Maritime Australia in the 21st Century

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SAM GOLDSMITH analyses three possible options for a better surface combatant mix for the RAN. In considerable technical detail, this forensic examination is essential reading for naval personnel and anyone concerned with getting the best force for Australia’s future. The full paper is here.

As a very large continental-scale island, Australia’s maritime credentials should be obvious. Australia has 25,760 km of coastline and 58,920 km2 of sea area under its jurisdiction. It is relatively isolated, but is flanked to the north by the Indonesian archipelago. Its geostrategic location, with strong ties to the Asian markets, and important military links with the USA and South East Asia make Australia vitally important. “As a significant medium power in the Asia-Pacific region, Australia inescapably is a participant in the most politically, economically, and strategically dynamic part of the world. …

As a maritime trading state highly dependent upon secure sea lanes of communication stretching from the Middle East to North America, Australia is tied comprehensively and profitably to Asia’s economic success.” As Commander Simon Bateman RAN points out: “Australia is a medium power on a world scale [and] Australia is also a medium maritime power.” It is interesting to note that Australia defines ‘medium power’ following Hill[1]; such is Hill’s influence on RAN thinking. Australia has contributed to both wars against Iraq and also the war in Afghanistan as well as taking unilateral action in its own backyard when it intervened in East Timor. Australian forces have also been at the forefront of disaster relief operations such as in Aceh and other areas affected by the 2004 tsunami. Australia’s security concerns are diverse, yet it places its focus on the maritime element.

It is significant that the title of the 2009 White Paper was Defending Australia in the Asia-Pacific Century. The Australian government bases its decisions on ‘strategic interests’ which are “those that endure irrespective of specific passing threats that may complicate our outlook from time to time.”

There is also a desire for operational autonomy whereby Australia must have the means to “act independently where we have unique strategic interests at stake, and in relation to which we would not wish to be reliant on the combat forces of any foreign power.”

Despite the wide type of security threats that Australia faces, “taking into account the strategic drivers, regional geography, and Prime Minister Rudd’s stated emphasis in 2008 on naval power, it should come as no surprise that by far the most significant force-structure initiatives in the white paper relate to maritime capability.” Under the subheading ‘Enhancing Our Maritime Forces’ the 2009 Defence White Paper explains, “The major new direction that has emerged through our consideration of current and future requirements is a significant focus on enhancing our maritime capabilities.

By the mid-2030s, we will have a heavier and more potent maritime force. The government will double the size of the submarine force (12 more capable boats to replace the current fleet of six Collins class submarines), replace the current Anzac class frigate with a more capable Future Frigate optimised for ASW; and enhance our capability for offshore maritime warfare, border protection and mine countermeasures.” Overall, Australia’s maritime focus “point toward the RAN’s being a well-balanced but vastly more capable and flexible regional naval force in the future.” The maritime theme was reaffirmed in the 2013 Defence White Paper.

2014 Defence White Paper

[1] REAR ADMIRAL J. R. HILL

Royal Navy Officer 1942–1983. Editor of the Naval Review, 1983–2002 and reviews editor from 2002. He has been a member of Council, Greenwich Forum, 1983—date. He is extensively published with 14 books and numerous articles on maritime subjects including: Rear Admiral J. R. Hill, Maritime Strategy for Medium Powers, (Beckenham, Croom Helm, 1986); and as ‘Marlowe’,(1976) ‘The Medium Maritime Power-I’, Naval Review , Vol. 64, No. 2, 106–112; and (1976) ‘The Medium Maritime Power-II’, Naval Review , Vol. 64, No. 3, 213–221; and (1976) ‘The Medium Maritime Power-III’, Naval Review , Vol. 64, No. 4, 321–328; and (1977) ‘The Medium Maritime Power-IV’, Naval Review , Vol. 65, No. 1, 36–45; and Rear Admiral R. Hill, (1981) ‘Apocalypse When?’ RUSI Journal, 126: 2, 63–65; and (1984) ‘Maritime Forces for Medium Powers’, Naval Forces , Vol. 5, Issue 2, 26–32; and (2000) Medium Power Strategy Revisited, (Royal Australian Navy, Sea Power Centre).

CARTWHEEL

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When MacArthur had arrived in Melbourne, he had told his aide Sid Huff to buy him a civilian hat. He hoped he might wear it if he went out for a movie when time permitted. In fact, the hat never left its box. Over the next three years, MacArthur had no time for his favorite entertainment. Running SWPA consumed all his time except for the handful of hours he snatched away for Jean and his son—while Jean and little Arthur had to adjust to their strange new surroundings of Australia largely by themselves.

For Jean, the first few weeks after arrival had meant a dizzying round of social engagements, starting with luncheons with various prominent ladies, and continuing on to cocktails and dinner virtually every night. After a time she began to complain of headaches until one day MacArthur came home for lunch and found her in bed, feeling overwhelmed by the blur of social obligations.

“What’ll I do? What’ll I do?” she kept asking him in a plaintive voice.

MacArthur called the doctor, who pronounced her physically fit. After he left, MacArthur gently closed the door and said, “If you don’t stop worrying about these things, we’ll have to write ‘What’ll I do’ on your tombstone.”

That was the end of the social whirl. Even after they moved to Brisbane and settled into the Lennons Hotel, a short walk from the nine-story office building that was SWPA headquarters, Jean and Douglas settled into the more serene domestic routine they had established in Manila, with Jean preparing the general’s lunch every day as he came back from the office to eat and enjoy a short nap, then returning to the office until early evening.

There were other headaches. For a time, they received anonymous letters threatening to kidnap little Arthur, or hinting that others were planning to do so. MacArthur refused to let it disturb their regular routine, although Sid Huff did start traveling with a revolver every time he and Jean and the boy went out. Arthur had a spell of eating troubles, sometimes taking more than an hour to finish his meals. Jean also argued that the general spoiled his son shamelessly, presenting him with gifts and little rewards no matter the occasion or how badly Arthur behaved.

Once an old friend of Sid Huff’s who owned a toy and sporting goods company sent two enormous crates for Arthur filled with everything from balloons and toy airplanes to lead soldiers and boxing gloves—with ten specimens of each.

“We mustn’t let the General know about this,” Jean told Huff in a dismayed tone. “He would give them all to Arthur tomorrow morning.” From then on, all toys and gifts were stored in a “secret closet” to which only Jean had the key—and from which both Arthur and Douglas MacArthur were barred.

MacArthur had his own peculiar eating habits. His sensitive stomach kept him away from most spicy foods, as well as alcohol, and while their three-floor suite at the Lennons had a kitchen, most dinners were brought up from the hotel restaurant. He rarely commented on what was served, beyond an occasional, “no more cauliflower” or “no more Brussels sprouts” when the appeal of that particular vegetable had begun to wane. But as he began coming home later and later to find his dinner cold, Jean took up cooking his dinner herself, as well as his lunch.

They were a tight-knit group, in the midst of a foreign country and a world at war. Along with Ah Cheu and the Bataan Gang who had survived the escape from Corregidor, no outsider understood what they had been through, or the bond that held them together—certainly not Australians. Virtually the only public appearance that Jean made in Brisbane was christening a new Australian Royal Navy destroyer, the Bataan, and the only public speech was the one she gave on that occasion:

“I christen thee Bataan, and may God bless you.”

MacArthur’s friendship with Prime Minister Curtin was genuine, as well as the source of his political leverage over SWPA. Yet he never built a warm relationship with his Australian hosts—certainly nothing like the bond that developed with the Japanese after the war. The adulation from every sector of Australian opinion that had greeted him on his arrival faded. The Australian armed forces in particular resented doing a major part of the fighting—and taking the greater burden of casualties—while having little say over where or when they fought.

Jean herself found few friends in Melbourne. She yearned for prewar Manila, and would from time to time pack and unpack footlockers for the day when they would be heading back. So did little Arthur. He had few memories of their lives in the Philippines but would sometimes tell his parents he wanted to go back to their penthouse in the Manila Hotel, just so “we don’t have to go by PT-boat,” he would quickly add.

As for the general, whatever he was doing, no matter how focused we was on the fighting in New Guinea or getting more planes for George Kenney or more LSTs for Dan Barbey or bracing himself for the next round of bruising communications with the Joint Chiefs, the Philippines were never far from his thoughts—nor were the men he had left behind.

