Ζήτω Η Αυστραλία! – History of the Australians at Vevi

Zeeto ee Australia! – With the Australians at Vevi

vevi6-Jim_Claven_22_Nov_2015By Jim Claven

Next year will be the 75th anniversary of the battle of Greece and Crete. Commemorations and memorials will be held across the world to honour the service of all those Allied soldiers and Greek civilians who fought against the Axis powers in 1941 and on until the end of the war.

The valiant battle to defend Crete will be a key focus of these commemorations. And rightly so. The battles of the Allies against the German forces – assisted by the Greek people on the Island – and the resistance that followed – are key elements of the story of the battle of Greece and Crete.

But tonight I will talk about another part of this battle. A battle that took place on the mainland. The first major engagement that brought Anzacs, British and Greek soldiers together in a valiant defence against overwhelming odds. And one that played a vital role in the campaign to defend Greece.

This was the battle of Vevi that took place in the north western corner of Macedonia in early April 1941. It is a story of courage and defiance that should be better known and should be commemorated next year.

Northern Greece

Northern Greece is one of Greece’s hidden treasures. I have travelled across its hills, valleys and rivers in summer and winter on a number of research trips and am constantly struck by the variety and beauty of the area. Far from Greece’s beaches and the blue of the Aegean or Adriatic, the area abounds in snow-capped mountains, lush fields and flowing rivers. I have driven and walked through this area, researching its history and the connection to Australia and the Anzacs.

One area I have become particularly attached to centres on western Macedonia, to the west of Thessaloniki. It stretches from Edessa and Veria in the east, across to Florina in the north and Kastoria in the west, contains the great lake Vegorritis and to the south Kozani, Servia and the Aliakmon River.

In ancient times, the region was noted for its intoxicating waters, attracting the Macedonian kings to marry into the local Lyncestian Kings. The region around Florina is a fertile one but it was also famed for its crafts, especially furs and its special woven woollen carpets, the flokkates and kilimia. Many of the houses of the region are of the timber-variety, with over-hanging balconies, survivors from Ottoman times. To the south lies Kozani and Grevena, the former rich in minerals like lignite, the latter famed as a centre of Greek learning in the middle ages.

Its villages and towns sit in an abundant area. The famous traditional inns – xenone – can be found in many beautiful locations. The regions restored villages and towns, like that of Edessa, reveal a distinctive architecture that has thankfully been preserved. And its cuisine is rich and varied, with touches of difference to familiar delights that stay with you months later.

In these hills and valleys to the far west of Thessaloniki, there lies the small village of Xino Nero – which takes its name from the mineral-rich waters of its streams. Sitting in one of the village’s restaurants in April it’s hard to imagine that you are in a place touched by war.

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Sign outside town

Western Macedonia – A Place of War

Western Macedonia is on one of the cross-roads of history.

Through this land wound the Via egnata, the Roman road joining Constantinople to Rome. The area known as the Monastir Gap is one of the major north-south routes through Greece and has been the route of invading armies since the time of Alexander the Great.

In the reign of the great Byzantine Emperor Justinian, the soldiers and local villagers of Byzantine Edessa held out against a siege by the Sassanid Persians in 544 AD. And it was here that the Byzantine army’s first defeated the Frankish Crusaders before they went on to liberate Constantinople in the 13th Century. The ruins of Frankish and Byzantine castles in the region stand testimony to its military past. At Grevena were located the headquarters of the famous Armastoles, an irregular militia from Byzantine times.

In the early twentieth century, the Greek nationalist leaders Telios Agapinos (at Edessa), Pavlos Mela (at Melas) and Vanghelis (at Lekhovon) were active in the war to unite the region with Greece and are memorialised here.

More recently, it had witnessed battles and carnage of the First World War’ Salonika campaign. Australian soldiers and nurses had served here and walked the rear areas of the front, such as Major Ned Herring, Army Chaplain JV Patton and the nursing orderly Miles Franklin – the latter recording her visits to Edessa and Lake Vegorritis on her short periods of rest from the hospital at Arnissa.

