Chapter 2: British and German Preparations: 25 April–19 May
New Zealand Arrivals from Greece
AT four o’clock in the morning of 25 April 1941 the first convoy of New Zealand troops, on the Calcutta, Perth and Glengyle, left Porto Rafti, a beach not far from Athens. The greater part of the infantry of 5 Brigade were aboard (21, 22, 23 and 28 Battalions), the Rear and Main Headquarters of 2 NZ Division, and 5 and 6 NZ Field Ambulances. From almost all of these elements were missing, some still with units of the rearguard, some left on the beach in the confusion of the embarkation.1
Only less serious than the loss of men – perhaps more serious, since many of those not evacuated made their way out of Greece – was the loss of equipment. For GHQ Middle East had ordered that arms should not take precedence over men,2 and some embarkation officers and naval officers appear to have treated the order so literally as to demand that the troops leave even their rifles. Luckily men and officers resisted an order which would be absurd to any trained soldier and few came away without the personal weapons they had so grimly carried the length of Greece. But though the battalions evacuated this night and afterwards were to land in Crete with at least their rifles and a fair complement of Bren guns (lacking AA tripods),3 weapons heavier than these had for the most part to be sacrificed. The artillery and transport were to be sorely missed.
Few troops at this time could have been so much concerned with where they were going as with what they were going away from, and the continual attacks of the Luftwaffe together with the
formidable hospitality of the Navy were enough for the moment and for the average soldier. But, however great the appearance of chaos inevitable to evacuation, there lay underneath it an effective enough plan. Already on 17 April a Joint Planning Staff committee had met in Athens and it had been decided that, because of the shortage of shipping, a large proportion of the evacuated force would have to be landed in Crete so as to give the ships engaged a quicker turn-round.4 In consequence orders had been issued for the provision in Crete of tentage, blankets, and drill uniform for 30,000 men and camps for 50,000. General Weston had begun to prepare the camps as soon as he took command.
Thus, when the first convoy arrived in Suda Bay about two o’clock in the afternoon of 25 April, there was some sort of organisation ready to receive the troops it carried. As they came ashore, in an assortment of small craft, they were ordered by the shore authorities to dump their Bren guns and mortars where they would become part of a general dump for future reallotment.5 then, harried by shore authorities whose zeal did not permit the unit officers time to sort out their own men,6 the troops streamed back towards the camps prepared for them. On the way 1 Battalion, the Welch Regiment, dealt them out cigarettes, oranges, chocolate, and the hot tea always prescribed for emergencies and almost always there.
The New Zealand camp, Camp A, was about half-way between Canea and Perivolia and, like the rest, a camp only by courtesy. It was no more than a bivouac area. Cooking utensils, so far as they existed, were petrol tins, and there was scarcely any messing equipment. And so the first day of the evacuation – not yet thought of as the first day of a new campaign – ended with weary troops straggling in till late at night to wrap themselves in the one blanket which, if they were lucky, was waiting for them.7
That night no New Zealand units were evacuated from Greece. But next night, that of 26 April, the NZ Divisional Cavalry – RHQ, A and B Squadrons, less about 150 left behind – the major part of 4, 5 and 6 NZ Field Regiments, 7 NZ Anti-Tank Regiment, 27 Machine Gun Battalion, 7 Field Company and 5 Field Park Company, and the Provost Company, embarked from Rafina (C Beach) and Porto Rafti (D Beach). And a group which had
been left behind on the night of 24 April and had meanwhile crossed by TLC8 to Kea Island was picked up. Two transport vessels were engaged in the operation: the Glengyle evacuated Rafina with three destroyers – Nubian, Decoy, and Hasty – in support; and the Salween evacuated Porto Rafti, supported by the destroyers Kandahar and Kingston and the cruiser Carlisle.
The plan on this occasion was for the transports to go direct to Egypt and for the naval vessels to go to Crete, returning thence to convoy duties. The greater part of the artillery were meant to have gone aboard the Glengyle and the Salween. They would thus have reached Egypt and been available for service in North Africa. This plan bad weather to some extent frustrated: at Porto Rafti the only craft available to take the men between shore and ship were three caiques and a TLC (which was busy till midnight in collecting troops from Kea Island). In a choppy sea many troops were unable to make the difficult climb to the decks of the transports. The naval vessels had to use their own boats and take the troops aboard themselves. Thus only a portion of 4 and 5 Field Regiments came to board the Salween, and the remainder, boarding the naval vessels, ended up in Crete instead of Egypt. At Rafina the plan was more successful, 6 Field Regiment and the greater part of 7 Anti-Tank Regiment boarding the Glengyle and arriving safely in Egypt. Some 700 troops – 200 of them New Zealanders – were left behind.
Of 27 MG Battalion, the greater part of HQ Company and parts of 1, 2, 3, and 4 Companies embarked on the Salween. Those that did not came off in naval vessels and were ultimately made up into the MG company that fought on Crete. In much the same way a large part of the Divisional Cavalry left on the Salween for Egypt; about 150 men, of A and B Squadrons, were left behind, however, and one whole squadron, C Squadron, was in the Peloponnese. The main body of 7 Field Company, on the other hand, apparently came off in naval vessels, for it landed on Crete.
On the same night another evacuation was taking place at Navplion in the Peloponnese. Here the New Zealand troops involved were a section of 4 RMT9 and a medical group. This convoy endured a severe gruelling from the Luftwaffe; and the medical group, after being sunk with the Dutch transport Slamat and picked up by the destroyer Diamond, was again sunk with that ship, was picked up by the destroyer Wryneck, and was again sunk. Only one member of the group survived. The RMT section was luckier and reached Crete on the afternoon of 27 April.
Meanwhile the convoy from Rafina and Porto Rafti left about three in the morning of 27 April, and the section of it bound for Crete arrived there after the usual hammering from the air about ten o’clock that night, while the Glengyle and the Salween went on to Alexandria, where they arrived two days later.
From NZ Division there were now still in Greece the large party that had been left behind on C Beach from the previous night, 4 Brigade, 6 Brigade, and Battle HQ of the Division. Fourth Brigade was scheduled to depart on the night of 27 April from D Beach at Porto Rafti, and there at the due time appeared the cruiser Ajax and the destroyers Kingston, Kimberley, and Havock. The last named was then sent to C Beach at Rafina to pick up the troops left there, while the others proceeded to embark Brigade HQ, elements of 27 MG Battalion, the three battalions (18, 19, and 20), some of 7 Field Company, part of 4 Field Ambulance, 4 RMT, and the beach embarkation staffs. Havock meanwhile embarked those who had remained at C Beach.10
The convoy seems to have got off to a quicker start than its predecessors and reached Suda Bay before ten o’clock on the morning of 28 April. The troops then disembarked and made their way to the camp at Perivolia, where they found the blanket issue was exhausted.
Last of the Division to leave Greece were Battle HQ of NZ Division, three troops from C Squadron of the Divisional Cavalry, part of 6 Field Company, 6 Brigade (24, 25, and 26 Battalions), and 4 Field Ambulance. These, together with elements from the British, Australian and Greek forces, were embarked at Monemvasia aboard the Ajax and four destroyers – Havock, Hotspur, Griffin and Isis – and, leaving about a quarter to four in the morning of 29 April, reached Crete about eight o’clock the same morning.
At this stage General Freyberg11 and his staff believed that the whole division was to go back to Egypt. They knew that 5 Brigade was on the island but thought that the halt there was only a stage in its return. When the convoy reached Suda Bay, therefore, General Freyberg, his GSO 1, and his AA & QMG went ashore in order to arrange their own onward passage to Egypt by air and to take the opportunity thus afforded of visiting 5 Brigade. In their absence ashore the New Zealand troops who had crossed
with them were transferred to two transports, the Thurland Castle and Comliebank, and at midday these two ships joined others in convoy and set off for Egypt, which they were to reach on 2 May.
The troops from the New Zealand reinforcement camp near Athens had been engaged by a German advanced guard at Kalamata that same night while waiting for the ships to come and take them off, and although they had counter-attacked and taken 180 prisoners, their evacuation had thus been prevented. When morning came they had no course but to surrender. Apart from these and various small parties who had been left behind or cut off, the whole of the New Zealand Division was now free of the mainland. Men were to come filtering through to Crete by various hazards in the weeks to follow, but there could be no serious additions to the strength evacuated.
The remarkable feature about the operation of which this is only a summary and partial account was its success – as an evacuation. That so large a proportion of the expeditionary force, with outnumbering German columns close on their heels and the German Air Force in command of the sky, should have got out at all says much for the organisation that underlay the embarkation, for the troops who took part in it, and above all for the Navy that made it possible at such cost to its own men’s endurance and its ships.
But, this said, the evacuation had its less fortunate aspects. The individual accidents, the confusions of detail, were inevitable in a combined operation carried out by night and in grave difficulties. But it was unlucky that orders for the abandonment of weapons were so strictly interpreted by embarkation staffs, and it would have been worse if the troops had not evaded the order wherever possible. And it was unfortunate, too, that men of the first convoy to reach Crete were not allowed to retain these weapons. More serious still was the misfortune that landed so many artillerymen and other specialised troops in Crete, where the effort to evacuate them was to be an additional burden on the administration and where ultimately a large proportion of them were to be wastefully used fighting as infantry. And most serious of all was the misfortune that a whole infantry brigade – 6 NZ Brigade – should have been shipped off to Egypt so incontinently when its presence with its two sister brigades would later have proved so welcome.
For these misfortunes the divisional command was not responsible. Headquarters NZ Division had no part in making the plans for evacuation and, indeed, had no inkling of the role in store for the Division. It was not until 30 April that General
Freyberg learnt that any of his troops were to take part in the defence of Crete.12
Dispositions of New Zealand Force
In spite of some preliminary uncertainties13 General Weston seems to have felt himself definitely in command on 26 April. So far as he knew, moreover, the troops then being evacuated from Greece were in transit only and would eventually be replaced by fresh troops from Egypt, presumably 6 British Division.14
Till shipping was available for the onward move of the evacuated troops it was obvious that he must not only make the best provision he could for their reception but also utilise them to help make good the gaps in the defence; for, with Greece in enemy hands, invasion was already a threat and might soon become something more. As soon, therefore, as Brigadier James Hargest,15 commander of 5 NZ Brigade, visited Creforce HQ on 26 April he was given the task of defending the Maleme sector. And on the afternoon of that day an order was issued designed to knit the new arrivals into the whole scheme of defence.16
The details of this order were to be modified by the arrival of further troops and by the later change in command; but it is interesting in so far as it reflects the situation as seen by Weston at this time and because it embodies an outline appreciation of vulnerable points which did not alter.
The order states that the Commanders-in-Chief Middle East had decided Crete was vital to our operations in the Eastern Mediterranean and was to be held at all costs; that the Greek Government also favoured defence and intended to co-operate; and that Maleme, Suda Bay, and Heraklion were essential to the defence, while the retention of Retimo was at least desirable. Airborne attack was clearly envisaged as the most likely – hence the importance of the airfields – but seaborne invasion was possible also. Middle East HQ intended itself to use the airfields as much as possible; but air support would be limited till evacuation from Greece was complete and the air force reorganised.
In these circumstances the order allotted the defence of the Suda Bay area and Maleme against attack from the west to the
New Zealand contingent; Heraklion and the Akrotiri Peninsula to 14 Infantry Brigade; and the south-east approaches to Suda Bay to 6 Australian Division. Retimo would be the responsibility of Greek forces.
While these orders were being prepared and issued the New Zealand troops already on the island were being organised under Hargest’s command. He formed a headquarters staff, delegated command of his brigade to Lieutenant-Colonel Falconer (CO 23 Battalion),17 received his verbal orders from Creforce, made a reconnaissance as far as Maleme, and decided his dispositions. The units under his command were sorted out and issued with rations and blankets; those units which had left equipment at Suda returned to collect it, only to find that some of it had already disappeared and that the scepticism of those who refused to part with their hard-kept weapons had been bitterly justified;18 medical arrangements were put in train, a party of about fifty New Zealand nurses from Greece carrying on their work at 7 General Hospital while New Zealand MOs and their ADMS arranged for an MDS19 to be opened up by HQ Company, 6 Field Ambulance.
These arrangements inevitably took up the whole of 26 April and it was not till the following day that the troops were able to move into their sectors. According to Operational Instruction No. 5 they were to go to the Platanias area, take it over from 1 Welch, and develop it as soon as possible from a living into a defensive area. Accordingly, by 9 a.m. 27 April advanced parties were reporting in, and by the end of the day all units were in position, with Brigade HQ established at Platanias and NZ Force HQ at Ay Marina. The four battalions (21, 22, 23, and 28) faced west with orders to ‘deny the advance of enemy landing parties from the west’.20
Back at Creforce HQ, however, an attempt was being made to tidy up sectors and simplify commands. In consequence, 5 Brigade HQ received orders that same day to take over the defence of Maleme airfield itself and the AMES south of it by 2 p.m. on 28 April, thus permitting two companies of 1 Welch stationed there to rejoin their battalion; this order also sent 2 Yorks and Lancs and a composite battalion formed from evacuated British troops to
Heraklion.21 the 22nd Battalion was therefore warned that it was to move and the necessary transport was borrowed from 1 Welch and the RASC.
Administrative arrangements went forward, meanwhile. A supply dump was arranged for at Ay Marina and HQ NZASC moved into the olive groves near the village; 5 Field Ambulance also moved to Ay Marina and set up an MDS; 6 Field Ambulance continued to operate its MDS at the Perivolia camp and set up another at the junction of the Canea-Galatas road.
On 28 April, while 4 Brigade was still making its way towards Crete, 5 Brigade continued the reshuffle occasioned by the move of 22 Battalion to Maleme. This complete, the brigade settled down to tackle its defensive tasks, a pattern of training was swiftly devised, and the hard skeleton of discipline and organisation once again asserted itself.
A notable feature in this process was the reorganisation of the ASC and artillery. Since the former was without transport for its normal role it had to be diverted to the primary task of the soldier. And so the 1100-odd men not employed on ASC duties had been formed into infantry companies under Major McGuire22 by 28 April and given sectors in the Ay Marina area to defend against paratroops. The artillerymen had similar readjustments to make: by 28 April there were assembled round Ay Marina about two-thirds of 4 and 5 Field Regiments, about 80 men and officers of 6 Field Regiment, 90 of 7 Anti-Tank Regiment, and almost the whole of HQ New Zealand Divisional Artillery and 1 Survey Troop.23 None of the regimental commanders had landed on Crete and most of those trained in administration had gone with them to Egypt. But the most grievous deficiency was in guns. All of them had had to be left behind in Greece, though much of the portable equipment had been brought off.24 But the men remained, and now began the process of organising them into infantry companies which was to culminate in the formation of Oakes Force some days later.25
By 29 April New Zealand Force was already taking a more formidable shape. Brigadier Puttick,26 who had commanded 4 Brigade in Greece, had reached Crete on 28 April with his
brigade and now took command of the whole force. Brigadier Hargest had returned to the command of 5 Brigade. Colonel Kippenberger27 had left 20 Battalion to take command of 4 Brigade. Supply problems were more or less under control. Fourth Brigade was resting and reorganising in Perivolia camp and preparing to take up defensive positions next day. Fifth Brigade, already in position, was settling into its unit areas, the men trying with the very few tools they had to prepare defences. The artillery and ASC contingents were being organised and taking over sectors as they did so; the engineers – 19 Army Troops Company, 5 Field Park Company, and 7 Field Company – had also been allotted infantry roles east of Galatas. Divisional Signals, with a strength of seven officers and 180 other ranks, were controlling signals at NZ Force HQ, with a rifle company not far away. Divisional Cavalry and the personnel of 27 MG Battalion were collecting and organising. And on the medical front a similar process was going on, the nursing sisters having now departed for Egypt. Fourth Field Ambulance was reported safe in Egypt.