He would remember in his mind’s eye “their long bedraggled hair framed against gaunt bloodless faces” and the tattered clothes and “hoarse wild laughter.” The battling bastards of Bataan were only a memory to most Americans, but they were real and present to MacArthur for more than three years. “They were filthy,” he wrote, “and they were lousy, and they stank. And I loved them.”

The truth was, though, that in their prison camps, they did not love him—just as they mistakenly blamed him for their miserable fate.

The Japanese plan to wreck MacArthur’s plans was code-named Operation I.; it was simple and brutal. The Japanese army and navy would join their air forces for a massive bombing campaign of Allied airfields and shipping in the Solomons, including Guadalcanal, which by the spring of 1943 was firmly in American hands, and then New Guinea.

The goal was to so cripple MacArthur’s air and sea assets that he would be unable to launch any fresh offensive for a year or more. By then, Operation I’s mastermind hoped, Japan would have consolidated its position in the Solomons chain, and Rabaul would be an impregnable fortress.

The mastermind of Operation I was Japan’s greatest war hero, Admiral Yamamoto. He had assembled 350 aircraft, both fighters and bombers, to do the job, and on April 3 he flew to the naval base at Truk in the Caroline Islands, to direct the operation himself.

Meanwhile, General Kenney was back in Brisbane and sat down with MacArthur to review his Washington trip. He found MacArthur more excited about the future than he had been at any point since arriving in Australia.

For good reason. The promised air reinforcements hugely increased the chances of a successful offensive in 1943. Barbey’s amphibious fleet was still pitifully small: just four aging destroyers turned into transports, six of the big LSTs, and thirty other landing vessels. But the Fifth Air Force now numbered 1,400 planes in addition to Australian and Dutch air units, while Halsey’s command brought on six battleships, five carriers, and thirteen cruisers, plus another 500 aircraft.

As for troops on the ground, General Blamey had under his command two U.S. Infantry divisions, the Thirty-second and the Forty-first, one marine division, and no fewer than fifteen Australian divisions. With Halsey’s seven divisions thrown in, this was beginning to look like an army ready to take on anything the Japanese could throw at it.

Still, the numbers were deceptive. Kenney and MacArthur agreed that “we were at low ebb right then as far as any decisive action was concerned,” the air force chief remembered later. Blamey’s ground forces were exhausted after the rigors of the Buna campaign; so were many of Halsey’s troops after the fierce fighting for Guadalcanal. Two regiments of the Forty-first were still working their way west along the north coast of New Guinea, but wouldn’t reach their objectives for some time. Kenney’s air forces were worn out and flying on spare parts and skimpy maintenance; instead of three fighter groups of seventy-five planes each, he was lucky if there were seventy-five fighters total that were operational.

All in all, it would be two or three months before MacArthur could be on the move again, first against Lae and Salamaua and then west toward Madang. In the meantime, Kenney’s bombers were hitting Japanese convoys as far east as Kiriwina and as far north as Kavieng on the island of New Ireland. It was only a few days after their meeting, on April 11, that Kenney and MacArthur realized something big was up, and it was headed right for Port Moresby.

After relentlessly attacking the Solomons from April 5 through April 10, Yamamoto now shifted his attention to New Guinea. This time naval intelligence let MacArthur down. They had managed to get advance warning of Yamamoto’s raids on the Solomons and Guadalcanal, but missed the timing of the “Y Phase,” or the turn to New Guinea. But Kenney’s instinct had already told him to shift his main fighter strength to protect Dobodura and Milne Bay. He made only one mistake. The main target wasn’t Milne Bay itself but his own headquarters at Port Moresby, and he had barely eight P-38s and twelve older P-39s to guard the harbor and airdromes.

At about nine o’clock in the morning on the 12th, radar picked up a large Japanese air formation coming out of Rabaul and heading for Milne Bay. Kenney’s Lightnings hit in a head-on pass and began shooting down bombers while the P-39s tangled with the Japanese fighters. The Japanese bombers dumped their bombs over Port Moresby, including several on Laloki airfield, then banked away and headed back toward Lae with the P-38s pursuing. Damage was light, as the bomb pattern had been hasty and indiscriminate. It only reinforced Kenney’s low opinion of the Japanese air force commanders as “a disgrace to the airman’s profession,” as he put it in his diary.

Despite heavy losses, Admiral Yamamoto was exhilarated. His pilots had brought back a wildly fanciful account of the damage they had done in the raids, claiming they had sunk an American cruiser, two destroyers, and twenty-five Allied transports besides shooting down 134 aircraft. Yamamoto was so delighted that he decided to take a victory tour and visit his intrepid airmen.

The message about the admiral’s visit went out on April 13. Yamamoto didn’t know it, but he had just signed his death warrant.

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Dawn on April 18 brought a misty morning under a turbulent sea as two Mitsubishi Betty transport planes carrying Admiral Yamamoto and his staff made their way from Rabaul toward the western edge of Bougainville, while half a dozen navy Zeros provided escort and cover overhead.

It was around three o’clock that the pilot of Yamamoto’s plane spotted a plane on the horizon. It was a P-38 Lightning in dark khaki coloring with white stars set against dark blue circles, and it was circling over the rendezvous point assigned for the Yamamoto party. Then it was joined by another; then another and another, followed by still another.

In minutes there were eighteen P-38s clustered in the air, as if they had been lying in wait. The Japanese Zeros dove in vain to provide cover for the transports while some of the American planes rose to meet them and others, led by Captain Thomas Lanphier, swept in toward the two lumbering Bettys.

One Betty bomber swerved and crashed in the jungle, killing most of Yamamoto’s staff. The one carrying the admiral himself tried to bank and weave to avoid Lanphier’s blazing .50-caliber machine guns almost at treetop level. Then a burst from Lanphier’s plane tore open the Betty’s port engine; the plane dipped and rolled and smashed into the ground in a blaze of fire and flying debris.

The communiqué detailing Yamamoto’s entire itinerary had been intercepted by ULTRA three days before the trip. Torn between possibly shooting down the man who masterminded the Pearl Harbor attack and possibly revealing to the Japanese that their most sensitive codes had been uncovered, the Office of the Secretary of the Navy hesitated. Finally it passed the message on to SWPA, and MacArthur gave the go-ahead to intercept.

The P-38s had come from Halsey’s command; later there was debate as to whether Lanphier or another pilot from the same squadron had pulled the fatal trigger—hardly unexpected. The death of Yamamoto sent shock waves through the Japanese high command and Imperial Navy. Yet “for whatever reasons, the Japanese navy refused to consider that the Allies had broken the five-digit mainline naval operations code,” writes Edward Drea, the chief historian of decryption analysis in the Pacific war. Together with the discovery of a Japanese army list with the names of 40,000 active Japanese officers in a lifeboat that washed ashore after the Battle of the Bismarck Sea, enabling Akin’s cryptographers to match personal names to radio signals from Japanese army units, this refusal ensured that MacArthur’s intelligence remained as operationally up to date as it could be, for the foreseeable future.

In the meantime, while one admiral exited MacArthur’s life—“one could almost hear the rising crescendo of sound from thousands of glistening white skeletons at the bottom of Pearl Harbor,” MacArthur wrote years later—another admiral, an American this time, entered.

William Halsey was the navy’s version of MacArthur. They met in Brisbane on April 15, and they hit it off at once. MacArthur found the South Pacific commander “blunt, outspoken, dynamic,” while Halsey remembered MacArthur this way:

Five minutes after I reported, I felt as if we were lifelong friends. I have seldom seen a man who makes a quicker, stronger, more favorable impression. He was then sixty-three, but he could have passed as fifty. His hair was jet black; his eyes were clear; his carriage erect….My mental picture poses him against the background of these discussions; he is pacing his office, almost wearing a groove between his large, bare desk and the portrait of George Washington that faced it; his corncob pipe is in his hand (I rarely saw him smoke it): and he is making his points in a diction I have never heard surpassed.

Halsey and MacArthur hammered out a plan on April 26 that they released as Elkton III. The code name, however, was CARTWHEEL, and that is the name by which it’s been known ever since.

It consisted of thirteen amphibious landings in just six months, with MacArthur and Halsey providing maximum support to each other’s efforts.

The first would take place in June, when everyone was ready and rested, with the islands of Woodlark and Kiriwina in the Trobriands, and then New Georgia in Halsey’s sector. Salamaua, Lae, and Finschhafen would be next, severing eastern New Guinea from Japanese-controlled western parts of the island.