I wonder if in 1941 some of the older villagers of the region remembered the Australians accents from all those years ago. The Anzacs of 1941 were indeed walking in the footsteps of their compatriots who had come to defend Greece in 1915.

And it was to this area, just to the north of Xino Nero, around the little village of Vevi and the winding Kleidi valley to its south, that one of the first and most decisive battles of the Greek campaign in 1941 took place.

This battle brought to together Australian and New Zealand soldiers, fighting alongside their British and Greek allies, in what for the Australians was their first major confrontation with German troops since 1918 and the only time Australians would face the dreaded SS.

And these new Anzacs were again fighting in Greece as tens of thousands of Australian and New Zealand soldiers had done in the First World War – at Lemnos, at Thessaloniki and across Macedonia and Thrace, and in the waters of the Ionian Islands.

The Anzacs Arrive – A Warm Welcome

The Anzac troops had arrived in Greece at the port of Piraeus throughout March and early April as part of the Allied force sent to assist Greece. The Anzacs would total some 34,000 troops almost equally divided between Australians and New Zealanders, including a contingent of Australian nurses. The Australian 6th Division was commanded by General Mackay, a veteran of both the Gallipoli and Salonika campaigns in the First World War.

Greece was a welcome relief to the new arrivals from the Middle East. For many the sunlight, the grey green trees and clear water evoked memories of Australia.

Australian Lieutenant Kenny Clift described his arrival:

“We were smartly turned out in shirts, shorts, slouch hats and puttees. We marched through the streets of the port besieged by pretty girls who threw flowers and ran alongside the troops offering sweets and small glasses of wine.”

As Captain Charlie Green of the 2/2nd battalion wrote of the welcome in Athens, the locals being “pleased to see us in the city and greeted us with open arms”. Later he described his arrival at the camp at Daphni, near Athens:

“What a contrast! Instead of awakening with eyes, ears and noses full of sand we breathed in pure crisp air with the scent of flowers. Flowers! We hadn’t seen them since leaving Australia. After months of desert glare the landscape at Daphne was a dream come true. The troops stood and gazed at the natural gardens full of shrubs and flowers which scented in the breeze; at the grasses that made a swishing noise as you walked through …We saw civilians dressed as we used to dress before the war … From the hillside one could look back into the valley below and see Athens.”

In Athens some of the Anzacs found time to visit the famous sites of Classical Greece. A number took photographs as mementoes of their visit to the Acropolis. Kennett Slessor, an Australian war correspondent and poet, found the experience overwhelming:

“Useless to try to put this experience into words. The view from the parapet at the rear of the Erectheum the most extraordinary I have ever seen – Athens scurrying, smoking and glittering underneath, the mountains and ruined temples around, and the sea, the islands and Salamis away in the distance. The sky the Attic blue which can’t be graded. In the Parthenon, a hush in which the wings of doves and pigeons flying from the columns can be heard – but as you approach the parapet, the noise of the city seems to break over the crest of the hill like a wave, and hits you in the face – motor-horns, bells, children’s cries, dogs barking.”

The Anzacs were welcomed as they made their way the north. Civilians cheered them and threw flowers as they drove through the streets. Villagers would wave and give the thumbs-up sign, calling out “Zeeto ee Australia” – Long Live Australia.

German Invasion

Yet the time for relaxation was short. They were needed for the defence of northern Greece against the impending German invasion. So that is where they headed – by train, motorised transport and on foot.

The German Army struck first in Thrace and Eastern Macedonian on the 6th April. Despite sustaining heavy artillery bombardment and with German overwhelming air superiority, the Greek Army on the northern frontier held up the advancing Germans for two days.

When they broke through, the German armoured forces pressed on south towards Doiran, heading for the Axios Valley and Thessaloniki.

By the 8th the enemy had taken Kilkis and Thessaloniki on the 9th April. With the Greek forces Eastern Macedonia cut off and overwhelmed, the Germans quickly occupied the islands of Samothrace, Thasos, Lemnos, Mytilene and Chios.

