We pulled him along
Across the Aliakmos River 9–16 April 1941
A straggler fell out here and there but was quickly dragged back … One, who had been off colour for several days fell from sheer exhaustion an hour before dawn. One man took his haversack, another his rifle, another his blanket and we pulled him along, slapping his face all the while to keep him awake.
[Captain Jack Blamey, 2/2nd Battalion, quoted in Barter, Far Above Battle, p.88]
One of the first Australian units to arrive in Greece and go north was the 16th Infantry Brigade — the 2/1st, 2/2nd and 2/3rd Battalions. On 7 April the brigade went into position in the Veria Pass, 1000 metres above sea level with even higher peaks towering over them. So spread out were the battalions across the mountains that it took over three hours to climb from one end of the 2/2nd Battalion’s line to another. Stores and equipment could only be got to the high mountains by donkey or human effort:
The Greek peasant’s donkey is a small animal able to carry a load of fifty pounds or so on mountain tracks. One 2/2nd man records that at Veria Pass … Corporal Dick Powell, finding that he and his men, having only one blanket each, could not sleep in the snow, walked two miles to his coy [company] HQ and alone carried back a tent, ‘a thing no mule could manage’.
[Footnote in Long, Greece, Crete and Syria, p.73]
From the Veria Pass the Australians could see the lights of Thessaloniki and the fires created by the German advance down the Axios River valley. The weather was terrible — freezing rain often turning to snow.
One ‘honorary’ Australian who felt the cold of the Greek passes was a dog called Horrie, known colloquially to the men of the 2/1st Machine Gun Battalion as ‘Horrie the Wog Dog’. He had adopted the unit in Egypt and when they sailed for Greece, Horrie went too. The motor cyclists carrying Horrie in the passes near Mount Olympus felt him shivering:
So we dismounted and very soon fitted Horrie with his ‘nightie’ [a sock with the heel and toe cut off]. It was a tight fit and he looked comically uncomfortable but as he felt the warmth his tail began to wag and he gazed up with appreciative brown eyes plainly saying ‘Thanks boys. You two certainly do know just what a fellow needs’.
[Ion Idriess, Horrie the Wog Dog, written from the diary of Private J B Moody, Sydney, 1951, p.64]
On 9 April 1941, the 16th Brigade was ordered to withdraw from Veria to new positions 50 kilometres away at the Servia Pass. They were to move through the mountains because there were fears that, if they went by road in trucks, a sudden breakthrough by the Germans through the rearguard at Vevi might cut them off.
On the march each man carried 100 rounds of ammunition, five days’ rations, his greatcoat, blanket, groundsheet and haversack. The only transports available were the Greek donkeys and they carried the heavy weapons. Much of the route was covered in ankle-deep mud and the cold was intense. Roy Waters of the 2/2nd wrote of this journey:
What a sight it was to see us all strung out winding over the mountains. Gee it was tough going but our movements were automatic. A water bottle of cognac I had helped me along. My old donkey had a ton of guts, and with the aid of my biscuits and kind words stood up well. As we reached the summit the moon came out and what a grand sight it was. But no time for sightseeing …
[Roy Waters, quoted in Barter, Far Above Battle, p.88]
Some men fell out with the strain and exhaustion but, as Captain Jack Blamey of the 2/2nd recalled, when this happened to one man the others simply ‘pulled him along slapping his face all the while to keep him awake’. At the Aliakmos River, seven men of the 2/1st Field Company, Royal Australian Engineers, had built a punt to ferry the infantrymen across the icy waters. By 10.30 am on 13 April the last platoon was over the river and the engineers sank the punt. The weary battalions now struggled on to positions high up in the Servia Pass having come through what one battalion war diarist described as:
An epic of endurance, moral and physical.
[Quoted in Long, Greece, Crete and Syria, p.74]
By 15 April, the Australian and New Zealand units of the Anzac Corps had reached their new positions along the Olympus–Aliakmos Line. They were not to remain there long. Events in Greece were now moving fast and by 13 April General Wilson had already decided, after conferring with Blamey, that the whole British force would have to withdraw to a new line 180 kilometres further south — the Thermopylae Line. There, Wilson argued, ‘British Imperial troops could hold out without reliance on Allied [i.e. Greek] support’.
What worried Wilson was what might happen to the Greek armies to the north-west of the British positions. If the Germans moved west and cut the Greeks off, then they could send their tanks in a great flanking movement to the south down behind the Anzac Corps. Basically, Wilson felt that the poorly-equipped Greek armies were no match for the mass of tanks, artillery and war planes which the Germans could now push forward into central Greece. The Greeks might break at any moment and endanger the survival of the whole British force. General Papagos, too, realised the danger and on 13 April ordered his Epirus Army and Western and Central Macedonian Armies to withdraw back to the Venetikos River. Papagos met with Wilson at Lamia on 16 April and agreed to the British withdrawal to Thermopylae. By this time he had learnt of a German breakthrough in one of the passes to the north and realised that his own armies had taken to the mountains further west to avoid capture.
On 15 April Anzac Corps Headquarters at Elasson completed plans for the withdrawal. A number of combined artillery and infantry forces would mount rearguard holding actions at various locations while engineer units were to ensure ‘maximum demolitions in depth on roads … to impose all possible delay on the enemy’. What was vital was that the roads to the south from the Aliakmos, especially the main road through Elasson, Larissa, Pharsala, Domokos, and Lamia to the Brallos Pass, were held open for the long convoys of men and equipment.
A couple of days before the orders for the withdrawal were given it was realised that Anzac Corps units north of the Aliakmos, such as Vasey’s 19th Australian Brigade comprising the 2/4th and 2/8th Battalions, had no bridge to get them across the fast flowing river. After a reconnaissance of possible crossing points on 13 April, a section of the 2/1st Field Company was sent in to construct a bridge and an approach road for the trucks. Armed with only rope, picks, shovels, other hand tools and spikes, the Australian engineers, assisted by British engineers and New Zealand infantrymen, began work at dawn on 15 April and by 10.00 pm a workable bridge to bring out the infantry spanned the Aliakmos.
The night withdrawal across the Aliakmos was remembered by Vasey’s supply officer as a ‘tough night’. The general had used his personal supply of toilet paper to mark the route down the mountain to the river for the 2/4th Battalion. Vasey was worried also by the fairly flimsy footbridge over which his men would have to cross a river 50 metres wide, flowing at about nine knots and with a water temperature of zero. However, everyone got safely across except for one company of the 2/4th under Captain John McCarty. Private Vic Hill recalled the experience of A Company that night:
Down, down and down we went, sliding and tripping over the treacherous slopes and just missing the sheer drops. Everybody fell a dozen or more times, but miraculously only a couple sprained ankles. When we finally reached the bottom of the mountain we swung left to where the guides should have been. But this way we were also moving towards the enemy. Our nerves grew more taut with every step. By 3.45 am we had gone two or three miles towards the enemy and still hadn’t found the guide … At first light we sighted the deep, swiftly flowing river. There was no bridge or likely fording spot. However, after a time, a rowing boat was found and the slow process of getting 100 men across by sevens and eights at a time began …
[Hill, quoted in White over Green, p.128]
By the morning of 16 April 1941, the British forces in Greece were in full but organised flight south towards Thermopylae fearing a German flanking movement from the west. But it was not from the west that the threat emerged. On 16 and 17 April, elements of the German 3rd Armoured Regiment and 6th Mountain Division, coming down the east coast, began to move over the passes beneath Mount Olympus and into the Pinios Gorge.