Chapter 13: Heraklion – Defence And Embarkation
AT Heraklion Brigadier Chappel commanded a force which, like the other garrison, was short of artillery but was relatively very strong in both the quality and quantity of its infantry. To three British regular battalions, at full strength or near it, had been added the 2/4th Australian (which had emerged from Greece about 500 strong and had since received a batch of reinforcements), and the 7th Medium Regiment armed as infantry. There were also three raw Greek battalions. Thus there was nearly enough infantry for a division, but Chappel had only thirteen obsolescent field guns, fourteen anti-aircraft guns, and two heavy tanks and six light ones. His task was to hold the port and the airfield.
The port was the outlet for the largest area of continuous settlement in Crete – the wide saddle lying between the 8,000-foot mountain which the ancients called Ida on the west and, some 25 miles to the east, a lower mountain, Dicte, where the ancients believed that Zeus was born. Heraklion itself was a walled town of about 36,000 inhabitants – larger than Canea, the capital; it is indicative of the relative fertility of the wide Heraklion depression that Knossos, the centre of early Minoan civilisation, lay in this upland valley on the slopes three miles south of the modern town. Above the ruins of the palace of Knossos towered the bare, grey peak of Dicte; on the lower ridges and in the valleys the modern villagers grew grain, vines and olives.
The airfield lay on the coastal plain about three miles east of the town, and thus Brigadier Chappel faced a problem that resembled Colonel Campbell’s at Retimo – to defend a town and its harbour, an airfield some distance east of it, and the intervening beach on which attackers might be landed from the sea. The defending force was dispersed over an area four miles from east to west and two from north to south. On the right the 2/Black Watch occupied the airfield and the heights to the south-east,1 next to the left the 2/4th was on and around smooth twin hills which the Australians named the Charlies,2 so littered with large boulders that the men built sangars to fight from and trenches only for shelter. Next were the 2/Leicesters (in reserve) and the 2/York and Lancasters who linked with the Greek brigade (one trained garrison battalion and two of recruits) which occupied the town itself. On the coastal ledge north of the two last-named British battalions the 7th Medium Regiment, organised as a small infantry battalion with three rifle companies, held the Nea Alikarnassos area round brigade headquarters. Twelve Bofors guns were sited round the airfield and nine 100-mm and four 75-mm guns grouped
southwest of it.3 Chappel instructed the anti-aircraft gunners to fire when they saw fit, but ordered all other troops to remain concealed until the preliminary air bombardment had ended. The gunners were ordered not to fire on the airfield until directed, Chappel’s intention being to give this order only if troop carriers landed in strength or the anti-aircraft guns were knocked out. The Leicesters had been given the task of counter-attacking paratroops if they landed on the airfield, or south and west of it between the Charlies and the low ground forward of them and to the north-west. A heavy tank was hidden at each end of the airfield, and the six light tanks were disposed south-east of it. Chappel’s orders to the infantry were to attack the enemy the moment he landed.
From the 12th onwards German aircraft bombed the Heraklion area intermittently. On the 13th bombers were overhead at dawn, and again at 6 p.m. when a single Gladiator attacked five German bombers and led them down to within range of the Bofors guns. The gunners failed to score a hit on that occasion, but shot down one bomber in a raid later that day. On the 14th about forty aircraft attacked and were met by two Hurricanes that had arrived at Heraklion the night before. One made a forced landing, the other was not seen again. On the 16th and 18th German aircraft machine-gunned the area; about this time a lone reconnaissance aircraft was shot down by a Bofors gun of the 7th Australian Battery. These attacks caused very few casualties, the defenders being securely dug in and well concealed, and having overhead protection. Indeed, they proved of value to the defenders by testing the effectiveness of their positions and adding to their confidence.
On 19th May a group of German aircraft machine-gunned the Heraklion area early in the morning, and a smaller group in the evening. Next day the attacks began early and were far heavier. By 11 a.m. the defenders knew that paratroops had landed on the main body of Creforce round Suda Bay and, weary but confident, awaited the attack that would certainly soon fall on them. About 4 p.m. forty or fifty bombers, dive bombers and fighters arrived and began a noisy and sustained onslaught, evidently the
prelude to a landing of paratroops. For more than an hour the area was ceaselessly bombed and machine-gunned by aircraft which came so low that more than one flew below a strand of barbed wire which the troops had strung tautly between the two Charlies.4 The noise was stunning; the bombs, falling at intervals of a few seconds or less, made the ground quake; but again few men were hit. In the 2/4th Battalion no man was struck by a bomb fragment or a bullet fired from the air during the whole operation at Heraklion.