Once Madang was in Allied hands, and the southern end of Bougainville, landings would take place at Cape Gloucester on New Britain as Halsey’s forces would knock out Japanese air bases on Buka, the island off the northern coast of Bougainville, while MacArthur’s prepared to clear Japanese resistance in the northwestern half of New Guinea.

These were insignificant operations compared to the big landings being planned in Sicily and Italy that fall, or Normandy a year later. But they added up to the step-by-step process by which Japan’s empire in the South Pacific would be dismantled. By January 1944, MacArthur and Halsey figured, they would be ready for the final assault on Rabaul—the ultimate objective for victory.

MacArthur resisted sending details of their joint plan to Washington—perhaps for fear that the Europe-obsessed Joint Chiefs would veto their ambitious thrust. He told them only that he anticipated that the first move toward Woodlark and Kiriwina would start in June. But that was too slow for Admiral King. King wanted his protégé Admiral Nimitz to begin a thrust into the central Pacific through the Marshall Islands in November, and proposed shifting the Marine First and Second Divisions, the one under MacArthur’s command and the other under Halsey’s, to help the Marshall offensive, along with two bomber groups promised to Kenney.

MacArthur’s rage boiled over in a caustic message to George Marshall, damning the entire central Pacific strategy as an unnecessary, even “wasteful” diversion from what should be the main Pacific strategy, MacArthur’s own.

“From a broad strategic viewpoint,” he wrote, “I am convinced that the best course of offensive action in the Pacific is a movement from Australia through New Guinea to Mindanao.” He added that “air supremacy is essential to success” for the southwestern strategy, where large numbers of land-based aircraft are “utterly essential and will immediately cut the enemy lines from Japan to his conquered territory to the southward.” He told the Joint Chiefs that pulling in those additional heavy bomber groups, “would, in my opinion, collapse the offensive effort in the Southwest Pacific Area….In my judgment the offensive against Rabaul should be considered the main effort, and it should not be nullified or weakened” by some quixotic thrust into the central Pacific.

King, however, was adamant. There would indeed be a central Pacific thrust led by the navy, with its main axis passing through the Marshalls and Marianas toward Japan itself, while bypassing the Philippines altogether. It was a strategy entirely at odds with MacArthur’s. Moreover, Marshall supported King, as did the other Joint Chiefs. Yet in the end King relented on the transfer of the two marine divisions, and the bomber groups. Now it was time for MacArthur to put up or shut up—that is, reveal his timetable for CARTWHEEL.

So MacArthur told them he planned to take Kiriwina and Woodlark in the Trobriand Islands on or around June 30. The advance on New Georgia would start on the same date, and in September the First Cavalry and three Australian divisions would commence operations on the Madang-Salamaua area. Meanwhile, MacArthur’s Forty-third Division would start the conquest of southern Bougainville on October 15, while the First Marines and the Thirty-second Division would take on Cape Gloucester on the southern tip of New Britain, on December 1.

In retrospect, it seems a long time to take a handful of tropical islands and jungle outposts, without even getting within striking distance of Rabaul. But MacArthur and his staff knew that the Japanese would fight them like wounded tigers at every step. The battle for Buna had shown them that the Japanese soldier was prepared to fight to the death, even for the tiniest sliver of territory. They knew that despite the blow to morale with Yamamoto’s death, the enemy still had formidable air and sea forces in the area that could strike at every move MacArthur’s forces made.

But MacArthur believed he could make CARTWHEEL work. He now understood how airpower could isolate the enemy from support by land or sea. Given enough bombers, it could neutralize the port and the airfields at Rabaul while CARTWHEEL got under way. He also foresaw how Barbey’s amphibious fleet could give his troops decisive mobility to jump from island to island with the support of Kenney’s air force and Halsey’s carriers and cruisers. And he had the battlefield commander he needed to carry out CARTWHEEL, the fourth crucial member of his team who had joined him in Brisbane in February, General Walter Krueger of the United States Sixth Army.

Krueger’s presence was part of an administrative shakeup that MacArthur had set in motion after the Papua operation, in order to give himself more direct control over the flow of troops, supplies, and other logistics for his Elkton offensive, and now CARTWHEEL. MacArthur’s USAFFE headquarters was now the administrative nerve center for all American army commands in the area—Kenney’s Fifth Air Force, the Sixth Army consisting of the Thirty-second and Forty-first Divisions, the First Marines, two antiaircraft brigades, a paratroop regiment, and a field artillery, soon to be joined by the First Cavalry and a new infantry division, the Twenty-fourth; and Army Services of Supply (MacArthur made sure it performed according to his orders, not Washington’s).

MacArthur made Krueger not only head of the Sixth Army but head of something called Alamo Force, a special tactical force that would carry out CARTWHEEL under MacArthur’s ultimate authority—and that also happened to include the exact same units as the Sixth Army. It was a subtle change, but it was not lost on General Blamey. By a bit of administrative sleight of hand, MacArthur had given Krueger and American ground forces their own independent command as Alamo Force. The redesignation of the Sixth Army as Alamo Force rendered Blamey’s title of Commander, Allied Land Forces effectively meaningless.

It was a bitter blow to Blamey, although it took him two years before he registered a formal complaint about his decapitation by flowchart. The commander in chief of SWPA, however, was determined to have a free hand for himself and his officers to develop the new combined operation formula as they saw fit. Blamey and the Australians would have their own force, New Guinea Force, to carry out the overland conquest of New Guinea as far west as Madang. But it was Alamo Force that, in MacArthur’s mind, would revolutionize modern warfare, starting in the Trobriand Islands at Woodlark.

Battle of the Power Stations I

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No. 487 Squadron NCOs at RAF Methwold early 1943.

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Armourers load 250-lb GP bombs into a Lockheed Ventura Mark II of No. 464 Squadron RAAF at Methwold, Norfolk, using a bomb-trolley borrowed from No. 487 Squadron RNZAF.

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Vertical aerial photograph taken during a daylight raid on shipping in Dieppe, France, by 12 Lockheed Venturas of No. 487 Squadron RNZAF. One group of bombs is straddling the Quai du Hable and the entrance channel to the docks, while another group explodes on the cliff top above the Avant Port.

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Venturas of 487 (NZ) Squadron during the attack on the Phillips factory at Eindhoven, December 6th, 1942. A drawing by Maurice Conly.

No. 487 Squadron, RNZAF, formed part of No. 2 Group, RAF Bomber Command. It was formed at Feltwell, Norfolk, on 15 August 1942 as a light day bomber squadron, equipped 15 August 1942 as a light day bomber squadron, equipped with Lockheed Ventura II aircraft. A military development of the civilian Lockheed Model 18 Lodestar, the Ventura was produced to meet a British requirement for an aircraft to replace the Bristol Blenheim in No. 2 Group and the Lockheed Hudson in RAF Coastal Command.

No. 487 had an interesting badge. It depicted a tekoteko, a grotesque Maori carved figure that usually adorned the apex of the gable above the entrance to the whare-whakairo, the meeting house of a Maori tribe. The tekoteko generally brandished a weapon as a challenge to all comers; in this case, the weapon was a bomb. The squadron’s motto, in the Maori language, was an appropriate one: Ki te mutunga – Through to the end.

The squadron began operations on 6 December 1942, when it contributed sixteen Venturas of the ninety-three aircraft of No. 2 Group – Douglas Bostons, Venturas and de Havilland Mosquitoes – despatched to attack the Philips radio and valve factory at Eindhoven, which was believed to produce about a third of Germany’s supply of radio components. The target consisted of two clusters of buildings covering an area of about 70 acres (28 ha), and it was particularly attractive because it was surrounded by open country, a fact that reduced the risk of inflicting civilian casualties on the Dutch down to an absolute minimum.

The attack was made at low level, with the aircraft flying in three waves; the first consisting of thirty-six Bostons, the second of ten Mosquitoes and the third of forty-seven Venturas. However, all did not go according to plan. The bombers were harried by enemy fighters long before they reached the target; the leading formation became dislocated and arrived late over the objective, becoming tangled up with the Mosquitoes in the second wave. Afterwards, instead of re-forming into one compact defensive formation, the bombers straggled back to base in small groups.

