and thence westwards across the Monastir Gap to Mount Vernon. The western boundary for W Force would include Ammokhorion and Nimfaion; the country beyond that would be the responsibility of the Western Macedonian Army. He also suggested that the reserves of Mackay Force be brought forward to assist in the defence of the gap. ‘In order to gain time for the installation of this line’, he suggested that 1 Armoured Brigade should be advancing towards Monastir to make contact with the advancing enemy and ‘to hinder his advance as much as possible.’1 General Wilson preferred, however, to assemble the brigade as a reserve force to the south of Amindaion.

In any case his plans were already under way. The orders for Mackay Force to assemble had been given at 1 p.m. on 8 April and those for W Force as a whole were about to be issued. The first set issued at 12.35 a.m., 9 April, stated that there was imminent danger of a German thrust into Greece by way of the Monastir- Florina Gap. The organisation of the intermediate or temporary line was then given in detail: about Amindaion there was Mackay Force; to the east and south-east there were the Greeks, 20 Division and part of 12 Division, under General Kotulas; and south of them were 16 Australian Brigade and the New Zealand Division, all under the command of General Blamey.

Later in the day General Papagos informed General Wilson that the Yugoslavs in Veles had surrendered and that the highway from there to Monastir was undefended. His offensive in Albania would therefore be stopped and more troops transferred to hold the central sector about Florina. Unless this was done the German divisions, when they came through from Monastir, could not only continue south from Florina towards Amindaion and Kozani but also westwards through the mountains in the rear of the Western Macedonian Army.

To counter such a threat Papagos had already, on the night of 7–8 April, moved his Cavalry Division to the gap between the left flank of W Force about Amindaion and the right wing of the Western Macedonian Army at Lamos. Its main task was to hold

1 British Military Mission to Advanced HQ, 8 Apr 1941.

page 168 the Pisodherion Pass through which the Germans, if they reached Florina, could strike west to Koritza or south-west to Kastoria, the key towns along the Greek line of retreat. On 8–9 April he took further steps to strengthen his right flank: 21 Infantry Brigade was sent to the Nimfaion-Xynon Neron sector between the pass and the left flank of Mackay Force; 13 Infantry Division was moved to the north of the pass between Lakes Megali Prespa and Ochrida. W Force and the Greek armies thereafter held, according to the map, a continuous line from the Aegean to the Adriatic.

If this line could be held even for a few days the British in their valley could prepare the defences about Servia and the Greeks could withdraw to reorganise their Central and Western Macedonian Armies. The Central Macedonian Army (20 Division and part of 12 Division) would be switched from the Vermion Range on the right flank of Mackay Force to the passes in the mountains along the left flank. This was a hazardous undertaking for it meant that the divisions would be moving across the valley which was the only line of withdrawal for Mackay Force. If all went well, however, the Greek armies would then be together and problems of supply and command would consequently be simplified.

The withdrawal of the Western Macedonian Army, even though it meant the abandonment of Greek gains in Albania, had always been an unpleasant possibility. As early as 7 March General Papagos had warned his sector commanders that they must plan in detail the withdrawal of their forces to a new and shorter line. The British would occupy and safeguard the sector from the coastal corridor east of Mount Olympus to the Dheskati bend of the Aliakmon River. The Greek forces of the Western and Central Macedonian Armies would hold a line from the bend to Mount Vasilitsa, and the forces in the Epirus sector would extend the front westwards to the Ionian Sea. Since this warning order had been issued the Germans had broken through the Metaxas line and were overrunning Yugoslavia. So, although the Yugoslavs still declared their determination to continue the struggle, it was almost certain that Papagos would soon have to withdraw his armies from Albania and central Macedonia.

This was made quite clear in the second and more detailed set of orders1 issued on 9 April by Headquarters W Force. In them it was explained that the defence of the Kozani-Florina gap was only an ‘interim arrangement … a prelude to future development.’ The first task for W Force was to hold its present positions in order to gain time for ‘i. our allies to adjust their disposns incl forces in Albania. ii. organisation of a rearward defensive position’
Planned Positions, 11–14 April 1941

Planned Positions, 11–14 April 1941

1 W Group Force Instruction No. 10, 9 April.

page 169 which would run north from the Mount Olympus sector to Rimnion and thence westwards through Servia and along the south bank of the Aliakmon River to the Grevena area. No estimate could be given of the period of time for which this line should be held but a withdrawal might be necessary at very short notice. Readjustments were being made to ensure the defence of the passes about Mount Olympus and to create a reserve in the Servia area, but it was emphasised that the passes to the east must be held at all costs until the Greeks and 6 Australian Division had withdrawn from the northern sectors.