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To Greece

12 April: The Fighting in Klidhi Pass and the Withdrawal of Mackay Force

page 204

12 April: The Fighting in Klidhi Pass and the Withdrawal of Mackay Force

The timing of this withdrawal did not go according to plan, for Headquarters W Force, having decided that the moves must be speeded up, had already at 3.45 a.m. issued fresh instructions. The withdrawal had to be completed ‘as soon as possible’. No exact time was given for the British units but the evacuation of the Greeks had to begin immediately; except for some small mule parties the last units of 20 Greek Division had to be west of the main south road (Amindaion-Kozani-Servia) by two o'clock that afternoon. The Dodecanese Regiment was to withdraw under Mackay's command, but he was rather surprised to learn that it contained not 3000 but 4500 men. However, he agreed that thirty 3-ton trucks should be provided to bring out their sick and wounded. The others withdrew at 3 p.m., marching out across the valley towards Klisoura Pass.

The object of these orders was obviously the clearance of the highway before the withdrawal of Mackay Force, but it increased the almost impossible task of the Greek divisions. They had ‘straggled out, stolid and quiet’, but according to General Papagos only a small section1 of 12 Division reached the Siatista Pass; 20 Division was dispersed, and its fighting potential diminished, only a fraction of the men reaching the Vlasti-Klisoura sector.

Nineteenth Australian Brigade had to move to the Kerasia area and occupy the ground north of the Aliakmon River between the left flank of 4 New Zealand Brigade above Servia and the right flank of 12 Greek Division about the Siatista Pass. The regiments of artillery would withdraw beyond Servia Pass and 1 Armoured Brigade, after covering the withdrawal of 19 Brigade, would retire through Siatista Pass to Grevena, where it would refuse the left flank of W Force. It had to be south of the ‘Olympus – R. Aliakmon Line’ by 8 p.m., 13 April. So, although no fixed times were stated for the units of Mackay Force, they would probably withdraw during the night of 12–13 April, thereby holding Klidhi Pass for two and not for three nights as originally intended.

In view of the impending attack and the nature of the weather this was a sensible decision. The night of 11–12 April had been bitterly cold, with blizzard conditions developing in the hills. The New Zealand machine-gunners on either side of the pass had been firing effectively along fixed lines, but at first light many of them were in no fit condition to work the guns. East of the pass No. 6 Platoon, after sending out three men with frostbite, sought shelter

1 Six companies from 12 Greek Division were afterwards reported to be with 16 Australian Brigade in the Titarion area.

page 205 in a gully to which food and greatcoats had been brought up. Across the pass No. 1 Company endured equally evil conditions, while the Australian infantry fresh from North Africa and now tired after their long march into position ‘were being taken out of the line suffering from exhaustion and frost-bite.’1

The only reassuring fact was the appearance of the orders for the movement of the Force to the Aliakmon line. The Australian battalions, the artillery and finally 1 Rangers would withdraw that night through a rearguard which would be established along the Sotir ridge under the command of the commanding officer 3 Royal Tank Regiment. Another rearguard under the command of the commanding officer 4 Hussars would assemble farther south at Proastion, where a reconnaissance party was already selecting the defence line.

After 8.30 a.m. the chances of this withdrawal very soon declined. The German infantry, supported by heavy mortar and machine-gun fire, attacked the ridges east of the pass at the junction of the Rangers and 2/8 Australian Battalion. The two Australian companies on the left flank were forced to withdraw up the slopes, but early in the afternoon the Australians counter-attacked and regained the crest of the ridge. The Germans, however, retained part of the western slopes of Point 997 and were able, in the area below it, to assemble guns, troop-carriers and tanks for yet another attack.

Meanwhile the Rangers, observing all this movement about Point 997 and thinking that the Australians were withdrawing, pulled back into the pass, hoping that they could form a new line about two miles to the rear. The supporting units were left to shift for themselves. No. 1 New Zealand Machine Gun Company, through whom the Rangers withdrew, remained in position and gave covering fire until the afternoon, but the six guns from 2/1 Australian Anti-Tank Regiment were left unprotected and five had to be abandoned.