The decision to evacuate Greece had at once made the question of whether Crete should or could be held a vitally important one. The attitude of the Defence Committee was made plain on 17 April in a message to General Wavell which authorised him to proceed with his plans for evacuating Greece, ordered him in redistributing his forces to provide for the holding of Crete, and stressed the importance of establishing there strong elements of the Greek army together with the Greek King and his government. The political advantages of having a Greek government in being on Greek soil seemed hardly less important than the strategic issues involved.
On the same day RAF HQ Middle East assured the Air Ministry that the best air protection possible would be provided, and on 22 April Air Marshal Longmore himself flew to Crete to estimate the chances of providing effective fighter defence. On 24 April he was back in Egypt and reported to the Chief of Air Staff that one squadron of Hurricanes, with 100 per cent reserve of pilots and 100 per cent rate of replacement, ought to be able to keep Suda Bay open for the Navy. But he thought it questionable whether the squadron could in fact be kept up to strength, what
with the demands in North Africa and the wastage there would be on the spot; and the squadron itself was still only an idea. The fighter strength in fact there was as has been described.28
Meanwhile the attack itself became more and more likely. On 27 April the War Cabinet Joint Intelligence Sub-Committee presented an appreciation. According to this, attack was certain and soon; as soon in fact as the conclusion of operations in Greece freed the German army to support it. It would probably be made by sea and air simultaneously. Two hundred transport aircraft were being collected in Bulgaria and 100 more in the heel of Italy. The area from Larisa to Athens was being stocked up with fuel and supplies. An air-landing division was already in the Balkans and the aerodromes round Athens were available. As many as 3000 fully equipped troops could be carried in the first wave and, if gliders were used, the number could be raised to 4000. And the necessary ships could be assumed to be available.29
In this view the Prime Minister at the War Cabinet meeting in London on 28 April concurred. The enemy no doubt wanted to use Crete and Rhodes as air bases to beat us out of the Eastern Mediterranean and attack our surface ships off Libya – both useful preliminaries for a further attack on Egypt itself. Though at this meeting the Prime Minister showed himself doubtful of our ability to hold Crete against a prolonged attack, his message on the same day to General Wavell showed him in his usual pugnacious temper: a stubborn defence was necessary and the invasion promised some good killing of parachutists.
None the less and properly enough, there were still doubts whether the effort to hold the island should be made. The Chief of Air Staff, Air Marshal Portal, thought that if the Navy attached great importance to holding the island the risk of keeping forces for its defence should be taken; otherwise it would be better to keep the fighters in Egypt; and evidently it was felt more information was required, as the Chiefs of Staff decided to ask for General Weston’s appreciation of the situation, for Admiral Cunningham’s plans, for the probable date when MNBDO would arrive, and for a report on the state of the evacuated troops.
Wavell had already been asked by the Prime Minister in his message of 28 April for a report on forces and plans, and on 29 April Admiral Cunningham was asked for the information already specified. In a further message of the same day from the Admiralty he was asked what importance he attached to holding Crete, bearing in mind its nuisance value to the Germans, the limited extent to
which a Suda Bay only weakly defended by AA could be used, and the risks for Egypt of dispersing fighters and AA; and the message went on to point out that if by concentrating planes and AA in Egypt and the desert Benghazi could be regained, the importance of holding Crete would not be so great.
To this message Cunningham replied on 1 May with an appreciation that may have decided the matter. He pointed out that the RAF force in Crete would make no difference to what happened in the desert but might make the difference between keeping and losing Crete. He thought only that scale of defence which would allow Suda Bay to be used as an occasional night refuelling base was justified, but that it was necessary to deny the island’s use to the enemy as long as possible; for in enemy hands its aerodromes would increase the difficulties of supplying Malta and would enable him to bring larger air forces to bear on the coast of North Africa; while its naval facilities would enable him to operate light craft against Cyprus. Cunningham concluded, therefore, that we should maintain on the island a force strong enough to keep the enemy out until adequate AA and air defences could be established, but that, so far as the latter was concerned, the needs of North Africa must be considered prior. He added that it was not proposed to send the whole of MNBDO and that a proportion of its AA armament might be retained in Egypt.
It is curious that, while Cunningham felt and expressed in this message an uneasiness about supplying Crete, he seems not to have grasped that the only scale of defence which could keep Suda Bay would have to be one which could deny the whole of the island to the enemy, and that, since adequate air and AA defence were essential to any successful defence, it was hardly reasonable to speak of maintaining a force there sufficient to hold the island till adequate air and AA defence could be provided.
But, whatever the outcome of these considerations, arrangements had to proceed meanwhile on the assumption that the island was to be held, and the Prime Minister’s message of 28 April to General Wavell had not indicated any doubts that the Chiefs of Staff might feel. Indeed it seems likely that they expected that whatever reply they got from Admiral Cunningham would be in favour of a stand. They therefore now began to consider whether General Weston, a Marine, had the right kind of experience to fit him for such a difficult command. In a message of 29 April they put this question to Wavell and asked him to report if he thought a change necessary.30 the same day Wavell, in response to a request for
a report on the state of the troops from Greece, telegraphed to the War Office that besides the standing garrison there were at least 30,000 troops from Greece and that these were being disposed to defend the vital points: Suda Bay, Canea, Retimo, and Heraklion; that MNBDO would reach Crete in the first fortnight in May, and that he himself was going to visit Crete the following day. He added that there was still the possibility that the threat to Crete might be a cover for a projected attack on Syria and Cyprus.
On 30 April Wavell duly flew to Crete and there gave General Freyberg command of all the troops in Crete, including at the request of the Greek Government, which had arrived on 23 April, command of all Greek troops. In reporting this to the Chief of the Imperial General Staff on his return to Egypt next day he made it clear that his visit had impressed him with the difficulties ahead. He was struck by the enemy’s complete air superiority and far from confident that he could prevent a landing on the scale envisaged by the appreciation of the Joint Intelligence Sub-Committee.31 He hoped to repair the complete lack of field artillery on the island by sending some at once, but saw clearly that all three services were going to be heavily committed.
The figures for the probable scale of air attack had in fact been relayed to General Wavell on 29 April and were impressive enough: the enemy was estimated to have about 285 long-range bombers in the Balkans and about 30 in Rhodes; about 60 twin-engined fighters which would not need extra petrol tanks; about 270 single-engined fighters which would need extra tanks if based north of the Corinth Canal; and 240 dive-bombers with a similar limitation. But both dive-bombers and single-engined fighters could operate from Rhodes without extra tanks.
Wavell, while he agreed that early and simultaneous attack by land and sea was probable, repeated in an answer to this appreciation on 1 May his view that the whole threat might be merely a cover plan for operations in Cyprus, Syria or Iraq, and went on to dispute the figures which he considered excessive, being based on establishment. His own information suggested that the numbers of aircraft actually available would be smaller: 150 single-engined fighters, 40 twin-engined fighters, 150 long-range bombers, and 100 dive-bombers.
On 2 May the Chiefs of Staff were confronted with a further view, that of the New Zealand Government. General Freyberg, as in duty bound, had informed the New Zealand Prime Minister, Mr. Fraser – he left for Egypt on 3 May – of the situation, and had said that the island could not be held unless with full support from
The Navy and Air Force. He had pointed out that there was no artillery, not enough tools, little transport, and inadequate reserves of equipment and ammunition. In the opinion of the New Zealand Government either the troops should be supplied with adequate means to defend the island or the decision to hold it at all costs ought to be reconsidered.32
Faced with this clear alternative the Chiefs of Staff decided to postpone decision until they had had an appreciation from General Wavell.33
Wavell’s appreciation came with his next message and was not reassuring. The defence of Crete, he said, was a difficult problem for all three services. As the ports and aerodromes were in the north aircraft and shipping were exposed to the enemy attack; the only good road ran along the north coast and so was also vulnerable; there were no good roads north and south and no harbours in the south, though if time permitted something might be developed; transport was very short; food for the civilian population would have to be imported in considerable quantities; and if the towns were heavily bombed and we could not provide air protection a political problem might develop. At least three brigade groups would be required for an effective garrison and a considerable number of AA units. The garrison in fact consisted of three British regular battalions, five New Zealand battalions, one Australian battalion, and two weak composite battalions from Greece. There was no artillery and the AA was inadequate. Greek troops were mostly unarmed and untrained and their morale in many cases doubtful. There were no modern aircraft.
Nevertheless, all these difficulties were being tackled and if time allowed would be overcome. But the air, he foresaw, would always be a difficult problem.34
On the following day the Chiefs of Staff again deliberated. They ended by deciding that they must reach a decision soon, and, no doubt to have the material for it, they instructed the Joint Planning Staff to include a consideration of policy for the defence of Crete in an appreciation of policy in the Middle East and Mediterranean then being prepared. At the same time they asked General Wavell for an appreciation of the defence of Crete taken in relation to the whole Middle East situation and viewed in two aspects: as a fuelling base and as an island which had to be
denied to the enemy. Thus even at this date it seems to have been possible for them to believe that the two cases were in some essential respect different.
Meanwhile Mr. Churchill did his best to reassure the New Zealand Government. Every effort would be made to re-equip the troops, particularly in artillery. Some guns were already being sent and General Wavell was strong in this respect. The same message stressed the defence of Crete as one of the most important elements in the defence of the Middle East, and explained what were the difficulties of the RAF and how hard it was to send them aircraft and personnel. The disposition of such air forces as were in the Middle East was to be at the discretion of the Commanders-in-Chief on the spot.35
It was at this stage, too, that the problem of whether or not to arm the Cretan population came up again. But that question brought its difficulties: danger to the Government was feared; and, perhaps more important, the weapons might not be available. The Greek Government itself and the Greek King meanwhile were reported by Sir Michael Palairet, the British Minister to Greece, to be determined to stay on as long as possible, though disturbed at the totally inadequate scale of the British air forces.
From now on the question of whether or not to try and hold Crete seems to vanish from the records. The problem became one of means only. It seems to have been regarded as impossible to evacuate the troops who had arrived in Crete from Greece – the stimulus of defeat was apparently needed for the Navy’s ungrudging response to emergency to be fully called upon. Since they were there and since there was a shortage of troops elsewhere, the prospect of replacement lapsed.
Circumstances so largely deciding the question of the ground garrison, there was still the inadequacy of air force that Sir Michael Palairet had drawn attention to. Air Marshal Portal was emphatic that it would be dangerous to maintain an active air defence over the island at the expense of the Western Desert and elsewhere. The soundest course was to rely on AA, dispersion and concealment, and at the same time to maintain a ground organisation which would permit aircraft to fly in from Egypt if seaborne attack was attempted. The Chiefs of Staff decided to wait for the views of the Air Officer Commanding-in-Chief, Air Marshal Longmore.36
The Chiefs of Staff may have had before them at this meeting a spirited message from General Freyberg to Mr. Churchill sent on 5 May. Freyberg expressed confidence in the ability of his
troops to deal with airborne attack alone, though the combination of airborne and seaborne attack would be a different matter. But he felt that, provided he got artillery and transport and a few extra fighters, it ought to be possible to hold the island.
Air Marshal Portal’s view was strengthened on 8 May when Longmore gave further particulars of the Cretan airfields. Their state was such that casualties would be high from lack of repair facilities; and lack of cover made dispersion of aircraft difficult. He was against the permanent stationing of squadrons but thought that the airfields might be used as advanced landing grounds for fighters. And he stressed the losses incurred in Greece.
The Chiefs of Staff had also considered a proposal for the dropping off in Crete of twelve tanks from the convoy then on its way to the Middle East. But it was decided that the better course was to have tanks sent from the Middle East and replace them there from the convoy. This was the advice given to General Wavell in a message sent on 9 May. The same message suggested that there were two courses of action possible on the initial parachute landings: the defenders might either lie low till the enemy was committed or they might go all out to destroy him at once. In either case additional troops and a few tanks should be provided if possible from Egypt for counter-attack purpose. Further suggestions were for dawn attack by air against emplaning points, a naval feint, rapid repair of aerodromes to enable reorganisation of our own air force at a later stage, and the use of dummy aircraft and defences on the aerodromes.37
Wavell replied next day that he had already arranged for the sending of six I tanks and fifteen light tanks which should reach Crete within a few days, that he had reinforced the island with artillery and was sending additional equipment and reinforcements of army and staff officers. In a further message the same day he referred the War Office to Admiral Cunningham’s appreciation of 1 May38 for the naval situation, and went on to give his views about that on the ground and in the air. The main threat was in the air, where the enemy would be able to maintain a very heavy attack without slackening his operations elsewhere. Wavell himself, on the other hand, having already had heavy losses in Greece and the Western Desert and having Iraq as a fresh commitment and Syria as a possible one,39 would have to maintain a strong air defence at his base in Egypt. Until he got reinforcements he could not give Crete adequate fighter protection, and he foresaw serious interruptions to his use of its naval and air bases. What allocation
of fighters he would be able to make when reinforcements did arrive would depend on the situation in Cyrenaica, Egypt, Iraq and Syria. But he thought that there was a reasonable chance of keeping Suda Bay open for the Navy with a squadron of Hurricanes, given 100 per cent reserves in pilots and 100 per cent replacement rate for machines; though, if the enemy really concentrated, he had little doubt but that the harbour could be made untenable.
Meanwhile the existing air defence was supplied by the mixed squadron of Gladiators, Hurricanes and Fleet Air Arm aircraft. Some fighters it would be advisable to maintain on the island for political reasons; but full fighter protection could not be justified if our policy was only to hold the island.
General Wavell went on to give the present garrison, and to repeat that the minimum garrison necessary was three brigade groups and that he hoped to relieve the Anzacs eventually with British formations, which might themselves be relieved ultimately by the 11,000 Greek troops on the island, though the Greeks needed three months’ training and re-equipment
The tendency to think in terms of ‘eventually’ was continued in his approach to the question of armament. Guns and tanks were being sent; but for anti-aircraft defence three heavy and two light batteries would eventually be required in addition to the 16 HAA and 36 LAA then in the island and the MNBDO armament intended for it. But at present AA could not be diverted from other vital needs.
Tension by now was rapidly mounting. One of the questions much debated was whether or not the Greek Government and King should stay and for how long. General Wavell and the Foreign Office thought he should stay; General Freyberg favoured his going; the Chiefs of Staff agreed with Freyberg on the ground that his presence was bound to be an embarrassment; the Defence Committee concurred with Wavell; the King himself favoured departure since his going would be less exposed to criticism if it took place before attack than after. Responsibility was in the end left to General Wavell, and the King stayed.40
The Prime Minister in these days was able to devote some of his energies to the problems of the defence. He rather favoured at one point a plan for letting the enemy take the dromes and then fiercely counter-attacking with tanks and assault parties, and Wavell reported on 12 May that he had sent a special officer to present Mr. Churchill’s views on SCORCHER (the code-name for the expected operation) to General Freyberg.41
Mr. Churchill was also concerned about tanks for the defence and on 13 May suggested to Wavell that twelve more should be sent. But Wavell did not think more could be got there in time. Those already being sent were to arrive that evening and this ought to be enough. Further evidence of the Prime Minister’s anxiety was his suggestion at the Defence Committee meeting of 14 May that Admiral Cunningham should be told that SCORCHER was prior even to interrupting enemy supplies to Tripoli; and the First Sea Lord undertook to warn Cunningham of the operation’s supreme importance.