It was 5 o’clock, after a short lull in the attack, when the first slow troop-carrying aircraft appeared from the north and north-east. As the first lines of parachutes fell and opened the alarm was given, in some areas by the beating of an improvised gong and elsewhere by shouts of “Parachutists!” For two hours, at intervals of about twenty minutes, one group of transports after another arrived and dropped its cargo of men and arms from a sky now clear of fighters and bombers, until more than 240 aircraft (Ju-52’s) had been counted – enough to carry more than 2,000 men and their equipment.
I was spellbound by the futuristic nature and the magnificence of the scene before me (wrote one young soldier5). ... It wasn’t long before they were coming in along about five miles of coastline and as far as the eye could see they were still corning. They were about 100 feet above the water and rose to about 250 feet as they came over the coastline, dropped their parachutists, dived again and turned back to sea. ... I saw many Huns drop like stones when their parachutes failed to open. I saw one carried out to sea trailing behind the plane with his parachute caught in the tail. The men all had black ‘chutes; ammunition and guns were dropped in white ones.
The Australians’ Bofors, the Marines’ 3-inch guns and pom-poms, and the infantrymen’s machine-guns, hit and brought down at least fifteen aircraft. The Australians considered their guns to be “sited to perfection”. One German aircraft caught fire as the men were jumping, and each dropping parachute vanished in a little puff of smoke, its passenger hurtling to the ground. The troops jumped from another as it was losing height, and all hit the earth before their parachutes opened. Many were shot as they floated down. Probably more than 200 of the attackers were killed in the air or as they struck the ground. Most appeared to land round the airfield or west of the town on Buttercup Field – precisely where landings had been considered most likely; but others, including the earliest waves, tumbled down in East Wadi, on the Charlies, round the Greek Barracks south-west of the Charlies, at Nea Alikarnassos, or to the west of Heraklion. At 7.20, after a renewal of the bombing, men were seen dropping two or three miles east of East Beach far outside the fortress area.
All the battalions promptly attacked the invaders, and most of the paratroops who had landed in the infantry areas were picked off by the defenders before they could rally and collect their gear. The Black Watch (Major Pitcairn6) soon cleared the airfield except for a few snipers and
some men who installed themselves at the barracks; the Scots also advanced east of East Hill and cleared East Wadi. All but a few of the group which descended round the barracks were eliminated by Captain Rolfe’s company of the 2/4th, which killed about ninety for a loss of three Australians killed and nine wounded. In the 7th Medium Regiment’s area a German lobbed a grenade into the headquarters, severely wounding the commanding officer, Major Snook.7 The gunners of 234th Medium Battery killed 175.8 Seldom was quarter given on either side.
At 6.15 Chappel ordered a counter-attack towards Buttercup Field by the carrier platoon of his reserve battalion – the Leicesters – and a platoon of the York and Lancasters, and the area was freed of paratroops by 9.30 p.m. All night there was intermittent rifle and machine-gun fire throughout the eastern area and much firing of flares by groups of Germans trying to assemble their scattered men. Still farther east was the 220th “Air Ministry Experimental Station” (a radio-location post) guarded by a platoon of the Black Watch; at dawn the post was abandoned and its men set off to rejoin their battalion. In the early morning the outposts of the Black Watch, mistaking the blue of the approaching air force uniforms for German grey, fired on them; they did not reach safety until the evening.
In the Greek area, however, though the paratroops who landed in the outpost positions had been quickly subdued, some who descended close to the town walls managed to force an entry through the North and West Gates. Throughout the night there was bitter fighting in the streets, the Greeks, soldiers and civilians alike, attacking the invaders with any weapon that came to hand. The Greeks were reinforced by a detachment of the York and Lancasters. By 10.30, however, a party of Germans had reached the quay, and by morning others had dug in at the southern edge of the town.
