Chapter 11: The Loss of Maleme Airfield
THE 20th May was clear and still. About 6.45 in the morning, a far larger force of enemy bombers and fighters than usual appeared over the Suda–Maleme area and attacked the airfield and the area round it, Canea, the anti-aircraft batteries, and all roads. Great clouds of dust raised by bursting bombs obscured the view of the anti-aircraft gunners, who were already jaded by the daily attacks of which they had been a principal target. Each gun now received the attention of two or three dive bombers, and many were knocked out. Soon it was evident that this bombardment was not the “daily strafe” but the prelude to the long-expected invasion.
To all who saw it the scene which followed was perhaps the most majestic in their experience. Afterwards General Freyberg described it thus:
I stood out on the hill with other members of my staff enthralled by the magnitude of the operation. While we were still watching the bombers, we suddenly became aware of a greater throbbing in the moments of comparative quiet, and, looking out to sea with the glasses, I picked out hundreds of planes tier upon tier coming towards us – here were the huge, slow-moving troop carriers with the loads we were expecting. First we watched them circle counter-clockwise over Maleme aerodrome and then, when they were only a few hundred feet above the ground, as if by magic white specks mixed with other colours suddenly appeared beneath them as clouds of parachutists floated slowly to earth.
Those nearer Maleme knew that before the dust of the bombs had cleared some seventy-five gliders had silently landed; perhaps forty-five of them west of the airfield, but small groups of three or four at various points between Maleme and Suda. The parachute troops appeared to drop west, south, and east of the airfield, east of Galatas, near the 7th General Hospital, on the road leading down from the hills (past a reservoir and a prison) to Galatas, and round Alikianou, farther south along that road.
The bombardment broke all signal lines leading from Puttick’s headquarters about a mile south-west of Canea, and for several hours he had only meagre information from his units. His lines to Freyberg’s headquarters were not repaired until 11 a.m. For some hours, in some instances for the whole day, there was little more communication between the battalions deployed between Canea and Maleme than between the groups of Germans broadcast among them.
Maleme airfield – the vital ground – was in the area of the westernmost New Zealand battalion, the 22nd. If the men dropped from the sky could seize and hold that airfield they might be reinforced by large bodies of infantry landed in transport planes and generously supplied with heavy weapons. “A blanket of dust and smoke” had concealed the landing of the gliders, most in the bed of the Tavronitis. Then parachute troops – there seemed to be from 400 to 600 – descended round the battalion area which was about a mile and a half wide from north to south. A few gliders
and a few paratroops landed in the 22nd Battalion’s area, some of the gliders coming to earth within the lines of the westernmost company – Captain Campbell’s.1 Some paratroops landed just south-west of PirgOs, overran one New Zealand platoon of the headquarters company but were unable to dislodge the rest of it. Others, landed in the battalion area, were few but managed to interrupt communication by runners. Lieut-Colonel Andrew2 thought the whole of the headquarters company lost, but the real threats to the defence came only from troops landed outside the battalion area.
Near Campbell’s company the centre of the landing was the western bank of the river. Perhaps half a dozen gliders, from which few survived, and some twenty paratroops landed within his area. Germans who came down on the western bank crossed the river, dodging from pylon to pylon of the bridge, entered the R.A.F. offices and camp just south-east of it, and drove the non-combatants therein up the hill towards the headquarters of the 22nd. Campbell’s right platoon, outnumbered and enfiladed, had to fall back, leaving a gap between his company and Captain Johnson’s3 to the north. After this Campbell’s company held firmly. He heard, after dark, that battalion headquarters had withdrawn, but did not believe it. However, when he led a party in that direction after dark to obtain water and ammunition he found that it was so, and decided that he too must withdraw.
At 3 o’clock next morning the withdrawal began, each platoon following a different route. One moved south and then east into the hills, eventually crossing the island; another making south beside the river was captured; the third went eastward and eventually reached the rear battalions of the brigade.
Part of one of the other four rifle companies of the 22nd was deployed on the airfield; the westernmost platoon (Lieutenant Sinclair4) was holding a front of 1,400 yards on that edge. Fourteen gliders landed along its front in the Tavronitis and many paratroops arrived at the same time. The crews of the anti-aircraft guns were overpowered and one by one Sinclair’s men were hit. The sections held out until the middle of the afternoon, though under fire from all directions except due east. At dusk Sinclair himself, who had been wounded, and his last remaining man, also wounded, were taken prisoner. Eight in his platoon were killed, fifteen wounded and only two not hit.
Elsewhere the 22nd generally held its ground – the eastern side of the airfield and the slopes south of the main road, which bounded the airfield on the south – although small enemy groups were wedged between two of its companies, and between it and the 21st Battalion. In Pirgos paratroops had landed in the streets and on the flat roofs. Most of the first group
were shot as they fell; a second group arriving about 10.30 was also overcome, and by midday only small parties were in the area, moving along drains and through the vineyards trying to find one another and organise.
At 5.15 p.m. Colonel Andrew, a regular soldier who had won the Victoria Cross as a lance-corporal in 1917, had decided to use two infantry tanks that were under his command, with a platoon reinforced by a few British Bofors gunners, to thrust west along the road, but the crew of one tank found their gun to be unusable and withdrew; the other tank reached the river flat and was there abandoned.
By 9 p.m. the enemy had a weak grip on the western edge of the airfield and the area between Vlakheronitissa and Xamoudhokhori, and was increasing his hold on Hill 107, which dominated the airfield. Andrew decided to withdraw and consolidate the battalion on his rear rifle company on the eastern of the two ridges the battalion held, thus abandoning a belt of country about 1,000 yards wide east of the Tavronitis. At dawn next morning the survivors of the battalion, with parties of gunners and air force men from the airfield, were moving east in groups towards the Pirgos–Xamoudhokhori track.
East of the 22nd, the 23rd Battalion (Major Leckie5) overlooked the main road and was itself overlooked by the 21st Battalion on the higher slopes to the south. Gliders and paratroops who landed in and round the 23rd’s area were soon killed or dispersed; it was estimated that about 400 were killed in the air, in trees, or on the ground. By midday the area was fully under the defenders’ control, and their machine-guns and mortars were raking the beaches and the eastern edges of the airfield. However, efforts to get into touch with the 22nd Battalion failed. Late in the afternoon one company of the 23rd and one of the 28th (Maori) were sent west to reinforce the 22nd. The Maori company had a sharp skirmish with Germans and killed perhaps thirty. The company of the 23rd formed a rearguard while the 22nd withdrew; the Maori company found the headquarters of the 22nd deserted, and, retiring, met part of one of the companies of the 22nd and Andrew with it. It was then about 2 a.m.
Some 100 parachutists who landed on the slopes held by the 21st Battalion (Lieut-Colonel Allen6) were killed or captured. Allen’s orders left him the choice of replacing the 23rd if that battalion counter-attacked, supporting the 22nd, or holding his positions on the vine-covered ridges. Because paratroops had landed in his area and more might come, Allen decided to remain where he was, but sent one platoon to clear the enemy from Xamoudhokhori and Vlakheronitissa. It cleared Xamoudhokhori but found Vlakheronitissa too strongly held.
East of the 23rd Battalion was the N.Z.E. detachment (an infantry unit improvised from engineer companies), and partly in its area and partly in the 23rd’s and 21st’s was the 27th Battery, armed with two English 3.7-inch howitzers (mountain weapons), three Italian 75-mm guns, and
four French 75’s. Parachutists who were landed round the guns were overcome, as were some who descended round the N.Z.E. detachment and the 28th (Maori) Battalion (Lieut-Colonel Dittmer7), from which two platoons sallied forth in the afternoon and mopped up a party of Germans assembled at a mill 600 yards forward of the N.Z.E. positions.
Thus at dawn on the second day all four battalions of Hargest’s 5th Brigade had overcome the Germans landed in their areas except the 22nd – the battalion that had occupied the most important ground. It had been seriously mauled and had withdrawn, leaving only isolated parties within half a mile of the airfield. No counter-attack had been made by the brigade as a whole. In view of the number of German fighters and bombers continually overhead, and the uncertainty of communications, it would have been impossible to organise an effective counter-attack.
Farther east Colonel Kippenberger’s 10th Brigade held a wide front extending to the foothills just west of Canea. On the coastal flank was the Composite Battalion holding a front of 3,200 yards from the coast south to the foothills. Farther south were the 6th and 8th Greek Regiments8 and the Divisional Cavalry (190 men fighting as infantry), these last two being far into the foothills to the south-west. The Composite Battalion consisted of about 1,000 gunners and drivers relatively untrained as infantry; the 2,400 Greeks were ill-armed recruits with a few weeks’ service.
As soon as the preliminary bombing had ceased, on the 20th, a strong force of paratroops and gliders landed in and round the 10th Brigade area, and particularly round Galatas, the Aghya prison, where probably 1,500 landed, and thence to Alikianou. When Colonel Kippenberger arrived panting and alone at the small house that he had arranged to use as his battle headquarters he found a German sniper in occupation; he stalked the German and shot him.
Within half an hour the 6th Greek Regiment had exhausted its ammunition and was broken; some 400 who fell back towards Galatas were rallied by Captain Forrester9 of the Queen’s, a liaison officer with the Greeks, who formed a line linking with the 19th Battalion which was round Karatsos, and the Composite Battalion.10 The Germans were now attacking along the Prison–Galatas road, and the cavalry and the 8th Greek were out of touch. This attack drove in the left of the Composite Battalion (held by the Petrol Company) and Colonel Kippenberger’s brigade head-quarters. By midday, however, parties of Germans landed in Galatas had been rounded up.
The Germans renewed their attack up the Prison–Galatas road at 4 p.m., but were repulsed. About this time the cavalry arrived in the Galatas area,
having withdrawn from their isolated position north of the reservoir; they were placed in the sector weakly held by the Greeks east of Galatas and formed a link between the Petrol Company and the 19th Battalion. The 8th Greek was still out in the foothills, isolated but fighting strongly; reports arrived that in the Prison area, now firmly in German hands, the enemy seemed to be clearing a landing ground.