On the same day the Prime Minister told General Wavell that all the evidence pointed to SCORCHER taking place any day after 17 May and that enemy preparations were going forward very deliberately. Reinforcements sent now might well arrive in time, and even if they were late would be useful in case the enemy won a bridgehead. In this message also he dwelt on his hope that the three Commanders-in-Chief were working in close concert. And he returned to the theme on 15 May, saying that the scale of threatened attack impressed him more and more and that he hoped all possible reinforcements had been sent.
To this General Wavell replied that he had done his best. Amongst other reinforcements he had sent 16 light tanks and six I tanks, 18 AA guns and 17 field guns, and a battalion of troops. Further, he was preparing a small force of one or two battalions to land on the south coast as a reserve. He had concerted plans with the other two Commanders-in-Chief on 12 May. He knew the job was going to be hard, but the troops and their commander were stout-hearted and the enemy would find that SCORCHER would burn his fingers.42
At this point we may leave the higher strategy, with the decision – now irreversible and perhaps more enforced by events than clearly taken – that the attempt to hold Crete should be made. From now on it was for General Wavell anxiously watching to prepare whatever help there might still be time to send, for Admiral Cunningham to make his naval dispositions in whatever way seemed best to shield the island from attack by sea, and for Air Marshal Tedder43 to provide what help he could by air reconnaissance and the bombing of the Greek airfields from which any invasion must take its start.
General Freyberg Takes Command
On 28 April General Wilson arrived from Greece and received a message from General Wavell that Crete was to be denied to the enemy and that the troops evacuated there must be used to defend it until they could be taken off. Wavell went on to say that he was assuming that large-scale seaborne landings were not probable but that airborne landings were possible; that the RAF would not be able to reinforce with aircraft for some time; that the MNBDO must be reckoned as part of the military situation; and that reliable Greek troops must be used as much as possible. Wilson was therefore to consider with General Weston and General Mackay44 what the essential permanent garrison ought to be.45
General Wilson’s appreciation was that seaborne attack was not difficult and could be covered from the air in a way that would make it hard for the Navy to interfere. He therefore thought a combined sea and air invasion not improbable. Weston concurred and added that it was open to the enemy to build up a landing from unlimited resources and, given our difficulties in reinforcement, the reduction of the garrison would be only a matter of time.46
Wilson’s view of the points that must be held and the garrison needed is also interesting. Heraklion and its airfield, Canea, Suda Bay, and Maleme would all have to be held at all costs; for without them the defence could not be reinforced. To do this three brigades each of four battalions would be required; and there should be a motor battalion as well. All this was exclusive of MNBDO which would be wanted for Suda Bay itself. These figures Wilson considered a bare minimum, even if the seaborne attack were thought unlikely. To use a smaller garrison would be to court disaster. And he stressed the need for more AA (a further HAA battery, a further LAA battery, and a searchlight battery); the weakness of signals in personnel and equipment; the difficulties of an administrative system which would have to contend with bad roads, shortage of MT and poor port facilities; and the scant usefulness of the southern beaches.
In fine, holding the island was a dangerous commitment unless all three services were ready to face the strain of maintaining an adequate force. An immediate decision was necessary.
This same day Wilson was present at a meeting in Canea where the attitude of the Greek authorities was made clear. The Greek
Prime Minister presided and present, besides Wilson, were General Weston, Air Vice-Marshal D’Albiac, Rear-Admiral Turle, and Group-Captain Beamish. The Greeks explained that their forces amounted to 11,000 men, divided into eleven battalions. None of these was well equipped and many were untrained. The Greeks were eager for their troops to come under British command, which would arm and feed them. They also wanted the feeding of the island’s civilian population – 445,000 – to be a British commitment. And they were not impressed by the information that the High Command proposed to station two squadrons on the island and further cover it by long-distance operations from Egypt against German bases and communications.47
On 30 April General Wavell himself arrived by air and at once summoned a conference of all the senior commanders. We may quote General Freyberg for what took place:
We met in a small villa between Maleme and Canea and set to work at 11.30. General Wavell had arrived by air and he looked drawn and tired and more weary than any of us. Just prior to sitting down General Wavell and General Wilson had a heart-to-heart talk in one corner and then the C-in-C called me over. He took me by the arm and said: ‘I want to tell you how well I think the New Zealand Division has done in Greece. I do not believe any other Division would have carried out those withdrawals as well.’ His next words came as a complete surprise. He said he wanted me to take command of the Forces in Crete and went on to say that he considered Crete would be attacked in the next few days. I told him that I wanted to get back to Egypt to concentrate the Division and train and re-equip it, and I added that my Government would never agree to the Division being split permanently. He then said that he considered it my duty to remain and take on the job. I could do nothing but accept. With that over we sat down round the table on the flat-topped roof in the open air under an awning. The only subject on the agenda was the defence of Crete. ... There was not very much to discuss. We were told that Crete would be held. The scale of attack envisaged was five to six thousand airborne troops plus a possible seaborne attack. The primary objectives of this attack were considered to be Heraklion and Maleme aerodrome. Our object was to deny the enemy the use of Crete as an air and submarine base.48
Two other points that emerged may be summarised here. There would be no additional air support, though Air Vice-Marshal D’Albiac said he was asking for some Glenn Martin planes; and the C-in-C undertook to discuss with Admiral Cunningham the question of naval action against seaborne attack.
General Freyberg had now to take stock of his new command. What he had already seen of it was not encouraging: his own troops were weary and reduced to their personal weapons, while their organisation had been badly jolted by the confusion of the evacuation. He could assume that the rest of the troops from Greece were in a similar condition.
His first problem was that of a Headquarters. Force HQ in Canea he found in chaos. It was in the middle of moving to a Battle HQ in a quarry above Canea; but now the change in command meant that General Weston’s own staff would be moving with him to his new command, that of Suda Bay defences and MNBDO. Apart from Colonel Keith Stewart,49 now to be his Brigadier General Staff, and a few signals personnel, General Freyberg had no one. This situation he had to remedy as best he could by recruiting suitable officers, British, Australian, and New Zealand, from those now on the island.50
But there was much else to be done. He had to glean from questioning, from maps, and from what personal reconnaissance he could spare time for, some notion of the island’s geographical character. And this as we have seen was not reassuring. Crete ‘faced the wrong way with its three aerodromes, two harbours, and roads all situated on the north coast of the island. ... Had it been possible to spin Crete round the story of the defence would probably have been the story of a successful siege.’51
With a rough idea of the general problem, he next turned to the garrison. ‘It was not unusual to find that the men had no arms or equipment, no plates, knives, forks, or spoons, and they ate and drank from bully beef or cigarette tins. There was no unit transport and no tools for most of the battalions. The morale of some of the odds and ends was low.’52
At the end of this survey he was in a better position to appreciate the force of the message on 29 April that had given the War Office
General Freyberg’s response was immediate. He at once wired to General Wavell in order to introduce ‘a little reality into the calculations for the defence of Crete.’ He pointed out the total inadequacy of his force and insisted that, though it could fight and would fight, without the full support of the Navy and RAF it could not hope to succeed. If this support were not immediately available the question of holding the island ought to be reconsidered. And he warned Wavell that his engagement to the New Zealand Government made it his duty to report to it the present situation of his division.55 True to his word he wired the same day to Mr. Fraser, passing on the appreciation he had received and adding that there was no evidence that naval forces would be present in the strength required, while the RAF forces then on the island were quite inadequate.56 the action taken by the New Zealand Government on this has been referred to above.57
But, as a good commander, Freyberg was concerned that his uneasiness should travel only upwards for the ultimate strengthening of the defence and not downwards where it might have communicated itself to the troops under him; and as a positive move to strengthen their morale, he issued on 1 May a special order of the day:58
The withdrawal from Greece has now been completed. It has been a difficult operation. A smaller force held a much larger one at bay for over a month and then withdrew from an open beach. This rearguard battle and the withdrawal has been a great feat of arms. The fighting qualities and steadiness of the troops were beyond praise.
Today, the British forces in Crete stand and face another threat, the possibility of invasion. The threat of a landing is not a new one. In England we have faced it for nearly a year. If it comes here it will be delivered with all the accustomed air activity. We have in the last month learned a certain amount about the enemy air methods. If he attacks us here in Crete, the enemy will be meeting our troops on even terms, and those of us who met his infantry in the last month ask for no better chance. We are to stand now and fight him back. Keep yourselves fit and be ready for immediate action. I am confident that the force at our disposal will be adequate to defeat any attack that may be delivered upon this island.
On 2 May came a reassuring response from General Wavell, in a message full of concern. The Commanders-in-Chief all thought the War Office appreciation exaggerated, though the scale of attack
was likely to be heavy. Naval support would be forthcoming. The RAF situation was more difficult but the United Kingdom was making every effort to send reinforcements. Guns, tools, and other requirements would be sent as soon as possible, and Wavell was doing his best to arrange the relief of New Zealand troops so that the Division could be reformed. But resources were strained to the limit and relief might be easier if General Freyberg would agree to New Zealand reinforcements then in Egypt being used to take over guard and line of communication duties in the Western Desert. The nub of the message came at the end: orders to hold Crete were most definite and, even if they were altered, it was doubtful if there would be time for evacuation before the attack came.59
Wavell did his best to redeem his promises. ‘the C-in-C Middle East did everything that was humanly possible to get us every available bit of equipment, artillery, and defence stores. They did their utmost to send us every bit of equipment they had. Libya was of course a constant worry and Iraq was boiling up. General Wavell had told me at the conference at Canea that he was at his wits’ end for aircraft.’60
Now that he had made his attitude clear Freyberg could only hope that his warnings would take effect. Meanwhile he set about building up the defence with what resources he had. The important question was that of dispositions. He had no reason to quarrel with previous appreciations of what were the vital points: they were the three airfields and Suda Bay area. It was clear also that the long distances between these, the transport shortage, and the inadequacy of all kinds of communication would make it necessary for all four of these sectors to be semi-independent. This is reflected in Creforce Order No. 3 which announces General Freyberg’s accession to command and divides the garrison into four: Brigadier Chappel is confirmed in command of the Heraklion sector with 14 Infantry Brigade (less 1 Welch), 7 Medium Regiment RA (with rifles and no guns), 2/4 Australian Battalion, and two Greek battalions; the central or Retimo sector goes to Brigadier G. A. Vasey, commander of 19 Australian Brigade, with all Australian troops other than 2/4 Battalion, and two Greek battalions; General Weston takes over Suda Bay defences, with under command
MNBDO, all AA, searchlight, and coast defence units in Crete; in the Maleme and Galatas sector Brigadier Puttick becomes commander of NZ Division with its two brigades; and in Force Reserve, under General Freyberg’s direct command, are 1 Welch, 1 Rangers, and composite battalions ‘as available’.61
This was succeeded by Creforce Operation Instruction No. 10, dated 3 May and issued on 4 May. Since it establishes the pattern of defence as it was to remain with only minor changes until the outbreak of fighting, it will be best to quote its dispositions in full and then summarise the changes which took place later in those sectors where NZ Division was not directly concerned. The New Zealand dispositions will be treated in greater detail later.62
Creforce Operation Instruction No. 10 Ref. Map of Crete 1: 300,000
3 May 1941
5. HERAKLION SECTOR –
Comd Brig Chappel
Tps 14 Inf Bde less 1 Welch
7 Med Regt RA (rifles)
2/4 Aust Bn
156 Lt AA Bty, less two tps (in support)
One tp and one sec 7 Aust Lt AA Bty (in support)
One sec B Bty 15 Coast Regt (in support)
Two Greek Bns
6. RETIMO SECTOR –
Comd Brig Vasey
Tps 19 Aust Bde HQ
2/1 Aust Bn
2/7 Aust Bn
2/11 Aust Bn
1 Aust MG Coy
Two Greek Bns
Left boundary all incl: Armyro (Georgeoupolis, B 3340) – Askifou, B 2362).
7. SUDA BAY SECTOR –
Comd Maj-Gen Weston
2/8 Aust Bn64
151 Hy AA Bty
234 Hy AA Bty
129 Lt AA Bty
7 Aust Lt AA Bty, less two tps and one sec
304 S/L Bty
15 Coast Regt, less one sec Base Sub Area
1 Greek Bn
6. MALEME SECTOR –
Comd Brig Puttick
Tps NZ Div
4 NZ Bde
5 NZ Bde
Two tps 156 Lt AA Bty (in support)
One tp 7 Aust Lt AA Bty (in support)
Three Greek Bns
9. Force Reserve. 1 Welch in SUDA BAY sector and 4 NZ Bde less one bn in MALEME sector are in Force Reserve. They will be administered by respective sector Comds, but will be kept concentrated and ready to move at short notice on orders from Force HQ. Comd 1 Welch will be in close touch with Comd 4 NZ Bde.65
At Heraklion the main changes in strength that took place before 20 May were additions to the garrison. After the arrival of MNBDO on 10 May C Battery, less two sections, was sent there. Six light tanks of 3 Hussars and two I tanks, all from the convoy which reached Crete on 14 May, were also despatched to Heraklion. The 2nd Leicesters which arrived from Egypt on 16 May were given to Heraklion and became its mobile reserve. And 1 Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders which reached Tymbaki on 19 May were also intended for the Heraklion garrison. Moreover, with the arrival of MNBDO, 14 Infantry Brigade Signals were free to join their parent headquarters.
In the Retimo sector 19 Australian Brigade set up its headquarters about a mile west of Georgeoupolis and the sector was divided into two groups, an east group at Retimo and a west group at Almiros (Armyro) Bay. The garrison was reinforced on 8 May by 2/8 Australian Battalion and on 10 May with X Battery of MNBDO Coast Defence, and later with two of the I tanks that arrived on 16 May.
It is evident from a message sent by General Freyberg on this day that to have been able to make this reorganisation gave him considerable encouragement.66 He reports that so far as was possible in the present situation reorganisation would be complete by the end of the day, and that he realised there could be no question of
relief until the attack had been dealt with. But he had by this time seen all the officers and NCOs of Creforce and found their morale high. Provided the Navy gave full support he felt all would be well, and in the meantime every day without attack enabled the defence to strengthen its position.
None the less, there were pressing problems of all kinds. By no means the least was that of maintenance. A force of 30,000 British troops and 11,000 Greek, together with 15,000 Italian prisoners and a population of 400,000, which even in peacetime could not be fed from the island’s own resources and which had not yet got in its harvest, had somehow to be supplied. Moreover, if the inadequacies of the defence were to be built up, additional warlike stores and reinforcements had to be got in. The various other pressures on the Middle East command, the shortage of shipping, and the inadequate port facilities would of themselves have made this difficult enough. But, to make it more so, the Luftwaffe very quickly redeployed itself on the Greek airfields and began at once to subject shipping to persistent attack both at sea and at its moorings in Suda Bay. The air defence, weak to begin with, was soon little better than useless; while the AA defence, even had it been at maximum strength, would have been unable alone to protect the harbour. At first it was found possible to clear up to 700 tons a day through Suda. But as air attack increased only ships capable of 30 knots – destroyers and cruisers – and so able to get in and out by dark were of use. And these, even if they came two a night, could hardly manage more than 100 tons a day. It was already 19 May and 13 ships lay damaged in the harbour before the AA could be organised into an umbrella defence adequate to protect two vessels.
