|The German Attack on Vevi, April 1941. AWM|
By the morning of the 12th April Mackay Force had held on for two of the three nights they had been ordered to hold the line at Vevi despite fatigue and the cold. A concerted German attack was to come. One more night was needed to allow the transport-strapped Greek forces to withdraw to the Olympus-Aliakmon line. MacKay’s orders to the 2/4th and 2/8th was for them to begin thinning out their front and withdrawing at 7.30pm on the 12th and to begin getting on transports at 8pm. The Rangers (being in the centre astride the road) were to cover this withdrawal. All were to be in their vehicles by 4am on the 13th. At Rodona and Sotir, a further ten kilometres back, part of the Armoured Brigade and a company of Rangers withdrawn earlier would cover the withdrawals. Further back at Ptolemais, the rest of the Armoured Brigade would form a final rearguard, through which the Sotir force would then withdraw.
The German Assault Re-commences
At 8.30am the Germans launched their assault on the defenders. On a wide front east of the road the Germans, supported by intense mortar and machine gun fire, attacked the 2/8th Battalion in close formation at their junction with the Rangers. Under cover of the poor weather, the Germans were able to get to bayonet range before the defenders could see them. All day long the assault ebbed and flowed around the Australian positions. As one Australian soldier remarked 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 closer over them again. I thought they’d never stop coming...”
The Germans then launched their main assault at the centre of the pass. As the Rangers in the centre of the Allied defence line fell back, the 2/8th began to withdraw. The German infantry jumped from their trucks and advanced close behind their armoured vehicles. The Australian and British Artillery engaged the Germans on the road in the centre with open sights, delaying their advance. A successful counter-attack by the 2/8th saw it regain vital ground on the ridges and retain the heights to the east of the road.
As the planned withdrawal of the Dodecanese Regiment was completed by 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 were 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 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. 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. Vasey wrote that their commander, Lieutenant Colonel J.W. Mitchell, arrived “completely exhausted”.
While the infantry pulled back under fire from the advancing German units, Allied artillery and demolitions impeded the Germans as they moved down the valley. 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 began their twenty-kilometre hike to their transport at Rodona.
During this withdrawal a mixed group of Anzacs were captured by the Germans and shepherded into a field near Xino Nero. The next day, along with other British and Greek prisoners, they would be caught in a deadly fire-fight between Allied and German troops during the rearguard action at Sotir. Thirty were wounded and those killed included 21 year old Lieutenant John de Meyrick of the 2/4th Battalion. Sotir was one of the few tank battles of the campaign and again halted the Germans.
As the Australian defenders of Vevi crossed the Aliakmon River, they were welcomed by two Australian padres handing out tots of Johnnie Walker Black Label whisky and packets of Sao biscuits. Amongst the Allied losses, some 28 Australians and 1 or 2 New Zealanders were killed at Vevi, along with 40 Greek soldiers killed or wounded.
As the day ended, the Australian and New Zealand troops would have been unaware that from 6pm on 12th April the Second Anzac Corps had been formed with the announcement:
“…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 Lemnos in 1915. The Australians would continue their fighting retreat across mainland Greece and Crete, adding new battle honours to the Anzacs. Some of the troops that survived the battle at Vevi would be killed or captured during the retreat. Others survived.
New Zealand machine gunner Private B.B. Carter survived Vevi and Greece, making an audacious escape from Crete with three others, including two Australians. So did Corporal Henry Moran of the 2/8th who would fight in Crete and the Middle East. Another Vevi veteran, Kevin Price of the 2/1st Anti-Tank Regiment, would survive Greece and the war, returning to Malvern in Melbourne, only to find that his local fish and chip shop was now under the management of a Greek family who had witnessed the battle of Vevi.
The battle would be remembered by the locals and memorials erected to the honour of those who fought there. At Xino Nero stands a war memorial erected by the locals on the initiative of the village President, Athanasios Altinis, commemorating the battle. I have been fortunate to attend the memorial service held here to honour the 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 war memorial contains a plaque dedicated to:
“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.”
The battle of Vevi deserves to be commemorated. At the beginning of what was an ill-fated campaign, fought against overwhelming odds, the Anzacs fought bravely against some of the most elite German troops. Enduring terrible conditions, enemy armour and air superiority, they had succeeded in holding up the German advance for three days.
Lemnos Gallipoli Commemorative Committee
& Member, Battle of Crete and the Greek Campaign Commemorative Council