In the area held by the 4th Brigade (Brigadier Inglis) which was just east of the 10th and included Brigadier Puttick’s divisional headquarters, parachute troops landed round Karatsos village, and, later, in vineyards north of the coast road and south of the 7th General Hospital, which was on the small peninsula in this area. When he learnt that the hospital had been captured Inglis ordered a company of the 18th to retake it. They achieved this with little opposition early in the afternoon.11 Other paratroops captured the 6th Field Ambulance, in this area, and shot the commanding officer, Lieut-Colonel Plimmer’12
Because of broken telephone lines and wireless failures Freyberg had received scanty reports during the first few hours, but by 11 a.m. he decided that Maleme was the danger point and ordered that the 4th Brigade less the 1/Welch be returned to Puttick’s command, thus allotting him the whole of his reserve except one battalion. Brigadier Puttick, whose reports from the 5th Brigade had so far been cheerful and confident, at first decided that to use these reserves for a counter-attack would leave the coast open to attack by a force then known to be at sea; such an attack might cut off his whole division. In the late afternoon, however, reports that the enemy appeared to be clearing a landing ground near the prison made the 4th Brigade area seem no less dangerous than Maleme. At length, at Kippenberger’s suggestion, Puttick agreed to an attack on the prison, and this was launched at 7.15 p.m. by Lieut-Colonel Blackburn’s13 19th Battalion supported by a troop of three light tanks of the 3rd Hussars, this battalion of the reserve brigade thus advancing into the area of the adjoining brigade (Kippenberger’s). Two companies of the 19th advanced west from Galatas, then south. By 8.30, having overcome sturdy resistance, they were 1,400 yards north of the prison; light was fading and the tank commander considered that he could do no more that night, and at 10 p.m. the two companies formed a leaguer round the tanks. In the meantime Kippenberger had been given to understand that the 19th was now under his command. He decided that the attack had been made too late and with too-weak forces and should be cancelled. Next morning patrols reached the attacking companies with orders to withdraw, and they rejoined their battalion.
It was unfortunate (reported Kippenberger later) that 19th Battalion was not placed under command earlier, as in consequence the forward commander, in touch with the situation, was unable to assist or direct the attack in any way, and it was consequently abortive. Considerable help could have been given by the Divisional Cavalry detachment, by the Greeks, who always advanced cheerfully, by parties from the Composite Battalion and by the guns and machine-guns, none of which in fact knew anything about the operation until too late.
Thus, by the night of the 20th, the Germans had a foothold on Maleme airfield, but it was still commanded by the defenders’ guns; a belt of tactic-ally important ground east of the Tavronitis had been lost; and a German force was strongly established on the slopes round the prison and the reservoir whence they threatened to cut through the centre of the elongated position occupied by the New Zealand Division on the coastal shelf and the foothills overlooking it.
Meanwhile, in General Weston’s Suda–Canea area east of the New Zealand Division, paratroops and gliders had landed south of Canea and on the Akrotiri Peninsula bounding Suda Bay to the north.14 Some 700 men of the Composite Battalion near Perivolia dealt with paratroops landed in the woods near by. The King of Greece had been staying in a house close to the camp, and after their morning’s good work General Weston named this force the Royal Perivolians It will be recalled that the protection of the King and his party had been entrusted to a New Zealand platoon under Lieutenant Ryan. Parachutists landed in the garden of the King’s house. Protected by the New Zealanders and some armed Cretans the King and his Ministers made their way into the hills.15
Fifteen gliders were released over the sea near the Akrotiri Peninsula but only eleven reached the land and some of those were shot down; the Northumberland Hussars soon killed or captured most of the survivors. Other gliders landed south of Canea round a group of anti-aircraft guns. The gunners had few rifles and Germans overcame them, but were contained by the 1/Rangers and a section of carriers from the 1/Welch (in reserve on the outskirts of the town). These were reinforced in the afternoon by two platoons of Royal Marines and some Greeks of the 2nd Regiment, and the gun sites were recaptured. By nightfall only isolated groups of Germans remained in the Suda–Canea area, into which, late in the afternoon, was brought the 2/8th Battalion from Georgioupolis; it went into position on a 2,000-yard front west of Mournies with the Perivolians on the right, the 2/2nd Field Regiment on the left, and the 2nd Greek Regiment extending the line.
As mentioned above, a Greek force was protecting the harbour of Kastelli near the western end of the island. Germans landed east of the town and north and south of the main road near by. The Greeks sallied out and attacked them so effectively that by 11 a.m., after a grim fight, only one small enemy group was still resisting. A platoon led by Major Bedding captured this post. The Germans lost some 50 killed and 28 prisoners; 57 Greeks were killed and 62 Greeks and one New Zealander wounded.
The present chapter will tell no more about the fighting in the other sectors – Retimo and Heraklion – than was known to General Freyberg at the time. These places were not attacked until late in the afternoon of the 20th. That night at Retimo most of the paratroops were overcome, but one group held strongly on a ridge overlooking the airfield from the south-east. At Heraklion all who dropped within the defended area were disposed of except for parties of snipers, but fighting was in progress in the town. Signal communications were so poor that Freyberg’s report to Waved that night said: “So far I think we hold Maleme, Heraklion and Retimo aerodromes and the two harbours. Margin by which we hold them is bare one. ... Everybody here realises vital issue and we will fight it out.”
Admiral Cunningham had kept naval forces ready to defeat a seaborne attack on Crete since 14th May. He considered that the three most likely landing places were Canea, Retimo and Heraklion, but that Kisamos Bay and Sitia were also possibilities. Consequently he established three “light” forces (of cruisers and destroyers), one to protect Heraklion and Sitia, another Retimo, and a third north-west Crete. Two battleships and five destroyers were to take up a position by night westward of Crete to cover the lighter ships. In reserve at Alexandria were two battleships and his only aircraft carrier, Formidable (which now possessed only four serviceable aircraft). On the night of the 20th–21st six Italian motor-boats were seen in Kaso Strait; when fired on by a force consisting of the cruisers Naiad and Perth and four destroyers, they retired after four boats had been damaged. No other enemy ships were seen.
It is now known that the proposal that Crete should be captured by parachute and airborne troops was made to Field Marshal Goering on 15th April by General Lohr, commander of the Fourth Air Fleet.16 Hitler was persuaded that airborne attack on Crete was practicable, and command of the whole operation was given to General Lohr who had controlled the air operations in Greece. His force included General Student’s XI Air Corps17 (glider and parachute troops) and General von Richthofen’s
VIII Air Corps (a purely air formation). The concentration of the attacking troops round the airfields at Corinth, Megara, Tanagra, Topolia, Dadion, Eleusis and Phaleron in southern Greece was completed by 14th May. The force defending Crete was estimated at one division plus troops that had escaped from Greece.
Student had hoped to launch simultaneous attacks on Maleme, CaneaSuda Bay, Retimo, and Heraklion, but Richthof en would not guarantee complete air protection for four simultaneous attacks, and consequently plans were made to attack Maleme and Canea with airborne troops at 8.15 in the morning and Retimo and Heraklion at 4.15 in the afternoon.18 In addition four groups comprising sixty-three small commandeered vessels and seven merchantmen were organised under Admiral Schuster, to transport one infantry battalion, some other men, heavy weapons, pack animals and supplies to Crete. The first was to reach the beaches west of Maleme on the first day, and the second the coast east of Heraklion on the second day, but at the last moment it was decided that the British fleet was too active to permit a landing on the first day and that both groups should land on the second.
General Student’s XI Air Corps included General Sussmann’s 7th Air Division (paratroops), General Meindl’s 1st Assault Regiment (glider-borne), and the aircraft group (General Conrad) whose chief task was to transport the fighting part of the corps. The Assault Regiment included four battalions each of four companies. The Air Division included three regiments, each of three battalions. Each battalion had three rifle companies; the regiment included also a 13th (artillery) and 14th (antitank) Company. The division possessed in addition a battery of artillery, an anti-tank, a machine-gun and a pioneer battalion. To the corps was added also the 5th Mountain Division with three rifle regiments (one from the 6th Mountain Division) and a battalion of tanks.
The plan provided that, after the 7th Air Division and the Assault Regiment had been dropped, part of the 5th Mountain Division would be landed on the captured airfields and part taken to Crete by sea. Thus, in the initial stages, 750 men would descend in gliders and 10,000 in parachutes, while 5,000 would be landed in aircraft and 7,000 from ships. The aircraft available for transport were from 70 to 80 towed gliders, and from 600 to 750 Junkers transports (Ju-52’s), able to carry 5,000- 6,000 men and their equipment in one lift. The supporting air bombardment was to be given by VIII Air Corps which possessed 430 dive bombers, 180 fighters and 40 reconnaissance aircraft. The information which General Wavell thought exaggerated had thus proved remarkably correct.
The attacking troops were divided into three groups – West, Centre and East. The West Group under General Meindl consisted of the Assault Regiment (less half of the I Battalion) a combined anti-aircraft and machine-gun battalion and a medical platoon. Its task was to capture
Maleme airfield and keep it open for aircraft, to reconnoitre westward to Kastelli and the Gulf of Kisamos, and to advance southward and eastward to meet the Centre Group. That group (with General Sussmann, commander of the 7th Air Division) consisted of two forces. The first comprised the 3rd Parachute Regiment, the remaining half-battalion of the Assault Regiment and the division’s pioneer battalion, and its task was to capture Canea and Suda. Its second force comprised the 2nd Parachute Regiment (less one battalion); its task was to take Retimo, whence it was to send troops westward to attack Suda Bay from the east. Little resistance was expected at Retimo. The East Group of four battalions was to capture Heraklion and its airfield and prepare the way for the landing of troops by sea.
The gliders of the West Group landed where intended and their occupants achieved their initial tasks, namely to capture a tented camp near the airfield (probably the air force camp), overcome the anti-aircraft guns at the mouth of the Tavronitis, and capture the bridge over the river intact. The III Battalion (Major Scherber) was to land along the Maleme–Platanias road and capture the airfield from the east. It was wrongly landed in the hills south of the road, because aircraft commanders were overanxious lest they land their men in the sea. Instead of descending along the road between Pirgos and a point two miles east, they landed along a line parallel to the road but about half a mile south of it. Many were shot while falling or when caught in trees and others were killed on the ground; finally all the officers were killed or wounded and only 200 remained alive of a battalion of 600.
The IV Battalion, with General Meindl, was to land west of the Tavronitis bridge. The task of its 16th Company was to cross the island to Selino Kastelli. This company fought its way southward against Greek guerillas; the remainder (with the 8th Company of the II Battalion) was committed to an attack eastward to help the glider troops.
When Meindl himself landed about 8.30 a.m. the glider troops were heavily engaged, but he had the greater part of two battalions organised and ready to carry out his orders. There appeared to be a strong defence line round the airfield. He ordered a frontal attack astride the bridge by four companies (8th, 13th, 14th, 15th) while two companies (5th and 7th) made a flanking movement to the south. Meindl was soon seriously wounded and Major Stenzler took command of the forward troops. By evening the main body of the regiment had gained the western edge of the airfield and the northern slope of Hill 107 (the centre of the 22nd New Zealand Battalion’s position) and the detached companies were south-east of that hill.
