Chapter 3: First Day of Battle: 20 May
Maleme and 22 Battalion
The dawn of Tuesday, 20 May, like many earlier dawns on Crete, gave back to the twisted olive trees their daytime grey and revealed beneath them men standing to their arms. As the light increased the noise from the company areas of cooks preparing breakfast grew louder, and the troops, the end of stand-to approaching, began to feel in their pockets for the cigarettes they would roll and soon be smoking. The air attacks that also came with the daylight seemed no more than an assurance that this day would pass like others. So at stand-down men merely grounded their weapons, lit their cigarettes, and sniffing the air from the company kitchens or cocking a wary eye upwards prepared circumspectly to join breakfast queues with their dixies. It would be another day of sunlight, of route marches with a swim at the end of them, of putting final patches to the defences, or of rehearsing company tactics on the olive-clad hillsides. There was scepticism enough for those who declared that today would be the day.
Nevertheless, it was the day. Already by half past seven the attack from the air was intense enough for those in the vital areas between Canea and Maleme to realise that something unusual was on the way. By eight o’clock there was no longer room for doubt. Swarms of enemy fighters and bombers were in the air, battering and bespattering the areas chosen for landing. More significant still, a sight new to all those who saw it but impossible to misinterpret, gliders came sweeping in towards Maleme, the Aghya reservoir, and Canea.
The cry of ‘Gliders!’ had hardly passed from mouth to mouth when the gliders themselves had circled swiftly in and disappeared from the view of all but those who overlooked their landing places, and who now, with no time to waste on wonder, looked down the sights of their weapons to see if a bullet fired had reached its mark or to fix the target for a second.
One portent succeeded another. Hard on the heels of the gliders came the Junkers 52 transports – some of them already hovering
hugely over the threatened areas and disdaining the small-arms fire that came crackling up at them, others coming straight in from the sea, ominous and purposeful. The whole air throbbed with them, and in and out among them snarled the fighters, strafing the ground so heavily that it was almost impossible to move except in short starts and rushes. And then, stranger even than the gliders, the air over Maleme and Galatas and in the Prison Valley was suddenly full of different-coloured parachutes, each supporting its man or its canister of weapons and supplies. In spite of all the innocent associations of such a display of colours – a ballroom at the height of the dance’s gaiety when the balloons are released from a balcony on the circling couples below – the sight was inexpressibly sinister. For each man dangling carried a death, his own if not another’s.
Even as they dropped they were within range and the crackle of rifle fire and Bren guns rose to a crescendo Wildly waving their legs, some already firing their Schmeissers, the parachutists came down, in the terraced vineyards, crashing through the peaceful olive boughs, in the yards of houses, on roofs, in the open fields where the short barley hid them. Many found graves where they found earth. Others, ridding themselves of their harness, crept cautiously in search of comrades, only to meet enemies. East of the airfield or in Galatas they were, more often than not, in the middle of the defenders and few were to escape. But where they landed out of range – as in the Aghya plain or west of the Tavronitis – there was the chance to collect more weapons and ammunition from the canisters, to organise in their sections, to attack. The day had indeed begun.
These were the enemy of the first wave, that attacking the sector from Canea to Maleme. Eleventh Air Corps had been divided into three groups: Group West to attack Maleme, Group Centre Canea, its environs, and Retimo; and Group East Heraklion. Retimo and Heraklion would be attacked by the second wave, not to land till the afternoon.
Group West’s ground forces consisted of the Assault Regiment1 (less half a battalion) and a company of the Parachute AA MG Battalion. The commander was General Meindl.2 the role was to seize Maleme airfield, to keep it open for airborne landings, to reconnoitre west as far as Kastelli, to reconnoitre south and east,
and to make contact with Group Centre, which was directed on Canea. To transport the force there were available four groups of transport aircraft and half a group of adapted bombers for the gliders.3
The plan of the enemy attack in the Maleme sector will be more clearly grasped if the units and their objectives are set out in tabular form:
|Unit||Commander||Landing place and objective|
|Elements of HQ Assault Regt||Maj Braun||South of Tavronitis bridge|
|Elements of III Bn (9 gliders)|
|HQ I Bn 3 and 4 Coys (? 30 gliders)||Maj Koch||Mouth of Tavronitis (3 Coy)|
|Point 107 (HQ Bn and 4 Coy)|
|II Bn (5, 6, 7, 8 Coys)||Maj Stentzler||South of Kolimbari|
|Muerbe Detachment (72 men)||Lt Muerbe||3 miles east of Kastelli|
|III Bn (9, 10, 11, 12 Coys)||Maj Scherber||East of Maleme airfield along road to Platanias|
|IV Bn||Capt Gericke|
|13 Coy (infantry guns)||West of Tavronitis bridge|
|14 Coy (A-tk guns)||West of Tavronitis bridge|
|15 Coy||West of Tavronitis bridge|
|South-west of Point 107|
If the landing places tabulated are compared with the map it will be seen that the main weight of the Assault Regiment was to be so distributed round the airfield that a heavy converging attack could quickly be brought to bear. The plan also allowed for exploitation by the glider parties of their superior speed in coming into action. Thus Major Braun’s glider party, landing just south of the Tavronitis bridge, was to seize it and prevent its destruction. It would then be used to bring up the paratroops landed farther west. Similarly 3 Company of Major Koch’s party, landing at the Tavronitis mouth, was to destroy the AA positions there and thus ease the way for the transport aircraft. And 4 Company, if successful in taking Point 107, would have secured the feature which
The enemy must have seen from the first was the key to the whole position.
Since the paratroops would require more time and freedom to form up, their landing places were evidently intended to be far enough away from the defence to provide these conditions. II Battalion, south of Kolimbari, would be able to afford protection to the west until Meindl wanted them for the main attack on the airfield; and once they were involved in this, protection to the west would fall to Muerbe detachment.
Similarly IV Battalion, landing west of the Tavronitis and out of range to the main defences, would be quickly available to give artillery support for the main attack. Protection from the south would be provided by 16 Company, which was to move towards Palaiokhora as soon as it was safely landed.5
The enemy also assumed that the area east of the airfield would be as clear of defenders as that west of it proved to be. Thus by dropping III Battalion there he hoped that it would be able to form up without difficulty, send its main body to attack the airfield from the west, and send out other forces east to make contact with Group Centre.
Such, then, was the plan for Group West. The operation was to begin with the glider landings at 7.15 a.m. or by our time at a quarter past eight.6
The map of intended and actual landing areas will reveal the strength and the weaknesses of this plan. III Battalion, landing east of the airfield, was bound to get into trouble with 23 Battalion and the auxiliary detachments which, apparently unknown to enemy intelligence, were strong there. II and IV Battalions, landing well west of the Tavronitis, would find no opposition directly beneath them and would be able to form up with relatively little difficulty. The role of the glider troops of I Battalion was more hazardous. Success would depend partly on surprise, partly on the luck with which they landed initially – whether in view or not of 22 Battalion.
The enemy had, however, the advantage of one circumstance that must have been a blessing, partly unconvenanted. This was the condition of the AA defence on the airfield, which the plan reveals to have been the main objective.
The airfield was defended by the six mobile Bofors and the four static Bofors of 156 LAA Battery RA, and 7 LAA Battery RAA; and the two 3-inch AA guns of C HAA Battery, Royal Marines. The effective plan range of the Bofors did not exceed 800 yards, and to cover the area effectively they had to be sited close to the airfield. Complete concealment was impossible. Consequently the enemy had the gun sites plotted with reasonable accuracy and they were subjected to a heavy pounding for days beforehand. Moreover, although the lie of the land made it relatively easy for the guns to be so disposed that they could deal with air attacks coming in from the sea, they were inevitably very vulnerable to attacks made overland from the south and south-west. And it was from these quarters that attack usually came.
The two 3-inch guns were sited on a hill about 300 feet high and had difficulty in engaging aircraft which flew in at heights of from 300 to 600 feet – a task for which guns of this calibre are in any case unsuited.
Finally, there was some confusion in the orders – the absence of local unity of command has already been mentioned – if we are to judge from the various reports and war diaries. The most probable explanation seems to come from Captain Johnson7 OC C Company of 22 Battalion. He says that for several days he and Lieutenant-Colonel Andrew had been pointing out that some of the AA guns were very badly sited and had been suggesting that they should be withdrawn to less vulnerable sites. They had also requested that some of the guns be asked to play a silent role until the troop-carriers appeared. The orders from Force HQ for both these actions to be taken arrived about 3 a.m. on 20 May and it was then too late for any to be moved. But the order for silence may have been misunderstood and may be responsible for a widespread impression that not all the guns came into action.
For the ground troops, then, in the general area of 5 Brigade the air bombardment began shortly after six o’clock in the morning, varying in intensity in different places but reaching its maximum on 22 Battalion. The first phase, violent as it was, was not so exceptional that it might not have been the regular morning tattoo; for, as Lieutenant-Colonel Andrew says: ‘the enemy air force had “drilled” us into expecting his bombing at the same time each
Breakfast had hardly finished, however, when the second and more intense phase of the air attack broke out, about ten minutes to eight. The whole of the area occupied by 5 Brigade forward battalions was savagely worked over; and although the airfield itself, for obvious reasons, was not bombed, its perimeter took the heaviest pounding of all, until the rising clouds of dust and smoke, themselves visible for miles, made visibility in the immediate neighbourhood very restricted.
It was not only the bombers that were so busy. To the men on the ground the air seemed full of fighters and fighter-bombers and many a man that day felt as if particular planes had been told off to give him particular attention. Movement outside cover was so difficult that in the course of a hundred yards a runner might have to go to ground a dozen times. And even within deep gullies or covered by the kindly olives a man outside his slit trench stood more than a sporting chance of being hit by the hailing machine-gun bullets.
While this attack was still at its maximum, and under cover of it, the first gliders came in to land. Both their numbers and the exact time of their landing are difficult to ascertain precisely, because the defending troops were prevented by the dust or the rough character of the ground from exact observation and because memories differ. New Zealand eye-witnesses say between forty and one hundred came down in the Maleme area; while a calculation based on the fact that the Germans at this time used 15 gliders for a company favours the probability that about fifty were used at Maleme. The higher figure must certainly be an exaggeration for which the excitement, the bad visibility, and double counting would sufficiently account. Of these fifty gliders at least three landed south and east of the airfield, while the rest landed near the mouth of the Tavronitis or along its bed.
Eleventh Air Corps states that one group of gliders landed at the time ordered – by our reckoning 8.15 a.m. – and another a quarter of an hour later. Reports from 22 Battalion men vary between 8.25 and 9.15. It is likely enough that there was some margin between the landing of the first glider and the last, and it is probably safe to say that the landings took place between a quarter past eight and a quarter past nine, most of them being over by nine o’clock.
The main landing place, the bed of the dry Tavronitis, was well chosen. Much of it was dead ground to the troops on the slopes above, and in some cases the crews – ten to a glider – were able to form up and either go straight towards their objectives or take up positions on the high ground west of the river. One crew landed more or less on top of a machine-gun post and destroyed it. Others, as will be seen, were able to put the AA guns on the west edge of the airfield out of action. Those that landed east and south were fewer and less dangerous.
Nothing in the German orders suggests that the paratroops were to be landed later than the gliders. The same zero hour is given for the whole Assault Regiment. It is probable enough, however, that within the regiment different units had different times; and it is possible that the glider troops, whose specific tasks may well have had a time priority, were landed earlier than the paratroops and were able to give them some covering fire. At all events the bombing had not ended and it was still only a quarter past eight when the big Junkers 52 began to drop their loads, each between twelve and fifteen men from heights of from 300 to 600 feet; and west, south, and east of the airfield the first wave of paratroops landed.
Paratroops, like glider crews, landed with weapons. But whereas the glider troops could go into action as a formed body as soon as they got themselves and their heavier weapons out of the glider, the parachutists landed as individuals, depending for the most part on the Schmeissers and grenades that they carried, and needed time before they could collect and fight as a team. Their heavier equipment, moreover, had to be got from separately dropped canisters and so there was an initial period of vulnerability – perhaps ten minutes, though not always as long. The defence took full advantage of this and the still more vulnerable moments before landing, when the parachutist still dangled and wriggled in his parachute and floated downwards. All accounts agree on the slaughter that took place at this stage. Nevertheless, enough survived, particularly to the west of the airfield and out of small-arms range, for a strong attack to develop quickly against the Maleme positions.
In the broad sense the pattern of the enemy landings followed the plan already tabulated, though exceptions will be noted; but the collisions with the defenders that followed soon forced many adjustments to the original programme.
The gliders of Lieutenant Plessen’s 3 Company came down at the river mouth, according to plan, and overwhelmed the AA crews
There.10 But an attempt to develop the success into an attack on the airfield itself failed ‘against strong enemy opposition’.11 Plessen himself was killed while trying to make contact with the other glider troops to the south.
Major Koch, with the HQ of I Battalion and 4 Company, had less success. Their gliders landed along the south-east and south-west slopes of Point 107 and the crews could not give one another the necessary support. They lost heavily to the defenders dug in above them and Koch himself was severely wounded. Only remnants made their way to the area of the road bridge where they joined the main body. The ‘tented camps’ on which they had been directed were found to be more or less empty.
The nine gliders of Braun’s detachment – carrying a party from Regimental HQ and elements of III Battalion – were landed according to plan directly south of the road bridge in the bed of the Tavronitis. There they came under heavy fire from D Company 22 Battalion, and Braun was killed. None the less his men managed to seize the bridge intact and overrun some MG posts on the east bank. The Regimental HQ party seems to have hived off at this point, or not long afterwards, and established itself in Ropaniana to the west of the bridge.
While these glider landings were going on the paratroops also had begun their descent. II Battalion landed south of Kolimbari according to plan and, as the area was undefended, was subjected to no interference. One of its companies, 6 Company, was sent west to guard the pass near Koukouli and had severe fighting with Cretans en route. The detachment put down east of Kastelli under Lieutenant Muerbe at once ran into bitter fighting with 1 Greek Regiment and lost its commander and 53 killed, the remainder being wounded and taken prisoner.12 This left 5, 7, and 8 Companies at General Meindl’s disposal for the support of the glider troops in the Tavronitis.
In addition to these three companies he could rely on some support from 13, 14, and 15 Companies of IV Battalion. These three companies landed west of the Tavronitis, and therefore without ground opposition. Many of their heavy weapons and
motor cycles had been damaged in landing, but enough were salvaged to make the unit a valuable aid in the attack. The battalion’s fourth company, 16 Company, made its way south on landing to the serpentine at Voukolies and established itself there as a flank guard, though constantly troubled by Cretans.
Thus Meindl had no great reason to be dissatisfied with the initial situation of his forces to the west of the aerodrome. The weakness of his plan, however, had lain in the division of his forces. If anything went wrong with the landing of III Battalion to the east of the airfield it would be difficult for him to pull his regiment together. And something had indeed gone wrong. The battalion was duly landed on the rising ground south of Maleme-Platanias road which had been assumed to be free of enemy. Here its companies at once found themselves in a hornet’s nest, for these slopes were held by the reserve battalions of 5 Brigade – 21 Battalion, 23 Battalion, and the NZE detachment. Two-thirds of the battalion were killed along with all the officers; and the remainder, though of considerable nuisance value, were able neither to launch the intended attack on the airfield from the east nor to make their way east to join Group Centre.
Meindl had jumped at half past eight and taken command. He must at once have appreciated that, since Koch had failed to seize Point 107, the best prospect of progress lay in exploiting the success at the road bridge and trying to develop it into an attack which would take Point 107 from the north-west. At the same time he evidently felt that a flanking move from the south might be worth attempting. He could assume that his own flanks to the west and south were reasonably safe and, in any case, if he were to get on with his task would have to do so. It is not known how soon he had news of III Battalion, but obviously his best course was to press home the attack from the west with or without support from the east. For forces with which to launch it he had Braun’s group already engaged; the remnants of Koch’s group if they had yet begun to make their way down into the riverbed; the remains of Plessen’s company from the river mouth, which cannot have had many casualties; 5, 7, and 8 Companies from II Battalion; and the heavy weapons of IV Battalion with 15 Company as well.
He therefore sent 8 Company and the available troops of IV Battalion to support Major Braun at the bridge by attacking on either side of it; and ordered 5 and 7 Companies under Major Stentzler to cross the river south of 22 Battalion’s left flank and thence attack north-east towards the heights below Point 107.
It is now time to turn to 22 Battalion.13 As Maleme was so important and as, owing to the difficulty of movement, the shortage of reserves, and the early breakdown of communications, the story
of the unit on 20 May is very much one of companies and platoons fighting in isolation, it will be necessary first to go into considerable detail about their dispositions.
The 22nd Battalion, then, on the day the battle opened had a strength of 20 officers and roughly 600 other ranks. It consisted of Battalion HQ and five rifle companies; for Headquarters Company fought as a rifle company. Battalion HQ was a little to the north of Point 107 and had with it a small reserve consisting of a platoon of A Company and miscellaneous HQ personnel. This, with the two I tanks and the carrier platoon, was the only reserve available to Colonel Andrew.
The greater part of Headquarters Company was posted round Pirgos14 village under Lieutenant Beaven.15 But its carrier platoon under Captain Forster16 had been put directly under battalion command and was stationed in the olive trees near the Maleme-Vlakheronitissa road; and its pioneer platoon under Lieutenant Wadey17 was at the AMES near Xamoudhokhori, so far away as to be in effect independent.
A Company, commanded by Captain Hanton,18 held Point 107 and the high ground central to the battalion’s position. B Company, commanded by Captain Crarer,19 held the ridge which ran east of the Maleme-Vlakheronitissa road, and one of its platoons straddled the road between Point 107 and Vlakheronitissa. C Company, under Captain Johnson, was disposed round the perimeter at the edge of the airfield, with 13 Platoon on the north between the airfield and the sea, 14 Platoon on the south along the road and canal, and 15 Platoon west from 13 Platoon to the road bridge.
D Company, commanded by Captain Campbell,20 held the east bank of the Tavronitis from and including the road bridge south to a point just south-west of Point 107. No. 18 Platoon was stationed to cover the road bridge, 17 Platoon held the south wing of the company position, and 16 Platoon was between these two
but higher up the north-west slopes of Point 107. About half a mile south of 17 Platoon and also on the east bank of the Tavronitis was a platoon of 21 Battalion.
Also under command were two platoons of 27 MG Battalion. One, under Second-Lieutenant Brant,21 had a section with two MMGs on improvised mountings so sited in D Company area as to cover the road bridge and part of the riverbed; and the second section had two unmounted MMGs sited not far away but higher up so as to cover the airfield. The other platoon, under Second-Lieutenant Luxford,22 had one section on the east edge of the airfield covering it and the beach and the second on a spur near Maleme village from which it could cover the same targets. Both platoons were short of ammunition, the first having enough for only about seven minutes’ rapid fire.
Two 3-inch mortars covered the airfield also, both without base-plates and both short of ammunition. And the two I tanks, also under command, were hidden north of Battalion HQ, ready for counter-attack towards the airfield.
In the battalion perimeter, but not under command, were the ten Bofors guns sited round the airfield, the two 3-inch AA guns sited near Point 107, and the two 4-inch naval guns of Z Battery RM, both sited on the slopes above D Company’s right centre.
As soon as the landings began the battle broke up into a number of separate actions in separate areas, and Lieutenant-Colonel Andrew, handicapped by hopelessly bad communications, found it more and more difficult to operate his battalion as a unit. Our best hope of offering an intelligible account of the day’s events is therefore to take each group separately, distinguishing D Company along the bed of the Tavronitis; C Company on the airfield; Headquarters Company fighting round Pirgos; and Battalion HQ with A and B Companies in the general area of Point 107.
To Captain Campbell, the commander of D Company, parachutists and gliders seemed to arrive simultaneously, the latter coming down ‘with their quiet swish, swish, dipping down and swishing in’.23 Most gliders landed in the riverbed, although odd ones came down in the company area. The paratroops, however, tended to land both in the company positions and on the high ground west of the river. The gliders were those of Major Braun and Major Koch, while the paratroops belonged to II and IV Battalions.
Of the gliders six were counted in 17 Platoon area and few of the crews lived to congratulate themselves. Paratroops landing inside the perimeter met equal severity.24 But one glider landed close to Corporal Bremner’s25 MMG section and caused casualties, among them Brant, the MMG platoon commander. Nevertheless, while ammunition lasted – not long – the machine guns were able ‘to get some juicy shooting in among the gliders in the riverbed’.26
Where gliders landed, as many did, too far from the defenders’ lines or defiladed, the crews were a more difficult target as they made for cover. And paratroops landing on the far side of the river were mostly out of effective small-arms range. A suggestion from D Company that the two 4-inch naval guns should undertake targets across the river was rejected on the ground that the guns were sited for targets at sea.27 D Company therefore had the exasperation of seeing the enemy take over Polemarkhi and Ropaniana virtually unmolested.