In the afternoon the German infantry supported by tanks attacked for the second time and 2/8 Australian Battalion was soon in difficulties. The signals communications to Headquarters 19 Brigade had been cut; the left flank was under fire from the Germans moving through the pass; and, most important of all, there were no anti-tank guns. The end came about 5.30 p.m. when the tanks broke through and forced the Australians to begin an exhausting march across country to Sotir and thence to the trucks assembled at the crossroads near Rodhonas. From there the battalion—with half the officers and two-thirds of the men still unaccounted for— page 206 went south to extend the western flank of 4 New Zealand Brigade in the Servia Pass area.

The New Zealanders with 2/8 Battalion, a section from each of 5 and 6 MG Platoons under the command of Lieutenant W. F. Liley, had a correspondingly difficult day. In the morning when the Australians moved back the section from 6 Platoon joined 5 Platoon in the pass and supported the Australians with overhead fire. When 2/8 Battalion counter-attacked, 5 Platoon, with an Australian ammunition party, had moved forward in close support. Thereafter the platoons provided harassing fire until the approach of the tanks had forced the Australians to withdraw. No. 6 Platoon then gave covering fire but the Germans pressed forward; their artillery came into action and machine guns opened up in the pass from the area once occupied by the Rangers. The sections, taking the only course open to them, carried their guns across five or six miles of open country and were eventually transported to the Proastion area.

In the centre the Rangers after their morning withdrawal had not been able to build up a sound line in the Klidhi Pass. Because of the inevitable confusion which thereupon developed, Captain Grant, of 1 MG Company, lost touch with them and was obliged to rely upon the information he received from 2/8 Battalion. Consequently, when that unit fell back during the afternoon, its headquarters suggested that 2 and 3 Platoons of the machine-gunners should be withdrawn to the south side of Point 1009.

Their appearance in that area surprised the gunners of 2/3 Australian Field Regiment and 64 Medium Regiment. Communications were immediately established with Headquarters 19 Brigade whose staff, confident that all infantry units were still in position, was astonished to hear that the Rangers ‘were already in rear of the guns and that in a very short time the medium battery would be under direct small arms fire from the enemy.’ However, about 3 p.m. Headquarters 6 Australian Division ordered the artillery to pull out, 64 Medium Regiment to Perdikha and 2 Royal Horse Artillery to the Sotir ridge. No. 1 Troop of the latter, supported by two Australian anti-tank guns and, in the last stages, firing over open sights, checked the German tanks and covered the withdrawal of the group.

At this stage, about 3 p.m., the engagement was not going according to plan. In fact, when the reconnaissance party returned from Proastion the Rangers were withdrawing from the pass, the enemy had occupied the hills on either side and the artillery had withdrawn. Major D. R. C. Boileau, second-in-command 1 Rangers, who had been with the party, thereupon ordered formal with- page 207 drawal to the Sotir ridge where 1 MG Platoon and a troop from C Battery 102 Anti-Tank Regiment were already in position. The former had been recalled that morning from Point 1008 and told that ‘the whole show was pulling back from the Pass’; the rearguard of which it would be a part must give the rest of Mackay Force ‘a chance to get back’ to Proastion. So when the Rangers re-formed, C Company went on to the ridge and the others hastened southwards. Soon afterwards Brigadier Charrington took command and got permission for 2/4 Australian Battalion, when it withdrew, to be placed on the right flank of the company. Other groups were detached and by nightfall 2 Royal Horse Artillery, A Squadron 4 Hussars and 3 Royal Tank Regiment, less A Squadron, were assembled behind the ridge. The troop from D Battery 102 Anti-Tank Regiment had come back from the Petras area, but its guns had been abandoned owing to the premature demolition of the bridge near Amindaion.

The other problem was the withdrawal of 2/4 Australian Battalion from the sector to the west of the pass. Once the eastern and central sectors had collapsed there had been every likelihood of this unit and its supporting troops being unable to reach the main highway. The company overlooking the pass had fallen back when the Rangers withdrew and the central company on Point 1001 had afterwards been ordered to thin out, leaving on the feature one platoon of infantry and a section from 4 Platoon of the New Zealand machine-gunners. Then about 5 p.m. Brigadier Vasey ordered the battalion to retire to the embussing point south of Rodhonas as ‘the front had lost all cohesion.’