Nevertheless, in spite of the presence of these parties in the town, and of a larger force east of Chappel’s position, it was evident on the morning of the 21st that the attack had failed. A considerable part of the German force had been caught and destroyed before it could organise itself. The British and Greek losses had been light; indeed the defenders were now stronger than before, having added to their equipment useful quantities of German arms and ammunition, wireless sets and rations. Henceforward there was not a platoon that did not possess more than its normal quota of weapons.9
At dawn next day German reconnaissance aircraft appeared overhead and at 9 o’clock transports began dropping supplies. On this and later days the defenders captured German Very pistols, orders, and signal strips, and were thus able to send messages to the German air crews to drop supplies to them; the Australian battalion, for example, received machine-guns, wireless sets, mortars, a motor-cycle and side car, chairs
and tables, a tent, and much food and ammunition. They sent most of the German weapons to the ill-equipped Greek battalions. The German air crews at length realised that they were being misled, but the defenders continued to upset the enemy’s signals by firing Very lights whenever the Germans on the ground did so.
Meanwhile, at 9 in the morning, the German force in the east sup-ported by light guns advanced towards the Black Watch on East Hill and began to infiltrate on to the eastern end of the airfield; but both there and in East Wadi they made little progress in the face of the defending artillery and small arms fire. A party in the village of Prassas was rounded up; farther west a patrol of the 2/ 4th moved out to Babali and drove off a small German force; a German party moving towards Heraklion along the Knossos road was repulsed with severe casualties. However, in and around the town itself the enemy was still established; he now held the harbour and was attempting to push eastwards, and the Greeks were running out of ammunition. During the day, however, the Greeks were able largely to rearm themselves with captured weapons and, in the evening, a concerted attack by them reinforced by a platoon from the Leicesters and one from the York and Lancasters cleared practically all Germans from the town. At 5.5 p.m., the Germans received reinforcements – eleven troop carriers dropped their men east of East Wadi. It was evident, how-ever, that the enemy would need more powerful support if he was now to make any impression on the fortress.
We now know that the task of capturing Heraklion had been entrusted to Colonel Brauer vvith four battalions – the three battalions of his own 1st Parachute Rifle Regiment and one of the 2nd Regiment, together with an anti-aircraft machine-gun company and other detachments. Student, the commander of the XI Air Corps, complained when the campaign was over that his Intelligence officers had generally estimated the defenders at about one-third of their actual strength. At Heraklion the error may have been even greater, because there were in fact eight battalions in an area in which the Germans planned to land two. Even after the battle the German staff did not know the strength of the force at Heraklion but estimated it at “three British and two Greek battalions with tank detachment”.
The II/1st Parachute Battalion was to take the airfield by surprise; the III/1st to capture Heraklion from west and south-west; the I/1st to take the wireless station at Gurnes, five miles east of the airfield; the II/2nd to land west of the III/1st and assure protection from the west. All formations were to be parachuted simultaneously at 4.15 p.m., which involved leaving Greece in formation at 2 p.m. However, when the transports returned between 10 and 11 a.m. from delivering the first sortie to the Suda area, it was found that many had been destroyed, and others now broke down and cluttered the runways. So greatly had the force of transports been reduced that 600 men of the Heraklion force were left behind. In addition, refuelling was slow, and a blinding dust rose over the airfields. In the general confusion the departure of some groups was delayed as much as three hours and a half, and both fighter and transport formations were dispatched in wrong order and late, so that they arrived at the objective in relatively small groups at intervals from 4 to 7 p.m. The attack aircraft were able to remain over the target only until 5.15 before returning to refuel, and consequently most of the troops were landed without their protection. It was found that the bomber attacks by VIII Air Corps “had not destroyed the enemy”. At the time the German leaders believed that bombers could “destroy” infantry even though well dispersed and dug in; actually they had inflicted negligible casualties.
The aircraft carrying the II/1st Battalion arrived in dribs and drabs, the last contingent being two and a half hours late. Several machines crashed in flames and many riflemen were killed in the air “because of the configuration of the ground, which necessitated jumping at 200 metres” – a relatively long descent. In the easternmost group of this battalion, landed in East Wadi, all the officers except Captain Burckhardt, the commander, were killed during or soon after the landing. At dark Burckhardt had collected from sixty to seventy survivors at the foot of Hill 182 (A.M.E.S. Ridge). His west group (Captain Dunz) landed at the western edge of the airfield (in and round Buttercup Field and the barracks) and – the Germans believed – “was destroyed within twenty minutes” (actually parties of survivors held out longer). Only five men succeeded, by swimming along the coast, in rejoining Burckhardt, whose battalion was virtually destroyed, losing 12 officers and 300 men killed and 8 and 100 wounded.