As related above, the force to land in the Canea–Suda Bay area included General Sussmann. Sussmann and his staff set off in five gliders. One containing the general crashed on the island of Aegina near Athens and the occupants were killed. Thereafter Colonel Heidrich of the 3rd Regiment commanded the division. The I/3rd Battalion landed near the prison and re-formed, captured the heights there, and advanced as far east as Perivolia. There they met a company of the III/3rd, landed near Perivolia instead of round Galatas, and advanced on Mournies, but were thrust back (by the Royal Perivolians and Greeks). Another company of the III/3rd was practically destroyed near Galatas; a third succeeded in taking Cemetery Hill south-east of Galatas; a fourth, instead of landing at Karatsos descended with the I/3rd Battalion and attached itself to it.
The II/3rd Battalion (which lacked its 8th Company but had the 13th and 14th) landed between the prison and the reservoir and between the prison and Galatas and became involved in the heavy fighting with the 10th New Zealand Brigade. The pioneer battalion landed on high ground north of Alikianou, captured a power station in the area and became involved in a hard struggle with the Greeks of the 8th Regiment.
When, at 9 a.m., Heidrich landed near the prison he had approximately three full battalions in the Alikianou–Prison–Perivolia area. He was disturbed to find that the landing area was commanded by the opposing troops on the heights round Galatas, and organised an attack by one company towards those heights. In the afternoon, after another company had been thrown in, the Galatas height (Pink Hill) was taken. In the evening, “because of a misunderstanding”, it was abandoned, and the attacking companies and also I/3rd Battalion from Perivolia were withdrawn and a defensive front facing Galatas was formed. During the night, on Heidrich’s orders, the pioneers fought their way to the prison area. Thus what was left of his regiment was deployed defensively from the heights west of Perivolia on the right to the Alikianou area on the left. Heidrich considered that his four battalions, two of which had lost heavily,
were just strong enough to withstand the counter-attack he expected on the 21st.
It was not until the morning of the 21st that Freyberg learnt of the extent to which the 22nd Battalion had been thrust off its ground. It was reported to him, however, that the airfield was still covered by his artillery and machine-guns, and could not be used by the enemy. A severe dive-bombing of the defenders began before 9 a.m. Then arrived more disturbing news: that not only were more paratroops descending but transport aircraft were landing in the bed of the river west of Maleme and on the undefended beaches farther west.
Puttick’s Intelligence staff correctly estimated that two German regiments had landed, one about Maleme and one south of Galatas, and that they were intent on advancing east. Puttick considered that the most important task was the recapture of Maleme airfield, but measures to carry out that task proceeded at a snail’s pace. At a conference at the 23rd Battalion headquarters about 2 a.m. on the 21st it was decided that the 23rd should hold its position next day and that the battered 22nd, now only about two companies strong, should be withdrawn to the lines of the 23rd and 21st for reorganisation. Thus, at dawn, the 22nd Battalion was fitted into the lines of the 23rd and 21st, whence a certain amount of fire covered the airfield. Scores of weary, unarmed men of the Royal Air Force and the disabled anti-aircraft batteries, and the Royal Marine Artillery were now drifting east through the New Zealand lines.
Throughout the 21st, the 5th Brigade, still almost isolated, was bombed and machine-gunned from the air, and pressed by the enemy on the ground. It held its positions, except that the machine-gun platoon with the 23rd Battalion was withdrawn from one useful height. The Vickers guns and mortars fired on aircraft landing on the airfield until, by late afternoon, their ammunition was exhausted. At a conference of commanding officers at the headquarters of the 23rd Battalion it was decided that next day the 23rd should counter-attack and reoccupy the ground it had lost.
Meanwhile the German transport aircraft were pressing their advantage boldly. At 8.10 a.m. in spite of the fire of nine guns19 of the 27th Battery and a platoon of machine-guns, an aircraft landed on Maleme airfield, unloaded and took off again – a significant event. Later several troop carriers landed and took off at the west end of the field. About 4 p.m. a steady stream of aircraft began landing. Thus the Germans had achieved their first main objective – to gain the use of an airfield – although their hold on it was still insecure.
Farther east the situation within each New Zealand sector was even more reassuring than on the previous day. Large numbers of paratroops dropped on and round the Maori battalion’s area about 3.40 p.m. The Maoris attacked the newcomers with vigour and by nightfall had cleared
their own area and most of the country between them and the New Zealand Engineers, where, however, one group of Germans established itself. Within the 4th Brigade’s area only isolated parties of Germans were at large on the 21st. Early in the afternoon a company of the 19th Battalion sup-ported by fire from a squadron of the New Zealand Cavalry attacked Cemetery Hill but German mortar and machine-gun fire was too heavy. This bald hill was too exposed and neither side could hold it.
Although the recapture of Maleme airfield was now the main necessity, a task of almost equal importance was to prevent the German force in the Aghya area from advancing north to the coast and thus cutting the New Zealand Division in two. Thus when it was reported that morning that some eighty paratroops had descended on the slopes well south of the Maori battalion and troop carriers were seen flying towards the Aghya reservoir, a Maori patrol was sent out to see what was happening over the hills to their south. It found that Germans who had apparently filtered down from the reservoir area had established posts between the Maori and N.Z.E. detachment.
What plans were being made to counter the two threats? At 11.15 a.m. Hargest had proposed to Puttick that an attack should be made towards Maleme by the Maori and another battalion; it should be made at night because machine-gun fire from the air did not permit large-scale movement by day. Late in the afternoon Freyberg held a conference (which Brigadier Vasey attended) at which he decided that he would bring an Australian battalion from Georgioupolis in trucks to replace the 20th New Zealand, which would then move west in the vehicles the Australians had used, reinforce the 5th Brigade, and be available for a counter-attack. Later in the evening Freyberg ordered his troop of the 2/ 3rd Field Regiment and a section of the 106th Royal Horse Artillery (an anti-tank unit) to join the New Zealand Division for shelling the airfield. The former commander of the 2/ 3rd, Lieut-Colonel Strutt,20 had that day been appointed to command the artillery of the New Zealand Division.
The detailed plan was that the 20th Battalion would advance between the road and the beach, three light tanks along the road, and the Maoris on the left of it. The attacking troops would form up about 400 yards west of the Platanias River. The first objective was Pirgos, where the troops would rest for thirty minutes; the second objective was the airfield on the right and the river on the left. If successful the attack would carry the advancing troops right through the 5th Brigade. Aircraft from Egypt would bomb the areas west of the advancing troops from midnight until 2.30 a.m.
Freyberg learnt that the 21st May had been a fairly successful day at Retimo, where the 2/1st Battalion had recaptured the heights south-east of the airfield, although an enemy group remained astride the road leading west to Canea and the road leading east to Heraklion. At Heraklion
the enemy had captured the harbour but was later driven out. In both areas the enemy had failed to take the airfield and was on the defensive.
During the 21st British naval forces were waiting south of Crete ready to resume their sweeps north of the island during the second night. One force was bombed continuously from 9.50 a.m. to 1.50 p.m., and the destroyer Juno was sunk. In another force the cruiser Ajax was damaged by near misses. At this juncture, however, aircraft reported enemy small ships steering towards Crete from Milos, and that night the three light forces made a sweep along the north coast. At 11.30 p.m. Dido, Orion, the damaged Ajax and four destroyers met a convoy, chiefly of caiques crowded with German soldiers, 18 miles north of Canea. The British ships fired on them for two hours and a half, sinking or setting fire to one or two steamers, at least a dozen caiques, a small pleasure steamer and a steam yacht. One of the escorting destroyers, the Lupo, was hit but did not sink.
The German commander had decided on the 21st that success depended on the prompt capture of an airfield and that it could only be Maleme since Retimo and Heraklion were firmly in enemy hands; all measures were to be concentrated on achieving this. General Student decided to land his two remaining parachute companies (of the 2nd Regiment) in his enemy’s rear east of Pirgos while the Assault Regiment attacked from the west; VIII Air Corps was asked to silence the enemy battery that was firing on the field. The II Battalion of the 100th Mountain Regiment was to be embarked in transport aircraft in Greece and be ready to land at Maleme from 4 p.m. onwards – these were the troops seen arriving at Maleme that afternoon. Twenty of their aircraft were destroyed in the process.
At dawn the Germans round Maleme had advanced from the positions reached the night before, occupied Hill 107, moved across the airfield, and formed a line on its eastern edge. They then organised an attack on Maleme and Pirgos, abandoned by the New Zealanders the night before, and occupied them.
In the Prison Valley the German position remained practically unchanged throughout the 21st. The German commander, Colonel Heidrich, expected a British counterattack, but none came. When the two parachute companies jumped into the Platanias area they fell among troops who were ready for them, and lost heavily; but one group of eighty men succeeded in establishing itself in a farm on the outskirts of Pirgos near the beach.
As for the invasion by sea, it is now known that the delayed convoy of small ships that was to transport to Maleme a mountain battalion – III Battalion of 100th Mountain Regiment – part of an anti-aircraft regiment and some heavy weapons groups, 2,330 men in all, sailed early in the morning but returned because of the presence of British naval ships. It sailed again about midday and was off the coast of Crete when it was discovered by the British squadron and “dispersed with heavy losses” – about 320 men. “Due to the courageous action of the Lupo (an Italian destroyer) ... and to the scattered formation of our ships, only a small portion of the flotilla was caught and destroyed.” Many were rescued later by Italian speedboats and destroyers.
The German plan for the 22nd was that the Assault Regiment should hold its gains and reorganise, and the mountain troops should assist in holding the airfield. During the day more mountain troops were to arrive and were to make an enveloping attack through the hills. Student informed Major-General Ringel, commanding the 5th Mountain Division, that he would be placed in command of all troops on Crete, and his task would be to clear the island from west to east.
“On the evening of the second day of the invasion,” said the diarist of Ringel’s division, “the situation seemed to be balanced on a knife-edge. If
II/100th Mountain Battalion had landed with light casualties, the defences of Maleme airfield would be considerably strengthened, but a heavy, concentrated British counter-attack would force the defenders to fight for their lives.”
The “heavy, concentrated counter-attack” was, in fact, to take place that night. Although no Australian unit would take part, its commencement, as noted above, was to await the arrival in the New Zealand Division’s area of one of Vasey’s battalions from Georgioupolis, 18 miles away. During the first two days of the battle Vasey’s force at Georgioupolis had not been engaged. It will be recalled that it included the 2/7th Battalion, about 580 strong. The 2/7th was a tried unit which had seen hard fighting at Bardia in January, and in February and March had been in the forward position round Marsa Brega in western Cyrenaica under daily attack from the air. Service in Greece followed. It probably had more experience of German air attack than any other unit in Crete. Its losses in Greece had not been great.
