SdKfz 231 armoured cars of the LSSAH advance into the Balkans
Kurt Meyer during the Battle of Vevi (1941)
For close-fire support, the Leibstandarte had the StuG III assault gun, a kind of turret-less tank. A brute of a machine, with its pushed-in nose the StuG III looked uncannily like a bull terrier, and for good reason — both were designed for close-quarter combat. Erich Manstein, the officer whose brilliant plans were the basis of the German campaign against France, developed the StuG III in the mid-1930s, looking for an uncomplicated armoured vehicle that could provide support to infantry in attacks on defended positions. He achieved his goal by removing the turret from a standard tank and installing a 75-millimetre gun into the body of the vehicle itself. Brought up close to fortified positions, it simply blasted a way through for German troops; with its heavy armour, the StuG III was invulnerable to the standard two-pound anti-tank gun of the British armies (a gun named for the weight of the shell it fired). The Leibstandarte had a battery of StuG III assault guns at Vevi; for anti-tank and anti-aircrarft artillery, the SS had batteries of the dual purpose 88-millimetre gun, an outstanding weapon that would dominate battlefields until 1945.
In using these fearsome weapons, the SS also benefited from the revolution in German tactical doctrine that had taken place between the wars. Whereas the British, content with their victory in 1918, reverted to tradition and neglected the innovative possibilities of armoured warfare, German officers like Heinz Guderian took up the lessons of the first tank actions and theorised a totally new way of waging war. Central to this thinking was not so much the tank in isolation, but the combination of all arms around the tank. Guderian understood that infantry now needed to move at the same pace and with the same protection as the tank, to accompany it into battle and deal with its enemies — anti-tank and field artillery. Likewise, artillery needed to be mechanised, so that it, too, could go where the tank could. The point of this combination was not to batter against the enemy’s strongest fortifications, in repetition of the Somme and Verdun, as the British anticipated with their Matilda tanks. Instead, Guderian and his disciples sought out the line of least resistance. A breakthrough at the weakest point of the enemy line would then allow the fast-moving armoured columns to penetrate to, and destroy, the heart of modern armies — their supply and command organisation. Even with the quality of their equipment, it was these doctrinal advances that gave the German army its advantage over its British rival in the first half of the war.
These differences in military philosophy extended to how the aeroplane should be used over the modern battlefield. Apart from the SS, the Luftwaffe was the German armed service most imbued with Nazi politics. Germany had been banned from forming a military air service by the Treaty of Versailles, and it was the Nazis who publicly resuscitated a German air force. Even by then, however, the German army had conducted a rigorous analysis of air tactics and doctrine during the 1920s, and even formed a clandestine air wing, using a rented base in the Soviet Union as a training venue. While the British and Americans spent the inter-war years pursuing the fantasy of ‘independent’ strategic bombing as a war-winning weapon, the Germans emphasised the aeroplane’s use as an assault and reconnaissance weapon on the battlefield itself (one British air force officer, who wrote a pre-war book which argued that the bomber was not a battlefield weapon, remarked with some chagrin after the Luftwaffe’s efforts in the Battle of France that he was now being ‘considerably ragged’ for it).
Each of the German panzer divisions in Greece commanded their own aircraft reconnaissance squadron; and, of course, blitzkrieg itself was indistinguishable in the popular imagination from the dive-bombing raids of the bent-winged ‘Stukas’, the Junkers 87s, which blasted defensive positions right in front of attacking troops. The doctrinal superiority of German air-support tactics was then infinitely compounded by the sheer weight of aircraft they could put into Greek skies.
In Bulgaria, for the close support of the invading German army, was Fliegerkorps VIII with 414 aircraft; further back, in Austria and Rumania, Luftflotte 4 had a further 576 aircraft available. Even these formations did not exhaust the German riches; in Sicily was Fliegerkorps X with another 168 aircraft, which was already being used to interdict Allied sea routes, operations crowned by the obliteration of Pireaus. The British, by contrast, had to split their Mediterranean airpower between North Africa and Greece, where they could deploy just ten squadrons, most of them based on airfields around Athens, with a nominal strength of 72 twin-engined Blenheim bombers, 36 modern Hurricane fighters, and even 18 antique Gloster Gladiators biplanes, which were little different in design, construction, and armament from a First World War fighter. Small wonder that Australian and New Zealand veterans remarked that in the three weeks of fighting in Greece, they scarcely saw any friendly aircraft overhead.