The British and Greek commanders ordered the withdrawal of Allied forces to the more defensible Olympus-Aliakmon position. The defence at Vevi was now critical to the protection of the Allied forces defending central and western Greece.

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Map of Allied Dispositions

Vevi

The battlefield today rests at the top of a quiet, peaceful valley, with a winding road making its way up between the steep hills until it emerges into the open at the junction of the road leading to the village of Vevi.

Standing at this cross-roads at the top of the valley and looking to the open plain ahead, one can imagine what confronted the defenders as they searched the open fields ahead for the advancing German Army as they deployed for action on the 9th  and 10th April 1941.

The defenders of Vevi were commanded by the Australian Brigadier George Vasey and their orders were to hold up any German advance until the night of the 12th April, in the words of the British commander General Wilson “to stop a blitzkrieg.”

The maps displayed on the posters show how the defenders set out to hold-up the impending attack.

Along the ridges of the hill to the right in front of the village of Kleidi were the Australian 2/8th Battalion, who linked up with the 4,500 strong Greek Dodecanese Regiment further on in the area of Lakes Vegorritis and Petron. At the centre, astride the road were the British 1st Rangers. The Australian 2/4th Battalion on an over six kilometre front on the hills to the left of the road. The 2/4th Battalion made contact with the 21st Greek Brigade to its left.

At the centre of the position, were strong contingents of artillery and machine guns. One platoon of New Zealand machine gunners was with the left company of the 2/8th Battalion, two companies left of the road supporting the Rangers and the 2/4th Battalion.

Forward of the Rangers, the 2/1st Australian Field Company had been busy since the 7th April creating craters in the roads north of Vevi, blowing up the railway running through the valley and a small bridge at the head of the pass, as well as laying a minefield in advance of the defenders position.

As the Australians and other Allied troops deployed for action, they were tired from their long transport north without rest. From 8th April onwards snow fell intermittently on the mountains, rain in the valleys and fog enveloped the mountains until 10am.

The attacking Germans made their presence felt on the evening of the 9th April – a group of German soldiers dressed in Greek Army uniforms surprising and capturing some British Rangers. This would be a tactic employed by the Germans throughout the battle. On other occasions, the Germans would call out in cultured English for the defenders to put down their guns. The Australians would come to respond to this ruse with bursts of machine gun and rifle fire.

The German force comprised an SS brigade (the SS Leibstandarte Adolf Hitler brigade), the 9th Panzer Division, batteries of powerful German 88-mm anti-tank and anti-aircraft guns, a number of armoured vehicles – all supported by over 1,000 aircraft – against less than 130 British aircraft available to the defenders.

The Germans would attack the Allied defenders at three points – through Kleidi to Sotir in the centre, an attack on Kelli on the right and a flanking movement through Flambouron on the left.

The Battle of Vevi– 10th-12th April 1941

The battle began on the morning of the 10th April and would rage for three days.

The first day saw the German advances repulsed. German transports moved along the road leading to the valley “like a dark grey caterpillar on a green lawn”, wrote Captain DA Crawford of the 2/1st Anti-Tank Regiment. The first salvo of the 64th Medium Regiment scored a hit on a German truck. Australian General Mackay declared “our first ball!” Soon the German trucks were in full retreat.

In the late afternoon, five companies of German troops were driven off by small arms fire as they attempted an attack on the 2/4th Battalion position. As they made off towards the railway line to the west, seeking shelter behind a coal dump, the 2nd Royal Horse Artillery “blew the tripe” out of them. Another fresh attack on the 2/4th was repulsed by heavy fire. And throughout the day, the Australian 2/3rd Field Artillery directed fire on to the Germans de-bussing on the plain before Vevi.

The next day the weather turned for the worse, bringing blizzard conditions to the battlefield. Mist in the heights on each side of the valley made it impossible to see more than fifty yards. The hills on both sides of the valley were covered in snow. The Anzacs reported several guns had frozen over night and were unable to fire. Some soldiers dropped out of the line with frostbite. The photograph of Lieutenant Colonel Dougherty of the 2/4th with the commanding officer of the flanking Greek Battalion surrounded in snow is testament to these conditions.