Meanwhile Braun’s glider party at the bridge had forced back the two sections of 18 Platoon holding that flank to a new line on the canal where there were prepared positions. This was the only part of D Company’s line that was strongly attacked, and the enemy kept infiltrating men across the riverbed under cover of the bridge pylons so as to drive a wedge between D Company and C Company.
Unfortunately, this area round the bridge was vulnerable as well as valuable. The bridge was a D Company responsibility and Campbell had one section of 18 Platoon north of it. But its positions here were too far forward to give a good field of fire and yet could not be brought back to a better line without basing it on the RAF administrative buildings and encampments. The presence of these and of large numbers of RAF, FAA, and RM personnel in the vicinity made it difficult for Campbell and Johnson to make the most efficient joint arrangements for tactical defence. Requests by Andrew that these miscellaneous troops should come under his command had been refused. Some arrangement seems to have been made just before the battle for the RAF men to have
infantry training and be given infantry positions. But it was too late and, although the armed men among them did do some fighting, no clearly concerted plan is discernible.28
The result was that Braun’s glider force was able to get a strong foothold in this quarter very early in the attack, and one which Meindl appreciated and exploited with speed and determination.
South of D Company there was also trouble. Paratroops and at least two gliders had landed near the positions of the 21 Battalion platoon. For the most part these were faithfully dealt with – 17 dead Germans were counted near one glider – or at least met a reception that discouraged aggressive behaviour. But Lieutenant Anderson,29 the platoon commander, was killed, and Sergeant Gorrie30 who took over could not make contact with 21 or 22 Battalion because of enemy parties in between. He therefore posted his men a little farther south of D Company and decided to stay there till dark, doing as much damage as possible. This was a useful decision, for in the course of the afternoon he broke up two enemy attempts to cross the river. Had it not been for this platoon Major Stentzler’s two companies might have come into action against the south flank of 22 Battalion much earlier than they did and pressed with more determination. As it was, though no precise story of Stentzler’s movements can be given, it seems likely that he was forced to detour farther to the south and then come north-west again, taking undefended Vlakheronitissa on the way.
No doubt because of the firing caused by all this, Campbell felt uneasy about his left flank. But 16 Platoon reported that it had checked a thrust into the company area from this quarter,31 and for the rest of the day he was not unduly troubled. The right flank remained his major worry. He could not telephone Battalion HQ because his telephone had been put out of action by a bomb; but he sent runners to warn HQ of the threatened thrust across the bridge. Of the two sent only one came back.
In the afternoon D Company’s right flank became more and more uncomfortable and at one point Campbell decided to call upon the RAF personnel in the neighbourhood for help; for by a previous arrangement they were to have assembled in a nearby
wadi as reinforcements. They were not to be found, however,32 and the enemy continued to infiltrate from the right and give trouble.
Yet by about three o’clock D Company was reasonably happy. No. 18 Platoon, though reduced to nine men, was holding on in its canal positions; 17 Platoon had adjusted its own positions by moving higher up the slopes; and 16 Platoon in the centre had disposed of a possible enemy attempt to infiltrate from the south. The troublesome features of the situation were that the forward platoons were more or less isolated from Company HQ, and Company HQ itself had been quite out of touch with Battalion HQ even by runner since midday; that the volume of MG and mortar fire from the west on the company positions was getting steadily heavier; and that the threats from the flanks might at any time become serious.
On C Company front the situation, though worse, was not altogether dissimilar. When the day began the company had been reasonably strong with 117 rifles, 7 Brens, 1 MMG, 6 Browning MGs, and 9 tommy guns. The troops were all well dug in. No. 13 Platoon, between the north end of the airfield and the sea, was sited to repel beach landings and cover the airfield itself with fire; 14 Platoon, between the south edge of the airfield and the canal, was to cover the airfield with fire and deal with attacks from the south-east and south-west; 15 Platoon, on the west edge of the airfield, had 13 Platoon as its right boundary and the road bridge as its left. Its task was to defend the airfield against attacks from the west.
Neither the company commander nor his platoon officers were quite happy about these dispositions, however. There was too much dead ground on the front of 15 Platoon, and yet it had been impossible to cross the riverbed and take this in without spreading the front still farther and accentuating the existing difficulty that it would be very hard for the three platoons, separated by the flat expanse of airfield, to give one another mutual support. And there was also the radical weakness already discussed at the road bridge between C Company and D Company.
The battle began for C Company, as for the others, with the second phase of the bombing. So intense was this round the airfield that from C Company HQ it was impossible to see more than a few yards for the dense clouds of dust and smoke. This no doubt explains why no gliders were seen.
When the bombing ceased – having killed five men and wounded one in 14 Platoon and Company HQ – and visibility returned, parachutists could already be seen landing towards Pirgos in the east and in larger numbers west of the Tavronitis. Scarcely had the first dropped when the defence found that enemy, no doubt Lieutenant Plessen’s glider troops, were already active against the two flanks of 15 Platoon. Lieutenant Sinclair,33 the commander, gives some impression of what it was like. ‘Of course the fight was on. We were all more or less pinned to our positions, and as I was fired on from SE, S., SW, W., NW, and NE it was a queer show. ...’34
It was on 15 Platoon, in fact, that most of the pressure at this stage came in C Company. The front was some 1500 yards long and Sinclair had only 22 men. Apart from the fire he describes, there was very persistent firing from a drain near the south-west corner of the airfield, and from this we may guess that the enemy – having pushed back the section of 18 Platoon – had already secured a lodgment east of the road bridge. No. 15 Platoon must have given a good account of itself, however, since the attempt at an assault on the airfield after taking the AA guns was repelled.35
There was nothing the company commander could do to help. All telephone lines had been cut during the bombing, and when they were relaid they were at once cut again. No runner could have crossed the flat, fire-swept airfield.
By ten o’clock it seemed to Captain Johnson that the enemy was infiltrating through the north flank of 15 Platoon towards 13 Platoon. He asked the CO for permission to counter-attack with the two I tanks which were dug in not far from his own HQ. But Andrew, anxious to conserve his trump card for a more desperate situation, refused.
To Sinclair the morning did not seem to be going so badly. His later comment no doubt reflects his spirits at the time: ‘Plenty of good targets and an interesting attack provided all the diversion one needed.’36 But about eleven o’clock he was hit through the neck, and though he was able to carry on for about an hour – mainly throwing grenades at a petrol dump so as to set off a stack of RAF bombs in front of him – the noonday heat was too much for him and he fainted from loss of blood. In an obscure situation
The most credible interpretation of events seems to be that at about this time his southern section was cut off – PWs were seen being marched off from this area by Captain Campbell – and that some of his northern posts were also overrun, but that because his centre held out till towards dusk and because 13 and 14 Platoons kept up steady fire the enemy was not able to make further progress.37
It was still mid-morning when other worries developed for Captain Johnson. At about eleven o’clock the thrust from the bridge area threatened to cut him off from D Company. The enemy was in possession of the RAF camp and could be seen advancing towards Battalion HQ behind what appeared to be a screen of PWs. Johnson therefore sent a section of 14 Platoon under Lance-Sergeant Ford38 to try to outflank this force and link up with Battalion HQ. Lieutenant-Colonel Andrew, however, ordered the section to withdraw with the words ‘look after your own backyard – I’ll look after mine.’39
There was a new job waiting for Sergeant Ford when he got back. He was to cross the airfield with two men and order the commander of 13 Platoon, Sergeant Crawford,40 to take action against the north-easterly movement of the enemy from 15 Platoon’s northern flank. Ford and one of his companions succeeded in getting across the airfield. But it was impossible for anyone to get from the positions of 13 Platoon to the help of 15 Platoon. The enemy in the RAF camp area was bringing too heavy a flanking fire across the front.
In the earlier part of the afternoon the situation on C Company front did not greatly change, and the most notable event was the arrival at Company HQ of an English officer from 156 LAA Battery and about eight of his men. These men – except two bomb casualties – hastened to join the strength of the company and were duly armed. A little later they were to join, at their own earnest request, a counter-attack with 14 Platoon. But, as this attack was important for its effect on Andrew’s view of his battalion’s situation, an account of it is best left until Battalion HQ comes to be considered. It will be sufficient to say now that after this attack had failed C Company, like D Company, was cut off from contact with Battalion.
The third company isolated from Battalion HQ was Headquarters Company with three officers and about sixty men. But in its case
isolation began with the battle. For the landing began with the descent of several gliders, no doubt part of Major Koch’s group, between the two. These were reinforced almost at once by five plane-loads of parachutists, probably from 9 Company of III Battalion. With these a small field gun was also dropped. A second group of parachutists arrived about half-way through the morning. All these had heavy losses both in the descent and in the fighting that at once followed. But the survivors, well armed with automatic weapons, were a force to be reckoned with; they quickly took advantage of the cover afforded by the vineyards and were able to establish strongpoints in disconcerting places. Thus one party set up a post in a brick house between Headquarters Company’s south-west flank and Company HQ and made communications between the two almost impossible.
The gap between Company HQ and the section post of Sergeant Matheson’s41 platoon on this south flank was too wide, presumably because the men did not have the same experience in infantry tactics as those of an ordinary rifle company. And the two posts were without automatic weapons.42 the result was that both were soon overrun,43 although the enemy could make no headway against the village and the main positions. Indeed, he seems to have made no really formidable assault, and the chief trouble came from snipers and small parties who kept wandering about in order to make contact with one another.
For Lieutenant Beaven, too, contact was a prime concern. His only friendly visitors during the day were a party of men from A Troop, 7 Australian LAA Battery, and a runner from Wadey’s pioneer platoon. The Australians, driven off their guns, presumably by the glider detachment, had swum along the coast and were now incorporated into the company, where they did good work with the field gun which the enemy had dropped.
The runner from the pioneer platoon, Private Wan,44 had left the AMES about three o’clock with another runner, Private Bloomfield,45 the latter carrying a message. Bloomfield was killed on the way, and Wan had not been able to recover the message. It could hardly have been more than what Wan was able to tell: that the pioneer platoon had shot up a glider without being themselves attacked and that they had not been able to make contact with Battalion HQ.
Beaven was now so worried about the lack of news that he decided to send Wan with another message to Battalion. The message gives a useful picture of the situation on the front:46
Paratroops landed East, South, and West of Coy area at approx 0745 hrs today. Strength estimated 250. On our NE front 2 enemy snipers left. Unfinished square red roof house south of sig terminal housing enemy MG plus 2 snipers. We have a small field gun plus 12 rounds manned by Aussies. Mr. Clapham’s two fwd and two back secs OK. No word of Matheson’s pl except Cpl Hall and Cowling.
Troops in HQ area OK.
Mr. Wadey reports all quiet. No observation of enemy paratroops who landed approx 5 mls south of his position.
Casualties: killed Bloomfield.
wounded Lt Clapham, Sgt Flashoff, Cpl Hall, Pte Cowling, Brown.
Attached plans taken off Jerry.
G. Beaven, Lt OC HQ Coy
Finally, however, Beaven decided he had better wait till dark before sending this message. By then it was too late.
An attempt was made to get in touch with B Company. But the runner sent failed to return and a patrol sent after him met an enemy patrol, failed to get through, and had to return with casualties.
It is now time to see how the situation was developing with the central group of the battalion, A and B Companies and Battalion HQ. The two companies, although they had been heavily pounded by the bombing and had their share of trouble from the paratroops and glider crews in the area, were not at first in the front line in the same sense as were the other companies nor so heavily engaged. In the afternoon the effect of Stentzler’s activities from the south-west began to be felt, with his 5 and 7 Companies
probing the south front of B Company and trying to find a way north between A and B Companies. But, in the early afternoon, these pushes were being held without great difficulty and there is no evidence that Stentzler had yet begun to exert all possible pressure when darkness came. No doubt he was nervous himself of being attacked in the flank by 21 Battalion.
Battalion HQ had come in for a particularly heavy share of the bombing. Headquarters itself was not hit, though Lieutenant-Colonel Andrew received a nick from a splinter while forward observing. ‘the immediate countryside, before densely covered by grape vines and olive trees was bare of any foliage when the bombing attack ceased and the ground was practically regularly covered by large and small bomb craters.’47 While the bombing lasted the dust cloud was too thick for good visibility. Just as it began to settle the watchers from Battalion HQ saw the gliders coming in, the nearest landing about 100 yards to the north and another on the road from Maleme to Vlakheronitissa. The parachutists followed, and the battalion staff had a panoramic view of the landings all round them. They soon ceased to attend to it, however, when they observed a party of enemy about 700 yards away towards Pirgos trying to bring a small gun into action. With timely rifle fire they were able to put a stop to this.
Soon there were more serious worries. The battalion telephone lines, which shortage of tools and time and the difficult character of the country had made it impossible to dig in,48 had been cut by the bombing; and no doubt what the bombing had missed was looked after by the enemy on the ground. This isolated Battalion HQ from its more distant companies and made it dependent on its single No. 18 wireless set for communication with Brigade HQ. To make matters worse the set itself temporarily failed soon after the landing of the glider troops, and it was not till about ten o’clock that the landing of hundreds of paratroops in the area could be reported.
Within the battalion therefore the CO was from the first dependent on runners, at all times a slow and clumsy means of communication. In these particular circumstances the runner had the additional handicap that his route was endangered by snipers, and even if he succeeded in getting through he was bound to have lost time in detours or in fighting. Yet, while runners were still getting through to all companies except HQ Company – where
Andrew himself tried and failed – the situation was not so bad. Its chief defect in the early stages was that Andrew could at no time rely on having an up-to-the-minute knowledge of the general situation of the battalion. In the later stages its disadvantage was to prove well-nigh decisive; for, unable to get runners through at all, he was to reach a quite misleading view of the position of some of his companies.
In the morning, however, one thing soon became clear enough. The main enemy concentrations were to the west of the Tavronitis. Accordingly, before half past ten Andrew asked Brigade HQ to have the area Ropaniana-Tavronitis searched with artillery fire and sent his Intelligence Officer to the detachment of 4-inch guns of Z Battery RM with the request that they should engage the mortars and MGs which were by this time harassing his battalion area. The 4-inch guns were unable to do this because of their siting; but A and B Troops of 27 Battery, on the basis of the order relayed from 5 Brigade HQ and a message from their OP on Point 107, were able to bring down effective fire in spite of unpleasant investigations by enemy aircraft. Soon C Troop was also active but, because it had to rely on direct observation, its targets were found east of the airfield.
By the time these guns were brought to bear, however, the enemy attacks were already well under way, and something of Andrew’s concern can be seen in his message to Brigade HQ at 10.55 a.m. that he had lost communication with his companies and that he would like 23 Battalion to try and contact Headquarters Company.49 At this time he seems to have estimated that 400 paratroops had landed: 150 west of the river, 150 east of 22 Battalion, and 100 near the aerodrome.
As the morning wore on RAF and FAA ground staff who had been driven out of the area near the road bridge came filtering back and were followed up the slopes towards Point 107 by small enemy parties. According to some observers the enemy were driving these men demoralised in front of them and using them as a screen. It seems safer, however, to take the more conservative explanation favoured by Major Leggat50 – then second-in-command of 22 Battalion – that the inexperienced RAF and FAA men exaggerated the forces behind them. At all events Leggat relates that on one occasion during the morning he went to investigate a few shots and found a demoralised RAF party. Suspecting that the MG fire troubling them came from an isolated sniper, he went
forward with others from Battalion HQ, crossed the wire, and was ‘fortunate enough to find the machine-gunner with a stoppage.’51
Shortly after midday 22 Battalion told 5 Brigade that the enemy was using a 75 and heavy machine guns from west of the Tavronitis, and under cover of this he seems to have been making further probes up the ridge on the right of D Company. About this time also A Company began to feel pressure from the south-west, while in C Company 13 Platoon made its attempt to help 15 Platoon.
In the early afternoon these pressures grew stronger. About four o’clock – or perhaps earlier – mortar fire from the RAF administrative area forced Battalion HQ to move about 200 yards south-west of its first location and just inside B Company area. The artillery officers from the OP on Point 107 had long since found themselves hopelessly out of touch with their guns owing to the breakdown of communications. They therefore joined 22 Battalion as infantry and their two officers, Captain L. G. Williams and Lieutenant G. P. Cade, were given command of the RAF and FAA men.
A message sent by Lieutenant-Colonel Andrew to Brigade at 3.50 p.m. indicated his growing anxiety. His left flank had given ground – either an allusion to adjustments in D Company area or a mistake for his more seriously endangered right flank – but he still thought that the situation was in hand, although he again asked for contact to be made with Headquarters Company because he needed reinforcements.
All this time, in fact, in common with the rest of his battalion, he had been expecting 23 Battalion to come to his support in its counter-attack role, and flares had been sent up – at what time is not clear – to indicate that it was needed.52 the non-appearance of this support was generally assumed to be due to the difficulties of movement under the vigilance of the numerous enemy fighter planes. Finally, at 5 p.m. Andrew asked Brigadier Hargest for the counter-attack by 23 Battalion to be put in and was told shortly afterwards that this could not be done as 23 Battalion was itself engaged against paratroops in its own area. It was at this point that Andrew decided he could wait no longer but must resort to the last card in his hand: the two I tanks and 14 Platoon.
Accordingly, at a quarter past five, the two tanks with 14 Platoon in support moved off down the road about 30 yards apart, making for the Tavronitis bridge. Almost at once the second tank found that its two-pounder ammunition would not fit the breech block and that its turret was not traversing completely. It therefore withdrew. The leading tank went forward until it reached the riverbed, passed under the bridge from the southern side and went north about 200 yards. There it bellied down in the rough bed of the river and, its turret having jammed, was abandoned by its crew.53
No. 14 Platoon, under Lieutenant Donald,54 consisted of two sections of New Zealanders and a third section made up of the six men from 156 LAA Battery whose officer had begged to be allowed to take part. They accompanied the two tanks, deployed towards the left. They met withering fire from the front and from the left. With one tank turned back and the other out of action, they had no course but to withdraw. This they did. The English officer was killed and Donald, himself wounded, brought back only eight or nine men from his gallant platoon, most of them also wounded.
Captain Johnson reported to the CO that the counter-attack had failed and asked for reinforcements. His own position was rapidly worsening. No. 15 Platoon and the west section of 13 Platoon had been overrun. No. 14 was now practically destroyed. Company HQ with its cooks, stretcher-bearers, and runners could not hope to hold the inland perimeter of the airfield long. Johnson therefore told Andrew that he could probably hold on till dark but would then have to be reinforced. Andrew replied that he must ‘hold on at all costs’.55 From this time communications between the two were cut and no runners got through.
Lieutenant-Colonel Andrew now had to make up his mind what to do. He again got in touch with Brigade HQ by wireless and told Brigadier Hargest that the counter-attack with tanks had failed. He said he had no further resources and that as no support from 23 Battalion had come he would have to withdraw. Hargest replied: ‘If you must, you must.’ But at this time, according to Andrew, by ‘withdrawal’ he did not mean withdrawal right away from the airfield but only as far as the ridge held by B Company. And presumably Hargest understood him in this sense.
This conversation seems to have taken place about 6 p.m., and in the course of it or another conversation about the same time Hargest told Andrew that he was sending two companies to his support – A Company of 23 Battalion and B Company of 28 Battalion. These two companies, Andrew understood, were to be expected very shortly.56
While waiting for them to come Andrew would have had leisure to contemplate what must have seemed a very grim situation. He had had no contact with Headquarters Company all day, and since paratroops had been seen to land in its area in considerable numbers there seemed grounds for assuming that the company had been overrun. A Company, though it had had fighting, was on the whole intact. B Company also was intact but was threatened with a thrust from the south-west. C Company had lost at least part of 13 Platoon, 14 Platoon was almost destroyed, and it seemed probable that 15 Platoon was wholly lost. D Company had been out of touch since midday and according to at least one report had been wiped out. Colonel Andrew could therefore count certainly on only two out of his five companies.
The tactical situation seemed to answer this apparent weakness in forces. The enemy had torn a hole at the road bridge and could be expected to reinforce success from the ample strength that he had built up undisturbed across the river and out of range. The line of the airfield north of the bridge was destroyed with the loss of 15 Platoon. If D Company had been wiped out there was nothing to prevent the enemy crossing the Tavronitis at any point along its length. And the attack from the south-west against B Company front suggested that if the battalion remained in its present positions it might be cut off by morning.
Moreover, mortars and machine guns were by now out of ammunition or knocked out. The tanks and the infantry reserve were gone. There was no sign of reinforcement, unless the two companies from 23 and 28 Battalions arrived soon.
In such a situation Andrew evidently felt that if he did not use the cover of darkness that night to adjust his positions he could not hope to withstand the renewed attack that was bound to come the following day; for if the enemy had been able to make such progress against his full battalion, starting from scratch, what might he not be able to do with his forces fully organised on the ground and the tactical advantage against a battalion reduced to less than half its strength?