The Philips factory had been badly damaged, but the cost to the attacking force had been high. Nine Venturas, five Bostons and a Mosquito failed to return, and another thirty-seven Venturas, thirteen Bostons and three Mosquitoes were damaged. Enemy fighters had accounted for some of the missing aircraft, but the main body of Messerschmitts and Focke-Wulfs had been drawn away from the area by a diversionary attack on Lille carried out by the USAAF. Many of the losses sustained by the Ventura formations, which had attacked at a considerably lower level than the others, had been caused by aircraft colliding with unseen obstacles in the smoke over the target, and some had been shot down by light flak. Of the damaged aircraft that returned to base, thirty-one had suffered bird strikes, a hazard that accompanied all low-level daylight operations. The result did not encourage future operations of this kind, and the unsuitablity of the Ventura as a day bomber was further underlined by the outcome of an operation on 3 May 1943.

During that month RAF Bomber Command and the US Eighth Army Air Force carried out a series of intensive attacks on power station in Holland, which were supplying energy to the German war effort. All these missions were flown in daylight and the cost in aircraft and crews was high. On 3 May eleven Venturas of No 487 Squadron, Royal New Zealand Air Force, led by Wing Commander Leonard Trent, took off from their base at Methwold in Norfolk to attack the main power station in Amsterdam. Apart from disrupting the power supply to German-controlled industries in the area, the raid was designed to encourage Dutch workers in their resistance to enemy pressure. The importance of bombing the target, which was heavily defended, was strongly impressed on the crews taking part in the operation, and before take-off Trent told his deputy that he intended to go in whatever happened.

Everything went well until the eleven Venturas and their fighter escort were over the Dutch coast, when one of the bombers was hit by flak and had to turn back. A minute later large numbers of enemy fighters appeared; these engaged the Spitfire escort, which soon lost touch with the Venturas. The latter closed up tightly for mutual protection and started their run towards the target, expecting to rendezvous with much more friendly fighters over Amsterdam, but the fighters had arrived in the target area much too soon and had been recalled.

Within moments the Venturas were being savagely attacked by twenty Messerschmitts and Focke-Wulfs. One after the other, six of the bombers went down in flames in the space of four minutes. The remaining four, with Trent at their head, continued doggedly towards the target. The dwindling formation now ran into murderous anti-aircraft fire, which accouted for two more Venturas. Trent and the other surviving crew made accurate bombing runs, harassed all the time by enemy fighters that braved their own flak to press home their attacks. Trent got in a lucky burst with his nose gun at a Focke-Wulf 190, which flicked into a spin and crashed. A moment later the other Ventura received a direct hit and exploded. Trent turned away from the target area, but his aircraft too was hit and began to break up. Trent and his navigator were thrown clear and became prisoners of war; the other two crew members were killed. After the war, when the full story of the raid emerged, Trent was awarded the Victoria Cross.

One of the problems during this period was the relative ineffectiveness of the fighter escort. The RAF fighter squadrons responsible for escorting the bombers of No. 2 Group were equipped with the Spitfire Mk VB, which was outclassed by the Focke-Wulf 190. One of the fighter squadrons was No. 118, which was based at Coltishall, Norfolk, early in 1943. An extract from its war diary, dated 29 January 1943, is revealing.

In the afternoon the Squadron made rendezvous with No. 167 and twelve Venturas over Mundesley and flew at sea level to within a few miles of the Dutch coast, then climbed to 9,000 feet over Ijmuiden. As we crossed the coast four Fw 190s were seen breaking cloud below at 2,000 feet. Our allotted task was to give cover to the bombers which, instead of bombing immediately, went inland for ten minutes then turned round and bombed from east to west on an outward heading. Squadron Leader Wooton decided not to go down for the 190s until the bombers had carried out their task, or while they were still in danger of being attacked. While the bombers and escorts were making their incursion the 190s climbed up and were joined by others, but before they could attack the bombers they were engaged by 118 Squadron. In the resultant dog-fight, of which no-one seemed to have a very clear picture, Sgt Lack destroyed an Fw 190 which he followed down to sea level and set on fire; it was eventually seen to crash into the sea by Hallingworth.

Hallingworth was attacked and his aircraft hit, and he in turn claimed a 190 damaged. The CO, who engaged the leading Fw 190, also claimed one damaged, the enemy aircraft breaking away after being hit by cannon fire and going down followed by Sgt Buglass, who lost sight of it. Shepherd went to Hallingworth’s rescue when he was being attacked, and was himself fired at head-on by two Fw 190s. Flight Sergeant Cross is missing from this engagement; no-one saw what happened to him, but as he was flying number two to Shepherd it is believed that he must have been hit during the double attack on his section leader. The Squadron got split up during the engagement, seven aircraft coming back together and the other four in two pairs. No-one saw Cross crash. He was a very nice, quiet Canadian and will be very much missed …

Blenheims to Bremen

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The Bristol Blenheim light bomber as flown in the daylight attack on Bremen on the 4th July.

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Air Commodore Sir Hughie Idwal Edwards, VC, KCMG, CB, DSO, OBE, DFC (1 August 1914 – 5 August 1982) was a senior officer in the Royal Air Force, Governor of Western Australia, and an Australian recipient of the Victoria Cross, the highest decoration for gallantry “in the face of the enemy” that can be awarded to members of the British and Commonwealth armed forces. Serving as a bomber pilot in the Royal Air Force (RAF), Edwards was decorated with the Victoria Cross in 1941 for his efforts in leading a bombing raid against the port of Bremen, one of the most heavily defended towns in Germany. He became the most highly decorated Australian serviceman of the Second World War.

In the summer of 1941, although the idea was strongly opposed by the RAF group commanders whose squadrons had suffered fearful losses in the disastrous daylight raids on the north German ports in late 1939, the British Air Staff once again began to consider the possibility of mounting daylight attacks on enemy targets. These thoughts were influenced by two events in particular: the German invasion of the Balkans in April 1941 and the assault on the Soviet Union in June, both of which had led to the transfer of Luftwaffe fighter units from the Channel coast area. The Air Staff believed that if the enemy could be persuaded to pull fighter units out of Germany to replace those redeployed from the Channel coast, then daylight penetration raids into Germany might have a chance of success. It was decided, therefore, to mount a series of strong and co-ordinated fighter and bomber attacks on objectives in the area immediately across the Channel.

These attacks, known as ‘Circus’ operations, got into their stride in June 1941 with small numbers of bombers escorted by several squadrons of fighters carrying out daylight raids on enemy airfields and supply dumps in France. Most of the bombers involved were the twin-engined Bristol Blenheims of Bomber Command’s No. 2 Group, but heavy bombers were occasionally involved; on 19 July, for example, four-engined Short Stirlings of No. 7 Squadron, strongly escorted by Spitfires, bombed targets in the vicinity of Dunkirk.

In the meantime, it had been decided that the ‘Circus’ operations were keeping sufficient numbers of enemy fighters pinned down to enable RAF bombers to make unescorted daylight penetrations into Germany, and on the last day of June Handley Page Halifax heavy-bombers of No. 35 Squadron made a daylight attack on Kiel, all returning to base without loss.

On that day, the Blenheims of No. 2 Group were also standing by to attack an important target in northern Germany: the port of Bremen, or more specifically the shipyards in the harbour area. These yards were responsible for roughly a quarter of Germany’s U-boat producion, and at a time when enemy submarines were taking an increasing toll of British shipping in the Atlantic the importance of precision-bombing attacks on such objectives could not be over-emphasized. The problem was that the yards actually producing the submarines were extremely difficult to locate at night, and although several night raids had already been carried out on Bremen there was no evidence that submarine production had been affected in the slightest. To achieve the necessary identification and accuracy an attack would have to be made in broad daylight,and Bremen was one of the most heavily defended targets in Europe, protected by a forest of barrage balloons and anti-aircraft guns of every calibre.

The dangerous and difficult mission was assigned to Nos 105 and 107 Squadrons of No. 2 Group, which was responsible for the operations of the RAF’s medium-bomber force. The two squadrons were equipped with the Bristol Blenheim Mk IV. Each Blenheim carried a crew of three: pilot, navigator/bomb aimer and wireless operator/air gunner. The last-named sat in a turret on top of the fuselage, behind two 0.303 in Browning machine guns; there were two more guns in a turret under the nose, operated by the navigator, and the fifth gun, which was fixed and fired forward, was operated by the pilot.