The 11th April saw the Germans fail again in their attempt to force their way through the Allied positions.

The advancing German armour was disabled by the Allied mines and two battalions of German infantry were halted by the combined effects of the Allied artillery.

Meanwhile to the North West, the 21st Greek Brigade had repulsed a German infantry attack as they had done the day before.

As morning approached on the 12th, the Australian war correspondent Chester Wilmot reported that the war seemed a hundred miles away when near the Australian lines a shepherd was letting his flock out of their night pens and oxen could be seen hauling a wagon up a hill.

At 8.30am the Germans launched what would be their final assault on the defenders. On a wide front east of the road the Germans, supported by intense mortar and machine gun fire, attacked the 2/8th Battalion in close formation at their junction with the Rangers.

Under cover of the poor weather, the Germans were able to get to bayonet range before the defenders could even see them.

All day long the assault ebbed and flowed around the Australian positions. The position of all three rearguard units – the 2/4th, 2/8th and the 1st Rangers became perilous. As one Australian soldier remarked on the experience:

“Suddenly you’d see figures appearing out of the wall of snow in front of you, we’d give them all we had and then the snow would close over them again. I thought they’d never stop coming…”

The Germans then launched their main assault at the centre of the pass at 2pm. As the Rangers in the centre of the Allied defence line fell back, the 2/8th began to withdraw further up the slope of the hill. The German infantry jumped from their trucks and advanced close behind their armoured vehicles.

The two guns of the 2/1st Anti-Tank Regiment and those of the British 2nd Royal Horse Artillery engaged the Germans on the road in the centre with open sights, delaying their advance. A successful counter-attack by the 2/8th at 2pm saw it regain vital ground on the ridges and retain the heights to the east of the road.

As the planned withdrawal of the Dodecanese Regiment was completed by 4pm in the face of German attacks on its position, the 2/8th were in danger of being surrounded and were attacked by infantry supported by tanks across its whole front.

By dusk German armour had penetrated deep into the Australian lines and the battalion began to fall back, passing through the village of Kleidi. Platoons and sections became separated in the confusion. Entering the valley floor, they came under heavy machine gun fire. Exhausted men where ordered by their officers to discard unnecessary weapons. Making their way overland, they marched sixteen kilometres through heavy mud, reaching Sotir by 9pm and Rodona by 11pm. On their route some of the Battalion were mistakenly fired on by British tanks, presumably near Sotir.

Despite a valiant defence in hastily prepared positions, the 2/8th Battalion was badly mauled at Vevi.

The bravery of the Battalion is reflected in the fact that one Victorian member of the 2/8th, Corporal Henry Bernard Moran from Waubra near Ballarat, was mentioned-in-despatches for his “distinguished service” throughout the Middle East, Greece and Crete, including for that at Vevi.

From the 29 officers and 619 other ranks that had arrived in Greece only weeks before, the Battalion was reduced to 250 weary men who made it safely to Rodona throughout the night, only 50 of them armed. Many arrived in small parties, some without boots. Vasey wrote in the 19th Brigade war diary that their commander, Lieutenant Colonel JW Mitchell, arrived “completely exhausted”.

While the infantry pulled back under fire from the advancing German units, demolitions were carried out on the road through the pass and the railway line south of Kleide and the Allied artillery continued to fire on the Germans in the centre. The Australian artillery commander, Brigadier Ned Herring, a veteran of the Salonika campaign in WW1, stated that the artillery had “done wonders”. The successful retreat under fire of the New Zealand machine-gunners earned the Military Cross for its commander, Lieutenant WF Liley.

At 5pm the 2/4th Battalion on the hills to the left were ordered to withdraw, a twenty-kilometre hike to their transport that waited south of Rodona. The last of its units withdrew in defensive formation at 7.30pm, as the Germans advanced up the slopes.