But between 20,000 and 30,000 tons a month were required to maintain the force.67 This was more than Suda Bay could handle; the other north coast ports could not help much and those on the south coast still less. Had transport aircraft been available they might have helped out; plans to use them were frustrated by the fact that they were not. Coastal shipping offered no solution because of the lack of both vessels and crews.
Moreover, there were still further difficulties even when ships were got to the dockside. In the face of air attack the task of unloading was a dangerous one and volunteer stevedores from the Australian and New Zealand engineer units did most valuable
work. Finally, the transport to distribute supplies landed was woefully short and, though trucks were sent as fast as they became available in the Middle East, though 231 MT Company was brought to its full strength of 94 vehicles, and though the MNBDO pooled the transport it had brought with it, the shortage lasted until the end.
Despite all these difficulties, by the time battle began 60,000 rations and 10,000 gallons of POL68 had been dumped at Heraklion; 40,000 rations and 5000 gallons of POL at Retimo; and 80,000 rations and 5000 gallons of POL at Maleme. All units, moreover, had been ordered to hold three days’ reserves of rations.69
Another serious problem was that of signals communications. The rapid increase in the garrison put a far greater strain on an already inadequate system. What could be done was done. The signals of MNBDO amalgamated with those of 52 LAA Regiment and took over the Suda Bay sector. Out of the seven officers and 180 ORs of New Zealand Divisional Signals who had come to Crete, signals for both Creforce HQ and NZ Division had to be found. Request for reinforcement was made but not complied with by the time battle began. With 20 May conditions became such that not even the most heroic efforts on the part of men and officers could prevent constant breakdowns in communication.
Medical arrangements were another difficulty. The only equipped units were 7 British General Hospital and 189 Field Ambulance which were already on the island when evacuation from Greece began. A welcome addition was 1 Tented Hospital, Royal Navy, which arrived from Egypt on 10 May and was set up at Mournies. The medical units from Greece had been able to bring away their portable first-aid equipment only. By the time battle began eleven ambulance cars had arrived but, though these did good work, in the face of the casualties to come they were bound to prove inadequate. And there were only 660 beds available.
A further worry was the presence of large numbers of troops who had been evacuated from Greece without weapons, or who were attached to no particular unit or whose specialist qualifications made it undesirable that they should be used in infantry operations for which they had no special aptitude. It was important from the supply point of view that these should be evacuated as soon as possible; the more especially as, having no special role in the work of preparing the defence, they were likely to get into mischief with the civil population.
Most of the New Zealand troops concerned were of the specialist type and belonged to the artillery, engineers, or service corps. At
first the plan seems to have been to evacuate them all, and those of them not absorbed into units engaged in the defence were sent to the transit camp to await the arrival of shipping. The departures of these will be dealt with later. Meanwhile it may be enough to say that though some of the unattached and unarmed troops were taken off in response to General Freyberg’s appeals to Middle East, enough remained to complicate the questions of supply and discipline. And although many of them were to do good service in dealing with parachutists landing in the Base areas when the time came, against this must be offset the problems presented by unformed bodies of troops in the withdrawal and evacuation.
Finally there were the problems arising from the presence of the Greeks themselves. Not only had the Greek civil population to be provided for. The 11,000 Greek troops on the island had to be integrated into the defence scheme. They were for the most part untrained, ill-equipped, and unorganised. They had no transport, and they were armed with five different types of rifle and an average of less than 20 rounds of ammunition per man. A Greek army headquarters had to be formed and a General Staff. And Freyberg had to drain off from his own inadequate forces officers and NCOs to cope as best they might with the language difficulty and to try and help bring the force into shape.
Nor did the presence of the King himself make matters much easier; for his personal safety had to be provided for and was to prove a continual source of worry to General Freyberg before the battle and during the days that followed its opening.70
From the first it had been apparent that the garrison’s deficiencies were more in material and supplies than in men. When, therefore, General Wavell cabled on 7 May offering to make 16 Infantry Brigade available if shipping allowed but suggesting that it would probably be best to equip the unarmed troops already there, General Freyberg agreed and said that reinforcement in men was not a first priority.
None the less some reinforcements did arrive before the battle and it will be convenient to summarise these here. On 10 May came 1 Light Troop RA with four 3·7-inch howitzers; this troop was put under command of 4 NZ Brigade. The same day arrived the main body of MNBDO: HQ 2 AA Regiment, Royal Marines; A HAA Battery (eight 3-inch guns), C HAA Battery (eight 3-inch guns), X CD Battery (two 4-inch guns), Z CD Battery (two 4-inch
guns), a signals company; a survey section; half a landing company; half a transport company; a section of a boat unit; and 1 Tented Hospital RN. Apart from C Battery, which went to Heraklion less two sections, and X CD Battery, which went to Georgeoupolis, these guns and personnel were distributed round the Maleme and Suda Bay sectors.
A second echelon of MNBDO arrived on 15 May, consisting of 23 LAA Battery, without guns, the HQ of 11 S/L Regiment, and a searchlight battery.
In his reply to General Wavell Freyberg had stressed the fact that he had plenty of gunners but a deficiency in guns, ammunition, tractors, and signal equipment. Wavell appears to have responded by sending about 100 guns. But of those that arrived some came without instruments, some without ammunition; and some of the ammunition that did arrive lacked fuses. When all was sorted out and cannibalisation practised as far as could be, the total came to 49 field guns with three to four hundred rounds per gun. These were distributed to the various sectors under arrangements made by Colonel J. H. Frowen, the CRA Creforce.71 A large proportion went to the Maleme-Canea section.
In the same message General Freyberg had also asked for Vickers machine guns, Bren guns, rifles and bayonets, mortars, and ammunition to match. These, though never in superfluous quantities, arrived on a scale not far from sufficient. Along with the 30 per cent of weapons taken from troops embarking for Egypt, they were enough to arm 102 Anti-Tank Regiment,72 106 Regiment RHA, 7 Medium Regiment, 7 NZ Field Company, 5 Field Park Company, and 19 Army Troops Company as infantry. In addition these arms went to help equip a New Zealand Composite Battalion and various other ad hoc forces.
But, apart from these reinforcements in weapons and more or less specialist personnel, the chief addition to the garrison consisted of 2 Leicesters, which, as has been seen, went to Heraklion to replace 1 Welch, and 1 Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders, who did not however arrive until 19 May. And the promised tanks also appeared, though in insufficient numbers.
Wavell had first mentioned these to General Freyberg in his message of 7 May, suggesting that if carefully concealed they might intervene effectively. Freyberg had welcomed the proposal but had reminded General Wavell of the need for spares, technical personnel to repair them, and POL; and he had pointed out that the shore installations could not lift heavy tanks. In the event 16 light tanks
of C Squadron, 3 Hussars, and six I tanks of B Squadron, 7 Royal Tank Regiment, were with difficulty got ashore by 15 May.73 Three further I tanks of 7 RTR were ordered to Crete and landed at Tymbaki on the south coast on 19 May. These latter went first to Heraklion and thence by sea to Suda, where they were in time to play a part in the rearguard.
Of the light tanks six were sent to Heraklion on 18 May; the rest were to go to 4 NZ Brigade, but by 19 May three were still in ordnance being repaired. Two of the I tanks were sent to Heraklion, two to Retimo, and two to Maleme. In these areas they were dug in and camouflaged. They were to be held in reserve for counter-attack.
In the Greek evacuation the prime concern of the RAF in Crete was the protection of convoys and the reception of airmen. This over, the next problem was to evacuate all those for whom there was no role. By 9 May this had been done and the garrison was left at a strength of five squadrons, very weak in men and machines, and the two AMES. The squadrons mustered only 36 aircraft in all, 24 at Maleme and the rest at Heraklion. Most of these were unserviceable, and soon those that could be flown were in the air only because others had been cannibalised. Crews and ground staff, moreover, were already very tired, in low spirits and without kit. There was no chance to rest them, for enemy air activity kept all at high pressure.
Such defensive measures on the ground as were possible were hurried forward. As there were no military forces to spare from the garrison for the landing ground at Pediada Kastelli, trenches were dug across it to make it unfit for use, and for those parts of the others not required similar action was taken. At the three operational aerodromes, Maleme, Heraklion and Retimo, dumps of food and ammunition were established, and at the first two a number of protective pens were dug, though shortage of labour and constant enemy air interruption made progress slow. Communications were improved and co-ordinated so far as time and resources in men and materials permitted. No AA guns could be spared for Retimo but twenty 40-millimetre Bofors were divided between the other two, and each was given a number of RAF machine guns; none of these latter were available for Retimo and it had to rely for such protection on the army.
By 13 May General Freyberg was signalling to Middle East that there were only six Hurricanes left but that he had expectations of ten more. In the circumstances Middle East would have to take over the main task of reconnaissance and the remaining fighters would have to be employed against enemy attack. But after 13 May enemy attacks increased in intensity, and though the expected ten Hurricanes arrived on the 17th they were not able to redress the heavy odds. Day after day the troops on the ground saw them go up against an enemy hopelessly superior in numbers. It soon became apparent to both Freyberg and Beamish that to keep the few aircraft that were left would be a vain sacrifice of men and machines. Accordingly they decided to fly those that were left out to Egypt. And on 19 May the surviving three Hurricanes and three Gladiators at Heraklion and the one Hurricane at Maleme flew away.74
No one, even of the troops whom this decision left without air support, would dispute that it was just; for if stronger forces could not be put up against the German Air Force there was nothing to be said for continuing the useless sacrifice of brave men and valuable machines. What is more disputable and obscure is the failure to destroy the airfields and evacuate the ground troops. According to Group Captain Beamish the intention was that the RAF should return in greater numbers and at a later stage. And although no document is available in which this is unequivocally stated, it seems clear that the view of the Chiefs of Staff was ultimately responsible. The result was that although every soldier near Maleme could see a case for destroying that airfield, it was obstructed but not destroyed. And, as events were to confirm, not to destroy the airfields was to make them more difficult to defend.75
While in these preparatory days the tiny air force in Crete was doing a suicidal best to check enemy attacks in the air over the island, bomber forces from Egypt had been engaged in a more strategic role. On each of the nights between 13 and 19 May, Wellingtons had been over the airfields on the mainland or on the islands where the enemy was massing his air fleet for the invasion; and on the morning of 17 May Beaufighters had been similarly engaged. These attacks caused damage; but the numbers of aircraft employed were pitifully small and there was no question of their causing any serious check to the enemy’s plans.
The Navy had no sooner completed the embarkation of 50,000 troops from Greece than it had to turn its attentions to the defence of Crete and the role it was to play there. One of its tasks was to convoy the supplies and men that had to be got ashore in the build-up period. Against all the difficulties and with the aid of strenuous efforts on the part of Captain J. A. V. Morse,76 Naval Officer-in-Charge at Suda Bay, it managed to run in 15 ships between 29 April and 20 May and offload some 15,000 tons of supplies. And it got 2 Leicesters safely ashore at Heraklion on the night of 15 May, the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders at Tymbaki on the night of 18 May.
Besides this, however, it had to take its own measures against the expected attack; for the garrison on land depended on it for dealing with invasion by sea. The most probable date for invasion was thought at first to be 17 May. As Suda Bay’s anchorage potentialities were limited by the heavy day-bombing raids, Alexandria had to be the base of operations – 420 miles from Suda. The plan was to keep part of the Fleet at sea ready to meet whatever might turn up, and part in port against the possibility that the forces at sea might run short of fuel.
The most likely landing places were thought to be Canea, Retimo, Heraklion, Kisamos Bay and Sitia. On 15 May Admiral Cunningham had one force (Force C) at sea ready to deal with Sitia; another (Force D) ready for landings west of Retimo; a third (Force B) ready to attack enemy forces north-west of Crete or support Force D; and Force A, which included the battleships Queen Elizabeth and Barham, west of Crete and ready to cover the others.77 In reserve at Alexandria were the battleships Warspite and Valiant, the aircraft carrier Formidable (with only four serviceable aircraft), the cruisers Orion and Ajax, and a number of destroyers. The forces at sea would carry out sweeps at night, a submarine was to operate round Lemnos, the minelayer Abdiel was to lay mines between Cephallonia and Levkas,78 and seven MTBs were to operate from Suda Bay. There would also be some air reconnaissance, though meagre.
Preparations of 2 NZ Division: 30 April–19 May
With General Freyberg’s appointment as GOC Creforce, command of his Division devolved upon Brigadier E. Puttick, the next senior officer of the Division present on the island. This appointment was confirmed on 2 May and dated from two days previously, when it had in fact begun. Under Brigadier Puttick Lieutenant-Colonel Gentry79 was to serve as GSO 1, and the other staff appointments essential to a functioning Divisional HQ were duly made at the same time. The new headquarters had at once to get to grips with its administrative and tactical problems. Administratively, it was necessary to get out immediately to the battalions the ammunition that Creforce HQ made available, to get the supply system organised, to build up the ration reserve at Ay Marina, to do what could be done to provide the newly arrived 4 Brigade with blankets and supplies, to go ahead with the organising of signals communications, and generally to restore and get into action that whole complicated nexus of functions without which a military formation cannot operate.
On the tactical side there were the dispositions to be considered. The background of these is best considered in the light of Brigadier Puttick’s appreciation, drawn up after the event but no doubt a true reflection of his views at this time. Airborne attack was to be expected any time after 14 May. Landing from the sea would follow. To control Maleme airfield and any other places where aircraft might land was of prime importance. Since the AA guns were sited on and round the airfield they would probably soon be put out of action. It must therefore be commanded by available infantry weapons and artillery. These weapons would have to be stepped back from the aerodrome according to their range, and in this way could be sited so as to cover the beaches as well. So sited and distributed, they would be less vulnerable to air attack and would break it up in some degree. Since the troops using shorter-range weapons like the rifle would have to be close to the aerodrome, they must be supported by other units farther back who could prevent parachute troops from forming up behind them and attacking. All that concealment and defensive
measures like digging and wiring could give in the way of protection must be sought to the fullest possible limit.
Making the initial positions as strong as possible was the more necessary for three reasons: for movement the defence would have to rely largely on its legs and, therefore, once on the move would not be able to take with it weapons that could not be manhandled; entrenching tools were so scarce that once prepared positions were left new ones would be very difficult to dig; the enemy’s air superiority was so great that any movement by day would be subject not only to observation but to so much interference as to make it virtually impossible.
None the less troops must be made available for immediate counter-attack against the landing areas, and at the same time be far enough away not to come under the heavy fire to which these landing areas were bound to be initially subjected. At the same time these same troops, or other troops, must be so disposed as to be able to protect the coast between Canea and Maleme; and the road between these two points must be kept open.
Besides Maleme and the coast, the area that seemed most vulnerable was the stretch of low country between Alikianou and Galatas. Landings in this area could threaten a drive through to Canea or north-east to the coastal road.