Considerations such as these were in Andrew’s mind when he spoke to Brigadier Hargest of limited withdrawal after the failure
of the counter-attack with tanks. By nine o’clock that evening, when the two supporting companies had still failed to appear, his mind was made up. He would withdraw to a shorter line based on B Company ridge. Between nine o’clock and nine-thirty, therefore, he again spoke to Hargest on the 18 set – by this time so weak that this was the last message he was able to pass – and ‘told him I would have to withdraw to “B” Coy ridge.’57 What Brigadier Hargest replied is not recorded. He can hardly have grasped the full implications of the proposed move, though they should have been clear enough to a commander familiar with the ground, and seems to have accepted Andrew’s view without feeling that the situation called for further action on his own part.
Andrew was in the HQ of B Company when he took this decision. Messages about the projected move were sent out to all the other companies by runner, including C, D, and Headquarters Companies. The runners to the last three did not get through.58
Meanwhile Captain Watson,59 OC A Company of 23 Battalion, had left 23 Battalion about dusk and taken his company via 21 Battalion, the AMES and Xamoudhokhori, making for 22 Battalion. Captain Rangi Royal60 of 28 Battalion had also set off with B Company, but for reasons to be explained below arrived too late to affect the situation.61
Between nine and ten o’clock Watson reached B Company ridge and found Battalion HQ there. At this point the narrative is confused. Watson says he was told that D Company had been wiped out and that he was to take over its position. But 22 Battalion sources suggest that it was A Company’s positions he was ordered to take over, and the fact that he was given Lieutenant McAra62 of A Company 22 Battalion as guide lends colour to this.63 If so, the likely explanation seems to be that, if D Company had got Lieutenant-Colonel Andrew’s message and come back, Andrew would have placed them in the positions formerly occupied by A Company; but that, since the failure of D
Company to appear seemed to confirm his belief that it had been wiped out, he now gave up hope of it and decided to use Watson’s newly-arrived company in its stead. And this in its turn suggests that in spite of the withdrawal of A Company to B Company ridge, Andrew had not entirely given up hope of holding Point 107.64
At all events Captain Watson and Lieutenant McAra duly set about placing the platoons. As 8 Platoon was being put into position there was a burst of fire which killed McAra and wounded several others, including Lieutenant Baxter,65 second-in-command of the company, who had been anxious to go into action with his old platoon. Shortly afterwards the resolute Sergeant Gorrie made his way into the lines of the newly-posted company, bringing with him the platoon of 21 Battalion which had been doing such good work all day farther down the Tavronitis.66
Meanwhile a further conference had been going on at 22 Battalion HQ on B Company ridge. Now that Lieutenant-Colonel Andrew had made his limited withdrawal the drawbacks of the new position had become all too apparent. Point 107 had previously been the centre of his defensive system, screened by the companies round the perimeter. It was now, held by Watson’s company, no more than an outpost. If that company failed to hold it when attack began again next day, the enemy by taking it would overlook B Company ridge which was now the main position. B Company ridge itself afforded little natural cover and there were not the tools, even if there was enough time before daylight, for new defences to be dug. Exposed to the inevitable strafing and bombing next day from the air as well as fire from the enemy’s ground forces, A and B Companies would probably have to endure heavy casualties as soon as it was light. And once it was light it would be impossible to extricate them. Moreover, there was still no sign of B Company 28 Battalion, while the silence of the other companies seemed every hour to confirm Andrew’s fears for them.
It is in such terms that we must explain his next decision: to withdraw to 21 and 23 Battalions while he still had the cover of darkness. His mind made up, he asked Watson, who had meanwhile come back to report, to provide a guide to 23 Battalion and use his own company to cover the withdrawal.
Captain Watson agreed to do so, went to warn his men of their new role, and returned to 22 Battalion HQ about midnight in
time to see the troops move out.67 About two hours later Lieutenant-Colonel Andrew, who had remained to see the area clear, told him he might also pull out his company. This Watson did, 8 Platoon carrying its wounded.
The first phase of the battle for Maleme virtually ends with this decision. From now on it was a question of recovering vital positions instead of keeping them, of counter-attacks difficult to mount instead of holding on in prepared defences. Ultimately, in fact, the withdrawal from Maleme was to entail the loss of Crete.68 It would be unjust to Lieutenant-Colonel Andrew to suggest that he should have foreseen this as clearly as the advantage of hindsight enables us to see it ten years later. None the less, he had been given a position to defend which he must have known to be of the greatest importance. And it is necessary to consider whether there was not some other course he could have adopted.
The withdrawal falls into two parts: that from Point 107 and that from B Company ridge. Was the first necessary? When he made up his mind to leave Point 107 Andrew thought that he could count certainly on only two companies, A and B. This, as will be seen in the sequel, was to despair of the others too soon. True, runners had failed to get through; but it was not unprecedented for companies to be cut off and yet continue fighting. Had he remained where he was it should have been possible to push through patrols during the darkness, find out the true state of affairs with HQ, C and D Companies, bring in what remained of them, and build up a new tactical position on Point 107.
Again, even had he been right in thinking his outlying companies destroyed, he still had A and B Companies almost intact and he had been told that there were two further companies on the way to reinforce them. Even if, when Hargest had first promised these, in the late afternoon, Andrew had assumed their almost immediate arrival, he must presumably have learnt when he spoke to the Brigadier again about nine o’clock that they had not left till dusk.69 they might be delayed, but to assume that they would not get through at all was surely being too pessimistic. And if their arrival could thus be counted on, then he could expect to have four
reasonably strong companies with which to hold a narrower perimeter based on Point 107.
That this new perimeter would have been exposed to powerful attacks by ground and air forces next day is certain. And it might well have been completely cut off from 21 and 23 Battalions. But there would have been good hope of counter-attack, and so long as it held out the enemy could not have secure possession of the airfield or give his undivided attention to driving farther east.
But, even supposing the case for withdrawing from Point 107 had been stronger than in retrospect it now seems, it is hard to see how a withdrawal to B Company ridge would improve matters. If, as his placing of Watson’s company suggests, Lieutenant-Colonel Andrew intended to put the two reinforcing companies on Point 107 as they arrived and hold A and B Companies on B Company ridge, this seems a much weaker plan than to concentrate his whole force on and around Point 107 itself.
In fact, however, now that he had made his first move he was forced to consider a second: withdrawal to 21 and 23 Battalions. As we have seen he decided in favour of this; and indeed it is likely enough that he could not have held out next day with B Company ridge as the basis of his defence. But since he had first retired to it Watson’s company had arrived, and he might have taken this as increasing the probability that Royal’s company would also appear. There was still time to change his mind and go back to Point 107. The only two companies which seemed to have got his orders were with him; to have reversed these orders would not have been difficult. If the other companies were not wiped out or had not received the orders they would be none the worse for the change in plan. Even if they had received them and were planning to join him later, they would have had no difficulty in finding him.
Failing such a reversal of plan, he had no course but to go on withdrawing; and how unfortunate for the future of the defence that course was, the story of the events that followed will make plain in due time. But it would be unfair to pass on from this isolation of alternatives open to Andrew without a reminder of the hard conditions in which he had to make his choice.
He had spent a most exacting day trying to control a battle where all the circumstances were inimical to control. Communications within his battalion had failed him almost completely; and outside it they had proved extremely bad. He and his HQ had been severely harassed by bombing and strafing throughout the day to an extent for which neither training nor experience had
prepared them.70 the enemy attack itself was of a kind still novel and from the start induced the feeling – and the reality as well – of enemy all round the perimeter and inside it also. The battle had begun with an enemy breach in the defence. The support he had expected and counted on from 21 and 23 Battalions had failed to materialise and this meant a radical departure from the original battle plan. His own counter-attack with the treasured tanks and 14 Platoon, all that he had to call reserve, had completely failed. He had been unable, through this same shortage of reserves, to give any help to his sorely tried companies. And, finally, he seems not to have been able to impress upon Brigadier Hargest the full difficulty of his predicament. In such circumstances, and exhausted in mind and body, he saw his situation in a blacker light than the facts warranted.
The non-appearance of B Company 28 Battalion all this while was most unfortunate; for had it arrived at the same time as A Company 23 Battalion it might have helped to dispose Lieutenant-Colonel Andrew to more sanguine views. What had happened to it?
Captain Royal, like Captain Watson, received orders to set off at dark and report to 22 Battalion, ready to assist if required. The company left 28 Battalion about seven o’clock with eight and a half miles to go and made its way along the main coast road as far as 23 Battalion. Just before getting there it met two enemy machine-gun posts, carried them at the bayonet point, and with the loss of two killed disposed of about twenty enemy. At this stage the company was joined by Lieutenant Moody71 with a small party from 5 Field Ambulance which 22 Battalion had asked for earlier in the day.
At 23 Battalion the combined party picked up Private Schroder72 as guide and followed the route already taken by A Company. On the way they met various stragglers who said they had been ordered to retire to 23 Battalion. At Xamoudhokhori they took the right-hand road instead of the left-hand track. Instead of taking them to B Company this led them to Pirgos, through which they passed, getting no reply to their shouts for 22 Battalion. Eventually, moving west along the main road, they found themselves on the east edge of the airfield. They could see Germans
lying about in the gunpits and had a grenade thrown at them. Justly incensed, they debated whether they should attack, but decided they must stick to their task and join 22 Battalion. The guide finally found the original Battalion HQ, by this time empty. They therefore came back through Pirgos to Xamoudhokhori and there met Lieutenant-Colonel Andrew emerging from a gully with part of B Company. With this party they made their way back to 23 Battalion, having increased their numbers en route from 114 to 180.
It has been indicated that Andrew accepted a pessimistic view of the fate of his other companies. The day’s events on this front must now be rounded off with an account of each of them.
At last light D Company were not altogether displeased with the day’s operations, in spite of the lack of communication with Battalion HQ. The nine survivors of 18 Platoon on the canal were still in position. No. 17 Platoon had only about a dozen men left unwounded, but these were still full of fight, though their ammunition supplies were lower than their spirit. No. 16 Platoon had had only light casualties.
Captain Campbell knew there were enemy on his left and right, but for the time being at least – especially after dark – these seemed content to count the day’s evil sufficient. Like the rest of his company he expected to take part in a general counter-attack. A story brought by a marine that the battalion had gone he did not believe, and he had solved the food problem by breaking into a ration dump. Water was a serious difficulty because the enemy lay athwart the only source of supply.
It was while searching for water that Campbell and his CSM discovered that the battalion had gone. This revelation and the shortage of ammunition and water was a shock to the men and dashed their spirits. It also altered Campbell’s view of the situation: he had to decide whether to follow or to stand fast in the hope that his positions might be used as the pivot of a counter-attack from the south, this being one of the tentative plans considered before the battle. After interrogating wounded he met in the battalion area he found that none of them knew the new location. He concluded that the withdrawal was a complete one and decided he must follow suit.
His plan was to send the remnants of 18 Platoon, under Sergeant Sargeson,73 south to the coast through a gap in the hills with the worst of the wounded. Having got there Sargeson was to turn
east along the coast in the hope of being picked up.74 No. 17 Platoon under Lieutenant Craig75 was to go south along the Tavronitis and turn east round the flank of Point 107. No. 16 Platoon, with Company HQ and a mixed party of RAF and RM, were to make their way east along a track known to Captain Campbell.
The plan, like most plans, worked out only in parts. Sargeson got his party safely through to the coast and turned east to Sfakia in time to be embarked. Craig found the enemy astride his route in force. He turned back and tried to go east from his original position. But the enemy had followed Campbell on to Point 107 and was too strongly posted for a party short of ammunition to be able to force a way through. Craig decided to wait in the hope that daylight would reveal a way through. His reading of the situation was that the enemy was not really well established. Unluckily morning found him surrounded, except for one of his sections which he ordered to slip away and which made good its escape. The remainder of the platoon, with no more than twenty rounds of ammunition and some wounded, could only surrender.
Campbell’s party consisted of 80 or 90 men, of whom 26 were D Company and the rest RM and RAF. They went due east and passed a party of enemy who had lain up for the night and among whom the CSM tossed a grenade ‘for good luck’. On the Maleme– Vlakheronitissa road they met Captain Hanton of A Company, who had sent his platoons ahead and then lost contact with them.
Shortly afterwards – about four o’clock – a runner arrived from C Company with a message for Battalion HQ. Campbell sent him back with orders that Captain Johnson should withdraw his company and join D Company. This therefore seems a good point to take up the story of C Company.
At the end of the day 13 Platoon still held the beach and C Company HQ, with the few survivors from 14 Platoon, still held a copse on the inland side of the airfield. ‘the surviving men were in excellent heart in spite of their losses. They had NOT had enough. They were first rate in every particular way and were as aggressive as when action was first joined.’76 their fire power was still strong, as two Junkers 52 found in the late afternoon when
They came in to try a landing and were forced out to sea again by a fusillade from all weapons.
But by 4.20 a.m. Captain Johnson, having sent out patrols which found only enemy on the site of Battalion HQ and having tried continually and vainly by other patrols between 1 a.m. and 4 a.m. to get in touch with A, B, and D Companies, concluded that the battalion had withdrawn. He knew that while he held his position he could stop any aircraft from landing on the aerodrome. But he also knew that his small force could not withstand the inevitable dawn attack. Already the Germans shared the airfield with him, holding the western edge formerly defended by 15 Platoon and the bridge end of the southern edge. Their patrols, of about ten men each, were active from dark till midnight all round his positions, on the airfield itself, and on the road towards Pirgos. Johnson therefore decided he must withdraw his men while there was still time. His own account gives a good idea of his method:
(a) At 0420 hrs when I ordered withdrawal I despatched a runner to advise 13 Pl of this order. At the same time I ordered every man to remove his boots and hang them about his neck.
(b) the wounded men who were unable to move were made as comfortable as possible in sheltered positions and provided with food and water and informed that we were about to depart.
(c) At 0430 hrs we moved off in single file, the wounded interspersed along the line of our march, through the southern wire of the copse, past the snoring Germans on our right, through the vineyards which separated C Coy from A Coy’s reserve platoon and HQ area up to A Coy’s deserted HQ, on to the road, up the hill past a grounded glider, until we reached the forward boundary of B and A Coy’s position.
(d) By this time it was getting light and there was no sign of any opposition so I gave orders to put on boots and then we struck east across country towards where I hoped the 21 Bn was situated. On this stage of our journey we picked up two or three sleeping members of 22 Bn who were unaware that any withdrawal had taken place.
(e) By 0600 hrs we arrived in a small wooded area at the same time as the German planes began their morning attack. Here we met HQ Coy under command of Lt Beaven and D Coy under Capt T. C. Campbell. The few German troops on this feature were erased and we stayed put until the worst of the air activity ceased. ...
It will be seen from Johnson’s last paragraph that Headquarters Company had by this time joined Captain Campbell. They had spent a lively enough afternoon in skirmishes round Pirgos but ‘at no time during the night or day had Maleme village been occupied by the Jerries. A few had come through and a few stayed, but only the dead ones.’77 At dusk the enemy had begun to gather
in strength at the post they had captured in the morning. The sergeant armourer, J. S. Pender,78 and Corporal Hosking79 were able to bring into action a small field gun which the enemy had dropped by parachute. ‘ ... when we heard Jerry collecting in this blind spot I spoke about I put twelve rounds into them which quietened them down quite a bit; they were cheeky as hell, shouting out to each other and giving orders, but the field gun quietened them down except that the orders turned to squeals and yells which was very good.80
At 10.50 p.m. Hosking and another soldier set off on a reconnaissance into the B Company area. They got there safely but found no B Company. After returning to report this they set off again and found that Battalion HQ was also vacated. At 1 a.m. Lieutenant Beaven, in the light of this information, began to consider whether he should not withdraw, though loath to do so without orders. Eventually he decided that he must not risk being cut off the next day, and so about three in the morning the company moved out, taking with them their stretcher cases. Shortly afterwards they met Captain Campbell and D Company.
Now that Headquarters, C and D Companies were together, some sort of position had to be manned against the dangers of daylight. Campbell knew the area and led the party to a little valley where trees gave shelter against air observation. Here they waited till the morning blitz had passed its peak. But they had had the bad luck to rouse 21 Battalion’s suspicions – suspicions expressed in bullets. Rather than stay any longer, they decided to cross by companies to 21 Battalion; and this in the course of the morning they managed to do.
Two further groups of 22 Battalion remain to be accounted for: the wounded at the RAP and the pioneer platoon at the AMES. At the time of withdrawal the RAP contained about 160 wounded (among them some Germans), about 70 of whom were walking wounded. Captain Longmore,81 the MO, had been busy all day at his own RAP and at another near the FAA camp. He was ordered in the late afternoon to move east with his patients. With the stretcher cases on boards, and guided by the Intelligence Officer, the party went about half a mile and then stopped to await further orders from Lieutenant-Colonel Andrew. By daylight no orders
had come. The Intelligence Officer set off to get stretchers. He reached the 21 Battalion lines but then decided that the wounded could not be brought safely across the exposed and fireswept ridges.
Longmore and his patients waited on. The German wounded made a circle of RAP gear and the party sat inside it, unmolested by the enemy air force. Attempts were made to contact 22 Battalion and 23 Battalion but they failed. At 5 p.m. The party was captured.
The pioneer platoon under Lieutenant Wadey remained where it was all day and all night, and its further adventures had best be taken up in the next phase of the story.
The Other Battalions and 5 Brigade HQ
The preceding account has shown 22 Battalion conducting its battle in isolation and yet continually expectant of counter-attack by one or both of the two units – 21 and 23 Battalions – for which that role was intended. The failure of the counter-attack to eventuate largely accounts for the situation in which Lieutenant-Colonel Andrew found himself at the end of the day, and no doubt contributed to the state of disheartenment in which he made his decision to withdraw, even if it cannot be taken as justifying that decision. It will be necessary therefore to take each battalion in turn and see why no counter-attack took place.
The 21st Battalion had been given three roles, each one excluding the other two. It was to move to the Tavronitis in the event of attack, or to take over the positions of 23 Battalion should it move to counter-attack in support of 22 Battalion, or to remain and fight in its original positions. Just what conditions were to determine which course to be adopted is not now clear. No doubt Lieutenant-Colonel Allen82 considered that he was to hold himself ready to carry out any one of the three and decide, according to the situation or according to subsequent orders from Brigadier Hargest, which was the action required.83
The orders for 23 Battalion were less complicated. Lieutenant-Colonel Leckie84 was to hold his own positions and be ready to come to the support of 22 Battalion if called upon. The onus for providing the counter-attack therefore seems to lie more
specifically on 23 Battalion; and this is what one would expect. For it was the stronger battalion and had indeed been placed where it was because 21 Battalion, much under strength from the casualties it had suffered in Greece, was considered too weak to shoulder alone the task of counter-attack for which it had originally been brought forward. Why, then, did 23 Battalion not counter-attack?
On the morning of the battle the battalion was disposed on either side of the road which ran from the main coast road to Kondomari and the positions of 21 Battalion. East and west across the front lay the canal, and the bulk of the battalion had its company lines immediately south of this canal. On the extreme west of the battalion position was Headquarters Company 1,85 with the battalion mortars and a platoon of MMGs under Lieutenant MacDonald. Between Headquarters Company 1 and the Sfakoriako river was D Company. Between the Sfakoriako and the road was A Company. Right of the road were B Company and Headquarters Company 2. South of all these and in the centre of the battalion position was C Company.86 the RAP and Battalion HQ were in a gully on the southern edge of C Company. A Battle HQ had been prepared in the area of Headquarters Company 1 but the nature and direction of the attack prevented it from being used. Good observation towards Maleme could be had from the high ground held by Headquarters Company 1, and there was observation from a high feature a hundred yards west of Battalion HQ. This feature was occupied by signallers and the Intelligence section.
From these points, and in spite of a much more intense bombing and strafing than usual, the landing of gliders and parachutists over Maleme was observed and reported, though there was no communication with 22 Battalion after seven o’clock, no doubt because the lines were cut. By the time the turn of 23 Battalion itself came all troops were at their stations and as far as possible under cover from the air. Shortly after nine o’clock Leckie reported to Brigade HQ that parachutists were landing between his battalion and 22 Battalion but that so far all was well. In half an hour landings were taking place within the battalion’s own perimeter. In fact the greater part of the Assault Regiment’s III Battalion must have come down there.
The first lot seemed to curl over us and land on the ‘drome, the second lot seemed to go over the back of us towards 21 Bn and we began shooting though most of these were out of our range.
Suddenly, they came amongst us. I was watching the 21 Bn area and a pair of feet appeared through a nearby olive tree. They were right on top of us. Around me rifles were cracking. I had a Tommy gun and it was just like duck shooting.87
Paratroops landed everywhere in the battalion positions. All companies were at once briskly engaged and without having to move from where they were did terrible havoc. The excitement was tremendous. Lieutenant-Colonel Leckie himself killed five from his HQ in the gully, while the Adjutant, Captain Orbell,88 accounted for two without getting up from his packing-case desk. The battalion’s losses at this stage were slight, though it was in these first few minutes that Mayor Fyfe,89 the second-in-command, was killed.