Of the I/1st Battalion, destined for Gurnes, only one company was landed at the right time; two others landed three hours late and the fourth did not leave Greece that day. The battalion occupied the wireless station, which was undefended. When Colonel Brauer and his regimental headquarters came down there at 7.40 he decided to push on, with part of the I/1st under Lieutenant Count Blücher, to the airfield, which he believed to be occupied by the II/1st. About 12.40 a.m. he reached the eastern slope of the airfield plateau and, to his surprise, encountered strong enemy fire – from the Black Watch. During the night Blücher and one platoon reached the high ground east of the airfield.
The III/1st Battalion was landed west and south of Heraklion “late and far extended”. It lost men during the landing but the remainder were organised under Major Schulz and advanced to the town wall where they were held by the Greeks. Schulz withdrew his men to the ridge 500 yards westward. Of the II/2nd Battalion two companies had to be left behind for lack of aircraft, and the depleted battalion landed in an undefended zone nearly two miles west of Heraklion. Brauer decided to attack from the east and west early on the 21st. On the east he had a battalion (less one company and less one platoon, both wiped out by Cretan guerrillas near Gurnes); on the west, against the ill-armed Greeks, he had one battalion which had lost fairly heavily and a fresh half battalion. Convinced that an attack across East Wadi could succeed only under cover of the dark and that there was not time to reorganise, Brauer sent in his still-scattered companies and platoons piecemeal. One aim was to establish touch with Count Blucher whose platoon was now isolated on the eastern edge of the field. This attack made no impression on the Black Watch who were supported by artillery and mortars, whereas, Brauer complained later, his men had only the support of five heavy machine-guns. Next morning the detachment on the airfield was overcome by tanks, the resolute Blücher being killed, and at dusk Brauer withdrew his force to a defensive position on the western slope of A.M.E.S. Ridge.
Meanwhile Brauer had sent an order by wireless to Major Schulz to “attack airfield Heraklion with all available forces”. Schulz did not receive this message, but intercepted a signal from VIII Air Corps that Heraklion was to be attacked from the air from 9 to 10 a.m. and decided to follow up this bombardment by attacking at 10.30. He asked Captain Schirmer of the II/2nd for assistance and Schirmer sent him a platoon and a section, but said that he could not spare more men for the task of protecting the force against attack from the west (though he was engaged there only with weak guerilla forces). Schulz formed his force into two groups, one (Lieutenant Becker) to penetrate the town through the North Gate and occupy the harbour, the other (Lieutenant Egger) would enter by the West Gate. Egger’s group forced its way into the town but counter-attacks thrust it north on to Becker’s force which succeeded in capturing an old Venetian fort in the harbour. “About 1600  hours,” says the report of XI Air Corps, “a major of the Greek Army offered the surrender of the town, but the British in the town forced the Greeks to fight on and advanced with strong forces from the east and south against II Battalion of the 1st Parachute Rifle Regiment. Because of lack of ammunition the battalion was forced, under cover of darkness, to fall back to its starting place west of the
town leaving patrols in touch with the enemy. The absence of a coordinated control of the elements of III/1st Battalion fighting on the western wing and II/2nd was an important factor in this failure.”
This self-criticism confirms the evidence that, from beginning to end, the German commanders under-estimated the strength of the defenders at Heraklion. Nevertheless, even if the German attacks had been coordinated, it is unlikely that the result would have been different. The Black Watch was unshaken by the ill-organised probing in which Brauer spent his already-weakened force; and, even if a Greek officer had surrendered in Heraklion, it is doubtful whether his men would have ceased fighting; and, if they had, the town and harbour would still have been under fire from the York and Lancasters and the 7th Medium on the slopes to the east. In addition Brigadier Chappel had a reserve – the Leicesters – who far outnumbered the Germans in the town.
As it was, on the morning of the 22nd, patrols from the York and Lancasters mopped up the few snipers who remained in the town; during the morning one of the last two snipers in the Greek barracks near the airfield was killed and the other escaped.10 The Black Watch sent out many patrols and drove the last Germans from the east end of the airfield,11 but found the enemy positions at Rattling Bridge, in East Wadi, and on A.M.E.S. Ridge too strongly held to be successfully attacked. This caused Brigadier Chappel some concern because the German guns on East Ridge might enfilade the airfield, and he sent a company of the Leicesters to reinforce the Black Watch, thus using a considerable part of his counterattack battalion for a defensive role. The battalion commander of the Black Watch sent patrols as far south as Apex Hill, and the 2/4th Australian, next to the left, again patrolled as far as Babali, but these manoeuvres left the German positions on A.M.E.S. Ridge unharmed. When Chappel, at 3.50, ordered the Black Watch to attack A.M.E.S. Ridge the reply was given that the Black Watch had not enough troops; it was a task for the reserve. Still another company of the Leicesters was ordered to support the Scottish battalion, but did not arrive until the following day.