By the time Brigadier Puttick was able to get out and reconnoitre his sector on 1 May some defensive pattern already existed. Fifth Brigade was disposed between Ay Marina and Maleme. Fourth Brigade was completing a move from the transit camp into defensive positions west of Canea but east of 5 Brigade. Oakes Force, formed from miscellaneous artillery and ASC units during the previous few days and put under the command of Major Oakes, MC,80 on 29 April, had a defensive area between Galatas and the coast road. Other assorted units were reorganising in the general area and being allotted various roles in the defence.81
The immediate result of Puttick’s reconnaissance was two important modifications to the existing situation. Oakes Force would take over the main part of the sector which had been intended for 4 Brigade and would hold roughly the line Galatas to the sea. Fourth Brigade, thus freed, would be taken back into divisional reserve, leaving only one battalion forward holding the line south of Oakes Force. In its reserve role the brigade would have the task of counter-attack towards 5 Brigade or towards the open area that lay south-east of Galatas; if called upon by
Creforce to do so it would have the secondary task of defending Canea’s outer perimeter. Thus from the start the necessity of having a strong counter-attack force ready was clearly seen.
Puttick’s reconnaissance had also convinced him that the main body of 5 Brigade was lying too far back. Moreover, as Brigadier Hargest pointed out, 21 Battalion was too weak – it had suffered severely in Greece – for the role of counter-attack in support of 22 Battalion at this time assigned to it. He therefore ordered that 23 Battalion should take over this task. At the same time he recommended Brigadier Hargest to dispose his Vickers machine guns in two groups so as to cover the airfield and the beaches; and his two 3-inch mortars with one covering the northern limits of the airfield and one the south. For he expected landings on the aerodrome, the beaches, and the water.
Already on 30 April Lieutenant-Colonel Andrew,82 CO 22 Battalion, had begun to question the prospects for unity in action at Maleme where there was no unified command: the AA defending the airfield was controlled from the Gun Operations Room at Canea; the Royal Marine gunners were responsible to General Weston at Canea; and the RAF and Royal Navy troops there were under the control of their own senior commanders. No doubt he spoke of his doubts to Brigadier Puttick during the reconnaissance, for the latter, in a note to Brigadier Hargest, says: ‘the AA guns at the aerodrome seem to me to be horribly exposed. Unless they are dug in and screened by bushes, etc., I’m afraid they won’t last long.’ And he spoke of discussing this question with Creforce or General Weston.83
The next two or three days were taken up with moves that arose out of these modifications. Fourth Brigade moved into its reserve position with HQ at Karatsos on 2 May, and on 3 May its 18 and 19 Battalions went into Force Reserve. As a sign of the progress being made with re-equipment it is worth noting that at least one of the battalions, the 19th, now had a full complement of rifles and pistols as well as 36 Thompson SMGs, 32 Brens, two 3-inch mortars, and 50 grenades.
Oakes Force by 2 May was already well on its way to reaching brigade strength, at least in men, and so much the better able to take over the task left to it by 4 Brigade’s departure into reserve. In the course of these days it was organised into three battalions:
1 Battalion under Major Philp;84 2 Battalion under Major Lewis;85 and 3 Battalion under Major Sprosen.86 the line they occupied now ran not merely from the coast to Galatas but beyond Galatas to the road from Canea to Alikianou.87
A further development was the decision to close 5 Brigade up towards Maleme in order to facilitate immediate counter-attack in support of 22 Battalion. For this purpose 21 Battalion was to move from round Dhaskaliana to an area south-east of the airfield; 23 Battalion was to move into the area vacated by 21 Battalion; and 28 Battalion into the room of 23 Battalion at Platanias. The Divisional Petrol Company took over the vacated Maori positions. The 19th Army Troops Company fighting as infantry, which had been put under 5 Brigade command and sent to Modhion on 30 April, was to be strengthened by the addition of 7 Field Company and remain in static defence in the Modhion area. The role of immediate counter-attack would fall to both 21 and 23 Battalions. And to strengthen this concentration on the airfield further machine guns were added. On 2 May an MG Company had been formed from the various parties that had landed from Greece. Apart from eight guns which were with 4 Brigade and four guns under Lieutenant MacDonald88 which were with 5 Brigade, there were still another four guns. The detachment with 4 Brigade was left, but the rest of the company (Captain Grant89), except for four guns sent to 22 Battalion, was now put under command of 23 Battalion with guns sited to command the airfield and the coast. The whole move was complete by eight o’clock on the evening of 3 May.
The same day brought two Greek regiments at Alikianou and a third at Kastelli under command of NZ Division, and each of the New Zealand battalions was ordered to supply an officer to assist with their training. The presence of these regiments with the Division is duly recorded in Creforce Operation Instruction No. 10.90
The publication of this order, which would reach recipients only 4 May, did little more than confirm arrangements and dispositions
already made. But it enabled Division to issue its own operation order on 5 May.91 A summary of it will give a clearer position of the New Zealand front at this time.
The Division consisted of 4 Brigade, 5 Brigade, Oakes Force, Russell Force (formed on 4 May from the 200-odd men of the Divisional Cavalry on Crete, 2 Echelon Divisional Supply, and the Divisional Petrol Company, all under Major Russell,92 OC C Squadron), 1 Greek Regiment, 6 Greek Regiment, and 8 Greek Regiment. In support, but not under command, were two troops of 156 LAA Battery and one troop of 7 Australian LAA Battery.
Of these, 4 Brigade was to remain in Force Reserve except for 20 Battalion which, together with the eight MGs and an engineer detachment, was to remain under command and make up Divisional Reserve. Fifth Brigade had the specific task of preventing the enemy from gaining control of Maleme airfield and defending the area between the west bank of the Tavronitis and the area east of Ay Marina. The brigade would be supported in this by the three troops of LAA.
Oakes Force was to hold the line that ran from the coast near Staliana Khania to Cemetery Hill and prevent any advance east of this. It also had an appropriate section of coast to guard against attack from the sea. Russell Force had the task of holding a road junction near Lake Aghya and preventing any advance eastwards; and it was to counter-attack at once any airborne troops landing within a thousand yards east or west of the road junction. Of the three Greek regiments, 1 Regiment was to remain at Kisamos Kastelli and defend the area between Kastelli and Nopiyi against air or sea invasion, being joined there as soon as possible by 6 Regiment from Alikianou. The 8th Greek Regiment was to remain in the Alikianou area and attack any airborne troops landing within 1500 yards to the north of that place.
The Divisional Reserve, 20 Battalion and the MG detachment, was to remain south-east of Galatas and be ready to move at an hour’s notice.
These dispositions may fairly be said to have been dictated by three main considerations: the nature of the expected attack, the forces available for defence, and the ground to be covered.
To take the first one first: the expected attack might come by air or sea separately or, in the worst case, simultaneously or close together. It followed that Maleme airfield, the sea coast, and any
flat ground suitable for a landing place must be covered; and the obvious method of doing so was to secure the high ground that commanded these areas.
For this purpose, to move to the next point, only the equivalent of two brigades was available, since 4 Brigade was to form Force Reserve. Yet some reserve had to be held back for immediate counter-attack at divisional level.
Finally, the area to be defended was determined on its eastern limit by the presence of General Weston’s Suda Force and on its northern limit by the sea. But the western and southern limits were in some sense arbitrary and determined only by the amount of manpower Brigadier Puttick possessed. The airfield had to be held, but farther west than this the troops available simply could not stretch; and this was to be a fundamental weakness in the upshot. Similarly to the south it was only the fact that on the one hand the hills after a certain distance became too difficult for landings, and on the other that the troops could not be spread any further on the ground, that forced the defence to take the pattern it did.
In short, the garrison had somehow to be so disposed as to cover Maleme and the AMES; the coast between Maleme and Canea; the vital hills round Canea, which would be a valuable secondary barrier for Canea should Maleme fall or get cut off, and which would cover the low ground to their west; and the low country between Galatas and Maleme.
In the circumstances Puttick could claim to have made a fair attempt at the impossible. The weaknesses in the scheme – a single line of communication towards Maleme; the open ground west of Maleme; the fact that the Alikianou valley could be covered only from the hills and that by too few troops; the weakness in reserves – will be sufficiently apparent in the sequel. It is unlikely that they were not already present to the minds of Puttick and his commanders.
Although the main pattern of the defence was now established some important developments were still to take place, and it will be best to summarise them first from the divisional point of view before going on to treat the sectors in detail.
The most important developments were in the Galatas-Alikianou sector. Here there were weaknesses of both organisation and disposition which it was obviously desirable to temper. The first moves to do so came on 13 May when the Greek authorities gave Brigadier Puttick the right to supervise the dispositions of the Greek regiments. The two concerned in this sector were 6 and
8 Regiments. The 8th was now told to take up positions in the hills east of and overlooking the Alikianou-Canea road; its left flank would cover the road junction just east of Alikianou and leading into the village from the main road; its centre would be based on the hill east of and across the road from Episkopi; and its right would hold the high ground south-east of the power station at Aghya. The regiment’s role would be to cover by fire the flat areas to the north and west and also to help if necessary in guarding the Italian prisoners in the camps at Skines and Fournes. A boundary with Russell Force was also laid down by which the Aghya reservoir became a Greek responsibility.93
The 6th Greek Regiment by 13 May had already been placed in a position south of Oakes Force.94
On 13 May also was issued NZ Division Operation Instruction No. 6. This attempted to meet the weakness of organisation by forming a new brigade, 10 Brigade. It would come into existence at six o’clock next morning and would consist of 20 Battalion, Oakes Force, and 6 Greek Regiment. Under command would be two MG platoons and one troop of 5 Field Regiment, which had by now been equipped with three 75-millimetre howitzers. The commander was to be Lieutenant-Colonel A. S. Falconer of 23 Battalion; but in the upshot Falconer as the senior officer took over 4 Brigade, the senior formation, and Colonel Kippenberger took 10 Brigade.
This new arrangement meant that the whole front line from the coast through the Galatas hills was now under a single command. But there was still a weakness in this sector. Between 6 Regiment and 8 Greek Regiment lay a wide gap. Puttick seems to have felt that, since he had no forces to put there, he must rely on the fact that the gap gave access only to very hilly country on the south-east, and that to the east deep penetration was barred by 2 Greek Regiment and the units of Suda Force.
Perhaps as a final effort towards getting cohesion on this front 8 Greek Regiment was also put under 10 Brigade command on 15 May. Kippenberger, indeed, had already expressed concern about the isolation of 8 Greek Regiment and had argued that it was ‘only a circle on the map. ... and that it was murder to leave such troops in such a position’. He had been answered that ‘in war murder sometimes has to be done’.95
There was one other weakness in the defensive system that gave Puttick great concern at this time. This was the ground west of
Maleme airfield. The troops of 5 Brigade were not numerous enough to extend far enough west to cover this ground effectively, and yet it was clear that it might prove a dangerous assembly area. The obvious force to use for holding it was 1 Greek Regiment; for where it was already placed, at Kisamos Kastelli, it was too isolated to be effective, while Kastelli itself might be assumed too remote from the main objectives to be important.
But before 1 Greek Regiment could be moved the permission of the Greek authorities had to be obtained; and tools and time would be needed if it was to be effectively entrenched in a new position. The permission was duly obtained, but not till 13 May. By this time Puttick had his doubts about the wisdom of the move at so late a stage.96 He conferred with General Freyberg and they agreed that the battalion had better stay where it was; for the attack was thought imminent, there was no transport with which to move the unit swiftly to its new position, too few tools for it to get dug in quickly, and no wire with which to protect the new entrenchments.
It is now time to examine the three brigade sectors in rather closer detail and to notice any significant changes that took place in their strengths or dispositions between this period and the opening of the battle. We may begin with 4 Brigade which, as has been seen, had begun to move back into reserve on 2 May.
Though 4 Brigade, as mobile reserve to Creforce, might expect to be sent on a counter-attack mission in almost any direction, it was obvious none the less that it must be dug in where it stood against initial attack. At this time 19 Battalion was in the area of Karatsos with 20 Battalion south-west of it. The 18th Battalion was in reserve still farther back and holding a line from the beach west of 7 General Hospital south to the Alikianou-Canea road. Brigade HQ was in the Karatsos area until 7 May, when it moved back to a new position about two miles west of Canea and close to the main coast road. From then on the daily routine of the battalions settled down and consisted mostly of digging and infantry training. An addition in strength came with the disembarkation on 10 May of 1 Light Troop RA which had four 3.7-inch howitzers. These guns were sited in the area south of Karatsos.
Then on 12 May 4 Brigade lost 20 Battalion, which moved with a platoon of machine guns to positions east of 7 General Hospital,
no doubt preparing to come under command of 10 Brigade. Here the battalion was joined by the Brigade Band and the Kiwi Concert Party on 14 May.
Fourth Brigade Operation Instruction No. 7 of 16 May gives a clear idea of the brigade’s composition, task and dispositions.97 As well as 18 and 19 Battalions it now included the light tanks of C Squadron, 3 Hussars, 1 Light Troop RA, and a platoon of machine guns. A third battalion, 1 Welch, was to come under command whenever Creforce saw fit and complete the brigade’s infantry strength.
The brigade’s counter-attack role was now definitely stated: it might have to counter-attack towards Heraklion, and unit commanders were required to reconnoitre not only round Maleme and Alikianou but east of Canea to the area of Almiros Bay and Retimo. In addition, 19 Battalion was informed that it would have to carry out any counter-attacks to the north of Suda Bay and so, presumably, in the Akrotiri Peninsula. These instructions show clearly how difficult it was for the senior commanders even at this late stage to predict where the main weight of the attack was to come.
In accordance with this view of their probable role the battalions were warned that, though they must be dug in against air attack and be ready to fight from their positions, they must not open fire on aircraft unless located and attacked or unless aircraft were about to land. In this way they would avoid being pinned down too soon. The artillery likewise, though sited to cover the beaches, was told that its primary role was counter-attack and quick movement. And a touch of optimism, if not fantasy, is introduced with the statement that troop-carrying transport was available to lift the whole brigade.
These orders were further amplified by 4 Brigade Operation Instruction No. 8, issued now for Brigadier Inglis,98 who had come from Egypt in response to a signal sent by General Freyberg on 11 May and who arrived on the 17th to take over 4 Brigade. The 18th and 19th Battalions were to detail a company each for immediate counter-attack against enemy landing in the areas south-east of them. These companies were to counter-attack on the initiative of their commanders.
The only further developments on the brigade front between now and the opening of battle were of minor importance. B
Company 18 Battalion was sent to guard the residence of King George near Transit Camp A on 18 May. Next day 12 Platoon, under Second-Lieutenant Ryan,99 was detached to escort the royal party to another house south of Perivolia and was replaced in B Company by a composite platoon from HQ Company. And the OC of 1 Light Troop RA, who had already refused four offers from 19 Battalion of infantry support, suddenly decided at this eleventh hour that he might require it after all. The request did not reach 19 Battalion till six o’clock on the evening of 19 May. It was too late that night, but a section was detailed to go at first light and was to be followed by two more sections later in the morning.100
The moves of 3 May101 established the units of 5 Brigade in very much the positions they were to occupy until battle began. The main activity in the interim was one of feverish preparation. Trenches were being dug, wire erected, and mines planted. At first and last light the troops stood to, and the day between these times passed rapidly enough for the men with tactical exercises, counter-attack training, and intervals of hard digging with the few shovels that could be found.