The well-equipped and highly motivated fanatics of the SS descended on Vevi with great speed. In countering them, Vasey’s problems at Vevi were prodigious: the Allied position lacked both depth and fixed defences, the weather was poor, and many of his units were tired from the route marches needed to get to the front. A regular soldier, George Alan Vasey had served as an artillery officer and brigade major in the first AIF. Between the wars, he graduated from the Indian army’s staff college at Quetta, and then served on exchange for two years with the Indians. Leadership at Vevi would be Vasey’s first brigade command, after he spent the Libyan campaign on the staff of 6th Division. He came to the 19 Brigade in curious circumstances. Brigadier Horace Robertson, who led the unit through the desert fighting, concluded well in advance that the Greek campaign would be a disaster. He took the opportunity to repair to hospital for treatment on his varicose veins to avoid being associated with it, hoping for more propitious command opportunities in the future. His strategic acumen was commendable, but his career planning less successful: it would be 1945 before Robertson got another combat command.
In these slightly unseemly circumstances, Vasey stepped into Robertson’s place. Described as ‘highly strung, thrustful, hard working’, Vasey would need all of these personal qualities, and more. Upon arriving in the area, Vasey found his force bolstered by only two Greek units — the 21 Regiment and the Dodecanese Regiment, the latter manned by troops from the Aegean islands. These formations were typical of the Greek army: individually brave, but poorly equipped, often with antique rifles that pre-dated even the First World War, and supplied not by railway or truck, but by mule trains.
At Vevi, the Monastir Valley narrows into a pass that traverses the higher country to the south. It was, in effect, the side door to the whole of Greece for the invading Germans. The village of Vevi itself was like many other hamlets in the Greek high country: a cluster of stone houses and dirt roads, snow-bound in winter. In ancient times, forests clad the mountains, home to abundant game and even big cats now long-extinct on the European mainland, but thousands of years of human habitation had stripped the ranges of timber, leaving the uplands completely denuded. Vevi stood at the head of the pass, through which passed a railway line and road, running in parallel to the south.
To guard the barren ranges around the pass, Vasey was forced to string his units out over a line that he estimated to be 13 to 15 kilometres in length. The map distance was one thing, but the mountainous country compounded the defence problem because it was so liable to infiltration. Vasey did at least have some engineering capacity to work with. A detachment of the 2/1st Field Company arrived on-site at 7.00 a.m. on 9 April, and immediately began work. Three roads entered Vevi, from the north-west, north-east, and the south: each was cratered by explosive charges. Sergeant Johnson later reported on how these roadblocks were prepared:
[W]e set to work with bar and hammer. After jumping two holes approximately 4 feet deep, a stick of gelignite with fuse and det was placed in each hole to bull chamber sufficient for each charge. After getting holes ready for charge, we placed approximately 50 lbs of gelignite in each of two charges and blew the crater by 10.00 hours. This showed a crater of approximately 8 feet deep and approximately 16 feet wide. After directing a stream of water that was coming from the village into the crater, we built a stone wall as a tank stop approximately 5 feet high and 30 feet long.
The railway was also blown, once on the outskirts of Vevi and again at the head of the pass, where a small bridge was demolished. The 2/1 Field Company completed its work by laying fields of anti-tank mines: the largest of them south-west of Vevi, another at the head of the pass behind the railway–road demolition, and a third within the pass. Smaller minefields were also laid on the eastern flank, along roads leading into Petrais and Panteleimon.
