Historical Article: The Battle for the Olympus Pass
Curtis Szmania gives the Wargamer a bit of a history lesson on the battle during the Battle of Greece, also known as Operation Marita.
The Battle for the Olympus Pass
14– 16 April 1941
14– 16 April 1941
Map of the Battle of Greece
Germany understood the lack of military prowess the Italians had prior to forming the Tripartite Pact. In fact, at times, their performance during World War I was mediocre at best; the Germans often didn’t think highly of the common Italian soldier. It was well-known that they gave up before it was necessary to do so and thus often a demoralized bunch. But Mussolini was out to prove this perception incorrect. The invasion of Abyssinia kick started the new Roman Empire. But as World War II neared and Italy became more and more aggressive, it began to reach beyond its capabilities. The invasion of Albania was also an easy operation for the much larger Italy, but then 10 June 1940 rolled around. On this day Italy confronted Commonwealth forces in North Africa but were eventually pushed all the way back even past their starting positions. It was during this disaster, in the fall of that same year, that Mussolini believed he could wage a second war against Greece. Mussolini’s overconfidence and eagerness to impress Hitler led to yet another disaster. Germany had to pick up the slack once again—after having sent the Afrika Korps to North Africa soon before.
It was on 6 April 1941 when the Germans advanced—Operation Marita. They weren’t just up against Greeks though. There were also British, New Zealand, Australian, Palestinian, and Cypriot troops deployed there. After moving through southern Yugoslavia, the German Twelfth Army sped south towards Thessalonika supported by German air forces. On the 9th they captured the city after pushing a Greek army along the Doiran Lake. The Greek defensive fortifications of the Metaxas Line did not slow down the Axis advance but did manage to inflict significant casualties. After the XVIII Mountain Corps took care of these defenses the 2nd Greek Army surrendered; it had been separated from Athens and surrounded. Following this Lieutenant General Henry Maitland Wilson ordered a withdrawal on the other side of the Haliacmon River. South of this river were two vital passes and a railway tunnel: the Servia, the Olympus, and the Platamon tunnel. It was here that the Commonwealth forces were to make a stand. The fate of Greece and the survival of the British Expeditionary Force were at stake.
Map showing the Commonwealth positions near Platamon
The XVIII Mountain Corps, under General Boehme, pushed on towards the Vardar River. He had to halt briefly for the slower units under his command to catch up because of the mountainous terrain they were travelling over. After the crossing of the Vardar the 6th Mountain Division pressed on towards Edhessa and beyond, to Verroia. The 6th Mountain Division then established a comfortable bridgehead across the Haliacmon River after securing Verroia. It then continued south and settled on favorable ground near the foothills of Olympus.
Meanwhile, the XL Panzer Corps and the 5th Panzer Division entered Greece through the Monastir Gap and pushed towards Kozani. Leading elements of the 9th Panzer Division, which were briefly halted at Ptolemais, reached Kozani on the 14th. Three hours after this the 2nd Panzer Division also crossed the Haliacmon and captured Katerini. The 2nd Panzer was flanked and supported by the 5th Mountain and 72nd Infantry Divisions.
Greek soldiers retreating during Operation Marita
The Allies deployed in the passes were comprised within what was designated as “W” Force, after its commander Wilson. Within it were the 6th Australian Division, 2nd New Zealand Division, and 1st British Armored Brigade. These were also supported by artillery, anti-aircraft, and engineering units. The British Expeditionary force totaled about 62,000 men when it was first deployed in Greece. It was also accompanied by an air arm which was led by Air Commodore Sir John D'Albiac. Wilson’s position was dire, for he was faced by the Germans advancing from Thessalonika on his front and the XL Panzer Crops to his left. It was on the 13th that he had decided his next move, to fight a fighting retreat to the legendary pass of Thermopylae. There he was to make yet another stand. But in the meantime, these passes had to be held.
Leading elements of the 9th Panzer Division had also established strong positions on the southern side of the Haliacmon. This German unit was led by Lieutenant General Alfred Ritter von Hubicki. The passes that lay in his path of advance were fantastic places to stake a defense. The Commonwealth forces were encamped within both the Olympus and Servia (southeast of the former) passes, and the Platamon tunnel between Olympus and the sea. These bottlenecks were ideal for funneling in the momentum of the German attack.
