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To Greece

The Rearguard in Action: Afternoon 13 April

The Rearguard in Action: Afternoon 13 April

In the afternoon the Germans approached Proastion, a village south of Ptolemais and at the northern entrance to the Komanos Gap. Across the front, as at Sotir, a stream flowing north formed a natural anti-tank ditch. Above it from north-east to south-west there was a range of hills some 1500 feet high from which any movement along the main highway was clearly visible.

The rearguard was already in position, having used the night and the time gained that morning during the engagement at Sotir. The Rangers, less 1 Company, were astride the road at the entrance to the pass. Fourth Hussars, less one squadron and supported by A Squadron 3 Royal Tank Regiment, watched the right flank; the other squadron of 4 Hussars covered the left flank from the sharp ridges above the plain. Nos. 2 and 3 Platoons 1 New Zealand Machine Gun Company and 4 Platoon 2 Machine Gun Company were deployed along the ridge with 1 Rangers. B Battery 102 Anti-Tank Regiment (now reduced to seven guns) was on the left flank, whilst two batteries of 2 Royal Horse Artillery were well back in depth.

In the original orders 1 Armoured Brigade was to have been south of the Aliakmon River by 8 p.m., but there had been doubts about the ability of 12 and 20 Greek Divisions to complete their withdrawal across the valley to the rear of the defence line. Brigadier Charrington had consequently been warned that he must force the maximum delay upon the German advance. He, in turn, had asked for a more definite time and mentioned that there were apparently no Greeks still to the north-east of Kozani, but the absence of any reply to this message suggests that he was left to act upon his own judgment.

Meanwhile the units on the ridge had been watching the Germans advance swiftly and methodically from the Perdikha area. They came ‘in groups of tanks and armoured tp. carriers with bridge laying tanks well forward. By 1430 they were in contact with our patrols south of Ptolemais.’1 More important still, they

1 Lt-Col R. P. Waller, ‘With the 1st Armoured Brigade in Greece’, Journal of the Royal Artillery, July 1945, p. 169.

page 213 found that a ditch some 500 yards south of the town was a perfect obstacle to the tanks. If they turned east there was the stream and a blown bridge. To the west was a swamp with several ditches full of water, but it was possible for the tanks to get through and surround the British rearguard.

That decided, the Germans made every effort to force their way through before nightfall. The weather had at last cleared, so dive-bombers for the first time in the campaign were sent over in large numbers. On the ground the pressure was maintained across the whole front, but the main effort was an encircling movement behind the left flank of the British position. All through the afternoon a steady stream of armoured vehicles moved through Asvestopetra and swung back towards Mavropiyi, a village near the main highway and the headquarters of Brigadier Charrington.

Towards dusk about thirty tanks were through the swamp and threatening Mavropiyi. A troop from 102 Anti-Tank Regiment and 2 Royal Horse Artillery (L/N Battery) did their best to halt them but the Germans still came forward. ‘H.Q. 4 H. and a tp. of 3 R.T.R. went to meet them but the enemy's Mk. IIIs were too heavy metal for the old light Mk. VI of 4 H. who were driven back. A very unpleasant situation now developed with the enemy pressing forward towards the main Kozani road in rear of our positions.’1 The rearguard was saved by Lieutenant A. W. Trippier of 102 Anti-Tank Regiment, who skilfully shepherded the enemy armour into a gully and knocked out several tanks with very slight losses to his own troop. C Troop 3 Royal Tank Regiment then came across from the right flank to the high country west of the main road and supported the anti-tank guns.

At this point the New Zealand machine-gun platoons were brought more prominently into the engagement. Up till then they had been well forward, enduring air and artillery attacks but seeing very little of the fighting on the left flank. At dusk, however, ‘everything seemed to happen at once.’2 On Brigadier Charrington's orders the two platoons from 1 Machine Gun Company were withdrawing down the main highway, but when the German tank force threatened to break through they were stopped and deployed along the ridge on the left of the road to the west of Komanos. From there, while guns and transport were withdrawing southwards, they maintained a volume of covering fire until they too were withdrawn by Brigadier Charrington.

No. 4 Platoon 2 Machine Gun Company came out shortly afterwards, having received its orders to withdraw when the other machine-gunners were in action west of the road. It was almost

1 Waller, op. cit., p. 169.

2 Capt H. A. Purcell, 27 MG Battalion.

page 214 dark by then, but a second engagement between German tanks and British tanks supported by the Royal Horse Artillery had flared up to the west of Brigade Headquarters. The platoon was ordered to give what fire it could. ‘It was a most pretty sight. Blazing tanks and trucks, 2-pr. and 50 mm. tracer, m.g. and bren tracer, flashes from guns and rifles, and bursting shells, with the last afterglow of the setting sun and the dark mass of the mountains as a background.’1

At 7.30 p.m. Charrington decided to withdraw behind the third rearguard position at Mavrodhendhri; the main body of his force could go to Kozani and thence westwards through the Siatista Pass to Grevena. The infantry and artillery were first away, the armoured units following under cover of a smoke screen.

The third rearguard position, at Mavrodhendhri, was occupied by a small force but the Germans made no effort to go beyond Proastion. The forward units, having expended all their ammunition and almost all their petrol, were forced to wait for supplies, which did not get through until the following day. Apparently 9 Panzer and SS ‘Adolf Hitler’ divisions in their haste to get forward had entered the Klidhi Pass at the same time, thereby creating a congestion of traffic that had stopped the movement of both troops and supplies. The fact that the pass was not clear until after dark probably explains the respite given to 1 Armoured Brigade. The rearguard fell back at 1.30 a.m. on 14 April, 4 Hussars, 102 Anti-Tank Regiment, 1 Rangers and 27 (Machine Gun) Battalion (less two companies) going to the Grevena area.

The overall position now was that W Force and the Greek armies were in their respective sectors of the Aliakmon line. The German approach had been checked but it was questionable whether the cost had not been too great. Nineteenth Australian Brigade had lost heavily and 1 Armoured Brigade, the only Allied unit of its type in Greece, had been shattered. Fourth Hussars still had the majority of its light tanks, but 3 Royal Tank Regiment because of mechanical defects was reduced to one composite squadron. The 102nd Anti-Tank Regiment and 2 Royal Horse Artillery had both lost guns and 1 Rangers had lost at least 15 per cent of its establishment.

1 Waller, pp. 169–70.