While the engineers had heavy equipment to help them, the infantry struggled on the high ground to prepare weapon pits in the rock-hard mountain slopes. On the extreme left was the Greek 21 Regiment and, next to them on a four-mile front, the 2/4th Battalion. In the centre, Vasey placed the 1/Rangers, just south of Vevi village and astride the road in the bottom of the valley, buttressed by the 2/1st Anti-Tank Regiment. On the crucial high ground to the east of the British (Point 997) was the 2/8th Battalion; on their right, the Dodecanese held a long line right up to the shores of Lake Vegorritis. At the southern end of the pass, Vasey deployed his artillery, coordinated by observation posts on the forward hills. Vasey kept his considerable artillery force under a centralised command, and had the good fortune to have with him for this role the commander of the 6th Division’s artillery, Brigadier Edmund Herring. Behind this thin line was the British 1st Armoured Brigade at Sotir, less its infantry and artillery. Even this small tank force was then split in two: the cruiser tanks of the 3rd Royal Tank Regiment were with Charrington at Sotir, but the light tanks of the 4th Hussars were a further 50 kilometres south, at Proastin. Vasey positioned his own force headquarters to the west of the Vevi road, under trees near the village of Xynon Neron.
The first unit to go into position was the 1/Rangers; the 2/4th Battalion, the 2/1st Anti-Tank, and the New Zealand machine-gunners followed on the morning of 9 April. The 2/4th moved up onto the high ground to the west during the day, only for its men to spend the night digging three separate positions as they were moved about the hills. Conditions were cold and miserable: Lieutenant Claude Raymond of the battalion’s signals unit resorted to singing Christmas carols to keep up the spirits of his men.
To his Australian and British infantry, Vasey added the firepower of the Kiwi machine-gunners from 1 and 2 companies, the 27 MG Battalion. This unit had been broken up to distribute the available Vickers guns, and while one half went to Vevi, the other, made up of 3 and 4 companies, buttressed the 5 NZ Brigade at Olympus Pass. The 27 MG Battalion was a model of imperial defence, not just for the flawed organisational doctrine it represented, but for the way the constituent parts of the empire came together within it: Kiwi crews manning British-designed guns, manufactured at the Australian Small Arms Factory at Lithgow, New South Wales.
Operating to a shared doctrine, these machine-gun battalions could in theory go where they were most needed — while the Australian 2/1st MG Battalion reinforced New Zealand infantry at Servia Pass, the Kiwi machine-gunners did the same for Vasey’s men at Vevi. These units could also be broken down into their constituent companies to reinforce a position where a full battalion could not be employed — thus, while two companies of the 27 MG Battalion went to Vevi, its 3 and 4 companies stiffened the New Zealand brigade holding the passes at Mount Olympus. Less satisfactory was the assumption that units could be broken up and distributed as required, and retain their cohesion under the stresses of battle when these sub-units fought alongside strangers.
At Vevi, the Kiwi machine-gunners were deployed mostly through the line on the left held by the 2/4th Battalion, and further west by the Greek 21 Regiment. In the centre, only two sections were in position to help the Rangers — Lieutenant W. F. Liley, a 26-year-old platoon commander from New Plymouth, thought the English infantry were ‘extremely thin on the ground’, estimating that ‘some sections were 50 yards apart’.
The Germans first tested this fragile defence line on the night of 9 April. The 1/Rangers reported that a platoon on patrol had been missing since 8.30 p.m. on 9 April, and a sentry in forward position was killed later in the night. Sappers of the 2/1 Field Company, waiting to blow another demolition to be timed with the approach of the Germans, bore witness to this first contact with the SS. Sergeant Johnson again reported:
At exactly five minutes past twelve (10 April), we were awakened by the sound of shooting and sentries whistles. On investigating, we were met with the sight of one of the sentries killed. He had gone forward to investigate and challenge a party of seven dressed in Greek uniforms. They all seemed to get around him, and he was trying to explain to them that no-one was allowed to go past him. Suddenly, two of the patrol fired. They turned out to be Germans and fifteen .303 and eight .38 bullets were fired at point blank range. We searched the locality but could find no sign of the party. At approx. 01.30 hrs, we heard a motor start and a car go off in the direction of the German lines.
