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To Greece

The Main Attack, 16 April

The Main Attack, 16 April

At first light on 16 April A Company of the Maori Battalion reported that the road from Katerini was black with vehicles. To the observers of 5 Field Regiment it was a reconnaissance in force but actually it was the main attack by Battle Group 1,1 with 2 and 3 Companies I/2 Infantry Regiment east and west of the road to clean out machine-gun posts and screen the main body advancing straight down the highway. The flanking companies moved forward very slowly and afterwards complained of machine guns set in excellent positions and giving ‘murderous fire’; apparently the observers for the German artillery had not been able to locate the New Zealanders in the thick scrub. As 5 Field Regiment was also shelling heavily and accurately, the Germans had ‘fairly heavy casualties’2 and were halted long before they reached the lines of 22 Battalion.

The main body moved up the road with 1 Company I/2 Infantry Regiment in front and the motorised troops well forward to exploit the possible break-through. They were stopped by ‘heavy A Tk, HMG, LMG and shellfire’; nine vehicles were severely damaged and another destroyed.

The tanks of 5 Company and a platoon from 6 Company 3 Panzer Regiment then pushed forward, but the blown bridge could not be by-passed and the engineers could not repair it because of the volume

1 2 Inf Regt, II/74 Arty Regt, II/3 Pz Regt, 3/38 A-Tk Unit, 1/38 Engr Bn, 8/800 Brandenburg Regt, 2/76 Lt AA Regt. Later III/74 Arty Regt (less one troop) and 3/70 Engr Bn were added.

2 2 Infantry Regiment diary.

page 263 of hostile fire. The companies attempted to silence the New Zealanders, but the fire from 5 Field Regiment was so heavy and so accurate that they had to withdraw, leaving one tank stuck in the stream bed. No. 1 Company I/2 Infantry Regiment fared no better when it was sent forward to clear out the machine-gun posts across the hillside. The platoon to the west of the road and the one which crossed the bridge both made little progress, the line being ‘heavily wired and mined’ and the machine-gun fire too harassing. A battle group of infantry, anti-tank guns and tanks was therefore ordered to push through to the Sanatorium and attempt to silence them from that angle.

As seen by 22 Battalion, the Germans had first been halted by the fire from the unit mortar platoon (Lieutenant McAra1) and the concentrated fire of every battery of 5 Field Regiment. They had then withdrawn to shelter but the tanks had soon returned, moving up and down searching for the battalion's forward platoons. The anti-tank guns being well back, the German armour was safe from all except concentrated shellfire; so when, about 8.40 a.m., the tanks advanced once again towards the bridge, they were not halted until E Troop sent over ten rounds and left one of them a wreck in the creek bed beside the demolished bridge. From there they pulled back. The rest of the day, for 22 Battalion, was relatively quiet, though the most forward troops were harassed by tank fire and forced to use alternative positions.

The Germans, at last convinced that the road could not be forced, were now developing encircling movements through the scrub and forest on either flank. With 23 and 28 (Maori) Battalions both holding very wide fronts, this was difficult to check; the scrub was too dense and visibility too limited now that a heavy mist was enveloping the ridges and isolating the already widely separated posts.

On the right flank the pressure was greatest about Lokova village in front of C Company 23 Battalion. A section post of 13 Platoon was overrun and its members captured, but the Germans were driven back and the position reoccupied. Farther north there was some probing into the lines of B Company, but as the afternoon wore on the most serious attack seemed to be developing in the extreme east high up along the ridge in the direction of Ravani village. Once when there was a break in the swirling mist 16 Platoon (Lieutenant Bond2) was able to check the infiltrating enemy, but there were always signs of Germans moving up as if

1 Lt E. J. McAra; born Dunedin, 5 Apr 1906; commercial artist; killed in action 20 May 1941.

2 Capt R. L. Bond; Adelaide; born Aust., 19 Feb 1908; brewer; 23 Bn 1940–41; enlisted AIF 1942.

page 264 they were attempting to get between 23 Battalion and Kokkinoplos.

At last D Company called up support for 17 Platoon (Lieutenant Connolly1) on the extreme right flank. As the battalion had no reserve, Major Leckie2 took members of the transport platoon, the quartermaster and his staff and several signallers and combed the scrub-covered slope in search of the patrol. They found no Germans, but later in the afternoon another report stated that the enemy had been seen climbing on the slopes of Mount Olympus, a threat which would have cut the line of retreat to Kokkinoplos. Some of the signallers and quartermaster's staff were immediately despatched to cover odd tracks coming in towards the line of withdrawal and the only carrier3 still available was sent up with Major Fyfe4 and two Bren-gunners. The withdrawal route was thus covered. D Company was still threatened by the probing enemy but any serious movement could be halted by the concentrated fire of 5 Field Regiment.

This activity on the right flank was due to variations in the German plan of attack. Once it was clear that Battle Group 1 could not force its way into the pass the advanced guard5 of 72 Infantry Division had been given two tasks: to advance through Kokkinoplos towards Elasson and to make an encircling movement through Koundouriotissa towards Ay Dhimitrios, the village at the crest of the pass. As a preliminary move 9 and 11 Cycle Companies had approached Ravani. At 6 p.m. 3 Motor Engineer Company and 12 Machine Gun Company came up, a frontal attack was ordered and at dusk the New Zealanders withdrew from their ‘well sited and fortified hill positions.’6 Two companies then attempted to get through to Ay Dhimitrios while 3 Engineer Company and 12 Machine Gun Company followed 23 Battalion as it withdrew7 across the rough pass leading to Kokkinoplos.