As soon as those actually within the positions had been dealt with the companies sallied out to despatch those who had landed outside the perimeter. D Company cleared the area west of the Sfakoriako, A Company the road to its front, B and Headquarters Company 2 the north-east flank, and C the area to the immediate east. These operations were very successful. Thus 15 Platoon of C Company, under Lieutenant Thomas,90 killed thirty enemy for the loss of one killed and two wounded.
The counter-attack for which he might be called upon made the fortunes of 22 Battalion a matter of prime interest to Leckie. Soon after the invasion began a party of signallers had been sent into position on the western slopes of the battalion area by a plan prearranged with 22 Battalion, and their task was to make contact by means of visual signals. This, however, they were unable to do. Nor were the flares sent up by 22 Battalion observed. But the observation posts reported that 22 Battalion’s Headquarters Company seemed to be holding strongly, and Headquarters Company 1 could see that runways on the airfield were all covered by fire. The fact that the enemy, as observed through binoculars, evidently did not care to move in the open suggested that 22 Battalion was firm.
During the morning, therefore, Leckie was able to content himself with local patrolling and cleaning-up operations and with using his machine guns and mortars to check any enemy movement in the
Maleme area. His counter-attack routes to 22 Battalion had all been reconnoitred, and whenever the orders to move should come his troops were ready to carry them out.
At 2.25 p.m. There came a message from Brigade HQ which gave a positive endorsement to his waiting policy:
Glad of your message of 1140 hrs. Will NOT call on you for counter-attacking unless position very serious. So far everything is in hand and reports from other units satisfactory. ...91
The reason for this surprising message will be discussed when the situation is considered from the point of view of Brigadier Hargest.92 For the moment it suffices to explain why Leckie made no move to the support of 22 Battalion. It should be added that although 23 Battalion could make no contact with 22 Battalion by visual signals, the Intelligence OP reported that 22 Battalion’s Headquarters Company seemed to be holding out; and when Leckie sent his 17 Platoon to try and get in touch with it, the platoon could not do so because Headquarters Company was firing on all movement.
Lieutenant-Colonel Andrew, however, knew nothing of this message. About five o’clock he had called for the counter-attack but had been told by Hargest that 23 Battalion was too busy with its own paratroops. Half an hour later Hargest had told him that two companies were being sent.
In consequence Leckie got orders in the late afternoon to send a company. Accordingly, Captain Watson set off with A Company about dusk.93 the rest of the battalion, in high fettle and with casualties of only seven killed and 30 wounded against perhaps as many as 200 enemy killed in the air, in the trees and on the ground,94 settled down for the night, confident of the morrow.
The message sent by 5 Brigade to 23 Battalion at 2.25 p.m., the failure of 23 Battalion to see Andrew’s flares, and the fact that Hargest evidently thought that Captain Watson’s company and Captain Royal’s would be all the reinforcement required by 22 Battalion sufficiently explain why 23 Battalion did not carry out the attack for which it had been prepared. The fact that it did not do so also helps to explain the actions of 21 Battalion on 20 May.
Lieutenant-Colonel Allen had disposed his rifle companies along the vineyard ridge west of Kondomari and the Sfakoriako. Battalion HQ and Headquarters Company were in Kondomari and on the ridge to the south of it. In addition the battalion had, as has been seen, a platoon of A Company on the east bank of the Tavronitis and an observer detachment overlooking Kastelli.95
The arrival of the gliders over Maleme found 21 Battalion at breakfast, the early morning strafing having apparently died down. All those not already in position at once took post and watched the parachutists landing ‘away to the west’.96 Some had landed closer, however, and about half past eight the troops became engaged with a group of about fifty who had come down north-west of D Company. These were followed an hour later by a string of a score or more who dropped round Battalion HQ and north towards 23 Battalion. Of these one was taken PW, two were wounded, and the rest killed.
In these circumstances Lieutenant-Colonel Allen, having himself accounted for one parachutist, had to decide which of his three roles he was to adopt. There was no sign at this stage of 23 Battalion counter-attacking, nor did there seem occasion for it to do so. He had no reason as yet to think his battalion was needed on the Tavronitis. And it seemed likely that the paratroops who had already landed would be followed by others. He therefore decided to hold his battalion where it was but to send a second platoon of A Company held ready for the purpose to the Tavronitis, clearing the villages of Xamoudhokhori and Vlakheronitissa on the way. From its progress he would be able to judge how things were going to the west. The platoon left at 11.30 a.m.
With the beginning of the battle the line to Brigade HQ was cut and, as the battalion had no wireless, communication from then on must have been by runner to 23 Battalion. It was perhaps by this means that Brigade HQ learnt at 1.45 p.m. that 21 Battalion had dealt with all the parachutists dropped in its area, and that it was reconnoitring to the south where others had been seen to drop.
At four o’clock in the afternoon the platoon from A Company returned. It had cleared Xamoudhokhori with the loss of one man, but had failed to reach Vlakheronitissa, after losing casualties in the attempt. No doubt Major Stentzler’s 5 and 7 Companies, reinforced by parachutist and glider stragglers, were by this time making their preliminary probes into the southern outskirts of
22 Battalion’s perimeter and had left a strong detachment in Vlakheronitissa to guard their own flank. As these two companies together made up a force comparable in strength with that which had already made a breach at the road bridge, it is not surprising that the commander of the platoon from 21 Battalion could do no more than post a standing patrol east of the village to prevent any infiltration eastwards.
Unfortunately Allen did not draw the correct inference from the presence of such a force in Vlakheronitissa. He presumably thought that his platoon on the Tavronitis was cut off, or destroyed, or had joined 22 Battalion. Yet he might well have considered that the situation had now arisen where he might make the move to the Tavronitis envisaged in his orders. No doubt it would have been a difficult operation with the enemy planes as strong in the sky as they were that day; and he had perhaps heard from 23 Battalion that its counter-attack would not be called for, a circumstance which implied that Brigadier Hargest, in touch with Lieutenant-Colonel Andrew, saw no reason for concern.
Even so, Allen might have argued, Hargest presumably knew nothing of the presence of this force round Vlakheronitissa. He can hardly be blamed for not having so argued but, had he done so and at once attacked with his battalion, he would have given Stentzler’s force a severe jolt and by making contact with 22 Battalion might have so altered the situation that Andrew’s withdrawal would not have taken place.
Meanwhile a message had come through from the AMES that small parties of enemy were operating in that quarter, and a second patrol was sent under Lieutenant Smith97 to mop them up. The patrol met no enemy and returned according to orders about seven o’clock.
In this kind of patrolling the battalion passed the day, an occupation varied by the experience of a severe dive-bombing towards evening. This visitation was no doubt due to the solicitude of Major Stentzler, who could not have felt happy about the presence of a large body of troops within striking distance. Even the presence of the patrol east of Vlakheronitissa disturbed Stentzler, as we may infer from the fact that it had to return after dark to avoid being surrounded.
Of the platoon on the Tavronitis Allen had of course no news, and he was not to learn till the following morning of the various vicissitudes it had been through.
From the local point of view then, 21 Battalion had not had a bad day. It is all the more to be regretted that a force which was so close to the critical area, and itself relatively free of trouble at the very time of crisis for 22 Battalion, could not have been put to more effective use.
This account of the three forward battalions cannot be complete until the situation at 5 Brigade HQ has been more closely scanned. But it will be well, before turning to this, to conclude the story from the point of view of the units engaged by relating what happened to those lying farther back from the main battle area.
The 28th Battalion was grouped forward of Platanias so as to cover the beach and road in that area. The most westerly of its positions was held by D Company – a road bridge about a mile west of Platanias and the area on either side. Back along the road was Headquarters Company, grouped about the village itself; while A, B, and C Companies98 held the slopes just south of Platanias.99
Being farther from the scene of the main landings, 28 Battalion saw less action than the other battalions of 5 Brigade this day. Not till about the middle of the morning did it get its chance. First a glider and then a troop-carrier crash-landed on the beach about half a mile west of D Company. Before crashing they were already being attended to by all the Bren guns within range, by the three-inch mortar with 28 Battalion, and by C Troop of 27 Battery. Both aircraft were set on fire but not before some of the enemy that landed with them escaped: for, about an hour later, enemy were observed collecting in a building about 600 yards in front of the NZE positions. C Troop was called upon and scored at least one direct hit. But the enemy remained in the area, and at half past two Captain Baker,100 second-in-command of D Company, took out two platoons to deal with them. His account of what followed gives a good idea of the conditions and the spirit in which this operation, typical of many in these days, was carried out:
One platoon from C Coy. under 2/Lt. Ready [Reedy] moved with myself, while the second platoon being No. 17 D Coy. led by 2/Lieut. F. R. Logan, was on our left. The area between D Coy. and the house occupied by the enemy was for the most part quite bare and therefore considerably exposed to any likely attack from the air. To minimise the risk I instructed all men
and their section commanders that they were to keep at least 15 yard intervals between them and in the event of enemy air attack were to lie on the ground until the planes were actually above them. We had not covered the first 100 yards when the first enemy fighters commenced to machine-gun us and by the time we were within 250 yards of the house we were receiving some attention from approximately twelve planes, which continued to circle and machine-gun us each time they came round. However we pushed home the attack which was contested by the glider troops, the platoon from C Company moving in very extended order along the beach area while 2/Lieut. Logan with his platoon on the inland side swung in an arc and finally captured the house. The enemy who were located in patrols in the sandy area around the house having lost some seven or eight men in the fighting and realising that their case was hopeless surrendered. Prisoners taken comprised two officers ... and eight other ranks. These men were marched back immediately ... and it gave a great fillip to morale of the men with me to see the terror exhibited by these Germans when they commenced to receive attention from their own fighter aircraft. ...
This was the main event of the day on the front of 28 Battalion, though there were minor excitements elsewhere like the landing of two paratroops near Battalion HQ – followed by their swift capture. The adventures of B Company under Captain Rangi Royal, who set off at 7 p.m. to the support of 22 Battalion, have already been described.
The other infantry defences in 5 Brigade sector consisted of two groups: the NZE Detachment – 7 Field Company (Captain J. B. Ferguson, who also commanded the whole detachment), which held both sides of the main road east of 23 Battalion, and 19 Army Troops Company (Captain J. N. Anderson) which held a similar area from east of 7 Field Company to D Company of 28 Battalion – and the Field Punishment Centre, which was located south of 7 Field Company and about half a mile west of Modhion.
About the same time as the landings on 23 Battalion, between a hundred and a hundred and fifty parachutists landed on the west flank of 7 Field Company. These met with much the same fate as those in 23 Battalion area, though some survived long enough to give the engineers a day’s hunting. The 19th Army Troops were too far west to receive more than a sprinkling and towards evening sent over thirty men to assist 7 Field Company.
The Field Punishment Centre was commanded by Lieutenant Roach. The prisoners were without rifles, though a store was kept for issue in case of attack. When the enemy arrived the men were
The prior plan had been to move along the canal and join B Company. But parachutists were dropping in that direction and so Roach decided to make for the southern companies of 23 Battalion. More parachutists then began to land there also. Roach decided to hold the nearest high ground. He divided his men into three sections, each under an NCO, and they settled down in time to see more paratroops drop over the Aghya plain and ‘thank Christ they were not coming here.’103
Then two parachutists dropped about half a mile south-west of Modhion, and while Roach was watching them through his glasses they began to drop in large numbers all over his own area – forty yards west of it, then on top of it, then from a hundred to two hundred yards south of it.
Those who had weapons were by this time firing and those who had not were busy stripping the dead enemy. Once the paratroops were all landed and the obvious targets dealt with, Roach ordered out short patrols with orders ‘into them’. On one of these, five enemy were killed and five captured. Besides the valuable addition of three spandaus to the unit’s fire power, this encounter yielded an aerial photograph showing positions of the defence in the area, including those of C Troop and its ammunition dumps. A recent change of camp by Lieutenant Roach had apparently eluded the enemy reconnaissance and may have saved the guns from an unpleasant attack.
Shortly after this a patrol from 7 Field Company under Lieutenant Hector104 passed through in search of an enemy mortar. It had not gone far when it ran into enemy fire and Hector was killed.
The rest of the day passed for the FPC at a slightly less hectic tempo in dealing with snipers, evacuating prisoners and wounded, collecting enemy equipment from the containers dropped, making contact with the other forces in the area, and a move after nightfall into a position closer to 7 Field Company so as to prevent infiltration.
For the gunners of A, B, and C Troops the day had more hazards and excitements than usually fall to the lot of the artillery. A and B, not being dependent on direct observation, were skilfully hidden and were not discovered by the enemy air force, but C Troop had to be sited more or less openly so as to be able to use open sights and so took its full share of the bombing and strafing with which the battle began. Once the parachutists began to land in the areas east of Maleme all three troops had to look to their personal defence as well. This was not necessarily easy, as they were badly off for personal weapons; thus of the eleven men on one gun in B Troop only one had a rifle. At this stage the scene at B Troop as described by the Battery Commander, Major W. D. Philp, may be taken as not untypical:
Lts. Gibson and Francis get to work with a rifle each and I frantically try to tell Lt. Gibson that he is firing too high and also that there are three blokes under one tree just where he is firing. The Troop Riflemen are still below ground and so we raise them and organise them along the front ledge of our position. After the first excitement ... They settle down to a little duck shooting, another load of Parachutists having toppled out. Troop Bren Gun is back at Cookhouse and so I go and send Bdr. Tyler and the gunners up. Return to BHQ and send Gnrs. Cantlon and Marshall off with our Bren and they do excellent work. BHQ now receive a “carrier” load right in our front garden and we get into the fun. One Hun is only about 25 yds away in grape vines. A few rounds are fired but he may be lying “doggo”. Gnr. McDonald sets our anxiety at rest by coming up from opposite direction walking straight up to Hun and saying, “You’d look at me like that, you bas. ... would you?” with appropriate action. Another poor devil gets his on the wing. His ‘chute catches in an olive tree and he finishes up by leaning on a rock wall, head on hands almost as if he had been meditating by the wall when death caught up to him. Dead Germans everywhere – ‘ chutes caught in trees and still fluttering in the wind. ...
But to defend themselves against these enemy on the ground was only a secondary task for the gunners. Their prime concern was to fire their guns. This became difficult from the first because of the failure of the line to the OP. Heroic efforts to mend it were made by Sergeant McLeay105 of B Troop and others, but it was impossible and he and his party were constantly distracted into fighting along the way.
The line between A and B Troops, however, was still intact and the two troops agreed to engage targets by map reference.
This was not unsuccessful, and when later requests came through by devious means from 22 Battalion for searching fire to the west of the Tavronitis they were accurately complied with.
The gunners of C Troop, excellently placed for observation as they had to be, also did worthy execution against troop movements east of the airfield,106 concentrations in houses, and aircraft and gliders landing on the beach. But their position was an exposed one. Before long at least one enemy gun was brought to bear on them from near Maleme, and Captain Snadden, the troop commander, was wounded. Moreover, enemy fighters soon discovered the troop’s positions, and their attentions were so persistent that C Troop had either to fire while themselves under fire from the air or remain silent. They chose to fire and kept on firing.
The account of the position as it was with the various units actually engaged is now complete and it is time to turn to 5 Brigade HQ. From Battle HQ in a gully south of Platanias, Brigadier Hargest’s staff saw the gliders come in low overhead and then veer west towards Maleme. The Brigade Major, Captain R. B. Dawson, at once reported them to Divisional HQ and found that they had also been seen from there. Reports soon came from 22 Battalion that there had been glider landings in their area, and similar reports about the passage of gliders and parachutists came in from the other battalions. By 9.20 a.m., when the line – except for that to 23 Battalion, the NZE detachment and the artillery – failed,107 the situation seemed in hand. Wireless contact was then sought and established about 10 a.m. with 22 Battalion, though subject to interruption at both ends of the link.108
At eight minutes past ten Brigade HQ reported to Division by telephone that the landing of parachutists was general; that the Bofors guns were still in action over the airfield; that large numbers of parachutists in front of 23 Battalion were being engaged; that 7 Field Company was engaging parachutists between its lines and
The sea; that wrecked gliders and a large aeroplane were reported on the aerodrome; and that the ‘situation [was] well in hand’.109 A further report twenty minutes later told Division that wireless contact had now been made with 22 Battalion and that the main enemy activity appeared to be directed against the area held by it.
Brigadier Hargest had been in Platanias village when the invasion began and had had to dash and crawl through a storm of machine-gun fire from enemy aeroplanes in order to reach his Battle HQ. When he reached it he took up an observation post in a slit trench from which he could observe Maleme. He was confident that the brigade would hold its positions and took the breakdown in communications as the sort of mishap inevitable in battle.
At 10.30 a.m. he was able to pass on to 27 Battery the request for searching fire in the Tavronitis area and to watch the unsuccessful attempts of enemy planes to silence the guns. True, the report from 22 Battalion at 10.55 that communications with companies had gone must have been disturbing, but the Brigadier no doubt interpreted it as cheerfully as was natural to one of his sanguine temper and concluded that it was only temporary and that, sited as they were for all-round defence, the companies would be able to hold their own against the isolated parties to whom the interruption would be due. And his confidence would have been encouraged by the report from 23 Battalion at 11.40 that its area was well under control. A similar report to similar effect from 21 Battalion at 1.45 p.m. may have made him hope – if so, by a mistaken assessment of the force of the enemy attack in the different areas – that what two of his battalions had been able to do the third would also manage. All that he himself could do he evidently felt he was doing, and although 22 Battalion reported shortly after noon that they had been bombed and were being harassed by guns and heavy machine guns from the west, at least his guns were doing all in their power to retaliate.
By 2 p.m., however, communications with 23 Battalion had broken down in their turn and there was no news from the others. Yet the tenor of the message sent to 23 Battalion at 2.25 p.m. to the effect that it would not be needed for the counter-attack unless the position became very serious does not suggest any great perturbation; though it is just possible that captured maps brought in about two o’clock and indicating a projected enemy thrust eastwards towards Canea may have made Hargest anxious to hold on to his reserve as long as possible, the more so if he believed, as he may well have done, that there were more waves of paratroops to follow. Confidence in the general situation, however, seems
The more likely and simpler explanation, and is borne out by the attitude of his staff as instanced by an entry in Captain Dawson’s day-to-day narrative for 2 p.m.: ‘Meanwhile things were confused but we did not feel that they were bad. We realised that 22 Bn was taking a hammering but we thought that the situation could be coped with’.110
This confidence ought to have been more difficult to sustain as the afternoon went on. At 2.55 p.m. came a report from Lieutenant-Colonel Andrew that his Battalion HQ had been penetrated and at ten minutes to four his report that his left111 flank had given way and his request that Headquarters Company should be contacted because he badly needed reinforcements. Again, as we have seen,112 about five o’clock Andrew asked Hargest to order the counter-attack and was told after a pause that 23 Battalion could not carry it out because it was busy with paratroops.113
It was during this conversation, apparently, that Andrew told Hargest that if no support were coming from without he would have to counter-attack with the two I tanks. And it may be that Hargest had such confidence in this local reserve that he thought nothing more would be necessary.
If so, Andrew’s next message for him, some time after 5.45 p.m. and probably about six o’clock,114 must have been a severe disappointment: the local counter-attack had failed. But even before this and while the local counter-attack was going on, the Brigadier had evidently felt some assistance must be sent: for at 5.15 Brigade HQ reported to Division that two companies were being sent to the airfield.115
Although Lieutenant-Colonel Andrew assumed that these two companies would arrive almost immediately, their actual time of departure was not till about half past seven, and it is a reasonable assumption that the orders given – by telephone to 23 Battalion and verbally to 28 Battalion116 – did not stipulate for an immediate move. It is not the time of their departure, however, that is so puzzling: co-ordinated movement even on this scale was very
difficult so long as day lasted. What is puzzling is that the force employed should have been so small.
It would be another matter if Brigadier Hargest had hastened to increase the strength of the reinforcement when he learnt about six o’clock that the counter-attack had failed and Andrew first began to speak of withdrawal. But he did not do so; nor does he seem to have considered that any special action was called for after his last conversation with Andrew between 8.30 and 9.30 p.m. The optimism implicit in this inaction is to be found also in a message sent from 5 Brigade HQ to Division that night at 9.45. According to this 23 Battalion and 7 Field Company were reported to be ‘tired but in good fettle’; there were ‘hundreds of dead Germans in their areas’. All units would be keeping a sharp watch on the beach that night. The 23rd Battalion’s casualties were seven killed and 30 wounded. Nothing was known of casualties in the other units beyond the fact, reported by 22 Battalion at six o’clock, that its casualties had been severe. The message went on to say that a company from 23 Battalion and another from 28 Battalion had been sent to help 22 Battalion, the first being expected to arrive at 8.45 and the second at 9 p.m. Communications with 22 Battalion had been lost at 8.30 p.m. In general, the situation was ‘quite satisfactory’.117
If Hargest, although he knew that the local counter-attack with tanks had failed and that Andrew was considering a limited withdrawal, regarded the situation as ‘quite satisfactory’, we can see why he did not feel called upon to launch a major counterattack with 21 and 23 Battalions. But how he could possibly take such a view remains completely puzzling. Since he himself did not survive the war to explain what he did and what he left undone, no satisfying solution is available.
