The Selection of the Defence Line
The Selection of the Defence Line
ON the afternoon of 16 April 21 Battalion had withdrawn from the Platamon tunnel to the western end of the Pinios Gorge, that narrow cleft between Mounts Ossa and Olympus which is famous in history as the Vale of Tempe. Into one of the two tunnels on the north bank the last Bren carrier had towed a railway box-car with which Lieutenant Jones and his section from 19 Army Troops Company, by wrecking the wheels and undercarriage, had effectively blocked the line. On the south bank the engineers had then blown two demolitions in the road, but they were not really formidable obstacles. No. 10 Platoon B Company (Second- Lieutenant Rose1) had been posted some three miles east of Tempe to cover the second or nearest crater; the other platoons had remained about a mile east of the village in the valley which runs up from the river to the village of Ambelakia. The demolition of the railway bridge just west of Tempe was the responsibility of Major C. Langbein with another section from 19 Army Troops Company. Explosives, as usual, were short, but Sapper Gordon came through the air raids with ammonal and gelignite from Larisa and at 8 p.m. the bridge was successfully wrecked.
By then reinforcements2 were on their way. At dusk Lieutenant- Colonel Chilton appeared, closely followed by 2/2 Australian Battalion, confident but tired after its long night marches3 from Veroia to the mountains east of Servia Pass. Twenty-sixth Battery came through from Elasson about midnight and the following afternoon, 17 April, 2/3 Battalion appeared, slightly below strength because some lorry drivers had missed the turn-off at Larisa and continued with the main stream of traffic towards Thermopylae.
To the west there lay the level open country south of the Pinios River. In the centre the road and railway from Larisa went through the villages of Makrikhori1 and Evangelismos, but just west of Tempe the railway bridged the river and continued eastwards along the north bank. The road followed the south bank between the river and the ridges of Mount Ossa. At the foot of the first ridge was Tempe, a collection of white houses with peach trees in the gardens and an ancient mosque beside the Greek Orthodox church.
Beyond it in the steep valley between the second and third ridges were vineyards and terraces of olive groves. And above them among oaks, elms and chestnut trees, Ambelakia overlooked the Pinios River and the lower slopes of Mount Olympus.
At the foot of the third ridge the gorge proper began and the road, cut from the mountainside and shaded by tall trees, was almost too narrow for wheeled traffic. But it had always been the natural avenue for the invader; the ruins of old fortresses and old chapels were proof of that. The river was no longer ‘clear as crystall glass over the gravelly stones’ but it was still ‘pleasant to behold for the grasse upon the bankes, and resounding again with the melodious concert of the birds.’2 To the ancients the vale was an abode of the gods; in the spring of 1941 to the soldiers from the Antipodes it was a world of hyacinths and cyclamens, crocuses and anemones, below scarlet Judas trees and budding planes and chestnuts.
On 17 April it was more important to consider the possible movement of the enemy from the Platamon tunnel area. With the mountains and the sea cliffs making it virtually impossible for any movement down the coast, the attacks when they came would be through the gorge or over the southern ridges of Mount Olympus. And in spite of the majestic scenery neither route was impracticable. If the tanks crossed the river they could then follow the road along the south side of the gorge. If the infantry wished to cross the mountain there was a road, difficult but not impossible for motor traffic, from the coast to the mountain village of Rapsani and mule tracks from Skotina and Pandeleimon to Gonnos, a village from which the mountain troops could approach Tempe or begin an encirclement of the western flank.
2 Pliny, translated by Philemon Holland.
The same weaknesses had been apparent to the Greeks when Xerxes moved south towards Athens. They had gone into position ‘along the course of Peneus, having the range of Olympus on the one hand and Ossa upon the other.’ After a few days they had withdrawn. ‘In my opinion what chiefly wrought on them was the fear that the Persians might enter by another pass, thereof they now heard, which led from Upper Macedonia into Thessaly through the territory of the Perrhaebi, and by the town of Gonnus— the pass by which soon afterwards the army of Xerxes actually made its entrance …. The Greeks, on their return to the Isthmus, took counsel … and considered where they should fix the war, and what places they should occupy. The opinion which prevailed was, that they should guard the pass of Thermopylae; since it was narrower than the Thessalian defile, and at the same time nearer to them.’1
Unlike the Greeks the British could not make a sudden withdrawal. Allen Force had orders to stand fast until 6 Brigade from Elasson and Savige Force from Kalabaka had passed through Larisa. Chilton and Macky therefore decided that 21 Battalion, from the high country on the south bank, must cover the gorge from the road block to Tempe village. The 2/2 Australian Battalion would occupy a position in depth at the entrance to the gorge. And because Chilton thought it probable that the Germans would attempt to turn the left flank, his battalion front had also to be extended westwards along the Pinios River.
The position of the anti-tank guns caused some discussion. Macky wanted them so deployed as to threaten the tanks when they emerged from the gorge, but in the end three of them were on the flats between the ridges of Mount Ossa. From there they could direct enfilade fire upon the tanks before they ever left the gorge. The fourth gun was placed in the area of C Company 2/2 Battalion to cover any possible movement from the gorge.
Chilton also decided that 2/2 Battalion would send a patrol back into the gorge to discover whether the crossing place at the north-east end had been seized. A picket would be sent to the high country east of Evangelismos and, once a ford could be found, a patrol would go over to the north side of the river. Twenty-first Battalion had left all its telephone cable at Platamon, but the Australians from their precious horde of Italian equipment brought over from Libya were able to link up the two headquarters.
1 Herodotus: Book VII, Chapters 173–5 (Rawlinson's translation).
D Company (Captain A. C. Trousdale) in the high country east of Ambelakia overlooked the gorge and covered the right flank, round which mountain troops could possibly infiltrate. C Company (Captain W. M. Tongue) held the central sector, with 13 Platoon (Lieutenant M. C. O'Neill) on the flat across the road and 14 and 15 Platoons up the rocky ridge towards Ambelakia. A Company (Captain R. B. McClymont) was in reserve behind the third or western ridge, ready to meet an attack across the river or from the rear. No. 9 Platoon (Second-Lieutenant W. J. G. Roach) was on the lower slopes of the ridge looking into the gorge; 8 Platoon (Lieutenant Bullock-Douglas3) was facing the river; and 7 Platoon (Second-Lieutenant W. J. Southworth) was west again on the flat facing the river and linking 21 Battalion with 2/2 Battalion.
In Tempe village itself was the RAP covered by details from Headquarters Company under Lieutenant Anderson.4 The remainder were with A Company. Just south of the village and some 100 yards east of the road, Battalion Headquarters was located, with the carrier platoon beyond that again. As all signals equipment had been left at Platamon the only form of communication between companies was by runner.
The battalion was overlooked from the high country north of the river and its position was hazardous if enemy tanks pushed through into Tempe or if the infantry crossed the river and succeeded in driving back the Australians. But the positions seemed the best in the circumstances. To support the anti-tank gunners and to halt any infantry moving forward with the tanks, the companies were sited low down the ridges.