During the day such of the enemy dead as still lay within the defended area were buried – in the British area 950 German corpses had been collected by nightfall on the 22nd, and some 300 were piled in the Greek area, but many others lay where they could not be reached without undue risk of coming under fire. During the day at Heraklion itself no attack was made by either side; the Greeks reported that German troops west of the town had driven Cretan women and children in front of them, but had ceased when the Greek commander sent forward a message threatening to kill all his prisoners if the practice was continued.
Throughout the area Greek civilians were mingled with the troops, and increasing numbers of them were now armed with German rifles which they fired with so little discrimination that in some places they were a
greater menace than the enemy. During air attacks women and children from the town and villages would crowd into the troops’ trenches. In the area of the 2/4th, two families lived near Colonel Dougherty’s head-quarters, and some 200 civilians were in caves in a single company area.
On the 23rd German aircraft were overhead at intervals throughout the day, bombing, machine-gunning and dropping supplies. Early in the day it became apparent that the Germans were concentrating on the east with the intention of securing the airfield, and a report was received that troop-carrying aircraft were landing east of East Ridge. Two companies of the Leicesters who were sent east to make a raid in this direction returned in the evening with the news that the Germans there were not strong in numbers but had a large proportion of machine-guns. Elsewhere too the garrison widened the area under its control. Colonel Dougherty sent Lieutenant Kesteven12 and his platoon to occupy Apex Hill, a high knoll overlooking Babali and more than a mile outside the perimeter, and thence to watch the movement of German troops in the hill country through which they might be switched from one flank to another.13
On the 23rd two encouraging reinforcements were received. About midday two Matilda tanks arrived from Timbakion on the south coast on their way to Suda, and their leader brought news that the 1/Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders (Lieut-Colonel Anderson14) were on the way from Timbakion to Heraklion. (The two tanks, with the only Matilda of the Heraklion force still in running order, and two field guns, were loaded on a lighter and sent to Suda Bay.) Early in the afternoon six Hurricanes arrived overhead from Egypt, but the naval anti-aircraft guns, mistaking them for Germans, fired and shot two down. Three then returned to their base, but the sixth landed. Later, during a particularly heavy raid by about fifty German aircraft, chiefly on the town itself, six more Hurricanes arrived, fought the attacking aircraft and finally landed on the field, four of them with damaged tail wheels. Thus few remained serviceable out of these two flights sent from Egypt to attack transports arriving at Maleme.
After a severe bombing raid on Heraklion the Germans to the west sent forward a message that the town would be destroyed unless the Greeks surrendered. The ultimatum was rejected, though the raid had been both destructive and spectacular. Great clouds of yellow and red smoke poured from the dock area where a store of chemicals was hit; and, because of the mounting casualties and the threat of worse to come, the British commander ordered that all civilians must leave the town, and the York and Lancasters took over its defence with two companies in the town itself and a road-block to the west. The Greeks, now reorganised into two battalions each about 1,000 strong, were concentrated round Arkhania with orders
to guard the hospital at Knossos, to keep the road open, and to engage in guerilla warfare.
Next day – the 24th – the Germans began to carry out the threat to destroy Heraklion. Bombing began early in the morning and continued at intervals all day. In the morning about forty transports dropped men and supplies south-west of the town. The paratroops landed in the midst of a fight between the 1/Argyll and Sutherland, on its way from Timbakion, and Germans astride the road in that area. The Argylls were far below strength, having left detachments at Timbakion and Ayia Deka, and withdrew some distance having lost 2 officers and 20 other ranks. The extremely fluid state of affairs outside the perimeter is illustrated by the fact that, in spite of this repulse, a convoy of lorries carrying chiefly air force men succeeded in travelling along this road to help make a landing ground at Ayia Deka. It was evident that Germans were moving through the hills from west to east, evidently in preparation for an attack from the eastern flank, an impression that was supported by information that aircraft were landing on the beaches at Mallia about 15 miles to the east.