On the morning of the 21st Brigadier Vasey had told Lieut-Colonel Walker of the 2/7th that he wished to use that battalion to clear the road to Retimo and re-establish communications with the other half of his brigade, after which his battalions should be used to reinforce the New Zealanders round Maleme. At the conference at Freyberg’s headquarters on the afternoon of the 21st, however, Vasey had learnt that the 2/7th was to relieve the 20th New Zealand that night to enable it to counterattack towards Maleme. This decision left Vasey with no troops under his command except the 2/7th Field Ambulance and a detachment of engineers. His 2/1st and 2/11th Battalions were cut off at Retimo where Colonel Campbell of the 2/1st was now in command; his 2/8th was under Weston’s command round Perivolia, south-west of Canea. Vasey asked to be allotted an area where he could command the 2/7th and 2/8th – a request that was to be granted late next day.
On the morning of the 21st Vasey had informed Walker of the 2/7th that his plan to clear the road to Maleme would not be realised, but that he thought that the 2/7th was to be used to counter-attack towards Maleme. Walker and his Intelligence officer, Lieutenant Lunn,21 had then accompanied Vasey to the New Zealand conference, Walker having first warned his second-in-command, Major Marshall, to have the battalion ready to move at 8 p.m. – just before dusk. It was not until the conference ended, late in the afternoon, that Walker learnt of the actual plan. He sent Lunn hurrying eastward to pass on the orders to his second-in-command, while he himself went forward with Brigadier Inglis to reconnoitre the new area. Their journey was slow because of frequent stops during attacks from the air. On the way Walker told Inglis that he did not like the plan: to attempt to bring forward by night a battalion that lacked its own transport, was 18 miles away, and not connected to headquarters by telephone, in time for it to relieve another battalion that was to make an attack
the same night. Inglis said that a well-trained battalion could carry out such a relief in an hour.
Before Lunn arrived, Marshall, about 4 p.m., had received orders from Beresford,22 Vasey’s staff captain, to move off “as near to 5 p.m. as possible”.
During the afternoon (wrote Marshall in his diary later that year) the transport arrived in dribs and drabs from all sorts of sources. ... The drivers were all unnerved by bombing and the threat or sound of planes and were sheltering away from their trucks as they considered their vehicles the targets. ... I hoped to get away at 5 p.m. and speeded things up. Odd planes had been over our area all day and nothing had happened. Just as we had completed the embussing of the battalion in their areas with the exception of “D” Company, whose drivers were still coming in, some enemy planes ... discovered us. ... The planes were concentrating as well on a supply dump about a mile further on nearer to Neo Khorion. Everyone else was ready except “D” Company so I left Halliday to hurry them on and I started off with the planes still around. It followed on our idea from Greece that the best way is to just go on in the face of an attack. ... We whizzed down the road and passed the food dump and breathed again. Then we turned a corner and found half a dozen planes above with the obvious intention of attacking us somewhere. I stopped the column until I was sure Savige with “A” Company had caught up and then we sailed on. It was rather exhilarating. The planes had now obviously got on to us, but the road was winding along a valley and there were few straight stretches. The planes cruised about those straight stretches waiting for us. ... Twice I watched a plane single us out, bank and turn to machine-gun us along the straight and I told the driver to crack it up. It then became a race to the curve. ... We streaked along and I hoped the battalion was following.
At Suda Marshall met Lunn, left him to bring on the three rear companies which had not yet arrived there, and himself continued forward with the two leading companies. It seems probable that the head of the column departed from Georgioupolis between 5 and 6 p.m., the tail of the column (“E” Company – Headquarters company acting as a rifle company) about 8 p.m., when the leaders were just arriving in the 20th Battalion’s area. The relief of the 20th Battalion seems to have been completed about 11.30 p.m.23
Brigadier Hargest went forward to Platanias village a little before midnight on the 21st to await the arrival of the attacking battalions. The Maoris had assembled at the start-line about 11.30 p.m. but there was yet no sign of the 20th. At length about 2.45 a.m. its two leading companies arrived. About 3.30 a.m. the attacking force moved off – two companies of the 20th leading on the right; on the left the Maoris who had then been waiting on the start-line for nearly four hours.
Soon the 20th, advancing through country scattered with vines and shrubs and cut by ditches, was fighting along its whole front. German resistance increased as the line neared the airfield. The Maoris made good progress while it was still dark, the tanks on the road following the leading
infantry, and when light dawned the Maoris were ahead of the 20th, which had met stiffer opposition. The leading tank was hit and disarmed, and all three moved back behind a bend in the road. On the right the 20th fought its way through the northern part of Pirgos and reached the cleared land near the airfield, but heavy fire drove the right company into the cover of bamboo thickets about 100 yards from its edge. Now that it was light the attackers were under intense fire both from ground and air. Lieut-Colonel Burrows24 of the 20th decided to withdraw his battalion behind the Maori so that if the Maori seized the field the 20th could occupy the high ground south of it.
On the left, as part of the main attack, the 21st Battalion had advanced to occupy Hill 107 and the wireless station. The attack began at 7 a.m. At 8.30 the wireless station was captured and soon afterwards Xamoudhokhori, but thereafter strong opposition was encountered.25 During the afternoon, in view of the failure of the main attack along the coast, the companies fell back some distance under heavy enemy pressure. The withdrawal of the exposed right flank was organised by 2nd-Lieutenant Upham,26 who had been an outstanding leader throughout the attack, and Sergeant Kirk.27 As the 20th Battalion withdrew German aircraft were landing and their occupants jumping out and going straight into the fight. Eventually the 20th crossed the road and came in behind the Maoris.
The Maoris were now holding a continuous line with two faces – one looking west with its left flank bent back towards the 21st Battalion and the other looking north with its right linking with the 23rd.
A platoon of the 2/1st Australian Machine Gun Battalion hitherto with the 4th Brigade was sent forward to the 5th on the evening of the 22nd. According to Hargest it “ran clean into a Hun attack and in five minutes lost everything they had – vehicles, guns, ammunition”.
Throughout 22nd May the 28th continued to probe west and north testing the enemy’s strength. In the afternoon Dittmer consulted the commanding officers of the 23rd (Leckie) and 22nd (Andrew) and a message was written to Hargest describing how things stood.
Thus the counter-attacks towards Maleme had gained no vital ground. If the main advance – that of the Maori and the 20th – had begun earlier it might have made further progress, but it is questionable whether even if a line had been established west of the airfield, it could have been maintained. Vasey and Walker considered that it would have been a better plan to attack with the 2/7th Battalion, thus avoiding the delay caused by the relief, and thus putting a fresher and more-experienced battalion into the fight, but it now seems unlikely that such a plan would have
achieved decisive results. The Germans had then landed two brigades and part of a third in the Maleme–Suda area. They had lost heavily, but so had the defenders. If the airfield had been denied to the enemy and the navy could have prevented reinforcement by sea, a long struggle would have begun between forces approximately equal in trained infantry and both poorly equipped with artillery. The outcome would probably have depended on which side first ran short of food and ammunition. As it was, lack of supplies was already causing Freyberg keen anxiety, but the Germans had enough aircraft to maintain continuous supply though perhaps on a modest scale. German aircraft were still landing on Maleme, each machine increasing by a little the German strength.
About 11 a.m. on the 22nd, a will-o’-the-wisp impression had developed at Hargest’s headquarters that the Germans might be abandoning Crete, because men were seen running towards the steady stream of aircraft that had been landing on the airfield, and eleven fires were counted. To test this theory Puttick ordered Kippenberger to send out strong fighting patrols all along his front. The strong resistance encountered by these dispelled the illusion. But in response to information that the enemy might be preparing to abandon Crete, Kippenberger had also ordered the 19th Battalion to advance south astride the Suda Bay–Prison road on a front of 800 yards to a Turkish fort on one of three pyramid-like hills south-east of the prison. The attack opened at 3 p.m. The German positions were strongly held, however, and the two attacking companies withdrew in the early evening, having lost twelve men. About 7 p.m. the Germans themselves attacked, on a front of about 700 yards west of the Galatas–Prison road towards Galatas and the position held by the Petrol Company. Kippenberger ordered an immediate counter-attack by such forces as were available. He himself was on the left flank with a small force preparing to take part in the counter-attack when a detachment of Greeks from in and round Galatas joined by some civilians and led by Captain Forrester of the Queen’s dashed at the advancing Germans. “A most infernal uproar broke out across the valley,” wrote Kippenberger later. “Over an open space in the trees near Galatas came running, bounding and yelling like Red Indians, about a hundred Greeks and villagers, led by Michael Forrester. It was too much for the Germans. They turned and ran without hesitation.”28
In the afternoon Freyberg had ordered a further attack on the airfield but before this could be organised the German advance against the 10th Brigade front developed, and Puttick learnt that the coast road between the 4th and 5th Brigades was commanded by a German detachment. Puttick decided that to proceed with the proposed attack by the 5th Brigade would be to risk it being cut off. That night at a conference between Puttick and Stewart (whom Freyberg had sent forward) it was decided that the 5th Brigade should withdraw to the line of the “Wadi” Platanias, that is to say, to abandon all the ground then held to about two miles and a half to the westward. In effect this decision, made about
10 p.m. on the 22nd, was an acceptance that Crete had been lost. Thenceforward the enemy could use the airfield without hindrance.
It was just before dawn on the 23rd when Hargest’s brigade major arrived with these orders at the headquarters of the 23rd Battalion. During the early part of the morning the withdrawal was carried out. The 28th formed the rearguard, and its last parties came out about 6.30 a.m.
The Canea–Suda sector was now free of Germans except for small isolated parties on the Akrotiri Peninsula, some of which were rounded up by the 1/Welch that day. The 2nd Greek Regiment and the 2/8th Battalion, now commanded by Vasey, moved forward and occupied a line along a wadi about 1,000 yards west of Mournies. In this position Vasey was placed under Puttick’s command and the defence of the flat area south of Canea fell to the 2/2nd Field Regiment, a company of the 1/Rangers and a marine battalion of some 700 men improvised by Major Garrett,29 of the marines, from anti-aircraft and searchlight units. Canea had been bombed intermittently, and Weston feared lest heavier attacks might cause a panic among the civilians there. Consequently on the night of the 22nd most of the civilians were persuaded to leave the town and take shelter in the villages in the hills
At Retimo during the 22nd Colonel Campbell’s force attacked the enemy groups astride the road both east and west of this position, but without complete success. From Heraklion came the disturbing news that the Germans were established across the road leading to Timbakion on the south coast, the most suitable place at which to land reinforcements. That night at 9.30 the headquarters of the 16th British Brigade and the 2/Queen’s (its remaining battalion) with eighteen vehicles sailed from Alexandria in the landing ship Glenroy with the intention of landing at Timbakion and reopening the road to Heraklion.