Captain Robbie with 2 Machine Gun Company was advised of the withdrawal and placed under command of 2/4 Battalion. He had already arranged for trucks to bring out the section of 4 Platoon from Point 1001 and had sent a runner to advise Lieutenant Newland, who was with 4 and 5 Platoons on the extreme left flank, that he must prepare to come out with the Australians. About 5.30 p.m., however, Robbie overheard a discussion on the telephone circuit which suggested that the overall situation was now very serious. Headquarters 2/4 Battalion confirmed the fact, explaining that the general withdrawal was already under way. The section on Point 1001 therefore began its withdrawal and Newland was advised to move out as soon as possible.

By this time Lieutenant-Colonel Gwilliam, who had been with the reconnaissance party, had returned and been informed of the plans for the withdrawal of his machine-gunners. With such vehicles as were available he returned to prepare for their arrival in the Proastion area. His headquarters staff waited on the road- page 208 side to sort out the unit vehicles as they came through along the now crowded highway.

The first group to arrive came from the immediate west of the pass. The section from Point 1001, after bringing out its guns, had joined up with Headquarters 2 Company and the remaining vehicles of Battalion Headquarters. When their route southwards was blocked by a demolished bridge, they followed a track and ended up hopelessly bogged only forty yards from the main highway. Only three of the eleven vehicles could be extricated; the rest were set alight and the men crowded into the other vehicles or were brought away by the passing Australian transport and taken to the Proastion area.

On the extreme left of the 2/4 Battalion area the sections from 4 and 5 Platoons of 27 (Machine Gun) Battalion were with Australian infantry and anti-tank gunners. Lieutenant Newland, on receiving the withdrawal orders about 6 p.m., discussed the situation with the respective commanders. They decided that the anti-tank guns would have to be destroyed: the retirement of the machine-gunners would be covered by two platoons of Australian infantry. Leaving much of their personal gear, the gunners loaded their trucks with guns and ammunition and left about 7.10 p.m. for Xynon Neron. There they saw in the distance the flames of what were probably the burning vehicles of 2 Company, and by making a deviation across the fields reached the trucks waiting on the main highway. By 9 p.m. 27 (Machine Gun) Battalion, less the two companies in the Mount Olympus area and 1 Platoon on the Sotir ridge, had assembled with the rest of the rearguard in the Proastion area.

The Australian withdrawal went less smoothly. The company on the extreme left, after covering the withdrawal of the New Zealand machine-gunners, moved back to Xynon Neron with the troop from 2/1 Anti-Tank Regiment. By moving eastwards from there the Australians came in behind the forward elements of the German advanced guard. In the fighting which ensued the company commander was killed and some seventy Australians were captured. The rest of 2/4 Battalion, now only two rifle companies, came out safely to the waiting transport and moved off to the south. But instead of continuing as far as the Aliakmon line the battalion, at the request of Brigadier Charrington, was halted on the Sotir ridge and placed on the right of the company of Rangers. Here by 9.15 p.m. it was once again digging in and preparing to resist attack.

According to the German war diaries 1 Company SS ‘Adolf Hitler’ had at 5 p.m. forced its way through the Klidhi Pass and taken eighty prisoners in the area. An hour later the forward page 209 elements of Witt Battle Group were at the south-eastern exit. ‘As far as the eye could see were enemy motorised columns of infantry and artillery retreating towards Ptolemais.’1 The tanks and machine-gun units harassed the British but the heavy weapons were still to the rear, blocked for the time being by the demolitions on the road. An attempt was made to approach the British rearguard along the Sotir ridge but the harassing fire was heavy and the Germans withdrew, digging in astride the road, facing south. It was while they were digging in that the Australian company from 2/4 Battalion came up from the rear and was captured. The German commander thereupon decided that though Sotir was reported to be clear he would not move forward again until the roads had been repaired sufficiently for the movement forward of his heavy weapons and anti-tank guns.

1 Battle report of Leibstandarte SS ‘Adolf Hitler’, April 1941.