The absence of an explanation for what was done, however, hardly absolves the historian from the necessity to consider the action taken in the light not only of its results but also of what might have been the results of a different course. And as the events of this twenty-four hours were largely to determine the development of the whole battle for Crete, it is particularly necessary to pause and recapitulate the main points of the day’s action with an eye to suggesting the courses open to Brigadier Hargest and scrutinising the course he did take in the light of the defence he would probably have advanced for it.
Already before noon Hargest was reporting to Division that the main enemy activity appeared to be directed against 22 Battalion. Nothing that happened subsequently could have given him grounds for departing from this appreciation, and indeed, since 22 Battalion commanded the airfield and the airfield was the obvious objective, nothing could be more likely than that the appreciation was correct.
Again, by early afternoon Hargest knew that 21 Battalion had disposed of the paratroops in its area and that 23 Battalion, though more heavily attacked, also had its situation well in hand.
It would have been natural, therefore, from midday on, to discover Brigadier Hargest issuing or preparing to issue orders to either or both 21 and 23 Battalions to proceed to the support of 22 Battalion, where the obvious Schwer punkt of the enemy’s effort lay. Yet, instead, he issues at 2.25 p.m. a message to 23 Battalion to the effect that he will not call upon it to counter-attack unless the position is very serious.
The only inference one can draw from this is that, although he knew the main attack was directed against 22 Battalion and that the enemy was in force west of the Tavronitis, he thought it necessary to defer using his reserves as long as possible, and that he did not think the situation was as yet very serious.
The case for keeping 23 Battalion where it was rests mainly no doubt on the fact that the same intelligence which had predicted the airborne invasion so accurately had also foretold an invasion by sea. The 23rd Battalion had a coastal defence role, and presumably Hargest did not want to move it to a position where it would be unable to carry this out unless he was absolutely forced to. And, if he was going to move it, the somewhat confusing battle plan for 21 Battalion laid down that it was to replace 23 Battalion. With communications as bad as they were this might have been a difficult reshuffling of forces to carry through; even so, the most that can be said is that hesitation to embark on the manÅ”uvre was natural.
Again, at 2.25 p.m. Hargest does not seem to have realised that 22 Battalion was already in jeopardy – there is no evidence to show that he was yet aware of the breach at the Tavronitis bridge.
Finally, the fact that 23 Battalion at least still had a good deal of mopping up to do, and the grave difficulties involved in moving large formed bodies of troops in daylight under complete enemy air superiority, also favoured a policy of waiting until the situation had become clearer and the need for counter-attack more indisputable.
When all this has been said, it is still difficult to see the wisdom of sending a quite gratuitous message to the effect that the
counterattack would not be called for unless the position grew very serious.
As the afternoon proceeds the case becomes more difficult. By 2.55 p.m. Andrew had reported the penetration of his HQ area. By 3.50 he was reporting that his ‘left flank’ had given way but that the position was believed to be in hand. Even if we assume that Andrew did not put his predicament as strongly as he might have done, this ought surely to have forced Hargest to reconsider his counter-attack policy so far. If he did reconsider it, he did not alter it.
Then, about five o’clock, Lieutenant-Colonel Andrew, having already put up flares in vain, got in touch with Hargest once more and asked for counter-attack by 23 Battalion. The reply was that 23 Battalion could not counter-attack because it was engaged against paratroops. Unless we assume that Hargest in his unrecorded telephone conversations with Lieutenant-Colonel Leckie formed an exaggerated estimate of the importance of the mopping-up operations then going on in 23 Battalion area, it is hard to explain why he should have answered Lieutenant-Colonel Andrew with what was in effect a repudiation of the battle plan which had been formed expressly to meet the situation that had now arisen. In fact, he seems to have had afterthoughts; for the message by which Division learnt of the plan to send forward Watson’s and Royal’s companies was received at 5.15 p.m., and so we may assume that it was after the above conversation that Hargest decided to send them.
Two companies, however, and those not sent till dark, were a sadly inadequate force to send to the help of the sector that was not only the worst beset but the most important.
Hargest’s next news of the Maleme front was Andrew’s report that the counter-attack with tanks had failed. In the same conversation – about six o’clock – he also learnt that Andrew, his reserve gone and no counter-attack having come, might have to consider withdrawal. He replied by agreeing to that withdrawal if it had to be.
These conversations seem crucial to the interpretation of Hargest’s attitude. But no record of them survives and Hargest did not discuss them with his staff. We are dependent for information about them on the recollection of Lieutenant-Colonel Andrew, and he can throw no light upon the conclusions Hargest drew from them. Moreover, with weak signals, the forward troops under heavy attack, and a confusing situation, full allowance must be made for the possibilities of misunderstanding, never so rich as in time of battle.
Yet the minimum that Brigadier Hargest could have gathered was that the situation was bad. The counter-attack with tanks had failed, there was no further reserve, and the local commander had mentioned withdrawal as a possible contingency. The inference that, even with the extra two companies and even if he held on, Lieutenant-Colonel Andrew would have to meet a heavier attack next day without having the tanks available as a counter-stroke ought surely to have been inescapable.
It is difficult to resist the view that Hargest’s wisest course at this time would have been to issue a warning order to 23 Battalion and perhaps 21 Battalion, to have gone forward to 23 Battalion and seen for himself the situation there, to have joined Watson’s company and gone through with it to Andrew’s HQ.118 Once there he could have summed up the situation, raised the spirits of the beleaguered battalion, called up one or both the other battalions to restore the line of the Tavronitis, and if all went well ordered them to launch a night counter-attack across the river. The Assault Regiment had by now lost one of its battalions more or less completely and the others were in a very battered state.119
Again, at half past eight or somewhat later, Andrew got in touch with Hargest by the last effort of the No. 18 set and, though the messages were weak, ‘told him I would have to withdraw to B Coy ridge.’ A glance at the map should have told Hargest that such a course was tantamount to giving up the position. Then, if ever, was the time for some such course of action as that already suggested.
Instead, he sent the message to Division that has already been recounted – a message which gives no indication that Andrew was contemplating even a local withdrawal, though this news would surely have been thought of the greatest importance.
This fact – that his message does not mention withdrawal – and the fact that his staff also had no inkling of what might be in the wind suggest that either Hargest had not understood Andrew’s intentions or that he believed the arrival of the two companies would be enough to restore Andrew’s confidence and prevent him from
withdrawing. Even if this is so, however, he at the least failed to appreciate the significance of the failure of the counter-attack with tanks and greatly overrated the power of two extra companies to alter the situation. And, finally, he had missed the most important fact of all, that now was the time to strike with all the force he had.
Looked at in this light the factor that probably weighed most with him, the need for the battalions to be in a position to carry out their coastal roles, dwindles to its true importance. For if the airfield were lost the enemy could build up his invasion independently of the success or failure of the seaborne expedition. And unless the defence counter-attacked at once, not merely to restore the original position but to hit the enemy’s build-up across the Tavronitis the hardest blow possible, it would be only a matter of time before the airfield belonged to General Meindl.
In short, Brigadier Hargest misread the situation. That he did so can be blamed partly on the fact that he was still tired from the campaign in Greece; on his being over-impressed with the success of 23 Battalion and too ready to believe that 22 Battalion would have equal success in weathering the storm; on the circumstance that this was a kind of battle new to him and one where hours counted, not days; and on the fact that communications were peculiarly bad and advice from a trained Intelligence staff quite absent. But the conclusion is inevitable that he began with a battle plan which gave his battalion commanders too much choice of role with too little guidance on which roles were prior, that in the battle itself he failed to give his commanders firm directions, that he would have been better able to deal with the breakdown of communications had he taken up beforehand an advanced HQ much closer to Maleme, the vital point, and that once things had begun to go wrong his wisest course would have been to go forward as far as possible to see for himself what the situation was.
To the attack in the Canea-Galatas sector the enemy planned to devote the first wave of Group Centre. The second wave was to take Retimo in the afternoon and then divert troops westwards to the support of the first wave already attacking Canea and Suda.
The troops available for the first wave were the remaining half of I Battalion of the Assault Regiment – 1 and 2 Companies120 –
landing by glider; and 3 Parachute Regiment, which would be accompanied by the Parachute Engineer Battalion and elements of the Parachute MG Battalion and of the Parachute AA MG Battalion. Headquarters of 7 Air Division to which these forces belonged would travel with this wave, as would Lieutenant-General Süssmann – the division’s commander. The object was the capture of Canea and Suda. Strong forces of 8 Air Corps were in support, and it was hoped that the attack would not only destroy the defending forces in the area but would eliminate the defence headquarters and thus put an end to co-ordinated resistance in the whole island.
The plan was that the two companies of I Battalion, the Assault Regiment, should land by glider and destroy the two AA batteries which the enemy considered most dangerous to landings in the Canea area: one on the Akrotiri Peninsula and the other about a mile south of Canea.121
To carry out this attack on the two AA batteries the glider groups were organised into two detachments. One detachment, under the command of Captain Altmann, was to attack the Akrotiri battery, flying in 15 gliders. The second detachment, under the command of Lieutenant Gentz, was to attack the battery south of Canea as well as the wireless station in the same area.
The parachutists of 3 Parachute Regiment under their commander, Colonel Heidrich,122 were to land on either side of the road from Alikianou to Canea. There were four parachute battalions in all: I, II, and III Battalions of 3 Parachute Regiment and the Parachute Engineer Battalion. Of these I and II were to land south-west of the prison on the road about two miles south of Galatas, were to drive east towards Suda – bypassing Canea – and link up with Altmann’s glider force. III Battalion was to land east and north-east of Galatas, to capture the ‘tented camp’ two miles west of Canea123 and the villages of Karatsos and Galatas, and then attack Canea from the west. The Engineer Battalion (three companies and a Parachute MG Company) was to land north of Alikianou, act as rearguard to the other three battalions, seize the Aghya power station and the Alikianou road-bridge, and investigate the tented camps at Fournes and Skines which were believed to contain Italian prisoners of war.
It may prove helpful if this plan is set out in tabular form and with slightly more detail:
|Unit||Commander||Intended landing area|
|HQ 7 Para Div||Gen Süssmann||Prison Valley|
|Coy I Bn Assault Regt||Capt Altmann||Akrotiri Peninsula|
|Coy I Bn Assault Regt||Lt Gentz||AA Bty and W/T station south of Canea|
|HQ 3 Para Regt||Col Heidrich||Prison Valley|
|I Bn (1–4 Coys)||Capt von der Heydte||Prison Valley|
II Bn (5–7 Coys)124
|Maj Derpa||Prison Valley|
|III Bn (9–12 Coys)||Maj Heilmann||East and north-east of Galatas|
|13 Coy (infantry guns)||?||Prison Valley|
|14 Coy (A-tk guns)||?||Prison Valley|
|Engineer Bn||Maj Liebach||Valley north of Alikianou|
|3 Para MG Coy||?||Valley north of Alikianou|
|4 Para AA MG Coy||Lt Matthies||South-east of Galatas.|
the working out of the plan in action – so far as it did work out in action – determined the initial pattern of the fighting in this sector, and so a beginning will be made with what happened to these forces when they reached the ground.
It was Altmann’s intention to seize a number of tactically important points east of Canea (and presumably on the Akrotiri Peninsula) at the same time as he attacked the AA battery, which was his main objective. But during the approach flight his force lost its cohesion and the towing aircraft came under AA fire when they reached Akrotiri. The gliders cast off and came down dispersed and unable to find their allotted landing points. Several gliders were damaged on rocky ground, and there were heavy losses in killed and wounded from the first. The crews were too scattered to give one another support. The AA position they were to attack proved a dummy. The area was strongly held by the Northumberland Hussars. The glider troops held out as best they could in isolated groups, but after a few days the remnants were forced to surrender through lack of supplies. They had had 48 killed and 36 wounded.
Lieutenant Gentz was luckier. Of his nine gliders one was lost through breakdown in the approach flight. Three landed in Canea, but their crews managed to make their way to the main body, which had landed near a troop of 234 HAA Battery at 8.15 a.m. Except for seven prisoners, the gun crews were killed in a stubborn engagement. But a counter-attack prevented Gentz from following up his success with an attack on the wireless station farther south. Instead, on the orders of Colonel Heidrich – with whom he had
wireless contact – he withdrew his force during the night and broke through past Perivolia to 3 Parachute Regiment, reaching it early on the morning of 21 May with three officers and 24 men out of the ninety-odd with whom he had left Greece.
The Headquarters party of Group Centre had also elected to travel by glider. The glider carrying General Süssmann, however, lost its wings early in the flight and crashed on Aegina. All its occupants were killed. The other four gliders landed according to plan something under a mile east of the Aghya reservoir.125 Command of 7 Air Division passed to Colonel Heidrich, who also retained command of 3 Parachute Regiment.
The glider attack had not therefore been notably successful, though its nuisance value was considerable for days afterwards and the fear of similar landings to follow may have played its part in holding down troops in back areas. But the main brunt of the attack lay with the parachute troops proper of 3 Parachute Regiment.
I Battalion was heavily fired on as it came down, but made a fairly successful landing in the flat country just south of the prison and east of the Canea-Alikianou road. Here the commander, Captain von der Heydte, formed up his battalion. The prison was taken at once and the battalion then thrust into the heights to the east. Though harassed by flanking fire from Galatas and without heavy weapons, the attack carried as far as Perivolia, meeting little serious opposition from the poorly armed Greeks of 6 Greek Regiment. At Perivolia the battalion found 11 Company of III Battalion, which had been wrongly put down here instead of at Galatas. Thus reinforced, the thrust was carried through to Mournies. But here strong counter-attacks, presumably by 2 Greek Regiment and the miscellaneous troops thereabouts, halted it. The Germans therefore fell back on Perivolia, having taken 200 prisoners during the morning.
II Battalion with 13 Company and 14 Company – the two heavy companies – was in reserve. The battalion crossed over the Akrotiri Peninsula, where AA fire upset the formation of the transport aircraft. But the main body was dropped north of the area between the Prison and Aghya. One of its companies was put down to the north-east of this area at the request of its commander, Lieutenant Neuhof, and found itself in strongly held territory. It at once attacked up the slopes towards Galatas. Neuhof was killed and the attack failed with heavy losses. No. 14 Company took several hours to get its guns into action, and some had to fight their way out from among the defenders by whom they
found themselves surrounded. The reception met by the whole battalion may be gathered from the following account by Karl Neuhoff, at that time a company sergeant-major in II Battalion:
The moment we left the planes we were met with extremely heavy small arms fire. From my aircraft we suffered particularly heavy casualties and only three men reached the ground unhurt. Those who had jumped first, nearer to Galatas, were practically all killed, either in the air or soon after landing. The survivors rallied to a position near the prison where we became organised, collected equipment, and formed up for an attack up the hill to the north towards Galatas. Approximately 350 men of my battalion had survived the initial landing and organising period.
III Battalion – 9, 10, 11, and 12 Companies – had an unlucky start. Major Heilmann, his HQ, and 9 Company were landed wrongly along the Alikianou-Canea road south-east of Galatas instead of east of that village. Here they were in the middle of positions held by Greeks and New Zealanders. Only by a violent effort in which their machine pistols and grenades proved very useful were they able to seize one of the heights south-east of Galatas.126
Meanwhile, 10 Company which had been correctly put down north-east of Galatas ‘immediately attacked the tented camp 2 km West of Canea, seized it and hoisted the swastika flag. 500 prisoners were taken.’127 the rest of the company’s adventures were known to the enemy only through the accounts of survivors. For Lieutenant Pagels, the company commander, decided in the face of counter-attacks that he must break through to his regiment; on the way he was ambushed and killed with most of his company.
The other two companies, 11 and 12, were also unlucky, but less so. No. 11 Company landed near Perivolia, where it joined I Battalion. Its commander and a few others, who had landed correctly north of Galatas, were killed in an attack towards it. No. 12 Company also landed wrongly, with I Battalion. Instead of seizing Karatsos according to plan, it had to support I Battalion.
No. 4 AA MG Company came down somewhere south-east of Galatas and under heavy fire got three or four 20-millimetre guns into action in support of the scattered operations of III Battalion. The commander of the MG battalion dropped with the company and was wounded. Four of its officers were killed. But the company managed to resist counter-attacks by tanks and even to destroy several – according to 11 Air Corps.128
The Engineer Battalion, with 3 Parachute MG Company and a platoon of anti-tank guns in support, was put down correctly north of Alikianou, south of Kirtomadho and close to Lake Aghya. They had to free themselves from their harness and the abundant cactus while under fire from Greek troops and civilians. By the time they had done so they found that the Greeks had acquired German weapons. ‘the ranges on both sides of the dropping area are held by Greek soldiers and partisans, ably led by some British officers. ... Thus the battalion is surrounded in its own landing area.’ By midday, however, some semblance of order was restored and the commanders had their companies in hand. No. 2 Company then began its attack towards Alikianou. Some progress was made at first, but determined resistance by the Greeks – women and children among them and armed mainly with shotguns – halted the Germans, after heavy casualties, about half a mile from the road-bridge.129
Meanwhile 4 Company had failed to advance south of Alikianou or to capture the power station. About half past twelve it was directed to support 2 Company by attacking the ridges east of the road. In this, too, it failed and with considerable losses.
At 2 p.m. seven transport aircraft brought arms and ammunition, all of which fell into the Greek lines. But this disappointment to the enemy was mitigated by the capture of the power station which took place shortly afterwards. This and the fact of a successful landing were the only successes for the battalion that day.
Colonel Heidrich himself had landed near the prison about nine o’clock with his regimental signals. He must quickly have appreciated that the plan had gone awry and that the hills to the east and those round Galatas were vital. I Battalion could deal with the former without much alteration of plan; but it was clearly pointless to send II Battalion in the same direction. He therefore put 5 Company under III Battalion and deployed 6 Company and II Battalion HQ south of the prison to protect his right flank.130
With 5 Company, probably part of 9 Company, and 12 Company he seems then to have attacked Pink Hill.131 This attack failed, and
in the afternoon he was forced to bring in 6 Company and II Battalion HQ as well. Better progress resulted and after dark, because of a temporary withdrawal by the defence, the enemy took possession of the hill.
With the enemy on the ground and the rough pattern of his landings apparent, the point of view can be switched to that of the defence. And on this first day General Freyberg’s forces in the general area of Canea-Galatas were to be found fighting in many different places. As by the end of the day it was sufficiently clear that the Galatas area held by 10 Brigade was to be the main front, it will be convenient to dispose of the subsidiary – in some cases literally ephemeral – fronts first.
Broadly, these may be summed up as three: the area round Canea held by Suda Force and 2 Greek Regiment; the area of 18 Battalion and 7 General Hospital; and that held by 19 Battalion and 1 Light Troop RA.
The opposition on the first front came initially from the glider troops of Captain Altmann and Lieutenant Gentz. The fate of Altmann’s men has already been described from enemy sources, and it remains only to add that though a few parties survived the attention of the Northumberland Hussars and the gunners in the area and lingered for a few days about the Akrotiri Peninsula, they could never be more than a nuisance and in due course ceased to be even that.
Gentz’s glider company had overwhelmed the troop of 234 HAA Battery about eight o’clock. It was some time before Major H. V. Wolstenholme of the same unit was able to complete a reconnaissance and then gather a party of Royal Marines for counter-attack. But by the afternoon this had been done and about four o’clock the enemy had been driven off the guns.132 Inasmuch as this glider party had managed to keep the guns of the troop out of action while the parachutists were landing, it had done the enemy good service.
The only other actions of importance on this front were due to those paratroops of 3 Parachute Regiment who had landed out of their intended areas and perhaps to the eastward thrust of I Battalion. Thus a party variously estimated at between twenty and forty landed east of Platanos in the area of Transit Camp A. The camp contained about 700 soldiers and sailors from many different units and ships. Its commander was Captain W. S. Page, RTR, and the New Zealand element in it, under Captain Hook,133
came mostly from 1 Echelon of the Divisional Supply Column. Some confused fighting followed the parachute landing, and much enterprise was shown by various small parties of the defence in seizing enemy weapons and going into action. Most of the enemy were killed and the remainder made their way westward, though isolated paratroops and perhaps a few surviving glider troops remained in the area to make themselves a nuisance to communications in this vulnerable headquarters area.
Another parachute party had landed close to the house in which the King of Greece, guarded by B Company of 18 NZ Battalion, had been staying until the day before. This house was a little north of the transit camp and, in the course of the fighting that followed an attack by the paratroops, B Company had a busy day patrolling and fighting in general concert with the men from the transit camp. The attack was broken up, and because of their help in what was assumed to have been an attempt to capture the King the troops from the transit camp were dubbed by General Weston ‘the Royal Perivolians’.