On the morning of the 22nd a naval force, including Naiad, Perth, Carlisle and destroyers, engaged enemy ships between Heraklion and the island of Milos. Perth sank a caique loaded with troops, then saw a destroyer and many caiques. These were engaged but the squadron was under heavy air attack and anti-aircraft ammunition was running low; Rear-Admiral King30 withdrew.31 The enemy made intense air attacks on other naval forces and the cruisers Fiji and Gloucester were sunk. At 10.30
p.m. on the 22nd a signal from Rear-Admiral Rawlings32 of the 7th Cruiser Squadron reached Admiral Cunningham reporting this loss, and through an error of handwriting it was also made to appear that the battleships had no pom-pom ammunition left. Cunningham thereupon ordered all naval forces to withdraw to Alexandria except the transport Glenroy and her escort.
In accordance with these orders, at daylight on the 23rd Captain Lord Louis Mountbatten33 with the destroyers Kelly, Kashmir and Kipling were withdrawing from Canea to Alexandria when they were attacked by dive bombers. At length Kashmir and then Kelly were hit and sunk. Still under air attack Kipling picked up the survivors, leaving the scene at 11 a.m. At 11.27 a.m. Cunningham decided to order Glenroy and her escort to return to Alexandria. However, the effort to carry supplies through to the defending force did not cease; that night two destroyers unloaded ammunition at Suda Bay and the fast mine-layer Abdiel left Alexandria carrying ammunition and stores.
Thus the protection of Crete from seaborne attack was proving costly. By the morning of the 23rd, in addition to the ships mentioned, the destroyers Juno and Greyhound had been sunk, and the battleships Warspite and Valiant and cruisers Ajax, Naiad and Carlisle damaged. As well the ships in Suda Bay had been persistently bombed and now only wrecks remained, including the half-submerged cruiser York which had been torpedoed in harbour by an Italian motor-boat on 26th March.
“Suda Bay was a melancholy sight,” wrote an observer.34 “Besides HMS York, there were also two destroyers, half a dozen merchantmen, and ten or twelve other craft, big or small, in a more or less disabled condition. Some of them were burning furiously and sending tall columns of black and white smoke up into the sky. ... The hulls ... were outlined by a dull red rim of flame, which every now and then would flicker dimmer or brighter. Occasionally, when something more inflammable ignited in the holds, a yellow-white flare burst suddenly upwards in a shower of sparks and illuminated the surrounding shore.”
In the course of the 22nd May two more German mountain battalions--the I/100th and I/85th – were landed on Maleme field. The landing ground was now littered with burning and wrecked aircraft but again and again was cleared with the help of captured tanks employed as tractors. General Ringel, now in command of all troops on the island, was ordered to secure Maleme, clear Suda Bay, relieve Retimo, advance to Heraklion, and, at length, secure the whole of Crete. His troops had the immediate task of attacking towards Canea, but this plan was upset by the New Zealand counter-attack. “The enemy attacked unexpectedly from Pirgos towards Maleme with the support of tanks,” said the report of XI Air Corps. “In a
determined counter-attack Captain Gericke drove the enemy back into Pirgos. The heights south of Pirgos remained in the enemy’s possession.”
In the evening Ringel organised the force into three groups. One (Major Schaette with an engineer battalion), to protect Maleme from west and south. Another, including most of the parachute troops, under Colonel Ramcke was to attack Canea in cooperation with a third group – 100th Mountain Regiment – under Colonel Utz, which was to envelop the defenders east of Maleme by advancing through the hills to the south.35
Pending this action a group of 150, organised by Colonel Heidrich from parts of the III/3rd Parachute Battalion and the Pioneer, advanced north towards Stalos to command the coast road. It reached Stalos at 6 a.m. on the 23rd without meeting opposition.
On the 23rd Schaette’s group probing westward, encountered “snipers” (Greeks of the 1st Regiment) round Kastelli, and “atrocities were reported”. “The division decided to advance in all possible strength against these bestial hordes,” wrote the diarist of the 5th Mountain Division. “It was hoped to put a stop to this state of affairs by taking hostages and initiating reprisals.” As noted above the detachment of parachute troops dropped at Kastelli on the 20th had all been killed or had surrendered. German reports, however, state that, of 57 parachute troops dropped at Kastelli, 40 had been “mutilated” and 17 “took refuge” in a gaol. The German report adds that Kastelli was dive-bombed early on the 24th and later in the day attacked by a German battalion Schaette’s 95th Engineers – which took it that afternoon after a fight in which 200 Greeks were killed or wounded and 15 prisoners taken, including two New Zealand officers.
In a report by a senior German medical officer it is stated the 200 men of Kastelli were shot as a reprisal for atrocities.
On the other hand Major Bedding, the senior New Zealand officer attached to the Greek battalion, at Kastelli reported that he took over and gaoled the German prisoners taken there at the request of the Greek colonel who was afraid his own men might kill them, that he included some New Zealanders in the guard “for safety’s sake”, and that he saw no prisoner badly treated by the Greeks.
This episode marks the beginning of the numerous German “reprisals” against the Cretans. Parachute troops (57 according to Bedding) were landed among the 1st Greek Regiment (about 1,000 strong with 600 rifles). In the ensuing fight from 40 to 50 Germans were killed and from 17 to 28 imprisoned. A larger number of Greeks were killed. Since nearly half the Greek troops lacked rifles it would not be surprising if Germans had been killed with knives and clubs. According to a German report the dead had been slashed in the neck or body, had their private parts cut or eyes gouged out; as a reprisal 200 men of the town were shot.
Later the Germans made a judicial investigation of this incident and of many other rumours of mutilation. A report is available from the Chief Medical Inspector of the Luftwaffe and it says, in part: “Judge Rudel, a member of the enquiry commission in Canea said ... that all interrogations had revealed a total of 6 or 8 cases of mutilation in Kastelli, about 15 more scattered elsewhere, and only 2 or 3 at Retimo. From all investigations it appeared that no enemy soldiers had been guilty of mutilation. The crimes were all attributed to fanatical civilians. Judge Rudel emphasises the fair way in which the British and New Zealanders had fought. They had protected German prisoners whenever possible and had saved them from the wrath of the civilians, even going so far as to fire on the mobs.”
This episode has been narrated in some detail because it seems to be a rare one of its kind in which the chain of events can be fairly well established – the exaggerated accusation, the savage retaliation, and the belated discovery of the truth, or a reasonable approximation to it. It also may help the reader to assess charges made against the Australians and New Zealanders after an action described later in this chapter.
On the night of the 22nd General Wavell sent a signal to General Freyberg informing him that it was impossible to land reinforcements at Suda and the “gallant troops must stick it”. He had great hopes that the enemy could not “stay the pace much longer”. He was arranging for a commando unit to land on the south coast and cross the island. He added: “If you report that situation at Maleme is really serious hope to arrange for R.A.F. to send fighters to strafe enemy tomorrow till ammunition and petrol exhausted and then land within your protection.” In another message that night Wavell suggested that Freyberg consider the possibility of moving units from Retimo to Canea and from Heraklion to Retimo, replacing those from Heraklion with new troops landed at Timbakion. This impractical suggestion underlined the scanty nature of the information that had reached Wavell’s headquarters, but although Freyberg’s messages had been unprecise, the facts known at Cairo should have shown the impossibility of the proposed manoeuvre, which would have to be made chiefly on foot since there were not enough vehicles on Crete to carry large bodies of men. Was it intended that they should be undertaken simultaneously, or was Heraklion to wait until the reinforcements from Timbakion had marched across the island, Retimo to wait until units reached them from Heraklion, and Maleme–Suda Bay – the crucial sector – to pin its hopes on the arrival of reinforcements from Retimo?36
Freyberg’s reply to Wavell next morning gave a clearer picture than his messages of the previous three days. The road from Suda to Retimo was held by the enemy and also (he believed) the road from Retimo to Heraklion. There were no vehicles at Retimo. “Heraklion now in touch with Argyll and Sutherlands and I have ordered them to concentrate battalion and tanks at Heraklion preparatory to reinforcing Suda garrison if possible by road.” Freyberg added that his troops at Maleme were cut off and that he had decided “to readjust present insecure position and make ready for secure defence”. He added:
I have decided (1) that I cannot continue to chance all rear areas and coast line and (2) that troops cannot fight on without a rest. Am therefore taking up line which will lessen my responsibilities. Enemy is now approaching equality in numbers37. ... We can fight on as long as maintenance does not break down.
Later in the day Freyberg received a cable from Churchill: “The whole world watches your splendid battle on which great things turn.” “However splendid the battle might appear in the eyes of the world,” Freyberg wrote later, “the situation was rapidly deteriorating in the Maleme sector.”
On the Platanias line the Maori battalion occupied its former position; the 23rd faced north on the high ground between the Maori and Ayia Marina; the depleted 21st and 22nd and the New Zealand Engineers faced north linking the 23rd Battalion and the 4th Brigade. All units were in position by 10. Air attacks on the withdrawing troops were relatively light. All day the German aircraft concentrated on the roads from Canea to Suda and Canea itself. Freyberg had “never seen such vicious bombing”. In the withdrawal the 27th Battery – the main support of the brigade during the long battle – was able to extricate only two guns (French 75’s). In the new position Colonel Strutt had eight 75’s (of 27th Battery and 2/3rd Australian Field Regiment), two Bofors and two 2-pounders.
The Germans closely followed the withdrawal, and throughout the day there was sharp fighting on the road where the bridge crossed the Platanias River. The artillery shelled the attackers accurately and put their light guns out of action. While this was happening the men on the ridges above the road saw an encouraging and gallant attack by twelve British bombers on Maleme airfield where 130 transport planes were standing. Six could be seen burning. The strongest pressure against the elongated position of the 5th Brigade came not from the west but from the south as the Germans advanced from the Prison area. At Stalos on the heights south of the 5th Brigade’s new position a group of about 150 men under Major Heilmann had been established since 6 a.m. It was engaged by a strong patrol of the New Zealand Army Service Corps which killed some fifteen Germans. Then it was attacked from the north-east by a platoon of the 18th Battalion and all but one of its posts had been taken when the platoon was recalled by the company commander, who was under the impression that the heights were more strongly held than they were.
All hope of denying Maleme to the enemy having been abandoned and the New Zealand Division having withdrawn into a defensive position, there were good reasons to fall back still farther in order to reduce the area over which the force was strung out. Puttick had met Freyberg about 11 a.m. and they agreed that the battered and weary 5th Brigade should move into reserve that night; Inglis of the 4th Brigade would take over the units of 10th Brigade and command the right of the new front line. The left would be formed by Vasey’s 19th Brigade which would be west of Perivolia. In the afternoon of the 23rd, to enable the 19th Brigade to fulfil its new role, the 2/8th was advanced to a position on the creek west of Perivolia on the left of the 2/7th, which had been moved into the area that morning. The 2nd Greek, extended south-west from Perivolia, formed the left flank.
