Buy This Issue
The Weekend Neos Kosmos : 31 October 2015
GREECE 20 THE WEEKEND NEOS KOSMOS | SATURDAY 31 OCTOBER 2015 DIGITAL.NEOSKOSMOS.COM Zeeto ee Australia! - with BY JIM CLAVEN On OXI Day we commemorate the battle of Greece and Crete. This is the story of the often forgotten battle of Vevi in April 1941. I have driven and walked through the battlefield many times. In April this year I sat enjoying a great meal at the beautiful Kontosoros Guest House & Restaurant at Xino Nero, a great example of the restored traditional inns that dot the region. It is hard to imagine in this quiet, lush valley that the sounds of war would have filled the air in 1941. Yet it was here, just to the north of Xino Nero, around the village of Vevi and the winding Kleidi valley to its south, that the first major battle of the 1941 Greek campaign took place. It was also the first engagement of Anzacs in Greece since the arrival of the first diggers on Lemnos in 1915. Some 34,000 Australian and New Zealand troops arrived in Greece throughout March and early April as part of the Allied force sent to assist in the defence of Greece. As they moved through Greece the Australians received a warm welcome. Villagers waved and gave the thumbs-up sign, calling out "Zeeto ee Australia" - “Long live Australia”. The battlefield today rests at the top of a quiet, peaceful valley, with a winding road making its way between the narrow defile formed by the steep hills on each side until it emerges into the open at the junction of the road leading to the village of Vevi. Standing at this cross-roads at the top of the valley and looking to the open plain Australian soldiers from the 2/2nd Battalion talking with Evzones near the Acropolis, 25 March 1941. ahead, one can imagine what confronted the defenders as they searched ahead for the advancing German Army as they deployed for action on 9 and 10 April 1941. Their commander, Australian Brigadier George Vasey, was instructed to hold up the Germans until at least 12 April. Along the ridges of the hill to the right in front of the village of Kleidi was the Australian 2/8th Battalion, linked up with the 4,500 strong Greek Dodecanese Regiment further on in the area of Lakes Vegorritis and Petron. At the centre, astride the road, were the British 1st Rangers. The Australian 2/4th Battalion deployed on a more than six kilometre front on the hills to the left, with the 21st Greek Brigade to its left. At the centre of the position were strong contingents of Australian and British artillery and New Zealand machine gunners. Forward from the Rangers, Australian engineers of the 2/1st Australian Field Com- pany had been busy since 7 April creating craters in the roads north of Vevi, blowing up the railway that ran through the valley and a small bridge at the head of the pass, as well as laying a minefield in advance of the defenders’ position. As I climbed one of the hills in early April it was overcast and had rained. The muddy ground was sticky mud and difficult to traverse. Seventyfour years earlier, in 1941, the young Australians who came here after their long journey from the south without sleep were met with rain in the valleys and snow and fog enveloping the mountains. For most of the Australians this was their first experience of snow - unlike most of their German opponents. The attacking Germans included an SS brigade, armour and overwhelming air superiority. They made their presence felt on the evening of 9 April when German soldiers in Greek uniforms surprised and captured some Brit- ish Rangers. Later Germans would call out in English for the defenders to put down their guns. The Australian response was a burst of machine gun fire. The first two days of the battle saw all German attacks repulsed by mines, artillery and small arms fire. When the Australian artillery stopped the German mechanised advance along the road ahead of the valley on 10 April, General Mackay declared "our first ball!". Two SS prisoners were taken by soldiers of the 2/8th during the fighting on the 11th. Meanwhile the 21st Greek Brigade had twice repulsed German infantry attacks. By 11 April the weather had turned for the worse, bringing blizzard conditions to the battlefield. Mist in the heights on each side of the valley made it impossible to see more than fifty yards. The hills on both sides of the valley were covered in snow, captured in the photograph of the 2/4th's Lieutenant Colonel Dougherty with a Greek officer. The Anzacs reported several guns had frozen overnight and were unable to fire. Some soldiers dropped out of the line with frostbite. As the morning of Easter Saturday approached, the Australians were surprised to hear the sound of a shepherd with his sheep and oxen cart moving near their lines. At 8.30 am the Germans launched their assault on the defenders. On a wide front east of the road the Germans, supported by intense mortar and machine gun fire, attacked the 2/8th Battalion in close formation at their junction with the Rangers. Under Dispositions 10th April 1941. Gavin Long, Greece, Crete and Syria, Australian War Memorial, Canberra, 1953. cover of the poor weather, the Germans were able to get to bayonet range before the defenders could see them. All day long the assault ebbed and flowed around the Australian positions. As one Australian soldier remarked of the experience: "Suddenly you'd see figures appearing out of the wall of snow in front of you, we'd give them all we had and then the snow would close over them again. I thought they'd never stop coming ..." The Germans then launched their main assault at the centre of the pass. As the Rangers in the centre of the Allied defence line fell back, the 2/8th began to withdraw. The Ger- man infantry jumped from their trucks and advanced close behind their armoured vehicles. The Australian and British Artillery engaged the Germans on the road in the centre with open sights, delaying their advance. A successful counter-attack by the 2/8th saw it regain vital ground on the ridges and retain the heights to the east of the road. As the planned withdrawal of the Dodecanese Regiment was completed by 4.00 pm in the face of German attacks on its position, the 2/8th was in danger of being surrounded and were attacked by infantry supported by tanks across its whole front. Greek war memorial to the battle of Vevi, southern entrance to the Kleidi valley. PHOTOS: JIM CLAVEN. Kleidi valley looking north to Vevi. In April 1941, the 2/4th battalion defended the hills to the left and the 2/8th the hills to the right.
24 October 2015
7 November 2015