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.
The hasty assembly of the defending force showed in myriad ways, one of the more comical being the arrest by Greek police of Lieutenant Colonel J. W. Mitchell, a Melbourne company director and now CO of 2/8th Battalion — the suspicious local constabulary thought the Australian colonel was a spy.
The defenders endured yet another snowfall during the night of 10 April, equipped only with greatcoats and blankets, sustained by hardtack and bully beef. In the cold and snow, the two sides fought further patrol actions, and the result for the Allies was not propitious. A German force of about 20 men infiltrated the centre-right of Mackay Force and, confusing their opponents by calling out in good English, captured 11 New Zealanders, six Rangers, and six men of the 2/8th Battalion. Fire-fights then broke out in front of the foremost element of the 2/8th Battalion, the 14 Platoon, entrenched on the forward slope of Point 997. In this confused action, two wounded SS men were taken prisoner, and from their insignia the Australians first learnt that the Leibstandarte was in the line against them. The more lightly wounded German was removed to Corps Headquarters near Elasson, where he was interrogated by Private Geoffery St Vincent Ballard, a German-speaking signaller with the 4 Special Wireless Section. Sitting on the tailgate of a truck, Ballard struck up a conversation with ‘Kurt’, established he was from Berlin, and gathered from him some ‘low-level information’ about the composition and role of the Leibstandarte.
The eleventh of April opened with a blizzard, and the Allied troops were united in their misery. The New Zealand machine-gunners had spent the night in sodden gunpits, their boots waterlogged. In the morning, they even found several guns frozen and unable to fire. Conditions on the higher ground occupied by the Australian infantry were more difficult again: the 2/8th Battalion, at least, finally found a use for their cumbersome and despised anti-gas capes, which helped to keep the men dry. Regardless of this modest protection, men began to drop out with frostbite.
At six o’clock that morning, Dietrich issued his divisional orders, forming a kampfgruppe (battle group) around his I Battalion by adding to it artillery reinforcements and StuG III assault guns, and by instructing the grieving Fritz Witt to push on to Kozani through the Kleidi Pass. In an attempt to fulfil those orders, 7 Company of I Battalion pushed through Vevi village and launched an assault on Point 997 from 7.30 p.m.: the attempt was abandoned due to inadequate artillery support and the gathering darkness. The 2/4th Battalion on the left also reported defeating a heavy attack at this time, and a number of Allied units reported that, in the course of the fighting, two German ‘tanks’, undoubtedly the assault guns, had been disabled on minefields. It would seem from German records that what the Anzacs in fact observed was merely the withdrawal of these vehicles, as Kampfgruppe Witt abandoned its efforts for the day. Vasey duly reported to Mackay at 9.50 p.m. that he had the ‘situation well in hand’.
Nevertheless, the Germans were obviously gathering their strength for a decisive assault on the Allied position. The hard-driving Vasey, clearly appreciating the difficulties facing his men, demanded that they not shirk the issue. He issued an order of the day on the evening of 11 April that said much about his own blunt character: ‘You may be tired,’ he acknowledged, ‘you may be uncomfortable. But you are doing a job important to the rest of our forces. Therefore you will continue to do that job unless otherwise ordered.’
Mitchell, in command of 2/8th Battalion, followed up Vasey’s exhortation and ordered that no member of the unit leave his post from 9.00 p.m. An hour later, the Germans attempted their infiltration trick again, complete with cultured English voices, but on this occasion were met by an alert 14 Platoon that responded with heavy fire. In their unit diaries, the Germans noted the nervousness in the Allied line — any noise during the night was met by a barrage of artillery fire; indeed, the 2/3rd Field Regiment later acknowledged that it spent much of the night firing into a hillside on a false alarm that German tanks had penetrated the pass. Such incidents might seem comical in retrospect, but they also eroded Allied strength: earlier on the 11 April, a squadron of precious cruiser tanks from the 1st Armoured Brigade was despatched from the reserve at Sotire to investigate a report that German tanks were sweeping around the extreme right, along Lake Vegorritis. They found nothing in the barren snow-clad hills, and managed only to disable six of their cruiser tanks when their tracks broke on the rough ground.
By 12 April, the Mackay Force units had nearly accomplished their task, and indeed had orders to begin withdrawing from 5.30 p.m. that evening. Unfortunately, that planned withdrawal was upstaged by the long-heralded German attack. At 6.00 a.m., Dietrich gave his men their final orders: Witt was to punch through the Allied centre and advance on Sotir; a second assault force drawn from the 9th Panzer Division, recently arrived on the scene (Kampfgruppe Appel), would flank the Allied left through Flambouron; and on the Allied right, another impromptu formation from the Leibstandarte, Kampfgruppe Weidenhaupt, would attack Kelli. Meyer’s reconnaissance battalion was ready to exploit any breakthrough, and the Leibstandarte’s assault-gun battery was moved in behind Witt to force the issue.
