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To Greece

The Germans Approach the Monastir Gap

The Germans Approach the Monastir Gap

The Germans in their turn were now interested in the advantages to be gained by an advance across the south-east corner of page 193 Yugoslavia and thence south through the Monastir Gap. They had always been appreciated by Field Marshal List. On 7 April, when Greek resistance along the Metaxas line had seemed unexpectedly strong, he had even considered postponing the advance to Salonika in favour of a major thrust through the gap towards Florina and the rear of the Allied positions. If he had done so the withdrawal of 1 Armoured Brigade from Macedonia would have been an extremely hazardous operation. As it was he persisted in his attempt to break through the Metaxas line, but at the same time prepared to exploit the advantages which XXXX Corps was so spectacularly winning in southern Yugoslavia. If he struck south from Monastir across the border to Florina and Kozani he could threaten the rear of the ‘Florina-Edessa-Katerini front, reported occupied by British troops.’ And if he then swung westwards through the passes of the central ranges towards Koritza or Kastoria he would threaten the withdrawal of the Greeks from Albania. As a preliminary move he had consequently on 8 April ordered 5 Panzer Division, then moving with Panzer Group 1 towards Belgrade, to turn south and assist XXXX Corps.

His battle orders for the next two days, 9–10 April, made it quite clear that 12 Army would be entering Greece from Yugoslavia as well as from Bulgaria. It would attack ‘as soon as possible and in the greatest possible strength’, XXXX Corps through Florina towards Kozani, and XVIII Corps through Edhessa-Veroia-Katerini towards Larisa. The former would deliver the decisive blow through Kozani to Larisa, thereby threatening to surround the British forces in north Greece. To cover the western flank and ‘take the Greek front directly in rear’, a motorised force would strike west through the Pisodherion Pass to Koritza and thence south down the valley to Kastoria and Grevena.

The task for XVIII Corps was the crossing of the Axios River and the passage through the mountains to Larisa. Once sound reconnaissances had been made 2 Panzer Division would move through the passes behind Edhessa, Veroia and Katerini.

The two corps, XVIII and XXXX, were not able to attack simultaneously. The former, having just spread out across the plain of Macedonia and into Salonika, needed time to reorganise before attempting to cross the Axios River. So XXXX Corps was left to make the first move, even though its infantry regiments were still crossing the mountains and its motorised advanced guard in the Monastir Gap had not in itself the strength to force the Klidhi Pass. The commanders had therefore to find some solution to this problem.

page 194

The advanced guard, relieved of any responsibility to the south, was sent westwards towards Struga, at the north end of Lake Ochrida, where on 10 April it met the Italians advancing from Albania. The necessary weight to break south through the Monastir Gap had to be brought down from the northern group at Skoplje. The roads were cleared and 9 Panzer Division, with the SS ‘Adolf Hitler’ Division as an advanced guard, was diverted south to force the gap.

On 9 April the reconnaissance unit of the SS ‘Adolf Hitler’ Division entered Monastir; by 8.30 p.m. a motor-cycle company was over the border and into Florina. The unit diary even claims that it went forward ‘through English motorised forces’ and occupied Vevi until infantry and artillery opened up. This is hardly likely as neither the infantry nor the artillery of Mackay Force recorded any action at this time.

Next day the main body of the Division rushed through Monastir, having been ordered to reach Kozani and cut off the retreat of the British forces from the passes behind Edhessa, Veroia and Katerini. The striking force, Witt Battle Group,1 crossed the frontier at 9.40 a.m., pushing ahead ‘so quickly that the enemy (English recce troops) was unable to blow or burn bridges on the advance route.’2 This is the only reference to the series of minor engagements that took place that morning when a demolition party, which included some New Zealanders from the Divisional Cavalry Regiment, withdrew before the approaching enemy.

According to the German diaries the column was strafed repeatedly by Hurricanes and Bristol Blenheims, the British in the early stages of the advance having ‘absolute air superiority.’ Nevertheless, in spite of demolitions and air raids the Group by nightfall was outside Vevi and probing the outer defences of the Klidhi Pass. ‘A recce-fighting patrol of one platoon … was sent round the flank, got behind the foremost English positions NE of Vevi, captured 3 HMGs and 23 PW.’3 The other patrols reported that the pass road to Edhessa was held in strength, that British troops were about the Klidhi Pass ‘on a wide front’ and that the pass road westwards from Florina was held by Greeks.

1 1 Bn, 2 pls light inf guns, 1 pl heavy inf guns, 1 pl 50-mm a-tk guns, 2 pls 3 Engrs Coy, 1 tp light field hows, 2 pls 37-mm a-tk guns, 1 pl 88-mm AA guns.

2 See p. 195.

3 See p. 196.