The Blenheims had already made one attempt to reach Bremen, on 28 June, but as they approached the enemy coast the sky ahead had revealed itself to be brilliantly blue, without a trace of cloud cover, and the formation leader – Wing Commander Laurence Petley, commanding No. 107 Squadron – had quite rightly ordered his aircraft to turn back. Petley was an old hand, and knew that if the Blenheims pressed on they would have little chance of survival without cloud to shelter in if they were attacked by fighters; in fact, they would probably not even reach the target.

Now, on the 30th, the Blenheims set out for the target once more, this time led by Wing Commander Hughie Idwal Edwards of No. 105 Squadron. Edwards, an athletic six-footer aged twenty-seven, had been born in Fremantle, Australia, on 1 August 1914, the son of a Welsh immigrant family. After his schooling he had worked in a shipping office, a steady but boring job which he left to join the Australian army as a private in 1934. A few months later he obtained a transfer to the Royal Australian Air Force, and in 1936 he was transferred yet again, this time to the RAF. The beginning of 1938 found him at RAF Station Bicester, flying Blenheim Mk Is with No. 90 Squadron; to be the pilot of what was then Britain’s fastest bomber was the fulfilment of all his dreams.

Then, in August 1938, shortly after his twenty-fourth birthday, came disaster. The Blenheim he was flying became caught in severe icing conditions, spinning down out of control through dense cloud. Edwards baled out, but his parachute fouled the aircraft’s rudder and he was only a few hundred feet off the ground by the time he managed to free himself. He suffered severe injuries in the resultant heavy landing, the most serious of which was the severing of the main nerve in his right leg, causing paralysis from the knee down.

He spent the next two years in and out of hospital and was told that he would never fly again, but he doggedly refused to accept the fact and in August 1940 he regained his full flying category. He had not long been back with his old squadron at Bicester, however, when bad luck caught him out again. Returning to base after a night-flying exercise on a black, moonless night, he found that an enemy air raid was in progress and all the airfield lighting had been switched off. Unable to land in the pitch darkness, he was forced to fly round in circles until his fuel ran out, whereupon he ordered his crew members to bale out. Then he tried to follow suit, only to find that his escape hatch was jammed, trapping him inside the aircraft. He brought the Blenheim down in a flat glide, flying as slowly as possible, and waited for the impact. A few moments later the bomber slammed through the branches of a tree, hit the ground and broke up, leaving Edwards sitting in the remains of the cockpit with no worse injury than concussion.

The accident, however, delayed the start of his operational career until February 1941, when he flew his first missions with No. 139 Squadron, which was equipped with Blenheims at Horsham St Faith in Norfolk. He at once began to make up for lost time with a series of daring raids, usually at low level, over occupied France. The casualty rate was high, and for those who survived promotion was rapid. It was not long before Edwards was posted to command No. 105 Squadron at the nearby airfield of Swanton Morley with the rank of wing commander, and by the last week of June he had thirty-five operational sorties to his credit.

Edwards had studied the Bremen defences until he knew their layout by heart, and he knew that they could not be penetrated by normal methods. There was only one way to approach and bomb the target, and that was at low level. In this way, with the element of surprise on their side, some of the attacking crews might just stand a chance of getting through. Edwards, however, was under no illusions; operating at very low level meant increased fuel consumption, and even with full tanks the Blenheims would just have enough fuel to make the round trip. If something unforeseen cropped up, such as a strong unexpected headwind on the way back, they might not be able to make it home.

The attempt of 30 June, like that of two days earlier, was doomed to failure. Fifteen Blenheims from the two squadrons took off from Swanton Morley that morning in clear weather conditions, but as they crossed the North sea it was apparent that the weather was deteriorating rapidly. The enemy coast was shrouded in a blanket of dense fog, and although the formation pressed on for several minutes through the grey wall Edwards soon knew that it was hopeless. Only two bombers had managed to keep station with him; the others were scattered in the murk and hopelessly lost. He ordered his wireless operator to tap out the recall signal, and the widely dispersed bombers came straggling back to their Norfolk base.

Early on 4 July the fifteen bombers made a third attempt. Bremen had been bombed on the previous night, and it was hoped that this attack might have caused some disruption of the German defences, giving the Blenheims an extra chance.

The bombers – nine aircraft from No. 105 Squadron and six from No. 107 – assembled over the Norfolk coast and set course in sections of three, flying at 50 ft (15 metres). Edwards’ plan was to skirt the shipping lanes near the Friesian Islands and the North German coast, turning in to make a landfall west of Cuxhaven and then making a slight detour to avoid the outer flak defences of Bremerhaven before making a fast, straight-in approach to Bremen.

Edwards was aware that however careful they were, they were certain to be detected by enemy shipping before they reached the coast. Speed and surprise were essential to the attack plan, and as the bombers approached the Freisian Islands their pilots increased speed to a fast cruise of 230 mph (370 kph), sacrificing fuel reserves in a bid to enhance the all-important surprise element. The speed increase proved too much for three of the 107 Squadron aircraft; unable to keep up, they gradually lost contact with the rest of the formation, and their pilots, realizing the folly of continuing, turned for home.

The remaining twelve thundered on, still skimming the surface of the sea. Edwards’ navigator, Pilot Officer Ramsay, reported that they were north of Cuxhaven and told the pilot to steer a new heading of 180 degrees, due south towards the mouth of the River Weser. A few moments later, as the Blenheims approached the German coastline, a number of dark shapes suddenly loomed up out of the morning haze. They were merchant ships, and in seconds they had flashed beneath the wings of the speeding bombers. The damage, however, had been done. The ships would already be signalling a warning of the Blenheims’ approach – unless, Edwards thought optimistically, the enemy crews had mistaken them for a squadron of Junkers 88s returning from a mission. The Blenheim and the Ju 88 bore a superficial resemblance to one another, and this had often led to confusion in the past, sometimes with fatal results.

The bombers swept over the coast and raced on in a thunderclap of sound over the flat, drab countryside of northern Germany. Edwards had a fleeting glimpse of a horse and cart careering into a ditch in confusion as the Blenheims roared overhead, and of white upturned faces as people in the fields waved at them, mistaking them for German aircraft. In the mid-upper gun turret, the gunner, Flight Sergeant Gerry Quinn, had no eyes for the scenery; he was busy scanning the sky above and to left and right, searching for the first sign of the enemy fighters he was certain must be speeding to intercept them.

Bremerhaven slid by off the bombers’ starboard wingtips, a dark smudge under its curtain of industrial haze. A railway line flashed under them, and Edwards picked out the town of Oldenburg away on the right, in the distance. Then, leaning forward in his seat to peer ahead, he picked out a dense cluster of silvery dots, standing out against the blue summer sky. Each one of those dots was a barrage balloon, and in a few more minutes the twelve Blenheims would have to weave their way through the middle of them, into the inferno of the flak barrage that lay beyond.

In order to present more problems to the AA gunners Edwards ordered his pilots to attack in line abreast, with a couple of hundred yards’ spacing between each aircraft. The Blenheims of 107 Squadron took up station on the left of the line, with 105 Squadron on the right. The bomber on the extreme left was flown by Wing Commander Petley, who had led the abortive raid of 28 June.

The bombers stuck doggedly to their course as they sped into the forest of barrage balloons. Whether they got through or not was largely a matter of luck; any pilot who took evasive action to miss a cable risked colliding with one of the tall cranes or pylons that cluttered the harbour area. Yet, miraculously, they all did get through, thundering over the drab grey streets, the wharves and the warehouses. All around them now, the sky erupted in fire and steel as the ships around the harbour pumped thousands of shells into their path, and the shellfire began to take its inevitable toll. A Blenheim turned over on its back and crashed into a street, exploding in a wave of burning petrol. A second blew up in mid-air as a shell tore into its bomb bay. A third, one wing torn off, cartwheeled into a group of warehouses, its bombs erupting in a mushroom of smoke and flying masonry.

On the left flank of the formation, Wing Commander Petley’s Blenheim suddenly pulled up into a climb, flames streaming from its engines. It turned, as though the pilot was desperately trying to regain control and seek somewhere to land, but a few moments later it plunged vertically into a sports field.