The King had in fact moved on 19 May to a house about two miles south of the transit camp, escorted by 12 Platoon of B Company under Second-Lieutenant W. H. Ryan. His subsequent adventures fall outside the main narrative and are dealt with separately in Appendix II.
One other group on the Suda Force front saw some ground action this day. The 2nd Greek Regiment, with a party of five New Zealand instructors under Major H. G. Wooller134 attached, held a position running south from the southern exit of Mournies to the hills and then west along the northern slope of these. Most of the enemy paratroops landed outside the regimental area. In fighting with about thirty who landed inside the area, the regiment’s few rounds of ammunition were used up and Wooller spent a good part of the day trying to obtain more. In the end he secured a truckload of grenades and, armed with these, the Greeks made a substantial advance from Mournies in the direction of Perivolia, where the first paratroops – presumably from 11 Company – had been despatched by civilians with axes and spades but where reinforcements from I Battalion had found their way later.
In the evening this part of the front was considerably strengthened by the advent of 2/8 Australian Battalion which General Weston had ordered at 4.30 p.m. to move from Georgeoupolis,135 where it could effect nothing, into the Mournies
area. It took up its new positions about eight o’clock between 2 Greek Regiment and the Royal Perivolians and dug itself in.
At the end of the day, therefore, in the Suda Force area there had been no serious alteration in the general position, except for the potential threat west of Mournies and the move by 2/8 Australian Battalion to help check it.
The next area in which there was fighting on any scale this first day was that of 18 Battalion, 4 Brigade HQ, and 7 General Hospital.136 the whole of 18 Battalion, except for B Company on its royal escort duty, was disposed on either side of the Canea-Maleme road about half a mile west of the turn-off from the main road that ran to Galatas. The commander, Lieutenant-Colonel Gray,137 had three companies forward and astride the main road and one in reserve.138 the positions took full advantage of the cover given by the olive groves but there were big gaps between the company areas.
For Lieutenant-Colonel Gray the first warning that this was not to be like other days was the sight of a number of gliders whose disappearance towards Canea was followed by the arrival of about a dozen Junkers 52. Corporal Howard,139 then with D Company, gives a description which is typical for what many men saw that morning:
... through the trees I saw large troop-carrying planes lumbering through the air while from their bellies dropped little dots which were steadied in their descent by the sudden billowing of parachutes. The Blitz was on. Soon the sky was full of airy mushrooms and, as they descended, ME fighter escorts roared overhead – just overhead too, for they skimmed the tree tops, the roar of their engines was intended to distract us. ... I took up position at the base of a tree and opened fire with tracers on the dangling figures descending. ... Shooting was general and as parachutists reached the ground, 150–200 yards away on tussocky ground and in vineyards, they provided fairly good marks. Many were shot before they got clear of their envelopes. Very few survived in our area.
Colonel Heidrich’s 10 Company and the strays from other paratroop companies were not numerous enough to provide serious
opposition and indeed were mainly preoccupied with their task of seizing the ‘tented camp’. Operations were thus mostly of the mopping-up sort. For Battalion HQ they began briskly with a dash into action led by Gray:
... gathering up everybody at Bn HQ, even to the cook, we went up on the ridge in the direction of the enemy. Arrived there, one saw the parachutists still descending and the last planes just turning away to go home. The parachutists dropped from an average height of about 300 feet, and took about half-a-minute to come down. Many had reached the ground. They were dropping on a ridge about 700 yards or so away, among olive trees, and there was an intervening ridge between ours and theirs.
Down and on to the next ridge. There we stood for a few moments shooting at the last ones in the air. Then on again to get in among them. I looked round. My batman, George Andrews, the RSM, and Cpl Dick Phillips, one of the orderly room clerks were with me. I felt the others were coming. There was nothing for it but to go on and trust to the rest following.
I saw a parachute hanging in a tree and detected a movement round the left side of it. Fired quickly with my rifle – every officer in the battalion had a rifle. Then advancing very softly and quickly up to the parachute I looked round the side to see a Hun lying on the ground beside a gaily coloured container fastened to the parachute. He moved, so I shot him at once to make sure, and then moved cautiously from cover to cover.
I shot another hiding behind a tree, and wounded him. He was very frightened, but I told him to lie still and he would be looked after. Took his pistol away and gave it to Dick Phillips who was just on my right. No sooner had I handed it to him than he was shot through the knee. Two Huns about 30 yards away hiding behind a tree were shooting at the two of us. Two careful ones immediately despatched them both. There were plenty of bullets flying round but one had no time to bother about them. I saw George Andrews sitting on the ground taking careful aim at some cactus bushes behind us. “Steady on George,” I said, “You will be shooting one of our own chaps.” “No bloody fear, it’s a Hun,” he said, and fired, “Got him.”140
Once Gray had satisfied himself that all was going well, he returned to his HQ. Here he was found in the middle of his morning shave by Brigadier Inglis and his Brigade Major. They told him that 7 General Hospital had been attacked and that they had ordered A Company of his battalion, which happened to be the nearest company, to clear out the enemy. Upon this Gray sent a second company and two Bren carriers to take part in this movement on the left.
The enemy with whom Gray and his men had been dealing were probably for the most part from 10 Company who had been landed
too far west or who were acting as flank guard for the main body directed on the ‘tented camp’.141
In the morning, about the same time as the air attack broke out elsewhere, 7 General Hospital and 6 Field Ambulance were both subjected to a severe bombing and strafing attack which lasted for about an hour and a half. At the end of it, about half past nine, paratroops had been landed and suddenly appeared in the two areas.
In 6 Field Ambulance the commanding officer, Lieutenant-Colonel Plimmer,142 and his second-in-command, Captain Lovell,143 were both ordered to surrender. Unarmed, they were both shot at. Plimmer was hit and died soon afterwards. The staff, which numbered about a hundred, and the patients, of whom there were about forty, were then rounded up and put under guard in the MDS clearing with its Red Cross flag.
Meanwhile 7 General Hospital, which had had several tents destroyed in the bombing, was similarly attacked. Patients – some of whom, perhaps as many as twenty, were killed – and staff were driven out and herded over to 6 Field Ambulance. Among them were some bed patients – although a number of bad cases were allowed to remain, the choice probably depending on the temper of the individual parachutist.144
At 6 Field Ambulance patients from both places were held under guard. By this time they numbered about 300 in all. Permission was given for the burial of Lieutenant-Colonel Plimmer. Food from a small dump was distributed. Some water was also given out. Once during the morning a carrier – no doubt from 18 Battalion – appeared but, unable to effect anything in the confusion of enemy and prisoners, turned back again to report. Not long after a tank came on the scene. But it too withdrew.
The enemy must have used this pause to consider their position. It could hardly have seemed cheerful. Whether they were able or not to communicate with the rest of their battalion, they must have realised that something was wrong. They were isolated and had probably already begun to feel pressure from 18 Battalion. They had a large body of sick and wounded prisoners on their hands. In this situation their best course was to try and make their way back to the main body near Galatas, taking their prisoners.
Accordingly, not long after midday, they began to shepherd their charges in the general direction of Galatas. But this was also the general direction of 19 Battalion’s right flank. On the way the column was fired on. One of the guards was wounded. Three members of 6 Field Ambulance staff were killed and one wounded. A party from D Company was soon encountered and in the engagement that followed most of the guards were killed. A few patients were also wounded, but by 5 p.m. The survivors were all rescued and they spent the night with 19 Battalion.
Not all the patients and staff had gone with this party. Captain Lovell and Lieutenant Ballantyne145 and two NCOs had been escorted to 7 General Hospital to treat a wounded German. Meanwhile 18 Battalion appeared on the scene and rescued the others. A new dressing station was set up, with equipment salvaged from the old one, in a culvert under the main road. The General Hospital was also re-established by officers and orderlies who had escaped or remained hidden. The new location was in caves by the shore. Operations were carried out all night by Major Christie146 and Captain A. Gourevitch, and next day the rest of the patients and staff returned. By 23 May faith in its protection had recovered sufficiently for a Red Cross to be displayed, and the enemy did not molest either ambulance or hospital any further.
For 19 Battalion, closer to the dropping area, the day was not easy. There were only four companies – B Company had been lost at the Corinth Canal – and although the battalion was part of Force Reserve its positions were important from the first as a support to 10 Brigade. The companies were disposed south and south-east of Karatsos, between the village and the Alikianou-Canea road. Farthest west was D (Taranaki) Company; C (Hawke’s Bay) Company was a little south-east of D; A (Wellington) Company adjoined C still farther to the east; and Headquarters Company held the eastern flank147
Also in the area were two troops of artillery. F Troop of 28 Battery was in A Company area about 200 yards west of Karatsos church. And on the south side of the Alikianou-Canea road was 1 Light Troop RA.
Accounts of the numbers of parachutists landing vary from one hundred to four hundred. If we allow for double counting and the speed with which they were brought under control, 200 seems a probable maximum.148 To the commander of 14 Platoon in C Company, Lieutenant Cockerill,149 who was in a good position to observe, it seemed that the greater number landed south of the Canea-Alikianou road; and this is likely enough in view of the German story that, although III Battalion was to have landed east of Galatas and taken Karatsos, only 10 Company was correctly landed, the others being dropped too far to the south and east. We may surmise that elements of all four companies landed actually in 19 Battalion area but the main body of the battalion outside it.
Of those who were correctly put down very few must have survived the fusillade that began while the parachutes were still dropping and continued throughout the earlier part of the morning. By 10 a.m. all four companies of 19 Battalion were reporting their area clear.
For F Troop the silent passage of a glider overhead while the gunners were at their breakfast was the first intimation that this was to be no ordinary day. A party at once set off for the observation post on Cemetery Hill. It had covered only 200 yards when it was forced to ground by paratroops landing all around. The party ‘put in some fairly sporting work with their one and only rifle.’150 But when news came that the Greeks had been forced off Cemetery Hill and the observation post was therefore in enemy hands, there was nothing for it but to return to the guns. Here the rest of the gunners were found armed to the teeth with enemy weapons and busy dealing with snipers. The guns themselves, deprived of their observation post, could now be fired only over open sights at whatever tempted attention. Enemy parties visible from about half past nine on the hills to the south came under this heading. An abortive attack on the gun positions themselves yielded eleven prisoners.
1 Light Troop RA was less fortunate. Its position south of the Canea-Alikianou road was well suited to the troop’s role – to fire on the beaches and the prison area in support of 4 Brigade. Indeed, no better site was thought to be available for this purpose. But the site also invited parachutists, being low-lying. Major Blackburn,151 commander of 19 Battalion, had been worried about the troop’s
position because of this and because it lay outside the perimeter of his battalion and so lacked infantry protection. He had no choice, however, but to accept the assurances of the troop commander, Captain J. Dawney, that no alternative site would permit the troop to carry out its role.152
The troop’s position – taken up on 17 May – was a roughly rectangular clearing, bounded on the west and east by olive groves, on the north by the road, and on the south by a stream. The guns were dispersed among the trees but by 20 May were still not completely ready for action.153
As soon as he found Captain Dawney determined to keep to his position, Blackburn had offered him infantry protection. The offer was refused, however, until about six o’clock in the evening of 19 May. Blackburn thereupon ordered A Company to provide the protection and Captain Pleasants154 decided to send 8 Platoon. By this time the platoon commander, rather remissly, thought it too late to do more than reconnoitre and arrange for one section to move in at first light next day and a second to follow after breakfast.
About six o’clock next morning the first section duly arrived, and as soon as the aerial bombardment slackened the men joined the breakfast queue. The rations were in their hands but not in their mouths when the landing began. The paratroops seemed to them to land mainly along the road or north of it, and the section had quickly to alter its targets from transport planes to enemy on the ground. At first a ditch along the west side of the clearing made a useful trench; but fire from the right flank made this untenable and, after casualties, the men of the section were forced back to slit trenches in the clearing itself where they hoped to get support from the gunners.
From here it was obvious that the gunners, too, had suffered casualties and that little or no support would be forthcoming from the survivors, who had gone to earth somewhere. The conduct of one n.c.o., however, was outstanding. One saw him extract the breech blocks from at least two of the howitzers nearest to where we were, dumping them down in holes as far away from the guns as was possible under the circumstances. After this he took shelter with us for a few minutes and said that the rifle he was carrying he had retrieved from one of our fallen comrades. As they were lying in the olive trees on the prison side this n.c.o. must have been there and it is possible that he managed to get round all the guns and disarm them. It was apparent, also, from the way in which he spoke
regarding the rifle, that the gunners were entirely without personal weapons. It was not surprising therefore that we were not receiving any support from them.155
Meanwhile the enemy fire got heavier and the section found itself reduced to six men. When finally the enemy ‘got close enough to trundle egg grenades at us’, they decided to withdraw to the south-east corner of the clearing. Here they found the troop’s GPO and a dozen or so gunners.
Attempts by reconnaissance upstream to locate any missing having run into strong crossfire, the party, gunners along with infantry – now reduced to four – made their way downstream and by about midday had managed to cross the road, hand over the gunners to Headquarters Company, and get back to A Company. Captain Dawney himself, along with another party of gunners, had already found his way to F Troop. Of the four guns three remained out of action, but the enemy seems to have been able to use the remaining one against F Troop.
News of 1 Troop’s disaster could not reach 19 Battalion until the survivors began to come in. For line communications had been cut at the outset. Moreover, the men of 19 Battalion had not had long in which to congratulate themselves on their first success. Further aircraft came over between eleven o’clock and midday and dropped containers and more troops. A and D Company sent out patrols which cleared out about twenty of the enemy near Karatsos. Other parties were sent to locate and take over the dropped equipment, dealing with isolated groups of Germans as they did so. In spite of this single snipers began to give trouble, and the enemy had machine guns and mortars in action to which the battalion’s three-inch mortar proved a fairly effective counter.
It was nearly four o’clock in the afternoon before communication to 4 Brigade was restored; and by this time some pattern could be discerned in the enemy’s doings. The slackening air attack suggested that he was consolidating, and the flares sent up to show his aircraft what were his positions were helpful to the defending troops as well. Thus the battalion was able to conclude and report to Brigade that the main attack seemed to be directed from an east-west line roughly along the heights between the prison area and Perivolia: A smaller attack appeared to be developing towards the Canea-Alikianou road where 1 Light Troop RA had been. North of the battalion’s positions patrols were clearing the enemy from between Karatsos and the sea. The battalion’s own casualties were between fifteen and twenty men. This message also informed 4 Brigade of the fate of 1 Light Troop RA.
A written message sent at 4 p.m. to Division summarises the situation on 19 Battalion front at what was roughly the end of the first phase of its fighting. About 100–150 enemy had been put out of action. An enemy party of perhaps 200 men was attacking the slopes held by A Company and Headquarters Company. Another group in even greater strength was attacking Cemetery Hill. But the ammunition position was satisfactory and patrols were engaging enemy north of Karatsos.156
The main enemy landings had taken place between Galatas, the Prison, and Alikianou. Here in the next few days there were to be a front and fighting second in importance only to Maleme, with 10 Brigade the front line of the defence. It will be best to dispose first of the outlying units which by reason of distance and lack of communication were virtually outside the control of the brigade commander.
The 8th Greek Regiment was in difficulties from the start, cut off from 10 Brigade by the landings in the Prison area and the eastward thrust of I Battalion, and threatened on its left and front by the Parachute Engineer Battalion. Attached to the Greeks were a party of New Zealand instructors led by Major Wilson157 of 20 Battalion. Wilson had decided beforehand that when battle began it would be best for the New Zealanders to concentrate separately; for there was reason to fear that otherwise the Greeks would disregard their own officers and, as the New Zealanders knew no Greek, the system of command would be dislocated.158
Accordingly, Wilson had his supplies dumped at the pumping station on top of a hill half a mile south of the reservoir. On the morning of 20 May all of his men hurried to this point – which we now know to have been a German objective – all, that is, except Lieutenant Brown159 and Sergeant Smith,160 who were both cut off and remained with the Greeks.
Thus the battle began with the New Zealanders at the pumping station and the Greeks in their three companies lining the ridges south of the road to Alikianou and overlooking it. The Greeks were too strung out to fight as a battalion – their HQ was in a
schoolhouse north of the road. About 250 of them, who had arrived the previous night and had neither arms nor training, scattered inland when the paratroops came down. None the less, as we have seen, the Greeks fought well in their separate companies, acquired some German weapons and held on all day, inflicting severe casualties and what amounted to a local defeat.
The enemy attacks in the afternoon, at both ends of the Greek front, brought fierce fighting on either side of the road. In the battle round Aghya itself the commander of the regiment, two majors, and most of the staff were killed; and not far away the enemy managed to get possession of the pumping station hill. But when dark came the Greeks still held the ridges, the Alikianou road-bridge, and Alikianou itself.
The New Zealanders with 8 Greek Regiment were unlucky. Lieutenant Brown, who fought alongside the Greeks all day was captured next morning.161 Sergeant Smith made his way out next day. Major Wilson’s party were surrounded at their rendezvous, the pumping station, and forced to spend the day and night there, unable to rejoin the Greeks or take any important part in the fighting. On 21 May Wilson attempted a sortie and was killed. Shortly afterwards his companions were captured.
It is clear from Brown’s account and the developments at a later stage that 8 Greek Regiment continued to hold the main portion of the ridges. The more northerly ridges were lost during the night. For Major Liebach, commander of the Engineer Battalion, got orders to send at least a strong company to Colonel Heidrich and decided that the best way of doing this was to break through with his whole battalion. No. 1 Company, with machine pistols, grenades and flame-throwers, set out after dark and 4 Company followed. Between them they cleared the heights south of Aghya. No. 2 Company and 3 Parachute MG company disengaged and came on behind. Thus the whole battalion was able to break through to Heidrich at his HQ near Mandra.
The enemy makes no further mention of fighting in this sector till 23 May, and there are no Greek accounts available. It may be assumed that after the enemy had gone the Greeks, with the additional weapons they had acquired, manned the greater part of their line once more. Heidrich was in no position at this stage to dispute this. He needed all his strength for Galatas and was satisfied so long as no attack was made on his south flank. Thus elements of 8 Greek Regiment and partisans held on and supplied
The opposition when the enemy later tried to cut his way to the coast by this route. It was not till 26 May, when a full regiment was brought to bear, that he made any progress.162
Another outlying force was the Divisional Cavalry in the hills north of Lake Aghya. They were about 190 in number and were divided into three squadrons under Major John Russell. Colonel Kippenberger had from the first felt uneasy about their isolated position and had ordered Russell to withdraw to the main body of 10 Brigade whenever the situation seemed to warrant it.163
On the morning of 20 May the troops were about to stand down for breakfast when they saw the troop-carriers go in over Maleme and others, preceded by gliders, flying straight across the Aghya valley, emptying out their parachutists as they went. Most of these landed out of range, and when they formed up attacked east and not west. So the Divisional Cavalry had to content themselves with potshots at strays. On the plain where the main landings took place there was plenty of cover and, once grounded, the paratroops were hard to see.
To Major Russell staying where he was seemed pointless. His men had no long-range weapons and so could not damage the enemy in the valley. Still less could he support 8 Greek Regiment; for an open space strongly held by enemy lay between, even if it had been practicable to move an organised body of men over it under an enemy-thronged sky. And soon at this distance it seemed as if Greek resistance, at least at the prison end of the front, had been overcome. The telephone line to Brigade had been cut half an hour after the landing, there was no wireless, and a runner sent out returned wounded with the report that it was impossible to get through by the direct route.
Russell determined to use the discretion given him and by striking into the hills north of him to make his way round into Galatas.
In the early afternoon the force set out and, after a long and rugged climb and some unpleasant moments in the approach to the front line held by the Composite Battalion, eventually found its way into Galatas, meeting on the way a patrol sent out to bring it in.
The line held by the 1400 men of 6 Greek Regiment under Major Gregarius ran from the Prison-Galatas road164 to Cemetery Hill and thence across the valley to the Turkish fort. The troops
were ill-armed165 and, though ammunition had arrived some days before the battle and been distributed to companies, there is some doubt whether it had been issued to the men. Whether or not it had been issued, however, the length of the line, lack of training, and weakness of armament sufficiently explain the disaster that quickly overtook the regiment. With I Battalion attacking hard on the south flank, 11 Company in the rear, 12 Company to the front, and 9 Company on top of the positions – all troops heavily armed and highly trained – defeat was inevitable. The defending forces south of the Canea-Alikianou road and in the valley between it and the Turkish fort were overwhelmed. Some no doubt made their way east to 2 Greek Regiment or into the hills towards 8 Greek Regiment. Others reached Galatas or 19 Battalion and were to reappear. But as a unit 6 Greek Regiment ceased to exist.