During this withdrawal a mixed group of Anzacs – including 70 Australians – were captured by the Germans as they marched through Xino Nero, and were disarmed and shepherded into a nearby field.

The next day, along with other British and Greek prisoners, they would be caught in a deadly fire-fight between German units entrenched in front of the Allied positions at Sotir. These Allied forces were commanded by Brigadier Vasey and included the 2/4th Battalion as well as British units. Some managed to escape but others were killed – including the 21 year old Lieutenant John de Meyrick of the 2/4th Battalion from NSW – and more than thirty wounded.

This occurred during the rearguard action at Sotir, with the Australian 2/4th Battalion joining 1st Armoured Brigade and other British units forcing a temporary halt to the German advance until the evening of the 13th April. This was one of the few tank battles of the whole Greek campaign.

As the Australian defenders of Vevi crossed the Aliakmon River, they were welcomed by Father Paddy Youll, a Catholic Priest, and Padre Harold Hosier of the Salvation Army, staffing what was referred to as a “tea point” after carrying their gear up the mountainside on a donkey.

They handed out tots of Johnnie Walker Black Label whisky and packets of Sao biscuits. A welcome reviver for the survivors of the three-day battle.

It has been estimated that some 28 Australians and 1 or 2 New Zealanders were killed at Vevi (along with 27 British soldiers. An unkown number were wounded and 480 captured. Greek forces are estimated to have lost 40 killed or wounded, and 136 taken prisoner. German losses are recorded as being 37 killed, 98 wounded and 2 taken prisoner. The battle had also effectively destroyed the 2/8th Battalion and the 1st Armoured Brigade as fighting units for the rest of the campaign.

As the day ended and while the Australian and New Zealand troops battled against the German Army at Vevi, the formation of the Second Anzac Corps was announced. At 6pm on 12th April the General Officer Commanding, Australian General Blamey issued the following statement:

“…that the reunion of the Australian and New Zealand Divisions gives all ranks the greatest uplift. The task ahead though difficult is not so desperate as that to which our fathers faced in April twenty-six years ago. We go to it together with stout hearts and certainty of success.”

The formation of the Second Anzacs at Vevi in Greece lay in the footsteps of the first Anzacs who had walked on Greek soil in 1915 – on Lemnos.

So ended the battle of Vevi.

 

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Sign at the memorial site

Remembering Vevi

The battle fought at Vevi would be remembered by the locals of the region. A few important local memorials stand testimony to this.

Off the main highway, at Xino Nero, stands a war memorial erected very soon after the end of the war to commemorate the battle fought here in 1941 by the locals on the initiative of the village President, Athanasios Altinis. I have been fortunate to attend the memorial service held here in honour of those Allied soldiers who served and those who fell.

Another grand memorial to the battle stands tall on a hill as you enter the Kleidi valley from the south.

And as you enter the village of Vevi and turn into its main square, the main Greek war memorial contains a plaque dedicated:

“to the members of 2/4th Aust Inf Bn. 6 Aust Div A.I.F, the Greek Armed Forces, and the people of Vevi, who gave their lives in the defence of Greece in 1941.”

It is moving to visit these memorials that stand across this distant battlefield in northern Greece.

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Greeks and Australians

After Vevi

Mackay force withdrew to its new positions on the left of the Olympus-Aliakmon line, with the Australian 16th Brigade taking up to its right, having fallen back from the Veria Pass. Yet the fighting withdrawal of the Australian and other Allied forces in Greece would continue. The Australians and New Zealanders would add new battle honours to the name of the Anzac Corps – at Platamon, at Pinios Gorge and the Vale of Tempe, at Brallos Pass and Thermopylae, at the Corinth Canal and at Kalamata.

On the 22-23rd April the decision was made to evacuate the Allied forces from Greece. Thus began the story of a second Dunkirk and the battle of Crete that followed.

Some of the troops that survived the battle at Vevi would be killed and captured during the retreat, like the three hundred men of the 4th Hussars  – who had fought bravely at Sotir only weeks before – were ambushed defending Kalamata.