The rest raced on, over streets filled with panic-stricken people who scattered for shelter from the sleet of shrapnel that rained down on them from their own AA guns, a greater menace to individuals than the bombers roaring overhead. Every bomber was hit time after time, shell splinters and bullets ripping through wings and fuselage. Then they darted into the vast, sprawling docks area, each pilot selecting his individual target among the complex of factories, sheds, warehouses and wharves that lay in his path. From this height, it was virtually impossible to miss. The Blenheims lurched and jolted violently in the shock waves as the explosions of their bombs sent columns of debris hurtling hundreds of feet into the air. Clouds of smoke boiled up, obscuring the harbour, as the bombers plunged on through the outer ring of defences, all of them still taking hits.

The worst of the flak was behind them now, but the danger was not yet over. Still flying at 50 ft (15 metres), Edwards was suddenly horrified to see a line of high-tension cables directly in his path. Acting instinctively, he eased the control column forward a fraction and dipped underneath them, the bomber’s wingtip scraping past a pylon with only a couple of feet to spare. Seconds later, the Blenheim lurched as it scythed its way through some telegraph wires.

The eight surviving bombers raced for the sanctuary of the coast, skimming over woods and villages. Every aircraft was holed like a sieve, and many of the crew members were wounded. They included Gerry Quinn, Edwards’ gunner, who had a shell splinter in his knee. One Blenheim had yards of telephone wire trailing from its tailwheel. All the aircraft returned safely to base, but many of them were so badly damaged that they had to be scrapped.

For his part in leading the attack, Hughie Edwards was awarded the Victoria Cross. his navigator received the Distinguished Flying Cross, and Gerry Quinn a bar to his Distinguished Flying Medal. Members of several other crews were also decorated.

There was no denying that the Bremen raid had been a very gallant effort, with enormous propaganda value at a time when Britain was suffering serious reverses in the Western Desert and the Atlantic, but the damage inflicted on the target hardly justified the fact that 33 per cent of the attacking force had been lost over the target. Taking into account the aircraft that had to be written off later because of battle damage, this figure climbed to 60 per cent.

Despite this, on 12 August 1941 No. 2 Group launched a low-level daylight attack on the Knapsack and Quadrath power stations near Cologne by 54 Blenheims, each carrying two 500 lb (225 kg) bombs. The bombing was accurate, but ten Blenheims were shot down. On this occasion the bombers were escorted to the target by twin-engined Westland Whirlwinds of No. 263 Squadron, the only fighters with sufficient range. Fighter Command flew a total of 175 sorties in support of the raid, which was the deepest daylight penetration made so far by Bomber Command.

Hughie Edwards did not take part in this mission, having departed for Malta with Nos 105 and 107 Squadrons. He carried out many more dangerous low-level missions, in the Mediterranean theatre and in north-west Europe. Successive appointments before the war ended placed him in command of RAF Station Binbrook in 1943 – 4 and RAF Chittagong, India, in 1945. He ended the war with the VC, DSO and DFC, retiring as an air commodore in 1963. He was appointed Governor of Western Australia in 1974, and was knighted in that year. He died in Sydney on 5 August, 1982.

ANZACs Blocking a Blitzkrieg: the battle of Vevi, 10–13 April 1941 Part 1

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The Battle of Vevi, April 12th 16:30 – 18:00. The Allies have fallen back, the Germans advance through Kleidi Pass and shell the retreating Dodecanese Regiment.

Codenamed Operation Marita, the German invasion of Yugoslavia and Greece sent the German Second Army, composed of four army corps and a panzer group, into Yugoslavia from Bulgaria, Hungary, and southern Austria. Against Greece, the Germans assembled their Second Army, comprising the XXX Korps in the east, the XVIII Gebirgs (Mountain) Korps in the centre (opposite the Rupel Pass), and the formidable 40 Korps on the German right. The key lines of attack for the Germans into Greece were through the Rupel Pass and the Metaxas Line, a task given to the mountain troops of XVIII Gebirgskorp, and a flanking manoeuvre further west by the 40 Korps. This unit included two panzer divisions, the mechanised SS Leibstandarte Brigade, and the 72 Infantrie Division.

Its commander, General Georg Stumme, was an experienced soldier who had led a light armoured division in the invasion of Poland. Now at the helm of a powerful armoured corps, he directed the 2nd Panzer Division through what the British called the ‘Doiran Gap’ (named for the nearby lake), cutting down the valley of the Axios River to Salonika. At the same time, Stumme sent the rest of his corps sweeping through southern Yugoslavia, crashing through the Yugoslav Third Army, strung out along the border with Bulgaria in a classic ‘double envelopment’ manoeuvre in which the German armoured formations specialised. What his inner wing did not cut off in Salonika, Stumme would deal with courtesy of his outer wing, driving down the Monastir gap into central Greece. As we have seen, this latter move had been accurately forecast by British military intelligence five weeks earlier.

While the British W Group attempted to consolidate on the Vermion–Olympus line, Papagos had left four-and-a-half divisions in Thrace, organised as the Eastern Macedonian army. The Greek commander-in-chief was determined not to besmirch his nation’s honour by a premature withdrawal, as the British desired, or dash his hopes of keeping open a supply route to the Yugoslavs, for which the communication and supply line running north from Salonika was essential. The eventual accession of Yugoslavia to the Allied cause validated Papagos’ defence of Thrace, but it counted for little because of the rapidity with which Yugoslav defences collapsed. Like Papagos, the Yugoslavs were determined to defend their national sovereignty, and they allowed this political calculation to override military logic. Papagos correctly identified the best defensive option for the Yugoslavs: mobilise around a central position in southern Yugoslavia where a junction could be affected with the Anglo–Greek forces in northern Greece.

Such an option was probably never open to the Yugoslavs, any more than abandoning Salonika was agreeable to Papagos: the disposition he favoured for the Yugoslavs meant, in practice, abandoning Belgrade to its fate, and few national armies would willingly abandon their capital in favour of a position preferred by allies. However, their patriotic determination left the Yugoslav armies strung out along the borders with Austria, Bulgaria, and Hungary; lacking depth, they were quickly penetrated by panzer spearheads.

The Greek troops on the Bulgarian border were better prepared, to the extent that they occupied the fixed fortifications of the Metaxas Line, but they were wholly without air cover. Contrary to some of the unkind observations made of their army by the British and Anzac commanders, the Greeks in the Metaxas Line fought magnificently. Subjected to repeated Stuka attacks, they held out in their mountain bunkers for days, forcing the German mountain troops to blast them out. So fierce was the Greek resistance, the Germans gave up their attempts to take a number of bunker complexes, preferring to take the line of least resistance and bypass the most difficult garrisons. The German mountain troops (Gebirgsjaeger) were admittedly hampered by the snow and their inability to get more than pack artillery up the mountains; nevertheless, the fighting was ‘hard, bitter and sometimes fanatical.’ A German war correspondent later reported that Greeks lying wounded in captured trenches still fought on with knives and bayonets. It took four days for the Germans to take Rupesco, the last bunker complex guarding the Rupel Pass; at the end of the fighting, the 5th Gebirgs Division buried 160 of its men.

While the Greeks fought hard on this, the eastern end of their line, the Allies rapidly faced a debacle around Doiran and further west. The 2nd Panzer Division pushed the Greek 19 Division aside in its drive down the Axios River, and Salonika itself fell on 9 April, even before the last of the Greek forts on the border had capitulated. Further west again, the rest of the 40 Korps drove through southern Yugoslavia such that, by 8 April, its leading formation, the SS Leibstandarte Brigade, was already rushing toward the Monastir Gap. This opening in the mountain ranges of the Balkans allowed the Germans to threaten the Florina Valley in northern Greece — by cascading down this valley, the Germans could not only complete a double envelopment of the Greeks in Thrace, but turn Wilson out of the Vermion–Olympus line as well.

Rowell later wrote bluntly that ‘our troubles started on 8 April’. At a command conference at 11.00 a.m. that day, Wilson attempted to deal with this crisis by creating a blocking force ‘to stop a blitzkrieg down the Florina gap’. Orders from this conference went to Mackay at 7.30 p.m., instructing him to take command of the Florina Gap operation.