North of the Canea-Alikianou road on Cemetery Hill was the regiment’s HQ. Here there were about thirty Greeks being trained in field engineering by a party of New Zealand sappers, and here also was Captain Smith166 of 23 Battalion with a further party of New Zealand instructors. The Greek trainees had only about ten rounds of ammunition each, and when the parachutists began to drop this supply was quickly exhausted. For this reason an attempt by Smith to rally the Greeks and counter-attack could not be carried through. Without ammunition there was nothing that the defence could do, and Smith therefore collected all those who had not already melted away and led them back into the area of 19 Battalion. Here Major Blackburn gave them an area in which to reorganise, and they obtained some German ammunition which approximately fitted their weapons. That night, when two 19 Battalion companies went forward to counter-attack, the Greeks were able to replace them in the battalion perimeter.
Another group of Greeks made its way into Galatas, about 200 strong. Their condition may be gauged from an account by Captain Bassett,167 Brigade Major to 10 Brigade. ‘Here I found hundreds of Greeks in flight, rallied and railed at them and turned them back down the valley; but they showed that they only had three rounds each which they blazed at high-flying planes. That bloody Colonel had not issued his ammunition, and his dump was captured at once.’168
Eventually Bassett ‘Rallied some in the village and put them under a hero, Captain Forrester, a young blond Englishman (Queen’s Regiment) who had trickled in the night before to liaise and report back. He nonchalantly forgot about reporting back in person until our scrap there finished a week later.’169
Since this was the end of 6 Greek Regiment, the part played from now on by those Greeks who remained in action will be treated in relation to the main narrative of 10 Brigade.
The remainder of the 10 Brigade front was held by the Composite Battalion in its three main groups: the RMT group between the coast and the northern slopes of Red Hill; a central group which consisted of two companies formed from 4 Field Regiment and 2 Echelon of the Divisional Supply Company, and which held Red Hill and Ruin Hill; and a mixed group from 5 Field Regiment on Wheat Hill and the Divisional Petrol Company on Pink Hill.170
As it was in the sector of this last group that the main fighting of the day took place, the other two sectors may be dealt with first. A sprinkling of enemy landed in the lines of the RMT but were quickly eliminated, their weapons making a desirable addition to the defenders’ fire power. The 4th Field Regiment on Red Hill acquired neither enemy nor spoil, but the Divisional Supply Company on Ruin Hill was able to enjoy some long-range shooting at paratroops in the prison area and had a few strays nearer at hand to dispose of as well. On Wheat Hill the men of 5 Field Regiment had only a few intruders to silence and, apart from some forward patrolling, spent most of the day watching the enemy form up in the prison area and expecting orders for a counter-attack.
The day passed so easily for these two northern sectors because the enemy’s main landings were to the south and south-east. For the most southern group of the Composite Battalion, the Divisional Petrol Company, it was another matter. The company had four sections disposed from the foot of Wheat Hill to the Prison-Galatas road, with two sections on Pink Hill itself which was to prove a key position. Wire had been erected about fifty yards in front of the forward posts and the troops mostly occupied trenches dug by their predecessors, 1 Welch. In armament the company was weak: the rifles were without bayonets and five fewer than the men who needed them, and besides rifles there were
only two Bren guns, one Lewis machine gun, and an anti-tank rifle. The men themselves were for the most part drivers and technicians and so ill trained for infantry fighting.
Pink Hill gave such good observation that Colonel Kippenberger had established his battle HQ there. Daylight had found him in Galatas itself, shaving in his billet while an enemy fighter flew up and down the main street. As he was contemplating, the shave finished, a more than usually watery porridge, four gliders passed overhead ‘in their silence inexpressibly menacing and frightening.’171 He seized his rifle and binoculars and raced towards Battle HQ, the horizon full of falling parachutists. En route he twisted his ankle and killed a sniper. At Battle HQ he was joined by Bassett and the signallers. Bassett’s letter, already quoted, describes the scene:
There were hundreds of planes in the air – low-flying Dorniers swept us with a hail of lead, Stukas dive-bombed our FDL’s, gliders slid over them where the mammoth troop-carriers nosed in and then right up to the ceiling of the sky whirled the even-watchful Messerschmitts. The Condors swerved astride the Valley road and suddenly the sky was raining falling petals, tiers of planes simultaneously disgorging lines of black parachutes. ... Interspersed with these were white sheets dropping stores, yellow with medical supplies and green with mortars. ...
It was from their observation point on Pink Hill that Kippenberger and his Brigade Major saw 6 Greek Regiment withdraw. And not long after they realised that their own HQ was too exposed and so themselves withdrew, establishing a new HQ with the Composite Battalion near Ruin Ridge and north of Galatas.
After rallying the Greeks and handing them over to Captain Forrester, Bassett then went back with a patrol of eight men to Pink Hill to see what could be done about the gap on its left made by the withdrawal of 6 Greek Regiment. Meanwhile the impetuous Lieutenant Neuhof had launched his newly-landed 7 Company against Pink Hill and Divisional Petrol Company. And probably part of 9 Company was also active in the same area. Casualties to the defence were severe as the enemy drive was backed up by mortar fire from the prison area. But German casualties appear to have been even more so, and 7 Company did not survive this day as a company.
As soon as battle began Captain W. G. McDonagh, the commander of the Petrol Company, made a circuit of his positions, ‘very cheerful, saying “This’ll be a good shot”, “the duck season’s a bit late boys, but it’s good shooting now”, and similar
remarks which cheered the men up considerably. He was an inspiring commander.’172 On his way back from this tour of encouragement McDonagh was mortally wounded. Lieutenant Macphail,173 who took over from him, was severely wounded shortly afterwards. Lieutenant Jackson174 then took command, but was wounded in his turn. At this point Captain Rowe,175 the Brigade Supply Officer, arrived. He had heard that McDonagh had been wounded and had asked Colonel Kippenberger’s permission to go and help. His arrival was timely; for by now all the Petrol Company officers were out of action and most of the NCOs. Rowe therefore assumed command.
The position was critical. The first attack by 7 Company direct on Pink Hill had been beaten off. But there was still a gap on the left of the Petrol Company where the Greeks had fallen back and the Germans were forcing their way forward. Bassett, after driving some enemy out of Battle HQ, worked his way across the gap to make contact with the right-hand post of 19 Battalion. He was in time to see a counter-attack by Forrester’s reorganised Greeks. ‘But suddenly Forrester began tootling a tin whistle like the Pied Piper, and the whole motley crowd of them surged down against the Huns yelling and shouting in a mad bayonet charge which made the Jerries break and run.’176
‘This steadied what Greeks were left’, Bassett continues, ‘and we stretched a thin line of outposts across which I patrolled three times that day.’
This line of outposts consisted of one Greek party pushed out from Pink Hill by Bassett and another rallied in 19 Battalion area by Lieutenant Wildey,177 and extended from the 19 Battalion right to join up with Bassett’s party. Bassett and his own patrol returned to Pink Hill to thicken up the defences there.
It was against this reconstituted line and mainly Pink Hill that Heidrich launched 5 Company and what there was available of III Battalion – probably part of 9 Company, 12 Company, and Battalion HQ – in the attack described earlier. The force did not prove strong enough, and 6 Company and II Battalion HQ had to be brought in as well. In this third attack, during the late afternoon, some of the Petrol Company’s posts on the right flank were forced
back onto Wheat Hill. But a small party on Pink Hill itself held on stoutly and inflicted heavy casualties. Although the hill’s head was bald and their positions were very vulnerable to the constant mortaring from the prison area, this party stayed till dusk. By then so many were wounded and killed and links with the rest of the company so weak that CSM James,178 the local commander, decided to withdraw in the hope of reorganising and reoccupying the hill at dawn. During the night he and Captain Rowe carried out this plan, sparing as they did so a party for clearing-up operations in Galatas where a few paratroop snipers still lingered. The enemy followed up their withdrawal and occupied the hill.
The firm stand of the Petrol Company and the energy and initiative shown by Bassett, Forrester and Rowe had been the chief factors in preventing what might have been a breakthrough. But by late afternoon the flank on the left of the Petrol Company was still very weak, and it was fortunate that the enemy pitted his main attack against the Petrol Company. His opportunity was soon gone. For just before dusk, while the fight for Pink Hill was still at its height, Russell brought in his Divisional Cavalry. The three squadrons were hastily put into position between Pink Hill and Cemetery Hill, leaving the latter as a sort of no-man’s-land and linking up with the Petrol Company on the right and 19 Battalion on the left. Thus a dangerous weak spot – the Greeks whom the Divisional Cavalry thus strengthened had very little ammunition left and ‘though they did not seem to mind charging were obviously incapable of holding ground’179 – was eliminated and the worst of the day could be accounted over.
Before leaving 10 Brigade, however, it will be necessary to look at the day’s events as they were seen from 10 Brigade HQ, now with the Composite Battalion. At 10.45 a.m. Colonel Kippenberger had reported to Division that his line of communications was cut, that 6 Greek Regiment’s left flank had been severed and that the Greeks had withdrawn to reorganise, that there was no news of the Divisional Cavalry or of 8 Greek Regiment – though a Greek reported the latter to be withdrawing – and that the enemy were attacking up the Prison–Galatas road. His own intention was to clear the high ground of enemy and hold on. A message sent at the same time to 4 Brigade reported enemy parties in Galatas and the despatch of patrols to clear them out.
These parties in Galatas were no doubt stubborn paratroops who, cut off from their main body, had ensconced themselves in houses. They gave trouble sporadically throughout the day, though
a patrol of about thirty men from the RMT under Lieutenant Carson180 was sent to deal with them. But the patrol’s primary object was to help in the hospital area, and it did not come to Galatas itself until late in the morning. When it did so, however, it was with great spirit, and although there was a recrudescence of trouble that evening in the village–perhaps due to remnants of 10 Company – Carson’s patrol and detachments from 5 Field Regiment and the Petrol Company were enough to deal with it.
By midday the signalmen had cleared the line to Division, and a signal sent at 2.15 p.m. said that the brigade was holding out in all its positions except those of 6 Greek Regiment who were weak and short of ammunition. ‘A vigorous counter-attack would clear the prison.’181
By this time Kippenberger saw that the prison area was the enemy’s chief point of concentration and that this was the place and now the time to counter-attack – a view that was shared by most other officers on the spot. At the same time he knew that his own poorly trained and miscellaneous force could hardly supply the kind of counter-attack required and had enough to do holding its line.
When a fresh enemy attack came in during the afternoon Kippenberger ‘pressed again for infantry with which to counterattack and was told that something would be done.’182 While he waited, all that he could do was hold on and take advantage of any such opportunity as the arrival of the Divisional Cavalry to improve his position. Meanwhile reports reached him from 19 Battalion that the enemy was making a landing ground near the prison. This report he passed on to Division, but about that time line communications to Division again broke down and he was without news of what Brigadier Puttick proposed to do. At 7 p.m. he sent off by runner or liaison officer a signal which summarises the situation at the end of this phase:
Div Cav Det arrived without loss and is in Galatos. No word of 8/Greeks. 6/Greeks have disappeared. Landing at 1700 hrs mainly stores but prisoner says many more tps will arrive tonight.
Blackburn reports position intact but small parties in rear not disposed of.
Pressure on my left has been increasing. Left Coy has retired 200 yds causing next Coy to come back. Casualties abt 60 incl 4 off and are continuing steadily. Rations & ammo alright water short. Loss all on left.
Can carry wounded to Maleme Rd if trucks can be sent up.
If no counter attack can be mounted to clear prison area where enemy are clearing landing field suggest that after dark I should withdraw to shorter line N-S astride Maleme (Coast) road retaining contact with Blackburn.
Wire to you has been down for two hours and enemy are at present within short range of exchange.
Please advise position and instruct. Don’t think this line would hold against serious attack tomorrow.
Have had to thin out beach defence.183
The preceding section has shown that Colonel Kippenberger had no doubt from about midday onwards that a strong counter-attack on the prison area was called for. This view was also shared by others farther back, among them Brigadier Inglis.
On the first day of this anomalous battle a headquarters was as likely to be engaged in direct conflict with the enemy as any of the units it commanded, and after the first bombing and strafing 4 Brigade HQ received a share of parachutists. While these were being dealt with, at 10 a.m. a message came from Creforce, whose reserve 4 Brigade was, that a battalion was to be sent south of Canea to clear up enemy there – no doubt Lieutenant Gentz’s glider party. This message could not be complied with, however, because 18 and 19 Battalions were already fully occupied and 1 Welch, the brigade’s other battalion, was not in the immediate area.
Moreover, about this time or shortly afterwards, Inglis moved his HQ to the same position as that of 18 Battalion. The move was not due to trouble from parachutists – Inglis had himself despatched one of the last of them in a nearby vineyard – but to shortcomings in the original position. The preliminary air attack had cut the telephone lines, observation was poor, and runners and liaison officers had too far to go. By moving to 18 Battalion area Inglis could use the uncut telephone lines there, had much swifter personal contact with Division and his units, gained a good observation post on an adjoining hill, and secured immediate control over at least one of his battalions.
He was not long established in his new position and it was about eleven o’clock when Brigadier K. L. Stewart, Brigadier General Staff, visited him with the news – already given to Brigadier Puttick – that 4 Brigade, less 1 Welch, was to revert to the command of Division.
The significance of this decision on General Freyberg’s part is considerable. It meant that he was reducing his Force Reserve to
one battalion, 1 Welch, although intelligence sources which he had every reason to consider reliable had led him to expect landings still to come at Retimo and Heraklion. If he now released 18 and 19 Battalions for divisional use, it must have been due in part to his recognition that they were already engaged and ought to be given a chance to clear up the enemy they had in front of them, and in part to a recognition that it would not be in practice an easy matter to move them to the fronts where landings were still expected. But it can hardly be doubted that in releasing them Freyberg also intended Puttick to use them.
This at least was the view taken by Inglis when he had had time to appreciate the general situation. By the early afternoon he had grasped that the main landings were in the prison and Maleme areas and had learnt from Robin Miller,184 a war correspondent, who had just returned from 5 Brigade HQ, that all was not well at Maleme. He decided that the immediate necessity was to clear and secure the prison and Alikianou areas by a counter-attack with 4 Brigade. From the ground thus won he thought that if the situation at Maleme continued to degenerate he could push on that night over the hills by a route previously reconnoitred and surprise the enemy on the 5 Brigade front. Whether or not the second part of this plan proved necessary, he was prepared to attempt the first part in daylight with 18 and 20 Battalions. The 19th Battalion would have to stay where it was, being already committed, and 1 Welch – whose mortars he would borrow to compensate for the lack of artillery – could replace the two attacking battalions.
With this plan Inglis went to Puttick. Puttick did not agree with it but said that he would consult General Freyberg. This in due course he did, apparently by telephone, and some time later informed Inglis, who had returned to his own HQ, that General Freyberg did not approve the counter-attack.185
Thwarted in his larger plan Inglis turned to the local situation. About four o’clock he learnt that 1 Light Troop RA had been overcome and decided on immediate counter-attack. He ordered 18 Battalion to send a company with a 3-inch mortar detachment and a Bren carrier as escort. Three tanks from C Squadron, 3 Hussars, were to give support; but, since neither 18 Battalion war diary nor that of C Squadron mentions tanks as taking part, it may be assumed that the orders did not reach the tanks in time.
Late in the afternoon C Company of 18 Battalion set off. In the lead was Lieutenant Herdman186 with two Bren carriers. The 3-inch mortar detachment brought up the rear. The company soon ran into machine-gun and mortar fire from the left of the road and Major Lynch,187 the commander, ordered deployment to the left. Herdman, who had been left to watch the road, nosed forward in a Bren carrier. An enemy heavy machine gun fired and knocked out the carrier. Herdman was killed.
The main body of the company met stiff opposition from enemy who seemed bent on advancing downstream towards Canea. A stalemate followed till dark. The company then withdrew, bringing two prisoners in exchange for two killed.
Unsatisfactory in result though this engagement was, it had been the first aggressive action shown by the defence that day, apart from merely holding positions and mopping up initial landings. It is now time to see why Puttick was so reluctant to unleash his reserve in an attack on the scale that Inglis and Kippenberger had both thought necessary, and to follow out the action that he did finally decide on.
At the beginning of the battle Puttick had under his command only 5 Brigade and 10 Brigade, 4 Brigade being in Force Reserve. The only reserve at his own disposal was 20 Battalion. About 11 a.m. this situation was radically altered by Freyberg’s orders that 4 Brigade – less 1 Welch – was to revert to divisional command. True, Freyberg issued no instructions on how it was to be employed; but before the battle he had continually stressed the need for immediate counter-attack. This reduction of his Force Reserve to no more than a battalion evidently implied that he regarded the western sector as vital, whatever might still be to come in the Retimo and Heraklion sectors, but was leaving the question of how and where counter-attack was to take place to the commander on the spot, who was presumably in a better position to decide.
Puttick now had under his control two further battalions. Before we consider how he might have used them we must examine the situation as he would have seen it at the time. On the 5 Brigade front all reports were cheerful all day. Only at 5.15 p.m. was there a hint of trouble when Brigadier Hargest reported that he was sending two companies to support 22 Battalion. But the
despatch of such a slender force when Hargest had 21, 23 and 28 Battalions available did not suggest there was anything serious the matter.
Thus, on the information he had, Puttick had no reason to believe that his reserve might be needed immediately by 5 Brigade. On the Canea front, too, in so far as the forces under his command were affected, Puttick could not by the end of the morning have felt there was any need for concern. The 10 Brigade front, on the other hand, presented quite a different picture. By 11 a.m. he knew that a formidable landing had been made in the Prison Valley; that the enemy had promptly begun to attack towards Galatas; that 6 Greek Regiment had crumpled; and that there was no word from 8 Greek Regiment or the Divisional Cavalry.
It was at this time that the first representations began to be made to Puttick that he should counter-attack with 4 Brigade. They were made in turn by Brigadier Stewart, Brigadier Inglis, and Colonel Kippenberger. And other officers also put forward the same point of view. As the time passed they grew stronger. At 2.15 p.m. Kippenberger, who had already put the case by telephone, again urged that ‘a vigorous counter-attack would clear the Prison.’ Yet Puttick still hesitated. What were his reasons for not launching the counter-attack?
Brigadier Puttick had three battalions – 18, 19, and 20 – at his disposal, almost the whole reserve to Creforce. If he committed them now he might have nothing left for the future and what he considered to be the real dangers: adverse developments at Maleme, the cutting of the coast road behind 5 Brigade, an eastward thrust to Suda Bay which might bypass 10 Brigade, and fresh landings by air or sea. The last seemed a very real danger; for, so far as Intelligence knew, by no means all the enemy’s paratroops had been dropped, and if he did not keep a strong force under his hand the next landings might turn the scale at Maleme or attack his denuded rear area. And, again, an attempt at invasion by sea seemed certain, the three battalions all had a role in the defence of the coast, and it would be dangerous to commit them elsewhere till this particular threat was over.
Moreover, Puttick believed that the Galatas front was only a foundation for the real front at Maleme and that so long as 10 Brigade held fast it was doing all that was necessary. There was no need to take the ground now occupied by 3 Parachute Regiment, and if it were taken the troops engaged had not the tools with which to dig in and hold it. If the destruction of the enemy and not the seizing of the ground were the object of counter-attack it could not be compassed; for the enemy, having
nothing vital to defend, could hold on long enough to inflict maximum casualties and then fall back on the hills. The attacking force would then find itself exposed to the full onslaught of the enemy air force and in a weak position to defend itself against a return attack by a reorganised and perhaps reinforced enemy.
Again, any attack, at least in daylight, requires heavy support by covering fire, and practically none was available. Nor was there any protection by AA or by the RAF against the enemy’s overwhelming air strength. Thus counter-attack by day at least was certain to mean heavy casualties with no guarantee of success.188
These considerations were weighty, and it was easier for local commanders to urge the need for counter-attack than it was for Puttick to make a decision, fraught, whichever way he decided, with perilous possibilities. On the other hand, not to counterattack meant leaving the enemy with the initiative at a moment when time was his friend and not the defence’s. For if the enemy was allowed to consolidate and build up in the Prison Valley without major molestation, the ultimate result could not really be in doubt, whether or not the sea invasion took place. True, the general situation had not developed and it was not yet possible to see where other emergencies might arise. Still, here in the valley was possibly an opportunity to strike hard and destroy an enemy who might not have evaded the blow as easily as Puttick believed. The fact that Colonel Heidrich himself regarded counter-attack as inevitable shows that not only the more aggressive spirits on the side of the defence considered attack the best course.
Had 4 Brigade counter-attack been decided, that afternoon could have been used for reconnaissance, the preparation of detailed orders, and the like. Instead, any chance there may have been was lost. The report of a landing ground being constructed in the Prison Valley induced Puttick to take more active measures.
This report reached Division at half past five. If true, it was clearly of vital importance. With a landing ground there the enemy would become independent even of success at Maleme and, rushing in troops by air, could build up a force strong enough to cut the coast road and isolate 5 Brigade.