Lieutenant-Colonel Andrew took advantage of the airfield’s proximity to fly low over 22 Battalion area on 7 May and submit it to an enemy’s eye inspection. He returned to exhort his men to even greater efforts of camouflage. The day after this, arrangements were made for SOS signals between 22 and 23 Battalion should all else fail. On 10 May Brigadier Hargest, after a reconnaissance beyond the Tavronitis made by his Brigade Major, Captain Dawson,102 began to urge Division to provide a battalion for the open area beyond the river. It was this request which led Puttick to consider 1 Greek Regiment’s position, but when this solution broke down it was decided that 23 Battalion must take over the additional task of repelling any landings on the beaches west of the Tavronitis; and a section of 21 Battalion was sent with a week’s rations to a high point west of the river
from which the country to the north could be observed. In the event of the landings it would report back by telephone.103
Hargest was still concerned, as well he might be, at the mixed nature of the command at Maleme. On 11 May he convened a meeting of the brigade’s commanding officers and the senior officers of the other services. There is no record of the proceedings or of those present and no important change seems to have resulted. It is safe to infer from it only Hargest’s uneasiness.
On 12 May there was set up in the brigade area a Field Punishment Centre that was to play later a not unimportant part. Situated just north-east of Modhion, its orders were to join up with 23 Battalion when warned of attack; failing warning, it was to help defend the guns in the area. Meanwhile Lieutenant Roach,104 the OC, and his 17 guards compounded his prisoners – ‘plonk artists, bashers up, and some guilty of robbery and assault’105 – and set them to work making roads and carrying ammunition.
Even at this late stage able-bodied men were still prized and so when 5 Brigade Band arrived on 14 May, though as a band its presence seemed untimely, its members were promptly given rifles and formed into a defence platoon for Brigade HQ under the Bandmaster, Lieutenant Miller.106 More immediately welcome were the two I tanks from 7 RTR which arrived on the same day and were ensconced that night in prepared positions south of the airfield.
At this time the attack was expected for about 16 or 17 May and the tempo of digging and wiring was hotter than ever. Brigadier Puttick arrived on 15 May to spur the work on, and Brigadier Hargest stopped all leave to the same end. By now he felt some confidence in what had been done so far. ‘We should now be ready to receive the enemy; our defences are nearly as good as we can make them but material promised us has not come to hand – wire and carriers, etc. With it and a few days we shall be ready.’107
To the troops on the ground without access to high-level intelligence reports the signs of invasion impending were becoming plain. Suda Bay was being bombed heavily and daily – the real cause of the lateness or non-arrival of promised materials. And on the evening of 13 May Maleme itself got its first serious battering. On 15 May there was another exceptionally heavy
attack in which Private M. W. Curtis108 rescued the pilot of a shot-down Gladiator while it was under fire – a deed which won him the admiration of all who saw it and for which he was later awarded the MM.
But while the troops speculated about when the attack would come and promised themselves revenge for Greece, the local commanders were still worrying about the naked territory west of the Tavronitis. One of the roles allotted to 21 Battalion was to strengthen the south flank of 22 Battalion where it ran along the bank of the river, moving up as a whole battalion if necessary. Accordingly the CO of 21 Battalion, Major Harding, MC,109 reconnoitred and decided to place one platoon overlooking the river and keep another ready to move there. Thus the whole battalion would have a nucleus on which to build if the need arose. The first platoon duly moved into position on 17 May. During this same period also, officers of 23 Battalion reconnoitred routes to 22 Battalion area to prepare for carrying out their counterattack role.
The artillery situation improved a little in this time of waiting. The first step was the organisation in the second week of May of two troops of gunners from the unarmed men of 5 Field Regiment, who till this time had been assisting 5 Brigade with defence work. On 11 May these two troops, under Captain Beaumont,110 took over three Italian 75-millimetre howitzers and two British 3.7-inch howitzers and towed them to 5 Brigade with trucks borrowed from 1 Light Troop RA. On 13 and 14 May the two troops got into position, A Troop with the 3.7s (Captain Williams111) in 21 Battalion area, and B Troop with the 75s (Lieutenant Cade112) in 23 Battalion area.
A third troop (C Troop under Captain Snadden113), with four French 75-millimetre guns, came up on 16 May and were partly manhandled and partly towed by Bren carrier into a position on a commanding hillside about half a mile north-west of Modhion. Such a position was all the more desirable in that the guns, for
lack of instruments, would have to fire over open sights – the sights themselves being improvised from wood and chewing gum.114
For C Troop the problem of observation posts did not arise. A and B Troops were sited for indirect fire. Eventually the two troop commanders selected an OP on Point 107, in 22 Battalion’s area, and managed to cajole enough wire to rig a telephone line from it to B Troop and thence to A Troop.
The composition, locations, and role of 5 Brigade are all set out in 5 Brigade’s Operation Instruction No. 4 of 18 May. As there were no important developments between then and battle, a summary of the document will give a fair picture of the situation when battle began.
Besides the four infantry battalions (21, 22, 23, and 28 Maori) there were under command 7 Field Company (Captain Ferguson115) and 19 Army Troops Company (Captain Anderson116), fighting as infantry and guarding the road north of Modhion. Major Langbein117 was at first in command of the whole detachment but was evacuated about a week before battle and succeeded by Captain Ferguson. The Field Punishment Centre has already been mentioned. In addition, there were by now three platoons from 1 MG Company: one of these with four guns and mountings was located with 23 Battalion; the other two (one without mountings) with four guns each were with 22 Battalion. Finally, and also under command, there were the three troops of 27 Battery.
In support, but still not under command, were a troop and a half of 156 LAA Battery (six guns), one troop of 7 Australian LAA Battery (four guns), and a troop of C HAA Battery, RM (two 3-inch guns). And the Royal Marines also had two 4-inch guns from Z Coast Defence Battery, the primary task of which was to sink enemy ships or boats landing troops and which were sited on the north-west ridges above the airfield. Finally, there were two I tanks dug in above the airfield. These were to emerge and mop up whenever a major landing should begin. Three light tanks had not yet arrived but were hoped for.
The tasks of the brigade were threefold, and in view of the importance of subsequent events in the sector the relevant part of 5 Brigade Operation Instruction No. 4 may be quoted in full:
a. 5 Inf Bde will maintain a defensive line running east and west from Platanias to Tavronitis River, with special regard to the defence of Maleme aerodrome.
b. In the event of the enemy making an airborne or seaborne attack on any part of the area, to counter-attack and destroy him immediately.
c. The whole essence of the bde’s work is a spirited defence.
The order then deals with the method by which these tasks were to be carried out. The 28th Battalion was to remain round Platanias, patrolling the area and being ready to prevent enemy advances towards Canea or through the hills south of Platanias, and to counter-attack. The Engineer Detachment was likewise to remain in position, patrolling the beach and road in its area and preventing enemy movement on these. The 23rd Battalion was to hold its positions and be ready to counter-attack towards the beach, towards Maleme aerodrome, or towards the area held by the Engineers.
The 21st Battalion was to remain in position ready, should the enemy organise movement from west of the Tavronitis, to move up to the line of the river from the left flank of 22 Battalion, south as far as the gully south-west of Vlakheronitissa; as a preliminary move to this end two platoons and a mortar were to take up a holding position along the river flank. But the battalion also had the alternative role of replacing 23 Battalion if it went forward, and being ready from that position to launch a further counter-attack to the beach or the airfield.
The primary task of 22 Battalion was the ‘static defence’ of the airfield. It was therefore to cover the airfield and approaches with fire, withholding mortar fire until landing had actually taken place. If a major landing were made, support and reserve companies were to be used for immediate counter-attack.118 the enemy expelled, the battalion would resume its positions. Support from 23 Battalion could be called for by telephone, or failing telephone, by Very light (white-green-white).
The order also laid down the task of the MG Company: the platoon with 23 Battalion would cover the beach to its north, the east edge of the airfield and, if necessary, the airfield itself. The two platoons with 22 Battalion would cover the west and forward edges of the airfield and, if necessary, the airfield itself; they would also cover the beaches to the west and east and the bed of the Tavronitis.
One troop of 27 Battery (A Troop) from its position with 21 Battalion was to bring fire from its 3·7s to bear on the airfield, the beaches east and west of it, the area to the west, and the bed of the Tavronitis. B Troop, with its Italian 75s, would cover from 23 Battalion area the airfield, the areas east and west of it, and particularly the beach areas as far west as Kolimbari.119 C Troop, the French 75s, near the FPC, would cover as wide an arc of beach and roads as their open sights permitted.
The order also announced that twenty Bren carriers were expected, of which it was hoped to give four to 22 Battalion – in addition to three 1 Welch carriers already with the unit – two to 23 Battalion, and three to 21 Battalion. Their tasks would be covering and searching work in the battalion areas. The remaining eleven would be split into two detachments under brigade command, of which one with six carriers would hide up in the 21st Battalion’s area for the support of counter-attack and for southward searching, while the other detachment with five carriers would hide up in the NZE area ready to attack to the beaches or search to the south and east.120
The order also stressed the necessity of thorough concealment in the preliminary stages and of controlled fire against enemy aircraft only after troops’ landings had obviously become imminent. Any lull in aircraft attack was to be used for mopping up.
It will be seen from these orders and from an inspection of the map that the brigade plan was dictated by the dual character of its task: the defence against invasion by sea and invasion by air. The threat of the former made Hargest dispose his forces in such a way that every part of the long coastline between Platanias and Maleme was covered. At the same time he tried to have counterattack reserves, in the form of 21 and 23 Battalions, more or less immediately available against an attempt upon the airfield; while he kept 28 Battalion near him at Platanias as a less immediate reserve. In the upshot, however, the distance between Platanias and Maleme, the enemy’s predominance in the air, the faultiness of communications and the fact that the enemy’s landings were sufficiently scattered to distract the two counter-attack battalions, were to make the strung-out defence of 5 Brigade a serious shortcoming.
Tenth Brigade came into existence on 14 May and grouped together under command 20 Battalion, Oakes Force, and 6 Greek Regiment.121 Artillery support was to be provided by the three 75-millimetre howitzers of F Troop 28 Battery, which were sited near Karatsos under 10 Brigade command.
The role of 10 Brigade was to hold a defensive position, facing west and running from the cape of Kolimvithra southwards via Red Hill and Pink Hill to the hill south of Cemetery Hill at 069533.122 It had also to defend the coast between grid 10 and Cape Ay Marina. The details of this position will be more closely examined with the composition of the units holding it.
Oakes Force had been formed from gunners without guns and drivers without trucks in the early days of May and organised into three battalions, commanded by Major Philp, Major Lewis, and Major Sprosen. The ground that it occupied at this period was much what it was to defend in the actual fighting. Its right flank rested on the sea about a mile and a half west of 7 General Hospital. From there it followed a ridge south-west to Red Hill, and thence to Ruin Hill. At Ruin Hill it turned east to take in Wheat Hill, and then went south again to include Pink Hill, south-east of Galatas. A continuation of the line was projected beyond Pink Hill and south-east to Cemetery Hill (also called Searchlight Hill), but on 2 May this part of the line was still unoccupied. The occupied line, in an arc to the north-west from Pink Hill, was held at this date by 3, 2, and 1 Battalions of Oakes Force, counting north in that order.
At this time 1 Battalion of Oakes Force consisted of men from 4 RMT, 7 Anti-Tank Regiment, 1 Survey Troop, 6 Field Regiment, and part of 5 Field Regiment; 2 Battalion of men mostly from 4 Field Regiment; and 3 Battalion of men from 5 Field Regiment and the Divisional Ammunition Company.
Between 7 and 8 May Oakes Force was badly depleted by the withdrawal of certain elements for evacuation to Egypt. Thus all the men from 7 Anti-Tank Regiment, 1 Survey Troop, 6 Field Regiment, and the Divisional Ammunition Company went back to transit camp and were ultimately embarked.123 the force was
further reduced by the withdrawal of artillerymen to form the troops of artillery that went to 4 and 5 Brigades. And it lost its commander, Major Oakes, who left with the unarmed parties to be evacuated; a serious loss, since his spirit and energy had been of great value to a force which without tradition as a unit or experience as infantry was bound to depend more than most on the personality of its commander.
Reorganisation was therefore necessary and was complete by 15 May, the force – from now on officially called the Composite Battalion – being now much weaker in numbers and even more mixed in character, the subdivision into three battalions being tacitly dropped.
The command after the departure of Major Oakes devolved upon Major H. M. Lewis. The force kept its tripartite organisation, the sub-units being: RMT Group or 1 Company, commanded by Captain Veale,124 with about 270 officers and men of 4 RMT and some officers attached from 4 Field Regiment; 4 Field Regiment Group or 2 Company, commanded by Captain Bliss,125 and about 200 strong; Mixed Group or 3 Company, commanded by Major J. F. R. Sprosen, and made up of some 250 men from the Divisional Petrol Company under Captain McDonagh,126 about 140 men from 2 Echelon Divisional Supply Company, under Captain Boyce,127 and about 150 men of 5 Field Regiment under the direct command of Major Sprosen.128
The RMT Group was responsible for the sector extending from the sea to Red Hill; 4 Field Regiment Group’s line carried on along the forward or west slopes of Red Hill south to Ruin Hill; the Mixed Group held Ruin Hill with 2 Echelon Divisional Supply, Wheat Hill with the group from 5 Field Regiment, and Pink Hill with the Divisional Petrol Company.129
Work had been going on in these positions ever since Oakes Force had been taken over; and indeed work had been done before then by 1 Welch, on Red Hill for example – although the trenches dug by these latter were to prove dangerously wide when the time to use them came. But the work was hampered by the scarcity of
wire and digging tools, and in the early days the men had spent the greater part of their time in the elementary infantry training which they needed so badly. Fortunately, from about 11 May onwards, wire became more plentiful, and in one night, despite lack of pickets or experience, the battalion succeeded in erecting a barrier that ran along the whole front. Tools never became plentiful, however – at the last moment, for example, 4 RMT got seven picks and five shovels, all well worn.
On the left of the line occupied by the Composite Battalion was 6 Greek Regiment, who relieved 20 Battalion on 13 May and whose positions ran from the south of Pink Hill, south-east across Cemetery Hill to the south-east side of the Alikianou-Canea road. It seems to have moved into position in this area before 12 May; for 19 Battalion staged a demonstration company attack on 12 May to assist in its training. This training was all the more necessary in that the Greeks had seen only four weeks’ service, had fired no rounds from their ancient rifles – when battle began they had three rounds per man – and were even shorter of other equipment than the Composite Battalion. Their positions cost Colonel Kippenberger a good deal of concern: he spent much time in trying to assist them, and on 15 May elements of 20 Battalion were sent over to help them with their wiring. This enabled a barrier to be put up from the junction with the Divisional Petrol Company at Pink Hill, south-east to the stream on the other side of the Alikianou-Canea road.
The supply of ammunition improved a few days before the battle but not all of it was distributed to the companies before battle began.
The position of 8 Greek Regiment in relation to the rest of 10 Brigade has already been discussed, and its tactical dispositions will be dealt with more fully when the time comes to treat of its part in the actual fighting. It will perhaps be enough here to reaffirm its isolation from the rest of the brigade, and to add that in training and equipment it was if anything worse off than the other Greek regiments.
