The roof is leaking
Vevi and Sotir 9–14 April 1941
‘Tell him the roof is leaking, he had better come over so we can cook up a plot.’
[Telephone message, Brigadier George Vasey, 19th Brigade, AIF, to Lieutenant Colonel Ivan Dougherty, 2/4th Battalion, evening, 12 April 1941, quoted in David Horner, General Vasey’s War, Melbourne, 1992, pp.95–96, hereafter Horner, Vasey’s War]
On the night of 9 April 1941 the men of the 2/4th Battalion arrived at Vevi and began digging in to defensive positions south-west of the small town. Here they waited for the Germans:
We are high up on the pass, and it is bitterly cold and raining. March four miles and dig in. Then march about five miles and dig in … We try to sleep, but rain turns into sleet and ice. Our blankets and clothes are wet through. Hard luck: we move again and dig in for the third time in one night, and no sleep for two nights.
[Dick Parry, quoted in White over Green, p.113]
The 2/4th was part of a scratch force of Greek, British, New Zealand and Australian artillery, tanks, engineers and infantry — Mackay Force — put together under the command of Major General Ivan Mackay of the Australian 6th Division. This force’s role, in General Wilson’s words, was to ‘stop a Blitzkreig down the Florina Valley’ and Mackay’s orders were simple — stop the advancing Germans for as long as possible but certainly until the night of 12–13 April. By 9 April, as a result of the Greek collapse in eastern Macedonia, Generals Wilson and Papagos had ordered a withdrawal of British and Greek forces to a more defensible line hinged on the Aliakmos River — the Olympus–Aliakmos Line. Mackay Force’s holding of the Germans would cover the withdrawal.
During 10 and 11 April the German advance units worked their way forward of Vevi and began probing the British lines. Captain Gordon Laybourne-Smith, 2/3rd Field Regiment, witnessed the Australian artillery’s first encounter with the German army on the continent of Europe since 1918:
In all his insolence he drove his trucks down the main road … to within 3000 yards of our infantry, and proceeded to debus. At first I could not believe it was an enemy, all had been so still and quiet. Then came some sense. My orders flew over the wire and the first rounds screamed through the air … A few furious moments and back went the Hun, but five trucks stayed in the road as silent witness that my Troop could shoot.
[Laybourne-Smith, quoted in Les Bishop, The Thunder of the Guns — A History of the 2/3rd Field Regiment, Sydney, 1998, p.189, hereafter Bishop, Thunder of the Guns]
As day dawned at Vevi on 12 April, everyone in Mackay Force realised that a strong German attack was imminent. During the previous 48 hours rain had turned to snow and it now lay over a foot deep on the hillsides. The Australians were cold and hungry; they began to suffer from frostbite and exhaustion. At 8.30 am the Germans came at the 2/8th Battalion. All day long the assault ebbed and flowed around the Australian positions but by nightfall the Germans were proving too strong and a withdrawal was ordered back to where trucks were waiting.
As the German attack out of Vevi intensified throughout 12 April, Brigadier George Vasey, commanding the 19th Australian Brigade, realised his men were not going to be able to stage an orderly withdrawal. At 5.00 pm he telephoned the commanding officer of the 2/4th Battalion, Lieutenant Colonel Ivan Dougherty, with the code phrase indicating that a pull-out was now vital — ‘the roof is leaking’. Dougherty was ordered to do the best he could to extricate the 2/4th and get them back to their trucks. Private ‘Dasher’ Deacon with two mates — Privates ‘Buck’ Buchannan and Charlie Mynett — tried to escape over a hill which was being covered in enemy mortar and artillery fire. Deacon was wounded and being helped by another man, Private Jack Fitzgerald, when:
… along came a fairy in a Bren carrier. It was Colonel Dougherty … he said we had better get going and would we like a lift. Seeing that we were the only ones about and the Huns were breathing down our necks, ‘Fitzy’ and I didn’t stop to have a committee meeting to decide whether we would accept his offer … That is why even today when I see an unemployed Lieutenant Colonel walking, I always give him a lift!
[Deacon, quoted in White over Green, p.121]
The survivors of Mackay Force now withdrew south to Sotir. Here a further delaying action was ordered and Dougherty asked his weary men, who were expecting to be trucked further south to the Aliakmos, to turn and fight:
There was not a murmur from any of the men … They went into it with resolution and determination. They had brought out practically all their equipment (except their bed rolls). I felt proud of my battalion.
[Dougherty, quoted in Horner, Vasey’s War, p.96]
At first light on 13 April the Germans were seen in weapon pits just 1000 metres from the Australians. Vasey, in a white mackintosh, went forward to observe the enemy. He was fired upon and obliged to retire on his hands and knees. The 2/4th and British units returned this fire, not realising that on some ploughed land between the lines the Germans were holding Australian, British and Greek prisoners captured the previous day. Some of the POWs, including Lieutenant John de Meyrick, of the 2/4th, were killed in this cross-fire and 30 others wounded. Seeing that enemy tanks and artillery were not yet fully engaging his positions, Vasey suggested that the 2/4th be allowed to retire gradually. This was no easy task. Many in the 2/4th recalled the German machine gun fire on their positions that morning as so concentrated and intense that the air seemed like ‘one whining, hissing mass of lead’:
At 7.30 am word is yelled from hole to hole to prepare to withdraw and we feel pretty shaky at the idea of having to run about 300 yards up the slope through this inferno completely exposed. The first man in our platoon to poke his head up gets a bullet through it and drops back dead. Not so good. One after another the boys jump up and start to run, while the volume of fire increases. I watch one of our section half way back. As he runs the earth spurts up all around him: he runs through the lot and disappears over the rise, safe for the moment. It is my turn …
[Dick Parry, quoted in White over Green, p.122]
On that morning Private Dick Parry’s luck held out as he walked up the slope — his legs simply refused to run — and out of sight over the hill to rejoin his platoon.
There was no possibility of replacing the tanks. In two sharp actions they had delayed the Germans’ approach to the main British defence line and knocked out a number of tanks, but the cost was the virtual disappearance of the one small armoured force the Allied army in Greece possessed.
[Long, Greece, Crete and Syria, p.69]
As the British force began its withdrawal from northern Greece, there occurred an event that recalled Australian experience of the Great War. On 12 April, Lieutenant General Blamey informed his commanders that as of 6.00 pm that day the Australian and New Zealand divisions in Greece would be united under his command into the Anzac Corps. Rather optimistically, given his earlier assessment of the potential outcome of the Greek campaign to the Australian government, Blamey added to this announcement:
The task ahead though difficult is not nearly so desperate as that which our fathers faced in April twenty six years ago. We go to it together with stout hearts and certainty of success.
[Blamey’s message, quoted in Long, Greece, Crete and Syria, p.70]
It was perhaps not Blamey’s place at that point in April 1941 to remind his men that the Gallipoli campaign had ended in an evacuation.