Commander of the 9th Panzer Division, Lieutenant General Alfred Ritter von Hubicki
During the night of the 15th, the ridge that dominated the Platomon coastal pass was attacked by a German motorcycle unit—supported by a tank battalion. This attack was defended successfully by the 21st (Auckland) New Zealand Battalion; which had taken place near an old castle which dominated the ridge. The 21st had also previously repelled two flank attacks during that day.
During the night of the 15th-16th the Germans strengthened their units, allowing the formations straggling behind to regroup. A tank, infantry, and motorcycle battalion had been gathered within the vicinity. The dawn of the 16th brought forth another attack. A German sabotage unit was sent out via a motor and three assault boats to destroy a bridge over the Pineios River. However, this came to nothing after they ran into dangerous swells.
The left flank of the New Zealand positions were also engaged on the 16th. This was followed by an attack on the coastal side (right flank) later on. The 2nd Panzer Division led this attack, which was preceded by an artillery bombardment that commenced at 0900. 100 tanks led the assault, followed by two infantry battalions, and twelve 105mm and four 150mm artillery pieces. The 21st New Zealand Battalion could match this with just four 25-pounders and a single platoon of engineers. The 21st was commanded by Colonel Neil Lloyd Macky. The Colonel was under the impression that the terrain to his front was impassable by enemy armor.
Colonel Neil Lloyd Macky, commander of the 21st New Zealand Battalion
The western end of the ridge was captured after hand-to-hand combat. Consequently, the tanks were sent in and exploited this weakness rolling up the entire line. These attacks were enough to dislodge the New Zealanders, and they fell back across the Pineios River as the sun set. They settled in the Pineios Gorge, which they were ordered to hold to the last man, only suffering a few casualties as they withdrew. The Commonwealth units to their north needed a place to withdraw, making the gorge an important window. Wilson also informed the commander of the Greek Army, Field Marshal Alexander Papagos, of his intentions to withdraw to Thermopylae.
The attackers tried to follow-up their success with a continuous push forward, but their momentum could not be maintained. The Platamon railway tunnel along the coastline had been destroyed so the German armor had a difficult time descending the southern side of the ridge. Because of this obstacle only thirty tanks were available to continue the drive south on the 17th.
Meanwhile, in Albania, the Greek First Army had been surrounded by Axis forces. Unwilling to surrender to the Italians, the army capitulated to the Germans on 20 April. Wilson’s forces at Thermopylae were now a rearguard in order to allow “W” Force to disembark from ports in the south for destinations in Crete and Egypt. Units at Thermopylae were engaged on the 24th and managed to hold back the Germans until nightfall. The rearguard withdrew to Thebes but their positions were bypassed on the 27th just before Athens fell.
Lieutenant General Henry Maitland Wilson, commander of "W" Force
However, rearguard actions weren’t always successful. A great example of this was the fall of the port of Kalamata when 7,000-8,000 Commonwealth units were captured. Overall, however, Wilson succeeded in removing 50,000 fighting men from Greece. The whole campaign had cost them 903 killed, 1,250 wounded, and 13,958 captured. The Greeks, of course, lost much more. While defending their homeland 13,325 of them were killed, 62,663 were wounded, and 1,290 went missing. The struggling Italians had lost 13,755 killed, 63,142 wounded, and 25,067 missing. Germany sustained much fewer casualties than their ally with just 1,099 killed, 3,752 wounded, and 385 missing.
British and New Zealand prisoners in Greece during the campaign
The stand made by the Commonwealth forces near Olympus was a gallant one. Although the Axis succeeded in overrunning the prepared positions, they had delayed their conquest at least a few days. This time was vital, not concerning the survival of Greece, but for the eventual defeat of the Axis. Extricating these military forces allowed the Allies to deploy them in Crete and Egypt, from which the war would continue on. Although the battle of the former ended in defeat, the battle for the latter is often considered the turning point of the war.
Suggested video games: Conquest of the Aegean, Battlefield 2 Mod: Forgotten Hope 2, Hearts of Iron 2, Hearts of Iron III, Operational Art of War III,
Article written by: Curtis Szmania, Editor in Chief