That night all the troops in the Platanias area withdrew on foot behind the lines of the 4th Brigade. There were vehicles enough to carry only the wounded and the heavy weapons.38
Freyberg was handicapped in his control of the isolated sector at Retimo because there were no ciphers there and messages had to go in clear. At
Heraklion the ciphers had been destroyed on the 20th during the parachute landing, but messages could be sent there secretly by submarine cable. On the 23rd Freyberg ordered a company of the 1/Rangers with two anti-tank guns to advance east from Suda and open the road to Retimo airfield. They reached Retimo town that day, and about 8 p.m. were met by Captain Lergessner,39 whom Colonel Campbell had ordered to make his way through the foothills to the town and travel thence to Suda to give information to Freyberg’s headquarters and seek instructions. Lergessner had set out before Campbell learnt by wireless that the Rangers were coming. Knowing the strength of the German position astride the road Lergessner tried without success to dissuade the company of the Rangers from attacking. He stayed with them that night, witnessed an unsuccessful attack next morning, and then pushed on to Suda, followed later in the day by the remnant of the Rangers’ company.
The two infantry tanks which had been landed at Timbakion on the night of the 19th–20th reached Heraklion on the 23rd with news that the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders (also landed at Timbakion that night) were on their way. The infantry tanks, with the one remaining “runner” of those that had been at Heraklion throughout, and two 75-mm guns were sent to Suda in a lighter.
Efforts to reinforce Crete continued. Although Glenroy had been turned back, Abdiel sailed from Alexandria with Lieut-Colonel F. B. Colvin and 195 of “A” Battalion of a commando (then called “Special Service”) force under Colonel Laycock,40 and to be known as “Layforce”. Abdiel carried also medical stores, rations and ammunition.
The German staff believed that the British fell back because of “the enveloping advance of the Utz Group”. Ramcke’s Group followed the retiring troops “engaging enemy rearguards, who fought with great determination”. That night General Ringel ordered a strong group from the 85th Mountain Regiment to move through Alikianou and continue east through the mountains towards Suda Bay, with the object of outflanking the British in the Galatas–Suda area and penetrating to Retimo to support “the hard-pressed 2nd Parachute Rifle Regiment”. It was evidently because the German commanders’ eyes were on the next objective – Suda Bay – that their aircraft were ordered to concentrate on targets there, and the withdrawing 5th New Zealand Brigade escaped relatively lightly.
At Stalos that afternoon, Major Heilmann’s group was joined by the II/100th Mountain Battalion, and at last the force from Maleme was united with that in the Prison area. During the day two mountain artillery units, one mountain armoured unit and most of a motor-cycle battalion landed on Maleme airfield.
On the morning of the 24th the western flank of Creforce was an arc curved round the south-west of Canea with a radius of some three miles.41
Against it were pressing the now-combined German forces from the Maleme and Prison areas, and a strong force of mountain troops was advancing east through the hills to descend on Suda Bay from the south and encircle the defenders. Across the path of these mountain troops lay only the 8th Greek Regiment which had been cut off from the main force since the landing of paratroops in the Prison area.
During the afternoon strong German patrols probed the 4th Brigade’s front and there were signs that the enemy was preparing a large-scale attack. About 4 p.m. a heavy thrust was made on the 18th Battalion (Lieut-Colonel Gray). Some forward posts were driven in but later the line was restored by a counter-attack. At dusk some posts were again abandoned and again retaken. During the afternoon the German aircraft concentrated on Canea and bombed it so heavily and systematically that it seemed that they intended to thoroughly wreck the town.
The daily cable received from Cairo on the 24th seemed to Freyberg “to indicate that the Deputy C.-in-C. General Blamey was officiating”. It was clear and direct: “Guts and determination of yourself and troops are splendid example to all. We have evidence that Germans have great difficulties. We are doing our best to help you.” That day Freyberg learnt of the failure of the detachment of the 1/Rangers to clear the road to Retimo, and that a new body of paratroops had landed west of Heraklion and blocked the advance of the Argylls from Timbakion. But that day also, at 9.30 a.m., three British destroyers sailed from Alexandria carrying the remainder of the two commando battalions that comprised Layforce; Colonel Colvin and the first instalment were put ashore that night at Suda by the Abdiel.
By this time two German airborne regiments and one mountain regiment were concentrated against the New Zealand Division, and a second mountain regiment was moving through the hills to the south towards Suda Bay. The Germans on the northern wing were formed into three groups for an attack on the Galatas heights: the Assault Regiment to attack the heights north-west of Galatas; the 100th Mountain Regiment to attack Galatas; and the 3rd Parachute Rifle Regiment, after Galatas had fallen, to attack astride the Alikianou–Canea road. On the 24th one mountain battalion and a half, as well as a reconnaissance and an anti-aircraft unit were landed at Maleme.
The New Zealanders were convinced that the strong concerted attack begun on the 24th would reach a climax on the 25th. Inglis was given a direct call upon the reserve – the four tired and depleted battalions of the 5th Brigade, less than 1,400 strong. During the morning air attacks and mortar and machine-gun fire on the western front became more and more intense. Enemy parties were seen massing opposite the 18th Battalion on the coastal flank. In the afternoon dive bombers attacked the whole area of the 4th Brigade and, as soon as they ceased, the German infantry advanced behind intense fire from mortars and machine-guns, the strongest pressure being against the 18th which was soon engaged in a fierce fight. The right company was overwhelmed and the centre company was being fired on from all sides. Colonel Gray, carrying a rifle
and bayonet and shouting “No Surrender!” led forward a party of men from his headquarters to restore the line, but the enemy was too strong.42
Brigadier Inglis sent forward two companies of the 20th Battalion. Kippenberger, in command of the troops in the forward area, ordered them to the right of the ridge occupied by the Composite Battalion. When they arrived there they found the Composite “nearly all gone”; yet they halted the enemy advancing through the gap on the right of the front, 2nd-Lieutenant Upham again playing a gallant part. But the enemy was now thrusting hard along the Prison-Galatas road.
Matters were now looking grave (wrote Kippenberger later), for John Russell43 reported that he was being hard pressed, and a trickle of stragglers was coming back past me. I sent Brian [Bassett44 his brigade major] on foot to tell Inglis the position and say that I must have help. There were nearly 200 wounded at the Regimental Aid Post, close to headquarters. Our two trucks worked incessantly, taking them down to the Advanced Dressing Station in loads like butcher’s meat. Then the position worsened. Wheat Hill was abandoned without orders. This exposed Lynch’s45
company in the centre of the Eighteenth line and it fell back, still fighting savagely. Suddenly the trickle of stragglers turned to a stream, many of them on the verge of panic. I walked in among them shouting ‘Stand for New Zealand!’ and everything else I could think of.46
Kippenberger filled the gaps by sending in reinforcements as they reached him from Inglis: the 4th Brigade Band lined a wall 100 yards in front of his headquarters, the pioneer platoon of the 20th and the Kiwi Concert Party carried the line farther to the right; a company of the 20th
extended it farther. Orders were sent to the main body of the 20th to pull back and take up a position on the right of these groups.
The 23rd Battalion was now reaching the threatened area. Kippenberger decided that “it was no use trying to patch the line any more; obviously we must hit or everything would crumble away”. Two companies of the 23rd were ordered to advance and retake Galatas, one company advancing on either side of the road, with two light tanks under Captain Farran47 leading. The tanks rumbled off and the infantry (which now included several detachments from other units) followed cheering and shouting. “From Galatas streamed hundreds of tracer bullets, multi-coloured flares and whistling mortar bombs.” The advance reached the narrow, cobbled streets of the town. The leading tank had a track blown off but the other continued. While Germans threw grenades at them from second-storey windows, the troops advanced to the central square. There the leading tank was disabled and Farran wounded. Round the square a fierce hand-to-hand fight followed; rifles and Tommy guns were fired from the hip, bayonets and rifle butts were used; at length the last Germans fled into the olive groves west of the village. The German advance had been decisively halted.
Against the 19th Brigade, next to the left, there were no attacks that day. The 2/8th was ordered to advance 1,000 yards at dusk to relieve the pressure on the New Zealanders, but after the success of the New Zealand counter-attack this order was cancelled. Nevertheless, that night the situation was extremely disturbing. Casualties were mounting, fatigue increasing, and the prolonged air attacks were lowering the defenders’ spirits. Units of the 4th and 5th Brigades, both of which had now lost heavily, were intermingled in the front line. Puttick decided to shorten his front by withdrawing from the Galatas area to a line through Karatsos running north and south from the right flank of the 19th Brigade.
Meanwhile the 8th Greek Regiment was standing firm. It was not then realised that, reinforced by villagers, it was strongly resisting the detachment from the German 85th Mountain Regiment (Colonel Krakau), which was attempting to encircle the whole British force. In the past few days the Greeks had expelled the Utz Group of airborne troops from the Alikianou area, and forced it to establish a protective line south of the
reservoir; now, on the 25th, they were roughly handling Krakau’s mountain regiment sweating its way over the hills to the south-west.
General Student himself arrived in Crete on the 25th. It was the 11 Battalion of the Assault Regiment followed by the /V which, after heavy losses, captured the heights north-west of Galatas, and the 100th Mountain Regiment that took Galatas itself. That day two more mountain battalions and a motor-cycle company landed at Maleme.48
On the 25th Puttick sent Freyberg a message that heavy attacks had “obviously broken” the line at Galatas and that he was trying to form his new line running north and south from the right flank of the 19th Brigade. “Am exceedingly doubtful on present reports,” he concluded, “whether I can hold the enemy tomorrow (26th).” Later that night one of the liaison officers with the Greeks called on Freyberg and “made it clear that the Greeks were about to break”.
About one o’clock on the morning of the 26th an order was issued confirming Puttick’s decision to withdraw: the division would retire to the new line, which was along the creek about a mile and a half west of Canea. On the right would be the 21st Battalion, with a cavalry detachment, an engineer company and a company of the 20th under its command; in the centre the 19th Battalion; on its left the 28th (Maori) which would link with the 19th Brigade (one battalion and a half). The Prison road would form the boundary between brigades. By dawn the 5th Brigade was on the new line. The men were weary, hungry and jaded. “There were many stragglers,” said Puttick’s report. “Isolated groups of very tired men were hard to find in the thick olive groves and constant air attack on any movements made re-grouping difficult.” Apparently the men of some base units at Suda had been ordered to make their way over the hills to Sfakia on the south coast. The news spread and combatant troops who could not find their units moved along the road with them.