Wilson chose the Australian 19 Brigade as the basis of ‘Mackay Force’; but, with only two of its three battalions available in time, he brought its infantry up to strength by attaching to it the 1/Rangers taken from Briagadier H. Charrington’s 1st Armoured Brigade. To stiffen his roadblock, Wilson also added to it half of the 27 MG Battalion of the NZ Division, together with a range of artillery units, including the British 2 Royal Horse Artillery and the 64th Medium Regiment. The artillery element was then completed with the 19 Brigade’s own 2/3rd Field Regiment and, to cope with the expected German tanks, a divisional unit from Mackay’s 6th Division, the 2/1st Anti-Tank Regiment. In charge of the whole operation, Mackay devolved local command forward at Vevi to Brigadier G. A. Vasey of the 19 Brigade. On 9 April, Vasey got orders to hold the northern entrance to the Kleidi Pass, south of the tiny village of Vevi, for as a long as possible, so that the rest of W Group could prepare a position on the Aliakmon River and the defiles around Mount Olympus.

What Vasey lacked was tanks. Wilson, who had driven the tank expert Percy Hobart out of the British army in 1939, showed his ignorance of armoured warfare on arrival in Greece by deploying his only tank unit — the 1st Armoured Brigade — as an old-fashioned cavalry screen. Rather than hold back its hitting power for the decisive moment, Wilson sent the 1st Armoured forward to the northern end of the Kozani Valley, where it was ‘given the role of holding the line of the River Vardar [Axios] with the object of delaying the enemy and covering the preparations for demolitions’. With this work done, the brigade withdrew into reserve under Mackay, albeit with its infantry battalion and artillery detached to Vasey, leaving just the tanks at the rear. This misuse of the only Allied armoured unit would prove disastrous.

Vasey would need all of the artillery Wilson gave him, because the German force approaching the Allies at Vevi was led by one of the most feared units of the Reich. To give his conquests an overt political flavour, many of Hitler’s attacks were led by units of the Waffen Shutzstaffeln — the fanatical SS. And so it was in Greece, where heading toward the Australians and their allies at Vevi was the premiere unit of the Waffen-SS, the Leibstandarte Adolf Hitler, then a brigade-sized formation and, later, expanded to a full division. This would be the only time in the whole of the Second World War that Australian troops were in action against these notorious Nazis.

Hitler’s ascension to power had been achieved by an adroit combination of credibility at the ballot box and force of arms on the streets, and it was the SS that played a leading role in the violence. Translated, schutzstaffeln means protection squads, and this was the literal role of the SS — to protect Hitler and other leading Nazis from the strong German communist movement, and to advance Nazi aims where violence was needed to achieve them. Yet as Nazi political strength grew, so too did tensions within the movement. Along with Hitler, Ernst Röhm was a founding member of the Nazis, and indeed had mentored Hitler while the latter was still a corporal in the defeated German army in 1919. Under Röhm’s leadership, the SA (Sturmabteilung), or ‘Brown Shirts’, developed as the Nazi Party’s paramilitary wing but, throughout the 1920s, Röhm and Hitler squabbled over its control and mode of operation. To Hitler, the Brown Shirts were a sub-component of the larger Nazi organisation, and therefore subject to its political needs and strategy. For Röhm, the SA was a means by which the spirit of German militarism could be kept alive, so that when the German army was freed from the restrictions of the Treaty of Versailles, a mass army would be readily at hand; at that moment, the SA would be merged into the Wehrmacht, the regular army.

Röhm’s ideas alarmed the generals, which at this stage of his career Hitler could ill-afford. As political differences over the role of the SA intensified, Hitler’s need for a paramilitary counter-weight grew, something he found in the expansion of the Nazi bodyguard organisation. As the violent spearhead of Nazism, Heinrich Himmler’s SS embodied its most fundamental beliefs. First was an unquestioning commitment to the Fuhrerprinzip — loyalty to the leader. When Hitler’s personal bodyguard unit was reorganised in November 1933 as the Leibstandarte SS Adolf Hitler, its members swore an appropriate oath: ‘We swear to you Adolf Hitler, loyalty and bravery. We pledge to you and to the superiors appointed by you, obedience unto death. So help us God.’

Second, the SS practised the anti-Semitic racism on which Hitler built his wider political program. Qualification requirements for the Leibstandarte therefore included not only rigorous physical requirements (a minimum height of five feet eleven inches, later raised to six-and-a-half feet), but also a genetic test — ‘pure Aryan blood’ dating back to 1800 for the enlisted men, and a similarly pristine lineage to 1750 for officers. It was these fanatics who dealt with Röhm in the Night of the Long Knives on 30 June 1934, rounding up and murdering hundreds of SA leaders on Hitler’s orders. The commander of the Leibstandarte, Josef ‘Sepp’ Dietrich, played a prominent role in this gangland war. On Hitler’s express orders, he murdered the Munich leadership of the SA, including several former close comrades.

Still in command of the Leibstandarte, it was Dietrich who led the Germans into action at Vevi against Mackay Force. He had joined the Nazi Party in 1928, and rose rapidly through the ranks of the SS. Like many Nazis, he was a disillusioned veteran of the First World War. A highly experienced soldier, he helped pioneer storm-troop tactics, in which specially trained assault units were equipped with a combination of arms to achieve maximum firepower in breakthrough operations. Beside their revolutionary military doctrine, the development of these elite forces had ideological consequences that Dietrich would later personify. The storm-troopers were granted a range of special privileges, and a greater sense of egalitarianism existed between men and officers than prevailed anywhere else in the hide-bound army of the kaiser. The success of storm-troop tactics on the battlefield generated a joy of conquest that resulted in a ‘spiritual, almost mystical state of mind compounded by a profound contempt for the civilian world and bourgeois way of life’. Many storm-troopers, unable to adjust to civilian life, joined the Freikorps: right-wing vigilante groups formed by militant officers opposed to the Treaty of Versailles.

Schooled in this milieu, Dietrich had rounded out his military education with service in the first tank units of the German army in 1918. During the tumult of the German civil war in 1919, Dietrich served in the Bavarian police force. Far from keeping the peace, this was a bastion of far-right extremism that cooperated with, and protected, the various Freikorps brigades, which had slaughtered the German left in a series of street battles at the behest of the weak constitutional government newly established at Weimar. Having supped with the devil, the Weimar cabinet then found the Freikorps activists bent on a campaign of assassination against even themselves, including foreign minister Walter Rathenau, Germany’s munitions-production expert in the First World War. He was gunned down in 1922; in a sign of things to come for Germany, one of Rathenau’s ‘crimes’ was that he was Jewish. Dietrich was a fixture in this reign of terror. His services were in constant demand, and his pre-Nazi street-fighting career ended with a spell in the Reinhard Brigade, another Freikorps force established to repel a Polish attempt to occupy Upper Silesia. The success of that campaign in 1921 later became a standard in Nazi folklore. Coincidentally, Dietrich met Hitler for the first time that year.

Dietrich’s senior commanders at Vevi had much in common with him. The Nazi movement was built on lower-middle and working-class discontent, by men who had served Germany in the First World War, and who bitterly resented the failure of traditional, conservative German politics as represented by the Prussian, Junkers aristocracy. Casting around for a new political force to revive German nationalism, they found their leader in Hitler. Few had a university education, or occupied leadership positions in business or public administration — Nazism truly was a revolution of the corporals.

Before 1914, Dietrich was an apprentice in the hotel trade, and after the war he worked as a clerk and garage attendant. The commander of his reconnaissance unit, the Aufklärungsabteilung, was Kurt Meyer, the son of a factory worker — Meyer himself worked as a factory hand and miner, and was wounded in the First World War. In command of the Leibstandarte’s I Battalion was Fritz Witt. Too young to have seen service in the kaiser’s army, his civilian career in textile sales never rose to dizzy heights. In Germany, Witt’s generation was brought up in the shadow of wartime slaughter, and then felt the white heat of post-war economic catastrophe: their most popular cultural response was to recoil from the modern world, and to seek solace in return-to-nature movements. Idyllic perhaps, but a contemporary commentator observed of young Germans like Witt that ‘their most significant feature is their lack of humanity, their disrespect for anything human’. Witt would honour the epithet with horrifying commitment.

Like the Australian infantry at Vevi, the Leibstandarte already had extensive war experience, and through it gained a reputation for brutality and atrocity. In Poland, the Wehrmacht sought to have Dietrich court-martialled for atrocities against civilians, but the Nazi leadership solved that problem by removing the SS from the legal jurisdiction of the army. In the blitzkrieg campaign against France and the Low Countries, Dietrich’s men were again to the fore, driving rapidly into Holland and ending the campaign at Dunkirk. Faced there with stiffening British resistance, Dietrich narrowly avoided death when his car was ambushed by British machine-gunners. The men of the Leibstandarte responded to this affront by massacring 80 British prisoners outside the Belgian village of Wormhouldt. The SS mixed this kind of bestiality with extraordinary bravery under fire. In one of the few substantial British counterattacks in May 1940, Witt won Nazi Germany’s highest decoration, the Knights Cross, by taking on 20 Matilda tanks armed only with hand grenades.