The 25th opened with an attack by the German force west of the town which was repulsed by the two companies of the York and Lancasters and one of the Leicesters. On the 24th an advanced party of the Argyll and Sutherland had entered the fortress area, and on the morning of the
25th the main body (the equivalent of about two companies) arrived, having marched through the hills. They took over the sector which the Leicesters had occupied west of the 2/4th and such of the Leicesters as were not retained in the line became the mobile reserve.
The Argylls soon found themselves in the centre of a confusing action. On the early morning of the 26th, before they had time to find their bearings, a column of about 300 Germans, moving eastward, clashed with them on Cemetery Ridge just east of the town and captured a few of their men. The Leicesters (Lieut-Colonel Cox15) counter-attacked along the ridge and restored the situation, although they suffered severely. In the confusion the Argylls, mistaking the Australians to the east of them for the enemy, fired on them until Falla, the cool Intelligence sergeant of the 2/4th, went forward and explained who was who. Soon this strong German column was concentrated between the 2/4th and Kesteven’s platoon on Apex Hill.
It will be recalled that Kesteven had been sent to occupy this 1,000-foot hill on the 23rd. On the 24th and 25th the outpost was unmolested, and with a lamp Kesteven signalled information to Dougherty’s headquarters. At dawn on the 26th all Kesteven’s posts reported the large number of Germans moving eastward through the hills; finally it appeared that some 500 were thrusting towards the wadi west of Apex Hill and 200 approaching the ridge south of it. At 7 a.m. the enemy began advancing against the hill from the north, west and south. Kesteven signalled to his battalion that he was about to fight his way out, as he had been ordered to do in case of heavy attack. He decided to move down the rocky northern face of the hill, form up when he reached the limit of the rocks, and counter-attack the smallest of the groups surrounding him – the German party approaching from the north. After sending ahead most of the platoon under Lieutenant Sargent16 (who had arrived on the previous day with a ration party) he presently brought up the rearguard of four men and ordered the attack.
As soon as the Australians emerged from the protection of the rocks they met sharp fire from their front and flanks. One man was killed and two, including Kesteven, wounded. Sergeant Swanson17 took control and, hurling a grenade, led the way straight at some fifty Germans who lay between them and their objective – the lines of the Black Watch. Firing their rifles, the men charged down the hill, overcame the Germans, killing many of them, and reached the shelter of a creek. Only one man was hit despite the fire of fifty more Germans on their left. From the creek they made their way without incident to the Black Watch and thence to the 2/4th.
The German move across the front confirmed their hold on the Knossos road and appeared to be aimed at cutting off the garrison from the south,
whence, the Germans knew, reinforcements had arrived. They were already in control of a British advanced dressing station – which had unwisely been placed outside the perimeter at the Villa Ariadne at Knossos – but did not interfere with the medical work of the station. Indeed, on the evening of the 26th, a German medical officer and stretcher-bearers, carrying a white flag, brought a wounded Highlander and a wounded German into the 2/4th’s lines; and Captain Tomlinson,18 the regimental medical officer, and the German agreed that in future the Germans would carry any severely wounded Australians whom they might find in that area half way across no-man’s land and Australian stretcher-bearers would go out and fetch them to their aid post. In this no-man’s land, of which Babali village was the centre, there were frequent patrol clashes by day and night and the village itself, a place of twelve or so houses, was often raided by Germans in search of food.
The killing of civilians by Germans in this area, and of Germans by armed civilians and Greek troops fighting guerilla fashion caused anger on both sides. The Australians were convinced that German raiding parties had brutally killed civilians; the Germans, for their part, dropped pamphlets in Greek and English signed “The German High Command” declaring that because of atrocities punishments would be administered “in the manner of his own cruel action, no matter be he or she a man or a woman” and towns and villages would be razed. After this threat Heraklion and Babali were heavily bombed. The pamphlets were as ineffective as paper bombardments invariably are, except when a defending force is already demoralised. Indeed, with a high-spirited force, printed threats or taunts tend to raise its mettle.
Although the British position had not been dented and the enemy gave no indication of being able to mount a concerted attack, Brigadier Chappel had reason to be increasingly anxious about the position in Crete as a whole. On the night of the 26th–27th he sent a message to General Frey-berg, by way of Cairo, stating that the enemy was strongly established astride the road leading south, parachute landings were being made outside his reach, all his positions and the aerodromes were commanded by enemy troops on higher ground, and ammunition was running short. He asked for guidance whether he should attack and open the road to the west or south. From Cairo came a request for information whether the Argyll and Sutherland had arrived, whether a break-out to Timbakion could be made, and whether Heraklion harbour could be used. Later on the 27th Chappel was informed that the island was to be abandoned. He did not pass on this information until dawn next day, when he summoned commanding officers to a conference and told them that the whole force was to embark that night. A time-table was distributed and the commanders returned to their units to organise the withdrawal.