One more unit in 10 Brigade remains to be discussed, the Divisional Cavalry. This unit had moved to the area of Lake Aghya in the first week of May and taken up positions facing south-west, with left flank on the lake and right flank to the north-west of the lake. Here Major Russell regrouped his force into three squadrons, A, B, and C. Colonel Kippenberger visited them on 17 May. Considering that they had neither the weapons nor the men to carry out their task of commanding the west end of the Alikianou valley, he told Russell that if when the attack came
he found that he could not effect anything he was to fall back via the high ground and rejoin the main position of the brigade.
The account of the situation in the brigade sectors is now complete. But a word must be said about the position of 1 Greek Regiment at Kisamos Kastelli. This force was too remote from the main position to be easily knit into the main force, and it is true that the events to take place in its sector could hardly affect the battle. None the less, as the regiment had been given a party of New Zealand officers and men to help with its training as early as 5 May and as it had some heavy fighting, some brief account of it seems necessary at this point. When Lieutenant-Colonel Gentry and Colonel Kippenberger visited Kisamos Kastelli on 6 May they found the regiment some 1000 strong and Major Bedding,130 who was in charge of the New Zealand party, doing his best to get them organised – not the easiest of tasks since most of the Greeks had been soldiers for only a fortnight. Then came tentatives to move the force to positions west of the Tavronitis; but finally it was decided to leave it at Kastelli with the instruction that if it had to retire it was to go south into the hills and then east to join 6 and 8 Greek Regiments.
Bedding soon had his force organised into two battalions, A and B. A Battalion, with 500 men and 300 rifles, held the sector from the Factory as far as the Beach Road but excluding it, and from the coast to the main road, including it. B Battalion, with the same number of men and rifles, held the sector from the Petrol Dump to White Road, which it included, and from Rock Point south to the Platanos road. It was also B Battalion’s task to destroy the petrol dump if a landing were successful and to hold the pass across the hills to the west.131
In addition to these two battalions there was a mobile reserve formed by the New Zealand party and a group of the local gendarmerie, who were well armed, well officered, and well trained – ‘worth the two battalions put together in action’.132 And Bedding
had also sponsored the formation of a local Home Guard which, organised by a veteran of the Venezelist fighting, one Kondopirakis, watched the coast and did night patrolling.
Ammunition was a great difficulty, and since supplies that were obtained did not fit the rifles the troops had only three rounds a man. The same was true of the ammunition that was obtained for some antique machine guns acquired from 2 Greek Regiment. Moreover, the shortage of rifles was never made up beyond 600; for by the time more became available it was too late to collect them.
The foregoing may suffice for a general picture of the position in the brigade sectors. But how these would fare once battle was joined largely depended on the organisation in the rear. For on this they had to rely both before and during the battle for their supplies, their information, and their orders. To complete the picture of the general situation of the New Zealand Division as it developed up to the outbreak of battle, therefore, some space must be devoted to the activities not only of Divisional HQ but of its supporting troops and services and the problems with which they had to struggle.
So few were the guns that the account already given of the artillery under the various brigades need scarcely be amplified. Nor need we dwell further on the engineers with 5 Brigade. But something must be said of NZE Headquarters itself and of 5 Field Park Company. The former, under Major Hanson, MM,133 who had been appointed CRE to the Division on 29 April, was active in the early days of May carrying out a coastal reconnaissance, making a variety of mines and Molotov cocktails to help out the meagre munition supplies of the troops, and building a Battle HQ for Division. This latter was complete by 14 May, and NZE HQ itself moved from Galatas to the same neighbourhood three days later.
Apart from NZE HQ and the group with 5 Brigade, the only other New Zealand engineers to arrive from Greece were some men of 6 Field Company and the greater part of 5 Field Park Company. There were too few of the former for it to be worth while holding them in Crete and they left on the Rodi for Egypt on 9 May. The 5th Field Park Company had a preliminary period
acting as infantry in the early days after their arrival and later did various jobs for 4 Brigade. But on 13 May they were put under the orders of the Chief Engineer Creforce. Here their sections did a miscellany of tasks, which included the preparation of a headquarters for the naval staff, work on a tunnel scheme, a base line survey for AA and naval guns, and a share in the attempt to make some coastal vessels fit for supply voyages round the coasts.
For one further important task volunteers were recruited from all the New Zealand engineer units. As air raids increased in intensity it became more and more difficult to ensure sufficient unloading in Suda Bay, civilian stevedores proving inadequate in morale. Accordingly, Australian and New Zealand help was asked for and given. In this difficult and dangerous work the volunteers served with a cheerful courage and efficiency that was beyond praise.
The organisation of even an approximately efficient signals system was not the least of the problems that the Division had to face at the outset. Here the difficulty was not so much one of men as of equipment. The supply of this was so meagre that upwards of a hundred men were sent back to Egypt with the Rodi; for, had they remained, they would have had to be used as infantry, a role for which their specialised training both unfitted them and made them too valuable.
By 3 May those that were to remain had been organised into two main parties. One party, 45 men under Major Grant134 and Lieutenant Ambury,135 took over Creforce Signals; 42 men under Captain Pryor136 and 2 Lieutenant Foubister137 made up the second party and took over Divisional Signals. A system which worked as well as shortages and enemy control of the air would permit was devised. Brigade and battalion signal stations were at almost full strength; there was communication by wireless between Force and Division (No. 9 set), between Division and 4 Brigade (No. 9 set), between Division and 5 Brigade (No. 11 set), and between 5 Brigade and 22 Battalion (No. 18 set). Communication by line was relatively complete: thus, to take 5 Brigade as the most important, Brigade HQ had direct line to 28 Battalion, the Engineers and one of its OPs, direct line to 22 and 23 Battalions
and through it to 21 Battalion and 27 Battery. For despatch riders there were by the time battle began two or three motor cycles to each brigade and at Division.
This organisation was not established without struggle and to establish it at all heroic efforts had to be made at making do. Its weaknesses were considerable and serious, partly because it was so difficult to replace scarce material once it had been put out of action and partly because of the conditions in which the battle was to be fought. These things will become sufficiently evident when the time comes to treat of the fighting.
Little has been said as yet of the medical services, and this seems an appropriate place for a brief sketch of their development up to the beginning of the battle. When the first troops were being evacuated from Greece the only equipped medical units already on the island were 7 British General Hospital, on an open peninsula rather more than two miles west of Canea, and 189 British Field Ambulance at Khalepa, a suburb north-east of Canea. The 7th General Hospital had 600 beds, and as the time went on and the urgency became great 189 Field Ambulance was also fitted out by means of various improvisations as an emergency hospital. The only subsequent arrival to be reckoned more or less strictly as a hospital was 1 Tented Hospital RN, with 60 beds, which came from Egypt on 10 May and was set up at Mournies.
The evacuation of Greece brought reinforcements in the shape of field ambulances and field hygiene sections. These were: 4 Light Field Ambulance, 168 Light Field Ambulance, 2/1 Australian Field Ambulance, 2/2 Australian Field Ambulance, 2/7 Australian Field Ambulance, 5 and 6 New Zealand Field Ambulances, 48 British Field Hygiene Section, 2 Armoured Division Field Hygiene Section, and 4 New Zealand Field Hygiene Section.
It is only the New Zealand units that concern us here. But it should be remarked of the other new arrivals that they, like the New Zealand units, were all very badly off for all kinds of equipment and brought with them only what their devoted members had been able to carry out of Greece.
With the New Zealand units had come the matron and 51 nurses of 1 NZ General Hospital. As soon as they arrived they put themselves at the disposal of 7 General Hospital, which in these early days was overwhelmingly busy with the flood of wounded from the Greek campaign. But it was clear that for all their courage and usefulness Crete was too advanced a position for them, and that they might be an embarrassment in the battle to come. They were evacuated accordingly by the Ionia on 29 April and
reached Egypt safely, though not without attention from enemy aircraft.
The 5th Field Ambulance soon after its arrival moved to Ay Marina and set up an MDS to serve 5 Brigade, 4 Field Hygiene Section moving with it. Here both remained until 17 May, when they moved to a more forward position at Modhion. Even in the daily superintendence of the troop’s health there was much for them to do: malaria had to be guarded against and the conditions – shortage of the tools with which to dig latrines, for example – made it necessary to put even more than the usual emphasis on questions of routine hygienic discipline.
The 6th Field Ambulance had at first established two MDSs, one at Perivolia for the reception of walking wounded and the other not far from 7 General Hospital, to which it was of considerable assistance and for which by 11 May it was providing a convalescent depot.
The New Zealand force also supplied help to the higher organisation. On 7 May Colonel Kenrick138 was appointed DDMS Creforce. Colonel Bull139 took his place as DDMS NZ Division, and Major Elliott140 was made DADMS. They had much to worry them: among other things the problem of inadequate hospitalisation and inadequate supplies. But they were able to do a good deal, and the situation became somewhat easier with the departure of a hospital ship taking off wounded on 5 May and again on 16 May.
Wherever one turns, in fact, at this stage of the preparations for battle one encounters this same problem, supply. We have already seen how much it governed what could be done in the forward sectors, and it was as prominent in the perplexities of Division as it was in the minds of those at Creforce HQ and in the messages of General Freyberg to General Wavell.
At first supplies of clothing and blankets had been at least as urgently required as supplies of more warlike stores. But with the establishment of a clothing dump at Ay Marina on 27 April and issues of clothing to the brigades on 30 April and from 5 May
onwards – 5 Brigade getting first preference because there was still thought to be some prospect that the others might be evacuated – anxieties began to turn more and more on tools, ammunition, and weapons, though the question of rations also could never be neglected.
As early as 30 April Creforce was able to make a stock of grenades, 3-inch mortar bombs, and small-arms ammunition available, and these were passed on as quickly as possible to battalions. To facilitate such distribution the A/Q, Major Peart,141 set up his headquarters in Galatas on 1 May, along with DADOS (E), Major Kelsey.142 Headquarters of the ASC was at Ay Marina, where also was the DID,143 the latter intent on its task of building up a dump of 60,000 rations in the area and another dump of 20,000 in the area of 22 Battalion. In this it was successful, and it had succeeded besides in dumping three days’ rations with each unit by 14 May. The fact that only a very few trucks were available for these purposes makes the accomplishment all the more creditable.
The arrival of such artillery as the Division was to get has already been dealt with. On 4 May the Division received its allotment of 2800 coils of wire, 5800 pickets and 200 shovels, and these were shared out to battalions as fairly as might be, the supply to be supplemented by later allotments, of which enough did reach the various sectors for each unit to have the protection of some wiring.
Hopes were high at one stage for 35 Bren carriers for the divisional sector. But an untimely raid on Suda Bay brought the number down in actuality to ten. Supplies of machine guns and small-arms ammunition never really came up to necessity, though fortunately the weapons and ammunition captured from the enemy in the early days of battle made a useful supplement.
The weakness in transport was to some extent remedied by the allotment to the sector on 17 May of 36 15-cwt. trucks and seven motor cycles. The latter were of use mainly for despatch riders, while of the former four were retained at Divisional HQ and the others distributed. They proved of very great use at awkward moments in the battle but were, of course, too few to make the troops independent of marching.
In any battle much of what happens is explicable only if we take into account not only the strength and plans of each side but also what each side took to be the strength and plans of the other. This is the province of military intelligence. It has already been shown that in Crete the defence had appreciated with considerable success the probable landing places of the invasion and the manner of it. But it seems worthwhile at this point to consider how widespread among the troops before the battle was this estimate of the enemy’s intentions.
In fact, if inference from unit war diaries is safe, the enemy’s general intention was broadly known at a very early stage. On 30 April the war diaries of 5 Brigade, HQ NZA, and 23 Battalion all record information from Creforce that the enemy was assembling troop-carriers, bombers, and gliders for the invasion of Crete and that this invasion might be expected for 1 or 2 May. A message from General Freyberg to the troops on 1 May also warned them to ‘be ready for immediate action’, and this he reinforced in subsequent addresses to the officers and NCOs of the various brigades in which he stressed the inevitability of attack. A Creforce instruction,144 passed on by Division,145 indicated that the attack would be by both land and sea, and a similar instruction from 5 Brigade emphasized the airborne aspect of the coming assault.146
Nor was what had already been learnt about the methods of enemy paratroops neglected. Creforce sent out useful reports on this subject and typed notes, no doubt based on the Creforce reports, were issued by Division on 13 May to the brigades. These notes recommended swift counter-attacks, the rounding up of paratroops on the aerodromes before the arrival of their airborne supports, and the swift movement of troops to any threatened locality. The kinds of topographical feature that were important were enumerated and the basic principles useful for training emphasized.
So far as 5 Brigade was concerned at least, these notes were accompanied by a visit from Brigadier Puttick, who again dwelt on the probable character of the attack and warned everyone to be alert and ready to counter-attack.
The attack by this time was expected for any day between 17 and 19 May by an intelligence report communicated to the battalions on the 16th. According to it the enemy forces available were 11 Corps and 22 German Air Force Division;147 there would be an airborne
force of some 25,000 to 35,000 men and a seaborne force of 10,000 men. The first attack would be launched by 100 bombers and heavy fighters. Then 600 troop-carriers would follow up and there would be successive waves of paratroops. The seaborne attack would be escorted by the Italian navy. And the objectives of the enemy would be Maleme, Canea, Retimo, and the Aghya valley.
May the 17th came and went without invasion. Lest anyone become optimistically sceptical 5 Brigade warned its units next day that the enemy was nearly ready with his preparations. But 18 May also passed without attack. When on 19 May it still had not come there were some among the more sanguine, both in the front line and back in Cairo, who thought the attack would not come at all. But their doubts were not shared by General Wavell and were to have but a very short life.
It will be seen from all this that the nature and strength of the invasion was not only appreciated with remarkable accuracy, but that by the time the battle was to begin there was little chance that even the obscurest fatigue man could be ignorant of what he was about to face. Thus whatever else the enemy might have in his favour he would not be able to claim surprise; nor should the defence be able to use it as excuse. Unluckily, however, though an accurate appreciation of enemy intentions is always invaluable and was so on this occasion, its full value largely depends on the defence’s having time and material with which to prepare counter-measures. And in these respects, as has already been shown and as will appear only too often in the sequel, the defence was bitterly handicapped.
Little now remains to be said of Divisional HQ itself. From its formation on 30 April with Brigadier Puttick in command and Lieutenant-Colonel Gentry as his GSO 1, it had been trying to grapple with a thousand problems and at the same time build itself out of little or nothing into the smooth-running engine needed to operate a fighting machine. The main features of this process will have already emerged from the narrative so far. The machine in action we shall see in the subsequent story. But for the sake of tidiness it will be convenient to give at this point a short account of its dealing with one of the problems that dogged its early days: that of evacuating the troops who would not be required in action.
At first it had been the understanding at Creforce that the troops from Greece would be evacuated to Egypt at the earliest opportunity and discussions were begun at Force HQ on 28 April on that assumption. Even after it became clear that this was too much to hope, so far as New Zealand Division was concerned the
idea seems to have persisted that there would be a substantial reduction in the numbers remaining.148
No records of the conferences in which the problem must have been discussed are extant, however, and the underlying policy is best inferred from what in fact took place. The first step was a warning order sent out to the brigades on 1 May that all unarmed artillerymen would be under three hours’ notice to move from 2 May. And on the following day most of those in this category began to make their way to Transit Camp A; while the Divisional Troops Supply Officer and a small advance party went to Suda Bay to await the first ship. At this time there were evidently expectations still of a large-scale evacuation, for one document dated 4 May gives the strength of the Division on that date as 8300, but records the New Zealand strength expected for 14 May as 4500.
