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To Greece

The Withdrawal Begins on 8 April: 1 Armoured Brigade

The Withdrawal Begins on 8 April: 1 Armoured Brigade

The information received by Headquarters W Force during the morning of 8 April was not comprehensive but it was reliable enough to justify the decision to withdraw to the new defences. Eastern Macedonia was about to be overrun, two German columns were rushing south towards Salonika and another was about to move through the Monastir Gap towards Florina, Amindaion, and the rear of the British, Australian and New Zealand forces.

The units in greatest danger were those of 1 Armoured Brigade north of the Aliakmon River between Edhessa and the Axios River. The original orders for the day had been that they should defend Edhessa, but in the afternoon the brigade was instructed to retire through the Edhessa and Veroia passes to the Perdikha area south of Amindaion. The demolitions in each pass would be blown that night.

Fourth Hussars, to which was attached Lieutenant Cole's troop of New Zealand Divisional Cavalry, sent its B Echelon back through Edhessa and prepared to cover the withdrawal of the brigade. The weather had cleared by the late afternoon and enemy reconnaissance aircraft were circling over the plain but there was little, if any, bombing or strafing. The rearguard detachments were free to observe the approach of the German armour, to blow the bridge over the Axios River and to move back to the Yidha area, where the bridges were blown after the last tank crossed shortly after midnight. The last stage of the withdrawal through Veroia Pass to Kozani and then north to Perdikha was accomplished without incident.

The main body of 1 Armoured Brigade had a more exciting withdrawal. The bad weather of the last two days had made the roads on the eastern side of Lake Vegorritis so difficult for motor transport that the convoys were sent along the road to the north and west of the lake, a route that was unpleasantly close to the Monastir area through which the Germans were expected to page 170 advance. Time was therefore important and the withdrawal had some resemblance to a race, with 20 Greek Division on the way south from Kaimakchalan jamming the track with its pack transport. The Germans, however, were still some distance away so there was no interference and the brigade was through the Klidhi Pass and south of Amindaion by the early hours of 9 April.

The troop from the Divisional Cavalry was to the rear of the column. In the afternoon it had been sent back against the stream of Greek infantry and refugees until it was two or three miles into the pass to the north of the village of Ardhea. From there it eventually returned to its base some 18 miles out of Edhessa and joined up with a platoon from 1 Rangers. Having no orders, Lieutenant Atchison left his three armoured cars and went back to Edhessa, where he learnt that the brigade was pulling out and that his troop was ‘to follow them if possible.’1 He had then to rush back the long 18 miles to collect his troop and the platoon of riflemen. Five minutes after his return they were on the road; they caught up with the main column about midnight and went on with it to Perdikha.

On the south side of the Aliakmon River there was as yet no corresponding withdrawal by the New Zealand Divisional Cavalry Regiment and the attached troop of artillery. Throughout the day they had heard explosions across the bay from Salonika, the stream of refugees across the bridges had grown still more dense and as dusk came on columns of smoke rose from the oil stocks set on fire by the Canadian Kent Corps.2 At 9 p.m. all the bridges except the main traffic one were demolished, with the sound echoing in the hills above the plain.

The orders from Headquarters New Zealand Division had been for its immediate destruction but Major Potter,3 Officer Commanding A Squadron Divisional Cavalry, had postponed the demolition because Brigadier Charrington had been anxious about the withdrawal of his armoured brigade. He had wanted the bridge left intact until he was certain that all his brigade had been able to withdraw westwards through the passes. Moreover, the seven cruiser tanks which had been exchanged for the two troops4 of C Squadron Divisional Cavalry Regiment were somewhere on their way south towards the river. To locate them and to guide them over the river two officers were sent forward while a strong party from A Squadron formed a screen on the north side of the bridge. page 171 After midnight the news came through that 1 Armoured Brigade was safely into the mountains and soon afterwards the cruiser tanks made their way over the bridge. At 4 a.m. on 9 April it was demolished and the temporary wooden structure beside it was pulled down by A Squadron vehicles, assisted by the cruiser tanks. Each of the four gun detachments of O Troop 34 Anti-Tank Battery was now supported by one of the tanks, the Divisional Cavalry headquarters still expecting that they would have to delay the crossing of the river and fight a series of withdrawal actions until they could retire through the anti-tank defences now manned by 4 and 6 Brigades to the north of Katerini.

1 Lt Atchison.

2 A commando party controlled by the British Military Mission.

3 Lt-Col J. F. Potter, VD; Auckland; born Auckland, 19 Jul 1891; school-teacher; CO 1 Armd Regt, RNZAC, Mar 1944–Nov 1948.

4 See p. 141.