The SS naturally took their military philosophy from the tenets of Nazi ideology. Hitler himself was anti-modern, in the sense that he valued the will to victory and selfless attack as supreme military virtues: he therefore disliked the machine-gun because it heralded the end of hand-to-hand combat. The mythic figure of an invincible Aryan warrior hurling himself at the enemy at all costs was at the heart of SS tactical doctrine. Personifying the point, Meyer later acquired the nickname ‘Speedy’ in the fighting in the Soviet Union, in honour of his propensity for lightning attacks, pressed home whatever the situation. The SS cultivated for themselves an image as latter-day Teutonic knights whose duty in life was to preserve German blood from contamination by Semites, Slavs, and communists. Publicity portraits of Dietrich, Meyer, Witt, and other SS ‘stars’ celebrated the Nazi enthusiasm for martial pageantry, a propaganda role they revelled in. Witt in particular was known as an immaculate dresser who took great pains with the arrangement of his SS regalia and decorations, a celebrity image completed by his frequent companion — a pet German shepherd, Bulli.

Paradoxically, despite the Nazi indifference to technology as a determinant of battle, the SS enjoyed the use of some superb equipment in the first half of the war. Despite massive rearmament in the 1930s, German munitions production was still quite limited between 1940 and 1941, forcing the Nazis to concentrate their best weapons in a handful of units. This turned their army into something of an anachronistic spear, with a mechanised, twentieth-century tip and a nineteenth-century horse-drawn shaft. The Leibstandarte and the panzer divisions were definitely at the sharp end and, due to the excellence of German science and engineering, went to Vevi with outstanding equipment. Their automatic infantry weapons, the MP38 machine pistol and the MG34 machine-gun, combined mechanical reliability with light weight and high rates of fire — the MG 34 fired at twice the rate of the British Vickers, but weighed only half as much. For battlefield mobility, the SS could call on the SdK 251 armoured personnel carrier, which had no rival in British ranks. A ‘half track’, the SdK 251 had normal truck wheels at the front, and tracks like a tank at the rear. This married truck-like speed with the cross-country performance of a tank. Atop this chassis was an armour shell, which allowed the SdK 251 to carry its section of ten infantrymen into battle on all terrains with the benefit of armoured protection.

ANZACs Blocking a Blitzkrieg: the battle of Vevi, 10–13 April 1941 Part 2

Balkan, Spähpanzer der Leibstandarte Adolf Hitler

SdKfz 231 armoured cars of the LSSAH advance into the Balkans

Meyerklissura

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.

ANZACs Blocking a Blitzkrieg: the battle of Vevi, 10–13 April 1941 Part 3

Allied_dispositions,_Florina_Valley

The dispositions of forces on 10 April. The blue arrows indicate German advances and the Allied lines are shown in red. Vevi and the Klidi Pass are upper centre, 19th Brigade HQ is in the centre and Mackay Force HQ is at Perdika, lower centre.

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.

The Allied line had therefore already lost cohesion when Witt launched his full assault from 2.00 p.m. This was supported in earnest by the StuG III assault guns. Slocombe was astounded by their presence, as his unit had been unable to get their feeble Bren-gun carriers onto the same ground. Another 2/8th veteran, Jim Mooney, found the German armour ‘untouchable’ with the Boys rifle, the standard British anti-tank weapon for infantry units. When the German armoured fighting vehicles (AFVs) came onto an Australian position, there was little that could be done other than move back, covered by the fire of a supporting section.

The collapse of the infantry line exposed the remaining units in the valley who were preparing for the withdrawal. A detachment of the 2/1st Field Company was getting ready the last of the demolitions to break the railway line deep in the pass, south of Kleidi, and Sergeant Scanlon, the leader of this party, found his work interrupted mid-afternoon by the arrival of the SS: ‘We commenced work at about 1500 hours, and had to do a hasty but thorough job as the enemy was advancing both along the road and the railway line with his armoured fighting vehicles.’ Scanlon’s attention to detail was greatly assisted by the nature of the explosives he had to work with, which included two naval depth charges, each with about 250 pounds of TNT packed within. These were used to blow the road: the railway line was disposed of with guncotton charges fixed to the rails. Scanlon readied his getaway car, which was a ‘utility truck with a Bren gun mounted’. He ordered his men to light their charges on the approach of the Germans and then, he describes:

[T]hey had just sighted enemy movement and lit their fuses, when a German patrol, who had worked their way onto a hill commanding this place, opened fire on them with M.G.s. This was at approx 18.30 hrs and was about half an hour after completing the preparation of the demolition. Luckily they got through, the two men on the railway line having to run about 200 yards under fire to gain the vehicle.

With the Vevi position unravelling, Vasey, regrettably, was out of touch with events. As Scanlan got about his work at 3.00 p.m. in the shadow of the panzers, Vasey reported confidently to the 6th Division that he ‘had no doubt that if the position did not deteriorate he would have no difficulty in extricating the Brigade according to plan’.

An officer of the 19 Brigade thought the atmosphere at brigade headquarters that afternoon was ‘almost too cool and calm’, and the implied criticism was warranted. Vasey had wanted to find a headquarters position further forward, but had not found anywhere suitable: as a result, the battle was determind while the Australian commander could only react to events.

At 5.00 p.m., Vasey at last informed 6th Division headquarters that the situation was serious. In response, at 7.45 p.m. the 6th Division sent forward a driver with a message authorising Vasey to bring forward the withdrawal at his discretion; but, in the chaos, the driver could not find him. By then, the position was a good deal worse than serious — the 2/8th was in desperate trouble, having its left flank exposed by the collapse of the 1/Rangers, and outflanked on the right by the withdrawal of the Dodecanese. The strong Allied artillery force at the southern end of the pass was under small-arms and mortar fire by the time of Vasey’s message, forcing the 2/3rd Field Regiment to pull back its 5th Battery, while its 6th Battery covered the movement with fire over open sights — a sure sign that the defence was in trouble, because it meant that the defending gun line was under direct attack. Even Vasey’s own brigade headquarters was under mortar attack. Vasey had little choice but to warn the 2/4th battalion commander, I. N. Dougherty, to get ready to withdraw. ‘The roof is leaking,’ he told Dougherty; as a consequence, the 2/4th had ‘better come over so we can cook up a plot’. Vasey at least took the sensible precaution of ordering his transport to remain where it was: had it come up as arranged, it may well have been mauled by the German armour, and the means to extricate the Allied force may have been lost. He also sent back to the 6th Division a liaison officer to give Mackay an eyewitness report: he arrived at 8.30 p.m., and Mackay thereby learned of the ‘increasing pressure’ on the 19 Brigade and of the discomfiture of the 2/8th Battalion.

Meanwhile, at the 2/8th Battalion headquarters, Mitchell attempted to regain contact with brigade headquarters, the phone line having gone dead. Two signallers sent to repair it were not seen again, so at 4.45 p.m. he despatched his signals officer, Lieutenant L. Sheedy, to the rear to report on the battalion’s plight. Sheedy found what he described as a tank (again, almost certainly a StuG III) already astride the road outside Kleidi, basking in the flames of a wireless truck it had destroyed. The presence of this vehicle cut the most direct and easiest line of withdrawal along the road. Sheedy also observed parties of Germans armed with sub-machine-guns chasing the fleeing 1/Rangers over the neighbouring hills.

By skirting trouble, and gaining shelter behind one of the few light tanks of the 4th Hussars behind the battlefront, Sheedy gained the forward position of the 2/3rd Field Regiment. Even as he gave his report, the artillery headquarters came under German machine-gun fire, and there was nothing in any event that could be done for the 2/8th, as the observation posts needed by the artillery for accurate fire had been swept away in the collapse. Liley, with the Kiwi machine-gunners, had already concluded that, as far as he could see, ‘there was no infantry reserve and no tanks or anything else to restore the position’, so he led his platoon to the rear. For extricating his men and their guns under fire, Liley received the Military Cross.