Influenced by this and by his fear that 10 Brigade with its scratch units might not be able to stand up to prolonged attack, Puttick
decided that a counter-attack must take place ‘as there is the threat of attack from area of reservoir where enemy are clearing an area for landing tp carrying planes.’189
The immediate orders were given to Brigadier Inglis over the telephone, and no copy survives. They were probably in effect the same as the confirmatory written orders which were issued at 6.20 p.m. and reached 4 Brigade at half past eight. They ran as follows:
10 Bde reports construction of landing ground in PRISON area 0553. 4 Inf Bde will counterattack with one bn Lt tks and carriers to clear prison area of enemy. When attack completed 19 Bn will come under comd 10 Bde to hold posn on left of 1 COMP on line previously held by 6 Gk Bn down to incl rd CANEA-ALYKIANOU. 20 Bn comes under comd 4 Inf Bde forthwith except for coy protecting NZ Div which comes under comd Div.190
Puttick did not expect much from this attack beyond assistance to 10 Brigade morale and a cautionary lesson to the enemy.191 Yet the orders show that destroying the landing ground and clearing the Prison area were the objects, and it is difficult to see how Puttick could have expected a single battalion and a few light tanks to achieve them when the enemy was estimated to have 1500 troops in the valley and might be expected to defend his landing ground tenaciously.
Unfortunately, there was at this time no line communication with Colonel Kippenberger. The result was that preparations had to go forward for an attack which was not only too weak in weight but which had to be organised and launched without the knowledge of the commander on the spot, whose co-operation was essential.
The order clearly envisages the employment of 19 Battalion, and Inglis explains why it was the one selected and why he agreed to its use. This was not the large-scale attack he had been calling for, but, in his view, a local one with a limited objective. The 19th Battalion was nearest the spot, knew the ground and knew where the enemy was supposed to be working. And there would not have been time for either 18 or 20 Battalion, between getting the orders and dark, to prepare a night attack. ‘Moreover, I was still nourishing hopes of a brigade counter-attack being laid on next day and did not want to have one of my free battalions dispersed or pinned down in the morning after a night attack. The obvious course, therefore, was to have the operation laid on
by 19 Bn or so much of it as Blackburn thought necessary or could spare.’192
On receipt of the order Inglis issued his own, timed 6.20 p.m. and brought to 19 Battalion by Major Sanders,193 the Brigade Major, at half past six:
4 NZ Inf Bde O. Instruction No. 9 to OC 19 Bn
1. Enemy are preparing what appears to be a landing ground 1000x to the west of the Prison 0553.
2. 19 Bn will counter attack this area forthwith with
(1) Bn if situation permits.
(2) Two Coys if Bn Comd considers that one coy should be left in present posn.
3. One tp 3 Hussars will come under comd 19 Bn for the operation.
4. After clearing the landing ground 19 Bn with under comd one tp 3 Hussars will take up a defensive posn covering the landing ground but with bulk of forces North of rd khania-aghya 0352.194
Major Blackburn had four companies – only three of them rifle companies – with which to carry out this order. With the agreement of Major Sanders he decided he could afford to use only two – thus accepting the second of the alternatives allowed him by Brigadier Inglis. To use more would be to endanger 10 Brigade’s left flank too seriously. He determined therefore to attack with A (Wellington) and D (Taranaki) Companies, filling the gap left by the former with the Greeks who had come into the battalion area that morning, and the gap left by D Company with a platoon from C (Hawke’s Bay) Company, the mortar platoon, and a party from Battalion HQ.
This was an important decision; for it meant that the attack would go in at half the strength contemplated by Puttick. Blackburn should not be blamed; for he had the authority of the brigade order, and his reasoning about the importance of his own defensive position was correct. The fact is that a counter-attack at even battalion strength was in any case too little.
It will have been remarked that the brigade order envisaged the employment of a troop of C Squadron, 3 Hussars. Its seven light tanks had been stationed since their arrival on 19 May in the angle between the road to Galatas and the road to Karatsos. When the landings began one troop under Lieutenant Farran195 had gone to
block the Galatas road, while the other under Sergeant Harris blocked the Karatsos road. The static personnel had remained to guard the laager perimeter and at one stage picked off some 10 Company paratroops escorting hospital patients.196
Both troops had some encounters with enemy during the day and inflicted casualties, at the price of one tank damaged by anti-tank fire. When evening came Farran was ordered to support A and D Companies of 19 Battalion, while the rest of the squadron went into reserve near 4 Brigade HQ.
At 19 Battalion it was decided that Farran’s three tanks should attack along the Galatas-Prison road, while the infantry would first move west from 19 Battalion area through 10 Brigade’s posts north of Galatas and then attack southwards. The infantry objective was, on the map, a line running a thousand yards from the prison westwards. Their real task, it was understood, was to find and attack the landing ground wherever it was to be found. Zero hour for leaving 19 Battalion area was 7.15 p.m.
Since the original order reached Major Blackburn at half past six, the plan had had to be arranged hastily and there was no time to consult Colonel Kippenberger. There was little time for detailed orders – the OC 9 Platoon had about 15 minutes to prepare his men197 – and this, with the vagueness of the original order, may explain a certain haziness about the precise objective.198
In the dusk, and presumably at 7.15 p.m., both companies set off, A Company under Captain Pleasants on the right and D Company under Captain McLauchlan199 on the left.
Meanwhile Farran’s three tanks had arrived in Galatas and Colonel Kippenberger learnt from them that they were to attack at half past eight. This was his first notice that the counter-attack was to take place. About the same time he was given to understand, by some wrong report, that 19 Battalion was under his command.200 He thereupon went across to 19 Battalion HQ, arriving about nine o’clock, told Blackburn of the change in command, and discussed the position with him. They concluded that the left flank
was dangerously thin as a result of the attack, that the attack itself had begun too late and was too weak to be successful, and that the companies would be very exposed and vulnerable to air attack in the morning. Kippenberger therefore decided to cancel the attack and sent out patrols to warn the companies.
By this time, however, the two companies had got well on their way and the patrols failed to find them. Control even within the attacking companies was difficult to maintain. Darkness was coming on, there was no wireless contact, the country was close, and flanking men were unable to keep touch between platoons, let alone between companies.
D Company on the left, after passing north of Galatas and then turning south, ran into trouble from small pockets of paratroops presumably in the Pink Hill area, which the Divisional Petrol Company would by this time have vacated. In dealing with these pockets they killed about twenty enemy, destroyed two mortars and three LMGs, and lost several killed and wounded.
These mortars and machine guns had been holding up Farran at the road block just outside Galatas. Their destruction enabled the tanks to get through and push south-west along what seems to have been the more westerly of the two tracks leading from Galatas to the prison. This route brought them across the front of A Company which had come southwards on the left of Ruin Hill, losing contact with D Company in the darkness and in the confusion of D Company’s encounter with the paratroops.
When Captain Pleasants met the tanks he decided that in the darkness and without a fixed objective there was no point in going on. He was no doubt confirmed in this view when he discovered shortly afterwards that 9 Platoon, which had been his right-hand platoon, was not to be found and runners sent out could make no contact.201
About ten o’clock D Company, which had in the meantime been joined by part of Carson’s patrol, met A Company. The two company commanders thereupon decided to form a strongpoint where they were (about 800–1000 yards north of the prison according to Pleasants), giving cover to the tanks, and to carry on the attack at dawn. It was not until the early morning that one of the patrols sent out by Kippenberger succeeded in finding the two companies
and passing on the order for the cancellation of the attack. And further developments will be best treated under the events of 21 May.
The end of the day’s fighting on the Canea-Galatas front has now been reached and this provides a suitable point to summarise the position of both sides.
It is enough to recall General Süssmann’s plan to see that the reality had turned out to be very different. The glider force had achieved only a very small part of its intention. One of its companies was practically destroyed with nothing done; and the other, reduced to a third of its strength, had been driven off the guns it had captured and was now making its way back to the main body. I Battalion had effectively failed to get further than Perivolia in its thrust towards Suda. II Battalion had landed scattered and with heavy losses. Unable to co-operate as a battalion with I Battalion’s drive to the east, it had been bogged down in operations around Galatas. And III Battalion, which should have taken Galatas and Karatsos and then pushed on to attack Canea, had failed in all three cases. Its only success, the capture of the ‘tented camp’, had been temporary and resulted in the total loss of the company concerned. Finally, the Engineer Battalion had been repulsed at Alikianou.
True, failure in the landing programme had been partly responsible, and Colonel Heidrich had adjusted himself resolutely to the altered situation. He had grasped quickly that Galatas and the heights about it were the key to the defence and that major attack towards Canea was impossible while these remained untaken. He had therefore gathered together the odd companies from II and III Battalions and, Cemetery Hill owing to the withdrawal of 6 Greek Regiment being already in his hands, had concentrated on seizing Pink Hill. Here bad luck dogged him. For the withdrawal of the last posts of the Petrol Company after dark enabled Major Derpa of II Battalion to effect a lodgment and, had this been maintained, the situation would have looked ugly for 10 Brigade. But Derpa evacuated the hill again because of an unexplained misunderstanding – perhaps because of the arrival of the two companies of 19 Battalion and the light tanks – and there was no chance of the Germans getting possession of the hill again that night.
The day thus ended with Heidrich in a state of some nervousness. He must have felt that the initiative now lay with the defence and that a heavy counter-attack was inevitable. Of his regiment I Battalion was battleworthy but exhausted and was too far away at Perivolia. II Battalion had had very heavy casualties. III Battalion
was dispersed and in part destroyed. The Engineer Battalion, reasonably strong but too distant in the altered situation, he had already recalled.
Heidrich therefore withdrew I Battalion from Perivolia to help form a defensive front south of Galatas. With it and the Engineer Battalion, he believed he was just strong enough to hold his present positions.202
In preparing to meet a counter-attack in strength Heidrich was assuming an opponent of his own temper, and one who would act promptly and forcefully on the simple principle that the initiative should be seized as soon as opportunity offered. Brigadier Puttick, however, reasoning in the way that has already been discussed and hesitating to strike the full counter-blow for fear of depleting his reserves against contingencies that were still remote, let the opportunity pass, if it existed. And so at midnight – except for the two-company attack by 19 Battalion, itself defensive in conception even if the landing ground it was intended to destroy did not exist – the initiative which Colonel Heidrich had relinquished had not been seized. Such a chance would not recur.
The account of the situation on the New Zealand Division front at the end of 20 May is now complete except in one respect: the events at Kisamos Kastelli, defended by 1 Greek Regiment and its New Zealand instructors under Major Bedding, have not yet been dealt with. They have had to be left till this stage, not because they fit more aptly here than elsewhere, but because from the first this sector was so isolated that its story, wherever placed in the history of the battle as a whole, must be an isolated episode.203
The parachutists who attacked Kastelli came from the detachment of II Battalion, the Assault Regiment, which had been detailed under Lieutenant Muerbe to land just east of the town, to reconnoitre it, and to provide protection for the main force against attack from the west. The detachment landed in two parties, one north and south of the main road just outside the town and the other farther to the east. The Greeks in Kastelli at once sallied and, greatly assisted by Bedding and his men, by 11 a.m. had reduced the enemy still fighting to a single group.
In a dash led by Bedding this group too was disposed of and by midday the immediate front was clear. The enemy had lost 48 killed and 28 prisoners, by our account. By their own they lost 54 killed and 20 wounded. The Greeks lost 57 killed and 62 wounded, partly through failing to use cover. One New Zealander was wounded.
Retimo, Heraklion, and Creforce
Before we turn to consider the situation as it appeared to General Freyberg at Creforce, it will first be necessary to give a brief summary of events as they developed on the two remaining fronts, Retimo and Heraklion. It will be remembered that the German plan was to attack these two objectives in the afternoon of 20 May, when 8 Air Corps would be able to bring to the support of the landings a striking power that would have been impossible had they been carried out at the same time as those in the Galatas and Maleme sectors.
For the attack on Retimo it was thought that two battalions of 2 Parachute Regiment – I and II – would be enough, since only weak resistance was expected. The main task completed, part of this force was to turn west and attack Suda Bay. The assault on Retimo itself was to begin at 4.15 p.m.
The defence awaiting this onslaught was less negligible, however, than the plan allowed for. The 2/1 Australian Battalion was in position on Hill A,204 a strong feature immediately east of the airfield, and on the ridge which runs west from Hill A and south of the airfield. The battalion was supported by six guns and a strong platoon of machine guns. The 2/11 Australian Battalion held Hill B, at the end of the western continuation of the ridge, and was supported by two guns and a weak platoon of machine guns. From these positions the two battalions commanded the beaches, the airfield, and the coastal plain.
In addition to the two Australian battalions there were four battalions of Greek troops, some armed with American rifles and the others with an assortment of Greek. Their ammunition averaged ten rounds per man. Of the four battalions, 4 Greek Battalion was posted on the ridge. The others were in reserve south of Pigi.205
Two I tanks of 7 Royal Tank Regiment, stationed in the Wadi Pigi, completed the force. Lieutenant-Colonel I. R. Campbell,
DSO, simultaneously commanded his own 2/1 Battalion and the whole force.
The German plan was to attack in three groups: I Battalion, less two companies but with an MG company and heavy weapons, was to land east of the airfield and take it; III Battalion, with two artillery troops, an MG company and heavy weapons, was to land between Perivolia and the Platanes River and capture Retimo; HQ 2 Parachute Regiment, with two companies (presumably from I Battalion) and a platoon from each of the heavy companies – 13 and 14 – was to land between the airfield and the Platanes River and act as reserve.
At about quarter past four, after a heavy bombing which inflicted few casualties, the parachutists began to drop. But by bad timing the three groups did not arrive simultaneously. I Battalion was the first and seems to have attacked with three infantry companies instead of two. But of these only one, together with the MG Company and Battalion HQ, landed east of the airfield and so much so as to be temporarily out of the battle. The other two suffered an opposite error and found themselves under heavy fire on the east edge of the airfield. Major Kroh, the battalion commander, hastily gathered what troops he could east of the airfield, picking up en route two companies of III Battalion which had also been wrongly put down, and made for the airfield.
In consequence he was able to put in a strong attack and 2/1 Battalion was hard pressed. A counter-attack by the tanks failed with the ditching of them, and after dark some of the enemy forced their way onto Hill A and the east edge of the airfield, capturing the tank crews. But 2/1 Battalion was able to make good its defence.
The second enemy group had got off to a delayed start and arrived an hour late. Nos. 9 and 11 Companies were put down correctly, as were the artillery and heavy weapons. Only remnants of 10 and 12 Companies, landing in Major Kroh’s area, were able to join him. But the rest of the battalion made towards Retimo according to plan, taking Perivolia en route. Advance parties got as far as Retimo itself before being driven off by Cretan police. The battalion commander thereupon decided to withdraw and form a strongpoint at Perivolia.
The third group was unfortunate. It landed on strong positions south of the main road, probably in the area of 2/11 Battalion. No. 2 Company of I Battalion and the heavy weapons were destroyed and the regimental commander found himself with a few men north of the road and surrounded.
Things had therefore gone well on the whole with the defence. The two Australian battalions had inflicted heavy losses – 2/11
Battalion buried 400 enemy on 21 May – and still held their positions; 4 Greek Battalion after initial shakiness had fought well. In the opening stages communications to Creforce had been cut; but later they seem to have been restored since Campbell was able to get through a request for reinforcements. The request had to be refused and Campbell set about planning two dawn attacks for the morrow.
At Heraklion also, the day’s work was by no means unsatisfactory. Here the enemy’s plan was to attack with 1 Parachute Regiment, supported by II Battalion of 2 Parachute Regiment. As at Retimo, the attack was to begin at 4.15 p.m.
To meet it 14 Infantry Brigade had four infantry battalions: 2/4 Australian Battalion, 2 Black Watch, 2 Leicesters, and 2 Yorks and Lancs. In addition there were 7 Medium Regiment RA acting
as infantry, a Greek garrison battalion, and two Greek recruit battalions.
The supporting artillery was sited south-east of the airfield. There were ten Bofors guns round the airfield and an I tank hidden at each end. Six light tanks of 3 Hussars were stationed south-east of it.
The German plan was for all four attacking battalions to land simultaneously with fighter protection: I Battalion was to seize the AMES – guarded by a platoon of Black Watch – and protect the east flank of the main assault; II Battalion was to capture the airfield; III Battalion was to take Heraklion town; and II Battalion of 2 Parachute Regiment was to land west of Heraklion and protect the west flank of the battalion attacking the town.
But dust on the Greek airfields, delays in refuelling, and casualties from the morning’s operations made a punctual and simultaneous start impossible. And their limited range prevented the fighters from remaining in the air long enough to give protection to latecomers. The shortage of aircraft – presumably caused at least in part by the morning’s casualties – made it necessary to leave 600 of the assaulting force behind. And the bombing of the defences, here as at Retimo, inflicted few losses.
Of I Battalion, only 3 Company was put down at the right time, 4 Company did not start at all, and 1 and 2 Companies with Battalion HQ were three hours late. Even so 2 Company was put down too far east. None the less the battalion was able to take the AMES and form a protective screen – aided in both tasks by the fact that the Black Watch guard had wisely decided by first light to rejoin its main body and the fact that the landings were out of range to the defence.
II Battalion of 1 Parachute Regiment had planned to operate in two groups east and west of the airfield. They were late in arriving and did not arrive together. The east group – 5 and 8 Companies – was fiercely welcomed by 2 Black Watch and by dark was reduced to 60–70 men. The west group – 6 and 7 Companies and an AA MG Company – encountered even severer justice and lost over 300 killed and over 100 wounded. An immediate counter-attack by tanks and infantry was largely responsible.
The regimental commander, who had been put down late and east of the AMES, assuming that II Battalion had taken the airfield pushed forward a detachment of I Battalion to its support. By the time this reached the east edge of the airfield, however, the defence had cleared not only the airfield itself but all the main features of the area on the eastern front, except for parties of snipers. There was nothing for the new arrivals to do but collect themselves on the high ground to the east.
III Battalion, attacking Heraklion, arrived late and spread out west and south of the town. Some parties got into Heraklion itself and fighting between these and the Greeks, 2 Yorks and Lancs, 2 Black Watch, and 2/4 Australian Battalion continued there throughout the night; but the main body was unable to break in and had to disengage to the south-west and dig in. II Battalion of 2 Parachute Regiment, less two companies, landed without contact and screened the western flank.
For General Freyberg the day had been anxious. Standing on the hill outside his HQ, he had watched the early morning blitz develop into a major landing operation of a kind new even to his rich military experience. Throughout the day his main problem was to try and deduce from the confused and belated evidence what the enemy’s main objective was. For, though the general plan was apparent, there was no guarantee that it had not already been altered or would not alter as the attack developed. The events of the earlier part of the morning as reconstructed from the reports that did come in confirmed the impression that could be got from watching the landings: the main concentrations were west of Maleme and in the Prison Valley. And it was no doubt largely in response to this picture of the attack, and to his realisation that 4 Brigade was already in part engaged, that General Freyberg put 18 and 19 Battalions under command of Brigadier Puttick. Even so, however, he knew at this stage that there were other enemy forces still uncommitted, and prior knowledge suggested that as well as the sea invasion there were airborne attacks on Retimo and Heraklion still to come. No doubt he hoped that the forces at both places would be able to deal with any further air landings, and in any case he still had 1 Welch for dealing with the unforeseen.
It was not, in fact, until the operation order of 3 Parachute Regiment issued on 18 May had been captured and its contents translated that night that Freyberg was able to get a clear view of the enemy’s intentions. This order not only gave the objectives of 3 Parachute Regiment in detail but summarised the enemy plan of attack for the whole island. And the plan it revealed was very much the one we have seen being put into action: Group Centre was to take Canea in the morning and Retimo in the afternoon; Group West was to take Maleme and join up with Group Centre; and a further group was to come by sea and land west of Maleme.
The actual course of the day’s fighting had been somewhat different, and by the time that Freyberg read this enemy order it was clear enough that the German attack had misfired. Canea and,
so far as he knew, Maleme were still in our hands. The enemy was by now known to be attacking at Heraklion and Retimo, but there was nothing to suggest that he had been successful.
None the less, the picture given by Freyberg towards midnight in a message to General Wavell was a sober one: the day had been hard but so far as was known the defence still held Maleme, Heraklion and Retimo aerodromes and the two harbours, though by a bare margin. Large numbers of paratroops had been killed and the fighting heavy. The air attack had been on a scale of great severity and communications were proving extremely difficult. But the troops all realised how vital was the issue and they would fight it out. The enemy had so far failed to gain any of the objectives outlined in the captured operation order.
But the inadequacy of communications was even greater than Freyberg’s message indicated and, sober though his report was, the true situation if he had been able to know it he would have found more sobering still. For at the very time he was sending this message 22 Battalion was making its withdrawal from Maleme and leaving it open for occupation by the enemy. With no knowledge of this Freyberg could feel reasonable confidence that the situation was still in the balance and that, provided the Navy did its part in smashing the invasion by sea, his forces were disposed as well as their numbers made possible for whatever assaults the enemy might launch next day. Had he known that there was already this gaping hole at the most vulnerable point of his defence, it can hardly be doubted that already that night he would have tried to use the hours of darkness to save Maleme while there was still time.