The decisive action between the Allies and the SS was now at hand. In the bottom of the valley, helping to guard the two-pound guns with the 2/1st Anti-Tank Regiment, was Kevin Price, manning a Bren gun. The first thing that warned Price of the impeding battle was the noise — mechanised warfare brought with it the hum and roar of thousands of petrol engines: ‘We could hear the sound, this tremendous roar as they came down the road, with their tanks and weapons, their motor bikes were out in front, they were testing where we were dug in.’ Shortly after eight in the morning, up on the high ground to the right, Bob Slocombe and the rest of the 14 Platoon, 2/8th Battalion, were getting their first hot meal for days. This welcome breakfast, however, was interrupted by German shelling, and the SS infantry followed in hard behind.
In this foremost Australian position, the 14 Platoon was quickly in trouble. Slocombe remembers his platoon commander, 20-year-old Lieutenant Tommy Oldfield, trying to rally his troops, drawing his service revolver, and moving gamely into the open. A more experienced soldier, Slocombe yelled, ‘For Christ’s sake, Tommy, come back.’ But it was too late, and Oldfield was cut down in this, his first action. As the official historian recorded, Oldfield had enlisted at eighteen, been commissioned as an officer at nineteen, and was now dead at twenty. Even with these heroics, the 14 Platoon was in grave jeopardy, and a number of sections were overrun. Slocombe himself fought his way out to the safety of a reverse slope, where with 17 or 18 others he helped to hold up the Germans until mid-afternoon.
Slocombe’s temper would probably not have been helped had he known that, at 11.50 a.m., headquarters of the 6th Division recorded the action being fought on Point 997 as a ‘slight penetration’ of the defences. The staff of higher command had their minds elsewhere at the time, being deep in conference with Colonel Pappas, a staff officer with the Central Macedonian army, on how the withdrawal of the Dodecanese on the right might be achieved. Without trucks, the Greeks faced the prospect of leaving behind 1200 wounded. The Australians did not always excel at the diplomacy needed to manage relations with their allies: on this occasion, they were clearly frustrated by the scale of the problem presented to them by Pappas; at 1.00 p.m., Mackay finally issued orders to make 30 three-ton lorries available to the Dodecanese. The wounded soldiers whom the trucks could not carry would apparently have to march out, or face capture.
Although headquarters might have been sanguine, the loss of the forward slope of Point 997 had much more profound and unfortunate consequences for the 19 Brigade. In the valley, the 1/Rangers were effectively fighting alongside strangers, having been removed from their familiar role as the infantry element in a tank brigade. The English soldiers, seeing the 14 Platoon in trouble, thought their right had been turned, and began pulling back. In reality, the fighting that morning on Point 997 was only a patrol action, in conformity with Dietrich’s orders that vigorous patrols be sent out prior to the main attack scheduled for 2.00 p.m. However, to exploit any success by these patrols, Dietrich ordered that ‘wherever the enemy shows signs of withdrawing, he is to be followed up at once,’ and the dislodging of the 14 Platoon encouraged the Germans to continue to press the Australians.
Thus, even though the main assault was still being prepared, the German success on Point 997 prompted further local attacks to exploit the opening. Mitchell soon found both B and C companies, on his left, in trouble: he launched a counterattack mid-morning, borrowing a platoon from A Company, on the right, for the purpose, and supported it with covering fire from D Company, in the centre. This had some success, regaining part of the high ground, and the position of the 2/8th was stabilised, at least for the moment.
Down in the valley, however, the withdrawal of the 1/Rangers went on unabated. An officer of the 27 NZ MG Battalion, Captain Grant, the OC 1 Company, attempted to persuade the English infantry to hold their position, without success. Manning his Bren gun, Kevin Price remembers the British infantry streaming past the Australian anti-tank gunners. The withdrawal of the Rangers left these guns, along with the outposts of the New Zealand machine-gunners, without infantry support, and therefore in danger of being overrun. The only option for the gunners was to pull out. Unfortunately, five of the precious two-pounders could not be extricated from the mud in time, and had to be abandoned. By midday, the shaky line of the 2/8th Battalion on the heights on the right formed a large salient, as the Allied centre gave way down the pass; and, on the extreme right, the Dodecanese crumpled in the face of the advance by Kampfgruppe Weidenhaupt.