The Australian official historian of the Greek campaign, Gavin Long, records how one New Zealand machine gunner – an Auckland-born farmer from Pukekohe, Private B.B. Carter of 27th New Zealand MG Battalion – survived Vevi, the campaign in Greece, evacuation to Crete and the battles there, only to make an audacious escape from Crete with three others – Corporal R. Gordon and Private R. G. Buchecker of the Australian 2/7 Battalion, Private D. N. McQuarrie of 18th New Zealand Battalion.  They were all awarded the Military Medal for their bravery in this escape.

Corporal Henry Moran of the 2/8th was another Vevi veteran who was evacuated from Kalamata on 26th April and took part in the defence of Canea in the battle of Crete. After service in the Middle East and New Guinea, Henry would survive the war and return to Ballarat.

Historian Peter Ewer recounts how one of the last Australian soldiers to be evacuated from Kalamata on the night of the 28th April – Kevin Price of the 2/1st Anti-Tank Regiment who had fought at Vevi. Taken to Crete on a destroyer, he would survive the war to return to East Malvern – where his local fish and chip shop was now under the new management of a Greek family who had witnessed the battle of Vevi in April 1941.

As the Allied troops departed mainland Greece, they remembered years later the friendship of the Greek people – even as they were leaving.

Undoubtedly what many Australian soldiers took away with them from Greece was the manner in which the Greek people, who had greeted them so warmly on their arrival, did not desert them in defeat.

Historian Peter Ewer recounts the story of one of the 2/6th Battalion, Don Stephenson, a tomato-picker from Shepparton, who was given a piece of chicken by an old lady as he marched through Kalamata and remarked how while all he was worried about was getting away, here was this old lady giving him some food.

As a detachment of the 2/3rd Battalion acted as a rearguard near the evacuation beaches at Kalamata they passed the cottage of an elderly Greek lady who stood by her door offering “sliced cake and glasses of Retsina” to the retreating Australians of the 2/3rd Battalion. Bill Jenkins of that Battalion recalled that “she was crying her eyes out”. Another digger from the same Battalion recounted:

“She offered these to each of the soldiers as they passed by, an act which touched us deeply. We could not understand what she was saying as she tearfully proffered her gifts, but her meaning was clear and we all said things like, ‘Never mind, Ma; we’ll be back and make up for all of this’.”

It is with memories such as these that many Australian soldiers would remember Greece and its people.

Plaque at the memorial site
Plaque at the memorial site

10th April 2016 – The 75th Anniversary of the Battle of Vevi

The battle of Vevi deserves to better known and appreciated – both in Greece and in Australia.

At the beginning of what would be an ill-fated campaign, fought against overwhelming odds, the Anzacs fought bravely against some of the most elite troops in the German Army. Despite enduring terrible conditions, enemy armour and air superiority, they had succeeded in holding up the German advance for three days.

It is a battle that is commemorated in this remote region of Greece but is rarely mentioned beyond. Its defence and the fighting retreat that followed, holding up the German advance at a crucial moment in their assault on Greece.

Next year will be the 75th anniversary of the battle of Greece and Crete. We should commemorate 10th April when the Anzacs came to Vevi and defended Greece alongside their Greek and British compatriots.

I would like to end with what I believe is particularly relevant quotation drawn from Ancient Greece.

The words were recorded by Charles Bean, the Australian war correspondent and official historian of Australia’s involvement in the First World War.

After the First World War had ended, an ancient marble monument held in the Athens National Museum, was brought to the attention of some visiting Australians. The monument bore the names of twenty-eight Athenian warriors who had fought on the Hellespont – the modern day Dardanelles – resisting another invader – the Persians – in 440bc.

On a slab of Pentelic marble across both columns of the monument was a dedication to the sacrifice of these warriors. One of the Australians suggested a shortened version to commemorate others who fell on the same shores 2,355 years later:

“They gave their shining youth, and raised thereby
Valour’s own monument which cannot die.”

Fitting words for all those who served in the battle of Vevi – and the wider battle for Greece and Crete which followed.

Lest we forget.