That morning at 9.30 after a conference with Captain Morse,49 the naval officer in charge at Suda, and Group Captain Beamish, Freyberg had sent the following cable to Wavell:
I regret to have to report that in my opinion the limit of endurance has been reached by the troops under my command here at Suda Bay. No matter what decision is taken by the Commanders-in-Chief from a military point of view our position here is hopeless. A small ill-equipped and immobile force such as ours cannot stand up against the concentrated bombing that we have been faced with during the last seven days. I feel that I should tell you that from an administrative point of view the difficulties of extricating this force in full are now insuperable. Provided a decision is reached at once a certain proportion of the force might be embarked. Once this sector has been reduced the reduction of Retimo and Heraklion by the same methods will only be a matter of time. The troops we have with the exception of the Welch Regiment and the Commando are past any offensive action. If you decide in view of whole Middle East position that hours help we will carry on. I would have to consider how this would be best achieved. Suda Bay may be under fire within
twenty-four hours. Further, casualties have been heavy, and we have lost the majority of our immobile guns.
Freyberg then saw Inglis and told him that the line must be stabilised and that Inglis would be placed in command of the Force reserve and go forward to relieve the New Zealand Division. Kippenberger would replace him in command of the 4th Brigade (18th and 20th Battalions).
Meanwhile both the forward brigades had been strongly attacked. The 5th Brigade’s line was held by the 21st, 19th, 28th, 22nd and 23rd Battalions, each little stronger than a company. Detachments of the engineers, cavalry and others thickened the line. At 11.15 the engineers in the 21st’s sector on the right were thrust back by a German attack but counterattacked and retook the lost ground. The attacks increased in intensity in the afternoon and the battalion lost eighty men in the day, but the flank held.
The 19th Battalion was under heavy pressure, and at 2 p.m. two platoons were forced out of their posts but a new line was formed 150 yards back; by 5 p.m. the original posts were retaken. Next to the left the 28th (Maori) repulsed German attacks. From about 10.30 a.m. onwards enemy infantry, supported by air and mortar bombardment, attacked the left flank of the Australians and pushed into a gap between it and the 2nd Greeks.
The threat to two Australian platoons on the left was such that they were withdrawn some distance towards Perivolia, and there held on. In the afternoon the attack was intensified and at length the 2/8th was ordered to withdraw to its original positions outside Mournies, and the 2/7th received similar orders. They withdrew about 5 p.m. and fitted in among the Marines round Mournies.
That morning Vasey had been confident that his line could be held that day and the next; at 5 p.m. he was convinced that the situation on his left was critical.
While Puttick’s headquarters were being moved back (to a point about a mile south of Canea) a letter reached him from Freyberg informing him that he and Weston were to establish a joint headquarters; later Freyberg informed Inglis that he was to command a new “Composite Brigade” consisting of the 1/Welch, Northumberland Hussars and 1/Rangers – the principal infantry units of Weston’s command – and relieve the 5th New Zealand Brigade after dark. Puttick doubted whether the relief could be carried out before the 5th was forced off its line. He considered the men near the end of their endurance: as has been said the battalions were little stronger than companies; air attack was almost unceasing, and any vehicle that moved on the road was strafed; all signal communications had been broken. Puttick walked back to Freyberg’s headquarters to place the problem before him. There, at 3.15 p.m., Freyberg told him that it was essential to hold his present line because two destroyers were to arrive at Suda that night and unload commando troops and 80 tons of food and ammunition. He added that since the New Zealand Division was now in the Canea–Suda area it would be under Weston’s command.
It took Puttick three hours to visit Force headquarters and return. Meanwhile the German advance round the left flank was continuing. About 5 p.m., before Puttick’s return to his own headquarters, Vasey visited Hargest and informed him that the Germans were encircling his exposed flank and some enemy machine-guns were firing from his rear. He asked when Hargest was going to withdraw because he was certain he would have to do the same. When Puttick arrived soon afterwards he decided that the situation had seriously deteriorated. He was now convinced that withdrawal was unavoidable chiefly because of the enemy movement round Vasey’s flank; he was equally certain that the proposed relief by Inglis’ force was impracticable.
After consulting Vasey and Hargest and obtaining their agreement Puttick decided to propose to Weston, his new commander, that the Welch should take up a covering position from Kristos to Tsikalaria, with the commando extending the line southwards to the road at Ayia Marina. This implied a withdrawal well to the east of Canea, and Puttick was writing a report to that effect about 6 p.m. when Weston arrived at his headquarters. Puttick made his proposal. Weston telephoned Vasey who said that he now considered it impossible to hold his present line until dark next day – which meant that a withdrawal should be made that night. Weston then told Puttick that he could not make such a major decision himself and, about 6.10, left to consult Freyberg.
When Weston returned to Canea he was forced by heavy bombing to leave the town. Puttick heard nothing from him, and between 8 and 10 p.m. sent a series of wireless messages seeking guidance from Freyberg’s headquarters; the only reply came at 10.10, informing him that Weston would give him his orders. Thereupon, again after consulting Vasey, he decided on his own authority to order a withdrawal to a defensive position at the head of Suda Bay as proposed to Weston, with 19th Brigade on the right of Kristos and the 5th on the left. The 4th Brigade would withdraw to Stilos on the road to Sfakia. He gave orders to this effect at 10.30, and sent an officer back to inform his seniors. In conformity with this decision, Vasey instructed his battalions to withdraw, and informed the Greeks and the British detachments in his area of his intention.
In the meantime Freyberg and Weston had met twice – about 7.30 p.m. and about 10.15. On the first occasion, when told by Weston that the New Zealanders could not hold another night, Freyberg ordered that they be relieved by the Composite Brigade. The Composite Brigade was warned to be ready to move at 8.30. Weston inaccurately informed Freyberg that at the moment the New Zealanders were holding but the Australians were coming back. Freyberg at once wrote to Vasey that he must continue to hold a line in the wadi 1,000 yards east of his position of that morning until dark on the 27th. This order did not reach Vasey until about 11 p.m. when he had already ordered a withdrawal. He consulted Puttick, and learnt that the New Zealanders had not yet received similar orders to hold on and were withdrawing. He decided that if he stayed where he was “with the Greeks dispersed on my left flank and the New Zealanders
withdrawn from my right” his two battalions would be captured; and after consulting Puttick and obtaining his approval continued his withdrawal. “This decision was reinforced when after the first message to 2/7th Bat-talion I received information that the withdrawal of the battalion had already commenced and that they were being followed up closely by the enemy.” The battalions disengaged and began marching to the new line along “42nd Street”, a north-south road through an old bivouac area between Suda and Canea.
Freyberg’s belated order to the New Zealanders reached Puttick at 1.45 a.m.: he was to hold the old line until relieved by the Composite Brigade. Puttick reached Weston’s headquarters at 2.15 a.m. When he asked why no orders had been given to the New Zealand Division the previous evening, General Weston told him that it was no use sending orders since he, Puttick, “had made it very clear that the New Zealand Division was retiring whatever happened”. He added (Puttick wrote later) that he had troops on the new line and did not want Hargest’s and Vasey’s brigades there. Puttick told Weston that his brigades would hold their new line until Weston ordered them to retire. At this stage communications were fatally slow. Under the complex system of control that had then been established, hours not minutes were consumed obtaining a reply from a senior commander. Orders had to go from Freyberg to Weston to Puttick to Vasey. Between 6.10 p.m. when Weston left Puttick’s headquarters and 1.45 a.m. when a message from Weston was handed to Puttick, only one order was received from Weston or Freyberg; this was about 11.15 p.m. when Puttick’s subordinate, Vasey, received an order direct from Weston and without Puttick being informed. In the intervening seven hours Puttick had ordered a withdrawal on his own authority, and it was being carried out.
Perhaps the New Zealanders were capable of longer resistance than Puttick and Hargest believed. But, as often occurs in an exhausting withdrawal, alarm increased in proportion to the distance from the front line. Commanders are older and less resilient than the men in the battalions; they and their staffs see much of the wounded and non-combatant troops and are apt to judge the condition of the front-line troops, perhaps still holding firmly, by the condition of the shaken men seen in the rear areas.
When the 5th and 19th Brigades withdrew Colonel Hely50 ordered the withdrawal of his Suda Brigade (“S” Battalion of the Royal Marines, 2/2nd Field Regiment, “Royal Perivolians” and 106th Royal Horse Artillery) from Mournies where it had been in reserve. Meanwhile the Composite Brigade (the 1/Welch, 1/Rangers and Northumberland Hussars) was carrying out its orders to advance and occupy a position about a mile west of Canea. Its acting commander, Lieut-Colonel Duncan51 of the Welch, did not know that the Suda Brigade had retired and there was no support on his left.
Thus, in the night, the 5th and 19th Brigades fell back past the “smouldering dust heap” of Canea to their position just west of Suda. “A” Battalion of Layforce was near Suda village.52 On the withdrawal the Australians, to their surprise, saw no sign of the British brigade that was to come up and act as rearguard. Evidently it was moving along the coast road while the Australians withdrew on the inland road. During the night the 4th Brigade withdrew to Stilos. Inglis, unable to locate the units of the Composite Brigade during the day, returned to the command of the 4th Brigade and Kippenberger to command of the 20th Battalion.
About 1 a.m. Weston realising the danger of the Welch’s position sent orders to Colonel Duncan to withdraw. The order appears to have reached him too late, if at all. The Welch were forward with the depleted Rangers and Northumberland Hussars supporting the left flank. A German attack opened at dawn. By 9 a.m. one of the two forward companies was surrounded and the other had lost heavily; Duncan decided to withdraw to the Kladhisos Creek, and as the enemy was encircling his flank, he ordered the two rear companies under Major Gibson53 to move west of Suda to cover the withdrawal of the remainder. As they did so, they could hear heavy firing at 42nd Street five miles to the rear of their original positions. Gibson and his men reached Suda. However, a gallant handful of the Welch held out on the coast until the morning of the 28th, when the Germans discovered that they had been delayed for more than eighteen hours by a small party under a sergeant.
General Weston was not at 42nd Street when the New Zealanders and Australians arrived. At length Puttick and Vasey picked positions for their depleted brigades along the “street” – a straight earth road through the olive groves. The line was held (from the right) by the 2/8th (astride the main road), 2/7th, 21st New Zealand, 28th, 19th, 22nd. They were packed tightly – the 28th, for example, on a front of 250 yards, and the depleted 21st on a far narrower one. During the night Freyberg visited the Australians and noted that they seemed “absolutely confident”. Then he watched the eighty tons of supplies being unloaded at Suda pier.
Colonel Dittmer, commanding the Maoris, saw Colonel Walker and Colonel Allen between 9 and 10 a.m. and told them that if the enemy came to close quarters his battalion would open fire and then charge. Walker and Allen agreed that their battalions would cooperate.