The inexperience of the 1/Rangers evident in these first exchanges with the ruthless SS did not augur well, but the front was still fluid, allowing a New Zealand armoured-car patrol to go forward into Yugoslavia on 10 April. The day was cold and wet when Lieutenant D. A. Cole led three Marmon Herrington cars north toward Bitolj with orders to destroy a stone bridge, a mission that resulted in the first award for valour in the 2nd NZEF. Finding their bridge south of Bitolj, Cole covered the demolition work, and sent further forward the car commanded by Corporal King as a point guard.
The New Zealanders had hardly begun laying their charges when they were interrupted by the arrival of a column of the Leibstandarte. To hold up the Germans for as long as possible, King boldly advanced and challenged their fire, for which he received the Military Medal, only to be killed a week later in an air attack. Even with the bravery of King and his crew, Cole could not complete the demolition as the German fire intensified: ‘the enemy were using explosive bullets and the outsides of the cars were rapidly getting stripped of such things as bedding and tools’. Conditions inside the Marmon Herringtons were also decidedly uncomfortable, as German rounds pinged against the armour plates, dislodging the asbestos insulation and covering the crews in a fine dust. In danger of being overwhelmed, Cole got his cars together and sped away before the bridge could be blown; by way of compensation, he burnt two wooden bridges as the New Zealanders made good their escape to the south. They were not yet home, however: coming to a Yugoslav village, Cole found a German detachment already in occupation. Gunning the big cars, the New Zealanders sped through the village, firing as they went, and returned safely to Allied lines.
The size of the German column heading south had already come to the attention of the RAF, and during 10 April the infantry on the high ground around Vevi at least had the satisfaction of watching friendly bombers attack the approaching German columns. During these raids, a British Hurricane fighter was shot down by the Germans. As an integrated all-arms formation, the Leibstandarte was well equipped with automatic 37-millimetre anti-aircraft cannon, deadly to low-flying aircraft. The British pilot, Flight Lieutenant ‘Timber’ Woods, crash-landed his fighter in no-man’s-land, and was brought back into friendly lines by a patrol from the 2/4th Battalion led by Lieutenant K. L. Kesteven (Woods was killed in action over Athens later in the month, in the last great air battle to defend the Greek capital).
The Germans coming up to Vevi were also harassed by Allied artillery fire: Captain G. Laybourne Smith of the 2/3rd Field Regiment was pleased with his battery’s work in laying fire onto Germans debussing on the plain, directing the shoot from his observation post in the hills. The artillery fire was not the only obstacle facing the SS. Leading the German column approaching Vevi was Untersturmfuhrer Franz Witt, younger brother of the commander of I Battalion: his car hit a mine laid by the 2/1st Field Company. Despite efforts to aid him, Franz died of his wounds; on the eve of the battle, a visibly distressed Fritz viewed his younger brother’s body laid out in a Greek house.
Throughout 10 April, the 2/8th Battalion struggled to get forward. Having been trucked as far as Xynon Neron (hampered by refugee traffic, the last 96 kilometres took six hours to traverse), the 2/8th had a 25-to-30-kilometre route march over broken country to take up its position. It only reached its objective, Point 997, in the evening gloom at 6.00 p.m. The unit’s medical officer was horrified by the condition of the troops, a fifth of them new recruits, insufficiently hardened for the campaign. As the men climbed up Point 997, some even began to suffer from altitude sickness. Snow and mist compounded the misery of the Australians. When they finally began digging in, they found the ground to be mostly rock; with their light entrenching tools, they were unable to excavate weapon pits of any depth. To afford some protection to their firing positions, they threw up sangars (another term taken from the Libyan campaign, describing a firing position formed by building a stone wall on top of the ground) as best they could. Finally, the 2/8th discovered that the Bren-gun carriers, which should have given them all-terrain capability, were useless in the conditions. Standing only 1.5 metres tall, and with a modest 65-horsepower motor, the gun carriers had insufficient ground clearance for the sodden earth in the bottom of the valley, or the power to climb the hills above. They were soon bogged in mud once they left the main Kleidi–Vevi road. This meant that the men were unable to bring forward hot food, which further dented morale.