On the left flank the experience of 28 (Maori) Battalion was similar to that of 23 Battalion, the morning being relatively quiet with mist and rain cloaking the movements of the enemy. Once the clouds lifted, about 3 p.m., the Germans who could be seen

1 Lt-Col J. R. J. Connolly, m.i.d.; Ashburton; born NZ 13 Aug 1910; petrol serviceman; CO 23 Bn Apr–May 1943, Dec 1943–May 1944; twice wounded.

2 Col D. F. Leckie, OBE, ED, m.i.d.; Invercargill; born Dunedin, 9 Jun 1897; schoolteacher; Canterbury Mounted Rifles Regt, Anzac Mounted Division, 1916–19; CO 23 Bn Aug 1940–Mar 1941, May 1941–Jun 1942; comd 75 Sub-Area, Middle East, Aug 1942–Mar 1944; wounded 25 May 1941.

3 The others were already to the rear making an unsuccessful attempt to cross the uncompleted track to Kokkinoplos.

4 Maj T. Fyfe, ED; born Pakanui, 3 Oct 1892; school-teacher; killed in action 20 May 1941.

5 III (Cycle)/124 Inf Regt less 1 Company, plus a platoon of light infantry guns; the reinforced 72 Cycle Squadron plus a platoon of anti-tank guns; 2/72 A-Tk Unit plus a platoon of 50-mm anti-tank guns; 3/72 Mot Engr Bn, 5/59 AA Unit, wireless troop of 72 Sigs Unit.

6 Report on action by 72 Division advanced guard at Olympus, 16–17 April.

7 See pp. 2667.

page 265 approaching A Company were engaged with all available arms. The machine-gunners, whose longer range would have been useful, had already been ordered back in preparation for the withdrawal, but the fire from rifles, Bren guns and the 25-pounders of 5 Field Regiment was sufficient. The enemy seemed to move westwards along the front to cross the Mavroneri stream and attempt, unsuccessfully, to approach B Company's lines.

The Germans then appeared to edge still farther westwards seeking for a gap in the sector held by D Company. To prevent that unit being outflanked, 11 Platoon B Company (Second-Lieutenant Pene) had been placed beyond it opposite the village of Skotina, but with the successive westward moves of the enemy Lieutenant-Colonel Dittmer strengthened the flank with 13 Platoon C Company (Second-Lieutenant Reedy1). The enemy's approach was carefully observed by three scouts who were sent out as soon as the Germans appeared in front of D Company. One of them, Corporal Tainui,2 dealt with three Germans and reported that a large number were collecting in the gorge.

In the fading light they scrambled out below 16 Platoon D Company and close to the junction with B Company to deliver the most determined attack in the fighting about Olympus Pass—‘the silent forest had gone berserk with sounds of mortars, rifles, grenades ….’ Firing sub-machine guns and tossing over grenades, they pressed through the wire, killing three men in the forward section of 16 Platoon. The others were able to withdraw under the covering fire of the section leader, Corporal Taituha,3 who remained behind, badly wounded. The men were then steadied by Corporal Harrison4 of the reserve platoon, the firing died down and when 18 Platoon (Lieutenant Gilroy5) came over to clear the area there were no Germans to be seen.

Three companies of II/2 Infantry Regiment had been sent up to relieve I Battalion and to capture Point 917 by this encircling movement from the west. They had reached the stream bed north-west of the steep slopes of Point 917, but 8 Company to the east had been pinned down by machine-gun and mortar fire; 7 and 9 Companies had rushed across the Mavroneri stream, coming under heavy fire and losing three officers wounded, including the commander and adjutant. No. 7 Company and then 8 Company, When it was clear, both failed to make any impression. ‘The knocking out of several enemy MGs in the thrust through the first belt of wire had also

1 Capt H. Te O. Reedy; born Whareponga, 16 Aug 1903; sheep-farmer; p.w. May 1941.

2 Sgt J. Tainui, MM; born NZ 13 Oct 1917; labourer; killed in action 15 Dec 1941.

3 Cpl H. P. Taituha; born NZ 4 Jan 1907; Native Land Dept; wounded and p.w. Apr 1941; repatriated Nov 1943.

4 Sgt G. R. Harrison, m.i.d.; born Opunake, 23 Jul 1907; auditor; wounded 5 Jul 1942.

5 Lt J. T. Gilory; born NZ 8 Mar 19056; clerk.

page 266 failed to diminish the volume of fire.’1 The acting battalion commander had then used the gathering darkness to cover his withdrawal across the creek to the high ground opposite.

Fifth Brigade could therefore claim that it had repulsed attacks on all three fronts. And it has also recorded that the day's success was due in no small measure to the swift and effective support of 5 Field Regiment, which fired more than 3000 rounds and ‘won the highest praise of all ranks of the Infantry.’ In the German reports there are constant references to the New Zealand shelling of tanks and troops and many complaints about the absence of Stuka support and the difficulty of spotting the New Zealand artillery.

1 2 Infantry Regiment battle report on Olympus action.