That day – the 28th – the enemy was particularly active in the air. About 11.15 a.m. twenty troop carriers and at 11.45 sixty-four dropped
parachutists east of the perimeter, which was very heavily bombed all day, but no move was made by the men on the ground. Meanwhile the British garrison damaged its vehicles and destroyed its stores; charges timed to explode next morning were placed in the petrol and ordnance dumps; the routes the battalions would follow to the mole were reconnoitred.
In the morning of the 28th, in obedience to the British plan, the cruisers Orion, Ajax and Dido and six destroyers had sailed from Alexandria. From 5 p.m. onward the squadron was heavily attacked and Ajax was damaged and ordered to return to port. The remaining ships arrived off Heraklion at 11.30 p.m., the cruisers remaining outside the little harbour, and the destroyers going in four at a time to ferry the troops, the first of whom were waiting at the mole. In the darkness, the force filed through the town to the port, company by company and unit by unit until, about 1 a.m., the last posts were silently abandoned. The town itself, a crowded place of narrow streets and close-set buildings, was in ruins
Heraklion (wrote Captain Tomlinson) was one large stench of decomposing dead, debris from destroyed dwelling places, roads were wet and running from burst water pipes, hungry dogs were scavenging among the dead. There was a stench of sulphur, smouldering fires and pollution of broken sewers. Conditions were set for a major epidemic.
In this ugly setting the embarkation was carried out with hardly a hitch, though there was much anxiety when, after midnight, the troops still in the forward posts learned that the time-table had been put forward one hour, and they had to hurry along the routes to the town fearful that they would be too late – the Australians knew from their experiences in Greece that the naval ships could not wait. The force sailed at 3 a.m. with all the British troops on board except a detachment guarding the road-block at Khoudesion, and, of course, the wounded in the German-occupied dressing station at Knossos.19
The Greeks were not informed of the embarkation on the ground that the activity of the Germans in their area made it impossible for the orders to be safely conveyed to them and in any event the ships could not carry many more troops. The decision may seem callous when examined from a distance, but it can hardly be disputed that to have attempted to organise the embarkation of the semi-trained Greeks might have endangered the whole delicate operation. It was one task to withdraw to the harbour a force of disciplined troops from defences in which the position of every section of riflemen was known; another to assemble and march back the two Greek battalions which had for some days been operating as a guerilla force.
The steering gear of the destroyer Imperial failed, a result of bomb damage on the voyage out, and after her crew and her troops had been transferred to the Hotspur she was sunk with a torpedo. This was the first of a series of cruel losses. About 6 a.m., as the ships turned into Kaso Strait at the eastern end of the island, about 100 German dive bombers appeared. The weary troops were wakened by the din and concussion of guns. The destroyer Hereward was hit and beached and her crew and the troops on board taken prisoner. The cruisers were the chief targets. The Orion was hit three times, Dido once. In Orion about 100 were killed and 200 wounded. In Dido 103 out of 240 of the Black Watch on board were killed. The attacks continued at intervals for eight hours and 400 individual dive-bombing attacks were counted.20
These destroyer commanders are out on their own (wrote Corporal Johnstone). As soon as the planes appear overhead you can feel the boat lift out of the water as she puts on speed. Then the deck rolls over at an angle of about 45 degrees. Then back it comes again and down goes the other side as she zigzags, turns and squirms at 40 knots, trying to spoil their aim. Down comes the Stuka and lets his bomb go at about 500 feet. The commander watches the bomb, judges where it is going to fall, turns his boat almost inside out and generally manages to dodge it. Meanwhile every gun is firing all the time and the noise is deafening. The 6-inch and 4-inch guns shake the whole boat and the multiple pom-pom is going like a steam hammer. Four-barrelled multiple machine-guns mounted on each side of the ship add to the general din. Besides all these a lot of our boys had their Brens mounted on deck and were doing their best to add to the row ... occasionally as the bomb was coming down I glanced at the sailor sighting and firing the pom-pom and I didn’t see the slightest sign of emotion on his face, even though the bomb only missed by about three feet and lifted our boat out of the water.
At 2 p.m., as the squadron neared the Egyptian coast, the German attacks ceased, and at 9 p.m. the ships reached the safety of Alexandria.