On 8 May there were further movements of unarmed or specialist troops towards the transit camp, notably of the Divisional Ammunition Company from Oakes Force, HQ Divisional Supply Column, and 1 Echelon Divisional Supply and J Section. On the same day HQ ASC were also awaiting a movement order, and those of Divisional Signals who had not been allotted tasks received theirs.
Embarkation took place on the two following days on the Rodi and Belray, which sailed on 9 May, and on the City of Canterbury, which sailed on 10 May. These three vessels evacuated the unarmed men of 4 Field Regiment, 1 Survey Troop, the spare elements of Divisional Signals, 7 Anti-Tank Regiment, HQ NZA, elements of Divisional Supply, and HQ ASC. They reached Egypt without major mishap. A further evacuation took place with the departure of the Nieuw Zeeland on 14 May carrying the Divisional Ammunition Company and all the remaining elements of Divisional Supply, except 1 Echelon which was left in the transit camp and 2 Echelon which had stayed with 10 Brigade. This ship also arrived safely in Egypt. As it turned out, there were to be no further evacuations, and on 19 May the men of 1 Echelon Divisional Supply were organised for defence under Captain W. S. Page of 44 RTR, along with other miscellaneous troops left in the transit camp.
All the features that made Crete valuable to the British made it desirable for the Germans to drive them out. Nor were there only negative reasons. As 12 Army Strategic Survey puts it: ‘If the English were driven from it the Constanza–Corinth–Italy sea-route – vital for the Axis – would be safe, the British fleet would
be completely shot out of the Aegean, the British power in the Levant would be appreciably weakened, and our air force would have an excellent base for attacks on Egypt and the Suez Canal.’149
Indeed, on 26 October 1940, when the operations staff of the German High Command had first considered the implications of the expected Italian attack on Greece, General Jodl had taken the line that such an attack would certainly lead to a British occupation of Crete and that therefore the Italians should seize the island at the same time as they launched their invasion of the mainland. But there was no time for this to be attempted.150 And the day before, on 25 October, General Halder had supported the view that the desert supply problem could never be solved until Alexandria was a German base, and that this in turn depended on mastery of the Mediterranean and possession of Crete by means of air landing.151
The British occupation of Crete caused the Germans concern, for they now feared bombing attacks from Cretan bases on the Romanian oilfields. Plans were therefore considered for occupying continental Greece and establishing air bases which could be used to counter those of the British; and by the end of the year these were extended to envisage an occupation of the whole of Greece. But in April 4 Air Fleet, which was responsible for the operations against Yugoslavia and Greece, had come to the conclusion that Crete itself was of such importance that it should be invaded. Conferences took place between the CGS of the German Air Force, the CGS of 11 Air Corps, and the GOC of 7 Air Division. And on 15 April as a result of these General Löhr,152 GOC 4 Air Fleet, submitted a plan to Goering who in turn submitted it to Hitler.153
In the preliminary discussions with Goering, Student154 himself had talks with Goering and his CGS on 20 April, and on 21 April with Hitler.155 In Student’s conception the capture of Crete was a stepping stone. From it Cyprus would be invaded, and then Alexandria and the Suez Canal. So far as Crete itself was
concerned Hitler was convinced – it is not clear that he believed in the operations to follow, though Student claims that it was only the heavy losses in Crete that brought about their cancellation.
On 25 April Hitler issued Directive 28: ‘An operation to occupy the island of Crete (Operation MERCURY) is to be prepared with the object of using Crete as an air base against Britain in the Eastern Mediterranean.’
At this stage 22 Airborne Division was to be used; but on 28 April it was decided that, to avoid delay to the invasion of Russia, a mountain division should be used instead. Seventh Air Division would supply the paratroops, and 11 Air Corps would be used as it was not required for the first stages of the invasion of Russia. The attack on Crete was to take place on 17 May, support would be given by 8 Air Corps,156 and a sea invasion would be launched concurrently with the aid of Admiral South-East.
There were difficulties, however. Greek airfields and ground organisation were inadequate and would have been so even without such damage as the withdrawing British force had been able to inflict. The trained units which would normally have been responsible for creating that efficiency on the ground without which efficiency in the air is impossible were earmarked for Russia. Fourth Air Fleet, therefore, was dependent on civilian and prisoner-of-war labour for much of what had to be done.
Then, again, the meagre Greek railways had been made useless by the Germans’ own bombers or by the retiring British. Sea traffic was the only practicable alternative for supply; for the roads were poor and the bridges often blown, while all air transport that could be spared from Russia was needed for the attack itself. Even supply by sea was difficult. There was little tonnage, especially in tankers, and harbourage was inadequate.
The individual formations also had their problems. Eighth Air Corps was to provide fighter and bomber support for the attack. But while getting itself into a state of readiness it had other tasks: protection of supply ships, sea reconnaissance, and preparatory raids on Crete. Its success in these tasks was considerable, though perhaps less than might be expected when the British weakness in aircraft and AA is taken into account.
Unlike 8 Air Corps, 11 Air Corps was able to give all its attention to preparations for the main attack. As it would have to carry through the actual landing of glider troops, paratroops, and airborne forces, considerable preliminary concentrations were
necessary; the more especially as 7 Air Division, the chief component, was not in Greece when the decision to invade was taken.
The Commander of 7 Air Division, Lieutenant-General Süssmann,157 had been sent to Bulgaria on 26 March along with the staff of the division. Under him was 2 Parachute Regiment which he was to have ready for an attack on Lemnos. This proved unnecessary, and in the event the regiment was used for the descent on the Corinth Canal on 26 April. By 2 May it was concentrated, with a battalion of 3 Parachute Regiment, near Corinth.
On 20 April the rest of the division was still in Germany, and so were the corps troops of 11 Air Corps. Advance elements left for Romania within the next week and by 8 May the whole force was concentrated there. Thence it moved by road and under 12 Army command down to Attica, the last detachments arriving by 14 May. In Attica the troops were stationed about the airfields from which the invasion was to take off.
The normal infantry component – as distinct from paratroops – of 11 Air Corps, 5 Mountain Division and elements of 6 Mountain Division which were already in Greece, were allotted to General Student. These were stiffened by an armoured unit and a motor cycle battalion from 5 Armoured Division, by an engineer battalion and two AA units.
Under command of 11 Air Corps also were nine bomber groups specially adapted for transport duties and one for glider operations. These groups, after action in Greece or Yugoslavia, had been withdrawn to Germany early in May for refitting and reservicing. But by 14 May they were again concentrated round Athens with a total of about 500 serviceable Junkers 52.
While 4 Air Fleet and its two corps were busy with their preparations, the sea component of the invasion also had its preliminary measures to take. Admiral South-East’s main task was to get together the vessels which would ferry arms, men, and supplies to the support of the troops landed by air. To this end he succeeded in assembling two flotillas of motor vessels or caiques which were to carry the first wave of heavy arms and supplies; two steamer flotillas which were to take further heavy weapons, tanks and AA; and a number of German and Italian minesweepers.
By 14 May the troops had been assembled and were ready for action. But the ground and supply organisation without which they could not function was not yet complete. The first necessity was the seizure, allotment, and preparation of airfields. Those on
The mainland had fallen automatically when W Force evacuated Greece; those on the islands had next to be taken over: Kithera and Antikithera as AA bases; Melos for supply and air-sea rescue; and Scarpanto as a Stuka base. The airfields were then allotted to the formations, 11 Air Corps getting Corinth, Megara, Tanagra, Topolia, Dadion, Elevsis and Phaleron, of which the last was later transferred to 8 Air Corps.
The High Command had estimated that the battle would be of ten days’ duration. Major-General Seibt, in charge of supplies at 11 Air Corps, accordingly planned for the provision of 2,500,000 gallons of fuel and lubricant, a sufficient quantity of rations, medical equipment, jumping gear, and the thousand and one other items required. All this had to be brought from bases in Germany, and as the troops moving south monopolised the damaged and difficult roads it was necessary to use sea transport for the last stages of the journey. It was not until 17 May that unloading at Piraeus was complete. Moreover, two of the fuel ships had to come from Italy and this was a further cause of delay. Only intense effort got the last of the fuel to the airfields on 19 May. The result was that the invasion date had to be postponed to the 20th.
German military and air intelligence had been active in this interim. As soon as the conquest of Greece was complete it became imperative that as much as possible should be found out about the garrison and defences of Crete. For this purpose two reconnaissance units of 8 Air Corps were ordered to keep continuous watch on shipping movements round the island, to discover what shipping was in the ports, and to locate the RAF stations. A third reconnaissance unit, from 11 Air Corps, was to ascertain the whereabouts of airfields, fortifications, artillery positions, and troop locations. At the same time agents were set to work to get similar information and prisoners taken in Greece were interrogated.
As a result the Germans built up the following picture. The garrison they appreciated to be the equivalent of a British division of two infantry brigades, one artillery regiment, and an unknown number of troops evacuated from Greece. Because shipping movements always took place at night, they could not decide whether troops were being evacuated or whether such movement as took place was connected with supply only. They seem to have suspected that some evacuation was going on.
The three main airfields were identified without difficulty, though the number of aircraft using them was overestimated. Anti-aircraft defences were considered to be strong round Canea, Suda Bay, and the airfields; but photographic reconnaissance revealed little in the way of fortification. Nor do the dispositions of the defending infantry seem to have been located with any accuracy.
The attitude of the Cretan population was also of some interest. The High Command, with a characteristic German misjudgment of immaterial forces, was inclined to believe that the Greeks either sympathised with the Axis or, for the sake of better terms, would at least be neutral. According to 11 Air Corps an attempt was even made on 10 May to make contact with pacifist circles on the island through the intelligence service of Admiral Canaris.158 This does not seem to have succeeded; but even so the attitude of the Cretans as it was actually to reveal itself must have come to the enemy as something of a shock.
The plan that lay behind these preparations was not reached without argument. At first two alternatives were canvassed, one favoured by 4 Air Fleet and the other by 11 Air Corps. The first favoured concentration of both 7 Air Division and 5 Mountain Division on the Maleme-Canea sector. This would have the advantage that always goes with concentration of forces: it would mean that if the defence proved stronger than was expected there would be strength enough to deal with it; and it would enable 8 Air Corps to devote all its effort to the protection of the ground forces in a single area.
General Student, however, favoured simultaneous descents at the seven most important points, of which four were Maleme, Canea, Retimo and Heraklion. The advantage of this would be that, if the landings succeeded, the main centres of defence would have been seized.
There were, of course, disadvantages in both proposals. If the first plan met difficulties and the attack was held up in the hills, the defenders would have the opportunity to use their airfields in the east of the island. But the second plan had the weaknesses implicit in any dispersion of forces; and not only would the troops on the ground be divided into a number of different and widely separated groups which could not give one another mutual support, but the air effort of 8 Air Corps would be divided as well.
The High Command of the German Air Force finally adopted a plan which aimed to have the best of both. The Maleme-Canea sector would be occupied and consolidated during the morning of the first day, and in the afternoon the eastern sector – Retimo and Heraklion. In this way 8 Air Corps could bring its full weight to bear at one time in each sector, while all the airfields would be denied to the defence.
Available to carry out this plan were the following:
(i) 11 Air Corps. This consisted of a reconnaissance unit; ten groups of transport aircraft; the Assault Regiment;
7 Air Division with its three parachute regiments and divisional troops; 5 Mountain Division with three mountain regiments (one from 6 Mountain Division); and corps troops consisting of an armoured battalion, a motor-cycle battalion, and two AA batteries.
(ii) 8 Air Corps. This consisted of three groups of Dornier 17 bombers; two groups of Junkers 88 bombers; one group of Heinkel III bombers; three groups of Stuka dive-bombers; three groups of fighter-bombers; three groups of fighters; and two reconnaissance units.159
(iii) Admiral South-East. Under his command were two flotillas of motor vessels and two of steamers; two destroyers; twelve torpedo boats; speedboats and minesweepers.
Eleventh Air Corps had a total of about 22,750 men available for landing. Of these, 750 men from the élite Assault Regiment were to land by glider, 10,000 were to land by parachute, 5000 were to be airborne, and 7000 were to go by sea (2000 of them paratroops and the remainder from 5 Mountain Division). The various transport groups of aircraft gave a total of about 500. And in addition to these were 70 or 80 gliders with an appropriate number of Junkers 52 adapted to tow them.
To support these 8 Air Corps had a total of about 650 aircraft: 280 bombers, 150 dive-bombers, 90 twin-engined fighters, 90 single-engined fighters, and 40 reconnaissance aircraft.
The roles of the formations were laid down in accordance with the general plan. Eleventh Air Corps was to operate in two waves, one in the morning and one in the afternoon. The first wave was to occupy the airfield at Maleme and the defence positions round Canea and Suda Bay. The second was to seize the airfields at Retimo and Heraklion. This would enable airborne troops to land on the captured airfields on the second day. The attacks on Canea and Suda Bay would neutralise the control of the defence at the centre and pin down any reserves concentrated there. Once the first paratroops had been landed they would be reinforced by further parachute descents, by landings from transport aircraft of airborne troops, and by seaborne troops. Eventually the whole 11 Air Corps would be ashore.
Eighth Air Corps had the tasks of preliminary air reconnaissance and softening attacks. On the morning of the actual invasion it was to renew these preparatory attacks, destroy what remained of
The RAF, and neutralise the ground defences. It was also to protect the landings of the first and second waves of 11 Air Corps and support them in their ground fighting. Finally, it was to cover the seaborne troops and destroy any British naval forces in Cretan waters.
The preparatory attack by 8 Air Corps had already begun on 14 May with the object of destroying the RAF, silencing the AA batteries – especially the one on the cruiser York in Suda Bay – and preventing the movement of shipping. By 19 May this policy had been largely successful: the RAF had withdrawn its few aircraft and shipping could move only by night. Suda Bay was full of sunk vessels and much badly needed equipment had been lost.160 But the AA batteries were still in action.
For the main battle on 20 May 8 Air Corps had its timetable worked out with the greatest possible precision and detail. Fighters and bombers were to protect the approach of the transport aircraft, their unloading of paratroops and their return, against attack from the air. British ground defences were to be kept down and weakened by bombing, dive-bombing, and strafing until just before the first invasion wave arrived. And special instructions were issued for co-operation thereafter between ground forces and fighters. The whole complicated operation was worked out to the most meticulous standards of German staff planning.
The ships under Admiral South-East also had a role which was considered essential. For it was thought that communications between the mainland and Crete should be established as soon as possible so that heavy weapons, motor transport, and supplies could be brought in at an early stage. It was calculated that Suda Bay,
Canea, and Heraklion would not be clear of mines until the third day. This was why the two motor flotillas were collected; for it was planned to avoid using the ports and to reinforce the paratroops on the first and second days by landing on the coasts. One flotilla was to reach the open coast west of Maleme on the afternoon of 20 May and the other was to land troops on the coast east of Heraklion on 21 May. Each was to carry a mountain battalion, as well as heavy weapons and supplies.
The preparations for mounting this formidable assault took longer than was originally expected, and so the intended date of 15 May had first to be changed to 17 May and then to the 20th. By the evening of 19 May all arrangements were complete, the paratroops duly briefed were bivouacked not far from the aircraft which were to drop them next day on the other side of the water, the aircraft themselves were all in readiness, and only the dawn had still to be waited for.