About 11 a.m. the Australians saw some 400 Germans advancing astride the Suda Bay road. The 2/7th had two companies forward. Major Miller,54 commanding the one on the right, sent forward a patrol under Lieutenant McGeoch to keep them under observation while he planned
a counter-attack and sent this information to Captain Nelson,55 commanding the company on his left, with a suggestion that he should join the attack. He dispatched a runner to Colonel Walker. Miller was on his way forward to join McGeoch when firing began. He signalled the company forward, and when it arrived placed a platoon on each side of McGeoch’s patrol. The Germans, who were raiding an abandoned depot, were taken by surprise, and, after a few minutes firing, broke and ran. Meanwhile Nelson’s company had come up on the left flank. Both companies now rose and charged the fleeing Germans. Nelson, a high-spirited youngster, was hit in the shoulder as he ran forward waving to his men to follow. Lieutenant Bernard then took command and, though he too was soon wounded, continued to lead the charge. Sergeant Reiter’s56 platoon drove the Germans from the cover of the abandoned depot, Reiter continuing to lead his men in a bayonet charge though
wounded in the head. Farther left Private Baxter57 raced ahead armed with a sub-machine-gun and put to flight a group of Germans firing from the shelter of a wadi. As they ran from Baxter they threw their arms away The advance continued for more than a mile.
Possibly before the Australian charge began, the Maoris, and also the 21st on their right and the 19th on their left, had begun a similar charge.58 The New Zealanders charged some 600 yards, until few Germans were visible except some making off at high speed. The Maoris estimated the dead on their front at more than 80. The Australians estimated that about 200 Germans were killed; they took three prisoners. In the charge the 2/7th lost 10 killed and 28 wounded; and 14 of the Maoris were hit.
Miller at length had halted the Australians’ advance, there being no further cover from view from the air. Lieutenant Bolton59 arrived forward
with a Vickers gun and fired on the fleeing enemy with good effect. The advancing Germans had received a severe shock, and made no further attack that day, though in the afternoon there was close contact along the whole front. During the day, however, hundreds of Germans were seen moving round the hills to the south steadily encircling the Australian and New Zealand position.
Weston was in command of the rearguard, but communications had failed and Vasey and Hargest did not see him or hear from him that day. Vasey and Hargest had decided to keep together and try to coordinate the withdrawal. In the course of the 27th they met the commander of a battalion of Laycock’s force, who had orders from Weston to occupy a delaying position on the road to Sfakia. Thereupon Vasey and Hargest decided to withdraw that night to Neo Khorion, south of Stilos, in the hope that Layforce would be covering that area. Their plan was that the 5th Brigade would go to Stilos, the 19th Brigade to Neo Khorion with the 2/8th Battalion at the junction of the road from Kalives and the 2/7th linking with the New Zealanders at Stilos. At 9 o’clock, when the rearguard at 42nd Street was due to disengage and begin its long march to Stilos, it was still light and the withdrawal was delayed until after 10. The head of the column reached Stilos, 14 miles away, at 3.30 a.m. on the 28th. Weston had in fact ordered Laycock (who had landed only a few hours earlier) with his “D” Battalion to take up a rearguard position at Babali Inn farther south, and had attached to his battalion two infantry tanks and three carriers.
General Weston appears to have gone southward to survey the line of withdrawal, and, when he turned back, found it almost impossible to move against the tide of vehicles, troops and civilians now streaming along the road winding up into the mountains towards Sfakia.60 These were largely the gunners and base troops from Suda and the men of the several improvised infantry units that had been in that area. Freyberg wrote later:
There were units sticking together and marching with their weapons – units of one or other of the composite forces that had come out of the line – but in the main it was a disorganised rabble making its way doggedly and painfully to the south. There were thousands of unarmed troops including the Cypriots and Palestinians. Without leadership, without any sort of discipline, it is impossible to expect anything else of troops who have never been trained as fighting soldiers. Somehow or other the word Sfakia got out and many of these people had taken a flying start in any available transport they could steal and which they later left abandoned. ... Never shall I forget the disorganisation and almost complete lack of control of the masses on the move as we made our way slowly through that endless stream of trudging men.
Lieutenant Stephanides also described the scene:
I knew that I was taking part in a retreat; in fact I wondered if it should not be called more correctly a rout as, on all sides, men were hurrying along in disorder. Most of them had thrown away their rifles and a number had even discarded their
tunics, as it was a hot day. ... Nearly every yard of the road and of the ditches on either side was strewn with abandoned arms and accoutrements, blankets, gas-masks, packs, kit-bags, sun-helmets, cases and containers of all shapes and sizes, tinned provisions and boxes of cartridges and hand grenades; now and then one ran across officers’ valises and burst-open suitcases.61
A reply was now received from Cairo to Freyberg’s outspoken signal of the 26th in which he had declared the situation “hopeless”. It said that Major-General Evetts62 was arriving as liaison officer and suggested that the Suda-Maleme force should retire on Retimo and hold the eastern part of the island. Freyberg “did not derive much comfort from this helpful advice which indicated complete ignorance of the strength of the Retimo road-blocks and of the latest reports of a German sea landing at Georgioupolis”. Accordingly, at 1 a.m. on the 27th, he sent Wavell a message stating that Retimo was practically foodless and without ammunition, and all guns in the Maleme-Suda sector had been lost because of lack of tractors; the force could survive only if food was landed at Sfakia at once. The only chance of saving some of the force lay in withdrawal to Sfakia. Freyberg himself received a letter from the Greek commander, General Skoulas, stating that the position of the Greek forces was so difficult that they had begun to disintegrate at many points.
In the afternoon Freyberg received orders to abandon Crete. That morning Wavell had asked London for instructions and, having received no reply by 3.50 p.m., had then sent orders to Freyberg to evacuate Crete. This decision was confirmed from London a few hours later. News of the coming evacuation could not immediately be sent to Colonel Campbell at Retimo because Campbell had no ciphers, but it had been arranged that Lieutenant Haig,63 Royal Navy, should carry ten tons of rations to Retimo that night, and Freyberg told an officer to tell Haig of the order to embark so that he could pass it to Campbell. However, Haig departed before the officer delivered the message. In the meantime Freyberg’s headquarters set out for Sfakia and it was not until next day that he knew that the message had not reached Haig. He asked Cairo to drop it by aircraft.
From the German point of view the 26th and 27th were days of great success. The Assault Regiment pushed on to two kilometres west of Canea; farther south the 100th Mountain Regiment took Karatsos; advancing from the Prison Valley, the 3rd Parachute Regiment took Perivolia. Still farther south Krakau took Alikianou. During the day one mountain battalion and a half, and additional artillery were landed on Maleme airfield. Nevertheless the German units were depleted and weary; the 3rd Parachute Regiment, for example, had been reorganised after Galatas to form one weak battalion.
General Ringel planned to continue the encirclement of Canea on the 27th and, having done so, to pursue towards Retimo. Five columns were now advancing east; Krakau’s group farthest south was aimed at Ayia Marina (the Ayia Marina south of 42nd Street). Jais’ group (the 141st Mountain Regiment) was next to the north; then Heidrich’s 3rd Parachute Regiment; then Utz’s group (100th Mountain Regiment), and finally Ramcke’s group on the coast.
It was Jais’ regiment (the one which had fought the 19th Brigade in the rearguard position at Brallos in Greece) which had the “fierce and costly encounter” at 42nd Street. At 6.45 a.m. it had received orders to push through to the head of Suda Bay and cut off the enemy’s retreat. The 1 Battalion led the advance. From about 11 a.m. for more than half an hour no word arrived from the leading battalion. Jais decided that it had been dispersed by a counter-attack and he halted the III Battalion, which was following, until the situation was cleared up. About 2.30 p.m. Major Forster, commander of the I Battalion, arrived at Jais’ headquarters. He reported that his battalion had come unexpectedly on the “English” positions 2.5 kilometres west of Suda village in thick olive country. Part of the leading company had run on to a minefield and the battalion had heavy casualties in a few minutes. The English threatened to surround the battalion completely, and therefore the fighting troops were pulled back, suffering further casualties as they came. Most of the officers and many other ranks had been killed or wounded. The battalion was withdrawn west to high ground where the 111/141st had taken up defensive positions.
In a report written later Forster said that his unit had “very heavy casualties”. He added: “I consider it impossible that all the dead we afterwards found [121 men] were killed during the action.” Private Kumnig, who stated that he went to the battlefield several times, reported that he “assumed that the English, before abandoning the battlefield, had either shot or stabbed every wounded German on the field”. A number of the German dead had stab wounds or broken skulls. A Sergeant-Major Hoyer reported that “throughout the battlefield there was not a single English corpse with a bayonet or butt wound. I saw about 20 dead ... New Zealanders and Australians”.
In reply to questions about this incident Lieut-Colonel Walker wrote, in 1952: “In building up his forward troops for the counter-attack the enemy had concentrated a large number of automatic weapons forward. These were overrun and captured by us in the first few moments of the attack, and the captured weapons used in the following stages with great effect. In close fighting of this nature, as it was amongst olive trees, a burst of automatic fire is almost certain to prove fatal, as would also bayonet wounds. In point of fact, we captured three wounded men and it would be reasonable to suppose that some wounded men got back to German areas. Outside the heat of the moment in battle, or when wounded men still continued to engage us, no man either wounded and offering to surrender, or unwounded and offering to surrender was shot.”
Referring to accusations made by Germans in June 1941 to him personally, Walker added: “The German accusation against me concerned in the main, so far as I can remember, the specific case of a number of men unarmed who were found shot at the foot of a wall. None of us knew anything of this incident, and it is more than probable that they were running away and the delay in scaling the wall caused their death. It is of course quite legitimate to fire on anyone who fails to surrender.”
By 10 a.m. on the 27th the 3rd Parachute Regiment had fought its way to the wireless station; and about 2 p.m. on the 27th it entered Canea together with the 100th Mountain Regiment and Ramcke’s group. Forty guns and about 1,000 prisoners were taken. In the evening Krakau’s mountain troops of the 85th Regiment occupied the heights west of Stilos. During the 27th the remainder of the 5th Mountain Division and a battalion of the 6th Mountain Division were landed at Maleme.
The rearguard-5th and 19th Brigades and Layforce – had, by a very narrow margin, succeeded in reaching the foot of the road leading over the mountains to Sfakia but now was fairly firmly deployed along that road from Stilos to Babali Inn (properly Babali Hani), ready again to protect the main column which packed the road to the south. Before the retreat and embarkation of the Maleme-Suda force is described let us turn to the isolated sectors at Retimo and Heraklion.