Although the defenders of Heraklion did not know it, their local success had seriously upset the whole German plan. This provided that part of the 5th Mountain Division should be landed at Heraklion by sea and air as soon as the paratroops had seized it. The small craft that were to have entered Heraklion harbour were recalled to Piraeus, however, and, from the 22nd May onward, the role allotted to the 1st Parachute Regiment at Heraklion was not to enable German aircraft to use the Heraklion airfield but to prevent British aircraft from doing so. The Corps commander, General Student, hoped, however, to reinforce Colonel Brauer at a later stage so that at least he might capture the airfield. On the 23rd and 24th the Germans saw seven British fighters and a bomber on the airfield “in spite of intense destructive fire” from their positions on East Hill. On the 24th Brauer was reinforced by a battalion made up of those remnants of the 7th Air Division that had been left behind on the 20th – two heavy-weapon and two rifle companies, some 400 men in all. The report of XI Air Corps states that it was impossible to ascertain whether the paratroop landing ground in the Gurnes area was free of
the enemy, and therefore (to the surprise of the defenders who had guessed that the German plan was to attack from the east) the reinforcements were landed west of Heraklion. “Shortly after landing the battalion engaged in a brief fight with a platoon of British who had advanced towards the landing areas from the south” (the advance. guard of the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders). “The British were killed or taken prisoner.” On the 24th Brauer was ordered by Student to unite the western and eastern group and, with the heavy weapons of the combined force, to prevent the British from using the airfield.
Major Schulz’s force moved eastward from Heraklion on the night 25th–26th May over “difficult ground occupied by the enemy”. At dawn Schulz “attacked the weakly-held Hill 296 (Apex Hill) ... from several directions and captured it”. From this hill Schulz established contact with Brauer and there his men beat off “counterattacks by weak enemy forces from the direction of Knossos”. (These were Greeks.)
On the 27th yet another improvised battalion formed from the remnants of various units of XI Air Corps was landed in the Gurnes area, and Brauer was instructed that, after a preliminary air bombardment, he was to capture the airfield and keep it open for German aircraft. He decided that he had not time to prepare an attack for the 28th but that it should open on the afternoon of the 29th.21 However, on the night of the 28th, the Germans saw ships off shore; and next morning patrols found the airfield unoccupied and the town empty. The German report adds: “500 prisoners were taken ... 200 of our own prisoners were set free. Greek forces of approximately 1,000 officers and men still remaining in the eastern part of the island capitulated” (evidently another 1,000 Greek soldiers had either gone into the hills or had prudently become civilians overnight).
From the German point of view the operation against Heraklion had been a series of minor disasters in which one error was piled on another. In the first place the plan was based on faulty intelligence which greatly under-estimated the British garrison. But, even if the defending force had been only one-third as strong, that would not have justified giving Colonel Brauer’s force four simultaneous objectives – Gurnes, the airfield, the town, and west flank protection – instead of concentrating it against one at a time. Finally, the tactical error, common to most German paratroop operations on Crete, was made of landing a great part of the attacking force in the midst of a closely-defended area, a practice that proved disastrous where their antagonists were experienced troops, well dug in. And, because ,no account had been taken of the probability of transports being destroyed and damaged in the first sortie, the second wave was not only seriously under strength but could not maintain its time-table and landed piecemeal.
Having lost nearly half his force in consequence of these errors and omissions on the part of the higher command, Brauer’s only opportunity of local success lay in concentrating his force and attacking a single objective – the airfield or the harbour. Instead he kept his forces apart and made ineffective thrusts at both objectives and, having failed, remained inactive until the 24th when he was ordered to concentrate on the eastern flank and keep the airfield under fire. On the 28th, when he was reinforced by two battalions, he was still laboriously concentrating for an attack. It appears that the initial failures and the heavy losses and confusion which they entailed dealt Brauer and his subordinates a shock from which they never fully recovered.
Should the British commander have been more active in the face of an attacker whom he had so thoroughly disorganised? His signal of the 27th to General Freyberg shows that he had considered, among several courses of action, gaining control of the road to the south coast or opening the road to Retimo. Brigadier Chappel’s defined task, however, was to hold airfield and harbour. This he did with complete success. After the fight for
Crete had been lost, a gallant but costly naval enterprise enabled the force to be picked up and taken to Egypt, where, in those days, four good battalions were a reinforcement of greater relative value than a division would have been a year later.